President Barack Obama is finally earning his Nobel Peace Prize, it seems. A few months back, he announced a major shift in U.S. policy towards Cuba, ending a half-century of frostiness, and this week the outlines of a deal to avoid a war with Iran were unveiled, thawing a relationship that froze over back in 1979. Both of these foreign policy accomplishments go a long way towards deserving the Nobel Peace Prize Obama was prematurely awarded in 2009. At the time, many (this column included) joked that the Nobel committee was really awarding the prize to Obama for the sole achievement of "not being George W. Bush." But it seems now that by the time he ends his term in office, Barack Obama will indeed have earned the world's foremost peacemaker's prize. Since this is Good Friday, perhaps a Bible quotation is in order: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."
Of course, President Obama's critics are already denouncing the deal with Iran, even before the ink was dry in some cases. There seems to be a misconception among Obama's opposition that there is another acceptable path forward that doesn't involve an outright war with Iran. Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress seem to think that if they scuttle this deal, a better one will somehow appear on the horizon. This is wishful thinking, though. "More sanctions will do it!" cry the critics, who are ignoring the lesson Cuba provided.
Right now, seven nations have reached a preliminary agreement: the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, France, the U.K., and Germany. The "P5+1" nations (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) have built a unified sanctions regime that has been a big incentive in getting Iran to the table. Republicans in Congress want even more sanctions rather than this agreement, because they think upping the pressure on Iran will force them to accept further concessions. But what could easily happen if Congress shoots down a deal and imposes stricter sanctions is that the P5+1 alliance may fall apart. If the rest of the world sees that Congress isn't going to agree to any deal with Iran, then Russia and China may just decide to lift their sanctions altogether. Why bother restricting trade when absolutely nothing will satisfy the hardliners in the U.S. Congress, after all? If Russia and China bolt the negotiations and end their sanctions, then Iran will actually have less sanctions imposed on it than it does now, even with increased sanctions from America.
This is the end game that Congress could unintentionally create. This is where the Cuban example comes in. Most Americans aren't even really aware of it, but for the past half-century, America has been going it alone with their economic sanctions on Cuba. Europeans can walk into a tobacco store and buy as many Cuban cigars as they please, and have long been able to do so. Because Cuba has sunny shores, Europeans can easily book a vacation there to escape their winter weather. There are no restrictions upon doing so whatsoever. Cuba is not only free to trade with Europe, but also with Central America, South America, Africa, and Asia. We stand alone among nations in trying to crush the Cuban economy.
For fifty years, our unilateral sanctions just did not work. Fidel Castro outlasted every president since Kennedy. All the U.S. sanctions did was to give Castro an easy excuse for why communism was failing on his island. But it certainly didn't achieve the goals America set out, by any stretch of the imagination. It may have hindered their economy slightly, but they were always free to trade with the rest of the world, so it didn't mean much in the long run.
That should be an instructive lesson on Iran. If the rest of the world sees the United States (Congress, in particular) as being so intransigent that it'll never agree to any deal with Iran, then there would be no point in even holding further negotiations. If China and Russia decide to drop their sanctions, then it would free up the pressure on Iran to a very large degree (China, in particular, would likely buy all the oil Iran wanted to sell them). America (or perhaps America plus a few European countries) wouldn't have anywhere near the influence over the Iranian economy without Russia and China backing sanctions up. If Iran became similar to Cuba -- ultimate sanctions from the U.S., but not from anyone else -- then we would have essentially lost any leverage we had over them. So to anyone in Congress advocating unilateral sanctions against Iran, the question should really be: "because that worked so well against Cuba, right?"
The other big political story of the week was the huge victory over legalized bigotry in both Indiana and Arkansas. Because conservatives know full well that in just a few months the Supreme Court is going to legalize marriage equality across every one of these United States, they had the bright idea to codify state-level discrimination against gay weddings. But it didn't go quite as they had planned.
The outcry was immense, and it was almost universal in nature. It was led, notably, not only by the usual suspects of gay rights organizations and liberals, but also by big businesses -- including, surprisingly, the N.C.A.A. and NASCAR. Not to mention Wal-Mart. I mean, it was no surprise that Apple and other tech companies came out against the bills, but they were joined by a wide spectrum of other businesses who collectively put an immense amount of pressure on the governors and state legislatures. In the end, both Arkansas and Indiana backed off in a major way. In Indiana, in fact, they were forced to begrudgingly pass the first law which outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation that the state has ever seen. Meaning gays and lesbians, after the dust settled, actually had more legal protection in Indiana than before (although they still aren't as legally protected as they are in other states -- there's still room for improvement in Indiana).
That is a stunning turnaround, and shows how powerful the court of public opinion can be, at times. But we'll have much more on this in the talking points (where I'm going to get downright Biblical...), so I'll just move along for now.
This week contained the first of April, and we have to give Mike Honda, House member from California, some deserved credit for his tongue-in-cheek April Fool's Day joke. Honda put up a press release on his official website calling for passage of the "Accountability and Congressional Responsibility On Naming Your Motions (ACRONYM) Act of 2014," which would ban adding superfluous words to bill titles just so they can spell out something cute. The press release went on to cite, as examples of how this has gotten out of control: the TERSE Act, the VERBOSE Act, the UNDERFUNDED Act, the NEVER OUT OF COMMITTEE Act, the PASS ME PLEASE Act, and (our favorite by far), the "People Are Ready To Inhabit Saturn And Neptune Act."
Well done, Representative Honda! We love April Fool's Day, personally (as our own spoof article proves), and we have to unabashedly applaud Honda's humorous celebration of it this week. We need more levity of this sort in Washington, folks.
Speaking of spoofing, we were indeed saddened to hear of the passing of the inventor of the Pet Rock. For those not alive in the 1970s, the Pet Rock was the greatest marketing campaign of all time, bar none. This guy got over a million people to give him their hard-earned money for a rock in a box. They were admittedly rather cute -- the box came complete with air holes and "care and training" instructions, but still, even P. T. Barnum would have been in awe of such marketing genius. To paraphrase: "there's a Pet Rock buyer born every minute." Gary Dahl will indeed be missed.
We've got a number of Honorable Mention awards to hand out before we get to the big prize, this week (this actually kind of covers the last three weeks, as this column has been on vacation for a while). The first goes to Harry Reid, for announcing very early that he won't be running for re-election. There was a good chance Reid would have been defeated, as Nevada has a very popular Republican governor who is said to be eyeing Reid's seat in 2016. Instead of ending his political career with a loss at the ballot box, Reid chose instead to gracefully exit the stage. Because he chose to announce his retirement so early, Reid will give other Nevada Democrats plenty of time to campaign and take a shot at retaining Reid's seat. This may be a longshot (because the Republican is so popular in the state), but at least it clears the way for an up-and-coming Democrat to make a good clean run for it. For announcing his retirement in such a timely fashion, Reid is worthy of at least an Honorable Mention.
Scott Peters, House member from California, is also deserving of some praise this week. He just introduced what can only be called a commonsense bill, which would force the House of Representatives to work a full five-day workweek. This would end the disgraceful practice of breezing in on Monday or Tuesday afternoon, and then adjourning before noon rolls around on Thursday -- essentially working only two or three days per week. Peters put out a statement explaining his bill:
Average Americans work five days a week so there is no reason Congress should not be required to as well. A five-day work week would increase the time members of Congress are able to spend together working on substantive legislation and would help foster bipartisan working relationships. It would also save taxpayer money by reducing travel costs of members traveling between Washington and their districts.
Since we've been complaining about the pathetic and disgraceful work ethic of Congress for years now, we heartily applaud Representative Peters and encourage all other House members to support such a great plan. But we're not exactly holding our breath waiting, if you know what we mean.
And our third Honorable Mention goes to President Barack Obama, who in one fell swoop this week doubled the number of prison sentences he has commuted (using his executive pardoning power). All 22 were drug offenses, with harsh and overlong sentences which would not be handed down under today's guidelines. Since he got into office, Obama has only commuted 21 other sentences, so this was a significant move by the president. To be fair, I should mention that he has in the same time period issued 64 full pardons. In any case, Obama certainly deserves mention for the mercy he showed these 22 prisoners, eight of whom were serving life sentences.
But the coveted Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award this week goes to none other than Secretary of State John Kerry, who tirelessly kept negotiating with the Iranians -- working far into the night, and pushing beyond the self-imposed deadline -- until a preliminary framework was successfully hammered out. While Barack Obama will doubtlessly get the lion's share of the credit by history for pushing hard to get this agreement, John Kerry was the one down in the trenches doing the hard bargaining. Kerry absolutely refused to give up on the possibility of reaching some sort of accord, and in the end got a deal that surprised many for how comprehensive it will be and for how much he got the Iranians to agree to.
Of course, this is just a preliminary framework, and there is no guarantee that a final agreement will be achieved later this year. There are still endless problems to be worked out. But for even getting this far, Kerry deserves a lot of credit. The negotiations with Iran have been going on for years now, with nothing concrete to show, right up until this week. Kerry managed to do something nobody else has even gotten close to, through patient and tireless hard work.
For achieving the first step on the road towards ending the Iranian nuclear threat, John Kerry was easily the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week.
[Congratulate Secretary of State John Kerry via the official State Department contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]
This one was pretty easy to pick this week. Senator Robert Menendez was formally indicted this week by the Justice Department on a list of corruption charges which included multiple bribery charges, fraud, conspiracy, and making false statements.
Menendez sounded pretty defiant after the indictment was announced, vowing to fight to clear his name. Which could indeed happen, as political corruption can be notoriously hard to prove in court. So, as always, we issue this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week with the caveat that we will rescind it should Menendez win his case.
But until that point is reached, having a sitting senator face multiple serious corruption charges is pretty downright disappointing, we have to say.
[Contact Senator Robert Menendez on his Senate contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]
Volume 340 (4/3/15)
What with all the attention given this week to the "Turn Away The Gays" laws in Indiana and Arkansas (and elsewhere), and seeing as how Easter is right around the corner, I feel compelled to get a bit preachy today. I know this isn't my usual format -- in fact, I don't believe I've ever done something like this before -- but I felt it needs saying. I should mention that I am not a Christian preacher of any sort, merely someone attempting to point out from the sidelines the inherent contradictions in so-called Christians getting all sanctimonious over their supposed religious beliefs. For some of them, it's like they've never actually read anything Jesus actually was reported to have said in the Bible.
The Bible (especially the Old Testament) has long been used to justify intolerance and bigotry and racism. It was used to justify God's acceptance of slavery, in fact, for hundreds of years right here in this country. It was also used to justify banning people with different skin color from getting married, not so long ago. The same arguments are always trotted out: "Look, here's a verse that supports my position, therefore I am right and everyone else is sinful."
Sometimes this is done through selective reading. In particular, quoting Old Testament verses banning this or that. But this ignores all the rest of the laws that Christians feel free to ignore on a daily basis, from the exact same books of the Bible. Ever eaten ham or sausage or pepperoni on a pizza? Well, that's an abomination according to the Old Testament, sorry. But nobody gets very worked up about it these days. To put this another way, you don't see many Christian pizza shop owners refusing to serve pork on any of their pies, do you?
So today, I'm going to focus on what Jesus was reported to have said in the Bible. Because Jesus was pretty intolerant of certain behaviors, when you get right down to it. He actually said nothing about gays getting married, instead he was much more concerned with others who deserved chastisement more. So instead of my usual seven political talking points, here are instead seven things Jesus was intolerant of, just as food for thought. So sit down, have a slice of non-discriminatory pizza, and consider who Jesus was talking about when he reportedly spoke about the following.
From Matthew 6:5-6.
"Jesus had little tolerance for those people who tried to impress others by public displays of sanctimony. In fact, he called such people flat-out 'hypocrites.' I can't think of a better example of what Jesus might have to say about a business owner interjecting religion into the public square, in the hopes of proving their own religious righteousness."
Those eager to condemn others
From John 8:3-11.
"Jesus was not very tolerant of those eager to follow the letter of religious law who were not themselves pure. Since we've done away with stoning as a punishment, today perhaps he'd say something along the lines of: Let those without sin among you be the first ones who refuse to provide food to a wedding."
From Luke 10:25-37.
"Jesus taught mercy and compassion for strangers, no matter their circumstances. He was intolerant of those who looked away from a stranger in need, refusing to see such as their neighbor. You'll note that in this tale of mercy the good Samaritan didn't ask if the stranger was religiously pure or a sinner, he merely offered the help that was so obviously needed, with no qualifications whatsoever."
"You know who Jesus was really intolerant towards? The wealthy. Over and over again he warns that rich people face very long odds on getting into Heaven. In fact, Jesus was quite plain on what a rich man should do to be saved: sell all possessions and give the money to the poor. He warns again and again that love of money and love of worldly things is an enormous impediment to getting in to Heaven."
"Jesus also had little tolerance for those who complained about earthly taxes. When asked if taxes should be paid to the hated government of Caesar, Jesus pointed out that riches in this world mean nothing to God. Therefore, stop whining and give Caesar his due. Amazing how many Christians today forget this parable, isn't it?"
From Matthew 21:12-13.
"Jesus had no tolerance whatsoever for those who would make a fat profit from selling religion to others. When he threw out the moneychangers from the temple, he actually called them 'a den of thieves.' Wonder what he'd say if he saw a so-called 'megachurch' in America today, eh? Think Jesus would be tolerant of televangelists riding around in Cadillacs and Learjets?"
Those who have no love for their neighbor
"Jesus boiled his entire message down to two fundamental laws: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Everything else sprang from those two simple concepts. Now, please explain how refusing to provide food for your neighbor's wedding fits in with that, because to me it seems to be in direct conflict with the actual words of Jesus."
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
Become a fan of Chris on Huffington Post
Full archives of FTP columns: FridayTalkingPoints.com
All-time award winners leaderboard, by rank