The ongoing IRS scandal has struck such a nerve with the public because it is a clear example of a prying, ever-present government abusing its revenue-raising power and succumbing to the temptation of easy corruption. There are few things more outrageous with regard to the government’s ability to fund its own corrupt practices–but the latest scandal out of Florida may be one of those cases.
Media Trackers points to this investigation by Florida’s WTSP-St. Petersburg 10 News, which notes that the Florida Department of Transportation instituted a particularly dangerous way to wring more money out of motorists, and crossed federal standards to do so. At issue are the traffic light cameras, an unsafe plague on roadways rife with corruption across the country. The cameras are installed to catch motorists violating traffic rules, but the lawbreakers are usually on the other side of the cameras. From WTSP:
At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, many of Bashar Assad’s longtime allies were wary of openly supporting a discredited dictator who was slaughtering his own people. Hamas, which had long maintained a headquarters in Damascus, quietly sulked out of town. Hezbollah, which is tied by an umbilical cord of supplies to Damascus, kept its distance too. But with the Assad regime showing signs of hanging on after more than two years of combat, Hezbollah, and its patrons in Iran, have been more open in their support for the regime. Hundreds of Hezbollah fighters are now fighting alongside Syrian troops in the critical battle for the town of Qusayr near the major city of Homs. Dozens of “martyrs” are coming home to Lebanon in body bags.
By thus raising the stakes in Syria, Hezbollah is leaving itself open to serious blowback. Its credibility in Lebanon has always depended on its posture as an anti-Israel force; its prestige soared when it chased the IDF out of southern Lebanon in 2000 and when it stood up to Israeli attacks in 2006. But now in Syria, Hezbollah fighters are battling not the “accursed” Jews but fellow Muslims who are determined to rid their country of an unelected and unpopular leader.
I recently spent a week in Afghanistan, traveling around the country, from Kabul to Kandahar and Helmand. One of my biggest takeaways was that the Afghan army is now at the forefront of the fight and doing a good job on the whole. But it still needs important “enablers” that only the U.S. can provide, the most important being airpower. Not so much aircraft for close air support–i.e. dropping bombs and missiles on enemy fighters–but aircraft for evacuation of casualties.
The Washington Post has a good article today by reporter Kevin Sieff showing how the Afghan army’s lack of its own medevac aircraft has consigned soldiers to death after suffering what should been a relatively minor wound, which helps to account for its high fatality rate. Evacuations by road are often dangerous and time-consuming–and patients arrive at a hospital long after the “golden hour” when their chances of survival are the highest. (The Afghan army also needs to work on developing its system of military hospitals which, needless to say, are not nearly as far advanced as those of the U.S. Armed Forces.)
Earlier this week I wrote a piece about how Barack Obama was criticizing “Washington’s priorities” and the IRS scandal, as if he had not been president for the past four years and four months. There is something brazen and audacious in even attempting something like this. I speculated that Mr. Obama is unable to take responsibility for the problems that have occurred on his watch for reasons rooted in cognitive dissonance (failures cannot possibly happen on the watch of the Great and Mighty Obama). He is engaged in what psychiatrists call disassociation.
A friend alerted me to the fact that a version of this analysis had already been offered up by Rush Limbaugh, who in the aftermath of the 2012 election was trying to make sense of the president’s ability to escape responsibility for his multiple failures. Why did polls show massive dissatisfaction with the country’s direction while at the same time supporting Mr. Obama’s agenda?
The New York Times is in a state of the highest dudgeon this morning as it reported that, “Even as Apple became the nation’s most profitable technology company, it avoided billions in taxes in the United States and around the world through a web of subsidiaries so complex it spanned continents and went beyond anything most experts had ever seen, Congressional investigators disclosed on Monday.”
It made this the lead story, not the terrible tragedy in Oklahoma. It even devoted the Quote of the Day to the story, quoting a law professor, “There is a technical term economists like to use for behavior like this. Unbelievable chutzpah.”
Revelations about the Justice Department’s spying on the Associated Press already had the media up in arms, but the news of yet another instance of the government cracking down on journalists seems to have woken much of the country to the truth about the administration’s disregard for freedom of the press. On Sunday the Washington Post reported that Fox News chief Washington correspondent (and COMMENTARY contributor) James Rosen was subjected to having his emails read and phone tapped in the course of an investigation of an alleged leak of classified information about North Korea.
Following similar action against the Associated Press, there can be no denying the chilling effect the snooping on journalists has on the ability of the press to do its job in a democracy. Indeed, the Rosen case ought to be a bridge too far for even those who understand that the government has a legitimate interest in preventing leaks. The egregious nature of the accusation against Rosen that he was a “co-conspirator” in what amounts to a charge of espionage, along with the government consultant who allegedly gave him information to report, betrays a lack of respect for journalists and journalism. It also shows a willingness to disregard the law that protects professional news gatherers from this kind of harassment.
On March 21, 2013, the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan released a letter to his supporters in the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) calling on them to lay down their arms, and for PKK fighters to withdraw to Iraq. The first group of PKK fighters has now heeded his call, and other groups are on the way. At President Obama’s joint press conference last week with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Obama praised the Turkish-Kurdish peace process:
And I want to take this opportunity to commend you and the Turkish people for your courage in seeking an historic and peaceful resolution of the PKK violence that has plagued Turkey for so long. And just as the United States has stood with you in your long search for security, we will support efforts in Turkey to uphold the rule of law and good governance and human rights for all.
Obama may be optimistic, but if the Turks believe that PKK withdrawal was the end-all and be-all of any peace process, they are sorely mistaken.
Last week came word that the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush, an aircraft carrier on which I had the honor of spending two weeks nearly two years ago, would be testing Northrop-Grumman’s X-47B, an unmanned combat aviation vehicle. The Navy has now released photos and video of the X-47B both launching from the Bush, and also conducting a touch-and-go.
There is little good news coming from the military today, with cutbacks, self-inflicted sequestration wounds, and the looming loss of capability dominating headlines. That the Navy is testing successfully the X-47B on carriers is a good sign. Launching from a carrier is one thing; a “touch-and-go” is something entirely else, as planes—manned or unmanned—must take into account ocean swell and deal with what, in effect, is a constantly moving runway.
The situation in Iraq continues to get grimmer and grimmer. Here is the latest: “A wave of car bombings and gunfire attacks hit cities in Iraq overnight and on Monday, killing at least 64 people and wounding more than 170, medical and security officials said.”
What is most alarming about this growth of violence is the intransigence increasingly displayed by both sides. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is blaming “terrorist” politicians of Sunni persuasion for the attacks, while Sunnis once active in the Anbar Awakening are vowing to resist with force the presence of the Iraqi army in Anbar Province. It is difficult, if not yet impossible, to imagine some kind of negotiated solution. In all likelihood, the violence will get worse as al-Qaeda in Iraq stages a dismaying comeback from its near-defeat during the surge in 2007-2008.
The biggest winner of Israel’s January Knesset elections was Yair Lapid, the former TV personality who led his Yesh Atid Party to a tremendous showing, gaining 19 Knesset seats in its first try for office. In the aftermath of that victory and prior to his joining Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, I speculated as to whether Lapid could survive success since every previous such newcomer to Israeli electoral politics who had such a good showing was soon brought to grief. The definitive answer to that question will have to wait until at least after the next Israeli election. But four months later the tentative response would have to be that he appears on track to be felled by the same sin that every other “centrist” new voice has committed: accepting the responsibility of government.
Lapid’s personal popularity has plummeted as a result of him getting the short straw when Netanyahu handed out Cabinet posts. As finance minister, Lapid, whose party was catapulted to a second place finish by capitalizing on middle class discontent, has had the unfortunate responsibility of paying the bills in a country where most people and their government live on credit. There was no rational alternative to the austerity budget that he presented to the Knesset, but the tax increases and budget cuts in it were not exactly what his voters had in mind when they put him in office. Polls show half of those who backed Yesh Atid won’t do so again and that has left Lapid, who has not given interviews in recent months, with the need to reboot his personality cult. As part of this effort, he gave an interview to the New York Times to talk about his political education in terms that seem painfully familiar for those who remember how other centrist leaders were schooled by reality once they took office.
But what’s fascinating about the interview isn’t his confession that he “used to have so many opinions before I learned the facts.” Nor is it his bold prediction that all will come right in the end for him. It’s that despite the best efforts of the Times to entice him to win some popularity abroad by separating himself from Netanyahu on the peace process, Lapid’s positions remain virtually identical to those of the prime minster. For all of his current political problems, Lapid understands there’s no future in Israel for those who curry favor with the country’s foreign critics.
In 2007, James Mann published a book called The China Fantasy, about American leaders downplaying Chinese human rights violations in the interest of integrating China into the global economy. The aim of “integration” was to involve China in world affairs and force it to play by certain rules, which would hopefully be habit-forming and result in more domestic freedom. It didn’t exactly happen that way, and Mann offered an explanation why: reverse integration. As he wrote:
The fundamental problem with this strategy of integration is that it raises the obvious question “Who’s integrating whom?” Is the United States now integrating China into a new international economic order based upon free market principles? Or, on the other hand, is China now integrating the United States into a new international political order where democracy is no longer favored and where a government’s continuing eradication of all organized political opposition is accepted or ignored?
Needless to say, the United States itself doesn’t have to become more like China for reverse integration to take place; it merely needs to accept that China’s existing values are welcome in the international community. It’s worth keeping this concept of reverse integration in mind when examining the thorny question of Britain’s membership in the European Union. Not only does there seem to be a case of reverse integration taking place, but in contrast with the U.S./China analogy Britain is actually at risk of becoming more like the rest of the EU through its participation–even if it holds on to its sovereign currency.
Ever since the death of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez back in March, his successors have been flinging insult after insult at the United States. The volley began at the very moment of Chavez’s death, when his anointed heir Nicolas Maduro, pointing an accusatory finger at the U.S., claimed that Chavez had been “assassinated.” Maduro then accused the U.S. of plotting to kill his opposition rival, Henrique Capriles, in order to engineer a coup. Finally, after weeks of blaming the U.S. for everything from food shortages to the violence that followed the disputed April 14 presidential election, Maduro recycled a barb that Chavez had previously deployed against George W. Bush, when he declared that President Obama was the “grand chief of devils.”
Now, however, conciliatory noises are emerging from Caracas. Over the weekend, Maduro’s foreign minister, Elias Jaua, announced that Venezuela wanted to mend diplomatic fences with the United States. “We are going to remain open to normalizing relations with the United States,” Jaua said during a television interview. “The first thing would be to resume diplomatic representation at the highest level.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is due to deliberate on Tuesday on bipartisan legislation introduced by Democrat Robert Menendez and Republican Bob Corker that would, as Robert Zarate of the Foreign Policy Initiative notes, “allow U.S. military assistance to vetted Syrian rebels, authorize the imposition of new sanctions on sellers of arms and oil to the Assad regime, and create a $250 million transition fund for post-Assad Syria.”
These are all good ideas, although the provision of military assistance to the rebels should have begun a year or two ago; if it had, extremists might not have gained such prominence in the rebels’ ranks and Bashar Assad would not have been able to stage a dismaying comeback with the aid of Hezbollah and Iran. Yet is never too late to act.
Nine months after the terrorist attack in Benghazi that cost four American lives, we’re finally finding out who it was that the State Department thinks is responsible for the debacle: the middle managers. Josh Rogin’s exclusive interview at the Daily Beast with the only person to lose his job over the tragedy doesn’t tell us much about why Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were left without security in the face of clear danger from an al-Qaeda affiliate. But it does tell us everything we need to know about how Hillary Clinton’s State Department functioned.
Benghazi is one of the worst disasters in American diplomatic history, but the sum total of accountability for it is limited to the career of Raymond Maxwell, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) who was placed on administrative leave in December after the now-famous Administrative Review Board (ARB) led by Thomas Pickering issued its report. Pickering didn’t bother interviewing the person in charge of the department—Secretary Clinton—but according to Rogin’s sources, Maxwell was consigned to perdition for not reading his daily intelligence reports. If so, perhaps he deserves his fate even though Maxwell claims he had “no involvement to any degree with decisions on security and the funding of security at our diplomatic mission in Benghazi.” That is something that cannot be said of others, including the secretary, who sent Stevens on what proved to be a fatal mission. Yet what comes across loud and clear in the piece is that what happened at Foggy Bottom in the aftermath of the debacle was that a middle manager was made to walk the plank while all senior personnel were spared from the consequences of the mistakes that were made.
I previously expressed skepticism that the U.S. armed forces were really experiencing the surge of sexual assault suggested in overheated news stories and echoed by lawmakers eager to change the traditional military justice system so as to make it more responsive to all these supposed victims.
Further confirmation for skepticism comes from this Wall Street Journal op-ed from Marine captain and judge advocate Lindsay Rodman. She points out that the headline-grabbing figure of 26,000 sexual assaults in the military in 2012 breaks down on closer analysis. That dubious statistic comes from a survey distributed to more than 100,000 individuals but completed by fewer than 23,000. It is not clear exactly who in the military completed the survey or whether it is a scientifically valid sampling (to the extent that such a thing even exists). She suggests there is good cause to believe the females, who constitute only 14.6 percent of the military, are oversampled.
Moreover, Rodman notes:
Over the weekend, some in the mainstream press began the job of trying to resurrect the original story put out by the IRS that the targeting of conservative groups for scrutiny was the act of isolated rogue employees. The massive story attempting to unravel the confusing story of the targeting published in the New York Times yesterday not only seemed to get us back to thinking the affair was simply the product of people at the Cincinnati regional office who were “alienated” from the agency’s broader culture. It also portrayed the agents who perpetrated what almost everyone on both sides of the aisle thinks is an outrage as an underfunded, overworked band of “low-level” hard working people coping with an impossible task made necessary by conservatives trying to evade the tax laws.
The details provided by the Times investigation are interesting in that they give us a sense of the timeline of the targeting and the inadequate nature of supervision of the unit tasked with giving approval for requests by organizations for nonprofit status. But what it admittedly doesn’t do is to answer the main question that looms over the entire story: who gave the order for the targeting and who or what inspired the IRS officials to adopt such a blatantly partisan policy. It also ignores a clue toward solving this problem that Dave Weigel helpfully pointed out in Slate on Friday in his reaction to the astoundingly tone deaf performance of outgoing IRS chief Steven Miller at a congressional hearing: most of the people who work at the IRS are liberal.
Analysts continue to obsess about next month’s presidential elections in Iran. The latest source of speculation is that the Guardian Council, an unelected body charged with vetting presidential candidates (and disqualifying, in practice, more than 95 percent of them) might give the hook, on account of advanced age, to 78-year-old former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who last week declared his intention to run again for the office. If he were elected, that would mean Rafsanjani would turn 79 within weeks of assuming the presidency and would be nearly 83 by the time his term ended. That the Guardian Council would disqualify on the basis of age is, of course, a bit rich given that Ahmad Jannati, the Council’s chairman, is himself 86.
Ali Khamenei—Iran’s Supreme Leader—is also getting up in age, as he prepares to celebrate his 74th birthday. Influential cleric Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi is now 79; radical former premier turned self-declared reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi is 71; and perennial candidate Mehdi Karroubi is 75. Former Foreign Minister and current candidate Ali Velayati is a relative spry 67. There is a new crop of candidates—former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalali is just a wee lad of 47, and Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf is just four years Jalali’s senior.
Now that we refer to the timeline of the Syrian civil war in years instead of days or months, it can be difficult to perceive singular turning points. But the reports coming today out of Homs Province on the battle over the strategic city of Qusayr seem to be describing just that. As the New York Times notes, the battle, which is pitting the Syrian government’s forces and Hezbollah against Syrian rebels, has resulted thus far in government control over more than half the city for the first time.
The importance of Qusayr can be gleaned from the Washington Post’s essential story from May 11 as well. “All [Assad’s forces] need now,” a Syrian analyst tells reporter Liz Sly, “is to hold the coast, Homs and Damascus, where the institutions of governance are.” The Assad regime has stabilized, and the portrait being painted now is one in which the outcome of the conflict is more likely than not to be a Syria with Bashar al-Assad still in power controlling most of the country except for some jihadist-run enclaves. But it would be a mistake to consider this a return to the status quo. In many ways, the perpetuation of current trends is going to yield a balance of power very different from the pre-war one.
Veteran reporter James Rosen, the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News, is at the center of the latest controversy involving the Obama administration’s treatment of the press, stemming from a story he broke in 2009. Rosen’s insightful review of Robert Bork’s posthumously published memoir of his involvement in the Watergate affair–given new relevance by the current scandals–is in the current issue of COMMENTARY and can be read here.
The Obama administration’s scandal trifecta has caused some Republicans and even some media figures to start throwing the most dreaded comparison you can throw at a president: Richard Milhous Nixon. But though Democrats understand that the politicization of the IRS will, at the very least, energize their opponents next year, they’ve also rightly understood that at this stage talk about Nixon is, at best, premature. Thus when the White House sent out one of the president’s inner circle yesterday to do all five Sunday news talk shows, their strategy for surviving the scandals was clear. After the worst week of the Obama presidency, senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer played the one card that has always worked for the Democrats in the last few years: alleged Republican extremism. To listen to Pfeiffer, instead of the president needing to be accountable to the country for what’s been happening, it’s the GOP that owes the country an apology for preventing Obama from implementing his policies by prioritizing the scandals.
Turning the tables on your opponents is always a useful tactic, especially if it is done as shamelessly as this. After all, the same media that has turned on the president in the last week spent the previous four years lapping up this stuff. But if Pfeiffer’s boss thinks he can live through this siege of bad news merely by repeating the same media strategy he’s been employing all along, he’s mistaken. Talk about Nixon or impeachment doesn’t hurt Obama. But what he and his advisors are missing is that the most dangerous comparison to him right now is a president with whom they are much better acquainted: George W. Bush.
Mentioning Bush in the same breath as Obama is bound to offend both Democrats and Republicans. The former because they despise W. even more than a GOP demon from the past like Nixon, and the latter because they rightly believe evaluations of Bush as a failed president are unfair and the product of liberal slanders and media bias. But the 43rd president’s second term provides an object lesson in how a president can be done in by an impression of incompetence.