Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 2, 2013

Stalking Kelly Ayotte and Common Sense

The video of a relative of a victim of the Newtown massacre confronting Senator Kelly Ayotte at a New Hampshire town hall meeting has been all over the cable news channels, as the effort to shame those who opposed efforts to expand background checks for gun purchases escalated this week. Other objects of the increasingly aggressive gun-control lobby like Arizona Senator Jeff Flake have also been subjected to attempts by gun violence victims’ relatives to embarrass him for voting against the Manchin-Toomey amendment. But if these supporters of gun-control bills are really interested in getting something passed, they should listen to one of the measure’s co-sponsors.

Senator Pat Toomey made headlines for saying yesterday that he believed Republicans shied away from his legislation in large part because they were disinclined to support anything that President Obama wanted. This is being interpreted as proof that a) Republicans are obstructionists who are the main reason why Congress is dysfunctional and b) the gun bill was stopped out of sheer malice rather than on the merits.

But if you read what he actually said to his hometown paper, the Allentown Call-Chronicle, you’ll find he said something very different from the spin that has been put on his comments by liberals looking to exploit the gun issue:

Toomey asserted that the passionate minority who railed against the measure simply didn’t trust putting more authority over guns in the hands of the Obama administration.

“I would suggest the administration brought this on themselves. I think the president ran his re-election campaign in a divisive way. He divided Americans. He was using resentment of some Americans toward others to generate support for himself. That was very divisive, that has consequences, that lingers,” Toomey said over breakfast in the Senate member’s only dining room.

“I understand why people have some apprehension about this administration. I don’t agree with the conclusion as it applies to my [background checks] amendment, but I understand where the emotion comes from.”

Toomey is right about what happened among Republicans. Advocates of more gun control can cite the huge majorities polls show backing background checks, but the more they rely on demagogic attempts to smear their opponents as being somehow responsible for tragedies like Newtown, the less likely they will be to persuade many Republicans to join their ranks.

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The video of a relative of a victim of the Newtown massacre confronting Senator Kelly Ayotte at a New Hampshire town hall meeting has been all over the cable news channels, as the effort to shame those who opposed efforts to expand background checks for gun purchases escalated this week. Other objects of the increasingly aggressive gun-control lobby like Arizona Senator Jeff Flake have also been subjected to attempts by gun violence victims’ relatives to embarrass him for voting against the Manchin-Toomey amendment. But if these supporters of gun-control bills are really interested in getting something passed, they should listen to one of the measure’s co-sponsors.

Senator Pat Toomey made headlines for saying yesterday that he believed Republicans shied away from his legislation in large part because they were disinclined to support anything that President Obama wanted. This is being interpreted as proof that a) Republicans are obstructionists who are the main reason why Congress is dysfunctional and b) the gun bill was stopped out of sheer malice rather than on the merits.

But if you read what he actually said to his hometown paper, the Allentown Call-Chronicle, you’ll find he said something very different from the spin that has been put on his comments by liberals looking to exploit the gun issue:

Toomey asserted that the passionate minority who railed against the measure simply didn’t trust putting more authority over guns in the hands of the Obama administration.

“I would suggest the administration brought this on themselves. I think the president ran his re-election campaign in a divisive way. He divided Americans. He was using resentment of some Americans toward others to generate support for himself. That was very divisive, that has consequences, that lingers,” Toomey said over breakfast in the Senate member’s only dining room.

“I understand why people have some apprehension about this administration. I don’t agree with the conclusion as it applies to my [background checks] amendment, but I understand where the emotion comes from.”

Toomey is right about what happened among Republicans. Advocates of more gun control can cite the huge majorities polls show backing background checks, but the more they rely on demagogic attempts to smear their opponents as being somehow responsible for tragedies like Newtown, the less likely they will be to persuade many Republicans to join their ranks.

The stalking of Ayotte and other opponents of Manchin-Toomey makes great video but it does nothing to advance the debate on these issues in a way that can persuade people that more background checks will actually lessen the toll of gun violence. The confrontation with Erica Laffey, whose mother was killed by the Newtown shooter, was intended to embarrass the senator. But few of the talking heads on the cable news shows crowing over Ayotte’s poor polling numbers since the gun vote were willing to admit that what she said to Laffey about Newtown having nothing to do with background checks was completely correct. Republicans see this disconnect as yet more evidence that the president and his party are simply interested in expanding government power and not actually doing something about a problem that may have far more to do with mental health than making it harder for guns to be legally obtained.

We shouldn’t doubt the willingness or the ability of liberal advocacy groups like the one organized by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords or the one funded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to go on assailing Ayotte, Flake or any of the other senators who voted no on Manchin-Toomey. As the only Northeastern senator to vote against the amendment, Ayotte is particularly vulnerable, though with three years to go until she faces the voters, it’s a little premature for opponents to be predicting her demise. She’s a popular figure who has faced her critics courageously. Liberals who think this issue alone will sink her are probably underestimating the intelligence of the voters.

But if the issue at stake here is not a partisan one but rather one about what the president continues to insist is “common sense legislation,” it might be smarter for everyone on his side of the divide to stop waving the bloody shirt of Newtown and start talking with Republicans about allaying their concerns about national registries of guns and giving up attempts to chip away at Second Amendment rights.

As Toomey rightly pointed out, the president has done everything in his power to polarize this and other issues to the point where he has made it extremely difficult for Republicans to trust him. The same point applies to other Democrats like New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who made the astounding claim this past week that the lack of background checks made it easier for terrorists like the Tsarnaev brothers in spite of the fact that the guns used by the Boston Marathon bombers were not legally obtained.

Toomey has good reason to be frustrated over the failure of a measure that would not have infringed on gun rights. But the problem here is that both parties are playing partisan politics on gun issues in the aftermath of Newtown, not just the Republicans. So long as the argument for background checks or any other gun-control measure is framed in purely emotional terms that cannot establish any link between the law and atrocities like Newtown, these laws will continue to fail to attract Republican support. It is yet to be seen whether Democrats who think this will help them win the 2014 midterm elections are right. Laffey and some of the other Newtown families have every right to our sympathy and to roam the countryside in search of politicians to lobby as much as they like. But if Democrats are really interested in getting another version of Manchin-Toomey passed, they need to lower their voices and start negotiating with Republicans rather than stalking them.

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The Palestinian Shadow Game

Secretary of State John Kerry was encouraged yesterday by the idea of a revived and improved Arab Peace Initiative being floated by an Arab League delegation. But the Palestinian Authority wasted no time in pouring cold water on the idea that even this baby step means a thing. Palestinian Authority negotiators dismissed the significance of the statement issued by the foreign minister of Qatar that the 2002 proposal would be modified to recognize the idea of “minor” territorial swaps that would modify the 1967 lines. As far as Erekat is concerned, the Palestinians won’t even bother to return to the talks so long as Israel is unwilling to concede the outcome in advance.

“Netanyahu has to say 1967,” Erekat told Nazareth-based Radio Ashams. “If he doesn’t say that, there’s nothing to talk about. For us, what the Arab League delegation presented in Washington is no different from the official Palestinian position.”

Erekat noted that the Palestinian Authority had negotiated in the past based on the 1967 borders and had been willing to adjust 5 percent to 7 percent of the border.

“We don’t see that as recognition of the settlement blocs, as some commentators on both sides try to interpret it. For us, every stone in the settlements constitutes a violation of international law, so it’s impossible to talk about Palestinian consent regarding the settlements,” he said.

“Our position is clear: As long as Netanyahu does not say the number 1967, there’s nothing to talk about. Maybe he needs to undergo psychological therapy to utter that number.”

But if the Palestinians are really interested in peace, it’s they who need the therapy. By issuing demands in this manner, Erekat is not just directly defying President Obama’s call for them to come back to the peace table without preconditions. Nor is his attempt to justify a continued refusal to talk just about borders. It’s part of a strategy the Palestinians have been pursuing for more than four years. Since the PA knows it has neither the will nor the ability to sign a peace agreement recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, their goal is to avoid any diplomatic setting at which they might be forced to admit this, as they did when they turned down peace offers in 2000, 2001 and 2008.

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Secretary of State John Kerry was encouraged yesterday by the idea of a revived and improved Arab Peace Initiative being floated by an Arab League delegation. But the Palestinian Authority wasted no time in pouring cold water on the idea that even this baby step means a thing. Palestinian Authority negotiators dismissed the significance of the statement issued by the foreign minister of Qatar that the 2002 proposal would be modified to recognize the idea of “minor” territorial swaps that would modify the 1967 lines. As far as Erekat is concerned, the Palestinians won’t even bother to return to the talks so long as Israel is unwilling to concede the outcome in advance.

“Netanyahu has to say 1967,” Erekat told Nazareth-based Radio Ashams. “If he doesn’t say that, there’s nothing to talk about. For us, what the Arab League delegation presented in Washington is no different from the official Palestinian position.”

Erekat noted that the Palestinian Authority had negotiated in the past based on the 1967 borders and had been willing to adjust 5 percent to 7 percent of the border.

“We don’t see that as recognition of the settlement blocs, as some commentators on both sides try to interpret it. For us, every stone in the settlements constitutes a violation of international law, so it’s impossible to talk about Palestinian consent regarding the settlements,” he said.

“Our position is clear: As long as Netanyahu does not say the number 1967, there’s nothing to talk about. Maybe he needs to undergo psychological therapy to utter that number.”

But if the Palestinians are really interested in peace, it’s they who need the therapy. By issuing demands in this manner, Erekat is not just directly defying President Obama’s call for them to come back to the peace table without preconditions. Nor is his attempt to justify a continued refusal to talk just about borders. It’s part of a strategy the Palestinians have been pursuing for more than four years. Since the PA knows it has neither the will nor the ability to sign a peace agreement recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, their goal is to avoid any diplomatic setting at which they might be forced to admit this, as they did when they turned down peace offers in 2000, 2001 and 2008.

If the PA had even the slightest interest in negotiating rather than grandstanding, they would have jumped on the opportunity Kerry is foolishly offering them and agreed to show up anywhere and anytime to talk about peace. They would be vowing to hold Netanyahu at his word about wanting to create a two-state solution–which he repeated this week.

Instead, they are waving the banner of the 1967 lines as if it were any kind of real impediment. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and his mouthpiece Erekat know very well they are not going to get any Israeli government to give up every settlement bloc or surrender Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. But they also know that the Israelis have already offered them deals that would have given them the independent statehood they say they desire and would have no choice but to do so again were they embroiled in a serious negotiation involving the United States.

Netanyahu has rightly refused to accept the 1967 lines as a starting point for negotiations. It hardly needs pointing out that prior to 1967, when every inch of the territories were off limits to Jews, there was neither peace nor a Palestinian state. Though the Israelis have made it clear they will give up the overwhelming majority of the West Bank, there is no reason for them to concede all of a territory to which both sides have legitimate claims, especially without getting anything in return. While most Israelis now accept that separation from the Palestinians is necessary, they are also not so foolish as to allow the West Bank to be transformed into a mirror image of the independent Palestinian state in all but name that currently exists in Gaza.

Diplomatic sloganeering aside, the PA knows they can’t sign a deal with Israel even if it was on the terms they claim to support since doing so would mean giving up the so-called “right of return” to Israel for the descendants of Palestinian refugees, which remains an implicit part of the Arab Peace Initiative that Kerry lauded. That will never happen so long as Hamas is a major player in Palestinian politics. With the Islamist terror group still firmly in control of Gaza and a potent threat to Abbas’s Fatah in the West Bank, the notion that the PA is willing to do what is necessary to make peace is farcical.

What’s going on now is not the prelude to negotiations but a shadow game in which the Palestinians’ sole objective is to find a rationale to avoid talking. If the United States wishes to actually advance the admittedly dismal chances for peace, President Obama must instruct Kerry not to be suckered into making the same mistakes his administration made in his first term. For years, the president did everything in his power to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, but was rewarded for his efforts with nothing but evasions from Abbas. The president’s rhetoric during his recent trip to Israel seemed to indicate he had learned from that mistake. He should not let Kerry repeat it.

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More Trouble for ObamaCare

In March 2011, Avik Roy wrote about something that constituted, in his opinion, “simply put, the greatest scandal in America. Bigger than Madoff, bigger than the Wall Street bailout, bigger even than the plight of the uninsured.” The scandal was a study demonstrating that “despite the fact that we will soon spend more than $500 billion a year on Medicaid, Medicaid beneficiaries, on average, fared worse than those with no insurance at all.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Indeed, Medicaid does not tend to fare well when tested. But yesterday’s news was among the worst that proponents of expanded Medicaid and its larger ObamaCare policy disaster could have received. The New England Journal of Medicine reported the results of a study conducted by major health-policy scholars–including ObamaCare advisor Jonathan Gruber–further showing that Medicaid is an expensive bust. The conclusion from the study authors:

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In March 2011, Avik Roy wrote about something that constituted, in his opinion, “simply put, the greatest scandal in America. Bigger than Madoff, bigger than the Wall Street bailout, bigger even than the plight of the uninsured.” The scandal was a study demonstrating that “despite the fact that we will soon spend more than $500 billion a year on Medicaid, Medicaid beneficiaries, on average, fared worse than those with no insurance at all.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Indeed, Medicaid does not tend to fare well when tested. But yesterday’s news was among the worst that proponents of expanded Medicaid and its larger ObamaCare policy disaster could have received. The New England Journal of Medicine reported the results of a study conducted by major health-policy scholars–including ObamaCare advisor Jonathan Gruber–further showing that Medicaid is an expensive bust. The conclusion from the study authors:

We found no significant effect of Medicaid coverage on the prevalence or diagnosis of hypertension or high cholesterol levels or on the use of medication for these conditions. Medicaid coverage significantly increased the probability of a diagnosis of diabetes and the use of diabetes medication, but we observed no significant effect on average glycated hemoglobin levels or on the percentage of participants with levels of 6.5% or higher. Medicaid coverage decreased the probability of a positive screening for depression (−9.15 percentage points; 95% confidence interval, −16.70 to −1.60; P=0.02), increased the use of many preventive services, and nearly eliminated catastrophic out-of-pocket medical expenditures.

In other words, it’s a middle class-financed bailout of Medicaid beneficiaries, not a health care program. But it’s expensive, and it’s a major component of increased insurance coverage under ObamaCare. None of this is too surprising to conservative health policy analysts, who have been pointing this out for years. But it may come as a surprise to liberal supporters of ObamaCare who, as their reaction to opening arguments at the Supreme Court last year demonstrated, were shielded from the data by their furious commitment to epistemic closure.

It was difficult to argue that Medicaid expansion was the right way to go, since the data don’t support such a claim. And it was patently absurd to claim–though ObamaCare boosters tried anyway–that if you liked your insurance, you could keep it (ObamaCare was specifically designed to undercut such a claim, and the government knew it). So without the data or, in many cases, simple logic on their side, ObamaCare proponents resorted to the accusation that opposing ObamaCare was akin to attempted mass murder.

But liberals also resorted to all manner of claims about the current American health-care sector that would be fixed by passing their favored legislation. Megan McArdle, at the time writing for the Atlantic, noted:

Judging by the statistics that have been used to sell this thing, over and over, liberals are expecting big things.

1) Ezra Klein is confidently predicting that it will save hundreds of thousands of lives.

2) Nick Kristoff (sic) expects miraculous improvement in our national life expectancy.

3) Michael Moore thinks this will stop people from getting thrown out of their homes in a Medical bankruptcy.

4) At least one of you must be willing to claim massive improvements in infant mortality, after you’ve cited those statistics to me over and over.

McArdle proposed simply that we hold liberals to their predictions, allowing them some leeway for overstatement in the heat of the moment. In a follow-up post, McArdle responded to ObamaCare’s proponents who had objected to the suggestion that they be held accountable for their claims.

McArdle, now with the Daily Beast, reacts to the new Medicaid study, as do Avik Roy and Phil Klein. This is big news, McArdle concludes:

And it’s actually bigger, and more important than Obamacare.  We should all be revising our priors about how much health insurance–or at least Medicaid–really promotes health.  What this really tells us is how little we know about health care, and making people healthy–and how often data can confound even our most powerful intuitions.

McArdle is right that ObamaCare was supposed to bend the cost curve down and save lives, and this sort of thing should have us rethinking the issue. The big question is: will the introduction of important new facts change the opinions of ObamaCare supporters on the left? It’s difficult to imagine that happening, because the ObamaCare fight was never about data or empirical scholarship; for the left, it was about ideology.

I don’t say this to suggest that liberals didn’t really think ObamaCare would save the lives of poor Americans. I’m sure they did. It’s just that this belief was taken on faith and ideological assumptions, not evidence. And for that reason, they won’t be looking at the new Medicaid study the way policy experts might expect.

A perfect example of this sort of thinking came last month, when a New America Foundation study advocated adding almost $1 trillion to Social Security payments with no mechanism to pay for it, and the study received cheers from the left. I wrote at the time that the study “should really just be one sentence: People would have more money if we gave them more money.”

The reaction to this Medicaid study may very well be similar. Although people on Medicaid didn’t get better health care, they didn’t have to pay for the subpar health care the government provided for them by transferring wealth from other struggling, but less poor, Americans. All that happened was that the government gave people money, and they liked receiving that money. That’s good enough for a leftist movement that believes, against all evidence, that increased government control is a worthy policy goal–and justification for massive reform projects–all by itself.

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The Middle East Studies Disconnect

Prolific blogger and commentator Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted an apt reminder yesterday that not everything in the Middle East revolves around the Israel-Palestinian conflict, even if U.S. policymakers often see it that way. Writes Goldberg:

Syria and Iraq are melting down, and the State Dept. and the Arab League are focused on…. the West Bank. The peace process is vital but there are more urgent matters than the peace process that are not linked to Israel-Palestine, that demand more attention.

Goldberg is right, but he doesn’t ask why. Perhaps this is one more example of the failure of Middle Eastern studies. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has a membership database that lets users sort by discipline. For example, the MESA faculty database finds 151 students and professors who specialize in Iraq; and 223 who specialize in Syria. In contrast, 290 specialize in Palestine, and additional 33 who specialize in the West Bank specifically; and 20 in Gaza. Israel studies is growing, with 171 members. Almost as many focus on refugees and Diaspora studies.

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Prolific blogger and commentator Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted an apt reminder yesterday that not everything in the Middle East revolves around the Israel-Palestinian conflict, even if U.S. policymakers often see it that way. Writes Goldberg:

Syria and Iraq are melting down, and the State Dept. and the Arab League are focused on…. the West Bank. The peace process is vital but there are more urgent matters than the peace process that are not linked to Israel-Palestine, that demand more attention.

Goldberg is right, but he doesn’t ask why. Perhaps this is one more example of the failure of Middle Eastern studies. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has a membership database that lets users sort by discipline. For example, the MESA faculty database finds 151 students and professors who specialize in Iraq; and 223 who specialize in Syria. In contrast, 290 specialize in Palestine, and additional 33 who specialize in the West Bank specifically; and 20 in Gaza. Israel studies is growing, with 171 members. Almost as many focus on refugees and Diaspora studies.

Certainly, membership in MESA and self-identification by field is not perfect: Being a MESA member is self-selective, and MESA is not the only game in town. Not every student will get a job, nor does focusing on a particular region translate to relevance. After all, 285 members focus on “colonialism,” and almost 400 focus on women’s and gender studies. “Radicalism” and “Jihadism” are not legitimate subcategories to MESA, although 25 members list their concentration as “peace studies.” Only 36 list their field as terrorism.

Many universities, consumed by a noxious mix of politicization and ideological homogeneity, disproportionately choose to teach courses on the Arab-Israeli conflict, at the expense of myriad other conflicts in the region. History and political science departments are already in decline—the fault being not only with administrators but also with the professors themselves and their increasing detachment from reality. Few universities, given limited resources, will bless a course on Iraq or Syria when they could instead have a class on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Perhaps there might be a bump now as universities cater to the headlines, but it will not be lasting.

Generations of students—future diplomats and intelligence analysts—grow up with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the center of their attention and, if they are Middle Eastern studies majors, as the center of their existence. There is a growing tendency of universities to subsidize their programs with cash from regional governments who have discovered they can use the Arab-Israeli conflict to distract American students away from more systematic Middle Eastern failings much in the way that they have so long tried to use the conflict to distract their own domestic audience, a strategy that worked well up until the Arab Spring.

While many students leave Middle Eastern studies courses feeling unsatisfied, and while those with experience in the region—for example, the many former servicemen who now are pursuing graduate study in the field—recognize the disconnect between the Ivory Tower and reality, too many drink the Kool Aid and transfer their academic experience into their positions. The irony here, then, is that while so many academics condemn colonialism, it is now the American academics who seek to impose their vision, values, and priorities on the region, even as the peoples of Iraq and Syria, for example, fight for something fundamentally different. One way or another, the United States and its policy-making community are ill-served.

Alas, more than a decade on, so many of the problems which Martin Kramer identified in “Ivory Towers on the Sand,” remain not only unresolved, but also far worse.

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The Ted Cruz Political Paradigm

We’re far enough away from 2016 that rumors about possible presidential candidacies are all equally true and untrue. Anybody can talk about running and anyone can talk/write about those thinking about running. But the rumors being floated about Ted Cruz have struck a nerve in a way that, say, the scenarios about similar long shots such as Scott Walker or Kirsten Gillibrand do not. Cruz has made himself an usually large number of enemies for a man who has spent only 100 days in the Senate along with the outsized publicity he has garnered for his bare knuckles-style of political fisticuffs that he has displayed in this period.

But although I think Seth makes some excellent points about how a Senate where all the major players have an eye on the White House is doomed to dysfunction, I think it is a mistake to view Cruz as a conventional politician on the make. If there is anything we’ve learned about him, it is that although his Texas-sized ego and ambitions are very much in evidence, he is working off a slightly different playbook than that of potential GOP rivals Senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.

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We’re far enough away from 2016 that rumors about possible presidential candidacies are all equally true and untrue. Anybody can talk about running and anyone can talk/write about those thinking about running. But the rumors being floated about Ted Cruz have struck a nerve in a way that, say, the scenarios about similar long shots such as Scott Walker or Kirsten Gillibrand do not. Cruz has made himself an usually large number of enemies for a man who has spent only 100 days in the Senate along with the outsized publicity he has garnered for his bare knuckles-style of political fisticuffs that he has displayed in this period.

But although I think Seth makes some excellent points about how a Senate where all the major players have an eye on the White House is doomed to dysfunction, I think it is a mistake to view Cruz as a conventional politician on the make. If there is anything we’ve learned about him, it is that although his Texas-sized ego and ambitions are very much in evidence, he is working off a slightly different playbook than that of potential GOP rivals Senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.

I should state first of all that I don’t take the speculation about a Cruz run for the presidency all that seriously. I don’t doubt that Cruz could raise the money for a run and that his high profile would make him a contender. Nor do I think, as Seth noted, that his rivals should underestimate him. In fact, I think almost all of them would regard the prospect of debating him with some trepidation and with good reason. The Texas senator leaves scorched earth behind him even in routine political speeches. Imagine what he’d do on a podium with the GOP presidential nomination on the line.

But where his potential rivals for the nomination have been carefully trying to cultivate new friends and reassure their base in the lead-up to 2016, Cruz is just swinging away on the issues without showing many signs of cold calculations. It may be that making enemies at a record rate can build you a constituency of contrarians, but it is not the textbook path to the White House. Far from picking his fights carefully the way a would-be president would do, he is simply fighting anyone he disagrees with. My sense is that he is merely going with the flow and seeing where the publicity that results from the fights he is naturally drawn to leads him.

Along these lines, I think today’s feature in Politico about Cruz captured a bit more of the truth about his prospects than a lot of those who have been hyperventilating about the possibility of him running for president. While that piece was mostly written from the point of view of those who don’t like the Texan, it rightly points out that all he has been doing is expressing the views of a great many conservatives who would like more of their representatives to play the “arsonist” in the go-along-to-get-along world of D.C. politics. If he is happily exploiting the notoriety he has received from his confrontations with other senators, it’s not because Cruz is carefully operating off of a blueprint aimed at taking him to the White House in four years, the way it seems at times that Rubio and Paul are doing. He is, instead, merely pursuing a vision of how to use a Senate seat that is at odds with the conventional approach that most of his colleagues have followed. We’ll find out whether that leads to bigger things in the future, but in the meantime, Cruz is going to play out the hand he has dealt himself.

Though he has seemingly invited demonization, for all of the outrage about his rough handling of Chuck Hagel and calling his Republican colleagues “squishes,” Cruz has yet to do anything that even remotely justifies the comparisons that liberals have been making to Joseph McCarthy.

Cruz has come along at a moment in our political history when the conventional wisdom about Washington is that we need more dealmakers and compromisers. Though conservatives tend to prefer the old William F. Buckley approach of dealing with liberalism by standing athwart its path and saying “no,” Tea Party favorites like Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey have chosen instead to reach across the aisle to craft compromise legislation on immigration reform and background checks for gun purchases. I happen to think each of their efforts are good policy and smart politics for the Republican Party, but it is not a surprise that Cruz opposes both since he sees compromise with the left as inherently dangerous for both his party and the country.

Such an approach is antithetical to passing legislation, but Cruz’s mission is not to ameliorate the impact of liberal ideology; it is to stop it cold. If he has emerged as a major player in Republican politics it is because unlike other rabble-rousers who kibitz about Washington from the sidelines (such as his backer Sarah Palin), he chose to dive headfirst into the D.C. maelstrom and proceeded to mix it up. Under these circumstances it’s only natural that he would become one of the most important as well as one of the least-liked members of the Senate.

Those who think there’s something illegitimate about an untried freshman stepping forward in this manner don’t know their political history. The notion that seniority is everything in Congress was a 20th-century innovation that had no resonance in the first century and more of our political history. So, too, is the idea that it is presumptuous for a Senate greenhorn to think about the presidency. It’s not just, as Politico points out, that Barack Obama did it. It’s that the idea of waiting your turn is just a device by the political establishment to keep order, not a sacred rule of democracy.

That said, I still don’t see much of an opening for Cruz in 2016 against competitors who are working off a more conventional game plan. The expectation that he can parlay his command of a niche of his party into a successful presidential candidacy is probably to exaggerate the scope of his appeal and to underestimate the strengths of the other contenders. There just isn’t that much room between Paul, Rubio and others like Bobby Jindal or Rick Santorum for a candidate who is as short on charm as Cruz is to win.

But the political paradigm that Cruz represents is one that isn’t going away. So long as conservatives view government as inherently dysfunctional he may find himself assailed by the media and many of his colleagues but adored by a significant faction of his party. 

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Will Furloughs Decimate Military Academies?

The U.S. military runs five service academies and a number of graduate institutions, for example the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis; West Point; the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; the Navy War College in Newport, Rhode Island; the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California (full disclosure: where I am affiliated); and the U.S. Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, among others.

These universities provide educations as good as, if not better than, top-notch private colleges and universities. To do so, they rely on a combination of faculty drawn from both the military and civilian world. Enter sequestration: The Defense Department will soon order its civilian personnel to take a 14-day furlough, effectively taking one day off a week without pay for three months. This applies not only to the often idle administrative staff at the Pentagon where, admittedly, a lot of fat exists, but also among teaching faculty at the universities. (Full disclosure: I’m not full-time at the Naval Postgraduate School, “furlough days” will not impact me, and so this is not self-serving).

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The U.S. military runs five service academies and a number of graduate institutions, for example the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis; West Point; the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; the Navy War College in Newport, Rhode Island; the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California (full disclosure: where I am affiliated); and the U.S. Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, among others.

These universities provide educations as good as, if not better than, top-notch private colleges and universities. To do so, they rely on a combination of faculty drawn from both the military and civilian world. Enter sequestration: The Defense Department will soon order its civilian personnel to take a 14-day furlough, effectively taking one day off a week without pay for three months. This applies not only to the often idle administrative staff at the Pentagon where, admittedly, a lot of fat exists, but also among teaching faculty at the universities. (Full disclosure: I’m not full-time at the Naval Postgraduate School, “furlough days” will not impact me, and so this is not self-serving).

When the furlough days come, professors who teach certain courses will be forced to stay home. According to colleagues at several of these military universities and institutions, some administrators have suggested that their course on that one day per week simply be taken over by a uniformed serviceman not subject to furlough. But while the Army and Marines embrace an attitude of one-size fits all and that PowerPoint slides can supplant critical thinking, dispensing with expertise will have a negative impact on pedagogy.

Compounding the problem will be the impact of sequestration and perhaps layoffs on tenure. Personally, I oppose tenure as the last vestige of the medieval guild system and as an institution which now does more to quash free speech than promote it, as tenured professors do not hesitate to retaliate against their non-tenured associates for heterodox thinking. But, when the Defense Department unilaterally warns professors that it does not respect tenure absent broader reform, then it is reasonable to assume that many professors will flee U.S. military universities for better security elsewhere.

Combine this together, and President Obama, congressional leaders, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are really playing with fire: it is quite possible that once top-notch military universities and post-graduate institutions will have difficulty in their next round of accreditation.

Cuts should be made—military institutions, especially post-graduate ones, might be combined or consolidated. But the across-the-board expenditure cuts and furloughs risk gutting a system that is, at present, a crown jewel of American education.

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What Netanyahu Understands About Qatar

The Washington Post has a story up today gently knocking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for being less than enthusiastic about the resurgence of the Arab Peace Initiative. The Arab plan is slightly improved from its past iterations, but to understand why Netanyahu is so cautious about embracing the plan as an outline for negotiations, the Post story should be read in tandem with Jeffrey Goldberg’s incisive and spot-on portrait of the Qatari government in his latest Bloomberg column.

The setting for the column is a Brookings Institution event to honor Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani. Brookings is, along with Hamas and other sordid outfits in whose company Brookings does not belong, funded by the Qatari government. Goldberg makes plain his discomfort with this. As I wrote in January, Qatar has been playing every side of the Middle East’s various conflicts, most often as a nuisance to American objectives. Goldberg’s whole column is worth reading, but this particular gem sticks out with regard to the Arab peace plan:

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The Washington Post has a story up today gently knocking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for being less than enthusiastic about the resurgence of the Arab Peace Initiative. The Arab plan is slightly improved from its past iterations, but to understand why Netanyahu is so cautious about embracing the plan as an outline for negotiations, the Post story should be read in tandem with Jeffrey Goldberg’s incisive and spot-on portrait of the Qatari government in his latest Bloomberg column.

The setting for the column is a Brookings Institution event to honor Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani. Brookings is, along with Hamas and other sordid outfits in whose company Brookings does not belong, funded by the Qatari government. Goldberg makes plain his discomfort with this. As I wrote in January, Qatar has been playing every side of the Middle East’s various conflicts, most often as a nuisance to American objectives. Goldberg’s whole column is worth reading, but this particular gem sticks out with regard to the Arab peace plan:

For a reality check, I spoke to two administration officials deeply engaged on the Syria question and on Qatar’s role in supporting the rebels. (They requested anonymity to speak freely.) They painted an unpretty picture. The officials were pleased by the role Qatar is playing in the Arab-Israeli peace process, but they were flummoxed by its support for Hamas — which directly undermines the possibility of achieving an equitable two-state solution (Hamas being, as it is, opposed to Israel’s existence). They were also concerned that Qatar may be supporting the most radical Syrian group, the Nusra Front, which is openly affiliated with al-Qaeda.

American officials who are “pleased by the role Qatar is playing in the Arab-Israeli peace process” while also acknowledging that Qatar funds Hamas–a terrorist government that has both the desire and ability to derail any progress on Arab-Israeli peace while constantly putting innocent lives in danger–are being scammed. And far too easily for people who work for the president of the United States.

Goldberg calls Qatar “an attention-starved teenager.” He puts the country’s foreign policy in context: Qatar supports Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and is believed to be funding the most radical Islamist groups in Syria; but Qatar also funds Brookings and hosts U.S. Central Command forward headquarters. Those are strategic calculations, and they are well-placed and well-played. On the diplomatic front, Qatar publicly claims to support Israeli-Palestinian peace while making certain to undermine it in every possible way.

But appearances–and money–are important, especially in a world with vanishing superpower influence. As Moises Naim notes in his new book, The End of Power:

One of the best examples of smaller countries that have used coalitions of the willing, economic diplomacy (i.e. a lot of money), and soft power to advance their interests must surely be Qatar. It led the way in toppling Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi by supplying rebels with money, training, and more than twenty thousand tons of weapons, and called early for the arming of rebels in Syria. It has attempted mediation in Yemen, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Palestine and–importantly–in Lebanon. Through an $85 billion investment fund, Qatar has bought into businesses from Volkswagen to the Paris St. Germain Football Club. And it is not only behind what is perhaps the most influential new news organization, the network Al Jazeera, but has been building up its reputation as a cultural center with top-rated museums of Islamic and Middle Eastern art as well as high-profile purchases of pieces by the likes of Warhol, Rothko, Cezanne, Koons, and Lichtenstein.

Throwing that kind of money around the worlds of soccer, art, news media, and violent revolution is the mark of a serious player in world affairs. But that doesn’t mean the Qataris are serious about each of those issues, or that the issues themselves are serious. I don’t mean to knock soccer or Cezanne, but simultaneously funding a wave of revolutions and the media on the ground covering them is a far better compass to guide our interpretation of Qatar’s intentions than partying with Brookings or making canned pronouncements that amount to, essentially, “peace is good; the Arabs and Jews should have more of it.”

Thus with regard to the Arab Peace Initiative, Qatar is attempting to play everyone for fools. Netanyahu recognizes this, because he is not a fool. His reaction, then, was to subtly shift attention from what Qatar claims to support–peace–to what it undeniably does support–anti-Semitic terrorist groups and their unending war against Israel, as well as anything that weakens Western influence in the region that creates a vacuum into which Qatar can step. Neither the Obama administration nor the Netanyahu government is put in an easy position by this, but it will not be made any easier by denying the obvious.

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The Oil and Gas Boom Expands

The energy news just keeps getting better.

On Tuesday, the United States Geological Survey announced that it had doubled its estimate of the amount of oil that can be recovered from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Eastern Montana and from the Three Forks formation immediately beneath it, to an awesome 7.4 billion barrels.

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The energy news just keeps getting better.

On Tuesday, the United States Geological Survey announced that it had doubled its estimate of the amount of oil that can be recovered from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Eastern Montana and from the Three Forks formation immediately beneath it, to an awesome 7.4 billion barrels.

That would make it the biggest oil field ever found in the lower forty-eight, even bigger than the legendary East Texas field that began to produce in 1901 at Spindletop.

The Bakken and Three Forks are mostly an oil play at the moment, and about one-third of the natural gas that is also there in abundance (6.7 trillion cubic feet by current reckoning) is currently being flared off. But the natural gas boom in the United States is beginning to have significant international effects. As Walter Russell Mead notes, Russian gas giant Gazprom (which accounts for about ten percent of Russia’s total exports) has had to cut prices to meet growing American competition in Europe, a market Gazprom used to have largely to itself.

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Déjà Vu All Over Again in Afghanistan

I am not an optimist when it comes to Afghanistan. The United States lost the Afghan war the second President Obama issued a public timeline for withdrawal and when diplomats offered to negotiate with the Taliban. Officials endorsing such timelines—too often out of political perspicacity rather than military wisdom—are culpable in setting the stage for defeat. Momentum matters in Afghanistan more than spin, as Afghans have never lost a war: they simply defect to the winning side.

The White House may believe its spin, but no one in Afghanistan does. Whereas the Taliban once embraced the narrative of the First Anglo-Afghan War, describing Mullah Omar as Dost Muhammad and Hamid Karzai as Shah Shujah, with the implication that ISAF forces would play the role of the British heading into a disastrous retreat, the historical allusions have changed in recent months as Afghans filter events through the living memory of the Soviet withdrawal. Hence, Hamid Karzai has become Najibullah in the current Afghan narrative. Najibullah, of course, was the last Communist leader of Afghanistan. True, Najibullah managed to hold onto power for three years following the Soviet withdrawal, but he fell as soon as the rubles—about $3 billion per year—dried up. Afghans recognize that most of the money promised in the past years’ series of international donor conferences will never get delivered.

Further, when the World Bank estimates the foreign assistance that Afghanistan will require to stay afloat, they too often assume that the Afghan mining industry will be far more advanced than reality will dictate. In the past year, real estate prices have dropped 20 percent in Afghanistan as Afghans recognize that the long-term prospects for rule of law are dim.

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I am not an optimist when it comes to Afghanistan. The United States lost the Afghan war the second President Obama issued a public timeline for withdrawal and when diplomats offered to negotiate with the Taliban. Officials endorsing such timelines—too often out of political perspicacity rather than military wisdom—are culpable in setting the stage for defeat. Momentum matters in Afghanistan more than spin, as Afghans have never lost a war: they simply defect to the winning side.

The White House may believe its spin, but no one in Afghanistan does. Whereas the Taliban once embraced the narrative of the First Anglo-Afghan War, describing Mullah Omar as Dost Muhammad and Hamid Karzai as Shah Shujah, with the implication that ISAF forces would play the role of the British heading into a disastrous retreat, the historical allusions have changed in recent months as Afghans filter events through the living memory of the Soviet withdrawal. Hence, Hamid Karzai has become Najibullah in the current Afghan narrative. Najibullah, of course, was the last Communist leader of Afghanistan. True, Najibullah managed to hold onto power for three years following the Soviet withdrawal, but he fell as soon as the rubles—about $3 billion per year—dried up. Afghans recognize that most of the money promised in the past years’ series of international donor conferences will never get delivered.

Further, when the World Bank estimates the foreign assistance that Afghanistan will require to stay afloat, they too often assume that the Afghan mining industry will be far more advanced than reality will dictate. In the past year, real estate prices have dropped 20 percent in Afghanistan as Afghans recognize that the long-term prospects for rule of law are dim.

When the Afghan civil war resumes—and with neighbors like Iran and Pakistan, it will—it will be bloody. If in 1989, the Soviets left Najibullah behind to face the so-called Peshawar-7, the Americans and ISAF appear prepared to leave the country behind with an even greater array of warlords or, as the State Department prefers to say, regional power-brokers. The ill-conceived strategy to prop up local militias will only exacerbate the conflict to come.

Negotiations with the Taliban only make things worse. Let’s forget that the State Department has never conducted a lessons-learned exercise to explain why their previous round of negotiations with the Taliban—between 1995 and 2000—failed so precipitously or why they should expect different results now, when negotiating with many of the same figures.

Those who propose a soft partition, ceding predominantly Pushtun southern Afghanistan to the Taliban, forget that such a system has been tried and failed. After the Taliban consolidated control over southern Afghanistan in 1994, they had agreed not to enter Herat, an overwhelmingly Persian city, but did anyhow the following year. Ditto their entry into Kabul in 1996, against the backdrop of UN power-sharing talks. The only thing the Taliban were interested in sharing, it turned out, was their idea of God’s wrath upon anyone who did not share their twisted interpretations of Islam and culture. 

From early in the Soviet occupation through the Red Army’s withdrawal a quarter century ago, the United Nations worked to broker a withdrawal. Diego Cordovez, Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s special representative, credited the persistence of the United Nations (rather than the arming of the Mujahedin) with achieving the Soviet withdrawal. Again, it’s déjà vu. In 2011 and 2012, respectively, the International Crisis Group and the RAND Corporation published reports calling for UN-led mediation as, in the words of David Cortright, director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, “The U.N. is perhaps the only organization that is able to garner the political clout needed to successfully achieve a peace settlement.” This, of course, is nonsense. It may be dogma for the conflict resolution community, but foisting off responsibility for Afghanistan to UN officials will simply lead to a repeat of the bloodshed that swept over Afghanistan with renewed vigor in 1992.

The United States went into Afghanistan in 2001 to help the Afghan government fill a vacuum in which terrorism thrived, and to help Afghanistan rebuild a military that could monopolize the use of force within its borders. That mission is not yet complete. Perhaps politicians and diplomats will still push forward with withdrawal. As they do so, however, they should recognize that they are not leaving in victory, but rather condemning Afghans to repeat the past.

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A May Day Reminder of OWS’s Failure

Last year, May Day was a cause for celebration for members of the group Occupy Wall Street. Even though they had been evicted from their home in Zuccotti Park several months prior, the movement that was created there had spread nationwide. Liberals hoped that OWS would become their version of the Tea Party. They were willing to look over the squalid conditions at OWS camps in New York and nationwide, the rampant vandalism, and most troubling, the rapes and sexual assaults that took place there while fellow liberals were simultaneously fear mongering over Republicans’ imagined “war on women.” On the second May Day since its formation, the movement, which portrayed itself as the voice of support for the bottom 99 percent of Americans, has fractured over some members’ desire to translate that vague declaration of support into disaster assistance for those affected by Hurricane Sandy. 

The aftermath of Sandy left unprecedented destruction in the New York area, and to its credit, the Occupy movement stepped in to provide much-needed coordination and relief with the formation of Occupy Sandy. In November I spoke to a local rabbi who had been coordinating relief for elderly residents trapped inside a high-rise apartment complex that wouldn’t end up meeting someone in a FEMA jacket for a full ten days after the storm. The response from government officials was shockingly meager and private organizations like Occupy Sandy were left trying to provide food, water and medical attention to those hardest hit by the storm. 

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Last year, May Day was a cause for celebration for members of the group Occupy Wall Street. Even though they had been evicted from their home in Zuccotti Park several months prior, the movement that was created there had spread nationwide. Liberals hoped that OWS would become their version of the Tea Party. They were willing to look over the squalid conditions at OWS camps in New York and nationwide, the rampant vandalism, and most troubling, the rapes and sexual assaults that took place there while fellow liberals were simultaneously fear mongering over Republicans’ imagined “war on women.” On the second May Day since its formation, the movement, which portrayed itself as the voice of support for the bottom 99 percent of Americans, has fractured over some members’ desire to translate that vague declaration of support into disaster assistance for those affected by Hurricane Sandy. 

The aftermath of Sandy left unprecedented destruction in the New York area, and to its credit, the Occupy movement stepped in to provide much-needed coordination and relief with the formation of Occupy Sandy. In November I spoke to a local rabbi who had been coordinating relief for elderly residents trapped inside a high-rise apartment complex that wouldn’t end up meeting someone in a FEMA jacket for a full ten days after the storm. The response from government officials was shockingly meager and private organizations like Occupy Sandy were left trying to provide food, water and medical attention to those hardest hit by the storm. 

Occupy Sandy was soon consumed with the same problems that plagued the movement that was full of catch-phrases but little in the form of tangible plans or organization. This hilarious segment on The Daily Show about class divisions at Zuccotti Park illustrates just how hypocritically ineffective the movement was at extinguishing inequality even within its own ranks. In the face of reality, many Occupiers learned just how impossible it would be to translate their ideals into reality. The New York Times reports:

The original Occupiers who remain have not just mellowed, they have abandoned some of the hallmarks of the organization, given up as unwieldy in a disaster situation. Occupy Sandy’s “free store” on Staten Island was closed in part because people took advantage of it, said Howie Ray, who runs a volunteer hot line for the group. The nightly roundup e-mails of their work, part of a commitment to transparency, have halted because they were impractical and time-consuming, Mr. Ray said.

Many of those initial divisions were exacerbated by the efforts of those behind Occupy Sandy. According to the Times, many in the original Occupy movement were troubled by their Occupy Sandy counterparts’ “deals with the devil” in the form of working with and accepting donations from corporations like Home Depot and governmental agencies to provide relief to those most desperately in need. Some in OWS were willing to sacrifice their idealism for the sake of the greater good while others in the group, called the “core” of OWS by a member quoted by the Times, would much rather spend their time participating in drum circles at protests.

While the tragic fate of the 94 million victims of Communism were remembered yesterday, conservatives should take heart that here in the United States, the closest thing to Communism in decades, Occupy Wall Street, has destroyed itself over divisions over just how much they’re willing to help those in need. If that’s not a better representation of the true face of Communism, what is?

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