Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 7, 2010

Missed Opportunity in Assange Bail Request

As London’s Independent reports, Julian Assange was refused bail, despite this offer by some devoted fans:

Jemima Khan, the sister of Tory MP Zac Goldsmith, film director Ken Loach and veteran journalist John Pilger all offered to stand as surety for Assange.

We understand the judge’s concerns that if Assange were released on bail, he might disappear again. Still, the risk was far outweighed by the benefit of having Khan, Loach, and Pilger behind bars.

Clearly, a missed opportunity!

As London’s Independent reports, Julian Assange was refused bail, despite this offer by some devoted fans:

Jemima Khan, the sister of Tory MP Zac Goldsmith, film director Ken Loach and veteran journalist John Pilger all offered to stand as surety for Assange.

We understand the judge’s concerns that if Assange were released on bail, he might disappear again. Still, the risk was far outweighed by the benefit of having Khan, Loach, and Pilger behind bars.

Clearly, a missed opportunity!

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The Tax Deal: Politics and Principles

Reaction to the tax deal is all over the lot, on both sides of the political spectrum. Paul Mirengoff thinks it is a very good deal for Republicans (John Hinderaker would go further and label it a great deal). Grover Norquist says it is a much bigger victory for Republicans than recognized. Mark Levin thinks it is a bad deal, and Hugh Hewitt is deeply dispirited.

Jonathan Chait thinks Obama got more from the Republicans than Chait thought he would. Jonathan Bernstein thinks it is actually a win for the Democrats. The New York Times thinks it is a disappointing retreat by the White House. Obama himself did not sound very happy.

We’ll find out who was right in two years, when all the issues will resurface in the middle of a presidential election.

But it is not too soon to note the intellectual collapse of one of Obama’s principal arguments. For the past two years, he castigated the Bush tax cuts as breaks for “millionaires and billionaires,” even though the across-the-board cuts primarily benefited people in the lower brackets (the proportion of millionaires and billionaires among taxpayers is one-third of 1 percent, according to the latest IRS statistics). In order to raise any real money from “millionaires and billionaires,” Obama had to define them as individuals making one-fifth of a million dollars (one-fourth in the case of couples) – because there were 10 times as many people in that group as real millionaires, and therefore (applying the Willy Sutton principle of public policy) that was the place to go.

The White House ended up opposing a “compromise” under which taxes would be raised only on real millionaires, since there was not enough money in that group to make that resolution sufficiently remunerative for the government. More than taxing millionaires and billionaires, the White House really wanted to tax the non-millionaires. When that proved impossible, the White House went in a different direction.

In contrast, the Republicans were unified around a set of principles easier to explain and defend: don’t raise taxes in a recession; don’t increase taxes on employers if you want more employment; don’t ask the public, which is fairly crying out for you to cut spending, to send you $700 billion more to spend. These principles are unlikely to be proved wrong in two years.

Reaction to the tax deal is all over the lot, on both sides of the political spectrum. Paul Mirengoff thinks it is a very good deal for Republicans (John Hinderaker would go further and label it a great deal). Grover Norquist says it is a much bigger victory for Republicans than recognized. Mark Levin thinks it is a bad deal, and Hugh Hewitt is deeply dispirited.

Jonathan Chait thinks Obama got more from the Republicans than Chait thought he would. Jonathan Bernstein thinks it is actually a win for the Democrats. The New York Times thinks it is a disappointing retreat by the White House. Obama himself did not sound very happy.

We’ll find out who was right in two years, when all the issues will resurface in the middle of a presidential election.

But it is not too soon to note the intellectual collapse of one of Obama’s principal arguments. For the past two years, he castigated the Bush tax cuts as breaks for “millionaires and billionaires,” even though the across-the-board cuts primarily benefited people in the lower brackets (the proportion of millionaires and billionaires among taxpayers is one-third of 1 percent, according to the latest IRS statistics). In order to raise any real money from “millionaires and billionaires,” Obama had to define them as individuals making one-fifth of a million dollars (one-fourth in the case of couples) – because there were 10 times as many people in that group as real millionaires, and therefore (applying the Willy Sutton principle of public policy) that was the place to go.

The White House ended up opposing a “compromise” under which taxes would be raised only on real millionaires, since there was not enough money in that group to make that resolution sufficiently remunerative for the government. More than taxing millionaires and billionaires, the White House really wanted to tax the non-millionaires. When that proved impossible, the White House went in a different direction.

In contrast, the Republicans were unified around a set of principles easier to explain and defend: don’t raise taxes in a recession; don’t increase taxes on employers if you want more employment; don’t ask the public, which is fairly crying out for you to cut spending, to send you $700 billion more to spend. These principles are unlikely to be proved wrong in two years.

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Morning Commentary

Assange arrested in London, but extradition to Sweden “could take months,” reports the BBC. Despite the development, a WikiLeaks spokesman says the site will continue to release cables.

During nuclear talks this week, Iran showed a willingness to further discuss its program with P5+1 officials, reports the Los Angeles Times: “Though Iran’s position was a sign of progress, it was about the minimum the six powers could accept after a 14-month stalemate. Pressed by Washington, the U.N. Security Council tightened economic sanctions against Iran in June. The U.S. and European Union added their own tougher sanctions the following month. The U.S. and its allies have threatened further action if Iran does not commit to serious negotiations.”

Nineteen governments have joined a boycott of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony that will give the award to jailed Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, indicating increased pressure from Beijing. Xiaobo is currently serving an 11-year sentence for “subversion.” China’s foreign minister claimed that Nobel officials “are orchestrating an anti-China farce by themselves. …We are not changing because of interference by a few clowns and we will not change our path.”

In the December issue of COMMENTARY (behind our pay wall), Ron Radosh dissected Walter Schneir’s attempt to backtrack from his bid to exonerate Communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He now does the same (with co-author Steven Usdin) for another Rosenberg apologist: “Now, so many years later, when the intellectual community largely acknowledges the Rosenbergs’ guilt—a 2008 public confession by former Soviet spy Morton Sobell, who was tried along with the Rosenbergs, made continued denial impossible—[Victor] Navasky has written what is possibly the last-ditch attempt to redeem the Rosenbergs.”

The New York Times claims that a letter from lawmakers indicates “bipartisan” support for Obama’s nuclear strategy. Reality seems to disagree.

Looks like President Obama’s counter-attack against the U.S. Chamber of Conference is paying dividends. Dozens of local chapters of the Chamber have distanced themselves from or quit their associations with the national body due to its support of Republican candidates during the 2010 midterms. “Looking ahead to the 2012 elections, if more local chambers publicly declare their independence, it could undermine the power and credibility of attacks launched from the Washington office,” reports Politico.

Obama cut a deal with Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years, but has this move alienated his liberal base? New York Times analyst Peter Baker writes: “For President Obama, this is what bipartisanship looks like in the new era: messy, combustible and painful, brought on under the threat of even more unpalatable consequences and yet still deferring the ultimate resolution for another day.”

Assange arrested in London, but extradition to Sweden “could take months,” reports the BBC. Despite the development, a WikiLeaks spokesman says the site will continue to release cables.

During nuclear talks this week, Iran showed a willingness to further discuss its program with P5+1 officials, reports the Los Angeles Times: “Though Iran’s position was a sign of progress, it was about the minimum the six powers could accept after a 14-month stalemate. Pressed by Washington, the U.N. Security Council tightened economic sanctions against Iran in June. The U.S. and European Union added their own tougher sanctions the following month. The U.S. and its allies have threatened further action if Iran does not commit to serious negotiations.”

Nineteen governments have joined a boycott of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony that will give the award to jailed Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, indicating increased pressure from Beijing. Xiaobo is currently serving an 11-year sentence for “subversion.” China’s foreign minister claimed that Nobel officials “are orchestrating an anti-China farce by themselves. …We are not changing because of interference by a few clowns and we will not change our path.”

In the December issue of COMMENTARY (behind our pay wall), Ron Radosh dissected Walter Schneir’s attempt to backtrack from his bid to exonerate Communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He now does the same (with co-author Steven Usdin) for another Rosenberg apologist: “Now, so many years later, when the intellectual community largely acknowledges the Rosenbergs’ guilt—a 2008 public confession by former Soviet spy Morton Sobell, who was tried along with the Rosenbergs, made continued denial impossible—[Victor] Navasky has written what is possibly the last-ditch attempt to redeem the Rosenbergs.”

The New York Times claims that a letter from lawmakers indicates “bipartisan” support for Obama’s nuclear strategy. Reality seems to disagree.

Looks like President Obama’s counter-attack against the U.S. Chamber of Conference is paying dividends. Dozens of local chapters of the Chamber have distanced themselves from or quit their associations with the national body due to its support of Republican candidates during the 2010 midterms. “Looking ahead to the 2012 elections, if more local chambers publicly declare their independence, it could undermine the power and credibility of attacks launched from the Washington office,” reports Politico.

Obama cut a deal with Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years, but has this move alienated his liberal base? New York Times analyst Peter Baker writes: “For President Obama, this is what bipartisanship looks like in the new era: messy, combustible and painful, brought on under the threat of even more unpalatable consequences and yet still deferring the ultimate resolution for another day.”

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What Vietnam Should Teach Us About Iran

J.E. Dyer’s excellent post yesterday correctly noted that this week’s talks with Iran, like the previous rounds, will merely buy Tehran more time to advance its nuclear program. That the West would commit such folly shows it has yet to learn a crucial lesson of the Vietnam War: though it sees compromise as the ultimate solution to any conflict, its opponents’ aim is often total victory.

Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and then secretary of state during Vietnam, expounded on this difference at a State Department conference this fall. As Haaretz reported:

The Americans sought a compromise; the North Vietnamese a victory, to replace the regime in the south and to unite the two halves of Vietnam under their rule. When they became stronger militarily, they attacked; when they were blocked, they agreed to bargain; when they signed an agreement, they waited for an opportunity to break it and win.

That same disconnect between the parties’ goals exists today over Iran’s nuclear program. The West repeatedly says its goal is compromise. Even as the UN approved new sanctions against Tehran in June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her ultimate aim was to get Iran “back at the negotiating table.” And when the EU discussed additional sanctions in July, its high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, insisted that “The purpose of all this is to say, ‘We’re serious, we need to talk.’ … Nothing would dissuade me from the fact that talks should happen.”

Iran, however, isn’t seeking compromise; it’s playing to win. And that explains all its diplomatic twists and turns, like scrapping last year’s deal to send some of its low-enriched uranium abroad immediately after signing it.

Diplomats and journalists, convinced that Iran, too, wants compromise, have espoused strained explanations, like disagreements between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his chief backer, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But once you realize that Iran’s goal is victory, it’s clear that Tehran never intended to give up its uranium. It merely wanted time to develop its nuclear program further before new sanctions were imposed. The scrapped deal bought it a year: first the months of talks; then more time wasted in efforts to lure Iran back to the deal it walked out of; and finally, months spent negotiating the new sanctions, which weren’t discussed previously for fear of scuttling the chances of a deal.

Now Tehran again feels pressured, so, like Hanoi, it’s agreeing to bargain. It’s no accident that after months of preliminary jockeying, Iran finally set a date for the talks immediately after the WikiLeaks cables made worldwide headlines. The cables’ revelation of an Arab consensus for military action against Tehran gives new ammunition to an incoming Congress already inclined to be tougher on Iran and also facilitates a potential Israeli military strike: who now would believe the inevitable Arab denunciations afterward?

So Iran, cognizant of the West’s weakness, has taken out the perfect insurance policy: as long as it’s talking, feeding the West’s hope for compromise, Western leaders will oppose both new sanctions and military action. And Tehran will be able to continue its march toward victory unimpeded.

J.E. Dyer’s excellent post yesterday correctly noted that this week’s talks with Iran, like the previous rounds, will merely buy Tehran more time to advance its nuclear program. That the West would commit such folly shows it has yet to learn a crucial lesson of the Vietnam War: though it sees compromise as the ultimate solution to any conflict, its opponents’ aim is often total victory.

Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and then secretary of state during Vietnam, expounded on this difference at a State Department conference this fall. As Haaretz reported:

The Americans sought a compromise; the North Vietnamese a victory, to replace the regime in the south and to unite the two halves of Vietnam under their rule. When they became stronger militarily, they attacked; when they were blocked, they agreed to bargain; when they signed an agreement, they waited for an opportunity to break it and win.

That same disconnect between the parties’ goals exists today over Iran’s nuclear program. The West repeatedly says its goal is compromise. Even as the UN approved new sanctions against Tehran in June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her ultimate aim was to get Iran “back at the negotiating table.” And when the EU discussed additional sanctions in July, its high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, insisted that “The purpose of all this is to say, ‘We’re serious, we need to talk.’ … Nothing would dissuade me from the fact that talks should happen.”

Iran, however, isn’t seeking compromise; it’s playing to win. And that explains all its diplomatic twists and turns, like scrapping last year’s deal to send some of its low-enriched uranium abroad immediately after signing it.

Diplomats and journalists, convinced that Iran, too, wants compromise, have espoused strained explanations, like disagreements between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his chief backer, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But once you realize that Iran’s goal is victory, it’s clear that Tehran never intended to give up its uranium. It merely wanted time to develop its nuclear program further before new sanctions were imposed. The scrapped deal bought it a year: first the months of talks; then more time wasted in efforts to lure Iran back to the deal it walked out of; and finally, months spent negotiating the new sanctions, which weren’t discussed previously for fear of scuttling the chances of a deal.

Now Tehran again feels pressured, so, like Hanoi, it’s agreeing to bargain. It’s no accident that after months of preliminary jockeying, Iran finally set a date for the talks immediately after the WikiLeaks cables made worldwide headlines. The cables’ revelation of an Arab consensus for military action against Tehran gives new ammunition to an incoming Congress already inclined to be tougher on Iran and also facilitates a potential Israeli military strike: who now would believe the inevitable Arab denunciations afterward?

So Iran, cognizant of the West’s weakness, has taken out the perfect insurance policy: as long as it’s talking, feeding the West’s hope for compromise, Western leaders will oppose both new sanctions and military action. And Tehran will be able to continue its march toward victory unimpeded.

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The Bush Comeback

According to Politico:

George W. Bush’s job approval rating as president has spiked to 47 percent, according to a Gallup poll released Monday. That’s one point higher than President Barack Obama’s job approval rating in a poll taken the same week.

This is the first time Gallup asked Americans to retrospectively rate Bush’s job performance. And it was a stunning turnaround from his low point of 25 percent in November 2008. The 47 percent number is 13 points higher than the last Gallup poll taken before Bush left office in 2009 and the highest rating for him since before Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Politico goes on to report:

Bush’s 47 percent approval rating also raises serious questions about the wisdom of the White House’s decision to relentlessly attack him in the months before the Democrats’ historic losses in the midterm elections. The president had kept warning a House Republican majority would return to Bush-era policies. But Obama’s message did little to galvanize the liberal base, and independents flocked to the GOP on Election Day.

Bush’s rebound gives some credence to what he has long said – that history will eventually judge his presidency.

I know enough to know that public opinion polls are merely snapshots in time, that they can change quickly, and that they certainly do not constitute a final judgment on events. (The surge was extremely unpopular before it began to work, it should be pointed out.) We are still a long way from having anything like a reasonable historical verdict on either the Bush or the Obama presidency. Still, the most recent Gallup findings are noteworthy. The Bush Comeback is coming along rather well. Like some of his predecessors, with the passage of time, Bush’s strengths and achievements are coming into sharper focus. I would say the same thing about his successor’s weaknesses and failures.

According to Politico:

George W. Bush’s job approval rating as president has spiked to 47 percent, according to a Gallup poll released Monday. That’s one point higher than President Barack Obama’s job approval rating in a poll taken the same week.

This is the first time Gallup asked Americans to retrospectively rate Bush’s job performance. And it was a stunning turnaround from his low point of 25 percent in November 2008. The 47 percent number is 13 points higher than the last Gallup poll taken before Bush left office in 2009 and the highest rating for him since before Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Politico goes on to report:

Bush’s 47 percent approval rating also raises serious questions about the wisdom of the White House’s decision to relentlessly attack him in the months before the Democrats’ historic losses in the midterm elections. The president had kept warning a House Republican majority would return to Bush-era policies. But Obama’s message did little to galvanize the liberal base, and independents flocked to the GOP on Election Day.

Bush’s rebound gives some credence to what he has long said – that history will eventually judge his presidency.

I know enough to know that public opinion polls are merely snapshots in time, that they can change quickly, and that they certainly do not constitute a final judgment on events. (The surge was extremely unpopular before it began to work, it should be pointed out.) We are still a long way from having anything like a reasonable historical verdict on either the Bush or the Obama presidency. Still, the most recent Gallup findings are noteworthy. The Bush Comeback is coming along rather well. Like some of his predecessors, with the passage of time, Bush’s strengths and achievements are coming into sharper focus. I would say the same thing about his successor’s weaknesses and failures.

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The What-the-Hell Tax-Cut Deal

How to explain the extent to which Barack Obama moved toward a Republican position on the Bush tax cuts he clearly detests, especially considering a major, major cave-in on estate taxes? It can’t be because he so wanted the extension of unemployment benefits that he gave in over and over again. Nor can it be because he was so desperate for the one-year lowering of the payroll tax. That one sounds good and will put money in people’s hands, but it seems likely that Obama fought for it as some kind of fairness offset for keeping the “tax cut for the rich.” We know from the experience of one-year tax cuts in 2008 and 2009 that, as Milton Friedman’s “permanent income hypothesis” foresaw, it will have very little stimulative effect on the economy.

Here’s a theory: Obama said, “What the hell.” Once he knew he had to give in, and would get criticized for giving in, he figured he might as well go whole hog. The whole deal seems designed to test conservative arguments about how best to help the economy right now, with the understanding that if the economy improves markedly as a result, he will get more credit for his role from the independents he lost so decisively in the 2010 election. And if it doesn’t, then the GOP will be in the position he was in this year in relation to the stimulus — their desired policy won’t have worked either, and he won’t get blamed for acceding to political reality in going along with it.

Paul Krugman and the Nation and Moveon.org were going to be enraged no matter what compromise he struck. So…what the hell. Go long. Try the Hail Mary. Nothing Barack Obama could have done indicates just how empty his own economic policy quiver is.

How to explain the extent to which Barack Obama moved toward a Republican position on the Bush tax cuts he clearly detests, especially considering a major, major cave-in on estate taxes? It can’t be because he so wanted the extension of unemployment benefits that he gave in over and over again. Nor can it be because he was so desperate for the one-year lowering of the payroll tax. That one sounds good and will put money in people’s hands, but it seems likely that Obama fought for it as some kind of fairness offset for keeping the “tax cut for the rich.” We know from the experience of one-year tax cuts in 2008 and 2009 that, as Milton Friedman’s “permanent income hypothesis” foresaw, it will have very little stimulative effect on the economy.

Here’s a theory: Obama said, “What the hell.” Once he knew he had to give in, and would get criticized for giving in, he figured he might as well go whole hog. The whole deal seems designed to test conservative arguments about how best to help the economy right now, with the understanding that if the economy improves markedly as a result, he will get more credit for his role from the independents he lost so decisively in the 2010 election. And if it doesn’t, then the GOP will be in the position he was in this year in relation to the stimulus — their desired policy won’t have worked either, and he won’t get blamed for acceding to political reality in going along with it.

Paul Krugman and the Nation and Moveon.org were going to be enraged no matter what compromise he struck. So…what the hell. Go long. Try the Hail Mary. Nothing Barack Obama could have done indicates just how empty his own economic policy quiver is.

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