Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 6, 2013

The Unlikely Scenario of Rubio Voting Down His Own Immigration Bill

Ask yourself the following question out loud: How will Marco Rubio vote on the current iteration of comprehensive immigration reform? If you’ve been following the immigration debate at all, the question probably sounds pretty silly. Rubio, after all, helped craft the bill after galvanizing momentum for it on the right while putting together a bipartisan coalition to stave off President Obama’s interference.

Rubio was front and center at the bill’s rollout, and he promptly made the rounds on conservative talk radio shows to stand between the reform bill and a very skeptical conservative grassroots audience. But perhaps in a sign of just how far the momentum has begun to swing in the opposite direction, apparently whether Rubio will vote for his own bill is actually up for debate. Buried in Politico’s feature today on the future of the bill is this nugget:

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Ask yourself the following question out loud: How will Marco Rubio vote on the current iteration of comprehensive immigration reform? If you’ve been following the immigration debate at all, the question probably sounds pretty silly. Rubio, after all, helped craft the bill after galvanizing momentum for it on the right while putting together a bipartisan coalition to stave off President Obama’s interference.

Rubio was front and center at the bill’s rollout, and he promptly made the rounds on conservative talk radio shows to stand between the reform bill and a very skeptical conservative grassroots audience. But perhaps in a sign of just how far the momentum has begun to swing in the opposite direction, apparently whether Rubio will vote for his own bill is actually up for debate. Buried in Politico’s feature today on the future of the bill is this nugget:

The second tier of senators, who are less likely to back the bill but could be swayed, includes John Barrasso of Wyoming, John Thune of South Dakota, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho and Johnny Isakson of Georgia. This is a group that could vote yes if Rubio is still on board and other conservatives are falling into line.

“The key is Rubio,” said Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “Without Rubio, this bill would not get anywhere with Republicans. He gives them the cover.”

Well, yes, one would think that Rubio’s support for the bill would be the starting point for other Republicans. It’s hard to imagine any Republican not in the “gang of eight” would support Rubio’s bill if Rubio won’t. But Rubio is not just a member of the gang of eight. He’s also in some other select groups, including a gang of five–according to another Politico story, the five personalities involved in the immigration reform debate who could stop the bill in its tracks:

Make no mistake. Rubio is all in for the bill, and much of his political future hinges on the success of the legislation the young senator helped draft.

That’s why everyone is watching every move he makes.

Were he to go wobbly or lose his support with the GOP base, congressional Republicans wouldn’t take long to abandon ship.

Asked what would happen if Rubio withdrew his support, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) replied: “I think it would kill the bill.”

So Rubio is “all in for the bill,” no question about it, says Politico. But hey–let’s just say he isn’t. Then what? Well, then the bill will have ceased to be. Besides the gang of eight and wrecking crew of five, Rubio is also in the Hill’s Tea Party three. That is the trio of conservative senators with presidential aspirations in 2016, which includes Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz:

The senators share common philosophies and much of the same base — and as long as one has the spotlight on an issue, the others won’t. Whoever claims a stake over individual issues — and the issues upon which they disagree — will likely set the stage for the 2016 campaign.

But of all today’s stories on various groups within the Senate, the most interesting one comes from Tim Carney–and with this group, Rubio is on the outside looking in. Carney writes of a “Tea Party Troika of Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul.” The team, Carney explains, has established essentially a parallel power base to those holding the Senate’s traditional leadership positions. They have done so by harnessing the energy–and outrage–of the grassroots.

Whether the troika is really the challenge to leadership they seem is debatable, but the group is notable for Rubio’s absence. Rubio was one of the original Tea Party success stories, and he was also one of the early and most significant Senate conservative disciples of Jim DeMint. And yet Rubio now finds himself pitted against DeMint and walking a tightrope of grassroots suspicion all because of his work on immigration. Rubio went from being the ambassador representing the Tea Party to the establishment, and now seems to be the reverse.

But that likely won’t push Rubio away from immigration reform. All of the horserace stories miss one crucial aspect: quite apart from its electoral considerations, does Rubio actually believe in the viability and value of comprehensive immigration reform? All indications are that the answer is yes. And that remains the best guide to whether he’ll stick with the effort, even if he has to do so without Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

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The Democrats’ Sanford Gift Package

With only one day left before the special election in South Carolina’s First Congressional District, the race is still a virtual tossup between former Republican governor Mark Sanford and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, though polls appear to be trending in the favor of the GOP standard-bearer. While still too close to call, the fact that Sanford appears to have gained ground even after more attention has been diverted to his personal failings demonstrates that it may be impossible for even a candidacy as troubled as that of Sanford to lose a seat in that red a district.

That may seem like good news to Republicans who dread the idea of allowing Nancy Pelosi to get one seat closer to regaining the speakership. But, as the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza pointed out today, a Sanford victory may well be even better news for the Democrats than a Busch victory. The thinking here is that he’s absolutely correct for three reasons.

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With only one day left before the special election in South Carolina’s First Congressional District, the race is still a virtual tossup between former Republican governor Mark Sanford and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, though polls appear to be trending in the favor of the GOP standard-bearer. While still too close to call, the fact that Sanford appears to have gained ground even after more attention has been diverted to his personal failings demonstrates that it may be impossible for even a candidacy as troubled as that of Sanford to lose a seat in that red a district.

That may seem like good news to Republicans who dread the idea of allowing Nancy Pelosi to get one seat closer to regaining the speakership. But, as the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza pointed out today, a Sanford victory may well be even better news for the Democrats than a Busch victory. The thinking here is that he’s absolutely correct for three reasons.

First and perhaps most obviously, Sanford’s regaining of his old seat in the House will mean that he will be going to Washington next week rather than sinking back into the political oblivion that he so richly deserves. Sanford’s return to the Capitol means that the liberal mainstream media would find a new focus for their ongoing campaign to demonize Republicans. Sanford’s Appalachian Trail hijinks and his dismaying behavior toward his children—displayed yet again in a Huffington Post story where the candidate actually called his oldest son in the midst of an interview in order to solicit a testimonial for his parental bona fides—would not only be re-hashed endlessly but would mean that his every move and utterance would be scrutinized in the way that is usually reserved for party leadership figures or presidential candidates. And given Sanford’s penchant for saying and doing stupid things, Democrats can’t be blamed for betting that he will soon provide some new fodder for the late night comedians.

That leads us to the second reason why the GOP shouldn’t be hoping for a Sanford win. A loss tomorrow is probably the only way a national Republican Party that wants nothing more than to never hear his name again can be rid of Sanford. Once re-elected to that seat it will be difficult to dislodge him from it, meaning that he will be a permanent embarrassment rather than just a nightmare they can wake up from. His defeat will mean the much desired end of his political career and allow the party to regain the seat next time around with someone who won’t hurt other Republicans by his mere presence on the House floor and in the studios of the cable news networks.

Democrats who are hoping for a rare House win in a majority-white district in the South should just imagine how they would feel about Anthony Weiner being sent back to Washington by his former constituency. Of course, the New York Democratic Party gerrymandered his old district out of existence, making that horrifying prospect an impossibility.

Third, as Cilizza notes, a Colbert Busch win on Tuesday will set up a difficult re-election campaign next year that will drain precious campaign dollars from other more viable Democratic candidates. Beating Sanford will make Colbert Busch the new idol of the Emily’s List crowd. While it is theoretically possible that she will wow her constituents in the time in the House a special election gains for her, it’s not exactly a secret that it is only Sanford’s presence on the ballot that gives her shot this time. Up against even a minimally acceptable Republican, no Democrat has much of a chance to win there even with a massive infusion of national contributions or celebrity endorsements. A win for her will not only deprive them of having Sanford to beat up and to portray as a second Todd Akin in order to destroy the GOP brand, it will commit them to a fight in 2014 they probably can’t win.

Sanford’s possible victory should refocus Republicans on the task of finding electable candidates for federal office. While bad candidates can be establishment figures as easily as Tea Partiers, the party has to ponder what it can do to avoid being saddled with people like Akin or Sanford who make it hard on everyone who identifies with the GOP. The sooner it can dispose of such cringe-inducing politicians the better off all Republicans will be.

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Still Doing Obama’s Dirty Work in Syria

The Obama administration’s ostentatious display of indecision over the threat of chemical weapons use in Syria will only be exacerbated by the report of Sarin gas use by the opponents of the Assad regime. But as Emanuele Ottolenghi noted earlier today, the notion that the dictator has lost control of all of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction should make it all the more imperative that the president’s Hamlet act about treating the “red line” he set for the country end as soon as possible. But the Israeli attacks on Hezbollah and possible chemical targets in Syria have again made it clear that for all the scurrilous talk from conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites who promote the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” theory about the pro-Israel tail wagging the American dog, it is once again Israel that is doing America’s dirty work in the Middle East.

It is true, as Alon Pinkas writes in today’s Haaretz, that the Israeli strikes on Syrian targets are likely not directly related to the question of the use of chemical weapons. Israel’s interests in the Syrian conflict are immediate and tactical rather than strategic, meaning that it is far more concerned with the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon than the ultimate fate of the regime. However, far from dragging the United States into the conflict, as Israel-haters were alleging after Israeli sources confirmed the use of chemical weapons, it is the armed forces of the Jewish state that are playing a vital role in keeping a lid on the conflict. While Israel has no desire to become embroiled in a Syrian civil war between factions that likely share only their hate for the Jews, its ability to interdict the regime’s efforts to transfer its weapons to a fellow ally of Iran is giving Obama time to continue to make up his mind.

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The Obama administration’s ostentatious display of indecision over the threat of chemical weapons use in Syria will only be exacerbated by the report of Sarin gas use by the opponents of the Assad regime. But as Emanuele Ottolenghi noted earlier today, the notion that the dictator has lost control of all of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction should make it all the more imperative that the president’s Hamlet act about treating the “red line” he set for the country end as soon as possible. But the Israeli attacks on Hezbollah and possible chemical targets in Syria have again made it clear that for all the scurrilous talk from conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites who promote the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” theory about the pro-Israel tail wagging the American dog, it is once again Israel that is doing America’s dirty work in the Middle East.

It is true, as Alon Pinkas writes in today’s Haaretz, that the Israeli strikes on Syrian targets are likely not directly related to the question of the use of chemical weapons. Israel’s interests in the Syrian conflict are immediate and tactical rather than strategic, meaning that it is far more concerned with the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon than the ultimate fate of the regime. However, far from dragging the United States into the conflict, as Israel-haters were alleging after Israeli sources confirmed the use of chemical weapons, it is the armed forces of the Jewish state that are playing a vital role in keeping a lid on the conflict. While Israel has no desire to become embroiled in a Syrian civil war between factions that likely share only their hate for the Jews, its ability to interdict the regime’s efforts to transfer its weapons to a fellow ally of Iran is giving Obama time to continue to make up his mind.

There are still serious arguments to be made on behalf of U.S. caution in Syria, and it appears the president is sufficiently chastened by them so as to paralyze American action even after the “red line” he set was apparently crossed. The opposition is potentially as bad as Assad, and it may be that Washington has simply waited too long to act for an intervention to bring about a result that is even remotely palatable to Western interests. Short of a Western decision to enforce no-fly zones or to give heavy weapons to rebels, or at least those rebels the U.S. believes are not connected to al-Qaeda, the end of this war may not be in sight. Despite President Obama spending the last two years consistently calling for Assad to go, it may be that he will still be sitting in his Damascus palace three years from now when the president has left office. Given the bitter nature of the war, that may seem unimaginable. But the staying power of his regime and the value of the help he has received from Iran and its terrorist proxies has already been proved.

Short of the president arriving at a decision he seems unable to make, Israel remains a powerful deterrent against Iranian adventurism in Syria and Lebanon. Due to its hangover from Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States may choose to find a reason to stay out of the line of fire in Syria. Despite Israel’s ease in demonstrating that Syria’s vaunted air defenses are not able to stop attacks, America’s far superior forces may stand down no matter who is using chemical weapons there. That will create more problems that will only worsen. But so long as Israel is available to keep Assad and Iran in check, President Obama may feel free to continue “leading from behind.”

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Orban Whitewashes Hungarian Anti-Semitism

As I read Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s speech to the delegates of the World Jewish Congress, who assembled in Budapest this past weekend, I found myself visualizing the furrowed eyebrows and anxious seat shuffling going on in the audience. For not only was Orban’s speech a chain of platitudes from beginning to end, it was downright dishonest.

The WJC says it held its conference in Budapest as a gesture of solidarity with Hungary’s Jews, who are once again the targets of the kind of vicious anti-Semitism for which Eastern Europe is renowned. The direct source of the poison is the extreme right-wing Jobbik Party, which is these days the third-largest party in the Hungarian parliament, having won 17 per cent of the vote during the April 2010 elections. But several observers of the Hungarian scene have argued that Orban’s ruling Fidesz Party variously ignores, plays down or even encourages the anti-Semitism of Jobbik; Orban’s speech to the WJC, therefore, was his opportunity to clearly explain whether he considers Jobbik a threat, as well as his chance to make amends for his close friendship with Zsolt Bayer, an anti-Semitic writer who has compared Jews to “stinking excrement” and has opined that “a significant part” of the Roma gypsy population are “unfit for existence.”

In the event, neither Jobbik nor Bayer even made it into the speech. Instead, Orban declared that the situation in Hungary isn’t really that disturbing:

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As I read Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s speech to the delegates of the World Jewish Congress, who assembled in Budapest this past weekend, I found myself visualizing the furrowed eyebrows and anxious seat shuffling going on in the audience. For not only was Orban’s speech a chain of platitudes from beginning to end, it was downright dishonest.

The WJC says it held its conference in Budapest as a gesture of solidarity with Hungary’s Jews, who are once again the targets of the kind of vicious anti-Semitism for which Eastern Europe is renowned. The direct source of the poison is the extreme right-wing Jobbik Party, which is these days the third-largest party in the Hungarian parliament, having won 17 per cent of the vote during the April 2010 elections. But several observers of the Hungarian scene have argued that Orban’s ruling Fidesz Party variously ignores, plays down or even encourages the anti-Semitism of Jobbik; Orban’s speech to the WJC, therefore, was his opportunity to clearly explain whether he considers Jobbik a threat, as well as his chance to make amends for his close friendship with Zsolt Bayer, an anti-Semitic writer who has compared Jews to “stinking excrement” and has opined that “a significant part” of the Roma gypsy population are “unfit for existence.”

In the event, neither Jobbik nor Bayer even made it into the speech. Instead, Orban declared that the situation in Hungary isn’t really that disturbing:

I know that Jewish leaders have come here from all over the world. Including from places where anti-Semitism sometimes claims the lives of schoolchildren. And from places where following the anti-Semitic murder of children, there is no consensus on whether a minute’s silence in memory of the victims may be ordered in state schools. From places where bomb attacks that claim lives are launched against synagogues. Nothing of this nature has so far occurred in Hungary.

Really? Try telling that to Ferenc Orosz, the head of Hungary’s Raoul Wallenberg Association. At the end of April, Orosz attended, together with his family, a soccer match at Budapest’s Puskas Stadium. A group of spectators sitting nearby were bellowing the Nazi chant, “Sieg Heil,” and Orosz courageously demanded that they stop. Of course, the hooligans turned on him, spitting “Jewish communist” and other anti-Semitic epithets in his direction. When Orosz attempted to leave the stadium at the end of the game, two men blocked him, one of whom punched him in the face, leaving him with a broken nose.

Evidently, the WJC wasn’t too impressed by Orban’s implication that anti-Semitism shouldn’t be taken overly seriously unless bombs are exploding in synagogues. In a statement released after Orban’s speech, the WJC expressed its “regret” that the prime minister had not “confronted…the threat posed by the anti-Semites in general and by the extreme-right Jobbik party in particular…Mr. Orban did not address any recent anti-Semitic or racist incidents in the country, nor did he provide sufficient reassurance that a clear line has been drawn between his government and the far-right fringe.” (Having spent several years working for American Jewish advocacy organizations, I know that their desire to maintain access to troubling leaders like Argentine President Christina Kirchner and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dampens down any criticism they might advance; the WJC statement is thus a notable and welcome departure from that unfortunate habit.)

Ultimately, the WJC wanted something from Orban that he wasn’t prepared to give them; not just an abstract statement that “anti-Semitism is unacceptable and intolerable,” but a concrete undertaking to eradicate it from Hungarian politics. Orban’s silence on the nature of the threat to Hungary’s Jews will, rest assured, be interpreted as a license by the country’s anti-Semites (like the Jobbik parliamentarian Marton Gyongyosi, whose idea of solidarity with the population of the Gaza Strip was to publish a list of Jews he considers to be a “national security risk”) to continue their agitation.

For that reason, a precise understanding of Jobbik’s anti-Semitic worldview becomes all the more important. It is true that Jobbik leaders echo the Nazis in their constant associations of Jews with human waste and sexual mischief, and in that sense, it is correct to classify the party as a part of the extreme right. Yet, as the Gyongyosi episode demonstrated, Jobbik has also imbibed the visceral loathing of Zionism and Israel more commonly associated with the extreme left. Gyongyosi himself told an anti-Semitic rally staged in Budapest on the eve of the WJC conference that Hungary has “become subjugated to Zionism, it has become a target of colonisation while we, the indigenous people, can play only the role of extras”.

As James Kirchick has observed, statements like this one explain why Jobbik, with its “virulently anti-Europe rhetoric, anti-Western worldview, and undisguised anti-Semitism,” has “embraced the mullahs” who rule Iran. Nor is the romance with Iran confined to Jobbik. Eleven of the 27 parliamentarians on the executive of the “Hungary-Iran friendship committee,” which is chaired by Gyongyosi, belong to Orban’s Fidesz Party. And that, incidentally, is another detail that somehow didn’t make it into Orban’s speech.

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The 2012 Election Is Over; the Benghazi Scandal Is Not

I have a somewhat different take than that of Seth Mandel, who says that Stephen Hayes’s scoop on Benghazi “is probably more significant than it may have seemed at first glance, even though he didn’t provide much in the way of new information.”

My first reaction–which I spoke about on Friday during my appearance on the panel discussion on Fox News’s Special Report with Bret Baier–was that the story is explosive, largely because Hayes’s story provides much in the way of new information.

It provides fresh evidence that, in the words of Hayes, “senior Obama administration officials knowingly misled the country about what had happened in the days following the assaults [on the U.S. outpost in Benghazi on September 11, 2012].” (Emphasis added).

We now know, for example, that the early talking points were accurate–and it was only after the State Department and the White House, among others, got done revising the talking points that the truth was transformed into a false account.

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I have a somewhat different take than that of Seth Mandel, who says that Stephen Hayes’s scoop on Benghazi “is probably more significant than it may have seemed at first glance, even though he didn’t provide much in the way of new information.”

My first reaction–which I spoke about on Friday during my appearance on the panel discussion on Fox News’s Special Report with Bret Baier–was that the story is explosive, largely because Hayes’s story provides much in the way of new information.

It provides fresh evidence that, in the words of Hayes, “senior Obama administration officials knowingly misled the country about what had happened in the days following the assaults [on the U.S. outpost in Benghazi on September 11, 2012].” (Emphasis added).

We now know, for example, that the early talking points were accurate–and it was only after the State Department and the White House, among others, got done revising the talking points that the truth was transformed into a false account.

To be specific: early (accurate) references to “Islamic extremists” were removed. Early (accurate) references to “attacks” were changed to “demonstrations.” And there was no mention of any YouTube video in any of the many drafts of the talking points–even though everyone from the president of the United States to the secretary of state to the U.N. ambassador blamed the video for the attacks.

The Benghazi scandal has always been multi-layered. There was the near-criminal negligence before and during the assault on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, when pleas for more security prior to the attacks and assistance during the attacks were denied. And then there were the misleading accounts after the attacks.

It now seems clear, based on the reporting by Steve Hayes and the accounts of those who were key actors during the attacks, that the accounts of the attacks by the Obama administration were not simply wrong; they were knowingly and willfully wrong. Which turns a mistake into a lie.

For the president and his team, there was probably both ideology and self-interest at play. To take them in order: This is the latest example of the Obama administration living in a fantasy world of its own making, in which Islamic extremism barely exists and poses no real threat to America. We saw it in the aftermath of the Ft. Hood massacre, where a jihadist attack (by Major Nidal Hasan) was said to be an example of “workplace violence.” They refuse to call evil by its name. 

But it’s also obvious that the president and his administration wanted to advance a storyline that al-Qaeda was in retreat. The Benghazi attacks eviscerated that claim–and so the president and his team decided to disfigure the facts, to mislead the American people, to fit their story and advance their political interests. Barack Obama had an election to win–and so he had a scandal to hide.

That has worked until now, when the House will hold hearings later this week featuring whistleblowers who will, by all accounts, tell a story fundamentally at odds with the version the Obama administration has been peddling.

On Friday I referred to the Benghazi scandal as a time-release capsule, where a delay takes place before the full effects are felt. The Obama administration lied about an Islamic attack on an American outpost that killed an American ambassador and three others. They have been caught in the lie. We’re now in the process of seeing how deep, and how high, the corruption goes.

The election is over. This scandal is not.

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The NRA and the Intensity Gap

Liberal commentators are expressing horror about the celebratory tone of the speeches heard this past weekend at the annual convention of the National Rifle Association. The NRA wasn’t shy about declaring victory in its struggle to thwart the Obama administration’s efforts to pass a raft of new gun laws, even stopping the most moderate Manchin-Toomey expansion of background checks. But what’s really interesting about the commentary about the NRA love-in with opponents of gun laws like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin isn’t so much the anger about the group’s triumph as it is in the blind confidence on the left that the group’s days of political success are numbered.

Anyone who listened to most of those commenting on the NRA gathering on the news talk shows in recent days knows that among liberals there is a conviction that what happened in the last month, when Democrats joined with the majority of Republicans to stop Manchin-Toomey and every other proposed gun law, including those that would have imposed far greater restrictions on firearm ownership, won’t be repeated in the future. They believe anger from the voters who presumably make up the large majorities that polls say back universal background checks, fueled by emotional appeals from the Newtown victim families and funded by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will change the political equation next year.

But while one should never underestimate the power of the sort of “bloody shirt” politics that Newtown has produced as well as the impact of Bloomberg’s cash, the NRA convention should have reminded us that single-issue politics is always a function of the intensity gap that have always decided votes on gun control.

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Liberal commentators are expressing horror about the celebratory tone of the speeches heard this past weekend at the annual convention of the National Rifle Association. The NRA wasn’t shy about declaring victory in its struggle to thwart the Obama administration’s efforts to pass a raft of new gun laws, even stopping the most moderate Manchin-Toomey expansion of background checks. But what’s really interesting about the commentary about the NRA love-in with opponents of gun laws like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin isn’t so much the anger about the group’s triumph as it is in the blind confidence on the left that the group’s days of political success are numbered.

Anyone who listened to most of those commenting on the NRA gathering on the news talk shows in recent days knows that among liberals there is a conviction that what happened in the last month, when Democrats joined with the majority of Republicans to stop Manchin-Toomey and every other proposed gun law, including those that would have imposed far greater restrictions on firearm ownership, won’t be repeated in the future. They believe anger from the voters who presumably make up the large majorities that polls say back universal background checks, fueled by emotional appeals from the Newtown victim families and funded by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will change the political equation next year.

But while one should never underestimate the power of the sort of “bloody shirt” politics that Newtown has produced as well as the impact of Bloomberg’s cash, the NRA convention should have reminded us that single-issue politics is always a function of the intensity gap that have always decided votes on gun control.

Liberal pundits can talk all they want about the polls that show 90 percent of Americans backing background checks, but the vast majority of voters are influenced by a multiplicity of issues in any election. A politician who can be portrayed as outside the mainstream is always going to be in trouble. But the point about hot-button issues like guns is that most of the votes that are cast on it are not in the mushy middle, where most Americans reside, but on the margins, where the fervor is primarily to be found among those who treat anything that can be conceivably interpreted as an infringement on gun rights as what will determine how they cast their ballot.

Thus, it is no surprise to learn that in the months since Newtown, NRA membership has gone through the roof, with their numbers expanding from four to five million strong. The president and other gun-control advocates can pretend that the group is merely the political arm of the firearms industry, but any organization that can count five million dues-paying members must be considered formidable no matter what they were advocating.

The growth of the NRA seems counterintuitive to liberals who believe Newtown and any other instance of gun violence proves that more legislation is needed to curb the availability of weapons. But what they are finding is that the more they scream about the need for gun control, the more people who like guns are flocking to stores to buy them and signing up for the NRA. And unlike the overwhelming majority of those who tell pollsters they like Manchin-Toomey, these NRA members can be counted on to keep the group’s “stand and fight” slogan in mind in the voting booth.

A Bloomberg-funded push against a northeastern Republican like Kelly Ayotte and the continued stalking of her by gun violence victim family members might make a difference in her re-election race in 2016. But the majority of those up in 2014, including red-state Democrats, are probably still more afraid of the NRA than they are of the New York mayor.

Though the NRA has made plenty of mistakes in the past few months, none of them has diminished the intensity of those who see any compromise on the issue as the thin edge of the wedge of the movement toward the banning of legal weapons. For that, they can thank Obama and Bloomberg.

Part of the problem here is that no matter how reasonable background checks might be (and I happen to agree that Manchin-Toomey was reasonable and in no way should be construed as an infringement on the Second Amendment), there was no clear connection between outrage about Newtown and the proposals put forward in Congress. As much as liberals thought that tragedy was a game-changer, it didn’t convince anybody who cared about gun rights to change their minds. Nor did it create a huge, vocal single-issue constituency for gun control that would have the potential to frighten politicians away from the NRA. Indeed, as I wrote last week, the president’s effort to exploit the emotions of the country seems only to have inspired more fervent opposition because they see Manchin-Toomey as a stalking horse for the broader liberal measures that will surely follow if it is passed.

While it is possible they can create an answer to the NRA in the way that abortion-rights defenders have done so in response to the pro-life movement, it’s not clear this will make much of a difference in states where guns are popular. Unless and until Democrats (who were conspicuous by their absence from the roster of NRA speakers) can demonstrate that their anti-gun crusade can produce the same kind of intensity that gun rights advocates can count on, this won’t change. 

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Ted Cruz and the Politics of Imprudence

The Wall Street Journal published an editorial responding to claims made by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The editorial is worth reading for a couple of reasons.

The first is that it offers a useful correction to Senator Cruz’s effort to rewrite history when it comes to his role in the recent gun-control debate. The issue at hand is that Cruz, along with Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul, wanted to filibuster a bill expanding background checks rather than allow it to come to a vote. The Journal rightly criticized this tactic as self-destructive, since it would allow Democrats to portray Republicans as obstructionists for blocking Senate debate and a vote. Fortunately, the gambit by Cruz & Company failed. The measure was voted on and it went down to defeat. Yet Cruz, in a speech to FreedomWorks, “now wants to take credit for that victory when he opposed the strategy that led to it,” in the words of the Journal.

This is foolish on several fronts, not the least of which is that Cruz’s assertion is so easy to disprove.

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The Wall Street Journal published an editorial responding to claims made by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The editorial is worth reading for a couple of reasons.

The first is that it offers a useful correction to Senator Cruz’s effort to rewrite history when it comes to his role in the recent gun-control debate. The issue at hand is that Cruz, along with Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul, wanted to filibuster a bill expanding background checks rather than allow it to come to a vote. The Journal rightly criticized this tactic as self-destructive, since it would allow Democrats to portray Republicans as obstructionists for blocking Senate debate and a vote. Fortunately, the gambit by Cruz & Company failed. The measure was voted on and it went down to defeat. Yet Cruz, in a speech to FreedomWorks, “now wants to take credit for that victory when he opposed the strategy that led to it,” in the words of the Journal.

This is foolish on several fronts, not the least of which is that Cruz’s assertion is so easy to disprove.

But this episode touches on a deeper matter, which is the habit some on the right have of confusing principled convictions with self-destructive tactics. Rather than selectively picking the ground on which to fight, they seem to relish brinksmanship and conflict, even if they lose those confrontations legislatively and in the court of public opinion. But what makes this whole thing slightly bizarre is that in the process the self-styled purists accuse those who oppose them as being (in Cruz’s elegant description) “a bunch of squishes.”

It takes a person of unusual ideological brittleness to mock those who are intelligent enough not to join a lawmaker and his colleagues in their version of Pickett’s Charge. The issue here isn’t who is more principled, since it’s not particularly principled to lose in a manner that sets back one’s cause. The issue is who is wiser. (Kimberley Strassel dismantles Senator Cruz’s claims in her most recent Potomac Watch column.)

Senator Cruz calls himself a conservative. So are many on the right who disagree with his tactics. Mr. Cruz might also want to introduce himself to an ancient and conservative virtue, prudence. The Lincoln biographer Allen Guelzo wrote a short essay in 2006 on “The Prudence of Abraham Lincoln,” in which he said this about America’s greatest president (and America’s greatest Republican):

Lincoln insisted that he “regarded prudence in all respect as one of the cardinal virtues,” and he hoped, as president, that “it will appear that we have practiced prudence” in the management of public affairs. Even in the midst of the Civil War, he promised that the war would be carried forward “consistently with the prudence…which ought always to regulate the public service,” and without allowing it to degenerate “into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.” Lincoln had little notion that, over the course of a hundred and fifty years, this commitment to prudence would become a source of condemnation rather than approval.

For some, prudence is still a source of condemnation rather than approval. It was unwise then; and it’s unwise now. 

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Citizenship and Obama’s Opposition

In a sign that President Obama has shifted tactics as he heads into the lame duck period of his administration, his audience was treated to an approving quotation of his predecessor during the course of his commencement address delivered yesterday at the Ohio State University. The quote was from Bush’s own OSU graduation speech in 2002 at which he said the country “needs full time citizens” rather than “spectators and occasional voters.” It’s a timeless message in any democracy, but while most of Obama’s remarks struck a similarly anodyne tone, within it was a full-throated defense of government that deserves some unpacking.

At the heart of his address was an attack on the idea that “government is the source of our problems.” In response to this stereotypical straw man, Obama said the answer to such sentiments is a defense of collective action. Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see the president’s agenda is to blame conservatives who are suspicious of big government for the dysfunction in Washington and to claim they are the obstacle to the grand liberal project of “rebuild[ing] a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.” But while any call for more participation in our democratic process is to be welcomed, calling his conservative critics “cynics” who are impeding progress misreads the intent of the Founders he cites. They created a system designed to place curbs on the ambitions of politicians like Barack Obama. If contemporary Americans are suspicious of his big government projects, they are acting in the spirit of those who wrote our Constitution, not as self-interested elites trying to harm the people.

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In a sign that President Obama has shifted tactics as he heads into the lame duck period of his administration, his audience was treated to an approving quotation of his predecessor during the course of his commencement address delivered yesterday at the Ohio State University. The quote was from Bush’s own OSU graduation speech in 2002 at which he said the country “needs full time citizens” rather than “spectators and occasional voters.” It’s a timeless message in any democracy, but while most of Obama’s remarks struck a similarly anodyne tone, within it was a full-throated defense of government that deserves some unpacking.

At the heart of his address was an attack on the idea that “government is the source of our problems.” In response to this stereotypical straw man, Obama said the answer to such sentiments is a defense of collective action. Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see the president’s agenda is to blame conservatives who are suspicious of big government for the dysfunction in Washington and to claim they are the obstacle to the grand liberal project of “rebuild[ing] a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.” But while any call for more participation in our democratic process is to be welcomed, calling his conservative critics “cynics” who are impeding progress misreads the intent of the Founders he cites. They created a system designed to place curbs on the ambitions of politicians like Barack Obama. If contemporary Americans are suspicious of his big government projects, they are acting in the spirit of those who wrote our Constitution, not as self-interested elites trying to harm the people.

Here’s the key passage from the president’s address:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

We have never been a people who place all of our faith in government to solve our problems; we shouldn’t want to. But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either. Because we understand that this democracy is ours. And as citizens, we understand that it’s not about what America can do for us; it’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government. And, Class of 2013, you have to be involved in that process.

The founders trusted us with this awesome authority. We should trust ourselves with it, too. Because when we don’t, when we turn away and get discouraged and cynical, and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who will gladly claim it. That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; and policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business — and then whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get.

That’s how a small minority of lawmakers get cover to defeat something the vast majority of their constituents want. That’s how our political system gets consumed by small things when we are a people called to do great things — like rebuild a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.

Class of 2013, only you can ultimately break that cycle. Only you can make sure the democracy you inherit is as good as we know it can be. But it requires your dedicated, and informed, and engaged citizenship. And that citizenship is a harder, higher road to take, but it leads to a better place. It’s how we built this country — together.

There are two big problems here.

One is the attempt to characterize opponents as people who are exploiting or fomenting cynicism about government in order to thwart majority rule for the sake of the privileged. This is the same old class warfare argument that flies in the face of claims that the president is the adult in the room while those on the other side are extremists who have debased our national discourse with attacks on his legitimacy.

More important is the notion that there is something illegitimate about fear of growing the power of government.

After all, contrary to the myth cherished by liberals that the Tea Party was a top-down affair in which a few extremist protesters were manipulated by a small group of wealthy conservatives, it was in fact a broad-based grass roots movement. Though its moment of greatest popularity may have passed, it is not the “the well connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business,” but ordinary Americans who worry about higher taxes and the creation of programs like ObamaCare that expand the scope and power of government.

Just as crucial, it is the crony capitalists who donated vast sums to the president’s campaigns that we find can count on being able to “whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get.” A president that gave us the Solyndra boondoggle and whose Cabinet is increasingly populated with billionaire bundlers like Penny Pritzker is in no position to assert that it is his opponents that are unrepresentative.

After all, the fear of tyranny Obama cited isn’t an invention of the Koch brothers or the Tea Party, it can be found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and most of the founders. They worried that our “experiment in self-rule” would fail specifically because of over-reaching on the part of the government or a blind obedience to the vagaries of public opinion. Our Constitution was written by men who understood that the key principle of American democracy must be a system of checks and balances that was designed to frustrate people like Obama who want to shove their big ideas about re-engineering our society and government down the throats of the voters. They placed obstacles in the path of such leaders in the form of representative government institutions that are supposed to go slow and invariably give voice to those who are more interested in holding government accountable than in growing it. Supporting this instinct isn’t cynical, nor is it a function of special interests. It is democracy in its purest and most American form.

What is most ironic about casting opponents of Obama’s agenda as seeking to thwart the will of the people is that such efforts are themselves only possible via grass roots action. The president’s message seems to be one that posits that participatory democracy is only proper if it produces results he likes, and not those—like the election of two successive Republican majorities in the House of Representatives—he doesn’t like.

What Barack Obama needs to come to terms with is that his opposition is not just a cabal of right-wing capitalists. Distrust of government is part of the DNA of American democracy. Those who are against Obama’s big government agenda constitute a significant portion of the American people and can look to the founders and the Constitution as their guide. The president can certainly seek to argue against their beliefs, but he should not do so by questioning their sincerity or dedication to the betterment of the nation any more than they should personally abuse him in this manner. If what he wants is a more involved citizenry, we applaud and concur in this appeal. But what the president must understand is that many of those who answer that call will do so in opposition to his program and can look to the original sources of American democratic principles for their inspiration.

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The Return of Clintonian Politics

Stephen Hayes’s scoop on Benghazi is probably more significant than it may have seemed at first glance, even though he didn’t provide much in the way of new information. His article was built around the emails released by a group of Republican House committee chairmen after a congressional investigation into the Obama administration’s response to the September 11 anniversary attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya. Those emails detailed the efforts of the administration to craft talking points that downplayed or omitted information the administration already knew about the role of Islamic terrorist actors in the attacks, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens.

The resulting talking points were designed to mislead the American public about what happened, because then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s leadership at Foggy Bottom was marked by negligence and incompetence, and the new talking points were written to exonerate her. But Hayes provided a key piece of information: names. Specifically, he revealed the authors of some of those emails. As a result, it’s far easier to piece together what happened. Hayes explains that State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland raised concerns that the original talking points too accurately portrayed the incompetence at the highest levels of State. Hayes continues:

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Stephen Hayes’s scoop on Benghazi is probably more significant than it may have seemed at first glance, even though he didn’t provide much in the way of new information. His article was built around the emails released by a group of Republican House committee chairmen after a congressional investigation into the Obama administration’s response to the September 11 anniversary attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya. Those emails detailed the efforts of the administration to craft talking points that downplayed or omitted information the administration already knew about the role of Islamic terrorist actors in the attacks, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens.

The resulting talking points were designed to mislead the American public about what happened, because then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s leadership at Foggy Bottom was marked by negligence and incompetence, and the new talking points were written to exonerate her. But Hayes provided a key piece of information: names. Specifically, he revealed the authors of some of those emails. As a result, it’s far easier to piece together what happened. Hayes explains that State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland raised concerns that the original talking points too accurately portrayed the incompetence at the highest levels of State. Hayes continues:

In an attempt to address those concerns, CIA officials cut all references to Ansar al Sharia and made minor tweaks. But in a follow-up email at 9:24 p.m., Nuland wrote that the problem remained and that her superiors—she did not say which ones—were unhappy. The changes, she wrote, did not “resolve all my issues or those of my building leadership,” and State Department leadership was contacting National Security Council officials directly. Moments later, according to the House report, “White House officials responded by stating that the State Department’s concerns would have to be taken into account.” One official—Ben Rhodes, The Weekly Standard is told, a top adviser to President Obama on national security and foreign policy—further advised the group that the issues would be resolved in a meeting of top administration officials the following morning at the White House.

As I’ve written in the past, there is simply no way around Clinton’s failure to address security needs, her dismissal or ignorance of threats on the ground, and the general chain-of-command disorganization and bureaucratic confusion that prevailed during her tenure at State. But Clinton also wants to run for president, presumably, or at least have the option open to her. So her staff demanded the White House tell the public a different story, and the White House complied. (The mainstream media comes out of this looking ever worse, by the way.)

What came next wasn’t very surprising to anyone who has endured the brand of politics practiced by the Clintons. Though it was obviously on Clinton to explain what had just happened, she didn’t want to be within a mile of accountability. So Clinton kept silent and the administration sent out Susan Rice to deliver the misleading talking points on the Sunday shows. That proved a setback to Rice–who should have seen the whole thing coming a mile away–in her quest to succeed Clinton when the latter stepped aside after the election. But Clinton wants to be president and doesn’t want Rice elevating her stature and developing her own power base, so Clinton’s allies in the media fairly brazenly sabotaged Rice’s sputtering nomination.

As Clinton gears up to attempt to return to the White House, the Benghazi episode is worth keeping in mind as a reminder of the Clintonian politics of personal destruction and ruthless dishonesty that would surely return with her. But the Benghazi revelations weren’t the only such reminder in the news recently. MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry drew some attention for cutting a promo for the network lamenting the lack of a “collective” notion of child-rearing, suggesting that “we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.”

This generated the attention MSNBC was looking for, since it was creepy and mildly totalitarian, and people seemed genuinely surprised that this was the image the network wanted to project of its own programming. (If the public actually watched MSNBC they would probably be less surprised, but they don’t.) Yet if Harris-Perry’s Orwellian idea of who your children belong to sounded familiar, it should: as Jonah Goldberg wrote in a 2007 column, Hillary Clinton once said that “As adults we have to start thinking and believing that there isn’t really any such thing as someone else’s child. … For that reason, we cannot permit discussions of children and families to be subverted by political or ideological debate.”

Goldberg protested:

But here’s the thing: There really is such a thing as somebody else’s child. I don’t want to live in a country where there’s no such thing as somebody else’s child, because that means there’s no such thing as my child. And the fact is, my child is mine and nobody else’s (save, of course, for her mother). Almost as important, I don’t want to live in a country where I am a “subversive” simply by offering political or ideological debate against this vision.

That objection to Clinton’s worldview was relevant then and is relevant now. Clinton is popular largely because she has stayed out of the partisan fray and enjoyed the approval ratings shared by secretaries of state from both parties (though a lower approval rating than some of her predecessors). But if and when Clinton runs for president again, it’s worth remembering what brand of politics she’ll bring with her.

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Jihadymous

The Washington Times reports on a possible hacker-jihad alliance. The anarchist group Anonymous is launching new cyberattacks against the U.S. government. But “the attacks are being promoted by the moderators of websites and discussion forums that host al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist material, in addition to calls through more conventional hacker channels like the bulletin board Pastebin.” According to the Department of Homeland Security, “This collaboration may signal an emerging trend of Middle East- and North Africa-based criminally motivated hackers collaborating with others regardless of their motivation.”

It would only be shocking if this didn’t prove to be the start of an emerging trend. But it’s not that hackers and jihadists would collaborate “regardless of motivation.” Rather, they share a motivation. Back in March 2011, I wrote about the affinity between anarchist hackers and jihadists:

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The Washington Times reports on a possible hacker-jihad alliance. The anarchist group Anonymous is launching new cyberattacks against the U.S. government. But “the attacks are being promoted by the moderators of websites and discussion forums that host al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist material, in addition to calls through more conventional hacker channels like the bulletin board Pastebin.” According to the Department of Homeland Security, “This collaboration may signal an emerging trend of Middle East- and North Africa-based criminally motivated hackers collaborating with others regardless of their motivation.”

It would only be shocking if this didn’t prove to be the start of an emerging trend. But it’s not that hackers and jihadists would collaborate “regardless of motivation.” Rather, they share a motivation. Back in March 2011, I wrote about the affinity between anarchist hackers and jihadists:

Of the two types of present-day anarchism, the cyber variety is clearly the greater threat. Cyberanarchists are a well-adapted parasitic complication of modern times, whereas the European bomb throwers, for their rising numbers, are almost symbolically retro. Some among the latter have even taken to warning their targets in advance. Moreover, as the world economy finds its footing, disgruntled leftists of all stripes are sure to fade away. But the cyberanarchists, in addition to having the effective means, will also have their cause so long as their “new home of social consciousness” needs defending.

“That we are Utopians is well known,” wrote Peter Kropotkin of his ideological tribe. Whether they are indulging in a violent retro pastime or disruptive futuristic one, today’s anarchists remain utopians, believing, like yesterday’s, that they own the future. And the delusional claim on the world to come will always foster nihilism in the here and now. “We are not the least afraid of ruin,” said the Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durutti. Why? “We are going to inherit the earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. . . . The bourgeoisie may blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history.” That indifference to the destructive acts of others functions as a dispensation they grant themselves. In this, the anarchists are like the jihadists, who value only the eventuality of the global caliphate and care not at all for the world that actually exists.

Jihadists’ global caliphate is physical, cyberanarchists’ is digital. But it’s the destruction of the U.S.-led international order that motivates both. 

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Karzai, Corruption, and CIA Bags of Cash

You’ve got to hand it to Hamid Karzai. He is nothing if not brazen. Other world leaders might be embarrassed if caught accepting bags of cash from the CIA. Not Karzai. Instead, he is bragging to reporters that the CIA money was “an easy source of petty cash” and reassuring anyone who will listen that he will continue on the CIA payroll.

The question is: What is the CIA getting for its (read: our) money? I am not opposed in principle to the CIA paying off the leaders of other countries; it has certainly done so before. If intelligently used, cash can be a valuable part of an influence operation; it can be a vital source of support for strong pro-American leaders such as Ramon Magsaysay, the president of the Philippines from 1953 to 1957.

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You’ve got to hand it to Hamid Karzai. He is nothing if not brazen. Other world leaders might be embarrassed if caught accepting bags of cash from the CIA. Not Karzai. Instead, he is bragging to reporters that the CIA money was “an easy source of petty cash” and reassuring anyone who will listen that he will continue on the CIA payroll.

The question is: What is the CIA getting for its (read: our) money? I am not opposed in principle to the CIA paying off the leaders of other countries; it has certainly done so before. If intelligently used, cash can be a valuable part of an influence operation; it can be a vital source of support for strong pro-American leaders such as Ramon Magsaysay, the president of the Philippines from 1953 to 1957.

The question in this case is whether the CIA has gotten value for its money. It is hard to know for sure because there is much we do not know about these payments, whose existence was first disclosed by the New York Times last week (while, coincidentally, I happened to be traveling in Afghanistan).

But in general I share the disquiet expressed by veteran Afghanistan watcher Sarah Chayes in this article and this one.

She argues that the payoffs “may well have enabled Karzai’s frequent and theatrical outbursts against U.S. officials and policies, not to mention his collusion with some of his country’s most corrupt and abusive officials. Such payoffs signal to Karzai — or other leaders like him — that he enjoys the unwavering support of the CIA, no matter what he does or says, and embolden him to thumb his nose at the United States whenever he feels like it.”

Particularly troubling is that, as Chayes notes, “the CIA’s bag man was Muhammad Zia Salehi,” the very same Karzai aide who “in July 2010 was arrested by U.S.-mentored Afghan police officers, on charges of influence peddling,” before being released at Karzai’s insistence.

Whatever the CIA was buying with its money, the payments came at a heavy cost–namely, to undermine any hopes of curbing the rampant corruption which has done so much to dissipate confidence in the government and provide an opening to the Taliban. Like Chayes, I was part of a small group of outside advisers who urged General David Petraeus, when he was in Kabul, to make fighting corruption a bigger priority. Petraeus did put more resources into the effort, but it’s hard to escape the conviction that his efforts were undermined by the CIA which, pursuing its own foreign policy, has been paying off officials such as the late Ahmed Wali Karzai, a half-brother of the president who was a powerbroker in Kandahar, and the president himself.

No doubt the CIA has had good arguments for its payments. I’m sure it could cite intelligence and services provided by the Karzais and other recipients of its largess; Ahmed Wali Karzai, for example, ran a “strike force” of anti-Taliban fighters at the agency’s behest. But I am not sure that these benefits were ever adequately balanced against the heavy cost of, in effect, subsidizing corruption.

Such an accounting would be almost impossible to undertake because the CIA is so secretive about its efforts–I doubt that either the U.S. ambassador or the NATO commander in Kabul have ever been aware of the full range of its activities. The CIA station chief has always been a powerbroker in his own right, often the most important American in the country–at least from the perspective of senior Afghans who have become dependent on CIA subsidies.

In effect, the agency has been pursuing a cynical policy focused, as far as I can tell, on killing or capturing al-Qaeda leaders, even at the potential cost of harming Afghanistan’s long-term future, which depends on maintaining popular support for the government. The problem is, unless Afghanistan has a stable and legitimate government, the country will never be strong enough to keep out extremists from al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, and other extremist groups barring a massive presence of U.S. troops, which will not last much longer. The tragedy here is that the CIA’s short-term mindset may be undermining our long-run odds of success in Afghanistan.

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Has Assad Already Lost Control of Syria’s Chemical Weapons?

While the debate continues on the administration’s apparent slip of tongue that is causing some much confusion about President Obama’s Syria policy or rather, lack thereof, the UN has now weighed in on the sarin attacks. And the response, while still tentative and requiring further confirmation, is bound to muddy the waters even further.

Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Enquiry on Syria, has pointed an accusing finger at the opposition for the use of sarin gas. In an interview she gave to Swiss-Italian TV yesterday, Ms. Del Ponte indicated that evidence suggests the much-reported-on sarin gas attacks were launched by Syrian rebel forces, not by the regime.

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While the debate continues on the administration’s apparent slip of tongue that is causing some much confusion about President Obama’s Syria policy or rather, lack thereof, the UN has now weighed in on the sarin attacks. And the response, while still tentative and requiring further confirmation, is bound to muddy the waters even further.

Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Enquiry on Syria, has pointed an accusing finger at the opposition for the use of sarin gas. In an interview she gave to Swiss-Italian TV yesterday, Ms. Del Ponte indicated that evidence suggests the much-reported-on sarin gas attacks were launched by Syrian rebel forces, not by the regime.

The UN sounds surprised, as will everyone else. Considering that Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi made a similar accusation last week, adding that the use chemical weapons by rebels was a red line for Iran, things are just about to get interesting.

But quite aside from the fact that the emerging evidence on which Ms. Del Ponte’s statement is based could now be used by Iran as a pretext for even more overt involvement in the Syrian civil war, the rebels’ apparent responsibility for a chemical weapons attack should provide a moment of clarity in the debate. If anything, it should spur the Obama administration and its Western allies into action.

A rebel chemical attack means that the Syrian regime has lost control over its arsenal. Their WMDs have now fallen into the hands of the opposition. Just imagine, then, how much more dangerous the entire regional theater becomes once we contemplate the implications of Syria’s vast chemical weapons arsenal let loose in the hands of warring factions.

The chaos that followed the Libya adventure led to vast amounts of conventional weapons being transferred across Libya’s borders into Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, including Syria, as indicated in a recent UN Panel of Experts’ report.

If Ms. Del Ponte is right, the rebels, having shown no moral compunction about killing their countrymen with sarin gas, may easily transfer whatever weaponry they have gotten hold of onto others. Weapons smuggling, after all, has been on-going across the Lebanese-Syrian border for some time in both directions.

Which brings us to the foreign policy “confusion” about red lines, unscripted remarks and the national interest.

The policy implications of rebels using chemical weapons in Syria are that the Syrian government, regardless of who is ultimately responsible for the use of sarin gas against civilians, can no longer be relied on to keep those weapons under lock and key. Israel’s airstrikes deep into Syria over the weekend prove that where there is a will there is a way to take Syria’s arsenal out, without boots on the ground. If Ms. Del Ponte is proven right, ultimately, airstrikes destroying Syria’s non-conventional weapons should be the first order of priority for the U.S. administration.

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What the West Should Learn from the Fayyad-Cohen Spat

The spat between New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad must be afflicting liberals with severe cognitive dissonance. But there’s a very important lesson to be drawn from it.

The contretemps began when Cohen published a column on Friday that included numerous direct quotes from Fayyad, many of which were highly unflattering to the Palestinian Authority’s ruling party, Fatah. “This party, Fatah, is going to break down, there is so much disenchantment,” Cohen quoted Fayyad as saying. “Our story is a story of failed leadership, from way early on. It is incredible that the fate of the Palestinian people has been in the hands of leaders so entirely casual, so guided by spur-of-the-moment decisions, without seriousness. We don’t strategize, we cut deals in a tactical way and we hold ourselves hostage to our own rhetoric.”

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The spat between New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad must be afflicting liberals with severe cognitive dissonance. But there’s a very important lesson to be drawn from it.

The contretemps began when Cohen published a column on Friday that included numerous direct quotes from Fayyad, many of which were highly unflattering to the Palestinian Authority’s ruling party, Fatah. “This party, Fatah, is going to break down, there is so much disenchantment,” Cohen quoted Fayyad as saying. “Our story is a story of failed leadership, from way early on. It is incredible that the fate of the Palestinian people has been in the hands of leaders so entirely casual, so guided by spur-of-the-moment decisions, without seriousness. We don’t strategize, we cut deals in a tactical way and we hold ourselves hostage to our own rhetoric.”

Fayyad promptly issued a denial. “The statements in the article are just journalist Roger Cohen’s personal impressions, and certainly not the words of Fayyad, who did not make any statements or conduct interviews for the New York Times or any other newspaper or agency since his resignation,” his statement declared. He also accused the paper of “forgery that carries political dimensions with the goal of causing damage and fomenting strife in order to serve positions that are hostile to the Palestinians and their national project at this sensitive and critical phase.”

So to put it bluntly, either the star columnist for America’s leading liberal newspaper fabricated quotes and put them in the mouth of a man he never even spoke with, or America’s favorite Palestinian leader just told a bald-faced lie.

To anyone familiar with the Palestinian scene, it’s not hard to conclude that the liar is Fayyad: He’s the one whose life is literally on the line. One Fatah legislator has already called for indicting him on charges of “crimes against the Palestinian people.” But the more serious danger is that Fatah has plenty of experienced killers with no qualms about shooting fellow Palestinians who upset them: See, for instance, the assassinations and attempted assassinations of a senior PA security officer, a Fatah legislator and a governor of Jenin, all attributed by Palestinians to a power struggle between rival Fatah groups.

But this incident ought to give pause to anyone who is quick to believe every Palestinian atrocity story about Israel. Fayyad has bodyguards; he enjoys the protection of being in the international spotlight; and international credibility is his essential stock-in-trade. Thus, if even he feels threatened enough to risk his credibility by telling bald-faced lies to protect himself, that’s all the more true of ordinary Palestinians, who lack Fayyad’s protections and don’t care about their overseas credibility.

For a Palestinian, it’s always safest to accuse Israel of brutality and abuse, even if the accusations are completely false, because Israeli soldiers won’t kill him for such libels–whereas Palestinian gunmen very well might murder him as a “collaborator” if he went on record as saying, for instance, that Israeli soldiers treated him decently.           

So perhaps next time, Westerners should stop and think before uncritically accepting Palestinian atrocity tales as truth. For if Fayyad could so brazenly lie about Cohen, then other Palestinians could just as easily be lying about Israel.

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America’s Still-Weak Economy

Friday’s job report, which showed that 165,000 jobs were created in April and the unemployment rate dropped to 7.5 percent, was greeted by many news outlets as wonderful news. It’s not clear to me why.

I’ll happily concede that the jobs report indicates that the economy is not in immediate danger of lurching into another recession. And it’s true that the stock market is doing very well, with the Dow having crossed 15,000 for the first time. 

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Friday’s job report, which showed that 165,000 jobs were created in April and the unemployment rate dropped to 7.5 percent, was greeted by many news outlets as wonderful news. It’s not clear to me why.

I’ll happily concede that the jobs report indicates that the economy is not in immediate danger of lurching into another recession. And it’s true that the stock market is doing very well, with the Dow having crossed 15,000 for the first time. 

At the same time, we’re now nearly four years after the recession officially ended. Historically, the worse the recession, the better the recovery. But not in the age of Obama. Over the last year we created substantially less than 200,000 jobs a month (173,000). In addition, the number of hours worked in April declined–an indication that we’re seeing a rise in part-time, not full-time, jobs. (This phenomenon may well include the effect of the Affordable Care Act on small businesses.)

Moreover, (a) the civilian workforce participation rate remained at a 34-year low (63.3 percent); (b) last week the U.S. home-ownership rate fell to the lowest in almost 18 years; and (c) growth is anemic. As I mentioned in a previous post, Jeff Cox, a CNBC senior writer, earlier this week wrote, “In terms of actual growth, this is … the worst economy in 83 years. GDP growth is in the midst of its longest sub-3 percent annual growth rate since 1929, the beginning of the Great Depression.”

We are now almost four years after the official end of the recession, and over the last year the economy has grown at less than 2 percent (1.8 percent). In addition, as James Pethokoukis points out, the U.S. lost 8.8 million private sector jobs during the Great Recession. Since the beginning of the jobs recovery, we have gained back 6.8 million, leaving a gap of about 2 million. 

On Friday we received a mediocre jobs report that is indicative of a mediocre economy. What is unfortunate is that this is the best that President Obama can claim after more than four years in office.

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