Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 10, 2013

Obama Needs to Warn Abbas on Terror

Mahmoud Abbas celebrated the start of the ninth year of his four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority in Cairo today by attending a summit with the leader of the rival Hamas group. Abbas was summoned to the meeting due to pressure from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who is expected to help pressure Gulf nations to donate money to the perpetually bankrupt PA. The Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt has long sought to promote the idea of Palestinian unity, something that would strengthen the position of their Hamas allies. This worries Abbas, who also remains the head of the hopelessly incompetent and corrupt Fatah movement that runs the PA. But while there is little likelihood that this latest conclave between the two groups will lead to an actual merger and power sharing in the West Bank and Gaza, the signs are clear that they are moving closer to each other in other ways.

That was made plain by another and perhaps more significant event today. The Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade is the terrorist wing of Fatah and was responsible for many terrorist attacks on Israelis during the second intifada. It hasn’t been heard from much in recent years as Abbas played the moderate to the applause of Americans and left-wing Israelis. But the march by armed fighters belonging to the group in a refugee camp near Nablus was an ominous warning that the reports filtering out of the West Bank about plans for a third intifada by the PA may be more than rumors. This gives the lie to the claims made by both the Obama administration and Israeli President Shimon Peres on behalf of Abbas’s bona fides as a peacemaker. This is something the Obama administration ought to take into consideration before they launch another attempt to pressure Israel into concessions to jump-start peace talks.

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Mahmoud Abbas celebrated the start of the ninth year of his four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority in Cairo today by attending a summit with the leader of the rival Hamas group. Abbas was summoned to the meeting due to pressure from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who is expected to help pressure Gulf nations to donate money to the perpetually bankrupt PA. The Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt has long sought to promote the idea of Palestinian unity, something that would strengthen the position of their Hamas allies. This worries Abbas, who also remains the head of the hopelessly incompetent and corrupt Fatah movement that runs the PA. But while there is little likelihood that this latest conclave between the two groups will lead to an actual merger and power sharing in the West Bank and Gaza, the signs are clear that they are moving closer to each other in other ways.

That was made plain by another and perhaps more significant event today. The Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade is the terrorist wing of Fatah and was responsible for many terrorist attacks on Israelis during the second intifada. It hasn’t been heard from much in recent years as Abbas played the moderate to the applause of Americans and left-wing Israelis. But the march by armed fighters belonging to the group in a refugee camp near Nablus was an ominous warning that the reports filtering out of the West Bank about plans for a third intifada by the PA may be more than rumors. This gives the lie to the claims made by both the Obama administration and Israeli President Shimon Peres on behalf of Abbas’s bona fides as a peacemaker. This is something the Obama administration ought to take into consideration before they launch another attempt to pressure Israel into concessions to jump-start peace talks.

For four years, Abbas has done everything possible to avoid having to return to the negotiating table with Israel. Despite the best efforts of President Obama to tip the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ favor, Abbas wouldn’t deal with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu even after he froze settlement building and pledged to support a two-state solution. He compounded that by doing an end run around U.S.-sponsored talks and getting the United Nations to upgrade the PA’s observer status at the world body.

The possibility of another Middle East initiative from Obama may worry friends of Israel. But it is also a concern to Abbas, who will do anything to avoid being put in the position of having to turn down peace and statehood as he did in 2008 and his predecessor Yasir Arafat did in 2000 and 2001.

The Palestinians may be thinking that they can generate more sympathy for themselves and pressure on Israel by reverting to violence than by returning to the negotiating table that they have spurned for the last four years. That may cause some Americans to redouble their efforts to pressure Netanyahu in a futile effort to appease the Palestinians, but doing so would miss the point of Fatah’s return to its terrorist origins. Abbas won’t make peace, not just because he’s weak and his followers don’t want to end the conflict. If he’s showing signs of unleashing the Al Aksa killers again it is because that is the best and perhaps only way for Fatah to compete with Hamas for the affections of West Bank Arabs. In the upside-down world of Palestinian politics, violence against Jews, rather than efforts to improve the lives of the people, remains the ticket to popularity. If a Fatah-Hamas merger is ever to take place, it will mean a contest between the two, and the only way for Abbas’s faction to hold its own is to unleash another intifada.

President Obama ought to be reacting to these developments by making it clear to Abbas that he will lose the support of the United States as well as his European donors if he fails to talk to Israel or if he gives the green light to the Al Aksa Martyrs to start shooting. If, instead of that sensible course, he concentrates his fire on the Netanyahu government, an opportunity to stop another round of bloodshed may be lost.

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Biden to Present Gun Control Proposals Tuesday

The White House isn’t wasting any time on the gun control debate. After meeting with gun-rights advocates today, CBS News reports that Joe Biden will present his gun control proposals to President Obama as soon as Tuesday:

After consulting with a series of stakeholders in the ongoing debate over gun control, Vice President Joe Biden will present his recommendations for reducing gun-related violence in America to President Obama on Tuesday, he said today.

The vice president, speaking to reporters before a meeting on gun violence with sportsmen and women, and just minutes before another school shooting was reported, outlined a series of the recommendations he said are emerging in the course of his conversations with various stakeholders in the conversation. Among those possible proposals include universal background checks, restrictions on high-capacity magazines, and increased federal capabilities for effectively researching gun violence. Biden also stressed ongoing discussions about the importance of including the mental health community in the conversation.

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The White House isn’t wasting any time on the gun control debate. After meeting with gun-rights advocates today, CBS News reports that Joe Biden will present his gun control proposals to President Obama as soon as Tuesday:

After consulting with a series of stakeholders in the ongoing debate over gun control, Vice President Joe Biden will present his recommendations for reducing gun-related violence in America to President Obama on Tuesday, he said today.

The vice president, speaking to reporters before a meeting on gun violence with sportsmen and women, and just minutes before another school shooting was reported, outlined a series of the recommendations he said are emerging in the course of his conversations with various stakeholders in the conversation. Among those possible proposals include universal background checks, restrictions on high-capacity magazines, and increased federal capabilities for effectively researching gun violence. Biden also stressed ongoing discussions about the importance of including the mental health community in the conversation.

Increasing federal capabilities for “researching gun violence” sounds about as effective as Obama’s Atrocities Prevention Board. A task force will be convened, funding will be allocated, reports will be written, and that will probably be the end of it. But it will give the appearance that the government is doing something, and it probably won’t get much opposition from the gun lobby.

A ban on high-capacity magazines will get pushback. The problem here is that the definition of high-capacity can be subjective, and apparently there are easy ways of getting around this type of ban. As for more rigorous background checks, it’s irrelevant to the Sandy Hook shooting, since Adam Lanza stole the weapon from his mother. However, it may have made a difference in the Tucson shooting, since Jared Lee Loughner appeared to show signs of mental illness before the attack. The question is, where do you draw the line? Loughner was behaving erratically at school and work, but he was never declared mentally ill by a court, nor did he undergo a psychiatric exam before the shooting. Gun control advocates may try to push for mental health reviews in the background check, but that sounds like it could raise constitutional issues.

Allahpundit also writes that this would be a tough policy to get past House Republicans:

Background checks, in particular, enjoy massive support, with one recent poll showing 92% in favor of requiring them at gun shows and a CNN poll taken last year finding 94% support for checks on all potential gun buyers.  That’d be a very tough vote for congressional Republicans and of course Biden knows it, which is why he’s talking it up today. If you can’t get your policies passed, you might as well use them as a way to make the opposition squirm. 

More evidence that the White House primarily views the gun control debate as a way to score political points, and is looking to make things as difficult for Republicans as possible.

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Barack Obama, Man on a Liberal Mission

In a recent column, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote, “Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.”

Brooks is on the mark with his analysis, and I’d add several things to it.

1. It’s quite telling that the one agency that the president wants to slash is the one that (a) is operating best and has garnered the most trust from the public and (b) is the area in which the federal government’s role is the most explicit and appropriate.

For those who still wonder whether Mr. Obama is at heart a pragmatist or a liberal ideologue, it’s worth pointing out that Obama has shown zero interest in cutting spending in non-defense related areas. In fact, during his presidency non-defense spending has skyrocketed. Mr. Obama has no desire to pare back the welfare state; his goal is to expand it beyond anything we’ve ever seen. Except when it comes to national defense. There he can barely contain his budget cutting ways.

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In a recent column, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote, “Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.”

Brooks is on the mark with his analysis, and I’d add several things to it.

1. It’s quite telling that the one agency that the president wants to slash is the one that (a) is operating best and has garnered the most trust from the public and (b) is the area in which the federal government’s role is the most explicit and appropriate.

For those who still wonder whether Mr. Obama is at heart a pragmatist or a liberal ideologue, it’s worth pointing out that Obama has shown zero interest in cutting spending in non-defense related areas. In fact, during his presidency non-defense spending has skyrocketed. Mr. Obama has no desire to pare back the welfare state; his goal is to expand it beyond anything we’ve ever seen. Except when it comes to national defense. There he can barely contain his budget cutting ways.

2. I suspect we’ll end up paying a very high cost for what Obama is doing in the whole area of national security, from massive cuts in defense, to losing the Afghanistan war (and our premature exiting from Iraq), to events increasingly spinning out of control in the Middle East and beyond.

Barack Obama wants America to be weaker than it is and to play a secondary role in world affairs. He set out his reasons why in the first months of his first term, when he seemed to relish the chance to express his pent-up criticisms of America, most especially when he was on foreign soil. 

That’s not surprising, since Obama’s view on these matters, as on so many matters, were shaped on the campuses of elite, liberal universities, where veneration for America is as rare as hostility toward Israel is rampant. (The two are not disconnected.)

3. What we’re seeing in the president’s stance toward national defense is emblematic of something else: the second-term liberation of Barack Obama. By now it’s obvious that rhetorically positioning himself as a moderate and a pragmatist were (and remain) affectations for Obama. He is a committed progressive, and he’s attempting to alter America as fundamentally in a liberal direction as Ronald Reagan did in a conservative direction.

Barack Obama is a man on a mission. His goal, which he stated shortly before the 2008 election, is to transform America. He’s succeeding. He’s now unconstrained by future elections. And when he finally gets done, there will be enormous damage to undo.

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Iran Cyber Attacks Belie Nuke Complacence

As the Obama administration and its European allies prepare to embark on yet another drawn-out and almost certainly futile round of diplomacy with Iran, the lack of a sense of urgency about the nuclear threat is once again obvious. The belief that more negotiations or sanctions can convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambition seems to be rooted in the idea that the West has virtually unlimited time to deal with the problem. That’s why so many in the chattering classes mocked Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu when he famously drew a red line across a cartoon bomb when speaking at the United Nations. Some in the foreign policy establishment seem to think Israeli fears about Iran are overblown or merely a ploy by its right-wing government. But it is also rooted in a degree of complacency about Iran’s capabilities. That complacency seemed to underline the optimism about the ability of the Stuxnet virus that was reportedly unleashed on Iran by the U.S. and/or Israel last year even though it was soon apparent that it had only a temporary affect on their nuclear project.

Western overconfidence about Iran’s capabilities should have been shelved after that, as well as the wave of cyber attacks believed to have originated in Iran that crippled computers in the Saudi Arabian oil industry as well as some American financial institutions last fall. The fallout from those attacks led outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to say that the U.S. was vulnerable to a “cyber Pearl Harbor” but in case no one was paying attention, it appears the Iranians have struck again. This time the targets were American banks, and American security experts were clear that the culprit was Iran.

That the Iranians—who are the world’s leading sponsor of terrorist groups—would wish to harm the United States is not a secret. But what seems to surprise some observers is the skill and sophistication that is evident in this cyber offensive. According to the New York Times, the nature of these attacks dwarf what the Russians did to Estonia in 2007 when it attempted to take down its Baltic neighbor’s economy. While the cyber attacks are troubling in and of themselves, they also ought to expose the idea that the Iranians are years away from a bomb as the sort of hopeless optimism that ought not influence the debate about whether to forestall the threat.

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As the Obama administration and its European allies prepare to embark on yet another drawn-out and almost certainly futile round of diplomacy with Iran, the lack of a sense of urgency about the nuclear threat is once again obvious. The belief that more negotiations or sanctions can convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambition seems to be rooted in the idea that the West has virtually unlimited time to deal with the problem. That’s why so many in the chattering classes mocked Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu when he famously drew a red line across a cartoon bomb when speaking at the United Nations. Some in the foreign policy establishment seem to think Israeli fears about Iran are overblown or merely a ploy by its right-wing government. But it is also rooted in a degree of complacency about Iran’s capabilities. That complacency seemed to underline the optimism about the ability of the Stuxnet virus that was reportedly unleashed on Iran by the U.S. and/or Israel last year even though it was soon apparent that it had only a temporary affect on their nuclear project.

Western overconfidence about Iran’s capabilities should have been shelved after that, as well as the wave of cyber attacks believed to have originated in Iran that crippled computers in the Saudi Arabian oil industry as well as some American financial institutions last fall. The fallout from those attacks led outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to say that the U.S. was vulnerable to a “cyber Pearl Harbor” but in case no one was paying attention, it appears the Iranians have struck again. This time the targets were American banks, and American security experts were clear that the culprit was Iran.

That the Iranians—who are the world’s leading sponsor of terrorist groups—would wish to harm the United States is not a secret. But what seems to surprise some observers is the skill and sophistication that is evident in this cyber offensive. According to the New York Times, the nature of these attacks dwarf what the Russians did to Estonia in 2007 when it attempted to take down its Baltic neighbor’s economy. While the cyber attacks are troubling in and of themselves, they also ought to expose the idea that the Iranians are years away from a bomb as the sort of hopeless optimism that ought not influence the debate about whether to forestall the threat.

While it can be argued that a cyber attack is not evidence of nuclear progress, it does undermine the notion that the Iranians are not advanced enough to do what needs to be done to quickly convert their enriched uranium into a weapon. Iran’s Islamist government has made a massive investment in its scientific resources that are dedicated to the nuclear program and are not unrelated to the advances they have clearly made in cyber warfare. The point is that any nation that can pull off a stunt like the recent attacks on American banks is probably also fully capable of doing what needs to be done to rapidly transform their nuclear program into a functioning threat to the peace of the world.

Far from being irrelevant to the discussion about how to persuade Iran to stand down on its nuclear ambition, the hacking incidents testify to the gravity of the situation and the likelihood that they will get to their goal sooner rather than later. Those in the Obama administration who are prepared to endure another long and ineffective negotiation on the nuclear question should understand that their faith that Iran simply can’t create a bomb this year is more a matter of wishful thinking than hardheaded analysis.

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Will Senate GOP Help Clinton Escape Accountability Once Again?

As Alana mentioned, Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense may hinge not on policy or his qualifications, but something more important to the Senate club: how much the others senators like him. John Kerry, the president’s choice for secretary of state, will almost certainly breeze through his own confirmation hearings for the same reason. But the best contrast to the story about whether the cool kids will let Hagel eat lunch with them is Politico’s story on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s upcoming testimony on Benghazi.

In the wake of the attack, which left our ambassador and three others dead, I wrote that the fact that Clinton’s State Department denied requests for more security for our diplomatic team there made two things clear. First, that declining the security requests was irresponsible given the danger of the posting, and second, that the request itself was evidence that Clinton was negligent in the attention she was paying to the Benghazi team even though the folly of this approach was becoming more obvious by the day. A subsequent accountability review report came to the same conclusions, and painted a picture of a poorly administrated, chaotic, and inattentive State Department. So what is her appearance before a Senate panel expected to be like? From Politico:

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As Alana mentioned, Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense may hinge not on policy or his qualifications, but something more important to the Senate club: how much the others senators like him. John Kerry, the president’s choice for secretary of state, will almost certainly breeze through his own confirmation hearings for the same reason. But the best contrast to the story about whether the cool kids will let Hagel eat lunch with them is Politico’s story on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s upcoming testimony on Benghazi.

In the wake of the attack, which left our ambassador and three others dead, I wrote that the fact that Clinton’s State Department denied requests for more security for our diplomatic team there made two things clear. First, that declining the security requests was irresponsible given the danger of the posting, and second, that the request itself was evidence that Clinton was negligent in the attention she was paying to the Benghazi team even though the folly of this approach was becoming more obvious by the day. A subsequent accountability review report came to the same conclusions, and painted a picture of a poorly administrated, chaotic, and inattentive State Department. So what is her appearance before a Senate panel expected to be like? From Politico:

GOP members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee promise that Clinton will face a “tough but respectful” grilling when she testifies about the Obama administration’s handling of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Libya that killed four Americans.

After all, the outgoing secretary is still on the mend from a concussion and subsequent blood clot she suffered after a bad fall over the holidays. She served in the Senate with many of those she will appear before. And she has close friendships with Republicans like Sen. John McCain, perhaps the most vocal critic of the administration’s response to Benghazi.

In other words, don’t be surprised if the hearing is simply a ruse to throw Clinton a surprise going-away party. We were already made aware that Clinton’s friendship with McCain was enabling her to avoid accountability for Benghazi’s failures. Clinton should have lost her job immediately. Barring that, GOP foreign policy voices should have been raised over her management at State during the debacle. Instead, they targeted Susan Rice, eventually leading to the spiking of her possible nomination to succeed Clinton. (Though no one played a more important role in sidelining Rice’s nomination than Clinton herself.)

The article suggests that Clinton’s recent illness and concussion will earn her sympathy, which of course they should–except she already had the sympathy before her illness. That is, there is no change in the Senate GOP’s posture toward Clinton: they went easy on her months ago, and they’ll continue to do so.

When I wrote about the accountability review report, I mentioned former (Bill) Clinton advisor Aaron David Miller’s theory that the perception that Clinton will run for president in 2016–a perception Clinton has relentlessly fed–has won her fear, not love. That may be. Politico is also running with a story on Public Policy Polling’s recent survey on a hypothetical matchup between Clinton and Chris Christie, and the Clinton-watchers at the Washington Post are scouring her words for a hint that she’ll pursue that course:

“And then retirement?” a reporter asked.

“I don’t know that that’s the word I would use,” she said, “but certainly stepping off the very fast track for a little while.”

No one seems particularly concerned that the upcoming hearing on Benghazi will harm Clinton’s legacy, least of all Clinton. And it could do the opposite: Republicans who try criticizing Clinton on the issue in a future election will surely be asked–and rightfully so–why they exonerated her the first time around.

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Demonizing Gun Owners Isn’t Working

In less than three weeks since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the battle over gun rights has remained in the news thanks to both opponents and supporters of the Second Amendment. The “meaningful action” that President Obama promised would take place the day of the Newtown shooting is still being debated by yet another presidential task force. The task force was set to meet with gun sellers (like Walmart), gun rights advocates and gun control supporters today and members of the entertainment and video game industry later in the afternoon. 

While the national gun conversation rages on, liberals have decided to play hardball with legal gun owners, attempting to shame those who apply for gun permits so that they can legally and safely own and carry guns. The opening salvo came from the Journal News, a local New York newspaper that decided to publish the names and addresses, including a handy map, of every single legally permitted gun owner in Westchester County. Alana wrote about a hilarious twist in the story when the newspaper’s editors, who had received a significant amount of flak for the story, decided to employ armed guards in order to protect the newspaper’s offices.

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In less than three weeks since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the battle over gun rights has remained in the news thanks to both opponents and supporters of the Second Amendment. The “meaningful action” that President Obama promised would take place the day of the Newtown shooting is still being debated by yet another presidential task force. The task force was set to meet with gun sellers (like Walmart), gun rights advocates and gun control supporters today and members of the entertainment and video game industry later in the afternoon. 

While the national gun conversation rages on, liberals have decided to play hardball with legal gun owners, attempting to shame those who apply for gun permits so that they can legally and safely own and carry guns. The opening salvo came from the Journal News, a local New York newspaper that decided to publish the names and addresses, including a handy map, of every single legally permitted gun owner in Westchester County. Alana wrote about a hilarious twist in the story when the newspaper’s editors, who had received a significant amount of flak for the story, decided to employ armed guards in order to protect the newspaper’s offices.

Yesterday the Internet-rag Gawker published its own version under the headline “Here Is a List of All the A—holes Who Own Guns in New York City,” publicizing the names of every single legal gun owner in New York City, minus their addresses (not out of a sense of decency, but instead out of an inability to obtain them from the NYPD under the Freedom of Information Act). The author of the piece, John Cook, saw no problem with addresses of gun owners being published on the web, stating “In any case, it’s clear that many of the Rockland County and Westchester County gun owners who are outraged at having their addresses plastered on the internet have had those addresses plastered on the internet for years without it causing a problem.” In response, some readers decided to tweet the author’s address, that was already “plastered on the internet,” which was met with an expected amount of hypocritical outrage. I have to wonder if Cook will soon attempt to become a registered gun owner himself in response to real or perceived threats after his Gawker piece. 

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an expected candidate for mayor, spoke out against the Gawker list, telling gun owners “you have not done anything wrong. You’ve met the legal standard.” Unfortunately, Quinn, like Governor Cuomo yesterday, made clear her desire to make legal gun ownership that much more difficult in New York City and state. Quinn remarked “Now do I think the legal standard is high enough or strong enough? No. And do I want to do everything I can to limit the number of guns that are out there? Yes.” A commenter on the story for CBS Local New York asked:

Does she even have an idea about how hard it is to get a legal handgun in this city? She wants tougher rules for it? They already took my tax returns, bank statements, character references, pictures of my place of work, mental health records, personal interview, FBI background check, finger prints, and all this takes almost a year. What else could she add to this to make it “better”?

In response to this kind of gun owner demonization, the NRA has reported astronomical fundraising numbers, announcing to Politico that in just 18 days it has added more than 100,000 new members (aka donors) to its rosters. As Jonathan rightly remarked yesterday, “the more liberals talk about taking away legal guns the better things are for the NRA.”

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An Administration That Won’t Face Reality

President Obama isn’t likely to have much trouble getting the Senate to confirm Jack Lew as his new treasury secretary. Though Senator Jeff Sessions has vowed to try and stop Lew, there is nothing in the nominee’s long record of service to Democratic presidents that would disqualify him for the office. Given the fight that is brewing over the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan for the Department of Defense and the CIA, there is little appetite on the Hill for any further effort to deny the president his choice to run an important department.

But even though Lew will probably be easily confirmed, his nomination is one more signal that there may be no way to avoid more bitter and counter-productive confrontations with Congress over the budget. Lew is well known to be a hard-core progressive who, during the negotiations with Republicans over the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff, made it clear that he opposes any true reform of entitlement spending. Having run to the left and won re-election, President Obama is entitled to try and govern from the left. Lew’s selection illustrates that this is his intention. But though he may have a mandate to govern, that doesn’t give him the power to alter reality. If he isn’t prepared to start thinking about cutting spending, then no amount of rhetorical excess will prevent this country from going further down the road to insolvency.

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President Obama isn’t likely to have much trouble getting the Senate to confirm Jack Lew as his new treasury secretary. Though Senator Jeff Sessions has vowed to try and stop Lew, there is nothing in the nominee’s long record of service to Democratic presidents that would disqualify him for the office. Given the fight that is brewing over the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan for the Department of Defense and the CIA, there is little appetite on the Hill for any further effort to deny the president his choice to run an important department.

But even though Lew will probably be easily confirmed, his nomination is one more signal that there may be no way to avoid more bitter and counter-productive confrontations with Congress over the budget. Lew is well known to be a hard-core progressive who, during the negotiations with Republicans over the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff, made it clear that he opposes any true reform of entitlement spending. Having run to the left and won re-election, President Obama is entitled to try and govern from the left. Lew’s selection illustrates that this is his intention. But though he may have a mandate to govern, that doesn’t give him the power to alter reality. If he isn’t prepared to start thinking about cutting spending, then no amount of rhetorical excess will prevent this country from going further down the road to insolvency.

Lew’s hard-line liberalism is exactly what qualifies him to sit in Obama’s new cabinet of yes-men. That he has the trust of the president after serving him faithfully as White House chief of staff is to his credit, but that doesn’t change the fact that an administration economic team that is dedicated to defending the status quo is exactly what the country doesn’t need as we sink further into a period of fiscal crisis.

Mr. Obama seems to think that he can avoid the usual second term blues that afflict most presidents by creating a team with a hard ideological edge that won’t lose focus or lack the energy to fight for the things he believes. That’s an interesting working theory for how to be the first president to avoid a miserable second term since Theodore Roosevelt. But he and Jack Lew seem to think that he can alter the basic laws of economics the way King Canute sought to alter the laws of nature at the seashore.

By replacing Tim Geithner—a man who for all of his flaws had a grasp of what was good or bad for the nation’s economy—with a left-wing ideologue, Obama is telling us that he thinks his second term will be one in which his political beliefs can contradict the basic fact that the United States cannot tax its way out of its spending problem. While the liberal press continues to portray the president’s conservative opponents as extremists, it is clearer than ever that the real radicals are in the White House and now at the Treasury.

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Obama’s Diversity Problem Might Not Be Easily Solved

As the White House scrambles to push back on the narrative that Obama’s cabinet lacks diversity, National Journal reports that there are few jobs left for potential female appointments (h/t HotAir):

Say Obama wants to make a grand gesture; what jobs are left? If he names a female labor secretary to succeed Solis, that will keep him at the status quo. But it’s not a top job and it’s one many women have held. Plus Solis is Hispanic, so now there’s that to worry about as well.

The only immediate opening with stature roughly equivalent to secretary of State, Defense, or Treasury is Lew’s job as White House chief of staff. To name a woman, Obama would have to throw top mentionees Ron Klain (former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden) and Denis McDonough (currently deputy national-security adviser) under the bus. He does have some logical female options, starting with Nancy-Ann DeParle and Alyssa Mastromonaco. Both now hold the title of deputy chief of staff.

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As the White House scrambles to push back on the narrative that Obama’s cabinet lacks diversity, National Journal reports that there are few jobs left for potential female appointments (h/t HotAir):

Say Obama wants to make a grand gesture; what jobs are left? If he names a female labor secretary to succeed Solis, that will keep him at the status quo. But it’s not a top job and it’s one many women have held. Plus Solis is Hispanic, so now there’s that to worry about as well.

The only immediate opening with stature roughly equivalent to secretary of State, Defense, or Treasury is Lew’s job as White House chief of staff. To name a woman, Obama would have to throw top mentionees Ron Klain (former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden) and Denis McDonough (currently deputy national-security adviser) under the bus. He does have some logical female options, starting with Nancy-Ann DeParle and Alyssa Mastromonaco. Both now hold the title of deputy chief of staff.

This is another reason why the Chuck Hagel defense secretary nomination was an odd choice. Michele Flournoy was arguably more qualified than Hagel for the role, yet she was passed over. Now, if Obama nominates a woman, it will look like a tokenism under external pressure. Worse, because all the roles he has left to fill are of lower standing, this makes it seem like he doesn’t trust a woman in a higher-ranking position.

There isn’t anything the left can do about this but complain, and I doubt this controversy will drag on much longer. Still, the extent of the backlash seems to have caught the White House off-guard, which only adds to the sense that Obama was unprepared for the second term transition.

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Obama’s Low Regard for British Democracy

You might think that the Obama administration, having declined to support British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands on numerous occasions (with Obama even attempting, but comically failing, to call the islands by their Argentine name), that this administration has taken enough potshots at the UK. This impression is only reinforced when you consider the White House’s absurd and dishonest shenanigans over its removal of the bust of Winston Churchill.

But the administration is signaling that its second term will, in its low regard for British sovereignty, look and sound a lot like the first term. From today’s New York Times:

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You might think that the Obama administration, having declined to support British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands on numerous occasions (with Obama even attempting, but comically failing, to call the islands by their Argentine name), that this administration has taken enough potshots at the UK. This impression is only reinforced when you consider the White House’s absurd and dishonest shenanigans over its removal of the bust of Winston Churchill.

But the administration is signaling that its second term will, in its low regard for British sovereignty, look and sound a lot like the first term. From today’s New York Times:

The United States entered Britain’s debate over its relationship with the European Union on Wednesday, when a senior diplomat implicitly warned the British government not to do anything that might endanger its membership in the 27-nation union.

The comments, made in London by Philip Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for Europe, echo sentiments expressed by a number of European officials. But they are likely to have a bigger impact in Britain because of the closeness of its ties to Washington, a point of pride in London.

The timing of the rare public intervention is also significant, coming shortly before a long-awaited speech by Prime Minister David Cameron in which he intends to lay out plans for a redefinition of Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

Tory minister Daniel Hannan, a leading Euroskeptic who warns of the EU’s penchant for eroding democracy and individual rights, offered the appropriate response: “Of all the bad arguments for being in the EU, the worst is to humour Barack Obama.”

There is a fair amount of chutzpah in the administration’s request. At the outset, it should be noted that President Obama is learning that he can apply the lessons of his failures elsewhere to a broad range of circumstances. Though it took him four years, Obama has learned, for example, that he has more leverage over the Israeli government when he decreases the daylight between the two allies, thereby increasing his approval and legitimacy of purpose among the populace there. He might want to consider that episode’s relevance to Europe, where he would have more leverage if he hadn’t spent four years pushing our allies away.

Having insulted Britain’s government repeatedly, he is low on credibility; incompetence has its consequences. Then there is the issue of the wisdom, or lack thereof, of the administration’s advice, quite apart from whether it has the credibility to offer it. The speech Cameron is expected to give likely will include a proposal for a “looser” arrangement between the EU and Britain. Cameron may even promise to hold a public referendum on the changes. This–the practice known as “democracy”–seems to be what the State Department official Gordon feared most, warning Cameron that such public votes on the EU “have sometimes turned countries inward.”

This is an implicit acknowledgement that the people don’t much like the EU. The Obama administration is thus worried that the people will have a say in the affairs of their country, and that the people of Britain will express an opinion at odds with what Barack Obama thinks they should think (imagine that). Is the United States now in the business of explicitly warning Western Europe not to practice democracy? Has the Obama administration given much thought to the great many ways this could backfire?

Hannan offers some history, and explains just why the Obama administration’s request is a lot to ask of its ally:

After the end of the Cold War, the Brussels élites started picking fights with what they called the world’s hyperpuissance. They channelled funds to Hamas, declined to get tough with the ayatollahs in Teheran, declared their willingness in principle to sell weapons to China, refused to deal with the anti-Castro dissidents in Cuba, started building a satellite system with the Chinese to challenge American ‘technological imperialism’ (J Chirac), hectored the US about its failure to join various global technocracies and complained about domestic American policies, from cheap energy to the use of the death penalty. Most Americans, even some in the State Department, have started to grasp, Frankenstein-like, that the EU is turning against them. So now they want the most pro-American member state, namely the United Kingdom, to get stuck in and moderate these anti-yanqui tendencies. Would we mind abandoning our democracy so as to help them out?

They certainly should mind, and ought to push back against this sort of nonsense from the Obama administration. Neither American nor British interests are well served by quashing the democratic impulse and chaining countries to a failing project like the EU.

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Hagel’s GOP Problem: It’s Not Just Policy

It may not just be former Senator Chuck Hagel’s policy stances that sink him, but also his personality flaws. Nominated senators are usually easy confirmations thanks to the Senate’s clubby atmosphere. But Hagel isn’t known for playing well with others, and he has few allies among his former colleagues, Politico reports:

Policy aside, Hagel’s bedeviled by his own abrasive personality. In a chamber known for back-patting and elbow-rubbing, the former Nebraska senator mostly rubbed people the wrong way. Now, on his path to the Pentagon, he has to hope that irritation doesn’t come back to bite him. 

“He was respected as a colleague in the normal Senate tradition but was somewhat of a lone wolf and did not forge the deep personal relationships with his fellow Republicans that would translate into a ready reservoir of support for his nomination,” said John Ullyot, a former Marine intelligence officer who was the spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee under Chairman John Warner from 2003 to 2007. “On top of that, his outspokenness and blunt criticism of several Republican priorities at a critical time, including Iraq and Iran, while sincere and heartfelt, have left him without a natural platform of enthusiasm for his confirmation.” … 

The combination of raw nerves among his old colleagues and policy concerns among junior senators have cast doubt on Hagel’s confirmation process, which could prove to be the trickiest for a Pentagon pick since Texas Sen. John Tower was rejected, 47-53, in 1989. He was the last Cabinet nominee to lose a vote on the Senate floor, though others have since been withdrawn. A handful of Democratic senators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), threw their support to Hagel on Monday. But Obama and Hagel could count themselves lucky when a senator keeps his or her powder dry.

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It may not just be former Senator Chuck Hagel’s policy stances that sink him, but also his personality flaws. Nominated senators are usually easy confirmations thanks to the Senate’s clubby atmosphere. But Hagel isn’t known for playing well with others, and he has few allies among his former colleagues, Politico reports:

Policy aside, Hagel’s bedeviled by his own abrasive personality. In a chamber known for back-patting and elbow-rubbing, the former Nebraska senator mostly rubbed people the wrong way. Now, on his path to the Pentagon, he has to hope that irritation doesn’t come back to bite him. 

“He was respected as a colleague in the normal Senate tradition but was somewhat of a lone wolf and did not forge the deep personal relationships with his fellow Republicans that would translate into a ready reservoir of support for his nomination,” said John Ullyot, a former Marine intelligence officer who was the spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee under Chairman John Warner from 2003 to 2007. “On top of that, his outspokenness and blunt criticism of several Republican priorities at a critical time, including Iraq and Iran, while sincere and heartfelt, have left him without a natural platform of enthusiasm for his confirmation.” … 

The combination of raw nerves among his old colleagues and policy concerns among junior senators have cast doubt on Hagel’s confirmation process, which could prove to be the trickiest for a Pentagon pick since Texas Sen. John Tower was rejected, 47-53, in 1989. He was the last Cabinet nominee to lose a vote on the Senate floor, though others have since been withdrawn. A handful of Democratic senators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), threw their support to Hagel on Monday. But Obama and Hagel could count themselves lucky when a senator keeps his or her powder dry.

This isn’t a surprise, considering Hagel’s reputation as a difficult boss who often castigated his staffers in public (in Adam Kredo’s story on this, Michael Rubin dubbed Hagel “the Cornhusker wears Prada”). Apparently he didn’t treat his fellow senators much better. 

But on the Hill, where being a team player matters, Hagel’s abrasive personality wasn’t his only problem. Eli Lake reports that his mercurial temperament has also irritated the GOP: 

For Hagel’s supporters, the former senator’s willingness to change his mind is praised as independent thinking. But for many Republicans today, this quality makes him something of a turncoat. And while Hagel has been attacked for his views on Iran and Israel, it may end up being the former senator’s “mercurial” temperament that will turn Obama’s nomination of a Republican to head the Pentagon into a full-on battle with the party of Lincoln. …

It’s these positions that have earned Hagel praise from his new friends and criticism from many in his old party. But just as the Vietnam War veteran was able to adjust his worldview in 2005 and 2006, he appears to be adjusting it again in 2013. On Wednesday the Associated Press reported that Hagel, in private meetings with senior Pentagon officials, expressed his support  for strong international sanctions against Iran as well as for leaving the option of military strikes on the table.

It remains to be seen whether these new positions are enough to persuade his old colleagues like John McCain to confirm his nomination as secretary of defense. The one thing his old party does know, however, is that Chuck Hagel is a man who is not afraid to change his mind.

If there is a filibuster, which looks very possible, Hagel will need 60 votes for a confirmation. In other words, Republicans alone have enough votes to kill his nomination, if they’re inclined. And with signs that some Democrats also have reservations about Hagel, the White House has little room for error.

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Tonight: David Gelernter in Manhattan

Our valued contributor and friend David Gelernter, who is also a painter, has a splendid show up at the Yeshiva University Museum on 16th Street in Manhattan, which everyone in the New York area should go and see. Tonight—Thursday, January 10—Gelernter will be delivering a characteristically provocative and original talk at 7 p.m. The talk is described thus:

Christian art, encompassing the architectural masterpieces of the Gothic era and much of the greatest painting and sculpture from the Renaissance through modern times, was molded in part by the genius of classical Greece, but ultimately owes its greatest debt, according to David Gelernter, to Judaism and the Jewish artistic sense. Join Gelernter for a discussion of the roots and nature of this debt, as well as of the duty of Jewish art and artists to help create worldwide recognition of the foundational role of Judaism in Western civilization. The program will be moderated by Jacob Wisse, director of the YU Museum.

David’s show, Sh’ma, can be viewed from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. before his talk. Tickets are $15. For reservations, go to www.smarttix.com or call 212‐868‐4444. The museum is located at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street.

Our valued contributor and friend David Gelernter, who is also a painter, has a splendid show up at the Yeshiva University Museum on 16th Street in Manhattan, which everyone in the New York area should go and see. Tonight—Thursday, January 10—Gelernter will be delivering a characteristically provocative and original talk at 7 p.m. The talk is described thus:

Christian art, encompassing the architectural masterpieces of the Gothic era and much of the greatest painting and sculpture from the Renaissance through modern times, was molded in part by the genius of classical Greece, but ultimately owes its greatest debt, according to David Gelernter, to Judaism and the Jewish artistic sense. Join Gelernter for a discussion of the roots and nature of this debt, as well as of the duty of Jewish art and artists to help create worldwide recognition of the foundational role of Judaism in Western civilization. The program will be moderated by Jacob Wisse, director of the YU Museum.

David’s show, Sh’ma, can be viewed from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. before his talk. Tickets are $15. For reservations, go to www.smarttix.com or call 212‐868‐4444. The museum is located at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street.

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This Cuomo Isn’t Playing Hamlet

For several years in the late 1980s and early ’90s, following New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s flirtations with a presidential run became one of the country’s favorite political parlor games. In the end, despite being courted by the liberal press and many Democratic Party insiders, Cuomo never was able to pull the trigger on his candidacy and became known as “Hamlet on the Hudson” for his indecision. But whatever else one can say about his son Andrew, it appears that the current governor of the Empire State doesn’t suffer from the same malady. Any doubts about his intention to run for president in 2016 were dissipated yesterday with a state of the state speech that was a shopping list of liberal talking points and causes aimed at shoring up the governor’s standing with left-wing activists who are the core of the Democratic Party base.

Pandering to the left is always smart politics in a Democratic primary nomination race. Cuomo’s histrionics about guns, global warming, the minimum wage and abortion were exactly what he needs to establish his credentials with liberal donors and those who will be doing the bulk of the voting in Democratic contests that will be held three years from now. But the left-wing laundry list he enunciated yesterday in Albany is not without its risks. Even in a contest that is likely to be one in which the entrants will compete for the affection of liberal interest and constituency groups, the central theme of American politics in the next few years is likely to center on the question of how to deal with the deficit. But, as even a sympathetic article in the New York Times about his speech pointed out, there doesn’t appear to be any conceivable way that the state can pay for all of the new programs and government handouts Cuomo wishes to implement. Seen in this light, his manifesto shows exactly how the nation got in the mess that the president and Congress have been fighting about. This sort of stuff may generate applause in New York, but is the country really ready for another round of taxing and spending that Cuomo wants to initiate?

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For several years in the late 1980s and early ’90s, following New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s flirtations with a presidential run became one of the country’s favorite political parlor games. In the end, despite being courted by the liberal press and many Democratic Party insiders, Cuomo never was able to pull the trigger on his candidacy and became known as “Hamlet on the Hudson” for his indecision. But whatever else one can say about his son Andrew, it appears that the current governor of the Empire State doesn’t suffer from the same malady. Any doubts about his intention to run for president in 2016 were dissipated yesterday with a state of the state speech that was a shopping list of liberal talking points and causes aimed at shoring up the governor’s standing with left-wing activists who are the core of the Democratic Party base.

Pandering to the left is always smart politics in a Democratic primary nomination race. Cuomo’s histrionics about guns, global warming, the minimum wage and abortion were exactly what he needs to establish his credentials with liberal donors and those who will be doing the bulk of the voting in Democratic contests that will be held three years from now. But the left-wing laundry list he enunciated yesterday in Albany is not without its risks. Even in a contest that is likely to be one in which the entrants will compete for the affection of liberal interest and constituency groups, the central theme of American politics in the next few years is likely to center on the question of how to deal with the deficit. But, as even a sympathetic article in the New York Times about his speech pointed out, there doesn’t appear to be any conceivable way that the state can pay for all of the new programs and government handouts Cuomo wishes to implement. Seen in this light, his manifesto shows exactly how the nation got in the mess that the president and Congress have been fighting about. This sort of stuff may generate applause in New York, but is the country really ready for another round of taxing and spending that Cuomo wants to initiate?

In lurching so strongly to the left, Cuomo also opened himself up to charges of being as big a flip-flopper as Mitt Romney. That’s because Cuomo ran for governor promising to bring a state that had been wrecked by the spendthrift policies of his Democratic and Republican predecessors back to fiscal sanity and then attempted to govern in that manner during his first two years in office. Cuomo’s moderate style, coupled with his willingness to reach across the aisle to Republicans in the legislature, was both popular and effective. But he and his advisors clearly think the kind of good government style that Americans keep telling pollsters they want isn’t the right formula to win the Democratic presidential nomination.

Instead of fiscal sense, Cuomo now offers the public liberal patent nostrums, such as more gun control in a state where it is already difficult to legally own a firearm, a higher minimum wage guaranteed to decrease the number of entry level jobs in a time of high unemployment, solar energy subsidies that could repeat the Solyndra fiasco on a state level, and more spending on a host of other issues designed to appeal to liberal sensibilities without much talk about how to pay for it.

Cuomo thinks by establishing himself as the progressive in the race he can’t be outflanked on the left by any other candidate in 2016, and he may be right on that. But even Democrats are aware that the country is going bust. One imagines that Vice President Biden, who is attempting to burnish his image these days as a man who is making deals to fix the budget crisis rather than make it even worse, is taking notes about Cuomo’s speech that could skewer the younger Cuomo in a potential match up.

After yesterday, no one is likely to call Andrew Cuomo another Hamlet, but neither will they ever tag him as the sort of Democrat who is part of the solution to the country’s problems rather than the kind who got us into the current mess.

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Chavez the Phantom Remains in Control

Perhaps the least disturbing aspect of today’s abandoned presidential inauguration ceremony in Caracas is that the incumbent, Hugo Chavez, didn’t turn up.

Ever since Chavez returned to Cuba last month seeking further treatment for the cancer consuming him, it’s been clear that January 10 would go down in Venezuela’s history as a no-show on the part of the comandante. Nothing has been heard from Chavez during that time. Meanwhile, his various subordinates, among them Vice President Nicolas Maduro, his appointed successor, along with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas, have issued irregular and sometimes contradictory bulletins about Chavez’s health. Currently, Venezuelans are being told that Chavez is suffering from a lung infection, but there is no reason to trust these statements. Indeed, the two years of sustained government deceit over Chavez’s health situation–last July, Chavez himself announced that he was completely cured–provides enough cause to speculate over whether he is, in fact, still alive.

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Perhaps the least disturbing aspect of today’s abandoned presidential inauguration ceremony in Caracas is that the incumbent, Hugo Chavez, didn’t turn up.

Ever since Chavez returned to Cuba last month seeking further treatment for the cancer consuming him, it’s been clear that January 10 would go down in Venezuela’s history as a no-show on the part of the comandante. Nothing has been heard from Chavez during that time. Meanwhile, his various subordinates, among them Vice President Nicolas Maduro, his appointed successor, along with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas, have issued irregular and sometimes contradictory bulletins about Chavez’s health. Currently, Venezuelans are being told that Chavez is suffering from a lung infection, but there is no reason to trust these statements. Indeed, the two years of sustained government deceit over Chavez’s health situation–last July, Chavez himself announced that he was completely cured–provides enough cause to speculate over whether he is, in fact, still alive.

Has Venezuela entered a new era of Chavismo without Chavez? Paradoxically, the increasingly desperate antics of regime loyalists, who continue to dangle the prospect of Chavez returning to Caracas, suggest that we have. Instead of cheering an inauguration, Chavez supporters are being urged to turn out for a rally today outside the Miraflores Palace. Chavez’s foreign allies, including Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, have rolled into town for the occasion. All the more reason, then, for Nicolas Maduro to state: “A historic period of this second decade of the 21st century is starting, with our commander leading.”

But the lie that Chavez remains in command cannot be sustained by revolutionary bluster alone. Yesterday, the constitutional chamber of the TSJ, Venezuela’s Supreme Court, defied the country’s constitution when it ruled that the inauguration could be rescheduled, in the words of its leading judge, Luisa Estella Morales, at a “time and place to be determined.” The ruling provides the regime with some breathing space as it figures out what to do next, for its thrust determines, much to the chagrin of Venezuela’s opposition, that the clauses in the constitution that deal with the temporary or permanent absence of the president do not apply. As the dissident Venezuelan blogger, Daniel Duquenal, acerbically remarked: “Chavez is out on a medical trip, he just has a job leave as any Venezuelan worker would, which will last as long as he needs it to last. There is no need to replace Chavez, he is president of Venezuela even if he is on life support.”

Still, there were never any grounds to expect that the TSJ would act differently. Indeed, it can accurately be said that the foundation for yesterday’s decision was laid down nine years ago. In 2004, facing a recall referendum brought about by the opposition, Chavez railroaded through a new law that expanded the number of TSJ justices from 20 to 32. Using his majority in the National Assembly, Chavez was then able to pack the court with his supporters, including Luisa Morales. Since then, the court has faithfully served Chavez’s every whim; among its most notorious, and likely illegal, decisions was the suspension, in 2008, of the opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez from running for public office, on the basis of corruption allegations for which he was never charged, prosecuted or convicted.

Such behavior is entirely in keeping with the spirit of Chavismo, a bizarre concoction of Marxism, nationalism and populism which contemptuously rejects liberal democratic staples like the separation of powers in favor of the enduring faith of an adoring people in their leader. Cabello, the National Assembly president, summarized this system perfectly yesterday: “All of us here are Chavez, the people in the street are Chavez, the lady who cooks is Chavez, the comrade who works as a watchman is Chavez, the soldier is Chavez, the woman is Chavez, the farmer is Chavez, the worker is Chavez; we’re all Chavez.”

Even so, had the TSJ followed the letter of the constitution by ruling that Chavez’s absence necessitates elections 30 days from now, it would have been foolhardy to predict an opposition victory. For one thing, 30 days is hardly enough time to organize an election campaign, especially when the majority of media outlets are controlled by the regime. (During last October’s election, the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, embarked on a grueling road trip around the country to meet the voters in person in part because he was denied meaningful air time). For another, while Maduro would most likely be the government’s technical candidate, the real candidate would be Chavez.

For today’s rally in Caracas affords a glimpse of the Chavistas’ future electoral strategy. Dead or alive, Chavez is the leader of all Venezuelans. If “21st century socialism” is to be preserved and deepened, Venezuelans should have no qualms about voting for a phantom.

The opposition, an often fractious coalition of more than 50 parties, thus faces a difficult set of decisions. Capriles himself has acted cautiously, stating his wish for Chavez’s recovery while hammering the country’s institutions for advancing the agenda of the regime. So far, however, there has been no explicit statement that these same institutions, from the National Electoral Council (dubbed by leading opposition figure Diego Arria as the “Ministry of Elections for Mr. Chavez”) through to the TSJ, are beyond redemption for as long as they remain under the boot of Chavez and his deputies.

In such a scenario, one would expect the world’s democracies to loudly proclaim that there is no longer a legitimate basis for the Chavez regime. The Organization of American States, which has tussled with Chavez in the past, may do so. The signals from the State Department, however, are not encouraging. Yesterday’s events were a golden opportunity for the U.S. administration to remind Venezuelans that the future of their country is being decided not in Caracas, but in Havana, where the Cuban leader Raul Castro is acting as Chavez’s guardian. Instead, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland issued the following anemic statement on the TSJ’s decision: “This is a decision that has to be made by Venezuelans, for Venezuelans, that it has to involve and take into account the views of a broad cross-section of stakeholders.”

In other words, the U.S. has no opinion on what is effectively a coup d’état spearheaded by the TSJ. One more reason, then, for the Chavistas to believe that their eternal leader is the only stakeholder who matters.

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Israel’s “True Friends” Don’t Understand What Neighborhood It’s Living In

In a rare moment of perception, Thomas Friedman wrote recently that if you want to be taken seriously in Israel, “there is an unspoken question in the mind of virtually every Israeli that you need to answer correctly: ‘Do you understand what neighborhood I’m living in?’”

What brought this to mind was the latest broadside by Friedman’s fellow New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who reiterated what has become the favorite mantra not only of those who support Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, but of liberal American Jewish groups like J Street and even the Union for Reform Judaism: that Israel’s “true friends” are those who tell it, loudly and publicly, that its policies are “self-defeating and wrong,” in an effort to stop what they perceive as its rush to self-destruction. I fully agree that friends should warn against behavior they view as self-destructive. But anyone who thinks that confronting Israel publicly is helping rather than hurting it doesn’t understand what neighborhood Israel is living in.

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In a rare moment of perception, Thomas Friedman wrote recently that if you want to be taken seriously in Israel, “there is an unspoken question in the mind of virtually every Israeli that you need to answer correctly: ‘Do you understand what neighborhood I’m living in?’”

What brought this to mind was the latest broadside by Friedman’s fellow New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who reiterated what has become the favorite mantra not only of those who support Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, but of liberal American Jewish groups like J Street and even the Union for Reform Judaism: that Israel’s “true friends” are those who tell it, loudly and publicly, that its policies are “self-defeating and wrong,” in an effort to stop what they perceive as its rush to self-destruction. I fully agree that friends should warn against behavior they view as self-destructive. But anyone who thinks that confronting Israel publicly is helping rather than hurting it doesn’t understand what neighborhood Israel is living in.

As even Cohen acknowledged, Israel has real enemies. He cited Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal’s eliminationist threats; one could quote identical rhetoric from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “moderate” opponents of Ahmadinejad like former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt. A good example is this clip (courtesy of MEMRI) of Egyptian cleric Mahmoud Al-Masri being interviewed on Egypt’s Al-Nas TV in November: After gleefully prophesying that the Brotherhood’s rise in Egypt and a successful conclusion to the revolution in Syria will enable Egypt and Syria to unite in a war of annihilation against Israel, Al-Masri assures his followers that this is just the beginning: “Ultimately, not a single Jew will be left on the face of the earth.”

So given that lots of people truly want to destroy Israel, how do Israel’s friends keep that from happening? The only way is through deterrence: convincing these enemies that, however much they’d like to annihilate Israel, they lack the capability to succeed. First and foremost, of course, that depends on Israel’s own military capabilities. But it also depends on perceptions of Israel’s international support.

To understand why, it’s worth reviewing that clip of Al-Masri’s, in which he blithely declares that Israel would have been annihilated in 1973 had the superpowers not intervened to stop the war. In reality, that’s nonsense: The war ended with the Israeli army threatening both Cairo and Damascus. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that millions of people all over the Middle East believe it. And they believe the same about Israel’s victories in 1948, 1956, 1967, etc.–that Israel won only thanks to nefarious international assistance.

For that reason, perceptions of Israel’s international support are crucial: The more Israel’s enemies come to believe that Israel’s traditional supporters are drawing away, the more they will believe the ultimate military victory they seek is achievable. And since Israel has no more important supporter than America–its government, its public and its Jewish community–the perception that Americans are drawing away from Israel is particularly harmful. Yet when Israel’s “true friends” in America pick very public fights with it, that’s precisely the perception they create, however unintentionally.

People like Cohen or the leaders of the URJ would be genuinely horrified if Meshaal’s eliminationist vision came to pass. But by their very public broadsides against Israel, they make it far more likely that Israel’s enemies will seriously attempt to realize this vision. Thus with the best of intentions, they are causing Israel enormous harm–just because they refuse to understand what neighborhood it’s living in.

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