Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 28, 2013

Obama Deadline Raises Pressure on Bibi

Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a new coalition government have not been going smoothly. The prime minister’s attempt to break up the alliance between the two big winners of the last election—the centrist Yesh Atid Party’s Yair Lapid and the pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett—have flopped as the two have stuck to each other and their mutual support for a change in the military draft system that will compel for the first time the conscription of Haredim. Netanyahu knows he needs at least one of the two to form a government and if they stick together, he must not only take both but also agree to their demands about a reform that he appears reluctant to implement.

But as difficult as his position was until now, Netanyahu’s leverage in the talks just got even smaller thanks to another longtime antagonist. Israel TV is claiming that the White House has made clear to Netanyahu that President Obama’s long anticipated trip to Israel next month will be postponed if the prime minister does not have a new government in place by March 16. While some in Israel, where Obama remains unpopular, may not care much about the visit, Netanyahu is counting on it. That means the chances are that Lapid and Bennett will soon be signing coalition agreements on their own terms and that the ultra-Orthodox parties will be losing their ability to stymie reform.

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Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a new coalition government have not been going smoothly. The prime minister’s attempt to break up the alliance between the two big winners of the last election—the centrist Yesh Atid Party’s Yair Lapid and the pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett—have flopped as the two have stuck to each other and their mutual support for a change in the military draft system that will compel for the first time the conscription of Haredim. Netanyahu knows he needs at least one of the two to form a government and if they stick together, he must not only take both but also agree to their demands about a reform that he appears reluctant to implement.

But as difficult as his position was until now, Netanyahu’s leverage in the talks just got even smaller thanks to another longtime antagonist. Israel TV is claiming that the White House has made clear to Netanyahu that President Obama’s long anticipated trip to Israel next month will be postponed if the prime minister does not have a new government in place by March 16. While some in Israel, where Obama remains unpopular, may not care much about the visit, Netanyahu is counting on it. That means the chances are that Lapid and Bennett will soon be signing coalition agreements on their own terms and that the ultra-Orthodox parties will be losing their ability to stymie reform.

Netanyahu is eager for the Obama visit because he views it as a perfect opportunity to help reset the strained relations between the two governments. More importantly, he’s also hoping the president will use it to make a strong statement in support of Israeli security and to re-emphasize his willingness to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capability. Losing that visit would be a blow to his prestige and undermine his efforts to have the allies present a united front on Iran and the peace process after four-plus years of Obama’s efforts to distance the U.S. from Israel. Since dragging out the talks in what would probably be a vain try to get his way on the next coalition would probably keep Obama at home, that means that the prime minister’s already faltering attempt to split up the Lapid-Bennett tag team is now officially doomed.

Netanyahu has his own reasons for fearing both Lapid and Bennett.

He’s clearly worried about Lapid’s boasts about replacing Netanyahu in the next election and dreads having to give him the key post of foreign minister as part of the price for getting Yesh Atid’s 19 seats onto the government benches. Though they are closer on ideology, he seems to have just as much antipathy for the charismatic Bennett, who once was chief of staff and broke with Netanyahu, allegedly because of the influence of the prime minister’s wife Sara.

But with Lapid and Bennett deciding that their mutual support for a more equitable system of national service outweighs any differences on other issues, Netanyahu now has no choice but to swallow hard and have both of these would-be rivals in the Cabinet.

Obama and the two party leaders may be doing Netanyahu more of a favor than he knows. Keeping both Lapid and Bennett inside the government tent is to the prime minister’s advantage. Saddling him with responsibility for government actions also lessens Lapid’s long-term appeal as a reformer even if the foreign ministry would give him the gravitas to be a credible prime minister in the future. Moreover, achieving a real breakthrough on the question of the Haredim and the draft would be a genuine achievement for Netanyahu and burnish his legacy in his third term as Israel’s leader.

It’s important to understand the big loser here isn’t the prime minister. It’s the ultra-Orthodox who have used their disproportionate influence on the country’s political system to perpetuate an unequal burden of national service as well as to funnel huge amounts of patronage and government allocations to their institutions. Keeping Shas and United Torah Judaism out of the government will create a team of rivals in the Cabinet that worries Netanyahu, but it will enable him to do something none of his predecessors ever achieved.

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Western Concessions Boost Iran Confidence

After two days of the latest round of P5+1 talks with Iran, the international coalition has already begun the process of standing down from a confrontational stance toward Tehran. After a decade of diplomatic failure, no one seriously expected this week’s sessions to create a breakthrough that might defuse the Iranian nuclear threat. But the West’s decision to make two key concessions to the Islamist regime without any reciprocal move on Iran’s part is likely to only reinforce its confidence that it can continue to stall until the Iranians reach their nuclear goal. The group comprised of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany and which is led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, dropped their previous insistence that Iran must shut down its nuclear plant at Fordo and also said that it could keep some of its 20 percent enriched uranium that could be converted to use for a weapon.

With those concessions in his pocket, and without having given anything in return at the talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, it’s no wonder the Iranian negotiator called the meeting positive and said the Western position had become “more realistic.” American and European diplomats emphasized to reporters their three conditions to the Iranians that would hinder any attempt to create a weapon, but also said agreeing to those minimal steps would lead to the end of some of the toughest economic sanctions on the country.

All this is just one more set of signals that tells the Iranians they have no need to take seriously President Obama’s threats about force still being an option in the West’s efforts to prevent Tehran from going nuclear. In its new issue, TIME magazine details the story of the administration’s evolution toward a position that specifically eschews containment of a nuclear Iran as an option and says the administration is preparing for war. But this week’s concessions, combined with the confirmation of a new U.S. secretary of defense who was a longtime advocate of containment (and who could not articulate the administration’s current position on the issue in his confirmation hearing even when given three tries to do so), can only bolster the determination of the Iranians to hang on to their program until they run out the clock on the talks and achieve their goal.

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After two days of the latest round of P5+1 talks with Iran, the international coalition has already begun the process of standing down from a confrontational stance toward Tehran. After a decade of diplomatic failure, no one seriously expected this week’s sessions to create a breakthrough that might defuse the Iranian nuclear threat. But the West’s decision to make two key concessions to the Islamist regime without any reciprocal move on Iran’s part is likely to only reinforce its confidence that it can continue to stall until the Iranians reach their nuclear goal. The group comprised of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany and which is led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, dropped their previous insistence that Iran must shut down its nuclear plant at Fordo and also said that it could keep some of its 20 percent enriched uranium that could be converted to use for a weapon.

With those concessions in his pocket, and without having given anything in return at the talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, it’s no wonder the Iranian negotiator called the meeting positive and said the Western position had become “more realistic.” American and European diplomats emphasized to reporters their three conditions to the Iranians that would hinder any attempt to create a weapon, but also said agreeing to those minimal steps would lead to the end of some of the toughest economic sanctions on the country.

All this is just one more set of signals that tells the Iranians they have no need to take seriously President Obama’s threats about force still being an option in the West’s efforts to prevent Tehran from going nuclear. In its new issue, TIME magazine details the story of the administration’s evolution toward a position that specifically eschews containment of a nuclear Iran as an option and says the administration is preparing for war. But this week’s concessions, combined with the confirmation of a new U.S. secretary of defense who was a longtime advocate of containment (and who could not articulate the administration’s current position on the issue in his confirmation hearing even when given three tries to do so), can only bolster the determination of the Iranians to hang on to their program until they run out the clock on the talks and achieve their goal.

As TIME notes, only Obama knows for sure whether he really will make good on his pledges to use every possible option, including war, to stop Iran. But the appointment of Chuck Hagel to the Pentagon was not something that was geared to make the Iranians believe the president means what he says. They are hoping to drag out the talks over time, and the promise of even more open-ended negotiations after this week could hardly have persuaded them to alter that strategy.

Indeed, the new talks repeated the patterns of past negotiations in which Western concessions were made to get a deal that would not conclusively end the nuclear threat. The current P5+1 position would leave the Iranians plenty of room to maneuver and to cheat on their promises—as the North Koreans did before they got their bomb.

The Iranians have convinced the West and even the Israelis that they have more time than they thought they had last year before it is too late to spike the nuclear program. But even if we assume that the West has until the fall or even next spring to talk the Iranians down from the nuclear ledge, nothing they have done—including tough economic sanctions—seems to have really gotten Iran to believe they have no choice but to surrender their nukes.

If President Obama wants Iran to take him seriously he needs to change his diplomatic posture, not double down on a policy of engagement that only serves to make the ayatollahs think he is a paper tiger. If he is to disabuse them of that belief, the president needs to do something in the coming months that makes clear that the U.S. is ready to strike. But with Hagel, whom Obama appears to trust, having replaced his predecessor Robert Gates as the leading proponent of containment in the administration, the odds of doing so are not good.

Even if one believes the TIME story about the president’s intentions, he needs to understand the threat of American force is only credible if the other side believes in it. After ensnaring the West in a new round of dead-end negotiations, it’s hard to blame the Iranians if they think they have nothing to worry about.  

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Preventing the Lebanonization of Syria

Earlier this week, I wrote about the Syrian rebels’ threats to boycott a proposed meeting with new Secretary of State John Kerry, who had been far too friendly with Bashar al-Assad for their tastes and from whom they were not getting enough support. The tactic worked: Kerry has pledged the first direct American aid to armed rebel factions. It is humanitarian aid, not weapons; but as the New York Times notes, it may indirectly help provide them with weapons by freeing up rebel funds for other purposes.

It is a tactical shift for the Obama administration, which had found that American officials’ previous attempts to remove Assad from power by shaking their heads in disappointment at him were going nowhere. The aid is an important acknowledgement that a state run by Assad and a state run by his opponents aren’t the only two possible outcomes of the Syrian civil war. A third, and far from unlikely, result would have the state split along sectarian lines, in slow disintegration, with strategic safe havens carved out for powerful terrorist groups or rogue state proxies–Lebanon, in other words. The Times reports:

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Earlier this week, I wrote about the Syrian rebels’ threats to boycott a proposed meeting with new Secretary of State John Kerry, who had been far too friendly with Bashar al-Assad for their tastes and from whom they were not getting enough support. The tactic worked: Kerry has pledged the first direct American aid to armed rebel factions. It is humanitarian aid, not weapons; but as the New York Times notes, it may indirectly help provide them with weapons by freeing up rebel funds for other purposes.

It is a tactical shift for the Obama administration, which had found that American officials’ previous attempts to remove Assad from power by shaking their heads in disappointment at him were going nowhere. The aid is an important acknowledgement that a state run by Assad and a state run by his opponents aren’t the only two possible outcomes of the Syrian civil war. A third, and far from unlikely, result would have the state split along sectarian lines, in slow disintegration, with strategic safe havens carved out for powerful terrorist groups or rogue state proxies–Lebanon, in other words. The Times reports:

One major goal of the administration is to help the opposition build up its credibility within Syria by providing traditional government services to the civilian population. Since the conflict erupted two years ago, the United States has sent $365 million in humanitarian aid to Syrians.

American officials have been increasingly worried that extremist members of the resistance against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, notably the Al Nusra Front, which the United States has asserted is affiliated with Al Qaeda, will take control of portions of Syria and cement its authority by providing public services, much as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon.

“Some folks on the ground that we don’t support and whose interests do not align with ours are delivering some of that help,” Mr. Kerry said.

To blunt the power of extremist groups, the United States wants to help the Syrian Opposition Council, the coalition of Syrian resistance leaders it backs and helped organize, deliver basic services in areas that have been wrested from the control of the Assad government.

The upside to this includes the possibility that a post-Assad Syria would be on better terms with the West. The downside is that it takes for granted the inevitability of a post-Assad Syria, and as such lacks a certain sense of urgency. It is also designed to help solve a problem that might have been avoidable with earlier intervention: the empowerment of more radical groups within the rebel movement thanks to the vacuum left by the West’s refusal to put a thumb on the scales in the other direction.

Such activity is better late than never, though that’s not how some humanitarian NGO workers feel. The Globe and Mail reports that some aid workers say picking winners now from among the rebels will divide and possibly weaken them while endangering the neutrality of outside organizations:

“Who gets credit for aid is heavily politicized and people get killed for it,” says the aid worker. He argues that determining aid recipients by their political affiliation is an impractical way to deliver aid. Should aid groups act as the tip of the spear of an American-led charge to pick favourites, they may become targets in internecine battles and cease operations.

“It is very tempting in the course of a war that aid be used for political ends, especially when diplomacy is not working and external military intervention is off the table,” says Sam Worthington, CEO of the aid umbrella group InterAction. “Our concern is that the broader UN and NGO humanitarian effort already in place will also become politicized. A limited yet very important humanitarian assistance operation happening in the country could be jeopardized if there is a perception that aid is another instrument of conflict.”

It’s a valid concern, and yet another reason intervention should have come sooner than this. But the best result from a humanitarian perspective would be to end the conflict, not simply help provide cash for an endless supply of nutrition supplements for the permanently displaced. Near-term humanitarian concerns may prioritize the neutrality of aid workers, but the long-term goal should be to end the war, pacify the battlefield, and clear the space for humanitarian aid to safely reach everyone still in need.

Further, stopping radical Islamists from taking power in post-war Syria would go a long way toward preventing future unrest and a cycle of conflict that would find aid workers right back at the Syrian border, attempting to enter the next round of humanitarian crisis. “If we want to have a new regime, we have to encourage the opposition,” the Times quotes French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius as saying. No doubt the rebels would like more than encouragement, but having watched the West wait two years to offer direct assistance, it’s doubtful they’re holding their breath.

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Cries of Racism Cloud Real Issues in Court

Liberals are jumping all over Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s comment yesterday during an oral hearing in which he asked whether continuing the special enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act in some states was a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Many, including his court colleague Justice Sonia Sotomayor, seemed to interpret it as questioning whether the right to vote is itself a “racial entitlement.” For his pains, Scalia was branded a racist. What is left of the aging remnants of the once-vital civil rights movement are hoping that outrage about that remark can galvanize public pressure not just for the continuation of the Voting Rights Act as it currently stands, but against both voter integrity laws and the system of racial majority districts.

The problem with the critique of Scalia is pretty much the same as that with the defense of the legal status quo. What is at stake in this debate and the legal case in question–Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder–is not the right to vote, which Scalia supports as much as any liberal. There is no evidence that anyone in Shelby County is trying to reinstate Jim Crow laws or prevent African Americans or other minorities from exercising their constitutionally protected right to cast a ballot. Nor is there any evidence that this is true anywhere else in the states and counties that remain under direct federal supervision as a result of the 1965 law. The entitlement in question is rather the ability of the Justice Department to act as a national elections commission in certain areas that were once strongholds of racial hatred, even though the country has changed markedly in the last half century. Instead of promoting the false charge that Scalia is a segregationist, the focus should be on who benefits from the continuation of Section Five of the Act. The answer is: a class of political elites that benefit from the creation of racial majority districts.

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Liberals are jumping all over Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s comment yesterday during an oral hearing in which he asked whether continuing the special enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act in some states was a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Many, including his court colleague Justice Sonia Sotomayor, seemed to interpret it as questioning whether the right to vote is itself a “racial entitlement.” For his pains, Scalia was branded a racist. What is left of the aging remnants of the once-vital civil rights movement are hoping that outrage about that remark can galvanize public pressure not just for the continuation of the Voting Rights Act as it currently stands, but against both voter integrity laws and the system of racial majority districts.

The problem with the critique of Scalia is pretty much the same as that with the defense of the legal status quo. What is at stake in this debate and the legal case in question–Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder–is not the right to vote, which Scalia supports as much as any liberal. There is no evidence that anyone in Shelby County is trying to reinstate Jim Crow laws or prevent African Americans or other minorities from exercising their constitutionally protected right to cast a ballot. Nor is there any evidence that this is true anywhere else in the states and counties that remain under direct federal supervision as a result of the 1965 law. The entitlement in question is rather the ability of the Justice Department to act as a national elections commission in certain areas that were once strongholds of racial hatred, even though the country has changed markedly in the last half century. Instead of promoting the false charge that Scalia is a segregationist, the focus should be on who benefits from the continuation of Section Five of the Act. The answer is: a class of political elites that benefit from the creation of racial majority districts.

As both the plaintiffs and some of the justices pointed out yesterday, the problem that that provision of the law was designed to address has been solved. Voter turnout of blacks is actually higher in the nine states covered by the Act than in the rest of the country. The continuation of Section Five–in which certain areas must prove they are not discriminating against minorities rather than forcing the government to prove that they are–does, however, hamper the ability of legislatures to redraw districts or to pass voter integrity laws that liberals falsely allege are directed against minorities.

It must be understood that once the detritus of segregation and other laws intended to prevent blacks from voting were swept away, the main point of the law has been to create a system that enshrined racial gerrymandering as the norm. Since it was assumed that whites would never vote for an African American, the courts mandated that congressional and legislative districts be drawn so as to ensure that blacks and in some cases Hispanics would be able to elect one of their own.

This led to a vast expansion of the number of blacks in Congress and in state legislatures, but ironically also hurt the party that most of them supported. The districts created by this racial gerrymander were often bizarrely drawn and had little to do with geography or history. But the main point is that they drained black Democratic voters from other districts that ensured the engineering of a few safe Democratic seats. Yet they also made the remaining districts much whiter and, ironically, far more likely to be Republican.

That was good for the few black politicians who were in possession of these safe Democratic and racially homogeneous seats, and for the Republican Party that cleaned up everywhere else. Whether that is actually good for the country or for African American voters, who have little influence on the composition of Congress and whose representatives are the products of petty one-party autocracies, is another matter entirely.

Just as crucial to understanding the impact of this case is the way the Civil Rights Act has become a weapon to use against voter integrity laws. What is left of the civil rights movement has embraced the cause of stopping voter ID laws as a way of reviving their influence. Minorities are no less capable of getting the same photo ID that is needed to conduct just about any transaction in the modern commercial world or to interact with government than anyone else. But the left attempts to argue that opposition to them is indistinguishable from that of racial justice. This is absurd, and it is opposed by what polls have consistently showed to be the vast majority of Americans—including minorities—who think laws that seek to prevent electoral cheating are inherently reasonable.

The current interpretation of the Voting Rights Act gives Attorney General Eric Holder the right to oppose these laws and to brand them as racist. As the president’s mention of the issue in his State of the Union showed, this is an attempt to play the racial card for partisan purposes. It also gives aging rights groups who have outlived their usefulness a new lease on life. But all this also undermines any notion that what is at stake in the Shelby case is anything remotely connected to the original intent of the 1965 law.

The South has transcended its tragic past and is no more nor less racist than any other part of the country. But given the inability of so many in Congress on both sides of the aisle to rise above their own self-interest on this issue, the court is the only venue that can talk sense and end a practice that now does more mischief than good. Protecting the right to vote is a sacred cause that deserves the support of all Americans. But the preservation of this outmoded system, or wrongly branding Scalia a racist, has nothing to with that.

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Is the President Still Relevant Here?

After Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they continued to dominate debate and marginalize President Bill Clinton. That led to one of Clinton’s most memorable moments, when he declared at a 1995 press conference: “The president is still relevant here.” It was a low moment for Clinton, but he would have the last laugh—he’d recover his voice and easily win re-election. Looking back on that moment, George Stephanopoulos explained Clinton’s ill-advised remark by noting it was a “Perfect example of the stage direction coming out of the actor’s mouth, as opposed to the script.”

One wonders what kind of stage direction President Obama is currently receiving from his advisors, but it’s not unthinkable that someone has to remind him he’s relevant (but not to say so). Aside from the defense establishment, the president’s threats about the sequester’s budget cuts are receiving a collective yawn from the public. Polls show the public doesn’t know much about it, nor care to. Republicans have seemingly accepted the inevitability of the cuts, and some are even cheering them. The president’s bizarre behavior, in which he threatens to make the budget cuts hurt as much as possible and go after reporters who don’t regurgitate the White House’s ridiculous spin, is not moving the needle. And now, Ben White reports, when confronted with the sequester’s supposed impact, the business community is practically laughing in the president’s face:

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After Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they continued to dominate debate and marginalize President Bill Clinton. That led to one of Clinton’s most memorable moments, when he declared at a 1995 press conference: “The president is still relevant here.” It was a low moment for Clinton, but he would have the last laugh—he’d recover his voice and easily win re-election. Looking back on that moment, George Stephanopoulos explained Clinton’s ill-advised remark by noting it was a “Perfect example of the stage direction coming out of the actor’s mouth, as opposed to the script.”

One wonders what kind of stage direction President Obama is currently receiving from his advisors, but it’s not unthinkable that someone has to remind him he’s relevant (but not to say so). Aside from the defense establishment, the president’s threats about the sequester’s budget cuts are receiving a collective yawn from the public. Polls show the public doesn’t know much about it, nor care to. Republicans have seemingly accepted the inevitability of the cuts, and some are even cheering them. The president’s bizarre behavior, in which he threatens to make the budget cuts hurt as much as possible and go after reporters who don’t regurgitate the White House’s ridiculous spin, is not moving the needle. And now, Ben White reports, when confronted with the sequester’s supposed impact, the business community is practically laughing in the president’s face:

The administration has not been able to tap into the heavy pressure that comes from deep-pocketed and well-connected groups like the Chamber, the Business Roundtable, the Financial Services Forum and many others putting out statements and sending breathless letters to the Hill demanding immediate action, as they did during the cliff fight….

Corporate groups are also taking cues from financial markets, which largely have ignored threats about the sequester’s potential impact. Stocks sold off early this week, but that had much more to do with worries over the muddled outcome of elections in Italy and their possible impact on the European debt crisis than Washington and the sequester, analysts said.

“Investors have been hearing a lot of hysteria out of the politicians for the last two years over all the different end-of-the-world deadlines,” said Michael Obuchowski, portfolio manager at North Shore Asset Management. “We are human beings with vertebrate nervous systems, and there is a desensitizing effect when you hear it so many times. You eventually ignore it.”

That suggests the president has a serious credibility problem on spending and crisis management. White also quotes Michael Bloomberg’s response to the sequester threats: “come on, let’s get serious here.” White adds that the Chamber of Commerce has made it clear that, in their opinion, the Democrats’ plan to replace the sequester with tax increases “would be worse than even the sequester.”

That sums up much of the attitude, even on the Republican side, to the sequester: Obama’s own ideas about the debt and deficit are actually worse for the country than the sequester–which was also his idea–so they’ll take the lesser of two evils. In their opinion, the president goes from one bad idea to the next, and they’d like him to maybe stop talking for a while. The Washington Post carries a story today on the sequester rhetoric, and finds that experts in the relevant fields cannot confirm the White House’s dire warnings. Everyone seems pretty skeptical of the president’s rhetoric, in part, the Post reports, because the sequester’s structure is so unique:

What is not new, however, is the impulse of officials to resort to melodrama when they are faced with budget cuts. Getting people’s attention has been a challenge in the case of the sequester. In the latest Washington Post-Pew Research Center survey, only one in four said they were closely following news about the automatic spending cuts.

The ploy even has a name: the “Washington Monument” syndrome, a reference to the National Park Service’s decision to close that landmark and the Grand Canyon for two days a week after the Nixon administration cut funding in 1969.

They’ve seen this play before, and they believe life goes on. As Jonathan mentioned, the press’s reaction to this debate has been to push back a bit on the White House, first with regard to Bob Woodward and now with the Post accusing the president, and those who echo his pronouncements, of “melodrama.” And it also marks a shift on the Republican side. The GOP has often fallen into the president’s PR traps and allowed him to effectively divide their ranks, then step back and watch them point fingers at each other. There was even (overblown) talk of a mutiny against Speaker John Boehner when the new Congress took office.

But this time, the Republicans are putting up a much more unified front, and calling the president’s bluff. It’s a shift Obama ignores at his own peril. Clinton, after all, was still relevant–he was running for re-election. Obama has already put that victory behind him–and, it seems, may have squandered the momentum and political capital that came with it.

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Erdoğan: Zionism “Crime Against Humanity”

Speaking at a United Nations conference in Vienna, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared, “It is necessary that we must consider — just like Zionism or anti-Semitism or fascism — Islamophobia as a crime against humanity.”

Let’s put aside the fact that, when they argue for the criminalization of “Islamophobia,” Erdoğan and his fellow travelers seek to ban not discrimination against Muslims, but rather criticism of the more radical outliers of radical Islamism. Hence, pointing out that under Erdoğan, the murder rate of women in Turkey has increased 1,400 percent would be considered a hate crime. Erdoğan makes no secret of his antipathy of free speech: That is why the Turkish media has descended from relative openness to somewhere below Russia, Venezuela, Iraq, Burma, and Zimbabwe in terms of free press.

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Speaking at a United Nations conference in Vienna, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared, “It is necessary that we must consider — just like Zionism or anti-Semitism or fascism — Islamophobia as a crime against humanity.”

Let’s put aside the fact that, when they argue for the criminalization of “Islamophobia,” Erdoğan and his fellow travelers seek to ban not discrimination against Muslims, but rather criticism of the more radical outliers of radical Islamism. Hence, pointing out that under Erdoğan, the murder rate of women in Turkey has increased 1,400 percent would be considered a hate crime. Erdoğan makes no secret of his antipathy of free speech: That is why the Turkish media has descended from relative openness to somewhere below Russia, Venezuela, Iraq, Burma, and Zimbabwe in terms of free press.

Zionism is, simply put, a belief that the Jewish people have the right to an independent homeland in what is now Israel. One doesn’t need to like the Israeli government to be a Zionist, nor does Zionism have anything to do with supporting or opposing a two-state solution. (I am a Zionist who supports a two-state solution, for example, and I have little opinion on Israeli politicians or diplomats, as I neither study them nor interact with them). To be anti-Zionist, however, is to believe that Israel should cease to exist, to be eradicated. Declaring Israel and the Israeli people to be illegitimate is, simply put, the same as declaring that they should be expunged. This isn’t like Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait in 1990 and denying Kuwaitis an independent state because Saddam had declared Kuwait an Iraqi province, and therefore Kuwaitis to be Iraqis. He did not question their right to exist like Erdoğan does the Israelis.

Perhaps this explains Erdoğan’s embrace not of Palestinian statehood, but of Hamas—an organization dedicated to the eradication not only of Israel but also of Jews. It is why Erdoğan defended an aid who donated money to an al-Qaeda charity. It is why the new generation of Turkish diplomats who have arisen from religious seminaries, rather than the secular system which Erdoğan has tried to dismantle, have gone so far as to endorse al-Qaeda openly. Anti-Semitism runs deep in Turkey’s government and, increasingly, its diplomatic corps.

What does Erdoğan’s outburst mean for the United States? Given the UN secretary general’s silence in the face of Erdoğan’s attempts to take the United Nations back to its “Zionism is Racism” days, perhaps it’s time for President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to question their uncritical embrace of the United Nations. Obama has also listed Erdoğan as one of his top foreign friends. Perhaps the White House would care to explain that endorsement and upon what it is based? Kerry will be in Turkey tomorrow. It will be interesting to see whether he bothers to bring up incitement to genocide with his host. Most shameful, however, is the behavior of the U.S. Congress. As Erdoğan embraces Hamas and spews anti-Semitism, and as Turkish diplomats defend al-Qaeda, where are our congressmen? At the Turkish embassy, enjoying free food and giving the Turkish government a photo-op about which Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, can brag on his twitter account.

It is very important that the honorable men and women of the U.S. Congress know for what they are lending their names when they join groups like the Congressional Turkey Caucus.

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War on Woodward May Be a Tipping Point

A week ago, the White House was absolutely sure that its position on the sequester would prevail and that the Republicans would soon be surrendering on the president’s demands for even more new taxes in order to avoid the implementation of the draconian across-the-board budget cuts. Most of the press, backed by polls that showed the unpopularity of Republicans, agreed. But the discussion has shifted a bit in the last few days and the administration’s confidence in its ability to prevail in this political struggle has to be slightly shaken, even if they are not publicly admitting it. Part of the president’s problem is that the attempts of the secretaries of transportation and homeland security to scare the public about airport delays and the border if the sequester went ahead sounded fake and appeared to be politically motivated. But just as important was the intervention into the debate of an icon of liberal journalism: the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward.

Woodward’s op-ed reminded the public that the sequester was the White House’s idea and that any attempt to include a request for more taxes into the discussion of putting it off was “moving the goalposts.” While seemingly just one voice among many talking heads, the Woodward assertions touched a nerve in the White House and set off a furious back-and-forth argument that betrayed the administration’s sensitivity to criticism as well as a thuggish intolerance for anyone who would try to alter their hand-crafted narrative about the issue. Most of the attention on this spat today is focused on a senior White House official’s threat to Woodward that he would “regret” contradicting the president’s chosen spin.

This has provoked a discussion about how this administration and its predecessors have used threats about future access to intimidate journalists. This is a long and unfortunate tradition, and it often works when applied to less influential persons than the man who was portrayed by Robert Redford in the film account of his Watergate reporting that took down Richard Nixon. But there is more at work here than just a case of White House flacks picking a fight with the wrong guy. The problem here for President Obama is that the willingness of Woodward to expose the falsity of the administration’s position on the sequester, as well as their threat, could mark the beginning of the end of the administration’s magic touch with the mainstream press.

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A week ago, the White House was absolutely sure that its position on the sequester would prevail and that the Republicans would soon be surrendering on the president’s demands for even more new taxes in order to avoid the implementation of the draconian across-the-board budget cuts. Most of the press, backed by polls that showed the unpopularity of Republicans, agreed. But the discussion has shifted a bit in the last few days and the administration’s confidence in its ability to prevail in this political struggle has to be slightly shaken, even if they are not publicly admitting it. Part of the president’s problem is that the attempts of the secretaries of transportation and homeland security to scare the public about airport delays and the border if the sequester went ahead sounded fake and appeared to be politically motivated. But just as important was the intervention into the debate of an icon of liberal journalism: the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward.

Woodward’s op-ed reminded the public that the sequester was the White House’s idea and that any attempt to include a request for more taxes into the discussion of putting it off was “moving the goalposts.” While seemingly just one voice among many talking heads, the Woodward assertions touched a nerve in the White House and set off a furious back-and-forth argument that betrayed the administration’s sensitivity to criticism as well as a thuggish intolerance for anyone who would try to alter their hand-crafted narrative about the issue. Most of the attention on this spat today is focused on a senior White House official’s threat to Woodward that he would “regret” contradicting the president’s chosen spin.

This has provoked a discussion about how this administration and its predecessors have used threats about future access to intimidate journalists. This is a long and unfortunate tradition, and it often works when applied to less influential persons than the man who was portrayed by Robert Redford in the film account of his Watergate reporting that took down Richard Nixon. But there is more at work here than just a case of White House flacks picking a fight with the wrong guy. The problem here for President Obama is that the willingness of Woodward to expose the falsity of the administration’s position on the sequester, as well as their threat, could mark the beginning of the end of the administration’s magic touch with the mainstream press.

Last week, Politico’s feature on the ability of the Obama White House to manipulate the coverage they received generated a heated discussion about whether the supine attitude of mainstream journalists toward the president was the result of clever tactics and not, as they claimed, liberal bias. I agreed that the administration had broken new ground in employing smart ways to bypass and frustrate the working press, but pointed out the obvious fact that these strategies wouldn’t work half so well if the vast majority of the publications and networks that employ the journalists weren’t happy to roll over for Obama. No president has received the sort of adulation and fawning coverage from the mainstream since the halcyon days of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot White House.

While the Woodward rebellion hasn’t really altered that reality, it is a sign that his expectation that he will be treated with kid gloves for four more years may not be fulfilled. That the administration is pushing back so hard on Woodward betrays their worry that if the Watergate icon can get away with saying the emperor has no clothes, lesser mortals will soon be tempted to do it too.

As important as the sequester may be, this spat is about more than just that issue. The White House has assumed all along that its narrative about the budget cuts and the need for more taxes–even after the recent hikes enacted to avert the fiscal cliff as well as the raise in payroll deductions–would never be contradicted by what has been their active cheering section in the press corps.

As Max pointed out, there are good reasons to fear the effect of the sequester. But the idea that the president can bulldoze his way through Republican opposition to his big government agenda armed with the notion that the public and the media will unite behind him has been shaken. Today, even the still loyal New York Times admitted the public might not be panicked into pressuring the Republicans into submission. If the White House is today waging an unexpected war on Bob Woodward, it is because they fear the beginning of the end of their four-year honeymoon with the media.

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Are We Repeating the Mistakes of the “Peace Dividend?”

A lot of conservatives seem to be taking the reflexive attitude that if President Obama is warning that sequestration will be disastrous, then it must a good thing. Witness this National Review symposium, wherein various contributors bemoan “the hysteria of President Obama, liberals in Congress, and the media over very small cuts in federal spending” and argue “let’s do it” because “sequestration is the only chance we have had, and probably ever will have, to cut any federal programs under President Obama.”

Time for a reality check. It’s not just President Obama who is warning of the dire consequences of sequestration. So are our foremost admirals and generals, men and women who have devoted their entire lives to the nation’s defense and can hardly be accused of being liberal Democrats–most are in fact conservative Republicans. The Joint Chiefs of Staff continue to testify to Congress about the terrible impact of sequestration and as more and more details emerge, their case becomes even stronger.

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A lot of conservatives seem to be taking the reflexive attitude that if President Obama is warning that sequestration will be disastrous, then it must a good thing. Witness this National Review symposium, wherein various contributors bemoan “the hysteria of President Obama, liberals in Congress, and the media over very small cuts in federal spending” and argue “let’s do it” because “sequestration is the only chance we have had, and probably ever will have, to cut any federal programs under President Obama.”

Time for a reality check. It’s not just President Obama who is warning of the dire consequences of sequestration. So are our foremost admirals and generals, men and women who have devoted their entire lives to the nation’s defense and can hardly be accused of being liberal Democrats–most are in fact conservative Republicans. The Joint Chiefs of Staff continue to testify to Congress about the terrible impact of sequestration and as more and more details emerge, their case becomes even stronger.

To get the details you have to skip the MSM, which tend to report only sweeping rhetoric, and instead read the defense-industry press, which has chapter and verse. See, for example, this report in AOL Defense, which notes “the Army already knows it will cancel all full-brigade wargames except for a single brigade that will deploy to Afghanistan, a mission the service insists it cannot shortchange.” It further notes “the service has already decided to defer essentially all maintenance at its bases – which will certainly cost more in the long run and may make life distinctly uncomfortable in the meantime.”

And beyond the issue of being able to train and maintain our soldiers, there is also the issue of how many soldiers we will have. The House Armed Services Committee predicts that if sequestration goes through the Marine Corps’ active-duty strength will fall from 200,000 personnel to 145,000 and the Army will fall from 569,000 to 425,000. That amounts to the loss of a quarter of all our ground forces. It would cut the Marine Corps down to its smallest size since 1950, before the start of the Korean War, and the U.S. Army down to its smallest size since 1940, before the American entry into World War II. Those conflicts should remind us of the catastrophic consequences of military unpreparedness of the kind we are now facing.

Unfortunately, neither President Obama nor congressional Republicans are treating this crisis with the gravity it deserves. The president has made clear he will hold the military hostage to his desire for more tax hikes–he has refused to endorse Republican plans that would achieve the same amount of budgetary savings without eviscerating military preparedness. Republicans, in turn, seem to be so enamored of budget cuts and so opposed to any tax hikes–even the closing of loopholes rather than raising marginal rates–that most of them are willing to see defense sacrificed instead.

This is a tragedy: We are in danger of repeating the same mistake we made after World War II, after Vietnam and after the Gulf War–all times when we cut defense excessively and subsequently paid a stiff price. It is particularly bizarre that we are in effect spending a “peace dividend” when there is in fact no peace—U.S. troops are still fighting in Afghanistan and in the War on Terror, and they are on hair-trigger alert to fight Iran if necessary. Yet at the same time we are exempting from cuts the actual causes of our fiscal crisis–runaway entitlement spending, in particular spending on Medicare and Medicaid.

I am not one of those who has argued that partisan gridlock in Washington endangers our standing as a superpower. I have always retained a large measure of optimism about the ability of our political system to work things out and reach solutions even to the most difficult problems. But now I am starting to think that perhaps the doomsayers have a point. This is as self-inflicted a wound as it possible to imagine.

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