Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 18, 2013

House of Cards? Obama and Democracy

Nobody should blame President Obama for enjoying the Netflix political thriller House of Cards. Indeed, the show’s millions of fans (including me) probably sympathized with the commander in chief when he pleaded for access to advance copies of the series’ second season that is due out next year when high-tech execs (including the head of Netflix) came to the White House to discuss important issues, like how to build a functional website. But I wasn’t quite so amused by the president’s much-quoted remarks in which he purported to envy the ability of the show’s villain Frank Underwood to do what he likes.

 “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” Obama joked at a meeting with tech CEOs on Tuesday, according to a White House pool report.

We’re supposed to chuckle at this comment and regard it as an understandable expression of frustration by the president at the inability of Congress to do its job. But I’m afraid this crack tells us more about Obama’s way of governing that it does about the fact that neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can teach Frank Underwood much about passing legislation. The fact is, for five years Obama has sat in the White House and acted as if he had as little interest in accommodating the positions of his political foes as Underwood does. The problem isn’t that the West Wing and its congressional allies aren’t as “ruthlessly efficient” as the wicked Underwood, it’s that he has as negative an attitude toward the normal business of democracy as the character played by actor Kevin Spacey.

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Nobody should blame President Obama for enjoying the Netflix political thriller House of Cards. Indeed, the show’s millions of fans (including me) probably sympathized with the commander in chief when he pleaded for access to advance copies of the series’ second season that is due out next year when high-tech execs (including the head of Netflix) came to the White House to discuss important issues, like how to build a functional website. But I wasn’t quite so amused by the president’s much-quoted remarks in which he purported to envy the ability of the show’s villain Frank Underwood to do what he likes.

 “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” Obama joked at a meeting with tech CEOs on Tuesday, according to a White House pool report.

We’re supposed to chuckle at this comment and regard it as an understandable expression of frustration by the president at the inability of Congress to do its job. But I’m afraid this crack tells us more about Obama’s way of governing that it does about the fact that neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can teach Frank Underwood much about passing legislation. The fact is, for five years Obama has sat in the White House and acted as if he had as little interest in accommodating the positions of his political foes as Underwood does. The problem isn’t that the West Wing and its congressional allies aren’t as “ruthlessly efficient” as the wicked Underwood, it’s that he has as negative an attitude toward the normal business of democracy as the character played by actor Kevin Spacey.

That sounds a little harsh so let me specify that, as much as I disagree with most of his policies, I haven’t joined the tin-foil hat brigade. I am not accusing the president of enacting wicked conspiracies aimed at subverting every notion of decency in a cold-blooded putsch to achieve total power as Frank does. Nor do I think he got to the White House by cheating or sabotaging his opponents as did Francis Urquhart, the protagonist of the far wittier but less darkly thrilling original British version of House of Cards.

But I do think that throughout his presidency he has demonstrated a studied contempt for the business of democracy. Not since Jimmy Carter have we had a president who was as uncomfortable working with members of Congress of his own party, let alone those from the opposition. Even more to the point, this is as top-down an administration as any in recent memory. Foreign policy has been largely dictated from the White House, as have efforts to push priorities in other areas. Partly this reflects the president’s high opinion of himself and his distrust, if not disdain, for the opinions of others. As his cabinet choices have shown (especially in his second term), with a few prominent exceptions (Hillary Clinton being one), this is a president who prefers yes men and women to strong leaders running departments. The echo chamber in the West Wing that has made it insensible to the opinions of Congress or the pubic when it comes to the president’s pet projects is a reflection of this attitude.

It should be noted that in the show, Underwood has shown a dogged talent for negotiation that Obama lacks, even if, in the end, the character gets his way more by underhanded tactics than give and take. But he shares the president’s desire to have his own way at all costs. In the program’s fictional Washington where the anti-hero can do as he likes, “ruthless efficiency” can be achieved. But in the real Washington, Obama’s desire for acclimation of his every ideological whim is always bound to be frustrated by a constitutional system of checks and balances that allows the views of the minority to be heard and even at times to stop those of the president and the majority.

The genius of the American political system is that it is antithetical to “ruthless efficiency” because it was set up to thwart would-be presidential dictators, congressional majorities, and even the fleeting sentiments of public opinion as expressed in the House of Representatives (elected every two years) and not to let them run roughshod over their opponents.

The president may want us to think his talk about envying Underwood was entirely humorous but, contrary to his less comical public statements about Congress, the trouble with Washington in the age of Obama isn’t that too many voices are heard but that we have a president who listens to no one but himself and an inner circle that seems to be afraid to contradict him. While efficiency would be nice, what the country needs is a president more inclined to work with Congress in the normal, non-dramatic manner that gets the best results in the Capitol, not the ruthless fantasy Obama harbors.

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Indigenous? Native American Studies and Big Lies About Israel

We’ve reported about the decision of the American Studies Association to join the boycott of Israel. Supporters of the economic war against the Jewish state calling for institutions to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel have failed to gain much traction even in academia, let alone mainstream sectors of American society. As Jonathan Marks noted here the national council of the ASA that endorse the BDS resolution is largely compose of radicals. But they are not alone. The latest group of academic outliers to back the boycott is the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. As the Jerusalem Post reports:

Ohio State English professor Chadwick Allen, the president of the association and coordinator of American Indian Studies at Ohio State, wrote on the association’s website that the move followed a “member-generated” petition asking that the group “formally support the Boycott of Israeli Academic and Cultural Institutions that was initiated by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.”

Over the course of several months, Allen wrote, the NAISA council reached a consensus to support the boycott, and wrote their own declaration of support for the boycott. The document reads that the NAISA Council “protests the infringement of the academic freedom of Indigenous Palestinian academics and intellectuals in the Occupied Territories and Israel who are denied fundamental freedoms of movement, expression, and assembly, which we uphold.”

That another group of campus radicals with doctorates in subjects that are geared toward furthering left-wing theories would join the boycott of Israel is no surprise. That they don’t boycott China in sympathy with Tibet or any number of Arab and Muslim countries for their oppression of minorities is just the usual hypocrisy to be found on campus these days. But there are two points in their rant worth responding to.

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We’ve reported about the decision of the American Studies Association to join the boycott of Israel. Supporters of the economic war against the Jewish state calling for institutions to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel have failed to gain much traction even in academia, let alone mainstream sectors of American society. As Jonathan Marks noted here the national council of the ASA that endorse the BDS resolution is largely compose of radicals. But they are not alone. The latest group of academic outliers to back the boycott is the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. As the Jerusalem Post reports:

Ohio State English professor Chadwick Allen, the president of the association and coordinator of American Indian Studies at Ohio State, wrote on the association’s website that the move followed a “member-generated” petition asking that the group “formally support the Boycott of Israeli Academic and Cultural Institutions that was initiated by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.”

Over the course of several months, Allen wrote, the NAISA council reached a consensus to support the boycott, and wrote their own declaration of support for the boycott. The document reads that the NAISA Council “protests the infringement of the academic freedom of Indigenous Palestinian academics and intellectuals in the Occupied Territories and Israel who are denied fundamental freedoms of movement, expression, and assembly, which we uphold.”

That another group of campus radicals with doctorates in subjects that are geared toward furthering left-wing theories would join the boycott of Israel is no surprise. That they don’t boycott China in sympathy with Tibet or any number of Arab and Muslim countries for their oppression of minorities is just the usual hypocrisy to be found on campus these days. But there are two points in their rant worth responding to.

One is the notion that Palestinians in the territories and Israel are denied “fundamental freedoms of movement, expression, and assembly.” This is simply false.

Academics in the West Bank are not suppressed. Quite the contrary, they work, publish, and pontificate in public while working in the many Palestinian institutions of higher education that were all founded after Israel took control of the area in 1967. Far from censoring activity at those schools, Israel has no input or ability to influence them whatsoever. All Palestinian colleges exist as hotbeds of support for terror and the delegitimization of Israel. The Palestinian media, especially that run by the Palestinian Authority which governs the daily lives of Palestinians in almost all of the West Bank, is similarly unrestrained by Israel and, as Palestine Media Watch reports on a regular basis, is a steady source of incitement to hatred against Israel and Jews. Nor are there any restrictions on the right of assembly for academics as the kerfuffle over the student body-supported Islamic Jihad fascist-style military parade at Al Quds University in Jerusalem proved. As for freedom of movement, it is true that Palestinians must deal with some Israeli army checkpoints that make travel difficult at times. But that doesn’t prevent them from moving about as they please.

It is also interesting that the Native American Studies Association include Arabs living in the State of Israel in their rant. This is entirely risible as Israeli Arabs have the same full rights that Jewish Israelis enjoy including the right to call for Israel’s destruction. The irony is that the institutions that these allege scholars want to boycott are the places in Israel that are friendliest to anti-Zionist incitement.

But there is a broader, more important point to make about their ridiculous manifesto. They say:

As the elected council of an international community of Indigenous and allied non-Indigenous scholars, students, and public intellectuals who have studied and resisted the colonization and domination of Indigenous lands via settler state structures throughout the world, we strongly protest the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the legal structures of the Israeli state that systematically discriminate against Palestinians and other Indigenous peoples.

By attempting to portray the Palestinians as the “indigenous people” of the territory on which the State of Israel and the administered territories exist and the Jews as the colonial settlers, they are perpetrating the big lie of Palestinian history. Jews are not foreigners in Israel as Europeans were in Africa. They happen to be the indigenous people of their ancient homeland and efforts to deny this isn’t scholarship. Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and those who would deny them the same rights accorded other peoples are practicing bias, not scholarship. As with Palestinian attempts to deny the Jewish connection with the country or with Jerusalem and ancient Jewish holy sites such as the Temple Mount or the Western Wall, attempts to cast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one between foreign occupiers and natives is revisionist myth recast as left-wing politicized scholarship.

There can be honest disagreement and debate about Israel’s policies in the territories, settlements, and borders. But by extending their argument to all of pre-1967 Israel as well as by smearing the Jews as colonists in their own country, the Native American studies group forfeits its credibility. Rather than being seen as the cutting edge of enlightened opinion, their support for BDS should mark them as a pack of incorrigible haters who should be treated with the same disdain and isolation that they would like to dish out to Israelis.

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Did Putin Outsmart Ukraine’s Protesters?

Der Spiegel opens its piece on how Vladimir Putin “outfoxed” Western powers in 2013 with a seemingly curious but in fact quite revealing scene. Putin and Patriarch Kirill are at a ceremony celebrating Russian nationalism when the country’s religious leader honors Putin with a certificate and the following praise: “We know that you, more than anyone else since the end of the 20th century, are helping Russia become more powerful and regain its old positions, as a country that respects itself and enjoys the respect of all others.”

National self-respect may or may not be as important to the Russian people as the patriarch suggested, but he certainly knew just what Putin wanted to hear. Yet because of the role Putin’s ego plays in formulating policy, it’s just as important at times to know what he doesn’t want to hear. It may have come across as petty when President Obama added insult to injury by avoiding a conference in Russia and dismissing Putin as having “that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” But the president was speaking Putin’s language. Case in point: the New York Times reported on Putin’s reaction to the comment, which he seemed to take far more personally than Obama’s decision to cancel his trip to St. Petersburg.

The more Russia struggles domestically the more effort Putin appears to expend to burnish Russia’s image as a great power. The bored schoolboy taunt threatened to turn Putin’s carefully crafted image against him: the stoic, detached leader with a casual air of superiority and boredom suddenly looks like the lonely misfit. And Obama has now done it again. Following the French and German presidents’ announcements that they will not attend the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, Obama was widely expected to abstain from joining the American delegation as well. But the president’s choice for the delegation’s roster is somewhat inspired:

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Der Spiegel opens its piece on how Vladimir Putin “outfoxed” Western powers in 2013 with a seemingly curious but in fact quite revealing scene. Putin and Patriarch Kirill are at a ceremony celebrating Russian nationalism when the country’s religious leader honors Putin with a certificate and the following praise: “We know that you, more than anyone else since the end of the 20th century, are helping Russia become more powerful and regain its old positions, as a country that respects itself and enjoys the respect of all others.”

National self-respect may or may not be as important to the Russian people as the patriarch suggested, but he certainly knew just what Putin wanted to hear. Yet because of the role Putin’s ego plays in formulating policy, it’s just as important at times to know what he doesn’t want to hear. It may have come across as petty when President Obama added insult to injury by avoiding a conference in Russia and dismissing Putin as having “that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” But the president was speaking Putin’s language. Case in point: the New York Times reported on Putin’s reaction to the comment, which he seemed to take far more personally than Obama’s decision to cancel his trip to St. Petersburg.

The more Russia struggles domestically the more effort Putin appears to expend to burnish Russia’s image as a great power. The bored schoolboy taunt threatened to turn Putin’s carefully crafted image against him: the stoic, detached leader with a casual air of superiority and boredom suddenly looks like the lonely misfit. And Obama has now done it again. Following the French and German presidents’ announcements that they will not attend the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, Obama was widely expected to abstain from joining the American delegation as well. But the president’s choice for the delegation’s roster is somewhat inspired:

The United States’ delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia won’t include a member of President Barack Obama’s family or an active cabinet secretary, but it will include openly gay athletes – a clear jab at Russia’s recent anti-gay laws.

Billie Jean King, the tennis legend, will join figure skater Brian Boitano at the games’ opening ceremonies on February 7, the White House said Tuesday.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, White House aide Rob Nabors and the U.S. ambassador to Russia will round out the delegation to the Sochi games.

King was one of the first professional athletes to come out as gay in the 1980s.

Two weeks later, a group led by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns will attend the closing ceremony. Speed skaters Bonnie Blair and Eric Heiden, as well as openly gay hockey player Caitlin Cahow, will also attend.

Of course, it shouldn’t be insulting to send gay athletes to the Olympics, but Putin has created a situation in which it makes a statement. Not only has the Russian government made it dangerous to be openly gay in Russia, but the Duma’s anti-gay-propaganda law was explicitly designed to equate homosexuality with pedophilia in spirit and, to a certain extent, in law.

Yet Putin seems to have outmaneuvered the pro-Western elements in his neighborhood once again. Kiev has been swamped with a vigorous protest movement ever since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych spurned a trade deal with the European Union a week before the two sides were expected to seal the deal. It was widely understood that Yanukovych had buckled to pressure from Moscow.

Yanukovych appeared to have misplayed his hand, because the EU deal gave Ukrainians an opening to protest against the government itself. Yanukovych was backed into a corner, caught between East and West and with the protesters demanding far more than a trade deal; they wanted resignations and they wanted justice for police violence against them. Putin, however, saw this as an instance in which the protesters themselves overreached. And he may be right:

On Tuesday, Ukraine’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said that Russia would come to the rescue of its financially troubled neighbor, providing $15 billion in loans and a steep discount on natural gas prices.

The announcement seemed to have a deflating effect on the protesters, a tired and haggard group after spending more than three weeks encamped on Independence Square. A church choir sang. Protest leaders asked for patience as they scrambled to devise a new strategy.

The protests were ignited by the government’s last-minute failure to sign political and free trade accords with Europe, which had been seen as an alternative to the Russian deal. Their demands, though, had expanded to seeking punishment for the police, accused of violently attacking demonstrators, and the resignation of Mr. Azarov, the prime minister.

It’s easy to see why Putin saw the expansion of the protesters’ demands as an opportunity. What Putin wants is for Ukraine to stick with Russia and keep itself separate from the West. When the protesters brought Ukrainian politics to a standstill over the EU deal, it revealed that Putin and Yanukovych’s interests had diverged. Yanukovych could, possibly, keep his job by shifting back in Europe’s direction.

But once the protesters moved beyond the trade deal, Putin understood that the issue–which was all he really cared about–had lost its resonance as a rallying cry for the public. The protesters made it clear that they hated Yanukovych, not that they were dedicated to the free flow of commerce in a globalized trading system. That is a more fundamentally troubling situation for Yanukovych, but it means Putin could bail Ukraine out without sparking any wider outrage.

He may have also been betting that if Ukraine actually inked a deal with Russia, it would weaken the protesters somewhat since the original issue would be off the table and thus they might lose their center of gravity, if not their dissatisfaction with Yanukovych. That appears to be the case. If it is, Putin will indeed have “outfoxed” the West again, and the American Olympic delegation will seem a futile consolation prize for Washington.

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Hamas Asks You to Buy a Dam in the Negev

One of the prime obstacles to the peace talks being sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is the fact that much of the territory of the putative Palestinian state is not under the control of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party. The independent state in all but name that exists in Gaza is run by Hamas, which imposes its tyrannical Islamist rule and eyes both Israel and the West Bank warily. Periodically, we hear of efforts to unify the two areas and today another rumor surfaced of a possible deal to bring Hamas and Fatah together in one government.

If it ever happened that would, at least in theory, make Abbas’s life a little easier. But it would also give Hamas a veto over peace talks and integrate these rejectionists into the PA government that Kerry continues to extol as a moderate force. But Israelis and those Americans who pay attention to Palestinian culture were given another taste of exactly what that would mean this past weekend, when Hamas-controlled media sought to blame Israel for some of the flooding in Gaza that resulted from the once-in-a-century winter storm that blanketed the region. As the Times of Israel reports:

Hamas’s Disaster Response Committee chairman Yasser Shanti told journalists on Friday that Israel opened dams just east of the Gaza Strip, causing a flood in the area of Moghraqa near the town of Deir El-Balah.

A variation on that claim was made by Civil Defense spokesman Muhammad Al-Maidana, who told the Palestinian daily Al-Quds that Israel had opened sewage canals east of the Gaza Strip, “exacerbating the crisis and raising the water level, causing homes to be submerged.”

Al-Majd, a Palestinian security-oriented website, went so far as to claim that Israel opened the dams in order to expose Hamas tunnels leading into Israel and impose an unbearable financial burden on Gaza’s government. “For Gaza to drown is an old Zionist dream,” the site wrote in a report.

There is only problem with these claims. While Israelis have made the southern portion of their country bloom via ingenuity and clever irrigation schemes, dams are a scarce commodity in a desert region without rivers or lakes. In fact there are no dams in the region bordering Gaza. Of course, Arab and Muslim media and international bloggers who are quick to seize upon any charge, no matter how ridiculous, as more proof of Zionist perfidy have dismissed Israel’s indignant denials of the charge. Looked at one way, it’s hard not to laugh off this latest variation of the old blood libel against the Jews. By speaking of dams in the desert, Hamas is making an invitation to buy a bridge in Brooklyn look like a reasonable investment. But this silly story actually tells us more about what’s wrong with the Middle East and why the peace Kerry seeks is nowhere in sight than one might think.

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One of the prime obstacles to the peace talks being sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is the fact that much of the territory of the putative Palestinian state is not under the control of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party. The independent state in all but name that exists in Gaza is run by Hamas, which imposes its tyrannical Islamist rule and eyes both Israel and the West Bank warily. Periodically, we hear of efforts to unify the two areas and today another rumor surfaced of a possible deal to bring Hamas and Fatah together in one government.

If it ever happened that would, at least in theory, make Abbas’s life a little easier. But it would also give Hamas a veto over peace talks and integrate these rejectionists into the PA government that Kerry continues to extol as a moderate force. But Israelis and those Americans who pay attention to Palestinian culture were given another taste of exactly what that would mean this past weekend, when Hamas-controlled media sought to blame Israel for some of the flooding in Gaza that resulted from the once-in-a-century winter storm that blanketed the region. As the Times of Israel reports:

Hamas’s Disaster Response Committee chairman Yasser Shanti told journalists on Friday that Israel opened dams just east of the Gaza Strip, causing a flood in the area of Moghraqa near the town of Deir El-Balah.

A variation on that claim was made by Civil Defense spokesman Muhammad Al-Maidana, who told the Palestinian daily Al-Quds that Israel had opened sewage canals east of the Gaza Strip, “exacerbating the crisis and raising the water level, causing homes to be submerged.”

Al-Majd, a Palestinian security-oriented website, went so far as to claim that Israel opened the dams in order to expose Hamas tunnels leading into Israel and impose an unbearable financial burden on Gaza’s government. “For Gaza to drown is an old Zionist dream,” the site wrote in a report.

There is only problem with these claims. While Israelis have made the southern portion of their country bloom via ingenuity and clever irrigation schemes, dams are a scarce commodity in a desert region without rivers or lakes. In fact there are no dams in the region bordering Gaza. Of course, Arab and Muslim media and international bloggers who are quick to seize upon any charge, no matter how ridiculous, as more proof of Zionist perfidy have dismissed Israel’s indignant denials of the charge. Looked at one way, it’s hard not to laugh off this latest variation of the old blood libel against the Jews. By speaking of dams in the desert, Hamas is making an invitation to buy a bridge in Brooklyn look like a reasonable investment. But this silly story actually tells us more about what’s wrong with the Middle East and why the peace Kerry seeks is nowhere in sight than one might think.

It should first be noted that the original sources for the claim that Israel opens dams to flood Gaza come from Iran’s Press TV. That font of journalistic integrity floated stories in 2010 and 2012 that spoke of Israeli authorities flooding Gaza by opening dams that supposedly exist to the east of the Gaza strip. But these stories provide no maps showing the site of the dams or documentation about them. Neither that shortcoming nor even a basic knowledge of the geography of the area has stopped Israel-bashers from continuing to blog or tweet links to these fallacious reports.

It should also be noted that Israel, which had its hands full dealing with the impact of the freak storm on its own territory, responded to the distress in Gaza by sending the area–which is, it should be remembered, governed by a group that doesn’t recognize the existence of the Jewish state–pumps to deal with the flash floods in coastal areas caused by unusually heavy rains that pelted the area. But that truth is no match for the willingness of so many to believe the worst about Israel.

In the case of the Palestinians, this is more than just rumor mongering. Hamas blames Israel for suffering in Gaza because that is the only way it can deflect responsibility from itself for the incompetent manner with which it rules the strip. More to the point, these recycled Iranian lies feed into the prejudices of Palestinian political culture that not only rejects Israel but views the Jews as the font of all evil and the source of all Palestinian suffering. Iran’s propaganda machines like its Press TV feed this paranoia in order to fuel hatred of Israel. Palestinians buy it because it allows them to avoid taking responsibility for their own fate and for making peace.

Thus, rather than dismiss this story or laugh it off, serious observers of the Middle East ought to be paying more attention to it. Until Palestinian factions stop blaming Israel for the weather, purveyors of Jew hatred will continue to dominate their politics and keep alive false hope about Israel’s eventual destruction. Rather than worry about enticing Abbas back to the negotiating table where he will continue to prevaricate and try to avoid making a decision about ending the conflict or Fatah-Hamas unity, Kerry should realize that an Arab and Muslim world that is willing to believe such hateful nonsense is not likely to accept a Jewish state in their midst no matter where its borders are drawn.

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Iran: Let’s Enrich to 60 Percent

It’s now been almost a month since Secretary of State John Kerry announced that world powers had reached a nuclear deal with Iran, never mind that it subsequently emerged that the timeline on the deal hadn’t really started because the technicalities were still to be agreed upon. The Obama administration nevertheless moved forward with sanctions relief, perhaps believing that goodwill would bring Iranian authorities into compliance on an issue on which, for decades, they had shown little goodwill.

One of the most amazing things about the self-congratulations in some circles about the triumph of diplomacy is it ignores the discussions inside Iran with regard to the deal. While some Iranian officials have praised the deal as a victory largely because it secures Iranian objectives without forcing permanent Iranian concessions or compliance with UN Security Council resolutions or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Safeguards Agreement, whose violation began this cascade of diplomacy, other simply suggest—as Iranian President Rouhani once did—that temporary suspensions are simply a strategic pause. Over at Irantracker.org, American Enterprise Institute’s Will Fulton and Amir Touraj have been keeping track of the Iranian statements regarding their nuclear program. The bluster among some Iranian officials regarding the program does not give cause for confidence.

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It’s now been almost a month since Secretary of State John Kerry announced that world powers had reached a nuclear deal with Iran, never mind that it subsequently emerged that the timeline on the deal hadn’t really started because the technicalities were still to be agreed upon. The Obama administration nevertheless moved forward with sanctions relief, perhaps believing that goodwill would bring Iranian authorities into compliance on an issue on which, for decades, they had shown little goodwill.

One of the most amazing things about the self-congratulations in some circles about the triumph of diplomacy is it ignores the discussions inside Iran with regard to the deal. While some Iranian officials have praised the deal as a victory largely because it secures Iranian objectives without forcing permanent Iranian concessions or compliance with UN Security Council resolutions or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Safeguards Agreement, whose violation began this cascade of diplomacy, other simply suggest—as Iranian President Rouhani once did—that temporary suspensions are simply a strategic pause. Over at Irantracker.org, American Enterprise Institute’s Will Fulton and Amir Touraj have been keeping track of the Iranian statements regarding their nuclear program. The bluster among some Iranian officials regarding the program does not give cause for confidence.

Take this piece, for example, in which leading conservative Mohammad Reza Bahonar suggests that Iran should enrich uranium up to a level of 60 percent should the Geneva deal fall apart. In effect, this is revealing. If the cost of the Geneva deal is $7 billion over six months as the Obama administration claims, then it is reasonable to assume that Tehran will demand that same amount in relief be provided every six months so long as a final deal is not reached. Of course, if Iran is getting over $1 billion per month in relief and needn’t suspend its work, it has already achieved its objective. If the United States has enough of such bribery and blackmail, though, and talks do not succeed, then Iran will enrich to a level far greater than it needs for energy generation purposes. This itself belies the notion that, at least for Bahonar’s faction, the nuclear program is for anything other than military purposes.

Kerry may believe his deal is like a fine wine that improves with age. If he is a sommelier, however, he is the first that cannot tell the difference between a fine vintage and vinegar.

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So You Think Obama’s 2013 Was Bad? Just Wait Until 2014

President Obama is ending a miserable year on a down note.

Public opinion polls show Mr. Obama’s approval ratings at their low and disapproval ratings at their high. He’s being tagged by the elite media as a liar and as having had the Worst Year in Washington. His signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is a rolling disaster. And the rest of his agenda–on gun control, climate change, immigration, and much else–is dead in the water. As CNN’s John King put it, Obama was “0 for 13” on the policy proposals he advocated at the beginning of the year.

One question, I suppose, is whether 2013 can be written off as simply one bad year–or whether, in fact, the Obama White House will look back to this year as the good old days of the second term.

It’s impossible to know for sure, of course, since politics is rarely linear and events we can’t anticipate are sure to intervene. But all we can do is to assess how things look at any given moment in time–and based on where things now stand, my guess is that 2014 will be even worse for the Obama presidency than has been 2013.
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President Obama is ending a miserable year on a down note.

Public opinion polls show Mr. Obama’s approval ratings at their low and disapproval ratings at their high. He’s being tagged by the elite media as a liar and as having had the Worst Year in Washington. His signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is a rolling disaster. And the rest of his agenda–on gun control, climate change, immigration, and much else–is dead in the water. As CNN’s John King put it, Obama was “0 for 13” on the policy proposals he advocated at the beginning of the year.

One question, I suppose, is whether 2013 can be written off as simply one bad year–or whether, in fact, the Obama White House will look back to this year as the good old days of the second term.

It’s impossible to know for sure, of course, since politics is rarely linear and events we can’t anticipate are sure to intervene. But all we can do is to assess how things look at any given moment in time–and based on where things now stand, my guess is that 2014 will be even worse for the Obama presidency than has been 2013.

I say that for a couple of reasons. The first is that the issue that has done the most durable damage to the Obama presidency is the Affordable Care Act–and if you believe, as I do, that the problems with it are (a) fundamental and structural and (b) ongoing, then next year will produce yet more problems, more dislocation, more anxiety, and more anger, caused by things like (but not limited to) small business cancellations of health-care plans, “doc shock,” and the coming problems facing the exchange systems in each of our 50 states.

The core problem facing the Obama presidency, then, can’t be fixed simply by personnel changes; it can only be repaired by accepting that the Affordable Care Act is intrinsically defective and therefore needs to be ended. And Mr. Obama will fight to his last breath to keep that from occurring.

The second reason 2014 could well be worse for the president is the mid-term election, which (if history is any guide) will almost surely subtract the number of Democrats in Congress–and which may, in fact, be the second “wave” election to hit Democrats during the Obama years.

With the qualifier that we’re still 11 months away, Republicans right now are relatively well positioned to make gains, and probably significant gains, in both the House and Senate. If that were to occur, it would not only further damage Mr. Obama; it would go some distance toward affirming the narrative that the Obama presidency is deeply injurious to his party and, more broadly, to liberalism.

Perhaps this analysis can be dismissed as biased thinking by a conservative critic. Or perhaps it’s a fair reading of where things stand and where things are headed. We’ll know this time next year. But I suspect that for all his problems this year, it may be viewed in retrospect as (for the second term at least) the land of milk and honey compared to what awaits the man Barbara Walters thought was going to be “the next messiah.” 

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Will GOP Rescue Obama with Debt Fight?

Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threw down the gauntlet again on the debt ceiling. Speaking to reporters in Washington, McConnell made it clear that Senate Republicans wouldn’t consider putting through a “clean” debt ceiling bill that would merely rubber stamp the latest installment of out-of-control government spending. The issue was specifically left out of the pragmatic deal cut between the two parties by Rep. Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray that eliminated the possibility of another government shutdown for two years. But are Republicans really sanguine about the prospect of another bruising fight about the debt ceiling as well as of the attendant dire and somewhat self-fulfilling prophecies about default and the collapse of the economy?

The budget agreement seemed to indicate that the GOP—or at least House Speaker John Boehner—had learned its lesson from the series of debilitating and largely self-destructive fights they’ve engage in over both the budget and the debt in the last two years, but McConnell’s comments seem to indicate that we may be in for another one sometime early in 2014. But given the beating Republicans have taken over previous attempts to exact concessions from Democrats in such situations, the White House may be hoping that McConnell makes good on his threat. While McConnell and other conservatives are right to believe extending the debt ceiling ought to be accompanied by some gesture from the government that indicates a move toward reform, they need to consider whether another skirmish of this sort will do more to harm their cause than help it.

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Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threw down the gauntlet again on the debt ceiling. Speaking to reporters in Washington, McConnell made it clear that Senate Republicans wouldn’t consider putting through a “clean” debt ceiling bill that would merely rubber stamp the latest installment of out-of-control government spending. The issue was specifically left out of the pragmatic deal cut between the two parties by Rep. Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray that eliminated the possibility of another government shutdown for two years. But are Republicans really sanguine about the prospect of another bruising fight about the debt ceiling as well as of the attendant dire and somewhat self-fulfilling prophecies about default and the collapse of the economy?

The budget agreement seemed to indicate that the GOP—or at least House Speaker John Boehner—had learned its lesson from the series of debilitating and largely self-destructive fights they’ve engage in over both the budget and the debt in the last two years, but McConnell’s comments seem to indicate that we may be in for another one sometime early in 2014. But given the beating Republicans have taken over previous attempts to exact concessions from Democrats in such situations, the White House may be hoping that McConnell makes good on his threat. While McConnell and other conservatives are right to believe extending the debt ceiling ought to be accompanied by some gesture from the government that indicates a move toward reform, they need to consider whether another skirmish of this sort will do more to harm their cause than help it.

After a year in which a string of scandals and then a disastrous rollout of his signature health-care bill have caused President Obama’s approval ratings to collapse, the White House is looking for a way to change the subject from broken promises and dysfunctional websites.

Their strategy appears to be one in which the president finally makes good on the promises of his 2013 State-of the Union speech and pivots hard left. That’s part of the reason veteran liberal strategist John Podesta has been drafted to help shore up the team of presidential advisors. Obama’s recent speech attempting to make income inequality the fulcrum of the national political debate was largely unpersuasive ideological cant. That’s what the Democratic base wants to hear, but it’s not the sort of thing that will do much to help reelect vulnerable Democrats in red states and keep the Senate out of Republican hands. Nor will it divert the public or even the mainstream media from coverage of the ongoing fiasco that is ObamaCare. But if Republicans throw Obama a lifeline in the form of another debt ceiling crisis, they might provide him with just the opening he needs to both bury the ObamaCare story and to resurrect his favorite campaign theme about GOP extremists who are willing to sacrifice the nation in pursuit of partisan goals.

Such a characterization of Republican efforts to rein in government spending and taxes before agreeing to go on expanding the debt is patently unfair. Tea Party activists and some of their GOP congressional hostages, like McConnell, are in the right on this issue. Raising the debt ceiling isn’t merely paying the bills, it’s a gesture that enables more irresponsibility and has done just that every time it has been raised.

But it needs to be reiterated that with control of only one half of one third of the government, neither House Republicans nor the GOP minority in the Senate have the ability to force Obama and the Democrats to agree to any of the commonsense ideas they propose. Going to the brink over this is a political loser. It is a given that neither Speaker Boehner nor Senator McConnell is really willing to see the nation go over the fiscal cliff over this. Whether the dire predictions heard from liberals are false or not it can’t be denied that the uncertainty will hurt the economy and that Republicans will take the brunt of the blame. Doing so in an election year will only help Democrats reframe the issues in a way that could revive Obama’s increasingly dismal second term and give their party the boost they need to hold onto the Senate.

Conservatives and Tea Partiers will dismiss such warnings as cynical political gamesmanship and brand, as they’ve done every commonsense thing congressional Republicans have done in the past year (like ending the government shutdown or passing the Ryan compromise budget), as a sellout. But the same realism that pushed them to abandon suicidal tactics in the past shouldn’t be ignored now. If conservatives are serious about changing Washington, they are going to have to start by winning the 2014 midterms. A debt-ceiling crisis, like the shutdown, will be a gift to Democrats allowing them to evade questions about presidential misrule and the devastating impact ObamaCare is having on millions of Americans.

Its understandable that McConnell and other Republicans who face stiff primary challenges from the right this year don’t want to be called RINOs and thus are talking about going to the brink again. But if McConnell wants to win in November and move to the majority leader’s desk, he’s going to have to find a way to avoid a debt debacle.

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Why Obama Chose Podesta

The potential impact of President Obama’s decision to bring veteran Democratic figure John Podesta on board to save his floundering presidency continues to be debated, and is the subject of a Glenn Thrush analysis today. But Thrush’s article seems to have fallen victim to the reportorial success of its author, with Thrush having been able to get such a juicy quote out of Podesta that the quote itself has overshadowed the rest of the story.

That’s too bad, because the more important element of the story is not Podesta’s quote, though that’s worth mentioning as well: “[Obama and his team] need to focus on executive action given that they are facing a second term against a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress,” Podesta told Thrush, comparing the GOP and the large segment of the American public that elected them to the cult movement that ended in infamous mass suicide.

There’s not much surprising about the quote. Now that the moderate wing of the Democratic Party has all but disappeared, unhinged rhetoric and uncontrolled temper tantrums characterize much of the left’s discourse. And the modern Democratic Party has an unhealthy fascination with murder fantasy, from their political ads depicting legislators throwing people off a cliff to their columnists’ attachment to effigy executions. What’s important about the quote is not its morbid conclusion but the first half of it, which is the subject of Thrush’s article:

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The potential impact of President Obama’s decision to bring veteran Democratic figure John Podesta on board to save his floundering presidency continues to be debated, and is the subject of a Glenn Thrush analysis today. But Thrush’s article seems to have fallen victim to the reportorial success of its author, with Thrush having been able to get such a juicy quote out of Podesta that the quote itself has overshadowed the rest of the story.

That’s too bad, because the more important element of the story is not Podesta’s quote, though that’s worth mentioning as well: “[Obama and his team] need to focus on executive action given that they are facing a second term against a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress,” Podesta told Thrush, comparing the GOP and the large segment of the American public that elected them to the cult movement that ended in infamous mass suicide.

There’s not much surprising about the quote. Now that the moderate wing of the Democratic Party has all but disappeared, unhinged rhetoric and uncontrolled temper tantrums characterize much of the left’s discourse. And the modern Democratic Party has an unhealthy fascination with murder fantasy, from their political ads depicting legislators throwing people off a cliff to their columnists’ attachment to effigy executions. What’s important about the quote is not its morbid conclusion but the first half of it, which is the subject of Thrush’s article:

This is not just about providing added muscle to a beleaguered and undermanned West Wing staff. According to interviews in recent weeks with an array of Obama insiders and a dozen current and former senior aides, Podesta’s hire is explicitly meant to shake things up inside the White House. In effect, I was told, it represents the clearest sign to date of the administration’s interest in shifting the paradigm of Obama’s presidency through the forceful, unapologetic and occasionally provocative application of White House power. Podesta, whose official mandate includes enforcement of numerous executive orders on emissions and the environment, suggested as much when he spoke with me earlier this fall about Obama’s team. “They need to focus on executive action given that they are facing a second term against a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress,” he told me.

“I think [White House officials] were naturally preoccupied with legislating at first, and I think it took them a while to make the turn to execution. They are focused on that now,” Podesta added. “They have to realize that the president has broad authority, that he’s not just the prime minister. He can drive a whole range of action. They always grasped that on foreign policy and in the national security area. Now they are doing it on the domestic side.”

The confirmation that Obama wants a divisive partisan steering his second-term agenda isn’t exactly breaking news, and neither is the fact that he wants to ignore Congress and continue amassing power in the executive branch. But it’s significant precisely because it isn’t surprising. None of this would constitute a change of course for Obama, but a change of course can often be a productive way for a president to salvage a second term from the challenge of lame-duck status and diminishing political capital.

Obama is often compared to the previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and this should be no different. Even before Clinton’s second term really fell apart, he understood the growing influence of the House Republican caucus and the public appetite for some of the right’s policy preferences. When Clinton needed to replace Leon Panetta as his chief of staff, he did not give the job to Panetta’s deputy, Harold Ickes, but instead brought in Erskine Bowles.

The Baltimore Sun reported on a January 1997 one-day retreat in which Clinton stressed bipartisanship and working with congressional Republicans on balancing the budget. Though these were general administration priorities, the Sun noted that the event “very much had the stamp of new Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles.” His organizational skills and ability to work with Republicans were going to be key in getting the president’s second-term agenda off the ground. The Sun added:

Top Cabinet officials suggested that a good relationship with Congress isn’t as difficult as it sounds and that it essentially entails being willing to compromise with Republicans on tax and spending cuts while delivering a budget that is in balance by the year 2002.

The Democrats have certainly come a long way from those days of compromise and fiscal responsibility. Those are not priorities for Obama-era Democrats, but more than that, the Obama administration doesn’t believe it needs to compromise with congressional Republicans because the president doesn’t recognize their authority.

The Sun had noted that Clinton was more open to compromise with Republicans after his reelection because he didn’t “need Republicans as a foil anymore.” But for Obama, the campaign never ends, so the need for a foil is always there. Because the campaign never ends, serious governing–as opposed to executive power grabs and bureaucratic rulemaking–never begins. The perfect candidate for this job, the president believes, is John Podesta. And Podesta seems to agree.

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Bernanke’s Last Meeting

Ben Bernanke will preside over his last meeting of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee today and give his last news conference as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Then he will step down, and leave his reputation to the hands of history. No one can say he had an easy time of it as chairman.

He became chairman in February 2006, when times were prosperous, unemployment low, and the stock market high. But he was soon caught up in the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, a crisis that required strong, decisive Fed action to prevent a financial collapse. That Bernanke certainly provided, pouring money into the economy and rescuing from bankruptcy some of the country’s largest financial institutions.

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Ben Bernanke will preside over his last meeting of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee today and give his last news conference as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Then he will step down, and leave his reputation to the hands of history. No one can say he had an easy time of it as chairman.

He became chairman in February 2006, when times were prosperous, unemployment low, and the stock market high. But he was soon caught up in the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, a crisis that required strong, decisive Fed action to prevent a financial collapse. That Bernanke certainly provided, pouring money into the economy and rescuing from bankruptcy some of the country’s largest financial institutions.

The recovery from that crisis is now in its fifth year, the most reluctant recovery since the Great Depression lingered on year after year in the 1930s. This has forced the Fed to pursue a policy of “quantitative easing,” a euphemism for further increasing the money supply. As it has been buying federal and mortgage-backed bonds (recently at the rate of $85 billion a month) the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve has increased enormously. Getting those assets off its books (and thus reducing the money supply) will be a long and very tricky process. If the Fed does it too slowly, inflation will take off; too quickly, and the economy could sink back in recession. But that will be Janet Yellen’s problem, not Ben Bernanke’s.

It is far too soon to know how history will judge Bernanke. The reputation of Alan Greenspan, chairman from 1987 to 2006, has sunk since he retired as chairman, as it has become clear that he waited far too long to begin tightening and thus damping down the housing bubble that was at the heart of the 2008 crisis. Paul Volker (1979-1987) has seen his reputation only rise. His brave policy (supported by President Ronald Reagan) of inducing a sharp recession in order to break the back of the 1970s inflation produced over twenty years of unprecedented prosperity. Arthur Burns, chairman from 1970 to 1978, is credited, if that’s the word, with being far too accommodative of government borrowing and thus responsible in large measure for the terrible inflation of the 1970s. His successor, G. William Miller, was chairman for only a year and a half and never earned much respect in office or later.

Certainly Bernanke was a strong hand at the wheel of the world’s most powerful bank at a time of great crisis. A weak hand could have produced not a crisis but a catastrophe. For that the country owes him thanks.

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China, the Philippines, and U.S. Influence

It’s good to hear Secretary of State John Kerry announce, on a visit to Manila, closer military cooperation with our longtime ally, the Philippines, including more U.S. military visits. It was good, too, to hear Kerry, at a press conference with the Philippine foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, denounce China’s new, self-declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which encroaches on Japanese and South Korean airspace. Kerry said that “the United States does not recognize that zone and does not accept it.”

The problem is that the administration has not been sending a consistent message to China in this regard. To its credit, the U.S. did fly a couple of unarmed B-52s through China’s ADIZ without notifying Chinese authorities. But then the U.S. seemed to send troubling signals that it was willing to accept the ADIZ after all. Foreign Policy noted on December 4 that the administration seems to be looking for “wiggle room” on the issue and “may be willing to accept the zone for now.”

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It’s good to hear Secretary of State John Kerry announce, on a visit to Manila, closer military cooperation with our longtime ally, the Philippines, including more U.S. military visits. It was good, too, to hear Kerry, at a press conference with the Philippine foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, denounce China’s new, self-declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which encroaches on Japanese and South Korean airspace. Kerry said that “the United States does not recognize that zone and does not accept it.”

The problem is that the administration has not been sending a consistent message to China in this regard. To its credit, the U.S. did fly a couple of unarmed B-52s through China’s ADIZ without notifying Chinese authorities. But then the U.S. seemed to send troubling signals that it was willing to accept the ADIZ after all. Foreign Policy noted on December 4 that the administration seems to be looking for “wiggle room” on the issue and “may be willing to accept the zone for now.”

For example, when Vice President Biden met in Beijing recently with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he didn’t mention the issue at all. Moreover, the Obama administration has infuriated our close allies in Tokyo by telling U.S. airliners to abide by the Chinese ADIZ, even as Japan is telling its own airlines to ignore it.

The lack of a strong, consistent message from the administration is deeply injurious to our relationships with allies and to overall efforts to limit Chinese expansion. The leadership in Beijing is smart and they are willing to play a long game. They are not going to achieve overnight their ultimate ambition of reasserting historic Chinese domination of its neighboring states and pushing the U.S. military beyond the “first island chain” off the Chinese shore–a designation which takes in everything from Taiwan to the Philippines. Instead, the Chinese are taking one small nibble after another, testing the American reaction, and then, if there is no reaction, proceeding onto the next bite.

So far, unfortunately, the U.S. has given China no reason to doubt that its assertion of an ADIZ was a success–which means that further aggressive moves are in store before long.

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