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Sure, Why Shouldn't Obama Normalize Relations With Cuba?

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 1:39 PM EST

Jay Nordlinger is worried:

Many years ago, I wrote a piece called “Who Cares about Cuba?” When I raised this issue with Jeane Kirkpatrick, she said that indifference to Cuba is “both a puzzling and a profoundly painful phenomenon of our times.”

Worse than indifference, of course, is support for the regime, or excuses for it.

President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles, as in his unilateral amnesty. “I just took an action to change the law,” he boasted. Some think that his next action will be the normalization of relations with the Castros’ dictatorship. Our Left is egging him on. He can do a lot of damage in his remaining two years, in multifarious ways. And, like Clinton, I believe, he will keep the pedal to the metal until noon on Inauguration Day.

This hadn't even occurred to me, and I guess that "some think" isn't exactly a compelling turn of phrase, is it? Still, I'd turn Nordlinger's question around: Why shouldn't we normalize relations with Cuba? It's unquestionably an authoritarian state with plenty of unsavory practices, but that hardly makes it unique. Should we also cut off relations with Russia? Saudi Arabia? Egypt? Zimbabwe? They're all terrible countries in their own way—I'm pretty sure I'd rate them all worse than Cuba—and it's unclear to me why Cuba alone among them should have diplomatic pariah status.

I'm being faux naive here, of course. I understand perfectly well why Cuba is unique. But it's been more than half a century since we broke off relations, and let's at least be honest about what happened: a bunch of big American companies got pissed off when a brutal leftist dictator displaced the brutal right-wing dictator they favored. President Eisenhower made an uncharacteristic mistake in response, and the rest is history. Not an especially attractive chapter of history, but history nonetheless.

But maybe it's time to bring it to a close. Either normalize relations with Cuba or else cut off relations with every other country that's equally bad. I'd opt for the former. Aside from the fact that it would anger a large voting bloc in an important swing state, I've never really heard a great argument for continuing our Cuba obsession.

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Watch Jon Stewart Skewer Chris Christie's Absurd Endorsement of Cruel Pig Crates

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 1:08 PM EST

Satriale's Pork Store aside, New Jersey isn't exactly a powerhouse of hog production. Iowa's (mostly factory-scale) hog farms hold more than a million breeding sows—pigs that exist to give birth to baby pigs, that in turn get funneled into enormous facilities to be transformed into bacon, ham, and chops. New Jersey? The state houses fewer than 1,000 breeding sows. So why did the state's famously pugnacious governor bother to veto a bill—overwhelmingly passed by the state legislature—that would ban the egregious practice of housing pregnant sows in crates so tight they can't turn around (a topic I've explored here and here). Jon Stewart has answers. Spoiler: Christie's absurd maneuver has to do with presidential ambition and a key early primary held in a certain hog-heavy state. 

Good News From the ER: Hospital Mistakes Are on the Decline

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 12:38 PM EST

Let's continue our good news theme this morning. For the past few years, via several different programs, the federal government has been working hard to get hospitals to adopt practices that rein in the curse of "hospital acquired conditions"—also known as HACs. These are things like prescription mistakes, central line infections, slips and falls, and so forth. Today, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality released a report showing that HACs have been declining since these programs began in 2010.

The chart on the right tells the basic story. HACs declined a bit in 2011, and then fell even further in 2012 and 2013. By now, they've declined by a cumulative total of 17 percent. The AHRQ reports estimates that this represents 1.3 million HACs that have been prevented and 50,000 lives that have been saved. It's also reduced health care costs by about $12 billion.

Much of this has been due to a laundry list of reforms introduced by Obamacare. So not only has Obamacare provided affordable health coverage for millions, but it's reduced hospital errors by one out of every six and saved tens of thousands of lives in the process. Not bad.

This Is the Best Newspaper "Retraction" You'll Read All Year

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 12:13 PM EST

The "retraction" appeared in Australia's Courier-Mail, which later interviewed the family:

Kai Bogert, as he is now called, was known as Elizabeth Anne for 19 years. Ms Bogert last night told The Courier-Mail that placing the ad was “a no-brainer”.

“I needed to show my son I support him 100 per cent and wanted to let the world know that."

Perfect.

Good News From Iraq: Baghdad Finally Cuts a Deal With the Kurds

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 10:50 AM EST

Politically, the primary challenge facing Iraq's new Shiite leaders is forging a government that includes significant participation from the Sunni minority and slowly regains their trust in a unified state. It's been Job 1 from the start. That said, building a political accommodation with the northern Kurds is a close second, and today brought some good news on that front:

In a far-reaching deal with the potential to unite Iraq in the face of a Sunni insurgency, the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi agreed on Tuesday to a long-term pact with the autonomous Kurdish region over how to divide the country’s oil wealth and cooperate on fighting Islamic State extremists.

The deal unites Baghdad and Erbil, the Kurdish capital in the north, over the issue of oil revenues and budget payments, and is likely to halt a drive — at least in the short term — by the Kurds for an independent state. It includes payments from the central government for the salaries of Kurdish security forces, known as the pesh merga, and also will allow the flow of weapons to the Kurds from the United States, with the government in Baghdad as intermediary.

....The reconciliation between Baghdad and the Kurdish region also appeared to validate one element of President Obama’s strategy in confronting the Islamic State: pushing for a new, more inclusive leader of Iraq. When the extremists swept into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June, Mr. Obama decided that Mr. Maliki had to go before the United States would ramp up its military efforts against the Islamic State.

A deal with the Kurds was always going to be easier than regaining the participation of the Sunnis. Kurdistan has long had de facto autonomy from Baghdad, and negotiating over oil wealth is a fairly straightforward bit of dealmaking. An accommodation has been possible all along whenever Baghdad was willing to compromise—and the ISIS threat gave the new government there plenty of motivation to do just that.

The same can't be said of accommodation with the Sunnis. The Sunni-Shia divide in the Arab regions of Iraq is deeper and more fundamental, and there's no single, well-defined Sunni region with established leadership and relatively clear demands that can be negotiated with cleanly. There are just years—or decades or centuries, depending on how you want to count—of mistrust and bad blood. Combine that with nearly a decade of rampant corruption and tribal jingoism under Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite government and you don't have a problem that can be solved either quickly or easily.

Still, the Kurdish deal suggests that Haider al-Abadi may be genuinely willing to do the work necessary to rein in tensions and provide the Sunni minority with the representation and influence it wants. Maybe. As always, it's not wise to read too much into this. But it's a good sign.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 2, 2014

Tue Dec. 2, 2014 10:49 AM EST

Bulgarian and Serbian soldiers participate in a peacekeeping drill with US Marines, wearing riot gear. (US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Derrick Irions)

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The Obama Administration Wants to End Racial Profiling "Once and for All"

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 9:35 AM EST

Speaking at the same Baptist church where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday announced he would soon unveil a plan to end racial profiling "once and for all."

His speech comes just one week after a grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The decision sparked massive demonstrations in the St. Louis suburb and throughout the nation, with protestors demanding justice for Brown. Wilson has since resigned from the force.

Holder said the events that followed Brown's death "are truly national in scope and threaten the entire nation."

"In the coming days, I will announce updated Justice Department guidance regarding profiling by federal law enforcement," he said before a packed Ebenezer Baptist Church. "This will institute rigorous new standards—and robust safeguards—to help end racial profiling, once and for all. This new guidance will codify our commitment to the very highest standards of fair and effective policing."

Protesters chanting “no justice, no peace” briefly interrupted Holder's announcement. They were escorted out and Holder commended their "genuine expression of concern and involvement."

Also on Monday, President Barack Obama introduced a proposal to equip police officers with body cameras.

 

Chart of the Day: White vs. Black on Ferguson

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 1:25 AM EST

Earlier today I linked to an Ed Kilgore post suggesting that polarization over Ferguson was even worse than polls suggest. And that may be true. But as you can see in the chart on the right, the polls are still pretty damn bad.

A new ABC/Washington Post poll shows that among whites, 58 percent approve of the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, while 35 percent disapprove. That's a net approval rating of +23 percent. Among blacks, 9 percent approve and 85 percent disapprove. That's a net approval rating of -76 percent. It's hard to imagine a much more polarizing result than that.

Vladimir Putin Has Careened From One Diplomatic Disaster to Another

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 1:00 AM EST

From the "things that make you go hmmm" file:

President Vladimir V. Putin said Monday that he would scrap Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline, a grandiose project that was once intended to establish the country’s dominance in southeastern Europe but instead fell victim to Russia’s increasingly toxic relationship with the West. It was a rare diplomatic defeat for Mr. Putin, who said Russia would redirect the pipeline to Turkey. He painted the failure to build the pipeline as a loss for Europe and blamed Brussels for its intransigence.

Say what? Militarily, Putin has had a mixed year: a clean and quick military victory in Crimea on the upside, but an ongoing military quagmire in eastern Ukraine on the downside. Diplomatically, though, it's been an endless succession of bad news. Ukraine is more firmly allied to the West than ever. Finland is wondering if it might not be such a bad idea to join NATO after all. The Baltic states, along with just about every other Russian neighbor, are desperate to reinforce their borders—and their NATO commitments. Russia has been dumped from the G7 and Putin himself was brutally snubbed by practically every other world leader at the G20 meeting in Brisbane. Economic sanctions are wreaking havoc with the Russian economy. China took advantage of all this to drive a harder bargain in negotiations over the long-planned Siberian gas pipeline. Even Angela Merkel has finally turned on Putin. Diplomatically, this year has been a disaster for Russia.

Or am I missing something here? I gather that the Chinese public loves "Putin the Great" for standing up to the West, but that's about it. Where are all the other diplomatic triumphs Putin is supposed to have won this year?

Court Blocks Texas From Executing Mentally Ill Convict—for Now

| Mon Dec. 1, 2014 7:09 PM EST
 
Scott Panetti in an old mug shot

Update 12/3/2014: Less than eight hours before Scott Panetti was scheduled to die, a federal appeals court ordered a stay of execution in order to “fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue." Panetti's lawyers responded in a statment: "Mr. Panetti's illness, schizophrenia, was present for years prior to the crime, profoundly affected his trial, and appears to have worsened in recent years. Mr. Panetti has not had a competency evaluation in seven years, and we believe that today's ruling is the first step in a process which will clearly demonstrate that Mr. Panetti is too severely mentally ill to be executed."

Today the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole voted 7-0 against recommending clemency for Scott Panetti, a severely mentally ill death row inmate who is now infamous for having represented himself at trial wearing a purple cowboy suit.

Panetti, first diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1978, was convicted of capital murder after he shaved his head, donned camo fatigues, and shot his in-laws in 1992 in a psychotic rage. But today, not even his victims think he should be executed. His ex-wife has said publicly that she believes he is deeply sick and should be spared. In the past month, a host of prominent conservatives and evangelicals have joined with death penalty opponents, mental-health groups, the European Union, the nation of Bulgaria, a former Texas governor, libertarian cult figure Ron Paul, and myriad others who have called on the board and Texas Gov. Rick Perry to spare Panetti. But even that wasn't enough to sway the governor-appointed board.

Scott Panetti
A more recent shot of Panetti
Texas Department of Criminal Justice

The decision means that Panetti's last real hope of avoiding execution on Wednesday lies with the US Supreme Court. Texas law doesn't give the governor independent authority to commute a sentence unless the pardons board recommends such a move—although Perry could order a one-time 30-day delay. Every Texas court that has heard Panetti's appeals in recent weeks has ruled against him, despite powerful dissents from conservative Republican judges.

With the execution less than 48 hours away, Panetti's lawyers have filed two petitions with the high court asking the justices to halt the execution and review the case to determine whether executing the mentally ill violates the Eighth Amendment. They also argue that Panetti hasn't had a mental competency hearing in seven years, and that his mental state has deteriorated significantly during that time. (He now apparently believes there's a listening device implanted in his tooth, for instance.)

 

This is a similar issue to the one that won Panetti a reprieve in 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled that he hadn't been afforded due process in assessing his competency to be executed. (A previous Supreme Court ruling bans use of the death penalty on people who can't understand the nature of their punishment.) The 2007 decision gave Panetti the right to a hearing on his mental competency, but it didn't do him much good. Even though Panetti still believed he was going to be executed for preaching the Gospel, and despite the fact that all but one of the doctors who testified in the hearing believed he was seriously mentally ill, the lower courts green-lighted his execution anyway. The Supreme Court denied his last appeal of those decisions this past October, clearing the way for his December 3 execution.

The Supreme Court hasn't been especially sympathetic lately to arguments about mental illness and the death penalty. Last year, it refused to block the execution of another seriously mentally ill inmate in Florida, John Ferguson, who went to his death believing he was the prince of God. But Panetti's pro bono lawyers, Kathryn Kase and Greg Wiercioch, argue that public opinion on the issue is changing, and that the law needs to change with it. They cite a new poll showing that nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose executing someone with a serious mental illness. They also reference new research showing that juries and judges today are far less likely to choose death for a mentally ill defendant than they were 20 or 30 years ago. In 11 former and current death penalty states that allow for a "guilty but mentally ill" verdict, there hasn't been a death sentence imposed on a mentally ill person in at least 20 years.

The Supreme Court petitions also seem clearly targeted at Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was the swing vote in Panetti's favor in 2007, and who is somewhat fond of citing international law in his opinions. Panetti's lawyers emphasize that executing the mentally ill is considered a major human rights violation by most other civilized countries. We'll soon know whether these arguments are proving persuasive, as Texas is moving full steam ahead for Panetti's lethal injection. The high court will have to act quickly one way or another.

The following infographic was created by the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit group that seeks to fix the flaws in the death penalty process and ensure fair representation for capital defendants:

TexasDefender.org