Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Liberal Arts, Tenure, and Tuition: A Professor Writes Honestly About Higher Education and its Critics

The Academy
[From the Three Stooges' 1938 Violent is the Word for Curly]

This is a draft of something I've been playing with - I've submitted to a publication and am waiting to hear back, but you know me - I hate to keep anything from the good people of the world wide web.  So, with my compliments, read on.

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My name is Eric Drummond Smith, PhD.  Please, spell it right in the hate mail.
I write because, in recent months, if not years, the tenor of public discussion in the United States of academics in general and higher academics in particular has becoming increasingly mired in factionalism and misunderstanding.   I worry about this for many reasons – not merely that an unenlightened, poorly-educated population is unfit to engage in liberal politics, economics, and society (which is to say democratic-republicanism, capitalism, and free speech, religion, and assembly), though that is a real concern in and of itself.  I worry because I am a professor and it is my profession and I consider my duty to defend and improve the academic system as I am able.  Call it my factional bias, I suppose.

Why do we teach the liberal arts and sciences? 

There is more questioning, by political and business leaders, of the modern corpus of higher education than in decades, if not centuries.  Increasingly there are calls to make the educational process shorter, more uniform in its output, and more specifically technical in its content.  The enshrinement of efficiency and economy, of statistically measurable outcomes, and of technique-over-liberal arts is rampant, the emphasis on outcome over process bordering on insane.  I have heard calls for a two-year baccalaureate that totally lacks non-technical courses, rejecting them as both a waste of time and as ideologically biasing students into becoming more “liberal.” 
                The truth of the matter is more complicated (surprising no one who actually thinks for a moment).  Higher education is aimed, yes, at teaching a technique or profession, the means for a student, upon graduating, to begin their further advancement in a career.  But it has other aims as well.
                First, it is to make students better prepared to be elites.  If you have already shouted, “elitist” at the top of your lungs, possibly in a crowded coffee shop, I suppose you’re right.  But not in the way that you think.  Higher education gives students powerful tools – we make priests, preachers, rabbis, imams, artists, journalists, and rhetoricians who can sway the mind and heart, scientists and engineers and medical practitioners who hold in their hands the stuff of creation and destruction, and businessmen, bureaucrats, military men and women, and political elites who control the majority of the world’s wealth and power.  We are preparing the powerful to be powerful, those who will control not just their destiny but those of tens, hundreds, thousands, millions, or even billions of people.   There are of course exceptions, but these have been the exception for a long time and are becoming more, rather than less, exceptional. 
                The technique is part of this – it is the beating source of power for these elites.  But it isn’t enough – we want elites who are not just self-interested, but also elites who are able to make moral decisions about more than just their own interests.  Humans live in societies – complex, interdependent systems of people doing many different things.  If we only can usefully speak or value things or beliefs in our tiny niche of knowledge and expertise then we are unable to make ethical and practically intelligent decisions in our purchases, our political activities, and our social lives.  We have relegated ourselves to being the most advanced of domesticated animals – skilled, capable, useful, and doing whatever we are told, no matter the moral or political or economic consequences to others. 
                Liberal arts and sciences, however, liberate the human mind – they free human beings to think outside of their area of expertise, to feel confident in intellectually challenging and diverse environments.  They free the human to be political, to be able to engage in artistic, social, and ethical debates, and to lose with grace.  Do the liberal arts make us liberal?  Yes.  In the classical sense, that is – liberal arts make people more rational, better at tolerating difference, better at adapting to change, better at weighing the interests of people in factions other than their own.  In other words, they make us better capitalists and better members of a democratic-republic. 
The trade-off?  Liberal arts cost more time and money to acquire – probably the only valid concern.  Further, they also make society less efficient – those liberally educated, whether they are progressive liberals or conservative liberals being of no matter, question our elites, traditional and contemporary, and that makes them weaker, less able to make decisions quickly and without oversight. 
Hmm.  Maybe the opponents are elitists too, just not the kind the make a free and fair society work.

What do professors actually do and why do they have tenure?

The professorate evolved from the same forces that created modern lawyers, medical doctors, and the religious pastorates.  The Western civilization, as the Middle Ages progressed, once more began to have enough wealth to be able to afford specialization, and enough political, economic, and social complexity to require it.  Gradually this led to the establishment of highly ceremonialized centers of education – schools which aimed not merely to teach how to read, write, engage in math, and learn some professional skill (though they did all of these), but which aimed to produce the leadership of a Medieval society, scholars who were both experts in their fields and had a real sense of the broader universe, both human and natural, in which we find ourselves as a species.  Some of these became the first “professionals,” that is to say those who practice their profession – lawyers with purple bars on their arms, medical doctors with green bars on their arms, and priests and pastors with black bars on their arms. 
                Some of these folk, however, adopted blue bars on their arms – the traditional color of philosophers in the Western tradition all the way back to classical Greece.  Philosophy, literally the love of wisdom, encompassed all the disciplines of human learning – arts, sciences, humanities, you name it, and philosophers had two fundamental aims.  First, they sought to advance human knowledge – to test knowledge claims that already existed and to attempt to push the boundaries further than not only contemporary, Medieval philosophical knowledge, but beyond that even of the classical philosophers.   The other aim was to teach students – to convey knowledge already learned and to impart the skills necessary to for them to become a new generation of professionals or, should they decide to become philosophers themselves, to become a new generation of professors. 
                This is why that much reviled (today, at least) institution known as “tenure” came into being.  The expansion of knowledge and the imparting of that knowledge to new people, people frequently destined to become the elites of the next generation, is dangerous.  It is controversial.  Professors teach their students to question things and then to act on those questions.  Professors teach their students skills aimed specifically at empowering them politically and economically, from rhetoric to mathematics.  Professors teach their students that they have been misled by previous generations, sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidently, and that they are morally obliged to attempt to investigate the world with the very real possibility of demonstrating that their own parents, leaders, and mentors (including the professors themselves, it should be noted) are wrong.  Professors go so far as teaching students not only the skills to be practically adaptable to a complex world, but also ethically adaptable, able to confidently address moral issues that are personal, political, theological, and everything in between.  Professors are incendiary and they are dangerous.  But they are also necessary – imagine attempting to run a modern society, even centuries ago, without a class, small, but furiously busy, doing what professors do.  Degeneration in the quality of economic, political, moral, and social decisions would begin within a year or two.  And professors knew it and know it.  We are valuable – not more valuable than anyone else, but possibly more difficult to replace.  Consider – the majority of my friends from high school graduated from high school and then pursued a job based on the skills they acquired there alone.  Fair enough, of course, but a significant number pursued additional education – sometimes one or a few years of technical education that made them highly skilled craftsmen, sometimes a year or two of higher education towards an associate’s degree that imparted some key liberal arts concepts but was still largely profession-oriented.   A smaller number pursed a bachelor’s education – generally four years of additional education with significant emphasis on liberal arts and intensive study in one or two major fields.  A very small number of my high school classmates delayed “real life” yet further, pursuing a master’s education, another year and a half to two years of school to firmly establish their professional expertise.  A smaller group yet pursued law degrees, called in the United States a juris doctorate but really something between a traditional master’s and doctoral education – coming in at three years (and not a terminal degree – there are yet more advanced law degrees which are generally only pursued by those going into particular complex fields of law or, more likely, planning to become professors of law). 
                So far we’re at seven years of additional schooling past the majority of my peers I grew up with – schooling that doesn’t make them better people, but does make them rarer and harder to replace. 
                Now let’s look at the professorate. There is a lot of variation in what it takes to get a doctoral education (the doctor of philosophy being one, but not the only, truly terminal degree, but the one I know the most about since I have PhD written after my name).  In my case my higher educational career was – well, a little more intense.  Four years for a bachelor’s degree with a triple major, followed by two years for a master’s degree in an interdisciplinary field, followed in turn by six additional years of doctoral work which really had three distinct stages – three and a half years of classes, comprehensive exam preparation and completion (I wrote around 120 pages in two weeks to prove I had learned what I’d already been graded on, if you’re curious), and then the remainder spent on a gigantic, ponderous original piece of research called, simply, the dissertation – under the oversight (sometimes wonderful, sometimes painful) of four different bosses – er – committee members.
My aim is not to brag, it is to explain what professors go through.  During my education I was financially barely getting by – no insurance for years, my labor as a teacher or research assistant paying less per hour, in practical terms, than minimum wage, my waist expanding from too much time in libraries and eating ramen.  I was stressed out constantly – perpetually exhausted (the peak being the four days without sleep during comprehensive exams – yes, I did hear voices and yes, I told them to leave me alone unless they were going to help me find sources).  It was incredibly hard and I did give up my wage-earning potential for, well, a decade, to get to go, but it was also invigorating.  And I knew it would lead to a life I wanted to live. 
So.  Here is the thing – it is hard to become qualified to be a professor.  Becoming a tenured professor is another thing altogether.  Our job interviews are one to three days long each.  If you get the job as a tenure-track, normally after one to three years as a fellow or one-year appointment or adjunct professor, then it is four to six years of work till tenure, six years of proving you are supposed to be in the “ivory tower” before you’re considered for tenure. 
Is tenure job security?  You’re damn right it is.  Because there has to be some reason to put ourselves through the ringer. 
But tenure is more than that.  It is a protection of the professor’s role as a muckraker, a trouble-maker, an intellectual corruptor of the youth.  Earlier I said a huge part of what a professor’s job was lay in seeking truth and empowering those who are young to pursue it themselves.  Further, I said that this made enemies of a lot of people – those who have a vested interest in remaining unchallenged and unquestioned, not to mention those people who are frightened unduly at that more unpleasant of universal truths – that we know far less than we think we know. 
                To do this the professorate, perhaps more than any other element of society, needs freedom of speech, action, and assembly in the face of a world that wants to pull the rug from under the professorate or, even worse, to coopt us into teaching only technique and particular ideological lines, making the professorate, with its vast intellectual diversity, into technical manuals and propaganda organs.  We need the right to fight each other, to debate and discussion, to open minds and introduce controversy, and to scream bloody murder at the orthodox and the established just as much as we scream it at one another.  Tenure is a way of protecting that right – of guaranteeing professors – who don’t have that much money and don’t have that much power and don’t have a vast population base – feel safe enough to do their jobs and keep our civilization in a state of enlightened discourse and growth.
                When people advocate getting rid of tenure, sometimes it is because they think professors aren’t doing their job – I want to tell you that yes, frankly, some professors don’t do their job.   And some mechanics, lawyers, politicians, and sheepherders don’t do their jobs either.  Do professors lose their jobs?  Yes – if they don’t fulfill their responsibilities.  But do they lose their job for engaging in free speech?  Not if tenure is working properly.  Should math professors be talking about Marxism in class?  Nope.  Should political scientists?  Absolutely.  Should either be allowed to be Marxist outside of class, and lead discussions, debates, and political action, if they so see fit outside of class?  Again, absolutely.
                It is in this context that the critical third job responsibility of professors emerges.  Yes, we are teachers.  Yes, we are researchers. But further, we are also administrators – we run the academic elements of our colleges and universities, by and large.  Why?  Simple.  We’re the only people who know how to and, of equal importance, we’re the only people whose factional bias is guaranteed in almost every instance to seek to preserve academic freedom for the professorate and its students.  When a professor seeks to support those who oppose tenure and academic freedom it is because they have decided some other factional interest matters more than the one they allegedly have dedicated their lives to, the act of professing.  That is a simple, basic truth. 
                So, when people call for professors to do more work, realize this – sure, there are lazy professors.  But most of us are working our asses off.  Professors are teachers, researchers, and administrators.  We speak to public forums, testify in courts, advise in investigations, get interviewed by journalists, conference, publish, mentor our students and evaluate their progress so that when a recommendation or transcript says they know something you can damn well be certain they do.  Shrink our course load or, better yet, our class-sizes, and we’re better at all these things.  Make us teach more and more classes that are ever larger and more distancing from our students and we are worse at them.  Replace us with adjuncts or teaching assistants and you get people with less expertise teaching while also ripping those same people off, generally giving them no benefits and scab-level pay. 

So, what are the real problems in modern higher education?

Well, there is one in particular that dominates my attention – cost. 

I say there is one that dominates my attention not because it is the only problem, by the by – I am deeply concerned by the fact that drop-out rates are often so high and that a helluva’ lot of students can barely write in formal English by the time they get their degrees.  But by and large I think those are in part caused by things I’m not equipped to address (problems in the primary and secondary education system) or are caused by the high costs of college and university (more on that in a moment).  I also worry about substance abuse and violence of all kinds on campus, but I suspect that, in truth, they’re probably not much worse than what similar-aged men and women experience outside of a college experience, contrary to the finger-pointing and simple-answer-making (e.g. fraternities are the most evil thing in the universe).
                No, it is cost that dominates my attention.  The more expensive an education is, the more it becomes the exclusive purview of the already wealthy, powerful, and/or well-educated.  This matters a lot to me – I teach at a little college in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia where the majority of our students are first-generation – a combination of Appalachian coal miners’ kids, eastern Virginian inner city kids, and farmers’ kids from all over the state, principally. I want to make them powerful.  I want to make them wealthy.  I want to make them ethically educated enough to use that power and wealth properly.
                But as the costs of educations, both private and public, go up the consequences are observable and profound.  Fewer people are able to afford to attend higher education at all.  Others take a much longer time to finish their degrees, having to take far less than a full course load.  Fewer people are able to take advantage of the academic community – the constant, live-in-place intensity of life in an inquiring community, a place of art, music, theology, philosophy, science, and history not merely in the classroom but in the dormitories, the cafeteria, on the lawns and in extracurricular organizations.  Fewer people have the opportunity to develop deep relationships with their mentors and peers that will benefit them professionally and emotionally the rest of their lives, not to mention while undergoing the strains of their education.   And more and more students are working half-time, full-time, or over-time to afford college, meaning they’re getting less out of not only the college community, but the college classes, labs, studios, and libraries as well – put simply, they know less than they would otherwise when they graduate. 
                A high cost college education is a handicap, an impediment to the development of students, one that is particularly regressive, hurting those least able to endure being hurt, explicitly undermining the dream that is so often touted by America – that anyone willing to work hard can make good. 
                Here is the thing.  Colleges have a lot of money.  Not all colleges, and not all have equal amounts, but nothing to sniff at in all but the worst cases.  So, why the tuition inflation?  There are a few reasons. 
First, some schools see other schools’ tuitions increasing and, even though they have no financial need, have decided to raise theirs in tandem.  Why?  Prestige – the average person mistakenly thinks that the more something costs the better it is.  Plus, it gives these schools a powerful recruitment tool – oh, you got in?  Well, heck, let’s give you scholarships (which aren’t really scholarships, just disguised tuition wavers) so you can brag to people, making you more likely to attend our institution.  This is morally abhorrent, in my opinion – students from poorer backgrounds, especially those whose parents don’t have higher education degrees, are less likely to apply when they see the gross numbers, not knowing how the game is played, meaning schools are steadily, artificially increasing the average income of their students at the application stage.  Which, of course, some schools see as a win – after all, the more wealthy a student is the more likely they’ll graduate on time, helping the school’s statistics (all hail the rankings gods, etc.), the more likely they’ll be able to afford large donations as an alumnus, and the less financial aid they’ll actually require. 
Secondly, schools are spending too much money on things that aren’t particularly relevant to “school.”  Walk around your local college or university and check out the plaques and cornerstones of the beautiful architecture.  Now, do some basic math – what proportion of the facilities are academic?  What proportion are dorms or the cafeteria?  Those buildings, and those alone, are the only buildings that are required to make a college work, function, run.  Now, go look at a map of the same school 50 years ago.  You’ll probably be shocked at the difference – the proportion of academic and academic-support buildings then probably approached 100%; on some campuses today it is far less.  The biggest buildings, newest buildings, fanciest buildings, the ones with the least use in terms of proportion of students or frequency of use (I’m looking at you fancy football stadiums that are used five or six times a year, total)?  Those are the ones that are increasingly dominating the scene. 
Sure, most of these are built by donated money.  But what about the upkeep and utilities?  Thousands or millions a year per building.  If the building is academic, a lab or a theater or a studio or a library, most of us are fine with that.  If it is a gym just for athletes or a building just for sweet-talking rich alumni, well, that gets more problematic.
Finally, a far smaller proportion of the people who work in colleges and universities are actually doing academic things.  Where colleges used to have professors, a few deans, maybe a provost and a president, a few key administrators like the registrar, bursar, administrative assistants, and librarians, and then maintenance and janitorial staff, there are now vast staffs of counselors, advisors, analysts, vice-presidents, assistant deans, recruiting staff, financial aid staff, writing centers staff, special needs staff, public relations staff, development staff, legal staff, residence life and Greek life and student life staff, and a host of others whose job it is to analyze, babysit, or sell things.  This isn’t to say that some of this isn’t important – frankly I am a huge advocate of on-campus psychological counseling for students, for instance, but a lot of this reflects the Rolls Royce model of education – it is all about the extras, even when those extras actually, in the long-term, are more injurious than we might like because they are very expensive. 
Clearly, then, the only answer is to a great deal more discerning in our growth of services and facilities and, equally, to begin to ask donors to please consider donating to the establishment of cost-lowering ends rather than another expensive to maintain something-or-another with their name on it.  Hell, put up a plaque somewhere – that is all most donors really want anyway.

Conclusion


I hope this has given you some insight into the professorate, why we have a few of the institutions in higher education that we have, how of all the things causing problems in higher education none of them are less a problem than the higher education itself.  If you disagree, well, more is the better – after all, I’m a professor – I love a good debate. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Mr. Thomas' Question: Iran, Congress, and the P5+1

"Turkey in Asia, Persia, Egypt, etc." from George G. Chisholm and
C.H. Leete's 1904 Longmans' New School Atlas courtesy of Maps, Etc. 
The other day I got a question from a dear friend of mine, the eminent Jerrell Thomas.  He asked my thoughts on the post-State of the Union furor surrounding the issue of Iran's negotiations with the US and its partners and Speaker Boehner's invitation of Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel to speak before the House of Representatives.  I had to put some thought into it, and I still wouldn't say I feel like I've illuminated everything but, hopefully, this is a start.  Cheers.

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Something strange happened earlier this month.  Let's go through the broad strokes before we go any further.  

First, the President of the United States, fulfilling his constitutionally mandated obligation to deliver a report on the State of the Union annually, did so, as has been customary for most of the history of that Union, by speaking before a joint session of Congress.

One item the President spoke on was Iran.  I'll quote his words exactly - won't take a moment:
Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we've halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material. Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran; secures America and our allies – including Israel; while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict. There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn't make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress. The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.
This statement says a lot of different things: (1) the president is asserting that Iran has voluntarily decreased the rate of progress of its nuclear weaponization program (with no claim that it has ceased, of course); (2) the president is reiterating his support for the P5+1 group's joint negotiation strategy (more on that below) as the soundest framework for relations with Iran; (3) the president is reaffirming the United States' military alliances with regards to Iran, and the implied deterrent therein, including with Israel (essentially a nod to pro-Israeli American political factions); (4) the president has reaffirmed the United States' right to respond fluidly to relations with Iran, leaving all options on the table (words to sanctions to embargoes to bombs); and finally (5) the president has asked Congress restrain its actions with regards to Iran until this round of negotiations have reached a clearer resolution - clearly hinted at being sometime this spring.

Fair enough.  The sticking point that is highlighting these negotiations lay in the response of elements of the Republican leadership in Congress response to this paragraph.  This faction (I'll define its membership below) is a hawkish group that is definitively pro-Israel and deeply distrustful of the effectiveness of diplomatic and deterrent mechanisms to prevent Iran from first acquiring and then using weapons of mass destruction.  As such this faction responded by inviting the current Prime Minister of the State of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, to speak before Congress while reiterating their plan to press for sanctions against Iran, no matter the veto-threat (and the fact that this faction, even if these sanctions passed, certainly isn't large enough to put together a veto-override unless something drastically changes).

Put simply, a faction of Congress is consciously trying to undermine efforts to achieve a lasting interstate solution with the current Iranian regime, and they're fuming mad because the President has a solid chance of achieving a game changing international agreement in spite of the new Congress being a double-Republican legislature.

Okay - let's slow down.  There is a lot to discuss here, so let's take it step by step.

1. What is the P5+1 framework? What, if anything, has it achieved?

This is a strategy that has emerged as the go-to among the great powers for dealing with pariah states like Iran and the far less stable North Korea - negotiate all solutions as a group in order to prevent the states being pressured from playing the great powers against one another.  In the case of Iran this means Iran has to negotiate with the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council (the P5, which is to say the United States, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, the People's Republic of China, and the French Republic) and Germany all at the same time - if they try to exclude one or another polity from the negotiations then they respond in kind and unison - meaning they all respond with similar sanctions at the same time and they all agree on the nature of any Security Council action - meaning that the possibility of an Iran-saving veto approaches zero, giving Iran a powerful reason to play well.

Has it worked, well, better than anything else so far.  Partly the P5+1 can't take credit for this - Iranian politics have slowly, but steadily (and with many setbacks) become more normalized and ordered since the 1979 revolution and, further, Iran feels safer than it has in awhile (in an existential sense, at least) since the United States' military presence on the western and eastern borders of Iran has appreciably shrunk as the Iraqi and Afghani wars have been increasingly wrapped up and as Iraq and Afghanistan's governments have become increasingly sociable with Iran.   But partly this is a clear vindication of the collective negotiating method.  The most important document produced so far is the "Joint Plan of Action" agreed to in Geneva in November of 2013 - heck, why don't I just paste it here:

Joint Plan of Action

Preamble

The goal for these negotiations is to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran's nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful. Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons. This comprehensive solution would build on these initial measures and result in a final step for a period to be agreed upon and the resolution of concerns. This comprehensive solution would enable Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the NPT in conformity with its obligations therein. This comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the programme. This comprehensive solution would constitute an integrated whole where nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. This comprehensive solution would involve a reciprocal, step-bystep process, and would produce the comprehensive lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions, as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran's nuclear programme.

There would be additional steps in between the initial measures and the final step, including, among other things, addressing the UN Security Council resolutions, with a view toward bringing to a satisfactory conclusion the UN Security Council's consideration of this matter. The E3+3 and Iran will be responsible for conclusion and implementation of mutual near-term measures and the comprehensive solution in good faith. A Joint Commission of E3/EU+3 and Iran will be established to monitor the implementation of the near-term measures and address issues
that may arise, with the IAEA responsible for verification of nuclear-related measures. The Joint Commission will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.

Elements of a first step

The first step would be time-bound, with a duration of 6 months, and renewable by mutual consent, during which all parties will work to maintain a constructive atmosphere for negotiations in good faith. 


Iran would undertake the following voluntary measures:

• From the existing uranium enriched to 20%, retain half as working stock of 20% oxide for fabrication of fuel for the TRR. Dilute the remaining 20% UF6 to no more than 5%. No reconversion line.

• Iran announces that it will not enrich uranium over 5% for the duration of the 6 months. 

• Iran announces that it will not make any further advances of its activities at the Natanz Fuel
Enrichment Plant, Fordow, or the Arak reactor, designated by the IAEA as IR-40.

• Beginning when the line for conversion of UF6 enriched up to 5% to UO2 is ready, Iran has decided to convert to oxide UF6 newly enriched up to 5% during the 6 month period, as provided in the operational schedule of the conversion plant declared to the IAEA.

• No new locations for the enrichment.

• Iran will continue its safeguarded R&D practices, including its current enrichment R&D practices, which are not designed for accumulation of the enriched uranium.

• No reprocessing or construction of a facility capable of reprocessing.

• Enhanced monitoring:

• Provision of specified information to the IAEA, including information on Iran's plans for nuclear facilities, a description of each building on each nuclear site, a description of the scale of operations for each location engaged in specified nuclear activities, information on uranium mines and mills, and information on source material. This information would be provided within three months of the
adoption of these measures.

• Submission of an updated DIQ for the reactor at Arak, designated by the IAEA as the IR-40, to the IAEA.

• Steps to agree with the IAEA on conclusion of the Safeguards Approach for the reactor at Arak, designated by the IAEA as the IR-40.

• Daily IAEA inspector access when inspectors are not present for the purpose of Design Information Verification, Interim Inventory Verification, Physical Inventory Verification, and unannounced inspections, for the purpose of access to offline surveillance records, at Fordow and Natanz.

• IAEA inspector managed access to:  centrifuge assembly workshops; centrifuge rotor production workshops and storage facilities; and,  uranium mines and mills. 


In return, the E3/EU+3 would undertake the following voluntary measures:

• Pause efforts to further reduce Iran's crude oil sales, enabling Iran's current customers to purchase their current average amounts of crude oil. Enable the repatriation of an agreed amount of revenue held abroad. For such oil sales, suspend the EU and U.S. sanctions on associated insurance and transportation services.

• Suspend U.S. and EU sanctions on:

-  Iran's petrochemical exports, as well as sanctions on associated services.

-  Gold and precious metals, as well as sanctions on associated services.

-  Suspend U.S. sanctions on Iran's auto industry, as well as sanctions on associated services. 

-  License the supply and installation in Iran of spare parts for safety of flight for Iranian civil aviation and associated services. License safety related inspections and repairs in Iran as well as associated services.

• No new nuclear-related UN Security Council sanctions.

• No new EU nuclear-related sanctions.

• The U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.

• Establish a financial channel to facilitate humanitarian trade for Iran's domestic needs using Iranian oil revenues held abroad. Humanitarian trade would be defined as transactions involving food and agricultural products, medicine, medical devices, and medical expenses incurred abroad. This channel would involve specified foreign banks and non-designated Iranian banks to be defined when establishing the channel. 

- This channel could also enable:  transactions required to pay Iran's UN obligations; and,  direct tuition payments to universities and colleges for Iranian students studying abroad, up to an agreed amount for the six month period.

• Increase the EU authorisation thresholds for transactions for non-sanctioned trade to an agreed
amount.

Elements of the final step of a comprehensive solution

The final step of a comprehensive solution, which the parties aim to conclude negotiating and commence implementing no more than one year after the adoption of this document, would:

• Have a specified long-term duration to be agreed upon.

• Reflect the rights and obligations of parties to the NPT and IAEA Safeguards Agreements.

• Comprehensively lift UN Security Council, multilateral and national nuclear-related sanctions, including steps on access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy, on a schedule to be agreed upon.

• Involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities, capacity, where it is carried out, and stocks of enriched uranium, for a period to be agreed upon.

• Fully resolve concerns related to the reactor at Arak, designated by the IAEA as the IR-40. No reprocessing or construction of a facility capable of reprocessing.

• Fully implement the agreed transparency measures and enhanced monitoring. Ratify and implement the Additional Protocol, consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Majlis (Iranian parliament).

• Include international civil nuclear cooperation, including among others, on acquiring modern light water power and research reactors and associated equipment, and the supply of modern nuclear fuel as well as agreed R&D practices.

Following successful implementation of the final step of the comprehensive solution for its full duration, the Iranian nuclear programme will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT. 

Okay - fair enough - if you're wondering what some of those acronyms mean, well the big ones you're probably not sure of are the IAEA - the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the NPT, or the Non-Proliferation Treaty or more formally the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.  And either way you're probably wondering, what the heck does this mean?  Well, the short version is this is an agreement about how to proceed - it is the map of laws, treaties, and practical actions Iran and the other parties have to take if some level of normalization is to be achieved, as Iran wants, and if Iran is to cease developing a nuclear weapons program, which is what pretty much everyone else wants.

I like this plan and I like it for two key reasons - one is a  footnote, literally, in the original that says simply, "With respect to the final step and any steps in between, the standard principle that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" applies." - in other words there are no half-measures here - Iran has to normalize if they want everyone else to normalize, and vice-versa.  That is definitive, clear, and screams that the biggest impediment is getting the relevant factions in each nation to give peace a chance - so to speak - or, equally, simply maintain the status quo.  The other reason I like it is that it is deals with normalization but doesn't eliminate the possibility of later negotiations and pressures from the West to deal with human rights issues - but, this is definitely secondary - hardly surprising if China and Russia are to be brought into the dance.

Seems pretty straight forward.  Right?

Ummmm....

2. Why are some people up in arms about this in the United States?

Oh, there are lots of reasons.  Let me give it to you by breaking down the framework's opposition into factions - and by factions I mean those subnational identity groups who advocate the law and spending priorities of the United States be molded to achieve their particular ideological or practical interests (generally because they convince themselves their faction's interest are identical to the national interests - check out in particular Madison's Federalist #10, dang it!).

The Hawks - I don't mean a sports team, but those folk who believe that strength, and even applied force, are more likely to achieve success when dealing with enemies than negotiation-based strategies.  Bonus: factions materially benefiting from large defense budgets are likely to appear hawkish since being at odds with states increase military spending.

The Pro-Israel Lobby - No other nation is as influential on the United States' foreign policy in a less ambiguous way than the State of Israel, particularly when one considers that state's economic and military significance is dwarfed by many states of its neighborhood.  The reason for this lay in the fact that this lobby is not really a faction but an amalgam of many factions - evangelical Christians who believe that Biblical Israel must be restored, Zionist members of the Jewish faith who believe in the centrality of a Jewish state (though for a variety of reasons - some nationalist and secular, religious or ideological), American members of the Jewish faith (or who conceive themselves as being Jewish in identity but are not religious themselves) who have friends or relatives in Israel, and of course a large portion of the American public who is, rightly, sensitive to the trials persons of the Jewish faith have undergone in the last, well, couple of thousand years, but particularly in the Second World War.  Enormous money is generated by this lobby to support Israel, more than in support of any other foreign lobby, and largely it is hostile towards normalization with Iran.

The reason for this is multidimensional.  For one, since the 1979 revolution Iran has been staunchly anti-Israel, regarding the state as a culturally Western colony established only in the early 20th Century, displacing the Palestinian inhabitants that had lived their for many an age, and violating the no-land-cession to non-Muslims principle of Islam.  As such their relationship has never been normalized, is often stormy, and frequently teeters on the brink of wide conflict even though the states do not border.  This is partly because Israel fears the implications of a radical, ideologically driven Iran with weapons of mass destruction (rather logically) and because Iran supports radical, violent non-state actors in the Levant as a way of undermining and distracting Israel - actors Iran regards as revolutionaries and Israel and the United States regard as terrorists.

Put simply, there is a real fear among the Pro-Israel lobby that normalization with Iran would leave Israel more open to attack, particularly if sanctions are not used and Iran violates any agreement and successfully develops deliverable nuclear weapons.

Other Ethno-National and Religious Groups - Israel isn't alone in having a problematic strategic relationship with Iran - Iran is an oppressive state and is perceived as a threat by non-Persians and non-Shi'a in and outside of Iran.  For many of these the fear is that if normalization occurs for the sake of guaranteeing interstate stability then human rights concerns for groups inside of Iran such as the Baha'i will become so secondary that they will effectively lose all traction - and they're right to be concerned if the normalization of the West with the People's Republic of China is any indication.

The Anti-Muslim and/or Anti-Shi'a Lobby - This may not be openly well organized in the United States but no one with any sense imagines that there isn't a distinct tone of hostility in the US towards Muslims that has been particularly punctuated since the rise of Islamic radical political actors in the late 1960s and 1970s, punctuated in particular by the Iranian Revolution and again by the September 11th attacks, but also founded on general xenophobia and the ancient tension in the West between Christianity and Islam.  There are a helluva' a lot of people who just don't like or trust Muslims.  A lot of these people vote, and a lot of these people are likely to vote Republican and/or Tea Party, if for no other reason than older voters are much more likely to support these bodies and are also more likely to be anti-Islam - simple correlation.  That means Republican Congressmen are likely to feel significant pressure to oppose normalization with Islamic polities whenever possible - and equally are likely to see villianization of these polities as a useful political tool - not unlike many Congressmen similarly villainize other polities that are distinctly non-Western, such as China.

The Anti-Obama Lobby - Here's the deal.  Sometimes you want to hurt someone - if you can't openly beat them you want to incapacitate them, simple as that.  In my life I've seen the deeply anti-sitting president rhetoric reach a similar tenor once before, in the Clinton administration.  And frankly, a lot of folk don't like Obama and many of them so fervently and personally that it honestly seems a little over the top.  As such they want to immobilize the administration, preventing it from achieving anything in order to discredit all its previous achievements (which isn't a moral statement, but a practical one, FYI).  This means disrupting the President's foreign policy initiatives, total war on the area where presidents have traditionally had the most free reign.

The proof in this pudding lay in the origin point of this move - it isn't the Republican leadership of the Senate, the traditional center of legislative foreign policy expertise, which is leading the call for more sanctions but that of the House of Representatives.  The Senate is probably pretty darn uncomfortable with this too since the House taking foreign policy prerogative doesn't just undermine the President's traditional role but the Senate's as well - an example of institutional factionalism that'd make James Madison grin ear to ear, I'd imagine.

3. So, what are the obstructionists actually doing? 

A note - I'm using the word obstructionist here not because I'm trying to make a judgment, but because it is a description of the stance of those who are trying to obstruct normalization with Iran - please don't infer anything beyond that. 

Well, there are two key things.  First, they are pursuing new sanctions against Iran - these are unlikely to be successful if they pass since they will definitely be vetoed and there is inadequate support for these measures for a veto override.  Second, Speaker Boehner has invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak before Congress in February, an invitation he has accepted.  This is kinda' weird.  Sure, Congresses have invited foreign leaders and dignitaries to speak before.  But this, this is clearly aimed at attempting to generate public pressure on President Obama to cut the normalization bid off before the next round of talks really gets underway.

Will it work?  I sort of doubt it.  But it is certainly controversial and is generally regarded as the foot working against the leg.

4. Where does the Constitution sit on this?

Well, this is a classic dilemma of American politics.  Let me quote the relevant parts of the Constitution.  First, Article I, Section 8 on the powers of Congress:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;
To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;
To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;
To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;
To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;
To establish Post Offices and post Roads;
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;
To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;
To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
To provide and maintain a Navy;
To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;—And
To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

And now Article II, Section 2 which details the powers of the President:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.
He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

Okay - now, because I'm so useful I have highlighted in red the relevant parts of the these passages, as I see it, to the conversation herein.  You're welcome.  And something should be clear - both Congress and the President have a horse in this race, but their particular roles are nonetheless somewhat ambiguous.  Certainly when it comes to international commerce Congress has first dibs, so point to the obstructionists, but when when it comes to the generation of treaties it appears the President has the right to take the lead, though final decisions remain the Senate's to make when it comes to making treaties, that is to say international agreements that carry the weight of law - note the House, where most of this kerfuffle is originating from, definitely doesn't have a role at that point.
So, does the President have a legal right to pursue normalization agreements with Iran as part of the P5+1?  Yup, but the Senate still gets a say.  And can the Congress pass a bill which would make that all but impossible, although it is unlikely to stick since the veto isn't going anywhere in the next two years?  Sure.

In the end no one is violating the law here.  But the notion of the House's leadership trying to influence foreign policy as much as they are, well, that is certainly not something one would predict based simply on the reading of the Constitution.  But it was written, I'll admit, a long time ago.

5. What would happen if somehow Congress derailed the talks?

Simple answer?  Iran gets nuclear weapons.

Why?  Because Iran's leadership is scared - they're scared of Israel, Russia, Britain, France, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, ISIS/ISIL, and the US of A.  There is a helluva lot of time and money put into undermining Iranian military, diplomatic, and economic development and capabilities - sure, you can argue much or most of it is completely logical on the part of the states doing it, and probably much or most of it is for reasons that are fairly ethical - but frankly, the leadership of Iran, rightly, logically, sanely sees all this effort as an existential threat to the regime and sovereignty of that state.

Existential threat.  Put in West Virginian, my native language, that means the mother bear and her cubs are backed into a corner - if she becomes convinced there is no other option she'll do things she otherwise would think of.  Not because she is morally superior or inferior, but because she is desperate.

The logic for pursuing them is pretty irrefutable - Iran gets nukes and no matter what else, no matter the other elements in the equation, the great powers have to treat it as legitimate polity or else risk their own existential threat emerging.  If Iran wants normalization and the West won't give it normalization, well, then it gets nukes and then the West gives it normalization.  Hell, the great powers' representatives in the talks are proof in the pudding - five of them have nuclear weapons (indeed, they are the top nuclear weapon possessors in terms of number and capabilities) and the one that doesn't could have a full arsenal after a long weekend of working with their vast nuclear infrastructure.

6. What would happen if Iran got nuclear weapons?

Damn.  Dr. Smith is about to give an opinion. This can't be good.

Here is the kicker - probably not a helluva' a lot at first.  Having nukes gives you a weapon you cannot use - its chief advantage is that others cannot use their equivalent weapons against you either.  If no one can pull their swords to solve problems, then you have to talk to achieve the same.  And, honestly, Iran isn't much of an international threat in direct terms.

Hold on, I know, I know. Controversial.  But it shouldn't be. Seriously - Iran has done, and still does, some things that are morally questionable to repugnant, both to their own people and in terms of supporting regimes and non-state actors that are pretty horrible.  But they have consistently done this largely to gain international leverage - you know, like the United States when we supported the Khmer Rouge, a polity substantially more nasty than Syria or any Palestinian radicals.  Now, two wrongs don't make a right, but the comparison is valid - this is interstate politics and bad $#&% happens in the sphere of interstate anarchy.

So, here is the thing - Iran getting nuclear weapons is unlikely mean they'll use them - heck, they use them and the equation is suicide for Iran in nearly every scenario: the only question is will it be one nation or several responding by detonating nuclear weapons in Iran and completely destroying the regime.  Rather, nuclear weapons will be a deterrent, used to blackmail, most likely, normalization of economic and diplomatic relations.

In the long-term, though, this means Iran loses.

What? WHAT?

Easy there, pardner.  Remember the greatest characteristic of American culture in particular and modern Western culture in general?  It is addictive.  Like meth.  You normalize with the West, you start getting Western products, tourists, your kids study in the West and vice-versa, and steadily, ever so steadily, Western ideas, including liberalism, have a tendency to seep into your own culture.

Hell, such namby-pamby fellows as Nixon and Kissinger held to this, though, so maybe it isn't bad-ass enough.

7.  What would you do, Professor?

I thought you'd never ask.

Well, simply put we are likely to get to the same outcome regardless of what strategy we take, so panic is probably unnecessary.  But there is one major risk that I think warrants trying every avenue of normalization without nuclearization of Iran that is possible - which of course means no further sanctions in the near future, or at least till the next round of P5+1 talks end.

Israel might start a nuclear war.

I know.  I freaking know.  If talks are derailed and normalization doesn't occur and Iran does pursue nuclear weapons, honestly, Israel might freak the hell out.  And Israel takes an - well, shall we call it "aggressive" - stance on its defense.  I understand why - hell, the history of the 20th Century is replete with reasons for Israel conceiving of every action taken in their general vicinity as presenting an existential threat.  But preemptive nuclear strikes are just - - - well, to be avoided.

This could be bad in tons of ways.  First, the entire global nonproliferation regime is based on one basic rule - no one uses nuclear weapons anymore.  At all.  Nuclear weapons exist solely for deterrence - not defense.  Why not defense?  Cause you can't defend against a full-tilt nuclear assault, you can only retaliate.  Virtually every developed or semi-developed state could build and maintain at least a small arsenal and, like cigarettes, you're a helluva' lot more likely to smoke'm if you've got'm.  If Israel used nuclear weapons offensively against Iran, well, I can't imagine many Arab polities, if any, with the ability wouldn't have them in short order because, even though they may not like Iran, they surely don't trust Israel, and would trust them even less if Israel demonstrated a willingness to engage in such radical unilateralism.  This would render Israel, in essence, indefensible.  It would also lead to a catastrophic arms race - Africa, Asia, and Southeast Europe, at least, would probably see nuclear weapon possessing regimes become commonplace, the NPT would collapse, and nuclear war, at least at the tactical scale, would become more likely in any given conflict.  The meaning of great power would decrease even more than it has since the emergence of capitalism, neoliberalism, and international law and American influence would decline in lockstep.  The only solution would be to totally ban all nuclear weapons - and, well, good luck getting that back in Pandora's box.

Finally, there is one other thing that bothers me - I don't like American foreign policy being co-opted, in part or in whole, by other polities - Israel included.  Call me an old fashioned Washingtonian and Hobbesian, and I won't be upset, but honored.  I'm not anti-Israel, not by a long shot, but I'm also not Israeli - I'm American and my nation's foreign policy interests have to come first, frankly - though if you're from another polity I except you feel the same, and I totally don't blame you!  If you want to understand co-option I want to recommend two things.

First, read everything you can on soft power as conceptualized by the great Joseph Nye, one of the greatest political scientists of our time.  In particular I recommend his book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.  It is an easy read and useful for the expert and non-expert alike.

Second, I want to share with you an excerpt from the Farewell Address of another of my heroes, the Good Mr. George Washington.  Read it in good health, and cheers until next time!
Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it - It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it ? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue ? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?
In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.
As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils. Such an attachment of a small or weak towards a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.
Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.
The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?
It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.
Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.
Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing (with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them) conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary, and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that, by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more. There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.
In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But, if I may even flatter myself that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism; this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare, by which they have been dictated.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

State of the Union 2015 Breakdown and Commentary

Everything will be great forever - right?
First - I know, I haven't been posting enough.  Long story short, my typing focus has been on my book, my Compendium of Key Documents in American Foreign Policy - it is currently around 2500 pages long (I know) and still well far from done - thus the absence.  Eventually, however, it'll be done and you'll have my undivided attention again.  Well, sorta' divided.  Whatever.

Second, yesterday evening President Obama delivered the State of the Union Address - so I'm thinking, heck, let's dissect it, try to figure out what matters and what he is really saying, then maybe throw in some links to commentary - just the basics.  So, below I've cut and pasted the transcript of the Address from NPR's transcript thereof (the prepared comments version, not the delivered version with a few little asides).  Anything I decided warrants some comment I will color in red and then include the commentary in italics beneath the object of comment.  Afterwards - links to other commentaries!  And so:

*   *   *   *   *   *

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, my fellow Americans:

We are fifteen years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many.

But tonight, we turn the page.

Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we've been in almost 30 years.

A little triumphalism here - the foreign oil element in particular is significant since, as the President will later tout, this has been a result of a mixed approach and one dependent merely on petroleum exploitation.

Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, fewer than 15,000 remain. And we salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman in this 9/11 Generation who has served to keep us safe. We are humbled and grateful for your service.

A bit more triumphalism - again, with a bit of window-dressing but not too much - and notice that the initial figure includes deployed soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the Afghanistan-only lead-in.  Six years ago, according to the Federation of American Scientists, there were just over 50,000 deployments in Afghanistan - I couldn't find an exact number for how many folk are deployed there today but I know that the most recent information I have seen asserts that the US has between 10,000 and 11,000 troops deployed current and plans to keep that number in theater for the foreseeable future, despite the post-Christmas declaration by President Obama of the end of the Afghani combat mission.  So yeah - some rhetorical play, but no fibs, and mission shift has continued apace (though US combat in the theater can hardly be said to have ended -  just shifted to special forces and air war means - still a helluva' an improvement).

America, for all that we've endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this:

The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.

At this moment – with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production – we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth. It's now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come.

Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?

Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet?

Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another – or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?

In two weeks, I will send this Congress a budget filled with ideas that are practical, not partisan. And in the months ahead, I'll crisscross the country making a case for those ideas.

So tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist of proposals, and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us.

And the focus here on in somewhat shifts to proposals - it is a policy proposal statement more than it is a statement of remaining condition in many, if not most places - I find this annoying; not that there are proposals but that these seem to dominate, along with rhetorical flourishes and story-telling - a real symptom of the modern State of the Union Address' malaise.  

It begins with our economy.

Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis were newlyweds. She waited tables. He worked construction. Their first child, Jack, was on the way.

They were young and in love in America, and it doesn't get much better than that.

"If only we had known," Rebekah wrote to me last spring, "what was about to happen to the housing and construction market."

As the crisis worsened, Ben's business dried up, so he took what jobs he could find, even if they kept him on the road for long stretches of time. Rebekah took out student loans, enrolled in community college, and retrained for a new career. They sacrificed for each other. And slowly, it paid off. They bought their first home. They had a second son, Henry. Rebekah got a better job, and then a raise. Ben is back in construction – and home for dinner every night.

"It is amazing," Rebekah wrote, "what you can bounce back from when you have to...we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times."

We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.

America, Rebekah and Ben's story is our story. They represent the millions who have worked hard, and scrimped, and sacrificed, and retooled. You are the reason I ran for this office. You're the people I was thinking of six years ago today, in the darkest months of the crisis, when I stood on the steps of this Capitol and promised we would rebuild our economy on a new foundation. And it's been your effort and resilience that has made it possible for our country to emerge stronger.

We believed we could reverse the tide of outsourcing, and draw new jobs to our shores. And over the past five years, our businesses have created more than 11 million new jobs.

But the quality of these jobs?  Certainly not on par with the pre-GWB/BHO years. no mention.

We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet. And today, America is number one in oil and gas. America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008. And thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save $750 at the pump.

This is a pretty damn big win - one I'm surprised the administration hasn't been crowing about more.  $750 bucks.  That is lot of flow - heck, given that median family income in the United States comes in at around $51,000 a year (as of 2013) this is a sizable chunk of reallotable income.  But the importance is greater than it even seems with that stat - remember that 15% of Americans are below the poverty line and that statistics like this tend to bias upwards since there are far fewer people making an enormous amount and far more people making middle- and lower-incomes - this means that the effective importance is much greater - especially since the rich use around the same amount of gas a year as the poor, meaning that gas is a larger percentage of the lower-class (and middle-class) American's income, adding greater importance here. 

We believed we could prepare our kids for a more competitive world. And today, our younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record. Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high. And more Americans finish college than ever before.

Graduation, I regard, as a false indicator - or at least an imperfect indicator.  Getting a piece of paper is one thing - what does that piece of paper mean?  Are American kids better educated than they were previously?

We believed that sensible regulations could prevent another crisis, shield families from ruin, and encourage fair competition. Today, we have new tools to stop taxpayer-funded bailouts, and a new consumer watchdog to protect us from predatory lending and abusive credit card practices. And in the past year alone, about ten million uninsured Americans finally gained the security of health coverage.

Fair enough - and, indeed, every figure I have seen has shown that more Americans do have health coverage than ever before - though I am curious to see a cross-dimensional study of the effects in a few years.  Helluva' experiment, regardless. 

At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we've seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in fifty years.

Budget deficits are, however, still big.  Too big.  And growth is up, but not even and as healthy as might be desired.  So, win, but no Super Bowl. 

So the verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don't get in the way. We can't slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns. We can't put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we've got a system to fix. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto.

Yup - here is a rankler - Obama is throwing down the gauntlet to the Republicans - try as they might, the best they can do (for two years at least) is raise hackles and force the vetoes - the question is, will this strategy gain or lose them votes - particularly if the economic recovery continues?

Today, thanks to a growing economy, the recovery is touching more and more lives. Wages are finally starting to rise again. We know that more small business owners plan to raise their employees' pay than at any time since 2007. But here's the thing – those of us here tonight, we need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn't halt the progress we're making. We need to do more than just do no harm. Tonight, together, let's do more to restore the link between hard work and growing opportunity for every American.

Because families like Rebekah's still need our help. She and Ben are working as hard as ever, but have to forego vacations and a new car so they can pay off student loans and save for retirement. Basic childcare for Jack and Henry costs more than their mortgage, and almost as much as a year at the University of Minnesota. Like millions of hardworking Americans, Rebekah isn't asking for a handout, but she is asking that we look for more ways to help families get ahead.

In fact, at every moment of economic change throughout our history, this country has taken bold action to adapt to new circumstances, and to make sure everyone gets a fair shot. We set up worker protections, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to protect ourselves from the harshest adversity. We gave our citizens schools and colleges, infrastructure and the internet – tools they needed to go as far as their effort will take them.

That's what middle-class economics is – the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. We don't just want everyone to share in America's success – we want everyone to contribute to our success.

So what does middle-class economics require in our time?

Yeah - it is pretty clear - President Obama is trying to coin his own catch-phrase here - a "New Deal" that still sings of 'Murica.  I'll admit.  I'm impressed.  

First – middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change. That means helping folks afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement – and my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year.

Get ready - what the president is saying is this - he wants universal access to childcare, community college, retirement facilities, and housing - social rights the US already technically recognizes in part or in whole under a host of international agreements including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (which we wrote) - and he is damned and determined to get them.  Will he?  Probably not - Congress just isn't going to go for them unless something magical happens.  Like, Peter Pan magical.  So.  Yeah.  Posturing.

Here's one example. During World War II, when men like my grandfather went off to war, having women like my grandmother in the workforce was a national security priority – so this country provided universal childcare. In today's economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever. It's not a nice-to-have – it's a must-have. It's time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women's issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us. And that's why my plan will make quality childcare more available, and more affordable, for every middle-class and low-income family with young children in America – by creating more slots and a new tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year.

Here's another example. Today, we're the only advanced country on Earth that doesn't guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers. Forty-three million workers have no paid sick leave. Forty-three million. Think about that. And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home. So I'll be taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own. And since paid sick leave won where it was on the ballot last November, let's put it to a vote right here in Washington. Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave. It's the right thing to do.

I'm gonna' say it - these are problems and the US is way, way behind on this.  Proposal-ish - but actual state of the union-ish too.  Okay.  Fair enough.

Of course, nothing helps families make ends meet like higher wages. That's why this Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. Really. It's 2015. It's time. We still need to make sure employees get the overtime they've earned. And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.

The Equal Rights Amendment, or a legislative, non-Constitutional equivalent - that is what President Obama is calling for here.  And I'm here to tell you, if a Democrat dominated-Congress didn't pass it, a Republican one surely isn't.  Posturing. 

These ideas won't make everybody rich, or relieve every hardship. That's not the job of government. To give working families a fair shot, we'll still need more employers to see beyond next quarter's earnings and recognize that investing in their workforce is in their company's long-term interest. We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions, and give American workers a voice. But things like child care and sick leave and equal pay; things like lower mortgage premiums and a higher minimum wage – these ideas will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families. That is a fact. And that's what all of us – Republicans and Democrats alike – were sent here to do.

Second, to make sure folks keep earning higher wages down the road, we have to do more to help Americans upgrade their skills.

America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, and trained the best workforce in the world. But in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to do more.

By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education. Two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It's not fair to them, and it's not smart for our future.

That's why I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college – to zero.

Forty percent of our college students choose community college. Some are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job. Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market. Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt. Understand, you've got to earn it – you've got to keep your grades up and graduate on time. Tennessee, a state with Republican leadership, and Chicago, a city with Democratic leadership, are showing that free community college is possible. I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today. And I want to work with this Congress, to make sure Americans already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn't derail anyone's dreams.

Sounds bipartisan - certainly it could be (it is a pretty Adam-Smith-capitalism sorta' thing).  Will it happen.  I don't know - depends on the nature of the proposal - but I wouldn't put money on it.  Semi-posturing.

Thanks to Vice-President Biden's great work to update our job training system, we're connecting community colleges with local employers to train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding, and nursing, and robotics. Tonight, I'm also asking more businesses to follow the lead of companies like CVS and UPS, and offer more educational benefits and paid apprenticeships – opportunities that give workers the chance to earn higher-paying jobs even if they don't have a higher education.

And as a new generation of veterans comes home, we owe them every opportunity to live the American Dream they helped defend. Already, we've made strides towards ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest quality care. We're slashing the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits they need, and we're making it easier for vets to translate their training and experience into civilian jobs. Joining Forces, the national campaign launched by Michelle and Jill Biden, has helped nearly 700,000 veterans and military spouses get new jobs. So to every CEO in America, let me repeat: If you want somebody who's going to get the job done, hire a veteran.

Finally, as we better train our workers, we need the new economy to keep churning out high-wage jobs for our workers to fill.

Since 2010, America has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and all advanced economies combined. Our manufacturers have added almost 800,000 new jobs. Some of our bedrock sectors, like our auto industry, are booming. But there are also millions of Americans who work in jobs that didn't even exist ten or twenty years ago – jobs at companies like Google, and eBay, and Tesla.

So no one knows for certain which industries will generate the jobs of the future. But we do know we want them here in America. That's why the third part of middle-class economics is about building the most competitive economy anywhere, the place where businesses want to locate and hire.

21st century businesses need 21st century infrastructure – modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest internet. Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this. So let's set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let's pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than thirty times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come.

Proposal alert - if the Republicans want to make a deal for the pipeline, here is there chance - support a more universal infrastructural upgrade in a omnibus bill and the President will grant some leeway.  Least that is how I read this.  

21st century businesses, including small businesses, need to sell more American products overseas. Today, our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages. But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world's fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field. That's why I'm asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren't just free, but fair.

WHOOP WHOOP WHOOP!  Periscopes up!  This is a huge deal - to make trade deals effectively an executive prerogative, rather than a classical treaty structure with Senatorial oversight.  I don't even know if this is Constitutional.  Regardless, it is a helluva' thing.  I have some serious reading to do on this one.  

Look, I'm the first one to admit that past trade deals haven't always lived up to the hype, and that's why we've gone after countries that break the rules at our expense. But ninety-five percent of the world's customers live outside our borders, and we can't close ourselves off from those opportunities. More than half of manufacturing executives have said they're actively looking at bringing jobs back from China. Let's give them one more reason to get it done.

21st century businesses will rely on American science, technology, research and development. I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine – one that delivers the right treatment at the right time. In some patients with cystic fibrosis, this approach has reversed a disease once thought unstoppable. Tonight, I'm launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes – and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.

Science money - get your proposals in to NSF, people!

I intend to protect a free and open internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.

Okay.....and what do you mean to do about this? And how about some privacy guarantees?  And net neutrality guarantees?  

I want Americans to win the race for the kinds of discoveries that unleash new jobs – converting sunlight into liquid fuel; creating revolutionary prosthetics, so that a veteran who gave his arms for his country can play catch with his kid; pushing out into the Solar System not just to visit, but to stay. Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars. In two months, to prepare us for those missions, Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space. Good luck, Captain – and make sure to Instagram it.

Mumble mumble mumble Instagram. . .  no, but seriously - let's quit talking about space and freaking kick it up.  Oh.  Wait.  Congress-budget-stuff-things.  Damn.  Nevermind. Posturing.

Now, the truth is, when it comes to issues like infrastructure and basic research, I know there's bipartisan support in this chamber. Members of both parties have told me so. Where we too often run onto the rocks is how to pay for these investments. As Americans, we don't mind paying our fair share of taxes, as long as everybody else does, too. But for far too long, lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight. They've riddled it with giveaways the superrich don't need, denying a break to middle class families who do.

This year, we have an opportunity to change that. Let's close loopholes so we stop rewarding companies that keep profits abroad, and reward those that invest in America. Let's use those savings to rebuild our infrastructure and make it more attractive for companies to bring jobs home. Let's simplify the system and let a small business owner file based on her actual bank statement, instead of the number of accountants she can afford. And let's close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top one percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth. We can use that money to help more families pay for childcare and send their kids to college. We need a tax code that truly helps working Americans trying to get a leg up in the new economy, and we can achieve that together.

Love it.  Posturing. Won't happen.

Helping hardworking families make ends meet. Giving them the tools they need for good-paying jobs in this new economy. Maintaining the conditions for growth and competitiveness. This is where America needs to go. I believe it's where the American people want to go. It will make our economy stronger a year from now, fifteen years from now, and deep into the century ahead.

Of course, if there's one thing this new century has taught us, it's that we cannot separate our work at home from challenges beyond our shores.

My first duty as Commander-in-Chief is to defend the United States of America. In doing so, the question is not whether America leads in the world, but how. When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military – then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That's what our enemies want us to do.

I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don't let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That's exactly what we're doing right now – and around the globe, it is making a difference.

First, we stand united with people around the world who've been targeted by terrorists – from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris. We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we've done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.

Foreign policy part 1 - terrorism is still bad.  

At the same time, we've learned some costly lessons over the last thirteen years.

Instead of Americans patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan, we've trained their security forces, who've now taken the lead, and we've honored our troops' sacrifice by supporting that country's first democratic transition. Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we're partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America. In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL's advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group. We're also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism. This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.

Foreign policy part 2 - Authorization of force against ISIL - whoa - War Powers Resolution of 1973 in the house, ladies and gentlemen! And note - he hasn't asked for a specific type of force request - sooooo what is he asking for behind closed doors?  Air and intell support, maybe training?  Yes.  Other stuff?  Maybe.  Boots-on-the-ground?  Probably not.  But hell.  I've been wrong before. 

Second, we are demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy. We're upholding the principle that bigger nations can't bully the small – by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine's democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies. Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr. Putin's aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.

Foreign policy part 3 - We're pushing back against Putin, but not too hard, cause you know - thermonuclear war.  But yeah, the strategy seems to be working fairly well and keeping the Europeans relatively content.  Now, will it be enough to get the Ukrainians back their respective East?  Maybe... the Crimean peninsula?  Uh ... not anytime soon.  

That's how America leads – not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.

In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you're doing doesn't work for fifty years, it's time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo. As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of "small steps." These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba. And after years in prison, we're overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs. Welcome home, Alan.

Foreign policy part 4 - Shift to a Nixonian stance towards Cuba.  Work has already started, now it truly just needs Congressional support. Good on ya'.  

Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we've halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material. Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran; secures America and our allies – including Israel; while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict. There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn't make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress. The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.

Foreign policy part 5 - Hard truth - to fix the Middle East we have to do something different than what we've been doing.  Insanity is doing the same thing repeated and expecting different results.  In other words, if we just use blanket policies of support Israel no matter their violations of international law and grind Iran no matter their concessions we can't expect new outcomes.  That means we need a more flexible approach and that means Congress needs to be more flexible in particular, since presidents going back at least to the 1970s have recognized this, whether Republican or Democrat, and Congresses (whether Republican or Democrat) have not.  This is also a space-maker - it is a way of telling Iran there is room for them to negotiate and prove they are playing well before the next president and Congress comes in, meaning they have a chance and they damn well better take it.  Hmm.  We'll see. 

Third, we're looking beyond the issues that have consumed us in the past to shape the coming century.

No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids. We are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism. And tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children's information. If we don't act, we'll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable. If we do, we can continue to protect the technologies that have unleashed untold opportunities for people around the globe.

Foreign policy part 6 - we need better protections against black hat hackers.  Fair enough, but let's consider the possibility that the government can sometimes be a black hat hacker too.  

In West Africa, our troops, our scientists, our doctors, our nurses and healthcare workers are rolling back Ebola – saving countless lives and stopping the spread of disease. I couldn't be prouder of them, and I thank this Congress for your bipartisan support of their efforts. But the job is not yet done – and the world needs to use this lesson to build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics, invest in smart development, and eradicate extreme poverty.

In the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules – in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, and how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief. And no challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.

2014 was the planet's warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn't make a trend, but this does – 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.

I've heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they're not scientists; that we don't have enough information to act. Well, I'm not a scientist, either. But you know what – I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we'll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.

That's why, over the past six years, we've done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it. That's why we've set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history. And that's why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts. I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action. In Beijing, we made an historic announcement – the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world's two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we've got.

Foreign policy part 7 - Climate change; I won't debate it.  The science is sound and you accept it or don't.  But here is the deal.  The world accepts it.  And using Nixonian environmental logic I say this is a damn security risk and we need to be prepared - and in a commons issue that means we have to engage in international regimes.  Obama has dedicated a lot of space to this - and he'll sign treaties should they emerge.  But will they pass the Senate...ummm.  I find it difficult to imagine they will.  Unfortunately. 

There's one last pillar to our leadership – and that's the example of our values.

As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we're threatened, which is why I've prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained. It's why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world. It's why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims – the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace. That's why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. We do these things not only because they're right, but because they make us safer.

Yup. But is torture really prohibited? Or just reclassified?  And regardless, still a violation of principles of Universal Human Rights?  Hmm.

As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice – so it makes no sense to spend three million dollars per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit. Since I've been President, we've worked responsibly to cut the population of GTMO in half. Now it's time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It's not who we are.

Overstatement City.  Six years and the shutdown has moved at a trickle, including during the Congressional domination by Democrats.  I agree.  Shut it down.  But, yeah. 

As Americans, we cherish our civil liberties – and we need to uphold that commitment if we want maximum cooperation from other countries and industry in our fight against terrorist networks. So while some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I haven't. As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse. And next month, we'll issue a report on how we're keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy.

Proposal, not the state of the Union - and still I'm unconvinced. . . we'll see.

Looking to the future instead of the past. Making sure we match our power with diplomacy, and use force wisely. Building coalitions to meet new challenges and opportunities. Leading – always – with the example of our values. That's what makes us exceptional. That's what keeps us strong. And that's why we must keep striving to hold ourselves to the highest of standards – our own.

You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn't a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America – but a United States of America. I said this because I had seen it in my own life, in a nation that gave someone like me a chance; because I grew up in Hawaii, a melting pot of races and customs; because I made Illinois my home – a state of small towns, rich farmland, and one of the world's great cities; a microcosm of the country where Democrats and Republicans and Independents, good people of every ethnicity and every faith, share certain bedrock values.

Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn't delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It's held up as proof not just of my own flaws – of which there are many – but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and na├»ve, and that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it.

I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.

I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long. I believe this because over and over in my six years in office, I have seen America at its best. I've seen the hopeful faces of young graduates from New York to California; and our newest officers at West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs, and New London. I've mourned with grieving families in Tucson and Newtown; in Boston, West, Texas, and West Virginia. I've watched Americans beat back adversity from the Gulf Coast to the Great Plains; from Midwest assembly lines to the Mid-Atlantic seaboard. I've seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in ten Americans call home.

So I know the good, and optimistic, and big-hearted generosity of the American people who, every day, live the idea that we are our brother's keeper, and our sister's keeper. And I know they expect those of us who serve here to set a better example.

So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America's hopes. I've served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn't what you signed up for – arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.

Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.

Understand – a better politics isn't one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine.

A better politics is one where we appeal to each other's basic decency instead of our basest fears.

A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than "gotcha" moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people's daily lives.

A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America.

If we're going to have arguments, let's have arguments – but let's make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.

We still may not agree on a woman's right to choose, but surely we can agree it's a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.

Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child, and that it's possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.

We may go at it in campaign season, but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it's being denied to too many; and that, on this 50th anniversary of the great march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American.

We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can't walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won't rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it's a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.

That's a better politics. That's how we start rebuilding trust. That's how we move this country forward. That's what the American people want. That's what they deserve.

I have no more campaigns to run. My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I've had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol – to do what I believe is best for America. If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, join me in the work at hand. If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you'll at least work with me where you do agree. And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger.

Because I want this chamber, this city, to reflect the truth – that for all our blind spots and shortcomings, we are a people with the strength and generosity of spirit to bridge divides, to unite in common effort, and help our neighbors, whether down the street or on the other side of the world.

I want our actions to tell every child, in every neighborhood: your life matters, and we are as committed to improving your life chances as we are for our own kids.

I want future generations to know that we are a people who see our differences as a great gift, that we are a people who value the dignity and worth of every citizen – man and woman, young and old, black and white, Latino and Asian, immigrant and Native American, gay and straight, Americans with mental illness or physical disability.

I want them to grow up in a country that shows the world what we still know to be true: that we are still more than a collection of red states and blue states; that we are the United States of America.

I want them to grow up in a country where a young mom like Rebekah can sit down and write a letter to her President with a story to sum up these past six years:

"It is amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to...we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times."

My fellow Americans, we too are a strong, tight-knit family. We, too, have made it through some hard times. Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America. We've laid a new foundation. A brighter future is ours to write. Let's begin this new chapter – together – and let's start the work right now.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless this country we love.

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So, not a horrible or grossly inaccurate State of the Union, but unlikely to be one we find in the history books either.  I hope my two cents helped.  Regardless, I thought I'd link some other commentaries and analyses - I'm just one man and by golly ya'll need more than just my opinion, after all.

New York Times Contemporaneous Analysis

Darren Samuelsohn, Phillip Ewing, and David Perera / Politico / "State of the Union Fact Check"

Conor Friedersdorf / The Atlantic / "Asking More From the Next State of the Union Address"

Michael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis / The New York Times / "In State of the Union, Obama Sets an Ambitious Agenda"

Anthony Zurcher / BBC / "Obama's state of the union 'victory lap'"

David Corn / Mother Jones / "The Problem With Obama's Bold SOTU"

Carrie Johnson / NPR / "State Of The Union Primer: What President Obama Proposed"

David Nather / Politico / "State of the Union 2015 analysis: What he said, what he meant"

Naureen Khan / Al-Jazeera / "State of the Union: Obama sounds opening salvo of 2016 presidential race"

Howard LaFranchi / Christian Science Monitor / "Five global front lines that could define Obama's final two years"

Dan Murphy / Christian Science Monitor / "Obama's State of the Union address: foreign policy highlights"

David Nakamura, Sean Sullivan and David A. Fahrenthold / Washington Post / "Republicans invite Netanyahu to address Congress as part of spurning of Obama"

Aaron Blake / Washington Post / "Obama’s State of the Union, translated"

Christopher S. Rugaber and Calvin Woodward / Christian Science Monitor / "Fact-checking Obama's 'State of the Union' address"

Daniel Knowles / The Economist / "Political pantomime"

Matt Steinglass / The Economist / "Behind the pantomime"

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There we go!  A decent round-up.  If you have anymore recommendations please, post them in the comments!  Cheers!