Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 5, 2013

Why Is Obama Arming Enemies?

As Iran teetered on the brink of revolution, the Carter administration transferred approximately 70 F-14 fighter jets to the Iranian air force. At the time, the F-14 was perhaps the top platform in the U.S. Air Force, a plane upon which a generation of American air defense rested. It is ironic that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Air Force is today the only country that actively uses the F-14, although some U.S. National Guard units do also occasionally fly the plane.

Alas, President Obama appears determined to repeat Jimmy Carter’s mistakes. Giving Turkey the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is bad enough. While Turkey was part of the consortium that built the fuselage, what Turkey now demands is the software codes and keys to the technology which make that fighter jet the platform upon which the next generation of American air power will rest.

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As Iran teetered on the brink of revolution, the Carter administration transferred approximately 70 F-14 fighter jets to the Iranian air force. At the time, the F-14 was perhaps the top platform in the U.S. Air Force, a plane upon which a generation of American air defense rested. It is ironic that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Air Force is today the only country that actively uses the F-14, although some U.S. National Guard units do also occasionally fly the plane.

Alas, President Obama appears determined to repeat Jimmy Carter’s mistakes. Giving Turkey the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is bad enough. While Turkey was part of the consortium that built the fuselage, what Turkey now demands is the software codes and keys to the technology which make that fighter jet the platform upon which the next generation of American air power will rest.

As Daniel Pipes rightly points out, the statement by U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is a must read for just how out of touch the Obama administration and the State Department have become on Egypt. In an article for COMMENTARY in October 2012, I examined how the West has whitewashed Islamism and gotten the Muslim Brotherhood wrong. No one doubts the organization’s early radicalism. In his 1964 manifesto Ma’alim fi al-Tariq (“Milestones”), influential Brotherhood theoretician Sayyid Qutb urged violent jihad to return Egypt and other majority Muslim lands to his ideals of purity. By doing so, he paved the intellectual route for Abdullah Azzam, Osama Bin Laden, and current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Hassan Banna’s successor as leader of the Muslim Brotherhood was Hassan al-Hudaybi. He was long overshadowed by Qutb, but used Qutb’s 1966 execution as an opportunity to shift the Muslim Brotherhood’s approach. He published Du’at la Qudat (“Preachers, Not Judges”) that refuted Qutb’s radicalism. Largely on the basis of Hudaybi’s writing, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Western apologists say the Brotherhood has evolved, denounced violence, and shed its ideological rigidity.

Mohamed Morsi, however, should definitively end this debate. If Anne Patterson truly believes that Egypt can “continue to serve as a force for peace, security, and leadership as the Middle East proceeds with its challenging yet essential journey toward democracy,” and that arming Morsi, who prays for the eradication of world Jewry and embraces the most ridiculous conspiracy theories, will help Egypt toward that goal, then something has gone terribly wrong in Foggy Bottom.

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Ryan Has Options, But Has He Already Made His Choice?

Paul Ryan’s role in the 2012 presidential election was, from the standpoint of some congressional Republicans, perfect. Because Ryan is the author of budget-cutting legislation that seeks to reform entitlements, especially Medicare, his proposals are controversial. Republicans in Congress may be supportive of such legislation, and indeed voted for it in large numbers, but it opens up an easy line of attack for their opponents. But they also want to rein in debt, support their fellow (popular) conservative reformer, and stay in the good graces of the party’s grassroots–as Newt Gingrich found out when he criticized Ryan’s plan in harsh terms and earned the ire of conservative voters when he ran for the GOP nomination.

Gingrich backtracked, but he was in an unenviable position: he wanted to appeal to both the center and the base; he didn’t want to appear timid by backtracking and deferring to Ryan, who wasn’t running. But he also couldn’t embrace a plan he had genuine concerns about, both philosophically and with regard to electoral politics. This is where many in the party found themselves on the issue of trying to win local and national elections–caught between prudence and their reformist instincts. Ryan chose not to run for president, which prevented the party’s candidates from having to spend an entire election season defending that one proposal. And because he was picked up as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee, his own plans were overshadowed by those of Romney–the top of the ticket. Thus, had the GOP ousted President Obama in November, Republicans would have arrived on the cusp of major conservative reform in a relatively quiet way.

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Paul Ryan’s role in the 2012 presidential election was, from the standpoint of some congressional Republicans, perfect. Because Ryan is the author of budget-cutting legislation that seeks to reform entitlements, especially Medicare, his proposals are controversial. Republicans in Congress may be supportive of such legislation, and indeed voted for it in large numbers, but it opens up an easy line of attack for their opponents. But they also want to rein in debt, support their fellow (popular) conservative reformer, and stay in the good graces of the party’s grassroots–as Newt Gingrich found out when he criticized Ryan’s plan in harsh terms and earned the ire of conservative voters when he ran for the GOP nomination.

Gingrich backtracked, but he was in an unenviable position: he wanted to appeal to both the center and the base; he didn’t want to appear timid by backtracking and deferring to Ryan, who wasn’t running. But he also couldn’t embrace a plan he had genuine concerns about, both philosophically and with regard to electoral politics. This is where many in the party found themselves on the issue of trying to win local and national elections–caught between prudence and their reformist instincts. Ryan chose not to run for president, which prevented the party’s candidates from having to spend an entire election season defending that one proposal. And because he was picked up as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee, his own plans were overshadowed by those of Romney–the top of the ticket. Thus, had the GOP ousted President Obama in November, Republicans would have arrived on the cusp of major conservative reform in a relatively quiet way.

But they didn’t win. And that meant the party faced the prospect of a new cycle of political fights over Ryan’s reforms, since he is the House budget leader. But he could also not be easily overlooked, since he returned as the party’s (unsuccessful) vice presidential hopeful. That’s why in today’s Politico story analyzing Paul Ryan’s competing paths to power, this particular segment stands out as possibly the best harbinger of what to expect from the rising conservative star:

Ryan associates say he has been surprised at how central his governing role has been among House Republicans since returning from his failed run for vice president. He was instrumental in cooking up the GOP’s new debt ceiling strategy and will craft a budget plan that sets the direction for the GOP caucus on virtually every consequential issue. With this in mind, he now calculates that naked national ambitions would only dilute his growing power as Speaker John Boehner’s unofficial wing man.

At the same time, Ryan continues to cultivate a national political and financial network that would serve him in any role. A top GOP source said Ryan recently huddled with Spencer Zwick, Mitt Romney’s fundraising guru, who made plain much of the 2012 donor base stands ready to back him if he were to ever warm again to a White House run. Ryan also made a fundraising trip to Texas last month for his Prosperity PAC. He was hosted by top Romney donors who urged him to run, convinced he has been totally vetted and passed the readiness test.

There are three nuggets of information in those two paragraphs, and they basically summarize Ryan’s current predicament. First, major party donors like him and want him to run for president; second, his instinct is not to run, and instead stick to policy; and third, that the GOP House caucus’s embrace of Ryan when he returned from the campaign played a fairly important role in all this.

Ryan understood that although he is young, losing a national race can halt anyone’s career momentum, and it can leave the impression that the losing candidate is an also-ran. Those perceptions are difficult, though far from impossible, to reverse. And Ryan would have one advantage: no one blames him for the election result, since he was not at the top of the ticket. His selection, in fact, energized grassroots conservatives. Nonetheless, as a candidate for the White House in a close election Ryan had one foot out the door of the House chamber. The fact that House Republicans welcomed his return as a congressional leader says a lot about the value House Republicans place in Ryan, and the confidence he instills in them that they can win with his agenda.

Though Ryan is a fine public speaker and a solid debater, he was always more at home writing policy than on the campaign trail. If he wanted to compete for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, he surely could, and he would have something of a head start on his rivals with both the base and party donors. But the lesson of Bob Dole’s run for president in 1996 looms large: it is difficult–Dole found it impossible, actually–to be a congressional leader and presidential candidate at the same time. Ryan may very well be the most influential Republican in the House already. Though he could certainly make a play for being even more, he appears to be relieved to have his old role back, for the time being. The party’s base has reason to be relieved, as well, that Ryan’s colleagues didn’t lose their resolve to fight for real reform in his brief absence.

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Turkey’s Terror Hypocrisy

Evelyn Gordon wrote yesterday about the strange silence of the Western media on the threats made by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to attack Israel. It was no misspeak; later that the day, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—whom President Barack Obama has called one of his top foreign friends—essentially repeated the warning.

Turkey’s hypocrisy is growing. Over the past decade, Israel struck Syria unilaterally on three occasions:

Evelyn Gordon wrote yesterday about the strange silence of the Western media on the threats made by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to attack Israel. It was no misspeak; later that the day, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—whom President Barack Obama has called one of his top foreign friends—essentially repeated the warning.

Turkey’s hypocrisy is growing. Over the past decade, Israel struck Syria unilaterally on three occasions:

  • On October 5, 2003, Israeli jets attacked Ain es Saheb, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad training camp about 15 miles northwest of Damascus. The airstrike followed a suicide bombing in Haifa the previous day. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, of course, is an unrepentant terrorist group founded by Iran.
  • On September 6, 2007, Israel bombed Syria’s nuclear weapons plant. Elliott Abrams has a must-read article on the episode in this month’s COMMENTARY.
  • And, of course, last week Israel struck at Syrian missiles being transferred to Hezbollah and perhaps also a Syrian chemical and biological weapons laboratory.

Erdoğan calls this “state terrorism.” Of course, over the same period, the Turkish Air Force has bombed sovereign Iraqi territory on a couple dozen occasions, often striking not Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) activists, but villagers and children. In one of the most egregious examples, on December 28, 2011, Turkish warplanes attacked a number of Kurds, killing 34 civilians including women and children. No PKK members were killed or even apparently present. There has been no accountability for what Kurds call the “Roboski massacre.”

The hypocrisy continues. Speaking at a press conference in Prague yesterday, Erdoğan, one of the strongest supporters of Hamas, castigated the European Union: “We need to have a common struggle against terror. The European Union needs to distance itself from terrorist organizations,” he told assembled press. Perhaps Erdoğan could start by ceasing Turkish support and subsidy for Hamas and Sunni extremist terror groups inside Syria and Iraq. It is impossible to call Hamas legitimate while simultaneously expecting condemnation of the PKK.

Rather than become a force for stability in the region and a beacon of democracy, Turkey has become a chief impediment to the fight against terrorism. It is time the White House, State Department, and Congressional Turkey Caucus wake up to reality.

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How Not to Conduct a Peace Process

Our colleague Michael Rubin testified this morning before a House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee hearing on Fatah-Hamas “reconciliation.” He presented a very valuable short history of the failure to enforce Palestinian “peace process” commitments, worth reading in its entirety. Here is a brief excerpt from his prepared testimony

After a wave of terrorist attacks followed Palestinian assurances that terror would cease, President George W. Bush had had enough. Engagement for engagement’s sake had failed. He decided to take a zero tolerance approach. … The State Department resisted Bush’s new approach. … Amidst international criticism and resistance from within his own administration … Bush abandoned his principled stand, and the State Department quickly reverted to business as usual. A no-nonsense demand to end terrorism before diplomacy gave way to the Road Map, whose own benchmarks soon fell victim to a desire to keep the Palestinians at the table.

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Our colleague Michael Rubin testified this morning before a House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee hearing on Fatah-Hamas “reconciliation.” He presented a very valuable short history of the failure to enforce Palestinian “peace process” commitments, worth reading in its entirety. Here is a brief excerpt from his prepared testimony

After a wave of terrorist attacks followed Palestinian assurances that terror would cease, President George W. Bush had had enough. Engagement for engagement’s sake had failed. He decided to take a zero tolerance approach. … The State Department resisted Bush’s new approach. … Amidst international criticism and resistance from within his own administration … Bush abandoned his principled stand, and the State Department quickly reverted to business as usual. A no-nonsense demand to end terrorism before diplomacy gave way to the Road Map, whose own benchmarks soon fell victim to a desire to keep the Palestinians at the table.

The sad story of Condoleezza Rice’s attempt to “accelerate” the three-phase Road Map by skipping Phase I and II has been told here. Rice oversaw a yearlong final-status negotiation, with monthly trips to the region, transforming herself into the virtual desk officer of the process, and produced in 2008 still another Israeli offer of a state–from which the Palestinian president (then in the fourth year of his four-year term) walked away. He suffered no consequence, nor even criticism.

On the contrary, the following year, the Obama administration nearly doubled financial aid to him and commenced pressuring … Israel. The Palestinians responded by setting preconditions never set before; demanded a construction freeze that they ignored once they got it; and went to the UN not once but twice, violating both times their written Oslo agreement not to take “any step” outside negotiations to change the legal status of the disputed territories. These days, the Palestinians are in their perennial reconciliation talks with their premier terrorist group (and Iranian ally), while the State Department is urging Congress to release more money to them. It is arguable that the ever-increasing flow of money had a negative rather than positive effect on the process; and maintaining it while the Palestinian Authority negotiates with the group it promised to dismantle is not likely to produce a good result.

Rubin concluded his testimony today by stating that in ignoring accountability for Palestinian failures, and treating U.S. assistance to the Palestinian government as an entitlement, the Obama administration is committing “a grave strategic error which could permanently handicap prospects for peace and instead encourage a more devastating conflict.” It is no surprise that a process that demands continual concessions from one side, with no consequences for the other (even for failure to abide by the promises already made), has not produced peace.

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When Tyrants and Hatemongers Embrace

Some foreign policy realists are urging caution when assessing the impact of the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Egypt. The visit, the first by an Iranian leader since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, is an indication of the way the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt has warmed up toward a country that Hosni Mubarak spurned as a threat to stability.

But, as the New York Times reports, analysts believe Egypt’s continuing need for aid from both the United States and moderate Arab regimes that fear Iran as much as the Americans, will prevent a full restoration of diplomatic relations. But whether or not the two countries go that far or not, the symbolism of the embrace of Ahmadinejad by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi (who visited Tehran last August) illustrates the way the Brotherhood’s ascendancy has fractured American foreign policy objectives in the region. The willingness of Egypt to embrace Iran in this manner undermines U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran and sends the world the message not to take President Obama’s threats about stopping Iran’s nuclear program seriously. It is also a reminder that the two countries have something in common besides Islam: leaders who engage in anti-Semitic hate speech.

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Some foreign policy realists are urging caution when assessing the impact of the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Egypt. The visit, the first by an Iranian leader since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, is an indication of the way the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt has warmed up toward a country that Hosni Mubarak spurned as a threat to stability.

But, as the New York Times reports, analysts believe Egypt’s continuing need for aid from both the United States and moderate Arab regimes that fear Iran as much as the Americans, will prevent a full restoration of diplomatic relations. But whether or not the two countries go that far or not, the symbolism of the embrace of Ahmadinejad by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi (who visited Tehran last August) illustrates the way the Brotherhood’s ascendancy has fractured American foreign policy objectives in the region. The willingness of Egypt to embrace Iran in this manner undermines U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran and sends the world the message not to take President Obama’s threats about stopping Iran’s nuclear program seriously. It is also a reminder that the two countries have something in common besides Islam: leaders who engage in anti-Semitic hate speech.

Coming as it did on the eve of the resumption of the West’s latest negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, the Ahmadinejad visit brings home the fact that despite all the tough talk heard in Washington, Iran has not been isolated by the diplomatic strategy pursued by President Obama and recently departed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The assumption that the Iranians have been brought to their knees by sanctions and deprived of allies is given the lie by Ahmadinejad’s warm reception in Cairo.

Egypt and Iran have strongly disagreed about Syria since Morsi has supported the efforts by other Arab countries to oust the Assad regime. But the factors that unite the two governments — hostility to Israel and support for Hamas — are greater than those that divide them. The Iranians may be looking to use their new friends in Cairo to help float their latest attempt to divert the West from pressing them on nuclear issues. As I wrote yesterday, the Iranians may be seeking to link Assad’s fate with that of their nuclear program. They may be hoping the Brotherhood, which retains the ear of the State Department as well as billions in annual aid from the United States, could serve to further muddy the diplomatic waters via this stratagem without committing themselves to anything.

The Egyptians may stop just short of full recognition of Ahmadinejad’s government in order to keep U.S. taxpayer dollars flowing to Cairo. But the notion that it is in any conceivable sense an ally is out the window. This incident calls into question the decision to keep that aid flowing without condition as well as the continued sale of sophisticated weapons to Egypt that their forces don’t need for self-defense. The closer Egypt draws to Iran, the more it seems as if the peace treaty with Egypt, into which both Israelis and Americans are so heavily, is heading for the scrapheap.

Just as important in many respects is the symbolism of the embrace of two men who have done much to help keep the flames of Jew hatred burning hot recently. Morsi and Ahmadinejad are both on record insulting Jews and Israelis and pledging their destruction as well as for trying to suppress domestic dissent. Far from an innocuous event that shouldn’t worry us, when tyrants embrace, decent people everywhere should tremble.

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Obama vs. the Facts on Polarization

When President Obama was interviewed by the New Republic, he was prepared with a fresh list of ways to paint his Republican opponents as unreasonable. The one that garnered the most attention at the time was Obama’s insistence that Fox News was punishing Republicans for reaching across the isle. Fox contributors, liberal and conservative, chimed in to point out that this was both false and unseemly behavior from the president of the United States.

But another excuse for the GOP’s seeming intransigence that is currently favored by the president and his uninformed supporters in liberal punditry, like Paul Krugman, is that Republicans have used the process known as gerrymandering to squeeze out moderates and to boost ideological stubbornness. Aside from the coincidence that leftists are suddenly concerned about gerrymandering now that the last round seemed to help Republicans, there is also the fact that what the president said is untrue. First, what Obama said:

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When President Obama was interviewed by the New Republic, he was prepared with a fresh list of ways to paint his Republican opponents as unreasonable. The one that garnered the most attention at the time was Obama’s insistence that Fox News was punishing Republicans for reaching across the isle. Fox contributors, liberal and conservative, chimed in to point out that this was both false and unseemly behavior from the president of the United States.

But another excuse for the GOP’s seeming intransigence that is currently favored by the president and his uninformed supporters in liberal punditry, like Paul Krugman, is that Republicans have used the process known as gerrymandering to squeeze out moderates and to boost ideological stubbornness. Aside from the coincidence that leftists are suddenly concerned about gerrymandering now that the last round seemed to help Republicans, there is also the fact that what the president said is untrue. First, what Obama said:

The House Republican majority is made up mostly of members who are in sharply gerrymandered districts that are very safely Republican and may not feel compelled to pay attention to broad-based public opinion, because what they’re really concerned about is the opinions of their specific Republican constituencies.

Not so, says political scientist John Sides, who took to Ezra Klein’s Washington Post Wonkblog–generally favorable terrain for the president–to try and nudge the president back into truthful waters. Sides shows that the data confirm almost the exact opposite: that congressional delegations of both parties vote in a much more partisan way than their districts. That is, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress vote with their fellow members of Congress (of the same party, that is) in ways only tangentially related to the voting patterns of their constituents.

As Sides notes, it’s easier to see this effect with regard to members of the Senate, since senatorial delegations are sometime split, yet each senator votes either conservatively or liberally despite the fact that they represent the same constituency–their state. Sides writes:

No matter whether Obama won 20 percent or 50 percent of their district, Republican representatives have voted similarly — that is, they have taken conservative positions on average.  No matter whether Obama won 50 percent or 80 percent of their district, Democratic representatives have taken liberal positions, on average.  Constituency hasn’t affected anyone’s overall voting behavior that much.

And the 113th Congress is no exception….

What about the Senate?  Same thing.  Just think of states with split delegations.  How ideologically similar are, say, Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin?  Or David Vitter and Mary Landrieu?  Not very, even though they ostensibly represent the same voters.

So is cooperation hopeless? Is Obama doomed to act without any Republican congressional support? Fortunately for the president, the answer to that is also no. Though the Obama administration likes to play up partisan conflict to push the Obama-against-the-world storyline, the president has more support from the right than he’s willing to admit. This is particularly the case on foreign policy, where there has been almost no pushback against the emerging Obama doctrine of secret drone wars and preemption on cyber warfare. Unlike the Democratic Party’s cynical turn against the war they voted for when they thought such unprincipled behavior was good partisan politics, the Republican Party’s congressional delegations have remained generally supportive of the war effort, even when the commander-in-chief was no longer from their ranks.

And it’s not simply the hawks, either. As a group of foreign policy professionals writes in Foreign Affairs, the two parties continue to agree on some broad policy outlines:

More than 80 percent of aides in both parties think that it is important to protect U.S. sovereignty and that U.S. law takes precedence over the United Nations. Yet over 60 percent of staff in both parties think that most international problems cannot be solved by the United States alone, and that it is less efficient to act alone than to cooperate with others. These data suggest that both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill share skepticism toward international law but recognize the importance of multilateral cooperation.

Congressional attitudes also converge on some specific security and economic issues. More than 70 percent of Republican and Democratic staff in both chambers have very favorable attitudes toward NATO and think that multilateral cooperation on the threats of nuclear proliferation and terrorism is very important. Responses to questions about global security treaties, including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, revealed that although Democratic aides are far more supportive of them, roughly half of Republican aides also view them positively. The United States’ long-standing allies are another area of agreement: more than 90 percent of staff in both parties reported having a positive outlook on U.S. alliances with the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

As the authors write, this is consistent with past surveys as well. Obama likes to pretend that he is dealing with unfair and unprecedented opposition and that his antagonists are rewriting the rules unilaterally as the game progresses. Such self-pity is unworthy of the office, but it’s also flat wrong.

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Chavez’s Shady Dealings

As indecent as it seems to find humor in the world’s tyrannies, it’s hard not to, especially when it comes to Venezuela and Iran.

On January 21, Tahmasb Mazaheri, the former governor of Iran’s Central Bank, was arrested by German police at Dusseldorf Airport after he was found carrying a check worth 300 million Venezuelan Bolivars–the equivalent of $70 million–in his hand luggage. Mazaheri, who flew into the German city from Turkey, is suspected of involvement in money laundering. His own explanation is that the check “was designed to finance the Venezuelan government’s construction of 10,000 homes.”

Given Mazaheri’s staggering incompetence in transporting this enormous sum of money, it’s tempting to ask where, exactly, these “homes” he referred to are being built. In Caracas? Or perhaps in Havana, where the Castro brothers have set themselves up as Cuba’s de facto rulers? Maybe in Tehran, where the ruling mullahs have engaged in a love-in with the regime of Hugo Chavez for more than a decade?

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As indecent as it seems to find humor in the world’s tyrannies, it’s hard not to, especially when it comes to Venezuela and Iran.

On January 21, Tahmasb Mazaheri, the former governor of Iran’s Central Bank, was arrested by German police at Dusseldorf Airport after he was found carrying a check worth 300 million Venezuelan Bolivars–the equivalent of $70 million–in his hand luggage. Mazaheri, who flew into the German city from Turkey, is suspected of involvement in money laundering. His own explanation is that the check “was designed to finance the Venezuelan government’s construction of 10,000 homes.”

Given Mazaheri’s staggering incompetence in transporting this enormous sum of money, it’s tempting to ask where, exactly, these “homes” he referred to are being built. In Caracas? Or perhaps in Havana, where the Castro brothers have set themselves up as Cuba’s de facto rulers? Maybe in Tehran, where the ruling mullahs have engaged in a love-in with the regime of Hugo Chavez for more than a decade?

So far, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua–appointed after he was resoundingly defeated by opposition leader Henrique Capriles in last December’s election for the governorship of Miranda state–has issued no statement on Mazaheri’s arrest. Nothing, it appears, can stop the constant stream of bulletins from Caracas about the “improving” health of the ailing Chavez, who hasn’t been seen or heard from since he returned to Cuba for cancer treatment more than two months ago. Last Saturday, Fidel Castro himself reassured Venezuelans that their leader was “much better, recovering.” Today, Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s appointed successor, read what he claimed was a letter from Chavez to a rally in Caracas commemorating the failed coup of 1992 against then-President Carlos Andres Perez. “My spirit and my heart are among you all on this day,” Chavez is supposed to have written, “I’m with you all, wearing my red beret.” Needless to say, visual evidence that Chavez is even still alive has not been forthcoming.

The silence on the part of the Venezuelans, as well as the Iranians, over Mazaheri is understandable. The Chavez pantomime has robbed the Chavistas of any credibility when it comes to telling the truth. Recent polling from Caracas shows that Maduro, a former bus driver and orthodox Chavista ideologue, is both disliked and distrusted by the electorate. One theme that the Venezuelan opposition has capitalized upon is the network of murky relationships Chavez and his cronies have forged with rogue regimes around the world, Cuba and Iran being the most notable, which involve lucrative government contracts as well as oil subsidies that have further sapped the Venezuelan economy.

Indeed, one of the ironies of the Mazaheri affair is that it comes at a time when both countries are undergoing a massive currency crisis. Over the last year, the value of the Venezuelan Bolivar has weakened against the dollar by 53 percent; the Venezuelan journalist Juan Cristobal Nagel has compared Chavez’s economic policies to a “Ponzi Scheme” whose sources of cash are rapidly drying up. As for the Iranians, the value of the rial against the dollar tumbled by 21 percent last week to a record low.

It isn’t yet clear where Mazaheri himself fits into all this. A shady character, he was governor of Iran’s Central Bank for just one year, until President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad canned him in September 2008. A few months later, Mazaheri correctly predicted that Ahmadinejad’s economic reforms would send inflation skyrocketing, an outcome that would hit government employees on fixed incomes particularly hard.

Nevertheless, what is abundantly clear is that the cooperation between Venezuela and Iran remains as strong as ever. Public housing for poor Venezuelans has featured among the myriad collaborative economic schemes between the two countries, but it is the energy and military sectors that are truly significant. Given Iran’s lack of oil refining capacity, Venezuela has stepped into the breach, providing Tehran’s rulers with more than 20,000 barrels of oil per day. In June of last year, Chavez announced that he was building unmanned drones with Iranian assistance. An unnamed Venezuelan military officer said at the time that the drones “are made in this country with military engineers who went to do a course in the sister Republic of Iran.”

Should Maduro formally take the reins in Venezuela, business with Iran is certain to continue as usual, even if Ahmadinejad’s hated rival, Ali Larijani, wins the June 14 presidential election in Iran. Larijani–who is also, like Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier–is a true believer in the Chavista view of international relations as a conspiracy masterminded by “Zionism” and the United States. In these circumstances, the only means by which the Venezuela-Iran relationship could be transformed is if one, or both, of these regimes finally collapses.

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GOP Caving on Sequestration?

Reading this Politico article this morning has really depressed me: “House GOP thinks unthinkable on defense cuts.” It reports: “A new breed of conservatives in the House cares so much about cutting spending they’re willing to extend that to the budget for bullets and bombs, too — in this case, by letting $500 billion in across-the-board automatic budget cuts over 10 years take effect, alongside a similar number for domestic agencies.”

This is crazy on many levels. Start with the policy implications: The Pentagon can’t afford another $500 billion of cuts on top of the $500 billion or so that has already been cut–not at a time when the armed forces must grapple with new missions such as dealing with the spread of al-Qaeda in Africa and an upsurge in cyber attacks.

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Reading this Politico article this morning has really depressed me: “House GOP thinks unthinkable on defense cuts.” It reports: “A new breed of conservatives in the House cares so much about cutting spending they’re willing to extend that to the budget for bullets and bombs, too — in this case, by letting $500 billion in across-the-board automatic budget cuts over 10 years take effect, alongside a similar number for domestic agencies.”

This is crazy on many levels. Start with the policy implications: The Pentagon can’t afford another $500 billion of cuts on top of the $500 billion or so that has already been cut–not at a time when the armed forces must grapple with new missions such as dealing with the spread of al-Qaeda in Africa and an upsurge in cyber attacks.

President Obama’s defense secretary, noted budget hawk Leon Panetta, has said that sequestration would be a “disaster” with “a devastating effect on not only national defense but I think on the rest of the country.”

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to make any cuts in defense. Former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy has some good suggestions in the Wall Street Journal for cutting bloated headquarters, eliminating unneeded bases, making military medical benefits less generous, and paring back the civilian workforce. But significantly she attaches no price tag to the reductions she seeks. The likelihood is that all of her savings, even if enacted, would not make a significant dent in the defense budget given that our military capabilities must grow to deal with threats from Africa to China. In any case sequestration is a mindless process of across-the-board hacking that will do major damage to vital programs; it is the very antithesis of the kind of rational pruning and rebalancing that Fluornoy suggests.

Now to the politics: In the last election, there was evidence that Republicans had lost their decades-old advantage on foreign policy and national security to a party led by the president who ordered the Osama bin Laden raid. How on earth will Republicans ever regain their advantage on these crucial issues if they come out as more anti-defense than Obama’s own defense secretary on the issue of sequestration?

I sympathize with the concerns of House Republicans about runaway spending. The growing public debt is a major concern that if left unaddressed could hamper American productivity and power in the long term. But the way to deal with this issue isn’t to whack away at the defense budget, which even if entirely eliminated would still not close our staggering, trillion-dollar-plus budget deficits. Congress needs to tackle entitlement reform, like it or not. President Obama’s opposition may make that impossible in the short-term but eviscerating our defense capabilities–and thereby making the world a more dangerous place–isn’t a viable alternative.

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