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Mohsen Vera

Obama portrait revealed

Everything's Okay!

Middle East chess game

Cartoon by Gary Barker

The Post-Islamic State Marshall Plan That Never Was

Foreign Policy: For the final session of the international Iraq reconstruction conference held here this week, two sets of speeches were drawn up for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the United Nations secretary-general to deliver — one in the event that funding targets were met, and another in case they weren’t.

Iraq needs billions of dollars to rebuild after the military defeat of the Islamic State, but the nations expected to step up and shoulder the financial burden of reconstruction have sent a mixed message of support, leaving the final outcome in doubt.

In the weeks leading up to the conference, the threshold for making a public announcement at the conclusion of the event was also rolled back. The original goal of $20 billion dropped to $10 billion, and finally to $5 billion. Even then, it was unclear which speech would be given, according to a source familiar with the preparations.

The World Bank estimates that Iraq needs nearly $88 billion to reconstitute damaged infrastructure, housing, and vital services — much of which is supposed to come from Iraqi government oil revenue. In the end, additional support pledged at the conference in Kuwait raised roughly $30 billion in a complex combination of loans, investment guarantees, and direct investment — short of the goal, but better than expected.

That result was reflected in Secretary General António Guterres’ speech. “The response to this conference and to this appeal is an extraordinary proof of confidence in the government and in the people of Iraq,” he told the audience.

An Iraqi official confirmed the $30 billion estimate but noted that the government had still not received official documentation of the pledges.

Though this final number is considerably higher than originally anticipated, questions remain over whether cash-strapped Gulf states will make good on their promises, and whether private sector companies will begin to ramp up investments necessary to jump-start the country’s economy after years of war.

Iraqi national elections are also scheduled for May, and the government must still shoulder much of the reconstruction burden itself, a proposition heavily reliant on high and stable oil prices.

Already, the International Finance Corporation has estimated that Iraq alone would need to bear at least $50 billion of the expected price tag. That number, said Christian Josz, IMF deputy division chief for the Middle East, would be realistic only if oil prices stayed relatively steady. “The financing gap increases significantly if oil prices drop even a little,” he said during talks on Tuesday.

Still, the conference’s outcome beat many originally dim predictions. “This is an important signal to Iraq and to Abadi going into elections,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a Gulf researcher at the International Crisis Group. “This gives him something tangible to take back to Baghdad and show voters that he can deliver on reconstruction.”

Several foreign officials at the conference, however, noted that contributions were originally expected to be considerably lower. As early as December, said some, it was apparent that the Iraqi government’s original benchmark of raising $20 billion from international donors might be difficult to reach >>>

A requiem for sanity

Cartoon by Gustavo Rodriguez

A Florida high school massacre and guns: A requiem for sanity

Rex Huppke, Chicago Tribune

Seventeen dead in a high school. South Florida.

A former student, 19. Armed to the teeth. A semi-automatic AR-15 rifle. Made to kill.

Police officers running to the school, machine guns drawn. A mother texting her son to turn off his phone's ringer so the killer with the rifle won’t hear it and find him.

A slaughter.

Seventeen dead. At a high school. In America.

It has happened before, it happened Wednesday and it will happen again.

Why? Because nothing. We do nothing.

School shooting. Nothing.

School shooting. Nothing.

School shooting. Nothing.

Thoughts and prayers. Don’t talk about guns. Don’t politicize deaths.

Too soon, too soon, too soon.

Thoughts and prayers and thoughts and prayers and thoughts and prayers.

A tweet from the president. Nothing more. It gets a tweet. No spoken words.

Seventeen dead.

Don’t talk about guns.

It’s mental health. Mental health, right? Got to fix mental health. Never do, but keep saying it.

Seventeen dead Wednesday. What’s changed since the last one? Nothing. When was the last one? Can’t remember. It’s a blur.

Mass shootings in America — in schools, at concerts, in movie theaters — are a blur.

Read that again: Mass shootings in America are a blur. A blur.

What do we do?

Don’t talk about guns. Evil can’t be stopped. Guns aren’t to blame. Weapons of mass killing have nothing to do with mass killings. Nope.

Listen to the National Rifle Association. The world is scary. You need guns. More. More. More.

Listen to the politicians who get the money from the NRA which gets the money from the people who make the guns and the bullets and the bulletproof vests we ought to send kids to school wearing so they don’t die when bullets fly from a gun in the hands of a maniac who fell through the cracks and could only have been caught, could only have been stopped, if we had better mental health care or if we had teachers carrying guns or no more gun-free zones or something, anything, that isn’t tougher gun laws.

What do we do? >>>

Mother Earth: #MeToo

Cartoon by Tom Curry

Trump's infrastructure plan aims to sweep away 'inefficient' environmental reviews 

The Guardian: The Trump administration is attempting to speed up or even sweep away various environmental reviews in its plan to fix America’s crumbling infrastructure and construct a wall along the border with Mexico.

The White House’s infrastructure plan targets what it calls “inefficiencies” in the approval of roads, bridges, airports and other projects. It proposes a 21-month limit for environmental reviews of projects that potentially threaten endangered species or fragile habitats, along with curbs on federal agencies’ ability to raise objections to new construction.

In a meeting with state and local officials on Monday, Trump said “we’re going to get your permits very quickly.” The president, who mentioned he was able to push through the building of an ice rink in New York’s Central Park within a few months, said he will “speed the permit approval process from 10 years to two years, and maybe even to one year.”

The campaign to fast-track development over concerns has been picked up by Trump’s lieutenants. Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has attempted to quicken the pace even further, telling the same group that the EPA will “process every permit, up or down, within six months” by the end of 2018.

The administration has sought to completely cast aside environmental considerations when it comes to its controversial border wall. It recently acquired a waiver for the third time in order to speed construction of 20 miles of the wall in New Mexico, and Trump has rescinded an Obama-era rule that demanded officials consider sea level rise and other climate change factors in federally-funded projects.

Environmentalists have warned that Trump’s agenda will place extra pressure on endangered species and risk exacerbating hazards, such as flooding, by failing to factor climate change.

A recent report by the Center for Biological Diversity found that the border wall risks the habitat of dozens of species, including the arroyo toad, the Peninsular bighorn sheep and the jaguar, which was once driven out of the south-western US but has been spotted again in recent years due to the northward migration from a group located around 100 miles south of the border in Sonora, Mexico.

A coalition of conservation groups said Americans are “overwhelmingly opposed” to any sidestepping of the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act or National Environmental Policy Act >>>

Huge increase in military spending

Cartoon by Tom Curry

Trump proposes huge increase in military spending

Los Angeles Times: The Trump administration on Monday proposed a defense budget of $716 billion for fiscal 2019, part of an ambitious effort to substantially boost Pentagon spending after years of tight budget limits and refocus the military on countering Russia and China.

The budget blueprint, combined with a defense boost that Congress approved last week, would increase Pentagon accounts for weapons, troops, training and for nuclear arms programs run by the Energy Department by more than $74 billion, a 10% increase over current spending levels.

The budget "is what we need to bring us back to a position of primacy," Defense Secretary James N. Mattis told reporters on a flight to Rome late Sunday, citing plans to buy more F-18 fighters, train more Air Force mechanics, and create new cyberwarfare units as examples of how the money will be spent.

Trump's budget plan was released weeks after the Pentagon issued a national security strategy that called for a shift away from battling terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State, and retooling the military to deter and, if necessary, fight nuclear-armed adversaries such as Russia, China or North Korea.

Though President Trump has frequently called for improving relations with Moscow and enlisting Beijing to put diplomatic pressure on North Korea, Pentagon officials are far more explicit about what they claim is a growing threat from Russia and China to U.S. allies in Europe and Asia.

"It is increasingly apparent that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian values," Undersecretary of Defense David L. Norquist said Monday at a Pentagon news briefing. "We recognize that, if unaddressed, our eroding U.S. military advantage versus China and Russia could undermine our ability to deter aggression and coercion in key strategic regions."

The call for a substantial increase in defense spending also comes months after two Navy guided-missile destroyers collided with civilian cargo ships in the western Pacific, killing 17 sailors. The accidents galvanized concerns by lawmakers and at the top levels of the Pentagon that congressional-mandated spending caps since 2011 had harmed readiness and training in the armed services.

Pentagon officials long have complained that the spending caps had left some combat units unprepared to fight and had delayed maintenance on crucial equipment while the military was still engaged in conflicts around the globe.

With the spending caps lifted at least for the next two years, most major Pentagon accounts would receive budget increases. The money would go for more training, more interceptors for ballistic missile defense, new missile-carrying submarines, a planned new bomber, and modernization of aging nuclear warheads.

The increase in defense spending that lawmakers approved last week went beyond what the White House had initially sought — $603 billion for the base Pentagon budget, with another $65 billion for war-related costs.

"It's a big jump for fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019 compared to where we are,'" said Todd Harrison, a defense budget specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank.

In broad terms, the new budget proposal recommends $617 billion for the base Pentagon budget and $69 billion more for the wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other ongoing military operations.

Another $30 billion would go to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department agency that oversees nuclear weapons research. That's an increase of $1.69 billion for weapons activities, including upgrading and building new nuclear warheads.

Trump's proposal now goes to Congress, which is likely to adjust some specifics. The overall spending levels were worked out, however, in an ambitious two-year budget deal reached last Friday with congressional leaders from both parties.

Among the most expensive proposals would increase the size of the active-duty armed forces by 25,900 by next year and by 56,600 by 2023.

The active-duty Army would expand the most, going from a 2018 authorized level of 476,000 to 495,500 over the next six years. By 2023, the Navy would increase by 16,900, the Marine Corps by 1,400, and the Air Force by 13,700, increasing the active-duty military to 1,365,500.

The number of Air Force combat squadrons would increase from 55 to 58 by 2023 >>>

Harvey Weinstein Lawsuit

Cartoon by Vasco Gargalo

New York Attorney General Files a Lawsuit Against Harvey Weinstein

TIME: New York’s attorney general on Sunday filed a lawsuit against disgraced Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein and the Weinstein Co. following an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

“As alleged in our complaint, The Weinstein Company repeatedly broke New York law by failing to protect its employees from pervasive sexual harassment, intimidation, and discrimination,” state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in court papers.

Schneiderman launched a civil rights probe into the New York City-based company in October after The New York Times and The New Yorker exposed allegations of sexual assault and harassment spanning decades.

Scores of women, including well-known actresses, have come forward with stories of forced sexual encounters. Weinstein was fired by the film company he founded with his brother Robert and expelled from Hollywood’s movie academy.

“To work for Harvey Weinstein was to work under a persistent barrage of gender-based obscenities, vulgar name-calling, sexualized interactions, threats of violence, and a workplace general hostile to women,” according to court papers.

Schneiderman’s investigation found that employees were subjected to various verbal threats from Weinstein such as “I will kill you, I will kill your family, and “you don’t know what I can do.”

In one case, the probe found that “in a fit of rage against one female employee, he yelled that she should leave the company and make babies since that was all she was good for.”

Female executives were forced to facilitate Weinstein’s sexual conquests with promises of employment opportunities to women who met his favor, according to the lawsuit, which also accused the company of being “responsible for the unlawful conduct” by failing to stop the abuse.

The company and co-owner Robert “are liable because they were aware of and acquiesced in repeated and persistent unlawful conduct by failing to investigate or stop it,” court papers said.

Telephone and email messages seeking comment from Weinstein and the company were not immediately returned.

Representatives for Weinstein have previously denied all accusations of non-consensual sex.

The attorney general’s office said in a statement that it brought the lawsuit on Sunday partly due to reports of the company’s imminent sale, saying it believed it would leave victims without adequate redress.

“Any sale of The Weinstein Company must ensure that victims will be compensated, employees will be protected going forward, and that neither perpetrators nor enables will be unjustly enriched,” court papers said.

Deep Discontent

 

Iranian women show their deep discontent — and willingness to act

Washington Post Editorial Board: THE STREET demonstrations that erupted in Iran at the end of December appear to have faded for now, thanks in part to two dozen deaths and nearly 4,000 arrests by security forces. But there is plenty of evidence that deep discontent persists in the Islamic republic, along with the willingness to act on it. One inspiring example is the growing number of Iranian women who have perched on utility boxes and walls in the streets of Tehran, removed their legally required hijabs, or head coverings, and waved them on sticks.

The first to stage such a demonstration was a 31-year-old woman named Vida Movahed, who clambered onto a metal utility case on Enghelab, or Revolution, Street on Dec. 27. She took off her white headscarf, affixed it to a stick and silently waved it for an hour. Pictures and videos of her protest soon spread across the Internet, and other young women began to follow her example, both in Tehran and in other cities. They soon became known by the hashtag #GirlsofRevolutionStreet.

Predictably, the regime reacted to this mild and peaceful protest with repression. Ms. Movahed was arrested and held for several weeks before being released at the end of January. By Feb. 3, 29 women had been detained. A judiciary spokesman said some women, whom he claimed were “organized by foreign-based groups and [were] under the influence of industrial recreational drugs,” would be treated harshly. One activist arrested on Revolution Street on Jan. 30, Narges Hosseini, was imprisoned with bail set at more than $110,000.

Although the #GirlsofRevolutionStreet protests parallel the #MeToo movement in the West, they come in a uniquely Iranian context. Hijabs were banned during the repressive rule of the shahs, and during the 1979 revolution women wore them in protest. Now they are mandatory — Iranian police reported 3.6 million instances of hijab enforcement in 2014 — and so women are rebelling by taking them off. The point is not just rejection of a rotting authoritarian regime, but a demand by women for control over their own bodies.

Some in the government appear to recognize that, as with the street protests of December, the hijab wavers are part of wide current of popular discontent. This week the government of President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, released a three-year-old report showing that nearly half of Iranians want to make hijab use optional. He has previously favored an easing of social restrictions, and in January was quoted as saying, “One cannot force one’s lifestyle on the future generations.”

As in so much else, however, Mr. Rouhani appears unwilling or unable to control the regime’s repressive apparatus, which continues to target any sign of dissent. That has only made Iranians more creative: According to opposition activists, many are expressing their anger by withdrawing their money from state banks. Spray-painted slogans calling for an end to the regime and death for its ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appear first on walls, then in photographs posted to the Internet. In the past the regime has proved expert at crushing opposition movements. But the Girls of Revolution Street are one more sign that Iran has entered an unpredictable, and hopeful, season of ferment.

Trump's Parade

Cartoon by Rob Rogers

Trump hires in his own image -- bullies, posers, and bad boys 

CNN - With critics of chief of staff John Kelly calling for his resignation after he supported an accused wife beater who recently resigned from the White House staff, it's time to ask a simple question: How many appalling characters must be wrung out of the West Wing before we recognize that the problem is the man at the top, who sets the tone for the workplace culture?

Kelly's stubborn defense of Robert Porter, who faces abuse accusations from three women, including a former wife who shared a photograph of her bruised face with the media, is consistent with President Trump's lifelong penchant for doubling down on outrageous statements. Decades of this practice trained many people to accept "Trump being Trump," which meant they discounted his racist, sexist comments and tweets. More importantly, the more Trump got away with his outrageous behavior, the more he came to regard this trait as something positive -- and he brought into his inner circle men with the same bully-boy ways.
Source: Kelly knew of abuse claims for months

Hopes that Kelly might be a stable influence on the President faded as he got in on an unseemly spat between Trump and a war widow who felt the President disrespected her. More recently, Kelly exposed himself as truly Trumpian by saying "some would say" immigrants who failed to enroll in DACA were "too lazy to get off their asses."

The very next day Kelly offered presidential-grade bluster in response to news that Robert Porter, the man who controls the flow of information in the Oval office, couldn't pass an FBI background check because of accusations of abuse from three women, two of whom are his former wives. He said in a statement that Porter was "a man of true integrity and honor and I can't say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante, and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him."

In staffing his campaign for president and later his administration, Trump either attracted or sought out men with attitudes similar to his own. In this crowd it was okay to be overly aggressive, or burdened with a sketchy background, just as long as you were truly useful to the President and didn't upstage him. Consider this list:

Corey Lewandowski, Trump's first campaign manager, was the embodiment of obnoxious pugnacity and ended up on video grabbing a female reporter at an event, forcibly preventing her from asking Trump a question. Although battery charges were dropped, proof of the altercation remains available online. Days later, Lewandowski grabbed a protester at a Trump rally. In both cases, the candidate defended his man, but when he became too much of a distraction, he was let go.

Paul Manafort, who replaced Lewandowski as campaign manager, came to the Trump campaign from the dark corners of international political consulting, where his clients included a rogue's gallery that should have disqualified him from any presidential hopeful's campaign. Add his connections to Russian oligarchs, and Manafort was toxic. But he was also a guy willing to do what others would not, and this is a trait Trump displays himself. So it was that Manafort became a Trump insider until, of course, he was ousted -- and later indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of the investigation into Russia's election meddling.

Steve Bannon followed Manafort into Trump's campaign and then the White House, despite, or rather because of, his reputation as a tough-guy extremist. In his prior job as head of the Breitbart news organization, he published virulent anti-Muslim and anti-woman pieces, and welcomed so-called alt-right provocateurs who exhibit a range of hateful attitudes. Bannon's personal problems included sexist comments in the workplace and his ex-wife's accusations of assault (charges were later dismissed). Nevertheless, Trump drew Bannon close and kept him close until he started to upstage him in press interviews. Only then was he forced out.

Michael Flynn, like Gen. Kelly, was a military man, and was every bit the tough guy in the campaign as he chanted "lock her up!" about Hillary Clinton. This display, which disrespected the rank Flynn had achieved in the Army and showed terrible judgment to boot, would be enough to disqualify him from serving some presidents. In Trump's case, it likely cemented Flynn's standing. He served as White House national security adviser for less than a month. He now stands convicted of lying to the FBI and is cooperating with Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

Sebastian Gorka, a campaign adviser who followed Trump to the White House, came with questionable expertise and links to ultra-nationalists. He has a longstanding warrant for his arrest issued by authorities in his native Hungary related to an incident involving a firearm. In 2016 he was stopped at an airport, where he tried to enter carrying a gun. He has noted that his "everyday carry" includes a pistol, a knife, and a tourniquet. Trump ignored these obvious signs of trouble as he relied on Gorka to berate his critics. Then he seemed to run afoul of a new chief of staff -- John Kelly -- and left his White House post.

Kelly, a retired marine general, was supposed to be the man who would calm Trump's White House, and Gorka's departure suggested he was up to the task. The President was obviously comfortable with Kelly because he was a military man (Trump famously loves generals) with a tough-guy demeanor, and because he was, like Trump, a hawk on immigration.

And now, Robert Porter. As sensible people responded with alarm to the news that the White House employed Porter even after red flags were raised about his past, Kelly defended him as "a man of true integrity and honor." Kelly's statement, and reports that he encouraged Porter to stay on the job, reveal the inclinations of a man ruled by attitude, not sober reflection. These actions also threatened Kelly's own reputation.

Whether Kelly stays or goes, he is now yet another example of the toxic workplace culture created by Donald Trump, who clearly brought into his administration the kinds of men who make him feel at ease. Trump has a lifelong record of bullying, aggression, lying, and extremism. (He is, remember, the man who joked about sexually assaulting women on the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape.) The six men noted above, and a host of other figures in the administration, have come out of the Trump mold and proven incapable of better. 

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