Speculation about President Obama’s intentions to push a revival of the moribund Middle East peace process may increase today with reports of plans for a new European Union initiative. According to Ynet News, the British and French foreign ministries are concocting the plan with the support of Germany and the European Union. The conceit of the scheme is a return to the familiar theme of an accord based on the 1967 lines with a division of Jerusalem and agreed-upon swaps of territory between Israel and the Palestinians. It is expected that it will include specific details such as a demand for an absolute freeze in Israeli building in the territories including those areas that it might keep under the swaps. Even more troubling is the notion that the negotiations will be in the context of a regional committee which will include not only the Europeans, Israelis and Palestinians but also nations such as Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, a situation in which the Jewish state would be outnumbered, isolated and backed into a corner without much room for diplomatic maneuvering.
The only real variable as far as the push to implement such a plan is the United States. While the Europeans have reportedly held off on putting forward their plan until after President Obama was safely elected and then inaugurated, the question remains as to whether the administration will put its weight behind it. While on the face of it, the plan ought to be to President Obama’s liking since he has pushed Israel hard on settlements, Jerusalem and the ’67 lines, these attempts to strong-arm the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu have always been in the context of American-led negotiations. As with much of the rest of his Middle East foreign policies, it seems the administration is prepared to “lead from behind” on this track and throw its support behind a European initiative, marking a significant policy departure from past efforts in which the president made the Israel-Palestinian issue a priority. If he’s willing to defer to the EU here, it will be a step that could rightly be interpreted as abandoning Israel to a forum in which it will be treated badly.
But it could also be a sign that Obama has finally learned his lesson about the Middle East. The EU plan is doomed to failure just like every other past peace idea. Having been sandbagged by the Palestinians for four years, perhaps he prefers not to waste any of his time or his precious political capital in a second term on the Middle East.
Even as Obama is focusing on gun control and the debt ceiling, the New York Timesreports that he’s preparing to launch his major push for immigration reform in the first months of his second term:
President Obama plans to push Congress to move quickly in the coming months on an ambitious overhaul of the immigration system that would include a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, senior administration officials and lawmakers said last week.
Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats will propose the changes in one comprehensive bill, the officials said, resisting efforts by some Republicans to break the overhaul into smaller pieces — separately addressing young illegal immigrants, migrant farmworkers or highly skilled foreigners — which might be easier for reluctant members of their party to accept.
The president and Democrats will also oppose measures that do not allow immigrants who gain legal status to become American citizens one day, the officials said.
The shock and grief generated by the Newtown shooting has generated momentum for gun control advocates. That push will fail, as President Obama conceded today in advance of the release of Vice President Biden’s proposals, to pass a new ban on assault weapons. That’s the result of the reluctance on the part of Senate Democrats as well as Republicans to support such a measure. Despite the renewed focus on the issue as well as the backlash in the media against the National Rifle Association, there is little likelihood that there will be a significant expansion of limitations on gun ownership in the foreseeable future. But there is one aspect of the fallout from that tragedy that politicians from both parties and all parts of the political spectrum seem to agree on: video games are bad and help create a culture of violence that some see as partially responsible for the murder of 20 children and six adults in Connecticut last month.
Video games deserve censure for the way they have helped desensitize the country to violence. The same can be said about other aspects of popular culture including films, television, and the music industry in which vulgarity and graphic depictions of violence are rampant. Yet despite the claims that the Newtown killer liked such games, there is no reason to believe they are responsible for his crimes, especially when you consider that millions play them without being impelled to commit mass murder. Put in that perspective, it is clear that condemning them is merely a safe outlet for those wishing to put themselves on record as being horrified by the slaughter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. However, if legislators determined to be able to say they did something in response to this incident choose to involve government in the question of what sort of games Americans play, they will have stepped over the line that separates normal political bloviating from a dangerous infringement on our constitutional liberties.
During his press conference earlier today, we witnessed President Obama’s persistent habit of engaging in a form of political libel. When the president was asked about a possible government shutdown, Mr. Obama said this:
But it seems as if what’s motivating and propelling at this point some of the House Republicans is more than simply deficit reduction. They have a particular vision about what government should and should not do, so they are suspicious about government’s commitments, for example, to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research. So they’ve got a particular view of what government should do and should be.
This is a particularly foolish slander by a president whose policies are leading to worse, not better, health care for seniors; whose profligate fiscal policies will eventually lead to deep and painful cuts in our entitlement programs; and whose presidency has coincided with a record 46 million Americans living in poverty.
The Conservative Political Action Conference released its second round of invited speakers today, and there’s a surprising name near the top of the list. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited, along with Canadian PM Stephen Harper.
Netanyahu actually spoke at CPAC back in 2001, as Phil Klein pointed out on Twitter. But that was in between premierships, which is a very different case. While Netanyahu will probably already be in Washington for AIPAC’s Policy Conference the week before, and it would be great to see him speak at CPAC, there’s no way it will actually happen. It would be silly for him to attend now, right after being accused of siding with the Mitt Romney campaign and while he still needs to maintain a veneer of cordial relations with President Obama.
These days Colin Powell assumes his primary purpose is to lecture Republicans on what it means to be a Republican. In order to pull this off–in order to have his words taken with more seriousness than, say, Rachel Maddow or Howard Dean–General Powell continues to insist that he’s a Republican. He does so despite the fact that he’s twice voted for Barack Obama.
Memo to Mr. Powell: If you’ve twice voted for Barack Obama, a man of deeply liberal/progressive philosophy and policies, you’re no Republican. Of course, there’s an obvious reason Powell continues to claim he’s a Republican. He knows it gives him greater standing to criticize the GOP, which is one of the main things he does these days.
Yesterday on “Meet the Press,” for example, Powell said there’s “a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party.” As evidence for this claim, Powell took issue with former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu calling Obama “lazy” after his poor showing at the first presidential debate last fall.
With gun control still in the news and Vice President Joe Biden’s recommendations on legislation expected to come tomorrow, it is increasingly clear the country’s political class is engaged in two different debates. Members of Congress seem to be conducting an entirely different argument than officials at the state level, especially governors. In Congress, not even the Democrats are united in their enthusiasm for more gun control legislation; Harry Reid and Joe Manchin have both thrown cold water on the idea while Republicans in Congress don’t seem to fear the debate at all, believing it poses no risk electorally. (They believe, with history to back them up, that either no serious gun control legislation will come to the floor of either house of Congress or that the Democrats will overreach, enabling the GOP to gain seats in the 2014 midterms.)
Meanwhile, governors are dividing along traditional party lines. New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley are diving in with both feet, while Virginia’s Bob McDonnell and Texas’s Rick Perry criticized the rush to use the school shooting to enact tougher gun laws. The exception in this case, and the one that proves the rule, is Biden. Gun control is fast on its way to becoming the first major issue of the 2016 presidential election.
President Obama used the last press conference of his first term today to continue attacking Republicans for even thinking about using the debt ceiling as leverage to force him to accept spending cuts. Over and over again, the president said he wouldn’t discuss whether the debt ceiling would be raised since it was simply a matter of Congress having to pay the country’s bills. Assuming the tone of a parent trying to instruct an unruly child in proper conduct, he likened it to going out to dinner and then deciding not to pay the bill, and declared it to be an unprecedented act of irresponsibility. But at least one member of the White House press corps wasn’t willing to let him get away with this line.
CBS News’s Major Garrett had the chutzpah to ask how the president’s denunciations of Republican threats not to raise the debt ceiling squared with his own votes while a U.S. senator. Senator Barack Obama voted several times not to raise the debt ceiling as part of a Democratic protest against the profligate spending of the George W. Bush administration. Yet when he was called out for this apparent contradiction, the president refused to be deterred. He simply ignored the point of the question, making it apparent that he was not going to let the facts interfere with his talking points. But the discrepancy between his record and the high-handed manner with which the president has continually sought to tar Republicans as extremists goes straight to the heart of the debate on the issue.
That’s what Senator Bob Corker hinted at on “This Week” yesterday. So far there haven’t been many articles on Chuck Hagel’s alleged mistreatment of staffers, but it sounds like this may turn into a bigger issue:
“Just his overall temperament and is he suited to run a department or a big agency or a big entity like the Pentagon,” Corker told me. “I think there are numbers of staffers who are coming forth now just talking about the way he has dealt with them. I have, certainly questions, about a lot of things.”
Are we sure Colin Powell was on “Meet the Press” yesterday to help Chuck Hagel? Because he could have done a much better job by just staying home:
David Gregory: He referred to a “Jewish lobby,” saying it intimidates a lot of people on Capitol Hill. What kind of thinking does that reflect? Can you understand pro-Israel Senators being concerned by that comment?
Colin Powell: They shouldn’t be that concerned. That term slips out from time to time. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has occasionally used the same thing. And so, Chuck should have said “Israeli lobby” and not “Jewish lobby,” and perhaps he needs to write on a blackboard a hundred times “It is the Israeli lobby.” But there is an Israeli lobby. There are people who are very supportive of the state of Israel. I’m very supportive of the state of Israel. So is Senator Hagel, and you’ll see that in the confirmation hearings. But it doesn’t mean you have to agree with every single position that the Israeli government takes.
The stakes will be high when Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, meets with New York Senator Chuck Schumer. Along with Republican John McCain, Schumer is the key to the question of whether critics of the appointment can rally enough votes to derail Hagel’s chances. Though he is understandably reluctant to pick a fight with the Obama administration, Schumer takes a dim view of Hagel’s antagonism toward Israel and the pro-Israel community as well as his soft stands on Iran. The question is whether Hagel’s rapid backtracking from these positions is persuasive enough to convince Schumer that trying to take him down is not worth the effort.
But regardless of the outcome of that meeting, the discussion about Hagel is bound to heat up in the coming days and weeks. Hagel’s past bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and his history of opposition to sanctions or the use of force against the Iranian nuclear threat places him outside of the mainstream of American opinion and also could create the dangerous impression that U.S. policy could be shifting. But there is a still a genuine reluctance on the part of many in the Jewish community to turn this nomination into an all-out battle that would pit the administration against the pro-Israel community. The dangers of such a confrontation, especially if Hagel were to survive a close vote, are real. But the argument here is that win or lose, this is a battle worth fighting.
In the Weekly Standard, political science professor Travis D. Smith has written a response piece to Jonathan Last’s Standardessay on the virtues of Batman as a hero of our (and all) time. Smith counters that in fact it is Spider-Man who embodies the noble spirit of the classically liberal order, and is more accessible than Batman as well.
But this discussion either ignores or underplays the single most important feature of the Batman canon, without which it cannot be properly understood: that Batman and his villains are human. This is not incidental to the storytelling of Gotham City’s travails. Other superhero stories may begin as modern political parables, but they immediately morph into something else entirely. X-Men, for example, may be an obvious retelling of the Civil Rights era, as Last noted, but it proceeds along classic comic lines: superhuman good guys fight superhuman bad guys. Batman is completely different in this respect. The stories follow the human paths on which they set out, offering far more value as a vehicle to telling our own story. On Batman’s lack of superhuman powers, in contrast to his favored Spider-Man (and just about every other superhero), Smith writes:
What else can one say to the news that the French are using their military might to push back al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels who have taken control of northern Mali–a vast region bigger than France itself? While the United Nations passed toothless resolutions and the U.S. expressed concern but did nothing, France’s President, Francois Hollande, acted. He has dispatched some 400 troops backed by helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft to stop the rebel advance, which threatened to engulf the part of Mali still held by the ramshackle government. The U.S., UK, and other allies are providing non-lethal assistance, but it is very much a French show.
This could well be a harbinger of things to come: Given the “lead from behind” doctrine that animates the current American administration, and the declining defense capabilities of Britain, France may well be left as the Western power on the front lines of the fight against Islamist extremism. This move is certainly in keeping with France’s traditionally activist role in its former African colonies–something that Hollande promised to abandon but now seems to be embracing.