Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 19, 2012

The Real Obstacle to Peace: Israel’s Critics

The Obama administration joined the chorus of United Nations, European and Arab critics of Israel this week when it blasted the decision of the Netanyahu government to approve plans to build new housing in two Jerusalem neighborhoods and one in the adjacent suburban area known as E1. While the Obama administration did not join its European allies and other members of the UN Security Council declaring the building illegal and an obstacle to a two-state solution that must cease immediately, it did declare that the activity put peace “further at risk.” Israel’s critics make the argument that this sort of condemnation is heightening the country’s isolation and is to blame for the lopsided vote in favor of upgrading the Palestinian Authority’s status at the UN earlier this month. But the hypocrisy of these charges makes it easy to understand why Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is ignoring them.

The point here isn’t just—as we have repeatedly pointed out here at Contentions—that building in these areas of Jerusalem as well as in E1 wouldn’t prevent a two-state solution were the Palestinians inclined to negotiate with Israel to get one. The building within Jerusalem’s city limits in Jewish neighborhoods that were built decades ago, such as Ramat Sharon and Gilo, are in places that no one envisions being given to the Palestinians even in the most generous offer possible. The same is true of the new Givat Hamatos project. As for the E1 area in between the city and the suburb of Ma’ale Adumim, it, too, is in an area that Israel has always intended to keep. That is a point underlined by the fact that it was Yitzhak Rabin that put it under the jurisdiction of the adjacent Jewish town.

But the real hypocrisy isn’t the fact that all those countries as well as the Palestinians know very well that it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to a two-state solution if Israel built 100,000 new homes in these places or none at all. It is the fact that these countries continue to ignore the fact that it is the Palestinians who refuse to negotiate and who continue to issue statements making clear their intention to destroy Israel without drawing much comment from nations that are supposedly so interested in peace.

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The Obama administration joined the chorus of United Nations, European and Arab critics of Israel this week when it blasted the decision of the Netanyahu government to approve plans to build new housing in two Jerusalem neighborhoods and one in the adjacent suburban area known as E1. While the Obama administration did not join its European allies and other members of the UN Security Council declaring the building illegal and an obstacle to a two-state solution that must cease immediately, it did declare that the activity put peace “further at risk.” Israel’s critics make the argument that this sort of condemnation is heightening the country’s isolation and is to blame for the lopsided vote in favor of upgrading the Palestinian Authority’s status at the UN earlier this month. But the hypocrisy of these charges makes it easy to understand why Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is ignoring them.

The point here isn’t just—as we have repeatedly pointed out here at Contentions—that building in these areas of Jerusalem as well as in E1 wouldn’t prevent a two-state solution were the Palestinians inclined to negotiate with Israel to get one. The building within Jerusalem’s city limits in Jewish neighborhoods that were built decades ago, such as Ramat Sharon and Gilo, are in places that no one envisions being given to the Palestinians even in the most generous offer possible. The same is true of the new Givat Hamatos project. As for the E1 area in between the city and the suburb of Ma’ale Adumim, it, too, is in an area that Israel has always intended to keep. That is a point underlined by the fact that it was Yitzhak Rabin that put it under the jurisdiction of the adjacent Jewish town.

But the real hypocrisy isn’t the fact that all those countries as well as the Palestinians know very well that it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to a two-state solution if Israel built 100,000 new homes in these places or none at all. It is the fact that these countries continue to ignore the fact that it is the Palestinians who refuse to negotiate and who continue to issue statements making clear their intention to destroy Israel without drawing much comment from nations that are supposedly so interested in peace.

After all, it was just 11 days ago that Khaled Mashaal, the head of the Hamas movement that already rules the independent Palestinian state in all but name, stated the following to a cheering crowd in Gaza: 

Palestine from the river to the sea, from the north to the south, is our land and we will never give up one inch or any part of it.

Though the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas subsequently took issue with this declaration and then disingenuously tried to assert that Hamas has already recognized Israel (it hasn’t), the fact remains that the Fatah leader has signed a unity agreement with its Islamist partner that sooner or later will be put into effect. Do the U.S. or the Europeans really expect Israel to hand over more land to such an alliance? There is a broad consensus inside Israel against any such plan that explains why Netanyahu’s coalition is set to romp in next month’s elections.

Nor do the claims that Israel’s building plans make it harder for Abbas hold up. Were Netanyahu building new towns deep inside the West Bank, as the settlement movement would like him to do, it could be credibly argued that such plans would prevent the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. But why would that be true of building in existing Jewish neighborhoods on territory that would be part of the land swaps that even President Obama has acknowledged would be part of a deal that was based on the 1967 lines?

The problem here is not just that what Israel is doing is no obstacle to peace. It is that by joining in condemnations of building inside Jerusalem, President Obama and the Europeans are encouraging the Palestinians to believe that they will someday force the Jewish state to give up not just the West Bank but its capital too. An end to the conflict will only come on the day when the Palestinian so-called moderates like Abbas and extremists like Meshaal understand this. Far from Netanyahu being the obstacle to peace, it is the administration and its friends at the UN that are doing more to make that goal impossible than the Israelis.  

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A Russia-Brotherhood Rapprochement?

The New York Times reported last week that Russia finally seemed to be ready to give up on Bashar al-Assad. Russia, the report noted, “was making contingency plans to evacuate its citizens from the country, the Kremlin’s last beachhead in the Middle East.” But in the world of aspiring great power politics, “last beachheads” usually become gateways to the next beachhead. In danger of losing its influence in the region, and aware that Mohamed Morsi’s Egypt isn’t especially picky about his allies, Russia is seeking closer ties with Egypt.

There’s a problem, however. “How come you are asking to have a strong relationship with us while you see [us] as a terrorist group?” Mahmoud Ghozlan recently asked Russia’s ambassador in Cairo. Ghozlan is a spokesman for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood–an organization outlawed as a terrorist group in Russia due to its history of aiding and egging on the Islamist rebels in the North Caucasus. In only the latest example of the Muslim Brotherhood’s newfound respectability on the world stage just by virtue of taking power in Egypt, Russia may let bygones be bygones:

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The New York Times reported last week that Russia finally seemed to be ready to give up on Bashar al-Assad. Russia, the report noted, “was making contingency plans to evacuate its citizens from the country, the Kremlin’s last beachhead in the Middle East.” But in the world of aspiring great power politics, “last beachheads” usually become gateways to the next beachhead. In danger of losing its influence in the region, and aware that Mohamed Morsi’s Egypt isn’t especially picky about his allies, Russia is seeking closer ties with Egypt.

There’s a problem, however. “How come you are asking to have a strong relationship with us while you see [us] as a terrorist group?” Mahmoud Ghozlan recently asked Russia’s ambassador in Cairo. Ghozlan is a spokesman for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood–an organization outlawed as a terrorist group in Russia due to its history of aiding and egging on the Islamist rebels in the North Caucasus. In only the latest example of the Muslim Brotherhood’s newfound respectability on the world stage just by virtue of taking power in Egypt, Russia may let bygones be bygones:

Russia may ease restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood soon to improve relations with Egypt and rebuild influence lost during the Arab Spring revolutions, diplomatic sources say.

The election of President Mohammed Mursi, propelled to power by the Islamist group, offers President Vladimir Putin a chance to improve relations with Cairo that were strained during the long rule of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011.

It’s easy to forget just how seriously Russia takes its ongoing conflict in the Caucasus–in part because Russian officials pretend there is no problem and in part because Western newspapers rarely mention the name of Doku Umarov, though he is a household name in the intelligence and counterterrorism communities. But every so often the world gets a reminder that Umarov’s boys mean business.

Russian officials tend to brush off the threat from the Caucasus Emirate in public in order to deprive the rebels of publicity, but they take the conflict personally. This is especially true of Vladimir Putin, since his prosecution of the Second Chechen War was his dramatic election-year introduction to the Russian people as he prepared to take over for the ailing Boris Yeltsin. Putin’s identity thus was crafted through his response to the Chechen threat.

Leaders in the Muslim world have been sensitive to this. As Ray Takeyh writes in Hidden Iran, the Islamic Republic’s leaders may have proclaimed their loyalty to the Islamic revolution and to oppressed Muslims everywhere, but Russia’s friendship was strategically important to them, and they watched what they said and did in that regard:

The full scope of Iran’s pragmatism became evident during the Chechnya conflict. At a time when the Russian soldiers were indiscriminately massacring Muslim rebels and aggressively suppressing an Islamic insurgency, Iran’s response was a mere statement declaring the issue to be an internal Russian affair. At times, when Russia’s behavior was particularly egregious, Iran’s statements would be harsher. However, Tehran never undertook practical measures such as dispatching aid to the rebels or organizing the Islamic bloc against Moscow’s policy. Given that Iran had calculated that its national interests lay in not excessively antagonizing the Russian Federation, it largely ignored the plight of the Chechens despite the Islamic appeal of their cause.

There is some evidence that Chechen Islamists joined the anti-Assad forces in Syria as well.

Morsi is reportedly expected to make a trip to Moscow next year. Putin’s Russia has not exactly been a constructive partner for the West in the current Mideast strife, nor is it likely to be any more helpful in Egypt. A developing Egypt-Hamas partnership with Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin should continue to disabuse the West of the notion that Morsi intends to be an improvement upon his predecessor, or that fading American influence is anything but a recipe to empower illiberal forces in its place.

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Buzz Building for Flournoy as Defense Secretary?

Adam Kredo reports that former undersecretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy may have replaced Chuck Hagel as the current frontrunner for the secretary of defense nod:

Former Republican Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel may no longer be President Obama’s favored pick to run the Defense Department, sources told the Free Beacon.

Hagel immediately drew a frosty reception from observers who criticized him for advocating in favor of direct unconditional talks with Iran and for backing sizable cuts to the defense budget. …

Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, is currently viewed as the frontrunner for the post.

“She will be the likely candidate as there has been criticism from liberals for possibly replacing a female secretary of state with a male, and [Flournoy would be] the first woman secretary of defense,” said one senior Senate aide with knowledge of the process. “Hagel could have been a test by the president—if Hagel’s positions could be supported then likely so would Flournoy.”

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Adam Kredo reports that former undersecretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy may have replaced Chuck Hagel as the current frontrunner for the secretary of defense nod:

Former Republican Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel may no longer be President Obama’s favored pick to run the Defense Department, sources told the Free Beacon.

Hagel immediately drew a frosty reception from observers who criticized him for advocating in favor of direct unconditional talks with Iran and for backing sizable cuts to the defense budget. …

Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, is currently viewed as the frontrunner for the post.

“She will be the likely candidate as there has been criticism from liberals for possibly replacing a female secretary of state with a male, and [Flournoy would be] the first woman secretary of defense,” said one senior Senate aide with knowledge of the process. “Hagel could have been a test by the president—if Hagel’s positions could be supported then likely so would Flournoy.”

Flournoy’s name has been batted around as a more acceptable alternative to Hagel. But this is the first recent report I’ve seen that says she’s the most likely candidate. Either Obama has already determined a Hagel nomination isn’t worth the fight, or some senior Senate aide is trying to pump up speculation about Flournoy.

Flournoy would certainly be easier to confirm than Hagel, and Obama wouldn’t have to worry about defending someone who has made questionable comments about Israel and the “Jewish lobby.” That wouldn’t be the only benefit, either. BuzzFeed reported yesterday that women’s groups are clamoring for Obama to appoint the first female secretary of defense (especially since he’s losing a female secretary of state).

“I think she’s definitely getting a second look after Rice,” said a longtime Democratic defense policy hand, referring to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s withdrawal from consideration for the post at State.

Feminist groups are also pushing the White House to appoint Flournoy. 

“There is no doubt that the woman knows her business,” said Marie Wilson, the founder of the White House Project, which advocates for women to take on leadership roles in all spheres.

“It’s Defense — the area where we have the slowest movement of women into top positions,” she said. “It would be a breakthrough.”

Obama’s reliance on the votes of women to defeat Mitt Romney raises the pressure on him to do more than seriously consider a woman for the top job, said one Democratic strategist. 

It also can’t help Hagel’s case that this Emergency Committee for Israel ad will be running tomorrow and Thursday throughout the Washington, D.C. area:

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How the World Enabled 25 Years of Palestinian Decline

One of the saddest comments I’ve ever heard was Gaza resident Ziad Ashour’s statement to the New York Times last week. Ever since the first intifada erupted in 1987, the 43-year-old butcher said, “things have steadily declined in Gaza.”

Think about that for a moment: After 25 years of fighting Israel in every possible way–“popular resistance,” suicide bombings, rockets, diplomatic warfare, boycott/divestment/sanctions efforts–all the Palestinians have to show for it is 25 years of steady decline. Indeed, the facts bear out Ashour’s assessment: Despite massive international aid, Gaza’s per capita GDP has remained virtually flat, totaling $817 in 1987 and $876 in 2010. Unemployment, which was generally under 5 percent in the 1980s, had soared to 45 percent by the end of 2010. And to add insult to injury, neither the terror nor the diplomatic warfare succeeded in preventing Israel from flourishing over those 25 years.

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One of the saddest comments I’ve ever heard was Gaza resident Ziad Ashour’s statement to the New York Times last week. Ever since the first intifada erupted in 1987, the 43-year-old butcher said, “things have steadily declined in Gaza.”

Think about that for a moment: After 25 years of fighting Israel in every possible way–“popular resistance,” suicide bombings, rockets, diplomatic warfare, boycott/divestment/sanctions efforts–all the Palestinians have to show for it is 25 years of steady decline. Indeed, the facts bear out Ashour’s assessment: Despite massive international aid, Gaza’s per capita GDP has remained virtually flat, totaling $817 in 1987 and $876 in 2010. Unemployment, which was generally under 5 percent in the 1980s, had soared to 45 percent by the end of 2010. And to add insult to injury, neither the terror nor the diplomatic warfare succeeded in preventing Israel from flourishing over those 25 years.

But the sadder part of the story is that none of this has managed to persuade the Palestinians that such tactics are self-defeating. As Steven Erlanger’s report shows, Hamas is riding high in Gaza; even a desperately poor woman who describes her life as one of “depression and deprivation” proclaims pride in Hamas’s ability to launch rockets at Israel. And Gazan political science professor Mkhaimar Abusada tells Erlanger this is a never-ending story:

He remembered a similar burst of Hamas popularity in October 2011, after the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas held for five years and exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. “But a month later the Palestinians woke up to the same problems: poverty, mismanagement, siege, unemployment, little freedom of movement,” Mr. Abusada said.

Yet if Palestinians are primarily to blame for their addiction to such counterproductive tactics, the international community has played a crucial role as enabler. First of all, the massive international aid–more than four times as much per capita as any other nation receives–has cushioned them from the consequences of their bad decisions. Gaza’s situation may not be rosy, but it’s better than that of many other countries: As Michael Rubin noted, Gaza outranks more than 110 countries worldwide in terms of both life expectancy and infant mortality. And as long as international aid is keeping them relatively comfortable, Palestinians feel little incentive to change their tactics.

Far worse, however, is that by offering the Palestinians almost unstinting diplomatic support while relentlessly criticizing Israel, the world feeds Palestinian fantasies that these tactics will someday succeed–that eventually, the world will force Israel to its knees. The recent farce at the UN was a classic example: 138 countries voted to recognize “Palestine” as a state in gross violation of the Palestinians’ own signed commitments, even though it meets none of the criteria for statehood. But the world then went into a frenzy of condemnation when Israel responded by advancing planning processes–not even actual construction–in an area that every peace plan ever proposed has assigned to Israel in any case. So why would Palestinians conclude that they are the ones who need to change their behavior?

A few sober-minded Palestinians do know better. “Gaining the support of the Israeli authorities in West Jerusalem for a Palestinian state is more important than the support of 138 countries that voted for Palestine at the UN,” Ibrahim Inbawi, a Fatah activist from East Jerusalem, told the Jerusalem Report last week.

Unfortunately, the world seems unwilling to tell his countrymen the same thing. For all its vaunted concern for the Palestinians, it seems the international community would rather let them suffer another 25 years of steady decline than try to wean them from their failed strategies.

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Will Benghazi Haunt Hillary in 2016?

The three State Department officials who resigned today in the wake of the release of a scathing report on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya will probably be the only ones held accountable for that disaster. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is conveniently laid up due to a concussion and won’t testify before a congressional committee on the issue, just as she avoided being called to account in the aftermath of the murders even though she issued a statement saying she took “full responsibility” for what happened.

As Seth wrote earlier today, Clinton, who is resigning soon anyway, has managed to maintain a reputation as a successful secretary of state despite a record that can only be characterized as unremarkable at best. A more harsh assessment would say that she has failed on virtually every major issue, whether it was relations with Russia, the Middle East peace process, or stopping Iran’s nuclear program. The Benghazi debacle is just the frosting on the cake on four years in which Clinton skated by on her reputation and a press corps determined to flatter her. She was unable to achieve any real successes, but also was clearly subordinate to the White House rather than being the person calling the shots on policy.

While it’s clear that in the short run Clinton will escape the public opprobrium she deserves for presiding over the Benghazi fiasco, it would be wrong to assume that this is the last we will hear of it. If, as many expect, she runs for president in 2016, Democratic opponents will clobber her with the account of how her department ignored pleas for more security in Benghazi and then spread misleading stories about a terrorist attack being nothing more than film criticism run amok.

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The three State Department officials who resigned today in the wake of the release of a scathing report on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya will probably be the only ones held accountable for that disaster. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is conveniently laid up due to a concussion and won’t testify before a congressional committee on the issue, just as she avoided being called to account in the aftermath of the murders even though she issued a statement saying she took “full responsibility” for what happened.

As Seth wrote earlier today, Clinton, who is resigning soon anyway, has managed to maintain a reputation as a successful secretary of state despite a record that can only be characterized as unremarkable at best. A more harsh assessment would say that she has failed on virtually every major issue, whether it was relations with Russia, the Middle East peace process, or stopping Iran’s nuclear program. The Benghazi debacle is just the frosting on the cake on four years in which Clinton skated by on her reputation and a press corps determined to flatter her. She was unable to achieve any real successes, but also was clearly subordinate to the White House rather than being the person calling the shots on policy.

While it’s clear that in the short run Clinton will escape the public opprobrium she deserves for presiding over the Benghazi fiasco, it would be wrong to assume that this is the last we will hear of it. If, as many expect, she runs for president in 2016, Democratic opponents will clobber her with the account of how her department ignored pleas for more security in Benghazi and then spread misleading stories about a terrorist attack being nothing more than film criticism run amok.

Though she was the runner up in the 2008 Democratic presidential contest, that was a case more of Barack Obama winning than Clinton losing. Clinton entered that race as the overwhelming favorite in part because of her last name but also because she had no real personal liabilities as a candidate other than the idea among many in the party that it was time to move on from the Clinton era. Many Democrats who are unlikely to think critically about the Obama administration will ignore the facts about the dismal record of the State Department under her leadership. But in four years, when Obama is on his way out of the White House, it is entirely possible that by then some will be willing to hold Benghazi against his first secretary of state. In 2008, Clinton’s campaign attempted to exploit Obama’s lack of experience by talking about 3 a.m. crisis phone calls. But in 2016, it will be Clinton’s opponents who will be talking about how she flubbed just such a crisis and the result was lost American lives.

Despite the blithe confidence of her fans, the assumption that Hillary will have a cakewalk to the Democratic nomination in 2016 may turn out to be just as wrong as similar predictions in the years leading up to 2008. A bright new face may crowd her out just as one did during her first presidential try. But Clinton remains a formidable contender; the Benghazi blame that she is currently dodging may turn out to be one more reason why she will never be president.

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Hagel’s Hezbollah Problem

As others have made clear, Chuck Hagel’s problems extend beyond his controversial comments about the “Jewish lobby.” Several of his stated positions–and not just his opposition to Iran sanctions–could have practical consequences for U.S. interests. A prime example is the European Union’s indication that it may finally designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, depending on the outcome of the Burgas bus bombing investigation. The U.S. has lobbied the reluctant EU on this for years, since the move would cut off much of the terror group’s funding:

European diplomats from Spain and France have told the Post that blacklisting Hezbollah is contingent on the outcome of the Bulgarian investigation into a July bombing in Burgas which killed five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver. American and Israeli intelligence officials believe a joint Hezbollah-Iran operation executed the suicide bombing. Europe has held the line on its ban of Hamas in 2003. Hezbollah’s terrorism is equally deadly and there are no shortage of compelling reasons to evict Hezbollah from European soil.

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As others have made clear, Chuck Hagel’s problems extend beyond his controversial comments about the “Jewish lobby.” Several of his stated positions–and not just his opposition to Iran sanctions–could have practical consequences for U.S. interests. A prime example is the European Union’s indication that it may finally designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, depending on the outcome of the Burgas bus bombing investigation. The U.S. has lobbied the reluctant EU on this for years, since the move would cut off much of the terror group’s funding:

European diplomats from Spain and France have told the Post that blacklisting Hezbollah is contingent on the outcome of the Bulgarian investigation into a July bombing in Burgas which killed five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver. American and Israeli intelligence officials believe a joint Hezbollah-Iran operation executed the suicide bombing. Europe has held the line on its ban of Hamas in 2003. Hezbollah’s terrorism is equally deadly and there are no shortage of compelling reasons to evict Hezbollah from European soil.

It’s a promising sign from the EU, but the U.S. will still need to continue the pressure. While serving as ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hagel drew notice in 2006 for refusing to sign onto a letter calling on the EU to designate Hezbollah–a letter that was signed by 88 Senators. The decision was striking, considering his prominent role in the committee. It also gave cover to an Iranian-allied terrorist organization, in direct contradiction with U.S. interests. What signal would his potential appointment send to the EU about the U.S.’s seriousness on cracking down on Hezbollah?

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Obama: King of the Task Force

Today President Obama announced an interagency task force, led by Vice President Joe Biden, to guide his administration’s response to the shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School. Politico reports “it will follow a call on Friday for ‘meaningful action’ and his Sunday pledge to use the White House to ‘engage’ Americans to prevent mass shootings. According to a White House official, the president likely won’t make significant policy announcements but will instead explain how his administration will determine what to do next.”

The president is well-known for asking groups of people to gather to discuss problems of national importance, including task forces on: working familiesthe middle class; Guantanamo Bay, commercial advocacy, Hurricane Sandy rebuilding, interagency ocean policy, childhood obesity, Puerto Rico’s status, federal contracting opportunities for small businesses, climate change adaption, financial fraud enforcement, and many, many others. A search on the White House website for the words “task force” yields 86,000 results. What exactly have these task forces accomplished? What legislation has been put forth? What executive orders have been put into effect? What do they do besides issue reports? 

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Today President Obama announced an interagency task force, led by Vice President Joe Biden, to guide his administration’s response to the shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School. Politico reports “it will follow a call on Friday for ‘meaningful action’ and his Sunday pledge to use the White House to ‘engage’ Americans to prevent mass shootings. According to a White House official, the president likely won’t make significant policy announcements but will instead explain how his administration will determine what to do next.”

The president is well-known for asking groups of people to gather to discuss problems of national importance, including task forces on: working familiesthe middle class; Guantanamo Bay, commercial advocacy, Hurricane Sandy rebuilding, interagency ocean policy, childhood obesity, Puerto Rico’s status, federal contracting opportunities for small businesses, climate change adaption, financial fraud enforcement, and many, many others. A search on the White House website for the words “task force” yields 86,000 results. What exactly have these task forces accomplished? What legislation has been put forth? What executive orders have been put into effect? What do they do besides issue reports? 

Two of the most famous initiatives the White House has began, the Middle Class Task Force and the Jobs Council, can give you some idea. Over the summer the Daily reported on the now-defunct MCTF:

In its first years, Vice President Joe Biden, who leads the initiative, toured the country promoting the administration’s economic policies as the group pumped out a flurry of reports on the state of the middle class, pushed for clean energy manufacturing tax credits and Pell grants, and helped make the case for the president’s health care overhaul.

The group includes about a dozen other members, including eight Cabinet secretaries and a handful of top appointees on economic policy.

More than three years after its launch, however, the task force seems to have lost its steam. 

The task force’s website has become a virtual graveyard for aging updates about the middle class like “Why Middle Class Americans Need Health Reform,” published in 2009. The last annual report available on its site dates to 2010. 

The task force blog has over the past few years been transformed from a showcase of the group’s policy proposals to a repository of press releases from the vice president’s speeches. 

With the election just months away, some Democrats fear the fate of the task force is emblematic of an administration that has struggled mightily to sell — and even explain — landmark achievements like health care reform to the middle-class voters it must win over in November.

“What happened to the task force? That’s a good question,” Democratic strategist Peter Fenn said in a phone interview.

“One of the things people have been concerned about is that with a lot of these victories for the middle class, that the president has not been beating his chest enough about it,” said Fenn. “He has not gone out and really said, ‘Hey look, here’s what we’ve been doing.’ ”

While the MCTF discussed the importance of health-care reform and green jobs, it doesn’t appear that any meaningful legislation or ideas stemmed from these task forces that largely served as a vehicle to cheerlead for administration pet projects already in the works. The final “report” on healthcare reform in 2009 was just three pages long and provided a laundry list of problems without recommendations for solutions or next steps. 

The president’s “Jobs Council” was a frequently mentioned failure during the Romney campaign. During the campaign over the summer, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had to answer questions about why the council hadn’t met in more than six months, and predictably, he had no good answers. There were other embarrassing moments for the council, like the council’s chairman saying this about China’s authoritarian government: “state run communism may not be your cup of tea, but their government works.” One member of the jobs council, Intel CEO Paul Otellili, endorsed Romney and toured with the campaign. The council hasn’t met since February of last year and is now totally defunct. 

Last week President Obama promised “meaningful action” in the wake of the massacre in Newtown that resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six adults. In the president’s world that means it will be talked about and eventually statements will be issued, with no tangible “meaningful action” taken or even suggested. President Obama is the leader of the free world. If he wanted to lead on gun violence his first step would be to actually lead, instead of asking other people to sit around a table and talk. It appears that this issue will disappear down the rabbit hole along with the rest of the task forces the president has convened over the last several years, only to reemerge the next time a fatal shooting makes the front pages. 

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Ready for Senator Ted Kennedy Jr.?

Ted Kennedy Jr., son of the late senator, appears to be floating his name for a potential senatorial bid to replace John Kerry. A “friend and adviser” to the Kennedy scion emailed the following to Mike Allen this morning:

“It’s no secret that Ted is interested in entering politics, after a long and successful career as a disability rights advocate and businessman. Numerous people in Massachusetts have reached out to him to ask him to consider running for office there, and, if Senator Kerry is nominated to a Cabinet post, it’s fair to say that he will be giving this very serious consideration.” 

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Ted Kennedy Jr., son of the late senator, appears to be floating his name for a potential senatorial bid to replace John Kerry. A “friend and adviser” to the Kennedy scion emailed the following to Mike Allen this morning:

“It’s no secret that Ted is interested in entering politics, after a long and successful career as a disability rights advocate and businessman. Numerous people in Massachusetts have reached out to him to ask him to consider running for office there, and, if Senator Kerry is nominated to a Cabinet post, it’s fair to say that he will be giving this very serious consideration.” 

The biggest obstacle for EMK Jr. is that he lives in Connecticut and would probably have to fix that before running for Senate across the border. But he could be an unbeatable candidate in a state where the Kennedy name and bloodline is one of the most powerful assets a politician can have.

Of course, that nepotism could always backfire. Back in 2010, Scott Brown was able to beat Martha Coakley by portraying her as so out-of-touch and arrogant that she expected the seat to be handed to her. Considering EMK Jr.’s Connecticut residency and family background, Brown’s campaign attacks would write themselves.

Whether Democrats will repeat the mistakes of 2010 is another question. One Massachusetts Democratic Party source said they learned their lesson from 2010, and realize their candidate has to actually compete for the seat rather than taking it as a given. 

“Dems learned their lesson in ’10. Not worried about Scott Brown anymore” said the source. “In ’10 we thought it would be a breeze. We know the work that has to be put in now.”

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Racism at the Times

There is a New York Times op-ed this morning that is somewhere beyond appalling. It is by Adolph L. Reed Jr., a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Professor Reed writes about the appointment of Rep. Tim Scott to replace the retiring Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Scott, in Reed’s view, is essentially an Uncle Tom because he does not agree with the politics of most black Americans:

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There is a New York Times op-ed this morning that is somewhere beyond appalling. It is by Adolph L. Reed Jr., a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Professor Reed writes about the appointment of Rep. Tim Scott to replace the retiring Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Scott, in Reed’s view, is essentially an Uncle Tom because he does not agree with the politics of most black Americans:

. . . his politics, like those of the archconservative Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, are utterly at odds with the preferences of most black Americans. Mr. Scott has been staunchly anti-tax, anti-union and anti-abortion.

Of course, Tim Scott will not be representing black Americans in the Senate, he will be representing South Carolinians, who are, overwhelmingly, staunchly anti-tax, anti-union and anti-abortion. So it would seem that while white people can be liberals or conservatives according to the dictates of their thinking, blacks cannot. If you’re black but not liberal, in Professor Reed’s worldview, then you’re not really black.

He notes that, “All four black Republicans who have served in the House since the Reagan era — Gary A. Franks in Connecticut, J. C. Watts in Oklahoma, Allen B. West in Florida and Mr. Scott — were elected from majority-white districts.” So? All that proves is that the voters of these districts elected people according to their political positions and not the color of their skins, which is all Professor Reed seems to care about.

He can’t even get skin color right, however. He writes:

Mrs. Haley — a daughter of Sikh immigrants from Punjab, India — is the first female and first nonwhite governor of South Carolina, the home to white supremacists like John C. Calhoun, Preston S. Brooks, Ben Tillman and Strom Thurmond.

Whites don’t all come from northwestern Europe, Professor Reed. Sikhs are overwhelmingly Punjabi. Punjabi is an Indo-European language and its speakers are, to use a 19th century term, Caucasians, i.e., white. It might be pointed out that Calhoun died in 1850, Brooks in 1857, and Tillman in 1918. Strom Thurmond died in 2003 at the age of 100 and had long since abandoned his racist ideas, just as Justice Hugo Black and Senator Robert Byrd, two other Southern politicians of his generation, had abandoned their memberships in the KKK. Of course Black and Byrd were liberals in their later careers, so … Oh, look, a squirrel.

Professor Brooks writes, “Redistricting and gerrymandering have produced ‘safe’ seats for black politicians across the South but have also concentrated black votes in black districts, giving white Republicans a lock.” Well, whose idea was that? It’s a liberal one and not a very bright one at that, as concentrating black votes in certain districts necessarily drains them away from the other districts, making those districts more conservative. And it is based on the thoroughly racist idea that only black districts will elect blacks to Congress. Frank, Watts, West, and Scott prove that idea wrong.

Professor Reed calls his piece “The Puzzle of Black Republicans.” But the puzzle is easily solved. Tim Scott is not a black Republican. He’s a Republican who happens to be black. Professor Reed sees racism in everything. But if he’d like to see a real racist, he needs only to look in a mirror.

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Benghazi Report Makes Clear Clinton’s Failure–and Obama’s

Since the terrorist attack in Benghazi killed our ambassador there and three others, I’ve been asking just how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has managed to avoid accountability for what was clearly her State Department’s failure. Others have begun asking that same question, including former Clinton administration official Aaron David Miller. Miller offered a few possible answers, one of which was that her expected run for the presidency in 2016–which is already in motion–has convinced the Washington establishment to stay on her good side.

Miller was asking the question in the context of the strangely effusive praise she has been receiving for her work as secretary of state, even though she has been surely unremarkable–and that was before the debacle in Benghazi (and, I would add, Foggy Bottom’s failure with regard to the Palestinians’ unilateral declaration of statehood at the UN). It’s possible that Miller is right–that most people don’t actually believe what they’re saying about Clinton, but are simply speaking flattery to power. But yesterday’s release of the inquiry into Benghazi should inspire at least some honesty about Clinton’s manifest failure there. It also explains why Republicans have latched on to Benghazi with such force: as the report shows, the tragedy in Benghazi was evidence of the failure of the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy across the administration.

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Since the terrorist attack in Benghazi killed our ambassador there and three others, I’ve been asking just how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has managed to avoid accountability for what was clearly her State Department’s failure. Others have begun asking that same question, including former Clinton administration official Aaron David Miller. Miller offered a few possible answers, one of which was that her expected run for the presidency in 2016–which is already in motion–has convinced the Washington establishment to stay on her good side.

Miller was asking the question in the context of the strangely effusive praise she has been receiving for her work as secretary of state, even though she has been surely unremarkable–and that was before the debacle in Benghazi (and, I would add, Foggy Bottom’s failure with regard to the Palestinians’ unilateral declaration of statehood at the UN). It’s possible that Miller is right–that most people don’t actually believe what they’re saying about Clinton, but are simply speaking flattery to power. But yesterday’s release of the inquiry into Benghazi should inspire at least some honesty about Clinton’s manifest failure there. It also explains why Republicans have latched on to Benghazi with such force: as the report shows, the tragedy in Benghazi was evidence of the failure of the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy across the administration.

As the report makes clear, there is a serious management problem at the State Department:

Communication, cooperation, and coordination among Washington, Tripoli, and Benghazi functioned collegially at the working-level but were constrained by a lack of transparency, responsiveness, and leadership at the senior levels. Among various Department bureaus and personnel in the field, there appeared to be very real confusion over who, ultimately, was responsible and empowered to make decisions based on both policy and security considerations.

The report also knocks the State Department for not responding appropriately to requests for more security in Libya, and for needing those requests in the first place. The report wonders why the State Department’s decision makers didn’t understand the situation on the ground, and goes on to name 20 separate instances of violence or attempted violence against foreign missions and NGOs in the six months leading up to the attack on the American mission in Benghazi.

So Clinton was detached and ill-informed about the mission to an inexcusable degree. But President Obama himself shares some of the blame. After all, as the report notes, Libya was in a state of lawlessness for a reason:

It is worth noting that the events above took place against a general backdrop of political violence, assassinations targeting former regime officials, lawlessness, and an overarching absence of central government authority in eastern Libya. While the June 6 IED at the SMC and the May ICRC attack were claimed by the same group, none of the remaining attacks were viewed in Tripoli and Benghazi as linked or having common perpetrators, which were not viewed as linked or having common perpetrators. This also tempered reactions in Washington. Furthermore, the Board believes that the longer a post is exposed to continuing high levels of violence the more it comes to consider security incidents which might otherwise provoke a reaction as normal, thus raising the threshold for an incident to cause a reassessment of risk and mission continuation. This was true for both people on the ground serving in Libya and in Washington.

Behold the product of “leading from behind,” the Obama administration’s light-touch approach to foreign intervention. The Libya mission left a decapitated country in the midst of civil war descending into anarchy ruled by gang-led violence. The Obama administration chose to wash its hands of the ordeal when Muammar Gaddafi was gone. It was into this chaos that Clinton sent our ambassador with insufficient protection.

The report also finds fault with the intelligence establishment, though former CIA Director David Petraeus has already resigned and thus won’t be held doubly responsible for what happened. Max has also noted the confused and clumsy military response to the attack as well.

The harsh Republican response to Benghazi, then, was not just about Susan Rice and her talking points (though that was an issue for them as well, certainly), but about the broader strategic and management failures across all relevant departments of the Obama administration, and the pitfalls of the “leading from behind” strategy of military engagement.

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John Bolton on Robert Bork

Our friend John R. Bolton writes eloquently about Bob Bork on the website of the American Enterprise Institute, where both worked. Here’s his take in part: 

Bob Bork was my antitrust professor at Yale Law School in 1972-73, where he was one of a small band of conservative/libertarian students and teachers….So few were our numbers at Yale Law that when the White House announced Bob’s name for Solicitor General, Ralph Winter joked that the first sentence in the Yale Daily News coverage should read:  “Yesterday, President Nixon nominated twenty percent of all the conservatives at Yale Law School to be Solicitor General.”  Bob himself could have come up with that line, his sense of humor being wry and self-deprecating….

One of Bob’s most important services to our country is also one of the most misunderstood, during the “Saturday Night Massacre.” When Nixon gave Attorney General Elliot Richardson the order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, Richardson resigned, as he had committed to do in his Senate confirmation hearings if the White House ever tried to interfere with Cox’s investigation. Deputy AG William Ruckelshaus also resigned, as he had similarly pledged to do. 

By virtue of these resignations, Bork, the third-ranking official at the Department of Justice, became Acting Attorney General.  Although he had been confirmed before the Watergate affair had become an issue, and never been asked to mae such a pledge, Bork told Richardson and Ruckelshaus that he thought he should also resign.  They urged him not to, because then the entire top leadership of the Department might have followed suit, and the country plunged into a constitutional crisis the likes of which we had never seen.

Richardson and Ruckelshaus urged him to fire Cox to preserve the Department’s legitimacy.  Said Richardson:  “You’ve got the gun now, Bob. It’s your duty to pull the trigger.” Bork did fire Cox, and paid for it the rest of his life…..

Our country will greatly miss Bob Bork. He was a friend and inspiration to many at AEI and around the country.  He never regretted the consequences of standing by his philosophical principles. Why else have them?

Read the whole thing.

Our friend John R. Bolton writes eloquently about Bob Bork on the website of the American Enterprise Institute, where both worked. Here’s his take in part: 

Bob Bork was my antitrust professor at Yale Law School in 1972-73, where he was one of a small band of conservative/libertarian students and teachers….So few were our numbers at Yale Law that when the White House announced Bob’s name for Solicitor General, Ralph Winter joked that the first sentence in the Yale Daily News coverage should read:  “Yesterday, President Nixon nominated twenty percent of all the conservatives at Yale Law School to be Solicitor General.”  Bob himself could have come up with that line, his sense of humor being wry and self-deprecating….

One of Bob’s most important services to our country is also one of the most misunderstood, during the “Saturday Night Massacre.” When Nixon gave Attorney General Elliot Richardson the order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, Richardson resigned, as he had committed to do in his Senate confirmation hearings if the White House ever tried to interfere with Cox’s investigation. Deputy AG William Ruckelshaus also resigned, as he had similarly pledged to do. 

By virtue of these resignations, Bork, the third-ranking official at the Department of Justice, became Acting Attorney General.  Although he had been confirmed before the Watergate affair had become an issue, and never been asked to mae such a pledge, Bork told Richardson and Ruckelshaus that he thought he should also resign.  They urged him not to, because then the entire top leadership of the Department might have followed suit, and the country plunged into a constitutional crisis the likes of which we had never seen.

Richardson and Ruckelshaus urged him to fire Cox to preserve the Department’s legitimacy.  Said Richardson:  “You’ve got the gun now, Bob. It’s your duty to pull the trigger.” Bork did fire Cox, and paid for it the rest of his life…..

Our country will greatly miss Bob Bork. He was a friend and inspiration to many at AEI and around the country.  He never regretted the consequences of standing by his philosophical principles. Why else have them?

Read the whole thing.

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WaPo Editorial Board: Hagel Wrong for Defense

The Washington Post editorial board came out against Chuck Hagel’s potential nomination for secretary of defense this morning, citing his “near the fringe” views on Iran and defense spending: 

But Mr. Hagel has elsewhere expressed strong skepticism about the use of force.

We share that skepticism — but we also understand that, during the next year or two, Mr. Obama may be forced to contemplate military action if Iran refuses to negotiate or halt its uranium-enrichment program. He will need a defense secretary ready to support and effectively implement such a decision. Perhaps Mr. Hagel would do so; perhaps he would also, if installed at the Pentagon, take a different view of defense spending. (Mr. Hagel declined through a spokesman to speak to us about his views.)

What’s certain is that Mr. Obama has available other possible nominees who are considerably closer to the mainstream and to the president’s first-term policies. Former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy, for example, is a seasoned policymaker who understands how to manage the Pentagon bureaucracy and where responsible cuts can be made. She would bring welcome diversity as the nation’s first female defense secretary.

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The Washington Post editorial board came out against Chuck Hagel’s potential nomination for secretary of defense this morning, citing his “near the fringe” views on Iran and defense spending: 

But Mr. Hagel has elsewhere expressed strong skepticism about the use of force.

We share that skepticism — but we also understand that, during the next year or two, Mr. Obama may be forced to contemplate military action if Iran refuses to negotiate or halt its uranium-enrichment program. He will need a defense secretary ready to support and effectively implement such a decision. Perhaps Mr. Hagel would do so; perhaps he would also, if installed at the Pentagon, take a different view of defense spending. (Mr. Hagel declined through a spokesman to speak to us about his views.)

What’s certain is that Mr. Obama has available other possible nominees who are considerably closer to the mainstream and to the president’s first-term policies. Former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy, for example, is a seasoned policymaker who understands how to manage the Pentagon bureaucracy and where responsible cuts can be made. She would bring welcome diversity as the nation’s first female defense secretary.

Not only does Obama have better options than Hagel, he has options that would be easier to confirm. Someone like Flournoy would have no problem. While Hagel could make it through, it would be a messy fight that would highlight issues Obama is already seen as weak on–particularly his commitment to Israel and seriousness on Iran.

And while Hagel is a former member of the Senate club, he would be pressed on comments he’s made that are highly embarrassing for Obama, including a reference to the “Jewish lobby” intimidating members of Congress. Michael Warren reports that Lindsey Graham and John McCain, both members of the committee that would hold the defense secretary hearings, would question Hagel on these comments if he’s nominated:

Asked about Hagel’s 2008 statement that the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people here [in Washington, D.C.],” South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said Hagel will “have to answer for that comment” if he is nominated. 

“And he’ll have to answer about why he thought it was a good idea to directly negotiate with Hamas and why he objected to the European Union declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization,” continued Graham, a member of the Armed Services committee. “I think he’ll have to answer all those questions.” …

John McCain of Arizona said he “strongly disagree[s]” with Hagel’s comments on the “Jewish lobby.”

“I know of no ‘Jewish lobby,’” McCain said. “I know that there’s strong support for Israel here. I know of no ‘Jewish lobby.’ I hope he would identify who that is.”

There is a solid case against nominating Hagel, but not a solid case for choosing him over another option. Someone like Flournoy would still be compatible with Obama ideologically, but she would come with far less baggage.

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Benghazi Report Leaves Some Questions Unanswered

The Accountability Review Board appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to look into the deadly assault on the Benghazi consulate has come back with a damning series of findings. The panel, chaired by retired diplomat Thomas Pickering, found “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels” which resulted in security “that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.” Not surprisingly, the panel affirmed what the intelligence community has been saying for months now, that contrary to what administration spokesmen said immediately afterward, there was no protest before the attack; it was simply a well-executed terrorist attack.

But for all of the rigor of the panel’s work, it was narrowly focused on the State Department’s handling of the situation. There is little said about the military response to the attacks, beyond the sending of a drone aircraft and the evacuation of the diplomats in Benghazi; and there is even less about the White House role in managing the response to the crisis, even though senior officials, up to and including the president, must have been aware of the attacks as they were occurring. Nor is there anything in the report about the failure, so far, to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice. Why, for example, has the administration seemingly decided to treat this as a law enforcement matter, with the FBI in the lead, rather than treating it as an act of war, with the armed forces in the lead? A fuller explanation of those issues awaits, presumably, more congressional digging.

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The Accountability Review Board appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to look into the deadly assault on the Benghazi consulate has come back with a damning series of findings. The panel, chaired by retired diplomat Thomas Pickering, found “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels” which resulted in security “that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.” Not surprisingly, the panel affirmed what the intelligence community has been saying for months now, that contrary to what administration spokesmen said immediately afterward, there was no protest before the attack; it was simply a well-executed terrorist attack.

But for all of the rigor of the panel’s work, it was narrowly focused on the State Department’s handling of the situation. There is little said about the military response to the attacks, beyond the sending of a drone aircraft and the evacuation of the diplomats in Benghazi; and there is even less about the White House role in managing the response to the crisis, even though senior officials, up to and including the president, must have been aware of the attacks as they were occurring. Nor is there anything in the report about the failure, so far, to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice. Why, for example, has the administration seemingly decided to treat this as a law enforcement matter, with the FBI in the lead, rather than treating it as an act of war, with the armed forces in the lead? A fuller explanation of those issues awaits, presumably, more congressional digging.

The panel also included a series of recommendations for improving diplomatic security, which Secretary Clinton is said to be implementing. That is well and good, but there is a danger in the government of swinging too far from one extreme to another. So security that may have been overly lax before Benghazi may become now so restrictive that diplomats (and intelligence operatives) will be unable to meet with the population of the countries where they are posted. While clearly the State Department must do a better job of embassy security, it must recognize that it is impossible to eliminate all risk and few diplomats would want to serve in such a sterile environment that they cannot do their jobs properly. A reaction on the part of the U.S. government to the Benghazi attacks is proper and necessary; an over-reaction should be avoided.

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President Should Sign “Counter Iran in the Western Hemisphere” Act

Word came yesterday evening that the House of Representatives has agreed with a Senate amendment and so Rep. Jeff Duncan’s (R-South Carolina) “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act” will head to the White House for President Obama’s signature.

If the bill becomes a law—and presumably it will because the White House did not oppose it—then the secretary of state will have to report to Congress on a broad range of Iranian activity in the Western hemisphere. According to the Congressional Research Service’s summary, the report will include:

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Word came yesterday evening that the House of Representatives has agreed with a Senate amendment and so Rep. Jeff Duncan’s (R-South Carolina) “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act” will head to the White House for President Obama’s signature.

If the bill becomes a law—and presumably it will because the White House did not oppose it—then the secretary of state will have to report to Congress on a broad range of Iranian activity in the Western hemisphere. According to the Congressional Research Service’s summary, the report will include:

(1) Descriptions of the presence, activities, and operations of Iran, the IRGC, the IRGC’s Qods Force, and Hezbollah;

(2) descriptions of the terrain, population, ports, foreign firms, airports, borders, media outlets, financial centers, foreign embassies, charities, religious and cultural centers, and income-generating activities utilized by Iran, the IRGC, the IRGC’s Qods Force, and Hezbollah;

(3) descriptions of the relationship of Iran, the IRGC, the IRGC’s Qods Force, and Hezbollah with transnational criminal organizations;

(4) descriptions of the relationship of Iran, the IRGC, the IRGC’s Qods Force, and Hezbollah that may be present with governments in the Western Hemisphere;

(5) descriptions of federal law enforcement capabilities, military forces, state and local government institutions, and other critical elements, such as nongovernmental organizations that may organize to counter the Iranian threat in the Western Hemisphere; [and]

(6) descriptions of activity by Iran, the IRGC, the IRGC’s Qods Force, and Hezbollah that may be present at the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada and at other international borders within the Western Hemisphere

Under Secretary of State Clinton and her two Bush administration predecessors, the State Department’s attitude toward Iran in the Western hemisphere has been “hear no evil, see no evil, report no evil.” Yet, the Iranian government has pursued an active strategy in the region. My American Enterprise Institute colleague Roger Noreiga has written a great deal on the Iran-Venezuela nexus, including here at COMMENTARY. His analysis has been remarkably prescient; most critics counter not Roger’s evidence, but simply the fact that the State Department has yet to second his findings. The reason for that is, more often than not, because diplomats refuse to look. Let us hope that Obama signs the bill: Information should not an enemy for policymakers.

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Jewish Dems Fail to Speak Up on Hagel

Today’s Washington Post editorial opposing the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary should provide encouragement for those seeking to derail the appointment. The Post rightly pointed out that Hagel’s positions on defense spending and stopping Iran’s nuclear program “fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term — and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him.” The Post is right about that, but that is exactly why the talk about Hagel is raising alarms among those who fear that a second Obama administration will not follow through on the promises made by the president during his first term, with specific attention to his pledge to stop Iran from developing a nuclear capability.

However, those expecting that pro-Israel Jewish Democrats will be leading the charge to stop the appointment of a man who is a prominent critic of the Jewish state as well as of its American supporters are probably going to be disappointed. As this article published today in the Hill demonstrates, the unwillingness of influential Democrats like Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin to oppose Hagel shows that any campaign against the nomination may be an uphill slog. Combined with the natural reluctance of many senators to oppose a former colleague and friend, the inability of Hagel’s foes to get prominent Jewish Democrats to take a stand may ensure his victory.

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Today’s Washington Post editorial opposing the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary should provide encouragement for those seeking to derail the appointment. The Post rightly pointed out that Hagel’s positions on defense spending and stopping Iran’s nuclear program “fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term — and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him.” The Post is right about that, but that is exactly why the talk about Hagel is raising alarms among those who fear that a second Obama administration will not follow through on the promises made by the president during his first term, with specific attention to his pledge to stop Iran from developing a nuclear capability.

However, those expecting that pro-Israel Jewish Democrats will be leading the charge to stop the appointment of a man who is a prominent critic of the Jewish state as well as of its American supporters are probably going to be disappointed. As this article published today in the Hill demonstrates, the unwillingness of influential Democrats like Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin to oppose Hagel shows that any campaign against the nomination may be an uphill slog. Combined with the natural reluctance of many senators to oppose a former colleague and friend, the inability of Hagel’s foes to get prominent Jewish Democrats to take a stand may ensure his victory.

Though the headline in the Hill spoke of Jewish Democrats being “divided” on Hagel, the only senator they quoted as opposing him was Joe Lieberman, who is an independent and is leaving the Senate this month anyway. While Ben Cardin and Richard Blumenthal took no position, their silence as well as the no-show attitude of the National Jewish Democratic Council has turned the debate into one between Jewish conservatives like the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol and the Republican Jewish Coalition and supporters of Hagel like Peter Beinart, Joe Klein and J Street.

Of course, the reason why Klein and Beinart are so enthusiastic about Hagel illustrates why the pro-Israel community is so upset about the prospect of his running the Pentagon. His antagonism to Israel has never been a secret and the left hopes he will fulfill their fantasies about a second Obama administration putting the screws to Israel about the Palestinians. They also like his lack of interest in taking on Iran or even threatening the use of force to bring Tehran to its senses about its drive for nuclear weapons. Open supporters of Iran such as the Campaign against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran feel the same way.

While Klein has written about AIPAC beginning to use its muscle to stop Hagel, any such effort will require Democrats to put up or shut up about their party and president being stalwart supporters of the Jewish state. Simply put, a Hagel nomination is incompatible with any idea that this administration or the Democratic Party can be viewed as reliable allies of Israel. It will be up to people like Cardin and Blumenthal and the NJDC to speak up about Hagel in the coming weeks for that pledge to have any real meaning.

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Turkish Premier Bashes Separation of Powers

For both COMMENTARY MAGAZINE and here at Contentions, I’ve written a lot about Turkey in recent years. The reason is two-fold: First, Turkey is an important country, and its support was crucial to the United States during the Cold War; and, second, as an ostensibly democratic, Muslim-majority country spanning continents, Turkey is often upheld as a model for the region.

Alas, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is accelerating Turkey’s backslide from democracy. His target now is separation of power. There were earlier hints of this, for example the 2005 threat by Bülent Arınç, at the time speaker of the parliament, to dissolve the constitutional court if it continued to find AKP legislation unconstitutional. Erdoğan subsequently promoted Arınç to be his chief deputy, but he still had plausible deniability since it was his proxy rather than himself who uttered the threat.

Now, however, Erdoğan is attacking separation of power directly. According to the Hürriyet Daily News:

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For both COMMENTARY MAGAZINE and here at Contentions, I’ve written a lot about Turkey in recent years. The reason is two-fold: First, Turkey is an important country, and its support was crucial to the United States during the Cold War; and, second, as an ostensibly democratic, Muslim-majority country spanning continents, Turkey is often upheld as a model for the region.

Alas, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is accelerating Turkey’s backslide from democracy. His target now is separation of power. There were earlier hints of this, for example the 2005 threat by Bülent Arınç, at the time speaker of the parliament, to dissolve the constitutional court if it continued to find AKP legislation unconstitutional. Erdoğan subsequently promoted Arınç to be his chief deputy, but he still had plausible deniability since it was his proxy rather than himself who uttered the threat.

Now, however, Erdoğan is attacking separation of power directly. According to the Hürriyet Daily News:

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has described the separation of powers as the government’s main obstacle, saying it was preventing them from introducing “further services.”  “Even during our own governing tenure, we are having some troubles. Unfortunately, the errors within the system are the causes of those troubles. Since the system was built the wrong way, we are facing some unexpected troubles. Bureaucracy blocks our path or we face the judiciary unexpectedly….”

When a prime minister—one who has imprisoned more journalists than China, Iran, or Russia—complains about the separation of power and the obstacles caused by independent courts, alarm bells should go off in Europe and the United States. That the president of the United States and more than 150 Congressmen endorse his antics certainly sends the wrong message not only to Turkey’s liberals, democrats, and dissidents, but to every regional state which believes Turkey provides a model for political development.

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Robert Bork, 1927-2012

Robert Bork died today at the age of 85, having had the distinction of becoming one of the most famous figures in the realm of public policy of the 20th century in part because of the unprecedented effort to destroy his reputation following his nomination for a seat on the Supreme Court in 1987.

Bob’s sin was believing that the job of a constitutional jurist was to analyze constitutional cases in light of the specific language of the Constitution and the intent and ideas of those who wrote it. For believing this—for believing in the classical notion, which defines the very act of interpretative scholarship, that a work of governing philosophy and practice has intrinsic meaning and not just the meaning we wish to assign to it—he was disgustingly slandered.

Perhaps the most important legal scholar of his day, whose work on matters ranging from anti-trust to the complexities of privacy laws was both accessible and deeply considered, Bork was exactly the sort of choice serious-minded people should have welcomed. The Court had been in large measure the province of lightweights who were considered politically safe or somehow controllable, men who possessed no intellectual compass and were either the captives of their clerks or of the conventional wisdom. His nomination did the Court credit. It was an effort to elevate it.

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Robert Bork died today at the age of 85, having had the distinction of becoming one of the most famous figures in the realm of public policy of the 20th century in part because of the unprecedented effort to destroy his reputation following his nomination for a seat on the Supreme Court in 1987.

Bob’s sin was believing that the job of a constitutional jurist was to analyze constitutional cases in light of the specific language of the Constitution and the intent and ideas of those who wrote it. For believing this—for believing in the classical notion, which defines the very act of interpretative scholarship, that a work of governing philosophy and practice has intrinsic meaning and not just the meaning we wish to assign to it—he was disgustingly slandered.

Perhaps the most important legal scholar of his day, whose work on matters ranging from anti-trust to the complexities of privacy laws was both accessible and deeply considered, Bork was exactly the sort of choice serious-minded people should have welcomed. The Court had been in large measure the province of lightweights who were considered politically safe or somehow controllable, men who possessed no intellectual compass and were either the captives of their clerks or of the conventional wisdom. His nomination did the Court credit. It was an effort to elevate it.

But no. Nothing like the campaign to deny Bork the Supreme Court had ever been seen before. It was a systematic campaign of personal destruction undertaken by liberal interest groups who had come to see the growing conservatism of the Reagan-era judiciary as an existential threat to them. Only a year earlier, Antonin Scalia had been affirmed by a 98-0 vote in the Senate, but in the interim, Democrats had taken hold of the body in the 1986 elections and the stage was set for a new era of personal destruction in the pursuit of a supposedly higher good.

Bob Bork became a sacrificial lamb for, among others, Ted Kennedy, who libeled him with the preposterous allegation that Bork wanted to return America to the days in which women got abortions with coat hangers. Why? For the crime of arguing, honestly and correctly, that Roe v. Wade, which somehow found  a right to abortion in the language of a document that never mentioned abortion, was a travesty.

To know Bob Bork was to be astonished at the level of invective he generated. He was a shy, abrupt, slyly witty, and intensely thoughtful man. He had no airs. You asked him a question, he answered it. You asked him about his views of cases like Griswold v. Connecticut, involving the privacy of sexual acts in the bedroom, and he said the case had been wrongly decided not because there should be no privacy but because he could locate no right to privacy in the Constitution. This was, he said, a matter for legislatures, not courts.

What he said was true; that he said it was impolitic and helped his enemies. What they did to him was unconscionable. He did not let it destroy him. He had lived through worse—the long death at a tragically young age of his first wife, Claire.  He went on to write bestselling books with highly serious intent, living life as a public intellectual, finding contentment in his second marriage to Mary Ellen.

But he was not serene in the face of what had happened. Serenity was not in his nature in any case. Years later I was sitting with him at some dinner when someone asked him a question about Kennedy. He told a story about his testimony and about having to address Kennedy, who had spoken in such vile fashion about him, with deference and respect. Then he puckered up his lips like a fish and simulated swimming like a fish in the waters of Chappaquiddick.

Almost a quarter century after his “Borking,” the judicial transformation his character assassination was designed to help prevent has happened anyway. In a brilliant article we published a few months ago, called “Bork Won,” Adam J. White lays out the enduring legacy of this remarkable and complicated man, who was left on the far shore but got to watch as the people who followed him crossed the river and took his journey forward.

Here are three articles he wrote for COMMENTARY: “Against the Independent Counsel,” published in 1993; “What to Do About the First Amendment,” in 1995; and “Civil Liberties after 9/11,” in 2003.

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