Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 31, 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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