Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 28, 2012

Israel Right to Downplay UN Vote

After more than a year of campaigning for it, the Palestinian Authority will have its moment tomorrow when the General Assembly of the United Nations will vote to upgrade the PA’s status to nonvoting observer. Israel’s foes will rejoice and many of its friends will worry. Some of that will be justified, as the decision will be a symbolic triumph that the Palestinians will attempt to portray as tantamount to UN recognition of their independence in the areas Israel won in the Six-Day War. But after working hard to prevent this from happening, the Israeli government has decided to downplay the outcome. Some will interpret this as nothing more than a feeble attempt to spin a diplomatic defeat; the reaction is more than just politically astute. It is an accurate reflection of the real-world impact of the vote since it won’t change a thing on the ground in the Middle East or even at the UN itself.

The Palestinian Authority knows all too well that the victory they will win tomorrow is of minimal use to them. They can use it to create mischief for Israel in the International Criminal Court as well as bolster their already secure niche in the hearts of most UN member states and the world body’s bureaucracy. But it won’t get them one inch closer to actual independence or — more importantly — give them any credibility with Palestinians who will be quick to note that it will change nothing in the West Bank or in Gaza where the PA’s Hamas rivals rule over an independent state in all but name. Rather than seeking to punish the PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas for effectively trashing the Oslo Accords, Israel can afford to ignore the vote since it will not move him any closer to a state or genuine international legitimacy. The only reason European nations and even some of the PA’s third-world allies are backing the move is because they know it has no significance. After all, how can any government claim to be independent when a rival group already exercises sovereignty over part of the territory it claims?

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After more than a year of campaigning for it, the Palestinian Authority will have its moment tomorrow when the General Assembly of the United Nations will vote to upgrade the PA’s status to nonvoting observer. Israel’s foes will rejoice and many of its friends will worry. Some of that will be justified, as the decision will be a symbolic triumph that the Palestinians will attempt to portray as tantamount to UN recognition of their independence in the areas Israel won in the Six-Day War. But after working hard to prevent this from happening, the Israeli government has decided to downplay the outcome. Some will interpret this as nothing more than a feeble attempt to spin a diplomatic defeat; the reaction is more than just politically astute. It is an accurate reflection of the real-world impact of the vote since it won’t change a thing on the ground in the Middle East or even at the UN itself.

The Palestinian Authority knows all too well that the victory they will win tomorrow is of minimal use to them. They can use it to create mischief for Israel in the International Criminal Court as well as bolster their already secure niche in the hearts of most UN member states and the world body’s bureaucracy. But it won’t get them one inch closer to actual independence or — more importantly — give them any credibility with Palestinians who will be quick to note that it will change nothing in the West Bank or in Gaza where the PA’s Hamas rivals rule over an independent state in all but name. Rather than seeking to punish the PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas for effectively trashing the Oslo Accords, Israel can afford to ignore the vote since it will not move him any closer to a state or genuine international legitimacy. The only reason European nations and even some of the PA’s third-world allies are backing the move is because they know it has no significance. After all, how can any government claim to be independent when a rival group already exercises sovereignty over part of the territory it claims?

In the summer of 2011 when the Palestinians first announced their intention of trying an end around the U.S.-sponsored peace process via the UN, many foreign policy observers as well as many Israeli critics of the Netanyahu government were quick to portray this effort as a “diplomatic tsunami” that would completely isolate the Jewish state. But these visions of doom were quickly exposed as nothing more than hot air when the initiative flopped last year. The Palestinians failed to gain enough votes in the Security Council to force the U.S. to veto actual independence and they soon realized there was little appetite even in the General Assembly where they could count on an automatic anti-Israel majority to delve into the issue.

They’ve done better this year but not because anybody really thinks Fatah’s corrupt, discredited and unpopular West Bank regime is deserving of this upgrade. Rather, it is merely a way for the international community to pay lip service to the plight of the Palestinians. They’ve gained the votes of some European nations like France, not because Paris believes that Abbas’s pretensions should be gratified but because they think they need to make some gesture toward the PA after the recently concluded fighting between Israel and Hamas along the border with Gaza. By demonstrating that it had the support of Egypt and Turkey as well as most Palestinians for their terrorist rocket offensive against Israel, Hamas confirmed its status as the true face of Palestinian nationalism. The UN vote won’t do a thing to undermine the Islamist group, but it will allow many in the West and elsewhere to pretend as if they are doing something to bolster the alleged moderates of Fatah.

Both Israelis and Palestinians know that if PA leader Mahmoud Abbas actually wanted a state in the West Bank, he could have one if he was willing to pay the price of recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. Even if we were to assume that he wanted to do it, Abbas can’t since that would render him even more vulnerable to Hamas inroads in the West Bank.

The UN gambit is an insult to the U.S. and the European nations that fund the PA through foreign aid that does little to help ordinary Palestinians, since it is an attempt to evade negotiations rather than to facilitate them. But they are tolerating it since it allows Abbas a shred of dignity in his increasingly unequal competition with the terrorist government of Gaza. Were Jerusalem to punish the PA or, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has threatened to do in the past, to topple it, it would only make things more complicated for Israel and strengthen Hamas.

But after the hoopla tomorrow at Turtle Bay, there will be little in the way of negative fallout for the Israelis. Life will continue as usual in the West Bank and Gaza and the region will be no closer or farther away from peace. While certainly unwelcome, it is neither a tsunami nor even much of a nuisance. The best proof that Israel is right to ignore it will come in the days, weeks and months to come when both the Palestinians and their foreign cheerleaders realize that the UN vote was a non-event that did nothing much to advance their campaign against Israel.

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Thoughts on the Anti-Tax Pledge

With negotiations over how to avoid going over the “fiscal cliff” intensifying, there’s a lot of attention on Grover Norquist and his “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” in which lawmakers who sign it pledge to taxpayers that they will (a) oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and (b) oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

On the pledge, I have several thoughts.

1. Mr. Norquist has basically been a force for good, since he raises the price of tax increases and allows Republicans to get more in return for them. That said, I have never liked the idea of politicians signing pledges beyond their oath to support and defend the Constitution. It locks a person into a position that may seem reasonable at the time but eventually becomes unwise. I support lower tax rates, but they are not a talisman. And whether or not one should agree to higher taxes depends on what one is able to get in return.

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With negotiations over how to avoid going over the “fiscal cliff” intensifying, there’s a lot of attention on Grover Norquist and his “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” in which lawmakers who sign it pledge to taxpayers that they will (a) oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and (b) oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

On the pledge, I have several thoughts.

1. Mr. Norquist has basically been a force for good, since he raises the price of tax increases and allows Republicans to get more in return for them. That said, I have never liked the idea of politicians signing pledges beyond their oath to support and defend the Constitution. It locks a person into a position that may seem reasonable at the time but eventually becomes unwise. I support lower tax rates, but they are not a talisman. And whether or not one should agree to higher taxes depends on what one is able to get in return.

What taxes are we talking about? How much are the increases? For how long? And in exchange for what? Genuine spending cuts and/or structural reforms in entitlement programs? Those things may not be achievable; but to say in advance that taxes should never, under any scenario, be increased is to elevate a prudential judgment to a sacred principle. And that is the kind of dogmatism that is antithetical to genuine conservatism.

2. I’m sympathetic to the qualities we should look for in a representative and which Edmund Burke referred to in his speech to the electors of Bristol: “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience.” In addition, in a letter to Samuel Span in 1778, Burke—in taking up the issue of a union between Britain and Ireland—made this observation: “It is a settled rule with me, to make the most of my actual situation; and not to refuse to do a proper thing, because there is something else more proper, which I am not able to do.” What Burke is arguing for, I think, is a certain independence of judgment and prudence in politicians. 

It seems to me that pledges run somewhat counter to both. Politicians should offer their vision and agenda and ask for the public’s trust to carry those things out in a reasonable, if imperfect, way. If they fail, voters have a recourse, which is called an election.

3. What about Members of the House and Senate who signed a pledge not to raise taxes but have now changed their mind? That isn’t an easy judgment to make, since violating a pledge is a serious matter. But if one believes doing so really advances the common good, then he needs to be straightforward with the public and admit to having been mistaken in signing the pledge in the first place, rather than engage in contortions in an effort to justify his decision. And then it is up to the public to decide what the consequences ought to be.

My own view is that one should take public officials in the totality of their acts and that reneging on an unwise commitment isn’t by itself disqualifying. For example, if Ronald Reagan had signed the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” (he didn’t) and raised taxes during his presidency (he did), I don’t believe it would have warranted a primary challenge. And whatever one thinks of Reagan’s decisions to raise taxes—and he regretted some more than others—he remains a monumental conservative figure.

I happen to believe that in our present circumstances, tangible steps toward structurally reforming entitlements are a higher priority than not increasing revenues. I wouldn’t be inclined to do the latter without getting firm guarantees on the former; and even then, it would be less than ideal. But we ought to make the most of our actual situation and not refuse to do a proper thing, because there is something else more proper, which we are not able to do. 

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Danger Sign on the Student Loan Bubble

Who could have possibly predicted that extending a practically unlimited line of credit to 18-year-old college students could have turned out so poorly? Yesterday, student debt levels reached a new milestone: “The proportion of U.S. student loan balances that are in delinquency — that is, unpaid for 90 days or more — surpassed that of credit-card balances in the third quarter for the first time, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.” 

The student loan bubble, largely financed by federal tax dollars, is an entirely predictable and avoidable financial catastrophe. Students, in spite of their estimated future earning potential, are given the ability to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to attend any institution of higher education in the country, regardless of that institution’s ability to produce degrees of equal or higher value. According to CBS Moneywatch, “for all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000.” That’s an incredible statistic when you consider that two-thirds of students currently pursuing a bachelors degree are borrowing in order to do so — over 6 percent of students attending college right now will walk away with more than $54,000 in loans. The average amount of debt for a bachelors degree is $23,300; for students that went on to obtain medical, law or other specialized degrees, that average skyrockets.

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Who could have possibly predicted that extending a practically unlimited line of credit to 18-year-old college students could have turned out so poorly? Yesterday, student debt levels reached a new milestone: “The proportion of U.S. student loan balances that are in delinquency — that is, unpaid for 90 days or more — surpassed that of credit-card balances in the third quarter for the first time, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.” 

The student loan bubble, largely financed by federal tax dollars, is an entirely predictable and avoidable financial catastrophe. Students, in spite of their estimated future earning potential, are given the ability to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to attend any institution of higher education in the country, regardless of that institution’s ability to produce degrees of equal or higher value. According to CBS Moneywatch, “for all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000.” That’s an incredible statistic when you consider that two-thirds of students currently pursuing a bachelors degree are borrowing in order to do so — over 6 percent of students attending college right now will walk away with more than $54,000 in loans. The average amount of debt for a bachelors degree is $23,300; for students that went on to obtain medical, law or other specialized degrees, that average skyrockets.

The average graduating law school student at the California Western School of Law owes more than $153,000 and over 89 percent of students graduate with debt of some kind. Students graduating from Columbia University and Georgetown University graduate with an average of more than $132,000 in debt. The average amount of debt of all graduating medical students is more than $160,000 and students graduating from seven schools in the U.S. walk away with at least $200,000 in debt on average. 

There is no easy fix to the student debt crisis. American students already owe over $950 billion and the president’s solution only limits how much students are required to pay back according to their income levels without limiting how much they are able to borrow or how much schools are reimbursed. The president’s plan would make it possible, starting in 2014, for payments to be capped at 10 percent of a borrower’s “disposable” income for 20 years, at which point the debt will be forgiven (10 years for public-service employees). Under this plan, schools can continue raising tuition far beyond inflation rates with no consequences to their bottom lines and students can continue to borrow knowing they have the option of a governmental safety net down the line. This leaves taxpayers on the hook for the remainder, an amount that is increasing at a remarkable rate (student borrowing increased 20 percent from the third quarter of this fiscal year to the fourth).

These reforms will do nothing but grow the student loan bubble to an even more unmanageable size and force students to pay up to 10 percent of their income for up to 20 years of their lives, hampering their ability to obtain financial independence from their parents, buy homes and have children. Instead of changing how students pay back their loans, why not change the way they take them out? Given that there are estimated income projections for college majors, why not limit the amount of federal loans given to students based on their projected ability to pay them back in ten years’ time? If colleges and universities produce students unable to find employment sufficient enough to stop their graduates from going into default, why not give the government the ability to obtain a refund for the cost of degrees of those who go into default?

For the sake of the American economy and a generation of students graduating college in the last 10 years, the student loan bubble cannot be ignored for much longer. If Obama were serious about solving the problem and earning the votes of the 67 percent of young people who voted for him, these reforms would only be step one. Yesterday’s news of soaring and record-setting delinquency rates is just one sign of many that the student loan bubble isn’t going anywhere. 

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Confident Obama Counting on GOP Panic

There’s no doubt that a president who has just been re-elected has a lot more leverage in a negotiation than the House Republican leadership. But if President Obama is feeling confident that he can have his way in any deal that prevents the country from heading over the fiscal cliff, it’s not just because of his victory over Mitt Romney earlier this month. The spectacle of House Republicans starting to snipe at each other and tax activist Grover Norquist is evidence that the campaign to pressure Congress into backing tax increases being orchestrated by the White House appears to be working.

While the pushback against Norquist’s heavy-handed attempts to bludgeon Republicans into obedience is understandable, both the anti-tax purists and those more amenable to compromise are playing right into Obama’s hands. Rather than the debate centering on whether tax increases will hurt the economy and the need for Democrats to put entitlement spending on the table in any deal to prevent the country from heading over the fiscal cliff, right now the debate seems to center on a growing civil war within GOP ranks. Rather than sticking with House Speaker Boehner and strengthening his hand in negotiations, many Republicans are allowing themselves to be panicked into a stand that would effectively allow the president’s plans for tax increases to go forward without any commitments about reforming the tax code or entitlement spending. If the trend continues and a critical mass of Boehner’s caucus breaks, the result will not just be a tactical defeat on a point where Obama may have the country’s support, but a rout that will enable the president to avoid any commitment to significant spending cuts.

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There’s no doubt that a president who has just been re-elected has a lot more leverage in a negotiation than the House Republican leadership. But if President Obama is feeling confident that he can have his way in any deal that prevents the country from heading over the fiscal cliff, it’s not just because of his victory over Mitt Romney earlier this month. The spectacle of House Republicans starting to snipe at each other and tax activist Grover Norquist is evidence that the campaign to pressure Congress into backing tax increases being orchestrated by the White House appears to be working.

While the pushback against Norquist’s heavy-handed attempts to bludgeon Republicans into obedience is understandable, both the anti-tax purists and those more amenable to compromise are playing right into Obama’s hands. Rather than the debate centering on whether tax increases will hurt the economy and the need for Democrats to put entitlement spending on the table in any deal to prevent the country from heading over the fiscal cliff, right now the debate seems to center on a growing civil war within GOP ranks. Rather than sticking with House Speaker Boehner and strengthening his hand in negotiations, many Republicans are allowing themselves to be panicked into a stand that would effectively allow the president’s plans for tax increases to go forward without any commitments about reforming the tax code or entitlement spending. If the trend continues and a critical mass of Boehner’s caucus breaks, the result will not just be a tactical defeat on a point where Obama may have the country’s support, but a rout that will enable the president to avoid any commitment to significant spending cuts.

The president was happy to mention the fact that Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole publicly called yesterday for a quick deal with the White House that would allow some taxes to go up while getting nothing about tax reform or entitlements. Cole isn’t alone; many other Republicans are reading poll numbers that show most Americans support measures that would soak the rich, and think that they are better off ditching their principles than standing firm and getting blamed for the failure to get an agreement.

The danger of Republicans getting the lion’s share of the blame for the country heading over the fiscal cliff is real. It may be that such a view is based on a skewed view of the standoff in which the president’s intransigence and ideological fervor for tax hikes is ignored while Tea Partiers are spoken of as extremists. The president seems eager for just such a debacle since he believes it would hurt his opponents and give him even more support in the next round of budget talks.

But what is starting to look like a rush to the lifeboats by many in the GOP caucus is not only counter-productive; it isn’t necessary.

The rush to a quick agreement would get the GOP off the hook for the crisis. But if they fold quickly rather than allowing Boehner to get them the best deal possible, they will regret it. A bargain may eventually have to be accepted that would allow increased federal revenues. But it is sheer cowardice on the part of Republicans to concede defeat before Democrats have even had to put a rudimentary offer on a more rational tax code or entitlement cuts on the table.

Democrats are right to note that elections have consequences, but that doesn’t mean Republicans need to simply give up. The GOP majority won re-election by pledging to stop the growth of the government and tax increases. That doesn’t mean that they must go to their graves vowing fealty to Norquist’s pledges if a reasonable alternative can be reached that would achieve their long-range goal of changing the system. But to quit the fight now just because some are feeling the pressure being exerted by the mainstream media and the Democrats would doom any hopes for reform over the next two years.

There is no guarantee that if they do stand their ground Obama will listen to reason and compromise on his demands. But if the panic spreads, then House Republicans might as well not even show up in January since the Democrats will have already beaten back their attempt to address the problems they were sent to Washington to fix.

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NYT Reins in Jerusalem Bureau Chief’s Social Media Use

The New York Times has assigned an editor to oversee the social media use of its Twitter-happy Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren, according to its public editor, Margaret Sullivan. This isn’t out of nowhere, considering Rudoren’s history of Twitter-related controversies. What’s interesting is the tone of Sullivan’s explanation:

Start with a reporter who likes to be responsive to readers, is spontaneous and impressionistic in her personal writing style, and not especially attuned to how casual comments may be received in a highly politicized setting.

Put that reporter in one of the most scrutinized and sensitive jobs in journalism – the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times.

Now add Facebook and Twitter, which allow reporters unfiltered, unedited publishing channels. Words go from nascent, half-formed thoughts to permanent pronouncements to the world at the touch of a key.

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The New York Times has assigned an editor to oversee the social media use of its Twitter-happy Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren, according to its public editor, Margaret Sullivan. This isn’t out of nowhere, considering Rudoren’s history of Twitter-related controversies. What’s interesting is the tone of Sullivan’s explanation:

Start with a reporter who likes to be responsive to readers, is spontaneous and impressionistic in her personal writing style, and not especially attuned to how casual comments may be received in a highly politicized setting.

Put that reporter in one of the most scrutinized and sensitive jobs in journalism – the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times.

Now add Facebook and Twitter, which allow reporters unfiltered, unedited publishing channels. Words go from nascent, half-formed thoughts to permanent pronouncements to the world at the touch of a key.

There had to be a way to phrase that without making Rudoren sound completely inept, right? As New York magazine notes in its headline, this column makes it sound like they’re getting her a babysitter rather than an editor.

Sullivan gets to the larger question:

There is, of course, a larger question here. Do Ms. Rudoren’s personal musings, as they have seeped out in unfiltered social media posts (and, notably, have been criticized from both the right and the left), make her an unwise choice for this crucially important job?

On this, we should primarily judge her reporting work as it has appeared in the paper and online. During the recent Gaza conflict, she broke news, wrote with sophistication and nuance about what was happening, and endured difficult conditions.

This decision by the Times was likely driven by the latest outcry over a Facebook post by Rudoren that described Israelis as “almost more traumatized” by deaths than the Palestinians. Anti-Israel types — which probably includes a substantial portion of Times readers — claimed Rudoren was downplaying the feelings of Palestinians. The Times could have just assigned Rudoren an editor and left it at that. But this column sounds like the paper felt it needed to give an additional mea culpa. It also raises some interesting questions. What observations does the Times feel are out-of-bounds for its journalists to make? And if social media — which is primarily used for quick observations — has to be edited, is there any point for journalists like Rudoren to use it at all?

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Hamas’s All-of-the-Above Approach to Regional Alliances

The New York Times has a hopeful but ultimately unconvincing analysis today proclaiming the rise of a more constructive Sunni “axis” in the Middle East. The theory is that Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt are challenging the hegemonic Iran and the civil war-torn Syria, and that this trio’s closer relationship to the Hamas terrorist gang running the Gaza Strip will prize diplomacy and stability over war while weakening Iran.

Of course this is what Western diplomats have hoped–and continue to hope–will one day become a reality. But at this point, not only is it premature to announce this new Middle East, but the thesis has actually taken quite a beating in the last two weeks. Here’s the Times describing the opportunity for a regional shift:

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The New York Times has a hopeful but ultimately unconvincing analysis today proclaiming the rise of a more constructive Sunni “axis” in the Middle East. The theory is that Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt are challenging the hegemonic Iran and the civil war-torn Syria, and that this trio’s closer relationship to the Hamas terrorist gang running the Gaza Strip will prize diplomacy and stability over war while weakening Iran.

Of course this is what Western diplomats have hoped–and continue to hope–will one day become a reality. But at this point, not only is it premature to announce this new Middle East, but the thesis has actually taken quite a beating in the last two weeks. Here’s the Times describing the opportunity for a regional shift:

But uprising, wars and economics have altered the landscape of the region, paving the way for a new axis to emerge, one led by a Sunni Muslim alliance of Egypt, Qatar and Turkey. That triumvirate played a leading role in helping end the eight-day conflict between Israel and Gaza, in large part by embracing Hamas and luring it further away from the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah fold, offering diplomatic clout and promises of hefty aid.

Let’s start with the obvious objection to this theory, which the Times itself offers in the next paragraph, noting that “while these Sunni leaders are willing to work with Washington, unlike the mullahs in Tehran, they also promote a radical religious-based ideology that has fueled anti-Western sentiment around the region.” They certainly do promote this ideology, and this ideology stands at odds with freedom, peace, and human rights–three things needed in the neighborhood much more than guns, missiles and no-strings-attached cash. This ideology prioritizes “resistance”–code for terrorism against Israel–and as such actually spreads support for resorting to violence rather than act as a break on the inclination.

The second problem with this theory is that Hamas never actually “broke with” Iran, which the article claims. Hamas, in fact, gets weapons from Iran. Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s political chief, went on CNN at the tail end of Operation Pillar of Defense to announce his continuing relationship with Iran. Last night, Palestinians in Gaza put up billboards in four languages thanking Iran for helping them attempt to wage permanent war against Israel.

Is it possible to accept long-range missiles from Iran and $400 million checks from Qatar? Indeed it is, and that certainly appears to be what Hamas is doing.

And of course there is reason to believe that the support for Hamas coming from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leadership and Turkey’s increasingly Islamist (and, at times, approaching fanatical) government may have the opposite of the intended effect. (Or, rather, the opposite of the effect the Times wishes were intended; Turkey and Egypt probably know exactly what they are doing.)

As Jonathan has written, Egypt’s support for Hamas has emboldened the terrorist group. This is only logical, as Hamas now has a major Arab state that shares a border both with Israel and the Strip that is its ideological ally. I shed no tears for the demise of the Mubarak regime, whose fault much of this is, but from Hamas’s perspective the country went from actively suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood to being dominated by it. The belief that this will cause Hamas to moderate seems like wishful thinking–there certainly is no evidence of it.

Turkey, meanwhile, as the Times has recently reported, has marginalized itself with its support of Hamas. Far from being a regional power broker, its extremist drift has been a major factor in its geopolitical divorce with Israel, robbing the country of its previous claim to fame as the only trusted mediator in the Middle East between Israel and the Arab states.

The Times is certainly correct, however, that the fall of the House of Assad would strike a serious blow to Iran’s influence in the region. Unfortunately, reports of Assad’s fall have been greatly exaggerated. Nonetheless, even a weakened Assad–which is surely what he is now–is good for the region in the long run, though is mostly a source of death, destruction, and instability in the near-term. And it’s hard to argue that Qatar isn’t preferable to Syria as a regional actor. But again, many of these developments have yet to actually happen.

The new Middle East is, for now, strikingly similar to the old Middle East.

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Rumsfeld and Ground Force Cuts

On November 19, I published an item taking issue with current calls to cut the ground forces. We should not repeat the mistake that Donald Rumsfeld almost made before 9/11, I argued, when he was planning to cut two divisions from the army. Now Rumsfeld has taken strong exception to my article, writing, “That is flat wrong. There was not any plan to cut the size of the U.S. Army that I was ever aware of. No such plan was ever presented to me. Further, I would not have supported it if such a plan had been brought to me.”

I was startled by Rumsfeld’s denial of what was commonly reported both at the time and since. See, for example, this Wall Street Journal article from Aug. 8, 2001, by ace military correspondent Greg Jaffe. He reported:

Aides to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are calling for deep personnel cuts to the Army, Navy, and Air Force in order to pay for new high-tech weaponry and missile defenses that are cornerstones of President Bush’s plan to “transform the military.”

The proposal to reduce manpower—part of a congressionally mandated defense review due next month—calls for the Army to trim as many as 2.8 of its 10 divisions, or about 56,000 troops. …. Mr. Rumsfeld and top generals of each military service were briefed on the recommendations for the first time yesterday.

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On November 19, I published an item taking issue with current calls to cut the ground forces. We should not repeat the mistake that Donald Rumsfeld almost made before 9/11, I argued, when he was planning to cut two divisions from the army. Now Rumsfeld has taken strong exception to my article, writing, “That is flat wrong. There was not any plan to cut the size of the U.S. Army that I was ever aware of. No such plan was ever presented to me. Further, I would not have supported it if such a plan had been brought to me.”

I was startled by Rumsfeld’s denial of what was commonly reported both at the time and since. See, for example, this Wall Street Journal article from Aug. 8, 2001, by ace military correspondent Greg Jaffe. He reported:

Aides to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are calling for deep personnel cuts to the Army, Navy, and Air Force in order to pay for new high-tech weaponry and missile defenses that are cornerstones of President Bush’s plan to “transform the military.”

The proposal to reduce manpower—part of a congressionally mandated defense review due next month—calls for the Army to trim as many as 2.8 of its 10 divisions, or about 56,000 troops. …. Mr. Rumsfeld and top generals of each military service were briefed on the recommendations for the first time yesterday.

A report on the same meeting can be found in Cobra II, the meticulously researched history of the early days of the Iraq War by New York Times military correspondent Michael Gordon and retired Marine General Bernard Trainor. They write, “Shortly before September 11, Rumsfeld had presided over a meeting at which [close aide Stephen] Cambone laid out several options, including one to reduce the Army by as much as two divisions.”

Could it be that Jaffe and Gordon—two of the most respected defense correspondents in the business—were wrong and Rumsfeld was right? For further clarification I called up Jack Keane, a retired four-star army general who was at the time the Army vice chief of staff (and subsequently an architect of the surge in Iraq which Rumsfeld opposed). He told me:

It is a fact that during the 2001 QDR [Quadrennial Defense Review] the staff recommendation that was on the table, because I was at the briefing, was to reduce two army divisions from the active force and four national guard divisions. I took umbrage with that at the meeting, and I told Secretary Rumsfeld who was sitting at the end of the table. I asked his permission to take a briefing to his deputy, Secretary Wolfowitz and the Vice Chairman, Gen. Myers, the next day, outlining the Army’s position (presented by then BG Ray Odierno, now, Chief of Staff).  As such, Secretary Wolfowitz agreed with the Army’s position and Secretary Rumsfeld overruled his staff’s recommendation.

As Keane notes, his vociferous opposition and that of other Army leaders convinced Rumsfeld to drop the idea of major cuts in the army end-strength. Perhaps I was overstating the case a bit when I wrote that Rumsfeld was actually “planning” to cut army end-strength. It might have been more accurate to say he was “seriously considering” cuts. But Rumsfeld is rewriting history when he now asserts that no plan to cut the army was ever presented to him.

He is also misleading readers when he claims that he has always been a champion of bigger ground forces, writing that he was in favor of “increasing the size of our ground forces as necessary. Indeed, in 2004 and 2006, we increased the end strength of both forces by tens of thousands of troops.” He did approve small, temporary increases in army end-strength, which brought the active duty force from 477,862 when he took office to 502,466 when he left office.

But he did so grudgingly and only when it was obvious that the army was horribly overstretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even so, he never came close to undoing the post-Cold War downsizing that cost the army a third of its end-strength. (The active-duty Army was 710,821 strong in 1991.)

And he constantly stressed the need to keep the army as small as possible. For instance on Aug. 6, 2001, the Chicago Tribune reported, “Despite growing strains on the U.S. military, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted Tuesday that the Pentagon needs to exhaust every alternative before asking Congress to increase the size of the active-duty force.”

Rumsfeld may well be right that he never said “technology is a substitute for troops”—but then I never claimed that that was a direct quotation. It is, however, an accurate summary of the views he held while in office. See, for example, his essay in the May/June 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs, “Transforming the Military.” In it he touts his “transformation” agenda and justifies dropping the “two-war” standard that had long governed American defense planning—meaning he decided it was no longer necessary to have armed forces large enough to simultaneously fight and decisively defeat two major adversaries. He wrote:

We decided to move away from the “two major-theater war” construct, an approach that called for maintaining two massive occupation forces, capable of marching on and occupying the capitals of two aggressors at the same time and changing their regimes… [B]y removing the requirement to maintain a second occupation force, we can free up new resources for the future and for other, lesser contingencies that may now confront us.

When Rumsfeld speaks of “occupation forces” he is of course referring to ground-combat forces. This Foreign Affairs essay is just one example of many that shows how skeptical Rumsfeld was of the utility of a large, active-duty army. As books such as Cobra II document, he acted on this prejudice by pressuring commanders to keep forces as small as possible in Afghanistan and Iraq—which had tragic consequences for both countries because it allowed the development of a power vacuum in which armed, anti-American extremists could come to the fore.

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Poll: 57% Oppose Palestinian Statehood Bid

The Israel Project has a poll out today on American views on the Arab Spring and Israel. As Mahmoud Abbas plans to launch another unilateral statehood attempt at the United Nations, a solid majority of Americans say they’re opposed:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Israel Project has a poll out today on American views on the Arab Spring and Israel. As Mahmoud Abbas plans to launch another unilateral statehood attempt at the United Nations, a solid majority of Americans say they’re opposed:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opposition to the UN bid is in line with TIP’s poll in July 2011 — before the last Palestinian attempt — and up from the April 2011 poll. The new survey was also taken before Operation Pillar of Defense, which a majority of Americans supported. Whether the operation has any impact on the numbers remains to be seen. But the TIP poll indicates that Americans remain solidly supportive of Israel on the UN issue, even if other countries may be wavering. 

The TIP poll also found a growing majority would want the U.S. to support an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program — 71 percent this year compared to 61 percent in November 2011 (though TIP’s sample was “voters” this year, and “registered voters” in 2011). A strong majority (59 percent) also oppose foreign aid to Egypt if it doesn’t abide by its treaty obligations. Full poll can be found here.

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Washington Insiders Focus on Rice to Protect Their Own

Two weeks ago, I asked a question about the administration’s handling of the Benghazi terrorist attack and its aftermath to which we have yet to get a response: Why does Secretary of State Hillary Clinton still have her job? The CIA made mistakes in Benghazi too, and the agency’s director has since resigned (mostly over an affair, but the point is that he’s no longer in charge of the CIA). President Obama’s evasions and misdirections after the attack were brought up in the second presidential debate and were even briefly a campaign issue. And now Susan Rice, who became the public face of the administration’s false talking points, is fighting for her reputation and her political future, which she hopes will involve running Foggy Bottom.

Yet we still hear nothing about Clinton, who should own the lion’s share of the blame. That our ambassador had to even request adequate security (requests that were denied) in a war zone testifies to Clinton’s incompetence on the issue. And so while it’s absolutely appropriate to seek answers from Rice–who volunteered to be the administration’s point person on this–there is something unseemly about the focus on Rice and the threats to hold up her possible nomination at State.

It’s not, as the Washington Post’s thoroughly reprehensible editorial suggested, about Rice’s race. (Republicans have been far more inclined than Democrats to nominate African Americans for secretary of state.) It’s not about gender either, of course. It’s about a certain chummy Washington insider mentality. Here’s Politico yesterday:

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Two weeks ago, I asked a question about the administration’s handling of the Benghazi terrorist attack and its aftermath to which we have yet to get a response: Why does Secretary of State Hillary Clinton still have her job? The CIA made mistakes in Benghazi too, and the agency’s director has since resigned (mostly over an affair, but the point is that he’s no longer in charge of the CIA). President Obama’s evasions and misdirections after the attack were brought up in the second presidential debate and were even briefly a campaign issue. And now Susan Rice, who became the public face of the administration’s false talking points, is fighting for her reputation and her political future, which she hopes will involve running Foggy Bottom.

Yet we still hear nothing about Clinton, who should own the lion’s share of the blame. That our ambassador had to even request adequate security (requests that were denied) in a war zone testifies to Clinton’s incompetence on the issue. And so while it’s absolutely appropriate to seek answers from Rice–who volunteered to be the administration’s point person on this–there is something unseemly about the focus on Rice and the threats to hold up her possible nomination at State.

It’s not, as the Washington Post’s thoroughly reprehensible editorial suggested, about Rice’s race. (Republicans have been far more inclined than Democrats to nominate African Americans for secretary of state.) It’s not about gender either, of course. It’s about a certain chummy Washington insider mentality. Here’s Politico yesterday:

As she wraps up her tenure at Foggy Bottom and mulls over a possible 2016 White House bid, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decade-old bipartisan friendship with McCain appears to have helped shield her from GOP fire — even as her agency finds itself in the thick of a partisan battle over Benghazi.

Their deep bond and mutual respect was born out of eight years serving in the Senate together, their shared admiration for the military, numerous trips around the world to war zones, security conferences in Germany — they once even took in a sunset in the Arctic Circle.

Far be it from me to let something like national security get in the way of a good Arctic sunset, but this seems patently irresponsible. When Republican candidates run as “outsiders,” this is exactly the sort of thing they don’t want to be associated with. And when they question the Beltway’s obsession with bipartisanship, this is the kind of thing they’re questioning.

I’m not going to tell McCain and Clinton that they should follow Harry Truman’s advice and get a dog if they want a friend in Washington. Comity and cooperation have their benefits. And it’s true that liberal columnists who clearly side with Hillary Clinton in her feud with Susan Rice have used this occasion to stick up for their friend–but they are opinion writers at liberal newspapers, not high-ranking senators and leaders on American national security and foreign policy.

Meanwhile, the other politician who would gain from Rice’s downfall is, as Jonathan wrote today, John Kerry–another member of the Senate foreign relations old guard.

Clinton should be held accountable for her failure, and instead her bipartisan friends will protect her. Clinton will skate on to her expected 2016 presidential run unscathed by her egregious incompetence that resulted in the death of our ambassador and three others. And the “dear friend” of Bashar al-Assad–I’m quoting John Kerry himself here, so take it up with him–hopes to advance his career as well by climbing up the rubble of Rice’s.

By all means, get answers from Rice on Benghazi. But letting colleagues and friends escape accountability because of that friendship is its own brand of negligence.

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Norquist Doesn’t Want GOP “Fingerprints” on Tax Hikes

Grover Norquist spoke at a Politico breakfast this morning, and it sounds like he’s leaving the door open for some creative tax compromises from Republicans. If tax rates go up, it would have to be without any active help from pledge-signers:

Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist said Wednesday Republicans need to have “credible” separation from any tax hike as part of a deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff — in order to make a case to voters in 2014 and 2016 that their vision is distinct from that of Democrats.

The party “can’t have their fingerprints on the murder weapon,” Norquist told POLITICO’s Mike Allen at a Playbook Breakfast. … 

Norquist said by having negotiations in public, Republicans would be able to “change the conversation” from raising taxes to holding Democrats feet to the fire over spending cuts.

“We have a spending problem, not a failure to raise taxes problem,” Norquist said.

He would not directly answer Allen’s questions if there was wiggle room for Republicans to raise taxes with out breaking his no-new-taxes pledge. But he did call Rep. Tom Cole’s proposal for Republicans to agree to a tax cut for 98 percent of Americans and negotiate the top rates later “an interesting tactic.”

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Grover Norquist spoke at a Politico breakfast this morning, and it sounds like he’s leaving the door open for some creative tax compromises from Republicans. If tax rates go up, it would have to be without any active help from pledge-signers:

Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist said Wednesday Republicans need to have “credible” separation from any tax hike as part of a deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff — in order to make a case to voters in 2014 and 2016 that their vision is distinct from that of Democrats.

The party “can’t have their fingerprints on the murder weapon,” Norquist told POLITICO’s Mike Allen at a Playbook Breakfast. … 

Norquist said by having negotiations in public, Republicans would be able to “change the conversation” from raising taxes to holding Democrats feet to the fire over spending cuts.

“We have a spending problem, not a failure to raise taxes problem,” Norquist said.

He would not directly answer Allen’s questions if there was wiggle room for Republicans to raise taxes with out breaking his no-new-taxes pledge. But he did call Rep. Tom Cole’s proposal for Republicans to agree to a tax cut for 98 percent of Americans and negotiate the top rates later “an interesting tactic.”

As the Wall Street Journal argued yesterday, reforming the tax code without lowering the rates is a possible compromise. Another is the proposal from Rep. Tom Cole, which Norquist actually didn’t close the door on. It would entail Republicans agreeing to a tax cut extension for those making under $250,000 immediately, and then hashing out the tax extension for those making over $250,000 afterward: 

Republican Rep. Tom Cole urged colleagues in a private session Tuesday to vote to extend the Bush tax rates for all but the highest earners before the end of the year — and to battle over the rest later.

The Oklahoma Republican said in an interview with POLITICO that he believes such a vote would not violate Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge and that he’s not alone within Republican circles.

Cole’s position is striking because he’s hardly a “squish” — Norquist’s term for a weak-kneed lawmaker — when it comes to Republican orthodoxy. Cole served as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee and in other official posts within the party.

He might also provide cover for other Republicans looking to make an agreement to avoid a sharp fall off the so-called fiscal cliff. 

This would, at the very least, take away the Democratic Party’s most potent political argument that the GOP is holding middle class tax cuts hostage in order to extend breaks for the wealthy. It would also allow Republicans to make a more pointed case against tax hikes on upper-income earners, and its impact on the economy. 

However, a chance to make the case may be all Republicans would get in return. Agreeing to an immediate extension of 98 percent of the cuts would probably kill any chance the GOP has of negotiating for tax reform, and basically guarantee that rates will go up for the upper 2 percent. But, per Norquist’s criteria this morning, Republicans wouldn’t have their fingerprints on the tax hikes.

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Rice v. Kerry is Foreign Policy Trivia

Yesterday’s meeting between United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and leading Republican members of the U.S. Senate did nothing to defuse the controversy over her misleading statements about the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. Senators Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte and John McCain were not pleased with Rice’s explanations and appear poised to lead a spirited opposition to Rice should, as many expect, she be tapped by President Obama to be the next secretary of state. Along with other members of the administration, Rice has much to answer for when it comes to Benghazi, and Democrats should not be under the impression that the GOP will knuckle under to the president’s attempt to intimidate them or patently false charges of racism. But conservatives need to think carefully about what the key issue at State is before they decide to go all in on an attempt to stop Rice’s appointment.

As tempting a target as Rice is, there are far more important issues at stake in determining the future of American foreign policy than whether Foggy Bottom is run by her or Senator John Kerry, the other leading candidate for the job who is obviously favored by his Senate colleagues. The impending confirmation battle needs to be about something more than just an attempt to take down a vulnerable friend of the president. It is an opportunity for Republicans to initiate a debate about the direction taken by the administration in the Middle East. On Secretary Clinton’s watch the administration has done more than merely pretend that al-Qaeda was as dead as Osama bin Laden when its affiliates are alive and well and killing Americans. It has made nice with Islamists in the region, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and allowed a crucial nation to slip from the hands of a friendly authoritarian to an Islamist dictator linked to Hamas. It is on these big-picture issues that the Senate ought to take its stand and not just on what Rice said in September about Benghazi.

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Yesterday’s meeting between United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and leading Republican members of the U.S. Senate did nothing to defuse the controversy over her misleading statements about the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. Senators Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte and John McCain were not pleased with Rice’s explanations and appear poised to lead a spirited opposition to Rice should, as many expect, she be tapped by President Obama to be the next secretary of state. Along with other members of the administration, Rice has much to answer for when it comes to Benghazi, and Democrats should not be under the impression that the GOP will knuckle under to the president’s attempt to intimidate them or patently false charges of racism. But conservatives need to think carefully about what the key issue at State is before they decide to go all in on an attempt to stop Rice’s appointment.

As tempting a target as Rice is, there are far more important issues at stake in determining the future of American foreign policy than whether Foggy Bottom is run by her or Senator John Kerry, the other leading candidate for the job who is obviously favored by his Senate colleagues. The impending confirmation battle needs to be about something more than just an attempt to take down a vulnerable friend of the president. It is an opportunity for Republicans to initiate a debate about the direction taken by the administration in the Middle East. On Secretary Clinton’s watch the administration has done more than merely pretend that al-Qaeda was as dead as Osama bin Laden when its affiliates are alive and well and killing Americans. It has made nice with Islamists in the region, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and allowed a crucial nation to slip from the hands of a friendly authoritarian to an Islamist dictator linked to Hamas. It is on these big-picture issues that the Senate ought to take its stand and not just on what Rice said in September about Benghazi.

The real issue at the State Department is not whether Rice lied about Benghazi. Everyone in the administration lied about it from the top down and that is something that Congress should thoroughly explore. Senator Graham was right when he said that there ought to be a hold put on the promotion of anyone involved in Benghazi until there is a complete investigation of a scandal that can’t be buried by Democrats eager to move on now that the president has been re-elected. But Rice’s confirmation hearing, assuming that the president does nominate her, can’t substitute for the sort of special committee probe that is needed on that issue.

The administration’s eagerness to portray the terror attack on our diplomats in Benghazi as a spontaneous protest stemmed from an agenda which required that nothing be allowed to disrupt the president’s politically-motivated narrative that bin Laden’s death meant the end of the threat of Islamist terrorism. However, the willingness of this administration to acquiesce to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and even to go on sending billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to the Morsi regime should not be passed over in the zeal to nail Rice on Benghazi.

Allowing Rice to be rewarded for her deceptions rightly rankles Republicans, but no one should be under the impression that substituting Kerry for her will improve American foreign policy. In fact, her willingness to throw her weight around at the UN during her tenure there may mean she will be a tougher exponent of American interests than a weak figure like Kerry who was well known as Bashar Assad’s best friend in Washington. Derailing Rice to help Kerry may make sense to John McCain, but it’s not clear why other Republicans should care. There needs to be accountability for all of the administration’s errors, including the shocking tilt toward the Brotherhood, and not just Benghazi.

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Ayotte, Graham Say They’ll Hold Rice’s Nomination

Susan Rice’s meeting with Senators McCain, Graham and Ayotte yesterday might have set back her potential secretary of state bid even more than initially thought. Now Graham and Ayotte are promising to place a “hold” on her possible nomination, until Rice provides more answers:

If President Barack Obama selects United Nations envoy Susan Rice to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he’ll face determined opposition from at least three Republican senators: John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Ayotte and Graham would each place a “hold” on Rice’s nomination if she were nominated, their aides told NBC News Tuesday. McCain’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Susan Rice’s meeting with Senators McCain, Graham and Ayotte yesterday might have set back her potential secretary of state bid even more than initially thought. Now Graham and Ayotte are promising to place a “hold” on her possible nomination, until Rice provides more answers:

If President Barack Obama selects United Nations envoy Susan Rice to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he’ll face determined opposition from at least three Republican senators: John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Ayotte and Graham would each place a “hold” on Rice’s nomination if she were nominated, their aides told NBC News Tuesday. McCain’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

With the fiscal cliff debate heating up, a nomination filibuster probably isn’t something the Republican leadership wants to sink much political capital into. But this is an important fight for a few reasons. First, if reports from yesterday’s meeting are accurate, then the administration cherry-picked intelligence to support a narrative that, at best, they suspected might be inaccurate and, at worst, they knew was misleading. If that’s the case, McCain, Graham and Ayotte aren’t aiming for Rice, they’re aiming above her. If she’s nominated, it will give them a way to both keep the Benghazi controversy in the news and uncover more information about it.

Rice is attending another meeting with Senators Collins and Corker today. Their impressions after could help decide how far Republicans take this issue.

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