Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 20, 2012

Carried Interest — A Bipartisan Issue

I wrote in my previous post that I would blog on carried interest shortly.

Hedge funds earn income in two ways. First, they charge their customers a management fee, usually something on the order of 1.5 percent. Second, they take a hefty slice of the capital gains earned in successful investments, often 25 percent.
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I wrote in my previous post that I would blog on carried interest shortly.

Hedge funds earn income in two ways. First, they charge their customers a management fee, usually something on the order of 1.5 percent. Second, they take a hefty slice of the capital gains earned in successful investments, often 25 percent.

So, say a man has a $1 million account at a hedge fund and, after a very successful year, his account is worth $2 million. The fund would charge him $30,000 as a management fee and take $250,000 as its share of the profits, leaving him with $1,720,000 in the account. Even with the large fees, a 72 percent return on capital in a single year ain’t bad.

But the hedge Fund owners only have to pay tax on their share of the profit at the capital gains rate, 15 percent. Why?

It beats me. Unlike the customer, they have no money at risk (they don’t share in any net losses). It is a pure fee for service, although, to be sure, measured in capital growth. Hedge fund managers don’t deserve a tax break on their fees any more than lawyers, dentists, or, alas, writers do.

But, why didn’t the Democrats, who ran both houses of Congress from 2007 to 2011, bring this to a screeching halt? Good question. Could it, perhaps, have something to do with the fact that hedge fund managers tend to share these windfalls with politicians in the form of campaign and PAC contributions?

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Not the Conservative Movement’s Finest Hour

I know that the conventional wisdom is that in answering last night’s question from CNN’s John King, about whether he had asked his then-wife to enter into an open marriage, Newt  Gingrich “hit it out of the park.” He certainly brought the GOP audience to its feet. He’s winning praise from all sides for how he turned the question into an assault on the mainstream media.

I accept the fact that Gingrich helped himself politically with his answer. He may even win the South Carolina primary tomorrow. (Indeed, I think it’s quite likely that will occur.) But I do think that it’s useful to excerpt the debate transcript and analyze what it might tell us.

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I know that the conventional wisdom is that in answering last night’s question from CNN’s John King, about whether he had asked his then-wife to enter into an open marriage, Newt  Gingrich “hit it out of the park.” He certainly brought the GOP audience to its feet. He’s winning praise from all sides for how he turned the question into an assault on the mainstream media.

I accept the fact that Gingrich helped himself politically with his answer. He may even win the South Carolina primary tomorrow. (Indeed, I think it’s quite likely that will occur.) But I do think that it’s useful to excerpt the debate transcript and analyze what it might tell us.

Here’s how the exchange went:

MR. KING: As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview with The Washington Post, and this story has now gone viral on the Internet. In it, she says that you came to her in 1999, at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?

MR. GINGRICH: No — but I will. (Cheers, applause.) I think — I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that. (Cheers, applause.)

MR. KING: Is that all you want to say, sir?

MR. GINGRICH: Let me finish.

MR. KING: Please. (Boos, cheers, applause.)

MR. GINGRICH: Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine. (Cheers, applause.) My — my two daughters, my two daughters wrote the head of ABC, and made the point that it was wrong, that they should pull it. And I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate. (Cheers, applause.)

The language Gingrich used to describe the media – “destructive,” “vicious,” “negative,” and guilty of reporting “trash”  — is typical of the understatement we’ve come to expect from him. But I want to focus on Mr. Gingrich’s claim that to report this story two days before the South Carolina primary is “as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”

Really? Anything Mr. Gingrich can imagine? More despicable than, say, rape? Or murder? Or genocide? Or – just to pull an example out of mid-air — serially cheating on your wives? And to do so when you’re, say, Speaker of the House? During the impeachment of Bill Clinton over crimes that grew out of an affair with an intern? Reporting that story was more despicable than any of these things?

I’m sorry, Gingrich supporters throughout the land, but words have meaning. And for Mr. Gingrich to make the claim he did – and to win thunderous applause for it – is both amazing and somewhat dispiriting.

My guess is that Mr. Gingrich’s words were completely heartfelt. It’s not that what he said was in any sense objectively true; it’s that from his perspective, they are true. Given his absolute certitude in his own greatness – he is, after all, the man who once told a reporter that it’s people like him who “stand between us and Auschwitz” – Gingrich believes any charge against him is a dagger aimed at the heart of Western civilization.

It was quite revealing to me that Mr. Gingrich, in his answer, didn’t show any contrition or remorse. Instead, he reacted with indignant self-righteousness. So think about this: Mr. Gingrich, a candidate for the presidency, is enraged because the press interviewed his ex-wife and, in the process, has drawn attention to his own infidelity and mistreatment of his ex-wife, which no one disputes. And in all of this the injured party isn’t Marianne Gingrich but rather Newt Gingrich. The offending party isn’t the former speaker; it’s the press for daring to raise this matter.

For the record, I believe in, and have written often about, liberal bias in the news media. I also think Mr. Gingrich is a man in possession of some very impressive political talents, some of which have been on display during the last week. He ranks as one of the more significant conservative political figures in the last several decades. He’s capable of offering piercing insights. And he’s a person of almost supernatural resilience. But he’s also a man of flawed character and temperamentally unequipped to be president. Time and again he’s shown himself to be erratic and alarmingly undisciplined. And the fact that his answer last night – which I will concede worked brilliantly for him – brought a conservative audience to its feet was not one of the conservative movement’s finest hours.

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Gingrich Was No Coward, Just Corrupt

One of the interesting sidebars of last night’s debate was the fiery exchange between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich over the latter’s “grandiose” ideas and unstable leadership style. During the course of this rhetorical dustup during which Gingrich took Santorum’s bait and took credit for the Reagan presidency, the defeat of the Soviet Union and the 1994 Republican Congressional victory. While the first two claims are the stuff of self-satire, Gingrich is surely entitled to puff his chest at the memory of his role in the GOP’s taking back the House for the first time in 40 years.

But as Santorum aptly noted, the willingness of some GOP backbenchers — a group that the former Pennsylvania senator was quick to point out included himself — to turn the House Bank scandal into a cause célèbre had as much to do with turning the tide in the years leading up 1994 as any of Gingrich’s plans. Santorum chided Gingrich for knowing about the problem but choosing not to make a stink about it. But, as Politico reports today, there was more to it than just Gingrich’s faulty judgment about whether the scandal had legs.

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One of the interesting sidebars of last night’s debate was the fiery exchange between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich over the latter’s “grandiose” ideas and unstable leadership style. During the course of this rhetorical dustup during which Gingrich took Santorum’s bait and took credit for the Reagan presidency, the defeat of the Soviet Union and the 1994 Republican Congressional victory. While the first two claims are the stuff of self-satire, Gingrich is surely entitled to puff his chest at the memory of his role in the GOP’s taking back the House for the first time in 40 years.

But as Santorum aptly noted, the willingness of some GOP backbenchers — a group that the former Pennsylvania senator was quick to point out included himself — to turn the House Bank scandal into a cause célèbre had as much to do with turning the tide in the years leading up 1994 as any of Gingrich’s plans. Santorum chided Gingrich for knowing about the problem but choosing not to make a stink about it. But, as Politico reports today, there was more to it than just Gingrich’s faulty judgment about whether the scandal had legs.

Alexander Burns of Politico recals that in 1992 the New York Times reported about Gingrich’s involvement in the banking scandal. Apparently, Gingrich was kiting checks along with the worst Democratic scofflaws. His 22 overdrafts including a $9,463 check to the IRS was a major issue in his re-election campaign that year and nearly cost him his seat which the then House Republican Minority held by a razor-thin margin of 982 votes that fall.

Santorum was wrong to imply that the Georgian didn’t get involved in exposing the House Bank scandal because he lacked the moxie to mix up with the Democratic poobahs. In fact, as Gingrich pointed out, he had already played the lead role in taking down former House Speaker Jim Wright. The real reason for Gingrich’s silence was far worse: conflict of interest.

Gingrich said nothing about the bank while Santorum stuck his neck out because he was as guilty as any of the Democrats who were caught bouncing checks at the bank at the taxpayers’ expense.

That information leaves us wondering why, if Santorum was going to bring up the scandal in the course of an attack on Gingrich, he pulled his punch. Wouldn’t it have been far more devastating to rightly accuse Gingrich of complicity in the scandal instead of wrongly accusing him of cowardice?

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Demagoguery on Romney’s Tax Rate

Mitt Romney’s annual income and the tax rate he pays has now become a major discussion point in the campaign. Liberals will, of course, be trying their level best to make his economic success a political liability for him and his tax rate a matter of moral turpitude.

Naturally, Paul Krugman was first out of the gate with his column this morning in the New York Times. He writes:

And the public has a right to see the back years: By 2011, with the campaign looming, Mr. Romney may have rearranged his portfolio to minimize awkward issues like his accounts in the Cayman Islands or his use of the justly reviled “carried interest” tax break.

Isn’t that neat? Without a shred of evidence, Krugman asserts the possibility that Romney has accounts in the Cayman Islands (a notorious tax haven with very convenient banking laws) and has been taking advantage of “carried interest,” which allows hedge fund managers and such to pay only capital gains on their income. I agree that the carried interest loophole should be repealed forthwith (I’ll blog about it in the near future), but how many people think that were, say, Paul Krugman or John Steele Gordon, eligible to use it, that either would decline to do so out of a sense of tax justice? I know I wouldn’t. I will take whatever deductions the law—however unconscionable—allows.
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Mitt Romney’s annual income and the tax rate he pays has now become a major discussion point in the campaign. Liberals will, of course, be trying their level best to make his economic success a political liability for him and his tax rate a matter of moral turpitude.

Naturally, Paul Krugman was first out of the gate with his column this morning in the New York Times. He writes:

And the public has a right to see the back years: By 2011, with the campaign looming, Mr. Romney may have rearranged his portfolio to minimize awkward issues like his accounts in the Cayman Islands or his use of the justly reviled “carried interest” tax break.

Isn’t that neat? Without a shred of evidence, Krugman asserts the possibility that Romney has accounts in the Cayman Islands (a notorious tax haven with very convenient banking laws) and has been taking advantage of “carried interest,” which allows hedge fund managers and such to pay only capital gains on their income. I agree that the carried interest loophole should be repealed forthwith (I’ll blog about it in the near future), but how many people think that were, say, Paul Krugman or John Steele Gordon, eligible to use it, that either would decline to do so out of a sense of tax justice? I know I wouldn’t. I will take whatever deductions the law—however unconscionable—allows.

Krugman notes that the 400 richest Americans pay an average of 18.1 percent of their income in taxes. He writes,

The main reason the rich pay so little is that most of their income takes the form of capital gains, which are taxed at a maximum rate of 15 percent, far below the maximum on wages and salaries. So the question is whether capital gains — three-quarters of which go to the top 1 percent of the income distribution — warrant such special treatment.

Needless to say, he does not think they do. But, being the most intellectually dishonest man in American public life, Krugman has no problem ignoring the fact that capital gains and dividends come from corporations that have a 35 percent tax rate on profits. In other words the dividends (directly) and the capital gains indirectly) have already been taxed at a hefty rate.

Martians who pay no taxes do not own corporations. They are owned by their stockholders, who do. In a very real sense, it is he who pays the corporate income tax on that wealth. So when the company passes on some of what’s left after taxes as a dividend and he pays a 15 percent tax on that, he is paying, in total, a 50 percent tax.

In contrast to Krugman’s intellectual garbage, I would suggest reading the lead editorial in this morning’s Wall Street Journal on the same subject.

The contrast between the two is striking.

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For Romney, 24 Hours Can Be a Lifetime

Mitt Romney’s bad week – which looks like it may get much worse before it’s over – just took another hit from a gloomy Gallup poll. Unlike other recent surveys, which have shown Romney dropping below Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, this one was a poll of national voters (via HotAir):

Gallup’s Editor-in-chief Frank Newport appeared on MSNBC to talk about the polling organization’s national tracking poll of the GOP primary race, which is changing rapidly in the last few days of the campaign for South Carolina. Newport said when their new data comes out at 1 pm eastern, “…we’ll see this gap closing more. Romney was up 23 points over Newt Gingrich. Now it will be down about ten points, so clearly things are collapsing.” …

“We have seen more movement, more roller coaster kind of effect this year than any other Republican primary in our history of tracking,” Newport said. “I think anything is possible. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility if Romney recovers. We’ll wait and see.”

Ed Morrissey notes two reasons for reading this poll with caution: it was a survey of registered voters, not likely voters, and it was also taken before the interview with Gingrich’s wife aired.

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Mitt Romney’s bad week – which looks like it may get much worse before it’s over – just took another hit from a gloomy Gallup poll. Unlike other recent surveys, which have shown Romney dropping below Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, this one was a poll of national voters (via HotAir):

Gallup’s Editor-in-chief Frank Newport appeared on MSNBC to talk about the polling organization’s national tracking poll of the GOP primary race, which is changing rapidly in the last few days of the campaign for South Carolina. Newport said when their new data comes out at 1 pm eastern, “…we’ll see this gap closing more. Romney was up 23 points over Newt Gingrich. Now it will be down about ten points, so clearly things are collapsing.” …

“We have seen more movement, more roller coaster kind of effect this year than any other Republican primary in our history of tracking,” Newport said. “I think anything is possible. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility if Romney recovers. We’ll wait and see.”

Ed Morrissey notes two reasons for reading this poll with caution: it was a survey of registered voters, not likely voters, and it was also taken before the interview with Gingrich’s wife aired.

But the “bombshell” allegation about Gingrich wanting an open marriage had already received heavy media attention well before the interview even aired yesterday, and the actual Nightline report didn’t add much more to the story. Gingrich was also able to deflect the controversy pretty effectively with his scathing response to John King last night. So while it may still have an impact, it’s also very likely that it won’t be enough to move the dial.

It’s amazing how a single day has completely changed the dynamic of this race. Less than a week ago, Romney was expected to coast to the nomination. Now he lost Iowa, appears to be headed for defeat in South Carolina, and is slumping nationally — all in a span of 24-hours.

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Internet Kills SOPA/PIPA Bills

Both the House and Senate have indefinitely postponed action on the SOPA/PIPA legislation, which would make it easier for the government to shut down online intellectual property thieves, but could have unintended negative consequences for websites. Harry Reid spun this as a temporary setback for the bill, but after the massive online protests this week it’s doubtful that legislators will want to bring this issue up again during an election year:

SOPA sponsor Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his committee won’t take up the bill as planned next month — and that he’d have to “wait until there is wider agreement on a solution” before moving forward.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, meanwhile, said he was calling off a cloture vote on PIPA he’d scheduled for Tuesday.

Reid tried to put on a brave face, saying in a statement that he was optimistic that progress could be made in the coming weeks. But there’s no mistaking what happened.

Many of the Senate bill’s co-sponsors have since come out against it, leaving Reid a no-win choice: Go forward with the cloture vote he’d planned for Tuesday and lose, or send the bill off into back-burner purgatory.

Getting SOPA/PIPA through congress at this point seems undoable – even if the bill’s backers manage to corral enough support from legislators, this is the last issue Obama would want resurfacing during his reelection campaign. It pits Silicon Valley against Hollywood, and Obama showed during the Keystone XL that he’ll do anything to avoid taking a stance that alienates one of his core support groups.

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Both the House and Senate have indefinitely postponed action on the SOPA/PIPA legislation, which would make it easier for the government to shut down online intellectual property thieves, but could have unintended negative consequences for websites. Harry Reid spun this as a temporary setback for the bill, but after the massive online protests this week it’s doubtful that legislators will want to bring this issue up again during an election year:

SOPA sponsor Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his committee won’t take up the bill as planned next month — and that he’d have to “wait until there is wider agreement on a solution” before moving forward.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, meanwhile, said he was calling off a cloture vote on PIPA he’d scheduled for Tuesday.

Reid tried to put on a brave face, saying in a statement that he was optimistic that progress could be made in the coming weeks. But there’s no mistaking what happened.

Many of the Senate bill’s co-sponsors have since come out against it, leaving Reid a no-win choice: Go forward with the cloture vote he’d planned for Tuesday and lose, or send the bill off into back-burner purgatory.

Getting SOPA/PIPA through congress at this point seems undoable – even if the bill’s backers manage to corral enough support from legislators, this is the last issue Obama would want resurfacing during his reelection campaign. It pits Silicon Valley against Hollywood, and Obama showed during the Keystone XL that he’ll do anything to avoid taking a stance that alienates one of his core support groups.

That doesn’t mean the entertainment industry will back off. They have too much riding on this cause. The way forward for the entertainment industry may be to work with the internet and tech giants who opposed SOPA/PIPA, in order to come up with a plan to reduce copyright violations that both can live with.

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Occupy AIPAC Next Step for Leftist Group

Many Jewish liberals have been in denial about the anti-Israel and often anti-Semitic tone of much of the Occupy Wall Street movement since its inception. As our colleague Jonathan Neumann wrote in the January issue of COMMENTARY, the leftist hatred for Israel is thoroughly integrated into the Occupy worldview even though some mainstream sympathizers with the movement would prefer to ignore it. But their tolerance for the way this virus has attached itself to a movement that is supposedly about “social justice” will soon be put to the test again.

The so-called U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is organizing an Occupy AIPAC event set to coincide with the annual national conference in Washington, D.C. of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March. The group, an anti-Zionist organization dedicated to promoting boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on Israel is hoping to piggyback on the popularity of the Occupy movement to try to sabotage or at least overshadow the AIPAC event. Though the odds are, it will fail, as most such anti-Israel efforts generally do, the manner with which this BDS group has commandeered the Occupy brand name ought to alert liberals to the direction the movement is headed with respect to Israel and the Jews.

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Many Jewish liberals have been in denial about the anti-Israel and often anti-Semitic tone of much of the Occupy Wall Street movement since its inception. As our colleague Jonathan Neumann wrote in the January issue of COMMENTARY, the leftist hatred for Israel is thoroughly integrated into the Occupy worldview even though some mainstream sympathizers with the movement would prefer to ignore it. But their tolerance for the way this virus has attached itself to a movement that is supposedly about “social justice” will soon be put to the test again.

The so-called U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is organizing an Occupy AIPAC event set to coincide with the annual national conference in Washington, D.C. of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March. The group, an anti-Zionist organization dedicated to promoting boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on Israel is hoping to piggyback on the popularity of the Occupy movement to try to sabotage or at least overshadow the AIPAC event. Though the odds are, it will fail, as most such anti-Israel efforts generally do, the manner with which this BDS group has commandeered the Occupy brand name ought to alert liberals to the direction the movement is headed with respect to Israel and the Jews.

Anti-Israel protests at AIPAC are nothing new but the way the BDS coalition has neatly appropriated the slogans and the spirit of the movement praised by Obama could give these outliers a bit more prominence and a more respectful hearing in a mainstream press that has bent over backwards to excuse the excesses of the occupiers.

Even more importantly, the identification of this viciously anti-Zionist group with the mainstream of the Occupy movement ought to shock get the attention of liberals who have refused to acknowledge the connection between the hard left and anti-Semitism. As Neumann points out in his article, far from being a marginal phenomenon, the link between the neo-Marxism of the occupiers and the BDS crowd is far from tenuous. The occupiers and the Israel-haters are natural allies. The only question is when, if ever, are mainstream Jewish liberals who want nothing to do with the Occupy AIPAC leftists going to face up to the fact that there is no distance between this group and the rest of the Occupy mob.

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Gingrich’s “Grandiose Thoughts”

The Romney campaign is out with a new attack on Newt Gingrich this morning which, if taken in the right direction, could be absolutely toxic for the former speaker’s campaign. Romney’s press release, headlined “I Think Grandiose Thoughts” (a direct quote from Gingrich at last night’s debate), lists a multitude of celebrated statesmen and historical figures who Gingrich has compared himself to over the years, including Abraham Lincoln, Charles de Gaulle, and the Duke of Wellington. Here’s Newt likening himself to The Great Compromiser:

Henry Clay: “Putting his tumultuous four years in the speaker’s chair into historical perspective, the former history professor compared himself to 19th century statesman Henry Clay, ‘the great compromiser’ who lost three bids for the presidency and served as speaker and secretary of state. Gingrich said that like Clay, he did more than just preside over the House. ‘I was not a presider, I was the leader,’ Gingrich said in the interview. ‘I think Henry Clay’s probably the only other speaker to have been a national leader and a speaker of the House simultaneously.’” (William Welch, “Gingrich: I’ll Go Down As Leader, Clinton As Tragedy,” USA Today, 8/30/99)

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The Romney campaign is out with a new attack on Newt Gingrich this morning which, if taken in the right direction, could be absolutely toxic for the former speaker’s campaign. Romney’s press release, headlined “I Think Grandiose Thoughts” (a direct quote from Gingrich at last night’s debate), lists a multitude of celebrated statesmen and historical figures who Gingrich has compared himself to over the years, including Abraham Lincoln, Charles de Gaulle, and the Duke of Wellington. Here’s Newt likening himself to The Great Compromiser:

Henry Clay: “Putting his tumultuous four years in the speaker’s chair into historical perspective, the former history professor compared himself to 19th century statesman Henry Clay, ‘the great compromiser’ who lost three bids for the presidency and served as speaker and secretary of state. Gingrich said that like Clay, he did more than just preside over the House. ‘I was not a presider, I was the leader,’ Gingrich said in the interview. ‘I think Henry Clay’s probably the only other speaker to have been a national leader and a speaker of the House simultaneously.’” (William Welch, “Gingrich: I’ll Go Down As Leader, Clinton As Tragedy,” USA Today, 8/30/99)

President Obama had a penchant for making similar grand comparisons during his 2008 campaign, and the McCain campaign had some success attacking him on this. In some ways, Gingrich may be even more vulnerable in this area. While Obama was able to pull off false modesty when absolutely necessary, Gingrich hasn’t shown the same ability. His Kanye-esque declaration about “grandiose ideas” last night, which bordered on self-parody, was a prime example. All Romney needed to do is put the narrative in the public consciousness, and Gingrich, being Gingrich, will likely provide the rest.

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Plotting Genocide in Wansee and Tehran

Seventy years ago today, some of the German government’s top bureaucrats gathered in a Berlin suburb. The event, known to history as the Wansee Conference, after the name of the neighborhood in which these Nazi technocrats came together, was remarkable for the commonplace way in which the participants approached their problem as if it were a normal matter in which inter-governmental agency cooperation was necessary. But there was nothing normal about their task: the extermination of the Jews of Europe.

Lawrence Kadish notes the event today in an important article in the New York Post. But the point of the piece isn’t merely commemoration of a milestone event in the Holocaust. Rather, Kadish wisely compares the bureaucratic thoroughness with which much of the considerable power of the German state was put at the disposal of the Nazi death machine with the way Iran is currently marshalling its resources for a similar purpose: the construction of a bomb that might be used to eradicate the state of Israel.

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Seventy years ago today, some of the German government’s top bureaucrats gathered in a Berlin suburb. The event, known to history as the Wansee Conference, after the name of the neighborhood in which these Nazi technocrats came together, was remarkable for the commonplace way in which the participants approached their problem as if it were a normal matter in which inter-governmental agency cooperation was necessary. But there was nothing normal about their task: the extermination of the Jews of Europe.

Lawrence Kadish notes the event today in an important article in the New York Post. But the point of the piece isn’t merely commemoration of a milestone event in the Holocaust. Rather, Kadish wisely compares the bureaucratic thoroughness with which much of the considerable power of the German state was put at the disposal of the Nazi death machine with the way Iran is currently marshalling its resources for a similar purpose: the construction of a bomb that might be used to eradicate the state of Israel.

Kadish’s comparison is apt and not just because both Nazi Germany and Islamist Iran are tyrannical states governed by vicious anti-Semites who scheme against the Jews. He rightly points out that just like Adolf Hitler, a man who made no secret of his plans for genocide, the Iranian regime has also not been shy about telling the world its intentions for dealing with Israel. But in both cases, much of enlightened opinion dismissed their warnings as being mere rhetoric intended for domestic consumption. Few took the Nazis at their word in the 1930s. The same is true about the West’s refusal to take the apocalyptic warnings of Israel’s destruction, ironically by leaders like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who deny the original Holocaust while boasting of wishing to start another.

There may be those who will object to conflating the discussion of the Holocaust with concern about Iran, but any such complaints are without substance.

Holocaust remembrance is important, but any words spent lamenting the Six Million murdered by the Nazis without some reference to the need to defend the lives of the descendants of the Jews who survived is pointless. Kadish’s piece is a reminder that the best memorial to the Holocaust is not a speech, a statue or even a museum (however praiseworthy such things might be), but the state of Israel and the continuance of Jewish life there and elsewhere.

Tears shed for Hitler’s victims without a thought as to the potential for an equally great toll of victims of an Iranian nuke are of no use. And just as that tragedy might never have occurred had the Allies summoned the resolve to oppose Hitler before he struck, so too might the next great tragedy be averted if the West acts to stop Iran.

As Kadish writes:

This Third Reich milestone should serve as a cautionary tale for every 21st-century democracy. Middle East expert Bernard Lewis has observed that Islamist leaders like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are little concerned with the mutual-destruction strategies that kept the Cold War from becoming hot. Instead, they welcome the martyrdom of their subjects.

History consistently reminds us that indifference in the face of an implacable enemy invariably leads to disaster. Further, more often than not, our enemies tell us exactly what they mean to do before they do it. Acting on their warning requires our collective insight, personal courage and national will.

This month, the world is still in doubt as to whether the United States will act to impose an oil embargo on Iran, the only measure short of war that has a chance to convince the ayatollahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Yet even as President Obama dithers, Washington is sending signals it may be more concerned about an Israeli attempt to forestall the Iranian nuclear program and a possible rise in the price of oil, then it is in the cost of waiting until Tehran achieves its goal.

The Wansee Conference anniversary should alert us to the fact that such complacency can only lead to catastrophe.

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Politifact’s Pants on Fire

I wouldn’t normally respond to a piece by PolitiFact, but because I’m quoted as a source for a recent piece on Mitt Romney, I think it’s worthwhile offering a bit of context. On Tuesday, I got the same email Tom Busciano received from Louis Jacobson at PolitiFact, asking my take on Romney’s recent debate claim the U.S. Navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917, and the U.S. Air Force is smaller and older than it’s been since 1947. What struck me about Jacobson’s message was it asked if Romney’s statement was “technically true” and “what context does this ignore,” which carried the clear implication – as I warned Jacobson in my reply – that he’d already decided what he was going to write.

Jacobson responded that he “didn’t mean to look biased; I was simply trying to elicit critical thinking.” Sadly, my trust was misplaced. Jacobson’s piece is critical indeed: full of overheated rhetoric, uncomprehending of basic points, and carrying a “pants on fire” rating. Jacobson sums up Romney’s contention as being: “The U.S. military has been seriously weakened compared to what it was 50 and 100 years ago.” Since the Truman Doctrine of 1947 is as good a marker as any of the moment when the U.S. assumed the global security responsibilities that formerly belonged to Britain, the fact that our Air Force is smaller and older than it has been at any point since that date might give immediately give cause for concern.

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I wouldn’t normally respond to a piece by PolitiFact, but because I’m quoted as a source for a recent piece on Mitt Romney, I think it’s worthwhile offering a bit of context. On Tuesday, I got the same email Tom Busciano received from Louis Jacobson at PolitiFact, asking my take on Romney’s recent debate claim the U.S. Navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917, and the U.S. Air Force is smaller and older than it’s been since 1947. What struck me about Jacobson’s message was it asked if Romney’s statement was “technically true” and “what context does this ignore,” which carried the clear implication – as I warned Jacobson in my reply – that he’d already decided what he was going to write.

Jacobson responded that he “didn’t mean to look biased; I was simply trying to elicit critical thinking.” Sadly, my trust was misplaced. Jacobson’s piece is critical indeed: full of overheated rhetoric, uncomprehending of basic points, and carrying a “pants on fire” rating. Jacobson sums up Romney’s contention as being: “The U.S. military has been seriously weakened compared to what it was 50 and 100 years ago.” Since the Truman Doctrine of 1947 is as good a marker as any of the moment when the U.S. assumed the global security responsibilities that formerly belonged to Britain, the fact that our Air Force is smaller and older than it has been at any point since that date might give immediately give cause for concern.

But the obvious point of Romney’s statement was not that the U.S. military of today would lose a war to the U.S. military of 1917 or 1947. It was that the margin of U.S. “military superiority” – i.e., its relative strength versus potential and actual adversaries – is at risk if defense spending declines, as President Obama plans for it to do. The question is not whether the U.S.’s “military posture is in any way similar to that of its predecessors in 1917 or 1947”: it is whether the U.S.’s margin of superiority over other actors, taking contextual factors into account, is better or worse than it was in previous eras.

Misunderstanding what the phrase “military superiority” means, Jacobson spends half his piece comparing the capabilities of the U.S. Air Force and Navy today to their capabilities of decades ago. Well, sure, I’d rather have an F-35 than a P-51 Mustang. But unfortunately, we don’t get to fight our 50-year-old selves. And even more unfortunately, our adversaries now don’t have ME-109s or MiG-17s. Some of them have MiG-35s, or, soon, J-20s.

He goes on to claim Romney “appears to be throwing blame on Obama, which is problematic because military buildups and draw-down these days take years to run their course.” True: we have today’s military because of decisions made during the past 20 years (which does include three years of Obama, by the way). But Romney’s statement is forward-looking: he points out the president is cutting the defense budget, which he opposes because he’s concerned at the size and age of our forces as they stand, and a smaller defense budget will only make this problem worse. In other words, in 20 years we’ll have the military Obama’s buying now, and that’s not good.

I’m not sure if this piece was written out of malice, or if it is simply a complete misfire. I’ve worked with PolitiFact before, and while I’ve not agreed with previous pieces, they were at least defensible. What it comes down to is that Romney’s claim is factually correct, but assessing the context would require a book-length analysis that would be subject to a wide amount of legitimate dispute over many factors, some of them fundamentally unknowable. Even if applied earnestly and knowledgeably, fact-checking is terrible at assessing this kind of context, precisely because the facts are not known: it’s why Churchill described strategic leadership as an art, not a science. Fact-checkers would have a better sense of their potential contributions and limits if they kept Churchill’s wisdom in mind, and recognized that checking facts is not the same thing as criticizing art.

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Playing it Safe is Reckless for Romney

There is some consensus around the campaign blogosphere this morning–on both the left and the right–that Mitt Romney is giving up so much ground to Newt Gingrich because Romney is in the classic “prevent defense”–the formation that football teams use when they want to prevent long scoring plays to try and run out the clock.

This is a sensible analogy, but probably too kind to Romney’s latest debate performances. Romney’s mind doesn’t seem to be on the play clock, but rather the alarm clock. These debates have been the campaign equivalent of Romney waking up to find that it’s not time for the general election yet, and hitting the snooze button. Part of this stems from the fact that Romney is usually on his game when the subject is Barack Obama, but seems to have lost interest in the reality show spectacles the debates have become.

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There is some consensus around the campaign blogosphere this morning–on both the left and the right–that Mitt Romney is giving up so much ground to Newt Gingrich because Romney is in the classic “prevent defense”–the formation that football teams use when they want to prevent long scoring plays to try and run out the clock.

This is a sensible analogy, but probably too kind to Romney’s latest debate performances. Romney’s mind doesn’t seem to be on the play clock, but rather the alarm clock. These debates have been the campaign equivalent of Romney waking up to find that it’s not time for the general election yet, and hitting the snooze button. Part of this stems from the fact that Romney is usually on his game when the subject is Barack Obama, but seems to have lost interest in the reality show spectacles the debates have become.

But it’s time for him to realize that some of the questions that have been tripping him up lately are of general-election concern, and his answers now will show up again later. Romney’s proclivity to stumble over questions at first and then prepare better answers to them in the future would make for good practice–60 years ago. But now, every moment is watched by many and recorded for those who didn’t watch. (The DNC already has an ad up this morning based on Romney’s unsteady response to a question about releasing his tax returns last night.)

Sometimes Romney is well prepared for questions. A good example from last night’s debate was when he scolded Gingrich for allotting himself partial credit for some of Ronald Reagan’s accomplishments. Romney pointed out, correctly, that Gingrich’s name appears once in Reagan’s diaries–and it is to dismiss an idea of Gingrich’s. (Reagan wrote: “Newt Gingrich has a proposal for freezing the budget at the 1983 level. It’s a tempting idea except that it would cripple our defense program. And if we make an exception on that every special interest group will be asking for the same.”)

But moments of Romney’s unpreparedness leave a mark. Are voters more concerned with what Reagan said in private about Gingrich or of the emerging reputation of Romney as a tycoon with something to hide? So which question should he prioritize? There are numerous football analogies he’s inviting, including the “prevent defense” comparison. But you could also say Romney is like the wide receiver who looks downfield before he catches the ball, only to drop it. Or the team that will play their most important game two weeks from now, so they forget about this week’s opponent.

Whatever your preferred analogy, Gingrich’s rise in the polls makes one thing clear: Romney’s strategy of “playing it safe” has become far too risky.

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Coalition Casualties in Afghanistan

Far be it for me to claim there is no problem with Afghan soldiers attacking coalition troops in Afghanistan. Obviously the problem is real—and so is the fallout. Witness French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s threat to pull French forces out of the country after four French soldiers were killed by an apparent Afghan soldier, or at least a gunman in an Afghan uniform. But the New York Times still appears to be overhyping the threat with its lead article this morning which proclaims:

American and other coalition forces here are being killed in increasing numbers by the very Afghan soldiers they fight alongside and train, in attacks motivated by deep-seated animosity between the supposedly allied forces, according to American and Afghan officers and a classified coalition report obtained by the New York Times.

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Far be it for me to claim there is no problem with Afghan soldiers attacking coalition troops in Afghanistan. Obviously the problem is real—and so is the fallout. Witness French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s threat to pull French forces out of the country after four French soldiers were killed by an apparent Afghan soldier, or at least a gunman in an Afghan uniform. But the New York Times still appears to be overhyping the threat with its lead article this morning which proclaims:

American and other coalition forces here are being killed in increasing numbers by the very Afghan soldiers they fight alongside and train, in attacks motivated by deep-seated animosity between the supposedly allied forces, according to American and Afghan officers and a classified coalition report obtained by the New York Times.

One has to read literally to the end of the article to find the details which make these claims less alarming than they appear at first blush. In the first place, that “classified coalition report” was not, apparently, a document issued by any U.S. or NATO headquarters. It was, according to the article, “prepared for a subordinate American command in eastern Afghanistan” (presumably Regional Command-East, but why not use the official title?) “by a behavioral scientist who surveyed 613 Afghan soldiers and police officers, 215 American soldiers and 30 Afghan interpreters who worked for the Americans.” In other words, this was one of countless documents prepared for various commands in Afghanistan by contractors and employees; it is not, as far as I can tell, an official statement of policy.

Which is not to deny that the problems outlined in the report, as summarized in the Times, are real—especially the lack of trust that too often characterizes relationships between U.S. and Afghan units. But such issues are hardly new; they were also prevalent in Iraq, and in both countries they can be addressed by better training (on both sides) and closer mentoring. Paradoxically, coalition soldiers are likely to be safer the closer they get to their Afghan counterparts—this builds bonds of trust that are the best protection anyone can have in this tribal society. By trying to hold Afghan soldiers at arm’s length—for example by walling off their compounds from U.S. bases or preventing them from carrying weapons on U.S. bases—coalition troops are actually increasing the risk to themselves because they send a clear message to their Afghan partners that they are not trusted.

Episodes of Afghan soldiers attacking their coalition partners certainly do much to fray trust, but it may be doubted this is quite as much of an epidemic as the Times claims. Deep in the article we read as follows:

The classified report found that between May 2007 and May 2011, when it was completed, at least 58 Western service members were killed in 26 separate attacks by Afghan soldiers and the police nationwide. Most of those attacks have occurred since October 2009. This toll represented 6 percent of all hostile coalition deaths during that period, the report said.

Twenty-six attacks in four years works out to fewer than seven attacks a year. And the casualty total from these attacks has been inflated by one particularly grisly and unexpected outrage which occurred in April 2011 when an Afghan Air Force colonel killed eight U.S. officers and contractors in Kabul.

The larger picture, which goes unmentioned entirely in the article, is that coalition casualties are not only considerably lower in aggregate than in Iraq but are also declining. According to icasualties.org, 566 coalition troops were killed in Afghanistan last year, down considerably from the 711 killed in 2010—an achievement especially impressive because in the meantime the total number of coalition forces in Afghanistan had surged and they had moved into some of the Taliban’s toughest strongholds.

Again, I don’t mean to minimize the problem with “blue on blue” attacks in Afghanistan, but alarmist reports such as this one can give a skewed presentation of the on-the-ground reality.

 

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Israel Not a Strategic Asset? Think Again

Would the world be a better place right now if Syrian President Bashar Assad had nuclear weapons? Most reasonable people would say “no.” One of Western policymakers’ enduring nightmares is that unrest in a nuclear power like Pakistan might result in nuclear materiel being looted and trafficked, just as Libyan arms looted during that country’s civil war are now being trafficked worldwide. If Syria had nuclear weapons today, its developing civil war could easily result in precisely that nightmare proliferation scenario.

What brought the question to mind was the unnamed intelligence official quoted in Mark Perry’s latest anti-Israel slur at Foreign Policy, who said that while Israel is “supposed to be a strategic asset … There are a lot of people now, important people, who just don’t think that’s true.” For unless you think the world would be a better place if Syria had nukes right now, it’s pretty hard to argue Israel isn’t a strategic asset for America – not only because Israel is the one that destroyed Syria’s reactor in 2007, but because, as the New York Times reported last month, Washington didn’t even know the North Korean-built reactor existed “until Meir Dagan, then the head of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, visited President George W. Bush’s national security adviser and dropped photographs of the reactor on his coffee table.” Only then did U.S. intelligence conduct its own investigation and confirm it.

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Would the world be a better place right now if Syrian President Bashar Assad had nuclear weapons? Most reasonable people would say “no.” One of Western policymakers’ enduring nightmares is that unrest in a nuclear power like Pakistan might result in nuclear materiel being looted and trafficked, just as Libyan arms looted during that country’s civil war are now being trafficked worldwide. If Syria had nuclear weapons today, its developing civil war could easily result in precisely that nightmare proliferation scenario.

What brought the question to mind was the unnamed intelligence official quoted in Mark Perry’s latest anti-Israel slur at Foreign Policy, who said that while Israel is “supposed to be a strategic asset … There are a lot of people now, important people, who just don’t think that’s true.” For unless you think the world would be a better place if Syria had nukes right now, it’s pretty hard to argue Israel isn’t a strategic asset for America – not only because Israel is the one that destroyed Syria’s reactor in 2007, but because, as the New York Times reported last month, Washington didn’t even know the North Korean-built reactor existed “until Meir Dagan, then the head of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, visited President George W. Bush’s national security adviser and dropped photographs of the reactor on his coffee table.” Only then did U.S. intelligence conduct its own investigation and confirm it.

That the Mossad scooped the CIA on the Syrian reactor is no insult to the latter: Israel has good reason to devote far greater intelligence resources to Syria, a hostile next-door neighbor, than America does; it can also afford to concentrate primarily on its own neighborhood, whereas U.S. intelligence of necessity spans the globe. Hence, it makes sense for U.S. intelligence to devote fewer resources to Syria and rely on Israel to fill in the gaps.

But if Israel didn’t exist, America would have to devote extensive additional resources to Syria, and to all the other Middle Eastern countries on which Israel currently shares intelligence with it – or else risk waking up one day to discover that a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism, a key Iranian ally that served as a conduit for jihadists fighting U.S. forces in Iraq, had suddenly developed nuclear weapons.

Nor is intelligence the only contribution Israel makes to U.S. interests in the region: Precisely because it is more immediately threatened by its neighbors, Jerusalem is often willing to take action Washington would rather not take, but that serves American interests. Its 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor is a case in point: Washington opposed it at the time, but was grateful 10 years later, when its vital interest in keeping oil flowing through the Gulf led it to declare war on Iraq over the latter’s invasion of Kuwait.

Similarly, Bush didn’t want to take action against Syria’s reactor in 2007, being reluctant to open a front against a third Muslim country while already fighting
in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I suspect many American policymakers are sleeping easier today because that reactor is gone.

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What to Expect from Obama on Iran

President Obama gives his third State of the Union Address on Tuesday, and he will have to speak about Iran as it heads toward an obvious goal. The “tough” and “tight” sanctions he touted in last year’s SOTU Address did not cripple the regime, stop its nuclear weapons program, or produce any talks. Three years of attempted engagement have been a failure.

At the White House press conference Wednesday, spokesman Jay Carney was asked whether Obama sent a private letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader proposing direct U.S.-Iranian talks, as two Iranian officials allege. Carney responded that “any communications … with the Iranians are the same in private as they have been in public;” that the only channel is the P5+1 offer to negotiate; and that Iran has “shown no inclination thus far to make that choice”:

“And what we have seen over the three years since this president has been in office is he has — by pursuing the Iranian issue in the way that he has, he has ensured that a world that was in conflict over this issue is now united … He has brought to bear a level of consensus in the international community on the need to pressure Iran and isolate Iran on this issue that did not exist prior to him taking office.”

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President Obama gives his third State of the Union Address on Tuesday, and he will have to speak about Iran as it heads toward an obvious goal. The “tough” and “tight” sanctions he touted in last year’s SOTU Address did not cripple the regime, stop its nuclear weapons program, or produce any talks. Three years of attempted engagement have been a failure.

At the White House press conference Wednesday, spokesman Jay Carney was asked whether Obama sent a private letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader proposing direct U.S.-Iranian talks, as two Iranian officials allege. Carney responded that “any communications … with the Iranians are the same in private as they have been in public;” that the only channel is the P5+1 offer to negotiate; and that Iran has “shown no inclination thus far to make that choice”:

“And what we have seen over the three years since this president has been in office is he has — by pursuing the Iranian issue in the way that he has, he has ensured that a world that was in conflict over this issue is now united … He has brought to bear a level of consensus in the international community on the need to pressure Iran and isolate Iran on this issue that did not exist prior to him taking office.”

Three years of effort and the only results are: a consensus to pressure and isolate Iran that supposedly “did not exist prior to him taking office.”

Except that it did exist. Here is an excerpt from the July 9, 2008 testimony of Under Secretary of State William J. Burns before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, entitled “The Strategic Challenge Posed by Iran,” which summarizes the strategy and consensus at that time:

This Committee is intimately familiar with the dual-track strategy that we have employed in concert with our P5+1 partners – the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China – to put before the Iranian leadership a clear choice …

President Bush emphasized last month at the US-EU Summit that we seek to address this issue through a multilateral framework. He said: “Unilateral sanctions don’t work…One country can’t solve all problems…A group of countries can send a clear message to the Iranians, and that is: ‘We are going to continue to isolate you. We’ll continue to work on sanctions. We’ll find new sanctions if need be if you continue to deny the just demands of a free world.’” …

The international community is more unified than in the past on the necessity for Iran to fully and verifiably suspend its proliferation sensitive nuclear activities and reestablish international confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. There is also a mounting consensus for Iran to come clean on its past efforts to build a nuclear warhead …

We have committed repeatedly and at the highest levels to deal diplomatically with the Iranian regime. The fact that this diplomatic dialogue has been limited to less than satisfying talks in Baghdad is the unfortunate choice of the Iranian leadership.

Obama has not forged a consensus that did not previously exist; he has continued a policy that had failed even before he took office. Under his watch, centrifuges have continued to whirl; deadlines have been ignored; sanctions have not achieved their purpose; no significant talks have occurred; and he has delayed further sanctions for six months or more, while signaling he is more concerned about Israel than Iran.

Leslie Gelb writes that the administration will not commit to “any particular action beyond ratcheting up rhetorical pressures and economic sanctions” and will try only to “say enough to keep Israel from pulling its own unilateral trigger.” If Carney’s remarks are any indication, Obama plans to congratulate himself on Tuesday for a consensus that pre-dated him, avoid any commitment beyond what has repeatedly failed in Cuba, Iraq, and North Korea, and hope this will take him beyond November.

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Romney Should Release His Tax Returns

With Newt Gingrich now leading Mitt Romney in the South Carolina polls, and Rick Santorum officially besting him in the certified Iowa tally, the former Massachusetts governor needed to hit it out of the park in last night’s debate. Unfortunately for Romney, his performance didn’t cut it. He had some great moments – as Michael Barone noted, Romney expertly navigated through tough questions on Bain Capital and Marianne Gingrich’s interview – but his response to queries about his tax returns were painfully inadequate.

It’s true the tax return issue is largely a trumped-up controversy that isn’t nearly as critical as Romney critics make it out to be. And it’s hard to believe that Romney is “hiding something” (other than the fact that he’s very, very rich, as John noted on Twitter) by not disclosing these records. But even his supporters should be worried that the former Massachusetts governor hasn’t been able to come up with a solid way to deflect the issue at this point in the race. This answer is not going to cut it:

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With Newt Gingrich now leading Mitt Romney in the South Carolina polls, and Rick Santorum officially besting him in the certified Iowa tally, the former Massachusetts governor needed to hit it out of the park in last night’s debate. Unfortunately for Romney, his performance didn’t cut it. He had some great moments – as Michael Barone noted, Romney expertly navigated through tough questions on Bain Capital and Marianne Gingrich’s interview – but his response to queries about his tax returns were painfully inadequate.

It’s true the tax return issue is largely a trumped-up controversy that isn’t nearly as critical as Romney critics make it out to be. And it’s hard to believe that Romney is “hiding something” (other than the fact that he’s very, very rich, as John noted on Twitter) by not disclosing these records. But even his supporters should be worried that the former Massachusetts governor hasn’t been able to come up with a solid way to deflect the issue at this point in the race. This answer is not going to cut it:

[W]hen pressed whether he’d follow the path of his father, George Romney, who released 12 years of taxes during his 1967 presidential bid, arguing that there might be a “fluke” in just one year’s results, Romney responded, “Maybe.”

“I don’t know how many years I’ll release,” Romney said as the crowd booed. Romney paused and smiled.

“I’ll release multiple years, I don’t know how many years,” Romney said. “But I’ll be happy to do that. I know there are some who are anxious to see if they can make it difficult for a campaign to be successful. I know the Democrats want to go after my being successful. I’m not going to apologize for being successful.”

If Romney doesn’t want to release multiple years of tax returns right now, that’s understandable. But he needs to be able to cogently argue why he’s not doing it, in a way that doesn’t sound like he’s dodging the issue. Otherwise, this will continue to dog him, especially if Gingrich manages to win this weekend’s primary.

Romney’s most effective argument in the race is that he’d be the most electable candidate against President Obama. But he’ll undermine that if he seems like he’s hiding some potentially damaging bombshell until after he secures the nomination. His point last night about Democratic attacks is accurate – he’ll likely be slammed with class warfare rhetoric. But that’s true no matter when he releases the documents, and Republican primary voters aren’t the type to oppose a candidate for being too wealthy and successful. Romney should disclose his tax returns as soon as possible, if only to diffuse this issue and assure his supporters there aren’t any unpleasant surprises waiting for them in the spring.

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J Street’s Ben-Ami: Dual-Loyalty is a “Legitimate Question”

This morning, the Washington Post’s Peter Wallsten followed up on never-ending controversy about the Center for American Progress’s anti-Israel bloggers, and what it means for the Obama administration’s close ties to the think tank. (Incidentally, I wrote about this topic yesterday for the New York Post as well.)

According to WaPo, the scandal has caused a lot of hand-wringing in the administration – the White House’s Jewish community liaison reportedly told the Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper that the situation at CAP was “troubling,” adding “that is not this administration.”

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This morning, the Washington Post’s Peter Wallsten followed up on never-ending controversy about the Center for American Progress’s anti-Israel bloggers, and what it means for the Obama administration’s close ties to the think tank. (Incidentally, I wrote about this topic yesterday for the New York Post as well.)

According to WaPo, the scandal has caused a lot of hand-wringing in the administration – the White House’s Jewish community liaison reportedly told the Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper that the situation at CAP was “troubling,” adding “that is not this administration.”

The article is worth reading in full, but this quote from J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami tucked all the way at the end of the piece was particularly interesting:

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a left-leaning voice on Israel issues, said he had no problem with “Israel-Firster.”

“If the charge is that you’re putting the interests of another country before the interests of the United States in the way you would advocate that, it’s a legitimate question,” Ben-Ami said.

Ben-Ami added that Jewish groups “should tread lightly” when they make accusations of anti-Semitism. “Because when they do need to use that word, people won’t take you seriously,” he said.

J Street has pretty much vanished from the scene during the past year, so it’s mystifying why Ben-Ami would want to reenter the picture with a quote like that. He must have realized the problem, because later today he walked it back on his website (or, rather, he acknowledged that the term “Israel-Firster” was offensive and immediately demanded everyone change the subject).

But Ben-Ami’s argument that accusations of anti-Semitism are being used too loosely is becoming standard fare on the left. Glenn Greenwald wrote something similar in his own piece on the CAP scandal today:

[S]mearing those with policy disagreements as anti-Semites has become a leading tactic in these precincts. And the prime purveyors are those who have anointed themselves as the guardians and arbiters of the term, and have thus done more to dilute and trivialize it than any actual anti-Semites could ever dream of achieving. It’s the classic Boy Who Cried Wolf syndrome: if you scream “anti-Semite” in order to prohibit perfectly valid ideas from being expressed, then nobody will listen or care when you scream it in order to highlight its genuine manifestations. …

So this smear campaign not only threatens to suppress legitimate debate about crucial policy matters in the U.S., but it also is aimed at the reputations and careers of numerous young liberal writers who have done absolutely nothing wrong.

If Greenwald doesn’t think any of the CAP or Media Matters comments were offensive, that’s fine. But calling criticism of the writing a “smear campaign” is simply inaccurate, since CAP officials and the writers themselves have already conceded some of the remarks crossed the line.

His claim that critics of CAP and Media Matters are looking to collect “scalps” or ruin reputations also strikes me as paranoid nonsense. The criticism over the past month hasn’t been focused on the writers themselves, but on the ideas CAP has started channeling into the mainstream.

These weren’t ideas CAP bloggers personally invented, or even necessarily realized the anti-Semitic connotations. But they’re concepts steeped in anti-Jewish tropes that have grown increasingly prevalent on the left in recent years. It would be wrong to let these ideas go unchallenged, simply because they’re being voiced by people who don’t necessarily have bad intentions.

When Zaid Jilani told me he didn’t realize the connotation behind his “Israel-Firster” comments, I believed him, and still do. I know and like some of the writers at CAP, and while I don’t agree with them on Israel, they’re not anti-Semites.

But I strongly disagree with Greenwald. Suggesting that American supporters of Israel are disloyal citizens is not a “perfectly valid idea.” Claiming that AIPAC is marching the U.S. into war with Iran on behalf of Israel is not a “perfectly valid idea.” And characterizing Israel as an apartheid state is not a “perfectly valid idea.” These notions are false and offensive, and saying so publicly doesn’t mean you’re “prohibiting” free discussion. People who honestly believe those conspiratorial ideas about the Israel lobby and dual-loyalty – who aren’t just repeating them without considering the meaning behind them – have plenty of extremist right-wing and left-wing outlets to push their message out. An influential Democratic think tank should not be one of them.

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Identifying Israel’s “Main Enemies”

The controversy ended almost as soon as it began. Yesterday, Jerusalem Post editor Steve Linde told an audience that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had told him a couple of weeks earlier the New York Times and Haaretz were Israel’s “main enemies” because “they set the agenda for an anti-Israel campaign all over the world.” That comment, made during a private meeting with the journalist, set off a minor furor with many, including Linde, saying they thought it odd those two journalistic institutions would outrank Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran as the Jewish state’s main foes and that such a statement reflects Netanyahu’s Nixon-like paranoia about the press. However, the prime minister’s office immediately denied Netanyahu had said it, and Linde soon backtracked, telling Haaretz the words were merely his interpretation and not a direct quote.

Nevertheless, this non-story is a reminder of a great truth about the Arab-Israeli conflict. While it would be absurd to actually rank the Times or Ha’aretz higher in the list of Israel’s foes than actual military and terrorist threats, biased media reports are a not inconsiderable problem for a beleaguered Jewish state. So whatever it is that Netanyahu actually said to Linde, his concern about a distorted vision of Israel’s policies being the lens through which most foreigners view his country is neither foolish nor paranoid.

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The controversy ended almost as soon as it began. Yesterday, Jerusalem Post editor Steve Linde told an audience that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had told him a couple of weeks earlier the New York Times and Haaretz were Israel’s “main enemies” because “they set the agenda for an anti-Israel campaign all over the world.” That comment, made during a private meeting with the journalist, set off a minor furor with many, including Linde, saying they thought it odd those two journalistic institutions would outrank Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran as the Jewish state’s main foes and that such a statement reflects Netanyahu’s Nixon-like paranoia about the press. However, the prime minister’s office immediately denied Netanyahu had said it, and Linde soon backtracked, telling Haaretz the words were merely his interpretation and not a direct quote.

Nevertheless, this non-story is a reminder of a great truth about the Arab-Israeli conflict. While it would be absurd to actually rank the Times or Ha’aretz higher in the list of Israel’s foes than actual military and terrorist threats, biased media reports are a not inconsiderable problem for a beleaguered Jewish state. So whatever it is that Netanyahu actually said to Linde, his concern about a distorted vision of Israel’s policies being the lens through which most foreigners view his country is neither foolish nor paranoid.

Newspapers that invariably frame the conflict as one in which Israel is an oppressive state that bullies the Palestinians, violates human rights and responds to alleged threats with disproportionate force do help undermine support for the Jewish state. Journalists who treat the dispute over the West Bank and Jerusalem as one in which only the Palestinians have rights while the Israelis merely have overblown demands for security similarly help create a diplomatic playing field in which Israel is always at a disadvantage. Even worse, those who rarely, if ever, place stories about the conflict in the context of a 100-year-old Arab and Muslim war to eradicate the Jewish presence in the country, or who make any effort to accurately portray Palestinian public opinion about peace or their unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state do their audience and Israel a disservice.

Haaretz reports the news based on its political bias against Netanyahu’s party and ideology. The Times news and opinion sections follow the same script just as slavishly. The influence of these two papers is not inconsiderable, though it must be admitted the bias of America’s newspaper of record has done little to harm the widespread and bi-partisan support for Israel in the United States. However, the misperceptions of Israel and the conflict the Times has helped perpetuate have had an impact on American Jewish opinion. The effort to depict Israel as the Goliath of the Middle East rather than the David is a blow to the self-esteem of some liberal Times readers and has given them a reason to distance themselves from Zionism.

As such, Netanyahu does well to worry about this problem and to seek to counter the influence of those who have a destructive impact on his country’s image. Though the prime minister shouldn’t give in to the temptation to demonize the international media, just because he’s paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get him, or his country.

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Who’s Despicable? Gingrich or the Media?

Newt Gingrich earned the wild applause of the audience in the hall for last night’s Republican presidential debate when he termed the media’s publicizing his ex-wife’s charges against him as “disgusting.” The tactic may have worked, at least in the short run, especially because Marianne Gingrich’s interview on ABC’s “Nightline” Thursday night didn’t contain much that anyone who had followed the story didn’t already know. Those who suspect the motivation for running the piece on the eve of the South Carolina primary may have been to derail Gingrich may not be far off the mark.

Yet for all of the fact that Gingrich may not suffer any negative consequences from the accusations contained in her interview in the coming days, it must be said that his attempt to turn the tables on his accusers seemed as contrived as ABC’s defense of its decision. Gingrich is a past master at conjuring up a spirit of righteous indignation at the drop of a hat, but given the fact that the issue is the result of his own sleazy behavior and hypocrisy and not any actual wrongdoing by his accusers, his assertion that it is the media that is “despicable” sounded a false note.

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Newt Gingrich earned the wild applause of the audience in the hall for last night’s Republican presidential debate when he termed the media’s publicizing his ex-wife’s charges against him as “disgusting.” The tactic may have worked, at least in the short run, especially because Marianne Gingrich’s interview on ABC’s “Nightline” Thursday night didn’t contain much that anyone who had followed the story didn’t already know. Those who suspect the motivation for running the piece on the eve of the South Carolina primary may have been to derail Gingrich may not be far off the mark.

Yet for all of the fact that Gingrich may not suffer any negative consequences from the accusations contained in her interview in the coming days, it must be said that his attempt to turn the tables on his accusers seemed as contrived as ABC’s defense of its decision. Gingrich is a past master at conjuring up a spirit of righteous indignation at the drop of a hat, but given the fact that the issue is the result of his own sleazy behavior and hypocrisy and not any actual wrongdoing by his accusers, his assertion that it is the media that is “despicable” sounded a false note.

Some observers have rightly noted that we are not electing a moralist or a husband-in-chief but a commander-in-chief, and it is entirely possible a person with flaws would still make a great president. But the issue again here is not just that Gingrich appears to have behaved in a swinish fashion to both of his first two wives but the level of his public hypocrisy about it. He clearly thought and obviously still thinks those who espouse morality and indeed, seek to hold others accountable for their failings as he did President Clinton, need not necessarily practice what they preach.

It would have behooved Gingrich to display some humility when asked about the question and to have simply repeated his standard statement about having caused pain in the past and asked God for forgiveness. But the surly and vindictive Gingrich did not content himself with such an effective and hopefully honest answer. Instead, he sought to scapegoat those who questioned him about his past and even called his ex-wife a liar and illogically asserted that he could prove her words to be false.

This is neither the first nor the last time we will have to deal with the intersection of politics and personal morality. The last time we dealt with this was when Herman Cain was forced to account for the fact that several women had accused him of sexual harassment and one of having had an affair. He, too, tried to turn the tables on the media and also earned some applause for that effort.

At that time I argued that though the discussion was regrettable, I’d still rather live in a country where the press sought to hold politicians accountable for their behavior than one in which journalists chose not, as it used to be the practice, to report about politicians’ peccadilloes. The people have a right to know what kind of person they are being asked to put in the Oval Office. By responding to questions about his past conduct in a manner consistent with the hypocrisy alleged by his ex-wife, Gingrich has provided an unfortunate answer to that query.

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