Lois Lerner seemed to have gotten her proverbial 15 minutes of fame after being the first one to let slip the news that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative groups when determining the non-profit status of organizations during a conference call with reporters on May 10. Before the nation began to even fully digest the enormity of this scandal, they had a good laugh at the IRS official’s expense because in answer to a question about the percentage of groups that had been unfairly treated she responded, “I’m not good at math.” That earned her a moment of derision in what has now become a classic Jon Stewart rant on Comedy Central as he noted that both her “apology” and her inability to do simple arithmetic undermined the credibility of the party of big government as well as that of the tax agency.
But while Lerner may not know math, she can count to five. We learned this afternoon that when she answers her subpoena to testify about the affair before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions posed by Congress. The agency that once was best known for being used to nail criminals like Al Capone who could not be successfully prosecuted for their violent crimes but were vulnerable because they didn’t pay enough taxes is now going to have a top official acting like a mafia button man on the hot seat.
When Chris Christie retained his high approval numbers into 2013, it threw a wrench into the plans and expectations of the New Jersey Democratic Party. Because Christie was something of a political novice (he served as a county freeholder in the 1990s), they thought he might stumble early on. He didn’t. Because he started off taking on a pervasive New Jersey institution in the public education unions, they hoped he would prove too divisive for blue Jersey. He didn’t. Because, despite Christie’s fundraising, his party failed to make gains in the state legislature’s midterm elections, it looked as if he was running out of steam. He wasn’t.
So a gubernatorial election that was supposed to be celebrity Mayor Cory Booker’s perfectly timed transition out of Newark and into the governor’s mansion instead looked liked an intimidating challenge–especially in a state where high-level Democrats are rarely challenged. So Booker seems to have decided to move over to the Senate, to take Frank Lautenberg’s seat. But a Lautenberg retirement was supposed to clear the way for Congressman Frank Pallone, who would now face an uphill battle against Booker. And who will run against Christie on the Democratic ticket? It will be State Senator Barbara Buono, who has just put out an ad taking a self-deprecating shot at her own lack of name ID:
No, I’m not going to tell a religious joke here on the blog, but I will staunchly defend anyone’s right to poke fun or criticize religion (or anything else) on the pretext of free speech. Defending religious sensibility, however, has become the latest front in a war pursued by diverse politicians to curtail free speech.
There has been much attention, for example, on efforts by leaders of Muslim states—from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai—to outlaw Islamophobia which, despite its name, has less to do with “fear” of Islam and more to do with constraining an internal debate about some of its more noxious interpretations.
Critics of U.S. involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan often make two mutually exclusive points. The first is that the wars have been tremendously costly, and the second is that the means to win security is through development.
Had the Iraq war ended soon after Saddam’s ouster—and had the Bush administration not abandoned its initial plans to withdraw after 90 days—then the cost of that war would have been tremendously reduced both in terms of blood and treasure. Iraq has made great strides in the decade since Saddam’s ouster, but most of the development in both southern and northern Iraq has more to do with the fact that Saddam is gone than with American investment. The billions spent on development (including the cost of providing those aid workers with security) have produced little if anything.
I guess Senator Rand Paul reads Contentions. At least his opening statement tracks what I wrote this morning exactly.
He said, for instance, “I am offended by the spectacle of dragging in here executives from an American company that is not doing anything illegal. If anyone should be on trial here, it should be Congress.”
The New York Times is worried about the IRS scandal–but not for the reasons that have alarmed most Americans. Since the paper actually encouraged the government to target conservative organizations for prejudicial treatment last year, its response to the outrageous conduct that even the White House condemned has been somewhat equivocal, rather than expressing the fears that others feel about the tax agency involving itself in partisan politics. What they’re really scared about, though, is the possibility that anger about the IRS and big government in general that this and other administration scandals have engendered will make it more difficult to implement ObamaCare. Though the Times’s editorial page is usually wrong about most issues, they’re right on target on this score.
That’s exactly why congressional Republicans shouldn’t back away from the idea of attempting to separate the IRS from the role the bill has them playing in rolling out this vast expansion of government power. Similarly, they should also investigate the efforts of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to shake down corporations in order to get them to contribute to a campaign to pressure people to enroll in the act’s health exchanges.
As I noted earlier today, the government’s treatment of Fox News reporter James Rosen betrayed the Obama administration’s unhinged obsession with targeting journalists. But as troubling as that is, the problem goes deeper than the attempt by the Department of Justice to eviscerate the First Amendment. The news that one of the reporters who had been aggressively covering the Benghazi scandal had her computer tampered with should alarm more than just her fellow scribes. So, too, should the increasingly shrill attacks from the president’s cheering section on other journalists who have been following the stories about government misconduct.
As Politico reports:
Sharyl Attkisson, the Emmy-award winning CBS News investigative reporter, says that her personal and work computers have been compromised and are under investigation.
“I can confirm that an intrusion of my computers has been under some investigation on my end for some months but I’m not prepared to make an allegation against a specific entity today as I’ve been patient and methodical about this matter,” Attkisson told POLITICO on Tuesday. “I need to check with my attorney and CBS to get their recommendations on info we make public.”
In an earlier interview with WPHT Philadelphia, Attkisson said that though she did not know the full details of the intrusion, “there could be some relationship between these things and what’s happened to James [Rosen].”
Like the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups, this incident illustrates the old line that said just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. After what happened to the Associated Press and Rosen, no one should be dismissing out of hand the notion that what’s going on with Attkisson is a matter of foul play.
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.