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Posts For: January 18, 2013

Anticipating More Obama-Bibi — Part Three

As I noted in parts one and two of this post, there are good reasons to believe that tension between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue to simmer during their respective terms. The disconnect between the president’s view of the region and the consensus of the overwhelming majority of Israelis about the future of the peace process has created a gap between the two countries that continues to cause trouble. The fact that the two men don’t like each other also doesn’t help. But as I wrote, the Palestinians’ refusal to make peace on the one hand and the determination of the Iranians to push toward their goal of a nuclear weapon may render the disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem moot.

But even if we don’t assume, as I think we should, that Israel’s enemies will continue to force the United States and Israel into the same corner whether the president likes it or not, there is another important factor that will also put a limit on how far any quarrel can go: the overwhelming support for Israel among the American people. As much as some in the administration and its cheerleaders on the left may believe that the “Jewish lobby,” as President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense put it, has too much influence, the fact remains that the U.S.-Israel alliance remains a consensus issue in this country. As we have seen over the past two years, no president, not even one as personally popular as Barack Obama, can afford to ignore it or blow it up.

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As I noted in parts one and two of this post, there are good reasons to believe that tension between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue to simmer during their respective terms. The disconnect between the president’s view of the region and the consensus of the overwhelming majority of Israelis about the future of the peace process has created a gap between the two countries that continues to cause trouble. The fact that the two men don’t like each other also doesn’t help. But as I wrote, the Palestinians’ refusal to make peace on the one hand and the determination of the Iranians to push toward their goal of a nuclear weapon may render the disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem moot.

But even if we don’t assume, as I think we should, that Israel’s enemies will continue to force the United States and Israel into the same corner whether the president likes it or not, there is another important factor that will also put a limit on how far any quarrel can go: the overwhelming support for Israel among the American people. As much as some in the administration and its cheerleaders on the left may believe that the “Jewish lobby,” as President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense put it, has too much influence, the fact remains that the U.S.-Israel alliance remains a consensus issue in this country. As we have seen over the past two years, no president, not even one as personally popular as Barack Obama, can afford to ignore it or blow it up.

It may be that a re-elected President Obama is still spoiling to get even with Netanyahu after his humiliation in May 2011 when the Israeli demonstrated the consequences of a picking a fight with a popular ally. At that time, Obama ambushed a visiting Netanyahu with a speech demanding the Israeli accept the 1967 lines as a starting point in future peace negotiations. Netanyahu didn’t just reject the U.S. diktat, but the ovation that he received when he addressed Congress a few days later showed that both Democrats and Republicans were united in backing Israel’s position.

That was the last major fight picked with Israel by Obama over the peace process since in the following months he launched a Jewish charm offensive with an eye on the 2012 presidential election. As I noted earlier, a major factor behind a decision not to try again may be the refusal of the Palestinians to take advantage of the president’s opening. But the president also understood that a posture of hostility toward Israel was political poison and not just with American Jews whose votes he assumed would remain in the Democratic column.

The problem with the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby thesis is not just that it is rooted in an anti-Semitic mindset that sees the Jews as manipulating the United States to do things that are against its interests. Rather, the real problem with it is that it fails to take into account the fact that the pro-Israel consensus cuts across virtually all demographic and political lines in this country.

As I wrote in the July 2011 issue of COMMENTARY in the aftermath of the worst Obama-Netanyahu confrontation, the alliance between the two countries is not only politically popular but is now so integrated into the infrastructure of U.S. defense and foreign policy as to be virtually indestructible. If a president who is as ambivalent about Israel and as determined to create daylight between the two countries as Obama has proved to be understood that he could not afford to downgrade that alliance, that point has been proven.

It is true that as a result of his re-election, the president does not have to fear the voters’ wrath on this or any issue. But the idea that he has carte blanche to do as he likes to Israel is a myth. The bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Congress will always act as a check on any impulse to take revenge on Netanyahu. The process by which defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel has been forced to reverse all of his previous stands on Iran and Israel and to disavow his “Jewish lobby” comments is reminder that a second Obama administration cannot undo the laws of political gravity. Most Americans will regard Netanyahu’s re-election next week as an argument against any U.S. pressure to force Israel to do what its voters have rejected.

To say all that is not to discount the very real possibility that tension between the two governments is probably a given to some degree as long as these two men are in power. But a president with a limited amount of political capital and only two years in which he can use it would be a fool to expend his scarce resources on another losing fight with Netanyahu.

Four more years of this oddly mismatched tandem will make for a rocky ride for friends of Israel. But the alliance is stronger than even Barack Obama’s dislike for Netanyahu. As nasty as this relationship may be, the fallout in Washington from the Israeli’s easy re-election may not be as bad as you might think.

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Alfred E. Neuman, Scarlett O’Hara, and Wilkens Micawber Advise Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman is in a channeling frenzy in today’s column, entitled “The Dwindling Deficit.” His inner Alfred E. Neuman says, ‘What, me worry?”:

The budget deficit isn’t our biggest problem, by a long shot. Furthermore, it’s a problem that is already, to a large degree, solved. The medium-term budget outlook isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either — and the long-term outlook gets much more attention than it should.

Who knew? He argues that economic recovery will raise federal revenues and decrease such costs as unemployment and food stamps. That’s usually true enough, except we’ve been in “recovery” since June 2009 and it hasn’t helped yet. Budget deficits for the last four fiscal years were $1.41 trillion (2009), $1.29 trillion, $1.3 trillion, and $1.08 trillion.

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Paul Krugman is in a channeling frenzy in today’s column, entitled “The Dwindling Deficit.” His inner Alfred E. Neuman says, ‘What, me worry?”:

The budget deficit isn’t our biggest problem, by a long shot. Furthermore, it’s a problem that is already, to a large degree, solved. The medium-term budget outlook isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either — and the long-term outlook gets much more attention than it should.

Who knew? He argues that economic recovery will raise federal revenues and decrease such costs as unemployment and food stamps. That’s usually true enough, except we’ve been in “recovery” since June 2009 and it hasn’t helped yet. Budget deficits for the last four fiscal years were $1.41 trillion (2009), $1.29 trillion, $1.3 trillion, and $1.08 trillion.

The administration shows no sign of pushing activities that would have an immediate positive effect on the economy, such as encouraging new oil and gas production, and many signs that it intends to continue its crony capitalist “investments” in green energy, which have been an expensive bust.

A slew of new regulations on business, and tens of thousands of pages more to come with Obamacare and Dodd Frank, will not speed up the recovery. Neither will higher taxes on capital gains and dividends. And the Fed will have to at some point start reining in the money creation (euphemistically termed quantitative easing) that is currently keeping interest rates historically low. That means the cost of servicing the debt will go up. Each one-percent rise in interest rates that the government has to pay raises annual interest costs $160 billion.

Krugman writes that, “. . . the budget outlook for the next 10 years doesn’t look at all alarming.”  Of course, the budget outlook in 2000 foresaw nothing but budget surpluses for the next ten years.  Krugman explains that, “George W. Bush squandered the Clinton surplus on tax cuts and wars.” (There were no Clinton surpluses, in fact, just phony accounting that called money borrowed from the Social Security Trust Fund income. But let that go.) It was the collapse of the Internet bubble in 2000 and the ensuing recession—which began on Clinton’s watch—that caused the “surpluses” to disappear. As for those tax cuts, they were nothing but a giveaway to the rich until, this year, they suddenly became vital to the middle class.

Most egregiously, he writes with regard to Social Security, “At this point, ‘reform’ proposals are all about things like raising the retirement age or changing the inflation adjustment, moves that would gradually reduce benefits relative to current law. What problem is this supposed to solve?”

Ummmm, perhaps the problem pointed out by the Social Security Administration itself that the system will run out of money in 2037? That’s not an economic projection; it’s a demographic one. All those who will be on Social Security in 2037 are, at least, now in their forties.

But Krugman, like, Scarlett O’Hara, wants to think about that tomorrow: “by moving too soon we might lock in benefit cuts that turn out not to have been necessary. And much the same logic applies to Medicare [now scheduled to go broke by 2024]. So there’s a reasonable argument for leaving the question of how to deal with future problems up to future politicians.”

Like Krugman, Wilkens Micawber, was quite certain that “something will turn up.” At least he was until the police turned up and he was arrested for debt.

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Anticipating More Obama-Bibi — Part Two

As I wrote in part one of this post the all but certain prospect that Benjamin Netanyahu will be re-elected prime minister of Israel next week will be viewed with dismay by President Obama. But the assumption that four more years of the Barack-Bibi show will worsen relations between the two countries may be exaggerated for three reasons. The first was, as I wrote in part one, the very real possibility that Obama may have learned his lesson about trying to pressure the Israelis in order to entice the Palestinians to make peace. It hasn’t worked and probably never will and though the president may think Netanyahu is wrong, he would have to be an incorrigible ideologue to want to waste any scarce political capital on more fights with Israel over the peace process when he knows it will lead nowhere.

The second factor that might act as a brake on U.S.-Israel tension is Iran. There is more than a little irony in this. Disagreements between the United States and Israel over the timetable of Iranian nuclear progress, the futility of diplomacy and the ultimate necessity of an attack have divided the two governments for years. Many assume, not without reason, that the president’s reluctance to get tough with Iran (a belief bolstered by his nomination of a new secretary of defense in Chuck Hagel that previously opposed both sanctions and the possibility of using force against Iran) will only make things worse in the future as Israel gears up for the possibility of having to forestall a nuclear Iran if the United States won’t. But as much as this issue appears to be the one which will do the most to escalate tension between Washington, there is also the very real possibility that Iran’s refusal to negotiate seriously and its determination to push ahead toward its nuclear goal will leave the president little choice but to work with Israel to eliminate the threat.

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As I wrote in part one of this post the all but certain prospect that Benjamin Netanyahu will be re-elected prime minister of Israel next week will be viewed with dismay by President Obama. But the assumption that four more years of the Barack-Bibi show will worsen relations between the two countries may be exaggerated for three reasons. The first was, as I wrote in part one, the very real possibility that Obama may have learned his lesson about trying to pressure the Israelis in order to entice the Palestinians to make peace. It hasn’t worked and probably never will and though the president may think Netanyahu is wrong, he would have to be an incorrigible ideologue to want to waste any scarce political capital on more fights with Israel over the peace process when he knows it will lead nowhere.

The second factor that might act as a brake on U.S.-Israel tension is Iran. There is more than a little irony in this. Disagreements between the United States and Israel over the timetable of Iranian nuclear progress, the futility of diplomacy and the ultimate necessity of an attack have divided the two governments for years. Many assume, not without reason, that the president’s reluctance to get tough with Iran (a belief bolstered by his nomination of a new secretary of defense in Chuck Hagel that previously opposed both sanctions and the possibility of using force against Iran) will only make things worse in the future as Israel gears up for the possibility of having to forestall a nuclear Iran if the United States won’t. But as much as this issue appears to be the one which will do the most to escalate tension between Washington, there is also the very real possibility that Iran’s refusal to negotiate seriously and its determination to push ahead toward its nuclear goal will leave the president little choice but to work with Israel to eliminate the threat.

Obama’s decision to waste years of his first administration on pointless attempts at engagement with Tehran and then assembling an international coalition on behalf of watered down sanctions did little to instill confidence in U.S. resolve. The president was late to push sanctions against Iran and has left loopholes in these measures that have allowed the Islamist regime enough money to keep investing in nuclear development even as their people suffer. Should the United States go back down the garden path with Iran diplomacy in the coming months that will merely give the ayatollahs even more time to run out the clock until they reach their goal.

Indeed, the Iranians cannot be blamed if they interpret the Hagel appointment as evidence that Obama would like to go back on his promises about stopping them and not to try to contain them if they get their bomb.

But the storm over Hagel has also made it clear that the president may not have as much room to maneuver on Iran as many on the left hope he has. Though Hagel’s likely confirmation has encouraged those who would like a softer line on Iran as well as the chorus of Israel-bashers (two groups whose membership generally overlaps), the process that led to the former senator doing a 180 on his views about Iran ought to make it clear that the president has painted himself into a corner on Iran. Both Hagel and the president can go back on their promises but doing so will be a devastating blow to the president’s credibility. As much as there is good reason to suspect that the president would like nothing better than to avoid a confrontation with Iran, he may also have come to understand that the prospect of an Iranian nuke on his watch constitutes a grave threat to U.S. interests and security that will be a permanent blot on his legacy. More to the point, the Iranians may close off any avenue of escape from this dilemma.

Since Iran refuses to negotiate in good faith even when the Europeans are prepared to offer them a deal that might let them keep their nuclear program, the assumption that a diplomatic solution is inevitable is one that is getting harder for even the most ardent opponents of the use of force to cling to. Having successfully forced Netanyahu to stand down from any possible Israeli attack up until now, it could be that, almost in spite of himself the president may wind up being forced to agree with the Israelis on the necessity of action sometime in the coming year.

Given its record on the issue, it may be a tremendous leap of faith to assume that the administration intends to keep his word on Iran. That’s why a lot of people, including myself, have viewed Jeffrey Goldberg’s belief in Obama’s rhetoric on Iran as naive. But Obama has acted up until now on the assumption that sooner or later the Iranians would crack and get him off the hook. If they don’t, and there is no reason to think they will, he may find himself at long last in agreement with Netanyahu that a strike is inevitable. Goldberg is probably right when he writes that if the president is drawn to that conclusion, his hard feelings about Netanyahu won’t be enough to stop him from doing something he believes is important to solidifying his legacy.

Tension between Israel and the United States over a decision to pull the trigger on a strike on Iran may be inevitable. But the one factor that may unite the two countries is the adamant desire of the Iranian regime to get a nuke. If they aren’t careful they may do the impossible and bridge the gap between Obama and Netanyahu and forge an unlikely alliance between them.

In part three of this post, I’ll write about the third factor that may ameliorate a problematic relationship: the American people’s affection and support for Israel.

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Farewell, But Not Goodbye

I thought I might be breaking a little news this afternoon, but others beat me to it yesterday. For those who haven’t heard, today is my last day at Commentary before I start at the Washington Free Beacon next week. When John Podhoretz brought me on board to write for Contentions, I had no idea how quickly the next two years would go by and how many incredible opportunities and experiences they would bring. It has been a thrill and a privilege to write for an outlet that had such a formative influence on my political views, and continued to shape them during my time at Contentions.

I can’t thank John enough for his kindness and support, and Jonathan Tobin for his daily editorial guidance, advice and encouragement. It has also been great to learn from and write alongside our phenomenal Contentions contributors.

I also want to thank our readers for sharing a part of your busy days with me. Your comments have often provided valuable insight, wit and inspiration. Perhaps the most rewarding part of this job has been watching the vibrant Contentions community grow over the last couple of years.

This isn’t goodbye. I know many of you are also Free Beacon readers, and look forward to hearing from you when I start there next week. I’ll be joining my friends on the news staff who have been scooping the mainstream outlets and striking fear into the hearts of White House officials for the past year. While my role there will be a different than it was at Contentions — reporting without writing opinion — my commitment to advancing the cause of freedom won’t change. 

And of course, this isn’t goodbye to my colleagues. I’ll always consider myself a part of the Commentary family. Thank you for everything.

I thought I might be breaking a little news this afternoon, but others beat me to it yesterday. For those who haven’t heard, today is my last day at Commentary before I start at the Washington Free Beacon next week. When John Podhoretz brought me on board to write for Contentions, I had no idea how quickly the next two years would go by and how many incredible opportunities and experiences they would bring. It has been a thrill and a privilege to write for an outlet that had such a formative influence on my political views, and continued to shape them during my time at Contentions.

I can’t thank John enough for his kindness and support, and Jonathan Tobin for his daily editorial guidance, advice and encouragement. It has also been great to learn from and write alongside our phenomenal Contentions contributors.

I also want to thank our readers for sharing a part of your busy days with me. Your comments have often provided valuable insight, wit and inspiration. Perhaps the most rewarding part of this job has been watching the vibrant Contentions community grow over the last couple of years.

This isn’t goodbye. I know many of you are also Free Beacon readers, and look forward to hearing from you when I start there next week. I’ll be joining my friends on the news staff who have been scooping the mainstream outlets and striking fear into the hearts of White House officials for the past year. While my role there will be a different than it was at Contentions — reporting without writing opinion — my commitment to advancing the cause of freedom won’t change. 

And of course, this isn’t goodbye to my colleagues. I’ll always consider myself a part of the Commentary family. Thank you for everything.

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Anticipating More Obama-Bibi — Part One

The final polls before Israel’s election were published today and the results will provide little comfort to Benjamin Netanyahu’s many critics in the United States. All the surveys of opinion before next Tuesday’s vote point in one direction: Netanyahu will win. Even the most pessimistic estimates of his party’s vote shows the Likud getting approximately twice as many seats in the next Knesset as the next largest competitor and the parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition will gain a decisive majority. Netanyahu will be in charge of a comfortable majority that is, if anything, more right-wing than the government he led for the past four years.

That’s a bitter pill for an Obama administration that believes, as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported earlier this week, that the president knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than Netanyahu and which spent much of its time in office battling him. It makes sense to think the two leaders will continue to distrust each other and to quarrel over the peace process and how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. The rightward tilt of the next Netanyahu government and what appears to be the aggressive and confident tone of the second Obama administration in which the president appears to be surrounding himself with people who agree with him rather than centrists or those who have different perspectives both seem to argue for more rather than less conflict between Washington and Jerusalem. But the doom and gloom scenarios about four more years of this tandem may be exaggerated. There are three good reasons that may serve to keep tensions from boiling over.

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The final polls before Israel’s election were published today and the results will provide little comfort to Benjamin Netanyahu’s many critics in the United States. All the surveys of opinion before next Tuesday’s vote point in one direction: Netanyahu will win. Even the most pessimistic estimates of his party’s vote shows the Likud getting approximately twice as many seats in the next Knesset as the next largest competitor and the parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition will gain a decisive majority. Netanyahu will be in charge of a comfortable majority that is, if anything, more right-wing than the government he led for the past four years.

That’s a bitter pill for an Obama administration that believes, as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported earlier this week, that the president knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than Netanyahu and which spent much of its time in office battling him. It makes sense to think the two leaders will continue to distrust each other and to quarrel over the peace process and how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. The rightward tilt of the next Netanyahu government and what appears to be the aggressive and confident tone of the second Obama administration in which the president appears to be surrounding himself with people who agree with him rather than centrists or those who have different perspectives both seem to argue for more rather than less conflict between Washington and Jerusalem. But the doom and gloom scenarios about four more years of this tandem may be exaggerated. There are three good reasons that may serve to keep tensions from boiling over.

The first factor that may keep the conflict in check is something that the controversial Goldberg column made clear: the president may have learned his lesson about the peace process. Though Goldberg and the president both wrongly assume that Arab “moderates” want peace and need to be encouraged with “conciliatory gestures,” the writer notes that Obama understands that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is weak. He also knows that every attempt by the administration to pressure Netanyahu and to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ direction on settlements, Jerusalem and border, was met with disinterest by the PA. Nothing Obama could do or say, no matter how damaging to Israel’s cause was enough to tempt Abbas back to the negotiating table. Indeed, the Palestinians’ decision to go to the United Nations to get recognition was not so much aimed at Israel, as it was an end run around the Obama administration.

Though Goldberg frames the president’s reluctance to repeat this cycle of misunderstand as a judgment on Netanyahu’s lack of interest in peace it is actually an indictment of the Palestinians. Had Abbas responded positively to any of Obama’s initiatives, he could have helped the president pin the prime minister down and perhaps even undermined his support at home. Netanyahu has already endorsed a two state solution and frozen settlements for a time to appease Obama and Abbas didn’t respond to either gesture.

Abbas is interested right now in making peace with Hamas, not Israel. He has stayed away from talks not because he thinks he can’t get a deal but because he fears being put in the same uncomfortable situation in which he found himself in 2008 when Ehud Olmert made the last Israeli offer of Palestinian independence including Jerusalem. Abbas knows he can’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and survive so he didn’t so much turn down Olmert as to flee the talks. He won’t allow himself to be that close to political extinction again.

Though, as Goldberg pointed out, incoming Secretary of State John Kerry may be eager to play the peace process game with the help of his European friends, President Obama may understand that heading down that dead end again is not worth any of his precious second term political capital. If the Palestinians go any further toward Fatah-Hamas unity and/or if a third intifada is launched that will effectively spike any hope for new negotiations no matter what Obama may personally want to do.

Obama may believe Israel is dooming itself to isolation but the majority of Israelis have paid closer attention to the last 20 years of attempts to make peace and know that further concessions would only worsen their security without bringing peace. Yet as much as he can’t stand Netanyahu, picking another fight with him over an issue that can’t be resolved due to Palestinian intransigence is bad politics as well as bad policy.

In parts two and three of this post I’ll examine the other factors that may keep U.S.-Israel tension in check.

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New Group to Target Dems Over Hagel Vote

On the heels of reports that the American Future Fund is launching an anti-Hagel ad campaign, another conservative group has announced it will also run ads opposing the Secretary of Defense nominee. Americans for a Strong Defense, a newly formed group led by former Romney aides, says it will specifically target vulnerable Senate Democrats. Politico reports:

A group of Republican strategists is forming a new outside group aimed at thwarting Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary, with a plan to air TV ads and to have people on the ground in the states of key senators to apply pressure in advance of his confirmation hearing

Americans for a Strong Defense will be the latest group to hit Hagel from the right. As POLITICO reported yesterday, the well-funded American Future Fund is launching a multistate ad campaign against Hagel, and the William Kristol-founded Emergency Committee for Israel has already aired cable ads in Washington arguing the former Nebraska senator is weak on Iran and in his support for Israel. …

The group’s officials acknowledged that Hagel is a Vietnam veteran and war hero, but made clear they will paint him as “outside the mainstream” on key defense issues.

Among the senators the group will pressure to oppose Hagel are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. All of those Democrats are up for reelection in 2014.

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On the heels of reports that the American Future Fund is launching an anti-Hagel ad campaign, another conservative group has announced it will also run ads opposing the Secretary of Defense nominee. Americans for a Strong Defense, a newly formed group led by former Romney aides, says it will specifically target vulnerable Senate Democrats. Politico reports:

A group of Republican strategists is forming a new outside group aimed at thwarting Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary, with a plan to air TV ads and to have people on the ground in the states of key senators to apply pressure in advance of his confirmation hearing

Americans for a Strong Defense will be the latest group to hit Hagel from the right. As POLITICO reported yesterday, the well-funded American Future Fund is launching a multistate ad campaign against Hagel, and the William Kristol-founded Emergency Committee for Israel has already aired cable ads in Washington arguing the former Nebraska senator is weak on Iran and in his support for Israel. …

The group’s officials acknowledged that Hagel is a Vietnam veteran and war hero, but made clear they will paint him as “outside the mainstream” on key defense issues.

Among the senators the group will pressure to oppose Hagel are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. All of those Democrats are up for reelection in 2014.

One of the board members of the new group is Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates. Claver-Carone is a registered lobbyist who has opposed efforts to lift U.S. sanctions against Cuba. While Hagel’s Israel record has already received plenty of media attention, his support for engagement with the Cuban dictatorship has unfortunately received far less coverage. The Politico story doesn’t say whether this group will focus on that issue, but that’s what Claver-Carone’s role seems to indicate. 

Hagel’s positions on Cuba likely concern some key Senate Democrats, including Sen. Bob Menendez, who could become a major obstacle for the White House if he decides to oppose Hagel’s nomination.

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Time-Out May Be the GOP’s Best Option

The top news out of the House Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia is that the party is considering a short-term extension of the debt limit in order to give the party more time to try and convince their Democratic antagonists to start cutting spending. The proposal, which according to the New York Times, is being floated by Rep. Paul Ryan, could wind up connecting the debt ceiling issue with the deadline for the implementation of sequestration that would mandate devastating across-the-board spending cuts. That would theoretically give the GOP some room to maneuver in order to avoid a confrontation with President Obama that few think they would win. But it is hard to avoid the impression that the main object of a delay would be to deal with the Republicans’ biggest problems: a lack of unity.

Like a sports team in disarray, the GOP needs a time out where they can catch their breath and somehow get on the same page with each other. As the votes over House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B and then the final fiscal cliff deal revealed, the party is badly split between those who don’t want to give an inch on spending and taxes, those who think that compromise with the president is inevitable and those who believe the best the party can do is to speak out for its principles and oppose tactics that will blow up the economy and help demonize the party. But the problem for the Republican leadership is that even if they can buy themselves some more time to get their fractious caucus in line, the likelihood that a confident and aggressive President Obama will either accept a short-term extension or deal honestly with them on the issues.

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The top news out of the House Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia is that the party is considering a short-term extension of the debt limit in order to give the party more time to try and convince their Democratic antagonists to start cutting spending. The proposal, which according to the New York Times, is being floated by Rep. Paul Ryan, could wind up connecting the debt ceiling issue with the deadline for the implementation of sequestration that would mandate devastating across-the-board spending cuts. That would theoretically give the GOP some room to maneuver in order to avoid a confrontation with President Obama that few think they would win. But it is hard to avoid the impression that the main object of a delay would be to deal with the Republicans’ biggest problems: a lack of unity.

Like a sports team in disarray, the GOP needs a time out where they can catch their breath and somehow get on the same page with each other. As the votes over House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B and then the final fiscal cliff deal revealed, the party is badly split between those who don’t want to give an inch on spending and taxes, those who think that compromise with the president is inevitable and those who believe the best the party can do is to speak out for its principles and oppose tactics that will blow up the economy and help demonize the party. But the problem for the Republican leadership is that even if they can buy themselves some more time to get their fractious caucus in line, the likelihood that a confident and aggressive President Obama will either accept a short-term extension or deal honestly with them on the issues.

The argument for a time out is that in its current condition with a leadership that can’t count on its members to agree to back a unified strategy on fiscal issues, Republicans are doomed to defeat no matter what option they choose. The president is counting on the GOP splintering into warring factions and has done his best to help that process along by goading his opponents whenever possible including his stunning attack on them even as the two sides were negotiating a deal to prevent the nation from going over the fiscal cliff earlier this month.

As Robert Costa and Andrew Stiles noted in their sum up from the retreat, even though Republicans remain in control of the House, the tone of the gathering was that of a defeated party searching for answers. Given the shock felt by many in the party over the president’s re-election and the beatings they’ve received over the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff, that’s understandable. But Bill Kristol’s advice to them to “suck it up,” is exactly what they need to hear.

I think those Republicans who want to make a stand on the debt ceiling are right. Even though the odds are against them prevailing in such a battle, the party can’t simply stand by and let President Obama off the hook without at least trying to stop him by whatever means are at their disposal. That sort of surrender would split the GOP and make it harder for them to recover at the next midterm.

But the one given in this equation is that without a united caucus, House Republicans haven’t a prayer of doing anything effective to halt the country’s drift toward insolvency and to head off new taxes.

For all of their pessimism, the GOP still controls the power of the purse. President Obama may have the wind at his back right now but his political capital is finite. So is his time. If conservatives can use the coming weeks to agree on a strategy to exploit his weaknesses — such as the division among Democrats and the president’s refusal to deal with entitlement reform — their position could be stronger than they think. The question is do Boehner, Eric Cantor or even Paul Ryan have the ability to convince their colleagues that if they don’t hang together, their hopes of stopping Obama from worsening the nation’s problems are nonexistent.

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Algerian Tactics Recall Russian Disasters

Reports out of Algeria are still sketchy but it appears that Algerian security forces attacked the Islamist group holding hostages at a gas plant near the Libyan border—and in the process killed a number of hostages along with hostage-takers.

This is not exactly how the United States, Britain, Israel, France or other Western nations would approach a hostage crisis. The security forces in all those countries would seek a resolution that would be most likely to leave the hostages unharmed and plan an attack only if there was absolutely no alternative or if there was actionable intelligence which suggested a good chance to free the hostages. See, for instance, the hijacking of the merchant ship Maersk Alabama that ended with Navy SEAL snipers taking out the hostage takers and freeing the captain, Richard Phillips.

The Algerians, by contrast, appear to have blundered in, guns blazing. This should not be particularly surprising since (a) Algeria is not a democracy and (b) it has long cultivated a ruthless style of counterinsurgency. During the war pitting Algerian security forces against Muslim militants (including the predecessors of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) in the 1990s, an estimated 100,000 or more people died as a result of the indiscriminate and heavy-handed tactics employed by both sides.

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Reports out of Algeria are still sketchy but it appears that Algerian security forces attacked the Islamist group holding hostages at a gas plant near the Libyan border—and in the process killed a number of hostages along with hostage-takers.

This is not exactly how the United States, Britain, Israel, France or other Western nations would approach a hostage crisis. The security forces in all those countries would seek a resolution that would be most likely to leave the hostages unharmed and plan an attack only if there was absolutely no alternative or if there was actionable intelligence which suggested a good chance to free the hostages. See, for instance, the hijacking of the merchant ship Maersk Alabama that ended with Navy SEAL snipers taking out the hostage takers and freeing the captain, Richard Phillips.

The Algerians, by contrast, appear to have blundered in, guns blazing. This should not be particularly surprising since (a) Algeria is not a democracy and (b) it has long cultivated a ruthless style of counterinsurgency. During the war pitting Algerian security forces against Muslim militants (including the predecessors of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) in the 1990s, an estimated 100,000 or more people died as a result of the indiscriminate and heavy-handed tactics employed by both sides.

The Algerian way of fighting Islamist militants is eerily similar to that of the Russians who have pursued a similar scorched-earth approach in Chechnya. When confronted with Islamist hostage-takers, Russian security forces also rushed in–and the result was hundreds of dead hostages in a Moscow theater in 2002 and a Beslan school in 2004. In all these cases the assaults went so wrong partly because of a lack of skill on the part of the attackers and partly because their superiors simply didn’t care that much about who lived and died.

Of course there was no accountability for the Russian forces because their government is not democratic. The same undoubtedly will be the case in Algeria. Such blunderbuss tactics can work, at least for a time, but in the present instance they will exacerbate Algeria’s relations with the U.S., Britain, Japan and other countries whose hostages were in the line of fire and which were not consulted before the assault.

All of this should make us all the more thankful for the highly skilled and highly humane U.S. Special Operations Forces as they have developed over the last few decades. Some of their operations go awry too, but if you are ever taken hostage, you had better pray to be rescued by SEAL Team Six or Delta Force—not by the Algerian army.

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