Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 25, 2013

Scott Walker and the Fight for the Center

The week after Election Day earlier this month belonged to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But last week belonged to another Republican governor: Scott Walker. Walker was unleashed on the Sunday shows and in the days that followed it was hard to avoid the Wisconsin governor on television as he pitched his new book Unintimidated, that tells the story of his successful battle against union thugs and their political enablers. The book tour reinforced the rumors that have been percolating in Republican circles since he beat liberals who sought to recall him in June of 2012 that Walker was interested in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. And, as I wrote last week, the governor wasn’t shy about volunteering himself for the job. The question is: has the PR effort on his behalf put him into the conversation for 2016 and if so, who benefits and who has the most to lose from his heightened prominence?

The definitive answer as to whether Walker is now in the mix for 2016 came not from a Republican source but from liberals. As Politico reports, American Bridge, a Democratic proxy group that is geared to help clear the way for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, took its first shot at Walker claiming that his goals for creating jobs in Wisconsin haven’t been met. Walker, who criticized Clinton as a product of a dysfunctional Washington political culture, has clearly gotten under the Democrats’ skin. Like Christie, who got his first volleys of criticism from the mainstream media after a year of praise once he started tiptoeing toward the presidency, Walker is now viewed as a Republican Democrats are more than a little worried about.

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The week after Election Day earlier this month belonged to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But last week belonged to another Republican governor: Scott Walker. Walker was unleashed on the Sunday shows and in the days that followed it was hard to avoid the Wisconsin governor on television as he pitched his new book Unintimidated, that tells the story of his successful battle against union thugs and their political enablers. The book tour reinforced the rumors that have been percolating in Republican circles since he beat liberals who sought to recall him in June of 2012 that Walker was interested in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. And, as I wrote last week, the governor wasn’t shy about volunteering himself for the job. The question is: has the PR effort on his behalf put him into the conversation for 2016 and if so, who benefits and who has the most to lose from his heightened prominence?

The definitive answer as to whether Walker is now in the mix for 2016 came not from a Republican source but from liberals. As Politico reports, American Bridge, a Democratic proxy group that is geared to help clear the way for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, took its first shot at Walker claiming that his goals for creating jobs in Wisconsin haven’t been met. Walker, who criticized Clinton as a product of a dysfunctional Washington political culture, has clearly gotten under the Democrats’ skin. Like Christie, who got his first volleys of criticism from the mainstream media after a year of praise once he started tiptoeing toward the presidency, Walker is now viewed as a Republican Democrats are more than a little worried about.

The reason why they should be worried about Walker became clear in the non-stop interviews he gave last week. While he had been demonized by the left as an extremist during his fight to reform Wisconsin’s budget process and his efforts to prevent unions from bankrupting the state, the real Scott Walker is a politician who is not easily categorized.

While reliably pro-life, Walker made no effort to hide the fact that he is not interested in running on issues dear to the hearts of social conservatives. Moreover, while he was one of the Tea Party’s original favorites, he also made no bones about his dismay about the government shutdown, which he denounced as a destructive maneuver. The fact that Rand Paul has recently said the same thing about an effort that he was part of shows just how unpopular the ill-conceived kamikaze charge led by Ted Cruz has become even on the right.

Walker also wisely stayed on message over the course of the week and refused to be drawn into any controversies about issues that didn’t relate to his reform efforts or his message about how can-do GOP governors offer the nation a clear alternative to D.C. dysfunction. Like Christie, who has largely done the same thing this past month, Walker won’t be able to stay out of the line of fire on issues like immigration or foreign policy indefinitely. But with his reelection in Wisconsin his first priority, there’s no question that he has put down a marker as a potential candidate to be reckoned with.

Walker’s first concerted attempt to inject himself into the national political conversation shows the strength of the Republican bench. The party is rightly pleased with a lineup of successful governors of whom Christie is the most famous but not necessarily the most loved by the party faithful. The subtext of the Christiemania that afflicted the media in November was that although the New Jersey governor was the Republican with the best chance to win the votes of independents and moderate Democrats in November 2016, the animus felt toward him by the Tea Party and other conservatives would doom any effort to win the GOP nomination. But that wasn’t entirely correct. If Christie were to have the center to himself in the 2016 Republican contest, the odds are he could win the nod no matter how much the right hated him in much the same manner that moderates like Mitt Romney and John McCain did in 2012 and 2008.

That’s where Walker comes in. As his statements last week demonstrated, though some in the media only think of him in terms of his battle with the left, the governor combines reformist conservative ideology with stands on other issues that place him very much in the center of his party. While the gaggle of candidates competing for Tea Party and social conservative votes may cancel each other out in 2016 as they did in 2012, it now appears that Walker and Christie will be facing off for the voters who gave the nomination to Romney. But since Walker seems to be better liked by those conservatives who abhor Christie for hugging Obama and winning in a blue state, that might make him a far more formidable contender to lead the Republicans than the man who was lampooned as a fat elephant on the cover of Time magazine.

Time will tell whether Walker will stand up to scrutiny in the same way that Christie will be forced to endure years of coverage not as the iconoclast running New Jersey but as the guy who wants to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency. And he also has to first win reelection this year in a state that will never give him the kind of landslide that launched Christie into the political stratosphere this month. While Democrats are already starting to prepare to take out Walker, it’s Christie who should be worried the most about his star turn.

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Obama, Iran, and the Jews Reconsidered

President Obama hasn’t made it easy on his Jewish supporters. Conservative critics—and if polls are right, the majority of Israelis—have always doubted his intentions toward the Jewish state and suspected him of either tilting toward the Palestinians or, as veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller memorably put it, someone who was “not in love with the idea of Israel.” But for the majority of American Jews who remain loyal Democrats and liberals, Obama was, at worst, a satisfactory ally of Israel, and, at best, the misunderstood victim of smears. At times, the president’s penchant for picking fights with the Netanyahu government over settlements, borders, and even a consensus Jewish issue like Jerusalem caused some liberal true believers like lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz to worry about his intentions. But even when the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem was at its worst during the past five years, the president’s supporters could point to the issue of paramount importance to Israel’s security and claim with some justification that he was as solid an ally as could be asked.

That issue was, of course, the Iranian nuclear threat, and from the earliest days of his first presidential campaign, Obama had made it clear that he would never allow them to gain a nuclear weapon. Though he had also mentioned his desire for a rapprochement with Iran in that first campaign, the president’s rhetoric on Iran was consistent and strong. Critics could point to failed efforts at engagement, his slowness to back tough sanctions, and his reliance on a shaky diplomatic process as undermining that rhetoric. Yet administration backers like columnist Jeffrey Goldberg continued to make the case that on this point there could be no doubting the president’s resolve.

But in the wake of this past weekend’s nuclear agreement with Iran and the evidence that the president has not only ignored Israel’s concerns about the deal (as well as those of Saudi Arabia) but appears to want a détente with Tehran that will upend America’s entire stance on the Middle East, it’s fair to say that the president has put his backers into a new and even more difficult test. Liberals may be lining up to take Obama and Secretary of State Kerry at their word that they have not given up their determination to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions and even accept the claim that the deal makes Israel safer. But given the administration’s acceptance of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and its apparent belief that it is unrealistic to think that Tehran can be forced to give up its nuclear program, belief in its bona fides on this issue can no longer be considered anything more than a leap of faith. At this point, American friends of Israel as well as those who understand the grave threat that Iran poses to U.S. interests and security need to face the fact that this president has abandoned them.

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President Obama hasn’t made it easy on his Jewish supporters. Conservative critics—and if polls are right, the majority of Israelis—have always doubted his intentions toward the Jewish state and suspected him of either tilting toward the Palestinians or, as veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller memorably put it, someone who was “not in love with the idea of Israel.” But for the majority of American Jews who remain loyal Democrats and liberals, Obama was, at worst, a satisfactory ally of Israel, and, at best, the misunderstood victim of smears. At times, the president’s penchant for picking fights with the Netanyahu government over settlements, borders, and even a consensus Jewish issue like Jerusalem caused some liberal true believers like lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz to worry about his intentions. But even when the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem was at its worst during the past five years, the president’s supporters could point to the issue of paramount importance to Israel’s security and claim with some justification that he was as solid an ally as could be asked.

That issue was, of course, the Iranian nuclear threat, and from the earliest days of his first presidential campaign, Obama had made it clear that he would never allow them to gain a nuclear weapon. Though he had also mentioned his desire for a rapprochement with Iran in that first campaign, the president’s rhetoric on Iran was consistent and strong. Critics could point to failed efforts at engagement, his slowness to back tough sanctions, and his reliance on a shaky diplomatic process as undermining that rhetoric. Yet administration backers like columnist Jeffrey Goldberg continued to make the case that on this point there could be no doubting the president’s resolve.

But in the wake of this past weekend’s nuclear agreement with Iran and the evidence that the president has not only ignored Israel’s concerns about the deal (as well as those of Saudi Arabia) but appears to want a détente with Tehran that will upend America’s entire stance on the Middle East, it’s fair to say that the president has put his backers into a new and even more difficult test. Liberals may be lining up to take Obama and Secretary of State Kerry at their word that they have not given up their determination to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions and even accept the claim that the deal makes Israel safer. But given the administration’s acceptance of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and its apparent belief that it is unrealistic to think that Tehran can be forced to give up its nuclear program, belief in its bona fides on this issue can no longer be considered anything more than a leap of faith. At this point, American friends of Israel as well as those who understand the grave threat that Iran poses to U.S. interests and security need to face the fact that this president has abandoned them.

The disappointment must be especially acute for Goldberg, who has continued to insist that Obama should be trusted on Iran, even insisting that he would, if push came to shove, order air strikes or do whatever it took to make good on his pledge. Thus, to read the latest Bloomberg column from this respected journalist is to see what happens when leaders cut their supporters off at the knees. Though the president has made Goldberg’s previous defenses of his Iran policy look silly, he is still hoping that the bottom line here won’t be complete betrayal and therefore tries weakly to rationalize or minimize what has just happened.

Goldberg’s position now is that demands for Iran to give up its nuclear program are unrealistic. That’s a new position for him, as he has never doubted that Iran’s goal was a weapon, a point that he doesn’t abandon even in his latest column when he rightly reminds us that, “Iran’s leaders are lying” about being only interested in a peaceful program. But also new is his belief that the crushing sanctions on Iran that he has been advocating for years would never bring about Iran’s capitulation. Thus he finds himself lamely accepting the administration’s excuse that a weak deal that legitimizes Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and does nothing to roll back the tremendous progress it has achieved on Obama’s watch is “the least-worst option.”

He justifies this surrender of principle by assuring himself, if not us, that Iran won’t take advantage of the opening Obama has given them. An even greater leap is his suggestion that after investing so much effort in this diplomatic campaign, the administration “might just have to walk away” from its new relationship with Iran once it realizes than Hassan Rouhani and the supposed moderates aren’t in charge in Tehran. This is absurd because, as reports about the secret diplomatic track that led to this agreement tell us, Obama’s efforts to make nice with Iran preceded Rouhani’s victory in the regime’s faux presidential election.

Equally absurd is his fainthearted attempt to reassure himself that “everything that has happened over these past months may not amount to anything at all.” Having gambled this much on appeasement of Iran, the administration isn’t backing off. No matter what tricks the Iranians pull in the next six months of talks, they know they’ve got the U.S. hooked and won’t let go. The future of the sanctions regime that neither Obama nor the Europeans ever really wanted is much more in question than Iran’s nuclear program. Only a fool would trust Iran’s word on this issue or believe that once they start to unravel, sanctions could be re-imposed.

All this puts American Jewish supporters of Israel like Goldberg in a tough position.

Liberal critics of Israel, like the J Street lobby that was set up to support Obama’s efforts to pressure the Jewish state to make concessions to the Palestinians, will instinctively back the president in any argument with Netanyahu. And it is true that most Americans are not terribly interested in involving the U.S. in yet another foreign conflict and may accept Obama and Kerry’s false argument that the alternative to a weak deal was war.

But mainstream American Jewish groups, and even most of their moderate and liberal supporters, understand what happened this past weekend was more than just another spat in a basically solid relationship. Try as they might, Obama and Kerry will be hard-pressed to persuade most supporters of Israel that they have the country’s best interests at heart as they embark on a road whose only main goal is to normalize relations with Iran.

Though American supporters of the Jewish state loved his rhetoric during his visit to Israel last spring, the president’s goal here has been to isolate America’s sole democratic ally in the Middle East. As Goldberg aptly pointed out, one of Obama’s prime objectives has been to ensure that Israel cannot act on its own or even in concert with some of its unlikely Arab allies of convenience against Iran. Indeed, that appears to be the only American objective that has actually been achieved with this agreement.

That is why Israel’s supporters cannot hesitate about backing congressional efforts to increase sanctions on Iran despite administration resistance. Jewish leaders were lied to earlier this month when senior officials tried to convince them to back off on lobbying for sanctions (an effort that met with at least partial success at first). They also lied to Netanyahu for months while Obama’s envoys were talking to Iran behind Israel’s back.

Obama has worried Jewish supporters before, but never has he so ruthlessly undermined their faith. The choice for the pro-Israel community is clear. It can, like Goldberg has done, redefine its objectives, and concede defeat on stopping Iran and/or pretend nothing has happened. Or it can find its collective voice and speak out against a terrible betrayal that gives the lie to every Obama statement about stopping Iran. If it chooses the latter, these groups will face the usual “Israel Lobby” calumnies from anti-Semites and Israel-haters who will claim they are undermining U.S. interests. But they cannot take counsel of their fears or be silenced. If they do, they will look back on this moment when it was still possible to mobilize congressional action against this betrayal with regret.

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The Proliferating Spheres of Influence

American political commentary was consumed on Thursday with the deployment by Senate Democrats of the so-called “nuclear option” to end the filibuster for their immediate agenda items. Two days later, that was easily outdone by the attention drawn to a more literal nuclear issue: the temporary deal over Iran’s nuclear program. So it was understandable that another piece of news that could prove to be of considerable historical import was overshadowed on Thursday, and its codicil overshadowed on Saturday.

On Thursday, the Guardian reported that Ukraine “abruptly” walked away from its efforts to sign a trade pact with the European Union. “Abruptly” is a good word for it: the two sides were widely expected to sign the deal at a summit in Vilnius on Friday. Throughout trade discussions, Russia has put pressure on Ukraine to convince it that it belongs not with Europe, but with its old friends in Moscow. This would be a symbolic twofer: losing Ukraine back into Russia’s “orbit,” and Moscow’s implicit declaration that Russia is not only not part of Europe but that the two belong to mutually exclusive geographic families.

But the story is far from over. The Ukrainian government is now trying to tamp down days of protests over the decision. Perhaps unavoidably, the conflict is discussed in Cold War terminology, though as Reuters reports, the post-Cold War language of some of the protesters can’t be reassuring to the Ukrainian government either:

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American political commentary was consumed on Thursday with the deployment by Senate Democrats of the so-called “nuclear option” to end the filibuster for their immediate agenda items. Two days later, that was easily outdone by the attention drawn to a more literal nuclear issue: the temporary deal over Iran’s nuclear program. So it was understandable that another piece of news that could prove to be of considerable historical import was overshadowed on Thursday, and its codicil overshadowed on Saturday.

On Thursday, the Guardian reported that Ukraine “abruptly” walked away from its efforts to sign a trade pact with the European Union. “Abruptly” is a good word for it: the two sides were widely expected to sign the deal at a summit in Vilnius on Friday. Throughout trade discussions, Russia has put pressure on Ukraine to convince it that it belongs not with Europe, but with its old friends in Moscow. This would be a symbolic twofer: losing Ukraine back into Russia’s “orbit,” and Moscow’s implicit declaration that Russia is not only not part of Europe but that the two belong to mutually exclusive geographic families.

But the story is far from over. The Ukrainian government is now trying to tamp down days of protests over the decision. Perhaps unavoidably, the conflict is discussed in Cold War terminology, though as Reuters reports, the post-Cold War language of some of the protesters can’t be reassuring to the Ukrainian government either:

“I have turned out for revolution because I have understood that the promises of Yanukovich to go into Europe were just pure comedy,” said Anatoly Gurkalyuk, 33, a builder.

That the Putin regime thinks the West has more or less left the playing field on these geopolitical tussles is no secret. In fact, the Russian government likes to emphasize the competition they’ve just “won” to maximize the propaganda value. And so after the major powers signed the accord with Iran, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that as the U.S. recedes from the Middle East, it should take its European missile defense system with it: “If the Iran deal is put into practice, the stated reason for the construction of the defense shield will no longer apply,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov was clearly enjoying the moment, but he actually raises a point of which the Obama administration, as it contemplates America’s new role in the world, would do well to be reminded: the illogic and foolhardy nature of the Obama administration’s compartmentalization of world affairs. It’s this mindset that has convinced the administration they can leave the Middle East behind and “pivot” to Asia. But on the day the deal with Iran was struck, China sent its own message on that score:

China established the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone on Saturday, and its Defense Ministry said it would take “defensive emergency measures” against unidentified aircraft that enter the zone.

A map and coordinates published Saturday showed the zone covers most of the East China Sea and includes a group of uninhabited islets whose ownership is disputed by China and Japan.

Secretary of State Kerry raised immediate objections to China following Russia’s lead in marking off its own sphere of influence. The Chinese response to Kerry involved a long walk and a short pier:

But Chinese officials dismissed the U.S. comments as unjustified interference.

American criticism of the air zone announcement is “completely unreasonable,” Col. Yang Yujun, a Ministry of National Defense spokesman, said Sunday.

The United States should stop taking sides on the issue, cease making “inappropriate remarks” and not send any more “wrong signals” that could lead to a “risky move by Japan,” he said.

The “pivot” to Asia always rested on a shaky foundation. As the Economist explained in 2011 when the pivot was gearing up, Obama saw the Pacific as a refuge from “inherited” troubles (mainly in the Middle East) and a way to chart his own path. He could never fully own the twin fates of Iraq and Afghanistan, and he couldn’t bank on striking an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

So the turn to Asia was perfect. He wouldn’t have to accomplish anything outstanding, just be able to take credit for a new strategic posture. His successors would undoubtedly visit the region often enough, but few would have been pompous enough to pretend that this was some sort of innovation. Obama and his foreign-policy team learned early on that all they had to do was come up with a bumper-sticker phrase or slogan and the media would credulously repeat it as if he had just discovered electricity. (This didn’t always work to the administration’s advantage, as it found out with the “leading from behind” debacle.)

The problem is that Obama looked at the pivot as an escape from conflicts that, in the age of the Internet and transnational political and terrorist networks, don’t stay in their box. More importantly, retreat from the major issues of the day sends the wrong message for any power looking to be respected in the far corners of the globe. So as the U.S. starts backing away from the Middle East, Lavrov reminds them to take their presence in Europe with them, and China practically laughs at the idea that they aren’t entitled to their own sphere of influence, as Russia and Iran seem to be. And then where will the president pivot?

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Obama, Iran, and Israel

British member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan, in speaking about President Obama, told Jamie Weinstein of The Daily Caller, “I’m not sure there has ever been a president who cares less about the U.S.’s relations with her traditional friends.” 

That point was underscored and demonstrated again this weekend, with the interim agreement focused on Iran’s nuclear program that the Obama administration agreed to. Jonathan did an excellent job outlining the weaknesses of the deal; so have others (see here and here).

I do find it remarkable that the president, even this president, would put forward a deal that is so manifestly in the interest of Iran and so obviously harmful to both America and Israel. On the latter, I concur with what former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton wrote:

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British member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan, in speaking about President Obama, told Jamie Weinstein of The Daily Caller, “I’m not sure there has ever been a president who cares less about the U.S.’s relations with her traditional friends.” 

That point was underscored and demonstrated again this weekend, with the interim agreement focused on Iran’s nuclear program that the Obama administration agreed to. Jonathan did an excellent job outlining the weaknesses of the deal; so have others (see here and here).

I do find it remarkable that the president, even this president, would put forward a deal that is so manifestly in the interest of Iran and so obviously harmful to both America and Israel. On the latter, I concur with what former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton wrote:

Buying time for its own sake makes sense in some negotiating contexts, but the sub silentio objective here was to jerry-rig yet another argument to wield against Israel and its fateful decision whether or not to strike Iran. Obama, fearing that strike more than an Iranian nuclear weapon, clearly needed greater international pressure on Jerusalem. And Jerusalem fully understands that Israel was the real target of the Geneva negotiations.  

This posture makes sense when you keep in mind that Barack Obama has never been particularly well disposed toward Israel and at times has treated its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, with contempt. But the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program goes beyond not standing with Israel against an existential threat. The president has now entered into a deal that has made Iran’s life much easier and Israel’s life much more difficult and dangerous. We’re witnessing an astonishing moral inversion. 

That there are people who do such things is nothing new; but that such a person would become president of the United States is.

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Why John Kerry Is Always the Last to Know

The search for explanations for the Obama administration’s serially inept diplomacy yielded some clues in the wake of the deal over Iran’s nuclear program. Though Secretary of State John Kerry had emitted an air of desperation in the last couple of weeks, watching the reactions of America’s allies made it clear not only that Kerry’s desperation was not widely shared but also that the Obama administration seems to have stopped listening–indeed, to have completely tuned out voices that may raise dissenting views.

Kerry’s victory tour on the political talk shows was instructive. Kerry repeatedly tried to squelch any talk of “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel on Iran, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was left repeating what he has been saying all week: yes, of course there is daylight between the two. Netanyahu thinks this is a “historic mistake” that will enable Iran to get closer to a bomb and thus put the region in danger. The oblivious Kerry simply ignored that, claiming the Israelis are safer when they say they are not.

Kerry doesn’t hear them, and the Obama administration has a history of claiming to know what Israel’s best interests are, so this is par for the course. The Obama administration is so sure it knows what’s best for Israel, in fact, that it didn’t feel it necessary to keep the Israelis apprised of what they were doing, despite the issue’s obvious impact on Israel and her neighbors. The Wire reports on conflicting claims as to how Israel found out about the U.S.-Iran talks–but neither claim holds that the U.S. told the Israelis what was going on. They apparently found out either through “intelligence” or from the Saudis.

The Saudis, after all, know what it’s like to be ignored by the Obama administration on key issues in the region. As the Washington Post reported earlier this month:

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The search for explanations for the Obama administration’s serially inept diplomacy yielded some clues in the wake of the deal over Iran’s nuclear program. Though Secretary of State John Kerry had emitted an air of desperation in the last couple of weeks, watching the reactions of America’s allies made it clear not only that Kerry’s desperation was not widely shared but also that the Obama administration seems to have stopped listening–indeed, to have completely tuned out voices that may raise dissenting views.

Kerry’s victory tour on the political talk shows was instructive. Kerry repeatedly tried to squelch any talk of “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel on Iran, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was left repeating what he has been saying all week: yes, of course there is daylight between the two. Netanyahu thinks this is a “historic mistake” that will enable Iran to get closer to a bomb and thus put the region in danger. The oblivious Kerry simply ignored that, claiming the Israelis are safer when they say they are not.

Kerry doesn’t hear them, and the Obama administration has a history of claiming to know what Israel’s best interests are, so this is par for the course. The Obama administration is so sure it knows what’s best for Israel, in fact, that it didn’t feel it necessary to keep the Israelis apprised of what they were doing, despite the issue’s obvious impact on Israel and her neighbors. The Wire reports on conflicting claims as to how Israel found out about the U.S.-Iran talks–but neither claim holds that the U.S. told the Israelis what was going on. They apparently found out either through “intelligence” or from the Saudis.

The Saudis, after all, know what it’s like to be ignored by the Obama administration on key issues in the region. As the Washington Post reported earlier this month:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry made what amounted to an emergency fence-mending trip to Saudi Arabia on Monday, reassuring King Abdullah in a rare and lengthy meeting that the United States considers the kingdom a major partner and regional power and that the Obama administration will step up its consultation on issues important to both nations. …

He also denied widespread speculation here that Obama is willing to accept a less-than-ironclad nuclear deal with Iran during the current round of negotiations. “The United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” Kerry said in an airport news conference with the foreign minister before departing.

“Did I give some assurances? Yes, absolutely. Of course I did,” he added.

Those “assurances” don’t seem to have had their intended effect. The Saudis were concerned enough to, apparently, alert the Israelis to Kerry’s desperation for a deal. But the Saudis and Israelis weren’t the only ones effectively talking to a wall when the Obama administration was involved. Everyone, perhaps Kerry most of all, acted pretty surprised when the French scuppered the initial deal in Geneva. But they shouldn’t have been surprised. Had Kerry been listening to European concerns he would have expected what he heard from the French. They had been making an argument nearly identical to the one many on the right have been making here in the U.S.: the sanctions, once eased, are likely to stay that way.

But of course it’s silly to think Kerry is listening to his domestic critics either. The Obama administration has stuck its fingers in its ears, choosing to deal only in straw men and never with reality. It would have benefited them greatly, however, to not be sealed off from anything that deviated from the administration’s groupthink. The French showed up in Geneva and said what many had said before. They wanted a deal with more restrictions on Iran because pausing the sanctions in Europe could be the beginning of the end of the European share of the sanctions regime:

France and other European Union countries, however, face fewer political restrictions on ending their core sanctions, which means any decision to lift them could be more far-reaching. In addition, officials said, the measures would be harder to reinstate should the talks unravel or Iran renege on its pledges.

Those considerations left the Europeans more hesitant to consider easing sanctions than the United States was.

That should have been a surprise to nobody. Instead it was a surprise only to Kerry and the rest of the administration’s crack negotiating squad. And if the Obama administration didn’t want to listen to America’s allies, officials could have at least paid attention to their negotiating partner, Iran. The wording of the deal would be crucial because permitting the Iranians leeway in their interpretation could be the deal’s undoing.

Sure enough, the New York Times reports:

There were already indications that Iran and the West were interpreting crucial parts of the six-month agreement differently. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has asserted that the agreement explicitly recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium. He also said the agreement effectively removed the threat of an American military strike.

Mr. Kerry rejected both of those contentions. “The fact is, the president maintains” the option to use force “as commander in chief, and he has said specifically, he has not taken that threat off the table,” he said on CBS.

Kerry is operating under the assumption that the administration still has reserves of credibility on this issue in the region, which borders on preposterous. But again, how would Kerry even know his credibility is shot? Perhaps the Saudis could let him in on the secret–if he’s willing to listen.

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Only Congress Can Keep Obama Honest on Iran

Judging from the reaction from the White House and its cheering section in the liberal media, the administration is convinced that the nuclear deal it struck with Iran this week is the first step toward a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy. By agreeing to legitimize Iran’s nuclear program and loosening sanctions in exchange for cosmetic concessions from Iran that did not roll back the regime’s dramatic advances toward its ambition to get a bomb in the last five years, President Obama has finally achieved his dream of initiating a détente with the ayatollahs that he first articulated during the 2008 presidential campaign. In doing so, he seeks to change the calculus in the Middle East and swing U.S. policy away from its traditional alliances with Israel and moderate Arab states like Saudi Arabia.

The president thinks this strategy will deter Iran from getting a bomb while also utilizing the help of the mullahs to settle things in Afghanistan and Syria. While defended by his apologists as a realist take on foreign policy, this is exactly the sort of magical thinking about Iran that characterized Jimmy Carter’s disastrous engagement with the ayatollahs. While, as I wrote yesterday, the chances that Iran will keep its word and not use American weakness and gullibility to move closer to a bomb are not zero, they are not much more than that. As for changing the region, by granting Iran a second huge victory (the first being his retreat on Syria that ensured Tehran’s ally Bashar Assad would stay in power), he has set in motion a chain of events that will further destabilize the region, make a nuclear arms race inevitable and emboldened terrorist groups allied with Iran. While this does represent a profound shift in U.S. policy, it is one that will leave the U.S. weaker, less secure, and less able to influence events than it is already.

Is there anything that can be done about this? While the president is right to think that no American ally can deter him from pursuing détente with the murderous Iranian regime–as his disdain for both Israel and Saudi Arabia makes clear–there is one factor that could obstruct his misguided attempt to essentially withdraw the U.S. from the Middle East: Congress. Only Congress has the ability to keep Obama honest on Iran.

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Judging from the reaction from the White House and its cheering section in the liberal media, the administration is convinced that the nuclear deal it struck with Iran this week is the first step toward a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy. By agreeing to legitimize Iran’s nuclear program and loosening sanctions in exchange for cosmetic concessions from Iran that did not roll back the regime’s dramatic advances toward its ambition to get a bomb in the last five years, President Obama has finally achieved his dream of initiating a détente with the ayatollahs that he first articulated during the 2008 presidential campaign. In doing so, he seeks to change the calculus in the Middle East and swing U.S. policy away from its traditional alliances with Israel and moderate Arab states like Saudi Arabia.

The president thinks this strategy will deter Iran from getting a bomb while also utilizing the help of the mullahs to settle things in Afghanistan and Syria. While defended by his apologists as a realist take on foreign policy, this is exactly the sort of magical thinking about Iran that characterized Jimmy Carter’s disastrous engagement with the ayatollahs. While, as I wrote yesterday, the chances that Iran will keep its word and not use American weakness and gullibility to move closer to a bomb are not zero, they are not much more than that. As for changing the region, by granting Iran a second huge victory (the first being his retreat on Syria that ensured Tehran’s ally Bashar Assad would stay in power), he has set in motion a chain of events that will further destabilize the region, make a nuclear arms race inevitable and emboldened terrorist groups allied with Iran. While this does represent a profound shift in U.S. policy, it is one that will leave the U.S. weaker, less secure, and less able to influence events than it is already.

Is there anything that can be done about this? While the president is right to think that no American ally can deter him from pursuing détente with the murderous Iranian regime–as his disdain for both Israel and Saudi Arabia makes clear–there is one factor that could obstruct his misguided attempt to essentially withdraw the U.S. from the Middle East: Congress. Only Congress has the ability to keep Obama honest on Iran.

While much of the mainstream media reacted to the Iran deal with relief at an opportunity to step back from the need to confront the nuclear peril, congressional reaction was both sober and appropriately critical. Both Republicans and Democrats rightly pointed out that the agreement the president grabbed was an unsatisfactory retreat from his past promises. Does this matter? In one sense, the answer is no. Congress is powerless to prevent Obama from signing any deal he wants with Iran. His executive powers allow him to release the billions in frozen assets that are being use to bribe the Iranians to sign the piece of paper in Geneva. But the sanctions that have squeezed Iran’s economy cannot be abrogated by presidential fiat. It will take congressional approval to do that, and if Iran is allowed to keep its nuclear toys and go on enriching uranium, that won’t happen.

Thus, despite his urging, it appears that the Senate will move ahead to pass the next round of tougher sanctions on Iran that have already been passed by the House. This bill will tighten the noose on the Iranian economy and make it even more difficult for the regime to go on selling its oil. But far from a breach of faith with Iran, as the administration claimed in recent weeks, passing the new sanctions will be the only thing that can keep the president honest on the subject.

As Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez indicated yesterday, the sanctions will probably be amended to postpone their implementation until after the six-month period during which the administration claims it will be negotiating a follow-up agreement with the Iranians. That will give President Obama a chance to prove that his deal is not merely an effort to appease Iran and that he is still serious about halting their push toward a weapon. But if six months from now the Iranians have still not agreed to dismantle a single centrifuge or given up their stockpile of enriched uranium, the sanctions will not be delayed.

As most members of Congress seem to recognize, the choice here was not between war and an unsatisfactory nuclear deal. They rightly disagree with the idea that Iran is too strong to be further opposed or that it is unrealistic to suppose the West can force the regime to give up their nuclear dream. While the signal of weakness from the administration to the Iranians may have convinced them they need not fear the use of force or continued sanctions, a determined stand by Congress may be the only thing that can act as any sort of deterrent against an Iranian nuclear breakout.

The push to pass sanctions will likely be criticized as the work of the dreaded “Israel Lobby,” and we have already begun to hear calumnies of those pushing to restrain Obama’s appeasement as being merely a function of the Jewish state’s instructions. One such statement came last week from Carter administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski who tweeted, “Obama/Kerry = best policy team since Bush I/Jim Baker. Congress is finally becoming embarrassed by Netanyahu’s efforts to dictate US policy.” If “best policy team” means most hostile to Israel, he’s probably right. But the key here is the attempt to brand members of Congress who won’t buy into Iran détente as being, in New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s phrase, “bought by the Jewish lobby.”

But I doubt Democrats like Menendez or Chuck Schumer or Republicans like Bob Corker or Lindsey Graham will be deterred by this kind of slander that borders on open anti-Semitism.

While Congress can’t stop the president from embarking on this potentially disastrous course of action toward Iran, it can make it impossible for him to further reward the ayatollahs if they continue their past policy of deceiving the West. The president may hope that once agreements are signed, the world will stop caring about Iranian nukes. But the House and the Senate should use their power of the purse to obstruct such a craven retreat from American responsibility. They are the only ones who have any hope of keeping Obama honest on Iran. And they should not be intimidated from doing so by anti-Semitic slanders.

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The Unraveling of Iran Sanctions

There are two major, competing alliances in the Middle East: pro- and anti-Iran. The “pro” bloc obviously includes Iran in addition to Syria, Hezbollah, and arguably the Iraqi government. The “anti” bloc includes just about everyone else–from Israel to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has long been seen as the strongest supporter of the “anti” bloc, which is hardly surprising since the Iranian regime has been waging war on the United States since its inception, whether with hostage taking or terrorist bombings.

But that perception is fast changing. First the American pullout from Iraq, then the deal with Syria, now the deal with Iran cast into serious doubt American resolve to stop Iran’s power grab and understandably alarm our allies. It feels as if there is a realignment of power taking place, with the U.S. counting for less and less: Both our friends and our enemies are less respectful now of American power and less likely to defer to us.

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There are two major, competing alliances in the Middle East: pro- and anti-Iran. The “pro” bloc obviously includes Iran in addition to Syria, Hezbollah, and arguably the Iraqi government. The “anti” bloc includes just about everyone else–from Israel to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has long been seen as the strongest supporter of the “anti” bloc, which is hardly surprising since the Iranian regime has been waging war on the United States since its inception, whether with hostage taking or terrorist bombings.

But that perception is fast changing. First the American pullout from Iraq, then the deal with Syria, now the deal with Iran cast into serious doubt American resolve to stop Iran’s power grab and understandably alarm our allies. It feels as if there is a realignment of power taking place, with the U.S. counting for less and less: Both our friends and our enemies are less respectful now of American power and less likely to defer to us.

At least in the case of Syria, one can make the case that we are getting something substantial in return for providing de facto legitimacy to the Assad regime. At least Assad is actually allowing the dismantlement and destruction of his chemical weapons. That is not the case with Iran, which is slightly slowing down–by no more than a few weeks–its pell-mell rush to acquire an atomic bomb in return for at least $7 billion in sanctions relief (and possibly more) along with de facto recognition of its supposed “right” to enrich uranium.

I can understand why the Obama administration reached the deal with Tehran and why so many have embraced it. No one wants a war with Iran–and no one wants an Iranian bomb. It certainly appeared that Iran was on a trajectory to acquire a bomb and that the only thing truly standing in its way was the threat of an Israeli air strike. Given that President Obama long ago sacrificed any credibility in threatening Iran with the use of American force (if he won’t even bomb Syria after the use of WMD, who would imagine he would bomb Iran while it was still trying to acquire WMD?), one can make the case that a deal that delays the Iranian program, however slightly, is worth the price in a few billion dollars in sanctions relief.

The problem is that sanctions were finally, belatedly starting to bite. The Iranian economy has been in freefall since more restrictive economic sanctions were imposed last year. This is the point of maximum leverage–and Obama and Kerry have just taken their foot off the Iranian windpipe. If the Iranians would not agree to a Libya- or Syria-style deal that would dismantle their nuclear complex now, it is hard to imagine they will agree to do so in six months, when their economy will have gotten some badly needed relief. (Already, the Wall Street Journal reports, Western European firms are preparing to rush back into Iran.) The likelihood is that, six months from now, the Iranians will simply extract more concessions for not ramping up their nuclear program once again, all the while maintaining their ability to keep enriching uranium and keep designing and building ballistic missiles capable of carrying  a nuclear warhead.

Confidence in the U.S. among our Middle Eastern allies is plunging to new lows, and no wonder: Countries from Israel to Saudi Arabia, which see Iran as a mortal threat, no longer feel they can count on American protection. This is a dangerous perception because it encourages those states to take actions that no American president would favor–whether bombing Iran (in the case of Israel) or acquiring its own nuclear bomb (in the case of Saudi Arabia). The risk of appearing feckless may be worth running if it actually results in a deal that dismantles the Iranian program. But the odds are that Obama’s high-risk gamble won’t pay off.

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The Conservative Moment

Often in politics one moment sets up another. For example, the violence, disorder, and campus unrest in 1967-1968 opened the way for Richard Nixon’s first presidential win. Watergate created the conditions that allowed Jimmy Carter to emerge victorious in 1976. Mr. Carter’s incompetence led to Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980. George W. Bush prevailed in 2000 by offering a contrast to Newt Gingrich, who by then was viewed as polarizing and unpopular. And the difficulties in Iraq helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008.

Something similar may be taking place with ObamaCare.

The Affordable Care Act is the personification of liberalism in terms of its centralization of power, its coercive elements, its nearly unlimited faith in technocratic solutions, and its absolute confidence that the effects of a massive restructuring of our health-care system could be controlled.

The multiple and multiplying failures of ObamaCare may well lead to a more widespread appreciation for certain conservative truths, including the virtues of limited government, the law of unintended consequences, and the fact that change can often lead to disruption. Juxtaposing the glorious things the president said the Affordable Care Act would achieve with its mounting problems is a useful reminder that the world is enormously complicated and the ability of government to carefully order and arrange the pieces of that world is really quite limited.

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Often in politics one moment sets up another. For example, the violence, disorder, and campus unrest in 1967-1968 opened the way for Richard Nixon’s first presidential win. Watergate created the conditions that allowed Jimmy Carter to emerge victorious in 1976. Mr. Carter’s incompetence led to Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980. George W. Bush prevailed in 2000 by offering a contrast to Newt Gingrich, who by then was viewed as polarizing and unpopular. And the difficulties in Iraq helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008.

Something similar may be taking place with ObamaCare.

The Affordable Care Act is the personification of liberalism in terms of its centralization of power, its coercive elements, its nearly unlimited faith in technocratic solutions, and its absolute confidence that the effects of a massive restructuring of our health-care system could be controlled.

The multiple and multiplying failures of ObamaCare may well lead to a more widespread appreciation for certain conservative truths, including the virtues of limited government, the law of unintended consequences, and the fact that change can often lead to disruption. Juxtaposing the glorious things the president said the Affordable Care Act would achieve with its mounting problems is a useful reminder that the world is enormously complicated and the ability of government to carefully order and arrange the pieces of that world is really quite limited.

The Obama presidency, before it’s through, will likely cause the American people to be a bit more dubious about the next person who comes along and promises to heal the planet, remake the world, and slow the rise of the oceans; who campaigns on incantations and inspires a cult of personality; and who believes his mere touch is enough to transform things for the better. The Obama presidency may also deepen the public’s appreciation for prudent reforms, actual achievements and what George Will once called (in referring to former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels) the “charisma of competence.”

Barack Obama is the avatar of progressivism. His failure, and most especially the failure of his signature domestic achievement, is producing a legacy of disillusionment and damaged lives. Americans will look to an alternative. Which means a new conservative moment awaits. It’s now up to conservatives to provide the governing vision that will allow them to seize it. 

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