In the New York Times, author and sun-biographer Richard Cohen takes readers on an international tour of winter solstice practices throughout history, bouncing from modern Scandinavia, Pakistan, Korea, China and Japan to ancient Roman times, through the early Christian Church and then back to the Vikings (from whom the word Yule derives), concluding that "above all other rituals, reproducing the sun's fire by kindling flame on earth is the commonest solstice practice." Humans have always had good reason to celebrate the winter solstice, he writes, "but maybe that celebration is still touched with a little fear."
Meanwhile, Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haas has a Wall Street Journal op-ed urging de-escalation in Afghanistan. The costs of the current and deeper U.S. commitments there simply outweigh the benefits, he writes. The problem of al-Qaeda can be contained using tactics similar to those deployed in Somalia and Yemen, and what's more, Haas says, Pakistan can take care of itself; "why should we be more worried than the Pakistanis themselves" about the Afghan Taliban? Haas calls for drawing troops down to about 30,000 by mid-2012, channeling aid to local leaders, training Afghan forces, and using drones and Special Forces to keep insurgents at bay.
On the news front, Republicans are rallying to halt ratification of the New START arms-control pact, despite a letter from President Obama assuring them that the treaty will not adversely affect their pet issue of missile defense. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona have said they will oppose it if it's brought to a vote before the end of the current congressional session.
Steve Benen claims the GOP complaints are all "easily debunked" and have been "proven baseless." Nicole Belle says Graham's refusal to vote for ratification proves "that partisan hackery is far more important than any sense of honor or national security." Sandy Levinson thinks the problem is that the "modern Senate . . . thanks to our dysfunctional Constitution, allows a petulant minority" to "torpedo" international agreements. Spencer Ackerman writes that the Republicans just see "no political upside to voting" for "Obama's treaty," and blames the Democrats for lacking a "coherent legislative strategy for pushing the treaty through besides arguing for it on the merits." (What a novel idea!).
But Hugh Hewitt would count a Republican success in stopping the treaty as a "very positive note for national security." (Although he doesn't say why and thinks the pact a nefarious plot by the president to boost his upcoming reelection campaign.) William Jacobson concludes that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)—who apparently gave a rundown of pop culture news from Lady Gaga to Prince William to Donovan McNabb in his argument for passage—"must want terrorists to have nukes" and accuses him of "demagoguing the issue."
The Hill reports that the Senate will engage in a closed-door "secret session" Monday afternoon in a "final push" to ratify New START before Christmas.