Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 13, 2012

Santorum Sweep Would Make Romney’s Task Harder and Longer

A slow vote count in both Alabama and Mississippi has left the outcome of both primaries in doubt until 10pm. Both states appeared to be a three-way scrum in which Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were all within a few points of each other. Nevertheless, Santorum has been projected to win Alabama and has taken a lead in Mississippi leaving open the question of just how significant such a double victory would be if, in fact, he hangs on in both states.

It should be understood that in contrast to earlier primaries, this is one night in which all the pressure was on Santorum and Gingrich with very little on Romney. Few expected Romney to do well in the Deep South where evangelical voters predominate. A win in either Alabama or Mississippi would be a coup for the frontrunner and prove that his was truly a national candidacy. But even if he fails to win, he doesn’t lose much ground in the all-important delegate count since the proportional allocation of delegates won’t give any of the three contenders much of an advantage after such a close race. And with Hawaii, whose caucus results may well be known before Alabama finishes its ultra-slow vote count, will likely give Romney a win offsetting any damage done in the South by Santorum. Nevertheless, a double victory for Santorum would enable the Pennsylvanian to once again claim that he is the true standard-bearer for conservatives. It would also place more pressure on Newt Gingrich to withdraw though I doubt there is anything that could compel the former speaker to abandon his candidacy.

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A slow vote count in both Alabama and Mississippi has left the outcome of both primaries in doubt until 10pm. Both states appeared to be a three-way scrum in which Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were all within a few points of each other. Nevertheless, Santorum has been projected to win Alabama and has taken a lead in Mississippi leaving open the question of just how significant such a double victory would be if, in fact, he hangs on in both states.

It should be understood that in contrast to earlier primaries, this is one night in which all the pressure was on Santorum and Gingrich with very little on Romney. Few expected Romney to do well in the Deep South where evangelical voters predominate. A win in either Alabama or Mississippi would be a coup for the frontrunner and prove that his was truly a national candidacy. But even if he fails to win, he doesn’t lose much ground in the all-important delegate count since the proportional allocation of delegates won’t give any of the three contenders much of an advantage after such a close race. And with Hawaii, whose caucus results may well be known before Alabama finishes its ultra-slow vote count, will likely give Romney a win offsetting any damage done in the South by Santorum. Nevertheless, a double victory for Santorum would enable the Pennsylvanian to once again claim that he is the true standard-bearer for conservatives. It would also place more pressure on Newt Gingrich to withdraw though I doubt there is anything that could compel the former speaker to abandon his candidacy.

The danger for Romney, however, is not so much in the effect of tonight’s voting on the delegate count but on the momentum that it might give Santorum heading into Missouri, Louisiana and Illinois later this month. Santorum will be favored in Louisiana and Missouri but Illinois is the sort of state that Romney is expected to win. Romney managed to squeak out close wins in Michigan and Ohio over Santorum. But the more credibility that Santorum gets by piling up primary victories the harder it will be for Romney to pull out Illinois.

Romney already knows he’s locked in a long, hard slog to get to the nomination even if the delegate math indicates that he will prevail in the end. But the longer he must keep fighting and fending off bitter attacks on his credibility, the harder it will be for him to unite his party behind his candidacy once the dust settles.

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Biden: Obama Courageously Risked His Reelection to Kill Bin Laden

President Obama’s decision to order the Seal Team Six raid against Osama bin Laden may seem like a no-brainer in hindsight, but in reality the president took on a lot of risk: American lives, a diplomatic or military conflict with Pakistan, and a failure to kill bin Laden that could have resulted in an international propaganda victory for al-Qaeda.

These are the disaster scenarios that typically come to mind when a White House official praises the president for his courage during the raid. But according to Vice President Biden, Obama’s real act of valor was ordering the operation despite the catastrophic possibility that a failed mission could tarnish his reelection chances:

“This guy’s got a backbone like a ramrod,” Biden said of Obama, according to the White House pool report. He cited the success of the military mission to capture Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last summer as a decisive moment for his presidency.

“He said, ‘Go,’ knowing his presidency was on the line,” Biden said of Obama. “Had he failed in that audacious mission, he would’ve been a one-term president.”

The Obama campaign has highlighted the Navy SEAL mission that resulted in the death of bin Laden as one of the top accomplishments of the president’s term. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who hosted the fundraiser at his Georgetown home, summed up Obama’s first term using a favorite line of Biden’s: “Osama bin Laden is dead. General Motors is alive.”

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President Obama’s decision to order the Seal Team Six raid against Osama bin Laden may seem like a no-brainer in hindsight, but in reality the president took on a lot of risk: American lives, a diplomatic or military conflict with Pakistan, and a failure to kill bin Laden that could have resulted in an international propaganda victory for al-Qaeda.

These are the disaster scenarios that typically come to mind when a White House official praises the president for his courage during the raid. But according to Vice President Biden, Obama’s real act of valor was ordering the operation despite the catastrophic possibility that a failed mission could tarnish his reelection chances:

“This guy’s got a backbone like a ramrod,” Biden said of Obama, according to the White House pool report. He cited the success of the military mission to capture Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last summer as a decisive moment for his presidency.

“He said, ‘Go,’ knowing his presidency was on the line,” Biden said of Obama. “Had he failed in that audacious mission, he would’ve been a one-term president.”

The Obama campaign has highlighted the Navy SEAL mission that resulted in the death of bin Laden as one of the top accomplishments of the president’s term. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who hosted the fundraiser at his Georgetown home, summed up Obama’s first term using a favorite line of Biden’s: “Osama bin Laden is dead. General Motors is alive.”

If there’s one thing you’d hope the Commander in Chief isn’t preoccupied with during such a critical moment, it’s the risk to his own reelection. And the fact that Biden touts this as if it were the president’s most selfless act of courage really tells you where the Obama administration’s primary concerns lie. This White House has injected election politics into nearly every issue it’s tackled during the past three years, including national security. They’ve practically been running for reelection since the moment Obama was sworn in.

Which is yet another reason why America’s enemies don’t take Obama’s warnings seriously. When doubts have been raised about whether Obama has the backbone to take military action against Iran, his supporters point to the bin Laden raid as evidence of his fortitude. But if the White House was concerned about election-year fallout from the bin Laden raid – an operation that was risky, but was supported almost unanimously by the American public – what are the chances Obama would take on an even riskier mission that has less public support?

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Santorum and the Danger of Becoming the Grievance Candidate

At various times throughout the presidential campaign, Rick Santorum has shown himself to be impressive: articulate, forceful, passionate, and a fine, and at times an outstanding, debater. But there are other times when he’s simply off-key. One example is his silly statement that “I’ve always believed that when you run for president of the United States, it should be illegal to read off a teleprompter, because all you’re doing is reading someone else’s words to people.” My former White House colleague Michael Gerson systematically blows apart Santorum’s argument in his Washington Post column today.

One might think that Santorum’s forays into the land of spontaneous and unfiltered comments — about John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Houston Ministerial Association speech (which Santorum said wanted to make him vomit), on Barack Obama’s effort to encourage more people to go to college (Santorum said Obama was a “snob”) and on contraception (which he considers a grave threat to the Republic and is an issue he promised to talk about if he became president) — would make Rick a little more appreciative of the virtues of carefully crafted speeches and a little less contemptuous of the speechwriting process. But apparently not. For what it’s worth, in my stints as a speechwriter – including for then-Secretary of Education William Bennett and President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2002 – the principals were heavily involved from beginning to end, from the conception of a speech to the editing process. And of course during his political career, I would wager a good deal of money that Santorum has had people draft speeches for him; and he might even have read them from, say, the floor of the Senate.

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At various times throughout the presidential campaign, Rick Santorum has shown himself to be impressive: articulate, forceful, passionate, and a fine, and at times an outstanding, debater. But there are other times when he’s simply off-key. One example is his silly statement that “I’ve always believed that when you run for president of the United States, it should be illegal to read off a teleprompter, because all you’re doing is reading someone else’s words to people.” My former White House colleague Michael Gerson systematically blows apart Santorum’s argument in his Washington Post column today.

One might think that Santorum’s forays into the land of spontaneous and unfiltered comments — about John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Houston Ministerial Association speech (which Santorum said wanted to make him vomit), on Barack Obama’s effort to encourage more people to go to college (Santorum said Obama was a “snob”) and on contraception (which he considers a grave threat to the Republic and is an issue he promised to talk about if he became president) — would make Rick a little more appreciative of the virtues of carefully crafted speeches and a little less contemptuous of the speechwriting process. But apparently not. For what it’s worth, in my stints as a speechwriter – including for then-Secretary of Education William Bennett and President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2002 – the principals were heavily involved from beginning to end, from the conception of a speech to the editing process. And of course during his political career, I would wager a good deal of money that Santorum has had people draft speeches for him; and he might even have read them from, say, the floor of the Senate.

Then there is Santorum’s comments on the “Kilmeade & Friends” radio program on Fox News Radio, in which Santorum said about Mitt Romney: “The man has had a 10-to-1 money advantage. He’s had all the organizational advantage. He’s had Fox News shilling for him every day, no offense Brian but I see it. And yet, he can’t close — he can’t seal the deal because he just doesn’t have the goods to be able to motivate the Republican base and win this election.”

I gather that Santorum’s “shilling” comments were based on the commentary of Dick Morris, who likes Santorum but – in the aftermath of Super Tuesday – believes GOP voters should vote for Romney in order to shorten the primary. I happen to disagree with Morris; I think Republicans should cast their vote for the person they believe would be the best president and has the best chance to win. But the notion that Fox News is “shilling” for Romney is just not credible. There are plenty of commentators and hosts who have said favorable things about the former Pennsylvania senator. Worse, Santorum – whom I know and respect – is beginning to sound prickly and exasperated.

As a general matter, I try to take into account the grueling nature of a presidential campaign and how easy it is to make verbal mistakes. All of us would stumble on the presidential stage, and everyone deserves a break now and then, including Santorum. He’s clearly helped himself during the arc of this campaign. And when he’s good, he’s quite good. But Santorum also needs to be careful, to show more discipline and more nuance in his comments. And he has to check his abrasiveness and bristling responses. We’ve seen how a powerful sense of grievance consumed other prominent Republican figures in recent years; Rick Santorum shouldn’t go down that same path.

 

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Note Timing on Obama’s China Crackdown

Could the timing of President Obama’s decision to crack down on China’s export restrictions be politically motivated? The president announced today that the U.S., the EU and Japan will finally challenge Beijing’s export restrictions on rare earth materials used in tech products in a case before the World Trade Organization. But some find it curious that Obama’s taking this action today, the day of a contentious GOP primary – especially because the president has seemed to schedule many of his major announcements and events on big GOP primary days.

USA Today reports:

White House officials said today it is coincidence that President Obama announced a new trade law case against China on the same day as Republican primaries in Mississippi and Alabama. …

“The president’s schedule is a complex organism,” Carney said. “This was the appropriate day to do it.” …

Last week, Obama held a news conference the same day as the Super Tuesday contests. Last month, he spoke to the United Auto Workers the same day as the GOP primary in Michigan, the nation’s car making capital.

The administration’s World Trade Organization case deals with Chinese restrictions on rare earth minerals necessary to make high-tech products.

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Could the timing of President Obama’s decision to crack down on China’s export restrictions be politically motivated? The president announced today that the U.S., the EU and Japan will finally challenge Beijing’s export restrictions on rare earth materials used in tech products in a case before the World Trade Organization. But some find it curious that Obama’s taking this action today, the day of a contentious GOP primary – especially because the president has seemed to schedule many of his major announcements and events on big GOP primary days.

USA Today reports:

White House officials said today it is coincidence that President Obama announced a new trade law case against China on the same day as Republican primaries in Mississippi and Alabama. …

“The president’s schedule is a complex organism,” Carney said. “This was the appropriate day to do it.” …

Last week, Obama held a news conference the same day as the Super Tuesday contests. Last month, he spoke to the United Auto Workers the same day as the GOP primary in Michigan, the nation’s car making capital.

The administration’s World Trade Organization case deals with Chinese restrictions on rare earth minerals necessary to make high-tech products.

Mitt Romney has slammed Obama on the campaign trail as too soft on China, calling him a “near supplicant to Beijing.” Obviously Obama’s announcement today gives him a strong rebuttal to Romney’s charges.

Not only that, it provides Obama with a valuable talking point on job creation. If the WTO case is successful – as many expect it to be – then China’s easing of export restrictions could help boost the job market in the U.S., particularly manufacturing jobs. One expert quoted by U.S. News and World Report says the election-year timing is too perfect to be a coincidence:

Chinese export restrictions are affecting the American job market, agrees Peter Morici, professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, adding that if China stops restricting its mineral exports, it could also change prices enough to affect consumer behavior in the U.S. …

Adds Morici of the election-year challenge, “The timing of this is blatantly political.”

So after years of inaction on China, Obama has finally decided to take a stand during his reelection year – and announces it on the day of a major GOP primary. What a surprise.

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James Q. Wilson’s Legacy

The Weekly Standard has a cover story, written by Chris DeMuth, on the late political scientist James Q. Wilson. DeMuth does a wonderful job summarizing a half-century’s worth of Jim Wilson’s scholarship and writing. He says, among other things, that Wilson’s book Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It, must be read in full to appreciate its power and depth. In addition, Jeremy Rabkin has an article in which Rabkin says its lesson for would-be reformers, from the left or the right, is: Don’t expect too much.

With those words in mind, I recently came across a 1991 article in Public Administration Review in which five of Wilson’s former students offered their insights on their mentor’s book (the publication was based on remarks made at an American Political Science Association symposium). They considered Bureaucracy to be a milestone in the public administration literature. Steven Kelman pointed to the characteristic modesty of Wilson, who in his preface wrote that “though what follows is not very theoretical, neither is it very practical.” The reader, we’re told, “will not learn very much – if anything – about how to run a government agency.” But there was also modesty in Wilson’s confidence in our capacity to pull the just the right policy levers and remake the world. At the end of Bureaucracy, Kelman (and Rabkin) point out, Wilson put forward what he called “A Few Modest Suggestions That May Make a Small Difference.”

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The Weekly Standard has a cover story, written by Chris DeMuth, on the late political scientist James Q. Wilson. DeMuth does a wonderful job summarizing a half-century’s worth of Jim Wilson’s scholarship and writing. He says, among other things, that Wilson’s book Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It, must be read in full to appreciate its power and depth. In addition, Jeremy Rabkin has an article in which Rabkin says its lesson for would-be reformers, from the left or the right, is: Don’t expect too much.

With those words in mind, I recently came across a 1991 article in Public Administration Review in which five of Wilson’s former students offered their insights on their mentor’s book (the publication was based on remarks made at an American Political Science Association symposium). They considered Bureaucracy to be a milestone in the public administration literature. Steven Kelman pointed to the characteristic modesty of Wilson, who in his preface wrote that “though what follows is not very theoretical, neither is it very practical.” The reader, we’re told, “will not learn very much – if anything – about how to run a government agency.” But there was also modesty in Wilson’s confidence in our capacity to pull the just the right policy levers and remake the world. At the end of Bureaucracy, Kelman (and Rabkin) point out, Wilson put forward what he called “A Few Modest Suggestions That May Make a Small Difference.”

John J. DiIulio, Jr. said his mentor and friend was “motivated by the intrinsic joys of intellectual puzzles, a strong contrarian strain, and impatience with oversimplifications, and a cautionary, even pessimistic outlook on the practical payoffs (if any) of general knowledge about complex human affairs.”

These observations are terrifically important, and deeply conservative ones. Human society is endlessly complicated. And having worked in three administrations (Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43), I can testify first hand that the ability to predict with precision the effects of public policy on human behavior is often different than we anticipate. In some instances, policy reforms can catalyze change quicker than we anticipate (see welfare and crime); other times problems remain frustratingly durable and immune to the effects of policy (see everything from marriage and family life to spreading democracy to the Arab world). The point is not that we shouldn’t try to alter things; it is that we should do so with our eyes wide open, ever respectful of the Law of Unintended Consequences, and always open to new evidence, to readjustments, and to refinement.

That is, I think, what Professor Wilson would want us to keep in mind. So sayeth, at least, those students who knew him best.

 

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The Ending of “The Marriage Plot”

In his essay on her in The Novelist’s Responsibility, L. P. Hartley writes that what struck him most upon rereading Jane Austen in old age was “the sadness to be found in all the novels”:

She did not write about Belsen and Buchenwald; she did not, like Dostoevsky, depict a human soul in the last stages of despair and dissolution, but she was acutely aware of suffering and sorrow; and sometimes, I think, in portraying them, she overruns the two inches of ivory which was the limit she set herself.

All of her novels are about getting married, in other words, but the marriage plot cannot contain the human suffering that Austen glimpsed all around her.

Something like this explains the ending of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, which has puzzled and even disappointed a lot of readers. When I taught the novel this quarter at Ohio State University, my students and I devoted an entire class session to sorting out the ending. And when I mentioned the book last week in connection with Edith Pearlman’s National Book Critics’ Circle Award win, several more people emailed to ask about the ending.

Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read The Marriage Plot, you should click away from this page right now (and run to pick up the book). The novel ends, you will remember, when Mitchell Grammaticus realizes his four-years-deferred dream of sleeping with Madeleine Hanna. Their “long, aspirational, sporadically promising yet frustrating relationship” began during their freshman year at Brown, when Mitchell caught a peek of her “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast” at a toga party. The next year, when she learns that he is going to stay alone in Providence for Thanksgiving, she invites him home to New Jersey to spend the holiday with her family instead. Her parents immediately adore him (“Mitchell was good with parents. Parents were his specialty”), and while playing Scrabble one night — Madeleine is dressed in a bathrobe, “looking both homey and sexy” — Mitchell is visited by a sudden thought: “I’m going to marry this girl!”

Four years later she is married to another man, but he has abandoned her. Mitchell returns to New Jersey, sleeping like a monk in the Hannas’ attic by night, helping Madeleine by day to recover from the grief of her loss. One night she steals into his room and ends his years of frustration. Something is wrong, though. Although she is “finally there before him in the flesh,” she seems “odorless and vaguely alien.” Mitchell feels more alone than he did before, not disappointed so much as bewildered. The next morning he hurries to Quaker meeting. He tries to empty his mind:

Instead of his previous happiness, he felt a creeping unease, as if the floor were about to give way beneath him. He couldn’t testify that what he then experienced was an Indwelling of the Light. Though the Quakers believed that Christ revealed himself to every person, without intermediaries, and that each person was able to take part in a continuing revelation, the things Mitchell saw weren’t revelations of a universal significance. A still, small voice was speaking to him, but it was saying things he didn’t want to hear.

The allusion to 1 Kings 19.12 and the “still, small voice” by which God makes himself known to the prophet Elijah — not by wind, not by earthquake, and not by fire — is perhaps the key to Eugenides’s entire novel. Although it has not been generally recognized as such, The Marriage Plot is a religious novel. Its revelations, though, are not mountain-rending. Rather, they have something to do with what William James described as “the reality of the unseen,” which has the power to change a person’s behavior and even cause him to give up his ego.

So Mitchell returns from meeting and asks Madeleine, whom he has wanted to marry for so long, whether from her studies of the English marriage plot she knows of any novel

where the heroine gets married to the wrong guy and then realizes it, and then the other suitor shows up, some guy who’s always been in love with her, and then they get together, but finally the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life? And so finally the guy doesn’t propose at all, even though he still loves her? Is there any book that ends like that?

When Madeleine says there is no novel like that, he asks whether such an ending would be any good. She says “Yes” — it is the book’s last word — and in doing so she affirms not merely the book called The Marriage Plot that Mitchell Grammaticus’s alter ego ends up writing two-and-a-half decades later, but also his message that marriage may remain the fulfillment of moral experience, just as in Austen, but that for an age in which voices must be loud and turbulent to be heard at all, marriage may be the lesser problem.

In his essay on her in The Novelist’s Responsibility, L. P. Hartley writes that what struck him most upon rereading Jane Austen in old age was “the sadness to be found in all the novels”:

She did not write about Belsen and Buchenwald; she did not, like Dostoevsky, depict a human soul in the last stages of despair and dissolution, but she was acutely aware of suffering and sorrow; and sometimes, I think, in portraying them, she overruns the two inches of ivory which was the limit she set herself.

All of her novels are about getting married, in other words, but the marriage plot cannot contain the human suffering that Austen glimpsed all around her.

Something like this explains the ending of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, which has puzzled and even disappointed a lot of readers. When I taught the novel this quarter at Ohio State University, my students and I devoted an entire class session to sorting out the ending. And when I mentioned the book last week in connection with Edith Pearlman’s National Book Critics’ Circle Award win, several more people emailed to ask about the ending.

Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read The Marriage Plot, you should click away from this page right now (and run to pick up the book). The novel ends, you will remember, when Mitchell Grammaticus realizes his four-years-deferred dream of sleeping with Madeleine Hanna. Their “long, aspirational, sporadically promising yet frustrating relationship” began during their freshman year at Brown, when Mitchell caught a peek of her “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast” at a toga party. The next year, when she learns that he is going to stay alone in Providence for Thanksgiving, she invites him home to New Jersey to spend the holiday with her family instead. Her parents immediately adore him (“Mitchell was good with parents. Parents were his specialty”), and while playing Scrabble one night — Madeleine is dressed in a bathrobe, “looking both homey and sexy” — Mitchell is visited by a sudden thought: “I’m going to marry this girl!”

Four years later she is married to another man, but he has abandoned her. Mitchell returns to New Jersey, sleeping like a monk in the Hannas’ attic by night, helping Madeleine by day to recover from the grief of her loss. One night she steals into his room and ends his years of frustration. Something is wrong, though. Although she is “finally there before him in the flesh,” she seems “odorless and vaguely alien.” Mitchell feels more alone than he did before, not disappointed so much as bewildered. The next morning he hurries to Quaker meeting. He tries to empty his mind:

Instead of his previous happiness, he felt a creeping unease, as if the floor were about to give way beneath him. He couldn’t testify that what he then experienced was an Indwelling of the Light. Though the Quakers believed that Christ revealed himself to every person, without intermediaries, and that each person was able to take part in a continuing revelation, the things Mitchell saw weren’t revelations of a universal significance. A still, small voice was speaking to him, but it was saying things he didn’t want to hear.

The allusion to 1 Kings 19.12 and the “still, small voice” by which God makes himself known to the prophet Elijah — not by wind, not by earthquake, and not by fire — is perhaps the key to Eugenides’s entire novel. Although it has not been generally recognized as such, The Marriage Plot is a religious novel. Its revelations, though, are not mountain-rending. Rather, they have something to do with what William James described as “the reality of the unseen,” which has the power to change a person’s behavior and even cause him to give up his ego.

So Mitchell returns from meeting and asks Madeleine, whom he has wanted to marry for so long, whether from her studies of the English marriage plot she knows of any novel

where the heroine gets married to the wrong guy and then realizes it, and then the other suitor shows up, some guy who’s always been in love with her, and then they get together, but finally the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life? And so finally the guy doesn’t propose at all, even though he still loves her? Is there any book that ends like that?

When Madeleine says there is no novel like that, he asks whether such an ending would be any good. She says “Yes” — it is the book’s last word — and in doing so she affirms not merely the book called The Marriage Plot that Mitchell Grammaticus’s alter ego ends up writing two-and-a-half decades later, but also his message that marriage may remain the fulfillment of moral experience, just as in Austen, but that for an age in which voices must be loud and turbulent to be heard at all, marriage may be the lesser problem.

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Does Turner Give the GOP a Chance Against Gillibrand?

The 2010-midterm elections were a historic victory for the Republicans around the country, but New York State was one of the few bright spots for the Democrats. As expected, Andrew Cuomo won a landslide victory in his quest to succeed his father in the governor’s chair, and Chuck Schumer faced only token opposition in his re-election bid. However, the really painful loss for the GOP involved the way they threw away a golden opportunity to knock off Kirsten Gillibrand as the woman appointed by former Governor David Patterson to succeed Hillary Clinton easily won the right to serve out the rest of the secretary of state’s term. Gillibrand was fortunate in that her opponent, Joseph DioGuardi, was the least electable of a not terribly impressive GOP field. Gillibrand was vulnerable due to the way she had transformed herself from a moderate in the House of Representatives to Senate liberal, but she barely broke a sweat as she beat DioGuardi by a 63-35 percent margin.

The question for the all but moribund New York GOP heading into the 2012 election in which Gillibrand is running for a full six-year term was which of the nonentities seeking the right to oppose the senator would get the nod. But the announcement today that Rep. Bob Turner will run should inject some life if not actual hope into the state Republican Party.

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The 2010-midterm elections were a historic victory for the Republicans around the country, but New York State was one of the few bright spots for the Democrats. As expected, Andrew Cuomo won a landslide victory in his quest to succeed his father in the governor’s chair, and Chuck Schumer faced only token opposition in his re-election bid. However, the really painful loss for the GOP involved the way they threw away a golden opportunity to knock off Kirsten Gillibrand as the woman appointed by former Governor David Patterson to succeed Hillary Clinton easily won the right to serve out the rest of the secretary of state’s term. Gillibrand was fortunate in that her opponent, Joseph DioGuardi, was the least electable of a not terribly impressive GOP field. Gillibrand was vulnerable due to the way she had transformed herself from a moderate in the House of Representatives to Senate liberal, but she barely broke a sweat as she beat DioGuardi by a 63-35 percent margin.

The question for the all but moribund New York GOP heading into the 2012 election in which Gillibrand is running for a full six-year term was which of the nonentities seeking the right to oppose the senator would get the nod. But the announcement today that Rep. Bob Turner will run should inject some life if not actual hope into the state Republican Party.

Having won the special election to replace the disgraced Anthony Weiner in New York’s 9th congressional district last September, Turner is as close to being a hot political property as it gets for New York Republicans. That victory was a big deal for the GOP in that Turner was able to leverage concern about President Obama’s policy toward Israel in the heavily Jewish 9th into an unprecedented defeat for the Democrats in a district that spreads across the deep blue New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. However, redistricting doomed the 9th, so a rerun of Turner’s successful campaign is unlikely in any of the redrawn districts in the area. So it makes sense for the congressman to try his luck against Gillibrand.

Turner immediately brings more credibility to the table than any of the other Republicans who have stepped forward to join the race. A retired cable television executive, he ran a smart congressional campaign that turned a long shot candidacy into an upset with national implications. He will likely be able to use that success to raise enough money to compete against Gillibrand. But it may be asking a bit too much to think he has more than an outside chance of actually winning the seat.

Though she has demonstrated an unusual capacity for hypocrisy, Gillibrand is a hard worker and a formidable fundraiser. With a built-in advantage in registration and the assumption that President Obama will win New York easily this fall, the odds of any Republican defeating Gillibrand are slim. Nevertheless, if the dead from the neck up state GOP can get its act together and clear the way for Turner to get the nomination, he may be able to make both Gillibrand and the Democrats work harder to keep New York in their column.

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Unions Seek Monopoly on Political Money

The Hill reports on a new campaign by liberal groups and labor unions, which seeks to expose companies that donate to super PACs and nonprofits in the lead-up to the presidential election:

Gathered Monday at the Washington headquarters of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the groups issued a call to arms for the 2012 campaign, vowing to aggressively challenge companies that contribute to super-PACs and 501(c) nonprofit groups. …

Representatives of the coalition, which includes Common Cause, Health Care for America Now, Public Citizen and Occupy, among others, said they’d push for legislation and regulations that would require companies to disclose all of their political spending. …

Americans United for Change, a liberal group that has received labor backing, plans to offer a $25,000 cash reward to the first whistleblower who can prove a company has donated to a nonprofit without disclosing it.

“We’re going to challenge those donations. We’re going to challenge efforts to hide donations through (c)4s and (c)6s,” de Blasio said, referring to nonprofit groups.

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The Hill reports on a new campaign by liberal groups and labor unions, which seeks to expose companies that donate to super PACs and nonprofits in the lead-up to the presidential election:

Gathered Monday at the Washington headquarters of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the groups issued a call to arms for the 2012 campaign, vowing to aggressively challenge companies that contribute to super-PACs and 501(c) nonprofit groups. …

Representatives of the coalition, which includes Common Cause, Health Care for America Now, Public Citizen and Occupy, among others, said they’d push for legislation and regulations that would require companies to disclose all of their political spending. …

Americans United for Change, a liberal group that has received labor backing, plans to offer a $25,000 cash reward to the first whistleblower who can prove a company has donated to a nonprofit without disclosing it.

“We’re going to challenge those donations. We’re going to challenge efforts to hide donations through (c)4s and (c)6s,” de Blasio said, referring to nonprofit groups.

Note that pretty much all of these groups have labor union ties. Even the Occupy Wall Street representative at the meeting was reportedly the point-person for OWS’s big anti-Verizon march coordinated with Big Labor last October.

There’s a good reason for the union involvement. At Power Line, John Hinderaker flags a chart of the top 25 donors to political campaigns from 1989 to 2012, compiled by Open Secrets, and finds a trend:

That’s right: you have to get all the way to number nineteen to find a donor who gives primarily to Republicans. Not only that, of the top 20 donors, 12 are unions. Special interest money overwhelmingly favors the Democrats, and the unions and their left-wing allies want to keep it that way. Their desire to maintain their near-monopoly is understandable, I guess, but it is hard to understand how they can seriously object to companies’ joining them in the political money game.

Unions sink enormous resources into getting Democratic politicians elected, and they’re not thrilled to have competition from the other side. Today, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry went on MSNBC to talk about the union’s plan to spend $400 million on helping Obama’s reelection campaign. How do groups like that think they have any standing to complain about big money in politics?

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Time for George Will to Reassess?

The most recent New York Times/CBS poll (which John and Jonathan write about) has President Obama’s approval rating down to a record low of 41 percent. If you are a supporter of the president, the internal numbers are downright depressing. The judgment of the Times seems about right to me: “President Obama is heading into the general election season on treacherous political ground.”

In addition, yesterday’s Washington Post/ABC News poll (which Alana wrote about) found that President Obama’s approval rating is at 46 percent — even with a sampling advantage that favors Democrats by too much. Fully 59 percent of Americans give Obama negative ratings on the economy, up from early last month, with 50 percent giving the president intensely low marks, the most yet in a Post/ABC News poll. And among independents, 57 percent now disapprove of Obama; and among white people without college degrees, disapproval now tops approval by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, at 66 versus 28 percent.

No president will win re-election with an Election Day approval rating of 41 or 46 percent.

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The most recent New York Times/CBS poll (which John and Jonathan write about) has President Obama’s approval rating down to a record low of 41 percent. If you are a supporter of the president, the internal numbers are downright depressing. The judgment of the Times seems about right to me: “President Obama is heading into the general election season on treacherous political ground.”

In addition, yesterday’s Washington Post/ABC News poll (which Alana wrote about) found that President Obama’s approval rating is at 46 percent — even with a sampling advantage that favors Democrats by too much. Fully 59 percent of Americans give Obama negative ratings on the economy, up from early last month, with 50 percent giving the president intensely low marks, the most yet in a Post/ABC News poll. And among independents, 57 percent now disapprove of Obama; and among white people without college degrees, disapproval now tops approval by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, at 66 versus 28 percent.

No president will win re-election with an Election Day approval rating of 41 or 46 percent.

I wonder whether, in light of these polls, George Will might begin to reconsider his column from earlier this month, in which he suggested that we might well be reaching a point in which conservatives, in “taking stock of reality” and in order to “economize” their energies, should “turn their energies to a goal much more attainable than, and not much less important than, electing Romney or Santorum president. It is the goal of retaining control of the House and winning control of the Senate.”

As it happens, the goal of winning control of the Senate is harder to reach than many people assumed just a few months ago. And it’s not at all clear to me how abandoning the top of the ticket will help down-ballot races.

In any event, and more importantly, Will’s counsel — which edges right up to the line of conceding the election to Obama eight months before a single vote has been cast — strikes me as ill-considered and oddly anti-empirical. Anti-empirical because perhaps the most persistent political fact of the last year is that Barack Obama is a vulnerable incumbent. No president since Jimmy Carter has begun an election year in more precarious shape.

I will repeat here what I have said a dozen or more times before: This does not guarantee Obama will lose or that the GOP nominee will win. But it does mean the political stars are not well aligned for the president. The temper of the country, its voting disposition, is to make Obama a one-term president. And whatever weaknesses Mitt Romney might have, at this point he’s got a reasonable – and probably better than even – chance to win the presidency. That’s not a bad position to be in during what may well be the nadir/near nadir of the campaign for Romney (who has been embroiled in an intense and nasty primary battle for the past two-and-a-half months).

It’s not a state secret that George Will is no great fan of Mitt Romney. But that shouldn’t cloud his judgment about the enduring weakness of America’s 44th president. Helping to oversee a Lost Decade is not usually a recipe for re-election.

 

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Democrats Mull Tax Hike on Oil Companies

President Obama has been arguing for the repeal of certain oil company tax breaks for years, and it looks like the current hike in gas prices may provide the White House with a convenient opening:

After coordinating with the White House, Senate Democrats expect to consider, likely before the end of the month, legislation that would repeal tax breaks for oil and gas companies, a senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Details of the bill are still being decided, but the revenues could be used for consumer relief or to fund alternative energy initiatives, the aide said.

The aide said there are no easy energy solutions and that Democrats will continue to pursue the “all-of-the-above” strategy advocated by the White House.

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President Obama has been arguing for the repeal of certain oil company tax breaks for years, and it looks like the current hike in gas prices may provide the White House with a convenient opening:

After coordinating with the White House, Senate Democrats expect to consider, likely before the end of the month, legislation that would repeal tax breaks for oil and gas companies, a senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Details of the bill are still being decided, but the revenues could be used for consumer relief or to fund alternative energy initiatives, the aide said.

The aide said there are no easy energy solutions and that Democrats will continue to pursue the “all-of-the-above” strategy advocated by the White House.

Republicans argue that increasing the tax burden on oil companies is the last thing we should be doing during a time of high gas prices. “If someone in the administration can show me that raising taxes on American energy production will lower gas prices and create jobs, then I will gladly discuss it,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement to Roll Call. “But since nobody can, and the president doesn’t, this is merely an attempt to deflect from his failed policies.”

While some Republicans maintain that repealing tax breaks for oil and gas companies will lead directly to higher gas at the pump, that claim is debatable. That said, higher taxes on oil and gas companies certainly don’t lead to lower gas prices or energy-sector job creation.

Which makes you wonder why the administration and Senate Democrats are touting this as a way of dealing with rising gas prices. According to Roll Call, Democrats are still considering whether the tax breaks would be used to pay for “consumer energy relief” or “alternative energy initiatives.” In other words, either flat-out election-year bribery with consumer energy rebates, or the subsidization of various Obama-approved “green energy” initiatives. None of which will address the underlying economic reasons behind the rising gas prices.

Republicans have had political success with the gas price debate so far, particularly by emphasizing the importance of pursuing domestic energy sources like the Keystone XL pipeline. But it sounds like Senate Democrats are preparing for another class warfare-tinged fight with the GOP, this time about tax breaks for mammoth oil companies. That could help Obama pivot back to the populist, tax-the-rich strategy that he was pursuing last fall.

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Did Netanyahu’s “Bluff” Bring Obama and the Brits Together?

Israel isn’t the only American ally that was spurned for the first three years of the Obama administration. President Obama made no bones about his disdain for Britain after being elected president. But after making it clear that as far as he was concerned the “special relationship” between the two countries was as unwelcome as that bust of Winston Churchill he chucked out of the Oval Office, the president is finally getting around to making nice with Prime Minister David Cameron, with a state dinner in his honor and a trip with Obama to an NCAA basketball tournament game. Cameron, whom British pundit Melanie Phillips aptly nicknamed “David Obameron” as he shed conservative ideology during his less than scintillating election campaign, wants Obama’s embrace but isn’t too eager to be seen as under American influence as an unpopular war in Afghanistan winds down. But he and the president do seem to have one policy position very much in common: an ardent desire to prevent Israel from attacking Iran.

Along with France, the Brits have been talking much tougher about Iran in the last year than Obama. Under their leadership, the European Union is preparing to embargo Iranian oil, something the United States has not yet committed to. According to the New York Times, Cameron will urge Obama to escalate American support for sanctions on Iran which currently lag behind those imposed by Europe. But one of the main themes of his conclave with Obama appears to center on an almost hysterical fear that Israel will act on its own to forestall an Iranian nuclear threat that both the United States and Britain have agreed poses a danger to the world. Britain’s stand on Iran as well as its embrace of the latest diplomatic initiative that would embroil the West in further negotiations with the Islamist regime appear to be motivated primarily by a desire to avoid an Israeli attack at all costs. All of which means that Israel’s signals that it is prepared to strike have at the very least resulted in getting the West to take the issue seriously.

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Israel isn’t the only American ally that was spurned for the first three years of the Obama administration. President Obama made no bones about his disdain for Britain after being elected president. But after making it clear that as far as he was concerned the “special relationship” between the two countries was as unwelcome as that bust of Winston Churchill he chucked out of the Oval Office, the president is finally getting around to making nice with Prime Minister David Cameron, with a state dinner in his honor and a trip with Obama to an NCAA basketball tournament game. Cameron, whom British pundit Melanie Phillips aptly nicknamed “David Obameron” as he shed conservative ideology during his less than scintillating election campaign, wants Obama’s embrace but isn’t too eager to be seen as under American influence as an unpopular war in Afghanistan winds down. But he and the president do seem to have one policy position very much in common: an ardent desire to prevent Israel from attacking Iran.

Along with France, the Brits have been talking much tougher about Iran in the last year than Obama. Under their leadership, the European Union is preparing to embargo Iranian oil, something the United States has not yet committed to. According to the New York Times, Cameron will urge Obama to escalate American support for sanctions on Iran which currently lag behind those imposed by Europe. But one of the main themes of his conclave with Obama appears to center on an almost hysterical fear that Israel will act on its own to forestall an Iranian nuclear threat that both the United States and Britain have agreed poses a danger to the world. Britain’s stand on Iran as well as its embrace of the latest diplomatic initiative that would embroil the West in further negotiations with the Islamist regime appear to be motivated primarily by a desire to avoid an Israeli attack at all costs. All of which means that Israel’s signals that it is prepared to strike have at the very least resulted in getting the West to take the issue seriously.

At this point, it is impossible to argue that absent Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public willingness to contemplate the use of force to end the Iranian nuclear threat the U.S. and the Europeans would have committed themselves to the issue as much as they already have. In Bloomberg today, Jeffrey Goldberg hypothesizes that perhaps this is all the result of a gigantic bluff on Netanyahu’s part. He wonders whether all the speculation about an Israeli assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities was just a ploy intended to scare Obama, Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy into doing the right thing. If Goldberg were correct about this, then even Netanyahu’s critics would have to admit his bluff has worked, at least up until this point.

But the problem with that thesis is it is obvious neither Cameron nor Obama are that eager to actually go to the mat with the Iranians on the nuclear issue. Though Israel’s threats have brought the U.S. and the European Union to tiptoe up to the crippling sanctions that might get the attention of the ayatollahs, they have also prepared themselves an escape hatch via negotiations. With Iran having already demonstrated that they regard such talks as nothing more than an excuse to run out the clock while their nuclear program gets closer to the finish line, the question now is whether the West’s commitment to diplomacy is open-ended or not. If it is, then all that will have been accomplished is to have put off an Israeli attack, perhaps beyond the point where success would be possible. Netanyahu knows this and though he is rightly reluctant, as Goldberg insists, to pull the trigger on an attack, he may be forced to do so sooner or later because the West’s strategy of sanctions and diplomacy is unlikely to succeed.

Bluff or not, Netanyahu has brought the United States and Britain together at least for now. Whether their alarm at the prospect of Israel defending itself will lead to any real action to stop Iran — as opposed to posturing intended to prevent Israeli action — is yet to be seen.

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End of Jackson-Vanik Shouldn’t Be the End of Russian Accountability

Vladimir Putin’s brazen election fraud, conducted twice in the last few months, has put the Obama administration in an uncomfortable position politically. The administration touts its “reset” policy as a success, but with Russia’s recent attempts to shield Iran’s nuclear program and protection of Bashar al-Assad at the Security Council–not to mention the election-year efforts to stir up anti-Americanism–that policy is increasingly defined by American concessions to Russia.

The reset has also put its architect, current Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, in the unenviable spot of having to defend his signature achievement. McFaul has a long and distinguished career writing about Russian democratization, and the inherently political job of a diplomat requires him to either excuse or ignore behavior by the Putin administration that he has been warning against all along. But the issue that put McFaul on the defensive is the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik amendment, which punished the Soviet Union’s trade status for its restrictions on Jewish emigration.

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Vladimir Putin’s brazen election fraud, conducted twice in the last few months, has put the Obama administration in an uncomfortable position politically. The administration touts its “reset” policy as a success, but with Russia’s recent attempts to shield Iran’s nuclear program and protection of Bashar al-Assad at the Security Council–not to mention the election-year efforts to stir up anti-Americanism–that policy is increasingly defined by American concessions to Russia.

The reset has also put its architect, current Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, in the unenviable spot of having to defend his signature achievement. McFaul has a long and distinguished career writing about Russian democratization, and the inherently political job of a diplomat requires him to either excuse or ignore behavior by the Putin administration that he has been warning against all along. But the issue that put McFaul on the defensive is the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik amendment, which punished the Soviet Union’s trade status for its restrictions on Jewish emigration.

Since Russia was finally granted admission to the World Trade Organization, the Jackson-Vanik amendment–still on the books–now disadvantages American companies. The law has outlived its usefulness, and McFaul supports its repeal, the process of which could begin in the Senate Thursday. But while even Putin’s opposition (for the most part) supports the repeal of the amendment, they would like its legacy to be upheld. Specifically, they would like legislation addressing Russia’s deepening human rights crisis.

As it happens, there is bipartisan legislation with broad support sitting in Congress right now. Called the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011,” it would impose a visa ban on Russian officials involved in particularly heinous rights violations. It is named for the Russian attorney who was jailed without trial and left to die painfully in his cell as Russian officials, aware that he was in desperate need of medical attention, stood by. It is not only the proud owner of bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress, but that rare piece of legislation that is the subject of broad agreement around the world. As Robert Kagan and Freedom House President David Kramer wrote in October:

Like no other initiative in memory, this legislative push in both Congress and in Europe (the Dutch parliament in July unanimously endorsed a Magnitsky-like effort, and the European parliament has done the same) has struck a chord in Moscow and forced Russian authorities to reopen the Magnitsky case. Several prison officials where Magnitsky had been held are now the focus of investigations. In the absence of accountability and rule of law in Russia, American and European parliamentarians have made it clear that if Russian officials engage in major human rights abuses, they and their immediate families cannot enjoy the privilege of traveling to, living or studying in the West, or doing their banking in Western financial institutions.

This draft bill has already done more for the cause of human rights in Russia than anything done by the Obama administration (or by the Bush administration before it). It also caused the State Department to ban certain Russian officials implicated in the Magnitsky case, though this is not sufficient, and these individuals should also be added to an asset-freeze list.

McFaul, however, is vocally opposed to the legislation and to tying Russia’s dismal human rights record to either the reset or trade relations. Yesterday in Washington, at an event organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative, McFaul was challenged on this by Kramer and by one of Magnitsky’s former clients, Bill Browder. McFaul rejected their arguments, repeating only that Jackson-Vanik should be repealed. This was a clear evasion, because repeal of Jackson-Vanik isn’t the issue. Throughout the day, McFaul became increasingly irritated by the discussion. At a separate event later yesterday, McFaul was asked about it again:

“If you want to do something constructive, that’s an area where we should be focusing on our attention, not on this weird linkage, like somehow holding Jackson-Vanik is going to make Russia more democratic or is going to help us with Syria,” McFaul said. “I dare somebody to stand up today and tell me how not lifting [Jackson-Vanik] helps the cause of promoting rule of law, democracy, and human rights. We just don’t see it that way.”

The tetchy dodge aside, McFaul is minimizing the legacy of Jackson-Vanik. It has certainly been about pegging human rights progress with upgraded trade status (and McFaul talks about this in his book, Advancing Democracy Abroad). Russia’s admission to the WTO without a concurrent replacement for Jackson-Vanik–especially in light of Putin’s recent behavior–would represent a break with the bipartisan status quo in Putin’s favor. McFaul knows better and so do his critics.

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Obama’s Poll Troubles Suggest His 2012 Strategy Is Backfiring

The fallout from two major polls yesterday—Washington Post/ABC and New York Times/CBS—finding measurable and significant drops in support for Barack Obama nationwide during the past month has instantly changed the national conversation. Obama is in trouble, and there’s no pretending he isn’t. One poll might have been viewed as an outlier, but two polls taken around the same time with the same sample size of American adults can’t be dismissed as statistical noise. In the New York Post today, in a column written before the release of the NYT/CBS survey, I suggest the media focus on macroeconomic good news is blinding commentators (many of whom wish to be blinded) to facts of American life that can’t be so easily measured. People will not be convinced that they should feel better than they do about their current financial condition and the prospects for the future by assurances about a positive change in the unemployment rate that says nothing about what’s going on with the value of their house and the cost of oil at the pump.

But I want to propose another possibility for Obama’s troubles: His political and tactical strategy for 2012 may be backfiring on him. He has decided, for obvious reasons, to do what he can to highlight the differences between him and the Republicans at every turn, most notably in the recent “contraceptive health” debate. He’s trying to polarize the debate (while making it seem the GOP is doing it), to draw sharp lines of distinction between him and the Republicans; it’s a classic strategy when you can’t run a good-news campaign. And yet this may be the worst possible time for such an effort. Time and again during the past year, Obama has decided to go to the American people with this story to tell: I can’t work with these lunatics. And every time he does—during and after the debt-ceiling debacle in particular—he and his supporters are surprised to find the public assigns him a considerable portion of the blame for the inability to strike deals and move forward.

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The fallout from two major polls yesterday—Washington Post/ABC and New York Times/CBS—finding measurable and significant drops in support for Barack Obama nationwide during the past month has instantly changed the national conversation. Obama is in trouble, and there’s no pretending he isn’t. One poll might have been viewed as an outlier, but two polls taken around the same time with the same sample size of American adults can’t be dismissed as statistical noise. In the New York Post today, in a column written before the release of the NYT/CBS survey, I suggest the media focus on macroeconomic good news is blinding commentators (many of whom wish to be blinded) to facts of American life that can’t be so easily measured. People will not be convinced that they should feel better than they do about their current financial condition and the prospects for the future by assurances about a positive change in the unemployment rate that says nothing about what’s going on with the value of their house and the cost of oil at the pump.

But I want to propose another possibility for Obama’s troubles: His political and tactical strategy for 2012 may be backfiring on him. He has decided, for obvious reasons, to do what he can to highlight the differences between him and the Republicans at every turn, most notably in the recent “contraceptive health” debate. He’s trying to polarize the debate (while making it seem the GOP is doing it), to draw sharp lines of distinction between him and the Republicans; it’s a classic strategy when you can’t run a good-news campaign. And yet this may be the worst possible time for such an effort. Time and again during the past year, Obama has decided to go to the American people with this story to tell: I can’t work with these lunatics. And every time he does—during and after the debt-ceiling debacle in particular—he and his supporters are surprised to find the public assigns him a considerable portion of the blame for the inability to strike deals and move forward.

The president knows the public loathes Washington, and so he has decided to run against Washington. This is usually a Republican strategy and for a good reason—Republican politicians do generally hew to the belief that the federal government is too big and too intrusive and needs to be checked. Barack Obama has presided over the most rapid growth in the size and power of the federal government since the Second World War. He has empowered Washington, and everyone knows it.

He can’t get away with blaming Washington’s ineffectuality and division on the other guys because he is the candidate of Washington. If you want more government—more safety net, more redistribution, more restrictions on the rights of mediating institutions like religious-run charities and hospitals for the purpose of expanding your definition of freedom—Barack Obama is your man. For him to turn around and effectively tell the electorate, “I hate this town like you do, so reelect me because I share your values,” is, to put it mildly, not credible. And there’s this as well: If we’ve spent weeks talking about contraception, which seems to driving everyone bonkers, who’s responsible for that?

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Wisconsin’s Reforms Are Working

The bruising battle in Wisconsin a year ago to curb the powers of public service unions was finally won by Governor Scott Walker and the Republicans in the state legislature. But, as a result, a judge of the Wisconsin Supreme Court faced a determined attempt to oust him from his seat (he survived), six state senators faced recall elections (four survived and the two losers had issues that would probably have cost them their seats regardless) and, this year, the governor himself faces a recall election.

I wouldn’t bet against him. The reforms have kicked in and the results are dramatic.

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The bruising battle in Wisconsin a year ago to curb the powers of public service unions was finally won by Governor Scott Walker and the Republicans in the state legislature. But, as a result, a judge of the Wisconsin Supreme Court faced a determined attempt to oust him from his seat (he survived), six state senators faced recall elections (four survived and the two losers had issues that would probably have cost them their seats regardless) and, this year, the governor himself faces a recall election.

I wouldn’t bet against him. The reforms have kicked in and the results are dramatic.

The reforms did a number of things. They ended the automatic collection of union dues by the state, causing an immediate drop in union income and the laying off of numerous union employees. They required that state employees kick in 5.8 percent of their salaries towards their own pensions and to pick up 12.6 percent of their health insurance premiums, bringing public employees more in line with private employee realities. Most important, it limited collective bargaining to salaries (and even that bargaining is limited by the rate of inflation).

For the first time in decades, school administrations are now actually able to administer their districts without union interference, and the savings have been huge. The MacIver Institute, a Wisconsin think tank, reports that of the 108 school districts that completed contracts with employees, 74 of them, with 319,000 students, have reported savings of no less than $162 million. If this is extrapolated out to all districts, it would amount to savings of nearly $448 million.

The biggest area of savings have been in health insurance. The teachers union insisted that districts use the union’s own health insurance company to provide coverage. No longer forced to use a monopoly provider, districts have either switched providers or used the threat of switching to force the union health insurance company to dramatically lower premiums. Savings have averaged $730,000 in districts that have switched providers or forced competitive bidding.

As a result of these dramatic savings, districts that have been able to benefit immediately from the reforms (some districts are locked into long-term contracts and cannot) have been able to avoid laying off teachers despite a significant drop in state aid and to avoid raising school taxes. Indeed, school tax bills that went out last December had an average increase of only 0.3 percent.

It is hard to imagine that with results like this, Governor Walker has anything to worry about.

 

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Obama’s Approval Rating Among Women Drops 12 Points

Here’s more evidence suggesting that the New York Times “trend” story on how women are bolting from the GOP and flocking to the Obama campaign was complete fantasy. And the latest contradictions come from the New York Times’ own poll:

In the head-to-head matchups, Mr. Obama also maintained much of the advantage he had built in the last year among important constituencies, including women, although he lost some support among women over the past month, even as the debate raged over birth control insurance coverage.

Mr. Obama appears to be retaining much of his gains among important demographic groups, erasing inroads that Republicans made in 2010, especially among women. But his falling approval rating in the last month extended to his handling of both the economy and foreign policy, the poll found.

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Here’s more evidence suggesting that the New York Times “trend” story on how women are bolting from the GOP and flocking to the Obama campaign was complete fantasy. And the latest contradictions come from the New York Times’ own poll:

In the head-to-head matchups, Mr. Obama also maintained much of the advantage he had built in the last year among important constituencies, including women, although he lost some support among women over the past month, even as the debate raged over birth control insurance coverage.

Mr. Obama appears to be retaining much of his gains among important demographic groups, erasing inroads that Republicans made in 2010, especially among women. But his falling approval rating in the last month extended to his handling of both the economy and foreign policy, the poll found.

“He lost some support among women” is apparently the New York Times’ nice way of saying Obama’s approval rating dropped 12 points among women during the past month, from 53 percent to 41 percent. Needless to say, the Democratic Party’s “war on women” rhetoric doesn’t seem to be working:

In recent weeks, there has been much debate over the government’s role in guaranteeing insurance coverage for contraception, including for those who work for religious organizations. The poll found that women were split as to whether health insurance plans should cover the costs of birth control and whether employers with religious objections should be able to opt out.

Poll respondents said 51 percent to 40 percent that companies should be allowed to opt out for religious/moral reasons. Women said companies should be allowed to opt out, 46 percent to 44 percent.

Those numbers are even more favorable to conservatives when you specifically ask whether religiously-affiliated employers, like schools and hospitals, should be forced to provide birth control coverage. Poll respondents said these institutions should be allowed to opt out, 57 percent to 36 percent. Women said these institutions should be allowed to opt out, 53 percent to 38 percent.

It sounds like the Obama administration has seriously miscalculated its “war on women” strategy. Either women are in favor of religious opt-out rules, as the Times poll suggests (and in that case, are possibly offended by the way the Obama administration has handled the controversy); or, women care so little about this issue that they haven’t even been paying close attention to the debate. Even if the latter is true, that doesn’t mean this strategy was cost-free. According to the Times poll, Obama has further alienated religious voters, and received no political gain with women in exchange. His support has dropped to 37 percent with Catholics, 26 percent with white Protestants and 18 percent with white Evangelical Christians.

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What Lesson to Draw from Hamid Karzai?

When the United States and the international community agreed to an interim Afghan government at the Bonn Conference more than a decade ago, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pushed for Hamid Karzai. Karzai, they believed, was pliable. At the same time, Karzai was a figure who had relations with everyone—he had even been part of the Taliban before 1996. Never mind that Karzai was an opportunist who simply jumped on whichever horse he felt was strongest at the time.

It’s clear today that Karzai is a disaster. He has revealed himself to be a corrupt kleptocrat and in bed with drug lords. He has made a mockery of the U.S. mission and, having no more use for the Americans, works openly with our enemies. Even his Taliban reconciliation efforts have less to do with peace and more to do with his own desire to ingratiate himself to an enemy in the hope that they will let him remain in power once the countdown inherent in Obama’s timeline completes. In short, he may have made a good CIA asset in the past, but he was a horrendous choice to be Afghanistan’s leader.

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When the United States and the international community agreed to an interim Afghan government at the Bonn Conference more than a decade ago, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pushed for Hamid Karzai. Karzai, they believed, was pliable. At the same time, Karzai was a figure who had relations with everyone—he had even been part of the Taliban before 1996. Never mind that Karzai was an opportunist who simply jumped on whichever horse he felt was strongest at the time.

It’s clear today that Karzai is a disaster. He has revealed himself to be a corrupt kleptocrat and in bed with drug lords. He has made a mockery of the U.S. mission and, having no more use for the Americans, works openly with our enemies. Even his Taliban reconciliation efforts have less to do with peace and more to do with his own desire to ingratiate himself to an enemy in the hope that they will let him remain in power once the countdown inherent in Obama’s timeline completes. In short, he may have made a good CIA asset in the past, but he was a horrendous choice to be Afghanistan’s leader.

Afghanistan is not the exception, but rather the rule. Prior to the Iraq war, the CIA tried an end-run against both Iraqis and the interagency process when it pushed former General Nizar al-Khazraji into Iraq’s leadership. Al-Khazraji may have shared whiskey with his CIA handlers and done everything they expected, but Iraqis knew him as a war criminal complicit in chemical weapons attacks on Kurds during the 1980s. With their top choice sidelined, the good folks at Langley then cast their lot with Ayad Allawi—a horse they continue to back. The problem with Allawi, as any Iraqi will acknowledge—is not his corruption or brutality—but rather the fact that he is lazy. He spends most of his time outside Iraq, awaiting his anointment rather than doing the hardscrabble work that folks like Nouri al-Maliki, whatever their faults, have been willing to do.

Among the Palestinians, too, the CIA has a record of picking and training losers. President Clinton’s deference to the Agency to train a Palestinian security force brought anything but security, but rather laid the groundwork for decades more terror.

Intelligence sources, even unsavory ones, are extraordinarily valuable. But they make horrid leaders. When it comes time to conduct the lessons learned from the decade-long Afghan debacle, let’s hope the CIA will not be immune from introspection.

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Support Grows for Afghan Pullout

It is dismaying but hardly surprising to read on the front page of the New York Times today that the “Obama administration is discussing whether to reduce American forces in Afghanistan by at least an additional 20,000 troops by 2013, reflecting a growing belief within the White House that the mission there has now reached the point of diminishing returns.” If this article is to be believed–and I have no reason to doubt it: it is a typical Washington trial balloon that no doubt reflects actual options under consideration even if it doesn’t give a complete picture of the deliberations and likely course of action–the key difference in the White House is between Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, who wants to pull out “only” 20,000 troops by June 2013 and Vice President Biden, who of course, would like to pull out far more.

The view of our veteran representatives in Kabul–General John Allen and Ambassador Ryan Crocker–is rather different. They have made clear they need to keep at least 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, the level which the U.S. force will reach in September after the current drawdown is done, at least through the end of the next campaigning season in 2013–meaning until the end of 2013. But what do their views matter? They’re only the men on the front lines having to cope with a potent insurgency that threatens American interests. The White House has its own calculations which, one suspects, are guided less by the imperatives on the ground and more by the imperative to tell the voters prior to the November election that this president ended one war in Iraq and is ending another in Afghanistan. Certainly the views of our military commanders counted for little last summer when President Obama made the decision to pull out 33,000 surge troops faster than General David Petraeus had recommended–and Petraeus, keep in mind, has considerably greater influence in Washington than does his impressive but lower profile successor, General Allen. If the administration felt free to ignore Petraeus’s advice, there is is scant cause to think it will listen more carefully to Allen, who no doubt has told policymakers that drastic drawdowns imperil his ability to leave a stable Afghanistan behind by 2014.

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It is dismaying but hardly surprising to read on the front page of the New York Times today that the “Obama administration is discussing whether to reduce American forces in Afghanistan by at least an additional 20,000 troops by 2013, reflecting a growing belief within the White House that the mission there has now reached the point of diminishing returns.” If this article is to be believed–and I have no reason to doubt it: it is a typical Washington trial balloon that no doubt reflects actual options under consideration even if it doesn’t give a complete picture of the deliberations and likely course of action–the key difference in the White House is between Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, who wants to pull out “only” 20,000 troops by June 2013 and Vice President Biden, who of course, would like to pull out far more.

The view of our veteran representatives in Kabul–General John Allen and Ambassador Ryan Crocker–is rather different. They have made clear they need to keep at least 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, the level which the U.S. force will reach in September after the current drawdown is done, at least through the end of the next campaigning season in 2013–meaning until the end of 2013. But what do their views matter? They’re only the men on the front lines having to cope with a potent insurgency that threatens American interests. The White House has its own calculations which, one suspects, are guided less by the imperatives on the ground and more by the imperative to tell the voters prior to the November election that this president ended one war in Iraq and is ending another in Afghanistan. Certainly the views of our military commanders counted for little last summer when President Obama made the decision to pull out 33,000 surge troops faster than General David Petraeus had recommended–and Petraeus, keep in mind, has considerably greater influence in Washington than does his impressive but lower profile successor, General Allen. If the administration felt free to ignore Petraeus’s advice, there is is scant cause to think it will listen more carefully to Allen, who no doubt has told policymakers that drastic drawdowns imperil his ability to leave a stable Afghanistan behind by 2014.

That, incidentally, was initially agreed upon as a deadline for transitioning lead security responsibility to Afghan forces but seems to have been transformed into a deadline for pulling most NATO forces out altogether, leaving the Afghans more or less on their own. Oh, and at the same time, it is probable the the U.S. will reduce funding for the Afghan Security Forces, forcing a considerable reduction in their ranks and further imperiling their ability to grapple on their own with an insurgency with safe havens in Pakistan.

It is little wonder under such circumstances that support for the war effort is falling precipitously among Republicans. Newt Gingrich has already said that we should leave because victory is unobtainable under current conditions; Rick Santorum seems to be moving in the same direction. Mitt Romney, the likely nominee, remains stalwart, but Republican voters, who have been staunchly supportive of the war effort for years, are now evenly split over whether the war is worth fighting and doubts are evident among Republican lawmakers in Washington. More and more Republicans no doubt figure that, if President Obama isn’t serious about winning the war, then why risk more American lives?

It is an understandable impulse and one that the White House will find itself increasingly unable to dispel because it seems more determined to leave than to attain an acceptable outcome. This scuttle for the exits is covered in fig-leafs labeled “Special Operations,” “advisory teams,” and “peace talks.” But none of these options can possibly succeed if we pull out the bulk of our troops before they have done more to stabilize the south and east where the Taliban and Haqqani Network are the strongest–and that now appears to be all but certain.

 

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What’s Our Afghan Mission?

The latest outrage in Afghanistan has reinvigorated debate about what the United States is doing in that forlorn country. Increasing numbers of prominent Republicans argue that it’s time to come home, a sentiment with which it is easy to sympathize.

If one strips away the mission creep and the sheer waste which USAID calls development, however, the reason we are in Afghanistan is because, prior to 9/11, a vacuum developed which terrorists filled and from which they reached out and struck us. Our goal in Afghanistan is to fill that vacuum. The way both the Bush and Obama administrations chose to do it is to rebuild the Afghan government so it fills that vacuum and to recreate the Afghan army and police so the Afghan security forces can monopolize the use of force inside Afghanistan. If Iraq was problematic after three weeks with a disbanded army, imagine how difficult Afghanistan is after lacking one for two decades.

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The latest outrage in Afghanistan has reinvigorated debate about what the United States is doing in that forlorn country. Increasing numbers of prominent Republicans argue that it’s time to come home, a sentiment with which it is easy to sympathize.

If one strips away the mission creep and the sheer waste which USAID calls development, however, the reason we are in Afghanistan is because, prior to 9/11, a vacuum developed which terrorists filled and from which they reached out and struck us. Our goal in Afghanistan is to fill that vacuum. The way both the Bush and Obama administrations chose to do it is to rebuild the Afghan government so it fills that vacuum and to recreate the Afghan army and police so the Afghan security forces can monopolize the use of force inside Afghanistan. If Iraq was problematic after three weeks with a disbanded army, imagine how difficult Afghanistan is after lacking one for two decades.

Our diplomats made a mistake by pushing for too rapid reform in governance. Zalmay Khalilzad also sacrificed long-term security for short-term interests when he pushed for a strong presidential system in Afghanistan. The logic of his decision was to enable Hamid Karzai to co-opt warlords and remove them from their power bases by offering them offices elsewhere. Simultaneously, we sought to build the Afghan National Army so that those regional power brokers could not maintain their autonomy. The problem was when local resistance to an overbearing president became the driver for insurgency. Along Afghanistan’s periphery, locals wanted governors who looked like them and spoke like them, not one of Karzai’s cronies. This clash between the local desire for bottom-up government and Khalilzad’s system of top-down government haunts the mission.

Still, before we abandon Afghanistan, we need a policy to address the original problem: The vacuum. A more productive debate among Republicans (and Democrats for that matter), is to propose alternatives to fill that vacuum.

Simply relying on Special Forces and Predators operators will not work. A robust presence on the ground provides the actionable intelligence which they would need to conduct their mission. The “we can do it from over-the-horizon” was a mantra which proponents of the Iraq withdrawal used, and the results are now in.

Nor can we ever trust Pakistan. The U.S. goal should be to quarantine Pakistan, not to empower it with greater strategic depth. If India were a more responsible partner, they might field the void. But, then again, if pigs had wings, they could fly.

There is no magic solution. Only one certainty: a precipitous withdrawal would recreate the pre-9/11 dilemma with the added danger that Islamists would claim a victory which would reverberate the world over. Withdrawal is fine, but not unless something beyond chaos is left in its place.

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Beinart’s Backwards History

Newsweek excerpts Peter Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, in which Beinart writes that Benjamin Netanyahu arrived to meet with President Obama in May 2009 with a “lack of interest in negotiations” — while Mahmoud Abbas arrived “eager to carry on the talks he had been pursuing with Netanyahu’s predecessor.” Beinart’s description is not only inconsistent with the public record, but distorts what Netanyahu tried to do in May 2009.

On May 18, 2009, sitting beside Obama, Netanyahu said he wanted “to start peace negotiations with the Palestinians immediately” and thought an agreement could be reached if they recognized Israel as a Jewish state with the means to defend itself; (2) on May 28, 2009, the supposedly eager Abbas told the Washington Post, the day before his own meeting with Obama, that he planned to do nothing but sit back and watch the Obama administration slowly squeeze Netanyahu from office.

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Newsweek excerpts Peter Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, in which Beinart writes that Benjamin Netanyahu arrived to meet with President Obama in May 2009 with a “lack of interest in negotiations” — while Mahmoud Abbas arrived “eager to carry on the talks he had been pursuing with Netanyahu’s predecessor.” Beinart’s description is not only inconsistent with the public record, but distorts what Netanyahu tried to do in May 2009.

On May 18, 2009, sitting beside Obama, Netanyahu said he wanted “to start peace negotiations with the Palestinians immediately” and thought an agreement could be reached if they recognized Israel as a Jewish state with the means to defend itself; (2) on May 28, 2009, the supposedly eager Abbas told the Washington Post, the day before his own meeting with Obama, that he planned to do nothing but sit back and watch the Obama administration slowly squeeze Netanyahu from office.

Beinart tries to support his backwards history with a quote from a May 2009 presentation by Netanyahu’s top aide, Ron Dermer. I remember the quote; it comes from a video I posted at YouTube on May 3, 2009 and described in Contentions the next day. Here is the single sentence Beinart quotes from Dermer’s 20-minute presentation:

“There is no way now where you have on the Palestinian side a willingness to make the sorts of compromises that will be required for a deal on the core issues but yet despite that the previous government decided to negotiate and negotiate and negotiate and to focus on that and to bang their head against the wall.”

And here is an extended excerpt from Dermer’s remarks (with the portion Beinart quoted in italics, so readers can judge if Beinart accurately conveyed the gist of Dermer’s presentation):

[The path to peace] connects with something David [Makovsky] said. David said there’s a top-down approach and there’s a bottom-up approach. Netanyahu believes you have to combine both of those — which is why he has argued for a three-track approach to peace. There are two tracks that we consider bottom up, which is security and the economy. And there’s a third track – political negotiations.

Now what happened at Annapolis was that the government almost exclusively focused on political negotiations. They invested all their energies, almost all their efforts, in reaching an elusive agreement. And I agree with Aaron [David Miller] that there is no way now where you have on the Palestinian side a willingness to make the sorts of compromises that will be required for a deal on the core issues.

But yet despite that, the previous government just decided to negotiate, and negotiate, and negotiate, and to focus on that. They banged their head against the wall over and over and over again. And there is limited political capital in Israel, just as there is anywhere else; if you are focused on that — well then you are not focused on changing the reality on the ground. What Netanyahu will do – and you will see it I think in a rather dramatic fashion in the next two years particularly – is to work to change the reality on the ground.

First there’s security, which General Dayton is doing; he is recruiting and training Palestinian security forces … [The economic track] is led by Tony Blair … I’ve been in a few meetings with the prime minister and Tony Blair, and I am amazed at how many bureaucratic obstacles there are to Palestinian economic development. … [B]ut when you have a government focused on making the peace to end all peace, the deal of the century, and you don’t have a prime minister who takes the gavel and rolls up his sleeves and works day after day to move the bureaucracy along and to get through all the red tape, nothing will happen on the ground …

And the idea is that through economic development and through security cooperation you can create a context, a context where political progress is possible. What has happened up to now is to try to basically build a pyramid from the top down. It doesn’t work that way. You have to step by step, layer and layer, have the Palestinians have rule of law, have a decent economy, provide jobs, provide hope, and slowly but surely you actually build lots of stakeholders. ….

I am not of the school of thought that says, well if you just give everybody an extra refrigerator, they are going to give up their identity. It doesn’t work that way. But you can moderate the conflict through economic development – it’s happened in many places around the world – Cyprus is one of them, Northern Ireland is another one; there are many, many examples. So this is what makes it possible.

The Clinton peace process ended in a war, after Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a state. The Bush peace process ended in another war, after Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians a state. The peace process designed by the man Beinart calls the “Jewish president” required Abbas only to watch, as Obama reneged on prior oral and written agreements with Israel, sought to put daylight between it and America, bypassed it on successive trips to the region, and publicly humiliated Netanyahu on his own trips to Washington. Obama demanded that Netanyahu recognize a Palestinian state in his Bar-Ilan speech, but never demanded Abbas give a Bir Zeit speech recognizing a Jewish one.

Netanyahu came to Washington with a new approach – one that might create a context in which negotiations could succeed. He was met by Obama’s rejection of prior American commitments, an insistence on preconditions that had never been a condition of negotiations before, and a refusal to negotiate by the supposedly eager Abbas, as part of a strategy to bring down the Israeli prime minister. As Ron Dermer might say, it doesn’t work that way.

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Executions Skyrocket in Iran

Ahmed Shaheed, a former Maldives foreign minister whom the United Nations appointed as its investigator on Iran has, according to Reuters, now issued his report:

Iran executed some 670 people last year, most of them for drug crimes that do not merit capital punishment under international law and more than 20 for offenses against Islam… The investigator, former Maldives Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed, also reported what he said were a wide range of violations by Iran of U.N. human rights accords, from abuse of minorities to persecution of homosexuals and labor unions.

Shaheed’s report was almost never issued. As Reuters continued:

His office and mandate were established last year by a narrow vote in the council when Western and Latin American countries, with some African support, joined to create a special investigation on Iran. Cuba, Russia, China and others opposed the resolution.

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Ahmed Shaheed, a former Maldives foreign minister whom the United Nations appointed as its investigator on Iran has, according to Reuters, now issued his report:

Iran executed some 670 people last year, most of them for drug crimes that do not merit capital punishment under international law and more than 20 for offenses against Islam… The investigator, former Maldives Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed, also reported what he said were a wide range of violations by Iran of U.N. human rights accords, from abuse of minorities to persecution of homosexuals and labor unions.

Shaheed’s report was almost never issued. As Reuters continued:

His office and mandate were established last year by a narrow vote in the council when Western and Latin American countries, with some African support, joined to create a special investigation on Iran. Cuba, Russia, China and others opposed the resolution.

I am completing a book project on the history of diplomacy with rogue regimes, as part of which I’ve had the nerdy pleasure to pour over decades of diplomatic cables, Iranian newspaper, and human rights reports. It is distressing, therefore, to see a pattern develop which proponents of greater dialogue with the Islamic Republic ignore: There is a direct correlation between the degree to which the West seeks to engage and embrace the Islamic Republic and the ferocity with which the regime cracks down on its own people. The Khatami years, for example, were a particularly bloody time. That may not be Khatami’s direct fault: The reformist president’s hands are awash in blood, but it was the reaction to his efforts to relieve some of the social pressure that sparked his opponents in the intelligence ministry and Basij to even greater abuse of human rights.

Going further back in time, the reaction to German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel’s 1992 efforts at “critical dialogue” led Iranian officials—including the so-called pragmatist Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—to believe he could get away with murder. Their followed a crackdown at home and a series of assassinations and terrorist attacks abroad.

The responsibility for Iran’s dire human rights abuses lay fully on the regime that perpetrates them. Nevertheless, it would behoove the Obama administration and its counterparts in the European Union to recognize that sometimes engaging a rogue regime does more harm than good to the people who suffer under that regime’s heel. Often times, the better course of action both in terms of national security and human rights is simply to develop strategies to change that regime.

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