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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Explaining the Radical Shift in Public Opinion on Same-Sex Marriage

PUBLIC OPINION ON GAY MARRIAGE 

(Essay for Professor John Sides' Public Opinion course)

           
In the U.S., public approval of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples has increased significantly since the question was first asked in opinion polling. Notably, this increase, though crucially strong among young Americans, is seen across virtually all demographics. Consistently now, a majority of Americans tell pollsters they back gay marriage rights. This shift in public opinion is attributable to a variety of factors. These causes include the greater personal familiarity with gays and lesbians in life, the depiction of gays in popular culture, and the decline of religion and moral traditionalism in affecting public opinion. Public support for same-sex marriage cannot be fully analyzed without dissecting the history of public tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality and gays themselves. These concepts are inextricably linked even if support for marriage equality is not entirely consistently reflective of an equal degree of tolerance for gays.  As gays continue to win marriage rights across the country, the future of public opinion on this issue, as well as the implications for public policy, both appear bright for gay and lesbian Americans.

With regards to the dramatic spike in support for gay marriage over the course of the last several years, the evidence is clear and overwhelming. In the Gallup poll, 27% of respondents agreed that “marriages between same-sex couples should be valid” in March 1996. By May 2014, a decade later, 55% of respondents expressed support for this statement – an 11-point increase in just four years. According to the Pew Research Center, 37% of respondents in 2009 supported same-sex marriage legalization but just five years later, 54% of respondents said they favored it. In the ABC News/Washington Post public opinion poll, 49% of respondents agreed in April 2009 that it should be “legal for gay and lesbian couples to get married.” By spring 2013, 58% of respondents agreed with this statement.  In a March 2015 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 59% of respondents supported gay marriage rights – 10 points higher than in October 2009. In a June 2013 CBS/New York Times poll, 51% of respondents agreed same-sex marriage should be legal whereas just 13 months beforehand, only 42% of respondents supported gay marriage legalization.
The increased support for same-sex marriage rights cuts across virtually all demographics. Comparisons of 2004 and 2013-14 polls conducted by ABC News/Washington Post, Pew Research Center, and Gallup support this finding. In a 2004 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 57% of 18-29-year olds, 33% of 30-64-year olds, and 18% of respondents 65 and older supported gay marriage legalization. In spring 2013, 81%, 56%, and 44% of respondents in these age cohorts, respectively, supported it. The same poll showed that Republican, Democratic, and Independent support for gay marriage rose by 18%, 29%, and 24% respectively in this time span. Support among both men and women rose by roughly 25%, by 23% among whites but 33% among nonwhites, by double digits among liberals and conservatives and moderates, and, strikingly, by 19% among Catholics and 25% among white Protestants.
Pew polling found support for same-sex marriage legalization rose markedly among other groups too in the same period. Among religiously unaffiliated Americans, support for gay marriage rights increased from 61% in 2004 to 74% in 2013. Among black Protestants, support rose from 19% in 2004 to 32% in 2013. In 2014, Gallup found support for gay marriage legalization at 67% in the East, 58% in the West, 53% in the Midwest, and 48% in the South – all drastically higher than in 2004.
This rise in public support for gay marriage must be understood in tandem with the history of public attitudes towards gays and homosexuality generally. It is public tolerance of homosexuals that is strongly linked to support for gay marriage rights. Acceptance of gays and support for same-sex marriages do not identically mirror each other but there is a clear link. As public acceptance of homosexuality improved, so too did public backing of gay marriage. The trend lines have been most notably reflected in Gallup data. Gallup noted how the continual increase, from 2004 to 2014, in public tolerance with gay and lesbian relations “mirror[ed] the growth in public support for legalizing gay marriage.” In 2004, 42% of Gallup respondents believed gay and lesbian relations were “morally acceptable” whereas the same exact percentage of respondents believed same-sex marriages “should be valid.” In 2011, 56% of Gallup respondents agreed that gay and lesbian relations were morally acceptable while 53% of respondents supported gay marriage legalization. This trend of tolerance and support for marriage equality increasing simultaneously is also seen in the General Social Survey (GSS). 54% of GSS respondents said gay relations were “always wrong” in 2000 whereas 44% said so in 2010. In 2000, 30% of GSS respondents supported gay marriage but by 2010, 46% backed it.
To understand how these changes came about is to understand what factors allowed for this greater tolerance of gays, which, in turn, led to greater support for gay marriage. The single most important influence in this regard was more Americans continually getting to know relatives, friends, and colleagues who were gay and who came out as gay. As a 2007 Pew analysis said, “familiarity is closely linked to tolerance,” a finding reflected in poll results that showed respondents with gay friends and relatives were more likely to favor nondiscrimination against gays and, by a 55%-25% margin, more likely to favor gay marriage (Pew Research Center/Neidorf and Morin, “Four-in-Ten Americans Have Close Friends or Relatives Who are Gay”). Public opinion polling demonstrates that as Americans are increasingly exposed to gay and lesbian individuals, they grow increasingly tolerant of homosexuality. In 2010, 77% of CBS News poll respondents said they “kn[ew] someone who is gay or lesbian” but in 1992, just 42% of respondents said so. 38% of respondents in a 1992 CBS News poll said homosexuality was an “acceptable alternative lifestyle” but by 2009, 54% said there was nothing wrong with gay relationships. Consequently, CBS News determined the polling showed that “knowing someone who is gay or lesbian” was a strong determinant of acceptance of homosexuality (CBS News/Montopoli, “Poll: With Higher Visibility, Less Disapproval for Gays”).
 Further, the phenomenon of how knowing gay relatives and friends fuels higher support for gay marriage is supported by a vast array of polling evidence and professional analysis. In the Pew poll, 61% of Americans said in 1993 that they knew someone who is gay or lesbian but 87% said in 2013 that they did. That same year, a Pew poll noted “roughly two-thirds (68%) of those who knew a lot of people who are gay or lesbian favor gay marriage, compared with just 32% of those who don’t know anyone.” Forcing the Spring author Jo Becker’s research reaffirmed that “the number one reason why [gay marriage support has increased] is that more…people have come out” (Basu, The Atlantic, “Why More Americans Accept Gay Marriage Than Ever”). Indeed, a March 2015 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed 77% of Americans said they personally knew a gay person – up 15% from 2004 – and among this group, 65% supported gay marriage rights. Studies dissected by Michael Klarman in his book, From the Closet to the Alter, made the case that the correlation between knowing gays and supporting gay marriage was strong enough to support causation. Citing public opinion polls that showed that, as more Americans came to know people who were gay, public support for gay marriage climbed, Klarman argued, “one of the factors that most strongly predicts support for gay equality is knowing someone who is openly gay” (Klarman, Los Angeles Times, “Why gay marriage is inevitable”). A 2014 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey showed respondents who knew an LGBT individual were more likely to “favor gay marriage” by a 63%-36% margin. The PRRI found that while in 1993, 22% of respondents said they had a “close friend or family member” who identified as gay or lesbian, 65% of respondents said so in 2013. In that time, support for gay marriage rights in the PRRI poll grew from 32% in 2004 to 53% in 2014. Notably, in a 2013 Pew poll, respondents were asked why they changed their minds to support gay marriage and the most popular response, provided by 32% of respondents, was that they “know someone…who is homosexual.”
Pop culture also appears to have played a role in rising support for gay marriage. When Vice President Joe Biden endorsed same-sex marriage in a 2012 Meet the Press interview, he referenced the NBC sitcom Will and Grace. The show, which depicted gay characters, “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything,” Biden said (Barbaro, The New York Times, “A Scramble as Biden Backs Same-Sex Marriage”). The evidence backs up the Vice President’s statement. Several University of Minnesota professors’ studies demonstrated that Will and Grace, and other TV shows with gay characters like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, made Americans more tolerable of gay relationships and contributed to “lower levels of prejudice” against gays (Schiappa, Gregg & Hewes, Comparative Media Studies, “The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis”). A similar effect is visible with ABC’s hit sitcom Modern Family, a popular series that portrays a gay couple. 27% of respondents in a 2012 Hollywood Reporter poll said the show made them “more pro-gay marriage” whereas 2% said it made them “more anti-same-sex marriage.” Public opinion researcher Paul Brewer noted the importance of pop culture was that it challenged stigmas associated with gays so that gays were seen as “individual people rather than as an undifferentiated mass,” per Rosalee Clawson and Zoe Oxley (Clawson and Oxley, 179). In a 2008 Harris poll, 32% of respondents claimed the depiction of gays and lesbians in TV shows and films “helped change their views,” including towards support for gay marriage.
The decreasing role that religion plays in public life, as well as the decline in the importance of moral traditionalism in politics, helped bring about a change in views too. Americans who regularly attend church, identify as Evangelical Christians, and say that moral values are significant in their voting decisions consistently oppose gay marriage (National Journal/Ronald Brownstein, “Preaching to the Choir: How Church Attendance Divides the Parties”). Pew found that “religious beliefs are a major factor” in opposition to gay marriage (Pew, “In Gay Marriage Debate, Both Supporters and Opponents See Legal Recognition as ‘Inevitable’). However, the number of Americans who identify with these traits has declined in the last decade (The New York Times/Dickerson, “The Decline of Evangelical America”). As such, the political factor of moral traditionalism that Clawson and Oxley discussed has faded in its effect in shaping public opinion on gay marriage.  
This linkage of religion with views on gay marriage, and how the declining impact of religion in shaping these views is helping buttress support for gay marriage, is seen in polls. For one, confidence in organized religion, led by anti-gay marriage leaders like the Pope and populated by scores of preachers who routinely advocate against gay marriage, has declined in the Gallup poll. Whereas in 1996, 57% of respondents said they had a “great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion, 45% said so in 2014. In that time, support for same-sex marriage in Gallup skyrocketed. Second, it is clear churchgoing Americans are more inclined to oppose gay marriage while Americans who rarely or never attend church are more inclined to support it, per Gallup, among other sources. Indeed, according to Gallup, “a simple indicator of religiosity – regular service attendance – is a powerful predictor of views on same-sex marriage” (Gallup/Newport, “Religion Big Factor for Americans Against Same-Sex Marriage”). As church attendance has declined though, support for gay marriage has climbed (Pew/Lipka, “What surveys say about worship attendance – and why some stay home”).
Beyond that, Paul Brewer found that the role of moral traditionalism – defined by Clawson and Oxley as “belief that traditional family and societal organization is best” – in public opinion weakened considerably between 1992 and 2000 and this change contributed to stronger support for gay rights (Clawson and Oxley, 178 and 421). Further, in the same month (May 2010) that Gallup found a record high 16% of respondents identifying with no religion, they also found for the first time that a majority of respondents believed gay relations were “morally acceptable.” A 2012 Gallup poll puts these two separate findings into a different context as it showed that 88% of the subset of Americans who do not identify with a religion supported same-sex marriage legalization – a higher level of support than virtually any other group. As this group rises in number, and as it is clear that this group is overwhelmingly supportive of gay marriage rights, this trajectory bodes well for gay marriage proponents.
 Vitally, an April 2013 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll made a convincing case that a decline in the importance of morals and religion in politics in public opinion influenced views on gays. The poll showed that 43% of respondents said a “decline in moral values” was a source of “serious problems” in the U.S. – a sizable decline from the 51% who said so in 1993. As NBC News political analyst John Harwood explained, “the shift helps explain…the rising acceptance of gay marriage” (CNBC/Harwood, “US Problems About More Than ‘Moral Values’: NBC/WSJ Poll). Further, a 2014 PRRI survey lent credence to the notion that disenchantment with religion, especially among young Americans, is helping increase support for gay marriage. The poll found 31% of Millennials who “left their childhood religion” said “negative teachings about” homosexuality was an “important factor” in their decision. Consequently, this group’s support for gay marriage rights has only hardened in intensity.
In terms of the implications of public opinion on gay marriage for political leaders and public policy, there are several important elements that bode well for gays. For one, a March 2015 Huffington Post/YouGov poll showed that 34% of respondents would prefer a pro-gay marriage presidential candidate whereas 26% said they would prefer a candidate opposed to gay marriage. This finding suggests future presidential candidates who oppose gay marriage will be more reluctant to emphasize their opposition at risk of alienating voters. Such behavior would be consistent with the very recent history of political elites largely following the public on this issue. Politicians are mostly receiving their cues on this issue from voters – a trend that is likely to continue. When only 40% of Americans supported same-sex marriage in the Gallup poll in 2008, President Obama was publicly opposed to gay marriage despite his support for other LGBT-friendly policies. In May 2012, during a week in which Gallup showed 50% of Americans supported gay marriage legalization, Obama personally endorsed it too. Obama’s own former political strategist David Axelrod admitted that public opinion was a crucial factor in the timing of Obama’s announcement (CNN/Alexandra Jaffe, “Axelrod explains Obama on gay marriage: ‘Leaders work this way’).
The executive branch is not the only segment of the federal government in which elites are now following the public. A wide array of legal and political analysts widely expect the Supreme Court to rule in favor of a federal constitutional right to marriage for gays nationwide this summer. One core reason why the Court is poised to make this ruling is public opinion. Although the Court ostensibly remains above the political fray, there is significant evidence that public opinion plays a crucial role in influencing the scope and effect of Court decisions. Cognizant of the varying potential reactions to their (often) controversial rulings, justices are keen to the changes in public mood on the issues they adjudicate. As University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner said on this issue, “same-sex marriage is advancing…[and] that’s what the relevant majorities of the justices care about” (Washington Monthly/Voeten, “How the Supreme Court Responds to Public Opinion”).
In terms of the implications for the major political parties, Democratic politicians will likely be in a position in which their base voters – primarily self-identified liberal Democrats – will expect them to support gay marriage. A 2012 Pew poll showed an overwhelming 83% of liberal Democrats support gay marriage. “The strongest gay marriage supporters,” The Huffington Post wrote last March, “are mostly self-described liberal Democrats” (The Huffington Post/Edwards-Levy, “Americans Would Rather Vote for a President Who Supports Gay Marriage”). Given this intensity of support, and given the fact that more Americans strongly support gay marriage than strongly oppose it, it is unsurprising that numerous Democratic members of Congress came out in support of gay marriage in 2012 and 2013 after applied public pressure (Politico/Robillard, “Poll: 58 percent back gay marriage”). With regards to Republican politicians, their own base of senior citizens, Evangelicals, and self-described conservatives, among other voters, remain mostly opposed to gay marriage (The Huffington Post/Shapiro, “New Poll Shows Rocky Road To White House For Any Anti-Gay Republican”). However, the broader public support for gay marriage might compel some Republican politicians, especially those who represent battleground or Democratic districts and states, to endorse gay marriage. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), for instance, has already backed same-sex marriage, likely in anticipation of a difficult 2016 reelection bid in his heavily Democratic state (The Christian Science Monitor/Guarino, “Republican Sen. Mark Kirk backs gay marriage: How big a deal?”).
One key factor though in determining the influence of public opinion on policy here is the salience of the issue. On the whole, a 2014 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed merely 8% of voters identified gay marriage as “one of the most important” issues in impacting their vote. Considering this finding, it is likely that elites will avoid making gay marriage support or opposition a central priority of theirs in their political agenda, rhetoric, and actions. In fact, the low salience of the issue might explain why neither President Obama nor Governor Romney mentioned gay marriage in any of the 2012 presidential debates (NPR/Greenblatt, “During Debates, Silence On Some Issues Was Defeaning”). Ultimately though, the rising support for gay marriage does not necessarily mean public opinion challenges don’t remain for gays.
In additional to all of this evidence, between 2008 and 2010 in Gallup, a notable 8% of respondents expressed support for validating gay marriages but did not believe that gay relations were morally acceptable. Further evidence of a similar discrepancy is observed in Pew polling which showed “it may be easier for a respondent to say legalize gay marriage than to say I favor legalizing it.” Pew found that polls that asked generally about legalization elicited higher support than those that asked about whether respondents personally supported gay marriage (Pew/Kohut, “Yes, More Americans Favor Legalizing Gay Marriage, But Just How Many Do?”) They pointed to a 2013 Quinnipiac poll in which only 47% of Americans favored same-sex marriage when respondents were asked simply if they “supported or opposed gay marriage.” Regardless, the broader truth remains the same: support for gay marriage has risen recently, among all groups, even regardless of question wording.








BIBLIOGRAPHY
1.     Clawson, Rosalee A., and Zoe M. Oxley. 2013. Public Opinion: Democratic Ideals, Democratic Practice, Seond Edition. Washington: CQ Press. Pages 178-180 and 291-295.
2.     Kohut, Andrew. "Yes, More Americans Favor Legalizing Gay Marriage, But Just How Many Do?" Pew Research Center. March 29, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/2013/03/29/yes-more-americans-favor-legalizing-gay-marriage-but-just-how-many-do/.
3.     Montopoli, Brian. "Poll: With Higher Visibility, Less Disapproval For Gays." CBS News. June 9, 2010. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/poll-with-higher-visibility-less-disapproval-for-gays/.
4.     Neidorf, Shawn, and Rich Morin. "Four-in-Ten Americans Have Close Friends or Relatives Who Are Gay." Pew Research Center. May 22, 2007. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/2007/05/22/fourinten-americans-have-close-friends-or-relatives-who-are-gay/.
5.     Harwood, John. "US Problems About More Than 'Moral Values': Poll." CNBC. April 12, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.cnbc.com/id/100635460.
6.     Newport, Frank. "Religion Big Factor for Americans Against Same-Sex Marriage." Religion Big Factor for Americans Against Same-Sex Marriage. December 5, 2012. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.gallup.com/poll/159089/religion-major-factor-americans-opposed-sex-marriage.aspx.
7.     "In Gay Marriage Debate, Both Supporters and Opponents See Legal Recognition as 'Inevitable'" Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. June 6, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.people-press.org/2013/06/06/in-gay-marriage-debate-both-supporters-and-opponents-see-legal-recognition-as-inevitable/.
8.     Brownstein, Ronald. "Preaching to The Choir: How Church Attendance Divides the Parties." National Journal. April 6, 2015. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.nationaljournal.com/next-america/newsdesk/gay-marriage-democrats-gop-divide-20150406.
9.     Dickerson, John. "The Decline of Evangelical America." The New York Times. December 15, 2012. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/opinion/sunday/the-decline-of-evangelical-america.html.
10.  Lipka, Michael. "What Surveys Say about Worship Attendance – and Why Some Stay Home." Pew Research Center. September 13, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/13/what-surveys-say-about-worship-attendance-and-why-some-stay-home/.
11.  Greenblatt, Alan. "During Debates, Silence On Some Issues Was Deafening." NPR. October 23, 2012. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2012/10/23/163488809/during-debates-silence-on-some-issues-was-deafening.
12.  Guarino, Mike. "Republican Sen. Mark Kirk Backs Gay Marriage: How Big a Deal?" The Christian Science Monitor. April 2, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2013/0402/Republican-Sen.-Mark-Kirk-backs-gay-marriage-How-big-a-deal.
13.  Robillard, Kevin. "Poll: 58 Percent Back Gay Marriage." POLITICO. March 1, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.politico.com/story/2013/03/poll-58-percent-back-gay-marriage-89025.html.
14.  Voeten, Erik. "How the Supreme Court Responds to Public Opinion." The Washington Monthly. June 28, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/ten-miles-square/2013/06/how_the_supreme_court_responds045541.php.
15.  Edwards-Levy, Ariel. "Americans Would Rather Vote For A President Who Supports Gay Marriage." The Huffington Post. March 8, 2015. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/18/gay-marriage-2016_n_6895026.html.
16.  Basu, Tanya. "Why More Americans Accept Gay Marriage Than Ever." The Atlantic. March 3, 2015. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/03/why-more-americans-accept-gay-marriage-than-ever/386707/.
17.  Klarman, Michael. "Why Gay Marriage Is Inevitable." Los Angeles Times. February 12, 2012. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/12/opinion/la-oe-klarman-gay-marriage-and-the-courts-20120212.
18.  "Survey | A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues." Public Religion Research Institute. February 1, 2014. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://publicreligion.org/research/2014/02/2014-lgbt-survey/#.VSaJPTTF9p8.
19.  Barbaro, Michael. "A Scramble as Biden Backs Same-Sex Marriage." The New York Times. May 6, 2012. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/07/us/politics/biden-expresses-support-for-same-sex-marriages.html?_r=0.
20.  Schiappa, Edward, Gregg, Peter, and Hewes, Dean. “The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis.” Communication Monographs. March 1, 2005. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://cmsw.mit.edu/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/The-Parasocial-Contact-Hypothesis.pdf.
21.  Jaffe, Alexandra. "Axelrod on Obama: 'Leaders Work This Way' - CNN.com." CNN. February 11, 2015. Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/11/politics/obama-david-axelrod-interview/.
22.  The Huffington Post/Shapiro, “New Poll Shows Rocky Road To White House For Any Anti-Gay Republican”). Accessed April 9, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com





Thursday, April 2, 2015

On Iran, a Big Win for Obama

In a July 2007 CNN/YouTube Democratic primary debate, Senator Barack Obama made the case for negotiating with the United States' most strident foreign enemies. "The notion," Obama argued, "that not talking to countries is punishment" for them was flawed. Obama made the case that he would be willing to meet "without preconditions" with leaders like Iran's president in order to bridge differences for the sake of a more peaceful world. For making this suggestion, Obama was widely mocked by the Beltway foreign policy elite, including his future first-term Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Two years later, as President of the United States, Obama delivered a compelling Nowruz address to the Iranian people in which he made a strong case for a nuanced approach to Iran. In his 2009 Iranian New Year message, Obama envisioned a future with "renewed exchanges among our people and greater opportunities for partnership."

However, he understood, as demonstrated in his rhetoric and action, that this future was only possible through tough diplomacy mixed with pressure, when appropriate, cunning engagement with the Iranian people, and international cooperation.

Unlike neoconservative foreign policy thinkers, Obama and his team recognized that regime change by force, draconian economic punishments, and military action against Iranian nuclear facilities would only embolden Iranian hardliners while alienating an Iranian public that is actually unusually pro-American.

Today, as he approaches the twilight of a presidency with a decidedly mixed foreign policy record, President Obama can rightfully triumph the results of the agreed upon multilateral framework for a nuclear deal with Iran. The successful results of the negotiations of his persistent Secretary of State, John Kerry, with Iran's U.S.-educated foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and several major American allies thus far indicate that Obama's sensible vision is being reaffirmed.

The deal significantly limits Iran's uranium enrichment abilities, allows for extremely intrusive inspections, reduces their capacity to ever consider weaponization, and permits gradual sanctions relief upon verification. In important wins for the United States, the deal cuts in half the number of spinning centrifuges at the Natanz facility and the controversial Arak reactor "would operate on a limited basis that would not provide enough fuel for a bomb," The New York Times reported.

Crucially, the deal appears strong enough that it is being lauded by the director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association as being a good deal, for what it's worth. It's the kind of comprehensive solution advocated for by Middle East policy expert Kenneth Pollack in The Persian Puzzle, former longtime U.S. diplomats Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, ex-CIA agent and nuclear nonproliferation expert Valerie Plame Wilson, and foreign policy fellows at respected institutions like the Center for American Progress and the New American Foundation, including scores of American and Israeli generals.

This expert consensus only augments President Obama's case for this deal as it is reflective of his trust of an evidence-based policy backed by experienced diplomats, military officials, and negotiators. Further, it's vital to note that our sanctions on Iran's human rights abusers and terrorism-related sanctions remain in place thus ensuring that pressure on radical elements of the government remains in place.

To understand why this deal is such a big win for Obama and his vision on Iran is to understand the aforementioned history of his views, as well as the implications of this news. In terms of the Obama team's approach, the President bet that public diplomacy a la his Nowruz messages, his letters to Iran's leaders, and exempting food and medicine and personal technology from sanctions, among other actions, would help deconstruct the "Great Satan" image of the United States among Iranians.

It worked, from all we know, as several polls, articles, and other accounts of the Obama era indicate the Iranian people are remarkably not only pro-American but also pro-Obama. That kind of approach allowed for the Iranian people to put pressure on their leaders to work constructively with the U.S. to resolve the nuclear issue. As Iranians saw that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime was not interested in serious diplomacy with the U.S. on this issue and as the Iranian public sought sanctions relief, they fled to the polls to vote in the more moderate Hassan Rouhani.

Beyond that, the Obama administration embraced strong-armed diplomacy over hawkish belligerence but still pulled it all off without strengthening the worst elements of the regime. They did this because they understood that diplomacy and negotiations with Iran would strengthen the hand of the more sensible elements of Iran's government. Those elements wished better relations with the U.S. in order to become part of the community of nations and it is those elements that finally took the reigns in 2013.

If Obama had instead pursued a more punitive and bellicose policy, it would have blown up in his face. That approach could have meant genocidal sanctions and military action that would only have helped Iranian hardliners make the case to their citizens that the U.S. is an evil power thus helping justifying a case for nuclear weapons. The evidence that military strikes would even work to dismantle Iranian nuclear facilities was not convincing either.

Meanwhile, the hardliners would be marginalized through this negotiation process because the radicals' entire foreign policy framework is based on disseminating an image of the U.S. as the "Great Satan." They shun cooperation with the U.S., as evidenced with the ultraconservative Majlis' effort to condemn Zarif for taking a stroll with Kerry in Geneva. As the Iranian people saw clearly that the U.S. was interested in resolving the nuclear issue peacefully, it would become increasingly harder for the regime to paint the U.S. as the world's greatest evil.

Vitally too, the Obama administration ramped up sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Iranian state-run media, and other elements of the regime known for their flagrant human rights violations without allowing their broader-based sanctions to resemble 1990's Iraq sanctions that contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Again, this policy was based on the notion of empowering the Iranian people and moderates but reducing the power of hardliners.

Lastly, the administration bet on multilateral, hard-nosed, and exhaustive diplomacy that incorporated the top foreign ministers of major world powers and Iran to be the final key to peacefully resolving this matter. As noted above, Obama followed the advice of experienced foreign policy experts in taking on this task.

He did so because the administration knew this kind of deal -- inspections and enrichment limits in exchange for sanctions relief -- was in reach for many reasons: Iran had previously expressed sympathy to these terms in 2003, the Iranian government badly wanted sanctions relief to grow their economy, and the Rouhani/Zarif mindset was one that sought this diplomacy in order to make Iran a world player. Obama also recognized that the alternatives to such an approach were unacceptable: tougher sanctions and war, neither of which benefited the Iranian people.

Obama's bet is paying off, as seen in today's news. The implications are potentially huge as the U.S.' leadership role here in bringing Iran out of isolation and showing commitment to diplomacy will only improve our image among Iranians. The symbolic, anecdotal evidence of this is seen already as Iranian state-run TV, in an unusual move, aired Obama's Rose Garden speech on the deal live and many Iranians took to Twitter to take selfies with and celebrate Obama.

Importantly too, the deal will empower Rouhani, who has taken on the Revolutionary Guards (among other radicals), who ran on negotiating with the West, but weaken hardliners opposed to diplomacy. The deal could open the door to economic relief for Iran thus allowing for a more open, freer economy that could set the stage for a freer Iran, both in commerce and in politics.

Obviously, most importantly, the deal cuts off pathways to a nuclear weapon, as described by both Obama in the Rose Garden and by the Arms Control Association, which is obviously good news for international security. If Iran ever were to obtain a nuclear weapon, it would be a harmful development that would trigger an arms race in the Middle East and Iran's support of its own horrid Quds Force, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Bashar Assad makes weaponization a scary prospect. To prevent a weapon, without having to engage militarily in what could become a disastrous back and forth, is a big victory for global stability.

Much remains to be seen and Iran's leaders have shown before that they cannot be fully trusted but, for now, this deal is a huge win for the President, for the Iranian people, and for peace. Certainly, as a son of Iranian immigrants and as a supporter of President Obama, it is a good day.





Saturday, March 28, 2015

If you could relive your college experience, would you do it?

Recently, I took the online mandatory graduation survey that GW requires graduating seniors to take before we can obtain tickets for Commencement. Towards the very end of the extensive questionnaire, the survey asked an admittedly thought-provoking question: if you could relive your college experience all over again, would you do so? The choices offered for respondents were: 'definitely would,' 'probably would,' 'probably wouldn't,' and 'definitely wouldn't.'

At first glance, the question was one I thought I could answer with relative ease. I would naturally want to relive an experience that enriched me in terms of my knowledge, relationships, professional experience, and maturity. In the process, I learned a lot about life, my chosen course of study, and how to manage time effectively, among other things. Throughout it all, I enjoyed incredibly fun and formative experiences with friends, ranging from arranged social gatherings to spontaneous get togethers to serious support when needed.

Upon further introspection, before I could approach to click "definitely would," I paused for a moment of reflection. Would I actually relive my entire college experience if I could do it all over again? On the one hand, this question is meaningless because you obviously can't rewind time. On the other hand, the question allows for some useful self-reflection; the pondering over this question proves to be a meaningful thought experiment.

The most glaring examples of experiences I wish I could change, and certainly not relive exactly as they occurred, are those where I fell short of my standards of character, ethics, and work ethic. It is moments like these -- times when I may have emotionally hurt someone else (even if, often, unintentionally), when I felt I didn't do enough to help those in need in my community, not studied enough for certain courses or not devoted enough time to improving my own physical health early in college -- that cause me the greatest regret. The good times, the learning, and the extracurricular pursuits that defined my largely successful college career were not without their bumps, mistakes, and pitfalls.

Admittedly, I wish I lost weight at the outset of my college career instead of in the summer before my senior year (for my own health, most importantly), I wish I worked harder in classes and performed better academically in the first half of college when I was too distracted by a variety of factors, I wish I could have set aside my homesickness very early in freshman year rather than the late point in my first semester when I chose to do so, I wish I could have been humbler, at times, in my approach to others in my first year, and I wish I engaged in far more community service opportunities in the District in my first two years at GW.

Recounting these experiences in my mind made me question whether I would truly do it all over again. With all the good of incredible tasks pursued and lasting friendships forged, there was all the bad: time wasted, opportunities squashed, and priorities misplaced. I ultimately though clicked that I "definitely would" relive my entire college experience -- even these moments, a realization that might confound some readers.

I would relive it all because even those regrettable times proved useful in their own way. Having lived through them made me a better person. Nobody is perfect, we all make mistakes, and college is a prime opportunity to learn to climb back from these pratfalls and to mature and grow in time. These experiences compelled me, in the second half of college and hopefully beyond, to take better care of myself physically and even emotionally as I became more open with friends, to prioritize academics so I could learn more and perform stronger in classes as I did in the last two years, and to become more engaged in service in DC. Individuals who subscribe to the "everything happens for a reason" maxim -- a category that includes yours truly -- would find solace in this explanation.

On the whole, beyond the valuable lessons learned from my errors and sins early in my college career, I also obviously had amazingly fun-filled memories that I would relive at a moment's nice. After all, what is coming next -- the rigor that is law school -- is so daunting that it makes me seriously wish I could instead just relive college instead, even though I look forward to what lies ahead of me.

However, on that note, were it not for my four-year experience at GW, I would not be going to law school in Philadelphia in the fall. Were it not for GW, I would not have all these great and loving friendships I have formed in the Sigma Nu fraternity and in College Democrats and in my residence halls and classes, including, very recently, my awesome relationship with my girlfriend, Erin. Were it not for college, I would not have learned so much that I now know about the social safety net, anti-poverty programs, public speaking, campaigns and elections, philosophy, history physics, ethics, and political science from stellar professors like Edward Berkowitz, Robert Stoker, Ingrid Creppell, Christine Clapp, Phyllis Ryder, and John Sides, among others.

Were it not for GW, I would not have had the amazing experiences I had being able to make change happen, with the help of so many partners, in the GW Student Association Senate, on issues ranging from sexual assault policy to improving online resources to helping our student body president with raising support for his peer support program proposal. Finally, were it not for college, I would not have formed incredible connections and learned useful lessons of leadership that I obtained from my tenure as GW college Democrats president, a stint in which I am proud to say we worked hard to engage students in contemporary political discussion through several student and professor debates, community service events, two campaign trips, and speakers that included the Vice President of the United States.

So, in the end, of course, I definitely would relive my college experience. The good and the bad both were teachable moments. These experiences made me a better person, on a variety of levels, including ethically and in self-discipline. The last four years were powerfully formative in ways that I think will define and guide my moral compass and professional work for some time to come.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Case for Boyhood for Best Picture

Admittedly, I have only seen four of this year's Academy Award nominees for Best Picture: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, and Selma. Nevertheless, at least of these four films, and perhaps among all of the Best Picture nominees, the winner for the ceremony's most coveted prize should be Boyhood. Early in Oscar season, it appeared as if the independent film was a surefire bet for the award, earning the movie a clear front-runner status. The movie's path seemed set when it won the Golden Globe for best drama film. Since then, the momentum appears to have shifted somewhat to Birdman after its strong performance at the SAG Awards. At best, it appears to be a draw at this stage, especially in light of Boyhood doing well at the BAFTA awards.

In my view, there's a strong case to be made for Boyhood for picture. The Richard Linklater indie, which took 12 years to construct, is easily the best film of the 2010s thus far. For one, the movie had a compelling and heartwarming narrative - one with a strong emotional appeal, particularly for those of us who grew up in the same generational time period. The main character, Mason, was extremely likable, easy to identify with, and wonderfully complex but simple all at once. The journey Linklater took us on through his life was as fascinating as it was all too real, given the fact Mason's childhood experiences, in so many ways, resemble those of millions of Americans. 

Second, the film was masterfully directed and devised. It is essentially a collection of 12 short films, created over the course of more than a course of a decade, which binds together in such a smooth, flawless manner that a viewer could be forgiven for not realizing the story behind its making. The fact that Linklater and the actors involved could pull off this unique stint is a testament to the talent behind the film.

Third, speaking of which, the acting was impeccably skillful. The performances of Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, as Mason's divorced parents, are especially impressive. Hawke and Arquette brilliantly capture the complicated but caring nature of their characters, who are so deftly presented as flawed but fundamentally decent individuals. As many critics have pointed out, their performances show us that the film tells us as much about the importance of parenthood as it does about the lessons of boyhood. 

Fourth, the movie majestically weaves together the personal, intimate, and formative experiences of Mason with the cultural, social, and political elements of the years that define Mason's upbringing. Ranging from the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections to the Harry Potter books to EMacs, the film excellently incorporates such historical events - no small feat given that the relevant scenes were shot in real time as these phenomenon were happening. The combination of this with Mason's own growing pains and important interactions with family and friends make his story both very identifiable to us while also incredibly unique: his story becomes our story, one that is easily recognizable, but very distinct. 

Perhaps I am biased because I saw this film with two other guys - my best friends Zac and Jack - and we all grew up in the same time period as Mason and shared some similar experiences growing up. It's fair to say I am also biased because Mason and his family are Democrats and his dad in the film is exposed as a huge Beatles fan. I like to think though that my biases in this case are outweighed by the film's genuine creativity and excellence -- and many critics seem to agree. Let's hope the Oscar voters agree too. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Humanization of Brian Williams

The saga regarding Brian Williams' alleged tall-tales, exaggerations, and falsehoods has produced a divergence of opinion in the elite news media, and among Americans at large, regarding whether NBC should fire its star anchor. It seems that, thus far, a plurality of the public and media figures, at least, think he should go. The fate of Mr. Williams remains uncertain at this hour. One thing will surely never change though: Brian Williams has been exposed bare, his weaknesses revealed, and his transgressions made clear. He has been outed as a human being, with all of the imperfection, sinfulness, and moral ambiguity that come with that fragile status.

This acknowledgment does not, per se, compel me to support or oppose Williams' ouster. In my view, that outcome should come about only if it is revealed that Williams' deception is a real, consistent pattern that includes his accounts of Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, and the 2006 Israel/Lebanon conflict. Although not fully verifiable yet, these claims, if proven true, would seemingly prove that Williams' Iraq story "fog of memory" is no accident but likely part of a broader issue. The revelation that Williams, in fact, had deliberately misled viewers regarding these matters would badly (and rightfully) damage his reputation as a trusted, astute newsman.

However, those issues, while notable and worth discussing in any profile of the Williams controversy, are separate and distinct from the matter which this post seeks to address. For many years, Brian Williams has been elevated, by his fellow Americans and by his willing partners in the world of late-night, to iconic status. He became a popular cultural figure, the symbol of suaveness, smoothness, and slickness, and a television legend in the making. Williams was widely heralded in elite and public discourse as an impeccable force, the kind of talent who could win a Peabody Award while slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon.

This image came crashing down this week in light of the Iraq story and newer developments. What it reveals is that it is vital, for the sake of our collective sensibility, to keep in perspective that celebrities, politicians, and other individuals in the public eye are, like all of us, inherently flawed, imperfect, and insecure in their own ways. This notion may appear obvious to some readers but unfortunately, the "aura" of Brian Williams, as The New York Times' Maureen Dowd described it, led many to lend him a title that was seemingly beyond human. Ironically, now the same elite media and public is turning on Brian Williams for being just like we are but it's all because we held him to the most unreasonable expectation: perfection. Yet again, the lesson that "lionization of public figures," as my friend Charlie Sucher summed it up, is a faulty approach bears true again.

UPDATE: As of 9:30 pm on Tuesday 2/10/15, Mr. Williams has been suspended for six months by NBC News.