Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 13, 2013

Murder and the Settlement Distraction

The announcement earlier this week by Israel’s housing minister that approval had been given for the building of 20,000 new homes in Greater Jerusalem and the West Bank was enough to outrage the West and give Palestinians a new excuse for breaking off peace talks. Or at least it was until Prime Minister Netanyahu soon overrode his subordinate and pointed out that the announcement was a meaningless political gesture and signified nothing more than intent since actual building required his support. Not looking for an unnecessary fight with Washington and, even more to the point, unwilling to give the Palestinians any new talking points, the prime minister put the matter on hold. For all intents and purposes, that ends that kerfuffle. But there’s more here than an obvious attempt by some of the more right-wing members of the government to grandstand for their base and to embarrass the PM.

As Netanyahu said, any major housing push by Israel in the territories is a distraction from the more important issue facing his government right now. With the United States still seeking to keep alive a deal with Iran that would make it more likely that the Islamist regime will eventually achieve nuclear capability than not, Israel is better off avoiding gestures that will only divert Congress and other Americans who might speak about it from this policy of appeasement. But as much as Netanyahu was right to put a lid on this discussion, it is still important to point out that even if all of those houses were built, none of them would constitute a genuine obstacle to a peace deal if the Palestinians really wanted one. Moreover, in the 24 hours since Netanyahu spiked the plan, the murder of yet another Israeli by a Palestinian terrorist has refocused the country on the real obstacle to peace: the incitement of hatred by the same Palestinian Authority that is supposed to be Israel’s partner.

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The announcement earlier this week by Israel’s housing minister that approval had been given for the building of 20,000 new homes in Greater Jerusalem and the West Bank was enough to outrage the West and give Palestinians a new excuse for breaking off peace talks. Or at least it was until Prime Minister Netanyahu soon overrode his subordinate and pointed out that the announcement was a meaningless political gesture and signified nothing more than intent since actual building required his support. Not looking for an unnecessary fight with Washington and, even more to the point, unwilling to give the Palestinians any new talking points, the prime minister put the matter on hold. For all intents and purposes, that ends that kerfuffle. But there’s more here than an obvious attempt by some of the more right-wing members of the government to grandstand for their base and to embarrass the PM.

As Netanyahu said, any major housing push by Israel in the territories is a distraction from the more important issue facing his government right now. With the United States still seeking to keep alive a deal with Iran that would make it more likely that the Islamist regime will eventually achieve nuclear capability than not, Israel is better off avoiding gestures that will only divert Congress and other Americans who might speak about it from this policy of appeasement. But as much as Netanyahu was right to put a lid on this discussion, it is still important to point out that even if all of those houses were built, none of them would constitute a genuine obstacle to a peace deal if the Palestinians really wanted one. Moreover, in the 24 hours since Netanyahu spiked the plan, the murder of yet another Israeli by a Palestinian terrorist has refocused the country on the real obstacle to peace: the incitement of hatred by the same Palestinian Authority that is supposed to be Israel’s partner.

The murder of 19-year-old Eden Atias, an off-duty soldier who was asleep on a bus, took place in Afula, a small city well inside the 1967 lines. But he is just the latest of a number of Israeli fatalities that is starting to take on the appearance of a wave of violence. The murderer, who was from the West Bank and had come to Israel supposedly to look for work, told police he was seeking to “avenge” not settlement building but the imprisonment of two relatives by Israel for terrorist activities. As Netanyahu and others in his government rightly pointed out in the aftermath of the killing, the willingness of the Palestinian Authority to broadcast and publish hate directed against Israelis and Jews—such as the recent sermon broadcast on official PA TV in which Mahmoud Abbas’s religious affairs minister claimed that both Yasir Arafat and the Prophet Muhammad were poisoned by Jews—is what is driving the violence and perpetuating the conflict.

Though the international media continues to treat even the possibility of new housing starts as somehow compromising the peace talks, a few facts need to be restated to debunk that notion.

First, almost all of the proposed building would take place in either Greater Jerusalem or the major settlement blocs that even the United States has acknowledged would have to remain inside Israel under any peace deal. Thus the addition of a few more homes there would not prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state in the rest of the West Bank or in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem were the PA ever to agree to such a deal. The building also doesn’t mean new settlements, just more houses in existing ones. Since the Palestinians are not enjoined to freeze building in parts of the West Bank that they are expected to keep in the event of peace, the carrying on about a few more apartments in places Israel will never give up is merely an effort to avoid discussing the real problems preventing an accord.

Nor would, as some have falsely alleged in the past, even the most controversial settlement plans involving the area connecting the Jewish suburb of Maale Adumim to Jerusalem cut off parts of the West Bank from each other or evict any West Bank Palestinians from their current homes.

Indeed, the focus on settlements is merely a way for the Palestinian leadership to try and avoid being put in the same uncomfortable position they were placed in back in 2000, 2001, and 2008 when they rejected Israeli offers of statehood that would have given them almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem. They know Israel has withdrawn settlements in the past and would, if the Palestinians were finally willing to show they were ending the conflict for all time by renouncing the “right” of return for refugees and accepting the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, be willing to do so again.

Instead of doing so, Abbas and his followers look for new rationales for walking out of the talks. Meanwhile, they keep the hatred flowing and the violence continues, something that convinces even more Israelis that they would be insane to duplicate the 2005 Gaza experiment and withdraw completely from the West Bank. If the Palestinians want to change their opinion, they’ll cease the fomenting of hate and stop the violence. Until then, they’ll have to content themselves with posturing about settlements that does nothing to get them closer to a state or the region to peace.

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Why Virginia Matters (Besides the Obvious)

Republicans looking for a silver lining in last week’s Virginia elections got some bad news today: it looks like the Democratic candidate for attorney general, Mark Herring, will eke out a victory by less than 200 votes, enabling the Democrats to sweep Election Day’s major contests in that state. The current margin of victory allows the Republican candidate, Mark Obenshain, to request a recount, which the state will pay for since the margin is less than one half of one percent, according to Time.

Though obviously not as significant as the governor’s race, the attorney general gets a head start on running for governor, since Virginia governors are limited to one term. This is especially true for an attorney general when his party does not also hold the governorship of the state, since it gives him an advantage in wrangling for the party’s gubernatorial nomination in the following election. The office can also offer an attorney general a way to gain national name recognition and experience, as Ken Cuccinelli did with his role in the states’ legal charge against ObamaCare.

So it would have been a consolation prize worth having for Republicans in Virginia. Additionally, the GOP is confronting what Reid Wilson calls a “changed electorate” that enabled Terry McAuliffe to win. McAuliffe can only serve one term, so Virginians just have to make sure he doesn’t do anything crazy in that time, like sell the state at a “Clinton 2016” fundraiser or some such. But after McAuliffe leaves office, Republicans will still have to face this “changed electorate,” and do so with the momentum pulling the state into the Democrats’ column. And that changed electorate is in part about turnout–an area the Democrats excelled in during President Obama’s reelection and which the Romney campaign flubbed badly. Wilson explains:

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Republicans looking for a silver lining in last week’s Virginia elections got some bad news today: it looks like the Democratic candidate for attorney general, Mark Herring, will eke out a victory by less than 200 votes, enabling the Democrats to sweep Election Day’s major contests in that state. The current margin of victory allows the Republican candidate, Mark Obenshain, to request a recount, which the state will pay for since the margin is less than one half of one percent, according to Time.

Though obviously not as significant as the governor’s race, the attorney general gets a head start on running for governor, since Virginia governors are limited to one term. This is especially true for an attorney general when his party does not also hold the governorship of the state, since it gives him an advantage in wrangling for the party’s gubernatorial nomination in the following election. The office can also offer an attorney general a way to gain national name recognition and experience, as Ken Cuccinelli did with his role in the states’ legal charge against ObamaCare.

So it would have been a consolation prize worth having for Republicans in Virginia. Additionally, the GOP is confronting what Reid Wilson calls a “changed electorate” that enabled Terry McAuliffe to win. McAuliffe can only serve one term, so Virginians just have to make sure he doesn’t do anything crazy in that time, like sell the state at a “Clinton 2016” fundraiser or some such. But after McAuliffe leaves office, Republicans will still have to face this “changed electorate,” and do so with the momentum pulling the state into the Democrats’ column. And that changed electorate is in part about turnout–an area the Democrats excelled in during President Obama’s reelection and which the Romney campaign flubbed badly. Wilson explains:

The McAuliffe campaign had to invest heavily in digital media, Mook said, because many of the voters most likely to back the Democrat were part of groups that vote at lower rates — particularly younger voters and minorities. …

The gamble on turning out McAuliffe-friendly voters paid off: Exit polls showed the 2013 electorate was 72 percent white and 20 percent African American. Those two groups made up 78 percent and 16 percent, respectively, in 2009. Cuccinelli won white voters by a 56 percent to 36 percent margin, while McAuliffe won among blacks with 90 percent of the vote.

Younger voters, between the ages of 18 and 29, made up 13 percent of the electorate, three points higher than in 2009. Those voters gave McAuliffe a 45 percent to 40 percent edge; in 2009, younger voters chose Republican McDonnell by a 10-point margin.

So Virginia matters for all the obvious reasons: it used to be a red state; it may be a leading indicator of Republican struggles in swing states; it’s evidence the Democrats still have a superior ground game; etc. But it also matters for another reason, one that is both quantifiable and symbolic: the northern Virginia suburbs.

First, the quantifiable: as the Washington Post reports, population increases in the northern Virginia, blue-leaning counties hurt the Cuccinelli campaign in ways that portend trouble ahead for the Republicans. In three of those counties, for example, the Post explains that McAuliffe either matched, slightly exceeded, or slightly underperformed the voting percentages accrued there by Tim Kaine, the last Democrat to win the governorship eight years ago. Yet basically matching Kaine’s percentages in Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun counties still gave McAuliffe an extra 6,400, 7,000, and 300 or so votes respectively.

Northern Virginia is home to a sizable population of federal workers and where, according to the Hill, nearly one-third of the economy depends on the federal government. According to some estimates, there are 65,000 federal employees living in northern Virginia and 110,000 federal workers who work there. So the politics of Virginia are clearly influenced by the growth of government and people dependent on it.

And that gets to the symbolic aspect of this. The trend is understandable, but it is also an inversion of the benefits of the famous deal Thomas Jefferson and James Madison struck with Alexander Hamilton to locate the capital on the Potomac in return for the federal assumption of state debts (and a favorable accounting of such as far as Virginia was concerned). Their intentions, of course, are difficult to know. But the practical effect of locating the capital on the Potomac was to inaugurate a capital that was modest and humble, not imposing and imperialistic. As Joseph J. Ellis writes in Founding Brothers, in its early years it would easily assuage anyone’s concern about the powers of the new federal government: “It symbolized the victory of diffusion over consolidation.”

Skeptics of the federal government and the Hamilton deal wanted Madison and Jefferson to oppose it on the grounds that the debt assumption was akin to conquest by a foreign power–this new federal Leviathan, from which the states could be forgiven for contemplating secession. Ellis continues:

Jefferson and Madison claimed to share their apprehensions and their political principles, but not their secessionist impulses. Their strategy was different. They would not abandon the government, but capture it. Like the new capital, it would become an extension of Virginia, or at least the Virginia vision of what the American Revolution meant and the American republic was therefore meant to be.

The trend that carried McAuliffe to victory, and threatens to concretize in Virginia, is the opposite effect. It is the looming capture of Virginia by the federal government and the capital, and making Virginia an extension of the vision of the American republic according to the federal bureaucrat. Jefferson soon regretted the deal and his role in it, and nothing since then would likely change his mind.

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ObamaCare and the End of Civilization

For many conservatives, the advent of ObamaCare is nothing less than the thin edge of the wedge of socialism, as it subverts our freedom. There is a good argument to be made for that point of view and one that many in the middle class—who are the losers in the ObamaCare universe as they lose their policies and get bilked for new plans they don’t want at much higher premiums—are starting to understand. But when some on the right spoke of ObamaCare as if it was the end of civilization as we know it, most on the left just snickered. But now it appears those who were predicting the moral downfall of America weren’t entirely wrong. That’s the conclusion many have come to when they got a good look at the ads being run by a couple of liberal non-profit groups out to promote the president’s signature health-care legislation.

The “Got Insurance” campaign that has been launched by the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and Progress Now is aimed at convincing young adults, women, and minorities to sign up with ObamaCare. And, as Business Insider noted, the conceit of that effort is that the ads are so outrageous they are bound to go viral and thus spread the gospel of ObamaCare to its key target groups. While most young consumers are probably too smart to be sucked into the government health-care web in which they will be overcharged to pay for those who cannot afford any insurance, there’s no doubt the going viral part of the strategy worked. The ads advise those who see them that ObamaCare will, among other things, facilitate sexual hookups with attractive strangers or keep them healthy while they abuse alcohol. They may not be particular risqué by the standards of contemporary popular culture, but they do bring political discourse to a new low. While history will note that “If you like your health insurance, you can keep your health insurance” may be the most memorable phrase associated with ObamaCare, surely these “Brosurance” ads will be among its most memorable images when future generations try to figure out what exactly the 44th president tried to inflict on American society.

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For many conservatives, the advent of ObamaCare is nothing less than the thin edge of the wedge of socialism, as it subverts our freedom. There is a good argument to be made for that point of view and one that many in the middle class—who are the losers in the ObamaCare universe as they lose their policies and get bilked for new plans they don’t want at much higher premiums—are starting to understand. But when some on the right spoke of ObamaCare as if it was the end of civilization as we know it, most on the left just snickered. But now it appears those who were predicting the moral downfall of America weren’t entirely wrong. That’s the conclusion many have come to when they got a good look at the ads being run by a couple of liberal non-profit groups out to promote the president’s signature health-care legislation.

The “Got Insurance” campaign that has been launched by the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and Progress Now is aimed at convincing young adults, women, and minorities to sign up with ObamaCare. And, as Business Insider noted, the conceit of that effort is that the ads are so outrageous they are bound to go viral and thus spread the gospel of ObamaCare to its key target groups. While most young consumers are probably too smart to be sucked into the government health-care web in which they will be overcharged to pay for those who cannot afford any insurance, there’s no doubt the going viral part of the strategy worked. The ads advise those who see them that ObamaCare will, among other things, facilitate sexual hookups with attractive strangers or keep them healthy while they abuse alcohol. They may not be particular risqué by the standards of contemporary popular culture, but they do bring political discourse to a new low. While history will note that “If you like your health insurance, you can keep your health insurance” may be the most memorable phrase associated with ObamaCare, surely these “Brosurance” ads will be among its most memorable images when future generations try to figure out what exactly the 44th president tried to inflict on American society.

It’s not clear just how many 20-somethings saw these ads or were influenced by them. Since only 106,185 people enrolled in October (with only some of them actually finalizing their purpose), a fifth of what the government originally expected, it’s not likely too many of those looking for free condoms and assurances that their binges will not leave them paying for their own hospitalizations have signed on.

I know those who have no problem with this will say that this is how people live now and those who are squeamish about such messages should realize that we’re not living in the 1950s anymore. But it’s fair to ask if this is exactly what Americans thought they were getting when President Obama and congressional Democrats rammed this bill down the nation’s throats. Did those who succumbed to the liberal siren song of bringing insurance to the poor think that what the government was doing was an attempt to capitalize on anonymous sex and alcoholism? And what does it say about us as a nation that this is the level of discourse about health in our country and that supporters of the president are condoning social pathologies in order to trick young Americans into ObamaCare?

If 20 years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote of how society had defined deviancy down and therefore legitimized behaviors that were once considered outside the norm, it appears that ObamaCare has gone one step further.

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What Will Become of Iraqi Jewish Artifacts?

Operation Iraqi Freedom had many side stories, but one of the most important to historians and religious scholars was the discovery of a vast archive of Iraqi Jewish artifacts that had been seized and in some cases stolen from the Iraqi Jewish community by Saddam Hussein and kept off-limits in the basement of Iraq’s secret police headquarters. When U.S. forces bombed the mukhabarat building, the basement flooded, soaking and in some cases submerging centuries-old manuscripts and other objects. The New York Times adds some detail to the initial discovery.

The Washington Post also has described the treasure trove:

The material, found when U.S. troops invaded Iraq a decade ago, includes a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible and a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna. There is a small, hand-inked 1902 Passover Haggada, a colorful 1930 prayer book in French and a beautifully printed collection of sermons by a rabbi made in Germany in 1692.

In 2003, the U.S. government transferred much of the material to the United States in order to restore and conserve it:

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Operation Iraqi Freedom had many side stories, but one of the most important to historians and religious scholars was the discovery of a vast archive of Iraqi Jewish artifacts that had been seized and in some cases stolen from the Iraqi Jewish community by Saddam Hussein and kept off-limits in the basement of Iraq’s secret police headquarters. When U.S. forces bombed the mukhabarat building, the basement flooded, soaking and in some cases submerging centuries-old manuscripts and other objects. The New York Times adds some detail to the initial discovery.

The Washington Post also has described the treasure trove:

The material, found when U.S. troops invaded Iraq a decade ago, includes a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible and a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna. There is a small, hand-inked 1902 Passover Haggada, a colorful 1930 prayer book in French and a beautifully printed collection of sermons by a rabbi made in Germany in 1692.

In 2003, the U.S. government transferred much of the material to the United States in order to restore and conserve it:

The Jewish cache was originally found by a group of U.S. troops from a “mobile exploitation team” assigned to search for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons… After the befouled water was removed from the Baghdad basement, Hamburg said, the items were placed outside to dry. They were then stored in 27 metal trunks for safekeeping. But “between the heat and humidity, everything became quite moldy,” Hamburg said. The trunks were turned over to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, which asked the National Archives for help. The Archives urged that the materials be frozen; they were placed in the freezer truck of a local businessman. In June 2003, Hamburg and her colleague Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, director of conservation for the Archives, flew to Baghdad to assess the situation. Hamburg said an arrangement was made with Iraqi representatives to bring the items to the United States for preservation and exhibition, after which they would be returned to Iraq.

The National Archives has posted before-and-after photos of some of the documents. After the exhibit closes on January 5, 2014, the material will be returned to Iraq. This has rightly caused some consternation and, indeed, outrage among Iraqi Jews, whom successive Iraqi regimes forced into exile, confiscating property and communal heritage. What for the Iraqi government may a question of sovereignty, Iraqi Jews see as a question of justice. The State Department, not surprisingly, sided with Baghdad. Perhaps had they tried harder, they could have threaded the needle and assuaged both parties. While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government will honor its commitments to safeguard the trove, there is no guarantee once there is a transition of power. Shi’ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr would like nothing better than to build a bonfire to eradicate the last of Iraq’s Jewish heritage.

While a more progressive Iraqi government might require school children to tour the repository to gain a better understanding of Iraq’s true heritage, the chance of that happening in the coming years is miniscule. Iraq might see its possession of the Jewish archive as confirmation of its sovereignty, but it should also see it as an opportunity to rebrand Iraq abroad, perhaps by keeping the Jewish archive as a traveling exhibit into the next decade. It could attract thousands of people across Europe, Asia, and the United States who see Iraq only as a nation of conflict, and educate them about other faces of Iraq. Let us hope that Iraq’s victory will not be Pyrrhic, because if anything happens to this treasure trove, that will cap a legacy already hard to live down.

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U.S. Should Embrace Syrian Kurdistan

Twenty-two years after their Iraqi Kurdish brethren proclaimed their autonomy against the backdrop of an uprising against Saddam Hussein, Syrian Kurds yesterday formally declared the creation of an autonomous government. The United States should embrace the move. Syrian Kurds have largely restored order to the territory they control in and around the town of Qamishli. Children go to school, hospitals are open, and the local government provides basic services. This was no mean feat: Syrian Kurdish militias had to defend their region from encroachments and attacks from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

So far, the United States has avoided contact with the Syrian Kurds, and has repeatedly denied Democratic Union Party (PYD) leader Salih Muslim a visa. The problem is two-fold: First, the PYD maintains close relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Ninety percent of Syrian Kurds sympathize with the PKK, which is no surprise since its leader Abullah Öcalan had for years resided in Syria and because they see the revived Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) as both corrupt and tribal: Syrian Kurds have no desire for leaders who prioritize a distant family over their own. American officials also say that the PYD is too close to Bashar al-Assad. This is an exaggeration: the PYD sees extremism on both sides of the conflict, and has worked to maintain their neutrality.

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Twenty-two years after their Iraqi Kurdish brethren proclaimed their autonomy against the backdrop of an uprising against Saddam Hussein, Syrian Kurds yesterday formally declared the creation of an autonomous government. The United States should embrace the move. Syrian Kurds have largely restored order to the territory they control in and around the town of Qamishli. Children go to school, hospitals are open, and the local government provides basic services. This was no mean feat: Syrian Kurdish militias had to defend their region from encroachments and attacks from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

So far, the United States has avoided contact with the Syrian Kurds, and has repeatedly denied Democratic Union Party (PYD) leader Salih Muslim a visa. The problem is two-fold: First, the PYD maintains close relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Ninety percent of Syrian Kurds sympathize with the PKK, which is no surprise since its leader Abullah Öcalan had for years resided in Syria and because they see the revived Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) as both corrupt and tribal: Syrian Kurds have no desire for leaders who prioritize a distant family over their own. American officials also say that the PYD is too close to Bashar al-Assad. This is an exaggeration: the PYD sees extremism on both sides of the conflict, and has worked to maintain their neutrality.

To ignore the autonomous Kurdish government in Syria would be a major mistake, however. The Syrian opposition has radicalized over the years. The moderates have long since been pushed aside. The alternative to the secular Kurdish administration is the Nusra Front and other opposition groups which hold the West in disdain.

In 1991, the Iraqi Kurds were pariahs, and treated poorly by the United States. Let us be glad that the Iraqi Kurds were forgiving, because they ultimately proved to be a great strategic asset to the United States. So long as the Syrian Kurds do not prematurely try to change Syria’s borders, there is no reason why we should not embrace the opportunity to bolster U.S. strategic interests and local liberty at the same time.

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Obama Is Flunking the Global Test

During a press conference in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, a Gulf News reporter asked Secretary of State John Kerry what assurances he could give about sanctions on Iran, because “In spite of the American assurances, there are fears at the popular and government levels in the Gulf Cooperation Council concerning improved relations with Iran.” In the course of a 1,162-word response, Kerry assured the reporter that “President Obama is a man of his word”: 

“He is stating clearly: Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. That is a centerpiece of his foreign policy and he will not bluff. As he said to me point blank when I became Secretary of State, I asked him about it. He said, ‘I don’t bluff.’ This is our policy.”

Has there ever been a U.S. president who had to keep assuring the world (and even his own secretary of state) that he doesn’t bluff? Has there ever been a secretary of state like the one who resolved his concerns about Obama’s bluffing by asking Obama whether he is bluffing–and then told a press conference he had had the same concerns about bluffing that they have, but resolved his doubts by having the president repeat his words? Those who think the repetition of the president’s words reflect his commitment to them probably think they can keep their insurance if they like it.

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During a press conference in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, a Gulf News reporter asked Secretary of State John Kerry what assurances he could give about sanctions on Iran, because “In spite of the American assurances, there are fears at the popular and government levels in the Gulf Cooperation Council concerning improved relations with Iran.” In the course of a 1,162-word response, Kerry assured the reporter that “President Obama is a man of his word”: 

“He is stating clearly: Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. That is a centerpiece of his foreign policy and he will not bluff. As he said to me point blank when I became Secretary of State, I asked him about it. He said, ‘I don’t bluff.’ This is our policy.”

Has there ever been a U.S. president who had to keep assuring the world (and even his own secretary of state) that he doesn’t bluff? Has there ever been a secretary of state like the one who resolved his concerns about Obama’s bluffing by asking Obama whether he is bluffing–and then told a press conference he had had the same concerns about bluffing that they have, but resolved his doubts by having the president repeat his words? Those who think the repetition of the president’s words reflect his commitment to them probably think they can keep their insurance if they like it.

The UAE reporter’s question expressed the heart of the problem facing Obama, because the question was essentially this: what assurances can you give, other than your assurances, because we don’t believe your assurances? Kerry’s long-winded response demonstrated the answer was not easy.

Lack of confidence in Obama is now obvious in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel; the governments of France, Britain, and Germany reportedly do not trust him and consider him a problem; the UAE and other relatively moderate Arab governments are clearly concerned. Even the palace media have acknowledged the problem. In his interview Sunday with Kerry on Meet the Press, David Gregory concisely summarized the concern Kerry has faced throughout the region:

“And let me sum it up this way. It amounts to this criticism that the President appears reluctant to exercise power on the world stage. It’s not just Israel. It’s Egypt. It’s Saudi Arabia. There’s a feeling that the U.S. has abandoned critical friends in that region, in part because you’re moving toward a deal with Iran which could provide them tremendous economic relief when, at the same time, critics would say their major client, Syria, has gotten a pass to murder their own people as long as they don’t use chemical weapons, so that all of this is amounting to this reluctance to really exercise U.S. power.”

Kerry’s answer to Gregory, while shorter than his response to the UAE reporter, was singularly unconvincing.

The real answer is that Obama is comfortable with one-off, targeted SEAL operations, accompanied by a memo from him memorializing the basis on which he approved the mission, but the geopolitical exercise of power is something he abhors. He believes, as he said in his 2009 Cairo address, that human history has seen nations “subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests,” but “such attitudes are self-defeating,” and “any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” In his Cairo speech, he cited Thomas Jefferson’s words: “the less we use our power the greater it will be.” His presidency has been one long demonstration that, whatever the applicability of those words to a struggling young country, they are not comforting to the allies of a supposed superpower. 

It is hard to remember a time when an array of states as broad as Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have publicly expressed their dissatisfaction with American leadership; and as Benjamin Netanyahu noted, the list of states that privately share those views is longer. Obama is failing what Kerry might call the global test. As Jonathan argues today, it is time for the Senate to step in. 

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False Choice Between War and Sanctions

One of President Obama’s favorite rhetorical tics is his consistent effort to decry his critics as trying to force Americans to make a “false choice.” As even liberal Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote back in 2011, the president used the cliché as a device to skewer his critics on every conceivable topic to the point where she and others begged him to stop lest the phrase lose all meaning. But as anyone who paid attention during the 2012 campaign knows, he ignored her advice and continued to flay Mitt Romney and the Republicans with the same routine. I was reminded of that yesterday when White House spokesperson Jay Carney was guilty of exactly what his boss always used to accuse the GOP of doing. In trying to argue against the effort to toughen sanctions on Iran, Carney claimed that the decision on the question was one in which the U.S. was choosing between war and peace. Decrying the bipartisan push for sanctions, Carney warned, “The American people do not want a march for war.”

Claiming that supporters of sanctions are pushing for war is exactly the sort of inflammatory rhetoric that Carney decries when it comes from the mouths of conservatives on other issues. Speaking in that way poisons the debate as well as further degrades the tone of political discourse. But this attack is not only extreme; it’s also illogical. If those pushing for more sanctions really wanted war, they wouldn’t be bothering with more sanctions. After all, the only point of sanctions is to aid diplomacy. The argument here is not whether one side wants war and the other doesn’t. Nobody wants war with Iran. But if the U.S. fails to put more heat on the Iranians via the only mechanism that exists—economic sanctions that would essentially prevent Iran from continuing to sell oil for money that it uses to fund both its nuclear program and international terrorism—then the choice Washington will face will be one between the use of force or deciding to “contain” an Iran that will ultimately gain nuclear capability.

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One of President Obama’s favorite rhetorical tics is his consistent effort to decry his critics as trying to force Americans to make a “false choice.” As even liberal Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote back in 2011, the president used the cliché as a device to skewer his critics on every conceivable topic to the point where she and others begged him to stop lest the phrase lose all meaning. But as anyone who paid attention during the 2012 campaign knows, he ignored her advice and continued to flay Mitt Romney and the Republicans with the same routine. I was reminded of that yesterday when White House spokesperson Jay Carney was guilty of exactly what his boss always used to accuse the GOP of doing. In trying to argue against the effort to toughen sanctions on Iran, Carney claimed that the decision on the question was one in which the U.S. was choosing between war and peace. Decrying the bipartisan push for sanctions, Carney warned, “The American people do not want a march for war.”

Claiming that supporters of sanctions are pushing for war is exactly the sort of inflammatory rhetoric that Carney decries when it comes from the mouths of conservatives on other issues. Speaking in that way poisons the debate as well as further degrades the tone of political discourse. But this attack is not only extreme; it’s also illogical. If those pushing for more sanctions really wanted war, they wouldn’t be bothering with more sanctions. After all, the only point of sanctions is to aid diplomacy. The argument here is not whether one side wants war and the other doesn’t. Nobody wants war with Iran. But if the U.S. fails to put more heat on the Iranians via the only mechanism that exists—economic sanctions that would essentially prevent Iran from continuing to sell oil for money that it uses to fund both its nuclear program and international terrorism—then the choice Washington will face will be one between the use of force or deciding to “contain” an Iran that will ultimately gain nuclear capability.

Carney seems to be operating on the assumption that the deal that Secretary of State John Kerry tried to get the Iranians to sign last weekend in Geneva can actually resolve the issue. But, unfortunately for Kerry, his proposal for loosening sanctions in exchange for an Iranian promise to freeze their enrichment of uranium was so flimsy that even the French were appalled and demanded that it be strengthened. Since Iran is counting on the administration’s hunger for a deal of any sort, they understandably refused to go along and the latest P5+1 talks ended without an agreement.

While Kerry may still be laboring under the delusion that he has the Iranians right where he wants them, the Islamist regime is giving every sign that it will never give up its nuclear ambition and is only stringing the U.S. along in the same manner with which it has conducted diplomacy for the last decade. Clearly, if negotiations are ever to succeed—and it must be conceded that there is reason to doubt Iran will ever relinquish its quest for a weapon—the West needs to raise the stakes rather than starting down the slippery slope of appeasement. The divide here is not between peacemakers and warmongers—Carney’s false choice. Rather, it is between those who are still dedicated to the proposition that Iran must be forced to give up its uranium enrichment altogether as well as its plutonium alternative and those who think the only way out of President Obama’s oft-repeated pledge about stopping Iran requires the U.S. to concede their “right” to enrich and to have a nuclear program that sooner or later will be converted to military use.

Judging by the canvassing of members of the Senate by the press recently, Carney’s argument is not gaining much traction. Support for more sanctions isn’t limited to the president’s usual cast of cardboard villains, i.e. conservative Republicans. Most troubling for the president is the fact that Robert Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appears set on pushing through a new sanctions bill. Though some Democrats, like New York’s Chuck Schumer, are wavering, it’s likely that enough votes can be culled from both sides of the aisle to pass it. If so, it’s because members of the Senate like Menendez recall the administration’s arguments two and three years ago against passage of the very same sanctions that it now credits with having brought the Iranians back to the negotiating table. If those sanctions were not a step toward war, why would the new bill—which merely builds upon the existing structure to close the noose around Iran’s oil exports—be any different?

After last week’s fiasco in Geneva, Kerry’s already shaky credibility is in tatters. While it is difficult to place any confidence in the secretary or his negotiating team, if they are to have even a ghost of a chance of convincing Iran to back off, it will only be after the ayatollahs are convinced that the U.S. means business. Unfortunately, everything this administration has done—as opposed to what it has said—in the last five years has led them to think President Obama is a paper tiger. Not only do they not fear the United States, Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei believes he can manipulate the Americans into loosening existing sanctions while leaving in place the Iranian infrastructure that will make it possible for them to evade any agreement and, like the North Koreans, eventually get their bomb anyway. A vote for more sanctions is a message to Iran that this won’t be possible. Despite Kerry’s inept diplomacy and pleadings and Carney’s intemperate advocacy, the Senate should waste no time in sending it.

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Can Obama’s Promise Still Be Kept?

Between the military cuts, the push to expand subprime mortgages, the colossal failure of Mideast peace negotiations, and the recession that greeted his exit from office, Bill Clinton made a habit of ill-considered policies that he would later, in true Clintonesque fashion, blame on his successors. So it is with some sympathy that I read Ezra Klein’s take on the former president’s role in the recent health-care debacle.

As Jonathan noted yesterday, Clinton took a shot at President Obama for his promise that if people liked their health-care plans they could keep them. Klein counters that Clinton poisoned the well for his successors, making clear messaging on health-care reform impossible. Clinton, he explains, tried to pass a health-care reform law that would upend the insurance market, thus dooming the plan because most people who have insurance tend to be happy with it. Klein continues:

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Between the military cuts, the push to expand subprime mortgages, the colossal failure of Mideast peace negotiations, and the recession that greeted his exit from office, Bill Clinton made a habit of ill-considered policies that he would later, in true Clintonesque fashion, blame on his successors. So it is with some sympathy that I read Ezra Klein’s take on the former president’s role in the recent health-care debacle.

As Jonathan noted yesterday, Clinton took a shot at President Obama for his promise that if people liked their health-care plans they could keep them. Klein counters that Clinton poisoned the well for his successors, making clear messaging on health-care reform impossible. Clinton, he explains, tried to pass a health-care reform law that would upend the insurance market, thus dooming the plan because most people who have insurance tend to be happy with it. Klein continues:

In the aftermath of Clinton’s failure, health-care reformers swung far to the other side. Rather than building a plan in which almost everyone lost their insurance, they began trying to build plans in which almost no one lost their insurance — and selling them under the promise that literally no one would.

Klein is right that it takes a certain chutzpah for Clinton to kick sand in Obama’s face in order to help his wife’s potential 2016 presidential campaign. But Klein’s argument only goes so far. Klein is essentially arguing that Clinton’s health-care experience had two major effects on the current law: that it would be crafted to minimize insurance turnover, and that Obama would have to sell the plan by pushing a major falsehood. Neither of those two things is true, but the latter–that Clinton deserves the blame for someone else’s lie–seems pretty unjustifiable.

The idea that ObamaCare was designed to enable people to keep their insurance is not accurate. As we know, it was designed to kick large numbers of people off their insurance by rendering many existing plans noncompliant. But the more important part of Clinton’s statement is that Obama should keep his promise, because it’s unclear, as Politico explains, that he can:

Allowing the 2013 plans to continue to operate into 2014 — a proposal that has generated interest in Congress — is considered unlikely. Insurers wouldn’t be able to quickly restore plans that are already being shut down and it would undercut some central promises of Obama’s signature law.

Jonathan Gruber, one of the authors of the Massachusetts health plan and an MIT economics professor, says such an idea is impractical. There is no “free lunch” in which people can just decide not to join the Obamacare plans, which were priced on the assumption that the insurers would get a certain number of customers.

The White House is “just reacting to one broken promise by imposing a much larger and harmful one: our promise to insurers that if they priced fairly, we would deliver a broad pool of insured,” Gruber wrote in an email. “If you allow the healthy enrollees to stay out in their old policy, the insurers lose money and the program falls apart.”

The “keep your insurance” nonsense wasn’t the only broken promise, and fixing it may require breaking other promises. ObamaCare was always unwise policy, but it’s becoming clear to the public just how faulty this reform law is. That surely has something to do with the latest dismal polling on Obama from Quinnipiac. The most telling result in the poll is probably the fact that when asked whether they trust Obama or Republicans in Congress more on health care, congressional Republicans edge the president 43-42 percent. Here’s Quinnipiac’s trend chart to show the significance of it:

quinnipiacHC

The president has dropped eleven points on that question since his high of July 2009. But the danger here is not just that Americans find Republicans more trustworthy on the president’s signature issue. It’s that these numbers may not represent the president’s floor.

It now appears, as the Washington Post reports, that the Healthcare.gov website may not be fixed by its end-of-November deadline. In light of the other issues, the website may seem like the least of the administration’s troubles. But it’s not, because if the numbers of those who get kicked off their insurance plans keep rising, and those policies can’t be reinstated, then a broken exchange website means that ObamaCare will have cost many their insurance and is now keeping them from getting new insurance.

They can extend the deadline for compliance with the individual mandate all they want: those losing their insurance due to the health-care law that is also preventing them from getting new insurance are probably not worrying primarily about the mandate noncompliance penalty. They are worried about the rest of the damage ObamaCare is doing to their health care and that of millions of others because of a promise that wasn’t, and probably can’t be, kept.

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Superpower Outage

Jonathan Tobin rightly dismisses as dangerous any Israeli attempt to play China or Russia off the United States out of frustration with the Iran policy of the Obama administration. When it comes to dealing with the immediate threat posed by Iran, only Washington has superpower leverage, and if Israel wanders off the reservation, it will only damage itself.

But Jonathan makes a further claim: “Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.” This “linkage” is problematic, and its acceptance could blind Israelis to what they need to do to survive through the next half-century.

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Jonathan Tobin rightly dismisses as dangerous any Israeli attempt to play China or Russia off the United States out of frustration with the Iran policy of the Obama administration. When it comes to dealing with the immediate threat posed by Iran, only Washington has superpower leverage, and if Israel wanders off the reservation, it will only damage itself.

But Jonathan makes a further claim: “Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.” This “linkage” is problematic, and its acceptance could blind Israelis to what they need to do to survive through the next half-century.

The problem with American power, like all power, is that it waxes and wanes. We have become used to the notion that U.S. preeminence in the world and the Middle East is a constant. But it isn’t so. Geography has rendered the United States the most self-contained superpower in history. As a result, it goes through manic bouts of interventionism and isolationism, and sometimes awakens to the responsibilities of its power too late. It did so during the Holocaust, and it did so during the first years of Israeli independence, when the fledgling Jewish state had to look to the Soviet Union and France for the arms essential to its defense. The simple truth is that Israel cannot rely on the United States to do just the right thing at just the right time. That’s at the heart of the crisis of confidence between the United States and Israel over Iran, and its sources run deeper than the particular world view of Barack Obama.

More than six years ago, before Obama even declared his candidacy, I told the Conference of Presidents that “America’s era in the Middle East will end one day,” and that “it is possible that in twenty years’ time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?” Obama accelerated that timetable, but the long-term trend has been clear for years. And one doesn’t have to be a “declinist” to realize that the United States can lead the free world and still write off the Middle East, which isn’t part of it. That’s precisely the mood in America today.

Hedging has been a fundamental principle of Zionism from its inception. That’s how it managed to outlast the fall of two empires that dominated the Middle East in the pre-state decades. When political Zionism emerged, the Ottoman Empire still held sway over the land, and Theodor Herzl went as a supplicant to the sultan’s palace in Istanbul. As late as 1912, the future first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and the future second president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, went to Istanbul to study Ottoman law, on the assumption that they would have to build the Yishuv under the same Ottoman power that had ruled the country for four centuries. (Here they are, looking like the deputies to the Ottoman parliament they planned to become.) A few years later, Ottoman power collapsed. Fortunately, Chaim Weizmann had laid the foundations for the support of the Allied victors, above all the British, whose empire now expanded to encompass the core of the Middle East.

British dominance in Palestine lasted for thirty years, during which London became the center of Zionist political activity. Britain was the mother of democracy, bastion of freedom, and home to a strong tradition of philo-Judaism and Christian Zionism. Much was made of “shared values.” But Britain, after facilitating the remarkable growth of the Yishuv, backtracked on its commitment to Zionism at the very moment of paramount Jewish need. It was Ben-Gurion who understood that the world war would bring down the British empire across Asia and Africa, Palestine included, and who sought an alliance with the ascendant United States. Still, years would pass before the United States would admit Israel to a “special relationship,” leaving Israel to fend for itself in the world’s arms market. That insecurity drove Israel to ally with Britain and France against Nasser’s Egypt—to Washington’s chagrin—and to build a nuclear capability with French assistance—in defiance of Washington.

Those days may seem distant, and Israel and the United States have had an extraordinary run. But history stands still for no people, and if our history has taught us anything about geopolitics, it is this: what is will not be. However enamored we are of the status quo, Israel needs a Plan B, and it has to consist of more than editorially flogging America for failing to maintain its forward positions in the Middle East. The State of Israel, like Zionism before it, must be agile enough to survive a power outage of any ally, and to plug in elsewhere. If Israel’s long-term safety really did depend on America’s will to govern the world, then it would be a poor substitute for Judaism’s own survival mechanism, by which the Jewish people outlasted the fall of countless host empires. But Israel’s future depends upon something within its own grasp: its ability to read the changing map of the world, to register the ebb and flow of global power, and to adapt as necessary.

Let us pray for the perpetuation of America’s power to do good in the world. Let us prepare for something less.

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