Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 2013

Hagel’s Credibility Left in Shreds

It’s not clear if administration sources that leaked the story that Chuck Hagel had three practice sessions before a mock committee before his actual Senate confirmation hearing were trying to help or hurt the former senator. Hagel’s performance was so shaky that even some of his liberal supporters like Peter Beinart were lamenting on Twitter about his stumbling and bumbling answers to tough questions. That he flopped so badly after being rehearsed speaks volumes about how bad he was. Indeed, he had so many misstatements that it will be hard for news organizations to choose which of them to broadcast in their highlights of the hearings. But as much as his inability to speak coherently and present a plausible defense of his record while under pressure was exposed today, in what was probably the worst showing by a presidential nominee in a confirmation hearing in memory, it was his credibility that took the biggest hit.

Time and again throughout the day, Hagel bobbed and weaved when presented with examples of the contradictions between the voluminous record of votes and statements about Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah and what he has been saying in public since President Obama nominated him to be the next secretary of defense. Under tough questioning from Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, Roger Wicker and Ted Cruz, Hagel’s pose as a consistent and ardent friend of Israel and foe of Iran was shown to be nothing but a hastily constructed façade that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

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It’s not clear if administration sources that leaked the story that Chuck Hagel had three practice sessions before a mock committee before his actual Senate confirmation hearing were trying to help or hurt the former senator. Hagel’s performance was so shaky that even some of his liberal supporters like Peter Beinart were lamenting on Twitter about his stumbling and bumbling answers to tough questions. That he flopped so badly after being rehearsed speaks volumes about how bad he was. Indeed, he had so many misstatements that it will be hard for news organizations to choose which of them to broadcast in their highlights of the hearings. But as much as his inability to speak coherently and present a plausible defense of his record while under pressure was exposed today, in what was probably the worst showing by a presidential nominee in a confirmation hearing in memory, it was his credibility that took the biggest hit.

Time and again throughout the day, Hagel bobbed and weaved when presented with examples of the contradictions between the voluminous record of votes and statements about Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah and what he has been saying in public since President Obama nominated him to be the next secretary of defense. Under tough questioning from Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, Roger Wicker and Ted Cruz, Hagel’s pose as a consistent and ardent friend of Israel and foe of Iran was shown to be nothing but a hastily constructed façade that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

As I have written repeatedly since his nomination was announced, Hagel has been working hard to disappoint those who have always shared his views since he was so eager to discard principles that he had ardently supported. But one such supporter was unfazed by his reversals. Former Media Matters staffer MJ Rosenberg is a bitter critic of Israel and its supporters to the point where he is considered toxic even by many on the left. But as Twitchy notes, Rosenberg wasn’t particularly helpful to Hagel today since he tweeted:

I spent a couple of hours with Hagel a few years ago. Talked with him about Israel. Happily, he is lying today &  knows it. He’ll be a good SeDef.

But you didn’t have to have that kind of inside information to understand that what was happening in the confirmation wasn’t particularly honest. Throughout the day when faced with offensive quotes or votes that were inconsistent with his current stands, Hagel rationalized about changing times or context. But the more the context of each incident was examined, the less truthful the Nebraskan sounded. It wasn’t just gaffes like his statement that his opposition to designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group was rooted in his belief that the Islamist regime was a “legitimate and elected government,” which he later walked back. It was his inability to explain why he refused to support Israel during the intifada or branded its defensive war against Hezbollah as a “slaughter.”

But his deceitful approach wasn’t solely focused on his views about Israel and Iran. His attempt to explain his role in producing a report about America’s nuclear deterrent was just as bad. He refused to own up to his views and the plain language of a document that he co-authored. His inability to be honest about his opposition to the Iraq surge when pressed to do so by John McCain was not so much outrageous as it was transparently weak.

By the end of the day, Hagel was reduced to saying something that shouldn’t inspire much confidence in his leadership when he said his opinions didn’t matter so much because he was not being appointed to a policymaking position. Hagel’s defense of himself as a mere bureaucrat may be in line with the Obama administration’s top-down approach to policy but it is a dispiriting exhibition for someone who is actually being tapped for one of the most important positions in the Cabinet.

Chuck Hagel demonstrated today that he isn’t fit for such a senior post. His incompetent testimony should have embarrassed the president and backers like Chuck Schumer, who gambled his own reputation on a man who has little credibility. That may not be enough to derail a nomination that is being rammed through on a partisan basis by the Senate’s majority caucus. But today’s disappointing show by Hagel shamed not just Democrats but a nation whose defense is being entrusted to an incompetent liar.

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Is Another Complacency Trap Awaiting GOP on Immigration?

Reason magazine’s website has published an illustration on the convoluted and often hopeless process of immigrating to the U.S. and applying for citizenship, originally published in its October 2008 issue on immigration. If you have a non-immediate relative who is an American citizen it can still take up to 28 years to gain citizenship, though as the diagram notes, there are many cases that never even get that far. And despite the value that “unskilled” immigrants can offer certain sectors of the American economy, Reason’s map points out:

There is virtually no process for unskilled immigrants without relations in the U.S. to apply for permanent legal residence. Only 10,000 green cards are allotted every year, and the wait time approaches infinity. (Those who receive H-2A or H-2B temporary visas for seasonal work cannot transition to a green card.)

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Reason magazine’s website has published an illustration on the convoluted and often hopeless process of immigrating to the U.S. and applying for citizenship, originally published in its October 2008 issue on immigration. If you have a non-immediate relative who is an American citizen it can still take up to 28 years to gain citizenship, though as the diagram notes, there are many cases that never even get that far. And despite the value that “unskilled” immigrants can offer certain sectors of the American economy, Reason’s map points out:

There is virtually no process for unskilled immigrants without relations in the U.S. to apply for permanent legal residence. Only 10,000 green cards are allotted every year, and the wait time approaches infinity. (Those who receive H-2A or H-2B temporary visas for seasonal work cannot transition to a green card.)

This points to one source of frustration voters have when it comes to major reform legislation: the political class was unable to fix obvious problems before they got out of hand. Now voters are being told their elected representatives are going to be capable of fully solving a problem they couldn’t contain. Several examples of this cropped up during the debate over Obamacare. Of course people should have been able to buy health insurance across state lines, and of course catastrophic-care plans more suited to the needs of many healthy young people should have been more widely available. Both would have helped curb the cost of health care–as would have tort reform.

Instead, the problem festered and costs spun out of control until voters were told the industry was in crisis and the only solution was a mammoth, expensive, bureaucracy-heavy overhaul of dubious constitutionality. “Fixing the immigration system” sounds like quite an undertaking, and it is–but it remains a necessary one, no less so because there were steps that could and should have been taken along the way.

What’s interesting here, as the New York Times’s Richard Stevenson points out today, is that Congress’s lack of urgency on the issue actually outlasted what was considered the crisis point:

By some key measures, the problems underlying illegal immigration — the economic and demographic pressures that have drawn Mexicans north for decades in search of jobs and a better life, and the challenges for the United States of securing its borders — have diminished over the past six years.

The Mexican economy, while still riddled with inefficiency and inequality, is nonetheless humming along, providing many more job opportunities for Mexican workers. And in Mexico, the source of about 6 in 10 illegal immigrants in the United States, the birthrate has plummeted over the last few decades, shrinking the pool of potential emigrants.

“We are at a moment when the underlying drivers of what has been persistent, growing illegal immigration for 40 years have shifted,” said Doris Meissner, a commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton and now a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a research group. “There are some fundamental new realities.”

Mexican birthrates have fallen sharply and something of a Mexican middle class has emerged. Those two factors are likely to continue if and when the American economy turns around. What has given the pro-immigration reform crowd the advantage is that one “crisis” has remained: the political crisis of the Republican Party, which now has an electoral incentive to support immigration reform–something they should have done long ago–regardless of the rates of low-skilled and illegal immigration.

As I’ve written before, the GOP’s trouble attracting Hispanic voters is much more complex than just the immigration issue, but fixing the system is a good start. Immigration reform is also the right policy, regardless of the votes that come with it. And a look at that Reason chart tells you just how long ago something should have been done. But wavering conservatives shouldn’t fool themselves into learning the wrong lesson from Stevenson’s piece and thinking that since this particular wave of immigration has subsided, the system can handle another round of procrastination.

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OWS Were As Spoiled As You Thought

Contain your surprise at this latest study into Occupy Wall Street’s participants: They are overwhelmingly white, educated, and are more likely to be employed, make over $100,000 a year and be male than the average New Yorker. That composite image you had in your mind of spoiled, rich white guys camping out in Zuccotti Park for the fun of it was confirmed by the movement’s own participants’ self-reported statistics.

The study, commissioned by the City University of New York, interviewed 727 participants about the movement and its structure. The study explained that “despite their relative affluence and their overrepresentation in the professions, many of our respondents had substantial debt or had experienced recent job loss.” Hold the phone. Folks that spent weeks, if not months, sleeping outside while protesting something they were never actually able to identify can’t handle financial or job responsibilities well? Truly shocking. 

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Contain your surprise at this latest study into Occupy Wall Street’s participants: They are overwhelmingly white, educated, and are more likely to be employed, make over $100,000 a year and be male than the average New Yorker. That composite image you had in your mind of spoiled, rich white guys camping out in Zuccotti Park for the fun of it was confirmed by the movement’s own participants’ self-reported statistics.

The study, commissioned by the City University of New York, interviewed 727 participants about the movement and its structure. The study explained that “despite their relative affluence and their overrepresentation in the professions, many of our respondents had substantial debt or had experienced recent job loss.” Hold the phone. Folks that spent weeks, if not months, sleeping outside while protesting something they were never actually able to identify can’t handle financial or job responsibilities well? Truly shocking. 

How much did Occupy’s message speak for Americans feeling overwhelmed by our faltering economy? Initially many Americans may have felt that the discontentment expressed by Occupy matched their own. Soon, however, the movement showed its true colors: it became violent, with skyrocketing reports of rape, vandalism and assault. While the protest movement could have represented a growing majority of Americans financially underwater, it instead was overtaken by folks who thought that defecating on police cars and spilling the contents of Porta-Potties were valid forms of expression.

Unsurprisingly, those antics don’t speak for the majority of hardworking Americans who, no matter their precarious financial situation, would never dream of stooping to OWS’s methods. The problem with OWS was that while its members might have been struggling financially like many other Americans, they were not hardworking nor were they average. It’s no wonder the movement fizzled out: while these Occupiers were struggling in debt of their own creation and sleeping in Zuccotti Park, the rest of America was working to get back on its feet.

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Israel Doing West’s Dirty Work in Syria

American officials are now confirming that Israel launched an attack on a Syrian convoy transporting sophisticated weaponry into Lebanon. As expected, the Israelis had no comment about the incident. But the squeals of outrage from both Syria and its ally Iran about the attack, as well as their furious threats of retaliation, show that the operation was probably a success. It’s not clear whether the transfer of what was allegedly anti-aircraft equipment to Hezbollah is a sign that the Assad regime is falling or whether the shipment was a payment for the extensive help it has received from both Iran and its Lebanese proxies. But the question of the disposal of the massive arsenal, including chemical weapons, that Assad still possesses raises an a important point about this latest twist in what has become a Syrian civil war.

As that struggle increasingly looks like one between a bloody tyrant and Islamist rebels rather than a democratic alternative, the American decision to lead from behind in Syria rather than to take action earlier when a better result might have been possible is looking even worse than it did a year ago. Though much of the discussion about Israel’s actions has centered on how far it will go to defend its interests, the bottom line here is that, as it has done in the past, the Jewish state is doing the Americans’ dirty work for them in Syria.

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American officials are now confirming that Israel launched an attack on a Syrian convoy transporting sophisticated weaponry into Lebanon. As expected, the Israelis had no comment about the incident. But the squeals of outrage from both Syria and its ally Iran about the attack, as well as their furious threats of retaliation, show that the operation was probably a success. It’s not clear whether the transfer of what was allegedly anti-aircraft equipment to Hezbollah is a sign that the Assad regime is falling or whether the shipment was a payment for the extensive help it has received from both Iran and its Lebanese proxies. But the question of the disposal of the massive arsenal, including chemical weapons, that Assad still possesses raises an a important point about this latest twist in what has become a Syrian civil war.

As that struggle increasingly looks like one between a bloody tyrant and Islamist rebels rather than a democratic alternative, the American decision to lead from behind in Syria rather than to take action earlier when a better result might have been possible is looking even worse than it did a year ago. Though much of the discussion about Israel’s actions has centered on how far it will go to defend its interests, the bottom line here is that, as it has done in the past, the Jewish state is doing the Americans’ dirty work for them in Syria.

The United States has cautioned Syria about its cache of chemical weapons both in terms of their use against insurgents and their possible export to safe havens in either Lebanon or Iran. But when it comes to brass tacks, it is the Israelis and not U.S. forces that are being counted on to act to ensure that those threats have teeth.

The administration has spent the last two years punting on a deteriorating situation in Syria. Initially Obama was reluctant to turn on a dictator that he and his new secretary of state may have thought was a moderate. But eventually he switched and started claiming that Assad’s fall was imminent. Had the West moved swiftly on Syria, as it did in Libya, that might have been true even though such action would have been fraught with risk. But what we have learned is that sometimes inaction can be even more dangerous than interventions.

Syria is a crucial lynchpin in Iran’s strategy for expanding its influence throughout the Middle East. By largely standing aloof from the bloody struggle there, the United States has not only been complicit in the slaughter there but has allowed Tehran to save its ally, which it has propped up with “volunteers” and arms. This has led to a worst-case scenario in which the Assad regime is still holding on while Syria is convulsed in chaos and violence. That not only endangers Israel’s security, but also creates the danger that Assad’s arsenal will either fall into the hands of unsavory insurgents or be given to Hezbollah.

Though Israel will be criticized for having its forces cross an international border, in acting to interdict Syrian arms convoys or to attack chemical weapons stored there, it is doing something that is as much in the interests of the United States as it is their own. At a time when critics continue to attack Israel as a liability for American foreign policy, this attack ought to bring home just how important the strategic alliance with the Jewish state has become.

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Hagel Stumbles His Way Through Hearing

The first hours of Chuck Hagel’s Senate confirmation hearing did little to gladden the hearts of his supporters. While the strict partisan divide over the nomination should ensure that he would get the support of a majority of senators, his bumbling performance undermined any notion that the president’s choice to lead the Pentagon was winning over any of his critics. More to the point, his effort to portray his recent recantations of his long-held skepticism about attempts to stop Iran from going nuclear, his criticisms of Israel, and his belief in engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah as consistent with his record was a flop. Though he had obviously been prepped to state his support for Israel and President Obama’s policies on Iran over and over again—a task made easier by Democratic senators asking him to merely reaffirm and regurgitate those talking points—he still managed to stumble over some issues he hoped to put to rest.

On the question of his refusal to back sanctions against Iran and its Revolutionary Guards, Hagel was both contradictory and disingenuous. But on the one past statement that was the smoking gun about his attitudes toward Israel—his rant about the “Jewish lobby” and its intimidation of Congress—his answers did little to dispel the notion that his views have not changed.

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The first hours of Chuck Hagel’s Senate confirmation hearing did little to gladden the hearts of his supporters. While the strict partisan divide over the nomination should ensure that he would get the support of a majority of senators, his bumbling performance undermined any notion that the president’s choice to lead the Pentagon was winning over any of his critics. More to the point, his effort to portray his recent recantations of his long-held skepticism about attempts to stop Iran from going nuclear, his criticisms of Israel, and his belief in engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah as consistent with his record was a flop. Though he had obviously been prepped to state his support for Israel and President Obama’s policies on Iran over and over again—a task made easier by Democratic senators asking him to merely reaffirm and regurgitate those talking points—he still managed to stumble over some issues he hoped to put to rest.

On the question of his refusal to back sanctions against Iran and its Revolutionary Guards, Hagel was both contradictory and disingenuous. But on the one past statement that was the smoking gun about his attitudes toward Israel—his rant about the “Jewish lobby” and its intimidation of Congress—his answers did little to dispel the notion that his views have not changed.

The most pointed confrontation of the morning centered on John McCain’s demand that Hagel admit that he was wrong about his opposition to the Iraq surge. Hagel wouldn’t do so and, with the aid of the Democrats on the committee, managed to come out of the exchange not looking too bad since he could claim that he was right that the war (which he had voted to authorize) was a mistake.

He also danced around his participation with Global Zero, a group that issued a report about nuclear weapons that he co-authored, that called for drastic reductions in the U.S. arsenal and even offered unilateral disarmament as an option.

Yet far more damning was his incoherent response to questions about his refusal to support sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as well as his early opposition to those against the regime. His explanation of his vote in which he said Iran’s government was “elected and legitimate” was a shocking revelation of his mindset about the confrontation in which he has always failed to understand the nature of the threat.

Throughout the hearing, Hagel kept repeating that he supported President Obama on Iran and acted as if his record hadn’t been consistent in opposing sanctions on Iran and even considering a military option.

But the most damning moment came when Senator Roger Wicker finally asked about his comment about how he stood up to the “Jewish lobby” and discussed how it “intimidated” Congress and forced it to do “stupid” things. Wicker asked what groups he was referring to and whether he still agreed that Congress was intimidated into acting against U.S. interests.

In reply, Hagel only said that he should have said “pro-Israel lobby” rather than “Jewish lobby” and that he should have said “influenced” rather than “intimidated.” Curiously, he claimed that it was the only time he stated these thoughts “on the record,” leading to the obvious conclusion that he had probably said the same thing or worse in private.

But these words aside, he did nothing to answer whether he thought Israel’s friends have a disproportionate influence on the United States or whether its actions resulted in bad policy. Indeed, his silence on that point and his inability to cite a single member of Congress who had been intimidated or a single stupid policy enacted as a result of such pressure showed just how vicious and insulting that remark was. It also made it clear that despite his constant reiteration of his support for Israel and its qualitative military edge, he had not really changed his extreme views about the Middle East.

So long as Democrats stay loyal to the president and Republicans choose not to filibuster, Hagel will be confirmed. But Hagel has done nothing to convince anyone that his recantation of so much of what he has said and done during his career is sincere or deeply felt. But perhaps even more disturbing is the unimpressive command of the issues that he demonstrated while testifying. His nomination is clearly not one based on his merits but on his close relationship with President Obama. A second Obama administration with Hagel in charge at the Pentagon will be one in which it has a flawed leader at Defense whose out-of-the-mainstream record on key issues may reveal the president’s own inclinations.

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Why the Chill in U.S.-Russia Relations Matters

One of the most common mistakes made by American “realist” analysts with regard to Russia is, in the words of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Lilia Shevtsova, that they have too often “accepted the Kremlin interpretation of Russia’s national interests.” It is not Vladimir Putin, she said, but the Russian society he disregards that shares values and interests with the West. Russians want openness, an independent judiciary, and cultural ties to the West: “That in turn requires America and the West as a whole to take a values-based approach to Russia.”

Shevtsova was commenting after the Obama administration announced its “reset” and specifically on the report of a commission on the “right direction” for U.S.-Russia policy, co-chaired by Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel, the latter going through his confirmation hearings for defense secretary today. The disparity between Putin’s interests and those of the Russian people is in part why Putin has pulled back on so many forms of mutual cooperation. It is easy–and partially accurate–to see Putin’s adoption ban as retaliation for the American human rights legislation, the Magnitsky Act. But the adoption ban was preceded by Putin’s decision to expel USAID and end cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, and it was followed by the expansion of the Guantanamo list banning about 70 Americans from Russia and ending a joint U.S.-Russian project on crime prevention.

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One of the most common mistakes made by American “realist” analysts with regard to Russia is, in the words of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Lilia Shevtsova, that they have too often “accepted the Kremlin interpretation of Russia’s national interests.” It is not Vladimir Putin, she said, but the Russian society he disregards that shares values and interests with the West. Russians want openness, an independent judiciary, and cultural ties to the West: “That in turn requires America and the West as a whole to take a values-based approach to Russia.”

Shevtsova was commenting after the Obama administration announced its “reset” and specifically on the report of a commission on the “right direction” for U.S.-Russia policy, co-chaired by Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel, the latter going through his confirmation hearings for defense secretary today. The disparity between Putin’s interests and those of the Russian people is in part why Putin has pulled back on so many forms of mutual cooperation. It is easy–and partially accurate–to see Putin’s adoption ban as retaliation for the American human rights legislation, the Magnitsky Act. But the adoption ban was preceded by Putin’s decision to expel USAID and end cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, and it was followed by the expansion of the Guantanamo list banning about 70 Americans from Russia and ending a joint U.S.-Russian project on crime prevention.

The disparity is also why respected economists and analysts like Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer have advocated strong civil society cooperation and communication between the U.S. and the pro-democracy and pro-modernization members of the Russian public–something the administration may set back by pulling out of one such group in response to Putin’s actions–and why it matters that U.S.-Russia cooperation is at a post-Cold War low. In their study of 35 hybrid regimes between the end of the Cold War and 2008, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way conclude:

Where linkage to the West was high, competitive authoritarian regimes democratized. Where linkage was low, regime outcomes hinged on incumbents’ organizational power. Where state and governing party structure were well organized and cohesive, regimes remained stable and authoritarian; where they were underdeveloped or lacked cohesion, regimes were unstable, although they rarely democratized.

All of which makes the Obama administration’s decision, as reported by Josh Rogin, to focus its attempt to reset the “reset” on reducing nuclear stockpiles–a replay of the early stages of the first failed reset–all the more baffling. Russian nukes aren’t being aimed with a finger on the trigger at the U.S.; they are a relic of a bygone era and a symbol of great power status.

Additionally, why follow a failed game plan? New START was supposed to be a largely symbolic opening to more advantageous U.S.-Russia cooperation on real threats to nuclear nonproliferation, such as Iran, that never materialized. Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad and his crackdown on pro-democracy activists and protesters are just more evidence that “reset” skeptics like Shevtsova, who wrote “that we must tie foreign policy to Russia’s domestic development, not untie it,” were right on the mark.

There are nations whose existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons remain of great concern, like Pakistan and North Korea. There are rising would-be great powers expanding their existing nuclear forces, like China. And there are unstable or violent, anti-Western regimes seeking to join the nuclear club, like Iran and Syria. The focus on Russia’s weapons seems like a distraction. More importantly, the one benefit to President Obama’s obsession with offering unrequited concessions and a carrot-only engagement strategy was that when it failed he would have the credibility to change direction. The president may count these symbolic agreements as accomplishments, but they will more likely stand as a testament to his missed opportunities.

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NYT Deserves Praise for China Reporting

As someone who regularly critiques New York Times articles, I feel it is only fair to also give credit where it’s due. The Times deserves kudos for publishing an expose on the vast wealth accumulated by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and his relatives–an article that has resulted, the newspaper revealed this morning, in four months of sophisticated attacks on its computer network by Chinese hackers.

There is nothing at all surprising about the Chinese cyber-harassment in response to criticism. This has long been a trademark of the Beijing regime, which typically operates through hackers that provide a layer of deniability to Chinese officials. Indeed last year Bloomberg was similarly targeted after running an article revealing the riches accumulated by Xi Jinping, then China’s vice president at the time.

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As someone who regularly critiques New York Times articles, I feel it is only fair to also give credit where it’s due. The Times deserves kudos for publishing an expose on the vast wealth accumulated by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and his relatives–an article that has resulted, the newspaper revealed this morning, in four months of sophisticated attacks on its computer network by Chinese hackers.

There is nothing at all surprising about the Chinese cyber-harassment in response to criticism. This has long been a trademark of the Beijing regime, which typically operates through hackers that provide a layer of deniability to Chinese officials. Indeed last year Bloomberg was similarly targeted after running an article revealing the riches accumulated by Xi Jinping, then China’s vice president at the time.

The Times, therefore, must have published its well-reported article on Wen Jiabao with its eyes wide open as to the likely consequences. The fact that it went ahead anyway, and did not cave before China’s implicit and explicit threats of retaliation, is a credit to the company, and a sign of the good that a large media organization can do.

Online-only journals and blogs are great–hey, I’m a blogger too–but it takes a lot of resources to produce journalism like this and then deal with the blowback. If giant media corporations like the New York Times Company are unable to operate at a profit in the future, the consequence will be a serious loss of information which will negatively impact even those of us who often disagree with the Times‘s editorial line.

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Iran Increases Uranium Enrichment, Oil Exports Despite Sanctions

As Chuck Hagel gets grilled in the Senate Armed Services Committee about his views on Iran and Israel, it is sobering to reflect on new evidence of how little effect sanctions are having on the Iranian nuclear program.

Iran has just notified the IAEA that it is stepping up uranium enrichment at its Natanz facility, which would allow it to accelerate the timeline for acquiring a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Iran’s oil exports have been rebounding since the imposition of European Union sanctions last July. Iran’s crude oil exports in December hit 1.4 million barrels a day–still down from 2011 levels of 2.2 million barrels a day but higher than last summer. This is evidence that, thanks to strong demand in China, India and other nations, Iran is managing to weather oil sanctions.

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As Chuck Hagel gets grilled in the Senate Armed Services Committee about his views on Iran and Israel, it is sobering to reflect on new evidence of how little effect sanctions are having on the Iranian nuclear program.

Iran has just notified the IAEA that it is stepping up uranium enrichment at its Natanz facility, which would allow it to accelerate the timeline for acquiring a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Iran’s oil exports have been rebounding since the imposition of European Union sanctions last July. Iran’s crude oil exports in December hit 1.4 million barrels a day–still down from 2011 levels of 2.2 million barrels a day but higher than last summer. This is evidence that, thanks to strong demand in China, India and other nations, Iran is managing to weather oil sanctions.

All of which means it is more imperative than ever that the United States have leadership dedicated to stopping the Iranian nuclear program by any means necessary. Hagel will not have an easy time convincing the Senate–or the world–that as secretary of defense he would be the right kind of leader. He has made amply clear his belief that bombing Iran is a greater danger than Iran acquiring The Bomb. But only if Iran fears military action, which could result in the downfall of its Islamist regime, will it contemplate a peaceful deal that would force it to give up its cherished goal of becoming a nuclear power.

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Is the U.S. Cracking Down on Corruption in Afghanistan?

There has been a lot of blowback in Afghanistan and Washington about the decision by U.S. military commanders to blacklist Kam Air, a large civilian airline, from receiving military contracts because it is allegedly used to ship tons of drugs to Central Asia. Predictably Kam Air is mobilizing its supporters, including Hamid Karzai, to denounce the U.S. action as an insult to a proud nation.

Hooey. There is nothing pro-Afghan about allowing U.S. government dollars to be used to support corruption and drug trafficking that is at odds with the values of the vast majority of ordinary Afghans. Yet for all too long U.S. spending has not been closely monitored and has gone to benefit kleptocrats and warlords, two categories that are almost synonymous in Afghanistan. Abusive government has been the Taliban’s biggest recruiting tool and U.S. failure to do more to stem the misuse of its funds the biggest mistake the U.S. has made during a decade of war.

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There has been a lot of blowback in Afghanistan and Washington about the decision by U.S. military commanders to blacklist Kam Air, a large civilian airline, from receiving military contracts because it is allegedly used to ship tons of drugs to Central Asia. Predictably Kam Air is mobilizing its supporters, including Hamid Karzai, to denounce the U.S. action as an insult to a proud nation.

Hooey. There is nothing pro-Afghan about allowing U.S. government dollars to be used to support corruption and drug trafficking that is at odds with the values of the vast majority of ordinary Afghans. Yet for all too long U.S. spending has not been closely monitored and has gone to benefit kleptocrats and warlords, two categories that are almost synonymous in Afghanistan. Abusive government has been the Taliban’s biggest recruiting tool and U.S. failure to do more to stem the misuse of its funds the biggest mistake the U.S. has made during a decade of war.

Not enough is being done, even now, to enforce some accountability and to bring corrupt Afghan allies to heel. But at least the decision on Kam Air–assuming it is founded upon solid intelligence–is in all likelihood a step in the right direction. The U.S. military should not be deterred by the resultant squawking from doing more to control our contracting.

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Next Recession Belongs to Obama, Not GOP

Democrats spent the 2012 presidential campaign successfully blaming George W. Bush for the country’s sluggish economy. But a week after President Obama’s second inaugural, they are still not taking responsibility for the country’s fiscal health. The White House responded to yesterday’s disturbing news that GDP declined for the first time since 2009 in predictable fashion: they blamed the bad numbers on Republicans. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the dip was the fault of “Congressional Republicans” who have tried to restrain the government’s out-of-control spending. Even though the president got his way in the fiscal cliff negotiations with the GOP, Carney said the threat of sequestration, which would mandate across-the-board spending cuts, is the real culprit for the downturn and that the “brinksmanship” by the House Republicans was victimizing the nation’s economy.

This was thin gruel even from a practiced spin master like Carney. The idea of sequestration, which will have a particularly devastating effect on defense, originated in the White House and not the GOP caucus before it was put into the 2011 deal on the debt ceiling. But while we must give Carney credit for his usual chutzpah, the idea that Republican efforts to face up to chronic fiscal problems via entitlement reforms is to blame is a particularly depressing example of the ideological dead end into which the administration has driven the economy. As John Steele Gordon wrote yesterday, there is no way of knowing yet whether yesterday’s GDP numbers are the harbinger of an Obama recession or merely a statistical anomaly, but the steadfast refusal of the White House to face up to the long-term threats is what could be driving the economy into the ditch.

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Democrats spent the 2012 presidential campaign successfully blaming George W. Bush for the country’s sluggish economy. But a week after President Obama’s second inaugural, they are still not taking responsibility for the country’s fiscal health. The White House responded to yesterday’s disturbing news that GDP declined for the first time since 2009 in predictable fashion: they blamed the bad numbers on Republicans. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the dip was the fault of “Congressional Republicans” who have tried to restrain the government’s out-of-control spending. Even though the president got his way in the fiscal cliff negotiations with the GOP, Carney said the threat of sequestration, which would mandate across-the-board spending cuts, is the real culprit for the downturn and that the “brinksmanship” by the House Republicans was victimizing the nation’s economy.

This was thin gruel even from a practiced spin master like Carney. The idea of sequestration, which will have a particularly devastating effect on defense, originated in the White House and not the GOP caucus before it was put into the 2011 deal on the debt ceiling. But while we must give Carney credit for his usual chutzpah, the idea that Republican efforts to face up to chronic fiscal problems via entitlement reforms is to blame is a particularly depressing example of the ideological dead end into which the administration has driven the economy. As John Steele Gordon wrote yesterday, there is no way of knowing yet whether yesterday’s GDP numbers are the harbinger of an Obama recession or merely a statistical anomaly, but the steadfast refusal of the White House to face up to the long-term threats is what could be driving the economy into the ditch.

What Carney failed to mention is that every business in America is worrying about the implications of the president’s signature legislative achievement. ObamaCare is about to go into effect and the fear that it will drive up health-care costs in a way that could sink even substantial companies is already having a powerful impact on job growth and investment. Add in worries about the mounting federal debt and the government’s spending problems—which, contrary to the assertion of Senator Mary Landrieu, is a grim reality and not the invention of FOX News analysts—as well as Democratic threats to raise taxes and you have the makings of a perfect storm that could well create another Great Recession.

It is true that the uncertainty over the future that is fueled by the standoffs over the debt ceiling hasn’t helped the economy. The president has succeeded in fooling much of the public into believing this is solely the work of Republican obstruction, but now that the House GOP has punted on the debt ceiling, it is going to be difficult for Carney to keep pretending that it is House Speaker John Boehner and the Tea Party, rather than the man in the Oval Office, who has the principal responsibility for what is going on.

If the next growth report shows a negative number, President Obama will find himself presiding over his own recession. He may try to pin it on the GOP, but in his fifth year in the White House, that is a trick that even a master like Jay Carney will have trouble pulling off. The next recession, which may already be starting, is the work of an administration that is prepared to saddle the country with more debt in order to realize their liberal fantasies of expanded government, not the last-ditch efforts of generally powerless Republicans trying to stave off impending disaster.

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Can Hagel’s Recantations Stand Up to Questioning?

After more than a month of argument over his nomination as secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel faces the first day of his Senate confirmation hearings on Thursday. The administration’s preparation for this event has been thorough, as the former senator has flipped on most of his controversial positions on Israel, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and gained the support of some key pro-Israel Democrats like Chuck Schumer. That ought to have been enough to secure his confirmation and the expectation right now is that while the Nebraskan will be roughed up a bit in the hearings, he will still win easily when the votes are counted.

But even the most careful preparations and political groundwork with individual members of the Senate can be blown up by a hearing in which a nominee gives critics new and perhaps damaging ammunition. The advise and consent process can be gamed by a nominee who is willing to disavow many of his previously cherished viewpoints as Hagel has done. Yet if Hagel’s responses to questions lack credibility or come across as obviously insincere, the rumblings about Hagel’s unsuitability to run the Pentagon will get louder. Should the notoriously prickly politician, who is far more used to bullying witnesses at Senate hearings than he is to meekly submitting to such abuse, fire back at his tormentors the result could change the conversation about his nomination.

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After more than a month of argument over his nomination as secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel faces the first day of his Senate confirmation hearings on Thursday. The administration’s preparation for this event has been thorough, as the former senator has flipped on most of his controversial positions on Israel, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and gained the support of some key pro-Israel Democrats like Chuck Schumer. That ought to have been enough to secure his confirmation and the expectation right now is that while the Nebraskan will be roughed up a bit in the hearings, he will still win easily when the votes are counted.

But even the most careful preparations and political groundwork with individual members of the Senate can be blown up by a hearing in which a nominee gives critics new and perhaps damaging ammunition. The advise and consent process can be gamed by a nominee who is willing to disavow many of his previously cherished viewpoints as Hagel has done. Yet if Hagel’s responses to questions lack credibility or come across as obviously insincere, the rumblings about Hagel’s unsuitability to run the Pentagon will get louder. Should the notoriously prickly politician, who is far more used to bullying witnesses at Senate hearings than he is to meekly submitting to such abuse, fire back at his tormentors the result could change the conversation about his nomination.

Those who want to get to the truth about Hagel’s views need to press him closely about what he meant when he bragged about standing up to pressure about the “Jewish lobby.” Does he think, as he previously argued, that the pro-Israel community has disproportionate or wrongful influence over Congress, as he implied? And why did he single out “Jewish” lobbyists as a threat to congressional independence and not other more powerful forces such as the oil lobby (not to mention the pressure put on Congress from the agricultural and corn lobby that drains the federal treasury with unnecessary subsidies)?

The public needs to know why he previously opposed sanctions on Iran. He needs to explain what, other than being nominated to run the Defense Department, made him change his mind about engaging the Islamist regime and protecting it from international pressure to drop its nuclear program. Why did he endorse a study published only a few months ago that sought to rally opposition to using force as even a last resort to stop Iran?

Hagel also must elaborate on why he favored engagement with the terrorists of Hamas and Hezbollah.

These are not minor points or details. While any candidate for high office can be expected to modify their positions on some issues in order to conform to those of the president, it is rare for any nominee to do a 180 on as many issues as Hagel has done in only a few weeks.

As Seth wrote earlier this week, the belief that Hagel is the president’s soul mate on war and peace issues ought to scare the country silly as details of the nominee’s out-of-the-mainstream views on key issues are explored. It may well be that Hagel will control himself and stick to his not-terribly-credible story about a change of heart and skate to confirmation. But should he succumb to the temptation to candidly explain himself, the ensuing fireworks may bring President Obama the first real setback of his second term.

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BDS Controversy Raging in Brooklyn

There’s another BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) controversy brewing in Brooklyn, this time at the publicly-funded Brooklyn College. Brooklyn College’s political science department has decided to co-sponsor an anti-Israel BDS conference, despite growing outrage at the school and department’s tendency to sponsor events that only portray one side of the Mideast debate. Yesterday Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a trustee at the City University of New York (the larger network that Brooklyn College is a member of) wrote a scathing op-ed about the conference in Algemeiner in which he admonished the school for its decision to go ahead with the program:

I call upon taxpayers to draw a line here and make it known: taxpayer dollars should not fund illegitimate, racist and anti-Semitic activities by any academic department. Those of us who care about Israel would do no less if others were similarly treated. Indeed, the Jewish community in particular historically has done no less. Additionally, academic administrators should be reminded that Jewish students are no less entitled – under applicable federal law – than other students to an educational environment free of intimidation and prejudice.

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There’s another BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) controversy brewing in Brooklyn, this time at the publicly-funded Brooklyn College. Brooklyn College’s political science department has decided to co-sponsor an anti-Israel BDS conference, despite growing outrage at the school and department’s tendency to sponsor events that only portray one side of the Mideast debate. Yesterday Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a trustee at the City University of New York (the larger network that Brooklyn College is a member of) wrote a scathing op-ed about the conference in Algemeiner in which he admonished the school for its decision to go ahead with the program:

I call upon taxpayers to draw a line here and make it known: taxpayer dollars should not fund illegitimate, racist and anti-Semitic activities by any academic department. Those of us who care about Israel would do no less if others were similarly treated. Indeed, the Jewish community in particular historically has done no less. Additionally, academic administrators should be reminded that Jewish students are no less entitled – under applicable federal law – than other students to an educational environment free of intimidation and prejudice.

This afternoon Brooklyn College President Karen Gould released a statement explaining the school’s decision to carry on with the conference, despite the outrage of many members of the Jewish community in Brooklyn as well as the student body. Despite a long history of Jewish enrollment at Brooklyn College in addition to its current large population of Jewish students (30 percent of Brooklyn College’s population self-identified as Jewish in 2011), the school has become known as a hotbed of anti-Israel activity. A friend and former student, Dani Klein, told me,

Ten years ago as a student at Brooklyn College, I was the President of NYSIPAC, the Israel advocacy club on campus at the time. We held events frequently. Sometimes individual professors came to speak, or promoted it, but we never had any department sponsor our events, let alone the political science department. Similar, one-sided, anti-Israel events were held on campus back then too, some comparing Israel to Nazis. These same groups have changed their tactics. Instead of shock and awe, they promote BDS. But their goal is the same — the destruction of Israel. 

In response to the controversy, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind has called for President Gould’s resignation, releasing a statement earlier today:

Allowing her Poli-Sci Department Chair to bully her into letting them co-sponsor and support a racist, anti-Semitic lecture series is not the right thing. Or perhaps President Gould wasn’t bullied; maybe she secretly approves. Or perhaps she’s apathetic. I can only speculate to what her motivation or lack of motivation is in allowing this irresponsible endorsement of this loathsome event by her College.

Either way, President Gould should not be steering this ship. It is heading for a barge. She should give someone else the helm, someone who understands how to manage a situation like this and protect Brooklyn College’s entire student body. The chilling effect upon Brooklyn College students will have long-term ramifications. Tacit approval is approval. Karen Gould should resign.”

Tomorrow, at 11 A.M., Assemblyman Hikind will be joined by numerous elected officials and community groups who will condemn Brooklyn College’s official endorsement and sponsorship of the event “BDS Movement Against Israel” which calls for a unilateral boycott against Israel and Israeli businesses.

Despite President Gould’s insistence that the conference will go on as planned, pressure seems be mounting, not dissipating, for its cancellation. If the event goes as scheduled it will surely continue to stoke tension in the community, which appears to be the only thing that BDS events seem to accomplish. 

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Media Bias in the Age of Obama

The soft and at times obsequious interview Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” did with Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton) has received a lot of justifiable criticism. (Conor Friedersdorf demolishes Kroft in this piece.) Mr. Kroft didn’t help himself when he told CNN’s Piers Morgan that one of the reasons the president turns to Kroft so often is that he doesn’t use “gotcha questions” on Mr. Obama–the kind that “60 Minutes” routinely used against President Bush and other Republicans like Representative Eric Cantor.

But Mr. Kroft, as embarrassing as his interview was, is merely symptomatic of a larger phenomenon: the unprecedented swooning and cheerleading by the press for Barack Obama.

To say that the elite media has a liberal bias is similar to declaring that the sun rises in the east. But it’s never been this transparent, the infatuation never this deep, the advocacy this passionate. We are now seeing shows like “60 Minutes”–once a fearless giant in journalism–give interviews that you would expect to see on Entertainment Tonight or state-run television. We’re at the point when we have to count on tough interviews coming from news outlets like Univision. There are of course exceptions to this–journalists who are both tough-minded and fair-minded. But among the most significant political developments of our time is how many members of the press have become partisans in ways we’ve never before seen.

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The soft and at times obsequious interview Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” did with Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton) has received a lot of justifiable criticism. (Conor Friedersdorf demolishes Kroft in this piece.) Mr. Kroft didn’t help himself when he told CNN’s Piers Morgan that one of the reasons the president turns to Kroft so often is that he doesn’t use “gotcha questions” on Mr. Obama–the kind that “60 Minutes” routinely used against President Bush and other Republicans like Representative Eric Cantor.

But Mr. Kroft, as embarrassing as his interview was, is merely symptomatic of a larger phenomenon: the unprecedented swooning and cheerleading by the press for Barack Obama.

To say that the elite media has a liberal bias is similar to declaring that the sun rises in the east. But it’s never been this transparent, the infatuation never this deep, the advocacy this passionate. We are now seeing shows like “60 Minutes”–once a fearless giant in journalism–give interviews that you would expect to see on Entertainment Tonight or state-run television. We’re at the point when we have to count on tough interviews coming from news outlets like Univision. There are of course exceptions to this–journalists who are both tough-minded and fair-minded. But among the most significant political developments of our time is how many members of the press have become partisans in ways we’ve never before seen.

What explains this?

A combination of factors, I think. One is the rise of Fox News. For decades progressives had a monopoly on news, which meant they were content to slant the news but not routinely cross the line into advocacy. But now that Fox News has offered not only a different perspective, but a popular one, journalists may feel they must, in order to compensate for their loss of influence, increase their liberal advocacy.

A second factor is Barack Obama. He is liberal, Ivy League, and a person of color. That is simply too powerful of a combination for the elite media to resist. (If Obama were conservative, Ivy League, and a person of color, he would be a marked man, as Clarence Thomas has been.) Mr. Obama touches the media’s erogenous zone in ways that no other president, even JFK, ever has. One gets to sense that journalists not only like Mr. Obama; they are in awe of him. They want to impress him and please him and are afraid of being rebuked by him. (It is very much how my 3rd grade son views his teacher.) Being a bright fellow, Mr. Obama understands this, which is why from time to time he transitions from being president to being media critic. He issues marching orders to the elite media–and a stunningly high number of journalists salute and do as they are told.

A third factor is that more and more “objective” journalists seem to feel that liberalism is synonymous with social justice and they want to be in the midst of the fight to advance it. Hence we see people like Bob Schieffer and Tom Brokaw–who once upon a time would have actually tried to keep their biases reasonably in check–frame the issue over gun control as if we’re in Selma in 1965. It’s all rather silly–efforts to manufacture melodrama usually are–but I suppose there’s something emotionally satisfying about trying to recapture, over and over again, the moral moment that was the civil rights era.

All of this helps explain why Americans’ distrust in the media hit a new high in 2012, with 60 percent saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.

There is some rough justice, I suppose, in members of the press being the architects in their own profession’s destruction. It will be interesting to see how much worse things will get, and what will finally emerge from the wreckage. 

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Why Is Obama Clinging to the Brotherhood?

While Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was in Germany today hoping to attract European investors to put their money in his country, the situation in many cities throughout the most populous Arab country continued to deteriorate. Violence continued, not only in the area around Cairo’s Tahrir Square where the demonstrations that toppled Hosni Mubarak started two years ago, but also in cities along the Suez Canal. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei called upon Morsi to hold a national dialogue and to form a government of national unity, but there is no indication that the Muslim Brotherhood leader will budge from his determination to hold onto total power.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration, which has been bragging to the press about Egypt being one of its foreign policy accomplishments, is standing aloof from a situation that the head of the Egyptian military said had brought the country to the edge of collapse. While the president may pride himself for helping to hasten the end of the Mubarak dictatorship and pressured the country’s military not to interfere with the Brotherhood’s drive to take control of the country, he seemed to have gone silent just at the moment when the secular opposition there needs him to speak up. Why?

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While Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was in Germany today hoping to attract European investors to put their money in his country, the situation in many cities throughout the most populous Arab country continued to deteriorate. Violence continued, not only in the area around Cairo’s Tahrir Square where the demonstrations that toppled Hosni Mubarak started two years ago, but also in cities along the Suez Canal. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei called upon Morsi to hold a national dialogue and to form a government of national unity, but there is no indication that the Muslim Brotherhood leader will budge from his determination to hold onto total power.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration, which has been bragging to the press about Egypt being one of its foreign policy accomplishments, is standing aloof from a situation that the head of the Egyptian military said had brought the country to the edge of collapse. While the president may pride himself for helping to hasten the end of the Mubarak dictatorship and pressured the country’s military not to interfere with the Brotherhood’s drive to take control of the country, he seemed to have gone silent just at the moment when the secular opposition there needs him to speak up. Why?

The answer appears to be rooted in the administration’s acceptance of several myths about the Brotherhood and Egypt that led it to do nothing to try and stop the Islamist group’s rise and now leads it to conclude that the U.S. has no choice but to continue to embrace Morsi and his party. But as Eric Trager writes today in Foreign Policy in an authoritative takedown of those myths, Obama’s policy on the Brotherhood has always been based on a few terrible misconceptions.

As Trager writes, American apologists for the Brotherhood have consistently argued that it was democratic in nature; its religious nature was morally equivalent to American evangelicals rather than Iran’s Islamist rulers; they were supporters of the peace treaty with Israel; and their position was so strong that they couldn’t lose in any power struggle. All these beliefs, apparently shared by the president and much of his foreign policy team, were dead wrong.

From its start, the Brotherhood’s goal was Leninist in nature, not democratic. They are uninterested in cooperating with other groups or accepting checks and balances on their power because their goal is to create an Islamist state, not to fulfill the hopes of many Egyptians about replacing Mubarak with a genuine democracy.

As for the soft-soap the Brotherhood sold to liberal columnists like those at the New York Times about the group being essentially moderate in nature and uninterested in forcing their beliefs on the country, that was always pure bunk. The group has, from its inception to the current day, been a totalitarian movement that sought to control the lives of its members and hopes to extend their grip to all of Egyptian society. As Trager notes, the only proper analogy to them is the Bolshevik movement, not a democratic American movement.

The talk about the Brotherhood seeking to make Egypt’s free market blossom was equally foolish. While, as Trager notes, it has the support of many rich Egyptians, its purpose remains the accumulation of power on the part of the government, not capitalism. Morsi may talk a good game about business development, especially when he’s in front of Western audiences and investors, but the reality of Brotherhood Egypt is one in which the big Islamist brother is the only winner in the marketplace, not free enterprise.

Nor will it ever accept the peace treaty with Israel. The only thing stopping them from scrapping the treaty is the certainty that doing so will cost them the $1 billion a year they get from the United States. But they will do everything short of actually breaking the pact or starting a war to end normal relations with the Jewish state. As Morsi has demonstrated, hatred for Israel and Jews is at the core of the Brotherhood’s ideology.

Trager, who has worked in Egypt studying the opposition to Mubarak as well as what followed, is most persuasive when he points out that Washington’s belief that they have no alternative but to deal with the Brotherhood is as foolish as the other myths about the country:

Yet the lesson of the Arab Spring is that what appears to be stable at one moment can be toppled at another — especially if people are frustrated enough with the status quo. The conditions that sparked Egypt’s 2011 uprising have only worsened in the past two years: The country’s declining economy has intensified popular frustrations, and the constant labor strikes and street-closing protests indicate that the Brotherhood’s rule is far less stable than it might appear on the surface. Meanwhile, Morsi’s dictatorial maneuvers have forced an anti-Brotherhood opposition to form much more quickly than previously imagined.

The situation in Cairo is by no means as certain as the State Department appears to think it is. Having toppled one dictator, Egyptians may well decide to overthrow another–especially if they conclude, as they should, that they have only worsened their lives by allowing the Islamists to attain power. At the very least, the U.S. ought not to be putting all its eggs in the Brotherhood basket as events unfold. But that is exactly what Obama has done in the past few months.

Allowing a key strategic country and onetime ally like Egypt to fall into the hands of an Islamist group is a disaster for American foreign policy. It is not too late for the president to begin rectifying his mistakes by cutting loose the Brotherhood at a moment when it is starting to weaken. If he doesn’t speak out now, it is fair to ask why this president seems willing to tolerate an unfriendly Islamist tyrant when he was so determined to unseat Mubarak.

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Israel Punished in Survey of Press Freedom for Targeting Hamas

In November, New York Times media reporter David Carr wrote about the deaths of three alleged “journalists” in Gaza during Israel’s counteroffensive there. Alana Goodman pointed out here that two of the three were “cameramen” working for a television station owned by Hamas. Both Hamas and the television station itself are designated terrorist organizations. Alana then pointed to stories identifying one of the men as a Hamas military commander and another as an officer in Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Blogger Elder of Ziyon wrote that the whole episode was “not just an indictment of Carr. This is a systemic problem in the entire profession. The smugness that they are infallible, and the groupthink that they can rely on others’ work without double-checking it, all indicate that there is some significant daylight between how many journalists do their work and what the truth really is.” Carr had defended himself by saying other organizations referred to those killed as journalists. One of the organizations Carr mentioned was Reporters Without Borders, which, having duped Carr into treating terrorists as journalists has just released its rankings of press freedom worldwide–and it has dropped Israel 20 places for killing those terrorists that the organization convinced news outlets to treat as innocent journalists:

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In November, New York Times media reporter David Carr wrote about the deaths of three alleged “journalists” in Gaza during Israel’s counteroffensive there. Alana Goodman pointed out here that two of the three were “cameramen” working for a television station owned by Hamas. Both Hamas and the television station itself are designated terrorist organizations. Alana then pointed to stories identifying one of the men as a Hamas military commander and another as an officer in Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Blogger Elder of Ziyon wrote that the whole episode was “not just an indictment of Carr. This is a systemic problem in the entire profession. The smugness that they are infallible, and the groupthink that they can rely on others’ work without double-checking it, all indicate that there is some significant daylight between how many journalists do their work and what the truth really is.” Carr had defended himself by saying other organizations referred to those killed as journalists. One of the organizations Carr mentioned was Reporters Without Borders, which, having duped Carr into treating terrorists as journalists has just released its rankings of press freedom worldwide–and it has dropped Israel 20 places for killing those terrorists that the organization convinced news outlets to treat as innocent journalists:

Journalists in Israel (112th, -20) enjoy real freedom of expression despite the existence of military censorship but the country fell in the index because of the Israeli military’s targeting of journalists in the Palestinian Territories.

Israel was of course not targeting journalists; Israel was targeting terrorists aided by gullible and biased journalists. But since Hamas started the fighting with rocket attacks, fired at Israeli residential areas, and dressed up terrorists as journalists to attract Israeli fire, surely the Palestinian territories were punished by Reporters Without Borders as well? Nope: the Palestinians’ ranking  jumps ahead seven spots.

On Monday, Michael Rubin noted that human rights organizations often act against their stated cause by doing things that could make war more deadly. The stunt pulled by Reporters Without Borders with collusion from the Times and other outlets quite obviously makes war more dangerous for actual journalists (war is already dangerous for Hamasniks, though the international community is working on a way to fix that too). But the report makes something else clear: those who expose the fact that Israel was targeting terrorists instead of journalists are wasting their breath on groups like Reporters Without Borders. The organization acknowledges that it docked Israel points for going after Hamas:

The 20-place fall of Israel (112nd) is due to the actions of the Israel Defence Forces in the Palestinian Territories – actions that used to be given a separate ranking in the index under the label of “Israel extraterritorial”. During Operation “Pillar of Defence” in November 2012, IDF deliberately targeted journalists and buildings housing media that are affiliated to Hamas or support it. And the arbitrary arrest and detention of Palestinian journalists is still commonplace. Israeli journalists meanwhile enjoy real freedom of expression but military censorship continues to be a structural problem.

The entry on the Palestinian territories does not even mention Hamasniks posing as journalists. Compared to last year, according to Reporters Without Borders, it’s all good news:

An improvement in relations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas has had a positive impact on freedom of information and the working environment for journalists.

Neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas is known for having a “positive impact” on freedom of the press, but Hamas is worse than its rivals. I predict disappointment in Reporters Without Borders’s future if Hamas gains in influence within the PA structure in the West Bank. Meanwhile, the campaign to delegitimize Israel among NGOs continues apace without fairness, accuracy, shame, or, indeed, borders.

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Why Rush Loves Rubio

The political world is still buzzing over the way Rush Limbaugh seemed to swoon over Marco Rubio yesterday in spite of the fact that he entered the conversation with the Florida senator disagreeing strongly with his position on immigration reform. Rubio has been on a tour of conservative talk radio shows in the last week as he attempts to sell the conservative base, with the stop at Limbaugh’s show the most important. While it’s clear that Rubio didn’t exactly persuade Limbaugh to change sides on the issue, his arguments in favor of the principles put forward by the bipartisan Senate group he joined on immigration clearly impressed the influential host.

Rubio’s ability to cause Limbaugh to moderate his position somewhat illustrates that the battle on the right over immigration isn’t as one-sided as some would have it. But while there’s little doubt that supporters of the bipartisan compromise are going to have their hands full in gaining the backing of the Republican caucuses in both the Senate and the House, the debate is also turning into an important showcase for Rubio’s natural political talent. It may be a little early to start handicapping the 2016 presidential race, but the senator, whose career was launched as a Tea Party insurgent, is strengthening his national stature with his advocacy on immigration in a way that impresses conservatives and makes it harder for the liberal media to demonize him.

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The political world is still buzzing over the way Rush Limbaugh seemed to swoon over Marco Rubio yesterday in spite of the fact that he entered the conversation with the Florida senator disagreeing strongly with his position on immigration reform. Rubio has been on a tour of conservative talk radio shows in the last week as he attempts to sell the conservative base, with the stop at Limbaugh’s show the most important. While it’s clear that Rubio didn’t exactly persuade Limbaugh to change sides on the issue, his arguments in favor of the principles put forward by the bipartisan Senate group he joined on immigration clearly impressed the influential host.

Rubio’s ability to cause Limbaugh to moderate his position somewhat illustrates that the battle on the right over immigration isn’t as one-sided as some would have it. But while there’s little doubt that supporters of the bipartisan compromise are going to have their hands full in gaining the backing of the Republican caucuses in both the Senate and the House, the debate is also turning into an important showcase for Rubio’s natural political talent. It may be a little early to start handicapping the 2016 presidential race, but the senator, whose career was launched as a Tea Party insurgent, is strengthening his national stature with his advocacy on immigration in a way that impresses conservatives and makes it harder for the liberal media to demonize him.

The case Rubio is making for the immigration compromise package is persuasive. He is working hard to convince conservatives that the measures in it to secure the border are real and not, as some would claim, merely a fig leaf on an amnesty bill that will repeat the problems of the 1986 legislation that did nothing to solve the problem. Though Limbaugh pointed out that Ronald Reagan ultimately decided that he made a mistake in backing that bill, he could not argue with Rubio’s insistence that the linkage between border security and the path to citizenship for illegals in the statement of principles he signed on to was credible. So, too, was Rubio’s threat to abandon the bill if Democrats or President Obama succeeded in slipping in a poison pill that would essentially neuter the provisions about halting the flow of illegals into the country.

Rubio was especially eloquent when he pointed out to Limbaugh that the talk on the right about illegals coming here for welfare benefits was not the case for most immigrants, who come here for work. When this child of immigrants spoke of knowing about this issue personally rather than reading about it in a book, he was not merely undermining conservative critiques of immigration reform but also dishing liberal stereotypes about the right.

That the senator can speak out for immigrants while simultaneously making traditional free-market opportunity and anti-tax arguments shows that this is a unique political figure that can synthesize the best of Tea Party principles with a frame of reference that is outside the box for the right. That’s why Limbaugh seemed to be telling his listeners than even if they didn’t like the bill, they ought to be cheering for one of its authors.

Any other senator who tried to sell the right on a rational immigration proposal that doesn’t pretend 11 million illegals can be deported might be branded as a weak sister or a RINO–and one should expect that some will try to do that. But Rubio’s Tea Party credentials and his solid record opposing concessions to the administration on spending and taxes makes such attacks fall flat.

If Rush can rhapsodize about Rubio’s advocacy on an issue where his instincts tell him that he should be rallying the right against compromise, that makes obvious his potential to be a major player on the national stage. Some may believe his embrace of immigration reform is a gamble since it exposes him to a backlash from his party’s base. But it is also an opportunity to launch him as a national political star in a way that he has not been before.

It’s too soon to say whether supporters of the bipartisan compromise will succeed in enacting immigration reform this year. But win or lose, Rubio will emerge from it a stronger political figure whose 2016 presidential stock will be on the rise. 

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Ambition Always Gets a Vote

When Barack Obama announced the selection of Joe Biden to be his running mate in 2008, the New York Times, echoing the conventional wisdom at the time, included among Biden’s attributes the following: “it appears unlikely that Mr. Biden would be in a position to run for president should Mr. Obama win and serve two terms. Shorn of any remaining ambition to run for president on his own, he could find himself in a less complex political relationship with Mr. Obama than most vice presidents have with their presidents.”

That was a widely held view and reportedly something the Obama team considered a significant mark in Biden’s favor. And it was sensible of them to do so. Sharing the White House with Hillary Clinton, for example, or a popular moderate Democrat like then-Senator Evan Bayh, would have almost surely meant nominating his successor who would want an agenda and to perhaps even share in the credit for Obama’s legacy. So instead Obama nominated Biden to be his vice president and Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state. And wouldn’t you know it, they may both run for president anyway, touting their respective legacies and sharing in the glory of Obama’s own legislative victories. The only difference–and what might be the source of endless future headaches for Obama–is that he has a clear preference for Clinton over his own vice president, the latter now launching his own possible bid from the White House and simultaneously in need of restraining.

So what did Obama miss when he nominated this pair of Washington insiders? He forgot about something he really shouldn’t have: the natural ambition of politicians and the way access to the White House only magnifies it. And it’s what makes stories like this National Journal piece arguing against the likelihood of either Clinton or Biden running in 2016 less than convincing:

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When Barack Obama announced the selection of Joe Biden to be his running mate in 2008, the New York Times, echoing the conventional wisdom at the time, included among Biden’s attributes the following: “it appears unlikely that Mr. Biden would be in a position to run for president should Mr. Obama win and serve two terms. Shorn of any remaining ambition to run for president on his own, he could find himself in a less complex political relationship with Mr. Obama than most vice presidents have with their presidents.”

That was a widely held view and reportedly something the Obama team considered a significant mark in Biden’s favor. And it was sensible of them to do so. Sharing the White House with Hillary Clinton, for example, or a popular moderate Democrat like then-Senator Evan Bayh, would have almost surely meant nominating his successor who would want an agenda and to perhaps even share in the credit for Obama’s legacy. So instead Obama nominated Biden to be his vice president and Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state. And wouldn’t you know it, they may both run for president anyway, touting their respective legacies and sharing in the glory of Obama’s own legislative victories. The only difference–and what might be the source of endless future headaches for Obama–is that he has a clear preference for Clinton over his own vice president, the latter now launching his own possible bid from the White House and simultaneously in need of restraining.

So what did Obama miss when he nominated this pair of Washington insiders? He forgot about something he really shouldn’t have: the natural ambition of politicians and the way access to the White House only magnifies it. And it’s what makes stories like this National Journal piece arguing against the likelihood of either Clinton or Biden running in 2016 less than convincing:

Her most famous speech as first lady catalogued abuses against women and hammered home the message: “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” As notable as what she said was where she said it — a United Nations women’s conference in Beijing. It is easy to imagine her setting up her own organization, or a branch of her husband’s Clinton Global Initiative, to focus full-time on issues affecting women.

It’s more difficult to envision a post-politics role for Biden, who has spent his life inside the Beltway as a senator and as vice president. But he has proven such a valuable White House asset on such a range of issues, and such a constructive bipartisan negotiator, that future presidents of either party would likely press him into service to help solve knotty problems at home and abroad.

Which leads to the next reason neither Biden nor Clinton will run. Their reputations will never be better than they are now.

Rarely does a politician get near the top of the world and proclaim to be satisfied. “Dayenu” (the refrain from the Passover Hagaddah in which Jews proclaim “it would have been enough”) is not in the political lexicon. And voters reading those paragraphs above can be forgiven for interpreting them as Clinton’s record of global leadership and Biden’s record of getting things done when no one else could. Jill Lawrence, the author of the piece, makes other, more compelling arguments as well. Both Biden and Clinton would be in their 70s early in a hypothetical first term–Biden would be 74 on inauguration day if he won the election. And both have a history of some health issues. But Biden looks as energetic as ever, and Clinton’s health didn’t stop her from logging close to a million miles in four years.

Additionally, it’s hard to escape the notion that both are explicitly laying the groundwork for their candidacies. For Clinton, carefully chosen on-the-record speeches and interviews, plus an obvious desire to perpetuate the idea she is running, have spurred some activists into being confident enough to set up a Hillary 2016 PAC. And as for Biden, Obama and his advisors have found that the veep’s attention span is almost totally consumed by 2016 calculations. As Politico reported:

Officials working on the Obama-Biden campaign last year were struck by how the vice president always seemed to have one eye on a run, including aggressively courting the president’s donors. Obama aides at times had to actively steer Biden to places where he was needed — like Pennsylvania — because he kept asking to be deployed to Iowa, New Hampshire and other early states.

“He wasn’t just doing fundraising the campaign assigned to him,” said a campaign adviser. “He was inviting people to the mansion to hang out and have dinner.” Biden was way more into the donors than Obama was. “He embraced it with a tirelessness and a gusto that even the president didn’t,” another campaign official said.

We can and should keep in mind how much the political landscape is likely to change in three years. But they want people to think they’re running, and it won’t go unnoticed that even the cases against the two of them running for president seem to borrow liberally from the arguments in their favor.

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Coalition Talks Show Israeli Election Preserved Foreign Policy Status Quo

In the week since Israelis went to the polls the consistent narrative about the election in the Western press has been that the vote was a setback for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was understandable since expectations for his Likud Party were so high going into the campaign. The 31 seats it won was fewer than the total that both the Likud and the Israel Beitenu Party led by Avigdor Lieberman, which had merged with Netanyahu’s faction, got in 2009 so it’s fair to interpret the result as being something less than a personal triumph for the prime minister. But many commentators have gone much farther than that and claimed the impressive showing for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party shows Israeli voters were dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s foreign policy. The spin coming out of much of the liberal press is to depict the vote as one that will mandate a change in Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and force Netanyahu to return to peace talks.

The problem with this theory is that Lapid made it clear he had virtually no disagreements with Netanyahu on the peace process. That makes the talk about an Israeli shift to the left on peace a transparent attempt to misinterpret an election in which security issues were not important. But recent developments in the subsequent negotiations to put together a new government make it even more clear the influence of the right in the next cabinet will continue to be strong. As Haaretz reports, Lapid is coordinating his positions on the talks with Naftali Bennett, the head of the pro-settlement Habayit Hayehudi Party that also did well last week. The consensus appears to be that the two are aiming to create a new coalition between Likud and their two parties that will unite around the issue of changing the draft system and excluding the ultra-Orthodox factions that sat in Netanyahu’s last government. If that’s the way it plays out, it will be a defeat for the religious parties and their stranglehold on aspects of the country’s budget as well as their ability to ensure that Haredim don’t have to serve in the army. But Bennett’s prominent role in the next cabinet means that the chatter about a more centrist or even left-leaning approach to the Palestinians is more a matter of wishful thinking on the part of the Obama administration and the international press than Israeli reality.

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In the week since Israelis went to the polls the consistent narrative about the election in the Western press has been that the vote was a setback for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was understandable since expectations for his Likud Party were so high going into the campaign. The 31 seats it won was fewer than the total that both the Likud and the Israel Beitenu Party led by Avigdor Lieberman, which had merged with Netanyahu’s faction, got in 2009 so it’s fair to interpret the result as being something less than a personal triumph for the prime minister. But many commentators have gone much farther than that and claimed the impressive showing for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party shows Israeli voters were dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s foreign policy. The spin coming out of much of the liberal press is to depict the vote as one that will mandate a change in Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and force Netanyahu to return to peace talks.

The problem with this theory is that Lapid made it clear he had virtually no disagreements with Netanyahu on the peace process. That makes the talk about an Israeli shift to the left on peace a transparent attempt to misinterpret an election in which security issues were not important. But recent developments in the subsequent negotiations to put together a new government make it even more clear the influence of the right in the next cabinet will continue to be strong. As Haaretz reports, Lapid is coordinating his positions on the talks with Naftali Bennett, the head of the pro-settlement Habayit Hayehudi Party that also did well last week. The consensus appears to be that the two are aiming to create a new coalition between Likud and their two parties that will unite around the issue of changing the draft system and excluding the ultra-Orthodox factions that sat in Netanyahu’s last government. If that’s the way it plays out, it will be a defeat for the religious parties and their stranglehold on aspects of the country’s budget as well as their ability to ensure that Haredim don’t have to serve in the army. But Bennett’s prominent role in the next cabinet means that the chatter about a more centrist or even left-leaning approach to the Palestinians is more a matter of wishful thinking on the part of the Obama administration and the international press than Israeli reality.

The strong link between Lapid and Bennett may surprise foreign observers, but it makes perfect sense since both the secular backers of Yesh Atid and the modern Orthodox and pro-settlement voters of Habayit Hayehudi are united by their desire for a more equitable conscription system. Lapid won his 19 seats in the new Knesset by running on domestic issues like the draft as well as wresting control of the budget from the ultra-Orthodox, not by agreeing with the New York Times editorial page about dividing Jerusalem and other contentious peace process issues where his positions are virtually indistinguishable from those of Netanyahu.

Bennett has publicly disparaged the idea of a two-state solution that both Netanyahu and Lapid endorse. But given the continued refusal of the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel despite Netanyahu’s pleas for them to return to talks, it’s not likely that this disagreement will be seen as either meaningful or an obstacle to the creation of a new coalition.

Indeed, as Haaretz points out, it is Lapid who is eager to get Bennett into the Cabinet over Netanyahu’s objections since the prime minister publicly quarreled with the nationalist leader who was once his top aide. With Bennett supporting Lapid’s desire to pry control of the Knesset Finance Committee from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, the real change from the vote will be in the allocations of government funds to yeshivas and other Haredi institutions, not a shift toward more concessions on territory that American liberals think will be Israel’s salvation.

A government led by Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett will make for an interesting personal dynamic around the cabinet table but it won’t mean that Israelis have rejected the prime minister’s philosophy about security. To the contrary, the election demonstrated that the national consensus about the peace process is so strong that Israelis felt free to cast their ballots on other issues. And since it was always a given that Netanyahu would remain prime minister, the vote was about who would serve with him, not rejecting his philosophy. That isn’t what the Western press or the Obama administration wants to hear. But as the coalition talks illustrate, most Israelis consider American ideas about what is in their country’s “best interests” as irrelevant to their real concerns.

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The GDP Takes a Hit

The GDP shrank in the last quarter of 2012, declining a small 0.1 percent. While that is minimal, it is the first negative quarter since the second quarter of 2009 and a sharp slowdown from the 3.1 percent growth in the third quarter. Government spending was down sharply, while businesses cut inventories. Foreign trade was down 5.7 percent. But consumer spending was up 2.2 percent, an increase from the previous quarter. And housing continued its slow recovery.

So what’s going on? Good question. It could just be a blip or it could be the start of a new recession. (The usual definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of declining GDP, or what economists, with their usual talent for assaulting the English language, call “negative growth.”)

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The GDP shrank in the last quarter of 2012, declining a small 0.1 percent. While that is minimal, it is the first negative quarter since the second quarter of 2009 and a sharp slowdown from the 3.1 percent growth in the third quarter. Government spending was down sharply, while businesses cut inventories. Foreign trade was down 5.7 percent. But consumer spending was up 2.2 percent, an increase from the previous quarter. And housing continued its slow recovery.

So what’s going on? Good question. It could just be a blip or it could be the start of a new recession. (The usual definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of declining GDP, or what economists, with their usual talent for assaulting the English language, call “negative growth.”)

Certainly the uncertainty about future government policy, the effects of Obamacare, and the ever-mounting national debt, haven’t helped. Neither have even greater economic problems in other parts of the world, especially Europe. India lowered its bank rate yesterday and China is facing rising labor costs and labor unrest. Even Canada, which has been a bit of a golden boy of fiscal responsibility and good economic management in recent years, has seen its big banks taken down a notch in the last few days.

The stock market, meanwhile, has been booming, up nearly 1,500 points on the Dow since mid-November and now only a couple of hundred points off its all-time-high, reached in October 2007. The stock market is almost always a leading indicator, foretelling the future of the economy. That could be the case here, or it could just be a lot of foreign money fleeing to safer quarters from such deeply troubled economies as Spain, Argentina, and even France, whose employment minister the other day publicly described the country as “totally bankrupt.” He walked it back, of course (one can imagine the phone call from François Hollande), but still.

The GDP dip is certainly no cause for panic. It is trends that matter in economics, not one-time statistics. But it is clearly a time for caution.

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John Kerry and the Spy

Scott Shane’s New York Times account of the prosecution of former CIA operative John Kiriakou begins:

Looking back, John C. Kiriakou admits he should have known better. But when the F.B.I. called him a year ago and invited him to stop by and “help us with a case,” he did not hesitate. In his years as a C.I.A. operative, after all, Mr. Kiriakou had worked closely with F.B.I. agents overseas. Just months earlier, he had reported to the bureau a recruiting attempt by someone he believed to be an Asian spy. “Anything for the F.B.I.,” Mr. Kiriakou replied.

Hence, under the pretense of that counterterrorism episode, Kiriakou agreed to speak to the FBI without a lawyer present. What Shane does not describe, however, is the backstory, an episode that reflects on how newly-confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry has put his own personal ambition above national security.

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Scott Shane’s New York Times account of the prosecution of former CIA operative John Kiriakou begins:

Looking back, John C. Kiriakou admits he should have known better. But when the F.B.I. called him a year ago and invited him to stop by and “help us with a case,” he did not hesitate. In his years as a C.I.A. operative, after all, Mr. Kiriakou had worked closely with F.B.I. agents overseas. Just months earlier, he had reported to the bureau a recruiting attempt by someone he believed to be an Asian spy. “Anything for the F.B.I.,” Mr. Kiriakou replied.

Hence, under the pretense of that counterterrorism episode, Kiriakou agreed to speak to the FBI without a lawyer present. What Shane does not describe, however, is the backstory, an episode that reflects on how newly-confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry has put his own personal ambition above national security.

Kiriakou was serving on Kerry’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff when he was allegedly approached by an Asian national who apparently offered him money for information. Kiriakou is not a wealthy man and despite the leaking plea, he is a patriot; he not only refused, but he also apparently reported the contact to the FBI immediately, as all government officials in a similar situation should.

The FBI requested Kiriakou cooperate in an effort to gather evidence on the alleged spy—presumably wear a wire or some such thing—and Kiriakou agreed. Enter Senator Kerry: Fearing any controversy which could envelope him—and a foreign intelligence service seeking confidential information counted in his mind as controversy—Kerry and his Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff director Frank Lowenstein, now with the Podesta Group, forbade any cooperation with the FBI that would prolong an investigation and involve a Kerry staffer cooperating with the FBI.

Problem solved, if the problem is political imagery. But if the problem is defense of national security, then Kerry seems to have decided his own ambition was the greater concern. How unfortunate, then, that he has been rewarded for such a cynical calculation. And how typical it is that The New York Times would not report on the broader issue because it might reflect badly on a politician the paper supports.

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