Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 4, 2014

Boycotts Driven By Hate, Not Settlements

Last week Secretary of State John Kerry raised the hackles of Israelis when he warned that if the Jewish state didn’t make enough concessions to allow him to achieve a peace deal with the Palestinians it would be targeted for boycotts. The stark threat was partially walked back later by the State Department when it claimed Kerry was merely taking note of a development he opposes. But he made his point. Israelis are acutely aware that they are particularly vulnerable to economic pressure from their European trading partners. Nor has it failed to come their attention that the BDS—boycott, divestment, and sanctions—movement in Europe has been recently gaining ground. Though the administration must oppose such boycotts, Kerry’s remarks conferred a spurious legitimacy to the BDSers who will push to isolate Israel no matter who is to blame for the failure of Kerry’s initiative.

Lest anyone miss Kerry’s point, it was repeated yesterday by the European Union’s ambassador to Israel. As the European Jewish Press reports, Ambassador Lars Faaborg-Anderson said the boycotts represented the will of the European people who already blame Israel and its settlement policy for the lack of peace rather than the intransigent Palestinian refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. In recent months, a Dutch pension fund severed relations with Israeli banks and the country’s largest water supply company also ended ties with Mekorot, Israel’s principal water company. But whether this is, as Faaborg-Anderson claimed, a spontaneous outburst of ill will from the citizens of EU countries or, as Kerry’s remarks implied, a more coordinated effort designed to bludgeon the Israelis into submission, the reality the Jewish state confronts is that it must be prepared for such boycotts no matter what happens in the negotiations. That’s because the driving force behind the support for these measures isn’t principled disagreement with Israeli policies but rather the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe.

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Last week Secretary of State John Kerry raised the hackles of Israelis when he warned that if the Jewish state didn’t make enough concessions to allow him to achieve a peace deal with the Palestinians it would be targeted for boycotts. The stark threat was partially walked back later by the State Department when it claimed Kerry was merely taking note of a development he opposes. But he made his point. Israelis are acutely aware that they are particularly vulnerable to economic pressure from their European trading partners. Nor has it failed to come their attention that the BDS—boycott, divestment, and sanctions—movement in Europe has been recently gaining ground. Though the administration must oppose such boycotts, Kerry’s remarks conferred a spurious legitimacy to the BDSers who will push to isolate Israel no matter who is to blame for the failure of Kerry’s initiative.

Lest anyone miss Kerry’s point, it was repeated yesterday by the European Union’s ambassador to Israel. As the European Jewish Press reports, Ambassador Lars Faaborg-Anderson said the boycotts represented the will of the European people who already blame Israel and its settlement policy for the lack of peace rather than the intransigent Palestinian refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. In recent months, a Dutch pension fund severed relations with Israeli banks and the country’s largest water supply company also ended ties with Mekorot, Israel’s principal water company. But whether this is, as Faaborg-Anderson claimed, a spontaneous outburst of ill will from the citizens of EU countries or, as Kerry’s remarks implied, a more coordinated effort designed to bludgeon the Israelis into submission, the reality the Jewish state confronts is that it must be prepared for such boycotts no matter what happens in the negotiations. That’s because the driving force behind the support for these measures isn’t principled disagreement with Israeli policies but rather the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe.

Rumors floated by the Palestinians about such coordination between the U.S. and the EU are already making their way through the Middle East. But what Kerry left out of his warning is the plain fact that the impetus for such threats and the growing support for the boycott movement aren’t based on anything the Israelis are doing. While those warning Israel of the consequences of its settlement policy claim they are only responding to popular sentiment, the recent explosion of European anger over the settlements is, as it happens, strangely timed. Since Israel has just agreed to Kerry’s framework for negotiations—the ultimate goal of which is a peace deal with the Palestinians that will grant them a state in much of the West Bank—the existence of the settlements can’t logically be represented as an obstacle to peace. That’s a point that should have been made clear to the Europeans when the Palestinians rejected offers of statehood including a share of Jerusalem in 2000, 2001, and 2008. Nor need one support the existence of all the settlements to understand that most of them—located in blocs near the 1967 lines—will remain within Israel in the event of a peace treaty.

So if the existence of the settlements doesn’t explain the recent upsurge in support for boycotting Israel, what does? The simple answer was supplied by the State Department when it described in its report on religious persecution a “rising tide of anti-Semitism” that was sweeping the continent. Since the publication of that report in 2012, evidence of even more violence against European Jews, widespread support in Europe for new laws that restrict Jewish religious practices, as well as efforts to smear Israel and its supporters have all increased and have grown ever more virulent. While Israel’s detractors have falsely attempted to blame Israel for the spread of Jew-hatred, that is a familiar tactic to anyone who knows the long and horrific history of European anti-Semitism, which has always found an aspect of alleged Jewish misbehavior to justify their own bigotry and crimes.

European anti-Semitism is currently being promoted by a noxious combination of traditional Jew-hatred at both ends of the social spectrum—from Muslim immigrant communities to elites, academics, and intellectuals who similarly delegitimize all Jews who speak up for Israel. That ought to make it all the more important that those who purport to oppose such hatred and profess friendship for Israel denounce the BDS movement. That Kerry missed an opportunity to do so and instead fed the simmering hatred on the continent was shameful. Whether his failure to speak out was deliberate or a negligent lost chance to put the U.S. clearly on record as adamantly against the BDS movement is not important. As long as the U.S. and the EU are working in tandem to taunt and threaten Israel in this fashion, they are both serving as the enablers of a highly dangerous and hate-driven movement.

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A Disturbing Conservative Reaction to the Coke Ad

Several figures on the right–including Glenn Beck and Eric Bolling–had strongly negative reactions to this ad by Coca-Cola that aired during the Super Bowl.

The ad featured a rendition of “America the Beautiful” sung in seven different languages. It was intended to showcase the country’s “incredible diversity,” in the words of the soft drink company. That was simply too much for Beck. “So somebody tweeted last night and said, ‘Glenn, what did you think of the Coke ad?’” Beck said. “And I said, ‘Why did you need that to divide us politically?’ Because that’s all this ad is. It’s in your face, and if you don’t like it, if you’re offended by it, you’re a racist. If you do like it, you’re for immigration. You’re for progress. That’s all this is: to divide people.”

Fox News’s Bolling, while agreeing that “America is a melting pot,” said he thought Coke “used the wrong song” to demonstrate that point. “The problem here,” Bolling said, “and it’s not even bad if you have all the different cultures singing a song, showing America is a mix of different cultures, but don’t put it to ‘America the Beautiful.’ You used the wrong song. You ticked off a lot of Coke drinkers, you ticked off a lot of Americans.”

What a weird and disturbing reaction. The ad was hardly “in your face.” It was in fact an affirmation that people from different cultures and lands and tongues are drawn to America and can love her, not because it’s their native land but because it’s a special land. America is, in the words of Ben Wattenberg, the “first universal nation.” The Coke ad beautifully captures the spirit behind the phrase on the Seal of the United States: E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one.” 

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Several figures on the right–including Glenn Beck and Eric Bolling–had strongly negative reactions to this ad by Coca-Cola that aired during the Super Bowl.

The ad featured a rendition of “America the Beautiful” sung in seven different languages. It was intended to showcase the country’s “incredible diversity,” in the words of the soft drink company. That was simply too much for Beck. “So somebody tweeted last night and said, ‘Glenn, what did you think of the Coke ad?’” Beck said. “And I said, ‘Why did you need that to divide us politically?’ Because that’s all this ad is. It’s in your face, and if you don’t like it, if you’re offended by it, you’re a racist. If you do like it, you’re for immigration. You’re for progress. That’s all this is: to divide people.”

Fox News’s Bolling, while agreeing that “America is a melting pot,” said he thought Coke “used the wrong song” to demonstrate that point. “The problem here,” Bolling said, “and it’s not even bad if you have all the different cultures singing a song, showing America is a mix of different cultures, but don’t put it to ‘America the Beautiful.’ You used the wrong song. You ticked off a lot of Coke drinkers, you ticked off a lot of Americans.”

What a weird and disturbing reaction. The ad was hardly “in your face.” It was in fact an affirmation that people from different cultures and lands and tongues are drawn to America and can love her, not because it’s their native land but because it’s a special land. America is, in the words of Ben Wattenberg, the “first universal nation.” The Coke ad beautifully captures the spirit behind the phrase on the Seal of the United States: E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one.” 

This is something that not all that long ago nearly all conservatives would have understood. Yet today the ad by Coke is interpreted by some figures on the right as divisive and offensive, a Trojan Horse for immigration reform, as part of the Culture War. And the unmistakable message being sent by these individuals is that people of other cultures are aliens and threats and are therefore unwelcome. “Keep your mouths shut when it comes to our patriotic songs” is the message Messrs. Beck and Bolling are sending. What a brilliant way to appeal to a nation that is becoming increasingly diverse and multicultural.  

Such troubling views are not unknown in American history, of course. But what’s worth noting is that they are deeply at odds with the outlook and capacious spirit of Ronald Reagan. I don’t so much have in mind the fact that Reagan was an outspoken advocate for amnesty and that he signed legislation granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. What I’m referring to goes deeper than that. Reagan continually emphasized the great and vivifying diversity that immigrants brought to this country, and that flowed into and became as one with the national fabric. As he put it:

We have a statue in New York Harbor . . . of a woman holding a torch of welcome to those who enter our country to become Americans. She has greeted millions upon millions of immigrants to our country. She welcomes them still. She represents our open door. All of the immigrants who came to us brought their own music, literature, customs, and ideas. And the marvelous thing, a thing of which we’re proud, is they did not have to relinquish these things in order to fit in. In fact, what they brought to America became American. And this diversity has more than enriched us; it has literally shaped us.

So it has. And Reagan’s words remind us that his generous and welcoming attitude was worlds apart from what we see in the likes of Glenn Beck and Eric Bolling.   

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Sanctions Stall Doesn’t Signal AIPAC’s Fall

After amassing an impressive 58 senators from both parties to co-sponsor a bill calling for new sanctions on Iran in case the current negotiations end in failure, the legislation has stalled in the Senate. Alarmed by what it felt was a threat to its diplomacy with Iran, the administration and its backers launched an all-out attack on the measure, claiming its passage would so offend Tehran that it would end nuclear talks with the West and leave the United States no alternative but to go to war. Even worse, some of the president’s supporters claimed that the only reason so many legislators, including 16 Democrats, would back the bill was that they were acting, in the words of influential television comedian Jon Stewart, as senators “from the great state of Israel.” This not-so-subtle invocation of the Walt-Mearsheimer canard in which a vast pro-Israel conspiracy manipulates a helpless Congress paid off by wealthy Jews to the detriment of American interests has become a chestnut of Washington policy debates, but one the administration’s cheerleaders haven’t hesitated to invoke.

All this has chilled a debate about passing more Iran sanctions that might be considered moot in any case since as long as Majority Leader Harry Reid is determined to keep the bill from coming to a vote, it has little chance of passage. But rather than discuss the administration’s scorched-earth campaign on the issue, the New York Times prefers to join with the administration in taking another shot at the arch-villain of the supporters of the conspiratorial view of U.S. foreign policy put forward in the infamous “Israel Lobby” thesis: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). According to the Times, the lull in the battle over sanctions is a sign that AIPAC is losing its touch on Capitol Hill. This is considered good news for the administration and critics of the pro-Israel lobby and the bipartisan community for which it speaks. But while AIPAC can’t be happy with the way it and other advocates of sanctions have been brushed back in this debate, reports of its decline are highly exaggerated. While the administration has won its point for the moment in stalling the bill, the idea that it has won the political war over Iran is, at best, premature.

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After amassing an impressive 58 senators from both parties to co-sponsor a bill calling for new sanctions on Iran in case the current negotiations end in failure, the legislation has stalled in the Senate. Alarmed by what it felt was a threat to its diplomacy with Iran, the administration and its backers launched an all-out attack on the measure, claiming its passage would so offend Tehran that it would end nuclear talks with the West and leave the United States no alternative but to go to war. Even worse, some of the president’s supporters claimed that the only reason so many legislators, including 16 Democrats, would back the bill was that they were acting, in the words of influential television comedian Jon Stewart, as senators “from the great state of Israel.” This not-so-subtle invocation of the Walt-Mearsheimer canard in which a vast pro-Israel conspiracy manipulates a helpless Congress paid off by wealthy Jews to the detriment of American interests has become a chestnut of Washington policy debates, but one the administration’s cheerleaders haven’t hesitated to invoke.

All this has chilled a debate about passing more Iran sanctions that might be considered moot in any case since as long as Majority Leader Harry Reid is determined to keep the bill from coming to a vote, it has little chance of passage. But rather than discuss the administration’s scorched-earth campaign on the issue, the New York Times prefers to join with the administration in taking another shot at the arch-villain of the supporters of the conspiratorial view of U.S. foreign policy put forward in the infamous “Israel Lobby” thesis: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). According to the Times, the lull in the battle over sanctions is a sign that AIPAC is losing its touch on Capitol Hill. This is considered good news for the administration and critics of the pro-Israel lobby and the bipartisan community for which it speaks. But while AIPAC can’t be happy with the way it and other advocates of sanctions have been brushed back in this debate, reports of its decline are highly exaggerated. While the administration has won its point for the moment in stalling the bill, the idea that it has won the political war over Iran is, at best, premature.

The chief problem with the article is that its premise is based on the myth that AIPAC is a monolithic and unstoppable group that can pass any bill it likes. The article’s assertion that AIPAC has gotten its way on every public policy issue since its futile effort to stop the Reagan administration from selling AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia in 1981 is foolish. AIPAC rarely, if ever, directly challenges presidents and when it does it inevitably comes out on the short end, as in its confrontation with the George H.W. Bush administration over loan guarantees to Israel in 1991 when the elder President Bush depicted himself as “one, lonely, little guy” standing up to AIPAC. Written by White House correspondent Mark Landler, one of whose previous recent forays into foreign policy was a sycophantic paean to the virtues of Secretary of State John Kerry, today’s equally slanted piece simplifies the congressional debate on Iran—which has been driven as much, if not more, by longstanding Senate sanctions activists such as Senate Foreign Policy Committee chair Robert Menendez and his Republican counterpart Mark Kirk than outside lobbyists—into a one-on-one duel between Obama and AIPAC.

That suits the administration since it wishes to show itself as having bested AIPAC. But it dramatically distorts the truth about the way AIPAC operates and its aversion to involvement in partisan debates. The charge that the group is biased toward Republicans is bunk. The group and its large cadre of supporters throughout the nation are only interested in whether a member of Congress is a supporter of Israel and enthusiastically backs Democrats who fit that description and does the same for those in the GOP. Nor is it the American branch of the Likud, as some falsely assert and Landler implies in his misleading article. The group’s guiding principle is respect for Israeli democracy and when that means, as it did for much of the 1990s, backing a left-wing government that embraced Oslo, that stand was a source of frustration to AIPAC supporters sympathetic to the Israeli right. Its primary purpose is to encourage support for the alliance between the two countries and that goal is bound to disappoint partisans on both ends of the political spectrum.

It is precisely because AIPAC is not equipped for partisan battles that it’s invariably reluctant to directly challenge any president. That was true last year when it passed on the opportunity to oppose Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense despite his vocal support for Walt-Mearsheimer slurs, and it is true today when it has decided to tread lightly on the Iran sanctions issue rather than express open opposition to the president.

By smearing all those who want a measure that would actually strengthen his hand in negotiations with Iran as warmongers, the president has faced down AIPAC and the pro-sanctions bipartisan Senate majority. But if, as is likely, the administration’s Iran diplomacy yields no dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program and its stockpile of enriched uranium, the president will find himself facing the same bipartisan majority demanding more sanctions and action on Iran led by Menendez, his own party’s foreign-policy point man.

In the meantime, when AIPAC supporters gather by the thousands next month in Washington, the message to the group from Congress will give the lie to the conceit of Landler’s piece. Liberals hoped that alternatives to the mainstream pro-Israel group, such as J Street, would equal or supersede the organization. But after more than five years the leftist alternative remains without influence in Congress or in an administration that has proved time and again that it knows it must reckon with AIPAC as the principal voice of pro-Israel opinion in this country. AIPAC’s power does not reside in a mythical ability to override the will of presidents but in the simple fact that support for the Jewish state transcends party politics as well as ethnic or religious lines.

It says something disturbing about this administration that it has been more solicitous of the sensibilities of the Islamist dictators of Iran in the past few months than those of Americans who care about Israel’s security. But anyone, including the White House correspondent of the Times, who expects an all-out war between the Obama administration and AIPAC in the coming months is misinterpreting both AIPAC’s purpose and the ability of the White House to sustain its dangerous push for détente with Tehran in the absence of any tangible progress toward ending the Iranian nuclear threat.

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On Free Trade, Was Obama Looking for a Way Out?

Last week, I wrote about a particular bind President Obama had gotten himself into over his expansion of executive authority. Because he had established such a robust record of flouting duly-passed legislation and usurping congressional authority, not even Democrats in Congress trusted him to follow the law. This wasn’t a problem on many issues, because the president and Democrats in Congress agree on so much and congressional Democrats made it clear they believe the ends always justify the means when it comes to progressive rule making.

But it would be a problem on trade, because there the president wanted what’s known as fast-track authority to negotiate a trade deal that Congress could not amend. Democrats are generally opposed to trade despite the broad consensus on its economic benefits, so they wouldn’t easily fork over their authority to the president. Despite Obama’s plea in the State of the Union for the trade authority, Harry Reid immediately confirmed that no, Democrats wouldn’t give Obama free rein on trade. But it’s unclear just how much of a rebuke to the president this really is.

News reports took the basic outlines of the story at face value: Obama wanted trade deals, Reid said no, so this is a blow to the president’s economic agenda. But it’s not so plain. Yesterday Politico reported that Reid went to the White House for a long meeting with the president–and trade didn’t even come up:

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Last week, I wrote about a particular bind President Obama had gotten himself into over his expansion of executive authority. Because he had established such a robust record of flouting duly-passed legislation and usurping congressional authority, not even Democrats in Congress trusted him to follow the law. This wasn’t a problem on many issues, because the president and Democrats in Congress agree on so much and congressional Democrats made it clear they believe the ends always justify the means when it comes to progressive rule making.

But it would be a problem on trade, because there the president wanted what’s known as fast-track authority to negotiate a trade deal that Congress could not amend. Democrats are generally opposed to trade despite the broad consensus on its economic benefits, so they wouldn’t easily fork over their authority to the president. Despite Obama’s plea in the State of the Union for the trade authority, Harry Reid immediately confirmed that no, Democrats wouldn’t give Obama free rein on trade. But it’s unclear just how much of a rebuke to the president this really is.

News reports took the basic outlines of the story at face value: Obama wanted trade deals, Reid said no, so this is a blow to the president’s economic agenda. But it’s not so plain. Yesterday Politico reported that Reid went to the White House for a long meeting with the president–and trade didn’t even come up:

The majority leader returned to the Capitol about 75 minutes after a scheduled 2:30 p.m. meeting with the president and told reporters his opposition to fast-tracking trade pacts through Congress was not broached during his huddle with Obama.

“We’re on the same page with everything,” Reid said, rejecting a reporter’s question on whether the Democratic leader is in Obama’s “doghouse” after voicing disapproval of the trade legislation.

Asked whether they discussed trade, Reid curtly replied “no.”

So just how important does the president consider free trade–an economic boon but which unions don’t love–to his agenda if he won’t even broach the subject with Reid? A clue can probably be found in past coverage of Obama administration trade deals, which tend to embrace the same contradictions.

Take, for example, this October 2011 Washington Post story on the passage of free-trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea, and Panama. The headline is: “Obama gets win as Congress passes free-trade agreements,” and the story tells us that “The South Korea deal has the potential to create as many as 280,000 American jobs” and is “widely hailed as the most consequential trade pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement was ratified in 1994.”

But later on in the story we get some more information about why the deals were signed nearly three years into Obama’s term:

The pacts were first negotiated under President George W. Bush but were updated by Obama to include more guarantees for labor and human rights and environmental protections. The pacts were recently held up in a dispute between Obama and congressional Republicans over renewing the worker assistance program.

During Obama’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, he tended to underscore the risks that free trade posed for U.S. workers and the environment rather than potential benefits.

So Obama really isn’t very high on free trade and campaigned against it. George W. Bush did the work of putting together the deals and the Democrats stalled it for years, finally conceding when Obama realized he was “facing a tough bid for reelection with unemployment stuck at 9.1 percent.”

Obama is, in fact, no fan of free trade. But the benefits are well known across the board. So a perfect situation for Obama is to have complete authority over the deals so he can better choose who to protect and which companies and industries to favor without getting a bipartisan deal in Congress that would be more sensible and economically beneficial but less to Obama’s liking.

This is what he’s asking for now, and what he was denied. He doesn’t seem too upset about it, probably because he isn’t. It’s possible that the president has decided that now, unlike with numerous controversial bills, he’s just going to let Harry Reid run the show. But that would be a change of pace for a president who thinks Congress is mostly cosmetic, a passé throwback to a time before the Lightbringer arrived.

And it’s unlikely. If Obama really wanted free trade he would press on, involving Congress grudgingly but elevating free trade over his own absolute power. It’s possible, then, that when Obama doesn’t treat free trade as a priority for him it’s because it isn’t.

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Even the Kurds Are Turning Away from U.S.

Successive administrations in Washington have long taken the Iraqi Kurds for granted, which is a shame because the Kurds have, since the tail end of the Cold War at least, been relatively pro-American, at least compared to others in the region.

Alas, if anyone wants to confirm just how far American influence is falling, even among American friends, they need go no further than Iraqi Kurdistan. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a party founded in 1975 as a more progressive, less tribal off-shoot of Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has in recent years suffered from increasing factionalism, a phenomenon only worsened when a debilitating stroke removed party founder and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani from anything more than a symbolic leadership role.

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Successive administrations in Washington have long taken the Iraqi Kurds for granted, which is a shame because the Kurds have, since the tail end of the Cold War at least, been relatively pro-American, at least compared to others in the region.

Alas, if anyone wants to confirm just how far American influence is falling, even among American friends, they need go no further than Iraqi Kurdistan. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a party founded in 1975 as a more progressive, less tribal off-shoot of Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has in recent years suffered from increasing factionalism, a phenomenon only worsened when a debilitating stroke removed party founder and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani from anything more than a symbolic leadership role.

There are three main factions to the PUK: Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Talabani’s wife; and former PUK Prime Ministers Barham Salih and Kosrat Rasul. Hero is heavily involved in both the transparent and opaque aspects of party purse strings and has sought to promote her sons within the party. Most observers see the Western-educated Barham—whom Hero dislikes immensely—as a reformer. Kosrat, whose health has declined in recent years, is most popular with the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, as he was himself long a successful military leader.

That the three factions and their various followers have been unable to cooperate has paralyzed the PUK.

I spent part of last week in Sulaymani, Erbil, and Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurds pointed out the significance of the fact that it was not the United States which brokered political compromise, but rather Iran which worked out—or some might say imposed—a formula in which Barham would become secretary-general of the party, with Talabani’s second son Qubad as one deputy and Kosrat’s son Darbaz as another deputy. Earlier this week, with Hero seeking seemingly infinite delays to a new PUK conference, both Barham and Kosrat resigned their PUK politburo positions sparking a new crisis. Again, the Iranians are coming to the rescue to set Kurdish politics straight.

How sad it is that America’s best friends in the region see the United States as devoid of meaningful influence. And what happens in Kurdistan does not stay in Kurdistan: Every other politician in the region has watched the crisis unfold and concluded that it is Iranian dictates which matter and not the demarches of the United States. And how sad it is, as well, that this is a legacy Obama’s successors will face for years to come.

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The West’s Opportunity in Ukraine

The most electrifying moment at the Munich Security Conference, which I attended this weekend, occurred during a panel discussion on Eastern Europe. (And, yes I know, “electrifying” and “conference” are not usually words that go together.)

After Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Leonid Koschara accused the opposition of harboring terrorists, opposition leader (and former boxer) Vitali Klitschko, who was sitting right next to him, got out of his seat. No doubt some were expecting the former professional pugilist to punch out the bespectacled and well-coiffed government apparatchik next to him. Instead Klitschko went over to an aide who gave him a stack of pamphlets illustrating, in graphic pictures, how security forces have attacked demonstrators. Klitschko then shared the pictures with his fellow panelists, including Koschara, who had to make at least a show of looking at the photos, much to his obvious discomfort.

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The most electrifying moment at the Munich Security Conference, which I attended this weekend, occurred during a panel discussion on Eastern Europe. (And, yes I know, “electrifying” and “conference” are not usually words that go together.)

After Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Leonid Koschara accused the opposition of harboring terrorists, opposition leader (and former boxer) Vitali Klitschko, who was sitting right next to him, got out of his seat. No doubt some were expecting the former professional pugilist to punch out the bespectacled and well-coiffed government apparatchik next to him. Instead Klitschko went over to an aide who gave him a stack of pamphlets illustrating, in graphic pictures, how security forces have attacked demonstrators. Klitschko then shared the pictures with his fellow panelists, including Koschara, who had to make at least a show of looking at the photos, much to his obvious discomfort.

This was a small sign of how the pro-Western opposition has outmaneuvered the pro-Moscow government of President Viktor Yanukovych. He sparked the protests with his November decision not to sign political and trade agreements with the European Union in return for a $15 billion aid package from Russia. This was widely seen as a victory for the wily Vladimir Putin, but it has been a hollow victory because it has brought large numbers of Ukrainians into the streets to protest. They have not been deterred by thuggish police attempts to disperse them, nor by Yanukovych’s attempts to pass Russian-style legislation that would have curtailed freedom to speak out or protest and that would have forced civic groups that received foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.”

Those laws have now been repealed by Ukraine’s parliament, and the pro-Russian prime minister, Mykola Azarov, has been forced to resign. In dismay Putin has suspended further aid payments to Ukraine after having delivered just $3 billion. Yanukovych was reported last week to be on a leave of absence due to “illness.” He has now returned to Kiev, vowing not to use force to clear out the demonstrators. His confusion is palpable.

There is now a prime opportunity for the U.S. and its European allies to step into the vacuum, deal a major defeat to Putin, and pull Ukraine into the Western orbit where most of its people clearly would like to go. This will not be easy to do. It must require high-level attention from American and European officials to keep the heat on Yanukovych not to stage a reprise of the Tiananmen Square massacre while offering attractive financial incentives for Ukraine to align with the West. Reportedly, Western officials are plotting to do just that.

I would feel more confident about the outcome, however, if President Obama were personally involved rather than delegating this matter–along with so many other crucial foreign-policy issues–to Vice President Biden, whose track record has not been one, as Bob Gates pointed out, to inspire much confidence. Obama claims to admire President George H.W. Bush, but he has been unwilling to engage in the kind of intensive presidential diplomacy or to form the kind of close relationships with foreign leaders that were Bush hallmarks. In essence this is another issue on which the U.S. is “leading from behind.” We can only hope that Angela Merkel and other European leaders can fill the vacuum and save Ukraine from Moscow’s machinations.

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CBO Political Dynamite: OCare Job Losses

Judging by his State of the Union address and the confidence with which Democrats have tried to focus the national political conversation on income inequality, it was obvious that the administration had concluded that ObamaCare was no longer a political problem. But today’s report from the Congressional Budget Office predicting that the health-care law would result in the loss of more than two million full-time jobs shows just how unfounded that conclusion has turned out to be. The report, which provides the most detailed analysis of the impact of ObamaCare on the economy, said the law would reduce hours worked by Americans across the board.

As the New York Times reports:

The budget office analysis found that much of the law’s effect comes from reducing the need for people to take a full-time job just to get insurance coverage, and from the premium subsidies effectively bolstering household income.

But it will also have an effect on businesses, the report said, including by encouraging them to reduce employee hours to avoid the so-called “employer mandate.”

The report also chipped away at the administration’s main argument for retaining the controversial law: the vast expansion of benefits for the poor and those unable to obtain insurance because of pre-existing conditions:

The budget office also estimated that about a million fewer Americans than expected will receive health insurance coverage in 2014 through the marketplaces established by the Affordable Care Act, primarily because of the troubled rollout of the exchanges. It also revised its estimates of the number of people receiving coverage through Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Plan coverage, lowering it by about 1 million.

While the White House is attempting to spin the numbers to prove that the job losses are meaningless, the political impact of this report is clear: ObamaCare will remain a major, if not the single most important, political issue in the 2014 midterm elections. Moreover, since the CBO says most of the damage won’t be fully felt until after 2016, the idea that the health-care law will be widely accepted once implemented is also a pipe dream of the Democrats who passed it without a single Republican vote. That means Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, dreaming of the White House must understand that they will also be faced with the absolute necessity of defending the law in the next presidential election cycle.

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Judging by his State of the Union address and the confidence with which Democrats have tried to focus the national political conversation on income inequality, it was obvious that the administration had concluded that ObamaCare was no longer a political problem. But today’s report from the Congressional Budget Office predicting that the health-care law would result in the loss of more than two million full-time jobs shows just how unfounded that conclusion has turned out to be. The report, which provides the most detailed analysis of the impact of ObamaCare on the economy, said the law would reduce hours worked by Americans across the board.

As the New York Times reports:

The budget office analysis found that much of the law’s effect comes from reducing the need for people to take a full-time job just to get insurance coverage, and from the premium subsidies effectively bolstering household income.

But it will also have an effect on businesses, the report said, including by encouraging them to reduce employee hours to avoid the so-called “employer mandate.”

The report also chipped away at the administration’s main argument for retaining the controversial law: the vast expansion of benefits for the poor and those unable to obtain insurance because of pre-existing conditions:

The budget office also estimated that about a million fewer Americans than expected will receive health insurance coverage in 2014 through the marketplaces established by the Affordable Care Act, primarily because of the troubled rollout of the exchanges. It also revised its estimates of the number of people receiving coverage through Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Plan coverage, lowering it by about 1 million.

While the White House is attempting to spin the numbers to prove that the job losses are meaningless, the political impact of this report is clear: ObamaCare will remain a major, if not the single most important, political issue in the 2014 midterm elections. Moreover, since the CBO says most of the damage won’t be fully felt until after 2016, the idea that the health-care law will be widely accepted once implemented is also a pipe dream of the Democrats who passed it without a single Republican vote. That means Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, dreaming of the White House must understand that they will also be faced with the absolute necessity of defending the law in the next presidential election cycle.

The CBO report isn’t all bad news for Democrats as it predicts lowered deficits in the years to come. But try as they might, the job loss numbers are a body blow to the president’s party heading into a midterm election cycle in which the odds were already stacked against them. With ObamaCare enrollment numbers significantly below where they must be for the system to pay for itself and state exchanges burdened by “glitches” that also imperil the law’s success, the outlook for the misnamed Affordable Care Act is grim.

Since the law’s passage in 2010 critics feared the employer mandate would result in massive cuts in full-time employees as small companies reduced workers to part-time status in order to avoid the costs and the regulatory headaches of complying with the statute. It has also led to the decisions of major companies such as Target, Trader Joe’s, and Home Depot to reduce insurance coverage for part-time employees pushing them into the exchanges to purchase ObamaCare.

All this adds up to a situation in which the number of ObamaCare losers is starting to outnumber the total number of Americans who benefit from the law. The assumption all along by both hopeful Democrats and worried Republicans was that once it was in place the law’s distribution of benefits would make it impossible to significantly amend or repeal it. But with each passing month as the disastrous rollout of the law continues, and more details of its catastrophic effects on the economy become apparent, it becomes clearer by the day that the problems it is creating for millions of Americans who have seen their existing plans canceled and replaced with more expensive coverage or are faced with the loss of full-time employment cannot be ignored.

Democrats who plan to face the voters in November by trying to change the subject to discussions of the minimum wage or vague talk about inequality must think again. Ignoring the devastating impact of ObamaCare on an economy that is still not fully recovered from 2008 is not a winning strategy. Faced with voters who know from their own experience they are paying a heavy price in jobs, increased health-care costs, and poorer coverage, Democrats are going to have to do better than to tell the people that ObamaCare is off-limits for discussion or debate.

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Holocaust Day Isn’t What it Used to Be

Across Europe, Holocaust Memorial Day just isn’t what it used to be. There are still the same sobering gatherings and television broadcasts reflecting on the horrors of a historical event, taking the opportunity to reaffirm the mantra of “Never Again.” Yet, at the same time there is a growing sense of a counter-movement to Holocaust Memorial Day. At times this takes the form of outright displays of Jew-hatred intentionally scheduled to coincide with the commemorations, as if in protest that murdered Jews should be mourned. More subtly there have also been concerted efforts to hijack and manipulate the message of the day.

Most sickening of all were the scenes from France. On the day prior to Holocaust Memorial Day Paris witnessed shocking scenes of open anti-Semitism during anti-government protests which police estimate to have been attended by some 17,000 people. The protest, titled by organizers the Day of Rage, witnessed crowds chanting “Jews out of France” and “The story of the gas chambers is bull****.” At around the same time social media sites were being flooded with pictures of individuals performing the quenelle, the modified Nazi salute, in front of Jewish and Holocaust-related sites. The quenelle was even performed in the Belgium Parliament, shortly before Holocaust Memorial Day, by MP Laurent Louis who also took the opportunity to state that the Holocaust had been setup and financed by Zionists.

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Across Europe, Holocaust Memorial Day just isn’t what it used to be. There are still the same sobering gatherings and television broadcasts reflecting on the horrors of a historical event, taking the opportunity to reaffirm the mantra of “Never Again.” Yet, at the same time there is a growing sense of a counter-movement to Holocaust Memorial Day. At times this takes the form of outright displays of Jew-hatred intentionally scheduled to coincide with the commemorations, as if in protest that murdered Jews should be mourned. More subtly there have also been concerted efforts to hijack and manipulate the message of the day.

Most sickening of all were the scenes from France. On the day prior to Holocaust Memorial Day Paris witnessed shocking scenes of open anti-Semitism during anti-government protests which police estimate to have been attended by some 17,000 people. The protest, titled by organizers the Day of Rage, witnessed crowds chanting “Jews out of France” and “The story of the gas chambers is bull****.” At around the same time social media sites were being flooded with pictures of individuals performing the quenelle, the modified Nazi salute, in front of Jewish and Holocaust-related sites. The quenelle was even performed in the Belgium Parliament, shortly before Holocaust Memorial Day, by MP Laurent Louis who also took the opportunity to state that the Holocaust had been setup and financed by Zionists.

Other efforts to challenge Holocaust Memorial Day have at least attempted to pass themselves off under the seemingly legitimate guise of political correctness. One of the most concerted campaigns has been that of Muslim groups to have Holocaust Memorial Day replaced with Genocide Memorial Day, which uncannily falls just days before Holocaust commemorations. Mehdi Hasan has written about his shame at his own community’s efforts to belittle the Holocaust, highlighting how in past years the Muslim Council of Britain has boycotted the memorial day. This year the Islamic Human Rights Commission has held Genocide Day events in London, Paris, and Amsterdam. But as became apparent at one such previous event organized by the IHRC, the focus was not other genocides, but primarily the crimes of Zionism. During the Q&A it was asserted that the “real” Holocaust had been the wartime bombing of German cities and that Anne Frank had not been murdered, but had merely died of typhus.

Another increasingly popular Holocaust Memorial Day activity is using the day to highlight the cause of the Palestinians and lambast Jews and Israel. Days before commemorations, British MP David Ward was once again doing just that. Last year he accused “the Jews” of not having learned “the lessons of the Holocaust.” This year, speaking in Parliament, Ward asked if we should not use the day to remember “the millions of displaced Palestinians, still denied their right, to return to their homes.” This effort to sublimate the memory of murdered Jews beneath the political cause of the Palestinians was most overtly manifested in 2009 when a Swedish city canceled its Holocaust commemorations, with one organizer explaining, “We have been preoccupied and grief-stricken by the war in Gaza.”

There has also been the bizarre phenomenon of selecting what would seem to be the most unsuitable people for participation in the commemorations. At this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day it was announced that Prime Minister Cameron has established a new Holocaust Commission, but on that commission will sit Labour’s Ed Balls, who was exposed for dressing as a Nazi in his spare time. Meanwhile, London’s 2013 Holocaust Memorial Ceremony, attended by Mayor Boris Johnson and former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, featured as a speaker Muslim activist Hassan Farooq–a curious choice given that Farooq is on record praising Hitler and calling for the murder and gassing of Jews.

This year, however, the person who perhaps did the most for subtly perverting the meaning and spirit of Holocaust Memorial Day was the EU’s foreign-affairs representative Baroness Ashton. Ashton’s Holocaust Memorial Day statement took the opportunity to condemn racism, to praise those who had protected “their fellow citizens” and to declare that “respect of human rights and diversity lies at the heart of what the European Union stands for.” Yet, Jews and anti-Semitism were not mentioned once. Chilling to see the Jews erased from a statement that supposedly commemorates the event that attempted to erase them altogether.

Perhaps many Europeans have gotten tired of feeling guilty about the Holocaust, being reminded of their own societies’ participation, collaboration, or indifferent inaction to the murder of not just any people, but specifically the Jews. And remembering the Jews of World War Two only serves to remind them of the Jews still around today, and to remind them that they don’t much like these Jews either.  

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The Costs of Obama’s Syrian Disaster

When President Obama made the case for U.S. strikes on Syria last year and then ignominiously retreated in the face of congressional opposition and wound up agreeing to a deal that handed Russia responsibility for cleaning up that country’s chemical arms, it marked a new low for U.S. Middle East policy. But a war-weary America that wanted no part of yet another foreign war merely shrugged. Most acknowledged, however, that Obama’s retreat was humiliating. But the rise of a new isolationism has muted any potential public outcry over Obama’s irresponsibility in demanding the ouster of Bashar Assad or the hollow bravado of his talk of “red lines,” let alone any concern for the slaughter of more than 100,000. Even those initially inclined to support military action in Syria came to believe that it might now be too late to act since Obama’s dithering may have squandered the chance to replace Assad with pro-democracy rebels instead of al-Qaeda-related terrorists. When Obama punted the Syrian question to Russia, some observers hoped that the deal for the removal of the regime’s chemical weapons would, at least, limit the damage.

But several months later, the problem has not just disappeared as the president hoped it would. The American people may be no more interested in dealing with Syria today than they were last August, but at least Secretary of State John Kerry seems willing to admit, albeit privately, that the administration has been party to a complete disaster that may well come back to haunt the U.S. in a catastrophic way. Speaking with at least 15 members of Congress in an off-the-record meeting, as the Daily Beast reports, Kerry told them that the talks with the Russians have not succeeded in dealing with the chemical-weapons issue, let alone in ending the Syrian civil war. Even worse, he admitted that al-Qaeda-connected opposition groups are now entrenched in the country and may well be planning to attack the American homeland. But comments such as these weren’t likely to stay private for long, as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham leaked them yesterday, provoking the usual denials from both the White House and the State Department.

While McCain and Graham may hope to use this information to gain more support for their proposals to arm moderate Syrian rebels, there appears little appetite in either the Congress or the country for any intervention in Syria. But as much as administration officials may be counting on public apathy to shield them from being held accountable for their Syrian fiasco, Kerry’s admission about the strengthening of al-Qaeda should shock the nation. Just as importantly, these revelations shed new light on the utter bankruptcy of the administration’s groundless faith in the nuclear talks with the other major player in Syria: Iran. Although the administration has worked tirelessly to shout down the bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate that wants to pass more sanctions on Iran with the administration’s spurious claim that the alternative to the current diplomatic track is war, the tragic outcome in Syria illustrates that there is something even worse than a conflict with Iran.

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When President Obama made the case for U.S. strikes on Syria last year and then ignominiously retreated in the face of congressional opposition and wound up agreeing to a deal that handed Russia responsibility for cleaning up that country’s chemical arms, it marked a new low for U.S. Middle East policy. But a war-weary America that wanted no part of yet another foreign war merely shrugged. Most acknowledged, however, that Obama’s retreat was humiliating. But the rise of a new isolationism has muted any potential public outcry over Obama’s irresponsibility in demanding the ouster of Bashar Assad or the hollow bravado of his talk of “red lines,” let alone any concern for the slaughter of more than 100,000. Even those initially inclined to support military action in Syria came to believe that it might now be too late to act since Obama’s dithering may have squandered the chance to replace Assad with pro-democracy rebels instead of al-Qaeda-related terrorists. When Obama punted the Syrian question to Russia, some observers hoped that the deal for the removal of the regime’s chemical weapons would, at least, limit the damage.

But several months later, the problem has not just disappeared as the president hoped it would. The American people may be no more interested in dealing with Syria today than they were last August, but at least Secretary of State John Kerry seems willing to admit, albeit privately, that the administration has been party to a complete disaster that may well come back to haunt the U.S. in a catastrophic way. Speaking with at least 15 members of Congress in an off-the-record meeting, as the Daily Beast reports, Kerry told them that the talks with the Russians have not succeeded in dealing with the chemical-weapons issue, let alone in ending the Syrian civil war. Even worse, he admitted that al-Qaeda-connected opposition groups are now entrenched in the country and may well be planning to attack the American homeland. But comments such as these weren’t likely to stay private for long, as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham leaked them yesterday, provoking the usual denials from both the White House and the State Department.

While McCain and Graham may hope to use this information to gain more support for their proposals to arm moderate Syrian rebels, there appears little appetite in either the Congress or the country for any intervention in Syria. But as much as administration officials may be counting on public apathy to shield them from being held accountable for their Syrian fiasco, Kerry’s admission about the strengthening of al-Qaeda should shock the nation. Just as importantly, these revelations shed new light on the utter bankruptcy of the administration’s groundless faith in the nuclear talks with the other major player in Syria: Iran. Although the administration has worked tirelessly to shout down the bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate that wants to pass more sanctions on Iran with the administration’s spurious claim that the alternative to the current diplomatic track is war, the tragic outcome in Syria illustrates that there is something even worse than a conflict with Iran.

While granting Russia pre-eminence in Syria diplomacy was a matter of concern, many in Washington believed that doing so would at least contain the Syrian war and allow the administration to stay out of the conflict without paying any tangible penalty for its humiliation. But punting on Syria has left the country in the hands of two horrible forces: Assad and his Iran/Hezbollah allies and the potent Islamist forces that seem to have superseded moderates as the principal alternative to the ruling regime.

Just as Obama’s two years of fatal indecision on Syrian action left him with few good options by the time he woke up to the fact that he had to make some decision last summer, it appears that several more months of delay have only served to make the situation look even more grim. If Kerry has now conceded that the Russians can’t be trusted and has disclosed to Congress the potentially lethal nature of the threat from al-Qaeda, it is obvious that Obama’s diplomacy has succeeded only in creating new problems that may not be contained within Syria’s borders.

Much as the administration would prefer to stifle any efforts to use Kerry’s remarks as a way to initiate a new examination of its Syria policy, the U.S. failure must also unquestionably influence all present and future discussions of the president’s efforts to foster détente with Iran.

Armed conflict should always be the policy of last resort, but this administration’s avoidance of force has become its single, guiding principle. This does not go unnoticed by our foes, be they al-Qaeda or Iran. In Syria we have seen what happens when the West is unwilling and/or unable to muster forces to back its own threats of the use of force to end a brutal regime that murders its people by the tens of thousands. Rather than containing the problem to a small Middle Eastern country about which few Americans care, the implosion within Syria now threatens to mushroom into a conflict that could, if Kerry and intelligence director James Clapper are to be believed, eventually pose a threat to the United States. That is a problem that won’t be solved by U.S. reliance on the Russians or their Iranian partners in the Syrian catastrophe.

The connection to the Iran nuclear talks  can’t be denied. Syria did far more than highlight the irresolution of Obama’s foreign policy. It gave a textbook illustration of the mortal dangers of weakness on the international stage. That weakness was not lost on Iran when it negotiated an interim nuclear deal in which the U.S. discarded its economic and military leverage and tacitly recognized Tehran’s “right” to enrich uranium. Just as Assad believes the current diplomatic track in Syria will not undermine his rule, so, too, his Iranian backers are understandably confident of their ability to negotiate and achieve Western recognition for their nuclear program. And just as America’s inability to act in Syria may have engendered a powerful al-Qaeda enclave there, blind faith in diplomacy is setting in motion a train of events that could lead directly to an Iranian bomb. The result of all this is not only a more dangerous Middle East but also an American homeland that is demonstrably less secure because of Obama’s continuing and uncomprehending failures.

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The McFaul Era in Moscow Draws to a Close

Michael McFaul has announced he is leaving his post as United States ambassador to Russia after the upcoming Olympics in Sochi. In many ways, his troubled tenure in Moscow has been representative of broader trends in U.S.-Russia relations during Vladimir Putin’s leadership. McFaul is easily among the most qualified American ambassadors to any country under any administration, as a Rhodes scholar who studied in the Soviet Union, prolific author on Russian politics, and finally National Security Council-based presidential advisor on Russian affairs before being nominated to the ambassador’s post two years ago.

But Moscow is where theory bows to reality. And the reality for McFaul, architect of the failed “reset,” was bitter. He went to Russia with high hopes and an open mind, yet the abuse leveled at him by his hosts “didn’t even happen in the Soviet Union,” in McFaul’s own words. Worse than the Soviet Union? It’s not an easy thing to admit for a representative of the Obama administration, which had spent years deluding themselves and mocking conservatives as being stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” as President Obama said in his 2012 convention speech, which sounded like it was written by a Berkeley freshman, and not a particularly clever one at that.

But McFaul didn’t have the luxury of basking in the administration’s delusions. He was too busy dodging Kremlin mouthpieces he accused of hacking his phone and email, subject to harassment and a mammoth disinformation campaign. And his farewell message, posted on his blog, shows the defensiveness U.S. officials have when addressing “successes” of the two countries’ bilateral relationship:

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Michael McFaul has announced he is leaving his post as United States ambassador to Russia after the upcoming Olympics in Sochi. In many ways, his troubled tenure in Moscow has been representative of broader trends in U.S.-Russia relations during Vladimir Putin’s leadership. McFaul is easily among the most qualified American ambassadors to any country under any administration, as a Rhodes scholar who studied in the Soviet Union, prolific author on Russian politics, and finally National Security Council-based presidential advisor on Russian affairs before being nominated to the ambassador’s post two years ago.

But Moscow is where theory bows to reality. And the reality for McFaul, architect of the failed “reset,” was bitter. He went to Russia with high hopes and an open mind, yet the abuse leveled at him by his hosts “didn’t even happen in the Soviet Union,” in McFaul’s own words. Worse than the Soviet Union? It’s not an easy thing to admit for a representative of the Obama administration, which had spent years deluding themselves and mocking conservatives as being stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” as President Obama said in his 2012 convention speech, which sounded like it was written by a Berkeley freshman, and not a particularly clever one at that.

But McFaul didn’t have the luxury of basking in the administration’s delusions. He was too busy dodging Kremlin mouthpieces he accused of hacking his phone and email, subject to harassment and a mammoth disinformation campaign. And his farewell message, posted on his blog, shows the defensiveness U.S. officials have when addressing “successes” of the two countries’ bilateral relationship:

But I also will leave with a feeling of accomplishment.  Since we set out to reset relations with Russia five years ago (yes, I am not afraid to use the word “reset”!), we have achieved a lot.  We signed and now are implementing the New Start Treaty.  We worked closely with the Russian government to expand the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which has developed into a vital transit route for supplying our soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan and will now play an important role in withdrawing our military equipment from there.  We established the Bilateral Presidential Commission (BPC), which now has more than two dozen working groups between our governments to nurture cooperation on everything from agriculture to innovation. We worked closely with our colleagues in Moscow to facilitate Russia’s accession into the World Trade Organization, and now continue to cooperate with the Russian government on ways to expand trade and investment between our two countries.

Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization was a legitimate accomplishment, and long overdue. The rest is spin: the “reset” is a punch line, and deservedly so, and the limited Russian cooperation on Afghanistan was in Russia’s own interest, which Putin readily acknowledged. New START was a useless distraction, though Russia doesn’t appear to be complying with missile agreements anyway.

None of this is because McFaul is a fool; he isn’t. It’s just that he was the representative of an administration that doesn’t take world affairs seriously. Indeed, one reason Americans should be sad to see McFaul leave the government is because of the second-term stream of incompetents the president has nominated to fill foreign-policy related posts. This is a pattern from the secretaries of state and defense, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, on down to plum ambassadorships.

For example, our new ambassador to Norway is a major Obama donor who appears to have first heard of Norway in his confirmation hearing:

To recap: Tsunis described Norway as having a president (“apparently under the impression that the country is a republic rather than a constitutional monarchy,” as the Local Norway’s News notes dryly). And he characterized the anti-immigration Progress Party as being among “fringe elements” who “spew their hatred” and have been denounced by the government.

That prompted McCain’s disbelieving answer: “The government has denounced them? The coalition government — they’re part of the coalition of the government.”

McCain, already flummoxed by the apparent inability of Obama’s choice to be ambassador to Hungary to list strategic U.S. interests there, closed his questioning with a bit of sarcasm: “I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees.”

Confirmation hearings of Obama nominees have gotten quite painful to watch. They were funny at first, but now simply provoke gallows humor and sarcasm. McFaul was an exception: intelligent, experienced, often politically incorrect, and–unlike, apparently, some of our other esteemed ambassadors–previously aware of the existence of the country to which he was assigned.

McFaul’s nomination raised the bar, but that seems to have been temporary. It will also leave Russia-watchers pondering the missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential had McFaul served a president more prepared to confront reality.

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Global Defense Spending Sharply Rises (Except in the West)

The defense budget debates in Washington over the past several years always took place in a vacuum: rarely, if ever, were discussions on how much to cut put into a global context. Few partisans of reduced military spending ever stopped to consider that the United States was not reducing its commitments around the world, only its ability to carry them out. Nor did they seem much exercised by the thought that other countries were not motionless, but would be pursuing their own interests regardless of what Washington did.

Two news stories today bring some more clarity to a situation that has been developing for some time. While the U.S. defense budget continues on a long-term downward trend (though spared from the worst of the congressionally-mandated sequestration cuts for now), China, Russia, and the Middle East are driving a new surge in military spending. Meanwhile, America and its liberal allies continue to pare their defensive capabilities, leading to an increasing imbalance around the globe.

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The defense budget debates in Washington over the past several years always took place in a vacuum: rarely, if ever, were discussions on how much to cut put into a global context. Few partisans of reduced military spending ever stopped to consider that the United States was not reducing its commitments around the world, only its ability to carry them out. Nor did they seem much exercised by the thought that other countries were not motionless, but would be pursuing their own interests regardless of what Washington did.

Two news stories today bring some more clarity to a situation that has been developing for some time. While the U.S. defense budget continues on a long-term downward trend (though spared from the worst of the congressionally-mandated sequestration cuts for now), China, Russia, and the Middle East are driving a new surge in military spending. Meanwhile, America and its liberal allies continue to pare their defensive capabilities, leading to an increasing imbalance around the globe.

According to the New York Times, China will spend more than Britain, France, and Germany combined, a total of $148 billion, though many experts believe it may be as much as double that. Just as worryingly, Bloomberg reports that in 2015 China and Russia alone will spend more on their militaries than the entire European Union. Those who dismiss Vladimir Putin’s regime as a paper tiger should update their assessment: Moscow now has the world’s third-largest military budget, and is increasing it by 44 percent. Meanwhile, China has just tested a hypersonic missile and has recently fielded new Predator-style drones, while investing in precision-guided cruise missiles, new bombers, an aircraft carrier, and a fifth-generation stealth fighter.

The political implications of the world’s largest authoritarian powers dramatically increasing their military budgets while the Western democracies reduce theirs seem unappreciated in Washington. It would be bad enough were a more confident China and Russia acting more coercively at their current levels of strength; a more powerful Beijing and Moscow, increasingly dismissive of their neighbors and acutely aware of regional military spending, will certainly be emboldened to push their interests in a more assertive fashion.

The response from the Obama administration is disheartening. It turns Syrian disarmament over to Russia and the U.N.; it refuses to confront China on its coercive behavior in the East and South China Seas; it embraces long-term personnel and modernization cuts in the U.S. military while ignoring other wasteful spending. The Obama White House may have the pulse of a war-weary American public, but it has completely misdiagnosed the global condition.

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