Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 29, 2013

The High Price of American Friendship

As the New York Times reports today, Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party, is getting blasted in the Israeli media as a hypocrite for opposing the Israeli government’s decision to honor its promise to release more Palestinian terrorist murderers. Bennett happens to be a member of that government and his critics may have a point when they say that if he is as outraged about the release as he purports to be, he can always resign his Cabinet post. It is in that context that the Times and other outlets prefer to view the protests about the freeing of these killers as mere exploitation of the anguish of the families of their victims rather than an expression of genuine outrage, as it probably deserved to be understood.

Whether his detractors like it or not, Bennett can afford to have his cake and eat it too. Netanyahu can’t afford to fire him and probably wouldn’t want to even if he could, since doing so would not make his government any more manageable since that would strengthen Justice Minister Tzipi Livni more than he might like and tilt it farther to the left than he might like. But the hoopla over Bennett’s admittedly futile efforts to derail the release illustrates something a lot more important than the way members of the Israeli Cabinet love to grandstand. Even those who dislike Bennett’s politics and agree with Netanyahu’s decision need to acknowledge that this painful move is far more indicative of the high price of the Obama administration’s good will than the alleged hypocrisy of right-wing politicians. Having forced Netanyahu into a corner by demanding the prisoner release in order to get the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, Washington’s blindness to the consequences of this act is the real issue at stake in this debate.

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As the New York Times reports today, Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party, is getting blasted in the Israeli media as a hypocrite for opposing the Israeli government’s decision to honor its promise to release more Palestinian terrorist murderers. Bennett happens to be a member of that government and his critics may have a point when they say that if he is as outraged about the release as he purports to be, he can always resign his Cabinet post. It is in that context that the Times and other outlets prefer to view the protests about the freeing of these killers as mere exploitation of the anguish of the families of their victims rather than an expression of genuine outrage, as it probably deserved to be understood.

Whether his detractors like it or not, Bennett can afford to have his cake and eat it too. Netanyahu can’t afford to fire him and probably wouldn’t want to even if he could, since doing so would not make his government any more manageable since that would strengthen Justice Minister Tzipi Livni more than he might like and tilt it farther to the left than he might like. But the hoopla over Bennett’s admittedly futile efforts to derail the release illustrates something a lot more important than the way members of the Israeli Cabinet love to grandstand. Even those who dislike Bennett’s politics and agree with Netanyahu’s decision need to acknowledge that this painful move is far more indicative of the high price of the Obama administration’s good will than the alleged hypocrisy of right-wing politicians. Having forced Netanyahu into a corner by demanding the prisoner release in order to get the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, Washington’s blindness to the consequences of this act is the real issue at stake in this debate.

The comments from those who are defending what Netanyahu admitted had been one of the toughest decisions he has ever made illustrated the dilemma. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who is often viewed as a hardliner on territorial issues, said the release had to continue because it had to be seen as part of a “long term strategic view” of his country’s position. That might be interpreted as a defense of the peace process. But it is more probably a reference to the fact that Israel’s geostrategic position is largely dependent on its ability to rely on its alliance with the United States.

The one possible benefit to Israel of the release is that it probably strengthens the position of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas vis-à-vis his Hamas rivals. Like the ransom Hamas extracted from Israel in order to gain the freedom of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit that boosted the Islamist group, it is supposed that this gesture will be seen as a triumph for Abbas and his Fatah Party. But since it is highly unlikely that Abbas would use this advantage to justify genuine progress toward peace, the utility of such tactical moves is limited.

More important for Israel is the fact that releasing the prisoners is really aimed at pacifying President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. There was little reason to believe reviving peace talks with the Palestinians made any sense when Washington put the screws to Netanyahu to reward Abbas for returning to the talks he abandoned five years ago. And the Palestinians’ continued intransigence and refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn makes that even clearer three months into the stalled negotiations.

But Netanyahu has little choice but to give the Americans want they want. That is not because he is weak, but because only by letting the talks proceed without Israeli objections or hindrances will he have the ability to say no to demands for more concessions once it is obvious that they have failed. His first obligation is to protect his nation’s security, and he can best do that by standing strong on territory and borders, as well as the Iranian nuclear issue even if that means he must do the unthinkable and let murderers walk free.

The onus for this outrage ought to be on President Obama and Secretary Kerry, who have created this moral dilemma. It is they who should be explaining why they think it is all right to ask Jerusalem to do something that no American leader would dream of doing if the freedom of 9/11 murderers and accomplices were in question, as it is for those who perpetrated similar crimes against Israelis. Doing so encourages terrorism and rewards those who promote violence rather than encouraging peace.

As much as some Israelis like to talk about their independence from American influence, the strategic equation still requires their leaders to stay as close as possible to the president of the United States. That doesn’t mean Netanyahu can’t stand up to Obama if the circumstances require it, but he must pick his fights carefully. That killers with blood on their hands be released and then feted by the Palestinians as heroes is a blot on Netanyahu’s record. But it should remind us that the real problem is the high price Obama has demanded for the maintenance of the U.S. alliance.

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On Ike Skelton

Want to know why there is so much partisan deadlock in Washington today? In part it’s because of the rise of a radical Tea Party wing of the Republican Party which is interested in grandstanding, not legislating. But it’s also due to the demise of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party as represented by the likes of Ike Skelton, a Missouri congressman who served 17 terms in the House and has just died.

Skelton represented the area where Harry Truman came from and he often voted like Truman. He was one of the most pro-defense members of Congress–and one of the most knowledgeable experts on military issues. A longtime member of the House Armed Services Committee, he capped his service as its chairman. He made his primary impact not by grandstanding for the cameras but by working quietly behind the scenes to bolster the armed forces. He had a particular passion for enhancing military education and he put in place schooling requirements which remain in effect to this day.

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Want to know why there is so much partisan deadlock in Washington today? In part it’s because of the rise of a radical Tea Party wing of the Republican Party which is interested in grandstanding, not legislating. But it’s also due to the demise of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party as represented by the likes of Ike Skelton, a Missouri congressman who served 17 terms in the House and has just died.

Skelton represented the area where Harry Truman came from and he often voted like Truman. He was one of the most pro-defense members of Congress–and one of the most knowledgeable experts on military issues. A longtime member of the House Armed Services Committee, he capped his service as its chairman. He made his primary impact not by grandstanding for the cameras but by working quietly behind the scenes to bolster the armed forces. He had a particular passion for enhancing military education and he put in place schooling requirements which remain in effect to this day.

His views allowed him to hold office even as his district turned more conservative. But his luck finally ran out in 2010 when he was beaten by a Republican challenger. Two other conservative Democrats–John Spratt of South Carolina and Gene Taylor of Mississippi–lost in the same year.  

Races such as those enabled Republicans to recapture control of the House in 2010. But it’s not your father’s Republican Party anymore. The Tea Party wing is now in effective control in the House–i.e., if not actually able to pass its priorities, it is able to block anyone else’s most of the time. The Tea Party Caucus formally numbers 46 House members but its influence is larger. On the other side of the spectrum are equally ideological members of the Progressive Caucus which now numbers 68 members.  

Unfortunately there are too few Ike Skeltons left. Congress and the country are the poorer for it.

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Euro Spy Hypocrisy Is Absurd; So Is Ours

Commenting on the hypocrisy being expressed about the news that the United States spies on its European allies is more or less like trying to describe the universe. It’s infinite. The idea that there is anything particularly new or shocking about nations spying on each other even when they are theoretically allied is as childish as it is disconnected from any knowledge of history. Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut down the country’s main intelligence operation in 1929 and explained the action by infamously saying, “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” Stimson lived to rue his decision a dozen years later when, while serving as Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of war, an unprepared U.S. was surprised at Pearl Harbor. Our Max Boot summed up the stupidity of this sort of naïveté here last week and followed up today with another post highlighting the disgraceful effort by the White House to throw the intelligence community under the bus in an attempt to disassociate the president from a policy that it is hard to believe he knew nothing about.

But there’s another angle to this story that deserves to be noted. The complaints of our European allies about the supposedly dastardly behavior of the National Security Agency deserve to be treated with scorn. It should also remind us that the same kind of hypocrisy has sometimes been exhibited by the institutions that should be defended by security-minded citizens today. And by that I’m referring to the near-hysteria that erupts within the U.S. intelligence establishment anytime the notion of clemency for someone else who spied on an ally is mooted. Everyone who is defending the right of Americans to spy on allies, as well as those who think mistakes were made in doing so, should take a deep breath and consider that the crimes of Jonathan Pollard should perhaps be seen in a somewhat different context.

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Commenting on the hypocrisy being expressed about the news that the United States spies on its European allies is more or less like trying to describe the universe. It’s infinite. The idea that there is anything particularly new or shocking about nations spying on each other even when they are theoretically allied is as childish as it is disconnected from any knowledge of history. Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut down the country’s main intelligence operation in 1929 and explained the action by infamously saying, “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” Stimson lived to rue his decision a dozen years later when, while serving as Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of war, an unprepared U.S. was surprised at Pearl Harbor. Our Max Boot summed up the stupidity of this sort of naïveté here last week and followed up today with another post highlighting the disgraceful effort by the White House to throw the intelligence community under the bus in an attempt to disassociate the president from a policy that it is hard to believe he knew nothing about.

But there’s another angle to this story that deserves to be noted. The complaints of our European allies about the supposedly dastardly behavior of the National Security Agency deserve to be treated with scorn. It should also remind us that the same kind of hypocrisy has sometimes been exhibited by the institutions that should be defended by security-minded citizens today. And by that I’m referring to the near-hysteria that erupts within the U.S. intelligence establishment anytime the notion of clemency for someone else who spied on an ally is mooted. Everyone who is defending the right of Americans to spy on allies, as well as those who think mistakes were made in doing so, should take a deep breath and consider that the crimes of Jonathan Pollard should perhaps be seen in a somewhat different context.

Pollard is, of course, the U.S. Navy analyst who broke his oath and spied for Israel against the United States. What Pollard did was indefensible. He deserved to be punished and that has happened. As I wrote back in a COMMENTARY article on the subject in 2011, much of the case made for him by those backing clemency is overblown and underestimates the problems he caused:

There is no underestimating the damage that Pollard and his Israeli handlers did to American Jewry. The decision on the part of a few operatives and their political masters to exploit what may well have been the romantic delusions of a man of questionable judgment and character did far more injury to the countless loyal Jews who have served the United States so well for generations than anything else. It is not inappropriate that Israel’s government would seek the freedom of a man who, however misguided and harmful his mission, served that nation. But whether or not Obama or a future president ever accedes to Israel’s request for Pollard’s release, his unfortunate example will always be exploited as a pretext to justify those enemies of Israel and other anti-Semites who wish to wrongly impugn the loyalty of American Jews.

Long after his release or death, Pollard’s behavior will still be used to bolster the slurs of those who wish to promote the pernicious myth that there is a contradiction between American patriotism and deep concern for the safety of the State of Israel. It is this damning epitaph, and not the claims of martyrdom that have been put forward to stir sympathy for his plight, that will be Jonathan Pollard’s true legacy.

But having said that, the ongoing effort by some to use Pollard in an effort to demonize Israel or to claim that the Jewish state behaved in a manner unbecoming an ally is undermined by the revelations about the United States’ own considerable efforts to snoop on its friends.

What is normal and even expected when it is conducted in the dark can seem indefensible when it is dragged out into the light of day, as American officials hauled before Congress are learning today. One can only hope that the backlash from the Edward Snowden leaks will not lead to a trend in which all intelligence operations will be viewed negatively. The U.S. is still locked in a life-and-death struggle with Islamist terrorists and the last thing we need is a revival of the spirit of the Church Committee, which essentially drafted the CIA into the Boy Scouts back in the 1970s when it dug up the dirt on embarrassing Cold War spy activities.

To acknowledge that American spooks are trying to do the same thing to Germany, France, Britain, and, as has been pointed out before, Israel, does not mean that the decision to use Pollard was not a colossal mistake by his handlers and their political masters. But it should cause those who have been blocking mercy for Pollard to rethink their self-righteous stand.

Though he is no hero and deserves no applause for committing a serious crime, after all these years, there is no rational case to be made for keeping Pollard in prison for spying for a friendly nation. The disproportionate nature of his sentence was obvious even when it was handed down. That is just as true today. America spies on its friends and allies and is, in turn, spied upon in the same fashion. Acknowledging this fact doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong. It’s just the way the world works. That’s a fact that should not be forgotten when clemency for Pollard is discussed.

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Why 2016 Talk Hasn’t Hurt Christie’s 2013

Cory Booker’s victory in the special Senate election held earlier this month to replace Frank Lautenberg was not a surprise. But to many, his margin of victory was. He struggled to meet expectations, and though the election was not close–Booker won by eleven percent–the clumsy nature of Booker’s campaign contributed to the perception that the Newark mayor was lucky he wasn’t contesting a competitive seat.

In contrast, Governor Chris Christie’s poll numbers remain remarkably strong a week out from his own reelection, especially for a Republican in blue Jersey. And today’s poll results, from Quinnipiac, highlight something else about the two elections: both Christie and Booker have national profiles, yet only Booker seems to have been successfully tagged as a “celebrity” politician. PolitickerNJ reports:

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Cory Booker’s victory in the special Senate election held earlier this month to replace Frank Lautenberg was not a surprise. But to many, his margin of victory was. He struggled to meet expectations, and though the election was not close–Booker won by eleven percent–the clumsy nature of Booker’s campaign contributed to the perception that the Newark mayor was lucky he wasn’t contesting a competitive seat.

In contrast, Governor Chris Christie’s poll numbers remain remarkably strong a week out from his own reelection, especially for a Republican in blue Jersey. And today’s poll results, from Quinnipiac, highlight something else about the two elections: both Christie and Booker have national profiles, yet only Booker seems to have been successfully tagged as a “celebrity” politician. PolitickerNJ reports:

Likely N.J. voters say 48-41 percent that they want to see Chris Christie run for president.

A Quinnipiac University poll released today shows that with the governor’s re-election seemingly in hand, respondents want him to run for the White House in 2016.

As for his race against Sen. Barbara Buono, Christie leads 64– 31 percent, the poll shows.

Christie gets a 65–29 percent favorability rating, as even 40 percent of Democrats have a favorable opinion, the poll shows.  Buono gets a negative 26–37 percent favorability rating, with 35 percent who don’t know enough about her to form an opinion.

“From the banks of the Delaware to the beaches of the Atlantic, New Jersey voters like their governor, Christopher Christie.  On the banks of the Potomac?  Less like the governor, but still a lot,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

At first glance Christie would appear to be more vulnerable to suspicions that he is tending to national aspirations. Republicans have been asking him to run for president for years now, and New Jersey is a highly Democratic state which tends to be hostile to conservatism. Yet Christie’s national profile hasn’t hampered his standing with NJ voters for a couple of reasons, one of which is unearthed by polls like this Quinnipiac survey: New Jerseyans actually want Christie to have national aspirations.

There’s logic to this: if voters in the state like Christie’s brand of politics, and he’d be term-limited out of office after two consecutive terms anyway, why not export the “Jersey Comeback?” Additionally, a Democrat who likes Christie might want to see him as the nominee of the other party, knowing that if the Democrats lost the presidential election he might be governed by Chris Christie again anyway.

That would be doubly true, presumably, for Jersey Republicans who would probably rather be governed by Christie than whoever replaces him and who would feel more confident in a general election with a candidate with crossover appeal and who could plausibly compete in the northeast.

So that’s one reason Christie wasn’t harmed by his national profile: voters want him to have that profile. But the other reason is that it is quite difficult to make the case that Christie’s possible national ambitions have caused him to neglect New Jersey. Today is, after all, also the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s destructive arrival on the Jersey Shore.

Though the storm hit close to the presidential election, Christie famously welcomed President Obama’s presence and praised the government’s response in true bipartisan–or, rather, nonpartisan–spirit. His response to the storm’s damage won justified plaudits from all corners of the state, but especially because it put to rest the idea that he couldn’t focus on his responsibilities as governor with the national spotlight calling. His response to Sandy was famous for how it riled the national GOP and needled congressional conservatives over funding.

That may hold him back in a Republican primary contest, of course. But it obviously wasn’t a drag on his gubernatorial reelection hopes.

There is also one more, less tangible aspect to Christie’s connection with the state’s voters: he is not shy about his genuine love for New Jersey. He gushes about Springsteen, but as I noted in 2011, a Fairleigh Dickinson survey found that Christie was more closely associated with New Jersey in the minds of the state’s inhabitants than even The Boss. At the time, the director of the poll remarked: “I was surprised because no person has ever had enough mentions to make the list — not Sinatra, not Springsteen, not Tony Soprano and not even Snooki.”

Few figures seem to embrace their Jerseyness the way Christie does. When Christie appeared on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart tried to shame Christie for the harsh ways he sometimes talks to his political antagonists. Christie responded: “I’m from New Jersey and so are you, and we don’t mince words.”

Of course, what has served him well in New Jersey could complicate the picture nationally. Conservative primary voters resent Christie’s embrace of the president and criticism of conservative darlings like Rand Paul, and Democrats who like Christie now may not be thrilled if a national primary reawakens them to his conservatism. Yet whatever the right’s beef with Christie’s move to the center, he is currently a pro-life fiscal conservative with a thirty-three point lead in New Jersey, a feat not so easy to dismiss.

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Iran Passes the Point of Nuclear No Return

Good news comes from Vienna today. Or at least that’s what we’re supposed to think. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency met with representatives of Iran sent by its new President Hassan Rouhani, and the result was a “very productive meeting” according to a joint statement issued by the two parties. In contrast to their usual contempt for the IAEA, the Iranians made “constructive” noises about resuming the nuclear inspections they have been thwarting for years even though no details about what their new proposals might be were revealed. Though a slender reed upon which to base a policy of faith in Iran’s good intentions, it will likely strengthen the resolve of the United States to push ahead with the latest round of the P5+1 talks that will resume next week. Indeed, in defending the decision to allow the U.S. to be drawn into another lengthy negotiation with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech to a dinner for the Ploughshares Fund that he had no patience for those warning about the dangers of such a policy. As the Times of Israel reports:

“Some have suggested that somehow there’s something wrong with even putting that to the test,” the secretary of state continued. “I suggest that the idea that the United States of America as a responsible nation to all of humankind would not explore that possibility would be the height of irresponsibility and dangerous in itself, and we will not succumb to those fear tactics and forces that suggest otherwise.”

But lost amid the enthusiasm for diplomacy was yet another troubling statement that ought to chill those hopes for a quick resolution of the nuclear dispute with Iran. Also speaking yesterday in Washington, Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director of the IAEA, said that Iran has, “in a certain way,” already reached the point of no return in its nuclear program. Heinonen confirmed the report released last week by the Institute for Science and International Security that said Iran could enrich enough weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb in about a month. That finding renders moot most of what is being discussed by Western diplomats with the Iranians. If the Iranians have reduced the “breakout time” needed to convert their vast stockpile of low-enriched uranium into nuclear fuel, then even if Tehran agreed to proposals about limiting their enrichment capacity, their path to a weapon is clear. If this is true, the administration’s arguments against tightening sanctions on Iran must be seen as a sign that it is, despite Kerry’s protestations that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” determined to reach an agreement with the ayatollahs that will not remove the threat of an Iranian bomb.

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Good news comes from Vienna today. Or at least that’s what we’re supposed to think. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency met with representatives of Iran sent by its new President Hassan Rouhani, and the result was a “very productive meeting” according to a joint statement issued by the two parties. In contrast to their usual contempt for the IAEA, the Iranians made “constructive” noises about resuming the nuclear inspections they have been thwarting for years even though no details about what their new proposals might be were revealed. Though a slender reed upon which to base a policy of faith in Iran’s good intentions, it will likely strengthen the resolve of the United States to push ahead with the latest round of the P5+1 talks that will resume next week. Indeed, in defending the decision to allow the U.S. to be drawn into another lengthy negotiation with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech to a dinner for the Ploughshares Fund that he had no patience for those warning about the dangers of such a policy. As the Times of Israel reports:

“Some have suggested that somehow there’s something wrong with even putting that to the test,” the secretary of state continued. “I suggest that the idea that the United States of America as a responsible nation to all of humankind would not explore that possibility would be the height of irresponsibility and dangerous in itself, and we will not succumb to those fear tactics and forces that suggest otherwise.”

But lost amid the enthusiasm for diplomacy was yet another troubling statement that ought to chill those hopes for a quick resolution of the nuclear dispute with Iran. Also speaking yesterday in Washington, Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director of the IAEA, said that Iran has, “in a certain way,” already reached the point of no return in its nuclear program. Heinonen confirmed the report released last week by the Institute for Science and International Security that said Iran could enrich enough weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb in about a month. That finding renders moot most of what is being discussed by Western diplomats with the Iranians. If the Iranians have reduced the “breakout time” needed to convert their vast stockpile of low-enriched uranium into nuclear fuel, then even if Tehran agreed to proposals about limiting their enrichment capacity, their path to a weapon is clear. If this is true, the administration’s arguments against tightening sanctions on Iran must be seen as a sign that it is, despite Kerry’s protestations that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” determined to reach an agreement with the ayatollahs that will not remove the threat of an Iranian bomb.

Throughout the debate about the nuclear threat from Iran, we have been assured by the administration that any danger of the Islamist regime cheating on a deal in order to procure a weapon that they had theoretically renounced was slim because of the lengthy “breakout” period that would be needed before they could complete the construction of a weapon. This is especially crucial since the terms of a proposed agreement seem to center on limiting the Iranians to uranium enrichment below the 20 percent that is required for a bomb. Should they break their word, the U.S. has believed that it would take so long for them to amass the required uranium that it would surely be discovered in the meantime. But if the Iranians only need two weeks to do the trick, those calculations go right out the window.

Given the vast number of centrifuges already enriching uranium in their facilities, this calculus may mean that anything short of Iran’s destruction of their nuclear plants and the export of all of their stockpile would not stop them from building a bomb. But since the Iranians have already stated that their “red line” in the talks is protection of their “right” to enrich and a refusal to give up any of their uranium, it’s difficult to understand what Kerry is talking about when he speaks so enthusiastically about the talks and makes veiled references to Israeli fear-mongering about Iran.

It also means that Iran’s willingness to talk about talking further about letting the IAEA monitor some of its facilities tells us nothing about their behavior or their intentions.

Even more important, this means that Congress should ignore administration pleading not to pass new sanctions against Iran. As even former Obama administration staffer Dennis Ross wrote today in a Los Angeles Times op-ed with Eric Edelman and Michael Makovsky, if the U.S. is really serious about stopping Iran via diplomacy rather than force, it must, among other things:

Intensify sanctions and incentivize other countries to do the same, issue more forceful and credible statements that all options are on the table, initiate new military deployments and make clear the support for Israeli military action if conducted.

The time for eyewash from the administration about the “window of diplomacy” with Iran is over. Having wasted five years on feckless engagement and dead-end diplomacy, the recent information about Iran’s breakout capacity may mean it is already too late to stop them by means short of force. But if the president and Kerry allow themselves to be sucked into another Iranian attempt to run out the clock on nuclear talks, no one should be deceived as to the meaning of such a decision or the potentially lethal consequences for Israel, the Arab nations of the Middle East (that are just as worried about the Iranian threat as the Israelis), and the entire world.

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The War on Rational Conservatism

What exactly are conservatives arguing about these days? After listening to the latest speeches of Senator Ted Cruz denouncing his critics and reading Erick Erickson’s latest piece at Red State in which he angrily denounces the editors of National Review as “well fed” and complacent enablers of liberalism, I think those who are not already clued in to the subtext of the dispute would be forgiven for being puzzled about what it was all about. Those parachuting into this debate from the outside will struggle mightily to see what the two sides disagree about in terms of principles or policies and will discover little evidence of any actual split on anything of importance. All participants oppose President Obama’s policies and ObamaCare. They’d like to see the president replaced by a conservative at the next presidential election and ObamaCare to be repealed. But that unity of purpose isn’t enough to prevent what is starting to take on the appearance of an all-out civil war within the ranks of the conservative movement. Those on the right have grown used to seeing liberal mainstream publications and broadcast outlets doing stories about conservatives tearing themselves apart that are motivated more by a desire to fuel the dispute than any objective proof of a significant split. But in this case, it’s hard to avoid the impression that what we are witnessing is actually nothing less than a full-blown civil war among conservatives that may have profound implications for the outcome of both the 2014 and 2016 elections.

At the heart of this is the ongoing debate about the wisdom of the government shutdown that resulted from the Republican majority in the House of Representatives following Cruz’s advice about tying the continuing resolution funding the government to a proposal to defund ObamaCare. As many sober conservatives predicted, the strategy failed. It accomplished nothing other than to damage the Republican Party in the eyes of most of the nation, although it did burnish Cruz’s reputation among those on the right who think the GOP is an assembly of sellouts because they failed to accomplish the impossible. In response to calls from those who were correct about this for a reassessment, Cruz and his followers have begun a campaign whose purpose seems to be to trash all those who had doubts about the senator’s misguided tactic and to damn them as not merely faint-hearts but traitors to the cause of conservatism. That this is arrant nonsense almost goes without saying. But the longer this goes on and the nastier it gets, the more convinced I’m becoming that far from a meaningless spat that will soon be forgotten, the shutdown may become the impetus for a genuine split within conservative ranks that will fester and diminish the chances that liberals will be prevented from retaining their grip on power in Washington.

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What exactly are conservatives arguing about these days? After listening to the latest speeches of Senator Ted Cruz denouncing his critics and reading Erick Erickson’s latest piece at Red State in which he angrily denounces the editors of National Review as “well fed” and complacent enablers of liberalism, I think those who are not already clued in to the subtext of the dispute would be forgiven for being puzzled about what it was all about. Those parachuting into this debate from the outside will struggle mightily to see what the two sides disagree about in terms of principles or policies and will discover little evidence of any actual split on anything of importance. All participants oppose President Obama’s policies and ObamaCare. They’d like to see the president replaced by a conservative at the next presidential election and ObamaCare to be repealed. But that unity of purpose isn’t enough to prevent what is starting to take on the appearance of an all-out civil war within the ranks of the conservative movement. Those on the right have grown used to seeing liberal mainstream publications and broadcast outlets doing stories about conservatives tearing themselves apart that are motivated more by a desire to fuel the dispute than any objective proof of a significant split. But in this case, it’s hard to avoid the impression that what we are witnessing is actually nothing less than a full-blown civil war among conservatives that may have profound implications for the outcome of both the 2014 and 2016 elections.

At the heart of this is the ongoing debate about the wisdom of the government shutdown that resulted from the Republican majority in the House of Representatives following Cruz’s advice about tying the continuing resolution funding the government to a proposal to defund ObamaCare. As many sober conservatives predicted, the strategy failed. It accomplished nothing other than to damage the Republican Party in the eyes of most of the nation, although it did burnish Cruz’s reputation among those on the right who think the GOP is an assembly of sellouts because they failed to accomplish the impossible. In response to calls from those who were correct about this for a reassessment, Cruz and his followers have begun a campaign whose purpose seems to be to trash all those who had doubts about the senator’s misguided tactic and to damn them as not merely faint-hearts but traitors to the cause of conservatism. That this is arrant nonsense almost goes without saying. But the longer this goes on and the nastier it gets, the more convinced I’m becoming that far from a meaningless spat that will soon be forgotten, the shutdown may become the impetus for a genuine split within conservative ranks that will fester and diminish the chances that liberals will be prevented from retaining their grip on power in Washington.

I think Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru were on to something when they wrote in their National Review essay that sent Erickson over the edge that the problem behind the angst on the right is despair. I touched on the same theme in an essay in the Intercollegiate Review published last month as part of its symposium on what’s the matter with conservatism, as well as in a blog post published here titled “Tea Party Despair and ObamaCare.” Frustrated by the Supreme Court’s illogical decision that affirmed ObamaCare’s constitutionality and by the results of the 2012 election, many conservatives have more or less given up on conventional politics. Right now all they are interested in is a fight, no matter how quixotic. And anyone who won’t charge over the cliff with them strikes such people as something far worse than a political foe.

In response, Erickson and others who have written about this topic ground their attacks on the so-called Republican “establishment” as being analogous to the situation in the 1950s when William F. Buckley founded the modern conservative movement as part of a protest against the way Republicans had become enablers of the Democrats’ liberal agenda. Regardless of the political facts of the day, they say the only rational response of conservatives to the situation is to take a principled stand much like Buckley’s famous declaration that the purpose of National Review was to “stand athwart history” and to yell “stop.” Those who won’t do that are no better than the Republicans who opposed Buckley. Even more important, they say that those who are more concerned with Republicans winning elections even at the cost of their souls than standing up for principle really are RINOs and traitors no matter what their positions on the issues might be.

But it bears repeating there is a big difference between the state of the Republican Party when Buckley was first yelling “stop” and today.

Buckley and his allies were justified in trying to radically change the nature of the GOP because many of its leaders weren’t “timid” conservatives who were afraid of challenging the legitimacy of liberal government. Nelson Rockefeller and much of the GOP establishment of that time really were liberals and were not shy about saying so. Buckley had no interest in electing more liberals even if they called themselves Republicans, but he also famously said conservatives should always back the most electable conservative, not the most right-wing candidate.

The battle that was waged over the soul of the GOP over the next quarter century after NR’s founding was fierce because there were real ideological differences at stake. By contrast, Cruz and Erickson’s targets are not merely fellow conservatives but among the most conservative individuals and outlets in the country. Their sin is not the genuine dispute about the virtue of the welfare state and big government that drove the internal arguments in the Republican Party in that era, but rather one of attitudes. The editors of NR as well as hard-core conservatives like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are not blasted for their beliefs as Nelson Rockefeller and Co. were but because they differ with Cruz on tactics.

What we are seeing here is nothing less than a call for a Leninist-style schism on the right in which NR and McConnell are treated as the Mensheviks to the Tea Party’s Bolsheviks. Anyone who won’t hue to the Cruz party line isn’t merely wrong but, as Erickson’s piece seems to indicate, worthy of being read out of the conservative movement and denounced as betrayers.

This makes sense only if you are of the mindset that anyone not willing to shut down the government is indistinguishable from Barack Obama no matter how conservative they might be. As such, what we are witnessing is not an attempt to convert the Republican Party into a gathering of conservatives—something a previous generation of conservatives accomplished under the leadership of Ronald Reagan—but a war on rational conservatism whose only end is the immolation of the movement the Gipper helped build.

What does this portend?

It’s too soon to know for sure, but right now I’m starting to think that those inclined to pooh-pooh the chances for a genuine split are wrong. If that portion of the conservative base listens to Cruz and Erickson they are going to spend much of the next year trying to exact revenge on the senator’s critics. And if that means helping to knock off genuine conservatives like McConnell who will almost certainly be replaced in the Senate not by more Cruz clones but by liberal Democrats, they think it’s no great loss because such people are more interested in purifying the GOP than in beating the Democrats. Assembling a national coalition that could enable conservatives to govern is a matter of complete indifference to them and they seem openly contemptuous of the necessity of gaining Republican majorities and a Republican president in order to advance the conservative agenda.

This drama will be played out in many states next year in the midterm elections, but it will come to a head in 2016 when a single formidable moderate conservative may possibly be opposed by a split field of right-wingers in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. If so, those today yelling about the betrayal of Cruz are likely to be louder and even more self-destructive. A few more years in which Tea Partiers stop seeing themselves as the vanguard of the conservative movement but as members of a different political alignment altogether could lead to exactly the kind of right-wing walkout from the GOP that was threatened in 2008 and 2012 but never actually materialized. If so, we may look back on the aftermath of the shutdown as not just a foolish argument started by frustrated conservatives but the beginning of a schism that enabled the Democrats to consolidate their hold on power in Washington for the foreseeable future.

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ObamaCare and Arbitrary Power

Following on the heels of CBS’s Benghazi report, NBC News is joining in the “now it can be told” parade. With the president safely reelected and ObamaCare surviving its key challenges at the Supreme Court, it is now apparently safe to start reporting on the fact that the health-care reform law was constructed on a very transparent falsehood. “Obama administration knew millions could not keep their health insurance” screams the headline, and the article notes that “the administration knew that more than 40 to 67 percent of those in the individual market would not be able to keep their plans, even if they liked them.”

President Obama stuck by the ludicrous promise that those who liked their insurance could keep their insurance–“period,” as the president liked to emphasize. This was never true, as conservatives pointed out time and again. The law was specifically designed to prevent this promise from being kept. But the media kept repeating it, so the president kept saying it. What’s new in the NBC report is not that Obama knew he was peddling a false promise; of course the White House knew what it was up to. Rather, what’s interesting is the degree to which the Obama administration concentrated on making sure that people couldn’t keep their policies, even if it meant rewriting key parts of the law’s regulations after the fact:

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Following on the heels of CBS’s Benghazi report, NBC News is joining in the “now it can be told” parade. With the president safely reelected and ObamaCare surviving its key challenges at the Supreme Court, it is now apparently safe to start reporting on the fact that the health-care reform law was constructed on a very transparent falsehood. “Obama administration knew millions could not keep their health insurance” screams the headline, and the article notes that “the administration knew that more than 40 to 67 percent of those in the individual market would not be able to keep their plans, even if they liked them.”

President Obama stuck by the ludicrous promise that those who liked their insurance could keep their insurance–“period,” as the president liked to emphasize. This was never true, as conservatives pointed out time and again. The law was specifically designed to prevent this promise from being kept. But the media kept repeating it, so the president kept saying it. What’s new in the NBC report is not that Obama knew he was peddling a false promise; of course the White House knew what it was up to. Rather, what’s interesting is the degree to which the Obama administration concentrated on making sure that people couldn’t keep their policies, even if it meant rewriting key parts of the law’s regulations after the fact:

None of this should come as a shock to the Obama administration. The law states that policies in effect as of March 23, 2010 will be “grandfathered,” meaning consumers can keep those policies even though they don’t meet requirements of the new health care law. But the Department of Health and Human Services then wrote regulations that narrowed that provision, by saying that if any part of a policy was significantly changed since that date — the deductible, co-pay, or benefits, for example — the policy would not be grandfathered.

ObamaCare continues to be the epitome of arbitrary government. Not only was the law unpopular when it was passed, but the administration then kicked the public while it was down by changing the law on the fly and ensuring that a key promise used to pass the law would be unfulfilled. Unilaterally extending deadlines, waiving requirements for interest groups, delaying aspects of the law: it turns out we didn’t have to pass the law to find out what was in it, since it simply didn’t matter what was in it.

Speaking of arbitrary power, key administration advisor Valerie Jarrett took to Twitter last night to attempt to spin the story. Even by the standards of this administration, Jarrett’s effort was both inept and bitterly defensive:

jarretttweet

As Mary Katherine Ham noted, this “delusion” amounts to: “no change is required by you under Obamacare unless your insurance company goes and changes your existing plan to comply with Obamacare.” Jarrett’s combination of contempt for private industry and self-indulgent blame shifting is characteristic of the Obama administration.

Blaming the insurance industry was perhaps inevitable. But other attempts to spin the news don’t do much better since there’s no refuting the core of this latest PR disaster. Here, for example, is Time magazine’s headline: “The Bright Side of Obamacare’s Broken Promise.” There’s no question it’s a broken promise; but the president’s defenders hope they can mitigate that damage by explaining that the government deceived you for the greater good. Welcome to the team.

Here is how Time’s report opens: “President Obama has broken his promise that Americans who like their health insurance plans can keep them under the Affordable Care Act. Citing the new law, insurers have recently mailed policy cancellation notices to hundreds of thousands of people across the country, providing more ammunition to critics who say the law is bad for consumers.” It’s true: the continuing confirmation that the law is bad for consumers will provide ammunition to those who point out that the law is bad for consumers.

Then Time warns: “And that number may grow.” It seems it already has. CBS reports that “more than two million Americans have been told they cannot renew their current insurance policies — more than triple the number of people said to be buying insurance under the new Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.”

Given all this, Obama’s motivation for peddling the false promise becomes clear. The public already disliked the law, and he was barely able, through procedural tricks and horse trading, to muster the votes to pass it. Imagine how much more difficult his task would have been had the sales pitch for ObamaCare not been “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan,” but rather “If you like your plan, you’re selfish and don’t know what’s good for you, and you need to be coerced into doing your part to help the president establish a new entitlement scheme.”

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Obama Throws Intel Community Back Under the Bus

The revelations about NSA spying on allied leaders are now officially a scandal. No, that scandal isn’t that the U.S. spies on its allies–all nations do that and some go further than that. See, for instance, this report claiming that South Korea has been stealing U.S. military technology. No, the scandal is that, faced with embarrassing allegations, President Obama is trying to throw General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, and the rest of the intelligence community under the bus by claiming that he had no idea what was going on.

Not surprisingly, anonymous leakers in the intelligence community are pushing back to shred the White House alibi. According to the Los Angeles Times:

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The revelations about NSA spying on allied leaders are now officially a scandal. No, that scandal isn’t that the U.S. spies on its allies–all nations do that and some go further than that. See, for instance, this report claiming that South Korea has been stealing U.S. military technology. No, the scandal is that, faced with embarrassing allegations, President Obama is trying to throw General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, and the rest of the intelligence community under the bus by claiming that he had no idea what was going on.

Not surprisingly, anonymous leakers in the intelligence community are pushing back to shred the White House alibi. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Obama may not have been specifically briefed on NSA operations targeting a foreign leader’s cellphone or email communications, one of the officials said. “But certainly the National Security Council and senior people across the intelligence community knew exactly what was going on, and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous.”

If U.S. spying on key foreign leaders was news to the White House, current and former officials said, then White House officials have not been reading their briefing books.

The intel community isn’t happy about being blamed for conducting what Obama implies is a rogue operation: “People are furious,” said a senior intelligence official. “This is officially the White House cutting off the intelligence community.”

Not only is Obama blaming the intel community for doing something wrong, he is leaking word that he will order a ban on spying on allied leaders. One wonders how “allies” will be defined since no nation stands with the U.S. on every single important issue. Germany, for example, supported us in Afghanistan but not in Libya. (I am tempted to say Germany didn’t support us in Syria either but since we have no coherent policy on Syria it is hard to say whether they support us or not.) If he is serious about it, Obama’s actions will result in a loss of valuable intelligence and will hardly appease the NSA’s critics who think that all data-hunting operations except perhaps those focused on Ayman al-Zawihiri’s emails should be shut down.

Obama was aware earlier in his administration of the danger of stigmatizing the hard-working intelligence professionals he needs to keep America safe; that’s why the administration shut down attempts to prosecute CIA personnel over the use of torture. But now, in a frenzy to appease European critics, the president is demoralizing the intel community and sending them a signal that aggressive collection efforts will not be rewarded. That’s a bad tradeoff.

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