Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 8, 2013

Iran’s False Charm Already Paying Off

Iran’s charm offensive is already paying diplomatic dividends, but its supreme leader is signaling that he is already starting to pull the plug on the supposed opening for nuclear diplomacy. Iran’s foreign minister told a pro-regime newspaper today that Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was none too pleased with Western favorite Hassan Rouhani for the new president’s phone call with President Obama as well as his meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry last month in New York. Khamenei, who is the real ruler of Iran, apparently thinks Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Rouhani exceeded their authority in the chats even though neither conceded much to American leaders who appeared desperate to seize the chance to reopen talks with the Islamist regime.

The exact meaning of Khamenei’s signal to the so-called moderates may be debated. But it repeats a familiar pattern in which Iran tricks the West into wasting time on diplomacy only to make it clear later that no deal is in the offing. Yet despite this, Western nations still appear to be doubling down on their willingness to believe in Rouhani’s supposed promise of moderation. Britain appears to be renewing diplomatic ties with Iran two years after severing relations in the wake of an attack on their Tehran embassy. And the United Nations has astonishingly named the nuclear scofflaw as special rapporteur of the United Nations General Assembly’s Committee on Disarmament and International Security.

Added to the prospect of the Obama administration’s eager desire to give engagement with Iran another try leading to more months of negotiations, these developments show just how much Rouhani has already achieved with a charm offensive that Khamenei is unlikely to bear fruit with actual progress on the nuclear issue.

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Iran’s charm offensive is already paying diplomatic dividends, but its supreme leader is signaling that he is already starting to pull the plug on the supposed opening for nuclear diplomacy. Iran’s foreign minister told a pro-regime newspaper today that Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was none too pleased with Western favorite Hassan Rouhani for the new president’s phone call with President Obama as well as his meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry last month in New York. Khamenei, who is the real ruler of Iran, apparently thinks Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Rouhani exceeded their authority in the chats even though neither conceded much to American leaders who appeared desperate to seize the chance to reopen talks with the Islamist regime.

The exact meaning of Khamenei’s signal to the so-called moderates may be debated. But it repeats a familiar pattern in which Iran tricks the West into wasting time on diplomacy only to make it clear later that no deal is in the offing. Yet despite this, Western nations still appear to be doubling down on their willingness to believe in Rouhani’s supposed promise of moderation. Britain appears to be renewing diplomatic ties with Iran two years after severing relations in the wake of an attack on their Tehran embassy. And the United Nations has astonishingly named the nuclear scofflaw as special rapporteur of the United Nations General Assembly’s Committee on Disarmament and International Security.

Added to the prospect of the Obama administration’s eager desire to give engagement with Iran another try leading to more months of negotiations, these developments show just how much Rouhani has already achieved with a charm offensive that Khamenei is unlikely to bear fruit with actual progress on the nuclear issue.

Khamenei’s signal that he isn’t going to let Rouhani go too far may seem to be counter-intuitive given all the talk of a new spirit in Iran has already accomplished. But it makes sense when you consider that Rouhani’s own positions on the key nuclear issue are little different from those of Khamenei despite the attempts of Westerners to convince themselves otherwise. As Jeffrey Goldberg wrote yesterday in Bloomberg, Rouhani “is proud of the work he did to advance his country’s nuclear program — and also of his efforts to stymie Western attempts to stop that work.”

Goldberg noted Rouhani’s past role in tricking the West on nuclear negotiations that he bragged about earlier this year. But the deceptive nature of Rouhani’s moderation that was on display at the U.N. still has not penetrated the consciousness of the Obama administration or its Western allies even though these facts are not exactly a secret. Yet few appear to be listening to such warnings or those of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who again said today that any deal with Iran must ensure the end of Iran’s uranium enrichment as well its plutonium program.

Western negotiators have been offering Iran deals which will enable them to keep their nuclear program for years, but Tehran has always preferred to preserve its ability to build a weapon rather than to accept and thus end economic sanctions. The Rouhani charm offensive sets up the West for a repeat of this farce even as Khamenei is making it clear that he will never give up the regime’s nuclear ambitions.

The bottom line is that while the West negotiates with itself in order to strengthen Iranian “moderates” against the supposed “hardliners,” the regime buys itself more time to get closer to its nuclear goal. Though Khamenei and Rouhani may appear to be at cross-purposes, they are working together to advance their common nuclear agenda. The only question is how long it will take President Obama to catch on.

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Obama Stumbles Despite Friendly Press

This afternoon President Obama gave a brief statement on the government shutdown, said nothing new, and received a warm collective embrace from the press, who made sure not to ask him about the disastrous ObamaCare rollout. And yet, perhaps out of exhaustion or a case of the second-term blues, Obama managed to accidentally say something worth quoting at the tail end of the Q and A.

The president was asked if he had any regrets about his 2011 budget deal with House Speaker John Boehner, and how the present political dynamics would have to change going forward. In his response, Obama actually touched on a popular critique Republicans have deployed recently, which is Obama’s hypocrisy for his past opposition to raising the debt ceiling, a tactic he and his allies now consider arson and hostage-taking when used by Republicans.

After first saying that he learned from the 2011 standoff that the country cannot come that close to “default” again, the president said this:

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This afternoon President Obama gave a brief statement on the government shutdown, said nothing new, and received a warm collective embrace from the press, who made sure not to ask him about the disastrous ObamaCare rollout. And yet, perhaps out of exhaustion or a case of the second-term blues, Obama managed to accidentally say something worth quoting at the tail end of the Q and A.

The president was asked if he had any regrets about his 2011 budget deal with House Speaker John Boehner, and how the present political dynamics would have to change going forward. In his response, Obama actually touched on a popular critique Republicans have deployed recently, which is Obama’s hypocrisy for his past opposition to raising the debt ceiling, a tactic he and his allies now consider arson and hostage-taking when used by Republicans.

After first saying that he learned from the 2011 standoff that the country cannot come that close to “default” again, the president said this:

And by the way, you know, I often hear people say, well, in the past it’s been dealt with all the time. The truth of the matter is, if you look at the history, people posture about the debt ceiling frequently, but the way the debt ceiling often got passed was, you’d stick the debt ceiling onto a budget negotiation once it was completed because people figured, well, I don’t want to take a bunch of tough votes to cut programs or raise taxes and then also have to take a debt ceiling vote; let me do it all at once.

But it wasn’t a situation in which, you know what, if I don’t get what I want, then I’m going to let us default. That’s what’s changed. And that’s what we learned in 2011.

When Obama opposed raising the debt ceiling, he was just posturing the way people do “frequently.” In other words, when Obama makes a speech on policy he doesn’t actually believe what he’s saying; he just thinks enough of the voters will like his message. Obama is not, Obama says, to be taken literally. They are just words.

The other interesting nugget in that paragraph was the part where Obama said that in the past the debt ceiling was easier to sneak through without the public noticing until it was decoupled from omnibus spending bills. The thought process of America’s elected politicians, Obama explained approvingly, was: “I don’t want to take a bunch of tough votes to cut programs or raise taxes and then also have to take a debt ceiling vote.”

The Obama campaign seems to have calculated correctly that “Obama: Change we can believe in” would make a snappier bumper sticker slogan than “Obama: I don’t want to take a bunch of tough votes.” (The latter would also draw attention to his predilection as senator to vote “present.”)

This exchange took place after CBS’s Mark Knoller asked the president why he doesn’t support passing bills to fund important priorities while these non-negotiations drag on. Aren’t you tempted, Knoller asked Obama, to sign bipartisan bills that fund programs you support? “Of course I’m tempted,” Obama responded, “because you’d like to think that you could solve at least some of the problem if you couldn’t solve all of it.” Well yes, that does seem to be the point. This may seem reasonable, Obama said, but don’t be fooled. It’s a trap:

But here’s the problem. What you’ve seen are bills that come up where wherever Republicans are feeling political pressure, they put a bill forward. And if there’s no political heat, if there’s no television story on it, then nothing happens. And if we do some sort of shotgun approach like that, then you’ll have some programs that are highly visible get funded and reopened, like national monuments, but things that don’t get a lot of attention, like those SBA loans, not being funded.

You see, by funding uncontroversial and broadly popular programs while not automatically funding everything else, the Republicans are trying to trick the government into setting priorities, building bipartisan coalitions, and engaging the public in how to spend their tax money. Obama seemed to think this was self-evidently foolish, which tells you much about what the president thinks of the taxpayers.

Then the president added, almost as an afterthought: “And you know, we don’t get to select which programs we implement or not.” Since Obama chooses which parts of which laws he wants to implement and enforce at will, as if Congress were a supercommittee brainstorming ideas rather than a coequal branch passing laws, I’m guessing he would explain that he is again being take too literally when he’s obviously just posturing. Now he tells us.

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Peace Is Still Up to the Palestinians

It’s difficult to gauge just how stalled the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, going on behind close doors right now, are. The relative paucity of leaks testifies to both sides not wishing to be blamed for what just about everybody other than Secretary of State John Kerry—the man who orchestrated the new round of negotiations—believes will be their certain failure. But that has not stopped both Israeli and Palestinian leaders from a degree of posturing about the talks that shows there is little reason for optimism even as Palestinian violence against Israelis seems to be ramping up in recent days. On the one hand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being accused of inflaming the situation by referencing the support of Palestinian leaders for the Nazis in a speech given yesterday at Bar-Ilan University, the same venue where he formally embraced the two-state solution in 2009. On the other, leftist Israeli parliamentarians are praising Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas for what they see as conciliatory statements delivered in a meeting he held with them in Ramallah.

But the supposed contrast between the two in which Netanyahu is depicted as harming peace while Abbas is promoting it is deceiving. Far from undermining peace, Netanyahu’s challenge to the Palestinians to overcome their history by finally recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state is exactly what is needed if Kerry’s initiative is to be more than a fool’s errand. As for Abbas, by praising him for leaving out of his speech any deliberate provocations, the peace camp is setting a low bar for their so-called peace partner. Even worse, by ignoring what the Palestinian Authority is saying and doing when the spotlight is not on them as well as by choosing to ignore competing statements by PA officials at the same meeting shows just how little the Palestinians are interested in genuine peace and how the peace camp is repeating the same mistakes they made during the heyday of the failed Oslo process.

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It’s difficult to gauge just how stalled the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, going on behind close doors right now, are. The relative paucity of leaks testifies to both sides not wishing to be blamed for what just about everybody other than Secretary of State John Kerry—the man who orchestrated the new round of negotiations—believes will be their certain failure. But that has not stopped both Israeli and Palestinian leaders from a degree of posturing about the talks that shows there is little reason for optimism even as Palestinian violence against Israelis seems to be ramping up in recent days. On the one hand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being accused of inflaming the situation by referencing the support of Palestinian leaders for the Nazis in a speech given yesterday at Bar-Ilan University, the same venue where he formally embraced the two-state solution in 2009. On the other, leftist Israeli parliamentarians are praising Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas for what they see as conciliatory statements delivered in a meeting he held with them in Ramallah.

But the supposed contrast between the two in which Netanyahu is depicted as harming peace while Abbas is promoting it is deceiving. Far from undermining peace, Netanyahu’s challenge to the Palestinians to overcome their history by finally recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state is exactly what is needed if Kerry’s initiative is to be more than a fool’s errand. As for Abbas, by praising him for leaving out of his speech any deliberate provocations, the peace camp is setting a low bar for their so-called peace partner. Even worse, by ignoring what the Palestinian Authority is saying and doing when the spotlight is not on them as well as by choosing to ignore competing statements by PA officials at the same meeting shows just how little the Palestinians are interested in genuine peace and how the peace camp is repeating the same mistakes they made during the heyday of the failed Oslo process.

Netanyahu’s speech was far from the denunciation of the peace process that some of his detractors are depicting. In fact, what he did was merely to articulate the simple formula for how the two-state solution could be achieved: Palestinians must recognize that the Jews have a right to their own state. Remembering the past was not merely rehearsing old grudges but a reminder that the notion that Jewish settlements are the real obstacle to peace is absurd. After all, Palestinians have been attacking the Jewish right to live anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean for a century. As Netanyahu pointed out, it wasn’t a territorial conflict in the 1920s when anti-Jewish pogroms were initiated or the 1940s when Palestinian leaders embraced Hitler because the Jews didn’t have territory. But all the Palestinians need to get a state alongside Israel is to say they endorse the right to a Jewish state and to renounce the so-called “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Since that is still apparently too much to ask of the PA, what possible hope can there be for the peace talks?

Israeli left-wingers say they were impressed by Abbas’s discretion with them during their meeting:

“The things that he didn’t say I think were most important,” said Merav Michaeli, a member of Israel’s Labor Party. “He made sure that he doesn’t say anything that makes us uncomfortable.”

But if you think that sounds suspiciously like the shell game the Palestinians played with supporters of the peace process back in the 1990s, it should. Abbas played nice with Israeli critics of the Netanyahu government during his meeting and even belatedly condemned the shooting of a 9-year-old Israeli girl in a West Bank settlement during what appears to have been a terrorist incursion this past weekend. But the “upbeat tone” of his address included nothing about recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state or the right of return, the real obstacles to peace.

Tellingly, once Abbas had left and the cameras were off, one of the PA leader’s senior aides and negotiators set the record straight about what the Palestinians are willing to do. Yasser Abed Rabbo not only dropped the happy talk and called Netanyahu an “extremist,” he bluntly said the Palestinians would never recognize “historic Palestine” as the “homeland of the Jewish people.”

Rabbo sat next to Abbas during the love fest with leftist Israelis while the latter refused to say what he felt about the “Jewish state” issue, something that Netanyahu’s critics thought was a good sign. But Rabbo took that attempt at ambiguity and tossed it into the trash. That point was also made apparent in a pamphlet handed out by the PA that depicted it as a made-up issue despite the fact that the original United Nations partition resolution of 1947 specifically referred to the creation of a Jewish state alongside an Arab one.

The point here is not so much that Netanyahu’s stance—which is not unreasonably being seen as an attempt to answer his right-wing critics who fear he is about to cave in to pressure from Kerry and President Obama—is reasonable and that of Abbas and Rabbo is not. Rather, it is that once again the Palestinians are trying to have it both ways, talking peace at one moment and making it clear their goal is continued conflict at another.

The Oslo Accords failed in large measure because the United States and Israel never took Arafat’s doubletalk seriously and chose to ignore Palestinian incitement and provocation. Those Americans and Israelis who fall for the same trick again are merely setting up the region for the same result that followed the collapse of Oslo. That is a price that would be paid in the blood of Israelis and Palestinians. Secretary Kerry and President Obama would do well to heed Netanyahu’s warnings and avoid falling into the same trap.

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Absent in Two Places at Once

While President Obama was forced to remain in Washington so he could make periodic announcements that, like General Franco, he is still not negotiating, the meeting of the heads of state of the Trans-Pacific Partnership proceeded in Bali, Indonesia without him. Today a “senior administration official” on the trip held a special background briefing, telling reporters about the “very productive” TPP meeting. The SAO reported that:

“You had virtually all the leaders there. President Humala had to leave early and the Sultan of Brunei had to leave early. But otherwise you had all the leaders there. Secretary Kerry served as the head of – took the President’s place and played a very important role in the meeting both in terms of presenting the U.S. perspective but also in helping to lead the discussion with Prime Minister Key of New Zealand. … [W]e’ve been making a lot of progress … we’ve really been moving the ball forward …”

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While President Obama was forced to remain in Washington so he could make periodic announcements that, like General Franco, he is still not negotiating, the meeting of the heads of state of the Trans-Pacific Partnership proceeded in Bali, Indonesia without him. Today a “senior administration official” on the trip held a special background briefing, telling reporters about the “very productive” TPP meeting. The SAO reported that:

“You had virtually all the leaders there. President Humala had to leave early and the Sultan of Brunei had to leave early. But otherwise you had all the leaders there. Secretary Kerry served as the head of – took the President’s place and played a very important role in the meeting both in terms of presenting the U.S. perspective but also in helping to lead the discussion with Prime Minister Key of New Zealand. … [W]e’ve been making a lot of progress … we’ve really been moving the ball forward …”

That produced this colloquy, regarding the impact of the absence of the U.S. president:

QUESTION: How much of the meeting today – I mean, do you think anything was lacking because the President wasn’t there? … [W]ould you have made more progress on something if the President had been there?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Certainly it was regrettable that he wasn’t able to be there, and – but we were very fortunate to have Secretary Kerry serving in his place. And I think we were able to maintain the momentum of this last week’s set of meetings, together with the other leaders who are similarly focused on doing so, as we are.

In other words, no.

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2016 and the Shutdown: Joe Biden Edition

Yesterday I wrote about Harry Reid’s attempt to bench President Obama in the ongoing shutdown showdown. Reid’s justification for this power trip was, according to Democrats, that Reid’s party is concerned Obama might negotiate in good faith and end the shutdown. That put them in direct competition: the president’s responsibility is to govern, and Reid sees his current role as protecting Democrats from having to vote on anything remotely controversial and marginalizing the Republican minority. His aims are incompatible with the president’s.

But removing Obama from the equation seems misdirected. After all, Obama has terrible relationships with the Hill and has made a career out of torpedoing major bipartisan deals rather than implementing them. When the administration needed to make a deal with Republicans in Obama’s first term, the president had to be sidelined so a deal could be struck. It was Vice President Joe Biden who stepped in to negotiate. Wouldn’t Reid, then, have more to gain by keeping Biden away from this showdown? As Politico notes today, he’s done that too:

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Yesterday I wrote about Harry Reid’s attempt to bench President Obama in the ongoing shutdown showdown. Reid’s justification for this power trip was, according to Democrats, that Reid’s party is concerned Obama might negotiate in good faith and end the shutdown. That put them in direct competition: the president’s responsibility is to govern, and Reid sees his current role as protecting Democrats from having to vote on anything remotely controversial and marginalizing the Republican minority. His aims are incompatible with the president’s.

But removing Obama from the equation seems misdirected. After all, Obama has terrible relationships with the Hill and has made a career out of torpedoing major bipartisan deals rather than implementing them. When the administration needed to make a deal with Republicans in Obama’s first term, the president had to be sidelined so a deal could be struck. It was Vice President Joe Biden who stepped in to negotiate. Wouldn’t Reid, then, have more to gain by keeping Biden away from this showdown? As Politico notes today, he’s done that too:

When President Barack Obama laid out his strategy for the current debt-limit fight in a private meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this past summer, Reid stipulated one condition: No Joe Biden.

And while Biden attended the White House dog-and-pony show meeting last week with congressional leaders, Reid has effectively barred him from the backrooms, according to sources familiar with the situation.

The vice president’s disappearance has grown ever more noticeable as the government shutdown enters its eighth day with no resolution in sight and a debt limit crisis looms. Biden was once Democrats’ deal-maker-in-chief, designing budget pacts with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the summer of 2011 and New Year’s Eve 2013.

Coverage of the shutdown showdown has framed it as a battle of wits between President Obama and congressional Republicans (especially those in the House). The shutdown is centered on the GOP’s efforts to defund ObamaCare and undo what the president considers his signature legacy. In that respect, this is absolutely a contest between the House GOP and Obama personally.

But it doesn’t explain all the factors involved. Reid’s behavior fills in the blanks. Today’s Politico story claims Democrats think the White House–represented by Biden–gave away too much in previous deals. The first question to ask in response to this is: So what? Is the president not the leader of his party? Is it not his name on the policy that’s causing all this friction? And since when does Barack Obama (and by extension, Joe Biden) take orders from Harry Reid?

The answer has a lot to do with the timeline. The 2011 deal that Biden helped strike was before the president’s reelection. The New Year’s deal was right after Obama and Biden won the election and the political capital that comes with it. But Obama isn’t running again. It may seem strange, but Obama’s own party is treating the president as a lame duck far more than Republicans are. The sixth-year midterms traditionally can be uphill elections for the party that holds the White House. And this time it’s Reid’s legacy (somewhat) on the line.

Reid may be an unappealing spokesman for his cause, but his political instincts are still sharp. He’s right that the 2014 congressional elections have supplanted the 2016 presidential primaries as the reference point for trying to gauge the motivations of Republicans. Reid preferred not to vote on separate, piecemeal legislation to fund certain parts of the government during the shutdown, fearing it would cascade into a line-item frenzy that favored the GOP. But when Republicans in the House passed a bill to fund active-service military personnel, Reid allowed the bill to move forward in the Senate. As Byron York writes at the Washington Examiner, Republicans plan to do exactly what Reid hoped to prevent:

GOP rebels want to focus on red-state Democrats, particularly those up for re-election in 2014, and make the shutdown a question of support for veterans. (It’s a tactic that certainly wasn’t hurt by the Park Service’s ham-handed attempts to close down the World War II and Vietnam War memorials on the National Mall.) Cruz’s Growth and Freedom Fund PAC has created a new website, Fundourvets.com, that urges people to tell Senate Democrats that “legislation to fully fund the Department of Veterans Affairs…needs their support.”

The GOP rebels believe those vulnerable Democrats will eventually cave on veterans’ funding. And if they do, having voted once to keep the military going, and then again to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs, what is the rationale for resisting other funding measures?

This dynamic also explains why sidelining Biden was more significant than sidelining Obama. The president may not have another election coming up, but Reid isn’t the only Democrat with electoral considerations. Biden appears to be strongly considering running for president in 2016, and his work in helping craft bipartisan deals in the administration’s first term was seen as resume building.

Obama doesn’t have much to lose by being excluded from these negotiations, especially because Reid would never sacrifice ObamaCare to the Republicans. That’s not the case with Biden, who is enough of a loose cannon to push back on Reid if he deems it necessary. Thus the 2016 presidential election may not be motivating Republicans’ current strategy, but it could easily be a source of conflict for Democrats.

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Whose Fault Would Default Be?

President Obama is trying to establish the idea that any default on the national debt will be 100 percent the fault of the House Republicans. He has said, for instance, that Congress must “remove the threat of default and vote to raise the debt ceiling.” The treasury secretary, Jack Lew, said on Sunday that the administration would have “no option” to prevent a default.

But this is nonsense. The president is bound by his oath to uphold the Constitution and, as the distinguished–and liberal–historian Sean Wilentz points out in the New York Times today the 14th Amendment says that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law” is sacrosanct and “shall not be questioned.” He
points out that the language was put in the 14th Amendment precisely to prevent Congress from welching on the enormous debt run up during the Civil War.

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President Obama is trying to establish the idea that any default on the national debt will be 100 percent the fault of the House Republicans. He has said, for instance, that Congress must “remove the threat of default and vote to raise the debt ceiling.” The treasury secretary, Jack Lew, said on Sunday that the administration would have “no option” to prevent a default.

But this is nonsense. The president is bound by his oath to uphold the Constitution and, as the distinguished–and liberal–historian Sean Wilentz points out in the New York Times today the 14th Amendment says that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law” is sacrosanct and “shall not be questioned.” He
points out that the language was put in the 14th Amendment precisely to prevent Congress from welching on the enormous debt run up during the Civil War.

In an emergency, the president can certainly act to prevent a default, and thus uphold the constitutional mandate. Indeed, he would be violating his oath of office not to.

Default is nothing more than a failure to pay the interest and principal due on a debt in a timely manner. According to figures in a Power Line post, right now the government is spending about $17 billion every business day. It takes in about $14 billion in revenues. Thus it needs to borrow about $3 billion every business day to make up the difference.

A failure to raise the debt ceiling would prevent the government from borrowing that money. But it would not prevent the government from paying the interest on the debt, which amounts to only about 8 percent of revenues. Nor would it prevent the government from rolling over existing debt, which it does routinely.

What it would have to do is prioritize what bills it pays, leaving some unpaid. Families often have to do this to cover temporary cash shortfalls and there’s not a reason in the world the treasury can’t do the same. It would be embarrassing, to be sure, for the richest country on earth to have to stiff a few creditors for a while, but it would not be a default and would have few if any global financial consequences. States often do this, including Obama’s Illinois, which has debt problems that make the federal government’s look like a day at the beach.

So if this country defaults on its debt, it will be 100 percent the fault of President Obama. He has the power to prevent it. He needs only to exercise it.

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The Missing Pivot

So much for the vaunted “Pacific pivot.” When Barack Obama came into office, he vowed to reverse the Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East by “rebalancing” toward East Asia and the looming menace of China. The argument of the incoming administration was that the previous administration had lost sight of the bigger strategic realities as a result of the post-9/11 aftermath.

It turns out it’s not so easy to disengage from the Middle East–or to double down on the Far East. Look at what happened this weekend, or rather what didn’t happen.

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So much for the vaunted “Pacific pivot.” When Barack Obama came into office, he vowed to reverse the Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East by “rebalancing” toward East Asia and the looming menace of China. The argument of the incoming administration was that the previous administration had lost sight of the bigger strategic realities as a result of the post-9/11 aftermath.

It turns out it’s not so easy to disengage from the Middle East–or to double down on the Far East. Look at what happened this weekend, or rather what didn’t happen.

On the one hand, Obama ordered commando raids in Libya and Somalia. This comes after weeks, even months, of near-total focus in Washington on Syria and Iran–not on China or North Korea. On the other hand, Obama decided to not to go on a planned swing through East Asia. This included skipping an Asia Pacific Economic Summit meeting in Indonesia. Secretary of State John Kerry went instead, but he simply doesn’t carry the same diplomatic megawattage as the president. Obama’s absence left China’s leader, Xi Jinping, as the top dog.

Obama’s absence had more than symbolic import. It probably slowed the process of completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade zone that includes most of the major countries of East Asia but excludes China. More broadly, Obama’s absence no doubt causes wavering nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and many others, which fear China but live in its shadow, to doubt how much they can rely on a putative alliance with the United States.

The president’s absence suggests that dysfunction and deficits at home are preventing American engagement in the broader world. That impression is not necessarily true; if Delta Force and SEAL Team Six could travel abroad this weekend, even as the government is partially shuttered, so too President Obama could have traveled. He just didn’t want to, because he figured it would be bad politics to leave the country during a major budget crisis. It would certainly hamper, in a cynical interpretation, his efforts to lay all the blame on the Republican side, or, to adopt a more charitable explanation, to negotiate a way to end the crisis.

That’s an understandable political calculation, and one that most presidents no doubt would have made. But it comes at a strategic cost in the very region of the world that Obama claimed he would pay more attention to.

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Egyptian Military Is on the Clock

Foreign policy realpolitikers who favor backing the Egyptian generals argue that they have already ended the threat posed by Muslim Brotherhood rule and that they will now destroy the Brotherhood as a future threat to Egypt–and by implication to the U.S. and Israel. Some other analysts have been dubious about this argument not because we don’t share the goal of ending Brotherhood rule in Egypt but because we fear that the military crackdown will not succeed in suppressing the Brotherhood and, by forcing it underground, will only make it a greater terrorist threat in the future.

So far evidence has been lacking as to which view is right. Egypt has certainly not been thrown into the cauldron of civil war since the military coup in July. It looks nothing like Syria or even Iraq. But nor is the military crackdown entirely unopposed. The latest news:

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Foreign policy realpolitikers who favor backing the Egyptian generals argue that they have already ended the threat posed by Muslim Brotherhood rule and that they will now destroy the Brotherhood as a future threat to Egypt–and by implication to the U.S. and Israel. Some other analysts have been dubious about this argument not because we don’t share the goal of ending Brotherhood rule in Egypt but because we fear that the military crackdown will not succeed in suppressing the Brotherhood and, by forcing it underground, will only make it a greater terrorist threat in the future.

So far evidence has been lacking as to which view is right. Egypt has certainly not been thrown into the cauldron of civil war since the military coup in July. It looks nothing like Syria or even Iraq. But nor is the military crackdown entirely unopposed. The latest news:

Deadly violence against the government broke out around Egypt on Monday as health officials raised to 53 the number said to have been killed the day before in clashes between supporters and opponents of the military takeover that ousted President Mohamed Morsi three months ago.

Unidentified gunmen in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia killed six soldiers, including a lieutenant, in a drive-by shooting, while a car bomb at the security headquarters in the southern Sinai town of El-Tor killed two police officers and injured nearly 50 other people, state media reported. In Cairo, assailants fired at least one rocket-propelled grenade through a satellite dish used to transmit Egyptian state television.

This is ominous–but hardly determinative. Supporters of the military coup have to acknowledge that the threat of civil war–and with it the creation of fresh terrorists–is rising. Critics of the coup, including me, have to acknowledge that our worst fears have not come to pass yet and may never do so.

The reason why Egypt has been stumbling along since July is probably because the Brotherhood sacrificed so much legitimacy with its bumbling while in power. The military, aided by a massive cash infusion from the Persian Gulf monarchies and a willingness to undo the minimal privatization that took place under the now-released despot Hosni Mubarak, has been able to kick start the economy at least temporarily, thus enhancing its short-term popularity.

But Egypt is still in a parlous economic condition and its top hard-currency earner–tourism–is not going to revive while potential travelers are reading headlines about clashes and casualties. The billions sent by the Saudis, Emiratis, and others will not last forever. Already economists are saying that Egypt will grow at only 2.6 percent this fiscal year, well below the government’s objective of 3.5 percent growth. Faster growth is a necessity, lest large numbers of unemployed young men prove to be a destabilizing force.

The military has only a limited amount of time to show that it is better at governance than the Brotherhood or it is likely to face the same sort of backlash that Mohamed Morsi & Co. faced–and that backlash could easily produce more violence.

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