Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 14, 2014

FBI Feeds Cynicism About IRS Scandal

After several months of virtual radio silence in the mainstream press about the IRS scandal, the over-the-top coverage afforded Chris Christie’s Bridgegate fiasco reminded conservatives of the way many in the media downplayed the outrageous accounts of the government’s bias against conservative political groups. But the IRS affair got back into the news in its own right today as the Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI is unlikely to prosecute anyone for the practice in which organizations affiliated with the Tea Party and other conservatives causes were specifically targeted for discriminatory treatment.

This is bound to fuel further complaints from Republicans who have been frustrated with the administration’s low-key response to a scandal based in a policy they think may have been inspired by the president’s personal biases against conservative groups as well as the liberal belief that Tea Party-affiliated organizations don’t deserve non-profit status. After initially adopting a defensive tone and agreeing that any discrimination was wrong, the party line from the White House has been that the problems were the result of the mistakes made by rogue low-level officials working in Cincinnati and that any talk about a scandal is mere GOP propaganda. That position will be bolstered by the FBI decision. But, as the Journal’s report notes, there is a big problem with the investigation that was conducted: apparently nobody in the FBI has contacted any of the groups that were the object of the agency’s special attentions. This is likely to only deepen the cynicism felt by many on the right toward an administration that doesn’t seem particularly fired up about holding the tax collectors accountable for their misdeeds.

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After several months of virtual radio silence in the mainstream press about the IRS scandal, the over-the-top coverage afforded Chris Christie’s Bridgegate fiasco reminded conservatives of the way many in the media downplayed the outrageous accounts of the government’s bias against conservative political groups. But the IRS affair got back into the news in its own right today as the Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI is unlikely to prosecute anyone for the practice in which organizations affiliated with the Tea Party and other conservatives causes were specifically targeted for discriminatory treatment.

This is bound to fuel further complaints from Republicans who have been frustrated with the administration’s low-key response to a scandal based in a policy they think may have been inspired by the president’s personal biases against conservative groups as well as the liberal belief that Tea Party-affiliated organizations don’t deserve non-profit status. After initially adopting a defensive tone and agreeing that any discrimination was wrong, the party line from the White House has been that the problems were the result of the mistakes made by rogue low-level officials working in Cincinnati and that any talk about a scandal is mere GOP propaganda. That position will be bolstered by the FBI decision. But, as the Journal’s report notes, there is a big problem with the investigation that was conducted: apparently nobody in the FBI has contacted any of the groups that were the object of the agency’s special attentions. This is likely to only deepen the cynicism felt by many on the right toward an administration that doesn’t seem particularly fired up about holding the tax collectors accountable for their misdeeds.

The sensitivity of this case is the product of both the blatantly political nature of the BOLO (be on the lookout for) orders that were sent out about groups seeking non-profit status for their public education efforts and the immense power of the IRS. That the IRS seemed to be following the administration’s marching orders in treating conservative efforts to take advantage of the change in the law after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision raised serious suspicions. But the revelations last spring about the agency’s inquisitions directed at Tea Partiers and delays in making decisions prompted congressional investigations that were, at least in part, short-circuited by the lack of candid answers from IRS officials like Lois Lerner who went so far as to invoke the Fifth Amendment when questioned by Congress last May.

It should be acknowledged that prosecutions in a case involving interpretations of policy would not be simple. But there appeared to be grounds to think laws involving the misuse and improper disclosure of taxpayer information were violated by those involved. However, the FBI seems to have taken a “no harm, no foul” approach to the case in which the lack of a smoking gun about the agency “hunting” conservatives rather than merely applying discriminatory policies appears to be working to stifle any impulse to prosecute.

However, this merciful approach to IRS personnel and their political superiors seems at variance with that agency’s usual approach to taxpayers. It is well known that citizens who claim to have been confused by complicated tax regulations or that they acted on the advice of their lawyers are generally shown no mercy by implacable IRS agents who haul taxpayers into court for minor violations of confusing statutes.

Even worse, the fact that the FBI chose not even to interview groups that have claimed discrimination casts doubt on the seriousness of the investigation and whether the normally indictment-happy Justice Department lacked the will to pursue the case.

As I wrote in December, the administration is hoping to put a close to this controversy by altering the rules to make it difficult, if not impossible for groups that aim at promoting political change—be it from a right-wing or a left-wing point of view—to become non-profits. While technically neutral, this change will have a disproportionate impact on conservative groups since they are far more dependent on 501(c) status than their rivals on the left. This should concern all Americans no matter their politics since giving the IRS that much power to suppress the free speech of political activists poses a grave threat to democracy. The way the agency has been used to regulate political activity is perhaps the most serious scandal here, but combined with the failure of the government to ensure that those who ordered and carried out discriminatory policies are held accountable makes it even worse.

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Gates Book Timing Helped Obama

President Obama earned some civility points yesterday by refusing to fire back at Robert Gates after the former secretary of defense disparaged aspects of his leadership style as well as taking shots at Vice President Biden and Hillary Clinton in his new memoir. While Obama admitted he was “irked” by the timing of the publication of the book, he praised the former secretary as an “outstanding” cabinet member and friend. Though Democrats were blasting Gates for writing a book that was mined for negative quotes about their two leading presidential contenders in 2016, even a Republican like John McCain said that he should have waited until the administration he served was out of office before writing a memoir.

Gates’s critics may have a point about Washington etiquette, though few liberals protested when Scott McClellan, who had served as George W. Bush’s press secretary, penned a tell-all memoir that blasted his boss and his policies. The notion that there should be a waiting period before those who serve in government can write books seems to be more about good manners than ethics. But despite the nasty nature of some of the exchanges between Gates and administration defenders, the president was right to tread softly on the issue. Though some of the book doesn’t do much to make the president and his colleagues look good on some points, by waiting until Obama was safely reelected before coming clean about Obama’s war leadership, Gates did his former boss a huge favor and the voters a disservice.

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President Obama earned some civility points yesterday by refusing to fire back at Robert Gates after the former secretary of defense disparaged aspects of his leadership style as well as taking shots at Vice President Biden and Hillary Clinton in his new memoir. While Obama admitted he was “irked” by the timing of the publication of the book, he praised the former secretary as an “outstanding” cabinet member and friend. Though Democrats were blasting Gates for writing a book that was mined for negative quotes about their two leading presidential contenders in 2016, even a Republican like John McCain said that he should have waited until the administration he served was out of office before writing a memoir.

Gates’s critics may have a point about Washington etiquette, though few liberals protested when Scott McClellan, who had served as George W. Bush’s press secretary, penned a tell-all memoir that blasted his boss and his policies. The notion that there should be a waiting period before those who serve in government can write books seems to be more about good manners than ethics. But despite the nasty nature of some of the exchanges between Gates and administration defenders, the president was right to tread softly on the issue. Though some of the book doesn’t do much to make the president and his colleagues look good on some points, by waiting until Obama was safely reelected before coming clean about Obama’s war leadership, Gates did his former boss a huge favor and the voters a disservice.

Gates’s pious disclaimers about the book controversy being created by sensationalist journalists skimming quotes are patently insincere. Those quotes were highlighted by his publisher and distributed to the press precisely in order to create buzz about the book and increase sales. To that end, they have succeeded brilliantly. The Gates book became a huge political story and though it was quickly overshadowed by Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal, the former secretary’s publishers are crying all the way to the bank over all the free publicity they have received. Had Gates waited until Obama was safely out of office, there wouldn’t be much buzz about the book. Nor would his sales be as great.

But Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe has a far more salient point when he noted that if there is any criticism to be made about Gates, it is that he waited too long to tell the American people about the cynicism of the president toward the armed forces and the truth about both Obama and Hillary Clinton’s opposition to the Iraq troop surge. There appears to be much in the book that would have fueled an important discussion about the president’s conduct during his reelection campaign. Had Gates spoken up during 2012 about the nature of the administration’s decision-making process about the Afghanistan war and other behind-the-scenes details, it would have negatively affected the president’s chances for a second term. While it is doubtful that any book, no matter how much it dishes on Biden and Clinton, will affect the 2016 contest, his Cabinet colleagues will suffer far more than Obama as result of Gates’s indiscretions.

As such, President Obama is probably right to ease up on Gates (who has accurately noted that he was more critical of the president’s aides than of the commander in chief) whose decision to keep quiet this long did him as much good as anything he did while at the Pentagon.

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Palestinians Move to Breach Process

Despite having made a commitment to refrain from taking actions to pursue statehood unilaterally during the course of the current U.S.-sponsored negotiations with Israel, on Monday Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas chaired a meeting preparing plans to do precisely that. While the State Department has been quick to condemn as “offensive and inappropriate” the remarks made by Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon regarding Secretary of State John Kerry’s obsession with the negotiation process, this move by the Palestinians risks having far more serious repercussions for the likelihood of achieving a negotiated settlement. Indeed, the fact that Abbas is already making contingency plans, months before negotiations are due to conclude in April, suggests that the Palestinians also lack confidence in the efficacy of Kerry’s strategy.

Under the framework for the current round of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel agreed to release a cohort of convicted terrorists and in return the Palestinians would halt their campaign to gain membership in an increasing number of United Nations agencies. Previously this had been the PA’s preferred strategy for avoiding making peace with Israel while gaining international recognition of statehood. By successfully gaining a seat at ever more international bodies, the Palestinians have been positioning themselves to be able to better manipulate international law against the Jewish state.

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Despite having made a commitment to refrain from taking actions to pursue statehood unilaterally during the course of the current U.S.-sponsored negotiations with Israel, on Monday Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas chaired a meeting preparing plans to do precisely that. While the State Department has been quick to condemn as “offensive and inappropriate” the remarks made by Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon regarding Secretary of State John Kerry’s obsession with the negotiation process, this move by the Palestinians risks having far more serious repercussions for the likelihood of achieving a negotiated settlement. Indeed, the fact that Abbas is already making contingency plans, months before negotiations are due to conclude in April, suggests that the Palestinians also lack confidence in the efficacy of Kerry’s strategy.

Under the framework for the current round of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel agreed to release a cohort of convicted terrorists and in return the Palestinians would halt their campaign to gain membership in an increasing number of United Nations agencies. Previously this had been the PA’s preferred strategy for avoiding making peace with Israel while gaining international recognition of statehood. By successfully gaining a seat at ever more international bodies, the Palestinians have been positioning themselves to be able to better manipulate international law against the Jewish state.

Since negotiations began in July, Israel has stood by its part of the agreement and so far released 78 of the 104 Palestinian prisoners due for release. As part of this arrangement, the final group of prisoners is to be released ten weeks from now, at the end of March.

During this same nine-month period the Palestinian Authority was obligated not to take unilateral moves toward statehood outside of the agreed-upon negotiation framework. This period is due to end in April. Israel has requested that this window for negotiations be extended, but Abbas has already stated that the Palestinians will not continue peace talks beyond that date. Now, at a meeting Abbas chaired in Ramallah on Monday, the Executive Committee of the PLO announced the decision to resume its moves to seek membership in U.N. bodies, in direct contravention of the agreed-upon peace framework.

The Palestinian News Agency WAFA reports that the statement released by the PLO announces that the Executive Committee has called on its political committee to immediately prepare an operative plan “to implement [the] UN General Assembly resolution that granted Palestine a non-member observer status that allows it to join all UN international agencies.” This move should be of far more critical concern to Secretary Kerry and the State Department than the throwaway remarks of Minister Ya’alon. If the Palestinians are serious about pursuing this breach of their commitments, then Kerry’s peace plans could unravel even faster than many observers already expected them to.

The fact that over the weekend Abbas insisted that the Palestinians would never recognize Israel as a Jewish state, that Jerusalem would have to be the Palestinian capital, and that the Palestinian refugees, or rather their descendants, would have to have a right of return to their lands, by which he means Israel, hardly bodes well for the outcome of Kerry’s talks. Nor does the fact that the Palestinians seem unwilling to countenance an extension of peace negotiations beyond April, or that from the beginning there have been constant noises from Palestinian negotiators about an imminent collapse of the talks.

The State Department can express its deep sense of offense at Ya’alon’s cynicism about the peace process if it wishes. Yet the fact that the Palestinians are already making contingency plans for the failure of the talks is an indication of just how much faith they really have in these negotiations reaching any kind of successful conclusion.    

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Why Did Russia Expel a U.S. Journalist?

The collapse of Vladimir Putin’s expert image management continues apace. Perhaps the proliferation of smartphones and social media, combined with the rise of a younger generation of Russians with no memory of their country before Gorbachev, made it inevitable. But it has not been without its unforced errors. And Putin’s expulsion of journalist and author David Satter, who writes regularly for National Review Online and was working with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, appears to be the latest example.

I wrote in May of last year that Putin’s paranoia had gotten the best of him, and was taking increasingly self-defeating steps to crack down on the opposition. One such move was targeting the one independent polling outfit. Putin usually gets relatively high approval ratings, and the fact that these ratings were coming from a respected outlet was hugely beneficial to Putin. Threatening its very existence was not just wrong, but also impractical.

Yet now a new pattern is emerging: Putin keeps targeting precisely the groups who can roust international sympathy on their behalf. The first of these was Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Putin has generally received a pass from the Western left for his expansionist instincts, but he put himself on the wrong side of the Arab Spring as far as they were concerned. Suddenly, he had crossed a line among many commentators who apparently hadn’t noticed how often his professed enemies ended up dead or his consistent support for the Iranian nuclear program.

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The collapse of Vladimir Putin’s expert image management continues apace. Perhaps the proliferation of smartphones and social media, combined with the rise of a younger generation of Russians with no memory of their country before Gorbachev, made it inevitable. But it has not been without its unforced errors. And Putin’s expulsion of journalist and author David Satter, who writes regularly for National Review Online and was working with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, appears to be the latest example.

I wrote in May of last year that Putin’s paranoia had gotten the best of him, and was taking increasingly self-defeating steps to crack down on the opposition. One such move was targeting the one independent polling outfit. Putin usually gets relatively high approval ratings, and the fact that these ratings were coming from a respected outlet was hugely beneficial to Putin. Threatening its very existence was not just wrong, but also impractical.

Yet now a new pattern is emerging: Putin keeps targeting precisely the groups who can roust international sympathy on their behalf. The first of these was Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Putin has generally received a pass from the Western left for his expansionist instincts, but he put himself on the wrong side of the Arab Spring as far as they were concerned. Suddenly, he had crossed a line among many commentators who apparently hadn’t noticed how often his professed enemies ended up dead or his consistent support for the Iranian nuclear program.

Then when an all-female performance art/punk rock outfit pranced around a Moscow church, Putin overreacted, having them charged with hooliganism and put in jail after a show trial. Their stunt was obnoxious, but Putin made them heroes in the music world. Suddenly shows were being held in their honor abroad and Madonna was performing with their band name written on her skin.

Putin’s support for Russian anti-gay laws set him against the human-rights community and the Western press. And now he is going after the Western press itself. On his website, Satter goes step by step through the process of his expulsion. After giving him the run-around and delaying his paperwork, Satter finally got a meeting with senior diplomat Alexei Gruby:

9.     On December 25, I called Gruby to arrange a meeting. He told me that he had a statement to read to me. It said: “The competent organs have decided that your presence on the territory of the Russian Federation is undesirable. Your application for entry into Russia is denied.”

10.  On December 26, the U.S. Embassy issued a note of protest and the fact of the visa denial was confirmed. Attempts for three weeks to learn the reason for the refusal were unsuccessful. The Foreign Ministry stated that “according to Russian law, the reasons for refusals are not divulged.”

11.  On January 14, 2013, the Foreign Ministry, ignoring its earlier claim about the demands of Russian law, issued a statement saying that I was banned from Russia for five years because I had overstayed my visa by five days. They did not mention that they were responsible for not providing the promised invitation that would have made it possible to obtain a visa on November 22 and, in that way, avoid any violation. There is also no mention of the fact that a number was issued on December 23, a month after the incident by the Foreign Ministry for a new invitation to be taken to the Russian Embassy in Kiev.

12.  The real reason for my refusal was the one given by Alexei Gruby in Kiev. I was expelled from the country at the demand of the security services. This is an ominous precedent for all journalists and for freedom of speech in Russia.

The fact that the security services–the “competent organs,” in the Russian government’s hilariously Yury Dombrovsky-esque phrasing–wanted Satter out and were willing to say so is noteworthy. Why stir up more trouble and negative press heading into the Sochi Olympics? That might actually have something to do with it, suspects CNN:

In December, after suicide bombers killed more than 30 people in the Russian city of Volgograd, Satter wrote for CNN.com that visitors to the upcoming and highly touted Winter Olympics in the Black Sea city of Sochi “are walking into what effectively is a war zone.”

Perhaps Putin and the Competent Organs (a great name for a band, incidentally, if Putin ever wants to get serious about his music) thought Satter’s work was more damaging to his precious Olympics than having him booted and banned for five years.

Each of these PR disasters, of course, could have been the result of such cost-benefit analysis. Defending the church from the punk rockers put the religious authorities back in thrall to the state. And helping Assad defeat his rebellion elbowed the U.S. further out of influence in the Middle East while also sending a signal to his own protesters back in Moscow. But however Putin might justify his behavior, it comes at the cost of proving his critics right.

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Yaalon’s Unwelcome Peace Process Truths

Give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu some credit. In his first term as Israel’s leader in the 1990s, he might well have issued a statement like the one attributed to Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon yesterday in which the former general trashed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and damned the security plan that he presented to Israel this month as “not worth the paper it’s written on.” Since returning to the prime minister’s office in 2009 Netanyahu has done his best to keep the relationship with Washington from overheating. If there have been a series of scrapes with the Obama administration, that is largely the fault of the president’s desire to pick policy fights with him and the prime minister has done his best not to overreact. No matter how wrong Israel’s leaders may think their American counterparts are, little good comes from public spats. As Netanyahu knows, the only ones who benefit from exposing the daylight between the two countries’ positions are the Palestinians and other foes.

But apparently Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon hasn’t gotten the memo about not telling off the Americans. In an apparently unguarded moment, the former general spouted off about Kerry, the peace process, and the Palestinians yesterday, and the subsequent report in Yediot Ahronot published in English on their Ynetnews.com site brought down a firestorm on the Israeli government. Though Yaalon walked back his comments in a statement to the media, he did not deny the accuracy of the original Yediot story. This indiscretion won’t help Netanyahu in his dealings with either Obama or Kerry. It is especially foolish coming from a cabinet minister whose department has worked closely with the administration on security measures throughout the last five years to Israel’s benefit in spite of the political differences between the governments. But leaving aside the diplomatic harm he has done his country, honest observers must admit that what Yaalon said was true. The question facing both Israel and the United States is not so much what to do about Yaalon or other members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet who can’t keep their mouths shut, but at what point it will behoove the two governments to acknowledge the futility of Kerry’s endeavor.

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Give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu some credit. In his first term as Israel’s leader in the 1990s, he might well have issued a statement like the one attributed to Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon yesterday in which the former general trashed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and damned the security plan that he presented to Israel this month as “not worth the paper it’s written on.” Since returning to the prime minister’s office in 2009 Netanyahu has done his best to keep the relationship with Washington from overheating. If there have been a series of scrapes with the Obama administration, that is largely the fault of the president’s desire to pick policy fights with him and the prime minister has done his best not to overreact. No matter how wrong Israel’s leaders may think their American counterparts are, little good comes from public spats. As Netanyahu knows, the only ones who benefit from exposing the daylight between the two countries’ positions are the Palestinians and other foes.

But apparently Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon hasn’t gotten the memo about not telling off the Americans. In an apparently unguarded moment, the former general spouted off about Kerry, the peace process, and the Palestinians yesterday, and the subsequent report in Yediot Ahronot published in English on their Ynetnews.com site brought down a firestorm on the Israeli government. Though Yaalon walked back his comments in a statement to the media, he did not deny the accuracy of the original Yediot story. This indiscretion won’t help Netanyahu in his dealings with either Obama or Kerry. It is especially foolish coming from a cabinet minister whose department has worked closely with the administration on security measures throughout the last five years to Israel’s benefit in spite of the political differences between the governments. But leaving aside the diplomatic harm he has done his country, honest observers must admit that what Yaalon said was true. The question facing both Israel and the United States is not so much what to do about Yaalon or other members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet who can’t keep their mouths shut, but at what point it will behoove the two governments to acknowledge the futility of Kerry’s endeavor.

Having already conceded that Yaalon was stupid to say such things within earshot of a reporter, the defense minister gets no sympathy here for the abuse he is taking today in Israel’s press as well as from parliamentary allies and foes. The Israeli government has to be frustrated with Kerry’s persistence in pushing for concessions from them, especially when they see no sign of moderation on the part of their Palestinian peace partners who will not accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn nor renounce the right of return for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. But as damaging as pressure on Israel to accept the 1967 borders and the division of Jerusalem may be, so long as Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas is prevented by the reality of his people’s political culture and the threat from Hamas and other opposition groups from ever signing a deal that would end the conflict, Netanyahu knows that the best policy is to avoid an overt conflict with the U.S.

That said, Yaalon’s reminder of the absurdity of Kerry’s quest does help clarify the situation for those naïve enough to believe the talks have some chance of success.

Yaalon’s assertion that the negotiations are not between Israel and the Palestinians but between the Jewish state and the U.S. is self-evident. The PA has repeatedly demonstrated that it won’t budge from uncompromising positions against realistic territorial swaps or security guarantees, much less the existential questions of refugees and two states for two peoples. All that has happened in the past year is that Israel has been prevailed upon to bribe the PA by releasing terrorist murderers for the privilege of sitting at a table again with Abbas.

Nor can there be any real argument with Yaalon’s assessment of Kerry’s behavior when he described the secretary’s crusade as “inexplicably obsessive and messianic.” Few in either Israel or the United States, even those who are most in favor of his efforts, thought he had much of a chance to start with and there’s been no evidence that the odds have improved. His crack that “all that can save us is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace” makes no sense since the only way the secretary will get such an honor is if Abbas signs on the dotted line. But it probably also reflects what Abbas is thinking since his goal is to prevent an agreement without actually having to turn one down publicly.

Yaalon is also right to dismiss the security guarantees Kerry has offered Israel in exchange for a withdrawal from the West Bank. The example of the Gaza withdrawal—which Yaalon opposed when he was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, a stand that led to his term being cut short by former prime minister Ariel Sharon—as well as the situation along the border with Lebanon illustrates what happens when Israel tries to entrust its security either to Palestinian good will or third parties.

But perhaps the most incisive of Yaalon’s controversial comments was his assertion that Abbas’s future was dependent on Israel’s remaining in the West Bank, not on its departure from the territories:

Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) is alive and well thanks to us. The moment we leave Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) he is finished.

Without an Israeli security umbrella, Hamas or more radical Fatah factions would have deposed Abbas a long time ago. His administration over most of the West Bank is simply impossible without Israeli help. Pretending that this isn’t the case is one of the key fictions that form the foundation of Kerry’s conceit about giving Abbas sovereignty over the area and why such a deal or a unilateral Israeli retreat, as some are now suggesting, would repeat the Gaza fiasco.

Most Israelis would applaud any effort to separate the two peoples and desperately want an agreement that would end the conflict for all time rather than merely to pause it in order for the Palestinians to resume it later when they are in a more advantageous position. Though the minister shouldn’t have criticized Kerry publicly, until the secretary and those who are supporting his pressure on Israel and not on the Palestinians can answer Yaalon’s politically incorrect comments, the peace process is doomed. 

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Rouhani Spikes the Ball in Obama’s Face

President Obama and his allies are working overtime this week to lobby the Senate against passage of a new round of tough sanctions on Iran. The conceit of his campaign to persuade Congress not to give him more leverage over Tehran is that even the threat of further economic pressure on the regime would cause it to scuttle more nuclear talks. According to the administration, any further sanctions would “break faith” with a country that Obama wants to do business with on the nuclear question as well as on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

But while the president is bending over backward trying to avoid giving offense to his diplomatic dance partners, the Iranians have a very different mindset. Rather than displaying the skittish fear of blowing up the talks the president is displaying, the Iranians are spending the days after the finalization of the interim deal signed in November spiking the football in Obama’s face. That’s the only way to interpret the tweet put out this morning by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the so-called moderate whose victory in a faux election last summer was seen by the administration as a sign Iran was changing for the better, in which he said:

Our relationship with the world is based on Iranian nation’s interests. In #Geneva agreement world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will.

While such gloating is unseemly even for a functionary of a tyrannical regime, given the terms of the deal and the publicly stated fears of the president that Iran might flee the talks if the Senate did anything to offend them, it’s hard to argue with Rouhani’s assessment of the situation. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have represented the nuclear deal as a victory for the West since it supposedly hits the pause button on the Iranian program while maintaining almost all of the economic sanctions that brought Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place. But the Iranians, buoyed by a resurgent economy, have a very different perspective on the accord. The willingness of Iran’s leaders—both the so-called “moderates” and their “hard-line” opponents—to characterize the agreement as a triumph for Iran’s foreign-policy goals as well as its nuclear ambition makes the administration’s fear of offending them look ridiculous, not to mention downright craven.

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President Obama and his allies are working overtime this week to lobby the Senate against passage of a new round of tough sanctions on Iran. The conceit of his campaign to persuade Congress not to give him more leverage over Tehran is that even the threat of further economic pressure on the regime would cause it to scuttle more nuclear talks. According to the administration, any further sanctions would “break faith” with a country that Obama wants to do business with on the nuclear question as well as on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

But while the president is bending over backward trying to avoid giving offense to his diplomatic dance partners, the Iranians have a very different mindset. Rather than displaying the skittish fear of blowing up the talks the president is displaying, the Iranians are spending the days after the finalization of the interim deal signed in November spiking the football in Obama’s face. That’s the only way to interpret the tweet put out this morning by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the so-called moderate whose victory in a faux election last summer was seen by the administration as a sign Iran was changing for the better, in which he said:

Our relationship with the world is based on Iranian nation’s interests. In #Geneva agreement world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will.

While such gloating is unseemly even for a functionary of a tyrannical regime, given the terms of the deal and the publicly stated fears of the president that Iran might flee the talks if the Senate did anything to offend them, it’s hard to argue with Rouhani’s assessment of the situation. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have represented the nuclear deal as a victory for the West since it supposedly hits the pause button on the Iranian program while maintaining almost all of the economic sanctions that brought Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place. But the Iranians, buoyed by a resurgent economy, have a very different perspective on the accord. The willingness of Iran’s leaders—both the so-called “moderates” and their “hard-line” opponents—to characterize the agreement as a triumph for Iran’s foreign-policy goals as well as its nuclear ambition makes the administration’s fear of offending them look ridiculous, not to mention downright craven.

 As the New York Times reports, the “hardliners” who are reportedly working to undermine Rouhani are actually quite pleased with what their country’s negotiators achieved in Geneva. Conservative clerics in Iran’s parliament are acknowledging that the deal sanctioned Iran’s continuing enrichment of uranium, thereby upending years of United Nations resolutions attempting to stop the practice. They also know that, despite the downplaying of these gifts by Kerry, their country received significant relief from sanctions that will make it far easier for the regime to continuing selling oil. That will keep their government afloat as well as finance Iran’s nuclear project, its interventions in Syria and Iraq, and its support of international terrorism.

What’s more, far from displaying any worry about the U.S. withdrawing these benefits, Iran’s leaders also seem to think now is a good time to rub the Americans’ faces in their disgrace. Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohamad Javid Zarif, who was shaking hands with Kerry in Geneva in November, yesterday took time out to lay a wreath at the grave of the man who planned the terrorist attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 as well as other crimes against Americans. As Tower.org reported, Zarif paid homage to Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh in Lebanon yesterday, making clear that the new moderate government maintains the same policy priorities as the hardliners.

Of course, the revelation that the secret diplomatic back-channel talks that led to the November deal began before Rouhani’s election last summer gave the lie to the notion that the renewed talks were the result of changes on Iran’s part rather than Obama’s decision to give Tehran what it wanted. But as Elliott Abrams noted today at Pressure Points, the juxtaposition between the administration’s weakness and Iran’s chutzpah bodes ill for the next round of nuclear talks.

The Iranians have always acted as if they thought Obama was a weakling, but their brazen behavior this week demonstrates again that they think there is nothing they can do or say that could possibly provoke a reaction from Washington. While the president pulls out all the stops to prevent even the threat of future sanctions—the proposal being considered by the Senate would not go into effect until after the next round of talks fails—the Iranians are showing they will agree to nothing that will thwart their nuclear ambitions and think Obama won’t lift a finger to stop them.

Rather than bolstering the president’s effort to stop the sanctions bill, Rouhani’s tweet, Zarif’s photo op, and the general applause for the deal being sounded by Iran’s theocrats should convince the Senate to pass the sanctions bill. While Iran is unlikely to halt its  nuclear program under any circumstances, any slim hope of diplomatic success rests on a credible threat of U.S. pressure on the regime. Far from sparking conflict, the sanctions bill may be the only hope Washington has of influencing the Iranians to turn back before it’s too late.

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ObamaCare’s Credibility Gap

As each warning and worry about the viability of ObamaCare is vindicated by its disastrous rollout, the mainstream reporting tends to take on a decidedly “born yesterday” tone. A case in point is today’s New York Times story on the fact that the early figures show ObamaCare’s enrollees “tend to be older and potentially less healthy, officials said Monday, a demographic mix that could threaten the law’s economic underpinnings and cause premiums to rise in the future if the pattern persists.”

Nobody should be surprised by this, except those living in the left’s hermetically sealed ideological cocoon that deprived them of the facts about ObamaCare. Apparently, the Times is reporting from that cocoon. It continues: “Questions about the law’s financial viability are likely to become the next line of attack from its critics, as lawmakers gear up for the midterm elections this fall.”

The “next line of attack”? Or a line of attack that has been part of conservatives’ warnings about the health law for years? The answer, of course, is the latter. But the Times and perhaps its loyal readership are surprised. This story is related, strangely enough, to the Washington Post’s “fact checker” column on Marco Rubio’s criticism of the ObamaCare Medicaid expansion. The column, written by Glenn Kessler, first cites the Rubio quote from CBS’s Face the Nation under examination:

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As each warning and worry about the viability of ObamaCare is vindicated by its disastrous rollout, the mainstream reporting tends to take on a decidedly “born yesterday” tone. A case in point is today’s New York Times story on the fact that the early figures show ObamaCare’s enrollees “tend to be older and potentially less healthy, officials said Monday, a demographic mix that could threaten the law’s economic underpinnings and cause premiums to rise in the future if the pattern persists.”

Nobody should be surprised by this, except those living in the left’s hermetically sealed ideological cocoon that deprived them of the facts about ObamaCare. Apparently, the Times is reporting from that cocoon. It continues: “Questions about the law’s financial viability are likely to become the next line of attack from its critics, as lawmakers gear up for the midterm elections this fall.”

The “next line of attack”? Or a line of attack that has been part of conservatives’ warnings about the health law for years? The answer, of course, is the latter. But the Times and perhaps its loyal readership are surprised. This story is related, strangely enough, to the Washington Post’s “fact checker” column on Marco Rubio’s criticism of the ObamaCare Medicaid expansion. The column, written by Glenn Kessler, first cites the Rubio quote from CBS’s Face the Nation under examination:

“Under Obamacare, when you turn Medicaid over to the states, what you’re saying to them is the money will be available up front for the expansion for a few years, then the money will go away but you get stuck with the unfunded liability.”

Kessler is displeased. Here’s his explanation for why Rubio deserves three out of four possible Pinocchios:

Under the health-care law, the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of expansion in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Then the federal match is pared back to 95 percent in 2017, 94 percent in 2018, 93 percent in 2019 and then 90 percent in 2020 and beyond. It would stay at the 90 percent level unless the lawmakers change or repeal the legislation.

So, rather than getting $1 back for every $2 spent, states would get $9 back for every $10 spent. (This is a simplified version of a complex formula. The Kaiser Family Foundation in 2013 issued a report with all of the details.)

So, only in a very narrow sense does the money “go away.” The match declines a bit, and certainly Congress could change its mind, but at the moment this looks like a better deal than the current system.

So, in other words, Rubio is basically right that the government takes away matching funds, he just wasn’t clear enough on how much of the matching funds go away. And he’s absolutely right that states are then “stuck with the unfunded liability.” Additionally, what does it matter that Kessler says this “looks like a better deal than the current system”? The claim is that the government lures states by initially matching their costs and then reduces those matching funds, leaving states on the hook for the rest.

Here’s what Rubio didn’t say: “then the money will go away but you get stuck with the unfunded liability–and I bet if you ask Glenn Kessler, he would say that this isn’t a better deal than the current situation.” Kessler’s opinion of the deal is unambiguously irrelevant. So this has devolved from a supposed “fact check” into What Glenn Kessler Would Say To Marco Rubio If He Had Been The Host Of Face The Nation Instead Of A Post Columnist.

But there’s more:

Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute, an Obamacare critic, has argued that the federal match is “too good to be true.” He believes that publicity about the law will bring people out of the “woodwork” who had been previously eligible but had never signed up for the law. Those people would not be covered under the 90-10 match but the older 50-50 formula, thus increasing costs for states.

So what does Kessler’s unsuccessful attempt to spin the Medicaid expansion have in common with the Times report from the cocoon? They both help explain the utter lack of credibility that ObamaCare’s defenders have in the post-rollout discussion. Conservatives were once dismissed as racists or cranks for their warnings about ObamaCare, but they’ve been right.

The Times frets that conservatives might introduce an argument they’ve long been making. The only difference is that the Times now considers it a legitimate and even pressing argument. Kessler waves away Rubio’s concern that the Democrats will change ObamaCare rules on the fly. But that is the story of ObamaCare thus far. Still, one can understand Kessler’s irritation: the credibility is now with ObamaCare’s critics–and what’s a “fact checker” without his credibility?

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A Moment of High Constitutional Candor

As John Steele Gordon predicted, the Supreme Court argument on President Obama’s “recess” appointments was “high constitutional drama.” SCOTUSblog reports there were long lines and cameras outside, a full press gallery inside, and both White House spokesman Jay Carney and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in attendance. The Court appears ready to rule that Obama exceeded his constitutional power to fill “Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate” by deciding for himself the Senate was in recess when the Senate considered itself in session. 

There was also a moment of what we can call “high constitutional candor” during Miguel Estrada’s amicus argument on behalf of McConnell. As John noted, President Obama nominated two people to the NLRB on December 13, 2011, days before Congress adjourned for the holidays, and then purported to give them recess appointments on January 4, 2012, one day after the second session of the 112th Congress began. Estrada argued it is undisputed that the Appointments Clause gives the Senate an absolute veto over nominations, and there is no power set forth in the Constitution to use the Recess Appointments Clause to overcome Senate opposition: 

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As John Steele Gordon predicted, the Supreme Court argument on President Obama’s “recess” appointments was “high constitutional drama.” SCOTUSblog reports there were long lines and cameras outside, a full press gallery inside, and both White House spokesman Jay Carney and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in attendance. The Court appears ready to rule that Obama exceeded his constitutional power to fill “Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate” by deciding for himself the Senate was in recess when the Senate considered itself in session. 

There was also a moment of what we can call “high constitutional candor” during Miguel Estrada’s amicus argument on behalf of McConnell. As John noted, President Obama nominated two people to the NLRB on December 13, 2011, days before Congress adjourned for the holidays, and then purported to give them recess appointments on January 4, 2012, one day after the second session of the 112th Congress began. Estrada argued it is undisputed that the Appointments Clause gives the Senate an absolute veto over nominations, and there is no power set forth in the Constitution to use the Recess Appointments Clause to overcome Senate opposition: 

And for all that we hear about today, which has to do with how the heaven will fall, and the parade of horribles, there is no parade, and there is no horrible. The only thing that will happen is that the president, heaven help us, will be forced to comply with the advice and consent that the Appointments Clause actually calls for. That was not viewed as an evil by the Framers. That was what the Framers unanimously agreed was going to be the principal means for appointments … 

[The president] could have had a better legal argument in attempting to claim that between December 3oth and January 3rd there was at least an arguable inter-session recess. And he did not do that. Why didn’t he? Because by waiting until the convening … of the second session of the 112th Congress, by making an appointment on January 4th instead of the morning of January 3rd, he gives an extra year to his appointees to serve … It is a complete abuse of the process. It is being used for no other purpose than to overcome the Senate opposition or the Senate disinclination to agree with the president’s nominations. 

What the Framers contemplated in coming up with a joint power of appointment was you have to act jointly. You have to play nice. And in a country of 300 million people, when the president wants a nominee and the Senate does not agree, it is always possible for the president to come up with another nominee who is even more qualified and acceptable to the Senate. 

It was also a moment of “high constitutional irony,” because Miguel Estrada was nominated by President Bush in May 2001 to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, but withdrew his name more than two years later, after his nomination was blocked by Senate Democrats using their filibuster power. Estrada is a Honduran immigrant who went to Harvard law school, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, served as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York and as assistant solicitor general during the Clinton administration. His credentials could hardly have been higher. But Democrats did not want Bush to get credit for nominating a Hispanic to a court sometimes seen as a steppingstone to the Supreme Court. 

Here is the irony: after Estrada finally withdrew his name in 2003, Sen. Edward Kennedy told the press the withdrawal was “a victory for the Constitution” because “it reflects a clear recognition by Miguel Estrada, and, hopefully this White House, that under the Constitution the Senate has shared power over judicial appointments.”

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