Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 2, 2013

What Wendy Sherman Hasn’t Learned

It’s possible that many of the liberal readers of the New York Times just can’t get enough the paper’s fawning pieces heralding Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic prowess that have been repeatedly published in recent months. Then again, maybe even the Times readership has noticed that its news pages aren’t merely being used to editorialize in favor of the Obama administration’s foreign policy but have become home to some of the most embarrassing puff pieces the Grey Lady has ever published. For a change of pace today, chief Washington correspondent David Sanger switched from his usual bouquets thrown at Kerry to one lobbed in the direction of one of his functionaries: Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.

In the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran concluded last week, this is Sherman’s moment to bask in the praise handed out by the Times. The ludicrously weak agreement that granted Western recognition to Iran’s nuclear program and did nothing to roll back the progress it had made in the last five years was largely Sherman’s handiwork, which makes her a heroine in the Times. Sanger pulled out every gimmick to laud Sherman, even giving a breathless account of how she didn’t let a fall that left her with a ruptured tendon in her finger prevent her from conducting a confidential briefing for skeptical members of Congress. That leaves no doubt that Sherman can rise above pain.

But unfortunately, along with other flattering details Sanger doesn’t spare us, Sanger was forced to include the most embarrassing item in her biography that ought to inform the country about dealing with Iran: the all-too-similar nuclear disaster she crafted with North Korea. While Sanger can claim that she is now “pushing back” against critics who cite her last nuclear disaster claiming that this discussion is based on “tempting, but overly simplistic sound bytes,” it’s apparent that most of the widely acknowledged determination that Sherman is known for is spent on ignoring the lessons of her past mistakes.

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It’s possible that many of the liberal readers of the New York Times just can’t get enough the paper’s fawning pieces heralding Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic prowess that have been repeatedly published in recent months. Then again, maybe even the Times readership has noticed that its news pages aren’t merely being used to editorialize in favor of the Obama administration’s foreign policy but have become home to some of the most embarrassing puff pieces the Grey Lady has ever published. For a change of pace today, chief Washington correspondent David Sanger switched from his usual bouquets thrown at Kerry to one lobbed in the direction of one of his functionaries: Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.

In the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran concluded last week, this is Sherman’s moment to bask in the praise handed out by the Times. The ludicrously weak agreement that granted Western recognition to Iran’s nuclear program and did nothing to roll back the progress it had made in the last five years was largely Sherman’s handiwork, which makes her a heroine in the Times. Sanger pulled out every gimmick to laud Sherman, even giving a breathless account of how she didn’t let a fall that left her with a ruptured tendon in her finger prevent her from conducting a confidential briefing for skeptical members of Congress. That leaves no doubt that Sherman can rise above pain.

But unfortunately, along with other flattering details Sanger doesn’t spare us, Sanger was forced to include the most embarrassing item in her biography that ought to inform the country about dealing with Iran: the all-too-similar nuclear disaster she crafted with North Korea. While Sanger can claim that she is now “pushing back” against critics who cite her last nuclear disaster claiming that this discussion is based on “tempting, but overly simplistic sound bytes,” it’s apparent that most of the widely acknowledged determination that Sherman is known for is spent on ignoring the lessons of her past mistakes.

Sanger skips over much of the details about the deal with North Korea, but suffice it to say it was structured in much the same way as the gift she has handed Pyongyang’s Iranian friends. That “searing experience” was a fiasco as the North Koreans agreed to halt their nuclear program in exchange for financial blandishments only to turn around and confront the West with a secret nuclear fuel program that allowed them to acquire the bombs that Sherman thought she had ensured would never see the light of day. But rather than learn from that colossal miscalculation, Sherman has repeated the pattern in which the West chases after a nuclear scofflaw, bribes them, and then hopes for the best.

In her defense, Sherman and Sanger claim the analogy is inexact:

“It’s a different time, a different culture, a different system,” she said. By the time the Clinton administration began negotiating with North Korea, American intelligence agencies had assessed that the country already had weapons-grade fuel for one or two bombs; in Iran’s case, Ms. Sherman argues, “No one believes they are there yet.” There are other differences, too, she said. “Iran has a middle class” that the United States is trying to appeal to by giving it a taste of sanctions relief. “It’s people who travel, within limits, and see the world.” Those factors, she believes, create the kind of leverage that was missing in talks with North Korea, whose citizens are almost completely isolated from the rest of the world.

There are a number of problems with these arguments.

First, the Iranians already have a huge stockpile of refined uranium that can be converted into weapons-grade material in a matter of weeks, something that her efforts with Iran hasn’t fundamentally changed. The U.S. is gambling everything here on the assumption that the Iranians are so far away from a bomb that there is little danger of a breakout. But unlike North Korea, the Iranians have a large network of nuclear facilities and hundreds of centrifuges and all of Sherman’s negotiating did nothing to dismantle a single one of them.

As for the Iranian middle class, as she may have noticed, the Islamist leadership of Iran has already conclusively demonstrated that it isn’t terribly interested in what they think. But even if we were to throw away everything we know about the way the ayatollahs have suppressed dissent, this actually works against Sherman’s strategy.

The point here is that when the U.S. negotiated with North Korea it had very little leverage in dealing with its maniacal Communist leadership. It’s arguable that there was nothing the West could ever do to dissuade the North Koreans even if Sherman’s deal was a disgraceful swindle that only added humiliation to the frustration Americans felt. However, the existence of a vast Iranian middle class as well as the support of an international community prepared to enforce sanctions on Tehran and give up its oil argued for a tougher stand against Iran. But instead of using this leverage, Sherman stuck to the same playbook she used with the North Koreans and conceded the Iranians’ demands simply because the ayatollahs said they would settle for nothing less.

That’s where Sherman’s background and characteristic style comes in. As Sanger makes clear, Sherman is all about negotiating more than actually getting results. Rather than focus on preventing the Iranians from doing what the North Koreans did to her, it’s obvious that she knows what happens when reaching a deal is your primary goal rather than ensuring that the other side never gets a nuke. Though she claims to have sewn up some of the loopholes that the North Koreans exploited, at best the deal she got froze the Iranians in place where they can leap to a weapon anytime they like with the confidence that the complacent West won’t re-impose the sanctions they never wanted to enact anyway.

The way Sherman got taken to the cleaners by the North Koreans should have made her the last person entrusted with stopping Iran. But instead, her zeal for the deal made her the perfect partner for both Obama and Kerry. In the world of Obama-era diplomacy, failure is an excuse for promotion, and agreements that do nothing to avert a nuclear peril are celebrated. With a negotiator like Sherman representing the United States, it’s little wonder the Iranians think they’ve nothing to worry about as they continue their pattern of using diplomacy as a way to run out the clock on their nuclear program.

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Is Obama an Obstacle to Clinton’s ’16 Plans?

Politico provides a late entry into the understatement-of-the-year competition for straight news, reporting that Hillary Clinton “is not actively trying to suppress” the speculation that she will run for president in 2016. It’s true enough, but it might be more accurate to note that she is throwing brushback pitches even at non-candidates who have insisted they’re not considering running but have supporters who want them to run, like Elizabeth Warren.

In other words, she is pretty much already running. As Jonathan Martin and Amy Chozick reported over the weekend, the Clintons are working to repair ties with black voters after the 2008 primary competition against Barack Obama. (Though the press would have you think otherwise, it was the Clinton duo, not John McCain, who tried to use Obama’s race against him that year.) In their story, Martin and Chozick–who keep finding genuinely interesting angles to the looming 2016 race–write that the Clintons see black voters as their hedge against any other challenger (though they seem to have Warren in mind) since they won’t be running against Obama again:

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Politico provides a late entry into the understatement-of-the-year competition for straight news, reporting that Hillary Clinton “is not actively trying to suppress” the speculation that she will run for president in 2016. It’s true enough, but it might be more accurate to note that she is throwing brushback pitches even at non-candidates who have insisted they’re not considering running but have supporters who want them to run, like Elizabeth Warren.

In other words, she is pretty much already running. As Jonathan Martin and Amy Chozick reported over the weekend, the Clintons are working to repair ties with black voters after the 2008 primary competition against Barack Obama. (Though the press would have you think otherwise, it was the Clinton duo, not John McCain, who tried to use Obama’s race against him that year.) In their story, Martin and Chozick–who keep finding genuinely interesting angles to the looming 2016 race–write that the Clintons see black voters as their hedge against any other challenger (though they seem to have Warren in mind) since they won’t be running against Obama again:

This task has taken on new urgency given the Democratic Party’s push to the left, away from the centrist politics with which the Clintons are identified. Strong support from black voters could serve as a bulwark for Mrs. Clinton against a liberal primary challenge should she decide to run for president in 2016. It would be difficult for a progressive candidate, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, to rise if the former first lady takes back the black voters she lost to Mr. Obama and retains the blue-collar white voters who flocked to her.

Because she is already off to the races, she has a challenge: she was a poor secretary of state, and though her term recently ended the only thing many people can remember about it is that aside from her disastrous handling of Benghazi there was nothing worth remembering. And Clinton seems to be well aware of this. In anther Chozick dispatch headlined “Clinton Seeks State Dept. Legacy Beyond That of Globe-Trotter,” Clinton’s supporters fret that the public will correctly remember that all she really did was fly around the world on the taxpayer’s dime:

The struggle to define Mrs. Clinton’s accomplishments at the State Department has intensified in recent days as Mr. Kerry and his latest assertive diplomatic effort — a successful push for an agreement with Iran that would temporarily curb the country’s nuclear program — have drawn tough comparisons with Mrs. Clinton.

Freed of any presidential ambitions, Mr. Kerry appears willing to wade into political minefields. He has taken whirlwind trips to the Middle East, revived peace talks with Israel and Palestine and struck a deal with Russia to remove chemical weapons from Syria. All the activity seemed to provide fresh evidence for those who viewed Mrs. Clinton’s tenure as overly cautious.

In contrast, even when members of Mrs. Clinton’s own party describe her achievements, they tend to point to a lot of miles traveled (956,733 to be exact).

The best part of that story is when Chozick paraphrases Clintonites as follows: “What about her 13 trips to Libya in 2011 to build the coalition that led to the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, they ask.” If Hillary Clinton really wants to talk about her legacy in Libya, I’m guessing her opponents will be more than happy to oblige.

But all this–contrasting her record with the sitting secretary of state, taking credit for current administration “successes” while deflecting blame for the many failures, trying to rebuild ties with Obama’s voter base–brings up another rather obvious obstacle: we’re less than a year into Obama’s second term. Some toes, then, are being stepped on, as Politico reports today:

Obama needs his party’s attention devoted to helping him salvage the final three years of his administration. But Democratic donors and activists say the growing anticipation around a possible Clinton administration three years out could accelerate the president’s arrival at lame duck status. The more Obama is viewed as a has-been, they say, the harder it could be for him to rally the party to fight for his agenda.

This is quite a reasonable concern from Obama’s side of the issue. He is currently at something of a low point in his presidency, with his signature achievement cratering amid revelations that he’s been purposefully misleading the public on his intention to kick them off their health insurance plans, among other false promises and disastrous effects of ObamaCare. Obama may or may not be able to regain enough political capital to right the ship, but if the Democrats start treating someone with political star power as the new leader of the party, it won’t give the president the space and credibility he needs to rally his administration.

And even worse for Obama, Clinton has some incentive to portray him as a failure. ObamaCare has his name on it, and she was already out of the Senate by the time it was voted on. And distracting the political world from the Obama White House means neutralizing the one advantage Vice President Joe Biden would have over Clinton: incumbency. In truth, she will also lose out if ObamaCare continues to be a total disaster, because it will further erode the public’s trust in the Democratic Party’s big-government world view. But a lame-duck presidency gives her a head start. A resuscitated presidency takes the air out of her tires for a few more years.

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Obama Should Hope Israel Keeps Complaining

In the wake of the Obama administration’s embrace of a nuclear deal with Iran, Washington’s message to Israel has been crystal clear: shut up. The Washington Post reported that President Obama told Prime Minister Netanyahu that he’d like him to tone down the strident criticism of an agreement that he has rightly characterized as a “historic mistake” that legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program and may well bring it closer to a bomb rather than preventing it from accomplishing that goal. But the messages from other sources have been a good deal less polite. Anonymous “senior administration officials” told Israeli reporters that the White House considers the Israeli government’s outrage at having its concerns ignored to be “weak” and dismissed the possibility that Congress would attempt to restrain the president’s rush toward a détente with Iran out of concern for the Jewish state’s safety. The administration’s cheering section in the press has been no less blunt about its disdain for Israel’s fear that a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy is being attempted.

Part of this stems from Obama’s hubris. He has always believed in the magic of his personality and appeal and from the start of his first term signaled that he wanted to improve relations with Iran while also demonstrating his belief that the U.S. and Israel had become too close under his predecessor. The impatience he is showing about Israel’s complaints is rooted in anger over the fact that Netanyahu apparently does not trust him, something he appears to consider an act of lèse-majesté. Whether or not the reports out of Kuwait today about the president hoping to visit Iran in 2014 are true, the White House considers Israeli doubts about the president’s vision of a new Middle East to be something of a personal slight.

But if Obama is genuinely interested in making his deal with Iran work rather than it being just one more example of how the ayatollahs have hoodwinked the West, he shouldn’t be discouraging Netanyahu from speaking up. If there is any real hope that this deal that tacitly recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium and leaves in place the infrastructure for making a bomb will actually succeed, it will stem from an Iranian belief that Israel’s rhetoric about using force are credible rather than empty threats. Having demonstrated that he has little interest in putting Tehran’s feet to the fire, there is nothing preventing Iran from reneging on even this weak deal other than the notion that if Obama is not proved right, Israel will strike.

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In the wake of the Obama administration’s embrace of a nuclear deal with Iran, Washington’s message to Israel has been crystal clear: shut up. The Washington Post reported that President Obama told Prime Minister Netanyahu that he’d like him to tone down the strident criticism of an agreement that he has rightly characterized as a “historic mistake” that legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program and may well bring it closer to a bomb rather than preventing it from accomplishing that goal. But the messages from other sources have been a good deal less polite. Anonymous “senior administration officials” told Israeli reporters that the White House considers the Israeli government’s outrage at having its concerns ignored to be “weak” and dismissed the possibility that Congress would attempt to restrain the president’s rush toward a détente with Iran out of concern for the Jewish state’s safety. The administration’s cheering section in the press has been no less blunt about its disdain for Israel’s fear that a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy is being attempted.

Part of this stems from Obama’s hubris. He has always believed in the magic of his personality and appeal and from the start of his first term signaled that he wanted to improve relations with Iran while also demonstrating his belief that the U.S. and Israel had become too close under his predecessor. The impatience he is showing about Israel’s complaints is rooted in anger over the fact that Netanyahu apparently does not trust him, something he appears to consider an act of lèse-majesté. Whether or not the reports out of Kuwait today about the president hoping to visit Iran in 2014 are true, the White House considers Israeli doubts about the president’s vision of a new Middle East to be something of a personal slight.

But if Obama is genuinely interested in making his deal with Iran work rather than it being just one more example of how the ayatollahs have hoodwinked the West, he shouldn’t be discouraging Netanyahu from speaking up. If there is any real hope that this deal that tacitly recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium and leaves in place the infrastructure for making a bomb will actually succeed, it will stem from an Iranian belief that Israel’s rhetoric about using force are credible rather than empty threats. Having demonstrated that he has little interest in putting Tehran’s feet to the fire, there is nothing preventing Iran from reneging on even this weak deal other than the notion that if Obama is not proved right, Israel will strike.

The problem with the current deal is not just that it does nothing to roll back all the progress Iran has made toward a bomb in Obama’s five years in office and that it lengthens the all-important breakout time for them to convert their stockpile of fuel to weapons-grade material by only a few weeks at best. The real flaw here is that by beginning the process of unraveling the sanctions that the administration belatedly and reluctantly imposed on Iran the president may have sent a signal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that he needn’t worry any more about the United States. The eagerness with which Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have bought into the dubious notion that Iran is entering into a period of genuine reform even while the regime continues to fund terrorism, make mischief in Syria, and spew anti-Semitism may have convinced the Islamist regime that they are home free. Their record of contempt for the West and deceptive diplomacy lengthens the already long odds that Obama’s deal is merely another delaying action on the regime’s part.

But so long as Israel and Saudi Arabia are demonstrating that they are not cowed by Obama’s dictates, Khamenei and his underlings must consider the possibility that their prevarications will backfire. Barack Obama and John Kerry may seem easy marks for the ayatollahs, but while the Israelis and their unlikely Arab allies are still able to strike, Khamenei has to consider that not everyone is deceived by his latest gambit.

Of course, Israel is doing more than merely playing the bad cop to Obama’s foolish cop. Netanyahu is right to assert that Israel can and must defend its own security and that it won’t be placed in peril merely to assuage Obama’s delusions of diplomatic grandeur. But so long as he is not silent, the Iranians must know there might be a terrible price to pay for their lies. Rather than trying to shut the Israeli up, the president and his various minions should be praying that Netanyahu’s warnings are being heard loud and clear in Tehran.

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The Politics of Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust

Poor David Plouffe.

The former Obama senior adviser and ABC News contributor said on This Week that the Affordable Care Act will “work really well” when all states run their own health-care exchanges and fully expand Medicaid–actions that may not be seen until President Obama is out of office in 2017.

How convenient. The gift that ObamaCare is for America will only dawn on Americans after the president has left the scene.

Mr. Plouffe added these observations. 

“Let’s fast forward to the State of the Union and the months after that. Health care working better, a lot of people signing up, the economy continuing to strengthen, hopefully no Washington shutdowns, I think the president’s numbers will recover. I think people’s confidence will recover.”

“I think people trust this president,” Plouffe added. “I think there have been numbers all over the place, but I’m confident in a few months from now, those trust numbers are going to come up.”

In fact the people don’t trust this president. Poll after poll shows a majority of Americans now believe Mr. Obama isn’t honest or truthful–perhaps because he repeatedly lied to them on, among other matters, whether people could keep their health-care plans.

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Poor David Plouffe.

The former Obama senior adviser and ABC News contributor said on This Week that the Affordable Care Act will “work really well” when all states run their own health-care exchanges and fully expand Medicaid–actions that may not be seen until President Obama is out of office in 2017.

How convenient. The gift that ObamaCare is for America will only dawn on Americans after the president has left the scene.

Mr. Plouffe added these observations. 

“Let’s fast forward to the State of the Union and the months after that. Health care working better, a lot of people signing up, the economy continuing to strengthen, hopefully no Washington shutdowns, I think the president’s numbers will recover. I think people’s confidence will recover.”

“I think people trust this president,” Plouffe added. “I think there have been numbers all over the place, but I’m confident in a few months from now, those trust numbers are going to come up.”

In fact the people don’t trust this president. Poll after poll shows a majority of Americans now believe Mr. Obama isn’t honest or truthful–perhaps because he repeatedly lied to them on, among other matters, whether people could keep their health-care plans.

Those lies, now exposed, have had a corrosive effect on the president’s credibility.

As for Plouffe’s wondrous scenario that awaits Mr. Obama just around the corner, this is the politics of faith and trust and pixie dust. 

Mr. Plouffe seems to believe that simply wishing an outcome will make it so. Real life doesn’t work that way.

The Obama presidency, thanks to the multiple and multiplying failures of ObamaCare, is experiencing the political equivalent of a Class III Hemorrhage. It’s more likely that a hypovolemic shock lies ahead rather than the bright political future sketched out by David Plouffe. And I suspect in his private, honest moments, even Mr. Plouffe knows that. 

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The Dud at DOD: Hagel Proves Critics Right

The biggest fight of the first two months of Barack Obama’s second term was his determination to get his man at Defense. Former Senator Chuck Hagel had few credentials for the job other than being a Vietnam War hero and a defender of the rights of veterans. He made unforced errors such as saying he believed in tolerating a nuclear Iran and backtracked unconvincingly from past statements in which he asserted that a “Jewish lobby” was manipulating U.S. foreign policy. These were bad enough, but even Democrats who felt obligated to give the president his choice for a key Cabinet post were dismayed at the clueless manner with which the Nebraska Republican who had endorsed Obama in 2008 and 2012 approached his confirmation hearings. He looked lost in the glare of public scrutiny and his performance when faced with tough questions did not inspire much confidence in his ability to lead America’s military or deal with the political labyrinth that anyone heading up the mammoth Department of Defense must navigate. But Obama stuck with his man and with enough Republicans refusing to filibuster the nomination, Hagel was confirmed. But fast forward a little more than nine months later and the scuttlebutt emanating from the White House appears to confirm just about everything the secretary’s critics had been saying all along.

This barely suppressed buyer’s remorse about Hagel is the conceit of a new Politico Magazine story about the DOD head. The piece aptly refers to him as the secretary who’s been on defense virtually his entire tenure as the same deer-in-the-headlights looks that astounded senators during the confirmation process are now causing concern in the West Wing. The “low energy” secretary has underwhelmed Washington, prompted criticism from both sides of the aisle and is widely seen as a political cipher who is unable to stand up to the generals inside the Pentagon or for the defense establishment in the political infighting that is part of any administration. While he has shown some signs of trying to break out of that uninspired mold recently, the enduring image of him sitting mutely next to Secretary of State John Kerry during the Syria hearings in August tells you all you need to know about what a dud he has been. Virtually every disparaging remark voiced by anonymous administration staffers echoes the points made by those who argued last winter that he had no business in the Cabinet.

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The biggest fight of the first two months of Barack Obama’s second term was his determination to get his man at Defense. Former Senator Chuck Hagel had few credentials for the job other than being a Vietnam War hero and a defender of the rights of veterans. He made unforced errors such as saying he believed in tolerating a nuclear Iran and backtracked unconvincingly from past statements in which he asserted that a “Jewish lobby” was manipulating U.S. foreign policy. These were bad enough, but even Democrats who felt obligated to give the president his choice for a key Cabinet post were dismayed at the clueless manner with which the Nebraska Republican who had endorsed Obama in 2008 and 2012 approached his confirmation hearings. He looked lost in the glare of public scrutiny and his performance when faced with tough questions did not inspire much confidence in his ability to lead America’s military or deal with the political labyrinth that anyone heading up the mammoth Department of Defense must navigate. But Obama stuck with his man and with enough Republicans refusing to filibuster the nomination, Hagel was confirmed. But fast forward a little more than nine months later and the scuttlebutt emanating from the White House appears to confirm just about everything the secretary’s critics had been saying all along.

This barely suppressed buyer’s remorse about Hagel is the conceit of a new Politico Magazine story about the DOD head. The piece aptly refers to him as the secretary who’s been on defense virtually his entire tenure as the same deer-in-the-headlights looks that astounded senators during the confirmation process are now causing concern in the West Wing. The “low energy” secretary has underwhelmed Washington, prompted criticism from both sides of the aisle and is widely seen as a political cipher who is unable to stand up to the generals inside the Pentagon or for the defense establishment in the political infighting that is part of any administration. While he has shown some signs of trying to break out of that uninspired mold recently, the enduring image of him sitting mutely next to Secretary of State John Kerry during the Syria hearings in August tells you all you need to know about what a dud he has been. Virtually every disparaging remark voiced by anonymous administration staffers echoes the points made by those who argued last winter that he had no business in the Cabinet.

That Hagel would be a “paper tiger”—as the headline of the Politico piece calls him—comes as no surprise. While his military service is admirable, it takes more than a war record to run an enterprise as vast as the DOD. Moreover, even when pleading his case before the Senate, he didn’t really promise us anything different. At the time, even his defenders were puzzled by his argument that he would not be the person setting policy but just a manager implementing the president’s wishes. But, with rare exceptions, that’s exactly what he has been. On all the crucial issues involving the use of the military, he hasn’t been MIA, keeping quiet even when his boss in the Oval Office wished him to speak up, such as at the hearing about putative plans for striking Syria. The president chose him in part because he shared Hagel’s “realist” views about appeasing Iran and downgrading the alliance with Israel. But he was primarily interested in having the brash former enlisted man do his bidding when it came to downsizing the defense establishment and putting generals in their place. Yet he has largely failed to do that and, in the first stirrings of independence, seems more intent on backing up the generals than in shutting them up.

Even on issues that should have been political slam-dunks for him, Hagel has faltered. Politico describes him as serving as Obama’s “human shield” on the increasingly important question of sexual assaults in the military. Rather than going along with prominent Democrats like New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has made this her signature issue, Hagel has backed up the brass when it comes to removing investigations from the normal military chain of command, prompting her to describe him as neither showing leadership nor living up to his promises.

Though he has been of little use in helping to bridge the gap between the parties on the budget standoff, Hagel is right when he protests about the way the sequester has negatively impacted readiness and overall the ability of the military to do its job or defend the nation. And, if Politico’s sources are to be believed, he may have been a rare voice of sanity in the administration on Egypt policy and may have slightly ameliorated the damage done by both Obama and Kerry for their embrace of the deposed Muslim Brotherhood government. But his overall performance has been lackluster at best. Obama was told that Hagel was not ready for the job and those warnings have proven accurate.

In one sense, Hagel is a classic example of the way second-term presidents wind up with untalented also-rans after their initial appointees either leave or burn out. Though he has largely flown under the radar since his confirmation, he is the perfect symbol for Obama’s fifth year in office during which he has lost the confidence of the public and demonstrated his inability to govern effectively on a host of issues. But he is more than a symbol. What the president needed was more than a steadier hand and tougher presence at Defense than Hagel. He needed someone of the stature of former secretary Robert Gates who, whatever his mistakes and failings, gave both Presidents Bush and Obama an alternative view to what many top advisers were whispering in their ears. Such a figure would have been invaluable this fall as Obama and Kerry rushed headlong into the arms of the Iranians in pursuit of their effort to create a new détente with the Islamist regime and to throw Israel under the bus. If Obama’s staffers now realize that Hagel is an empty suit that can’t advance their political agenda, it is the country that has lost even more by having an Obama yes-man at the Pentagon.

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Latest IRS Scandal? Changing the Rules.

Earlier this year, the nation was outraged to learn that the Internal Revenue Service was singling out conservative and religious groups for discriminatory treatment when they applied for non-profit status. That scandal—which went to the heart of the Obama administration’s abuse of power and disregard for constitutional principles—briefly held center stage in Washington as agency officials failed to adequately explain how this could have happened and the cover story that the policy was only the fault of a few rogue administrators in Cincinnati fell apart. But, as is par for the course with the 24/7 news cycle, other stories, such as the NSA spying leaks, the government shutdown, and the ObamaCare rollout fiasco soon replaced it. It’s likely that the White House is hoping that the whole affair is now safely shoved down the country’s memory hole.

They may be right about that. Last week, the IRS unveiled an end-run around the problem of illegally targeting conservatives with a rules change. The new policy would reverse a 54-year-old regulation and essentially eliminate an entire class of advocacy groups that just happens to be used by far more right-wing activists than left-wingers. But to ensure that this transparently political maneuver by an agency that is supposed to be above partisanship got as little coverage as possible, the change was announced Tuesday with the rule only being posted on the Federal Register on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The pre-holiday news dump was largely successful as the development was buried over the long weekend. But the proposed change, which would severely limit the ability of advocacy groups to gain the crucial advantage afforded by those with tax-exempt-status, should not go unchallenged. The shift would essentially legalize the attempt by some in the IRS to target activists that came under fire back in the spring. Changing the rules in this manner is merely another effort by liberals to regulate and suppress political speech.

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Earlier this year, the nation was outraged to learn that the Internal Revenue Service was singling out conservative and religious groups for discriminatory treatment when they applied for non-profit status. That scandal—which went to the heart of the Obama administration’s abuse of power and disregard for constitutional principles—briefly held center stage in Washington as agency officials failed to adequately explain how this could have happened and the cover story that the policy was only the fault of a few rogue administrators in Cincinnati fell apart. But, as is par for the course with the 24/7 news cycle, other stories, such as the NSA spying leaks, the government shutdown, and the ObamaCare rollout fiasco soon replaced it. It’s likely that the White House is hoping that the whole affair is now safely shoved down the country’s memory hole.

They may be right about that. Last week, the IRS unveiled an end-run around the problem of illegally targeting conservatives with a rules change. The new policy would reverse a 54-year-old regulation and essentially eliminate an entire class of advocacy groups that just happens to be used by far more right-wing activists than left-wingers. But to ensure that this transparently political maneuver by an agency that is supposed to be above partisanship got as little coverage as possible, the change was announced Tuesday with the rule only being posted on the Federal Register on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The pre-holiday news dump was largely successful as the development was buried over the long weekend. But the proposed change, which would severely limit the ability of advocacy groups to gain the crucial advantage afforded by those with tax-exempt-status, should not go unchallenged. The shift would essentially legalize the attempt by some in the IRS to target activists that came under fire back in the spring. Changing the rules in this manner is merely another effort by liberals to regulate and suppress political speech.

At the height of the scandal in which IRS officials indefensibly singled out groups associated with the Tea Party or other conservative causes and faith groups for delays and denials, there were many liberals who argued that the problem was only that the government had been sloppy about the manner in which some activists were flagged. They claimed the real problem was not the way in which the government discriminated against some of those seeking non-profit status but the entire idea that any of those involved in advocacy on issues should be granted protection from the tax collectors. The goal, they said, should be to prevent groups with political purposes from becoming non-profits.

Critics of the existing rules were right when they noted that the old rules were vague. A 1959 government ruling allowed an organization set up under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code to have the status of social welfare groups “if it is primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.” That has been interpreted as letting groups spend a substantial portion of their funds on political advocacy, albeit after undergoing a subjective evaluation by the IRS that, as we now know, was tilted heavily against conservatives. Greater clarity was needed, but rather than merely eliminate the biases, what the IRS is proposing is to alter the rules to make it difficult, if not impossible for groups that aim at promoting political change—be it from a right-wing or a left-wing point of view—to become non-profits.

That might seem fair to some, but it will go a long way toward silencing grass roots groups that cannot build upon the advantages built into the system for other players on the political stage such as unions or business associations that will not be affected by the new IRS policy.

As even a liberal outlet like NPR noted, in one of the few stories published or broadcast about the issue in the last week, this will have a disproportionate impact on conservative advocacy which is far more dependent on 501(c) groups than their rivals on the left. But, like the various attempts to promulgate campaign finance “reform,” the real object is suppression of political speech.

Critics of allowing advocacy groups to gain non-profit status speak of their efforts as essentially theft from the public treasury, just as they regard tax cuts which allow citizens to keep more of the money they have earned to be a gift from Uncle Sam. But such arguments look at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. The real issue here is not whether there is something wrong with more grass roots and other advocacy groups being allowed to fund raise and not be forced to reveal their donors. Rather, it is the liberal panic that ensued after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down efforts by the government to ban certain kinds of political speech under the guise of campaign reform in their 2010 Citizens United decision. That ruling allowed more individuals and groups to make their voices heard and led to an increase in the number of social welfare groups that spoke out on the issues. The IRS scandal was part of a government effort to repress that rising tide of activism. The new rules will therefore complete the work the so-called rogues of Cincinnati started.

The IRS policy would put a crimp into conservative efforts until a new way around the rules is found, as is inevitable with such regulations. But the victim here isn’t conservatism; it’s democracy. Those who delight in making life difficult for Tea Party activists should understand that giving the IRS this kind of power over speech will ultimately hamper liberal grass roots groups as much as those of conservatives. Participation by citizen groups—even those we disagree with—should be protected, not made more onerous. These new rules, which will not go into effect until after the next election, should not be allowed to go into effect. The real and ongoing IRS scandal is the way the agency has been used to regulate political activity. That isn’t the job of the IRS or any branch of government, and American democracy will be more secure once such efforts are outlawed.

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Iranian Deal’s Revealing First Week

For opponents of the six powers’ nuclear deal with Iran, the past week has supplied a nonstop stream of news confirming their worst fears. Not only has Tehran issued numerous pronouncements gutting what was already a weak deal, but Washington, far from protesting this behavior, has tamely acquiesced in every one of the Iranian revisions. Moreover, the sanctions regime is already starting to crumble.

And, adding insult to injury, Washington is so gung-ho for a grand reconciliation with Iran that it’s reportedly even holding indirect talks with Iran’s fully-owned terrorist subsidiary, Hezbollah. Following are some of the past week’s more appalling developments:

For opponents of the six powers’ nuclear deal with Iran, the past week has supplied a nonstop stream of news confirming their worst fears. Not only has Tehran issued numerous pronouncements gutting what was already a weak deal, but Washington, far from protesting this behavior, has tamely acquiesced in every one of the Iranian revisions. Moreover, the sanctions regime is already starting to crumble.

And, adding insult to injury, Washington is so gung-ho for a grand reconciliation with Iran that it’s reportedly even holding indirect talks with Iran’s fully-owned terrorist subsidiary, Hezbollah. Following are some of the past week’s more appalling developments:

  • Iran publicly declared that the White House was lying about the terms of the deal and released its own, contradictory interpretation.
  • Iran said it intends to continue construction of its Arak heavy-water reactor, though halting progress at Arak had been trumpeted as one of the deal’s key achievements. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki meekly responded that continued construction is fine, as long as Tehran doesn’t engage in activities like nuclear fuel production or reactor work. Since these activities are impossible in any case until construction is completed, that means the ballyhooed “freeze” of Arak is actually nonexistent.
  • For good measure, Psaki added that the deal hasn’t actually taken effect yet, so Iran won’t be in violation no matter what it does. In fact, it turns out the “deal” wasn’t actually a deal at all: It was merely a broad outline, and now negotiations must begin on the details. So when will it take effect? Maybe in January. Or maybe not. In other words, the expiration date of this “six-month” deal has now been postponed by at least two months, and maybe more, confirming opponents’ fears that the temporary agreement won’t be so temporary after all.
  • Iran said it would increase production of low-enriched uranium, though the deal ostensibly caps enrichment capacity at current levels.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency announced that it has neither the money nor the staff to carry out the beefed-up monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities called for in the agreement, thereby gutting another of the deal’s key achievements. How soon can it acquire the necessary capabilities? Agency director Yukiya Amano declined to speculate, merely saying it would take “some time.” Left unsaid was that this depends, inter alia, on when and whether member states cough up the requisite extra cash.
  • Companies and countries are lining up to secure new deals with Iran now that sanctions are being eased. Haaretz published a list of some of the deals under consideration, some of which were presumably discussed during the Economic Cooperation Organization’s well-attended meeting in Tehran last week. And Turkey, one of Iran’s major trading partners, publicly announced its goal of boosting trade back up to pre-sanctions levels.

In short, the deal isn’t a deal; its six-month duration is already being extended; its key provisions are already being gutted; Washington is turning a blind eye to Iranian violations; and the sanctions regime is collapsing–all just in the first week.

But the Obama administration is getting its reconciliation with Iran, and Israel is being prevented from bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. And those achievements are evidently far more important to the administration than the pesky little matter of keeping Tehran from getting nukes.

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The Cruelty of ObamaCare

When ObamaCare’s individual mandate went before the Supreme Court, both sides argued over whether it was severable from the rest of the law–could one stand without the other? Severability also weighs on the law, in a more figurative sense, in its defense: now that we know the law isn’t working and won’t do what was promised, can the moral arguments used to bludgeon its opponents still be employed with any credibility?

That is, since ObamaCare’s defenders can no longer argue in favor of the law’s technical merits, can they still argue in favor of the law’s moral merits? The answer is no: as Frank Sinatra sang, you can’t have one without the other. The moral imperative of passing ObamaCare was always specious, since the administration wasn’t telling the truth when selling the law–and they knew it, having briefly debated whether or not the president should start telling the truth about the law and deciding to keep on misleading the public.

But ObamaCare’s defenders don’t have much left at this point, so they’re going to try loud, self-righteous hectoring to drown out the truth. The latest example is from the Washington Post’s Colbert King, who visited a church in Washington D.C. that seemed to spend its weekend politicking for the president’s agenda. King writes that this is because the people of this church are good people, and their attitude toward ObamaCare was in stark contrast with ObamaCare’s opponents, who are bad people. Yes, it’s really that simple according to King:

Read More

When ObamaCare’s individual mandate went before the Supreme Court, both sides argued over whether it was severable from the rest of the law–could one stand without the other? Severability also weighs on the law, in a more figurative sense, in its defense: now that we know the law isn’t working and won’t do what was promised, can the moral arguments used to bludgeon its opponents still be employed with any credibility?

That is, since ObamaCare’s defenders can no longer argue in favor of the law’s technical merits, can they still argue in favor of the law’s moral merits? The answer is no: as Frank Sinatra sang, you can’t have one without the other. The moral imperative of passing ObamaCare was always specious, since the administration wasn’t telling the truth when selling the law–and they knew it, having briefly debated whether or not the president should start telling the truth about the law and deciding to keep on misleading the public.

But ObamaCare’s defenders don’t have much left at this point, so they’re going to try loud, self-righteous hectoring to drown out the truth. The latest example is from the Washington Post’s Colbert King, who visited a church in Washington D.C. that seemed to spend its weekend politicking for the president’s agenda. King writes that this is because the people of this church are good people, and their attitude toward ObamaCare was in stark contrast with ObamaCare’s opponents, who are bad people. Yes, it’s really that simple according to King:

The talk-show criticism and the pulpit defense crystallized the Obamacare debate. Drawn into sharp relief is the struggle taking place in this country between doing what is right and good and an unashamed indulgence in the immorality of indifference.

The issue couldn’t be put more simply.

Because ObamaCare is broadly unpopular, King is basically telling his readers they are bad people. Some of them may be “right and good,” but given the poll numbers, it’s clear King thinks a great many of them are indulging in “immorality.” This is a variation on a column by King’s Post colleague Matt Miller, who had earlier used the deaths of thousands in Typhoon Haiyan to tell his readers that they are bad people:

Disasters like Haiyan bring into sharp relief our moral instincts when faced with the paramount role that luck plays in life. When human beings are left vulnerable and desperate by events beyond their control, we want to help. Empathy for human frailty and powerlessness in such a tragedy evokes compassion. We say such victims “deserve” help because they are suffering through no fault of their own.

So of course we’re sending money and Marines to Manila.

A typhoon is obviously beyond anyone’s control. But so is a preexisting condition.

Now, Post readers could easily point out that King and Miller are arguing in favor of getting insurance to those who don’t have it, and since ObamaCare is kicking millions off their insurance plans while also preventing them from finding new (more expensive, of course) plans, perhaps it is King and Miller practicing “an unashamed indulgence in the immorality of indifference.”

But it should also be noted that a key element of greatly expanding coverage for poor and older Americans under ObamaCare is Medicaid, a program studies show serves people no better–and sometimes worse–than those without any insurance at all. This is when ObamaCare’s defenders finally get somewhat honest and admit that ObamaCare is not a health program but a wealth transfer. Medicaid, they say, is about preventing unaffordable health-care bills from piling up on those who can’t pay them.

ObamaCare opponents, who understand the health-care issue significantly better than big-government leftists, have tried to warn that expanding Medicaid will exacerbate the lack of doctors available to see Medicaid patients. Now that the media is playing catch-up, they can read the same analysis in the New York Times:

Medicaid for years has struggled with a shortage of doctors willing to accept its low reimbursement rates and red tape, forcing many patients to wait for care, particularly from specialists like Dr. Mazer.

Yet in just five weeks, millions of additional Americans will be covered by the program, many of them older people with an array of health problems. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that nine million people will gain coverage through Medicaid next year alone. In many of the 26 states expanding the program, the newly eligible have been flocking to sign up. …

In California, with the nation’s largest Medicaid population, many doctors say they are already overwhelmed and are unable to take on more low-income patients. Dr. Hector Flores, a primary care doctor in East Los Angeles whose practice has 26,000 patients, more than a third of whom are on Medicaid, said he could accommodate an additional 1,000 Medicaid patients at most.

“There could easily be 10,000 patients looking for us, and we’re just not going to be able to serve them,” said Dr. Flores, who is also the chairman of the family medicine department at White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles.

What happens if you give people coverage but they can’t be seen by a doctor? Or they have to wait so long to get an appointment, if they can get one at all, that what should have been an easily treatable condition worsens significantly? The health outcomes will often be terrible, and the bills will pile up anyway. Their other choice is, of course, to pay out of pocket for a doctor who doesn’t take Medicaid. Which they could have done anyway, before waiting months for an appointment and now living in agony.

All this aggravation would come as the government promised them those days were over and they could now get health coverage. This process, which underpins ObamaCare’s major expansion of coverage, is cruel. And the moralizers in the liberal commentariat passing judgment on those who oppose this malicious process might want to take that into consideration.

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Ukraine Between East and West

Thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets over the weekend to protest Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovich’s decision to turn his back on a European Union Association Agreement and instead consider a Russian-led customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Ukrainians have struggled for years to win a European Union Association Agreement which, if signed, would eliminate most trade barriers between Ukraine and Europe and provide a big boost to Ukraine’s economy. The European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure: my wife) outlined Russia’s strategic objectives for CNN ahead of last month’s Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius:

Of all post-Soviet countries, Ukraine is perhaps most significant to Russia. Historically, Russia draws its very creation as a state to Ukraine. The two countries share deep historic and cultural ties. For Russian President Vladimir Putin – who once famously declared that Ukraine is not even a state – losing Ukraine would be akin to losing a crucial part of Russia. And Ukraine may simply be the tip of the iceberg. Moldova could also initial an association agreement this month. During a trip to Moldova in September, Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, warned that it would be “a grave mistake” for Moldova to seek European integration. Upon concluding his visit, Rogozin threatened to cut Moldova’s gas, on which the landlocked country is entirely dependent. “We hope that you will not freeze,” he reportedly said. The same month, Russia banned Moldovan wine, and for good measure suspended Lithuania’s dairy imports in October, even though Lithuania is already a European Union member. One country has already fallen victim to Putin’s bullying. Armenia, which appeared set to be on a European integration course after concluding in comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union in July, made an abrupt reversal in September and instead joined the Customs Union after a meeting between Putin and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan.

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Thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets over the weekend to protest Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovich’s decision to turn his back on a European Union Association Agreement and instead consider a Russian-led customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Ukrainians have struggled for years to win a European Union Association Agreement which, if signed, would eliminate most trade barriers between Ukraine and Europe and provide a big boost to Ukraine’s economy. The European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure: my wife) outlined Russia’s strategic objectives for CNN ahead of last month’s Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius:

Of all post-Soviet countries, Ukraine is perhaps most significant to Russia. Historically, Russia draws its very creation as a state to Ukraine. The two countries share deep historic and cultural ties. For Russian President Vladimir Putin – who once famously declared that Ukraine is not even a state – losing Ukraine would be akin to losing a crucial part of Russia. And Ukraine may simply be the tip of the iceberg. Moldova could also initial an association agreement this month. During a trip to Moldova in September, Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, warned that it would be “a grave mistake” for Moldova to seek European integration. Upon concluding his visit, Rogozin threatened to cut Moldova’s gas, on which the landlocked country is entirely dependent. “We hope that you will not freeze,” he reportedly said. The same month, Russia banned Moldovan wine, and for good measure suspended Lithuania’s dairy imports in October, even though Lithuania is already a European Union member. One country has already fallen victim to Putin’s bullying. Armenia, which appeared set to be on a European integration course after concluding in comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union in July, made an abrupt reversal in September and instead joined the Customs Union after a meeting between Putin and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan.

What did Yanukovich get for his unpopular about-face? About $10 billion, although such funds are more of an accounting issue and a legacy of Ukraine’s decision to allow the Russian Black Sea fleet in the Crimea.

It’s been a holiday weekend in Washington, but the White House and State Department’s relative silence on Ukraine’s ultimate direction matters. Whether the Obama administration recognizes it or not, the Kremlin is playing a zero-sum game for influence. Putin sees the borders of the former Soviet Union (if not Eastern Europe) as Russia’s “near abroad” and is willing to do anything—political threats, economic leverage or, in the case of Georgia, military force—to ensure that Moscow remains the paramount influence.

In the case of the Ukraine, however, the people clearly see their future more with Europe than tied solely to Russia. It is in the United States’s interests to see European-style liberalism triumph over retrograde Russian-led rejectionism. When the United States does not stand up rhetorically for liberal principles, it only strengthens Russia’s hand and demoralizes those who want something more. There is nothing sophisticated about dictatorships, and the last thing Ukrainians need is the continuance of Chicken Kiev attitudes among our senior statesmen. Ukraine has a choice between East and West. Under tremendous pressure from Vladimir Putin, Yanukovich has chosen East. Ukrainians have taken to the streets to demand West. It’s time to stand up for the rightful demands of the Ukrainian people.

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No, Healthcare.Gov Isn’t Working

On Sunday, the Obama administration announced it had gone a very long way to fixing the healthcare.gov website, and had achieved its goal of making the website work “for the vast majority of users.” It cited statistics that the site will not crash with 50,000 simultaneous users, and that it will allow those on it to go through its registration process 90 percent of the time, up from 40 percent in October.

If you believe the reporting of the New York Times, what the Obama administration said on Sunday was a lie.

The lead Times story today, co-authored by the health-care expert Robert Pear, says this: “The problem is that so-called back end systems, which are supposed to deliver consumer information to insurers, still have not been fixed.”

The story expands on this point in great detail, but the fact is simple: There is no such thing as a functioning website if the “back end” isn’t working. The “back end” is the catchall phrase for everything you don’t see when you visit a website. It refers to the software that translates pictures and words into what you see here. It refers to the software that mediates the relationship between 1) users who enter information, 2) the servers that store the website’s information, and 3) third parties hired to take some (but not all) of the information and process it on their servers and computers. It refers to the security systems put in place so that the website cannot be disabled by an outside attack and so that the data entered cannot be stolen or otherwise compromised.

In other words, the back end is the website. What many people are seeing now at healthcare.gov is a visual demonstration of a sign-in. If the sign-in data are not transferred to a database, nothing has happened. It’s like taking a practice test; it’s not scored and it’s not registered and it means nothing. Here’s what the story says:

Some insurers say they have been deluged with phone calls from people who believe they have signed up for a particular health plan, only to find that the company has no record of the enrollment. Others say information they received about new enrollees was inaccurate or incomplete, so they had to track down additional data — a laborious task that would not be feasible if data is missing for tens of thousands of consumers.

In still other cases, insurers said, they have not been told how much of a customer’s premium will be subsidized by the government, so they do not know how much to charge the policyholder.

What the Obama administration did yesterday was, in the language of pre-meltdown Wall Street, to put lipstick on a pig.

On Sunday, the Obama administration announced it had gone a very long way to fixing the healthcare.gov website, and had achieved its goal of making the website work “for the vast majority of users.” It cited statistics that the site will not crash with 50,000 simultaneous users, and that it will allow those on it to go through its registration process 90 percent of the time, up from 40 percent in October.

If you believe the reporting of the New York Times, what the Obama administration said on Sunday was a lie.

The lead Times story today, co-authored by the health-care expert Robert Pear, says this: “The problem is that so-called back end systems, which are supposed to deliver consumer information to insurers, still have not been fixed.”

The story expands on this point in great detail, but the fact is simple: There is no such thing as a functioning website if the “back end” isn’t working. The “back end” is the catchall phrase for everything you don’t see when you visit a website. It refers to the software that translates pictures and words into what you see here. It refers to the software that mediates the relationship between 1) users who enter information, 2) the servers that store the website’s information, and 3) third parties hired to take some (but not all) of the information and process it on their servers and computers. It refers to the security systems put in place so that the website cannot be disabled by an outside attack and so that the data entered cannot be stolen or otherwise compromised.

In other words, the back end is the website. What many people are seeing now at healthcare.gov is a visual demonstration of a sign-in. If the sign-in data are not transferred to a database, nothing has happened. It’s like taking a practice test; it’s not scored and it’s not registered and it means nothing. Here’s what the story says:

Some insurers say they have been deluged with phone calls from people who believe they have signed up for a particular health plan, only to find that the company has no record of the enrollment. Others say information they received about new enrollees was inaccurate or incomplete, so they had to track down additional data — a laborious task that would not be feasible if data is missing for tens of thousands of consumers.

In still other cases, insurers said, they have not been told how much of a customer’s premium will be subsidized by the government, so they do not know how much to charge the policyholder.

What the Obama administration did yesterday was, in the language of pre-meltdown Wall Street, to put lipstick on a pig.

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Special Relationships

Last week, John Kerry appeared with British foreign secretary William Hague in London, and they congratulated one another on concluding their nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry expressed American gratitude for Britain’s support. “We are determined to press forward,” he said, “and give further life to this very special relationship and to our common objectives.”

It was President John F. Kennedy who first extended the concept of a “special relationship” beyond Britain to include Israel. In December 1962, Kennedy met with Israel’s then-foreign minister, Golda Meir, in Palm Beach, Florida, and the American memorandum of conversation reported his assurance in these words: “The United States, the President said, has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.”

The State Department disliked this. A few months earlier, the Near East and South Asia Bureau had put together a memo on U.S.-Israel relations. “Israel’s proposals for a special relationship with the U.S. would be self-defeating if executed,” it argued. “We consider it important not to give in to Israeli and domestic pressures for a special relationship in national security matters.” But Kennedy spoke the words, and even if their definition remained foggy, they provided some reassurance to Israel every time an American president or secretary of state uttered them.

Which is why it’s worth noting that John Kerry doesn’t utter them. To the best I can determine, in his present job, he hasn’t ever described the U.S.-Israel relationship as “special.” Susan Rice, while at the UN, did so on several occasions, and Senator Kerry did it when he ran for president back in 2004 and again to AIPAC in 2009. But as best as I can tell (and I would welcome contrary evidence), he hasn’t done it as secretary of state, and that stands in striking contrast to his repeated invocation of the “special relationship” with Britain. Read More

Last week, John Kerry appeared with British foreign secretary William Hague in London, and they congratulated one another on concluding their nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry expressed American gratitude for Britain’s support. “We are determined to press forward,” he said, “and give further life to this very special relationship and to our common objectives.”

It was President John F. Kennedy who first extended the concept of a “special relationship” beyond Britain to include Israel. In December 1962, Kennedy met with Israel’s then-foreign minister, Golda Meir, in Palm Beach, Florida, and the American memorandum of conversation reported his assurance in these words: “The United States, the President said, has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.”

The State Department disliked this. A few months earlier, the Near East and South Asia Bureau had put together a memo on U.S.-Israel relations. “Israel’s proposals for a special relationship with the U.S. would be self-defeating if executed,” it argued. “We consider it important not to give in to Israeli and domestic pressures for a special relationship in national security matters.” But Kennedy spoke the words, and even if their definition remained foggy, they provided some reassurance to Israel every time an American president or secretary of state uttered them.

Which is why it’s worth noting that John Kerry doesn’t utter them. To the best I can determine, in his present job, he hasn’t ever described the U.S.-Israel relationship as “special.” Susan Rice, while at the UN, did so on several occasions, and Senator Kerry did it when he ran for president back in 2004 and again to AIPAC in 2009. But as best as I can tell (and I would welcome contrary evidence), he hasn’t done it as secretary of state, and that stands in striking contrast to his repeated invocation of the “special relationship” with Britain.

For example, last February he visited London and said this (Hague beaming at his side):

When you think of everything that binds the United States and Great Britain—our common values, our long shared history, our ties of family, in my case, personal and friendship—there is a reason why we call this a special relationship, or as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron wrote, really, a partnership of the heart. It is that.

In June, Kerry (again with Hague at his side) stressed the “special relationship,” which he declared to be “grounded in so much—our history, our values, our traditions. It is, without question, an essential, if not the essential relationship.”

And in September, when Britain’s parliament voted down a motion to join the U.S. in the use of force in Syria, Kerry rushed to declare the “special relationship” intact:

The relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom has often been described as special, essential. And it has been described thusly, quite simply, because it is. It was before a vote the other day in parliament, and it will be for long afterwards after that vote. Our bond, as William [Hague] has just said, is bigger than one vote; it’s bigger than one moment in history. It’s about values. It’s about rules of the road, rules by which human beings try to organize their societies and offer people maximum freedom and opportunity, respecting rights, and finding a balance in a very complicated world. And we have no better partner in that effort than Great Britain, and we are grateful for that.

Quite early, the Obama administration earned a reputation in British public opinion for showing insufficient respect for the “special relationship,” and Kerry may see his mission as repairing that impression. But then the Obama administration stands no higher in Israeli public opinion, and Kerry sees no need to do any work of repair (and a few things he has said have heaped insult on injury).

President Obama does refer to the “special relationship” with Israel, but coming from him, the phrase means a bit less than it once did. That’s because he’s upgraded Britain to something even higher. On the eve of Obama’s visit to Britain in May 2011, he and British prime minister David Cameron published a joint op-ed in the London Times that included this sentence: “Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship—for us and for the world.” (The headline: “Not Just Special, But An Essential Relationship.”) Suddenly, the word “essential” started cropping up in references to the relationship with Britain (see also two of the Kerry quotes above). “Essential” is now the new platinum card in relations with the United States, and Britain alone holds one. (That’s why having Britain on board the Iran deal was so important to the Obama administration, and it’s why Hague was assigned the role of setting Israel straight: “We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine this agreement and we will make that very clear to all concerned.” How pleased he must have been to categorize Israel among the world’s “anybodies.”)

Still, while Obama may have promoted Britain, he didn’t demote Israel. And as John Kennedy made clear more than fifty years ago, the two belong in a league of their own. Just what makes a “special relationship”? It’s more than democracy—the world is full of democracies. It’s not “shared values,” since American values are widely shared around the world. What compels the United States openly to acknowledge two “special relationships” is that two foreign states embody old cultures to which the American public feels profoundly and uniquely indebted.

Given that debt, the U.S. government assumes the obligation to show a bit of respect and work a little harder to make its case, when its biggest-knows-best policies impinge on the interests of those two states. When they dissent, as Britain did over Syria and Israel now does over Iran, it’s their privilege to do so and still win American praise as “special” friends who are entitled to speak their minds freely. For an example of how it’s done, see the Kerry quote above, following the British balk on Syria. So far, there’s no equivalent for Israel over Iran.

The U.S. government’s recognition of a “special relationship” doesn’t create a fact, it acknowledges a debt felt deeply by the American people. John Kerry apparently doesn’t fully grasp that reality in regard to Israel. But then, little in his Mideast diplomacy suggests that reality constrains him anyway.

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