Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 16, 2012

The Roger Clemens Farce Recommences

What do you do after committing a horrendous legal error that causes a mistrial while attempting to prosecute a case in which it is far from clear there was any actual crime? If you’re the federal government, there’s only one answer. Re-try the famous defendant you’ve targeted in the first place simply because he was wealthy, obnoxious and unpopular. That’s the short explanation of the federal government’s decision to take another crack at sending baseball great Roger Clemens to jail for allegedly lying about taking performance enhancing drugs when called to testify at a show trial congressional hearing.

Even fans of the teams for whom he played found it hard to root for him. Now that the mud of the steroids scandal has been splattered over a career in which he won a staggering 354 games and struck out an amazing 4,672 batters (achievements that rank as, respectively, the ninth and the third highest totals in the history of baseball), he’s even less likable than ever. But that is no excuse for the government to waste more of its time and resources attempting to prove he lied when he denied using PEDs. There was no excuse, other than a congressional desire to grandstand in front of the cameras, for the hearings during which he allegedly made false statements. And there’s no excuse, other than the Justice Department’s desire to hang a famous scalp on their door, for a retrial of Clemens, especially after the first ended in a disastrous prosecutorial error that created a mistrial last summer.

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What do you do after committing a horrendous legal error that causes a mistrial while attempting to prosecute a case in which it is far from clear there was any actual crime? If you’re the federal government, there’s only one answer. Re-try the famous defendant you’ve targeted in the first place simply because he was wealthy, obnoxious and unpopular. That’s the short explanation of the federal government’s decision to take another crack at sending baseball great Roger Clemens to jail for allegedly lying about taking performance enhancing drugs when called to testify at a show trial congressional hearing.

Even fans of the teams for whom he played found it hard to root for him. Now that the mud of the steroids scandal has been splattered over a career in which he won a staggering 354 games and struck out an amazing 4,672 batters (achievements that rank as, respectively, the ninth and the third highest totals in the history of baseball), he’s even less likable than ever. But that is no excuse for the government to waste more of its time and resources attempting to prove he lied when he denied using PEDs. There was no excuse, other than a congressional desire to grandstand in front of the cameras, for the hearings during which he allegedly made false statements. And there’s no excuse, other than the Justice Department’s desire to hang a famous scalp on their door, for a retrial of Clemens, especially after the first ended in a disastrous prosecutorial error that created a mistrial last summer.

Let’s once again specify that breaking the rules of the sport to use PEDs is wrong (though, to be accurate, steroids were not specifically banned by baseball for most of Clemens’ career though it was always illegal to use them without a prescription) and if he gained an unfair competitive advantage, that ought to be held against him when his career achievements are assessed. Clemens was just one of hundreds of players who appear to have gone this route. The majority of those nabbed by drug tests were mediocre ballplayers whose abuse did not magically transform them into stars–much less hall-of-famers. But because Clemens would have been a first ballot candidate for Cooperstown had he not been identified as a user, he has been given special treatment first by Congress and now by the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Clemens’ real sin appears to be not so much his using PEDs, but his failure to admit he was a user. Clemens’ personal trainer Brian McNamee dropped the dime on his former friend and boss in order to avoid prison on other charges and cooperated with baseball’s special investigative committee headed by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. When Congress called McNamee to testify about steroids in baseball, Clemens denied the charges under oath.

It may well be that Clemens is as dirty as McNamee says he is, but the hearing during which he was said to have lied was a public farce with no possible purpose relating to government issues or the public good. The government claims that evidence of steroid use preserved by McNamee proves that this is more than a case of conflicting testimony, but even if they can back that claim up, there is still no real underlying crime in this case.

As I wrote last summer after the last trial collapsed, there is something bizarre about a government drug prosecution in which the peddlers of illegal goods are spared prison in order to entrap and then imprison drug users for perjury. There is no public policy benefit to shaming Clemens any further. Nor is there any conceivable justification for the expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars on dubious investigations of famous athletes such as Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong and now Clemens that have more to do with ambitious prosecutors that may be every bit as big as those of their prey.

The only proper venue for a debate about Clemens’ baseball misbehavior is in forums devoted to whether he and others similarly accused ought to be excluded from baseball’s Hall of Fame. But those who wish to moralize about steroid use should cease trying to make this a federal crime. Judge Reggie Walton, who presided over Clemens’ mistrial last year, expressed well-grounded skepticism about the case against the former player and the wisdom of further pursuing this issue. Now that this parody of justice is back in his courtroom, he ought to act on those instincts and throw it out before any more of the government’s time and money is wasted on this sad business.

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Obama No Longer Master of His Fate?

The first Gallup tracking poll shows that Mitt Romney, after having emerged from an at-times brutal primary process, holds a slight lead over President Obama, 47 percent v. 45 percent. That must be disconcerting to those on the left, who believe that Obama is nearly a lock for re-election.

He’s clearly not.

To make matters worse for the president, 2012 will — in the words of former Clinton aide William Galston – be a “referendum, not a choice.” But most ominously for Obama is this paragraph:

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The first Gallup tracking poll shows that Mitt Romney, after having emerged from an at-times brutal primary process, holds a slight lead over President Obama, 47 percent v. 45 percent. That must be disconcerting to those on the left, who believe that Obama is nearly a lock for re-election.

He’s clearly not.

To make matters worse for the president, 2012 will — in the words of former Clinton aide William Galston – be a “referendum, not a choice.” But most ominously for Obama is this paragraph:

Obama is no longer the master of his fate. During the 2008 campaign, Obama could and did seize the initiative in the face of unexpected events. His agile response to the mid-September financial meltdown propelled him into a lead that he never surrendered. In 2012, by contrast, he will be at the mercy of events that he cannot control. The Supreme Court will decide the fate of the Affordable Care Act. A military confrontation between Israel and Iran would put the administration in the no-win situation it has struggled to avoid, with incalculable consequences for our national security as well as our politics. If job creation returns to the strong pace of the late winter and remains there through the fall, he will be reelected with room to spare. But if the middling March employment report is a harbinger of things to come, the electorate’s evaluation of his performance will be harsh, and the road to reelection very steep indeed.

No politician wants to be in a position where he’s not the master of his fate. More than most presidents seeking re-election, though, that’s the situation Obama finds himself in. To win re-election, Obama needs most things to go right for him and most things to go wrong for Governor Romney. That scenario isn’t out of the question, but it’s not a terribly comforting thing to have to base your re-election on. Yet it’s all the president has right now. A record of nearly uninterrupted failure will do that to a campaign.

 

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Obama Trails Romney in First Gallup Daily Tracking Poll

It’s just the first daily Gallup tracking poll of the general election, but Mitt Romney’s slim 47-45 lead on President Obama is already being called historically significant. As BuzzFeed reports, every president who was reelected since 1980 had a lead on his opponent at this point in the Gallup tracking poll.

But how meaningful is this really? Obama and Romney are still in a statistical tie. And Romney’s small lead isn’t due to unusually high support for him or low support for Obama. Both appear to fall within a fairly typical range. The president is still at 45 percent in the poll, which is only slightly lower than recent successful incumbents. George W. Bush was at 47 percent in April 2004, while Bill Clinton was at 49 percent in 1996.

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It’s just the first daily Gallup tracking poll of the general election, but Mitt Romney’s slim 47-45 lead on President Obama is already being called historically significant. As BuzzFeed reports, every president who was reelected since 1980 had a lead on his opponent at this point in the Gallup tracking poll.

But how meaningful is this really? Obama and Romney are still in a statistical tie. And Romney’s small lead isn’t due to unusually high support for him or low support for Obama. Both appear to fall within a fairly typical range. The president is still at 45 percent in the poll, which is only slightly lower than recent successful incumbents. George W. Bush was at 47 percent in April 2004, while Bill Clinton was at 49 percent in 1996.

The polling numbers for modern losing incumbents also show how unreliable the tracking poll is at this point. In April 1992, George H.W. Bush led Clinton by 14 points, and in April 1980 Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan by eight points. Obviously both Clinton and Reagan made up significant ground over the next seven months.

Daily tracking polls will swing back and forth between now and the election, and it’s probably futile to read historical significance into the first one of them. Today’s poll seems to show that Obama isn’t going to be handed an easy win like many of his supporters believe. But it definitely doesn’t predict a Romney victory in November.

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Obama’s Cognitive Dissonance

During a question and answer session with House Republicans on January 29, 2010, President Obama expressed his frustration with how issues get framed in American politics:

That’s why I say, if we’re going to frame these debates in ways that allow us to solve them, then we can’t start off by figuring out A, who’s to blame; B, how can we make the American people afraid of the other side? And unfortunately that’s how our politics works right now. And that’s how a lot of our discussion works. That’s how we start off – every time somebody speaks in Congress, the first thing they do, they stand up and all the talking points … it’s all tactics. It’s not solving problems. So the question is, at what point do we have a serious conversation about Medicare and its long-term liability, or a serious … conversation about Social Security, or a serious conversation about budget and debt in which we’re not simply trying to position ourselves politically? That’s what I’m committed to doing. We won’t agree all the time in getting it done, but I’m committed to doing it.

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During a question and answer session with House Republicans on January 29, 2010, President Obama expressed his frustration with how issues get framed in American politics:

That’s why I say, if we’re going to frame these debates in ways that allow us to solve them, then we can’t start off by figuring out A, who’s to blame; B, how can we make the American people afraid of the other side? And unfortunately that’s how our politics works right now. And that’s how a lot of our discussion works. That’s how we start off – every time somebody speaks in Congress, the first thing they do, they stand up and all the talking points … it’s all tactics. It’s not solving problems. So the question is, at what point do we have a serious conversation about Medicare and its long-term liability, or a serious … conversation about Social Security, or a serious conversation about budget and debt in which we’re not simply trying to position ourselves politically? That’s what I’m committed to doing. We won’t agree all the time in getting it done, but I’m committed to doing it.

These are such high-minded words. What’s worth noting is that they come from a man who actually has done everything in his power to impede a serious conversation about Medicare and its long-term liability, to say nothing about the deficit and the debt — including unleashing a flood of misleading charges and savage accusations against the Ryan budget. Not only has the president not done anything to address our entitlement crisis; he’s slandered those who are willing to show the courage he lacks.

Bear in mind, too, that Mr. Problem Solver has made what every serious person knows is a gimmick (the so-called Buffett Rule), what the New York Times calls the “centerpiece” of his re-election campaign. He is doing everything he can to distract and divide Americans in order to keep the focus off his record and his failure to address our deep structural problems (see everything from Obama weighing in on the Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke matter to demanding that Mitt Romney release a dozen years of his tax returns).

I must say, it’s particularly (if unintentionally) comical to have Obama complain about those who blame others – as this splendid new RNC ad makes clear. Has any president ever blamed so many of his failures on others — whether it’s his predecessors, acts of nature, world events, news outlets, advances in technology, or just plain bad luck?

As for not making the America people afraid of the other side: how does that square with Obama’s claims that the other side (in this instance, the GOP) is comprised of members of the “Flat Earth Society” and have embraced a budget that demonstrates their “Social Darwinism”? Or that Republicans are indifferent to the suffering of autistic and Down syndrome children? Or that Republican members of Congress are always putting “party ahead of country”?

What we’re seeing with Obama is a complicated game of what psychiatrists refer to as projection – in this case, the president projecting on himself an imaginary set of qualities that he not only doesn’t possess, but to which his actions and words are antithetical. The president seemingly cannot keep from projecting his failures onto others.

What the last three-plus years have shown us is that Obama has a remarkable capacity to avoid unsettling thoughts. In this case, Obama has the chronic habit of lecturing others about the importance of civility and intellectual seriousness even as he contributes so much to rank partisanship and intellectual dishonesty.

The president envisions himself as a statesman even though he often conducts himself like a political hack. Is it possible the president is blind to all this? Is the cognitive dissonance simply too much for him to bear? Or does he know exactly what he’s doing and just doesn’t care about his layer upon layer of hypocrisy and cynicism?

Whatever we’re dealing with, it’s not particularly comforting.

 

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Sorry, No Pulitzer Prize in Fiction This Year

The Pulitzer Prize jury in fiction could not decide which of the three finalists — Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, or David Foster Wallace’s posthumous Pale King — was least mediocre. No award this year, then. It was the tenth time that no Pulitzer in fiction has been handed out, the first since 1977. Janice Harayda has compiled a list of ten famous American novels that failed to win the Prize. Her choice for the worst snub? For Whom the Bell Tolls, which was passed over in favor of no award at all in 1941. In a poll conducted by the Saturday Review prior to the award announcement that spring, Hemingway outpolled Kenneth Roberts’s Oliver Wiswell by 21 to 6. The New York Times reported:

No explanation of their failure to select any novel for the award was made public by the [Pulitzer Prize] trustees. The terms of the award are ‘for a distinguished novel published during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.’ It was pointed out that the final qualification might have weighed against Mr. Hemingway’s novel, which dealt with the Spanish Civil War.

No award was made in 1920, 1941, 1946, 1954 (when The Adventures of Augie March was ignored), 1957, 1964, 1971, 1974 (when the Pulitzer trustees refused to honor the jury’s selection of Gravity’s Rainbow), and 1977.

The best fiction of 2011 was John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, Roland Merullo’s The Talk-Funny Girl, Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, and Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. The Pulitzer’s failure to recognize any of them does not diminish their fascination and finesse.

The Pulitzer Prize jury in fiction could not decide which of the three finalists — Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, or David Foster Wallace’s posthumous Pale King — was least mediocre. No award this year, then. It was the tenth time that no Pulitzer in fiction has been handed out, the first since 1977. Janice Harayda has compiled a list of ten famous American novels that failed to win the Prize. Her choice for the worst snub? For Whom the Bell Tolls, which was passed over in favor of no award at all in 1941. In a poll conducted by the Saturday Review prior to the award announcement that spring, Hemingway outpolled Kenneth Roberts’s Oliver Wiswell by 21 to 6. The New York Times reported:

No explanation of their failure to select any novel for the award was made public by the [Pulitzer Prize] trustees. The terms of the award are ‘for a distinguished novel published during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.’ It was pointed out that the final qualification might have weighed against Mr. Hemingway’s novel, which dealt with the Spanish Civil War.

No award was made in 1920, 1941, 1946, 1954 (when The Adventures of Augie March was ignored), 1957, 1964, 1971, 1974 (when the Pulitzer trustees refused to honor the jury’s selection of Gravity’s Rainbow), and 1977.

The best fiction of 2011 was John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, Roland Merullo’s The Talk-Funny Girl, Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, and Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. The Pulitzer’s failure to recognize any of them does not diminish their fascination and finesse.

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Obama Fundraising Up in March

The combined Obama campaign/Democratic National Committee haul for March was $53 million, an uptick from the $45 million they pulled in the month before. It’s a positive trend for the Obama campaign after a slow winter, but it still doesn’t get them on track to raise the mega-sums they had hoped for:

The president’s reelection campaign and the Democratic National Committee took in a combined $53 million in March through their various fundraising accounts, the Obama camp announced in a video Monday. …

The more interesting test of Obama’s fundraising potential may come in the April numbers, now that it’s unavoidably clear who the Republican nominee will be. High on the list of reasons why Democrats believe Obama’s fundraising has been solid, but not jaw-dropping, is that there hasn’t been a general election-like contrast with a Republican opponent, and financial supporters of both the grassroots and high-dollar variety haven’t felt the urgency they otherwise might.

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The combined Obama campaign/Democratic National Committee haul for March was $53 million, an uptick from the $45 million they pulled in the month before. It’s a positive trend for the Obama campaign after a slow winter, but it still doesn’t get them on track to raise the mega-sums they had hoped for:

The president’s reelection campaign and the Democratic National Committee took in a combined $53 million in March through their various fundraising accounts, the Obama camp announced in a video Monday. …

The more interesting test of Obama’s fundraising potential may come in the April numbers, now that it’s unavoidably clear who the Republican nominee will be. High on the list of reasons why Democrats believe Obama’s fundraising has been solid, but not jaw-dropping, is that there hasn’t been a general election-like contrast with a Republican opponent, and financial supporters of both the grassroots and high-dollar variety haven’t felt the urgency they otherwise might.

Ed Morrissey rightly points out that it’s a little premature to read into these numbers, since the DNC and Obama campaign haven’t announced yet how that fundraising was split:

As happens every month, Team Obama announces the overall number first, and only later explains how the money got split.  Usually the DNC gets between 20-25 percent of the haul, which in this case would put the actual cash going into the Obama campaign at $42.5 million or so, but we’ll see.  The joint effort did add 190,000 first-time donors, and had 567,000 donors overall.

That breakdown will tell us how much slack the DNC is picking up. Politico reports that in 2008, the Obama campaign raised $42.8 million without the DNC. And of course, a major indicator of Obama’s supporter enthusiasm is whether he’s on track to meet his 2008 monthly fundraising numbers, which so far he hasn’t been able to.

But that’s not to diminish the Obama campaign/DNC’s fundraising bump. Even if he fails to match his 2008 levels, Obama will still raise a massive amount of money this year, as he should. After all, President Obama has already attended over twice as many fundraisers than President Bush did at this point in his presidency. He better be getting something back for all that time.

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Did Israel Overreact to Flytilla?

The Israeli and Jewish left is excoriating the Netanyahu government for what it is calling an overreaction to yesterday’s “flytilla.” The event was an attempt by foreign supporters of the Palestinians to create a public relations triumph for their cause by flying in to the country and creating incidents that would embarrass Israel. But though they claimed their intent was a week of peaceful protest, their real agenda was on display when those who made into the country yesterday unfurled signs that read “Welcome to Palestine” when they landed at Ben-Gurion Airport.

It can be argued that any attention paid by the Israeli government to these people is too much. Their goal is publicity and to paint the Jewish state in the worst possible light, so the scenes of security personnel bundling these people into custody as they landed served their purpose. That it coincided with a deplorable incident over the weekend in which an Israeli army officer assaulted another foreign activist was merely a bonus. But it cannot be emphasized enough that the goal of the Palestine Solidarity Movement and related groups that organized this stunt is not peace. Their program is support for efforts to dismantle Israel as a Jewish state. Whether the flytillians got a boost from their hijinks is actually beside the point. The idea that any sovereign state ought to be required to facilitate the entry of such persons or to refrain from deporting them is unprecedented. But then again, so is the malevolent campaign pursued by people masquerading as human rights activists to single Israel out for destruction.

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The Israeli and Jewish left is excoriating the Netanyahu government for what it is calling an overreaction to yesterday’s “flytilla.” The event was an attempt by foreign supporters of the Palestinians to create a public relations triumph for their cause by flying in to the country and creating incidents that would embarrass Israel. But though they claimed their intent was a week of peaceful protest, their real agenda was on display when those who made into the country yesterday unfurled signs that read “Welcome to Palestine” when they landed at Ben-Gurion Airport.

It can be argued that any attention paid by the Israeli government to these people is too much. Their goal is publicity and to paint the Jewish state in the worst possible light, so the scenes of security personnel bundling these people into custody as they landed served their purpose. That it coincided with a deplorable incident over the weekend in which an Israeli army officer assaulted another foreign activist was merely a bonus. But it cannot be emphasized enough that the goal of the Palestine Solidarity Movement and related groups that organized this stunt is not peace. Their program is support for efforts to dismantle Israel as a Jewish state. Whether the flytillians got a boost from their hijinks is actually beside the point. The idea that any sovereign state ought to be required to facilitate the entry of such persons or to refrain from deporting them is unprecedented. But then again, so is the malevolent campaign pursued by people masquerading as human rights activists to single Israel out for destruction.

As it happens, Israel’s strategy in dealing with this effort to infiltrate provocateurs into the country was largely successful. Watch lists of supporters of extreme anti-Israel groups were compiled and airlines were warned that such persons would be immediately deported upon arrival and that the carriers would be responsible for the cost of their return. That meant that only a couple of dozen trickled in and few made it past security. Those who did arrive were handed a sarcastic note from their temporary hosts that pointed out their hypocrisy:

Dear activist:

We appreciate your choosing to make Israel the object of your humanitarian concerns. We know there were many other worthy choices.

You could have chosen to protest the Syrian regime’s daily savagery against its own people, which has claimed thousands of lives. You could have chosen to protest the Iranian regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent and support of terrorism throughout the world.

You could have chosen to protest Hamas rule in Gaza, where terror organizations commit a double war crime by firing rockets at civilians and hiding behind civilians.

But instead you chose to protest against Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy, where women are equal, the press criticizes the government, human rights organizations can operate freely, religious freedom is protected for all and minorities do not live in fear.

We therefore suggest that you first solve the real problems of the region, and then come back and share with us your experience. Have a nice flight.

While the prime minister’s office that was the source of the note could be accused of paying these foes the compliment of taking them seriously, it also deserves credit for not worrying too much about the publicity. The idea that Israel will persuade wavering foreign observers to take its side by making nice with people who wish to destroy it is foolish. Changing the narrative requires making a case for the justice of Israel’s cause, and the note is a step in that direction.

As the New York Times pointed out, the Palestinians are actually unmoved by the efforts by these foreign cheerleaders for their cause. It is only the Israelis who get worked up about them. They shouldn’t bother, but if so, then the prime minister’s message is actually the one that they and anyone else interested in these affairs should be getting.

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A Modern and Prosperous Colombia

Too bad that the Summit of the Americas this past weekend in Cartagena will be remembered as the “prostitution summit,” after the scandal involving Secret Service agents allegedly hiring local professionals.  It should have been known as an event celebrating Colombia’s extraordinary success.

Written off as a failed state only a decade ago, that nation has bounced back to push back the FARC insurgency, establish law and order across most of its territory, and to spark robust economic growth. I am not the only one to dub this “The Colombian Miracle,” as I did in this 2009 article–that is also the headline of a Washington Post article a few days ago which notes that Colombia is no longer associated with kidnapping and terrorism.

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Too bad that the Summit of the Americas this past weekend in Cartagena will be remembered as the “prostitution summit,” after the scandal involving Secret Service agents allegedly hiring local professionals.  It should have been known as an event celebrating Colombia’s extraordinary success.

Written off as a failed state only a decade ago, that nation has bounced back to push back the FARC insurgency, establish law and order across most of its territory, and to spark robust economic growth. I am not the only one to dub this “The Colombian Miracle,” as I did in this 2009 article–that is also the headline of a Washington Post article a few days ago which notes that Colombia is no longer associated with kidnapping and terrorism.

This is a new country that has “attracted record levels of foreign investment and whose economy grew nearly 6 percent last year, that was awarded investment-grade status and can borrow more cheaply than some countries in Western Europe.”

Much of this achievement was due to the extraordinary presidency of Alvaro Uribe, one of the greatest counter-insurgency leaders of the past century, who between 2002 and 2010 all but defeated FARC and created the security which has made prosperity possible. His achievement was aided and extended by his onetime defense minister turned president, Juan Manuel Santos, who welcomed President Obama and other world leaders to his country. Their leadership shows what is possible to achieve against great odds even when facing an entrenched and ruthless insurgency–it is a lesson that Hamid Karzai and his would-be successors should pay attention to.

It is fitting that Colombia’s progress, which was helped by American aid, is now at last recognized by the establishment of a U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, made possible by Obama finally overriding the obstinate objections of American labor unions to this pact which will benefit both nations. It is only a shame that this agreement, which was concluded six years ago, has had to wait so long to be implemented.

 

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Poll Shows Americans Support Photo ID Voting Requirement

Americans support a photo ID voting requirement, and by a pretty definitive margin, according to a Rasmussen poll out today. While liberals have downplayed the impact of voter fraud and warned that photo ID requirements will disenfranchise minority voters, 73 percent of the voting public says that these laws are not discriminatory:

Despite his insistence that voter fraud is not a serious problem, Attorney General Eric Holder was embarrassed last week when a video surfaced of someone illegally obtaining a ballot to vote under Holder’s name in his home precinct in Washington, D.C. Most voters consider voter fraud a problem in America today and continue to overwhelmingly support laws requiring people to show photo identification before being allowed to vote.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 64 percent of Likely U.S. Voters rate voter fraud at least a somewhat serious problem in the United States today, and just 24 percent disagree. This includes 35 percent who consider it a Very Serious problem and seven percent who view it as Not At All Serious. Twelve percent are undecided.

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Americans support a photo ID voting requirement, and by a pretty definitive margin, according to a Rasmussen poll out today. While liberals have downplayed the impact of voter fraud and warned that photo ID requirements will disenfranchise minority voters, 73 percent of the voting public says that these laws are not discriminatory:

Despite his insistence that voter fraud is not a serious problem, Attorney General Eric Holder was embarrassed last week when a video surfaced of someone illegally obtaining a ballot to vote under Holder’s name in his home precinct in Washington, D.C. Most voters consider voter fraud a problem in America today and continue to overwhelmingly support laws requiring people to show photo identification before being allowed to vote.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 64 percent of Likely U.S. Voters rate voter fraud at least a somewhat serious problem in the United States today, and just 24 percent disagree. This includes 35 percent who consider it a Very Serious problem and seven percent who view it as Not At All Serious. Twelve percent are undecided.

It’s not a surprise the public is supportive of these laws, as photo IDs are already required for so many day-to-day activities that it seems odd they aren’t already necessary for voting. Progressive activists must sense they’re facing an upward battle to convince Americans that photo ID laws are discriminatory, since they’re now redirecting their attention to convincing corporations. They’re pressuring companies to cut ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which supports voter photo ID laws. And the campaign has been fairly successful so far:

Some of America’s best known brands are dropping their membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council at least partly in response to controversy over the group’s backing of voter ID laws. Coca-Cola quit on April 4 and Pepsi, Kraft Foods, Intuit, McDonald’s and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation followed them out after a coalition of left-wing groups launched pressure campaigns. Nine states have passed strict voter ID requirements just since 2011, which opponents say could result in millions being unable to cast ballots in November.

Polls like the Rasmussen one today debunk the idea there’s a vast public groundswell opposed to voter photo ID requirements, but unfortunately, committed groups of noisy activists can still make private companies uncomfortable associating themselves with these laws. At the moment, there isn’t really a comparably-organized counter-movement of voter ID law supporters to push back, but one appears to be in the works. Dave Weigel reports:

The conference will feature some mainstays of the conservative voter integrity circuit. James O’Keefe; former DOJ lawyer/anti-New Black Panther crusader J. Christian Adams; and so on. But the star is Artur Davis, the former Democratic congressman from Alabama who has started irritating his old party by ringing bells about voter fraud.

Artur Davis’s involvement is pretty significant, at least in terms of drawing attention to the campaign. A group of conservatives arguing in favor of voter ID laws is predictable, but Davis can provide a much more persuasive counter-argument as a Democrat and progressive.

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Nothing Fair About Obama’s “Fairness”

Fairness and equality are 2012’s version of 2008’s hope and change. Barack Obama is monopolizing those brands while shirking the business of responsible governance and national purpose. Last week, millions of Americans received an unsolicited email from the White House urging individuals to “Just enter a few pieces of information about your taxes, and see how many millionaires pay a lower effective tax rate than you.” This was no ordinary piece of election year propaganda, but rather a draft notice urging citizens to report to duty and fight the class war declared by the president himself.  With titanic debt and deficit values assuming the ignorable status of imaginary numbers, he is refocusing our anxieties on the tangible fortunes of our neighbors.

Obama’s case for reelection rests on a false choice: America can retain its basic humanity via government intervention or sell its national soul for private profit. The press, as usual, is the megaphone. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll asks: “What do you think is the bigger problem in this country—unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy, or over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity?” Fifty-two percent said “unfairness,” and 37 percent said “over-regulation.” Some have pointed out that the poll sample is heavily skewed toward Democrats and the results are therefore meaningless. But that misses the larger point. The question is meaningless. Choosing between over-regulation and unfairness is like choosing between lethargy and obesity. For the past 50 years, federal regulation and income inequality have grown in tandem. See charts here and here.

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Fairness and equality are 2012’s version of 2008’s hope and change. Barack Obama is monopolizing those brands while shirking the business of responsible governance and national purpose. Last week, millions of Americans received an unsolicited email from the White House urging individuals to “Just enter a few pieces of information about your taxes, and see how many millionaires pay a lower effective tax rate than you.” This was no ordinary piece of election year propaganda, but rather a draft notice urging citizens to report to duty and fight the class war declared by the president himself.  With titanic debt and deficit values assuming the ignorable status of imaginary numbers, he is refocusing our anxieties on the tangible fortunes of our neighbors.

Obama’s case for reelection rests on a false choice: America can retain its basic humanity via government intervention or sell its national soul for private profit. The press, as usual, is the megaphone. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll asks: “What do you think is the bigger problem in this country—unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy, or over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity?” Fifty-two percent said “unfairness,” and 37 percent said “over-regulation.” Some have pointed out that the poll sample is heavily skewed toward Democrats and the results are therefore meaningless. But that misses the larger point. The question is meaningless. Choosing between over-regulation and unfairness is like choosing between lethargy and obesity. For the past 50 years, federal regulation and income inequality have grown in tandem. See charts here and here.

If government intervention corrects unfairness, as liberals insist, why when placed side-by-side, do the two look as cozy as temperature and CO2 in an Al Gore propaganda blockbuster?

Conservatives are failing entirely to take this debate where it needs to go. Over-regulation isn’t just unfair in the “it’s not right to tax my billions because I’ve earned them” sense. Overregulation is unfair for everyone. An over-regulated American housing market saw lenders forced into giving loans to buyers without sufficient credit. When it came time to pay up, the whole scheme went under in a flash, nearly taking financial markets down, and causing the job-killing recession from which we continue to suffer. If the 2008 collapse put you out of work blame a disastrous piece of liberal legislation known as the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act—not millionaires.

Federally instituted “fairness” furnishes undeserved opportunities for house-of-cards companies like Solyndra to edge out less fashionably green, but more worthwhile, competitors. Financial regulation aimed at curbing Wall Street greed only serves to discourage smaller start-up capitalists without the money to troubleshoot the regulation maze as ably as giant corporations.

Obama isn’t offering fairness at all. He’s pitching therapeutic divisiveness: “see how many millionaires pay a lower effective tax rate than you,” get mad, make them pay. In 2008, the guns-and-Bible part of Obama’s “bitter clinger” comment made headlines, but there was more to what he said. He also scolded Americans who “cling to antipathy to people who aren’t like them … to explain their frustrations.” That antipathy is the Obama 2012 campaign message. Just let him pick the targets.

Responsible parents tell their children at the first signs of self-defeating envy, “Don’t worry about everyone else; worry about yourself.” What is beneath the dignity of children is embraced by our president. If indeed our national soul now hangs in the balance, its salvation depends on how Americans respond to the calls for disunity coming from the highest office in the land.

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An Electoral College Edge for Obama?

At the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza makes an argument that although 2012 isn’t going to be anything like 2008, President Obama still has an edge over Mitt Romney in the swing states that will decide the election. While the numbers do give Obama a slight advantage, as RealClearPolitics’ Electoral College map indicates, the triumphalism about the president’s re-election we’ve been hearing lately from Democrats is more the product of bombast than insight. Stunts like the Democrats’ attempt to promote myths about the Republican “war on women” aren’t likely to change that map. More to the point is the fact that the states that will determine the winner are likely to be influenced heavily by an economy that few outside the administration and liberal editorial pages believe has been turned around.

There isn’t a lot of doubt about which states are up for grabs this November. Nor is there much uncertainty that the battle for the White House this year will more closely resemble 2000 and 2004 than President Obama’s romp four years ago. The outcome will, as Cillizza rightly understands, depend on whether the voting patterns of the last few elections will be re-written by dissatisfaction over the president’s uninspiring performance in office.

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At the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza makes an argument that although 2012 isn’t going to be anything like 2008, President Obama still has an edge over Mitt Romney in the swing states that will decide the election. While the numbers do give Obama a slight advantage, as RealClearPolitics’ Electoral College map indicates, the triumphalism about the president’s re-election we’ve been hearing lately from Democrats is more the product of bombast than insight. Stunts like the Democrats’ attempt to promote myths about the Republican “war on women” aren’t likely to change that map. More to the point is the fact that the states that will determine the winner are likely to be influenced heavily by an economy that few outside the administration and liberal editorial pages believe has been turned around.

There isn’t a lot of doubt about which states are up for grabs this November. Nor is there much uncertainty that the battle for the White House this year will more closely resemble 2000 and 2004 than President Obama’s romp four years ago. The outcome will, as Cillizza rightly understands, depend on whether the voting patterns of the last few elections will be re-written by dissatisfaction over the president’s uninspiring performance in office.

As Cillizza states, there is not much argument there are nine swing states that should be in play this fall: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin–comprising 110 electoral votes. He points out that Democrats would include Arizona, Indiana and Missouri, adding 32 votes to the total of those in doubt even though none of them have a history of abandoning the GOP. Republicans would include Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Mexico, adding 41 to the swing state total, but only New Mexico has gone for the GOP even once in the last generation.

If none of those flip this year, that leaves us with the nine swing states and because as Cillizza points out, Obama carried all nine in 2008, he must be considered to have an advantage.

The only problem with this reasoning is that a poor economy that can no longer be blamed on the Republicans leaves Romney an opening. Each state is a different story. In New Hampshire, Romney may have a regional edge. Virginia may revert to Republican form after deserting the GOP for the first time in decades last time around. Wisconsin may be influenced by the outcome of the Scott Walker recall effort that is itself a referendum on the 2010 Republican midterm victory. The point is there are still too many variables and far too much time until November to list any of these pure swing or semi-swing states in either column.

With the GOP contest now all but concluded, the general election is about to begin. President Obama enjoys the enormous advantage that comes with incumbency as well as Camelot-style press coverage that has largely eschewed the personal attacks that dogged the re-election efforts of all of his recent predecessors. But until we know whether the economic state of the union on September 1 is such to inspire confidence in an Obama rerun, coloring any of the states up for grabs any shade of blue or red is a mistake.

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Attack on Kabul Shows Diplomacy’s Futility

I’m not as sanguine as Max Boot that the Taliban’s well-coordinated attacks are really a sign of weakness. During my first trip to Afghanistan in 1997, I visited the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The frontline with the Taliban was hundreds of miles away. The next day, we were fleeing for our lives as the Taliban advanced on Mazar-i-Sharif. The reason for the Taliban’s rapid advance was not the group’s military prowess, but rather a quirk of Afghan culture: Afghans never lose a war; they just defect to the winning side. A neighboring warlord had decided to make accommodation with the Taliban, offering them free passage. A few hours after I left, the city fell.

It is against this context that the attack on Kabul worries me greatly. The problem isn’t simply a Taliban “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone but rather the Obama administration symbolically standing down the defense with his repeated offers to negotiate with the radical Islamist group.

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I’m not as sanguine as Max Boot that the Taliban’s well-coordinated attacks are really a sign of weakness. During my first trip to Afghanistan in 1997, I visited the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The frontline with the Taliban was hundreds of miles away. The next day, we were fleeing for our lives as the Taliban advanced on Mazar-i-Sharif. The reason for the Taliban’s rapid advance was not the group’s military prowess, but rather a quirk of Afghan culture: Afghans never lose a war; they just defect to the winning side. A neighboring warlord had decided to make accommodation with the Taliban, offering them free passage. A few hours after I left, the city fell.

It is against this context that the attack on Kabul worries me greatly. The problem isn’t simply a Taliban “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone but rather the Obama administration symbolically standing down the defense with his repeated offers to negotiate with the radical Islamist group.

Pushing diplomacy with the Taliban—a strategy tried by the Clinton administration with disastrous results—has enabled the Taliban to cast the West as weak and desperate. Adding a timeline into the mix only underlined the perception of desperation.  That diplomatic concessions has emboldened the Taliban is an observation lost on no one but the White House and the good folks in Foggy Bottom.

Allowing the Taliban to open an office in Qatar not only restored diplomatic legitimacy to the group, but also enabled it to raise cash. Indeed, according to SITE Monitoring, the Taliban in recent days has been putting out calls for donations. It is a lot easier to donate in Qatar than in Afghanistan itself.

In a head-to-head patch up, the Taliban may be weak. But war is as much psychological as military. And the Taliban increasingly seems to be winning that battle hands-down. Unless Obama—like Bush prior to the surge in Iraq—is willing to commit himself unequivocally to victory, Afghans will see the Taliban’s actions as at best a dry run and, at worst, a sign that the time is now to bet if not on the strong horse, than on the only horse with resolve.

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Obama’s Green Jobs Efforts Still a Bust

Reuters takes a look at the status of President Obama’s signature “green jobs” push, which the administration has already pumped billions into, and finds some dismal results:

But the millions of “green jobs” Obama promised have been slow to sprout, disappointing many who had hoped that the $90 billion earmarked for clean-energy efforts in the recession-fighting federal stimulus package would ease unemployment – still above 8 percent in March.

Supporters say the administration overpromised on the jobs front and worry that a backlash could undermine support for clean-energy policies in general. …

A $500 million job-training program has so far helped fewer than 20,000 people find work, far short of its goal. …

Gains in the sector don’t necessarily lead to wider employment.

The wind industry, for example, has shed 10,000 jobs since 2009 even as the energy capacity of wind farms has nearly doubled, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has added 75,000 jobs since Obama took office, according to Labor Department statistics.

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Reuters takes a look at the status of President Obama’s signature “green jobs” push, which the administration has already pumped billions into, and finds some dismal results:

But the millions of “green jobs” Obama promised have been slow to sprout, disappointing many who had hoped that the $90 billion earmarked for clean-energy efforts in the recession-fighting federal stimulus package would ease unemployment – still above 8 percent in March.

Supporters say the administration overpromised on the jobs front and worry that a backlash could undermine support for clean-energy policies in general. …

A $500 million job-training program has so far helped fewer than 20,000 people find work, far short of its goal. …

Gains in the sector don’t necessarily lead to wider employment.

The wind industry, for example, has shed 10,000 jobs since 2009 even as the energy capacity of wind farms has nearly doubled, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has added 75,000 jobs since Obama took office, according to Labor Department statistics.

The administration’s promises on the green jobs front have shrunk significantly during the past few years. Obama vowed that his plan would create 5 million jobs in 2008, but those projected numbers dwindled to 722,000 (promised by Vice President Biden in 2009) and then to 200,000 (the 2010 White House estimate). And yet the president continues to tout his green jobs campaign, despite its failure to meet expectations.

The problem for Obama is that the green energy industry is really the only energy sector he can try to feign achievement in. He’s killing coal jobs with new regulations, and the GOP won’t let the public forget all the jobs that were cost by his Keystone XL blunder.

Republicans have focused most of their attention on Obama’s Solyndra debacle, and while that’s a compelling symbol for the administration’s overall failure on green energy, it’s also important to note that the green energy problems extend far beyond one unsuccessful company. Obama continues to argue that more money should be funneled into green energy, despite the evidence that his job creation efforts have been a bust. Comparing the billions of dollars that have already been spent to the paltry job creation numbers shows just how much of a money-waste the entire project has been.

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Bad Advice for Romney on Mormon Issue

A common feature of the competitive political news industry is the high volume of overpromising headlines. A good example is today’s Politico feature, headlined “GOP to Mitt: Own your Mormonism.” The story, however, says no such thing.

What we have instead is an array of quotes indicating that Romney talking more about his Mormonism would be detrimental to his prospects or that it would be irrelevant. We never quite get to the argument about how to sell Romney’s religion to the public. Now that Romney seems finally to be his party’s nominee, writes Politico, “many Republicans think that the standoffish candidate actually needs to embrace his Mormonism publicly to open a window into his life.” But where are these promised “many Republicans”?

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A common feature of the competitive political news industry is the high volume of overpromising headlines. A good example is today’s Politico feature, headlined “GOP to Mitt: Own your Mormonism.” The story, however, says no such thing.

What we have instead is an array of quotes indicating that Romney talking more about his Mormonism would be detrimental to his prospects or that it would be irrelevant. We never quite get to the argument about how to sell Romney’s religion to the public. Now that Romney seems finally to be his party’s nominee, writes Politico, “many Republicans think that the standoffish candidate actually needs to embrace his Mormonism publicly to open a window into his life.” But where are these promised “many Republicans”?

First we meet Penny Young Nance, an activist and former Rick Santorum supporter, who says the public might connect with Romney if they could see him worshiping. But she also says she “will support anyone against this president”–not exactly an example of a voter Romney has to work to win over. Brent Bozell offers a related piece of advice, saying Romney shouldn’t “distance” himself from his religion, but then says that the hostility to Romney in the primaries “was based more on cultural issues–social issues, not religious.” But that doesn’t explain why Romney’s Mormonism can be a plus.

It’s also unlikely to be true. A Romney adviser tells Politico that the campaign was surprised by the GOP primary exit polls showing voters would only vote for someone who shared their faith. Politico then provides us with a couple of those voters, who say they could not “morally vote” if the election is Romney against Obama.

The story offers some more dubious advice by suggesting that “If there was ever a time for Romney to publicly reveal his inner Mormon, this is it,” in part because “The Broadway musical ‘Book of Mormon’ remains a huge hit.” Romney should not, it must be said, base his campaign strategy on a musical comedy version of his religion written by the creators of “South Park.”

Later, Politico quotes a Mormon endorsing the idea to open up about Romney’s faith, but immediately undermines it: “It’s more than a religion–it’s a subculture, a way of life. Mormons socialize together, they do business together, and they raise families together [Avoiding it publicly] just perpetuates the view that he’s distant.” What would also perpetuate the view that he is distant would be the revelation that members of his religion tend to self-consciously isolate themselves.

Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, says evangelicals aren’t the problem, because they will vote for Romney against Obama “in spite of his Mormonism.” This is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the professed strategy. Land also notes, correctly, that the Romney campaign “would have more problems with Democrats demonizing the religion than with evangelicals,” as paraphrased by Politico. This is true, and David Axelrod has continued to press the Mormon issue despite promises he would put an end to the anti-Mormon aspect of the campaign. This is an explicit argument against Romney bringing up his Mormonism in the general election.

The final quote in the article encouraging Romney to talk about his Mormonism is from GOP strategist Steve Schmidt. But this advice is from, well, Steve Schmidt, so it’s hard to imagine the GOP doing anything with that advice but running from it as if it’s on fire.

It may well be that there is benefit in Romney’s Mormonism, but this article provides exactly one such quote that doesn’t immediately undermine the argument–and it’s from someone who didn’t support Romney but will in the general election because she’s a conservative activist.

The best argument I can think of in favor of opening up the Mormon issue is that Democrats, as indicated by Axelrod, will attempt to portray the religion in the most negative light possible. It’s not just Axelrod. Columnists at the New York Times have joined the anti-Mormon campaign almost as soon as they heard Axelrod’s starter pistol. Maureen Dowd joined the fray, but of greater concern was Charles Blow’s anti-Mormon insult on Twitter directed at the candidate himself. Blow later offered a tweet that was about as close to an apology that Mormons were going to get out of him, and he did not lose his perch at the Times–a signal that unlike other prejudices, anti-Mormon bigotry is not a firing offense and will be tolerated at the New York Times. (It will also be tolerated, perhaps unsurprisingly, by MSNBC.)

The best antidote to this may be the familiarity with voters that all presidential candidates attain in the age of long campaigns, 24-hour news networks, and ubiquitous social media. Or it may be for the Mormon community to do its best to counter the Democrats’ campaign against the religion. But now faced with trying to win Democratic votes against an incumbent Democratic president, it may still be perilous for Romney to raise the issue himself.

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The Country With No Artists

There are no artists in North Korea. This is what dissident painter Song Byeok tried to explain to me as we sat in an art gallery in Columbia Heights, surrounded by huge pop art depictions of Song’s oppressed countrymen and their eternal Supreme Leaders.

“Not a single independent artist in the entire country?” I asked.

“There just can’t be. There cannot be,” Song repeated. “When you block someone’s ears and eyes since you’re born, you don’t even think about doing something individualistic like that.”

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There are no artists in North Korea. This is what dissident painter Song Byeok tried to explain to me as we sat in an art gallery in Columbia Heights, surrounded by huge pop art depictions of Song’s oppressed countrymen and their eternal Supreme Leaders.

“Not a single independent artist in the entire country?” I asked.

“There just can’t be. There cannot be,” Song repeated. “When you block someone’s ears and eyes since you’re born, you don’t even think about doing something individualistic like that.”

It’s quite a claim to say that in a country of 20 million – even a prison-state like North Korea – not one person has dared to put ink to paper and create images that aren’t permitted by the government. Underground artists have sprouted even in severely oppressive societies like the Soviet Union and current-day Iran. But then, if anyone is familiar with the inscrutable subject of North Korean art, it is Song Byeok. Once recruited as a propaganda painter for the regime, Song was later imprisoned and tortured by the DPRK after trying to cross the Chinese border to find food. He eventually did escape the country, and now uses his paintbrush to satirize and condemn the regime he was once compelled to glorify.

Song’s most recognizable image, hanging on a nearby wall, is a massive painting of the late Dear Leader donning Marilyn Monroe’s iconic white dress and coquettish pose. Behind me is one of Song’s more disturbing works, a painting of bony-legged, toothless children embracing a bloblike Kim Jong Il as he crushes them in a bearhug. On a nearby table lies what, at first glance, appears to be a traditional Korean ink scrollpainting. But instead of rolling hills and farmlands, it is a panorama of totalitarianism, complete with looming monuments to the omniscient rulers and forced labor camps.

Song’s paintings strike an odd balance between humor and horror. Many evoke the classic pop art style, with solid backgrounds, cheerful commercial allusions, and bright primary colors serving as a haunting contrast to the subject matter.

The artist has a quiet manner, and speaks little to no English. We talked through a translator. On Friday night, he opened his first art expo in D.C. to a packed house, and during our interview on Saturday afternoon people trickled in and out of the exhibit, buying prints of his work.

Despite Song’s artistic training, he claims that he never considered drawing anything anti-government while living in North Korea. Not due to fear of discovery, he explained, but because the independence of thought necessary to create unofficial art simply doesn’t exist in the state.

“The fact is that I would never even think about it,” said Song. “That is why I wouldn’t ever think about the risks.”

The dearth of art may seem like the least of concerns in a country where many die of malnutrition and treatable illnesses. But the physical suffering is only one tragedy of North Korea. Other tyrants have also starved and brutalized the bodies of their own people, but the North Korean government has achieved unprecedented success when it comes to starving its peoples’ minds and souls. The DPRK’s oppression is so total that Song maintains he once couldn’t even fathom drawing anything subversive about a government he eventually risked death and torture to try to escape.

The truth is, nobody – not even Song Byeok – can say with absolute certainty that there are no underground artists inside the borders of North Korea. Though if any exist, we would likely never know about or see their work.

The other alternative, far more unsettling, is that Song is right – that North Korea truly and horribly is the first state in the world where art has ceased to exist.

While Song is now out of the physical reach of the North Korean government, some shackles remain. Even “Song Byeok” is a pseudonym, to protect family still in the country. He says his art has already caught the eye of the upper ranks of the regime, something he’s openly proud of.

Song views his art as more than just a mode of self-expression and catharsis. He acknowledges that his work has a political objective, and says his main goal “is to be able to inform the people about how valuable freedom is.”

That desire extends beyond just North Korea. “The next country I’m planning to portray is Afghanistan, the women in Afghanistan, and the way they’re treated in the name of religion,” he told me, adding that he was disturbed by the fact that Afghan women can be stoned to death for simply running away with someone they love.

But for now, the artist seems preoccupied with his home country, and his hope that “North Korea can get better.” Song says his paintings are ideally intended to reach the public of North Korea, as implausible as that idea seems. “They’ll pass out of shock,” he predicted.

Song said that even in a country without artists, the public would still grasp the meaning of his paintings. “[They] will definitely understand the message,” he told me. “Because unconsciously they do know something is not right in society. That’s why they would understand right away.”

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Iran’s North Korea Connection

The news that a delegation of Iranian nuclear scientists was in North Korea this past weekend to witness the communist regime’s failed missile launch should surprise no one. An anonymous source told South Korea’s Yonhap State News agency that a dozen Iranians were there to “observe the missile launch and receive test data from North Korea.”

Cooperation between the two rogue states is not exactly a secret. Still, it was interesting that the Iranians would send a delegation of scientists to the event. Though the North Korean’s missile flop, which was an entirely appropriate way to commemorate the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung (the founder of the North Korean regime and the grandfather of its current leader), may not have yielded much in the way of useful data, Pyongyang’s successful defiance of the West provides the model for what the Iranians hope will be the outcome of their own diplomatic nuclear tangle.

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The news that a delegation of Iranian nuclear scientists was in North Korea this past weekend to witness the communist regime’s failed missile launch should surprise no one. An anonymous source told South Korea’s Yonhap State News agency that a dozen Iranians were there to “observe the missile launch and receive test data from North Korea.”

Cooperation between the two rogue states is not exactly a secret. Still, it was interesting that the Iranians would send a delegation of scientists to the event. Though the North Korean’s missile flop, which was an entirely appropriate way to commemorate the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung (the founder of the North Korean regime and the grandfather of its current leader), may not have yielded much in the way of useful data, Pyongyang’s successful defiance of the West provides the model for what the Iranians hope will be the outcome of their own diplomatic nuclear tangle.

For all of the optimism emanating from Washington about America’s ability to use sanctions to pressure Iran to accept a diplomatic solution to the standoff over the nuclear program, far too little attention is being paid to the fact that there is already a template for the ayatollahs to succeed in realizing their ambitions. The North Koreans successfully flouted a series of agreements signed with the West to prevent them from joining the nuclear club. Both the Clinton and the Bush administrations were suckered into talks that merely dragged out the process until the clock ran out and the isolated North Korean regime was able to successfully test a nuclear device.

It is true that Iran is far bigger and more integrated into the global economy. But like the North Korean dictatorship, the Islamist leaders in Tehran believe they can suppress any dissent that might be stirred up by a successful program of sanctions. The point here isn’t that the two remaining members of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” are conspiring but that one has already shown the other how to win.

The problem isn’t that the North Koreans will teach the Iranians how to build a bomb. They already know what to do and are going about the enrichment of uranium. Far more important is the lesson the North Koreans can show them about how to swindle the West. So long as President Obama is more focused on ensuring that Israel doesn’t pre-empt Iran’s nukes and seeking peace and quiet until he is safely re-elected, the ayatollahs understand the advantage is theirs. Though the president insists he won’t be played by Iran, the North Korean connection illustrates how easily it can be done.

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Obama’s Tough Talk Masks Iran Freebie

President Obama responded sharply yesterday to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim the P5+1 talks with Iran constituted a Western “freebie” to the Islamist regime because it gave it five more weeks to continue to enrich uranium. Speaking during his visit to Colombia, the president let loose with another barrage of tough talk about his intentions to halt Iran’s nuclear program. Warning “the clock is ticking” for Iran, he directly addressed criticism of the talks by saying he wouldn’t allow it to turn into a “stalling process” and that far more draconian sanctions would be put into place against the regime if it didn’t take advantage of the diplomatic process.

That’s reassuring rhetoric, but the problem with America’s policy on the Iranian nuclear issue remains the same as it has always been: the disconnect between President Obama’s public rhetoric and the process by which U.S. diplomatic efforts has allowed Tehran to do the stalling that he claims he opposes. With reports of Saturday’s meeting showing that nothing other than a commitment to future meetings in Baghdad (the venue has been changed from Turkey to suit Iran’s latest whim), it’s not clear why Israel or anyone who cares should have much confidence that the negotiators are doing anything but allowing both the ayatollahs and a president who wishes to avoid a confrontation during an election year to run out the clock in contravention to what Obama has pledged.

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President Obama responded sharply yesterday to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim the P5+1 talks with Iran constituted a Western “freebie” to the Islamist regime because it gave it five more weeks to continue to enrich uranium. Speaking during his visit to Colombia, the president let loose with another barrage of tough talk about his intentions to halt Iran’s nuclear program. Warning “the clock is ticking” for Iran, he directly addressed criticism of the talks by saying he wouldn’t allow it to turn into a “stalling process” and that far more draconian sanctions would be put into place against the regime if it didn’t take advantage of the diplomatic process.

That’s reassuring rhetoric, but the problem with America’s policy on the Iranian nuclear issue remains the same as it has always been: the disconnect between President Obama’s public rhetoric and the process by which U.S. diplomatic efforts has allowed Tehran to do the stalling that he claims he opposes. With reports of Saturday’s meeting showing that nothing other than a commitment to future meetings in Baghdad (the venue has been changed from Turkey to suit Iran’s latest whim), it’s not clear why Israel or anyone who cares should have much confidence that the negotiators are doing anything but allowing both the ayatollahs and a president who wishes to avoid a confrontation during an election year to run out the clock in contravention to what Obama has pledged.

The president’s continued discussion of his desire to press Iran and refusal to let them off the hook ought to have encouraged the Israelis. But given the clear desire of America’s P5+1 negotiating partners — a group that includes Iran’s friends Russia and China — to treat the talks as merely a method for preventing an Israeli attack on Iran, it is difficult to fault Netanyahu for his skepticism about a process that, despite Obama’s comments, seems to have no clear agenda or deadline for success. Indeed, accounts of the meeting seem to have confirmed his fears that the whole point is about defusing tension over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and creating a process that will continue until well past November.

What is perhaps most discouraging about the accounts of the talks and the preparations for the next meeting is that they do not at all seem informed by the fact that the West has been down the garden path with Iran before. This is not the first diplomatic contact with Iran. Several years of talks dating back to the Bush administration and including President Obama’s ludicrous effort at engagement with Tehran all sought to get the Iranians to export their stockpile of enriched uranium as well as to prevent it from creating more. Each time, the Iranians agreed to the discussions and then even gave the impression that a deal was in place before reneging.

The president has indicated he is aware of this, but by buying into the current process and allowing the Russians and the Chinese an equal say in the negotiations, he has set himself up for a repeat performance. Unless he is prepared to get as tough with his own side in the talks as he claims to want to be with Iran, it is difficult to see how he can prevent a “stalling process” from taking up the entire summer and fall with talks that are not likely to achieve anything. The idea that he will be able to persuade the leaky international coalition he has assembled on behalf of sanctions on Iran to go ahead and embargo oil from the rogue state while he is simultaneously engaged in negotiations with it defies common sense. But if all the president is interested in doing is mollifying American public opinion while putting off an Israeli strike, his strategy makes perfect sense.

While Netanyahu is being criticized for going public with his concerns about the talks, his comments about a “freebie” merely indicate that this diplomatic process fools no one in Jerusalem. Both the Iranians and the president share a desire to kick the can down the road until after the November election. All the tough talk from the White House doesn’t change the fact that there is little reason to believe there will be genuine progress toward eliminating the Iranian threat.

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The Buffett Rule and Tax Fairness

The so-called Buffett Rule will come up for a vote in the Senate today and will almost certainly fail. And that’s a good thing because the Buffett Rule is not tax policy, it is demagogy.

President Obama is exploiting the fact that the corporate and personal income taxes have never been properly integrated into a single, coherent tax system, which is a failure of government. Instead, there has been an endless series of ad hoc, jerry-built fixes during the last century to either prevent the exploitation of the two tax systems by taxpayers (such as individuals incorporating themselves to pay lower corporate rates) or to obviate what would be double taxation and thus—pardon the expression—unfair. Often, the fixes caused new opportunities for exploitation or created new unfairness (not to mention new opportunities for demagogy). This generated new fixes, and so on and on ad infinitum. The result is a tax code that is a national disgrace.

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The so-called Buffett Rule will come up for a vote in the Senate today and will almost certainly fail. And that’s a good thing because the Buffett Rule is not tax policy, it is demagogy.

President Obama is exploiting the fact that the corporate and personal income taxes have never been properly integrated into a single, coherent tax system, which is a failure of government. Instead, there has been an endless series of ad hoc, jerry-built fixes during the last century to either prevent the exploitation of the two tax systems by taxpayers (such as individuals incorporating themselves to pay lower corporate rates) or to obviate what would be double taxation and thus—pardon the expression—unfair. Often, the fixes caused new opportunities for exploitation or created new unfairness (not to mention new opportunities for demagogy). This generated new fixes, and so on and on ad infinitum. The result is a tax code that is a national disgrace.

So instead of the Buffett Rule, how about a couple of fixes that would eliminate much of the illusory unfairness that the president wants to exploit for his own selfish purposes (i.e. re-election).

1) Dividends are taxed at 15 percent because they are paid out of corporate profits that have already been taxed at the corporate level, at 35 percent. Interest on corporate bonds, however, is a business expense and thus deductible. That’s why interest income at the personal level is taxed at the normal rate. So why not treat interest and dividends alike? Allow corporations to deduct them both as business expenses and tax both of them fully at the personal level. This would not only eliminate the illusory unfairness at a stroke, but it would have the considerable additional virtue of eliminating the bias towards raising capital through borrowing rather than equity. It would also tax dividend income at the same progressive rates that are laid on wages and salaries, rather than at a flat rate. Liberals should love that idea.

2) Capital gains also come out of after-tax profits, although indirectly. (The profits not taxed away or paid as dividends increase the book value of the corporation —the value of its liquidated assets minus liabilities—and thus raise the floor price of the stock regardless of market conditions, as a stock seldom sells for below its book value.) This, along with the fact that the money is at risk while invested (which wages and salaries are not) and that capital gains are not adjusted for inflation, is why they, too, are taxed at 15 percent, not the full personal rate.

If capital gains were adjusted for inflation, at least some of the unfairness inherent at taxing them at higher rates would be eliminated. Consider an example. If you inherited $100,000 worth of stock in 1962 and sold it today for $760,000, your capital gains tax on that stock would be $99,000. But your real, inflation-adjusted gain would be zero. The $99,000 would, in fact, not be an income tax on a capital gain but an excise tax, measured in inflation, on the privilege of living in a country whose government has failed to maintain the value of the currency. Talk about unfair!

If President Obama cared about tax fairness, he would seek to actually make the tax code more fair. Instead, he is seeking to be re-elected–nothing more, nothing less.

 

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Attacks in Kabul Show Taliban’s Weakness

“This is our new tactic and is indicative of our strength.”

So said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid about Sunday’s insurgent attacks in Kabul and several other locations around Afghanistan. He was more right than he intended, for the attacks showed the Taliban’s weakness rather than their strength. For all the headlines about the capital city being “rocked” by gunfire and explosions, the impact of the insurgent attacks–most likely the work of the Haqqani Network, not the Taliban per se–was negligible.

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“This is our new tactic and is indicative of our strength.”

So said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid about Sunday’s insurgent attacks in Kabul and several other locations around Afghanistan. He was more right than he intended, for the attacks showed the Taliban’s weakness rather than their strength. For all the headlines about the capital city being “rocked” by gunfire and explosions, the impact of the insurgent attacks–most likely the work of the Haqqani Network, not the Taliban per se–was negligible.

Just look at the casualty count: Apparently two Afghan police officers were killed in the attacks and 14 injured along with some 30 civilians. There were no reports of any serious casualties to Americans or other international forces. The attackers failed to gain possession of the Parliament building or any other target, and they were swiftly defeated by Afghan Security Forces who needed minimal assistance from coalition forces. Gen. John Allen, the senior NATO commander in Afghanistan, said: “I am enormously proud of how quickly Afghan security forces responded to today’s attacks in Kabul. They were on scene immediately, well-led and well-coordinated. They integrated their efforts, helped protect their fellow citizens and largely kept the insurgents contained.”

Any imputation that the insurgents are on the verge of taking Kabul–or even seriously destabilizing it–is far off the mark. I visited the capital two weeks ago and found, as I have previously noted, that the streets are thronged with people: hardly the sign of a city under siege. I remember Baghdad in the dark days of 2006-2007 when entire neighborhoods were ghost towns. There is nothing like that going on in Kabul. That is not to deny the seriousness of the insurgency but simply to note that it is not a major, ongoing threat in Kabul. Otherwise, the residents of the capital would not feel safe to move around as freely as they do. There has not been a major insurgent attack in the capital in half a year. If this is the best the Haqqanis could do for a comeback, their efforts are indicative of the growing weakness of the insurgency and the growing strength of the security forces.

That is not to say that a positive outcome in Afghanistan is inevitable–it is anything but. However, it does indicate that if we lose, it will be because of our ardent desire to pull out–not because the Taliban have the capacity to evict us or to defeat our Afghan allies. This is so as long as they receive a reasonable amount of aid to counterbalance the aid the insurgents receive from Pakistan.

 

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North Korean Provocations Not Over

It would be premature to celebrate the failure of North Korea’s missile test. After all, North Korean scientists—if they are not sent to the Hermit Kingdom’s slave labor camps as punishment—can learn just as much from failure as from success. Nor do Pyongyang’s provocations ever come in isolation.  Earlier this month, the South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo Online published a troubling report about several North Korean submarines gone missing:

South Korea is tracking three to four North Korean submarines that disappeared after recently leaving two bases on the east coast, a South Korean military source said Wednesday [April 4]. The source said the submarines are presumed to be of the 370-ton class that the South Korean military has been unable to locate since they departed from two submarine bases on the east coast. Another source said, “North Korea seems to be actively conducting submarine infiltration drills in the wake of warmer weather recently,” adding, “(The South Korean military) is closely watching the situation without ruling out the possibility of a provocation disguised as a drill…” Military authorities of South Korea and the U.S. monitor movement at the submarine bases. Once they depart from the bases and go under water, however, tracking the vessels down is difficult.

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It would be premature to celebrate the failure of North Korea’s missile test. After all, North Korean scientists—if they are not sent to the Hermit Kingdom’s slave labor camps as punishment—can learn just as much from failure as from success. Nor do Pyongyang’s provocations ever come in isolation.  Earlier this month, the South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo Online published a troubling report about several North Korean submarines gone missing:

South Korea is tracking three to four North Korean submarines that disappeared after recently leaving two bases on the east coast, a South Korean military source said Wednesday [April 4]. The source said the submarines are presumed to be of the 370-ton class that the South Korean military has been unable to locate since they departed from two submarine bases on the east coast. Another source said, “North Korea seems to be actively conducting submarine infiltration drills in the wake of warmer weather recently,” adding, “(The South Korean military) is closely watching the situation without ruling out the possibility of a provocation disguised as a drill…” Military authorities of South Korea and the U.S. monitor movement at the submarine bases. Once they depart from the bases and go under water, however, tracking the vessels down is difficult.

Given North Korea’s past use of submarines both to attack South Korean fishing vessels and to infiltrate assassins and saboteurs into the South, the missile tests might be just the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end. Only one thing is certain: Rather than ameliorate North Korea, President Obama’s efforts to engage have only convinced North Korea’s communist hardliners that the White House is weak and encouraged them to further aggression.

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