Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 12, 2013

Not a Single Dime? Not a Chance.

The most dramatic part of President Obama’s State of the Union speech was his impassioned appeal for more gun control. Shamelessly invoking gun victims, including the children of Newtown, Connecticut, the president demanded that each of his proposals for new restrictions should be given an up or down vote in Congress even though none would do much to end gun violence. That earned him a standing ovation from Democrats even if many moderate members of his party from red states have no intention of ever putting themselves in a position where they might have to vote on such measures.

But while the “deserve a vote” rhetoric about gun control got the most applause the centerpiece of his address was a laundry list of government programs that he wants implemented that amounts to a second stimulus in all but name. For the most part this was just another straight-forward demand for a liberal vision in which government could and must afford to do just about everything from pre-K education to green jobs to easing the way for more home ownership. But by claiming that this staggering wish list wouldn’t “add a single dime to the deficit” he may have created a one-man credibility gap that even his impressive speaking ability and personal charm can’t close. You have to believe in the Tooth Fairy to buy the idea that this much new bureaucracy and involvement in the private sector won’t wind up costing a lot more money that we don’t have.

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The most dramatic part of President Obama’s State of the Union speech was his impassioned appeal for more gun control. Shamelessly invoking gun victims, including the children of Newtown, Connecticut, the president demanded that each of his proposals for new restrictions should be given an up or down vote in Congress even though none would do much to end gun violence. That earned him a standing ovation from Democrats even if many moderate members of his party from red states have no intention of ever putting themselves in a position where they might have to vote on such measures.

But while the “deserve a vote” rhetoric about gun control got the most applause the centerpiece of his address was a laundry list of government programs that he wants implemented that amounts to a second stimulus in all but name. For the most part this was just another straight-forward demand for a liberal vision in which government could and must afford to do just about everything from pre-K education to green jobs to easing the way for more home ownership. But by claiming that this staggering wish list wouldn’t “add a single dime to the deficit” he may have created a one-man credibility gap that even his impressive speaking ability and personal charm can’t close. You have to believe in the Tooth Fairy to buy the idea that this much new bureaucracy and involvement in the private sector won’t wind up costing a lot more money that we don’t have.

Obama’s roster of programs he wants implemented is long. Some of it involves ideas many Republicans will support like immigration reform. But much of it resolves around liberal ideological talking points like climate change which he hopes to solve by spending more on the kind of green jobs that gave the country scandals like the Solyndra boondoggle. He also threatened to take unilateral executive action on global warming if Congress didn’t act which means the Environmental Protection Agency will be given new unaccountable powers to crush economic growth around the country as well as driving up the cost of gas and just about everything else.

Other liberal patent nostrums like a minimum wage increase — a proposal that will kill jobs and hurt the very people the president claims to want to help — were also plugged. But perhaps the most curious item was his demand that the government ease the way for more home ownership. Given that the 2008 fiscal crisis was caused in large measure by government intervention in the market that made it easier for people who couldn’t afford to buy a home to get mortgages, going down that road again shows just how clueless this administration remains.

As for the immediate problem of avoiding the sequestration spending cuts, the president was disingenuous as well as unrealistic. The devastating sequestration cuts was the White House’s idea for resolving the 2011 debt ceiling standoff but the president is now pretending that it is all the fault of the Republicans. But as with everything else, ideology rules when it comes to a deficit plan that merely recycled his old rhetoric. The president considers his proposal balanced but that is a misnomer since he still refuses to contemplate genuine reform of entitlements and continues to pretend that taxing the rich will solve the deficit.

The president gave relatively short shrift to foreign policy even though it is entirely possible that the confrontation with Iran and the aftermath of the pullout from Afghanistan will provide the biggest crises of his second term. It is doubtful that those listening in Tehran were impressed by his calls for more diplomacy to forestall their nuclear threat. On the other hand, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which he claims to have defeated, were probably cheered by his talk of accelerated pullouts from Afghanistan. The Benghazi debacle that gives the lie to the administration’s claim of victory over Islamist terror never got a mention.

But the bottom line of this speech is a claim that America can have a new raft of big government proposals without further sinking the nation into debt. It may be that whopper which will remembered long after his liberal shopping list is filed in the dustbin of history.

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Anybody Listening? Netanyahu’s Not the Obstacle to Two-State Solution

Listen to anyone in the liberal chattering classes talk about the Middle East and there’s little doubt about who is to blame for the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians: Benjamin Netanyahu. According to the conventional wisdom spouted by most daily editorial pages, not to mention the many foreign cheerleaders for the Palestinians, the Israeli prime minister is alleged to be an intransigent foe of peace talks that has single-handed stopped progress toward peace. That this contradicts the facts about Netanyahu as well as ignores the record of the Palestinians doesn’t seem to bother anyone who spread this disinformation. So no one should be surprised if Netanyahu’s latest affirmation of his support for a two-state solution and call for talks with the Palestinians without preconditions doesn’t change anyone’s mind.

For those paying attention to what is actually going on, as opposed to Palestinian propaganda, Netanyahu gave a watershed speech back in 2009 at Bar-Ilan University in which he formally embraced the two-state concept. Since then he has constantly asked Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas to come back to the negotiating table that he fled in 2008 when Ehud Olmert offered him an independent state including nearly all of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. As Ynet reported, the prime minister said he stood by his Bar-Ilan speech:

Addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel, Netanyahu said he still stands by his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech where he backed the concept of two states for two peoples.

 “I believe that a framework to peace (with the Palestinians) is what I outlined in my speech in Bar-Ilan University – two states for two peoples: A demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.”

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Listen to anyone in the liberal chattering classes talk about the Middle East and there’s little doubt about who is to blame for the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians: Benjamin Netanyahu. According to the conventional wisdom spouted by most daily editorial pages, not to mention the many foreign cheerleaders for the Palestinians, the Israeli prime minister is alleged to be an intransigent foe of peace talks that has single-handed stopped progress toward peace. That this contradicts the facts about Netanyahu as well as ignores the record of the Palestinians doesn’t seem to bother anyone who spread this disinformation. So no one should be surprised if Netanyahu’s latest affirmation of his support for a two-state solution and call for talks with the Palestinians without preconditions doesn’t change anyone’s mind.

For those paying attention to what is actually going on, as opposed to Palestinian propaganda, Netanyahu gave a watershed speech back in 2009 at Bar-Ilan University in which he formally embraced the two-state concept. Since then he has constantly asked Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas to come back to the negotiating table that he fled in 2008 when Ehud Olmert offered him an independent state including nearly all of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. As Ynet reported, the prime minister said he stood by his Bar-Ilan speech:

Addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel, Netanyahu said he still stands by his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech where he backed the concept of two states for two peoples.

 “I believe that a framework to peace (with the Palestinians) is what I outlined in my speech in Bar-Ilan University – two states for two peoples: A demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.”

Netanyahu’s critics claim that his acceptance of two states hinges on conditions that are impossible for the Palestinians to accept. But in contrast to Abbas, Netanyahu is prepared to negotiate without preconditions. The Palestinians are not being asked to pledge anything in advance of talks. It is, in fact, the PA that insists that the Israelis must concede the entire substance of the negotiations on territory, settlements, borders and everything else in advance of Abbas deigning to rejoin the peace process.

Though it is true that much of Netanyahu’s constituency is uncomfortable with the idea of a Palestinian state, where Abbas, or any Palestinian leader ready to actually end the conflict and recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders were drawn, no Israeli government could possibly refuse them. But despite repeated Israeli offers of a state, the Palestinians continue to refuse to talk, let alone sign off on a permanent peace accord.

Nor is it reasonable to argue, as many of Netanyahu’s critics do, that settlement building approved by his government makes peace impossible. The construction of homes in Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs that any putative peace accord, even the one put forward by Israeli leftists at Geneva a few years ago, would place inside Israel would not stop the Palestinians from establishing their state in the parts of the country that would go to them.

That’s why the talk about President Obama needing to prod Netanyahu to make peace or return to negotiations that has been heard since the Israeli election makes no sense. Even when Netanyahu did agree to an unnecessary settlement freeze, the Palestinians still refused to negotiate.

The PA didn’t have to go to the UN to get their state. Nor do they require American or European pressure on Israel to achieve their goal of independence. They need only be willing to give up on the dream of replacing Israel with a Palestinian state instead of having one alongside it. Their failure to do so is why most Israelis have lost interest in the peace process. Nor has it escaped their notice that the independent Palestinian state in all but name that currently exists in Gaza is a launching pad for terror attacks on Israel rather than a place where development takes priority over the long war against the Jews.

Rather than placing pressure on Netanyahu to do what he has already promised, the U.S. government and those putting forward canards about Netanyahu need to learn the same lesson start paying attention to the Palestinians.

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Pop Culture, Violence, and Shoddy Social Science

One of the signal figures of the early 1950s was a psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham, who wrote a bestselling book called The Seduction of the Innocent—a book that had the kind of impact beyond the fantasies of most writers. By supposedly demonstrating that comic books were warping the minds of young boys and making them violent and comfortable with violence, Wertham and his work became the focus of some of the first publicity-bait Congressional hearings and led the comics industry to censor itself to prevent official censorship.

Does this all sound familiar, in the wake of Sandy Hook? Well, here’s the cautionary note: Wertham made it up. A site called bleedingcool.com has uncovered an academic paper by Carol Tilley detailing Wertham’s unethical conduct in collecting data points and research, which involves wholesale distortions of the information he did have and clear invention in other cases.

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One of the signal figures of the early 1950s was a psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham, who wrote a bestselling book called The Seduction of the Innocent—a book that had the kind of impact beyond the fantasies of most writers. By supposedly demonstrating that comic books were warping the minds of young boys and making them violent and comfortable with violence, Wertham and his work became the focus of some of the first publicity-bait Congressional hearings and led the comics industry to censor itself to prevent official censorship.

Does this all sound familiar, in the wake of Sandy Hook? Well, here’s the cautionary note: Wertham made it up. A site called bleedingcool.com has uncovered an academic paper by Carol Tilley detailing Wertham’s unethical conduct in collecting data points and research, which involves wholesale distortions of the information he did have and clear invention in other cases.

I haven’t read the paper, for a journal called Information and Culture, but here’s the precis: 

Although there have been persistent concerns about the clinical evidence Wertham used as the basis for Seduction, his sources were made widely available only in 2010. This paper documents specific examples of how Wertham manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence—especially that evidence he attributed to personal clinical research with young people—for rhetorical gain.

This kind of thing happens all the time when social scientists attempt to show links between consumption of popular culture and human behavior, though it’s often skewed by means such as ridiculously small sample sizes for studies or questions so outrageously tilted they can only be answered as the researcher would wish them to be.

This is no way to make public policy, but here we are, yet again, following inexplicable massacres, looking to video games or shoot-em-ups or some other supposedly causative factor when the simple fact is that when 99.9 percent of those who consume the offending material do not harm others because of it, it cannot be a determinant.

This also allows me to link to one of the greatest essays ever published in COMMENTARY, by the peerless Robert Warshow, who died tragically at the age of 37 in 1955 and whose posthumous collection, The Immediate Experience, remains the best example of how to write well and seriously about popular culture in a way that does not overrate its artistic value nor underrate its emotional power. The essay, “Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham,” is an examination of Warshow’s uneasiness both with Wertham’s approach and his young son’s love of the comic books Wertham was gunning for. It’s a masterpiece. Read it here.

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Rubio’s Risks Pale in Comparison to Paul’s

It’s telling that even the sponsor of Rand Paul’s scheduled Tea Party response to the State of the Union address went out of its way to try to avoid the impression that his speech will be a riposte to the official Republican reaction coming from Marco Rubio. The Tea Party Express’s announcement of Paul’s remarks noted that Rubio is also a Tea Party conservative. That concession puts into context the pitfalls for Paul in his decision to compete tonight with a fellow senator who may be his most formidable opponent in the race of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Though much of the commentary about Rubio’s decision to risk his reputation by giving the Republican response to Obama, few have discussed the fact that Paul is taking an even bigger risk.

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It’s telling that even the sponsor of Rand Paul’s scheduled Tea Party response to the State of the Union address went out of its way to try to avoid the impression that his speech will be a riposte to the official Republican reaction coming from Marco Rubio. The Tea Party Express’s announcement of Paul’s remarks noted that Rubio is also a Tea Party conservative. That concession puts into context the pitfalls for Paul in his decision to compete tonight with a fellow senator who may be his most formidable opponent in the race of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Though much of the commentary about Rubio’s decision to risk his reputation by giving the Republican response to Obama, few have discussed the fact that Paul is taking an even bigger risk.

Rubio is following in the footsteps of a long line of leading politicians who have flopped when given the opportunity to talk back to the president’s ceremonial address. As such, the rising star of the GOP is taking a big risk. It will take a brilliant speech and delivery by Rubio to come across as anything but a lame naysayer the way most of those who have been given this unenviable job have done. That he is willing to do so speaks well for his self-confidence. But if tomorrow’s stories about the SOTU are as much about how Rubio came across as the embodiment of the future of the Republicans with his message of individual empowerment as they are about Obama’s challenge to the GOP, the Florida senator will have given his party as well as his future presidential hopes a major boost.

But a similarly rational risk/reward ratio analysis for Paul’s decision to be the third wheel at the end of a long evening of speechifying isn’t as clear. The Kentucky senator has been working hard in recent months to establish himself as a leading figure in his party while bringing his libertarian views to a broader audience. Those who would dismiss him as merely a housebroken version of his father’s extremist libertarian faction are underestimating his smarts and his keen political instincts. But as much as Rubio is gambling by following in the footsteps of famous SOTU response disasters like Bobby Jindal, it’s not clear how Paul gains by being the successor to Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain, the two previous official Tea Party responders. Neither did their reputations any good by going third on SOTU night.

Had the GOP chosen more of an establishment figure or a less well-known politician than Rubio to give their answer to the president, Paul might have been in position to make a major splash with his Tea Party address. The contrast between Paul and a run of the mill member of Congress or Senator could have allowed him to pose as a lively and informed alternative to a party leadership that has often appeared to be dead from then neck up. But in Rubio he faces off against a man whose Tea Party credentials are not only as good as his but a better public speaker who is equipped to help bring minorities into a party that badly needs them.

As I noted on Sunday, Paul’s problem in following Rubio is that the differences between the two are mostly about tone and foreign policy and neither of those contrasts work in the Kentuckian’s favor.

Paul is a good speaker but it’s not likely that he can match Rubio when it comes to likeability or the appeal of his personal life story. And since both voted against the fiscal cliff compromise GOP party leaders embraced last month which was widely seen as a victory for President Obama, any comments Paul might have on opposing the administration’s push for more taxes with no real spending cuts will come across as a me too response to Rubio.

The only real contrast comes in foreign policy where Rubio is firmly in the Republican mainstream when it comes to supporting a strong defense and a robust war against Islamist terror while Paul calls for retrenchment and calls it “realism.” We dissected Paul’s foreign policy address at the Heritage Foundation here but for another view that goes right to the heart of what was wrong with it, Will Inboden’s takedown of the speech at Foreign Policy is must reading. Inboden rightly rejects Paul’s pose as the standard bearer of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy as well as his embrace of George Kennan’s philosophy of containment and rightly tags him as the second coming of mid-19th century Ohio Senator Robert Taft. Taft was a principled Republican but both the Second World War and the need to resist Soviet expansionism during the Cold War discredited his non-interventionist foreign policy approach. Paul may think the time is right for a revival of such views but the looming crisis over the Iranian nuclear threat exposes him as hopelessly out of touch with America’s problems abroad.

The best that Rand Paul can hope for tonight is that he doesn’t wind up being ridiculed for an extremist performance while Rubio fails to impress. But a strong speech by Rubio will render Paul a marginal figure in the evening’s drama even if he does do well.

Paul may not have been able to resist the temptation to upstage a rival by speaking tonight. But though Rubio’s speech brings risks, they pale in comparison to those being run by Paul. 

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Hagel and the Limits of Civility

After months of political debate the Senate Armed Services Committee may bring the Chuck Hagel saga closer to a resolution today. Yesterday, committee chair Carl Levin said he would schedule a vote for this afternoon but the ranking Republican member seems prepared to fight the former senator’s nomination as secretary of defense to the bitter end. With Democrats closing ranks behind the president’s choice to head the Pentagon, there doesn’t seem much chance that Hagel can be stopped in the committee. And with some Republicans, including John McCain, vowing not to support a filibuster of the nomination, it seems all but certain that Hagel will be confirmed perhaps as early as this week.

McCain made no secret of his antipathy for his former friend during a stormy confirmation hearing in which Hagel stumbled badly giving the impression that he was both unprepared and unqualified for the position. But McCain’s opposition to a GOP walkout from a committee vote as well as the filibuster may prevent opponents from using procedural tactics to stop the nomination going forward. The Arizonan feels that allowing the argument about Hagel to blow up relationships between the two parties in the committee or an attempt to stop the confirmation via filibuster —something that has rarely happened to any Cabinet nominee — would be unjustified. His concern for keeping things civil in the Senate deserves respect but given the stakes involved in this nomination, those Republicans who will seek to use every trick in the book to stop Hagel are justified.

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After months of political debate the Senate Armed Services Committee may bring the Chuck Hagel saga closer to a resolution today. Yesterday, committee chair Carl Levin said he would schedule a vote for this afternoon but the ranking Republican member seems prepared to fight the former senator’s nomination as secretary of defense to the bitter end. With Democrats closing ranks behind the president’s choice to head the Pentagon, there doesn’t seem much chance that Hagel can be stopped in the committee. And with some Republicans, including John McCain, vowing not to support a filibuster of the nomination, it seems all but certain that Hagel will be confirmed perhaps as early as this week.

McCain made no secret of his antipathy for his former friend during a stormy confirmation hearing in which Hagel stumbled badly giving the impression that he was both unprepared and unqualified for the position. But McCain’s opposition to a GOP walkout from a committee vote as well as the filibuster may prevent opponents from using procedural tactics to stop the nomination going forward. The Arizonan feels that allowing the argument about Hagel to blow up relationships between the two parties in the committee or an attempt to stop the confirmation via filibuster —something that has rarely happened to any Cabinet nominee — would be unjustified. His concern for keeping things civil in the Senate deserves respect but given the stakes involved in this nomination, those Republicans who will seek to use every trick in the book to stop Hagel are justified.

Senator McCain is right to note that any attempt to raise the bar to Cabinet nominations to the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster rather than a simple majority may someday boomerang on the Republicans. Though Democrats are currently speaking as if their hold on the White House and the Senate is permanent that is nonsense and a GOP president and Senate majority will likely fume over a future Democratic attempt to thwart a nomination they wish to push through via a filibuster. But the escalation of filibuster tactics that the Democrats pioneered a decade ago against George W. Bush’s judicial nominees is a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle except by a rules change that neither party really wants.

It should also be pointed out that the bygone era of bipartisan civility in Congress that McCain understandably yearns to bring back is only possible when both parties put forward plausible nominees. The impulse to defer to the president’s choices for senior posts makes sense so long as the people they are being asked to rubber stamp are not outliers on policy or as transparently incompetent as Hagel.

Levin and other Democrats have taken umbrage at attempts by Jim Inhofe, the committee’s ranking member and other Republicans to make Hagel jump through hoops that other cabinet nominees may not have been asked to do. But the spectacle of a would-be secretary of defense speaking of his post as not being one that sets policy or being unable to define or articulate the administration’s stand on containing a nuclear Iran undermines any notion that good manners requires Republicans to pull their punches on Hagel.

The problem with Hagel is not just that his past opposition to getting tough on Iran as well as his boasts about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” should have made his nomination unthinkable. It is that by putting him in charge of the Pentagon, President Obama is sending an unfortunate signal to Iran that his threats about using force are merely bluffs intended for domestic consumption.

It is possible that Hagel’s presence at the Pentagon does not mean that the president will back down on Iran and that he was picked solely because the White House saw him as someone who could best implement drastic cuts in defense spending. Given Hagel’s bumbling in front of the committee it’s hard to imagine how he will manage such a vast department let alone pull off an efficient downsizing of the armed forces. But whether the president intended it or not, the world has interpreted Hagel’s elevation in the context of the looming conflict with Iran. In doing so, Obama has encouraged Iranian intransigence and heightened the chances for conflict.

In such a context, any Republican effort to derail his confirmation that falls within the boundary of existing rules must be seen as both justified and necessary. It may be that the willingness of pro-Israel Democrats such as Chuck Schumer to accept the nomination of one of the Jewish state’s antagonists means that nothing will prevent Hagel from taking office. But McCain’s qualms notwithstanding, Inhofe and the GOP caucus are right to pull out the stops to stop him.

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Do the Palestinians Really Want U.S. Aid?

The State Department said yesterday it is seeking release of $495.7 million in U.S. funds for the Palestinian Authority designated for 2012, and another $200 million designated so far for 2013 – all of which is currently subject to a congressional hold imposed after the PA sought UN recognition as a “state” and began yet another “reconciliation” with Hamas. At yesterday’s State Department press conference, spokesperson Victoria Nuland was asked to “give us a sense of where things are with Congress” on this issue and responded that the administration is working with Congress to get the money released to the PA, because:

“[W]e think it’s very, very important that they remain effective in supporting the needs of the Palestinian people … So we’re continuing to work through this. I would simply say that the Secretary feels extremely strongly that it is time now to get this support to the Palestinian Authority.” [Emphasis added]

Ms. Nuland said Secretary Kerry has been raising this issue “in every conversation he’s had with his colleagues” in Congress. But if it is very, very important to get the money to the PA, and if Secretary Kerry feels extremely strongly that now is the time, the people he should be talking to are not in Congress. They are in the PA.

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The State Department said yesterday it is seeking release of $495.7 million in U.S. funds for the Palestinian Authority designated for 2012, and another $200 million designated so far for 2013 – all of which is currently subject to a congressional hold imposed after the PA sought UN recognition as a “state” and began yet another “reconciliation” with Hamas. At yesterday’s State Department press conference, spokesperson Victoria Nuland was asked to “give us a sense of where things are with Congress” on this issue and responded that the administration is working with Congress to get the money released to the PA, because:

“[W]e think it’s very, very important that they remain effective in supporting the needs of the Palestinian people … So we’re continuing to work through this. I would simply say that the Secretary feels extremely strongly that it is time now to get this support to the Palestinian Authority.” [Emphasis added]

Ms. Nuland said Secretary Kerry has been raising this issue “in every conversation he’s had with his colleagues” in Congress. But if it is very, very important to get the money to the PA, and if Secretary Kerry feels extremely strongly that now is the time, the people he should be talking to are not in Congress. They are in the PA.

The PA can get the money released by assuring the U.S. that they will (1) not take further steps to change the legal status of the disputed territories outside negotiations with Israel (since the Palestinians promised in the Oslo agreement not to take “any [such] step”); and (2) not reconcile with an organization designated by the U.S. government as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), a Specially Designated Terrorist (SDT), and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) — particularly when the PA promised in the Road Map to dismantle the FTO/SDT/SDGT, which has now waged two rocket wars against Israel and refuses to endorse any of the Quartet requirements for the “peace process.”

If it is not important to the PA to provide such assurances, it is hard to see why it is important for the U.S. to provide more money (much less nearly $700 million), nor why anyone would feel that now is the time to do it. On the contrary, this would seem to be the appropriate time to communicate that violating promises – and refusing to promise to abide by them in the future — has consequences. The administration should be telling the PA it feels extremely strongly that it is very, very important to provide the assurances now. Instead, it is pressing Congress to waive them.

In his first week in office, the new secretary of state has just sent a strong message that he believes the PA’s refusal to confirm its two central promises should draw no penalty. He thinks the problem is not the PA, but the Congress. Heckuva job, John.

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U.S. Weakness Provokes N. Korea and Iran

So much for the exaggerated hopes of those that believed Kim Jong-un would turn out to be a different kind of dictator. Following a long-range rocket test in December, North Korea has now apparently tested a nuclear weapon bigger than any it has tested before. This, despite warnings not only from South Korea, Japan, and the United States, but also from China, not to test. Far from being the reformer as many naively imagined, Kim is showing himself a chip off the old dynastic bloc, once again using North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction to posture before the world and no doubt to shake concessions out of the U.S., South Korea, and other states.

What makes this test truly disturbing is the close cooperation that is known to exist between Iran and North Korea in the development of ever-more destructive weaponry. The two countries have worked closely together on missiles and may well be working together on nuclear weapons. If so, the North Korean test is an indication of growing danger not only in Northeast Asia but also in the Middle East.

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So much for the exaggerated hopes of those that believed Kim Jong-un would turn out to be a different kind of dictator. Following a long-range rocket test in December, North Korea has now apparently tested a nuclear weapon bigger than any it has tested before. This, despite warnings not only from South Korea, Japan, and the United States, but also from China, not to test. Far from being the reformer as many naively imagined, Kim is showing himself a chip off the old dynastic bloc, once again using North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction to posture before the world and no doubt to shake concessions out of the U.S., South Korea, and other states.

What makes this test truly disturbing is the close cooperation that is known to exist between Iran and North Korea in the development of ever-more destructive weaponry. The two countries have worked closely together on missiles and may well be working together on nuclear weapons. If so, the North Korean test is an indication of growing danger not only in Northeast Asia but also in the Middle East.

And what is the American response to this latest provocation? To his credit, President Obama has not repeated the pattern of his predecessors in trying to shower North Korea with aid to get it to desist from its dangerous behavior—a pattern that only subsidized North Korean malfeasance. Rather than trying to relaunch stalled six-party talks, he has actually pushed for the toughest sanctions yet on North Korea although their ability to actually coerce Pyongyang is limited as long as China refuses to cut off economic aid.

But these tough responses are undermined to a large extent by the symbolism of Obama proposing steep cuts in the American nuclear arsenal—from 1,700 to 1,000 warheads—in the State of the Union address on the very day when North Korea is testing a nuke and Iran is drawing closer to acquiring its own nukes. It is hard to know why the president imagines unilateral American cuts will encourage more responsible behavior from the likes of Iran and North Korea. The more likely consequence is to call into question America’s deterrent capacity, an especially pressing issue if, as Bret Stephens argues in this Wall Street Journal column, China’s nuclear arsenal is actually larger than commonly supposed.

With the danger growing from both Iran and North Korea it is all the more incumbent on the US to reassure regional allies—from Saudi Arabia to South Korea–that they will be sheltered securely underneath the American nuclear umbrella. If we cut our own nuclear forces drastically, the credibility of our guarantees diminishes and the likelihood goes up that our allies will seek nuclear weapons of their own, potentially setting off two nuclear arms races.

Of course it is not just in the nuclear realm that the US is undertaking defense cuts. Our overall military budget is to undergo drastic cuts within weeks assuming that the Congress and White House do not reach an agreement to turn off the sequester. Already the military services are cutting back on readiness and training. The Navy, for one, has announced that the Persian Gulf area will for the time being have only one aircraft carrier battle group on station, rather than two.

It is hard to think of a more threatening prospect than unilateral American military reductions at a time when our enemies our growing stronger. Weakness, it is often said, is provocative. By that measure we are provoking two of the most dangerous rogue states in the world.

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