Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 15, 2011

Peace in Our Time: Russian Air Defense to Kuril Islands

The dispute between Russia and Japan over the southern Kuril Islands, which lie north of Hokkaido, has heated up since Dmitry Medvedev’s provocative visit to the islands in November 2010. It has been largely a war of words, but after a second high-level visit 10 days ago, this time by the Russian defense minister, Russian media are reporting today that air-defense missile systems will be deployed to beef up the aging, Cold War–era artillery positions in the Kurils. According to RIA Novosti, the newest air-defense system, the S-400 “Triumf,” will be installed in the disputed islands. The Russian general staff declined to confirm or deny the report.

The S-400 has many capabilities in common with the newest version of the American Patriot missile, and some that are superior. With a range of 250 miles (400 km), it would be able to target aircraft flying deep within Japanese air space, as well as intercept cruise and ballistic missiles. It’s worth noting that a prospective S-400 deployment in the Kurils is not analogous to the situation involving the U.S. Patriot battery in Poland. That battery, besides being non-operational, has older weapons that lack the range to reach any significant portion of Russian air space. (They might reach part of Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.) Of equal significance, Russian action in the Kurils would entail fortifying disputed territory; the Patriot battery in Poland is on territory recognized internationally as belonging to Warsaw.

Japanese surveillance will detect the S-400 quickly if it is deployed. Meanwhile, there was an interesting set of clarifications from the U.S. government after the flare-ups last fall in Japan’s island disputes with Russia and China. Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates made it clear that the U.S.-Japan security treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands, which China disputes with Japan. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley made it equally clear that the treaty does not apply to defense of the Kuril Islands, because the islands are “not under Japanese administration.”

Keeping our foreign-policy thinking on autopilot leaves our spokesmen giving narrowly conceived, legalistic responses that are inadequate to a changing situation. America’s core ally in the Far East is under real territorial pressure from both Russia and China — and the reflexive assumption that any given situation will stabilize itself, with little or no inconvenience to the U.S., is increasingly outdated. Russia is beefing up its armaments on the disputed islands a few miles off Hokkaido; the possible implications of this are no different from what they would have been at any other time in history. One of our chief allies is being challenged aggressively by the two major military powers of Asia in the matter of its territorial claims. The fates of these disputes will have as big an impact on the conditions underpinning our national security as our own defense budget does.

The dispute between Russia and Japan over the southern Kuril Islands, which lie north of Hokkaido, has heated up since Dmitry Medvedev’s provocative visit to the islands in November 2010. It has been largely a war of words, but after a second high-level visit 10 days ago, this time by the Russian defense minister, Russian media are reporting today that air-defense missile systems will be deployed to beef up the aging, Cold War–era artillery positions in the Kurils. According to RIA Novosti, the newest air-defense system, the S-400 “Triumf,” will be installed in the disputed islands. The Russian general staff declined to confirm or deny the report.

The S-400 has many capabilities in common with the newest version of the American Patriot missile, and some that are superior. With a range of 250 miles (400 km), it would be able to target aircraft flying deep within Japanese air space, as well as intercept cruise and ballistic missiles. It’s worth noting that a prospective S-400 deployment in the Kurils is not analogous to the situation involving the U.S. Patriot battery in Poland. That battery, besides being non-operational, has older weapons that lack the range to reach any significant portion of Russian air space. (They might reach part of Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.) Of equal significance, Russian action in the Kurils would entail fortifying disputed territory; the Patriot battery in Poland is on territory recognized internationally as belonging to Warsaw.

Japanese surveillance will detect the S-400 quickly if it is deployed. Meanwhile, there was an interesting set of clarifications from the U.S. government after the flare-ups last fall in Japan’s island disputes with Russia and China. Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates made it clear that the U.S.-Japan security treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands, which China disputes with Japan. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley made it equally clear that the treaty does not apply to defense of the Kuril Islands, because the islands are “not under Japanese administration.”

Keeping our foreign-policy thinking on autopilot leaves our spokesmen giving narrowly conceived, legalistic responses that are inadequate to a changing situation. America’s core ally in the Far East is under real territorial pressure from both Russia and China — and the reflexive assumption that any given situation will stabilize itself, with little or no inconvenience to the U.S., is increasingly outdated. Russia is beefing up its armaments on the disputed islands a few miles off Hokkaido; the possible implications of this are no different from what they would have been at any other time in history. One of our chief allies is being challenged aggressively by the two major military powers of Asia in the matter of its territorial claims. The fates of these disputes will have as big an impact on the conditions underpinning our national security as our own defense budget does.

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How Are Tyrannical Regimes Toppled?

President Obama struck many of the right notes about recent events in the Middle East in his press conference today. It was encouraging to hear him speak out about the right of free speech and assembly as “universal principles” and not merely as Western constructs that need not apply to the Arab and Islamic worlds. That he is doing so belatedly when a consistent stand in favor of human rights as an American priority has been so lacking in his first two years in office does not make it any less welcome today. Also welcome are his direct criticisms of Iran and its violent repression of protesters this week, an action that the president rightly derided as hypocritical since Tehran cheered the protests that toppled Mubarak in Egypt. In doing so, he also lauded peaceful demonstrations and deprecated terrorism:

And I also think that an important lesson — and I mentioned this last week — that we can draw from this is real change in these societies is not going to happen because of terrorism; it’s not going to happen because you go around killing innocents — it’s going to happen because people come together and apply moral force to a situation. That’s what garners international support. That’s what garners internal support. That’s how you bring about lasting change.

This is a laudable sentiment, but as a hard and fast rule of thumb, I have to wonder how true it actually may be. When speaking of the inadmissibility of America telling everyone how to live, Obama noted that every country is different and has its “own traditions.” But if we are to think seriously about how tyrannies are toppled in practice rather than in principle, we need to understand that Gandhi-like protests simply won’t work everywhere.

It is an unfortunate but ironclad rule of history that oppressive regimes fall not when they are most repressive but when they ease up on repression. This was true of pre-revolutionary France and also true of Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011. A government, even one that is led by a dictator or an absolute monarch, that lacks the willingness to engage in brutality is vulnerable to popular protests simply because the people come to understand that they can challenge their rulers with relative impunity. The same was true of colonial regimes that, for all their violence, ultimately were unable to defend horrible tactics to their own populations at home. But a government that lacks such scruples or, as is most often the case, still retains the will to kill even large numbers of protesters and dissidents is a different case entirely. Read More

President Obama struck many of the right notes about recent events in the Middle East in his press conference today. It was encouraging to hear him speak out about the right of free speech and assembly as “universal principles” and not merely as Western constructs that need not apply to the Arab and Islamic worlds. That he is doing so belatedly when a consistent stand in favor of human rights as an American priority has been so lacking in his first two years in office does not make it any less welcome today. Also welcome are his direct criticisms of Iran and its violent repression of protesters this week, an action that the president rightly derided as hypocritical since Tehran cheered the protests that toppled Mubarak in Egypt. In doing so, he also lauded peaceful demonstrations and deprecated terrorism:

And I also think that an important lesson — and I mentioned this last week — that we can draw from this is real change in these societies is not going to happen because of terrorism; it’s not going to happen because you go around killing innocents — it’s going to happen because people come together and apply moral force to a situation. That’s what garners international support. That’s what garners internal support. That’s how you bring about lasting change.

This is a laudable sentiment, but as a hard and fast rule of thumb, I have to wonder how true it actually may be. When speaking of the inadmissibility of America telling everyone how to live, Obama noted that every country is different and has its “own traditions.” But if we are to think seriously about how tyrannies are toppled in practice rather than in principle, we need to understand that Gandhi-like protests simply won’t work everywhere.

It is an unfortunate but ironclad rule of history that oppressive regimes fall not when they are most repressive but when they ease up on repression. This was true of pre-revolutionary France and also true of Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011. A government, even one that is led by a dictator or an absolute monarch, that lacks the willingness to engage in brutality is vulnerable to popular protests simply because the people come to understand that they can challenge their rulers with relative impunity. The same was true of colonial regimes that, for all their violence, ultimately were unable to defend horrible tactics to their own populations at home. But a government that lacks such scruples or, as is most often the case, still retains the will to kill even large numbers of protesters and dissidents is a different case entirely.

As we saw in 2009 in Iran and again this week, the ayatollahs and their cadres haven’t lost their willingness to engage in widespread brutality. Indeed, the bloodlust demonstrated today by members of the government who publicly called for the trial and execution of the leaders of the opposition is telling. So long as that is true, neither the numbers nor the sincerity of the protesters’ belief in nonviolence will change anything. This is, to no small extent, yet another illustration of the truth of Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s famous 1979 COMMENTARY essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” in which she pointed out the difference between those regimes that are vulnerable to change and those that are not.

So, as much as we should applaud President Obama’s idealistic, if belated, support for the Iranian protesters, let us not labor under the illusion that peaceful protests have a prayer of overthrowing the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad government. That is why the United States, which has every right to see to it that a violent, terrorist-supporting regime such as Iran never obtains nuclear capability, must do more than merely passively cheer on the hopeless efforts of Iran’s dissidents.

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Putting the Egyptian Revolt in Perspective

On Fox News last night, Charles Krauthammer made a crucial point: one of the reasons the revolution in Egypt succeeded is that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was not nearly as brutal as that of the mullahs in Iran. To its credit, the Egyptian military did not turn its guns on its own people. With Mubarak gone, what lies ahead in Egypt is very hard to tell. It’s possible that what replaces Mubarak is worse than Mubarak ever was. This would not be the first revolution to betray the hope of its people. But of course, the policy of the United States wasn’t to overthrow Mubarak; the question was, once the revolution began, would the United States side with Mubarak, which clearly would have been a disaster (it would have permanently alienated those we now need to align ourselves with); or side with the demonstrators, who “rose to proclaim their fidelity to liberty and who provided us with a reminder that tyranny is not fated for the Arabs” (see this masterful piece).

A very knowledgeable acquaintance points out in an e-mail to me that the “most important point is that the demise of Mubarak’s regime, which I believe was certain to happen within a decade, could not have taken place in circumstances which are more hopeful than the present. There were no prominent shouts of ‘Death to America,’ or even ‘Allahu Akbar.’ Instead, many protesters painted their foreheads with ‘Facebook’ — hardly an anti-American statement. There are many ways things can still go wrong, but we will have more influence if we show genuine support and enthusiasm right now for the genuine peaceful and freedom-supporting character of this event.”

This person went on to say that while some unpleasant policy stands by a new Egyptian government are inevitable, “don’t forget some of the damage Mubarak did, with state television running the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and official media attacking the U.S. role in Iraq.” He could have added that people like Muhammad Atta and Ayman Zawahiri grew up in the garden tended by Mr. Mubarak. (In The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright relates a line of thinking that insists America’s tragedy on September 11 was born in part in the political prisons of Egypt.)

To say all this is not to say, pace some of my friends, that those of us who were moved by what happened in Tahrir Square believe it’s time to pop the champagne corks. Not by a long shot. It is, in fact, simply to ask that we keep things in perspective, both what is genuinely good and what is genuinely worrisome; and to appreciate, even just a bit, the courage and nobility that we witnessed during the 18 days that shook the Arab world.

On Fox News last night, Charles Krauthammer made a crucial point: one of the reasons the revolution in Egypt succeeded is that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was not nearly as brutal as that of the mullahs in Iran. To its credit, the Egyptian military did not turn its guns on its own people. With Mubarak gone, what lies ahead in Egypt is very hard to tell. It’s possible that what replaces Mubarak is worse than Mubarak ever was. This would not be the first revolution to betray the hope of its people. But of course, the policy of the United States wasn’t to overthrow Mubarak; the question was, once the revolution began, would the United States side with Mubarak, which clearly would have been a disaster (it would have permanently alienated those we now need to align ourselves with); or side with the demonstrators, who “rose to proclaim their fidelity to liberty and who provided us with a reminder that tyranny is not fated for the Arabs” (see this masterful piece).

A very knowledgeable acquaintance points out in an e-mail to me that the “most important point is that the demise of Mubarak’s regime, which I believe was certain to happen within a decade, could not have taken place in circumstances which are more hopeful than the present. There were no prominent shouts of ‘Death to America,’ or even ‘Allahu Akbar.’ Instead, many protesters painted their foreheads with ‘Facebook’ — hardly an anti-American statement. There are many ways things can still go wrong, but we will have more influence if we show genuine support and enthusiasm right now for the genuine peaceful and freedom-supporting character of this event.”

This person went on to say that while some unpleasant policy stands by a new Egyptian government are inevitable, “don’t forget some of the damage Mubarak did, with state television running the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and official media attacking the U.S. role in Iraq.” He could have added that people like Muhammad Atta and Ayman Zawahiri grew up in the garden tended by Mr. Mubarak. (In The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright relates a line of thinking that insists America’s tragedy on September 11 was born in part in the political prisons of Egypt.)

To say all this is not to say, pace some of my friends, that those of us who were moved by what happened in Tahrir Square believe it’s time to pop the champagne corks. Not by a long shot. It is, in fact, simply to ask that we keep things in perspective, both what is genuinely good and what is genuinely worrisome; and to appreciate, even just a bit, the courage and nobility that we witnessed during the 18 days that shook the Arab world.

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It’s Not Too Late to Push for Reforms in Other Despotic Regimes

The example of Tunisia and Egypt — where entrenched autocrats have been toppled in a matter of weeks by popular protests — is striking a chord across the Middle East. Yemen and Iran, among other places, have seen substantial protests. But Bahrain appears the most threatened right now.

It has always been a country with underlying tensions between the royal family, led by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and the populace, which is 70 percent Shiite and feels that it gets a raw deal from the ruling Sunni elite. Bahrain also happens to be the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and the headquarters of Central Command’s naval component. Over the years, the U.S. has gotten great cooperation from Bahrain, but that has come at a cost: the cost being that we overlooked the lack of democracy and did little or nothing to press for real reform.

The same is true in a number of other places where we are allied with dictatorship. Our list of illiberal allies is shrinking but remains substantial, especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. The idea of promoting democracy in those regions has always seemed to “realists” in the government and outside of it as a fool’s errand — after all, if we allow the voice of the people to be heard, it may tell us things we do not want to hear. That certainly happened in the Philippines, for example, where a newly democratic government kicked us out of bases that the U.S. had occupied for a century. The risk is real, but if Egypt and Tunisia should teach us anything, it is that standing pat isn’t an option. Sooner or later, popular discontent will boil over. To mitigate the consequences, we should have been pushing for reform all along. It’s still not too late — if not in Bahrain then in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other illiberal allies.

The example of Tunisia and Egypt — where entrenched autocrats have been toppled in a matter of weeks by popular protests — is striking a chord across the Middle East. Yemen and Iran, among other places, have seen substantial protests. But Bahrain appears the most threatened right now.

It has always been a country with underlying tensions between the royal family, led by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and the populace, which is 70 percent Shiite and feels that it gets a raw deal from the ruling Sunni elite. Bahrain also happens to be the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and the headquarters of Central Command’s naval component. Over the years, the U.S. has gotten great cooperation from Bahrain, but that has come at a cost: the cost being that we overlooked the lack of democracy and did little or nothing to press for real reform.

The same is true in a number of other places where we are allied with dictatorship. Our list of illiberal allies is shrinking but remains substantial, especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. The idea of promoting democracy in those regions has always seemed to “realists” in the government and outside of it as a fool’s errand — after all, if we allow the voice of the people to be heard, it may tell us things we do not want to hear. That certainly happened in the Philippines, for example, where a newly democratic government kicked us out of bases that the U.S. had occupied for a century. The risk is real, but if Egypt and Tunisia should teach us anything, it is that standing pat isn’t an option. Sooner or later, popular discontent will boil over. To mitigate the consequences, we should have been pushing for reform all along. It’s still not too late — if not in Bahrain then in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other illiberal allies.

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Hillary Clinton Calls for Increased Internet Freedom

Today Hillary Clinton delivered a tough and much-needed speech on Internet freedom, indicating that the Obama administration is viewing this as a vital human-rights issue:

“We believe that governments who have erected barriers to internet freedom — whether they’re technical filters or censorship regimes or attacks on those who exercise their rights to expression and assembly online — will eventually find themselves boxed in,” Clinton said.

“They’ll face a dictator’s dilemma, and have to choose between letting the walls fall or paying the price to keep them standing, which means both doubling down on a losing hand by resorting to greater oppression, and enduring the escalating opportunity cost of missing out on the ideas that have been blocked.

The massive role that social-networking sites played in the uprisings in the Arab world has been discussed exhaustively by commentators, but the Obama administration hasn’t done enough to stress the importance of Internet freedom.

This needs to change — especially since online collaboration between the youth demonstrators in Egypt and the ones in Tunisia may have been even more extensive than previously thought, according to a New York Times article yesterday. Not only did the democratic activists swap practical protest tips; they also modeled their ideas on the philosophy of American political thinker Gene Sharp:

The exchange on Facebook was part of a remarkable two-year collaboration that has given birth to a new force in the Arab world — a pan-Arab youth movement dedicated to spreading democracy in a region without it. Young Egyptian and Tunisian activists brainstormed on the use of technology to evade surveillance, commiserated about torture and traded practical tips on how to stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades. …

Breaking free from older veterans of the Arab political opposition, they relied on tactics of nonviolent resistance channeled from an American scholar through a Serbian youth brigade — but also on marketing tactics borrowed from Silicon Valley.

If the Obama administration is serious about pushing democratic reforms in the Arab world, a push for greater Internet freedom needs to be a priority. Clinton’s speech today is a good sign that the administration may be making it a bigger focus.

Today Hillary Clinton delivered a tough and much-needed speech on Internet freedom, indicating that the Obama administration is viewing this as a vital human-rights issue:

“We believe that governments who have erected barriers to internet freedom — whether they’re technical filters or censorship regimes or attacks on those who exercise their rights to expression and assembly online — will eventually find themselves boxed in,” Clinton said.

“They’ll face a dictator’s dilemma, and have to choose between letting the walls fall or paying the price to keep them standing, which means both doubling down on a losing hand by resorting to greater oppression, and enduring the escalating opportunity cost of missing out on the ideas that have been blocked.

The massive role that social-networking sites played in the uprisings in the Arab world has been discussed exhaustively by commentators, but the Obama administration hasn’t done enough to stress the importance of Internet freedom.

This needs to change — especially since online collaboration between the youth demonstrators in Egypt and the ones in Tunisia may have been even more extensive than previously thought, according to a New York Times article yesterday. Not only did the democratic activists swap practical protest tips; they also modeled their ideas on the philosophy of American political thinker Gene Sharp:

The exchange on Facebook was part of a remarkable two-year collaboration that has given birth to a new force in the Arab world — a pan-Arab youth movement dedicated to spreading democracy in a region without it. Young Egyptian and Tunisian activists brainstormed on the use of technology to evade surveillance, commiserated about torture and traded practical tips on how to stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades. …

Breaking free from older veterans of the Arab political opposition, they relied on tactics of nonviolent resistance channeled from an American scholar through a Serbian youth brigade — but also on marketing tactics borrowed from Silicon Valley.

If the Obama administration is serious about pushing democratic reforms in the Arab world, a push for greater Internet freedom needs to be a priority. Clinton’s speech today is a good sign that the administration may be making it a bigger focus.

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The Future of the Obamasaurus

Barack Obama, the post-everything visionary who vowed to deliver us from a suffocating political past, is in fact a dinosaur. The fossilized evidence has revealed itself over the past two years. So deep in the layers of political history is the 44th president lodged that even Palestinian leaders have moved on from the grievances he cites. So overtaken by the times is he that European heads of state dismiss his economics as yesterday’s errors. Indeed, Obama is so plainly out of step with the challenges of today that he has bowed out of the present altogether and redirected our attention to an impossible and therapeutic “future.”

We have exited politics and entered prophecy. The president’s budget reflects this. It is a spending plan for an alternate universe. “No entitlement reform, no tax reform, no significant spending reform, indeed no meaningful change of direction of any sort,” notes Yuval Levin at National Review. “The budget does nothing to lessen the burdens with which we now stand to saddle the rising generation, and which will stifle growth and prosperity along the way.” Sure, spoil the fun by being factual. But presidential prophecy sees things differently. Just today, I received an e-mail from the White House explaining that “the tough choices we had to make so we can afford to invest in our future.” And it’s going to be grand. “We need to invest in roads, bridges, high-speed rail and high-speed Internet to help our businesses ship their goods and ideas around the world.” Read More

Barack Obama, the post-everything visionary who vowed to deliver us from a suffocating political past, is in fact a dinosaur. The fossilized evidence has revealed itself over the past two years. So deep in the layers of political history is the 44th president lodged that even Palestinian leaders have moved on from the grievances he cites. So overtaken by the times is he that European heads of state dismiss his economics as yesterday’s errors. Indeed, Obama is so plainly out of step with the challenges of today that he has bowed out of the present altogether and redirected our attention to an impossible and therapeutic “future.”

We have exited politics and entered prophecy. The president’s budget reflects this. It is a spending plan for an alternate universe. “No entitlement reform, no tax reform, no significant spending reform, indeed no meaningful change of direction of any sort,” notes Yuval Levin at National Review. “The budget does nothing to lessen the burdens with which we now stand to saddle the rising generation, and which will stifle growth and prosperity along the way.” Sure, spoil the fun by being factual. But presidential prophecy sees things differently. Just today, I received an e-mail from the White House explaining that “the tough choices we had to make so we can afford to invest in our future.” And it’s going to be grand. “We need to invest in roads, bridges, high-speed rail and high-speed Internet to help our businesses ship their goods and ideas around the world.”

What kinds of “goods and ideas” will be coursing through these space-age conduits?  Well, prophecy is a mysterious business. He assured an audience of workers at a turbine plant in Schenectady, New York, last month, “We’re gonna build stuff and invent stuff.”  And to Chinese President Hu Jintao, he relayed, “We want to sell you all kinds of stuff.” Sure, he’s a little fuzzy on the details. But he’s a big-picture guy, remember? And what do you think the future is for anyway?

Spoilsports interested in a realistic picture of our future might want to consider the news coming out of Greece today. The AP reports: “Greece’s economy will shrink by about 3 percent or more this year, the central bank predicted Tuesday, meaning the country would wallow in recession for a third straight year as it battles to recover from its devastating debt crisis.” That’s where the dinosaur economics of the entitlement state leads. As ABC News’s Jake Tapper said of the new Obama budget, “At no point in the president’s 10-year projection would the U.S. government spend less than it’s taking in.” Welcome to Greece. While we spend money we don’t have, we will pacify ourselves with futuristic visions of high-speed toys. When the Europeans did it, their dream future was a magically forgiving EU that would wash away all their present-day concerns. That’s the only difference between them and us.

Barack Obama has stopped voting present on the present. He’s already on a high-speed train to the land of fast-moving American “stuff.” It’s hard to blame him, in a way. The future has always held a great paradoxical appeal to those stuck in the past. Which is why his version of the future sounds a lot like something cooked up at the 1964 World’s Fair, and why his description of “our Sputnik moment” is actually a lot more relevant than it should be. If no one successfully counters the proposed budget, it’s back to the future for all of us.

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Fake Scandal: The Congressional Slumber Party

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is a not-very-important liberal advocacy group that is apparently bored with the dull work of culling through the considerable evidence of petty corruption and grand larceny that takes place in the budget process. So CREW has decided to cook up an entirely fake scandal: the so-called congressional slumber party.

By that we refer to the fact that a few dozen members of Congress have taken to sleeping in their offices to save on the expense of a second home in Washington. According to CREW, this is an outrageous imposition on the taxpayers. The group says members who sleep in their offices are tax cheats, since the rent-free bunking out on air mattresses should be considered income. Even more, Politico reports that CREW executive director Melanie Sloan believes that it is “unseemly” for members to be roaming the halls of Capitol Hill in sweats on their way to the congressional gym for a shower. She also worries that the practice might lead to the cleaning staff or even the members’ staffers to accidentally confront a congressman “in a state of undress.”

Predictably, the reaction to this cry of scandal from members of Congress has been something of a yawn. Lest some readers think congressional offices are palaces, let me assure you they are not. In fact, most are dumps, and anyone who is forced to live in one has been reduced to a lifestyle of squalor that most college students wouldn’t accept for a minute.

But as fake as this scandal might be, it does speak to the hypocrisy that is commonplace in the way we think about Congress. There is nothing more certain to rile up voters or watchdog groups than any attempt to raise congressional pay, which is currently at $174,000 per year for members of the House of Representatives. That’s a lot more than most Americans make, but it’s not much when you consider that, except for that small minority that lives within commuting distance of the capital, we expect members to maintain two households on that amount — with one of those households in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country — while also severely restricting their ability to make outside income. Read More

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is a not-very-important liberal advocacy group that is apparently bored with the dull work of culling through the considerable evidence of petty corruption and grand larceny that takes place in the budget process. So CREW has decided to cook up an entirely fake scandal: the so-called congressional slumber party.

By that we refer to the fact that a few dozen members of Congress have taken to sleeping in their offices to save on the expense of a second home in Washington. According to CREW, this is an outrageous imposition on the taxpayers. The group says members who sleep in their offices are tax cheats, since the rent-free bunking out on air mattresses should be considered income. Even more, Politico reports that CREW executive director Melanie Sloan believes that it is “unseemly” for members to be roaming the halls of Capitol Hill in sweats on their way to the congressional gym for a shower. She also worries that the practice might lead to the cleaning staff or even the members’ staffers to accidentally confront a congressman “in a state of undress.”

Predictably, the reaction to this cry of scandal from members of Congress has been something of a yawn. Lest some readers think congressional offices are palaces, let me assure you they are not. In fact, most are dumps, and anyone who is forced to live in one has been reduced to a lifestyle of squalor that most college students wouldn’t accept for a minute.

But as fake as this scandal might be, it does speak to the hypocrisy that is commonplace in the way we think about Congress. There is nothing more certain to rile up voters or watchdog groups than any attempt to raise congressional pay, which is currently at $174,000 per year for members of the House of Representatives. That’s a lot more than most Americans make, but it’s not much when you consider that, except for that small minority that lives within commuting distance of the capital, we expect members to maintain two households on that amount — with one of those households in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country — while also severely restricting their ability to make outside income.

In previous generations, members of Congress were not expected, as they are today, to go home every weekend to their districts. Nothing is more fatal to a politician these days than the charge that they have become full-time residents of Washington, which was, in fact, the accepted practice decades ago when Congress was in session. This makes it very difficult for those members who are not already personally wealthy to maintain themselves. So it’s little wonder that some have been reduced to living in their offices or that some would brag about it as a sign of their frugality and devotion to the people’s business.

Even more to the point, many of the scandals involving members of Congress have been the result of the fact that most of these politicians are middle-class people who find themselves swimming in a sea of wealthy lobbyists and contributors who are only too happy to hand out free stuff in exchange for favors. Sadly, some members of Congress succumb to that temptation. But the answer to this problem isn’t to make it even harder for talented and decent people to serve.

One of the great breakthroughs in the history of representative democracy was the 19th-century British reform of Parliament that granted members a salary. Until then, the only people who could serve were those who were personally wealthy or in the pay of the wealthy. While it is difficult for most Americans to muster up much sympathy for members of Congress, ethics reform measures are ironically gradually moving us back to a situation where such offices are the exclusive preserve of the rich. Since a raise in congressional pay or an increase in their already considerable benefits is a political impossibility, the least thing we can do is not squawk when members try to save money by bunking in their offices.

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Israel Considers Law to Ban Boycotts

Yes, Israel has been under a lot of pressure to counter delegitimization recently. But proposing a law to criminalize boycotts? This has to be the worst idea for Israel’s public image yet:

In a first reading, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved a law proposal that would prohibit boycotts of Israel. If the bill is passed, the State would place criminal sanctions on anyone wishing to boycott it. The proposal was accepted despite opposition from the Foreign and Justice Ministries, whose representatives claimed that the law might hurt Israeli interests.

It isn’t clear from the article how a law like this would be imposed. How could the Knesset tell if someone was boycotting Israel or simply not buying Israeli products? And what would be the difference between boycotting “the State” and an Israeli store or manufacturer? It sounds like it would simply be impossible to enforce.

But worse, it could even be counterproductive. The best way to counter the delegitimization movement is by creating a positive image of Israel and a negative image of the delegitimizers. This law would do the opposite: it would turn the delegitmization movement into the victim and makes the Israeli government look anti-democratic. It would benefit the same people it’s trying to target.

Not that the bill has a good chance of passing. But just the proposal itself will incite the usual scare-mongering about the “end of Israel democracy” from Guardian and Time magazine columnists. In fact, over at Al Jazeera, Mya Guarnieri has already gotten a head start.

Yes, Israel has been under a lot of pressure to counter delegitimization recently. But proposing a law to criminalize boycotts? This has to be the worst idea for Israel’s public image yet:

In a first reading, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved a law proposal that would prohibit boycotts of Israel. If the bill is passed, the State would place criminal sanctions on anyone wishing to boycott it. The proposal was accepted despite opposition from the Foreign and Justice Ministries, whose representatives claimed that the law might hurt Israeli interests.

It isn’t clear from the article how a law like this would be imposed. How could the Knesset tell if someone was boycotting Israel or simply not buying Israeli products? And what would be the difference between boycotting “the State” and an Israeli store or manufacturer? It sounds like it would simply be impossible to enforce.

But worse, it could even be counterproductive. The best way to counter the delegitimization movement is by creating a positive image of Israel and a negative image of the delegitimizers. This law would do the opposite: it would turn the delegitmization movement into the victim and makes the Israeli government look anti-democratic. It would benefit the same people it’s trying to target.

Not that the bill has a good chance of passing. But just the proposal itself will incite the usual scare-mongering about the “end of Israel democracy” from Guardian and Time magazine columnists. In fact, over at Al Jazeera, Mya Guarnieri has already gotten a head start.

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Give Defense What It Needs and Cut What It Doesn’t

Rising budget deficits make it imperative to cut federal spending, but why is the Defense Department, of all government departments, at the head of the line? Given that we are still engaged in, depending on how you count, three major wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, War on Terror), this hardly seems like the time to be cutting back on our overstretched armed forces. Yet that is precisely what’s happening. Even Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who has shown a willingness to take a scalpel to his own budget, is now worrying about a possible “crisis” if Congress does not increase the amount available to the Pentagon in a continuing resolution that is being used to fund the government in lieu of a budget. As the New York Times notes:

If that stopgap budget stays in place for the entire fiscal year, it would result in military spending of $526 billion, not counting the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or a cut of $23 billion from the administration’s request of $549 billion. Mr. Gates demanded that Congress approve 2011 spending of at least $540 billion.

Even if the Pentagon gets everything it needs for this year, it will suffer a cut next year:

For next year, the Pentagon is requesting $670.6 billion for the 2012 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. That includes $553 billion for its base budget and $117.8 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a result, the total of $693 billion in 2010 might have represented the peak for the surge in military spending that began after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

This is a worrisome prospect because the world remains a dangerous place, and the U.S. armed forces remain committed to a wide variety of missions. This isn’t to say that every dime of Pentagon spending is sacrosanct. But at the same time that the Department of Defense is seeing vital capabilities threatened, it is being forced to spend billions of dollars on boondoggles imposed by Congress — such as a second engine for the F-35, the airborne laser, and an out-of-control Defense Department health-care system.

Congress has to decide whether it is serious about austerity or not. If it is, it will give up on programs deemed overly costly by the Pentagon’s own leaders — while fully funding the essential requirements we need to fight our nation’s wars and maintain a global presence.

Rising budget deficits make it imperative to cut federal spending, but why is the Defense Department, of all government departments, at the head of the line? Given that we are still engaged in, depending on how you count, three major wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, War on Terror), this hardly seems like the time to be cutting back on our overstretched armed forces. Yet that is precisely what’s happening. Even Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who has shown a willingness to take a scalpel to his own budget, is now worrying about a possible “crisis” if Congress does not increase the amount available to the Pentagon in a continuing resolution that is being used to fund the government in lieu of a budget. As the New York Times notes:

If that stopgap budget stays in place for the entire fiscal year, it would result in military spending of $526 billion, not counting the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or a cut of $23 billion from the administration’s request of $549 billion. Mr. Gates demanded that Congress approve 2011 spending of at least $540 billion.

Even if the Pentagon gets everything it needs for this year, it will suffer a cut next year:

For next year, the Pentagon is requesting $670.6 billion for the 2012 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. That includes $553 billion for its base budget and $117.8 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a result, the total of $693 billion in 2010 might have represented the peak for the surge in military spending that began after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

This is a worrisome prospect because the world remains a dangerous place, and the U.S. armed forces remain committed to a wide variety of missions. This isn’t to say that every dime of Pentagon spending is sacrosanct. But at the same time that the Department of Defense is seeing vital capabilities threatened, it is being forced to spend billions of dollars on boondoggles imposed by Congress — such as a second engine for the F-35, the airborne laser, and an out-of-control Defense Department health-care system.

Congress has to decide whether it is serious about austerity or not. If it is, it will give up on programs deemed overly costly by the Pentagon’s own leaders — while fully funding the essential requirements we need to fight our nation’s wars and maintain a global presence.

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The Obama Budget

Here are some things to note about President Obama’s 2012 budget, which was released yesterday. Spending will be a record $3.73 trillion — which constitutes 25.3 percent of GDP, the highest since World War II. The Obama administration’s 2012 budget proposal projects this year’s deficit to reach $1.645 trillion — the largest on record. This is now a record fourth straight trillion-dollar-plus deficit. And for just the years 2011 and 2012, the combined deficits will be roughly $2.7 trillion. Federal debt held by the public will increase to 75 percent of GDP in 2012 — more than double what it was four years ago and the highest figure since the midpoint of the 20th century.

As a reference point, in 2008 the debt held by the public was $5.8 trillion; in 2012, the Obama budget projects it will be $11.881 trillion — and in 2019, it is projected to be $17.3 trillion. In other words, Obama’s own budget shows the debt he inherited will double by next year and triple by 2019.

As for the claim that Obama’s budget cuts $1.1 trillion over 10 years: this figure relies in part on the economy growing between 4 and 4.5 percent between now and 2014. These numbers are inflated to produce imaginary revenues. The president’s budget also assumes that the costs of bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will be cut in half, though it doesn’t plausibly explain how.

In addition, two-thirds of the promised deficit reduction would occur in the “out years” (in this case, after 2016). As the Wall Street Journal points out, the Obama budget doesn’t cut a penny from the deficit in the last seven months of fiscal 2011; and over the next three years (through 2013), the spending reductions add up to $20 billion net — which is a 0.57 percent reduction and less than what the federal government spends in two days.

Finally, the five-year spending freeze that Obama proposes comes after an increase in domestic discretionary spending of nearly one-quarter (24 percent) since Obama took office — and more than an 80 percent increase if you include stimulus spending.

“To all those under 30 who worked so hard to get this man elected, know this: he just screwed you over,” one critic of the Obama budget wrote. “He thinks you’re fools. Either the US will go into default because of Obama’s cowardice, or you will be paying far far more for far far less because this president has no courage when it counts. He let you down. On the critical issue of America’s fiscal crisis, he represents no hope and no change. Just the same old Washington politics he once promised to end.”

So says Andrew Sullivan. And he is right.

Here are some things to note about President Obama’s 2012 budget, which was released yesterday. Spending will be a record $3.73 trillion — which constitutes 25.3 percent of GDP, the highest since World War II. The Obama administration’s 2012 budget proposal projects this year’s deficit to reach $1.645 trillion — the largest on record. This is now a record fourth straight trillion-dollar-plus deficit. And for just the years 2011 and 2012, the combined deficits will be roughly $2.7 trillion. Federal debt held by the public will increase to 75 percent of GDP in 2012 — more than double what it was four years ago and the highest figure since the midpoint of the 20th century.

As a reference point, in 2008 the debt held by the public was $5.8 trillion; in 2012, the Obama budget projects it will be $11.881 trillion — and in 2019, it is projected to be $17.3 trillion. In other words, Obama’s own budget shows the debt he inherited will double by next year and triple by 2019.

As for the claim that Obama’s budget cuts $1.1 trillion over 10 years: this figure relies in part on the economy growing between 4 and 4.5 percent between now and 2014. These numbers are inflated to produce imaginary revenues. The president’s budget also assumes that the costs of bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will be cut in half, though it doesn’t plausibly explain how.

In addition, two-thirds of the promised deficit reduction would occur in the “out years” (in this case, after 2016). As the Wall Street Journal points out, the Obama budget doesn’t cut a penny from the deficit in the last seven months of fiscal 2011; and over the next three years (through 2013), the spending reductions add up to $20 billion net — which is a 0.57 percent reduction and less than what the federal government spends in two days.

Finally, the five-year spending freeze that Obama proposes comes after an increase in domestic discretionary spending of nearly one-quarter (24 percent) since Obama took office — and more than an 80 percent increase if you include stimulus spending.

“To all those under 30 who worked so hard to get this man elected, know this: he just screwed you over,” one critic of the Obama budget wrote. “He thinks you’re fools. Either the US will go into default because of Obama’s cowardice, or you will be paying far far more for far far less because this president has no courage when it counts. He let you down. On the critical issue of America’s fiscal crisis, he represents no hope and no change. Just the same old Washington politics he once promised to end.”

So says Andrew Sullivan. And he is right.

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Abbas Prohibits PA Officials from Criticizing Qatari Government

Weeks after launching an anti-Qatar public-relations campaign, President Mahmoud Abbas has issued an order “prohibiting the official media and spokespersons of the PLO, Palestinian National Authority and Fatah Movement from abusing the Qatari Prince [Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani] and the Qatari government.”

Abbas had originally initiated the campaign in response to Qatar-funded Al Jazeera’s coverage of the “Palestinian Papers” leak, which many PA leaders criticized as biased:

Abbas ordered to only focus on the Qatar-based Aljazeera television and its accusations against the Palestinian Authority and not on the Emir of Qatar, saying that the PA has good relations with Arab countries and does not want to do anything to damage this relationship.

The decision comes after Palestinian officials strongly criticized al-Jazeera for its reporting on documents leaked from the Negotiations Affairs Department. Some officials charged the government of Qatar of being behind al-Jazeera campaign against the PA.

PA officials had claimed that the leak of the papers was a plot by the pro-Hamas Qatari government and accused the country of funding Israeli settlements. Abbas may be attempting to mend ties with Qatar, which the U.S. has recently asked to send financial aid to the PA.

Weeks after launching an anti-Qatar public-relations campaign, President Mahmoud Abbas has issued an order “prohibiting the official media and spokespersons of the PLO, Palestinian National Authority and Fatah Movement from abusing the Qatari Prince [Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani] and the Qatari government.”

Abbas had originally initiated the campaign in response to Qatar-funded Al Jazeera’s coverage of the “Palestinian Papers” leak, which many PA leaders criticized as biased:

Abbas ordered to only focus on the Qatar-based Aljazeera television and its accusations against the Palestinian Authority and not on the Emir of Qatar, saying that the PA has good relations with Arab countries and does not want to do anything to damage this relationship.

The decision comes after Palestinian officials strongly criticized al-Jazeera for its reporting on documents leaked from the Negotiations Affairs Department. Some officials charged the government of Qatar of being behind al-Jazeera campaign against the PA.

PA officials had claimed that the leak of the papers was a plot by the pro-Hamas Qatari government and accused the country of funding Israeli settlements. Abbas may be attempting to mend ties with Qatar, which the U.S. has recently asked to send financial aid to the PA.

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Donald Rumsfeld’s Revisionism (Continued)

In the Washington Post today, Dan Senor and Roman Martinez correct another instance of Donald Rumsfeld’s revisionism — in this case, the former defense secretary’s blaming the Coalitions Provisional Authority (CPA) for its alleged mishandling of Iraq’s political transition in 2003-2004.

Senor and Martinez cite Rumsfeld’s own contemporaneous memoranda to show that what he is now claiming (that he favored a swift transition of power to an Iraqi transitional government) is belied by the facts. Rumsfeld advocated then (having the CPA “assert authority over [Iraq]”) what he criticizes now. “We at the CPA certainly made our share of mistakes,” Senor and Martinez conclude. “We only wish Rumsfeld would accept responsibility for his.”

Unfortunately, that seems to be a forlorn hope. When it comes to Iraq, at least, Mr. Rumsfeld is intent on revising the historical record in order to make himself look much better than he deserves.

In the Washington Post today, Dan Senor and Roman Martinez correct another instance of Donald Rumsfeld’s revisionism — in this case, the former defense secretary’s blaming the Coalitions Provisional Authority (CPA) for its alleged mishandling of Iraq’s political transition in 2003-2004.

Senor and Martinez cite Rumsfeld’s own contemporaneous memoranda to show that what he is now claiming (that he favored a swift transition of power to an Iraqi transitional government) is belied by the facts. Rumsfeld advocated then (having the CPA “assert authority over [Iraq]”) what he criticizes now. “We at the CPA certainly made our share of mistakes,” Senor and Martinez conclude. “We only wish Rumsfeld would accept responsibility for his.”

Unfortunately, that seems to be a forlorn hope. When it comes to Iraq, at least, Mr. Rumsfeld is intent on revising the historical record in order to make himself look much better than he deserves.

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Rubio Introduces Bill to Target State Sponsors of Terrorism

Any Americans looking to vacation in sunny Tehran may soon be out of luck. Sen. Marco Rubio has introduced an amendment to a Federal Aviation Administration bill that will prevent the increase of commercial or charter flights to designated state sponsors of terrorism:

“Increasing direct commercial or charter aircraft flights with state sponsors of terrorism is totally irresponsible and would amount to unilateral gifts to tyrants and regimes that actively undermine America’s security,” said Rubio. “There is no reason for the United States to help enrich state sponsors of terrorism, especially at a time when free trade agreements with our close allies in Colombia, Panama and South Korea are lingering.’

It sounds like Rubio has good intentions, but the question is whether this bill would have much of a financial impact on state sponsors of terrorism. With the exception of Cuba, these countries don’t tend to be popular tourist destinations for anyone who doesn’t have family there. This legislation seems like it would be more useful for reducing the potential national-security risks of increased travel, rather than as a way to increase the financial pressure on these regimes. But either way, it’s a welcome proposal.

Any Americans looking to vacation in sunny Tehran may soon be out of luck. Sen. Marco Rubio has introduced an amendment to a Federal Aviation Administration bill that will prevent the increase of commercial or charter flights to designated state sponsors of terrorism:

“Increasing direct commercial or charter aircraft flights with state sponsors of terrorism is totally irresponsible and would amount to unilateral gifts to tyrants and regimes that actively undermine America’s security,” said Rubio. “There is no reason for the United States to help enrich state sponsors of terrorism, especially at a time when free trade agreements with our close allies in Colombia, Panama and South Korea are lingering.’

It sounds like Rubio has good intentions, but the question is whether this bill would have much of a financial impact on state sponsors of terrorism. With the exception of Cuba, these countries don’t tend to be popular tourist destinations for anyone who doesn’t have family there. This legislation seems like it would be more useful for reducing the potential national-security risks of increased travel, rather than as a way to increase the financial pressure on these regimes. But either way, it’s a welcome proposal.

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White House Dispatching Dennis Ross to Speak at J Street Conference, for Some Reason

J Street teamed up with the National Iranian American Council to try to block Dennis Ross’s appointment as Iran envoy, a position from which Ross was subsequently removed in favor of NIAC advisory board member John Limbert. The left-wing lobby also coordinated with NIAC to loosen the Iranian-sanctions regime, a regime Ross was prominent in advocating and building. J Street insists on linkage between Israeli-Arab talks and Iran, a stance Ross has vociferously opposed. He agrees with the organization about almost nothing substantive when it comes to securing peace and stability in the Middle East.

So obviously:

Dennis Ross, the senior adviser to President Obama on Middle East issues, will address this year’s J Street conference. Ross, seen as an administration hard-liner on Iran and as arguing for greater consideration of Israel’s needs in peace negotiations, would be a coup for the group, which consistently has come under fire from the right and from some Democrats for not being sufficiently pro-Israel. White House officials confirmed J Street’s announcement. The group, which describes itself as “pro-Israel and pro-peace,” also said that Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, would not participate or allow embassy staff to participate in the Feb. 26-March 1 confab in Washington.

The Oren boycott thing is hardly a surprise, since the ambassador cut off ties with J Street after the group decided that “pro-Israel” meant “pushing the White House to allow a UN resolution condemning Israel.” Other well-known activities undertaken by the group: supporting Hamas during Cast Lead, working with the Soros-funding NIAC to undermine the Iranian-sanctions regime, taking money from Soros and lying about it, leading Richard Goldstone around D.C. and lying about it, cajoling Israeli politicians into lying to journalists on their behalf, setting up college outposts staffed with anti-Zionists, and being generally unpleasant to anyone who’s to the right of their anti-Zionist co-founder Daniel Levy. Read More

J Street teamed up with the National Iranian American Council to try to block Dennis Ross’s appointment as Iran envoy, a position from which Ross was subsequently removed in favor of NIAC advisory board member John Limbert. The left-wing lobby also coordinated with NIAC to loosen the Iranian-sanctions regime, a regime Ross was prominent in advocating and building. J Street insists on linkage between Israeli-Arab talks and Iran, a stance Ross has vociferously opposed. He agrees with the organization about almost nothing substantive when it comes to securing peace and stability in the Middle East.

So obviously:

Dennis Ross, the senior adviser to President Obama on Middle East issues, will address this year’s J Street conference. Ross, seen as an administration hard-liner on Iran and as arguing for greater consideration of Israel’s needs in peace negotiations, would be a coup for the group, which consistently has come under fire from the right and from some Democrats for not being sufficiently pro-Israel. White House officials confirmed J Street’s announcement. The group, which describes itself as “pro-Israel and pro-peace,” also said that Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, would not participate or allow embassy staff to participate in the Feb. 26-March 1 confab in Washington.

The Oren boycott thing is hardly a surprise, since the ambassador cut off ties with J Street after the group decided that “pro-Israel” meant “pushing the White House to allow a UN resolution condemning Israel.” Other well-known activities undertaken by the group: supporting Hamas during Cast Lead, working with the Soros-funding NIAC to undermine the Iranian-sanctions regime, taking money from Soros and lying about it, leading Richard Goldstone around D.C. and lying about it, cajoling Israeli politicians into lying to journalists on their behalf, setting up college outposts staffed with anti-Zionists, and being generally unpleasant to anyone who’s to the right of their anti-Zionist co-founder Daniel Levy.

There’s an argument to be made that dispatching Ross to J Street’s confab is a bad and unseemly idea, that it will look like the White House is forcing a respected diplomat to shuffle into a Canossa filled with feverish partisans, that it will feed the perception of a renewed White House public-relations offensive against the Israel, that it will reignite questions about whether the Obama administration owes favors to a lobby backed by obscure foreign donors.

Of course, the event could go the other way, with Ross having been dispatched to have a very public “frank conversation” with J Street partisans about the importance of the U.S.-Israeli alliance. That’d be kind of rude given the venue and the occasion, but the resulting dustup would build the administration’s pro-Israel credibility at a time when the U.S. is steadily losing reliable Middle East allies. Difficult to say.

In the meantime, if you want to get in on the betting pool of who gets more applause — Ross or the BDS advocate J Street is putting on a panel — feel free to drop me an e-mail. I was going to set up a parallel pool so people could bet on who’ll got more boos, but early wagers were too lopsided. Maybe an over/under on the number of boos Ross will get would have been more appropriate, but those things are so hard to measure.

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The Peace Plan That Failed and Still Would

As did Jonathan last week, and Ron Radosh over at Pajamas Media, Sol Stern has dismantled Bernard Avishai’s New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Peace Plan That Almost Was and Still Could Be,” and Richard Baehr pegged the article as part of the Times’s agenda-driven journalism. Buried in the article, however, is a significant observation by Ehud Olmert that suggests that Barack Obama’s election had a negative impact on the peace process even before Obama mishandled it in office.

Stern described as “pure hokum” the article’s theory that peace negotiations stopped in September 2008 because of Olmert’s preoccupation with his legal problems. Those problems actually made Olmert more eager to reach an agreement to try to save his legal skin. Stern posits a different theory:

In actuality, there is only one plausible reason for Abbas’s failure to return to discuss the issue of borders [after Olmert presented his map]. It is that the PA president could not and cannot ever allow himself to announce to the Palestinian refugees and their myriad descendants that their 60-year-old dream of returning to their homes in Israel is over.

Stern is right about Abbas but wrong about the sole reason. There is an additional explanation, supported by Olmert’s observation in the Times article.

Back in January 2001, after the Palestinians rejected the Clinton Parameters, Ehud Barak sent a delegation to Taba for a last-gasp negotiation, two weeks before the Israeli election in which he was facing defeat. But the Palestinians’ position actually hardened at Taba. In “Taba Mythchief,” David Makovsky recounted how they thought they would get a better deal with George W. Bush — a Republican (Jews were Democrats); a Texas oilman; the son of a former president who had not been sympathetic to Israel. That turned out to be wrong.

The same thing happened again in 2008. On September 16, Olmert presented his map to Abbas — telling him it was the best offer the Palestinians would ever receive; Abbas said he would return but never did. It was in mid-September that presidential polls turned in Obama’s favor, and the Palestinians undoubtedly thought they would get a better deal from Rashid Khalidi’s former colleague, then just weeks away from being elected president. Avishai relates Olmert’s observation that “Abbas delayed partly because he hoped to get a better deal on the map from an Obama administration.”

Obama subsequently reneged on the informal understanding regarding a settlement “freeze,” disregarded the 2004 Bush letter, demanded Netanyahu formally endorse a Palestinian state, manufactured a crisis about future Jewish housing in a longstanding Jewish area of Jerusalem, repeatedly pressured Netanyahu with public humiliations, had his secretary of state lecture him in a 43-minute call and issue a press release about it, declined to visit Israel, etc. — all while demanding nothing from the Palestinians. It resulted in the Palestinians hardening their position.

In 2008, just as in 2001, the Palestinians passed up an offer of a state — in the belief a new U.S. president would or could pressure Israel into a deal without defensible borders or the major settlement blocs within them. Both times they were wrong.

As did Jonathan last week, and Ron Radosh over at Pajamas Media, Sol Stern has dismantled Bernard Avishai’s New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Peace Plan That Almost Was and Still Could Be,” and Richard Baehr pegged the article as part of the Times’s agenda-driven journalism. Buried in the article, however, is a significant observation by Ehud Olmert that suggests that Barack Obama’s election had a negative impact on the peace process even before Obama mishandled it in office.

Stern described as “pure hokum” the article’s theory that peace negotiations stopped in September 2008 because of Olmert’s preoccupation with his legal problems. Those problems actually made Olmert more eager to reach an agreement to try to save his legal skin. Stern posits a different theory:

In actuality, there is only one plausible reason for Abbas’s failure to return to discuss the issue of borders [after Olmert presented his map]. It is that the PA president could not and cannot ever allow himself to announce to the Palestinian refugees and their myriad descendants that their 60-year-old dream of returning to their homes in Israel is over.

Stern is right about Abbas but wrong about the sole reason. There is an additional explanation, supported by Olmert’s observation in the Times article.

Back in January 2001, after the Palestinians rejected the Clinton Parameters, Ehud Barak sent a delegation to Taba for a last-gasp negotiation, two weeks before the Israeli election in which he was facing defeat. But the Palestinians’ position actually hardened at Taba. In “Taba Mythchief,” David Makovsky recounted how they thought they would get a better deal with George W. Bush — a Republican (Jews were Democrats); a Texas oilman; the son of a former president who had not been sympathetic to Israel. That turned out to be wrong.

The same thing happened again in 2008. On September 16, Olmert presented his map to Abbas — telling him it was the best offer the Palestinians would ever receive; Abbas said he would return but never did. It was in mid-September that presidential polls turned in Obama’s favor, and the Palestinians undoubtedly thought they would get a better deal from Rashid Khalidi’s former colleague, then just weeks away from being elected president. Avishai relates Olmert’s observation that “Abbas delayed partly because he hoped to get a better deal on the map from an Obama administration.”

Obama subsequently reneged on the informal understanding regarding a settlement “freeze,” disregarded the 2004 Bush letter, demanded Netanyahu formally endorse a Palestinian state, manufactured a crisis about future Jewish housing in a longstanding Jewish area of Jerusalem, repeatedly pressured Netanyahu with public humiliations, had his secretary of state lecture him in a 43-minute call and issue a press release about it, declined to visit Israel, etc. — all while demanding nothing from the Palestinians. It resulted in the Palestinians hardening their position.

In 2008, just as in 2001, the Palestinians passed up an offer of a state — in the belief a new U.S. president would or could pressure Israel into a deal without defensible borders or the major settlement blocs within them. Both times they were wrong.

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