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Posts For: October 2, 2013

Why Harry Reid Lost His Temper

“My staff has always said ‘don’t say this,’ but…” is a frightening disclaimer for the communications staffers of any member of Congress to hear. But it can be especially cringe inducing when the person reciting the line has a terrible habit of not only saying things over the warnings of his staff but also saying things he shouldn’t even have to be told not to say. Joe Biden falls into this category. And so does the author of the above line, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The full version of that quote, from 2008, is: “My staff has always said ‘don’t say this,’ but I’m going to say it again, because it’s so descriptive because it’s true. Leader Boehner mentioned the tourists lined up in summer, winter–long lines coming into the Capitol. In the summertime, because the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol. And that may be descriptive, but it’s true.”

Reid may have been channeling Biden with that “literally,” but it’s the sort of quote that Democrats like Reid and Biden give because they know they’ll get a pass from the media in the way a Republican never could and they seem to be engaged in a decades-long competition over who can be the first to make conservative bloggers’ heads literally explode. Today, Reid offered yet another example of this tendency. The Washington Free Beacon provides the transcript of an exchange Reid had today on the government shutdown with CNN’s Dana Bash:

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“My staff has always said ‘don’t say this,’ but…” is a frightening disclaimer for the communications staffers of any member of Congress to hear. But it can be especially cringe inducing when the person reciting the line has a terrible habit of not only saying things over the warnings of his staff but also saying things he shouldn’t even have to be told not to say. Joe Biden falls into this category. And so does the author of the above line, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The full version of that quote, from 2008, is: “My staff has always said ‘don’t say this,’ but I’m going to say it again, because it’s so descriptive because it’s true. Leader Boehner mentioned the tourists lined up in summer, winter–long lines coming into the Capitol. In the summertime, because the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol. And that may be descriptive, but it’s true.”

Reid may have been channeling Biden with that “literally,” but it’s the sort of quote that Democrats like Reid and Biden give because they know they’ll get a pass from the media in the way a Republican never could and they seem to be engaged in a decades-long competition over who can be the first to make conservative bloggers’ heads literally explode. Today, Reid offered yet another example of this tendency. The Washington Free Beacon provides the transcript of an exchange Reid had today on the government shutdown with CNN’s Dana Bash:

DANA BASH: You all talked about children with cancer unable to go to clinical trials. The House is presumably going to pass a bill that funds at least the NIH. Given what you’ve said, will you at least pass that? And if not, aren’t you playing the same political games that Republicans are?

HARRY REID: Listen, Sen. Durbin explained that very well, and he did it here, did it on the floor earlier, as did Sen. Schumer. What right did they have to pick and choose what part of government is going to be funded? It’s obvious what’s going on here. You talk about reckless and irresponsible. Wow. What this is all about is Obamacare. They are obsessed. I don’t know what other word I can use. They’re obsessed with this Obamacare. It’s working now and it will continue to work and people will love it more than they do now by far. So they have no right to pick and choose.

BASH: But if you can help one child who has cancer, why wouldn’t you do it?

REID: Why would we want to do that? I have 1,100 people at Nellis Air Force base that are sitting home. They have a few problems of their own. This is — to have someone of your intelligence to suggest such a thing maybe means you’re irresponsible and reckless.

One of Washington’s worst-kept secrets is that Reid’s attitude toward most people ranges from miserable on his best days to uncommonly vicious on his worst. When he describes members of the public as unwashed masses to their face, he isn’t being playful. He holds most people in utter contempt, and despite the best efforts of his staff, he usually tells them so. It’s refreshingly honest in its own way, but it does not exactly grease the wheels of compromise.

That was evident earlier this week, when Reid’s office threatened to release private emails from Republican House Speaker John Boehner that would portray Boehner as a squish and a hypocrite on the issue of congressional subsidies for insurance. Not only would it be a breach of trust–it’s one of the few unwritten rules Reid hasn’t yet broken–but it could also threaten to weaken Boehner’s ability to strike a deal to end the government shutdown. In other words, the move would accomplish nothing except potentially embarrass a politician Reid wanted to take a swing at.

And so, the next day, the emails leaked with, as the Atlantic noted, “Reid’s fingerprints all over it.” So Reid is upset. But the larger question is, what is upsetting Reid so much that he’s taking it out publicly on Boehner, reporters, and cancer patients? What has Reid so rattled?

The answer probably has something to do with what precipitated each outburst this week. Republicans have read the polls showing the public does not want the government shut down over ObamaCare, and they want to change the narrative. So every time the Democrats raise the cases of victims of the shutdown, Republicans respond by calling Democrats’ bluff and offering up funding bills that would solve the dilemma.

That raises a different question: if Republicans are willing to pass all these spending bills, why won’t they just remove the strings and fund the whole government? And the answer is because they are–intentionally or not–demonstrating just how much of the government is not essential. John Steele Gordon wrote yesterday that the shutdown exposes the waste in the federal government: if most employees are non-essential, what on earth are taxpayers paying all those salaries and benefits for?

Republicans are willing to take each issue, determine its importance, and lay out the requisite money to fund it. The danger of this approach for Democrats is that any rational cost-benefit analysis of the entire federal government exposes the bureaucratic money pit Washington has become. So when Reid asks why he should want to help a kid suffering from cancer it’s not because he is indifferent to human life, it’s because only an all-or-nothing approach to budgeting can hide the massive waste of taxpayer money that defines his vision of governance.

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Is Boehner’s Endgame a Debt Deal?

It’s day two of the government shutdown and, contrary to the expectations of optimists on both sides of the political divide, neither House Speaker John Boehner nor President Obama appears to be blinking. But no one should be under the impression that the two are fighting this battle on an equal footing.

The president has a united Democratic Party behind him with the overwhelming majority of the mainstream media cheering him on from the sidelines and portraying his foes as either clowns or terrorists holding the nation hostage. Boehner can’t even count on all of the Republicans in the House, let alone a Senate minority caucus, most of which never wanted any part of this circus. And with complaints about the hardships being caused by the shutdown—whether it is to cancer patients or national intelligence—rising Democrats see no reason why they should allow House Republicans to alleviate some suffering in the bills they are attempting to pass today. Despite the president’s invitation to congressional leaders to come the White House later today, we’ve been told he won’t negotiate.

Since the president is not only not negotiating but also acting as if nothing short of unconditional surrender by the GOP will satisfy him, it’s little wonder that a lot of the smart money has been on Boehner folding sometime in the next couple of days. That possibility can’t be discounted, but even with some of his caucus wavering, the desire of many Republicans to dig in their heels and wait for the debt-ceiling deadline to approach may enable Boehner to hold on for longer than many thought possible.

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It’s day two of the government shutdown and, contrary to the expectations of optimists on both sides of the political divide, neither House Speaker John Boehner nor President Obama appears to be blinking. But no one should be under the impression that the two are fighting this battle on an equal footing.

The president has a united Democratic Party behind him with the overwhelming majority of the mainstream media cheering him on from the sidelines and portraying his foes as either clowns or terrorists holding the nation hostage. Boehner can’t even count on all of the Republicans in the House, let alone a Senate minority caucus, most of which never wanted any part of this circus. And with complaints about the hardships being caused by the shutdown—whether it is to cancer patients or national intelligence—rising Democrats see no reason why they should allow House Republicans to alleviate some suffering in the bills they are attempting to pass today. Despite the president’s invitation to congressional leaders to come the White House later today, we’ve been told he won’t negotiate.

Since the president is not only not negotiating but also acting as if nothing short of unconditional surrender by the GOP will satisfy him, it’s little wonder that a lot of the smart money has been on Boehner folding sometime in the next couple of days. That possibility can’t be discounted, but even with some of his caucus wavering, the desire of many Republicans to dig in their heels and wait for the debt-ceiling deadline to approach may enable Boehner to hold on for longer than many thought possible.

Keeping this standoff going until Congress must raise the debt ceiling is potentially an even more dangerous strategy for Republicans than their original idea to tie continuation of government funding to a demand to ditch or delay ObamaCare. As the days go by, the government shutdown is—despite the histrionic attempts by the administration to hype the impact—appearing as more of an inconvenience than a catastrophe, let alone a tragedy. But going to the brink on paying the national debt is the sort of thing that can create genuine economic problems that can’t be paid for by stunts like the Republican National Committee’s attempt to pay for keeping the World War II Memorial open. Should Republicans wind up getting the blame for a default as well as a shutdown, the blowback will be considerable and perhaps even felt by red-state stalwarts who theoretically have nothing to fear from the electorate.

It’s worth restating that the strategy of trying to stop ObamaCare by refusing to fund the government was a colossal error by the Republicans. Speaker Boehner and many GOP members of the House and the Senate didn’t want to do it but were dragged into it by a faction of their caucus determined to plunge the party off the cliff on the issue. The shutdown has transformed the president from the weakling who got pushed around by Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin into the tough guy that won’t back down from the GOP. But it’s possible that Boehner has gotten in so deep he can’t find a rationale that will enable him to escape this dilemma. Having arrived at this point, a precipitate retreat now might hurt his ability to hang on as speaker as much as ignoring the Tea Party prior to this week might have done.

So while it’s difficult to imagine what Boehner’s endgame can possibly be, the approach of a new, far more urgent deadline might give him a glimmer of hope. It is possible that even though Obama’s position has never been stronger or the president more confident of victory, Boehner may think he can trade the end of the shutdown for a debt deal that he can sell to his party as at least a partial victory. If so, even though the GOP position seems hopeless and about to get even worse, holding out for another few days or even a couple of weeks might cause the president to start sweating. And once that happens, a deal over some elements of the budget or some of the secondary issues with ObamaCare, such as elimination of the congressional exemptions or the medical device tax or something that won’t look like Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, is theoretically possible.

If that doesn’t sound to you like a coherent plan or viable political strategy, you’re right, it isn’t. But it’s all John Boehner has right now, and barring a massive defection of GOP members in the next 24 hours, it may be what Republicans are waiting for.

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It’s Time to Support Honduras

My American Enterprise Institute colleague Roger Noriega and José Javier Lanza, a researcher at Vision Americas, have an important new essay out looking at the decision points which now loom for U.S. policy on Honduras. Honduras provided one of the first “3 a.m. phone calls” that President Obama had to take when, in 2009, the Honduran military overthrew President Manuel Zelaya’s government. While Obama almost immediately pronounced the episode a coup, it was actually less of a coup than what occurred this past July in Egypt. While Honduras held new elections and renewed its democracy, a perfect storm of regional events put Honduras’s progress in jeopardy. They begin:

As stepped-up counternarcotics policies in Colombia and Mexico have increased pressure on regional drug trafficking networks, organized crime syndicates have relocated operations to Central America, where law enforcement agencies and institutions are ill-equipped to withstand the onslaught. These multibillion-dollar gangs are making common cause with some local politicians who are following a playbook honed by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The result in Venezuela was the birth of a narcostate, and similar dramas are playing out in Central America. Like Chávez, caudillos are using the democratic process to seek power, weaken institutions, and undermine the rule of law—generating turmoil that accommodates narcotrafficking. Making matters worse for Honduras is that left-wing activists abroad, in support of ousted president and Chávez acolyte Manuel Zelaya, are waging a very public campaign of outlandish claims seeking to block any US assistance to help the Honduran government resist the drug cartels. It is imperative that US policymakers vigorously support democracy, the rule of law, and antidrug programs in Honduras.

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My American Enterprise Institute colleague Roger Noriega and José Javier Lanza, a researcher at Vision Americas, have an important new essay out looking at the decision points which now loom for U.S. policy on Honduras. Honduras provided one of the first “3 a.m. phone calls” that President Obama had to take when, in 2009, the Honduran military overthrew President Manuel Zelaya’s government. While Obama almost immediately pronounced the episode a coup, it was actually less of a coup than what occurred this past July in Egypt. While Honduras held new elections and renewed its democracy, a perfect storm of regional events put Honduras’s progress in jeopardy. They begin:

As stepped-up counternarcotics policies in Colombia and Mexico have increased pressure on regional drug trafficking networks, organized crime syndicates have relocated operations to Central America, where law enforcement agencies and institutions are ill-equipped to withstand the onslaught. These multibillion-dollar gangs are making common cause with some local politicians who are following a playbook honed by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The result in Venezuela was the birth of a narcostate, and similar dramas are playing out in Central America. Like Chávez, caudillos are using the democratic process to seek power, weaken institutions, and undermine the rule of law—generating turmoil that accommodates narcotrafficking. Making matters worse for Honduras is that left-wing activists abroad, in support of ousted president and Chávez acolyte Manuel Zelaya, are waging a very public campaign of outlandish claims seeking to block any US assistance to help the Honduran government resist the drug cartels. It is imperative that US policymakers vigorously support democracy, the rule of law, and antidrug programs in Honduras.

The whole essay is worth reading. The Honduran military ousted Zelaya because he refused to adhere to the rulings of the constitutional court. Obama was wrong to support him, or lend him any legitimacy. Democracy does not end at the ballot box, and no leader should remain above the law. With a “Pivot to Asia” and multiple crises in the Middle East, Obama may have forgotten Latin America, but how Honduras goes will have disproportionate impact on U.S. national security. Let us hope that the State Department and White House won’t blindly accept Zelaya’s propaganda, nor will Congress make any move to block assistance to the Honduran government which will enable its government to resist a growing but slow-motion assault by drug cartels and the regional governments which support them.

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How to Cheat Americans in Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan has often been upheld as a model of stability in Iraq. Last month, it held largely free, even if limited elections. (Masud Barzani, facing a two-term limit, in tin-pot dictator fashion, simply decided to extend his second term so as to remain regional dictator). And while there’s much to that assessment—last week’s quintuple car bombings notwithstanding—Kurdistan has also become perhaps the most corrupt region within Iraq, which already is a pretty corrupt place.

Seldom, however, are the mechanisms of corruption exposed in great detail in the West. That has changed in an ongoing court case involving Bafil Talabani, the eldest son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Basically, a U.S.-based company won a contract to supply power plant equipment to the Kurdistan Regional Government for $187 million. The U.S. firm had an agreement with an offshore company to act as their agent for a commission of around $60 million, but Talabani and other Kurdish officials maneuvered to cheat the Americans out of their money. The court records allege in great detail how this occurred.

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Iraqi Kurdistan has often been upheld as a model of stability in Iraq. Last month, it held largely free, even if limited elections. (Masud Barzani, facing a two-term limit, in tin-pot dictator fashion, simply decided to extend his second term so as to remain regional dictator). And while there’s much to that assessment—last week’s quintuple car bombings notwithstanding—Kurdistan has also become perhaps the most corrupt region within Iraq, which already is a pretty corrupt place.

Seldom, however, are the mechanisms of corruption exposed in great detail in the West. That has changed in an ongoing court case involving Bafil Talabani, the eldest son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Basically, a U.S.-based company won a contract to supply power plant equipment to the Kurdistan Regional Government for $187 million. The U.S. firm had an agreement with an offshore company to act as their agent for a commission of around $60 million, but Talabani and other Kurdish officials maneuvered to cheat the Americans out of their money. The court records allege in great detail how this occurred.

Corruption remains a huge problem across the region, perhaps greater than terrorism even, and it remains a huge impediment in Kurdistan both for its own democratic development and for the bilateral relationship between Erbil and Washington. How sad it is, in effect, that so many family members of senior Kurdish politicians would mortgage the future of their region (and, perhaps one day, country) for the sake of a quick buck. Or a couple million of them.

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Turkey Undercuts Anti-Terror Fight

Against the backdrop of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, a meeting from which the Obama administration still excludes Israel at Turkey’s insistence, the United States and Turkey have agreed to create a $200 million fund to counter extremism. What a waste of money. The problem is not that countering extremism is bad—it’s not, although so many of the counter-extremism programs out there are unproven or ineffective. Rather, it’s that the program is poisoned from the start with the inclusion of Turkey.

In the wake of last week’s terrorist attack at a Nairobi mall and a Pakistani church, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told a Turkish audience, according to some Turkish interlocutors, “No one can make me say that there are Muslim terrorists.” This builds on previous statements denying that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had any responsibility for the massacres in Darfur and his refusal to acknowledge that the Nusra Front, which Turkey supports and which the United States government considers an al-Qaeda affiliate, is a terrorist group. Erdoğan has even gone so far as to endorse an al-Qaeda financier.

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Against the backdrop of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, a meeting from which the Obama administration still excludes Israel at Turkey’s insistence, the United States and Turkey have agreed to create a $200 million fund to counter extremism. What a waste of money. The problem is not that countering extremism is bad—it’s not, although so many of the counter-extremism programs out there are unproven or ineffective. Rather, it’s that the program is poisoned from the start with the inclusion of Turkey.

In the wake of last week’s terrorist attack at a Nairobi mall and a Pakistani church, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told a Turkish audience, according to some Turkish interlocutors, “No one can make me say that there are Muslim terrorists.” This builds on previous statements denying that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had any responsibility for the massacres in Darfur and his refusal to acknowledge that the Nusra Front, which Turkey supports and which the United States government considers an al-Qaeda affiliate, is a terrorist group. Erdoğan has even gone so far as to endorse an al-Qaeda financier.

Nor is it just Islamist terrorism on which the United States and Turkey diverge: While the United States still considers the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a terrorist group at Turkey’s insistence, Erdoğan has launched talks with the group and acceded to a truce. This creates an irony in which Turkey supports an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria to fight a secular group which controls key territory but which the United States isolates because it is an offshoot of the PKK.

While Erdoğan excuses and actually encourages terrorism, he is acerbic toward free speech. He has identified “Western Islamophobia”—in which he includes criticism not only of Islam but also its more extremist manifestations—as a greater threat than terrorism. And, as he has moved to Islamize the classroom, we find items like this in Turkey’s 2nd grade classrooms: “Look at your jihadist brothers fighting in distant lands, see what you can do to help them.”

How sad it is that Obama isolates states that suffer terrorism, but unites with leaders who promote it. And, of course, what a dereliction of duty it is that so many U.S. congressmen still lend their names to a blanket endorsement of Turkey and Erdoğan’s desire to exclude Israel and excuse terror.

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U.S. Romance with Iran Terrifies Arab Allies

Israel is being widely portrayed as the lone holdout against the global love affair with Iran’s new president. Certainly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the most outspoken critic. But several other countries are arguably even more worried by the American-Iranian rapprochement than Israel is–namely, America’s Arab allies.

Last month, a senior United Arab Emirates official said in a media interview that “If Israel were to strike Iran to stop it from getting a nuclear bomb, we wouldn’t object at all.” For a senior Arab official to publicly invite the hated Zionist enemy to launch a military strike on fellow Muslims is unprecedented. While Arab states have been urging America to attack Iran for years, they have hitherto opposed an Israeli strike. Moreover, even their pleas to America were strictly behind the scenes; they became public knowledge only due to WikiLeaks. Thus for Arab officials to be willing to publicly support an Israeli strike attests to a desperate fear that the American defense umbrella they have relied on for decades may no longer exist.

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Israel is being widely portrayed as the lone holdout against the global love affair with Iran’s new president. Certainly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the most outspoken critic. But several other countries are arguably even more worried by the American-Iranian rapprochement than Israel is–namely, America’s Arab allies.

Last month, a senior United Arab Emirates official said in a media interview that “If Israel were to strike Iran to stop it from getting a nuclear bomb, we wouldn’t object at all.” For a senior Arab official to publicly invite the hated Zionist enemy to launch a military strike on fellow Muslims is unprecedented. While Arab states have been urging America to attack Iran for years, they have hitherto opposed an Israeli strike. Moreover, even their pleas to America were strictly behind the scenes; they became public knowledge only due to WikiLeaks. Thus for Arab officials to be willing to publicly support an Israeli strike attests to a desperate fear that the American defense umbrella they have relied on for decades may no longer exist.

Nor is this the only indication. At the UN General Assembly last week, a Saudi diplomat consulted with his counterpart from Israel–a country Riyadh doesn’t officially recognize–over the Iranian charm offensive. A few days earlier, at an International Peace Institute dinner whose guests included officials from both Israel and several Arab states that don’t recognize its existence, “No Arab minister attacked Israel, and not one stood up and left the room when he found out that a high-ranking representative of the Israeli government was sitting beside him,” Haaretz reported: They were too busy discussing their main mutual concern, Iran.

This isn’t the start of an Arab-Israeli romance; most of these countries still hate Israel, and many are deeply anti-Semitic. Rather, it reflects the fear engendered by America’s gradual withdrawal from the Middle East. Despite years of purchasing top-quality American arms, many Arab states have no real military capabilities, especially against a much larger, more technologically sophisticated country that happens to be located right next door, in easy invasion distance (in contrast, several Arab countries lie between Iran and Israel). Thus they have always counted on America being there to defend them–and now, suddenly, they’re no longer sure they can. In that situation, even Israel is better than nobody.

The problem, of course, is that Israel can’t and won’t supply the same defense umbrella America has. Arabs states can plausibly hope Israel will deal with Iran’s nuclear program, because it views Iranian nukes as a direct threat to itself. But Israel would never intervene to, for instance, rescue Kuwait from Iraqi invasion, as America did in 1991. Hence America is currently indispensable. As one UAE academic put it, “We don’t have any other insurance company, and we live in a dangerous area.”

But if America decides to close up shop, the Arabs will perforce find another insurance company, just like anyone else whose insurer goes out of business. Who it will be remains to be seen: Russia is one obvious possibility; they could even decide they have no choice but to join Iran’s orbit. But either way, the result be the same: For the first time in decades, America will be left with no allies whatsoever in a region that remains crucial to the global oil supply, and hence to America’s own economic well-being.

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