Daily Archives: December 4, 2008

Russia/NATO update

Some Russia/NATO contacts, frozen in the wake of the Georgia conflict, are now resuming. Also, much to Russia’s rejoicing, Georgia and Ukraine have not received a NATO Membership Action Plan. Russia sees this as a victory. However:

[Georgian foreign minister Eka] Tkeshelashvili expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the meeting, in which ministers reconfirmed that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually become members of NATO and said NATO would accelerate cooperative reform programs with both countries through existing NATO commissions.
The commissions will work on annual assessments of each country’s security and political needs, and on reforms to help them on the long path of NATO membership.
Ms. Tkeshelashvili said that Georgia welcomed “a commitment to the process by which we can achieve our goal” of membership, “with maximized efforts to assist Georgia.”
The ministers decided to move ahead with that cooperation and leave to the future, “without prejudice,” decisions about whether both countries will also need to go through a formal “membership action plan,” as Germany and France now insist.

Who’s blustering? Russia? Georgia? Both?

Clearly, both Georgia and Ukraine have major domestic problems that would be an obstacle to NATO membership even without concerns about antagonizing Russia. It’s hard to say to what extent opposition within NATO to an immediate MAP for Georgia and Ukraine was driven by such concerns. Sure, NATO wants cooperation with Russia, but the respect Russia so craves seems elusive. I was amused by the comments of NATO secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer:

Mr. de Hoop Scheffer, speaking in an interview after the conclusion of a two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers, said that Russia’s sense of grievance and encirclement, genuine or not, was difficult for the alliance to assuage.
“It’s not so easy to know how to approach someone, in daily life or in foreign policy, who feels themselves victimized,” he said. “I think there is no reason for Russia to feel victimized, not to be taken seriously, but if that is the perception, we have to discuss it, because I have to try to convince them that democracy and the rule of law coming closer to Russia’s borders – why should that be a problem?”

Do you get the feeling that Russia is being treated like the crazy aunt who needs to be humored because she’s got a large estate and because she just might burn the place down if gets really crazy?

The NATO foreign ministers also brushed asside Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s vague proposals for a new “security architecture” in Europe (overtures which the brilliant Russian humorist Victor Shenderovich, speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio, has likened to the behavior of a problem student who is invited for a conference with faculty and administrators and, instead of being glad that he hasn’t been expelled from college for bad grades and bad conduct, starts sharing his ideas about how to run the college better). And another bit of important news buried inside the Times report:

In a final communiqué, which went through 22 drafts, officials said, the foreign ministers gave their unanimous support to the planned deployment in Europe of an American missile defense system, which Washington says is aimed at Iran, not Russia. The ministers called it “a substantial contribution” to Western defense and encouraged Russia to take up American proposals for greater cooperation on missile defense.

Support from the NATO foreign ministers is important; with that, the missile defense installation can hardly be portrayed as a unilateral push by arrogant America.

Stay tuned!

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When atheists attack: The "War on Christmas" redux

Okay, I hate to admit it when Bill O’Reilly has a point in his latest “War on Christmas” crusade (see here, here and here on its previous installments), but this time, he does.

At issue is an atheist billboard displayed in the Washington State Capitol in Olympia, Wa. along with a “Holiday tree” and a nativity scene. (Apparently, there is no menorah this year.)

The placard, installed by local members of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, reads:

At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

More on the story here.

According to Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, and State Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, it is the state’s policy to allow any group to sponsor a holiday display “regardless of that individual’s or group’s views.”

Here’s the problem. The atheist display doesn’t simply express the beliefs of atheists or secularists; it attacks the beliefs of the religious. Its message, except for the first line, is entirely negative, and the last line is actively insulting to believers, implying that they are hard-hearted and weak-minded.

A Christmas display on public property, paid for by the taxpayer, that explicitly attacked non-believers would be inappropriate. So is this.

Perhaps Gregoire and McKenna are right as a matter of publc policy. (Though, if all viewpoints may be represented in holiday displays in the State Capitol, where do you draw the line? Would a placard urging Jews to convert to Christianity be appropriate? How about a “God Hates Fags” placard from the abominable Fred Phelps?) However, those fine folks from the Freedom from Religion Foundation are wrong as a matter of respect, civility, and common sense. They have chosen to express their views in a manner almost calculated to cause irritation. They are also perpetuating the stereotype — which underlies much of the hostility to atheists in America — that an atheist is not just a non-believer but someone who actively attacks and denigrates religion.

If they truly wanted to get into the holiday spirit, how about a placard saying something like, “At this season of the Winter Solstice, those of us who do not believe in a deity celebrate the beauty of the natural world and join believers in wishing for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men.” A positive message that, among other things, would have countered the widespread notion that atheists “believe in nothing.”

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