Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 21, 2013

Obama’s Bad Brotherhood Bet

For the last few months, conservative critics of the Obama administration’s foreign policy have obsessed about its failure in Libya. The fiasco in Benghazi that took the lives of four Americans including our ambassador deserved more media scrutiny and Republicans are right to continue to demand answers about it. But the unfolding disaster next door in Egypt is a far greater indication of the way the president has blundered abroad than even that tragic episode. Obama’s decision to force the Egyptian military to accept a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo and Washington’s subsequent embrace of Mohamed Morsi’s regime has materially aided the descent of the most populous Arab country into the grip of an Islamist party. The Brotherhood regime is determined to extinguish any hope of liberalization in Egypt and its drive to seize total power there is a direct threat to regional stability and Middle East peace.

Rather than using the leverage that the more than $1 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt gives it, the administration has loyally stuck to Morsi despite his seizing of powers that are comparable to those of deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak and his efforts to violently repress the widespread dissatisfaction with his government. There is no sign that anyone in the State Department or the White House realizes that the U.S. bet on the Brotherhood is a disaster, but yesterday’s column by one of the leading peddlers of conventional wisdom on foreign policy ought to concern Morsi. If the Islamists have lost Thomas Friedman, then there is at least a little hope that their campaign to swindle American liberals into backing them is going to eventually crash.

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For the last few months, conservative critics of the Obama administration’s foreign policy have obsessed about its failure in Libya. The fiasco in Benghazi that took the lives of four Americans including our ambassador deserved more media scrutiny and Republicans are right to continue to demand answers about it. But the unfolding disaster next door in Egypt is a far greater indication of the way the president has blundered abroad than even that tragic episode. Obama’s decision to force the Egyptian military to accept a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo and Washington’s subsequent embrace of Mohamed Morsi’s regime has materially aided the descent of the most populous Arab country into the grip of an Islamist party. The Brotherhood regime is determined to extinguish any hope of liberalization in Egypt and its drive to seize total power there is a direct threat to regional stability and Middle East peace.

Rather than using the leverage that the more than $1 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt gives it, the administration has loyally stuck to Morsi despite his seizing of powers that are comparable to those of deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak and his efforts to violently repress the widespread dissatisfaction with his government. There is no sign that anyone in the State Department or the White House realizes that the U.S. bet on the Brotherhood is a disaster, but yesterday’s column by one of the leading peddlers of conventional wisdom on foreign policy ought to concern Morsi. If the Islamists have lost Thomas Friedman, then there is at least a little hope that their campaign to swindle American liberals into backing them is going to eventually crash.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Friedman did something we haven’t seen much of in that newspaper: tell the truth about the Brotherhood’s intentions and its ideological drive to transform Egypt. While the paper’s news pages and fellow columnists like Nicholas Kristof have bought into the baloney the Brotherhood has served up to foreign journalists about their moderation and desire for democracy and progress, Friedman made it clear that their tyrannical impulse is no aberration. Even more important, he made it clear that the Obama administration’s apparent belief that they can reinvent the modus vivendi that formally existed between the U.S. and Mubarak with Morsi is a terrible mistake.

As Friedman notes, the Brotherhood has prioritized the cleansing of non-Islamist aspects of Egyptian culture over its supposed hope to reboot the economy. The banning of the Belly Dancing Channel on Egyptian TV made for a comic lede for Friedman’s column, but it is no joke, as it illustrates Morsi’s desire to turn a multi-faceted society into another Iran.

Yet as right as Friedman is about the current situation, his advice about the Brotherhood having to change or fail misses the point about a movement that has no intention of ever allowing power to slip from its hands. Friedman is right that the Brotherhood’s version of political Islam will sink Egypt into poverty. The problem is that they are no more willing or capable of becoming more democratic or open-minded about non-Islamist culture than they are of ever accepting peace with Israel.

Friedman praises what he claims is an Obama administration decision to convey their concerns about the direction of Egypt privately rather than publicly. He also supports an apparent decision to invite Morsi to Washington for a visit where he can try to charm the U.S. into keeping the flow of American taxpayer dollars into his government’s coffers.

But the more time the U.S. takes in conveying the message that it will not back an Egyptian government intent on an Islamist kulturkampf, the less chance there will be that it can influence events in Cairo. We already know what a bad bet Obama has made in backing Morsi and the Brotherhood. It may already be too late to reverse the damage that was done by the president’s feckless embrace of the Islamists. If, as Friedman acknowledges, the direction the Brotherhood is taking Egypt, and by extension the region, is one that can lead to chaos, tyranny and violence, an American decision to cut Morsi off can’t come too soon. 

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On the Dangers of Listening to Joe Biden

In April 2009, Politico dryly reported that Vice President Joe Biden had once again tripped over his words: “These sorts of comments are what the Obama administration fears from Biden, who after more than three decades in Washington is known for making gaffes.” It sounded like it must have been harmless enough–if this is what the administration “fears” from Biden, but nevertheless chose him to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, it couldn’t have been much more than an honest mistake or maybe an unintentionally offensive comment, the latter being Biden’s specialty.

In fact, Biden’s comment was a suggestion that with the so-called swine flu spreading, this was the appropriate moment for the entire country to panic, assume a bunker mentality, and perhaps–just to be safe–put mass transit out of business during a global economic crisis when unemployment in the United States was 9 percent and rising:

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In April 2009, Politico dryly reported that Vice President Joe Biden had once again tripped over his words: “These sorts of comments are what the Obama administration fears from Biden, who after more than three decades in Washington is known for making gaffes.” It sounded like it must have been harmless enough–if this is what the administration “fears” from Biden, but nevertheless chose him to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, it couldn’t have been much more than an honest mistake or maybe an unintentionally offensive comment, the latter being Biden’s specialty.

In fact, Biden’s comment was a suggestion that with the so-called swine flu spreading, this was the appropriate moment for the entire country to panic, assume a bunker mentality, and perhaps–just to be safe–put mass transit out of business during a global economic crisis when unemployment in the United States was 9 percent and rising:

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs issued an apology Thursday for Vice President Joe Biden’s comments that he wouldn’t recommend taking a commercial flight or riding in a subway car because swine flu virus can spread in confined places.

“Obviously, if anybody was unduly alarmed for whatever reason, we would apologize for that. And I hope that my remarks and remarks of people at CDC and Secretary Napolitano have appropriately cleared up what he meant to say,” Gibbs said during the daily briefing at the White House.

Just to be clear: that was the president’s press secretary reminding the press that Biden’s comments necessitated statements of correction and clarification from the head of the Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control. It’s why, as popular and productive as Biden can sometimes appear, American voters have generally been unwilling to vote for Biden for president. (He’s given them plenty of chances by now, and a recent poll out of Iowa shows him trailing Hillary Clinton by a modest 50 points.)

But Biden may have topped that one. Ed Morrissey points out that Biden’s recent exhortation to Americans to buy and fire into the air a double-barrel shotgun for defense was pretty terrible legal advice, as well as counterproductive from a safety standpoint:

Anyone who has gone through a firearms safety course knows this basic rule: Never fire a “warning shot” into the air — especially when it means you have to reload immediately, as you would with two blasts from a double-barreled shotgun; you’ve just effectively disarmed yourself.

But more to the point, it ignores the physics of the ammunition.  What goes up must come down, and when it does, it can kill — and often does….

Morrissey goes on to quote today’s U.S. News and World Report story explaining that “this specific behavior has been the cause of many negligent homicides over the years,” according to a gun-rights activist. It would land the unfortunate soul who took the vice president’s exceedingly unsafe and ill-conceived advice in big legal trouble: “aggravated menacing, a felony, and reckless endangering in the first degree,” according to the story.

Morrissey closes with a fair question:

If Biden doesn’t have the common sense to understand any of the above, let alone all of the above, why should anyone trust his efforts to rewrite gun laws that limit our legal rights to self-defense?

The good news on that front is that Biden would “write” gun legislation about as much as Obama “wrote” health care reform legislation. That is to say, he wouldn’t write a word of it, and probably wouldn’t actually know what’s in it without a neat, one-page talking point summary provided by the same people who have to periodically go before the public and remind people how thoroughly dangerous–and at times, illegal–it is to follow the advice of their vice president.

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Much Ado About Rove

In the aftermath of their presidential election defeat, many Republicans took out their frustration on Mitt Romney and his staff. Their manifold shortcomings and mistakes, both in terms of judgment and technical gaffes, were raked over with consummate thoroughness by conservative commentators. But with Romney sensibly gone to ground (though he will break his silence this month at the annual CPAC conference) and his advisors making poor targets on their own, that got boring after a while. So with the people who determined the GOP fate in 2012 no longer such inviting targets, the spleen of some conservatives is now being vented on Karl Rove.

In the years since his masterful supervision of George W. Bush’s presidential victories, Rove has assumed a larger-than-life role in the imagination of those on both the left and the right. To the left, he was the evil genius behind every Republican victory whose fundraising prowess was the engine driving the conservative agenda. To many on the right, he became the symbol of an inside-the-Beltway GOP establishment seeking to stifle the Tea Party in order to perpetuate the go-along-to-get-along payola culture that betrayed conservative principles and empowered Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.

But lately Rove has been looking more like a consultant with feet of clay than a political prince of darkness. In the last month since Rove announced the creation of the Conservative Victory Project, conservative critics have been denouncing him and liberals have been crowing over his supposed demise. The right has seen his effort aimed at preventing GOP outliers from losing winnable Senate and House seats as an unconscionable establishment attempt to stifle the grass roots. The left views it as a sign of Republican weakness that can’t be masked by Rove’s tactics or fundraising skills. But the idea that Rove’s moment has passed, and that his virtual defenestration from the good graces of the same people whose votes he turned out in 2000 and 2004 marks the end of era, as today’s feature in Politico seems to indicate, is overblown at best. What’s wrong here is not so much the evaluation of the consultant and talking head’s current difficulties as it is the assumption that Rove is the giant bestriding American politics whose fortunes are in some way indistinguishable from that of his party.

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In the aftermath of their presidential election defeat, many Republicans took out their frustration on Mitt Romney and his staff. Their manifold shortcomings and mistakes, both in terms of judgment and technical gaffes, were raked over with consummate thoroughness by conservative commentators. But with Romney sensibly gone to ground (though he will break his silence this month at the annual CPAC conference) and his advisors making poor targets on their own, that got boring after a while. So with the people who determined the GOP fate in 2012 no longer such inviting targets, the spleen of some conservatives is now being vented on Karl Rove.

In the years since his masterful supervision of George W. Bush’s presidential victories, Rove has assumed a larger-than-life role in the imagination of those on both the left and the right. To the left, he was the evil genius behind every Republican victory whose fundraising prowess was the engine driving the conservative agenda. To many on the right, he became the symbol of an inside-the-Beltway GOP establishment seeking to stifle the Tea Party in order to perpetuate the go-along-to-get-along payola culture that betrayed conservative principles and empowered Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.

But lately Rove has been looking more like a consultant with feet of clay than a political prince of darkness. In the last month since Rove announced the creation of the Conservative Victory Project, conservative critics have been denouncing him and liberals have been crowing over his supposed demise. The right has seen his effort aimed at preventing GOP outliers from losing winnable Senate and House seats as an unconscionable establishment attempt to stifle the grass roots. The left views it as a sign of Republican weakness that can’t be masked by Rove’s tactics or fundraising skills. But the idea that Rove’s moment has passed, and that his virtual defenestration from the good graces of the same people whose votes he turned out in 2000 and 2004 marks the end of era, as today’s feature in Politico seems to indicate, is overblown at best. What’s wrong here is not so much the evaluation of the consultant and talking head’s current difficulties as it is the assumption that Rove is the giant bestriding American politics whose fortunes are in some way indistinguishable from that of his party.

Let’s specify that Rove has been an enormously successful political consultant whose guiding of George W. Bush to two presidential election wins would be enough for any mortal to dine out on for the rest of his life. Since then, he has continued to help raise large amounts of money for Republicans and his opining on the issues of the day on Fox News and in the Wall Street Journal has given him a unique status among GOP strategists and talking heads.

But the failure of many of the Republicans he backed last year in both primaries and general elections showed that he was neither infallible nor all-powerful. The spectacle he made of himself on election night when he disputed the decision of Fox News to call Ohio for President Obama (made memorable by Megyn Kelly’s long march from the studio to the office where the election nerds made the decision) linked him to Romney’s loss in a visceral way that was quite unexpected. The negative reaction of many conservatives who see his Victory Project as an establishment evil empire striking back against activists, and the way so many other mainstream GOP figures immediately distanced themselves from the idea, seemed to mark the moment when Rove ceased to be the center of GOP gravity.

But those reviling and writing off Rove need to get a better grip on reality. Just because Rove ran the last winning GOP presidential campaign and appears on Fox didn’t make him the head of the Republican Party. He may well have profited from the myth of his pervasive influence, but that didn’t make it so. Rove was and is a very big deal in American politics but he was, after all, just a consultant whose fortunes are bound to rise and fall with the candidates he backs.

Political junkies have long tended to mythologize campaign managers. But as Rove understands well, it was George W. Bush who won those elections, even if his turn-out-the-vote efforts helped make it possible. No matter how much of a genius a consultant may be or how much money he manages to raise, it is the candidates who are always the deciding factors in any political battle.

The attention paid to Rove now over his campaign to weed out people like Christine O’Donnell, Sharon Angle and Todd Akin from the party’s slates around the country is as much a matter of hype as was the glory he received after 2004. His critics are absolutely right when they point out his instinctive backing of establishment favorites has identified him with as many losers as winners. Moreover, the idea that Rove can do a better job than the Tea Party in picking prospective senators runs aground when you consider that many of his choices tanked in the last two election cycles and that winners like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz wouldn’t be in Washington if everyone had listened to him. But this proof that he isn’t really the GOP pope is not exactly a revelation. Consultants win some and they lose some. The techniques he pioneered in 2000 and 2004 are no longer the determining factors in elections, as the Obama machine proved twice since then.

Though I’m far from sanguine about the ability of his new group to steer the GOP back to control of the Senate, he doesn’t deserve the abuse he has been getting lately any more than he really merited the god-like manner with which some wrote about him in the years prior to 2012.

Whatever the state of Rove’s current fortunes, this tells us nothing about how he or the party will do in 2014 or 2016. Republicans should welcome any group, including that of Rove, aimed at helping them win elections. But that makes him just one voice among many seeking to help influence events. Liberals may want to hold onto Rove as a right-wing boogey man, but conservatives need to stop obsessing about him and the mythical establishment he represents. If they are to win again, they will need all they help they can get–even from the likes of Rove.

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Hagel’s Critics Are Still the Winners

With the defection of one more Republican from the ranks of those opposing the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense, it appears the saga of the battle to stop the Nebraskan from taking office is coming to a close. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby announced today that he would vote for Hagel when the nomination comes to the floor. Shelby’s support is yet another blow against the hopes that the 10-day delay caused by last week’s failed cloture vote would result in a game changing event that would sink the chances of Hagel’s confirmation. Of course, the fate of this struggle was probably already sealed last Sunday when Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said they wouldn’t try to extend the filibuster when Congress reconvened next week. And if that left any doubt about the final outcome, it was removed when New York Democrat Chuck Schumer reconfirmed his support for Hagel with a speech that was as dishonest as it was morally dubious.

This will, no doubt, lead some on the left to crow about the failure of the pro-Israel community to stop the advancement of one of its worst critics. Others will say the effort was itself a mistake, since even after a concerted campaign to undermine support for the nomination and a disastrous confirmation hearing performance by Hagel his critics were unable to pry a single pro-Israel Democrat from the ranks of his backers. The result, we will be told, demonstrated the impotence of the vaunted “Israel Lobby” and will only encourage President Obama in the belief that he need not fear the consequences of another campaign of pressure on Israel or a decision to reverse course on containment of a nuclear Iran (the policy that Hagel has always supported and flubbed his recantation of at his hearing).

But those who will say the fight wasn’t worth it are wrong. Far from suffering a defeat, the last six weeks of close political combat on the issue have only strengthened the position of the pro-Israel community.

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With the defection of one more Republican from the ranks of those opposing the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense, it appears the saga of the battle to stop the Nebraskan from taking office is coming to a close. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby announced today that he would vote for Hagel when the nomination comes to the floor. Shelby’s support is yet another blow against the hopes that the 10-day delay caused by last week’s failed cloture vote would result in a game changing event that would sink the chances of Hagel’s confirmation. Of course, the fate of this struggle was probably already sealed last Sunday when Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said they wouldn’t try to extend the filibuster when Congress reconvened next week. And if that left any doubt about the final outcome, it was removed when New York Democrat Chuck Schumer reconfirmed his support for Hagel with a speech that was as dishonest as it was morally dubious.

This will, no doubt, lead some on the left to crow about the failure of the pro-Israel community to stop the advancement of one of its worst critics. Others will say the effort was itself a mistake, since even after a concerted campaign to undermine support for the nomination and a disastrous confirmation hearing performance by Hagel his critics were unable to pry a single pro-Israel Democrat from the ranks of his backers. The result, we will be told, demonstrated the impotence of the vaunted “Israel Lobby” and will only encourage President Obama in the belief that he need not fear the consequences of another campaign of pressure on Israel or a decision to reverse course on containment of a nuclear Iran (the policy that Hagel has always supported and flubbed his recantation of at his hearing).

But those who will say the fight wasn’t worth it are wrong. Far from suffering a defeat, the last six weeks of close political combat on the issue have only strengthened the position of the pro-Israel community.

Hagel’s inevitable confirmation will be a source of great frustration to many Americans who were dismayed at the prospect of letting a man who had clearly demonstrated his incompetence at his confirmation hearing run the Pentagon. And having defeated the first attempt by the Democrats to end debate on the nomination last week, the unraveling of the GOP filibuster is particularly disappointing since it also came at a time when fresh revelations of outrageous and even anti-Semitic statements made by Hagel were reported and polls showed most Americans opposed him. The fact that Hagel’s unsavory record and insincere walk-backs of his positions were so thoroughly exposed makes his confirmation a bitter pill for his critics to swallow.

But the process that unfolded since the president’s announcement was no defeat for friends of Israel. For all of Hagel’s trouble in mouthing the stands that he was forced to adopt since his nomination, the mere fact that he had to disavow his contemptuous dismissal of the pro-Israel community and pledge his everlasting support for the alliance with the Jewish state and readiness to use both sanctions and force against Iran is no small thing. In essence, Hagel had to renounce every single position that endeared him to his biggest fans among the so-called “realists” and other assorted Israel-bashers.

The pressure put upon Hagel during the lead-up to his confirmation hearing as well as the difficulty he found himself in when questioned by the Senate Armed Services Committee wasn’t merely the usual grind nominees are subjected to. The process reaffirmed a basic truth about the strength of the pro-Israel consensus that was placed in doubt by the president’s choice: support for the alliance with the Jewish state isn’t merely mainstream politics, it is the baseline against which all nominees for high office are measured. Republicans and Democrats, foes of Hagel as well as his backers, fell over themselves to demonstrate that opposition to a close relationship with Israel is not acceptable.

There may be good reason to doubt the sincerity of Hagel’s confirmation conversion, but the mere fact that he had to do it will make it all the more difficult for him or the president to backtrack on these positions. Far from a defeat, the manner in which Hagel found himself betraying his Israel-bashing supporters should not give them any comfort.

Chuck Hagel will be a weak secretary of defense whose influence has been dramatically lessened by the way he has been snuck into office. His usefulness as a spear carrier in any hoped-for administration pressure play against Israel has been diminished. Defeating Hagel’s nomination would have been far better for the United States as well as the U.S.-Israel alliance. Forcing him to renounce his past positions in order to get confirmed is almost as good.

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PA: If We Won’t Talk with Israel, Nobody Else Should, Either

You couldn’t make this up: The Palestinian Authority is furious that Israel and Hamas are reportedly holding indirect talks in Cairo to firm up their cease-fire, because “only the PLO was authorized to conduct such negotiations in its capacity as the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.’” Never mind that the PLO, aka the PA (both are headed by the same man, Mahmoud Abbas, and dominated by the same party, Fatah) has refused to hold talks with Israel for four years now; if Hamas had to wait for the PLO to discuss its pressing concerns with Israel, it might still be waiting when the Messiah comes. In the PA’s world, ordinary Palestinians’ real problems–of which residents of Hamas-run Gaza have plenty–always come a distant second to its own prestige. If it doesn’t feel like talking with Israel, then Gazans should just wait patiently until it does.

But this story also highlights just how irrelevant the PA’s refusal to talk with Israel is making it. Hamas would prefer going through Egypt rather than the PA for many reasons, but one is the simple fact that Egypt can deliver the goods. Egyptian officials are still willing to talk with Israel; that’s how they brokered the Israel-Hamas cease-fire in November, and why they can mediate between the parties now. In contrast, Abbas can’t.

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You couldn’t make this up: The Palestinian Authority is furious that Israel and Hamas are reportedly holding indirect talks in Cairo to firm up their cease-fire, because “only the PLO was authorized to conduct such negotiations in its capacity as the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.’” Never mind that the PLO, aka the PA (both are headed by the same man, Mahmoud Abbas, and dominated by the same party, Fatah) has refused to hold talks with Israel for four years now; if Hamas had to wait for the PLO to discuss its pressing concerns with Israel, it might still be waiting when the Messiah comes. In the PA’s world, ordinary Palestinians’ real problems–of which residents of Hamas-run Gaza have plenty–always come a distant second to its own prestige. If it doesn’t feel like talking with Israel, then Gazans should just wait patiently until it does.

But this story also highlights just how irrelevant the PA’s refusal to talk with Israel is making it. Hamas would prefer going through Egypt rather than the PA for many reasons, but one is the simple fact that Egypt can deliver the goods. Egyptian officials are still willing to talk with Israel; that’s how they brokered the Israel-Hamas cease-fire in November, and why they can mediate between the parties now. In contrast, Abbas can’t.

Once upon a time, he could and did. That’s why, for instance, PA officials are still stationed at the Gaza-Israel border crossings: Unwilling to recognize Israel or talk with it directly, Hamas nevertheless needs to deal with Israel to run those crossings; PA officials were the mutually agreed-upon mediators. But that arrangement was hammered out at a time when the PA was still willing to talk with Israel. Now, it isn’t.

In that sense, there’s even a twisted logic to the PA’s accusation that the “secret talks in Cairo” are why the latest Fatah-Hamas reconciliation effort failed. Clearly, neither side really wants to reconcile; that’s why every such effort has failed for years. But for Hamas, Abbas’s refusal to talk with Israel means the PA can no longer provide the one service Hamas actually needs from it. Meanwhile, Egypt has proven an effective substitute. Thus its incentive to make a deal, never high, has declined even further.

Ironically, Hamas recently taught Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan an identical lesson. When the Hamas-Israel conflict erupted in November, Erdogan lavished rhetorical support on Hamas, but having refused for years to talk with Israel, he was unable to do anything more constructive. It was Egypt that brokered the cease-fire Hamas needed, thereby receiving worldwide kudos for successful diplomacy. Erdogan was reduced to pathetically trying to share the credit by proclaiming that his spy chief, too, met an Israeli official in Cairo during the cease-fire talks–an effort that convinced nobody (except, perhaps, his hardcore supporters in Turkey).

So far, neither Erdogan nor Abbas has been willing to climb down from his tree. But Erdogan can afford it: As the leader of a Middle Eastern powerhouse and one of President Barack Obama’s closest confidants, he has other venues in which to prove his relevance. Abbas, the leader of a perpetually bankrupt entity whose conflict with Israel is the world’s sole reason for being interested in him, may discover that he doesn’t have the same luxury.

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The Hype and History of Stanley Fischer

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maneuvers to put together an expansive governing coalition by handing out ministries and portfolios to a diverse group of political partners, he has a lot of mouths to feed. Not only will there be several party heads looking for placement in the next government, but Netanyahu also has at least one high-profile politician to whom he may owe a commensurate rank in Avigdor Lieberman, and one he probably hoped to have a place for in recently retired Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Yet in Israel, where I spent the last week, there is another name that comes up that commands more respect and curiosity than all the others: Stanley Fischer.

Fischer announced in January that he would be leaving his job as the head of Israel’s central bank earlier than expected. The Israeli press is normally a tough crowd, but Fischer has earned rare and almost universal praise from the Israeli fourth estate for successfully guiding the Israeli economy through the global downturn while many Western and OECD economies continued to struggle. He is often regarded as the adult in the room and was one of the most influential economics professors in U.S. history during his time at MIT. And now, if you listen to the chatter, he can be anything he wants: chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve or even president of Israel (let alone foreign minister, a post he appears to actually covet but which, for political reasons, would ironically be more difficult to attain than the others).

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As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maneuvers to put together an expansive governing coalition by handing out ministries and portfolios to a diverse group of political partners, he has a lot of mouths to feed. Not only will there be several party heads looking for placement in the next government, but Netanyahu also has at least one high-profile politician to whom he may owe a commensurate rank in Avigdor Lieberman, and one he probably hoped to have a place for in recently retired Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Yet in Israel, where I spent the last week, there is another name that comes up that commands more respect and curiosity than all the others: Stanley Fischer.

Fischer announced in January that he would be leaving his job as the head of Israel’s central bank earlier than expected. The Israeli press is normally a tough crowd, but Fischer has earned rare and almost universal praise from the Israeli fourth estate for successfully guiding the Israeli economy through the global downturn while many Western and OECD economies continued to struggle. He is often regarded as the adult in the room and was one of the most influential economics professors in U.S. history during his time at MIT. And now, if you listen to the chatter, he can be anything he wants: chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve or even president of Israel (let alone foreign minister, a post he appears to actually covet but which, for political reasons, would ironically be more difficult to attain than the others).

An engaging profile of Fischer by the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews, published last week, carries a headline that is actually quite understated compared to some of Fischer’s other mainstream press: “Stan Fischer saved Israel’s economy. Can he save America’s?” As Matthews notes, in addition to governing the Bank of Israel and mentoring a generation of top economic policy professionals at MIT, Fischer was also the International Monetary Fund’s second in command, chief economist at the World Bank, and a vice chairman at Citigroup when it was the world’s largest bank. “Any one of his past jobs would be a crowning achievement in an economist’s career,” Matthews writes–and yet, Fischer has collected a lifetime of such crowning achievements.

The obvious question that stands out is whether Fischer’s work lives up to its reputation: Did he, as Matthews says, save Israel’s economy? Yes and no. There is almost no doubt that he deserves much of the credit for shepherding Israel’s economy through the global recessionary patterns that trapped so many others. Matthews is correct that Fischer’s devaluation of the shekel boosted exports and kept the economy afloat, though he is also correct that Fischer probably could not have used the same trick were he head of the U.S. Federal Reserve and playing with dollars instead of shekels. This also wasn’t terribly revolutionary for Israel: the country has long experimented with both sudden and so-called “crawling peg” devaluations to deal with decades of weak export numbers and economic isolation.

Which brings us to the one caveat in Fischer’s heroics: he didn’t quite do it alone. He took over the Bank of Israel after the second intifada wreaked havoc on Israel’s economy, but that recovery period coincided with Netanyahu’s term as finance minister in the government headed by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Netanyahu delivered much-needed economic reforms–tax cuts, financial sector liberalization, and privatizations–to an Israeli economy already transformed by its high-tech industry. According to economist Paul Rivlin, between 1995 and 2008 Israel’s high-technology output increased by 183.5 percent, driven heavily by foreign trade.

This doesn’t take much away from Fischer’s achievement. But it’s likely that without Netanyahu’s reforms Fischer would have had much more of a losing cause on his hands when crisis hit. This also wasn’t the first time Fischer helped guide Israel through economic challenges. In 1985, Secretary of State George Shultz asked Fischer and fellow economist Herbert Stein to lead the development of a plan to deliver emergency economic aid to Israel with strings attached in the form of benchmarks in domestic economic liberalization. In a biting column, the late William Safire accused American policymakers of purchasing Israel’s independence and acquiescence on America’s plans for regional peace by promising to indefinitely fund Israel’s welfare state. Safire acknowledged, however, that Fischer “told Congress last week that Israel must first come up with an unambiguous plan to cut government spending that is ruining the country.”

There is a line at the door for the post of foreign minister in Netanyahu’s next government, but Fischer would be welcomed with open arms in Washington. Israel’s presidency is a largely ceremonial and diplomatic role, but it is not apolitical, and Fischer is neither a native Israeli nor tested by experience in this regard. Would he be interested in running the Fed? He has family here in the States, and has retained his American citizenship, though he has been less forthcoming with clues as to how he’d feel about the job–as opposed to the signaling he’s done on other prospective offers like foreign minister (interested) and finance minister (not interested) in the next Israeli governing coalition. It’s clear, however, that with even Haaretz declaring that Israelis are already experiencing acute “Separation Anxiety Disorder” at the thought of Fischer’s absence, his adopted home may not give him up without a fight.

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The Rules Are Different For Obama

Republicans are experiencing a serious problem as they attempt to stand up to President Obama’s pressure to give in and raise taxes again in order to avert the sequester budget cuts. In spite of the fact that the idea for the scheme originated in the White House and that it is the president’s intransigence in insisting on more taxes rather than a spending solution, the public isn’t buying the GOP’s argument. Two new polls show not only that the president’s job approval rating is at its highest mark since his 2009 honeymoon, but that more people blame Republicans for the sequester and the damage it will do to the economy and national defense than blame Obama.

Democrats claim this is because they have the better argument when they put forward their so-called “balanced approach” to the deficit that calls, at least in theory, for both cuts and increased revenue. But though there may be some truth to this, when one looks deeper into the numbers it’s not clear this assertion stands up to scrutiny. As was the case last year when the country’s weak economy and the administration’s meager accomplishments seemed to guarantee the president’s defeat, Republicans are discovering anew that a situation that might sink another president is not hurting the incumbent’s public standing or giving them any leverage to resist his demands. The rules are just different for Barack Obama–and the sooner the GOP comes to grips with this reality, the better off they’ll be.

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Republicans are experiencing a serious problem as they attempt to stand up to President Obama’s pressure to give in and raise taxes again in order to avert the sequester budget cuts. In spite of the fact that the idea for the scheme originated in the White House and that it is the president’s intransigence in insisting on more taxes rather than a spending solution, the public isn’t buying the GOP’s argument. Two new polls show not only that the president’s job approval rating is at its highest mark since his 2009 honeymoon, but that more people blame Republicans for the sequester and the damage it will do to the economy and national defense than blame Obama.

Democrats claim this is because they have the better argument when they put forward their so-called “balanced approach” to the deficit that calls, at least in theory, for both cuts and increased revenue. But though there may be some truth to this, when one looks deeper into the numbers it’s not clear this assertion stands up to scrutiny. As was the case last year when the country’s weak economy and the administration’s meager accomplishments seemed to guarantee the president’s defeat, Republicans are discovering anew that a situation that might sink another president is not hurting the incumbent’s public standing or giving them any leverage to resist his demands. The rules are just different for Barack Obama–and the sooner the GOP comes to grips with this reality, the better off they’ll be.

Polls from Bloomberg, USA Today/Pew Research and even Rasmussen all show the president with positive job approval ratings. Even more to the point, both Bloomberg and Pew have survey results that seem to back up the idea that the administration’s “balanced” formula is better than one that concentrates solely on cutting spending. Those numbers have led the president to believe in the efficacy of a public campaign of demagoguery aimed at portraying Republicans as the party of the rich defending millionaires’ private jet deductions while seeking to cut aid to the poor.

But the same polls also show a majority don’t approve of the way Obama is handling the budget or the deficit. In a country in which those problems are viewed as the nation’s priority, Obama’s personal poll numbers ought to be lower. And even where the majority back both tax increases and spending cuts, most believe the emphasis should be on the latter rather than the former–which also ought to lead to more opposition to the president’s stands.

There is little doubt that most also understand that if Washington grabs more “revenue,” the result will be a bigger government, not a smaller deficit, as Jonathan Cohn admits today in the New Republic. Though Obama’s laundry list of liberal spending projects in his State of the Union address are all relatively popular, the national appetite for more government is still limited.

That ought to mean that Republicans should be on firm ground when they push back against the White House’s over-the-top dog-and-pony shows in which the president highlights the suffering that will be caused by Republicans. The notion that Republicans are being any more ideological in their stands than he is on these issues doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. His histrionic threats to shut down vital services to spite the GOP are also easily lampooned. And yet Obama remains popular and capable of inflicting real damage on his opponents in the debate on these issues.

The answer to the Republican Party’s problem revolves around the same factor that they failed to grasp in 2012: the president’s unique appeal and popularity. After more than four years of facing off against him, Republicans should understand by now that the laws of political gravity do not apply to Obama.

That doesn’t mean they must, as some faint-hearted Republicans think, surrender without a fight. There is nothing wrong with the conservative principles they uphold, and House Republicans can drive a hard bargain on the deficit that demands entitlement reform if they have the guts to stick to their guns.

Obama’s status as the nation’s first African-American president and the consequent kid-glove treatment he gets from the press make it difficult, if not impossible, to hold him accountable for his hypocrisy or his failures. As I wrote earlier in the week, the White House’s innovative strategies for manipulating the media do not fully explain his ability to evade the normal tough scrutiny that any president gets. Nor does the liberal bias of the mainstream media, though that, too, is a contributing factor.

Obama’s identity as the man who makes Americans feel good about their country renders all other factors irrelevant. This is something that conservatives struggle to understand primarily because they are immune to the president’s personal charm and speaking ability. But it is a fact they must accept if they don’t want to spend the next four years banging their heads against a wall. That’s why the GOP must stop focusing so much on trying to attack a president who is impervious to criticism and concentrate on the sort of big ideas about growth that made them the party of ideas in the ’80s and ’90s.

In the long run, Democrats are going to learn that without Obama fronting for them, their attempt to reboot the New Deal/Great Society coalition built on more and bigger government will fail. The notion that they can dominate the coming decade of American politics by spending and taxing more is a myth that will lead to future defeats at the hands of articulate conservatives who can run on a platform of reforming the government.

Until then, the GOP is stuck with the role of Obama’s punching dummy. So long as Barack Obama is in the White House, the struggle between Democrats and Republicans will always be an unequal one.

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