Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 1, 2013

More Dangerous Administration Leaks

There is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about the content of the story published today by the New York Times about Israeli attacks on missile sites in Syria. The fact that Israel has launched air strikes on targets in Syria containing weapons that could be used to strike the Jewish state, such as the Russian-made cruise missiles said to be in a warehouse that was hit in Latakia earlier this month, is not a big secret. That some of those weapons might have survived Israeli attacks and that its air force is certain to keep at it until it is sure they are destroyed rather than passed into the hands of Hezbollah seems logical. But the fact that this report was based on detailed classified information that was leaked by people the Times identifies as “American intelligence analysts” and U.S. government “officials” is both shocking and surprising.

The leak from what must be senior officials raises serious questions that beg for answers especially at a time when the administration has been on a jihad against leakers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this story is either the work of anti-Israel figures working in the Pentagon or has been orchestrated by the administration in order to deter Israel from continuing its efforts to prevent weapon transfers to terrorists and, as Haaretz speculated today, to, in effect, warn the Syrians and let them prepare in advance for subsequent strikes. Either way, this has made an already dangerous situation even more troubling.

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There is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about the content of the story published today by the New York Times about Israeli attacks on missile sites in Syria. The fact that Israel has launched air strikes on targets in Syria containing weapons that could be used to strike the Jewish state, such as the Russian-made cruise missiles said to be in a warehouse that was hit in Latakia earlier this month, is not a big secret. That some of those weapons might have survived Israeli attacks and that its air force is certain to keep at it until it is sure they are destroyed rather than passed into the hands of Hezbollah seems logical. But the fact that this report was based on detailed classified information that was leaked by people the Times identifies as “American intelligence analysts” and U.S. government “officials” is both shocking and surprising.

The leak from what must be senior officials raises serious questions that beg for answers especially at a time when the administration has been on a jihad against leakers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this story is either the work of anti-Israel figures working in the Pentagon or has been orchestrated by the administration in order to deter Israel from continuing its efforts to prevent weapon transfers to terrorists and, as Haaretz speculated today, to, in effect, warn the Syrians and let them prepare in advance for subsequent strikes. Either way, this has made an already dangerous situation even more troubling.

This is not the first time official American sources were used by the Times to report on Israeli efforts to deal with the chaos in Syria. Nevertheless, the administration seemed to condone Israel’s actions. Indeed, it has appeared at times as if Washington was quite happy to let the Israel Defense Forces do its dirty work for it as the U.S. preferred to keep “leading from behind” while others dealt with the mess that American indifference helped create.

Israel has no clear vested interest in either side winning the Syrian civil war. The Assad regime kept the cease-fire with Israel but if it survives, as it looks as if it will, it will be even more indebted to its Iranian allies. From the frame of reference of the Jewish state, there’s not much to choose from between a dangerous dictator aligned with Iran and Hezbollah and an alliance of rebels that includes al-Qaeda elements. But it does have a clear interest in preventing Russian weapons from being transferred to the Hezbollah mercenaries who are winning the war for Assad.

If, as might reasonably be inferred from this latest Times story, the Obama administration has shifted from a position of tacit support for Israeli efforts to keep Russian weapons away from Hezbollah to one of active opposition to Israeli strikes, then it is worth asking why they’ve changed their minds.

One possible motive for this decision is a desire to avoid any sort of confrontation involving the Russians. Given the insulting and provocative way Russia has been treating the United States lately—of which the Edward Snowden affair is just the latest—an American effort to spare Vladimir Putin’s feelings at a time when his policy seems aimed at prolonging the war in Syria is, to say the least, curious.

It would be just as curious if a U.S. shift against Israel on this issue were the result of Secretary of State John Kerry’s concerns about upsetting the peace negotiations with the Palestinians that he has convened. One would think assuring the Israelis that America has their back on security issues would be the way to help persuade the Netanyahu government to be more accommodating in the talks. But perhaps the administration thinks any act of self-defense on Israel’s part while the Palestinian Authority is trying to think of an excuse to weasel out of the negotiations would be unhelpful.

Nor does it make much sense to think that Israel’s surgical strikes will have any real impact on the outcome of the fighting in Syria, assuming that the U.S. has actually arrived at a coherent position on what it wants to happen there.

But no matter the reason for the leaking, it needs to be understood that this sort of behavior on the part of the United States is nothing short of outrageous. If the administration is serious about supporting Israeli security, this is not the time to playing games on the question of Russian missiles falling into the hands of terrorists. Israel has every right to keep that from happening and will be justified in continuing air strikes or any other measure that might accomplish this goal. Appeasing Russia in this matter won’t give Obama the “reset” of relations with Moscow he’s always wanted. American efforts to deter or prevent it from acting aren’t merely unhelpful; they are part of a dangerous game that could, if Israel is unable to stop the transfers, result in a situation that could cost both Israeli and American lives.

Lastly, we have a right to ask why an administration that is prepared to spy on the press in order to close up classified leaks it doesn’t like still appears to be a sieve when it comes to leaks that might serve the president’s policy preferences. Hypocrisy isn’t strong enough a word to describe such a dangerous and irresponsible course of action.

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Why Non-Profit Hospitals Are So Profitable

Every business has a business model. Some go for prestige, selling the label as well as the product. That’s why a Mercedes costs a lot more than a comparable Lexus. The cars are equal in design, equipment, and road handling. So, in effect, when you buy a Mercedes, you’re spending a lot of money for the hood ornament. Other businesses go for volume by means of low prices. Wal-Mart is the perfect example. Still others advertise heavily and try to give the illusion that there are bargains to be had. Joseph A. Bank, the men’s clothing chain, advertises endlessly on television with sales pitches such as, “Buy one suit and get three more FREE!” Translation: The first suit has a nominal price four times higher than it should be.

And then there is the business model of “non-profit” hospitals, which are, in fact, among the most profitable enterprises in the country.

Every hospital has what is called a “chargemaster,” a list of what it charges for everything from a day in the ICU to a single aspirin. The hospital guards access to its chargemaster like the federal government guarded the Manhattan Project (only with more success, as Stalin knew all about the atomic bomb).

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Every business has a business model. Some go for prestige, selling the label as well as the product. That’s why a Mercedes costs a lot more than a comparable Lexus. The cars are equal in design, equipment, and road handling. So, in effect, when you buy a Mercedes, you’re spending a lot of money for the hood ornament. Other businesses go for volume by means of low prices. Wal-Mart is the perfect example. Still others advertise heavily and try to give the illusion that there are bargains to be had. Joseph A. Bank, the men’s clothing chain, advertises endlessly on television with sales pitches such as, “Buy one suit and get three more FREE!” Translation: The first suit has a nominal price four times higher than it should be.

And then there is the business model of “non-profit” hospitals, which are, in fact, among the most profitable enterprises in the country.

Every hospital has what is called a “chargemaster,” a list of what it charges for everything from a day in the ICU to a single aspirin. The hospital guards access to its chargemaster like the federal government guarded the Manhattan Project (only with more success, as Stalin knew all about the atomic bomb).

There’s a reason for that: the charges, like those at Joseph A. Bank, are utterly outrageous. A generic version of Tylenol can be $1.50, when you can buy a hundred of them at the local supermarket for the same price. But, as with Joseph A. Bank, most hospital patients don’t pay them. Medicare and insurance companies pay a fraction of the nominal prices. MD Anderson, a high-powered cancer hospital in Houston, charges $283 for a simple chest X-ray and Medicare pays the hospital $20.44.

But if someone without insurance, or with limited insurance, shows up needing serious medical care, he usually gets charged the full, outrageous, prices. And since the patient has no bargaining power whatever in those circumstances, there is little he can do about it except empty his retirement account or file for bankruptcy.

Time magazine had a long article by Steven Brill on this a few months ago that is well worth reading. Be prepared to become very, very angry. ObamaCare does not address the problem of sky-high prices that hit the most vulnerable the hardest. No wonder MD Anderson’s operating profit in 2010 was $531 million on revenues of $2.05 billion. That’s a 26-percent profit margin, unheard of in any service industry other than hospitals. Being a “non-profit” organization, it pays no income taxes.

The solution, of course, is sunshine: require these non-profit hospitals to post their chargemaster lists. If gas stations and automobile dealers are required to post their prices, why can’t medical service providers? The only reasons they are treated as state secrets is because they are a disgrace. Once the prices are public knowledge, they would, simply through market forces, begin to converge towards the lower end.

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U.S.-Russia Relations After Snowden

You can tell the Russian government is enjoying needling the Obama administration over Edward Snowden. Yes, the Putin regime likes the attention it gets, the chance to accuse the West of hypocrisy and to demonstrate Putin’s deft grasp of “whataboutism,” and of course the access to Snowden’s intel. But they seem to take just as much pleasure in publicly taunting an Obama administration it has outfoxed for years now.

Case in point: today Russia finally granted Snowden asylum. It’s a one-year pass for now, but it gets him out of Sheremetyevo airport. This, naturally, has drawn condemnation from the U.S. As long as Snowden’s status was still in limbo, there was at least the possibility that he could be returned to the U.S. to face prosecution for his actions. Snowden is probably more trouble to Putin than he’s worth, and Putin had started to treat Snowden like the guest who won’t leave. So it wasn’t beyond the imagination that Snowden would be sent packing or get caught trying to escape to Latin America.

Not only have the Russians officially ended that charade, but they are telling the Obama administration to just get over it already. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

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You can tell the Russian government is enjoying needling the Obama administration over Edward Snowden. Yes, the Putin regime likes the attention it gets, the chance to accuse the West of hypocrisy and to demonstrate Putin’s deft grasp of “whataboutism,” and of course the access to Snowden’s intel. But they seem to take just as much pleasure in publicly taunting an Obama administration it has outfoxed for years now.

Case in point: today Russia finally granted Snowden asylum. It’s a one-year pass for now, but it gets him out of Sheremetyevo airport. This, naturally, has drawn condemnation from the U.S. As long as Snowden’s status was still in limbo, there was at least the possibility that he could be returned to the U.S. to face prosecution for his actions. Snowden is probably more trouble to Putin than he’s worth, and Putin had started to treat Snowden like the guest who won’t leave. So it wasn’t beyond the imagination that Snowden would be sent packing or get caught trying to escape to Latin America.

Not only have the Russians officially ended that charade, but they are telling the Obama administration to just get over it already. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov immediately played down the impact of the decision to harbor Mr. Snowden. “This situation is too insignificant to affect political relations,” he said. He added that the Russian government has received no indication from U.S. officials that the September summit between Messrs. Obama and Putin might be cancelled. He reiterated Mr. Putin’s hope that the incident doesn’t affect relations.

No article on U.S.-Russia relations would be truly complete without a split-the-difference quote from Fyodor Lukyanov, and the Journal provides this one:

Mr. Lukyanov said the Kremlin will be ambivalent about Mr. Snowden as long as he remains in Russia. “Philby and others were all Russian agents, and in those cases, there as [sic] a moral obligation to protect them and do everything for them that they needed,” he said. “But in this case, Snowden didn’t do what he did for Russia. He came here as a surprise, and in the end, Russia will be very much surprised at what damage this did to Russian-American relations.”

This is a surreal aspect to the whole affair. The Obama administration wanted Snowden back when he was leaving Hong Kong. Not only has the White House asked Russia for Snowden’s extradition, but allies in Europe actually grounded the Bolivian president’s plane on the suspicion Snowden was aboard. That’s not exactly subtle. And although it’s a bad idea (as I argued here), Lindsey Graham even spent two days arguing that the U.S. should consider boycotting the 2014 Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi. That is highly unlikely, and surely the Russians know that, but it should have established for the record in crystal clear fashion that yes, the U.S. government is unhappy about this state of affairs.

Putin’s administration is, consciously or not, projecting an insufferable sense of entitlement here. Not only do they want a high-profile American defector all their own, but they’d like to instruct the president of the United States how to feel about it. The advantage of this is that it can easily provoke an overreaction–such as boycotting the Olympics–that would be yet another public-relations fiasco for the Obama administration.

The Obama administration never should have scrapped the Europe-based missile defense plans as a goodwill gesture to Putin, but they would look silly reinstating a missile system over Snowden; the optics of Russia handing Snowden a visa and the U.S. constructing missile silos in response would be a PR gift to Putin. Russia has already been welcomed into the World Trade Organization, though that will benefit the American economy as well, so any WTO-related retaliation would be self-defeating.

So what should President Obama do to show his disapproval? Press Secretary Jay Carney wagged his finger at Russia today, adding that Obama may just decide to cancel on an upcoming Moscow bilateral summit:

Russia’s decision also threatens to derail a planned September summit in Moscow between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which U.S. officials had viewed as a potential breakthrough moment in a monthslong drive to find common ground with Russia on important foreign-policy aims, such as ending the war in Syria. “We are evaluating the utility of a summit in light of this,” Mr. Carney said, adding that no decision had been made.

The “utility” of such a summit was always in doubt, but the president should begin by following through on this threat. A meeting with Putin over Syria is unlikely to produce much of a breakthrough, and the visual of Obama traveling to Moscow to beseech Putin is not one the president should consider offering at this point. After all, the last time Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with Putin, the Russian president sought to humiliate the chief American diplomat.

Beyond that, what the president needs is a change of outlook more than anything. He should be wary of being seen to fire off too many reactions to this one incident at the same time. He doesn’t want to appear erratic and, more importantly, he does not want to give Putin the satisfaction of losing his cool. But the days of the “reset” naïveté are hopefully behind Obama. Putin has spent the last month taunting and insulting the president. Obama should remember that each and every time Putin wants something from here on out. The Olympics will survive this fiasco intact, but Putin’s smug sense of entitlement should not.

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What Liberals Learn From Citizens United

For the past three years, liberals and Democrats have bemoaned the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that invalidated parts of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that prevented groups and individuals from using money to advocate on issues and elections. Their lament has portrayed the ruling as the end of American democracy since it will lead in their view to the moneyed classes and big businesses buying all elections and dooming worthy progressives and their causes to perpetual defeat. But if the successes of Democrats in raising money to finance pro-Obama advocacy groups that successfully trashed the reputations of Republicans like Mitt Romney didn’t convince the left that Citizens United was actually the best thing that could have happened to them, then today’s story in Politico that details how liberal groups are beating conservatives like a drum in the competition to raise money for non-party groups ought to.

As Politico reports, super PACs backing Democrats in prospective 2014 and 2016 races have decisively outraised Republican groups in the first half of the year. There are a number of reasons for this, the chief of which is the way the 2012 results discouraged conservatives. But leaving aside the significance of the tactical advantage the incumbent party and its cheering section have gained this year, the real story is the way this illustrates the wisdom of the Citizens United ruling. Rather than creating a system that would undermine democratic discourse, the court’s reassertion of the right to free speech has opened up a free market of ideas that has made American democracy even more robust. Though the GOP may not be happy about the current fundraising numbers, the ability of liberals to use the law to raise money to advocate for their point of view shows just how wrongheaded their opposition to the ruling has been.

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For the past three years, liberals and Democrats have bemoaned the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that invalidated parts of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that prevented groups and individuals from using money to advocate on issues and elections. Their lament has portrayed the ruling as the end of American democracy since it will lead in their view to the moneyed classes and big businesses buying all elections and dooming worthy progressives and their causes to perpetual defeat. But if the successes of Democrats in raising money to finance pro-Obama advocacy groups that successfully trashed the reputations of Republicans like Mitt Romney didn’t convince the left that Citizens United was actually the best thing that could have happened to them, then today’s story in Politico that details how liberal groups are beating conservatives like a drum in the competition to raise money for non-party groups ought to.

As Politico reports, super PACs backing Democrats in prospective 2014 and 2016 races have decisively outraised Republican groups in the first half of the year. There are a number of reasons for this, the chief of which is the way the 2012 results discouraged conservatives. But leaving aside the significance of the tactical advantage the incumbent party and its cheering section have gained this year, the real story is the way this illustrates the wisdom of the Citizens United ruling. Rather than creating a system that would undermine democratic discourse, the court’s reassertion of the right to free speech has opened up a free market of ideas that has made American democracy even more robust. Though the GOP may not be happy about the current fundraising numbers, the ability of liberals to use the law to raise money to advocate for their point of view shows just how wrongheaded their opposition to the ruling has been.

McCain-Feingold and every other campaign finance restriction that has been passed since Watergate was based on the assumption that money corrupts politics and the less spent on campaigns and issues the better off the republic was. However, none of the rules actually drove money out of politics. All it did was to make it harder for parties to spend as they always had done and to cause political operatives to create new vehicles for spending and advocacy. The laws primarily served as an incumbent protection program since challengers always find it harder to raise money and gain awareness for their issues. But they also served the purpose of restricting the one kind of activity that the founders most wanted to protect: political speech. Since the only way most people or groups have of making their voices heard is to purchase air time or via other forms of mass communication, the ability to raise and spend money is vital to create an atmosphere of free discourse.

That is exactly what Citizens United accomplished. The result is a public square that is often more chaotic than some would like. But if liberals had their way and campaign finance was solely the province of the government as it doled out small amounts to candidates, what we would have is an America where only a few could effectively speak out. It would also allow the mainstream media—whose political advocacy is constitutionally protected—a near monopoly on the debate. Some liberals may lament that aspect of the court’s reforms, but surely even they understand that such a system isn’t healthy for any democracy.

The post-Citizens United world is one in which conservatives are free to speak up for their issues and liberals can do the same. That means liberals must stomach conservative advocacy trashing President Obama’s programs and Democrats in hyperbolic terms while conservatives must endure paeans to ObamaCare and character assassination of Republican candidates. That can make this messy and doesn’t always encourage civility. But it is also a place where free speech of all kinds flourishes.

More free speech doesn’t give either party or ideological grouping any natural edge. What it does do is to open the floodgates for all comers. The last two years should have shown liberals that a free marketplace of ideas is just as likely to help them as to hurt them. Money isn’t evil, it’s just a tool that enables more communication. Unless their goal is to suppress speech—something that conservatives and media critics suspect—they should stop inveighing against Citizens United and simply enjoy the benefits and the drawbacks of life in a country where free speech is protected by the courts.

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Hamas Can’t Be Wished Away in Gaza

Even optimists about the new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks acknowledge that the Hamas problem makes it difficult to imagine an actual agreement coming out of the negotiations. So long as Gaza is ruled by Hamas and Hamas is unwilling to recognize Israel’s existence, let alone its legitimacy, how could any accord survive? But some are seeking to downplay this all-too-obvious flaw in Secretary of State John Kerry’s reasoning in making his diplomatic push by arguing that the Islamist rulers of Gaza (which contains 40 percent of the Arab population of the disputed territories) are either weak or about to fall.

The glass-half-full peace process scenario seems to rest on the assumption that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will get a major boost in popularity if he is able to win, with the help of American pressure, an Israeli withdrawal and an independent state. The hope is that this will render Hamas’s opposition ineffective. An even more wildly optimistic scenario goes so far as to envisage Hamas falling from power or becoming so weak that talk of a merger with Fatah becomes a reality, thus ending the Palestinian schism and easing the way to peace.

Unfortunately, this sort of optimism tells us more about the desire on the part of some in both the United States and Israel to ignore the reality of Palestinian politics than it does about the possibility of regime change in Gaza. For example, even if we take all the assertions in veteran Israeli journalist and author Ehud Yaari’s analysis of the situation in Gaza in the New Republic at face value, there is very little reason to believe that the downturn in Hamas’s fortunes will be translated into it being more amenable to peace or a genuine chance that it will loosen its hold on power.

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Even optimists about the new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks acknowledge that the Hamas problem makes it difficult to imagine an actual agreement coming out of the negotiations. So long as Gaza is ruled by Hamas and Hamas is unwilling to recognize Israel’s existence, let alone its legitimacy, how could any accord survive? But some are seeking to downplay this all-too-obvious flaw in Secretary of State John Kerry’s reasoning in making his diplomatic push by arguing that the Islamist rulers of Gaza (which contains 40 percent of the Arab population of the disputed territories) are either weak or about to fall.

The glass-half-full peace process scenario seems to rest on the assumption that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will get a major boost in popularity if he is able to win, with the help of American pressure, an Israeli withdrawal and an independent state. The hope is that this will render Hamas’s opposition ineffective. An even more wildly optimistic scenario goes so far as to envisage Hamas falling from power or becoming so weak that talk of a merger with Fatah becomes a reality, thus ending the Palestinian schism and easing the way to peace.

Unfortunately, this sort of optimism tells us more about the desire on the part of some in both the United States and Israel to ignore the reality of Palestinian politics than it does about the possibility of regime change in Gaza. For example, even if we take all the assertions in veteran Israeli journalist and author Ehud Yaari’s analysis of the situation in Gaza in the New Republic at face value, there is very little reason to believe that the downturn in Hamas’s fortunes will be translated into it being more amenable to peace or a genuine chance that it will loosen its hold on power.

Yaari is right when he asserts this isn’t the best of times for the Hamas regime. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt is a body blow to the Palestinian group that traces its own origins back to that organization. Though relations with the recently toppled Morsi government were not always smooth, his military successors are openly hostile to Hamas. They have not only shut down the border with Gaza and closed many smuggling tunnels, they have publicly charged Hamas with providing assistance to Brotherhood efforts to subvert the new regime as well as implicating it in violence and murders associated with Morsi’s escape from a Mubarak regime jail in 2011. This has not only deepened its isolation but shut down a vital source of funds.

While significant in and of itself, the loss of Egypt is all the more devastating to Hamas because of its decision to part ways with Iran in the last year. Siding with the Syrian rebels and discarding its formerly close ties with Tehran may have made sense in 2012 for a Hamas that thought it could count on both Egypt and Turkey. Iran was once Hamas’s primary source of both funding and weapons, but the Islamists thought they were better off sticking with the Sunnis against the Shiites. But the ability of the Assad regime to hold onto power in Damascus with the aid of Iran and Hezbollah is making it look as if they backed the wrong horse. With the Turks and the Gulf states that have pledged money to keep Hamas afloat primarily interested in the Syrian struggle these days, Gaza now finds itself more isolated than ever. That has also accentuated the split in the Hamas high command that has always existed between the Gaza leadership and its political bureau abroad.

All this has also strengthened the heretofore-marginal Islamic Jihad terror group that now represents itself as the true face of Palestinian resistance instead of a Hamas that is seen by some radicals as at fault for seeking to preserve the current cease-fire with Israel. As the New York Times reports today, Iran’s increased funding of the group in the wake of its dispute with Hamas over Syria has raised its profile and its ability to compete with the bigger terror group for popularity in Gaza.

But however serious these problems may be, they do not at present constitute anything that comes even close to a mortal threat to Hamas. The group’s iron grip on Gazan society remains undiminished. Though it is broke, even in times of plenty it has always depended on UNRWA, the United Nations agency devoted to aiding and perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem, to take care of the strip’s poor.

Moreover, Hamas officials are as capable of seeing which way the wind is blowing in the Middle East as anyone else and have launched diplomatic initiatives to get back into Tehran’s good graces. Though these efforts have, as yet, yielded no concrete results, should they deem it necessary, there is little doubt that Hamas will bend to Iran’s will in order to keep themselves afloat.

Moreover, the expectation that the peace talks will sink Hamas’s standing among Palestinians has it backwards. Should the negotiations succeed, Hamas will be well placed to blast Abbas for betraying the refugees and Palestinian hopes of destroying Israel. Should they fail, they will assail him for groveling to the Jews and America. Either way, they are set up to make political hay and mayhem from Kerry’s folly.

The fantasy of Hamas fading away is just that. In spite of its serious problems, the Islamist group is in no imminent danger. The same can’t be said of its Palestinian rivals and no amount of optimism about the talks can change that.

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Tom Cotton and the Foreign Policy Debate

The decision by Tom Cotton, a rising Republican star and congressman from Arkansas, to challenge Democratic Senator Mark Pryor fits seamlessly into the news of the week. Cotton’s reputation as a foreign-policy hawk and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as his age (36), will undoubtedly cast him as heralding the arrival of reinforcements for the GOP’s internationalist wing.

In Politico’s story on Cotton’s candidacy the author even gives more prominence to his role as a “counterweight” to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz (though Cotton shares Cruz’s Ivy League pedigree) than to the possibility Cotton could help the GOP win back the Senate, though the latter is arguably the more significant aspect of his candidacy. But national-security rhetoric is what, still more than a year out from this Senate race, the political sphere is looking for, and on this Cotton doesn’t disappoint. There are few young Republicans willing to say things like “I think that George Bush largely did have it right,” as Cotton said to Politico in an earlier interview. He went on to state:

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The decision by Tom Cotton, a rising Republican star and congressman from Arkansas, to challenge Democratic Senator Mark Pryor fits seamlessly into the news of the week. Cotton’s reputation as a foreign-policy hawk and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as his age (36), will undoubtedly cast him as heralding the arrival of reinforcements for the GOP’s internationalist wing.

In Politico’s story on Cotton’s candidacy the author even gives more prominence to his role as a “counterweight” to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz (though Cotton shares Cruz’s Ivy League pedigree) than to the possibility Cotton could help the GOP win back the Senate, though the latter is arguably the more significant aspect of his candidacy. But national-security rhetoric is what, still more than a year out from this Senate race, the political sphere is looking for, and on this Cotton doesn’t disappoint. There are few young Republicans willing to say things like “I think that George Bush largely did have it right,” as Cotton said to Politico in an earlier interview. He went on to state:

That we can’t wait for dangers to gather on the horizon, that we can’t let the world’s most dangerous people get the world’s most dangerous weapons and that we have to be willing to defend our interests and the safety of our citizens abroad even if we don’t get the approval of the United Nations.

On this, Cotton’s Senate candidacy joins that of Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice president, who is running a primary challenge against Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi. Though foreign policy doesn’t usually play much of a role in Senate elections (or even, arguably, presidential elections), this debate should not surprise. The GOP is (mostly) in the wilderness, a time when parties traditionally look inward and chart their future path back to power.

The Republican Party’s identity on fiscal issues is more settled than its foreign policy identity. Neither the libertarians nor the internationalists campaign for tax increases, but they do disagree on foreign affairs. Just how even that disagreement is remains up for debate. When asked whether retrenchment chic is gaining a wide following in the GOP, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said: “I think Christie-Cotton is much more likely in 2016 than Paul-Amash.”

That is true enough in that particular hypothetical, and the temporary halt in hostilities called by Chris Christie and Rand Paul may give it an added boost. Paul proposed a beer summit between the two men, an invitation Christie rejected while taking a parting shot at Paul. How this ceasefire came about can be interpreted in one of two ways. Paul is surely hoping it makes him look mature and statesmanlike, sending out a peace offering and backing off, citing concerns for the party. Christie, on the other hand, seemed happy to keep swinging away, as if Paul was the one who had had enough.

Paul is also coming off a setback in the Senate, where his attempt to cancel American foreign aid to Egypt was brushed aside by his party and soundly defeated on the Senate floor. Christie may think his side has the momentum–and in any case he enjoys a good verbal sparring too much to want to pipe down. But the interesting question here relates more to what each combatant has to lose in the exchange. Christie’s weakness in a presidential primary contest would be the suspicion with which the conservative base views him after his embrace of the president. For Paul it’s the question of his mainstream appeal and electability.

Paul hinted at this aspect of the dust-up in his beer-summit proposal: “I think it’s time to dial it down. I think we’ve got enough Democrats to attack. I’ve said my piece on this. I don’t like Republicans attacking Republicans because it doesn’t help the party grow bigger.” But that’s not exactly accurate in this instance: Christie probably thinks he can win over independents and undecideds by establishing himself as a mainstream alternative to a supposedly fringe element in his party.

Whether or not Paul actually belongs to a “fringe” is far from settled. As I’ve written before, there has always been a strain of conservatives who genuinely worry that the national security state represents a military twin of the New Deal: expensive, secretive–and now, with the NSA scandals, seemingly intrusive–bureaucracies whose budgets grow inexorably even at a time when conservatives broadly favor austerity.

Those who support a robust American presence in the world counter, correctly, that Western prosperity relies on the peace kept by America and the orderly system of global trade that is highly dependent on the U.S. In many cases foreign aid, too, is a bargain–for the influence it earns the American government abroad, the prevention of armed conflict in some cases, and even the direct economic benefits it secures by spurring foreign investment in the American defense sector. Christie may not have the ear of the base when he makes these points–and the same can be said for veteran senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham–but Cotton does, and that’s why his candidacy is already generating this attention, and will continue to do so.

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Obama Sanctions Signal What Iran Wants

As expected, the House of Representatives passed a bill enacting tough new economic sanctions on Iran yesterday afternoon. The 400-20 vote, which was preceded by a debate during which both House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke on behalf of the measure, was the natural culmination of years of attempts to ratchet up pressure on the Islamist regime to end its nuclear program. If fully enforced, it shuts down what is left of Iran’s oil export business by enacting significant penalties on those countries, such as China and India, that have continued to import oil from Tehran; tightens restrictions on the country’s ability to conduct financial transactions abroad; and adds its automotive, construction, engineering, and mining industries to the list of entities that cannot legally do business in the West. After years of talking about crippling sanctions, this finally delivers what Western diplomats have always said they needed to bring the ayatollahs to their senses. And yet the chief advocate of tough diplomacy with Iran isn’t happy about the prospect of having to sign this bill.

Neither the White House nor the State Department welcomed the bipartisan House vote while senior officials speaking anonymously were unhappy about it. As the Financial Times reported, the administration seemed to agree with the tiny House minority that bought into the arguments of Iran apologists that believes the selection of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a genuine opportunity for negotiation rather than a transparent ruse:

Some serving US officials have also privately questioned whether this was the right time to push new sanctions. However, the government publicly sidestepped the issue following Wednesday’s vote.

“We are going to continue working with Congress to put pressure on Iran, to isolate Iran, but also to make clear to the Iranians that we’re ready to sit down and talk with them substantively when they are,” said a state department spokesperson.

Given that the Democratic-controlled Senate won’t take up the bill until after it returns from its recess in September and that the president has shown little inclination to order its enforcement even if he signs it, the Iranians needn’t worry much about the measure going into effect. Rather than the House messing up a mythical chance for diplomacy to work, the signals from the White House show that Iran appears to have succeeded in setting up what appears to be another year of delays before the West will even think about taking action to stop the ayatollahs from achieving their nuclear ambition.

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As expected, the House of Representatives passed a bill enacting tough new economic sanctions on Iran yesterday afternoon. The 400-20 vote, which was preceded by a debate during which both House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke on behalf of the measure, was the natural culmination of years of attempts to ratchet up pressure on the Islamist regime to end its nuclear program. If fully enforced, it shuts down what is left of Iran’s oil export business by enacting significant penalties on those countries, such as China and India, that have continued to import oil from Tehran; tightens restrictions on the country’s ability to conduct financial transactions abroad; and adds its automotive, construction, engineering, and mining industries to the list of entities that cannot legally do business in the West. After years of talking about crippling sanctions, this finally delivers what Western diplomats have always said they needed to bring the ayatollahs to their senses. And yet the chief advocate of tough diplomacy with Iran isn’t happy about the prospect of having to sign this bill.

Neither the White House nor the State Department welcomed the bipartisan House vote while senior officials speaking anonymously were unhappy about it. As the Financial Times reported, the administration seemed to agree with the tiny House minority that bought into the arguments of Iran apologists that believes the selection of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a genuine opportunity for negotiation rather than a transparent ruse:

Some serving US officials have also privately questioned whether this was the right time to push new sanctions. However, the government publicly sidestepped the issue following Wednesday’s vote.

“We are going to continue working with Congress to put pressure on Iran, to isolate Iran, but also to make clear to the Iranians that we’re ready to sit down and talk with them substantively when they are,” said a state department spokesperson.

Given that the Democratic-controlled Senate won’t take up the bill until after it returns from its recess in September and that the president has shown little inclination to order its enforcement even if he signs it, the Iranians needn’t worry much about the measure going into effect. Rather than the House messing up a mythical chance for diplomacy to work, the signals from the White House show that Iran appears to have succeeded in setting up what appears to be another year of delays before the West will even think about taking action to stop the ayatollahs from achieving their nuclear ambition.

Iranian apologists like Gary Sick claim the bill is a sign that Iran can’t trust the United States, but the only real problem with the latest sanctions bill is that it is about four years too late. Had the Obama administration pushed for a genuine economic embargo of Iran in 2009 rather than wasting a year on a laughable attempt at “engagement” with the Islamist regime, its belief in the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough might not have been so easily dismissed. Even when the president and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally embarked on a campaign to rally international support for sanctions, they were easily intimidated by Russia and China and settled on weak measures that only convinced the Iranians they had nothing to worry about. After a decade of playing games with the West in which they would tease negotiators into thinking they were about to agree to deals only to soon renege on their promises (a process in which the alleged moderate Rouhani played a prominent role), there is no reason to think that another several months of this routine would yield anything that would allow President Obama to make good on his repeated promises never to allow Iran to go nuclear.

By the time the administration is done exploring the supposed Rouhani opening, Iran will not only have gotten that much closer to realizing its nuclear goal but their systematic effort to render their facilities impervious to air attack may also be completed. There doesn’t appear to be any more time for sanctions to work even if this tough measure was put in place yesterday. But the unwillingness of the administration to even contemplate raising the stakes prior to engaging in another pointless round of talks with Iran speaks volumes about its lack of seriousness in dealing with this issue. So long as Obama keeps signaling he is willing to keep going down the garden path with the Iranians, there is little hope that Tehran will come to its senses. The off-the-record comments from the administration about new sanctions are exactly what Iran wanted to hear.

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Thanks to Syria, Timing of Looming Iran Crisis Is Fortuitous

As I noted yesterday, the coming months will be decisive with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. This is an issue on which everyone would prefer if crunch time were never reached. But if a showdown must come, the timing couldn’t be more fortuitous–because it’s impossible to imagine a better geostrategic moment for military action against Iran than now.

One of the biggest concerns that opponents of military action in both Israel and America have always raised is the havoc Iran could wreak in response an attack. For Israelis, the main fear is massive missile attacks by both Iran and its allies; for Washington, the main concern is Iran’s ability to disrupt oil trade from the Gulf and attack American allies in that region.

But thanks to the Syrian civil war, the threat of Iranian retaliation has been dramatically reduced. Partly, of course, that’s because two of Iran’s principal allies, Syria and Hezbollah, are too preoccupied with that war to be able to mount serious reprisals against anyone. But even more importantly, the tremendous importance Iran attaches to Syria gives both Israel and America a powerful lever with which to restrain any Iranian reprisals.

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As I noted yesterday, the coming months will be decisive with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. This is an issue on which everyone would prefer if crunch time were never reached. But if a showdown must come, the timing couldn’t be more fortuitous–because it’s impossible to imagine a better geostrategic moment for military action against Iran than now.

One of the biggest concerns that opponents of military action in both Israel and America have always raised is the havoc Iran could wreak in response an attack. For Israelis, the main fear is massive missile attacks by both Iran and its allies; for Washington, the main concern is Iran’s ability to disrupt oil trade from the Gulf and attack American allies in that region.

But thanks to the Syrian civil war, the threat of Iranian retaliation has been dramatically reduced. Partly, of course, that’s because two of Iran’s principal allies, Syria and Hezbollah, are too preoccupied with that war to be able to mount serious reprisals against anyone. But even more importantly, the tremendous importance Iran attaches to Syria gives both Israel and America a powerful lever with which to restrain any Iranian reprisals.

Iran has poured billions of dollars and thousands of crack fighters–from Hezbollah, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, and its own Revolutionary Guards Corps–into propping up Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, because it deems Assad’s survival strategically vital. As one senior Iranian cleric explained in February, “Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to take either Syria or Khuzestan [in western Iran], the priority for us is to keep Syria….If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too, but if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.”

And so far, the effort seems to be working. Assad’s forces have dealt the Syrian rebels several serious blows recently; they retook the strategic town of Qusair in June and made significant gains this week in the rebel stronghold of Homs. Whether the current constellation of forces opposing Assad can reverse this tide on their own is an open question.

But there are two players who have thus far chosen to sit out the game who are definitely capable of swinging the war in the rebels’ favor: America and Israel. Both have the capacity to mount airstrikes that would destroy Assad’s air force and tanks, which have hitherto given him a huge advantage over the rebels. And both could make it clear to Iran that they would do so if its reprisals crossed any red lines.

Though America has the military might to threaten Iran directly, Syria is a much easier target, with the added bonus that any such operation would be immensely popular with its Arab allies. Hence for Washington, the ability to threaten Syria lowers the cost of deterring Iran. Israel, in contrast, lacks the military capacity to threaten Iran directly with anything bigger than a targeted operation against its military facilities. Thus for Jerusalem, the ability to threaten Syria is the difference between having almost no deterrence against Iranian reprisals and having very substantial deterrence.

That Syria’s civil war erupted when it did was pure serendipity. But knowing how to take advantage of serendipity has always been a crucial element of statesmanship.

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The Suicide Caucus

Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio insist they will fund the government only if it defunds the Affordable Care Act (ACA). But here’s the thing: They know their gambit won’t work. Defunding ObamaCare while Republicans control just one half of one third of the federal government is a pipe dream. What we need to understand, then, is that in this instance victory is beside the point. There’s no realistic legislative method that Republicans have that is capable of defunding the ACA. The fight is what matters.

What Lee & Co. are arguing is that the ACA is so awful that Republicans have an obligation to exhaust every possible avenue, even if they’re likely to fail. And so you hear a lot about the need to “draw a line in the sand,” about how they want to be able to return to their home states to say they’ve done everything humanly possible to defund ObamaCare, and how Real Men aren’t part of a “surrender caucus.” Sure, they may not succeed in their efforts–but at least they tried. And that’s what matters. If they fall short, at least they’ll have done so with a clear conscience, while daring greatly, with their face marred by dust and sweat and blood. Which is better than those cold and timid souls who oppose them. 

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Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio insist they will fund the government only if it defunds the Affordable Care Act (ACA). But here’s the thing: They know their gambit won’t work. Defunding ObamaCare while Republicans control just one half of one third of the federal government is a pipe dream. What we need to understand, then, is that in this instance victory is beside the point. There’s no realistic legislative method that Republicans have that is capable of defunding the ACA. The fight is what matters.

What Lee & Co. are arguing is that the ACA is so awful that Republicans have an obligation to exhaust every possible avenue, even if they’re likely to fail. And so you hear a lot about the need to “draw a line in the sand,” about how they want to be able to return to their home states to say they’ve done everything humanly possible to defund ObamaCare, and how Real Men aren’t part of a “surrender caucus.” Sure, they may not succeed in their efforts–but at least they tried. And that’s what matters. If they fall short, at least they’ll have done so with a clear conscience, while daring greatly, with their face marred by dust and sweat and blood. Which is better than those cold and timid souls who oppose them. 

This attitude, while a bit too melodramatic for my taste, might be tolerable if there was no downside to failure. The problem is that on the matter of defunding the Affordable Care Act, there is. If Republicans pushed forward on this strategy and it failed–as it surely would–it’s quite likely that it would revivify the Obama presidency and damage the conservative cause.

It just doesn’t make sense to insist on a goal (defunding the Affordable Care Act) that you know in advance is unattainable. And you don’t issue a threat (we will keep the federal government shut down unless and until ObamaCare is defunded) that in the end you can’t deliver on–and which your opponents know you can’t deliver on. That lesson seems to have been lost on Messrs. Lee, Cruz, Paul, and Rubio. Thankfully it hasn’t been lost on their colleagues, who have no interest in joining the Suicide Caucus. 

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