Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 9, 2013

It’s Time to Cut off Pakistan

Anyone who believes that Pakistan is in any way an ally in the fight against terrorism after Osama bin Laden’s death in Abbottabad is truly gullible, but denial can be contagious. Pakistan claims it did not know that the reclusive bin Laden was living adjacent to the Pakistani equivalent of West Point. And while Pakistan clearly supports the Taliban as the Afghan group targets Americans and their allies in NATO and Afghanistan, those inclined to talk can dismiss the Taliban merely as insurgents fighting occupation rather than terrorists.

The latest news from Pakistan shows just how complicit Pakistan is in sheltering and supporting terrorists who target not military officials but civilians:

Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the mastermind of 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai and founder of militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), led the Eid-ul-Fitr prayers at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore on Friday morning. The 64-year-old militant group leader is a free man in his home country Pakistan though he is wanted by India and United States for his terror activities. His posters were seen all over Lahore and tweeted Eid greetings on Friday besides anti-India messages… Saeed has been accused of orchestrating the 2008 Mumbai terror attack that killed 166 people, including six Americans. India has repeatedly requested Pakistan to punish him and US has announced a bounty of $10 million on him but nothing has been done. He is still a free man, giving public speeches often smeared with anti-Indian messages, appear on television talk shows and organize public rallies. He had claimed in an interview earlier this year that he moves freely in Pakistan ‘like an ordinary man’… He had earlier mocked US over the bounty on him, telling reporters “I am here, I am visible. America should give that reward money to me. I will be in Lahore tomorrow. America can contact me whenever it wants to.”

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Anyone who believes that Pakistan is in any way an ally in the fight against terrorism after Osama bin Laden’s death in Abbottabad is truly gullible, but denial can be contagious. Pakistan claims it did not know that the reclusive bin Laden was living adjacent to the Pakistani equivalent of West Point. And while Pakistan clearly supports the Taliban as the Afghan group targets Americans and their allies in NATO and Afghanistan, those inclined to talk can dismiss the Taliban merely as insurgents fighting occupation rather than terrorists.

The latest news from Pakistan shows just how complicit Pakistan is in sheltering and supporting terrorists who target not military officials but civilians:

Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the mastermind of 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai and founder of militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), led the Eid-ul-Fitr prayers at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore on Friday morning. The 64-year-old militant group leader is a free man in his home country Pakistan though he is wanted by India and United States for his terror activities. His posters were seen all over Lahore and tweeted Eid greetings on Friday besides anti-India messages… Saeed has been accused of orchestrating the 2008 Mumbai terror attack that killed 166 people, including six Americans. India has repeatedly requested Pakistan to punish him and US has announced a bounty of $10 million on him but nothing has been done. He is still a free man, giving public speeches often smeared with anti-Indian messages, appear on television talk shows and organize public rallies. He had claimed in an interview earlier this year that he moves freely in Pakistan ‘like an ordinary man’… He had earlier mocked US over the bounty on him, telling reporters “I am here, I am visible. America should give that reward money to me. I will be in Lahore tomorrow. America can contact me whenever it wants to.”

Perhaps it is time that America does just that, with a predator and a hellfire. The outrage in Pakistan would be more than offset by the celebrations in India. And when it comes to a choice between the two countries, it’s time to choose sides unequivocally. Saeed’s presence—and his protection by the Pakistani government—should also put to rest any notion that Pakistan will do anything but radicalize and terrorize Afghanistan once U.S. forces depart.

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Why Everyone’s Talking About John Sopko

If you read this morning’s edition of three of our prominent national newspapers, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, you may have noticed something: the sudden necessity of talking about a man named John Sopko. The Times and the Post each run different-but-not-really pieces intended to profile Sopko and his work. The Journal takes a slightly different tack, talking about Sopko through the most recent and newsworthy aspects of his work.

So who is John Sopko? Here is the Times’s lede: “John F. Sopko is a 61-year-old former prosecutor who believes ‘embarrassing people works.’ ” But the Kabul dateline is the tipoff. Sopko is in Afghanistan as the inspector general for American-led reconstruction efforts. He is in charge of keeping the bureaucracy honest, and he is not well-liked by his compatriots there; the Post calls him the “the bane of the existence of American bureaucrats scrambling to bring the war to a dignified end.” What Sopko is finding out firsthand is that political leaders love to talk–and often, only talk–about rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in any system. Everyone loves the idea of oversight.

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If you read this morning’s edition of three of our prominent national newspapers, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, you may have noticed something: the sudden necessity of talking about a man named John Sopko. The Times and the Post each run different-but-not-really pieces intended to profile Sopko and his work. The Journal takes a slightly different tack, talking about Sopko through the most recent and newsworthy aspects of his work.

So who is John Sopko? Here is the Times’s lede: “John F. Sopko is a 61-year-old former prosecutor who believes ‘embarrassing people works.’ ” But the Kabul dateline is the tipoff. Sopko is in Afghanistan as the inspector general for American-led reconstruction efforts. He is in charge of keeping the bureaucracy honest, and he is not well-liked by his compatriots there; the Post calls him the “the bane of the existence of American bureaucrats scrambling to bring the war to a dignified end.” What Sopko is finding out firsthand is that political leaders love to talk–and often, only talk–about rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in any system. Everyone loves the idea of oversight.

Sopko also clearly knows the value of publicity. The coincidental placement of A-Section stories on him in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on the same day is testament to that. But Sopko’s penchant for publicity doesn’t endear him to those under his watchful gaze. In fact, it seems his profiles were, in part at least, a result of his need to push back on the grumbling inspired, in circular fashion, by his need for publicity. As the Times explains:

He and his team spend their days cataloging the waste, mismanagement and fraud that have plagued American reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

Then they go out and publicize what they have found — aggressively. If they upset the generals and diplomats running the war, so much the better. Most officials “would love to have it all triple-wrapped in paper, classified and slipped under a door so it goes away — then they don’t have to do anything,” he said during a recent interview.

He added, “I’m into accountability.”

Sopko also sat for an interview with the Post, and they paint much the same picture:

“I didn’t take this job to be liked at the State Department or USAID or the Department of Defense,” he said in an interview. “We’re the umpire. My job is to call strikes.”

Bureaucratic battles within America’s wars are legion. But none has played out quite this publicly, and all sides agree that the stakes could hardly be higher. To a large extent, the U.S. ability to disengage smoothly from Afghanistan and retain influence after combat troops leave — by the end of 2014 — will depend on the work U.S. agencies are able to accomplish, as well as the amount of political will and confidence in the mission they can engender.

But it’s the Journal article that seems to do the most to legitimize the Times and Post articles. The Journal has always tended to take a slightly different approach to the same stories other papers cover, and in this case the Journal’s article on Sopko is a perfect companion piece to the others.

The Post explains that the office of inspector general for Afghan reconstruction had alternated between ridicule and vacancy. Sopko came in and fired up his staff, warning that the clock was ticking on the mission. The Journal article offers one example of the misbehavior uncovered by the newly energized office under Sopko’s leadership:

American anticorruption officials are investigating an alleged criminal ring working for U.S. Special Operations Command in southern Afghanistan that may have defrauded the U.S. government of more than $77 million, according to court documents and government officials.

Federal officials have frozen $63 million held in bank accounts around the world linked to a young Afghan businessman who allegedly bribed two foreign contractors to secure contracts to transport food and fuel for the U.S. military in southern Afghanistan, according to documents unsealed by the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The Afghan, Hikmatullah Shadman, is at the center of a continuing investigation that also could ensnare Americans working for the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, said John Sopko, the special U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

“We’re not done with this matter in the least,” said Mr. Sopko, who spearheaded the legal action to freeze and seize Mr. Shadman’s bank accounts.

As Max Boot and Michael Rubin have written numerous times here at COMMENTARY, there is both the need and the ability to clean up Western efforts in Afghanistan. On that note, I think it’s worth restating Michael’s point from February on corruption and USAID waste/mismanagement in Afghanistan: “Terrorism impacts a small number of people, but corruption is a cancer on a whole society.”

That is exactly right, and that seems to be Sopko’s perspective. He has taken on a sense of urgency as well because the mission is indeed running low on time. I don’t think many of those complaining about Sopko’s intensity or publicity-seeking fully appreciate just how much of a black eye it will be for America’s reputation if after a decade-long nation building project we leave behind well-fed corruption rings and warlords with deeper pockets as our legacy. There is only so much control our agencies have, of course, in Afghanistan. But surely conducting themselves with transparency and integrity is not too much to ask.

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McConnell’s Bad Week Isn’t Fatal

There’s a lot of chortling going on right now among Democrats about Mitch McConnell, and who can blame them? The contretemps over the Senate minority leader’s campaign manager saying he will be “holding my nose” while working for McConnell is not only a public-relations gaffe. It’s a reminder that some conservatives and the libertarian wing of the GOP are decidedly unenthusiastic about supporting the senator’s reelection campaign. At a time when McConnell is already facing a pesky primary opponent purporting to represent the Tea Party and what may be a formidable challenge from the Democrats in the general election, this unforced error is the last thing McConnell needed this week.

There is no doubt that in a year when Democrats are defending a number of vulnerable seats leading even a liberal pundit like Nate Silver to give the GOP an even chance of taking back the Senate, McConnell appears to be the most endangered Republican up for re-election in 2014. But the bad news for Democrats who relish the thought of defeating their leading Washington nemesis is that it will take a lot more than a bad news week 15 months ahead of Election Day to knock off McConnell. Even more to the point, the “holding my nose” quote itself actually should remind us that the leading libertarian in the Senate has a vested interest in helping McConnell win that should overwhelm any reluctance on the part of his followers.

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There’s a lot of chortling going on right now among Democrats about Mitch McConnell, and who can blame them? The contretemps over the Senate minority leader’s campaign manager saying he will be “holding my nose” while working for McConnell is not only a public-relations gaffe. It’s a reminder that some conservatives and the libertarian wing of the GOP are decidedly unenthusiastic about supporting the senator’s reelection campaign. At a time when McConnell is already facing a pesky primary opponent purporting to represent the Tea Party and what may be a formidable challenge from the Democrats in the general election, this unforced error is the last thing McConnell needed this week.

There is no doubt that in a year when Democrats are defending a number of vulnerable seats leading even a liberal pundit like Nate Silver to give the GOP an even chance of taking back the Senate, McConnell appears to be the most endangered Republican up for re-election in 2014. But the bad news for Democrats who relish the thought of defeating their leading Washington nemesis is that it will take a lot more than a bad news week 15 months ahead of Election Day to knock off McConnell. Even more to the point, the “holding my nose” quote itself actually should remind us that the leading libertarian in the Senate has a vested interest in helping McConnell win that should overwhelm any reluctance on the part of his followers.

As embarrassing as it is, we didn’t need to learn about the comments of Jesse Benton that were actually uttered in January about his distaste for his boss to know that his presence in the McConnell campaign was the result of a strategic alliance between Rand Paul and the minority leader. As is well known, Benton performed the same function for Rand Paul in 2010 following a stint as press spokesman for Paul’s father Ron. He’s also married to one of Ron’s granddaughters. His hiring and Rand Paul’s endorsement of the minority leader’s reelection seemed to solidify an informal deal between Kentucky’s two Republican senators.

That this is an alliance based more on mutual needs than shared ideas is also true. McConnell saw a need to shore up his right flank against possible primary opponents while Paul rightly understood that having the minority leader as an ally rather than a potential enemy would bolster his presidential ambitions. This is an important point when considering how libertarians like the members of Paul’s extended clan look at 2014. Though McConnell’s primary opponent Matt Bevin will seek to exploit this to appeal to Rand’s supporters, the point to remember here is that while some of Paul’s supporters may be tempted to oppose him, the Paulbots have a vested interest in having a Senate minority or possibility majority leader that owes their candidate a favor in 2016. The more trouble McConnell finds himself in next year, if indeed Bevin has any chance at all in a primary against the Senate veteran, the more likely it is that Paul will have a powerful motive to help his reelection. The bottom line here is that it will take a lot more than a staffer’s gaffe to inject some life into Bevin’s uphill challenge.

McConnell got a bad break when Democrats wisely passed on putting up Ashley Judd and instead got behind a stronger opponent in Alison Lundergan Grimes. But though polls show Grimes well within striking distance of knocking off McConnell, the numbers may look a bit different next year as her positions are put under the spotlight along with McConnell’s perceived flaws. With considerable resources at his disposal and the very real possibility that 2014 will, as midterms usually are, be a good year for the party out of power, the minority leader may not be in as much trouble as his critics think.

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Israel and the Stakes in Egypt

Today’s report of an Israeli drone strike on a terrorist target in the northern Sinai is more than just another incident in the Jewish state’s long war of attrition against Islamists. The incident reportedly took out a missile launcher on the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza in the city of Rafah and resulted in five terrorists killed. But the most important aspect of the story is the fact that according to the Associated Press, sources in the Egyptian government confirmed that the Israeli pre-emptive attack took place with the cooperation of authorities in Cairo. This comes on the heels of another reported incident during which Israeli authorities briefly closed the airport in Eilat as a result of a tip from the Egyptians that a terror cell in the Sinai was planning to launch long-range missiles that could have hit the city.

While this may seem remarkable to friends of Israel who have been made aware of the depth of anti-Semitic sentiment that seems to pervade all of Egyptian society, it shouldn’t surprise anyone who was aware of the cooperation that went on when Hosni Mubarak was in power. As cold as the peace between the two countries was, for decades Cairo was more interested in combating potential Islamist insurgents than in having another go at Israel. After Mubarak fell and especially once the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt, that changed and the Sinai became an open range for all manner of Islamists. But as a result of the coup that toppled the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, the military is determined to clean up the Sinai and to end any terrorist threats to the peace between Israel and Egypt. As the United States ponders what to do and say about the impending conflict between the military and the Brotherhood, an understanding of what is happening in the Sinai since the coup should influence American decision-making.

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Today’s report of an Israeli drone strike on a terrorist target in the northern Sinai is more than just another incident in the Jewish state’s long war of attrition against Islamists. The incident reportedly took out a missile launcher on the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza in the city of Rafah and resulted in five terrorists killed. But the most important aspect of the story is the fact that according to the Associated Press, sources in the Egyptian government confirmed that the Israeli pre-emptive attack took place with the cooperation of authorities in Cairo. This comes on the heels of another reported incident during which Israeli authorities briefly closed the airport in Eilat as a result of a tip from the Egyptians that a terror cell in the Sinai was planning to launch long-range missiles that could have hit the city.

While this may seem remarkable to friends of Israel who have been made aware of the depth of anti-Semitic sentiment that seems to pervade all of Egyptian society, it shouldn’t surprise anyone who was aware of the cooperation that went on when Hosni Mubarak was in power. As cold as the peace between the two countries was, for decades Cairo was more interested in combating potential Islamist insurgents than in having another go at Israel. After Mubarak fell and especially once the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt, that changed and the Sinai became an open range for all manner of Islamists. But as a result of the coup that toppled the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, the military is determined to clean up the Sinai and to end any terrorist threats to the peace between Israel and Egypt. As the United States ponders what to do and say about the impending conflict between the military and the Brotherhood, an understanding of what is happening in the Sinai since the coup should influence American decision-making.

As Haaretz notes:

Egyptian security forces claimed Wednesday that it had killed 60 militants in the lawless Sinai Peninsula in the month since the military overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Citing widening “terrorist operations” in “recent times,” the Egyptian army said it was conducting an intensified campaign in Sinai in coordination with the interior ministry to crack down on militants that “threaten Egyptian national security.”

Unlike the Brotherhood, the post-coup government in Cairo understands that the primary threats to “Egyptian national security” are Islamists that are determined to foment violence against both Israel and the Egyptian military. The goal of the Islamists, whether members of an al-Qaeda franchise or the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad group based in Gaza, is to set the border with Israel aflame in an attempt to foment a new war that will both hurt the Jewish state and undermine support for an already unpopular peace treaty in Egypt.

Were the military to be undermined in its conflict with a Brotherhood that is determined to put Morsi back in power and get a second chance to remake Egypt in the image of its Islamist beliefs, all bets are off in the Sinai as well as along the border with Gaza. The military is determined to prevent the Brotherhood from getting that chance and understands, unlike many in the United States, that it is locked in a zero-sum game with the Islamists. Though some Americans may cling to the illusion that the Arab Spring created an opening for democracy in Egypt, the choices there are not between the military and freedom but between military rule and an Islamist tyranny that represents a threat to regional stability.

Far from being minor incidents, recent events illustrate the high stakes for the West in the prevention of another Brotherhood government in Cairo. Secretary of State John Kerry was right when he said the military was trying to restore democracy when it took power last month. But if the United States cuts off aid in response to more violence in the streets between the military and the Brotherhood or in any way seeks to undermine the new government in the coming weeks, it will, in effect, be voting for even worse violence in the Sinai and along the border with Israel.

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An Israel-EU Peace Process?

During Bill Clinton’s attempts to achieve peace in the Middle East, the underestimated element that kept throwing the administration off course was the competition the peace process created among Arab states and entities. Clinton wanted to strike a peace deal between Israel and Syria, which was logical because Israel already had a peace deal with Egypt, a de facto peace with Jordan, and as much peace with Lebanon as it could achieve without striking a deal with Syria.

But the Arab states didn’t get along with each other, and tried repeatedly to interfere in parallel peace tracks to compete for Clinton’s attention. In a bizarro-world reflection of the Middle East’s “me-too” competition for negotiations and a sad indication of the devaluation of the European Union’s relationship with Israel, there is a new parallel track to the latest talks: the Israel-EU peace process.

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During Bill Clinton’s attempts to achieve peace in the Middle East, the underestimated element that kept throwing the administration off course was the competition the peace process created among Arab states and entities. Clinton wanted to strike a peace deal between Israel and Syria, which was logical because Israel already had a peace deal with Egypt, a de facto peace with Jordan, and as much peace with Lebanon as it could achieve without striking a deal with Syria.

But the Arab states didn’t get along with each other, and tried repeatedly to interfere in parallel peace tracks to compete for Clinton’s attention. In a bizarro-world reflection of the Middle East’s “me-too” competition for negotiations and a sad indication of the devaluation of the European Union’s relationship with Israel, there is a new parallel track to the latest talks: the Israel-EU peace process.

The background is the EU’s decision to institute new rules restricting its cooperation with Jews in Jerusalem or the West Bank. I wrote about the latest in the controversy here. The EU’s new rules are not a full trade boycott of Jewish goods but rather intended to preclude access to EU grants. The difference is that an economic boycott would hurt the EU as well; the new rules are designed only to hurt Israel–more specifically, Jews living in Israel’s capital and those living over the green line, unless those Jews are deemed sufficiently opposed to their own Israeli government, in which case the EU will consider waiving the discriminatory regulations.

I also pointed to a Times of Israel article that made clear the new EU rules were not based in international law, but rather were simply a manifestation of the EU’s increasingly hostile foreign policy toward Israel. Today, Reuters reports the evolving response from the Israeli government:

The rightist Israeli government responded on July 26 by announcing curbs on EU aid projects for thousands of West Bank Palestinians. On Thursday it accused the Europeans of harming Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and said it would not sign new deals with the 28-nation bloc given the planned sanctions.

But Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin took a more diplomatic tack on Friday, offering to negotiate with the European Union over the guidelines, which he described as a challenge to the Jewish state’s sovereignty.

“We are ready to hold a creative dialogue with the Europeans. We understand their position. We reject it, we don’t like it, but it’s their right when it comes to using their money,” Elkin told Israel Radio.

So that is where EU-Israel relations currently stand. It is necessary for the two sides to have their own bilateral talks to defuse tensions between them. The EU also seems determined to distract Israeli leaders from the renewed peace negotiations with the Palestinian leadership moderated by Secretary of State John Kerry. The EU’s timing all along has had a distinctive narcissistic flourish to it. While Kerry was trying to finalize an agreement to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, the EU released word of its new rules, which would give the Palestinians yet another reason to believe they didn’t need to negotiate to get what they wanted from the world.

The EU’s interference has not abated since it is asking Israel to justify its own sovereignty to the West at the risk of undermining its negotiating position with regard to the Palestinians. And it’s important to note that Israeli sovereignty is precisely what is at stake in the EU machinations. Not only will the EU continue approving grants for those Israelis willing to renounce their own government’s claim to land on which their fellow countrymen live, but the other side of that coin is the EU’s attempt to get the Israeli government to abandon its own citizens.

Elkin made it clear that Israel understands this aspect of the policy. Reuters notes that he downplayed the financial damage the new rules might do to Israel in favor of highlighting the much more consequential issues of sovereignty:

Elkin said the EU guidelines required Israel to take action against its own institutes with facilities in East Jerusalem.

“The dispute here is about Jerusalem and the dispute is over the question over whether the sovereign border that we laid down is in force or not,” he said. “If you begin to discriminate among various bodies located within your sovereign territory, it means you are effectively denying the sovereignty you declared.”

That is well said. Elkin is willing to negotiate with the EU over its new rules, but he wants to be crystal clear on what is at stake. The EU ignores the entire history of the diplomatic process with the Palestinians. To the EU, the Oslo process didn’t go far enough. But now that’s irrelevant anyway to the lawless Eurocrats. Forget final-status negotiations; the EU wants Israel to deny its own legitimacy.

It’s not really about economics or even diplomatic isolation. No doubt the Palestinians are watching closely to see if their negotiations with Israel are really as irrelevant as the EU makes them out to be by suggesting that the Jewish state can be tricked into unilateral surrender.

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Are We Still Underestimating Santorum?

Prior to the 2012 campaign, as Rick Santorum prepared to run for president few pundits (including this one) took his bid seriously. Nor did most Republican operatives think the former Pennsylvania senator’s campaign had a ghost of a chance to even survive until the votes started being counted in Iowa. Yet Santorum persisted and wound up winning a dozen caucuses and primaries on the way to being the unofficial runner-up for the nomination to eventual winner Mitt Romney. Though there are no silver medals handed out for finishing second in politics, it was still an amazing achievement for someone who had been left for dead politically after losing his 2006 re-election race by a landslide.

Given that strong showing, you might think Santorum would be treated as a viable candidate for 2016. Indeed, given the Republicans’ unofficial tradition of nominating for president the candidate who failed after a strong run in the previous competitive race (a list that includes Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan), you might think Santorum would be considered a first-tier contender for 2016, if not a frontrunner. But that isn’t the case. The consensus appears to be that with a much stronger field of prospective candidates than the party had in 2012—a group that includes Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker—Santorum hasn’t much of a chance. But that might be a mistake. As pieces in the Daily Beast and Politico published today point out, Santorum is not only back on the hustings in Iowa (where he outworked the other candidates last year); he has a hold on the affections of a crucial portion of the GOP electorate that none of those big names can claim. So long as no other Republican can establish themselves as the favorite of social conservatives or as one who cares about the working class, Santorum will be a factor in the presidential race.

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Prior to the 2012 campaign, as Rick Santorum prepared to run for president few pundits (including this one) took his bid seriously. Nor did most Republican operatives think the former Pennsylvania senator’s campaign had a ghost of a chance to even survive until the votes started being counted in Iowa. Yet Santorum persisted and wound up winning a dozen caucuses and primaries on the way to being the unofficial runner-up for the nomination to eventual winner Mitt Romney. Though there are no silver medals handed out for finishing second in politics, it was still an amazing achievement for someone who had been left for dead politically after losing his 2006 re-election race by a landslide.

Given that strong showing, you might think Santorum would be treated as a viable candidate for 2016. Indeed, given the Republicans’ unofficial tradition of nominating for president the candidate who failed after a strong run in the previous competitive race (a list that includes Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan), you might think Santorum would be considered a first-tier contender for 2016, if not a frontrunner. But that isn’t the case. The consensus appears to be that with a much stronger field of prospective candidates than the party had in 2012—a group that includes Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker—Santorum hasn’t much of a chance. But that might be a mistake. As pieces in the Daily Beast and Politico published today point out, Santorum is not only back on the hustings in Iowa (where he outworked the other candidates last year); he has a hold on the affections of a crucial portion of the GOP electorate that none of those big names can claim. So long as no other Republican can establish themselves as the favorite of social conservatives or as one who cares about the working class, Santorum will be a factor in the presidential race.

Right now, political observers are focused—as we were before 2012—on the question of which Republican can best appeal to the Tea Party movement. That will be a major factor in the GOP race, but we forget that social conservatives remain a key Republican constituency. Though a single-minded focus on abortion or opposition to gay marriage would be a liability to the GOP in a general election, religious conservatives can’t be ignored in Republican primaries. Though all of the possible 2016 contenders are pro-life, none, save for Santorum, can be said to be particularly or exclusively devoted to their interests as he was, or as Mike Huckabee was in 2008. They were the factor that propelled Santorum to the first tier last year and could do the same for any of the contenders in the next contest.

Just as important is Santorum’s critique of the 2012 GOP campaign for ignoring the interests of working-class voters. Running an extremely wealthy candidate like Romney with no seeming connection to the concerns of ordinary middle-class voters was enough of a problem. But Santorum is on to something when he says that even the Republican National Convention’s attempt to exploit President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” gaffe was only directed toward business owners, not the people who labor in those businesses.

What Santorum is aiming at here is a GOP strategy that seeks to re-engage with what an earlier generation called “Reagan Democrats” or even the Ross Perot voters of the 1990s. They make up what Sean Trende identified in Real Clear Politics as the party’s “missing white voters” who could theoretically make up for their failure to connect with the growing Hispanic population.

None of this will necessarily make up for Santorum’s relative lack of star power compared with any in the upcoming class of GOP candidates. Christie’s ability to appeal to independents could make him a juggernaut, as could Paul’s growing libertarian faction. Moreover, it is entirely possible that a candidate like Ryan or Rubio could steal the Pennsylvanian’s thunder with religious voters and make him irrelevant in 2016. But anyone inclined to write off Santorum this far in advance is likely making a mistake.

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Venezuela’s Supreme Court Dismisses Electoral Fraud Charges

The war of nerves between Venezuela’s ruling chavistas and its battered adversaries intensified this week, following the decision of the country’s Supreme Court, the TSJ, to summarily dismiss opposition charges of electoral fraud during last April’s presidential election.

The charges, filed by Henrique Capriles, the leader of the opposition MUD coalition, were based on thousands of reports of electoral irregularities submitted by independent observers on election day. Capriles, who was defeated by Hugo Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, by a little over 200,000 votes, insists that he was the true victor. Maduro’s triumph, Capriles says, was handed to him by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, or CNE, a nominally autonomous body that has been fatally compromised by fourteen years of chavista rule.

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The war of nerves between Venezuela’s ruling chavistas and its battered adversaries intensified this week, following the decision of the country’s Supreme Court, the TSJ, to summarily dismiss opposition charges of electoral fraud during last April’s presidential election.

The charges, filed by Henrique Capriles, the leader of the opposition MUD coalition, were based on thousands of reports of electoral irregularities submitted by independent observers on election day. Capriles, who was defeated by Hugo Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, by a little over 200,000 votes, insists that he was the true victor. Maduro’s triumph, Capriles says, was handed to him by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, or CNE, a nominally autonomous body that has been fatally compromised by fourteen years of chavista rule.

Daniel Duquenal, a dissident blogger who monitors the macabre twists and turns of Venezuelan politics, believes that the TSJ decision is a stark sign of Maduro’s determination to dispense with the niceties of the electoral process. Notice has been served to the opposition, Duquenal wrote this week, that “the days of ‘dissent’ are over, and that we are moving toward a more classical form of dictatorship.”

In that light, one might ask why Capriles bothered to go to the TSJ in the first place. The court lost any semblance of independence as long ago as 2004, when Chavez packed the court with his supporters after pushing through a law expanding the number of justices from 20 to 32. The notion that the TSJ might rule against Maduro on something as critical as a presidential election is, quite frankly, beyond fanciful.

That, however, was precisely the point which Capriles wanted to make. None of the opposition’s allegations received a respectful hearing, even when the evidence of fraud–images of red-shirted chavistas shepherding voters into polling booths, records of votes cast by individuals long deceased, and so forth–was embarrassingly transparent. The fact that the court ended its deliberations by fining Capriles $1,500 for “offensive and disrespectful allegations” merely underlined the reality that the Venezuelan judiciary has been comprehensively conquered by the chavistas.

By exposing this institutionalized bias in all its glory, Capriles is betting that disillusioned Venezuelans will flock to the opposition’s ranks. Once critical mass is achieved, the theory goes, the chavistas will find it harder and harder to use the country’s judicial institutions as an instrument to defeat the opposition. Not everyone agrees, however: Diego Arria, a former diplomat and prominent opposition figure, is pressing Capriles to recognize that “the doors have been closed by our current institutional arrangements.” Rather than focusing on bodies like the TSJ, Arria argues, the opposition should instead direct its energies on holding a referendum that would allow the formation of a new, genuinely representative, constituent assembly.

There is also a larger problem. It isn’t clear whether the opposition can sustain its strategy of patiently exposing Maduro’s corruption, given the ruling Socialist Party’s dedication to shutting down any challenge to its authority as rapidly as possible. On the same day that the TSJ threw out the opposition’s electoral complaint, military intelligence officers descended on the home of Oscar Lopez, the chief of staff to Capriles in the state of Miranda, where the opposition leader serves as governor. According to Lopez’s lawyer, no reason was given for the raid, which resulted in the confiscation of computers, cell phones, and personal documents. MUD officials believe it was instigated by chavista members of parliament, who are hellbent on proving that the opposition coalition is illegally receiving funds from foreign sources.

This latest wave of repression extends to the media as well. Yesterday, Venezuela’s leading anti-chavista newspaper, El Nacional, was heavily fined for publishing a picture of unattended bodies piled up in a morgue, thereby demonstrating that Maduro has failed to tackle the violent criminality which has turned his country into the murder capital of the world.

The importance of such media outlets cannot be overstated. Without newspapers like El Nacional and El Universal, Venezuelans would have no record of the ruling regime’s daily failings, which this week include a hefty 30 percent decline in the National Bank’s reserves of foreign currency, along with a refusal to cut spending on low-impact, high-visibility social programs, despite soaring inflation. Meanwhile, Maduro can count on the vast state-owned media sector to do exactly as he asks; when the opposition rallied against government corruption last weekend, Maduro ensured that all television channels carried his speech accusing the MUD of being the real agents of corruption in Venezuela.

For some members of the ruling party, such measures aren’t enough. Nicmer Evans, an orthodox chavista university professor, recently criticized the government for encouraging a nostalgic longing for Hugo Chavez, at the expense of the “construction of Bolivarian and pro-Chavez socialism.” The events of this week provide generous insight into what this slogan means.

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Why Tone in American Politics Matters

Michael Medved is a very intelligent and sober conservative commentator, and earlier this week he published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that’s worth reading. 

He quotes Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who last month said this: “You know, if you look at the last 40 years, a consistent pattern emerges. Any time Republicans nominate a candidate for president who runs as a strong conservative, we win. And when we nominate a moderate who doesn’t run as a conservative, we lose.”

Medved shows why this claim is false, citing (among others) Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush (who faced more conservative challengers in the primary). He also points out that George W. Bush, while conservative by any reasonable definition, ran in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative,” winning an election in which the environment favored Democrats. Of course, Medved points out, moderate candidates aren’t automatic winners any more than are conservative candidates. “Americans vote for talented politicians with winning personalities, and they display no longstanding ideological voting pattern,” he writes. “They embrace charismatic candidates, whether conservative (Reagan), ‘compassionate conservative’ (Bush), moderate (Ike), neo-liberal (Clinton), or progressive (Obama).”

Mr. Medved is quite right. Americans aren’t a particularly ideological people. And candidate quality and likeability are huge factors in presidential elections. Arguably the candidate deemed by the public to be the most likeable has won in every election since 1972, with the exception of Richard Nixon. (Even Jimmy Carter was fairly likeable in 1976, when his pettiness and bitterness were not so apparent.)

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Michael Medved is a very intelligent and sober conservative commentator, and earlier this week he published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that’s worth reading. 

He quotes Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who last month said this: “You know, if you look at the last 40 years, a consistent pattern emerges. Any time Republicans nominate a candidate for president who runs as a strong conservative, we win. And when we nominate a moderate who doesn’t run as a conservative, we lose.”

Medved shows why this claim is false, citing (among others) Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush (who faced more conservative challengers in the primary). He also points out that George W. Bush, while conservative by any reasonable definition, ran in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative,” winning an election in which the environment favored Democrats. Of course, Medved points out, moderate candidates aren’t automatic winners any more than are conservative candidates. “Americans vote for talented politicians with winning personalities, and they display no longstanding ideological voting pattern,” he writes. “They embrace charismatic candidates, whether conservative (Reagan), ‘compassionate conservative’ (Bush), moderate (Ike), neo-liberal (Clinton), or progressive (Obama).”

Mr. Medved is quite right. Americans aren’t a particularly ideological people. And candidate quality and likeability are huge factors in presidential elections. Arguably the candidate deemed by the public to be the most likeable has won in every election since 1972, with the exception of Richard Nixon. (Even Jimmy Carter was fairly likeable in 1976, when his pettiness and bitterness were not so apparent.)

Some on the right seem to think that the key to victory is for the GOP candidate to be angrier, to sound tougher, to be more confrontational. As one GOP voter put it at a recent town hall meeting with his representative, Andy Harris, House Speaker John Boehner needs to start “defying” Obama and threatening him with impeachment if he doesn’t “start obeying the laws!” As this constituent put it, “Listen, we’re dying out here because you guys are being nice guys!” He added, “We’re losing the country! I want to see more defiance!” 

The willingness to fight for a cause is often an admirable thing, and many of us were drawn to politics in large part because of a desire to advance a set of convictions. That effort elicits opposition, which in turn leads to clashes. That is the nature of politics in a republic and something that can’t (and shouldn’t) be avoided. Politics ain’t beanbag.    

But in choosing to fight, one needs to pick the most favorable terrain possible–and even then (and whenever possible) to wage battles with affability, a touch of grace, and in a manner that projects steadiness and reasonableness. Winsomeness, equanimity, and a moderate temperament (which is different than moderate policies) are what most voters are looking for in candidates–especially from people who have strong philosophical convictions. It’s a mistake to assume that in order to be principled one has to be alienating and agitated.

In 1990 William Weld ran against John Silber for the governorship of Massachusetts. Silber was a brilliant man–an academic trained in philosophy who became president of Boston University. But he was also combative and angry. As the campaign drew to a close, Silber amped up his personal attacks on Weld, characterizing him as an ”orange-headed WASP” and a ”back-stabbing SOB.” To which Weld responded, ”The voters are considering whether they want to be yelled at for four years. I don’t think they do.”

Weld won.

We all know from our own experiences that in human interaction, tone and countenance matter, and not simply for stylistic or superficial reasons. They in fact manifest one’s attitude toward life and toward others. They reveal an orientation of the heart. And that can matter more than what you believe the top corporate tax rate ought to be.

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