Monday, September 22, 2014

Sea levels, along with economic incentives, are rising

This past weekend a reported 300,000 people took to the streets of New York City to call attention to the negative effects of climate change. Making the key changes and bringing the necessary resources to bear on this difficult challenge is not going to be easy, and will certainly take leadership across many sectors and segments of society. The announcement by members of the Rockefeller family this morning that they would have their major charitable foundation, The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, divest from fossil fuels is one example of the kind of leadership we need on this issue.

Regardless of their actual existing investments in fossil fuels, there is important symbolism in the family's decision that whatever profits they might realize as a result of this particular investment, the viability of the planet is more important. The fact that their family fortune is rooted in fossil fuels only adds to the merit of this decision. Of course this decision is not entirely altruistic. As Valerie Rockefeller Wayne says at the end of a piece in the Washington Post, if her ancestor were alive today, he would likely invest alternative fuel sources himself.

And there's nothing wrong with this - if there are ways to encourage both environmentally friendly practices at the same time as economic growth, I'm all for it.  In fact, there's every reason to think that as rising sea levels inch closer to swamping not just ports but major cities themselves, and drought and erratic weather damage crops and threaten infrastructure, more and more business and civic leaders will find it increasingly difficult to ignore the impact of climate change. Ultimately, it may be the economic factors that push us toward a comprehensive, lasting solution on this issue.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Friday, September 19, 2014

We all breathe the same air

While it's almost impossible today to think of a major topic of discussion which has a clear solutions that everyone can agree upon, there are a few issues which are so immediate, so pressing, that if we don't find a substantive answer soon, the consequences are not only dire, but potentially irreversible. One such issue is the current climate disaster, which poses a threat to people living in every corner of the globe. Environmental issues are not limited to the glittering cities, impoverished slums or hidden hinterlands - what happens in one place invariably impacts the lives of people living in another.

As much as some people may want to deny the danger of climate change, whether out of ignorance, laziness or greed, I think that for any thinking person to deny the danger is both morally reprehensible and a tad ridiculous. Frankly, the greed factor aside, I don't really understand how environmental protection and limiting the long-term negative impact we have on our natural environment leads to such contentious arguments.

I have yet to meet a person who doesn't need clean air, water and food to live.

Given this, one could be forgiven for thinking the topic of the environment would be a natural place for all people, regardless of ideological bent, political affiliation or religious persuasion, to meet.

There is some precedence for moments of profound leadership and unity around environmental issues. I was reminded of this today as I listened to the PRI program Science Friday in my car. During the show one of the guests pointed out that President Nixon had played a role in the passage of several important environmental initiatives, including his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Natural Resrouces. Even Nixon, whom I would hardly hold up as an exemplar champion of civil society, realized that the American public wasn't so keen to breathe polluted air.

So on the face of it, one would think that the environment should easily be a clear-cut bipartisan issue. But it isn't - either because the fossil fuel industry has found a few too many friends among Republicans, or because democrats don't see this issue as useful for fundraising, or for other selfish reasons. But before I get too cynical, I do think that with a big enough demonstration of support by citizens, that adressing climate change could become more important in the minds of political leaders. For this reason, I was excited to see media reports about a major rally to draw attention to this issue, called The People's March Against Climate Change, this coming Sunday in New York City. The rally is being held close to a planned UN summit on the same topic, and I'm hopeful that this demonstration of support will spur action not just on DC, but in state capitals as well.

At the end of the day, I suspect that I'm not the only one who doesn't care if it's Democrats or Republicans, grassroots organizers or big business, which finally addresses this problem. Like billions of other people on this planet I'd really just like clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and if we can leave a few trees standing, that would be nice too.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

On to Syria - but what happens next?

Last night President Obama took to the airwaves to address the nation and discuss the US response to the terrorist group ISIS. Reading the transcript of the speech, it struck me that one of the things he sought to do was to place future action against ISIS in the context of the broader war on terror,  reminding Americans of recent victories in the fight against Al-Queda in Somalia and Yemen, while at the same time highlighting his winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This was a sensible tone to strike in a nation weary of war and leery of new conflicts abroad. But the President quickly shifted from recent accomplishments to the potentially explosive nature of the threat posed by ISIS, citing its potential to spread death and chaos across the Middle East and beyond.

Then he laid out a plan to confront the ISIS threat that is dependent on a number of things which may realistically be beyond the control of Mr. Obama, including the effectiveness of the Iraqi Army to conduct large-scale ground operations and the willingness of Congress to approve an expedited request for $500 million to train Syrian opposition fighters. In fact, the entire enterprise is riddled with question marks and possible outcomes that could quite possibly plunge the US into another major war in the Middle East, with no foreseeable means of exit. But as the President points out in his remarks, in reality we have little choice but to confront ISIS.

As the US expands its role in the Middle East to include targeting of ISIS in Syrian territory, though, a whole new set of questions arise -  to what degree will this campaign benefit Bashar Al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War? How long will the coalition assembled by the President last? What happens if (god forbid) a US plane and its crew are shot down over Syria?

I'm sure there are many people far more expert than I who are pondering these very same questions tonight, but they are questions that that the American public should be asking as well. As President Obama rightly said, ISIS represents a major threat to both the Middle East and the West, but as we begin to write this next chapter in the history of the region and US involvement within it, we should keep in mind that wars in this part of the world, and the consequences that result, often have a tendency to spiral out of control in dangerous and unexpected ways.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

In a world of shifting borders, where should we draw the line?

Given that I spend a good deal of time thinking about the history and present state of the Middle East, perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising that borders and boundaries have been on my mind a lot lately. After all, this is a part of the world which has survived the cartographic ambitions of the Romans, the Ottomans, and various European powers. While this periodic reconfiguration of national boundaries is not unique to the Middle East, it has played a powerful role in shaping the societies which inhabit, share, and often fight over, this land.

In the 20th century rampaging armies made a mess of Europe twice, and the period following the end of World War II saw the fracturing of empires and the emergence of newly independent nation states. Such actions are not consigned to the past, though, with various groups and states attempting to redraw the world map even as I write this. Their motivations are myriad, running from religious fanaticism to resurgent nationalism.

Perhaps the most peaceful of these movements can be found in Scotland, where voters will have the opportunity to vote tomorrow whether to leave the United Kingdom, ending roughly 300 years of union, or remain closely joined to their neighbor to the south. What the exact arrangement will look like if the Scots do decide to leave England is unclear, but if Scotland does vote to separate, there are a number of thorny challenges to consider, including economic and military consequences. Indeed, difficult days may lie ahead for Scotland and England, but at least in this particular case those on either side of the issue are going to decide the fate of this union through the political process.

In other parts of the world, things aren't quite so peaceful.

Far to the east of the United Kingdom, Russia has been making its own attempts at global reorganization, declaring itself the protector of Russian-speaking people wherever they reside, and using this pretext to launch a land grab in Eastern Europe. The first victim of this aggression was Crimea and then Moscow turned its gaze toward the Ukraine, supporting pro-Russian separatist groups in the eastern part of the country while maintaining the fiction that they were not also sending Russian soldiers to take part in hostilities. In addition to the lives claimed among combatants, and civilians on the ground who were caught in the crossfire, this conflict also claimed the lives of 298 people aboard Malaysian Airlines flight 17, who were unlucky enough to be over Ukrainian airspace when inept Pro-Russian militants were at the controls of a surface-to-air missile system.

Perhaps the most troubling attempt to redraw borders is happening in parts of Iraq and Syria, where ISIS or the "Islamic State," has pursued a violent path of religiously-inspired political hegemony. I have written before on this blog of the threat that ISIS poses to religious and ethnic minorities, as well as the danger it is likely to become to the West, with their blatant disregard for human life and distorted view of religion and reality. There is no question that this threat is real and persistent; it cannot be ignored. This terrorist organization threatens to undermine the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq in the short term, and in the long-term they may even gain a foothold in Jordan. Many experts have identified the primary danger in such an outcome as the fact that it would provide ISIS and allied terrorist organizations a safe place in which to train and plan for attacks across. The fear is that it would be Afghanistan, post-Soviet withdrawal, all over again.

I think there is another danger as well, one maybe not as obvious but potentially just as damaging to the  people who live there:  Left to fester on its own, such a state would surely become a magnet for similarly-minded zealots, empowering this terror-based political entity to emerge  as a regional power, seeking political legitimacy from neighbors to weak or scared to oppose its leadership. This is truly the worst case scenario, but it's one worth considering.

Tonight the world may get the first clear picture of how the United States and its allies plan to confront the threat of ISIS, when President Obama makes a national address on television.  In the days to follow we are  likely to see how ISIS responds to what is likely to be a massive show of military force aimed at disrupting and destroying its crimes across the region.

While the outcome is uncertain, one thing we can count on is that as ISIS attempts to redraw the borders of the Middle East there is no chance that they would ever follow the example of Scotland and engage in a legitimate political process, or even that of Russia which may be susceptible to international sanctions. While Scotland represents a step forward in terms of a bloodless effort to gain independence and Russia represents something of the last century with its resort to proxy armies and "advisers," ISIS represents something else entirely, a draconian, malevolent force which gives no quarter to anyone.  Through their actions ISIS has told us loud and clear that they want to establish their own nation, now it is up to the rest of the world to tell them that there is no room in our modern world for what they represent.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

In Rwanda, a new generation wrestles with difficult issues through debate

With so much strife in the world it can be alarmingly easy to miss some of the things that people are doing to actually try to make things better. This past week I had a chance to learn about one such effort going on in Rwanda. The name of this new project is IDebate Rwanda, and I learned about it during a small gathering convened by the Boston office of the American Jewish Committee* this past Friday afternoon.

Jean Nganji, Secretary-General of the Rwanda Diaspora Global Network, led the discussion, and I could not help but be moved by the potential impact of this endeavor on a society which has endured so much violence. Mr. Nganji brought along a video presentation which allowed those of us sitting in a conference room in Boston to hear directly from the student activists in Rwanda, to see them put their debating skills to the test and talk about how this organization has changed their lives for the better. Given that there are probably any number of different approaches organizers could have taken to help sure up civil society in Rwanda and to pass along leadership skills to youth, I began to think about why they might have chosen to make debate the centerpiece of their effort.

The more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that there are certain things about teaching debate skills that might be particularly well-suited to a society which has survived mass trauma. For one thing, it encourages participants to wrestle with complex issues in a thoughtful way, while providing a wonderful mode of empowerment for young people, helping them to find their own voice, both figuratively and literally. It also creates a safe space in which two people can publicly disagree and passionately argue about difficult issues, an activity which is bound to nurture respect for both the opinions of others and for the right of individuals to have their own firmly-held beliefs and ideas.

Although engaging in debate activity is not in and of itself an end, it’s not hard to see how this effort will  empower future leaders in government, business and NGO's. If this project succeeds it may well help not only Rwandans, but become a model for other places in the world where violence and hostility have too often been seen as the only option for solving problems in society.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

*Full disclosure: I previously served as Assistant Director of the AJC Boston office.

ISIS cannot be ignored

With pressure mounting at home and abroad, it's not all that surprising that  President Obama has decided to take more substantive action against the group known as "ISIS," or the "Islamic State." While the recent murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by ISIS, as well as the siege of a mountaintop where members of the minority Yazidi group had taken refuge, have grabbed headlines and the attention of the world, ISIS clearly represents a much broader and deeper threat.

In the swirling cauldron of Middle East terror groups and their state-sponsors, it can often be hard to discern which particular organizations or individuals may be gaining or losing influence in the region,  but I can't help but get the sense that ISIS is an organization that the US and its allies, perhaps most prominently Jordan, Israel and Egypt ( but likely the Saudis and the Gulf States as well) cannot afford to ignore. According to a piece published in the New York Times this morning, President Obama plans to lay out a plan this coming week to aggressively address the threat posed by ISIS,  a plan which, critically, should include US allies in Europe and the Middle East.

And who can blame him? After nearly 13 years of war in the Middle East and Western Asia, the American public, which has never, generally speaking, shown much interest in foreign policy, clearly lacks enthusiasm for yet another military engagement in the region. And yet there seems to be little choice - the deaths of Mr. Foley and Mr. Sotloff are personal tragedies for their friends, families and colleagues, they are a disgusting violation of human rights and human dignity, but the real threat lies not in the facts of their individual murders, but in the idea that if ISIS could, they would gladly murder as many journalists -and Americans - as they could get their hands on. The same may be said for their persecution of Yazidis and Christians  - these things are, in and of themselves, reprehensible, but it is the group's intention to convert or kill every minority, as well every Muslim who does not follow their own perverted vision of religion, that should make the world worry.

Having read my share of Middle East history, I am under no illusion that any conflict in the region, let alone one involving as many states and non-state actors as this current situation has drawn in, that whatever follows action by this US-lead coalition will be neat, predictable or easy to contain. It is highly likely, for example that action against ISIS will help Assad in Syria, and with a new government in Baghdad facing myriad challenges, it's hard to tell how robust of a role we can reasonably expect the Iraqi security forces to play.

All of that being said, it's hard to see how the US, Europe and our allies in the Middle East can sit on the sidelines and watch as ISIS kills off one American at a time or besieges one city or village after another, until they rule over a broad swath of the region containing a homogenized population comprised of fellow zealots and those unable to flee. Clearly action is the order of the day, but what comes next is anybody's guess.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.