Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 23, 2009

Re: Kicking In and Out of Agreements with Israel

Rick, the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to avoid directly renouncing the Bush-Sharon agreement regarding settlements. Plainly, the Obama team doesn’t want to abide by the terms of that understanding (which allowed for growth within existing settlements), yet they feel obliged not to say so. On one hand, this is curious for an administration that prides itself, indeed defines itself, on being “not George Bush.” But somehow the “turning the page” and “fresh start” lingo doesn’t work so well when it comes to Israel. And it is, after all, poor form to insist Israel keep its agreements while America declines to keep hers.

So the effort to twist and evade has begun. The latest incarnation is to insist the Bush-Sharon agreement was never “implemented” and therefore carries no weight. There are two responses to that.

First, this is not the behavior that has characterized the Israeli-U.S. relationship, at least not recently. We haven’t generally engaged in legalisms and diplomatic fencing with our friend and ally. Quoted in the Washington Times, Elliott Abrams explains, “There were lots of agreements between the U.S. and Israel because there was tremendous trust between the two governments. We did not operate in a context in which anything that was not written down would disappear; we operated in a context of trust and confidence.” The very fact that Hillary Clinton now speaks of “enforceable agreements” bespeaks a Rose Law Firm sharp litigator, not a friend or ally of Israel.

Second, let’s talk about “implemented” and “enforceable.” Again, remember the context: Sharon was being asked to withdraw from Gaza and West Bank settlements and his domestic political standing was tenuous. So the U.S., in an effort to protect Sharon domestically and assist our ally, threw a lifeline — an agreement on settlements to allow growth internally (“up” and “in,” as Abrams has explained it) but “no construction beyond the existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, no special economic incentives and no construction of new settlements.”

What happened? Even the Obama spinners acknowledge that Israel (both under Sharon and Olmert) “implemented” the agreement by reducing new settlement growth. Even Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, concedes a diminishment in “approval of new settlements, the scope of West Bank land expropriation and subsidies for settlers.” Moreover, after receiving these assurances from the Bush administration in 2004, the Israeli government acted upon them (attorney Clinton can look up “detrimental reliance”) by withdrawing entirely from Gaza and dismantling four West Bank settlements.

So what is to be gleaned from all this? Well, the Obama administration certainly has a new mode of dealing with Israel. And if they want to play lawyer, they should get better legal advice.

Rick, the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to avoid directly renouncing the Bush-Sharon agreement regarding settlements. Plainly, the Obama team doesn’t want to abide by the terms of that understanding (which allowed for growth within existing settlements), yet they feel obliged not to say so. On one hand, this is curious for an administration that prides itself, indeed defines itself, on being “not George Bush.” But somehow the “turning the page” and “fresh start” lingo doesn’t work so well when it comes to Israel. And it is, after all, poor form to insist Israel keep its agreements while America declines to keep hers.

So the effort to twist and evade has begun. The latest incarnation is to insist the Bush-Sharon agreement was never “implemented” and therefore carries no weight. There are two responses to that.

First, this is not the behavior that has characterized the Israeli-U.S. relationship, at least not recently. We haven’t generally engaged in legalisms and diplomatic fencing with our friend and ally. Quoted in the Washington Times, Elliott Abrams explains, “There were lots of agreements between the U.S. and Israel because there was tremendous trust between the two governments. We did not operate in a context in which anything that was not written down would disappear; we operated in a context of trust and confidence.” The very fact that Hillary Clinton now speaks of “enforceable agreements” bespeaks a Rose Law Firm sharp litigator, not a friend or ally of Israel.

Second, let’s talk about “implemented” and “enforceable.” Again, remember the context: Sharon was being asked to withdraw from Gaza and West Bank settlements and his domestic political standing was tenuous. So the U.S., in an effort to protect Sharon domestically and assist our ally, threw a lifeline — an agreement on settlements to allow growth internally (“up” and “in,” as Abrams has explained it) but “no construction beyond the existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, no special economic incentives and no construction of new settlements.”

What happened? Even the Obama spinners acknowledge that Israel (both under Sharon and Olmert) “implemented” the agreement by reducing new settlement growth. Even Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, concedes a diminishment in “approval of new settlements, the scope of West Bank land expropriation and subsidies for settlers.” Moreover, after receiving these assurances from the Bush administration in 2004, the Israeli government acted upon them (attorney Clinton can look up “detrimental reliance”) by withdrawing entirely from Gaza and dismantling four West Bank settlements.

So what is to be gleaned from all this? Well, the Obama administration certainly has a new mode of dealing with Israel. And if they want to play lawyer, they should get better legal advice.

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A Memo from the Real World

Any serious revamping of U.S. health care will be the endlessly intricate work of years, not the slapdash cure-all being pushed by the White House. Had last night’s press conference not been a commercial for snake oil with a sideshow about the nation-defining issue of a professor’s misplaced house keys, the president could have been made to answer some important foreign policy questions that have been lingering of late. The press corps might have come up with something like this:

On Afghanistan: “Lately the administration has broadcast a more hesitant message about the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. At the end of June, James Jones signaled to commanders there that the White House may not be receptive to a request for more troops. On July 11, you told Sky News that what the U.S. can do for Afghanistan after its upcoming elections ‘may not be on the military side, it may be on the development side.’ You then said to the Dutch prime minister that you hoped operations would ‘transition to a different phase’ in Afghanistan after the elections. And only days ago, Robert Gates described troops there as ‘tired.’ Are you in fact laying the groundwork for a shorter engagement in Afghanistan than you had committed to in May? If so, what is the goal of the mission at this point?”

On Iran: “In the immediate wake of the June 12 election in Iran, you said several times that it was up to the Iranian people to choose their leadership. Days later you said you were ‘appalled and outraged’ by the violence the regime visited upon Iranians. It’s been well over a month since the election, and thousands of Iranians still feel that they’ve been robbed of their right to choose their own leadership. Would you, at this point, support a do-over of the election, or are you content that justice has been served in Iran?”

On North Korea: “A new study by the Korean Bar Association has come out, revealing the depth and scope of North Korea’s political prisons. An estimated 200,000 North Koreans are currently thought to be held inside these labor camps, working and starving to death. With Pyongyang’s rash of nuclear tests and missile launches, American policy has been focused primarily on the nuclear question. Is there any explicit human-rights component to the administration’s North Korea policy, and if so, what is it?”

On Middle East Peace: “There are reports that your June meeting in Riyadh with King Abdullah was not as productive as you would have liked. Specifically, the Saudis refused to countenance any reciprocal gestures toward Israel in regard to settlement policy or a two-state solution. Given that you’ve been so supportive of the Saudi plan since first taking office, are you now less hopeful about this particular route to Middle East peace?”

Instead, we got the red pill, the blue pill, and a presidential lecture on proper police procedure.

Any serious revamping of U.S. health care will be the endlessly intricate work of years, not the slapdash cure-all being pushed by the White House. Had last night’s press conference not been a commercial for snake oil with a sideshow about the nation-defining issue of a professor’s misplaced house keys, the president could have been made to answer some important foreign policy questions that have been lingering of late. The press corps might have come up with something like this:

On Afghanistan: “Lately the administration has broadcast a more hesitant message about the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. At the end of June, James Jones signaled to commanders there that the White House may not be receptive to a request for more troops. On July 11, you told Sky News that what the U.S. can do for Afghanistan after its upcoming elections ‘may not be on the military side, it may be on the development side.’ You then said to the Dutch prime minister that you hoped operations would ‘transition to a different phase’ in Afghanistan after the elections. And only days ago, Robert Gates described troops there as ‘tired.’ Are you in fact laying the groundwork for a shorter engagement in Afghanistan than you had committed to in May? If so, what is the goal of the mission at this point?”

On Iran: “In the immediate wake of the June 12 election in Iran, you said several times that it was up to the Iranian people to choose their leadership. Days later you said you were ‘appalled and outraged’ by the violence the regime visited upon Iranians. It’s been well over a month since the election, and thousands of Iranians still feel that they’ve been robbed of their right to choose their own leadership. Would you, at this point, support a do-over of the election, or are you content that justice has been served in Iran?”

On North Korea: “A new study by the Korean Bar Association has come out, revealing the depth and scope of North Korea’s political prisons. An estimated 200,000 North Koreans are currently thought to be held inside these labor camps, working and starving to death. With Pyongyang’s rash of nuclear tests and missile launches, American policy has been focused primarily on the nuclear question. Is there any explicit human-rights component to the administration’s North Korea policy, and if so, what is it?”

On Middle East Peace: “There are reports that your June meeting in Riyadh with King Abdullah was not as productive as you would have liked. Specifically, the Saudis refused to countenance any reciprocal gestures toward Israel in regard to settlement policy or a two-state solution. Given that you’ve been so supportive of the Saudi plan since first taking office, are you now less hopeful about this particular route to Middle East peace?”

Instead, we got the red pill, the blue pill, and a presidential lecture on proper police procedure.

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Re: Why All The Rush?

A friend and health-care and budget guru reminds me of a third reason the Democrats were so frantic to try rushing this through. He writes:

We also shouldn’t forget the mid-year budget figure, which is going to have a very very ugly deficit number this year, probably one we have never seen before. OMB knows what the figure will be (the mid-year number normally comes out in July, so they already have it, though it’s up to them exactly when to release it), and a huge deficit number, even higher than the one projected earlier in the year, will hurt their health care effort. They can probably hold off publishing the number until the August recess, but not much later.

But it may just be that some things — like a government takeover of 17 percent of the economy and the eradication of private health insurance — can only be rushed so much. Nancy Pelosi is now saying there may be no voting in August. The House Energy and Commerce Committee again canceled its mark-up, suggesting it doesn’t have the votes to get it out of committee, let alone passed on the floor. Could it be that the president’s pearls of wisdom didn’t turn the tide last night? Well, Rep. Jim Cooper, who played a pivotal role in the demise of HillaryCare, says a bill is “months away.”

Perhaps some things are just too big to sneak past the public and vote on without debating or reading. Wow. Maybe we are starting to find some hope and change.

A friend and health-care and budget guru reminds me of a third reason the Democrats were so frantic to try rushing this through. He writes:

We also shouldn’t forget the mid-year budget figure, which is going to have a very very ugly deficit number this year, probably one we have never seen before. OMB knows what the figure will be (the mid-year number normally comes out in July, so they already have it, though it’s up to them exactly when to release it), and a huge deficit number, even higher than the one projected earlier in the year, will hurt their health care effort. They can probably hold off publishing the number until the August recess, but not much later.

But it may just be that some things — like a government takeover of 17 percent of the economy and the eradication of private health insurance — can only be rushed so much. Nancy Pelosi is now saying there may be no voting in August. The House Energy and Commerce Committee again canceled its mark-up, suggesting it doesn’t have the votes to get it out of committee, let alone passed on the floor. Could it be that the president’s pearls of wisdom didn’t turn the tide last night? Well, Rep. Jim Cooper, who played a pivotal role in the demise of HillaryCare, says a bill is “months away.”

Perhaps some things are just too big to sneak past the public and vote on without debating or reading. Wow. Maybe we are starting to find some hope and change.

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Beat Georgia Down

If you’re an enemy, we’re sorry. If you’re a friend, you’re sorry. Two days after Hillary Clinton told India to take it easy on all that industry and economic dynamism stuff, Joe Biden tells Georgia, still occupied by Russian troops, to quit whining and accept impotence like a good U.S. ally. 

Vice President Biden told this nation’s leaders Thursday that they would never be able to use military means to recover territories lost in last year’s war with Russia, and urged them to do more to deepen democratic reforms, a senior administration official said.

That’s not mere meddling. That’s what Michelle Obama might call “downright mean.” If you take Biden’s words as policy, that is. There are two other possibilities. First, Biden is being Biden, letting the muse guide him off the reservation into the land of incoherence. Second, Obama is being Obama, counterbalancing the pro-Georgian line he took with Putin last week against its opposite so that when things go kablooey he can test the political winds, refer back to one of his two faces, choose a direction, and cite his consistency.

The smart money is on that second option. Barack Obama likes to buy time, label real choices “false choices,” and remain unfettered for as long as possible by things like policy. The administration is, in short, commitment-phobic. Which is a problem if you’re in Russia’s “traditional sphere of influence,” given Vladimir Putin’s indefatigable commitment to restoring the Russian superpower. Similarly, it’s a problem if you’re Israel and your neighbors are committed to your eradication. Obama is buying time that isn’t exclusively his.

To be sure, Georgia has a way to go on the democracy front, and pushing for reforms is a good thing. But even on that issue, the administration is all over the map — literally. In Georgia and Ghana, the U.S. will tell you what you need to do (and withhold assistance in the process). In Cairo or China? Eh, who are we to say? I’ll say this for Smart Power: It’s impressively malleable.

If you’re an enemy, we’re sorry. If you’re a friend, you’re sorry. Two days after Hillary Clinton told India to take it easy on all that industry and economic dynamism stuff, Joe Biden tells Georgia, still occupied by Russian troops, to quit whining and accept impotence like a good U.S. ally. 

Vice President Biden told this nation’s leaders Thursday that they would never be able to use military means to recover territories lost in last year’s war with Russia, and urged them to do more to deepen democratic reforms, a senior administration official said.

That’s not mere meddling. That’s what Michelle Obama might call “downright mean.” If you take Biden’s words as policy, that is. There are two other possibilities. First, Biden is being Biden, letting the muse guide him off the reservation into the land of incoherence. Second, Obama is being Obama, counterbalancing the pro-Georgian line he took with Putin last week against its opposite so that when things go kablooey he can test the political winds, refer back to one of his two faces, choose a direction, and cite his consistency.

The smart money is on that second option. Barack Obama likes to buy time, label real choices “false choices,” and remain unfettered for as long as possible by things like policy. The administration is, in short, commitment-phobic. Which is a problem if you’re in Russia’s “traditional sphere of influence,” given Vladimir Putin’s indefatigable commitment to restoring the Russian superpower. Similarly, it’s a problem if you’re Israel and your neighbors are committed to your eradication. Obama is buying time that isn’t exclusively his.

To be sure, Georgia has a way to go on the democracy front, and pushing for reforms is a good thing. But even on that issue, the administration is all over the map — literally. In Georgia and Ghana, the U.S. will tell you what you need to do (and withhold assistance in the process). In Cairo or China? Eh, who are we to say? I’ll say this for Smart Power: It’s impressively malleable.

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RE: Obama, Health Care, the Great Society

I agree totally with John that ObamaCare is a journey into the failed liberal past. But it reminds me, yet again, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the country’s political labels. A conservative, supposedly, is someone who wants to conserve the present system or even return to an earlier era’s form of governance. A liberal, or “progressive,” is someone who wants to progress to a new, better, and fairer world.

From the 1930’s to the 1960’s, those labels fit. The New Deal was all about creating a new system, one that would help lift people out of poverty and protect them from financial disaster. (Whether these ideas worked is another matter altogether.) The conservatives, who had been the dominant political force in the country from the 1890’s until 1932, had no better new ideas than to go down to the Trans-Lux and hiss at Roosevelt. They promised a return to the status quo ante, which the country wanted no part of.

Even in the 1950’s, while conservatives recognized that there was no going back to the pre–New Deal era, they were a brake on change. But by the 1960’s, as Lyndon Johnson tried to finish what the New Deal had started, new ideas were percolating on the Right, new ideas that would bring Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980 and fundamentally change the dynamics of American politics. By 1980, so-called conservatives had become the engine of change, not the brake. They have advocated genuinely new taxation reform, tort-law reform, welfare reform, health-care reform, old-age-security reform, etc.

Since 1980, it is the liberals who have been the true conservatives in American politics, advocating a return to the policies and programs of the New Deal and the Great Society. Is there a single idea in the liberal canon that postdates Lyndon Johnson’s departure from the White House more than 40 years ago?

The current health-care debate is a case in point. Obama is plenty smart enough to know that a bill to create a Canadian-style, single-payer health-care system — a liberal dream since the days of Harry Truman — would have no chance of passage. So the “reform” centered on a free-market-destroying “public option” now being knocked together in various congressional committees seems more designed to destroy the current system than to reform it, the rich being heavily taxed (oh, sorry, pay their fair share) to fund the murder.

The Right’s ideas of fundamentally reforming health care by incentivizing both medical professionals and patients alike to become much more cost-conscious and of reforming how malpractice is handled would drain hundreds of billions of now-wasted dollars out of the system, making it far more possible for the now uninsured to become insured. But these ideas have no place in the system designed by liberals.

Why? Simple, they would work and thus make the 65-year-old dream of a government-run, single-payer system seem the quaint relic from an earlier era that it actually is. So I want new labels to replace “liberal” and “conservative.” The current labels are as out-of-date as fireside chats, bread lines, hobos, and sharecroppers.

I agree totally with John that ObamaCare is a journey into the failed liberal past. But it reminds me, yet again, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the country’s political labels. A conservative, supposedly, is someone who wants to conserve the present system or even return to an earlier era’s form of governance. A liberal, or “progressive,” is someone who wants to progress to a new, better, and fairer world.

From the 1930’s to the 1960’s, those labels fit. The New Deal was all about creating a new system, one that would help lift people out of poverty and protect them from financial disaster. (Whether these ideas worked is another matter altogether.) The conservatives, who had been the dominant political force in the country from the 1890’s until 1932, had no better new ideas than to go down to the Trans-Lux and hiss at Roosevelt. They promised a return to the status quo ante, which the country wanted no part of.

Even in the 1950’s, while conservatives recognized that there was no going back to the pre–New Deal era, they were a brake on change. But by the 1960’s, as Lyndon Johnson tried to finish what the New Deal had started, new ideas were percolating on the Right, new ideas that would bring Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980 and fundamentally change the dynamics of American politics. By 1980, so-called conservatives had become the engine of change, not the brake. They have advocated genuinely new taxation reform, tort-law reform, welfare reform, health-care reform, old-age-security reform, etc.

Since 1980, it is the liberals who have been the true conservatives in American politics, advocating a return to the policies and programs of the New Deal and the Great Society. Is there a single idea in the liberal canon that postdates Lyndon Johnson’s departure from the White House more than 40 years ago?

The current health-care debate is a case in point. Obama is plenty smart enough to know that a bill to create a Canadian-style, single-payer health-care system — a liberal dream since the days of Harry Truman — would have no chance of passage. So the “reform” centered on a free-market-destroying “public option” now being knocked together in various congressional committees seems more designed to destroy the current system than to reform it, the rich being heavily taxed (oh, sorry, pay their fair share) to fund the murder.

The Right’s ideas of fundamentally reforming health care by incentivizing both medical professionals and patients alike to become much more cost-conscious and of reforming how malpractice is handled would drain hundreds of billions of now-wasted dollars out of the system, making it far more possible for the now uninsured to become insured. But these ideas have no place in the system designed by liberals.

Why? Simple, they would work and thus make the 65-year-old dream of a government-run, single-payer system seem the quaint relic from an earlier era that it actually is. So I want new labels to replace “liberal” and “conservative.” The current labels are as out-of-date as fireside chats, bread lines, hobos, and sharecroppers.

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Kicking In and Out of Agreements with Israel

Ron Kampeas writes that an Eli Lake article in the Washington Times, reporting on an interview with Ariel Sharon’s former chief of staff (Dov Weissglas), provides “more fodder for the argument that the understanding between the Bush and Sharon administrations allowing some settlement growth never kicked in.”

Actually, the article leads to the opposite conclusion. Kampeas quotes the following portion of the article:

Under the deal, Israel was to stop confiscating Palestinian land for settlement construction, refrain from building new settlements and end tax subsidies for settlement construction and for Israelis who moved to these areas in formerly Arab-controlled territory.

Israel was to be allowed to add housing within a “construction line,” but work to demarcate that “construction line” was never completed, Mr. Weissglas said.

“The agreed principle was there would be no construction beyond the construction line, then months later, we, meaning Israel and the United States, realized that it is quite difficult to resolve it, to define where is the construction line in certain instances,” Mr. Weissglas said.

In the succeeding paragraphs, not quoted by Kampeas, Lake provided further information from Weissglas that paints a more complete picture:

U.S.-Israeli teams were to survey the settlements. The Israelis wanted first to survey settlements east of a security barrier Israel has built in the West Bank. These settlements are the most likely to be relinquished by Israel under a peace agreement.

Mr. Weissglas said that the U.S. government wanted to start in the west, with housing likely to remain within Israel under a peace deal. . . .

Mr. Weissglas said that by 2005, with Mr. Sharon preoccupied by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, the U.S. and Israel dropped plans to demarcate the construction line in the West Bank.

“There was an agreement,” Mr. Weissglas said. “The implementation of the agreement was not concluded because both parties to a certain degree willingly neglected the conclusion of the demarcation process.”

So there was an agreement; both sides took steps to implement it; difficulties emerged in mapping exact boundaries, but Israel nevertheless observed the agreed-upon definition of a settlement freeze — no new settlements, no new land appropriation, and no financial incentives for settlers; and both sides turned their attention to the more pressing issue of Sharon’s proposal to dismantle 25 existing settlements, in both Gaza and the West Bank, and to give Gaza to the Palestinians.

Aaron David Miller is quoted in the article as noting the Obama administration is simply ignoring the agreement, formal or informal:

“The Obama administration has chosen to ignore the debate as to whether the ‘Bush 43′ understandings on settlements were formal or informal,” he said. “They have simply decided to push ahead with their own view of what they want from the Israelis with respect to a settlements freeze.”

The article ends with a quotation from Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine, who reaches the same conclusion as Miller but with a twist:

. . . Even if the people involved in the 2003 to 2005 conversations feel there was an agreement, it no longer has any relevance to the foreign policy approach of the current administration and is therefore moot.”  [Emphasis added]

As they used to say in law school:  I get it all except the “thus.” If the people involved feel there was an agreement, there was an agreement. That is when it “kicked in”; and if not at that time, then when one side repeatedly acted in reliance on it (by agreeing to the Roadmap and then proceeding with the Gaza disengagement); and if not at that time either, then when both sides confirmed the agreement, by observing it year after year even without formal mapped boundaries.

An agreement does not become “moot” because one side decides to ignore it. On the contrary, reneging has consequences that are counterproductive: Such a “foreign policy approach” is unlikely to produce confidence in the reneging government or a willingness to take future steps based on assurances from it — especially when the continuing silence about the U.S. commitments in the 2004 Bush letter (on defensible borders, major settlement blocs, and refugees) indicates the administration may be planning to renege on still more.

Ron Kampeas writes that an Eli Lake article in the Washington Times, reporting on an interview with Ariel Sharon’s former chief of staff (Dov Weissglas), provides “more fodder for the argument that the understanding between the Bush and Sharon administrations allowing some settlement growth never kicked in.”

Actually, the article leads to the opposite conclusion. Kampeas quotes the following portion of the article:

Under the deal, Israel was to stop confiscating Palestinian land for settlement construction, refrain from building new settlements and end tax subsidies for settlement construction and for Israelis who moved to these areas in formerly Arab-controlled territory.

Israel was to be allowed to add housing within a “construction line,” but work to demarcate that “construction line” was never completed, Mr. Weissglas said.

“The agreed principle was there would be no construction beyond the construction line, then months later, we, meaning Israel and the United States, realized that it is quite difficult to resolve it, to define where is the construction line in certain instances,” Mr. Weissglas said.

In the succeeding paragraphs, not quoted by Kampeas, Lake provided further information from Weissglas that paints a more complete picture:

U.S.-Israeli teams were to survey the settlements. The Israelis wanted first to survey settlements east of a security barrier Israel has built in the West Bank. These settlements are the most likely to be relinquished by Israel under a peace agreement.

Mr. Weissglas said that the U.S. government wanted to start in the west, with housing likely to remain within Israel under a peace deal. . . .

Mr. Weissglas said that by 2005, with Mr. Sharon preoccupied by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, the U.S. and Israel dropped plans to demarcate the construction line in the West Bank.

“There was an agreement,” Mr. Weissglas said. “The implementation of the agreement was not concluded because both parties to a certain degree willingly neglected the conclusion of the demarcation process.”

So there was an agreement; both sides took steps to implement it; difficulties emerged in mapping exact boundaries, but Israel nevertheless observed the agreed-upon definition of a settlement freeze — no new settlements, no new land appropriation, and no financial incentives for settlers; and both sides turned their attention to the more pressing issue of Sharon’s proposal to dismantle 25 existing settlements, in both Gaza and the West Bank, and to give Gaza to the Palestinians.

Aaron David Miller is quoted in the article as noting the Obama administration is simply ignoring the agreement, formal or informal:

“The Obama administration has chosen to ignore the debate as to whether the ‘Bush 43′ understandings on settlements were formal or informal,” he said. “They have simply decided to push ahead with their own view of what they want from the Israelis with respect to a settlements freeze.”

The article ends with a quotation from Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine, who reaches the same conclusion as Miller but with a twist:

. . . Even if the people involved in the 2003 to 2005 conversations feel there was an agreement, it no longer has any relevance to the foreign policy approach of the current administration and is therefore moot.”  [Emphasis added]

As they used to say in law school:  I get it all except the “thus.” If the people involved feel there was an agreement, there was an agreement. That is when it “kicked in”; and if not at that time, then when one side repeatedly acted in reliance on it (by agreeing to the Roadmap and then proceeding with the Gaza disengagement); and if not at that time either, then when both sides confirmed the agreement, by observing it year after year even without formal mapped boundaries.

An agreement does not become “moot” because one side decides to ignore it. On the contrary, reneging has consequences that are counterproductive: Such a “foreign policy approach” is unlikely to produce confidence in the reneging government or a willingness to take future steps based on assurances from it — especially when the continuing silence about the U.S. commitments in the 2004 Bush letter (on defensible borders, major settlement blocs, and refugees) indicates the administration may be planning to renege on still more.

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Which Nation Does Obama Want to Sanction? Israel or Iran?

The Obama administration’s Jewish apologists were working overtime last week to pretend there is nothing unusual or unsavory about the president’s penchant for conflict with Israel. Indeed, many on the Left have been talking as if Israel’s resistance to Obama’s demand that no Jews be allowed to build homes in Jerusalem is nothing more than a political ploy on the part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to this interpretation, Obama’s demand for halting housing projects in those city parts occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967 is nothing to get upset about and Netanyahu is merely playing to the crowd in a vain attempt to evade the president’s reasonable demands.

Indeed, following my post on the Jerusalem controversy earlier this week, a couple of my left-wing friends told me that I was crazy if I thought any non-extremist American Jews would get worked up over a housing project in East Jerusalem funded by right-wing gadfly Irving Moskowitz.

Fortunately, as previously noted here in CONTENTIONS, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations agreed with Netanyahu that an important principle was at stake in this controversy. It is true that previous administrations have opposed similar building plans, such as the one in Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood and other developments linked to Moskowitz. But the point is, contrary to the Obama apologists’ position, this administration has raised the stakes on Jerusalem in a way very different from its predecessors’ actions.

It is one thing to make a pro forma objection to a specific development; it is quite another to speak, as the State Department has, as if there is no difference between a neighborhood in Israel’s capital and the farthest corner of the West Bank.

And for those who continue to be in denial about the new atmosphere between Israel and Washington, let’s have an explanation for State Department spokesman Robert Wood’s statement on Tuesday night, according to which financial sanctions on Israel were merely “premature,” in case Israel did not bend to the administration’s will regarding building homes in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Premature? That is more or less the same way this administration has spoken about adopting tougher sanctions on Iran.

Dismiss it as a gaffe if you like, but the use of the word clearly indicates that sanctions on Israel are not only thinkable but are being discussed. An Israeli official speaking off the record to the Jerusalem Post about this dismissed the threat as “nonsense.” He went on to say, “There is no way that at the same time it wants to engage with the Iranians, it is going to take sanctions against Israel. It just doesn’t make sense.”

No, it doesn’t. But that such craziness is actually being tossed around in Washington these days shows just how much things have changed under Obama. In the meantime, as the same Jerusalem Post article indicated, Israeli officials are now considering what they would do should a halt to U.S. military assistance be enacted — as a mere possibility, of course.

That such an eventuality is not a far-fetched scenario but a real-life threat that Jerusalem must take seriously speaks volumes about its current predicament. For months, Obama’s Jewish supporters and apologists have been telling us that it was too soon to judge the president’s attitude toward Israel. But their reluctance to break ranks with a popular liberal Democrat has put them in a position of supporting a government that seems more interested in getting tough with Jerusalem than with the tyrannical Islamist regime in Tehran.

The Obama administration’s Jewish apologists were working overtime last week to pretend there is nothing unusual or unsavory about the president’s penchant for conflict with Israel. Indeed, many on the Left have been talking as if Israel’s resistance to Obama’s demand that no Jews be allowed to build homes in Jerusalem is nothing more than a political ploy on the part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to this interpretation, Obama’s demand for halting housing projects in those city parts occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967 is nothing to get upset about and Netanyahu is merely playing to the crowd in a vain attempt to evade the president’s reasonable demands.

Indeed, following my post on the Jerusalem controversy earlier this week, a couple of my left-wing friends told me that I was crazy if I thought any non-extremist American Jews would get worked up over a housing project in East Jerusalem funded by right-wing gadfly Irving Moskowitz.

Fortunately, as previously noted here in CONTENTIONS, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations agreed with Netanyahu that an important principle was at stake in this controversy. It is true that previous administrations have opposed similar building plans, such as the one in Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood and other developments linked to Moskowitz. But the point is, contrary to the Obama apologists’ position, this administration has raised the stakes on Jerusalem in a way very different from its predecessors’ actions.

It is one thing to make a pro forma objection to a specific development; it is quite another to speak, as the State Department has, as if there is no difference between a neighborhood in Israel’s capital and the farthest corner of the West Bank.

And for those who continue to be in denial about the new atmosphere between Israel and Washington, let’s have an explanation for State Department spokesman Robert Wood’s statement on Tuesday night, according to which financial sanctions on Israel were merely “premature,” in case Israel did not bend to the administration’s will regarding building homes in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Premature? That is more or less the same way this administration has spoken about adopting tougher sanctions on Iran.

Dismiss it as a gaffe if you like, but the use of the word clearly indicates that sanctions on Israel are not only thinkable but are being discussed. An Israeli official speaking off the record to the Jerusalem Post about this dismissed the threat as “nonsense.” He went on to say, “There is no way that at the same time it wants to engage with the Iranians, it is going to take sanctions against Israel. It just doesn’t make sense.”

No, it doesn’t. But that such craziness is actually being tossed around in Washington these days shows just how much things have changed under Obama. In the meantime, as the same Jerusalem Post article indicated, Israeli officials are now considering what they would do should a halt to U.S. military assistance be enacted — as a mere possibility, of course.

That such an eventuality is not a far-fetched scenario but a real-life threat that Jerusalem must take seriously speaks volumes about its current predicament. For months, Obama’s Jewish supporters and apologists have been telling us that it was too soon to judge the president’s attitude toward Israel. But their reluctance to break ranks with a popular liberal Democrat has put them in a position of supporting a government that seems more interested in getting tough with Jerusalem than with the tyrannical Islamist regime in Tehran.

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Amnesty Weighs In on Saudi Arabia — But Why Now?

Here’s an interesting epilogue on the Human Rights Watch funding scandal I mentioned earlier this week. Just a few weeks after it was first revealed that HRW has been raising funds from the Saudi regime and advertising itself as overtly anti-Israel, and just a few days after this burst into the public awareness, its biggest competitor, Amnesty International, has distanced itself from HRW by releasing a blistering 65-page report on the practice of torture and other severe human-rights abuses taking place in Saudi Arabia. According to Amnesty’s press release:

Thousands of people have been arrested and detained in virtual secrecy, while others have been killed in uncertain circumstances. Hundreds more people face secret and summary trials and possible execution. Many are reported to have been tortured in order to extract confessions or as punishment after conviction.

Every once in a while, the free market overtakes the internationalists: Amnesty and HRW are presumably in permanent and intense competition for donations, and Amnesty cannot be blamed for seizing the opportunity to pull away HRW donors who were duly shocked by the Saudi scam. Amnesty is commended for singling out abuse in Saudi Arabia. Yet we cannot help but notice Amnesty’s almost total silence on Saudi Arabia prior to May of this year — even though there is nothing at all new about the kingdom’s record, as Amnesty’s own report makes clear.

Here’s an interesting epilogue on the Human Rights Watch funding scandal I mentioned earlier this week. Just a few weeks after it was first revealed that HRW has been raising funds from the Saudi regime and advertising itself as overtly anti-Israel, and just a few days after this burst into the public awareness, its biggest competitor, Amnesty International, has distanced itself from HRW by releasing a blistering 65-page report on the practice of torture and other severe human-rights abuses taking place in Saudi Arabia. According to Amnesty’s press release:

Thousands of people have been arrested and detained in virtual secrecy, while others have been killed in uncertain circumstances. Hundreds more people face secret and summary trials and possible execution. Many are reported to have been tortured in order to extract confessions or as punishment after conviction.

Every once in a while, the free market overtakes the internationalists: Amnesty and HRW are presumably in permanent and intense competition for donations, and Amnesty cannot be blamed for seizing the opportunity to pull away HRW donors who were duly shocked by the Saudi scam. Amnesty is commended for singling out abuse in Saudi Arabia. Yet we cannot help but notice Amnesty’s almost total silence on Saudi Arabia prior to May of this year — even though there is nothing at all new about the kingdom’s record, as Amnesty’s own report makes clear.

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“Primarily”?

The president, in one of the more curious passages last night, said:

I don’t want that final one-third of the cost of health care to be completely shouldered on the backs of middle-class families who are already struggling in a difficult economy. And so if I see a proposal that is primarily funded through taxing middle-class families, I’m going to be opposed to that.

Primarily? Mickey Kaus spotted that one, explaining:

In standard Washspeak, this means Obama is open to a health reform that taxes middle class families as long as it isn’t “primarily” or “completely” funded by taxes on middle class families. But 49% funded by taxes on middle class families? . . . However you interpret these sentences, it’s hard to see how Obama hasn’t given a flashing green light to non-trivial tax increases on middle class families.

The Boston Globe figured it out, too: “[H]e edged away from repeating his campaign promise that he would not raise taxes on families making under $250,000 a year. He even used language suggesting middle income earners might wind up contributing something.”

So what happened to the cross-his-heart, absolutely won’t raise taxes on people making less than $250,000 (other than the cigarette and energy taxes he has favored long ago)? Yes, Robert Gibbs has been hedging for some time on whether that was a “pledge” or a “promise” and whether the president is doing a 180 on it. But this is the clearest signal yet that he’s coming after non-rich voters to pay for expanded access for the uninsured — and for the rationing of their own health care.

Think about how unattractive this is becoming. If you have insurance and are relatively content with it, you now get to pay higher taxes. Your employer may drop the coverage you like and shove you into a public plan. There a government health board will start telling your doctor what procedures are reimbursable and squeeze payments to your doctor and the hospital you may need to go to. You pay more and get worse health care.

And that is before we get to the macro-picture — the impact on employers, the expansion of debt, the squeeze on R & D funds.

The plan’s opponents keep saying they are not in favor of the status quo. But compared to what the president is peddling, the status quo seems like nirvana. It is only by offering such an awful alternative that Obama has made the current system, which has its share of access, cost, and portability issues, look so great.

The president, in one of the more curious passages last night, said:

I don’t want that final one-third of the cost of health care to be completely shouldered on the backs of middle-class families who are already struggling in a difficult economy. And so if I see a proposal that is primarily funded through taxing middle-class families, I’m going to be opposed to that.

Primarily? Mickey Kaus spotted that one, explaining:

In standard Washspeak, this means Obama is open to a health reform that taxes middle class families as long as it isn’t “primarily” or “completely” funded by taxes on middle class families. But 49% funded by taxes on middle class families? . . . However you interpret these sentences, it’s hard to see how Obama hasn’t given a flashing green light to non-trivial tax increases on middle class families.

The Boston Globe figured it out, too: “[H]e edged away from repeating his campaign promise that he would not raise taxes on families making under $250,000 a year. He even used language suggesting middle income earners might wind up contributing something.”

So what happened to the cross-his-heart, absolutely won’t raise taxes on people making less than $250,000 (other than the cigarette and energy taxes he has favored long ago)? Yes, Robert Gibbs has been hedging for some time on whether that was a “pledge” or a “promise” and whether the president is doing a 180 on it. But this is the clearest signal yet that he’s coming after non-rich voters to pay for expanded access for the uninsured — and for the rationing of their own health care.

Think about how unattractive this is becoming. If you have insurance and are relatively content with it, you now get to pay higher taxes. Your employer may drop the coverage you like and shove you into a public plan. There a government health board will start telling your doctor what procedures are reimbursable and squeeze payments to your doctor and the hospital you may need to go to. You pay more and get worse health care.

And that is before we get to the macro-picture — the impact on employers, the expansion of debt, the squeeze on R & D funds.

The plan’s opponents keep saying they are not in favor of the status quo. But compared to what the president is peddling, the status quo seems like nirvana. It is only by offering such an awful alternative that Obama has made the current system, which has its share of access, cost, and portability issues, look so great.

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Economic Growth With 10 Percent Unemployment?

It is the view of many, if not most, of those whose livelihoods are dependent on an understanding of the economy that it will show signs of recovery, if not a roaring comeback, in the third quarter of 2009. With more stimulus money being spent, more money being loaned out, happy early tidings on foreign trade, it appears the American economic engine may cease running in reverse. The political fallout from this would seem obvious: Good news for Obama, perhaps just at a moment when he needs good news. Assuming his health-care legislation doesn’t pass before the August recess, Obama will need a powerful tide in his direction to get it done in the early fall, and impressive economic numbers may be the ticket.

Except for this fact: All these same people believe unemployment will continue to rise above 10 percent and stay there. There would seem to be a bit of a contradiction here. Ours is an economy that has been driven by consumer spending for the past 25 years; it’s therefore a bit difficult to understand how exactly we can see substantial GDP progress if consumers themselves are losing their jobs at a rapid clip or in fear of losing their jobs, both of which obviously cause a complete halt in consumer spending.

But let us say that, despite this fact, we might well see economic growth in the third quarter, especially given the low baseline from which the growth will be measured. This is good news in the abstract to be sure, and the number will give the Obama administration and Democrats some reason to celebrate.

But how exactly can a president take advantage of a macroeconomic number like, say, growth of 1 or 2 percent when he is staring in the face of an unemployment number hovering around 10 percent? Surely, were Obama a Republican, any effort at happy talk would be treated as a sign of being desperately out of touch, only interested in corporate profit, etc. etc. The first President Bush was hammered, and rightly so, when he and his administration attempted to act as though the recession of 1991 was not that big a deal; it wasn’t in historical terms, but a president has to show a greater degree of connection with the electorate than that.

Obama is a Democrat, which will give him greater leeway, and given his standing with the media, a more credulous audience. But if he overplays his hand, he will add to the sense, small but growing, that he doesn’t quite get what is going on in the economy and doesn’t really know how to repair it. Should that sense continue to grow, his agenda will be in jeopardy and so will his party’s dominance.

It is the view of many, if not most, of those whose livelihoods are dependent on an understanding of the economy that it will show signs of recovery, if not a roaring comeback, in the third quarter of 2009. With more stimulus money being spent, more money being loaned out, happy early tidings on foreign trade, it appears the American economic engine may cease running in reverse. The political fallout from this would seem obvious: Good news for Obama, perhaps just at a moment when he needs good news. Assuming his health-care legislation doesn’t pass before the August recess, Obama will need a powerful tide in his direction to get it done in the early fall, and impressive economic numbers may be the ticket.

Except for this fact: All these same people believe unemployment will continue to rise above 10 percent and stay there. There would seem to be a bit of a contradiction here. Ours is an economy that has been driven by consumer spending for the past 25 years; it’s therefore a bit difficult to understand how exactly we can see substantial GDP progress if consumers themselves are losing their jobs at a rapid clip or in fear of losing their jobs, both of which obviously cause a complete halt in consumer spending.

But let us say that, despite this fact, we might well see economic growth in the third quarter, especially given the low baseline from which the growth will be measured. This is good news in the abstract to be sure, and the number will give the Obama administration and Democrats some reason to celebrate.

But how exactly can a president take advantage of a macroeconomic number like, say, growth of 1 or 2 percent when he is staring in the face of an unemployment number hovering around 10 percent? Surely, were Obama a Republican, any effort at happy talk would be treated as a sign of being desperately out of touch, only interested in corporate profit, etc. etc. The first President Bush was hammered, and rightly so, when he and his administration attempted to act as though the recession of 1991 was not that big a deal; it wasn’t in historical terms, but a president has to show a greater degree of connection with the electorate than that.

Obama is a Democrat, which will give him greater leeway, and given his standing with the media, a more credulous audience. But if he overplays his hand, he will add to the sense, small but growing, that he doesn’t quite get what is going on in the economy and doesn’t really know how to repair it. Should that sense continue to grow, his agenda will be in jeopardy and so will his party’s dominance.

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Why All the Rush?

The sensible centrists in the health-care debate (which the media adore) are starting to ask: What’s the rush?

Many of the centrists said they shared the same concerns: that the legislation proposed so far is too expensive; does not sufficiently reduce health care costs over the long term; and would raise taxes too much, or in ways they oppose. If there is one thing centrists in the House and the Senate agree on, it is that they are being pushed way too fast to act on a hugely complex bill with an astronomical price tag of roughly $1 trillion over 10 years, prompting a loud chorus of demands to slow down.

The president and the Speaker of the House have been trying to jam through a health-care vote before the August recess. It is true that deadlines help focus people and Congress, left to its own devices, can talk forever. But Obama and Pelosi want this done now for two specific reasons.

First, the next batch of national job-numbers comes out in August. After the last round, the president’s poll numbers took a dive and talk turned to the failed stimulus plan. This could well repeat itself, and intensify as unemployment creeps up to double-digits. Why is it we are talking about taxes and business mandates in a recession? Yes, voters will ask that again. So better to be out of town with health care already a done deal.

Second, voters might just eat them alive and dissuade them from going forward with a government take-over. As Karl Rove points out:

Team Obama was rushing to pass health care before the August recess out of fear that allowing members to go home for an extended spell before voting on the bill would give them an opportunity to hear from their constituents. They fear that the 300 protestors who showed up at a town hall meeting in Panama City, Fla. held June 30 by Democrat Rep. Allen Boyd shortly after he voted for the cap and trade energy tax) are only the start of a larger backlash.

Democratic leaders, including the president, are now backing away from a vote on health care before August. But that’s not likely to decrease voter angst. Americans for Prosperity and others are already organizing voters to attend public meetings with members of Congress this summer. My guess is that members of Congress are about to hear a lot from their voters on the government takeover of health care, new energy taxes, the failed stimulus, record deficits, and growing joblessness.

But at some point, it looks like a Keystone Cop routine — a mad and irresponsible dash to throw something together. And that “something” is the redesign of the entire health-care system. Usually the public is immune to “process” questions. But in this case, the “process” has become an issue, a big one. The public begins to wonder why they are so bent on ramming this through. It is, after all, a matter of life and death.

The sensible centrists in the health-care debate (which the media adore) are starting to ask: What’s the rush?

Many of the centrists said they shared the same concerns: that the legislation proposed so far is too expensive; does not sufficiently reduce health care costs over the long term; and would raise taxes too much, or in ways they oppose. If there is one thing centrists in the House and the Senate agree on, it is that they are being pushed way too fast to act on a hugely complex bill with an astronomical price tag of roughly $1 trillion over 10 years, prompting a loud chorus of demands to slow down.

The president and the Speaker of the House have been trying to jam through a health-care vote before the August recess. It is true that deadlines help focus people and Congress, left to its own devices, can talk forever. But Obama and Pelosi want this done now for two specific reasons.

First, the next batch of national job-numbers comes out in August. After the last round, the president’s poll numbers took a dive and talk turned to the failed stimulus plan. This could well repeat itself, and intensify as unemployment creeps up to double-digits. Why is it we are talking about taxes and business mandates in a recession? Yes, voters will ask that again. So better to be out of town with health care already a done deal.

Second, voters might just eat them alive and dissuade them from going forward with a government take-over. As Karl Rove points out:

Team Obama was rushing to pass health care before the August recess out of fear that allowing members to go home for an extended spell before voting on the bill would give them an opportunity to hear from their constituents. They fear that the 300 protestors who showed up at a town hall meeting in Panama City, Fla. held June 30 by Democrat Rep. Allen Boyd shortly after he voted for the cap and trade energy tax) are only the start of a larger backlash.

Democratic leaders, including the president, are now backing away from a vote on health care before August. But that’s not likely to decrease voter angst. Americans for Prosperity and others are already organizing voters to attend public meetings with members of Congress this summer. My guess is that members of Congress are about to hear a lot from their voters on the government takeover of health care, new energy taxes, the failed stimulus, record deficits, and growing joblessness.

But at some point, it looks like a Keystone Cop routine — a mad and irresponsible dash to throw something together. And that “something” is the redesign of the entire health-care system. Usually the public is immune to “process” questions. But in this case, the “process” has become an issue, a big one. The public begins to wonder why they are so bent on ramming this through. It is, after all, a matter of life and death.

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This Is It?

Blue and red pills. Doctors taking out tonsils for nothing. He doesn’t attack Republicans. He didn’t show all his health-care meetings on C-SPAN, but he’s stuck to his transparency promises. One after another, Obama uncorked howler after howler last night. Having missed it live, I had the chance to TIVO and watch, trying to replay portions to understand what he was saying. That didn’t help. He wasn’t explaining a plan, because he doesn’t have a plan. He wasn’t frankly communicating anything. As Mark Halperin (hardly a harsh critic of the president) explained:

What sacrifices will Americans have to make under his proposals? Why hasn’t the White House been more transparent about the policymaking process, as then-candidate Obama promised? Would he insist that members of Congress face the same limits on choice and access to care as the people getting their insurance from the new public health care plan he advocates? Those were among the excellent questions hurled at the president, and he countered only with partial responses and vague rhetoric.

If he wants to get some sort of plan through Congress, Obama has no choice but to continue his full-court press of public advocacy for the rest of the summer and into the fall. It is true, as he points out, that much legislative progress — almost exclusively managed by his own party — already has been made. And he is correct that the current health care system is both fiscally and morally unsustainable. But his high-profile primetime performance, with insufficient specificity, scant new data, and too many unanswered questions, likely did little to help his cause.

Maybe he is rattled or tired. Politico wondered whether he was “even trying.” Perhaps he doesn’t have any answers and thought he could wing it. But in some ways, it was an hour advertisement for the proposition that we should take a month or two off and then come back and engage in a real national debate when some of these questions can be answered. The press didn’t do a bad job last night, but we may need a new format.

Why not a national debate? Not in the sense that everyone talks about it, but a real debate. These are hard questions, and no one expects the president to have all the answers, so he can bring along Peter Orszag or Nancy Pelosi. Or both. Obama and his press secretary have been calling out an unnamed “Republican strategist” who has suggested we “kill” health care. But I’m fairly sure Bill Kristol would be willing to reveal himself and come to a debate or two. And he can bring aides as well.

No one is better on this than Yuval Levin. And Keith Hennessy would be good, too. And let’s get answers to those questions Halperin lists and to many others. Better yet, Obama can explain why he thinks doctors are preying on kids with allergies and performing unneeded operations. (How sorry is the AMA they went along with ObamaCare?) And he can once again tell us why a public plan won’t force private insurers from the market.

Sometimes less is more. In the case of the press conference, none would have been best. So step one: Congress go on vacation. Step two: Let’s start the debates.

What we have is an utter failure by the president and Congress to have an intelligent discussion of a huge policy initiative.

Blue and red pills. Doctors taking out tonsils for nothing. He doesn’t attack Republicans. He didn’t show all his health-care meetings on C-SPAN, but he’s stuck to his transparency promises. One after another, Obama uncorked howler after howler last night. Having missed it live, I had the chance to TIVO and watch, trying to replay portions to understand what he was saying. That didn’t help. He wasn’t explaining a plan, because he doesn’t have a plan. He wasn’t frankly communicating anything. As Mark Halperin (hardly a harsh critic of the president) explained:

What sacrifices will Americans have to make under his proposals? Why hasn’t the White House been more transparent about the policymaking process, as then-candidate Obama promised? Would he insist that members of Congress face the same limits on choice and access to care as the people getting their insurance from the new public health care plan he advocates? Those were among the excellent questions hurled at the president, and he countered only with partial responses and vague rhetoric.

If he wants to get some sort of plan through Congress, Obama has no choice but to continue his full-court press of public advocacy for the rest of the summer and into the fall. It is true, as he points out, that much legislative progress — almost exclusively managed by his own party — already has been made. And he is correct that the current health care system is both fiscally and morally unsustainable. But his high-profile primetime performance, with insufficient specificity, scant new data, and too many unanswered questions, likely did little to help his cause.

Maybe he is rattled or tired. Politico wondered whether he was “even trying.” Perhaps he doesn’t have any answers and thought he could wing it. But in some ways, it was an hour advertisement for the proposition that we should take a month or two off and then come back and engage in a real national debate when some of these questions can be answered. The press didn’t do a bad job last night, but we may need a new format.

Why not a national debate? Not in the sense that everyone talks about it, but a real debate. These are hard questions, and no one expects the president to have all the answers, so he can bring along Peter Orszag or Nancy Pelosi. Or both. Obama and his press secretary have been calling out an unnamed “Republican strategist” who has suggested we “kill” health care. But I’m fairly sure Bill Kristol would be willing to reveal himself and come to a debate or two. And he can bring aides as well.

No one is better on this than Yuval Levin. And Keith Hennessy would be good, too. And let’s get answers to those questions Halperin lists and to many others. Better yet, Obama can explain why he thinks doctors are preying on kids with allergies and performing unneeded operations. (How sorry is the AMA they went along with ObamaCare?) And he can once again tell us why a public plan won’t force private insurers from the market.

Sometimes less is more. In the case of the press conference, none would have been best. So step one: Congress go on vacation. Step two: Let’s start the debates.

What we have is an utter failure by the president and Congress to have an intelligent discussion of a huge policy initiative.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Abe Greenwald notes conservatives’ difficulty in finding praiseworthy tidbits in Obama’s foreign-policy speeches and actions: “The suspicion? That Barack Obama has no operable foreign policy. He does not stay the liberal course he so often talks up, nor does he effectively plan for the conservative solution he eventually adopts. Shifting gears and looking flat-footed while doing so is not the president’s intention. . . . Any resemblance to a political philosophy or school of thought is purely coincidental. As Mrs. Clinton put it in a speech at the Center for Foreign Relations last Wednesday, ‘Rigid ideologies and old formulas do not apply.’ An à-la-carte approach is in. Those of us hoping to nudge the administration through positive reinforcement are left sifting through fragments in search of something worthwhile.”

David Broder calls PAYGO a fake. “The reason is that the bill exempts from pay-go all of the spending involved in Medicare physician payments and all of the revenue dependent on estate and gift taxes, the alternative minimum tax for individuals and the administration’s plan to continue the middle-income tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. That is not the only giant loophole in this version of pay-go. Unlike the one enacted in 1990, it is not accompanied by any multiyear cap on discretionary spending. That means the 40 percent of the budget reflected in annual appropriations bills for ongoing or new government programs does not have to be paid for.”

The AMA’s endorsement of ObamaCare has set off a firestorm of protest from doctors and a civil war within the organization.

Yuval Levin on the nonmedical question in Obama’s presser: “But I have to admit I was actually most struck by his answer to the last question, about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. It’s the kind of question to which a president would normally reply with something like: ‘that’s a local police matter, I don’t know the details and I know it will be worked out responsibly,’ and move along. Obama gave a lengthy review of the facts, called the police officers involved stupid, and implied they are also liars. Very odd behavior for a president.”

Did Obama get caught working the ump? “Administration officials invited Doug Elmendorf, the director of the CBO, to the White House on Monday to meet with Obama and senior officials. The invitation came a few days after Elmendorf testified that Democratic healthcare reform proposals crafted in the Senate and House would add to long-term government spending on healthcare, an assessment some Democrats have called ‘devastating.’ Obama’s advisers have claimed that healthcare reform will eventually reduce government spending. Republicans suspect Obama may be trying to cajole Elmendorf into giving Democrats more favorable cost estimates.” Really!?

Well, if we had everything on C-SPAN a lot would be cleared up.

It is not often that Larry Sabato (“Least impressive of Obama’s four prime-time pressers. Little passion until the last question about Prof. Gates. This didn’t help O’s plan”) (h/t NRO), Howard Fineman, and Bill Kristol agree. But they all gave thumbs down on Obama’s presser.

The usually cheery Ben Smith did, too: “The president’s remarks on his chosen subject, health care, were cautious and choreographed, hemmed in on one side by the calculations of his professional wordsmiths, on the other by the delicacy of negotiations with two houses of Congress. He never detailed his own plan, or named a single victim of America’s broken system, and he spoke largely in the abstractions of blue pills, red pills, and legislative processes. It’s not easy to turn delivery system reform into a rallying cry for change, but at times, it was as if Obama wasn’t even trying.” The performance, Smith says, was “bleached of life.” Ouch.

Gov. Bobby Jindal liked what he heard: “You listen to what the president said. He said he does not want to increase the deficit, does not want government control of health care. He wants people to keep their insurance. He wants to crack down on the abuse, the over-utilization. All that’s great. The problem is, that’s not what’s in the House Democrat bill.”

Even the normally sympathetic Mark Halperin is underwhelmed: “Even a great explainer like Obama had trouble making headway Wednesday night as he delivered his extensive opening remarks and offered unusually long answers to the press. He was oddly free of passion and anger, given how intense the debate has become in the past few days, and he also avoided any risk. . . . Most striking, perhaps, was Obama’s failure to address head on some of the most difficult issues. Such evasions are a common practice for presidents, of course, but Obama is usually more straightforward and prides himself as too self-aware to engage in the artful dodge as comfortably as some of his predecessors.”

Mickey Kaus: “Obama’s refusal at his press conference to declare that all covered treatments would still be covered is an example of what people worry about. And Obama knows — or even scarier, maybe he doesn’t — that the difficult decisions don’t involve cheap blue pills that are as good as red pills, but treatments that are the ‘best’ but also the ‘most expensive’ — including cancer drugs like Herceptin and Sutent.”

Albeit in rather sexist terms (woman can be sexists, too), TNR’s Michelle Cottle touts Liz Cheney: “With Liz Cheney’s gradually rising profile, does anyone else smell a new political dynasty in the making? I know. I know. She has a toxic last name (for now). But she’s bright, attractive, and (at least when I chatted with her several years ago) exceedingly personable. Plus, she’s a chick (with five adorable kiddies, no less) in a party that’s desperate for XX voters. As far as the horses in the current GOP stable go, she’s got potential.”

Does she really have the votes? “Indiana Democrat Baron Hill, a Blue Dog congressman negotiating with leaders on health care, disagreed with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement Wednesday that Democrats have the votes to pass health care in the House. . . . Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, who is trying to change the bill to make it clear it would not use taxpayer money for abortions, also disagreed with the Speaker.”

Abe Greenwald notes conservatives’ difficulty in finding praiseworthy tidbits in Obama’s foreign-policy speeches and actions: “The suspicion? That Barack Obama has no operable foreign policy. He does not stay the liberal course he so often talks up, nor does he effectively plan for the conservative solution he eventually adopts. Shifting gears and looking flat-footed while doing so is not the president’s intention. . . . Any resemblance to a political philosophy or school of thought is purely coincidental. As Mrs. Clinton put it in a speech at the Center for Foreign Relations last Wednesday, ‘Rigid ideologies and old formulas do not apply.’ An à-la-carte approach is in. Those of us hoping to nudge the administration through positive reinforcement are left sifting through fragments in search of something worthwhile.”

David Broder calls PAYGO a fake. “The reason is that the bill exempts from pay-go all of the spending involved in Medicare physician payments and all of the revenue dependent on estate and gift taxes, the alternative minimum tax for individuals and the administration’s plan to continue the middle-income tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. That is not the only giant loophole in this version of pay-go. Unlike the one enacted in 1990, it is not accompanied by any multiyear cap on discretionary spending. That means the 40 percent of the budget reflected in annual appropriations bills for ongoing or new government programs does not have to be paid for.”

The AMA’s endorsement of ObamaCare has set off a firestorm of protest from doctors and a civil war within the organization.

Yuval Levin on the nonmedical question in Obama’s presser: “But I have to admit I was actually most struck by his answer to the last question, about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. It’s the kind of question to which a president would normally reply with something like: ‘that’s a local police matter, I don’t know the details and I know it will be worked out responsibly,’ and move along. Obama gave a lengthy review of the facts, called the police officers involved stupid, and implied they are also liars. Very odd behavior for a president.”

Did Obama get caught working the ump? “Administration officials invited Doug Elmendorf, the director of the CBO, to the White House on Monday to meet with Obama and senior officials. The invitation came a few days after Elmendorf testified that Democratic healthcare reform proposals crafted in the Senate and House would add to long-term government spending on healthcare, an assessment some Democrats have called ‘devastating.’ Obama’s advisers have claimed that healthcare reform will eventually reduce government spending. Republicans suspect Obama may be trying to cajole Elmendorf into giving Democrats more favorable cost estimates.” Really!?

Well, if we had everything on C-SPAN a lot would be cleared up.

It is not often that Larry Sabato (“Least impressive of Obama’s four prime-time pressers. Little passion until the last question about Prof. Gates. This didn’t help O’s plan”) (h/t NRO), Howard Fineman, and Bill Kristol agree. But they all gave thumbs down on Obama’s presser.

The usually cheery Ben Smith did, too: “The president’s remarks on his chosen subject, health care, were cautious and choreographed, hemmed in on one side by the calculations of his professional wordsmiths, on the other by the delicacy of negotiations with two houses of Congress. He never detailed his own plan, or named a single victim of America’s broken system, and he spoke largely in the abstractions of blue pills, red pills, and legislative processes. It’s not easy to turn delivery system reform into a rallying cry for change, but at times, it was as if Obama wasn’t even trying.” The performance, Smith says, was “bleached of life.” Ouch.

Gov. Bobby Jindal liked what he heard: “You listen to what the president said. He said he does not want to increase the deficit, does not want government control of health care. He wants people to keep their insurance. He wants to crack down on the abuse, the over-utilization. All that’s great. The problem is, that’s not what’s in the House Democrat bill.”

Even the normally sympathetic Mark Halperin is underwhelmed: “Even a great explainer like Obama had trouble making headway Wednesday night as he delivered his extensive opening remarks and offered unusually long answers to the press. He was oddly free of passion and anger, given how intense the debate has become in the past few days, and he also avoided any risk. . . . Most striking, perhaps, was Obama’s failure to address head on some of the most difficult issues. Such evasions are a common practice for presidents, of course, but Obama is usually more straightforward and prides himself as too self-aware to engage in the artful dodge as comfortably as some of his predecessors.”

Mickey Kaus: “Obama’s refusal at his press conference to declare that all covered treatments would still be covered is an example of what people worry about. And Obama knows — or even scarier, maybe he doesn’t — that the difficult decisions don’t involve cheap blue pills that are as good as red pills, but treatments that are the ‘best’ but also the ‘most expensive’ — including cancer drugs like Herceptin and Sutent.”

Albeit in rather sexist terms (woman can be sexists, too), TNR’s Michelle Cottle touts Liz Cheney: “With Liz Cheney’s gradually rising profile, does anyone else smell a new political dynasty in the making? I know. I know. She has a toxic last name (for now). But she’s bright, attractive, and (at least when I chatted with her several years ago) exceedingly personable. Plus, she’s a chick (with five adorable kiddies, no less) in a party that’s desperate for XX voters. As far as the horses in the current GOP stable go, she’s got potential.”

Does she really have the votes? “Indiana Democrat Baron Hill, a Blue Dog congressman negotiating with leaders on health care, disagreed with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement Wednesday that Democrats have the votes to pass health care in the House. . . . Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, who is trying to change the bill to make it clear it would not use taxpayer money for abortions, also disagreed with the Speaker.”

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A Painful Admission of Incapability

Jacqui Smith was Britain’s Home Secretary from late June 2007 through early June 2009. She was ultimately forced to resign when, as part of the ongoing scandal of parliamentary-expense claims, it was discovered that her husband had requested reimbursement for pornographic movies.

Quite enough has been said about this episode, which reflected poorly not on Ms. Smith but on her husband and the expense system. But recently, the BBC reported that she has given a thoroughly depressing interview to Total Politics magazine. She admits that she had “never run a major organization” before taking over the Home Office, and that if she did a good job, it was “more by luck than by any kind of development of [my] skills.”

When asked if she ever worried whether she was up to the job, she replies, “Well, every single time that I was appointed to a ministerial job I thought that.” When London and Glasgow airport were attacked by terrorists in July 2007, her first reaction, she now admits, reflected her detachment from her responsibilities: “I’m not sure I understood, I’m ashamed to say, when I first heard it, quite how serious it was.” More broadly, she argues that the system of Cabinet government, in which ministers are placed without much in the way of preparation or training at the top of immense government departments, is “pretty dysfunctional in the way that it works.”

There is no point in criticizing Ms. Smith for any of this, because none of this mentality is unique to her. It has all been said before, and it will probably be again. The difficulty is what to do about the problem. Relying on the civil service, while obviously necessary to some extent, is no solution, because it defeats ministerial direction and, ultimately, democracy itself. Bringing in ministers from outside government — who then have to be placed in the House of Lords — sounds appealing (and it’s a solution Gordon Brown’s increasingly resorted to), but such outsiders have a poor track record and are not subject to questioning in the Commons.

Ms. Smith opts for the easy out of “better training,” but it’s hard to have faith in this: It presupposes that training works, and that the PM will pick those who have aptitude for suitable jobs. In reality, as the entire Blair/Brown era reveals, quite a few other factors enter into ministerial selections. Some of these are inglorious but inevitable — internal party politics — while others are a good seal less inevitable, such as Labour’s enthusiasm for treating women as tokens by putting them in high-profile ministries regardless of whether they were qualified or not.

The actual remedy is simple to state but difficult to achieve. Government ministries are now almost impossible to manage, even given a steady supply of willing and able talent, because they are enormous and because there are so many of them that the coordination problems are insuperable. The Cabinet system was born in an era when government was inconceivably smaller than it is now. (The entire personnel list of the Foreign Office for 1900, for instance, fits very comfortably on three sheets of paper.) It may be true that politicians were better educated and better trained then, but a department of 75 is inherently a lot easier to manage than one of 75,000.

Getting back to an FO of 75 is a pipe dream, of course. But that’s not to say that the government shouldn’t try to do a good deal less and at the same time try to push some of what it does back down to the counties and cities. Limited government and localism are not just good for efficiency. More important, they’re also good for Cabinet government, for accountability before Parliament, and thus for democracy.

Jacqui Smith was Britain’s Home Secretary from late June 2007 through early June 2009. She was ultimately forced to resign when, as part of the ongoing scandal of parliamentary-expense claims, it was discovered that her husband had requested reimbursement for pornographic movies.

Quite enough has been said about this episode, which reflected poorly not on Ms. Smith but on her husband and the expense system. But recently, the BBC reported that she has given a thoroughly depressing interview to Total Politics magazine. She admits that she had “never run a major organization” before taking over the Home Office, and that if she did a good job, it was “more by luck than by any kind of development of [my] skills.”

When asked if she ever worried whether she was up to the job, she replies, “Well, every single time that I was appointed to a ministerial job I thought that.” When London and Glasgow airport were attacked by terrorists in July 2007, her first reaction, she now admits, reflected her detachment from her responsibilities: “I’m not sure I understood, I’m ashamed to say, when I first heard it, quite how serious it was.” More broadly, she argues that the system of Cabinet government, in which ministers are placed without much in the way of preparation or training at the top of immense government departments, is “pretty dysfunctional in the way that it works.”

There is no point in criticizing Ms. Smith for any of this, because none of this mentality is unique to her. It has all been said before, and it will probably be again. The difficulty is what to do about the problem. Relying on the civil service, while obviously necessary to some extent, is no solution, because it defeats ministerial direction and, ultimately, democracy itself. Bringing in ministers from outside government — who then have to be placed in the House of Lords — sounds appealing (and it’s a solution Gordon Brown’s increasingly resorted to), but such outsiders have a poor track record and are not subject to questioning in the Commons.

Ms. Smith opts for the easy out of “better training,” but it’s hard to have faith in this: It presupposes that training works, and that the PM will pick those who have aptitude for suitable jobs. In reality, as the entire Blair/Brown era reveals, quite a few other factors enter into ministerial selections. Some of these are inglorious but inevitable — internal party politics — while others are a good seal less inevitable, such as Labour’s enthusiasm for treating women as tokens by putting them in high-profile ministries regardless of whether they were qualified or not.

The actual remedy is simple to state but difficult to achieve. Government ministries are now almost impossible to manage, even given a steady supply of willing and able talent, because they are enormous and because there are so many of them that the coordination problems are insuperable. The Cabinet system was born in an era when government was inconceivably smaller than it is now. (The entire personnel list of the Foreign Office for 1900, for instance, fits very comfortably on three sheets of paper.) It may be true that politicians were better educated and better trained then, but a department of 75 is inherently a lot easier to manage than one of 75,000.

Getting back to an FO of 75 is a pipe dream, of course. But that’s not to say that the government shouldn’t try to do a good deal less and at the same time try to push some of what it does back down to the counties and cities. Limited government and localism are not just good for efficiency. More important, they’re also good for Cabinet government, for accountability before Parliament, and thus for democracy.

Read Less




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