Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 15, 2012

Can Abbas Resurrect Olmert’s Career?

The mini-boomlet fueling the attempted comeback of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert got a boost yesterday from an unlikely source: Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. As Haaretz reported, Abbas claims that had Olmert remained in office only a couple of months longer, peace might have been possible. Abbas praised Olmert in a meeting with a group of Israeli politicians in his Ramallah headquarters. This says more about Abbas’s desire to avoid blame for his walking away from Olmert’s offer of an independent Palestinian state in exchange for peace than it does about the latter’s political future. But even though Abbas has zero credibility with the Israeli public, this is a message that is integral to Olmert’s far-fetched hopes to replace Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Olmert scenario, promoted by such otherwise savvy observers like the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, is based on the idea that the Israeli people can be made to forget just how rotten a prime minister Olmert was and how unpopular he became during his three years in office because he can persuade the Palestinians to make peace. If what’s left of his Kadima Party backs him along with other opposition centrists as well as the left-wing Labor Party, then it is theoretically possible that this coalition can hold its own against incumbent Prime Minister Netanyahu and his center-right and religious party allies. The problem with this scenario is not just that Olmert might not be eligible to run for the Knesset because of ongoing legal problems or even how utterly unlikely it is that such a coalition could be cobbled together. The real fallacy at the heart of the Olmert comeback is that the Israeli people are not so stupid as to forget what actually happened in 2008 no matter what Olmert and Abbas say.

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The mini-boomlet fueling the attempted comeback of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert got a boost yesterday from an unlikely source: Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. As Haaretz reported, Abbas claims that had Olmert remained in office only a couple of months longer, peace might have been possible. Abbas praised Olmert in a meeting with a group of Israeli politicians in his Ramallah headquarters. This says more about Abbas’s desire to avoid blame for his walking away from Olmert’s offer of an independent Palestinian state in exchange for peace than it does about the latter’s political future. But even though Abbas has zero credibility with the Israeli public, this is a message that is integral to Olmert’s far-fetched hopes to replace Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Olmert scenario, promoted by such otherwise savvy observers like the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, is based on the idea that the Israeli people can be made to forget just how rotten a prime minister Olmert was and how unpopular he became during his three years in office because he can persuade the Palestinians to make peace. If what’s left of his Kadima Party backs him along with other opposition centrists as well as the left-wing Labor Party, then it is theoretically possible that this coalition can hold its own against incumbent Prime Minister Netanyahu and his center-right and religious party allies. The problem with this scenario is not just that Olmert might not be eligible to run for the Knesset because of ongoing legal problems or even how utterly unlikely it is that such a coalition could be cobbled together. The real fallacy at the heart of the Olmert comeback is that the Israeli people are not so stupid as to forget what actually happened in 2008 no matter what Olmert and Abbas say.

It bears recalling that after the restart to the peace process provided by the Annapolis Conference in November 2007, Olmert pursued a peace deal with Abbas. The following year he made an offer to the Palestinians that exceeded even the generous terms put to Yasir Arafat by Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000. The Palestinians were to be given an independent state in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank (with the parts retained by Israel to be offset by land swaps from pre-1967 Israel) as well as a large share of Jerusalem. As was the case in 2000 (and 2001 when Barak repeated his similar offer to Arafat at a conference at Taba), these were not terms that most Israelis supported, but Olmert felt he could have sold any deal to them were peace in the offing. He may not have been wrong about that, but he never got the chance to do so since Abbas fled from Olmert’s outstretched hand like a thief in the night.

It is true, as the Palestinians have insisted since then, that unlike Arafat Abbas did not formally turn down Olmert’s offer. Instead, he simply walked away from it and never responded. Like his terrorist predecessor, Abbas knew the Palestinian people would never accept a deal that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn.

Olmert was driven from office by scandal that year and eventually replaced by Benjamin Netanyahu who was elected prime minister in February 2009. At that point, Abbas began to spin his decision to walk away from peace as a reaction to Olmert’s successor rather than the futility of the Israeli attempt to entice him to agree to end the conflict. As part of an effort to re-sell himself to an Israeli public that regarded him as responsible for the failure in the 2006 Lebanon War and much else, Olmert now seeks to burnish the myth that he was close to making peace, and perhaps he thinks Abbas can help.

But it won’t work. The vast majority of Israelis would happily embrace just about any peace deal, but have come to understand that Abbas has no interest in such an outcome. They have been suckered before and won’t fall for it again or at least not until the Palestinians change their political culture in order to make peace possible. If that happens, perhaps it will allow a Palestinian leader to emerge that will eclipse Abbas (who is currently serving the eighth year of his four-year presidential term) and his ilk.

As for Olmert, the Israeli justice system isn’t through adjudicating his scandals, and the courts may rule that even the slap on the wrist he got for one ethical conviction makes him ineligible for the Knesset election. Even if he can run, the rest of the opposition to Netanyahu knows that Olmert can’t come close to beating the prime minister and probably will prefer to run without him in order to prepare for a better result in the future. But whatever happens, nothing Mahmoud Abbas can say is going to persuade Israelis to drag Olmert out of the political dustbin.

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Six Pitfalls in Town Hall Style Debate

Because tomorrow’s debate will be in a town hall format with audience interaction, it’s going to pose different challenges for the candidates than the last podium debate. Here are six pitfalls President Obama and Mitt Romney might run into:

1.  Getting too personal:

President Obama’s campaign has said he’ll be more aggressive in this debate, leading some to wonder whether that will play negatively in a town hall format. But an aggressive back-and-forth over policy can actually be a good thing; President Bush and Senator John Kerry had some engaging but heated exchanges at their town hall in 2004 over national security. The problem is when the attacks are perceived as bitter or personal, like Senator John McCain’s reference to Obama as “that one” in 2008. Obama comes in with a disadvantage tomorrow, since his supporters expect him to aggressively criticize Romney to make up for his lackluster performance last time. Unless he keeps the attacks funny and light, they could backfire on him.

2. Rambling too much:

Keeping answers focused and succinct is a good idea in any debate, but it’s particularly important during town hall debates because the faces of audience members are visible and the feedback is more obvious. Speakers often feed off the energy level of an audience, and a room full of bored people isn’t going to encourage a lively debate. Plus, high definition means that viewers at home are going to pick up on every yawn, glazed eye or baffled expressions in the audience. SNL mocked some of McCain and Obama’s rambling answers after their town hall debate in 2008.

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Because tomorrow’s debate will be in a town hall format with audience interaction, it’s going to pose different challenges for the candidates than the last podium debate. Here are six pitfalls President Obama and Mitt Romney might run into:

1.  Getting too personal:

President Obama’s campaign has said he’ll be more aggressive in this debate, leading some to wonder whether that will play negatively in a town hall format. But an aggressive back-and-forth over policy can actually be a good thing; President Bush and Senator John Kerry had some engaging but heated exchanges at their town hall in 2004 over national security. The problem is when the attacks are perceived as bitter or personal, like Senator John McCain’s reference to Obama as “that one” in 2008. Obama comes in with a disadvantage tomorrow, since his supporters expect him to aggressively criticize Romney to make up for his lackluster performance last time. Unless he keeps the attacks funny and light, they could backfire on him.

2. Rambling too much:

Keeping answers focused and succinct is a good idea in any debate, but it’s particularly important during town hall debates because the faces of audience members are visible and the feedback is more obvious. Speakers often feed off the energy level of an audience, and a room full of bored people isn’t going to encourage a lively debate. Plus, high definition means that viewers at home are going to pick up on every yawn, glazed eye or baffled expressions in the audience. SNL mocked some of McCain and Obama’s rambling answers after their town hall debate in 2008.

3. Failing to connect with the audience:

Town hall debates allow the candidates to personally appeal to the audience, and Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” ad lib at the first televised town hall debate in 1992 is the quintessential example. Neither Romney nor Obama really excel in this area, and in 2008, Obama was much cooler toward the audience than John McCain. That’s going to be a challenge for both Obama and Romney tomorrow.

4. Physical appearances are more obvious:

The age difference between Obama and McCain was never more obvious than at their town hall debate, because there’s no podium to hide behind and the candidates had to walk around and respond directly to audience members. Physical appearance probably won’t be as much of an issue tomorrow, since age hasn’t been a factor in this election and Romney and Obama are around the same height. But certain body language, and the way the candidates carry themselves, may be more noticeable.

5. Getting rattled:

Obama and Romney have pretty calm demeanors, but they’ve also both gotten rattled under tough questioning. Romney blew up after Rick Perry accused him of hiring illegal immigrants at one of the GOP primary debates last year, and Obama has been known to snap at aggressive reporters. The president also had difficulty hiding his personal animosity for Romney at the last debate, which could make him more likely to get flustered or annoyed tomorrow. Tensions also run higher in the less-formal format. Last week, long-time Democratic incumbent congressmen Brad Sherman and Howard Berman — who are locked in a competitive run-off — nearly got into a physical altercation at a town hall-style debate.

6. Not staying for the aftershow:

Reporters often interview audience members after the debate, so the candidates want to try to leave them with a good impression. In 2008, McCain was criticized for leaving shortly after the debate ended, while Obama stuck around posing for photos and answering questions. It’s a small thing, but it could make a difference in the post-coverage.

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The Presidential Debate Reality Show

Tomorrow night’s presidential debate and the one that follows the next week may be the only opportunities for either President Obama or Mitt Romney to score a victory at their opponent’s expense before Election Day. So it’s no surprise that both are viewing it as having the potential to help determine the outcome of the contest. It remains to be seen whether the president’s attempt to correct his lackluster performance in the first debate will lead him to overcompensate by being too aggressive. Another point to watch will be whether Romney will be as on top of his game in a town hall setting where he will have to interact with voters — never his strong suit — as he was in the first debate. But almost as important as these questions will be how many Americans will actually watch it.

The first presidential debate was the most watched presidential debate since the first 1980 dustup between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as 67.2 million watched at home on television with many millions more seeing it at hotels and airports or taking it in on their computers and tablets. Traditionally, the first debate always draws a bigger audience than the next two or the vice presidential debate. That was certainly true of the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan slug- and smirk-fest last week that drew only 51.4 million seeing it at home. Those ratings were not only lower than the presidential debate showing, but a considerable drop from the 2008 veep debate in which nearly 70 million tuned in to see Sarah Palin. If the same holds true for the Tuesday night event at Hofstra University, that poses the question as to whether anything that happens there can possibly be as significant as Romney’s triumph two weeks earlier. If so, then President Obama will have to do more than simply improve on his first debate. He will have to mop the floor with Romney to create the momentum switch he needs.

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Tomorrow night’s presidential debate and the one that follows the next week may be the only opportunities for either President Obama or Mitt Romney to score a victory at their opponent’s expense before Election Day. So it’s no surprise that both are viewing it as having the potential to help determine the outcome of the contest. It remains to be seen whether the president’s attempt to correct his lackluster performance in the first debate will lead him to overcompensate by being too aggressive. Another point to watch will be whether Romney will be as on top of his game in a town hall setting where he will have to interact with voters — never his strong suit — as he was in the first debate. But almost as important as these questions will be how many Americans will actually watch it.

The first presidential debate was the most watched presidential debate since the first 1980 dustup between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as 67.2 million watched at home on television with many millions more seeing it at hotels and airports or taking it in on their computers and tablets. Traditionally, the first debate always draws a bigger audience than the next two or the vice presidential debate. That was certainly true of the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan slug- and smirk-fest last week that drew only 51.4 million seeing it at home. Those ratings were not only lower than the presidential debate showing, but a considerable drop from the 2008 veep debate in which nearly 70 million tuned in to see Sarah Palin. If the same holds true for the Tuesday night event at Hofstra University, that poses the question as to whether anything that happens there can possibly be as significant as Romney’s triumph two weeks earlier. If so, then President Obama will have to do more than simply improve on his first debate. He will have to mop the floor with Romney to create the momentum switch he needs.

Obama’s problem is not whether he can improve on his first debate. He can hardly help doing so. But outright wins like Romney’s are actually fairly rare in presidential debates. It takes either a brilliant speaker who shows up an opponent (Reagan telling Carter, “There you go again”) or a candidate making an egregious gaffe (Gerald Ford liberating Soviet-occupied Poland) or not showing up looking either prepared or acting as if he cared (Obama). Even if he holds his own, Romney will have to screw up for it to seem anything like a real win and the GOP standard-bearer is too detail-oriented and focused to allow that to happen.

Yet even if the president is able to convince the media that he came out slightly ahead, if the audience for the second debate is significantly smaller than the first, it won’t be much of a victory. Even a spin avalanche can’t make it as important as the first debate if far fewer Americans watch it.

That said the widespread assumption that the second debate will be less of a big deal might turn out to be wrong. If there was anything that we learned from the seemingly endless string of Republican primary debates last winter it is that each of them helped build the audience for those that followed. Granted, the audiences were far smaller, but they were nevertheless significant, as the series of GOP debates became the nation’s favorite political reality show.

That lesson may not apply to a debate that appeals to more than the political junkies who regularly watch cable news stations. But given the fact that the first debate appears to have fundamentally altered the direction of the campaign, there is a chance that there may not be as significant a drop-off in the ratings for the second one as many expect. As with the GOP debates, the mere fact that the first one was not the usual draw will impel more viewers to watch to see if this week’s episode will have its own surprises. Either way, the size of the audience will play a major role in determining how important it will turn out to be.

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Did the GOP Really Leave Gary Johnson?

When libertarians (and Libertarians) object that despite the popularity of some of their causes they are not taken seriously as a voting constituency by the two major American parties, it’s easy to see where they’re coming from. Republicans and Democrats seem to hate the TSA’s invasive and pervasive screening process; opposition to the drug war is growing in both camps; and the popularity of gay marriage on the left and opposition to Obamacare on the right would seem to remind voters on both sides of the political divides of their libertarian streaks.

Yet they are unloved. Instead of finding the Koch brothers convenient allies given their social libertarianism and dedication to funding the arts, the left has turned the Kochs into the villains of the election cycle, offering some of the most ignorant and self-defeating politics of personal destruction in years. And now Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, claims to be shut out by the GOP and feels that his voice has been trampled by Republicans who fear he could cut into Mitt Romney’s vote share in several key states. The New York Times reports:

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When libertarians (and Libertarians) object that despite the popularity of some of their causes they are not taken seriously as a voting constituency by the two major American parties, it’s easy to see where they’re coming from. Republicans and Democrats seem to hate the TSA’s invasive and pervasive screening process; opposition to the drug war is growing in both camps; and the popularity of gay marriage on the left and opposition to Obamacare on the right would seem to remind voters on both sides of the political divides of their libertarian streaks.

Yet they are unloved. Instead of finding the Koch brothers convenient allies given their social libertarianism and dedication to funding the arts, the left has turned the Kochs into the villains of the election cycle, offering some of the most ignorant and self-defeating politics of personal destruction in years. And now Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, claims to be shut out by the GOP and feels that his voice has been trampled by Republicans who fear he could cut into Mitt Romney’s vote share in several key states. The New York Times reports:

Both sides agree that Mr. Johnson, whose pro-marijuana legalization and antiwar stances may appeal to the youth vote and whose antigovernment, anti-spending proposals may appeal to conservative fiscal hawks — and to supporters of Mr. Paul — has the potential to draw from both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama….

The Republican efforts to impede Mr. Johnson’s candidacy have drawn charges of spying and coercion from Libertarians and countercharges from Republicans that the party had resorted to fraud while accepting secret help from Democrats.

That suggests that both sides think Johnson would hurt Romney more than Obama. Yet on the domestic front, Obama has given libertarians nothing but Obamacare-style policy and Solyndra-style crony capitalism, and on foreign affairs he has expanded virtually everything libertarians claimed to hate about George W. Bush’s national security policies. So why would Johnson cut into Romney’s vote instead of Obama’s? On paper it wouldn’t seem to make sense, until you consider the fact that Johnson actually branded himself, throughout his political career, as a Republican.

In an interview last month with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Johnson–who served as governor of New Mexico as a Republican–was asked why he left the GOP after running for president initially as a Republican. He said he was able to participate in two primary debates before the party abandoned and excluded him. He continued:

We requested of the RNC (Republican National Committee) that they step in and demand they give us a seat at the table; otherwise, the Republican Party is being dictated to by the media. The party would have nothing to do with helping me out. That was the Republican Party leaving me, not me leaving the Republican Party.

I’m sure there’s a case to be made that more than the dozen candidates invited to the debates was warranted, but is it really the Republican Party’s job to be “helping [Johnson] out”? It was no surprise that Johnson was going to run as a Libertarian candidate if he couldn’t gain traction in the GOP primaries. But there’s another Republican who is also a libertarian, but never dropped the party: Ron Paul. Paul didn’t need the GOP to be “helping [him] out”–he put in his time, over many years, as an elected Republican official, built a following, and leveraged that following into a movement that made itself heard in the party and kept Paul in the GOP primary debates through the new year and right to the end of the debate season.

Paul made a couple of strong showings in some states–mostly in caucus and open-primary states where ground game mattered and Democrats were permitted to vote in the GOP contests–and in February he joined Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum in the final four candidates’ debates. Paul was the only one on stage that remotely resembled a libertarian, and it seemed he had national appeal as well. One poll conducted by CNN in January found Paul keeping pace with Obama in a head-to-head race.

Of course, Paul had his drawbacks, notably the racist newsletters published in his name and from which he seemed to profit for many years, 9/11 truthers, and his ability to attract crackpots and Jew-baiters like moths to a flame. This earned him a weirdly crossover appeal, as his approval rating among Democrats shot up after the revelations of the racist newsletters, and his attitude toward Israel always attracted leftists and Occupy Wall Street types fretting about “Jewish bankers.”

All of this is to say that Johnson has much less baggage than Paul, but also much less of a following. That’s not really the GOP’s fault–a more libertarian candidate than Johnson was able to thrive in the GOP, and Ron Paul’s son, Rand, has quite a following as well. While the Tea Party isn’t strictly libertarian, it was an indication that libertarian distrust of big government still has a home in the GOP. Johnson’s political success has come as a Republican. He’s free to run as a Libertarian, but in doing so, he very publicly and unequivocally is leaving the GOP—the party that facilitated his political career—not the other way around.

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No Real Reform in North Korea

Today’s New York Times article featuring interviews with a handful of North Koreans visiting China should throw a big pail of cold water on the excessive hopes expressed by so many who think that the new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is likely to transform the country he inherited, like a piece of furniture or real estate, from the previous dictator, his dad Kim Jong-il. Like other dictatorial spawn–including, lest we forget, Bashar Assad–the younger Kim has taken a few stylistic steps to distinguish himself from the old man. These include allowing women in Pyongyang to wear Western-style clothes and backing amusement parks for the elite. Young Kim is even speaking in public, something his father famously refused to do.

But the conditions of the vast majority of North Koreans remain grim. As the Times article notes, “The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.” The Times reporter quotes a middle-aged woman known as Mrs. Kim: “Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can’t feed my family?” Ordinary North Koreans, even relatively privileged ones like her, spend much of their time simply trying to scrounge up enough food to survive. The article sums up conditions thus: “Emaciated beggars haunt train stations, they said, while well-connected businessmen continue to grow rich from trading with China and government officials flourish by collecting fines and bribes.”

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Today’s New York Times article featuring interviews with a handful of North Koreans visiting China should throw a big pail of cold water on the excessive hopes expressed by so many who think that the new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is likely to transform the country he inherited, like a piece of furniture or real estate, from the previous dictator, his dad Kim Jong-il. Like other dictatorial spawn–including, lest we forget, Bashar Assad–the younger Kim has taken a few stylistic steps to distinguish himself from the old man. These include allowing women in Pyongyang to wear Western-style clothes and backing amusement parks for the elite. Young Kim is even speaking in public, something his father famously refused to do.

But the conditions of the vast majority of North Koreans remain grim. As the Times article notes, “The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.” The Times reporter quotes a middle-aged woman known as Mrs. Kim: “Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can’t feed my family?” Ordinary North Koreans, even relatively privileged ones like her, spend much of their time simply trying to scrounge up enough food to survive. The article sums up conditions thus: “Emaciated beggars haunt train stations, they said, while well-connected businessmen continue to grow rich from trading with China and government officials flourish by collecting fines and bribes.”

You can read more about what life is like in North Korea in Melanie Kirkpatrick’s fine new book, “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.” Sadly, we cannot expect real change as long as Kim remains in power because he knows that a serious opening will jeopardize the good life that he has inherited. To expect otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking.

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Terrorism Against Feelings

The controversy over the anti-Islam YouTube film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” isn’t going away. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for mass demonstrations last week, and yesterday thousands of Muslims converged outside Google in London to demand the removal of the YouTube clip:

A protest by 10,000 Muslims outside the offices of Google in London today is just the first in an orchestrated attempt to force the company to remove an anti-Islamic film from website YouTube in Britain. …

Organiser Masoud Alam said: “Our next protest will be at the offices of Google and YouTube across the world. We are looking to ban this film.

“This is not freedom of expression, there is a limit for that. This insult of the Prophet will not be allowed. …

One of the speakers, Sheikh Faiz Al-Aqtab Siddiqui, told The Daily Telegraph: “Terrorism is not just people who kill human bodies, but who kill human feelings as well. The makers of this film have terrorised 1.6 billion people.

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The controversy over the anti-Islam YouTube film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” isn’t going away. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for mass demonstrations last week, and yesterday thousands of Muslims converged outside Google in London to demand the removal of the YouTube clip:

A protest by 10,000 Muslims outside the offices of Google in London today is just the first in an orchestrated attempt to force the company to remove an anti-Islamic film from website YouTube in Britain. …

Organiser Masoud Alam said: “Our next protest will be at the offices of Google and YouTube across the world. We are looking to ban this film.

“This is not freedom of expression, there is a limit for that. This insult of the Prophet will not be allowed. …

One of the speakers, Sheikh Faiz Al-Aqtab Siddiqui, told The Daily Telegraph: “Terrorism is not just people who kill human bodies, but who kill human feelings as well. The makers of this film have terrorised 1.6 billion people.

That’s an odd quote: “Terrorism is not just people who kill human bodies, but who kill human feelings as well.” On the surface, the speaker seems to be criticizing terrorism, when in fact he’s justifying it. If mocking a religious figure like Mohammed is considered “terrorism,” that would legitimize a violent response. He’s saying you can’t end terrorism against people unless you also end “terrorism against feelings.”

Another protester interviewed in the article said basically the same thing:

Self-employed businessman Ahmed Nasar said he was worried the video could lead to violence in Britain in the same way as it had abroad. “If you push people too far,” he said, “You will turn the peaceful elements into violence.”

Yet another attempt to blame the victims for Islamic terrorism instead of the perpetrators. And these aren’t isolated opinions. The Organization of Islamic Conference, a group that represents 56 Islamic states, called for a global ban on insulting Muhammad at the United Nations last month, claiming that offensive speech could “provoke people to violence.” Not that there’s any chance of a global speech ban actually happening, but it’s a campaign that many Muslim leaders — including ones considered “moderate” – are invested in.

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Will Early Voting Help Obama Win?

Democrats are crowing today about how their early voting operation is giving President Obama a big edge over Mitt Romney. Early voting has been a priority for the Democrats who have fought hard to preserve it in the crucial swing state of Ohio. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, they are being rewarded for this emphasis by gaining a huge edge among early voters. Reuters reports the poll says Obama leads Romney 59-31 percent among the seven percent of the electorate that has already cast their ballots. If those numbers were accurate and hold up by Election Day, that could make an enormous difference in what has otherwise been considered a tossup election. But, as the Romney campaign has pointed out, the poll doesn’t seem reliable. Nor is it necessarily indicative of what the results will be in various states.

Liberals who have been quick to pounce on any poll with an inadequate sample in the past should steer clear of this Reuters poll. Not only is the margin of error in the survey a whopping 10 percent and therefore so large as to render its results meaningless, but also the sample in each state is miniscule. As Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, pointed out in a memo, the total sample of early voters was only 361 with only 115 of them in swing states. That means the average number of early voters polled in each state is less than 10. Early voting hasn’t even begun for the general population in Colorado, the state with the highest number of early voters four years ago. More important is the identity of the groups the campaigns are targeting in their early voting turnout programs. According to Politico, the Democrats have focused on getting Obama’s base out early while the Republicans think their core voters don’t need to be rousted out to the polls before Election Day, and instead concentrate on wavering potential GOP voters. Whether the latter strategy is smarter than the former is yet to be seen. But the Reuters poll is so flimsy that it’s difficult to see why it should be taken seriously.

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Democrats are crowing today about how their early voting operation is giving President Obama a big edge over Mitt Romney. Early voting has been a priority for the Democrats who have fought hard to preserve it in the crucial swing state of Ohio. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, they are being rewarded for this emphasis by gaining a huge edge among early voters. Reuters reports the poll says Obama leads Romney 59-31 percent among the seven percent of the electorate that has already cast their ballots. If those numbers were accurate and hold up by Election Day, that could make an enormous difference in what has otherwise been considered a tossup election. But, as the Romney campaign has pointed out, the poll doesn’t seem reliable. Nor is it necessarily indicative of what the results will be in various states.

Liberals who have been quick to pounce on any poll with an inadequate sample in the past should steer clear of this Reuters poll. Not only is the margin of error in the survey a whopping 10 percent and therefore so large as to render its results meaningless, but also the sample in each state is miniscule. As Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, pointed out in a memo, the total sample of early voters was only 361 with only 115 of them in swing states. That means the average number of early voters polled in each state is less than 10. Early voting hasn’t even begun for the general population in Colorado, the state with the highest number of early voters four years ago. More important is the identity of the groups the campaigns are targeting in their early voting turnout programs. According to Politico, the Democrats have focused on getting Obama’s base out early while the Republicans think their core voters don’t need to be rousted out to the polls before Election Day, and instead concentrate on wavering potential GOP voters. Whether the latter strategy is smarter than the former is yet to be seen. But the Reuters poll is so flimsy that it’s difficult to see why it should be taken seriously.

Beeson argues there’s no point for his party to invest in a measure that would be devoted to bringing out GOP voters early that he knows will support Romney on Election Day. That may be true for high intensity Republicans, but Democrats seem to think their base needs more help and might not vote at all if they allow many of them to wait until November 6. They are probably right about that, which means their approach makes sense.

Early voting does alter some of the calculations for pollsters since once a person has voted they are invulnerable to the subsequent swings in opinion about the candidates. Democrats seem to think that since Obama has led most of the way, this limits Romney’s path to a comeback win. But since most early voting is happening now, as the Republican surges, this is not a compelling argument for either candidate.

Even if the Reuters poll was accurate — and there is no rational reason to think that it is — it doesn’t mean that Obama should view early voting as his path to re-election. It is just a device to increase turnout among sections of the public who cannot be relied upon to vote without this sort of aid. But there is also no reason to think that exponentially more Democrats will vote early than Republicans nationwide. As Beeson says, of those voters who have requested ballots but have yet to turn in their vote, Democrats hold only a six percent registration edge. Another wild card here is the military vote that may not be so favorable for the Democrats.

That means there is much less than meets the eye to the early voting hoopla. No matter who has what is liable to be a small edge in this category, it won’t decide anything.

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EU Knocks Iran’s Press TV Off the Air

Three years after the Iranian regime’s English-language broadcaster, Press TV, plastered London’s buses with an advertising campaign that billed the station as “giving a voice to the voiceless,” Europe’s airwaves have been abruptly closed to its propaganda offerings. Here’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

A leading European satellite provider has taken 19 Iranian television and radio broadcasters off the air.

Satellite provider Eutelsat and media services company Arqiva said the decision has been made because of “reinforced” European Union sanctions aimed at punishing human rights abusers.

People in Iran still have access to most of the channels operated by Iranian state broadcaster IRIB, but the channels are no longer broadcast in Europe and elsewhere.

Iran’s English-language Press TV, Farsi-language channels for Iranian expatriates, and Arabic-language offerings, including the news channel Al-Alam, are among the channels cut by the Eutelsat decision.

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Three years after the Iranian regime’s English-language broadcaster, Press TV, plastered London’s buses with an advertising campaign that billed the station as “giving a voice to the voiceless,” Europe’s airwaves have been abruptly closed to its propaganda offerings. Here’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

A leading European satellite provider has taken 19 Iranian television and radio broadcasters off the air.

Satellite provider Eutelsat and media services company Arqiva said the decision has been made because of “reinforced” European Union sanctions aimed at punishing human rights abusers.

People in Iran still have access to most of the channels operated by Iranian state broadcaster IRIB, but the channels are no longer broadcast in Europe and elsewhere.

Iran’s English-language Press TV, Farsi-language channels for Iranian expatriates, and Arabic-language offerings, including the news channel Al-Alam, are among the channels cut by the Eutelsat decision.

Not suprisingly, Press TV’s own reaction to the decision was typically bombastic:

The move follows months of jamming of Iranian channels by European satellite companies. It also shows that the European Union does not respect freedom of speech, and spares no efforts to silence the voice of alternative media outlets.

Iranian news channels affected by the decision only aimed to break the West’s monopoly on news broadcast by reflecting the voice of the oppressed people to the world.

The illegal move by Eutelsat SA, therefore, is a step to mute all alternative news outlets representing the voice of the voiceless.

The banishing of Press TV from Europe’s television screens forms part of a wider sanctions package against both Iran and Syria that was implemented by the European Union today. As the Wall Street Journal points out, “The sanctions, aimed at forcing Tehran back to the negotiating table over the nuclear program, target Iranian financial institutions, trade, energy and shipping.”

As welcome as this development is, it begs the question of why the European Union took so long to reach its decision. Reuters hazards a guess:

The EU has lagged the United States in imposing blanket industry bans because it is concerned not to punish ordinary Iranian citizens while inflicting pain on the Tehran government.

This type of vacillating has long characterized the EU’s relationship with Middle Eastern tyrannies (the 27 member bloc is still resisting US entreaties to place Hezbollah on its list of proscribed terrorist organizations), which perhaps explains why the Nobel Peace Prize Committee deemed the EU worthy of this year’s award. But even if we concede that the EU’s concern about sanctions punishing ordinary Iranians is legitimate, how is that possibly a factor in determining whether the official broadcaster of an enemy state should be allowed to reach European citizens?

Indeed, since the infamous London bus campaign, the EU has bypassed several opportunities to shut down Press TV. It could have done so in 2009, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the presidential election — which would, incidentally, have been the perfect statement of solidarity with the Iranian opposition. It could have done so in 2011, when IAEA chief Yukiya Amano reported that the Iranians had been conducting research aimed at weaponizing their nuclear program. And it could have done so in July of this year, following the monstrous bomb attack on a group of Israeli tourists visiting the resort of Burgos in Bulgaria, an EU member state — but rather than heed American and Israeli intelligence reports that Iran and Hezbollah were behind the attack, the Europeans chose instead to give Tehran the benefit of the doubt.

As a result, the Europeans allowed the Iranians to transmit Press TV’s programming with nary a whisper of protest. Anyone tuning in would have encountered, inter alia, a diet of Holocaust denial, 9/11 “inside job” theories, fawning profiles of obscurities like the American anti-Zionist propagandist Max Blumenthal, and a coterie of aspiring Lord Haw Haws — among them George Galloway, the British Islamist parliamentarian, Lauren Booth, the estranged sister-in-law of Tony Blair, and Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London – whose primary purpose was to fool British broadcasting regulators into thinking that Press TV’s editorial base was in London, not Tehran.

Still, Press TV’s masters can console themselves that while satellite transmission into Europe is no longer an option, there’s always the Internet. The station, for example, maintains an active presence on YouTube. Now, as we know, the White House is not averse to leaning on YouTube when it comes to the “review” of  “offensive” content; next time they make the call, therefore, they might want to flag Press TV.

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Romney Closes Likability Gap

Today’s Politico/GWU poll has Mitt Romney trailing President Obama by one point nationally, but leading by two points in the swing states. In even better news for the Romney campaign, Mitt’s nearly closed the likability gap with Obama:

Even as the head-to-head number held stubbornly steady for the past month, Romney improved his likability numbers. A slim majority, 51 percent, now views Romney favorably as a person, while 44 percent view him unfavorably.

The former Massachusetts governor had been underwater on this measure. In mid-September, 49 percent of respondents viewed him unfavorably. Going into the first presidential debate in Denver on Oct. 3, the electorate was evenly split 47 percent to 47 percent on what to make of Mitt. …

Obama’s enduring personal popularity has been a key reason for his political resiliency. But Obama and Romney are now essentially tied on likability: 53 percent of those surveyed have a positive impression of Obama personally, and 45 percent do not. The same number view both Romney and Obama strongly favorably as view them strongly unfavorably.

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Today’s Politico/GWU poll has Mitt Romney trailing President Obama by one point nationally, but leading by two points in the swing states. In even better news for the Romney campaign, Mitt’s nearly closed the likability gap with Obama:

Even as the head-to-head number held stubbornly steady for the past month, Romney improved his likability numbers. A slim majority, 51 percent, now views Romney favorably as a person, while 44 percent view him unfavorably.

The former Massachusetts governor had been underwater on this measure. In mid-September, 49 percent of respondents viewed him unfavorably. Going into the first presidential debate in Denver on Oct. 3, the electorate was evenly split 47 percent to 47 percent on what to make of Mitt. …

Obama’s enduring personal popularity has been a key reason for his political resiliency. But Obama and Romney are now essentially tied on likability: 53 percent of those surveyed have a positive impression of Obama personally, and 45 percent do not. The same number view both Romney and Obama strongly favorably as view them strongly unfavorably.

Likability was the one area where the Obama campaign had a reliable advantage throughout the election. The campaign invested much of its war chest in negative ads to drive up Romney’s personal unfavorables, and Romney may have negated all of that with just one (free) debate performance.

We’ll see this week if Romney can keep this momentum going, or if Obama can undo some of it in tomorrow’s debate. David Axelrod has promised that Obama will be much more “aggressive” tomorrow that he was at the last debate. But with Romney standing right there and able to defend himself, there are limits to what Obama can say. I can’t imagine he’s going to accuse Romney of being a felon or causing the death of a steelworker’s wife, like his campaign and supporting super PAC did over the summer. Attacking Romney’s proposed policies is one thing, but Obama may damage his own image if he stoops to more personal attacks.

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What’s in a Name? Pondering “Bibi”

Writing at the Atlantic, Michael Koplow observes that in the vice presidential debate last week, Joe Biden referenced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by nickname only—and presumed (correctly, one imagines) that most viewers knew exactly who he was talking about. Koplow also notes that “Bibi” was raised in a discussion about Iran, and that this tells us something about the prime minister’s familiarity with American voters and officials and the issue foremost in his mind during the course of that relationship. (Koplow doesn’t mention that the public’s proclivity, especially in Israel, to call the prime minister “Bibi” prevailed over Netanyahu’s initial objections, as recounted in Jonathan’s 1996 piece on the subject.)

Koplow writes that Biden may have referred to Netanyahu this way in part to demonstrate his foreign-policy chops against an opponent less experienced on the topic, but cautions that Bibi’s familiarity with the American public (and vice versa) carries with it some downside: Netanyahu, having warned of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East for so long, may have less credibility; the constant use of his nickname may make Netanyahu overly familiar here, and thus taken less seriously; and that it conflates Netanyahu’s position on Iran with that of his country when, if I may paraphrase Golda Meir, it is a country of eight million prime ministers. Yet it’s possible to discern which of these theories is window dressing and which tell us what we need to know about Netanyahu’s standing in America.

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Writing at the Atlantic, Michael Koplow observes that in the vice presidential debate last week, Joe Biden referenced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by nickname only—and presumed (correctly, one imagines) that most viewers knew exactly who he was talking about. Koplow also notes that “Bibi” was raised in a discussion about Iran, and that this tells us something about the prime minister’s familiarity with American voters and officials and the issue foremost in his mind during the course of that relationship. (Koplow doesn’t mention that the public’s proclivity, especially in Israel, to call the prime minister “Bibi” prevailed over Netanyahu’s initial objections, as recounted in Jonathan’s 1996 piece on the subject.)

Koplow writes that Biden may have referred to Netanyahu this way in part to demonstrate his foreign-policy chops against an opponent less experienced on the topic, but cautions that Bibi’s familiarity with the American public (and vice versa) carries with it some downside: Netanyahu, having warned of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East for so long, may have less credibility; the constant use of his nickname may make Netanyahu overly familiar here, and thus taken less seriously; and that it conflates Netanyahu’s position on Iran with that of his country when, if I may paraphrase Golda Meir, it is a country of eight million prime ministers. Yet it’s possible to discern which of these theories is window dressing and which tell us what we need to know about Netanyahu’s standing in America.

It’s doubtful that Biden was thinking all that through, and almost surely just wanted to display his experience. (Can you picture Paul Ryan introducing the topic by just saying “Bibi”?) Indeed, let’s remember that in Netanyahu’s address to a Joint Session of Congress last year, he began by turning halfway around to Biden, who was seated behind him, smiling, and saying: “Mr. Vice President, do you remember the time that we were the new kids in town?” The two then shook hands to applause, and Netanyahu continued: “And I do see a lot of old friends here.”

People think of Biden as having been in the Senate forever (he’s been there since 1973). Netanyahu was padding his own credibility by suggesting the two were “the new kids” in Washington together. Biden was doing the exact same thing in his debate with Ryan, as if to co-opt Netanyahu’s years and years of presumed seriousness on the subject.

And that, I think, answers the question about Netanyahu’s credibility—at least as the White House and Congress see it. The Obama administration talks about the Iranian threat in dire terms, and the American people, in poll after poll, seem to broadly agree. Biden, ever the populist and perhaps more in tune with public opinion than even his boss—to the extent that he would falsely deny voting for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because he thinks that is what the public wishes he would have done—had to reach for a trump card in his debate with Ryan. He needed to display his toughness and expertise on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. And the best way to do that, he assumed, was to basically say “I’m with Bibi.”

That suggests a duel victory by Netanyahu: he has achieved something even more than first-name basis with the American people; he’s on a nickname basis with them. And this has raised the profile of the Iranian nuclear program and the threat it poses by focusing like a laser on the issue. Biden probably also realizes something else: that for as long as Netanyahu has warned abut the need for sanctions and other measures against Iran, journalists have been warning of a coming war with Iran. That is, Netanyahu hasn’t been threatening war; rather, reporters have been wrongly assuming that war was imminent, and they are the ones who look foolish after all these years. (Though, like a stopped clock, they may eventually be right, they have been wrong too many times to count.)

Netanyahu was right: Iran is developing a nuclear program that the majority of the population both here and in Israel believes represents a terrible threat to world peace and security. The media’s credibility, on the other hand, should have just about run dry at this point. Netanyahu’s knowledge of American politics extends to the public’s broad distrust of the media. The onus for that is on the press itself, not Netanyahu. That skepticism would have prevailed, Bibi or no Bibi.

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Axelrod Won’t Discuss Obama’s Briefings After Benghazi

In an interview with Chris Wallace yesterday, David Axelrod dodged some pointed questions about President Obama’s intelligence briefings after the Benghazi attack:

 

Here’s a partial transcript, via Powerline:

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In an interview with Chris Wallace yesterday, David Axelrod dodged some pointed questions about President Obama’s intelligence briefings after the Benghazi attack:

 

Here’s a partial transcript, via Powerline:

Q. How soon after the attack did the President meet with the National Security Council, with people from state, with people from the…, the Director of National Intelligence, with all of the various people to try to sort out what happened in Benghazi?

A. Look. We are sorting out what happened there. Understand that the President the day after the attack called it an act of terror and charged everyone with responsibility for getting to the bottom of what happened.

Q. Yes, the president made a statement and then he went to a fundraiser in Nevada. Question: Before he went to the fundraiser in Nevada, did he meet with his National Security Council to try to sort out the shifting stories. Because State says they never said it was a spontaneous demonstration; Intel, you are quite right, did. Did he meet with the National Security Council before he went campaigning in Nevada?

A. Chris, I assure you that the president was in contact with all those who had information and responsibility in the national security chain about this incident.

Intelligence did say, in unclassified CIA talking points to Congress, that the Benghazi attack was a spontaneous reaction to the Cairo protests over the anti-Islam video. The problem is, that narrative was contradicted by the initial intelligence report, according to Reuters’s Mark Hosenball:

The stream of intelligence flowing into Washington within hours of the Benghazi attacks contained data from communications intercepts and U.S. informants, which were then fashioned into polished initial assessments for policymakers. …

The report did not allege the attacks were a reaction to the anti-Muslim film, but acknowledged it was possible that the attackers sought to use an outbreak of violence in Cairo over the film, which insulted the Prophet Mohammad, as a pretext for attacks. …

Yet on September 15, administration officials, relying upon what they said was other information from intelligence agencies, circulated to members of Congress a set of talking points prepared by the CIA that purported to summarize what U.S. intelligence knew.

The talking points said: “The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex.”

There is an important distinction to make between the CIA talking points — the information the administration chose to emphasize — and the actual intelligence, which reportedly included plenty of evidence in the first hours that the attack was carried out by a militant group with al-Qaeda ties. Even if the intelligence was as muddled as the White House claims, why didn’t President Obama stay in Washington to try to get a handle on the situation on September 12, instead of flying off for a fundraiser in Nevada? Axelrod won’t answer the question directly, which tells you this issue is going to be a political problem for them.

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Obama’s Disastrous Syria Policy

How big of a disaster is the Obama administration’s approach to Syria? So big that even reporter David Sanger, who can hardly be accused of being unfriendly to the administration (he has been the recipient of some of its most self-serving leaks), is essentially editorializing disapprovingly on the front page of the New York Times about where this is heading. He writes:

Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.

That conclusion, of which President Obama and other senior officials are aware from classified assessments of the Syrian conflict that has now claimed more than 25,000 lives, casts into doubt whether the White House’s strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States.

The second paragraph may be phrased as a question but there is little doubt what Sanger thinks. Pretty much the same thing that most informed observers think. As Jackson Diehl writes in the Washington Post (in an opinion piece that is labeled as such): “His catastrophic mishandling of the revolution in Syria” may well turn out to be “the signal foreign policy disaster for Barack Obama.”

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How big of a disaster is the Obama administration’s approach to Syria? So big that even reporter David Sanger, who can hardly be accused of being unfriendly to the administration (he has been the recipient of some of its most self-serving leaks), is essentially editorializing disapprovingly on the front page of the New York Times about where this is heading. He writes:

Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.

That conclusion, of which President Obama and other senior officials are aware from classified assessments of the Syrian conflict that has now claimed more than 25,000 lives, casts into doubt whether the White House’s strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States.

The second paragraph may be phrased as a question but there is little doubt what Sanger thinks. Pretty much the same thing that most informed observers think. As Jackson Diehl writes in the Washington Post (in an opinion piece that is labeled as such): “His catastrophic mishandling of the revolution in Syria” may well turn out to be “the signal foreign policy disaster for Barack Obama.”

Diehl traces the origins of that disaster back to Obama’s original intention to “engage” with Bashar Assad and boost him as a supposed “moderate,” which led to the tardiness of the president’s decision to call for his ouster after the start of the revolution and now to the hands-off attitude which is indirectly empowering Syrian jihadists who are receiving arms from the Gulf while more moderate opposition groups go begging. It is still not too late for the U.S. to take a more constructive approach, as I suggested as long ago as December 2011 in The Weekly Standard and as recently as September (in an article co-authored with Michael Doran) in the New York Times, but every day that the U.S. stands on the sidelines the disaster grows worse, both morally and strategically, and it spreads from Syria to bordering states such as Turkey.

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Skewed Presidential Polls Should Be Trashed, Not Published

With the public and the pundits hungry for more information about the election, the focus on polling seems to be greater than ever. Unfortunately for the pollsters, so has skepticism about their results. Part of that lies in the natural unwillingness of partisans to accept that their side is losing. Thus, Republicans take polls that show their side winning as truthful while scoffing at those that show Democrats ahead; Democrats play the same game. We’ve seen a lot of this during this election cycle. But as much as we should guard against the partisan knee-jerk when reacting to certain polls, that doesn’t mean that they must all be taken at face value. Case in point is the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll of the presidential race published today. It gives President Obama some much-needed good news by showing that he leads Mitt Romney 49-46 percent. That three-point margin is an improvement by one point over the last Post poll taken two weeks ago.

But the problem with the Post poll is revealed in the paper’s story about its findings:

Partisan identification fluctuates from poll to poll as basic orientations shift and with the sampling variability that accompanies each randomly selected sample of voters. In the current poll, Democrats outnumber Republicans by nine percentage points among likely voters; the previous three Post-ABC polls had three-, six- and five-percentage-point edges for Democrats. The presidential contest would now be neck and neck nationally with any of these margins.

In other words, the pollsters know this is a bad poll but went ahead and published it anyway.

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With the public and the pundits hungry for more information about the election, the focus on polling seems to be greater than ever. Unfortunately for the pollsters, so has skepticism about their results. Part of that lies in the natural unwillingness of partisans to accept that their side is losing. Thus, Republicans take polls that show their side winning as truthful while scoffing at those that show Democrats ahead; Democrats play the same game. We’ve seen a lot of this during this election cycle. But as much as we should guard against the partisan knee-jerk when reacting to certain polls, that doesn’t mean that they must all be taken at face value. Case in point is the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll of the presidential race published today. It gives President Obama some much-needed good news by showing that he leads Mitt Romney 49-46 percent. That three-point margin is an improvement by one point over the last Post poll taken two weeks ago.

But the problem with the Post poll is revealed in the paper’s story about its findings:

Partisan identification fluctuates from poll to poll as basic orientations shift and with the sampling variability that accompanies each randomly selected sample of voters. In the current poll, Democrats outnumber Republicans by nine percentage points among likely voters; the previous three Post-ABC polls had three-, six- and five-percentage-point edges for Democrats. The presidential contest would now be neck and neck nationally with any of these margins.

In other words, the pollsters know this is a bad poll but went ahead and published it anyway.

It’s true that partisan identification isn’t set in stone. But do the pollsters or the editors at the Post who were presented with this survey for publication really believe the electorate is that heavily skewed in favor of the Democrats? If that were true, that would mean America is leaning even more heavily toward President Obama’s party that it did in November 2008 when his “hope and change” fever was at its height. Getting such a result at a moment when every other poll indicates that Romney has made up the ground he lost in September to tie up the race, if not go ahead, should have alerted the pollsters that their sample was badly skewed. Adjust the figures to the level where other polls show party affiliation and the result would have been a lead for Romney, not Obama. It should have told the Post and ABC that this poll was not worth publishing.

We won’t know just how much those who vote in this election will lean toward one party or the other until after November. But the notion that an election as close as this one will produce a plus-nine result for the Democrats is ludicrous.

There will be those who will simply charge the pollsters — and their sponsors — with political bias and claim that they deliberately sought to cook the poll so as to give a win to President Obama at a time when other polls and the public’s mood has shifted against him and toward Romney. In reply, the pollsters will simply say that their sample was random and that they merely transcribed the choices of their respondents. I’ll take them at the word about that. Random is random, and perhaps that’s just the numbers they got. But not all random samples are kosher. The party identification numbers should have made it clear to them that this was a bad survey and that they needed to try again, if only as a control to see that they didn’t produce a glaringly inaccurate survey. That they didn’t do that is an indication of a lack of seriousness, if not bias. Just noting a margin of error (in this case of 3.5 percent) isn’t enough.

The skewed sample means that the Post/ABC poll is an outlier and will be dismissed as such by serious observers. But it raises serious questions about the willingness of major news organizations to publish material that they already know is tainted and almost certainly inaccurate. Stories like this make it clear why the public views journalists with such disdain.

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Washington Should Play the Funding Card on PA’s UN bid

UNESCO director Irina Bokova griped publicly last week about how much her organization is suffering from the U.S. funding cutoff sparked by its admission of “Palestine” last year. That provides Washington with real leverage to foil the Palestinian Authority’s planned bid for UN General Assembly recognition as a nonmember observer state later this fall. Incredibly, however, the administration doesn’t seem to be making use of it.

It ought to be clear that thwarting the PA’s bid is an American interest. First, as Washington itself acknowledged in a memo to European countries reported by The Guardian two weeks ago, it would have “significant negative consequences” for the peace process, to which America officially remains committed. Second, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has said explicitly that he wants recognition mainly so he can “pursue claims against Israel” in various legal forums, including the International Criminal Court – which in April declined to indict Israel for “war crimes” in Gaza solely on the technical grounds that the UNGA hadn’t yet recognized “Palestine” as a state. But an ICC case against Israel over Gaza, as I explain here, would significantly increase the risk that American officers could someday face ICC indictments as well.

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UNESCO director Irina Bokova griped publicly last week about how much her organization is suffering from the U.S. funding cutoff sparked by its admission of “Palestine” last year. That provides Washington with real leverage to foil the Palestinian Authority’s planned bid for UN General Assembly recognition as a nonmember observer state later this fall. Incredibly, however, the administration doesn’t seem to be making use of it.

It ought to be clear that thwarting the PA’s bid is an American interest. First, as Washington itself acknowledged in a memo to European countries reported by The Guardian two weeks ago, it would have “significant negative consequences” for the peace process, to which America officially remains committed. Second, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has said explicitly that he wants recognition mainly so he can “pursue claims against Israel” in various legal forums, including the International Criminal Court – which in April declined to indict Israel for “war crimes” in Gaza solely on the technical grounds that the UNGA hadn’t yet recognized “Palestine” as a state. But an ICC case against Israel over Gaza, as I explain here, would significantly increase the risk that American officers could someday face ICC indictments as well.

In its memo, Washington warned that the UNGA bid would threaten U.S. funding to the PA. That may have some impact on already cash-strapped European countries, some of whom, as The Guardian reported, are worried “that the EU would have to fill the funding gap.” But since various European countries have happily stepped into the breach during past PA funding crises, it’s hard to see this as a winning argument even for the EU. And it certainly won’t trouble that vast majority of UNGA members who don’t give the Palestinians a dime.

In contrast, just about every country likely to vote in favor of recognizing “Palestine” has an interest in preserving the UNGA. For most, this is because the General Assembly is a much more effective vehicle for pursuing their own interests than the Security Council, where the U.S. and other permanent members have veto power. But even Europe, which wields significant clout in the Security Council, cares about the UNGA’s continued ability to function, due to its intense emotional commitment to the sanctity of international organizations. Hence a threat that accepting “Palestine” would result in the General Assembly losing its U.S. funding – which amounts to 22 percent of the agency’s budget – could be much more effective.

Yet so far, Washington has declined to make this threat explicitly. One ambiguous sentence in its memo – that recognizing Palestine “would have significant negative consequences … for the UN system,” could be interpreted as an implicit threat to suspend funding, but it could equally well be interpreted as warning of some more intangible harm, such as damage to the UN’s image, or to its ability to facilitate the peace process.

This issue ought to be a no-brainer: Washington has a clear interest in preventing the UNGA from recognizing “Palestine,” and it also has the tools to do so. The only question is whether it also has the will.

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Iraqis Ask: Why Didn’t USAID Do That?

The Bush administration’s decision to oust Saddam Hussein involved not one choice, but rather four:

  • First, the decision to use military force against Iraq
  • Second, the decision to occupy Iraq rather than to oust Saddam and leave as many Iraqis had advised.
  • Third, the decision to aim for democracy rather than install a general as a new dictator;
  • And, fourth, the decision to reconstruct and develop Iraq.

The first and third choices George W. Bush made were wise; the second and fourth were not. The occupation of Iraq—pushed at the policy level by those who believed the U.S. would have more influence to shape governance with boots on the ground rather than by working to form a coherent coalition prior to the invasion—was disastrous. Once the Americans established themselves in Baghdad, mission creep cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Few USAID and Coalition Provisional Authority projects had any discernible impact; to this day, Iraqis identify conversion to a new currency as the only truly successful American project beyond ousting Saddam.

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The Bush administration’s decision to oust Saddam Hussein involved not one choice, but rather four:

  • First, the decision to use military force against Iraq
  • Second, the decision to occupy Iraq rather than to oust Saddam and leave as many Iraqis had advised.
  • Third, the decision to aim for democracy rather than install a general as a new dictator;
  • And, fourth, the decision to reconstruct and develop Iraq.

The first and third choices George W. Bush made were wise; the second and fourth were not. The occupation of Iraq—pushed at the policy level by those who believed the U.S. would have more influence to shape governance with boots on the ground rather than by working to form a coherent coalition prior to the invasion—was disastrous. Once the Americans established themselves in Baghdad, mission creep cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Few USAID and Coalition Provisional Authority projects had any discernible impact; to this day, Iraqis identify conversion to a new currency as the only truly successful American project beyond ousting Saddam.

Despite small-scale investment and development in Baghdad—new shops, car dealerships, restaurants, etc.—the lack of construction cranes in the city is marked. I challenged the prime minister’s office to demonstrate that the government itself was improving the lives of ordinary citizens in Iraq’s capital city. After all, both under Saddam Hussein and today, the government has applied most of Iraq’s oil wealth toward the salaries of an inflated civil service. By providing jobs, even unnecessary ones, the government provides security and stability to its people. Such patronage is not a wise long-term political strategy. So long as the price of oil is high, the strategy will work. But when oil declines—as it inevitably will—there will be trouble.

On Sunday, the Iraqi government agreed to show me some of their latest projects. The first was nearly complete—a huge water intake and treatment station on the Tigris River that should supply most of Baghdad with chlorinated drinking water. The project involves state-of-the-art purification and laboratory facilities, the largest covered reservoirs in Iraq, and a compound for workers and their families—including not only apartments, but also schools, shops, laundries, and entertainment centers—so that the workers can be on call 24/7 if problems develop.

True, Americans tried to develop small-scale water plants, but not on this scale. Frankly, even this should not have been an American responsibility; water plants are an Iraqi job, but one for which American businesses should have competed. The largest American component is the Caterpillar backup generators. It is a shame that those who boycott Caterpillar would so willingly sacrifice the health of Iraqi children on the altar of the activists’ animosity toward Israel.

Other projects are underway in Baghdad. The government is five months into an amusement center and park complex alongside man-made lakes near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They may not be the multibillion projects attempted by USAID, but they do better fulfill an Iraqi demand.

I also drove along the Qanat al-Jaysh (Army Canal), an 18-mile irrigation canal that runs across Baghdad connecting the Tigris to the Diyala Rivers. Progress to clean and transform the canal from a dusty, trash- and sludge-strewn strip into a park and refuge and leisure center is well underway. Crews were landscaping, planting trees, laying stone walkways and a corniche. Pedestrian bridges spanning busy roadways already connect the strip to adjacent neighborhoods. When the park is complete, the strip of green through Baghdad will be something which young and old, rich and poor Iraqis can enjoy, regardless of religion or ethnicity. It will be dotted with restaurants, ice cream stands, and tea houses and will become Baghdad’s equivalent of the Beirut or Doha corniches, Tel Aviv beach, or the stream-side parks of northern Tehran.

This is the type of project the United States should have executed for the Iraqis: It would be eminently doable, difficult for insurgents to destroy, and would have won hearts and minds immediately. Perhaps had USAID embraced metrics other than that of money spent, Iraqis might not look at their experience with the United States as the lost years. For the first time since the brief honeymoon period following Saddam’s ouster, Iraqis once again have hope. The question for President Obama and Governor Romney is whether they have any true plans to cement the partnership, not with tanks and troops, but with investment and commerce leading the way.

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