Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 2014

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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SOTU: Obama Goes Through the Motions

There was plenty of big talk in the 2014 State of the Union address. President Obama exhorted Americans to accept his baseless claim that the economy is reviving and urged them to believe his jarringly upbeat view of the nation’s future. He tried to sound assertive as he vowed to use executive orders to get his way if Congress didn’t give him what he wanted. He touted ObamaCare. And he closed with an inspiring story of a wounded Army Ranger. But there’s no mistaking that this was a speech given by a president mired in second-term doldrums. There were not only a total of zero new ideas; almost everything in it was recycled from past addresses including a grimly risible vow to close the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that he has kept open throughout his presidency even though he’s been promising to close it since 2008.

Although everything in this message was poll-tested and designed to be popular, this State of the Union (SOTU) did nothing but reinforce the impression that the president is mechanically going through the motions. The press had been prepped to believe the president would come out swinging tonight, defying Congress and vowing to seize the reins of government into his own hands. But what the country heard instead was confirmation of what many had already suspected after a disastrous 2013 for the president: he has passed over the historic bridge from celebrated re-election to the status of an irrelevant lame-duck.

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There was plenty of big talk in the 2014 State of the Union address. President Obama exhorted Americans to accept his baseless claim that the economy is reviving and urged them to believe his jarringly upbeat view of the nation’s future. He tried to sound assertive as he vowed to use executive orders to get his way if Congress didn’t give him what he wanted. He touted ObamaCare. And he closed with an inspiring story of a wounded Army Ranger. But there’s no mistaking that this was a speech given by a president mired in second-term doldrums. There were not only a total of zero new ideas; almost everything in it was recycled from past addresses including a grimly risible vow to close the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that he has kept open throughout his presidency even though he’s been promising to close it since 2008.

Although everything in this message was poll-tested and designed to be popular, this State of the Union (SOTU) did nothing but reinforce the impression that the president is mechanically going through the motions. The press had been prepped to believe the president would come out swinging tonight, defying Congress and vowing to seize the reins of government into his own hands. But what the country heard instead was confirmation of what many had already suspected after a disastrous 2013 for the president: he has passed over the historic bridge from celebrated re-election to the status of an irrelevant lame-duck.

Virtually every item in the president’s speech had been heard before and introduced with greater passion and urgency in the past. Everything on his long, dreary laundry list had a tired feel to it, showing the country and the world that his only answer to the nation’s problems is to continue recycling the timeworn and ineffective policies that he’s been peddling for five years.

All his proposals were cribbed from the 2013 State of the Union including calls to address income inequality, raise the minimum wage, invest in solar energy, universal pre-kindergarten, and student loans. But the difference between the two speeches could be measured not simply in terms of the mind-numbing number of tedious repetitions, but in the drab, lethargic affect the president projected as he droned on. Last year he managed to convey the liberal agenda with confidence and urgency. That energy was completely lacking in tonight’s speech. After a year of scandals and a disastrous rollout of his signature health-care plan—whose problems were never once mentioned in the speech—the president seems unable to muster the requisite emotional enthusiasm or the intellectual firepower to challenge or inspire the nation.

As to specifics, the much-trumpeted “year of action” on inequality was merely a rehash of the same proposals that have already been rejected.  The only new idea he presented was an absurd call for all employers to give their employees raises, a shameless populist appeal that makes no economic sense. The man who promised to turn back the oceans and remake America is now reduced to an utterly pathetic plea that America should get a raise. Even the talk of governing by executive orders was delivered more as a talking point than a genuine appeal for change.

On foreign policy, his strongest words were delivered in a threat to veto new economic sanctions on Iran that he thinks will upset his diplomatic outreach to the Islamist regime. His drive for détente with Iran—bolstered by false claims about inspections and Iran destroying its uranium stockpile—seems to fire him up but his chutzpah in proclaiming Syria—where he endured total humiliation in 2013—as a triumph for his policies shows just how shockingly removed from reality this administration has become.

With three years to go, there is still plenty of time for Obama to continue spinning his wheels on a health-care plan that is a fiasco and proposals such as the minimum wage that will only serve to increase unemployment. But tonight made clear that there is nothing new left in his bag of tricks. The sounds you’re hearing now, and will for the next three years, are the querulous quacks of a very lame duck.

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The Immigration Imperative

Once again, two of the leading voices of American conservatism have joined forces to try to thwart any chance of immigration reform. Last July, William Kristol, the publisher of the Weekly Standard and Rich Lowry, editor of National Review co-wrote an article that appeared in both publications denouncing the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate. Their arguments won favor with the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives and the bill never saw the light of day in the House for the rest of 2013. Nor will it resurface in 2014, but House Speaker John Boehner has indicated that he intends to heed some of Kristol’s and Lowry’s admonitions about the perils of all such large-scale bills that few completely understand. As the New York Times reports, the GOP leadership will consider the Senate bill’s separate components and allow the House to debate and vote on measures for securing the borders, as well as those dealing with the status of the 11 million illegal aliens already in the country and other reforms to deal with a woefully dysfunctional system.

But Kristol and Lowry are once again fiercely resisting the prospect of any debate in the House, let alone a vote on immigration reform. Echoing the dismay of some among the party’s grass roots, Kristol and Lowry have advised Boehner and his colleagues literally to “do nothing” on the issue. They believe that even allowing bills to come to the floor will provoke a bitter, internecine battle among Republicans, one that will hamstring the party in its efforts to hold the House and win back the Senate this fall. Both say that the Obama administration can’t be trusted to secure the border and fear that even an “innocuous” measure passed by the House that fails to deal with the dilemma of the illegals should be avoided lest it be transformed into something truly dangerous in a conference with the Senate. They say there is no urgency to act on immigration and the GOP should shelve the entire topic to await another day after they have won in November, or perhaps even after until a Republican is installed in the White House.

While their fears of an intra-party battle on immigration and their cynicism about a lawless Obama administration are far from unreasonable, this time around Boehner should not follow their counsel. Despite the dangers to the party of a debate or a vote on the issue, the House has a responsibility to act. To fail to do so for either partisan reasons or an understandably jaundiced view of how the Obama administration would execute the law will not only haunt the GOP for years to come, but is also bad public policy.

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Once again, two of the leading voices of American conservatism have joined forces to try to thwart any chance of immigration reform. Last July, William Kristol, the publisher of the Weekly Standard and Rich Lowry, editor of National Review co-wrote an article that appeared in both publications denouncing the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate. Their arguments won favor with the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives and the bill never saw the light of day in the House for the rest of 2013. Nor will it resurface in 2014, but House Speaker John Boehner has indicated that he intends to heed some of Kristol’s and Lowry’s admonitions about the perils of all such large-scale bills that few completely understand. As the New York Times reports, the GOP leadership will consider the Senate bill’s separate components and allow the House to debate and vote on measures for securing the borders, as well as those dealing with the status of the 11 million illegal aliens already in the country and other reforms to deal with a woefully dysfunctional system.

But Kristol and Lowry are once again fiercely resisting the prospect of any debate in the House, let alone a vote on immigration reform. Echoing the dismay of some among the party’s grass roots, Kristol and Lowry have advised Boehner and his colleagues literally to “do nothing” on the issue. They believe that even allowing bills to come to the floor will provoke a bitter, internecine battle among Republicans, one that will hamstring the party in its efforts to hold the House and win back the Senate this fall. Both say that the Obama administration can’t be trusted to secure the border and fear that even an “innocuous” measure passed by the House that fails to deal with the dilemma of the illegals should be avoided lest it be transformed into something truly dangerous in a conference with the Senate. They say there is no urgency to act on immigration and the GOP should shelve the entire topic to await another day after they have won in November, or perhaps even after until a Republican is installed in the White House.

While their fears of an intra-party battle on immigration and their cynicism about a lawless Obama administration are far from unreasonable, this time around Boehner should not follow their counsel. Despite the dangers to the party of a debate or a vote on the issue, the House has a responsibility to act. To fail to do so for either partisan reasons or an understandably jaundiced view of how the Obama administration would execute the law will not only haunt the GOP for years to come, but is also bad public policy.

Both Kristol and Lowry are on firm ground when they say the American people are not clamoring for immigration reform. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed immigration to be at the bottom of citizens’ priorities, well below more urgent concerns about the economy and a host of other issues. Indeed, only climate change ranked lower than immigration in terms of the urgency with which the issue judged by a majority of Americans.

They’re also right about the dangers of a GOP civil war over immigration. Many conservatives and Tea Partiers are adamant opponents of any legislation that would address the problem, even if it included, as did the Senate bill, tough new provisions for policing the border. Like National Review, they are appalled at the prospect of “amnesty” for the 11 million illegals even if they have no answer for resolving this dilemma other than impractical ideas such as more deportations. They are equally opposed to addressing the status of the children of illegals and treat DREAM act measures that seek to give these individuals—who, unlike their parents, have broken no law —a chance to attain citizenship.

Reform proponents rightly answer that de facto “amnesty” is in place already, with the government unable to force illegals to leave the country or to grant legal status to those who are honest, hard-working contributors to our society. Indeed, even a bill that stops short of a path to citizenship will face the unswerving opposition of many Republicans.

But just because it won’t be easy doesn’t mean immigration reform, even in a far more truncated form than the Senate bill, isn’t worth doing. Congress has an obligation to try to fix what is broken in our government and there is nothing more dysfunctional than an immigration system that doesn’t work well for those who obey our laws or those who came here illegally largely for economic reasons. Republicans have good reason not to trust the administration to secure the border. The responsible answer to those fears is to write a bill without loopholes and to use the power of the purse to ensure that the will of Congress is obeyed.

As for the political fallout from an immigration debate, Republicans will survive a dustup over the issue. The real fear here is not that anger over the discussion will tear Republicans apart in a manner that will prevent them from taking back the Senate but the fact that opponents of immigration reform know they will lose in the House just as they did in the Senate if a vote is held. As long as Republicans keep their promise to address border security first, there is no reason that Republicans should fear to act on the issue.

Of course, lurking behind this argument is the ongoing discussion about the Republican problems with Hispanic voters. Kristol and Lowry and other conservatives have rightly pointed out that any Republicans who believe passing immigration reform will attract large numbers of Hispanic voters are mistaken. There is no quid pro quo here and this largely liberal group is not going to be enticed into embracing the GOP because of this one issue.

But the problem here goes deeper than the Hispanic vote. As I’ve written before, Kristol and Lowry were wrong to assert last July that, in contrast to previous debates, this round has not been tarnished by anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic rhetoric by GOP foes of immigration reform. The danger is not just that Republicans may be writing off Hispanic voters for the foreseeable future by tabling reform, but that they are in peril of being seen by the electorate as intolerant.

Republicans have an obligation to oppose Barack Obama’s big-government agenda. But wherever possible, they must do all they can to govern responsibly. There are aspects of immigration on which common ground can be established between both parties. Just saying no to immigration is an option for Republicans, but it is not a responsible one. Nor is it a choice that enhances their chances to win in 2014 or beyond.

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Pete Seeger and the Judgment of History

How do you separate musical icons from the politics that either ennobled or besmirched their reputations? The answer is that you can’t. And there’s no better example of this than singer/songwriter Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94. Seeger is being lionized in the mainstream liberal media as the troubadour of social activism whose songs were the soundtrack of the struggle for civil rights, social equality, and against the Vietnam War. Seeger had, by the time he died, ascended to the status of a secular saint and was considered great not just because of his music but because of his left-wing politics and his struggles during the McCarthy period, when he was blacklisted.

In this retelling of his story, Seeger’s actual beliefs were beside the point. Any criticism of his actions and affiliations was branded as intolerant or worse, a revival of anti-Communist fear-mongering. It is this Pete Seeger that America celebrated in recent decades. Though he could often be seen at left-wing demonstrations, even showing up at the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, the man who sang at Barack Obama’s first inaugural with Bruce Springsteen was no longer controversial. If he was not quite the Rosa Parks of folk song, he had become something fairly close.

But the complete truth about Seeger is not as simple as that. Seeger wasn’t merely affiliated with left-wing groups in his youth. He was an active member of the Communist Party (CP) and a loyal Stalinist who put his talent in the service of that conspiratorial and murderous movement.

So who was Pete Seeger? Was he the hero or the villain? The answer is that he was both. Or more to the point, he was a great musician who sometimes put himself on the right side of history and sometimes on the wrong one. Which is why the unalloyed tributes to Seeger being broadcast today on the networks and published in the mainstream media have it wrong. But the same judgment applies to some on the right who can’t see past his sins.

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How do you separate musical icons from the politics that either ennobled or besmirched their reputations? The answer is that you can’t. And there’s no better example of this than singer/songwriter Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94. Seeger is being lionized in the mainstream liberal media as the troubadour of social activism whose songs were the soundtrack of the struggle for civil rights, social equality, and against the Vietnam War. Seeger had, by the time he died, ascended to the status of a secular saint and was considered great not just because of his music but because of his left-wing politics and his struggles during the McCarthy period, when he was blacklisted.

In this retelling of his story, Seeger’s actual beliefs were beside the point. Any criticism of his actions and affiliations was branded as intolerant or worse, a revival of anti-Communist fear-mongering. It is this Pete Seeger that America celebrated in recent decades. Though he could often be seen at left-wing demonstrations, even showing up at the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, the man who sang at Barack Obama’s first inaugural with Bruce Springsteen was no longer controversial. If he was not quite the Rosa Parks of folk song, he had become something fairly close.

But the complete truth about Seeger is not as simple as that. Seeger wasn’t merely affiliated with left-wing groups in his youth. He was an active member of the Communist Party (CP) and a loyal Stalinist who put his talent in the service of that conspiratorial and murderous movement.

So who was Pete Seeger? Was he the hero or the villain? The answer is that he was both. Or more to the point, he was a great musician who sometimes put himself on the right side of history and sometimes on the wrong one. Which is why the unalloyed tributes to Seeger being broadcast today on the networks and published in the mainstream media have it wrong. But the same judgment applies to some on the right who can’t see past his sins.

It should be understood that his youthful infatuation with Stalinism was neither superficial nor a passing fancy. To his shame, he toured the country singing protest songs from 1939 to 1941. But he was not protesting the Nazis nor did he support those fighting them. Rather, he was part of the CP campaign conducted at Moscow’s behest that sought to combat any effort to involve the United States in World War Two. The Hitler-Stalin Pact had made the Soviets Germany’s ally until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union brought them into the war. Seeger remained a party member until the 1950s and even long after he abandoned it, he continued to refer to himself as a communist with a small “c” rather than an upper-case one.

To many liberals as well as the stalwarts of the old left, this is nothing for which he should apologize. Liberal revisionism has transformed the vicious Communism of this era from an anti-American and anti-democratic conspiracy into a romantic expression of support for human rights. As such, Seeger and many of his comrades were able to bask in the applause of subsequent generations rather than having to atone for having been a proud apologist for one of the worst criminals in history as well as for the mass murder and anti-Semitism that was integral to Soviet communism. While isolationists like Charles Lindberg and other apologists for Hitler never lived down that association, Stalinists like Seeger had a rough time in the 1950s but were ultimately honored for their disgraceful behavior.

That is infuriating, and for many conservatives like Pajama Media’s Ed Driscoll, unforgivable. The honors showered on the elderly Seeger serve only to deepen the bitterness of those who not unreasonably believe the adamant refusal to tell the truth about this chapter of Seeger’s life—both in the news media and in documentary films about him—undermines our ability to take a full measure of the man, and is an insult to all those who take seriously the eternal struggle against the enemies of freedom.

And yet there is more to Seeger than these two inconsistent narratives. As historian Ron Radosh, a former banjo student of the singer as well as an indispensable chronicler of Communism, movingly wrote in 2007 in the New York Sun, Seeger had, by the end of his life, finally understood the magnitude of some of his earlier errors. As Radosh wrote, Seeger admitted that he was wrong never to have protested Stalin’s tyranny and atoned in part by belatedly writing a song denouncing the gulag.

Ultimately, as with all artists of every stripe, history will judge Seeger more for the quality of his music than his politics. As Paul Berman wrote today in the New Republic, songs like If I Had a Hammer or Where Have All the Flowers Gone, not to mention We Shall Overcome, will deserve to be sung a hundred years from now no matter what Seeger believed about communism. His legacy is far messier than most of the tributes will admit. But to listen to his vintage recordings or those of the groundbreaking folk group “The Weavers” to which he lent his tenor voice and banjo is to hear a great artist and a genuine voice of American culture. It is that Pete Seeger, and the not the sanitized liberal icon or the Stalinist front man, who will be remembered.

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Obama Still Needs Congress

“Sure, economists disagree among themselves about a number of public policy issues, but not about the desirability of free trade,” Cato’s Daniel Griswold wrote in 2009. Griswold was remarking on a survey of economists that gave further credence to the existence of a solid consensus on the benefits of free trade. That consensus, along with basic principles of economic liberty, has buttressed conservative and libertarian support to the point where the right is broadly pro-trade.

The left isn’t, in part because unions support protectionist trade barriers and liberals can’t resist the chance to tax something. That puts President Obama in a bind: he’s somewhere between congressional Democrats and Republicans on trade, so he wants a new trade deal but doesn’t want it subjected to Republican amendments or a Democratic veto. What he wants, then, is Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast-track powers to strike a trade deal that would be ratified by Congress but not subject to amendment.

In this, he is obviously dependent on Republicans, since they are more likely to want a trade deal with either our European or Pacific allies. But supporting the president’s trade authority isn’t the same thing as supporting free trade. Normally, Obama would appear to have the upper hand: the more serious the reservations Democrats have about his trade plans, the more beneficial Republicans might see such a trade deal. In that, divided government and the two parties’ gap in support for trade would seem to work in Obama’s favor. But what if Democrats and Republicans both have the same concerns?

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“Sure, economists disagree among themselves about a number of public policy issues, but not about the desirability of free trade,” Cato’s Daniel Griswold wrote in 2009. Griswold was remarking on a survey of economists that gave further credence to the existence of a solid consensus on the benefits of free trade. That consensus, along with basic principles of economic liberty, has buttressed conservative and libertarian support to the point where the right is broadly pro-trade.

The left isn’t, in part because unions support protectionist trade barriers and liberals can’t resist the chance to tax something. That puts President Obama in a bind: he’s somewhere between congressional Democrats and Republicans on trade, so he wants a new trade deal but doesn’t want it subjected to Republican amendments or a Democratic veto. What he wants, then, is Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast-track powers to strike a trade deal that would be ratified by Congress but not subject to amendment.

In this, he is obviously dependent on Republicans, since they are more likely to want a trade deal with either our European or Pacific allies. But supporting the president’s trade authority isn’t the same thing as supporting free trade. Normally, Obama would appear to have the upper hand: the more serious the reservations Democrats have about his trade plans, the more beneficial Republicans might see such a trade deal. In that, divided government and the two parties’ gap in support for trade would seem to work in Obama’s favor. But what if Democrats and Republicans both have the same concerns?

That is where the president has found himself on the issue as of late, and it’s a mostly ignored but somewhat fascinating consequence of Obama’s obsession with usurping Congress’s authority. At the Weekly Standard, Irwin Stelzer explains:

Start with the particular president who is requesting this authority. He is no George W. Bush, to whom Congress granted such authority. President Obama has made it clear that he will enforce those parts of any legislation or treaty that suit him, de facto amend legislation without seeking congressional approval, and write regulations that order nonenforcement of laws he does not like. Congress refused to pass his Dream Act, so he ordered the authorities to treat illegal aliens as if it had; enforcement of Obamacare’s employer mandate at the date specified in the law became inconvenient, so he unilaterally postponed it; he has decided not to enforce the federal law against the sale of marijuana. There’s more, but you get the idea.

It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that a provision in one of these trade pacts that benefits some industry or company that later fails to toe the presidential line or pay financial obeisance to Democratic campaign committees will disappear in a haze of bureaucratic rulings. In short, whatever the theoretical benefits of free trade, they must be weighed against increasing this president’s ability to exercise even more extralegal power over American businesses. One example: The Asia deal might include a concession from Japan to ease imports of made-in-America vehicles. It is not beyond imagining that the president will interpret that to apply only to the green vehicles of which he is so fond.

The discussion about the president’s plans to announce in his State of the Union address that he will continue taking executive actions in lieu of recognizing the existence of Congress has, appropriately, centered on the legality of the proposed actions. That is, can the president do that?

Another interesting question, and one raised by Stelzer’s piece, is: even if the president can take such action, should he? We often speak about the president’s executive actions as if the only downside to them is if they get overturned later on by the courts. But the trade conundrum in which the president finds himself suggests there’s another possible downside: neither party trusts him to follow the law.

This is a damaging assessment, and it is one that is generally independent of public opinion. And that is potentially more of an obstacle to Obama anyway. He is no longer running for reelection, so public support only gets him so far. And there are only so many actions the president can take on his own. At yesterday’s White House briefing, Jay Carney said the president would work with Congress where he can, and do the rest on his own: “this is not an either-or proposition. It’s a both-and.” Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, don’t seem to agree.

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Obama Has Already Proved He Can’t Govern

One of the highlights of President Obama’s State of the Union speech tonight is his announcement of an executive order raising the minimum wage for those working for contractors doing business with the federal government. The measure is a political trifecta for the president: he gets to bypass Congress, play to the populist grandstand, and inject some life into a moribund presidency with three years left before it officially expires. Tonight’s event and the speaking tour on which the president embarks tomorrow is designed to send the less-than-credible message that he is very much in charge of the government, has the political juice to beat the Republicans while raising his poor favorability ratings, thus reassuring himself, if no one else, that he is no lame duck.

The union that the president will claim tonight is still strong, though it is not a dictatorship. While the commander in chief has the power to make foreign policy and wage war and—thanks to the courts—can impose environmental regulations, the Constitution set up impassable obstacles to prevent a president from ruling without the consent of Congress. The notion that Obama can govern by executive order is just as much an illusion as the idea that imposing higher minimum wages will improve the economy and create more jobs rather than lose them.

But while Obama will garner some partisan applause by unilaterally raising the wages of some workers to $10.10 from $7.25, the impact of this measure is as much trickery as is Obama’s belief that he can govern alone bypassing Congress. The president’s frustration at his inability to get his liberal laundry passed by Congress may be understandable. But freelancing from the Oval Office isn’t the answer to divided government. Good-faith negotiations and deal making—practices to which this aloof president has always disdained—are the answer.

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One of the highlights of President Obama’s State of the Union speech tonight is his announcement of an executive order raising the minimum wage for those working for contractors doing business with the federal government. The measure is a political trifecta for the president: he gets to bypass Congress, play to the populist grandstand, and inject some life into a moribund presidency with three years left before it officially expires. Tonight’s event and the speaking tour on which the president embarks tomorrow is designed to send the less-than-credible message that he is very much in charge of the government, has the political juice to beat the Republicans while raising his poor favorability ratings, thus reassuring himself, if no one else, that he is no lame duck.

The union that the president will claim tonight is still strong, though it is not a dictatorship. While the commander in chief has the power to make foreign policy and wage war and—thanks to the courts—can impose environmental regulations, the Constitution set up impassable obstacles to prevent a president from ruling without the consent of Congress. The notion that Obama can govern by executive order is just as much an illusion as the idea that imposing higher minimum wages will improve the economy and create more jobs rather than lose them.

But while Obama will garner some partisan applause by unilaterally raising the wages of some workers to $10.10 from $7.25, the impact of this measure is as much trickery as is Obama’s belief that he can govern alone bypassing Congress. The president’s frustration at his inability to get his liberal laundry passed by Congress may be understandable. But freelancing from the Oval Office isn’t the answer to divided government. Good-faith negotiations and deal making—practices to which this aloof president has always disdained—are the answer.

The actual number of workers affected by the wage increase he will impose on federal contractors will be small. But even so, it shows just how great the disconnect between the president’s rhetoric and the reality of job creation has become. Nowhere in the speech or in the campaign-style pep he’ll give later this week is there any specificity about where the money to pay the higher wages will come from or what the government will do to help the workers who may lose their jobs altogether as a result of cutbacks that companies will be forced to endure as a result of this transparent grandstanding.

The point of the president’s entirely disingenuous focus on the minimum wage is to preview the Democrats’ intention to play the populist card this year with their bogus concerns about income inequality. Although the measure polls well, the increase will do more to help middle-class teenagers rather than to help the working poor who understand that minimum-wage positions are intended, to be gateway jobs, not a way to permanently support families. Indeed, most Americans understand that this is, at best, a sideshow intended,  like so much else in the liberal repertory, to divert them from the larger issue of a still weak economy.

Five years into the Obama presidency, it is no longer possible for the president to credibly blame, as he has done every previous year, the country’s economic woes on his predecessor. Instead, he will blame Congress, specifically the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, for thwarting his agenda.

But the problem for the president is not just that he has never learned the art of negotiating with Republicans or even with Democrats who disagree with him. His bid to govern unilaterally through executive orders is, after all, nothing new. Even in his first two years, when he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, he was even more intransigent. He pushed through a health-care bill that vastly expanded the reach and power of the federal government without a single Republican vote and has since persevered in implementing this ObamaCare disaster by choosing to ignore and to suppress any criticisms of this gargantuan error rather than to try to deal with its flaws. Thus, we have already seen Obama’s approach to unilateral governance, and the results are as bad as his critics expected.

Try as they might to change the subject, the negative impact of ObamaCare on the economy and the lives of millions of Americans will remain the single most important domestic issue in 2014. The minimum wage is economic snake oil. But so, too, is the president’s feckless effort to pretend he can magically bypass Congress. Rather than breathe new life into a presidency that has gone seriously off the rails, this stunt will merely confirm that the White House is as helpless to raise the president’s poll numbers as it is to improve the economy. Rhetoric may have won Barack Obama the presidency, but it cannot make up for his inability to govern.

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History, Democracy, and Egypt’s Revolution

In his 2001 book on Russia’s post-Soviet political development, Michael McFaul makes an incisive point about the role of history in a country’s progression. Not all history influences the future, and of the history that does, its distribution of influence is unequal. McFaul explains the importance of timing: “It is precisely during periods of institutional breakdown or crisis that the greatest opportunity occurs for initial decisions to have lasting, path-dependent effects.”

The Soviet experience shaped how Russian society would react to the introduction of a market economy, and that rocky transition shaped how many Russians would view the idea of democracy: in the end, with suspicion and from a distance. This was always a risk with the Arab Spring as well. Dictatorships that disappear not through gradual reform but through sudden uprisings experience democracy in the wrong order: without the institutions that make it stick and insulate the public from its initial turbulence. The Soviet Union was ended after a period of real reform, and yet still experienced the convulsions of national rebirth.

Thus one of the lessons of the Arab Spring, as the “realist” illusion of stability was in ruins across the Middle East, was that the freedoms won were immediately at risk of being lost. That is unfortunately exactly what has happened in Egypt, as both Jonathan and Max discussed yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, currently on the receiving end of the country’s newest authoritarianism, is not blameless in finding itself there, and here it’s worth recalling that the pro-democracy voices in the West were sometimes far more realistic in their assessments at the outset of the Egyptian turmoil.

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In his 2001 book on Russia’s post-Soviet political development, Michael McFaul makes an incisive point about the role of history in a country’s progression. Not all history influences the future, and of the history that does, its distribution of influence is unequal. McFaul explains the importance of timing: “It is precisely during periods of institutional breakdown or crisis that the greatest opportunity occurs for initial decisions to have lasting, path-dependent effects.”

The Soviet experience shaped how Russian society would react to the introduction of a market economy, and that rocky transition shaped how many Russians would view the idea of democracy: in the end, with suspicion and from a distance. This was always a risk with the Arab Spring as well. Dictatorships that disappear not through gradual reform but through sudden uprisings experience democracy in the wrong order: without the institutions that make it stick and insulate the public from its initial turbulence. The Soviet Union was ended after a period of real reform, and yet still experienced the convulsions of national rebirth.

Thus one of the lessons of the Arab Spring, as the “realist” illusion of stability was in ruins across the Middle East, was that the freedoms won were immediately at risk of being lost. That is unfortunately exactly what has happened in Egypt, as both Jonathan and Max discussed yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, currently on the receiving end of the country’s newest authoritarianism, is not blameless in finding itself there, and here it’s worth recalling that the pro-democracy voices in the West were sometimes far more realistic in their assessments at the outset of the Egyptian turmoil.

On February 5, 2011, CNN featured the Egyptian-American leftist Mona Eltahawy and Alan Dershowitz arguing over Egypt’s future. Eltahawy was filled with righteous anger and a sense of her own superior perspective on the issue. She also turned out to be wrong on everything, and Dershowitz right. That in itself isn’t too surprising; Eltahawy flaunts her hostility to Western liberalism, which often leads her down the path of spite and illogic when she claims to know better. But it was Dershowitz’s caution that was notable: he understood from the outset that the worst outcome for Egypt would be a replica of Hamas’s rise next door in Gaza, when the Islamist terrorist group won an election and immediately rolled back any scrap of democracy to secure its tyrannical rule.

Dershowitz warned that the strongest party in the emerging Egyptian power vacuum was the Muslim Brotherhood, and that a Brotherhood election victory could actually be a setback for democracy in Egypt. Of course he was obviously correct even then, but Eltahawy angrily shot back that Dershowitz was a hypocrite, and the following discussion ensued:

ELTAHAWY: You know, it’s interesting to hear Alan used the word democracy because that’s exactly what Egypt is working on right now. These millions of Egyptians who have been on the streets for the past 12 days want to be democratic.

So it’s very hypocritical to describe Israel as a democracy and be alarmist about what’s happening in Egypt because surely you and everyone in Israel should be happy that your neighbor wants to be a democracy and democratic neighbors are happy.

DERSHOWITZ: If it’s a real democracy, not a Hamas-type democracy.

ELTAHAWY: You know, you can’t label democracy. Democracy is the people choosing the government they want and what you’re doing is being alarmist. This is not about Muslim Brotherhood. This is about Egyptians determining their future without anyone else’s interference.

MALVEAUX: David, you want to respond –

DERSHOWITZ: The people chose Adolf Hitler in 1932 by democratic means and the people would probably have chosen Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by democratic means. So democracy has to be both structural that is elections, but also functional. If you elect people who then take away all the rights and make women wear Burqas and deny people the right of –

ELTAHAWY: Wait, wait, wait. Who said — this is utter nonsense. This has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood and burqas. You’re talking nonsense.

DERSHOWITZ: You’re just wrong. You’re just wrong. Of course, it has everything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.

I remembered the debate at the time because it was so typical of the two sides of this argument: Eltahawy’s ignorance (“you can’t label democracy”; “This has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood”) and Dershowitz’s historical awareness. It turned out that past was prologue, in Egypt as elsewhere.

The Egyptian army’s displacement of the Brotherhood government was indeed a military coup. But the Brotherhood government not only wasn’t a democracy; it actually went a long way toward discrediting democracy in the region precisely because of the principle McFaul espoused with regard to Russia. Westerners may be criticized for a bias toward democracy abroad, but in some cases–as with Egypt–they are more realistic about the nature of democracy than they are usually given credit for.

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Obama Both Incompetent and Consequential

I have a high regard for Paul Mirengoff, who writes for Powerlineblog.com. In a recent post, Mirengoff, in responding to something I had written, said the following:

Peter Wehner calls President Obama “Jimmy Carter without Camp David.” It’s a great line, and one I’d like to subscribe to. But is it apt?

If we are to make the analogy, then Jimmy Carter can be cast as Barack Obama without Obamacare. And if Republicans cooperate with Democrats to enact amnesty-style immigration reform, Carter will be Obama without Obamacare and amnesty.

Obamacare (assuming no repeal) and significant pro-illegal immigrant reform would be enough to make Obama’s presidency of more than average consequence. Carter’s presidency, even with Camp David, was inconsequential except to the extent that it paved the way for Reagan’s.

I’ll take this opportunity to clarify what I was saying. My point about President Obama being Jimmy Carter without Camp David has to do with Mr. Obama being incompetent; I wasn’t arguing that he’s inconsequential.

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I have a high regard for Paul Mirengoff, who writes for Powerlineblog.com. In a recent post, Mirengoff, in responding to something I had written, said the following:

Peter Wehner calls President Obama “Jimmy Carter without Camp David.” It’s a great line, and one I’d like to subscribe to. But is it apt?

If we are to make the analogy, then Jimmy Carter can be cast as Barack Obama without Obamacare. And if Republicans cooperate with Democrats to enact amnesty-style immigration reform, Carter will be Obama without Obamacare and amnesty.

Obamacare (assuming no repeal) and significant pro-illegal immigrant reform would be enough to make Obama’s presidency of more than average consequence. Carter’s presidency, even with Camp David, was inconsequential except to the extent that it paved the way for Reagan’s.

I’ll take this opportunity to clarify what I was saying. My point about President Obama being Jimmy Carter without Camp David has to do with Mr. Obama being incompetent; I wasn’t arguing that he’s inconsequential.

To take these two categories in order. I’m not sure I could name a single area President Obama has been successful in–economic growth and job creation, dealing with long-term unemployment and the number of people leaving the labor market, health-care reform, the stimulus, our fiscal balance, reducing poverty and income inequality, outreach to the Arab and Islamic world, impeding Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Russian “reset,” America’s pivot to Asia and our relations with China, relations with our allies, transparency, reducing the influence of lobbyists and special-interest groups, decreasing political polarization and partisan divisions, and more. President Obama has been, by my lights, an across-the-board failure.

That said, there’s no question that Mr. Obama has been a consequential president. The damage he’s inflicted on our nation has been significant, comprehensive, and durable–including but not limited to the Affordable Care Act.

The degree to which we can unwind the disaster of the Obama era is unclear. I don’t for a moment underestimate the harm America’s 44th president has done to our nation. But on matters of sheer competence, I’ll stick with my assessment: Barack Obama is Jimmy Carter without Camp David.

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What’s the Alternative in Egypt?

Today’s announcement that Egypt’s ruling council of military leaders has given its stamp of approval to General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi’s intention to run for president was an ominous sign that the country had come full circle in the last three years. The Arab Spring protests that began in 2011 toppled the military dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country for three decades. But after their brief experiment with democracy that resulted in a brush with an Islamist dictatorship led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals and perhaps even a majority of Egyptians aren’t taking any chances. With the Brotherhood crushed by a military crackdown, el-Sisi’s “electoral” victory is a certainty. After the hopes that the Arab Spring raised and all the suffering and sacrifices made over the course of two protest movements—one to oust Mubarak and another, even larger, to bring down Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government—it now appears to have all been for naught.

As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the military government’s intolerance of any dissent—whether from the Islamists or liberals—is deeply worrisome. As Max writes, terrorists operating from Gaza could exploit the developing chaos. The increase in violence throughout Egypt, as well as the persistence of the Wild West atmosphere in the Sinai where jihadi groups are still operating as they did during the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, raises serious doubts about the capacity of the military to restore stability. But acknowledging these facts doesn’t mean that the U.S. should go even further than the Obama administration has already gone in distancing itself from the Egyptian government.

The key question to ask about America’s policy toward Egypt isn’t whether the U.S. approves of military rule; we don’t. But the question becomes whether a decision to further restrict aid to the military would make matters even worse, both for the Egyptians as well as for Israel. The answer to these questions is clear. There is no alternative to the military that would not be far worse for Egypt and U.S. interests, and any American move to undermine el-Sisi would only increase the chances of a disaster there.

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Today’s announcement that Egypt’s ruling council of military leaders has given its stamp of approval to General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi’s intention to run for president was an ominous sign that the country had come full circle in the last three years. The Arab Spring protests that began in 2011 toppled the military dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country for three decades. But after their brief experiment with democracy that resulted in a brush with an Islamist dictatorship led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals and perhaps even a majority of Egyptians aren’t taking any chances. With the Brotherhood crushed by a military crackdown, el-Sisi’s “electoral” victory is a certainty. After the hopes that the Arab Spring raised and all the suffering and sacrifices made over the course of two protest movements—one to oust Mubarak and another, even larger, to bring down Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government—it now appears to have all been for naught.

As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the military government’s intolerance of any dissent—whether from the Islamists or liberals—is deeply worrisome. As Max writes, terrorists operating from Gaza could exploit the developing chaos. The increase in violence throughout Egypt, as well as the persistence of the Wild West atmosphere in the Sinai where jihadi groups are still operating as they did during the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, raises serious doubts about the capacity of the military to restore stability. But acknowledging these facts doesn’t mean that the U.S. should go even further than the Obama administration has already gone in distancing itself from the Egyptian government.

The key question to ask about America’s policy toward Egypt isn’t whether the U.S. approves of military rule; we don’t. But the question becomes whether a decision to further restrict aid to the military would make matters even worse, both for the Egyptians as well as for Israel. The answer to these questions is clear. There is no alternative to the military that would not be far worse for Egypt and U.S. interests, and any American move to undermine el-Sisi would only increase the chances of a disaster there.

While concerns about the situation in Egypt spiraling out of control are far from unrealistic, the situation there should not be mischaracterized. Any increase in violence should be deplored, but it’s far from clear that either the Brotherhood or terrorist elements that might be aligned with it or based in Hamas-ruled Gaza is capable of destabilizing the country, let alone toppling the military. The Brotherhood has been taken down not only by the ruthlessness of the military crackdown but by the realization on the part of the Egyptian people that Morsi’s Islamist government was a greater threat to their future than a return to a Mubarak-style authoritarian regime. Tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for Morsi’s overthrow and largely applauded when the military complied with their wishes.

They may not be cheering the military’s crackdown on liberal critics quite as enthusiastically. But as much as we may deplore this development, if there is anything Americans should have learned about Egypt and the Arab Spring in the past three years it is that the expectation that democracy was possible was an illusion. The choice was always between the military and the Brotherhood. Neither is palatable but those of us who, however briefly, held onto the hope that Egyptians could go down a path that might lead to genuine democracy must admit we were wrong.

That admission requires us to be both realistic about what is possible in Egypt and vigilant against any American measures that could exacerbate an already bad situation. In the past three years, the Obama administration has gone from one blunder to the next. First it championed Mubarak. Then it dumped him. Then it embraced the Brotherhood and warned the military not to interfere with its rule. It reluctantly accepted the military coup that ended that unfortunate chapter last summer, but has since cut back on aid to the military, further reducing U.S. influence in Cairo.

While chagrin at the turn of events in Egypt is understandable, it cannot be used as an excuse for any action that would weaken the military government at the expense of its Islamist foes. The administration as well as its critics who support the idea of the spread of democracy must understand that, among many bad options, the Egyptian military is the best.

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Why Can’t Jews Stay in a Palestinian State?

For 20 years Israeli governments of both the left and the right have agreed on one thing: Jews and Jewish settlements could not be left behind in any territory handed over to the Palestinians. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that he is willing to change that policy and that seems to have upset almost as many Israelis as Palestinians. Netanyahu stated that even in the event of a peace agreement he had no intention of repeating the precedent established by Ariel Sharon in Gaza in which every single settlement, soldier, and individual Jew was uprooted. According to Netanyahu, if there is a peace treaty, there’s no reason that Jewish communities could not remain in part of the Palestinian state along with the Palestinian inhabitants, if they were willing to do so.

It was not surprising that the Palestinians would immediately and angrily reject the suggestion that Jews could live in their putative new state. Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas had already denounced the idea, but lest anyone be in doubt about the Palestinian position, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat sought to clarify the official view:

Anyone who says he wants to keep settlers in the Palestinian state is actually saying that he doesn’t want a Palestinian state. No settler will be allowed to stay in the Palestinian state, not even a single one, because settlements are illegal and the presence of the settlers on the occupied lands is illegal.

It was interesting to note that both right-wing and left-wing critics of Netanyahu as well as members of his own Cabinet were almost as angry as the Palestinians. The right is appalled at Netanyahu’s tacit willingness to accept a Palestinian state, and the left thinks the prime minister was just playing a cynical tactical game designed solely to embarrass the Palestinians. The concerns of both factions may well be justified. Netanyahu, however, was right to raise the issue and to provoke a debate about the nature of the Palestinian state that is, after all, one of the goals of the current peace talks. Regardless of his  motives, this is a topic that must be addressed if the negotiations are truly aimed at ending the conflict.

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For 20 years Israeli governments of both the left and the right have agreed on one thing: Jews and Jewish settlements could not be left behind in any territory handed over to the Palestinians. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that he is willing to change that policy and that seems to have upset almost as many Israelis as Palestinians. Netanyahu stated that even in the event of a peace agreement he had no intention of repeating the precedent established by Ariel Sharon in Gaza in which every single settlement, soldier, and individual Jew was uprooted. According to Netanyahu, if there is a peace treaty, there’s no reason that Jewish communities could not remain in part of the Palestinian state along with the Palestinian inhabitants, if they were willing to do so.

It was not surprising that the Palestinians would immediately and angrily reject the suggestion that Jews could live in their putative new state. Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas had already denounced the idea, but lest anyone be in doubt about the Palestinian position, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat sought to clarify the official view:

Anyone who says he wants to keep settlers in the Palestinian state is actually saying that he doesn’t want a Palestinian state. No settler will be allowed to stay in the Palestinian state, not even a single one, because settlements are illegal and the presence of the settlers on the occupied lands is illegal.

It was interesting to note that both right-wing and left-wing critics of Netanyahu as well as members of his own Cabinet were almost as angry as the Palestinians. The right is appalled at Netanyahu’s tacit willingness to accept a Palestinian state, and the left thinks the prime minister was just playing a cynical tactical game designed solely to embarrass the Palestinians. The concerns of both factions may well be justified. Netanyahu, however, was right to raise the issue and to provoke a debate about the nature of the Palestinian state that is, after all, one of the goals of the current peace talks. Regardless of his  motives, this is a topic that must be addressed if the negotiations are truly aimed at ending the conflict.

The reason that Israeli governments have always agreed with the Palestinians about the need to evacuate any Israelis living in what might become a Palestinian state is no secret. It’s not just that the Palestinians don’t want Jews in their state and the fact that the settlers don’t want there to be a Palestinian state. It’s that any Israelis who chose to remain in their homes wouldn’t last any longer than the greenhouses that wealthy Americans purchased from Gaza settlers who were uprooted from their homes in 2005. Within hours of the Israeli army pullout, every one of these valuable facilities that could have been used to help revive the strip’s moribund economy was burned to the ground. The same fate awaited every other building left by the Jews, including every synagogue.

Without the protection of the Israel Defense Forces, Jews in Arab territory haven’t a chance. That’s a basic fact of life in the country that predates Israel’s birth. Without self-defense forces, Jewish settlers in those lands inside the pre-June 1967 borders were exposed to relentless harassment, terrorism, and even pogroms. And there is no reason to believe the situation would be any different in a future West Bank state where the Palestinian population has been educated for decades to believe Jews have no right to live in any part of the country.

But, as Netanyahu rightly pointed out, a peace treaty that would actually end the conflict rather than merely pause it until the Palestinians felt strong enough to resume hostilities must entail an acceptance on both sides of the legitimacy of the rights of the other side. Just as Arabs are equal before the law in the State of Israel, have the right to vote, and serve in its Knesset, a democratic and peaceful Palestinian state must not exclude the possibility of allowing a Jewish minority within its borders. If that is something that the PA is unable to countenance, it proves once again that it isn’t interested in peace. A state where Jews are, as Erekat says, “illegal” is one that is committed to a permanent state of war against Israel.

Israeli right-wingers are angry at Netanyahu’s acceptance in principle of a Palestinian state. Without the threat of repeating the traumatic scenes that characterized the Gaza withdrawal, a division of the West Bank would, at least in theory, be more likely.

Yet the prime minister’s suggestion also angered supporters of a two-state solution. In particular, Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni, who as Tom Wilson wrote earlier today seems to understand that the talks have little chance of success, bitterly denounced Netanyahu’s statement as designed more to prove the Palestinians weren’t negotiating in good faith than achieving a deal.

Livni may well be correct about Netanyahu’s intentions. Goading the Palestinians into repeating their intolerant and anti-Semitic objections to Jews living within their borders undermines their cause. Like previous generations of negotiators, Livni seems to think peace can be achieved by ignoring the hatred on the other side. But merely drawing a line between Israel and the Palestinians and calling it a border won’t end a conflict that is rooted in the Arab and Muslim rejection of the idea of legitimacy for any Jewish state no matter how large or small it might be.

It has become a cliché of Middle East commentary to speak of the painful sacrifices that Israel must make if it is to have peace. That is true. But the path to peace is a two-way street. If the Palestinians want a state, it cannot be on genocidal terms that require the ethnic cleansing of Jews. Until they’re ready to live alongside Jews inside their state—and to guarantee their security—genuine peace is nowhere in sight.

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Atrocities Prevention Board: Just Words

International human rights investigators have discovered evidence that “Syria has systematically tortured and executed about 11,000 detainees since the start of the uprising.” The details are horrifying, with respected experts funded by Qatar having obtained photos which showed bodies with evidence of “starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and other forms of torture and killing.” A news account reports: “One of the three lawyers who authored the report — Sir Desmond de Silva, the former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone — likened the images to those of Holocaust survivors.”

Seems like a perfect case for the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed Atrocities Prevention Board, announced by the president in 2012 at the Holocaust Museum. Only the administration is largely silent in the face of these atrocities beyond ritual words of condemnation.

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International human rights investigators have discovered evidence that “Syria has systematically tortured and executed about 11,000 detainees since the start of the uprising.” The details are horrifying, with respected experts funded by Qatar having obtained photos which showed bodies with evidence of “starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and other forms of torture and killing.” A news account reports: “One of the three lawyers who authored the report — Sir Desmond de Silva, the former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone — likened the images to those of Holocaust survivors.”

Seems like a perfect case for the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed Atrocities Prevention Board, announced by the president in 2012 at the Holocaust Museum. Only the administration is largely silent in the face of these atrocities beyond ritual words of condemnation.

If there has been any attempt to indict Bashar Assad and his goons for war crimes, I’ve missed it. If, in fact, the administration has done anything substantive to overthrow Assad and bring the fighting to an end, I’m not aware of it.

If you want a good laugh you can read this press release put out by the White House last year to mark the one-year anniversary of the Atrocities Prevention Board. It claims grandiosely:

One year later, the U.S. Government has done much to keep faith with this commitment. At the President’s direction, we have stood up an interagency Atrocities Prevention Board, which monitors emerging threats, focuses U.S. Government efforts, and develops new tools and capabilities. In January 2013, the President signed expanded war crimes rewards legislation, giving the State Department a new tool to promote accountability for the worst crimes known to humankind. Earlier this month, the United States supported the U.N. General Assembly’s adoption of an Arms Trade Treaty with robust safeguards against export of weapons for use in genocide, crimes against humanity, and other enumerated atrocities.

Yup, if windy speeches and high-minded resolutions and endless meetings are sufficient to stop atrocities, then the administration has done all that anyone can expect. But if measured by real-world results in Syria, the administration has singularly failed to live up to its commitment. The only wonder is that there is not more outrage at this abysmal failure, which recalls the horrors of Rwanda and Srebrenica. Once again, Obama seems to be getting a pass because he talks a good game even if he does little to back it up.

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Egypt’s War on Dissent

The revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak is now three years old, and Egypt’s future seems less promising than ever.

General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the military commander, is preparing to run for president—and if he runs he will certainly win, becoming, in essence, a new Mubarak. The army has not only driven the Muslim Brotherhood from power, it has also declared war on all critics of the regime, whether Islamist or liberal. As the Guardian notes:

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace prize winner once billed as a potential president, is in exile. So too is Wael Ghonim, the Google executive whose Facebook campaign against police thuggery brought many to Tahrir Square. Ahmed Maher, the activist whose 6 April movement helped drive anti-Mubarak dissent, is in jail along with the group’s co-founders, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel.

In the cell next door is Alaa Abd El Fattah, a renowned activist first jailed under Mubarak. Abd El Fattah returned from exile during the 2011 revolution to help build a new Egypt. Instead he was detained, first under the military dictatorship that followed Mubarak, then under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, and now under the de facto leadership of General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

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The revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak is now three years old, and Egypt’s future seems less promising than ever.

General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the military commander, is preparing to run for president—and if he runs he will certainly win, becoming, in essence, a new Mubarak. The army has not only driven the Muslim Brotherhood from power, it has also declared war on all critics of the regime, whether Islamist or liberal. As the Guardian notes:

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace prize winner once billed as a potential president, is in exile. So too is Wael Ghonim, the Google executive whose Facebook campaign against police thuggery brought many to Tahrir Square. Ahmed Maher, the activist whose 6 April movement helped drive anti-Mubarak dissent, is in jail along with the group’s co-founders, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel.

In the cell next door is Alaa Abd El Fattah, a renowned activist first jailed under Mubarak. Abd El Fattah returned from exile during the 2011 revolution to help build a new Egypt. Instead he was detained, first under the military dictatorship that followed Mubarak, then under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, and now under the de facto leadership of General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

What happens when it’s impossible to express dissent peacefully? That becomes an open invitation for radicals to take matters into their own hands, and that is precisely what is happening in Egypt today. The latest news on this front is ominous, namely that militants in the Sinai shot down an Egyptian military helicopter with a surface-to-air missile, killing all five soldiers aboard. Such missiles, in the wrong hands, can be a threat not just to helicopters but to civilian aircraft, including those flying in and out of Israel. Meanwhile, on Friday, four bombs went off in Cairo, killing six people.

These are worrisome signs of what some of us have feared all along: By declaring war on dissent, Sisi risks driving his country into a full-blown civil war. At the very least the terrorist threat is increasing, and it is unlikely to stay confined to Egypt—not when there are such close links among jihadists operating in the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. The situation got bad enough under the Muslim Brotherhood government, but there is little sign of improvement under the emerging military dictatorship whose ascension many Israelis understandably cheered. Sisi’s heavy-handed crackdown—undertaken by a corrupt and ineffective regime—unfortunately has the potential to spark a full-blown insurgency that will make current troubles seem benign by comparison.

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Left Goes After Wendy Davis’s Ex-Husband

On the campaign trail in October 2008, Barack Obama walked through the Ohio neighborhood of Joe Wurzelbacher, who would soon be known as Joe the Plumber. Joe asked the presidential candidate about taxes, and the two got into a bizarrely famous discussion. That fame transferred to Joe himself. When the New York Times reported on it, the paper insisted that Joe, “like other celebrities, found himself under scrutiny.” Well, not exactly. But what the Times wrote next only looks more unhinged with the passage of time:

Turns out that “Joe the Plumber,” as he became nationally known when Senator John McCain made him a theme at Wednesday night’s third and final presidential debate, may run a plumbing business but he is not a licensed plumber. His full name is Samuel J. Wurzelbacher. And he owes a bit in back taxes.

The premise of his question to Mr. Obama about taxes may also be flawed, according to tax analysts.

An Obama supporter and Ohio public official even launched a creepy and unsanctioned search into Wurzelbacher’s personal records. He asked Obama a question, you see.

It’s not uncommon for anyone–public official or not–who is viewed as posing a risk to an up-and-coming liberal political star to find themselves the target of a smear campaign, or worse. And so it was perhaps only a matter of time before Wendy Davis’s ex-husband, Jeff Davis, got dragged through the mud. Davis, you’ll remember, is the pro-abortion extremist running for governor of Texas. She has been lionized by the liberal press, but then it turned out that she had fudged details of her personal story, which she had used to rise to prominence.

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On the campaign trail in October 2008, Barack Obama walked through the Ohio neighborhood of Joe Wurzelbacher, who would soon be known as Joe the Plumber. Joe asked the presidential candidate about taxes, and the two got into a bizarrely famous discussion. That fame transferred to Joe himself. When the New York Times reported on it, the paper insisted that Joe, “like other celebrities, found himself under scrutiny.” Well, not exactly. But what the Times wrote next only looks more unhinged with the passage of time:

Turns out that “Joe the Plumber,” as he became nationally known when Senator John McCain made him a theme at Wednesday night’s third and final presidential debate, may run a plumbing business but he is not a licensed plumber. His full name is Samuel J. Wurzelbacher. And he owes a bit in back taxes.

The premise of his question to Mr. Obama about taxes may also be flawed, according to tax analysts.

An Obama supporter and Ohio public official even launched a creepy and unsanctioned search into Wurzelbacher’s personal records. He asked Obama a question, you see.

It’s not uncommon for anyone–public official or not–who is viewed as posing a risk to an up-and-coming liberal political star to find themselves the target of a smear campaign, or worse. And so it was perhaps only a matter of time before Wendy Davis’s ex-husband, Jeff Davis, got dragged through the mud. Davis, you’ll remember, is the pro-abortion extremist running for governor of Texas. She has been lionized by the liberal press, but then it turned out that she had fudged details of her personal story, which she had used to rise to prominence.

Though she portrayed herself as a struggling single mother, the Dallas Morning News pointed out that her ex-husband had in fact helped put her through school, cashed in his 401(k) for her, took care of the kids while she was away, and opened doors for her politically. Once she finished school and had those connections, she divorced him. When she was called on the dishonesty, she responded exactly as would be expected: she and her supporters made false accusations of her opponent, including of sexism.

But it was only going to get worse for her ex-husband, and now it has. Politico is running with a magazine piece by Liza Mundy defending Davis. Most of the article is mendacious–it consists of setting ablaze a field of straw men. But then she aims at Jeff Davis:

While she has been portrayed as the materialistic beneficiary of a duped husband, let me offer another plausible interpretation: At some point Jeff Davis astutely realized he had married a woman who aimed to do more than answer phones and serve salads. He saw that it would be not just in her interest, but his, if he facilitated her advance. He helped her go to law school not only out of the goodness of his heart but because he was betting on her economic prospects, as women have long bet on the prospects of men. How many hundreds of thousands of American women worked to put a husband through law or med school? Did we criticize the men who benefited? Jeff Davis did for his spouse what wives have long done for husbands: He invested in her—their—future.

When Mundy says “let me offer another plausible interpretation,” what she is saying is she’s about to speculate without evidence that Jeff Davis had ulterior motives when he made great sacrifices for his family. Later, she says, “Just who was financially benefiting from whom?” She’s just asking questions, right? Just inviting the political world to join her in baseless speculation to tear down the name of a private individual so that a politician can have her career elevated by standing on the ruins of the reputation she’s hoping to raze. Harmless liberal fun, right?

She’s not done:

In short, what seems to have happened is what happened in a number of marriages of her generation: Over time, their roles swapped and Wendy Davis became the spouse with higher-octane aspirations. For many couples, this is destabilizing; it may have been for Wendy and Jeff Davis.

So, Jeff Davis, according to Mundy’s theory, was selfishly invested in Wendy Davis’s success and then decided he didn’t appreciate her walking through the doors he opened? This is not a very coherent attack. The truth is, Wendy Davis’s personal story should not be held against her. What she’s being judged for is not telling the truth. Attacking her ex-husband for supporting Wendy Davis and being a conscientious father is in poor taste, and doing so while claiming personal attacks on Wendy Davis to be out of bounds is plainly hypocritical.

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Karzai Pushing U.S. Out?

Hamid Karzai seems to be doing everything he can to drive the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

He is releasing dozens of dangerous detainees from custody–hardened Taliban who have killed American and Afghan troops and Afghan civilians–in spite of American pleas to keep them imprisoned.

He is also issuing hysterical denunciations of an American airstrike which caused some civilian casualties last week, with Karzai’s office exaggerating the number of casualties and not bothering to mention that the air strikes were called in to save Afghan troops who, with their U.S. advisers, were in danger of being overrun by Taliban fighters. Such denunciations are routine for Karzai, of course, but they are made more pernicious by the fact that his office seems to be faking evidence, including claiming that a photo of civilian casualties taken four years ago was actually taken last week.

All of which will only reinforce the tendency among most Americans to say, To hell with it—if the Afghans don’t want us there, why don’t we just leave?

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Hamid Karzai seems to be doing everything he can to drive the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

He is releasing dozens of dangerous detainees from custody–hardened Taliban who have killed American and Afghan troops and Afghan civilians–in spite of American pleas to keep them imprisoned.

He is also issuing hysterical denunciations of an American airstrike which caused some civilian casualties last week, with Karzai’s office exaggerating the number of casualties and not bothering to mention that the air strikes were called in to save Afghan troops who, with their U.S. advisers, were in danger of being overrun by Taliban fighters. Such denunciations are routine for Karzai, of course, but they are made more pernicious by the fact that his office seems to be faking evidence, including claiming that a photo of civilian casualties taken four years ago was actually taken last week.

All of which will only reinforce the tendency among most Americans to say, To hell with it—if the Afghans don’t want us there, why don’t we just leave?

In the first place, most Afghans do want us there. A continued U.S. presence was strongly endorsed by the Loya Jirga that Karzai convened and it has been endorsed by practically the entire Karzai cabinet. The issue isn’t the people of Afghanistan; it’s the behavior of Hamid Karzai, who is scheduled to leave office in April.

We can’t hold the future of our commitment in Afghanistan hostage to his whims because there are larger issues at stake. As the New York Times notes today, “The risk that President Obama may be forced to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year has set off concerns inside the American intelligence agencies that they could lose their air bases used for drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Pakistan and for responding to a nuclear crisis in the region.” Those are valid concerns because drones such as the Predator and Reaper have relatively short ranges; they need to be based close to the areas where they operate and if the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, it will have no other nearby air base from which to monitor Pakistan’s troubled frontier regions.

At this point, we need to simply ignore Karzai and try to develop a better relationship with whoever succeeds him. Because if we don’t stay in Afghanistan—and that means more than the 1,000 or 2,000 troops that Joe Biden is said to favor—there is a real danger of the country succumbing once again to the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies.

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Rules Change Doesn’t Guarantee GOP Win

Other than Mike Huckabee’s libido gaffe and the discouraging vote condemning the National Security Agency’s intelligence collection, the big news from last week’s Republican National Committee meeting was its decision to shorten the presidential primary schedule, reduce the number of debates and hold their national convention in June rather than in August 2016. The new rules increase penalties on states that seek earlier primaries and caucuses, thus weakening the impact of the four early-voting states, and shortening the primary season to avoid the long and costly internecine bloodbath that so damaged Mitt Romney’s candidacy. The purpose of all the reform is to increase the chances of producing a viable nominee and strengthen the party’s ability to unite and deploy its financial resources in time to win the general election.

But while all these new rules make sense, Republicans should understand that no changes in its procedures can ensure that the GOP will pick an electable candidate in 2016. Though these measures address specific problems that the party encountered in 2012, there’s no guarantee that the new ones will do better or won’t, in fact, have the opposite effect. They could turn out to increase the chances that an outlier candidate rather than a mainstream favorite will sweep the compressed primaries and present the party with a nominee with little chance of beating Hillary Clinton, or whoever the Democrats choose.

The RNC is right to push back against the recent trend in which states wishing to gain the attention that is given to those that go first jumped the line and began the process back in January. A more rational schedule with Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada voting in February and then other states in March cuts down the already insufferably long primary season to more manageable proportions. The rules forcing the early-voting states to hand out their delegates proportionally but allowing later primaries to be winner-take-all should increase the influence of the March and April primaries and, at least in theory, produce a result that reflects the will of GOP voters in large states with mixed urban/rural populations rather than a contest that seemed to be more a product of the whims of Iowa farmers and inhabitants of small towns in New Hampshire.

But to assume that a different process will produce a different result is to make a leap of faith that isn’t justified by the circumstances.

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Other than Mike Huckabee’s libido gaffe and the discouraging vote condemning the National Security Agency’s intelligence collection, the big news from last week’s Republican National Committee meeting was its decision to shorten the presidential primary schedule, reduce the number of debates and hold their national convention in June rather than in August 2016. The new rules increase penalties on states that seek earlier primaries and caucuses, thus weakening the impact of the four early-voting states, and shortening the primary season to avoid the long and costly internecine bloodbath that so damaged Mitt Romney’s candidacy. The purpose of all the reform is to increase the chances of producing a viable nominee and strengthen the party’s ability to unite and deploy its financial resources in time to win the general election.

But while all these new rules make sense, Republicans should understand that no changes in its procedures can ensure that the GOP will pick an electable candidate in 2016. Though these measures address specific problems that the party encountered in 2012, there’s no guarantee that the new ones will do better or won’t, in fact, have the opposite effect. They could turn out to increase the chances that an outlier candidate rather than a mainstream favorite will sweep the compressed primaries and present the party with a nominee with little chance of beating Hillary Clinton, or whoever the Democrats choose.

The RNC is right to push back against the recent trend in which states wishing to gain the attention that is given to those that go first jumped the line and began the process back in January. A more rational schedule with Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada voting in February and then other states in March cuts down the already insufferably long primary season to more manageable proportions. The rules forcing the early-voting states to hand out their delegates proportionally but allowing later primaries to be winner-take-all should increase the influence of the March and April primaries and, at least in theory, produce a result that reflects the will of GOP voters in large states with mixed urban/rural populations rather than a contest that seemed to be more a product of the whims of Iowa farmers and inhabitants of small towns in New Hampshire.

But to assume that a different process will produce a different result is to make a leap of faith that isn’t justified by the circumstances.

It is true that the drawn-out schedule of debates, primaries and caucuses created a sort of “Queen for a Day” dynamic in which second-tier candidates took turns rising to the top of the heap, putting a good scare into a GOP establishment that spent the latter half of 2011 desperately trying to persuade some prominent non-candidates to jump into the race. Though Republicans wound up picking the most mainstream candidate in Mitt Romney, the process left him bloodied by his intra-party foes and his resources drained by the scrum.

But the length of the process also worked to his advantage. Though Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain (remember him?), Newt Gingrich, and then finally Rick Santorum all had their moments in the sun, the long slog actually benefited Romney since he had the money and the national appeal to weather his rivals momentary spurts of popularity.

A shortened schedule opens up the possibility that a less-electable candidate can appear at the right moment and then sweep the early states—where more conservative voters predominate—and then have the momentum as well as the mantel of inevitability to win the nomination.

But there’s a more important lesson to be drawn here. No process or schedule can ensure a Republican victory if the party nominates a candidate who can’t win. After all, even though Romney was the most electable Republican in 2012, he wasn’t elected, for reasons that had nothing to do with what happened in Iowa or the amount of money he raised. His defeat had everything to do with the party’s inability to turn out enough voters to stop the president. I would argue that no Republican could have beaten Barack Obama that year. But even if I’m wrong, the emphasis on process ignores more important problems relating to the types of candidates who run and the party’s inability to win the votes of groups such as women and Hispanics that abandoned them in droves in 2012.

No matter how the process works, the Herman Cains are not going to win presidential nominations. But the rules won’t stop a Ted Cruz or even a Rand Paul from gaining momentum at the right moment and sweeping through the late winter and early spring of 2016 to victory even though these two favorites of the GOP base have little hope of beating Hillary. If the deep GOP bench turns out for one reason or another to be not as deep as we now think, it won’t matter what rules the RNC designs or how few or how many debates they force us to endure. One can sympathize with the RNC’s hope that changing the rules will change the game, but it will take a change in the array of candidates, as well, to return the GOP to the White House.

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Livni’s Comments Show Talks Are Failing

Few serious observers held out much hope for the current round of U.S. sponsored negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Even proponents conceded this was always going to be extremely difficult. But things in that negotiating room must now be going especially badly. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator and longtime advocate of the two-state solution and a negotiated peace, has for the first time come out publicly to condemn Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s negotiating positions.

For someone like Livni to have gone public on what are supposed to be closed-door negotiations, we can assume that her back must really be against the wall this time. With just three months to go before the current round of negotiations are due to expire, it seems that everyone, even the talks’ most enthusiastic supporters, are now preparing for the fallout from negotiations collapsing. And clearly Livni, too, is looking for a position from which to weather the storm.

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Few serious observers held out much hope for the current round of U.S. sponsored negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Even proponents conceded this was always going to be extremely difficult. But things in that negotiating room must now be going especially badly. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator and longtime advocate of the two-state solution and a negotiated peace, has for the first time come out publicly to condemn Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s negotiating positions.

For someone like Livni to have gone public on what are supposed to be closed-door negotiations, we can assume that her back must really be against the wall this time. With just three months to go before the current round of negotiations are due to expire, it seems that everyone, even the talks’ most enthusiastic supporters, are now preparing for the fallout from negotiations collapsing. And clearly Livni, too, is looking for a position from which to weather the storm.

Speaking over the weekend, Livni openly condemned what she referred to as Abbas’s “unacceptable positions” in the negotiations. We are told that Abbas is demanding all of east Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital, including the Old City and its holy sites, that he has refused to recognize the Jewish state, and in contradiction to what many believed to be his position in the past, Abbas is insisting that the millions of descendants of the Palestinian refugees return, not to a future Palestinian state, but to the very Jewish state that he refuses to recognize.

None of these demands are that surprising; Abbas knows full well that these are things that Israel will never be able to concede. But then Abbas also knows that his own political survival depends on not reaching an agreement with Israel, just as Livni’s political survival always depended on these talks yielding some modicum of success.

Clearly Livni is now facing up to seeing what most people saw long ago. Indeed, a recent poll showed that 87 percent of Israelis do not expect these negotiations to go anywhere. Even President Obama has said that he now believes these talks have a less than 50 percent chance of success, a remarkable statement at this late stage given the way his administration has spent the past five years strong-arming the two sides into talks that clearly neither felt particularly enthusiastic about.

Livni has staked her political career on the two-state proposal and a negotiated settlement. She was a protégée of Ariel Sharon and has sought to pickup where prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak left off. Yet, like the two Ehud’s she now finds herself trading incriminations with the Palestinians as they appear set to walk away from yet another Israeli offer. This is what always ends up happening. Now that we’re back to this stage in the cycle once again it would be so easy, and indeed politically tempting, for her to attempt to lay the blame on her old rival, Prime Minister Netanyahu, by making the claim that he set her up with a negotiating position bound to fail. Instead, Livni has placed the blame where it’s due, with Abbas.

Mahmoud Abbas is now entering his tenth year of a four-year presidential term. He is all but devoid of legitimacy and has a proven track record of doing everything in his power to avoid negotiations with Israel, and to avoid agreeing to anything in the event that he is forced to take part in them. But if Secretary of State John Kerry should have seen this coming–and he really should have–then all the more so for Livni.

As a staunch believer in negotiations, Livni almost certainly wouldn’t have come out with these damaging revelations unless she felt she absolutely had to. Yet, trying to get in early and level the blame at Abbas before the blame is leveled at her is unlikely to save her career now. 

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GOP Plans to Be Ready for Hillary, Again

In 2007, speaking to the Telegraph’s Toby Harnden, Rudy Giuliani offered a declaration: “If you want to defeat Hillary Clinton, I would be the best person to do that because I can make this campaign nationwide.” It would be something of a theme of his campaign, though that was partly due to the fact that Clinton was, for some time, the frontrunner across the aisle. In Harnden’s piece, Giuliani explains that he thinks the Democratic ticket will eventually be Clinton-Obama, in that order.

In the end, it wasn’t Clinton-Obama or even Obama-Clinton. It was, for the purposes of that rivalry, just Obama. This surprised people on both sides, who expected Clinton to eventually run out the clock on Obama’s insurgent challenge, and was never able to. It was doubly challenging for the GOP: not only was Barack Obama a better general-election candidate, but the GOP candidates were unprepared for him. They had been planning for Hillary.

And they are again. Both CNN and the Washington Examiner noticed that the GOP leadership gathering in Washington last week seemed awfully preoccupied with Clinton. The Examiner notes:

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In 2007, speaking to the Telegraph’s Toby Harnden, Rudy Giuliani offered a declaration: “If you want to defeat Hillary Clinton, I would be the best person to do that because I can make this campaign nationwide.” It would be something of a theme of his campaign, though that was partly due to the fact that Clinton was, for some time, the frontrunner across the aisle. In Harnden’s piece, Giuliani explains that he thinks the Democratic ticket will eventually be Clinton-Obama, in that order.

In the end, it wasn’t Clinton-Obama or even Obama-Clinton. It was, for the purposes of that rivalry, just Obama. This surprised people on both sides, who expected Clinton to eventually run out the clock on Obama’s insurgent challenge, and was never able to. It was doubly challenging for the GOP: not only was Barack Obama a better general-election candidate, but the GOP candidates were unprepared for him. They had been planning for Hillary.

And they are again. Both CNN and the Washington Examiner noticed that the GOP leadership gathering in Washington last week seemed awfully preoccupied with Clinton. The Examiner notes:

Concern about Clinton is framing many GOP officials’ approach to the 2016 contest and was much on the minds of those who gathered in Washington this week for the party’s annual winter meeting. Indeed, the GOP’s ongoing overhaul of voter turnout machinery — and the rules changes governing its presidential primary process — are being conducted with an eye toward helping the eventual GOP nominee overcome the Clinton juggernaut.

Giuliani’s experience provides a cautionary tale, but it also in some ways justifies the GOP’s focus on Hillary. The cautionary tale part is obvious: they thought she was inevitable, she wasn’t, and the concentration on Hillary constituted an opportunity cost in preparing for Obama. Additionally, the party structure around a presidential candidate needs to offer its own agenda, a vision for governing the country. A referendum can only be held on the administration in office, and in 2007-2008 the GOP was the party in the White House.

Republicans were able to run that kind of campaign against Obama in 2012, but it won’t be so simple when there’s no incumbent and they are trying to convince the country to give them back the levers of power. And if they prepare only for Hillary, and she doesn’t run (or loses the nomination/coronation somehow) they will be in the same situation as Giuliani.

However, that’s not the whole story. Giuliani, in fact, got a few things right. The first was how to run against Hillary. She would have been a historic candidate, and still would be, by attempting to be the first woman president. Giuliani seemed to understand the pitfalls of running against her better than Rick Lazio, her 2000 Senate opponent, did when he was faulted for looking like a bully. (This critique of Lazio from the left, painting Hillary as a damsel in distress, should actually have been quite offensive to her, and perhaps gave an indication of the trouble she’d have winning a Democratic Party nomination.)

In that Telegraph piece, Giuliani indicated that he would treat Hillary like a run-of-the-mill liberal and ignore her historic status. He also honed his attacks on policy: “If we do HillaryCare or socialized medicine, Canadians will have no place to go to get their health care,” Giuliani quipped at a GOP primary debate.

There is still plenty on the policy side to criticize Clinton, even (or especially) in areas the burgeoning Clinton campaign thinks it’s strongest. For example, in Amy Chozick’s New York Times magazine piece on Clintonworld, we learn:

If there is one thing that Clinton allies want to make sure you know — and will keep reminding you, over and over, in interviews — it’s that Hillary Clinton’s State Department was run nothing like her chaotic 2008 presidential campaign. When Clinton accepted the job as secretary of state, she did so with the understanding that she could bring some of her most loyal people — called the Royal Council by one aide — along with her. …

The cloistered State Department offered Clinton a chance to define herself away from her husband and to shed the stench of managerial dysfunction that still lingered from the campaign.

And wouldn’t you know it, she failed that test spectacularly. Even the Accountability Review Board on Benghazi noted massive organizational and managerial incompetence when Clinton was in charge at Foggy Bottom. Those who wanted to exonerate Clinton from the consequences of the attacks relied on her managerial incompetence to do so: a fuzzy chain of command, confusion over safety requirements, failure to prepare a slow-moving bureaucracy for the challenges of postwar Libya.

Republicans are playing the odds by betting that Clinton–especially with no one like Obama in her path this time–remains the favorite for her party’s 2016 nomination. There is much to be said for being prepared to face a challenging opponent. In that sense, they’re right not to interpret Giuliani’s loss as an argument against such preparation. At the same time, they should remember that Giuliani understood far better than some current Republicans–Mike Huckabee comes to mind–how to run against a candidate of her status in the identity politics world. But they’re also the party out of power, and they’ll have to make sure to have plenty of ideas of their own.

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