Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 10, 2014

More ObamaCare Delays Won’t Save Dems

From its inception, the strategy behind the Obama administration’s implementation of ObamaCare has been simple: to frontload the benefits and postpone the pain and costs of this massive government intrusion into the private sector for as long as possible. This deceitful approach enabled President Obama run for reelection in 2012 on the spurious promise of extending insurance coverage to the poor and those with pre-existing conditions without being held accountable for the problems with the law that would only become apparent in his second term. Over the course of the last year, as the president’s signature accomplishment debuted with a disastrous rollout, the administration has retreated bit by bit from its insistence on implementing the entire unwieldy and gargantuan edifice on the American people immediately after Obama was safely ensconced in his second term. A dysfunctional website and the president’s broken promises about patients being able to keep their coverage and their doctors has led to the law being dismantled piece by piece as various elements were delayed. Today, yet another element of the law was similarly postponed, by executive order. As the New York Times reports:

The Obama administration announced Monday that it would again delay enforcement of a federal requirement for certain employers to provide health insurance to employees, giving medium-size companies extra time to comply. The “employer mandate,” which had already been delayed to Jan. 1, 2015, will now be phased-in beyond that date for some businesses with more than 50 employees.

The motivation for this latest delay is transparently political. By delaying yet one more element of the law until after the midterm elections, the administration hopes to save some faltering Democratic red-state incumbents who, unlike the president, are faced with the difficult task of running for reelection in the wake of the ObamaCare rollout. Though the pain of the health-care law is already being felt by millions of Americans who have lost their coverage and are facing higher costs for insurance that fails to meet their needs, Democrats are trying to do anything they can to put off the devastating impact the law will have on employers and, by extension, the economy.

But the problem here is not only the flagrantly political nature of this decision. Rather, it is the spectacle of a law being stretched to the breaking point by an administration that thinks it can selectively cherry-pick what parts of the law it will enforce. With ObamaCare enrollment numbers already falling millions short of what they would have to be for the law to be cost-effective, no amount of playing fast and loose with enforcement can disguise the fact that the scheme appears to be headed for collapse.

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From its inception, the strategy behind the Obama administration’s implementation of ObamaCare has been simple: to frontload the benefits and postpone the pain and costs of this massive government intrusion into the private sector for as long as possible. This deceitful approach enabled President Obama run for reelection in 2012 on the spurious promise of extending insurance coverage to the poor and those with pre-existing conditions without being held accountable for the problems with the law that would only become apparent in his second term. Over the course of the last year, as the president’s signature accomplishment debuted with a disastrous rollout, the administration has retreated bit by bit from its insistence on implementing the entire unwieldy and gargantuan edifice on the American people immediately after Obama was safely ensconced in his second term. A dysfunctional website and the president’s broken promises about patients being able to keep their coverage and their doctors has led to the law being dismantled piece by piece as various elements were delayed. Today, yet another element of the law was similarly postponed, by executive order. As the New York Times reports:

The Obama administration announced Monday that it would again delay enforcement of a federal requirement for certain employers to provide health insurance to employees, giving medium-size companies extra time to comply. The “employer mandate,” which had already been delayed to Jan. 1, 2015, will now be phased-in beyond that date for some businesses with more than 50 employees.

The motivation for this latest delay is transparently political. By delaying yet one more element of the law until after the midterm elections, the administration hopes to save some faltering Democratic red-state incumbents who, unlike the president, are faced with the difficult task of running for reelection in the wake of the ObamaCare rollout. Though the pain of the health-care law is already being felt by millions of Americans who have lost their coverage and are facing higher costs for insurance that fails to meet their needs, Democrats are trying to do anything they can to put off the devastating impact the law will have on employers and, by extension, the economy.

But the problem here is not only the flagrantly political nature of this decision. Rather, it is the spectacle of a law being stretched to the breaking point by an administration that thinks it can selectively cherry-pick what parts of the law it will enforce. With ObamaCare enrollment numbers already falling millions short of what they would have to be for the law to be cost-effective, no amount of playing fast and loose with enforcement can disguise the fact that the scheme appears to be headed for collapse.

The list of ObamaCare delays was already impressive when I noted the announcement in December that those whose coverage was cancelled would not face penalties for not buying ObamaCare for a year:

On July 2, the White House abruptly announced a one-year delay, until 2015, in a provision that requires larger employers to offer coverage to their workers or pay penalties. 

On Nov. 27, it deferred a major element of the law that would allow small businesses to buy insurance online for their employees through the federal exchange.

Earlier, in April, the administration said that the federal exchange would not offer employees of a small business the opportunity to choose from multiple health plans in 2014.

And in October 2011, the administration scrapped a long-term care insurance program created by the new law, saying it was too costly and would not work.

Seen in totality, it appears that ObamaCare is unraveling like a cheap sweater. But though the administration is trying to limit the number of those who are inconvenienced or hurt by the law, this latest decision is one more shred of evidence that proves the assumptions about the law’s popularity were completely unfounded. Democrats assumed that once the law began to be implemented the benefits it distributed would quickly make it as beloved as Social Security or Medicare. But it is now abundantly clear that the numbers of ObamaCare losers may well equal or exceed the total of those who will benefit from it. No amount of lawlessness on the part of a president who lacks the constitutional power to enforce only the laws or the parts of laws that he likes can conceal the enormity of the ObamaCare fiasco.

Unfortunately for the president and Democratic incumbents, the sheer number of ObamaCare exemptions and delays has grown to the point where it is no longer possible to pretend that the only problem with the law was a glitch-ridden website or Republican obstructionism. No matter how many of its ill-conceived moving parts the presidential orders say need not be implemented before November, the accumulated weight of its failure may prove too heavy a burden for Democrats who must answer to the electorate for their votes to shove this monstrosity down the collective throat of the American people.

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The Rabbis Who Attacked AIPAC and the Congregants Who Hit Back

It has become a commonplace observation in some portions of the organized Jewish community to complain that American rabbis are afraid to discuss Israel with their congregations. The assumption underlying this claim is that to criticize the State of Israel is the kiss of death for Jewish clergy who live in fear of offending wealthy donors. It’s all very sad but, in fact, completely untrue. Critics of Israel aren’t shunned in American Jewish life. If anything, they have a much better chance of being heard in the secular media—and given space on the opinion pages of major newspapers such as the New York Times—than those who attempt to defend the Jewish state against the slanders that are hurled at it by both its Arab foes and Jews who adopt a “more in sorrow than in anger” pose.

Consider the rabbis at a prominent synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, B’nai Jeshurun. Two of them, Rolando Matalon and Felicia Sol, signed a letter (as this story in New York’s Jewish Week reported) attacking New York City mayor Bill de Blasio for speaking at an AIPAC event where he said, “City Hall will always be open to AIPAC. When you need me to stand by you in Washington or anywhere, I will answer the call and I’ll answer it happily ’cause that’s my job.” The letter they signed said the following: “The needs and concerns of many of your constituents–U.S. Jews like us among them–are not aligned with those of AIPAC, and no, your job is not to do AIPAC’s bidding when they call you to do so. AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.”

As it happens, B’nai Jeshurun’s congregants include a number of people who are deeply involved with AIPAC. They are predominantly liberal themselves, as well as predominantly Democratic Party voters, and as such, they give the lie to the idea that AIPAC is a right-wing cabal. They have issued a public letter of their own, expressing their profound distress at their rabbinical leaders for their spurious attack:

Please understand that your words, besides being factually incorrect, are offensive to many of your congregants. As our rabbis, your public comments reflect on our synagogue and on us. We are proud supporters of AIPAC, and we object to the way you mischaracterize the work that AIPAC does and the diverse political affiliation of its many members. Your letter is divisive and contains false and unsubstantiated statements. By attempting to paint AIPAC into an ideological corner, you have injured AIPAC’s ability to continue its bipartisan efforts, and in so doing have hurt the State of Israel as well.

You can read the rest of the letter here.

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It has become a commonplace observation in some portions of the organized Jewish community to complain that American rabbis are afraid to discuss Israel with their congregations. The assumption underlying this claim is that to criticize the State of Israel is the kiss of death for Jewish clergy who live in fear of offending wealthy donors. It’s all very sad but, in fact, completely untrue. Critics of Israel aren’t shunned in American Jewish life. If anything, they have a much better chance of being heard in the secular media—and given space on the opinion pages of major newspapers such as the New York Times—than those who attempt to defend the Jewish state against the slanders that are hurled at it by both its Arab foes and Jews who adopt a “more in sorrow than in anger” pose.

Consider the rabbis at a prominent synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, B’nai Jeshurun. Two of them, Rolando Matalon and Felicia Sol, signed a letter (as this story in New York’s Jewish Week reported) attacking New York City mayor Bill de Blasio for speaking at an AIPAC event where he said, “City Hall will always be open to AIPAC. When you need me to stand by you in Washington or anywhere, I will answer the call and I’ll answer it happily ’cause that’s my job.” The letter they signed said the following: “The needs and concerns of many of your constituents–U.S. Jews like us among them–are not aligned with those of AIPAC, and no, your job is not to do AIPAC’s bidding when they call you to do so. AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.”

As it happens, B’nai Jeshurun’s congregants include a number of people who are deeply involved with AIPAC. They are predominantly liberal themselves, as well as predominantly Democratic Party voters, and as such, they give the lie to the idea that AIPAC is a right-wing cabal. They have issued a public letter of their own, expressing their profound distress at their rabbinical leaders for their spurious attack:

Please understand that your words, besides being factually incorrect, are offensive to many of your congregants. As our rabbis, your public comments reflect on our synagogue and on us. We are proud supporters of AIPAC, and we object to the way you mischaracterize the work that AIPAC does and the diverse political affiliation of its many members. Your letter is divisive and contains false and unsubstantiated statements. By attempting to paint AIPAC into an ideological corner, you have injured AIPAC’s ability to continue its bipartisan efforts, and in so doing have hurt the State of Israel as well.

You can read the rest of the letter here.

This letter reveals a sobering truth: the most pressing problem for American Jews is not the failure of spiritual leaders to disassociate themselves from Israel and its backers but the scandalous impunity with which some prominent rabbis and Jewish organizational leaders use their pulpits to undermine the pro-Israel community and lend aid and comfort to those seeking to wage economic war on the Jewish state. It takes little courage these days to denounce the pro-Israel cause; the rewards of doing so are actually quite substantial. Rather than needing more tolerance for those who seek to support their disgraceful campaign of delegitimization, perhaps what is required is for more American Jews like the signatories of the letter opposing their rabbis’ statement to find the guts to start speaking out against those who seek to shout down the Jewish state’s defenders.

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Charlie Crist’s Identity Crisis

Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat, is Florida’s version of Michael Bloomberg without the money or sense of humor. Or, it turns out, the consistency or coherence. Bloomberg didn’t have to modulate his positions to switch parties. He ran as a liberal Republican in a city that elects liberal Republicans. He didn’t become more enthusiastic toward big government when he switched out of the Republican Party; he was always a nanny-stater, and merely no longer needed the GOP tag to get elected.

But Crist makes no pretensions toward principle. What does he believe? Who wants to know–and is this person registered to vote? As such, Crist has been changing his political positions to run as a Democrat, and this weekend he went on Bill Maher’s television show to further liberate himself from the burdens of his old self. I use the term “liberate” because of the specific terminology Crist employed:

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Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat, is Florida’s version of Michael Bloomberg without the money or sense of humor. Or, it turns out, the consistency or coherence. Bloomberg didn’t have to modulate his positions to switch parties. He ran as a liberal Republican in a city that elects liberal Republicans. He didn’t become more enthusiastic toward big government when he switched out of the Republican Party; he was always a nanny-stater, and merely no longer needed the GOP tag to get elected.

But Crist makes no pretensions toward principle. What does he believe? Who wants to know–and is this person registered to vote? As such, Crist has been changing his political positions to run as a Democrat, and this weekend he went on Bill Maher’s television show to further liberate himself from the burdens of his old self. I use the term “liberate” because of the specific terminology Crist employed:

Former Gov. Charlie Crist announced Friday night he supports ending the American embargo with communist Cuba. Republicans quickly pounced on Crist for switching his position on the issue.

Crist appeared on Bill Maher’s show on HBO on Friday night and called for ending the embargo and his campaign released a statement on his position.

“The embargo has done nothing in more than 50 years to change the regime in Cuba,” Crist said. “If we want to bring democracy to Cuba, we need to encourage American values and investment there, not block ourselves out and cede influence to China. It will take time, and we must do it in a way where American investment helps people, not the dictatorship. But the reality is that no state’s economy is hurt more by America’s Cuba policies than Florida. Changing these policies to allow Florida’s farmers, manufacturers, and construction industry to sell goods and services in Cuba would boost Florida’s economy and help businesses create more jobs in our state.”

Crist agreed with Maher’s assessment that a “small Cuban community” in South Florida had “held hostage” America’s Cuba policies. Maher said Florida politicians needed to “stand up to” the “small Cuban community” and, once again, Crist agreed. “I think they need to,” Crist told Maher.

Crist seems to think of himself as one of those “held hostage” by his beloved state’s Cuban community. Crist’s reversals are numerous. He actually is quite reminiscent of the fictional newsman Ron Burgundy, whose downfall comes when his rival is told how to sabotage him: “Ron Burgundy will read anything that is put on that TelePrompTer. And when I say anything, I mean anything.”

Charlie Crist will read anything that is put on that TelePrompTer. And since he’s gunning for votes–sorry, I shouldn’t say gunning, since Crist has renounced his previous support for gun rights–from Democrats, he’ll happily go on television and accuse Florida’s Cubans of holding the country hostage. (Before you get offended, remember: he probably doesn’t actually believe it. You can tell, because he said it.)

But Crist accidentally said something useful the other night–but not for the reasons he might think–in the course of reading whatever script he was handed for Piers Morgan’s show:

“I think I’ll quote Jeb Bush. He said it better than I ever could. Today’s Republican Party, at least the leadership, is perceived as being anti-women, anti-minority, anti-immigrant, anti-education, anti-gay couples, anti-environment,” Crist said Wednesday on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Live.”

It’s useful not for its wisdom, of which the statement is completely devoid. It’s useful as a reminder to Republicans and conservatives that they will all be portrayed as extreme–whether they’re establishment or insurgent. And it’s worth keeping in mind as they read stories like today’s in the New York Times on the “establishment strikes back” narrative. The headline is “Chastened G.O.P. Tries to Foil Insurgents at Primary Level,” but in fact that’s not quite it.

Its thesis is a bit more nuanced, and it’s encapsulated in this sentence from the story:

The Republican Party establishment, chastened by the realization that a string of unpredictable and unseasoned candidates cost them seats in Congress two elections in a row, is trying to head off potential political hazards wherever it can this year.

The party is trying to avoid “hazards,” not conservatives–and that’s important. The story of course mentions the infamous Todd Akin. But as the article makes clear, Republican groups are not out to defend perpetual incumbency so much as keeping the seat in the Republican column.

Inasmuch as the right is in danger of losing seats it should otherwise win, it’s generally in such danger because of bad candidates, not bad policies. And Charlie Crist happens to be a perfect example. Crist was once the establishment candidate trying to ward off an “insurgent” challenge from Tea Party voters. That challenger was Marco Rubio. Who would the GOP rather have representing its principles in Congress right now, Rubio or Crist? To ask the question is to answer it.

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A Good Time for that “Pacific Pivot”

I was struck by Michael Auslin’s item regarding the possibility of war breaking out between China and Japan–something that has been much discussed in recent weeks and that is no longer so unthinkable with nationalist politicians in power in both Beijing and Tokyo. Japan’s prime minister has compared the current situation to 1914 with Japan in the role of Britain and China that of Wilhelmine Germany. The president of the Philippines has cited a historical comparison of his own–to the 1930s with China in the role of Nazi Germany and his own country cast as Czechoslovakia, ripe for dismemberment.

Whatever one thinks of these historical analogies, there is no doubt that China is going on the offensive, using aggressive nationalism as a ruling ideology to replace defunct Communist dogma, and Japan is less and less inclined to be pushed around by its bigger neighbor: a potentially explosive combination.

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I was struck by Michael Auslin’s item regarding the possibility of war breaking out between China and Japan–something that has been much discussed in recent weeks and that is no longer so unthinkable with nationalist politicians in power in both Beijing and Tokyo. Japan’s prime minister has compared the current situation to 1914 with Japan in the role of Britain and China that of Wilhelmine Germany. The president of the Philippines has cited a historical comparison of his own–to the 1930s with China in the role of Nazi Germany and his own country cast as Czechoslovakia, ripe for dismemberment.

Whatever one thinks of these historical analogies, there is no doubt that China is going on the offensive, using aggressive nationalism as a ruling ideology to replace defunct Communist dogma, and Japan is less and less inclined to be pushed around by its bigger neighbor: a potentially explosive combination.

And yet where does Secretary of State John Kerry choose to devote his time? He has made clear that his primary objective is to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, which seems to be as unlikely as ever. His secondary objectives seem to be focused on Iran and Syria, both important areas to be sure. But the Syria conflict, for one, does not appear to be amenable to diplomatic solution, as the failure of Geneva II should have made clear. The prospects are, admittedly, more promising in the case of Iran but only if the U.S. is willing to accept a lopsided deal that lifts a significant amount of the sanctions in return for a commitment to slow but not stop, much less dismantle, its nuclear program.

This leads one to wonder why Kerry isn’t devoting more time to Asian diplomacy? The explosive situation between China and Japan is hardly the only area of tension that cries out for amelioration. As the comments from Benigno Aquino of the Philippines quoted above make clear, China has dangerous relations with many of its neighbors who are offended by its expansive territorial claims.

Two U.S. allies–South Korea and Japan–also have poisonous relations that hinder efforts to contain both China and North Korea and could also be the subject of productive bridge-building work by an American secretary of state.

Finally, India remains a wild card in all of this–a major country on the other side of China that could be of crucial importance in containing the rise of Chinese power, playing the same role that Russia played in containing Germany in the two world wars. President George W. Bush made real progress in improving U.S.-India ties but more needs to be done, not only to bring the U.S. and India closer together but also to improve ties between India and other U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific region, from Australia to Japan.

There is, in short, ample work to be done here by a leading American diplomat and more potential for progress than in the Middle East. Yet Kerry is largely MIA in this crucial region. Whatever happened to the “Pacific pivot”?

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Is Al Jazeera Innocent in Egypt Dispute?

The New York Times carries an op-ed today raising the troubling case of Egypt’s arrest of a number of journalists affiliated with Al Jazeera. Marwan Bishara, a political analyst at Al Jazeera, writes:

The Egyptian authorities have rounded up several of our colleagues at Al Jazeera Arabic, our Middle East service, confiscated their cameras and shut down our bureau. While all except one were released, arrest warrants were also issued for 20 people who, the government says, either currently work for Al Jazeera or have done so in the past, among them several foreigners. They include three journalists from Al Jazeera English, the English-language network that also includes Al Jazeera America, who were arrested in December: Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed. They have now been charged with broadcasting false reports of unrest with the intention of helping the Muslim Brotherhood destabilize Egypt. This is merely propaganda to cover up censorship and repression. Mr. Greste, our award-winning foreign correspondent, wrote from his cold cell: “How do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved?”

Bishara address a number of key points, and while I cannot comment on the merits of the specific case, not having seen the Al Jazeera reports to which Egyptian authorities reacted nor the evidence the Egyptian government plans to use to back formal charges, there are no angels in this dispute. Certainly, Egyptian authorities have misused the judiciary in their increasingly paranoid drive to stifle both civil society and criticism. The United States, for example, remains deeply troubled with regard to the case of National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute employees arrested in Egypt.

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The New York Times carries an op-ed today raising the troubling case of Egypt’s arrest of a number of journalists affiliated with Al Jazeera. Marwan Bishara, a political analyst at Al Jazeera, writes:

The Egyptian authorities have rounded up several of our colleagues at Al Jazeera Arabic, our Middle East service, confiscated their cameras and shut down our bureau. While all except one were released, arrest warrants were also issued for 20 people who, the government says, either currently work for Al Jazeera or have done so in the past, among them several foreigners. They include three journalists from Al Jazeera English, the English-language network that also includes Al Jazeera America, who were arrested in December: Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed. They have now been charged with broadcasting false reports of unrest with the intention of helping the Muslim Brotherhood destabilize Egypt. This is merely propaganda to cover up censorship and repression. Mr. Greste, our award-winning foreign correspondent, wrote from his cold cell: “How do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved?”

Bishara address a number of key points, and while I cannot comment on the merits of the specific case, not having seen the Al Jazeera reports to which Egyptian authorities reacted nor the evidence the Egyptian government plans to use to back formal charges, there are no angels in this dispute. Certainly, Egyptian authorities have misused the judiciary in their increasingly paranoid drive to stifle both civil society and criticism. The United States, for example, remains deeply troubled with regard to the case of National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute employees arrested in Egypt.

At the same time, Al Jazeera reporters have sometimes violated basic journalistic ethics. On several occasions during the Iraq war, according to U.S. army officers, American servicemen received anonymous calls drawing them to a certain location, only to observe Al Jazeera reporters manning positions around what later turned out to be a massive booby-trap. Watching American servicemen murdered might make good ratings, but coordinating with insurgents and terrorists ahead of time certainly is not the proper role of journalists. Nor did Al Jazeera exemplify honest journalism when it threw a birthday party for Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese terrorist who had killed a four-year girl he had kidnapped by crushing her skull with a rifle butt.

There is no such thing as a legitimate target, regardless of the politics of Al Jazeera or any other media outlet. At the same time, outlets like Al Jazeera have proven that its employees are not above reproach. Just because someone carries a press card does not mean that they should enjoy immunity for behavior that may not conform to the who, what, where, why, and when of traditional journalism. The United States, for example, would certainly prosecute a Xinhua journalist if that individual moonlighted in espionage for the Chinese state.

So what to do? In such a situation, no one deserves benefit of the doubt. It behooves the Egyptian authorities to show that their accusations are warranted; if they are, then there is no reason why the individuals arrested should not be prosecuted. If Egypt is simply acting out of animus toward Al Jazeera’s home state of Qatar, the main sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, then Cairo risks losing all credibility. While journalists too frequently express professional solidarity with their colleagues across countries, the only thing that is certain right now is that there are no angels in the Egyptian conflict.

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From Messiah to Leper in Six Short Years

With no prospects for a successful legislative agenda in Congress and even his talk of governing by executive order not impressing either friends or foes, President Obama seems to be drifting inexorably toward lame-duck status. But there is no better indication of just how politically toxic Obama has become than the rumblings that came out of last week’s meeting between the president and Senate Democrats. As Politico reports, the White House has agreed to stay out of most of the key races that will decide whether Democrats retain control of the Senate this year. Given the fact that his poll numbers are under water and that even Obama was prepared to admit that “in some of your states I’m not the most popular politician,” this is smart politics. But it also shows just how far the mighty Obama political machine has fallen.

In discussions of the 2014 midterm elections, one of the key factors that explains why Republicans have an advantage in November is often overlooked: Barack Obama’s stunning victory in 2008. If Democrats are forced to defend 21 Senate seats this year—including some highly vulnerable ones in red states—it is because six years ago, enthusiasm for Barack Obama inspired a massive turnout for his party that enabled them to win eight seats, turning a narrow 51-49 majority into a 59-41 hold on power that (after the late Arlen Specter’s defection to the Democrats) briefly turned into a 60-seat majority that helped ram ObamaCare through the Senate. Nor can there be any argument that it was the Obama-driven “hope and change” turnout of minorities and young voters that helped put Democrats over the top in states like Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Oregon.

The lineup of tossup races is different this year, but the Obama factor is again in play. The irony is that while Democrats need to generate the kind of turnout of key constituencies they got in 2008 and 2012 when the president was at the top of the ballot, endangered Democrats want no part of the president and are specifically asking him to avoid appearances in their states lest his presence taint their hopes of holding on to their seats. While Obama’s fundraising ability is still key to Democratic hopes and might be welcomed by incumbents cruising to victory in safe seats, those fighting for their political lives understand their only chance of survival is to run as foes or at least skeptics of the president and ObamaCare.

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With no prospects for a successful legislative agenda in Congress and even his talk of governing by executive order not impressing either friends or foes, President Obama seems to be drifting inexorably toward lame-duck status. But there is no better indication of just how politically toxic Obama has become than the rumblings that came out of last week’s meeting between the president and Senate Democrats. As Politico reports, the White House has agreed to stay out of most of the key races that will decide whether Democrats retain control of the Senate this year. Given the fact that his poll numbers are under water and that even Obama was prepared to admit that “in some of your states I’m not the most popular politician,” this is smart politics. But it also shows just how far the mighty Obama political machine has fallen.

In discussions of the 2014 midterm elections, one of the key factors that explains why Republicans have an advantage in November is often overlooked: Barack Obama’s stunning victory in 2008. If Democrats are forced to defend 21 Senate seats this year—including some highly vulnerable ones in red states—it is because six years ago, enthusiasm for Barack Obama inspired a massive turnout for his party that enabled them to win eight seats, turning a narrow 51-49 majority into a 59-41 hold on power that (after the late Arlen Specter’s defection to the Democrats) briefly turned into a 60-seat majority that helped ram ObamaCare through the Senate. Nor can there be any argument that it was the Obama-driven “hope and change” turnout of minorities and young voters that helped put Democrats over the top in states like Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Oregon.

The lineup of tossup races is different this year, but the Obama factor is again in play. The irony is that while Democrats need to generate the kind of turnout of key constituencies they got in 2008 and 2012 when the president was at the top of the ballot, endangered Democrats want no part of the president and are specifically asking him to avoid appearances in their states lest his presence taint their hopes of holding on to their seats. While Obama’s fundraising ability is still key to Democratic hopes and might be welcomed by incumbents cruising to victory in safe seats, those fighting for their political lives understand their only chance of survival is to run as foes or at least skeptics of the president and ObamaCare.

A breakdown of 2014 races shows that the seats most likely to switch hands are in Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia. With the exception of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who is still favored to win reelection in Kentucky, Democrats currently hold all of these seats. Pundit Larry Sabato rates Alaska, Louisiana, and North Carolina as tossups, with the rest all considered likely GOP wins.

Republicans shouldn’t count their chickens before they’re hatched: at the moment the Democratic path to victory looks terribly steep. But what is particularly significant about the lineup of battleground Senate elections is that in order to prevail, Democratic incumbents are going to have spend the next several months distancing themselves from the head of their party. While all second-term presidents find it difficult to get their way in their last two years in power, the sixth-year midterms are generally their last chance for glory and influence. But in this case, President Obama is not so much being asked to avoid mistakes that might hurt his party as to shut up and stay out of those states where control of the Senate will be decided.

If Democrats lose the Senate this year it will be largely because of voter dissatisfaction with the president who helped sweep some of these incumbents into office in the first place. In six short years, Obama has gone from being a messiah to a leper that Senate Democrats are determined to shun. How are the mighty fallen, indeed. 

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Iranian Rhetoric Isn’t Just Bluster

The Iranian Navy’s dispatch of ships into the Atlantic surprised both American journalists and diplomats. It should not have, for Iranian officials have long telegraphed their desire to expand Iran’s naval outreach. Back in 2011, Habibollah Sayyari, commander of the Iranian Navy, declared it to be Iran’s intention to establish a presence in the Atlantic Ocean near the territorial waters of the United States.

When it comes to the Obama administration’s current diplomacy with Tehran, it is important to focus more on Iranian actions than the promises of its diplomats. When it comes to the supreme leader, the Iranian military, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, however, rhetoric is important because, all too often, they have shown their determination to put into action plans announced regarding future developments of the Iranian military and Iranian power projection. Official statements, for example, about talk of launching aircraft carriers might seem silly and unrealistic, but that depends on the meaning of aircraft carrier: Shortly thereafter, the U.S. navy began seeing Iranian boats launching Iran’s indigenous drones.

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The Iranian Navy’s dispatch of ships into the Atlantic surprised both American journalists and diplomats. It should not have, for Iranian officials have long telegraphed their desire to expand Iran’s naval outreach. Back in 2011, Habibollah Sayyari, commander of the Iranian Navy, declared it to be Iran’s intention to establish a presence in the Atlantic Ocean near the territorial waters of the United States.

When it comes to the Obama administration’s current diplomacy with Tehran, it is important to focus more on Iranian actions than the promises of its diplomats. When it comes to the supreme leader, the Iranian military, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, however, rhetoric is important because, all too often, they have shown their determination to put into action plans announced regarding future developments of the Iranian military and Iranian power projection. Official statements, for example, about talk of launching aircraft carriers might seem silly and unrealistic, but that depends on the meaning of aircraft carrier: Shortly thereafter, the U.S. navy began seeing Iranian boats launching Iran’s indigenous drones.

Likewise, Iranian authorities have pursued intercontinental ballistic missile capability through their satellite launching program. Given the fact that Iranian authorities at least try to fulfill their military rhetoric, the number of Iranian officials who have spoken about the need to achieve a nuclear-weapons capability if not nuclear weapons themselves should concern the White House. Alas, it seems that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s desire for a deal has trumped the caution which normally accompanies such high-profile outreach.

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Iraq’s Sectarian Slide

It seems to be an iron law of Iraqi politics, as immutable as the rising and setting of the sun: when Sunni militants run wild, Shiite militants retaliate in kind. For the past year we have been hearing a great deal about the return of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has now been transformed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In that guise, the group has been expanding its control on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, its most alarming gains being the seizure of Fallujah. Al-Qaeda terrorists have also been setting off numerous car bombs in Baghdad and other cities, killing a growing number of civilians, many of them Shiites. Indeed January saw the highest death toll since April 2008.

So it should be no surprise that Shiite extremists are beginning to retaliate in kind. The Mahdist Army, run by Moqtada al Sadr, is largely defunct but out of its remains have sprung fresh, Iranian-supported groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. Meanwhile the Badr Organization, Sadr’s old rival, remains very much in business as well, and many of its members are enlisted in the security forces where they are well positioned to use their uniforms as cover for ethnic cleansing–something last seen on a large scale in 2007.

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It seems to be an iron law of Iraqi politics, as immutable as the rising and setting of the sun: when Sunni militants run wild, Shiite militants retaliate in kind. For the past year we have been hearing a great deal about the return of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has now been transformed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In that guise, the group has been expanding its control on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, its most alarming gains being the seizure of Fallujah. Al-Qaeda terrorists have also been setting off numerous car bombs in Baghdad and other cities, killing a growing number of civilians, many of them Shiites. Indeed January saw the highest death toll since April 2008.

So it should be no surprise that Shiite extremists are beginning to retaliate in kind. The Mahdist Army, run by Moqtada al Sadr, is largely defunct but out of its remains have sprung fresh, Iranian-supported groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. Meanwhile the Badr Organization, Sadr’s old rival, remains very much in business as well, and many of its members are enlisted in the security forces where they are well positioned to use their uniforms as cover for ethnic cleansing–something last seen on a large scale in 2007.

The Washington Post quotes one Asaid Ahl al-Haq commander as saying, “We have to be much more active. Those who are trying to incite sectarianism, we have to deal with them,” while “drawing his hand over his throat like a knife.”

This is yet another ominous sign of how Iraq is sliding back toward the abyss from which it was only narrowly rescued in 2007-2008 by the U.S.-led surge. The crux of General David Petraeus’s strategy was to target al-Qaeda first in the expectation that, once its threat had receded, Shiites would turn away from militant groups claiming to defend them. This gamble paid off in 2008 when Prime Minister Maliki targeted Sadrists in both Basra and Sadr City. Such a strategy could work again, but Maliki first would have to do a better job of recruiting Sunni sheikhs to his side to turn the tide against al-Qaeda and then he would have to show willingness to turn once again on his Shiite brethren.

In short, the onus is once again on the prime minister to show statesmanship and vision–neither, alas, one of his strong suits to judge by his record in office.

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The Media Competes for Hillary’s Love

This week’s publication of a new Hillary Clinton biography by the respected political reporters Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes brings into stark relief just how much Clinton’s theoretical, but expected presidential campaign affects political press coverage two and a half years out from Election Day. When I wrote last month about how Clinton finally seemed to bestow on us a legitimately perpetual campaign, I had noted only in passing the media dimension, such as Maggie Haberman’s profile in which she wrote that Clinton’s “legacy as the most powerful woman in the history of American politics is already secure”–a claim seemingly dashed off casually but which is not true.

That claim encapsulates the two major flaws of Hillary’s media coverage: reporters are tossing out declarations of world-historical status almost in habit, which is itself a problem, and the claims are also quite often not true–a more obvious, but still prevalent, problem. What it amounts to is worshipful coverage, all the more so because Clinton hasn’t actually declared her candidacy yet. Reporters are jostling for and rewarding access, but since there are no real campaign stories to run yet we’re stuck with the scene-setting pieces. Jonathan Karl’s review, in today’s Wall Street Journal, of the latest book on Hillary leaves the impression it’s a book-length version of the problematic stories:

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This week’s publication of a new Hillary Clinton biography by the respected political reporters Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes brings into stark relief just how much Clinton’s theoretical, but expected presidential campaign affects political press coverage two and a half years out from Election Day. When I wrote last month about how Clinton finally seemed to bestow on us a legitimately perpetual campaign, I had noted only in passing the media dimension, such as Maggie Haberman’s profile in which she wrote that Clinton’s “legacy as the most powerful woman in the history of American politics is already secure”–a claim seemingly dashed off casually but which is not true.

That claim encapsulates the two major flaws of Hillary’s media coverage: reporters are tossing out declarations of world-historical status almost in habit, which is itself a problem, and the claims are also quite often not true–a more obvious, but still prevalent, problem. What it amounts to is worshipful coverage, all the more so because Clinton hasn’t actually declared her candidacy yet. Reporters are jostling for and rewarding access, but since there are no real campaign stories to run yet we’re stuck with the scene-setting pieces. Jonathan Karl’s review, in today’s Wall Street Journal, of the latest book on Hillary leaves the impression it’s a book-length version of the problematic stories:

There is some new reporting, but it’s buried in mixed metaphors and cliché-ridden praise of Mrs. Clinton’s brilliance.

Mr. Allen and Ms. Parnes appear to have fallen in love with their subject. “Hillary knows one gear: overdrive,” they write, adding that she is “like a veteran hitter who remains even-keeled under pressure, her steadiness is born of her experience.” She is “a woman who got up every time the world knocked her down” and is “unwavering in her support of the 21st century statecraft concept.” This is the kind of stuff that would make Mrs. Clinton’s image mavens blush.

Even those around her are described in almost heroic terms. One Hillary confidant is called “tough as a trident missile.” Long-time aide Huma Abedin, referred to throughout the book merely as “Huma,” is described as a “South Asian beauty with political smarts and an uncommonly subtle grace.”

The authors seem to question nothing they are told by the guardians of Mrs. Clinton’s image.

Later in the review, Karl touches on a subject that shows why these hagiographic scene-setting articles–and this case, a book–are so necessary to Clinton’s non-campaign campaign. He writes about how the authors mostly work to absolve Clinton of the blame for the Benghazi attacks. “She was responsible, but not to blame,” Karl quotes the book explaining. It’s a weak exoneration, to be sure, but also a terrible argument for giving someone with her record far more power: either she is neglectful in her executive oversight, or in charge but incompetent.

Nonetheless, Karl notes the authors’ recounting of Hillary’s successes:

They run through some of her more meaningful accomplishments: helping negotiate an end to military rule in Burma, building a coalition to support military intervention in Libya. But they seem almost as impressed with the iconic photograph of Mrs. Clinton wearing sunglasses and sitting in the middle of a C-17 reading her BlackBerry. The photo ended up on a Tumblr page called “Texts From Hillary” that—with its amusingly imagined messages from Hillary imposed over the iconic photo—the authors call “one of the most memorable, and politically valuable, episodes of Hillary’s four years at State.” Not the kind of thing that wins you a Nobel Peace Prize.

No, it isn’t. Burma was helpful, but it’s got a long way to go and there may in fact be ethnic cleansing taking place in parts of the country. But the point of the preceding paragraph is that for someone without any real accomplishments–and without question, Hillary Clinton is such a candidate–there is nothing left to run on but image.

Americans have seen this play before. In 2008, Barack Obama had no accomplishments, so he ran one of the most vapid and intellectually shallow campaigns in memory. Rather than serious arguments, voters were given a poster and told to repeat the word “hope” in cultish devotion. Clinton appears ready to run her version of the Obama poster: the image that forms the basis of a Tumblr page called “Texts from Hillary.” And the recent media coverage of Clinton shows that the Democratic candidate won’t be the only one repeating the campaign of 2008.

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Sam Harris Won’t Change His Mind. But Neither Will Most of the Rest of Us.

Jonathan Haidt is a leading social psychologist. Earlier this month he wrote a fascinating article on why the “New Atheist” Sam Harris won’t change his mind.

Here’s the context: Mr. Harris said he would personally pay $10,000 to anyone who submits an essay so logically compelling that it makes him change his mind and renounce his views. Professor Haidt in turn said he would pay Harris $10,000 if anyone could convince Harris to renounce his views. Haidt’s confidence has little to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of the arguments opposed to Harris; it rests instead on Harris’s dogmatism.

What Haidt found in analyzing the works of Harris is that he’s a person who is so deeply committed to his point of view–his investment in his outlook and attitudes are so central to his self-understanding–that no set of arguments, however persuasive, could cause Harris to rethink his previous positions.

If it’s any comfort to Harris, he has a lot of company. In his article Haidt echoes a theme he’s written on before–the enormous power “motivated reasoning” and “confirmation bias” have in our lives.

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Jonathan Haidt is a leading social psychologist. Earlier this month he wrote a fascinating article on why the “New Atheist” Sam Harris won’t change his mind.

Here’s the context: Mr. Harris said he would personally pay $10,000 to anyone who submits an essay so logically compelling that it makes him change his mind and renounce his views. Professor Haidt in turn said he would pay Harris $10,000 if anyone could convince Harris to renounce his views. Haidt’s confidence has little to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of the arguments opposed to Harris; it rests instead on Harris’s dogmatism.

What Haidt found in analyzing the works of Harris is that he’s a person who is so deeply committed to his point of view–his investment in his outlook and attitudes are so central to his self-understanding–that no set of arguments, however persuasive, could cause Harris to rethink his previous positions.

If it’s any comfort to Harris, he has a lot of company. In his article Haidt echoes a theme he’s written on before–the enormous power “motivated reasoning” and “confirmation bias” have in our lives.

“People deploy their reasoning powers to find support for what they want to believe,” he writes. “Nobody has yet found a way to ‘debias’ people—to train people to look for evidence on the other side—once emotions or self-interest are activated.” Haidt says that his own area of research, moral judgment, makes it clear that “people make judgments of right and wrong almost instantly, and then make up supporting reasons later.” David Hume was right when he said that reason was “the slave of the passions” rather than its charioteer.

Haidt observes, too, that “disconfirmation”–being open to having one’s views challenged, learning from this experience, and as a result improving one’s reasoning–depends in part on social relationships. “We engage with friends and colleagues, but we reject any critique from our enemies,” he writes. “Relationships open hearts, and open hearts open minds.”

This doesn’t mean reason doesn’t have a vital role to play or that some individuals aren’t capable of more self-detachment than others. And in terms of Harris’s atheism, Haidt would agree with me, I think, that his arguments about morality, science, and faith still need to be confronted even if Harris harbors great antipathy for religion which skews his judgments.

That said, the core argument made by Haidt is an important one. Assume you believe, as I do, that grounding our views in moral intuitions and what Burke referred to (in an uncritical way) as “prejudice” is entirely legitimate. It’s still the case for many of us that in all sorts of areas–including religion, politics, and philosophy–we subordinate intellectual honesty in order to ratify our pre-existing opinions. We’ve settled on what we believe is the right and true answer; everything after that consists of confirming what we believe.

We all engage in this to some extent; it’s a matter of degree, of whether we’re able to absorb, let alone dispassionately examine, evidence that challenges our presuppositions. That’s true of Sam Harris–and it’s true of me. He has his biases and predilections, I have mine, and you have yours. The question, really, is whether we recognize them and what we do with them. Are they instruments or obstacles to ascertaining the reality of things? 

It’s fair to say, I think, that one of the gifts we sometimes receive in life is to have people who have standing in our lives alert us to our blind spots–and, in the process, gently remind us that searching for truth requires us from time to time to reexamine and refine our assumptions. If you think it’s easy or common, just ask yourself the last time you did it. 

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Schumer Outsmarts the GOP Again

Chuck Schumer is at it again. The wily New York Democrat put together an impressive bipartisan coalition last year to push an immigration reform bill through the Senate. Schumer succeeded because he not only enlisted Republicans who agreed that fixing the broken system was long overdue but because he listened to their concerns and designed legislation that made border security a priority alongside concerns Democrats cared about, such as providing a path to legalization and citizenship for the 11 million illegal aliens currently in the country. However, the Senate bill has stalled in the House and last week House Speaker John Boehner said even the approach to immigration favored by some Republicans in which the border security measures would be passed separately was also not viable. But Schumer isn’t giving up. And in a last, probably vain effort to save immigration reform in this Congress, he is again listening to what Republicans are saying.

When Boehner dismissed the possibility of passing an immigration bill of any kind last week, he explained that Republicans simply do not trust President Obama to enforce the laws of the land with regard to border security. After Obama announced in his State of the Union that he would attempt, wherever possible, to govern without the consent of Congress via executive orders, conservatives who were never very enthusiastic about dealing with immigration in the first place saw an excuse to oppose any effort, even one favored by Boehner and most of the GOP leadership. Worried that rebellious Tea Partiers might threaten his speakership as well as by the possibility that the issue would divert Republicans and the voters from the Democrats’ ObamaCare woes, Boehner waved the white flag on immigration reform.

In response to this, Schumer said yesterday that he would agree to an immigration bill that wouldn’t go into effect until 2017. In doing so, he’s calling the Republicans’ bluff. Since President Obama would not have the opportunity to gum up the works on border security after he left office, Schumer has answered what we were told was the chief Republican concern about addressing immigration this year.

Will it succeed? Of course not! Obama’s lawless approach to governance is a legitimate issue. But by giving in to Republicans on this point and putting off implementation of the law until after Obama leaves the White House, all Schumer has done is to expose something that was already obvious: Republicans won’t vote for an immigration reform bill under virtually any circumstances.

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Chuck Schumer is at it again. The wily New York Democrat put together an impressive bipartisan coalition last year to push an immigration reform bill through the Senate. Schumer succeeded because he not only enlisted Republicans who agreed that fixing the broken system was long overdue but because he listened to their concerns and designed legislation that made border security a priority alongside concerns Democrats cared about, such as providing a path to legalization and citizenship for the 11 million illegal aliens currently in the country. However, the Senate bill has stalled in the House and last week House Speaker John Boehner said even the approach to immigration favored by some Republicans in which the border security measures would be passed separately was also not viable. But Schumer isn’t giving up. And in a last, probably vain effort to save immigration reform in this Congress, he is again listening to what Republicans are saying.

When Boehner dismissed the possibility of passing an immigration bill of any kind last week, he explained that Republicans simply do not trust President Obama to enforce the laws of the land with regard to border security. After Obama announced in his State of the Union that he would attempt, wherever possible, to govern without the consent of Congress via executive orders, conservatives who were never very enthusiastic about dealing with immigration in the first place saw an excuse to oppose any effort, even one favored by Boehner and most of the GOP leadership. Worried that rebellious Tea Partiers might threaten his speakership as well as by the possibility that the issue would divert Republicans and the voters from the Democrats’ ObamaCare woes, Boehner waved the white flag on immigration reform.

In response to this, Schumer said yesterday that he would agree to an immigration bill that wouldn’t go into effect until 2017. In doing so, he’s calling the Republicans’ bluff. Since President Obama would not have the opportunity to gum up the works on border security after he left office, Schumer has answered what we were told was the chief Republican concern about addressing immigration this year.

Will it succeed? Of course not! Obama’s lawless approach to governance is a legitimate issue. But by giving in to Republicans on this point and putting off implementation of the law until after Obama leaves the White House, all Schumer has done is to expose something that was already obvious: Republicans won’t vote for an immigration reform bill under virtually any circumstances.

Many on the right think what happened in the Senate on immigration last year that the clever Schumer hoodwinked Senate Republicans like Marco Rubio. The conservative distrust of Schumer is so intense that they think any accommodation on his part is all part of a dastardly scheme concocted to embarrass the GOP and/or to further the liberal agenda. But the history of this legislation proves that Schumer’s genius is not so much a matter of his outfoxing the Republicans as it is a matter of his concessions successfully illustrating the intransigence of some conservatives on this issue.

What Schumer has done on immigration is to transform the liberal position from one in which Democrats demanded a bill that was solely focused on easing entry in the country and a path to citizenship for illegals into one that poured massive resources into border security and charted a path to legalization for scofflaws that was both lengthy and draconian. In the last month as House Republicans began talking about a package that would separate the these two elements, Schumer and the White House backed down on the citizenship track and indicated they would settle for legalization. Now he has further sweetened the pot for Republicans by removing Obama and his cherry-picking approach to law enforcement out of the question entirely.

But House Republicans are running away from Schumer’s suggestion as fast as they are from the bipartisan Senate bill he sent them. Though what he has done used to be considered normative behavior in a previous era when it was accepted that compromise was necessary to pass a bill, many in the GOP view his concessions as a plot. Speaker Boehner’s office dismissed the idea as “impractical,” saying the delay would give the president no incentive to enforce the laws in his last three years in office. Though some Republicans are open to the proposal, it’s more than obvious that the GOP would rather have its talking point about Obama’s lawlessness exposed as a mere excuse rather than budge on its refusal to address the issue this year.

This is, as I wrote last week, a mistake. Republicans who think they can continue to further alienate Hispanic voters while also convincing many non-Hispanics that they are succumbing to prejudice without long-term damage to their electoral prospects are engaging in self-deception. While allowing a House debate and a vote would give greater prominence to the “worst and most irresponsible voices on immigration” that Pete Wehner mentioned in his piece on the issue, what Boehner has done is to give those very same people an effective veto on the legislation. Having given those who are mesmerized by the word “amnesty” the whip hand over the GOP in 2014, does anyone really think it will be easier to enact any kind of fix to a broken immigration system in 2014 even if Republicans win control of both the House and the Senate in November? While liberal Hispanics can’t be converted to the GOP by only one bill, the Republican failure to address reform cannot but result in anything but their writing off an increasingly important segment of the electorate for the foreseeable future.

Schumer may be a clever politician, but if he succeeds in embarrassing the GOP, it is those conservatives who are thwarting immigration reform who deserve the credit. Schumer’s latest compromise has resulted in yet another unforced error on the part of the Republican leadership. Immigration reform remains good public policy as well as good politics for the GOP. If it loses another presidential election by ignoring or insulting Hispanics the way it did in 2012, those who are applauding or condoning Boehner’s decision will have cause to look back on this episode with regret. 

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Obama’s Precarious Iran Policy

As American peace efforts toward Iran have meandered along, Western diplomats have been eagerly pointing to the moderate and supposedly promising statements coming from Iranian president Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif. Amidst the Geneva negotiations between the Iranians and the P5+1 nations, not only has the Obama administration been backing away from using force to halt Iran’s nuclear program, but the president has spoken firmly about his will to stop Congress from implementing further sanctions against Iran. Yet, just as Obama’s clamor for peace with Iran is becoming most frantic, Iran is once again giving every indication that it is clamoring for war.

Writing at Mosaic, Michael Doran, a former security advisor in the Bush administration, makes the case that President Obama is essentially so allergic to the prospect of intervention in the Middle East that it may well have always been his strategy to acquiesce in the face of the Iranian bomb. Doran’s case is as disturbing as it is compelling, for as he points out, if containment rather than prevention had been Obama’s strategy from the outset then he hardly could have expressed this openly. Rather, he would have been at least compelled to publicly adopt the appearance of staunch opposition to a nuclear Iran. Yet, consistently, both in the case of Iran and Syria, Obama has expressed tough words, backed up by the kind of inaction that gives every reason to doubt the sincerity with which those words were offered.

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As American peace efforts toward Iran have meandered along, Western diplomats have been eagerly pointing to the moderate and supposedly promising statements coming from Iranian president Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif. Amidst the Geneva negotiations between the Iranians and the P5+1 nations, not only has the Obama administration been backing away from using force to halt Iran’s nuclear program, but the president has spoken firmly about his will to stop Congress from implementing further sanctions against Iran. Yet, just as Obama’s clamor for peace with Iran is becoming most frantic, Iran is once again giving every indication that it is clamoring for war.

Writing at Mosaic, Michael Doran, a former security advisor in the Bush administration, makes the case that President Obama is essentially so allergic to the prospect of intervention in the Middle East that it may well have always been his strategy to acquiesce in the face of the Iranian bomb. Doran’s case is as disturbing as it is compelling, for as he points out, if containment rather than prevention had been Obama’s strategy from the outset then he hardly could have expressed this openly. Rather, he would have been at least compelled to publicly adopt the appearance of staunch opposition to a nuclear Iran. Yet, consistently, both in the case of Iran and Syria, Obama has expressed tough words, backed up by the kind of inaction that gives every reason to doubt the sincerity with which those words were offered.

One might have thought that the Iranians would have seized the opportunity that Obama was presenting them with–to pay lip service to reciprocating his own platitudes for peace, and in return they could rest assured that America would never get serious about intervention. Iran’s previous president, Ahmadinejad, never quite caught on and a series of crippling sanctions were the result of his fierce rhetoric and his refusal to even feign cooperation. It seemed that Rouhani was different in this respect and that he had learned that mild words could easily purchase sanctions relief and enthusiastic engagement from Western governments eager to renew trade relations.

It is, then, a sign of just how unpredictable Iran can be that over the last few days Iran has abruptly resumed the rhetoric of war. On Friday, as has now been widely publicized, Iranian state television ran a documentary featuring simulated footage of an Iranian bombardment of Israel’s cities as well as an air strike on a U.S. naval carrier. This appears to have been coordinated with a series of aggressive statements made by the regime over the weekend. These included an Iranian admiral announcing that Iran has dispatched warships to the north Atlantic, while both Iran’s defense minister and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ naval commander spoke of Iran’s ability to strike American forces. And perhaps most significantly of all, the nation’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei accused the Americans of being liars in their peace efforts with Iran. Khamenei also spoke mockingly of how he found it “amusing” that the U.S. thought Iran would reduce its military capabilities.

As Doran points out, the so called interim agreement between Iran and the West is designed in such a way so that negotiations can in fact run on indefinitely without reaching the end goal of forcing Iran to relinquish its nuclear capabilities. It is in Iran’s interest to try and keep this interim period open for as long as possible. The next round of talks are due to commence on February 18 and to run for five months. Iran may have decided that with part of the sanctions already lifted, it would be advantageous to delay the start of these negotiations by causing a minor diplomatic crisis. By pursuing a stop-start strategy on these talks, Iran can drag out the period in which it is still permitted to enrich, while sanctions have been scaled down and the threat of further sanctions are being held off, giving it time to cross the threshold of full weapons capabilities.

As the recent statements from the Iranian leaders demonstrate, the Obama administration can talk peace all it likes; the Iranians, however, may still have no interest in reciprocation. What they know full well is that by even threatening war, with a White House that is clearly intimidated by the prospect of military intervention, Tehran can keep America running scared. 

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Christians Should Speak Out Against the Rising Persecution of Gays Overseas

The New York Times published a story on Nigeria, whose president, Goodluck Jonathan, signed a harsh law criminalizing homosexuality throughout the country last month. As a result, arrests of gay people have multiplied.

The Times story begins with a young man being whipped 20 times on the courtroom bench, leaving him covered with bruises. It goes on to say that the Nigerian president’s national ban “has redoubled the zeal against gay people here and elsewhere… Officials here in Bauchi say they want to root out, imprison and punish gays.” It goes on to report this:

Homosexuality is illegal in 38 of 54 African countries, according to Amnesty International, and carries the death penalty in Mauritania, Sudan and Somalia, as well as Shariah-governed northern Nigeria. Recently Uganda’s president declined to sign a bill that carried a life sentence for gays, though he called them sick. In Senegal, where the press regularly “outs” gays, same-sex relations carry a penalty of five years.

It seems to me that there’s an opportunity for Christians both overseas and in America to condemn what’s happening–to do so in a manner that is well-considered and effective and doesn’t bend when it comes to upholding the dignity and rights of the human person. Even if the appeals fall on deaf ears, calling attention to and criticizing injustice is a moral requirement.

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The New York Times published a story on Nigeria, whose president, Goodluck Jonathan, signed a harsh law criminalizing homosexuality throughout the country last month. As a result, arrests of gay people have multiplied.

The Times story begins with a young man being whipped 20 times on the courtroom bench, leaving him covered with bruises. It goes on to say that the Nigerian president’s national ban “has redoubled the zeal against gay people here and elsewhere… Officials here in Bauchi say they want to root out, imprison and punish gays.” It goes on to report this:

Homosexuality is illegal in 38 of 54 African countries, according to Amnesty International, and carries the death penalty in Mauritania, Sudan and Somalia, as well as Shariah-governed northern Nigeria. Recently Uganda’s president declined to sign a bill that carried a life sentence for gays, though he called them sick. In Senegal, where the press regularly “outs” gays, same-sex relations carry a penalty of five years.

It seems to me that there’s an opportunity for Christians both overseas and in America to condemn what’s happening–to do so in a manner that is well-considered and effective and doesn’t bend when it comes to upholding the dignity and rights of the human person. Even if the appeals fall on deaf ears, calling attention to and criticizing injustice is a moral requirement.

One need not endorse same-sex marriage to believe that the rising tide of anti-gay legislation in other parts of the world is quite troubling, that gays deserve to be defended against persecution, and that the Christian church is one institution that might have some power, at least in some nations and in some circumstances, to make a positive difference. 

Quite apart from the moral merits of this approach, think about the witness it would signal to the world if Christians spoke out in defense of gays in Nigeria and elsewhere and why they deserve protection against imprisonment and violence. 

It strikes me that this is an easy call, that it’s clearly the right and decent thing to do. There are plenty of wounded travelers on the roads of cities all across the globe. The Christian faith is best served when its adherents choose not to pass on the other side.

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Why Replace Richard Falk?

Many here at COMMENTARY and elsewhere have written regarding the sorry legacy of Richard Falk, the United Nations special rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Falk has, for example, blamed Israel for the Boston Marathon bombing; he has described the murderous Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a paradigm of human rights, used his platform to promote anti-Semitism, and engaged in 9/11 conspiracy theories. In short, Falk has been an embarrassment to the United Nations and confirmed the worst accusations of the UN’s critics.

Fortunately, Falk’s term is coming to an end. Hillel Neuer, who does yeoman’s work at UN Watch, recently published a “rogues’ gallery” of those seeking to replace him. The list is not pretty: Hard-core Stalinists, unabashed anti-Semites, and political activists who oppose the peace process on the ground that Israel should cease to exist.

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Many here at COMMENTARY and elsewhere have written regarding the sorry legacy of Richard Falk, the United Nations special rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Falk has, for example, blamed Israel for the Boston Marathon bombing; he has described the murderous Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a paradigm of human rights, used his platform to promote anti-Semitism, and engaged in 9/11 conspiracy theories. In short, Falk has been an embarrassment to the United Nations and confirmed the worst accusations of the UN’s critics.

Fortunately, Falk’s term is coming to an end. Hillel Neuer, who does yeoman’s work at UN Watch, recently published a “rogues’ gallery” of those seeking to replace him. The list is not pretty: Hard-core Stalinists, unabashed anti-Semites, and political activists who oppose the peace process on the ground that Israel should cease to exist.

If the United Nations cannot operate with a modicum of professionalism and if Ban Ki-moon sees his job to subsidize opponents of peace and those with an ideological axe to grind, perhaps it is time for the United States and other liberal democracies to ask just why such a position should continue to exist on the back of their contributions to the UN. If the UN Secretary General and UN cheerleaders like U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power are serious about reforming the UN, ending its worst excesses, and restoring its credibility, perhaps they should ask why Falk’s position should be filled, and why such mendacious positions, which do more to harm reconciliation than promote it and which undercut serious human-rights advocacy, should exist in the first place.

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Year of the (War) Horse?

Given that this is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, comparisons to pre-conflict Europe in 1914 are abounding. Most have little historical value and less predictive worth. However, when even foreign leaders start to repeat them, then we might start to worry about self-fulfilling prophecies.

The most notable comes from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who used his speech at the World Economic Forum meeting to claim that today, China and Japan resemble Britain and Germany in 1914. Despite their close economic ties, Abe noted, Berlin’s military buildup caused instability leading to war. Other reports out of Davos indicate the Chinese noted the same thing, with a confidence that they could achieve their immediate goal of taking over a group of contested islands located near Taiwan, the Senkakus, that Japan has controlled since 1894 (except for a period of American control from 1945 to 1972). Even Henry Kissinger has got into the act, warning that the two are close to war.

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Given that this is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, comparisons to pre-conflict Europe in 1914 are abounding. Most have little historical value and less predictive worth. However, when even foreign leaders start to repeat them, then we might start to worry about self-fulfilling prophecies.

The most notable comes from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who used his speech at the World Economic Forum meeting to claim that today, China and Japan resemble Britain and Germany in 1914. Despite their close economic ties, Abe noted, Berlin’s military buildup caused instability leading to war. Other reports out of Davos indicate the Chinese noted the same thing, with a confidence that they could achieve their immediate goal of taking over a group of contested islands located near Taiwan, the Senkakus, that Japan has controlled since 1894 (except for a period of American control from 1945 to 1972). Even Henry Kissinger has got into the act, warning that the two are close to war.

Following close on these Davos disturbances were Chinese newspapers noting that this year, the Year of the Horse, is the same zodiacal year in which China and Japan fought their first war. The 1894 Sino-Japanese War broke out over Imperial Japan’s desire to control the Korean peninsula and end Chinese influence there. Of course, Japan defeated China by the following year and upended centuries of East Asian geopolitics.

There are major historical problems with both these analogies. With respect to 1914, Japan is no Britain, which was the de facto defender of the balance of power and open trading system. Instead, Japan has but slowly developed its military potential, while keeping both its capacity limited and being hamstrung by constitutional restrictions on the use of force. The 1914-style clash between reigning hegemon and rising challenger could only be between the United States and China, and there is as yet little reason to believe either is contemplating such a fight.

Further, no matter how much economic interplay there was between Britain and Germany back then, it is nothing like the interdependence of China and Japan, which are each other’s second-largest trading partners, where 10 million Chinese are employed by Japanese firms on the mainland, and where Chinese firms assemble billions of dollars worth of products using Japanese components or designed in Japan. There is no reason to expect that economic ties always trump political/military ones, but the bar has undoubtedly been raised particularly high in the Asian case.

As for 1894, again to use the Lloyd Bentsen analogy, the Senkaku Islands are no Korea. While the Senkakus are strategically useful to China, they are uninhabitable and largely derive their importance from nationalistic feelings that any territory once claimed by a state must be recovered. Korea, by comparison, was the crossroads of Northeast Asia, a fertile land to be controlled and used for further expansion. From that perspective, Korea may indeed have been worth fighting a war over, but no such claim could be made for the Senkakus.

The real danger is not a “guns of August” scenario whereby highly regulated mobilization timetables drag unprepared participants into conflict that spreads to halfhearted alliances. The danger rather falls into two distinct scenarios. The first is that years of war talk by both sides hardens diplomatic positions and inhibits any type of peaceful solution to the problem of a handful of uninhabited islands. Yes, Japan is deeply concerned about China’s seemingly inexorable rise once again to great-power status in Asia. It fears the future and feels its national honor is at stake in the Senkakus issue. As for Beijing, it appears to have adopted a position of pushing as far as it can and waiting to see what the response is; little opposition encourages more probing, while a firm response usually causes it to back down.

The second danger scenario is much more likely: accident or miscalculation leading to conflict. One would think that an accident, say two naval ships colliding, could be contained and prevented from escalating into full war. But here is where years of nationalism, distrust, and ambition could combine into a deadly brew. Neither side may want a real conflict, but each may feel they have drawn their lines too strongly to back down. The Year of the (War) Horse may come to haunt Asia.

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Turkey’s AKP Should Be Diplomatic Pariahs

The Turkish-American relationship was once tight, and rightfully so. Whatever Turkey’s domestic problems and its democracy deficit, it was a strong ally. It fought beside the United States and against Communist aggression in the Korean War, and was one of only two NATO countries to share a border with the Soviet Union. Turkey was also a source of moderation in an increasingly immoderate region, and stood in sharp contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Without any appreciable oil resources, Turkey also transformed itself into an engine of growth through innovation and free-market enterprise.

Alas, today, Turkey is no longer much of an ally. While its supporters cite its contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it has often operated at cross purposes with the rest of ISAF. Of greater concern is:

  • Turkey’s embrace of Hamas;
  • Turkey’s support not only of the Muslim Brotherhood but also of that group’s most radical factions;
  • Turkey’s efforts to help Iran bust sanctions, apparently, if recent revelations are to be believed, for the personal profit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle;
  • Erdoğan’s support for al-Qaeda financiers such as Yasin al-Qadi; and
  • Turkey’s material support for al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria and the free passage it gives international jihadists transiting into Syria.

There is, of course, much, much more, and these don’t even begin to touch Turkey’s domestic transformation into a police-state dismissive of basic freedom.

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The Turkish-American relationship was once tight, and rightfully so. Whatever Turkey’s domestic problems and its democracy deficit, it was a strong ally. It fought beside the United States and against Communist aggression in the Korean War, and was one of only two NATO countries to share a border with the Soviet Union. Turkey was also a source of moderation in an increasingly immoderate region, and stood in sharp contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Without any appreciable oil resources, Turkey also transformed itself into an engine of growth through innovation and free-market enterprise.

Alas, today, Turkey is no longer much of an ally. While its supporters cite its contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it has often operated at cross purposes with the rest of ISAF. Of greater concern is:

  • Turkey’s embrace of Hamas;
  • Turkey’s support not only of the Muslim Brotherhood but also of that group’s most radical factions;
  • Turkey’s efforts to help Iran bust sanctions, apparently, if recent revelations are to be believed, for the personal profit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle;
  • Erdoğan’s support for al-Qaeda financiers such as Yasin al-Qadi; and
  • Turkey’s material support for al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria and the free passage it gives international jihadists transiting into Syria.

There is, of course, much, much more, and these don’t even begin to touch Turkey’s domestic transformation into a police-state dismissive of basic freedom.

Many analysts, diplomats, and journalists privately recognized Turkey’s transformation, but whether because of a desire for access, cynical self-censorship as their think-tanks raised money from businessmen affiliated with the prime minister, or outright denial, many refused to declare publicly the change inside Turkey they privately acknowledged (the same holds true with Qatar, but no one has ever confused that state with a democracy). The ostrich-syndrome changed, of course, with the bombshell revelations of corruption and investigations that accompanied the divorce between Erdoğan and his one-time backer, powerful Islamist thinker Fethullah Gülen.

Whatever the motivations for making public the Erdoğan administration’s corruption, there are few who doubt the evidence regarding corruption is truthful. Perhaps that is why Erdoğan in recent weeks has redoubled his efforts to block any public discussion of the topic. In recent days, Erdoğan’s political party, which dominates parliament, has passed a law requiring all Internet providers to obey the government-appointed president of the State Communications Board or his state-appointed deputies to shut down any website or webpage they find objectionable within four hours. Because there is no longer a judicial process to seek a shutdown, Turkey now finds itself in the same category as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. So much for liberalizing and moving closer to Europe.

In addition, social media will be subject to bans based on keywords. Mention “bribery” or “corruption” on Facebook or Twitter, and the state will delete your entire account. To the State Department’s credit, it has expressed concern regarding the new Internet regulations, although the message from the U.S. embassy regarding recent events has been decidedly mixed.

Erdoğan has gone even farther in recent days. It has now emerged in Turkey that, while traveling in Morocco last June, he called the television station Habertürk to demand the manager remove coverage of an opposition leader. Alas, this has become a pattern. Last Tuesday, the official Turkish state broadcaster TRT cut its coverage of parliament during a speech by the opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. As soon as Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech ended, live coverage of the parliamentary session resumed.

Then, in order to quash coverage of the corruption allegations against several of Erdoğan’s hand-picked ministers, he changed procedure to prevent the case going to parliament, which addresses issues-based ministers’ immunity. The AKP-dominated parliament would not have allowed the prosecutions to continue at any rate, but by bypassing parliament, Erdoğan prevented publication of the details of the charges.

Nevertheless, the stories of corruption keep pouring in. In order to save an ailing media company owned by a close friend of the prime minister, Erdoğan reportedly had his minister of transportation ask several contractors doing business with his government to donate a total of $630 million to a pool. An armored car circulated to pick up the cash. Several businessmen had to take out loans from Ziraat Bankası, a government bank, to pay their shares.

What can be done? What happens in Turkey has never stayed in Turkey. When Turkey was liberalizing and developing as a democracy, successive U.S. administrations treated it as a model. Now that Turkey is reverting to a dictatorship, and a terror-supporting one at that, it is important to criticize its trajectory with the same vehemence with which the United States once supported it. Rather than supplicate to Turkey or provide bully pulpits for Erdoğan and ministers involved in corruption, it is time to treat them—and their representatives in the United States—as pariahs. Rather than meet senior U.S. officials, they should be offered face time only with desk officers or lower-ranking diplomats. Congressmen should re-think their participation in the Congressional Turkey Caucus, unless they really wish to endorse that for which Turkey now stands. And institutions and think-tanks which seek to profit off their partnership with Turkey should be shamed in the same way that those soliciting money from Iran, the Assad regime in Syria, or the Kremlin would.

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