Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 26, 2011

Norway, Terrorism, and Double Standards

The murders in Norway are tragic, and terrorism is always inexcusable. After an initial flurry of claims of responsibility by murky Jihadist groups, Anders Behring Breivik–apparently the sole perpetrator–confessed. Within America, many progressive groups and left-wing polemicists jumped over his confession not only to condemn many terrorism analysts for their speculation that an Islamist terror group might be responsible, but also to demand the police investigate right-wing groups in Europe and the United States.

There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy here, for two reasons:

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The murders in Norway are tragic, and terrorism is always inexcusable. After an initial flurry of claims of responsibility by murky Jihadist groups, Anders Behring Breivik–apparently the sole perpetrator–confessed. Within America, many progressive groups and left-wing polemicists jumped over his confession not only to condemn many terrorism analysts for their speculation that an Islamist terror group might be responsible, but also to demand the police investigate right-wing groups in Europe and the United States.

There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy here, for two reasons:

First, while Breivik cited a number of right-of-center analysts and some other pundits who are, in my opinion, too Manichean in their analysis, there was no similar lynch mob when Osama bin Laden, for example, provided Americans with a reading list of authors (Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, Tony Judt, Jimmy Carter, John Perkins, etc.).  I disagree with the arguments made by these authors, but free speech should be sacrosanct. No single madman’s actions should justify muzzling intellectual or policy debate.

Second, the Norway attack is the exception that proves the rule when it comes to mass-casualty attacks in Western Europe and the West (and, for that matter, in the Middle East as well).  If progressives want to target public intellectuals whom Breivik apparently embraced and want to rally against the specter of right -wing terror, then why are the same progressives so concerned with defending Islamist front-groups and excusing Islamist terrorism or affirming it by legitimizing its motives and grievances?

Make no mistake, Breivik deserves death, a penalty he will not face in Norway’s justice system. There is no excusing his actions.  Terrorism is always evil, regardless of the efforts of terrorists to justify their actions because of their political beliefs. It’s time for blogger Juan Cole and the good folks over at the Center for American Progress to take a deep breath, stop trying to score cheap political points or pursue political vendettas, and just grow up.

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Norway: Israel Brings Terrorism on Itself

Suggesting Israel is responsible for the terror attacks launched against it is senseless enough on its own. But for Norway’s ambassador to Israel reportedly to make this argument – at a time when the shock of the devastating Oslo attack is still lingering – is also profoundly callous. Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering Norway’s long-standing anti-Israel sentiment, but the ambassador’s timing and tone-deafness is striking:

[Norwegian ambassador to Israel] Svein Sevje said in an Israeli newspaper interview Tuesday that while the Norwergian bomb and gun rampages that killed 76 people and Palestinian attacks should both be considered morally unacceptable, he wanted to “outline the similarity and the difference in the two cases.” …

“We Norwegians consider the occupation to be the cause of the terror against Israel,” he said. “Those who believe this will not change their mind because of the attack in Oslo.”

He added, “Can Israel and the Palestinians solve the problems without Hamas? I don’t think so.”

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Suggesting Israel is responsible for the terror attacks launched against it is senseless enough on its own. But for Norway’s ambassador to Israel reportedly to make this argument – at a time when the shock of the devastating Oslo attack is still lingering – is also profoundly callous. Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering Norway’s long-standing anti-Israel sentiment, but the ambassador’s timing and tone-deafness is striking:

[Norwegian ambassador to Israel] Svein Sevje said in an Israeli newspaper interview Tuesday that while the Norwergian bomb and gun rampages that killed 76 people and Palestinian attacks should both be considered morally unacceptable, he wanted to “outline the similarity and the difference in the two cases.” …

“We Norwegians consider the occupation to be the cause of the terror against Israel,” he said. “Those who believe this will not change their mind because of the attack in Oslo.”

He added, “Can Israel and the Palestinians solve the problems without Hamas? I don’t think so.”

Israeli policy isn’t responsible for Palestinian terrorism, just like Norwegian policy isn’t responsible for Anders Breivik’s deadly attack. Most people would be rightfully offended if anyone suggested otherwise, or pressured Norway to succumb to Breivik’s desired policy changes to stave off future acts of right-wing terror. Yielding to the demands of terrorists only encourages more terrorism.

Even a Jerusalem Post editorial, which offered the slightly milder recommendation that Norway use this attack to reevaluate the way it integrates immigrants, prompted cries of outrage from across the internet. The Post was forced to issue a clarification, assuring readers that it “strongly denounces all acts of violence against innocent civilians.” Will the uber-offended pundits and reporters who carried on about the Post’s editorial weigh in on the Norwegian ambassador’s blatant blame-the-victim remarks?  It would be nice, but don’t count on it.

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Richard Cohen: Bachmann is “A Bigot” and Iowans Are “Religious Trolls”

Like clockwork, every Republican primary season will deliver some variant on the theme of Richard Cohen’s Washington Post column today:

Pawlenty should become Mr. Republican, a term once reserved for Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio. He personifies the near-total lack of leadership among leading contenders for the GOP nomination. Not only will they not confront Bachmann and the nonsense she spews, but they diligently turn their backs on their obligation to educate their own constituencies.

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Like clockwork, every Republican primary season will deliver some variant on the theme of Richard Cohen’s Washington Post column today:

Pawlenty should become Mr. Republican, a term once reserved for Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio. He personifies the near-total lack of leadership among leading contenders for the GOP nomination. Not only will they not confront Bachmann and the nonsense she spews, but they diligently turn their backs on their obligation to educate their own constituencies.

It is always on the Republicans to sacrifice tact and strategy for the sake of drumming someone the Left doesn’t like out of the party. It’s the responsible thing to do. Palin inspired this ridiculous condescension, as does anyone else who offends the delicate sensibilities of our nation’s columnists.

What’s Cohen’s real problem with Bachmann? That she “is an ignoramus” and “a bigot.”

The funny thing is, columnists like Cohen forget about this very important function of primary candidates when the contest is taking place within the other party. I seem to remember a certain Democratic candidate having offered the following explanation for why test scores are higher in Iowa schools than in Washington, D.C.: “There’s less than 1 percent of the population of Iowa that is African American. There is probably less than 4 or 5 percent that are minorities. What is in Washington? So look, it goes back to what you start off with, what you’re dealing with.”

And that same candidate’s nuanced approach to the multicultural nature of his state’s convenience stores: “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.”

What happened to that candidate? Oh yes, he’s now our vice president. Perhaps Richard Cohen should ask his party to lead by example. But it seems what’s really bothering Cohen is that Republicans are pandering to the residents of the state of Iowa, which he describes as “a bucolic landscape peopled by political, religious and social trolls.” But don’t worry, Cohen will let you know when he spots bigotry.

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U.S. Pays Salaries to Palestinian Terrorists

U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority has become an increasingly controversial matter in the wake of the group’s decision to bypass peace negotiations and go to the United Nations for recognition of an independent state. But the outlay of funds to the Palestinians may become even more toxic after the release of a report by a media watch organization detailing the payment of salaries from the U.S.-funded PA to imprisoned terrorists.

The report from Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli-based organization that monitors the Palestinian media and culture, said that more than 5,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are getting salaries from the PA.  Though Palestinians held by Israel on charges of terrorism have always received stipends from the PA, the practice was formalized this past April when a new law to that effect was promulgated. The law was reported in the Palestinian official press but went unnoticed by the international media. Given that the United States gives more than $600 million to the Palestinians each year, including $225 million that goes directly to the PA, the payment of these salaries is a violation of U.S. law.

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U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority has become an increasingly controversial matter in the wake of the group’s decision to bypass peace negotiations and go to the United Nations for recognition of an independent state. But the outlay of funds to the Palestinians may become even more toxic after the release of a report by a media watch organization detailing the payment of salaries from the U.S.-funded PA to imprisoned terrorists.

The report from Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli-based organization that monitors the Palestinian media and culture, said that more than 5,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are getting salaries from the PA.  Though Palestinians held by Israel on charges of terrorism have always received stipends from the PA, the practice was formalized this past April when a new law to that effect was promulgated. The law was reported in the Palestinian official press but went unnoticed by the international media. Given that the United States gives more than $600 million to the Palestinians each year, including $225 million that goes directly to the PA, the payment of these salaries is a violation of U.S. law.

As the authors of the report pointed out when they presented their findings to members of Congress on Tuesday, the 2010 legislation that authorized aid to the PA said the State Department must “take all appropriate steps to ensure that such assistance is not provided to or through any individual, private or government entity, or educational institution that the Secretary knows or has reason to believe advocates, plans, sponsors, engages in, or has engaged in, terrorist activity.”

The PA’s payment of salaries to convicted terrorists is a clear violation of this law.

In addition to speaking of the cash layouts to terrorists (which actually exceed the salaries paid to Palestinian civil servants), the report also discussed the incitement against Israel and Jews that is published and broadcast by the Palestinian official media. Another egregious example of Palestinian incitement was the fact that a summer camp sponsored by PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad divided children into three groups–each named for terrorists.

For those who have followed the history of U.S. aid to the Palestinians, this is familiar stuff. Ever since the original Oslo Accords, the State Department has made it a practice to either ignore or to deny all reports of PA support for terror or glorification of terrorists. Throughout this period, such outrages have been swept under the carpet by diplomats intent on pursuing an agenda of appeasement of the Palestinians in the vain hope this will cause them to make peace. But the United States has not been rewarded for its generosity.

We can only hope this latest evidence of Palestinian treachery will finally motivate Congress and the White House to hold the PA accountable and stop the flow of money from American taxpayers to terrorists.

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Great Moments in Economic Thought

In an interview in Spiegel Online, Lawrence Summers, former director of President Obama’s National Economic Council, discusses what he is doing these days and talks about one of the causes of rising inequality in America:

SPIEGEL: You just signed on as a senior advisor to a huge venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. Do you want to spot the next Mark Zuckerberg?

Summers: It is a fascinating environment. And it is still one of the great strengths of the U.S. economy that you can raise your first $100 million before you buy your first suit.

SPIEGEL: So America is still the greatest place on earth for the lucky few like Zuckerberg, but an increasingly difficult place for the “Average Joe”?

Summers: There is no question that the ability of those with ideas to leverage them in the global economy has contributed to rising inequality and to more rewards for those very few with great ideas — and less progress for average Americans.

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In an interview in Spiegel Online, Lawrence Summers, former director of President Obama’s National Economic Council, discusses what he is doing these days and talks about one of the causes of rising inequality in America:

SPIEGEL: You just signed on as a senior advisor to a huge venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. Do you want to spot the next Mark Zuckerberg?

Summers: It is a fascinating environment. And it is still one of the great strengths of the U.S. economy that you can raise your first $100 million before you buy your first suit.

SPIEGEL: So America is still the greatest place on earth for the lucky few like Zuckerberg, but an increasingly difficult place for the “Average Joe”?

Summers: There is no question that the ability of those with ideas to leverage them in the global economy has contributed to rising inequality and to more rewards for those very few with great ideas — and less progress for average Americans.

Is it right for Summers to be helping spot the next Mark Zuckerberg–or others with great ideas–if there is no question it will contribute to rising inequality and less progress for average Americans?

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Wu’s Resignation a Victory for Democrats

The Washington Post reports that Democratic Rep. David Wu has resigned amid a creepy sex scandal that was fortuitously overshadowed by the debt ceiling debate:

Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) announced Tuesday that he will resign from Congress, four days after a report that a young woman called his office complaining of an “unwanted sexual encounter.”

“I cannot care for my family the way I wish while serving in Congress and fighting these very serious allegations,” Wu said in a statement. “The wellbeing of my children must come before anything else. With great sadness, I therefore intend to resign effective upon the resolution of the debt ceiling crisis. This is the right decision for my family, the institution of the House, and my colleagues.”

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The Washington Post reports that Democratic Rep. David Wu has resigned amid a creepy sex scandal that was fortuitously overshadowed by the debt ceiling debate:

Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) announced Tuesday that he will resign from Congress, four days after a report that a young woman called his office complaining of an “unwanted sexual encounter.”

“I cannot care for my family the way I wish while serving in Congress and fighting these very serious allegations,” Wu said in a statement. “The wellbeing of my children must come before anything else. With great sadness, I therefore intend to resign effective upon the resolution of the debt ceiling crisis. This is the right decision for my family, the institution of the House, and my colleagues.”

Wu’s downfall has been in the works since last February, when his staff abruptly quit because of his increasingly erratic behavior. The congressman hung on to his seat for awhile, but this latest debacle unleashed a strong wave of pressure from top Democrats for him to resign.

And it couldn’t have worked out any better for Democrats, who are probably breathing a sigh of relief now that the unstable congressmen has decided to step down. Wu will remain in office until after the debt ceiling negotiations, but there also isn’t a lot of concern his seat will flip Republican. He’s in a fairly safe Democratic district, and the Democrats already have several strong candidates vying for his seat. Resigning will also give Wu an opportunity to get the help he clearly needs.

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The Lessons of the Ky Government

Nguyen Cao Ky, the former South Vietnamese military and political leader, died Saturday. The 80-year-old was no exemplar of democracy, but he was an important partner for the United States during the Vietnam War. As the United States assesses its foreign policy in the light of coups, democratic uprisings, and dictatorial allies, Ky’s story carries lessons still relevant today.

Ky was hardly unique. Chaotic countries often find themselves with a military leader after a coup; the military is simply the best organized among many competitors for power. Such was the case with Ky, who became the prime minister in 1965, then continued in government from 1967-1971 as the vice president under his sometimes-rival Nguyen Van Thieu.

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Nguyen Cao Ky, the former South Vietnamese military and political leader, died Saturday. The 80-year-old was no exemplar of democracy, but he was an important partner for the United States during the Vietnam War. As the United States assesses its foreign policy in the light of coups, democratic uprisings, and dictatorial allies, Ky’s story carries lessons still relevant today.

Ky was hardly unique. Chaotic countries often find themselves with a military leader after a coup; the military is simply the best organized among many competitors for power. Such was the case with Ky, who became the prime minister in 1965, then continued in government from 1967-1971 as the vice president under his sometimes-rival Nguyen Van Thieu.

As with most governments born in turmoil, the legitimacy of the Ky and Thieu governments was feeble. Rather than seeking affirmation from a popular vote, they cracked down on opposition, closing newspapers, threatening or imprisoning dissidents, going after religious practitioners, and declaring martial law.

America, waist-deep in war against communists, rightly saw that Ky and Thieu were no democrats. The alliance, already unpopular, was even more unpalatable. This was a small factor among many contributing to the United States’ desertion of South Vietnam.

Nevertheless, when the United States abandoned its allies and withdrew from Indochina, the consequences were worse than anything that happened under the rule of Ky or Thieu. North Vietnam invaded the South, killing 15,000 civilians in the process. As many as 250,000 “boat people” also died in an attempt to escape. An additional 165,000 perished in Vietnamese re-education camps alone under communist rule. The total casualties wrought by Hanoi were considerably higher.

In foreign policy, there are rarely decisions that are wholly morally good. There are simply too many malevolent actors. Dictators are ousted, often followed by even bloodier successors.

There’s a temptation to view pervasive corruption as a sign of a total failure in countries that we wish would wholeheartedly embrace liberal democracy. And there’s also a temptation to view any alternative as preferable to an undemocratic regime. This lesson is just as applicable in Afghanistan, where democracy is nascent and imperfect, as it is in Egypt, where a dictator with a soft spot for the United States is gone, and Islamic fundamentalists may soon dominate.

Different isn’t always better. When we assume that it is, we risk falling into the dangerous scenario described by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick  in COMMENTARY in 1979: “The U.S. will have been led by its own misunderstanding of the situation to assist actively in deposing an erstwhile friend and ally and installing a government hostile to American interests and policies in the world.”

But we are not the only ones who lose.  When we see the world in terms that are too simplistic, lacking all nuance, the innocents often bear the brunt of our faltering. The lesson of Ky is by no means that we should abandon our convictions and give up pursuit of the good; on the contrary, it is that we should stand by what we believe, even in an imperfect world.

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New Appointees Will Improve U.S. Civil-Military Relations

My heart goes out to Ryan Crocker and John Allen, who have just assumed command of the American war effort in Afghanistan–Crocker as ambassador, Allen as the U.S./NATO commander. They are taking over in the height of the summer fighting season while the Taliban are carrying out an aggressive campaign of terrorism–symbolized by the murder of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the political boss of southern Afghanistan. At the same time, allied will to win is rapidly crumbling–symbolized by President Obama’s decision to launch a premature and ill-advised pullout of all 30,000 surge troops by September 2012. Meanwhile, Pakistan shows no sign of reducing its support for the Taliban and the Haqqani Network; if anything the Pakistanis are further cutting their already tenuous ties with the U.S.

Under those conditions, trying to extract an acceptable outcome from Afghanistan will require a superhuman combination of determination and skill. Luckily, Crocker and Allen are two of the best in the business. If anyone can handle these challenging conditions, they can.

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My heart goes out to Ryan Crocker and John Allen, who have just assumed command of the American war effort in Afghanistan–Crocker as ambassador, Allen as the U.S./NATO commander. They are taking over in the height of the summer fighting season while the Taliban are carrying out an aggressive campaign of terrorism–symbolized by the murder of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the political boss of southern Afghanistan. At the same time, allied will to win is rapidly crumbling–symbolized by President Obama’s decision to launch a premature and ill-advised pullout of all 30,000 surge troops by September 2012. Meanwhile, Pakistan shows no sign of reducing its support for the Taliban and the Haqqani Network; if anything the Pakistanis are further cutting their already tenuous ties with the U.S.

Under those conditions, trying to extract an acceptable outcome from Afghanistan will require a superhuman combination of determination and skill. Luckily, Crocker and Allen are two of the best in the business. If anyone can handle these challenging conditions, they can.

As a first order of business, they will have to improve civil-military relations on the American side, which have been strained for years. The situation got especially bad when Ambassador Karl Eikenberry was openly feuding with General Stanley McChrystal, but it has hardly been perfect since. I have no doubt Crocker and Allen will try to recreate the close relationship that existed in Iraq between Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus–and I fully expect they will succeed. That alone will bring an increase in effectiveness. That’s not enough to offset the potentially ruinous troop pullouts ordered by Obama, but it’s something.

 

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We Need Military Buildup to Match China’s

In the online magazine The Diplomat, former U.S. Representative to the UN Robert O’Brien presents an excellent if disturbing overview of China’s alarming military buildup.

He notes that “China has big maritime ambitions, and they are backed up by a naval build-up unseen since Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to challenge British naval power with the building of the High Seas Fleet at the turn of the last century.”

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In the online magazine The Diplomat, former U.S. Representative to the UN Robert O’Brien presents an excellent if disturbing overview of China’s alarming military buildup.

He notes that “China has big maritime ambitions, and they are backed up by a naval build-up unseen since Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to challenge British naval power with the building of the High Seas Fleet at the turn of the last century.”

That buildup is symbolized by the scheduled launch next month of China’s first aircraft carrier–a ship as symbolic of maritime power in our day as dreadnoughts were in the time of the kaisers.

At least Britain was able to match the German naval build-up at the turn of the 20th century with its own building program. It was not enough to deter German aggression but Britain did at least manage, when war came, to checkmate the High Seas Fleet. By contrast, even as China is building up its forces, we are reducing our own. There are now only 284 deployable ships in the U.S. Navy, the lowest total since 1930, at the height of our isolationist slumber, when the whole fleet was only 138 ships.

Granted, today’s vessels are much more capable than those of the 1930s; but then China also has quite a few tricks up its sleeve (such as carrier-busting ballistic missiles) that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan could not have dreamed of. At some point, quality cannot substitute for quantity, especially since the U.S. Navy must cover the entire globe while China can concentrate on dominating only its region.

We desperately need a ship-building and plane-building program to match China’s. Instead, savants in Washington are discussing further cutbacks. There has  been talk, during current budget negotiations, of eliminating an aircraft carrier. No doubt China’s admirals are licking their chops as they read these reports.

 

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Remorse of a Revolutionary: Gorbachev Takes On Putin

It is almost hard to believe there was only one Russian leader in between Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin. Two decades have passed now since Gorbachev oversaw the unraveling of the Soviet Union, yet the revolution has produced something closer to where it started than where Gorbachev’s Western counterparts envisioned it leading. And the frustration has begun boiling over into a public feud between the two men.

“(Prime Minister) Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) has got involved in earnest, but this isn’t working,” Gorbachev told Ekho Moskvy radio this week. He said the current parliament is run by “personal loyalties and nepotism,” and as for the Putin-created Russian Popular Front: “I won’t help them because they are dragging us backward, or slowing us down at the very least… It suits [Putin] because he wants to preserve the status quo and keep his hold on power.”

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It is almost hard to believe there was only one Russian leader in between Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin. Two decades have passed now since Gorbachev oversaw the unraveling of the Soviet Union, yet the revolution has produced something closer to where it started than where Gorbachev’s Western counterparts envisioned it leading. And the frustration has begun boiling over into a public feud between the two men.

“(Prime Minister) Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) has got involved in earnest, but this isn’t working,” Gorbachev told Ekho Moskvy radio this week. He said the current parliament is run by “personal loyalties and nepotism,” and as for the Putin-created Russian Popular Front: “I won’t help them because they are dragging us backward, or slowing us down at the very least… It suits [Putin] because he wants to preserve the status quo and keep his hold on power.”

He also had some suggested election reforms, according to Interfax:

He argued Russia needs to revise its election legislation. Single-mandate constituencies should be brought back, direct gubernatorial elections should be reintroduced, early voting should be abolished, and the minimum proportion of votes to be won for receiving seats in the State Duma should be set at 5 percent, he suggested.

But Putin’s party, United Russia, was happy to engage Gorbachev, an indication they believe the octogenarian is becoming irrelevant to the country’s political identity–especially among the young.

Sergey Neverov, acting secretary of the United Russia General Council Board, fired back. “Let’s think back to Mikhail Gorbachev’s years in power and the decisions he was making… We lost the country that was called the Soviet Union. Then we nearly lost Russia when an economic crisis began which saw hundreds of thousands of enterprises cease working, people did not get paid for months, and some were attempting to dismantle the state bit by bit,” Neverov said.

This tells you something about just how wide the gulf is between the ideology of Putin and that of Gorbachev; Putin’s party views the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the low tide of modern Russian history–and is happy to say so. Gorbachev, of course, wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about it either, and so he may be more concerned with his own personal legacy than true demokratizatsiya. Neverov added that Putin saved the country that Gorbachev nearly lost, and then threw in a personal shot at Gorbachev, wondering whether “a person who pompously celebrates his birthday in London can categorically state what the Russian people want or do not want.”

Putin believes that he, not Gorbachev, has public opinion on his side. The lack of any semblance of democracy in Russia today, however, will ensure that no one will know if that’s true.

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Obama-Inspired Ringing Phones Are Debt Ceiling Sideshow

The New York Times Caucus blog is claiming the phones in Congress are ringing off the hook today. This is due to President Obama’s televised plea for Americans to contact their representatives and to tell them to back the “balanced” approach to the debt-ceiling crisis that the White House wants. But does anyone really think this stunt is intended to achieve a solution?

The president’s decision to double down on his class warfare rhetoric by painting the Republican majority in the House as the party of the rich was obviously intended as one of the opening shots of his re-election campaign. But it was irrelevant to the debt ceiling talks in which Obama’s demand for tax increases have already been abandoned by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. While there is no way to know for sure what the outcome of the next few days will be, one thing is already assured: the president’s political posturing is irrelevant to the attempt to find a compromise between the two parties on the debt.

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The New York Times Caucus blog is claiming the phones in Congress are ringing off the hook today. This is due to President Obama’s televised plea for Americans to contact their representatives and to tell them to back the “balanced” approach to the debt-ceiling crisis that the White House wants. But does anyone really think this stunt is intended to achieve a solution?

The president’s decision to double down on his class warfare rhetoric by painting the Republican majority in the House as the party of the rich was obviously intended as one of the opening shots of his re-election campaign. But it was irrelevant to the debt ceiling talks in which Obama’s demand for tax increases have already been abandoned by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. While there is no way to know for sure what the outcome of the next few days will be, one thing is already assured: the president’s political posturing is irrelevant to the attempt to find a compromise between the two parties on the debt.

Having been elected on a promise to halt the tax and spend policies that have built the debt, the chances the majority of House Republicans will bow to a pressure campaign orchestrated by Obama are slim and none. Nor should they. While the White House is encouraged by polls that show Republicans are blamed more for this standoff than the Democrats, there is no question the ultimate loser of a failure to come to an agreement would be Obama.

The president has done more to stoke fears about the economic consequences of a stalemate on raising the debt ceiling than anyone. And for all of the justified concern about the debt, the unemployment figures and the economic slowdown are the public’s primary worry. Does he really believe his continued blaming of his predecessor and everyone but himself will earn him a pass from voters on the economy?

It may be that many don’t sympathize with the GOP’s principled insistence that the debt not be solved by tax increases. But the president’s speech and the ringing phones he has inspired are both sideshows to the real work of crafting a genuine, as opposed to a contrived, compromise. If, by continuing to play chicken on the debt, Obama torpedoes a possible solution, he is deceiving himself if thinks no blame will attach to him. As unpopular as Republicans may be, his attempt to repeat President Clinton’s political success at the time of the 1995 government shutdown may have the unintended consequence of making Americans even more conscious of his economic failures.

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Obama’s “Malaise Moment”

Every president has a moment when public opinion regarding him solidifies into an enduring image. For FDR it was his great First Inaugural Speech–one of  only a handful that have lived beyond inauguration day–in which he transformed the mood of the country and convinced the people he could deal with the Great Depression. Despite his subsequent mistakes, and the very slow recovery, that image never faded. For Kennedy it was the Cuban Missile speech, which showed that this handsome, witty, somewhat playboy-like president who had at times seemed weak was not. For Reagan it was the air traffic controllers strike in which, like Kennedy, he showed his steel.

Equally, it was when George H. W. Bush abandoned his no-new-taxes pledge that he lost the people, despite his recent triumph in the first Iraq war. Most famously, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise speech” in which he blamed the American people for a “crisis of  confidence,” was the moment his presidency was fatally  damaged. From that point on, the American people largely tuned him out. They just didn’t like the man.

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Every president has a moment when public opinion regarding him solidifies into an enduring image. For FDR it was his great First Inaugural Speech–one of  only a handful that have lived beyond inauguration day–in which he transformed the mood of the country and convinced the people he could deal with the Great Depression. Despite his subsequent mistakes, and the very slow recovery, that image never faded. For Kennedy it was the Cuban Missile speech, which showed that this handsome, witty, somewhat playboy-like president who had at times seemed weak was not. For Reagan it was the air traffic controllers strike in which, like Kennedy, he showed his steel.

Equally, it was when George H. W. Bush abandoned his no-new-taxes pledge that he lost the people, despite his recent triumph in the first Iraq war. Most famously, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise speech” in which he blamed the American people for a “crisis of  confidence,” was the moment his presidency was fatally  damaged. From that point on, the American people largely tuned him out. They just didn’t like the man.

Was last night’s speech by President Obama his “malaise moment,” the moment when American popular opinion froze into an enduring, and negative image of this president? It was classic Obama: elitist, condescending, impolitic, self-obsessed, and dishonest. As Bill Kristol points out, his description of the debt ceiling (which he apparently regards as so arcane a concept that most of the peasantry–oh, sorry, American citizens–have never heard of it) is flatly false.

The last few days have been extraordinary political theater, with the highest officials in the government calling each other dishonest and untrustworthy on national television. Who knows at this point how it will play out, but it seems to me Obama is just not very good at inside politics, and the people have now caught on to it. As with Jimmy Carter, they are coming to the conclusion they just don’t like the man.

If so, he is in very deep political trouble indeed.

 

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In Debt Ceiling Debate, White House Began with Several Errors

“When one begins with an initial error,” Aristotle wrote The Politics, “it is inevitable that one should end badly.”

In the current debt ceiling debate, the White House began with several initial errors.

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“When one begins with an initial error,” Aristotle wrote The Politics, “it is inevitable that one should end badly.”

In the current debt ceiling debate, the White House began with several initial errors.

The first is the belief the public’s appetite for listening to President Obama is insatiable, that the more he talks, the more the public is persuaded by him and enamored of him. In fact the public, as well as Congress, is rapidly tuning out the president. On Friday evening I was having dinner at a restaurant which includes a bar. The president’s press conference was being broadcast live – and no one in the restaurant was paying a bit of attention to what he had to say. I’m confident that same thing occurred during last night’s prime time address, which was both pointless and counterproductive.

The president and his team believe he possesses unparalleled communication skills. Actually, Obama’s ability to rally the public to his side and on behalf of his causes is strikingly weak.

A second initial error by the White House is that inserting Obama into this debt ceiling fight would work to his advantage, making him look like the “only adult in the room” (to use a tiresome phase the White House has latched on to). Instead, the president has come across as pouting, peevish, and petulant. Parents of teenagers will immediately identify with what I’m referring to.

A third initial error by the president is that he would emerge from this debate with his leadership bone fides strengthened and his reputation as a first-rate negotiator enhanced.

The opposite has happened. Obama’s negotiating skills are among the worst of any president in our lifetime. He makes a handshake agreement with the Speaker of the House to increase revenues by $800 billion, only to be criticized by congressional Democrats for going back on his word, causing the president to go back to the Speaker the next day to increase revenues by half. No one can trust the president’s words or commitments. As a result the president is now sidelined and increasingly irrelevant, having gone from “emperor to bystander,” in the words of Charles Krauthammer.

A fourth initial error of the White House is that this debate would transform Obama’s image as a profligate spender into a born-again budget cutter, a man whose approach embodies “balance.” What has happened instead is that this debate has concentrated the public mind on our fiscal crisis even beyond what it was and, it’s worth pointing out, knocked the Democratic attack machine entirely off its game. The assault on the Ryan budget and Medicare reform has ground to a halt. All the attention is on this messy, frustrating process, to which Obama is now tethered.

Aristotle was right – and in this instance, given his initial errors, it seems inevitable that things should end badly for Obama. But why should this episode be any different from the rest of his presidency?

 

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Libyan Fallout Dooms Arab Spring Hopes

As I wrote earlier today, the announcement that NATO is prepared to let Muammar Qaddafi stay in Libya as part of a peace settlement is a defeat for the United States and an illustration of President Obama’s failure to exercise leadership. But the consequences of this astonishing turn of events will be felt beyond the borders of that unhappy North African country. While those who supported the Arab Spring revolts may have thought intervention in Libya put other dictators on notice their time was coming to an end, Qaddafi’s apparent victory sends the opposite signal.

In particular, the West’s decision to start backing down on Libya will have an enormous impact on the outcome in Syria.

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As I wrote earlier today, the announcement that NATO is prepared to let Muammar Qaddafi stay in Libya as part of a peace settlement is a defeat for the United States and an illustration of President Obama’s failure to exercise leadership. But the consequences of this astonishing turn of events will be felt beyond the borders of that unhappy North African country. While those who supported the Arab Spring revolts may have thought intervention in Libya put other dictators on notice their time was coming to an end, Qaddafi’s apparent victory sends the opposite signal.

In particular, the West’s decision to start backing down on Libya will have an enormous impact on the outcome in Syria.

For months, dissidents have taken to the streets of Syrian cities and braved attacks from the military as well as other security forces. While the Bashar al-Assad government has made symbolic gestures toward establishing less repressive policies, the essence of this dictatorial regime remains unchanged. It is estimated that government forces have killed more than 1,600 persons and hundreds of protesters have been jailed.

But unlike Qaddafi, Assad has faced no foreign threats other than the weak sanctions that have been imposed on this already impoverished country. Though the chances for change, peaceful or otherwise, were already slim, Assad can only be further encouraged by NATO’s apparent failure of nerve.

But the repercussions of this fiasco don’t end there. The strengthening of Assad’s hold on power also is a boost for his ally Iran and its terrorist surrogates Hezbollah and Hamas. Where once the Arab Spring promised an end to authoritarian governments around the region, the only beneficiaries appear to be Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its extremist friends.

Several months ago, more than one commentator likened the springing up of revolts around the Middle East to the cataclysm of 1848 in which conservative regimes were similarly toppled all over Europe. But for those who knew their history, this was an ominous analogy. Virtually every one of the 1848 revolts ended in defeat for the democrats as an alliance or reactionary powers repressed the new republics that had popped up across the map and reinstalled the old regimes. Though history has not quite repeated itself, it looks like the final results of the Arab Spring will be similarly depressing as dangerous regimes such as that in Iran and its allies have gained power and influence at the expense of more moderate rulers.

While we can still hope–as was the case in the aftermath of 1848–the seeds of freedom have been planted for future generations to reap, the short-term results of the Arab Spring seem dismal.

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Conservative Groups Fight Against Boehner Plan

Now that House Speaker John Boehner has proposed a debt ceiling plan, the question is whether he’d be able to get it through the House. So far, only a handful of congressional Republicans have said they’ll oppose the proposal, but that number is likely to grow now that conservative groups are quickly lining up against it.

The lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation is already urging Republicans to vote against the Boehner plan, and warned this morning it will include it as a key vote on its legislative scorecard. CEO Michael Needham spelled out the conservative argument against the plan in a letter to members of Congress this morning:

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Now that House Speaker John Boehner has proposed a debt ceiling plan, the question is whether he’d be able to get it through the House. So far, only a handful of congressional Republicans have said they’ll oppose the proposal, but that number is likely to grow now that conservative groups are quickly lining up against it.

The lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation is already urging Republicans to vote against the Boehner plan, and warned this morning it will include it as a key vote on its legislative scorecard. CEO Michael Needham spelled out the conservative argument against the plan in a letter to members of Congress this morning:

Speaker Boehner’s most recent proposal to raise the debt limit is regrettably insufficient to our times. Step one of the Speaker’s proposal would cut $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending. Assuming all of these cuts materialized, this would reduce our nation’s projected debt at the end of the decade from $24.9 trillion to $23.7 trillion. Step two would create a special committee, which has three major problems: (1) The “deficit reduction” of $1.8 trillion remains insufficient for our times; (2) “Deficit reduction” is a well-known codeword for “tax increases”; and (3) 17 blue-ribbon panels, commissions and the like since 1982 have gotten our nation into the mess we are in and there is no obvious reason as to why the 18th will get us out. Further, this proposal would outline a fast track proposal that unduly limits the rights of the congressional minority.

All in all, under a best case scenario where all of the cuts envisioned in the Boehner plan come to fruition, they would only reduce our nation’s projected debt-to-GDP ratio from 104 percent to 92 percent – a ratio far higher than its current 62 percent, which Moody’s has already said must come down to maintain our nation’s stable outlook.

FreedomWorks has also come out against the plan, with its legislative counsel Dean Clancy writing it “Violates the Cut Cap Balance Pledge* because it “neither cuts nor caps nor balances federal spending. And it creates an opening for Washington to raise taxes next year.” And the House Republican Study Committee, which has internal influence with conservative members, is reportedly opposing the plan as well.

In total, nine House Republicans voted against the conservative Cut, Cap and Balance plan, mainly because they felt it didn’t go far enough in reducing the deficit. From reading Heritage’s critique, there are sure to be many more GOP House members who will reject Boehner’s much more moderate plan on the same grounds. Which means the Speaker will be much more reliant on Democrats if he wants to get it through.

So as of this morning, Boehner’s chances of success are dimming.

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Where Did the Master Orator Go?

Can an American president call for a speech on prime time television to talk about the weather? We came fairly close to a test of this proposition last night. Americans, who have been hearing almost daily from the president over the last couple of weeks, were now bidden—should one say summoned?—to listen to him in an official Presidential Address, a format that is normally reserved for solemn or important announcements.

Barack Obama pronounced a speech that contained nothing new, and certainly nothing important. The single “action” he called for was to urge Americans to light up the switchboards of Republican members of the House to compel them to support his approach, which includes tax hikes, to address the debt crisis. Apart from the unseemliness of the president trying so blatantly to impose his will on a co-ordinate branch of the government, this plea was completely irrelevant. From the moment talks about of a grand bargain ended last week, Congress–including the leaders of both parties in both chambers–had agreed to move beyond a plan that contains “revenues.” The president, of course, knew this, just as he knows that in the end he will likely sign such a bill.

The real aim of the speech was accordingly to position himself for the next election as the great compromiser and to paint the opposition as extreme. It was a political speech in the guise of an official presidential address.

Will it work? Will the president appear in the public’s eye—and appearance is what this was all about—as a larger figure after this speech than before? There is reason to think that he will not. Obama spoke for fifteen minutes, three times longer than House Speaker John Boehner. But many will think that John Boehner had three times the better in the exchange. Obama displayed all of his rhetorical prowess, his grand style and his characteristic eloquence. The subject of his speech, in line with almost all of his big speeches, was himself—in this case, how he alone is a figure above mundane politics, a Great Compromiser in the midst of a three ring circus. (Other speeches in the past, for example, had Obama as the one voice of civility in a climate of political incivility, or the one post-partisan in a world of partisanship.) All the elements were in place for one of those larger than ordinary mortals’ performances, but the gambit seems to have fallen flat.

Nothing is more difficult from a rhetorical standpoint than to pronounce a speech that follows immediately upon a presidential address. The president holds all the advantages—the setting, the dignity of the office, and, of course, the personal recognition. He has no need to introduce himself.  Almost all of the respondents in these jousts have been bested, sometimes disastrously, with the most favorable result being a draw. Boehner’s performance stands out as the exception. His address was simple and direct, while the president’s was mendacious; his was earnest, while the president’s was self-serving; and his was about the crisis, while the president’s was about himself. Obama strove mightily to get above politics, but failed. Boehner did seek political positioning and succeeded.

Obama, the master orator, has now been defeated on his own chosen ground. Will this leave the emperor without his clothes?

Can an American president call for a speech on prime time television to talk about the weather? We came fairly close to a test of this proposition last night. Americans, who have been hearing almost daily from the president over the last couple of weeks, were now bidden—should one say summoned?—to listen to him in an official Presidential Address, a format that is normally reserved for solemn or important announcements.

Barack Obama pronounced a speech that contained nothing new, and certainly nothing important. The single “action” he called for was to urge Americans to light up the switchboards of Republican members of the House to compel them to support his approach, which includes tax hikes, to address the debt crisis. Apart from the unseemliness of the president trying so blatantly to impose his will on a co-ordinate branch of the government, this plea was completely irrelevant. From the moment talks about of a grand bargain ended last week, Congress–including the leaders of both parties in both chambers–had agreed to move beyond a plan that contains “revenues.” The president, of course, knew this, just as he knows that in the end he will likely sign such a bill.

The real aim of the speech was accordingly to position himself for the next election as the great compromiser and to paint the opposition as extreme. It was a political speech in the guise of an official presidential address.

Will it work? Will the president appear in the public’s eye—and appearance is what this was all about—as a larger figure after this speech than before? There is reason to think that he will not. Obama spoke for fifteen minutes, three times longer than House Speaker John Boehner. But many will think that John Boehner had three times the better in the exchange. Obama displayed all of his rhetorical prowess, his grand style and his characteristic eloquence. The subject of his speech, in line with almost all of his big speeches, was himself—in this case, how he alone is a figure above mundane politics, a Great Compromiser in the midst of a three ring circus. (Other speeches in the past, for example, had Obama as the one voice of civility in a climate of political incivility, or the one post-partisan in a world of partisanship.) All the elements were in place for one of those larger than ordinary mortals’ performances, but the gambit seems to have fallen flat.

Nothing is more difficult from a rhetorical standpoint than to pronounce a speech that follows immediately upon a presidential address. The president holds all the advantages—the setting, the dignity of the office, and, of course, the personal recognition. He has no need to introduce himself.  Almost all of the respondents in these jousts have been bested, sometimes disastrously, with the most favorable result being a draw. Boehner’s performance stands out as the exception. His address was simple and direct, while the president’s was mendacious; his was earnest, while the president’s was self-serving; and his was about the crisis, while the president’s was about himself. Obama strove mightily to get above politics, but failed. Boehner did seek political positioning and succeeded.

Obama, the master orator, has now been defeated on his own chosen ground. Will this leave the emperor without his clothes?

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Debt Ceiling Talks Are That Uncomfortable Conversation We’ve Been Avoiding

For the first time last night, many of my non-political friends and family noticed there’s a major fight brewing in Washington. It probably has something to do with the fact the “Bachelorette” program was preempted. The consensus I’m seeing from these otherwise disinterested friends is that this fight in Washington is a useless game of political tug-of-war. While it is a game of tug-of-war, the implications of this fight are far-reaching and are an outline of fundamental differences between two halves of this country. The national conversation we’ve now been forced to have is long overdue. The looming threat of default has put a deadline on an admission of an inconvenient truth: We’re broke.

Many are asking, “Why now? Why has the GOP decided after years of raising the debt ceiling, that this time it cannot be done?” The answer is simple: The Tea Party. There was a financial awakening in this country in 2009, starting with Rick Santelli’s CNBC rant. The American people were bailing out their neighbors, their bankers, and their car makers with no end in sight. In light of the financial meltdowns of first world countries in Europe, the conservative wing of the GOP has come to realize there are serious consequences for continuing to write blank checks.

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For the first time last night, many of my non-political friends and family noticed there’s a major fight brewing in Washington. It probably has something to do with the fact the “Bachelorette” program was preempted. The consensus I’m seeing from these otherwise disinterested friends is that this fight in Washington is a useless game of political tug-of-war. While it is a game of tug-of-war, the implications of this fight are far-reaching and are an outline of fundamental differences between two halves of this country. The national conversation we’ve now been forced to have is long overdue. The looming threat of default has put a deadline on an admission of an inconvenient truth: We’re broke.

Many are asking, “Why now? Why has the GOP decided after years of raising the debt ceiling, that this time it cannot be done?” The answer is simple: The Tea Party. There was a financial awakening in this country in 2009, starting with Rick Santelli’s CNBC rant. The American people were bailing out their neighbors, their bankers, and their car makers with no end in sight. In light of the financial meltdowns of first world countries in Europe, the conservative wing of the GOP has come to realize there are serious consequences for continuing to write blank checks.

Many of the 2010 Tea Party candidates promised their supporters they would do everything to stop the debt ceiling from getting raised if they were elected. These new members of the House of Representatives and the Senate are not career politicians. They are average Americans scared into action, Americans who see the future of their country and their children at risk. President Obama’s attempts to paint these newly elected representatives as rogue forces outside the  mainstream are ridiculous. These men and women were elected more recently and in historic numbers. The midterm elections of 2010 were a direct response to how this administration has governed this country.

While the debt ceiling debate is many things, it is not like any political fight we’ve seen in Washington in a long time. This is a deciding moment in American politics, and it’s highlighting the differences not only between members of the Democratic and Republican parties, but also between different contingents of the Republican party. The sooner the American people realize this fight is not about the debt ceiling, but instead about the debt, the sooner we can actually come to the table and decide what path we want America to take. On the Left, the trail leads to Greece. On the Right, it leads to an America that will continue to be a place people will risk everything to become a part of.

 

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Rick Perry’s Campaign Approach Is Hitting All the Right Notes

A pro-Rick Perry group is taking advantage of a new rule in the Iowa straw poll that allows voters to write in a candidate. GrowPAC will air radio ads in Iowa urging voters to write in Perry’s name in the Ames straw poll next month. The move would–if the ad works–help Perry in two ways: it would reveal public support for Perry without having to meet expectations, as he would if his name were officially on the ballot, and it will drain support from Perry’s conservative rivals.

It’s a smart strategy that won’t cost Perry a dime. In a second bit of good news for the Texas governor, a new poll of Republican primary voters in Florida has Perry leading all candidates. It was the first time Perry’s name was included in the poll, so it’s difficult to determine whether this represents a surge in popularity for Perry or simply an expression of support that has been there all along.

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A pro-Rick Perry group is taking advantage of a new rule in the Iowa straw poll that allows voters to write in a candidate. GrowPAC will air radio ads in Iowa urging voters to write in Perry’s name in the Ames straw poll next month. The move would–if the ad works–help Perry in two ways: it would reveal public support for Perry without having to meet expectations, as he would if his name were officially on the ballot, and it will drain support from Perry’s conservative rivals.

It’s a smart strategy that won’t cost Perry a dime. In a second bit of good news for the Texas governor, a new poll of Republican primary voters in Florida has Perry leading all candidates. It was the first time Perry’s name was included in the poll, so it’s difficult to determine whether this represents a surge in popularity for Perry or simply an expression of support that has been there all along.

The poll is actually better for Perry than at first glance. Overall, Perry garners 16 percent, with Romney and Bachmann tied at 15 percent. But Sarah Palin is included in the poll, and she gets 13 percent–a not insignificant number in a poll this close. If Palin does not run, her support would be up for grabs, and could easily put both Perry and Bachmann ahead of Romney.

This is not bad news for Romney yet, however. As I wrote here, Romney leads the “Not Bachmann” coalition by a mile, consolidating support from party elites and business leaders. Ramesh Ponnuru has a good article up at National Review’s website making a similar argument, though he adds one note of caution about Perry: “He would be running to the right of anyone who has won the nomination in the last 26 years.”

The argument that Perry is too conservative to win the Republican nomination is an interesting one. Most of the criticism of Perry’s conservatism has focused on whether he is a viable general election candidate, not whether he’s too conservative for Republicans. I think Perry has already begun to mitigate this supposed weakness. He has been focusing his campaign on states’ rights, and even angered some social conservatives recently with his comments about New York’s new gay marriage law: “That is their call. If you believe in the 10th Amendment, stay out of their business.” As Don Rasmussen points out at the Daily Caller, Perry has been consistent about this. “Whether it’s gay marriage, medical marijuana, education or a host of other issues, Perry’s strong stance on the 10th Amendment allows him to have his cake and eat it too.”

That will partially allay concerns a Perry presidency would impose his views on the country as a whole. Something else that might make Perry’s conservatism less rattling is today’s USA Today front-page story: “Need a Job? Move to Texas.” The article details the state’s job growth under Perry’s governorship:

From June 2009 to June 2011 the state added 262,000 jobs, or half the USA’s 524,000 payroll gains, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even by a more conservative estimate that omits states with net job losses, Texas’ advances make up 30 percent of the 1 million additions in the 34 states with net growth.

If Perry can successfully make his case on states’ rights and job creation, he may be able to peel off enough elite support to beat Romney. So far, voters seem to like it.

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Shift on Qaddafi Signals Defeat for NATO

Reports that France has persuaded Britain to agree to new terms for a ceasefire in Libya allowing Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi to remain in the country are a signal NATO knows its effort in the North African nation is failing.

Though the NATO bombing campaign against Libyan government targets continues, the public acknowledgement that “one of the scenarios” that could end the fighting will permit Qaddafi to stay in the country can only mean both France and Britain are coming to grips with the fact the insurgents cannot prevail. This means after months of bombing and incessant talk about Qaddafi having to go, the half-hearted humanitarian intervention could end in a fiasco that will further undermine the credibility of the West.

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Reports that France has persuaded Britain to agree to new terms for a ceasefire in Libya allowing Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi to remain in the country are a signal NATO knows its effort in the North African nation is failing.

Though the NATO bombing campaign against Libyan government targets continues, the public acknowledgement that “one of the scenarios” that could end the fighting will permit Qaddafi to stay in the country can only mean both France and Britain are coming to grips with the fact the insurgents cannot prevail. This means after months of bombing and incessant talk about Qaddafi having to go, the half-hearted humanitarian intervention could end in a fiasco that will further undermine the credibility of the West.

Despite formal recognition by Western countries, including the United States, as well as military aid and training, the rebel government in Benghazi appears no more capable of taking Tripoli today than it did months ago. While many observers thought Qaddafi’s defeat was just a matter of time, both Paris and London appear to be convinced that all they have bought themselves is a nasty stalemate that neither side has the ability to break. By stating publicly that Qaddafi may stay after the fighting stops, they are making it clear they have neither the will nor the patience to prevail.

This is very good news for Qaddafi. The talk of compromise from his opponents will convince any wavering supporters and even those opposed to him trapped in government-held territory that the dictator isn’t going anywhere. He now knows all he has to do to win is just hang on in Tripoli.

Although France and Britain may say this “scenario” would create a new government in which Qaddafi would not rule, this is nonsense. Even if these terms were accepted, it is more likely than not that Qaddafi would retain enormous influence. But more to the point is now that such generous terms are on the table, he knows he can hang tough and get far more. Indeed, with his ongoing presence in Libya guaranteed by his foes, there is no reason for him to do anything but keep fighting until his hold on power is assured.

How NATO could have allowed itself to be thwarted by Qaddafi is a puzzle analysts will study for years to come. Part of the answer comes from the slowness of the Western powers to act. Had all of NATO agreed to intervention in the first weeks of the insurgency, there is a good chance Qaddafi could have been swept from power without much blood being shed. While France and Britain waited for a dithering President Obama to finally decide to join the intervention, the tables turned on the rebels, and Qaddafi was able to dig in and preserve his hold on his capital. The president’s ambivalence about Libya was a fatal flaw. Though he was sufficiently moved to support the effort to bolster the rebels, he was too timid to commit our forces to a quick resolution of the situation when such an outcome was still possible. In the end, he was stuck “leading from behind” in a conflict his administration denied was a war.

For decades, critics of NATO have noted that without the United States, the alliance is merely an empty shell. Libya was supposed to prove the opposite as France and Britain took the lead. But now that both of those countries are starting to concede what is effectively a humiliating defeat, the truth about the weakness of NATO has been proven again. In the absence of genuine American leadership, democracy fails and dictators will triumph.

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Obama the Ineffectual

I didn’t watch the president’s address live last night, but before reading it I did take a look at the insta-reaction, and there was a stunning lack of intensity in the response to it. It had become clear in the two hours before he spoke that he himself had no particular proposal to push or goal in mind for the speech. Or rather, there were far too many goals—to blame the GOP, to talk about his desire to raise taxes on wealthy Americans even though that appears to be off the table even in the Democratic plan being pushed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid he said he supported, to separate himself from a Washington growing increasingly toxic in the eyes of voters, and to offer a genuine warning to the public of the consequences of a default. It didn’t succeed—in its own terms—in making a strong case for any of these points individually, and collectively they don’t hang together.

It wasn’t just a bad speech. It was a glaringly ineffectual speech. And it adds to a growing impression of the Obama White House that threatens the president’s reelection chances now more than anything else: The impression that he simply doesn’t know what he’s doing. The damage done to him and his party by his ideological overreach was done in 2010; now he is going to be judged on the practical results of his presidential policies. Right now, with economic growth slowing and unemployment actually rising and no serious proposals or plans on the table to help speed up job growth, that’s not looking too good for him. And one gets the sense that, in response, he and his team are improvising wildly, looking for political advantage. The problem with political improvisation is that it only works well when your instincts on how to sell the public on what you’re pitching are sound.

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I didn’t watch the president’s address live last night, but before reading it I did take a look at the insta-reaction, and there was a stunning lack of intensity in the response to it. It had become clear in the two hours before he spoke that he himself had no particular proposal to push or goal in mind for the speech. Or rather, there were far too many goals—to blame the GOP, to talk about his desire to raise taxes on wealthy Americans even though that appears to be off the table even in the Democratic plan being pushed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid he said he supported, to separate himself from a Washington growing increasingly toxic in the eyes of voters, and to offer a genuine warning to the public of the consequences of a default. It didn’t succeed—in its own terms—in making a strong case for any of these points individually, and collectively they don’t hang together.

It wasn’t just a bad speech. It was a glaringly ineffectual speech. And it adds to a growing impression of the Obama White House that threatens the president’s reelection chances now more than anything else: The impression that he simply doesn’t know what he’s doing. The damage done to him and his party by his ideological overreach was done in 2010; now he is going to be judged on the practical results of his presidential policies. Right now, with economic growth slowing and unemployment actually rising and no serious proposals or plans on the table to help speed up job growth, that’s not looking too good for him. And one gets the sense that, in response, he and his team are improvising wildly, looking for political advantage. The problem with political improvisation is that it only works well when your instincts on how to sell the public on what you’re pitching are sound.

It is not a sound strategy for a president to deliver a speech bemoaning the chaos in the Washington over which he presides; such a speech is practically an open admission of impotence. Even people who believe every word he says about everything being the fault of the GOP can hardly think he’s come up with a message on the debt ceiling that has changed the course of the debate in his favor. Democrats have great cause for worry if this is the way he handles things in 2012.

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