Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 5, 2013

The Death of Another Tyrant

Finally, after weeks of speculation, the news is official: Hugo Chavez is dead. Venezuela’s Comandante, who kept an iron grip on power for 14 years, left this world, appropriately enough, on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death.

The similarities between the two dictators are compelling. Both Stalin and Chavez profoundly believed in a new, revolutionary morality that dispensed with such trifles as a free press and an independent judiciary. Even more pertinently, just as Stalin was, in his final months, obsessive to the point of paranoia about doctors in the pay of Zionism and Western imperialism poisoning him and his closest colleagues, so are Chavez’s cohorts. His appointed successor and vice president, Nicolas Maduro, ventured earlier today that the cancer which afflicted Chavez was somehow planted in his body–a suggestion the American government has already dismissed as “absurd.”

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Finally, after weeks of speculation, the news is official: Hugo Chavez is dead. Venezuela’s Comandante, who kept an iron grip on power for 14 years, left this world, appropriately enough, on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death.

The similarities between the two dictators are compelling. Both Stalin and Chavez profoundly believed in a new, revolutionary morality that dispensed with such trifles as a free press and an independent judiciary. Even more pertinently, just as Stalin was, in his final months, obsessive to the point of paranoia about doctors in the pay of Zionism and Western imperialism poisoning him and his closest colleagues, so are Chavez’s cohorts. His appointed successor and vice president, Nicolas Maduro, ventured earlier today that the cancer which afflicted Chavez was somehow planted in his body–a suggestion the American government has already dismissed as “absurd.”

Maduro, nonetheless, is determined to implicate the United States in a grand conspiracy to kill Chavez. Shortly before the announcement of Chavez’s death, two U.S. Air Force attaches in Caracas, Col. David Delmonaco and his assistant Devlin Costal, were expelled from the country. Explaining the decision, Maduro said that “scientific proof” would eventually emerge to confirm that Chavez was poisoned.

The parallels here with the “Doctors’ Plot” that surfaced in Stalin’s final months are all too clear. Ironically, though, while it took Stalin’s death for the plot accusations to be exposed as a fabrication, in Venezuela the reverse is true. Chavez’s death is an opportunity for his followers to stir up a Doctors’ Plot of their very own–and given the regime’s embrace of anti-Semitism along with anti-Americanism, these fantasies could wind up in some very dark places indeed.

What, though, of the immediate future? According to the Venezuelan constitution, elections have to be held within 30 days of the death of the incumbent president. However, in the more than three months that Chavez has been off the scene, the Chavistas have treated constitutional requirements with absolute contempt.

When Chavez failed to make his scheduled inauguration on January 15–an obvious sign of incapacitation and therefore a trigger for new elections–the Chavista Supreme Court, packed with judges personally appointed by the president, simply ruled that his absence was temporary and that new elections were not necessary. Meanwhile, Maduro went to extravagant lengths to maintain the fiction of a healthy, functioning Chavez recuperating behind close doors. As recently as two weeks ago, he claimed that he and his fellow cabinet ministers had held a five-hour meeting with Chavez. With a straight face, Maduro quoted Chavez lecturing those assembled, “…about the speculative attack on our currency and product hoarding, and said that we have to increase actions to fight the economic war being waged by the bourgeois.”

To a great extent, this strategy worked. Only five days ago, Datanalisis, a Venezuelan polling firm, reported that 56.7 percent of Venezuelans believed that Chavez would recover and return to politics. The tight control the regime exercises over the state media, its continued marginalization of independent voices like the Globovision television station, and, most importantly, its influence over the country’s National Election Commission–a body dubbed by the influential Venezuelan opposition politician Diego Arria as the “Ministry of Electing Mr. Chavez”–mean that in the event that elections are called, the opposition will find itself in a very difficult position.

An opposition candidate–currently, Henrique Capriles, who challenged Chavez last October, is regarded as Maduro’s likely opponent–will be able to articulate a cogent message. Chavez has dragged Venezuela’s economy into the gutter. Food shortages and the recent devaluation of the Bolivar against the U.S. dollar by 46.5 percent are damaging the very constituency of poverty-mired Venezuelans which the Chavistas claim to represent. The country has become a virtual colony of Cuba, which benefits hugely from Venezuela’s heavily subsidized oil supplies. Finally, during the Chavez era, relations with the world’s democracies have suffered as a result of the Comandante’s embrace of tyrants like Fidel Castro, the Iranian mullahs and the dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko–relationships which have brought no material consequences other than to rob the Venezuelan people of precious oil revenues.

The Chavistas, now at their most vengeful and paranoid, will do their utmost to ensure that no one hears these basic truths. As a result, any election will more closely resemble polling day in Iran or Zimbabwe than the United States or Europe. The question, then, for the Venezuelan opposition, as it battles against accusations of plots and conspiracies, is whether to focus on elections in a system where the odds are stacked in favor of the regime, or whether to develop a mass protest movement alongside. Both these options are going to require huge investments of time, courage and willingness to continue in spite of defeats. After all, it took 37 years for the USSR to finally dissolve following Stalin’s death. One shudders at the thought that Chavismo will last as long.

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The Climate and the Constitution

On Monday, President Obama announced the appointments of Gina McCarthy to run the Environmental Protection Agency and Ernest J. Moniz to take charge of the Department of Energy. In a week when the country is focused on the issue of the debt, the sequester and the budget, these nominations are not generating as much interest as the question of whether the administration is orchestrating government cutbacks to increase pressure on Congress to raise taxes. But their significance should not be underestimated. As the president indicated, he is planning on using these two agencies and their leaders to pursue an aggressive climate change agenda in his second term.

The debate about global warming and the hysteria that has become an integral part of the environmentalist agenda is one thing. But the key issue involved in these appointments and the president’s intentions for the next four years is one that revolves around legal issues as much as it does scientific disputes. It doesn’t matter whether you are in full agreement with the president on this issue or buy into only a part of it or none at all. The question before the nation here is whether the executive branch can or should give itself the power to run roughshod over Congress and unilaterally implement new regulations that will give the force of law to the president’s climate beliefs. If McCarthy and Moniz intend to use their regulating power to redraw the laws concerning fossil fuel emissions or the ability to explore or drill for new energy sources, then the result will be as much of a Constitutional crisis as anything else.

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On Monday, President Obama announced the appointments of Gina McCarthy to run the Environmental Protection Agency and Ernest J. Moniz to take charge of the Department of Energy. In a week when the country is focused on the issue of the debt, the sequester and the budget, these nominations are not generating as much interest as the question of whether the administration is orchestrating government cutbacks to increase pressure on Congress to raise taxes. But their significance should not be underestimated. As the president indicated, he is planning on using these two agencies and their leaders to pursue an aggressive climate change agenda in his second term.

The debate about global warming and the hysteria that has become an integral part of the environmentalist agenda is one thing. But the key issue involved in these appointments and the president’s intentions for the next four years is one that revolves around legal issues as much as it does scientific disputes. It doesn’t matter whether you are in full agreement with the president on this issue or buy into only a part of it or none at all. The question before the nation here is whether the executive branch can or should give itself the power to run roughshod over Congress and unilaterally implement new regulations that will give the force of law to the president’s climate beliefs. If McCarthy and Moniz intend to use their regulating power to redraw the laws concerning fossil fuel emissions or the ability to explore or drill for new energy sources, then the result will be as much of a Constitutional crisis as anything else.

As the New York Times reports:

The E.P.A., which the Supreme Court granted authority to regulate carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, is in the midst of writing regulations governing such emissions from new power plants. Those rules, expected to be completed this year, would essentially bar construction of any new coal-fired power plants unless they included the means to capture carbon gases, a technology that does not yet exist on a commercial scale.

But to make a real dent in the nation’s emissions, the agency must then devise emissions limits for existing plants, a hugely controversial project that could force the shutdown of dozens of older coal-burning power plants, cause a steep drop in domestic demand for coal and trigger a sharp rise in energy prices.

No matter how carefully written — and Ms. McCarthy is an expert on federal air quality law — any such regulations would be subject to intense opposition in the courts, and in Congress, which could seek to overturn the regulations.

The problem here is that the Court’s decision about the EPA as well as the Clean Air Act that Congress already passed gives the executive branch far-reaching powers to transform the American economy without congressional approval. That means the president could potentially draw up rules that could not only have a deleterious impact on fuel exploration and recovery methods like fracking, but also force American industries and businesses to go implement costly changes to satisfy the whims of environmentalists that could cost the country jobs and reduce the chances for growth.

That is not to say that Congress and the courts could not throw a monkey wrench into any of the president’s plans. They could, and the prospect of the administration embarking on a series of executive orders and regulatory expansions without the say-so of the legislative branch would produce a historic challenge that might determine the fate of both the economy and any hopes for maintaining limits on an already imperial presidency.

The Constitution created a template by which the various branches of government could exercise checks and balances on each other. At the core of that is the notion that writing laws are the purview of Congress. When a president assumes the right to draft, pass and then enforce laws in areas like global warming, where Congress has expressly refused to act on the subject, it is a sign of a lack of respect for the constitutional process. The executive must be allowed a great deal of leeway in areas like foreign policy and national defense, where the role of the president to act as commander in chief is rooted in law and tradition. But no president ought to be allowed to play the autocrat when it comes to domestic policy.

A desire to do good is never an excuse for a license to govern by fiat. We hope that the former constitutional law professor sitting in the White House will restrain his hubris and instruct his new appointees to act within the law rather than to play god with American businesses. While the panic of those who think the world really is going to melt is real, so, too, is the Constitution. If the president creates a climate in Washington in which our legal framework becomes a matter of the president’s dictates, we will all be the losers in the long run–no matter where you stand on global warming.

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Stalin, Memory, and Moral Restoration

Today is the 60th anniversary of the death Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. There are many ways to mark such an occasion, though you could hardly do better than this Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty photographic tribute to Stalin’s victims. As the introduction notes, at the height of the purge period, Stalin’s henchmen were executing 1,000 people a day. And the anniversary comes this year at a time when Stalin’s vision for society, the fear and terror of totalitarian Communism, lives on in North Korea.

Recalling Stalin’s crimes is important, if repetitive, because it seems to be what the world failed to do with Stalin’s mentor, Vladimir Lenin, who created the system maximized by Stalin and who should also be remembered as a monstrous criminal, only one with fewer victims than his protégé. At any rate, one person who has chosen the wrong way to remember Stalin’s death and legacy is exactly who you might expect it to be: Vladimir Putin. Reuters reports:

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Today is the 60th anniversary of the death Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. There are many ways to mark such an occasion, though you could hardly do better than this Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty photographic tribute to Stalin’s victims. As the introduction notes, at the height of the purge period, Stalin’s henchmen were executing 1,000 people a day. And the anniversary comes this year at a time when Stalin’s vision for society, the fear and terror of totalitarian Communism, lives on in North Korea.

Recalling Stalin’s crimes is important, if repetitive, because it seems to be what the world failed to do with Stalin’s mentor, Vladimir Lenin, who created the system maximized by Stalin and who should also be remembered as a monstrous criminal, only one with fewer victims than his protégé. At any rate, one person who has chosen the wrong way to remember Stalin’s death and legacy is exactly who you might expect it to be: Vladimir Putin. Reuters reports:

Support for Stalin has risen in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 gutted the social safety net, damaged national pride and left many Russians longing for the perceived order and stability of the Communist era.

But Lev Gudkov, director of independent Levada Center polling group, said the biggest shift occurred after Putin came to power in 2000 and “launched a comprehensive program to ideologically reeducate society”.

“Reeducate” is certainly an appropriate term for the ruse. And how successful have Vladimir Putin’s efforts to clean up the image of a tyrannical murderer been? He’s made some progress:

In the same poll, 47 percent of respondents said Stalin was “a wise leader who brought the Soviet Union to might and prosperity”. And in a Levada poll last month, 49 percent said Stalin played a positive role, while 32 percent said it was negative – roughly the opposite of a 1994 Survey….

Nowadays, efforts to debunk the criticism and clean up Stalin’s image are a fixture of bookshop shelves, and school notebooks decorated with Stalin’s photo went on sale last year – something unthinkable at that time.

In Volgograd, the city where Putin celebrated the 70th anniversary of the 1943 Battle of Stalingrad last month, local authorities now allow the city to be referred to by its old name at annual anniversary events and on five other days every year.

It should go without saying—though Putin’s antics suggest that it does not—that the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991 is still a relatively recent event by historical standards, and that Russians are ill-served by any effort to keep them bound up in the lies of Putin’s imagination. In the July 2012 issue of COMMENTARY I reviewed Leon Aron’s book on the fall of the Soviet Union, and mentioned that Aron critiques the poison that Putin injects into the bloodstream of a still-recovering nation by whitewashing the crimes of its past.

Aron writes in the book of the great responsibility on the shoulders of the political leaders who inherit any revolution. The public, after all, must go back to some semblance of normal life for the new state to have a chance. “People have to make a living, to care for families, and so they leave the public square to the political class, which at this early stage cannot be but a moral centaur: half forward-looking human and half beast of the past,” Aron writes. Here is Aron’s description of the process that Putin has interrupted:

One could, with greater or lesser precision, assess the damage to Russian culture from everything that was blown up, burnt, lost, thrown out, and spoiled under the Soviet regime, the writer Boris Vasiliev wrote in January 1989. From the starved-to-death great poet Alexander Blok to those who were lost to Russia because of forced emigration: Bunin and Rakhmaninov, Repin and Chaliapin, Shagal and Kandinsky. But who, Vasiliev asked, could ever calculate the moral loss inflicted by the regime? Those who led the moral revolution were well aware of the vastness of the distance that must be traveled before their work was completed. As the sociologist Vladimir Shubkin wrote in April 1989 in the leading liberal magazine Novy mir: “We have miles to go before the public morality is restored … before we even approach what might be called the moral Renaissance.” He was right, of course. Sixteen years later Vladimir Putin–then a mere president, soon the “National Leader”–called the demise of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.

Pundits have, in recent years, grown noticeably impatient with those who bring up the Cold War past, and implicit (and sometimes explicit) in their disinterest in the topic is the question of why it is necessary to again recount what the West fought to defeat in the Cold War. The attempt to even partially rehabilitate Stalin’s legacy is one answer that sadly, in 2013, still bears repeating.

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The Elephant at AIPAC

The AIPAC Policy Conference ended this morning, after an evening gala where the 13,000 delegates were joined by 63 percent of the Congress: 65 senators and 274 House members. The conference has nearly doubled in size from the 7,000 delegates who attended in 2008. The plenary hall extended almost two football fields wide. But the hall was not large enough to hide what Shmuel Rosner called, after the first day of the conference, “the elephant in the room”:

[The] elephant is American policy in the region. In one session after another one hears criticism of American inaction, American hesitation, American lack of coherence. The criticism is at times subtler, and at times more direct, but it’s almost always there. You hear it from the experts on the different panels, from Americans and Israelis. You get less of it, but still some, even in the larger gatherings where the politicians and the leaders speak, where the politicians attempt to make it seem as if there are no problems and no daylight between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. Americans and Israelis are now all walking on eggshells, making sure not to interfere with the “reset” of relations, not to add new tensions into the delicate relations between the second Obama administration and the second Netanyahu government. The elephant is there though … There’s surely doubt in Israel, and there’s concern in pro-Israel circles in the US (“we need a national security team that is pro-Israel”, Senator McCain said Monday morning).

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The AIPAC Policy Conference ended this morning, after an evening gala where the 13,000 delegates were joined by 63 percent of the Congress: 65 senators and 274 House members. The conference has nearly doubled in size from the 7,000 delegates who attended in 2008. The plenary hall extended almost two football fields wide. But the hall was not large enough to hide what Shmuel Rosner called, after the first day of the conference, “the elephant in the room”:

[The] elephant is American policy in the region. In one session after another one hears criticism of American inaction, American hesitation, American lack of coherence. The criticism is at times subtler, and at times more direct, but it’s almost always there. You hear it from the experts on the different panels, from Americans and Israelis. You get less of it, but still some, even in the larger gatherings where the politicians and the leaders speak, where the politicians attempt to make it seem as if there are no problems and no daylight between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. Americans and Israelis are now all walking on eggshells, making sure not to interfere with the “reset” of relations, not to add new tensions into the delicate relations between the second Obama administration and the second Netanyahu government. The elephant is there though … There’s surely doubt in Israel, and there’s concern in pro-Israel circles in the US (“we need a national security team that is pro-Israel”, Senator McCain said Monday morning).

In an extraordinary address to the gala, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said that throughout his lifetime he had “never questioned America’s resolve and support for Israel … until now.” The video is here, and the transcript is here.

On Monday morning, Vice President Biden asserted that President Obama is “not bluffing” about Iran, but his speech stuck to the now-familiar administration phrase: “acquiring a nuclear weapon,” rather than acquiring “nuclear capability,” which is the Israeli red line. In his own comments Sunday morning, Israeli ambassador Michael Oren made it clear that for Israel the important date is not the one on which Iran may acquire a nuclear weapon, but the date on which it will no longer be possible to stop it from acquiring one. He called the window for diplomacy “small.”   

AIPAC produced its most successful conference yet; the speeches, panels, breakout sessions, and videos were outstanding, and the congressional support for Israel was remarkable. But the conference also served to demonstrate that, as the president prepares to visit the region in two weeks, Israel is more nervous than Iran. When the president chooses two famously anti-war senators as his new secretaries of state and defense; when he stands by month after month doing nothing in Syria, while Iran and Russia act; when he keeps an aircraft carrier and other military forces out of the region for budgetary reasons; and when six months after an American ambassador is murdered he is still searching for the real killers, the actions (and inactions) speak louder than words. At the end of the conference, the elephant was still there.

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Welcome to Iran on the Mediterranean

While anti-Zionist activists around the globe and in United Nations agencies continue to portray even the most passive forms of Israeli self-defense—such as the construction of a fence to prevent suicide bombers from infiltrating the country—as war crimes, the question of human rights in territory under Palestinian control continues to be treated as a matter of little interest to much of the world. The latest indicator of what life is like in the independent Palestinian state in all but name that exists in Gaza came today when the United Nations Relief and Works Agency canceled its annual marathon. The purpose of the race is to raise money for UNRWA’s summer programs for children, but they were forced to give it up when the Hamas government of Gaza banned women from participating.

While the world blames Israel for all of Gaza’s problems, its greatest problem has always been the refusal of Palestinian groups to prioritize development over waging war on the Jewish state. That has only grown worse in the past six years since Hamas took over control of the area from the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority. Israel’s complete withdrawal from the strip has given us a look at what an independent Palestinian state actually looks like. It isn’t a pretty sight.

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While anti-Zionist activists around the globe and in United Nations agencies continue to portray even the most passive forms of Israeli self-defense—such as the construction of a fence to prevent suicide bombers from infiltrating the country—as war crimes, the question of human rights in territory under Palestinian control continues to be treated as a matter of little interest to much of the world. The latest indicator of what life is like in the independent Palestinian state in all but name that exists in Gaza came today when the United Nations Relief and Works Agency canceled its annual marathon. The purpose of the race is to raise money for UNRWA’s summer programs for children, but they were forced to give it up when the Hamas government of Gaza banned women from participating.

While the world blames Israel for all of Gaza’s problems, its greatest problem has always been the refusal of Palestinian groups to prioritize development over waging war on the Jewish state. That has only grown worse in the past six years since Hamas took over control of the area from the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority. Israel’s complete withdrawal from the strip has given us a look at what an independent Palestinian state actually looks like. It isn’t a pretty sight.

That UNRWA, of all agencies, should be calling out Hamas for its oppressive attitudes is an irony of no small dimension. The UN has two groups to deal with refugees around the globe: one to deal with the Palestinians and one for everyone else. UNRWA is responsible for the care and feeding of hundreds of thousands of the descendants of the original Arabs who fled from areas that were governed by the newborn Jewish state. It has assisted in the Arab and Muslim world’s efforts to keep the Palestinians homeless rather than resettling them and therefore helping to end the conflict. It has also been heavily infiltrated by Hamas and allowed its facilities to be used as shelters for terrorists. Its schools and camps have also helped indoctrinate young Palestinians in an ideology of hatred for Jews and Israel.

But the UN, for all of its faults, is legally obligated to respect women’s rights, meaning that it cannot be an enabler of this particular form of Hamas oppression.

Contrary to Arab propaganda, there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as the supply of food and medicine and other commodities from Israel has not been stopped even when Hamas and other terrorist groups launch missiles over the border. But the Islamist rulers of the strip have imposed their own distorted values on the people of the area. That means the creation of a totalitarian state apparatus that has made Gaza a little piece of Iran on the Mediterranean.

Should Israel ever fully withdraw from the West Bank as it did from Gaza in 2005, there is every chance that Hamas will win control of that area too, whether by coup or elections. At that point, Israel could find itself under siege from terrorists in charge of areas adjacent to its population centers creating a security crisis that will lead inevitably to more violence. But the other part of this equation will mean that the oppression of Palestinians by their own people will be complete rather than partial. That is something those who are eager to open up trade with Gaza or to further empower its rulers should consider.

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Netanyahu and Obama Both Lose If Trip to Israel Is Dropped

President Obama’s frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seen by many as a missed opportunity for Obama. Israeli voters tend to punish leaders who can’t get along with the American president, and thus prime ministers are usually willing to work pretty hard to stay on the president’s good side. But Israelis across the ideological spectrum thought Obama’s treatment of Netanyahu was disrespectful, and they blamed the president more than they blamed Netanyahu for the state of affairs.

That gave Netanyahu a certain degree of leverage in his relationship with Obama that Netanyahu didn’t have during his first stint as premier when Bill Clinton was president. But both the recent Israeli and American elections tipped the scales somewhat back in Obama’s direction. Obama was re-elected and now doesn’t have to face the voters again, and Netanyahu won far fewer seats in the January Knesset elections than he had expected, and sits mired in negotiations to form a coalition in which his rivals are setting the agenda. Yet as a new poll from the Hill shows, Obama shouldn’t be enjoying the spectacle too much–he has something to lose as well:

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President Obama’s frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seen by many as a missed opportunity for Obama. Israeli voters tend to punish leaders who can’t get along with the American president, and thus prime ministers are usually willing to work pretty hard to stay on the president’s good side. But Israelis across the ideological spectrum thought Obama’s treatment of Netanyahu was disrespectful, and they blamed the president more than they blamed Netanyahu for the state of affairs.

That gave Netanyahu a certain degree of leverage in his relationship with Obama that Netanyahu didn’t have during his first stint as premier when Bill Clinton was president. But both the recent Israeli and American elections tipped the scales somewhat back in Obama’s direction. Obama was re-elected and now doesn’t have to face the voters again, and Netanyahu won far fewer seats in the January Knesset elections than he had expected, and sits mired in negotiations to form a coalition in which his rivals are setting the agenda. Yet as a new poll from the Hill shows, Obama shouldn’t be enjoying the spectacle too much–he has something to lose as well:

According to the latest Hill Poll, just 13 percent of respondents say the president’s policy toward Israel is too supportive. A full 39 percent said Obama is not supportive enough, the highest percentage The Hill Poll has seen….

Meanwhile, in the most recent survey for The Hill, a slightly larger percentage of likely voters say Obama is generally anti-Israel than say he is pro-Israel, 30 percent to 28 percent. The percentage of voters who label Obama as pro-Israel is up slightly from a September 2011 survey for The Hill, as is the number of voters who say Obama is anti-Israel.

Obama is pressuring Netanyahu to form a coalition now by saying he’ll cancel his upcoming trip to Israel–for which he plans to leave on March 19–if there’s no deal for a new government in place by then. And as Jonathan pointed out, the president is actually doing Netanyahu a favor. Netanyahu is balking at the demands of his would-be coalition partners Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, whose parties came in second and fourth, respectively, in the January elections. Lapid and Bennett say they come as a pair, and don’t want to share a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox. That’s because they are holding firm on a demand that the next government force Haredim into the military draft system to share the burden of defending the country. Netanyahu usually relies on the Orthodox to form his governing coalitions (Shas usually gets about 10 seats in each election) and doesn’t want to lose their political support.

But accepting the Lapid-Bennett conditions would be the best of both worlds for Netanyahu: he’d get a popular domestic achievement under his belt but could honestly tell the Haredim he had no choice. Netanyahu’s refusal to agree to the deal would then seem to be a miscalculation, especially if he’s seen as responsible for the cancellation of Obama’s first trip to Israel.

But the Hill poll tells Obama that he needs the trip almost as much as Netanyahu does. His shoddy treatment of Netanyahu during his first term and his opposition to tougher Iran sanctions (passed only after Democrats publicly shamed the White House) have drained the administration of credibility. So sending Vice President Joe Biden to this week’s AIPAC conference to talk tough on Iran isn’t quite enough–especially after nominating Chuck Hagel to run the Pentagon.

Obama isn’t simply playing hardball, however. It’s hard to imagine he’d take the time to make the trip with no Israeli government in place. And as Politico reports, it can’t be a last-minute decision:

Given the need to move Secret Service personnel, communications equipment and advance staff well before a presidential visit, the White House may need to make a decision on scrubbing the trip even before Netanyahu’s March 16 deadline.

This would be a self-inflicted wound for Netanyahu, since the writing is on the wall in terms of the coalition agreement that will eventually be signed. But it also probably makes Obama a bit nervous as well, since he’s been criticized for not visiting Israel and doesn’t want the headlines associated with scheduling a trip and then cancelling it, especially in the wake of another drop in his poll numbers. If that happens, Netanyahu loses too–he is unlikely to be given the benefit of the doubt from the Israeli public this time around.

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Don’t Buy Into the Jeb Boomlet

Those who prefer speculating about the next presidential election rather than beating their heads against the wall trying to figure a way out of the sequester impasse got something to think about this week courtesy of former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Bush, who is making the rounds of every news and talk show that will have him this week to promote a new book, generated some genuine buzz when he specifically refused to rule out running for president in 2016. Throughout the prelude to the 2012 election the younger brother of the 43rd president always avoided playing games about his presidential prospects and definitively ruled out jumping in. Thus, his decision to speak like someone who is actively considering a run has led a lot of political observers to jump to the conclusion that he not only is a candidate, but that he would be a formidable contender.

All this has set the tongues of some in the chattering classes wagging about the possibility of a Bush-Clinton rematch in which the 1992 election will be fought between the son of the Republican standard bearer and the wife of the Democrat. A Jeb-Hillary matchup is certainly a possibility. But as much as Jeb Bush is a politician and a policy advocate who deserves to be taken seriously, a dose of skepticism about the boomlet forming for him is very much in order. It is true that many Democrats love the idea of another Clinton in the White House. But if there is evidence of grass roots enthusiasm among Republicans for another Bush, even one as smart as Jeb, I haven’t seen it.

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Those who prefer speculating about the next presidential election rather than beating their heads against the wall trying to figure a way out of the sequester impasse got something to think about this week courtesy of former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Bush, who is making the rounds of every news and talk show that will have him this week to promote a new book, generated some genuine buzz when he specifically refused to rule out running for president in 2016. Throughout the prelude to the 2012 election the younger brother of the 43rd president always avoided playing games about his presidential prospects and definitively ruled out jumping in. Thus, his decision to speak like someone who is actively considering a run has led a lot of political observers to jump to the conclusion that he not only is a candidate, but that he would be a formidable contender.

All this has set the tongues of some in the chattering classes wagging about the possibility of a Bush-Clinton rematch in which the 1992 election will be fought between the son of the Republican standard bearer and the wife of the Democrat. A Jeb-Hillary matchup is certainly a possibility. But as much as Jeb Bush is a politician and a policy advocate who deserves to be taken seriously, a dose of skepticism about the boomlet forming for him is very much in order. It is true that many Democrats love the idea of another Clinton in the White House. But if there is evidence of grass roots enthusiasm among Republicans for another Bush, even one as smart as Jeb, I haven’t seen it.

There have been a lot of arguments lately about the nature of the clash between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party grass roots, much of which has centered on Karl Rove. Rove was the political guru who helped put Jeb’s big brother in the White House and re-elect him, and has become the proxy figure for what passes for a Republican ruling class against which conservatives have railed. The notion of such an entity as a GOP establishment is something of a fiction, as the group of people who really did once run the party from the game rooms of exclusive country clubs and the editorial columns of the New York Herald Tribune are as extinct as the dodo. But if anybody does actually constitute a Republican establishment, it is the Bush family.

I don’t share the virulent antipathy that many Tea Partiers seem to feel for Rove. They see him as someone who is attempting to sell the party’s principles and foist mainstream go-along-to-get-along type politicians on them in the vain hope that they will be more electable than the Christine O’Donnells that the Tea Party has produced. But the lesson of the last two election cycles is that Republicans have lost as many elections with establishment duds as they have with Tea Party extremists.

Nevertheless, anyone expecting Republicans and conservatives to simply stand up and salute just because one of the Bush clan is deigning to make themselves available for the presidency is not realistic.

There might have been a time when Jeb Bush could have united both the establishment types and the Tea Partiers, who liked many of his ideas. But that boat may have sailed. He has a lot to say about issues like education and immigration (although his stand on it in his book is neither as bold as Marco Rubio’s position nor as likely to appeal to the anti-immigrant crowd). But while he might have stood out in a fallow 2012 field of Republican candidates, he now has a lot of competition from the party’s deep bench who do not carry around the baggage of the George W. Bush administration.

The stigma that still attaches to Jeb’s brother may strike many conservatives as unfair, and they are right to think so. But anyone who thinks it is not a potent factor in American politics wasn’t paying attention last year. Incredibly, Barack Obama won re-election by blaming the country’s economic woes on George W. Bush rather than on his own stewardship of the country four years after the latter left office. That sentiment is not likely to disappear in the next four years, making it all the more imperative that the next Republican candidate have no connections with the last Republican president.

This means that the idea of Jeb Bush as the putative leader of the Republican Party doesn’t really add up. My guess is that Jeb knows this as well as anyone else and will probably leave the 2016 race to Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and others who are also not named Bush. In the meantime, Jeb may sell more books on the basis of the speculation he is feeding. If so, good for him–but this far away from the next presidential election, it would appear that many pundits are having trouble telling the difference between publishing and politics.

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Justice, Politics and the Poor

In an important Wall Street Journal op-ed, Arthur Brooks point out that fairly or not, “over the decades many Americans have become convinced that conservatives care only about the rich and powerful.” This is a problem, according to the American Enterprise Institute president, because:

Citizens across the political spectrum place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak. By contrast, moral values such as sexual purity and respect for authority—to which conservative politicians often give greater emphasis—resonate deeply with only a minority of the population. Raw money arguments, e.g., about the dire effects of the country’s growing entitlement spending, don’t register morally at all.

Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support—care for the vulnerable—to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints.

Mr. Brooks, with whom I co-authored a monograph on the morality of democratic capitalism, lays out the case for how conservatives can make improving the lives of vulnerable people a primary focus. (The main reason to do so, Brooks makes clear, is that it’s the right thing to do.)

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In an important Wall Street Journal op-ed, Arthur Brooks point out that fairly or not, “over the decades many Americans have become convinced that conservatives care only about the rich and powerful.” This is a problem, according to the American Enterprise Institute president, because:

Citizens across the political spectrum place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak. By contrast, moral values such as sexual purity and respect for authority—to which conservative politicians often give greater emphasis—resonate deeply with only a minority of the population. Raw money arguments, e.g., about the dire effects of the country’s growing entitlement spending, don’t register morally at all.

Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support—care for the vulnerable—to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints.

Mr. Brooks, with whom I co-authored a monograph on the morality of democratic capitalism, lays out the case for how conservatives can make improving the lives of vulnerable people a primary focus. (The main reason to do so, Brooks makes clear, is that it’s the right thing to do.)

As it happens, I’m reading a book by Tim Keller, Generous Justice, in which he makes the case for promoting justice and compassion from the vantage point of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Keller points out that God gives the poor and downtrodden particular attention and has a special place in His heart for them. The Lord has a “zeal for justice” that binds Him to the socially weak, the dispossessed, and those living in the shadows of society.

Dr. Keller focuses on why a just society should care about the poor and reflect God’s concern for justice; he wisely doesn’t interject himself into our contentious political debates. But Keller’s argument does have political implications, since the case for “generous justice” (which includes a commitment to care for the poor) is based on the nature of the human person and their intrinsic worth. And those issues are central to political theory.

I understand that politics involves a balancing act and prioritization. There are obviously many issues that cry out for attention. Still, it seems to me that any political philosophy or party that doesn’t take into account the care and concerns of the weak and marginal is morally desiccated and hardly worthy of one’s allegiance. At the risk of sounding simplistic, what matters to God ought to matter to us, not for reasons having to do with arbitrary and outdated doctrines but with our basic design. The child in inner city Detroit and sub-Saharan Africa have worth because God has bestowed worth on them, as on us; because they and we are created in His image and likeness.

Now precisely how solidarity with the poor works itself out in public policy is a complicated matter involving prudential judgments. But that a society should care about the poor really is not.

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Obama Rewarding Turkey with Warships?

Against the backdrop of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s most recent outburst, word comes from the Turkish press that the Turkish government believes that the Obama administration will move forward with plans to give–not sell, but give–two frigates to Turkey. The transfer died in the Congress in 2012, when the Senate became sidetracked with sequestration and other last-minute issues. As Hürriyet Daily News explained:

A U.S bill anticipating the donation of two frigates to Turkey with the authorization of President Barack Obama has failed due to technical, not political, reasons, according to Turkish diplomatic sources… the motion required Senate approval for a free give-away of advanced American naval vessels to Turkey to come into effect. The ships in question are the USS Halyburton (FFG-40) and the USS Thach (FFG-43).

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Against the backdrop of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s most recent outburst, word comes from the Turkish press that the Turkish government believes that the Obama administration will move forward with plans to give–not sell, but give–two frigates to Turkey. The transfer died in the Congress in 2012, when the Senate became sidetracked with sequestration and other last-minute issues. As Hürriyet Daily News explained:

A U.S bill anticipating the donation of two frigates to Turkey with the authorization of President Barack Obama has failed due to technical, not political, reasons, according to Turkish diplomatic sources… the motion required Senate approval for a free give-away of advanced American naval vessels to Turkey to come into effect. The ships in question are the USS Halyburton (FFG-40) and the USS Thach (FFG-43).

It is hard to square provision of such ships to Turkey given the threats Turkey has made to utilize its navy against Israel and Cyprus. To provide ships against the backdrop of such bluster would be akin to offering to give China weaponry as it asserts itself militarily against Japan because of the Senkaku Islands dispute. It is also curious Obama would give any military equipment to Turkey when (a) Turkey does not at present face a naval threat and (b) Turkey has actively sought to undercut international sanctions on Iran. Certainly, this gift appears not only undeserved, but dangerous.

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Bloomberg Has Time for Soda, Not 9-1-1 System

Being the mayor of New York City isn’t easy. As one of the largest cities in the world as well as one of the world’s biggest terrorism targets, a major component of the mayor’s job is making sure that the city is ready for whatever, whenever. Last year’s Superstorm Sandy was a test of the city’s preparedness and, according to a poll afterward, about 60 percent of New Yorkers felt that the city was ill-prepared for the events that transpired.

While parts of the city were thrown back to the Stone Age for several weeks, the mayor insisted on holding the New York City marathon as scheduled the weekend after the storm hit. Only after an enormous outcry, including from this blog, did the mayor reconsider the wisdom of having marathoners running through neighborhoods that had no electricity or running water for days.

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Being the mayor of New York City isn’t easy. As one of the largest cities in the world as well as one of the world’s biggest terrorism targets, a major component of the mayor’s job is making sure that the city is ready for whatever, whenever. Last year’s Superstorm Sandy was a test of the city’s preparedness and, according to a poll afterward, about 60 percent of New Yorkers felt that the city was ill-prepared for the events that transpired.

While parts of the city were thrown back to the Stone Age for several weeks, the mayor insisted on holding the New York City marathon as scheduled the weekend after the storm hit. Only after an enormous outcry, including from this blog, did the mayor reconsider the wisdom of having marathoners running through neighborhoods that had no electricity or running water for days.

After the storm, Seth wrote about how Sandy exposed the mayor’s utter failure to govern:

Stories like this one in the New York Times, which discuss the warnings that the city was vulnerable to a storm like Sandy long before this year’s hurricane hit radar screens, will likely follow Bloomberg as well. And the lack of preparation will be especially inexcusable for Bloomberg, who has stomped around claiming that the storm was a result of the very climate change he has been warning about for years. If he was so sure about coming climate change storms, why wasn’t he ready for this one?

Yesterday the New York Post reported on yet another failure of the Bloomberg administration: the failure to institute a working 9-1-1 emergency telephone system.

Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial $2 billion effort to modernize the 911 system — billed as a cure-all for every emergency-communications ill — was labeled a boondoggle by the city’s own experts two years ago, The Post has learned.

The project “does not have a defined business case” for spending $2 billion on a new 911 system, Gartner Consulting told City Hall in a March 2011 report marked “draft — confidential.”

The consultant’s 45-page report, reviewed by The Post, explained the city was wasting its money by plowing ahead without resolving key problems. It slams the high-tech system for management failures and computer glitches, and clobbers key communications officials for refusing to cooperate and, instead, battling over turf.

The consultants report also found:

* Repeated failures of the emergency-response software were reported but were not fixed.

* The NYPD refused to merge its system for dispatching units with that of the FDNY and the EMS — although that was a key reason for creating the new system. And the departments would not work together to create a unified management structure for the new system.

* The city agencies involved in the plan would not assist the system’s architects in setting up the new 911 network.

The document has not only been kept from the public but was also withheld from auditors from the City Comptroller’s Office, who spent more than a year analyzing the mammoth project.

“If the city withheld any documents from my office during the course of our audit into the 911 system, they violated the City Charter,” Comptroller John Liu told The Post. “The Bloomberg administration should know by now that it can’t sweep its wasteful projects under the rug.”

Over the past several years Nanny Bloomberg’s top priority has been telling New Yorkers what to eat, writing his opinion into law as much as possible. This week restaurants around the city are preparing for what his latest legislation, on soda, will mean for customers. This sign at Dunkin’ Donuts being posted around the city puts into perspective just how ridiculous the new regulations are. While the mayor has spent his tenure regulating diet choices, the city has been struck by a devastating storm for which it was ill-prepared and has built an expensive new 9-1-1 emergency system that cannot communicate between the police, fire and EMS departments.

Keeping the city running and building emergency preparedness mechanisms probably wouldn’t have landed Bloomberg in the papers as often, but it would have been a far more respectable legacy than the one he’s leaving behind.

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