Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 7, 2013

Media Bias Israeli Style

The liberal bias of the mainstream media played a not inconsiderable role in helping Barack Obama skate to what turned out to be an easy victory last November. But as his longtime antagonist Benjamin Netanyahu coasts toward his own re-election, one of the interesting sidebars in the story of that vote is the way a largely left-wing media has proved unable to do much damage to the prime minister. The leftist cast of most Israeli news outlets is so widely recognized, few even on the left bother to deny it. As Akiva Eldar, the longtime columnist for Haaretz once told me in an interview, the bias of most Israeli journalists is not in doubt but since the right has won most of the elections in the last 30 years, it didn’t matter. It’s certainly true that the tilt against Netanyahu in the media won’t help the dismal chances of Israel’s left-wing parties. But the willingness of some of the leading outlets to hype the complaints of a former security official about the PM has raised the eyebrows of one of Eldar’s colleagues on the self-styled New York Times of Israel.

Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz’s current lead political columnist, wrote today about the way the Yediot Aharonot newspaper has tried to inflate a filmed interview with former Mossad chief Yuval Diskin in which he blasts Netanyahu into a cause célèbre. That a paper whose own longstanding left-wing bias is as blatant as that of Haaretz would consider this absurd tells you a lot about how off-the-charts the prejudice of the mass market daily Yediot about Netanyahu has become. While the foreign press has picked up this narrative about Netanyahu’s alleged failings, it’s fairly obvious even to Haaretz that there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the story.

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The liberal bias of the mainstream media played a not inconsiderable role in helping Barack Obama skate to what turned out to be an easy victory last November. But as his longtime antagonist Benjamin Netanyahu coasts toward his own re-election, one of the interesting sidebars in the story of that vote is the way a largely left-wing media has proved unable to do much damage to the prime minister. The leftist cast of most Israeli news outlets is so widely recognized, few even on the left bother to deny it. As Akiva Eldar, the longtime columnist for Haaretz once told me in an interview, the bias of most Israeli journalists is not in doubt but since the right has won most of the elections in the last 30 years, it didn’t matter. It’s certainly true that the tilt against Netanyahu in the media won’t help the dismal chances of Israel’s left-wing parties. But the willingness of some of the leading outlets to hype the complaints of a former security official about the PM has raised the eyebrows of one of Eldar’s colleagues on the self-styled New York Times of Israel.

Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz’s current lead political columnist, wrote today about the way the Yediot Aharonot newspaper has tried to inflate a filmed interview with former Mossad chief Yuval Diskin in which he blasts Netanyahu into a cause célèbre. That a paper whose own longstanding left-wing bias is as blatant as that of Haaretz would consider this absurd tells you a lot about how off-the-charts the prejudice of the mass market daily Yediot about Netanyahu has become. While the foreign press has picked up this narrative about Netanyahu’s alleged failings, it’s fairly obvious even to Haaretz that there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the story.

As Pfeffer notes, Diskin’s charges about what he believes are Netanyahu’s irresponsible attempts to push the security services to agree with him about the nuclear threat from Iran and the need for potential action on the issue have already been fully aired and largely ignored by the Israeli public. That’s because they know something that most foreign readers don’t about the political nature of the old boy network that runs the security services. The willingness of Diskin and his colleagues to go public with their carping about Netanyahu’s handling of an issue on which there is a pretty strong consensus within Israel—the need to take the Iranian nuclear threat seriously—tells us more about the way Diskin and his friends feel about the prime minister than anything else.

However, as Pfeffer also writes, one of the other factors driving the brazen Netanyahu-bashing in liberal outlets is the fact that a well-funded competitor with a very different political outlook has overtaken Yediot as the country’s highest circulation newspaper. Much like the way Fox News stole the thunder of the more liberal CNN and the American broadcast networks, Israel Hayom has ended the left-wing monopoly of the major Israeli dailies. Bankrolled by American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, Israel Hayom has given Israelis a free conservative alternative and they’ve made it the most read paper in the country.

While the influence of Adelson’s paper probably doesn’t equal that of the combined forces of the rest of liberal Israeli media, its pro-Netanyahu bias seems to have help driven that of its competitors over the cliff into what could almost be described as parody. But it appears the Israeli electorate is smart enough to see through the anger of the press and the hysteria about the “Diskin document.”

The ability of Netanyahu to survive the slings and arrows chucked at him by a frustrated Israeli media that knows the only question about the election is the size of his margin of victory shows that in one sense Eldar remains right. Israel’s voters are too sophisticated to be influenced by their biased press. 

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Ed Koch: I Knew Obama Would Betray Israel

I admire former Mayor Ed Koch’s willingness to break with his own party on issues of principle, but his comments to the Algemeiner today are mind-boggling. In between some very strong denunciations of the Chuck Hagel nomination, Koch casually let it drop that he suspected Obama would abandon his pro-Israel positions after the election. The former mayor, of course, endorsed Obama’s reelection and served as one of his surrogates to the pro-Israel community: 

“Frankly, I thought that there would come a time when [Obama] would renege on what he conveyed on his support of Israel,” said Koch, adding, “it comes a little earlier than I thought it would.”

“It’s very disappointing, I believe he will ultimately regret it,” Koch said, “and it undoubtedly will reduce support for him in the Jewish community, but I don’t think he (the President) worries about that now that the election is over.” …

Koch explained to The Algemeiner why he decided to back the President’s re-election even though he says he suspected that Obama would backtrack on his pro-Israel overtures. “I did what I thought was warranted and intelligent,” he said, “He was going to win! There was no question about it. I thought it would be helpful to have a Jewish voice there, being able to communicate.”

The Mayor says he has no regrets, “it’s wouldn’t make any difference. The Jews were going to vote for him no matter what. And that’s the nature of the Jews. They are always very solicitous of everybody else except there own needs and community.”

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I admire former Mayor Ed Koch’s willingness to break with his own party on issues of principle, but his comments to the Algemeiner today are mind-boggling. In between some very strong denunciations of the Chuck Hagel nomination, Koch casually let it drop that he suspected Obama would abandon his pro-Israel positions after the election. The former mayor, of course, endorsed Obama’s reelection and served as one of his surrogates to the pro-Israel community: 

“Frankly, I thought that there would come a time when [Obama] would renege on what he conveyed on his support of Israel,” said Koch, adding, “it comes a little earlier than I thought it would.”

“It’s very disappointing, I believe he will ultimately regret it,” Koch said, “and it undoubtedly will reduce support for him in the Jewish community, but I don’t think he (the President) worries about that now that the election is over.” …

Koch explained to The Algemeiner why he decided to back the President’s re-election even though he says he suspected that Obama would backtrack on his pro-Israel overtures. “I did what I thought was warranted and intelligent,” he said, “He was going to win! There was no question about it. I thought it would be helpful to have a Jewish voice there, being able to communicate.”

The Mayor says he has no regrets, “it’s wouldn’t make any difference. The Jews were going to vote for him no matter what. And that’s the nature of the Jews. They are always very solicitous of everybody else except there own needs and community.”

Just a reminder, here’s what Koch said in a video endorsement for the Obama campaign in October:

“I’m confident President Obama will continue his unambiguous commitment to the Jewish state in his second term, building on his record of leadership by preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and funding the Iron Dome missile defense system that is saving Israeli lives.” 

To summarize: Koch believed none of that, but still vouched for Obama with Jewish voters because a.) Obama was going to win and it was important that Ed Koch maintain good relations with the White House so he could encourage pro-Israel policies (which isn’t working out too well, considering the Hagel nomination), and b.) Jews were going to vote for Obama no matter what (which would kind of mean Ed Koch’s entire schtick is irrelevant, no?).

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Liberals’ Idea of Tax Reform Shows Who Are the Real Extremists

President Obama made it clear he wasn’t going to be satisfied with the tax increase on upper income earners that he forced on Congress during the showdown over the fiscal cliff. Though in fact all wage earners suffered a loss this week as the payroll taxes surged, the president and his liberal supporters are determined to inflict even more pain on more people in any upcoming budget talks. However, one of the leading advocates for the president’s redistributionist position, the New York Times editorial page, is worried that in settling for a deal that raised taxes on those earning more than $400,000 a year, he has made it harder for the left to foist another job-killing tax increase on the country. So, to make this bitter pill easier for Americans to swallow, the Times claims that plans to confiscate more private income for government use is actually “reform.”

Leaving aside the fact that trying to squeeze more revenue for the government out of taxpayers won’t do much, if anything, to avert the budget crisis, the use of the word reform in this context is straight out of Orwell. Reform implies making the system fairer, which for some on the left is synonymous with soaking the rich. But a genuine reform of the system is one that will incentivize achievement, not penalizing it as well as making the labyrinthine code simpler and more understandable. But when liberals use this word it is merely code for policy driven by left-wing ideology and not pragmatism or the country’s economic health.

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President Obama made it clear he wasn’t going to be satisfied with the tax increase on upper income earners that he forced on Congress during the showdown over the fiscal cliff. Though in fact all wage earners suffered a loss this week as the payroll taxes surged, the president and his liberal supporters are determined to inflict even more pain on more people in any upcoming budget talks. However, one of the leading advocates for the president’s redistributionist position, the New York Times editorial page, is worried that in settling for a deal that raised taxes on those earning more than $400,000 a year, he has made it harder for the left to foist another job-killing tax increase on the country. So, to make this bitter pill easier for Americans to swallow, the Times claims that plans to confiscate more private income for government use is actually “reform.”

Leaving aside the fact that trying to squeeze more revenue for the government out of taxpayers won’t do much, if anything, to avert the budget crisis, the use of the word reform in this context is straight out of Orwell. Reform implies making the system fairer, which for some on the left is synonymous with soaking the rich. But a genuine reform of the system is one that will incentivize achievement, not penalizing it as well as making the labyrinthine code simpler and more understandable. But when liberals use this word it is merely code for policy driven by left-wing ideology and not pragmatism or the country’s economic health.

In the view of the Times, anything that creates a more progressive system in which more money is siphoned out of the private sector and into the hands of Washington is a form of reform no matter how convoluted the system might be. That’s a distraction from the country’s real problems that have everything to do with spending and little to do with not enough taxes. But it is also pure liberal cant rather than sensible economics.

But the Times is right on target in one respect. Having bulldozed Congress into the fiscal deal tax hike, the president and his followers are in no position to push for even more tax hikes. The payroll tax windfall for Uncle Sam also makes this argument difficult to sell to a skeptical public, let alone a Republican House of Representatives that is determined that it won’t be scammed in this manner again.

We can expect to hear more of this distorted argument in the coming weeks and months, but the main takeaway from this discussion ought to inform the way the upcoming debt ceiling fight is covered. Redistribution isn’t tax reform. It’s actually a way to avoid reform as well as irrelevant to the cause of preventing the country from sinking into bankruptcy. The Times editorial as well as the rhetoric coming out of the Democrats in recent days makes it apparent that instead of this confrontation being one between extremist Republicans and a sensible White House, the real ideologues in this argument are among the ranks of the president’s supporters.

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N.J. Democrats’ Booker-Induced Chaos

For New Jersey Republicans, one of the disappointing aspects of Chris Christie’s first term as governor has been the lack of intrastate coattails. Christie has notched several impressive policy victories for Republicans, but the state GOP has been unable to turn those victories into success at the ballot box in either house of the state legislature, let alone a Senate challenge to Bob Menendez. That makes Christie’s policy success all the more impressive: unlike in Michigan and Wisconsin, Christie’s victories over the public sector unions came without a Republican legislature.

Christie’s one-man conservative show in New Jersey, along with Christie’s high approval rating, is sowing more internal discord within the state’s Democratic Party–and at the highest level yet. Christie’s popularity after his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was enough to convince rising star Cory Booker not to challenge Christie for the governor’s office later this year. But that means that Booker, whose social-media heavy act in Newark is beginning to wear thin, needs something else to do. So he announced that he’s exploring a run for the Senate seat currently occupied by Frank Lautenberg. The latter’s term is up in 2014, and Lautenberg is thought to be leaning toward retirement. But he hasn’t announced that yet, and doesn’t seem to be at all pleased by Booker’s decision to try and push him out the door. And there’s another problem: if Lautenberg were to step down, it was widely expected that his chosen successor would be Frank Pallone, a congressman from central New Jersey who has been laying the groundwork for a Senate run.

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For New Jersey Republicans, one of the disappointing aspects of Chris Christie’s first term as governor has been the lack of intrastate coattails. Christie has notched several impressive policy victories for Republicans, but the state GOP has been unable to turn those victories into success at the ballot box in either house of the state legislature, let alone a Senate challenge to Bob Menendez. That makes Christie’s policy success all the more impressive: unlike in Michigan and Wisconsin, Christie’s victories over the public sector unions came without a Republican legislature.

Christie’s one-man conservative show in New Jersey, along with Christie’s high approval rating, is sowing more internal discord within the state’s Democratic Party–and at the highest level yet. Christie’s popularity after his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was enough to convince rising star Cory Booker not to challenge Christie for the governor’s office later this year. But that means that Booker, whose social-media heavy act in Newark is beginning to wear thin, needs something else to do. So he announced that he’s exploring a run for the Senate seat currently occupied by Frank Lautenberg. The latter’s term is up in 2014, and Lautenberg is thought to be leaning toward retirement. But he hasn’t announced that yet, and doesn’t seem to be at all pleased by Booker’s decision to try and push him out the door. And there’s another problem: if Lautenberg were to step down, it was widely expected that his chosen successor would be Frank Pallone, a congressman from central New Jersey who has been laying the groundwork for a Senate run.

But now Booker appears ready to run whether Lautenberg vacates the seat or not. And that may bring on a third problem (Booker’s quite the trouble maker): whereas Pallone would not have considered challenging Lautenberg in a primary, if Booker challenges Lautenberg then Pallone will almost surely have to throw his hat in the ring, since a three-way primary race might be his only shot to beat Booker.

Thus Booker’s announcement may spur a primary free-for-all that stands a good chance of flattening Lautenberg to bring his career to a rather ignominious end. So it’s no surprise to read this:

Booker said Monday that he still hopes to talk to Lautenberg.

“We’ve reached out to him a number of times,” said Booker, whose second term as mayor ends in 2014. “In fact, I had a plane trip going down to meet with him, but unfortunately with a lot of the challenges going down in Washington, he had to cancel the meeting.”

There is some (recent) history here. Lautenberg was aware of a possible Booker challenge last year, and then came Booker’s criticism of President Obama’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, which Booker called “nauseating.” Lautenberg pounced:

“It’s a terrible blow, in my view, for President Obama,” he said. He likened the remark to “sabotage” and said Booker needs to do more to rectify his mistake.

Booker has tried several times since Sunday to walk back the remarks. On “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Monday night, he expressed anger at Republicans who have turned his statement into campaign fodder.

As for a possible primary run against Booker in 2014, Lautenberg said “he’s welcome to do it” but that his remarks did him great damage.

“Now we have a different record,” said a smiling Lautenberg, who is considering seeking another term.

If Booker does indeed run in 2014, Pallone’s best chance is probably if Lautenberg runs as well, thereby diluting some of Booker’s North Jersey support. If Lautenberg steps down and Booker and Pallone vie for the seat, Booker would most likely be the favorite, though it’s early to gauge just how much headway Pallone has been able to make with county party chairs behind the scenes. Nonetheless, while state Republicans may not be gaining at the ballot box, they have to be enjoying the fact that their current governor is a Republican with such high approval ratings that the state’s top Democratic politicians are at each other’s throats just to avoid challenging Christie.

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Depardieu Should Stick to Acting

Gerard Depardieu is a great actor. He is also, like many showbiz types, a political naif.

He had earned a fair amount of sympathy–and caused considerable embarrassment for France’s Socialist President Francois Hollande–when he announced that he would move to Belgium to avoid a punitive, 75 percent tax rate that Hollande was attempting to impose on income over a million euros. (The tax hike has been stopped, for the time being, by a court.) Now he has forfeited all sympathy–and made himself into a laughing stock–by embracing Vladimir Putin. Quite literally.

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Gerard Depardieu is a great actor. He is also, like many showbiz types, a political naif.

He had earned a fair amount of sympathy–and caused considerable embarrassment for France’s Socialist President Francois Hollande–when he announced that he would move to Belgium to avoid a punitive, 75 percent tax rate that Hollande was attempting to impose on income over a million euros. (The tax hike has been stopped, for the time being, by a court.) Now he has forfeited all sympathy–and made himself into a laughing stock–by embracing Vladimir Putin. Quite literally.

The Russian president offered Depardieu Russian citizenship and Depardieu jumped at the opportunity to embrace Putin and all he stands for. Depardieu even had the temerity to describe Russia as a “great democracy,” which will come as news to Freedom House (and the rest of the world), which officially rates Russia as “not free.” Indeed the artistic community has actually been rallying against Putin lately because he approved the ridiculous prison sentence for the girl rock band Pussy Riot on grounds of blasphemy.

By going over the line in his tax protest, Depardieu is causing a backlash in France and engendering sympathy for Hollande. In the future maybe he should stick to reading scriptwriters’ words.

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AIPAC’s Hagel Dilemma

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg homed in on an interesting aspect of the fight over President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense this morning when he noted how the issue put AIPAC in a tough position. There’s little question that the pro-Israel lobby is alarmed by the prospect of having a man running the Pentagon who thinks the U.S. ought to be tough on Israel and soft on Iran rather than the other way around. But, as Goldberg rightly pointed out, AIPAC is in the business of working with Congress and the White House, not fighting them tooth and nail.

Goldberg correctly notes that it would be bad judgment for a group that applauded Obama’s promises on Iran to attempt to thwart him on his choice to head the Defense Department. While Obama’s support for positions on Iran and Israel in the past year and a half have often seemed grudging, AIPAC is eager to maintain decent relations with the White House. That would, as Goldberg seems to imply, argue for the lobby to stand aside during the upcoming donnybrook over Hagel. But the problem with this reasoning is that it ignores what is fairly obvious to both friends and foes of the nominee: his appointment signals that the administration’s election year Jewish charm offensive during which the president stopped picking fights with Israel and pledged not to contain Iran, but to stop the Islamic Republic, is very much over.

The last thing AIPAC wants to do is to fight a losing battle over Hagel in which it would get the worst of both worlds—a bad appointment and a White House that will be interested in payback for being thwarted. But the stakes are sufficiently high that it ought not be too difficult a decision. If there is any chance that the nomination can be defeated—and if reports about pro-Israel Democrats being willing to jump ship on this issue are true, he can be —then those who wish to send the administration a message that the country will not tolerate Obama breaking his promises on Iran must do whatever they can to accomplish this goal.

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The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg homed in on an interesting aspect of the fight over President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense this morning when he noted how the issue put AIPAC in a tough position. There’s little question that the pro-Israel lobby is alarmed by the prospect of having a man running the Pentagon who thinks the U.S. ought to be tough on Israel and soft on Iran rather than the other way around. But, as Goldberg rightly pointed out, AIPAC is in the business of working with Congress and the White House, not fighting them tooth and nail.

Goldberg correctly notes that it would be bad judgment for a group that applauded Obama’s promises on Iran to attempt to thwart him on his choice to head the Defense Department. While Obama’s support for positions on Iran and Israel in the past year and a half have often seemed grudging, AIPAC is eager to maintain decent relations with the White House. That would, as Goldberg seems to imply, argue for the lobby to stand aside during the upcoming donnybrook over Hagel. But the problem with this reasoning is that it ignores what is fairly obvious to both friends and foes of the nominee: his appointment signals that the administration’s election year Jewish charm offensive during which the president stopped picking fights with Israel and pledged not to contain Iran, but to stop the Islamic Republic, is very much over.

The last thing AIPAC wants to do is to fight a losing battle over Hagel in which it would get the worst of both worlds—a bad appointment and a White House that will be interested in payback for being thwarted. But the stakes are sufficiently high that it ought not be too difficult a decision. If there is any chance that the nomination can be defeated—and if reports about pro-Israel Democrats being willing to jump ship on this issue are true, he can be —then those who wish to send the administration a message that the country will not tolerate Obama breaking his promises on Iran must do whatever they can to accomplish this goal.

The White House is, as Goldberg notes, sending a loud message to AIPAC that the president will be offended if they fight him on Hagel. The presumption is that any such decision would have a negative impact on Obama’s continuation of policies that the lobby supports on security cooperation with Israel.

Yet by picking Hagel for defense, what Obama has done is to signal Israel’s friends that any expectation that he would stick to his word about containment or the use of force against Iran is probably unrealistic. That’s what the Iranians and Israelis are probably thinking right now, a state of affairs that is likely to lead to trouble for the U.S. Though it would be wrong to think that AIPAC has nothing to lose in this battle, the consequences of allowing Hagel to skate through to an easy confirmation are immense for the group and the U.S.-Israel alliance. That’s especially true if a strong push from AIPAC might be enough to nudge a critical group of pro-Israel Democratic senators to commit to vote against him.

There are times when groups like AIPAC must play it smart and avoid confrontations with the president. This isn’t one of them. By speaking out forcefully, the group can transform the Hagel issue from what is being spun in the media as GOP revenge for his opposition to the Iraq War into a bipartisan revolt against his nomination. That’s exactly what they should do.

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Brennan’s Quest for a Moderate Hezbollah

President Obama’s choices of John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John Brennan to lead respectively the State Department, Pentagon, and Central Intelligence Agency confirm that Obama wishes to position his legacy somewhat to the left even of Jimmy Carter. There has been a lot of attention to Chuck Hagel’s record over the last couple of weeks, but John Brennan has benefited from flying under the radar, if only because of the controversy surrounding Hagel.

It’s worth recalling, however, Brennan’s comments in 2010 upon returning from a visit to Lebanon. From a Reuters report at the time:

The Obama administration is looking for ways to build up “moderate elements” within the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla movement and to diminish the influence of hard-liners, a top White House official said on Tuesday. John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, met with Lebanese leaders during a recent visit. “Hezbollah is a very interesting organization,” Brennan told a Washington conference, citing its evolution from “purely a terrorist organization” to a militia to an organization that now has members within the parliament and the cabinet. “There is certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us what they’re doing. And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements,” Brennan said.

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President Obama’s choices of John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John Brennan to lead respectively the State Department, Pentagon, and Central Intelligence Agency confirm that Obama wishes to position his legacy somewhat to the left even of Jimmy Carter. There has been a lot of attention to Chuck Hagel’s record over the last couple of weeks, but John Brennan has benefited from flying under the radar, if only because of the controversy surrounding Hagel.

It’s worth recalling, however, Brennan’s comments in 2010 upon returning from a visit to Lebanon. From a Reuters report at the time:

The Obama administration is looking for ways to build up “moderate elements” within the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla movement and to diminish the influence of hard-liners, a top White House official said on Tuesday. John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, met with Lebanese leaders during a recent visit. “Hezbollah is a very interesting organization,” Brennan told a Washington conference, citing its evolution from “purely a terrorist organization” to a militia to an organization that now has members within the parliament and the cabinet. “There is certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us what they’re doing. And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements,” Brennan said.

I have added the emphasis regarding Brennan’s suggestion that U.S. policy should be to build up “moderate” Hezbollah elements rather than seek that group’s destruction. The question should be especially important now, because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fall could starve Hezbollah of the oxygen it needs; never has Hezbollah’s future been so tenuous.

While back in 2010, I took a tongue-in-cheek approach to figuring out what a Hezbollah moderate might be, the questions senators should ask first would be whether a second term Obama administration will outstretch its hands not only to adversarial regimes, but also to terrorist groups, and second, what Brennan’s instincts would mean for a CIA under his leadership.

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Dangerous Idealism on North Korea

There’s something about North Korea that gives liberal idealists amnesia. They’re quick to believe that change is afoot, too willing to overlook the evidence that plainly shows that the regime is evil, beyond a shadow of a doubt. In the last week, there have been two instances of this amnesia, and unfortunately for those suffering under the regime, there’s no sign they will be the last.

After North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un gave his New Year’s address a week ago today, Western outlets described his remarks as an “olive branch to the South.” The New York Times said, “The most significant feature of Kim Jong-un’s speech was its marked departure of tone regarding South Korea.” I spoke with the Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for Northeast Asia Bruce Klingner on Friday about the address and his response was less than enthusiastic about this supposed “about face.”

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There’s something about North Korea that gives liberal idealists amnesia. They’re quick to believe that change is afoot, too willing to overlook the evidence that plainly shows that the regime is evil, beyond a shadow of a doubt. In the last week, there have been two instances of this amnesia, and unfortunately for those suffering under the regime, there’s no sign they will be the last.

After North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un gave his New Year’s address a week ago today, Western outlets described his remarks as an “olive branch to the South.” The New York Times said, “The most significant feature of Kim Jong-un’s speech was its marked departure of tone regarding South Korea.” I spoke with the Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for Northeast Asia Bruce Klingner on Friday about the address and his response was less than enthusiastic about this supposed “about face.”

Kim Jong-un’s speech was delivered on air, the first time that a New Year’s address has been delivered in this manner since his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s last address in 1994. After Kim Il-sung died, the speeches were delivered as an editorial and published in major state-approved newspapers in North Korea. While the method of delivery may have been different, the substance of the speech was nothing out of the ordinary for a dictatorship which has made a game out of fooling Western media into believing there may be change brewing in the famously closed-off totalitarian regime. In 2009 and 2010, many in the West clung to reports of a loosening of economic control or a toned down use of militaristic language. In both years, those hopes were dashed with several acts of aggression: rocket tests, the arrest of U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, and the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan. While North Korea’s words may have signaled a change, their actions did not.

Many viewed Kim Jong-un’s speech as a departure from previous language, but Heritage’s Klingner pointed out that there were actually fewer references to “light industry” and other economic liberalization buzzwords than in previous years. This could be attributed to the abbreviated length of the remarks in comparison to printed versions in years past, though year after year, even in written form, there have been fewer references to what many hope are signals of a loosening of the economic stranglehold of the regime. The “notable” aspects of the speech, referring to the hope of reunification, also need to be viewed through the prism of North Korean propaganda. Reunification, in the eyes of the totalitarian regime, mean South Koreans finally giving up their opposition to joining their communist brothers in the North. For the North Koreans, reunification would mean an end to South Korean democracy and would destroy the economy it has built at remarkable speed and efficiency. Last week’s speech wasn’t the “olive branch” that many Western observers seem to believe, it was in fact the opposite.

This week’s news regarding North Korea isn’t any better for freedom-lovers. Former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson and Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, will be taking a trip, despite the State Department’s public disapproval of the visit. The Weekly Standard‘s Ethan Epstein reports that “Richardson has said that Schmidt is ‘interested in some of the economic issues there, the social media aspect.'” The visit will no doubt be used by the North Koreans as a propaganda tool to legitimize the regime’s hold on power. CBS News reported Richardson’s take on why the visit was necessary at this time: “Asked whether the North Korean regime is beginning to change under new leader Kim Jong Un, Richardson vacillated: ‘There are mixed signals…the North Koreans unfortunately launched those missiles at a time that it appeared that the new leader, Kim Jong Un, was opening up.'” There were no such signals, and Richardson’s amnesia regarding the North Koreans’ past record of manipulation bodes poorly for the visit. 

Eric Schmitdt’s participation in the trip is particularly perplexing. In May 2008, Google hosted the only known North Korean gulag escapee, Dong-hyuk Shin and Adrian Hong, the then-executive director of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) for a visit to Google’s Tech Talks, an ongoing program for those in the technology community to share information. During the hour-long visit, Shin used Google Earth to pinpoint not only where the gulag he was raised was located, but was also able to zoom in close enough to show the buildings he worked and slept in. In 2009, the Wall Street Journal highlighted how one man created a program to uncover buildings and structures within the reclusive country using Google Earth satellites. If anyone in the world could and should know about the evil of North Korea without needing to visit, it is Schmidt. The Standard‘s Epstein quite rightly asks, “Why would the chairman of a company whose motto is ‘Don’t Be Evil,’ hobnob with a regime that embodies evil itself?” 

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The Next Fight: Tea Partiers v. Hawks on Defense Cuts

The Hill reports that the defense industry is anxious the fiscal cliff tax deal may increase the likelihood of Pentagon cuts:

The defense industry is worried last week’s budget deal on taxes could damage its negotiating position for the next “fiscal cliff” deadline two months from now, when across-the-board spending cuts would take effect. 

The deficit debate is shifting from taxes toward spending cuts and the debt limit, where there will be more of a focus on new cuts to the Pentagon.

While the first fiscal cliff fight over taxes included the threat of massive across-the-board spending cuts, the sequel is going to be nearly all about where to cut spending. The Pentagon is the largest target outside of entitlements. …

Some defense analysts say that the shift in the Republican Party away from national security, with the rise of the Tea Party, was highlighted during the fiscal-cliff negotiations, where taxes trumped defense in importance. …

“Other issues have overtaken national security as being more important,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. 

“I think it does show how the Republican Party is no longer the party of national security, no longer a big-tent party of Reagan Republicans where a strong defense was a central tenet of conservatism.”

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The Hill reports that the defense industry is anxious the fiscal cliff tax deal may increase the likelihood of Pentagon cuts:

The defense industry is worried last week’s budget deal on taxes could damage its negotiating position for the next “fiscal cliff” deadline two months from now, when across-the-board spending cuts would take effect. 

The deficit debate is shifting from taxes toward spending cuts and the debt limit, where there will be more of a focus on new cuts to the Pentagon.

While the first fiscal cliff fight over taxes included the threat of massive across-the-board spending cuts, the sequel is going to be nearly all about where to cut spending. The Pentagon is the largest target outside of entitlements. …

Some defense analysts say that the shift in the Republican Party away from national security, with the rise of the Tea Party, was highlighted during the fiscal-cliff negotiations, where taxes trumped defense in importance. …

“Other issues have overtaken national security as being more important,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. 

“I think it does show how the Republican Party is no longer the party of national security, no longer a big-tent party of Reagan Republicans where a strong defense was a central tenet of conservatism.”

Fiscal conservatives argue that defense spending shouldn’t be immune from cuts, and they’re right. There is waste and mismanagement within the Pentagon, just like any other government bureaucracy, and there is undoubtedly room for reduction. What’s unacceptable is arbitrary, across-the-board cuts that would force the military to set priorities based on budget reductions, rather than the other way around. Defense should not be dealt with the same way as health care and entitlements; it’s the most important responsibility of the federal government. If there are specific areas where reductions can be made, that should be determined. But choosing a random number and asking the military to cut that much is not the way to do it.

It will be interesting to see whether this fiscal conservative v. defense hawk debate starts to play out during the Chuck Hagel confirmation hearings. There are senators on the Armed Services Committee who consider themselves fiscal conservatives first and foremost, and then there are others like John McCain and Lindsey Graham who vehemently disagree with Hagel’s support for major Pentagon cuts. The question will be whether any of the fiscal hawks come to Hagel’s defense because of his position on military spending.

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Iraq Needs Early Elections

The protests which erupted in the Al-Anbar governorate after the December 21 arrest of 10 of Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism allegations have spread to Tikrit, Mosul, parts of Baghdad and other predominantly Sunni areas. Max Boot has written about the arrests here, and I have offered a different take, here.

Since we last commented on the issue, radical Islamists—their confidence bolstered by the success of their fellow-travelers in Syria—have thrown in their support for the Al Anbar protestors as has radical Shi’ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr. So, too, has Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, vice chairman of Saddam Hussein’s Revolutionary Command Council and the highest ranking member of Saddam’s regime to remain a fugitive. Demonstrating how Baathism and al-Qaeda interests sometimes inter-connect, Izzat Ibrahim declared, “What is happening in Iraq today, especially in its intelligence operations, and the government of puppets and its institutions, is the Persian-Safawi project in all its depth and comprehensiveness implemented by the Safawi coalition led by the Dawa Party and its leader Maliki.” The al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq, meanwhile, SITE Monitoring reported, released a statement on January 5 castigating “Those [who] are the true enemies of the Sunni people, and they didn’t mobilize themselves except when the fire of the Safavid hatred reached them….”

The Safawi (in Arabic) or Safavids (as often transcribed into English from Persian) were the 16th century dynasty which converted Iran to Shi’ism. Reference to the Iraqi Shi’ites as Safavids is common practice among those who want to castigate all Shi’ites as Iranian fifth columnists. Topping off recent events, former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, an ex-Baathist himself, has called for early elections in Iraq.

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The protests which erupted in the Al-Anbar governorate after the December 21 arrest of 10 of Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism allegations have spread to Tikrit, Mosul, parts of Baghdad and other predominantly Sunni areas. Max Boot has written about the arrests here, and I have offered a different take, here.

Since we last commented on the issue, radical Islamists—their confidence bolstered by the success of their fellow-travelers in Syria—have thrown in their support for the Al Anbar protestors as has radical Shi’ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr. So, too, has Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, vice chairman of Saddam Hussein’s Revolutionary Command Council and the highest ranking member of Saddam’s regime to remain a fugitive. Demonstrating how Baathism and al-Qaeda interests sometimes inter-connect, Izzat Ibrahim declared, “What is happening in Iraq today, especially in its intelligence operations, and the government of puppets and its institutions, is the Persian-Safawi project in all its depth and comprehensiveness implemented by the Safawi coalition led by the Dawa Party and its leader Maliki.” The al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq, meanwhile, SITE Monitoring reported, released a statement on January 5 castigating “Those [who] are the true enemies of the Sunni people, and they didn’t mobilize themselves except when the fire of the Safavid hatred reached them….”

The Safawi (in Arabic) or Safavids (as often transcribed into English from Persian) were the 16th century dynasty which converted Iran to Shi’ism. Reference to the Iraqi Shi’ites as Safavids is common practice among those who want to castigate all Shi’ites as Iranian fifth columnists. Topping off recent events, former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, an ex-Baathist himself, has called for early elections in Iraq.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should call his bluff. The time is right for early elections. President Jalal Talabani’s stroke—he is brain dead and dependent on life support according to doctors who have seen him in Germany, although Kurdish politicians will deny this publicly until they get their house in order—has thrown a wrench into already chaotic Iraqi politics.

Allawi and many of his supporters remain bitter that although his party came in first in the 2009 elections he was unable to stitch together a coalition. Allawi has spread a lot of money—much of it from unclear origins—along K Street and is the unabashed favorite of the U.S. military, Central Intelligence Agency, Jordanians and Turks. Spending money on lobbyists and media abroad, however, may win hearts and minds in Washington, London, and Ankara, but does not do much for ordinary Iraqis. The majority of Iraqis—perhaps 65 or 70 percent now—are Shi’ites and while they may not all care for Maliki, they utterly reject neo-Baathism or their own subordination to sectarian Sunni parties. Until the good men and women of Al-Anbar and Tikrit recognize that they will never have the numbers to restore their domination of Iraq, they will never accept freely-elected governments. Rather than convince them of the need to integrate into Iraqi society, General David Petraeus’s policies of co-option and appeasement may have achieved his short-term military goals, but politically, they increased the Fallujans and Tikritis sense of entitlement and promised a reckoning down the road.

For all that his opponents unfairly depict him as an authoritarian dictator, the incredibly close 2009 elections, meanwhile, continue to paralyze Iraqi politics. The only way through the impasse will be to hold parliamentary elections alongside the provincial elections already scheduled for April 2013. While Iraq will have to overcome Kurdish reticence to hold elections (Iraqi Kurdistan has yet to hold the 2009 provincial elections, let alone prepare for the 2013 round), the results will probably be good for everyone. Not only will they confirm the hemorrhaging of Muqtada al-Sadr’s grassroots support as his followers conclude that he is a shameful opportunist willing to sacrifice their interests to those of Masud Barzani and former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, but Ayad Allawi will also likely see that he is not as popular as his foreign paymasters whisper in his ear. Most importantly, those who wish to return to the dark days of Saddam or, alternately, transform Iraq into a safe-haven for al-Qaeda will learn that the Iraqi people have had enough war and enough violence and would like the opportunity to rebuild, be it in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Ramadi, or Tuz Khurmatu.

It is the nature of Iraqi politics to call whoever is in power an “authoritarian” and warn ominously that he wishes to be a “new Saddam.” Especially if their words were true, then there is no better call than to demand the prime minister submit himself to free and fair elections as well. Let us hope that April 2013 will mark a new beginning in Iraq, as Iraqis again head to the polls observed by teams from the United States, Iran, Turkey, the Arab League, among others.

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Chuck Hagel and Afghanistan

Much of the controversy over the nomination of Chuck Hagel has focused on his views on Israel and Iran. I’m more worried, at least in the short term, about his views on Afghanistan.

When it comes to making policy vis-à-vis Israel and Iran, Hagel will be only one voice among many in the administration’s top-level “principals” meetings. Those are not primarily defense issues. But the war in Afghanistan is a matter where the secretary of defense has a disproportionate voice.

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Much of the controversy over the nomination of Chuck Hagel has focused on his views on Israel and Iran. I’m more worried, at least in the short term, about his views on Afghanistan.

When it comes to making policy vis-à-vis Israel and Iran, Hagel will be only one voice among many in the administration’s top-level “principals” meetings. Those are not primarily defense issues. But the war in Afghanistan is a matter where the secretary of defense has a disproportionate voice.

The fact that President Obama launched a surge in 2009 is probably due, in no small measure, to the influence of Secretary of Defense Bob Gates who, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, backed up General Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops. Even so, Obama was so reluctant that he added a time limit onto the surge and sent fewer troops than McChrystal had requested. But odds are he would have done a lot less were it not for the support that Gates provided for his commander’s request.

Today we are facing another troop debate over Afghanistan: How quickly will we remove the 66,000 troops there now and what size residual force will we leave behind after 2014? If news reports are accurate, General John Allen, the top commander in Kabul, is pushing to retain as many forces as possible into 2014 and then to keep as many as 20,000 troops after 2014. But the White House–read: the president–is clearly uncomfortable with leaving that many troops behind and has pushed for lower estimates from the Pentagon. Anyone want to bet what advice Secretary of Defense Hagel would provide to President Obama about the speed and extent of a drawdown?

In this regard it is instructive to read news accounts such as this one, which report: “The choice of Mr. Hagel, the first Vietnam veteran to be nominated for the post, would add a prominent Republican to Mr. Obama’s cabinet, providing some political cover for the president’s plans to exit Afghanistan and make cuts to a military budget that has roughly doubled since the 2001 terrorist attacks.” It is instructive also to read editorials such as this one in the New York Times, which advocates bringing all the troops home this year and leaving no force in 2013 much less after 2014. That is where the president’s most liberal supports are at the moment on the war that they once argued was the “good war,” the “necessary war,” unlike the “war of choice” in Iraq.

Is it where the president is? I doubt that Obama will try to bring all the troops home this year, but he may very well bring them all home by the end of 2014, or at the very least leave behind a tiny, ineffectual residual force after 2014. A centrist secretary of defense who endorsed the views of his generals might very well try to argue Obama out of such a position. Odds are that Hagel wouldn’t. With his own record of service as an non-commissioned officer in Vietnam (it may be relevant to note that many NCOs have a low opinion of commissioned officers, especially those with lots of stars on their shoulders), Hagel might very well discount the advice of the officers who know Afghanistan best and instead opt for the position that the White House favors. That could very well be the reason why Hagel is being picked in the first place. If I were an Afghan who cared about the future of his or her country, I would be very worried right now.

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NJDC Evolves on Hagel

The National Jewish Democratic Council has been notably quiet on the defense secretary nomination debate so far. Now that it’s clear Chuck Hagel’s the choice, the group finally issued this quasi-endorsement today:

“President Barack Obama’s unprecedented pro-Israel credentials are unquestionable, and setting policy starts and stops with the President. While we have expressed concerns in the past, we trust that when confirmed, former Senator Chuck Hagel will follow the President’s lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel—on strategic cooperation, missile defense programs, and leading the world against Iran’s nuclear program.” 

The NJDC is in an awkward position, considering Hagel’s anti-Israel history, which was adeptly summarized in an opposition research document published by one Democratic group in 2007: 

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The National Jewish Democratic Council has been notably quiet on the defense secretary nomination debate so far. Now that it’s clear Chuck Hagel’s the choice, the group finally issued this quasi-endorsement today:

“President Barack Obama’s unprecedented pro-Israel credentials are unquestionable, and setting policy starts and stops with the President. While we have expressed concerns in the past, we trust that when confirmed, former Senator Chuck Hagel will follow the President’s lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel—on strategic cooperation, missile defense programs, and leading the world against Iran’s nuclear program.” 

The NJDC is in an awkward position, considering Hagel’s anti-Israel history, which was adeptly summarized in an opposition research document published by one Democratic group in 2007: 

As Senator Hagel sits around for six more months and tries to decide whether to launch a futile bid for the White House, he has a lot of questions to answer about his commitment to Israel.  Consider this:

- In August 2006, Hagel was one of only 12 Senators who refused to write the EU asking them to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

- In October 2000, Hagel was one of only 4 Senators who refused to sign a Senate letter in support of Israel.

- In November 2001, Hagel was one of only 11 Senators who refsued to sign a letter urging President Bush not to meet with the late Yassir Arafat until his forces ended the violence against Israel.

- In December 2005, Hagel  was one of only 27 who refused to sign a letter to President Bush to pressure the Palestinian Authroity to ban terrorist groups from participating in Palestinian legislative elections. 

- In June 2004, Hagel refused to sign a letter urging President Bush to highlight Iran’s nuclear program at the G-8 summit.

That Democratic group was, of course, the NJDC.

While the organization said Hagel had “a lot of questions to answer about his commitment to Israel” in 2007, it was markedly less inquisitive two years later when he was appointed to President Obama’s intelligence advisory board. According to the NJDC, the appointment was fine, as long as Hagel wasn’t helping shape policy.

“If [Hagel] was taking a policy role, we’d have real concerns,” said former NJDC head Ira Forman.

Based on the group’s half-hearted endorsement of Hagel’s defense secretary nomination, apparently not. Which proves once again that allegiance to Obama overrides any principles the NJDC claims to have. Is there any better example of why not to listen to this group the next time it tries to argue Obama is the most pro-Israel president in the history of mankind? 

This–not organizations like the Emergency Committee for Israel that criticize anti-Israel Democrats–is why support for the Jewish state may tragically become a partisan issue. With one simple decision, Obama has demolished any pro-Israel credibility the NJDC may have had left. Pro-Israel Democrats who stuck their necks out for him during his reelection should take note: This is the grief you get in return.

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Is Hagel Obama’s Cover for Iran War?

Pro-Israel Democrats are in a difficult spot this morning as President Obama prepares to nominate one of the least friendly members of the United States Senate in the last generation to the post of secretary of defense. Hagel’s comments about his antagonism toward the “Jewish lobby,” his votes against sanctions on Iran and Syria and his refusal to condemn anti-Semitism are a matter of record and make difficult reading for those who spent the last year working hard to persuade pro-Israel and Jewish voters that President Obama could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel and to take action on the Iranian nuclear threat. At the very least, Hagel’s nomination complicates the narrative in which administration supporters claimed the president was prepared to go to the mat to stop Iran.

That’s why many Democrats as well as Republicans are casting doubt on the ability of the White House to ensure his confirmation. But some resourceful souls have been floating a counter-intuitive argument in order to smooth the way for what looks to be brutal fight in the Senate. According to this scenario, appointing Hagel actually is a signal that Obama is serious about taking on Iran. Choosing an open opponent of not only the use of force against Iran but also sanctions would, we are told, give the president cover when he is ready to go to war on Iran and silence any criticism from the left while also showing the world that America is united behind the president’s policies.

While those attempting to put forward such an idea deserve credit for both chutzpah and creativity, this is utter nonsense. It flies against not only logic but also everything we know about how the president operates. Far from providing a warning to Iran that America is prepared to take action against them, it is a neon sign proclaiming that, at best, the cabinet will be divided on what to do after the next round of no-hope negotiations fail. At worst, it will make it obvious what many have already long suspected: that President Obama has no intention of keeping his promise to stop Iran and to not consider containment as a viable option.

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Pro-Israel Democrats are in a difficult spot this morning as President Obama prepares to nominate one of the least friendly members of the United States Senate in the last generation to the post of secretary of defense. Hagel’s comments about his antagonism toward the “Jewish lobby,” his votes against sanctions on Iran and Syria and his refusal to condemn anti-Semitism are a matter of record and make difficult reading for those who spent the last year working hard to persuade pro-Israel and Jewish voters that President Obama could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel and to take action on the Iranian nuclear threat. At the very least, Hagel’s nomination complicates the narrative in which administration supporters claimed the president was prepared to go to the mat to stop Iran.

That’s why many Democrats as well as Republicans are casting doubt on the ability of the White House to ensure his confirmation. But some resourceful souls have been floating a counter-intuitive argument in order to smooth the way for what looks to be brutal fight in the Senate. According to this scenario, appointing Hagel actually is a signal that Obama is serious about taking on Iran. Choosing an open opponent of not only the use of force against Iran but also sanctions would, we are told, give the president cover when he is ready to go to war on Iran and silence any criticism from the left while also showing the world that America is united behind the president’s policies.

While those attempting to put forward such an idea deserve credit for both chutzpah and creativity, this is utter nonsense. It flies against not only logic but also everything we know about how the president operates. Far from providing a warning to Iran that America is prepared to take action against them, it is a neon sign proclaiming that, at best, the cabinet will be divided on what to do after the next round of no-hope negotiations fail. At worst, it will make it obvious what many have already long suspected: that President Obama has no intention of keeping his promise to stop Iran and to not consider containment as a viable option.

For all of the talk about the Hagel nomination being evidence of bipartisanship, it is actually yet another example of the main theme of the Obama presidency. Though nominally a Republican, this is, after all, a Republican who endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008 as well as 2012 and has few ties left with the party that elected him to the Senate. More to the point, for good or for ill, this has been an administration in which open conflicts between cabinet secretaries has been rare. Far from encouraging independent thinking or diverse agendas, the White House has maintained a united front on big issues. So the notion that Obama is appointing someone to be the top defense and security official in the nation who has a markedly different view on Iran from his own core beliefs seems a stretch at best.

As for the idea that Obama is worried about criticism from the left should he decide to strike Iran, that is also ridiculous. As much as many liberals have expressed frustration with what they think is his weak stance toward the Republicans (at least they did before he hosed them in the fiscal cliff talks) and grumbled quietly about counter-terror policies that bear a striking resemblance to those of George W. Bush that he campaigned against, the left has done nothing to hinder this president. Should he decide on action against Iran, only the hard left would oppose him. Chuck Hagel neither enhances nor detracts from his ability to rally the nation behind any aggressive policy aimed at forestalling the Iranian threat.

The truth is far more obvious. President Obama is choosing Hagel not because he provides a dissenting view on Iran or Israel but because his views are entirely compatible with those of his future boss. The appointment is a signal to Iran that there is a senior U.S. cabinet secretary that isn’t interested in opposing them and to Israel that they may well be on their own.

That’s a tough pill for Obama’s pro-Israel supporters to swallow, but it is far closer to the truth than any scenario in which Hagel’s elevation is spun as anything but what it is: an indication of the president’s inconstancy on both Israel and Iran.

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Secrecy, National Security, and the Case of John Kiriakou

Scott Shane of the New York Times has written a long and somewhat awkward article about the indictment, plea bargain, and federal prison sentencing of former CIA officer John Kiriakou. Long, because the story is complicated, and Shane must recount about a decade’s worth of national security history and policy to get us from A to Z. Awkward, because Shane is a prominent element in the federal indictment against Kiriakou.

At the heart of this case is information Kiriakou provided to Shane for a story, and to another reporter for a second story. We often see such stories play out through a drama in which reporters protect their sources and risk jail time to do so. But in this case, Shane could not protect Kiriakou, nor was it at all clear that Kiriakou would have needed such protection. Kiriakou became a minor media star in 2007 when he spoke out about the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding. Kiriakou defended the decision to waterboard in 2002 (“I think the second-guessing of 2002 decisions is unfair,” he told Shane) but was against the practice going forward. Shane asked Kiriakou about another CIA officer. Kiriakou said he knew the officer, and that the two had worked together in pursuit of Abu Zubaydah. The officer never agreed to talk to Shane, and had never been undercover. But Kiriakou’s email to Shane turned up in the indictment against him for revealing the identity of an agent.

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Scott Shane of the New York Times has written a long and somewhat awkward article about the indictment, plea bargain, and federal prison sentencing of former CIA officer John Kiriakou. Long, because the story is complicated, and Shane must recount about a decade’s worth of national security history and policy to get us from A to Z. Awkward, because Shane is a prominent element in the federal indictment against Kiriakou.

At the heart of this case is information Kiriakou provided to Shane for a story, and to another reporter for a second story. We often see such stories play out through a drama in which reporters protect their sources and risk jail time to do so. But in this case, Shane could not protect Kiriakou, nor was it at all clear that Kiriakou would have needed such protection. Kiriakou became a minor media star in 2007 when he spoke out about the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding. Kiriakou defended the decision to waterboard in 2002 (“I think the second-guessing of 2002 decisions is unfair,” he told Shane) but was against the practice going forward. Shane asked Kiriakou about another CIA officer. Kiriakou said he knew the officer, and that the two had worked together in pursuit of Abu Zubaydah. The officer never agreed to talk to Shane, and had never been undercover. But Kiriakou’s email to Shane turned up in the indictment against him for revealing the identity of an agent.

Kiriakou is accused of revealing the name of that agent to Shane and one other agent to a different reporter. There are obvious questions here about the nature of the reporter-source relationship. Neither man in this case thought he was doing something unlawful or unethical. Nothing came of the disclosure. As Max wrote with regard to the scandal surrounding David Petraeus, some information remains officially classified or secret long after it has been revealed in the media. Thus, such information becomes common knowledge, yet discussing it is not decriminalized. The decision to investigate and prosecute such conversations, then, can smack of political motivation–all the more so for someone like Kiriakou, who became an uncommonly public figure for a CIA agent by leaving the agency and going public with his opinions about the CIA’s methods.

However, Shane remains an interested party here, with a clear preference for Kiriakou’s exoneration, both legally and personally, since Shane wants continued access to such sources and a clear conscience to do so. Thus, Shane’s readers will be subject to justifications and false choices that conveniently absolve him of guilt. In that vein, Shane writes on the Obama administration’s increased push for combating leaks it sees as unhelpful to the White House:

The resulting chill on officials’ willingness to talk is deplored by journalists and advocates of open government; without leaks, they note, Americans might never have learned about the C.I.A.’s interrogation methods or the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping. But for supporters of greater secrecy, the chill is precisely the goal.

This is, clearly, an overly simplistic view of the issue. First of all, not all leaks are created equal: some are legal and others break federal law. Second, some leaks are clearly damaging to national security, and thus put Americans in unnecessary danger. Some don’t. The press coverage of Washington is built around the use of leaks and unnamed sources, much of which is perfectly legal. The Times takes this practice to such an obsessive degree that reading the Times, one often expects to hear the week’s weather forecast followed by “according to an unnamed satellite who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he has not been authorized by the sun to discuss these matters.”

A good example of a damaging leak is the New York Times’s decision to publish in 2006 the details of a highly successful secret program used by the government to track the finances of terrorist activity. The program was legal and constitutional, but the Times saw an opportunity to damage the Bush administration’s national security efforts, and took it—safety of Americans be damned. Democrats and Republicans, experts and officials, pleaded with then-Times Executive Editor Bill Keller not to publish the story. Keller ignored them.

The point here is that neither the government nor the crusading journalist is always right. Rather, they both err in judgment or in law—and sometimes both. Shane asked a source for information that would land the source in a federal prison and nearly bankrupt his family, costing his wife her job as well. So the neat categories into which Shane seeks to divide the voices in this scandal are understandable, but that doesn’t make them any less mistaken or self-serving.

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Will Hagel Learn from Eisenhower’s Mistakes?

Many of Senator Chuck Hagel’s most vocal advocates like to compare Hagel to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like Eisenhower, Hagel views Israel through a realist prism and believes it would be in America’s interest to cultivate much closer ties to Arab states and the broader Muslim Middle East. There are 22 states in the Arab League (including Palestine and Syria, even if the latter is suspended), and that doesn’t include Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and the many non-Arab Muslim states who dislike Israel’s existence.

When Eisenhower entered office, he sought to rectify the damage—at least as he saw it—caused by President Harry S. Truman’s recognition of Israel. He immediately moved to cast his lot with Israel’s Arab opponents. In 1956, when France, the United Kingdom, and Israel responded militarily to Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, Eisenhower sided with Nasser and forced France, the United Kingdom, and Israel to terminate hostility and withdraw. Nasser’s “victory” in the Suez Crisis—the successful consolidation of Egyptian control over the Suez Canal—was the greatest victory Arab nationalists won. Nasser became a household name throughout the region. Arab nationalists got a burst of adrenalin, which they used to bring down the Iraqi monarchy, the Yemeni imamate, and the Libyan monarchy, replacing each with radical states. That might be all well and good to realists, so long as these Arab nationalist states paid heed to U.S. national security interests. Alas, that was not to be. Even though Eisenhower courted Nasser and gave him the greatest gift of his career, Nasser and his fellow-travelers turned their backs almost immediately on the United States. As David Verbeteen, then a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London, explains:

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Many of Senator Chuck Hagel’s most vocal advocates like to compare Hagel to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like Eisenhower, Hagel views Israel through a realist prism and believes it would be in America’s interest to cultivate much closer ties to Arab states and the broader Muslim Middle East. There are 22 states in the Arab League (including Palestine and Syria, even if the latter is suspended), and that doesn’t include Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and the many non-Arab Muslim states who dislike Israel’s existence.

When Eisenhower entered office, he sought to rectify the damage—at least as he saw it—caused by President Harry S. Truman’s recognition of Israel. He immediately moved to cast his lot with Israel’s Arab opponents. In 1956, when France, the United Kingdom, and Israel responded militarily to Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, Eisenhower sided with Nasser and forced France, the United Kingdom, and Israel to terminate hostility and withdraw. Nasser’s “victory” in the Suez Crisis—the successful consolidation of Egyptian control over the Suez Canal—was the greatest victory Arab nationalists won. Nasser became a household name throughout the region. Arab nationalists got a burst of adrenalin, which they used to bring down the Iraqi monarchy, the Yemeni imamate, and the Libyan monarchy, replacing each with radical states. That might be all well and good to realists, so long as these Arab nationalist states paid heed to U.S. national security interests. Alas, that was not to be. Even though Eisenhower courted Nasser and gave him the greatest gift of his career, Nasser and his fellow-travelers turned their backs almost immediately on the United States. As David Verbeteen, then a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London, explains:

The Eisenhower administration bent over backwards to avoid any policy that might vindicate the Arabs’ almost paranoid perception of U.S. favoritism toward Israel. Washington denied Israel arms and threatened the Jewish state with economic sanctions in 1953 because of its water crisis with Syria and its military reprisals in Sinai against Egyptian raids. The State Department expected Israel to make sweeping border adjustments in the framework of the Alpha and Gamma plans, which called for Israel to cede Negev territory in order to enable a land bridge between Egypt and Jordan. Further, the White House condemned Israel in 1956 for participating in the Anglo-French Suez campaign and forced it to retreat from the Sinai in 1957. Kenen’s objections to Eisenhower administration policies fell on deaf ears…

Why, then, did an exclusive U.S.-Arab alliance not solidify into a permanent fixture of U.S. policy? Simply put, reality intervened. Arab priorities were not those of Washington. While U.S. officials saw resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a precondition for a U.S.-Arab alliance against the Soviet Union, such a grouping was not to be. Arab leaders were unreliable and did not share the U.S. vision of international, let alone regional, security. Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad grew closer to Moscow. These Arab nationalist and revolutionary regimes sought to undermine pro-Western governments in Lebanon and Jordan. The Middle East operated—and continues to operate—according to internal dynamics that are not easily channeled by external forces. Inter-Arab rivalries surfaced.

By the end of Eisenhower’s term, even Eisenhower realists understood that the reason why Washington needed Jerusalem was simply because Israel was a much better ally. As would be demonstrated repeatedly through the remainder of the Cold War, the United States got as much if not more from its relationship with Israel as Israel got from its relationship with the United States.

Perhaps in his confirmation hearings, Hagel can explain why he thinks Eisenhower’s assumptions about the Middle East fell flat. Let us hope he is aware of the history. Nasser’s expansionism with radio propaganda and conventional arms posed a formidable challenge and, indeed, led to destabilizing wars in the region. More than half a century later, it is a potentially nuclear-capable Islamic Republic of Iran that Hagel seeks to appease. The question is whether U.S. national security can now afford to re-learn Eisenhower’s mistakes.

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Would Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge Survive Hagel?

In 2008, William Wunderle and Andre Briere, political military planners in the Joint Strategic Plans and Policy (J-5) Directorate of the Joint Staff, penned a piece for the Middle East Quarterly looking at the notion of Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME). Every president since Lyndon Johnson has noted the importance of maintaining Israel’s QME. The logic was simple: Israel would be outnumbered in both men in uniform and hardware by its neighbors: The Arab League contains moire than 400 million people; Israel tops out at less than 8 million. The 2012 Democratic Party Platform paid lip service to the QME, noting, “The administration has also worked to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. And we have deepened defense cooperation—including funding the Iron Dome system—to help Israel address its most pressing threats, including the growing danger posed by rockets and missiles emanating from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.”

In their article, Wunderle and Briere describe how the Pentagon calculates the QME and they make a persuasive case that, from time to time, the United States must recalibrate and readjust the notion of QME to take events into account. This will certainly be the case with the next QME. No longer can Israel (and American policymakers) assume the vitality of the Camp David Accords or that a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egypt would not pose a military threat to Israel. Jordan’s stability can no longer be taken for granted. This year could very well be the year the Arab Spring strikes down its first Arab monarch. Likewise, the QME cannot simply be an Arab-vs.-Israel calculation because when it comes to Iran, Israel finds itself on the same side as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.

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In 2008, William Wunderle and Andre Briere, political military planners in the Joint Strategic Plans and Policy (J-5) Directorate of the Joint Staff, penned a piece for the Middle East Quarterly looking at the notion of Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME). Every president since Lyndon Johnson has noted the importance of maintaining Israel’s QME. The logic was simple: Israel would be outnumbered in both men in uniform and hardware by its neighbors: The Arab League contains moire than 400 million people; Israel tops out at less than 8 million. The 2012 Democratic Party Platform paid lip service to the QME, noting, “The administration has also worked to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. And we have deepened defense cooperation—including funding the Iron Dome system—to help Israel address its most pressing threats, including the growing danger posed by rockets and missiles emanating from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.”

In their article, Wunderle and Briere describe how the Pentagon calculates the QME and they make a persuasive case that, from time to time, the United States must recalibrate and readjust the notion of QME to take events into account. This will certainly be the case with the next QME. No longer can Israel (and American policymakers) assume the vitality of the Camp David Accords or that a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egypt would not pose a military threat to Israel. Jordan’s stability can no longer be taken for granted. This year could very well be the year the Arab Spring strikes down its first Arab monarch. Likewise, the QME cannot simply be an Arab-vs.-Israel calculation because when it comes to Iran, Israel finds itself on the same side as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.

Hagel has always worn his philosophy on his sleeve, but as a senator, he has never needed to really delve into the details. He was for the Iraq war before he was against it: It was a lot easier for the populist senator to pull the rug out from under the troops on America’s frontline than partake in the far harder task of crafting a strategy to win. Likewise, it is easy to propose unconditional talks with Iran; it is far more difficult to discuss the metrics by which Hagel would judge those talks or detail redlines if, indeed, he feels the United States should subscribe to any.

When it comes to Israel’s QME, perhaps one of the first questions the Senate should ask their former colleague is whether he believes that maintaining Israel’s QME continues to have a place in America’s national security, how recent events should mandate that QME be calculated, what cost is acceptable to maintain the QME, and what changes, if any, he would like to see made to it. He might also be asked to speculate the cost of maintaining the QME versus the cost of Israel losing it, assuming Hagel saw it as an American national interest to defend an ally facing an existential threat (much as we did in 1990 when, to protect Saudi Arabia and liberate Kuwait, the United States went to war in the Middle East).

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Iran Gets the Message on Hagel

If there were any lingering doubts about how Obama really feels about Israel “in his kishkes,” the coming nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary has sufficiently put them to rest.

But that doesn’t mean we’ll hear apologies from all the pro-Israel Democrats who vouched for him before reelection. The most entrenched Jewish Obama defenders, the ones who sunk too much of their credibility into him to turn back, will now set to work trying to justify Hagel.

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If there were any lingering doubts about how Obama really feels about Israel “in his kishkes,” the coming nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary has sufficiently put them to rest.

But that doesn’t mean we’ll hear apologies from all the pro-Israel Democrats who vouched for him before reelection. The most entrenched Jewish Obama defenders, the ones who sunk too much of their credibility into him to turn back, will now set to work trying to justify Hagel.

As Jonathan wrote, we’ll probably hear how Hagel’s views have “evolved” and “don’t matter anyway,” because Obama sets the policies. That’s nonsense. Just about the only thing notable about Hagel’s decades-long record is that, when given a choice between totalitarian regimes and democrats, time and time again he has sided with the former. And if Obama just wanted a lackey, he had plenty of more qualified choices who would have breezed through confirmation. There is only one reason, one possible advantage, of choosing a fight over Hagel. And that’s to send a message to Israel and Iran.

It’s a message Iran has apparently received loud and clear, according to its state-owned Press TV (h/t WFB):

Obama to name anti-Israeli Hagel as Defense Secretary: Reports

All signs indicate that US President Barack Obama is poised to nominate anti-Israel ex-Senator Chuck Hagel as the next defense secretary soon, informed sources say. …

The top nominee for the post of defense secretary was the first Republican senator to publicly criticize the war in Iraq, calling it the worst foreign policy blunder since the Vietnam War, and he has consistently opposed any plan to launch military strike against Iran.

Pundits believe the appointment of Hagel could spark tensions between Washington and Tel Aviv, but they predict no considerable trouble in his confirmation process in the Congress as he enjoys bipartisan support. 

For whatever reason, Obama wants a defense secretary who the Iranian regime views as “anti-Israel” and anti-military force. Maybe he thinks it will help bring Iran to the negotiating table, or push the Israeli military to try to deal with the problem unilaterally. But it’s clear Obama never really gave up on his desire to reach out to the genocidal butchers in Tehran. He just put it off until he had more flexibility.

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The Intellectual Evolution of George Will

In an elegant and erudite speech (see here and here) at Washington University on December 4, 2012, the conservative columnist George Will, in speaking about America’s political philosophy, said this:

And these [natural] rights are the foundation of limited government – government defined by the limited goal of securing those rights so that individuals may flourish in their free and responsible exercise of those rights.

A government thus limited is not in the business of imposing its opinions about what happiness or excellence the citizens should choose to pursue. Having such opinions is the business of other institutions – private and voluntary ones, especially religious ones – that supply the conditions for liberty.

Will went on to postulate this:

A nation such as ours, steeped in and shaped by Biblical religion, cannot comfortably accommodate a politics that takes its bearings from the proposition that human nature is a malleable product of social forces, and that improving human nature, perhaps unto perfection, is a proper purpose of politics… Biblical religion should be wary of the consequences of government untethered from the limiting purpose of securing natural rights.

A conservative, equally elegant and erudite, offered quite a different understanding of things:

A purpose of politics is to facilitate, as much as is prudent, the existence of worthy passions and the achievement of worthy aims. It is to help persons want what they ought to want. Politics should share one purpose with religion: the steady emancipation of the individual through the education of his passion.

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In an elegant and erudite speech (see here and here) at Washington University on December 4, 2012, the conservative columnist George Will, in speaking about America’s political philosophy, said this:

And these [natural] rights are the foundation of limited government – government defined by the limited goal of securing those rights so that individuals may flourish in their free and responsible exercise of those rights.

A government thus limited is not in the business of imposing its opinions about what happiness or excellence the citizens should choose to pursue. Having such opinions is the business of other institutions – private and voluntary ones, especially religious ones – that supply the conditions for liberty.

Will went on to postulate this:

A nation such as ours, steeped in and shaped by Biblical religion, cannot comfortably accommodate a politics that takes its bearings from the proposition that human nature is a malleable product of social forces, and that improving human nature, perhaps unto perfection, is a proper purpose of politics… Biblical religion should be wary of the consequences of government untethered from the limiting purpose of securing natural rights.

A conservative, equally elegant and erudite, offered quite a different understanding of things:

A purpose of politics is to facilitate, as much as is prudent, the existence of worthy passions and the achievement of worthy aims. It is to help persons want what they ought to want. Politics should share one purpose with religion: the steady emancipation of the individual through the education of his passion.

This conservative went on to say this:

we need a public philosophy that can rectify the current imbalance between the political order’s meticulous concern for material well-being and its fastidious withdrawal from concern for the inner lives and moral character of citizens… we must rethink today’s constricted notion of the legitimate uses of law.

And this:

The institutions that once were most directly responsible for tempering individualism – family, church, voluntary associations, town governments – with collective concerns have come to seem more peripheral. Using government discriminatingly but energetically to strengthen these institutions is part of the natural program of conservatives… If conservatives do not want to use government power in behalf of their values, why do they waste their time running for office? Have they no value other than hostility to government? … National character is a real thing, molded in part by law and politics, and it is not made of marble.

The conservative who said these words was also George Will. He wrote them in 1983, in a book titled Statecraft As Soulcraft: What Government Does.  

My point in juxtaposing George Will then v. George Will now is not to be critical of him. In fact, I admire Will. His writings, especially Statecraft As Soulcraft, had a significant shaping influence on me and on several of my closest friends and colleagues. And the fact that Will’s views have changed over the years may reflect well, not poorly, on him, demonstrating a mind that is open to a new interpretation of things.

What I do hope is that before too long, Mr. Will does what I don’t think he has done, which is to help us understand his journey from what he called “strong government conservatism” to a much more libertarian view of things.

I will admit that my own intellectual sympathies are more with the early Will than the current one. Over the years our laws–on civil rights, drug use, smoking, crime and incarceration, welfare, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, genocide, apartheid, the size of government, and much else–have helped shape the dispositions and habits of the polity. “Much legislation is moral legislation because it conditions the action and the thought of the nation in broad and important spheres in life,” Will wrote 30 years ago. He argued that desegregation explicitly and successfully changed individuals’ moral beliefs by compelling them to change their behavior. “The theory was that if government compelled people to eat and work and study and play together, government would improve the inner lives of those people.” Perhaps a new book or speech by Will, on why statecraft should not be soulcraft, will cause me to reexamine things. 

But whether it would or not, I hope Will–one of modern conservatism’s most significant and exceptional conservative writers and thinkers–directly addresses his intellectual evolution. I for one would be fascinated to know why Will today holds views philosophically at odds with Will circa 1983. And I imagine others would as well.

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