2018
September
17
Monday

For a week in 2017, Max Karlsson was the voice of Sweden. If you have never heard of Mr. Karlsson, don’t fret. The rest of the world had never heard of him, either. He just happened to be one of about 360 everyday Swedes chosen by the Swedish Institute to run the @sweden Twitter account for a week during the past seven years. 

The experiment often plunged into the ridiculous, including a Twitter war with Denmark about moose. The chosen Swedes, after all, could pretty much tweet about anything they liked. Nothing illegal, nothing promotional, nothing dangerous, nothing discriminatory. Other than that, go nuts.

Quirky, yes. But also a statement. The Swedish Institute, which promotes the country worldwide, wasn’t scared by what its citizens would say. After all, there isn’t just one Sweden; there are many, the government wrote on the project website. What makes Sweden special are Swedes themselves.

The project has now ended, with the institute saying it has run its course. But the spirit is bigger than a Twitter feed. Behind democracy is the conviction that no one person speaks for a country. We all do. “Being on social media is to let go of control,” an official with the institute told The New York Times, “but if you want to show Sweden as an open country, this is how to do it.” 

Now, here are our five stories for today, with glimpses of the power of practicality in the Carolinas, a new humility in economics, and many Israelis’ changing views of Arabic. 

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1. Kavanaugh twist shows rising influence of MeToo

Lawmakers of both parties quickly said the accuser of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh must be heard. That shows the power of the #MeToo movement and the pivotal role of women in US politics. The question ahead: Will it change minds about his confirmation?

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Less than 24 hours after Christine Blasey Ford, the woman accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, revealed her identity, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said she should be allowed to have her say. “She should not be ignored or insulted,” Ms. Conway told reporters. “She should be heard.” Ms. Ford, a psychology professor, says she is willing to testify before Congress. Conway, who made clear she was speaking on behalf of the president, urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to hear her testimony under oath. Judge Kavanaugh has also said he is willing to testify. It’s not a reaction one might expect from a president who has faced allegations of sexual misconduct from more than a dozen women and who dismissed taped remarks about groping women as “locker room talk.” But it points to the power of the #MeToo movement – and of women voters, who are expected to play a pivotal role in the upcoming midterm elections. “A lot more people believe the right thing is to believe a woman’s charges, especially when a woman is willing to go public,” says Jim Manley, the former spokesman for retired Democratic majority leader Harry Reid.

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Kavanaugh twist shows rising influence of MeToo

“She should not be ignored or insulted. She should be heard.”

That the president’s senior counselor, Kellyanne Conway, swiftly advocated listening to the woman who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault points to the power of the #MeToo movement – and of women in politics.

Just one day after the accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, revealed her identity to The Washington Post, Ms. Conway on Monday said she had it straight from President Trump that Professor Ford should be allowed her say – and with dignity. Ford is willing to appear before Congress, and Conway urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to hear her testimony under oath. Judge Kavanaugh has also said he is willing to testify.

It is not what one might have expected from a president who has faced allegations of sexual misconduct from more than a dozen women and who blew off candid remarks about groping women as “locker room talk.”

“A lot more people believe the right thing is to believe a woman’s charges, especially when a woman is willing to go public,” says Jim Manley, former spokesman for retired Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, when he was Senate majority leader.

Mr. Manley recalls his time as a young staffer in the Senate when Anita Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991. Like Ford, Ms. Hill went public at the last minute. When she testified before the Judiciary Committee, senators on both sides of the all-male panel questioned her credibility. The confirmation went ahead.

“This is different circumstances, occurring in a whole different time,” says Manley, warning about “blowback” if Republicans try to overreach and impugn Ford’s motives for coming forward. “I think that’s going to [tick] off an awful lot of people, including women, who are more prone to vote in this day and age than men are.”

Mistakes versus character flaws

But there is also potential for overreach for the #MeToo movement – and Democrats – if they argue that one incident, allegedly carried out by a drunken 17-year-old Kavanaugh, disqualifies an otherwise stellar legal career and seemingly upright character.

“There’s a difference between making a mistake and having it be your character,” says Cleta Mitchell, a Republican election attorney based in Washington, D.C., and a supporter of Kavanaugh. Even if the allegations are true, she does not believe they should disqualify the nominee, “because I don’t think that’s the kind of life that he’s led.”

According to Ford, the alleged incident took place during the summer in the early 1980s. She says that a small group of students were drinking at a home in suburban Maryland, and that Kavanaugh and a friend, Mark Judge, were heavily intoxicated. When she went to use the bathroom, she claims she was pushed into a bedroom by Kavanaugh, and that he pinned her down and, laughing, tried to take off her clothes. When she tried to call out, he put his hand over her mouth. At one point, she says, Mr. Judge jumped on top of both of them, which caused them all to topple off the bed, enabling her to get free.

Ford did not tell anyone about the incident at the time, but The Washington Post reviewed notes from a therapist she saw in 2012 detailing the incident. (The notes did not mention Kavanaugh by name, but said Ford described being attacked by someone from an elite boys’ school who went on to become a “high-ranking” member of Washington society.)

Kavanaugh has adamantly denied the charges, saying in a statement: “This is a completely false allegation. I have never done anything like what the accuser describes – to her or to anyone.” Judge, the friend who was allegedly involved in the incident, spoke to The Weekly Standard before Ford came forward publicly, and said: “It’s just absolutely nuts. I never saw Brett act that way.”

Politics and #MeToo

John Feehery, a Republican strategist, says the #MeToo movement is not just about justice – it’s also about punishing those who have been in power for a long time. Quoting Justice Thomas from his nomination hearing, Mr. Feehery said this seems like another “high-tech lynching,” this time “of a white Irish Catholic guy.”

Unlike Thomas, who allegedly behaved offensively as an adult and fully sober, “you and I know high school kids. They do stupid stuff. All the time. Especially when they are drunk.” Should that disqualify a person from future employment? he asks.

Feehery is unsure whether there will be a backlash against #MeToo but he and others underscore the politics – and arguably, the double standards – at play in this and other high-stakes instances involving sexual harassment, assault, or other indiscretions.

The left forgives President Bill Clinton despite his affair with a young intern and other allegations of abuse, and it forgives the Democratic lion Ted Kennedy for his complicity in the death of a young woman – because they align on the issues, Feehery points out.

“The right forgives Trump because he promises to be faithful to their causes, if not faithful to his wife.”

Republicans have blasted Democrats for the way in which the accusation came out – at the 11th hour, while for six weeks, the senior Democrat on the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, had a letter from Ford outlining the alleged attack.

Even Manley admits that Feinstein “should have broached this with others on the committee earlier.” Yet, he understands why she didn’t, given the senator’s “cautious” nature and the fact that the writer wanted strict anonymity. How can an accused defend himself from charges of a nameless person?

How this all will play out in detail remains to be seen. Democrats are demanding a thorough investigation by the FBI, because these allegations are new. Republicans want to stay on track – aiming for a confirmation vote before Oct. 1, when the court begins its new term. Judiciary Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, (R) of Iowa, said Monday that he will “continue working on a way to hear her out in an appropriate, precedented, and respectful manner.”

Yet a few Republicans have suggested there may have to be a delay, at least in the Judiciary vote on the nominee – which was scheduled for this Thursday – in order to hear from Ford. Speaking to reporters on Monday, President Trump said, “if it takes a little delay, it’ll take a little delay.”

In the end, “I doubt very seriously any minds will be changed by this,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist and expert on the Senate at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “Unless something else gets dislodged from historical memory” or other women come forward with accusations, “odds are that he will be confirmed.”

Republicans, he says, feel that this is in their grasp and they do not want to do anything to cause things to go off the rails. Given the politics, given energized women voters, given the new climate about sexual harassment, “it’s very important that they give due respect to Dr. Ford.”

Staff writer Linda Feldmann contributed to this story from Washington.

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2. How one North Carolina town stayed dry during Florence

As staff writer Patrik Jonsson began traveling the Carolinas after hurricane Florence, he came across a town that had put aside its differences over politics and global warming to find a solution to chronic flooding. So far, it has kept Florence at bay. 

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Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Shrimp boats were clustered on shore ahead of hurricane (now tropical depression) Florence at the Swan Quarter, N.C., harbor, just outside an $18 million, 18-mile-long dike that protects the Hyde County seat.

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Henry Williams, a farmer and volunteer firefighter, does not believe that humans are altering the temperature of the planet. But he is the one who helps care for the dike in Swan Quarter, N.C. – a job he takes very seriously. An 18-mile-long feat of engineering completed in 2010, the dike is a piece of political pragmatism that has gained stature as it held up well against during hurricanes Irene and Matthew, superstorm Sandy, and so far Florence. Across the South, this kind of pragmatism has begun to bubble up from vulnerable coastal towns. The ideological divide over the cause of climate change may have hampered flood preparations in some communities. But there is also growing evidence that mounting property losses and threatened historical landmarks are wearing away resistance to preparedness. That common purpose might sometimes be hard to see on the national stage. But locally, people are putting aside politics in favor of practical solutions. “Working in Swan Quarter, flooding is not an ideological issue there. It is a way of life. Same with sea level rise. People have watched it happen within that lived environment. If you watch forests turn to marshland and the roads flood, the politics fade away,” says Jason Evans, an environmentalist who worked on the project.

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How one North Carolina town stayed dry during Florence

Neighbors J.W. Raburn and Henry Williams are political polar opposites. Mr. Raburn says he may have been the only one in this sound-side hamlet to have voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Mr. Williams voted for President Trump.

But the two lifelong friends – along with about 300 or so other North Carolinians who call Swan Quarter home – stood united this weekend against hurricane Florence.

Nearby Oriental, New Bern, and large parts of central North Carolina were devastated when up to 40 inches of rain fell, swelling rivers that are expected to crest later this week. Tens of thousands of residents were displaced, and at least 23 people died.

Yet Swan Quarter, which used to flood regularly and was fully drenched by 2003’s hurricane Isabel, stayed largely dry. Sure, Raburn had readied his sailboat, Blue Heaven, as a possible escape. And Williams rued the loss of his beets.

Both men cite a remarkable piece of engineering as the town’s savior: An 18-mile-long, $13.2 million dike built over 25 years of floods to protect Swan Quarter, the ferry-bound seat of Hyde County, which includes historic Ocracoke Island.

“There is no doubt that dike has saved us. It gives us a little bit of hope,” says Raburn. His friend nods.

The dike, completed in 2010, is a piece of political pragmatism that has gained stature as it held up well against during hurricanes Irene and Matthew, superstorm Sandy, and so far, Florence. Another town in Hyde County, Engelhard, faced substantial flooding over the weekend. Discussions about a dike had already begun there before the storm.

The ideological divide over the cause of climate change may have hampered flood preparations in some communities. But there is also growing evidence that mounting property losses, declines in property values, and threatened historical landmarks are wearing away resistance to preparedness. That common purpose might sometimes be hard to see on the national stage. But locally, people are putting aside politics in favor of practical solutions.

“Working in Swan Quarter, flooding is not an ideological issue there. It is a way of life. Same with sea level rise. People have watched it happen within that lived environment. If you watch forests turn to marshland and the roads flood, the politics fade away,” says Jason Evans, an environmentalist from Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., who worked on the dike project.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Henry Williams of Swan Quarter, N.C., shown with his cat Tom-Tom, credits an 18-mile-long dike for keeping their remote coastal town dry. Mr. Williams, the caretaker of the dike, is a Trump supporter who questions man-made global warming but says sea level rise is real.

Raburn and Williams, former bandmates, show the human side of the debate. Raburn believes that finding solutions to manmade climate change is vital. Williams, a farmer and volunteer firefighter, does not believe that humans are altering the temperature of the planet, calling it “a phase we are going through.” But he is the one who cares for and maintains the dike – a job he takes very seriously.

Across the Southern coast, such sentiments have begun to bubble up from vulnerable island towns and sound-side communities. Tybee Island, Ga., has become a leader in developing sea-level adaptation plans now being used from Key West, Fla., to St. Mary’s, Ga.

“The bottom line is we need to assess what we do with property and insurance based on facts and science rather than wishful thinking,” says former lawmaker Deborah Ross, now a Raleigh attorney. “And I think we are at a place now where people are more interested in doing that.”

Tybee Island is heavily Republican, “but they were willing to hire a long-haired politician like myself at the local level,” says Paul Wolff, a former city council member who has worked to depoliticize climate change and sea-level rise. Improvements put into place from the 2012 plan have resulted in lowered flood-insurance premiums.

“The question for people here on the island was for a long time: Why should we [be studying sea level rise] when nobody else is?” says Mr. Wolff. “My answer has been, because we are on the front lines. If we don’t deal with it, who will?”

That sense of what Swan Quarter resident Walt Cahoon calls “an intimacy with the land” has put both resort towns and hardscrabble hamlets on the leading edge of climate change adaptation, sometimes at odds with state and federal attention.

“Many people go back six or seven generations. The sense of place is incredibly important,” says Professor Evans. “People there have their own brogue. And if you have your own accent, that should tell you something about the place.”

A recent study investigated 44 climate-adaptation plans developed by a range of municipalities, from big cities to tiny towns. Solutions were often simple, including adjusting maintenance schedules and storm-drain cleanings. The biggest weaknesses the authors' cited were failing to include monitoring in their plans and the uncertainty of climate change projections.

In 2017, the credit rating agency Moody’s for the first time notified coastal towns that if they are not preparing for climate change, their credit ratings could be affected, meaning higher interest rates on bonds. An analysis by the First Street Foundation found that Southern coastal states had seen a total home value loss of $7.4 billion from climate-change-related sea level rise since 2005, the bulk of it in Florida and North Carolina.

“It is one thing to project what the future impacts of sea level rise could be, but it is quite another to know that the market has already responded negatively to this threat,” said FSF principal Steven McAlpine, in a press release.

Some North Carolina lawmakers have called climate change warnings “extreme” and “unreliable.” The state is far from alone in its so-far dismissive approach.

The Republican-led legislature passed a law in 2012 that mandated that state officials use historical trend lines rather than modern climate change predictions to shape real estate and agricultural policy. Lawmakers balked at predictions of a 39-inch sea-level rise in 100 years, with one lawmaker alleging that university researchers “pulled the data out of their back pocket.”

The law gave a break to real estate developers struggling to rebound from the Great Recession. But critics say it also sapped incentive, money, and planning at a moment demanding vigilance and foresight.

Doubtfulness about the effects of climate change may be shifting, however. Republican lawmaker Chuck McGrady led a state effort to develop new mudslide maps for western North Carolina, now being tested as Florence crawls north.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Here in Swan Quarter, local taxes are likely to go up. The county needs to purchase pumps to help clear water that seeps through the dike. Across the sound on Ocracoke Island, county leaders are working on bolstering dunes.

To be sure, some locals wonder whether how much real value is left in their properties. Raburn bought an 1877 house where the original cistern is holding up a corner of a structure that is hopelessly “catawampus,” he says. He bought it for $14,000 two years ago. It might be worth $5,000 today, he estimates.

At the same time, the dike played a role in the county investing millions in a new courthouse and fire station. The state credit union has felt confident enough in the dike to build a new branch. A critical ferry service runs from the docks to the Ocracoke Island. Inside the local gas station, a line drawn at head level shows the height of Isabel’s surge. Thus far, Florence has left no mark at all.

The size of the town and the lean budgets mean, “the kind of interventions that can be done there and how we think about it is much different than thinking about New York City or Miami,” says Evans. “Hyde County is a hardscrabble place trying to build a dike. Nothing solves anything forever…. But it clearly has helped with certain floods. I wouldn’t want to be in Swan Quarter during a big hurricane event without that dike being there.”

The dike remains controversial. Local taxes are going up as state and federal resources dry up. Some residents think the dike just creates a bowl to hold the water. But Williams is confident that it holds storm surges at bay.

It is up to Williams, who dotes on a three-legged cat named Tom-Tom and brags about his hush puppies, to mow it. When the clouds clear, it is used as a footpath for teenagers and other walkers.

“Whatever legislators want to do, whatever presidents want to do, it’s in the end not relevant in terms of trying to work through the facts. We have scientific understanding that can apply to all these places,” says Evans. “But I have also seen over and over again – whether in the Florida Keys or in Swan Quarter – that within areas facing substantial problems, all the political stuff that we all get drawn into fades away.”

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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3. A wiser profession? For economists, 2008 crisis still drives new thinking.

No economist will tell you that the field has been revolutionized since a mid-September Monday in 2008 when global markets panicked. But they will tell you they have grown a little more humble and introspective.   

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Ten years ago, the economy turned down much harder and faster than professional forecasts had allowed for. Today, while the field of economics isn’t transformed, it has been chastened. Economists are looking more at real-world evidence as well as amending their own theoretical models. The erosion of lender confidence in 2008, they’ve realized, was a crucial reason a bad housing bust evolved into something much worse. On the positive side, economists have greater confidence that tools like central bank stimulus and government spending can help a stressed economy recover. “Belief in the eternal efficiency of markets has been extinguished, at least for the time being,” says finance expert Daniel Alpert. And “the economics profession truly has gotten religion” regarding societal anxieties that have fueled populist politics, he adds. All this may be important at a time when some see new threats to financial stability coming into view.

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A wiser profession? For economists, 2008 crisis still drives new thinking.

A decade ago, with America’s housing market crashing and credit markets in disarray, economists and leaders at the Federal Reserve predicted the US economy would keep growing.

When, instead, the United States plunged into its worst recession in seven decades, it caused not only a crisis in banking and housing, but also added to widening distrust in experts and forced economists to take a good long look in the mirror.

The result, 10 years after a mid-September Monday when the collapse of the investment firm Lehman Brothers roiled world markets: a profession that is humbler, more open to new ideas, and more sensitive to the social impacts of its prescriptions. These changes in thinking are important as numerous challenges – from trade and tariffs to income and wealth inequality – come to the fore and create potential new threats to financial stability.

“The economics profession truly has gotten religion,” regarding societal anxieties, says Daniel Alpert, a finance expert who tracked the crisis and responses to it as a managing partner at Westwood Capital in New York. “Belief in the eternal efficiency of markets has been extinguished, at least for the time being.”

The crisis was also an equal opportunity slap in the face. Just as the credit chaos of 2008 shook the faith of conservative economists in the efficiency of markets in finding proper equilibrium, the Great Recession also eroded a simplistic confidence in globalization on the left, Mr. Alpert says. “I’ll say the economics profession historically was very much part and parcel of the problem. We were all tribal,” he says.

These shifts in thinking are incremental. Even before 2008, for instance, many economists offered prescriptions about social ills. And the tribes still exist, along with their fealty to particular politicians and parties. But other experts agree that new conversations and ideas have emerged.

“First, the profession has become much more empirical, increasingly emphasizing evidence and data over theoretical conjecture. Second, economists are much more concerned with inequality these days. And finally, economists are more willing to question basic assumptions, such as the premise that economic actors are perfectly rational,” economist Noah Smith wrote in a recent Bloomberg column.

Consider the keywords “inequality” and “poverty” in the titles of research papers since the crisis. They pop up more frequently in the two most recent years (ending Sept. 1, 2018) than in the two years ending Sept. 1, 2007, judging by emails that summarize papers published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Seeing the forest instead of trees

In some cases, whole new topics have come into focus, such as nontraditional ways for central banks to stimulate an ailing economy, and the idea that regulators ​consider risks to the whole financial system, not just the soundness of individual banking firms.  

“Macroeconomists learned that the financial sector can be a huge source of shocks and our treatment of it so far had been far too simplistic,” says Joseph Gagnon, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who had studied the contracting availability of loans during the Great Depression, said this year that even he was taken by surprise at how big a role the financial industry’s own panic played in the crisis.

All this leads to a question that’s timely today: If economists and central bankers have been learning lessons since 2008, will the system be safer going forward?

Safer, but not fool-proof

No one promises a crisis-free future. In fact, this past week of “Lehman anniversary” articles have included plenty of opining about lingering risks and new ones, from shadow banks in China to high and rising debts in America and other wealthy nations.

Many economists argue the system is safer today – not just because of new wisdom, but also because the recession’s lessons helped guide the creation of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, and parallel global efforts to monitor banks.

But the crisis also brought a key challenge into view: Even when economists have a useful idea, they may lack the clout or credibility to get policymakers on board. Economists broadly agree that more spending or tax cuts from Congress would have been helpful in hastening the economy’s recovery, says Mr. Gagnon, who shared his thoughts by e-mail. But Congress was only willing to go a certain distance down that path

Even policies that work may have drawbacks. It’s one thing for the government to spend if it can then pay down some debt before the next crisis. Today, however, tax cuts during good times may leave the nation in a poorer position to enact fiscal stimulus in the future.

Mail the money

Or take the central bank strategy known as “quantitative easing,” which involves buying bonds, in an effort to pull long-term interest rates lower. This extra measure “really does help,” Gagnon says, but may benefit the old and wealthy more than younger or lower-income Americans.

“Just mailing out large checks to all households is probably socially preferable but central banks cannot do that on their own,” he says.

The new perspectives shouldn’t be oversold, Timothy Taylor, a Minnesota economist who is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, writes in an email. “For the mainstream majority of the profession, I’d say that the lack of fundamental change is the striking point.”

Still, the steps of progress, including closer regulatory watch on financial markets, are real.

“There will be future financial crises,” Mr. Taylor says. “But there is reason to hope that they might be perceived sooner and the policy reaction to them can come more quickly.” 

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Patterns

Tracing global connections

4. Syria’s next battle: the jockeying for influence by outside powers

As Syria finally nears a violent endgame, our “Patterns” columnist considers how it looks to all the players involved. 

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As Syria’s President Assad appears poised to attack rebels’ final stronghold in Idlib, a new battle is taking shape, this one among outside powers. How that ends will have implications not just for Syria but for the wider Middle East and Europe and for the balance of power between Russia and the United States. Russia intervened in 2015, once it became clear neither the US nor its European allies would act. It has since achieved its most significant Middle East footprint since Soviet times. Iran, Mr. Assad’s other indispensable ally, also has a ground presence and has expanded its influence. But Israel, to Syria’s south, wants to keep Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria. Meanwhile, Turkey, to the north, has troops in northern Syria and is pushing hard to prevent a full assault on Idlib. It has sealed the border to drive home its determination to prevent a further mass flight of refugees. Europe shares that interest. Then there’s Assad. The US, Europe, and Turkey all wanted him out. But Russia appears to support him. As long as that’s the case, it is hard to see how he will be forced to step down.

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Syria’s next battle: the jockeying for influence by outside powers

Only two grisly questions remain in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fight against his civil war rivals: how long before the last major armed resistance, in the northwestern province of Idlib, is defeated; and the fate of the estimated 3 million civilians who are in effect trapped there.

Yet even amid preparations in recent weeks for a final assault, a different battle has been taking shape: among outside powers in the seven-year war, each with its own interests. How that ends will have implications not just for Syria, but the wider Middle East, Europe, and for the balance of power between Russia and the United States.

Even were this political wrangling to resolve itself, it could be years before Syria recovers, much less reconciles. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed, many in attacks on residential areas, hospitals, and aid workers. More than half the country’s pre-war population of 22 million has been forced to flee: to neighboring Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon; to Europe; or elsewhere inside Syria.

But the postwar geopolitics could prove almost as daunting, given the number of powers involved and their rival agendas. It’s the equivalent of three-dimensional geopolitical chess, with a scorecard needed merely to make sense of what may lie ahead.

Vladimir Putin is central. Having provided arms to the Assad regime, Russia intervened directly in 2015, once it became clear neither the US nor its European allies had the political stomach for doing so. Mr. Putin’s move carried relatively little military risk. It largely involved air strikes against rebel-held areas with little or no missile defense. Russia’s gains, however, included a beefed-up naval presence at the Mediterranean port of Tartus, an airbase near Latakia further up the coast, and its most significant Middle East footprint since Soviet times. Without Russian air power, Mr. Assad’s Army would not have been able to turn the tide in the war.

 Next, there’s Iran. Its forces and client militia fighters – chiefly Hezbollah, from neighboring Lebanon – have been Assad’s other indispensable ally. Iran now has a presence on the ground, part of a potential “land bridge” of military and political influence stretching from Tehran through to Lebanon.

Israel largely stayed out of the war, but has a core strategic interest in Syria: to keep Iran from establishing a permanent military presence, or funneling more powerful weaponry to Hezbollah. In a relationship driven by realpolitik on both sides, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Putin appear to have struck an understanding that is holding at least for now: we will attack Iranian forces and facilities we deem a threat to our own security, but will make sure not to hit Russian forces.

Turkey, bordering Syria, has a dozen observation posts in Idlib. With NATO’s second-largest army after the US, it has forces inside northern Syria. Turkey’s interests include ensuring that Kurdish fighters there – key US allies in the fight against ISIS – leave. It has been pressing Putin, Iran, and Assad to hold off from a full-scale assault in Idlib. And this week, he appeared to have won a key concession: an agreement with Putin to create a buffer zone in the province between Syrian government and rebel forces. If indeed the Russian president’s reported demand that “radically minded” jihadists pull out of the area is met, a final military showdown could yet be averted. In the meantime, having sealed off the border, Turkey has also been driving home its determination to prevent a further mass flight of refugees. Some 3.5 million are already in Turkey.

Europe is equally concerned to avoid a new refugee crisis. Just such an exodus, in 2015, empowered stridently anti-immigrant politicians in a number of European Union states and has caused lasting fissures within the EU.

The United States may have the most complex challenge of all. The US has some 2,000 Special Forces troops in Syria, as part of its campaign against the Islamic State. President Trump has said he wants to bring them home. But he has also made curbing Iran’s widening regional influence a foreign-policy priority. His hope, presumably, is that a combination of Israel’s military power, Turkey’s, and Russian cooperation can achieve that. But he is embroiled in a tariff war against Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan over his failure to release a US cleric. And US military and security figures have been arguing for a need to restrain Russia’s resurgent influence and assertiveness.

Assad, himself, seems on course to emerge unchallenged as Syria’s leader, something that looked highly improbable before Russia’s intervention. Yet whether he remains for the longer term will depend on the key outside players. The US, Europe, and Turkey were all against his staying in power during the early stages of the war. At least for now, however, Putin seems in favor of Assad staying. As long as that’s the case, it is hard to see how anyone else will, or can, force him out.

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5. Why Arabic is flowering in Israel even as it’s officially demoted

Speaking someone else’s language signals respect. But when that respect makes thousands gather for an Arabic lesson in a Tel Aviv square, it suggests something deeper is at work, too.

Mark
Victor Mazuz
Israeli singers Achinoam Nini, Mira Awad, and Gil Dor perform at a July 31 rally in Tel Aviv that featured a mass Arabic lesson. Nini, who is Jewish, and Awad, who is Arab-Israeli, are known for performing together in Hebrew and Arabic.

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Arabic was an official language of Israel when the Jewish country was born in 1948. Not only was it the mother tongue of Israel’s Arab minority – today 20 percent of the population – but it also was spoken by Jews from Arab countries. Today, however, a mere 8.6 percent of Jewish Israelis claim knowledge of Arabic. But their interest in learning is growing, in part to better understand their fellow citizens and in part as a reaction to a controversial law that demoted Arabic’s status. They’re learning online, at language schools, at work, and in Israeli-Arab villages. “We are seeing an incredible flowering of interest in Arabic,” says Gili Re’i, whose organization advocates for civic equality in Israel. At one language school in Tel Aviv, demand for Arabic classes has soared. Ariel Olmert, a school director, credits a backlash against nationalist politics. “That most Jews don’t speak Arabic is one of the absurdities of our life here. But the more the political conflict becomes desperate or violent, [the] more people on the peace-seeking side of the political map ... want to understand and speak the Arabic language.... And it’s simply a beautiful language.”

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Why Arabic is flowering in Israel even as it’s officially demoted

It was advertised as the largest Arabic lesson in the world.

On a summer night in a square in central Tel Aviv, several thousand Israelis heeded the call to attend and found themselves repeating a series of Arabic words and phrases.

It was, essentially, a political act.

The lesson was convened as a protest against the controversial new Nation-State law, which, among other measures, removed Arabic from the list of official languages in Israel. Critics of the law argued that the snub was not just a technicality, but an expression of hostility by Israel’s right-wing government toward the country’s Arab minority.

But the Arabic protest-lesson also tapped into what appears to be a genuine hunger among a growing number of Jewish Israelis to speak Arabic.

Not only is it the language that Palestinian citizens of Israel, one-fifth of the population, speak as their mother tongue, it’s also the language of many Jewish Israelis’ parents and grandparents, who immigrated from Arabic speaking countries. And, at least in its spoken form, as a Semitic language with lots of shared vocabulary, it’s a language that Hebrew speakers can pick up relatively easily.

Nevertheless, according to Israeli government data, a mere 8.6 percent of Jewish Israelis describe themselves as having knowledge of Arabic.

Today, however, a growing number of Jewish Israelis are taking the initiative to learn Arabic on their own: at language schools, through online courses, in small group settings at workplaces, in school communities, and, most recently, through a new business that arranges intensive study involving homestays in Israeli-Arab villages.

“We are seeing an incredible flowering of interest in Arabic,” says Gili Re’i, co-director of the Department for a Shared Society at Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab organization that advocates for civic equality in Israel.

In August, Sikkuy published a report on the study of Arabic in Jewish schools. In it they recommend to the Israeli Ministry of Education to improve and incentivize the study of Arabic, as the number of students studying the language has dropped significantly in recent years because of policy changes.

Ms. Re’i also notes that usually only classical, or literary Arabic is taught in the school system, not the spoken form of the language. Students emerge able to read a newspaper or a book in Arabic, but unable to hold even a basic conversation.

According to Re’i, interest in Arabic study is coming from both the left and right of the political spectrum. But she speculates that it has to do with some Jewish Israelis viewing Arabic less as the language of the enemy – many of the Jewish Israelis who do know Arabic learned it in army intelligence units ­– and more as a way to connect with their neighbors.

Ambassador to Syria?

Last year, Noa Eliasif-Shoham’s oldest child, in sixth grade at the time, announced she would like to be Israel’s ambassador to Syria when she grows up. That may seem like a distant dream considering the nations are long-time enemies. But Ms. Eliasif-Shoham decided it was time to learn spoken Arabic, not just for herself, but for her children. She found a teacher to instruct a weekly class for parents and children who go to the same Tel Aviv elementary school her children attend.

“I sent a notice out to parents, and everyone was so excited. Within two hours we had enough people for a class. Adults have no advantage over kids when studying a new language, and it’s worked out so well we are continuing this year,” Eliasif-Shoham says.

At Ha’Ambatia, a language school in Tel Aviv, demand for its Arabic classes has soared, surpassing the demand for French.

Ariel Olmert, pedagogical director of the school, sees a backlash against Israel’s nationalist politics fueling the interest.

“That most Jews don’t speak Arabic is one of the absurdities of our life here. But the more the political conflict becomes desperate or violent, what you have is more people on the peace-seeking side of the political map who want to understand and speak the Arabic language,” says Mr. Olmert, son of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

“And it’s simply a beautiful language, and people want to speak it,” Olmert says. “The ones that stay on and become fluent in Arabic do so because it’s fun, not just because it’s the moral thing to do.”

A teacher’s perspective

Hanin Majdali, an Arab citizen who has a growing business teaching spoken Arabic, currently teaches 60 students a week.

Like Olmert, she also sees the fingerprints of a reaction against efforts to reduce the standing of the Arabic language, which started even before the Nation-State bill was passed.

“There has been an opposite response, which is to embrace it,” Ms. Majdali says. But she also sees a mainstream interest in multiculturalism.

“These are people who love the Arab language or Arab music. They may have had a grandmother who spoke Arabic, or they may work with Arabs and feel like they are missing out,” she says.

“When someone is talking next to you and you don’t understand what they are saying, they can seem suspicious,” she says. “But when you hear what the person is saying, it’s like going from being blind to being able to see.”

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The Monitor's View

Amazon’s Bezos clicks on homelessness

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Last week, Jeff Bezos announced a $2 billion fund that will include a strong focus on the homeless. This use of the Amazon founder’s wealth is a welcome addition to the billions flowing from other donors tackling the stubborn problem. His philanthropy also illustrates the need for special qualities of care in dealing with the homeless – qualities such as trust and patience. Faith-based groups provide nearly two-thirds of the shelter beds in Amazon’s home base, Seattle. Many also provide health care and vocational training. They’ve had success in getting homeless people to live independently. Why are congregation-based efforts so effective? As one social worker says, the key is to work with the homeless from the inside out. Volunteers must listen first to the stories of the homeless, reducing isolation and lifting up dignity. To truly end homelessness rather than merely “manage” it will require investments in people dedicated to expressing the kind of compassion that will heal a homeless person’s life. Wealthy philanthropists can support such qualities of care. But first those types of volunteers must step up.

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Amazon’s Bezos clicks on homelessness

The world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, is shopping for solutions to homelessness. Last week, the founder of Amazon announced a special fund of around $1 billion to reward nonprofits doing “needle-moving work” in assisting young families without a home.

This use of Mr. Bezos’s personal wealth is a welcome addition to the billions already flowing from other private donors tackling a stubborn problem that even the most generous city governments find difficult to solve. For every 10,000 people in the United States, about 17 are homeless. Most of them are concentrated in urban areas.

Yet his philanthropy also illustrates the need for special qualities of care in dealing with the homeless – qualities such as trust and patience.

In Amazon’s home base of Seattle, for example, Mayor Jenny Durkan says solving the city’s “homelessness crisis” will require more than action by government. “It’s going to take businesses, philanthropists, neighborhoods, people of faith, and community organizations,” she said earlier this year. One big reason: Every three days, someone without a home dies in Seattle.

Faith-based groups provide nearly two-thirds of the emergency shelter beds in Seattle, based on a 2016 survey. Many also provide vital services such as health care and vocational training. Their success in getting homeless people to live independently rather than cycle in and out of shelters has saved Seattle taxpayers about $20 million over three years, according to a 2017 Baylor University study of 11 cities.

Why are congregation-based efforts so effective at dealing with this issue?

As one private social worker told the Baylor researchers, the key is to look into the heart of the homeless and work with them from the inside out. Volunteers must listen first to the stories of the homeless, reducing their isolation and lifting up their dignity. In a 2005 survey, about 50 percent of US cities cited domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness.

“People don’t become homeless when they run out of money, at least not right away,” the volunteer said. “They become homeless when they run out of relationships.”

Private groups can provide the stability of a relationship based on selfless, unconditional affection. This can give a homeless person the mental and moral strength to then accept living in a supportive, permanent home and move toward self-sufficiency.

Across the US, a strategy of “housing first” for the homeless has provided some relief to the problem. But to truly end homelessness rather than merely “manage” it will require investments in people dedicated to expressing the kind of compassion that will heal a homeless person’s life. Wealthy philanthropists can support such qualities of care. But first those types of volunteers must step up.

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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.

Overcoming addiction – a mother’s perspective

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When today’s contributor learned of her daughter’s substance abuse, she “reached out to God as never before” in a prayer-filled journey that brought peace and healing.

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Overcoming addiction – a mother’s perspective

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Some years ago my daughter was caught up in the dark and degrading world of alcoholism and narcotics, finding herself at the mercy of drug addiction. To calm my fears I found consolation in consecrated prayer.

Through the study and practice of Christian Science, I have experienced the real worth of prayers that affirm the supremacy of God, good. The Christian Science textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy, states that “silent prayer, watchfulness, and devout obedience enable us to follow Jesus’ example” (p. 4). As this situation with my daughter emerged, my heart reached out to God as never before.

Some words from the Bible were particularly comforting: “If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there” (Psalms 139:8). I realized that God, who is infinite Love, was right with my daughter, loving her as He knows her, caring for her, keeping her under His wing – no matter what the circumstances. I saw that God makes and knows each of us not as mortals vulnerable to addiction, but as His spiritual, pure offspring.

A peace and stillness came over me. Greatly heartened, I continued praying.

I remember this period as one of special growth. I began to realize that God is my daughter’s true Parent and that He guides her. I had been bearing a heavy weight of feeling that I was personally responsible for maintaining my daughter’s inclusion in God’s healing love, but this broke loose, and a sense of spiritual freedom filled my thoughts. I acknowledged her origin in sacredness, seeing her as the cherished offspring of God.

These words from Science and Health further uplifted me: “The foundation of mortal discord is a false sense of man’s origin. To begin rightly is to end rightly” (p. 262). I started embracing what was right, or true, about this dear daughter in the eyes of God. And what appeared to be wrong about her began to fade; despite what seemed to be endless tribulation, the shades of murky living began to lift. While the atmosphere was still dim, there were cracks in the shadows, letting in a touch of light.

Then one day I received a letter. It explained my daughter’s awakening to her true selfhood as a child of God. She wrote that while she was walking in a woodsy area early one morning, the words “God loves me” had suddenly come to her. She stopped and shouted, “God really loves me!” She was filled with joy. It was a true moment of clarity; she had found her way.

That moment became the open path for the long journey home. Through continued prayer, she gradually gained her dominion over substance abuse, and she has led a free, happy, and productive life for the many years since. Every day in my prayers I sing a song of praise to our Father-Mother God. This experience proved to me that nothing is impossible to God.

The Bible assures us, “I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jeremiah 29:11). This promise, this gift, from God can inspire devotion, patience, and sincerity in our prayers. With the power of God behind them, such prayers are extremely valuable and powerful. They can heal and transform lives, lifting human consciousness to new heights.

Adapted from an article published in the Aug. 13, 2018, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Addressing a controversy

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
An interview was conducted in 2015 near a statue of Junipero Serra in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif. Northern California’s Stanford University announced Sunday that it will drop the name of the 18th-century Spanish priest – canonized by Pope Francis in 2015 – from two dormitories and its mailing address. Serra founded the first nine of 21 missions built by Spanish colonists from 1769–1823, a system now charged with having destroyed native culture throughout California. An advisory committee acknowledged the “sense of loss” that alumni and others might feel at the changes, the AP reported, but also called the Serra name a source of “genuine pain.”
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( September 18th, 2018 )

Thank you for spending time with us today. We’ll be back tomorrow with the second part of staff writer Harry Bruinius’s look into what justice means for the survivors of sexual abuse by church leaders. If you didn’t see the first part, you can read it here

Monitor Daily Podcast

September 17, 2018
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