Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 3, 2013

Netanyahu’s Problem: He Can’t Lose

There’s a lot about this month’s election in Israel that is yet to be decided, as the polls indicating the number of Knesset seats the parties will win have fluctuated from day to day. However, the big question as far as the rest of the world is concerned—the identity of the country’s next prime minister—is the one thing that isn’t in any doubt. Current PM Benjamin Netanyahu is certain to form the next government of Israel with his Likud party having the most seats of any in the Knesset. But, in a stroke of irony made possible by Israel’s proportional election system, that is also Netanyahu’s biggest problem. Since there is no scenario in which he will not be the next prime minister, many Israelis who might otherwise be inclined to cast their ballot for Likud will instead vote for one of the smaller parties that will probably form part of Netanyahu’s coalition.

That means that rather than his own list taking more than a third of the 120 seats in the Knesset, his total may be considerably less than the 42 that Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (which recently merged with Likud) won in the last election. That won’t stop Netanyahu from staying in office, but it could make his life miserable not only when putting together his next Cabinet but also over the course of the next few years, when he will be forced to cope with the growing strength of parties that are to his right on issues such as settlements and the theoretical terms of peace with the Palestinians.

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There’s a lot about this month’s election in Israel that is yet to be decided, as the polls indicating the number of Knesset seats the parties will win have fluctuated from day to day. However, the big question as far as the rest of the world is concerned—the identity of the country’s next prime minister—is the one thing that isn’t in any doubt. Current PM Benjamin Netanyahu is certain to form the next government of Israel with his Likud party having the most seats of any in the Knesset. But, in a stroke of irony made possible by Israel’s proportional election system, that is also Netanyahu’s biggest problem. Since there is no scenario in which he will not be the next prime minister, many Israelis who might otherwise be inclined to cast their ballot for Likud will instead vote for one of the smaller parties that will probably form part of Netanyahu’s coalition.

That means that rather than his own list taking more than a third of the 120 seats in the Knesset, his total may be considerably less than the 42 that Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (which recently merged with Likud) won in the last election. That won’t stop Netanyahu from staying in office, but it could make his life miserable not only when putting together his next Cabinet but also over the course of the next few years, when he will be forced to cope with the growing strength of parties that are to his right on issues such as settlements and the theoretical terms of peace with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu had the same problem four years ago when he won his second term as prime minister. Rather than vote for the Likud, many on the right then gave their votes to Lieberman. This time around those voters are flocking to the new Habayit Yehudi Party of Naftali Bennett as well as to the even more strident Otzma Leyisrael.

Bennett, the son of American immigrants who went on to be a member of the same elite army unit that produced Netanyahu and outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and then made millions on an Internet company, served as the prime minister’s chief of staff during his last time in opposition before they quarreled. He provides Israel’s right with its first truly charismatic figure since Netanyahu’s emergence a generation ago and his party’s astonishing rise in the polls shows that his appeal is broader than the settler constituency that was thought to be its only source of support.

However, rather than being forced to really choose between Netanyahu or Bennett, Israeli right-wingers can pick the latter without any fear that their defections will result in a left-wing government.

Though the results of the numerous Israeli polls vary to some degree, they all show the various center-right and religious parties that make up Netanyahu’s current government gaining in the vicinity of 70 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The only question is what percentage of those will be won directly by Netanyahu rather than Bennett.

The smaller the number gained by Netanyahu’s allies the more likely that he will be able to give them more insignificant Cabinet posts or replace them altogether with centrist lists like the new party led by journalist Yair Lapid or even the one led by Tzipi Livni, an otherwise bitter foe of the prime minister but one whose differences with him are more a matter of posturing and rival ambitions than ideology.

However if, as some surveys now indicate, Bennett’s party becomes the third or even the second biggest party eclipsing Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich, who is likely to lead the opposition in the next Knesset, then Netanyahu’s options will be limited.

The reasons for Bennett’s rise are the same that has led Netanyahu to his preeminent position in his country’s politics. The Palestinians’ rejection of every peace feeler and embrace of violence and Hamas has created a new political reality in which the once predominant left has been marginalized. Though some Americans may wrongly see Netanyahu as an extremist, his views are now firmly in the center of the Israeli spectrum. Those to his right, such as Bennett, are merely slightly right of center rather than being viewed as beyond the pale. Though most Israelis do not share Bennett’s vision of West Bank settlement annexation, they see no reason to think about giving them away to the Palestinians in order to create another terrorist enclave like the one Hamas has in Gaza. 

Netanyahu might prefer to govern without Bennett’s interference, but the same set of circumstances that will keep him firmly in office have made it likely that his former aide will be a major factor in Israeli politics for years to come.

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Boehner Reelected Despite Opposition

Despite some flimsy hype that 20 Republicans were going to turn against John Boehner at the speaker vote today, nothing of the sort ended up happening. Boehner won another term, with 220 votes (considering the number of abstentions, he needed 214 votes to win a majority). But he did get some retaliation from 12 Republicans who either voted for other members or sat out the vote. Dave Weigel describes the scene:

The tiny rebellion started early in the roll call, when the chair presiding over the House called on Rep. Justin Amash. Every Republican was supposed to vote John Boehner for speaker. But the Michigan sophomore cast a vote for Rep. Raul Labrador, an Idaho sophomore who happened to be sitting stony-faced next to him. The House floor filled with awkward “Oooohs” and the occasional “Who?”

The early part of the alphabet turned out to be trouble. Rep. Paul Broun voted for Allen West—who lost his seat last year—to become speaker. John Bridenstine, a new member from Oklahoma who upset an incumbent in a 2012 primary, voted for Eric Cantor. When Cantor’s turn came, he said “John. Boehner.” with the tone of voice you’d use on a telemarketer who put you on hold for three hours.

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Despite some flimsy hype that 20 Republicans were going to turn against John Boehner at the speaker vote today, nothing of the sort ended up happening. Boehner won another term, with 220 votes (considering the number of abstentions, he needed 214 votes to win a majority). But he did get some retaliation from 12 Republicans who either voted for other members or sat out the vote. Dave Weigel describes the scene:

The tiny rebellion started early in the roll call, when the chair presiding over the House called on Rep. Justin Amash. Every Republican was supposed to vote John Boehner for speaker. But the Michigan sophomore cast a vote for Rep. Raul Labrador, an Idaho sophomore who happened to be sitting stony-faced next to him. The House floor filled with awkward “Oooohs” and the occasional “Who?”

The early part of the alphabet turned out to be trouble. Rep. Paul Broun voted for Allen West—who lost his seat last year—to become speaker. John Bridenstine, a new member from Oklahoma who upset an incumbent in a 2012 primary, voted for Eric Cantor. When Cantor’s turn came, he said “John. Boehner.” with the tone of voice you’d use on a telemarketer who put you on hold for three hours.

Boehner came out of it with some bruises, but it wasn’t the civil war the left, and segments of the right, were hoping for. And that’s a good thing for Republicans, who would be in a weakened position if there was a bitter dispute over the gavel going into the debt ceiling debate.

There was never a competitive alternative for the position, anyway. Nobody in leadership was publicly contesting it, contrary to speculation that Majority Leader Eric Cantor was making moves behind the scenes. And based on his gruff vote for Boehner today, it sounds like Cantor was not happy about those rumors.

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Israel’s Next Defense Minister

In 1974, when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were locked in an internal battle for the leadership of the Labor party and the Israeli premiership, Rabin reached out for an unlikely endorsement. “A declaration of support from Arik matters more than one from anyone else,” Rabin told the journalist Uri Dan, referring to the Likud’s Ariel Sharon. Dan relayed the request to Sharon, and Sharon agreed; he got up from his meeting with Dan, went over to a phone booth in the hotel lobby, and began calling journalists to tell them.

The endorsement made headlines, and Rabin became prime minister. Though that incident took place soon after the Yom Kippur War and years before Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement, there is a cultural aspect to this story that remains relevant in 2013. To most of the world the there isn’t much difference between a “peacemaker” and a “peacenik”; to Israelis there is a Grand Canyon between them. And although the political parties are reversed, this distinction goes a long way to explaining the seeming indispensability of Ehud Barak to the man that took over the Likud after Sharon left it: Benjamin Netanyahu.

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In 1974, when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were locked in an internal battle for the leadership of the Labor party and the Israeli premiership, Rabin reached out for an unlikely endorsement. “A declaration of support from Arik matters more than one from anyone else,” Rabin told the journalist Uri Dan, referring to the Likud’s Ariel Sharon. Dan relayed the request to Sharon, and Sharon agreed; he got up from his meeting with Dan, went over to a phone booth in the hotel lobby, and began calling journalists to tell them.

The endorsement made headlines, and Rabin became prime minister. Though that incident took place soon after the Yom Kippur War and years before Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement, there is a cultural aspect to this story that remains relevant in 2013. To most of the world the there isn’t much difference between a “peacemaker” and a “peacenik”; to Israelis there is a Grand Canyon between them. And although the political parties are reversed, this distinction goes a long way to explaining the seeming indispensability of Ehud Barak to the man that took over the Likud after Sharon left it: Benjamin Netanyahu.

When Netanyahu earned the opportunity to form a governing coalition after the 2009 Israeli Knesset elections, he offered the major party leaders he vanquished an opportunity to join an expansive coalition, headed by his Likud. But it was universally understood that Netanyahu desperately wanted as his defense minister Barak, one of Israel’s most highly decorated soldiers and Netanyahu’s former commander in the elite unit known as Sayeret Matkal. Barak, at the time, was running the Labor party. Though Likud had a stronger reputation among foreign policy hawks than Labor, Netanyahu wanted–in addition to the appearance of bipartisanship–Barak’s stamp of approval for his own administration’s foreign policy. It would–as Sharon’s endorsement had done for Rabin four decades earlier–do much to put the public’s mind at ease.

Barak joined the coalition, but the party used that decision as the final straw to expel its leader (Barak technically “left” Labor, but the divorce was a long time coming). Barak took a few Laborites with him and formed a minor party. That party has disappeared, as did Barak’s chance to win a Knesset seat in this month’s elections. So he “retired” from political life. If Netanyahu’s party wins the elections, it would surprise exactly no one if Netanyahu reappoints Barak to be his defense minister–Barak wouldn’t have to own a Knesset seat to take the position–coaxing the supposedly reluctant old bull out of retirement to once again serve his country. (One can easily imagine how this will play out in the mind of the famously haughty Barak. The people need you, Hudi; how can you say no?)

One of the reasons Israelis expect this coming charade is because there are very few people, if any, who could provide the both the cross-party credibility and the public’s trust to serve as defense minister at a time when resolution of the Iranian threat one way or another seems right around the corner. But perhaps there is one obstacle, however remote, to this scenario. Times of Israel editor David Horovitz writes today that when blending his party with Likud, Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman believed he could have his choice of plum portfolios if and when he is legally permitted to return to the government (it could be within months–but there is an outside chance it could be years). Horovitz writes:

Publicly, this least diplomatic of politicians had assured the electorate that he liked being foreign minister just fine, and would probably stay at the ministry after the elections as well. Privately, it was apparently vouchsafed to certain privileged journalists, he actually had his sights on the powerful Finance Ministry job. However, it has also been quite credibly suggested to me, Liberman didn’t want Finance and didn’t want Foreign. He intended to take the post of defense minister.

We should know immediately after the election where Lieberman intends to end up; as Horovitz writes, if Netanyahu, when doling out portfolios, keeps any of the important ones for himself, it may be a strong clue he’s safeguarding it for Lieberman. Additionally, Barak is no placeholder. If he’s offered the defense ministry and takes it, that’s exactly where he’ll stay.

Just because Lieberman wants the defense ministry doesn’t mean he’ll get it. Netanyahu presumably understands that giving that job to Lieberman would be the exact opposite of appointing Barak to the defense ministry. Rather than reaching across the isle, it would be viewed as a sop to those to Netanyahu’s right. And rather than the defense ministry being guided by a trusted hand, it would be run by an unpredictable and brusque politician a decade and a half younger than Barak. That age difference, however, is also why Lieberman can afford to be patient and not push for the defense portfolio. A savvy politician, Lieberman is more likely to bide his time than challenge Barak and Netanyahu. But the alternative will only increase the hopes of many Israelis–not to mention Western leaders–that Barak’s “retirement” is just for show.

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The Egyptian Idea of Brotherhood

Not much is expected to change at the State Department when John Kerry replaces Hillary Clinton. That’s especially true in terms of the Middle East, where Kerry is not expected to be any more eager to push Iran than Clinton. Nor is he likely to take a more jaundiced view of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt, which was been the particular object of U.S. affection in the latter half of 2012 as Mohamed Morsi consolidated power without much in the way of protest from an administration that continues to funnel billions in aid to Cairo. Kerry appears to share the State Department consensus that Morsi and the Brotherhood are deserving of continued American largesse and regards the Islamists as a moderating force in the region rather than as the enablers of Hamas.

It remains to be seen whether his former Senate colleagues will press Kerry much on the subject. But in case anyone on the Hill is inclined to buy into the happy talk about the Brotherhood that is being sold by the State Department and mainstream media outlets eager to portray the Brotherhood as the Egyptian equivalent of the Islamist government of Turkey that President Obama is so fond of, they ought to take a look at this video uncovered by Memritv.org, the indispensable window into the Arab media. In this 2010 appearance on Lebanon’s Al Quds TV, the Brotherhood leader and future Egyptian president not only denounces any peace negotiations with Israelis, whom he called bloodsuckers, warmongers, and “the descendants of apes and pigs,” but also called for a boycott of U.S. products.

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Not much is expected to change at the State Department when John Kerry replaces Hillary Clinton. That’s especially true in terms of the Middle East, where Kerry is not expected to be any more eager to push Iran than Clinton. Nor is he likely to take a more jaundiced view of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt, which was been the particular object of U.S. affection in the latter half of 2012 as Mohamed Morsi consolidated power without much in the way of protest from an administration that continues to funnel billions in aid to Cairo. Kerry appears to share the State Department consensus that Morsi and the Brotherhood are deserving of continued American largesse and regards the Islamists as a moderating force in the region rather than as the enablers of Hamas.

It remains to be seen whether his former Senate colleagues will press Kerry much on the subject. But in case anyone on the Hill is inclined to buy into the happy talk about the Brotherhood that is being sold by the State Department and mainstream media outlets eager to portray the Brotherhood as the Egyptian equivalent of the Islamist government of Turkey that President Obama is so fond of, they ought to take a look at this video uncovered by Memritv.org, the indispensable window into the Arab media. In this 2010 appearance on Lebanon’s Al Quds TV, the Brotherhood leader and future Egyptian president not only denounces any peace negotiations with Israelis, whom he called bloodsuckers, warmongers, and “the descendants of apes and pigs,” but also called for a boycott of U.S. products.

This should come as a bit of a surprise to readers of publications like the New York Times, whose correspondents and columnists such as Nicholas Kristof have been at great pains to portray the Brotherhood as nice people with so much in common with Americans. In the rush to embrace the idea that the Brotherhood victory is a triumph for democracy, the group’s ideology, its members and its leaders have all been airbrushed into a picture of modern and tolerant Islam rather than being shown as the font of anti-Western and anti-Semitic hate that it actually has always been.

Those who believe that Morsi is a different man now that he sits in Hosni Mubarak’s old chair with the former dictator’s powers also need to understand that he is the first Egyptian leader to visit Iran in a generation and has continued to attend prayer services, where rhetoric such as he used in the Lebanese show continues to be heard.

Kerry, whose weakness for Arab tyrants was demonstrated by his friendship with the Assad regime in Syria, has always been the sort of person who preferred to believe in his illusions about Middle Eastern leaders rather than his lying eyes and ears. Those who expect anything but grief and violence in the long term from an American embrace of the Brotherhood are bound to be disappointed. As this Morsi tape demonstrates, Egypt is now led by a first-class hatemonger that has little use for peace with Israel or friendship with the United States.

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Turkish Government Censors “Of Mice and Men”

Like Lenny in James Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan doesn’t understand much about how the world works. He does understand, however, how to lead a slow motion social and religious revolution in Turkey and transform a once vibrant if dysfunctional democracy into a strongman dictatorship. In his first decade in power, Erdoğan’s animus has been strongest toward the press. Turkey now ranks below Russia and Zimbabwe in press freedom; Reporters Without Frontiers labels Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Indeed, Erdoğan strokes journalists like Lenny strokes rabbits.

Now it seems that the Turkish government is beginning to turn its animus toward classic literature. According to Hürriyet Daily News, “The İzmir Education Directorate’s books commission is seeking to ban certain parts of John Steinbeck’s classic ‘Of Mice and Men’ for several “immoral” passages, according to daily BirGün.” This should be especially worrying because Izmir is not some provincial Anatolian town, but in the heart of the Europeanized Mediterranean.

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Like Lenny in James Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan doesn’t understand much about how the world works. He does understand, however, how to lead a slow motion social and religious revolution in Turkey and transform a once vibrant if dysfunctional democracy into a strongman dictatorship. In his first decade in power, Erdoğan’s animus has been strongest toward the press. Turkey now ranks below Russia and Zimbabwe in press freedom; Reporters Without Frontiers labels Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Indeed, Erdoğan strokes journalists like Lenny strokes rabbits.

Now it seems that the Turkish government is beginning to turn its animus toward classic literature. According to Hürriyet Daily News, “The İzmir Education Directorate’s books commission is seeking to ban certain parts of John Steinbeck’s classic ‘Of Mice and Men’ for several “immoral” passages, according to daily BirGün.” This should be especially worrying because Izmir is not some provincial Anatolian town, but in the heart of the Europeanized Mediterranean.

Now, many American progressives and liberals will note that American conservatives have tried on moral and religious grounds to censor classic literature. Two wrongs don’t make a right. America has the courts and the legal structure to resist such attempts at censorship; the censors in Turkey, however, have an intolerant prime minister on their side. The AKP has already reformed high school curriculum to insert religious content into secular subjects. “Muslim philosophy” has replaced the classics of Western philosophy in the new AKP-imposed curriculum. Islam is therefore mandatory even for students who opt out of religious studies. In May 2006, Turkey’s chief negotiator for European Union accession ordered the removal of references to Turkey’s educational system as secular from a negotiating paper.

If European and American diplomats do not stand up to Turkey now, the censorship will only get worse. Perhaps it’s time for the Congressional Turket Caucus to stop running interference for Turkey and to start demanding Turkey adhere to the standard of Western democracy to which it once claimed to aspire.

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Gore Turned Down Glenn Beck for Qatar

The Wall Street Journal reports that Glenn Beck–who approached Current TV about a sale last year–was too right-wing for the network to even consider his offer. But an authoritarian-Islamist government that has criminalized homosexuality, discriminates against non-Muslims, prosecutes journalists, and has a “Not Free” rating from Freedom House? That was fine:

Before Al-Jazeera, there was Glenn Beck.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Glenn Beck’s media company, The Blaze, approached Current Media about a sale last year, but was told in the words of one source that “the legacy of who the network goes to is important to us and we are sensitive to networks not aligned with our point of view.”

The Blaze “reached out to them to buy it,” a source familiar with the talks told POLITICO. “They would have replaced Current programming with The Blaze programming, but were told on initial calls that [Current] wouldn’t sell to someone they weren’t ideologically in line with.”

In explaining the reasons for selling to Al-Jazeera, Current co-founder and CEO Joel Hyatt told the Journal that the Qatari-based broadcaster “was founded with the same goals we had for Current,” including “to give voice to those whose voices are not typically heard” and “to speak truth to power.”

Sure, Al Jazeera can “speak truth to power,” as long as the powerful are not in Qatar.

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The Wall Street Journal reports that Glenn Beck–who approached Current TV about a sale last year–was too right-wing for the network to even consider his offer. But an authoritarian-Islamist government that has criminalized homosexuality, discriminates against non-Muslims, prosecutes journalists, and has a “Not Free” rating from Freedom House? That was fine:

Before Al-Jazeera, there was Glenn Beck.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Glenn Beck’s media company, The Blaze, approached Current Media about a sale last year, but was told in the words of one source that “the legacy of who the network goes to is important to us and we are sensitive to networks not aligned with our point of view.”

The Blaze “reached out to them to buy it,” a source familiar with the talks told POLITICO. “They would have replaced Current programming with The Blaze programming, but were told on initial calls that [Current] wouldn’t sell to someone they weren’t ideologically in line with.”

In explaining the reasons for selling to Al-Jazeera, Current co-founder and CEO Joel Hyatt told the Journal that the Qatari-based broadcaster “was founded with the same goals we had for Current,” including “to give voice to those whose voices are not typically heard” and “to speak truth to power.”

Sure, Al Jazeera can “speak truth to power,” as long as the powerful are not in Qatar.

Whatever your feelings about Glenn Beck, he doesn’t advocate government censorship of the Internet or crackdowns on dissidents for “insulting” the nation’s leadership. He also isn’t funded primarily by the oil and gas industry, which Al Gore has spent his post-government career criticizing. So the fact that Qatari-owned Al Jazeera is supposedly more ideologically compatible with Current TV than Glenn Beck gives you an idea of how far off the left is from any genuine position of liberalism.

But Al Jazeera’s Qatari funding also raises other questions for Current TV. While foreign, authoritarian government-funded networks aren’t required to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, they often act as propaganda arms for their respective regimes (a prime example being the Kremlin-funded Russia Today, which now goes by the inconspicuous moniker RT). Al Jazeera is no exception, pushing an editorial line that supports the ruling emir’s interests, along with a clear anti-Western and anti-Israel slant. This isn’t something that will play well with advertisers or cable providers–Time Warner Cable dropped Current TV almost immediately after the sale was announced. If outside pressure mounts, others could follow suit. After all, it’s not as if Current TV had strong ratings to begin with.

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SEREious Stupidity at the Pentagon

Every member of the U.S. military is familiar with the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) course: When required, it is one of the most memorable but least pleasant aspects of their training. SERE training teaches personnel stranded in hostile territory how to evade capture but, when the worst happens, how to survive and mitigate interrogation.

The full course is valuable for those on the front lines of America’s national defense, be it in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, perhaps fighting drug lords in Mexico or South America, and those stationed along the DMZ on the Korean Peninsula.

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Every member of the U.S. military is familiar with the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) course: When required, it is one of the most memorable but least pleasant aspects of their training. SERE training teaches personnel stranded in hostile territory how to evade capture but, when the worst happens, how to survive and mitigate interrogation.

The full course is valuable for those on the front lines of America’s national defense, be it in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, perhaps fighting drug lords in Mexico or South America, and those stationed along the DMZ on the Korean Peninsula.

The Pentagon, in its wisdom, however, has revised an online SERE course, prolonging it and, apparently, investing millions of dollars to give it a face lift. The course—which can take more than a full day, includes flashy video, and video game-like graphics, and that assumes that its doesn’t crash, forcing a restart from scratch. Regional commands increasingly require it as part of a long, bureaucratic checklist required for “country clearance,” another make-work but largely irrelevant procedure.

After a few months’ worth of reminders about my expired SERE certificate—with the ominous warning that it now can take five weeks to process country clearance requests—I sat down to do my now annual online SERE training (until recently, the training would be good for two years). The SERE course needed to be done, because I will soon need to spend 24 hours in a Western European capital as I arrive, overnight at a hotel, and then take a taxi to the airport early the next day. Here is what Admiral James Stavridis, commander of United States European Command, has required all visitors to Europe on military business to know: The proper way to snare a rabbit in case one finds themselves starving in the woods surrounded by hostile Spaniards; the proper way to roast a caterpillar if stranded in the German forest if no rabbits are available; how to make a natural tea to placate intestinal parasites in case one chooses not to go to a doctor after eating Italian food; and how to avoid capture on the streets of Amsterdam.

Now, all large organizations are bureaucratic, and silly check-the-box requirements are common to most of them. The Pentagon, however, is worse than most. Not only did the Pentagon invest a great deal of taxpayer money on an online training course that provides no substitute for the true course (any more than an online root canal can substitute for dental surgery), but it has spent many millions of dollars on the hourly salaries of those taking the course, and still more on contractors to administer the SERE training to ensure that anyone transiting the Frankfurt airport, for example, has passed the requirement. At no point, alas, did anyone in the European Command or at the Pentagon appear to ask whether a requirement which might be necessary for those traveling to Pakistan, Bahrain, or Djibouti should also apply to Portugal, Belgium, and Denmark. There is no waiver, or option for common sense to prevail.

The Pentagon can ill-afford the cuts to basic platforms and troop investments which some now propose. Once a capability is scrapped, it can take decades to recover. The Pentagon must change its culture, however, of bureaucratic wheel-spinning so as not to give the budget slashers the excuse to trim the fat with an axe.

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Prime Minister Biden on the Upswing

Among the big winners of the resolution of the congressional fiscal cliff debacle was Vice President Joe Biden. Rather than being relegated to funeral duty by a president who initially had little use for him, Biden’s decades of experience on the Hill have proven to be an invaluable resource in this administration. Since neither the president nor his top aides have any talent for or even interest in serious deal-making with Congress and with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid similarly sidelined by his own bull-headed manner, Biden has emerged as a key player in a time of DC gridlock.

Biden’s ability to craft a deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear that he, rather than the president or even Reid, has become an important Washington player in his own right. In effect, he is positioned to be the prime minister of a second Obama administration. That status will likely be reinforced by Biden’s lead role in pushing forward a new gun control initiative in the coming months. This should keep him in a spotlight that is brighter than is usual for a vice president even in an era when veeps are no longer the political equivalent of the missing persons bureau. And though 2016 is a long way off, these developments can only feed Biden’s still burning ambition to be president himself one day.

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Among the big winners of the resolution of the congressional fiscal cliff debacle was Vice President Joe Biden. Rather than being relegated to funeral duty by a president who initially had little use for him, Biden’s decades of experience on the Hill have proven to be an invaluable resource in this administration. Since neither the president nor his top aides have any talent for or even interest in serious deal-making with Congress and with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid similarly sidelined by his own bull-headed manner, Biden has emerged as a key player in a time of DC gridlock.

Biden’s ability to craft a deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear that he, rather than the president or even Reid, has become an important Washington player in his own right. In effect, he is positioned to be the prime minister of a second Obama administration. That status will likely be reinforced by Biden’s lead role in pushing forward a new gun control initiative in the coming months. This should keep him in a spotlight that is brighter than is usual for a vice president even in an era when veeps are no longer the political equivalent of the missing persons bureau. And though 2016 is a long way off, these developments can only feed Biden’s still burning ambition to be president himself one day.

Most serious observers initially laughed off the rumors first floated last year about Biden thinking about 2016. Biden was too old, too much a product of the country’s political past and a human gaffe machine. But Biden’s strong showing at the Democratic National Convention illustrated just how well his rabble-rousing style appeals to his party activists. While most Americans may have been turned off by his contemptuous attitude and weird grinning during the vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan, that was exactly what the liberal base wanted. When you figure in the fact that Biden’s prime ministerial relations with Congress will allow him to solidify alliances and do favors for influential party members, it’s hard to dismiss the possibility that he actually stands a fair chance of being the Democratic nominee to succeed Obama.

Part of the plausibility of the Biden 2016 scenario lies in the fact that, at least at present, there aren’t many viable alternatives for Democrats. Hillary Clinton is an obvious choice but her recent health problems and the fallout from the Benghazi disaster make any assumptions about her inevitability seem less certain. Outside of her there are no real big league prospects for the Democrats. Though that may change (in 2005 no one believed the then-freshman senator from Illinois would be elected president), Biden is justified in not being afraid of any possible rival.

It remains to be seen whether Biden will be able to spend the next four years taking credit for administration legislative successes and dodging blame for the inevitable second term failures. Biden has, after all, been wrong on virtually every major foreign policy stand he has taken and his populist style grates on many. Biden’s propensity for mistakes and long-winded speechifying will also make him a perfect target for opponents. He could well talk himself out of the race long before he enters it.

Nevertheless, Biden bears watching in the coming weeks and months. Rather than needing to strike out on his own, the best thing Biden can do to strengthen his standing among Democrats is to be Barack Obama’s loyal soldier. Though Republicans may be salivating at the thought of having to face Biden in 2016 after being beaten by the far more popular Obama the last two cycles, the vice president’s growing importance has made his long-cherished dream of the presidency a bit less fantastic.

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Don’t Let Anti-Shi’ite Bias Play into Al-Qaeda’s Hands

Last week, as Max Boot wrote here, Iraqi security forces took into custody guards employed by Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, an Iraqi Sunni Arab. Issawi was a former member of the fundamentalist Iraqi Islamic Party and subsequently formed his own party which, in the last elections, ran under the banner of Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya list. The arrest of Issawi’s guards touched off a series of protests in Al-Anbar and other Sunni-dominated areas. Max called the arrest of the body guard a sign of “Maliki’s Dangerous Sectarian Agenda.”

It would be wrong to give Maliki a free pass to do whatever he likes, but it is as dangerous to label legal action against prominent Sunni Arabs automatically illegitimate and driven by sectarianism. To do so would be to give some Sunni Arab Iraqi figures a free pass to conduct terror. In effect, such blind sectarian criticism of Maliki plays into al-Qaeda’s hands.

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Last week, as Max Boot wrote here, Iraqi security forces took into custody guards employed by Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, an Iraqi Sunni Arab. Issawi was a former member of the fundamentalist Iraqi Islamic Party and subsequently formed his own party which, in the last elections, ran under the banner of Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya list. The arrest of Issawi’s guards touched off a series of protests in Al-Anbar and other Sunni-dominated areas. Max called the arrest of the body guard a sign of “Maliki’s Dangerous Sectarian Agenda.”

It would be wrong to give Maliki a free pass to do whatever he likes, but it is as dangerous to label legal action against prominent Sunni Arabs automatically illegitimate and driven by sectarianism. To do so would be to give some Sunni Arab Iraqi figures a free pass to conduct terror. In effect, such blind sectarian criticism of Maliki plays into al-Qaeda’s hands.

Let’s look at the case of Issawi’s guards: First of all, before the Iraqi government’s actions, there were 22 cases leveled against Issawi’s guards by Sunni Arabs. Perhaps Maliki waited as long as he did because he understood that he would face sectarian blowback. When the judiciary, 10 Sunni judges, reportedly signed off on the warrants against Issawi’s guards, Maliki had no authority to quash the judiciary’s orders. That said, Maliki yesterday released an official response to the protestors, offering to compromise where to do so would not violate the constitution.

Now, I do not agree with many of Maliki’s policies, but it is wrong to tar Iraqi Shi’ites with being Iranian dupes. Distrust between Arab Shi’ites and Iranian Shi’ites is centuries deep. Every Iraqi politician—Kurdish, Arab, or otherwise—will have some contact with Iran. Many would have preferred balance between the United States and Iran, but the U.S. withdrawal undercut Baghdad’s ability to resist many of Iran’s more overbearing demands. Liberal Iraqi intellectual Mustafa al-Kadhimy’s article today in Al-Monitor is very much worth reading on the topic.

Undercutting Maliki—or any other leader who happens to be Shi’ite—won’t resolve the issue; it will only sow the seeds of chaos and create a self-fulfilling prophecy: As ordinary Iraqi Shi’ites see not only sectarian countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia but also the United States work to undercut a Shi’ite prime minister and embrace Sunni officials who, like former Vice President Tariq Hashemi or Issawi’s bodyguards, were likely complicit in terror, they may feel they have no choice but to accept Iran’s embrace. Iranian propaganda often depicts the Islamic Republic as the defender of Shi’ism worldwide, even though many if not most ordinary Shi’ites want little to do with the Iranian government’s interpretation of Shi’ism, Mahdism, and the interplay of religious and political leadership.

The surge was an important military strategy and it achieved important military aims. It was not a political strategy, however: It traded short-term stabilization for long-term instability. Iraq is now paying the price. The major problem with the surge was to convince some reticent Sunni politicians that they need not cooperate within a new order in which, by sheer dint of numbers, they would no longer dominate Iraq. Perhaps Maliki might have done more to integrate Sunnis empowered by the Americans, albeit often they were in extra-constitutional bodies. The sooner some Iraqi Sunni politicians recognize that there will not be some grand “do-over” that redraws Iraq’s political developments over the last decade from scratch, the quicker peace will come to Iraq. To turn a blind eye to Sunni violence and then bash Maliki for moving against it is counterproductive, even more so at a time when Syrian Sunni extremists threaten to export terrorism once again into Iraq.

If the U.S. government, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Sunni activists feel that Maliki is unfairly targeting the Sunni community, they should demonstrate that the judiciary is ignoring their cases, the executive is ignoring the judiciary, or that Shi’ite politicians (e.g. Muqtada al-Sadr’s gang) are getting a free pass. If Iraqis do not like Maliki, they should find an alternative candidate and pressure for transparent, free and fair elections. What they should not do is simply bash an Iraqi government which appears a lot less sectarian in its functioning than the sometimes cartoonish images of it projected by its adversaries would suggest.

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Sandy Funding is Earmark Revival

Speaker John Boehner’s since-rescinded decision to put off a vote on a bill providing disaster relief to the victims of Hurricane Sandy turned out to be another black eye for House Republicans. The televised rage of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over the move was just one among many condemnations that were shown over and again on TV news channels. It fit right into the prevailing media narrative about congressional dysfunction as well as the idea that the House is led by extremists who don’t care about the Northeast. Given that the hurricane gave an unanticipated boost to President Obama’s re-election (though it almost certainly didn’t affect the outcome), Sandy appears to be a gift that just keeps on giving for Democrats.

Boehner had no choice but to backtrack on allowing a vote on the relief bill since to stick to his position in the face of so much opposition, including the disagreement of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was impossible. But before we file away this episode as just another example of an unforced error on the part of the GOP, it is vital that the objections to the bill be understood outside of the context of the grandstanding on the part of Christie and others, such as Rep. Peter King. Far from being a pure relief package that hard-hearted Republicans were obstructing, the bill is a stereotypical piece of legislative pork filled with funding for projects that are unrelated to recovery from Sandy’s devastation, but which feathers the nests of supporters of various senators and members of Congress as well as federal agencies. Seen in this light, the lambasting of Boehner is just a cover for a revival of a practice the speaker and other reform-minded members thought they had already gotten ride of: earmarking.

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Speaker John Boehner’s since-rescinded decision to put off a vote on a bill providing disaster relief to the victims of Hurricane Sandy turned out to be another black eye for House Republicans. The televised rage of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over the move was just one among many condemnations that were shown over and again on TV news channels. It fit right into the prevailing media narrative about congressional dysfunction as well as the idea that the House is led by extremists who don’t care about the Northeast. Given that the hurricane gave an unanticipated boost to President Obama’s re-election (though it almost certainly didn’t affect the outcome), Sandy appears to be a gift that just keeps on giving for Democrats.

Boehner had no choice but to backtrack on allowing a vote on the relief bill since to stick to his position in the face of so much opposition, including the disagreement of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was impossible. But before we file away this episode as just another example of an unforced error on the part of the GOP, it is vital that the objections to the bill be understood outside of the context of the grandstanding on the part of Christie and others, such as Rep. Peter King. Far from being a pure relief package that hard-hearted Republicans were obstructing, the bill is a stereotypical piece of legislative pork filled with funding for projects that are unrelated to recovery from Sandy’s devastation, but which feathers the nests of supporters of various senators and members of Congress as well as federal agencies. Seen in this light, the lambasting of Boehner is just a cover for a revival of a practice the speaker and other reform-minded members thought they had already gotten ride of: earmarking.

Earmarks had been banned by the House but under the cover of sympathy for Sandy, they have made a remarkable comeback. Here are just a few of the outrageous items that somehow were slipped into the $60.4 billion relief package:

 * $150 million for Alaskan fisheries

* $41 million for military facilities such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

* $8 million to buy cars for the Justice and Homeland Security departments

* $3.1 million for an animal disease center

* $2 million for repair of the roofs of the Smithsonian Institution museums

* $58 million for reforestation on private land

* $100 million for Head Start day care centers

* $17 billion for Community Development Block grants that act as slush funds for members of Congress

While much of the money in the bill is intended for and will go to genuine victims of Sandy, these items demonstrate that a great deal of the funds allocated here will not do so. That’s why the mockery of the calls for accountability by congressional critics of the bill is mere partisan flummery. The fact that such practices are traditional is no defense of their continuation.

The willingness of the mainstream media to jump on Boehner for slowing down the rush to pass this pork-laden bill gives the lie to all of the lip service being paid to the idea of reducing spending and ending the corruption endemic to the earmark process. Though relief for Sandy’s victims can and should be passed, natural disasters should not be used as a flimsy cover for corrupt earmarks and patronage schemes.

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Dems Launch Investigation into “Pro-Torture” Bin Laden Movie

Strangely enough, Democrats didn’t seem too concerned about the Osama bin Laden raid movie “Zero Dark Thirty” back when Republicans were raising alarms about the potentially classified access the Obama administration granted the film team. But now that the movie has portrayed enhanced interrogation techniques in a favorable light, Senate Democrats are suddenly eager to launch an investigation:

After the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairwoman expressed outrage over scenes that imply “enhanced interrogations” of CIA detainees produced a breakthrough in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the panel has begun a review of contacts between the makers of the film “Zero Dark Thirty” and CIA officials.

Investigators will examine whether the spy agency gave the filmmakers “inappropriate” access to secret material, said a person familiar with the matter. They will also probe whether CIA personnel are responsible for the portrayal of harsh interrogation practices, and in particular the suggestion that they were effective, the person said. …

But the film has also produced a series of awkward political headaches for President Barack Obama. Early on, Obama’s Republican critics suggested it was a gimmick to boost his re-election campaign. But now, some of Obama’s liberal supporters are attacking the film and officials who cooperated with its creators for allegedly promoting the effectiveness of torture.

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Strangely enough, Democrats didn’t seem too concerned about the Osama bin Laden raid movie “Zero Dark Thirty” back when Republicans were raising alarms about the potentially classified access the Obama administration granted the film team. But now that the movie has portrayed enhanced interrogation techniques in a favorable light, Senate Democrats are suddenly eager to launch an investigation:

After the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairwoman expressed outrage over scenes that imply “enhanced interrogations” of CIA detainees produced a breakthrough in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the panel has begun a review of contacts between the makers of the film “Zero Dark Thirty” and CIA officials.

Investigators will examine whether the spy agency gave the filmmakers “inappropriate” access to secret material, said a person familiar with the matter. They will also probe whether CIA personnel are responsible for the portrayal of harsh interrogation practices, and in particular the suggestion that they were effective, the person said. …

But the film has also produced a series of awkward political headaches for President Barack Obama. Early on, Obama’s Republican critics suggested it was a gimmick to boost his re-election campaign. But now, some of Obama’s liberal supporters are attacking the film and officials who cooperated with its creators for allegedly promoting the effectiveness of torture.

Senate Democrats argue that the film’s premise–that enhanced interrogation techniques helped locate bin Laden–is baseless. If that’s the case, why would they suspect the CIA granted the filmmakers access to classified information? If there’s no evidence for the argument that waterboarding worked, then why would CIA access make a difference?

The fact is, we don’t even need classified information to know that enhanced interrogation techniques led to a major breakthrough in the bin Laden hunt. The former head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, Jose Rodriguez, has already explained how the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and EITs used on Abu Faraj al-Libbi helped identify bin Laden’s courier, eventually leading intelligence officials to the al-Qaeda leader.

The White House is clearly irritated by the perception that Bush-era “torture” paved the way for its big foreign policy achievement, but it hasn’t provided much of a counterargument. White House officials have only insisted enhanced interrogation techniques didn’t produce the “decisive intelligence” that led us to bin Laden, and claim giving all the credit to waterboarding is “not fair to the scores of people who did this work over many years.” But as much as administration officials try to downplay it, they haven’t been able to deny enhanced interrogation played a role. So it’s ironic that a film the White House went out of its way to support ended up making the case for waterboarding.

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Scott Brown’s Choice

Last season, as the Knicks approached their return to the NBA playoffs, they faced a strange dilemma: If they kept winning, they would improve their playoff seed but draw a far tougher opponent in the first round: the eventual champion Miami Heat. In the end, they drew the Heat and lost in the first round. In sports, you generally cannot choose your opponent.

But every so often, in politics you can. And that is what may be tempting Scott Brown to pass on running in the upcoming Massachusetts Senate election to replace John Kerry in favor of running for Massachusetts governor instead. Massachusetts Democrats, according to the Boston Herald, fear Brown is considering doing what the Knicks could not: picking which opponent he’d rather run against. Joe Battenfeld encourages him to do exactly that:

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Last season, as the Knicks approached their return to the NBA playoffs, they faced a strange dilemma: If they kept winning, they would improve their playoff seed but draw a far tougher opponent in the first round: the eventual champion Miami Heat. In the end, they drew the Heat and lost in the first round. In sports, you generally cannot choose your opponent.

But every so often, in politics you can. And that is what may be tempting Scott Brown to pass on running in the upcoming Massachusetts Senate election to replace John Kerry in favor of running for Massachusetts governor instead. Massachusetts Democrats, according to the Boston Herald, fear Brown is considering doing what the Knicks could not: picking which opponent he’d rather run against. Joe Battenfeld encourages him to do exactly that:

Republicans close to the departing U.S. senator said he’s itching to go back to Washington to replace John Kerry, but Democrats are buzzing more about a potential Brown gubernatorial campaign in 2014. It may be tempting for Brown to run in a special election against a vulnerable Rep. Edward J. Markey, but he should reject the easy play and go for the job that really matters — running the state of Massachusetts….

But if you were Scott Brown, who would you rather run against, Ed Markey and the entire Democratic Party, or state Treasurer Steve Grossman or Attorney General Martha Coakley?

Markey already has the backing of Kerry, and as a congressman has acquired campaign experience and connections across the state. Coakley, meanwhile, was the Democrat Brown defeated in the special election to replace Ted Kennedy.

Additionally, the state is no stranger to Republican governors. Mitt Romney was governor of the state before running for president, and he was preceded by a Republican governor as well, Paul Cellucci, who himself was preceded by a Republican governor, Bill Weld. (Who is reportedly considering running for the Kerry seat as well.) That makes the current Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick, the state’s first Democratic governor since Michael Dukakis.

Brown would be considered a formidable candidate in either election. But his high-profile promise to be a vote against Obamacare in the special election in 2010 helped contribute to his victory and also helped rally the state’s Republican voters. And that issue is, obviously, off the table. The difficulty of winning a Senate seat in Massachusetts as a Republican was demonstrated by Brown’s loss to liberal class warfare icon Elizabeth Warren in November. Brown entered the race with high approval ratings and a moderate, bipartisan voting record to complement his blue-collar appeal and local roots. He lost anyway to Warren, an Oklahoma-born Harvard Law professor with scant knowledge of local issues and no experience running for office.

Democrats are far from confident they’d beat Brown again, even with Markey. As Slate’s Dave Weigel noted, this is a pessimistic, but not irrational, fear:

They beat Brown this year with a huge turnout, which allowed Elizabeth Warren to run 15 points behind Barack Obama and still win. Brown won 1.17 million votes in the 2010 special election. That rose to 1.45 million in 2012. Martha Coakley won 1.06 million in the special, and Warren won 1.68 million votes in the general. Republicans, somewhat cynically, hope that a special election with lower turnout will mean a proportionately bigger fall-off in Democratic votes. November’s exit polls found that the same electorate that was kicking Brown out gave him a 60 percent favorable rating.

That’s where the trauma comes in. Democrats remember a smooth, likeable Brown running over Martha Coakley, gathering momentum as she stumbled all over the place. The final polls before the 2010 special put Brown’s favorables in the high 50s. In the Senate, where he voted the Democrats’ way on some popular bills (DADT repeal, for example), he only got more popular. In June 2011, Brown led any potential Democratic opponent by nine to 25 points. He led Warren by 15 points.

The Democrats’ “trauma,” as Weigel characterizes it, is quite the opposite for Brown, and it’s hard to imagine he’d rather run against Markey than Coakley. The national Republican Party would almost surely prefer the opposite. They don’t gain much with a moderate Republican governorship, but would love another Senate seat heading into the 2014 midterms. Brown, however, would give his career (and any national ambitions he might have) quite a boost by winning the governor’s seat. And he is only too aware of the temporary nature of Massachusetts voters’ desire to see a Republican represent their state in the Senate.

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Senate Report Raises Benghazi Questions

One of the many unanswered questions of the Benghazi attack is why it took so long for CIA backup forces to get from Tripoli to Benghazi. According to a new Senate report, this may have been an intentional delay by the Libyan government. Eli Lake reports:

The biggest recent development—which was overshadowed by the fiscal cliff negotiations—came on New Year’s Eve, when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee released a report that raised the question of whether Libyan officials assisted the Benghazi terrorists. The report found that a team of CIA contractors dispatched from Tripoli to Benghazi on the night of the attacks waited at least three hours after arriving at the Benghazi airport before departing to the scene because of negotiations with Libyan government officials. According to the report, members of Congress still don’t know the exact reason for the delay. “Was it simply the result of a difficult Libyan bureaucracy and a chaotic environment or was it part of a plot to keep American help from reaching the Americans under siege in Benghazi?” the report asks. 

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One of the many unanswered questions of the Benghazi attack is why it took so long for CIA backup forces to get from Tripoli to Benghazi. According to a new Senate report, this may have been an intentional delay by the Libyan government. Eli Lake reports:

The biggest recent development—which was overshadowed by the fiscal cliff negotiations—came on New Year’s Eve, when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee released a report that raised the question of whether Libyan officials assisted the Benghazi terrorists. The report found that a team of CIA contractors dispatched from Tripoli to Benghazi on the night of the attacks waited at least three hours after arriving at the Benghazi airport before departing to the scene because of negotiations with Libyan government officials. According to the report, members of Congress still don’t know the exact reason for the delay. “Was it simply the result of a difficult Libyan bureaucracy and a chaotic environment or was it part of a plot to keep American help from reaching the Americans under siege in Benghazi?” the report asks. 

As Eli goes on to note, the night of the attack was chaotic. Still, based on this first-hand account in the Daily Beast, there were indications that bad actors were among the Libyan group that met the CIA team in Tripoli. The Senate report simply raises the question of whether Libyan government officials were somehow involved.

Of course, with the Libyan government in transition, it’s hard to pinpoint who would have been responsible for this. There wasn’t really anyone in charge at that point. But if it turns out there was a faction inside the government that was preventing American help from reaching the diplomatic mission, that raises additional concerns about Obama’s Libya policy, his light-footprint intervention, and the future of America’s relationship with the Libyan government.

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Assessing the White House’s Options for Post-2014 Afghanistan

If this New York Times leak is accurate, Gen. John Allen has presented his three options for force levels in Afghanistan post-2014. Low risk option: 20,000. Medium risk: 10,000. High-risk: 6,000.

My own view is that 20,000 is actually the medium-risk option–the low-risk option (or, more accurately, lower risk option) is 25,000 to 35,000 troops as argued in this policy paper from retired Gen. David Barno, a former commander in Afghanistan. (He subsequently argued in an op-ed that 10,000 troops would be adequate but gave no reason why his earlier analysis did not hold.)

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If this New York Times leak is accurate, Gen. John Allen has presented his three options for force levels in Afghanistan post-2014. Low risk option: 20,000. Medium risk: 10,000. High-risk: 6,000.

My own view is that 20,000 is actually the medium-risk option–the low-risk option (or, more accurately, lower risk option) is 25,000 to 35,000 troops as argued in this policy paper from retired Gen. David Barno, a former commander in Afghanistan. (He subsequently argued in an op-ed that 10,000 troops would be adequate but gave no reason why his earlier analysis did not hold.)

As for why 6,000 troops is grossly inadequate, I argued the point in this recent Washington Post op-ed in which I contend that this number would not only fail at supporting the Afghan security forces, it would also be too small for a counter-terrorism mission.

To be effective, Special Operations forces need to be deployed beyond Kabul. Afghanistan is such a vast country that it is simply impossible to generate intelligence and act on it if you have no outposts outside the capital region. But setting up those outposts–at a bare minimum we need a presence in Kandahar, the historic home of the Taliban, and in Jalalabad, the launching point for the raid to kill Osama bin Laden–will dramatically escalate troop requirements because each base needs to be protected and supplied. It is doubtful that 6,000 troops could get the job done, and yet I fear that whatever decision the White House ultimately makes it will be closer to 6,000 than to 20,000, much less 35,000.

It is understandable that the president wants to disengage from an unpopular war. But he should realize that there will be little difference in public sentiment whether there are 6,000 troops in Afghanistan or 30,000. Either way, Americans will be in harm’s way. They will actually be safer with a higher force level, which will allow better steps for force-protection and mission-accomplishment. Leaving a small number of troops isolated around Kabul would actually be a dangerous situation because every time they ventured off their fortified bases they would be assuming a great deal of risk because they would be going into enemy safe havens. That risk could be lowered, paradoxically, if more troops are operating in close conjunction with their Afghan counterparts every day to keep the enemy off balance.

It is not just the security of the United States or Afghanistan at stake here. It is also President Obama’s legacy. He, after all, embraced Afghanistan from the start as the “good war,” in contrast to Iraq. He more than tripled U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Like it or not, he has taken ownership of this war effort. It will not look good for his historical record if a substantial portion of the country falls to the Taliban–which, alas, is likely to happen absent a vigorous American role in bolstering the embattled Afghan government after 2014.

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A Perfect Match: Al Gore and Al Jazeera

The Al Jazeera television network has become a dominant force in Middle East communications as well as an expanding influence elsewhere, but up until now it has had trouble breaking through in the United States with a little watched English channel that is not widely available. No longer. With the sale of Al Gore’s Current TV cable network to Al Jazeera, the Qatar-government financed news giant will have a chance to reach an estimated 40 million American homes. Current TV has been a colossal flop in terms of viewership and quality, but its sale will make yet another fortune for the former vice president who has become wealthy through investments in so-called “green” companies.

In yet another example of the hypocrisy of wealthy left-wingers, Gore, who will receive an estimated $100 million of the reported half-billion-dollar sale price, made sure the transaction took place by the end of 2012 so as to avoid the higher taxes that went into effect as part of President Obama’s soak-the-rich fiscal cliff ultimatum. But there’s more to this story than the way the former Democratic Party standard-bearer parlayed a vanity project into a financial windfall. Rather, it is the way he will assist the plan of Al Jazeera, which has long been rightly dismissed by the American public as a platform for Islamist and anti-American and anti-Israel propaganda, to elbow its way into the U.S. media market and compete with cable news giants like CNN and MSNBC, if not the more popular Fox News. Though, as the New York Times noted, there is little evidence that there is any real demand among mainstream viewers for an English language version of the favorite network of Al Qaeda and other Islamists, the acquisition of Current and the creation of a new Al Jazeera English channel will mean the network’s biased outlook on the Middle East and the United States will be far more widely available here than ever before.

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The Al Jazeera television network has become a dominant force in Middle East communications as well as an expanding influence elsewhere, but up until now it has had trouble breaking through in the United States with a little watched English channel that is not widely available. No longer. With the sale of Al Gore’s Current TV cable network to Al Jazeera, the Qatar-government financed news giant will have a chance to reach an estimated 40 million American homes. Current TV has been a colossal flop in terms of viewership and quality, but its sale will make yet another fortune for the former vice president who has become wealthy through investments in so-called “green” companies.

In yet another example of the hypocrisy of wealthy left-wingers, Gore, who will receive an estimated $100 million of the reported half-billion-dollar sale price, made sure the transaction took place by the end of 2012 so as to avoid the higher taxes that went into effect as part of President Obama’s soak-the-rich fiscal cliff ultimatum. But there’s more to this story than the way the former Democratic Party standard-bearer parlayed a vanity project into a financial windfall. Rather, it is the way he will assist the plan of Al Jazeera, which has long been rightly dismissed by the American public as a platform for Islamist and anti-American and anti-Israel propaganda, to elbow its way into the U.S. media market and compete with cable news giants like CNN and MSNBC, if not the more popular Fox News. Though, as the New York Times noted, there is little evidence that there is any real demand among mainstream viewers for an English language version of the favorite network of Al Qaeda and other Islamists, the acquisition of Current and the creation of a new Al Jazeera English channel will mean the network’s biased outlook on the Middle East and the United States will be far more widely available here than ever before.

Though it is hard to imagine that the new Al Jazeera will ever be anything more than a niche network with little influence on the American political discussion, the key to the success of this very ambitious scheme will be in the marketing of its new incarnation. Gore, who will stay on as part of the board of what is tentatively called Al Jazeera America, will be part of an effort to mainstream the network:

In recent weeks, Mr. Gore personally lobbied the distributors that carry Current on the importance of Al Jazeera, according to people briefed on the talks who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Distributors can sometimes wiggle out of their carriage deals when channels change hands. Most consented to the sale, but Time Warner Cable did not.

Distribution is the key, since while few people watched Gore’s station, its availability via Comcast cable and Direct TV, outlets that had refused to carry Al Jazeera English since it was founded in 2006, made it valuable. That will mean that Al Jazeera America’s broadcasts emanating from New York studios as well as its headquarters in Doha, Qatar will have the chance to be watched by a vast American audience.

Al Jazeera won praise for its extensive coverage of the Arab Spring, but as it has become clear that Islamist hegemony rather than democracy will be the legacy of those protests, its hard to make the argument that the network has much to offer Americans. Though, as the Times notes, it will provide a “less parochial” outlook on the world than Americans are used to, its frame of reference about the U.S., Israel and Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas will keep it an outlier in American debates.

It’s not clear that the oil-rich magnates of Qatar will make their money back on this deal. Nor is it likely that Al Jazeera’s news with an Islamist and anti-American and anti-Israel slant will transform the discussion of the Middle East. But it may provide a bully pulpit to voices that have heretofore been confined to the fever swamps of U.S. politics and become another beachhead into the U.S. for those seeking to heighten international isolation of the Jewish state.

As for Gore, his role as a well-paid enabler of Al Jazeera will mean that his descent from a respected Scoop Jackson Democrat to a profiteering leftist huckster will be complete.

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