Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 20, 2013

Political Princes and Corruption

The rise and fall of Jesse L. Jackson Jr. provides an object lesson in the one kind of entitlement that Washington has yet to successfully wipe out. The former congressman pled guilty today to counts of wire and mail fraud in connection with his embezzlement of $750,000 in campaign funds. The son of the famed civil rights leader who once seemed likely to occupy Barack Obama’s Senate seat will instead soon be residing in federal prison for a few years.

He’s not the first crook to take up space in Congress and won’t be the last. But he does tell us a little about the way some of our political class regard the system over which they preside as well as the problems that can result when one parachutes into the system the way Jackson did. It also illustrates why the creation of Congressional rotten boroughs in Congress is not good for the health of the body politic.

Most politicians who run afoul of the law tend to fall into two categories.

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The rise and fall of Jesse L. Jackson Jr. provides an object lesson in the one kind of entitlement that Washington has yet to successfully wipe out. The former congressman pled guilty today to counts of wire and mail fraud in connection with his embezzlement of $750,000 in campaign funds. The son of the famed civil rights leader who once seemed likely to occupy Barack Obama’s Senate seat will instead soon be residing in federal prison for a few years.

He’s not the first crook to take up space in Congress and won’t be the last. But he does tell us a little about the way some of our political class regard the system over which they preside as well as the problems that can result when one parachutes into the system the way Jackson did. It also illustrates why the creation of Congressional rotten boroughs in Congress is not good for the health of the body politic.

Most politicians who run afoul of the law tend to fall into two categories.

Some are middle class Americans who often find that their political power is not matched by the financial rewards that accrue to public servants. Governors, members of the House of Representatives and senators spend much of their time hobnobbing with the wealthy to raise funds or to be chatted up by lobbyists and business owners who want favors. For those politicians with limited resources of their own, their disparity between their own meager incomes and the settings in which they find themselves is sometimes so great that those without a moral compass succumb to the temptation to take free stuff in exchange for their influence.

That is no excuse but it also puts the complaints about Congressional pay into perspective. That is especially true when you consider that those members who are not independently wealthy are forced to maintain two households and to entertain on salaries that are far less than most of them would get in the private sector.

But Jackson is a different sort of case. The son of the famed preacher and sometime presidential candidate did not grow up in poverty. The elder Jackson became prosperous in no small measure by pressuring companies into supporting his non-profit groups via threats of boycotts. Though done in the name of equality and the service of the poor, it was nonetheless corrupt even if his victims uniformly believed it was cheaper to pay than to protest it.

Jackson, Jr.’s may have though the immunity that accrued to his father via his status as the man who cradled the dying Martin Luther King Jr. in his arms might attach to him. Having crossed the line from the private to the public sector, he failed to understand that even unopposed congressman couldn’t always get away with skimming campaign funds.

But Jackson’s problem can’t only be attributed to being the son of a civil rights figure that got very little scrutiny when not running for president.

For all the talk about the corrupting influence of campaign finance contributions, nothing is more inimical to good government than the creation of single party Congressional districts that serve to create a class of politicians who need not fear the wrath of the voters. While we have many single party seats in this country where the issue is decided in primaries rather than general elections, those elected in districts that were crafted on the basis of race rather than on a purely partisan basis are especially unaccountable. While not all or even most of those who occupy those seats are corrupt, there are enough examples to illustrate why politicians who need not fear the voters or the press are especially vulnerable to temptation.

Just four years ago, Jackson was immersed in another corrupt scheme — the effort to bribe Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich via intermediaries to appoint him to the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he won the presidency. He dodged that bullet as only the governor went down in that scandal. But the sense of entitlement that pervaded Jackson’s personal and political life was impervious to the message that perhaps he should clean up his act.

The tragedy of Jackson’s truncated political career is an object lesson in the perils of creating political princes who seem to be immune to the normal limits on behavior that restrain most politicians. His fall reminds us that even such persons can’t always count on avoiding the long arm of the law.

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“Prisoner X,” Adelson and Press Freedom

Most Americans have been following the story of the suicide of Israel’s “Prisoner X” with some confusion. As more information about the former Australian turned alleged Mossad agent who was imprisoned for some still unclear security violation has come out some of the focus of the controversy — especially outside of Israel — has been about the fact that the case was kept secret by Israel’s system of military censorship. This has led to charges that the censors subvert Israel’s democracy or that press freedom is not existent in the Jewish state.

But the problem with these sorts of accusations is that unlike many of the country’s foreign critics most Israelis — including the press and many on the left who have no love for its current government — understand that the security threats to Israel are real not imagined. The fact that a lively and often obstreperous free press exists in Israel even though it is a nation that remains at war is a testament to the strength of its democratic foundation. Backing this up is Israeli journalist Ben Caspit who writes in Al Monitor to makes an excellent case for the nation’s military censorship system that, he notes, generally does a good job of protecting legitimate secrets while not depriving citizens of their right to know vital facts about the military and the government.

But Caspit does succumb to his own political prejudices when he claims that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and a newspaper owned by one of his supporters of the media is destroying democracy. This slam against Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom is absurd but it is particularly egregious considering that the history of Israeli government interference with the press is not a function of right-wing censorship but the legacy of the left.

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Most Americans have been following the story of the suicide of Israel’s “Prisoner X” with some confusion. As more information about the former Australian turned alleged Mossad agent who was imprisoned for some still unclear security violation has come out some of the focus of the controversy — especially outside of Israel — has been about the fact that the case was kept secret by Israel’s system of military censorship. This has led to charges that the censors subvert Israel’s democracy or that press freedom is not existent in the Jewish state.

But the problem with these sorts of accusations is that unlike many of the country’s foreign critics most Israelis — including the press and many on the left who have no love for its current government — understand that the security threats to Israel are real not imagined. The fact that a lively and often obstreperous free press exists in Israel even though it is a nation that remains at war is a testament to the strength of its democratic foundation. Backing this up is Israeli journalist Ben Caspit who writes in Al Monitor to makes an excellent case for the nation’s military censorship system that, he notes, generally does a good job of protecting legitimate secrets while not depriving citizens of their right to know vital facts about the military and the government.

But Caspit does succumb to his own political prejudices when he claims that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and a newspaper owned by one of his supporters of the media is destroying democracy. This slam against Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom is absurd but it is particularly egregious considering that the history of Israeli government interference with the press is not a function of right-wing censorship but the legacy of the left.

On the question of censorship, Caspit puts Israel’s security dilemma in perspective:

Israel is dealing with Iran’s effort to obtain nuclear capabilities, with powerful terror bases armed with thousands of missiles and rockets on its southern border fence and its northern fence, surrounded by a burning Middle East. Therefore, premature leakage of a sensitive, operational security secret could result in unbearable results for Israel. Twelve years ago the United States was rocked, and the whole world was shocked, by the terror attack on the Twin Towers and other additional sites in the country, an attack in which more than 3,000 Americans were murdered. At the exact same time, a similar wave of terror landed on Israel, resulting in the deaths of some 1,000 Israelis. Compared to the size of the population, 1,000 dead Israelis are equivalent to 30,000 Americans, ten times the number killed on Sept. 11. And in other words: such attacks endanger the very existence of the Jewish state and could undermine the prospects of its survival in its wild and hostile habitat. The United States and Europe have not come face-to-face with such a threat for many decades.

There are those who question the validity of Israel’s censorship laws in an era when the Internet renders local regulations irrelevant in many cases. It is also true that some of Israel’s blabbermouth politicians (including some who should know better) also undo security regulations.  But as he rightly points out:

The eyes of Israel’s enemies are directed toward the Israeli media. This and more: Most censorship deletions are meant to protect fighters, agents, real-time operations which if exposed could cause immediate and lethal damage.

But Caspit’s subsequent rant about Netanyahu and Adelson merely illustrates his own political bias. He complains that Israel’s right has aggressively pushed back against the publicly financed Israeli media and notes that Adelson’s paper has become the most read paper in the country. But this comes after decades of left-wing domination of the Israeli media that makes the liberal grip on American broadcast networks and leading dailies look like a nonpartisan trust.

That left-wing dominance was for decades reinforced by strict controls over the government funded radio and television stations that were for a time a virtual monopoly by the country’s Labor Party political establishment. The same was largely true in much of the print meida as well. If some balance has been restored decades after Israel stopped being a country dominated by one left-wing party of government, it was long overdue.

As for Israel Hayom’s success, Caspit calls it “brainwashing” of the Israeli public (though the failure of Netanyahu to get more than a quarter of the vote in last month’s election shows that the job wasn’t well done) but it must be put down to the same factor that enabled Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes to transform American cable television with Fox News. As was the case with Fox News in America, Adelson has discovered a niche market that makes up approximately half of the Israeli people.

Like the complaints about censorship in a nation that remains locked in a deadly war for survival, the carping about Adelson tells us nothing about the state of press freedom. The injection of some ideological diversity into the Israeli media is deeply resented by the left but it is a sign of the strength of Israeli democracy, not its weakness.

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Iran Exposes Its Achilles’ Heel

It is naïve and dangerously sectarian to assume—as American analysts who view Iraq through the military’s lens so often do—that Iraqi Shi‘ites are Fifth columnists, somehow more loyal to Iran than to Iraq. The simple fact of the matter is that the Shi‘ites are as much if not more victims of the Iranian regime as others. Because the interpretation of Shi‘ism that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini imposed on Iran is outside the mainstream, the Islamic Republic is especially sensitive to theological dissent coming from Shi‘ites themselves. (I detail the theology behind this and give several examples in this 2008 book chapter from Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion).

Yesterday, Al-Sharqiyah, a London-based Iraqi television station, reported (and the Open Source Center translates an excerpt):

Sources from Al-Najaf Governorate, southwestern Iraq, have revealed that the Iranian authorities have arrested Iraqi Religious Scholar Ahmad al-Qubanshi, who is currently on a visit to Iran. Neither the sources, nor the Iranian authorities revealed the reasons behind the arrest of Al-Qubanshi. Al-Qubanshi is known for publishing, throughout the past thirty years, many books and studies in which he severely criticized the Iranian regime and the means of running Iran’s affairs.

Regimes that have self-confidence do not arrest those who express dissent.

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It is naïve and dangerously sectarian to assume—as American analysts who view Iraq through the military’s lens so often do—that Iraqi Shi‘ites are Fifth columnists, somehow more loyal to Iran than to Iraq. The simple fact of the matter is that the Shi‘ites are as much if not more victims of the Iranian regime as others. Because the interpretation of Shi‘ism that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini imposed on Iran is outside the mainstream, the Islamic Republic is especially sensitive to theological dissent coming from Shi‘ites themselves. (I detail the theology behind this and give several examples in this 2008 book chapter from Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion).

Yesterday, Al-Sharqiyah, a London-based Iraqi television station, reported (and the Open Source Center translates an excerpt):

Sources from Al-Najaf Governorate, southwestern Iraq, have revealed that the Iranian authorities have arrested Iraqi Religious Scholar Ahmad al-Qubanshi, who is currently on a visit to Iran. Neither the sources, nor the Iranian authorities revealed the reasons behind the arrest of Al-Qubanshi. Al-Qubanshi is known for publishing, throughout the past thirty years, many books and studies in which he severely criticized the Iranian regime and the means of running Iran’s affairs.

Regimes that have self-confidence do not arrest those who express dissent.

While Iran makes no secret of its arrest of political dissidents, Iraq’s liberation has opened up the Pandora’s Box of religious dissent: Most Shi’ite scholars do not accept the notion the Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, is the “deputy of the Messiah on Earth.” Remove that claim, and the whole Iranian system collapses on itself. This is the reason why the Islamic Republic kept the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri under house arrest until his death, and also Ayatollah Kazemini Boroujerdi.

Several years ago, I penned a proposal in The Washington Post that the United States should establish a consulate in Najaf. While the idea received bipartisan support from Iraq analysts, the idea went nowhere in Foggy Bottom.  Alas, maintaining outreach to independent Shi‘ites has never been more important, not only for Iraq and those in Lebanon suffering under Hezbollah’s yoke, but also in Iran itself.

There are lots of things that have to occur if there is ever to be peace in the Middle East, but the first thing has to be the collapse of the Iranian regime. That will never happen with muddle through reform, and it will not happen if the United States blindly follows Turkey and Saudi Arabia and acts more Sunni than the Sunnis. Such partisan games on the part of the State Department and U.S. military only strengthen Iran’s hand among the Shi’ites by allowing Iranian leaders to claim a role as protectors of Shi’ites.  Instead, peace will only have a chance—or at least the malevolent role Iran plays in the region will cease—when Shi‘ite scholars let Khamenei know that Iran’s turbaned emperor has no clothes.

How can the White House or Congress make this happen? Speaking out on behalf of Qubanshi’s freedom would be a good place to start.

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Schumer’s Dishonest Hagel Sob Story

Following the latest string of revelations about Chuck Hagel’s defamatory comments about Israel and its supporters, a lot of attention has been focused on whether New York Senator Chuck Schumer would change his position on President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense. But any hopes that Schumer would prioritize the principles that he has always claimed he was elected to the Senate to defend over political expediency have now been dashed. At a New York City event this morning reported by Politico’s Maggie Haberman, Schumer doubled down on his support for Hagel claiming the former senator cried when discussing his slurs about the “Jewish lobby.”

 The account of Schumer’s fateful meeting with the nominee was fascinating but more important than that was his decision to repeat the claim that “not a major Jewish organization” was against Hagel and to assert that the issue driving opposition to him was anger about his opposition to the war in Iraq. Both claims are not only false but are a transparent attempt to deflect attention from the real issue in the debate over Hagel: the president’s choice of an incompetent nominee who is also a well known antagonist of Israel with a record of opposition to getting tough on Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

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Following the latest string of revelations about Chuck Hagel’s defamatory comments about Israel and its supporters, a lot of attention has been focused on whether New York Senator Chuck Schumer would change his position on President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense. But any hopes that Schumer would prioritize the principles that he has always claimed he was elected to the Senate to defend over political expediency have now been dashed. At a New York City event this morning reported by Politico’s Maggie Haberman, Schumer doubled down on his support for Hagel claiming the former senator cried when discussing his slurs about the “Jewish lobby.”

 The account of Schumer’s fateful meeting with the nominee was fascinating but more important than that was his decision to repeat the claim that “not a major Jewish organization” was against Hagel and to assert that the issue driving opposition to him was anger about his opposition to the war in Iraq. Both claims are not only false but are a transparent attempt to deflect attention from the real issue in the debate over Hagel: the president’s choice of an incompetent nominee who is also a well known antagonist of Israel with a record of opposition to getting tough on Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Schumer’s discussion of Hagel’s tears when he explained to him that his crack about the “Jewish lobby” was rooted in prejudice may be a truthful but the idea, as the New Yorker put it, that “I’m sure you didn’t mean it” is patently disingenuous. When Hagel used that term in 2006  (at his confirmation hearing he said it was the only time he said it “on the record”) or made other disturbing comments about the Israeli Foreign Ministry controlling the U.S. State Department or that Israel was on its way to being an “apartheid state,” he knew exactly what he was saying. Far from a misunderstanding, there is a clear pattern in Hagel’s record and it speaks to his contempt for the U.S.-Israel alliance and its supporters. Indeed, the context of the “Jewish lobby” remark showed that he considered it a point of honor to stand up to Israel’s supporters.

The notion that Hagel’s contrite interview with Schumer or any of his other fumbling attempts to walk back a long record of antagonism should outweigh a record replete with votes and statements demonstrating his desire to stand apart from the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus is absurd.

Just as dishonest though is Schumer’s claim that “no major Jewish organization” opposes Hagel. Just this past weekend, the American Jewish Committee — a large liberal-leaning group that more or less defines the term — demanded that the Senate not vote before it further reviewed Hagel’s record in the wake of recent revelations of more prejudicial statements by the nominee.

In the weeks prior to Hagel’s disastrous confirmation hearing, Schumer had attempted to use the strategic silence of many Jewish groups on Hagel as cover for his own decision to go along with the president on the nomination. But after the AJC statement and Anti-Defamation League leader Abe Foxman’s questions about Hagel’s statements, that line of defense no longer works. For Schumer to go on pretending that Jewish groups are neutral about Hagel can only be characterized as blatantly dishonest.

But it is not any more dishonest than Schumer’s attempt to claim that the motive behind the opposition to Hagel is “neocon” anger about his critique of the war in Iraq. Senator John McCain may still hold a grudge about Hagel’s foolish opposition to the Iraq surge (and contrary to Schumer’s comments, Hagel — who voted in favor of the war — was wrong about the surge) but that is not an issue that interests anyone else who cares about this awful nomination.

Neoconservatives may have disagreed with Hagel about Iraq but if that were the only issue about his candidacy he would already be sitting in his office in the Pentagon. It is, as Schumer well knows, Hagel’s terrible record on Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah that has scared many Americans about his fitness for office. Even more think his performance at his confirmation hearing when he was unable to demonstrate a grasp of the issues before the nation or defend his positions shows he’s just not up to the job.

When faced with a choice between doing the right thing about Hagel and demonstrating loyalty to President Obama, Schumer had done the latter. That is bad enough and a terrible commentary about the willingness of pro-Israel Democrats to put their party’s interests above principle. But for him to back up this decision with lies and distortions speaks volumes about his own character.

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Court Must Scrap Finance “Reform” Limits

Yesterday the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging federal campaign contribution limits. The current law has long been defended as a way to limit the allegedly corrupting effects of donations to candidates but like every other aspect of the drive to “reform” the campaign finance system these limits have not made the system cleaner or more accountable. To the contrary, the unintended consequences of the laws have made things far worse.

The Supreme Court made a good start in 2010 with its decision in the Citizens United case that rightly struck down elements of the McCain Feingold Campaign finance law that impinged on the free speech rights of contributors and groups. It is time for them to take another step toward dismantling these unwieldy and undemocratic laws by scrapping the contribution limits.

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Yesterday the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging federal campaign contribution limits. The current law has long been defended as a way to limit the allegedly corrupting effects of donations to candidates but like every other aspect of the drive to “reform” the campaign finance system these limits have not made the system cleaner or more accountable. To the contrary, the unintended consequences of the laws have made things far worse.

The Supreme Court made a good start in 2010 with its decision in the Citizens United case that rightly struck down elements of the McCain Feingold Campaign finance law that impinged on the free speech rights of contributors and groups. It is time for them to take another step toward dismantling these unwieldy and undemocratic laws by scrapping the contribution limits.

Campaign finance laws had their origins in the country’s reaction to Watergate and the apparent corruption of the free spending campaign to re-election Richard Nixon in 1972. But the movement Nixon’s regrettable excesses spawned was rooted in myths about money and politics that are still distorting our understanding of election finance.

The notion that money can be driven out of politics by either draconian limits or systems of public financing of candidates was always mistaken. Money is the mother’s milk of politics and no matter what laws are passed to supposedly purify various aspects of the system, it will find its way back in. If you severely limit or even ban contributions to candidates or the parties, that just sets up a situation in which other entities not directly associated with either will be set up to serve as a conduit for political speech. Ban one sort of independent expenditure and it will pop up somewhere else.

Liberals deplore this futile cycle of legislation and innovation but their belief that campaign contributions are inherently evil has driven them to expand rather than contract the reach of the laws they drafted. The Citizens United decision was necessary because by extending the reach of the restrictions to independent groups voicing opinions about candidates and issues, they had effectively prioritized their zeal to stamp out political speech over the First Amendment rights of citizens to express their views.

President Obama and the rest of the left screamed bloody murder about the Citizens United decision and claimed it would mean that corporations and other right-wing plotters would undermine democracy. But all it accomplished was to allow more political speech into the public square from both conservatives and liberals in the last election cycles. Not all of that speech was edifying but the change in the law allowed the voters to make up their own minds about which voices to trust. Even though Obama won in 2012 helped by a tsunami of liberal donations and independent expenditures, many on the left still fear the opening up of the floodgates of speech. But the issue here is not liberalism versus conservatism but the impulse to censor speech and the constitutional rights of Americans to speak.

But the need to expand upon the free speech victory in Citizens United is imperative. The contribution limits are supposed to make it harder for the wealthy to buy candidates but all they have really done is to push money out of the hands of those running for office and the political parties and into less accountable structures that were created for the purpose of evading them. That reduced the influence of the parties and has helped make our debates more extreme since candidates no longer can control most of the things said during campaigns.

The limits have also helped make Congress more of a millionaire’s club than it ever was since the laws could not stop the wealthy from spending on their own campaigns while complicating the efforts of those with modest incomes to raise enough cash to finance a competitive campaign. They have also set up a legal maze that is difficult for any candidate to navigate without breaking the law. But even the employment of an army of lawyers and accountants cannot always guarantee that capricious prosecutors will not try to criminalize technical violations of the limits.

The particular case that will be heard by the court only challenges aggregate limits to contributions rather than the individual ones for each candidate but the court ought to use this as an opening to start dismantling the entire system of limits.

Some of those who continue to defend campaign finance laws may be well intentioned but the effect of this body of legislation has harmed our democracy rather than helping it. Campaign contribution limits have mostly served as incumbency protection plans since they make challenges to sitting members of the House and Senate harder to finance. The intent of the law is not so much to level the playing field as it is to silence or to mute dissenting voices.

What our elections need is transparency not limits. Eliminating them will help make the system more accountable. What should be limited is the effort to protect incumbents and silence free speech.

The laws have also exposed the hypocrisy of the liberal mainstream media that decries the right of conservatives to use money to spread their ideas without the filter of the press without acknowledging that the Constitution exempts them from any such limits. Those who claim political ads are not political speech and thus exempt from government censorship are arguing in the face of logic and history.

After 40 years of reform, it’s time to acknowledge that the post-Watergate experiment with campaign finance legislation has been a disaster. It’s high time for the courts to continue the work of dismantling a broken system.

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Hagel Prescient on Iran? Nope

Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent for the National Journal (and a former member of ‘JournoList’), has now penned two columns, here and here, arguing essentially that Chuck Hagel got Iran and other topics right when everyone else got them wrong. From his latest:

The former Republican senator from Nebraska has distinguished himself with subtle, well-thought-out, and accurate analyses of some of America’s greatest strategic challenges of the 21st century–especially the response to 9/11–while many of his harshest critics got these issues quite wrong… Hagel also delivered some of the earliest warnings about the potentially disastrous effects of George W. Bush’s ill-grounded “Axis of Evil” speech, in which the president needlessly alienated Tehran only days after the Iranians had actually delivered up aid and support to stabilize post-Taliban Afghanistan.

As Newsweek’s former diplomatic correspondent, Hirsh is well aware of the full range of facts; he just chooses to ignore them in pursuit of a political agenda and, by so doing, sullies the National Journal. What did Bush know and both Hagel and Hirsh ignore?

  • The Karine-A. While Hagel was praising Iran and castigating his President for—gasp—harsh rhetoric, Iran was shipping 50 tons of weaponry to the Palestinian Authority in order to support terrorism and quash the fragile cease-fire.
  • Iran’s covert nuclear enrichment facility which was yet to be exposed publicly, but was known in intelligence circles (including presumably the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, on which Hagel served) and to the White House.
  • North Korea-Iran cooperation of nuclear and missile proliferation is now well established. Iranian and North Korean scientists and nuclear engineers regularly attend each other’s tests and visit each other’s facilities.

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Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent for the National Journal (and a former member of ‘JournoList’), has now penned two columns, here and here, arguing essentially that Chuck Hagel got Iran and other topics right when everyone else got them wrong. From his latest:

The former Republican senator from Nebraska has distinguished himself with subtle, well-thought-out, and accurate analyses of some of America’s greatest strategic challenges of the 21st century–especially the response to 9/11–while many of his harshest critics got these issues quite wrong… Hagel also delivered some of the earliest warnings about the potentially disastrous effects of George W. Bush’s ill-grounded “Axis of Evil” speech, in which the president needlessly alienated Tehran only days after the Iranians had actually delivered up aid and support to stabilize post-Taliban Afghanistan.

As Newsweek’s former diplomatic correspondent, Hirsh is well aware of the full range of facts; he just chooses to ignore them in pursuit of a political agenda and, by so doing, sullies the National Journal. What did Bush know and both Hagel and Hirsh ignore?

  • The Karine-A. While Hagel was praising Iran and castigating his President for—gasp—harsh rhetoric, Iran was shipping 50 tons of weaponry to the Palestinian Authority in order to support terrorism and quash the fragile cease-fire.
  • Iran’s covert nuclear enrichment facility which was yet to be exposed publicly, but was known in intelligence circles (including presumably the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, on which Hagel served) and to the White House.
  • North Korea-Iran cooperation of nuclear and missile proliferation is now well established. Iranian and North Korean scientists and nuclear engineers regularly attend each other’s tests and visit each other’s facilities.

Let’s give Hirsh’s source for both pieces—former ambassador James Dobbins—benefit of the doubt. Iran may have cooperated with him, but he’s guilty of being one the proverbial blind men describing an elephant. It takes a leap of logic to amplify Iranian behavior in Afghanistan—where Tehran believed initially they could out-compete us with soft power and out-influence the Afghan government—with Iranian cooperation across the board. In hindsight, we know that Hassan Kazemi Qomi, the chief Iranian official in Afghanistan at the time, was doing far more than cheering on the Afghans peacefully or drinking tea with American officials. Qomi, by the way, was the Qods Force commander who became Iran’s ambassador to Iraq and oversaw the supply of militias and terrorists killing U.S. forces.

Hirsh also appears willing to blame tension between Tehran and Washington on that one phrase—“Axis of Evil.”  Perhaps it would do Hirsh—and Hagel—well to listen to the rhetoric coming from Iranian officials on a weekly if not daily basis, where chants of “Death to America” still reign. When the Iranians shout that, they don’t mean “Let us shower them with puppies and lollipops.”

The Hagel nomination has not only shown light on a fantastically bad nominee who should have gone quietly into retirement, but also on the dishonesty of supposed nonpartisan journalists like Hirsh who appear willing to cast aside any evidence which they don’t like so they can use the pages of their magazines to push personal political agendas. Far from being prescient, Iran showed Hagel to be woefully naive, a useful idiot upon whom to advance Tehran’s own strategic objectives.

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More on the GOP’s Intellectual Unfreezing

In reaction to my post on the intellectual unfreezing of the GOP, I received an e-mail from Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.

His argument to me (which he said I am free to share) is that the Republican Party and the conservative movement has in fact developed sound policies without a president pushing and pulling it and that we’re beyond waiting for the next Ronald Reagan, having developed many Jack Kemps.

What Norquist means by that is that there are exciting and encouraging developments that are occurring in the House (see especially Representative Paul Ryan’s last two budgets) and in the states, where Republican governors are advancing reforms dealing with taxes, pensions, education and more. Mr. Norquist’s broader point is that Members of Congress, governors, and state legislators are making real progress in the “new ideas” department, and that deserves to be recognized.

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In reaction to my post on the intellectual unfreezing of the GOP, I received an e-mail from Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.

His argument to me (which he said I am free to share) is that the Republican Party and the conservative movement has in fact developed sound policies without a president pushing and pulling it and that we’re beyond waiting for the next Ronald Reagan, having developed many Jack Kemps.

What Norquist means by that is that there are exciting and encouraging developments that are occurring in the House (see especially Representative Paul Ryan’s last two budgets) and in the states, where Republican governors are advancing reforms dealing with taxes, pensions, education and more. Mr. Norquist’s broader point is that Members of Congress, governors, and state legislators are making real progress in the “new ideas” department, and that deserves to be recognized.

I don’t disagree with that at all, as anyone who has read my writings at Contentions over the years knows. In fact, I’m not sure there are many people who have been more vocal in their support for what Ryan is doing on entitlement reform, as well as tax reform.

My point in writing the piece was to welcome what I call the “unfreezing” of the GOP – meaning its willingness to entertain new and creative ideas from a variety of places. I do think it’s a fair to say, however, that in my post I should have acknowledged what’s occurring at the national and local level. And now, as an addendum, I have. 

I should add, though, that however good those ideas may be, a good deal more work needs to be done, both substantively and symbolically. Because, as Michael Gerson and I argue in our essay in the March issue of COMMENTARY, in the 2012 election Republicans did poorly in an election they should have done well in and the current trends for the GOP – demographic and otherwise — are not encouraging.
 
Gerson and I offered our thoughts on five areas the GOP is vulnerable, along with specific recommendations about what to do about it. We say explicitly in the essay that the agenda we sketched out is neither comprehensive nor definitive, but is intended as a spark for discussion. If it helps a bit in that regard, count me pleased.

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Entitlement Reform and Common Ground

In a New York Times op-ed, my Ethics and Public Policy colleague Yuval Levin offers a simple, excellent idea that offers a way out of our current political impasse on entitlements.

He argues that Medicare and Social Security should be means-tested (e.g., allocating benefits according to need) and explains, with typical intelligence and clarity, why that’s something both Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on. He writes:

Some on the left might complain that curtailing our entitlement programs’ universal character would undermine their social purpose and political support. But targeting benefits to those who most need them is surely better than reducing payments to providers (many of whom will drop out of Medicare), as President Obama’s 2010 law does. Some on the right might complain that such reforms would punish success. But surely rewarding achievement with government aid is no one’s idea of conservatism.

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In a New York Times op-ed, my Ethics and Public Policy colleague Yuval Levin offers a simple, excellent idea that offers a way out of our current political impasse on entitlements.

He argues that Medicare and Social Security should be means-tested (e.g., allocating benefits according to need) and explains, with typical intelligence and clarity, why that’s something both Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on. He writes:

Some on the left might complain that curtailing our entitlement programs’ universal character would undermine their social purpose and political support. But targeting benefits to those who most need them is surely better than reducing payments to providers (many of whom will drop out of Medicare), as President Obama’s 2010 law does. Some on the right might complain that such reforms would punish success. But surely rewarding achievement with government aid is no one’s idea of conservatism.

I simply want to add that Levin’s proposal not only would save money, which is urgent in and of itself; it would also alter the way we think about entitlement programs. As Levin puts it, means-testing Medicare would begin to treat it “less as a universal earned benefit and more as the transfer program that it effectively is.”

One of the hardest things to do in politics is to alter the way the public perceives things. But it can also be essential, the sine qua non for future reforms. And no institutions are more in need of reforms than our entitlement programs, which is why I hope this idea gets traction. 

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Start Retaliating for Chinese Cyber Attacks

The Chinese government is issuing ludicrously unconvincing denials of the report issued by the Internet security firm Mandiant that a specific unit of the People’s Liberation Army—Unit 61398 based in an office-building in Shanghai–is responsible for many of the worst cyber attacks on American companies and governmental agencies. “Chinese military forces have never supported any hacking activities,” a spokesman for the Chinese defense ministry said at a press briefing. “The claim by the Mandiant company that the Chinese military engages in Internet espionage has no foundation in fact.”

Uh right. And if you believe that then no doubt the spokesman also has some nice swampland near Shanghai to sell you.

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The Chinese government is issuing ludicrously unconvincing denials of the report issued by the Internet security firm Mandiant that a specific unit of the People’s Liberation Army—Unit 61398 based in an office-building in Shanghai–is responsible for many of the worst cyber attacks on American companies and governmental agencies. “Chinese military forces have never supported any hacking activities,” a spokesman for the Chinese defense ministry said at a press briefing. “The claim by the Mandiant company that the Chinese military engages in Internet espionage has no foundation in fact.”

Uh right. And if you believe that then no doubt the spokesman also has some nice swampland near Shanghai to sell you.

There is in fact little doubt of the Mandiant report’s veracity because it tallies with so many other findings from many other sources–including the U.S. intelligence community—about China’s very active computer hacking program which is at the core of its aggressive campaign of economic espionage. What really makes these activities especially chilling is this revelation in the New York Times referring to a hacking team called the Comment Crew which is believed to be PLA-sponsored: “While Comment Crew has drained terabytes of data from companies like Coca-Cola, increasingly its focus is on companies involved in the critical infrastructure of the United States — its electrical power grid, gas lines and waterworks. According to the security researchers, one target was a company with remote access to more than 60 percent of oil and gas pipelines in North America.”

This strongly suggests that the PLA is not only intent on stealing secrets for China’s economic advantage. It is also, by all indications, preparing for the possibility of war with the United States at which time it could well set off previously planted “cyber bombs” that will blow up key infrastructure nodes, potentially plunging American cities into darkness, shutting down transportation networks, and so forth.

The question is what to do about all this? Chinese activities are offensive, dangerous and intrusive, but they are not a formal act of war as previously understood. So what should be the American response?

For a start the U.S. needs to stop respecting Chinese sensibilities by not being afraid to “name and shame” the perpetrators of these attacks, however much outrage it will cause in Beijing. Bringing such activities into the public light may well lead China to calculate that the public humiliation is not worth the price paid.

Assuming, however, that such cyber-attacks continue, a stiffer response could be warranted: namely retaliation in kind. If it is not already going on, it should be—the National Security Agency should be penetrating Chinese networks as aggressively as they penetrate ours to send a clear signal that two can play at this game. Only if we achieve a degree of deterrence will the Chinese government ultimately be convinced that such activities are too costly to engage in.

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