Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 16, 2013

Jon Huntsman Can’t Get Over Himself

“Jon Huntsman Can’t Stop Talking About The Republican Party,” proclaims a Buzzfeed headline teasing an interview with the former GOP presidential candidate. And they weren’t kidding: the story was posted first thing in the morning yesterday, and by the end of lunch time they posted a second story on Huntsman’s interview. The glaring question–Does Jon Huntsman really have that much of interest to say?–has an unsurprising answer: Nope. But he assured the Buzzfeed editors that he had bestowed upon them a truly generous gift:

“I haven’t asked anyone for a single interview. I don’t do that,” he said, adding, “I’d say we take about 2 percent of the media requests that come in. Really.”

Having thus flattered his audience that they are more important to a former governor of Utah than 98 percent of the media out there, Huntsman proceeded to do what Huntsman does: speak for long periods of time without saying anything. Indeed, what’s striking about the two stories worth of interviews he did with Buzzfeed is the complete lack of policy ideas. He spent most of the time talking about how Republicans don’t like him, how much he enjoyed the movie Lincoln, and that he still believes in climate change.

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“Jon Huntsman Can’t Stop Talking About The Republican Party,” proclaims a Buzzfeed headline teasing an interview with the former GOP presidential candidate. And they weren’t kidding: the story was posted first thing in the morning yesterday, and by the end of lunch time they posted a second story on Huntsman’s interview. The glaring question–Does Jon Huntsman really have that much of interest to say?–has an unsurprising answer: Nope. But he assured the Buzzfeed editors that he had bestowed upon them a truly generous gift:

“I haven’t asked anyone for a single interview. I don’t do that,” he said, adding, “I’d say we take about 2 percent of the media requests that come in. Really.”

Having thus flattered his audience that they are more important to a former governor of Utah than 98 percent of the media out there, Huntsman proceeded to do what Huntsman does: speak for long periods of time without saying anything. Indeed, what’s striking about the two stories worth of interviews he did with Buzzfeed is the complete lack of policy ideas. He spent most of the time talking about how Republicans don’t like him, how much he enjoyed the movie Lincoln, and that he still believes in climate change.

He didn’t seem to put much effort into making excuses for his poor showing in the GOP primaries. But that doesn’t mean he’s stopped blaming his election woes on being too awesome for his own good. He recently spoke with the New York Times Magazine (which apparently made it into the elite 2 percent) as well. He’s had time to reflect upon his election losses, and here is the conclusion he’s drawn:

Honesty? You’re in the wrong business.
It’s terrible. You saw where honesty got me in the primary.

Obviously you’ve thought a lot about it. What went wrong?
When the decision was made to refuse any pandering — because my wife would have left me if I had done any of that — you pretty much disarm yourself. On top of that you have people like Michael Moore, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter coming out and giving you kudos as a sane Republican. That doesn’t play so well in the primary phase of Iowa or South Carolina.

The New York Times referred to you during the campaign as “an early favorite of the pundit classes.” Did you read that and think, I’m toast?
That’s the first dagger to the heart.

This is nonsense, because Mitch Daniels was also an early favorite of the pundit classes, and Daniels also received plaudits from liberal journalists and opinion writers. And yet, whereas Republicans begged Huntsman to leave, they pleaded with Daniels not to go. It isn’t honesty that got Huntsman in trouble, but how he expressed that honesty. The second Buzzfeed article recalls Huntsman’s tweet about global warming: “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” What got Huntsman in trouble was his palpable, oozing disdain for Republican voters. He doesn’t like them or their party, and it shows. In the Times Magazine interview, here is how he describes primary voters: “People aren’t turning out for primaries because they work for a living, and those who do turn out are professional activists.”

Surely Huntsman must understand that calling people bums or telling them they only have opinions because they’re paid to have those opinions isn’t the best prelude to asking them for their vote. And why would Huntsman want their vote anyway? Following Huntsman’s logic, it’s degrading to even ask a voter who cares enough about his party to vote in primaries for his support. And maybe that’s how Huntsman feels. But here’s a thought: if Huntsman doesn’t have any respect for the process, then maybe he shouldn’t take part in that process. Call me crazy.

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Morsi’s Context of Hate

The truth about the disgusting anti-Semitism that is at the core of the belief system of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt is finally gaining the attention it deserves. As we wrote yesterday, the belated coverage given by the New York Times yesterday puts the Obama administration’s embrace of the regime of President Mohamed Morsi in an extremely unflattering light. But when put on the spot about the video in which Morsi employed a standard Islamic epithet for Jews calling Israelis “the descendants of apes and pigs,” the White House and the State Department both condemned the Egyptian president’s statements, as did the Times in an editorial. But when a delegation of visiting U.S. senators confronted Morsi today over his hate speech, they got the sort of answer that ought to make Congress as well as the administration reconsider the continuation of the massive aid package that Egypt receives.

According to Reuters, Morsi told a group of senators, including John McCain and Richard Blumenthal, that his remarks were taken out of context. What conceivable context could justify this sort of hate? Morsi said his comments should be understood as an understandable response to Israel’s counterattack against terrorist rocket fire from Gaza. In other words, in the view of Egypt’s president an Israel willing to defend itself against the rocket attacks launched by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas ally is excuse for any sort of vile slander against the Jewish people or the United States. That may make sense in an Egyptian political culture in which anti-Semitism has become so drilled into the minds of the people by groups like the Brotherhood as to be unexceptionable. But it can only be a reminder to Americans that while we desire friendship with the Egyptian people, there can be no question of further American subsidies for a regime that is built on hate.

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The truth about the disgusting anti-Semitism that is at the core of the belief system of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt is finally gaining the attention it deserves. As we wrote yesterday, the belated coverage given by the New York Times yesterday puts the Obama administration’s embrace of the regime of President Mohamed Morsi in an extremely unflattering light. But when put on the spot about the video in which Morsi employed a standard Islamic epithet for Jews calling Israelis “the descendants of apes and pigs,” the White House and the State Department both condemned the Egyptian president’s statements, as did the Times in an editorial. But when a delegation of visiting U.S. senators confronted Morsi today over his hate speech, they got the sort of answer that ought to make Congress as well as the administration reconsider the continuation of the massive aid package that Egypt receives.

According to Reuters, Morsi told a group of senators, including John McCain and Richard Blumenthal, that his remarks were taken out of context. What conceivable context could justify this sort of hate? Morsi said his comments should be understood as an understandable response to Israel’s counterattack against terrorist rocket fire from Gaza. In other words, in the view of Egypt’s president an Israel willing to defend itself against the rocket attacks launched by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas ally is excuse for any sort of vile slander against the Jewish people or the United States. That may make sense in an Egyptian political culture in which anti-Semitism has become so drilled into the minds of the people by groups like the Brotherhood as to be unexceptionable. But it can only be a reminder to Americans that while we desire friendship with the Egyptian people, there can be no question of further American subsidies for a regime that is built on hate.

Ever since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, much of the American media as well as the administration has chosen to buy into the myth that the Brotherhood is composed of well meaning moderate Muslims who aren’t different from any other political or social party except for the fact that they take their faith seriously. That was always a transparent lie easily dismissed by those who knew anything about the Brotherhood’s history and ideology. But the notice given to the Morsi video, unearthed by the essential Memri.org group that monitors the Arab media, has made it impossible for Washington to go on pretending that normal, friendly relations were truly possible with Cairo while it was ruled by Morsi and his party.

There will be those who will argue that while Morsi’s calumnies are to be condemned, they are matched by hate speech uttered by Israelis. The Times slipped in a piece of this sort of false moral equivalence in its editorial when it stated:

The sad truth is that defaming Jews is an all too standard feature of Egyptian, and Arab, discourse; Israelis are not immune to responding in kind either.

While it cannot be denied that individual Israelis are as capable of uttering vile things as any other group of humans, there is no comparison between stray haters and the way anti-Semitism and hatred of the West is mainstream discourse in the Muslim and Arab worlds. It should also be pointed out that while hatred of Jews and Israel is part of the standard curricula in Arab countries (this is especially the case in Gaza and the West Bank), peace education is standard in Israeli schools. Israel’s leaders, be they from the left or the right, have always condemned hate against Arabs as well as instances of violence or discrimination. To mention Israeli attitudes against Arabs in the same breath with a discussion of the Arab and Muslim prejudice against Jews that fuels the ongoing war against the Jewish state is to turn the truth on its head.

It is to be hoped that McCain and Blumenthal and their colleagues will return home from Cairo determined to press the administration to stop coddling Morsi and the Brotherhood as well as to put a hold on any further disbursement of the billions in U.S. taxpayer cash to Egypt. If they don’t, Morsi will be forgiven for concluding that he is free to say and do anything he likes without fear of being held accountable by his American patrons.

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Gun Control and the Obama Way

On President Obama’s proposal for curbing gun violence, I have several thoughts.

1. Even when I agree in substance with the president, as I do in this instance, I find his combination of self-righteousness and demagoguery to be off-putting. In his remarks earlier today, for example, the president once again took to the task of demonizing his opponents, something he does more promiscuously than any president I can recall.

For Mr. Obama, it’s never about honest differences over policies. His political opponents have to be painted as morally obtuse, cruel and motivated by the basest considerations. (The president, of course, is always portraying himself as hovering far above politics, a man of stainless integrity and motives that are pure as the driven snow. Which is quite a feat for a man who ran a billion-dollar campaign of unusual ruthlessness and dishonesty.)

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On President Obama’s proposal for curbing gun violence, I have several thoughts.

1. Even when I agree in substance with the president, as I do in this instance, I find his combination of self-righteousness and demagoguery to be off-putting. In his remarks earlier today, for example, the president once again took to the task of demonizing his opponents, something he does more promiscuously than any president I can recall.

For Mr. Obama, it’s never about honest differences over policies. His political opponents have to be painted as morally obtuse, cruel and motivated by the basest considerations. (The president, of course, is always portraying himself as hovering far above politics, a man of stainless integrity and motives that are pure as the driven snow. Which is quite a feat for a man who ran a billion-dollar campaign of unusual ruthlessness and dishonesty.)

In this instance, Mr. Obama posed the choices this way: Are members of Congress doing what it takes to “get an A grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns? Or giving parents some piece of mind when they drop their child off to 1st grade?” It’s not that his critics believe his proposals will be worthless or even wrong. No, their motivation is to “gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves.”

I happen to know people–good, decent, and thoughtful people–who disagree with me on guns. They are more absolutist on the Second Amendment than I am. And shockingly, they care about their children as much as Mr. Obama does. In fact, many of them care for their unborn children far more than Obama does.

Mr. Obama’s political libel is so common that people have come to accept it. And journalists who jump on back-benchers from the GOP for their incivility never call out Obama on his ugly little game. I wonder if Obama understands how much damage he’s doing to America’s political culture, or if he even cares.

2. As for the substance of what the president is advocating: He’s calling for expanded background checks, broader sharing of databases among law enforcement officials, more aggressive prosecutions for crimes under existing laws, prohibition of high-capacity magazine clips (like the 30-round magazines that the police said Adam Lanza used in the Newton massacre), improving mental-health reporting requirements by federal agencies, calling on the CDC to conduct research on gun violence, bans on certain types of semi-automatic rifles, and blocking the importation of certain guns made overseas. 

Most of these measures sound fairly reasonable to me. And whether or not I’m right about that, these steps do not qualify as an assault on the Second Amendment.

As Justice Antonin Scalia has pointed out in United States v. Heller, like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It leaves room to regulate guns; you don’t have a constitutional right to own a RPG or a machine gun.

What we’re talking about, then, is a prudential application of restrictions on guns. I would prefer that the president advance his agenda through legislation rather than through 23 executive orders, in order to respect the separation of powers and the role of Congress in such matters. But in terms of the substance of what he wants, I for one find the proposals to be unobjectionable and in some cases meritorious.

3. What about the slippery-slope argument? It’s true that we need to be more alert to it with some presidents than others. But as George Will once said, life is lived on a slippery slope. Taxation can become confiscation, he pointed out, and police could become Gestapos. One could invoke the slippery slope argument in order to undo seat belt laws and argue that people should be able to own machine guns and M-1 tanks. Resorting to the slippery-slope argument is often, though not always, a sign of intellectual laziness. It can also be a concession that a person doesn’t feel confident they can win on the merits of the particular case, so they decide to manufacture another debate. So an argument about restricting 30-round magazines becomes a debate about the right to bear arms, when in fact they’re separable. 

4. Having said all this, my guess is that the proposals by the president will have very modest, and almost certainly no appreciable, effect on gun violence. Most of the proposals being advocated would have done nothing to stop the mass killings of recent years–and those that directly bear on them could be relatively easily overcome by sociopaths. I’ve also pointed out before that respected studies have found that the evidence is insufficient to determine whether firearms laws are effective. I actually think that having a greater police presence at schools would do more to curb violence than anything the president is proposing. That seems to me to be an obvious conclusion; the only question is how practical and costly it might be.

All of which means the Obama proposals are, I think, fairly reasonable, but they may well prove to be nugatory. We should therefore go into this with modest expectations and pay attention to what the empirical findings show.

5. If some on the right are too critical of what the president is trying to do, then some on the left are engaged in moral posturing and an obsessive fixation with gun control. CNN, and Piers Morgan in particular, seem most guilty of this. They have devoted countless hours to the gun issue, arguing for steps that at best might be marginally effective. The heat and anger this debate is generating is odd, given that the things we’re talking about are minor changes that probably won’t have any measurable effect on violence, which itself has dropped massively since the mid-1990s.

6. In his comments today Mr. Obama mentioned that “more than 900 of our fellow Americans have reportedly died at the end of a gun in the past month.” Is it indecorous to point out that deaths on this scale were happening during Obama’s first term, yet he didn’t lift a finger on gun control? Which, to turn the tables on Mr. Obama, raises the question: Was he cruelly indifferent to these killings? 

In addition, the president’s proposals today would have done virtually nothing to save any of those 900 lives. So why doesn’t the president endorse what from his perspective would be real steps to curb gun violence, such as those taken in Australia, where, as the New York Times points out, a 1996 mass shooting led to banning the sale, importation and possession of semiautomatic rifles and by removing 700,000 guns from circulation.

Is it that Mr. Obama has no interest in giving parents some piece of mind when they drop their child off to 1st grade? Was he afraid of taking on the NRA? Was he afraid Democrats might lose seats in Congress? Or maybe he is icily indifferent to the 6,220 people who were killed by handguns in 2011 (versus 323 by rifles). Why doesn’t the president show the political courage to argue for removing handguns from Americans in order to protect the most vulnerable among us? One possibility is that Obama, for political reasons, isn’t willing to do what most of us believe he’d like to do, which would make him no better than those he castigates.

7. One final comment on Obama’s rhetorical tricks. On both same-sex marriage and raising the debt-limit ceiling, Obama was against those things before he was for them. But Obama, being Obama, has to characterize those who hold positions he once held as moral cretins and nihilists.

Call it the Obama way. Even on those rare occasions when I find myself in agreement with Mr. Obama, I cannot help but find his haughtiness and hypocrisy a bit difficult to take. My guess is I’m not alone. 

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Choosing Nomination Battles

Republicans don’t seem to be retreating from the battle over Chuck Hagel. Senator James Inhofe, the new ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has added his name to the list of Republicans opposing the defense secretary nominee. The question is, how far will the party be willing to go on this fight? There are other nominations it has an interest in fighting, including Jack Lew for treasury secretary, John Kerry for secretary of state, and John Brennan for CIA chief. In the end, it will only be able to choose a couple to focus on.

The point of battling Lew wouldn’t necessarily be to prevent his confirmation outright, because there is no indication that Obama would choose someone preferable. But threatening a fight could help bring attention to policy differences between the GOP and the White House, and hold Lew accountable for his slippery relationship with the truth.

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Republicans don’t seem to be retreating from the battle over Chuck Hagel. Senator James Inhofe, the new ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has added his name to the list of Republicans opposing the defense secretary nominee. The question is, how far will the party be willing to go on this fight? There are other nominations it has an interest in fighting, including Jack Lew for treasury secretary, John Kerry for secretary of state, and John Brennan for CIA chief. In the end, it will only be able to choose a couple to focus on.

The point of battling Lew wouldn’t necessarily be to prevent his confirmation outright, because there is no indication that Obama would choose someone preferable. But threatening a fight could help bring attention to policy differences between the GOP and the White House, and hold Lew accountable for his slippery relationship with the truth.

Brennan is a different story. Republicans don’t necessarily have a problem with his nomination, but they want to block him primarily as leverage to uncover more information about Benghazi. This is less defensible than blocking a nominee because of concerns over competency, temperament, policy differences, etc. Democrats will frame it as political gamesmanship, and they will have a point.

There have been some rumblings about opposing Kerry, but none serious and he’s expected to get through easily.

At this point, the Hagel fight appears to be the most winnable one for Republicans. The fact that he disavowed his past positions suggests the White House realizes the political risks of having a big, public debate over Middle East and Iran policy. Senate Democrats seem willing to support Hagel, but are they really willing to fight for him? Not just during the confirmation hearings, but also if his confirmation ends up getting blocked? I can’t imagine they want this debate either, which, for Republicans, may be all the more reason to go ahead with it.

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Abbas: “Right of Return” Trumps Palestinian Lives

The poll cited by Rick Richman earlier, showing that 56 percent of Palestinians oppose the “everyone knows” parameters of a two-state solution, would come as a surprise only to someone who has slept through the last 13 years, during which Palestinian leaders repeatedly rejected Israeli offers along those lines. But what polls can’t answer is whether this opposition is deep-seated and resistant to change, or shallow and easily reversible if only Israel would agree to a settlement freeze, or prisoner releases, or whatever the Palestinian demand du jour for resuming negotiations is.

Last week, however, the Palestinian Authority answered that question decisively: It announced that it would rather leave hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to rot in the hell of war-torn Syria than grant them refuge in the West Bank, because the price of doing so was for those specific refugees to renounce their alleged “right of return” to Israel. In other words, saving thousands or even tens of thousands of Palestinian lives was less important to PA President Mahmoud Abbas than preserving his dream of someday destroying the Jewish state demographically by flooding it with millions of Palestinian refugees.

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The poll cited by Rick Richman earlier, showing that 56 percent of Palestinians oppose the “everyone knows” parameters of a two-state solution, would come as a surprise only to someone who has slept through the last 13 years, during which Palestinian leaders repeatedly rejected Israeli offers along those lines. But what polls can’t answer is whether this opposition is deep-seated and resistant to change, or shallow and easily reversible if only Israel would agree to a settlement freeze, or prisoner releases, or whatever the Palestinian demand du jour for resuming negotiations is.

Last week, however, the Palestinian Authority answered that question decisively: It announced that it would rather leave hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to rot in the hell of war-torn Syria than grant them refuge in the West Bank, because the price of doing so was for those specific refugees to renounce their alleged “right of return” to Israel. In other words, saving thousands or even tens of thousands of Palestinian lives was less important to PA President Mahmoud Abbas than preserving his dream of someday destroying the Jewish state demographically by flooding it with millions of Palestinian refugees.

The issue arose last month, after Syrian forces bombed Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. Dozens were killed, and about half the camp’s 150,000 residents fled, becoming homeless at the height of the worst winter of the past decade. So Abbas, via UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, sought permission from Israel (which controls the borders) to let these refugees enter the PA. Israel did agree, Abbas later admitted to journalists in Cairo. But it imposed one condition:

Abbas said Ban was told Israel “agreed to the return of those refugees to Gaza and the West Bank, but on condition that each refugee … sign a statement that he doesn’t have the right of return (to Israel).”

“So we rejected that and said it’s better they die in Syria than give up their right of return,” Abbas told the group.

Abbas didn’t bother asking the refugees themselves–most of whom have never set foot in Israel, which their parents or grandparents fled 64 years ago–whether they considered their families’ lives and well-being a higher priority than preserving a notional “right of return” to a country they have never seen, which they are highly unlikely ever to be able to realize. He simply decided that letting them die was preferable to giving up the fantasy of someday eradicating Israel by turning it into a Palestinian-majority state. And this is the man dubbed “the most moderate and serious” Palestinian leader ever.

In an astounding editorial two weeks ago, the Washington Post–hardly a bastion of the Israeli right–blasted the West’s “overheated rhetoric on Israeli settlements,” noting that not only is it wrong to claim “settlements are the principal obstacle to a deal,” but it’s counterproductive, because it encourages Abbas to keep “using settlements as an excuse for intransigence.” It was one of the most honest summations of the situation I’ve seen anywhere. But even an editorialist this clear-sighted couldn’t bring himself to say what the “principal obstacle to a deal” was.

Abbas, however, unequivocally answered that question last week: The principal obstacle to a deal is that Palestinians still haven’t given up their goal of destroying the Jewish state. And it’s high time the world began acknowledging that fact. For if “the most moderate and serious” Palestinian leader ever would rather see thousands of his countrymen slaughtered than give up his dream of destroying Israel, the two-state solution doesn’t stand a chance.

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Conflict in Mali Just Getting Started

Mali is getting even more deeply enmeshed in a guerrilla war pitting Islamist insurgents against French troops and their African allies. The latest developments include reports that, following air strikes, French troops are involved in their first ground combat. Rather predictably, despite their blood-curdling rhetoric–one fighter with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb told a Western reporter, “Even if they come at us with nuclear bombs, we will defend the terrain. This is going to be worse than Afghanistan!”–the rebel fighters generally prefer to melt away rather than confront far better-armed and better-trained French forces.

This is straight out of the Guerrilla 101 playbook. As Mao Zedong famously counseled: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”

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Mali is getting even more deeply enmeshed in a guerrilla war pitting Islamist insurgents against French troops and their African allies. The latest developments include reports that, following air strikes, French troops are involved in their first ground combat. Rather predictably, despite their blood-curdling rhetoric–one fighter with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb told a Western reporter, “Even if they come at us with nuclear bombs, we will defend the terrain. This is going to be worse than Afghanistan!”–the rebel fighters generally prefer to melt away rather than confront far better-armed and better-trained French forces.

This is straight out of the Guerrilla 101 playbook. As Mao Zedong famously counseled: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”

While waiting for the enemy–in this case the French–to tire, the insurgents are striking out in other directions against easier targets. Thus they ventured into Algeria to kidnap foreign oil workers, including American, British and French citizens. While this kidnapping operation has already made a media splash, it is a miscalculation on the insurgents’ part.

For a start, it only reinforces the general perception throughout Africa and the West that the rebel fighters are savages who must be resisted, while doing little to undermine the French will to stay on the offensive. More significantly, this criminal act risks widening the number of enemies the rebels must face. By violating Algerian sovereignty, the Malian Islamists risk drawing into the conflict against them the Algerian armed forces, which repressed an Islamist uprising on their own soil in the 1990s with considerable brutality and effectiveness. And by kidnapping Americans, they could well lead to the deployment of U.S. Special Operations Forces to rescue the hostages and assist the French. Thus the rebels have actually handed a gift to their enemies.

That does not mean, however, that the campaign will finish anytime soon. It is one thing for the French to take a few towns out of rebel hands. Altogether more difficult will be securing the countryside and preventing the rebels from regaining control of the urban areas as soon as the French troops leave. As I note in my new book Invisible Armies, the average insurgency since 1945 has lasted nearly 10 years. The conflict in Mali, whatever the outcome of the battles currently being waged, has a long way yet to run.

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Denier Label a Way to Avoid Debt Debate

The administration and its media allies are ramping up the pressure on Republicans determined not to vote for another hike in the debt ceiling without a meaningful agreement from the White House about entitlement reform and cutting spending. The president is refusing even to talk to the GOP about any deal in order to gain their assent for expanding the government’s ability to keep running up the debt and trying to paint them as insensitive misers who want sick children to suffer. In response, some conservatives have argued that the apocalyptic talk about the impact of a failure to reach an agreement about the debt ceiling is absurd hyperbole since what would follow would not be a default in any real sense. But now some of his allies in the media are going one step further by branding those who have said such an eventuality can be managed without the government failing to meet its obligations as “debt deniers.”

The term denier is a loaded one in contemporary political discourse. In common usage these days, deniers aren’t merely people who say something that others believe is not true. They are troglodyte reactionary haters who don’t accept the scientific community orthodoxy about global warming or, even worse, claim the Holocaust never happened or that 9/11 was an U.S. government or Israeli plot. Yet “Default Deniers” is the headline Politico placed on an article devoted to examining the views of people Like Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey or Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz. Conservatives were allowed to defend their thesis about the consequences of not raising the debt limit in the article even though the thrust of the piece was aimed at portraying Toomey, Chaffetz and those who agree with them as extremists determined to ruin the country for the sake of their ideology. But the use of this sort of language about their views is about an effort to avoid discussion about the merits of the arguments on this issue and to cast aspersions about the motives of those who oppose the president’s desire for a blank check to keep spending.

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The administration and its media allies are ramping up the pressure on Republicans determined not to vote for another hike in the debt ceiling without a meaningful agreement from the White House about entitlement reform and cutting spending. The president is refusing even to talk to the GOP about any deal in order to gain their assent for expanding the government’s ability to keep running up the debt and trying to paint them as insensitive misers who want sick children to suffer. In response, some conservatives have argued that the apocalyptic talk about the impact of a failure to reach an agreement about the debt ceiling is absurd hyperbole since what would follow would not be a default in any real sense. But now some of his allies in the media are going one step further by branding those who have said such an eventuality can be managed without the government failing to meet its obligations as “debt deniers.”

The term denier is a loaded one in contemporary political discourse. In common usage these days, deniers aren’t merely people who say something that others believe is not true. They are troglodyte reactionary haters who don’t accept the scientific community orthodoxy about global warming or, even worse, claim the Holocaust never happened or that 9/11 was an U.S. government or Israeli plot. Yet “Default Deniers” is the headline Politico placed on an article devoted to examining the views of people Like Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey or Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz. Conservatives were allowed to defend their thesis about the consequences of not raising the debt limit in the article even though the thrust of the piece was aimed at portraying Toomey, Chaffetz and those who agree with them as extremists determined to ruin the country for the sake of their ideology. But the use of this sort of language about their views is about an effort to avoid discussion about the merits of the arguments on this issue and to cast aspersions about the motives of those who oppose the president’s desire for a blank check to keep spending.

The views of those who see a halt to the routine raising of the debt ceiling are debatable. Their strongest argument is that even if it were not raised, the government would still have plenty of money to pay many off its bills but would have to prioritize which of its obligations would be satisfied first. That would mean debt payments and Social Security checks could still go out. Proposed legislation that would set those priorities would ensure that there would be no default even after the ceiling was reached.

However, critics are right to note that such a path would still upset the markets and the uncertainty might trigger a number of unforeseen circumstances that could adversely impact the economy. As even Toomey concedes, forcing the government to operate without an increased debt limit isn’t desirable. That’s why many conservatives worry that playing the debt ceiling card is a political error that can only hurt the GOP and help President Obama without doing the country much good.

Yet the attempt to brand those Republicans as extremists or to use the “denier” label on them is merely one more effort to avoid having a debate about government spending. Contrary to the president’s assertion that raising the ceiling is just a matter of Congress paying its bills, this is about an effort to end Washington’s practice of unchecked spending. Though it is politically perilous, it is the only method in sight to call the president to account for refusing to negotiate real spending cuts.

Rather than come down off his high horse and deal with the country’s chronic spending problems, the president has sought to demonize the other side in this discussion. But if you call your opponents deniers or even terrorists, as many liberals have labeled conservatives who want to stop the spending orgy do, you don’t have to talk with them or even discuss the issue. While the outcome of a default is uncertain and possibly dangerous, refusing to talk about the issue is a formula for fiscal catastrophe in the long run.

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Rewriting History on ‘Torture’

Kathryn Bigelow, the Zero Dark Thirty director who has been attacked by senators and anti-war types for her portrayal of how enhanced interrogation helped intelligence officials track down Osama bin Laden, has published a very sharp response to her critics:

On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices. 

Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences. …

Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.

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Kathryn Bigelow, the Zero Dark Thirty director who has been attacked by senators and anti-war types for her portrayal of how enhanced interrogation helped intelligence officials track down Osama bin Laden, has published a very sharp response to her critics:

On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices. 

Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences. …

Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.

From some reason, enhanced interrogation critics hate to admit that opposing these techniques for moral reasons and opposing them because they are ineffective are entirely independent arguments. You don’t see this reaction with other issues. For example, you can criticize Lance Armstrong’s steroid use without needing to claim that doping is ineffective. And people are generally aware that driving over the speed limit is a bad idea, without insisting that it won’t get them to their destination faster. 

But enhanced interrogation opponents get offended whenever it’s pointed out that these tactics contributed to keeping America safe. They’re so intent on ignoring reality that they would prefer Hollywood rewrite history rather than acknowledge the benefits of enhanced interrogation. As Bigelow rightly notes, that historical revisionism is a disservice to the men and women of the CIA who put their lives at risk in the Global War on Terror. They deserve to have their stories portrayed accurately, not airbrushed to fit a political agenda.

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Gun Push Is About Second Term Momentum

Even before President Obama announced his much-ballyhooed package of gun control proposals it was already clear that he had little or no chance to gain passage of the most talked about element of the package: a new assault weapons ban. Nor, as even as sympathetic a forum as the New York Times noted, was there much connection between most of what he is putting forward and the Newtown shooting, which serves as the impetus for raising this issue. Yet with the family members of the victims and children who wrote letters to the White House around them today, the president is plowing ahead determined to make the most of this opportunity to put an emotional issue at the center of the nation’s political agenda.

The president’s decision to go big with his gun proposal is made possible by the country’s shock and horror over the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Yet the far-ranging list of executive action and proposed laws is intended to deal with what the president called an epidemic of gun violence, not more incidents like Newtown. Some of them are anodyne in nature and unlikely to prompt much in the way of serious protest. Others, like the idea of a universal background check, are also designed to gain broad support. But the event held today isn’t going to lead to anything that will prevent another such atrocity. What it is designed to do is to give the president an emotional issue with which he can generate momentum that will start his second term on a strong note and with his Congressional opponents on the defensive.

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Even before President Obama announced his much-ballyhooed package of gun control proposals it was already clear that he had little or no chance to gain passage of the most talked about element of the package: a new assault weapons ban. Nor, as even as sympathetic a forum as the New York Times noted, was there much connection between most of what he is putting forward and the Newtown shooting, which serves as the impetus for raising this issue. Yet with the family members of the victims and children who wrote letters to the White House around them today, the president is plowing ahead determined to make the most of this opportunity to put an emotional issue at the center of the nation’s political agenda.

The president’s decision to go big with his gun proposal is made possible by the country’s shock and horror over the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Yet the far-ranging list of executive action and proposed laws is intended to deal with what the president called an epidemic of gun violence, not more incidents like Newtown. Some of them are anodyne in nature and unlikely to prompt much in the way of serious protest. Others, like the idea of a universal background check, are also designed to gain broad support. But the event held today isn’t going to lead to anything that will prevent another such atrocity. What it is designed to do is to give the president an emotional issue with which he can generate momentum that will start his second term on a strong note and with his Congressional opponents on the defensive.

Senate Democrats have already signaled to the president that they are not interested in a vote on an assault weapons ban even if passing it there would put the onus on House Republicans who will vote it down if it gets to them. Though the president used dramatic rhetoric about the need for more gun regulations today, it is doubtful that invoking the victims of Newtown and other tragedies will convince Congress to pass weapons bans that won’t do much to reduce crime. Nor is the unpopularity of the National Rifle Association or their bungling attempts to push back at NRA critics enough to produce the sort of sweeping legislation that would conform to the president’s wishes.

But the use of the White House ceremony as a bully pulpit to hound Congress on guns does give the president a stick with which he can beat Republicans both this year and perhaps even next year at the midterm elections.

President Obama vowed to go the mat to get Congress to support his proposals, but this push should not be seen as unrelated to the other conflicts the White House will be having with the GOP. The rhetoric and the tone of the president’s statements about guns are clearly aimed at isolating Republicans and branding them as extremists in much the same way he has spoken about raising the debt ceiling and taxes. He clearly hopes to win at least some of the fights he is picking with them on guns just as he has did with the fiscal cliff. But even if he loses, the overall strategy here is not so much about getting any specific measures passed as it is to brand his opponents as irresponsible and heartless.

The president knows that his re-election gives him a finite amount of political capital and a limited amount of time to use it. Most of his predecessors have squandered their second terms on failed efforts, like George W. Bush’s immigration and entitlement reform proposals, and were quickly reduced to the status of lame ducks. But exploiting Newtown in this manner even if he doesn’t get his way on assault weapons has the potential to give President Obama the ability to stay on the offensive and keep Republicans off-balance and reacting to his initiatives, rather than attacking on their issues like cutting spending. With the help of an always pliant mainstream media that is happy to let liberals drape themselves in the bloody garments of the Newtown massacre, President Obama may have given himself a major momentum surge no matter what happens in Congress to this legislation.

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The Russian Adoption Ban and the Return of Kremlinology

The historian Robert Conquest once wrote that one of the fundamentally flawed assumptions of political scientists seeking to establish a “scientific” approach to understanding the Soviet Union was that they insisted the tension between the United States and the USSR stemmed from the two countries misunderstanding each other. In fact, Conquest wrote, the opposite is true: “U.S.-Soviet relations have always been good when the United States misunderstood the USSR.” FDR and Jimmy Carter were his prime examples. One of the pitfalls of “Kremlinology,” however, was that “members of the Politburo themselves do not know which way they are going to jump tomorrow.” They would wait “to see how the political wind blew.”

Many things have changed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, but Conquest’s observations retain surprising relevance to us. Today, the government of Vladimir Putin has made no secret of Putin’s intentions and his attitude toward the U.S. And as Conquest would have it, relations between our two countries are considerably sour. And Putin’s bureaucratic drones in his “power vertical” are today still waiting to see which way the wind blows before knowing how to carry out their orders. Both these seemingly eternal truths are evident in the fallout from Putin’s horrifically cruel ban on American adoption of Russian orphans. The New York Times today builds one story about the ban around the Preeces, a couple from Idaho who are in Moscow to (hopefully) take home a 4-year-old boy with Down syndrome they are adopting. Their adoption was approved before the ban, and Putin has since suggested that the moratorium on adoptions would be postponed a year. But he has sent mixed signals, and the Russian bureaucracy has no idea what to do about cases that should be straightforward, like those of the Preeces:

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The historian Robert Conquest once wrote that one of the fundamentally flawed assumptions of political scientists seeking to establish a “scientific” approach to understanding the Soviet Union was that they insisted the tension between the United States and the USSR stemmed from the two countries misunderstanding each other. In fact, Conquest wrote, the opposite is true: “U.S.-Soviet relations have always been good when the United States misunderstood the USSR.” FDR and Jimmy Carter were his prime examples. One of the pitfalls of “Kremlinology,” however, was that “members of the Politburo themselves do not know which way they are going to jump tomorrow.” They would wait “to see how the political wind blew.”

Many things have changed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, but Conquest’s observations retain surprising relevance to us. Today, the government of Vladimir Putin has made no secret of Putin’s intentions and his attitude toward the U.S. And as Conquest would have it, relations between our two countries are considerably sour. And Putin’s bureaucratic drones in his “power vertical” are today still waiting to see which way the wind blows before knowing how to carry out their orders. Both these seemingly eternal truths are evident in the fallout from Putin’s horrifically cruel ban on American adoption of Russian orphans. The New York Times today builds one story about the ban around the Preeces, a couple from Idaho who are in Moscow to (hopefully) take home a 4-year-old boy with Down syndrome they are adopting. Their adoption was approved before the ban, and Putin has since suggested that the moratorium on adoptions would be postponed a year. But he has sent mixed signals, and the Russian bureaucracy has no idea what to do about cases that should be straightforward, like those of the Preeces:

But instead of making plans for the return flight home, the Preeces and at least five other families are now caught in legalistic limbo, as various officials within Russia’s sprawling bureaucracy try to figure out precisely what the ban means, and — perhaps more important — what higher-ups at the Kremlin actually want and expect them to do.

At a court hearing on Tuesday, Judge Alexandra S. Lopatkina said she could not sign a decree finalizing the Preeces’ adoption without further guidance from Russia’s Supreme Court. Even if she signed the decree, she said, there was no guarantee that other officials would issue the boy a passport. And even if he was granted a passport, she said, immigration agents might block his departure at the airport.

The ban is not universally supported in Russia. There have been impressive public protests against it, and some lawmakers oppose it as well. But other lawmakers and Russian media push back against the supposed cruelty of the adoption ban, some going as far as claiming Americans adopt Russian children to steal their organs or force them into the army. But in fact the ban is cruel, because as one official at an adoption facilitation service told the Times, “only Americans really volunteer to adopt special needs children.”

And the Russian bureaucracy is nothing like what Americans think of when they have to wait in line or press 1 for English. Read Miriam Elder’s story of how the Russian dry-cleaning bureaucracy drove her to tears, and imagine how much harder it would be to adopt a Russian child after Putin has banned the activity. You can circumvent the Russian bureaucracy’s arbitrary hostility if you’re a world-famous actor fleeing French taxation, as Gerard Depardieu learned when he received his Russian passport in about one day, when a simple perusal through the requirements for an internal passport make it seem almost not worth the effort. (When asked by a Russian news service how Depardieu got a passport so fast, a spokeswoman from the Russian Federal Migration Service responded: “It was an exceptional case by decree of the President. And what you have a problem with this?”)

But of course the real problem with all this is that Putin is confident he can torment American families at his whim, because the Obama administration no longer holds any leverage in the bilateral relationship and would like Putin’s cooperation on several foreign policy related issues in Obama’s second term, as the Washington Post reports. And Kommersant reports that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is heading to Russia to meet with Putin after Obama’s inauguration. Donlion would like to “reset” the “reset,” and he will come bearing a some more concessions to sweeten the pot:

The source said that the White House does not include the post-Soviet space in its list of foreign policy priorities, as its main focus is on Asia (“containing China”), the Middle East and Europe.

That is a reference to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent comments that the U.S. planned to disrupt and stop Putin’s plans for a “Eurasian Union,” warning that it was Putin’s attempt to “re-Sovietize” the region. Perhaps the Obama administration plans to fall back on Conquest’s point about FDR and Carter and “unlearn” what it has found out about Putin’s Russia. After all, knowing what we know now, how could Obama justify that “flexibility” he promised Putin–a promise he seems dispiritingly eager to keep?

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Germany Helps Companies Evade Iran Sanctions

Michael Spaney from Europe’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign has sent out a press release detailing the latest activity of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce, which today is hosting a seminar in Hamburg to encourage German firms to do business in Iran and tutor German investors on how to evade sanctions:

The seminar offers advice on “application processes” to “goods inspections” in the “oil, gas and petrochemical sector” – that means in the energy sector which is under EU sanctions. Thus, the Chamber of Commerce focuses on business as usual where EU sanctions are supposed to unfold their impact. The German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce is one of the main lobby groups for maintaining the relationship with the regime in Tehran. The chamber offers ongoing monitoring of business in Iran, helping Iranian companies in the establishment of offices in Germany and in investments, and provides comprehensive support to German companies in their business with Iran.

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Michael Spaney from Europe’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign has sent out a press release detailing the latest activity of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce, which today is hosting a seminar in Hamburg to encourage German firms to do business in Iran and tutor German investors on how to evade sanctions:

The seminar offers advice on “application processes” to “goods inspections” in the “oil, gas and petrochemical sector” – that means in the energy sector which is under EU sanctions. Thus, the Chamber of Commerce focuses on business as usual where EU sanctions are supposed to unfold their impact. The German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce is one of the main lobby groups for maintaining the relationship with the regime in Tehran. The chamber offers ongoing monitoring of business in Iran, helping Iranian companies in the establishment of offices in Germany and in investments, and provides comprehensive support to German companies in their business with Iran.

Despite the opposition of President Obama—and his defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel—it has been the U.S. and European unilateral sanctions toward Iran’s central bank and energy sector that have proven most effective. And contrary to the insistence of some Iran experts and anti-sanctions activists, China hasn’t simply filled the gap. How unfortunate that the weak link in sanctions meant to avoid military action against Iran is coming from Germany. Perhaps detecting President Obama’s own lackluster commitment to preventing Iranian nuclear breakout, Germany figures now is as good a time as any to make a quick buck.

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What is the NRA Thinking?

Needless to say, the past few weeks haven’t been great for the National Rifle Association from a PR perspective. Shortly after Wayne LaPierre’s controversial speech blaming 1990s-era video games and movies for the Sandy Hook shooting, the NRA was accused of releasing a simulated target-shooting app.

There is still some confusion over whether the game was actually issued by the NRA, or whether it was a hoax aimed at embarrassing the group. But at the moment, evidence points to the former–the game’s developer told the New York Times that it was, in fact, an officially-licensed product of the NRA. There is an easy solution to the mystery: if the game is not the NRA’s, the group could issue a statement explaining that. Its silence seems to suggest otherwise. 

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Needless to say, the past few weeks haven’t been great for the National Rifle Association from a PR perspective. Shortly after Wayne LaPierre’s controversial speech blaming 1990s-era video games and movies for the Sandy Hook shooting, the NRA was accused of releasing a simulated target-shooting app.

There is still some confusion over whether the game was actually issued by the NRA, or whether it was a hoax aimed at embarrassing the group. But at the moment, evidence points to the former–the game’s developer told the New York Times that it was, in fact, an officially-licensed product of the NRA. There is an easy solution to the mystery: if the game is not the NRA’s, the group could issue a statement explaining that. Its silence seems to suggest otherwise. 

That isn’t the only strange move from the gun rights lobbying group. They also released an aggressive ad about Obama’s children, calling the president an “elitist hypocrite” for opposing armed security at public schools while his own kids are protected by armed guards. It’s not that the sentiment is wrong–it’s that the ad itself isn’t politically helpful for the NRA. It comes off as fiery and partisan, during a time when many Democrats are standing up against the president’s overreach on gun control. Why intentionally antagonize Democratic allies at the very moment they’re needed most?

As Jim Geraghty noted in today’s Morning Jolt, public polling is not on Obama’s side on this issue. Americans largely support armed guards at schools, which is why the NRA’s hyper-aggressive strategy seems so unnecessary. A softer ad that focused on general child safety and stayed away from combative language would be much more helpful for the organization’s case.

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Rubio to the Rescue

In the aftermath of a GOP presidential primary in which candidates spoke about “self-deportation” and building “electric fences,” it’s not surprising the Republican nominee lost the Hispanic vote in 2012. But it’s the margin of the defeat that is staggering: 44 points. This, after George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.

The GOP has a problem with the fastest growing demographic group in America–and Florida Senator Marco Rubio knows it and is determined to do something about it.

As this interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Kaminski demonstrates, Senator Rubio has thought through the issue with care and thoroughness–from border security, to moving us toward merit and skill-based legal immigration, to increasing the number of visas for permanent and seasonal farm workers, to workplace enforcement, to what to do with the 12 million illegals currently in America (including making accommodations for people who came to America unlawfully with their parents). 

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In the aftermath of a GOP presidential primary in which candidates spoke about “self-deportation” and building “electric fences,” it’s not surprising the Republican nominee lost the Hispanic vote in 2012. But it’s the margin of the defeat that is staggering: 44 points. This, after George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.

The GOP has a problem with the fastest growing demographic group in America–and Florida Senator Marco Rubio knows it and is determined to do something about it.

As this interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Kaminski demonstrates, Senator Rubio has thought through the issue with care and thoroughness–from border security, to moving us toward merit and skill-based legal immigration, to increasing the number of visas for permanent and seasonal farm workers, to workplace enforcement, to what to do with the 12 million illegals currently in America (including making accommodations for people who came to America unlawfully with their parents). 

Senator Rubio also understands that while immigration reform isn’t a magic bullet for the GOP, the immigration issues is “a gateway issue for Hispanics… No matter what your stance is on a number of other issues, if people somehow come to believe that you don’t like them or want them here, it’s difficult to get them to listen to anyone else.”

That’s right; and that is what the modern GOP had done, for reasons that strike me as substantively wrong and politically unwise. There are ways for Republicans to deal with illegal immigration without coming across as anti-Hispanic and anti-immigration.

Conservatives like Marco Rubio are perfectly situated to begin to correct that problem, and the sooner, the better.

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Mighty Mouse Is on His Way

Have no fear, Israel. Here he comes, to save the day!

Mr. Netanyahu, your democratically elected prime minister may not–unlike, say, Mohamed Morsi or Fidel Castro–know where his country’s best interests lie. And, by extension, you who democratically elected him and are about to reelect him may not know either. But there is one who does.

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Have no fear, Israel. Here he comes, to save the day!

Mr. Netanyahu, your democratically elected prime minister may not–unlike, say, Mohamed Morsi or Fidel Castro–know where his country’s best interests lie. And, by extension, you who democratically elected him and are about to reelect him may not know either. But there is one who does.

Who has whiled away many a pleasant hour on the luxury golf courses of Hawaii and the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard considering, pondering, knuckling his brow over the best interests of your cute little Middle Eastern democracy. Now, Mr. Obama may never have fought in a war (let alone 3 or 4 or 5); never lived surrounded by vicious enemies dedicated to his extinction; never had to spend months in a bomb shelter; never had to put a gas mask on his 4-year-old; never had to reassure his children that their bus would not be blown up on the way to school. But, hey, Chicago isn’t exactly Switzerland. And he braved the oh-so-fearsome Israel Lobby–twice–in his quest for the presidency.

So go ahead and shoot yourselves in the foot by voting for Mr. Netanyahu again next week. Because now that his own reelection has given him “flexibility,” Mr. Obama is going to do his utmost–with an able assist from Senator Chuck Schumer–to save you from yourselves.

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Obama Can’t Get Even With Netanyahu

The Israeli reaction to the much talked about Jeffrey Goldberg column that Seth wrote about yesterday wasn’t long in coming. Leading members of the Likud Party claimed that Goldberg’s reporting of critical comments about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu by President Obama constituted interference in the country’s elections that will be held next week. If true, some might see it as tit-for-tat since the Israeli’s decision to highlight a snub from the president and differences with him over dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat last September was widely seen as an attempt to help Mitt Romney’s doomed presidential campaign. Netanyahu would certainly have preferred to see Obama lose. But rather than intervening, he was probably thinking that putting pressure on Obama during the lead-up to the November election would force the president to take a tougher stand on Iran. Instead, Obama, who despises the prime minister, rebuffed Netanyahu leaving him looking like an incompetent meddler.

However, the accusations that the White House used Goldberg to get even with Netanyahu are probably untrue. As much as the president and his foreign policy team detest Netanyahu, they are probably aware that an American attempt to influence the vote in Israel would backfire. Obama is deeply unpopular in Israel and every time he has picked a fight with Netanyahu it has only strengthened the prime minister’s standing at home. Netanyahu is certain to lead the next government and though the president would probably like to do something to stop that from happening, he knows he can’t. Goldberg was, as he told the Jerusalem Post, only writing what everyone already knew about the president’s feelings. Obama believes he knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than the man elected to lead that country. But as much as the ongoing feud between these two personalities rivets our attention, the disconnect isn’t so much between Obama and Netanyahu as it is between the American foreign policy establishment—and many liberal American Jews—and the consensus of the Israeli people. It is that gap between what most Israelis see as obvious about the moribund peace process and the conventional wisdom that is routinely churned out by the mainstream media in the United States that is the real issue.

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The Israeli reaction to the much talked about Jeffrey Goldberg column that Seth wrote about yesterday wasn’t long in coming. Leading members of the Likud Party claimed that Goldberg’s reporting of critical comments about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu by President Obama constituted interference in the country’s elections that will be held next week. If true, some might see it as tit-for-tat since the Israeli’s decision to highlight a snub from the president and differences with him over dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat last September was widely seen as an attempt to help Mitt Romney’s doomed presidential campaign. Netanyahu would certainly have preferred to see Obama lose. But rather than intervening, he was probably thinking that putting pressure on Obama during the lead-up to the November election would force the president to take a tougher stand on Iran. Instead, Obama, who despises the prime minister, rebuffed Netanyahu leaving him looking like an incompetent meddler.

However, the accusations that the White House used Goldberg to get even with Netanyahu are probably untrue. As much as the president and his foreign policy team detest Netanyahu, they are probably aware that an American attempt to influence the vote in Israel would backfire. Obama is deeply unpopular in Israel and every time he has picked a fight with Netanyahu it has only strengthened the prime minister’s standing at home. Netanyahu is certain to lead the next government and though the president would probably like to do something to stop that from happening, he knows he can’t. Goldberg was, as he told the Jerusalem Post, only writing what everyone already knew about the president’s feelings. Obama believes he knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than the man elected to lead that country. But as much as the ongoing feud between these two personalities rivets our attention, the disconnect isn’t so much between Obama and Netanyahu as it is between the American foreign policy establishment—and many liberal American Jews—and the consensus of the Israeli people. It is that gap between what most Israelis see as obvious about the moribund peace process and the conventional wisdom that is routinely churned out by the mainstream media in the United States that is the real issue.

Likud might get some traction by highlighting Obama’s disapproval. Israelis are well aware that in the recent past American presidents have tried to intervene in their elections with mixed results. George H.W. Bush helped sink Yitzhak Shamir in 1992. Bill Clinton’s open rooting for Shimon Peres didn’t stop Netanyahu from winning his first term as prime minister in 1996 but American disapproval was a handicap when he was beaten in 1999. But the main point here is that while Israelis don’t relish the idea of being on the outs in Washington, they are also not interested in listening to advice from Obama.

The assumption underlying Goldberg’s article was that Netanyahu is isolating his country via policies that are not aimed at encouraging “Palestinian moderates.” The decision to allow building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and its suburbs that would be kept by Israel even if there were a two-state solution are seen by Obama and the Europeans as intolerable provocations that should be punished. By not making concessions on security and territory that might tempt the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, Netanyahu is seen as uninterested in peace or as even making an accord impossible. But most Israelis see these issues very differently.

The parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition are cruising to what may be a landslide victory next week because, unlike Goldberg’s White House sources and most Western talking heads, the majority of Israeli voters understand that the Palestinians—both Hamas and the supposedly more moderate Fatah-led PA—are not going to make peace no matter what Netanyahu does. They also view the notion of further withdrawals as an invitation to create another terror state like the one in Gaza in the much larger West Bank alongside Israel’s population centers.

Where Israel was once closely divided between right and left on the issue of peace initiatives, the center has shifted in the country’s politics. What Obama and most Americans don’t get about Israel is that Netanyahu is not so much the leader of the right as he is now firmly ensconced in the middle of the political spectrum. That’s why so many on the right are flocking to the banner of Naftali Bennett, the leader of the pro-settlement party that polls show will make huge gains in the upcoming election. The main difference between Netanyahu and Bennett is that the former still pays lip service to a two-state solution as the theoretical best option for Israel even though the Palestinians will never accept it, while the latter’s campaign ads say that it is no more likely to happen than another season of “The Sopranos.”

Like so much commentary about the Middle East, Obama’s evaluation of the situation via Goldberg shows that he is still focusing only on what Israel does and ignoring the reality of a Palestinian political culture that is incapable of accepting peace. If real peace were an option, no Israeli political leader would be able to resist accepting it. Pretending that such a choice is available to Israel is mere posturing, not a policy. Any American who doesn’t understand that fact has no business spouting off about what is in Israel’s best interests.

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Portrait of Palestinian Democracy–2013

Today Mahmoud Abbas begins the ninth year of his four-year term, having originally taken office on January 15, 2005, after a quickie election held a few weeks after Yasir Arafat died in the ninth year of his own four-year term. As Daled Amos notes, “it’s nice work if you can get it.” 

Palestinian democracy has been a bit of a disappointment: each of the peace-partner presidents were offered a state on virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in Jerusalem, and each of them walked away. Each time, the Palestinian public not only did not protest their president’s rejection of “the long overdue Palestinian state”; they did not even demand another presidential election when the presidential terms expired. Like his predecessor, Abbas will end up serving as president longer after his term expired than when he was legally in office.

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Today Mahmoud Abbas begins the ninth year of his four-year term, having originally taken office on January 15, 2005, after a quickie election held a few weeks after Yasir Arafat died in the ninth year of his own four-year term. As Daled Amos notes, “it’s nice work if you can get it.” 

Palestinian democracy has been a bit of a disappointment: each of the peace-partner presidents were offered a state on virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in Jerusalem, and each of them walked away. Each time, the Palestinian public not only did not protest their president’s rejection of “the long overdue Palestinian state”; they did not even demand another presidential election when the presidential terms expired. Like his predecessor, Abbas will end up serving as president longer after his term expired than when he was legally in office.

Since another Palestinian election is not likely any time soon, we must rely on the latest poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research for a picture of Palestinian public opinion. The poll indicates Abbas would be defeated by the Hamas candidate if a new presidential election were held, and that 56 percent of Palestinians would oppose a final-status agreement involving: (1) Israeli withdrawal from more than 97 percent of the West Bank and a land swap for the rest; (2) a Palestinian state with a “strong security force” (but no army) and a multinational force; (3) sovereignty over land, water, and airspace, but an Israeli right to use airspace for training and maintain two West Bank early-warning stations for 15 years; (4) a capital in East Jerusalem, including all Arab neighborhoods and most of the Old City; and (5) a “right of return” for refugees to the new state and compensation for “refugeehood.”

The tragedy of Palestinian democracy was apparent two years ago; last year the portrait of Palestinian democracy got even worse; this year it has deteriorated still further, as it becomes even clearer that being elected Palestinian president means you never have to run again; that if an election were held, the candidate of the premier Palestinian terrorist group would prevail; that the Palestinians still reject even the “Everyone Knows” peace plan; and that the problem with Palestinian democracy extends far beyond the specific individuals elected in the two Potemkin presidential elections held so far.

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Obama Renders Red Lines Meaningless

Whoever becomes the next defense secretary is going to have their work cut out for them, thanks to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reported that the State Department has concluded that Bashar al-Assad’s forces have indeed used chemical weapons against civilians in the Syrian civil war. The use of chemical weapons, of course, has been the Obama administration’s declared red line for U.S. action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. As Rogin noted:

“The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable,” Obama said Dec. 3, directing his comments at Assad. “If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.” That same day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added: “we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.”

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Whoever becomes the next defense secretary is going to have their work cut out for them, thanks to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reported that the State Department has concluded that Bashar al-Assad’s forces have indeed used chemical weapons against civilians in the Syrian civil war. The use of chemical weapons, of course, has been the Obama administration’s declared red line for U.S. action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. As Rogin noted:

“The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable,” Obama said Dec. 3, directing his comments at Assad. “If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.” That same day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added: “we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.”

It now seems clear that the emperor has no clothes: Obama’s red lines are meant as fancy declarations for U.S. consumption, but should not be taken seriously by America’s adversaries. The problem will not be limited to Syria: Obama has said repeatedly that Iran’s development of nuclear weapons would be a red line that the Islamic Republic should not cross. The president’s nomination of Chuck Hagel has already raised doubts about White House seriousness, no matter how much Hagel and his allies try to erase or re-spin his previous record. Now, however, the Islamic Republic will figure that if they not only go up to the line in the sand but cross it, the consequence will be … silence.

America’s Persian Gulf allies will also be watching the American reaction (or lack thereof). After all, why should anyone take seriously U.S. security guarantees when the consequence for using weapons of mass destruction is silence from the White House or perhaps the president’s early departure to the golf course. How wonderful it must be to get a 3 a.m. phone call, and either ignore it or forward it to the French.

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What Turkey’s Ban on Darwin Means

Far from being a model “Muslim democracy,” Turkey has grown progressively more illiberal under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government. A bit over a year ago, the Turkish government blocked a website discussing Darwin in an Internet children’s filter. At the time, the head of Turkey’s Scientific and Technological Research Council downplayed the incident, telling Hürriyet that the ban was not against the theory of evolution. “If that was the case,” he said, “every website that used to word would have been banned. This one may have been banned for containing harmful material to children.”

Evidently, his downplaying of the incident was just nonsense for the gullible masses. Now, the Council is banning books which discuss Darwin. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

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Far from being a model “Muslim democracy,” Turkey has grown progressively more illiberal under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government. A bit over a year ago, the Turkish government blocked a website discussing Darwin in an Internet children’s filter. At the time, the head of Turkey’s Scientific and Technological Research Council downplayed the incident, telling Hürriyet that the ban was not against the theory of evolution. “If that was the case,” he said, “every website that used to word would have been banned. This one may have been banned for containing harmful material to children.”

Evidently, his downplaying of the incident was just nonsense for the gullible masses. Now, the Council is banning books which discuss Darwin. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

The evolutionist books, previously available through TÜBİTAK’s Popular Science Publications’ List, will no longer be provided by the council. The books have long been listed as “out of stock” on TÜBİTAK’s website, but their further publication is now slated to be stopped permanently. Titles by Richard Dawkins, Alan Moorehead, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Levontin and James Watson are all included in the list of books that will no longer be available to Turkish readers.

When Erdoğan, in a fit of pique, declared that his goal was “to raise a religious generation,” many Western diplomats pooh-poohed the incident as just one more example of Erdoğan’s rhetorical excess. Given Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s recently unearthed anti-Semitic diatribe declaring Jews to be descended from “apes and pigs,” perhaps it’s time not only to recognize that the Islamists might not only benefit from a little time studying Darwin, but also that it’s time that diplomats understand that what Islamists say to their own population is far more important than what they tell Western diplomats and agenda-driven journalists.

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