Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 22, 2012

WH Relaxed Iran Sanctions Under Pressure

The Cable’s Josh Rogin has more on the Obama administration’s decision to allow non-profit groups to send hundreds of thousands of dollars each in cash to Iran as part of earthquake relief efforts. Rogin reports that the White House was initially worried about the optics of temporarily relaxing sanctions so close to the election, but eventually agreed after getting support from the State Department:

State Department officials argued in favor of granting the license, while the White House resisted the move, worried about how even a temporary and limited relief of sanctions against Iran would play in the media so close to the presidential election. Eventually, with the support of top State Department officials, the White House was persuaded to agree to the move, these sources said.

The National Iranian American Council, a group that has advocated for weaker sanctions and other pro-regime policies, also played a major role in lobbying the administration (the organization touts a conference call it set up with the White House about this issue on its website).

Unsurprisingly, Rogin also reports there are concerns on Capitol Hill over whether the cash will make it to the people who need it, or whether it will intercepted by the Iranian government.

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The Cable’s Josh Rogin has more on the Obama administration’s decision to allow non-profit groups to send hundreds of thousands of dollars each in cash to Iran as part of earthquake relief efforts. Rogin reports that the White House was initially worried about the optics of temporarily relaxing sanctions so close to the election, but eventually agreed after getting support from the State Department:

State Department officials argued in favor of granting the license, while the White House resisted the move, worried about how even a temporary and limited relief of sanctions against Iran would play in the media so close to the presidential election. Eventually, with the support of top State Department officials, the White House was persuaded to agree to the move, these sources said.

The National Iranian American Council, a group that has advocated for weaker sanctions and other pro-regime policies, also played a major role in lobbying the administration (the organization touts a conference call it set up with the White House about this issue on its website).

Unsurprisingly, Rogin also reports there are concerns on Capitol Hill over whether the cash will make it to the people who need it, or whether it will intercepted by the Iranian government.

Treasury officials and NIAC downplayed these worries:

Parsi said the best way to prevent the money from getting into Iranian government hands is to work through respected NGOs that are based in the United States and have a presence in Iran.

There are some checks on the aid, Treasury officials say.

“The license specifically forbids any dealings with entities on the OFAC SDN list such as the IRGC,” Treasury Department spokesman John Sullivan told The Cable, referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. “There is also a mandated report to the Treasury and State Departments so we can make sure the money does not end up in the wrong hands.”

Obviously that’s the hope, but what about the groups controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps?

For example, will American groups be able to send money to the Iranian Red Crescent — Iran’s most prominent “humanitarian relief” group? The Red Crescent isn’t on the Specially Designated Nationals list, but the group is reportedly controlled by the IRGC, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables from 2008.

While NIAC maintains that there’s precedent for the Obama administration’s decision, citing a similar sanctions waiver by President Bush after the 2003 earthquake in southern Iran that may not be the most assuring comparison. There have been allegations that much of the international aid was stolen at the time, as the New York Times reported yesterday:

Pouria, an office manager with broad shoulders, said he made a similar trip in 2003 to Bam, a southern city where a powerful earthquake killed 25,000 people, many of them buried in rubble. After the world gave money to help, Pouria said, he saw a lot of it disappear in the wrong pockets.

“Bam was a lesson for me,” Pouria said he had reminded his wife after news of this month’s earthquakes. “We normal people should take the initiative.”

His feeling was echoed in the doubts expressed by many Iranians, even senior leaders and lawmakers, about the ability of the official aid organizations. Members of Parliament representing the quake-stricken region complained to Iranian news agencies of shortages. Parliament called in the director of the Red Crescent for questioning.

What exactly are the safeguards to ensure that won’t happen again?

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Peace Education Must Occur on Both Sides

Israelis and Jews around the world are rightly outraged about an attack on Arab teenagers by a group of Israeli Jewish teenage thugs on Monday. The attack is being described as a lynching and the fact that one 15-year-old suspect said of a 17-year-old victim who remains unconscious and hospitalized, “For my part he can die, he’s an Arab” has shocked many Israelis and friends of the Jewish state. The incident, which took part in Jerusalem’s Zion Square and was reportedly witnessed by hundreds of onlookers who were apparently too afraid or too indifferent to intervene has garnered international press coverage and set off a round of soul searching by many who wonder how the seeds of hate could have infected Jewish youth in this manner.

Israelis do well to worry about such violence, just as they should be deeply concerned about so-called “price tag” attacks on Arabs by Jews living in the West Bank. But those who are now openly indulging in speculation about Israel’s lost soul or its descent to barbarism need to take a deep breath before jumping to such conclusions. The incident and any such occurrence in which Arabs are subjected to violence in Israel is deplorable and must be punished severely. But the outsized interest in the story has all the hallmarks of the traditional journalist’s dictum about what sells: man bites dog, not dog bites man. Arab violence against Israelis is so common that it takes a horrific mass slaughter or a dramatic attack involving borders and third parties (such as the recent terror attack that came from Egyptian-controlled Sinai) in order for anyone, even Israelis themselves, to take much notice. But the infrequent instances when Israelis succumb to the atmosphere of hatred with which they have been surrounded for a century are treated as not only a very big deal but also a cause for the entire Jewish people to take stock of their moral compass.

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Israelis and Jews around the world are rightly outraged about an attack on Arab teenagers by a group of Israeli Jewish teenage thugs on Monday. The attack is being described as a lynching and the fact that one 15-year-old suspect said of a 17-year-old victim who remains unconscious and hospitalized, “For my part he can die, he’s an Arab” has shocked many Israelis and friends of the Jewish state. The incident, which took part in Jerusalem’s Zion Square and was reportedly witnessed by hundreds of onlookers who were apparently too afraid or too indifferent to intervene has garnered international press coverage and set off a round of soul searching by many who wonder how the seeds of hate could have infected Jewish youth in this manner.

Israelis do well to worry about such violence, just as they should be deeply concerned about so-called “price tag” attacks on Arabs by Jews living in the West Bank. But those who are now openly indulging in speculation about Israel’s lost soul or its descent to barbarism need to take a deep breath before jumping to such conclusions. The incident and any such occurrence in which Arabs are subjected to violence in Israel is deplorable and must be punished severely. But the outsized interest in the story has all the hallmarks of the traditional journalist’s dictum about what sells: man bites dog, not dog bites man. Arab violence against Israelis is so common that it takes a horrific mass slaughter or a dramatic attack involving borders and third parties (such as the recent terror attack that came from Egyptian-controlled Sinai) in order for anyone, even Israelis themselves, to take much notice. But the infrequent instances when Israelis succumb to the atmosphere of hatred with which they have been surrounded for a century are treated as not only a very big deal but also a cause for the entire Jewish people to take stock of their moral compass.

If you put it in the context of the one-hundred-year-old Arab war against Zionism and the culture of anti-Semitism and fomenting of hatred against Israel that is mainstream culture among Palestinians as well as other Arab countries like Egypt or Muslim lands like Iran, it is hardly surprising that a small minority of Israelis would wind up mirroring those deplorable sentiments.

Israelis are, after all, only human. When placed in terrible confrontations or difficult circumstances, it is only natural to lash out at violent enemies or to dehumanize the foe. If you think Americans are immune to such feelings, take a look at any popular American film produced during World War Two and see the way the Japanese are portrayed.

The real story here is not that a minority of Jews have fallen prey to the same sort of hatred that predominates the mainstream discourse among Arabs but that most have not.

Let’s also remember that violence against Jews in the West Bank is routine. Stone throwing at cars (which sometimes result in fatal crashes), shooting incidents and stabbing attacks are the stuff of everyday life there. Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem or Israeli Arab towns and villages are often no-go zones for Jews in a way that most Jewish cities and towns are not for Arabs.

To state these facts is to neither excuse nor rationalize the Jerusalem attack. Israeli schools already emphasize peace education but that message is often undermined by the knowledge that no such programs are being taught in the West Bank while the Arab media both in the Palestinian areas and in supposedly civilized countries like Egypt are drenched in anti-Semitism. Jews should do all they can to educate their kids to turn away from hate. But until their Arab neighbors emulate this practice, we shouldn’t be surprised when we discover that such efforts are not always successful.

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Obama’s Education Fear-Mongering

The Obama campaign’s theme this week is education. President Obama wants voters to believe that as president, Mitt Romney would be bad for education in every context: in public schools, in colleges, and for teachers.

So far, he’s not having nearly as easy a time convincing voters he’s the better candidate as he had in 2008. The Huffington Post tries to explain why:

Despite the attacks, a new poll finds Romney trails Obama by a small margin on education and holds a slight edge on the issue among independents.

The annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the “public’s attitudes toward the public schools” asked registered independents to choose a candidate if they “were voting solely on the basis of a desire to strengthen public schools.” Overall, 49 percent supported Obama, compared with 44 percent for Romney. But Romney had 46 percent of independent voters’ support, compared with Obama’s 41 percent.

The findings make sense because Romney “was governor of an educationally successful state” that transitioned from mediocre performance to star status, said Chester Finn, who presides over the right-leaning Washington think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and who worked in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Finn noted that in 2008, Obama led John McCain in education by 17 percentage points, which “suggests that Romney is far better positioned on this issue.”

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The Obama campaign’s theme this week is education. President Obama wants voters to believe that as president, Mitt Romney would be bad for education in every context: in public schools, in colleges, and for teachers.

So far, he’s not having nearly as easy a time convincing voters he’s the better candidate as he had in 2008. The Huffington Post tries to explain why:

Despite the attacks, a new poll finds Romney trails Obama by a small margin on education and holds a slight edge on the issue among independents.

The annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the “public’s attitudes toward the public schools” asked registered independents to choose a candidate if they “were voting solely on the basis of a desire to strengthen public schools.” Overall, 49 percent supported Obama, compared with 44 percent for Romney. But Romney had 46 percent of independent voters’ support, compared with Obama’s 41 percent.

The findings make sense because Romney “was governor of an educationally successful state” that transitioned from mediocre performance to star status, said Chester Finn, who presides over the right-leaning Washington think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and who worked in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Finn noted that in 2008, Obama led John McCain in education by 17 percentage points, which “suggests that Romney is far better positioned on this issue.”

While HuffPo may be onto something with Romney’s previous success in Massachusetts, I suspect that the vast majority of Americans are unaware of any successes (or failures) Romney may have faced during his time as governor. Romney’s campaign has been playing on a theme in its opposition to ObamaCare that may be resonating with Americans outside of the debate over healthcare policy.

This morning Conn Carroll discussed the war on “free stuff” that the Romney campaign has been waging, with Romney explaining to Americans,

When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare [at the NAACP] they weren’t happy… That’s OK, I want people to know what I stand for and if I don’t stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that’s just fine. But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more free stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy. But don’t forget nothing is really free.

The Romney campaign is out with a new ad on the topic that is sure to resonate with anyone whose parents told them that money doesn’t grow on trees (that was one of my mother’s favorite lines). The Obama campaign is trying to stir outrage against Romney following these remarks made March 5 in Youngstown, Ohio during a question-and-answer portion of his appearance:

QUESTION: I’m a senior in high school right now. I’m going to be going to college next year and it’s not very cheap. I was curious, if elected, what would you do to, um, with regards to college tuition, whether making it easier for me and my classmates, in regards to that?

GOV. ROMNEY: The best thing I can do for you, is to tell you to shop around. And to compare tuitions in different places and make sure you are getting the education you want for the cost you want.  Make sure you can get your degree in four years. Or less…. Recognize that college is expensive; you don’t want to have huge debts. And I’m not, and I know that it would be popular for me to stand here and tell you that I’m going to give you government money, to make sure to pay for your college but I’m not going to promise that. What I’m going to tell you is to shop around, get a good price and I do feel this, if you’re willing to serve your country in the military, for instance, that’s a place where we’re going to say “yeah were going to give you help.” In my state, the legislator and I came together, in my state, to say that anyone who has served in the national guard, we will provide for tuition and fees for four years of college to make sure that you will get that start. So if you’re willing to serve we can be of more help. But my best advice is; find a great institution of higher learning, find one that has the right price, shop around. In America this idea of competition, it works and don’t just go to the one that has the highest price, go to the one that has a little lower price where you can get an education and hopefully you’ll find that and don’t take on too much debt and don’t expect the government to forgive the debt you take on. And, I want to make sure that every kid in this country that wants to go to college gets the change to go to college. If you can’t afford it, scholarships are available, shop around for loans, make sure that you go to a place that’s reasonably priced and if you can, think about serving the country because that’s away to get all the education for free. Thank you.

From that speech, President Obama tweeted this last night:

I wonder what President Obama finds so offensive about “shopping around.” Americans never pay full sticker price for comparably sized purchases like cars or homes. Why would students take out on average over $20,000 in loans before first making sure they are getting the best price a school can offer with the most financial aid possible? Governor Romney’s advice, even when taken out of context by the Obama campaign, is sound financial counsel.

Obama added a dose of fear-mongering, by telling young voters about the possibility that they will pay more on their loans and receive less in Pell Grants. With his rhetoric on college education costs, it seems Obama is attempting to shore up youth support that, while all but guaranteed last election, seems very much more precarious this time around. What President Obama seems to misunderstand is what young people in the beginning stages of their careers need from his administration. Most Americans don’t need free bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts. They want a way to pay back their student loans; they want jobs. They want an economy that is ready, willing and able to absorb them post-graduation so that they can become independent adults in need of no governmental or parental handouts. They’ll take a job as a fisherman before settling for a free fish.

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Could an Attack on Iran Facilitate Regime Change?

An Iranian op-ed writer recently urged his country to emulate Israel. Of course the “Zionist regime” is illegitimate, wrote Seyed Ammar Kalantari, but the fact that “this small group of around seven million people who only about 60 years ago moved to this small spot from all sorts of different cultures and nationalities” has managed to survive, despite repeated attacks by Palestinians and various Arab armies, shows it must be doing something right. That something, Kalantari argued, is Israel’s willingness to criticize its leaders.

What makes this remarkable isn’t just that Israel is being touted as a shining example in the very country whose leader regularly pledges to annihilate it as “a cancerous tumor.” It’s that the article appeared on a website closely affiliated with Mohsen Rezaee, a former Revolutionary Guards commander who now serves as secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council, a key organ of the regime. It’s one of numerous recent reminders that most Iranians are vastly more open-minded than the thugs who run their country.

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An Iranian op-ed writer recently urged his country to emulate Israel. Of course the “Zionist regime” is illegitimate, wrote Seyed Ammar Kalantari, but the fact that “this small group of around seven million people who only about 60 years ago moved to this small spot from all sorts of different cultures and nationalities” has managed to survive, despite repeated attacks by Palestinians and various Arab armies, shows it must be doing something right. That something, Kalantari argued, is Israel’s willingness to criticize its leaders.

What makes this remarkable isn’t just that Israel is being touted as a shining example in the very country whose leader regularly pledges to annihilate it as “a cancerous tumor.” It’s that the article appeared on a website closely affiliated with Mohsen Rezaee, a former Revolutionary Guards commander who now serves as secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council, a key organ of the regime. It’s one of numerous recent reminders that most Iranians are vastly more open-minded than the thugs who run their country.

Just this week, a leading Iranian opposition cleric publicly urged the regime to “do everything to prevent a Zionist attack on Iran, because if that happens, Iran will be severely damaged, even if the Zionist regime is damaged even more.” The regime “must not act as warmongers,” warned Ayatollah Yousef Sanei: “The country is currently facing a unique situation, and the most important thing to do is to shut the mouth of the Zionist regime with our thoughts, our pens and an effort to take the right actions.” While Sanei didn’t specify said “right actions,” the meaning seems clear: steps to allay international, and especially Israeli, concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

In fact, an online poll published in June found that a decisive majority of Iranians – 63 percent – favor giving up uranium enrichment in exchange for an end to sanctions. And another poll, published in May, found that Iranians are much more supportive of basic liberal values than, say, Egyptians, Jordanians and Moroccans, or even residents of some Asian and eastern European democracies. Fully 94% of respondents, for instance, deemed “freedom to choose” an important value, and 71% deemed tolerance important.

All this shows what an incredible opportunity was wasted when U.S. President Barack Obama failed to support the Green Revolution in 2009, preferring instead to pursue negotiations with the mullahs: In Iran – unlike, say, Egypt – a successful revolution might well have produced a better government rather than a worse one, because most Iranians would genuinely rather build a decent society at home than foment mayhem abroad.

Today, however, this very decency is frequently used as an argument against attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities: An attack, we are told, will cause ordinary Iranians to rally round the mullahs, thereby setting the prospect of regime change back decades.

Personally, I think the data indicates that any such effect would be short-lived. People who value freedom of choice and tolerance aren’t likely to become permanent mullah-lovers, nor will opposition leaders long laud the regime for provoking the very attack they warned against.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has an additional argument: the Ugandan precedent. Yoweri Museveni, who became Uganda’s president after Idi Amin’s downfall, told him that Israel’s 1976 Entebbe raid “strengthened Amin’s rivals because it revealed how vulnerable his regime was,” Netanyahu related this month.

There’s no way to know for sure who’s right. But we do know the Green Revolution failed primarily because the regime’s brute-force tactics eventually convinced the demonstrators it was too strong to be toppled. Thus showing that the regime isn’t as powerful as it seems may actually be the very spark needed to finally send the mullahs toppling.

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Ban Snubs Obama, Embraces Iran

As I wrote yesterday, a lot was hanging on whether United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would decide to ignore the urging of President Obama and go to Iran for the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement. Doing so would make a mockery of the administration’s claim that they had successfully isolated the Islamist regime as part of a campaign to force it to give up its quest for nuclear weapons. But when faced with a choice of offending the Non-Aligned Movement and its Iranian host or President Obama and Israel, Secretary General Ban picked the lesser of two evils from his point of view and affirmed today that he was heading to Tehran.

There are those who will say with justice that nobody has cared about the Non-Aligned Movement since the fall of the Berlin Wall rendered this Third World strategy of playing the West against the former Soviet Union moot. However, Ban’s visit puts the icing on the cake for the ayatollah’s effort to show how the world is refusing to shun them the way other rogue regimes have been treated. That Ban would decide to go to Iran only a week after its leaders issued a new round of statements calling for the elimination of fellow UN member Israel is an outrage in itself. But by hosting the representatives of 120 countries with the head of the world body along with them, the Iranians have good reason to argue that this demonstrates that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claim that she has successfully isolated Iran is a joke.

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As I wrote yesterday, a lot was hanging on whether United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would decide to ignore the urging of President Obama and go to Iran for the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement. Doing so would make a mockery of the administration’s claim that they had successfully isolated the Islamist regime as part of a campaign to force it to give up its quest for nuclear weapons. But when faced with a choice of offending the Non-Aligned Movement and its Iranian host or President Obama and Israel, Secretary General Ban picked the lesser of two evils from his point of view and affirmed today that he was heading to Tehran.

There are those who will say with justice that nobody has cared about the Non-Aligned Movement since the fall of the Berlin Wall rendered this Third World strategy of playing the West against the former Soviet Union moot. However, Ban’s visit puts the icing on the cake for the ayatollah’s effort to show how the world is refusing to shun them the way other rogue regimes have been treated. That Ban would decide to go to Iran only a week after its leaders issued a new round of statements calling for the elimination of fellow UN member Israel is an outrage in itself. But by hosting the representatives of 120 countries with the head of the world body along with them, the Iranians have good reason to argue that this demonstrates that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claim that she has successfully isolated Iran is a joke.

With the sanctions that the administration belatedly imposed on Iran not being strictly enforced and the P5+1 diplomatic process having completely collapsed, the president’s strategy for dealing with the Iranian threat is a shambles.

Ban’s visit merely illustrates what the Israeli government has been pointing out in recent weeks as it stepped up a campaign to get Washington to declare whether it would make good on President Obama’s pledge to stop the Iranian threat. Iran isn’t isolated. Nor has it been brought to its knees by sanctions. In fact, there is no prospect of either U.S. goal being reached in the foreseeable future.

As much as Israel’s critics may deplore what they see as unwarranted pressure on the president to declare his intentions during his re-election campaign, his strategy has failed. With time running out before Iran’s nuclear progress renders a strike impossible, the president must state his intention to act or admit that he has no intention of doing so even after November.

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DNC Really Wants You to Know Women Will Speak at its Convention

The Democratic Party is fighting hard to revive that tired “war on women” meme. Today it announced its list of 10 female convention speakers, which CNN described as part of an “attempt by Team Obama to woo women away from the Republican Party”:

Nine additional Democratic women, many with ties to specific voting blocks, will address the national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Democratic National Convention Committee said Wednesday.

The list includes Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin; Georgetown student Sandra Fluke; Caroline Kennedy; Lilly Ledbetter; Eva Longoria, a co-chair of the Obama campaign; former Assistant Veterans Affairs Secretary Tammy Duckworth; Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Did you get that? Democrats want the world to know they’re going to have women speaking at their convention, which is apparently considered some sort of accomplishment in DNC-land. This may come as a shock to them, but the RNC has the same number of women slated to speak. That wasn’t widely promoted in a press release because, in 2012, Americans have become accustomed to women being involved in the political process. But kudos to the DNC for continuing that long-held tradition.

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The Democratic Party is fighting hard to revive that tired “war on women” meme. Today it announced its list of 10 female convention speakers, which CNN described as part of an “attempt by Team Obama to woo women away from the Republican Party”:

Nine additional Democratic women, many with ties to specific voting blocks, will address the national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Democratic National Convention Committee said Wednesday.

The list includes Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin; Georgetown student Sandra Fluke; Caroline Kennedy; Lilly Ledbetter; Eva Longoria, a co-chair of the Obama campaign; former Assistant Veterans Affairs Secretary Tammy Duckworth; Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Did you get that? Democrats want the world to know they’re going to have women speaking at their convention, which is apparently considered some sort of accomplishment in DNC-land. This may come as a shock to them, but the RNC has the same number of women slated to speak. That wasn’t widely promoted in a press release because, in 2012, Americans have become accustomed to women being involved in the political process. But kudos to the DNC for continuing that long-held tradition.

Note that “Georgetown student” Sandra Fluke graces the top of the list (wait, didn’t she graduate?). She’s back to playing a role in the Democratic Party’s strategy, and Jake Tapper reports that the Obama campaign has started sending out fundraising blasts in her name:

The Obama campaign will later today send out a mass e-mail to supporters from abortion rights activist Sandra Fluke criticizing the comments of embattled Missouri Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and trying to tie them to the GOP presidential platform, ABC News has learned.

The email will be just the latest attempt by the Obama campaign to link the presumptive Republican presidential ticket to Akin, whose widely condemned (and scientifically false) remarks about rape have been disputed by both Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., in addition to almost every national Republican official with a pulse.

Fluke may rally the pro-choice base, but I have a hard time believing that the vast majority of American women remember who she is or really care about what she has to say about anything.

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Should Israel Attack Hezbollah First?

Last week, I wrote about the Israeli public’s preparation for one aspect of a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities: the vast threat of Iran’s likely response, which would begin with thousands of rockets from Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon. At this point, most of Israel is within range of rockets from either Lebanon or Gaza, though the rockets in Lebanon are more advanced and more numerous, and defended by a better-trained and more resilient terrorist organization.

Today, former Israeli defense minister Moshe Arens tackles what this means in practical terms for Israeli military strategy, and concludes that Israel should attack south Lebanon before a Western attack on Iran’s nuclear installations:

What is certain is that we are facing a real and imminent danger to our civilian population. Hezbollah’s rockets are the Iranian nuclear project’s first line of defense. Is it not reasonable to attack that first line of defense before doing anything else? Should it not be made clear to one and all that Hezbollah’s armory of rockets in Lebanon must be dismantled? They are a weapon of terror, pure and simple, and they now stand guard over the preparation of the worst terror weapon of all – an Iranian nuclear bomb. If all agree that the world will not accept the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapon, will it agree to the continued existence of the first line of defense guarding that weapon?…

Here, too, as in the case of the Iranian nuclear project, it would be preferable to do this without resorting to military action. The majority of Lebanon’s citizens are almost as interested as Israel is in dismantling Hezbollah’s armory of rockets. And Hezbollah, a terrorist organization and a supporter of Bashar Assad in Syria, has few friends aside from Iran in the world. A public campaign can be launched to send them the message that they must dismantle their rocket armory. It would exert pressure on them from other quarters of the world. And if that doesn’t work, there remains the military option. It is going to take some preparation, but it can be done. It needs to be done. First things first.

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Last week, I wrote about the Israeli public’s preparation for one aspect of a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities: the vast threat of Iran’s likely response, which would begin with thousands of rockets from Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon. At this point, most of Israel is within range of rockets from either Lebanon or Gaza, though the rockets in Lebanon are more advanced and more numerous, and defended by a better-trained and more resilient terrorist organization.

Today, former Israeli defense minister Moshe Arens tackles what this means in practical terms for Israeli military strategy, and concludes that Israel should attack south Lebanon before a Western attack on Iran’s nuclear installations:

What is certain is that we are facing a real and imminent danger to our civilian population. Hezbollah’s rockets are the Iranian nuclear project’s first line of defense. Is it not reasonable to attack that first line of defense before doing anything else? Should it not be made clear to one and all that Hezbollah’s armory of rockets in Lebanon must be dismantled? They are a weapon of terror, pure and simple, and they now stand guard over the preparation of the worst terror weapon of all – an Iranian nuclear bomb. If all agree that the world will not accept the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapon, will it agree to the continued existence of the first line of defense guarding that weapon?…

Here, too, as in the case of the Iranian nuclear project, it would be preferable to do this without resorting to military action. The majority of Lebanon’s citizens are almost as interested as Israel is in dismantling Hezbollah’s armory of rockets. And Hezbollah, a terrorist organization and a supporter of Bashar Assad in Syria, has few friends aside from Iran in the world. A public campaign can be launched to send them the message that they must dismantle their rocket armory. It would exert pressure on them from other quarters of the world. And if that doesn’t work, there remains the military option. It is going to take some preparation, but it can be done. It needs to be done. First things first.

This may sound provocative, but Arens notes that if Hezbollah were allowed to unleash its missiles unabated the attack could easily result in hundreds of Israeli civilian casualties. Arens is wrestling with a very real question about the government’s responsibility to protect its citizenry from a known, expected threat. (We can assume Hezbollah won’t voluntarily disarm.) Of course, not only would an attack on Lebanon first inspire howling from the international community, it would also telegraph an attack on Iran. While such outrage from the international community probably won’t move the Israelis, it could increase public opposition in the United States to the main attack on Iran, thus endangering American support. But such international condemnation will come Israel’s way whether or not they attack Lebanon first, and neither the U.S. nor Israel is likely to be swayed much by it.

But there’s another element to this as well. The discussion of Hezbollah’s response to an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities usually treats it as an inevitable consequence Israel would have to deal with. But the Iranians likely see it as much more. To Iran, Hezbollah’s response would have to be a centerpiece in a post-attack response designed to convince the West of the futility of trying to stop Iran’s quest for the bomb. If an attack only sets Iran’s nuclear schedule back a few years, the possibility of using military force to stop it again (and again) would represent an untenable proposition for the West if Iran was able to set the region on fire every time.

There would only be two ways for the West to prevent the regular outbreak of hostilities over Iran’s nuclear program if Iran’s leaders stay in power and resolve to continue their mission: let Iran have the bomb, and focus on “containment”; or hit Iran with a much more comprehensive military attack in the first place. Such an attack would be far more consequential, but also far more dangerous and unpredictable, than just dropping the bunker busters.

It’s fair to say the international community finds the latter idea abhorrent, and the U.S. and Israel consider the first option to be unacceptable. Perhaps Arens has just given the West a third option.

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Can McMahon Steal a Blue Senate Seat?

Republicans are mourning what most now concede is the certain loss of a U.S. Senate race in Missouri that they were sure was a pickup for the GOP only last week. Rep. Todd Akin’s idiotic comments about rape and pregnancy has elevated embattled Sen. Claire McCaskill from likely lame duck to someone who is favored for another six years in Washington. That’s a blow to Republican hopes of finding the four turnovers they need to take control of the Senate next year and repeal ObamaCare, but a Rasmussen poll may give them some hope of making up for the Akin fiasco. The latest survey of the race to replace outgoing independent Democrat Joe Lieberman shows Republican Linda McMahon grabbing a surprising 49 to 46 percent lead over Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy among likely voters.

Throughout this year, McMahon has polled badly in a general election matchup against Murphy. That was the argument former congressman Chris Shays used in the Republican primary earlier this month, but the overwhelming majority of GOP voters rejected him in a landslide win for McMahon. But if the Rasmussen poll is not an outlier, it may be a sign that the pro wrestling entrepreneur may actually have a shot of stealing a seat that almost all political observers had assumed was in the pocket of the Democrats.

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Republicans are mourning what most now concede is the certain loss of a U.S. Senate race in Missouri that they were sure was a pickup for the GOP only last week. Rep. Todd Akin’s idiotic comments about rape and pregnancy has elevated embattled Sen. Claire McCaskill from likely lame duck to someone who is favored for another six years in Washington. That’s a blow to Republican hopes of finding the four turnovers they need to take control of the Senate next year and repeal ObamaCare, but a Rasmussen poll may give them some hope of making up for the Akin fiasco. The latest survey of the race to replace outgoing independent Democrat Joe Lieberman shows Republican Linda McMahon grabbing a surprising 49 to 46 percent lead over Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy among likely voters.

Throughout this year, McMahon has polled badly in a general election matchup against Murphy. That was the argument former congressman Chris Shays used in the Republican primary earlier this month, but the overwhelming majority of GOP voters rejected him in a landslide win for McMahon. But if the Rasmussen poll is not an outlier, it may be a sign that the pro wrestling entrepreneur may actually have a shot of stealing a seat that almost all political observers had assumed was in the pocket of the Democrats.

McMahon goes into the general election with the same edge she had when she lost a 2010 Senate race against Richard Blumenthal: money. The former boss of the WWE spent tens of millions of dollars of her own money in an election where she had the advantage of running in a year in which Republicans won a midterm landslide. She was also facing an opponent who was humiliated by the revelation that he had lied about serving in Vietnam. But Blumenthal, a popular attorney general who had been winning statewide contests for 20 years, still beat her handily. That caused observers to wonder why she — or the Connecticut GOP — would think she’d do better in a year in which Barack Obama would be at the top of the ticket in a state where the president is expected to win easily.

There’s no ready answer to that question but McMahon is determined to spend as much as she needs. She’s also up against a congressman who has no real negatives but isn’t a statewide figure either. McMahon still carries all the negative baggage that comes with running an enterprise many voters believe to be disreputable and which promotes violence and misogyny, not to mention having a record of steroid abuse. Yet perhaps after two campaigns, enough of the public is willing to overlook that and accept her as she’d like to be known now: as an independent/Tea Party figure determined to overturn the always-unpopular political establishment.

Indeed, the fact that Murphy is buying ads promoting his candidacy during the WWE’s “Raw” programming may be a sign that the Democrats are no longer counting on the wrestling issue being enough to disqualify McMahon. As the Hartford Courant reports, the WWE, which is still controlled by the Republican’s family, actually issued a statement razzing Murphy for purchasing time on their show for the second week in a row even after he and the Democrats had denigrated it as beneath the dignity of a potential senator as part of their attacks on McMahon.

We’ll have to see if today’s Rasmussen poll is confirmed by other surveys in the coming weeks. But it’s got to be worrying Democrats. If deep blue Connecticut is in play, then they are in much bigger trouble than anyone thought.

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Akin Open to Exiting? GOP Hopes So

Todd Akin missed his 5 p.m. dropout deadline yesterday, but technically he still has a few weeks to step aside and make room for a Republican replacement (as long as he gets court approval). ABC News reports that Akin isn’t ruling out an exit:

Here’s what Missouri Congressman Todd Akin said when I asked if he was in the race to stay – even if it looked like he would lose and possibly cost Republicans control of the Senate.

“Well George, I’m never going to say everything that could possibly happen. I don’t know the future, but I do know this. I knew that the party voters took a look at our hearts, understood who we were, had a chance to meet us in many, many different ways and made a decision,” Akin told me. “And it makes me uncomfortable to think that the party bosses are going to dictate who runs as opposed to the election process.”

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Todd Akin missed his 5 p.m. dropout deadline yesterday, but technically he still has a few weeks to step aside and make room for a Republican replacement (as long as he gets court approval). ABC News reports that Akin isn’t ruling out an exit:

Here’s what Missouri Congressman Todd Akin said when I asked if he was in the race to stay – even if it looked like he would lose and possibly cost Republicans control of the Senate.

“Well George, I’m never going to say everything that could possibly happen. I don’t know the future, but I do know this. I knew that the party voters took a look at our hearts, understood who we were, had a chance to meet us in many, many different ways and made a decision,” Akin told me. “And it makes me uncomfortable to think that the party bosses are going to dictate who runs as opposed to the election process.”

Apparently Akin may not know how bad the damage actually is. According to Politico, he’s been holed up with his strategy advisor, who’s pushing him to stay in the race. But CBS reports that Akin’s decision isn’t final, and it depends on whether Republicans come around to support him:

But, says Andrews, “Two sources tell CBS News [Akin’s] real strategy here is to hang tough — for now — and see if that wins enough money and support to stay in the race. In others words — his final decision to stay in — may not be final.”

In a potential sign of his strategy, Akin appealed Tuesday to Christian evangelicals, anti-abortion activists and anti-establishment Republicans. He said he remains the best messenger to highlight respect for life and liberty that he contends are crumbling under the big-government policies of President Obama.

Akin seems to hope that he can blame his flub on the liberal media and convince conservative grassroots to rally around him. But when Sarah Palin, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh have all turned against you, that’s not really a viable strategy.

For now, there’s not much conservatives can do other than wait it out. Bill Kristol writes that Republicans and conservatives have already made their points publicly, and now it’s time for friends and supporters of Akin make the case to him behind the scenes.

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Abbas, Not Lieberman, is Obstacle to Peace

Avigdor Lieberman is back in trouble today. His boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had to distance himself from a letter the foreign minister sent to the diplomatic Quartet urging the ouster of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu agreed with Lieberman “Abu Mazen” — Abbas’s nom de guerre — “creates difficulties in negotiations” but said he was dedicated to trying to work for peace with the Palestinians and had no interest in interfering in their internal politics. That was the appropriate response, but Abbas latest foray into “peacemaking” illustrates why many Israelis think Lieberman is right.

The PA president, who is currently serving the eighth year of a four-year presidential term, spoke today on the anniversary of an attack on the mosques of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount by a deranged Australian Christian in 1969. The man started a fire that was quickly put out. He was tried and found to be clinically insane and eventually deported. But the Palestinians, who have deliberately desecrated Jewish holy sites such as the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus, are still milking the unfortunate incident for all its worth. Abbas falsely alleged that Israel is plotting to destroy the mosques and then demanded that all Jews be thrown out of the parts of the city that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967. That means over a quarter of a million Jewish Jerusalemites are, according to him, scheduled for eviction from their homes. This shows that Abbas’s vision of peace bears a strange resemblance to Hamas’s vision of unending war on Israel.

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Avigdor Lieberman is back in trouble today. His boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had to distance himself from a letter the foreign minister sent to the diplomatic Quartet urging the ouster of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu agreed with Lieberman “Abu Mazen” — Abbas’s nom de guerre — “creates difficulties in negotiations” but said he was dedicated to trying to work for peace with the Palestinians and had no interest in interfering in their internal politics. That was the appropriate response, but Abbas latest foray into “peacemaking” illustrates why many Israelis think Lieberman is right.

The PA president, who is currently serving the eighth year of a four-year presidential term, spoke today on the anniversary of an attack on the mosques of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount by a deranged Australian Christian in 1969. The man started a fire that was quickly put out. He was tried and found to be clinically insane and eventually deported. But the Palestinians, who have deliberately desecrated Jewish holy sites such as the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus, are still milking the unfortunate incident for all its worth. Abbas falsely alleged that Israel is plotting to destroy the mosques and then demanded that all Jews be thrown out of the parts of the city that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967. That means over a quarter of a million Jewish Jerusalemites are, according to him, scheduled for eviction from their homes. This shows that Abbas’s vision of peace bears a strange resemblance to Hamas’s vision of unending war on Israel.

Abbas knows very well that Israel offered the Palestinians a state including a share of Jerusalem three times. The first two offers in 2000 and 2001 were made to Abbas’ predecessor Yasir Arafat but the latter was given to Abbas in 2008. While his apologists continue to insist he never formally turned it down, that was only because he never replied and shut down the talks with Israel as soon it was clear that he would be put on the spot and asked to choose between peace and continuing conflict.

Abbas also knows that in those formulas or even in the more generous terms outlined by Israeli left-wingers in Geneva or the ideas mooted by the Obama administration, the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem built since 1967, including the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, would be left intact, as would Arab neighborhoods. Those areas, like most of the West Bank settlements, are never going to be demolished, and as even President Obama has said, would be left inside Israel and swapped with the Palestinians for other areas.

But Abbas doesn’t want a territorial swap any more than he wanted to sign on to a peace agreement that would give his people another independent state (since they already have one in all but name in Gaza where Hamas rules a sovereign terrorist enclave). Rather than make peace or even negotiate for it (which he has refused to do for four years), he is satisfied with vilifying Israel, appealing for more foreign aid for his bankrupt and corrupt government and carrying on with the status quo.

Lieberman thinks the Palestinians ought to hold new elections. It’s a nice idea but Abbas wants no part of it since elections might bring Hamas to power in the West Bank as well as Gaza. He also has no interest in any process that might bring some level of accountability to his ramshackle excuse for a government.

Lieberman was being provocative when he sent his letter to the Quartet but what he was also doing was drawing attention to the fact that peace will be impossible so long as the Palestinians are saddled with this kind of a leader. But given the nature of the political culture of the Palestinians, which still regards rejection of the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, it’s not likely that any alternative to Abbas in the foreseeable future would be any better. For all of the condemnation being showered on Lieberman, Abbas and the mindset he represents remains the real obstacle to peace.

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Did the Tea Party Pave the Way for Akin?

The “legitimate rape” comment is hardly the first controversial thing rogue Senate candidate Todd Akin has said in his career. So why did national Republican leadership stand by silently as he shot to victory — with the help of $1.5 million in Democratic money — in such a critical Republican Senate primary? You would think the fact that Claire McCaskill was running pro-Akin ads should have been enough of a red flag.

One reason could be that the National Republican Senatorial Committee has declined to endorse and fund candidates in open seat primaries, after the blowback it received from the conservative grassroots in 2009 and 2010. Back then; NRSC came under massive fire from the Tea Party for backing “RINO” Republicans like Charlie Crist (over Rubio in Florida), Lisa Murkowski (over Joe Miller in Alaska) and Arlen Specter (over Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania). Conservatives inundated the phone lines of the NRSC and its chair Sen. John Cornyn’s office, demanding support for Tea Party-approved candidates.

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The “legitimate rape” comment is hardly the first controversial thing rogue Senate candidate Todd Akin has said in his career. So why did national Republican leadership stand by silently as he shot to victory — with the help of $1.5 million in Democratic money — in such a critical Republican Senate primary? You would think the fact that Claire McCaskill was running pro-Akin ads should have been enough of a red flag.

One reason could be that the National Republican Senatorial Committee has declined to endorse and fund candidates in open seat primaries, after the blowback it received from the conservative grassroots in 2009 and 2010. Back then; NRSC came under massive fire from the Tea Party for backing “RINO” Republicans like Charlie Crist (over Rubio in Florida), Lisa Murkowski (over Joe Miller in Alaska) and Arlen Specter (over Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania). Conservatives inundated the phone lines of the NRSC and its chair Sen. John Cornyn’s office, demanding support for Tea Party-approved candidates.

In many cases, the Tea Party was right. Rubio and Toomey were far superior to Crist and Specter, and they were competitive candidates to boot. But the Tea Party also got some bets really, really wrong — like when Christine O’Donnell cost Republicans a Senate seat.

Faced with boycott calls and angry tirades from talk radio hosts and bloggers, the NRSC apparently decided it was best to just stay out of the open races rather than face the wrath of the grassroots. It’s not a bad policy, but it also makes it more difficult for them to protect critical seats from self-immolating candidates.

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Syrians Vexed by Obama’s Empty Promises

President Obama was talking tough on Monday when he said that he would consider using force in Syria if Bashar Assad uses chemical weapons against his own people. That’s a good marker to lay down, but the way the president phrased the threat he implicitly gave the Assad regime permission to commit any atrocities short of using chemical weapons safe in the knowledge that the U.S. will do nothing to stop the slaughter.

The hollowness of Obama’s policy has been further exposed in this Washington Post article which quotes Syrian opposition officials complaining that they have not gotten the influx of communications gear promised to them by the president. The provision of computers, laptops, radios, etc., has been the administration’s response to demands that the U.S. provide weapons and other supplies to help overthrow Assad. Turns out our help has been mainly rhetorical so far. The Post reveals: “U.S. officials and Syrian nationals involved in the program said that it is slated to expand in the coming months but that fewer than two dozen laptop computers and satellite modem kits had been distributed so far.”

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President Obama was talking tough on Monday when he said that he would consider using force in Syria if Bashar Assad uses chemical weapons against his own people. That’s a good marker to lay down, but the way the president phrased the threat he implicitly gave the Assad regime permission to commit any atrocities short of using chemical weapons safe in the knowledge that the U.S. will do nothing to stop the slaughter.

The hollowness of Obama’s policy has been further exposed in this Washington Post article which quotes Syrian opposition officials complaining that they have not gotten the influx of communications gear promised to them by the president. The provision of computers, laptops, radios, etc., has been the administration’s response to demands that the U.S. provide weapons and other supplies to help overthrow Assad. Turns out our help has been mainly rhetorical so far. The Post reveals: “U.S. officials and Syrian nationals involved in the program said that it is slated to expand in the coming months but that fewer than two dozen laptop computers and satellite modem kits had been distributed so far.”

How pathetic. Tens of thousands of Syrians are dying at the hands of an avowedly anti-American, pro-Iranian regime–and the U.S. can do nothing more to help the suffering people of Syria than to send 24 laptops and modems? Unless the U.S. steps forward to do more, the people of Syria will long remember our betrayal of them in their hour of need–and long after Assad is gone we will pay a price in lost standing in this important Middle Eastern nation.

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Seniors Really Like Ryan (So Far)

I don’t want to be too optimistic about these numbers, since there’s still two and a half months of Mediscaring to go, and Democrats haven’t even gone full-blast on it yet. Still, this WaPo-ABC News poll (via the Fix) is pretty promising for Paul Ryan:

Grandma isn’t scared of Paul Ryan.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 41 percent of Americans view the new GOP vice presidential nominee favorably, while 37 percent rate him unfavorably — slightly improved from last week’s polling.

Among seniors, though, the numbers are even better for Ryan: 50 percent favorable and 35 percent unfavorable. Fully one-third of seniors say they have a strongly favorable view of the Wisconsin congressman, while one-quarter have a strongly unfavorable view.

The numbers suggest Democrats’ attempts to turn Ryan’s Medicare proposal against the GOP haven’t stuck yet among the most pivotal group: seniors. If a Medicare attack was working, after all, seniors would likely be the first group to start deserting Ryan.

It’s not just that the attempts have failed to stick. The fact that 33 percent of seniors (a plurality in this poll) say they hold strongly favorable views of Ryan suggests that this group a.) has probably taken time to think about him and made a relatively well-formed decision, and b.) is less likely to be swayed into the negative camp. That will make it more difficult for Democrats to spread misinformation about Ryan’s positions on Medicare.

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I don’t want to be too optimistic about these numbers, since there’s still two and a half months of Mediscaring to go, and Democrats haven’t even gone full-blast on it yet. Still, this WaPo-ABC News poll (via the Fix) is pretty promising for Paul Ryan:

Grandma isn’t scared of Paul Ryan.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 41 percent of Americans view the new GOP vice presidential nominee favorably, while 37 percent rate him unfavorably — slightly improved from last week’s polling.

Among seniors, though, the numbers are even better for Ryan: 50 percent favorable and 35 percent unfavorable. Fully one-third of seniors say they have a strongly favorable view of the Wisconsin congressman, while one-quarter have a strongly unfavorable view.

The numbers suggest Democrats’ attempts to turn Ryan’s Medicare proposal against the GOP haven’t stuck yet among the most pivotal group: seniors. If a Medicare attack was working, after all, seniors would likely be the first group to start deserting Ryan.

It’s not just that the attempts have failed to stick. The fact that 33 percent of seniors (a plurality in this poll) say they hold strongly favorable views of Ryan suggests that this group a.) has probably taken time to think about him and made a relatively well-formed decision, and b.) is less likely to be swayed into the negative camp. That will make it more difficult for Democrats to spread misinformation about Ryan’s positions on Medicare.

There are two immediate problems for Democrats. First, Romney and Ryan have been fairly successful at spreading the news that the Medicare reforms wouldn’t impact anyone over the age of 55. As long as seniors know that their own current coverage won’t be touched, they can look at the reforms with much more open minds.

Second, Paul Ryan just isn’t scary. He’s the kind of guy grandparents usually love. Democrats are going to find it hard to convince retirees that he wants to destroy Medicare because he hates the elderly and wants to give all their health care money to rich people. It’s just not believable to any rational person who’s listened to Ryan talk for more than five minutes.

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The Value of Congressional Trips Abroad

The well-deserved furor over Todd Akin’s boneheaded comments has been diverting attention from another tempest involving a GOP congressman going skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee while on a visit to Israel organized by an offshoot of AIPAC. The New York Times, among other MSM outlets, appears eager to turn the entire trip into a “scandal”–see for example this editorial disguised as a news article. It discusses the Israel outing in the context of “famous travel boondoggles” such as the Scotland golfing trip arranged by influence-peddler Jack Abramoff. Yet by all accounts the Israel trips organized by AIPAC are filled with substantive policy meetings. Even if the congressmen spent all their time going to tourist attracts such as the Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea, however, I would still be all in favor of such trips.

Does anyone seriously think that members of Congress in general, and members of the House in particular, are too worldly, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan? Au contraire. Many of them don’t even own a passport when elected. That’s hardly surprising since the bulk of them come from local politics–not from the Foreign Service or, for that matter, the armed forces. But lack of personal familiarity with the world beyond America’s shores leaves them ill-prepared to vote on national security matters ranging from foreign operations and defense budgets to treaty ratifications and authorizations for the use of military force. This is a major problem and allowing nonprofits to fund travel for members of Congress helps to alleviate it. Banning these trips will do nothing to elevate congressional ethics. It will do much to elevate congressional ignorance.

The well-deserved furor over Todd Akin’s boneheaded comments has been diverting attention from another tempest involving a GOP congressman going skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee while on a visit to Israel organized by an offshoot of AIPAC. The New York Times, among other MSM outlets, appears eager to turn the entire trip into a “scandal”–see for example this editorial disguised as a news article. It discusses the Israel outing in the context of “famous travel boondoggles” such as the Scotland golfing trip arranged by influence-peddler Jack Abramoff. Yet by all accounts the Israel trips organized by AIPAC are filled with substantive policy meetings. Even if the congressmen spent all their time going to tourist attracts such as the Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea, however, I would still be all in favor of such trips.

Does anyone seriously think that members of Congress in general, and members of the House in particular, are too worldly, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan? Au contraire. Many of them don’t even own a passport when elected. That’s hardly surprising since the bulk of them come from local politics–not from the Foreign Service or, for that matter, the armed forces. But lack of personal familiarity with the world beyond America’s shores leaves them ill-prepared to vote on national security matters ranging from foreign operations and defense budgets to treaty ratifications and authorizations for the use of military force. This is a major problem and allowing nonprofits to fund travel for members of Congress helps to alleviate it. Banning these trips will do nothing to elevate congressional ethics. It will do much to elevate congressional ignorance.

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Ciudad Juarez: The Wrong Kind of Calm?

One side effect of the American political habit of fighting metaphorical “wars”—the war on poverty, the war on drugs—is the blurring of distinctions. But the war on drugs stands apart as trickier case: it may be a metaphorical war here, but it is very real once that war stretches beyond our borders. The situation in Mexico is a perfect example, where Ciudad Juarez became one of the most dangerous and bloody cities in the world.

And paradoxically, in Mexico losing the war doesn’t seem all that different from what a victory might look like. The Washington Post reports:

It was one of the most sensational killing sprees in recent history, with 10,500 people left dead in the streets of Juarez as two powerful drug mafias went to war. In 2010, the peak, there were at least 3,115 homicides, with many months posting more than 300 deaths, according to the newspaper El Diario. Mexico is still struggling to make sense of the bloodshed.

But the fever seems to have broken.

Last month, there were just 48 homicides — 33 by gun, seven by beatings, six by strangulation and two by knife. Of these, authorities consider 40 to be related to the drug trade or criminal rivalries.

Authorities attribute the decrease in killings to their own efforts: patrols by the army, arrests by police, new schools to keep young men out of gangs and in the classroom.

Yet ordinary Mexicans suspect there is another, more credible reason for the decline in extreme violence: The most-wanted drug lord in the world, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and his Sinaloa cartel have won control of the local narcotics trade and smuggling routes north.

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One side effect of the American political habit of fighting metaphorical “wars”—the war on poverty, the war on drugs—is the blurring of distinctions. But the war on drugs stands apart as trickier case: it may be a metaphorical war here, but it is very real once that war stretches beyond our borders. The situation in Mexico is a perfect example, where Ciudad Juarez became one of the most dangerous and bloody cities in the world.

And paradoxically, in Mexico losing the war doesn’t seem all that different from what a victory might look like. The Washington Post reports:

It was one of the most sensational killing sprees in recent history, with 10,500 people left dead in the streets of Juarez as two powerful drug mafias went to war. In 2010, the peak, there were at least 3,115 homicides, with many months posting more than 300 deaths, according to the newspaper El Diario. Mexico is still struggling to make sense of the bloodshed.

But the fever seems to have broken.

Last month, there were just 48 homicides — 33 by gun, seven by beatings, six by strangulation and two by knife. Of these, authorities consider 40 to be related to the drug trade or criminal rivalries.

Authorities attribute the decrease in killings to their own efforts: patrols by the army, arrests by police, new schools to keep young men out of gangs and in the classroom.

Yet ordinary Mexicans suspect there is another, more credible reason for the decline in extreme violence: The most-wanted drug lord in the world, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and his Sinaloa cartel have won control of the local narcotics trade and smuggling routes north.

Though the U.S. poured millions in aid into former President Felipe Calderon’s effort to wrest control from the cartels—which included the deployment of the Mexican military to the area—it hardly seems as though the Mexican government was involved in the war. That is, El Chapo, the legendary and seemingly indestructible gang leader, was up against a rival cartel and some infamous assassins, not the authorities.

As James Verini wrote recently, the idea that the Mexican government doesn’t run its own country is far from controversial:

Many Mexicans assume [Guzman] essentially runs the country, and it’s easy to see why. Since President Felipe Calderón took office in 2007, a steady procession of high-raking government, military, and police officials has been revealed to be working for Chapo or his deputy, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

Meanwhile, the murder rate has dropped off a cliff, nightlife is buzzing again–unthinkable only a couple years ago–and the city says 20,000 jobs have been created. To understand just how much of a relief this is to the city’s residents, you need but to glance at the statistics of the infighting at its worst–the murder rate of nine per day, for example. The effect the violence had on the city, not to mention the country, was profound. As Charles Bowden writes in his modern history of the city’s drug wars:

I am sitting with a Juarez lawyer at a party, and he explains that there has been a failure of analysis. He tells me criminology will not explain what is happening, nor will sociology. He pauses and then says that we must study demonology.

Yet if it’s true that the violence has ceased because the government has been defeated (or made irrelevant) then the hope engendered by the quiet seems misplaced and temporary. It also indicates that the supposed American voracious appetite for drugs isn’t, as many claim, fueling the gang war. “From my perspective, the violence had its origin in the sale and consumption of drugs here in Ciudad Juarez; that’s what caused the bulk of the crisis,” Cesar Peniche, the top federal prosecutor in the Juarez area, told the Post, explaining that the war was for control of the city–hence the quiet that currently prevails.

And that portends a larger problem for Mexico. The Post story closes on a dim note:

The criminal organizations that brought Juarez to the brink have not disappeared. “What we have seen,” said Peniche, the prosecutor, “is these groups have moved to other parts of the state.”

Back in 2009, Hillary Clinton’s State Department found itself in the uncomfortable position of seeming to prepare for treating Mexico as a failed state while publicly reassuring the Mexican government that Foggy Bottom had no such intentions. If Clinton was indeed looking at Mexico as a looming failed state, nothing that has happened in the interim will have convinced her otherwise.

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Platforms Are Meaningless Echo of the Past

One of the unfortunate consequences of the Todd Akin fiasco for Republicans has been the way the jaw-dropping stupidity of his comment about rape and pregnancy has been used to shine a spotlight on the party platform that will be adopted next week at their national convention in Tampa. Not surprisingly, the document contains a plank opposing abortion and does so in absolute terms without discussing any possible exceptions including for the life of the mother or rape. That is a position that many social conservatives hold but is probably not shared by most Republicans, even those who consider themselves pro-life. This plank will help liberals who will use it to bolster their fallacious claim that the GOP is fighting a “war on women” so as to distract voters from the failed record of President Obama. But the real misnomer here is not so much the disingenuous talking points of the Democrats as the assumption that a party platform has any real meaning in this day and age.

Like the national conventions themselves, platforms are a vestige of a bygone era when the candidates were actually chosen at these gatherings. In the past, platforms were a big deal with the committees tasked with writing the document holding public hearings and the debate and votes on the various planks were big news stories. They aren’t anymore–for a good reason. Though some people take a lot of trouble writing them, they are utterly meaningless. They are a convenient way to mollify party activists by giving them something to do that will be ignored even if their side wins in November. If the platform actually meant anything there might have been a fight about its language. The only people who pay attention to the platforms are researchers looking for ammunition to use against their opponents.

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One of the unfortunate consequences of the Todd Akin fiasco for Republicans has been the way the jaw-dropping stupidity of his comment about rape and pregnancy has been used to shine a spotlight on the party platform that will be adopted next week at their national convention in Tampa. Not surprisingly, the document contains a plank opposing abortion and does so in absolute terms without discussing any possible exceptions including for the life of the mother or rape. That is a position that many social conservatives hold but is probably not shared by most Republicans, even those who consider themselves pro-life. This plank will help liberals who will use it to bolster their fallacious claim that the GOP is fighting a “war on women” so as to distract voters from the failed record of President Obama. But the real misnomer here is not so much the disingenuous talking points of the Democrats as the assumption that a party platform has any real meaning in this day and age.

Like the national conventions themselves, platforms are a vestige of a bygone era when the candidates were actually chosen at these gatherings. In the past, platforms were a big deal with the committees tasked with writing the document holding public hearings and the debate and votes on the various planks were big news stories. They aren’t anymore–for a good reason. Though some people take a lot of trouble writing them, they are utterly meaningless. They are a convenient way to mollify party activists by giving them something to do that will be ignored even if their side wins in November. If the platform actually meant anything there might have been a fight about its language. The only people who pay attention to the platforms are researchers looking for ammunition to use against their opponents.

Liberals, like those who write the New York Times editorial page, who want to skewer the Republicans on abortion can harp about the language in the GOP platform because it has some symbolic importance. The Republican platform is very conservative just as the Democratic one is extremely liberal. But the idea that a party is somehow obligated or even likely to put the ideas in the document into practice is a fantasy. Presidents and congressional majorities have been ignoring party platforms for over a century. If they hadn’t, the U.S. Embassy in Israel would have been moved to Jerusalem decades ago. The 2012 Republican platform and its Democratic counterpart will be filed and forgotten as soon as the election is over, as has every one that went before it.

There have been memorable platform fights in the past. The 1968 Democratic Convention practically came to blows over the Vietnam War. But such disputes have always been a function of the bigger argument between rival presidential candidates whose backers would squabble over credentials and platform planks before getting down to deciding on a nominee. Since it has been 36 years since the last time when the identity of the nominee was still in doubt when a convention began (1976, when Gerald Ford edged out Ronald Reagan for the GOP nod), it has been almost as long since anybody bothered arguing much about a platform.

Today the conventions are merely scripted television shows rather than actual deliberative assemblies, a remnant of a once vibrant political tradition that is kept in place to provide a setting for a lengthy partisan infomercial. The platforms are denied even that dignity. While they may provide a talking point or two for partisans, anyone who spends much time arguing about them is wasting their time.

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