Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 29, 2014

Clapper: Iran Ready for Nuclear Breakout

In yesterday’s State of the Union address President Obama spoke stridently of how “American diplomacy … has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program—and rolled back parts of that program.” The president spoke with apparent pride of the “peaceful” efforts being taken to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. How then to explain the fact that less than twenty-four hours after that speech was given, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was being informed that Iran essentially already has breakout capacity for building the bomb should it wish to do so?

While presenting the annual report on the worldwide threat assessment before the committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper spoke of Iran’s extensive progress in expanding its nuclear and military infrastructure, including further work on its heavy-water facility at Arak. Clapper stated that “these technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.” In a roundabout way, it would seem that we are being told that Iran is now ready and able to get the bomb, and all that remains to be seen is whether it is willing. With that comes the implication that this “political willingness” is the last thing that we might have any leverage over.

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In yesterday’s State of the Union address President Obama spoke stridently of how “American diplomacy … has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program—and rolled back parts of that program.” The president spoke with apparent pride of the “peaceful” efforts being taken to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. How then to explain the fact that less than twenty-four hours after that speech was given, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was being informed that Iran essentially already has breakout capacity for building the bomb should it wish to do so?

While presenting the annual report on the worldwide threat assessment before the committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper spoke of Iran’s extensive progress in expanding its nuclear and military infrastructure, including further work on its heavy-water facility at Arak. Clapper stated that “these technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.” In a roundabout way, it would seem that we are being told that Iran is now ready and able to get the bomb, and all that remains to be seen is whether it is willing. With that comes the implication that this “political willingness” is the last thing that we might have any leverage over.

Under the current agreement, reached in Geneva last fall, Iran commits not to enrich uranium above five percent, rather than going to above twenty percent from which it is a quick and relatively simple process to reach the high weapons-grade materials needed for a bomb. The closest thing to good news that the annual report has on Iran is the claim that Iran would not be able to actually accomplish this final breakout without being detected. Cold comfort indeed, and not only for those countries within Iran’s immediate vicinity, but for all of us. For the annual report also stated that, in addition to its large stock of ballistic missiles, which have the capabilities for carrying a nuclear warhead, Iran’s space program gives it the ability to develop long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles.

What is perhaps most disheartening about this report is that because of the emphasis that it puts on the need to be able to monitor closely whether Iran is taking the final steps toward breakout, Clapper counsels that further sanctions would be counterproductive. In other words, the argument now seems to be that the U.S. must avoid imposing further sanctions, lest it disrupt the Iranians’ willingness to allow inspectors to monitor their ongoing and undismantled nuclear enrichment program. This sits in rather sharp contrast to the six United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for a total halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment.

These sentiments essentially echo the argument being pushed by Obama himself when he says that he would veto Congress should it vote for the implementation of further sanctions against Iran. Having apparently gone to great lengths to prevent Israel from carrying out a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, arguing that the military option threatened to jeopardize efforts on the negotiations and sanctions track, now we are told that sanctions too must be avoided because they threaten to jeopardize efforts on the monitoring track. In this way appeasement naturally necessitates more appeasement until the only thing that stands between Iran and genocidal weapons is Iran’s “political willingness,” or lack of it.

Even if we accept the assessment that places our last hope on our ability to closely monitor Iran’s nuclear activities, there remains the question of what would happen if inspectors discovered Iran to be in breach of any agreement. It would be too late to reassemble the sanctions in time for them to have any effect and by that point Iran’s nuclear network may have progressed beyond anything that could be destroyed by airstrikes. Furthermore, it is not inconceivable that our intelligence is flawed–it wouldn’t be the first time. If Iran has an unmonitored secret site where it is enriching to weapons-grade levels then all of Obama’s efforts to placate Iran by pulling apart the sanctions regime will have been in vain in any case.

It may, however, be worth noting that a poll by the Mellman group released yesterday revealed that 68 percent of American voters prefer the use of a military strike to the prospect of a nuclear Iran. They no doubt have made the commonsense assessment that leads one to conclude that if sanctions are not proving effective then a conventional military confrontation with Iran now, however unpleasant, is still preferable to a nuclear one later. It is sometimes hard to tell if the Obama administration has fully explored that same thought process.  

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Kerry’s Dance of the Deadlocked

Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he could envision some Jewish settlements remaining in place inside a Palestinian state after a peace agreement. While many in Israel thought it was a ploy to embarrass the Palestinians (who want no Jews in their state), it could also have been interpreted as a sign that Netanyahu is edging closer to agreeing to a framework for peace in which a Palestinian state (with or without Jews within its borders) would become a reality.

Yesterday, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas responded by telling a conference in Israel (he spoke via a video hookup) that he could envision Israeli military forces remaining in the West Bank for up to three years after the signing of a peace agreement. While he added that he would dismiss any lengthier interim security force out of hand, like Netanyahu’s statement this, too, could be interpreted as a sign that in spite of formidable obstacles, Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative is actually succeeding.

With both Netanyahu and Abbas indicating acceptance of relatively minor final status details, it’s likely that some naifs in the State Department will attempt to persuade themselves and their media accomplices that this means that Kerry’s peace framework is a realistic one. If the two leaders are preparing their respective constituencies for some sacrifices—the implicit acceptance of withdrawal from the West Bank and a Palestinian state on Netanyahu’s part, and Abbas’s willingness to countenance limits on Palestinian sovereignty for a time—then it may be possible that Kerry believes he is closer to pulling off this gambit than anyone–other than himself, that is–ever thought possible.

But peace process enthusiasts need to calm down. Not only are both of these seeming concessions only a minuscule dose of an enormous number of bitter pills each side must swallow in the event of an accord, they may actually be more of an indication that this process is, in fact, hopelessly deadlocked. What we may well be witnessing with these statements is not so much signs that the two sides are edging closer to each other but a bizarre dance in which both seek to deflect blame for the inevitable failure.

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Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he could envision some Jewish settlements remaining in place inside a Palestinian state after a peace agreement. While many in Israel thought it was a ploy to embarrass the Palestinians (who want no Jews in their state), it could also have been interpreted as a sign that Netanyahu is edging closer to agreeing to a framework for peace in which a Palestinian state (with or without Jews within its borders) would become a reality.

Yesterday, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas responded by telling a conference in Israel (he spoke via a video hookup) that he could envision Israeli military forces remaining in the West Bank for up to three years after the signing of a peace agreement. While he added that he would dismiss any lengthier interim security force out of hand, like Netanyahu’s statement this, too, could be interpreted as a sign that in spite of formidable obstacles, Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative is actually succeeding.

With both Netanyahu and Abbas indicating acceptance of relatively minor final status details, it’s likely that some naifs in the State Department will attempt to persuade themselves and their media accomplices that this means that Kerry’s peace framework is a realistic one. If the two leaders are preparing their respective constituencies for some sacrifices—the implicit acceptance of withdrawal from the West Bank and a Palestinian state on Netanyahu’s part, and Abbas’s willingness to countenance limits on Palestinian sovereignty for a time—then it may be possible that Kerry believes he is closer to pulling off this gambit than anyone–other than himself, that is–ever thought possible.

But peace process enthusiasts need to calm down. Not only are both of these seeming concessions only a minuscule dose of an enormous number of bitter pills each side must swallow in the event of an accord, they may actually be more of an indication that this process is, in fact, hopelessly deadlocked. What we may well be witnessing with these statements is not so much signs that the two sides are edging closer to each other but a bizarre dance in which both seek to deflect blame for the inevitable failure.

It should be remembered that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians sought Kerry’s intervention when he made a resumption of the long moribund peace process his top priority upon assuming his post. No one, other than Kerry himself, expressed the slightest optimism about his quest with even veteran peace process fans expressing skepticism.

With the Palestinians hopelessly divided between Abbas’s Fatah in the West Bank and the Hamas terrorists in Gaza, there seemed little indication that the PA could agree to a genuine peace agreement or implement it if such a treaty were ever signed. Nor was there any sign the Palestinians were prepared to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state (a requirement that President Obama reiterated last night during his State of the Union address) regardless of its borders. Moreover, any peace deal that renounced, as it must, the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees would place its Palestinian signatories in peril.

As for the Israelis, while Netanyahu has repeatedly endorsed the concept of a two-state solution, neither his coalition nor the majority of the Israeli people seem interested in a repeat of the late Ariel Sharon’s 2005 Gaza withdrawal with another such retreat in the West Bank where the creation of a new terror state would be an even greater danger to Israel than the Hamasistan that exists in Gaza.

Months of talks have produced no visible progress on the substantive issues of Jerusalem, borders, refugees or security. With time running out on the nine months allocated for negotiations, the main fear on both sides is not a failure to reach an agreement that always seemed impossible to the parties but the possibility that they will be blamed for Kerry’s own ignorant folly.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that both Netanyahu and Abbas are now making noises indicating their willingness to embrace a two-state solution even though neither of them believes for a second that a deal is a possibility.

Netanyahu’s statement earned him a vehement rebuke from his right-wing partner, Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett. The prime minister’s office ruthlessly answered Bennett with a threat that he might be forced to resign from his Cabinet post if he failed to apologize. But the back-story reveals more to about Netanyahu’s annoyance at Bennett’s inability to realize that all the prime minister was doing was posturing.

Abbas, who is entering his 10th year of a four-year elected term as Palestinian president, isn’t worried about losing votes from his right wing but he is concerned about being outflanked by Hamas. Nevertheless, like Netanyahu, he is concerned about the consequences of being the one to say no to the United States even though, if push came to shove, he knows that is exactly what he will do. While the international community is more likely to blame Israel no matter how intransigent the Palestinians prove to be on final-status issues, Abbas understands that his predecessor Yasir Arafat paid a heavy price for torpedoing offers of statehood in 2000 and 2001 and that he also suffered for turning down Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2008.

Though this dance of the deadlocked may appear to Kerry and his posse like progress toward peace, it’s far more likely that all we are witnessing is a desperate effort to avoid responsibility for the failure of talks that never stood a chance of success in the first place.

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The Court Jesters

Easily the strangest moment in last night’s State of the Union address was when President Obama promised to ignore Congress and carry out his agenda without their legislative oversight or cooperation and was met with a hearty ovation from congressional Democrats. One possible explanation was that they weren’t listening, and responded to a vocal cue. Another is that they simply assumed it was their obligation to shower their king with praise.

But there’s actually a third explanation, which may be giving them too much credit but is also at least logical. Politico carries an interesting story today on the tension between congressional Democrats and Obama over the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare and its possible impact on the fall midterm elections. In the president’s address, he tried to ward off Republican attempts to undo the unpopular law by holding vote after vote to repeal it. Enough of those symbolic votes, Obama said: “The first forty were plenty. We got it.”

But it turns out that, as the Politico story shows, the president’s real problem on ObamaCare is not Republican opposition–which he can dismiss as partisan posturing–but the congressional Democrats:

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Easily the strangest moment in last night’s State of the Union address was when President Obama promised to ignore Congress and carry out his agenda without their legislative oversight or cooperation and was met with a hearty ovation from congressional Democrats. One possible explanation was that they weren’t listening, and responded to a vocal cue. Another is that they simply assumed it was their obligation to shower their king with praise.

But there’s actually a third explanation, which may be giving them too much credit but is also at least logical. Politico carries an interesting story today on the tension between congressional Democrats and Obama over the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare and its possible impact on the fall midterm elections. In the president’s address, he tried to ward off Republican attempts to undo the unpopular law by holding vote after vote to repeal it. Enough of those symbolic votes, Obama said: “The first forty were plenty. We got it.”

But it turns out that, as the Politico story shows, the president’s real problem on ObamaCare is not Republican opposition–which he can dismiss as partisan posturing–but the congressional Democrats:

With the Democratic grip on the Senate coming down to at least six seats, the White House is extremely sensitive to the concerns of in-cycle Democrats. The administration hopes to use the president’s authority to assuage voter anger over the law, as it did recently by exempting volunteer fire departments from health coverage mandates.

In addition to Landrieu, who faces a tough reelection this year, the effort is also being organized by Heidi Heitkamp, who won a bruising battle in North Dakota last cycle. And the discussions include a spate of Democrats facing potentially difficult races this year, including Begich, Pryor, Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Warner of Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

While the private discussions consist of several senators who are not running for reelection — namely freshmen Democrats like Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Tim Kaine of Virginia, and the independent Angus King of Maine — at least nine senators facing voters in the fall are discussing whether to push legislation or pressure the White House to make administrative fixes they can then flag to voters back home.

The issue is this: the president doesn’t really want to talk about ObamaCare, because until coverage expands the White House will continue to lose the battle of the anecdotes. The law, thus far, is creating more “losers” than “winners.” The expansion of coverage under the law may not fix that because of Medicaid’s manifold weaknesses. Additionally, unless the employer mandate is repealed, its suspension will come to an end and inflict plenty of pain on the economy. And people will continue losing the plans they like.

However, the president has the bully pulpit and everyone who needs insurance and gets it under ObamaCare can have their story trumpeted by the traveling salesman in chief. The government will also claim, on behalf of ObamaCare, more credit for expanding coverage than it warrants while keeping the real numbers hidden for as long as possible, the way central planners always must in order to hide their incompetence.

The point is, the White House wants time to catch up. But Democrats up for reelection in November don’t have that time. They want to talk about ObamaCare–specifically, they want to talk about fixing it. Obama doesn’t, because that would admit its faults and failures.

Going through Congress is also a political minefield for the president, because Republicans still control the House and have enough seats in the Senate to make Democratic votes count. The president may be willing to make certain fixes to the law, but he doesn’t want to lose control of it.

Democrats have reason to be wary as well. The reason Harry Reid has been chipping away at minority rights and ignoring Senate rules and traditions is so Democrats can be spared from taking difficult votes. Tossing ObamaCare back into the Senate would mean some of these Democrats may get the votes they want–but they may also be forced to take votes they don’t, and the last thing they want is to have yet another vote in support of ObamaCare heading into the midterms. (That’s why they’re in this predicament in the first place.)

But there is a solution: The president can ignore the law and Congress and adjust the legislation accordingly, no votes necessary. Congressional Democrats are comfortable with this because they don’t want something as trifling as the law of the land or the Constitution to get in the way of their reelection and continued empowerment. The president is comfortable with this because he considers Congress’s main responsibility to be to stand and clap for him when he insults them to their faces. Which is what they, and he, did at last night’s address.

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Three GOPs? No. Just One Opposition Party

It doesn’t matter how uninspired President Obama’s State of the Union speech turned out to be. The contrast between the pomp and circumstance of what is accorded the American equivalent of Queen Elizabeth’s annual visit to Westminster to open Parliament makes any opposition responses seem pale by comparison. If the official response by Washington state’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers wasn’t a flop like most of her predecessors, nor did it offer an in-depth refutation of the president, or anything more than a thumbnail sketch of what it is the GOP believes. The fact that the Republicans have in recent years produced more than one response, with the Tea Party offering up one last night by Senator Mike Lee separate from that of the traditional GOP, with Senator Rand Paul deciding to speak too, only serves to reinforce the impression of a Republican Party that is both divided and incoherent.

This feeds into the mainstream media narrative that the Republicans’ problems in the wake of their 2012 defeat as well as the beating they took (and largely deserved) for shutting down the government last fall. As New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal wrote in a humorous putdown of the GOP, the three parties represented last night could be labeled the “Stepford party” (a sexist reference to McMorris Rodgers speaking for the GOP establishment), “the storm the castle party” (Mike Lee speaking for the Tea Party), and “the non-threatening insurgent party” (Rand Paul speaking on behalf of the Rand Paul party). Rosenthal even took the opportunity to pile on by taking a cheap shot at Republicans by terming the ugly threat made to a reporter last night by New York’s Rep. Michael Grimm as the “class clown response” to the president.

But the idea that the GOP is hopelessly divided and would be unable to govern even if they were given the chance is a misreading of the situation or, as in the case of the liberal ideologue Rosenthal, mere partisan hyperventilating. What we saw last night was not a contrast between a united party and one rent by schisms. Rather, it was an illustration of the difference between being in power and not being in power.

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It doesn’t matter how uninspired President Obama’s State of the Union speech turned out to be. The contrast between the pomp and circumstance of what is accorded the American equivalent of Queen Elizabeth’s annual visit to Westminster to open Parliament makes any opposition responses seem pale by comparison. If the official response by Washington state’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers wasn’t a flop like most of her predecessors, nor did it offer an in-depth refutation of the president, or anything more than a thumbnail sketch of what it is the GOP believes. The fact that the Republicans have in recent years produced more than one response, with the Tea Party offering up one last night by Senator Mike Lee separate from that of the traditional GOP, with Senator Rand Paul deciding to speak too, only serves to reinforce the impression of a Republican Party that is both divided and incoherent.

This feeds into the mainstream media narrative that the Republicans’ problems in the wake of their 2012 defeat as well as the beating they took (and largely deserved) for shutting down the government last fall. As New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal wrote in a humorous putdown of the GOP, the three parties represented last night could be labeled the “Stepford party” (a sexist reference to McMorris Rodgers speaking for the GOP establishment), “the storm the castle party” (Mike Lee speaking for the Tea Party), and “the non-threatening insurgent party” (Rand Paul speaking on behalf of the Rand Paul party). Rosenthal even took the opportunity to pile on by taking a cheap shot at Republicans by terming the ugly threat made to a reporter last night by New York’s Rep. Michael Grimm as the “class clown response” to the president.

But the idea that the GOP is hopelessly divided and would be unable to govern even if they were given the chance is a misreading of the situation or, as in the case of the liberal ideologue Rosenthal, mere partisan hyperventilating. What we saw last night was not a contrast between a united party and one rent by schisms. Rather, it was an illustration of the difference between being in power and not being in power.

The problem here isn’t that Republicans are particularly querulous—though there’s no denying the divisions in the party—or inept at messaging. Rather the schisms we observe on the right are the natural product of lacking one unifying figure.

The contrast between Tea Party conservatives and the more mainstream conservatives in congressional leadership positions is only in part ideological. There are issues on which the two seem to part ways on matters of principle—immigration being one example. But for the most part, the establishment and the castle-burners don’t seriously disagree on basic issues. Indeed, on most fiscal and social issues there are few strong disagreements. The schisms stem not from any genuine disagreement about dislike of big-government measures, taxes, and spending but on the tactics best suited to combat the Democrats. The establishment rightly wishes to govern and to pick its fights with the liberals to lay the groundwork for future electoral victories. The castle-burners are frustrated by past defeats and want to lash out at the system. Indeed, it was just such despair about the GOP struggle against ObamaCare—an issue on which there is a remarkable consensus, if not unanimity among Republicans—that led to the government shutdown.

As was the case last night, the Republicans were unable to speak with one voice during the shutdown while Democrats were able to rally around the White House. The result, as with the State of the Union, is that a congressional Republican Party that actually has as little divergence of views on a host of important issues as their Democratic opponents comes across as a band of savages tearing one  another to pieces.

The remedy for this is simple. Win a presidential election. Once in opposition, the Democratic Party, whose divisions are today papered over by their deference to the president, will seem as angry and divided as the GOP does today. Its leaders will—as the Republicans do now—ruthlessly maneuver in order to put themselves in the strongest position for the next presidential election. Republicans will be forced, as Democrats are today, to bow to their president’s wishes and to play defense for an administration whose popularity will largely determine their own fates at the next midterm election.

Of course to get back to that position, Republicans will have to deal with the fallout from the shutdown and the misrepresentation, pounded home by the liberal media, that the GOP is aloof from the concerns of women and Hispanic voters. But, as Democrats learned in 2008, one good presidential candidate can make up for a multitude of political faults. Though no one who fits that description was on display last night for the Republicans, those members of the GOP nursing their wounds from another dispiriting beating in the Republican response to the State of the Union should remember that all they have to do to change places with the Democrats is to find someone who can beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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Not So Fast, Senator Cruz

Senator Ted Cruz is tired of talking about the government shutdown.

“I understand that there are a lot of folks in the media that love to talk about the shutdown from four months ago,” he told reporters:

What we ought to be talking about is the fact that we have the lowest labor force participating in 30 years since 1978, that Obamacare has taken away more than 5 million people’s health insurance plans, that people are hurting, that income inequality has increased under the Obama agenda and that there is an abuse of power and lawlessness. So that’s what we ought to be talking about. Efforts that distract from that conversation, I think, are deliberate efforts of smoke and mirrors distracting from the questions coming from the American people.

Now why oh why would Senator Cruz want to stop talking about the government shutdown? After all, before it occurred he insisted it wouldn’t be such a bad thing–and since it’s occurred he’s claimed it was a wonderful success. “I think we accomplished a great deal,” according to Cruz.

Of course it did.

Don’t forget that during the lead-up to the shutdown Mr. Cruz insisted that those who didn’t agree with his tactics were part of the “surrender caucus” and he and his colleagues argued that if you didn’t follow their tactic, you were a de facto supporter of ObamaCare.

Of course it’s clear to every sentient human being that the Cruz & Co. gambit badly backfired. It achieved nothing useful. It deflected attention away from the awful rollout of the ObamaCare website. And it damaged the reputation of the GOP. The public, in overwhelming numbers, didn’t like the government shutdown–and by overwhelming numbers voters blamed Republicans for it. 

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Senator Ted Cruz is tired of talking about the government shutdown.

“I understand that there are a lot of folks in the media that love to talk about the shutdown from four months ago,” he told reporters:

What we ought to be talking about is the fact that we have the lowest labor force participating in 30 years since 1978, that Obamacare has taken away more than 5 million people’s health insurance plans, that people are hurting, that income inequality has increased under the Obama agenda and that there is an abuse of power and lawlessness. So that’s what we ought to be talking about. Efforts that distract from that conversation, I think, are deliberate efforts of smoke and mirrors distracting from the questions coming from the American people.

Now why oh why would Senator Cruz want to stop talking about the government shutdown? After all, before it occurred he insisted it wouldn’t be such a bad thing–and since it’s occurred he’s claimed it was a wonderful success. “I think we accomplished a great deal,” according to Cruz.

Of course it did.

Don’t forget that during the lead-up to the shutdown Mr. Cruz insisted that those who didn’t agree with his tactics were part of the “surrender caucus” and he and his colleagues argued that if you didn’t follow their tactic, you were a de facto supporter of ObamaCare.

Of course it’s clear to every sentient human being that the Cruz & Co. gambit badly backfired. It achieved nothing useful. It deflected attention away from the awful rollout of the ObamaCare website. And it damaged the reputation of the GOP. The public, in overwhelming numbers, didn’t like the government shutdown–and by overwhelming numbers voters blamed Republicans for it. 

So here’s my recommendation: Unless and until Senator Cruz admits the errors of his ways–unless he is willing to concede how flawed his judgment was and explains to us what he’s learned since then–the press should keep asking the junior senator from Texas about the shutdown. Again and again and again.

If Ted Cruz thinks it was such a terrific idea, let him claim ownership of it at every conceivable opportunity.

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Obama’s Disappearing Pacific Pivot

Talk about a disappearing agenda.

Back in the fall of 2011 and the early part of 2012, the Obama administration was busy announcing a “rebalancing” of American foreign policy from the Middle East to the Pacific region. In November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that he wanted to ensure that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region [the Asia-Pacific] and its future.”

In his 2014 State of the Union address the “pivot” to the Pacific had been relegated to one short paragraph near the end of the speech:

And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, “We will never forget your kindness” and “God bless America.”

The Asia-Pacific region, it must be noted, received less notice than Iran or Afghanistan, to say nothing of the president’s many domestic priorities.

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Talk about a disappearing agenda.

Back in the fall of 2011 and the early part of 2012, the Obama administration was busy announcing a “rebalancing” of American foreign policy from the Middle East to the Pacific region. In November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that he wanted to ensure that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region [the Asia-Pacific] and its future.”

In his 2014 State of the Union address the “pivot” to the Pacific had been relegated to one short paragraph near the end of the speech:

And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, “We will never forget your kindness” and “God bless America.”

The Asia-Pacific region, it must be noted, received less notice than Iran or Afghanistan, to say nothing of the president’s many domestic priorities.

The relative unimportance of the “Pacific pivot” in his speech is matched by a lack of action to bulk up U.S. forces in the region, even as the U.S. downsizes in the Middle East–something that military officers and observers have been noticing. But then it’s hard to see how the U.S. can do more in the Pacific, or anywhere else, at a time when the defense budget is falling as fast as it is.

An increased U.S. commitment in the region is appropriate, especially coming at a time when delegates at Davos are buzzing about the possibility of conflict between China and Japan—a situation that Japan’s premier has compared to the relationship between Germany and Britain before 1914. But a U.S. commitment to the Pacific shouldn’t come at the expense of the U.S. commitment to the Middle East, which is in greater turmoil than ever.

In reality, the U.S. commitment to both regions is decreasing; it is just that the decline of U.S. power in the Middle East is happening faster than in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. will not be able to exert more power in either area until the president and Congress rethink their plans to shrink the defense budget and with it our military capability.

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The Difference Between Iran and the USSR

In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

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In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

The interim nuclear accord does require Iran to halt the installation of new centrifuges and to stop enriching uranium at higher weapons-grade levels. But the centrifuges are still turning and their output can easily be converted to use for a bomb after a short “breakout” period. Even more deceptive is the president’s description of the disposal of Iran’s stockpile of nuclear fuel. It is being converted into oxide powder, but that is not the same as elimination. To the contrary, it can be easily reconverted into its previous form and then enriched further to reach the levels necessary for use in a bomb.

Nor are the inspections anywhere close to being as intrusive as Obama described. In particular, the International Atomic Energy Agency is still unable to monitor Iran’s military nuclear research facilities. Indeed, the accord signed in November by Secretary of State Kerry didn’t even mention them.

But just as misleading is the analogy between Iran and the Soviet Union that the United States dealt with in the past.

The president is correct in distinguishing the Soviet Union, a nuclear power, from Iran, a potential one.  But that is exactly the reason that the president’s decision to discard the military and economic leverage the U.S. possessed in talks with Iran last fall was so profoundly dangerous. In doing so the president decided to not only loosen existing sanctions but to tacitly recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium with a deal that allowed that activity to continue unabated even as the president deceitfully described the accord as freezing Iran’s program.

The reasoning behind this astonishing retreat was the very opposite of America’s negotiating tactics—especially under Reagan—with the Soviets. The current U.S. retreat is premised in a belief that Iran is too strong and too determined not to be pressured by sanctions into giving up its nuclear program.

If the Soviet Union negotiated with the U.S. and wound up ultimately reducing its nuclear stockpile, as Reagan demanded, rather than merely limiting their increase, it was because they understood that he could not be intimidated. The Soviets knew they were dealing with a principled president. But the interim agreement with Tehran has convinced the Iranians of just the opposite about Obama. Having thus far persuaded him to accept enrichment and reduce sanctions, they have every reason to think he will go even further to appease them.

The Kennedy precedent provides yet another cautionary tale. In his first meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna, Kennedy admitted that he was insufficiently prepared for dealing with the Russian and the result was far from satisfactory. Though Kennedy had rightly opposed pressure to evacuate Berlin, he later told the New York Times that Khrushchev had “beaten the hell out of me” and left the meeting convinced that JFK was a political lightweight. It was this impression of weakness that led the Soviets to underestimate Kennedy and led to further provocations in the form of the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That is an unfortunate precedent for Obama, whose supine position toward Iran ill becomes the American president and has similarly convinced Iran’s leaders that they need not fear his occasional threats to use force against them. Given the weakness of his position, he should welcome measures such as the bipartisan sanctions bill that has the support of 58 senators that would strengthen his hand in the talks.

Instead, he threatens a veto lest the proposal upset his Iranian negotiating partners. Rather than confirming the seriousness of his purpose, this irresponsible passage in the State of the Union will only reaffirm the Iranians’ belief that they can stand up to the U.S. and set the stage for either an American retreat on the nuclear issue or a confrontation that might be avoided by exactly the Senate measure the president opposes.

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The Folly of “Symmetrical Negotiation”

Ridiculing Tom Friedman’s famous habit of letting his cab drivers determine his column ideas is a popular pastime for foreign-policy commentators. But the truth is those columns are generally more sensible than the ones he comes up with all on his own. Today’s piece is a case in point, and it’s a convincing answer to those who say Friedman’s columns should just be ignored.

Getting the Middle East conflict wrong can be dangerous for those, unlike Friedman, who actually have to live with the consequences. So the following sentence should be printed and framed in the office of every aspiring Western diplomat, because it is about as wrong as you can get:

That is, has Israel become so much more powerful than its neighbors that a symmetrical negotiation is impossible, especially when the Palestinians do not seem willing or able to mount another intifada that might force Israel to withdraw?

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Ridiculing Tom Friedman’s famous habit of letting his cab drivers determine his column ideas is a popular pastime for foreign-policy commentators. But the truth is those columns are generally more sensible than the ones he comes up with all on his own. Today’s piece is a case in point, and it’s a convincing answer to those who say Friedman’s columns should just be ignored.

Getting the Middle East conflict wrong can be dangerous for those, unlike Friedman, who actually have to live with the consequences. So the following sentence should be printed and framed in the office of every aspiring Western diplomat, because it is about as wrong as you can get:

That is, has Israel become so much more powerful than its neighbors that a symmetrical negotiation is impossible, especially when the Palestinians do not seem willing or able to mount another intifada that might force Israel to withdraw?

Let’s take the second part of that sentence first. The idea that only another intifada can save Israel from itself, and thus save the peace process, is grotesque. Secretary of State John Kerry flirted with this assault on logic and morality in his tirade on Israeli TV. This is a form of blackmail: Israel must agree to the terms of Kerry’s peace deal or there will be bombs in cafes again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s not a surprise Friedman would wade into this territory either; once you’ve accepted the Walt-Mearsheimer conspiracy theories of furtive Jewish domination, as Friedman has, you’ll believe anything. But the first part of the sentence in question should not be overshadowed by the wistful phrasing on the intifada. Because it’s a mistake that warrants correcting.

The plain fact, demonstrated by the history of this conflict in every instance, is that the “symmetrical negotiation” Friedman hopes for would bury the chances for peace. Israel’s neighbors made peace with the Jewish state only when they learned once and for all that they could not destroy her militarily, and they could not isolate her, and thus strangle her economically, from the world.

That’s because Israel was always willing to make peace, as is still the case. The Arab states in the neighborhood were not, because they viewed a peace deal as a strategic defeat, a capitulation to the reality that their dream of annihilating the Jews in their midst was untenable. A peace deal was a consolation prize for them.

What enabled the peace between Israel and her neighbors was precisely the absence of “symmetrical negotiation.” In his remembrance of Ariel Sharon’s dealings with the Arab world, Lee Smith opens with the following story:

During Anwar Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977, he met Ariel Sharon, the Israeli general credited by his countrymen as one of the heroes of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Sharon’s crossing of the Sinai and his encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army had turned the tables on Sadat’s forces, ensuring a victory that had once been uncertain. “I tried to catch you when you were on our side of the canal,” Sadat told Sharon. And now, replied Sharon, “you have the chance to catch me as a friend.”

Once Sadat had failed enough times to destroy Israel, his relationship with the state changed immediately. He didn’t try to “catch [Sharon] as a friend” first; he tried to kill Sharon first. When that couldn’t be done, friendship could be spoken of.

The development of the relationship between the U.S. and Israel was another aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict that offered more hope for peace. Whether or not individual subscribers to the odious boycott-Israel movement would support Israel’s continued existence, the Palestinian leadership doesn’t see strangling Israel economically as a way to bring the Israelis to the negotiating table. Israel is already at the negotiating table, having yet again made concessions just to get the Palestinians to join them there.

The Palestinians would not see an Israel brought to its knees as an ideal state with which to strike a deal. They would see it as a weakened state on its way to the dustbin of history, to be replaced by a Palestinian state. Similarly, military parity between the Israelis and Palestinians is a foolish goal, because it cannot be brought about except through ways that would convince the Palestinian leadership that a peace deal isn’t necessary or in their interest. It should be an obvious point–one Friedman’s cab driver could have explained to him–but nonetheless bears repeating to counteract the dangerous, though predictable, misinformation of the New York Times op-ed page.

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Forget “War Footing”; Can We Handle Peacetime?

It hasn’t gotten much notice, but President Obama’s State of the Union included the following pledge: “Here at home, we’ll keep strengthening our defenses and combat new threats like cyberattacks. And as we reform our defense budget, we have to keep faith with our men and women in uniform and invest in the capabilities they need to succeed in future missions.”

What the speech didn’t include was any mention of the defense budget, which makes the above pledge ring hollow. On the president’s watch Congress, with his approval, has implemented defense budget cuts that will eliminate roughly a trillion dollars in planned spending on the armed forces over the next decade. The recently passed budget deal negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray puts back a small amount of defense funding in the next two years–roughly $40 billion. But that’s a drop in the bucket of the overall deluge in budget cuts, which threaten to drown our military readiness.

A couple of news items this morning show what such cuts mean in practice.

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It hasn’t gotten much notice, but President Obama’s State of the Union included the following pledge: “Here at home, we’ll keep strengthening our defenses and combat new threats like cyberattacks. And as we reform our defense budget, we have to keep faith with our men and women in uniform and invest in the capabilities they need to succeed in future missions.”

What the speech didn’t include was any mention of the defense budget, which makes the above pledge ring hollow. On the president’s watch Congress, with his approval, has implemented defense budget cuts that will eliminate roughly a trillion dollars in planned spending on the armed forces over the next decade. The recently passed budget deal negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray puts back a small amount of defense funding in the next two years–roughly $40 billion. But that’s a drop in the bucket of the overall deluge in budget cuts, which threaten to drown our military readiness.

A couple of news items this morning show what such cuts mean in practice.

Item #1: The Breaking Defense website reports that the Navy is down to 10 carriers even thought there is currently a demand for 15 carriers. The Navy has been trying to make up the gap by deploying carriers longer than ever at sea. “But,” the article notes, “the price was high: extra-long deployments, stressed-out crews, and overworked ships requiring extensive and expensive unplanned maintenance. Now the Navy has decided it just cannot get as much work out of the carriers it has — just as the budget cuts known as sequestration may leave it with fewer carriers.” That’s right, the Navy may never get back to its planned end-strength of 11 carriers, much less the 15 it really needs–and it may not even be able to afford 10.

Item #2: Military Times reports the Army “will likely flirt with being reduced to around 400,000 soldiers for the first time since before World War II.”

Similar cuts are being undertaken by the Air Force and Marine Corps.

In short, our military capacity is being greatly reduced–and the situation is even worse than it should be because, as Mackenzie Eaglen notes, Congress is frustrating Pentagon efforts to close more bases and cut back on the generous benefits being paid to veterans. Ballooning personnel costs, especially in health care, mean that even more must be cut from the funds needed for procurement, training, operations, and maintenance–and that translates into a looming, or perhaps already existent, readiness crisis.

Yet President Obama did not even mention this issue in the State of the Union. Instead he declared that “America must move off a permanent war footing.” That conjured up images of the U.S. demobilizing after the massive buildup of World War II when defense spending was over 37 percent of GDP and over 89 percent of the federal budget. Today the figures are, respectively, under 4 percent and under 20 percent–and falling fast. We are not, by any stretch, on a “war footing” today. Soon, if the current trajectory continues, we will not even be able to respond to the demands of peacetime military deployments, much less to fight a future war.

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Bennett: Netanyahu’s Annoying Alter Ego

Amidst an escalating high-stakes war of words with one of his primary coalition partners, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu finds himself occupying increasingly foreign and disorienting political territory. For most of his career, Benjamin Netanyahu has functioned as the champion, and indeed the darling, of the nationalist camp in Israel. An opponent of concessions to the Palestinians, Bibi was chief heckler to the Oslo accords, high-profile defector from Ariel Sharon’s government in the wake of the retreat from Gaza.

Now, however, thanks to the unloving embrace of the Obama administration, Netanyahu finds himself being forced to take on a host of positions that it is difficult to imagine are really his own. Worse still for him, while Bibi is being forced to play the part of reluctant and unconvincing centrist, all his best lines are going to some fresh faced young starlet: in this case Bennett. Speaking at the annual defense conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, Bennett lambasted the follies of past peace negotiations, and in so doing poured scorn on the current peace efforts of Netanyahu’s government. He pointed to the rise in terrorism against Israelis that has generally accompanied such talks with the Palestinians, dismissing the idea that any of these negotiations would bring about a peaceful two-state solution.

Conceivably, this is a view that Netanyahu himself shares. Yet, he cannot be seen to say such things publicly and so as a result he is unable to draw the political capital from his own base that would come from doing so. That capital is being claimed by Bennett instead.

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Amidst an escalating high-stakes war of words with one of his primary coalition partners, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu finds himself occupying increasingly foreign and disorienting political territory. For most of his career, Benjamin Netanyahu has functioned as the champion, and indeed the darling, of the nationalist camp in Israel. An opponent of concessions to the Palestinians, Bibi was chief heckler to the Oslo accords, high-profile defector from Ariel Sharon’s government in the wake of the retreat from Gaza.

Now, however, thanks to the unloving embrace of the Obama administration, Netanyahu finds himself being forced to take on a host of positions that it is difficult to imagine are really his own. Worse still for him, while Bibi is being forced to play the part of reluctant and unconvincing centrist, all his best lines are going to some fresh faced young starlet: in this case Bennett. Speaking at the annual defense conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, Bennett lambasted the follies of past peace negotiations, and in so doing poured scorn on the current peace efforts of Netanyahu’s government. He pointed to the rise in terrorism against Israelis that has generally accompanied such talks with the Palestinians, dismissing the idea that any of these negotiations would bring about a peaceful two-state solution.

Conceivably, this is a view that Netanyahu himself shares. Yet, he cannot be seen to say such things publicly and so as a result he is unable to draw the political capital from his own base that would come from doing so. That capital is being claimed by Bennett instead.

The issue that has so far sparked the fiercest exchange between Bennett and Bibi has been the latter’s suggestion that Jewish Israelis living in the West Bank would be left behind as a religious minority in a future Palestinian state. It is highly doubtful that Netanyahu has any serious intention of doing any such thing. Rather, this suggestion was almost certainly put out there as a way of exposing the inherent hostility to Jews prevalent among the Palestinians. Bibi knew that his suggestion would be flatly rejected by the Palestinian Authority, thus clarifying their prejudice for all to see.

Yet, for Bennett, whose core constituency are the understandably alarmed Jewish settlers in question, this was a golden opportunity to rally to their defense and denounce Netanyahu’s suggestion. Given that these same people have in the past represented an important legion within Netanyahu’s own faction, with his Likud party list being strongly linked with the settlers and the nationalist camp, Bibi risks having his own people mobilized against him.

Bennett is increasingly looking and sounding more like Netanyahu than Netanyahu. As such, the message from Netanyahu’s office has been clear and uncompromising. Bennett is to apologize and retract his statements, or get out. Polls suggest that Netanyahu is doing exceptionally well with Israeli voters right now, some suggesting that if elections took place tomorrow his Likud-Beiteinu block would gain another fifteen seats in parliament. That said, it seems unlikely that Netanyahu will seek to go it alone and divorce his party from the national religious camp anytime soon. Judging by trends even within Bibi’s own party, the religious Zionist sentiment may well be the future of the Israeli right.

When talks with the Palestinians inevitably fail, with everything that could mean–from Palestinian terrorism to international condemnation–Bibi will want the smooth English-talking and public-relations savvy Bennett on his side. In the meantime, however, Netanyahu has to find a way to avoid becoming an ever more pale stand in for himself, while Bennett is looking more and more like Bibi with each passing day.         

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Obama’s Burned-Out Presidency

President Obama’s State of the Union address was a strong argument for term limits. What we witnessed last night was Mr. Obama at his most long-winded and intellectually exhausted, acting as if verbosity can make up for an empty agenda.

The president dusted off old promises and commitments (like closing Guantanamo Bay, which he mentioned in his 2009 address and still remains open) and put forward half-baked suggestions masquerading as new policies. There was nothing creative or interesting in what we heard. The speech will be forgotten almost instantaneously. 

To be sure, the president’s speech included his compulsive tendency to lecture and mock Republicans, but by Obama’s standards they were kept pretty well in check. What was most striking about last night’s speech was Mr. Obama’s impotence.

The man who promised to remake the world and halt the rise of the oceans–“We are the moment we’ve been waiting for!”–has been reduced to arguing for patent reform and asking Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America’s training programs.

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President Obama’s State of the Union address was a strong argument for term limits. What we witnessed last night was Mr. Obama at his most long-winded and intellectually exhausted, acting as if verbosity can make up for an empty agenda.

The president dusted off old promises and commitments (like closing Guantanamo Bay, which he mentioned in his 2009 address and still remains open) and put forward half-baked suggestions masquerading as new policies. There was nothing creative or interesting in what we heard. The speech will be forgotten almost instantaneously. 

To be sure, the president’s speech included his compulsive tendency to lecture and mock Republicans, but by Obama’s standards they were kept pretty well in check. What was most striking about last night’s speech was Mr. Obama’s impotence.

The man who promised to remake the world and halt the rise of the oceans–“We are the moment we’ve been waiting for!”–has been reduced to arguing for patent reform and asking Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America’s training programs.

In last year’s speech, the president made gun control a centerpiece of his agenda. Having failed, and having failed in large part because he was undercut by his own party, this year Mr. Obama devoted only two boilerplate sentences to gun restrictions. He’s pushing universal pre-K programs whose benefits are miniscule and transitory. Even the president’s defense of the Affordable Care Act was stale and unoriginal, not to mention at points ludicrous. (For Mr. Obama of all people to argue that Republican health-care plans aren’t credible because the numbers don’t add up ought to elicit a belly laugh from his audience.)

At other points, Mr. Obama’s analysis of the problems facing America–wage stagnation, rising inequality, stalled mobility, too many Americans working more than ever just to get by, with too many others still not working at all–amounts to self-incrimination.

What we saw last night was a burned-out presidency. Mr. Obama was like an aging rock star trying to recapture lost glory. Beginning his sixth year in office, with two years left, President Obama–the avatar of liberalism, the man who presented himself as the embodiment of Hope and Change–has, in the words of Robert Frost, “nothing to look backward to with pride, And nothing to look forward to with hope.”

The Obama presidency is contracting by the day.

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