Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 5, 2012

Will Iran Heed Netanyahu’s Warning?

Much of the attention devoted to U.S.-Israel diplomacy in recent months has been on whether the United States will seek to prevent the Jewish state from acting on its own to forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon. The differences between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over the utility of sanctions or diplomacy and how much more time these measures should be allowed before force can be used have not been resolved. Nevertheless, it is more likely than not that the Israelis are going to give the president a bit more time before launching their own strike.

But despite the near obsessive focus on the fractious Obama-Netanyahu relationship, the most important messages being sent from the speeches at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington were not those exchanged between those two leaders. Instead, it was the clear warning to Iran by Netanyahu that the Jewish people will not live under the shadow of annihilation. For all of the justified concern about what Obama will or will not do to try to impede the Israelis as he hangs on to the forlorn hope of a diplomatic solution to the problem, the fate of the Middle East hangs on whether Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, comprehended Netanyahu’s clarion call to action during his Monday night speech to the conference. Tehran must either stand down on its nuclear ambition or face an Israeli attack at some point in the not too distant future.

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Much of the attention devoted to U.S.-Israel diplomacy in recent months has been on whether the United States will seek to prevent the Jewish state from acting on its own to forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon. The differences between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over the utility of sanctions or diplomacy and how much more time these measures should be allowed before force can be used have not been resolved. Nevertheless, it is more likely than not that the Israelis are going to give the president a bit more time before launching their own strike.

But despite the near obsessive focus on the fractious Obama-Netanyahu relationship, the most important messages being sent from the speeches at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington were not those exchanged between those two leaders. Instead, it was the clear warning to Iran by Netanyahu that the Jewish people will not live under the shadow of annihilation. For all of the justified concern about what Obama will or will not do to try to impede the Israelis as he hangs on to the forlorn hope of a diplomatic solution to the problem, the fate of the Middle East hangs on whether Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, comprehended Netanyahu’s clarion call to action during his Monday night speech to the conference. Tehran must either stand down on its nuclear ambition or face an Israeli attack at some point in the not too distant future.

By stating unequivocally that Israel will always be master of its own fate when it comes to its security, Netanyahu was making it crystal clear that Obama’s misgivings about force will not preclude an Israeli assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities before the program is rendered invulnerable. However much time Netanyahu may give Obama, it is also easily understood that this is not an open-ended commitment. He is rightly convinced that neither renewed diplomatic activity nor even the stepped-up sanctions Obama now contemplates will convince the Iranians they must give in.

As Netanyahu said, Israel has waited patiently for years as Western diplomatic initiatives intended to cajole or buy off the Iranians have flopped. It has also looked on as the half-hearted sanctions against Iran were tried and has seen they will not answer the problem. And the Israeli leader is well aware that even the oil embargo mooted by some Western European nations and reluctantly seconded by Obama will also certainly fail due to lack of cooperation from China and Russia.

All of this renders much of the speculation about Obama’s intentions moot. He may argue that Israel must give diplomacy another chance to work, but few even in the administration believe any such initiative will succeed. It has already been amply demonstrated that the Iranians interpret any opening for talks as an invitation for delaying tactics that only serve to get them closer to their nuclear goal. As it is unlikely the president will let go of his illusions about diplomacy or engagement with Iran working until it is too late to do anything about their nuclear program, that puts the ball squarely in Israel’s court.

That is why the most important message delivered this week was not the exchange between Obama and Netanyahu so much as it was the one delivered to Iran. The Iranians may be laboring under their own set of delusions in which they cling to the notion that the United States can exercise a veto over Israeli self-defense. But Netanyahu’s speech, which drew a direct parallel between the current impasse over Iran and the refusal by the Allies to attack the rail lines to Auschwitz in 1944, is a signal that Obama is ultimately powerless to prevent the Jewish state from acting to prevent another Holocaust.

Iran has conducted itself in the last several years as if it believed it had impunity from retribution should it acquire a genocidal weapon to be used against the Jewish state it has sworn to destroy. It has also acted as if it believed, not unreasonably, that President Obama wasn’t serious about stopping them. But if Iran wishes to avoid having its nuclear facilities attacked, it needs to understand that Netanyahu was speaking in deadly earnest when he warned them of the consequences of their actions.

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Netanyahu Leans Toward Action at AIPAC

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish and exceptional speech at AIPAC tonight will no doubt set off days of speculation about whether or not he’s moving toward a strike on Iran’s nuclear program. There’s plenty of fodder to support either side of the argument. But these two quotes seem to indicate that Netanyahu is at least strongly leaning toward going it alone on an Iran strike:

“Unfortunately, Iran’s nuclear program continues to march forward…We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”

No diplomacy and no sanctions leave just one other option on the table. And the line at the end shows that Netanyahu hasn’t made Obama any promises against taking unilateral action.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish and exceptional speech at AIPAC tonight will no doubt set off days of speculation about whether or not he’s moving toward a strike on Iran’s nuclear program. There’s plenty of fodder to support either side of the argument. But these two quotes seem to indicate that Netanyahu is at least strongly leaning toward going it alone on an Iran strike:

“Unfortunately, Iran’s nuclear program continues to march forward…We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”

No diplomacy and no sanctions leave just one other option on the table. And the line at the end shows that Netanyahu hasn’t made Obama any promises against taking unilateral action.

Later in the speech, Netanyahu spoke about how America declined to bomb Auschwitz in 1944, out of concern that “such an effort might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans.”

“The American government today is different,” continued Netanyahu. “You heard that from President Obama’s speech yesterday. But here’s my point. The Jewish people are also different. Today we have a state of our own. And the purpose of a Jewish state is to secure Jewish lives and a Jewish future. Never again…We deeply appreciate the great alliance between our two countries. But when it comes to Israel’s survival, we must always remain the masters of our fate.”

Being a “master of its own fate” seems to suggest that Israel cannot let its window of opportunity run out without taking action. Netanyahu doesn’t appear willing to cede this power to the U.S. If that’s the case, an Israeli strike on Iran may not be far off.

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Pelosi Hits Wrong Notes at AIPAC

Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s speech at AIPAC tonight was as tough as it gets coming from her: she rejected containment of Iran’s nuclear program, reiterated that a nuclear Iran is a threat to the world, and praised the latest round of “crippling sanctions” on Iran. But her comments about Iran “returning to the negotiating table” because of these sanctions seemed Pollyannaish, and coming on the heels of Senator McConnell’s barnburner, the speech seemed like a snooze.

“We’re seeing results.  The Iranian economy and energy industry are suffering. Iran’s partners are cutting off ties of trade and commerce,” said Pelosi. “We are undermining the funding of Iran’s nuclear activities. In short, Iran is feeling the bite of our sanctions. Our actions reaffirm our message–it is time for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, return to the negotiating table, and abandon its reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

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Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s speech at AIPAC tonight was as tough as it gets coming from her: she rejected containment of Iran’s nuclear program, reiterated that a nuclear Iran is a threat to the world, and praised the latest round of “crippling sanctions” on Iran. But her comments about Iran “returning to the negotiating table” because of these sanctions seemed Pollyannaish, and coming on the heels of Senator McConnell’s barnburner, the speech seemed like a snooze.

“We’re seeing results.  The Iranian economy and energy industry are suffering. Iran’s partners are cutting off ties of trade and commerce,” said Pelosi. “We are undermining the funding of Iran’s nuclear activities. In short, Iran is feeling the bite of our sanctions. Our actions reaffirm our message–it is time for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, return to the negotiating table, and abandon its reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

While she said the bare minimum that she could on Iran, the rest of her speech was filled with typical, generic AIPAC applause lines.

“We were reminded that Israel and the Jewish people remain a symbol of democracy–that we must continue to fight for the day when Israel’s existence is a fact recognized by every nation on Earth,” said Pelosi.  “And, founded on our shared values and shared vision, we pledge to work to usher in an era when Israel can realize, in the spirit of its national anthem, the hope to be a free people, living in peace and security in the Jewish homeland.”

It was nice, and the audience was polite throughout. But AIPAC attendees were clearly looking for a bolder message, and Pelosi did not deliver.

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Senate Will Force Obama’s Hand on Iran

In a clear contrast to President Obama’s speech yesterday, Sen. Mitch McConnell gave a hard-hitting speech to AIPAC tonight, promising to use the tools at his disposal to pressure the administration to take military action against Iran if it passes specific “red lines” that he outlined.

While Obama has also made it clear he’s open to using force against Iran, he has declined to explicitly state what Iranian actions would trigger a U.S. military response. But McConnell did not have the same reluctance.

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In a clear contrast to President Obama’s speech yesterday, Sen. Mitch McConnell gave a hard-hitting speech to AIPAC tonight, promising to use the tools at his disposal to pressure the administration to take military action against Iran if it passes specific “red lines” that he outlined.

While Obama has also made it clear he’s open to using force against Iran, he has declined to explicitly state what Iranian actions would trigger a U.S. military response. But McConnell did not have the same reluctance.

“If Iran, at any time, begins to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels, or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States will use overwhelming force to end that program,” said McConnell.

The minority leader criticized Obama’s vagueness on Iran, and suggested that the president watered-down his threats of action by failing to use force in Libya and Syria. He also claimed the administration was relying too heavily on sanctions.

“The administration has used this same language about preserving all options in developing its policy toward Libya, Iran, and, now, Syria,” McConnell said. “Clearly, the threat has lost its intended purpose.”

McConnell said he would force the administration’s hand on Iran by introducing an authorization for military force in the Senate if intelligence shows Iran is enriching weapons-grade uranium.

“If at any time the intelligence community presents the Congress with an assessment that Iran has begun to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels, or has taken a decision to develop a nuclear weapon — consistent with protecting classified sources and methods — I will consult with the president and joint congressional leadership and introduce before the Senate an authorization for the use of military force,” said McConnell.

The numerous standing ovations from the audience showed that AIPAC attendees are anxious for clearly outlined proposals from elected officials, after yesterday’s vague assurances.

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Despite Gaffe, Limbaugh Won’t Be Silenced

As James Taranto notes in his Best of the Web column in today’s Wall Street Journal, the left is crowing today about putting Rush Limbaugh on the run. As Taranto writes, “The kerfuffle was no fluke but a left-liberal set piece” in which a concerted effort was made by liberal members of Congress to spin the Obama administration’s attack on the Catholic Church as a defense of women’s rights. But liberals aren’t satisfied with just their success in changing the conversation from one about religious freedom to one centered on the mythical attack on the right to contraception by the church and conservative opponents of ObamaCare. The real prize in this controversy is not the way the left has enabled the president to avoid taking responsibility for the way his signature health care bill will subvert liberty but the chance to take down the most popular conservative talk show host for the last 20 years.

The flight of Limbaugh’s advertisers under the storm of pressure orchestrated against the radio personality is significant. Since Limbaugh’s tasteless comments about Sandra Fluke’s testimony in which the Georgetown University Law student complained about the cost of birth control, nine of his sponsors have pulled their ads from his show. Limbaugh’s belated apology to Fluke was not enough to stop the bleeding because some of those who dumped him did so after his attempt to walk back his foolish and vulgar jibes. But by pushing so hard to knock off the king of talk radio, the liberal chorus of outrage may have gone a bit too far.

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As James Taranto notes in his Best of the Web column in today’s Wall Street Journal, the left is crowing today about putting Rush Limbaugh on the run. As Taranto writes, “The kerfuffle was no fluke but a left-liberal set piece” in which a concerted effort was made by liberal members of Congress to spin the Obama administration’s attack on the Catholic Church as a defense of women’s rights. But liberals aren’t satisfied with just their success in changing the conversation from one about religious freedom to one centered on the mythical attack on the right to contraception by the church and conservative opponents of ObamaCare. The real prize in this controversy is not the way the left has enabled the president to avoid taking responsibility for the way his signature health care bill will subvert liberty but the chance to take down the most popular conservative talk show host for the last 20 years.

The flight of Limbaugh’s advertisers under the storm of pressure orchestrated against the radio personality is significant. Since Limbaugh’s tasteless comments about Sandra Fluke’s testimony in which the Georgetown University Law student complained about the cost of birth control, nine of his sponsors have pulled their ads from his show. Limbaugh’s belated apology to Fluke was not enough to stop the bleeding because some of those who dumped him did so after his attempt to walk back his foolish and vulgar jibes. But by pushing so hard to knock off the king of talk radio, the liberal chorus of outrage may have gone a bit too far.

Most Americans, even those who agreed with Limbaugh about the issue, thought his over-the-top remarks about Fluke being a “slut” because she thought her Jesuit-run law school ought to pay for her birth control costs were way out of line. He’s been publicly spanked for this and rightly so. But the moment the effort to punish him becomes a campaign to destroy him, the nature of the narrative of this issue can change just as quickly as it did last week.

The fact that the outrage over Limbaugh was hypocritical didn’t buy him much slack as he was forced to face the music about his comments. But as soon as this outrage morphed into a crusade to force him off the air, that hypocrisy becomes relevant again. Those who think Limbaugh’s insensitivity to women is such that he ought not to be allowed to broadcast need to be asked why they haven’t signed on to similar efforts to force someone like HBO’s Bill Maher off his well-paid cable perch? He has said far worse about conservative women than Limbaugh’s faux pas.

Of course, the difference here is not that what Limbaugh said was worse, because it wasn’t. It is that he is a conservative who trashes liberals rather than a liberal who trashes conservatives.

In the New York Times Media Decoder feature about Limbaugh’s woes, columnist Brian Stelter points out one of those advertisers who have left his show, Tax Resolution Services, was “put on the map” by their sponsorship of “The Howard Stern Show.” The company’s chief executive Michael Rozbruch says the reason why he bowed to pressure to leave Limbaugh after loyally sticking with a vulgar creature like Stern is due to the increased pressure from “social media.”

It’s true that Facebook and Twitter have given such campaigns a boost, but anyone who thinks political hypocrisy is not at work here is not paying attention. The effort to destroy Limbaugh will fail because the shift from righteous indignation at him to an effort to suppress his voice only serves to remind his huge fan base the reason why Limbaugh and the whole genre of conservative radio had to be created was the liberal monopoly on traditional broadcast outlets. Shutting him down has been a liberal dream for two decades, but his Fluke gaffe won’t serve as an excuse for silencing the movement he has come to exemplify. As Limbaugh promised his listeners today, any advertiser who bolts from his show will be replaced.

Liberals are overplaying their hand on Limbaugh and, as Taranto rightly points out, sooner or later the debate will switch back to the ObamaCare mandate and the way it threatens to dangerously expand government power.

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Politics as Bloodsport in America

The last few weeks haven’t been banner ones for political discourse in America. Representative Maxine Waters recently referred to Representatives John Boehner and Eric Cantor as “demons.” Slate’s Matt Yglesias, upon learning of the death of Andrew Breitbart, tweeted, “Conventions around dead people are ridiculous. The world outlook is slightly improved with @AndrewBrietbart dead.” Matt Taibbi, who blogs for Rolling Stone, wrote, “Good! I couldn’t be happier that he’s dead.” (That’s the least offensive part of what Taibbi wrote). New York magazine’s John Heilemann, co-author of Game Change and an MSNBC contributor, picked up on the spirit of things when on HBO’s “Real Time” he said,  “This phrase, that people often say that we should not speak ill of the dead, right? I mean, when is a better time to speak ill of someone than when they’re dead?” This led to a fairly extraordinary moment, when Bill Maher (!), James Carville, and the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson had to explain to Heilemann that, among other things, there are the sensibilities of a grieving wife and four young children to take into account.

On the other side of the philosophical divide, columnist Cal Thomas, in referring to Rachel Maddow, said she “is the best argument in favor of her parents using contraception. I would be all for that and all the rest of the crowd at MSNBC too for that matter.” (Thomas called Maddow afterward to apologize and also wrote a gracious and honest column doing the same.) And earlier today Rush Limbaugh, having issued an apology on Saturday for calling Georgetown University Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” elaborated on that apology on his program, admitting the terms he used were wholly inappropriate and derogatory. (If Yglesias, Taibbi, and Heilemann have issued apologies for their comments, I’m not aware of them.)

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The last few weeks haven’t been banner ones for political discourse in America. Representative Maxine Waters recently referred to Representatives John Boehner and Eric Cantor as “demons.” Slate’s Matt Yglesias, upon learning of the death of Andrew Breitbart, tweeted, “Conventions around dead people are ridiculous. The world outlook is slightly improved with @AndrewBrietbart dead.” Matt Taibbi, who blogs for Rolling Stone, wrote, “Good! I couldn’t be happier that he’s dead.” (That’s the least offensive part of what Taibbi wrote). New York magazine’s John Heilemann, co-author of Game Change and an MSNBC contributor, picked up on the spirit of things when on HBO’s “Real Time” he said,  “This phrase, that people often say that we should not speak ill of the dead, right? I mean, when is a better time to speak ill of someone than when they’re dead?” This led to a fairly extraordinary moment, when Bill Maher (!), James Carville, and the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson had to explain to Heilemann that, among other things, there are the sensibilities of a grieving wife and four young children to take into account.

On the other side of the philosophical divide, columnist Cal Thomas, in referring to Rachel Maddow, said she “is the best argument in favor of her parents using contraception. I would be all for that and all the rest of the crowd at MSNBC too for that matter.” (Thomas called Maddow afterward to apologize and also wrote a gracious and honest column doing the same.) And earlier today Rush Limbaugh, having issued an apology on Saturday for calling Georgetown University Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” elaborated on that apology on his program, admitting the terms he used were wholly inappropriate and derogatory. (If Yglesias, Taibbi, and Heilemann have issued apologies for their comments, I’m not aware of them.)

What these things have in common, and what is an eternal temptation in politics, is to personalize political differences and in the process dehumanize – to grow to hate — those who hold views different than our own. There is nothing new in any of this; since the time of ancient Greece, politics has provoked strong feelings and bitter passions. What is new are the number of ways we can add poison to the bloodstream. In all of this I’m reminded of Lyndon Johnson’s speech following the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, in which Johnson spoke about hatred and unreason in our midst. “Let us purge the hostility from our hearts and let us practice moderation with our tongues,” he told the nation.

This is easier to say than to do, as even LBJ, a man who harbored a considerable amount of hostility in his own heart for RFK (and vice versa), would have admitted. And too often people confuse civility with lack of conviction. It’s perfectly appropriate for political debate to be characterized by intensity and sharp clashes. And we shouldn’t treat political opponents as if they are porcelain dolls. But the ease with which the attacks move into the realm of the ad hominem – the kind of easy viciousness we find these days — is something to be concerned about.

There’s one other point worth making, which is that political differences between liberals and conservatives, while certainly significant, are often exaggerated in our current political culture. This insight comes courtesy of Ross Douthat, who points out that political antagonists today “still have far more in common than did most political antagonists in most previous eras.” One can of course find exceptions to this observation, but as a general matter Ross is onto something important. It helps place our current conflicts within a reasonable historical context.

I suspect that I’m among the last people to downplay the differences that do exist between those on the right and left. They’re real, meaningful, and have fairly significant human consequences. But in America today we’re (thankfully) not facing a Civil War- like situation — and even when we were, Lincoln was able to remind us we are not enemies but friends; and that while passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. That is, in the most fundamental sense, what it means to be fellow citizens.

Politics is mighty serious business. But everything has its place. There are things that go deeper even than politics. And for a complicated set of reasons, we tend to cast our differences in apocalyptic terms, as if every battle pits the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness. For those of us who are part of the daily back and forth of politics, which seems to increase in velocity by the day, it’s worthwhile from time to time to recall that we are, in fact, friends rather than enemies; that political differences don’t make us sub-human or morally corrupt; and that taking joy in the death of others and using their passing to speak ill of them hurts everyone, including those who carry the hate in their heart.

 

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The Dangers of Sequestration

Robert Samuelson has a typically excellent column in the Washington Post today where he points out the dangers of looming sequestration–the requirement, enacted by Congress last summer, that more than $500 billion in defense spending will be cut next January along with the nearly $500 billion that has already been cut this year. Many lawmakers are talking as if it’s a done deal that sequestration will be put off at least for one year, but Samuelson isn’t so sure and neither am I. He writes that in November,

[o]ne party and perhaps both will be embittered by the election’s outcome. Congress will face two and possibly three highly contentious issues: the expiration of the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 at year-end; the looming start of the sequester; and, possibly, the need to raise the federal debt ceiling (the Bipartisan Policy Center estimates this could occur in November).

The confluence of so many big issues — with timetables — could inspire a grand compromise. It also could produce chaos. The sequester could take effect by default and confusion. The Obama administration’s continuing embrace of the sequester as a political lever, when it clearly hasn’t worked, makes this outcome more, not less, likely.

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Robert Samuelson has a typically excellent column in the Washington Post today where he points out the dangers of looming sequestration–the requirement, enacted by Congress last summer, that more than $500 billion in defense spending will be cut next January along with the nearly $500 billion that has already been cut this year. Many lawmakers are talking as if it’s a done deal that sequestration will be put off at least for one year, but Samuelson isn’t so sure and neither am I. He writes that in November,

[o]ne party and perhaps both will be embittered by the election’s outcome. Congress will face two and possibly three highly contentious issues: the expiration of the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 at year-end; the looming start of the sequester; and, possibly, the need to raise the federal debt ceiling (the Bipartisan Policy Center estimates this could occur in November).

The confluence of so many big issues — with timetables — could inspire a grand compromise. It also could produce chaos. The sequester could take effect by default and confusion. The Obama administration’s continuing embrace of the sequester as a political lever, when it clearly hasn’t worked, makes this outcome more, not less, likely.

That’s exactly right. Add in the fact that defense companies will have to start cutbacks this year to meet the projected budget shortfall next year, and you have all the makings for an only-in-Washington disaster. Congress cannot wait until after the election to fix this mess. Action is needed now, and President Obama must lead the way, or else he will be remembered as the president responsible for the dismantling of the world’s greatest military.

 

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What Window for Diplomacy?

If both the White House and the entourage of the prime minister of Israel are smart, they’ll keep a tight lid on accounts of the meeting today between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. That will leave the press to continue speculating on the statements the two men made before the doors were closed. Though, as both were eager to point out, there is much common ground between the two nations’ positions, a number of items of contention remain. Chief of them is President Obama’s assertion that “We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue.”

The alternative to diplomacy isn’t pleasant for either country to contemplate, but one is forced to ask on what basis does the administration’s belief in such a window rest? Failing a rational explanation for their point of view, Israelis and others who rightly suspect the Americans’ insistence that their belated support for tough sanctions will lead to a resolution of the Iran problem cloaks a desire to merely kick the can down the road until after the November election.

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If both the White House and the entourage of the prime minister of Israel are smart, they’ll keep a tight lid on accounts of the meeting today between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. That will leave the press to continue speculating on the statements the two men made before the doors were closed. Though, as both were eager to point out, there is much common ground between the two nations’ positions, a number of items of contention remain. Chief of them is President Obama’s assertion that “We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue.”

The alternative to diplomacy isn’t pleasant for either country to contemplate, but one is forced to ask on what basis does the administration’s belief in such a window rest? Failing a rational explanation for their point of view, Israelis and others who rightly suspect the Americans’ insistence that their belated support for tough sanctions will lead to a resolution of the Iran problem cloaks a desire to merely kick the can down the road until after the November election.

It’s worth recalling that the belief in diplomacy with Iran is an old story. The Bush administration, smeared as a bunch of wild cowboys who disdained negotiations on every issue in favor of force, outsourced the problem to its European allies whose efforts were a complete flop. Barack Obama came into office believing the force of his personality would be enough to convince the Iranians to back down on their nuclear ambitions. But his “engagement” policy was as much of a bust as that of Bush’s European surrogates. That was followed by two years of Obama’s effort to cobble together an international coalition in favor of “crippling” sanctions that would bring Tehran to its knees. Though Obama is fond of claiming the whole world is with him, the truth is Russia and China have made it clear they will oppose any further sanctions, and Beijing has indicated it will buy Iran’s oil even if the U.S. and the Europeans make good on their threats of a petroleum embargo.

Throughout this period, the Iranians have at times engaged in talks that were supposedly aimed at crafting a compromise that would reportedly make it impossible for them to build a bomb. But every such effort turned out to be a dead end whose only purpose was to drag out the process and allow the Iranians to run out the diplomatic clock, as they got closer to a bomb.

It is true the sanctions are hurting Iran, but there is no reason to believe they are enough to make the ayatollahs fold. That is especially true because Obama’s talk of diplomacy fuels the Iranians’ belief they can continue to play the same shell game with negotiations. Obama’s rhetoric about stopping Iran before it goes nuclear may impress those Americans who are eager to believe in him. It is also encouraging that he has again specifically indicated he will not be content to merely “contain” a nuclear Iran. But any further talk of a “window” for diplomacy will have the opposite effect on Iran that Obama hopes as it will encourage them to believe they can play him for a sucker again.

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Obama Sold Out Israel to Turkey’s Islamists

The Emergency Committee for Israel has published the full version of its documentary Daylight, chronicling what happened after candidate Obama, who used to reference the U.S./Israel relationship as a “constant wound… this constant sore,” became President Obama, doggedly trying to detonate the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

A lot of people are going to focus on how the president intentionally delegitimized Israel and incompetently suffocated the peace process because of the now debunked theory that Israeli supermarket construction in Jerusalem causes cave-dwellers in Afghanistan to launch rockets and fanatics in Iran to build nuclear weapons. Ergo his repeated and one-sided diplomatic offensives against Israel over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which the documentary duly spends a lot of time exploring.

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The Emergency Committee for Israel has published the full version of its documentary Daylight, chronicling what happened after candidate Obama, who used to reference the U.S./Israel relationship as a “constant wound… this constant sore,” became President Obama, doggedly trying to detonate the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

A lot of people are going to focus on how the president intentionally delegitimized Israel and incompetently suffocated the peace process because of the now debunked theory that Israeli supermarket construction in Jerusalem causes cave-dwellers in Afghanistan to launch rockets and fanatics in Iran to build nuclear weapons. Ergo his repeated and one-sided diplomatic offensives against Israel over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which the documentary duly spends a lot of time exploring.

But don’t miss the middle of the video. Starting just before 15:00, it discusses Obama’s love affair with Turkey and Prime Minister Erdogan in the context of the Gaza flotilla. Israel may or may not make peace with the Palestinians, but nobody seriously believes a third violent intifada has the potential to spiral into a regional war. The damage Obama has done to our alliances and our posture in the eastern Mediterranean, in contrast, will reverberate for decades.

After the flotilla incident, Obama backed Erdogan’s demand that Israel make a groveling apology for defending itself against the Turkish-sponsored terrorists who were aboard the Mavi Marmara. The president even expelled Netanyahu from the White House when the Israeli prime minister tried to tell Israel’s side of the story, ordering him to return to the Middle East. The documentary has a few additional choice quotes from that period, some of which were surreal enough to make it into the trailer sizzle reel, and a rather pointed kicker.

Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu used the crisis as a thinly-veiled pretext to break off relations with Israel and increase Turkey’s naval footprint. Obama was either so naive that he accepted the pretext or so cynical that he was willing to attack Israel as if he accepted it.

Of course, Turkey didn’t actually want to restore relations with Israel. They had long planned to break off relations. The reason the AKP demanded the apology – per a later boastful speech by Davutoglu – was to force Israel to humiliatingly “kneel down” to Turkey.

And Turkey had always intended to expand its naval activities, which had nothing to do with the flotilla. Obama knew as much. Intimidating Israel, and harassing drillers around Cyprus and Greece, is part and parcel of the AKP’s broader neo-Ottoman push. The dynamic was explicitly flagged for Obama as early as 2009, per a Wikileak’d diplomatic cable. The Ottoman legacy itself is enjoying a popular resurgence in Turkey, and Davutoglu speaks openly to top Western reporters about “re-establish[ing Turkey's] leadership in the Ottoman countries of the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia.” He has also predicted (Hebrew) that Israel will disappear as a Jewish state and reemerge as a Turkish-sponsored bi-national entity.

So Obama tried to coerce a democratic ally into abjectly humiliating itself in front of an Islamist enemy with absolutely no possibility of benefit. Figures:

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Not Too Late for Active Role in Iraq

If you are to read only one article on where Iraq stands today, I heartily recommend this Foreign Affairs essay, “The Iraq We Left Behind: Welcome to the World’s Next Failed State,” by Ned Parker, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent in Baghdad who is now spending a year at the Council on Foreign Relations (where I am a senior fellow). Parker accurately sums up the country as follows:

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presides over a system rife with corruption and brutality, in which political leaders use security forces and militias to repress enemies and intimidate the general population. The law exists as a weapon to be wielded against rivals and to hide the misdeeds of allies. The dream of an Iraq governed by elected leaders answerable to the people is rapidly fading away.

The Iraqi state cannot provide basic services, including regular electricity in summer, clean water, and decent health care; meanwhile, unemployment among young men hovers close to 30 percent, making them easy recruits for criminal gangs and militant factions. Although the level of violence is down from the worst days of the civil war in 2006 and 2007, the current pace of bombings and shootings is more than enough to leave most Iraqis on edge and deeply uncertain about their futures. They have lost any hope that the bloodshed will go away and simply live with their dread. Acrimony in the political realm and the violence in the cities create a destabilizing feedback loop, whereby the bloodshed sows mistrust in the halls of power and politicians are inclined to settle scores with their proxies in the streets.

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If you are to read only one article on where Iraq stands today, I heartily recommend this Foreign Affairs essay, “The Iraq We Left Behind: Welcome to the World’s Next Failed State,” by Ned Parker, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent in Baghdad who is now spending a year at the Council on Foreign Relations (where I am a senior fellow). Parker accurately sums up the country as follows:

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presides over a system rife with corruption and brutality, in which political leaders use security forces and militias to repress enemies and intimidate the general population. The law exists as a weapon to be wielded against rivals and to hide the misdeeds of allies. The dream of an Iraq governed by elected leaders answerable to the people is rapidly fading away.

The Iraqi state cannot provide basic services, including regular electricity in summer, clean water, and decent health care; meanwhile, unemployment among young men hovers close to 30 percent, making them easy recruits for criminal gangs and militant factions. Although the level of violence is down from the worst days of the civil war in 2006 and 2007, the current pace of bombings and shootings is more than enough to leave most Iraqis on edge and deeply uncertain about their futures. They have lost any hope that the bloodshed will go away and simply live with their dread. Acrimony in the political realm and the violence in the cities create a destabilizing feedback loop, whereby the bloodshed sows mistrust in the halls of power and politicians are inclined to settle scores with their proxies in the streets.

How did we get to this bleak point? Parker is right to point the finger at the U.S. for failing “to capitalize on the gains of the U.S. troop surge.” Specifically, Parker points to a key error made by the Obama administration in the summer of 2010, “when the United States dropped the pretense of neutrality by backing Maliki for the post of prime minister over [Ayad] Allawi–even though Allawi’s party list had received more votes in the national elections held in March.” That gave Maliki the confidence to run roughshod over other political factions, especially the Sunnis, and yet “Washington quickly disengaged from actually ensuring that the provisions of the deal [struck between Maliki and Allawi] was implemented. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, the Obama administration’s leading figure on Iraq policy, was largely absent from Iraq for nearly a year as the power-sharing arrangement unraveled.”

I would argue that these cardinal errors were compounded by Obama and Biden’s unwillingness to go to the mat to ensure a continuing presence of U.S. troops after 2011. Their departure, after the premature breakdown of negotiations with Maliki, has given the prime minister an even freer hand which he has used to accumulate even more power, setting the conditions for a potentially lethal Sunni backlash. I believe that this  abandonment of Iraq could turn out to be one of the biggest blots on the administration’s record–to be exceeded only, perhaps, if the president goes on to similarly abandon Afghanistan.

But even now it is not too late for the U.S. to take a more active role in Iraq. As Parker notes, even without a continuing troop presence, the U.S. still retains some leverage from continuing weapons sales (which could be interrupted) and other levers at our disposal. It is high time the administration used whatever influence it still possess so as to avoid the worst.

 

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Who Is Responsible for the “Loose Talk of War” with Iran?

You can say this about President Obama’s fans in the media: They can be a humorless bunch, but that doesn’t stop them from providing moments of unintentional comedy. A very enjoyable example today comes from the Atlantic’s James Fallows. Fallows heard something he liked in Obama’s speech yesterday to the annual AIPAC conference: “There is too much loose talk of war,” the president said about the Iranian threat.

“Good for President Obama for saying this,” Fallows writes today in a post titled–I kid you not–“Iran Drumbeat Watch: AIPAC Edition.” Yes, there does seem to be a lot of loose talk about war with Iran, much of it, it turns out, coming from publications like the one James Fallows writes for. Heading into the weekend, he filed a post chock-full of links to other stories about war with Iran. His fellow Atlantic blogger Robert Wright has filed four posts on the subject in the last week. But the two, it must be said, are not the pioneers of this mania. They were probably set off by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Haaretz, and other such newspapers that bloggers for the Atlantic might read carefully. And here’s what they likely found.

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You can say this about President Obama’s fans in the media: They can be a humorless bunch, but that doesn’t stop them from providing moments of unintentional comedy. A very enjoyable example today comes from the Atlantic’s James Fallows. Fallows heard something he liked in Obama’s speech yesterday to the annual AIPAC conference: “There is too much loose talk of war,” the president said about the Iranian threat.

“Good for President Obama for saying this,” Fallows writes today in a post titled–I kid you not–“Iran Drumbeat Watch: AIPAC Edition.” Yes, there does seem to be a lot of loose talk about war with Iran, much of it, it turns out, coming from publications like the one James Fallows writes for. Heading into the weekend, he filed a post chock-full of links to other stories about war with Iran. His fellow Atlantic blogger Robert Wright has filed four posts on the subject in the last week. But the two, it must be said, are not the pioneers of this mania. They were probably set off by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Haaretz, and other such newspapers that bloggers for the Atlantic might read carefully. And here’s what they likely found.

In the last week, a brief glance at the New York Times website shows an average of at least one story a day on the subject. The Washington Post has perhaps even more material as many of its Iran dispatches are Associated Press briefs and the paper has a much more active and varied blog and opinion section than does the New York Times.

A visit to Haaretz’s website shows the liberal Israeli daily has helpfully set up a section called “Israel’s Eye on Iran”–a one-stop shop for all your Iran news. The first eight headlines we see are:

  • “Israel would be wise to listen to Obama’s advice on Iran”
  • “Obama and Netanyahu’s White House masquerade ball”
  • “Would God want Israel to attack Iran?”
  • “Tangled web of policy, politics and personality mark Obama-Netanyahu summit”
  • “The hallucinations of the Israeli government”
  • “Jerusalem, Washington, and the Iranian bomb”
  • “The American public’s support for an attack on Iran will be widespread but short-lived”
  • “Barak will have to pass an attack on Iran through a reluctant U.S.”

If you feel overwhelmed by this, head on back to Haaretz’s home page. There you’ll find a link to an opinion piece from Saturday’s paper titled “Netanyahu’s conspiracy to drag the U.S. to war.”

So the president is right. So is James Fallows. There is too much loose talk of war. And Fallows and co. would be delighted to know there is something they can do. Physician, heal thyself.

There is one more interesting nugget in Fallows’s post today. He was struck by the part of the president’s speech “in which Obama explained that he was really, truly Israel’s friend.” Fallows says he “can’t think of another situation where an American president, speaking to an American audience on American soil, would find it necessary or dignified to plead his bona fides in a similar way.”

Nor I. I am young, perhaps, but I too cannot think of another situation in which the American president acted with such visible disdain toward an ostensible ally that he felt he must lecture those concerned about his behavior that they were merely being brainwashed by the president’s unnamed enemies. I also cannot recall a time when a president–let alone a president who received close to 80 percent of the Jewish vote–felt compelled to tell a room of Jewish donors that he was the best they were going to get so they should just quit complaining and write him a check. Who are these Jewish voters going to believe, the president would like to know–Obama or their lying eyes?

You also have got to love Fallows’s choice of words for that complaint: “an American president, speaking to an American audience on American soil….” It’s almost as if he thinks the behavior of that crowd is un- oh, never mind. I’m sure it’s just a poor choice of words. He’s upset–those aggressive Israelis are about to pull us into a war with Iran. He read all about it in the Atlantic.

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Bibi and Obama Sing Different Tunes

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke briefly to the press before their meeting at the White House today. The points they each chose to emphasize were telling and provide insight into their mindsets going into the high-pressure Iran discussion.

Obama spoke first, and stressed the bond between Israel and the U.S., as well as its close military coordination.

I know that both the prime minister and I prefer to resolve this diplomatically. We understand the costs of any military action.  And I want to assure both the American people and the Israeli people that we are in constant and close consultation. I think the levels of coordination and consultation between our militaries and our intelligence not just on this issue but on a broad range of issues has been unprecedented. And I intend to make sure that that continues during what will be a series of difficult months, I suspect, in 2012.

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President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke briefly to the press before their meeting at the White House today. The points they each chose to emphasize were telling and provide insight into their mindsets going into the high-pressure Iran discussion.

Obama spoke first, and stressed the bond between Israel and the U.S., as well as its close military coordination.

I know that both the prime minister and I prefer to resolve this diplomatically. We understand the costs of any military action.  And I want to assure both the American people and the Israeli people that we are in constant and close consultation. I think the levels of coordination and consultation between our militaries and our intelligence not just on this issue but on a broad range of issues has been unprecedented. And I intend to make sure that that continues during what will be a series of difficult months, I suspect, in 2012.

While the military cooperation between the two countries does remain close, there have been more communication breakdowns in recent months than the president chose to acknowledge. Israel has declined to share specifics about when it would strike Iran, and the U.S. has withheld sensitive intelligence information that would assist Israel’s covert sabotage campaign, The Daily Beast reported last month.

But Obama is obviously trying to repair – or at least publicly downplay – the trust deficit between his administration and Netanyahu’s.

Meanwhile, the Israeli prime minister spoke about the unbreakable U.S.-Israeli relationship, without specifically mentioning the military partnership. He indicated that Israel would not ask Obama’s permission if it decides to use force against Iran’s nuclear program. And he reiterated that Israel reserves the right to defend itself, even if it’s done unilaterally:

I think that above and beyond that are two principles, longstanding principles of American policy that you reiterated yesterday in your speech — that Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself against any threat; and that when it comes to Israel’s security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions. I believe that’s why you appreciate, Mr. President, that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself.

And after all, that’s the very purpose of the Jewish state  — to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny. And that’s why my supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate.

Based on these comments, it doesn’t sound like either leader is willing to cede his current position. Obama still expects Israel to cooperate with the U.S. timeline on Iran, and Netanyahu is clearly committed to taking action with or without the U.S.

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Sarah Palin’s Projection Problem

Last week, I wrote a post praising Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul for their willingness to put themselves through an exhausting, grinding presidential campaign rather than staying on the sidelines. I pointed out that it’s easy for politicians and political commentators to focus on the foibles, mistakes and awkward language that sometimes characterize the current crop of GOP candidates. And I added that it’s a lot easier to analyze candidates from behind a keyboard, microphone, and television studio than it is to actually run day after day, speaking at event after event, taking question after question.

And just like that, who pops up but former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who on Friday told Fox’s Greta Van Susteren,At this point we are watching Obama with his naive apologies to savages in Afghanistan who turn around and kill our soldiers. We look at things like that, the actions of our sitting president and we say, ‘anybody but Obama.’ And that is why Greta, that Alaskans whom I speak with — we’re so tired of the pettiness within that GOP process. You know, the folks are bickering back and forth about different tactics taken within their campaigns and in this nominating process. We’re trying to remind these candidates: Stay focused on the main thing and that is get a commander in chief who our troops deserve.”

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Last week, I wrote a post praising Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul for their willingness to put themselves through an exhausting, grinding presidential campaign rather than staying on the sidelines. I pointed out that it’s easy for politicians and political commentators to focus on the foibles, mistakes and awkward language that sometimes characterize the current crop of GOP candidates. And I added that it’s a lot easier to analyze candidates from behind a keyboard, microphone, and television studio than it is to actually run day after day, speaking at event after event, taking question after question.

And just like that, who pops up but former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who on Friday told Fox’s Greta Van Susteren,At this point we are watching Obama with his naive apologies to savages in Afghanistan who turn around and kill our soldiers. We look at things like that, the actions of our sitting president and we say, ‘anybody but Obama.’ And that is why Greta, that Alaskans whom I speak with — we’re so tired of the pettiness within that GOP process. You know, the folks are bickering back and forth about different tactics taken within their campaigns and in this nominating process. We’re trying to remind these candidates: Stay focused on the main thing and that is get a commander in chief who our troops deserve.”

This is rich. Palin prematurely resigned her post as governor because she couldn’t take the political heat. Since the 2008 campaign — in which, it has to be said, she was often badly mistreated — Palin has become brittle, often defensive, and consumed by resentments. She has engaged in too many petty twitter wars to count. And against the counsel of many, at the moment when President Obama was about to speak at a memorial service for those who were killed and wounded in a massacre in Tucson (including Representative Gabrielle Giffords), Palin released a video in which she responded to “journalists and pundits” for “manufacturing a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.”

So to have Palin complaining about weariness with the “pettiness within the GOP process” and for “bickering back and forth” is a bit much. Among other things, it shows an utter lack of self-awareness by the former Alaska governor and, I would imagine, some degree of projection.

Whatever complaints some Republicans might have about the current field, at least Sarah Palin isn’t in it. Call it a small blessing for the GOP.

 

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Obama and Bibi’s Dueling Agendas

President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this morning, and the looming question is whether Obama was able to convince the Israeli leader to hold off on an attack on Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for assurances that the U.S. will take care of the problem militarily if necessary.

Obama was clear during his AIPAC speech yesterday that he won’t hesitate to use force to prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb, but the near-zero level trust between the president and Netanyahu may make it difficult for the prime minister to take this promise seriously.

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President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this morning, and the looming question is whether Obama was able to convince the Israeli leader to hold off on an attack on Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for assurances that the U.S. will take care of the problem militarily if necessary.

Obama was clear during his AIPAC speech yesterday that he won’t hesitate to use force to prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb, but the near-zero level trust between the president and Netanyahu may make it difficult for the prime minister to take this promise seriously.

At The Daily Beast, Eli Lake reports on the main issue of contention between Obama and Netanyahu: Israel wants to demolish Iran’s capability to build a nuclear weapon, while the Obama administration has only indicated that it will use force to prevent Iran from obtaining the actual weapon itself:

At issue is that the United States and Israel disagree on what the trigger or “red line” should be for striking Iran’s nuclear program. The Israelis seek to destroy Iran’s ability to manufacture an atomic weapon, whereas President Obama has pledged only to stop Iran from making a weapon.

“The technical assessments are very similar,” Ephraim Asculai, an Israeli nuclear scientist who worked for 40 years at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, told The Daily Beast last week. “The discrepancies come at the definition of red lines, or the definition of the time when something must be done is considered.”

Asculai added, “The United States does not think the time has come when it must make a decision and must take severe action. There lies the big difference between the United States and Israel; Israel thinks the time is here.”

Israel also has a much smaller window for launching an effective attack on Iran’s nuclear program, because its military capabilities are less extensive than those of the U.S. If Obama is unable to fully convince Netanyahu that he’ll use force at the necessary time, then it becomes far more likely Israel will take unilateral military action – and soon.

The icy relationship between Obama and Netanyahu was thrust into the spotlight in the run-up to last year’s AIPAC event, when Netanyahu lectured the president at a joint press conference. This year, the White House skipped the traditional presser, probably in order to avoid a similarly embarrassing spectacle. But we’re sure to get a sense of how successful the meeting was tonight, when Netanyahu gives his major address to AIPAC.

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The Crumbling Spectacle of Putin’s Russia

The absurdity of this weekend’s Russian presidential election began in earnest on Sunday, when a Twitter account claiming to be that of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted at an identical Twitter account claiming to be that of Michael McFaul, accusing the latter of being fake. One of the two accounts obviously was fake, but it was difficult to tell. The real account’s name is @McFaul; the fake one used an uppercase “i” at the end. On Twitter, the two letters are identical.

But the scene–in which the real McFaul tweeted at the fake McFaul “This is a false account. You all obviously know I dont write that well in Russian!”–was the bizarre beginning to a bizarre election day. The fake account even tweeted some early criticism of the Russian elections, leading a pro-Kremlin television anchor to criticize the American interlopers who apparently didn’t even have the decency to wait until the elections were over to cast doubt on the process.

Welcome to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, 2012.

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The absurdity of this weekend’s Russian presidential election began in earnest on Sunday, when a Twitter account claiming to be that of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted at an identical Twitter account claiming to be that of Michael McFaul, accusing the latter of being fake. One of the two accounts obviously was fake, but it was difficult to tell. The real account’s name is @McFaul; the fake one used an uppercase “i” at the end. On Twitter, the two letters are identical.

But the scene–in which the real McFaul tweeted at the fake McFaul “This is a false account. You all obviously know I dont write that well in Russian!”–was the bizarre beginning to a bizarre election day. The fake account even tweeted some early criticism of the Russian elections, leading a pro-Kremlin television anchor to criticize the American interlopers who apparently didn’t even have the decency to wait until the elections were over to cast doubt on the process.

Welcome to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, 2012.

The rest of what took place yesterday, however, wasn’t quite so entertaining–though it was just as typical of what Putin has wrought:

And yet, all day Sunday, Moscow was flooded with news of violations in the city. In part, they were the result of more eyes. In many cases, the violations were so blatant that no pair of eyes could miss them. Instead of limiting themselves to the quiet tricks they’ve used before — stuffing ballot boxes before the voting begins, pressuring people at work to vote for Putin, fudging the numbers on the election protocols after the election monitors have gone home — whoever was in charge of the operation almost seemed to have made a conscious decision to go flagrant. Fleets of buses — workhorses of the carousels — clogged Moscow’s center. Activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi were bused in, their cities of origin plastered on the windshields, to vote. (The busing got so bad that, at mid-day, the head of the Moscow Election Committee had to issue a clarification: they were just giving people rides to the polling stations, he said.)

Elena Panfilova, the director of the Russian branch of Transparency International, reported a large mass of voters with absentee certificates — which allow you to vote outside your precinct — from faraway Tambov showing up at her precinct in suburban Moscow, where she worked as an observer. These absentee certificates were this election’s great innovation, giving the Kremlin armies of voters freed from their place of residence, and therefore making it impossible to make sure they only vote once. It seemed to be a massive plan: the Central Election Commission ran out of the certificates well before the elections started. There were 2.6 million of them.

The point of all this flagrant ballot fixing was to ensure Putin received more than 50 percent of the vote (he was eventually credited with 63) to avoid a runoff. A runoff would put Putin on par with his “rivals.” I put “rivals” in quotation marks because of another facet of Putin’s Russia: he wasn’t really running against anyone. Sure, there were other candidates. In addition to independent candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, Putin beat out Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky. This was the most highly anticipated Russian presidential election since 2000, when Putin beat out Gennady Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the more liberal-leaning Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky.

That election enabled Putin to officially succeed the ailing Boris Yeltsin, who himself had an action-packed presidential election in 1996, in which he beat out… Gennady Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Grigory Yavlinsky.

It’s safe to say, then, that most of the non-Putin votes were protest votes. And speaking of protests, as I write this about 14,000 people have piled into Pushkin Square in Moscow, and many more are expected to show up for today’s protests. The scene–and it’s still early, as Sean Guillory, who tweeted this picture, notes–looks something like this:

Expect that crowd to grow. As I said last week, Putin is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy, in which not even the comfortable, educated middle class are interested in his authoritarian circus. The election was an embarrassment to them–as were December’s rigged parliamentary elections, as are the Kremlin’s puerile pranksters, who are believed to have been behind the fake Twitter shenanigans. Luke Harding says the question for those in Pushkin Square is “how to bring about the end of the regime?” A better question might be, how to facilitate the crumbling that has already begun?

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Romney Still Reaping Dividends From Weak Field of Rivals

In a year in which the Republican Party’s proportional delegate allocation rules have ruled out a quick end to the presidential race, it isn’t possible for any candidate to use this week’s Super Tuesday primaries to lock up the GOP nomination. With new polls showing he has either caught or surpassed Rick Santorum in the crucial Ohio and Tennessee primaries, Mitt Romney can take a crucial step toward the nomination in tomorrow’s 10-state showdown. If Romney wins in both of those states, that may mean Santorum could end the day without a single triumph to his name. With the fading Newt Gingrich ahead in his adopted home state of Georgia, a Super Tuesday shutout might be a telling blow to Santorum. By tomorrow night, Santorum’s February surge may well be replaced by a March collapse.

The reason for Romney’s growing strength isn’t hard to discern. The frontrunner’s problems have not gone away. He still has trouble connecting with voters and conservatives have yet to accept him as one of their own. But the continued presence of two weak conservative rivals in the field have nevertheless put Mitt Romney in position to solidify his delegate lead as well as strengthen the impression he is the inevitable Republican standard bearer.

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In a year in which the Republican Party’s proportional delegate allocation rules have ruled out a quick end to the presidential race, it isn’t possible for any candidate to use this week’s Super Tuesday primaries to lock up the GOP nomination. With new polls showing he has either caught or surpassed Rick Santorum in the crucial Ohio and Tennessee primaries, Mitt Romney can take a crucial step toward the nomination in tomorrow’s 10-state showdown. If Romney wins in both of those states, that may mean Santorum could end the day without a single triumph to his name. With the fading Newt Gingrich ahead in his adopted home state of Georgia, a Super Tuesday shutout might be a telling blow to Santorum. By tomorrow night, Santorum’s February surge may well be replaced by a March collapse.

The reason for Romney’s growing strength isn’t hard to discern. The frontrunner’s problems have not gone away. He still has trouble connecting with voters and conservatives have yet to accept him as one of their own. But the continued presence of two weak conservative rivals in the field have nevertheless put Mitt Romney in position to solidify his delegate lead as well as strengthen the impression he is the inevitable Republican standard bearer.

Romney’s path to the nomination remains the same as it was before the votes started being cast. With conservatives unable to unite behind a single, viable candidate, the well-funded Romney has managed to survive the scorn of most Tea Partiers and evangelicals and continued to pile up pluralities in most of the contests. Few in the party are sold on him, and the slight revival of the economy in recent months has even cast some doubt on his electability against a strengthened Barack Obama. But politics is always a matter of comparisons, and alongside Santorum and Gingrich, not to mention the libertarian outlier Ron Paul, Romney looks like the only one with even a prayer in November.

Santorum had his chance last week in Michigan to turn the race around and send Romney into a tailspin from which he might not have recovered. But in the week before that vote, his long record of embarrassing statements on social issues caught up to him in much the same way some of Gingrich’s personal and political baggage eventually dragged him down during his two surges in the polls. With both of his main rivals crippled in this manner and with each of them ensuring the other can never achieve a one-on-one confrontation with Romney, the former Massachusetts governor has become, almost by default, a frontrunner and is now on the verge of being acclaimed as the certain nominee.

The keys to achieving that status will be found in Ohio and Tennessee. Romney’s momentum looks like it will be enough to carry him over the top in the big prize tomorrow in Ohio. However, Tennessee could be just as important. It is the sort of southern state that Romney is expected to lose because its Republican electorate is largely made up of voters who have shunned him so far. But the We Ask America poll of the state published today shows him taking a one-point lead over both Santorum and Gingrich. The 30-29-29 result is a virtual three-way tie, so no one should assume a Romney victory, but the perception of a rising Romney tide may help him there. If Romney can win in a southern state like Tennessee, the argument will underline the fact he is the only one of the GOP contenders who is truly running a national campaign.

Though Gingrich will pretend a win in Georgia gives him a chance to become a regional candidate and win other southern states, a Santorum shutout will be the beginning of the end for the Pennsylvanian and make it harder for him to raise the money to run a viable campaign elsewhere.

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White House Official: We’re Making Israel’s Decision to Attack Iran “Hard as Possible”

Most pro-Israel president evuh:

“We’re trying to make the decision to attack as hard as possible for Israel,” said an administration official… he suggested that any Israeli strike on Iran before international oil and gas sanctions take effect this summer would undermine the tenuous unity the United States and its allies have built to oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Privately, White House officials say the coalition would explode with the first Israeli airstrike.

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Most pro-Israel president evuh:

“We’re trying to make the decision to attack as hard as possible for Israel,” said an administration official… he suggested that any Israeli strike on Iran before international oil and gas sanctions take effect this summer would undermine the tenuous unity the United States and its allies have built to oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Privately, White House officials say the coalition would explode with the first Israeli airstrike.

The Europeans have been ahead of Obama on the need to take a hard line against Iran, with French President Sarkozy fuming even during the election that Obama was “utterly immature” and spouting “formulations empty of all content.” So it strains credibility that the White House would actually be unable to hold together “the United States and its allies” in the aftermath of an Israeli strike. What does seem likely is that the administration will pretend to be unable to hold together the coalition, simultaneously selling out our Israeli allies and scapegoating them for the sell out. Neat trick.

It’s probably true that Russia would use the attack as an excuse to make mischief, and perhaps more than a little bit of mischief. Putin has repeatedly warned against military intervention in either Syria or Iran. But the Russians are engaged in broad preparations to militarize their border and protect their allies in Syria and Iran, with Putin taking to the pages of Foreign Policy to blandly explain why. That’s one of the many reasons why the reset is functionally over, and why blaming Israel for fracturing a global front seems a little churlish. Not that the White House won’t do it anyway (“make the decision to attack as hard as possible” and so on). But it just all seems a little bit churlish.

Abandoning Israel in the aftermath of a preemptive strike on Iran would be a purely internal decision. It wouldn’t be forced by external diplomatic or military necessities. It’s just something the Obama people are signaling they intend to do. And if you criticize them, then the president and his water carriers on the Jewish left will blame you for everything from eroding the U.S./Israeli relationship to high gas prices.

The IAEA – just this morning – declared that Iran has tripled its monthly production of higher-grade enriched uranium, and that the “agency continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.” Tick tock.

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AIPAC Head to Obama: Do More on Iran

In a fiery speech at the AIPAC conference this morning, executive director Howard Kohr praised the Obama administration for its efforts to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but warned that the progress so far “has not been enough.”

President Obama and his administration are to be commended. They have – more than any other administration — more than any other country – brought unprecedented pressure to bear on Tehran through the use of biting economic sanctions. …

The problem is–progress is not enough.  … The reality today is that the Iranian regime is not frightened enough. We must increase the pressures on the mullahs to the point where they fear failure to comply will lead to their downfall.

That is why we must bring even more pressure to bear. Four tracks are critical: tough, principled diplomacy, truly crippling sanctions, disruptive measures and establishing a credible threat to use force. All four are necessary. All four are essential, to underscore, beyond any doubt, that the United States and the west are serious – serious about stopping Iran. And all four, taken together, offer the best chance to avoid a war that no one – not the United States, not Israel — seeks.

That is why all U.S. officials must speak with one voice – so Tehran clearly hears that America is unified in its determination to prevent a nuclear capable Iran.

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In a fiery speech at the AIPAC conference this morning, executive director Howard Kohr praised the Obama administration for its efforts to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but warned that the progress so far “has not been enough.”

President Obama and his administration are to be commended. They have – more than any other administration — more than any other country – brought unprecedented pressure to bear on Tehran through the use of biting economic sanctions. …

The problem is–progress is not enough.  … The reality today is that the Iranian regime is not frightened enough. We must increase the pressures on the mullahs to the point where they fear failure to comply will lead to their downfall.

That is why we must bring even more pressure to bear. Four tracks are critical: tough, principled diplomacy, truly crippling sanctions, disruptive measures and establishing a credible threat to use force. All four are necessary. All four are essential, to underscore, beyond any doubt, that the United States and the west are serious – serious about stopping Iran. And all four, taken together, offer the best chance to avoid a war that no one – not the United States, not Israel — seeks.

That is why all U.S. officials must speak with one voice – so Tehran clearly hears that America is unified in its determination to prevent a nuclear capable Iran.

Kohr’s speech, which focused solely on the Iranian nuclear threat, highlighted how AIPAC’s priorities have shifted since just last spring. The Palestinian conflict has faded into the background, and preventing a nuclear Iran has been the main concern since the conference began yesterday.

Specifically, Kohr called on the administration to support even tougher sanctions and demand that Iran freeze its program before any potential diplomacy can begin. His requests are backed up by immediate political muscle: tomorrow AIPAC heads to Capitol Hill for its annual public lobbying day, and these issues will be its top focus.

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The “Times,” It Ain’t A’Changing

Well, I’m back from my 12-day cruise off South America, lecturing with a Hillsdale College group. Except for two ten-hour flights on American Airlines in economy-class seats that would, were I a prisoner of war, violate the Geneva Convention, it was a great trip, with a great crowd.

Much to my surprise, on my return I found that the New York Times’s editorial page is still utterly predictable. The lead editorial this morning for instance, contains absolutely nothing new regarding drilling in the United States and U.S. waters. The Times writes:

It’’s campaign season and the pandering about gas prices is in full swing. Hardly a day goes by that a Republican politician does not throw facts to the wind and claim that rising costs at the pump are the result of President Obama’’s decisions to block the Keystone XL pipeline and impose sensible environmental regulations and modest restrictions on offshore drilling.

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Well, I’m back from my 12-day cruise off South America, lecturing with a Hillsdale College group. Except for two ten-hour flights on American Airlines in economy-class seats that would, were I a prisoner of war, violate the Geneva Convention, it was a great trip, with a great crowd.

Much to my surprise, on my return I found that the New York Times’s editorial page is still utterly predictable. The lead editorial this morning for instance, contains absolutely nothing new regarding drilling in the United States and U.S. waters. The Times writes:

It’’s campaign season and the pandering about gas prices is in full swing. Hardly a day goes by that a Republican politician does not throw facts to the wind and claim that rising costs at the pump are the result of President Obama’’s decisions to block the Keystone XL pipeline and impose sensible environmental regulations and modest restrictions on offshore drilling.

As any economist (except Paul Krugman) could tell the Times, any restrictions on future supply has an immediate upward price effect (and vice versa–promise of greater future supply brings down prices right away). So the Keystone XL pipeline decision certainly put upward pressure on gas prices. So does “modest restrictions on offshore drilling.” These modest restrictions include putting the entire east coast, the Florida gulf coast, and the entire west coast off limits to oil drilling. I hate to think what immodest restrictions would look like.

Even where drilling has been grudgingly allowed by the government, as off the north coast of Alaska, non-governmental organizations that the Times would never dream of criticizing stand ready to block any drilling. As the Times itself reports this morning, Shell Oil has launched a preemptive suit to try to forestall the inevitable legal challenges from groups masquerading as environmental groups (they are actually anti-business groups). Shell has already spent $4 billion just to get the government’s permission to drill. The Times writes:

Marvin E. Odum, Shell’’s president for the United States, said in an interview that he was “highly confident” that the company’’s plan for preventing and responding to an oil spill would survive any legal scrutiny. He said the company had filed the suit in the hopes of speeding up the judicial review of the plan that will come if and when the environmental groups — who have challenged Shell at every step of the process— file suit.

Their filing suit is more certain than the sun’s rising in the east tomorrow morning.

The Times also notes that we use 20 percent of the world’s oil (not surprising, actually, as we have 25 percent of the world’s GDP), but only 2 percent of the world’s reserves. This is lying with statistics. By definition, “proven reserves” are those that 1) are known to exist, 2) can be economically extracted with present technology and, 3) can be exploited under current law. So the vast reserves that are known to exist offshore (although even exploration is forbidden in many areas–doubtless because the left fears something might be found) don’t count. Neither do the huge reserves locked up in the oil shales of the West. Take away the legal restrictions imposed by the left, and American oil reserves probably exceed those of Saudi Arabia.

It’s nice to be back in the real world, even if it means I have to start reading the New York Times editorial page again.

 

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Gallup Data Shows Peace Process Undermines Support for Israel

The annual AIPAC conference now taking place in Washington is the year’s flagship display of American support for Israel, so it’s an appropriate time to consider the roots of this support. To that end, a recent Gallup poll offers some strikingly counterintuitive data: In contrast to the conventional wisdom, which holds that support for Israel depends on its willingness to pursue peace with the Palestinians, it turns out that support for Israel has historically been lowest precisely when it pursues peace most vigorously.

The Gallup data includes a graph displaying 25 years of responses, from 1988 through 2012, to the question of whether Americans’ sympathies lie more with Israel or the Palestinians. It turns out the all-time peak for pro-Israel sympathies, 64 percent, was hit in 1991 – two years before the Oslo Accord was signed. Granted, that was the year of the Gulf War, when Palestinians outraged Americans by backing Saddam Hussein. But it was also the era of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who flatly refused to talk to the PLO or even consider territorial concessions, and expanded settlements at a pace no subsequent government has approached. If pursuit of peace were the defining factor in mobilizing American support for Israel, pro-Israel sentiment should have soared after Yitzhak Rabin signed Oslo. Instead, it remained 20 to 25 points below the peak throughout Rabin’s term, and only during the last three years – with peace talks frozen and much of the world blaming Israel – has it once again surpassed 60 percent.

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The annual AIPAC conference now taking place in Washington is the year’s flagship display of American support for Israel, so it’s an appropriate time to consider the roots of this support. To that end, a recent Gallup poll offers some strikingly counterintuitive data: In contrast to the conventional wisdom, which holds that support for Israel depends on its willingness to pursue peace with the Palestinians, it turns out that support for Israel has historically been lowest precisely when it pursues peace most vigorously.

The Gallup data includes a graph displaying 25 years of responses, from 1988 through 2012, to the question of whether Americans’ sympathies lie more with Israel or the Palestinians. It turns out the all-time peak for pro-Israel sympathies, 64 percent, was hit in 1991 – two years before the Oslo Accord was signed. Granted, that was the year of the Gulf War, when Palestinians outraged Americans by backing Saddam Hussein. But it was also the era of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who flatly refused to talk to the PLO or even consider territorial concessions, and expanded settlements at a pace no subsequent government has approached. If pursuit of peace were the defining factor in mobilizing American support for Israel, pro-Israel sentiment should have soared after Yitzhak Rabin signed Oslo. Instead, it remained 20 to 25 points below the peak throughout Rabin’s term, and only during the last three years – with peace talks frozen and much of the world blaming Israel – has it once again surpassed 60 percent.

Even more stunning is a comparison of the pro-Israel trend line with the “both/neither/no opinion” line. For 25 years, pro-Israel sympathies consistently exceeded pro-Palestinian ones. But they didn’t consistently exceed the “both/neither/no opinion” category. In fact, pro-Israel sentiment was consistently below “both/neither/no opinion” throughout the Oslo period (1993-2000), aside from a brief flicker in 1999. This was true at all the high points of the peace process: the Oslo Accord itself (1993), the Gaza-Jericho agreement that created the Palestinian Authority (1994), the interim agreement that expanded the PA from Gaza into the West Bank (1995), and the Camp David final-status talks (2000).

In contrast, pro-Israel sentiment was higher than “both/neither/no opinion” throughout the pre-Oslo years of 1989-93, as well as all the years after the second intifada erupted in 2000, during which not a single Israeli-Palestinian agreement was signed. In short, it turns out that Americans were least pro-Israel during moments of greatest progress in the peace process and most pro-Israel during periods of impasse.

This may seem counterintuitive, but it actually shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Oslo years were when Israel most enthusiastically endorsed the Palestinians’ narrative that they, not Israel, are the ones with a “right” to the territories. Because the Palestinians, not being public-relations morons, never reciprocated the favor, what Americans essentially heard from both sides was that Israel is a thief, depriving Palestinians of the land and statehood they deserve. Unsurprisingly, that caused pro-Israel sympathy to decline.

Certainly, Americans care about peace. But they care even more about justice. So if Israel is to maintain America’s sympathies, it must resume pushing the justice of its cause – from its historic and legal claim to the territories to the international guarantees of defensible borders it has received over the years – rather than that of the Palestinians. As the Gallup data shows, downplaying its own rights for the sake of “peace” turns out to be the worst strategy Israel can pursue.

 

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