Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 14, 2013

Obama Is Counting on a Double Standard

As the Obama administration seems to stagger under the weight of dealing with three scandals at the same time, Republicans who have been frustrated by the president’s seeming golden touch the last four and a half years are obviously gleeful. While not licking their chops at the thought of tearing into the president’s aides about the IRS scandal, the Justice Department’s fishing expedition into the AP’s phone records, or Benghazi, they’re asking a salient question of journalists: What would you do with this material if it was George W. Bush or Dick Cheney who were accused of lying about a terror attack, infringing on the rights of the press, or selectively enforcing the laws to punish political opponents?

The answer is pretty obvious, since the mainstream media did its best to sink Bush under the weight of the blowback from the Iraq war, the fallout from Hurricane Katrina and the financial meltdown, and demonized Cheney to the point where he became a pop culture villain. While liberals will try to argue that Obama’s problems don’t rise to the level of those of Bush, they know that, as John Steele Gordon pointed out earlier today, the accumulation of woes are about to reach critical mass and doom the president to the same kind of dismal second term that virtually all of his predecessors have suffered.

But though anyone who listened to White House spokesman Jay Carney or Attorney General Eric Holder tap dance their way through brutal press conferences today might be forgiven for thinking this presidency is tottering, the administration’s seemingly clueless efforts to deflect blame may be an indication of confidence that this rough patch can be ridden out without serious long-term damage being inflicted on Obama’s ability to govern or his legacy. Though the media is up in arms over these scandals, especially the government’s snooping on the AP, the president seems to think his magic touch with the media hasn’t worn off. Is he right?

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As the Obama administration seems to stagger under the weight of dealing with three scandals at the same time, Republicans who have been frustrated by the president’s seeming golden touch the last four and a half years are obviously gleeful. While not licking their chops at the thought of tearing into the president’s aides about the IRS scandal, the Justice Department’s fishing expedition into the AP’s phone records, or Benghazi, they’re asking a salient question of journalists: What would you do with this material if it was George W. Bush or Dick Cheney who were accused of lying about a terror attack, infringing on the rights of the press, or selectively enforcing the laws to punish political opponents?

The answer is pretty obvious, since the mainstream media did its best to sink Bush under the weight of the blowback from the Iraq war, the fallout from Hurricane Katrina and the financial meltdown, and demonized Cheney to the point where he became a pop culture villain. While liberals will try to argue that Obama’s problems don’t rise to the level of those of Bush, they know that, as John Steele Gordon pointed out earlier today, the accumulation of woes are about to reach critical mass and doom the president to the same kind of dismal second term that virtually all of his predecessors have suffered.

But though anyone who listened to White House spokesman Jay Carney or Attorney General Eric Holder tap dance their way through brutal press conferences today might be forgiven for thinking this presidency is tottering, the administration’s seemingly clueless efforts to deflect blame may be an indication of confidence that this rough patch can be ridden out without serious long-term damage being inflicted on Obama’s ability to govern or his legacy. Though the media is up in arms over these scandals, especially the government’s snooping on the AP, the president seems to think his magic touch with the media hasn’t worn off. Is he right?

It needs to be understood that though conservatives have spent the years since January 2009 acting as if Barack Obama was always on the precipice, he is a uniquely popular president who has always counted on favorable press coverage. Part of this is due to liberal bias in the mainstream press, but it is also a function of the president’s historic status as the first African American in the White House. Republicans have always underestimated his appeal, and though they lament media bias they consistently fail to understand how it made his re-election easier if not inevitable.

Coming into his second term, some of us have wondered whether Obama could escape the same second-term blues that afflicted nearly every other two-term president, and now the accumulation of scandals is answering that question in the negative. The problem is not just that these stories have legs and are serious. It is that once congressional investigations with subpoena power or federal investigations such as the one Holder announced on the IRS scandal begin, there is no telling where it will all end.

Yet the president seems to still be under the impression that his historic status and popularity insulate him against the problems that handicapped the ability of other presidents to govern once they had been re-elected. Listening to him lash out at his opponents about Benghazi or his aides calmly deflecting blame or even fibbing about these issues, it’s hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that he thinks the double standard that allowed him to blame his predecessor for the economy still applies. He also probably thinks Republicans will take as much of a beating for overreaching in their attacks as he gets for the scandals.

But this confidence may be misplaced.

Though most of the press still despises conservatives and likes Obama–or what they think he stands for–scandals are generally an equal-opportunity affair in Washington. While most liberals have operated from the administration’s talking points on Benghazi, the relentless spill alienated working reporters who don’t like being lied to. But the IRS scandal and the AP story are both designed to anger the media and to create a feeding frenzy that not even Obama’s reputation can withstand without injury. The president has always benefited from a double standard that allowed him to escape scrutiny that was given to his predecessor, but even a liberal press can smell blood now.

Republicans who assume today that this marks the moment when Obama becomes a lame duck may be premature. He’s on the ropes, but not down on the canvas yet. But if the president thinks he can fake his way through this siege coasting on his reputation he may be in even deeper trouble than his foes think.

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Obama’s Leak Hypocrisy

Last spring, Washington was stunned by the way the Obama administration shamelessly leaked information about drone strikes and cyber-warfare tactics employed by the U.S. against Iran to leading media outlets. The leaks led to a number of flattering stories that bolstered the president’s pose as a tough military leader, including some that somehow found themselves above the fold on the front page in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. This caused a furor that forced Attorney General Eric Holder to name two special prosecutors to investigate the leaks. At that time I wondered whether this would mean some in the president’s inner circle would be subjected to the same treatment that was doled out to Scooter Libby as part of the bogus Valerie Plame investigation. But nearly a year later we’ve heard nothing about whether the obvious targets of scrutiny, top figures in the Obama White House and the Defense Department, have been ferreted out as the leakers.

Fast-forward to today and we learn that in a separate case involving the leaking of an account of an alleged foiling of a terrorist plot, the DOJ has carried out an unprecedented fishing expedition secretly seizing the phone records of what may turn out to be more than 100 editors and reporters at the Associated Press. Virtually the entire national press corps agrees this is an attempt to intimidate journalists in keeping with the fact that this administration has prosecuted twice as many leaking cases as all of its predecessors combined.

Without learning more about the case in question, it’s impossible to judge just how much of an overreach the DOJ has engaged in here. Attorney General Holder, who held a news conference today only to tell us that he had recused himself from the investigation, didn’t add much to our knowledge other than to say it was serious and lives were endangered. But what we do know is that although this administration thinks nothing of engaging in such high-handed tactics, we’ve yet to see any highly placed member of Obama’s team be called to account for leaks that were clearly intended to puff the president’s reputation.

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Last spring, Washington was stunned by the way the Obama administration shamelessly leaked information about drone strikes and cyber-warfare tactics employed by the U.S. against Iran to leading media outlets. The leaks led to a number of flattering stories that bolstered the president’s pose as a tough military leader, including some that somehow found themselves above the fold on the front page in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. This caused a furor that forced Attorney General Eric Holder to name two special prosecutors to investigate the leaks. At that time I wondered whether this would mean some in the president’s inner circle would be subjected to the same treatment that was doled out to Scooter Libby as part of the bogus Valerie Plame investigation. But nearly a year later we’ve heard nothing about whether the obvious targets of scrutiny, top figures in the Obama White House and the Defense Department, have been ferreted out as the leakers.

Fast-forward to today and we learn that in a separate case involving the leaking of an account of an alleged foiling of a terrorist plot, the DOJ has carried out an unprecedented fishing expedition secretly seizing the phone records of what may turn out to be more than 100 editors and reporters at the Associated Press. Virtually the entire national press corps agrees this is an attempt to intimidate journalists in keeping with the fact that this administration has prosecuted twice as many leaking cases as all of its predecessors combined.

Without learning more about the case in question, it’s impossible to judge just how much of an overreach the DOJ has engaged in here. Attorney General Holder, who held a news conference today only to tell us that he had recused himself from the investigation, didn’t add much to our knowledge other than to say it was serious and lives were endangered. But what we do know is that although this administration thinks nothing of engaging in such high-handed tactics, we’ve yet to see any highly placed member of Obama’s team be called to account for leaks that were clearly intended to puff the president’s reputation.

Some are saying that conservatives who blasted the president for the leaks last year and who today are decrying the infringement of press freedom are being hypocritical. But the problem here is not whether the president’s critics are trying to have it both ways on the issue. Based on what we know today, if anyone has played the hypocrite on both security and press freedom, it is the president and his cronies.

The first point is that the crackdown on leaks has been selective. While some draconian prosecutions have brought some results, we’ve yet to see anyone in the administration called to account about those leaks that made the president look good, such as the ones about the pursuit of Osama bin Laden or the Stuxnet virus that was used against Iran.

The administration has been eager to employ aggressive tactics, such as the AP phone records grab, that are so vague that the only tangible effect that we can be sure of is that they have sent a message to journalists—and even more importantly to potential whistleblowers—that they won’t be allowed to do their jobs in safety. The expansive nature of this order undermines any notion that the feds have definite leads. Until we see a press conference from Holder or one of his deputies announcing that a high-profile Obama administration figure is being prosecuted for planting flattering stories about the president, we’ll have to conclude that the leak investigations are more about press intimidation than plugging up an unauthorized disclosure of vital secrets.

White House spokesman Jay Carney tried to tap dance his way out of questions about this scandalous attack on the press this afternoon by claiming ignorance and that it would be inappropriate for the president to comment. But the only reasonable conclusion we can draw at this moment is that this is an administration with two key priorities: promoting itself via friendly stories in the press and exercising and growing its power to intimidate the press.

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Are Obama’s Scandals Reaching Critical Mass?

Last week was one of the worst for Obama in his presidency. This week looks no better. Indeed, it may be a long, hot summer for the White House. As Jonathan has pointed out, the IRS scandal is growing bigger, seemingly by the minute. The Benghazi scandal is continuing to percolate.

Now, the brand-new AP scandal has erupted. This one, because the victims are newsmen, is likely to have a powerful effect on the mainstream media. If the Justice Department has been going after the phone records of AP reporters, what other reporters are having their privacy violated? Even the New York Times, which thought page 11 was just fine for the IRS scandal, put this one on page 1, above the fold. The White House is “dodging and weaving” today according to the Times.

But wait, there’s more, as the TV commercials have it.

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Last week was one of the worst for Obama in his presidency. This week looks no better. Indeed, it may be a long, hot summer for the White House. As Jonathan has pointed out, the IRS scandal is growing bigger, seemingly by the minute. The Benghazi scandal is continuing to percolate.

Now, the brand-new AP scandal has erupted. This one, because the victims are newsmen, is likely to have a powerful effect on the mainstream media. If the Justice Department has been going after the phone records of AP reporters, what other reporters are having their privacy violated? Even the New York Times, which thought page 11 was just fine for the IRS scandal, put this one on page 1, above the fold. The White House is “dodging and weaving” today according to the Times.

But wait, there’s more, as the TV commercials have it.

The Washington Post is reporting that Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is comparing Kathleen Sebelius’s attempt to raise money from private organizations to help implement ObamaCare to Iran-Contra. Alexander says,

This is arguably an even bigger issue because, in Iran-Contra, you had $30 million that was spent by Oliver North through private organizations for a purpose congress refused to authorize, in support of the rebels. Here, you’re wanting to spend millions more in support of private organizations to do something that Congress has refused.

And now the Washington Examiner is reporting that the EPA routinely waives the fees for FOIA requests made by liberal organizations and media outlets, but does not for those from conservative ones.

Let’s consider a few things here.

One is that separate scandals, such as IRS and Benghazi, tend to have synergistic effects on each other even though they are dissimilar. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Another is that scandals such as the IRS and EPA that are similar inevitably produce a hunt for an overall pattern. Where else has the federal government under Obama been stiffing conservatives and giving liberals a pass?

A third is that reports of abuse produce more and more reports of abuse, as people and organizations realize that what happened to them was part of a pattern. John Podhoretz’s tale of COMMENTARY magazine’s woe at the hands of the IRS is very unlikely to be the only one to come out.

Finally, as the separate scandals begin to grow and, worse for Obama, begin to coalesce, even a media that has been an army of water-carriers for the Obama administration up until now will, despite themselves, smell the blood in the water and their instincts as journalists will kick in. Off they will go on the hunt for scoops. Undoubtedly they will find them.

When and if that happens, the scandals will have reached critical mass and the Obama presidency will be in mortal danger. The beating up of Jay Carney at the White House daily news briefing last Friday by the media generally was not a good sign.

If Obama loses the media, what does he have left? A record of accomplishment at home and abroad? Not exactly.

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In Putin’s World, Everyone’s a Spy

The end of the Cold War brought about an attitude adjustment in American culture toward several aspects of the tense, decades-long conflict with the Soviet Union. That adjustment is worth keeping in mind with today’s report that the Russian successor to the KGB has detained an American accused of spying for the CIA, because it’s doubtful the post-Cold War change was more pronounced on any subject than the spy game. Where once Americans saw Russian spies access the highest reaches of the government and couldn’t help but wonder what other walls might have ears, the U.S.-Russian espionage trade suddenly became either goofy or romanticized–sometimes both.

How else to explain the reaction to the discovery of Russian spies living in America 2010? They were either incompetent or making fools of their own bosses back in Moscow by sending back “intel” they had culled from the pages of American newspapers. And of course they were all satellites revolving around Anna Chapman, the redheaded Russian spy who, upon repatriation in Russia, immediately launched a second career as a model and television show host. In one fashion show, Chapman traversed the catwalk flanked by men dressed as Secret Service agents–and this was playfully reproduced by U.S. newspapers. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.

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The end of the Cold War brought about an attitude adjustment in American culture toward several aspects of the tense, decades-long conflict with the Soviet Union. That adjustment is worth keeping in mind with today’s report that the Russian successor to the KGB has detained an American accused of spying for the CIA, because it’s doubtful the post-Cold War change was more pronounced on any subject than the spy game. Where once Americans saw Russian spies access the highest reaches of the government and couldn’t help but wonder what other walls might have ears, the U.S.-Russian espionage trade suddenly became either goofy or romanticized–sometimes both.

How else to explain the reaction to the discovery of Russian spies living in America 2010? They were either incompetent or making fools of their own bosses back in Moscow by sending back “intel” they had culled from the pages of American newspapers. And of course they were all satellites revolving around Anna Chapman, the redheaded Russian spy who, upon repatriation in Russia, immediately launched a second career as a model and television show host. In one fashion show, Chapman traversed the catwalk flanked by men dressed as Secret Service agents–and this was playfully reproduced by U.S. newspapers. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.

But that, wrote Edward Lucas, the longtime Economist scribe and Eastern Europe expert, is “an oddly complacent approach.” Of course a sleeper agent should appear harmless and their activities mundane if they are ever to get close enough to gain valuable information. He continued:

That Russia is running such agents in America, Britain and Europe (and elsewhere) should be cause for alarm. Imagine that someone who loathes you has a key to your front door. It will be little comfort if he has not yet got round to burning your house down, stealing your valuables, or planting drugs. The worry is that he could.

The difference in post-Cold War attitudes, however, is only evident on one side of the Atlantic. Vladimir Putin continues to behave as if he thinks the U.S. and Russia are locked a global struggle. As such, while to many in the U.S. no one, not even an admitted Russian spy, is an actual Russian spy, to Putin everyone is an American agent working clandestinely to undermine his government. So perhaps the FSB caught an American spy, but as with Russian warnings about the Boston Marathon bombers, there is a credibility issue when a crime syndicate starts identifying enemies.

In December 2011, as Putin’s party prepared to instigate massive election fraud on the eve of parliamentary voting, he stepped up a campaign against Russia’s high-profile election monitoring group Golos, calling them traitors and accusing them of “interfering with elections on behalf of foreign governments.” Then came the push to designate human rights groups like Memorial, who receive some grants from agencies like USAID, as registered “foreign agents.” And if you’re a foreign corporation, buying into a major Russian firm–nominally state-owned or not–can be dangerous for everyone involved.

There is also the timing. Putin’s government has been open about its intention to retaliate for slights–real or perceived. The retaliations usually take one of two forms: the classic Soviet-era “whataboutism,” in which the subject is turned to the chutzpah and hypocrisy of the West, or tactics made to undermine Western trustworthiness.

So when the U.S. Congress finally went around President Obama’s objections and Secretary of State (at the time Senator) John Kerry’s stonewalling to pass a bill targeting Russian human rights abusers, the Kremlin responded with its “Guantanamo List” of Americans banned from Russia for their own supposed human rights crimes. That was an example of the whataboutism whose charm has always possessed some appeal to the self-flagellating Western left.

And today’s announcement of the arrest–and the array of photos released by the Russian government trumpeting the catch–comes at such a time. In fairness, here is the FSB’s side of today’s story:

According to information provided by the Russian security service to Russian news services, FSB agents caught Fogle in possession of “special technical devices,” typewritten instructions for the recruit, a “large sum” of cash and various means of disguise….

“The CIA has made several attempts lately to recruit officers of Russian law enforcement services and agencies, which were tracked and monitored by the FSB’s counterintelligence service,” an FSB spokesman told the Interfax news agency.

Yet it comes on the heels of three important stories of U.S.-Russian diplomacy. First was last week’s meeting between John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, centered on a renewed push to get Russia’s cooperation to end the Syrian civil war and remove Bashar al-Assad from power. The pleas had echoes of last year’s efforts by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to shame Russia into taking control of a conflict on whose sidelines the U.S. also sat.

The second story followed within a day of the Kerry-Lavrov meeting, when word came that Russia was planning to sell ground-to-air missile systems to Assad to stave off Western air attacks. And third was the story Max referred to yesterday: the Washington Post’s report laying out extent to which Assad was turning the tide and demonstrating the key role Russia is playing in keeping Assad in power. The story was doubly damaging to U.S. credibility because of the conclusions some are starting to draw about the Obama administration’s decision not to effectively take sides early on. The Post reporter who wrote the story, Liz Sly, tweeted out a link to her story with the following description:

Assad gaining the advantage in Syria. Did the US dither on Syria long enough to let him win? Was that the point?

That is of course speculation, but it’s worth noting that to those on the ground, that’s the way it looks. Regardless, Russia had a bit of a PR issue on its hands. The American secretary of state came begging for diplomatic scraps from Putin’s table, and then news broke making Putin look like he was operating in bad faith. So today comes his response: how can he trust the Americans when they are pretending to beseech him while attempting to spy on him?

Still, the problem for Kerry and the Obama administration’s architects of the spectacularly failed “reset” with Putin remains that the volume of stories calling Putin’s reliability into question far exceeds the complaints about American snooping. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Russian authorities withheld what were characterized as “the most important in a series of missed signals between the two countries” leading up to the Boston Marathon bombing. It is true that the combination of Putin’s history of inventing enemies of the state and the FBI’s need to excuse missing warning signs means we should take attempts to shift blame to the Russians with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, the evidence the FSB withheld from the FBI does seem to be valuable, and there does not seem to be any obvious justification for withholding that information.

It should be noted that the cratering of U.S.-Russia relations coincides with years of one-sided American concessions to Putin, putting the lie to the always incongruous belief that American weakness will be rewarded with compassion. Kerry may be the perfect diplomat to carry out such a strategy, but that makes neither the policy less imprudent nor the diplomat less inept than they both quite obviously remain.

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What Is Iran Up to in Africa?

Last month, I published a lengthy analysis on Iranian activity in Africa for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office. Long story short, while the United States more or less ignores Africa, the Iranians have been quite busy there. The Iranian focus is three-fold: Cultivating relationships with states that have votes on the UN Security Council and International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors; expanding ties with countries prospecting for or mining uranium; and making a hard push to find bases along littoral states in order to expand the Iranian navy’s operational reach.

There have been a number of incidents, however, to show that Iranian outreach is more malign:

Last month, I published a lengthy analysis on Iranian activity in Africa for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office. Long story short, while the United States more or less ignores Africa, the Iranians have been quite busy there. The Iranian focus is three-fold: Cultivating relationships with states that have votes on the UN Security Council and International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors; expanding ties with countries prospecting for or mining uranium; and making a hard push to find bases along littoral states in order to expand the Iranian navy’s operational reach.

There have been a number of incidents, however, to show that Iranian outreach is more malign:

  • In 2010, Nigerian authorities seized crates of weaponry in the Port of Lagos. Iranian authorities claimed the weapons were purchased legally by Gambia. That the ship’s manifest labeled the crates as construction material certainly raises questions.
  • In 2011, Senegalese authorities briefly severed diplomatic relations with Iran after discovering an Iranian arms shipment allegedly destined for separatist rebels in the southern Senegalese Casamance region.
  • In 2012, Yemeni authorities alleged that Iran was supplying weaponry to Houthi rebels in that country’s north. The Iranians denied responsibility, and blamed Togo, which apparently was transshipping the weaponry at Iran’s behest.

Let us hope that African governments are beginning to understand that relations with Iran carry a high price. Yesterday, a Nigerian court convicted an alleged Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officer over the 2010 weapons smuggling incident. The conviction comes just over a week after a Kenyan court jailed Iranians allegedly supporting terrorists in that East African nation. That the Iranian government is denying responsibility in both cases should not surprise; the Iranians always seek plausible deniability. At the very least, however, it is essential to recognize that the Islamic Republic takes seriously the concept of “Export of Revolution” whether the United States chooses to recognize it or not.

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Turks Take Israel to ICC; Break Agreement with Israel

Back when Israel issued its apology to Turkey, we debated here at COMMENTARY whether Israel’s apology was wise. I was opposed to it and, while I hoped for the best, my distrust of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and castigation of his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu for making the deal now appears wholly justified. Part of the reason why Israel made the deal—despite a UN investigation finding that Israel’s raid on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara was justified—was to get Israel-Turkey relations back on track and avoid the further downturn in relations that Turkish referral to the hopelessly politicized International Criminal Court (ICC) would bring.

The Mavi Marmara was a deliberate provocation, however, conducted as part of Erdoğan’s ideological agenda, just as the Turkish prime minister’s verbal assault on Shimon Peres at Davos was beforehand. Israelis can kid themselves that Turkey will honor its agreements or that it seeks peace and stability in the region. Turkey—at least under the current leadership—will never honor its agreements. Hence, the announcement that Turkey (through the proxy of the Comoros) will litigate against Israel at the ICC. The IHH, the al-Qaeda-linked charity to which Turkey’s ruling party turned to promote the flotilla to resupply Hamas, released a statement explaining:

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Back when Israel issued its apology to Turkey, we debated here at COMMENTARY whether Israel’s apology was wise. I was opposed to it and, while I hoped for the best, my distrust of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and castigation of his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu for making the deal now appears wholly justified. Part of the reason why Israel made the deal—despite a UN investigation finding that Israel’s raid on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara was justified—was to get Israel-Turkey relations back on track and avoid the further downturn in relations that Turkish referral to the hopelessly politicized International Criminal Court (ICC) would bring.

The Mavi Marmara was a deliberate provocation, however, conducted as part of Erdoğan’s ideological agenda, just as the Turkish prime minister’s verbal assault on Shimon Peres at Davos was beforehand. Israelis can kid themselves that Turkey will honor its agreements or that it seeks peace and stability in the region. Turkey—at least under the current leadership—will never honor its agreements. Hence, the announcement that Turkey (through the proxy of the Comoros) will litigate against Israel at the ICC. The IHH, the al-Qaeda-linked charity to which Turkey’s ruling party turned to promote the flotilla to resupply Hamas, released a statement explaining:

After Palestine gained ‘observer state’ status at the UN, Israel realized the seriousness of this case and entered into every illegitimate effort in order to remain exempt from these judgments, avoid the risk of being penalized, and to maintain unaccountable policies which do not recognize the law. However with this application and case filed on behalf of the Union of Comoros, Israel will have nowhere to escape from the war crimes it has committed.

Ankara is about as trustworthy when it comes to its negotiators’ word as Pyongyang, Khartoum, or Tehran. It seeks not justice, but Israel’s eradication. The fact that this occurs just two days before President Obama hosts Erdoğan at the White House is nothing but one more attempt by the Turkish leader to fake friendship at the White House, all the while signaling to his constituents that he has restored Turkish pride not only by targeting Israel, but by humiliating the United States as well.

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Don’t Blame IRS Scandal on Citizens United

In the days since the IRS scandal started to unfold, most liberals have tried desperately to stay out of the line of fire by appropriately condemning any illegal or politically biased behavior on the part of the agency. But for many on the left, the politicization of the IRS isn’t the topic they want to discuss–and not just because doing so embarrasses the administration and lends credence to conservative complaints about President Obama’s disdain for the principles of limited government. As far as a lot of liberals are concerned, the problem here isn’t the Nixonian abuse of power by the IRS but the fact that these conservatives are being allowed to raise money to resist the policies of a liberal administration.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke for many Democrats yesterday when she told Chris Hayes on MSNBC that the proper response to the scandal is to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that protected the ability of groups to exercise their right to political speech. Others, like MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, are treating the whole issue as a misdirection play by conservatives who have exploited federal laws that allow groups that engage in advocacy to get nonprofit status.

But liberals, including the editorial writers of the New York Times, who weighed in yesterday to say the IRS should have cracked down across the board rather than on just conservatives, have this wrong. The IRS scandal shows that what the country needs is more unregulated free speech and fewer attempts by the government to limit the ability of citizens to speak out on issues.

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In the days since the IRS scandal started to unfold, most liberals have tried desperately to stay out of the line of fire by appropriately condemning any illegal or politically biased behavior on the part of the agency. But for many on the left, the politicization of the IRS isn’t the topic they want to discuss–and not just because doing so embarrasses the administration and lends credence to conservative complaints about President Obama’s disdain for the principles of limited government. As far as a lot of liberals are concerned, the problem here isn’t the Nixonian abuse of power by the IRS but the fact that these conservatives are being allowed to raise money to resist the policies of a liberal administration.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke for many Democrats yesterday when she told Chris Hayes on MSNBC that the proper response to the scandal is to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that protected the ability of groups to exercise their right to political speech. Others, like MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, are treating the whole issue as a misdirection play by conservatives who have exploited federal laws that allow groups that engage in advocacy to get nonprofit status.

But liberals, including the editorial writers of the New York Times, who weighed in yesterday to say the IRS should have cracked down across the board rather than on just conservatives, have this wrong. The IRS scandal shows that what the country needs is more unregulated free speech and fewer attempts by the government to limit the ability of citizens to speak out on issues.

It is true that no one is entitled to tax-exempt status the way they are to free speech. But the liberal interpretation of the law that allows groups that advocate on the issues without specifically endorsing candidates is more than a half-century old and is deeply embedded in our political and economic system. It might make sense to argue that all such exemptions should be lifted, but doing so would penalize a host of legitimate charities and non-political advocacy groups along with the ones that deal with issues with political implications.

Yet the priority for the left isn’t so much increasing the government’s revenues—though they are always in favor of that—as it is in shutting down the debate. That’s why they were horrified by the high court’s Citizens United ruling, since it opened up the floodgates for Americans to use their money to counter the inordinate political influence exercised by the mainly liberal mainstream media.

Liberals have been urging the IRS to crack down on Tea Partiers and others who dissented from Obama’s policies specifically because they feared Citizens United had made it easier for such groups to make their voices heard. And they might have gotten away with it had they applied the same standards to left-wing groups.

But the correct answer to this scandal isn’t unleashing the IRS to harass all political groups. Rather, it is to remind the IRS that issue advocacy, especially on the part of those who wish to defend the principles of limited government and the Constitution, needs to be protected. The corruption does not come from the use of money to create more political speech; it stems from a desire on the part of many on the left to suppress speech they disagree with. That’s why it is no surprise that the IRS chose to listen to the Times and put the screws to conservatives and anyone else who had the temerity to disagree with President Obama’s big-government vision. As with other elements of the liberal reaction to Citizens United, the point is to chill speech. The same is true of the IRS’s campaign against the Tea Party.

As the Cato Institute’s blog notes, campaign finance laws were part of the reaction to Richard Nixon’s abuses, including the use of the IRS to harass his political opponents. Yet today it is the so-called reformers who have created a mindset that leads to the use of the IRS to do the same thing to President Obama’s political foes.

It should also be noted that those who claim that extending tax exemptions to advocacy groups is taking money away from the government or other citizens have it wrong. Money that is not confiscated via taxes is not a gift from the government to the citizen. It is merely allowing the citizen to keep more of what is his or hers. Charitable deductions aren’t a dodge that steals the government’s money because it isn’t the government’s to begin with. Like Obama’s proposals to eliminate or drastically reduce such deductions (which have been thwarted to date), the illegal actions of the IRS are part of a war on philanthropy that has its roots in the president’s philosophy of government.

Liberals are publicly worrying today that the IRS scandal will hinder their ability to strike down Citizens United or to further limit the ability of Americans to exercise free speech. They are right about that, but that is not something we should lament. What we need is not so much a government that can behave in a manner that will allow it to legally harass advocacy groups as one that considers such actions to be beyond the pale. Whether someone in the White House or the Treasury Department encouraged the IRS to play politics in this manner or not, what’s clear is that such actions were very much in tune with the prevailing philosophy of this administration.

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Ignoring the Line from Saturday to Sunday

In explaining his staunch support for Israel, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper frequently cites the lessons of history: that those who make Jews “a target of racial and religious bigotry will inevitably be a threat to all of us.” The truth of that statement is visible throughout the Islamic world today, where countries that first got rid of their Jews are now turning in vicious fury on their Christians. Yet many Christian churches seem blind to the connection.

Christianity is currently the world’s most persecuted religion, and the heart of that persecution is the Islamic world. Churches have been attacked in Iraq, Egypt and Libya, among other countries; Christian ministers have been assassinated; and thousands of ordinary Christians have been killed. In Iraq, fewer than 500,000 Christians are thought to remain, down from 800,000 to 1.4 million a decade earlier (estimates vary widely). In Egypt, about 100,000 Coptic Christians have fled just in the last few months. This isn’t a new development; scholars estimate that “between a half and two-thirds of Christians in the region have left or been killed over the past century.” But it has accelerated greatly in recent years.

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In explaining his staunch support for Israel, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper frequently cites the lessons of history: that those who make Jews “a target of racial and religious bigotry will inevitably be a threat to all of us.” The truth of that statement is visible throughout the Islamic world today, where countries that first got rid of their Jews are now turning in vicious fury on their Christians. Yet many Christian churches seem blind to the connection.

Christianity is currently the world’s most persecuted religion, and the heart of that persecution is the Islamic world. Churches have been attacked in Iraq, Egypt and Libya, among other countries; Christian ministers have been assassinated; and thousands of ordinary Christians have been killed. In Iraq, fewer than 500,000 Christians are thought to remain, down from 800,000 to 1.4 million a decade earlier (estimates vary widely). In Egypt, about 100,000 Coptic Christians have fled just in the last few months. This isn’t a new development; scholars estimate that “between a half and two-thirds of Christians in the region have left or been killed over the past century.” But it has accelerated greatly in recent years.

There’s a clear line running from the disappearance of the Islamic world’s Jews in the mid-20th century to today’s accelerated persecution of Christians. When these Jewish communities still existed, they were the favorite target on which enraged Muslim mobs could vent their fury: See, for instance, the pogroms in Baghdad, Cairo and Tripoli in the 1940s. But in the years after Israel’s establishment in 1948, all these Jewish communities either were driven out or fled.

For a while, the Jews of Israel served as a substitute: Arab regimes launched three full-scale wars against Israel, provided bases and funding for Palestinian terrorists, whipped up anti-Israel sentiment through state-owned media, and encouraged anti-Israel demonstrations, thereby channeling popular discontent away from themselves. But while anti-Israel (and anti-Jewish) outbursts are still common in Arab countries, Israel’s insistence on growing and thriving despite these efforts made it an unsatisfactory target for mobs who actually wanted to see their victims suffer.

So, stymied on the Jewish front, they increasingly turned to the next target on their list, which had the advantage of being nearby and vulnerable. As the old Islamic taunt puts it, “First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.”

Yet rather than understand, as Harper has, that the same religious intolerance and dysfunctional political culture is behind both anti-Israel sentiment and the persecution of Christians–and that consequently, if Israel disappeared tomorrow, this victory would only provide a tailwind for the war against the “Sunday people”–many Christian churches seem to think the solution is to win the Muslim world’s love by joining the anti-Israel onslaught: See, for instance, the disgraceful report published by the Church of Scotland earlier this month, which said that Christians shouldn’t support Jewish claims to the Land of Israel on either biblical grounds or “as a compensation for the suffering of the Holocaust”; a similar document issued by a Catholic bishops’ synod; or the Presbyterian Church’s Israel Palestine Mission Network, which has pushed resolutions equating Israel with apartheid and vocally supports the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement.

The truth is that Muslim persecution of Christians won’t end until the Islamic world abandons the fantasy that others–whether it’s Israel, Christians or the West–are at the root of their problems. Yet by adopting the Muslim habit of blaming Israel for all the region’s ills, Christian churches are actively feeding that fantasy. And they are thereby ultimately encouraging their own coreligionists’ persecution.

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IRS Scandal Bigger Than We Thought

The initial revelations about the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups were shocking enough. The federal government’s tax collectors had singled out groups with the words “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names and subjected them to special scrutiny about requests for nonprofit status. But it turns out that parts of what we were told on Friday morning were either incomplete or not true.

First of all, we were initially given the impression this was an isolated case of an obscure regional office gone rogue. We now know the reason why these requests originated from Ohio was because that is where the agency had concentrated all of their work on monitoring the granting of 501(c)4 status requests.

We were given the impression on Friday that Washington was cracking down on the problem when it was found out. But we now know the IRS leadership knew about the scandal as far back as 2010. Far worse than that, today the Washington Post reveals that it wasn’t just those Cincinnati-based employees who were thrown under the bus on Friday that were responsible for these outrages:

IRS officials at the agency’s Washington headquarters sent queries to conservative groups asking about their donors and other aspects of their operations, while officials in the El Monte and Laguna Niguel offices in California sent similar questionnaires to tea-party-affiliated groups, the documents show.

IRS employees in Cincinnati told conservatives seeking the status of “social welfare” groups that a task force in Washington was overseeing their applications, according to interviews with the activists.

In other words, the decision to target conservatives was taken at a far higher level than one regional office. It has all the signs of being an agency-wide policy and it is reasonable to assume that someone close to the top of the IRS had a hand in it. The real question those who will be tasked with unraveling this mess is not just who gave the order at the IRS, but why.

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The initial revelations about the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups were shocking enough. The federal government’s tax collectors had singled out groups with the words “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names and subjected them to special scrutiny about requests for nonprofit status. But it turns out that parts of what we were told on Friday morning were either incomplete or not true.

First of all, we were initially given the impression this was an isolated case of an obscure regional office gone rogue. We now know the reason why these requests originated from Ohio was because that is where the agency had concentrated all of their work on monitoring the granting of 501(c)4 status requests.

We were given the impression on Friday that Washington was cracking down on the problem when it was found out. But we now know the IRS leadership knew about the scandal as far back as 2010. Far worse than that, today the Washington Post reveals that it wasn’t just those Cincinnati-based employees who were thrown under the bus on Friday that were responsible for these outrages:

IRS officials at the agency’s Washington headquarters sent queries to conservative groups asking about their donors and other aspects of their operations, while officials in the El Monte and Laguna Niguel offices in California sent similar questionnaires to tea-party-affiliated groups, the documents show.

IRS employees in Cincinnati told conservatives seeking the status of “social welfare” groups that a task force in Washington was overseeing their applications, according to interviews with the activists.

In other words, the decision to target conservatives was taken at a far higher level than one regional office. It has all the signs of being an agency-wide policy and it is reasonable to assume that someone close to the top of the IRS had a hand in it. The real question those who will be tasked with unraveling this mess is not just who gave the order at the IRS, but why.

Let’s specify that as of this moment there is no evidence that anyone in the White House whispered in the ears of IRS employees to make life difficult for their political opponents or even those who didn’t like the way the country was being run (another key indicator for special IRS treatment). Nor do we yet know if someone at the Treasury Department, to which the IRS reports, did anything like that.

And yet there is the plain fact that in the lead-up to the 2012 election cycle, what we are now coming to see as a broad cross-section of IRS personnel employed policy decisions which were specifically geared to hinder the efforts of those who were opposed to the administration. We know that the leadership of the organization knew about it at the start of the 2012 campaign. And we know that this only was revealed to the public six months after President Obama was safely re-elected.

We also know that the politicization of the IRS wasn’t limited to the Tea Party and like-minded groups. As our John Podhoretz pointed out on Friday, COMMENTARY magazine was singled out for unfair scrutiny. And, as Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote in the Jewish Press, Z Street, a pro-Israel organization that she headed, had the screws put to it in 2010 when it applied for nonprofit status. As Marcus wrote, her group was specifically asked about its opposition to the administration’s policies.

It was appropriate to hear President Obama condemn politicization of the IRS at his press conference yesterday (though it was troubling that he did so while speaking as if it was unproved when the IRS had already admitted that it was true), and good to know that even most liberal columnists and Democrats have now conceded the agency’s behavior was wrong.

However, it strains credibility to believe that widespread abuse of the powers of the IRS was solely the work of a few tax geeks with civil service jobs. Maybe it is possible that an agency that is supposed to be above politics could be perverted in this manner without someone linked to the administration’s political apparatus having had some sort of role in it. Perhaps it was just a case of IRS staff reading the New York Times editorial page and taking their calls for a crackdown on conservatives to heart. But that is what investigators should find out.

Generic condemnations of this egregious and politically biased abuse of power aren’t good enough. We need to find out who gave the order and who knew that this order was given. An administration that has treated the constitutional rights of its opponents as unworthy of respect had better be prepared to finally start telling the truth.

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The Lethal Compassion of Modern Liberalism

The Philadelphia abortionist, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, was found guilty Monday of murdering three babies born alive in an abortion clinic. (Gosnell severed the necks of the newborn babies.) He was acquitted in the fourth baby’s death, and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the overdose death of an adult patient. 

Planned Parenthood applauded the verdict. “The jury has punished Kermit Gosnell for his appalling crimes.” 

The abortion rights organization should have stopped there. But it didn’t.

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The Philadelphia abortionist, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, was found guilty Monday of murdering three babies born alive in an abortion clinic. (Gosnell severed the necks of the newborn babies.) He was acquitted in the fourth baby’s death, and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the overdose death of an adult patient. 

Planned Parenthood applauded the verdict. “The jury has punished Kermit Gosnell for his appalling crimes.” 

The abortion rights organization should have stopped there. But it didn’t.

“This verdict will ensure that no woman is victimized by Kermit Gosnell ever again,” said Planned Parenthood spokesman Eric Ferrero. “This case has made clear that we must have and enforce laws that protect access to safe and legal abortion, and we must reject misguided laws that would limit women’s options and force them to seek treatment from criminals like Kermit Gosnell.”

So what’s missing from this Planned Parenthood statement? That’s right: any reference to the murdered infants. Because in the disturbing and distorted world of Planned Parenthood, murdered infants cannot be mentioned, even in the case of an abortion doctor who is convicted of murdering three of them.

One can see how the Gosnell trial has complicated life for those in the abortion industry. They know that Gosnell’s actions are morally repellant–yet Planned Parenthood cannot utter a single word of sympathy for the murdered infants. So the solution is to applaud the verdict but ignore the lethal actions that led to the verdict.

Planned Parenthood’s commitment to abort any child, for any reason, at any point in pregnancy (or post-delivery) is simply unshakeable. The organization seems to view abortion like a secular sacrament, as a demonstration of emancipation. There is something quite twisted in all this. And it tells you a great deal about Barack Obama that he is so impressed with the lethal work of Planned Parenthood that he is the first sitting president to address the group. And why not? As a state senator in Illinois Mr. Obama opposed legislation that would grant legal protection to a newborn child that had been marked for abortion but survived.

Of course, a story like this shouldn’t obscure the fact that liberalism is the philosophy that defends the weak, the vulnerable, and the defenseless. Except for when it comes to snipping the necks of newborn children.

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