Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 12, 2013

Note to President Obama: IRS Scandal Is Why We Distrust Government

While almost all liberals and Democrats are still in denial about the implications of the Benghazi scandal, none of them is choosing to defend the IRS officials who targeted Tea Party groups for investigations that would deny them tax-exempt status. Like the White House, the chattering classes are united in decrying the blatantly illegal actions by what we are told were just low-level IRS employees. But the universal condemnation of these acts doesn’t mean that this administration can shrug this story off as easily as that. The IRS investigations aren’t merely a chilling abuse of power. They go straight to the heart of conservative distrust of Barack Obama’s worldview.

Seven days ago, President Obama went to the Ohio State University to give a commencement address during which he heaped scorn on those who oppose his efforts to expand the power of government:

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.

But the problem here is not just that a branch of that government has been caught using their almost unlimited power to harass political opponents of the president. It is, as Ross Douthat points out today in the New York Times, that the president and his cheerleaders in the press have spent the last three years demonizing those targeted by the IRS. There was, of course, one element to his indictment of this mentality that he left out: That his own newspaper had actually editorialized in favor of this harassment in March of 2012.

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While almost all liberals and Democrats are still in denial about the implications of the Benghazi scandal, none of them is choosing to defend the IRS officials who targeted Tea Party groups for investigations that would deny them tax-exempt status. Like the White House, the chattering classes are united in decrying the blatantly illegal actions by what we are told were just low-level IRS employees. But the universal condemnation of these acts doesn’t mean that this administration can shrug this story off as easily as that. The IRS investigations aren’t merely a chilling abuse of power. They go straight to the heart of conservative distrust of Barack Obama’s worldview.

Seven days ago, President Obama went to the Ohio State University to give a commencement address during which he heaped scorn on those who oppose his efforts to expand the power of government:

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.

But the problem here is not just that a branch of that government has been caught using their almost unlimited power to harass political opponents of the president. It is, as Ross Douthat points out today in the New York Times, that the president and his cheerleaders in the press have spent the last three years demonizing those targeted by the IRS. There was, of course, one element to his indictment of this mentality that he left out: That his own newspaper had actually editorialized in favor of this harassment in March of 2012.

As John Podhoretz wrote here on Friday, groups with the words “Tea Party” and “Patriot” aren’t the only ones that have been singled out for suspiciously political investigations during the last four years. COMMENTARY magazine was given the business in this manner in 2009, and who knows how many others may have gotten the same treatment?

While the orders to the IRS might not be able to be traced directly back to the president, there’s no doubt the officials that took these steps were acting in the spirit of the president’s efforts to treat those who are his critics as being out of the American mainstream.

As I wrote on Monday:

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 I didn’t know on Monday was that the government headed by the president was about to provide us with an egregious example of exactly why Americans should distrust their government. There is a long and dishonorable tradition of using the IRS to target political opponents of the party in power. Such actions were cited in the articles of impeachment of Richard Nixon and it is well known that Franklin Roosevelt played the same game with impunity against those on his own enemy’s list.

But while Nixon and Roosevelt simply went after specific political foes, what we have seen under Obama is an effort to brand all those who question his philosophy as being somehow beyond the pale of decent society. Under those circumstances why wouldn’t government officials and administrators, whom reports now tell us today knew about these abuses as long ago as 2011 and which may go deeper than initially thought, think nothing of putting the screws to those who believe the president has exceeded his powers?

I’ve no doubt that Congress will investigate this scandal with a bipartisan will that so far is lacking on Benghazi. That will probably result in heads rolling at the IRS. But the problem goes far deeper than the misguided unfortunates who listened to the president’s rhetoric and drew the logical conclusions.

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The Liberal Wall of Benghazi Denial Cracks

On Friday, I wrote about what seemed to be a solid wall of liberal indifference to the recent revelations about Benghazi. The chorus of “move along, there’s nothing to see here” admonitions from Democrats and liberal journalists lacked credibility. As Peter Wehner said this morning, White House spokesman Jay Carney’s disgraceful “no regrets” performance Friday afternoon showed just how desperate the administration has become. But its determination to keep stonewalling and denying was rooted in a not unreasonable conviction: So long as the Democrats and liberal journalists close ranks behind the president, and more importantly, the reputation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Benghazi will be viewed as a partisan club used by Republicans rather than a genuine scandal.

But while most in the chattering classes are sticking to the new talking points, a prominent exception today marks a significant crack in that heretofore-solid wall of liberal opinion. Conservatives rightly disdain Maureen Dowd as the New York Times’s queen of snark, a writer whose work has long become the byword for pointless nastiness and deeply unserious takes on the news of the day that gives a bad name to political hatchet work. Yet, harking back to her salad days in the 1990s when she earned a reputation as the rare liberal who was willing to challenge Bill Clinton’s cult of personality, Dowd has today written what may be the first sign that Hillary is not going to be able to escape accountability for 9/11/12 and the cover-up that followed that tragedy.

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On Friday, I wrote about what seemed to be a solid wall of liberal indifference to the recent revelations about Benghazi. The chorus of “move along, there’s nothing to see here” admonitions from Democrats and liberal journalists lacked credibility. As Peter Wehner said this morning, White House spokesman Jay Carney’s disgraceful “no regrets” performance Friday afternoon showed just how desperate the administration has become. But its determination to keep stonewalling and denying was rooted in a not unreasonable conviction: So long as the Democrats and liberal journalists close ranks behind the president, and more importantly, the reputation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Benghazi will be viewed as a partisan club used by Republicans rather than a genuine scandal.

But while most in the chattering classes are sticking to the new talking points, a prominent exception today marks a significant crack in that heretofore-solid wall of liberal opinion. Conservatives rightly disdain Maureen Dowd as the New York Times’s queen of snark, a writer whose work has long become the byword for pointless nastiness and deeply unserious takes on the news of the day that gives a bad name to political hatchet work. Yet, harking back to her salad days in the 1990s when she earned a reputation as the rare liberal who was willing to challenge Bill Clinton’s cult of personality, Dowd has today written what may be the first sign that Hillary is not going to be able to escape accountability for 9/11/12 and the cover-up that followed that tragedy.

In discussing the revelations of the last week, Dowd must, of course, try to depict Republican attempts to bring accountability to the scandal as equally reprehensible as the administration’s failures and lies. But her framing the current debate as a contest between “Hillaryland” and “Foxworld” has at least the virtue of acknowledging the fact that what we are discussing is a disgraceful dereliction of duty by the administration:

The toxic theatrics, including Karl Rove’s first attack ad against Hillary, cloud a simple truth: The administration’s behavior before and during the attack in Benghazi, in which four Americans died, was unworthy of the greatest power on earth.

This is important not because Dowd’s any kind of a moral authority but because as one of the resident op-ed gods of the New York Times, her breaking of the liberal code of omerta on the subject of administration misconduct on Benghazi signals that what is unfolding is a genuine scandal with unforeseen repercussions, and not a Republican temper tantrum.

In the midst of a re-election campaign, Obama aides wanted to promote the mythology that the president who killed Osama was vanquishing terror. So they deemed it problematic to mention any possible Qaeda involvement in the Benghazi attack. … Looking ahead to 2016, Hillaryland needed to shore up the mythology that Clinton was a stellar secretary of state.

Dowd goes straight to the heart of the matter when she rightly notes that the lives of Americans were sacrificed for the sake of trying to make Libya appear as if it were a triumph of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Just as important, the subsequent cover-up was clearly intended to protect Mrs. Clinton’s reputation. The lies that were told about the attack being caused by a video and the effort to quash mention of al-Qaeda and terrorism were clearly intended to bolster the president’s re-election efforts as well as avoid damaging a future Democratic candidate.

There are three issues here that still remain unresolved.

How is it that decision makers failed to understand the danger?

How is it that forces were not made available to save four Americans when they were placed in peril?

Why did the administration fail to tell the truth about all of this?

Those questions will require the formation of a select congressional committee with subpoena power to get to the answers the American people need. Democratic counter-attacks trying to portray the effort to get those answers as mere partisan squabbling are failing. The premise of Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical question, “What difference does it make?” was the belief that the media would protect her and ensure that Americans wouldn’t care. She’s wrong, and the betting here is that Maureen Dowd won’t be the last rat to leave the sinking ship of liberal denial. 

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Rafsanjani Is No Moderate

Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has declared his candidacy for the forthcoming Iranian election, subject to approval of his candidacy from the Guardian Council, a body that determines which candidates are loyal enough to the supreme leader to appear on the ballot. For example, when Mohammad Khatami won the presidency in 1997, he defeated three other candidates but only after the unelected Guardian Council disqualified 234 other candidates deemed too liberal or insufficiency loyal to the supreme leader. More than 680 candidates have registered to run for next month’s election; most will never have their names appear on a ballot.

The Western press appears both dangerously infatuated with and enthusiastic about Rafsanjani, falsely attributing moderation to the former leader:

Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has declared his candidacy for the forthcoming Iranian election, subject to approval of his candidacy from the Guardian Council, a body that determines which candidates are loyal enough to the supreme leader to appear on the ballot. For example, when Mohammad Khatami won the presidency in 1997, he defeated three other candidates but only after the unelected Guardian Council disqualified 234 other candidates deemed too liberal or insufficiency loyal to the supreme leader. More than 680 candidates have registered to run for next month’s election; most will never have their names appear on a ballot.

The Western press appears both dangerously infatuated with and enthusiastic about Rafsanjani, falsely attributing moderation to the former leader:

  • Reuters, for example, called Rafsanjani “a relative moderate.”
  • The BBC declared the corrupt multibillionaire is “virtually assured the support of reformers.”
  • The Associated Press called Rafsanjani the “prime hopeful for reformists.”
  • Citing an activist—but failing to mention he operates out of an organization that lobbies for the Islamic Republic—the Washington Post concluded that Rafsanjani was a “pragmatic voice in the current political order who could help guide Iran out of its current problems and potentially mend relations with the United States.”
  • The New York Times reported “Mr. Rafsanjani…has cast himself as a pragmatist, calling for a more open society and better business relationships with the West.”

Among journalists, it seems, it’s déjà vu all over again. When Rafsanjani first won the presidency back in 1989, the West was optimistic: The Iran-Iraq War had ended the previous year and revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini had died six weeks before the elections. In both Washington and European capitals—the Salman Rushdie death warrant notwithstanding—there was hope that Iran would turn a new page, and that the revolutionary ayatollahs would move to normalize relations with the international community.

It was not to be. Even though Rafsanjani suggested that “reasonable, prudent solutions” could free the American hostages that Iranian-backed groups continued to hold in Lebanon and despite the fact that the new Iranian president told Pakistani intermediaries that U.S. gestures could grease reconciliation, the Iranians failed to deliver. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft sought UN mediation, and UN Secretary General Pérez de Cuéllar appointed Giandomenico Picco, an Italian career UN bureaucrat, to be his representative. Picco dutifully flew off to Tehran, where Rafsanjani dismissed outright reconciliation with Washington. To negotiate over the American hostages in Beirut would be to admit Iranian culpability. While Rafsanjani spoke publicly of pragmatism, privately he revived Iran’s covert nuclear program—of which he claims to be the father today—and played a crucial role in ordering the assassinations of Iranian dissidents abroad.

Some of the most spectacular Iranian terror attacks—such as the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires—not only occurred under Rafsanjani’s watch but also with his direct authorization. And no one should forget that it was Rafsanjani who, on December 14, 2001, suggested that an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel might be foreseeable, since one nuclear weapon could annihilate Israel while Iran would be large enough to absorb any retaliation.

Western diplomats and journalists should avoid three mistakes when considering Rafsanjani’s run:

1)       Do not consider Iran a democracy. The supreme leader is substance; the presidency is only about style. Yes, Iran has elections, but they would be akin to elections in the Soviet Union if only Communist Party Central Committee members were allowed to run. Most electoral democracies do not disqualify 90-plus percent of candidates before election day.

2)       Do not exaggerate factions. Factions exist in any government—even North Korea—but the presence of factions does not translate into their relevance or ability to influence outcome. The supreme leader remains in control and has leverage over Rafsanjani in three ways: First, he can expose if not confiscate Rafsanjani’s ill-gotten wealth; Second, he can imprison–or worse–Rafsanjani’s children; and, third, he can use vigilante groups if not the Basij directly to physically constrain Rafsanjani.

3)       Do not confuse reformists with opposition. The reformists are as committed to the system of Islamist democracy as hardliners are. The problem for most Iranians isn’t simply whether the police harass women who show too much hair. Rather, it’s the fact that the supreme leader considers himself the deputy of the messiah on earth. This is why muddle-through reform cannot work in Iran: Sovereignty comes not from the people, but from God himself through the mahdi and the supreme leader. What 95 percent of the people might think is without meaning to Supreme Leader Khamenei. Indeed, protecting the theocracy from the people is why the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps exists in the first place.

Make no mistake: The problem in the Islamic Republic today is not one personality or another, but rather the system of government and the ideology to which it subscribes. There will be no effective difference in the goals of Iranian policy between the Ahmadinejad years and a Rafsanjani redux.

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The Corruption of Jay Carney

On November 28, 2012, during a press briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney–in addressing the matter of the talking points the Obama administration used to characterize the attacks on the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi–said this:

The White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two, of these two institutions were changing the word “consulate” to “diplomatic facility,” because “consulate” was inaccurate.

We now know that statement was false. Enormous substantive changes were made at the request of the State Department. And it’s not simply that changes were made; it’s that the changes did violence to the truth. With each new revision, the story became less and less accurate, so by the time U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on five Sunday talk shows, a massive fabrication was being peddled. And the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state all participated in the false narrative.

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On November 28, 2012, during a press briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney–in addressing the matter of the talking points the Obama administration used to characterize the attacks on the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi–said this:

The White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two, of these two institutions were changing the word “consulate” to “diplomatic facility,” because “consulate” was inaccurate.

We now know that statement was false. Enormous substantive changes were made at the request of the State Department. And it’s not simply that changes were made; it’s that the changes did violence to the truth. With each new revision, the story became less and less accurate, so by the time U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on five Sunday talk shows, a massive fabrication was being peddled. And the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state all participated in the false narrative.

Yet on Friday, during his on-camera briefing, Mr. Carney was asked repeatedly whether he or the administration deliberately misled reporters last fall about the changes in the talking points. “Mr. Carney,” the New York Times reports, “expressed no regrets.”

“I do stand by that,” Mr. Carney said of his statement that the White House changed only a word or two to make clear the diplomatic post in Benghazi was not referred to as a consulate. “White House involvement in the talking points was very limited and nonsubstantive.”

Except that what Mr. Carney said in November is that neither the White House nor the State Department made substantive changes. In addition, as ABC’s Jonathan Karl reported, “Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote an email saying the State Department’s concerns needed to be addressed. ‘We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.  We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.’” And third, the White House hosted a Deputies Committee meeting on September 15, out of which emerged the final, false talking points.

So Mr. Carney obviously misled the public in November; the only question is whether he did so willfully. Yet rather than admit to his multiple misleading statements in the past, Carney blamed Mitt Romney and Republicans. The spin Carney used was transparently dishonest. He constructed a false reality to defend himself and the administration. In the process, he has merely further damaged his credibility. You can watch the whole painful press briefing here

Once upon a time, Jay Carney was a journalist who wanted to search for truth. Now he is an Obama White House official awkwardly attempting to hide it. He is now part of a cover-up. The questions are just how wide and deep the cover-up extends, how many more falsehoods the Obama White House will employ in its defense, and whether being played for fools by a liberal administration will bother the elite media and White House press corps.

We’re about to find out.

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