Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in the United States and abroad:
The Tennessean, Nashville, Tennessee, on airlines should be free to make decisions on cellphone use:
Cellphones are not cigarettes, although it is easy to understand why some of us want to be as free from listening to disembodied conversations as we are from secondhand smoke in confined spaces.
The five largest U.S. airlines have weighed in against the removal of Federal Communications Commission restrictions on the use of cellular phones in flight. Customers are against it, they say, as are most of their employees.
As Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson said, "Delta employees, particularly our in-flight crews, have told us definitively that they are not in favor of voice calls on board." No surprise there. What flight attendant wants to try to separate someone from his or her inalienable right to talk on the phone?
While the FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, personally agrees that problems could arise, earlier this month he said, "I get it. I don't want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else." But he added, the FCC is charged with regulating the technology, not social convention.
The airlines do not want to be the arbiters, or invest in the technology needed to support cellphone use, but the federal government should not enforce a blanket ban on cellphones.
Cellphone conversations are not the health hazard that secondhand smoke is, and airlines should make their own decisions on how obtrusive technology is used on board their flights, not Congress. The Department of Transportation should give the responsibility to each airline on how they restrict cellphone usage.
It is too infrequent that regulators ease their restrictions, and we should not be too quick to relinquish choices to a political and bureaucratic infrastructure that we may later regret.
Technologies change, and airlines might find solutions that work for all, but not if legal and regulatory hurdles prevent even thinking about innovation.
The Post and Courier, Charleston, South Carolina, on warped zeal against Christians:
Members of the Christian faith are increasingly under attack in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. Though the main victims of the rising tide of sectarian violence in the region are Muslim civilians targeted by militants from the rival Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, violence against Christians is also increasing.
There is not much that can be done about this distressing trend so long as radical Islamists are free to target people of other faiths in the increasingly chaotic Mideast.
As Michael Gerson points out on our Commentary page, the persecution and murder of Christians have drawn the attention of Pope Francis and England's Prince Charles, who recently said, "It seems to me that we cannot ignore the fact that Christians in the Middle East are, increasingly, being deliberately targeted by fundamentalist Islamist militants."
Fresh examples include three Christmas Day attacks in Iraq, including a car bomb outside a church service, which killed 37 Christians. And nine nuns were kidnapped early this month in Syria, where there are frequent reports of abductions, torture, mass killings and beheadings of Christians. Violence in Egypt against Coptic Christians peaked last August - for the time being - with the destruction of scores of churches and drive-by killings.
Fundamentalist Muslim clergy and Islamic terrorists seem determined to rid the Mideast of Christians, just as they once drove out Jews. An imam in Iraq has declared that wearing a red Santa Claus hat is equivalent to being converted to Christianity, a capital offense under Muslim law.
Canon Andrew White, the esteemed vicar of St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad, reports that Iraqi Christians are "frightened even to walk to church because they might come under attack. All the churches are targets ... We used to have 1.5 million Christians, now we have probably only 200,000 left."
As Gerson notes, religious tolerance is one of the fruits of Western democracy - but it is also the outcome of centuries of religious strife in Europe that gradually led people to seek a separation between church and state.
In contrast, a major objective of fundamentalist Muslim groups is to impose a particular form of religious law, Sharia, on everyone. As Prince Charles has said, the bridges of respect and understanding that he and other world leaders have tried to build with moderate Muslim leaders "are rapidly being deliberately destroyed by those with a vested interest in doing so."
The world is a darker place because of their murderous zeal. This intensifying animus toward Christians demands sweeping - and continuing - condemnation by the international community.
New York Times on the facts about Benghazi:
An exhaustive investigation by The Times goes a long way toward resolving any nagging doubts about what precipitated the attack on the United States mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The report by David Kirkpatrick, The Times' Cairo bureau chief, and his team turned up no evidence that al-Qaida or another international terrorist group had any role in the assault, as Republicans have insisted without proof for more than a year. The report concluded that the attack was led by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO's air power and other support during the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and that it was fueled, in large part, by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.
In a rational world, that would settle the dispute over Benghazi, which has further poisoned the poisonous political discourse in Washington and kept Republicans and Democrats from working cooperatively on myriad challenges, including how best to help Libyans stabilize their country and build a democracy. But Republicans long ago abandoned common sense and good judgment in pursuit of conspiracy-mongering and an obsessive effort to discredit President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who may run for president in 2016.
On the Sunday talk shows, Representatives Mike Rogers and Darrell Issa, two Republicans who are some of the administration's most relentless critics of this issue, dismissed The Times' investigation and continued to press their own version of reality on Benghazi.
Issa talked of an administration "cover-up." Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who has called Benghazi a "preplanned, organized terrorist event," said his panel's findings that al-Qaida was involved was based on an examination of 4,000 classified cables. If Rogers has evidence of a direct al-Qaida role, he should make it public. Otherwise, The Times' investigation, including extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack, stands as the authoritative narrative.
While the report debunks Republican allegations, it also illuminates the difficulties in understanding fast-moving events in the Middle East and in parsing groups that one moment may be allied with the West and in another, turn adversarial. Americans are often careless with the term "al-Qaida ," which strictly speaking means the core extremist group, founded by Osama bin Laden that is based in Pakistan and bent on global jihad.
Republicans, Democrats and others often conflate purely local extremist groups, or regional affiliates, with al-Qaida's international network. That prevents understanding the motivations of each group, making each seem like a direct, immediate threat to the United States and thus confusing decision-making.
The report is a reminder that the Benghazi tragedy represents a gross intelligence failure, something that has largely been overlooked in the public debate. A team of at least 20 people from the Central Intelligence Agency, including highly skilled commandos, was operating out of an unmarked compound about a half-mile southeast of the American mission when the attack occurred. Yet, despite the CIA presence and Ambassador Stevens' expertise on Libya, "there was little understanding of militias in Benghazi and the threat they posed to U.S. interests," a State Department investigation found. The CIA supposedly did its own review. It has not been made public, so there is no way to know if the agency learned any lessons.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Egypt's decline:
Law and order and the economy in Egypt continue to deteriorate under military rule, making continued U.S. support of the Cairo government installed in the June coup d'etat increasingly precarious.
Hopes for democracy in Egypt prompted by the events of the 2011 Arab Spring, including the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, have rapidly diminished. Popular elections were held in 2012 and Mohammed Morsi, head of the Muslim Brotherhood, won and was installed as president. What was considered by some Egyptians to be overly rapid movement by Morsi to move the country to a more Islamic posture, brought demonstrations against him.
The Egyptian military, which had been in power since 1952, having given itself important economic franchises as well, felt threatened by Morsi's policies. Using the street demonstrations against him as justification, the military overthrew him in a coup led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in June.
Under U.S. law, the coup should have led to a cessation of American aid to Egypt, which totals about $2 billion a year and is mostly military in nature. Much of the $2 billion is used to reimburse U.S. defense contractors for production and training that is part of the military aid. As a result, and also because of the strategic role that Egypt has played for years in the U.S. posture in the Middle East region, including in the protection of Israel, President Barack Obama did not cut off aid to the regime installed by the coup.
For show or for real, Egypt's military leaders have laid out a schedule for a theoretical return to democratic rule that includes a new constitution and presidential elections. It is not clear at this point which order they envisage for the writing of the constitution and the holding of elections -- or if Gen. al-Sisi intends to be a candidate and attempt to preserve military rule by that means.
What is clear is that the Egyptian military does not intend to relinquish power, that the military coup was just that and that Egyptians have seen the last of democracy for now, at least until they can wrest it once more from military hands. The question is how long that will take.
For the United States, the need to separate itself from Egypt's generals by cutting off the remaining aid is clear. Otherwise, U.S.-Egyptian relations will go down when the generals' ship does.
Seattle Times on Obama must rein in the NSA:
President Barack Obama has a clearly defined mission in 2014. Protect Americans from the wretched excesses of the National Security Agency.
The NSA ostensibly was created to keep U.S. citizens from harm. Recently a panel of security and surveillance experts made it clear Americans must be shielded from unchecked invasions of privacy by the NSA.
The Affordable Care Act was cursed with all manner of computer glitches, but the machinery to eavesdrop on millions of Americans hums along without credible judicial scrutiny or congressional oversight.
No one is paying attention as the NSA vacuums up stunning amounts of telephone and online data every 90 days and stores it for five years, The New York Times reported.
How the information is used and who has access to it is not well understood. Tensions are even surfacing with foreign allies who have varying security links.
The phone companies, and other data sources, turn over the information on the broadest of directions from the NSA's lap dog surveillance court. Is anyone acting on the basis of probable cause or some level of suspicion? No.
The panel of experts briefed Obama. One can hope he will address the concerns of a former national security adviser in Democrat and Republican administrations, privacy and constitutional specialists, and a former deputy director of the CIA.
The panel recommends more than 40 changes, including a separation of leadership roles between civilian and military cyber authorities. The president has already turned that down.
The federal courts are of two minds. On Friday, a federal judge in New York found NSA data gathering to be legal and a valuable tool against terrorism. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., described the collection of telephone data as "almost Orwellian."
The trauma of 9/11 prepared Americans to accept some new, intensive level of security surveillance in dangerous times. The nation naively expected the newly created Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to scrutinize government requests to monitor telephone and online traffic.
Apparently the FISA court plays an essentially rigged and weighted role that only serves the government.
Obama must protect the country from internal security abuses. Congress has legislative powers of executive oversight and the budget. Use both to rein in the NSA.
The NSA has a mission, but the agency cannot be allowed to ignore basic rights and freedoms.
The Telegraph, London, on a stable Army:
There are unlikely to be any victory parades when British forces finally wind up combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of 2014 and return home. The widespread support that attended the initial intervention in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks has waned, in part because successive governments have failed to provide an adequate exposition of the mission's objectives.
Yet as Gen. Sir Peter Wall, the head of the Army, explains in an interview with this newspaper, our mission has - in certain key respects - been a success. The original purpose of the deployment was to destroy and disrupt al-Qaida's terrorist network, which was using Afghanistan as a base to plot deadly attacks against the West, and to stabilize the country so that it could no longer be used as a safe haven for Islamist malcontents. Al-Qaida's infrastructure has indeed been destroyed, and its operatives dispersed, while the Taliban has suffered heavily at the hands of coalition forces.
The campaign, though, has not been without cost. The death this week of a soldier serving with the Royal Engineers brings the British war dead to 447, with many hundreds more having suffered crippling injuries, both physical and mental. It is essential, therefore, that these great sacrifices do not prove to be in vain. For as Sir Peter warns today, there is every possibility that the Taliban will seek to seize control of iconic towns, such as Musa Qala in Helmand, which were captured during bitter fighting in which British forces suffered considerable casualties. Their security depends on the ability of Afghan forces to keep the Taliban at bay - which is much to ask of a military that has been in existence for only a few years.
Another issue the government must consider is what use to make of the Army once it has returned home. The drastic cuts to its manpower, undertaken while it has still been engaged in demanding combat operations, have inevitably had an impact on morale. Nor will an Army career have much appeal for potential recruits if our soldiers continue, as we report today, to be housed in sub-standard accommodation. It is tempting for politicians to conclude that, in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army will no longer take a lead role in future conflicts. But that would be a grave miscalculation. The end of our involvement in the fight against the Taliban does not mean the threats to our national security have diminished. Syria, Iran and Somalia - to name but a few - could all one day require a military response involving boots on the ground. In an eternally uncertain world, we need to have an Army that is equipped, trained and cared for to the highest standards.
The Australian on Assad's WikiLeaks fan club:
It would be hard to think of anything more blindly foolish than to cozy up to the Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad. Yet that is what a WikiLeaks Party delegation has done by travelling to Damascus to express "solidarity" with his odious regime. Nothing better demonstrates the sound judgment of the Australian electorate in giving Julian Assange's party such a derisory vote in last September's election. At any time, paying court to a ruler with Assad's monstrous human rights record - at last count by the UN, 126,000 men, women and children have been slaughtered in Syria's civil war - would suggest an almost comedic level of political naivety. At a time when Assad's obduracy and unwillingness to compromise is clearly to blame for the alarming growth in al-Qaida-linked Islamist extremism among the country's rebel forces that Cameron Stewart reported in The Australian yesterday, that is even more the case.
Apart from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah terrorist allies, the rest of the world overwhelmingly sees Assad as the central problem and is united in the belief that the best way to force him to see sense and negotiate is to isolate him and constantly remind him of how friendless he is. Not so, however, the Australian WikiLeaks delegates, who included Assange's father, John Shipton, Sydney University academic Tim Anderson (who was acquitted of the 1978 Sydney Hilton bombing), Sydney Shia activist Jamal Daoud and WikiLeaks activist Gail Malone: grandly they declared they were there to affirm "the solidarity of the Australian people". Thankfully, they are in no position to do that, given their minuscule support in the election. And in a move that has "WikiLeaks in Wonderland" overtones, they announced the party would open a Damascus office - just what it needs.
We have witnessed this sort of silliness before. Saddam Hussein played up such visits to propagate the myth he enjoyed widespread international support. Assad is doing the same. His version of "Baghdad Bob", the official Syrian news agency, says Assad "underlined the importance" of the WikiLeaks Party visit and noted the delegates "represent a broad section of the Australian people who support Syria". Nothing could be further from the truth.
The trouble with the absurd WikiLeaks sideshow is that it deflects attention from what is a serious issue - the growth of jihadist extremism as a consequence of Assad's murderous rampage and his unwillingness to negotiate. Worryingly, Australian fighters are joining the deadliest of the terror groups. The longer Assad remains unwilling to compromise, the greater will be the movement of support toward the most extreme of the jihadist forces. Yet the WikiLeaks delegates were in Damascus to express solidarity with Assad, a war criminal. Who's next? Might they, at a different time, have gone to Baghdad to express solidarity with Saddam, or to Kampala to cozy up with Idi Amin? No wonder Assad expressed such pleasure at seeing them - he doesn't get many callers these days.
As we report today, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has condemned the clueless party's delegation to the Assad bunker as "extremely reckless'''; the foray was "deeply counterproductive," Bishop said, undermining the sanctions placed on the rogue regime. Indeed, it could be seen as a show of support for the dictator and his distasteful practices. Tellingly, some of WikiLeaks's most dedicated supporters have joined the Abbott government and Labor opposition in lambasting the so-called "solidarity mission." It is simply idiotic political grandstanding, which provides the pariah regime with a propaganda coup in some quarters.
Unrepresentative though they may be of anything beyond their own egos, the WikiLeaks delegates have made an egregious error. They have played into the hands of the notorious despot at a time when the Syrian crisis presents the gravest of challenges to the international community over the inexorable growth of Islamic jihadist extremism. If nothing else, however, their silliness has shown up Assange's party for the nonsense that it is, and confirmed the wisdom of the decisive judgment Australian voters passed on it at the election.