Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 20, 2013

Understanding Two Views of Modern Israel

This fall two important books about Israel have appeared in English and both are worthy of extended discussion. One is Yossi Klein Halevi’s rightly acclaimed Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, which was reviewed in the December issue of COMMENTARY. The other is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which has gotten a lot more play in the secular media and the approval of some of the Jewish state’s usual critics as well as praise from many of its friends. While both have provoked a lively discussion, anyone looking for an essay putting both in perspective could do no better than to read Ruth Wisse’s piece on the two volumes in Mosaic Magazine.

Wisse provides a valuable pushback against some of the unwarranted praise that Shavit’s book has received and provides both praise and criticism of Halevi’s book. I agree with her on the first but would like to provide a slightly different perspective on the latter.

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This fall two important books about Israel have appeared in English and both are worthy of extended discussion. One is Yossi Klein Halevi’s rightly acclaimed Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, which was reviewed in the December issue of COMMENTARY. The other is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which has gotten a lot more play in the secular media and the approval of some of the Jewish state’s usual critics as well as praise from many of its friends. While both have provoked a lively discussion, anyone looking for an essay putting both in perspective could do no better than to read Ruth Wisse’s piece on the two volumes in Mosaic Magazine.

Wisse provides a valuable pushback against some of the unwarranted praise that Shavit’s book has received and provides both praise and criticism of Halevi’s book. I agree with her on the first but would like to provide a slightly different perspective on the latter.

Wisse, a frequent and esteemed contributor to COMMENTARY, is one of the most astute writers about Jewish life. Her takedown of Shavit’s guilt- and fear-ridden approach to the triumph of Zionism, and in particular, her answer to his focus on the story of what happened in Lydda in 1948, is particularly valuable. She writes:

In his chronological march through Israel’s history, 1897, 1921, 1936, 1942, Shavit situates 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, not in Tel Aviv with David Ben Gurion reading the proclamation of independence under Herzl’s portrait, and not among the about-to-be savaged Jews of Jerusalem (in fact, not one of his chapters is situated in the capital, where Shavit has also lived part of his life), but in the battle over the Palestinian Arab town of Lydda (Lod), where he emblematically recasts the creation of the state of Israel as naqba, the “catastrophe” that is the founding myth of Arab Palestinians:

Lydda suspected nothing. Lydda did not imagine what was about to happen. For forty-four years it watched Zionism enter the valley: first the Atod factory, then the Kiryat Sefer school, then the olive forest, the artisan colony, the tiny workers’ village, the experimental farm, and the strange youth village headed by the eccentric German doctor who was so friendly to the people of Lydda and gave medical treatment to those in need…. The people of Lydda did not see that the Zionism that came into the valley to give hope to a nation of orphans had become a movement of cruel resolve, determined to take the land by force.

Like women who hold up bloody sheets to confirm a bride’s virginity, Shavit waves before his readers every bloody act committed by Jews in (what used to be known as) Israel’s war of independence. This chapter of the book was the one picked out to be featured, before the book’s publication, in the New Yorker, a venue in which Israel’s bloody sheets are regularly hoisted in place of its blue and white flag.

And what is “Lydda”? The researcher Alex Safian has taken the trouble to separate fact from propaganda in Shavit’s description of an alleged massacre in that town, second only to the more notorious alleged massacre in Deir Yasin. Starting with the Israelis’ cannon-bearing “giant armored vehicle”—actually, a recovered Jordanian light armored scout car the size of a Ford SUV—Safian deconstructs Shavit’s inflamed portrait to establish the following: the Arab inhabitants of Lydda first surrendered to Jewish soldiers and then, having retracted their surrender when it seemed that Jordanian forces had gained the upper hand, went about killing and mutilating Israeli fighters. This alone might be seen as cause enough for a “cruel” response at the height of a war launched by five invading armies against Jews who had been prevented by the British from preparing defenses and were relying on paramilitary forces of young volunteers. Once the town was secured, the Israelis let the Arabs leave, something both sides recognized would never have happened had victory gone the other way.

While acknowledging that Shavit deserves credit for recognizing before many of his fellow left-wingers at Haaretz that the Oslo peace process was a disaster, she rightly notes his inability to grasp the positive Jewish vision at the heart of the Zionist project or his lack of faith in the ability of his compatriots to resist the never-ceasing efforts of their foes to destroy their state. As she states:

Shavit ends his book as he begins it, with an image of concentric Islamic, Arab, and Palestinian circles closing in on Israel. But danger is different from tragedy, and the healthy fear that hostility inspires is different from the sickly fear of imagining that one is guilty of causing that hostility. Shavit fails to distinguish the triumph of Israel from the tragedy of the Arab and Muslim war against it—a war that began before 1948 and that has always been indifferent to concessionary adjustments of Israel’s boundaries or policies. The only harm Israelis ever did to Arabs—and I emphasize only—was to impose on the Palestinians a terrorist leader whom Israelis would never have allowed to rule over themselves. 

Wisse is more charitable to Halevi and it’s easy to understand why. Few books have offered more insight into what has happened in Israeli society since 1967. By telling the story of the lives of several of the paratroopers who ended the division of Jerusalem in 1967, he found the perfect vehicle for explaining both the Peace Now movement on the left as well as the settlement movement on the right. Their stories are remarkable and even readers who consider themselves well-versed in the history of modern Israel will find plenty here that is both fresh and full of insight about familiar topics as well as those that are less well known. It is nothing less than one of the best and most important books about Israel I’ve ever read.

Wisse notes one of its failings when she mentions that some readers are bound to find the large cast of characters confusing at times as well as the way the author bounces from one of their stories to the next and then back again. Like some classic Russian novels, this is a book that is best read with the page at the front of the volume with the “Who’s Who” permanently bookmarked. However, Wisse has a further criticism:

If there is a problem with this book’s back-and-forth method—and there is—the cause lies less in the disorder of its plot than in the flip side of the author’s eschewal of tendentiousness: namely, his studied disinclination to invest his plot with meaning. A book anchored in some of the most consequential battles for Israel’s life declines to tell us how or why those battles mattered. The same diffidence characterizes Like Dreamers’ tracing of the dissolution of the state’s regnant socialist ideology and the institutions of Labor Zionism, which we see crumbling from below as incrementally, as seemingly spontaneously, as Meir Ariel is drawn into the synagogue. As the book ends, in 2004, the former paratroopers are divided by clashing views on the fate of united Jerusalem, now claimed by the PLO as the locus of its capital; here again, in relaying the men’s arguments, the author strives for neutrality.

But why return to Israel’s “mythic moment” of victory in 1967 if one is unprepared to articulate what that moment signified, and what it continues to signify? If there is one thing the ideological wars over Israel legitimacy have taught us, it is that neutrality, impartiality, and indeterminacy are fodder for whoever and whatever is working actively against the very right of the Jewish state to exist.

In reading Halevi’s book, I share some of her frustration on this point. But any dissatisfaction on this point needs to be balanced by a recognition that what Halevi is doing in Like Dreamers is not so much a defense of Israel or a rationalization of its dilemma (as Shavit’s unsatisfactory book might well be described) as an attempt to explain the Jews to each other. Like the paratroopers who were divided along cultural and religious lines between the majority of kibbutzniks and the minority of modern Orthodox soldiers in the renowned 55th Brigade, both Israelis and American Jews alike need to transcend our differences. If Halevi chooses not to take sides in the arguments between Peace Now and Gush Emunim, it is because he, like some of his wiser subjects, has come to the conclusion that the left-right divide that has largely characterized Jewish and Israeli politics for the last generation has come to a dead end.

The events of the 20 years since Oslo have shown that the left was dead wrong about the Palestinians being willing to make peace and the right was mistaken to think that Israel could absorb the West Bank—Judea and Samaria, which form the heart of the Jewish homeland—without cost or with impunity. The battle facing both Israelis and their friends is not about where Israel’s borders should be or whether the settlements are good or bad, but whether the Jewish state should continue to exist. Like Dreamers calls upon us not to take sides in the deep division in Jewish life that arose after the paratroopers’ 1967 heroism but to rise above it in order to do what is necessary to preserve their sacrifices. Halevi does not tell us what to think about Israeli politics either in the past or the future, but he does remind us that those who focus exclusively on the old arguments are missing the point about the state’s current challenges.

As such, Halevi’s book is, perhaps even more than a pointed critique such as the one Wisse has given us, the perfect answer to Shavit’s ambivalence about Israel’s future. Halevi may not supply us with the conclusion that both Wisse and I would have preferred. But he has given his readers an essential starting point for a journey in the right direction.

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Why the Iran Sanctions Fight Matters

President Obama knows he’s got a fight on his hands. The decision of 26 members of the Senate, including several prominent Democrats, to sponsor a bill that would toughen sanctions on Iran showed that skepticism about the administration’s Iran policy and the nuclear deal signed with Tehran last month is still strong on both sides of the aisle. But rather than merely counting on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doing his bidding and putting off consideration of the bill until sometime next year, the White House went further, issuing a rare formal threat of a veto of the proposed legislation. Not content with that, the administration also prodded ten Senate committee chairs to sign a letter indicating their opposition to more sanctions against Iran, including as journalist (and leading advocate of appeasement of Iran) Laura Rozen noted on Twitter, four Jewish senators.

Why are the president and his supporters so alarmed by the prospect of a new sanctions law? Given that even if the bill introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez and ranking Republican Mark Kirk were put into law it would not go into effect until after the six-month period the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have set aside for negotiating a final resolution of the nuclear dispute, it’s hard to understand their argument. Since the only thing that appeared to bring the Iranians to the table in the first place was sanctions, why would the threat of tightening the noose on Tehran’s lucrative oil business make diplomacy more difficult as the president and his backers claim? More pressure on Iran should be exactly what they should want so as to convince the ayatollahs that they have no choice but to give up their nuclear dreams lest the U.S. make their lives even more difficult.

The answer to this question isn’t merely one of seeking the best tactic to stop Iran, as the president’s Senate supporters claim. Rather, it goes to the heart of the administration’s entire approach to Iran. The fear of more sanctions seems to indicate the president’s goal isn’t so much making good on his repeated promises to stop Iran as to achieve a new détente with the Islamist regime. As such, the battle over the sanctions bill may not be simply a tactical dispute in which both sides agree on the goal but rather one about the future of American foreign policy.

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President Obama knows he’s got a fight on his hands. The decision of 26 members of the Senate, including several prominent Democrats, to sponsor a bill that would toughen sanctions on Iran showed that skepticism about the administration’s Iran policy and the nuclear deal signed with Tehran last month is still strong on both sides of the aisle. But rather than merely counting on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doing his bidding and putting off consideration of the bill until sometime next year, the White House went further, issuing a rare formal threat of a veto of the proposed legislation. Not content with that, the administration also prodded ten Senate committee chairs to sign a letter indicating their opposition to more sanctions against Iran, including as journalist (and leading advocate of appeasement of Iran) Laura Rozen noted on Twitter, four Jewish senators.

Why are the president and his supporters so alarmed by the prospect of a new sanctions law? Given that even if the bill introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez and ranking Republican Mark Kirk were put into law it would not go into effect until after the six-month period the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have set aside for negotiating a final resolution of the nuclear dispute, it’s hard to understand their argument. Since the only thing that appeared to bring the Iranians to the table in the first place was sanctions, why would the threat of tightening the noose on Tehran’s lucrative oil business make diplomacy more difficult as the president and his backers claim? More pressure on Iran should be exactly what they should want so as to convince the ayatollahs that they have no choice but to give up their nuclear dreams lest the U.S. make their lives even more difficult.

The answer to this question isn’t merely one of seeking the best tactic to stop Iran, as the president’s Senate supporters claim. Rather, it goes to the heart of the administration’s entire approach to Iran. The fear of more sanctions seems to indicate the president’s goal isn’t so much making good on his repeated promises to stop Iran as to achieve a new détente with the Islamist regime. As such, the battle over the sanctions bill may not be simply a tactical dispute in which both sides agree on the goal but rather one about the future of American foreign policy.

The argument against the new sanctions bill is that any new legislation will be seen by the Iranians as evidence of the U.S. “breaking faith” with them and give them an excuse to end the negotiations. By speaking in this manner, the White House and Senate supporters aren’t just taking the Iranians at their word since regime figures have been making such threats ever since Secretary of State John Kerry signed a deal with them on November 24. They are acting, as the president and Kerry did throughout the negotiations, as if the U.S. is the suitor in these negotiations and that Tehran is the party with the whip hand.

If the goal of the talks is to use the formidable military and economic leverage of the United States over Iran to force it to finally comply with American demands and United Nations resolutions and cease its refinement of uranium and to give up (as the president explicitly said during his October 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney) its nuclear program, then it is hard to understand this line of thought. It is not just that it reflects an otherwise inexplicable defeatism about the dispute, but that it seems to indicate that the real objective is not the dismantling of Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure but something else.

Despite the lip service they have paid to the importance of sanctions, the administration’s stance indicates a belief that they do not–indeed, cannot–work to influence Iran’s decision-making. And since, contrary to some of their statements, this administration does not contemplate ever using force to stop Iran, what they intend here is not so much Iranian nuclear compliance as an accommodation that will somehow end U.S.-Iran tensions. Seen in that context, the last thing they want is to actually heighten the pressure on Iran, even if their current negotiations don’t get us closer to the goal of ending the nuclear threat.

Under these circumstances, one doesn’t have to use much imagination to see what they might be contemplating is a negotiating process that does not so much resolve the nuclear question as kick it down the road while further loosening sanctions so as to lower tensions between the two countries. The negotiations then become not so much a way of persuading Iran to give up its cherished nuclear dream as easing the way for Americans to come to terms with containing a nuclear Iran.

Administration supporters will dispute this and claim the president can still be counted on to keep his word on Iran. They believe the honey being offered by Kerry will do more to entice Iran to stop misbehaving than threats or sanctions. But in order to buy into this thesis, we have to forget everything we’ve learned about Iranian negotiating tactics and goals in the last 30 years.

This is, after all, an administration that actually opposed the existing sanctions that it now boasts have helped revive diplomacy. But what Obama and Kerry seem to be pushing for is a policy that values diplomacy for its own sake rather than as a means to stop a nuclear Iran.

Since the opposition of Reid and the threat of a veto is probably enough to stop more sanctions, we will probably have a chance to see whether Obama’s diplomatic strategy works. But if six, nine, or twelve months from now the West is still locked in dead-end talks while Tehran’s centrifuges continue to turn and bring Iran closer to a weapon, we may look back on what is being billed as a tactical dispute between some senators and the White House as the moment when the president’s abandonment of his promises on Iran first became obvious.

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A Government of Laws? The ObamaCare Rot

Nancy Pelosi is off the hook. Her famous comment that we had to pass ObamaCare to find out what was in it will live on as a shining example of legislative malfeasance and irresponsible governance, of course, but it’s no longer operative. The reason her remark resonated was because it was true: even the members of Congress who voted for the law seemed to have no idea what much of it said, and therefore they and the public they misled had to find out the hard way.

The reason she is off the hook, however, is that President Obama has now made it clear that it is scarcely relevant what the law says anyway. To review: ObamaCare required businesses with more than fifty full-time employees to provide health insurance to those workers, thereby threatening to increase unemployment and cut work hours for those employees who kept their jobs. After an outcry, the administration announced it was delaying the employer mandate for a year. But is it? Even policy analysts on the left say the employer mandate should be repealed, and some in Congress are pushing for that as well. So is there an employer mandate? Good question!

Then came the real confusion. Americans were told that if they liked their health insurance, they could keep it–“period.” This was false, and the administration knew it. Millions started receiving cancellation notices and the Healthcare.gov website wouldn’t work, so they were off their insurance often with no place to go. So the president announced–far too late to be of much help–that insurance companies were permitted to keep their customers on ObamaCare-outlawed policies for another year. But could they?

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Nancy Pelosi is off the hook. Her famous comment that we had to pass ObamaCare to find out what was in it will live on as a shining example of legislative malfeasance and irresponsible governance, of course, but it’s no longer operative. The reason her remark resonated was because it was true: even the members of Congress who voted for the law seemed to have no idea what much of it said, and therefore they and the public they misled had to find out the hard way.

The reason she is off the hook, however, is that President Obama has now made it clear that it is scarcely relevant what the law says anyway. To review: ObamaCare required businesses with more than fifty full-time employees to provide health insurance to those workers, thereby threatening to increase unemployment and cut work hours for those employees who kept their jobs. After an outcry, the administration announced it was delaying the employer mandate for a year. But is it? Even policy analysts on the left say the employer mandate should be repealed, and some in Congress are pushing for that as well. So is there an employer mandate? Good question!

Then came the real confusion. Americans were told that if they liked their health insurance, they could keep it–“period.” This was false, and the administration knew it. Millions started receiving cancellation notices and the Healthcare.gov website wouldn’t work, so they were off their insurance often with no place to go. So the president announced–far too late to be of much help–that insurance companies were permitted to keep their customers on ObamaCare-outlawed policies for another year. But could they?

Not really. The announcement was made after insurers made the requisite plans to adjust to ObamaCare’s onerous regulations, and those plans were generally off the table thanks to the president. And even those who were able to stay on their insurance into next year were going to be dropped next year anyway. Confusion reigned, and the main effect of ObamaCare was to increase the number of the nation’s uninsured without making up for it. Colossal failure amid chaos.

But millions did now realize that they’d be out of insurance with the deadline to have such insurance looming. So as slight improvements seemed to be taking place with the ObamaCare website, they started purchasing policies. Or so they thought. The Wall Street Journal reported that the site had a 25 percent error rate, so those who went through the whole process of enrolling may or may not actually have insurance. This was a major problem, because they needed to make their first payment to officially conclude the enrollment process. So the Obama administration took the unusual step of telling the insurance companies they should cover even those who haven’t paid yet–just pretend they’re paying customers so Obama’s numbers look better.

But perhaps the most controversial aspect of ObamaCare was the individual mandate, which the Supreme Court rewrote as a tax in order to make it plausibly constitutional. It is a central feature of the law and a fundamental funding mechanism: you have to buy health insurance. Or do you?

Last night the administration announced that, with enrollment numbers far below what they need to be, it was offering “hardship” exemptions for those whose policies had been cancelled–the “hardship,” in this case, being ObamaCare itself. (Finally some honesty from the administration!) As the Washington Post reported:

The ability to get an exemption means that the administration is freeing these people from one of the central features of the law: a requirement that most Americans have health insurance as of Jan. 1 or risk a fine. The exemption gives them the choice of having no insurance or of buying skimpy “catastrophic” coverage.

Until now, the law allowed people younger than 30 to buy catastrophic coverage — an exception to the law’s benefit rules in an effort to attract young adults who have been particularly prone to avoiding coverage in the past. The law also has allowed hardship exemptions for people 30 and older who could not afford the regular coverage.

Get used to those words: Until now, the law…. The president has decided this is now a nation of men, not laws. This is obviously a terrible precedent to set, but aside from that it will also have diminishing returns. The president’s “fixes” for the law he now acknowledges is creating “hardship” are intended to relieve that hardship, but the sheer number of them and the confusion they cause are going to limit their effect.

Do you need to comply with ObamaCare? Well, that depends on which part of the “law” you’re referring to and also on Obama’s mood, for in his mind, he is the state. Health-care hardship for millions, economic disarray, the redefinition of executive power to include the whims of the president–ObamaCare’s legacy grows more troubling by the day. Now we know what’s in the law, as Pelosi said, but it no longer matters.

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Latest Exemption Shows OCare Unraveling

Only a few months ago, the White House and Democrats scoffed when Republicans suggested that the implementation of ObamaCare be postponed in order for the government to understand exactly what it was foisting upon the country. Nothing could stop the administration’s determination to roll out the president’s signature health-care legislation on time. All liberals and some conservatives as well were convinced that once it began, the debate about its wisdom would cease as the extension of benefits would make it as universally popular as Social Security and Medicare. But though the White House is still insisting that all will come right in the end, they may be wishing they had taken the GOP’s offer. In the latest example of the problems the administration has encountered in trying to make ObamaCare work, it announced late yesterday that yet another aspect of the law will be delayed. As the New York Times reports:

Millions of people facing the cancellation of health insurance policies will be allowed to buy catastrophic coverage and will be exempt from penalties if they go without insurance next year, the White House said Thursday night.

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, disclosed the sudden policy shift in a letter to Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and five other senators. It was another effort by President Obama to cushion the impact of the health care law and minimize political damage to himself and Democrats in Congress who adopted the law in 2010 over solid Republican opposition.

The decision is an attempt to shield Democrats from voter outrage about the impact of the law until after the 2014 midterm elections. But while beleaguered Democrats are happy of any reprieve, however belated, the decision comes too late to avoid adding to the general public impression of the rollout as a disaster that doesn’t seem to get better despite repeated White House promises that the worst is behind them. Taken as a whole, the list of exemptions and delays in the implementation of the misnamed Affordable Care Act is leaving the country asking what exactly were all the geniuses in the West Wing and the Department of Health and Human Services doing during the two years between the bill’s passage and the start of this fiasco?

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Only a few months ago, the White House and Democrats scoffed when Republicans suggested that the implementation of ObamaCare be postponed in order for the government to understand exactly what it was foisting upon the country. Nothing could stop the administration’s determination to roll out the president’s signature health-care legislation on time. All liberals and some conservatives as well were convinced that once it began, the debate about its wisdom would cease as the extension of benefits would make it as universally popular as Social Security and Medicare. But though the White House is still insisting that all will come right in the end, they may be wishing they had taken the GOP’s offer. In the latest example of the problems the administration has encountered in trying to make ObamaCare work, it announced late yesterday that yet another aspect of the law will be delayed. As the New York Times reports:

Millions of people facing the cancellation of health insurance policies will be allowed to buy catastrophic coverage and will be exempt from penalties if they go without insurance next year, the White House said Thursday night.

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, disclosed the sudden policy shift in a letter to Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and five other senators. It was another effort by President Obama to cushion the impact of the health care law and minimize political damage to himself and Democrats in Congress who adopted the law in 2010 over solid Republican opposition.

The decision is an attempt to shield Democrats from voter outrage about the impact of the law until after the 2014 midterm elections. But while beleaguered Democrats are happy of any reprieve, however belated, the decision comes too late to avoid adding to the general public impression of the rollout as a disaster that doesn’t seem to get better despite repeated White House promises that the worst is behind them. Taken as a whole, the list of exemptions and delays in the implementation of the misnamed Affordable Care Act is leaving the country asking what exactly were all the geniuses in the West Wing and the Department of Health and Human Services doing during the two years between the bill’s passage and the start of this fiasco?

The list of ObamaCare delays is impressive. As the Times noted in the conclusion of their article about the latest one:

The move Thursday followed delays in many other parts of the health care law.

On July 2, the White House abruptly announced a one-year delay, until 2015, in a provision that requires larger employers to offer coverage to their workers or pay penalties. 

On Nov. 27, it deferred a major element of the law that would allow small businesses to buy insurance online for their employees through the federal exchange.

Earlier, in April, the administration said that the federal exchange would not offer employees of a small business the opportunity to choose from multiple health plans in 2014.

And in October 2011, the administration scrapped a long-term care insurance program created by the new law, saying it was too costly and would not work.

Each of these moves, if taken in isolation, might be defended as the exception to the rule of a smooth rollout. But taken together, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that what we are witnessing is the slow-motion unraveling of a hubristic and complicated big government plan whose consequences weren’t fully thought out by an administration whose sole focus was putting it in place before it could be stopped by Republicans.

But the problem here is more than just a matter of perceptions, though the decision not to mention the move during a press briefing yesterday and then to reveal it later in what was obviously an end-of-week news dump shows the administration knows all too well how badly they are losing the battle to brand their plan as anything but a costly failure. By waiting until only days before the deadline for consumers to purchase insurance without facing a fine, the government burned those who previously purchased more costly and often unwanted plans. It also is a slap at insurance companies that were forced to cancel the plans that millions of Americans preferred as a result of the ObamaCare fiat.

While the belated move will help some, it also makes it a given that, as Republicans have predicted for months, the number of Americans who lost their coverage as a result of ObamaCare will far exceed the number of those who signed up for the ACA via the government or the state exchanges. It now is highly unlikely that there will be anything like the number of people in the program that will be needed to make the plan work. Without vast numbers of younger, healthy people or former individual insurance consumers in the exchanges, there won’t be enough in it to pay for the elderly, poor, or those with pre-existing conditions that the plan was designed to help. That means that those who have been sucked into it will likely face far higher costs than the already expensive plans and exorbitant deductibles than even the government was planning to provide:

Insurers, already struggling with problems caused by the chaotic debut of the federal insurance exchange in October, expressed surprise and dismay.

“This latest rule change could cause significant instability in the marketplace and lead to further confusion and disruption for consumers,” said Karen M. Ignagni, the president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group.

Another insurance executive said that insurers had not expected a significant number of people over 30 to enroll in catastrophic plans, so their costs were not factored into the premiums.

Moreover, the executive said, the exemptions undermine the requirement for people to have coverage. That requirement, often called an individual mandate, is needed to guarantee that insurers attract young healthy people to help offset the costs of covering older Americans who require more medical care, insurers say.

Democrats continue to insist that once the bumps are smoothed out opposition will cease. But as we continue to learn, the problem with ObamaCare isn’t just a website that crashes or the lies that the president and his supporters were forced to tell Americans about the impact of the plan before it was passed. It’s that the scheme itself, which imposes government dictates on the private sector, simply wasn’t properly thought out before it was drafted or implemented. Had the president been honest and told the American people that it was a redistributionist plan that would hurt as many, if not more citizens than it helped, it would never have passed even on a straight party line vote.

More such announcements as the one handed down yesterday won’t convince the public that ObamaCare wasn’t a liberal nightmare that should never have been tried. Republicans will be asked, as they should, how they can deal with the problem of the uninsured or those with pre-existing conditions. But Democrats up for reelection anywhere but in the most blue of districts and states will continue to distance themselves from a bill that is now synonymous with incompetence. As the number of ObamaCare losers continues to grow while the ranks of those who have joined it continue to fall below expectations, the prospect of having to face the voters next year must chill the president’s party.

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Early Media Warnings About Deifying Obama

Yesterday I wrote about an interview in which ABC’s Barbara Walters, in speaking about Barack Obama, said “we” thought he would be “the next messiah.” I drew attention to some other comments by journalists and historians that illustrated just how much deification of Obama was going on a few years ago.

To their credit, some journalists called attention to this phenomenon at the time. Take CNN’s Jake Tapper, one of the best journalists in America. While at ABC News in 2008, Tapper posted a piece, “And Obama Wept,” in which he cited writers like Kathleen Geier, an Obama supporter who, in describing various encounters with Obama advocates, wrote this:

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Yesterday I wrote about an interview in which ABC’s Barbara Walters, in speaking about Barack Obama, said “we” thought he would be “the next messiah.” I drew attention to some other comments by journalists and historians that illustrated just how much deification of Obama was going on a few years ago.

To their credit, some journalists called attention to this phenomenon at the time. Take CNN’s Jake Tapper, one of the best journalists in America. While at ABC News in 2008, Tapper posted a piece, “And Obama Wept,” in which he cited writers like Kathleen Geier, an Obama supporter who, in describing various encounters with Obama advocates, wrote this:

Excuse me, but this sounds more like a cult than a political campaign. The language used here is the language of evangelical Christianity – the Obama volunteers speak of ‘coming to Obama’ in the same way born-again Christians talk about ‘coming to Jesus.’…So I say, we should all get a grip, stop all this unseemly mooning over Barack, see him and the political landscape he is a part of in a cooler, clearer, and more realistic light, and get to work.

Others, like Time magazine’s Joe Klein, offered similar warnings about the “mass  messianism” we were witnessing. Tapper wrote, “I’m not saying there shouldn’t be enthusiasm in politics. I’m merely touching on the fact that some Obama supporters’ exuberance seems to be getting a little out of hand.”

Indeed it was.

It’s a credit to journalists like Tapper and writers like Geier and Klein who warned about the cult-like effect Mr. Obama was having on people then rather than to those who, having bought into it five years ago, are now left scrambling to explain why Obama turned out to be merely mortal.

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The Iran Foray of the ASA

Critics of the Israel boycott resolution of the American Studies Association (ASA) sometimes ask why the ASA doesn’t also boycott Chinese or Iranian universities. (I make the double-standard argument myself, in a post today at Foreign Policy.) Even the president of the ASA, Curtis Marez, admits that Israel’s neighbors have worse human rights records, but adds that “one has to start somewhere.”

But the Israel boycott resolution isn’t the ASA’s first “start” in the Middle East. In fact, the ASA had an earlier foray, in Iran. More precisely, it coddled one of Iran’s most prominent America-bashing academics, at the very moment when Iran’s President Ahmedinejad was busy purging Iran’s universities.

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Critics of the Israel boycott resolution of the American Studies Association (ASA) sometimes ask why the ASA doesn’t also boycott Chinese or Iranian universities. (I make the double-standard argument myself, in a post today at Foreign Policy.) Even the president of the ASA, Curtis Marez, admits that Israel’s neighbors have worse human rights records, but adds that “one has to start somewhere.”

But the Israel boycott resolution isn’t the ASA’s first “start” in the Middle East. In fact, the ASA had an earlier foray, in Iran. More precisely, it coddled one of Iran’s most prominent America-bashing academics, at the very moment when Iran’s President Ahmedinejad was busy purging Iran’s universities.

In 2005, the University of Tehran established a Department of North American Studies, as part of a new Institute for North American and European Studies. The notion was that Iran needed to school experts on America, but in a way that wouldn’t pollute them with traces of sympathy for their object of study. For that, the project needed a regime loyalist knowledgeable about America but appropriately contemptuous of it.

Meet Seyed Mohammad Marandi. Born in the United States to an exiled Iranian physician, Marandi came to Iran at the age of thirteen, fought in the Iran-Iraq war, did an English lit Ph.D. in Britain, and worked his way up the university ladder, becoming director of the new department. Marandi is familiar to every Iran news addict. He’s the fellow the international networks can always depend upon to defend every action of the regime, from suppression of the “Green Revolution” to the shocking execution of dissidents (sorry, “terrorists”). This is a man capable of acclaiming Ayatollah Khamenei (a “just, pious, and courageous” leader) as being perhaps even greater than Ayatollah Khomeini himself—”as he did not have the advantage of being the Founder of the Revolution.”

The ASA brought Marandi to the United States for its annual conference in 2005. An American academic who knew Marandi in Iran at the time told the story:

Someone suggested to the leadership of the ASA that the organization invite him to attend the annual meeting that year in Washington, D.C., all expenses paid. The ASA paid for him to come and gave him a free registration and money for a hotel, and it didn’t ask him to do anything other than roam the corridors of those opulent hotels.

So Marandi got a taste of “state of the art” scholarship in American studies. As it turned out, this wasn’t as valuable as it might sound, or so his American friend reported:

The topics that this director found himself learning about, as he made his way through the hallways of this grand hotel, were so esoteric as to be of no help to him in planning how to teach himself American studies so that he could teach his students. He would stay for a few moments at each panel, trying to relate it to the needs of the institute he was building back home, before he staggered on to the next.

The ASA’s patronage of Marandi’s shop didn’t end there. In 2006, the Center for Distance Learning at SUNY Empire State College received a “partnership grant” from the ASA to promote its ties with Marandi’s department—”seed money” for a full-blown exchange. (It didn’t happen.) And in 2007, Marandi was back at the ASA, at its annual meeting in Philadelphia, to present a paper savaging literary memoirs written by Iranian critics of the regime, some of which had become popular in the United States (e.g., Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis).

If anyone had any doubt about Marandi’s standing as a regime stalwart, it should have been dissipated by the regime’s simultaneous purge of university faculty, at the University of Tehran and elsewhere. In September 2006, President Ahmadinejad launched a tirade against “the continued presence of liberal and secular professors in the country’s universities.” Word came that these professors were being retired en masse. The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) issued a letter urging that “Iran’s universities use transparent and non-discriminatory criteria in any decisions regarding compulsory retirement, and that no academics face dismissal solely or mainly because of political views that they express peacefully.” In May 2007, MESA issued another letter, noting that over the previous year, “students and professors from numerous Iranian universities have been disciplined, fired, forcibly retired, expelled, and otherwise harassed on grounds that are clearly related to their political opinions and associations.”

After suppression of the “Green Revolution,” the dismissals accelerated, provoking a flood of protests by human-rights organizations. In October 2009, MESA wrote to Ayatollah Khamenei, protesting the “harassment and dismissal of university faculty on grounds of political and ideological dissent,” and lamenting that “the abuses of power by the Iranian state and the atmosphere of fear to which students and faculty are subjected on and off the university campuses [are] by far among the most dismal in the world.”

Yet through all this turmoil, Marandi and his university program flourished, and he became the go-to man for the official point of view in the world media. At times, his slavish fealty to the regime, expressed in perfect American English, exasperated even the most indulgent interviewers. In one particularly memorable exchange, at the height of the street violence, Fareed Zakaria lost his patience, asking Marandi this question:

Do you worry that you will be seen in history as a mouthpiece for a dying, repressive regime in its death throes? That twenty years from now you’ll look back, and the world will look back at you, the way it did some of those smooth-talking, English-speaking, Soviet spokesmen who were telling us right in the middle 1980s, that the Soviet Union was all just fine and democratic and wonderful?

When Marandi retorted he was an academic and no one’s mouthpiece, Zakaria asked why “the only person we are allowed to speak to [via satellite from Iran] is you.”

Marandi’s performance during the “Green Revolution” seems to have put him beyond the pale, perhaps even for the ASA. But the episode casts a harsh light on the ASA’s latest decision to boycott Israel’s institutions of higher education. Israeli academe is chock-full of people who make names for themselves by lambasting the Israeli government of the day and the “occupation,” if not the very premises of Israel itself. Take Tel Aviv University, where I spent twenty-five years. There I was a colleague of the late Tanya Reinhart, a linguist who habitually accused Israel of genocide, and Shlomo Sand, a historian who has written two books insisting that the Jewish people and the Land of Israel are Zionist fabrications. (He’s also written a tract on when and how he stopped being a Jew.) These Israeli professors have no remote equivalents at the University of Tehran. But the ASA now boycotts Tel Aviv University, not the University of Tehran, and even worse, it has a record of legitimating the very faction on the Tehran campus installed by the regime as part of a purge.

Now that I think about it, the ASA boycott resolution of Israel provides a perfect opportunity for the ASA to renew its links with Marandi and the regime’s “American studies” project. After all, it’s the Islamic Republic of Iran that leads the world in promoting the isolation of Israel, as a prelude to its eventual dissolution. It’s a natural partner. So what if institutional members of the ASA like Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg drop out? There’s always the University of Tehran to take their place.

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When the Syrian Rebels Return…

While Secretary of State John Kerry is bending over backwards to find any sign of moderation among the Syrian opposition, regional authorities are confronting reality. Sometimes the enemy of our enemy is not a friend, but rather simply a partisan of al-Qaeda. Now, to be fair to Kerry (and to Sen. John McCain who has long advocated for support to the Syrian opposition), it hasn’t always been this way. Many Syrians left to their own devices would like nothing better than to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and replace his regime with something more moderate and representative. But President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s disinterested approach to the initial rebellion left the door open to the conflict’s internationalization. What Afghanistan was to the 1980s, Chechnya was to the 1990s, and Iraq became in the 2000s, Syria is today. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah help prop up the Assad regime, while Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and a host of international jihadists and al-Qaeda affiliates from across the globe now fight for if not lead the opposition. Increasingly, Syrians play second fiddle in their own struggle.

I am a frequent visitor to Iraq and, as I have written before, what once seemed a sectarian complaint leveled by the Iraqi government against the Syrian opposition is no longer: In my last visit to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, not only Iraqi Shi’ites, but also Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians all described the Syrian opposition as hopelessly radicalized and sympathetic to al-Qaeda. I spent much of last week in Morocco and, in Rabat, had the opportunity to speak to a number of senior security officials. They have identified several hundred Moroccans who have gone to Syria to “wage jihad.” (One of the ironies of the political correctness of American universities and military institutions is the prohibition on using the term jihadist as somehow demeaning to Islam when that is the term Muslims across the Middle East use to describe the phenomenon).

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While Secretary of State John Kerry is bending over backwards to find any sign of moderation among the Syrian opposition, regional authorities are confronting reality. Sometimes the enemy of our enemy is not a friend, but rather simply a partisan of al-Qaeda. Now, to be fair to Kerry (and to Sen. John McCain who has long advocated for support to the Syrian opposition), it hasn’t always been this way. Many Syrians left to their own devices would like nothing better than to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and replace his regime with something more moderate and representative. But President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s disinterested approach to the initial rebellion left the door open to the conflict’s internationalization. What Afghanistan was to the 1980s, Chechnya was to the 1990s, and Iraq became in the 2000s, Syria is today. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah help prop up the Assad regime, while Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and a host of international jihadists and al-Qaeda affiliates from across the globe now fight for if not lead the opposition. Increasingly, Syrians play second fiddle in their own struggle.

I am a frequent visitor to Iraq and, as I have written before, what once seemed a sectarian complaint leveled by the Iraqi government against the Syrian opposition is no longer: In my last visit to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, not only Iraqi Shi’ites, but also Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians all described the Syrian opposition as hopelessly radicalized and sympathetic to al-Qaeda. I spent much of last week in Morocco and, in Rabat, had the opportunity to speak to a number of senior security officials. They have identified several hundred Moroccans who have gone to Syria to “wage jihad.” (One of the ironies of the political correctness of American universities and military institutions is the prohibition on using the term jihadist as somehow demeaning to Islam when that is the term Muslims across the Middle East use to describe the phenomenon).

The Moroccans—like those flocking to Syria from other nationalities—travel by airline into Turkey, and then take the Turkish Air flight to Gaziantep, or some other town near the Syrian border. Rather than raise their eyebrows at flights packed with Moroccans, Mauritanians, Uighurs, Pakistanis, and Yemenis to towns where once none cared to go, Turkish police are happy simply to take their standard $40 bribe and wave them across the border into Syria. Just last week, according to SITE Monitoring, the Sham al-Islam Movement, a Moroccan-manned jihadi group fighting in Syria, released a video depicting the role of Moroccan jihadists participating on a raid on the prison complex in Aleppo.

The question states across the region are now considering is what happens when the veterans of the Syrian fighting return. The Moroccan jihadists did not buy return Turkish Air tickets, but instead will fly to Libya and then make their way overland through Algeria and re-enter Morocco through the permeable mountainous border in the northern region of both countries (the same route African migrants hoping to make it to Europe take). Tunisian jihadists likewise will return to Tunisia, Saudis to Saudi Arabia, and so on. What we are seeing in Syria is really just the first act. Act II will be how these battle-hardened jihadis conduct terrorism and destabilize the region upon their return. Perhaps rather than debate how to aid the foreign jihadis aiding the Syrian rebels, the time has come to have an uncomfortable discussion about how to intercept, neutralize, and, if necessary, eliminate them.

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Next Stop for the Israel Boycott Road Show

The great Karl Weintraub, a historian in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, once told me that anyone willing to exert a modicum of energy could have a lot of influence on the committee. After all, the members of the committee are distinguished scholars who, for the most part, prefer not to be bothered with administration. The same is true to a point of all academic governance. Not many people become professors in the hope of becoming movers and shakers in their departments or professional associations, and, in my experience, the majority of academics in my discipline, political science, have no idea of or interest in what resolutions the American Political Science Association is planning to pass.

For this reason, academic associations are vulnerable to takeover by determined activists. That is what happened at the American Studies Association. The ASA is no stranger to political activism, yet even its members were not prepared for the propaganda push that took place at their annual conference this year. For example, the pro-boycott forces organized a “town hall” to discuss the boycott that was, by design, more like a rally. Sharon Musher, director of American Studies at Richard Stockton College and an opponent of the boycott, has described what took place for the Times of Israel. The town hall

“was a vitriolic anti-Israel event that served as a platform for promoting the boycott resolution . . . .. One of the authors of the proposal (J. Kehaulani Kauanui) was on the panel, participants in the Activism Committee were pointed out to audience members, and the resolution was handed around the room of nearly 500 for signing. Each of the six speakers articulated the same ideological message about ending the settler-colonialist Zionist project and America’s complicity in maintaining an Apartheid state.”

The “pro-boycott rally was followed by an award ceremony — given to Angela Davis, an outspoken opponent of Israel – and then the Presidential Address … used to advocate for the boycott.”

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The great Karl Weintraub, a historian in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, once told me that anyone willing to exert a modicum of energy could have a lot of influence on the committee. After all, the members of the committee are distinguished scholars who, for the most part, prefer not to be bothered with administration. The same is true to a point of all academic governance. Not many people become professors in the hope of becoming movers and shakers in their departments or professional associations, and, in my experience, the majority of academics in my discipline, political science, have no idea of or interest in what resolutions the American Political Science Association is planning to pass.

For this reason, academic associations are vulnerable to takeover by determined activists. That is what happened at the American Studies Association. The ASA is no stranger to political activism, yet even its members were not prepared for the propaganda push that took place at their annual conference this year. For example, the pro-boycott forces organized a “town hall” to discuss the boycott that was, by design, more like a rally. Sharon Musher, director of American Studies at Richard Stockton College and an opponent of the boycott, has described what took place for the Times of Israel. The town hall

“was a vitriolic anti-Israel event that served as a platform for promoting the boycott resolution . . . .. One of the authors of the proposal (J. Kehaulani Kauanui) was on the panel, participants in the Activism Committee were pointed out to audience members, and the resolution was handed around the room of nearly 500 for signing. Each of the six speakers articulated the same ideological message about ending the settler-colonialist Zionist project and America’s complicity in maintaining an Apartheid state.”

The “pro-boycott rally was followed by an award ceremony — given to Angela Davis, an outspoken opponent of Israel – and then the Presidential Address … used to advocate for the boycott.”

Up next is the Modern Language Association which, with 30,000 members involved in the teaching and study of language and literature, is about six times the size of the American Studies Association. The MLA, at its annual conference early next month, does not have a boycott resolution before it, but it will have a boycott roundtable. It is supposedly an open discussion: “Many academics face questions about how to respond to this boycott or how to evaluate academic boycotts more generally.”

They have gathered an interesting panel for this “discussion.” Omar Bhargouti is a founder of and leader in the international BDS movement. Barbara Jane Harlow, a professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin, wrote a statement in favor of the ASA boycott and has long been on record in favor of one. David Lloyd is a member of the “Organizing Collective” of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Richard Ohmann, a professor of English at Wesleyan University, signed a 2009 letter calling Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times.”

Samer Ali, the chair and respondent of the panel, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he set up the panel to serve those who wished to discuss the pros and cons of the resolution. Yet, as Haaretz reports in its own piece on the stacked MLA roundtable, Ali has been vigorously defending the ASA boycott on his Facebook page and, unless there is more than one Samer Ali who lives in Austin, Texas and is interested in the ASA boycott, has signed a letter to the ASA (he is number 3,681) offering the signatories’ “deepest congratulations and full support for the ASA National Council’s historic and principled decision to endorse and honor the Palestinian civil society call for the academic boycott of Israel.”

His “response” should be interesting.

As Musher’s account indicates, this is the playbook. Once the roundtable, whose audience will no doubt be packed with boycott supporters, has come off, a boycott resolution will be proposed for next year, justified in part by the strength of support evident at the roundtable. Many members will be caught by surprise, just as members of the ASA were, because few academics pay attention to what their professional associations are doing.

The good news is that the ASA boycott has been a wake-up call, and it is becoming clear, because the ASA is being denounced in places like the Nation and by people like Michael Kazin, the editor of Dissent, that even the left has little appetite for an academic boycott. This will not and should not be primarily a struggle of pro-Israel against anti-Israel forces, or of the right against the left, but a struggle to preserve what integrity scholars have left, against attempts to turn them into mouthpieces for a fringe movement.

But there is no natural party of moderation. People who disdain academic politics will have to get organized. There is still time.

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Surplus Means Decision Time for Iran

It’s no secret that oil underwrites the Iranian economy, accounting for perhaps 80 percent of the Islamic Republic’s exports. Generations of Iranian officials have failed to diversify the Iranian economy, and so the Islamic Republic remains vulnerable to any fluctuations in the oil market. Certainly, that can be a detriment when the price of oil drops, but it can also mean a windfall when oil rises. One of the key factors which intelligence analysts and Iran watchers consider is at what price the Iranian government calculated their budget. If oil drops below that point, the Islamic Republic might have difficulty making payroll and so might spark a crisis or at least threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz to win a short-term spike in oil prices. When oil prices increase, however, then Iranian leaders have a slush fund with which to play. To what they allocate that extra money says more than any number of diplomatic statements about the direction in which the regime seeks to go.

That is exactly the situation in which the regime finds itself. According to the Iranian Oil Ministry, the average price of oil has been about $103, eleven dollars higher than the level authorities assumed when they set the budget. Back during the administration of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, there was a similar situation: the price of oil skyrocketed while simultaneously the European Union more than doubled its trade with Iran. Rather than apply the hard currency windfall to further Iran’s civilian economy, the regime invested that money into Iran’s then-covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Perhaps Khatami was lying when he spoke about a “Dialogue of Civilizations,” or perhaps he simply did not have the power to make the decisions that mattered in the Islamic Republic. Still, today he and his allies—including current President Hassan Rouhani—brag that they should gain credit for Iran’s nuclear program which advanced against the backdrop of the Dialogue.

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It’s no secret that oil underwrites the Iranian economy, accounting for perhaps 80 percent of the Islamic Republic’s exports. Generations of Iranian officials have failed to diversify the Iranian economy, and so the Islamic Republic remains vulnerable to any fluctuations in the oil market. Certainly, that can be a detriment when the price of oil drops, but it can also mean a windfall when oil rises. One of the key factors which intelligence analysts and Iran watchers consider is at what price the Iranian government calculated their budget. If oil drops below that point, the Islamic Republic might have difficulty making payroll and so might spark a crisis or at least threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz to win a short-term spike in oil prices. When oil prices increase, however, then Iranian leaders have a slush fund with which to play. To what they allocate that extra money says more than any number of diplomatic statements about the direction in which the regime seeks to go.

That is exactly the situation in which the regime finds itself. According to the Iranian Oil Ministry, the average price of oil has been about $103, eleven dollars higher than the level authorities assumed when they set the budget. Back during the administration of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, there was a similar situation: the price of oil skyrocketed while simultaneously the European Union more than doubled its trade with Iran. Rather than apply the hard currency windfall to further Iran’s civilian economy, the regime invested that money into Iran’s then-covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Perhaps Khatami was lying when he spoke about a “Dialogue of Civilizations,” or perhaps he simply did not have the power to make the decisions that mattered in the Islamic Republic. Still, today he and his allies—including current President Hassan Rouhani—brag that they should gain credit for Iran’s nuclear program which advanced against the backdrop of the Dialogue.

In my forthcoming book, Dancing with the Devil, a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I have one chapter that examines the history of the politicization of intelligence going back to the Johnson administration. The pattern is clear: administrations often twist intelligence not to achieve a casus belli, but rather to exculpate bad behavior to keep diplomacy alive and avoid any conclusion that an opponent is cheating. Let us hope that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry—and, more importantly, anyone in the U.S. Congress who takes seriously his or her oversight role—are paying careful attention to how Iran is now spending its money, for that better than any statement by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will show the Islamic Republic’s true intent.

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