Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 2012

Obama Sets Stage for Conflict

Just as it looked like a fiscal cliff deal was coming together, President Obama gave a partisan, sarcastic speech this afternoon that seemed intended to set back the entire process. As Jonathan wrote, Republicans have good reason to think the president’s goal is to go over the cliff. But they also suspect the White House is preparing to push for further tax increases, in addition to the hikes on individuals making over $400,000 (and families making over $450,000) a year.

“What they’re telegraphing to me is that when Republicans ask for spending cuts, [Democrats are] gonna say ‘You’re not getting those unless we get more tax hikes’,” said one Republican Senate aide after the speech.

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Just as it looked like a fiscal cliff deal was coming together, President Obama gave a partisan, sarcastic speech this afternoon that seemed intended to set back the entire process. As Jonathan wrote, Republicans have good reason to think the president’s goal is to go over the cliff. But they also suspect the White House is preparing to push for further tax increases, in addition to the hikes on individuals making over $400,000 (and families making over $450,000) a year.

“What they’re telegraphing to me is that when Republicans ask for spending cuts, [Democrats are] gonna say ‘You’re not getting those unless we get more tax hikes’,” said one Republican Senate aide after the speech.

According to Senate GOP sources, there is no more debate on the deal to raise taxes on those making over $400,000, which is necessary to avert automatic across-the-board expiration of the Bush tax cuts. But Republican leadership is balking at the White House demand to delay sequestration without corresponding, targeted spending cuts.

“Not only was [Obama’s speech] unhelpful and antagonistic (as pretty much every journalist on Twitter and even Ezra Klein recognized), the tax part of negotiations is done,” another Republican aide said in an email. “There’s already an agreement there. The sticking point is Democrats trying to turn off the sequester cuts. Republicans aren’t going to agree to simply set spending cuts aside.” 

One big concern is that the White House will demand additional tax increases down the road, in return for spending cuts. Some also say the current tax deal will impact more Americans than initially thought. According to a Senate Republican source, the tax increase on individuals/families making over $400,000/$450,000 a year is not enough to reach the $600 billion in tax revenue included in the potential deal, even if you include hikes on capital gains, dividends, and phased-out personal exemptions and itemized deductions. In other words, those making well under $400,000–and as low as $250,000 a year–could also end up paying higher taxes under the deal.

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Call Us Blessed

This year marked the 150th anniversary of what David Von Drehle calls the most perilous year in our country’s history. As 1862 dawned, Von Drehle writes in his marvelous book Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, America was at death’s door. The federal government appeared overwhelmed. The Treasury Department was broke. The War Department was a corrupt shambles. The Union’s top general, George McClellan, was gravely ill. And Lincoln was viewed as weak and overmatched by events. “It is in the highest Degree likely that the North will not be able to subdue the South,” the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, counseled his Foreign Office.

By the end of the year, the tide had turned. The South had been dealt major battlefield losses. The Union had developed a military strategy that would eventually prevail. “The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history,” according to Von Drehle, “the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation.” And it was the year in which Lincoln rose to greatness. 

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This year marked the 150th anniversary of what David Von Drehle calls the most perilous year in our country’s history. As 1862 dawned, Von Drehle writes in his marvelous book Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, America was at death’s door. The federal government appeared overwhelmed. The Treasury Department was broke. The War Department was a corrupt shambles. The Union’s top general, George McClellan, was gravely ill. And Lincoln was viewed as weak and overmatched by events. “It is in the highest Degree likely that the North will not be able to subdue the South,” the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, counseled his Foreign Office.

By the end of the year, the tide had turned. The South had been dealt major battlefield losses. The Union had developed a military strategy that would eventually prevail. “The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history,” according to Von Drehle, “the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation.” And it was the year in which Lincoln rose to greatness. 

Rise to Greatness takes us through 1862 month by month. It’s a marvelous and gripping story, compellingly and beautifully written. And this is how the book concludes:

The first day of 1863 did not mark the end of the war, or even the beginning of the end. That would come later in the year, when Grant drove the Rebels out of Vicksburg and Chattanooga on his way to replacing Halleck as general in chief. But the close of 1862 — to borrow from Winston Churchill — brought the nation to the end of the beginning. And like the Shakespearean dramas that spoke so powerfully to the genius of Abraham Lincoln, the events of the final scenes were fated by the decisions, actions, omissions, flukes, failures, and successes of the early drama. When that fateful year began, a shattered land looked backward at a dream that seemed forever lost. When a new year arrived, the way forward was perceptible, an upward climb into a challenging but brilliant future.

As another new year arrives–a century and a half after the end of the beginning of the Civil War–it is a good time to reflect on the extraordinary journey America has traveled, the terrible “original sin” of slavery the United States had to overcome, and how close things came to unraveling. It’s also a good time to recall just how fortunate we were that, at the most arduous moment in our history, America produced its greatest president, an individual whose intellectual, political, and rhetorical gifts converged in a way unmatched in all our history.

Even with all the political nonsense we see unfolding before our eyes today, call us blessed.

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Obama’s Crisis Demagoguery

There may be a last-minute compromise reached today in the negotiations over the fiscal cliff, but not if President Obama has anything to say about it. Even as Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were believed to have led the effort to have the structure of a deal in place for the two houses of Congress to vote on later today, the president emerged to make a statement that seemed geared to scuttling the negotiations.

In a campaign-style event, the president spoke of a possible accord between the two parties that would avert the immediate effects of the fiscal cliff being reached. But the bulk of his remarks were devoted to goading the Republicans into backing away from any deal. Not only did he gratuitously insult the GOP about their stands on the budget to the great amusement of the hand-picked audience of supporters, he also made it clear that the tax increases in any compromise would just be the start of what he hoped to accomplish. Even worse, he implied that spending cuts, especially the entitlement reform that is necessary for any long-term solution to the nation’s problems, are not really on the table as far as he is concerned.

Given the tone of his comments and the timing, Republicans should be forgiven for suspecting that his real purpose was to send the country over the cliff in the belief that only the GOP would be blamed for the disaster.

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There may be a last-minute compromise reached today in the negotiations over the fiscal cliff, but not if President Obama has anything to say about it. Even as Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were believed to have led the effort to have the structure of a deal in place for the two houses of Congress to vote on later today, the president emerged to make a statement that seemed geared to scuttling the negotiations.

In a campaign-style event, the president spoke of a possible accord between the two parties that would avert the immediate effects of the fiscal cliff being reached. But the bulk of his remarks were devoted to goading the Republicans into backing away from any deal. Not only did he gratuitously insult the GOP about their stands on the budget to the great amusement of the hand-picked audience of supporters, he also made it clear that the tax increases in any compromise would just be the start of what he hoped to accomplish. Even worse, he implied that spending cuts, especially the entitlement reform that is necessary for any long-term solution to the nation’s problems, are not really on the table as far as he is concerned.

Given the tone of his comments and the timing, Republicans should be forgiven for suspecting that his real purpose was to send the country over the cliff in the belief that only the GOP would be blamed for the disaster.

The president obviously thinks the very last moment before a fiscal catastrophe that would raise taxes on all Americans and impose devastating cuts in defense is a good time to mock the idea of spending cuts and to threaten further taxes. The only possible motivation for this is to convince suspicious Republicans that any give in their position will not be met even part of the way by the Democrats. In other words, if even now the president is unprepared to contemplate entitlement reform, then it is difficult to make the argument that they should do the responsible thing and compromise.

Through last year’s debt ceiling crisis as well as the fiscal cliff talks, the president has always behaved as if he thought he had nothing to lose by engaging in class warfare demagoguery. Since going over the cliff means raising more taxes and feeding the government beast that he seems uninterested in restraining as well as cutting defense spending, why shouldn’t he try to incite the GOP to refuse to agree to a deal?

But for him to behave in this manner on the very eve of the crisis while leaders of both parties are struggling to construct a makeshift measure that will get the nation past midnight is telling.

This is not just the confident manner of a re-elected president, but the contempt of a man who believes he doesn’t have to listen to anyone but himself. This may presage future fights over taxes in which he thinks he will continue to have the whip hand over the GOP. But the law of unintended consequences may eventually catch up with him. Though his soak-the-rich rhetoric resonates with many Americans, they also understand that entitlement reform is in the best interests of the nation and that raising taxes on millionaires won’t balance the budget. Few outside the hard left really believe, as Obama seemed to say today, that America only has a tax problem, not a spending problem.

If in the coming months and years these irresponsible tactics catch up with the president, we may look back on his behavior today and see it as the turning point in the debate. The Greeks had a word for the kind of behavior President Obama demonstrated today: hubris. His second term may well be blighted by it.

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How the Right Can Reclaim its Edge on Foreign Policy

Aside from the prospect of automatic cuts in near-term defense spending, the ongoing drama over the so-called fiscal cliff continues to sideline the issue of foreign policy. But as the Republican Party recovers from the November election and finds its issue compass going forward, foreign policy should never be far behind—not least because of what Dan Drezner writes in a new Foreign Affairs essay on the GOP: Republicans finally saw the end of their dominance of public opinion on foreign policy they have held since the era of the Vietnam War.

Conservatives may already be tired of what they perceive to be lectures on their party’s ills from those who don’t share their ideological preferences. I don’t blame them. But Drezner’s essay is worth reading because Drezner generally eschews ad hominem attacks and his writing is tonally free of partisan hostility. Additionally, conservatives reading the essay will find that in addition to what they are accused of getting wrong, they will discover that an honest assessment of the GOP’s recent foreign policy gets a fair amount right.

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Aside from the prospect of automatic cuts in near-term defense spending, the ongoing drama over the so-called fiscal cliff continues to sideline the issue of foreign policy. But as the Republican Party recovers from the November election and finds its issue compass going forward, foreign policy should never be far behind—not least because of what Dan Drezner writes in a new Foreign Affairs essay on the GOP: Republicans finally saw the end of their dominance of public opinion on foreign policy they have held since the era of the Vietnam War.

Conservatives may already be tired of what they perceive to be lectures on their party’s ills from those who don’t share their ideological preferences. I don’t blame them. But Drezner’s essay is worth reading because Drezner generally eschews ad hominem attacks and his writing is tonally free of partisan hostility. Additionally, conservatives reading the essay will find that in addition to what they are accused of getting wrong, they will discover that an honest assessment of the GOP’s recent foreign policy gets a fair amount right.

A great deal of Drezner’s criticism revolves around rhetoric. Thus, there were moments when Mitt Romney, for example, squandered opportunities with unforced errors. The most memorable instance was Romney’s decision to call Russia our “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” Romney was guilty of the same mistake the Obama administration made with regard to Russia: They both overestimated Russia’s power. Obama thought Russia could and would deliver all sorts of cooperation on a range of issues. Yet Vladimir Putin had no intention and in many cases no ability do more than talk tough. Putin simply bluffed his way to more and more American concessions, and pocketed them.

Drezner expands his criticism to an issue directly relevant to the current budget debate. “Republicans continually attempt to justify extremely high levels of defense spending, for example, on the grounds that the United States supposedly faces greater threats now than during the Cold War,” he writes. It is essential that conservatives, and especially the Republican politicians taking part in the standoff over the fiscal cliff, understand how to advocate for defense spending.

It is true that the existence of foreign threats doesn’t necessitate, by itself, historic levels of defense spending. But those threats are far from the only justification for the defense budget. Republican officeholders would do well to turn to another essay in the same issue of Foreign Affairs that makes this case. The essay, by Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth, explains how a fully engaged America abroad yields both security and financial benefits that make defense spending a bargain.

They note that American security guarantees around the globe prevent the rise of regional hegemons, military conflict, and the spread of destabilizing nuclear weapons more often than not; secure multilateral cooperation; and bring the U.S. economic benefits by both strengthening the dollar and giving America leverage when it comes to negotiating free trade agreements. Romney’s repeated exhortations that we’d want a military so powerful no one would dare “test us” is an inadequate justification for a highly justifiable policy.

Finally, Drezner writes:

George W. Bush’s greatest foreign policy accomplishments came not in the military realm but in rethinking economic statecraft. He signed more free-trade agreements than any other president. Through the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Bush administration devised innovative ways of advancing U.S. interests and values abroad. In developing the architecture for improved financial coercion, the administration paved the way for the sanctions that are now crippling Iran’s economy. Force can be an essential tool of statecraft, but it should rarely be the first tool used, and sometimes it can be most effective if never used at all. Republicans understand the power of the free market at home; they need to revive their enthusiasm for the power of the market abroad, as well.

There are two points to make here. First, Romney had no trouble grasping this, as evidenced by his concentration on economics-based statecraft in the foreign policy debate with President Obama. Republicans remain the party of free trade, and show no sign of abandoning that position. Second, on Iran, there isn’t a ton of daylight between Drezner and the right. Conservatives have pushed for tough sanctions backed up by the credible threat of force. Obama has opposed and weakened tough sanctions every step of the way, and his administration has worked to undermine any credible threat of force.

Drezner says bellicosity is hurting the GOP with a war-weary public. He’s right that the public is war-weary, but Iran is not the issue where this is hurting the GOP. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, public support for military action against Iran in the event sanctions fail is now at a high point. Even out of power, the GOP won that argument.

This is not to say that last year’s crop of GOP presidential candidates always had the policy right–far from it. From flirtations with a trade war with China to undue nostalgia for Hosni Mubarak to loyalty investigations into Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide, there were plenty of forgettable—and dangerous–suggestions. But the 2016 crop of candidates will likely be quite different from the 2012 cast of characters, which too often spoke as if the world wasn’t listening. It was–and is–and conservatives need to remember (or learn) how to reclaim what was a well-earned advantage over the left on foreign policy.

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Why Both Parties Failed

It almost goes without saying that even if a deal is somehow reached today that would prevent a massive tax increase and defense cuts, the disgust of the public at the fiscal cliff hijinks that have gone on in Washington the last few weeks will outweigh the relief they feel. If the last-second talks between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell succeed in crafting a short-term compromise that enough Democrats and Republicans can live with, the country will be spared the disaster that would ensue should the scheduled across-the-board tax increases and devastating sequestration of funds for national defense be implemented. But as much as both sides have spent more time casting aspersions at each other’s motives than negotiating in good faith, there needs to be a full accounting of why this happened in the way that it did.

To say that both Republicans and Democrats have failed in this episode is stating the obvious. But each failed in different ways and an analysis of their shortcomings tells us a lot about the direction in which the country is heading.

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It almost goes without saying that even if a deal is somehow reached today that would prevent a massive tax increase and defense cuts, the disgust of the public at the fiscal cliff hijinks that have gone on in Washington the last few weeks will outweigh the relief they feel. If the last-second talks between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell succeed in crafting a short-term compromise that enough Democrats and Republicans can live with, the country will be spared the disaster that would ensue should the scheduled across-the-board tax increases and devastating sequestration of funds for national defense be implemented. But as much as both sides have spent more time casting aspersions at each other’s motives than negotiating in good faith, there needs to be a full accounting of why this happened in the way that it did.

To say that both Republicans and Democrats have failed in this episode is stating the obvious. But each failed in different ways and an analysis of their shortcomings tells us a lot about the direction in which the country is heading.

The Republicans failed because a critical mass of the House GOP caucus believed their mandate to stop Washington’s out-of-control spending and taxing outweighed their responsibility to keep the government running properly. The Tea Partiers were right that the country has a spending problem rather than one based in taxes that were too low, and their desire to reform the entitlements that are sinking the nation in debt brought a note of sanity to the irrational nature of the way Congress usually does business. But the idea they were empowered to stand in the way of any compromise on the debt ceiling and now the fiscal cliff was just as foolish as the refusal of the other side to address the root cause of the crisis.

After their smashing victory in the 2010 midterms, conservatives were right to say they were elected to throw a monkey wrench into the government machine even if the Senate and the White House were still controlled by the Democrats. But after the people voted to keep government divided last month, there was an obligation on the part of even the most hard-core conservatives to compromise in order to keep the government afloat. They may have been faced with a negotiating partner in the president who was working to prevent a deal since he believes he benefits politically from the implementation of the fiscal cliff taxes and cuts. Yet it would be dishonest to absolve the GOP caucus from blame here, since they were unable to pass House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B compromise because many of them simply would not sign onto any tax increases of any kind.

Being right about policy does not excuse a political party from the need to keep the government functioning. In this case, that means the reforming zeal of many conservatives that is to be praised in principle prevented them from doing what needed to be done in practice to prevent today’s impending catastrophe. Though the public is wrong to blame Republicans more than Democrats for this mess, it isn’t wrong to see the GOP has having potentially sacrificed the well-being of the citizens for the sake of political purity.

As it turns out, the Democrats are guilty of almost the exact opposite sins.

Over the last year and a half, the president and his party correctly gauged the political effects of any discussion about entitlement reform. They knew doing anything to cut back on such spending would be unpopular even if many of them understood it was necessary. But rather than deal in good faith with the Republicans for a deal that would address the country’s long-term peril rather than merely a momentary shortfall, they spent this time engaging in demagoguery about the wealthy and their opponents. That was smart politics but bad public policy.

The tax increases they have been demanding will do little to fix the deficit. Indeed, they may prove entirely counterproductive since their soak-the-rich scheme will probably diminish the investments needed to produce robust growth instead of the anemic recovery we have been experiencing. Yet the only fact Democrats seemed capable of grasping was the one that told them that the public was dubious about the Republicans’ reform plans and that such ideas were unpopular.

That has left us with one party with sound economic principles but which lacked the willingness to compromise for the sake of the public good, and another with sound political instincts but a cynical view about policy that makes problem solving impossible. The Democrats’ intransigent cynicism is far more disreputable than the Republicans disregard for political reality, but put the two together and you get what we are currently seeing: a perfect storm of government dysfunction. If the long-term fiscal crisis is to be addressed it will require both parties to sober up and address their shortcomings.

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Happy New Year, America

If you’d like to have your New Year’s Eve thoroughly ruined, I’d suggest taking a look today at Mortimer Zuckerman’s piece over at USNews.com, “Brace for an Avalanche of Unfunded Debt.”

It’s so depressing because it’s true. The federal government keeps its books not in ways that most clearly reveal the true financial picture, but in ways designed, quite deliberately, to obscure that picture. This is for the short-term benefit of politicians and nothing else, the country be damned. And, as Zuckerman notes, unless something is done about this, and soon, that is exactly what the country will be.

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If you’d like to have your New Year’s Eve thoroughly ruined, I’d suggest taking a look today at Mortimer Zuckerman’s piece over at USNews.com, “Brace for an Avalanche of Unfunded Debt.”

It’s so depressing because it’s true. The federal government keeps its books not in ways that most clearly reveal the true financial picture, but in ways designed, quite deliberately, to obscure that picture. This is for the short-term benefit of politicians and nothing else, the country be damned. And, as Zuckerman notes, unless something is done about this, and soon, that is exactly what the country will be.

As he points out, the country is incurring future financial obligations at the rate of $8 trillion a year. That exceeds the total taxable income of everyone earning more than $66,198 a year and all corporate profits. Even a liberal should be able to understand that if future obligations in entitlements are rising at $8 trillion and the total taxable income of the middle class and up, plus corporations, is $7 trillion, “getting the rich to pay their fair share” won’t do the trick.

The good news, of course, is that these future obligations are not like the national debt, which is at $16 trillion and rising fast. The debt is an inescapable obligation because we pledged the “full faith and credit of the United States” when we borrowed the money. The only alternatives don’t bear thinking about: repudiating the debt or inflating it away.

As Zuckerman points out, it costs $359 billion to service the debt at today’s very low interest rates. Should interest rates begin to rise, either because of returning prosperity or a loss of faith by the market, the cost of servicing the debt will increase $150 billion for every percentage point rise in interest rates. We’re currently paying about 2.2 percent on the debt. Greece is paying over 16 percent to borrow money. As they say: you do the math.

Unlike the debt, future entitlement obligations are obligations only because current law says they are, and laws can be changed. For instance, if we were to, 1) change the formula by which cost-of-living increases in Social Security payments are calculated so that it didn’t overstate inflation as the formula does now, and 2) gradually increase the age of eligibility to reflect ever-increasing life expectancy, Social Security would become solvent for the foreseeable future.

The annual cost-of-living adjustment is designed to keep recipients’ purchasing power intact, but it currently gives them, in effect, a raise. Is it really too much to ask of recipients that they get what’s due them, not more? Likewise, would raising the age of eligibility one month for every year future recipients are now under the age of 55 incur unbearable political opposition? Not if politicians, starting with the president, do their jobs and, you know, lead, explaining the truth and showing the way out of trouble. I have a news bulletin for the political class: the American people are neither stupid nor selfish. Tell them the truth and they will accept it.

But to do that—to tell the American people the truth about the financial situation of the country—requires that politicians surrender the power to keep the books in self-serving ways. The country needs just what corporations have: a set of accounting rules they are obliged to follow that reveal the truth, not conceal it, and an independent authority to certify the books as honest and complete, including future obligations. (The Congressional Budget Office, which “scores” legislation, is nonpartisan, but it is by no means independent. It is a creature of Congress and has no choice but to do Congress’s bidding, which is political protection first, the truth a long-way second.)

There will be no long-term solution to the impending financial disaster until the government keeps honest books. The sooner this fact is on the country’s political radar and becomes part of the discussion, the better. There is not a lot of time left.

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ObamaCare, 2013, and the Start of the GOP Comeback

Right now the political landscape is grim for Republicans–and in the short term, thanks to the so-called fiscal cliff, things may get grimmer still. But moments like these can pass, often quicker than we think. And next year may turn out to be one in which the pernicious effects of the Affordable Care Act–aka ObamaCare–really begin to kick in, from higher premiums to the loss of employer-based health insurance to the start of enrollment in insurance exchanges. It will become more and more clear to the public what a nightmarish law the Affordable Care Act actually is.

“The administration is well behind schedule,” my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague James Capretta told Byron York of the Washington Examiner. “It’s going to be a train wreck in a lot of places.”

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Right now the political landscape is grim for Republicans–and in the short term, thanks to the so-called fiscal cliff, things may get grimmer still. But moments like these can pass, often quicker than we think. And next year may turn out to be one in which the pernicious effects of the Affordable Care Act–aka ObamaCare–really begin to kick in, from higher premiums to the loss of employer-based health insurance to the start of enrollment in insurance exchanges. It will become more and more clear to the public what a nightmarish law the Affordable Care Act actually is.

“The administration is well behind schedule,” my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague James Capretta told Byron York of the Washington Examiner. “It’s going to be a train wreck in a lot of places.”

The Affordable Care Act is President Obama’s signature legislative achievement. Even before its worst effects have been felt it was, according to the presidential scholar George C. Edwards III, “perhaps the least popular major domestic policy passed in the last century.” If conservatives are correct about the inherent flaws of ObamaCare–and I believe they are–it could well become a political millstone around the neck of Democrats for much of the rest of this decade and beyond. This will have ramifications far beyond what happens regarding the fiscal cliff.

As the problems with the Affordable Care Act mount, Mr. Obama will do what comes most naturally to him: blame others. In the end, though, ObamaCare is his baby. It’s one of the most far-reaching progressive achievements in modern times. And it will, if the conservative view of the world is right, turn out to be a policy disaster of the first order.

In 2010, Mr. Obama got what he wanted. He signed the Affordable Care Act into law. In 2012, the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality. And it 2013 liberals and Democrats may well learn the wisdom of the words, ”Be Careful What You Wish for ’cause It Might Come True.”

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Report: Hagel Nomination on Monday?

Mike Allen may have spoken too soon when he reported last week that the Chuck Hagel trial balloon had popped. RightScoop and Gestetner Updates both report that the White House phoned Jewish leaders last night to inform them that Hagel will be nominated for defense secretary this week. But probably the biggest indicator that Hagel is still in the running is that Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations told a radio host yesterday that he would most likely be nominated on Monday.

“It’s most likely that on Monday they will announce that Hagel will be the choice. It’s obviously something that raised a lot of concern,” Hoenlein told talk show host Zev Brenner. “I think it is something that we’ll live with and we’ll work with him, whoever is in office. But … his past statements and his past record on a lot of issues–not just Jewish issues, I think American issues–raised concerns.”

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Mike Allen may have spoken too soon when he reported last week that the Chuck Hagel trial balloon had popped. RightScoop and Gestetner Updates both report that the White House phoned Jewish leaders last night to inform them that Hagel will be nominated for defense secretary this week. But probably the biggest indicator that Hagel is still in the running is that Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations told a radio host yesterday that he would most likely be nominated on Monday.

“It’s most likely that on Monday they will announce that Hagel will be the choice. It’s obviously something that raised a lot of concern,” Hoenlein told talk show host Zev Brenner. “I think it is something that we’ll live with and we’ll work with him, whoever is in office. But … his past statements and his past record on a lot of issues–not just Jewish issues, I think American issues–raised concerns.”

It’s not clear what information Hoenlein’s comments were based on. He told the Algemeiner he didn’t receive a phone call from the White House and doesn’t know anyone who did, which has been the general response from Jewish community figures I’ve reached out to about this. That doesn’t mean the phone call reports are wrong, just that they’re still very hazy at this point.

Obama also defended Hagel on Meet the Press this morning, which some see as a sign he’s preparing to nominate him. But keep in mind, Obama also defended Susan Rice from attacks on her potential secretary of state nomination, and we know how that turned out. Obama was responding to a direct question about criticism of Hagel this morning, so he really had no choice but to stick up for him–Hagel is still on his intelligence advisory board.

The bottom line is that Hagel’s potential nomination isn’t as dead as it looked last week. It sounds like we should know for sure by tomorrow afternoon.

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Maliki’s Dangerous Partisan Vendetta

Large, noisy demonstrations have flared across Anbar Province in recent days to protest what is widely perceived to be Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s witch-hunt against Iraq’s Finance Minister Rafe al-Issawi, a leading Sunni politician. Maliki’s security force raided Issawi’s compound and arrested 10 of his bodyguards–following the same M.O. that led last year to Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi being convicted of murder in absentia after his bodyguards were allegedly tortured. (Hashemi has fled to Turkey.)

Maliki insists the security forces are simply following the law and investigating credible allegations that Issawi, like Hashemi, has been involved in terrorism. As it happens, a friend has provided me with a letter that General Ray Odierno, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, wrote to Maliki in 2010. The letter (which is in Arabic) says that U.S. intelligence agencies have thoroughly investigated the charges against Issawi and found them to be uncorroborated. In the murky world of Iraqi politics, where courts are corrupt and government agencies often sectarian, this is about as convincing an exoneration as Issawi could get–coming as it did at a time when the U.S. still had a substantial military and intelligence infrastructure in Iraq, something that is no longer the case.

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Large, noisy demonstrations have flared across Anbar Province in recent days to protest what is widely perceived to be Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s witch-hunt against Iraq’s Finance Minister Rafe al-Issawi, a leading Sunni politician. Maliki’s security force raided Issawi’s compound and arrested 10 of his bodyguards–following the same M.O. that led last year to Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi being convicted of murder in absentia after his bodyguards were allegedly tortured. (Hashemi has fled to Turkey.)

Maliki insists the security forces are simply following the law and investigating credible allegations that Issawi, like Hashemi, has been involved in terrorism. As it happens, a friend has provided me with a letter that General Ray Odierno, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, wrote to Maliki in 2010. The letter (which is in Arabic) says that U.S. intelligence agencies have thoroughly investigated the charges against Issawi and found them to be uncorroborated. In the murky world of Iraqi politics, where courts are corrupt and government agencies often sectarian, this is about as convincing an exoneration as Issawi could get–coming as it did at a time when the U.S. still had a substantial military and intelligence infrastructure in Iraq, something that is no longer the case.

The letter exposes what is already obvious–that this is not a legitimate criminal inquiry but a partisan vendetta that is being pursued by the Shiite prime minister against his Sunni opponents. Given the way that Issawi has been able to turn out large crowds on his behalf, it is obvious that Maliki is playing with fire. If he keeps on this path, Sunnis are likely to protest not just with demonstrations but with bombs and bullets.

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The Times’s Idea of “Tax Reform”

The New York Times has a lead editorial today called “Why the Economy Needs Tax Reform.”  It starts off briskly enough:

Over the next four years, tax reform, done right, could be a cure for much of what ails the economy. Higher taxes, raised progressively, could encourage growth by helping to pay for long-neglected public investment in education, infrastructure and basic research. More revenue would also reduce budget deficits, helping to put the nation’s finances on a stable path. Greater progressivity would reduce rising income inequality, and with it, inequality of opportunity that is both an economic and social scourge.

Higher and more progressive taxation, in other words, is just the medicine the economy needs to begin to flourish again for the first time in six years. If the Times can produce even a single instance in history where higher and more progressive taxation led to economic prosperity I will eat my hat. The Times’s formula is precisely what FDR tried in the Great Depression. It didn’t work; the depression lingered on and on. But I can give you numerous instances where tax cutting produced near-instant prosperity (the 1920s, the 1960s, the 1980s, the 2000s in this country and many another instances in other countries; see this from Power Line).

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The New York Times has a lead editorial today called “Why the Economy Needs Tax Reform.”  It starts off briskly enough:

Over the next four years, tax reform, done right, could be a cure for much of what ails the economy. Higher taxes, raised progressively, could encourage growth by helping to pay for long-neglected public investment in education, infrastructure and basic research. More revenue would also reduce budget deficits, helping to put the nation’s finances on a stable path. Greater progressivity would reduce rising income inequality, and with it, inequality of opportunity that is both an economic and social scourge.

Higher and more progressive taxation, in other words, is just the medicine the economy needs to begin to flourish again for the first time in six years. If the Times can produce even a single instance in history where higher and more progressive taxation led to economic prosperity I will eat my hat. The Times’s formula is precisely what FDR tried in the Great Depression. It didn’t work; the depression lingered on and on. But I can give you numerous instances where tax cutting produced near-instant prosperity (the 1920s, the 1960s, the 1980s, the 2000s in this country and many another instances in other countries; see this from Power Line).

Yes, Clinton raised taxes in 1993 and the economy prospered for the next seven years. But that is a classic case of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. The economy was already growing well and the real economic growth of the 1990s (and the great rise in the Dow Jones Industrial Average) began only in November 1994, when a Republican Congress was elected and put real brakes on government spending. Government spending rose only 22 percent between 1994 and 2000, while revenues rose by 61 percent. 

As for increased spending on education, the country spends about four times as much, per pupil, in constant dollars, as it did in 1950. So public investment in education has hardly been long-neglected, but the results have been dismal. Obviously, money is not the problem here. Neither is it in higher education, where tuition has been rising far faster than either inflation or medical costs (a clear indication that a cartel is at work). But much of the increased income has gone not to better educating students but to administrative bloat on an epic scale. The University of Wisconsin at Madison has someone on the payroll with the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up title of Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate.

As for reducing income inequality—which is simply assumed by the left to be pernicious without a shred of evidence being presented that it is—you can read what I think about this spectacularly stupid idea here.

The Times goes on:

A logical way to help raise the additional needed revenue would be to tax capital gains at the same rates as ordinary income. Capital gains on assets held for more than a year before selling are taxed at about the lowest rate in the code, currently 15 percent and expected to rise to 20 percent in 2013. That is an indefensible giveaway to the richest Americans. Research shows that the tax breaks do not add to economic growth but do contribute to inequality. Currently, the top 1 percent of taxpayers receive more than 70 percent of all capital gains, while the bottom 80 percent receive only 6 percent.

Let’s pick apart this farrago of intellectual dishonesty. Yes, capital gains are taxed at a low rate compared to ordinary income. But capital gains in stocks and small businesses come, indirectly, out of after-tax income. Publicly-held corporations pay corporate income taxes (35 percent). What’s left over and not paid out as dividends (also taxed a second time) adds to the book value and hence, indirectly, the stock price. The profits of sub-chapter-S corporations are taxed as the personal income of the stock holders, so, again, the retained earnings have already been taxed when the capital gains are realized. As for the capital gains in, say, a house sale, they are taxed without regard to inflation. So a house that was owned for, say, 40 years and sold in 2012 would have experienced over a five-times inflation but would be taxed as though there had been no inflation in those 40 years.

As for much of total capital gains flowing to the top 1 percent of taxpayers, this is lying with statistics. It implicitly assumes that the top 1 percent is the same group of people year after year (a group of J. P. Morgan clones sitting around in frock coats and top hats, I suppose, lighting cigars with $100 bills). But many of those in the top 1 percent this year won’t be there next year. For example, a small-business owner who worked for 50 years to build his business and then retires and sells the business for, say $2 million. He’s in the 1 percent that year. Next year, living on his retirement income and with no capital gains, he is not. But he worked hard for 50 years, so let’s penalize that effort and that success with confiscatory taxation.

The Times even calls for higher corporate taxes, although American corporate income taxes are now the highest in the world. Has the Times not noticed that capital is now totally global, that it can–and will–flow to where the return is the highest?

Finally there is this:

Mr. Obama would be wise to instruct the Treasury Department to start work on tax reform now, exploring carbon taxes, both to raise revenue and to protect the environment; a value-added tax, coupled with provisions to protect lower-income taxpayers from higher prices, to tax consumption and encourage saving; and a financial transactions tax, to ensure that the financial sector, whose profits have substantially outpaced those of nonfinancial corporations, pay a fair share.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that for the New York Times editorial board, tax reform and more and higher taxes are simply the same thing. And that the purpose of taxation is two-fold. One, to feed, without restraint, the ever more ravenous federal beast, and, two, to punish economic success. The financial sector earns a higher return on its capital than other sectors? How dare it? We’ll fix that!

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The Tragic Cruelty of Vladimir Putin

It is hard to overstate the cynicism and cruelty of Vladimir Putin. He is willing to use orphans as his pawns in his public-relations battle against the West. That’s no exaggeration, given that he has just signed a law forbidding Americans to adopt Russian children. Approximately 650,000 of them live in orphanages and foster care including a substantial number who are sick or disabled and are unlikely to ever find a permanent home. Russian orphanages have a reputation for terrible conditions and rampant abuse. They are some of the grimmest places to live in the industrialized world.

If the new law had not been passed, a few of the kids stuck there would undoubtedly have benefitted from being adopted by well-meaning Americans such as Heather and Aaron Whaley of Frederick, Maryland, who say they are devout Christians eager to adopt a 4-year-old Russian girl with developmental issues. But now that is not to be.

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It is hard to overstate the cynicism and cruelty of Vladimir Putin. He is willing to use orphans as his pawns in his public-relations battle against the West. That’s no exaggeration, given that he has just signed a law forbidding Americans to adopt Russian children. Approximately 650,000 of them live in orphanages and foster care including a substantial number who are sick or disabled and are unlikely to ever find a permanent home. Russian orphanages have a reputation for terrible conditions and rampant abuse. They are some of the grimmest places to live in the industrialized world.

If the new law had not been passed, a few of the kids stuck there would undoubtedly have benefitted from being adopted by well-meaning Americans such as Heather and Aaron Whaley of Frederick, Maryland, who say they are devout Christians eager to adopt a 4-year-old Russian girl with developmental issues. But now that is not to be.

And why not? Because Putin signed the adoption-ban as a way to retaliate for the Sergei L. Magnitsky Act passed by Congress, which prevents Russians accused of human rights abuses from visiting the U.S. or owning property here. (Magnitsky was a crusading Russian lawyer who tried to expose official malfeasance and was thrown into prison, where he died after being denied medical care.) In other words Putin is compounding one human rights violation (against Magnitsky) with another–against orphans eager for a better future.

This gesture is so heartless and calculated that only someone like Putin–”Tsar”Vladimir–would be capable of it. The pity is that he has such complete control of Russian politics that there is little that his opponents can do to block his whims, no matter how inhumane.

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The GOP’s Weak Hand

In her Wall Street Journal column, Kimberley Strassel writes about two lessons the GOP should take from the fiscal cliff negotiations. One is that President Obama is not, and will never be, a serious negotiating partner. The second is that a house divided is a losing house. Ms. Strassel goes on to counsel the GOP to internalize these recent experiences, since the political dynamic won’t change much. In the future, she writes, Republicans “can continue the folly of believing this president will compromise” — or they can “realize that [Obama] will never be reasonable on taxes — and so they can’t give anything away.”

Ms. Strassel is always intelligent and always worth reading. But in this case there are some elements to the story that may complicate her analysis. It could be House Speaker John Boehner, based on his previous negotiations with Obama, went into the talks with the president hopeful but unconvinced he would get a deal this time. Still, Boehner may have made the calculation that he had to offer a plan that was viewed by the public as reasonable and flexible. Why? Because many Americans have (unfortunately) bought into Obama’s critique of the GOP as being obstinate. That is, even if Obama was not intent on compromising with Republicans, Boehner felt like he had to offer a deal that demonstrated the GOP was not being obstructionist and unyielding. So the speaker first offered raising $800 billion in revenues and then offered a second plan raising taxes on those making a million dollars or more.

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In her Wall Street Journal column, Kimberley Strassel writes about two lessons the GOP should take from the fiscal cliff negotiations. One is that President Obama is not, and will never be, a serious negotiating partner. The second is that a house divided is a losing house. Ms. Strassel goes on to counsel the GOP to internalize these recent experiences, since the political dynamic won’t change much. In the future, she writes, Republicans “can continue the folly of believing this president will compromise” — or they can “realize that [Obama] will never be reasonable on taxes — and so they can’t give anything away.”

Ms. Strassel is always intelligent and always worth reading. But in this case there are some elements to the story that may complicate her analysis. It could be House Speaker John Boehner, based on his previous negotiations with Obama, went into the talks with the president hopeful but unconvinced he would get a deal this time. Still, Boehner may have made the calculation that he had to offer a plan that was viewed by the public as reasonable and flexible. Why? Because many Americans have (unfortunately) bought into Obama’s critique of the GOP as being obstinate. That is, even if Obama was not intent on compromising with Republicans, Boehner felt like he had to offer a deal that demonstrated the GOP was not being obstructionist and unyielding. So the speaker first offered raising $800 billion in revenues and then offered a second plan raising taxes on those making a million dollars or more.

As for the House sticking together: The premise here is that in presenting a unified front, Republicans can force Obama to “fully own his mistakes” on issues like the stimulus legislation and ObamaCare. But the difference is that the stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act were considerably less popular than Obama’s stand on raising taxes on the highest income brackets. That’s why Republicans were able to stay united on the former but have broken ranks on the latter. It may be that in this particular circumstance, if Republicans stand shoulder-to-shoulder against raising any taxes, even on those making a million dollars or more, it won’t have the effect of strengthening the GOP but rather weakening it. Going over the fiscal cliff would allow the president to come back with a proposal early next year in which he cuts taxes for 98 percent of the tax-paying public, which is hardly ideal for the Republican Party.

To state the obvious: There are no good options for Republicans, who are playing an exceedingly weak hand. The president knows it. Republicans therefore have to find a way to extricate themselves from this mess while inflicting minimum damage on themselves and the country. They have to embrace a tactical retreat in order to live to fight another day. Agreeing to a bad deal in order to avoid an even worse (political and economic) outcome is not an appealing choice for Republicans. But it may be the most prudent one.

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FISA Reflects Bipartisan Consensus on Antiterror Tactics

At a time when partisan gridlock in Washington threatens to send us plunging over the fiscal cliff, it is comforting to know that at least in some areas lawmakers can still reach bipartisan consensus. Not many admittedly, but there are some–such as the Senate’s vote, 73 to 23, to extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as amended in 2008, when lawmakers gave their imprimatur to what had been an executive initiative undertaken by President George W. Bush to monitor potential terrorists’ communications after 9/11.

Bush had torn down the wall which had prohibited monitoring foreign terrorists’ communications with people in the U.S. absent a court order. This had become controversial when it was publicly revealed, but Congress stepped in to provide the authority needed. Now Congress has extended that authority, and in so doing, senators turned back numerous attempts by lawmakers on both the far-left and far-right to stop or water down this legislation, which is badly needed by our intelligence agencies.

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At a time when partisan gridlock in Washington threatens to send us plunging over the fiscal cliff, it is comforting to know that at least in some areas lawmakers can still reach bipartisan consensus. Not many admittedly, but there are some–such as the Senate’s vote, 73 to 23, to extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as amended in 2008, when lawmakers gave their imprimatur to what had been an executive initiative undertaken by President George W. Bush to monitor potential terrorists’ communications after 9/11.

Bush had torn down the wall which had prohibited monitoring foreign terrorists’ communications with people in the U.S. absent a court order. This had become controversial when it was publicly revealed, but Congress stepped in to provide the authority needed. Now Congress has extended that authority, and in so doing, senators turned back numerous attempts by lawmakers on both the far-left and far-right to stop or water down this legislation, which is badly needed by our intelligence agencies.

This shows how, after the initial controversies over the war on terror, a remarkable degree of bipartisan consensus has been reached in favor of measures such as wiretapping, drone strikes and detentions atGuantanamo that were once highly controversial. Other measures, such as “enhanced interrogation” techniques, which could not survive popular scrutiny, have been shelved. But the fact is that President Obama has continued most of the anti-terrorism measures begun under the previous administration and he has done so with the support of the Democratic-controlled Senate. That is good for the fight against terrorism and good for the country in general.

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Obama Falling for Iran Deception Again?

During the last decade both the Obama administration and its predecessor went down the garden path with Iran several times. Yet every time Washington believed the Islamist regime was finally embracing diplomacy and that a solution to the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions was imminent, the ayatollahs pulled the rug out from under its gullible Western adversaries. This has happened so many times that one would think it would be impossible for the Iranians to pull off this trick again, but it appears that the United States is about to play Charlie Brown to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Lucy Van Pelt and her football again.

Using its usual anonymous sources within the Obama administration, the New York Times is claiming that Iran has sent a clear signal to the West that it is ready negotiate about its nuclear program. The paper reports that according to unnamed government officials Iran has slowed down its enrichment of uranium in recent months. The use of what is described as a “significant amount” of material for a small medical reactor may affect Iran’s nuclear timetable. This has led the U.S. to believe that the Iranians are sending a signal to the West that they are ready to negotiate rather than to continue to stonewall the world on the issue:

One American official said the move amounted to trying to “put more time on the clock to solve this,” characterizing it as a step “you have to assume was highly calculated, because everything the Iranians do in a negotiation is highly calculated.”

No doubt it was calculated, but there is plenty of reason to doubt that calculation has anything to do with a desire to negotiate an end to their program—the goal that President Obama said was the only sort of compromise he would accept during his foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney.

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During the last decade both the Obama administration and its predecessor went down the garden path with Iran several times. Yet every time Washington believed the Islamist regime was finally embracing diplomacy and that a solution to the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions was imminent, the ayatollahs pulled the rug out from under its gullible Western adversaries. This has happened so many times that one would think it would be impossible for the Iranians to pull off this trick again, but it appears that the United States is about to play Charlie Brown to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Lucy Van Pelt and her football again.

Using its usual anonymous sources within the Obama administration, the New York Times is claiming that Iran has sent a clear signal to the West that it is ready negotiate about its nuclear program. The paper reports that according to unnamed government officials Iran has slowed down its enrichment of uranium in recent months. The use of what is described as a “significant amount” of material for a small medical reactor may affect Iran’s nuclear timetable. This has led the U.S. to believe that the Iranians are sending a signal to the West that they are ready to negotiate rather than to continue to stonewall the world on the issue:

One American official said the move amounted to trying to “put more time on the clock to solve this,” characterizing it as a step “you have to assume was highly calculated, because everything the Iranians do in a negotiation is highly calculated.”

No doubt it was calculated, but there is plenty of reason to doubt that calculation has anything to do with a desire to negotiate an end to their program—the goal that President Obama said was the only sort of compromise he would accept during his foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney.

The diversion to the medical reactor was reportedly the reason why Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak thought that the deadline for stopping Iran had been moved back to late spring/early summer 2013. But since even according to these estimates Iran will have enough fuel for a weapon in only a few months, that doesn’t really alter President Obama’s dilemma.

The international sanctions imposed on Iran have created a great deal of pain for ordinary Iranians but haven’t altered the regime’s determination to press ahead toward a nuclear weapon one jot. The increased pace of enrichment and the move of most of their material to a hardened underground mountain facility at Fordow have been a flagrant demonstration of the regime’s contempt for the West’s calls for them to stop. In this context, the diversion to the medical reactor seems more like a tactical move designed to generate more U.S. confidence in diplomacy—boosted by articles in the Times—then a strategic decision to back away from their nuclear goal. If so, it has achieved exactly what they wanted at the cost of only a slight delay in their schedule.

So long as the administration and its European allies are convinced their diplomatic efforts have hope—no matter how faint or unrealistic that hope might be—the Iranians can rest assured that there is little danger of the president making good on his promise to do whatever it is necessary in order to forestall this threat.

After so many examples in recent years of Iran gulling the West on this issue, it is difficult to understand why the administration would even think about falling for the same trick again. The only possible reason to grasp onto such a hope would be the fact that neither the president nor any of his current foreign policy team or their second-term replacements are really interested in a confrontation with Tehran even over an issue as serious as this.

That’s why, as was the case in the past with similar diplomatic dead-ends pursued by first the George W. Bush administration and then its successor, a willingness to believe in the possibility of a diplomatic opening with Iran has more to do with a desire to punt on the issue rather than any sincere belief that a deal is even possible. It remains to be seen whether President Obama really means what he says about keeping all options on the table if diplomacy with Iran conclusively fails. But so long as his administration is determined to fall for every  Iranian  deception, there is little likelihood that promise will ever be put to the test until it is already too late to do anything about the threat.

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Senate GOP to Hold Kerry Confirmation Until Clinton Testifies?

Hillary Clinton is returning to work next week, and apparently some Senate Republicans are considering holding John Kerry’s confirmation vote hostage unless she testifies on Benghazi. Sounds to me like an empty threat, but over to Josh Rogin

Clinton has pledged to remain in the job until Kerry is confirmed, which Obama said he was confident would happen “quickly.” The Senate is expected to take up Kerry’s nomination in early January, but multiple Republican senators have already said they won’t agree to a vote on Kerry’s nomination until Clinton testifies about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. Illness and a concussion has prevented Clinton from appearing thus far.

For the sake of accountability, Clinton should testify—but to be honest, she probably wouldn’t add much more than what her deputies have already said. The real benefit of her testimony for Republicans would be that she might say something self-incriminating that could be used when she runs for president in 2016. She probably knows this, which is why she’d be crazy to do it unless she’s compelled to. After all, if the GOP wants her to testify badly enough, the House foreign affairs committee can always issue a subpoena.

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Hillary Clinton is returning to work next week, and apparently some Senate Republicans are considering holding John Kerry’s confirmation vote hostage unless she testifies on Benghazi. Sounds to me like an empty threat, but over to Josh Rogin

Clinton has pledged to remain in the job until Kerry is confirmed, which Obama said he was confident would happen “quickly.” The Senate is expected to take up Kerry’s nomination in early January, but multiple Republican senators have already said they won’t agree to a vote on Kerry’s nomination until Clinton testifies about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. Illness and a concussion has prevented Clinton from appearing thus far.

For the sake of accountability, Clinton should testify—but to be honest, she probably wouldn’t add much more than what her deputies have already said. The real benefit of her testimony for Republicans would be that she might say something self-incriminating that could be used when she runs for president in 2016. She probably knows this, which is why she’d be crazy to do it unless she’s compelled to. After all, if the GOP wants her to testify badly enough, the House foreign affairs committee can always issue a subpoena.

Republicans have already used up a lot of their chips opposing Susan Rice and Chuck Hagel, so it seems like an overreach to try to tinker with Kerry’s nomination, too. Plus, I find it hard to believe there’s much support for this idea among Senate Republicans. Senate Republicans were the ones lobbying for Kerry’s nomination. They already have their scalp from Susan Rice. Why fritter away a victory by choosing a fight they’d probably lose?

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Cliff Deal Could Shift Public Opinion

If reports filtering out of Washington are to be believed there is a fair chance that a compromise will be reached sometime over the next three days that will head off the most unpopular aspect of the impending financial crisis: across the board tax increases for all Americans. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the compromise which may be crafted between the White House and the leaders of the House and Senate will avoid dealing with the spending cuts mandated by the sequestration process including devastating decreases for the nation’s defense.

President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have given every indication that they think it is in their interest to see the nation head over the fiscal cliff making any sort of compromise appear like a last minute rescue no matter how unfortunate its terms might be. Most Americans are of the opinion that any deal that would limit the scope of a tax increase is better than no action at all. They are right about that but the fact that it appears impossible to do anything about spending either in the short term or the long right now represents a massive failure on the part of the government. While up until now much of the public still appears to be blaming the mess on recalcitrant Republicans who oppose any tax increases, the unwillingness of the president and Senate Democrats to budge on entitlement spending even in the shadow of potential disaster may eventually lead to a shift in opinion.

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If reports filtering out of Washington are to be believed there is a fair chance that a compromise will be reached sometime over the next three days that will head off the most unpopular aspect of the impending financial crisis: across the board tax increases for all Americans. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the compromise which may be crafted between the White House and the leaders of the House and Senate will avoid dealing with the spending cuts mandated by the sequestration process including devastating decreases for the nation’s defense.

President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have given every indication that they think it is in their interest to see the nation head over the fiscal cliff making any sort of compromise appear like a last minute rescue no matter how unfortunate its terms might be. Most Americans are of the opinion that any deal that would limit the scope of a tax increase is better than no action at all. They are right about that but the fact that it appears impossible to do anything about spending either in the short term or the long right now represents a massive failure on the part of the government. While up until now much of the public still appears to be blaming the mess on recalcitrant Republicans who oppose any tax increases, the unwillingness of the president and Senate Democrats to budge on entitlement spending even in the shadow of potential disaster may eventually lead to a shift in opinion.

If some sort of narrow deal is reached in the coming days, it will make it all the more necessary for Republicans to be even more determined to do something about spending in January. It is at that point that an overconfident President Obama may discover that once he has his long sought after tax hike on the wealthy, the GOP stand against more government spending may start looking a lot more reasonable to most Americans.

The president has been able to demagogue the issue of the rich paying what he says is their fair share and thereby avoided being held accountable for the massive increase in the national debt on his watch. Yet once taxes cease to be the sticking point, it will be difficult if not impossible for him and his party to use the soak-the-rich theme to evade a discussion about how to pay for out-of-control entitlement spending.

House Speaker John Boehner seemed to lose control of the Republican caucus last week in a battle in which conservatives opposed to a tax increase on anyone were numerous enough to prevent his Plan B compromise from passing. That was a blow to his prestige and leadership. But in the coming weeks he could recoup his losses as a united GOP will have the chance to stand up to the Democrats on entitlement reform.

It is that prospect of a new debate in which he will no longer be able to rely on the hoary claims of fairness that Obama rightly fears. It can only be hoped that there are enough Democrats in the House and the Senate who are sufficiently concerned about the impact of the fiscal cliff on their constituents in order to override the desire of the president and Reid to send the country over it.

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Schwarzkopf’s Legacy

The death of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf will call up, for many Americans, a certain nostalgia for a supposedly better time when we actually “won” wars. The Gulf War of 1991 was, after all, the last truly feel-good war that America has had—the last one that ended in a victory parade back home. But of course on slightly closer examination the definitive nature of the Gulf War—once so obvious—becomes decidedly fuzzy.

The war was a clear-cut victory only in the sense that Kuwait was liberated. But the good feelings deriving from this outcome were dissipated in large measure when Saddam Hussein remained in power and used his remaining military forces to crush Shiite and Kurd rebellions that had been encouraged by the United States. The U.S., in turn, was to spend the next decade enforcing no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq—and then in 2003 George W. Bush launched another war to finish what his father had started. That war, in turn, would drag on for nearly another decade and end inconclusively with a unilateral American withdrawal.

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The death of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf will call up, for many Americans, a certain nostalgia for a supposedly better time when we actually “won” wars. The Gulf War of 1991 was, after all, the last truly feel-good war that America has had—the last one that ended in a victory parade back home. But of course on slightly closer examination the definitive nature of the Gulf War—once so obvious—becomes decidedly fuzzy.

The war was a clear-cut victory only in the sense that Kuwait was liberated. But the good feelings deriving from this outcome were dissipated in large measure when Saddam Hussein remained in power and used his remaining military forces to crush Shiite and Kurd rebellions that had been encouraged by the United States. The U.S., in turn, was to spend the next decade enforcing no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq—and then in 2003 George W. Bush launched another war to finish what his father had started. That war, in turn, would drag on for nearly another decade and end inconclusively with a unilateral American withdrawal.

There is nothing remarkable about this—even World War II, supposedly the “good war,” ended in a muddle whose legacy included the Cold War and the hot wars in Korea and Vietnam. The very existence of North Korea, which continues to bedevil us with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, is an offshoot of the ceasefire that ended World War II. But it runs counter to the myth that somehow wars have ever been easier to end than they are today.

What was Schwarzkopf’s role in the mixed outcome of the Gulf War? Certainly he played less of a part than more senior figures such as President George H.W. Bush, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Colin Powell. It was they, and ultimately the commander-in-chief alone, who gave the military its marching orders, set narrow war goals (perhaps justifiably, in light of how difficult it subsequently proved to pacify Iraq), and insisted on ending the ground war after 100 hours even though Saddam’s elite Republican Guard had not yet been destroyed. Even if the George H.W. Bush administration’s decision to stop short of occupying Iraq looks better in hindsight, its willingness to encourage revolts against Saddam and then leave the people of Iraq to his tender mercies tarnished what was otherwise a proud moment in our military history.

Schwarzkopf’s responsibility for the outcome was secondary, but he did not do enough to warn the politicos about the consequences of their actions and he did convey somewhat misleading information about how far advanced his plans for the destruction of the Republican Guard actually were. Even worse, in the cease-fire negotiations which he handled personally, he naively allowed the Iraqi regime to continue flying rotary-wing aircraft, little realizing that they would be used for the suppression of popular revolts.

“Stormin’ Norman” apparently did not view it as his duty to deal with such matters. He was a superb soldier who inspired the troops and kept confidence in the war effort back home (and around the world) with his bravado briefings. But he exemplified the narrowly tactical outlook adopted by most U.S. military commanders—one that makes it harder to translate tactical success into lasting strategic success.

None of this should take away from his genuine heroism, exemplified by an incident during the Vietnam War when, as a battalion commander, he ventured into a minefield to pull some of his soldiers to safety. Nor does it deprecate his considerable dedication to the Army and the country, and the great skill he showed in implementing (if not designing) the famous “left hook” which routed Saddam Hussein’s army.

But it does suggest that there were certain limits to his generalship which, as Tom Ricks argues in his new book The Generals, continue to confound the U.S. to this day—witness the uninspired performance in Iraq of Ricardo Sanchez, George Casey, and other generals who were perfectly competent tacticians but did not always grasp the big picture. One of the few exceptions was David Petraeus, but now he is disgraced because of a scandal unrelated to his military capabilities.

There are a few potential successors to Petraeus waiting in the wings, but they must face long odds to rise to the top in an Army bureaucracy that favors hard-charging tacticians such as Norman Schwarzkopf or Tommy Franks over geo-strategic big thinkers. Trying to revise those personnel policies should be a major to-do item on the agenda of the next secretary of defense, whoever that may be.

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Administration Abandoning Hagel

Politico’s Mike Allen reported on “Morning Joe” today that Chuck Hagel’s potential defense secretary nomination is on the rocks, after the administration realized there is “not a natural constituency for him.” Don’t ask why it took them that long to figure that one out:

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Politico’s Mike Allen reported on “Morning Joe” today that Chuck Hagel’s potential defense secretary nomination is on the rocks, after the administration realized there is “not a natural constituency for him.” Don’t ask why it took them that long to figure that one out:

Allen names Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy as the new top two possibilities. Hagel supporters will blame the collapse of his bid on the Israel lobby because it’s an easy target, but it almost seemed like the White House was more concerned with the backlash from the gay community and liberal supporters. The only time Hagel responded to criticism was when the Human Rights Campaign denounced his controversial 1998 comments about a gay diplomat. But he never acknowledged or apologized for his “Jewish lobby” remark, or his refusal to sign a letter condemning anti-Semitism. 

Speaking of which, the Log Cabin Republicans published a full-page ad in the New York Times this morning opposing Hagel’s nomination and calling him “Bad on Gay Rights. Bad on Iran. Bad on Israel.” The White House may have thought it could deal with the Israel and Iran criticism, since it gets that all the time anyway. But when Republican groups start criticizing a potential Obama nominee for having a bad record on gay rights, that’s not a position the administration wants to be in.

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The Women and the Wall Between Israel and the Diaspora

In the last week, the New York Times has published two articles on the simmering controversy in Israel over the right of non-Orthodox Jewish women to worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The Wall may be a sacred site for all Jews, but it is operated as an open air Orthodox synagogue under the authority of a foundation determined to keep it that way. Thus the desire of women who adhere to the beliefs of Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism to pray with Torah scrolls and in prayer shawls is considered a breach of the peace leading to unfortunate scenes in which female worshipers have been dragged off to jail. As far as most American Jews are concerned this is an outrage, and the latest argument over the activities of the Women of the Wall, who have been pushing to change the status quo there, has created another surge of anger that has led Prime Minister Netanyahu to say that he will initiate a study by Natan Sharansky that will seek to explore ways to make the place more accommodating to all Jews.

Whether Netanyahu is sincere or not, the Women of the Wall are entitled to react to this proposal with cynicism. It’s highly unlikely that Netanyahu will do anything at the Wall to upset the religious parties that make up his governing coalition. The non-Orthodox—who make up the overwhelming majority of American Jews—can choose to see this as one more reason to distance themselves from the Jewish state. But the reason why nothing is likely to change there tells us more about the divide between Israeli Jews and those of the Diaspora than any bad will on the part of the prime minister. The problem here is not so much prejudice against Reform and Conservative Judaism—though that exists in abundance among the Orthodox establishment in Israel—but the fact that those denominations remain tiny and without much influence in the country.

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In the last week, the New York Times has published two articles on the simmering controversy in Israel over the right of non-Orthodox Jewish women to worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The Wall may be a sacred site for all Jews, but it is operated as an open air Orthodox synagogue under the authority of a foundation determined to keep it that way. Thus the desire of women who adhere to the beliefs of Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism to pray with Torah scrolls and in prayer shawls is considered a breach of the peace leading to unfortunate scenes in which female worshipers have been dragged off to jail. As far as most American Jews are concerned this is an outrage, and the latest argument over the activities of the Women of the Wall, who have been pushing to change the status quo there, has created another surge of anger that has led Prime Minister Netanyahu to say that he will initiate a study by Natan Sharansky that will seek to explore ways to make the place more accommodating to all Jews.

Whether Netanyahu is sincere or not, the Women of the Wall are entitled to react to this proposal with cynicism. It’s highly unlikely that Netanyahu will do anything at the Wall to upset the religious parties that make up his governing coalition. The non-Orthodox—who make up the overwhelming majority of American Jews—can choose to see this as one more reason to distance themselves from the Jewish state. But the reason why nothing is likely to change there tells us more about the divide between Israeli Jews and those of the Diaspora than any bad will on the part of the prime minister. The problem here is not so much prejudice against Reform and Conservative Judaism—though that exists in abundance among the Orthodox establishment in Israel—but the fact that those denominations remain tiny and without much influence in the country.

The battle over the Women of the Wall is just one more illustration of the gap between the rhetoric about Israel being the heritage of all of the Jewish people and the fact that the country is, as a matter of course, always going to be governed to suit the needs and the beliefs of those who live there.

In the United States, where the Orthodox remain a minority in the Jewish community—albeit the only one that is growing rather than shrinking in terms of population—the treatment of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel remains a source of anger and puzzlement. To many American Jews, the fact that Reform and Conservative rabbis and congregations in Israel are not given the same support as those of the Orthodox seems to be an expression of pure bias. The relegation of the Women of the Wall to an out-of-the-way section of the Wall known as Robinson’s Arch for their prayer services is viewed as a contradiction of the country’s purpose as the homeland of all of the Jewish people.

But as much as the Reform and Conservative movements have made some strides in recent years, they remain a tiny minority in the country. It may no longer be true that, as some wags used to say, there are more Scientologists in Israel than Reform or Conservative Jews, but the same point still applies: the political constituency inside Israel for equal treatment for non-Orthodox denominations is practically non-existent.

To those who say that politics should have no role in determining decisions that ought to be made on the basis of the principles of religious freedom and pluralism, the only response is to point out that this is one point on which Israel has more in common with European democracies where there is an established religion than with the United States. In a country such as Israel where religion and state are not separated as they are in America and the clergy is paid by the state, the question of who is a rabbi is inherently political.

Though, as critics of the Orthodox establishment rightly point out, most Israelis are not observant, the vast majority still sees Orthodoxy as the only valid form of Judaism. By contrast, Reform and Conservative Judaism are viewed as foreign imports whose adherents are mostly American immigrants. There is strong support among the Israeli electorate for disestablishing or cutting back on the influence of rabbinate, but there is little interest in the question of giving equal treatment to the non-Orthodox. That is a source of understandable frustration for American Jews, but until the ranks of Conservative and Reform Judaism inside Israel swell to the point that they have some kind of political clout, no Israeli government will care much about them. This is also the reason why most Israelis either don’t care about the Women of the Wall or dismiss them as publicity-seeking Diaspora troublemakers.

The symbolism of the Wall is such that Netanyahu is right to make some sort of gesture about the issue that will calm American Jewry. The Wall ought never to have been allowed to become yet another point of contention in this manner. Letting the Orthodox authorities abuse the non-Orthodox who wish to worship there according to their own lights is a problem that can only worsen the already tattered ties between Israel and the Diaspora. But stripping it of Orthodox control simply isn’t in the cards. That doesn’t make what has happened at the Wall right, but the fact that most American Jews don’t understand why this is so just illustrates how little they know about the country. 

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Why a Jordanian-Palestinian Confederation Is Unrealistic

On the list of possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, somewhere between “fully independent Palestinian state on PA territory” and “Jordan is Palestine” falls a hybrid of the two: “Jordanian-Palestinian confederation.” Longtime Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab writes in the Atlantic that the idea seems to be experiencing something of a revival. Most notably, Mahmoud Abbas himself has reportedly suggested its consideration.

A Jordanian-Palestinian confederation in some ways is a relic of the past, before a fully independent Palestinian state was regarded as the consensus solution to the conflict. Kuttab notes that since the Palestinians’ unilateral declaration at the United Nations gave them symbolic recognition, Abbas may be open to the idea of a confederation, in which a state of Palestine would be technically independent but Jordan would play a role in maintaining security and probably—though this hasn’t been spelled out—in the Palestinian state’s general foreign affairs portfolio. But the idea is less realistic than it may seem. Kuttab, unfortunately, doesn’t discuss why that is. He writes:

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On the list of possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, somewhere between “fully independent Palestinian state on PA territory” and “Jordan is Palestine” falls a hybrid of the two: “Jordanian-Palestinian confederation.” Longtime Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab writes in the Atlantic that the idea seems to be experiencing something of a revival. Most notably, Mahmoud Abbas himself has reportedly suggested its consideration.

A Jordanian-Palestinian confederation in some ways is a relic of the past, before a fully independent Palestinian state was regarded as the consensus solution to the conflict. Kuttab notes that since the Palestinians’ unilateral declaration at the United Nations gave them symbolic recognition, Abbas may be open to the idea of a confederation, in which a state of Palestine would be technically independent but Jordan would play a role in maintaining security and probably—though this hasn’t been spelled out—in the Palestinian state’s general foreign affairs portfolio. But the idea is less realistic than it may seem. Kuttab, unfortunately, doesn’t discuss why that is. He writes:

While it is unclear if Jordan will ever end up having any sovereign role in the West Bank, support for a greater role for Jordan in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will no doubt increase in the coming months and years if the current decline of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority continues. The one determining factor in all of the discussions will have to come from the Israeli side, which has yet to decide whether it will relinquish sovereignty over the areas occupied in 1967 to any Arab party, whether it be Palestinian or Jordanian.

In fact, that is not case. The Israeli government has publicly committed itself to the notion of two states for two peoples, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly he doesn’t want to “rule over” the Palestinians. The popularity of “Jordan is Palestine” among Israeli military personalities and even some on the right shows that many Israelis are certainly willing to “relinquish sovereignty” over much of the West Bank (and Gaza, which they have already done) if they feel secure in doing so. But the Arab world—now that’s a different story.

Arab states in the Middle East, especially those near the Palestinian territories, have never made any secret of their opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Diplomatically, they have torpedoed the process every chance they’ve had. And the closer the two sides get, or the more time they spend in negotiations, the less money Arab states tend to offer the Palestinian Authority to keep it afloat. At times, the West is lucky if the Arab states even let Abbas negotiate.

In the summer of 2008, as the U.S. tried to re-engage in the peace process, the Washington Post reported that Arab states were not delivering the aid they pledged to the Palestinian Authority. More troubling was why: when the terrorist entity Hamas left the PA unity government (I use the term “unity” loosely here), the checks stopped coming. The Arab states were sabotaging the peace process by funding radical terrorist elements that opposed peace and supported continuous terrorism against Israel, while refusing to support the more moderate elements of the Palestinian Authority. That was under the Bush administration, but almost exactly three years later the Obama administration faced the same problem when it noticed that Arab aid to the Palestinians had fallen more than 80 percent in a two-year span.

States like Qatar continue to undermine the PA and Abbas by flooding Hamas-run Gaza with cash while leaving the PA to beg for scraps. (The Saudis aren’t much better in this department.)

The other problem for a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation is that while the Palestinians would have a technically independent state, they would surely have some restrictions that they have always balked at. Israeli negotiators have said repeatedly that the Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized and that the IDF would still play a role in security there, including approving the use of Palestinian airspace. A Jordanian-Palestinian confederation would likely have similar Palestinian restrictions, with Jordan playing a larger role than Israel on some of these issues.

And finally, there is another reason Jordan is unlikely to want to join such a confederation. What if the Palestinians decided they didn’t want Jordanian military personnel on their new state’s territory after a few years? Would the Jordanians fight an armed uprising against their military installations? Would they risk re-occupying and absorbing the Palestinians on the West Bank? Once Abbas is gone, would an agreement he signed on behalf of the Palestinians be worth the paper on which it was written?

The fact remains that Arab states do not want the creation of a Palestinian state, and, unlike with regard to Israel, the international community doesn’t much pressure them to take a more proactive approach, despite both Jordan’s and Egypt’s obvious role bringing about the current situation by repeatedly launching wars of annihilation against the Jewish state. An Arab world that played a constructive role in the conflict would be a first.

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