Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 23, 2012

The Fake Iranian Nuclear Fatwa

One of the main talking points for apologists for Iran recently has been the claim that Supreme Leader Ali Khameini banned the production of nuclear weapons as a sin. This is supposed to calm the nerves of those who fear allowing the Islamist regime nuclear capability and has been accepted by President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and other world leaders as a fact. But as Ruthie Blum points out in her column in Israel Hayom, the fatwa is a fake.

Blum reports that the indispensable Middle East media monitoring group MEMRI.org has examined the assertion that Iran has foresworn the development of nukes as a religious imperative and found that the fatwa is a myth. Khameini never issued such a ruling, and there is no record of it ever having been published except in a statement issued in 2005 by the Iranians during a meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency. This story has been revived recently–largely by Turkey, Iran’s off and on Islamist ally–but:

MEMRI’s investigation reveals that no such fatwa ever existed or was ever issued or published, and that media reports about it are nothing more than a propaganda ruse on the part of the Iranian regime apparatuses – in an attempt to deceive top U.S. administration officials and the others mentioned above.

This is not a minor point because, as Blum points out, the talk about the fatwa facilitates a dead-end P5+1 negotiating process that will “ make Western leaders feel better about letting precious time run out while the Islamic Republic races to reach nuclear hegemony.”

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One of the main talking points for apologists for Iran recently has been the claim that Supreme Leader Ali Khameini banned the production of nuclear weapons as a sin. This is supposed to calm the nerves of those who fear allowing the Islamist regime nuclear capability and has been accepted by President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and other world leaders as a fact. But as Ruthie Blum points out in her column in Israel Hayom, the fatwa is a fake.

Blum reports that the indispensable Middle East media monitoring group MEMRI.org has examined the assertion that Iran has foresworn the development of nukes as a religious imperative and found that the fatwa is a myth. Khameini never issued such a ruling, and there is no record of it ever having been published except in a statement issued in 2005 by the Iranians during a meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency. This story has been revived recently–largely by Turkey, Iran’s off and on Islamist ally–but:

MEMRI’s investigation reveals that no such fatwa ever existed or was ever issued or published, and that media reports about it are nothing more than a propaganda ruse on the part of the Iranian regime apparatuses – in an attempt to deceive top U.S. administration officials and the others mentioned above.

This is not a minor point because, as Blum points out, the talk about the fatwa facilitates a dead-end P5+1 negotiating process that will “ make Western leaders feel better about letting precious time run out while the Islamic Republic races to reach nuclear hegemony.”

The Iranians are past masters at playing Western diplomats for suckers with negotiations that never come to fruition and reassurances about their good intentions only a fool would trust. As Blum rightly notes, Islamist theorists such as Khameini see this sort of deception as a legitimate tactic of self-defense. But there is no excuse for the Obama administration to take any of it seriously.

While the president continues, as I noted earlier today, to say the right thing about Iran, the real test of his conduct is not rhetorical. Current U.S. policy supports a diplomatic process that seems certain to not merely fail to stop the Iranians but to actually facilitate their ongoing nuclear development. Myths such as the fake fatwa help feed the rationale for the president’s position. The State Department and the White House need to understand that the consequences for buying into this lie are potentially catastrophic.

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Dems Still in Denial on Entitlements Doom

The political class may lack the will to deal with impending doom of the two largest entitlements in the federal budget, but that doesn’t mean that the clock isn’t ticking until the moment when both Medicare and Social Security will run out of money. The annual reports of the trustees of these two federal programs were released this afternoon, and the verdict is just a bit darker than last year’s report. According to the figures, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted in 2033, three full years earlier than last year’s estimate. The news about Medicare was no worse than 12 months ago but was already bad enough. It will collapse in 2024.

These alarming pieces of news ought to be greeted with dismay and resolve to deal with the entitlements problem that is leading the country to insolvency. But one end of the political spectrum believes things are just fine:

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, said that “Despite the repeated efforts of Republicans to privatize Social Security and end the Medicare guarantee, these vital initiatives remain strong.” She argued that the trustees’ report “demonstrates that health care reform has strengthened Medicare by extending its solvency.”

This complacence would be shocking if it were not rooted in a basic tenet of liberal ideology. Despite the nonsense she uttered about the strength of the programs, Pelosi and other liberals understand that no government program no matter how financially ruinous will ever truly run out of money so long as the government retains the power to confiscate as much of the income of the public as the federal leviathan needs. The essential difference between the parties about how to deal with this problem is not so much about the existence of the problem but whether the solution should be found in the pockets of the taxpayers.

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The political class may lack the will to deal with impending doom of the two largest entitlements in the federal budget, but that doesn’t mean that the clock isn’t ticking until the moment when both Medicare and Social Security will run out of money. The annual reports of the trustees of these two federal programs were released this afternoon, and the verdict is just a bit darker than last year’s report. According to the figures, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted in 2033, three full years earlier than last year’s estimate. The news about Medicare was no worse than 12 months ago but was already bad enough. It will collapse in 2024.

These alarming pieces of news ought to be greeted with dismay and resolve to deal with the entitlements problem that is leading the country to insolvency. But one end of the political spectrum believes things are just fine:

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, said that “Despite the repeated efforts of Republicans to privatize Social Security and end the Medicare guarantee, these vital initiatives remain strong.” She argued that the trustees’ report “demonstrates that health care reform has strengthened Medicare by extending its solvency.”

This complacence would be shocking if it were not rooted in a basic tenet of liberal ideology. Despite the nonsense she uttered about the strength of the programs, Pelosi and other liberals understand that no government program no matter how financially ruinous will ever truly run out of money so long as the government retains the power to confiscate as much of the income of the public as the federal leviathan needs. The essential difference between the parties about how to deal with this problem is not so much about the existence of the problem but whether the solution should be found in the pockets of the taxpayers.

Less extreme was the response of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who acknowledged the danger but reassured himself — and the Democratic base — that the funds are adequate “for years to come.” But that’s just a polite way of saying that the government won’t go bust on his watch, even if it is inevitable that it will implode on someone else’s.

But the more pessimistic assessment of Social Security’s prospects is directly related to the poor record of the administration on the economy because:

The trustees cited slower growth in average earnings of workers, lower earnings from interest on the trust fund’s holdings of federal debt, and the persistence of unemployment during the slow recovery from the recent recession.

Nevertheless, Geithner threw down a challenge to Republicans intent on fundamental reform of the system by saying the administration would oppose any effort to institute changes that would “destroy” the system or save “tax cuts for the wealthy.” But this sort of class warfare sloganeering is a thin façade for a policy of doing nothing to stop the exponential growth of expenditures in order to stir fear among the elderly and play to the liberal base.

Contrary to Pelosi’s policy of denial and Geithner’s determination to kick the can down the road, the trustees’ reports make reform plans like those of Rep. Paul Ryan even more important. Rather than being an issue with which the Democrats can demagogue the GOP, the latest reports about Social Security and Medicare can serve to build a broader constituency for a common sense approach that will discard liberal cant and address the fundamental problem. Though the Democrats believe the voters are too fearful or too stupid to understand the facts, their attempts to obfuscate the clear responsibility of Washington to deal with this crisis may run aground on the sea of red ink that is too large for even the trustees of these funds to ignore.

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Blame America First: Putin Edition

Some of Vladimir Putin’s defenders in the West have a strange habit: moving quickly and effortlessly from understanding Putin’s motives to defending his behavior. A good example comes today from Doug Bandow, writing at the Cato Institute’s blog. Bandow makes two logical mistakes that have become increasingly common among critics of bipartisan policy toward the post-Soviet space, both jumping off from reasonable premises.

The first argument Bandow makes stems from Mitt Romney’s comments, in the wake of the revelation that President Obama told Dmitry Medvedev that he cannot be honest with the American people about his intentions toward Russia until after his reelection campaign, that Russia is our “number one geopolitical foe.” But instead of responding with the case for why, say, Iran is really higher on the geopolitical foe list than Russia, Bandow says this:

As Jacob Heilbrunn of National Interest pointed out, this claim embodies a monumental self-contradiction, attempting to claim “credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the one hand [while] predicting dire threats from Russia on the other.” Thankfully, the U.S.S.R. really is gone, and neither all the king’s men nor Vladimir Putin can put it back together.

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Some of Vladimir Putin’s defenders in the West have a strange habit: moving quickly and effortlessly from understanding Putin’s motives to defending his behavior. A good example comes today from Doug Bandow, writing at the Cato Institute’s blog. Bandow makes two logical mistakes that have become increasingly common among critics of bipartisan policy toward the post-Soviet space, both jumping off from reasonable premises.

The first argument Bandow makes stems from Mitt Romney’s comments, in the wake of the revelation that President Obama told Dmitry Medvedev that he cannot be honest with the American people about his intentions toward Russia until after his reelection campaign, that Russia is our “number one geopolitical foe.” But instead of responding with the case for why, say, Iran is really higher on the geopolitical foe list than Russia, Bandow says this:

As Jacob Heilbrunn of National Interest pointed out, this claim embodies a monumental self-contradiction, attempting to claim “credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the one hand [while] predicting dire threats from Russia on the other.” Thankfully, the U.S.S.R. really is gone, and neither all the king’s men nor Vladimir Putin can put it back together.

This is a serious logical blunder. It’s true that the Soviet Union is dead and buried, but it is not a “self-contradiction,” monumental or otherwise, to believe that the Soviet Union was defeated and that Russia is capable of posing a threat. You don’t even have to believe Russia currently poses a threat. The simple fact that Russia can pose a threat debunks the nonsensical idea that Romney’s statement is a “self-contradiction.” Does Bandow believe it is utterly impossible for Russia to pose a threat? I doubt it.

The contradiction, rather, is Bandow’s: he says the Soviet Union “really is gone” and then speaks as though Russia is the Soviet Union, and therefore cannot pose a threat because it’s “really” gone. And where is Bandow’s judgment? The Heilbrunn piece he approvingly links to is an absolute mess from start to finish; he should know better.

The other mistake Bandow makes begins with an uncontroversial statement: that NATO enlargement gets under Putin’s skin. It’s true: we in the West like democracies, and Putin doesn’t. If the situation were reversed, he writes, and Russia “ringed America with bases, and established military relationships with areas that had broken away from the U.S., Washington would not react well.”

We can argue about whether and how much our own geostrategic plans should mirror Vladimir Putin’s wish list, but it’s clear Putin was bothered enough by the prospect of further NATO enlargement to send some messengers on tanks to Georgia and to demand that the U.S. help Russia depose Georgia’s elected president. (Medvedev recently explained that this is precisely why Russia went to war with Georgia.)

But rather than leave it at that, Bandow then writes: “It might react, well, a lot like Moscow has been reacting.”

Really? If President Obama saw Russia establishing allies in the West, he would … enable the slaughter of thousands by shielding murderous dictators like Bashar al-Assad at the UN Security Council? Bandow thinks he would aid, abet, protect, and hide the illicit nuclear weapons program of the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism? He would steal elections? He would jail bloggers? Assassinate whistleblowers on foreign soil and at least tolerate the assassination of journalists at home? Cut off energy supplies in the dead of winter from those who refused to do his bidding? Which one of these things does Bandow think is the appropriate reaction to the enlargement of NATO, and which of these things does Bandow think Washington would do?

Romney’s critics believe his response to Obama’s hot-mic moment was an overreaction. But even if you believe that, it was not nearly the overreaction of those who responded by excusing Putin’s unjustifiable subjugation of his people or blaming America when authoritarian thugs behave as such.

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Romney’s New Spokesman Under Attack

The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer seems like the type of person who enjoys the attention that comes with saying offensive and outrageously stupid things. He was able to milk plenty of that out of his swipe at Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith last fall, and now he’s back in the spotlight after writing a disgraceful column attacking Romney’s new national security spokesman, who is gay:

Gov. Mitt Romney stepped on a landmine by appointing Richard Grenell, an out, loud and proud homosexual, to be his spokesman on national security and foreign policy issues. …

Since, as the saying goes in D.C., personnel is policy, this means Gov. Romney has some ‘splaining to do. This clearly is a deliberate and intentional act on his part, since he was well aware of Mr. Grenell’s sexual proclivities and knew it would be problematic for social conservatives. It’s certainly not possible that there are no other potential spokesmen available, men who are experts in foreign policy and who at the same time honor the institution of natural marriage in their personal lives. …

If the Secret Service scandal teaches us one thing, it is this: a man’s private sexual conduct matters when we’re talking about public office.

Given the propensity for members of the homosexual community to engage in frequent and anonymous sexual encounters, the risk to national security of having a homosexual in a high-ranking position with access to secret information is obvious.

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The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer seems like the type of person who enjoys the attention that comes with saying offensive and outrageously stupid things. He was able to milk plenty of that out of his swipe at Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith last fall, and now he’s back in the spotlight after writing a disgraceful column attacking Romney’s new national security spokesman, who is gay:

Gov. Mitt Romney stepped on a landmine by appointing Richard Grenell, an out, loud and proud homosexual, to be his spokesman on national security and foreign policy issues. …

Since, as the saying goes in D.C., personnel is policy, this means Gov. Romney has some ‘splaining to do. This clearly is a deliberate and intentional act on his part, since he was well aware of Mr. Grenell’s sexual proclivities and knew it would be problematic for social conservatives. It’s certainly not possible that there are no other potential spokesmen available, men who are experts in foreign policy and who at the same time honor the institution of natural marriage in their personal lives. …

If the Secret Service scandal teaches us one thing, it is this: a man’s private sexual conduct matters when we’re talking about public office.

Given the propensity for members of the homosexual community to engage in frequent and anonymous sexual encounters, the risk to national security of having a homosexual in a high-ranking position with access to secret information is obvious.

It continues on like that for awhile. Fischer must be thrilled that his over-the-top grossness has landed him in the news once again, so it’s probably not worth paying him too much attention. Plus, Jen Rubin has already written a great takedown of his argument at Right Turn.

But I do hope that more conservatives come out in defense of Grenell. He seems like a strong addition to Romney’s team, with encouraging positions on human rights issues and Iran (based on a review of some of his recent columns). It is one thing to disagree with gay marriage, as both President Obama and Mitt Romney do. Bigotry and support for discriminatory hiring practices are a completely different story, and should be condemned by conservatives.

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Will Voters Believe Romney’s an Extreme Right-Winger?

The Obama campaign did everything they could to exploit Mitt Romney’s reputation as an unprincipled flip-flopper during the GOP primary, but now the campaign seems to be conceding that this won’t be an effective attack during the general election. According to Politico, the new strategy is to portray Romney as an extreme conservative, taking advantage of the stances he took to bolster his conservative bona fides during the primary:

Last week, senior administration officials surprised reporters in a White House background briefing by correcting a questioner who suggested that Obama thought Romney had his “finger in the wind.”

The rebuke: Romney’s core is now filled in. With craven right-wing craziness.

The backgrounder, in turn, spawned a New York Times story, which allowed Plouffe to trial-balloon a new line of attack, comparing Romney to the archetypal GOP extremist loser: “Whether it’s tax policy, whether it’s his approach to abortion, gay rights, immigration, he’s the most conservative nominee that they’ve had going back to [1964 Republican candidate Barry] Goldwater.”

The problem is that Obama needs to bring out similar numbers of enthusiastic progressive voters as he did in 2008. Portraying Romney as a squishy flip-flopper is far less likely to scare liberal voters to the polls than portraying Romney as an extreme right-winger. The campaign also hopes that the message will help peel away independent voters, women and Hispanic voters.

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The Obama campaign did everything they could to exploit Mitt Romney’s reputation as an unprincipled flip-flopper during the GOP primary, but now the campaign seems to be conceding that this won’t be an effective attack during the general election. According to Politico, the new strategy is to portray Romney as an extreme conservative, taking advantage of the stances he took to bolster his conservative bona fides during the primary:

Last week, senior administration officials surprised reporters in a White House background briefing by correcting a questioner who suggested that Obama thought Romney had his “finger in the wind.”

The rebuke: Romney’s core is now filled in. With craven right-wing craziness.

The backgrounder, in turn, spawned a New York Times story, which allowed Plouffe to trial-balloon a new line of attack, comparing Romney to the archetypal GOP extremist loser: “Whether it’s tax policy, whether it’s his approach to abortion, gay rights, immigration, he’s the most conservative nominee that they’ve had going back to [1964 Republican candidate Barry] Goldwater.”

The problem is that Obama needs to bring out similar numbers of enthusiastic progressive voters as he did in 2008. Portraying Romney as a squishy flip-flopper is far less likely to scare liberal voters to the polls than portraying Romney as an extreme right-winger. The campaign also hopes that the message will help peel away independent voters, women and Hispanic voters.

Of course, that’s only going to happen if swing voters actually believe it. The conservative movement’s reluctance to embrace Romney as the nominee for the past year isn’t going to be forgotten quickly. He may have called himself a “severely conservative” governor, but his actual record in Massachusetts is far from it. And his temperament and style just don’t fit with the conventional image of a raving right-winger.

Which brings up another obstacle the Obama campaign will face with this strategy. Democrats rely heavily on liberal-leaning media and pop culture to get out their messages. Saturday Night Live and late night talk shows are the big reason why Sarah Palin was seen as a right-wing wacko in 2008, while Joe Biden was seen as a lovable dunce. They play a huge role in defining candidates. And Romney-the-Tea-Party-Extremist just doesn’t ring true on TV the way Romney-the-Robot-Phony does.

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Press Bias for Obama Overwhelms Romney’s Primary Advantage

The mainstream media’s liberal bias long ago ceased to be a matter of debate. Other than the conservative strongholds of talk radio and Fox News, few pundits even bother to argue anymore that the overwhelming majority of their platforms tilt to the left. But that still doesn’t stop some of them from trying to deny the obvious. A prime example comes today from the normally sober Howard Kurtz, who writes in the Daily Beast to claim that President Obama has received more unfavorable press coverage than the Republican candidates during the recent GOP nomination contest.

Kurtz bases his assertion on a study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism that analyzed the positive and negative treatment of the president and the candidates in the press during the last few months. But the main takeaway from their data is not so much that the press was filled with Obama-bashing — a result that was generated mostly by the fact that all the GOP candidates were critical of the president — but that his normally adoring press corps covered him more like a candidate than a commander-in-chief. That might have more to do with the fact that Obama has been spent more time in the last year playing the partisan than governing. A more insightful conclusion about the press and Obama came from an unlikely source — Arthur Brisbane, the public editor of the New York Timeswho wrote yesterday to call out his own paper for their fawning and biased coverage of the president.

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The mainstream media’s liberal bias long ago ceased to be a matter of debate. Other than the conservative strongholds of talk radio and Fox News, few pundits even bother to argue anymore that the overwhelming majority of their platforms tilt to the left. But that still doesn’t stop some of them from trying to deny the obvious. A prime example comes today from the normally sober Howard Kurtz, who writes in the Daily Beast to claim that President Obama has received more unfavorable press coverage than the Republican candidates during the recent GOP nomination contest.

Kurtz bases his assertion on a study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism that analyzed the positive and negative treatment of the president and the candidates in the press during the last few months. But the main takeaway from their data is not so much that the press was filled with Obama-bashing — a result that was generated mostly by the fact that all the GOP candidates were critical of the president — but that his normally adoring press corps covered him more like a candidate than a commander-in-chief. That might have more to do with the fact that Obama has been spent more time in the last year playing the partisan than governing. A more insightful conclusion about the press and Obama came from an unlikely source — Arthur Brisbane, the public editor of the New York Timeswho wrote yesterday to call out his own paper for their fawning and biased coverage of the president.

Brisbane is, for once, spot on in his analysis of the Times’ embarrassingly obvious tilt toward President Obama:

Many critics view the Times as constitutionally unable to address the election in an unbiased fashion. Like a lot of America, it basked a bit in the warm glow of Mr. Obama’s election in 2008. The company published a book about the country’s first African-American president, “Obama: The Historic Journey.” The Times also published a lengthy portrait of him in its Times Topics section on NYTimes.com, yet there’s nothing of the kind about George W. Bush or his father.

According to a study by the media scholars Stephen J. Farnsworth and S. Robert Lichter, the Times’s coverage of the president’s first year in office was significantly more favorable than its first-year coverage of three predecessors who also brought a new party to power in the White House: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.

Brisbane deserves some credit for pointing out that the Times’s bias issues stem not only from a skewed news section and unbalanced opinion pages but also from liberal feature writers who work in criticisms of the right into extraneous topics. He says these problems can be overcome, however, if the paper’s reporters provide hard-nosed coverage of Obama’s campaign, his promises and record. But given the Times’s predilection during the past year for attack pieces on Republicans and puffery about Obama, it requires an Olympic-style leap of faith to believe that the imbalance can be redressed by a decision to finally tell us “who is the real Barack Obama.”

As for the Pew Study that Kurtz referenced, it provides little reason for Democrats to complain. It is true that the absence of a Democratic primary battle gave the stage to Republicans who used it to compete with each other to see who could come across as the most heated opponent of the president. But the GOP candidates each got a great deal of negative coverage, the only exception being Ron Paul, who, though deserving of a scrutiny for his extremism, was mostly ignored. Mitt Romney fared well at times but mostly as a result of his primary victories, not due to any admiration or positive coverage of his positions on the issues. If, as Pew states, the president was covered more as a candidate than as a decision-maker, then it is because of how he conducted himself.

Brisbane’s comments about the Times could be applied to much of the media’s treatment of the president and the campaign. There is little doubt that the Obama-Romney contest will be largely colored by the predilection of the press to lionize the president as a historic figure while treating Romney as a figure of scorn. Given the willingness of many Americans to disdain the liberal bias of the press, such coverage won’t decide the outcome. But it is a fact that Romney will have to live with and overcome if he is to defeat an incumbent who, despite a poor record, is still being given the Camelot treatment from his cheerleaders at the Times and the rest of the press corps.

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NAACP Boots Allen West as Keynote

Allen West’s comments about Communists in Congress were needlessly provocative, but in the scheme of things he doesn’t deserve as much grief for them as he’s been getting. Plenty of politicians have said worse, but West has become a magnet for criticism recently. The latest fallout is from the NAACP, which reportedly disinvited West from a fundraiser where he was supposed to deliver the keynote address:

Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) was supposed to be the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for his district chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) this past Saturday. But days before the event, the group canceled the gathering and asked West not to come back when they rescheduled. Why?

“There’s a certain statement he made about Communists,” Jerry Gore, president of the Martin County NAACP, told Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. “That statement alone … we do not represent that type of atmosphere.”

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Allen West’s comments about Communists in Congress were needlessly provocative, but in the scheme of things he doesn’t deserve as much grief for them as he’s been getting. Plenty of politicians have said worse, but West has become a magnet for criticism recently. The latest fallout is from the NAACP, which reportedly disinvited West from a fundraiser where he was supposed to deliver the keynote address:

Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) was supposed to be the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for his district chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) this past Saturday. But days before the event, the group canceled the gathering and asked West not to come back when they rescheduled. Why?

“There’s a certain statement he made about Communists,” Jerry Gore, president of the Martin County NAACP, told Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. “That statement alone … we do not represent that type of atmosphere.”

That’s the local NAACP chapter’s choice, but considering the inflammatory speakers the national group has hosted in the past – recently Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Van Jones – it doesn’t sound like controversial statements have been much of a disqualifier in the past. And West’s comments obviously pale in comparison to saying America was responsible for the September 11th attacks, or signing a 9/11 truth petition.

The backlash against West hasn’t seemed to hurt him in conservative circles. He’s reportedly speaking to a prominent group of conservative donors in New York today and has started referencing his Communist comments in an email fundraising pitch.

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Obama’s Unlucky 13th Quarter in Office

According to a new Gallup survey, President Obama’s job approval rating averaged 45.9 percent during his 13th quarter in office. (The dates for the 13th quarter cover January 20 to April 19 of the re-election year.)

On the plus side, this shows improvement for the president for the second consecutive quarter and places his rating back to where it was before last summer and fall. On the downside, all presidents since Dwight Eisenhower who were re-elected enjoyed average approval ratings above 50 percent during their 13th quarters in office. In fact, Obama’s approval ratings are below (at a comparable period in their presidencies), those of Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush. Only George H.W. Bush had a lower approval rating (41.8 percent). Even Jimmy Carter’s approval rating in his 13th quarter in office (47.7 percent) exceeds Obama’s. Presidents Carter and George H.W. Bush are the only presidents since Eisenhower to have a sub-50 percent rating during their 13th quarter in office – and both men were easily defeated.

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According to a new Gallup survey, President Obama’s job approval rating averaged 45.9 percent during his 13th quarter in office. (The dates for the 13th quarter cover January 20 to April 19 of the re-election year.)

On the plus side, this shows improvement for the president for the second consecutive quarter and places his rating back to where it was before last summer and fall. On the downside, all presidents since Dwight Eisenhower who were re-elected enjoyed average approval ratings above 50 percent during their 13th quarters in office. In fact, Obama’s approval ratings are below (at a comparable period in their presidencies), those of Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush. Only George H.W. Bush had a lower approval rating (41.8 percent). Even Jimmy Carter’s approval rating in his 13th quarter in office (47.7 percent) exceeds Obama’s. Presidents Carter and George H.W. Bush are the only presidents since Eisenhower to have a sub-50 percent rating during their 13th quarter in office – and both men were easily defeated.

This survey merely confirms what should by now be obvious: Barack Obama faces a very difficult, though not impossible, road to re-election.

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Obama Sends Message on Technology Human Rights Abuse

As Jonathan wrote, President Obama unveiled his new Atrocity Prevention Board at the Holocaust Museum this morning. The inception of the board was actually announced in August, but it’s convening for the first time tomorrow, which tells you all you need to know about how efficient this new bureaucratic creation will probably be:

The White House’s new Atrocities Prevention Board will meet for the first time Monday, as President Barack Obama outlines steps aimed at ensuring the U.S. has the “mechanisms and structures” to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities and war crimes, an administration official said Sunday. …

“This unprecedented direction from the president, and the development of a comprehensive strategy, sends a clear message that we are committed to combating atrocities, an old threat that regularly takes grim and modern new forms,” said Samantha Power, the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights, who will serve as chairman of the Atrocities Prevention Board. The panel’s creation was announced in August.

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As Jonathan wrote, President Obama unveiled his new Atrocity Prevention Board at the Holocaust Museum this morning. The inception of the board was actually announced in August, but it’s convening for the first time tomorrow, which tells you all you need to know about how efficient this new bureaucratic creation will probably be:

The White House’s new Atrocities Prevention Board will meet for the first time Monday, as President Barack Obama outlines steps aimed at ensuring the U.S. has the “mechanisms and structures” to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities and war crimes, an administration official said Sunday. …

“This unprecedented direction from the president, and the development of a comprehensive strategy, sends a clear message that we are committed to combating atrocities, an old threat that regularly takes grim and modern new forms,” said Samantha Power, the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights, who will serve as chairman of the Atrocities Prevention Board. The panel’s creation was announced in August.

As Ben Smith tweeted, “an ‘Atrocities Prevention Board’ sounds like a parody of what one would do about atrocities.” The board is supposed to inform senior administration officials about potential genocides and mass human rights abuses, as if some might accidentally slip by without notice. It’s also tasked with using “new tools” to develop “mechanisms and structures” to deal with atrocities, whatever that means.

The president also announced a new measure to prevent Iran and Syria from using technology to commit human rights abuses, a laudable move. But addressing atrocities often requires making tough choices that are not widely-supported, and the administration has often failed on this front. If they were serious about preventing human rights abuses, they would be putting far more pressure for reform on countries like China and Russia, they wouldn’t be abandoning the women in Afghanistan, and most critically, they would be vigorously supporting Israeli action against Iran, instead of trying to pressure the government to hold off on a strike behind the scenes. They would support a policy of regime change in Iran, the only outcome that there can be. The atrocities that America looks back on with guilt and shame for not having acted sooner are ones that required tough and potentially unpopular decisions at the time.

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French-German Rift Puts Voters and Markets On Edge

The dominoes continue to fall. The deepening of the Eurozone economic crisis claimed the sitting governments of Greece and then of Italy, and the biggest domino yet–French President Nicolas Sarkozy–trailed French socialist Francois Hollande after the first round of voting during the weekend. As the French political class began preparing this morning for the upcoming runoff between Hollande and Sarkozy, they were greeted with the expected news of the collapse of the Dutch government.

This latest is the most significant for France, if only because the Netherlands was generally supportive of the austerity-first budget strategy promoted by Germany and backed by Sarkozy. But the political currents began pulling the French president as well, who was sufficiently spooked by the events of the past week, as the Wall Street Journal reports:

Following the weekend political developments in France and the Netherlands, the German-inspired fiscal pact, agreed by Eurozone leaders in Brussels in December, could also be delayed or thrown into question.

In a U-turn from his earlier stance, Mr. Sarkozy has used recent campaign rallies to call for changing the course of Eurozone policies to ensure they are also designed to stimulate growth.

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The dominoes continue to fall. The deepening of the Eurozone economic crisis claimed the sitting governments of Greece and then of Italy, and the biggest domino yet–French President Nicolas Sarkozy–trailed French socialist Francois Hollande after the first round of voting during the weekend. As the French political class began preparing this morning for the upcoming runoff between Hollande and Sarkozy, they were greeted with the expected news of the collapse of the Dutch government.

This latest is the most significant for France, if only because the Netherlands was generally supportive of the austerity-first budget strategy promoted by Germany and backed by Sarkozy. But the political currents began pulling the French president as well, who was sufficiently spooked by the events of the past week, as the Wall Street Journal reports:

Following the weekend political developments in France and the Netherlands, the German-inspired fiscal pact, agreed by Eurozone leaders in Brussels in December, could also be delayed or thrown into question.

In a U-turn from his earlier stance, Mr. Sarkozy has used recent campaign rallies to call for changing the course of Eurozone policies to ensure they are also designed to stimulate growth.

The blame game has commenced, with predictable parameters. The Journal’s editorial notes that because Sarkozy’s chances for success in the runoff election hinge on his ability to woo right-wing voters who supported neither Hollande nor Sarkozy in the first round, his “appeal will probably include a combination of anti-immigration riffs and more attacks on the European Central Bank (which has become the modern French substitute for running against the Germans).” The feeling is mutual, writes Mathieu von Rohr for Der Spiegel:

This election is a referendum on Sarkozy’s presidency…. His first-round result is poor, as was expected — Sarkozy is the first incumbent in the Fifth Republic who didn’t win the first round. It is an expression of the almost physical revulsion that many people feel for him.

If there’s any immediate relevance for President Obama’s reelection campaign, it’s that he probably cannot afford a Eurozone collapse or another serious financial crisis in Europe. A big question will be how the markets react and how nervous they get. In February, global markets rose on just the expectations that a Greek deal was imminent. In the near-term, this week’s events won’t calm anyone’s nerves, and the markets today predictably signaled their discontent. Long-term, a French-German split would likely be a headache for everyone on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Institutionalizing Atrocity Prevention Won’t Make Up for Obama’s Lack of Will to Act

In his speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum this morning, President Obama once again said all the right things. Though speaking without the passion that can animate his utterances when he is talking about things he feels the most strongly — such as demonizing his domestic opponents — the president sounded many of the right notes about support for the state of Israel and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons as well as the need for the United States to act to prevent human rights catastrophes. But the president’s problem when it comes to applying the lessons of the Holocaust to statecraft has never been rhetorical.

Rather, it is the gap between what he says and what he does that is the cause for concern. Even though the president announced the creation of a board comprised of representatives of a cross section of government agencies that would be tasked with the prevention of atrocities, institutionalizing an approach to this issue isn’t the complete answer. In the absence of the will of the president to act, more government infrastructure won’t help. And given that the record of this administration has shown it to consider such issues to be among their lowest priorities, it’s hard to see how this speech will change things.

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In his speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum this morning, President Obama once again said all the right things. Though speaking without the passion that can animate his utterances when he is talking about things he feels the most strongly — such as demonizing his domestic opponents — the president sounded many of the right notes about support for the state of Israel and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons as well as the need for the United States to act to prevent human rights catastrophes. But the president’s problem when it comes to applying the lessons of the Holocaust to statecraft has never been rhetorical.

Rather, it is the gap between what he says and what he does that is the cause for concern. Even though the president announced the creation of a board comprised of representatives of a cross section of government agencies that would be tasked with the prevention of atrocities, institutionalizing an approach to this issue isn’t the complete answer. In the absence of the will of the president to act, more government infrastructure won’t help. And given that the record of this administration has shown it to consider such issues to be among their lowest priorities, it’s hard to see how this speech will change things.

In his speech, Obama cited the example of Jan Karski, the heroic young Polish officer who smuggled himself into Treblinka in 1942 to find out what was happening and then escaped to the West where he told his tale to the leaders of the West including President Roosevelt. But what Obama failed to include in his account was the fact that FDR responded with silence and indifference to Karski’s shattering testimony when it was presented to him in person. And it is that precedent that illustrates why the mere convening of a meeting of the new atrocities prevention board today is a matter of little import so long as the president is more interested in talking about the subject rather than taking action.

The key test of his integrity on such matters today is the situation in Syria. In his introduction of the president at the museum, Elie Wiesel asked how it was possible for men like Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to still be in power if we have actually learned any of the lessons of the Holocaust. But the president’s speech should have given Wiesel little comfort.

Obama said the United States will continue working to isolate the Syrian regime and make an effort to help document the atrocities going on there so as to facilitate the prosecution of those responsible after the fact. But he said nothing to give Assad the impression that the U.S. would do anything that might actually contribute to his downfall.

If, in the face of the massacres going on in Syria, the best that the president can offer is a promise of more meaningless economic sanctions, then of what possible use is an atrocity prevention panel?

The same question can be asked of Obama’s approach to Iran, whose pursuit of nuclear weapons raises the specter of another mass slaughter of the Jewish people made all the more ironic by the regime’s denial of the Nazis’ attempt at genocide. The president’s rhetoric on Iran has been consistently strong, and today’s pledge was just as good. But so long as he is willing to rely on a diplomatic channel in which the European Union’s Catherine Ashton (a veteran Israel-hater) is determined to make nice with Tehran rather than to press it, it’s hard to see how any of his excellent statements are to be translated into effective policy. Criticizing the State Department of the 1940s for its indifference to the Holocaust may satisfy some of the president’s audience today, but it doesn’t make up for contemporary failures.

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Turkey Vetoes Israel for NATO Summit

Western diplomats have confirmed to a Turkish newspaper that the Turkish government—led by Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—has vetoed Israel’s participation in next month’s NATO summit in May. The move has not gone over well within NATO:

Turkey’s blockage against Israel was brought to the table during the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on April 18, the Daily News learned. Some ministers of the allied countries including the United States, France and Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen indirectly criticized Turkey for bringing its bilateral problems with Israel to the NATO platform. Some ministers went so far as to vow to veto the participation of Egypt, Mauritania, Algeria, Morocco and other partner countries in the activities of the Mediterranean Dialogue if Turkey continues to do so against Israel, something they called “a violation of NATO’s values.”

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Western diplomats have confirmed to a Turkish newspaper that the Turkish government—led by Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—has vetoed Israel’s participation in next month’s NATO summit in May. The move has not gone over well within NATO:

Turkey’s blockage against Israel was brought to the table during the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on April 18, the Daily News learned. Some ministers of the allied countries including the United States, France and Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen indirectly criticized Turkey for bringing its bilateral problems with Israel to the NATO platform. Some ministers went so far as to vow to veto the participation of Egypt, Mauritania, Algeria, Morocco and other partner countries in the activities of the Mediterranean Dialogue if Turkey continues to do so against Israel, something they called “a violation of NATO’s values.”

While President Obama has identified the virulently anti-Semitic Erdogan as one of his closest friends, the Turkish prime minister’s obsessions increasingly threaten U.S. national security interests. And while congressmen cultivated by Turkey point out that Turkey participates with NATO in Afghanistan, they neglect to mention that many Turks also fight for the enemy. Surrounded by sycophants and giddy with the success of his midnight raids on past and present opposition, Erdogan may believe he is riding high. What he is actually doing, however, is forcing Western states to question Turkey’s role in the treaty alliance.

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The Afghan Accord and Our Pledge

The finalization of the terms of the U.S.-Afghanistan Security Partnership Agreement is a genuine achievement for the Obama administration and especially our ace ambassador in Kabul, Ryan Crocker. There has been so much tension and mistrust between Washington and Kabul–and specifically between Hamid Karzai and a succession of American envoys–that there were certainly times when it appeared that no deal could get done. But in the past few months, side agreements were hammered out governing the two most contentious issues: “night raids”  and the detention of Afghan terrorism suspects by U.S. forces. That has allowed the broader agreement to be concluded in plenty of time for the NATO summit in Chicago in May.

It is not clear, however, how much impact this accord will have, because news reporting suggests its terms are very general. The U.S. is pledging to stay committed to Afghanistan at least through 2014 but is not committing to a specific figure on funding for the Afghan National Security Forces or on a specific force level for the U.S. advisory force that must remain even after combat forces are withdrawn. Only the release of actual troop and dollar figures–which admittedly are hard to define this far in advance–would suggest whether the U.S. commitment will be truly substantive or merely symbolic.

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The finalization of the terms of the U.S.-Afghanistan Security Partnership Agreement is a genuine achievement for the Obama administration and especially our ace ambassador in Kabul, Ryan Crocker. There has been so much tension and mistrust between Washington and Kabul–and specifically between Hamid Karzai and a succession of American envoys–that there were certainly times when it appeared that no deal could get done. But in the past few months, side agreements were hammered out governing the two most contentious issues: “night raids”  and the detention of Afghan terrorism suspects by U.S. forces. That has allowed the broader agreement to be concluded in plenty of time for the NATO summit in Chicago in May.

It is not clear, however, how much impact this accord will have, because news reporting suggests its terms are very general. The U.S. is pledging to stay committed to Afghanistan at least through 2014 but is not committing to a specific figure on funding for the Afghan National Security Forces or on a specific force level for the U.S. advisory force that must remain even after combat forces are withdrawn. Only the release of actual troop and dollar figures–which admittedly are hard to define this far in advance–would suggest whether the U.S. commitment will be truly substantive or merely symbolic.

In Iraq today, for example, the U.S. has relatively little influence because all of our troops have been withdrawn and, predictably, the U.S. embassy has not been able to take up the slack. If this model were to be replicated in Afghanistan, post-2014, the result would be truly disastrous because Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, is not yet able to exploit its mineral resources to fund itself and, also unlike Iraq, it faces an insurgency with entrenched safe havens in a neighboring country–namely Pakistan. A dramatic American drawdown thus could lead to an implosion.

Under those circumstances the U.S., if it expects to build on recent gains in Afghanistan, must maintain a robust commitment. As I suggested in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, the U.S. should pledge to keep at least 68,000 troops through the end of 2014 and 30,000 troops thereafter in an advice and assist capacity–combined with at least $6 billion a year in funding for the Afghan National Security Forces. Current plans, however, call for cutting ANSF funding from today’s level of $6 billion a year to $4.1 billion a year which would necessitate reducing the ANSF’s ranks from 350,000 to 230,000 after 2014. It is hard to imagine the security environment in Afghanistan turning so benign that such a reduction in force could be undertaken without a major loss of security and stability. Unless and until the Obama administration (or a successor) pledges to maintain an adequate level of funding for the ANSF–and to maintain an adequate U.S. advisory force in Afghanistan–the commitments embodied in the Security Partnership Agreement will not be taken terribly seriously by friends or foes.

 

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Did Taxpayers Pay for Professors’ Iran Propaganda Trip?

MEMRI has publicized a clip from the Islamic Republic’s Press TV which shows American professors in Tehran for an Occupy Wall Street conference. A Press TV correspondent interviews three American professors: Brooklyn College’s Alex Vitale, Fordham University’s Heather Gautney, and City University of New York’s John Hammond.

Unasked—and hitherto unanswered—is the source of the funding for the Tehran jaunt. The City University of New York (CUNY) is, of course, a public college, and Brooklyn College is part of the CUNY system. Did New York taxpayers foot the bill for Vitale and Hammond’s trip to Iran? CUNY’s administrators can plead academic freedom, but that should not absolve them from transparency. If CUNY departments and finances were not involved, then who footed the bill for the trip and how was the selection of the professors made? In the past, that would be the Alavi Foundation’s job. Perhaps they are now back at the job, or perhaps the Islamic Republic has found a new engine for its propaganda.

MEMRI has publicized a clip from the Islamic Republic’s Press TV which shows American professors in Tehran for an Occupy Wall Street conference. A Press TV correspondent interviews three American professors: Brooklyn College’s Alex Vitale, Fordham University’s Heather Gautney, and City University of New York’s John Hammond.

Unasked—and hitherto unanswered—is the source of the funding for the Tehran jaunt. The City University of New York (CUNY) is, of course, a public college, and Brooklyn College is part of the CUNY system. Did New York taxpayers foot the bill for Vitale and Hammond’s trip to Iran? CUNY’s administrators can plead academic freedom, but that should not absolve them from transparency. If CUNY departments and finances were not involved, then who footed the bill for the trip and how was the selection of the professors made? In the past, that would be the Alavi Foundation’s job. Perhaps they are now back at the job, or perhaps the Islamic Republic has found a new engine for its propaganda.

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Lieberman Plays the Optimist on Egypt

In what may well be one more ominous sign of the impending collapse of the 1979 peace treaty, Egypt announced that it was abrogating a 2005 deal to ship natural gas to Israel. Coming as it does in the midst of an Egyptian presidential election in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s remaining candidate in the race is the favorite and with virtually all sides in the country’s political system expressing hostility to Israel, it’s hard to take the stated reason for the decision — a payment dispute — at face value.

But while some in Israel are taking a dark view of the situation, one person who might be expected to see things in the harshest possible terms is sounding an optimistic note. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a man regarded by most foreign observers as an extreme reactionary as well as a bull in a china shop, downplayed the Egyptian decision and said it was just a business dispute that could be resolved. This reaction tell us a lot about how badly the chattering classes have underestimated Lieberman as well as perhaps providing some basis for optimism that despite the grim political situation in Egypt, there is some hope that the peace with Israel can be salvaged. Lieberman clearly understands that the pipeline deal is the nexus of two unpopular yet unrelated issues: peace and the corruption of the Mubarak regime.

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In what may well be one more ominous sign of the impending collapse of the 1979 peace treaty, Egypt announced that it was abrogating a 2005 deal to ship natural gas to Israel. Coming as it does in the midst of an Egyptian presidential election in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s remaining candidate in the race is the favorite and with virtually all sides in the country’s political system expressing hostility to Israel, it’s hard to take the stated reason for the decision — a payment dispute — at face value.

But while some in Israel are taking a dark view of the situation, one person who might be expected to see things in the harshest possible terms is sounding an optimistic note. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a man regarded by most foreign observers as an extreme reactionary as well as a bull in a china shop, downplayed the Egyptian decision and said it was just a business dispute that could be resolved. This reaction tell us a lot about how badly the chattering classes have underestimated Lieberman as well as perhaps providing some basis for optimism that despite the grim political situation in Egypt, there is some hope that the peace with Israel can be salvaged. Lieberman clearly understands that the pipeline deal is the nexus of two unpopular yet unrelated issues: peace and the corruption of the Mubarak regime.

The pipeline, which has been repeatedly sabotaged by terrorists, is a symbol of the close economic relations that were developed between Israel and Egypt. But the gas deal also cannot be properly understood outside of the context of the kleptocracy that operated under the aegis of the former dictator. Egyptians have good reason to believe that Mubarak’s cronies were skimming the profits of the commerce and that the state was cheated. Lieberman may well believe it is in Israel’s interest to try to renegotiate so as to disassociate itself from the old regime.

The equanimity with which Israeli leaders regard the gas shutoff — which provided 40 percent of its natural gas and approximately a third of its overall fuel supply — is also testimony to their confidence in projects that are aimed at bolstering the Jewish state’s energy independence. With its own plans to exploit natural gas fields as well as shale oil deposits, some believe Israel will be able to eventually shed its dependence on foreign supplies.

But whether or not that optimistic scenario will play out any time soon, Lieberman deserves credit for not flying off the handle and for demonstrating a nuanced view of the problem. While Americans disdained him as a foreign policy nonentity and an obstacle to diplomacy, Lieberman has actually demonstrated some real skill during his three-year tenure at the ministry. His handling of the so-called “diplomatic tsunami” that was supposed to hit Israel because of the Palestinians’ independence initiative at the United Nations was masterful. Where possible, he has strengthened unilateral relations with a wide variety of nations as well as speaking up strongly on Israel’s behalf when challenged. Though he is still operating under a cloud of corruption investigations rather than his service at the Foreign Ministry exposing him as an incompetent as his detractors hoped, it has served to burnish his reputation as a smart operator.

That said, confidence in the ability or the willingness of the Egyptian government that will emerge from the coming elections to sign a new gas deal with Israel seems misplaced. Though Israeli leaders are right to say nothing right now that could exacerbate the situation, there is little reason to believe that the deterioration in what was already an ice-cold peace will reverse itself. Egypt’s new Islamist government may well stop short of formally breaking the peace treaty with Israel because of the consequences that would generate in terms of the billions they get in U.S. aid, but there is no question the hostility in Cairo toward Israel is going to get much worse.

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