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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2017
May
17
Wednesday

Civil War history looms large in the United States at the moment. A statue of Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard was removed from New Orleans streets Tuesday, retreating along with one of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and another commemorating an 1874 insurrection by white supremacists. A downtown tribute to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is slated to join those – as is a statue of the general in Charlottesville, Va., where protesters last Saturday invoked dark historical precedent by bearing torches.

At the Monitor, we tend to be cautious as we wonder about the forces and precedents shaping the era we ourselves are living through. Such caution is also warranted amid any temptation to think we know how historical figures would weigh in on current developments. Take General Lee, who was invited in 1865 to address a group in Gettysburg. He declined, saying: “I think it wisest not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”

Now let's get to our five stories of the day.

1. How important are political ‘norms’ to US democracy?

You may be asking yourselves the same question we are: How should we evaluate the ferment in the White House? Washington staff writers Peter Grier and Linda Feldmann unpack one piece of that. 

Amelia
President Trump’s controversial White House meeting Feb. 10 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at left, and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak contributed to deep concern in some quarters over his administration’s relationship with Russia.
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Russian Foreign Ministry Photo/AP)
 

The 30 Sec. ReadThe French writer and keen observer of American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville called them “habits of the heart.” They’re political norms – the traditions and habits that guide the behavior of US leaders in many situations not directly covered by US law. President Trump has eagerly burst through many norms in the name of disrupting what he sees as Washington’s broken-down status quo. But in many instances norms are important. They’re the air bags that help absorb political disputes and keep democracy healthy. When they wither, democracy can be threatened. Look at Turkey and Hungary, where the disruption of norms about civic participation and judicial independence has signaled a backsliding in democracy itself. America is not near such a predicament. But just because Mr. Trump can legally do something does not mean he should. A little restraint may go a long way toward protecting a valuable aspect of the nation’s political culture.

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1. How important are political ‘norms’ to US democracy?

Here’s a bit of advice for President Trump from experts who study the processes of democracy: Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

In other words, utilizing the full expanse of power available to a national chief executive isn’t always a good idea. The fact that a particular action is legal does not make that action wise.

Practicing restraint and cooperation – abiding by the unwritten rules we call political “norms” – helps lower the temperature of political conflict. It can prevent partisans from locking into fights so bitter they risk tearing democracies apart. It’s a nod of the head, an implicit acknowledgement that someday, after another election, the other side will win.

In recent years, norms have withered in countries such as Hungary and Turkey where democratic structures have started to deteriorate. The US isn’t anywhere near that kind of crisis. But Mr. Trump has paid little heed to many established American norms. To him, they’re not an uncodified code of behavior filling in the gaps of the law. In many ways he’s treating them as a status quo imposed by Washington elites that needs to be disrupted.

The French historian and writer Alexis de Tocqueville defined norms as “habits of the heart,” says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“That idea of ‘habits of the heart’ is the idea that the norms of democratic behavior – of a separation of powers, checks and balances, acceptance of limits on your authority – is what makes a democratic polity work,” says Professor Jillson. “Trump is violating those ... out of ignorance or out of a thoughtful rejection, from his perspective.”

Busting norms from Day 1

Of course, Trump’s been busting norms since the day he rode the down escalator at Trump Tower to his announcement of a highly unconventional presidential campaign. In the Oval Office his actions inspire a “can he do that?” response on a daily basis.

Can he really push the Park Service to inflate the number of attendees at his inaugural? Can he really not release his tax returns? Can he really appoint his daughter and son-in-law as key White House advisers?

At important junctures Trump has invoked “it’s legal” as a defense against criticism of his actions. Thus he’s noted, correctly, that in most circumstances conflict-of-interest laws don’t apply to the president.

He’s said, correctly, that it’s within the power of the president to fire the director of the FBI. His aides have asserted, again correctly, that the president is at the top of the mountain of classified information, and can do whatever he wants with secrets – including revealing them to top Russian officials.

But just because these moves are legal does not mean they also are within long-standing political norms – for reasons.

Presidents have avoided running afoul of potential conflicts of interest so as to avoid suspicion that they are enriching themselves with their decisions. They’ve generally avoided firing FBI directors so as to enforce the idea that in America law enforcement is above political manipulation. They’ve handled secrets with care so that everyone else will.

Thus things that are within the letter of the law can risk eroding the important unwritten traditions used to govern behaviors that have been established to fill in the parts of government laws don’t cover.

“The self-restraint required of those who hold power in a mature democracy is, if not more important than the rule of law, then certainly equally important,” says Jillson.

Without norms, democracy can be hollowed out

The worry is extreme cases. If political actors use the law to its utmost extent, they may ignite a cycle of response in which opponents do otherwise. Fearing they will be marginalized or outlawed, both sides escalate into a struggle to the political death.

The experience of some less-established democracies shows what can happen when norms erode, says Sheri Berman, an expert in democratization and political science professor at Barnard College in New York.

In Hungary, the Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban swept to power in 2010 and used an overwhelming parliamentary majority to pass a new constitution, and curtail and reshape the court system. All judges on the constitutional court are now Fidesz appointees.

In Turkey, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan survived a coup attempt last July and subsequently has attempted to crush dissent by declaring a state of emergency and jailing journalists and opposition party members, among others. (President Erdoğan is visiting Washington this week, and on Monday his bodyguards swarmed into D.C. streets and assaulted protesters outside the Turkish Embassy.)

Professor Berman says these two examples show that without the guardian of political norms restraining those in power “you can have the forms of democracy and not the substance. You can hollow out democracy from the inside.”

How much disruption is too much?

Today, democracy is generally seen as the only legitimate way of organizing government. But there are democracies, and then there are democracies that don’t really live up. Rather than explicitly overthrow existing governments, even real authoritarians now tend to burrow from within, says Berman. Take Russia, where President Vladimir Putin is a dictator in all but name, but the façade of democracy remains in place.

“What leaders have done is sort of gradually eviscerate the substance of democracy,” says Berman.

Again, the US isn’t Turkey, to paraphrase Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. (He actually said, “We’re not Romania,” but the point is the same.) It has strong democratic institutions and civil society. A little disruption of the accepted way of doing things may not be, on its face, that bad.

Trump isn’t the only political norm-buster in the US, or even the only one in his party’s leadership. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s successful effort to block consideration of former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland was perfectly legal. However, it was against traditional considerations. It seems likely that Democrats, if they retake the Senate and face a similar situation, would now respond in kind.

“The Trump presidency has punctured many Americans’ beliefs about their country’s exceptionalism,” writes Robert Mickey, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, and two colleagues in “Is America Still Safe for Democracy?” in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. “U.S. democracy is not immune to backsliding. In fact, it now faces a challenge that extends well beyond Trump: sustaining ... multiracial democracy."

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2. In Russia, bewilderment over a relationship’s twists

Russian alarm is growing over US political turmoil. But any legitimate attempts to calm the roiled waters of Washington are being sharply constrained by US suspicion of Russian motives.

Amelia
 

The 30 Sec. ReadWhen Donald Trump was elected president, Russia was generally elated. Finally, a break from endless geopolitical loggerheads with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton! Today, Russia is not so upbeat. Rather, the focus is primarily on hoping that the political battles of President Trump don’t end up tainting US-Russian relations for a generation. As accusation after accusation crop up against Trump’s apparent efforts to stymie the FBI investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, Russia is finding itself helplessly intertwined with the furor but unable to affect it. And there is a growing feeling that any Russian effort to try and ease the situation could make things worse for the Kremlin’s dealings with Washington in future. “Now we are afraid that amid this domestic struggle in the US, Russia’s name will be attached to Trump’s impeachment, or something worse, which could ruin chances for better relations for a generation,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, a senior Russian foreign policy analyst.

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2. In Russia, bewilderment over a relationship’s twists

When Russian President Vladimir Putin offered on Wednesday to provide Congress with a transcript of his foreign minister's controversial meeting last week with President Trump in the Oval Office, it was not warmly received by US politicians.

But debating the legitimacy of the offer – nominally to prove that no classified information changed hands – may be missing the point, Russian foreign policy experts say.

Rather, its greater significance may be as a sign of just how alarmed Mr. Putin and the Kremlin are becoming about what's happening in Washington.

Kremlin watchers say they feel like helpless observers amid the firestorm of the Russia-related scandals engulfing the Trump administration. While the Kremlin tries to advance what Russian observers say are sincere efforts to establish normal dialogue with a new US president, it is taken in Washington to be further evidence of political collusion between Mr. Trump and Russia.

And instead of realizing the rapprochement it once hoped for with a Trump-led United States, the Kremlin now worries that Trump could set back US-Russian relations for decades.

"We are very confused and even a bit terrified by what we see unfolding in Washington," says Fyodor Lukyanov, a senior Russian foreign policy analyst. "The name of Russia keeps coming up, but we don't feel like we have anything to do with this. This level of paranoia is beyond rational, and the only way we can make sense of it is that there is an attempt by political forces to play the Russia card as a weapon to destroy Trump.

"It's not that we especially want to save Trump," Mr. Lukyanov adds, "but the growing fear is that any chance of improved US-Russia relations will be vaporized in this war against him."

'A bit distressing'

At a press conference in Sochi Wednesday, Mr. Putin said he is deeply concerned that US-Russia relations may be in danger of being completely shipwrecked by what he called "political schizophrenia" driving the US conversation. He pledged that, with White House consent, he would hand over a full record of what was said between Trump, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the May 10 meeting.

Putin's comments were made in response to US media reports Monday that Trump disclosed classified data to Mr. Lavrov during the meeting regarding a terrorist threat to civil aviation, involving bombs hidden in laptop computers. Russian analysts say they take that as a sign that Trump wants to cooperate more intensively with Russia against the extremist group ISIS, which destroyed a Russian airliner over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in November 2015.

"Whatever other differences we may have, the joint fight against terrorism was supposed to be an area where we could work together," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant. "Any information that might help prevent an attack on Russian civilians would be received with gratitude, and it's a bit distressing to see this very thing being cited against Trump...."

Putin tried to make light of the claims that Trump had shared sensitive information with Russia, blaming Lavrov for not informing him that any secrets had been handed over "either to me or to our intelligence services. That's not good on his part," Putin joked.

But some Russian experts say that anything the Kremlin does or says at this point is only likely to make things worse.

"Perhaps Putin thought that he could make a constructive step, maybe help Trump in this predicament," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "But there is nothing we can do about this. People in Washington will only take it as some new provocation or trick from the Kremlin."

"A lot of people here are starting to think that it might be better not to talk with the Americans at all until this battle over the head of Trump is settled in Washington," says Mr. Strokan.

'Completely paralyzed'

The mood is a profound shift from the apparent euphoria the Russian establishment felt when Trump defeated avowed hawk Hillary Clinton last November. At the time, there was some talk that a new "grand bargain" between the two nuclear powers might put an end to the growing, cold war-like tensions between them.

But they gradually lost hope that any major turnaround would take place, and by the time Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Moscow last month, the expected positive agenda had been replaced by what the Foreign Ministry called a growing "list of irritants."

Still, Mr. Tillerson met with Putin in the Kremlin for two hours on that occasion, paving the way for last Wednesday's meeting between Lavrov and Trump in the Oval Office.

"A lot of people warned during the US election campaign, and after Trump's victory, that it was not going to be easy," says Lukyanov. "It was pointed out that Trump might say some interesting things for us, but that he was clearly inexperienced and unprofessional, and anything he did might just create confusion and uncertainty that would go against Russia's interests.

"But nobody had any idea how bad it could get. Now we see that he's completely paralyzed and, whatever he may have wanted to do, it's become clear that it's exceedingly difficult to deal with this person. Now we are afraid that amid this domestic struggle in the US, Russia's name will be attached to Trump's impeachment, or something worse, which could ruin chances for better relations for a generation."

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3. Prosecutors on tougher laws? Depends when they came of age.

How do you best make the punishment fit the crime? The question features in literature – think Dostoyevsky – as well as comic song (see Gilbert and Sullivan). The answer may lie in setting aside conventional notions of “tough” and “soft,” and looking at what blend of factors is most likely to help criminals set a new course after serving their time.

Amelia
 

The 30 Sec. ReadIs there a need for the return to tough drug sentencing called for by Attorney General Jeff Sessions? Prosecutors are divided on the subject – and it tends to be a generational divide. Prosecutors who remember the high crime of the 1980s think tough action is needed to prevent a return to those days. “During the era of a criminal justice system with mandatory minimum sentencing, the crime rate plummeted,” says Bill Otis, who spent 18 years with the Justice Department. “There are thousands of people, if not millions of people, who did not become crime victims” because of tougher policies. But for district attorneys who grew up during the war on drugs, like Robert James, the devastating cost of mandatory minimum sentences on families and neighborhoods must be avoided. During his six years as the Dekalb County DA, Mr. James spearheaded the county’s Anti-Recidivism Court, where participants under 25 take part in an intensive one-year life-skills program, and where charges are dropped upon graduation. At the same time, he led an anti-gang task force that cracked down on national figures. “[Y]ou can’t just go in and lock everybody up and expect the neighborhood to be better,” he says.

SOURCE: Federal Bureau of Investigation; US Department of Justice; University at Albany, SUNY; Mississippi Department of Corrections
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Jacob Turcotte and Harry Bruinius/Staff
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3. Prosecutors on tougher laws? Depends when they came of age.

At the core of the debate over the role of prosecutors in keeping America safe, some experts and prosecutors believe, is a generational divide.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions represents one view, epitomized by his decision to restore mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses on Friday – undoing guidance aimed at reducing prison overcrowding.

Mr. Sessions framed the guidelines change as a return to the Justice Department’s proper mission.

“It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” he said in the memo. “By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”

On the other side is a different breed of often younger prosecutors, who believe that a more nuanced approach is needed, especially regarding nonviolent drug offenses. Under former President Barack Obama, that view took hold more broadly, inspiring bipartisan reform efforts even in red states like Georgia. Take Texas Harris County District Attorney, Kim Ogg, who along with Houston city officials, said this year that most marijuana cases would no longer be subject to arrest or prosecution. Instead, offenders would pay a fine and enter a diversion program.

“At 107,000 cases over the last 10 years, we have spent in excess of $250 million dollars collectively prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” Ms. Ogg said in February. “[T]he collateral damage to our workforce is immeasurable ... we have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing, and education opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is in effect a minor law violation.”

This shift in thought has been crystallizing in recent years, all around the country – including within the ranks of prosecutors and conservative lawmakers. The deeper debate – especially over how to prosecute nonviolent drug offenses – comes amid troubling spikes in violence in small numbers of cities from Los Angeles to Baltimore, from Chicago to Memphis. It also comes after multiple studies that show disproportionate penalties for minorities caught in the criminal justice system.

However, it runs in direct contrast to the direction Sessions appears to be taking as America’s top law-enforcement official. While his directive may only  affect those tried in federal courts, as opposed to the much larger state system, it illustrates a broader conflict pervading the debate over how the justice system should operate.

“Sessions and the US attorney’s office are going backward in the direction that we came from, which is kind of sad,” says Robert James, a former Dekalb County district attorney, who is now in private practice. During his six years as the Dekalb County D.A., he spearheaded the county’s Anti-Recidivism Court, where participants, ages 17 to 25, take part in an intensive one-year life skills program, and where all charges are dropped upon graduation. At the same time, he led an anti-gang task force that prosecuted national gang figures trying to consolidate smaller youth gangs in the county.

The call for a harder line

Other former prosecutors, however, think Sessions is right to take a harder line.

“During the era of a criminal justice system with mandatory minimum sentencing, the crime rate plummeted,” says Bill Otis, a former attorney in the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.

“There are thousands of people, if not millions of people, who did not become crime victims” because of tougher policies, continues Mr. Otis, now a professor at Georgetown University in Washington. “An enormous amount of money was saved and an even bigger amount of human suffering averted because of the crimes an incarcerated inmate wasn’t able to commit… Others say we should give people a second chance…and [I] can’t disagree with that, but you also have to ask, a second chance to do what?”

Sessions himself referenced his experience as a prosecutor in Alabama in the 1980s soon after being confirmed as attorney general, in a speech that seemingly previewed his tough-on-crime approach. “As someone who lived through that dark time in our history,” he said, “I can assure you: We do not want to go back to those days.”

Coming from anyone who has worked on the front lines of the violent crime epidemic of the 1980s, that point of view is understandable, says John Pfaff, a criminologist at Fordham University who has researched state prosecutors.

“They saw what the failure to respond aggressively in the ’70s led to, so they’re skittish about going to what they saw as soft approaches,” he adds.

But with violent crime only having increased for two years, and still hovering near historic lows, he thinks it is too early to declare a trend, not to mention a punitive response to it. “We shouldn’t start resorting to brute force tactics,” Professor Pfaff says. “At this point we should try to be more sophisticated and more careful in how we approach it.”

Otis says that the two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. While he supports the move back to the tougher sentencing guidelines, he thinks it should be accompanied by programs that can help inmates succeed once they’re released.

While critics have decried a return to mandatory minimum sentences, legal experts say they don't question the motives of those who seek that return. “This is not a cynical, made-up set of reasons,” says Ronald Wright, a professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law. “The people who pursue this strategy are sincere and well-intentioned.”

But the proportion of people who share Sessions’ views in the prosecutorial community has been shrinking, Professor Wright says.

“Experience has given us a lot more information about how huge prison systems work and don’t work,” he adds. “So the number of prosecutors who embrace prison as central to our response, that number has gone down.”

The view from Lakewood

Some of the reasons for that can be seen in neighborhoods like Lakewood in Atlanta.

Taking a break at a ramshackle garage to pet a pit bull, Tre Burse says he’s fully aware of potential for violent crime. In fact, his own brother is scheduled to get out of state prison this week, for car theft.

But Mr. Burse and his buddies – Mike Edge and Ronald Walters – scoff at Sessions’s order, which will affect about 10 percent of all criminal cases in the US.

What Lakewood needs isn’t less prosecutorial discretion and more prison time, they agree, but more effective punishment and increased opportunity. “Locking everybody up for everything didn't work and it doesn't work,” says Mr. Edge.

Violent crime began decreasing in the 1990s after prosecutors began pursuing longer sentences, but more recent empirical analysis suggests that higher incarceration rates were at most a minor contributor to the decline. A landmark 2012 report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that increased incarceration rates “on balance” had a “modest” effect, while other research has shown that long prison sentences can lead to increased recidivism and cascading negative consequences on an offender's family and community.

Since 2007, 23 states have passed sentencing-reform legislation, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. Some of this legislation includes revisions to mandatory minimums, and the changes do not appear to have negatively affected public safety.

Georgia's example

In Georgia, for example, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has introduced a slew of criminal justice reforms, including withholding salary raises for prosecutors in counties until they establish local drug and mental health courts to help struggling Georgians avoid jail time. Those reforms may have helped Burse’s brother after prosecutors decided not to attach potential charges for an earlier robbery committed separately by his friends.

As a result of such discretion, prison populations have dropped in the state. In Dekalb County, even as the per capita crime rate continued to drop last year, county officials raised concern about an uptick in violent crime, including armed robbery and murder.

Mr. James, who lost his reelection bid in November, is concerned that Sessions’ position could stall reforms in some states, and could empower some local prosecutors to stop taking extenuating factors into consideration.

“You can talk to district attorneys in Chicago and Baltimore, and they will tell you that you can’t just go in and lock everybody up and expect the neighborhood to be better,” he says. “Yes, you have to be tough when required. But you have to also understand that criminal justice can do more harm than good. I saw it myself when I was growing up [during the height of the war on drugs]. I I have friends who have been in prison. You lock these young men up for low-level offenses ... and what ends up happening is they get caught up in a cycle of crime, they’re warehoused, and when they’re cut from the warehouse they return home with a scarlet letter ‘F,’ for felony, on them....

“We’ve got 30 to 40 years of history, of precedent, that says it’s flat-out not true” that putting lots of people in prison for a long time solves drug and crime problems, he adds. “If that were the case, then these neighborhoods would have been safe a long time ago.”

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4. Iranians, too, sift populists’ promises as election nears

If America has its 1 percent, Iran has its 4 percent – the tiny minority that hasn’t struggled amid decades of sanctions. Presidential candidates are piling on, wooing the 96 percent with a globally familiar populist pitch. But that crowd is savvy: What they want most, they say, is to trust those who aspire to lead them. 

Amelia
An Iranian woman followed election news May 17 in a coffee shop in Tehran, Iran. The May 19 presidential election is coming down to a battle over Iran’s lackluster economy, and serving as a referendum on the first term of President Hassan Rouhani.
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Reuters
 

The 30 Sec. ReadAs Iran prepares for presidential elections Friday, candidates who have been among the country’s ruling elite for decades are portraying themselves as champions of the working class. Sound familiar? Iran, it happens, is not immune to the wave of populism sweeping the world. One primary reason is the country’s lackluster economy. Despite some growth since the 2015 nuclear deal, unemployment is up, and candidates are making extravagant promises to boost the fortunes of middle-class Iranians. The focus on bread and butter issues recalls a tenet of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, aiming for “social justice.” But today it highlights vast inequalities in Iranian society. For many voters, distrustful of empty promises, the election is a referendum on moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s first term in office. While some laud him for easing Iran’s isolation from the rest of the world, others say he hasn’t delivered on his promises that the nuclear deal would bring prosperity. Rouhani “oversold the nuclear deal,” says a Tehran University political scientist. “He did not manage expectations well.” Part 1 of 2.

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4. Iranians, too, sift populists’ promises as election nears

Perched just off Revolution Square in central Tehran, Mehdi’s tiny fast-food joint is doing brisk-enough business selling burgers and pizzas – because everyone has to eat.

But as Iranians prepare to vote in presidential elections on May 19, the contest has boiled down to a battle over Iran’s lackluster economy and a referendum on President Hassan Rouhani’s first term, with rivals making extravagant, populist promises to boost the fortunes of middle-class Iranians like fast-food shop-owner Mehdi.

He says he wouldn’t be packing takeaway meals if Iran’s economy had surged the way Mr. Rouhani promised it would after the 2015 nuclear deal and the relaxation of sanctions. And he would still have the transport job that he left last year amid a construction downturn.

Likewise, Mehdi doesn’t trust the promises of Rouhani’s leading challenger, hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, custodian of the biggest religious foundation in Iran. Nor did he trust the promises of conservative Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who recently stepped down in favor of Mr. Raisi.

All candidates have played the populist card, with conservatives calling for cash payments to the poor and promising 5 million more jobs while doubling or tripling incomes.

The focus on bread and butter, or the lack of enough of it for many Iranians, harkens back to a fundamental tenet of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, aiming for “social justice.” But today it highlights vast inequalities in Iranian society.

Candidates that have been among Iran’s ruling elite for decades now portray themselves as champions of “social justice” for the working class, which analysts say is not unlike billionaire candidate Donald Trump last year on the US campaign trail, hobnobbing with auto and coal workers and promising to bring back their jobs.

“I have voted five times in the last 20 years, and learned that promises are made to win votes only,” says Mehdi, a tall, well-built Iranian in his late 30s who asked that only his first name be used. At least this college graduate has a job – one in five graduates are jobless, and youth unemployment has risen during Rouhani’s term from 24 percent to 30 percent.

“Pledges are good for nothing,” says Mehdi, echoing a common refrain of political disillusionment. “I just vote on the reality that Rouhani is still a better choice. The government has improved the tarnished image of Iran, and been very successful in foreign policy.”

That view is good news for Rouhani, but hardly a uniform reaction among his supporters, some of whom may need convincing to turn up and cast their ballot for him again. The relatively moderate president has eased Iran’s isolation and called for more outreach to the West, before and since the nuclear deal.

While Rouhani says that landmark achievement may have prevented a war, it is a target for hard-liners who accuse him of “deceiving” Iranians by raising expectations of an instant economic bonanza that could never be met.

Instead, non-nuclear US sanctions and restrictions on Iran’s financial transactions remain, and President Trump has threatened to tear up the deal – and certainly will not lobby for Iran’s quicker reentry to global markets, as the Obama administration once did.

“[Rouhani] oversold the nuclear deal, he did not manage expectations well,” says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University. “He was so much concerned about selling it, he didn’t think about the future and delivery and managing of expectations.”

Slow economic progress

Still, the incumbent has a “strong” economic team, whose performance “is not all that bad – but the problem is that is not how the people are feeling now,” says Dr. Hadian-Jazy.

While Rouhani’s supporters embrace his calls for greater social freedoms, they have been disappointed by slow economic progress. In the past decade, Iran has felt successive blows: mismanagement and overspending during oil boom years by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; years of crippling US, EU, and UN sanctions; and finally – just as Iran was permitted to reenter the oil markets with fewer restrictions – a tumble of oil prices that have gutted the budget.

The International Monetary Fund said in February that Iran was managing an “impressive recovery” since the sanctions eased, with 6.6 percent growth in 2016 and an expected 4.5 percent “as the recovery broadens.” Still, the economy has not been able to keep up with large numbers of Iranians entering the workforce each year, so unemployment has risen to 12.7 percent.

Though Rouhani says the nuclear deal boosted state revenues by $20 billion, foreign investment has been far less than expected. And while oil exports have more than doubled, the IMF warned that were the nuclear deal to collapse, Iran “could risk recession.”

The political risk for Rouhani is clear. Though accurate polling is a challenge in Iran, 72 percent of respondents to an April survey of more than 1,000 Iranians by the Toronto-based IranPoll said they believed the nuclear deal had not improved the lives of ordinary people. Of those surveyed from across Iran, 54 percent said they “hardly get by” or found it “very difficult to get by.”

Promises of a better life

Amid the uncertainty, peddling populist hope is an obvious tactic, with conservatives striking Rouhani’s record repeatedly – and playing up their own populist credentials, hoping to garner Iran’s legions of pious poor who for eight years supported the simple-living Mr. Ahmadinejad, Rouhani’s predecessor.

“They are concentrating on the economy because the most important problem of the country is the economy,” says Saeed Laylaz, a reform-minded economist in Tehran. He estimates that Iranians’ purchasing power decreased sharply during Ahmadinejad’s tenure, by perhaps 50 percent to more than 70 percent, as inflation soared to 40 percent and sanctions bit.

“Because of this, everyone is making promises to give a better life,” says Dr. Laylaz. “But I don’t believe that people are believing that … they have absolutely bad experiences and a bad image about these promises.”

Among Rouhani’s challengers adopting a populist tack on the campaign trail, Tehran Mayor Qalibaf attacked hardest, saying Rouhani was president only of a wealthy 4 percent of the elite, and not the 96 percent of the masses. A tree that bore no fruit after four years, he said, could not be expected to ever bear fruit.

In one presidential debate on live TV, Qalibaf showed a list of meager assets that he said he would happily exchange for half of Rouhani’s mansion. But he was accused by his challengers of selling $100 ice creams to rich Iranians at Tehran’s Milad tower – the dish was garnished with gold leaf – and other elitist moves that were chastised at the time by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Likewise, Raisi weighed in on enforcing tax collection, which Rouhani countered was rich, coming from a man who manages a sweeping religious foundation – estimated to be worth some $210 billion – that pays no taxes at all.

'Working for your stomachs'

Some Iranian political humor making the rounds refers to a statement a generation ago by the founder of Iran’s revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who said the revolution was about ideology and exalting souls, not about filling stomachs.

“But everybody now is saying, ‘We are revolutionary, and we are working for your stomachs’ – it’s changed 180 degrees,” says a veteran Iranian analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named.

“Qalibaf is honest, saying that for four decades of revolution, 4 percent had a nice life, and 96 percent are miserable, hungry, they are poor, they are dying,” says the analyst. “What can you say against the revolution stronger than that, as far as the failure of the revolution?”

Yet carrying the populist torch has not been easy for either side.

“Ahmadinejad was very different … he seemed authentic, he lived that [simple] way, so the people believed him,” says political scientist Hadian-Jazy. “[Qalibaf] has Ray-Ban eyeglasses worth several hundred dollars, rides a Mercedes … and claims he is one of the 96 percent. That’s too far.”

A special correspondent in Tehran contributed to this report.

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5. How builders of a border wall could feel a backlash

Large construction firms are accustomed to weighing political and social factors in their work around the globe. But the proposed wall may be pointing to a new era of corporate risk. 

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White House press secretary Sean Spicer discusses the building of a proposed border wall with Mexico during a daily briefing May 3.
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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
 

The 30 Sec. ReadBack in the 1980s US activists targeted corporations with ties to South Africa as part of their campaign against the apartheid system of government. Business activities have become politicized in other instances, too. But now the tool of anti-corporate protest is being aimed at America’s president and at one of his top goals: the divisive idea of walling off the US-Mexican border. Where many Americans want a tighter border, many others view the proposed wall as a “symbol of xenophobia and hate,” as one Rhode Island legislator puts it. Protesters are showing up at the headquarters of construction firms in several states. Some cities in California have passed measures to divest from or blacklist wall-builders. All this before the wall is even funded or approved by Congress. Yet already the effort to sway corporations has shown results. Some big-name firms have decided they won’t bid. If the wall does get funded, the political pressures could make the project harder and costlier, builders say. And, not least, the tool of anti-corporate protest or divestment could be seen by political partisans as ripe for other uses in the future.

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5. How builders of a border wall could feel a backlash

This week, a nascent national movement takes to the streets to protest the building of a border wall with Mexico.

But they’re not marching on Washington or in individual state capitals. Instead, they’re showing up on the doorsteps of major engineering and construction firms to persuade them not to help build the proposed wall. 

Those protests, which began May 17, build on a national letter-writing campaign and legislative efforts in seven states and a handful of cities also targeting contractors. These moves are having an effect. Many of the largest and best-known design, engineering, and construction firms – even those with decades of experience overseeing controversial projects in the Middle East and Africa – have decided not to bid on the border wall.

Their absence complicates the bidding process for the Trump administration, which is, after all, the intent of antiwall advocates. But the protests and legislation are also having an unintended effect, pushing partisan politics deep into a government bidding process that typically deals with relatively uncontroversial projects such as roads and bridges. Many in the contracting world worry that partisan politics will spill over into other work.

“This sets a very dangerous precedent,” says Michael Kennedy, general counsel of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), an industry group based in Arlington, Va. “Once this genie gets out of the bottle, I’m not sure where it goes…. [And] it’s taking our members hostage.”

Will a company that builds an abortion clinic be shut out from bidding on contracts in conservative states? Will companies that help store nuclear waste be frozen out of bidding on unrelated projects in some parts of the country?

One person's business is another's politics

Even though such blacklisting is probably unconstitutional, just the threat of such action has already had an effect.

In recent days, as US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has notified the more than 100 bidding companies whether they made it to Round 2, many large contractors are conspicuous by their absence.

So while Dark Pulse Technologies, a small Scottsdale, Ariz., company, will be trying to persuade federal officials its fiber sensing systems can enhance border security, engineering and construction companies with decades of experience overseeing massive infrastructure projects have not bid on the wall. Bechtel Corp., which built pipelines in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and designed the radiation containment system in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union, is not participating.

Ditto for Turner Construction (builder of the world’s tallest building in Dubai), international engineering and architectural firm Leo A Daly, and France’s VINCI (the world’s largest construction company). Even companies that previously expressed an interest in the huge border project, which could cost $20 billion or more, have backed off. Mexican cement giant CEMEX shied away after Mexico’s foreign minister said companies should "examine their conscience" when deciding to bid. Granite Construction, based in Watsonville, Calif., has built previous sections of the wall but reportedly did not bid after nearby Santa Cruz voted to divest from border wall companies.

The apparent impact of the political pressure is notable partly because the border wall, so far, isn’t even under way. Congress has not passed legislation to fund it.

In seven state legislatures, bills have been introduced aiming to penalize companies that help build the wall. But none of these states – Arizona, California, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin – has actually passed a bill, and time is running out as their legislative sessions end.

Santa Cruz is one of the few jurisdictions that has actually passed antiwall legislation. It has said it will not use money to invest in any company that participates in the construction. Two other California cities, Berkeley and Oakland, have taken even stronger stands. They have agreed not to contract with any company involved with building President Trump’s signature initiative.

'Gun-shy about the risks'

Such blacklisting legislation has also been introduced in four states: California, New York, Arizona, and Illinois. Even the threat that they might lose work in those states has many contractors deeply worried.

“They are gun-shy about the risks of potentially losing state and local business that would outweigh any wall contracts,” David Raymond, president of the American Council of Engineering Companies, writes in an email. “The threatened legislation in California and other states is unprecedented.”

Back in the 1980s, US activists targeted corporations with ties to South Africa as part of their campaign against the apartheid system of government.

But blacklisting measures against a federal project would face huge constitutional barriers if the laws ever get challenged in court, says Breana Ware, an attorney in construction and government contracts group of Alston & Bird, an international law firm based in Atlanta. Under the Supremacy Clause, Congress can preempt state laws that conflict with federal law or create an obstacle to its objectives, such as building the wall, Another hurdle is the “nondiscrimination rule,” which invalidates regulations that discriminate against the federal government or those it deals with.  Also, the Commerce Clause of the Constitution prevents states from inhibiting or discriminating against interstate commerce, she adds.

But the cost to companies to challenge those laws would take time and cost perhaps up to $1 million in legal fees in each state, says Mr. Kennedy of the industry group AGC.

“The mere discussion of a ban sends a message to industry and to state agency personnel about the biases of the legislatures and local governing authorities,” says Robert Tompkins, co-chairman of the government contracts practice at Holland & Knight, in Washington. “Would a wall contractor get a fair shake in a state or local procurement, even if wall blacklisting legislation eventually did not pass? Then again, would such a contractor have fair recourse in a court in the same state if they wanted to challenge that apparent bias?  Sadly, the answer to both may be ‘no.’ ”

It may be that the antiwall movement shifts away from the blacklisting strategy because of the constitutional problems. In March, El Paso City Rep. Peter Svarzbein dropped the idea of a blacklisting wall companies after the city attorney told him it violated state law. The city council later voted unanimously to condemn the border wall. On May 12, a Los Angeles city councilman filed a motion that contractors doing business with the city would have to reveal if they worked on the wall.

Rising price tag for wall?

In some ways, the protesters can already claim victory. The threat of legislation will make building the wall more difficult and costly.

“It reduces competition among the companies,” says Kennedy of the AGC. “It makes it much more difficult for the federal government to attract first-in-class contractors…. You're going to increase the price.”

On the afternoon of May 17, protesters delivered a letter to the Portland, Ore., offices of Louis Berger, urging the company not to participate in the federal project. In a statement, the $1 billion infrastructure and development company said it had already made the decision not to bid on the wall. The protesters plan to target the San Jose, Calif., office of Hensel Phelps, another large contractor, on May 18. Similar events are planned in Pittsburgh, New York, Boston, and Chicago. [Editor's note: This paragraph has been modified to include Louis Berger's statement as well as updated reference to the May 17 protest.]

To Trump supporters, all this is a political attack on an activity they view as a legitimate effort to assert the rule of law along a porous international boundary and improve American security.

But wall opponents see it as a strong and deserved rebuke to Trump's hard-line views and policies on immigration. Rhode Island state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, who has introduced legislation to have the state divest any funds from companies involved in Trump’s border wall, puts it this way: “We're saying he shouldn't be creating this symbol of xenophobia and hate using Rhode Island state dollars.”

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The Monitor's View

A peace accelerator in the Mideast desert

 

The 30 Sec. ReadSometimes peace starts through universal activities like science, the arts, and sports. The latest example of indirect peacemaking: the opening of the Middle East’s first scientific research center May 16. Located in Jordan and nearly a century in the making, it is funded by nine countries in the region, some of which do not officially recognize each other. The center’s focus is a particle accelerator, the only one in the region and a useful tool for peering into molecules in fields from biology to archaeology. Its value goes beyond the science. The project sets yet another example of a cause greater and more lasting than any differences over religion, ideology, or ethnicity. Like the light beams it emits to probe matter, it is a light of hope in a dark corner of the world.

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A peace accelerator in the Mideast desert

When nations are at odds or even at war, sometimes peace can come quietly through a back door. China and the United States reconciled decades ago through a table tennis match. Serbia and Albania have edged closer after putting on a production of “Romeo and Juliet.” India and Pakistan have talked of joint research on Himalayan glaciers. South Korea, host of the next Winter Olympics, hopes to welcome a team from North Korea.

The latest example of indirect peacemaking is the opening of the Middle East’s first scientific research center on May 16. Located in Jordan and nearly a century in the making, it is funded by nine countries in the region, some of which do not officially recognize each other. Yet now scientists from Israel will be working alongside Iranians and Palestinians. And even though Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus, their researchers will be talking a common language, that of science and math. The other countries are Pakistan, Egypt, Bahrain, and Jordan.

The center’s focus is a particle accelerator, the only one in the region and a useful tool for peering into molecules in fields from biology to archaeology. Its name is SESAME, an acronym for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East. But the name is also the magic password to open a cave full of gold in the fable “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”

One model for SESAME is CERN, the large, Swiss-based particle physics laboratory. It was set up after the devastation of World War II to bring together European countries around joint research. This collaboration across boundaries later proved a useful model in other areas of science, such as space exploration.

Science, like the arts and sports, can serve as an ice-breaker and neutral ground for estranged peoples. They require qualities of thought that lift people above national identities or cultural differences. In science, there is an inherent demand for truth, openness, and trust. Researchers often unite in the joy of making discoveries. They later carry back home those moments of unity experienced during mutual learning.

SESAME, while located in the desert and near the war in Syria, is a small bridge between people in the Middle East. Its value goes beyond the science itself, setting yet another example of a cause greater and more lasting than any differences over religion, ideology, or ethnicity. Like the light beams it emits to probe matter, it is a light of hope in a dark corner of the world.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Mental stability – possible for everyone

 

A deeper understanding of Mind brings peace to the disturbed mentality.​

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Mental stability – possible for everyone

In these times of global stir, greater mental stability is certainly something we all would like to experience. A slight variation on a famous saying about peace might relate, “Let there be stability in the world and let it begin with me.” Surely mental equilibrium, an unshakable peace that can withstand turbulent events that occur, is a necessity.

There was a time in my life when I had to think deeply about this subject. A history of severe emotional problems affected both sides of my family. When I started to experience signs of a mental breakdown similar to those other family members had, I was terrified.

At that time a friend, seeing my obvious distress, offered me a copy of a book that literally changed my life – “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy. It explained God as Mind, the source of all consciousness and intelligence.

As I read, I learned that everything the Bible teaches about God could also be applied to God as Mind. For example, in the Bible, God is referred to, among other things, as a refuge, a protector, a rock. So Mind, as a synonym of God, is a “rock,” characterized by strength, permanence, and reliability – an all-powerful divine consciousness that we can trust and rely on. Right there I found my source of mental stability, since the Bible and Science and Health both make plain that we are all the spiritual offspring of God. So we all include the qualities of our creator.

It began to dawn on me that my individual consciousness was a reflection of the divine Mind, and therefore could only express qualities such as clarity, peace, intelligence, and yes, stability. The prayer that freed me permanently from the specter of incurable mental illness was simply, “God is Mind, and I reflect that Mind. God cannot lose His Mind, therefore I can’t lose mine.”

Who doesn’t want to feel the rock-solid confidence that his or her mental equilibrium is a permanent fact because it comes from a rock-solid source? In his masterful healing work Christ Jesus showed that mental stability is the natural state of man. There are a number of accounts in the Bible where Jesus healed the insane. He demonstrated the power of Mind to bring peace and healing to those suffering from severe mental disorders. This healing power is with us today, and by understanding the truth that the divine Mind is the real and only source of consciousness for everyone, we can begin to feel a growing confidence in the foundation of stability for all mankind.

Many find prayer to be an effective help in all sorts of circumstances. Seeking a clearer understanding of what Mind is, and how God’s creation, man, actually expresses that Mind, enables one to experience an increasing sense of mental stability. As a pebble thrown in a pond sends ripples to the outer edge of the water, so our prayer and individual living of Mind’s reliable and available presence also ripples out and blesses others. My early prayer for my own need has evolved into a more universal one, “God is everyone’s Mind. God cannot lose His Mind therefore no one can lose theirs.” This kind of prayer heals and changes lives, bringing an increasing sense of stability to our world.

( 550 words )
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Viewfinder

Just passing through

A shepherd herds his goats through a station of the light rail system in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Constructed by the Chinese and opened to the public in 2015, the two-line system has eased (human) congestion.
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Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( May 18th, 2017 )

 

That’s it for today. Thanks for joining us – and we look forward to having you back tomorrow. We will delve into another question that’s swirling about Washington: Is it too soon for impeachment talk?

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