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Posts For: December 6, 2013

Why Should Anyone Believe Kerry?

Secretary of State John Kerry was back in Israel today with a three-part task. One was to reassure the Israeli government that the weak nuclear deal the administration cut with Iran is not threat to the Jewish state’s security. The second was, as I wrote on Wednesday, to present the Israelis with a detailed plan about the future of the West Bank after a peace deal with the Palestinians is achieved. The third was to convince the Palestinian Authority to play along and to accept the scheme that theoretically guarantees Israel’s security by the stationing of U.S. or other foreign troops along the Jordan River.

Kerry may be still riding the rush he got from succeeding in persuading the Iranians to sign a deal that he has tried to represent as a diplomatic triumph, but he’s likely to strike out on all three counts in the Middle East–and for reasons that are not unrelated to his diplomatic coup. The Israelis now have even less reason to trust Kerry and the U.S. than they did before. And having watched how the Iranians were, despite the enormous economic and military leverage the U.S. had over them, able to hold out and retain all of their nuclear infrastructure and stockpile, there is absolutely no reason for the Palestinians not to be just as patient with Kerry, confident that they need never give up their demands for territory, Jerusalem, lack of security guarantees for Israel, and even right of return for refugees. Though he can pretend that he has made the world safer with his Iran deal and contend that the peace negotiations he has promoted will also solve the region’s problems, the parties involved no longer believe a word he says.

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Secretary of State John Kerry was back in Israel today with a three-part task. One was to reassure the Israeli government that the weak nuclear deal the administration cut with Iran is not threat to the Jewish state’s security. The second was, as I wrote on Wednesday, to present the Israelis with a detailed plan about the future of the West Bank after a peace deal with the Palestinians is achieved. The third was to convince the Palestinian Authority to play along and to accept the scheme that theoretically guarantees Israel’s security by the stationing of U.S. or other foreign troops along the Jordan River.

Kerry may be still riding the rush he got from succeeding in persuading the Iranians to sign a deal that he has tried to represent as a diplomatic triumph, but he’s likely to strike out on all three counts in the Middle East–and for reasons that are not unrelated to his diplomatic coup. The Israelis now have even less reason to trust Kerry and the U.S. than they did before. And having watched how the Iranians were, despite the enormous economic and military leverage the U.S. had over them, able to hold out and retain all of their nuclear infrastructure and stockpile, there is absolutely no reason for the Palestinians not to be just as patient with Kerry, confident that they need never give up their demands for territory, Jerusalem, lack of security guarantees for Israel, and even right of return for refugees. Though he can pretend that he has made the world safer with his Iran deal and contend that the peace negotiations he has promoted will also solve the region’s problems, the parties involved no longer believe a word he says.

Leaving aside the obvious shortcomings of the Iran deal from the point of view of those who believe that it does nothing to prevent the Islamist regime from gaining a nuke in the long term, there is tremendous irony in Kerry arriving in Israel to ask the Netanyahu government for more concessions on the heels of the Geneva signing. For years the Israelis had been told that if they were more accommodating to the Palestinians, it would convince the West to do its best on the Iranian nuclear threat. Though the logic of such linkage was faulty, it was at least a coherent argument. But after having trashed years of American pronouncements (including President Obama’s campaign promise to force the Iranians to give up their nuclear program) by legitimizing Iran’s nuclear program and right to enrich uranium, Kerry has effectively destroyed that argument. Having embarked on what appears to be a misguided attempt to achieve détente with a hate-spewing, terrorist-sponsoring nuclear scofflaw state, the U.S. assurances about having Israel’s back ring hollow. While there is no alternative to the U.S. alliance, the Netanyahu government knows that it is on its own with respect to security issues in a way that it may not have felt in decades. As much as Israel has always been dubious about putting its safety in the hands of anyone, this is hardly the moment to be selling it on the notion that it can rely on Washington.

By the same token, the Palestinians have also been paying attention to the Iran talks. And the evidence for this came almost as soon as Kerry arrived when it was reported that the Palestinians rejected the security measures that the U.S. envisions out of hand. Palestinian sources told the Times of Israel that the plan, which was predicated on the notion of a complete Israeli withdrawal from strategic areas of the West Bank along the 1967 lines and a new partition of Jerusalem, was unacceptable because it would prolong “the occupation.” That should alert the Americans to the fact that the Palestinians have little interest in peace talks since in this context “occupation” seems to be referring to pre-1967 Israel and not to West Bank settlements. Nor, as I wrote earlier this week, are the Palestinians budging from their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, something that would signal the end of the conflict rather than merely a pause in it.

If the Palestinians’ genuine goal is a two-state solution and peace, their rejectionist attitude is as crazy as their previous three refusals of statehood. But even if we were to believe despite abundant proof to the contrary that they do want a two-state solution, with Kerry on the other side of the table, why should the Palestinians be any less tough in these talks than the Iranians were in theirs?

Kerry’s ego may have been stroked by the Iranian deal, but his already shaky credibility is shot. There is no reason for Israel to believe American assurances and even less reason for the Palestinians not to think that they have more to gain from saying no than yes. But the consequences of this diplomatic farce are more far-reaching than the souring of relations between Israel and the United States. By setting the Middle East up for certain diplomatic failure, Kerry has set the stage for a third intifada and threatened the Israelis with it himself. He may think he can blame Israel with the violence that may come after the negotiations blow up but, like the almost inevitable Iranian betrayal of the nuclear talks, what follows will be largely on his head.

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The Real Benghazi Scandal

On the list of scandals that plagued the Obama administration this past year, Benghazi has been the one the White House, Democrats, and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media dismissed with the greatest of ease. Unlike the IRS scandal, which though it has faded from the news had obvious constitutional and political implications, or the various spying scandals involving news organizations and the National Security Agency, which outraged large numbers of ordinary Americans, Benghazi was put down as a manufactured story that had little traction. Part of it was due to the obsessive, though understandable, focus of Republicans on the lies about the 9/11/12 terror attack by members of the administration in the immediate aftermath of the incident. The claim that it was merely a spontaneous demonstration of movie critics that ran amok was outrageous and almost certainly motivated by the administration’s fears that the attack would hurt the president’s reelection campaign. But it didn’t speak to specific wrongdoing that led to the deaths of four Americans or how similar problems might be avoided in the future.

But 15 months after those four Americans died while waiting in vain for rescue that never came, there is a real Benghazi scandal that calls for more than lip service from the White House or quotes like former Secretary of State Clinton’s infamous “What difference does it make?” As the Washington Post reports today:

U.S. officials say efforts have stalled to capture about a dozen people secretly charged in the 2012 attack on the American compound in Benghazi that claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The individuals have been charged in sealed criminal complaints filed in federal court by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. They include one of the suspected ringleaders of the attack, Ahmed Abu Khattala, a militia leader with ties to ­al-Qaeda,­ said several U.S officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

So far, none have been brought to trial and the lack of progress in capturing Khattala has frustrated U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers who want to see him and the others prosecuted. One official said that Khattala continues to operate in eastern Libya with impunity.

“He’s as free as a bird,” the official said.

This is, to put it mildly, outrageous. And it is all the more outrageous since the suspects are apparently living large in a country that was supposedly no longer a safe haven for terror after the Western-backed overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. If the administration hasn’t allocated sufficient forces to deal with this situation, Congress and the American people have a right to ask why.

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On the list of scandals that plagued the Obama administration this past year, Benghazi has been the one the White House, Democrats, and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media dismissed with the greatest of ease. Unlike the IRS scandal, which though it has faded from the news had obvious constitutional and political implications, or the various spying scandals involving news organizations and the National Security Agency, which outraged large numbers of ordinary Americans, Benghazi was put down as a manufactured story that had little traction. Part of it was due to the obsessive, though understandable, focus of Republicans on the lies about the 9/11/12 terror attack by members of the administration in the immediate aftermath of the incident. The claim that it was merely a spontaneous demonstration of movie critics that ran amok was outrageous and almost certainly motivated by the administration’s fears that the attack would hurt the president’s reelection campaign. But it didn’t speak to specific wrongdoing that led to the deaths of four Americans or how similar problems might be avoided in the future.

But 15 months after those four Americans died while waiting in vain for rescue that never came, there is a real Benghazi scandal that calls for more than lip service from the White House or quotes like former Secretary of State Clinton’s infamous “What difference does it make?” As the Washington Post reports today:

U.S. officials say efforts have stalled to capture about a dozen people secretly charged in the 2012 attack on the American compound in Benghazi that claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The individuals have been charged in sealed criminal complaints filed in federal court by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. They include one of the suspected ringleaders of the attack, Ahmed Abu Khattala, a militia leader with ties to ­al-Qaeda,­ said several U.S officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

So far, none have been brought to trial and the lack of progress in capturing Khattala has frustrated U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers who want to see him and the others prosecuted. One official said that Khattala continues to operate in eastern Libya with impunity.

“He’s as free as a bird,” the official said.

This is, to put it mildly, outrageous. And it is all the more outrageous since the suspects are apparently living large in a country that was supposedly no longer a safe haven for terror after the Western-backed overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. If the administration hasn’t allocated sufficient forces to deal with this situation, Congress and the American people have a right to ask why.

The problem stems from the fact that, as with the prelude to the attack that was made possible by a lack of concern for the security of U.S. personnel on the part of the State Department, the investigation also seems to be a low priority. Moreover, rather than tasking U.S. military forces to deal with the problem of snatching or taking out these murderers, it has been treated as strictly a law-enforcement problem. The FBI may consider the Benghazi case a priority, but the bureau has found itself handicapped when operating under hostile conditions abroad as we learned when it was revealed that they were unable to adequately investigate the site of the attack for months.

That is not unrelated to the fact that, far from being proof of how administration policy has led to expanding U.S. influence and problems for terrorists, Libya is a mess. As the Post reports, attempts to capture some of the terrorists failed when the blowback from U.S. actions led to chaos including the kidnapping of the prime minister. Indeed, some have speculated that the administration has pulled back on the effort to capture the terrorists because of the fear that more U.S. actions would lead to the fall of the Libyan government.

The refusal of the State Department to adequately defend American personnel in Benghazi was a shocking failure. The lies told after the attack by administration figures were appalling. So, too, is the unwillingness of Hillary Clinton to truly take responsibility for what happened. But the administration’s seeming lack of interest in bringing those responsible to justice is a scandal of an altogether higher order. Unless the president orders sufficient personnel to Libya to get the job done, this is an issue that will continue to haunt his administration as well as the future presidential hopes of Mrs. Clinton.

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The Nanny State’s Bad Medicine

Two years ago the BBC ran a story about health and the government whose headline perfectly captured the promise and peril of the scientific breakthroughs in genetics: “NHS must prepare for the genetic revolution, report says.” Describing the developments in genetic testing and research as revolutionary is apt. The illumination of ancestry and the possibility of preparing for and preventing a range of diseases and conditions–cancer among them–could not come soon enough.

But the other part of that headline that was important was the focus of the story: how the government-run health bureaucracy wasn’t ready for the revolution, and the danger such unpreparedness posed. Those glancing across the pond at the BBC’s reporting might have expected what transpired in the U.S. recently, culminating yesterday in a setback for public health, scientific breakthrough, and individual rights, all brought to you by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has been standing athwart medical history yelling stop, and for now history has agreed to stop–or at least slow down.

The basic story is this: a biotech startup called 23andMe sells spit kits–saliva collection tubes, essentially–for $99 a piece and runs genetic tests on the samples. The near-term benefits are obvious: users have an affordable way to screen for genetic predispositions. The long-term benefits stem from the (if successful and popular enough) database of genetic health and ancestral information. When Time magazine lauded the product in 2008 (it was more expensive and still finding its place), it noted:

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Two years ago the BBC ran a story about health and the government whose headline perfectly captured the promise and peril of the scientific breakthroughs in genetics: “NHS must prepare for the genetic revolution, report says.” Describing the developments in genetic testing and research as revolutionary is apt. The illumination of ancestry and the possibility of preparing for and preventing a range of diseases and conditions–cancer among them–could not come soon enough.

But the other part of that headline that was important was the focus of the story: how the government-run health bureaucracy wasn’t ready for the revolution, and the danger such unpreparedness posed. Those glancing across the pond at the BBC’s reporting might have expected what transpired in the U.S. recently, culminating yesterday in a setback for public health, scientific breakthrough, and individual rights, all brought to you by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has been standing athwart medical history yelling stop, and for now history has agreed to stop–or at least slow down.

The basic story is this: a biotech startup called 23andMe sells spit kits–saliva collection tubes, essentially–for $99 a piece and runs genetic tests on the samples. The near-term benefits are obvious: users have an affordable way to screen for genetic predispositions. The long-term benefits stem from the (if successful and popular enough) database of genetic health and ancestral information. When Time magazine lauded the product in 2008 (it was more expensive and still finding its place), it noted:

We are at the beginning of a personal-genomics revolution that will transform not only how we take care of ourselves but also what we mean by personal information. In the past, only élite researchers had access to their genetic fingerprints, but now personal genotyping is available to anyone who orders the service online and mails in a spit sample. Not everything about how this information will be used is clear yet — 23andMe has stirred up debate about issues ranging from how meaningful the results are to how to prevent genetic discrimination — but the curtain has been pulled back, and it can never be closed again. And so for pioneering retail genomics, 23andMe’s DNA-testing service is Time’s 2008 Invention of the Year.

But sentences like “the curtain has been pulled back, and it can never be closed again” are read as dares by the federal bureaucrat, drunk with power and disdainful of the liberation of information. Challenge accepted, said the FDA, which set out to close that curtain. The FDA decided the spit kits were medical “devices” under the law and therefore 23andMe was required to jump through all the regulatory hoops associated with that finding. For now, the company will “discontinue consumer access to its health-related genetic tests during the ongoing regulatory review process.”

Now, in the FDA’s defense, that’s certainly a plausible categorization under the letter of the law. Additionally, 23andMe was far from cooperative–indeed, the company seemed positively dismissive of the FDA’s authority. That may be warranted, but it’s also not a great business strategy.

But even if you accept the spit tube’s categorization of a medical device, there are two major problems with that. The first is outlined by Ezra Klein, in an excellent column that harkens back to the point about the BBC’s two-year-old warning to the NHS:

“The legal question is pretty simple,” said Daniel Carpenter, author of “Reputation and Power: Organizational Image and Pharmaceutical Regulation at the FDA.” The definition of a device under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, Carpenter said, “is anything intended for the use or diagnosis of a disease or other conditions.”

But the FFDC was passed in 1938. The section on medical devices was updated in 1976. The personal genetic test — and the theory of personal medicine behind it — didn’t exist when the regulations were written.

The point Klein makes is that the regulatory infrastructure clearly needs rethinking to adapt to new realities. Adaptation and logic, however, are not the bureaucracy’s strong suits. The other problem with the FDA’s approach is that the agency seems to be using the medical device rule as a technicality on which to address its real concerns. Here’s the FDA’s explanation:

Some of the uses for which PGS is intended are particularly concerning, such as assessments for BRCA-related genetic risk and drug responses (e.g., warfarin sensitivity, clopidogrel response, and 5-fluorouracil toxicity) because of the potential health consequences that could result from false positive or false negative assessments for high-risk indications such as these. For instance, if the BRCA-related risk assessment for breast or ovarian cancer reports a false positive, it could lead a patient to undergo prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, intensive screening, or other morbidity-inducing actions, while a false negative could result in a failure to recognize an actual risk that may exist. Assessments for drug responses carry the risks that patients relying on such tests may begin to self-manage their treatments through dose changes or even abandon certain therapies depending on the outcome of the assessment.

In other words, a customer will self-treat or self-medicate. But is that so realistic? Do potential breast cancer patients perform their own surgeries? Would they just snap their fingers and instantly be on chemotherapy? The reality is that they would consult with a doctor, perhaps several, on the road to such treatment, which if initiated would be recommended and supervised by medically-trained experts and professionals.

And as Reason’s Ronald Bailey points out, “Researchers around the world use the same biochip, the Illumina OmniExpress Plus, that 23andMe uses and find that it provides highly accurate results” and that the FDA approves tests with less-than-stellar accuracy rates.

Further, there is the thorny issue of the government overregulating your ability to access information about yourself. Is it the government’s place to put such information under (expensive) lock and key? And what about the research this puts on ice, to say nothing of the warning signal this sends to other would-be health startups? Nanny-staters usually defend their trespassing by casting themselves as defenders of public health. In this case, they are the obstacles.

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The Jobs Report

The Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment report for November came out at 8:30 this morning. The unemployment rate fell to 7 percent in November, its lowest rate since November 2008, as the country was plunging into the deep recession. Partly, however, that reflected the recall of federal workers who had been furloughed in the shutdown of October. The economy added 203,000 jobs last month, above the average of 180,000 per month for 2013 (but which, in turn, was below 2012’s average of 183,000).

Still, while the number of those unemployed less than five weeks declined by 300,000, those unemployed for more than 27 weeks remained essentially flat at 4.1 million. The labor force participation rate, which has been in decline throughout the recession and anemic recovery, rose from 62.8 percent to 63.0.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment report for November came out at 8:30 this morning. The unemployment rate fell to 7 percent in November, its lowest rate since November 2008, as the country was plunging into the deep recession. Partly, however, that reflected the recall of federal workers who had been furloughed in the shutdown of October. The economy added 203,000 jobs last month, above the average of 180,000 per month for 2013 (but which, in turn, was below 2012’s average of 183,000).

Still, while the number of those unemployed less than five weeks declined by 300,000, those unemployed for more than 27 weeks remained essentially flat at 4.1 million. The labor force participation rate, which has been in decline throughout the recession and anemic recovery, rose from 62.8 percent to 63.0.

These numbers might be good enough for the Federal Reserve to consider scaling back on its bond and mortgage purchases at the monthly meeting of its Open Market Committee later this month. That would account for the Dow being down about 70 points, as Wall Street likes the low interest rates that the Fed’s purchases have produced.

Meanwhile, the government on Thursday revised upwards its estimate of third-quarter GDP growth to 3.6 percent, the best showing since the first quarter of 2012. But much of that growth came by means of inventory growth rather than increased sales. So most economists expected fourth-quarter growth to be much more modest. The New York Times reports that Barclay’s has cut back its estimate of fourth-quarter growth to a mere 1.5 percent annual rate.

Overall, the news is moderately good. There is still no boom in sight, but at least things are moving in the right direction, if modestly.

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