Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 23, 2011

Both Sides Digging in Over Budget Deal

In negotiations over a budget deal that would also raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, both sides are digging in.

Vice President Joe Biden wants higher taxes. According to Biden, “If we could agree on the pieces most important to us Democrats, revenue, we’re prepared to agree on some of the things that you (Republicans) want in discretionary spending.”

House Speaker John Boehner, on the other hand, told reporters, “These conversations could continue if they take the tax hikes out of the conversation.” He added, “A tax hike cannot pass the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s not just a bad idea — it doesn’t have the votes, and it can’t happen.”

Both parties are offering a choice, not an echo. And this debate, which pits cutting spending v. raising taxes, is one the GOP should win, and which they will win.

Barack Obama (whose latest approval rating in Gallup is down to 43 percent) continues to take his party back to its liberal, pre-Clinton days: massive spending, larger and more centralized government, higher taxes. We know what happened to Democrats back then. We know what happened to Democrats in the 2010 mid-term election. And I think we’re getting a pretty good sense of what will happen to them in 2012.

In negotiations over a budget deal that would also raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, both sides are digging in.

Vice President Joe Biden wants higher taxes. According to Biden, “If we could agree on the pieces most important to us Democrats, revenue, we’re prepared to agree on some of the things that you (Republicans) want in discretionary spending.”

House Speaker John Boehner, on the other hand, told reporters, “These conversations could continue if they take the tax hikes out of the conversation.” He added, “A tax hike cannot pass the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s not just a bad idea — it doesn’t have the votes, and it can’t happen.”

Both parties are offering a choice, not an echo. And this debate, which pits cutting spending v. raising taxes, is one the GOP should win, and which they will win.

Barack Obama (whose latest approval rating in Gallup is down to 43 percent) continues to take his party back to its liberal, pre-Clinton days: massive spending, larger and more centralized government, higher taxes. We know what happened to Democrats back then. We know what happened to Democrats in the 2010 mid-term election. And I think we’re getting a pretty good sense of what will happen to them in 2012.

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Huntsman Will Not Impress GOP Voters

GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, who entered the race earlier this week, criticized President Obama “not from the right, but from the left,” according to National Journal’s Ron Fournier. “I think there is room to draw down more,” Huntsman told ABC.  His view is not surprising, given this story in Politico, which states Huntsman’s foreign policy advisers include former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Richard Haass, the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Governor Huntsman is a strange case. I have heard from political reporters and friends of mine who are Democratic, praising him to the skies. So are hyper-partisan, liberal columnists like E.J. Dionne. On the other hand, I haven’t heard from a single Republican or conservative who is an enthusiastic Hunstman supporter. (Having as his chief strategist John Weaver, who became deeply alienated from the GOP in the aftermath of the unsuccessful McCain campaign in 2000, most likely is not terribly reassuring.)

And now, on Afghanistan, Huntsman seems to be competing with Ron Paul to see who can flee on a quicker time schedule.

None of this means Huntsman was not an impressive governor or is an impressive man. But I’ll stick with my prediction from the spring: Jon Huntsman will continue to impress pundits and reporters. But he won’t impress GOP primary voters. And he won’t have a significant impact on the GOP race.

GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, who entered the race earlier this week, criticized President Obama “not from the right, but from the left,” according to National Journal’s Ron Fournier. “I think there is room to draw down more,” Huntsman told ABC.  His view is not surprising, given this story in Politico, which states Huntsman’s foreign policy advisers include former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Richard Haass, the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Governor Huntsman is a strange case. I have heard from political reporters and friends of mine who are Democratic, praising him to the skies. So are hyper-partisan, liberal columnists like E.J. Dionne. On the other hand, I haven’t heard from a single Republican or conservative who is an enthusiastic Hunstman supporter. (Having as his chief strategist John Weaver, who became deeply alienated from the GOP in the aftermath of the unsuccessful McCain campaign in 2000, most likely is not terribly reassuring.)

And now, on Afghanistan, Huntsman seems to be competing with Ron Paul to see who can flee on a quicker time schedule.

None of this means Huntsman was not an impressive governor or is an impressive man. But I’ll stick with my prediction from the spring: Jon Huntsman will continue to impress pundits and reporters. But he won’t impress GOP primary voters. And he won’t have a significant impact on the GOP race.

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Iran Power Struggle Makes Nuclear Issue All the More Important

The news that the two leading figures in Iran’s leadership are engaged in a bitter feud may give comfort to some who think as long as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are battling each other, the rest of the world is safe. But the conflict in Tehran is yet another reason why the Islamist regime must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons no matter which of the two emerge victorious from the struggle.

The falling out between the ayatollah and the man who was long considered to be his political front man seems to stem as much from a reaction to Ahmadinejad’s flamboyant style and open messianism as the personal struggle for power. Ahmadinejad’s religious extremism is such that it may scare even the ruthless and tyrannical mullahs who have always been the real brokers in Iran since its Islamic revolution. While the supreme leader has a post that is thought to be permanent, presidents have come and gone. But, as the stolen 2009 election that led to riots in Tehran showed, Ahmadinejad has no intention of going anywhere.

Were the Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad to be forced out, that might be seen as a victory for moderation. But the only real difference on the big issues between him and Khamenei appears to be a function of public relations. The ayatollah is no moderate on either nukes or terrorism.

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The news that the two leading figures in Iran’s leadership are engaged in a bitter feud may give comfort to some who think as long as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are battling each other, the rest of the world is safe. But the conflict in Tehran is yet another reason why the Islamist regime must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons no matter which of the two emerge victorious from the struggle.

The falling out between the ayatollah and the man who was long considered to be his political front man seems to stem as much from a reaction to Ahmadinejad’s flamboyant style and open messianism as the personal struggle for power. Ahmadinejad’s religious extremism is such that it may scare even the ruthless and tyrannical mullahs who have always been the real brokers in Iran since its Islamic revolution. While the supreme leader has a post that is thought to be permanent, presidents have come and gone. But, as the stolen 2009 election that led to riots in Tehran showed, Ahmadinejad has no intention of going anywhere.

Were the Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad to be forced out, that might be seen as a victory for moderation. But the only real difference on the big issues between him and Khamenei appears to be a function of public relations. The ayatollah is no moderate on either nukes or terrorism.

It’s not clear whether Ahmadinejad has enough support among the Iranian armed forces or security personnel to survive in the long term, but there appears no reason to believe this battle will be short-lived. Until it is resolved, an already dangerous government must be considered even more volatile and liable to rely on foreign diversions to distract its people from the rot at the core of their government. With Iranian troops in Syria to prop up their ally Bashar Assad, and its well-armed terrorist surrogates Hamas and Hezbollah always poised to attack Israel, the notion of a nuclear Iran is one that could destabilize the entire Middle East.

The conflict between these two hate-filled violent religious extremists may set off a series of events that cannot be predicted. Rather than sit back and hope a computer virus, diplomacy or the weak and largely unenforced sanctions put on Iran will alter the situation, the necessity of giving a higher priority to efforts to halt their march towards nuclear weapons is greater than ever. But with the Obama administration showing it is more concerned with pressuring Israel and pulling out of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan than doing something about Iran, the Iranian power struggle means the potential for big trouble in the coming months has just gotten much greater.

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Hold Palestinians Responsible After Hamas Turns Down Red Cross on Shalit

Five years after they kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the Hamas terrorist organization has refused the request of the International Committee of the Red Cross for information about their prisoner. The ICRC has not previously been active in its advocacy for Shalit, but after two years of complete silence, the group is stepping up and demanding news of his fate.

But rather than at least giving Shalit’s family some proof  their son is still alive, Hamas has decided to stonewall the ICRC saying that such requests mean the group is “involved in the Israeli security game.” While Hamas sought to turn the issue around to one involving Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails, there is no analogy between the two. The latter not only have access to independent courts, access to them is available to the ICRC. Independent observers or anyone other than his captors have never seen Shalit, who was captured in a raid conducted across Israel’s border with Gaza.

This inhuman stand is consistent with Hamas’ record as a bloodthirsty terrorist organization. In light of the group’s recent alliance with Fatah, Shalit’s fate must now be put on the agenda of any talks between the Palestinian Authority and either the United States or Israel. Though the PA and Hamas remain at loggerheads over the composition of the coalition government they will form, Fatah’s decision to join forces with the Islamist group means they now have joint responsibility for Shalit.

While the Obama administration has paid lip service to concern about Shalit, if it winds up recognizing the Fatah-Hamas unity government without resolving this issue, it too will have acquired some guilt in the matter. The United States retains enormous leverage over the Palestinians in the form of aid that keeps the PA afloat. This latest outrage over Shalit ought to convince Congress to block any funds from going to a PA government unwilling to free its Israeli captive.

Five years after they kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the Hamas terrorist organization has refused the request of the International Committee of the Red Cross for information about their prisoner. The ICRC has not previously been active in its advocacy for Shalit, but after two years of complete silence, the group is stepping up and demanding news of his fate.

But rather than at least giving Shalit’s family some proof  their son is still alive, Hamas has decided to stonewall the ICRC saying that such requests mean the group is “involved in the Israeli security game.” While Hamas sought to turn the issue around to one involving Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails, there is no analogy between the two. The latter not only have access to independent courts, access to them is available to the ICRC. Independent observers or anyone other than his captors have never seen Shalit, who was captured in a raid conducted across Israel’s border with Gaza.

This inhuman stand is consistent with Hamas’ record as a bloodthirsty terrorist organization. In light of the group’s recent alliance with Fatah, Shalit’s fate must now be put on the agenda of any talks between the Palestinian Authority and either the United States or Israel. Though the PA and Hamas remain at loggerheads over the composition of the coalition government they will form, Fatah’s decision to join forces with the Islamist group means they now have joint responsibility for Shalit.

While the Obama administration has paid lip service to concern about Shalit, if it winds up recognizing the Fatah-Hamas unity government without resolving this issue, it too will have acquired some guilt in the matter. The United States retains enormous leverage over the Palestinians in the form of aid that keeps the PA afloat. This latest outrage over Shalit ought to convince Congress to block any funds from going to a PA government unwilling to free its Israeli captive.

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Can Someone Ask Pataki About His Own Record on Debt and Spending?

Former New York Governor George Pataki is wandering around the early primary and caucus states talking about the nation’s debt crisis and dropping not-so-subtle hints about his own availability for a presidential run. Pataki says Americans must face up to the impending debt crisis, and he would like to see the GOP contenders put forward substantive proposals on the issue. He says if none do, he may have to step into the race in order to fill the debt vacuum.

This is, of course, more than a little disingenuous. For any presidential candidate to present a detailed budget plan for 2013 would be an invitation to disaster since their GOP opponents, not to mention Democrats, could then pick it apart at leisure. Such courage might help provoke an interesting debate, but it would also make the author of such a plan a human piñata. For evidence of this, Google “Ryan, Paul.”

But it would be a public service if some of the journalists who are allowing the former governor to use them to promote a candidacy no one but Pataki has been calling for were to ask him about his own record on the issues of debt and spending. Though Pataki arrived in Albany in 1995 with a tax cutting agenda, by the end of his third and last term in 2006, he had become part of the problem, not the solution. For example, in his final proposed state budget, Pataki sought to increase spending to a level that was more than twice the inflation rate. Under his tutelage, state outlays rose faster than the Consumer Price Index. It should also be noted Pataki’s deals with state workers were exactly the sort of exorbitant efforts to buy labor peace that have led numerous other states to the brink of bankruptcy and forced a new generation of governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Pataki’s own successor Andrew Cuomo into confrontations with these unions.

But readers will find none of this information in an interview with Pataki in today’s Fiscal Times. In the piece, he is allowed to grandstand on the issue of debt and flirt with a presidential run without a single question about his own record of spending and debt creation. While he may be allowed to get away with this sort of hypocrisy in Iowa and New Hampshire, if Pataki wants to run against debt, perhaps he should confine his speeches to his own state where citizens and reporters might remember his substantial contributions to the crisis he now seeks to solve.

Former New York Governor George Pataki is wandering around the early primary and caucus states talking about the nation’s debt crisis and dropping not-so-subtle hints about his own availability for a presidential run. Pataki says Americans must face up to the impending debt crisis, and he would like to see the GOP contenders put forward substantive proposals on the issue. He says if none do, he may have to step into the race in order to fill the debt vacuum.

This is, of course, more than a little disingenuous. For any presidential candidate to present a detailed budget plan for 2013 would be an invitation to disaster since their GOP opponents, not to mention Democrats, could then pick it apart at leisure. Such courage might help provoke an interesting debate, but it would also make the author of such a plan a human piñata. For evidence of this, Google “Ryan, Paul.”

But it would be a public service if some of the journalists who are allowing the former governor to use them to promote a candidacy no one but Pataki has been calling for were to ask him about his own record on the issues of debt and spending. Though Pataki arrived in Albany in 1995 with a tax cutting agenda, by the end of his third and last term in 2006, he had become part of the problem, not the solution. For example, in his final proposed state budget, Pataki sought to increase spending to a level that was more than twice the inflation rate. Under his tutelage, state outlays rose faster than the Consumer Price Index. It should also be noted Pataki’s deals with state workers were exactly the sort of exorbitant efforts to buy labor peace that have led numerous other states to the brink of bankruptcy and forced a new generation of governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Pataki’s own successor Andrew Cuomo into confrontations with these unions.

But readers will find none of this information in an interview with Pataki in today’s Fiscal Times. In the piece, he is allowed to grandstand on the issue of debt and flirt with a presidential run without a single question about his own record of spending and debt creation. While he may be allowed to get away with this sort of hypocrisy in Iowa and New Hampshire, if Pataki wants to run against debt, perhaps he should confine his speeches to his own state where citizens and reporters might remember his substantial contributions to the crisis he now seeks to solve.

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Can Pawlenty Capitalize on His Afghanistan Stance?

The immediate reaction to the president’s speech last night showed there is a clear split in the GOP on the issue. On one side of the divide is former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who delivered a stinging rebuke to the president on the Bill O’Reilly show on Fox News last night as well as demonstrating he has a good idea about what America’s goals should be in any war it fights:

I thought his speech was deeply concerning. Look how he phrased the outcome of this war. He said we need to end the war, quote unquote, responsibly. When America goes to war, America needs to win. We need to close out the war successfully, and what that means now is not nation-building. What it means is to follow General Petraeus’s advice and to get those security forces built up where they can pick up the slack as we drawdown.

I supported the surge, and I would have supported it even at a higher level as General McChrystal recommended. I supported President Obama’s decision to surge even at the levels that he did, but it shows you a window in his thinking on the very night that he announced the surge, he very quickly announced a deadline for withdrawal.

At the other end of the spectrum was Jon Huntsman, who true to his strategy of running to the left of not only his GOP rivals but of President Obama on foreign policy, called for even steeper troop drawdowns than those offered by the president.

Predictably, Mitt Romney, who sounded an ambivalent note about Afghanistan during last week’s New Hampshire GOP presidential debate, placed himself somewhere in the middle on the issue. Romney did denounce the idea of “an arbitrary timeline” and said the decision “should not be based on politics or economics.” But beyond that, the careful Romney would go no further, only saying he wanted to hear testimony from military commanders.

But of the viable GOP contenders, there was silence from only one candidate: Michele Bachmann. Bachmann, who in the past has been a stalwart defender of the war effort in Afghanistan while opposing the intervention in Libya, did not release a statement after the president’s speech. Bachmann’s absence from the debate is puzzling.

But the two candidates with the clearest positions on the issue may well have tied their fortunes to this debate. Jon Huntsman has gained applause from establishment pundits and GOP “realist” elites with his anti-war stance, but it is far from clear the Republican grass roots will be excited by a candidate who wants to outflank Obama on the left.

The immediate reaction to the president’s speech last night showed there is a clear split in the GOP on the issue. On one side of the divide is former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who delivered a stinging rebuke to the president on the Bill O’Reilly show on Fox News last night as well as demonstrating he has a good idea about what America’s goals should be in any war it fights:

I thought his speech was deeply concerning. Look how he phrased the outcome of this war. He said we need to end the war, quote unquote, responsibly. When America goes to war, America needs to win. We need to close out the war successfully, and what that means now is not nation-building. What it means is to follow General Petraeus’s advice and to get those security forces built up where they can pick up the slack as we drawdown.

I supported the surge, and I would have supported it even at a higher level as General McChrystal recommended. I supported President Obama’s decision to surge even at the levels that he did, but it shows you a window in his thinking on the very night that he announced the surge, he very quickly announced a deadline for withdrawal.

At the other end of the spectrum was Jon Huntsman, who true to his strategy of running to the left of not only his GOP rivals but of President Obama on foreign policy, called for even steeper troop drawdowns than those offered by the president.

Predictably, Mitt Romney, who sounded an ambivalent note about Afghanistan during last week’s New Hampshire GOP presidential debate, placed himself somewhere in the middle on the issue. Romney did denounce the idea of “an arbitrary timeline” and said the decision “should not be based on politics or economics.” But beyond that, the careful Romney would go no further, only saying he wanted to hear testimony from military commanders.

But of the viable GOP contenders, there was silence from only one candidate: Michele Bachmann. Bachmann, who in the past has been a stalwart defender of the war effort in Afghanistan while opposing the intervention in Libya, did not release a statement after the president’s speech. Bachmann’s absence from the debate is puzzling.

But the two candidates with the clearest positions on the issue may well have tied their fortunes to this debate. Jon Huntsman has gained applause from establishment pundits and GOP “realist” elites with his anti-war stance, but it is far from clear the Republican grass roots will be excited by a candidate who wants to outflank Obama on the left.

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Obama’s Transparent Political Calculation is Unsettling

The duties and responsibilities of commander-in-chief have never come easily to Barack Obama. We saw it in 2009, when the president struggled for months, seemingly unable to make a decision on the surge of troops in Afghanistan. Eventually he (mostly) agreed to the requests of his military commanders, but in the process Obama put in place an arbitrary, self-imposed and destructive timeline for withdrawal. (Marine Corps Commandant James Conway later admitted that based on intercepted communications by our enemies the announcement of an American withdrawal was “probably giving our enemy sustenance.”)

We saw it with Iraq, with the president doing almost nothing in that arena (fortunately most of the hard work had been done by his predecessor and the Status of Forces Agreement was in place). We saw it in Libya, where Obama committed America to a war against Muammar Qaddafi even as he made it clear he wanted the United States to “lead from behind.” And we saw it again last night, when the president announced he would be withdrawing 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next summer – which happens to be the summer before the presidential election. Read More

The duties and responsibilities of commander-in-chief have never come easily to Barack Obama. We saw it in 2009, when the president struggled for months, seemingly unable to make a decision on the surge of troops in Afghanistan. Eventually he (mostly) agreed to the requests of his military commanders, but in the process Obama put in place an arbitrary, self-imposed and destructive timeline for withdrawal. (Marine Corps Commandant James Conway later admitted that based on intercepted communications by our enemies the announcement of an American withdrawal was “probably giving our enemy sustenance.”)

We saw it with Iraq, with the president doing almost nothing in that arena (fortunately most of the hard work had been done by his predecessor and the Status of Forces Agreement was in place). We saw it in Libya, where Obama committed America to a war against Muammar Qaddafi even as he made it clear he wanted the United States to “lead from behind.” And we saw it again last night, when the president announced he would be withdrawing 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next summer – which happens to be the summer before the presidential election.

The decision itself is, on the merits, indefensible. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made an extraordinary (and gutsy) admission today, saying the president’s faster-than-expected drawdown of U.S. forces incurs more risk than the military’s top officer was initially prepared to accept. “I would prefer not to discuss the specifics of the private advice I rendered with respect to these decisions,” Mullen said in prepared remarks he is scheduled to deliver to Congress today. “As I said, I support them. What I can tell you is, the president’s decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept.” [emphasis added]

And no wonder. President Obama’s actions threaten to undo the significant (but fragile) gains we have made in southern Afghanistan and undermine the offensive we were planning in the east. It sends a signal to both our allies and our enemies Obama has lost interest in this war and America is heading for the exit ramp. This will strengthen the hand of the Taliban, demoralize those who have sided with us, and quite likely cause those figures within Afghanistan (and Pakistan) who had cast their lot with us to rethink their decision. It may be our military is able to salvage some measure of success in Afghanistan – but if they do, it will be in spite of, and not because of, what the president announced last night.

Among the more prescient comments about Obama on Afghanistan came from Bob Woodward, author of “Obama’s War,” who last September said of the president, “He is out of Afghanistan psychologically.” I asked then, “How many times in American history have we had a president who was out of a war psychologically, even as he was sending more young men and women to fight and to die? And how many times has it ended well?”

For a wartime president to hold the mindset Obama does, which has resulted in a half-assed prosecution of the war, is among the more unsettling things I have seen in my career in politics. And so, I might add, is the transparent political calculation in Obama’s decision.

During the process leading up to the original Afghan surge, former National Security Advisor James Jones criticized the role of the “campaign set,” which he also dubbed the “Politburo” and the “mafia.” An Obama adviser told  the New York Times’  Peter Baker, “Our Afghan policy was focused as much as anything on domestic politics. [Obama] would not risk losing the moderate to centrist Democrats in the middle of health insurance reform, and he viewed that legislation as the make-or-break legislation for his administration.” And then there was Obama’s admission to Senator Lindsey Graham that the outcome of the review was based on partisan considerations. “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party,” he reportedly told Graham.

I have the advantage of having served a president during wartime. And whatever faults one might be tempted to lay at the feet of George W. Bush, he never allowed politics of the Obama kind to infect his decisions. I know of what I speak. In September 2006, with the midterm elections approaching and the war of Iraq floundering, Senator Mitch McConnell, then the Republic whip, asked to see the president alone in the Oval Office. “Mr. President,” McConnell said, “your unpopularity is going to cost us control of Congress.” When President Bush asked McConnell what to do about it, McConnell said, “Bring some troops home from Iraq.”

Four months later, Senator McConnell got his reply. President Bush – who faced far more ferocious political opposition to the war than Obama ever has – not only did not withdraw troops; he increased them while embracing a strategy that came to be known as the “surge.” And he blocked every attempt at a premature withdrawal.  

There are many factors that explain why the Iraq war turned around, but the fortitude of President Bush surely ranks high among them. That quality looked impressive then; it looks even more impressive now.

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Bulger’s Arrest Recalls Romney’s Finest Hour

The FBI’s arrest of Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger ended a 16-year-old hunt for a notorious career criminal who was immortalized by the Martin Scorsese film The Departed, loosely based on his story. But it should also remind us of one of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s finest hours.

Bulger was part of an extraordinary Irish-American immigrant family who represented the best and worst of the American experience. While Whitey became the head of the Irish mafia in Boston, his younger brother William went to college and became a lawyer before going into politics. Billy Bulger spent 35 years in the Massachusetts legislature, including 18 as the powerful president of the State Senate. In 1996, he was appointed president of the University of Massachusetts system, a position of enormous prestige and power.

It speaks volumes about the nature of Boston’s political life in that era that the brother of a crime boss could rise to the top of the state’s political system. Cynics could be forgiven for wondering whether Billy’s success was linked to Whitey’s activities, even though the politician publicly pretended not to know what his beloved big brother did for a living. But it’s just as possible Billy’s political power also helped Whitey and his Winter Hill Gang.

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The FBI’s arrest of Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger ended a 16-year-old hunt for a notorious career criminal who was immortalized by the Martin Scorsese film The Departed, loosely based on his story. But it should also remind us of one of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s finest hours.

Bulger was part of an extraordinary Irish-American immigrant family who represented the best and worst of the American experience. While Whitey became the head of the Irish mafia in Boston, his younger brother William went to college and became a lawyer before going into politics. Billy Bulger spent 35 years in the Massachusetts legislature, including 18 as the powerful president of the State Senate. In 1996, he was appointed president of the University of Massachusetts system, a position of enormous prestige and power.

It speaks volumes about the nature of Boston’s political life in that era that the brother of a crime boss could rise to the top of the state’s political system. Cynics could be forgiven for wondering whether Billy’s success was linked to Whitey’s activities, even though the politician publicly pretended not to know what his beloved big brother did for a living. But it’s just as possible Billy’s political power also helped Whitey and his Winter Hill Gang.

But the pretense Billy knew nothing about Whitey’s crimes was exploded once his brother went on the lam in 1995. After years of exploiting his role as an FBI mob informant that enabled him to both knock off criminal rivals and evade prosecution, Whitey was indicted. But, thanks to his FBI informant, he escaped capture. His brother, who was still the president of the Massachusetts State Senate, may have aided the escape of the man wanted in connection with 19 murders as well as drug trafficking. What we do know for sure is Billy spoke with his fugitive brother via elaborate procedures designed to evade police detection and made no effort to help the authorities bring him to justice. In 2003, Bulger was summoned to a congressional hearing to testify about the case. But even though he was granted immunity from prosecution, when probed as to his connections with his brother, Billy gave evasive answers and demonstrated selective memory loss.

That such a morally compromised person could continue as the head of a state university system was considered nothing exceptional in the world of Irish Democratic politics in the Bay state. Billy could, after all, count on the support of Senator Edward Kennedy, Michael Dukakis and a host of other Massachusetts power brokers. But neither Billy nor his friends counted on the determination of Mitt Romney to make good on a campaign promise to oust the UMass president. Romney conducted a relentless campaign of pressure on Bulger to resign his office. He finally succeeded in August 2003 when Bulger quit.

Now that Whitey has finally been run to ground, it is appropriate for us to recall this odd chapter of political history and give Romney his due. Mitt Romney has been rightly accused of being a flip-flopper who will shift his views depending on the audience to which he is speaking or seeking votes. But whatever else you can say about him, he refused to play ball with the corrupt crowd running Massachusetts for decades. In bringing down Billy Bulger, he succeeded where other well-intentioned politicians and law enforcement officials failed. Though he hopes to achieve greater things in the future, the Bulger case may have been Romney’s finest hour to date.

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Obama Raising Doubts About his Credibility as Commander-in-Chief

There are many unfortunate aspects of President Obama’s decision to prematurely pull the plug on the surge in Afghanistan. Not least is it will be more difficult to maintain the bipartisan consensus behind the war effort. Indeed, it will make it harder to maintain a bipartisan consensus for a strong, forward-leaning foreign policy designed to defend freedom.

It is no secret that isolationist tendencies are coming to the fore in the Republican Party. Already, 87 House Republicans voted for a resolution sponsored by the ultra-left-wing Rep. Dennis Kucinich to immediately end our involvement in Libya–a decision that would throw a lifeline to the odious Muammar Qaddafi and sabotage some of our most vital alliance relationships. Now House leaders are preparing a vote on a resolution that would cut off funds for all “hostilities” in Libya while maintaining money only for non-combat activities.

President Obama is said to be angry about this attempt to undercut his commander-in-chief authority–as well he should be, although he also brought this upon himself in part by failing to ask Congress for authorization for the Libyan war effort. Moreover, he is costing himself support among many conservative Republicans by failing to prosecute the war against Qaddafi more vigorously. Now he is making the same mistake in Afghanistan, where once again Obama is showing himself to be fatally ambivalent about a war with which he is closely identified.

Whatever their isolationist tendencies, most Republicans can be rallied by a cry to support the commander-in-chief and to defeat our enemies. But only if they feel the commander-in-chief is serious about fighting in a way designed to maximize the odds of success. With his willingness to start pulling troops out of Afghanistan before they have achieved their objectives, Obama is raising serious doubts about his credibility as commander-in-chief. That will inevitably affect the willingness of Republicans to support him not only over Afghanistan but also Libya and other crisis spots.

I believe Republicans must still back the president–and our troops–in Afghanistan, because while a good outcome is harder to attain now, it is far from impossible. But Obama is making that argument harder to make.

There are many unfortunate aspects of President Obama’s decision to prematurely pull the plug on the surge in Afghanistan. Not least is it will be more difficult to maintain the bipartisan consensus behind the war effort. Indeed, it will make it harder to maintain a bipartisan consensus for a strong, forward-leaning foreign policy designed to defend freedom.

It is no secret that isolationist tendencies are coming to the fore in the Republican Party. Already, 87 House Republicans voted for a resolution sponsored by the ultra-left-wing Rep. Dennis Kucinich to immediately end our involvement in Libya–a decision that would throw a lifeline to the odious Muammar Qaddafi and sabotage some of our most vital alliance relationships. Now House leaders are preparing a vote on a resolution that would cut off funds for all “hostilities” in Libya while maintaining money only for non-combat activities.

President Obama is said to be angry about this attempt to undercut his commander-in-chief authority–as well he should be, although he also brought this upon himself in part by failing to ask Congress for authorization for the Libyan war effort. Moreover, he is costing himself support among many conservative Republicans by failing to prosecute the war against Qaddafi more vigorously. Now he is making the same mistake in Afghanistan, where once again Obama is showing himself to be fatally ambivalent about a war with which he is closely identified.

Whatever their isolationist tendencies, most Republicans can be rallied by a cry to support the commander-in-chief and to defeat our enemies. But only if they feel the commander-in-chief is serious about fighting in a way designed to maximize the odds of success. With his willingness to start pulling troops out of Afghanistan before they have achieved their objectives, Obama is raising serious doubts about his credibility as commander-in-chief. That will inevitably affect the willingness of Republicans to support him not only over Afghanistan but also Libya and other crisis spots.

I believe Republicans must still back the president–and our troops–in Afghanistan, because while a good outcome is harder to attain now, it is far from impossible. But Obama is making that argument harder to make.

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Congratulations, President Friedman

Barack Obama is out of ideas. Done. Empty. Finished. Through. His grand pronouncement last night on the country’s direction: “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” Powerful stuff indeed. And lifted directly from no less than 14 Tom Friedman columns.

Barack Obama is out of ideas. Done. Empty. Finished. Through. His grand pronouncement last night on the country’s direction: “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” Powerful stuff indeed. And lifted directly from no less than 14 Tom Friedman columns.

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