Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 2013

What Conservatives Shouldn’t Be Watching

The recent dustup over the presence of a “pro-secessionist and neo-confederate” activist on the staff of Senator Rand Paul raised the danger that some oddball extremists interested in refighting the Civil War were worming their way into mainstream politics from the fever swamps of the far right. Nevertheless, most observers dismissed the story as insignificant and saying little if anything about mainstream conservative opinion. They are right about that, but yet another story indicates that there is a serious problem that leading conservatives must address lest this lunacy continue to spread.

Earlier this week, Politico noted that one prominent conservative activist has gotten into the movie endorsement business. Richard Viguerie, the head of ConservativeHQ.com, emailed his supporters to express his delight with Copperhead, a new film that has yet to go into general commercial release but which is available on demand in some cable systems. It is, he says, the movie “that every conservative needs to see.”

“[W]hile Copperhead is about the Civil War, believe me, it will hit close to home for every conservative fighting to preserve our Constitution and our American way of life,” Viguerie wrote. “Because Copperhead is about standing up for faith, for America, and for what’s right, just like you and I are doing today. In fact, I’ve never seen a movie with more references to the Constitution, or a movie that better sums up our current fight to stand up for American values and get our nation back on track.”

Suffice it to say that if conservatives agreed with Viguerie that would not only be dead wrong; it would mark the effective end of the modern conservative movement that William F. Buckley ushered into existence in the 1950s. Anyone who wishes to identify contemporary concerns about the unchecked growth of government with northern opponents of Abraham Lincoln, as this dishonest and dreary film does, is consigning the movement to certain death.

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The recent dustup over the presence of a “pro-secessionist and neo-confederate” activist on the staff of Senator Rand Paul raised the danger that some oddball extremists interested in refighting the Civil War were worming their way into mainstream politics from the fever swamps of the far right. Nevertheless, most observers dismissed the story as insignificant and saying little if anything about mainstream conservative opinion. They are right about that, but yet another story indicates that there is a serious problem that leading conservatives must address lest this lunacy continue to spread.

Earlier this week, Politico noted that one prominent conservative activist has gotten into the movie endorsement business. Richard Viguerie, the head of ConservativeHQ.com, emailed his supporters to express his delight with Copperhead, a new film that has yet to go into general commercial release but which is available on demand in some cable systems. It is, he says, the movie “that every conservative needs to see.”

“[W]hile Copperhead is about the Civil War, believe me, it will hit close to home for every conservative fighting to preserve our Constitution and our American way of life,” Viguerie wrote. “Because Copperhead is about standing up for faith, for America, and for what’s right, just like you and I are doing today. In fact, I’ve never seen a movie with more references to the Constitution, or a movie that better sums up our current fight to stand up for American values and get our nation back on track.”

Suffice it to say that if conservatives agreed with Viguerie that would not only be dead wrong; it would mark the effective end of the modern conservative movement that William F. Buckley ushered into existence in the 1950s. Anyone who wishes to identify contemporary concerns about the unchecked growth of government with northern opponents of Abraham Lincoln, as this dishonest and dreary film does, is consigning the movement to certain death.

In its two tedious hours, Copperhead tells the story of the most reasonable citizen of a small village in upstate New York in 1862. Its hero Abner Beech claims to be a supporter of the U.S. Constitution and deplores, as many conservatives do today, the willingness of the federal government to give itself power and to treat its opponents roughly. For this belief, his neighbors ostracize him. But he is undaunted and eventually wins many of them over while his leading opponent in town, who happens to be the most unreasonable if not downright crazy character in the film, winds up killing himself.

That might sound like a promising plot line, but the problem here is that in 1862 arguments about federal power were not theoretical disputes about legislation. The real-life versions of people like the Beech character (and his abolitionist antagonist) were focused on the efforts of the president to not only defend the existence of the republic but to prevent the spread of slavery on American shores.

All wars are terrible and few have been as horrific as the Civil War in terms of casualties and the scale of destruction. But to brand that war, of all conflicts, as unjust or not worth the sacrifice of so many Americans is the moral equivalent of saying that slavery wasn’t so bad. Copperhead is so boring that it’s doubtful that it will ever find much of an audience. But its chief failing is that it is fundamentally dishonest about its subject. It is true that many in the north didn’t like Lincoln or the war. But it is a lie to represent their views as having nothing to do with racism.

The film attempts to portray the dispute as simply a matter of Democrats versus Republicans and one man’s effort to make his views heard. But most northern Democrats supported the war even if they hadn’t voted for Lincoln. Only those elements of that party that were drenched in hatred of blacks and hostile to the very notion of emancipation considered the war illegal. Copperheads were a minority of the Democratic Party and their activity often bordered on what any reasonable observer would consider sedition in time of war and sought to obstruct recruitment into the Union Army.

Filmmaker Ron Maxwell attempts to get around this problem by portraying Beech as not only reasonable but actually against slavery. When he and his friends say they won’t fight for Lincoln, real Copperheads would have said they wouldn’t fight for blacks (though they invariably used the n-word when they said it).

Contrary to the argument in the film, what Lincoln had done did not undermine democracy. Secession was itself fundamentally undemocratic since it was based on the idea that those states that didn’t like the outcome of an election could use their displeasure to destroy the Union.

Maxwell made Gettysburg, a somewhat plodding 1991 film version of Michael Shaara’s classic book The Killer Angels about the great battle. Though that movie had some fine moments, it was still more pageant than drama. But Gods and Generals, the sequel he made more than a decade later, was more unfortunate in its source material, a dreadful novel by Shaara’s son Jeffrey that treated the southern cause as justified rather than merely tragic as his father had portrayed it. The director has doubled down on that morally bankrupt conclusion in “Copperhead” in which those who oppose the war are seen as the voices of conscience rather than intolerance.

Contemporary observers that see parallels between the battles being fought today over measures taken by the government to fight the republic’s current enemies should tread very carefully. The NSA metadata mining is nothing when compared to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus or imprisonment of secessionists. But for 150 years there has been a consensus that rightly understood that Lincoln’s actions were crucial at a moment when a failure to act would have ensured the dissolution of the union. As the war gradually became one dedicated to the eradication of slavery as much as the preservation of the union, opposition to it has correctly been viewed as indefensible.

If the point of the film were a morality tale about the virtue of dissent, one would be hard-pressed to think of a worse example than the Copperheads. It is an axiom of history that one shouldn’t take figures out of their historical context and judge them by the beliefs of our own day. But one needn’t view the Copperheads in that manner to understand that even in their time they were viewed as a vicious element determined to destroy the country rather than lift a finger against slavery or rebellion. A moral universe where a Copperhead is the good guy and an ardent abolitionist is the villain is not one any American should seek to live in. If Abner Beech thinks the cure of war is worse than the plague of slavery, there is no reason why anyone living in 2013 should not view such utterances as both absurd and hateful. One can only wonder what would make anybody make such a film, let alone treat it as a model of political thought.

I can think of no better way to discredit the libertarian trend that seeks to pull back America from the world and cease an active defense of the country against Islamist terrorism than to identify it with opposition to an American secular saint and the war against slavery. Were conservatives as a whole to listen to Viguerie’s conclusion they would be validating the smears of racism that have been wrongly hurled against the movement by liberals. Nothing could be more antithetical to the values that conservatism actually seeks to defend than the message this disgraceful flick upholds.

Neo-confederate revisionist trash like Copperhead shouldn’t be ignored. It should be actively denounced as an insult to Americans who descend from the slaves that Beech didn’t think worth freeing and to the memory of those who, as Lincoln said, “gave their last full measure of devotion” to ensure that American democracy would “not perish from the earth.”

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The One Insult John McCain Can’t Forgive

The part of John McCain’s interview with the New Republic getting the most attention today is where he admits to being conflicted over whether, in a hypothetical 2016 general election, he’d vote for Hillary Clinton over Rand Paul. The article is even headlined “John McCain, Undecided 2016 Voter,” as if to nudge readers along, in case they thought the flames of GOP internecine warfare weren’t being fanned quite enough yet this week.

And of course it is juicy enough in its own way, raising the prospect that the party’s former presidential nominee will jump ship rather than be captained by a libertarian. Nonetheless, though the interview spans foreign and domestic policy, from drones to “wacko birds” to Egyptian coups, one part of the interview caught my attention. McCain was asked about the role Sarah Palin played in the 2008 campaign and her choice of attack lines to aim at the Obama/Biden ticket (“IC” is the New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner, who conducted the interview; “JM” is McCain):

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The part of John McCain’s interview with the New Republic getting the most attention today is where he admits to being conflicted over whether, in a hypothetical 2016 general election, he’d vote for Hillary Clinton over Rand Paul. The article is even headlined “John McCain, Undecided 2016 Voter,” as if to nudge readers along, in case they thought the flames of GOP internecine warfare weren’t being fanned quite enough yet this week.

And of course it is juicy enough in its own way, raising the prospect that the party’s former presidential nominee will jump ship rather than be captained by a libertarian. Nonetheless, though the interview spans foreign and domestic policy, from drones to “wacko birds” to Egyptian coups, one part of the interview caught my attention. McCain was asked about the role Sarah Palin played in the 2008 campaign and her choice of attack lines to aim at the Obama/Biden ticket (“IC” is the New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner, who conducted the interview; “JM” is McCain):

IC: But she also accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” It wasn’t entirely positive.

JM: Well, if she attacked Obama and Biden, that is fairly standard.

IC: “Palling around with terrorists”?

JM: With all due respect, you never heard about when John Lewis said my campaign was worse than the Birmingham church bombing? That may have escaped your attention.

IC: It did. I agree, that is bad.

JM: OK, well, that is what he did, when they orchestrated this “racism” effort against me. Maybe Sarah Palin said “palling around with terrorists,” but the things that were said about me and her were far worse. I’ll never forgive John Lewis.

IC: Did you ever talk to Lewis?

JM: No. I would be glad to show you the press release. But we selectively take something Palin said, and the vice president’s job is to attack, and how many people know about John Lewis? I can show you many other comments. For me to complain about it is a waste of time.

This actually quite tragic, and it just reinforces the fact that the false accusations of racism in which the media and elected Democrats traffic is so corrosive to American politics. You don’t hear McCain complain about the fact that the Obama campaign mocked his war wounds or told Hispanic voters that McCain was against immigration reform when it was Obama who torpedoed McCain’s attempt to liberalize the system. Or, for that matter, any of the other more routine attacks.

Politics ain’t beanbag, of course. Campaigns breed all kinds of personal and political attacks, but rarely the kind that can never be forgiven. Tarring a person’s character with the racism charge just to try to win an election is especially reprehensible. It’s reminiscent of Ted Kennedy’s attack on Robert Bork at the latter’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. “Robert Bork’s America,” the bilious speech claimed, would be a place where “blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters.”

It went beyond the usual character assassination and smear campaigns typical of the left. It forever changed the way judges were confirmed. It broke new ground–even for Kennedy, who had long mastered the politics of personal destruction and turned vapid belligerence into an art form. The confirmation process never recovered, and neither did the courts, membership of which was now available only to those who pretended not to have an opinion about anything. Intellectual discourse was off the table–Kennedy had spoken.

And American politics hasn’t truly recovered either. Even the left understands the damage Kennedy and his cohorts (including the current vice president) did to the country. As Joe Nocera wrote in the New York Times in 2011:

The Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics. For years afterward, conservatives seethed at the “systematic demonization” of Bork, recalls Clint Bolick, a longtime conservative legal activist. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution coined the angry verb “to bork,” which meant to destroy a nominee by whatever means necessary. When Republicans borked the Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright less than two years later, there wasn’t a trace of remorse, not after what the Democrats had done to Bork. The anger between Democrats and Republicans, the unwillingness to work together, the profound mistrust — the line from Bork to today’s ugly politics is a straight one.

And yet the media and Democrats persist in their efforts to call everyone with whom they disagree a racist. Detroit’s bankruptcy is just the latest example, but the trial of George Zimmerman is a reminder of this as well. NBC chose to edit the 9-1-1 call Zimmerman made in order to make it appear as though Zimmerman might be racist, setting off a trial that was suddenly a referendum on racial justice. The press decided to paint Zimmerman as a racist monster, and now the family Zimmerman saved from a car wreck is afraid to speak out publicly on his behalf for fear of “blowback.”

I’m sure there are those who will accuse McCain of sour grapes or unjustly holding a grudge. But he seems to have been able to let the election go. He just can’t quite get beyond the sinister accusation of racism, which became so normalized by the left that virtually every Republican candidate four years later was hit with the same accusation. The damage this is doing to the country is visible and resilient, but as long as Democrats believe it helps them win elections, we can only expect more of it.

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Has the GOP Surrendered to Obama?

It’s not exactly a secret that Senator Ted Cruz and his staff have gotten under the skin of many of his fellow Republicans. In the course of trying to rally more GOP senators to join his effort to stop ObamaCare by going to the brink with Democrats over funding the government, Cruz said most of his caucus was “scared” to challenge the president. He was probably right about that, since they think his proposal is a suicide mission. But the Texas senator’s aides have gone even further. As Politico reported, “Cruz’s chief of staff is lambasting fellow conservatives like Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn for serving in the ‘surrender caucus.’ His top political strategist has compared Mitch McConnell to Barack Obama.” But Cruz’s merry crew isn’t alone. Rush Limbaugh told Fox News yesterday that he thought the leadership of the Republican Party had “capitulated” to the Democrats and spent more time fighting the Tea Party than the president.

If this strikes objective observers as strange, it should. While Cruz and Limbaugh are speaking of the GOP leadership as a pack of quislings, the White House’s chief talking point for the past three years has been the accusation that the same group is a bunch of relentless partisans who have spared no effort in order to sabotage the president’s liberal agenda. Even if we concede that there is a fair amount of hyperbole in both points of view, there’s no question that the rebellion on the right represents a genuine threat to the party. With the GOP already split on immigration and national security issues such as the NSA metadata collection, the willingness of figures like Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and even more significantly, Marco Rubio, to embrace a far more confrontational position than either House Speaker Boehner or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell creates the impression that this is growing into a serious problem for the party that could potentially impact its future ability to govern.

Those concerns are not without foundation, but those seeking to bury the GOP as hopelessly split are making a mistake. What’s going on this week may be troubling for Republicans, but it is as much a function of divided government as it is an ideological chasm between the so-called establishment and the firebrands. What the party of Lincoln is experiencing is nothing more than the usual headaches of the party whose opponents are in possession of the White House.

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It’s not exactly a secret that Senator Ted Cruz and his staff have gotten under the skin of many of his fellow Republicans. In the course of trying to rally more GOP senators to join his effort to stop ObamaCare by going to the brink with Democrats over funding the government, Cruz said most of his caucus was “scared” to challenge the president. He was probably right about that, since they think his proposal is a suicide mission. But the Texas senator’s aides have gone even further. As Politico reported, “Cruz’s chief of staff is lambasting fellow conservatives like Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn for serving in the ‘surrender caucus.’ His top political strategist has compared Mitch McConnell to Barack Obama.” But Cruz’s merry crew isn’t alone. Rush Limbaugh told Fox News yesterday that he thought the leadership of the Republican Party had “capitulated” to the Democrats and spent more time fighting the Tea Party than the president.

If this strikes objective observers as strange, it should. While Cruz and Limbaugh are speaking of the GOP leadership as a pack of quislings, the White House’s chief talking point for the past three years has been the accusation that the same group is a bunch of relentless partisans who have spared no effort in order to sabotage the president’s liberal agenda. Even if we concede that there is a fair amount of hyperbole in both points of view, there’s no question that the rebellion on the right represents a genuine threat to the party. With the GOP already split on immigration and national security issues such as the NSA metadata collection, the willingness of figures like Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and even more significantly, Marco Rubio, to embrace a far more confrontational position than either House Speaker Boehner or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell creates the impression that this is growing into a serious problem for the party that could potentially impact its future ability to govern.

Those concerns are not without foundation, but those seeking to bury the GOP as hopelessly split are making a mistake. What’s going on this week may be troubling for Republicans, but it is as much a function of divided government as it is an ideological chasm between the so-called establishment and the firebrands. What the party of Lincoln is experiencing is nothing more than the usual headaches of the party whose opponents are in possession of the White House.

As much as the media is rightly covering Ted Cruz’s taunting campaign, it would be inaccurate to describe Republicans as being any more divided than are Democrats. On almost all of these issues, Democrats have their own splits, including some that are every bit as bitter as those that afflict the GOP. But the lack of interest in those arguments is not just a function of liberal media bias. It’s primarily due to the fact that, for better or worse, the Democratic Party has a single, preeminent leader while Republicans don’t. That’s what happens when you lose presidential elections.

The Republican problem is not a lack of courage. McConnell has done his best to harass the Democratic majority and the president. While Speaker Boehner can’t simply wage guerrilla warfare, he, too, has sought to thwart the White House’s agenda. But without a unified leadership (something that is only possible when you have a president and even then it is not a given) and single agenda, there will always be room for dissidents to accuse those in charge of not being tough enough.

As for the government shutdown, I agree with all of those, like our Pete Wehner, who say the strategy is a loser. Going to the brink won’t stop ObamaCare and claiming that those who understand this are chickens is juvenile. But what Cruz and Rush are tapping into is the frustration of the party faithful who wonder why the party’s leaders can’t just say no to Obama and shut the monster they hate down. In the absence of a sign that Republicans share this frustration, they look to create artificial and generally meaningless distinctions between a largely imaginary establishment and a cadre of true believers.

It would be far easier for Republicans to do as Cruz wishes if they didn’t control the House. Minorities can afford to be irresponsible and to vote their consciences without caring about its impact on the nation. While some in the grass roots really wouldn’t mind a government shutdown (neither would President Obama, who rightly thinks it would be a public-relations disaster for the GOP), what they really need is a sign their congressional leaders have an alternative and are willing to fall on their swords for the sake of principle. They want inspiration as much as they crave Democratic destruction.

Talk of Republicans surrendering to Obama is absurd. But instead of just getting mad at Cruz and fuming over Limbaugh’s statements, the Republican leaders need to be crafting a message to their own supporters that takes this frustration into account. Simply harrumphing at Cruz’s bumptiousness won’t address a problem that can, at best, be managed rather than solved until they win back the White House.

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Congress Can’t Hesitate on Iran Sanctions

Supporters of appeasement of Iran are worried. In the last month, the foreign policy establishment has been promoting the idea that new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a true moderate who can help end the nuclear impasse between Tehran and the West over the Iranian drive for nuclear weapons. This belief has more to do with the desire to persuade President Obama to either negotiate a deal that will allow the ayatollahs to retain their program or to drop his opposition to a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran than it does with any real hope for a satisfactory agreement. But it has energized pro-Tehran groups like the notorious National Iranian American Council and members of Congress like Rep. Keith Ellison, who hope to use Iran’s Rouhani ruse to spike efforts to toughen sanctions on the regime that are scheduled to come to a vote today.

The question today is whether the leadership of the House is willing to be sucked into the latest instance of Iran’s efforts to stall and/or deceive the West on nukes. Though advocates of outreach to Rouhani claim he is the only hope for a deal, if the new sanctions are held up in the House or in the Senate out of a desire to support the Iranian president against the “hard-liners” in Iran, it will actually spike what is left of the already minimal chances that the nuclear threat can be stopped by anything short of force.

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Supporters of appeasement of Iran are worried. In the last month, the foreign policy establishment has been promoting the idea that new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a true moderate who can help end the nuclear impasse between Tehran and the West over the Iranian drive for nuclear weapons. This belief has more to do with the desire to persuade President Obama to either negotiate a deal that will allow the ayatollahs to retain their program or to drop his opposition to a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran than it does with any real hope for a satisfactory agreement. But it has energized pro-Tehran groups like the notorious National Iranian American Council and members of Congress like Rep. Keith Ellison, who hope to use Iran’s Rouhani ruse to spike efforts to toughen sanctions on the regime that are scheduled to come to a vote today.

The question today is whether the leadership of the House is willing to be sucked into the latest instance of Iran’s efforts to stall and/or deceive the West on nukes. Though advocates of outreach to Rouhani claim he is the only hope for a deal, if the new sanctions are held up in the House or in the Senate out of a desire to support the Iranian president against the “hard-liners” in Iran, it will actually spike what is left of the already minimal chances that the nuclear threat can be stopped by anything short of force.

Up until recently, support for Iran sanctions has been a matter of bipartisan consensus. Even when President Obama was wasting much of his first term on feckless efforts to engage Tehran and refusing to back tough sanctions that would shut down Iran’s lucrative oil trading business, there was overwhelming backing from both the Republican and Democratic caucuses for efforts to isolate the Islamist regime. The current sanctions bill that would close up the remaining loopholes and lay the foundation for a total embargo of Iran’s oil has 376 co-sponsors. But earlier this month, 131 members urged Obama to reach out to Iran because they believed Rouhani represented a genuine opportunity for a peaceful resolution of the dispute.

This is a misreading of both the Iranian president, whose moderation is more a matter of Western hope than reality, and their political system, since it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has the power to make nuclear decisions, not Rouhani.

But the real problem here is that any American action that shows Tehran that Congress or the White House is willing to bend on sanctions gives the ayatollahs hope that they can talk their way out of this impasse rather than give up on their nuclear ambition. For over a decade, Iran has deftly played upon Western hopes for accommodation in order to turn all diplomatic overtures into delaying actions that serve their ends. Indeed, as the New York Times pointed out in a fawning profile published last weekend, Rouhani played a key role in a 2003 negotiation in which he and Khamenei fooled Western interlocutors.

As Evelyn wrote this morning, it may well be far too late for even a total oil embargo of Iran to force the regime to give up its nukes, and soon it may be past the point when even air strikes will do much to alter the equation. But even if the administration is going to make one last effort to talk to Iran, the only possible scenario under which that could work is if the U.S. has cut off all of Iran’s possible sources of oil income. Stalling sanctions isn’t an overture for peace or diplomacy; it’s really an argument for waving a white flag on Obama’s promise never to allow Iran to gain a nuclear weapon. Both houses of Congress should remember that and deliver a new sanctions bill to the president as soon as possible.

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Paul Was Too Late on Egypt Aid

Sometimes the legislative process moves too slowly. Had Rand Paul’s amendment to a Senate appropriations bill that called for $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt to be diverted to bridge construction and repair in the United States come to the floor a month ago, he might have had a much stronger argument than he did this morning when he lost a vote to table his proposal. Paul is a fervent critic of foreign aid even to America’s closest allies at all times. But had he been able to bring this up while Egypt was ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s likely more Senators might have joined with him if only in order to send a message to the Obama administration that its misguided embrace of the Islamist government needed to end. But Paul’s attempt to cut off aid to Egypt just weeks after the military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi was a case of very bad timing.

Aid to Egypt was unpopular even among its traditional supporters during the past year as the Brotherhood moved inexorably toward consolidating total power in Cairo. Under those circumstances, Paul’s standard speech about the stupidity of sending U.S. cash to hostile nations made a lot of sense when applied to Egypt. But with the Brotherhood out and with the U.S. needing to send a strong U.S. message of support for the forces that have saved Egypt from Islamist tyranny, Paul’s grandstanding about American money backing thugs was curiously tone deaf to both the facts on the ground in Cairo and American interests. The morning’s business on the Senate floor illustrated in a nutshell everything that is wrong with the Kentucky senator’s isolationist mindset.

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Sometimes the legislative process moves too slowly. Had Rand Paul’s amendment to a Senate appropriations bill that called for $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt to be diverted to bridge construction and repair in the United States come to the floor a month ago, he might have had a much stronger argument than he did this morning when he lost a vote to table his proposal. Paul is a fervent critic of foreign aid even to America’s closest allies at all times. But had he been able to bring this up while Egypt was ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s likely more Senators might have joined with him if only in order to send a message to the Obama administration that its misguided embrace of the Islamist government needed to end. But Paul’s attempt to cut off aid to Egypt just weeks after the military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi was a case of very bad timing.

Aid to Egypt was unpopular even among its traditional supporters during the past year as the Brotherhood moved inexorably toward consolidating total power in Cairo. Under those circumstances, Paul’s standard speech about the stupidity of sending U.S. cash to hostile nations made a lot of sense when applied to Egypt. But with the Brotherhood out and with the U.S. needing to send a strong U.S. message of support for the forces that have saved Egypt from Islamist tyranny, Paul’s grandstanding about American money backing thugs was curiously tone deaf to both the facts on the ground in Cairo and American interests. The morning’s business on the Senate floor illustrated in a nutshell everything that is wrong with the Kentucky senator’s isolationist mindset.

In recent days, even the sternest critics of Obama’s foreign policy have held their fire on Egypt because it seems the administration has started to understand that its infatuation with the Brotherhood was a mistake that was deeply resented by the Egyptian people as well as destructive to American interests in the region. Rather than use the violence in the streets as the Brotherhood attempted to regain power in Cairo as an excuse for pressuring the military to restore Morsi, the U.S. is wisely sending a muted message about the unrest. That should give the new government the space it needs to hold on and ensure the Islamists don’t get another chance to remake Egyptian society in their own image. And it’s also why it’s exactly the wrong moment for Congress to send it a message that would be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as a U.S. gesture intended to push Egypt back into the arms of the Brotherhood.

Fortunately, Paul’s amendment was tabled by a vote of 86-13 with the vast majority of Republicans voting with the majority. But this minor incident illustrates everything that is wrong with Paul’s ideological mindset.

Paul claims he is neither an isolationist nor someone who doesn’t wish to engage with the world. But his vision of engagement with the world is not consistent with America’s global responsibilities. Like it or not, American support is a necessary element of stability in much of the world, but especially in the Middle East. Paul is right that Egyptians may have resented U.S. aid for decades because it benefited the military rather than ordinary people. He failed to mention that one other reason they didn’t like it was because it was seen as an ongoing bribe to ensure that Egypt abided by its peace treaty with Israel. That resentment was even greater during the year of Brotherhood rule since it was seen as propping up a new dictatorship that was not only oppressive but also bent on imposing its theocratic views on all Egyptians.

That’s why Paul’s attempt to throw a monkey wrench into the U.S.-Egypt relationship just at the moment when President Obama was doing the right thing was so foolish. America’s priority there must be to keep the Brotherhood out of power. But Paul, who is indifferent or hostile to the need for the United States to keep fighting Islamist terrorists throughout the Middle East, has no patience for such nuances.

Moreover, despite his half-hearted attempts to demonstrate that he is not an opponent of Israel this past year, he also dismissed the idea that torpedoing Egyptian aid damages the Jewish state. An aid cutoff is the last thing Israel wants since doing so would help the Muslim Brotherhood and by extension strengthen the position of its Hamas allies in Gaza, who have been isolated since the coup. It would also undermine the peace treaty with Egypt that remains a pillar of Israel’s defense strategy. Claiming, as Paul did on the Senate floor, that he has a better grasp of what’s good for Israel or what its supporters are thinking than Israel’s government or AIPAC was absurd.

This morning’s vote was a minor skirmish in what looks to be a long and difficult struggle in Congress to keep the isolationist wing of the GOP from becoming the party’s voice on foreign policy. For now, Paul’s effort to distance the U.S. from its global responsibilities has failed. But, as with the effort to shut down necessary intelligence gathering or drone strikes against terrorists, the fight is far from over.

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Immigration Reform and the Lessons of ’06

Speaker of the House John Boehner boxed himself in on immigration reform, but an article in National Journal makes a compelling case that he has a plausible Plan B. His initial approach to immigration reform followed what has been called the “Boehner Rule”: have the Senate pass legislation first, so the House can avoid taking tough votes on legislation that will die in the Senate anyway (Nancy Pelosi’s decision to force the then-Democratic House to vote on cap-and-trade is a good example of what Boehner wants to avoid).

But as Boehner’s critics have noted, forcing the Senate to pass bills first removes some of his caucus’s influence on new legislation. And there is always the likelihood that anything that passes the Democratic-controlled Senate will be anathema to the Republican House–which is exactly what happened with immigration reform. The bill was crafted by a bipartisan “gang of eight” and produced a compromise bill that House conservatives greatly dislike.

After insisting the Senate go first, Boehner was left to explain why the Senate bill won’t even be considered by the House, and why it was necessary or preferable for the Senate to even pass a bill if it would have no influence on the legislation ultimately put together by House Republicans. It appeared that the “Boehner Rule” would damage the prospects of comprehensive immigration reform even more than the much-discussed Hastert Rule, intended in this case to prevent a bill being passed on the strength of the Democratic minority in the House.

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Speaker of the House John Boehner boxed himself in on immigration reform, but an article in National Journal makes a compelling case that he has a plausible Plan B. His initial approach to immigration reform followed what has been called the “Boehner Rule”: have the Senate pass legislation first, so the House can avoid taking tough votes on legislation that will die in the Senate anyway (Nancy Pelosi’s decision to force the then-Democratic House to vote on cap-and-trade is a good example of what Boehner wants to avoid).

But as Boehner’s critics have noted, forcing the Senate to pass bills first removes some of his caucus’s influence on new legislation. And there is always the likelihood that anything that passes the Democratic-controlled Senate will be anathema to the Republican House–which is exactly what happened with immigration reform. The bill was crafted by a bipartisan “gang of eight” and produced a compromise bill that House conservatives greatly dislike.

After insisting the Senate go first, Boehner was left to explain why the Senate bill won’t even be considered by the House, and why it was necessary or preferable for the Senate to even pass a bill if it would have no influence on the legislation ultimately put together by House Republicans. It appeared that the “Boehner Rule” would damage the prospects of comprehensive immigration reform even more than the much-discussed Hastert Rule, intended in this case to prevent a bill being passed on the strength of the Democratic minority in the House.

To add to the frustration of reform proponents, Boehner announced no immigration bill would be finalized before the congressional recess, despite his earlier hopes a vote would be held before the break. But that, writes National Journal, is actually a strategy to pass, not bury, immigration reform:

Keeping immigration on the back-burner helps avoid a recess filled with angry town-hall meetings reminiscent of the heated August 2009 protests where the backlash against health care reform coalesced. Doing nothing also starves Democrats of a target, Republicans argue.

“August was a central part of our discussions. People don’t want to go home and get screamed at,” a House GOP leadership aide said.

According to this strategy, Boehner and the GOP will use the recess to focus voter anger on Obama administration scandals and the latest ObamaCare outrages. Rather than follow the Democrats’ precedent on ObamaCare and unleash public opposition to their own bill, Boehner wants to use the recess to reignite the anti-ObamaCare energy. But while Boehner uses ObamaCare as the template to avoid, there is actually another precedent that is even more relevant to this issue: the 2006 meetings held by congressional Republicans to oppose immigration reform during George W. Bush’s second term.

Bush supported efforts to reform the immigration system and his outreach to Hispanic immigrants enabled him to get more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2004 reelection campaign against John Kerry. In his book Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders, Jason Riley quotes Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg as saying that the Democrats were taking the Hispanic vote for granted and Republicans were reaching out to those same voters. It appeared the GOP had solved the riddle:

“I thought the Republicans had probably passed the tipping point on this thing with Latinos,” says Rosenberg. “I thought the Democrats had been caught flat-footed, that Bush and Dowd had moved an unbelievably powerful strategic chess piece. Then the Republicans decided to hold those field hearings. I said, ‘I can’t believe they’re really going to do this.’ “

[…]

Republicans believed, with reason, that heavy turnout facilitated GOP gains in 2002 and 2004, and they were terrified that their base would stay home in November. Politicians are famous for their inability to see past the next election, and congressional Republicans in 2006 were no different. They covered their ears to warnings from Bush, Mehlman, and Rove that the strategy could backfire and spent the months leading up to the midterms desperately trying to demonize illegal aliens.

There were no doubt a number of factors that led to the GOP’s disastrous results in the 2006 midterms. But Boehner seems to understand that giving immigration opponents the space to rally the base would prove the GOP had unlearned at least some of the lessons from 2006.

In addition to trying to divert grassroots conservative attention away from immigration reform, Boehner also seems to be–intentionally or not–ceding that space to supporters of immigration reform. The Hill reports that “Business groups, tech companies and labor unions are bringing down the hammer on House Republicans over immigration reform.” These groups “worry the August recess could be their Waterloo, and are planning events, rallies and editorial board meetings to keep their legislative push alive.”

As veterans of the press or electoral politics know all too well, generally opponents of anything are far more energized and voluble than supporters of the same. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, the Chamber of Commerce mustering the kind outrage in support of immigration reform typified by opponents of ObamaCare or the earlier iteration of comprehensive immigration reform. Nonetheless, the GOP’s House leadership is convinced the delay is the only way to save immigration reform. Whether such a bill ultimately passes or not, avoiding a replay of the angry anti-immigration days of 2006 can at least prevent the right from doing even more damage to its standing among immigrant groups.

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There’s No More Time to Waste on Iran

The best argument I’ve yet seen for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities imminently is a chilling new report from the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security saying that by the middle of next year, Iran will have reached “critical capability”–the ability to build a nuclear bomb completely undetected. In other words, by mid-2014, it will be impossible to mount a last-minute effort to stop Iran from sprinting for the bomb because, as the Jerusalem Post explains, “breakout times at critical capability would be ‘so short’ that there would not be enough time to organize an international diplomatic or military response.” This would be true even if Iran agrees to heightened scrutiny through measures such as remote monitoring and more frequent on-site inspections.

But aside from warning that time is running out, the ISIS report also undercuts some of the arguments made against military action, such as that nobody can be sure all of Iran’s nuclear facilities have been discovered, and hence an attack could easily miss some. And it particularly demolishes the main argument against a solo Israeli attack: that Israel lacks the capability to inflict enough damage on Iran’s nuclear program to set it back significantly.

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The best argument I’ve yet seen for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities imminently is a chilling new report from the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security saying that by the middle of next year, Iran will have reached “critical capability”–the ability to build a nuclear bomb completely undetected. In other words, by mid-2014, it will be impossible to mount a last-minute effort to stop Iran from sprinting for the bomb because, as the Jerusalem Post explains, “breakout times at critical capability would be ‘so short’ that there would not be enough time to organize an international diplomatic or military response.” This would be true even if Iran agrees to heightened scrutiny through measures such as remote monitoring and more frequent on-site inspections.

But aside from warning that time is running out, the ISIS report also undercuts some of the arguments made against military action, such as that nobody can be sure all of Iran’s nuclear facilities have been discovered, and hence an attack could easily miss some. And it particularly demolishes the main argument against a solo Israeli attack: that Israel lacks the capability to inflict enough damage on Iran’s nuclear program to set it back significantly.

That’s because the key component of critical capability is simply the number of centrifuges in operation. The more centrifuges Iran has, the faster it can enrich enough uranium for a bomb, so as soon as it has enough centrifuges, it will also have the ability to enrich enough uranium for a bomb faster than military action can be mounted to stop it. According to ISIS, the 3,000 advanced centrifuges that Iran announced plans to install earlier this year would be enough to give it this capability.

What that means, however, is that even if an attack doesn’t destroy every last bit of Iran’s nuclear program, as long as it destroys enough centrifuges to push Iran away from critical capability, this would suffice to prevent it from racing for the bomb undetected.

Clearly, that isn’t as good as permanently eliminating the program. But given the choice between buying a little more time and accepting the inevitability of a nuclear Iran, buying time is clearly preferable.

I’ve argued before that buying time is often more effective than commonly thought; Israel’s 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor–which set Iraq’s nuclear program back just long enough for the 1991 Gulf War to finish the job–is a case in point. But buying time would be especially effective in this case, for the simple reason that an attack would convince Iran of something it currently doesn’t believe: that either the U.S., Israel, or both will prove to be serious about preventing it from obtaining nukes, even if doing so requires military action. And once convinced of that, Iran is less likely to rush to rebuild its capabilities.

ISIS, incidentally, doesn’t argue for bombing Iran; it argues for negotiating an immediate agreement “limiting the number and type of Iran’s centrifuges at Natanz, Fordow, or a site not yet finished.” But given Iran’s past history of dragging out negotiations ad infinitum without ever reaching a deal, the chances of reaching an agreement like that in enough time to stop it from obtaining critical capability are almost nil.

In short, either military action is taken in the coming months, or a nuclear Iran will be inevitable. There is no more time to waste.

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Fast Food Protests Divorced From Reality

If you were in the mood for a fast-food meal yesterday or today in several parts of the country, you were in for a surprise: loud protests outside the doors of some major chain restaurants. Several chains in metropolitan areas were affected by protests demanding higher wages at establishments like McDonald’s and Burger King. A local free daily newspaper in New York City, amNewYork, interviewed one of the workers leading the charge:

“When you have a family and work in the fast food industry, you just have to forget about it,” said Greg Reynoso, 27, a former Dominos Pizza employee who now organizes his peers.

The question that comes to mind first is this: Who said anyone could or should support an entire family on the salary of a fast-food employee? Has anyone ever reasonably made that promise? 

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If you were in the mood for a fast-food meal yesterday or today in several parts of the country, you were in for a surprise: loud protests outside the doors of some major chain restaurants. Several chains in metropolitan areas were affected by protests demanding higher wages at establishments like McDonald’s and Burger King. A local free daily newspaper in New York City, amNewYork, interviewed one of the workers leading the charge:

“When you have a family and work in the fast food industry, you just have to forget about it,” said Greg Reynoso, 27, a former Dominos Pizza employee who now organizes his peers.

The question that comes to mind first is this: Who said anyone could or should support an entire family on the salary of a fast-food employee? Has anyone ever reasonably made that promise? 

Traditionally, one envisions a fast food employee as a teenager working their first job. The marketing strategy of these chains is that they are an inexpensive quick stop for lower and middle-income Americans to feed themselves and their families. Menu options are made affordable in many ways, not least of which is by keeping labor costs at a minimum. Any added costs, including labor, would then be passed down to the customer via increased prices, making these cheap meals unaffordable to those who need to watch every dime and dollar. If restaurants are unable to attract customers with their new, higher, price points the jobs of those striking as well as those who are not would disappear. 

The group behind the latest protests, Fast Food Forward, calling for the minimum wage increase from $7.25 an hour to the laughable amount of $15 an hour in New York City, are no strangers to organized protest. The director of Fast Food Forward, Jonathan Westin, also runs New York Communities for Change (NYCC), the renamed and reorganized descendent of the now defunct ACORN, which was disgraced and brought down by an expose that made the activist James O’Keefe famous. In late 2011 NYCC was rocked by a Fox News report linking the group with paid protesters at Occupy Wall Street. At the time Fox News reported:

“They reminded us that we can get fired, sued, arrested for talking to the press,” the source said. “Then they went through the article point-by-point and said that the allegation that we pay people to protest isn’t true.”

 “‘That’s the story that we’re sticking to,’” Westin said, according to the source.

The source said staffers at the meeting contested Westin’s denial:

“It was pretty funny. Jonathan told staff they don’t pay for protesters, but the people in the meeting  who work there objected and said, ‘Wait, you pay us to go to the protests every day?’ Then Jonathan said  ‘No, but that’s your job,’ and staffers were like, ‘Yeah, our job is to protest,’ and Westin said, ‘No your job is to fight for economic and social justice. We just send you to protest.’

“Staff said, ‘Yes, you pay us to carry signs.’ Then Jonathan says, ‘That’s your job.’ It went on like that back and forth for a while.”

Late last year and in April of this year the same kind of protests were held by Fast Food Forward, even sporting the exact same signs, with overt references to unionization in addition to $15/hour wages. In last year’s protest the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was involved and in this year’s protests, their Facebook page has posted several times about the protests as well as lending their public support.

Is this a grassroots effort sweeping through the kitchens of fast-food restaurants across New York City and nationwide? Despite the full-page treatment in newspapers and stories on cable news to a movement with a large number of petition signatures and loud protests, it doesn’t appear to be. If it was, perhaps we would have heard about fast-food chains shutting down due to understaffing yesterday. Instead, we were treated to images of dozens of familiar prefabricated placards outside restaurants, carried through the city by a group linked to paying protesters in the recent past.

What’s in it for the groups organizing and perhaps even paying for these protests? If even a fraction of these restaurants were able to unionize, the payout for SEIU would be enormous. How would the workers who are supposedly leading this movement fare? Many of these employees, who were already facing reduced hours thanks to the union-supported ObamaCare, would likely see at least part of any raise going toward union dues. Restaurants, already operating on tight profit margins, would be forced to either close or raise prices in order to make up for increased labor costs, making meals unaffordable for many.

If restaurants were forced to close under the increased weight not only of increased labor costs, but also new ObamaCare regulation requirements, employees wouldn’t be asking for raises, they’d be asking for any job at all. Employees and other individuals in their income bracket would not only be left unemployed, but also without inexpensive meal options for their families. With all of this in mind one has to wonder: Who are these protest groups really advocating for? 

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Paul, Christie, and the Soul of the GOP

For a press corps that can’t wait to start covering the 2016 horse race, the exchanges this past week between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are a godsend. The back and forth between the two, which continued today, is unusual even for potential primary opponents since this is the sort of hatchet work left either to surrogates or the heat of battle during formal debates. But in this case it makes sense for both of them to be doing it and to start as early as possible for two reasons.

One is that these shots are not so much aimed at the target as to establish their bona fides as the leading proponent of their point of view. Paul is looking to ensure that he, and not Ted Cruz or any other potential dark horse, is the preeminent advocate of the libertarian position on foreign and defense policy. By the same token, Christie has stolen a march on Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan (both of whom also have mainstream pro-defense views and might be competing for the same donors) by taking on Paul. If the field is large in 2016, there will, in essence, be two Republican primaries in which each side of this divide will choose a candidate that will probably be the finalists for the GOP nomination.

But there is something else here at stake that explains why both think it worthwhile to start conducting this debate at least two years before even the preliminary period of the 2016 race begins. Though it appears to be a nasty quarrel between two arrogant and ambitious politicians who know the other is in his way, the harsh nature of the comments of the two directed at each other illustrate that what is going on here is nothing less than a battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

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For a press corps that can’t wait to start covering the 2016 horse race, the exchanges this past week between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are a godsend. The back and forth between the two, which continued today, is unusual even for potential primary opponents since this is the sort of hatchet work left either to surrogates or the heat of battle during formal debates. But in this case it makes sense for both of them to be doing it and to start as early as possible for two reasons.

One is that these shots are not so much aimed at the target as to establish their bona fides as the leading proponent of their point of view. Paul is looking to ensure that he, and not Ted Cruz or any other potential dark horse, is the preeminent advocate of the libertarian position on foreign and defense policy. By the same token, Christie has stolen a march on Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan (both of whom also have mainstream pro-defense views and might be competing for the same donors) by taking on Paul. If the field is large in 2016, there will, in essence, be two Republican primaries in which each side of this divide will choose a candidate that will probably be the finalists for the GOP nomination.

But there is something else here at stake that explains why both think it worthwhile to start conducting this debate at least two years before even the preliminary period of the 2016 race begins. Though it appears to be a nasty quarrel between two arrogant and ambitious politicians who know the other is in his way, the harsh nature of the comments of the two directed at each other illustrate that what is going on here is nothing less than a battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

To recap the hostilities, Christie kicked off the dustup by denouncing the way the Republican Party is drifting toward a libertarian approach to foreign policy that seems too willing to take the country back to a September 10th mentality and, when asked if that included Paul, he responded in the affirmative and said those politicians grandstanding on the issue should sit down with 9/11 victims’ families.

Paul shot back last night in vintage fashion by saying that Christie was tearing down the Republican Party and that it “was sad and cheap that he would use the cloak of 9/11 victims” to carry on the dispute. He then went even further and said “If he cared about protecting this country, maybe he wouldn’t be in this give me, give me, give me all of the money that you have in Washington,” a clear reference to Christie’s tirade about the way some GOP conservatives held up Hurricane Sandy aid to the Northeast.

Christie fired back today by calling out Rand as complicit in the congressional pork system by pointing out that New Jersey gets only 60 cents back from Washington for every tax dollar it sends to the capital while Kentucky garners $1.50.

Clearly, as Christie observed, the argument has gotten personal between the two. In the context of the two virtual primaries that divide the Republican Party, it doesn’t do either man any harm to be perceived by his supporters as taking on the leader of the other side. Though we are literally years away from the first debates or votes cast in caucuses and primaries, the sooner any candidate establishes himself as the leading voice of one of the two main camps in the party, the better off he will be.

But the food fight aspect of these exchanges shouldn’t blind us to the deadly serious nature of this debate.

As last week’s House vote on the NSA metadata collection showed, a genuine schism on national defense is developing within the Republican Party. With nearly half of the GOP caucus prepared to embrace positions championed by Paul, Cruz, and Rep. Justin Amash in which the war on Islamist terrorism is essentially shelved, the GOP may be about to abandon its long-held position as a bastion of support for national defense and a forward American foreign policy that has carried them to victory in the past.

That this debate is being conducted largely on the basis of exaggerations and distortions of the truth makes it all the more frustrating for Republicans who see their party drifting toward a form of isolationism. As Walter Pincus pointed out in an op-ed published yesterday in the Washington Post, Paul, Cruz, and Amash have been able to rally support for this so-called libertarian cause largely because they have helped confuse Americans into thinking the NSA is reading their emails and listening to their calls in violation of the Constitution. This isn’t true. What the NSA has done is not only constitutional and being conducted under the jurisdiction of the courts and with congressional oversight; it has also foiled numerous terrorist plots.

As I wrote last week, Christie’s decision to speak up on this issue in a pointed manner, especially when other potential GOP presidential contenders who share his views have been either distracted by other issues like Ryan or pointedly silent like Rubio, has already given him a leg up on them among mainstream Republicans and donors. Moreover, his ability to take a shot and then return it twofold in this manner shows that he will be a formidable primary opponent.

Paul may have thought his filibuster and the distrust of government that has been fed by Obama’s scandals and abuses of power would be enough to allow him to break through from his extremist libertarian base. If last week’s NSA vote is any indication, such a belief is not unfounded. But what Christie has done is shown that this conquest will not only not be unopposed but will generate fierce opposition from the party’s most articulate, popular and confrontational figure. That will not only encourage others who disagree with Paul to jump into the fray but begin the process of reaffirming the GOP as the party most associated with a strong national defense.

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Republican Threat to Shut Down the Government Is a Terrible Idea

There’s an increasingly contentious debate within the GOP over whether Republicans should oppose any bill to fund the government or increase the debt limit that also provides money for the Affordable Care Act. The basic argument of people like Senator Mike Lee is that in return for Republican support for funding government operations, Democrats will defund the ACA. If Democrats refuse, no money will be forthcoming. And as a result, the government will shut down–and Democrats will be blamed for having done so. After all, they chose funding ObamaCare over keeping the rest of the federal government running. QED. 

This approach is so obviously the correct one, some on the right insist that those Republicans who oppose it must never have been serious about repealing ObamaCare in the first place. Added Senator Ted Cruz, “What I can tell you is there are a lot of Republicans in Washington who are scared. They’re scared of being beaten up politically.” But not the gallant and intrepid senator from Texas.  

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There’s an increasingly contentious debate within the GOP over whether Republicans should oppose any bill to fund the government or increase the debt limit that also provides money for the Affordable Care Act. The basic argument of people like Senator Mike Lee is that in return for Republican support for funding government operations, Democrats will defund the ACA. If Democrats refuse, no money will be forthcoming. And as a result, the government will shut down–and Democrats will be blamed for having done so. After all, they chose funding ObamaCare over keeping the rest of the federal government running. QED. 

This approach is so obviously the correct one, some on the right insist that those Republicans who oppose it must never have been serious about repealing ObamaCare in the first place. Added Senator Ted Cruz, “What I can tell you is there are a lot of Republicans in Washington who are scared. They’re scared of being beaten up politically.” But not the gallant and intrepid senator from Texas.  

The assertion that Republicans don’t want to succeed and were never serious about repealing the Affordable Care Act is simply wrong. We all agree on the end; where there’s disagreement is on the means to the end. Critics of the Lee gambit believe it would fail–and in the process it would set back the conservative cause, may revive the Obama presidency, and damage Republicans in the 2014 election.

As for the reason some of us believe it would fail, let’s start with the most obvious points first: No one believes Barack Obama will under any circumstance sign legislation that would defund his signature achievement. Which means that a government shutdown would be in the cards. And that doesn’t bode well for the GOP, since any party in control of one branch of Congress will rarely win a showdown with a president of another party on a matter like this. There are intrinsic advantages the presidency has which Congress does not. (See the Gingrich-led House of Representative in the mid-1990s which, contrary to revisionist claims, never really recovered in the aftermath of its showdown with Bill Clinton.) Overcoming those advantages is possible, but doing so requires fighting on terrain that has been very carefully chosen. This terrain favors Mr. Obama.

For example, Jeffrey Anderson–one of the most knowledgeable and intelligent critics of the Affordable Care Act–calls attention to a new Kaiser Health Tracking poll that shows that Americans oppose ObamaCare by 5 points (40 to 35 percent) but also oppose defunding it by 27 points (58 to 31 percent). And that’s prior to a high-profile collision with the president. Anderson examines the findings of other surveys and writes “all of these polls suggest that an effort that is framed as defunding Obamacare is likely a political loser.” 

In a fight over defunding the Affordable Care Act, one can count on the press being highly one-sided in its coverage, with the instant narrative being that Republicans are anti-government, bordering on being nihilistic, obsessed with obstructionism, and responsible for the troops not getting paid. Republicans would try to chip away at it, but without much success. Bear in mind, too, that we’re in a nation that reelected Obama by a fairly comfortable margin, and he remains far more popular than Congress and the Republican Party. And Republicans would be entering a debate where the preexisting impressions–in this case, the GOP is highly critical of government and are not all that troubled by the prospect of a shutdown–works to their disadvantage.

Some on the right are understandably frustrated. They want to undo the damage of the Obama era, as do we all. But there is nothing conservative about acting as if we live in an alternate political universe, in a place where favorable new scenarios can be wished into existence. Nor is there anything conservative in insisting that Republicans get in a fight they are almost sure to lose–and that the loss itself will have damaging ramifications.

A prediction: If Senators Lee, Cruz, and Rand Paul had their way, a month or so afterward nearly everyone would look back at it as a mistake, and quite possibly as a disaster. Public support for their plan would never materialize, Republicans would be forced to retreat, and there would be recriminations all the way around, with those who advocated this idea coming up with excuses for why it failed (and was destined to fail). Fortunately, however, Lee & Co. won’t have their way. Cooler and wiser heads will prevail.   

Prudence is a higher political virtue than impatience and pugilistic impulses. Republicans would therefore be wise to act in ways that are measured, politically intelligent, realistic, and that avoid the traps set by its opponents. 

I’ve said before that Pickett’s Charge is a Civil War reference. There’s no reason for it to become a political blueprint for the GOP.

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What Should the West Think of Navalny?

One of the sources of frustration for many of the participants in popular uprisings over the last couple of years is that the same qualities that made the protests so captivating is also a source of their stagnation. They appeared organic and spontaneous, even if hindsight has made them seem overdetermined. And that spontaneity has also meant some of these protest movements are devoid of political leadership–a weakness exacerbated in many cases by the general lack of democracy around them.

In Russia, the anti-Putin protest movement has produced only one person thus far who represents a true political threat to Vladimir Putin. That would be Aleksei Navalny, the crusading anti-corruption activist and blogger who was recently found guilty on trumped-up charges of embezzlement but who is still eligible to run in the upcoming Moscow mayoral election. But Navalny represents a challenge to the anti-Putin coalition as well, and those cheering him on from the sidelines. The Putin-Navalny conflict resembles nothing so much as a street fight that keeps gathering steam and spectators. And Navalny will use any weapon he can find, overmatched as he is. As I wrote in December 2011:

But Navalny also threatens to hold back the Russian opposition with his casual association with, and his movement’s possible co-option by, the country’s vicious nationalists. Navalny’s own nationalism was the subject of his expulsion from the liberal Yabloko party several years ago (though it is surely not the only reason), and he has cooperated with, marched with, and defended ultranationalist leaders. Russia’s ultranationalists are openly racist and have a troubling history with anti-Semitism as well. Navalny himself, at a recent nationalist rally, caught some flak for saying, in reference to Russian oligarchs who also happened to be Jewish, “This is our country, and we have to eradicate the crooks who suck our blood and eat our liver.” The historical weight of those terms with regard to Jewish “outsiders,” combined with the throngs of neo-Nazis cheering him on, made many wonder if Navalny’s opposition movement was taking a dark turn.

Navalny was still more or less unknown nationally at the time. As his name recognition grows, so do the questions about his character, as Robert Coalson writes at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

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One of the sources of frustration for many of the participants in popular uprisings over the last couple of years is that the same qualities that made the protests so captivating is also a source of their stagnation. They appeared organic and spontaneous, even if hindsight has made them seem overdetermined. And that spontaneity has also meant some of these protest movements are devoid of political leadership–a weakness exacerbated in many cases by the general lack of democracy around them.

In Russia, the anti-Putin protest movement has produced only one person thus far who represents a true political threat to Vladimir Putin. That would be Aleksei Navalny, the crusading anti-corruption activist and blogger who was recently found guilty on trumped-up charges of embezzlement but who is still eligible to run in the upcoming Moscow mayoral election. But Navalny represents a challenge to the anti-Putin coalition as well, and those cheering him on from the sidelines. The Putin-Navalny conflict resembles nothing so much as a street fight that keeps gathering steam and spectators. And Navalny will use any weapon he can find, overmatched as he is. As I wrote in December 2011:

But Navalny also threatens to hold back the Russian opposition with his casual association with, and his movement’s possible co-option by, the country’s vicious nationalists. Navalny’s own nationalism was the subject of his expulsion from the liberal Yabloko party several years ago (though it is surely not the only reason), and he has cooperated with, marched with, and defended ultranationalist leaders. Russia’s ultranationalists are openly racist and have a troubling history with anti-Semitism as well. Navalny himself, at a recent nationalist rally, caught some flak for saying, in reference to Russian oligarchs who also happened to be Jewish, “This is our country, and we have to eradicate the crooks who suck our blood and eat our liver.” The historical weight of those terms with regard to Jewish “outsiders,” combined with the throngs of neo-Nazis cheering him on, made many wonder if Navalny’s opposition movement was taking a dark turn.

Navalny was still more or less unknown nationally at the time. As his name recognition grows, so do the questions about his character, as Robert Coalson writes at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

Engelina Tareyeva, who worked with Navalny when he was a member of the liberal Yabloko party before he was expelled in 2007, has accused him of routinely using racial slurs and basing his relations with people on their ethnicity. “I consider Aleksei Navalny the most dangerous man in Russia,” Tareyeva has written. “You don’t have to be a genius to understand that the most horrific thing that could happen in our country would be the nationalists coming to power.”

Whether or not Navalny’s conscious mission is to usher the nationalists into power may be beside the point, as far as some analysts are concerned:

“If someone who is as high-profile as Aleksei Navalny has become uses ugly words to describe ethnic minorities and appears to appeal directly to some of the most fundamentalist values of ethnic Russians, then there is a real danger that extremist elements — which I’m quite sure Navalny himself would condemn — will see that as a sanction for their behavior,” [Paul] Goble says.

GlobalVoices also has a long piece on Navalny being confronted about ethnic slurs he’s made in the past, and includes speculation by some that it’s an electoral strategy aimed at cultivating the nationalist segment of the population. (During the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, Navalny advocated the expulsion of Georgians from Russia.)

But part of the reason for the complexity and conflicted nature of those rooting Navalny on is that he is far from playing electoral politics. Sure, he may run for mayor of Moscow, but he doesn’t expect to (be allowed to) win. As I wrote after his guilty verdict was announced, he is far more useful to the Kremlin as a losing candidate in Moscow than in his prison cell, to which many expect him to be summarily returned after the Moscow election. As it stands, Navalny does not have to defend a political platform or a series of policy papers. That doesn’t mean he has no political opinions (he does), but they are irrelevant to his struggle.

They are not, however, irrelevant to those watching this spectacle play out. As Brian Whitmore observes, Navalny’s plan is not to win elections but “to erode, wear down, and ultimately replace [the Putin] system by patiently and efficiently chipping away at the monolith.” The Putin system is indeed a corrupt, immoral, murderous, and authoritarian enterprise. Navalny has no such blood on his hands. But it’s important for the West to remember that despite the obvious temptation to take sides, its responsibility is to advocate for principles, not individuals–no matter which combatant in the street fight seems to have the upper hand.

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America’s Priority? Stop the Brotherhood

While Secretary of State John Kerry is spending most of his time in office desperately trying to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the administration has seemingly struggled mightily to find a coherent approach to the turmoil in Egypt. After a year of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood government of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the Obama foreign policy team was slow to wake up to the outrage this decision had generated inside Egypt or to understand the threat that the Islamist movement posed to the country’s future or American interests. Though this realization has been grudging, it is to their credit that they have resisted the impulse to label the Egyptian military’s actions as a coup (which is nothing less than the truth) or to exert much pressure on it to release Morsi or to cease its efforts to stifle the movement’s protests. But the escalating violence inside Egypt has heightened pressure on the administration to join the voices of outrage at the military’s violence against demonstrators or to use American aid to force it to stand down and restore what we are continually told was a democratically-elected government.

Some, including our Max Boot, believe this is exactly the time when American influence must be exerted to pressure Cairo to respect the human rights of its people and create an opening for moderate opposition figures that will gradually create a transition to genuine democracy. He’s right to point out that decades of U.S. support for tyrannies, such as the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, in the name of stability was a strategic mistake. Democracy promotion is not just an expression of idealism but a wise investment that will pay off in the long run. But though, along with many others, I might have been fooled into thinking the Arab Spring protests of 2011 in Cairo were the harbinger of democratic change, it’s now clear that such an outcome was never a possibility. America’s dilemma in Egypt today is not whether it will be associated with a military government but whether it will do whatever it can to aid the generals in their efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood never gets another chance to remake Egypt in their own image.

While encouraging democracy is embedded in America’s foreign policy DNA, it is vital that the administration understands that the main threat to both Egypt’s future and U.S. interests is the Brotherhood, not their military antagonists. Any effort or American pressure aimed at allowing the Brotherhood to get another shot at power, even by peaceful means, would, like the year of support for Morsi, be a tragic mistake.

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While Secretary of State John Kerry is spending most of his time in office desperately trying to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the administration has seemingly struggled mightily to find a coherent approach to the turmoil in Egypt. After a year of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood government of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the Obama foreign policy team was slow to wake up to the outrage this decision had generated inside Egypt or to understand the threat that the Islamist movement posed to the country’s future or American interests. Though this realization has been grudging, it is to their credit that they have resisted the impulse to label the Egyptian military’s actions as a coup (which is nothing less than the truth) or to exert much pressure on it to release Morsi or to cease its efforts to stifle the movement’s protests. But the escalating violence inside Egypt has heightened pressure on the administration to join the voices of outrage at the military’s violence against demonstrators or to use American aid to force it to stand down and restore what we are continually told was a democratically-elected government.

Some, including our Max Boot, believe this is exactly the time when American influence must be exerted to pressure Cairo to respect the human rights of its people and create an opening for moderate opposition figures that will gradually create a transition to genuine democracy. He’s right to point out that decades of U.S. support for tyrannies, such as the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, in the name of stability was a strategic mistake. Democracy promotion is not just an expression of idealism but a wise investment that will pay off in the long run. But though, along with many others, I might have been fooled into thinking the Arab Spring protests of 2011 in Cairo were the harbinger of democratic change, it’s now clear that such an outcome was never a possibility. America’s dilemma in Egypt today is not whether it will be associated with a military government but whether it will do whatever it can to aid the generals in their efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood never gets another chance to remake Egypt in their own image.

While encouraging democracy is embedded in America’s foreign policy DNA, it is vital that the administration understands that the main threat to both Egypt’s future and U.S. interests is the Brotherhood, not their military antagonists. Any effort or American pressure aimed at allowing the Brotherhood to get another shot at power, even by peaceful means, would, like the year of support for Morsi, be a tragic mistake.

Like other totalitarian movements, Islamists may use democracy as a tool to gain power but they neither believe in it nor do they feel bound by it once in power. That point was demonstrated many times throughout the 20th century, but up until this month’s coup halted Morsi’s drive for hegemony, it was also being illustrated in Egypt. The coup was the last chance for secular and liberal Egyptians to stop the Brotherhood before it was too late. Had they been allowed to go on consolidating power, the idea that they would have ever relinquished it by peaceful means is farcical. Indeed, the only way to create even a minimal space for democratic development is for the military to ensure that the Brotherhood is permanently excluded from positions of power. Rather than urging the military to allow the Brotherhood a political outlet, the U.S. should be standing behind its efforts to forever end the threat of another Brotherhood government. In this case, it would be the lack of a crackdown on the Islamists that would set the stage for future problems rather than the opposite.

This opens the U.S. up to charges of hypocrisy when Washington speaks out against other tyrannies that may not be friendly to America. But taking a stand against the Brotherhood is not antithetical to democracy promotion. Indeed, struggling against it is the prerequisite for any hope for Egypt. While it may be wise for the administration to urge, as Max advises, repressive Arab monarchies that are U.S. allies to move toward democracy, that can’t mean tolerating Islamists whose only goal is to impose their theocratic views on the region. While Obama rightly doesn’t wish to be associated with shootings in the streets of Cairo, pressuring the military to let up in what may prove to be a life and death struggle against the Brotherhood would be a critical error. The president has gone from blunder to blunder ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring. It is vital that he doesn’t take another misstep and do anything, even in the name of the cause of democracy, that would serve to complicate the efforts of Egyptians seeking to stop the Brotherhood.

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In Venezuela, Chavez Still Haunts Maduro

Confirmation that Hugo Chavez’s allies knew all along that the late Venezuelan president was suffering from terminal cancer, despite their protestations to the contrary, has come from an unexpected source: Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. As Bloomberg reports:

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro told Correa the facts after the Ecuadorian leader visited Chavez at his hospital in Havana on the eve of his fourth operation in 18 months to treat an unspecified form of cancer.

“He told me the matter was very serious and that President Chavez had few months of life left and that we needed to prepare ourselves emotionally,” Correa said today in an interview on Telesur. Castro asked for his “absolute discretion.”

“Absolute discretion” was required, of course, to sustain the falsehood that Chavez was going to recover and return for a further term as president. Note that Correa and Castro held their conversation in December; two months previously, Chavez comfortably won the presidential election in part because he himself insisted that he was cured. In the event, Chavez missed his inauguration on January 10 of this year, handing the reins of power to his chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro. Maduro went on to win the emergency election of last April by a tiny margin, amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud.

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Confirmation that Hugo Chavez’s allies knew all along that the late Venezuelan president was suffering from terminal cancer, despite their protestations to the contrary, has come from an unexpected source: Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. As Bloomberg reports:

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro told Correa the facts after the Ecuadorian leader visited Chavez at his hospital in Havana on the eve of his fourth operation in 18 months to treat an unspecified form of cancer.

“He told me the matter was very serious and that President Chavez had few months of life left and that we needed to prepare ourselves emotionally,” Correa said today in an interview on Telesur. Castro asked for his “absolute discretion.”

“Absolute discretion” was required, of course, to sustain the falsehood that Chavez was going to recover and return for a further term as president. Note that Correa and Castro held their conversation in December; two months previously, Chavez comfortably won the presidential election in part because he himself insisted that he was cured. In the event, Chavez missed his inauguration on January 10 of this year, handing the reins of power to his chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro. Maduro went on to win the emergency election of last April by a tiny margin, amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud.

It’s tempting to think that Correa broke the silence around Chavez’s illness in order to undermine Maduro. Chavez may have been the undisputed figurehead of Latin America’s left, but that’s certainly not true of Maduro, whose government is negatively viewed by nearly half of Venezuelans. By contrast, Correa, who also runs his government on the twin pillars of drumbeat nationalism and state domination of the economy, is wildly popular in his own country, and is therefore a more credible candidate to take on Chavez’s mantle.

It’s equally tempting to suggest that Maduro is thoroughly tired of being chased by Chavez’s shadow. Yesterday, Maduro marked his first one hundred days in office on what would have been Chavez’s 59th birthday, an occasion that served as a bitter reminder that he has no choice but to invoke his predecessor to shore up his crumbling legitimacy. “It has not been easy,” Maduro told a crowd in Sabaneta, Chavez’s birthplace. “On behalf of our Comandante…[we must] become more united and prepare for new battles and new victories.” Earlier in the day, Maduro welcomed none other than Rafael Correa to Caracas. In what may well have been another swipe at his host, Correa declared that “[C]onformity, mediocrity, corruption, and inefficiency are the internal enemies of the left-wing governments of Latin America.”

Make no mistake, these are the same ills that define Maduro’s regime. Chronic mismanagement has left the government so cash starved that it is now auctioning U.S. dollars at almost twice the official rate, though the exchange still falls far short of the dollar price on the black market. Simultaneously, Venezuela’s dependence on imports has dramatically swelled the price of basic goods like corn and coffee, the net of result of an agrarian reform program denounced by a leading representative of Venezuela’s agricultural sector as a “failure” that “drove farmers out of the fields.”

Rattled by these developments, Maduro has become increasingly vindictive toward the half of the population that rejected him in April, and still rejects him now. Over the weekend, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, took to Twitter to announce that she was seeking to freeze the bank accounts of Miguel Henrique Otero, editor and publisher of the opposition newspaper El Nacional. As AP reported:

Asked whether freezing his bank accounts could affect El Nacional, Otero said, “I don’t think so, but I haven’t seen the court papers.” His lawyers also hadn’t seen the documents, he said.

Legal documents have similarly been missing from another controversial case involving Richard Mardo, a parliamentarian from the opposition MUD coalition. Mardo is accused of receiving funds ­­of approximately $100 million–the source of this money has not been specified–and of declaring only a tiny a fraction of this sum. However, Henrique Capriles, the MUD leader who stood against Maduro during the April election, is adamant that Mardo is the victim of entrapment. As with El Nacional, the real goal here, say MUD supporters, is to silence the opposition by throwing the charge of corruption–an offense normally leveled at the government–in its direction.

Given how agonizingly polarized Venezuelan politics have become, the absence of mass street demonstrations might seem surprising. Capriles, though, has eschewed this approach, opting instead for a strategy of patiently exposing Maduro’s  corruption wherever it appears, in the hope of weaning away disillusioned supporters of the regime. Whether this method is sustainable is an open question; the emergence of a “birther” movement in Venezuela, which claims that Maduro was actually born in Colombia and is demanding that the president follow Barack Obama’s example by releasing his birth certificate, indicates that the more uncompromising opponents of Venezuela’s regime are determined to get rid of it sooner rather than later.

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Statistical Garbage in, Poor Journalism Out

For misleading headlines, it’s hard to beat this one from the AP yesterday: “Exclusive: 4 in 5 in US Face Near-Poverty, No Work.” Sounds like a cultural and economic Armageddon in the making. But the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto demolishes the whole thing in his inimitable style.

It turns out that the headline left out a key phrase: “in their lifetimes.” If you have ever, for even a very short period of time, been out of work or on some sort of assistance program, then you’re in the 80 percent who face near-poverty and no work. “Near-poverty” is defined as having less than 150 percent of a poverty-level income. As Taranto points out, that’s like saying that a man who is 8 feet 9 inches tall is of near average height.

In other words, this headline is on a par with one that reads, “Half of Americans Have Below-Average IQ.”

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For misleading headlines, it’s hard to beat this one from the AP yesterday: “Exclusive: 4 in 5 in US Face Near-Poverty, No Work.” Sounds like a cultural and economic Armageddon in the making. But the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto demolishes the whole thing in his inimitable style.

It turns out that the headline left out a key phrase: “in their lifetimes.” If you have ever, for even a very short period of time, been out of work or on some sort of assistance program, then you’re in the 80 percent who face near-poverty and no work. “Near-poverty” is defined as having less than 150 percent of a poverty-level income. As Taranto points out, that’s like saying that a man who is 8 feet 9 inches tall is of near average height.

In other words, this headline is on a par with one that reads, “Half of Americans Have Below-Average IQ.”

But Fox News’s normally sensible Special Report with Brett Baier led with this story last evening and never questioned its statistics.

What scientists call “confirmation bias”—the tendency to unquestioningly accept results that confirm one’s hypothesis—lead us to not question statistics that support our political philosophy. Politicians (and far too many editorial and op-ed writers) fall victim to confirmation bias. Others know that such statistics are rarely challenged and use them to lie to the public.

So I have a suggestion. Every serious newsroom in the country should have on staff someone whose job is to vet statistics for intellectual honesty and statistical rigor. Do they compare apples with oranges? Do they use a misleading baseline? Do they manipulate the shape of a graph to make things look good or bad? Are the definitions valid? Was the poll sample properly chosen?

Such automatic second guessing would greatly improve the level of public discourse. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for it to become standard journalistic procedure. Misleading headlines can sell a lot of newspapers.

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Hamas Still Has Peace Veto

There has been a lot cheerleading in the media the last few days for Secretary of State John Kerry and the new Middle East peace negotiations he has sponsored. While expectations that the talks will lead to peace couldn’t be lower, the main narrative explaining that tends to stick with the notion that neither Israel nor the Palestinians really want peace. That piece of conventional wisdom is generally false since it is based on a false moral equivalence between the position of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu has been offering peace talks without preconditions for years and signed (and kept) peace agreements with Yasir Arafat during his first term in office. Abbas has already turned down a far more generous peace deal in 2008 than anybody can imagine him getting this time around.

But as wrongheaded as the attempts to preemptively blame Netanyahu for the inevitable failure of the talks are, the real mistake in most coverage of this event is the omission of the one factor that by definition makes an agreement impossible: Hamas. The problem with Abbas is not just that he isn’t really interested in genuine peace or that he is in the ninth year of the four-year presidential term for which he was elected. It’s that he and his Fatah Party-run PLO don’t speak for the 40 percent of Palestinians living in Gaza who are ruled by Hamas. While Politico deserves some credit for highlighting this crucial factor in an article today, it has been relegated to a footnote elsewhere. The problem is not just that Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence or its right to exist. It’s that Hamas is already running an independent Palestinian state in all but name right now and thus maintains a functional veto over anything that Abbas might sign, assuming, of course, that Abbas signs anything. While some may see this as a reason to lift the boycott of the terrorist movement, what it really means is that peace is simply impossible so long as Hamas is left in place.

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There has been a lot cheerleading in the media the last few days for Secretary of State John Kerry and the new Middle East peace negotiations he has sponsored. While expectations that the talks will lead to peace couldn’t be lower, the main narrative explaining that tends to stick with the notion that neither Israel nor the Palestinians really want peace. That piece of conventional wisdom is generally false since it is based on a false moral equivalence between the position of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu has been offering peace talks without preconditions for years and signed (and kept) peace agreements with Yasir Arafat during his first term in office. Abbas has already turned down a far more generous peace deal in 2008 than anybody can imagine him getting this time around.

But as wrongheaded as the attempts to preemptively blame Netanyahu for the inevitable failure of the talks are, the real mistake in most coverage of this event is the omission of the one factor that by definition makes an agreement impossible: Hamas. The problem with Abbas is not just that he isn’t really interested in genuine peace or that he is in the ninth year of the four-year presidential term for which he was elected. It’s that he and his Fatah Party-run PLO don’t speak for the 40 percent of Palestinians living in Gaza who are ruled by Hamas. While Politico deserves some credit for highlighting this crucial factor in an article today, it has been relegated to a footnote elsewhere. The problem is not just that Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence or its right to exist. It’s that Hamas is already running an independent Palestinian state in all but name right now and thus maintains a functional veto over anything that Abbas might sign, assuming, of course, that Abbas signs anything. While some may see this as a reason to lift the boycott of the terrorist movement, what it really means is that peace is simply impossible so long as Hamas is left in place.

Peace process optimists acknowledge the absence of Hamas at the table but say it is irrelevant. Their argument claims that Hamas has already implicitly recognized Israel via indirect cease fire talks following bouts of fighting along the border, and that the Islamist group has effectively ceded responsibility for negotiating with the Jewish state to Abbas and Fatah. But these are merely tactical steps that do nothing to change Hamas’s worldview or its purpose.

Those who see the two movements as somehow complementing each other ignore the fact that Fatah and Hamas remain locked in a death struggle over control of Palestinian politics. The main currency in that competition remains violence against Israel and fidelity to the guiding principles of Palestinian nationalism, the chief of which is rejection of Israel’s legitimacy.

The dynamic of Israeli politics is such that the overwhelming majority of Israelis are likely to support any peace deal that promises an end to the conflict, as they did in 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed. But if Abbas ever presents a deal to his people that will, as it must, preserve Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and put an end to the fantasy of a “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees, he will be handing his own head on a platter to Hamas. As has been pointed out numerous times over the last decade, Abbas is much weaker than Yasir Arafat. Yet even the old terrorist didn’t feel he could get away with signing a peace agreement that ended the conflict.

Nor will including Hamas in the talks or an American decision to embrace the Gaza government make it easier for Abbas to deal. Support for this idea is based on Western naïveté and ignorance about the basics of Palestinian politics. Their international legitimization will only strengthen the forces of intolerance and intransigence within Palestinian society that already make peace unlikely.

Twenty years ago, the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin believed that Oslo would empower Arafat and Fatah to take on Hamas and eliminate it, thereby clearing the way for peace. But instead of waging war on the Islamists, Fatah chose instead to continue its own terrorist offensive against Israel. A historic opportunity was lost and the current circumstances don’t appear to offer Abbas the same chance. Until the day comes when either Hamas abandons the Islamist philosophy it inherited from its Muslim Brotherhood mentors or the PA finds a leader with the will to fight Hamas, the chances for peace are minimal. It is this Hamas factor, and not Netanyahu’s toughness or even the chance that he will weaken, that remains the obstacle to peace for which Kerry has no solution.

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Settlements and the Preconditions Scam

There are few aspects of the peace process on which all serious observers can agree, but one of the closest areas of unanimity is this: the settlements are not the key obstacle to peace. The Israeli left is no more enamored of settlers now than they have been over the last two decades since the beginning of the Oslo process, but they are also not foolish enough to think the settlements are the reason there is no peace. The Palestinians have only reinforced this understanding by using any land Israel clears of settlers as a launching pad for terrorism.

Another truism of the conflict is that the American media–farther removed from reality than Israelis could ever afford to be–will publish stories focusing on the settlements as soon as peace negotiations roll around. The Washington Post chimes in today from an alternate reality with a story headlined: “As talks begin, Jewish settlements loom as challenge.” Now, under normal circumstances a story based on a baldly false premise would not serve much of a purpose to those who don’t have time to read historical fiction. But the Post story, while untrue, actually contributes something to the discussion on a related issue: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s choice of preconditions to restart negotiations.

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There are few aspects of the peace process on which all serious observers can agree, but one of the closest areas of unanimity is this: the settlements are not the key obstacle to peace. The Israeli left is no more enamored of settlers now than they have been over the last two decades since the beginning of the Oslo process, but they are also not foolish enough to think the settlements are the reason there is no peace. The Palestinians have only reinforced this understanding by using any land Israel clears of settlers as a launching pad for terrorism.

Another truism of the conflict is that the American media–farther removed from reality than Israelis could ever afford to be–will publish stories focusing on the settlements as soon as peace negotiations roll around. The Washington Post chimes in today from an alternate reality with a story headlined: “As talks begin, Jewish settlements loom as challenge.” Now, under normal circumstances a story based on a baldly false premise would not serve much of a purpose to those who don’t have time to read historical fiction. But the Post story, while untrue, actually contributes something to the discussion on a related issue: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s choice of preconditions to restart negotiations.

Netanyahu chose to release about a hundred occupants of Israeli prisons demanded by the Palestinian leadership, including child murderers and other monstrous criminals. That decision has won him some praise from supporters of the peace process and disapproval from those who worried about the security risk the released terrorists would pose. But in recent days, a new critique of the prisoner release has emerged. Netanyahu reportedly was given three choices to entice the Palestinians back to the negotiating table: base talks on the make-believe non-borders of early June 1967, release murderers, or freeze settlement building. In the Times of Israel, David Horovitz explains this line of criticism:

Internal Likud dissent aside, however, the concern is that Netanyahu has chosen the wrong one of the Abbas preconditions — the most damaging — on which to concede. By definition, talks on Palestinian statehood take place on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, since those are the limits of what the international community considers to be legitimate Israeli sovereign territory. And a settlement freeze is instantly reversible if negotiations collapse. Not so the release of callous, largely unrepentant murderers. Not so the damage to the Israeli rule of law.

This is certainly a reasonable concern. Horovitz is no doubt correct that freeing terrorists is a more permanent step than the settlement freeze, and the pessimism about the chances of a deal would seem to argue against such irreversible preconditions. It is probably up in the air as to whether accepting the pre-1967 lines is more temporary than permanent, or even simply rhetorical. It would depend on how such a promise is worded and understood by the two sides, and it should be remembered that no premise offered once will ever truly be temporary; the Palestinians would use it as a baseline for future talks.

But that brings us to the settlement freeze. And here is where the question gets a bit more complex. It’s difficult to argue that freeing murderers is preferable to freezing settlement building–and I don’t intend to argue it. Indeed, a simple comparison between the Israeli public’s response to the previous settlement freeze and its viscerally aggrieved reaction to the prisoner release makes clear which is the more painful concession to Israeli society.

But it should at least put in stark relief how silly and counterproductive it is to have such preconditions in the first place. It’s fair enough to criticize a prime minister for choosing the worst among three terrible choices. But what does it say about the peace process, and the American diplomatic role in these discussions, that Israel was forced to choose between three terrible options in the first place?

Freezing settlements as a precondition would be unjustifiable this time around on its own; it only seems reasonable in light of the possibility of freeing child murderers instead. But a settlement freeze has been tried before, and the talks still went nowhere. Employing it as a precondition yet again would be a cartoonishly impractical suggestion. It would also predicate the negotiations on a false premise by elevating settlements as a primary obstacle to peace. What do Western negotiators think will be the result of talks based on a lie?

That we even have to ask the question is dispiriting enough. That Netanyahu would be forced by American pressure to choose between freeing murderers or basing negotiations on a lie that delegitimizes the status of Jews, most of whom are on land that would be part of Israel in any final deal, reflects terribly on Secretary of State John Kerry and the administration he represents. And it only encourages stories like today’s Washington Post feature that distort the reality of settlements and undermine the chances for true peace.

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The Next Fed Chairman

The chairman of the Federal Reserve is, arguably, the second most powerful office in Washington. So who gets to occupy that office is always subject to politics and fierce lobbying. But since the Democratic Party holds the White House and the Senate, the arguments over whom to appoint are not about fiscal policy or basic economic philosophy, they’re about what sex the next chairman should be.

There has never been a female Fed chairman and so, feminists argue, the next one must be. Personally I wonder when, if ever, this first-X-to-be-Y obsession of the left (and journalists, but I repeat myself) will end. It is more than abundantly clear that one’s gender, ethnic background, race, etc. are no longer any impediment to gaining high political (or corporate) office. But I suspect that twenty years from now there will still be breathless headlines heralding the appointment—for the first time in history!—of a left-handed gay former dentist of Lithuanian descent to the office of third assistant deputy undersecretary of homeland security.

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The chairman of the Federal Reserve is, arguably, the second most powerful office in Washington. So who gets to occupy that office is always subject to politics and fierce lobbying. But since the Democratic Party holds the White House and the Senate, the arguments over whom to appoint are not about fiscal policy or basic economic philosophy, they’re about what sex the next chairman should be.

There has never been a female Fed chairman and so, feminists argue, the next one must be. Personally I wonder when, if ever, this first-X-to-be-Y obsession of the left (and journalists, but I repeat myself) will end. It is more than abundantly clear that one’s gender, ethnic background, race, etc. are no longer any impediment to gaining high political (or corporate) office. But I suspect that twenty years from now there will still be breathless headlines heralding the appointment—for the first time in history!—of a left-handed gay former dentist of Lithuanian descent to the office of third assistant deputy undersecretary of homeland security.

The feminist wing of the party wants Janet Yellen, currently the vice chairman of the Fed’s board and former president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank. The Wall Street wing of the party, led by Robert Rubin, wants Lawrence Summers, former secretary of the treasury under Bill Clinton and former director of the National Economic Council under Barack Obama. Both have had distinguished careers as economics professors. In other words, both have first-class résumés for the job.

And there is not a whole lot of difference between them in terms of policy. Yellen has never met a monetary stimulus she didn’t like, and that would make Wall Street nervous. Summers is currently a consultant at Citibank (where Democratic financial politicians wait out their occasional exiles from Washington) but is hardly a fiscal conservative. Neither is likely to place a priority on getting the Fed out of the stimulus game and back to maintaining price stability.

The Wall Street Journal is not terribly impressed with either candidate. The New York Times (are you sitting down?) prefers the more liberal Janet Yellen. But, except to the gender-obsessed, it won’t make a lot of difference which one wins this fight.

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Abbas: Arabs in Israel; No Jews in Palestine

While in Cairo yesterday to meet with Egypt’s new leaders, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas let drop a few remarks about the peace negotiations with Israel that began in Washington last night. As the Times of Israel reports, Abbas left no doubt about what his vision of peace entails:

“In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli — civilian or soldier — on our lands,” Abbas said following a meeting with interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour in Cairo.

The statement provoked little comment in the Western press, and no wonder. Most of the mainstream media has long accepted the Palestinian formulation that sees the presence of Israelis in the West Bank and Jerusalem as the primary obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. From this frame of reference, the peace equation is simple. No Israelis in Palestine means the conflict disappears. Therefore the sole object of peace negotiations is to leverage Israelis out of the areas that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967.

But the problem here is not just that this is an absurd distortion of reality that ignores Jewish rights and security needs. The Abbas statement provides some important context for the key Israeli demand that the Palestinians refuse to accept: PA acknowledgement of the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. If Palestinians think there is something racist about Israel being accepted as the sole Jewish state in the world, why is it OK for them to envision an independent state of their own where Jewish communities would have to be destroyed and their inhabitants be evicted?

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While in Cairo yesterday to meet with Egypt’s new leaders, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas let drop a few remarks about the peace negotiations with Israel that began in Washington last night. As the Times of Israel reports, Abbas left no doubt about what his vision of peace entails:

“In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli — civilian or soldier — on our lands,” Abbas said following a meeting with interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour in Cairo.

The statement provoked little comment in the Western press, and no wonder. Most of the mainstream media has long accepted the Palestinian formulation that sees the presence of Israelis in the West Bank and Jerusalem as the primary obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. From this frame of reference, the peace equation is simple. No Israelis in Palestine means the conflict disappears. Therefore the sole object of peace negotiations is to leverage Israelis out of the areas that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967.

But the problem here is not just that this is an absurd distortion of reality that ignores Jewish rights and security needs. The Abbas statement provides some important context for the key Israeli demand that the Palestinians refuse to accept: PA acknowledgement of the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. If Palestinians think there is something racist about Israel being accepted as the sole Jewish state in the world, why is it OK for them to envision an independent state of their own where Jewish communities would have to be destroyed and their inhabitants be evicted?

Peace processers and Israel’s critics claim this reasoning is nit-picking, but this actually goes to the heart of the problem that Secretary of State John Kerry and his aide Martin Indyk are trying to unravel in the negotiations they have worked so hard to bring about.

The Palestinian position remains that specific acceptance on their part of Israel as a Jewish state would undermine the rights of the Arab minority inside the pre-1967 lines and force them to make a judgment about the country’s internal arrangements. But the whole point of the conflict since its beginnings a century ago has always been the Arab rejection of the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland. If Palestinians are determined to create an independent state where there are no Jews, why then are they so afraid of agreeing that their neighbors will be a Jewish state?

The reason for this is no mystery.

More than any compromise on borders, accepting Israel as a Jewish state would be an open acknowledgement that the conflict is finished. It would mean the descendants of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 would have to be resettled elsewhere and all terrorism and efforts to erase Israel inside its contracted borders would cease.

The demand for recognition of a Jewish state is often represented as something new created by Prime Minister Netanyahu in order to make peace more difficult to achieve. But it should be remembered that the original United Nations partition resolution of 1947 spoke of the country being specifically divided between a Jewish state and an Arab one, not Israel and “Palestine.” The effort to deny the right of the Jewish people to a sovereign state in their own land is an act of prejudice since no other group in the world is treated in this manner.

It is true that in the unlikely event that the Palestinians ever agree to peace on any terms, Israel will be anxious to evacuate any Jews currently living in territory from which they will withdraw. The reason for this is also no puzzle. Any Jews left behind in Arab lands would last as long as the greenhouses left behind in Gaza when Israel left that region in 2005. No one, not even the United States, could guarantee the safety of any Jew—whether a peace-loving leftist or a hard-core right-wing settler—living in a Palestinian state.

But that’s the conundrum of the whole peace process. Even though it is the national state of the Jewish people, religious and ethnic minorities have full rights in Israel. What Abbas is asking for is for Israel to be a bi-national state of Jews and Arabs while Palestine would be a solely Arab nation.

If Palestinian society were ever to evolve to the point where Jews could live in peace under Arab rule, then peace would be possible without any major effort from the secretary of state. So long as Abbas is promising to evict the Jews from Palestine, he has no right to reject Israel’s demand that he recognize that Israel is a Jewish state and that this cannot be reversed by future negotiations, the influx of refugees, or new wars. His refusal to do so will ensure that the talks Kerry has convened will be nine months of wasted effort.

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The Next Reset: U.S.-Pakistan Relations

Fresh off one overhyped “achievement”–forcing a restart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have scant chance of success–Secretary of State John Kerry is apparently eager to achieve any empty triumph, namely a “reset” of relations with Pakistan. In article previewing his trip to Pakistan this week, the Wall Street Journal writes that “it provides an opportunity, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, to recast a relationship that in the past decade has been defined by massive U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Washington’s global antiterror campaign. The U.S. withdrawal, these officials say, will set the stage for a relationship with reduced engagement but also less rancor.”

Good luck with that. Granted, having fewer U.S. troops and civilians available in Afghanistan to serve as targets for Pakistan-supported terrorists will reduce a flashpoint in the relationship, but it is hard to see Washington and Islamabad finding much common ground. Their interests converge in very few areas, the biggest being the desire by both sides to prevent the Pakistani Taliban from seizing power in Islamabad, which would cut off Pakistan’s existing political and military class from the trough of public spending on which it has grown rich. But there is no indication that Pakistan will give up its support of the Afghan Taliban or the even more noxious Haqqani Network and other Islamist terrorist groups that are viewed by Pakistan’s army and its intelligence service, the ISI, as reliable proxies in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and beyond.

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Fresh off one overhyped “achievement”–forcing a restart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have scant chance of success–Secretary of State John Kerry is apparently eager to achieve any empty triumph, namely a “reset” of relations with Pakistan. In article previewing his trip to Pakistan this week, the Wall Street Journal writes that “it provides an opportunity, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, to recast a relationship that in the past decade has been defined by massive U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Washington’s global antiterror campaign. The U.S. withdrawal, these officials say, will set the stage for a relationship with reduced engagement but also less rancor.”

Good luck with that. Granted, having fewer U.S. troops and civilians available in Afghanistan to serve as targets for Pakistan-supported terrorists will reduce a flashpoint in the relationship, but it is hard to see Washington and Islamabad finding much common ground. Their interests converge in very few areas, the biggest being the desire by both sides to prevent the Pakistani Taliban from seizing power in Islamabad, which would cut off Pakistan’s existing political and military class from the trough of public spending on which it has grown rich. But there is no indication that Pakistan will give up its support of the Afghan Taliban or the even more noxious Haqqani Network and other Islamist terrorist groups that are viewed by Pakistan’s army and its intelligence service, the ISI, as reliable proxies in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and beyond.

Back in 2011 there was a rare moment of candor in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, normally wrapped in self-serving lies from both sides, when Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bitterly denounced Pakistani complicity in terror. “In choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan – and most especially the Pakistani Army and ISI – jeopardizes not only the prospect of our strategic partnership, but also Pakistan’s opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence,” he told the Senate. “By exporting violence, they have eroded their internal security and their position in the region.”

Mullen was right then and nothing has changed today. Pakistan has been happy to pocket nearly $26 billion in U.S. aid between 2002 and 2012 and in return has provided some small concessions such as allowing NATO supplies to cross its territory (with some interruptions) and allowing CIA drones to target al-Qaeda kingpins (with some limitations). But fundamentally the two countries remain far apart on major issues such as Afghanistan, where the U.S. would like to see the continuation of a pro-Western, reasonably democratic regime and the Pakistanis in all likelihood are hoping for a Taliban takeover. Kerry’s visit will change nothing, no matter how many headlines it produces about a supposedly improved relationship.

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The Sputtering Arab Spring

It is not just in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt that the Arab Spring has taken an ominous turn. So too in the North African cradle of the movement.

In Tunisia protests continue after the murder of socialist and secularist politician Mohamed Brahmi, a key opponent of the ruling Ennahda party, an Islamist group.

In Libya another secularist politician–Abdul-Salam al-Musmari, one of the leaders of the movement to topple Muammar Gaddafi–has been murdered in an attack blamed on Islamists. His supporters, too, are up in arms.

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It is not just in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt that the Arab Spring has taken an ominous turn. So too in the North African cradle of the movement.

In Tunisia protests continue after the murder of socialist and secularist politician Mohamed Brahmi, a key opponent of the ruling Ennahda party, an Islamist group.

In Libya another secularist politician–Abdul-Salam al-Musmari, one of the leaders of the movement to topple Muammar Gaddafi–has been murdered in an attack blamed on Islamists. His supporters, too, are up in arms.

This can be seen as part of the same struggle now playing out in Egypt and Syria between Islamists and their more secular adversaries. The United States has an obvious stake in the outcome–we don’t want to see a Middle East dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, although we also don’t want to see repressive military regimes that drive their population into terrorism.

This is why it’s vitally important–as Michael Doran and I argued in Foreign Policy magazine–to develop our capacity for waging political warfare, as we did in the early days of the Cold War, when the U.S. helped various anti-Communist forces. Today we should be helping anti-Islamist forces. Instead, because we have let our capacity for political warfare atrophy, we are forced to either send F-16s and Predators to push regime change (as in Libya in 2011) or sit by ineffectually (as in much of the Middle East ever since).

There needs to be a better way–the U.S. needs to be able to overtly and covertly support more moderate and secular forces in the battle over the future of countries such as Libya and Tunisia, where there is an excellent chance of a decent and democratic outcome. Instead the widespread perception is of American retreat, leaving our natural allies at the mercy of radicals.

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