Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 31, 2013

Hagel’s Credibility Left in Shreds

It’s not clear if administration sources that leaked the story that Chuck Hagel had three practice sessions before a mock committee before his actual Senate confirmation hearing were trying to help or hurt the former senator. Hagel’s performance was so shaky that even some of his liberal supporters like Peter Beinart were lamenting on Twitter about his stumbling and bumbling answers to tough questions. That he flopped so badly after being rehearsed speaks volumes about how bad he was. Indeed, he had so many misstatements that it will be hard for news organizations to choose which of them to broadcast in their highlights of the hearings. But as much as his inability to speak coherently and present a plausible defense of his record while under pressure was exposed today, in what was probably the worst showing by a presidential nominee in a confirmation hearing in memory, it was his credibility that took the biggest hit.

Time and again throughout the day, Hagel bobbed and weaved when presented with examples of the contradictions between the voluminous record of votes and statements about Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah and what he has been saying in public since President Obama nominated him to be the next secretary of defense. Under tough questioning from Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, Roger Wicker and Ted Cruz, Hagel’s pose as a consistent and ardent friend of Israel and foe of Iran was shown to be nothing but a hastily constructed façade that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

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It’s not clear if administration sources that leaked the story that Chuck Hagel had three practice sessions before a mock committee before his actual Senate confirmation hearing were trying to help or hurt the former senator. Hagel’s performance was so shaky that even some of his liberal supporters like Peter Beinart were lamenting on Twitter about his stumbling and bumbling answers to tough questions. That he flopped so badly after being rehearsed speaks volumes about how bad he was. Indeed, he had so many misstatements that it will be hard for news organizations to choose which of them to broadcast in their highlights of the hearings. But as much as his inability to speak coherently and present a plausible defense of his record while under pressure was exposed today, in what was probably the worst showing by a presidential nominee in a confirmation hearing in memory, it was his credibility that took the biggest hit.

Time and again throughout the day, Hagel bobbed and weaved when presented with examples of the contradictions between the voluminous record of votes and statements about Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah and what he has been saying in public since President Obama nominated him to be the next secretary of defense. Under tough questioning from Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, Roger Wicker and Ted Cruz, Hagel’s pose as a consistent and ardent friend of Israel and foe of Iran was shown to be nothing but a hastily constructed façade that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

As I have written repeatedly since his nomination was announced, Hagel has been working hard to disappoint those who have always shared his views since he was so eager to discard principles that he had ardently supported. But one such supporter was unfazed by his reversals. Former Media Matters staffer MJ Rosenberg is a bitter critic of Israel and its supporters to the point where he is considered toxic even by many on the left. But as Twitchy notes, Rosenberg wasn’t particularly helpful to Hagel today since he tweeted:

I spent a couple of hours with Hagel a few years ago. Talked with him about Israel. Happily, he is lying today &  knows it. He’ll be a good SeDef.

But you didn’t have to have that kind of inside information to understand that what was happening in the confirmation wasn’t particularly honest. Throughout the day when faced with offensive quotes or votes that were inconsistent with his current stands, Hagel rationalized about changing times or context. But the more the context of each incident was examined, the less truthful the Nebraskan sounded. It wasn’t just gaffes like his statement that his opposition to designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group was rooted in his belief that the Islamist regime was a “legitimate and elected government,” which he later walked back. It was his inability to explain why he refused to support Israel during the intifada or branded its defensive war against Hezbollah as a “slaughter.”

But his deceitful approach wasn’t solely focused on his views about Israel and Iran. His attempt to explain his role in producing a report about America’s nuclear deterrent was just as bad. He refused to own up to his views and the plain language of a document that he co-authored. His inability to be honest about his opposition to the Iraq surge when pressed to do so by John McCain was not so much outrageous as it was transparently weak.

By the end of the day, Hagel was reduced to saying something that shouldn’t inspire much confidence in his leadership when he said his opinions didn’t matter so much because he was not being appointed to a policymaking position. Hagel’s defense of himself as a mere bureaucrat may be in line with the Obama administration’s top-down approach to policy but it is a dispiriting exhibition for someone who is actually being tapped for one of the most important positions in the Cabinet.

Chuck Hagel demonstrated today that he isn’t fit for such a senior post. His incompetent testimony should have embarrassed the president and backers like Chuck Schumer, who gambled his own reputation on a man who has little credibility. That may not be enough to derail a nomination that is being rammed through on a partisan basis by the Senate’s majority caucus. But today’s disappointing show by Hagel shamed not just Democrats but a nation whose defense is being entrusted to an incompetent liar.

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Is Another Complacency Trap Awaiting GOP on Immigration?

Reason magazine’s website has published an illustration on the convoluted and often hopeless process of immigrating to the U.S. and applying for citizenship, originally published in its October 2008 issue on immigration. If you have a non-immediate relative who is an American citizen it can still take up to 28 years to gain citizenship, though as the diagram notes, there are many cases that never even get that far. And despite the value that “unskilled” immigrants can offer certain sectors of the American economy, Reason’s map points out:

There is virtually no process for unskilled immigrants without relations in the U.S. to apply for permanent legal residence. Only 10,000 green cards are allotted every year, and the wait time approaches infinity. (Those who receive H-2A or H-2B temporary visas for seasonal work cannot transition to a green card.)

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Reason magazine’s website has published an illustration on the convoluted and often hopeless process of immigrating to the U.S. and applying for citizenship, originally published in its October 2008 issue on immigration. If you have a non-immediate relative who is an American citizen it can still take up to 28 years to gain citizenship, though as the diagram notes, there are many cases that never even get that far. And despite the value that “unskilled” immigrants can offer certain sectors of the American economy, Reason’s map points out:

There is virtually no process for unskilled immigrants without relations in the U.S. to apply for permanent legal residence. Only 10,000 green cards are allotted every year, and the wait time approaches infinity. (Those who receive H-2A or H-2B temporary visas for seasonal work cannot transition to a green card.)

This points to one source of frustration voters have when it comes to major reform legislation: the political class was unable to fix obvious problems before they got out of hand. Now voters are being told their elected representatives are going to be capable of fully solving a problem they couldn’t contain. Several examples of this cropped up during the debate over Obamacare. Of course people should have been able to buy health insurance across state lines, and of course catastrophic-care plans more suited to the needs of many healthy young people should have been more widely available. Both would have helped curb the cost of health care–as would have tort reform.

Instead, the problem festered and costs spun out of control until voters were told the industry was in crisis and the only solution was a mammoth, expensive, bureaucracy-heavy overhaul of dubious constitutionality. “Fixing the immigration system” sounds like quite an undertaking, and it is–but it remains a necessary one, no less so because there were steps that could and should have been taken along the way.

What’s interesting here, as the New York Times’s Richard Stevenson points out today, is that Congress’s lack of urgency on the issue actually outlasted what was considered the crisis point:

By some key measures, the problems underlying illegal immigration — the economic and demographic pressures that have drawn Mexicans north for decades in search of jobs and a better life, and the challenges for the United States of securing its borders — have diminished over the past six years.

The Mexican economy, while still riddled with inefficiency and inequality, is nonetheless humming along, providing many more job opportunities for Mexican workers. And in Mexico, the source of about 6 in 10 illegal immigrants in the United States, the birthrate has plummeted over the last few decades, shrinking the pool of potential emigrants.

“We are at a moment when the underlying drivers of what has been persistent, growing illegal immigration for 40 years have shifted,” said Doris Meissner, a commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton and now a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a research group. “There are some fundamental new realities.”

Mexican birthrates have fallen sharply and something of a Mexican middle class has emerged. Those two factors are likely to continue if and when the American economy turns around. What has given the pro-immigration reform crowd the advantage is that one “crisis” has remained: the political crisis of the Republican Party, which now has an electoral incentive to support immigration reform–something they should have done long ago–regardless of the rates of low-skilled and illegal immigration.

As I’ve written before, the GOP’s trouble attracting Hispanic voters is much more complex than just the immigration issue, but fixing the system is a good start. Immigration reform is also the right policy, regardless of the votes that come with it. And a look at that Reason chart tells you just how long ago something should have been done. But wavering conservatives shouldn’t fool themselves into learning the wrong lesson from Stevenson’s piece and thinking that since this particular wave of immigration has subsided, the system can handle another round of procrastination.

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OWS Were As Spoiled As You Thought

Contain your surprise at this latest study into Occupy Wall Street’s participants: They are overwhelmingly white, educated, and are more likely to be employed, make over $100,000 a year and be male than the average New Yorker. That composite image you had in your mind of spoiled, rich white guys camping out in Zuccotti Park for the fun of it was confirmed by the movement’s own participants’ self-reported statistics.

The study, commissioned by the City University of New York, interviewed 727 participants about the movement and its structure. The study explained that “despite their relative affluence and their overrepresentation in the professions, many of our respondents had substantial debt or had experienced recent job loss.” Hold the phone. Folks that spent weeks, if not months, sleeping outside while protesting something they were never actually able to identify can’t handle financial or job responsibilities well? Truly shocking. 

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Contain your surprise at this latest study into Occupy Wall Street’s participants: They are overwhelmingly white, educated, and are more likely to be employed, make over $100,000 a year and be male than the average New Yorker. That composite image you had in your mind of spoiled, rich white guys camping out in Zuccotti Park for the fun of it was confirmed by the movement’s own participants’ self-reported statistics.

The study, commissioned by the City University of New York, interviewed 727 participants about the movement and its structure. The study explained that “despite their relative affluence and their overrepresentation in the professions, many of our respondents had substantial debt or had experienced recent job loss.” Hold the phone. Folks that spent weeks, if not months, sleeping outside while protesting something they were never actually able to identify can’t handle financial or job responsibilities well? Truly shocking. 

How much did Occupy’s message speak for Americans feeling overwhelmed by our faltering economy? Initially many Americans may have felt that the discontentment expressed by Occupy matched their own. Soon, however, the movement showed its true colors: it became violent, with skyrocketing reports of rape, vandalism and assault. While the protest movement could have represented a growing majority of Americans financially underwater, it instead was overtaken by folks who thought that defecating on police cars and spilling the contents of Porta-Potties were valid forms of expression.

Unsurprisingly, those antics don’t speak for the majority of hardworking Americans who, no matter their precarious financial situation, would never dream of stooping to OWS’s methods. The problem with OWS was that while its members might have been struggling financially like many other Americans, they were not hardworking nor were they average. It’s no wonder the movement fizzled out: while these Occupiers were struggling in debt of their own creation and sleeping in Zuccotti Park, the rest of America was working to get back on its feet.

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Israel Doing West’s Dirty Work in Syria

American officials are now confirming that Israel launched an attack on a Syrian convoy transporting sophisticated weaponry into Lebanon. As expected, the Israelis had no comment about the incident. But the squeals of outrage from both Syria and its ally Iran about the attack, as well as their furious threats of retaliation, show that the operation was probably a success. It’s not clear whether the transfer of what was allegedly anti-aircraft equipment to Hezbollah is a sign that the Assad regime is falling or whether the shipment was a payment for the extensive help it has received from both Iran and its Lebanese proxies. But the question of the disposal of the massive arsenal, including chemical weapons, that Assad still possesses raises an a important point about this latest twist in what has become a Syrian civil war.

As that struggle increasingly looks like one between a bloody tyrant and Islamist rebels rather than a democratic alternative, the American decision to lead from behind in Syria rather than to take action earlier when a better result might have been possible is looking even worse than it did a year ago. Though much of the discussion about Israel’s actions has centered on how far it will go to defend its interests, the bottom line here is that, as it has done in the past, the Jewish state is doing the Americans’ dirty work for them in Syria.

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American officials are now confirming that Israel launched an attack on a Syrian convoy transporting sophisticated weaponry into Lebanon. As expected, the Israelis had no comment about the incident. But the squeals of outrage from both Syria and its ally Iran about the attack, as well as their furious threats of retaliation, show that the operation was probably a success. It’s not clear whether the transfer of what was allegedly anti-aircraft equipment to Hezbollah is a sign that the Assad regime is falling or whether the shipment was a payment for the extensive help it has received from both Iran and its Lebanese proxies. But the question of the disposal of the massive arsenal, including chemical weapons, that Assad still possesses raises an a important point about this latest twist in what has become a Syrian civil war.

As that struggle increasingly looks like one between a bloody tyrant and Islamist rebels rather than a democratic alternative, the American decision to lead from behind in Syria rather than to take action earlier when a better result might have been possible is looking even worse than it did a year ago. Though much of the discussion about Israel’s actions has centered on how far it will go to defend its interests, the bottom line here is that, as it has done in the past, the Jewish state is doing the Americans’ dirty work for them in Syria.

The United States has cautioned Syria about its cache of chemical weapons both in terms of their use against insurgents and their possible export to safe havens in either Lebanon or Iran. But when it comes to brass tacks, it is the Israelis and not U.S. forces that are being counted on to act to ensure that those threats have teeth.

The administration has spent the last two years punting on a deteriorating situation in Syria. Initially Obama was reluctant to turn on a dictator that he and his new secretary of state may have thought was a moderate. But eventually he switched and started claiming that Assad’s fall was imminent. Had the West moved swiftly on Syria, as it did in Libya, that might have been true even though such action would have been fraught with risk. But what we have learned is that sometimes inaction can be even more dangerous than interventions.

Syria is a crucial lynchpin in Iran’s strategy for expanding its influence throughout the Middle East. By largely standing aloof from the bloody struggle there, the United States has not only been complicit in the slaughter there but has allowed Tehran to save its ally, which it has propped up with “volunteers” and arms. This has led to a worst-case scenario in which the Assad regime is still holding on while Syria is convulsed in chaos and violence. That not only endangers Israel’s security, but also creates the danger that Assad’s arsenal will either fall into the hands of unsavory insurgents or be given to Hezbollah.

Though Israel will be criticized for having its forces cross an international border, in acting to interdict Syrian arms convoys or to attack chemical weapons stored there, it is doing something that is as much in the interests of the United States as it is their own. At a time when critics continue to attack Israel as a liability for American foreign policy, this attack ought to bring home just how important the strategic alliance with the Jewish state has become.

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Hagel Stumbles His Way Through Hearing

The first hours of Chuck Hagel’s Senate confirmation hearing did little to gladden the hearts of his supporters. While the strict partisan divide over the nomination should ensure that he would get the support of a majority of senators, his bumbling performance undermined any notion that the president’s choice to lead the Pentagon was winning over any of his critics. More to the point, his effort to portray his recent recantations of his long-held skepticism about attempts to stop Iran from going nuclear, his criticisms of Israel, and his belief in engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah as consistent with his record was a flop. Though he had obviously been prepped to state his support for Israel and President Obama’s policies on Iran over and over again—a task made easier by Democratic senators asking him to merely reaffirm and regurgitate those talking points—he still managed to stumble over some issues he hoped to put to rest.

On the question of his refusal to back sanctions against Iran and its Revolutionary Guards, Hagel was both contradictory and disingenuous. But on the one past statement that was the smoking gun about his attitudes toward Israel—his rant about the “Jewish lobby” and its intimidation of Congress—his answers did little to dispel the notion that his views have not changed.

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The first hours of Chuck Hagel’s Senate confirmation hearing did little to gladden the hearts of his supporters. While the strict partisan divide over the nomination should ensure that he would get the support of a majority of senators, his bumbling performance undermined any notion that the president’s choice to lead the Pentagon was winning over any of his critics. More to the point, his effort to portray his recent recantations of his long-held skepticism about attempts to stop Iran from going nuclear, his criticisms of Israel, and his belief in engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah as consistent with his record was a flop. Though he had obviously been prepped to state his support for Israel and President Obama’s policies on Iran over and over again—a task made easier by Democratic senators asking him to merely reaffirm and regurgitate those talking points—he still managed to stumble over some issues he hoped to put to rest.

On the question of his refusal to back sanctions against Iran and its Revolutionary Guards, Hagel was both contradictory and disingenuous. But on the one past statement that was the smoking gun about his attitudes toward Israel—his rant about the “Jewish lobby” and its intimidation of Congress—his answers did little to dispel the notion that his views have not changed.

The most pointed confrontation of the morning centered on John McCain’s demand that Hagel admit that he was wrong about his opposition to the Iraq surge. Hagel wouldn’t do so and, with the aid of the Democrats on the committee, managed to come out of the exchange not looking too bad since he could claim that he was right that the war (which he had voted to authorize) was a mistake.

He also danced around his participation with Global Zero, a group that issued a report about nuclear weapons that he co-authored, that called for drastic reductions in the U.S. arsenal and even offered unilateral disarmament as an option.

Yet far more damning was his incoherent response to questions about his refusal to support sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as well as his early opposition to those against the regime. His explanation of his vote in which he said Iran’s government was “elected and legitimate” was a shocking revelation of his mindset about the confrontation in which he has always failed to understand the nature of the threat.

Throughout the hearing, Hagel kept repeating that he supported President Obama on Iran and acted as if his record hadn’t been consistent in opposing sanctions on Iran and even considering a military option.

But the most damning moment came when Senator Roger Wicker finally asked about his comment about how he stood up to the “Jewish lobby” and discussed how it “intimidated” Congress and forced it to do “stupid” things. Wicker asked what groups he was referring to and whether he still agreed that Congress was intimidated into acting against U.S. interests.

In reply, Hagel only said that he should have said “pro-Israel lobby” rather than “Jewish lobby” and that he should have said “influenced” rather than “intimidated.” Curiously, he claimed that it was the only time he stated these thoughts “on the record,” leading to the obvious conclusion that he had probably said the same thing or worse in private.

But these words aside, he did nothing to answer whether he thought Israel’s friends have a disproportionate influence on the United States or whether its actions resulted in bad policy. Indeed, his silence on that point and his inability to cite a single member of Congress who had been intimidated or a single stupid policy enacted as a result of such pressure showed just how vicious and insulting that remark was. It also made it clear that despite his constant reiteration of his support for Israel and its qualitative military edge, he had not really changed his extreme views about the Middle East.

So long as Democrats stay loyal to the president and Republicans choose not to filibuster, Hagel will be confirmed. But Hagel has done nothing to convince anyone that his recantation of so much of what he has said and done during his career is sincere or deeply felt. But perhaps even more disturbing is the unimpressive command of the issues that he demonstrated while testifying. His nomination is clearly not one based on his merits but on his close relationship with President Obama. A second Obama administration with Hagel in charge at the Pentagon will be one in which it has a flawed leader at Defense whose out-of-the-mainstream record on key issues may reveal the president’s own inclinations.

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Why the Chill in U.S.-Russia Relations Matters

One of the most common mistakes made by American “realist” analysts with regard to Russia is, in the words of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Lilia Shevtsova, that they have too often “accepted the Kremlin interpretation of Russia’s national interests.” It is not Vladimir Putin, she said, but the Russian society he disregards that shares values and interests with the West. Russians want openness, an independent judiciary, and cultural ties to the West: “That in turn requires America and the West as a whole to take a values-based approach to Russia.”

Shevtsova was commenting after the Obama administration announced its “reset” and specifically on the report of a commission on the “right direction” for U.S.-Russia policy, co-chaired by Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel, the latter going through his confirmation hearings for defense secretary today. The disparity between Putin’s interests and those of the Russian people is in part why Putin has pulled back on so many forms of mutual cooperation. It is easy–and partially accurate–to see Putin’s adoption ban as retaliation for the American human rights legislation, the Magnitsky Act. But the adoption ban was preceded by Putin’s decision to expel USAID and end cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, and it was followed by the expansion of the Guantanamo list banning about 70 Americans from Russia and ending a joint U.S.-Russian project on crime prevention.

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One of the most common mistakes made by American “realist” analysts with regard to Russia is, in the words of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Lilia Shevtsova, that they have too often “accepted the Kremlin interpretation of Russia’s national interests.” It is not Vladimir Putin, she said, but the Russian society he disregards that shares values and interests with the West. Russians want openness, an independent judiciary, and cultural ties to the West: “That in turn requires America and the West as a whole to take a values-based approach to Russia.”

Shevtsova was commenting after the Obama administration announced its “reset” and specifically on the report of a commission on the “right direction” for U.S.-Russia policy, co-chaired by Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel, the latter going through his confirmation hearings for defense secretary today. The disparity between Putin’s interests and those of the Russian people is in part why Putin has pulled back on so many forms of mutual cooperation. It is easy–and partially accurate–to see Putin’s adoption ban as retaliation for the American human rights legislation, the Magnitsky Act. But the adoption ban was preceded by Putin’s decision to expel USAID and end cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, and it was followed by the expansion of the Guantanamo list banning about 70 Americans from Russia and ending a joint U.S.-Russian project on crime prevention.

The disparity is also why respected economists and analysts like Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer have advocated strong civil society cooperation and communication between the U.S. and the pro-democracy and pro-modernization members of the Russian public–something the administration may set back by pulling out of one such group in response to Putin’s actions–and why it matters that U.S.-Russia cooperation is at a post-Cold War low. In their study of 35 hybrid regimes between the end of the Cold War and 2008, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way conclude:

Where linkage to the West was high, competitive authoritarian regimes democratized. Where linkage was low, regime outcomes hinged on incumbents’ organizational power. Where state and governing party structure were well organized and cohesive, regimes remained stable and authoritarian; where they were underdeveloped or lacked cohesion, regimes were unstable, although they rarely democratized.

All of which makes the Obama administration’s decision, as reported by Josh Rogin, to focus its attempt to reset the “reset” on reducing nuclear stockpiles–a replay of the early stages of the first failed reset–all the more baffling. Russian nukes aren’t being aimed with a finger on the trigger at the U.S.; they are a relic of a bygone era and a symbol of great power status.

Additionally, why follow a failed game plan? New START was supposed to be a largely symbolic opening to more advantageous U.S.-Russia cooperation on real threats to nuclear nonproliferation, such as Iran, that never materialized. Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad and his crackdown on pro-democracy activists and protesters are just more evidence that “reset” skeptics like Shevtsova, who wrote “that we must tie foreign policy to Russia’s domestic development, not untie it,” were right on the mark.

There are nations whose existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons remain of great concern, like Pakistan and North Korea. There are rising would-be great powers expanding their existing nuclear forces, like China. And there are unstable or violent, anti-Western regimes seeking to join the nuclear club, like Iran and Syria. The focus on Russia’s weapons seems like a distraction. More importantly, the one benefit to President Obama’s obsession with offering unrequited concessions and a carrot-only engagement strategy was that when it failed he would have the credibility to change direction. The president may count these symbolic agreements as accomplishments, but they will more likely stand as a testament to his missed opportunities.

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NYT Deserves Praise for China Reporting

As someone who regularly critiques New York Times articles, I feel it is only fair to also give credit where it’s due. The Times deserves kudos for publishing an expose on the vast wealth accumulated by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and his relatives–an article that has resulted, the newspaper revealed this morning, in four months of sophisticated attacks on its computer network by Chinese hackers.

There is nothing at all surprising about the Chinese cyber-harassment in response to criticism. This has long been a trademark of the Beijing regime, which typically operates through hackers that provide a layer of deniability to Chinese officials. Indeed last year Bloomberg was similarly targeted after running an article revealing the riches accumulated by Xi Jinping, then China’s vice president at the time.

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As someone who regularly critiques New York Times articles, I feel it is only fair to also give credit where it’s due. The Times deserves kudos for publishing an expose on the vast wealth accumulated by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and his relatives–an article that has resulted, the newspaper revealed this morning, in four months of sophisticated attacks on its computer network by Chinese hackers.

There is nothing at all surprising about the Chinese cyber-harassment in response to criticism. This has long been a trademark of the Beijing regime, which typically operates through hackers that provide a layer of deniability to Chinese officials. Indeed last year Bloomberg was similarly targeted after running an article revealing the riches accumulated by Xi Jinping, then China’s vice president at the time.

The Times, therefore, must have published its well-reported article on Wen Jiabao with its eyes wide open as to the likely consequences. The fact that it went ahead anyway, and did not cave before China’s implicit and explicit threats of retaliation, is a credit to the company, and a sign of the good that a large media organization can do.

Online-only journals and blogs are great–hey, I’m a blogger too–but it takes a lot of resources to produce journalism like this and then deal with the blowback. If giant media corporations like the New York Times Company are unable to operate at a profit in the future, the consequence will be a serious loss of information which will negatively impact even those of us who often disagree with the Times‘s editorial line.

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Iran Increases Uranium Enrichment, Oil Exports Despite Sanctions

As Chuck Hagel gets grilled in the Senate Armed Services Committee about his views on Iran and Israel, it is sobering to reflect on new evidence of how little effect sanctions are having on the Iranian nuclear program.

Iran has just notified the IAEA that it is stepping up uranium enrichment at its Natanz facility, which would allow it to accelerate the timeline for acquiring a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Iran’s oil exports have been rebounding since the imposition of European Union sanctions last July. Iran’s crude oil exports in December hit 1.4 million barrels a day–still down from 2011 levels of 2.2 million barrels a day but higher than last summer. This is evidence that, thanks to strong demand in China, India and other nations, Iran is managing to weather oil sanctions.

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As Chuck Hagel gets grilled in the Senate Armed Services Committee about his views on Iran and Israel, it is sobering to reflect on new evidence of how little effect sanctions are having on the Iranian nuclear program.

Iran has just notified the IAEA that it is stepping up uranium enrichment at its Natanz facility, which would allow it to accelerate the timeline for acquiring a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Iran’s oil exports have been rebounding since the imposition of European Union sanctions last July. Iran’s crude oil exports in December hit 1.4 million barrels a day–still down from 2011 levels of 2.2 million barrels a day but higher than last summer. This is evidence that, thanks to strong demand in China, India and other nations, Iran is managing to weather oil sanctions.

All of which means it is more imperative than ever that the United States have leadership dedicated to stopping the Iranian nuclear program by any means necessary. Hagel will not have an easy time convincing the Senate–or the world–that as secretary of defense he would be the right kind of leader. He has made amply clear his belief that bombing Iran is a greater danger than Iran acquiring The Bomb. But only if Iran fears military action, which could result in the downfall of its Islamist regime, will it contemplate a peaceful deal that would force it to give up its cherished goal of becoming a nuclear power.

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Is the U.S. Cracking Down on Corruption in Afghanistan?

There has been a lot of blowback in Afghanistan and Washington about the decision by U.S. military commanders to blacklist Kam Air, a large civilian airline, from receiving military contracts because it is allegedly used to ship tons of drugs to Central Asia. Predictably Kam Air is mobilizing its supporters, including Hamid Karzai, to denounce the U.S. action as an insult to a proud nation.

Hooey. There is nothing pro-Afghan about allowing U.S. government dollars to be used to support corruption and drug trafficking that is at odds with the values of the vast majority of ordinary Afghans. Yet for all too long U.S. spending has not been closely monitored and has gone to benefit kleptocrats and warlords, two categories that are almost synonymous in Afghanistan. Abusive government has been the Taliban’s biggest recruiting tool and U.S. failure to do more to stem the misuse of its funds the biggest mistake the U.S. has made during a decade of war.

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There has been a lot of blowback in Afghanistan and Washington about the decision by U.S. military commanders to blacklist Kam Air, a large civilian airline, from receiving military contracts because it is allegedly used to ship tons of drugs to Central Asia. Predictably Kam Air is mobilizing its supporters, including Hamid Karzai, to denounce the U.S. action as an insult to a proud nation.

Hooey. There is nothing pro-Afghan about allowing U.S. government dollars to be used to support corruption and drug trafficking that is at odds with the values of the vast majority of ordinary Afghans. Yet for all too long U.S. spending has not been closely monitored and has gone to benefit kleptocrats and warlords, two categories that are almost synonymous in Afghanistan. Abusive government has been the Taliban’s biggest recruiting tool and U.S. failure to do more to stem the misuse of its funds the biggest mistake the U.S. has made during a decade of war.

Not enough is being done, even now, to enforce some accountability and to bring corrupt Afghan allies to heel. But at least the decision on Kam Air–assuming it is founded upon solid intelligence–is in all likelihood a step in the right direction. The U.S. military should not be deterred by the resultant squawking from doing more to control our contracting.

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Next Recession Belongs to Obama, Not GOP

Democrats spent the 2012 presidential campaign successfully blaming George W. Bush for the country’s sluggish economy. But a week after President Obama’s second inaugural, they are still not taking responsibility for the country’s fiscal health. The White House responded to yesterday’s disturbing news that GDP declined for the first time since 2009 in predictable fashion: they blamed the bad numbers on Republicans. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the dip was the fault of “Congressional Republicans” who have tried to restrain the government’s out-of-control spending. Even though the president got his way in the fiscal cliff negotiations with the GOP, Carney said the threat of sequestration, which would mandate across-the-board spending cuts, is the real culprit for the downturn and that the “brinksmanship” by the House Republicans was victimizing the nation’s economy.

This was thin gruel even from a practiced spin master like Carney. The idea of sequestration, which will have a particularly devastating effect on defense, originated in the White House and not the GOP caucus before it was put into the 2011 deal on the debt ceiling. But while we must give Carney credit for his usual chutzpah, the idea that Republican efforts to face up to chronic fiscal problems via entitlement reforms is to blame is a particularly depressing example of the ideological dead end into which the administration has driven the economy. As John Steele Gordon wrote yesterday, there is no way of knowing yet whether yesterday’s GDP numbers are the harbinger of an Obama recession or merely a statistical anomaly, but the steadfast refusal of the White House to face up to the long-term threats is what could be driving the economy into the ditch.

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Democrats spent the 2012 presidential campaign successfully blaming George W. Bush for the country’s sluggish economy. But a week after President Obama’s second inaugural, they are still not taking responsibility for the country’s fiscal health. The White House responded to yesterday’s disturbing news that GDP declined for the first time since 2009 in predictable fashion: they blamed the bad numbers on Republicans. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the dip was the fault of “Congressional Republicans” who have tried to restrain the government’s out-of-control spending. Even though the president got his way in the fiscal cliff negotiations with the GOP, Carney said the threat of sequestration, which would mandate across-the-board spending cuts, is the real culprit for the downturn and that the “brinksmanship” by the House Republicans was victimizing the nation’s economy.

This was thin gruel even from a practiced spin master like Carney. The idea of sequestration, which will have a particularly devastating effect on defense, originated in the White House and not the GOP caucus before it was put into the 2011 deal on the debt ceiling. But while we must give Carney credit for his usual chutzpah, the idea that Republican efforts to face up to chronic fiscal problems via entitlement reforms is to blame is a particularly depressing example of the ideological dead end into which the administration has driven the economy. As John Steele Gordon wrote yesterday, there is no way of knowing yet whether yesterday’s GDP numbers are the harbinger of an Obama recession or merely a statistical anomaly, but the steadfast refusal of the White House to face up to the long-term threats is what could be driving the economy into the ditch.

What Carney failed to mention is that every business in America is worrying about the implications of the president’s signature legislative achievement. ObamaCare is about to go into effect and the fear that it will drive up health-care costs in a way that could sink even substantial companies is already having a powerful impact on job growth and investment. Add in worries about the mounting federal debt and the government’s spending problems—which, contrary to the assertion of Senator Mary Landrieu, is a grim reality and not the invention of FOX News analysts—as well as Democratic threats to raise taxes and you have the makings of a perfect storm that could well create another Great Recession.

It is true that the uncertainty over the future that is fueled by the standoffs over the debt ceiling hasn’t helped the economy. The president has succeeded in fooling much of the public into believing this is solely the work of Republican obstruction, but now that the House GOP has punted on the debt ceiling, it is going to be difficult for Carney to keep pretending that it is House Speaker John Boehner and the Tea Party, rather than the man in the Oval Office, who has the principal responsibility for what is going on.

If the next growth report shows a negative number, President Obama will find himself presiding over his own recession. He may try to pin it on the GOP, but in his fifth year in the White House, that is a trick that even a master like Jay Carney will have trouble pulling off. The next recession, which may already be starting, is the work of an administration that is prepared to saddle the country with more debt in order to realize their liberal fantasies of expanded government, not the last-ditch efforts of generally powerless Republicans trying to stave off impending disaster.

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