Jen, it’s been a pleasure for all of us.
Posts For: November 30, 2010
As most all of you know, today is my last day at COMMENTARY. It has been a joy and a source of great pride to work for the publication that I began reading as a teenager and that remains one of the premiere intellectual institutions in America. My writing career began as a lark and has become a passion, the most satisfying and engrossing occupation I could have imagined. The opportunity to write in COMMENTARY’S pages and on this website — and throw some elbows, take the barbs (from those whom I’m delighted to have enraged), and report what the mainstream media refused to — has allowed me to contribute to the political debate and, along the way, break news. I owe COMMENTARY’s editors, staff, and writers an immense debt of gratitude. I am thankful for the encouragement and fine editorial advice they have provided me, without which I could not have accomplished what I did or have been ready for the next chapter in my career. And as for John’s most generous parting words, I am deeply touched. I hope to be worthy of his praise.
Then there are all of you — the readers. I have received the benefit of my readers’ extraordinary wisdom, occasional corrections and objections, and good humor. (I’ve often thought that many of you should be writing rather than just reading.) And after all, that is what a great magazine is all about — an intellectual community that stimulates, spars, consoles, incites, and makes common cause to promote values and principles that must be defended if they are to survive. I want to thank all of you for the hundreds of e-mails, calls, Facebook entries, and tweets (OK, I finally broke down and got with the 21st century — @JRubinBlogger) cheering me as I move to the Washington Post.
At the Post I will launch a new blog, Right Turn (CONTENTIONS readers can get a sneak preview by clicking on the link), where I will continue to report and opine, just as I have for the past three years. Rest assured that I intend to make the most of this extraordinary opportunity. I want all of you to come along for the ride — to read, comment, and debate with the Post readers (respectfully, of course). Together we can explain who we are and what we believe to a wide and diverse audience. I will continue to make CONTENTIONS an integral part of my daily reading, and I hope you will as well. Its writers’ wealth of knowledge and wit are an indispensible part of the national debate.
And to my loved ones: your unflagging support, patience, and confidence in my abilities have sustained me. Without you, none of this would be possible.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has finally acknowledged that Iran’s been having centrifuge problems induced by an IT attack, as Alana Goodman noted. The apparent culprit, the Stuxnet worm, is undoubtedly elegant: brilliantly conceived and executed with patience and subtlety. But for all its deserved notoriety as an IT phenomenon, excitement over Stuxnet is distracting us from the fact that its effects have not changed the cost-benefit calculus of interdicting Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. We’re missing the big picture here.
The attempted assassination of two Iranian scientists this week highlights that reality in jarring fashion. If these attempts — much like another one in January — were mounted by a foreign government, the purpose was to eliminate two of the scientists most prominent in the weaponization effort. Of the three elements of a nuclear-weapons program — weaponizing a warhead, enriching uranium, and acquiring delivery platforms (e.g., missiles) — it is weaponization that has become, in Iran’s case, the crucial bottleneck on which to focus efforts at sabotage. Weaponization is the program element Iran hasn’t mastered yet. The payoff from targeting weaponization is that we might still avert the development of an operational bomb.
Stuxnet, apparently targeted at the industrial uranium-enrichment process, didn’t offer that payoff. Iran already has enough low-enriched uranium (LEU) for three to four warheads, with over 3,100 kg stockpiled as of October 2010. Some portion of that LEU was produced, in fact, during the period of vulnerability to Stuxnet. As long as the worm went undetected, it could interfere with rote uranium-enrichment operations. But its achievements must be viewed in context: the International Atomic Energy Agency’s data indicate that the rate of LEU production at Natanz showed an increasing overall trend during the period when Stuxnet could have been in operation (scroll down at the last link above to see the graphs). In the same period, the Iranians also inaugurated — and enjoy continued success with — their higher-purity enrichment process.
If the rate and efficiency of uranium enrichment didn’t increase as rapidly as they would have without sabotage from Stuxnet, that’s a good thing. But it remains to be seen if Iran’s rate of uranium enrichment can be held back now that the worm is a known quantity. Slowing the stockpiling rate is, moreover, a secondary objective. As North Korea has demonstrated, the political impact of obtaining nuclear weapons occurs at the threshold, with the first detonation. Warhead weaponization is what needs to be prevented — and Stuxnet’s characteristics are irrelevant to that leg of the effort.
Sanctions may impose some additional delays on Iranian progress. But the longer we wait, the higher will be the price of interdicting any particular aspect of the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. Iran has enough LEU for three to four bombs, it is already enriching uranium to higher purity, and it has already tested missiles that can carry a usable nuclear warhead to Israel and other parts of the Middle East. Stuxnet hasn’t changed any of that.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad confirmed today what the rest of the world had pretty much already assumed: Iran’s uranium-enrichment centrifuges have, in fact, taken a bruising from the Stuxnet worm.
The Jerusalem Post reports:
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday admitted that “software installed in electronic equipment” damaged “several” of the country’s uranium enrichment centrifuges, according to an AFP report.
“They were able to disable on a limited basis some of our centrifuges by software installed in electronic equipment,” Ahmadinejad responded to reporters after he was asked whether his country’s nuclear program encountered problems.
I guess it was getting tough for Iran to keep a straight face while denying that malware was responsible for the problems plaguing its nuclear program. But despite the admission, Ahmadinejad is claiming that the worm has now been stopped and that the program is proceeding on, unscathed.
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to believe that Stuxnet could have penetrated the facilities and caused only such minimal damage. According to Ed Barnes’s excellent Fox News investigation on Stuxnet — which should be read in its entirety — the worm was intended to cripple Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Eric Byres, a computer security expert who has studied Stuxnet, told Barnes that the “worm was designed not to destroy the plants but to make them ineffective. By changing the rotation speeds, the bearings quickly wear out and the equipment has to be replaced and repaired. The speed changes also impact the quality of the uranium processed in the centrifuges creating technical problems that make the plant ineffective.”
“In other words,” Barnes writes, “the worm was designed to allow the Iranian program to continue but never succeed, and never to know why.”
And apparently, the virus succeeded at its mission. Sources inside Iran told Fox News that the centrifuge program was operating “far below its capacity and that the uranium enrichment program had ‘stagnated’ during the time the worm penetrated the underground facility.” Less than half of Iran’s centrifuges were reportedly operable after Stuxnet hit the facilities.
A source with close knowledge of the situation also told Barnes that removing the worm from Iran’s system would probably take another year to complete, and the plants at Natanz and Bushehr would be unable to function at a normal level until then.
But of course, that’s probably not an admission Iran’s going to be making any time soon.
The headlines claim that China was “scared to death of Nancy Pelosi,” but the real story is far more important:
China was “scared to death” over a visit by US Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is outspoken on human rights, and rejected her request to visit Tibet, according to files leaked Monday.
A top diplomat at the US embassy in Beijing said he asked Chin to consider letting Pelosi go to Tibet during her May 2009 visit to China, according to a cable obtained by whistleblower site WikiLeaks.
Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei responded that China could not arrange the trip due to Pelosi’s “tight schedule,” according to the cable reprinted by Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
The Chinese ambassador in Kazakhstan was blunter, telling his US counterpart over an expansive dinner that Beijing was “fearful” over Pelosi’s visit.
The Chinese were not, in fact, fearful of Pelosi. They were fearful of American ideals. This speaks to the enduring power of American condemnation. Onlookers are quick to dismiss the official naming and shaming of human rights abusers as a toothless substitute for “real” policy. That’s because they’ve come to underestimate the damage a little truth and justice can wreak on an abusive, secretive regime. This is why dissidents always push American leaders to talk about human rights abroad. They’ve lived under these regimes and have a feel for their fears and weaknesses. It’s only in free countries that we view public criticism of leaders as a form of impotence.
It’s no small thing to note that in an age when both threats and conciliations get us nowhere, a public embrace of our foundational ideals still sends a potent message. We talk about extending an outstretched hand to theocrats and the theocrats laugh. We talk about crippling sanctions and they laugh harder. To others, we offer aid in exchange for promises of an anti-terrorism crackdown; they collect and then ignore us. For others, we strain our alliances and make demands on our friends; we end up stymied. Still, to others we offer obsequious compromises and fresh starts; they smile kindly and make their own plans. But we now know the one time in recent memory we had a regime “scared to death” was when it thought we’d mention the sanctity of human rights. Doubtless, this lesson in the fusion of ideals and interests will be lost on the great non-ideological, pragmatic leaders of our time.
The Senate defeated the earmark ban. The Dems who scrambled to get on the good side of voters (i.e., voting for the ban): Evan Bayh (retiring but with political ambitions), Michael Benet (just re-elected narrowly but evidently has learned something), Russ Feingold (political aspirations?), Claire McCaskill (up in 2012), Bill Nelson (the same), Mark Udall (the invisible senator), and Mark Warner (struggling to get in line with the Virginia move to the right).
On the other side, the Republicans who voted against the ban include such giants as Robert Bennett (did Utah get it right or what?), George Voinovich (also leaving the Senate, maybe angling for a lobbyist spot?), Susan Collins (her Maine “sister” got it right, however, perhaps because Olympia Snowe faces the voters in 2012), James Inhofe (not up in 2012), Lisa Murkowski (she ran on “bring the bacon home,” so no surprise), Richard Lugar (can you say “Tea Party” challenge? Sorry, it’s not the end of civilization, Mr. Danforth), Thad Cochran (not up in 2012), and Richard Shelby (not up either).
The earmark ban, like the freeze on pay for federal workers, is largely symbolic, but let’s be honest: symbols matter, and the voters are looking for signs that their lawmakers “get it.” With the few exceptions noted above, it seems that Democratic senators by and large don’t understand what’s afoot in the country. They remain oblivious at their own peril.
I’ve been an advocate for a flat tax since Steve Forbes first brought it to widespread attention in 1996, when his seemingly quixotic presidential campaign got surprising traction, thanks largely, I suspect, to the flat tax.
For liberals, of course, high marginal rates on the rich are part of their political religion and thus, like all religious beliefs, not always subject to ratiocination. But since politicians will always cater to the rich — for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: that’s where the money is — high marginal rates in a democratic society will always be offset by loopholes so that the rich don’t actually have to pay those high marginal rates. This has been, at the least, one of the main engines behind the ever-increasing complexity of the tax code since it was first enacted in 1913.
It is also why tax revenues don’t rise much above 19 percent of GDP, whatever the bomfog coming out of Washington. The marginal rate (the tax on the last dollar of income) has been as high as 91 percent and as low as 28 percent. But the effective tax rate (the percentage of total income taxed away) has not changed much over the years since World War II, thanks to the loopholes and their partial elimination when rates were lowered. Read More
Sen. Jon Kyl is enjoying an “I told you so” moment. He’s been trying to slow the rush to a New START ratification vote, pleading that additional time is needed to explore serious concerns about the treaty’s implications. And now we learn:
The U.S. believes Russia has moved short-range tactical nuclear warheads to facilities near North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies as recently as this spring, U.S. officials say, adding to questions in Congress about Russian compliance with long-standing pledges ahead of a possible vote on a new arms-control treaty.
U.S. officials say the movement of warheads to facilities bordering NATO allies appeared to run counter to pledges made by Moscow starting in 1991 to pull tactical nuclear weapons back from frontier posts and to reduce their numbers. The U.S. has long voiced concerns about Russia’s lack of transparency when it comes to its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, believed to be many times the number possessed by the U.S.
Russia’s movement of the ground-based tactical weapons appeared to coincide with the deployment of U.S. and NATO missile-defense installations in countries bordering Russia. Moscow has long considered the U.S. missile defense buildup in Europe a challenge to Russian power, underlining deep-seated mistrust between U.S. and Russian armed forces despite improved relations between political leaders.
In short, Russia isn’t living up to its existing obligations, and there is nothing in New START to deal with tactical weapons. Moreover, this confirms what many conservative critics have long suspected, namely that reset is a one-way street. In order to keep up the facade of improved relations, the Obama team is forced to ignore serious challenges to the U.S. and its allies:
U.S. officials believe the most recent movements of Russian tactical nuclear weapons took place in late spring. In late May, a U.S. Patriot missile battery was deployed in northern Poland, close to Kaliningrad, sparking public protests from Moscow.
Some officials said the movements are a concern but sought to play down the threat. Russian nuclear warheads are stored separately from their launching systems, U.S. officials say.
Maybe it’s time for some serious oversight hearings. At the very least, the senators should resist being hurried to vote on a treaty before they understand the true state of U.S.-Russian relations.
A fascinating account from John Carlson on the Weekly Standard’s website mourning the decision of the Seattle radio station that pioneered an all-conservative format to go all Oldies instead demonstrates how rational business decisions are made by people who pay attention to what their audiences are telling them.
Yesterday I wrote about the WikiLeaks document dump in terms of what we learned about Arab leaders and their views toward Iran. Today I want to focus on its damage to American national security, and to do so by quoting from Henry Kissinger’s memoir White House Years.
In discussing the so-called Pentagon Papers — the release of more than 7,000 pages of secret documents related to the Vietnam war — Kissinger wrote that the documents “were in no way damaging to the Nixon Presidency.” He points out that “there was some sentiment among White House political operatives to exploit them as an illustration of the machinations of our predecessor and the difficulties we inherited.” Kissinger rightly believed that this was against the public interest. He then zeroed in on a point that is apposite today, in the context of the WikiLeaks matter:
Our nightmare at that moment was that Peking might conclude our government was too unsteady, too harassed, and too insecure to be a useful partner. The massive hemorrhage of state secrets was bound to raise doubts about our reliability in the minds of other government, friend and foe, and indeed about the stability of our political system. We had secret talks going on at the same time with the North Vietnamese, which we believed — incorrectly, as it turned out — were close to a breakthrough. We were in an important point in the sensitive SALT talks. And we were in the final stages of delicate Berlin negotiations which also depended on secrecy.
… I continue to believe that the theft and publication of official documents did a grave disservice to the nation. In the event, the release of the Pentagon Papers did not impede our overture to Peking. But this does not change the principle. We could not know so at the time; nor did those who stole the documents consider the consequences of their action, or even care — their purpose was, after all, to undermine confidence in their government.
(For a very helpful overview of the Pentagon Papers and its relevance, see Gabriel Schoenfeld’s essay “Rethinking the Pentagon Papers” in National Affairs magazine.)
In this particular instance, there does not appear to be any evidence that the American government misled the public on any matter. Rather, it appears to be an effort to release secret communications simply for the sake of malice and to undermine confidence in order to create chaos, embarrassment, and offense.
The collateral damage from these leaks could be massive, as Emanuele Ottolenghi has noted. If foreign governments and diplomats do not have confidence that their candid opinions will remain confidential — if they must now edit their appraisals and judgments with the assumption that they will appear on the front pages of the New York Times or Der Spiegel — then it will make diplomacy and the conduct of foreign policy substantially more difficult.
One can imagine extremely rare circumstances in which exposing state secrets is justifiable or at least debatable. This case is nothing close to that. What we have in Julian Assange is a nihilist and a malcontent, disturbed and dangerous. He really ought to be stopped.
Granted, he’s in a tough spot. His newspaper has facilitated a massive disclosure of confidential material. That paper claimed for itself the right to make decisions as to which cables would be released and redacted. Perhaps in such a situation, David Brooks should have refrained from excoriating Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’s founder. The only difference, really, between Assange and the Times is that the former received the stolen documents directly from the thief rather than via the Guardian and that the latter made a show of interposing its own editorial judgment in the selective release of the documents.
Because these differences are minor compared with the underlying act of immorality — the subversion of the foreign policy apparatus in a democratic government — Brooks inevitably becomes tangled up in his defense of his employer:
My colleagues on the news side of this newspaper do not share Assange’s mentality. As the various statements from the editors have made abundantly clear, they face a much thornier set of issues.
As journalists, they have a professional obligation to share information that might help people make informed decisions. That means asking questions like: How does the U.S. government lobby allies? What is the real nature of our relationship with Pakistani intelligence? At the same time, as humans and citizens, my colleagues know they have a moral obligation not to endanger lives or national security.
The Times has thus erected a series of filters between the 250,000 raw documents that WikiLeaks obtained and complete public exposure. The paper has released only a tiny percentage of the cables. Information that might endanger informants has been redacted. Specific cables have been put into context with broader reporting.
We are to excuse the Times‘s behavior because it thought real hard about it? Puleez.
Brooks then feels compelled to spin on behalf of the administration and perhaps of his employer (for if the documents are perceived as devastating to the administration’s credibility — rightly so, I would argue — then Brooks’s defense of the Times would seem rather lame):
Despite the imaginings of people like Assange, the conversation revealed in the cables is not devious and nefarious. The private conversation is similar to the public conversation, except maybe more admirable. Israeli and Arab diplomats can be seen reacting sympathetically and realistically toward one another. The Americans in the cables are generally savvy and honest. Iran’s neighbors are properly alarmed and reaching out.
This is nonsense. The cables are embarrassing precisely because they reveal the gap between private conversation and public positioning. In public, the administration touts “reset”; in private, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admits that democracy is dead in Russia. In public, the administration pleads that the non-peace process is needed to cajole the Arab states into opposing Iran; in private, the Arab states are freaked out that the administration is behaving so timidly. In public, the administration lauds outreach to Syria; in private, it is dismissed by Arab leaders as a joke.
Let’s be blunt: the Times is no better than Assange. At least Assange spared us the condescending chest-puffing. And both have done, no doubt to their dismay, much to bolster the critics of Obama’s foreign policy. But more important, both have demonstrated a contempt for democracy.
Regrettably, Pete, it looks like the answer is never (as Jennifer has noted). This, just in from the Guardian — a veritable barometer of the liberal mindset, at least as far as Europe goes. The best of the liberal crowd from the UK — a pro-Iranian campaigner, a leading voice of Bolshevik nostalgia who is also a dedicated promoter of Islamic radicalism, Juan Cole, and several other colorful opinion makers — weigh in on the significance of the WikiLeaks data dump on the Middle East.
For anyone harboring optimism about the ability of ideologues to change their minds, this is compulsory reading. I detect no mea culpa, no concession on the liberal animus toward Israel and America, no recoiling from the morbid sympathy for Iran and its nuclear ambitions, no hint of doubt.
Who knows, by the time all WikiLeaks documents have made their way into the public domain, perhaps even the die-hard Guardian ideologues will see the light. I am not holding my breath.
Colleagues may understandably dismiss the Guardian’s collection as a largely fringe phenomenon, but another reason I do not think the leaks will significantly affect people’s mindset one way or another is that the current U.S. administration, and many other liberals in Congress, the State Department, and various other agencies of the federal government, were privy to some, if not all, the content of the leaks before the public was — and that did not change their worldview or the policies they pursued.
Anyone who thinks that the WikiLeaks silver lining is in the “moment of truth” value should remember that WikiLeaks was irrelevant for the bigger picture — it revealed nothing we did not either instinctively or advisedly know about the world already. The information was entertaining in a tabloid way (as Max has said) — but again, gossip about Berlusconi’s lifestyle and Qaddafi’s erratic behavior were already available before this event. What value did we get out of this exposure that we had not already gotten out of a subscription to Hello! magazine?
Undoubtedly, the embarrassment from the exposure will eventually subside because, after all, governments made uncomfortable by these leaks must have similar documents in mind that their own diplomats have produced about U.S. leaders. Such is the nature of diplomacy, after all — to offer frank, unadorned assessments under the assumption that they will stay secret until long after they have become irrelevant.
In sum, the only enduring consequences of this affair are negative. First, there is the potential damage caused to sources of information — past, present, and future. Will the likelihood of being exposed as an informant in societies where such activity may be punished with death, loss of face or revenue, or damage to family, help or hinder the future recruitment of sources? Will current sources, seeing how they could easily be exposed, continue or discontinue their cooperation with American (and other) diplomats? Will they have the luxury of this choice, given that being exposed could lead to their death? And will they have continued access to information, given that they have now been exposed?
Then there is the real damage done to the quality of diplomatic communication. WikiLeaks stupidly boasts of serving transparency. The fact of the matter is that its irresponsible and puerile act of exposure will not obviate the need for discretion in the way governments conduct their affairs of state. To the contrary, it will force governments to build more impenetrable firewalls for their vital internal communications — with increased costs to the public coffers and with an increase in the kind of “culture of secrecy” that WikiLeaks so ardently wishes to undermine.
Perhaps the Obama administration has finally lost its infatuation with engagement. This marks a step in the right direction and a departure from the Bush administration and the first two years of this one:
The United States, South Korea and Japan are all balking at China’s request for emergency talks with North Korea over the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, as high-profile military exercises between South Korea and the United States in the Yellow Sea continued on Monday in a show of force.
Obama administration officials said that a return to the table with North Korea, as China sought this weekend, would be rewarding the North for provocative behavior over the past week, including its deadly artillery attack on a South Korean island and its disclosure of a uranium enrichment plant. Beijing called for emergency talks with North Korea, the United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia, participants in the six-party nuclear talks, which have been suspended indefinitely.
Finally. Now — what’s the rationale for talks with the mullahs? I substitute “Iran” for “North Korea” and you see the point:
“The United States and a host of others, I don’t think, are not interested in stabilizing the region through a series of P.R. activities,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman.
He said that the talks “without an understanding and agreement from the [Iranians] to both end their behavior … but also to come to the table with a seriousness of purpose on the denuclearization issue — without that seriousness of purpose, they’re just a P.R. activity.”
But back to North Korea. Step one is to stop doing unhelpful things — rewarding bad behavior by the North Koreans and indulging in the fantasy that if we are polite enough (and reticent enough when it comes to human rights), China will come to our aid. The good news is that there is, albeit quite belatedly, a recognition that China is of no help here. (“Rejecting the emergency talks amounts to a pointed rebuke to China. The United States wanted China to signal clearly that North Korea’s aggressive behavior would not be tolerated. Instead, Beijing remained neutral about who was responsible for the recent flare-up, and offered only to provide a venue for all sides to air their differences.”) The bad news is that the administration has yet to come up with an alternative.
It’s not only the WikiLeaks documents that are revealing the flawed assumptions of the Obama foreign policy approach. Every day, reality intrudes and tells us that the world is not as the administration imagines it to be.
As Jennifer noted yesterday, the latest WikiLeaks revelations definitively refute Barack Obama’s “linkage” theory: that Israeli concessions to the Palestinians were necessary to persuade Arab states to oppose Iran’s nuclear program. But what the documents reveal about the profound strategic misconception behind this theory is frightening.
The list of Arab states urging America to bomb Iran, and the forcefulness with which they urged it, is astonishing. It includes Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates; virtually the only exception was Qatar. Clearly, no Israeli concessions were needed to persuade these countries that strong action against Iran was desirable.
But both Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush insisted that this behind-the-scenes urging wasn’t enough; they needed Arab states to go public with it. As CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid told UAE officials in 2007, “we need our friends to say that they stand with the Americans.”
If Bush had any strategy for achieving this goal, it doesn’t emerge from the reports I’ve seen. But Obama did: linkage. If America showed that it’s on the Arabs’ side by extracting Israeli concessions, the theory went, then Arab states would no longer be reluctant to stand publicly beside the U.S.
But the idea that “soft power” could solve a quintessentially hard-power problem is a profound misconception, because the issue wasn’t the Arabs’ view of Washington as too pro-Israel; that never stopped them from supporting America if it served their interests before.
The real issue was their fear, given the visible reluctance to attack Iran displayed by both Bush and Obama, that if they publicly urged America to bomb Iran, and then America didn’t do it — they would be left alone to face the wrath of a nuclear-armed neighbor. And no amount of arm-twisting directed at Israel could possibly assuage that fear.
Indeed, only one thing could have done so: a clear American determination to attack Iran. You needn’t look far to find the model; it’s the one used by the first President George Bush in the Gulf War.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Arab states also initially refused to publicly back American action against Iraq. The day after the invasion, the Arab League even passed a resolution warning against outside intervention in the conflict.
But Bush, ignoring the verbiage, took swift action to assure Iraq’s neighbors that America wouldn’t leave them to face Iraq alone. Within a week, two naval battle groups had deployed to the area and more than 80 fighter jets had begun patrolling Saudi Arabia’s border. More forces arrived subsequently.
Only then did he start forming his coalition to invade Iraq. And with their protection assured, nine Arab states ultimately joined it.
Today, too, Arab states won’t publicly support attacking Iran without the surety that America will follow through. Nor can you blame them: they’re the ones who will have to live with a vengeful nuclear neighbor if America punts.
But you can certainly blame Washington for the delusion that gestures on an unrelated issue would suffice to allay a well-grounded existential fear — and be deeply worried that American leaders could misread the situation that profoundly.
Pete asks when will liberals acknowledge certain foreign policy facts now that we know that the views propounded by many conservative critics of the administration are shared by foreign powers (some of whom the left purports to champion). Well, I’m not holding my breath. Liberals spent over $860B on the stimulus without achieving much more than an ever-growing sea of red ink. Have they repudiated Keynesian economics? ObamaCare has turned out to be more expensive than advertised and has already resulted in dislocations contrary to the president’s promise that we’d all get to keep our insurance. Are the Democrats willing to admit error there?
George W. Bush was excoriated for refusing to enumerate his errors. Why isn’t the same standard applicable to Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and the president? Perhaps some enterprising reporter will ask each one for a mea culpa on these and other errors. No, I don’t think that’s going to happen. The memory hole for the left is quite deep.
Mike Pence’s speech yesterday to the Detroit Economic Club was his third major address on national issues in three months. Combined with his speech at Hillsdale College in September and his speech in Iowa in October, Pence has been setting forth proposals that might engage an electorate that wants something more than “hope and change.”
Yesterday Pence proposed a program he labeled “S.T.A.R.T.” — Sound monetary policy, Tax relief and reform, Access to American energy, Regulatory reform, and Trade — with a lengthy discussion of each topic. The section on taxes was a 1,500-word discussion that read in part:
In an upcoming study written by the legendary Dr. Art Laffer, Wayne Winegarden and John Childs, they found the cost of compliance with today’s tax code to be over $540 billion annually and that individuals and businesses spend 7.6 billion hours on their taxes. … The Laffer study predicts that by simplifying the tax code and cutting complexity costs in half, our economy would grow $1.3 trillion more over ten years than if we maintain the status quo. …
There is one system that [provides the necessary revenue without discouraging economic growth and imposing undue compliance burdens] … a flat tax. …
Individuals would pay taxes on their wages or salary after receiving a basic income exemption and an exemption for any dependents, including children and elderly family members and others who you care for in your home. Imagine how easy this would be for people. Gross income minus a generous standard deduction minus any dependent exemptions and you’ve got your taxable income. Apply the rate and your taxes are done. Everyone pays the same rate, and the more money you make, the more you pay. It’s fair, simple and effective.
We’ve heard this proposal before, and figures like $540 billion of compliance costs, 7.6 billion hours on taxes, and $1.3 trillion in projected economic growth deserve the same skepticism that properly greets projections of savings from eliminating “fraud, waste, and abuse” (or from enacting ObamaCare). The estimates are only as good as the assumptions underlying them — many of which are inherently speculative and none of which can be forecast accurately for 10 years (or even a few years). But Pence made the case that the time for a flat tax may be approaching:
A flat tax is in use in more than twenty countries around the world, and they have been proposed and supported by various legislators and economists in America over the past 30 years, such as Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, Dick Armey, Steve Forbes, Art Laffer, Jack Kemp and Richard Gephardt. We don’t think about it, but we already use flat taxes in America as taxes for Social Security, Medicare taxes, sales and property taxes. …
If you look back at history, the Kennedy, Reagan and 2001/2003 tax reforms were all followed by strong economic growth. The flat tax goes beyond these tax cuts and provides not just lower taxes but a greatly simplified system.
It is not clear that Pence wants to run for president; some think he plans to run for governor of Indiana (one of the other lessons of “hope and change” is that executive experience is at least as important for the presidency as the ability to give a good speech). He may simply want his ideas in the arena (a commentator who has written frequently about him describes him as fundamentally a man of ideas).
But we should know soon: the presidential race will start in roughly two months, if Barack Obama’s February 2007 presidential announcement is any indication of the lead time that now governs such a race.
We know that the Obama administration has been far from friendly to Israel — but is this sentiment now influencing policy at the IRS?
The Jewish group Z Street, which claims that its request for tax-exempt status was delayed by the IRS because of its support Israel, has been engulfed in a legal battle with the government agency for months. The case heated up last week after the organization introduced a letter that appeared to show an IRS agent giving unusual scrutiny to another Jewish group that had also applied for 501(c)3 status. Among the questions asked by the agent: “Does your organization support the existence of the land of Israel?”
Z Street said that this is further evidence that the IRS has started targeting pro-Israel groups. Ben Smith at Politico has the details of the letter:
A Pennsylvania Jewish group that has claimed the Internal Revenue Service is targeting pro-Israel groups introduced in federal court today a letter from an IRS agent to another, unnamed organization that tax experts said was likely outside the usual or appropriate scope of an IRS inquiry.
“Does your organization support the existence of the land of Israel?” IRS agent Tracy Dornette wrote the organization, according to this week’s court filing, as part of its consideration of the organizations application for tax exempt status. “Describe your organization’s religious belief system toward the land of Israel.”
But are these inquiries simply inappropriate, or are they evidence of an official campaign against Zionist organizations? A couple of tax attorneys consulted by Smith said they found the questions to be out of line:
“The claims go far beyond what should be the IRS’s role,” said Paul Caron a University of Cincinnati law professor and the author of TaxProf Blog.
Ellen Aprill, a law professor at Loyola University in Los Angeles said the second question was “appropriate” in the context of an application seeking a tax exemption on religious grounds.
“The first one is not the way I would want any of my agents to do it,” she said.
Some have wondered why Z Street is waging a public fight against the IRS instead of handling the tax issue privately. But Z Street founder Lori Lowenthal Marcus told me that her main worry here isn’t her own group’s tax-exempt status — it’s whether the government is holding pro-Israel groups to an unfair standard.
“My concern is that people are sort of veering off into tax world instead of Constitutional law,” said Lowenthal Marcus, a former constitutional lawyer, who added that she believes the actions of the IRS could constitute a First Amendment violation.
But apart from Z Street and the unnamed Jewish group mentioned in the letter, other organizations have yet to step up with claims that they were treated unfairly by the IRS.
Lowenthal Marcus said this doesn’t surprise her and noted that taking on the IRS can be an intimidating task. “Who’s going to challenge them?” she asked.
The current evidence is hardly enough to prove that there has been an official change in IRS policy toward pro-Israel groups, but the letter produced by Z Street shows that the case definitely deserves further inquiry. There is precedent for the IRS denying tax-exempt status to groups that clash with the government’s official policy — the Bob Jones University case is the most prominent example. But while the Obama administration has certainly taken an unfriendly stance toward Israel, this position could hardly be characterized as “official” government policy.
Ron Radosh at Pajamas Media also argues that this issue warrants a public investigation and suggests that this might be the task for a Republican-chaired House Oversight Committee: “What must now be publicly investigated — more work, perhaps, for Rep. Darrell Issa, likely the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — is, as Z Street put it, whether or not the IRS is ‘improperly considering the political viewpoint of applicants’ and engaging in ‘clear viewpoint discrimination.’”
Not all that well. For starters George Mitchell isn’t even in the region. I wondered why and e-mailed State Department spokesman PJ Crowley. He replied: “His deputy, David Hale, was in the region last week prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. We maintain continual contact with the parties and are prepared to send George or others to the region if and when needed. We have no announcements to make about travel at this moment.”
An experienced Israel hand translates: “He isn’t there this week because nothing’s happening, we’re stuck, there’s an impasse, and he doesn’t want yet again to travel and achieve nothing. So until there’s some breakthrough, he’s sitting it out.” You’d think this would be simple, no? Write up the bribe list settlement-freeze deal and hand it to Bibi to present to the cabinet. But wait, maybe asking for it in writing was the single most effective bit of diplomacy Bibi could muster. If the deal for the planes, for example, is conditioned or the administration really won’t exclude East Jerusalem from the freeze deal, then there is little chance the cabinet would approve it. And once again, the administration would be trapped by the gap between its private actions and its public comments. The administration is hemorrhaging credibility on multiple fronts. This won’t help. And as long as Mitchell stays home, you know the Obama team is “stuck.”
What happens when the Democratic majority ends: “President Obama on Monday proposed a two-year freeze on federal pay, saying federal workers must sacrifice to reduce the nation’s budget deficit. … Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) had called for a freeze on federal pay this month and also had said the average federal worker makes twice the pay of the average private sector worker.”
Jackson Diehl reminds us to stop holding out hope that small-bore covert actions will defang the mullahs. “Covert action, in short, is not likely to be the silver bullet that stops Iran’s nuclear program. That’s true of 21st-century devices like Stuxnet — and it will likely apply to the old-fashioned and ruthless attacks on Iranian scientists.” Still, it helps slow the clock.
Obama’s foreign policy aura is over. Walter Russell Mead writes: “Our propensity to elect charismatic but inexperienced leaders repeatedly lands us in trouble. We remain steadfastly blind to the deterioration of our long-term fiscal position as we pile unfunded entitlements on top of each other in a surefire recipe for national disaster. We lurch from one ineffective foreign policy to another, while the public consensus that has underwritten America’s world role since the 1940s continues to decay. Our elite seems at times literally hellbent on throwing away the cultural capital and that has kept this nation great and free for so many generations.” Ouch.
Is the era of slam-dunk Democratic victories coming to a close in New Jersey? “With one more national election behind him, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez now faces one ahead — his own. And according to the most recent statewide poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind™, 31% of his New Jersey constituency have a favorable opinion of him and 25% have an unfavorable opinion. Another 44% either are unsure (29%) or haven’t heard of him at all (15%). ‘Those are fairly anemic numbers for an energetic guy who has already served five years,’ said Peter Woolley, a political scientist and director of the poll.”
Michael Steele’s finished as Republican National Committee chair — the only issue is which of the competent, low-key contenders will win it.
Are the Dems kaput in the South? “After suffering a historic rout — in which nearly every white Deep South Democrat in the U.S. House was defeated and Republicans took over or gained seats in legislatures across the region — the party’s ranks in Dixie have thinned even further.” I’d be cautious — the GOP was “dead” in New England and the Midwest two years ago.
Rep. Mike Pence is going to halt the speculation as to whether he’ll run for president. Speeches like this tell us he certainly is: “I choose the West. I choose limited government and freedom. I choose the free market, personal responsibility and equality of opportunity. I choose fiscal restraint, sound money, a flat tax, regulatory reform, American energy, expanded trade and a return to traditional values. In a word, I choose a boundless American future built on the timeless ideals of the American people. I believe the American people are ready for this choice and await men and women who will lead us back to that future, back to the West, back to American exceptionalism. Here’s to that future. Our best days are yet to come.” That’s a presidential candidate talking.
Bret Stephens suggests that the WikiLeak documents may bring down the curtain on silly leftist foreign policy ideas. “Are Israeli Likudniks and their neocon friends (present company included) the dark matter pushing the U.S. toward war with Iran? Well, no: Arab Likudniks turn out to be even more vocal on that score. Can Syria be detached from Iran’s orbit? ‘I think not,’ says Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. … Has the administration succeeded in pressing the reset button with Russia? Hard to credit, given Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s description of the Putin-Medvedev regime as one from which ‘there has been little real change.’ Is the threat of an Iranian missile strike—and therefore of the need for missile defense—exaggerated? Not since we learned that North Korea had shipped missiles to Tehran that can carry nuclear warheads as far as Western Europe and Moscow.” But the administration knew all this — the only difference is now we do.