Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 8, 2013

Grand Ayatollah Puts Obama on the Spot

There has always been a contradiction between the Obama administration’s reluctance to state “red lines” on Iran and its tough talk about never allowing the Islamist regime to achieve their nuclear ambition. The president’s supporters have resolved this piece of cognitive dissonance—at least in their own minds—by sticking to the belief that sooner or later Tehran will yield to reason and start negotiating toward a compromise that the U.S. could live with even if such a deal might scare Israel. This assumption was based on the idea that sanctions are gradually bringing Iran to its knees and that its leaders are reasonable people who understand their position is unsustainable.

Given the Iranians’ record of intransigence and duplicity in diplomatic encounters, such assumptions were always more a matter of wishful thinking than serious analysis. But the latest rejection of an American attempt to reach out to Iran should conclusively demonstrate that any hope that sanctions or diplomacy will persuade Iran to back off on its nuclear quest is entirely unrealistic. The statement by the supreme leader of the regime, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the effect that he completely rejects any idea of direct talks on the nuclear question with the United States indicates that the latest bright idea about Iran hatched in the Obama administration was just as much a failure as its predecessors. Though some are interpreting the ayatollah’s statement solely through the prism of the power struggles inside Tehran, there should be no mistake about who is in charge and what his veto of new talks with the U.S. means.

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There has always been a contradiction between the Obama administration’s reluctance to state “red lines” on Iran and its tough talk about never allowing the Islamist regime to achieve their nuclear ambition. The president’s supporters have resolved this piece of cognitive dissonance—at least in their own minds—by sticking to the belief that sooner or later Tehran will yield to reason and start negotiating toward a compromise that the U.S. could live with even if such a deal might scare Israel. This assumption was based on the idea that sanctions are gradually bringing Iran to its knees and that its leaders are reasonable people who understand their position is unsustainable.

Given the Iranians’ record of intransigence and duplicity in diplomatic encounters, such assumptions were always more a matter of wishful thinking than serious analysis. But the latest rejection of an American attempt to reach out to Iran should conclusively demonstrate that any hope that sanctions or diplomacy will persuade Iran to back off on its nuclear quest is entirely unrealistic. The statement by the supreme leader of the regime, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the effect that he completely rejects any idea of direct talks on the nuclear question with the United States indicates that the latest bright idea about Iran hatched in the Obama administration was just as much a failure as its predecessors. Though some are interpreting the ayatollah’s statement solely through the prism of the power struggles inside Tehran, there should be no mistake about who is in charge and what his veto of new talks with the U.S. means.

The ayatollah’s cutting and sinister remarks about any Iranian who might consider talking with the Americans illustrates how deeply committed the government is to the nuclear program. He also gave a not-so-subtle hint about what would happen to any official who was foolish enough to think of compromising either on nukes or on warming up relations with the United States:

“I’m not a diplomat; I’m a revolutionary, and speak frankly and directly,” he said. “If anyone wants the return of U.S. dominance here, people will grab his throat.”

This puts a period on the notion of a new engagement policy in Iran that might have relieved President Obama of the obligation to make good on his promises about Iran. Negotiations might have yielded some sort of accord that might have been able to be represented as a victory for U.S. policy even if it fell short of actually removing the Iranian nuclear threat in the long run. But Khamenei’s contempt for Obama is so complete that he will not deign to negotiate directly with him. Instead, he seems to believe that if he sticks to his position on the nuclear question, he can eventually run out the clock through multilateral talks via the P5+1 group in which Russia and China will prevent anyone from applying real pressure on Tehran.

Khamenei can hardly be blamed for thinking the administration isn’t serious about rejecting any thought of containing them rather than forestalling their nuclear program via force even as a last resort. The nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense—a man who not only opposes force and supports containment but also can’t even be counted on to lie persuasively about it during his confirmation hearing—may have persuaded them that the president never meant what he said about Iran throughout his re-election campaign. The Iranians also read the American press and know that one of the rising figures in the Republican Party—Rand Paul—also supports containment.

The Iranian confidence that they can ignore American threats puts the administration in a pickle. The president will not pull the plug on the next round of P5+1 talks but even he knows that effort will never yield success. But he now knows, even if he didn’t before, that Khamenei would never yield on the nuclear question. Sooner or later that leaves him with either containment or force as his only two options on Iran. Given the consequences of allowing Iran to go nuclear, let’s hope he hasn’t been bluffing all along about leaving no option off the table.

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Morsi’s Hamas Connection

Apologists for the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt have spent much of the last year attempting to argue that the Islamist movement is not the extremist group its critics make it out to be. They claim it is not only moderate in its religious views but that it is a pragmatic organization that can be a stabilizing force in the region. The whitewash of the Brotherhood’s ideology is made possible by both the general ignorance of the American people about the group’s origins and its beliefs as well as by the willingness of many in the American media to buy into the transparent propaganda they’ve been fed about their goals. However, the hate speech of President Mohamed Morsi and his putsch to seize total power in the manner of his authoritarian predecessor Hosni Mubarak, as well as the group’s efforts to impose their version of sharia law on the rest of Egyptian society, should have cured them of their ignorance.

But the latest evidence of the radical nature of the Brotherhood government comes from its ally Hamas. Under Morsi, Egypt has become a helpful friend to the Gaza regime, a marked change from the hostility that Mubarak demonstrated toward it. But as Khaled Abu Toameh reports at the Gatestone Institute website, friendship between the Brotherhood and Hamas is a two-way street. He reports that Egyptian media outlets are saying that a large number of Hamas militiamen may have crossed from Gaza into Sinai in the last week and then headed to various Egyptian cities to help the Brotherhood suppress pro-democracy and anti-Islamist protests that have broken out across the country. If true, this not only means that the ties between the supposed “moderates” of the Brotherhood and the terrorists of Hamas are closer than ever, but that Morsi is seeking to use these killers as a counter-force against possible action by the Egyptian army to check his attempt to seize total power.

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Apologists for the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt have spent much of the last year attempting to argue that the Islamist movement is not the extremist group its critics make it out to be. They claim it is not only moderate in its religious views but that it is a pragmatic organization that can be a stabilizing force in the region. The whitewash of the Brotherhood’s ideology is made possible by both the general ignorance of the American people about the group’s origins and its beliefs as well as by the willingness of many in the American media to buy into the transparent propaganda they’ve been fed about their goals. However, the hate speech of President Mohamed Morsi and his putsch to seize total power in the manner of his authoritarian predecessor Hosni Mubarak, as well as the group’s efforts to impose their version of sharia law on the rest of Egyptian society, should have cured them of their ignorance.

But the latest evidence of the radical nature of the Brotherhood government comes from its ally Hamas. Under Morsi, Egypt has become a helpful friend to the Gaza regime, a marked change from the hostility that Mubarak demonstrated toward it. But as Khaled Abu Toameh reports at the Gatestone Institute website, friendship between the Brotherhood and Hamas is a two-way street. He reports that Egyptian media outlets are saying that a large number of Hamas militiamen may have crossed from Gaza into Sinai in the last week and then headed to various Egyptian cities to help the Brotherhood suppress pro-democracy and anti-Islamist protests that have broken out across the country. If true, this not only means that the ties between the supposed “moderates” of the Brotherhood and the terrorists of Hamas are closer than ever, but that Morsi is seeking to use these killers as a counter-force against possible action by the Egyptian army to check his attempt to seize total power.

That operatives of a group that is labeled by the United States as a terrorist group may have become the shock troops of the leader of an allied country like Egypt may be shocking to many Americans. But it will come as no surprise to anyone who is aware that Hamas was founded as an offshoot of the Egyptian Islamist movement. The connection between the two groups as well as their supporters in other Muslim countries is no secret. As Abu Toameh writes:

This week, a Gulf newspaper Akhbar Al-Khaleej published what it described as “secret documents” proving that Hamas, with the financial backing of Qatar, had plans to send hundreds of militiamen to Egypt to help Morsi’s regime.

One of the classified documents, signed by Hamas’s armed wing, Izaddin al-Kassam, talks about the need to send “warriors to help our brothers in Egypt who are facing attempts by the former regime [of Hosni Mubarak] to return to power.”

The alliance between Hamas and the Brotherhood has great advantages for both groups.

Morsi’s Egyptian followers may be highly organized, but they lack the experience in street violence and terror that Hamas members have. They also may have scruples about killing and torturing fellow Egyptians. The Palestinians are used to ruthlessly suppressing dissent in Gaza. Hamas staged a bloody coup in 2006 to oust Fatah from control there and thus knows what it stakes to secure power.

On the other hand, Hamas’s stock among Palestinians has risen markedly since the Brotherhood took power. Egypt no longer enforces the blockade of Gaza. Rather than worrying about holding onto Gaza, as they may have done when they were locked in a vise between the Israelis and Mubarak’s Egypt, they are now thinking seriously about how best to wrest control of the West Bank from their Palestinian rivals.

The Hamas connection should send a chill down the spines of anyone who still held onto hope that the Arab Spring would produce more, rather than less, freedom for Egypt. But it should also remind Americans that they are still sending more than $1 billion a year in U.S. aid and selling F-16 aircraft to Morsi’s Egypt. Members of Congress who continue to back this foolish policy need to ask themselves whether it makes sense to funnel taxpayer dollars to Egypt in the hope of supporting regional stability if what they are really doing is bolstering a government that depends on Hamas terrorists to stay in power.

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AQIM Attack in Algeria Only the Beginning

After last month’s Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seizure of a British Petroleum facility in Algeria culminated in a botched rescue and the deaths of scores of hostages, the international media focused its attention elsewhere.

It will be a fateful mistake, however, to see the size and the scope of the AQIM assault on the In Amenas facility as an exception rather than the beginning of a new rule. According to reports out of Algeria yesterday, a band of 50 heavily-armed men attacked an Algerian army barracks. According to France 24:

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After last month’s Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seizure of a British Petroleum facility in Algeria culminated in a botched rescue and the deaths of scores of hostages, the international media focused its attention elsewhere.

It will be a fateful mistake, however, to see the size and the scope of the AQIM assault on the In Amenas facility as an exception rather than the beginning of a new rule. According to reports out of Algeria yesterday, a band of 50 heavily-armed men attacked an Algerian army barracks. According to France 24:

The weapons included RPGs that had come out of Libya, the newspaper said, adding that many of the attackers were Tunisian and Libyan. The assault began when a lorry delivering food to the barracks was hi-jacked, filled with weapons and used to force a way into the installation, while a second group opened fire in a diversionary attack. The fire-fight lasted three hours. The Algerian military used warplanes, attack helicopters and artillery to beat off the attack, according to the report.

The death of Osama Bin Laden effectively put an expiration date upon all the intelligence that was seized in his compound. The Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency did a good job of exploiting that intelligence to the fullest, but we are once again fighting blind. Ayman Zawahiri may have officially succeeded bin Laden, but all the al-Qaeda franchises are now, effectively, competing for leadership by staging spectacular attacks. AQIM—spanning seven countries and with a drug running network spanning from southern Europe to Mozambique—is certainly making its claim to be the top franchise.

The question is how long it will take the United States to recognize that it cannot simply afford to stand on the sidelines with groups which are sworn to seek America’s demise. If there is one lesson we should learn from the Clinton years, it is that we pay a great price for allowing terrorists to metastasize while we flail around for a strategy. Does that mean direct, on-the-ground military intervention in the Sahel? Absolutely not. But does it mean that we should use all power at our disposal not to allow AQIM leaders to sleep in the same location for more than a night while we try to pick them off? Absolutely. The French have intervened. Let’s hope that in a second-term Obama administration, with John Kerry as secretary of state and perhaps Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, we have not become the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”  The costs of inaction would simply be too great.

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Implications and Lessons of Afghanistan Corruption

According to the United Nations, Afghans spent $3.9 billion on bribery in 2012. According to the Associated Press report:

The cost of corruption in Afghanistan rose sharply last year to $3.9 billion, and half of all Afghans bribed public officials for services, the U.N. said Thursday. The findings came despite repeated promises by President Hamid Karzai to clean up his government… Lemahieu added the problem leads “towards alienation, frustration and a disconnect to those who should be able to give you the service provided.” Fifty percent of the adult population had to pay at least one bribe to a public official in 2012, a 9 percent drop from 2009, according to the findings, which were based on interviews last year with 6,700 Afghan adults from across the country. Meanwhile, the total cost of bribes paid to public officials increased 40 percent to $3.9 billion. That amount was double the revenue collected by the government to provide services, said [Jean-Luc] Lemahieu, head of the UNODC [U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime].

That’s nearly as much as the $4.1 billion Afghan National Security Forces need on an annual basis. In other words, if Afghanistan did not suffer the corruption problem it now does, it would be able to fund its own security forces absent endless subsidies.

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According to the United Nations, Afghans spent $3.9 billion on bribery in 2012. According to the Associated Press report:

The cost of corruption in Afghanistan rose sharply last year to $3.9 billion, and half of all Afghans bribed public officials for services, the U.N. said Thursday. The findings came despite repeated promises by President Hamid Karzai to clean up his government… Lemahieu added the problem leads “towards alienation, frustration and a disconnect to those who should be able to give you the service provided.” Fifty percent of the adult population had to pay at least one bribe to a public official in 2012, a 9 percent drop from 2009, according to the findings, which were based on interviews last year with 6,700 Afghan adults from across the country. Meanwhile, the total cost of bribes paid to public officials increased 40 percent to $3.9 billion. That amount was double the revenue collected by the government to provide services, said [Jean-Luc] Lemahieu, head of the UNODC [U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime].

That’s nearly as much as the $4.1 billion Afghan National Security Forces need on an annual basis. In other words, if Afghanistan did not suffer the corruption problem it now does, it would be able to fund its own security forces absent endless subsidies.

After more than 12 years of war in Afghanstan, American patience has worn thin. President Obama has promised to withdraw U.S. forces “on schedule.” Many will undoubtedly applaud that decision, and some will question the wisdom of involving ourselves in Afghanistan in the first place. It is important to fill security vacuums lest al-Qaeda sink its roots in ungoverned areas. The real lesson Washington should learn is not whether the United States should have taken on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but rather whether we should have pumped so much money into Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Many progressives and realists say Pentagon spending is too high.

The real waste of money over the past decade in both Iraq and Afghanistan, however, has been USAID, which has very little to show for its efforts in other places. Plans that sound good on paper can be disastrous in real life, not only because they waste taxpayer money but also—as this corruption report would suggest—they catalyze corruption. Terrorism impacts a small number of people, but corruption is a cancer on a whole society. Perhaps the best way to contain corruption is to simply not flood countries with cash, no matter how well-meaning the motives of our diplomats and development advocates.

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Is NIAC the Iran Lobby?

There has been a lot of controversy back-and-forth about whether the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) lobbies for the Islamic Republic of Iran. After an Iranian-American journalist referred to NIAC as a lobby group, NIAC sued him for defamation but ended up losing its case. While at the Washington Times, Eli Lake used documents revealed during that lawsuit’s discovery phase to suggest that NIAC was, indeed, illegally lobbying. Lake’s story apparently forced NIAC to amend its tax returns.

Jamal Abdi, NIAC’s policy director, now appears to push aside any pretense that NIAC is something other than Iran’s lobby. Speaking at the forthcoming “Expose AIPAC” conference, Abdi is featured on the “Training: Constituent Lobbying for Iran” panel. Oops.

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There has been a lot of controversy back-and-forth about whether the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) lobbies for the Islamic Republic of Iran. After an Iranian-American journalist referred to NIAC as a lobby group, NIAC sued him for defamation but ended up losing its case. While at the Washington Times, Eli Lake used documents revealed during that lawsuit’s discovery phase to suggest that NIAC was, indeed, illegally lobbying. Lake’s story apparently forced NIAC to amend its tax returns.

Jamal Abdi, NIAC’s policy director, now appears to push aside any pretense that NIAC is something other than Iran’s lobby. Speaking at the forthcoming “Expose AIPAC” conference, Abdi is featured on the “Training: Constituent Lobbying for Iran” panel. Oops.

Then again, in his university days, NIAC founder Trita Parsi made no secret of his goals. (Of course, another question might be asked of Chuck Hagel: Hagel sits on the board of the Ploughshares Fund, which channels money to NIAC. Now NIAC’s policy director is lobbying for Iran? I wonder whether Hagel feels that investment is worth it.)

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ADL Agrees: BDS Equals Anti-Semitism

There has been considerable pushback from many in the chattering classes–and some public officials, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg–to those who have stood up to the BDS campaign against Israel. As I wrote earlier in the week, the mayor thinks we should pipe down when it comes to complaints about Brooklyn College or other institutions of higher learning hosting conferences devoted to supporting the effort to wage economic war on the State of Israel. Others have denigrated the position we’ve taken, on the necessity for Jewish groups to refuse to work together or co-sponsor events with BDS campaigners, as both intolerant and extremist. But this issue is not about academic freedom or the Jewish establishment repressing idealistic dissent against unpopular policies of the Israeli government. It is about hate speech and anti-Semitism.

That is a hard sell for many American Jews who think anti-Semites only come in one package. They think anti-Semites are only neo-Nazi troglodytes or conservative Christians (a terrible slander since the overwhelming majority of evangelicals and other conservative Christians in this country are fervent supporters of Israel and friends of the Jewish people). They refuse to believe that academics and students that couch their rhetoric in the language of human rights and the cause of the downtrodden and oppressed Palestinian people are acting from prejudice and promoting hatred. But they are wrong. And it is nice to know that the American group that is tasked with the responsibility of monitoring anti-Semitism is willing to say so. That’s why we must applaud the Anti-Defamation League for its ad in today’s New York Times refuting Bloomberg and calling the BDS movement by its right name. The ad, an essay by ADL national director Abraham Foxman, framed the issue in the same manner as I have done here at Contentions:

The BDS movement is not merely advocating boycotts of Israel, which in our mind is hateful on its own, but in its support for the “right of return” of refugees, they are advocating something even more hateful, the destruction of the Jewish state through demography. Anyone who is serious about the survival of Israel knows what this is about.

So we are talking here about hate, not mere criticism. The BDS movement at its very core is anti-Semitic.

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There has been considerable pushback from many in the chattering classes–and some public officials, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg–to those who have stood up to the BDS campaign against Israel. As I wrote earlier in the week, the mayor thinks we should pipe down when it comes to complaints about Brooklyn College or other institutions of higher learning hosting conferences devoted to supporting the effort to wage economic war on the State of Israel. Others have denigrated the position we’ve taken, on the necessity for Jewish groups to refuse to work together or co-sponsor events with BDS campaigners, as both intolerant and extremist. But this issue is not about academic freedom or the Jewish establishment repressing idealistic dissent against unpopular policies of the Israeli government. It is about hate speech and anti-Semitism.

That is a hard sell for many American Jews who think anti-Semites only come in one package. They think anti-Semites are only neo-Nazi troglodytes or conservative Christians (a terrible slander since the overwhelming majority of evangelicals and other conservative Christians in this country are fervent supporters of Israel and friends of the Jewish people). They refuse to believe that academics and students that couch their rhetoric in the language of human rights and the cause of the downtrodden and oppressed Palestinian people are acting from prejudice and promoting hatred. But they are wrong. And it is nice to know that the American group that is tasked with the responsibility of monitoring anti-Semitism is willing to say so. That’s why we must applaud the Anti-Defamation League for its ad in today’s New York Times refuting Bloomberg and calling the BDS movement by its right name. The ad, an essay by ADL national director Abraham Foxman, framed the issue in the same manner as I have done here at Contentions:

The BDS movement is not merely advocating boycotts of Israel, which in our mind is hateful on its own, but in its support for the “right of return” of refugees, they are advocating something even more hateful, the destruction of the Jewish state through demography. Anyone who is serious about the survival of Israel knows what this is about.

So we are talking here about hate, not mere criticism. The BDS movement at its very core is anti-Semitic.

Many American Jews purport to disagree with the policies of Israel’s government. But most of those who adopt this position have a rather shaky understanding of why it is most Israelis believe the Palestinians have no interest in making peace. But when the argument stops being about how Israel should be governed and becomes one centered on whether the Jews have a right to a state or to defend it, that goes beyond legitimate dissent and becomes part of an effort to deny Jews rights that are accorded every other people and nation.

In the case of Brooklyn College, Foxman is exactly right when he says that BDS supporters have a right to expound their hateful views just as members of the Ku Klux Klan (the same analogy I made here on Wednesday) cannot be prevented from articulating their views. But they do not have a right to expect public universities supported by the taxpayers, as is the case with Brooklyn College, to subsidize their efforts or to offer them a platform, let alone give them the stamp of legitimacy that such an event provides. Bloomberg would not use the police to stop the KKK from speaking at a forum they paid for in his city, but he would not tolerate a Klan conference at Brooklyn College for a minute. Nor would he tell African Americans who protested such an event to “go to North Korea,” as he did those Jews who spoke up about the BDS event.

The distinction made by some between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is a distinction without a difference. Denying rights to Jews to have their own state and to defend it, and seeking to destroy it by the means of economic warfare proposed by the BDS crowd, is fundamentally prejudicial since it sets up a double standard applied to no other country or people in the world. Contrary to the narrative of the BDS advocates, justice is not on the side of those who wish to destroy Israel or to support Palestinian efforts led by the Fatah and Hamas terrorist groups to wage war on it.

This is a simple truth that must be understood by all those who wish to give a pass to the BDS campaign or to try to see it as merely a disagreement about settlements or where Israel’s borders should be placed. As with racism directed at African Americans, a line must be drawn in the sand between persons of conscience and those seeking to boycott, disinvest and sanction the one Jewish state in the world.

That is why there can be no compromise with BDS or its supporters. The litmus test here is not about Benjamin Netanyahu but the survival of the Jewish people and their state. Those who oppose the existence of the latter may not act the part of traditional anti-Semites, but their cause is just as much rooted in bias as those articulated by neo-Nazis.

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Rubio’s Response: Risks and Rewards

When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a whip-smart wonk and naturally competent executive, was tapped to give the Republican response to a February 2009 address by President Obama, it was considered something of an audition for a presidential run in 2012. The speech, however, bombed, and the presidential run never materialized. “Jindal’s Response to Obama Address Panned by Fellow Republicans” was the headline in the following day’s Bloomberg story on the speech, and one Republican strategist summed up the disappointment on the right when he told Bloomberg that “A lot of Republicans I am speaking with were expecting this would be like Obama’s moment in 2004”–the entrance of a star onto the national stage.

Jindal, of course, recovered from the speech just fine and went on to easily win reelection and continue to govern impressively in Louisiana. He retains his stature as a conservative reformer and leading light of the party, as well as a refreshingly intellectual and affect-free politician. A difficult entry into national politics is not the end of the world–just ask Bill Clinton, whose 1988 Democratic National Convention speech was a disaster. But it can dim the buzz around a rising political star and delay the moment when even a good politician finally gains national traction. So a cost-benefit analysis must be conducted by any aspiring political leader with the opportunity to respond to the president’s State of the Union speech, which this year will be given by Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Those wondering why Rubio accepted the address may have received an answer today when Quinnipiac released their latest public approval polling data:

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When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a whip-smart wonk and naturally competent executive, was tapped to give the Republican response to a February 2009 address by President Obama, it was considered something of an audition for a presidential run in 2012. The speech, however, bombed, and the presidential run never materialized. “Jindal’s Response to Obama Address Panned by Fellow Republicans” was the headline in the following day’s Bloomberg story on the speech, and one Republican strategist summed up the disappointment on the right when he told Bloomberg that “A lot of Republicans I am speaking with were expecting this would be like Obama’s moment in 2004”–the entrance of a star onto the national stage.

Jindal, of course, recovered from the speech just fine and went on to easily win reelection and continue to govern impressively in Louisiana. He retains his stature as a conservative reformer and leading light of the party, as well as a refreshingly intellectual and affect-free politician. A difficult entry into national politics is not the end of the world–just ask Bill Clinton, whose 1988 Democratic National Convention speech was a disaster. But it can dim the buzz around a rising political star and delay the moment when even a good politician finally gains national traction. So a cost-benefit analysis must be conducted by any aspiring political leader with the opportunity to respond to the president’s State of the Union speech, which this year will be given by Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Those wondering why Rubio accepted the address may have received an answer today when Quinnipiac released their latest public approval polling data:

Ms. Clinton’s favorability is higher than those measured for other national figures:

46 – 41 percent for Vice President Joseph Biden;

25 – 29 percent for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, with 45 percent who don’t know enough about him to form an opinion;

20 – 42 percent for House Speaker John Boehner;

27 – 15 percent for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, with 57 percent who don’t know enough;

34 – 36 percent for U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan;

43 – 33 percent for new Secretary of State John Kerry;

14 – 18 percent for Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, with 67 percent who don’t know enough about him.

Rubio’s numbers show that he is not well known nationally, but that those who do know enough about him to register an opinion tend to approve of him. This would have to be part of any of the senator’s calculations with regard to the State of the Union response. It is a difficult spot for any politician because the president is the leader of the free world conducting a tradition full of pomp and circumstance which puts this power dynamic on full display. It is also a long speech generally, which means those watching at home may be tired of listening to political speechmaking.

It can also be a difficult audience for the politician tasked with responding, because many viewers at home will not have had time to digest the speech and decide where exactly they come down on the policy facets of the address, and the response can be seen as abrupt. There is also the challenge of partisanship: the president will say a great many things that command broad public support, and will couch his policy prescriptions in aspirational tones meant to rise above the partisan fray (though President Obama is uniquely poor at this, given to taking cheap shots at both audience members and Republican figures working behind the scenes). As such, given the tension and rancor in Washington, there is always the danger of appearing ill-tempered and ungenerous at the wrong moment for the opposition politician who follows the president.

Yet there are also rewards to go along with the risks of appearing on such a stage. These include, prominently, the opportunity for a politician to introduce himself to the national electorate long before a debate-heavy primary process or general election in which both campaigns are inevitably jolted by an injection of negative advertising. The old adage about getting one chance to make a first impression is no less applicable to national politics. Letting your opponent define you can be among the most damaging mistakes to make in any election. The stakes are even higher for someone like Rubio, who tends to win over his audience–as the Quinnipiac poll shows.

Rubio’s summer appearance on “The Daily Show” was one such example of this, but so was his willingness to champion an immigration reform process vocally opposed by talk radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh and then impress Limbaugh enough to win his praise after appearing on Limbaugh’s radio show. If Rubio is truly contemplating a run for president in 2016, he is unlikely to pass up an opportunity to introduce himself, on his own terms, to as many American voters as possible.

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Brennan Performance Puts Hagel’s Incompetence in Perspective

Hours before John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, went before the Senate Intelligence Committee for his confirmation hearing yesterday, his counterpart hoping to lead the Defense Department had another setback when the Senate Armed Services Committee postponed a vote on Chuck Hagel’s confirmation. The committee was showing its displeasure about Hagel’s failure to disclose information about the fees he received for speaking engagements and other entanglements. It’s been a bad week for Hagel, as he continues to be abused for his abysmal performance at his confirmation hearing. But the issue of his competence was put into relief yesterday by Brennan’s performance during his ordeal.

Brennan took a pasting from senators who vented years of frustration about the way they have been—as Senator Barbra Mikulski put it—“jerked around” by past CIA directors. He was grilled about his positions on torture of terror suspects, drone attacks, leaks and lingering questions about the disaster in Benghazi. But though he didn’t always give straight answers–or any answer at all–to some questions, he was prepared, focused and able to defend his position at all times. The contrast with Hagel was startling. Though, as I wrote yesterday, there are a number of good reasons to deny him confirmation, he is in command of the issues facing the CIA and clearly smart enough to do the job. Could anyone say the same about Hagel after last week’s fiasco?

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Hours before John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, went before the Senate Intelligence Committee for his confirmation hearing yesterday, his counterpart hoping to lead the Defense Department had another setback when the Senate Armed Services Committee postponed a vote on Chuck Hagel’s confirmation. The committee was showing its displeasure about Hagel’s failure to disclose information about the fees he received for speaking engagements and other entanglements. It’s been a bad week for Hagel, as he continues to be abused for his abysmal performance at his confirmation hearing. But the issue of his competence was put into relief yesterday by Brennan’s performance during his ordeal.

Brennan took a pasting from senators who vented years of frustration about the way they have been—as Senator Barbra Mikulski put it—“jerked around” by past CIA directors. He was grilled about his positions on torture of terror suspects, drone attacks, leaks and lingering questions about the disaster in Benghazi. But though he didn’t always give straight answers–or any answer at all–to some questions, he was prepared, focused and able to defend his position at all times. The contrast with Hagel was startling. Though, as I wrote yesterday, there are a number of good reasons to deny him confirmation, he is in command of the issues facing the CIA and clearly smart enough to do the job. Could anyone say the same about Hagel after last week’s fiasco?

Prior to his confirmation hearing, there wasn’t much talk about Hagel’s competence. His out-of-the-mainstream views about Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah as well as his bad case of Vietnam syndrome about the use of Americana power were more than enough to make a convincing case against his nomination. But his ability to handle the job and to face the tough questions from Congress and the public was not called into question. Yet after that hearing, it’s hard to imagine that anyone in the White House is feeling comfortable about Hagel being placed in charge of the entire defense establishment of the United States.

Brennan was more than equal to the task of dealing with the complicated and hostile queries put to him about the failures of American intelligence and whether it was abusing its power by pursuing, torturing and killing terrorists. But Hagel couldn’t even handle spoon-fed softballs lobbed to him by sympathetic Democrats and required notes from aides and corrections from senators before he managed to get his story straight on some subjects.

As the request for more information from the committee shows, there are still questions that remain unanswered about Hagel’s commitments, including any associations, as Breitbart.com reported yesterday, with unsavory elements.

There is one more point about Hagel. The most compelling argument put forward for his confirmation is one that actually tells us little about his ability to do the job: his combat experience in Vietnam. As even the New York Times’s Bill Keller has written, military experience is highly overrated when it comes to running the country or even the Defense Department. Yet many were impressed with the idea highlighted by the administration that Hagel would be the first former enlisted man to run the Pentagon. But, as the Times pointed out earlier this week in a feature, there is a very big asterisk attached to this topic.

It turns out that at least four other former secretaries of defense served as enlisted men in the armed forces. The only difference is that each of them–Melvin Laird, Elliot Richardson, Caspar Weinberger and William Perry–were eventually promoted to officer rank while Hagel was not.

Hagel’s service to our country deserves everyone’s respect. That is especially important to note since it came under fire in very difficult circumstances in Vietnam. But the talk about him bringing the unique perspective of an enlisted man to the Pentagon is just so much Obama administration hype. Others in the position he would like to fill have had that same perspective. The only difference is that they were smart and competent enough to be tapped for more responsibilities by their superiors in the military and Hagel was not.

It may be that the commitment of partisan Democrats to giving the president his choice will be enough to make them swallow Hagel’s unconvincing attempts to show that he had changed his mind about the “Jewish lobby,” Israel and Iran. But after Brennan showed the Senate what a competent nominee for high office sounds like, there are now even more good reasons for the Senate to tell the president that Hagel just isn’t worthy of high office.

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Putting Capitalism on Trial at the ICC

Sometimes you have to wonder whether the editors of the New York Times have a secret wish to sabotage the causes they promote.

Consider the International Criminal Court, the controversial tribunal set up as part of the United Nations human rights system. For years, the Times has promoted the ICC as a modest, last-resort, long-overdue prosecutor of such heinous offenses as war crimes and genocide.

For just as long, ICC skeptics have been warning that the Hague-based tribunal will not always stay confined to its original jurisdiction and will someday seek to prosecute a wider class of less obviously atrocious offenses. Some advocates might even try to turn the court into a roving tribunal mounting show trials against the hated Western power structure. The Times has always dismissed such worries as groundless paranoia.

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Sometimes you have to wonder whether the editors of the New York Times have a secret wish to sabotage the causes they promote.

Consider the International Criminal Court, the controversial tribunal set up as part of the United Nations human rights system. For years, the Times has promoted the ICC as a modest, last-resort, long-overdue prosecutor of such heinous offenses as war crimes and genocide.

For just as long, ICC skeptics have been warning that the Hague-based tribunal will not always stay confined to its original jurisdiction and will someday seek to prosecute a wider class of less obviously atrocious offenses. Some advocates might even try to turn the court into a roving tribunal mounting show trials against the hated Western power structure. The Times has always dismissed such worries as groundless paranoia.

So what turned up in the Times on Wednesday of last week? An op-ed demanding that the ICC be given broad new power to prosecute business people and corporations for taking part in “a vast and unregulated system of extractive capitalism.” “Treat Greed in Africa as a War Crime” blared the headline.

In the op-ed, Yale anthropology professor Kamari Maxine Clarke itemizes a varied list of offenders she seems to think should face ICC prosecution. Chocolate companies based in the West, for example, buy cacao from African farmers so poor that they have their small children work on the crop. The Chinese national oil enterprise plays footsie with the regime in Sudan so as to preserve its favored position. (Yes, in Times-land you can be a Communist state-owned enterprise colluding with another authoritarian government and still count as a representative of unregulated capitalism.) Professor Clarke also thinks the ICC should step in where a multinational enterprise did get punished for misconduct, but should have been punished more. Thus, in one widely noted case where a shipping firm allowed dangerous wastes to be disposed of improperly in West Africa, the firm paid more than $200 million in fines and compensation and two of its employees were sentenced to long prison terms, but critics say the penalties should have been set higher than that. So call in the ICC prosecutors!

Clarke appears to accept without question the various charges of abuse against global business that circulate among cause groups in what is called the human rights community. One complicating factor is that when such complaints are brought before legal systems that accord due process to both sides, we very often discover exaggerations, contradictions or downright inventions in the original sensational claims.  Last week a Dutch court threw out much of a highly-publicized complaint charging Shell with oil pollution in Nigeria. At one point in discussing the chocolate controversy, Professor Clarke recites the contentions of a U.S.-based class-action law firm. Is it necessary to point out that such allegations, levied by firms that face little or no downward risk if their charges don’t pan out, make a doubtful basis for criminal prosecution?

What is certain to happen, if the ICC gains an expansion of authority along the lines Professor Clarke recommends, is that more businesses will be hauled into the dock as a part of what has been called “lawfare,” the use of human rights complaints to provide leverage in the pursuit of international politics. In one of the best-known episodes along these lines, activist lawyers went after Caterpillar Tractor for having sold tractors to the Israeli government, which thus supposedly made the company legally at fault for the bulldozer death of pro-Palestinian protester Rachel Corrie. The suit failed as a legal matter, but might have succeeded in raising the perceived cost of being an American firm willing to trade with Israel.

No doubt some Times readers nodded in approval at Professor Clarke’s argument. But others, I suspect, passed the paper to colleagues with a comment like, “See, I told you the ICC was a bad idea.”

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Panetta’s Revelation

Leon Panetta made a fascinating disclosure in his congressional testimony on Thursday: He revealed that he had backed the proposal by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus last year to arm the Syrian rebels. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that he too was supportive. So if all of the major players on President Obama’s national security team were in favor, why was nothing done?

As Michael Gordon of the New York Times, who first broke the story about Clinton and Petraeus’s support for arming the rebels, put it: “The White House, however, was worried about the risks of getting more deeply involved in the crisis in Syria. And with President Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, the White House rebuffed the plan, rejecting the advice of most of the key members of Mr. Obama’s national security team.”

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Leon Panetta made a fascinating disclosure in his congressional testimony on Thursday: He revealed that he had backed the proposal by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus last year to arm the Syrian rebels. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that he too was supportive. So if all of the major players on President Obama’s national security team were in favor, why was nothing done?

As Michael Gordon of the New York Times, who first broke the story about Clinton and Petraeus’s support for arming the rebels, put it: “The White House, however, was worried about the risks of getting more deeply involved in the crisis in Syria. And with President Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, the White House rebuffed the plan, rejecting the advice of most of the key members of Mr. Obama’s national security team.”

No one disputes that the president is commander-in-chief and as such has the right to overrule his advisers: the buck, after all, does stop in the Oval Office. But it behooves the president to more fully explain his reasoning, lest the assumption become prevalent that this was a decision made for political rather than strategic reasons.

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The Folly of Containing Iran

Jonathan Tobin outlined a number of objections and criticisms of Senator Rand Paul’s foreign policy address at Heritage, in which Paul, among other things, embraced a containment option toward a nuclear Iran. While containment is often bantered about, there are two main problems with containment which undercut anyone’s ability to contain Iran.

First, containment is a military strategy, not simply a rhetorical strategy. Paul sought to cloak himself in the mantle of Reagan, but containment requires a Reaganesque military build-up. It requires basing around Iran more extensive than that now available to the United States, a more robust naval presence, prepositioning of arms and men, and the ability to defend facilities. For example, defense against mines requires not only minesweepers, but also shipyards capable of repairing damaged vessels, and surface-to-air missiles and troops to defend those shipyards. NATO was a cohesive element during the Cold War, but the Gulf Cooperation Council could hardly organize itself out of a paper bag if it involved tactical cooperation. Paul, like Obama, is willing to talk the talk, but unwilling to invest in the backbone of containment. That heightens the danger, since the Iranians—when they see U.S. commitment to containment doesn’t go far beyond rhetorical hot air—conclude that the United States is a paper tiger and can push the envelope too far.

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Jonathan Tobin outlined a number of objections and criticisms of Senator Rand Paul’s foreign policy address at Heritage, in which Paul, among other things, embraced a containment option toward a nuclear Iran. While containment is often bantered about, there are two main problems with containment which undercut anyone’s ability to contain Iran.

First, containment is a military strategy, not simply a rhetorical strategy. Paul sought to cloak himself in the mantle of Reagan, but containment requires a Reaganesque military build-up. It requires basing around Iran more extensive than that now available to the United States, a more robust naval presence, prepositioning of arms and men, and the ability to defend facilities. For example, defense against mines requires not only minesweepers, but also shipyards capable of repairing damaged vessels, and surface-to-air missiles and troops to defend those shipyards. NATO was a cohesive element during the Cold War, but the Gulf Cooperation Council could hardly organize itself out of a paper bag if it involved tactical cooperation. Paul, like Obama, is willing to talk the talk, but unwilling to invest in the backbone of containment. That heightens the danger, since the Iranians—when they see U.S. commitment to containment doesn’t go far beyond rhetorical hot air—conclude that the United States is a paper tiger and can push the envelope too far.

A greater flaw is the broad over-generalization with which Paul, Chuck Hagel, and other self-described realists too often approach Iran. Iran is not a monolith, and ordinary Iranians would not be the ones to control any nuclear arsenal. Rather, command, control, and custody of an Iranian nuclear bomb would be in the hands not only of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but the most ideologically pure unit within that organization. That no one has precise insight into the ideological allegiance of the commanders who would possess the bomb will worry regional rulers a great deal. After all, it’s one thing to talk about hardliners and reformers when it comes to politicians, but it’s another thing to fly blind when it comes to the predilection of those who we actually would face.

The Iranian regime might not be suicidal, but the nightmare scenario where Cold War-style containment and deterrence breaks down is this: What happens if there’s an uprising in Iran, like the ones in 1999, 2001, or 2009 but, instead of crushing the protestors, some units at least of the security forces join the people in the street? After all, some American analysts suggest the Revolutionary Guards is no longer so revolutionary, so it follows that they might react to the same outrage to some spark as their friends and neighbors. If momentum builds to the point where regime collapse is inevitable—think Romania in 1989—then can anyone guarantee that the guardians of an Iranian nuke wouldn’t launch it to fulfill their genocidal ideology? After all, their regime is finished anyway, so why not? Under such circumstances, containment and deterrence breaks down. Until these problems are addressed, Paul’s discussions about containing Iran fall flat.

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