Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 20, 2014

Why a Feminist Heroine Revised Her Bio

Has there ever been a more meteoric rise to national political prominence than that of Wendy Davis? A year ago Davis was so obscure a Democratic Texas state senator that even savvy liberal Beltway pundits couldn’t have picked her out of a police lineup. But her June 25 filibuster of a bill limiting late-term abortions and imposing more rigorous safety standards on clinics catapulted her to superstardom in the national liberal media. The legislation she managed to stop that day eventually passed (and has, despite the expectations of many liberals, largely survived judicial scrutiny) but Davis’s stand had already made her a heroine to a national media that was all too happy to celebrate her act as heroic even though they treated filibusters conducted by conservative Republican senators like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz in Washington last year as a foolish waste of time.

Indeed, Democrats could scarcely believe their luck when they learned Davis was not only a photogenic blonde whose pink sneakers became an icon for abortion-rights supporters but also had a biography that sounded like political gold. Thanks to the values of the liberal media, soon the nation learned that she was a former single teenaged mother who, by dint of old-fashioned guts, smarts and gumption, had worked her way through college and then through Harvard Law School before turning to politics. With that kind of background and the notoriety the filibuster gave her, it’s little wonder that she became a darling of national liberal political donors such as Emily’s List and the almost certain Democratic nominee in the 2014 governor’s race.

But it turns out the true account of her life doesn’t exactly match up to the story she’s been selling while raising money for her campaign. As the Dallas Morning News reported in a story published over the weekend, “facts have been blurred” in order to make her seem more sympathetic. Davis conveniently omitted some details that are germane to her tale of poverty and valorous self-sufficiency. According to the Morning News:

In an extensive interview last week, Davis acknowledged some chronological errors and incomplete details in what she and her aides have said about her life.

“My language should be tighter,” she said. “I’m learning about using broader, looser language. I need to be more focused on the detail.”

That sounds like typical backtracking from a politician caught fibbing. If it doesn’t deflate her boomlet, it was exactly what Democrats, who were hoping that Davis could take advantage of feminist fervor and changing demographics to give Texas Republicans a fight, didn’t want to hear.

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Has there ever been a more meteoric rise to national political prominence than that of Wendy Davis? A year ago Davis was so obscure a Democratic Texas state senator that even savvy liberal Beltway pundits couldn’t have picked her out of a police lineup. But her June 25 filibuster of a bill limiting late-term abortions and imposing more rigorous safety standards on clinics catapulted her to superstardom in the national liberal media. The legislation she managed to stop that day eventually passed (and has, despite the expectations of many liberals, largely survived judicial scrutiny) but Davis’s stand had already made her a heroine to a national media that was all too happy to celebrate her act as heroic even though they treated filibusters conducted by conservative Republican senators like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz in Washington last year as a foolish waste of time.

Indeed, Democrats could scarcely believe their luck when they learned Davis was not only a photogenic blonde whose pink sneakers became an icon for abortion-rights supporters but also had a biography that sounded like political gold. Thanks to the values of the liberal media, soon the nation learned that she was a former single teenaged mother who, by dint of old-fashioned guts, smarts and gumption, had worked her way through college and then through Harvard Law School before turning to politics. With that kind of background and the notoriety the filibuster gave her, it’s little wonder that she became a darling of national liberal political donors such as Emily’s List and the almost certain Democratic nominee in the 2014 governor’s race.

But it turns out the true account of her life doesn’t exactly match up to the story she’s been selling while raising money for her campaign. As the Dallas Morning News reported in a story published over the weekend, “facts have been blurred” in order to make her seem more sympathetic. Davis conveniently omitted some details that are germane to her tale of poverty and valorous self-sufficiency. According to the Morning News:

In an extensive interview last week, Davis acknowledged some chronological errors and incomplete details in what she and her aides have said about her life.

“My language should be tighter,” she said. “I’m learning about using broader, looser language. I need to be more focused on the detail.”

That sounds like typical backtracking from a politician caught fibbing. If it doesn’t deflate her boomlet, it was exactly what Democrats, who were hoping that Davis could take advantage of feminist fervor and changing demographics to give Texas Republicans a fight, didn’t want to hear.

It is true she was a single, divorced mother who went on to be the first in her family to graduate college. But not only did she fudge some dates (she was divorced at 21, not 19), the true story is that her second husband paid her college tuition and then, to enable her to attend Harvard Law School, he emptied his 401(k) account and took out a loan. He also took full care of her child by her first husband and the one they had together, while she was in Cambridge, Massachusetts for three years alone. She left her husband to divorce him immediately after he’d paid off her law school debts. He sought and was granted custody of both his stepdaughter and daughter after the divorce. 

Over time, the Davises’ marriage was strained. In November 2003, Wendy Davis moved out.

Jeff Davis said that was right around the time the final payment on their Harvard Law School loan was due. “It was ironic,” he said. “I made the last payment, and it was the next day she left.”

Wendy Davis said that as a lawyer, she contributed too. …

In his initial divorce filing, Jeff Davis said the marriage had failed, citing adultery on her part and conflicts that the couple could not overcome. The final court decree makes no mention of infidelity, granting the divorce solely “on the ground of insupportability.”

Amber was 21 and in college. Dru was in ninth grade. Jeff Davis was awarded parental custody. Wendy Davis was ordered to pay $1,200 a month in child support.

“She did the right thing,” he said. “She said, ‘I think you’re right; you’ll make a good, nurturing father. While I’ve been a good mother, it’s not a good time for me right now.’”

These new details don’t paint the state senator in the best light. But neither do they disqualify her for high office. She’s a bright, hard-working woman who came from a modest background and went on to build a successful career. In that sense, she could viewed as a role model to young people. But when the “blurred details” are included in her biography, what we see is not a feminist heroine who persevered despite the disadvantages of being a young mother struggling against poverty and patriarchy. Instead, she comes across very much like the stereotypical male politician who exploited a helpful spouse and then sacrificed his wife and children on the altar of ambition. How many male governors, senators, or members of the House fit that description? One shudders to think.

The point here is not what we think about Davis’s life. The details of her divorces and how she made the jump from single mother to Harvard-educated lawyer/legislator aren’t relevant to the question of who should be governor of Texas or whether we agree with her stand on abortion. But they do tell us she isn’t a 21st century feminist version of Horatio Alger, a ruse that materially aided her rise from obscurity.

As with most such fibs, it was entirely unnecessary and now, rather than an asset, her fabricated bio will become a GOP talking point in a race in which polls already put her well behind her Republican opponent, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. The unvarnished facts about her life posed no impediment to her political future but, with a little editing, they were made to tell a slightly different, but far more compelling story than the one about Jeff Davis paying for her education and then being dumped along with the kids.

The fact that Wendy Davis should turn out to be, like countless male politicians, a trimmer when it comes to the truth about her life, isn’t terribly surprising, especially when you consider how disingenuous many of her arguments about late-term abortion were in her celebrated filibuster. But it should serve as a reminder to true believers of all political stripes that when politicians seem too good to be true, it’s usually because they are.

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A Scenario for the Repeal of ObamaCare

Writing in part based on a story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes’s Avik Roy says the following:

At the end of the day, for all of the rhetoric and promises about what Obamacare would achieve, the health law’s most ardent supporters have stuck to their guns because of one thing: coverage expansion. But new data suggests that Obamacare may fail even to achieve this goal. Instead of expanding coverage to those without it, Obamacare is replacing the pre-existing market for private insurance. Surveys from insurers and other industry players indicate that as few as 11 percent of those on Obamacare’s exchanges were previously uninsured. If these trends continue, the probability increases that Obamacare will eventually get repealed.

It turns out that more than half (52 percent) of those who didn’t sign up for the Affordable Care Act’s coverage cited “affordability” as their biggest complaint with the exchanges’ plan offerings. (“Wasn’t that supposed to be the point behind the Affordable Care Act?” quips HotAir.com’s Ed Morrissey.)

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Writing in part based on a story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes’s Avik Roy says the following:

At the end of the day, for all of the rhetoric and promises about what Obamacare would achieve, the health law’s most ardent supporters have stuck to their guns because of one thing: coverage expansion. But new data suggests that Obamacare may fail even to achieve this goal. Instead of expanding coverage to those without it, Obamacare is replacing the pre-existing market for private insurance. Surveys from insurers and other industry players indicate that as few as 11 percent of those on Obamacare’s exchanges were previously uninsured. If these trends continue, the probability increases that Obamacare will eventually get repealed.

It turns out that more than half (52 percent) of those who didn’t sign up for the Affordable Care Act’s coverage cited “affordability” as their biggest complaint with the exchanges’ plan offerings. (“Wasn’t that supposed to be the point behind the Affordable Care Act?” quips HotAir.com’s Ed Morrissey.)

Mr. Roy is a sober, serious health-care expert who is always worth listening to. Which is why I want to quote his concluding section in full:

I, along with most observers, have viewed as doubtful the likelihood that Obamacare ever gets repealed. Even if Republicans manage to regain the White House and the Senate by 2017, there will be tens of millions of people on Obamacare-based coverage by then. Prior to the website fiasco of October, the Congressional Budget Office projected that 34 million Americans would be enrolled in either the exchanges or the Medicaid expansion in 2017. It would be politically impossible to disrupt the coverage of 34 million people.

But what if the number is far less than 34 million? What if it’s only 5 million? Such an epic fail would seem far-fetched, but then again, so did the dismal performance of Obamacare to date. For 2014, the CBO has projected that 14 million previously uninsured Americans would gain coverage under the law. With about ten weeks left in this year’s enrollment period, we’re looking at a coverage expansion of less than a million.

Remember also that as many as 100 million previously insured Americans will endure higher premiums—and higher taxes—under Obamacare. The political constituency of the newly insured could be dwarfed by the political constituency of those harmed by the law. If that turns out to be the case, President Obama’s signature legislation may not be long for this world.

If so, it would sink the Obama presidency, both in real time and in the eyes of history. Which is precisely what ought to occur.

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Britain’s Anti-Jewish Parliamentarians

In recent days we have been presented with yet another reminder that while Britain’s parliamentarians are, for the most part, only coldly disinterested in Israel and its welfare, there is also a determined fringe that harbors fiercely hostile views where the Jewish state is concerned. Indeed, these views are often displayed in colors that are undeniably hostile not only to Israel, but also to Jews generally. Whereas congressmen and the American public they represent are almost universally supportive of Israel, the British parliament increasingly risks becoming a rather sinister opposite of Congress on this particular issue.

The latest incident concerns Labour Member of Parliament for Easington Grahame Morris, who has tweeted a picture of demonstrators flying the Israeli flag along with the caption “Nazis in my village do you see the flag they fly.” In fact the demonstrators in question also appear to have been flying the Royal Air Force flag, in addition to the Israeli one, and while it may be true that in recent years Israel has come to receive a certain degree of unwanted attention from some British right-wing groups, such as the English Defense League, the accusation that these people are Nazis, and the association with the Israeli flag, clearly carries with it an overt insinuation.

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In recent days we have been presented with yet another reminder that while Britain’s parliamentarians are, for the most part, only coldly disinterested in Israel and its welfare, there is also a determined fringe that harbors fiercely hostile views where the Jewish state is concerned. Indeed, these views are often displayed in colors that are undeniably hostile not only to Israel, but also to Jews generally. Whereas congressmen and the American public they represent are almost universally supportive of Israel, the British parliament increasingly risks becoming a rather sinister opposite of Congress on this particular issue.

The latest incident concerns Labour Member of Parliament for Easington Grahame Morris, who has tweeted a picture of demonstrators flying the Israeli flag along with the caption “Nazis in my village do you see the flag they fly.” In fact the demonstrators in question also appear to have been flying the Royal Air Force flag, in addition to the Israeli one, and while it may be true that in recent years Israel has come to receive a certain degree of unwanted attention from some British right-wing groups, such as the English Defense League, the accusation that these people are Nazis, and the association with the Israeli flag, clearly carries with it an overt insinuation.

Grahame Morris appears to be fully aware of the nature of his insinuation and so, in a rather transparent effort to protect himself from accusations of bigotry, includes in the same tweet a link to a page regaling the reader with an account of an Anne Frank event Morris recently opened. Apparently Morris has no sense of shame in using the memory of Anne Frank and those Jews murdered by the Nazis to persuade us that there is nothing racist about associating Nazis with the Jewish state.

This belief that having expressed regret about the Holocaust somehow frees one to then make the worst allegations against Jews today has been echoed by other parliamentarians. Speaking last year shortly before Holocaust Memorial Day, Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament David Ward caused outrage by claiming that Jews had not learned the lessons of the Holocaust. Ward stated “Having visited Auschwitz twice…I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Regardless of what precisely “the lessons of the Holocaust” may or may not be, Ward gave voice to a strange notion, common among some Europeans, that seems to imagine the death camps as having been something akin to academies of moral philosophy, and having been through them Jews and their descendants are now obligated to embody a level of conduct more pristine than anyone else.

Perhaps the year’s most explicit outburst of anti-Jewish racism on the part of a British parliamentarian came in June when Tory MP Patrick Mercer was caught by the BBC telling a reporter that a female Israeli soldier he had met didn’t look like a soldier, but rather, looked “like a bloody Jew.” Repeating the common trope of the Jew as bloodthirsty and murderous Mercer told the reporter that he had no doubt that had he given the Israeli soldier the wrong answer “I’d have had my head blown off.” 

All three of these incidents took place over the past twelve months, but Westminster also has a number of infamous repeat offenders whose anti-Israel comments often betray an aggressive animosity that many would consider anti-Semitic. Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Jenny Tonge leads the way here. In 2003 Tonge compared the Gaza strip to the Warsaw Ghetto and in 2004 remarked of Palestinian suicide bombers that ”If I had to live in that situation – and I say that advisedly – I might just consider becoming one myself.” 

For such conduct Tonge was rewarded by her party with the peerage that elevated her from the House of Commons to the Lords. From there Tonge continued her record, in 2010 giving legitimacy to the blood libel that accused Israelis of organ harvesting. Only then was the party whip finally withdrawn from the baroness. Her comments in 2006 when she spoke of how ”the pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party” had apparently not been deemed sufficient to warrant that.

Jenny Tonge is admittedly an extreme example, yet she is hardly alone in that extremity. The far-left Member of Parliament George Galloway, formerly of Labour, has long been a particularly outspoken voice against Israel. Galloway, who in 2012 came out as having converted to Islam, has over the years gone out of his way to befriend such dubious regimes as Saddam Hussein’s Baathists in Iraq, Hamas in Gaza, and more recently the mullahs’ theocracy in Iran. The far-reaching extent of his hatred for the Jewish state was made particularly apparent last February when Galloway stormed out of an Oxford debate upon the discovery that the student he was debating with was actually an Israeli.   

It is of course impossible to know the extent to which the views of the individuals mentioned here might enjoy the sympathies of their more discrete colleagues. In recent years there has certainly been no shortage of similar outbursts by other members of parliament. Yet it would also be wrong to pretend that there is not still a small grouping of determinedly pro-Israel parliamentarians on both sides of the house.

The strongest anti-Israel expressions, however, are to be heard coming almost exclusively from one side: Britain’s parliamentary left. These members often tend to be largely suspicious of Western nations and the use of Western power in the world. Their belief in the need to champion the rights of non-Western victim groups renders them favorable of multiculturalism at home and sympathetic to Third World causes abroad. As such, they view Israel as a militaristic outpost of the West; guilty, from the point of inception, of having occupied and oppressed an indigenous people. As Baroness Tonge once quipped “America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East – that is Israel.”

Yet, this deep dislike of Israel stems not only from Israel’s alliance with America and the West, but also from the fact that it is a Jewish state. For the decidedly post-nationalist British left, Zionism is an anathema–the idea that a people as cosmopolitan as the Jews would have set themselves on the wrong side of history by establishing a nation of their own. The Jews were once favored by the left, when they were poor and widely discriminated against. But as Britain’s Minister for Education Michael Gove has explained of the left’s mentality, “when Jews are successful, assertive, self-confident or, worst of all, conservative, then they move, metaphorically, beyond the pale.” 

Given the way in which those such as MP Grahame Morris would so casually associate the Israeli flag with Nazis, it would appear that there is a sense of growing confidence among the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish fringe in Britain’s parliament. But with such views flying around among lawmakers, there must be concerns about the future diplomatic relations between the two countries. And more than that, the questions about the future of the British Jewish community become ever more troubling.   

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The GOP’s Ongoing Challenges

Republicans have plenty of reasons to believe that the 2014 mid-term elections will be favorable, and maybe very favorable, for them. But that doesn’t necessarily prefigure success in 2016, as this story by Dan Balz of the Washington Post demonstrates.

Mr. Balz asked a veteran of GOP presidential campaigns which, if any, of the recent battleground states are likely to become more Republican by 2016? Answer: Very few. According to Balz:

From 1992-2012, Democrats built a base that rivals or exceeds that of the Republicans in the earlier period [1980-2000]. Eighteen states and the District have voted Democratic in each of the six presidential elections. They represent a total 242 electoral votes, according to the current allocation. Three other states, with a total of 15 electoral votes, have backed the Democrats five times.

Meanwhile, Republicans won 13 states in those six elections, but because most of them were smaller states, their electoral votes totaled just 102. The biggest consistent GOP state in this period has been Texas, with 38 electoral votes. Five other states backed the GOP nominee in five of the six elections, for an additional 56 electoral votes.

Adding together the states that voted Republican or Democratic in at least four of the six elections gave Democrats 281 electoral votes and Republicans 219. Only two states — Colorado and Florida, with a total of 38 electoral votes — were won three times for each party in those six elections.

Key states that were once genuine toss up states, or leaned Republican, are now much more reliably Democratic. “Given the current alignment, the Republicans must find states that have been voting Democratic and convert them to their column in 2016,” according to Balz.

Will they succeed?

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Republicans have plenty of reasons to believe that the 2014 mid-term elections will be favorable, and maybe very favorable, for them. But that doesn’t necessarily prefigure success in 2016, as this story by Dan Balz of the Washington Post demonstrates.

Mr. Balz asked a veteran of GOP presidential campaigns which, if any, of the recent battleground states are likely to become more Republican by 2016? Answer: Very few. According to Balz:

From 1992-2012, Democrats built a base that rivals or exceeds that of the Republicans in the earlier period [1980-2000]. Eighteen states and the District have voted Democratic in each of the six presidential elections. They represent a total 242 electoral votes, according to the current allocation. Three other states, with a total of 15 electoral votes, have backed the Democrats five times.

Meanwhile, Republicans won 13 states in those six elections, but because most of them were smaller states, their electoral votes totaled just 102. The biggest consistent GOP state in this period has been Texas, with 38 electoral votes. Five other states backed the GOP nominee in five of the six elections, for an additional 56 electoral votes.

Adding together the states that voted Republican or Democratic in at least four of the six elections gave Democrats 281 electoral votes and Republicans 219. Only two states — Colorado and Florida, with a total of 38 electoral votes — were won three times for each party in those six elections.

Key states that were once genuine toss up states, or leaned Republican, are now much more reliably Democratic. “Given the current alignment, the Republicans must find states that have been voting Democratic and convert them to their column in 2016,” according to Balz.

Will they succeed?

William H. Frey, a demographer and census expert at the Brookings Institution, analyzed nine key states and found the following: five—Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia—are definitely moving toward the Democrats because of their growing diversity. Three states—Iowa, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin—are genuine toss-ups but aren’t moving in the GOP’s direction. Ohio is one state that could become more hospitable to Republicans, because aging white baby boomers continue to make up a large part of the population there.

Beyond those nine states, Frey “sees some glimmers of hope for Republicans in Michigan and Pennsylvania, if the GOP can find the right candidate.” On the other hand, Frey envisions potential problems for the party in states such as Arizona and Georgia, which he said could be toss-ups by 2016 and could lean Democratic in the long run.

Balz includes the caveat that nothing is static in politics, candidate quality matters, and President Obama’s standing with the electorate will influence how people vote in 2016. Still, he concludes, “Republicans have considerable ground to recapture to win the presidency, and underlying trends have not been helping them.”

The danger for the GOP is that in focusing on 2014, it fails to do the work–in terms of policy reforms, governing vision, outreach, tone and countenance, and recruitment–that is necessary for it to win the presidency in 2016. It turns out that the 2010 mid-term election was something of a false dawn for Republicans, at least when it came to 2012. They would be fools to commit the same error again or underestimate the magnitude of the long-term challenges still facing the GOP.    

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Move the Capital to Nebraska?

Earlier this month, Ben Sasse, a Republican running for senator in Nebraska, briefly made national headlines when he suggested that the U.S. government should move the federal capital from Washington D.C. to Nebraska. His suggestion was clearly tongue-in-cheek:

“That’s it, the way to cure the incredible ineffectiveness and dysfunction of both parties in Washington — we move the capital to Nebraska,” he said in the spot. “Let’s move the capital to Nebraska and leave the lobbyists and influence peddlers back east,” he added.

Perhaps, though, there is some merit to his suggestion—not to move the capital from Washington D.C., but to relocate some branches of the executive out of the region. Once upon a time, critics castigated the late senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) for his unabashed embrace of pork, bringing as much as possible to his home state, not only short-term projects but also federal facilities. As CBS News noted upon his death:

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Earlier this month, Ben Sasse, a Republican running for senator in Nebraska, briefly made national headlines when he suggested that the U.S. government should move the federal capital from Washington D.C. to Nebraska. His suggestion was clearly tongue-in-cheek:

“That’s it, the way to cure the incredible ineffectiveness and dysfunction of both parties in Washington — we move the capital to Nebraska,” he said in the spot. “Let’s move the capital to Nebraska and leave the lobbyists and influence peddlers back east,” he added.

Perhaps, though, there is some merit to his suggestion—not to move the capital from Washington D.C., but to relocate some branches of the executive out of the region. Once upon a time, critics castigated the late senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) for his unabashed embrace of pork, bringing as much as possible to his home state, not only short-term projects but also federal facilities. As CBS News noted upon his death:

He made sure plenty of federal complexes were built in West Virginia, including the FBI’s fingerprint repository in Clarksburg, the Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center in landlocked Kearneysville, and a training center and firing range near Harpers Ferry for customs and border protection officers.

Byrd’s motivations might have been selfish, wasteful, and often ridiculous, but the federal government has grown massively over the decades. Washington D.C. and its immediate suburbs have become a cultural bubble of government servants or those involved in lobbying, policy analysis, defense, or other related fields. As a home owner in the D.C. area, it’s been a blessing as I was inoculated from the bursting housing bubble in a way that I would not have been if I lived anywhere else in the country. The cultural bubble insulates from reality, however. If I did not do occasional lecturing for the U.S. military, I would have no reason to visit places like southwestern Louisiana, far upstate New York, central Wisconsin, or central Texas. Unless I made a real effort, I would not hear the local news, tune into the local radio station, or drive the back roads rather than the highway as I go from airport to base, or from facility to facility.

The cultural bubble and the detachment to which it can lead is one reason so many Americans dislike Washington D.C. At the same time, it can be unhealthy for government bureaucrats to be so detached from the lives of people who are so affected by the minutiae of regulations or the promulgation of decisions. Given the fact that so much, even within Washington D.C. itself, is now conducted by email or secure video teleconference, it really matters little whether one agency is two blocks away or 1,000 miles away when it comes to holding a meeting. Perhaps it makes sense for the Department of the Interior to be based somewhere in the interior, say Nebraska or Kansas. It might make more sense to have the Environmental Protection Agency based somewhere like Oregon or Montana, so that bureaucrats making decisions can interact with those whose lives and jobs might be directly impacted. Given the increasing importance of North Dakota to U.S. energy security, why not move the Department of Energy to Bismark? And wouldn’t the relocation of the Department of Homeland Security already scattered across facilities and states to Texas or Arizona make sense given issues of immigration and border security?

Admittedly, dispersing federal agencies further afield would be unpopular. It would decimate the Washington D.C. economy and be unpopular among those who like living in the nation’s capital. But the federal government doesn’t exist to subsidize indirectly Washington, or to make it into a boom town. And what Washington loses, other cities would gain. Just as military bases have become boons to cities like Fayetteville, North Carolina and Killeen, Texas, transplanting federal agencies might also spread the wealth, albeit in a different way than President Obama has envisioned. And if bureaucrats choose not to make the move to North Dakota, Oregon, Louisiana, South Carolina, or wherever departments might relocate, then that provides an opportunity for much-needed downsizing. Certainly no one would think about moving the White House, Congress, and even Pentagon, but for the remaining departments, perhaps breaking the Washington bubble would do the government some good, narrow the gap between government official and citizen, and improve function all around.

Perhaps Sasse’s “modest proposal” should enable some serious discussion about just what government has become, to what Washington D.C. is entitled, and how government might return to a time when it was far closer to the people whom it claimed to serve.

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Doku Umarov: Dead or Alive?

Major international events hosted by Putin’s Russia have generally been a time of heightened security as the Russian leadership’s drive for prestige has been matched by that of Caucasus-based domestic terrorists, eager to humiliate Putin and draw worldwide attention to their cause. That was the case when Russia hosted the 2006 meeting of the G-8 countries, and it appears to be true as well of the Sochi Olympics, due to begin next month.

A terrorist attack in Volgograd in December set off worries about security at the Olympics. As I wrote last week, Russia’s expulsion of American journalist David Satter might have been prompted by his warning that the Volgograd attack meant attendees in Sochi “are walking into what effectively is a war zone.” In taking credit for the Volgograd attack, Islamist militants added a message to the authorities: “If you hold the Olympics, you’ll get a present from us for all the Muslim blood that’s been spilled.” Even before the video was released, the New York Times reports, American officials went public with their security concerns:

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Major international events hosted by Putin’s Russia have generally been a time of heightened security as the Russian leadership’s drive for prestige has been matched by that of Caucasus-based domestic terrorists, eager to humiliate Putin and draw worldwide attention to their cause. That was the case when Russia hosted the 2006 meeting of the G-8 countries, and it appears to be true as well of the Sochi Olympics, due to begin next month.

A terrorist attack in Volgograd in December set off worries about security at the Olympics. As I wrote last week, Russia’s expulsion of American journalist David Satter might have been prompted by his warning that the Volgograd attack meant attendees in Sochi “are walking into what effectively is a war zone.” In taking credit for the Volgograd attack, Islamist militants added a message to the authorities: “If you hold the Olympics, you’ll get a present from us for all the Muslim blood that’s been spilled.” Even before the video was released, the New York Times reports, American officials went public with their security concerns:

Tensions rose Sunday over security preparations ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, as several congressional leaders expressed concern about Russia’s willingness to share information about terrorist threats, while President Vladimir V. Putin asserted that he would “do whatever it takes” to protect the thousands of visitors arriving soon for the Games. …

Extremists affiliated with Doku Umarov, a former Chechen nationalist leader who now heads a broad Muslim separatist movement and advocates global jihad, have also vowed to disrupt the Games.

Umarov’s name is of particular interest. Before the 2006 G-8 meeting, infamous Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev reportedly initiated plans for an attack. Those plans were disrupted and led to Basayev’s death, turning his hopes to humiliate Putin on the world stage into a public-relations coup for Putin. In its report on Basayev’s death, the Associated Press included a somber warning from journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed soon after:

“If you look at the situation in the North Caucasus, not just in Chechnya, the ranks of the rebel resistance are constantly being replenished,” she said.

Another rebel leader, Doku Umarov, pledged last month that rebels would step up their attacks against Russian forces.

Umarov’s stock continued to rise, declaring himself leader of the breakaway Islamist network the Caucasus Emirate. Yet now, in an eerie echo of 2006, Russian authorities say Umarov has been killed. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty assesses the evidence here. RFERL notes that one strike against the claim is that it would be—again, like in 2006—a major propaganda coup for the Russian authorities, who would presumably seek to play up the news and perhaps even offer proof.

Another strike against the claim is that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has made a habit of pronouncing Umarov dead. Nonetheless, there is evidence backing the claims of Umarov’s death.

Declaring Chechen terrorist leaders’ elimination is something of a national pastime for the Russian security services. They are not always being intentionally misleading, however. A case in point is the former terrorist Salman Raduyev. In its obituary for Raduyev, who died in a Russian prison camp in 2002, Reuters recalled:

Raduyev had survived several assassination attempts. He kept his face, scarred by the numerous attempts on his life, nearly covered by a beard and sunglasses.

Once, when he was widely believed to have been killed, he reappeared with his features so altered that reporters identified him only by his voice.

Raduyev was nicknamed “Titanic” after talk that his face had been reconstructed in a foreign hospital with titanium implants.

That Reuters obituary hints at another reason Putin might be desperate to tamp down talk of security in Sochi. It calls to mind a time when such stories were published in American newspapers—in this case the L.A. Times—and the exploits and fates of Chechen guerrillas were of wider interest than in recent years.

The Chechen “cause” has of course morphed over the years into an Islamist terror center on the ruins of what was a genuine nationalistic liberation/independence movement. Its integration into the global war on terror has sapped it of its mainstream media allure just when, paradoxically, its expanded role in a global movement made it more relevant to consumers of that media. It’s easy to understand, then, why Putin would trumpet the elimination of Umarov—and also why the lack of official fanfare surrounding the announcement has left it open to some skepticism.

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Israel’s “Natural Allies”?

Israelis often ask themselves whether they have any “natural allies” in the Middle East. When they do, they usually settle either on nearby minorities or states on the far edges of the Middle East. Israel is located in the heart of a region that is overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab, so there have been times when it has fostered ties with those who aren’t Muslim or Arab. This approach is often attributed to David Ben-Gurion, who pursued it in the early years of the state, but it began even earlier. It reached a culmination in the early 1970s, when Israel was busy cultivating the Maronites of Lebanon, the Kurds of northern Iraq, and secessionists in southern Sudan. Israel also tried to outflank the Arab world by bonding with the Shah’s Iran. It all made perfect sense.

Except that it didn’t work. The policy was meant to create difficulties on the Arab flank, but none of these efforts relieved Arab pressure on Israel’s borders, which erupted in war after war. The policy came to an end between 1978 and 1982, following three developments: Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution turned Iran into an implacable foe of Israel; the peace treaty with Egypt broke the key link in the chain of Arab Muslim hostility; and the war in Lebanon exposed Israel’s decades-long ties to the Maronites as a liability. Since then, Israel has pursued a policy of cutting deals with its nearer Arab Muslim neighbors: Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. For all the limitations of these accommodations, they have effectively precluded state-to-state wars. Israel hasn’t had to fight one since 1973.

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Israelis often ask themselves whether they have any “natural allies” in the Middle East. When they do, they usually settle either on nearby minorities or states on the far edges of the Middle East. Israel is located in the heart of a region that is overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab, so there have been times when it has fostered ties with those who aren’t Muslim or Arab. This approach is often attributed to David Ben-Gurion, who pursued it in the early years of the state, but it began even earlier. It reached a culmination in the early 1970s, when Israel was busy cultivating the Maronites of Lebanon, the Kurds of northern Iraq, and secessionists in southern Sudan. Israel also tried to outflank the Arab world by bonding with the Shah’s Iran. It all made perfect sense.

Except that it didn’t work. The policy was meant to create difficulties on the Arab flank, but none of these efforts relieved Arab pressure on Israel’s borders, which erupted in war after war. The policy came to an end between 1978 and 1982, following three developments: Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution turned Iran into an implacable foe of Israel; the peace treaty with Egypt broke the key link in the chain of Arab Muslim hostility; and the war in Lebanon exposed Israel’s decades-long ties to the Maronites as a liability. Since then, Israel has pursued a policy of cutting deals with its nearer Arab Muslim neighbors: Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. For all the limitations of these accommodations, they have effectively precluded state-to-state wars. Israel hasn’t had to fight one since 1973.

The so-called “Arab spring” has created turmoil around Israel, casting doubt on the stability of Israel’s Arab partners. In turn, some analysts have argued that Israel should return to its earlier policy of cultivating minorities and states on the periphery, from Kurdistan to Greece. Ofir Haivry of the new Herzl Institute has made just that case at Mosaic Magazine. I’ve offered a response, arguing against alliances with the weak and suggesting other alternatives. Israel isn’t alone in worrying about American retrenchment, and that may open opportunities. (See also responses by Michael Doran and Efraim Inbar, my own “natural allies” of long standing.) After reading, be sure to check back later at Mosaic Magazine, where Haivry will have the last word.

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Dems & Media Put a Fork in Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s loyalists are still hoping that the media overkill on Bridgegate and the transparently partisan nature of the charges being lobbed at him and his administration will somehow turn public opinion in his favor. But though that hope might have seemed reasonable, if a bit optimistic, only a few days ago, after the latest development in the widening ring of scandals, such a perspective must now be viewed as a fantasy. After the charges levied at the Christie administration by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer about being shaken down to back a development project linked to a friend of the governor, further talks about his 2016 ambitions is pointless.

It may well be that the governor had no personal involvement in the bizarre traffic jam scheme or the alleged shake-down of the Hoboken mayor and that the several upcoming investigations by the state legislature and the U.S. attorney will find no criminal liability on his part or anyone close to him. But in terms of the political impact of the media feeding frenzy, the legal outcome is almost beside the point. What has happened to Christie this month is a textbook example of how scandals can sink a public figure. His guilt or innocence, the partisan nature of the charges about the use of Hurricane Sandy relief funds, and the fairness of the probes as well as the disproportionate media attention given to Christie scandal stories may well influence how posterity regards these unfolding events. But they will almost certainly make it impossible for Christie to lay the groundwork for what was widely assumed to be an inevitable presidential run as head of the Republican Governor’s Association or to do anything other than defend himself in the coming months or even years.

In other words, the Christie for President bandwagon is not only stopped in its tracks. In the space of a few weeks it has become a pipe dream.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s loyalists are still hoping that the media overkill on Bridgegate and the transparently partisan nature of the charges being lobbed at him and his administration will somehow turn public opinion in his favor. But though that hope might have seemed reasonable, if a bit optimistic, only a few days ago, after the latest development in the widening ring of scandals, such a perspective must now be viewed as a fantasy. After the charges levied at the Christie administration by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer about being shaken down to back a development project linked to a friend of the governor, further talks about his 2016 ambitions is pointless.

It may well be that the governor had no personal involvement in the bizarre traffic jam scheme or the alleged shake-down of the Hoboken mayor and that the several upcoming investigations by the state legislature and the U.S. attorney will find no criminal liability on his part or anyone close to him. But in terms of the political impact of the media feeding frenzy, the legal outcome is almost beside the point. What has happened to Christie this month is a textbook example of how scandals can sink a public figure. His guilt or innocence, the partisan nature of the charges about the use of Hurricane Sandy relief funds, and the fairness of the probes as well as the disproportionate media attention given to Christie scandal stories may well influence how posterity regards these unfolding events. But they will almost certainly make it impossible for Christie to lay the groundwork for what was widely assumed to be an inevitable presidential run as head of the Republican Governor’s Association or to do anything other than defend himself in the coming months or even years.

In other words, the Christie for President bandwagon is not only stopped in its tracks. In the space of a few weeks it has become a pipe dream.

There’s a lot about the Hoboken charges that should give Christie’s defenders pause. The allegations that the Christie administration was using federal Hurricane Sandy relief funds as patronage plums to be distributed to friends and denied to foes sounds like politics as usual in New Jersey and many other states. But it is political poison to a man who posed as the champion of those who were affected by the storm as well as someone who won applause for placing their needs above partisan loyalties. The governor’s attack on the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives for holding up the relief bill because of concerns about the money being diverted for patronage or unrelated causes now seems hypocritical.

But worse than that, it will set off another round of investigations by the U.S. attorney as well as the legislature that will mire him and all those around him in the scandal. As with other such investigations, the Justice Department is likely to keep digging until it finds someone to indict even if Christie himself is exonerated. Suffice it to say that Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno—the person accused by Zimmer of threatening  her—will have to do better than today’s statement of denial in which she refused to answer questions or to specify exactly what she said to the Hoboken mayor.

The problem here isn’t so much the specifics of each part of the scandal, be it the traffic jams, the tourism ads that featured Christie, aid to Hoboken, or the various tales of Christie playing the bully with political foes. Indeed, the complicated nature of Mayor Zimmer’s claim that Hoboken was shorted on aid funds—a charge that the governor’s office refutes with its own set of facts and figures—makes it almost impossible for the public or the press to sort this out. 

What we do know is that the steady drumbeat of stories has overwhelmed Christie’s defenders. One scandal was hard enough. A series of scandals that are tied together only by the common thread of political thuggery on the part of Christie’s people establishes a narrative that becomes impossible to deny. While each may be refuted or questioned on its own—for example Zimmer’s failure to come forward with these very serious and potentially criminal charges until after the governor was already under siege is highly suspicious—taken as a whole they create a story line of scandal that is overwhelming. It no longer matters that the liberal mainstream media had a motive to take down the Republican who was surely the greatest threat to a Hillary Clinton coronation in 2016. All that counts now is that Christie is on the defensive and will remain there for the indefinite future. That means his utility as head of the Republican Governor’s Association is at an end and donors preparing to back his potential presidential candidacy would be wise to start looking elsewhere for a GOP contender in 2016.

Christie’s defenders will have plenty to do in the coming weeks and months sorting out the serious charges from the frivolous ones now pouring down on him. It is to be hoped that when the dust settles he will be able, once again, to address the serious reform agenda he so ably championed. But now even that is on hold. For Christie to contemplate anything more than holding on to the governorship, is at this point, utterly unrealistic.

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Why Does HRW Support the Ummah Conference?

I have written here, here, and here about the implications upon Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International of the U.S. Treasury Department designation of the leader of Alkarama because of his financing of al-Qaeda. In short, Alkarama was less a human-rights organization than a radical political organization dedicated to the promotion of an extremist religious agenda. Given what has now emerged regarding its former partner, any responsible leadership at Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International should temporarily rescind, review and, if necessary, reissue any reports absent the input from its flawed and politicized partner.

Alas, rather than restore credibility to its report, HRW especially seems to be doubling down on jihadi organizations. It has actively advocated on behalf of the Ummah Conference, and has described the organization falsely as political activists who seek to advance peaceful political reform, democracy, and human rights. The Ummah Conference is nothing of the sort, and HRW should be the first to realize that.

This past autumn, HRW issued a report documenting crimes conducted by Islamist militias inside Syria, among whom is the Ahrar al-Sham. The HRW condemnation was somewhat ironic considering that Ahrar al-Sham receives support from and coordinates with the Ummah Conference. Muhammad al-Abduli, an Emirati leader of the Ummah Conference, fought alongside Ahrar al-Sham in Syria until early last year, when he was killed by a Syrian government sniper. To defend the Ummah Conference, however, HRW has relied upon the word of Alkarama, its partner whose president now appears to have been working on behalf of al-Qaeda.

Back to HRW’s laundering of Ummah Council figures and activities:

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I have written here, here, and here about the implications upon Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International of the U.S. Treasury Department designation of the leader of Alkarama because of his financing of al-Qaeda. In short, Alkarama was less a human-rights organization than a radical political organization dedicated to the promotion of an extremist religious agenda. Given what has now emerged regarding its former partner, any responsible leadership at Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International should temporarily rescind, review and, if necessary, reissue any reports absent the input from its flawed and politicized partner.

Alas, rather than restore credibility to its report, HRW especially seems to be doubling down on jihadi organizations. It has actively advocated on behalf of the Ummah Conference, and has described the organization falsely as political activists who seek to advance peaceful political reform, democracy, and human rights. The Ummah Conference is nothing of the sort, and HRW should be the first to realize that.

This past autumn, HRW issued a report documenting crimes conducted by Islamist militias inside Syria, among whom is the Ahrar al-Sham. The HRW condemnation was somewhat ironic considering that Ahrar al-Sham receives support from and coordinates with the Ummah Conference. Muhammad al-Abduli, an Emirati leader of the Ummah Conference, fought alongside Ahrar al-Sham in Syria until early last year, when he was killed by a Syrian government sniper. To defend the Ummah Conference, however, HRW has relied upon the word of Alkarama, its partner whose president now appears to have been working on behalf of al-Qaeda.

Back to HRW’s laundering of Ummah Council figures and activities:

In its 2009 report, HRW accused the United Arab Emirates of singling out Ummah Conference leader Hassan al-Diqqi and suggested that Diqqi’s detention was an example of a “human rights defender and government critic fac[ing] harassment, including criminal charges.” What the report omitted, however, was Diqqi’s repeated calls for violent jihad. Certainly, photos of Diqqi with the al-Qaeda-sympathizing Ummah Brigade in Syria do not depict a man committed to nonviolence or democracy, nor did the fact that he had established a training camp for Syrian jihadist fighters. Human Rights Watch also omitted the fact that Diqqi had authored a book advocating for violent jihad in 2002.

Then, in a 2011 report, HRW targeted Saudi authorities for arresting Saudi-based Ummah Party leaders. HRW described them as “political activists.” Perhaps they are political activists, if advocacy for al-Qaeda and support for its affiliates in Syria will, as HRW describes Saudi Arabia’s Ummah Party’s mission, serve the “promotion of human rights, including free speech the right to peacefully protest, and promotion of women and civil society….”

It’s not surprising that Alkarama would advocate so fiercely for the Ummah Conference, and falsely attest to that group’s moderation to Alkarama’s partners in Human Rights Watch. Alkarama was founded by five like-minded individuals: Designated terror financier Abd al-Rahman Omar al-Nuaimi and Khalifa Muhammad Raban who, like Nuaimi, is a Qatari citizen, and three leaders from Algeria’s Ummah Conference affiliate. Indeed, Mourad Dhina, one of the Algerian Alkarama founders and Ummah Conference members, was the supervisor of the executive office of Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front from 2002-2004. Readers should remember the Islamic Salvation Front as the front group for the Armed Islamic Group, one side of the Algerian civil war that engaged in gross violations of human rights and committed atrocities in the conflict that claimed perhaps 100,000 lives.

As a private organization, HRW can ultimately do what it wants, even if it loses credibility by corrupting human-rights reporting by enabling radical partners to inject political agendas into their reports, effectively rendering them into tools of propaganda rather than human-rights advocacy.

So too can the United Nations Human Rights Council, an organization which has made a mockery of its own mission, which in 2009 adopted an opinion against the United Arab Emirates for its arrest of al-Diqqi. (In 2010, Alkarama took credit for the UN opinion, showing how conscious their efforts are to use human-rights organizations to launder their own jihadist agenda.)

The problem is that many in the State Department, unaware or too lazy to read Human Rights Watch reports with a critical eye, effectively parrot the language inserted by Alkarama and other radical partners into annual State Department human-rights reports. Rather than get out of the embassy and investigate human rights on their own, U.S. diplomats charged with writing the Saudi chapter on human rights simply took HRW’s word for it when it came to the crackdown on Ummah Party leaders. In its 2012 human rights report, for example, the State Department wrote, “According to a Human Rights Watch citation of the request, they appeared to have been detained solely for trying to create a party whose professed aims included ‘supporting the peaceful reform movement.’” Make no mistake: Saudi Arabia can be guilty of tremendous human-rights abuses, but that does not mean those who are radical even by Saudi standards are any better. Often, they can be far worse.

Given Human Rights Watch’s rampant politicization across the Middle East from Morocco and the Western Sahara to the United Arab Emirates, perhaps it is time to mandate that the State Department cannot utilize any HRW findings or data until HRW restores its quality control and excises agenda politics from its reporting.

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Obama Does Right on Morocco. Will Kerry?

On January 17, President Obama signed into law the 2014 Appropriation Bill passed by Congress which includes for the first time language mandating that U.S. assistance designated for Morocco be used in the Western Sahara. That move reinforces the policy of the United States to support Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara while at the same time Rabat grants the former Spanish colonial territory local autonomy.

The Western Sahara might seem irrelevant to U.S. national security, but it is not. Morocco is the only truly stable and friendly country in the Maghreb or the Sahel, and the Western Sahara is on the front line of the battle against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Morocco has also been at the center of some earlier Obama administration missteps when Susan Rice, first as Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations and then subsequently as national security advisor, sought to empower that the United Nations’ failed mission for a referendum on the Western Sahara also monitor human rights in the Western Sahara. The problem with such an arrangement is, as with everything else in the United Nations, authoritarian and anti-Western regimes subordinate objective fact to propaganda and politics.

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On January 17, President Obama signed into law the 2014 Appropriation Bill passed by Congress which includes for the first time language mandating that U.S. assistance designated for Morocco be used in the Western Sahara. That move reinforces the policy of the United States to support Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara while at the same time Rabat grants the former Spanish colonial territory local autonomy.

The Western Sahara might seem irrelevant to U.S. national security, but it is not. Morocco is the only truly stable and friendly country in the Maghreb or the Sahel, and the Western Sahara is on the front line of the battle against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Morocco has also been at the center of some earlier Obama administration missteps when Susan Rice, first as Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations and then subsequently as national security advisor, sought to empower that the United Nations’ failed mission for a referendum on the Western Sahara also monitor human rights in the Western Sahara. The problem with such an arrangement is, as with everything else in the United Nations, authoritarian and anti-Western regimes subordinate objective fact to propaganda and politics.

Morocco’s respect for human rights has improved tremendously over recent years, as has the access it grants human-rights activists and monitors. Neighboring Algeria—a reactionary, military-dominated regime which has a dismal record and denies access regularly to journalists, diplomats, and human-rights monitors—regularly accuses Morocco of abuses. It knows and takes advantage of the fact that human-rights groups effectively punish access. Why Rice would work to subvert a friendly state and a U.S. ally to the advantage of an unfriendly state and abuser of basic rights remains unclear to the present day, as she has never explained her actions nor her willingness to impose a new change absent consultations with her colleagues across the administration.

Just because two countries might dispute a territory does not mean that the United States should be neutral: Washington should always side with allies and democrats over adversaries and autocrats. Whether with regard to the West Bank, Abkhazia, or Senkaku, the obsessive desire for neutrality simply encourages radicals to stake out more extreme positions. Perhaps Obama hasn’t fully learned that friendship matters but, at least with regard to Morocco and the Western Sahara, he seems headed down the right path.

Now let us hope that Kerry will ensure that the State Department adheres to the will of Congress and actively invests in Morocco’s Western Sahara even if it makes Algeria mad. The U.S. Embassy in Rabat should actively assist U.S. firms that want to do business in the Western Sahara or off its coast. At the same time, the Pentagon should reinforce Morocco’s claim by scheduling port calls for destroyers or cruisers in the Western Sahara, an economic boon to the hotels, resorts, and restaurants of the region’s pristine port cities.

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