Editorial Roundup: United States

Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:

March 6

The Washington Post on support for Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not catch the West’s intelligence agencies unaware. But no one in Washington or Europe anticipated the scale at which they would need to provide Kyiv with arms and munitions. That’s an increasing challenge for NATO and other countries rightly determined to prevent a Russian victory, and the dire consequences for the United States and its allies that would follow. It needs to be addressed swiftly.

In a ground war that in some ways has come to resemble World War I — with thousands of artillery rounds fired daily against deeply dug-in armies — Ukrainian forces are now at risk of running low on key munitions. They are firing shells faster than supplier nations are producing them. There are other historic echoes. Just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on Americans to rally behind the country’s European allies as the “arsenal of democracy” in 1940, a year before Pearl Harbor, President Biden will be tested and judged by his own success in making a similar case for this country to step up by applying its military and industrial might.

The most pressing need in Ukraine is the supply of 155mm howitzer shells, which in recent months have become the main munition holding Russia at bay. The United States has supplied more than 1 million to Ukraine since the war’s outset, according to the Pentagon. Ukrainian artillery units have been firing them at a rate of roughly 3,000 daily — perhaps one-third the number of rounds screaming back at them from the Russian side. The math is unforgiving. Not only is Ukraine’s inventory dwindling, but the U.S. prewar production of the shells, fewer than 15,000 per month, is scarcely enough to sustain Ukraine for five days.

To its credit, the Biden administration is gearing up for a sixfold increase in monthly production of the shells, and sharply accelerating the manufacture of other materiel. European countries, too, are rushing to furnish Ukraine with more shells. That will take time, however, not least because defense-procurement bureaucracies, in this country and other major industrialized democracies, have been calibrated mainly for peacetime since the Cold War. Germany in particular, which has tried to surge its defense spending, faces long-standing problems with red tape and inefficiencies that have impeded arms production.

The need to provide more weapons systems to Ukraine is equally urgent. Yet the problem, depending on the system, tends to be different. Take, for instance, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), the precision multiple rocket launcher that has been used to deadly effect against Russian ammunition dumps, command posts and other targets. Hundreds of HIMARS are in U.S. and other NATO countries’ inventories, yet just 20 or so have been sent so far to Ukraine. The Ukrainians have shown their ability to shift the battlefield momentum with HIMARS, and they have pleaded for more of them. Yet the Western allies have dragged their feet.

One reason is that Washington and its allies are reluctant to draw from stockpiles of the weapon, given the need to train their own forces on its use. War planners in the Pentagon are wary of eroding U.S. military readiness in the event of another conceivable ground war — on the Korean Peninsula, for example, or involving NATO’s Baltic allies. That same reluctance is at play with other weapons. The result is a gap between the West’s supportive rhetoric on equipping Ukraine against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruinous invasion, and the pace of actual deliveries of arms and ammunition, which is slower than Kyiv needs to push back Russian forces.

Some U.S. military officials have suggested that Ukraine should slow the rate at which it fires artillery shells, or pick its targets more selectively. That’s an armchair general’s risky prescription, overlooking the fact that Kyiv is already enormously outgunned and outmanned. It’s worth remembering that Ukrainian forces have massively outperformed expectations. More than a year after an invasion that most outsiders believed would succeed within days, second-guessing Ukrainian tactics is the height of presumption as their citizens continue dying on the battlefield against a country with triple Ukraine’s population and an economy nearly 10 times its size.

The burden is rightly on the West to ramp up production and shipment of the weapons and munitions Ukraine needs. And there are steps Washington and its allies can take to achieve that, beyond the sharp increases in defense spending to meet what seems likely to be a long-term commitment to Kyiv’s security, along with other growing threats to U.S. interests.

One sensible move would be to send Ukraine some weapons currently in the arsenals of National Guard units in individual states. Granted, that has the potential to erode their training capacity and combat readiness in the short term. Until the stockpiles could be replenished, it is likely some governors would complain.

In other cases, the administration would be wise to undertake a clear-eyed analysis of the strategic consequences of framing these decisions too narrowly. According to Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Pentagon has shipped about 40% of the U.S. stockpile of some 20,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles, leaving a hole in our inventory that will take several years to fill at the current production level. It is understandable that Pentagon planners are reluctant to deplete their own supplies further. Yet if Ukraine’s planned spring offensive fails for lack of Javelins or other weapons that Washington could have provided in greater numbers, the Biden administration will regret its hesitation to take unorthodox steps.

It’s critical that the administration perceive those interests clearly and explain them compellingly to what recent polls suggest is an increasingly skeptical American public. Turning back Russian aggression is not only important for our European allies’ security but also to maintain a basic principle of civilized international relations: that one state cannot invade and subjugate another that has posed no threat. It is also crucial to transmit the message to China, North Korea and other would-be aggressors that the United States will stand fast in defense of its own interests and other democracies.

ONLINE: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/03/06/ukraine-weapons-us-allies/


March 6

The Wall Street Journal on Biden’s undermining of democracy

He seems to have abandoned “Jim Crow 2.0,” but that was the extent of the nuance in President Biden’s political remarks Sunday in Selma, Ala. He was there to commemorate the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the 1965 brutality against a civil-rights march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Calling for the freedom to vote, marchers were met by clubs and tear gas.

“The right to vote and to have your vote counted is the threshold of democracy and liberty,” Mr. Biden said. “With it, anything is possible. Without it — without that right, nothing is possible. And this fundamental right remains under assault. The conservative Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act over the years. Since the 2020 election, a wave of states and dozens—dozens of anti-voting laws fueled by the Big Lie, and the election deniers now elected to office.”

Mr. Biden’s implied parallel here is grotesque, and it doesn’t fit the evidence. The 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) helped to break Jim Crow. For a generation, it required certain states and localities to get “preclearance” before changing their voting laws. That extraordinary measure was intended to last five years, but Congress eventually extended it to 2031, without updating the 1975 criteria to determine where the preclearance requirement would apply.

This is what the Supreme Court struck down in Shelby County (2013). The VRA’s coverage formula had “no logical relation to the present day,” as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “Data from the most recent election indicate that African-American voter turnout exceeded white voter turnout in five of the six States originally covered.”

A year after Shelby County, Vice President Biden warned of a “new assault” on the right to vote, saying that laws requiring a photo ID were “an attempt to repress minority voting.” Yet a 2021 academic study of voter ID could find “no negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any group defined by race, gender, age, or party affiliation.” As of last year, voter ID was “favored by 77% of people of color,” Gallup says.

Mr. Biden also consistently misrepresents the voting laws that states have passed since 2020. In a speech last year in Georgia, this is how the President framed the debate: “Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?” Yet look at the University of Georgia’s recent survey on the 2022 elections. Asked about their voting experience, 72.6% of black Georgians called it excellent, and 0% said poor. Of white respondents, 72.7% said excellent and 0.9% said poor.

Mr. Biden castigates the “Big Lie,” as Democrats have branded President Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen. Mr. Trump’s false theories are well worth criticizing, but so is Mr. Biden’s slandering of states like Georgia, not to mention his suggestion that America is an inch from reverting to 1965. It isn’t true, and his calumny undermines democracy.

ONLINE: https://www.wsj.com/articles/president-biden-selma-alabama-speech-voting-rights-a89c5459


March 6

The Los Angeles Times on anti-abortion activists and the FDA

In the post-Roe world, one of the prime targets of antiabortion activists is medication abortion, a two-drug regimen in which a pregnant person takes mifepristone followed by misoprostol.

A lawsuit filed late last year by abortion opponents in an Amarillo, Texas, federal district court asks Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a conservative known for his antiabortion views, to revoke the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone. They argue the agency didn’t properly study the drug and has removed “even the most basic precautionary requirements” associated with its use. Kacsmaryk is expected to issue a ruling any day now.

The claim is weak given that medication abortion has been available in the U.S. since 2000, is currently used for more than half the abortions in this country and is exceptionally effective and safe (with serious adverse effects occurring in less than a third of 1% of the abortions). If anything, healthcare providers and researchers believe it has been overly regulated. For years, obtaining a prescription for abortion medication required at least one in-person visit and was available only in certain healthcare settings and under certain conditions. Recently the FDA expanded the rules to allow telehealth visits to get a prescription and allowed the drugs to be dispensed through pharmacies that meet certain qualifications. (However, on Friday, Walgreens, one of the nation’s largest retail pharmacies, bowed to pressure and announced it would stop providing mifepristone in 20 states where attorneys general are challenging the legality of its use.

Lawyers for the Department of Justice and the FDA contend that the department comprehensively evaluated mifepristone before approving it for medication abortion. In court documents, they say the agency “reviewed three separate clinical trials involving more than 2,500 pregnant patients, and those trials provided substantial evidence of effectiveness and showed a low rate of serious adverse events.” The FDA also defended the drug as offering “a meaningful therapeutic benefit to some patients over surgical abortion” because it avoids an invasive (although very safe) surgical procedure for abortion.

If the judge revokes the FDA’s authorization of mifepristone, lawyers believe that would be unprecedented. “We are not aware of any case in which a court has removed a drug from the market over FDA’s objection,” a group of food and drug law scholars wrote in an amicus brief for the FDA.

It would also be another medically baseless attempt by abortion opponents to deny healthcare access to pregnant people. Nearly half the states in the country have abortion bans or such tight restrictions that they severely limit access. Now antiabortion activists are trying to slap restrictions on abortion access in states where it is allowed and protected.

Thankfully, pulling mifepristone, which is used mainly for abortions and miscarriage care, off the market won’t stop medication abortions, though it could sow confusion and disruption across the nation. The second drug, misoprostol, can be used alone for abortions, though it is slightly less effective. It is not subject to the same restrictions because it has other clinical uses, such as treating gastric ulcers.

The two-drug regimen works up to 99% of the time while the misoprostol-only regimen works up to 97% of the time, according to Lauren Kokum, director of affiliate communications for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The organization allows its 49 affiliates that run 600 healthcare centers in the U.S. to use misoprostol alone.

Meanwhile, state legislatures continue to pile more restrictions on abortions. Iowa lawmakers introduced a bill recently that not only would ban abortion but also would add the ludicrous requirement that internet providers block people’s access to websites related to abortion care while they are in the state.

The extreme lengths to which anti-abortion activists will go should trouble everyone who cares about the exercise of civil rights, particularly the right to control your own body. These assaults on abortion access will continue either until every state has a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to abortion or until Congress passes a national law allowing abortion in every state. Think about that the next time you vote for a member of Congress.

ONLINE: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2023-03-06/editorial-medication-abortion-fda


March 4

The New York Times on Florida’s attack on the First Amendment

A homeowner gets angry at a county commission over a zoning dispute and writes a Facebook post accusing a local buildings official of being in the pocket of developers.

A right-wing broadcaster criticizing border policies accuses the secretary of homeland security of being a traitor.

A parent upset about the removal of a gay-themed book from library shelves goes to a school board meeting and calls the board chair a bigot and a homophobe.

All three are examples of Americans engaging in clamorous but perfectly legal speech about public figures that is broadly protected by the Constitution. The Supreme Court, in a case that dates back nearly 60 years, ruled that even if that speech might be damaging or include errors, it should generally be protected against claims of libel and slander. All three would lose that protection — and be subject to ruinous defamation lawsuits — under a bill that is moving through the Florida House and is based on longstanding goals of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The bill represents a dangerous threat to free expression in the United States, not only for the news media, but for all Americans, whatever their political beliefs. There’s still time for Florida lawmakers to reject this crude pandering and ensure that their constituents retain the right to free speech.

“This isn’t just a press issue,” said Bobby Block, executive director of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation. “This is a death-to-public-discourse bill. Everyone, even conservatives, would have to second-guess themselves whenever they open their mouths to speak or sit in front of a keyboard.”

The bill is an explicit effort to eviscerate a 1964 Supreme Court decision, The New York Times Company v. Sullivan. This bulwark of First Amendment law requires public figures to prove a news organization engaged in what the court called “actual malice” to win a defamation case. By preventing lawsuits based on unintentional mistakes, the decision freed news organizations to pursue vigorous reporting about public officials without fear of paying damages. The decision has even been applied by lower courts to bloggers and other speakers who make allegations about public figures.

Many conservatives, including Mr. DeSantis, have long chafed at the freedom that this decision gives to a news industry they consider to be too liberal. The new bill embodies that antagonism. It would sharply limit the definition of public figures, eliminating public employees like police officers from the category, even if they become public figures because of their actions.

It would change the definition of actual malice to include any allegation that is “inherently improbable” — an impossibly vague standard — or that is based on what it calls an “unverified” statement by an anonymous source. In fact, it says that all anonymous statements, a crucial tool for investigative reporting, are “presumptively false” for the purposes of a defamation case. Anonymous sources were the basis for much of The Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate and The Times’s exposure of the Bush administration’s domestic eavesdropping program in 2005, among many other examples of journalism with significant impact.

Under the bill, a public figure would no longer need to show actual malice to win a defamation case if the allegation against the figure wasn’t related to the reason for the person’s public status. So if a person is publicly known for being elected president or governor, and a news organization publishes an investigation about that person’s private or business life unrelated to elected office, that report would not get the special liability protection provided by the Sullivan decision.

The bill goes much further than this attempt to hobble the press. It makes it clear that the new defamation rules would also apply to any single “utterance on the internet,” which could mean a tweet or a Facebook post written by anyone, or “any one presentation to an audience,” which could include statements made at school board hearings and other public meetings.

In a direct attack on a key aspect of free expression, it says that whenever someone is accused of discriminating against others on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation, that accusation is automatically considered enough to sue for defamation. Any person accused of bigotry based on sexual orientation or gender identity could file a defamation lawsuit and be virtually guaranteed of winning by saying the discrimination was based on personal religious or scientific beliefs. The penalty for calling someone a bigot would be a minimum of $35,000.

Mr. DeSantis, who appears to be preparing for a 2024 presidential campaign, has been railing against press freedoms for several years in a clear appeal to likely Republican primary voters. The bill was recently introduced in the Florida House by one of his allies and has a strong chance of passage; a similar if slightly milder version was filed in the State Senate.

If enacted, the House bill would almost instantly be challenged in court, but its backers are counting on that. In public statements, they have said they want the bill to be used as a vehicle to get the Supreme Court to overturn New York Times v. Sullivan and have noted that two justices, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, have called on the court to reconsider that decision. The current court has repeatedly demonstrated that it can’t be counted on to respect long-term precedents that are widely supported by the public.

There may be room for discussion on the precise definition of “public figure,” which has been interpreted in various ways by the Supreme Court and lower courts over the past six decades. Even Justice Elena Kagan, in a 1993 journal article long before she joined the court, expressed interest in determining whether the term had been too broadly defined in the years after Sullivan, though she applauded the overall decision.

A sledgehammer bill like the one in Florida, however, wielded for transparent political reasons, would create enormous damage on the way to the high court, particularly if other states decide to copy its language. In 1964, Justice William J. Brennan Jr., who wrote the court’s opinion, said it was based on “the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open.” That may well include, he wrote, “vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” That principle has not changed through the decades, and citizens who treasure the right to speak freely should resist politicians like Mr. DeSantis who want to silence them.

ONLINE: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/04/opinion/desantis-florida-free-speech-bill.html


Feb. 28

The Guardian on mob violence on the West Bank

There could hardly be a grimmer demonstration of the challenge facing those who still hope to curb growing violence in the occupied West Bank. This weekend’s talks between Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs in Jordan were undermined within hours. These were the first such high-level negotiations in years, reflecting belated U.S. re-engagement, in the unpromising context of a far-right Israeli government, a moribund Palestinian Authority and surging violence.

Within hours of the summit’s communique, hundreds of settlers were rampaging through the Palestinian town of Huwara with rocks and iron bars, shooting dead one man, leaving hundreds injured and torching cars and properties – retaliation for the murder of two Israeli settlers by a Palestinian gunman earlier that day.

Settler violence is not new. Nor is the army’s failure to stem it. Increasingly, it appears not only widespread, but systemic. It was worsening even before this extremist government took power. But the scale and intensity of this attack – heavily telegraphed in advance – and the fact that coalition members egged it on, make it unprecedented.

“A closed, burnt Huwara – that’s what I want to see. That’s the only way to achieve deterrence,” said the chairman of the Knesset’s national security committee. Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister, who also has sweeping powers over civilian issues in the West Bank, liked a tweet saying that “the village of Hawara (sic) should be wiped out today”. (He later deleted it and echoed the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that people should not “take the law into their own hands” – hardly a full-throated condemnation.) Several in Israel have described the attack as a pogrom. Yet only a handful of arrests were made, and police have released all suspects.

Last year was the deadliest in Israel and the West Bank since the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, ended in 2005. Israeli forces killed 146 Palestinians in 2022, while settlers killed another four. Attacks by Palestinians killed 29 Israelis. The violence continues. The U.S. reportedly brokered a deal to reduce IDF raids, with the Palestinian Authority – already regarded by many as little more than a security contractor for the occupation – stepping in. Yet last week saw the single most lethal IDF raid for years, as troops hunting three militants in the occupied city of Nablus killed 11 Palestinians.

Sunday’s communique committed Israel to pausing discussion of new settlement units and authorization of outposts – only for Mr. Netanyahu to tweet that “There is not and will not be any freeze”. That made the promise to aim towards a wider political process that could lead to a “just and lasting peace” ring even more hollow. There were around 100,000 settlers in the West Bank when the Oslo negotiations began in the early 1990s; now there are around half a million – and several play key roles in this government. Two months into 2023, more Israeli building in the West Bank has been approved than in the previous two years combined. Support for a two-state solution is at an all-time low.

As hope vanishes, younger Palestinians are turning to groups beyond the control of established factions. Access to guns is growing. The weekend’s talks were spurred partly by concerns that Ramadan, which this year overlaps with Passover, has seen escalating violence in the past. The U.S. and others have seen poor return for the limited efforts they have invested. But Huwara is frightening proof, if any were needed, that this government cannot be left to wreak more damage.

ONLINE: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/feb/28/the-guardian-view-on-mob-violence-in-the-west-bank-a-new-low

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