Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 10, 2012

What If Conservatives Have Lost the Argument?

The debate over the “fiscal cliff” is an important tactical one and could have widespread political ramifications. There are complicated issues to consider. Should the Republicans give in to Mr. Obama’s demand that we raise the top tax rates? If so, what should they demand in return? If they don’t get it, is it more prudent to retreat in order to fight another day on more advantageous ground for the GOP? Or should Republicans be willing to go cliff diving with the president, confident that in the end Obama will own any future recession?

Whatever the answer to these tactical questions, the fiscal cliff raises a broader question for conservatism: What do you do when you’ve lost an argument, at least for now? In the post-election ABC News/Washington Post poll, for example, 60 percent of respondents said they support raising taxes on incomes over $250,000 a year. That’s not surprising, since to the degree that there was a centerpiece to the president’s economic argument during the 2012 election, it was to do just that. Mr. Obama was not only re-elected on that platform; he won by a comfortable margin. In the Senate, Democrats gained two seats while in the House they gained eight seats.

So here’s something to consider. Assume for the sake of the argument that this debate has been engaged and adjudicated by the public–and the public prefers the liberal solution (raising taxes on the “rich” in the name of “fairness”). Does the conservative movement, in order to maintain its strength and appeal, make peace with the public’s view? Or attempt to change it? And if so, how?

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The debate over the “fiscal cliff” is an important tactical one and could have widespread political ramifications. There are complicated issues to consider. Should the Republicans give in to Mr. Obama’s demand that we raise the top tax rates? If so, what should they demand in return? If they don’t get it, is it more prudent to retreat in order to fight another day on more advantageous ground for the GOP? Or should Republicans be willing to go cliff diving with the president, confident that in the end Obama will own any future recession?

Whatever the answer to these tactical questions, the fiscal cliff raises a broader question for conservatism: What do you do when you’ve lost an argument, at least for now? In the post-election ABC News/Washington Post poll, for example, 60 percent of respondents said they support raising taxes on incomes over $250,000 a year. That’s not surprising, since to the degree that there was a centerpiece to the president’s economic argument during the 2012 election, it was to do just that. Mr. Obama was not only re-elected on that platform; he won by a comfortable margin. In the Senate, Democrats gained two seats while in the House they gained eight seats.

So here’s something to consider. Assume for the sake of the argument that this debate has been engaged and adjudicated by the public–and the public prefers the liberal solution (raising taxes on the “rich” in the name of “fairness”). Does the conservative movement, in order to maintain its strength and appeal, make peace with the public’s view? Or attempt to change it? And if so, how?

These questions are too large to tackle in a single post. I simply want to highlight a temptation all of us in politics face, which is to assume that because we hold a certain view, a majority of the public does, too. Those who hold this mindset usually fall back on an explanation that goes something like this: Republican politicians simply didn’t make sufficiently forceful and articulate arguments. If they had, the public would flock to our side since, after all, the arguments are all on our side.

The people who take comfort in this explanation usually reside in the “we have a communications problem” school. They lament the fact that we don’t have another Ronald Reagan to articulate conservatism and if we did, all would be right with the world once more.

I’m partially sympathetic to this view, since it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of quality candidates in advancing an intellectual cause. At the same time, it’s unwise to pin one’s hopes on producing, election after election, a candidate who possesses a once-in-a-lifetime set of skills. And Reagan himself, by 1980, had made peace with major elements of the New Deal (something he had not done in 1964).

As for the here and now: I’m actually conflicted as to what strategy Republicans ought to adopt in their battle with the president over the fiscal cliff, since I believe there are real downsides to capitulating on raising taxes on the top income earners. But however this issue resolves itself, conservatives should be careful not to assume that the problems we face are merely (or mostly) rhetorical. 

It may be that a majority of the public, having heard both sides of the argument, believes that upper-income people are under-taxed. If that’s the case, it would be a significant error for conservatives to assume we simply need to make the same arguments, only louder, with more passion, and with more charts and graphs. It may be that we have to reframe the issue. Or it may be that we have to accept that waging the fight on this ground is injurious to the larger conservative cause. This is a discussion conservatives need to have in a calm, empirical way, resisting the impulse (on all sides) to either purge or impugn motivations — and to bear in mind that if conservatives give in to Obama’s demands, it may be a mistake but it wouldn’t be a violation of a high principle. Deciding on whether the top tax rate should be 35 percent or 39.6 percent, or somewhere in between, is a prudential, not  quasi-theological, argument. 

A final, related point: Conservatives have to be alert to shifting circumstances. Today we face challenges — including wage stagnation, lack of social mobility, globalization, income inequality, fracturing families, and an entitlement crisis — that are in some respects quite different, or at least more acute, than the ones we faced in 1980, when the threats we faced included soaring interest rates, high inflation, and a top marginal rate of 70 percent. This doesn’t mean that the arguments about tax rates and the size of government are passé. But it does mean conservatism has to take into account a realistic assessment of the sentiments of the public — not in order to bow before them, but to be better able to shape them.

This is not, as some might suggest, an argument to abandon conservatism. It’s rather an argument to revivify it.

 

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Conservatives Should Accept PSY’s Apology

PSY–the “Gangnam Style” rapper who performed a radical anti-American song in 2004–has now dragged President Obama into the controversy. The Atlantic reports that Obama is being criticized for shaking hands with the YouTube star after a charity concert last night:

After discovering on Friday that PSY had once spouted a lot of very not nice things about our troops, Americans may no no longer see him as the lovable horse-dancing star we thought we knew and loved — especially not American conservatives, and especially not after last night. Even though he’s apologized, PSY seems to have become (temporarily, at least) the kind of anti-American symbol that can only be killed with fire, and right-wing pundits especially want you to know that President Obama is still okay with him. The two met Sunday at the “Christmas in Washington” charity concert — two days after PSY had apologized for lyrics he rapped in 2004, which called for the killing of American servicemen. And according to the etiquette of the conservative chattering class, the president was not supposed to shake the pop singer’s hand. Of course, from the tone of the reaction, the right is actually kind of glad that he did, because it can accuse the president of more malicious intentions[.] 

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PSY–the “Gangnam Style” rapper who performed a radical anti-American song in 2004–has now dragged President Obama into the controversy. The Atlantic reports that Obama is being criticized for shaking hands with the YouTube star after a charity concert last night:

After discovering on Friday that PSY had once spouted a lot of very not nice things about our troops, Americans may no no longer see him as the lovable horse-dancing star we thought we knew and loved — especially not American conservatives, and especially not after last night. Even though he’s apologized, PSY seems to have become (temporarily, at least) the kind of anti-American symbol that can only be killed with fire, and right-wing pundits especially want you to know that President Obama is still okay with him. The two met Sunday at the “Christmas in Washington” charity concert — two days after PSY had apologized for lyrics he rapped in 2004, which called for the killing of American servicemen. And according to the etiquette of the conservative chattering class, the president was not supposed to shake the pop singer’s hand. Of course, from the tone of the reaction, the right is actually kind of glad that he did, because it can accuse the president of more malicious intentions[.] 

To recap: Eight years ago, PSY performed a song that talked about killing American troops and their families. Needless to say, the lyrics were vile. While PSY did not write the song — it was written by a South Korean band he was performing on stage with — he did sing it, and seemed to agree with it. 

This extreme anti-Americanism was common sadly among young people in South Korea at the time. But it was also unjustified and abhorrent, which PSY now seems to realize. After the video of his performance became public last week, he apologized and praised the U.S. troops for their service.

“I understand the sacrifices American servicemen and women have made to protect freedom and democracy in my country and around the world,” said PSY, in his apology. “I have been honored to perform in front of American soldiers in recent month…and I hope they and all Americans can accept my apology. While it’s important we express our opinions, I deeply regret the inflammatory and inappropriate language I used to do so.”

It was a decent apology, and certainly more sensible than some of the comments we’ve heard from PSY’s defenders on the left. Take Glenn Greenwald, for example, who argued that singing about harming U.S. soldiers is not “the slightest bit surprising or irrational.”

If some people don’t want to accept PSY’s apology, or think his sin was unforgivable, that’s up to them. But it seems pointless. Knee-jerk anti-Americanism often stems from ignorance. In some cases, espousers come to see the error of their ways. That’s apparently what happened here. It’s not like PSY is running for national office, or has a political opinion that carries any weight in the U.S. whatsoever. Why brand him for his misguided anti-American past forever? Why not just say good for him for seeing the light, and move on?

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At DIA, Focus Should Be on Improving Intel

Apparently I am not the only one skeptical of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s plan to double the size of its human spy force. (I argued in this Los Angeles Times op-ed that we already have enough intelligence personnel–we need to focus on improving their quality.) The Senate has put a temporary hold on the DIA initiative pending a Defense Department explanation of how it will fix existing problems with its attempts to gather “human intelligence”–as opposed to the kind of technical intelligence capabilities at which the Pentagon and the entire U.S. government excel.

The Senate language says that the DIA “needs to demonstrate that it can improve the management of clandestine [human intelligence] before undertaking any further expansion.” The same might be said of the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community: They expanded tremendously after 9/11 and in the process they did manage to improve certain capabilities–in particular the kind of targeted intelligence needed to identify and eliminate terrorist kingpins. But there is little sign that our ability to gather broader strategic intelligence has improved and considerable reason for skepticism about the intelligence community’s ability to comprehend, much less affect, fast-moving, complex events such as the Arab Spring. Witness failures from the non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the claim made by a now-discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran had stopped its nuclear program.

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Apparently I am not the only one skeptical of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s plan to double the size of its human spy force. (I argued in this Los Angeles Times op-ed that we already have enough intelligence personnel–we need to focus on improving their quality.) The Senate has put a temporary hold on the DIA initiative pending a Defense Department explanation of how it will fix existing problems with its attempts to gather “human intelligence”–as opposed to the kind of technical intelligence capabilities at which the Pentagon and the entire U.S. government excel.

The Senate language says that the DIA “needs to demonstrate that it can improve the management of clandestine [human intelligence] before undertaking any further expansion.” The same might be said of the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community: They expanded tremendously after 9/11 and in the process they did manage to improve certain capabilities–in particular the kind of targeted intelligence needed to identify and eliminate terrorist kingpins. But there is little sign that our ability to gather broader strategic intelligence has improved and considerable reason for skepticism about the intelligence community’s ability to comprehend, much less affect, fast-moving, complex events such as the Arab Spring. Witness failures from the non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the claim made by a now-discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran had stopped its nuclear program.

More than a decade after the last round of intelligence reorganization–which created a new layer of bureaucracy at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence without giving that office the actual ability to direct existing intelligence agencies–it is high time for a new round of reform that will prune bureaucracy and focus on bringing talented individuals into the ranks, especially those with knowledge of important languages and cultures. Simply expanding the existing bureaucracy, as DIA apparently contemplates, is not the answer.

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Media Still Asking the Wrong People the Wrong Questions on the Mideast

It is to be expected that whenever something alters the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the world wonders aloud how this change will affect the peace process. And so it is with Israel’s Iron Dome, the missile defense system that kept so many Israelis safe during the recent rocket blizzard from the terrorist enclave of Gaza. But I wrote at the time that it was wishful thinking to assume that Iron Dome would fundamentally change the course of the conflict.

“It isn’t perfect, it’s expensive, and living under constant threat of rocket fire would still be hellish—it cannot be easy to get used to bombs exploding over your head all day long. The best solution, without a doubt, would be for the Palestinians to eschew terrorism and give up their mission to destroy Israel,” I wrote. Over the weekend, the Washington Post tackled this question at greater length, but still misses the point. The paper asks whether the relative safety brought about by systems like Iron Dome will make Israel more likely to agree to territorial compromise or more likely instead to ignore the conflict and the cause of peace and negotiations altogether. The answer, of course, is neither.

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It is to be expected that whenever something alters the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the world wonders aloud how this change will affect the peace process. And so it is with Israel’s Iron Dome, the missile defense system that kept so many Israelis safe during the recent rocket blizzard from the terrorist enclave of Gaza. But I wrote at the time that it was wishful thinking to assume that Iron Dome would fundamentally change the course of the conflict.

“It isn’t perfect, it’s expensive, and living under constant threat of rocket fire would still be hellish—it cannot be easy to get used to bombs exploding over your head all day long. The best solution, without a doubt, would be for the Palestinians to eschew terrorism and give up their mission to destroy Israel,” I wrote. Over the weekend, the Washington Post tackled this question at greater length, but still misses the point. The paper asks whether the relative safety brought about by systems like Iron Dome will make Israel more likely to agree to territorial compromise or more likely instead to ignore the conflict and the cause of peace and negotiations altogether. The answer, of course, is neither.

Both of these choices rely on mistaken assumptions either about Israel or Iron Dome. For the reasons I mentioned above, Iron Dome will not make Israelis more confident in territorial withdrawals. But for the same reason, it will not allow Israelis to forget about the conflict: even if the missiles are intercepted, the sirens and explosions would surely keep Israelis’ attention.

But on a more fundamental level, the point is that real peace, brought about through a process that includes Palestinians giving up their drive to exterminate the Jewish state and its inhabitants, is still the only thing that could end the conflict.

The more important point, and one the media keeps missing, is this: nothing is keeping Israel away from the negotiating table. For all the criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s presumed reluctance to make peace, Netanyahu has been for years now offering to resume negotiations without preconditions. It is Mahmoud Abbas who piles on precondition after precondition in an attempt to avoid negotiations. Netanyahu has even hinted at possibly accepting some of those preconditions, which he shouldn’t have to do and which the West shouldn’t encourage him to do, lest they send exactly the wrong message to the Palestinians. But each time he does, Abbas simply adds another precondition anyway.

No, Iron Dome won’t allow Israelis to live in a serene virtual reality. And no, Iron Dome won’t make Israelis less likely to negotiate for peace. The Washington Post can save the hand wringing and the gut checking for Netanyahu’s supposed interlocutor, who seems to have come up with many reasons not to participate in the peace process. Israeli reluctance to come to the table, however, isn’t one of them.

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McCain to Join Senate Foreign Relations Committee

The most vocal opponent of Susan Rice’s potential secretary of state nomination, John McCain, is joining the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just in time for the confirmation hearings. Josh Rogin reports

MANAMA – The committee that will soon vet the next secretary of state will have a new Republican heavyweight next year: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the man leading the charge against potential nominee U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.

McCain told The Cable he will join the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and also remain on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in an interview on the sidelines of the 2012 IISS Manama Security Dialogue. …

It’s unclear whether the five or six Senate Republicans who have come out against Rice’s potential nomination would succeed in their effort to thwart her nomination, if it materializes. McCain said the Senate should use the confirmation process to properly examine the president’s choice, and he pointed to her SFRC hearing as the place for the final showdown.

“I’ll wait and see if she’s nominated and we’ll move on from there. She has the right to have hearings. We’ll see what happens in the hearings,” he said.

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The most vocal opponent of Susan Rice’s potential secretary of state nomination, John McCain, is joining the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just in time for the confirmation hearings. Josh Rogin reports

MANAMA – The committee that will soon vet the next secretary of state will have a new Republican heavyweight next year: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the man leading the charge against potential nominee U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.

McCain told The Cable he will join the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and also remain on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in an interview on the sidelines of the 2012 IISS Manama Security Dialogue. …

It’s unclear whether the five or six Senate Republicans who have come out against Rice’s potential nomination would succeed in their effort to thwart her nomination, if it materializes. McCain said the Senate should use the confirmation process to properly examine the president’s choice, and he pointed to her SFRC hearing as the place for the final showdown.

“I’ll wait and see if she’s nominated and we’ll move on from there. She has the right to have hearings. We’ll see what happens in the hearings,” he said.

In other words, Obama will have another headache to deal with if Susan Rice gets the nod. Having John Kerry (Rice’s most likely competitor for secretary of state) and Bob Corker (a critic of Rice) as the top Democrat and Republican, respectively, on the committee would be bad enough on its own. But McCain had been leading the charge against her, and having him on the committee will mean a lot more scrutiny into the administration’s Benghazi response.

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RE: Poll: 60% Support Tax Hikes on the Wealthy

I certainly agree with Alana that the Republicans are in a tough spot. But I’m not sure how valid any of these polls about public opinion on the issue are. Unlike when the choice is either A or B, as those are the only two candidates in an election, polls on public issues depend crucially on exactly how they are worded. And even when worded in a neutral manner (not an easy thing to achieve even when the pollster is trying to be honest), I’m not sure they mean that much in terms of political consequences down the road.

No matter what the Republicans do, the permanent Obama campaign—sorry, I mean the mainstream media—will hammer them. So they might as well do what’s right.

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I certainly agree with Alana that the Republicans are in a tough spot. But I’m not sure how valid any of these polls about public opinion on the issue are. Unlike when the choice is either A or B, as those are the only two candidates in an election, polls on public issues depend crucially on exactly how they are worded. And even when worded in a neutral manner (not an easy thing to achieve even when the pollster is trying to be honest), I’m not sure they mean that much in terms of political consequences down the road.

No matter what the Republicans do, the permanent Obama campaign—sorry, I mean the mainstream media—will hammer them. So they might as well do what’s right.

I’m not surprised that 60 percent want taxes raised on the wealthy. This is taxing the man behind the tree, in Senator Russell Long’s famous description of the art of taxation, as almost no one considers himself to be “rich.”

Equally, I am not surprised that 64 percent want to raise taxes on large corporations. I wonder what percentage of that 64 percent know that the United States already has the highest corporate taxes in the world? Maybe 10 percent? The average man in the street has little understanding of the realities of such public policy questions, which obsess only the chattering classes. Polling them doesn’t provide useful information, it only provide ammunition for one side or the other to use.

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Poll: 60% Support Tax Hikes on the Wealthy

More bad fiscal cliff news for Republicans, from the Politico/GWU Battleground Poll today:

A new POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll finds that 60 percent of respondents support raising taxes on households that earn more than $250,000 a year and 64 percent want to raise taxes on large corporations.

Even 39 percent of Republicans support raising taxes on households making more than $250,000. Independents favor such a move by 21 percentage points, 59 to 38 percent.

Only 38 percent buy the GOP argument that raising taxes on households earning over $250,000 per year will have a negative impact on the economy. Fifty-eight percent do not.

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More bad fiscal cliff news for Republicans, from the Politico/GWU Battleground Poll today:

A new POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll finds that 60 percent of respondents support raising taxes on households that earn more than $250,000 a year and 64 percent want to raise taxes on large corporations.

Even 39 percent of Republicans support raising taxes on households making more than $250,000. Independents favor such a move by 21 percentage points, 59 to 38 percent.

Only 38 percent buy the GOP argument that raising taxes on households earning over $250,000 per year will have a negative impact on the economy. Fifty-eight percent do not.

As much as I’ve held out hope that the Wall Street Journal and others are right that sticking to principles is the correct move, what do you do if the public disagrees? Maybe the GOP needs to come to terms with that. This doesn’t mean conservatives are wrong on the tax issue, it just means there may not be a way to win this political battle at the moment.

At the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol makes a very persuasive case for that:

The Journal editors believe that after January 1, when taxes will have gone up for everyone, House Republicans will block Democratic legislation that would cut taxes—that would restore the lower 2012 rates for the vast majority of taxpayers, fix the Alternative Minimum Tax, and for that matter would probably offer a compromise on dividends and the death tax better than what will be the new dividend rate of 39 percent and death tax of 55 percent with a $1 million exemption.

Will Republicans really oppose such legislation? President Obama will be beating the drums for this tax cut. Senate Democrats will pass this tax cut. If Senate Republicans vote against it, it won’t be “Senate Democrats running for re-election in 2014” who will have a tax hike on their resumes. It will be Senate Republicans who will have voted against cutting taxes. And if House Republicans block such legislation, it will be they, and they alone, insisting on higher taxes.

Of course they won’t. Republicans will fold with lightning speed after we go over the tax cliff on January 1. Which is why the third of the Journal editorial’s three key paragraphs is moot. If we go over the cliff, there won’t be damage to Obama’s chances of second-term success. Quite the contrary. What Republicans will have done is to make Democrats the party of tax cuts and Obama a president fighting for economic growth.

As I say, it won’t happen. Most Republicans will go along soon after January 1 with what will now be the Democrats’ tax cutting agenda. If the House Republicans now follow the Wall Street Journal editors over the cliff, the only effect, I’m afraid, will be to turn a manageable tactical retreat in December into a panicked strategic rout in January.

The WSJ board is right that GOP infighting isn’t helpful for negotiations. But two facts remain: 1.) Americans largely agree with Obama on tax hikes; and 2.) Republicans will be blamed if the country goes over the cliff.

Because of that, Obama shows no sign of backing down, nor does he need to. Even if Republicans stop fighting amongst themselves, Obama is not stupid. He knows the impossible position they’re in — heads he wins, tails they lose. The question is, which loss is the least damaging for the GOP? As the Israelis say, “don’t be right, be smart.” Republicans might want to keep that one in mind.

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Chavismo After Chavez

“Free, free, totally free,” Hugo Chavez bellowed at reporters during a July 9 press conference in Caracas, when asked about the treatment he’d been undergoing in Cuba for the cancer he was diagnozed with one year earlier.  That claim of a miraculous cure sustained him throughout the summer, as he fought off a concerted opposition attempt to defeat his bid for a fourth presidential term in the October election.

In the end, Chavez pulled off a victory with 55 percent of the vote–though, as I wrote at the time, had the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, “been fighting in his campaign in a conventional democracy, he would have won handsomely.” But Venezuela under Chavez is much closer to a dictatorship, which means that state-run media outlets are closed to opposition voices, Chavista thugs roam the streets beating up opposition activists, and lying to the voters–as Chavez has done over his cancer–is perfectly acceptable in the name of the revolution.

Yesterday, the lie was laid bare for all to see. Chavez announced that he was returning to Cuba for further medical treatment, and that he was designating his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, as his successor. In naming Maduro, Chavez was faithfully following the playbook of his hero, the ailing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who in 2006 preemptively anointed his brother, Raul, as the island’s next leader.

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“Free, free, totally free,” Hugo Chavez bellowed at reporters during a July 9 press conference in Caracas, when asked about the treatment he’d been undergoing in Cuba for the cancer he was diagnozed with one year earlier.  That claim of a miraculous cure sustained him throughout the summer, as he fought off a concerted opposition attempt to defeat his bid for a fourth presidential term in the October election.

In the end, Chavez pulled off a victory with 55 percent of the vote–though, as I wrote at the time, had the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, “been fighting in his campaign in a conventional democracy, he would have won handsomely.” But Venezuela under Chavez is much closer to a dictatorship, which means that state-run media outlets are closed to opposition voices, Chavista thugs roam the streets beating up opposition activists, and lying to the voters–as Chavez has done over his cancer–is perfectly acceptable in the name of the revolution.

Yesterday, the lie was laid bare for all to see. Chavez announced that he was returning to Cuba for further medical treatment, and that he was designating his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, as his successor. In naming Maduro, Chavez was faithfully following the playbook of his hero, the ailing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who in 2006 preemptively anointed his brother, Raul, as the island’s next leader.

However much Chavez wants Venezuelans to believe that a smooth transition is possible, the reality is that the Caracas regime has been plunged into a grave political crisis. The question Venezuela observers have been asking ever since learning of Chavez’s cancer–Can the system of Chavismo survive the death of its principal architect?–is now more poignant than ever.

Maduro is the archetypal Chavista, a former bus driver and labor union activist with an ideologically rigid worldview. As the leading opposition figure Diego Arria pointed out on his twitter feed, Maduro’s potential succession will be warmly welcomed by the Castro brothers, who regard him as critical to maintaining the Cuban-Venezuelan alliance. Rewarded by Chavez with the post of foreign minister in 2006, Maduro has energetically pushed Venezuela’s participation in the loose global alliance of rogue states stretching from Belarus to Iran.

Back in August, he unveiled the frankly barmy idea of a troika, composed of Venezuela, Egypt and Iran, to intervene in the Syrian civil war. This was, in fact, a thinly veiled attempt to allow the Assad regime, which has benefited from heavily subsidized gas exports from Venezuela, to carry on with its slaughter. “Before everything else,” Maduro told reporters during a stop in Tehran, “we call on the major powers to stop interfering in Syria’s internal affairs and allow the Syrian people to live in calm, peace, and independence.”

A Maduro presidency might also become transformed into something of a dynasty. His wife, Cilia Flores, is Venezuela’s prosecutor-general, who gained her reputation when she secured Chavez’s release from prison two years after he was incarcerated for a failed coup attempt in 1992. When the executive and judiciary share a bedroom, it’s a sure sign, firstly, that the constitutional separation of powers no longer exists, and secondly, that family members and other intimates should move to the front of the line when ministerial positions are doled out.

Still, Maduro is not a shoo-in–at least, not yet. In one of the more perceptive analyses that followed Chavez’s latest announcement, Sean Burgess argued:

Although Chavez is explicitly naming Maduro…as his successor and protector of the revolution, there is no wider consensus or actual agreement that the vice-president should assume the reins of power. In particular, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello harbours his own presidential ambitions.

Cabello is a prominent businessman with strong ties to the Venezuelan military. As the dissident blogger Daniel Duquenal wrote in March, Cabello is “not well-liked,” but a significant number of Chavez loyalists view him as a safe pair of hands who can keep the military onside.

Looking back on Chavez’s 14 years in power, it would be foolish indeed to believe that these internal conflicts, whether between the regime and the opposition, or within the murky world of Chavismo itself, can be resolved without violence and bloodshed. Having actively sought to enable Assad’s killing spree, it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to posit that Maduro, or, for that matter, Cabello, would resort to a Syrian-style “solution” in the event of a mass rejection of Chavez’s succession plan.

For that reason, the United States now needs to actively engage with Venezuela. For too long, the Obama administration has treated Chavez like a harmless, if irritating, eccentric, rather than a potential security threat. We now have an unprecedented opportunity to turn an enemy into a friend, by building on the opposition’s strong showing last October. Washington’s policy should therefore emphasize two points: one, that it will not recognize the legitimacy of any regime that comes to power without a fair election; two, that should Chavismo elect to survive the Chavez era by any means necessary, its leaders will find themselves on the end of the kinds of punishing sanctions already applied to Syria and Iran. It may be too late for Chavez to answer for his crimes in a court of law, but Maduro, Cabello and any other pretenders to the Chavista throne should gain no comfort from that.

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Obama’s Swearing-in Ceremony Closed to the Press?

Politico reports that Obama’s second inaugural oath for the “most transparent administration in history” might be administered privately, without any media present (h/t Morning Jolt):

“Mindful of the historic nature of this occasion, we expect the White House will continue the long tradition of opening the President’s official swearing-in to full press access, and we as an organization are looking forward to working with the administration to make that happen,” Ed Henry, the Fox News correspondent and president of the White House Correspondents Association, said in a statement.

Because inauguration day falls on a Sunday in 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts will officially administer the official oath of office in a private ceremony that day. The public inauguration on the Capitol Building’s West Front — at which Roberts will administer a second, symbolic oath of office — will take place the next day. 

In early meetings with the inaugural committee, officials privately indicated to reporters that the Jan. 20 event could be closed to reporters and cameras, with an official photograph supplied to press by White House photographer Pete Souza, sources familiar with the meeting told POLITICO.

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Politico reports that Obama’s second inaugural oath for the “most transparent administration in history” might be administered privately, without any media present (h/t Morning Jolt):

“Mindful of the historic nature of this occasion, we expect the White House will continue the long tradition of opening the President’s official swearing-in to full press access, and we as an organization are looking forward to working with the administration to make that happen,” Ed Henry, the Fox News correspondent and president of the White House Correspondents Association, said in a statement.

Because inauguration day falls on a Sunday in 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts will officially administer the official oath of office in a private ceremony that day. The public inauguration on the Capitol Building’s West Front — at which Roberts will administer a second, symbolic oath of office — will take place the next day. 

In early meetings with the inaugural committee, officials privately indicated to reporters that the Jan. 20 event could be closed to reporters and cameras, with an official photograph supplied to press by White House photographer Pete Souza, sources familiar with the meeting told POLITICO.

The White House Correspondents Association has reason to be concerned. While Obama’s second oath of office in 2009 (if you remember, he had to do it twice) wasn’t completely closed to the media, only four reporters were allowed to attend, writes Dylan Byers.

This issue seems more about principle than anything else, since Obama hasn’t exactly followed through on his vow to run a more transparent administration. It’s about time the press finally started calling him out on it. Maybe now that he’s won reelection the media will actually do its job and report critically on his presidency. At the very least this is a sign he’s not going to get the kid-gloves treatment he had during the election season.

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Democrats Begin Working Toward Hillary Clinton’s Coronation

One of the most pronounced recent changes in the attitudes toward leadership and order of the two major American political parties is the reversal in affection for handing off the baton to the next in line. Republicans had long bestowed the party’s presidential nomination on last time’s runner-up, or a candidate who had put in his time and whose turn, it was believed, had come.

But the battle for the 2016 GOP nomination is looking wide open, and will likely consist of a cast of young, more conservative candidates competing to set the party’s new direction. The Democrats, on the other hand, nominated Barack Obama in 2008 with the rallying cry of striking out against political entitlement, embodied by Hillary Clinton. Next time, however, Democrats seem to want a coronation, not a nomination. And they would like the beneficiary of this appointment with history to be Hillary Clinton. Here’s James Carville yesterday on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”:

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One of the most pronounced recent changes in the attitudes toward leadership and order of the two major American political parties is the reversal in affection for handing off the baton to the next in line. Republicans had long bestowed the party’s presidential nomination on last time’s runner-up, or a candidate who had put in his time and whose turn, it was believed, had come.

But the battle for the 2016 GOP nomination is looking wide open, and will likely consist of a cast of young, more conservative candidates competing to set the party’s new direction. The Democrats, on the other hand, nominated Barack Obama in 2008 with the rallying cry of striking out against political entitlement, embodied by Hillary Clinton. Next time, however, Democrats seem to want a coronation, not a nomination. And they would like the beneficiary of this appointment with history to be Hillary Clinton. Here’s James Carville yesterday on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”:

This is entirely different. Every Democrat I know says, “God, I hope she runs. We don’t need a primary. Let’s just go to post with this thing. We don’t want to fight with anybody over anything.”

The Republicans, they need a fight. Somebody’s got to beat somebody….

Yeah, you’ve got to beat somebody. And the Republicans know that they need a primary. We don’t want — we don’t want a primary. We don’t want to be slugging this thing out (inaudible) you know what? We’ve got a pretty good demographic deck. We kind of get — we like winning presidential elections. She’s popular. Let’s just go with it.

Aside from the obvious, there’s a key phrase Carville used here that went unnoticed on the show. The Democrats have “a pretty good demographic deck.” Not only do the Democrats want to avoid a primary election, they’d like to avoid a general election too. Though Carville probably didn’t have this in mind when he used the phrase, running a “historic” candidate like Clinton would basically be a replay of Obama’s two elections, in which the media coverage was fawning and devoid of any serious examination of the Democratic candidate, and in which opposition to the Democrats’ candidate can be chalked up to bigotry. “We don’t want to fight with anybody over anything,” says Carville. Expect that to be the case in 2016 if Clinton is their candidate.

Don’t believe me? Take a gander at the New York Times’s article on Clinton’s options going forward. It’s appallingly worshipful, but it’s only the beginning. The conceit of the piece is a question: What should Hillary do? It’s a clear indication that Clinton wants people to think she’s running, and buried in the article we finally get the reason why. The Times tells us that Clinton “may appear to be a figure of nearly limitless possibility.” There is nothing she can’t do, so what should she do? The Times asks another related question and then endeavors to answer it:

What is the most dignified way for her to make money?

Being a Clinton is expensive, and when the former secretary leaves office, she’ll want a staff and the ability to travel on private planes, friends say. The Clintons — who already own costly homes in Washington and Chappaqua, N.Y. — love renting in the Hamptons in the summer, according to friends, and buying their own home there could easily run well into the seven figures. Though friends say Mrs. Clinton could easily make a lot of money at a law firm, advising foreign countries on geopolitical risk, or at an investment bank or a private equity firm, none of those pursuits would be likely to wear well in a presidential campaign.

Wealth is her burden. “Being a Clinton is expensive,” after all. She is doomed to a post-State Department hiatus during which people will throw gobs and gobs of money at her, and her second burden is that she must decide how and where she’d like to accept all this money.

Another consideration for Clinton is when she should start her (purely theoretical!) presidential campaign. The Times’s three reporters (it takes a team to sufficiently praise Clinton) tell us that Clinton doesn’t seem to want to start the campaign early, like last time (why rush an anointing?), because it exhausted her. This time around, however, there’s another reason not to start the campaign early. The Times again:

The speculation is not without its advantages. If Mrs. Clinton is not running, she is a widely respected figure whose chief accomplishments are mostly behind her; if she may be running, she glows with White House and historic potential. “Nobody interacts with Hillary Clinton like she’s fading off into the sunset,” Mr. Reines said.

In other words, before she officially declares her campaign for president, she will be treated like she’s running anyway but still be able to keep those cushy jobs she’s being offered. It’s a win-win. Plus, stories like this one in the Times will presumably keep flowing in.

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Human Rights Activists vs. the International Court

Under other circumstances, I might enjoy watching “human rights” activists decry the very international justice system they lobbied so hard to establish. But not when reactions like this one, by David Harland of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, show just how much resistance there will be to the important norms established last month by the appellate court of an international war crimes tribunal in the Hague. In a verdict ironically issued just as the world was obsessing over Palestinian civilians killed in the latest Hamas-Israel war, the court essentially upheld, in a Balkan context, all the arguments Israel routinely makes about the legitimacy of its own military operations. Consequently, the judges acquitted and freed two Croatian generals whom a trial court had convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 18 and 24 years, respectively.

The appellate court’s first important move was acknowledging the obvious fact that in wartime even the most careful army makes mistakes. The trial court had convicted the Croats of illegally shelling four towns they were trying to capture. The appeals court said the lower court’s criterion–“that any shell that landed more than 200 meters away from a military target must have been fired indiscriminately–was arbitrary and ‘devoid of any specific reasoning’,” to quote The Guardian’s apt summary. In short, it accepted the fact that soldiers are human beings who make mistakes, and errant shells don’t necessarily mean the soldiers fired indiscriminately.

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Under other circumstances, I might enjoy watching “human rights” activists decry the very international justice system they lobbied so hard to establish. But not when reactions like this one, by David Harland of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, show just how much resistance there will be to the important norms established last month by the appellate court of an international war crimes tribunal in the Hague. In a verdict ironically issued just as the world was obsessing over Palestinian civilians killed in the latest Hamas-Israel war, the court essentially upheld, in a Balkan context, all the arguments Israel routinely makes about the legitimacy of its own military operations. Consequently, the judges acquitted and freed two Croatian generals whom a trial court had convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 18 and 24 years, respectively.

The appellate court’s first important move was acknowledging the obvious fact that in wartime even the most careful army makes mistakes. The trial court had convicted the Croats of illegally shelling four towns they were trying to capture. The appeals court said the lower court’s criterion–“that any shell that landed more than 200 meters away from a military target must have been fired indiscriminately–was arbitrary and ‘devoid of any specific reasoning’,” to quote The Guardian’s apt summary. In short, it accepted the fact that soldiers are human beings who make mistakes, and errant shells don’t necessarily mean the soldiers fired indiscriminately.

Second, it acknowledged the obvious fact that even the most careful army can’t prevent civilian casualties. Some 150 civilians died in the generals’ four-day bombing campaign. But the appeals court said these deaths didn’t constitute war crimes, because the troops had aimed at legitimate military targets. In other words, it ruled that civilian casualties aren’t ipso facto illegal; they may be unavoidable consequences of legitimate military activity–especially when military targets are located in crowded urban areas.

Third, it acknowledged that even when genuine war crimes occur, they may be the acts of errant individuals rather than deliberate policy: It concluded that acts of looting and murder following the bombing campaign occurred not on the generals’ orders, but despite them.

Finally, it acknowledged the obvious fact that fleeing a war zone is normal, so a civilian exodus isn’t necessarily proof of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

In short, the court recognized a simple truth that “human rights” activists try hard to obscure: War is always hell, but not every act of war is a war crime.

Unfortunately, this welcome breath of sanity has been under assault from the moment it was issued. The first attack came from the court itself: The dissenting judges in the 3-2 verdict publicly termed it “grotesque” and said it lacked “any sense of justice.”

Now, activists like Harland are joining the chorus. Unlike the court, he can’t accept that civilians might spontaneously–and sensibly–flee a war zone: “If the acquitted generals were not responsible for this ethnic cleansing, then somebody was,” he declared.

Even more disturbing, he appears to think “fairness” requires convictions for all parties to a conflict even if only one side committed war crimes: “Convicting only Serbs simply doesn’t make sense in terms of justice, in terms of reality, or in terms of politics,” he wrote.

I can’t imagine a worse indictment of the “human rights” community than that: Justice be damned; convictions must be issued to both sides for the sake of “politics.” It’s precisely that monstrous idea against which the appeals court struck such a welcome blow last month.

But as reactions like Harland’s show, restoring sanity to the concept of “international human rights law” is going to be a long, hard haul.

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Obama’s Partners Profit on Iran Sanctions Waivers

On Friday, President Obama issued a second round of waivers, in theory to give countries more time to disentangle themselves from their financial dealings in Iran. Reuters reported:

The United States granted 180-day waivers on Iran sanctions to China, India and a number of other countries on Friday in exchange for their cutting purchases of oil from the Islamic Republic. President Barack Obama’s administration has now renewed waivers for all 20 of Iran’s major oil buyers, after granting them to Japan and 10 European Union countries in September. Friday’s action was the second renewal for all 20 after Obama signed the sanctions into law a year ago.

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On Friday, President Obama issued a second round of waivers, in theory to give countries more time to disentangle themselves from their financial dealings in Iran. Reuters reported:

The United States granted 180-day waivers on Iran sanctions to China, India and a number of other countries on Friday in exchange for their cutting purchases of oil from the Islamic Republic. President Barack Obama’s administration has now renewed waivers for all 20 of Iran’s major oil buyers, after granting them to Japan and 10 European Union countries in September. Friday’s action was the second renewal for all 20 after Obama signed the sanctions into law a year ago.

Among the countries issued waivers were South Korea, Turkey, China, India, and South Africa. Iranian officials gloated. According to Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency:

“Every once in a while, US is forced to withdraw from its policy of sanctions and pressure against Iran because of the hardships that its people, friendly countries and allies are facing due to Iran sanctions, and this time the US has had to think again about Iran bans in order to reduce these pressures and meet its need to energy and oil products,” [Ahmad] Bakhshayesh, [a member of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and National Security Committee] said.

Herein lies the problem. Many of these countries—Turkey, for example—make no secret of their refusal to abide by the sanctions (perhaps the Congressional Turkey Caucus might ask Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States to explain). As another Fars News Agency story relates, “At least seven companies from China, India, South Korea and South Africa continued to have investments in Iran’s oil and gas sectors in 2012 despite Western sanctions.” In other words, Obama is waiving sanctions not only on countries which import fuel from Iran, but also those whose investments enable Iran to develop such oil and gas resources in the first place.

President Obama should not confuse adulation with respect. When it comes to the overseas view of the American president, it is hard not to believe “push-over” and “gullible” are the descriptions most commonly used.

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“Success” at the Counterterrorism Forum

At Friday’s State Department press conference, spokesman Mark Toner was asked again about the U.S. commitment to get Israel involved in the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), which will be meeting again on December 13 without Israel. Reporter Matt Lee asked Toner “what exactly the Administration has done … since the last [GCTF] meeting, when you all said that you were going to try to get [Israel] included in this group, or at least some of this group’s work.”

Toner responded that “we’ve succeeded and agreed with our partners in the GCTF to have this issue as a formal agenda item on the – at the December 13 meeting.” That produced this colloquy:

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At Friday’s State Department press conference, spokesman Mark Toner was asked again about the U.S. commitment to get Israel involved in the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), which will be meeting again on December 13 without Israel. Reporter Matt Lee asked Toner “what exactly the Administration has done … since the last [GCTF] meeting, when you all said that you were going to try to get [Israel] included in this group, or at least some of this group’s work.”

Toner responded that “we’ve succeeded and agreed with our partners in the GCTF to have this issue as a formal agenda item on the – at the December 13 meeting.” That produced this colloquy:

QUESTION: Okay. What exactly is it that’s on the agenda? I mean, what is – can you say what –

MR. TONER: To have this issue discussed about –

QUESTION: Israel’s participation as a full – in the — …

MR. TONER: That the GCTF needs to develop more concrete policies on the involvement of non-members.

Lee asked whether the agenda item is specifically about Israel, and Toner said no: it’s about all non-members, although “certainly, Israel would be included” in this category. OK, but is the agenda item at least about how non-members can become members?

MR. TONER: No. On how to get them involved. As I talked about, this is about mobilizing the best and the brightest strategists from around the world.

QUESTION: Okay … Is membership closed? Is it full? Can no one else get in?

MR. TONER: I’m not aware that membership is closed in this organization. What we’ve been working towards … is getting Israel, with its expertise, with its experience, involved in some of the activities that this group’s involved with.

QUESTION: Right. Okay. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you want them to join or you’re pushing for them for full membership?

MR. TONER: It does not necessarily assume membership, but we want to see their expertise reflected.

Lee then summed up the colloquy with this exchange:

QUESTION: So I guess then my quick question is just is the agenda item that you’re talking about being – it does not anticipate or does not get into whether non-members can actually become members?

MR. TONER: No. What we’re talking about here is the issue of participation of non-members, including Israel, in these kinds of events.

So we’ve gotten the GCTF, which we co-formed and co-chair, to agree to an agenda item that does not mention Israel; does not anticipate Israel becoming a member; will not be the occasion for pushing Israel for membership; is simply a discussion about how 163 non-member countries, at some point in the future, might get involved in “some of the activities” of the GCTF; and we have announced this as a success.

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