Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 3, 2014

Surprise: Obama Kills the Peace Process

President Obama may have thought he was being very clever ambushing Prime Minister Netanyahu with scathing comments about Israeli policies that would be published just before he arrived in the United States for a meeting at the White House and to speak at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). By slamming Netanyahu’s policies as the primary, if not the sole obstacle to peace in the Middle East, in the now infamous interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the president put the Israeli on the defensive and undermined his attempts to rally support for his positions with both AIPAC members and Congress. That should also have made it more difficult for Netanyahu to resist American pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to help the negotiations sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry succeed. But the president’s move had to leave those who have actually been following the talks with the Palestinians scratching their heads.

Kerry’s current objective is to get both parties to agree to a framework for continued talks. As has been widely reported, Netanyahu has already signaled his consent to the framework even though he and his Cabinet have grave misgivings about where the talks may eventually lead. By contrast, the Palestinians have repeatedly and publicly rejected the framework. The Palestinians have angrily rejected the framework’s requirement that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which is to say they agree to end the conflict rather than merely pause it. They also reject the West Bank security guarantees included in the framework even though it also contains their basic demands about a Palestinian state whose borders will be based on the 1967 borders while leaving open the possibility of territorial swaps. In other words, the Israelis have already given Kerry what he wanted while the Palestinians have done the opposite. Yet Obama still treats Israel as the truant and lauds Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as a trustworthy warrior for peace even though his government is a font of incitement for hatred against Jews and Israelis and he has repeatedly rejected every previous offer of statehood because he and his people remain unable or unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

By speaking in this manner about Israel, Obama has pleased the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s Jewish critics and Israel-bashers everywhere. But it will also do something else that perhaps the president never intended. He has killed any chance that Kerry’s peace talks could possibly succeed.

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President Obama may have thought he was being very clever ambushing Prime Minister Netanyahu with scathing comments about Israeli policies that would be published just before he arrived in the United States for a meeting at the White House and to speak at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). By slamming Netanyahu’s policies as the primary, if not the sole obstacle to peace in the Middle East, in the now infamous interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the president put the Israeli on the defensive and undermined his attempts to rally support for his positions with both AIPAC members and Congress. That should also have made it more difficult for Netanyahu to resist American pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to help the negotiations sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry succeed. But the president’s move had to leave those who have actually been following the talks with the Palestinians scratching their heads.

Kerry’s current objective is to get both parties to agree to a framework for continued talks. As has been widely reported, Netanyahu has already signaled his consent to the framework even though he and his Cabinet have grave misgivings about where the talks may eventually lead. By contrast, the Palestinians have repeatedly and publicly rejected the framework. The Palestinians have angrily rejected the framework’s requirement that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which is to say they agree to end the conflict rather than merely pause it. They also reject the West Bank security guarantees included in the framework even though it also contains their basic demands about a Palestinian state whose borders will be based on the 1967 borders while leaving open the possibility of territorial swaps. In other words, the Israelis have already given Kerry what he wanted while the Palestinians have done the opposite. Yet Obama still treats Israel as the truant and lauds Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as a trustworthy warrior for peace even though his government is a font of incitement for hatred against Jews and Israelis and he has repeatedly rejected every previous offer of statehood because he and his people remain unable or unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

By speaking in this manner about Israel, Obama has pleased the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s Jewish critics and Israel-bashers everywhere. But it will also do something else that perhaps the president never intended. He has killed any chance that Kerry’s peace talks could possibly succeed.

By abusing Netanyahu even though he knows the Israelis have agreed to the peace framework, Obama vented his spleen at what is obviously his least favorite foreign leader. But rather than cheering his scolding of Netanyahu those who claim to be “pro-peace and pro-Israel” ought to be gravely concerned.

Unfortunately, the audience for the Goldberg interview was wider than the membership of AIPAC or the Israeli Cabinet. The Palestinians were also listening and what they heard will constitute a far greater impediment to peace than settlements or the Israeli prime minister.

By speaking in this manner at this particular time, the president made it clear that his administration doesn’t care what the Israelis or the Palestinians actually do in the talks. He will take sides against Netanyahu and for Abbas no matter what the Israelis say or how the Palestinians continue to obstruct the process. It tells the Palestinians they need not fear American pressure either at this stage of the talks or if they ever get close to final status discussions.

 That’s a catastrophe for the peace processers because they know that the real pressure for peace on Netanyahu doesn’t come from the White House. It stems from the desire of his people for an end to the conflict. Should there ever be a credible peace offer from the Palestinians that pledges them to recognize Israel’s legitimacy and respects Israeli security and sovereignty, Netanyahu knows that no government could turn it down.

But in contrast to the Israelis, there is no Palestinian peace camp or faction within either Abbas’ Fatah or his Hamas rivals that will push for peace even if it doesn’t grant their maximal demands. The only possible source of pressure on Abbas to do make peace must come from the U.S., Europe and the Arab States. But if President Obama is not willing to hold Abbas accountable for his behavior, then no one will. In the absence of an American determination to hold Abbas’ feet to the fire in spite of the enormous Palestinian constituency that will always oppose even the most generous Israeli offer, the already slim prospects for peace are altogether extinguished.

By attacking Netanyahu and lauding Abbas, the president has accomplished something that no Israeli right-winger could possibly accomplish: kill the peace process. Without American insisting that Abbas change his ways, there is no possible way for him to withstand the far greater pressure he gets from the descendants of the 1948 refugees — who still dream of flooding Israel and turning it into another Arab state — or his Islamist rivals.

Though the president warned Netanyahu that he wouldn’t be able to protect Israel if peace talks falter, his interview with Goldberg guaranteed that this is exactly what will happen. From here on in, everything else he says about the topic is moot.

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Ukraine, Isolationism and the Republicans

The Russian invasion of the Ukraine poses a tremendous challenge to President Obama as his feckless attempts at “resets” of relations with Russia and record of weakness abroad have put him a position where he is forced to respond to a crisis for which he clearly has no appetite but can’t ignore. But he isn’t the only one American politician who should be worrying about Vladimir Putin’s ability to overturn the applecart of Washington politics. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul should be just as concerned about how events abroad have a way of upsetting our assumptions about U.S. politics.

During the last year, Paul’s stock has risen within Republican circles as concerns over U.S. spying tactics, drone attacks and government scandals have propelled the libertarian into what might be considered the front runner’s spot for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. While Paul’s strong performance in his drone filibuster and clever distancing of himself from his father’s extremism has enabled him to expand his libertarian base, this was only made possible by the complete absence of a debate on foreign policy among Republicans. Where once support for a strong defense and a robust U.S. presence abroad was mainstream GOP thinking, war weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan and cynicism about President Obama has made Paul’s neo-isolationism to become acceptable and perhaps even popular on the right.

But Putin’s seizure of the Crimea is forcing Republicans as well as the administration to think seriously about foreign policy in a way they haven’t for years. In response, some on both the right and the left are responding by asking why the fate of the Ukraine should interest Americans. While they may sympathize with Putin’s victims, they say the question of sovereignty over Crimea or even the possible reconstruction of the old Soviet empire by the new Tsar in the Kremlin has nothing to do with American security or our interests. Though they self-consciously avoid echoing Neville Chamberlain’s characterization of Czechoslovakia in 1938 after Munich as a “faraway country” when distancing themselves from Ukraine’s peril, there’s little question that they are just as willing to have the West abandon it as it did the Czechs. But such thinking is not only callous; it is irresponsible. Ukraine can only be ignored at the cost of America’s credibility as a world power and to the detriment of the cause of liberty that people like Paul claim to support.

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The Russian invasion of the Ukraine poses a tremendous challenge to President Obama as his feckless attempts at “resets” of relations with Russia and record of weakness abroad have put him a position where he is forced to respond to a crisis for which he clearly has no appetite but can’t ignore. But he isn’t the only one American politician who should be worrying about Vladimir Putin’s ability to overturn the applecart of Washington politics. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul should be just as concerned about how events abroad have a way of upsetting our assumptions about U.S. politics.

During the last year, Paul’s stock has risen within Republican circles as concerns over U.S. spying tactics, drone attacks and government scandals have propelled the libertarian into what might be considered the front runner’s spot for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. While Paul’s strong performance in his drone filibuster and clever distancing of himself from his father’s extremism has enabled him to expand his libertarian base, this was only made possible by the complete absence of a debate on foreign policy among Republicans. Where once support for a strong defense and a robust U.S. presence abroad was mainstream GOP thinking, war weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan and cynicism about President Obama has made Paul’s neo-isolationism to become acceptable and perhaps even popular on the right.

But Putin’s seizure of the Crimea is forcing Republicans as well as the administration to think seriously about foreign policy in a way they haven’t for years. In response, some on both the right and the left are responding by asking why the fate of the Ukraine should interest Americans. While they may sympathize with Putin’s victims, they say the question of sovereignty over Crimea or even the possible reconstruction of the old Soviet empire by the new Tsar in the Kremlin has nothing to do with American security or our interests. Though they self-consciously avoid echoing Neville Chamberlain’s characterization of Czechoslovakia in 1938 after Munich as a “faraway country” when distancing themselves from Ukraine’s peril, there’s little question that they are just as willing to have the West abandon it as it did the Czechs. But such thinking is not only callous; it is irresponsible. Ukraine can only be ignored at the cost of America’s credibility as a world power and to the detriment of the cause of liberty that people like Paul claim to support.

Obama’s fecklessness on Syria, Iran and now Ukraine have made the world a much more dangerous place. Unless you are prepared to retreat back to fortress America, a planet where tyrants feel free to act against U.S. allies and friends is one in which the U.S. is reduced to a second-rate nation with no power to protect its interests or its friends. We’ve already started to see that happen in the Middle East where both Israelis and Arabs now have good reason to be afraid of Iran, and in Europe where Putin is demonstrating that Western-oriented democracies can now be subjected to aggression with impunity. If history teaches us anything it is that such a situation is one in which the U.S. must demonstrate strength or watch as thugs like Putin misinterpret American apathy for a license to do as they like. That often creates unintended consequences for those who think they can ignore the world. To allow the Russians to lie about the Ukrainian protesters who deposed Putin’s puppet regime and to call them Nazis is highly ironic when it is Moscow that is committing aggression in a manner that is highly reminiscent of Europe’s tragic past.

Ron Paul and the libertarian core never demonstrated much interest in pushing back against foreign tyrants because they share the far left’s belief that it is U.S. “imperialism” that is primarily to blame for foreign strife. Rand Paul has benefited from the support from such people but now seeks to have it both ways and convince mainstream Republicans that he can be trusted to defend U.S. security. But there’s no defending American interests or a stable international order while the U.S. full retreat. Just as George W. Bush’s less than robust response to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia set the stage for today’s events in the Ukraine, a weak performance by President Obama could mean that Putin’s next victims could be NATO members in the Baltic republics.

Republicans who claim to value freedom above all values should be capable of understanding that isolationism means treating that word as irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy. Conservatives who remember that concern for the fate of the enslaved people of the Soviet empire was a core principle for Ronald Reagan’s GOP cannot abandon the same people now with a clean conscience. The United States isn’t France. It is the sole superpower democracy and when it abandons its principles abroad the world has a tendency to unravel. That not only hurts the U.S. economy. It will also involve us in conflicts that are not yet on our radar and we won’t be able to ignore no matter how much we’d like to. The return of foreign policy to the front burner of American politics should be the beginning of a process that returns Paul’s libertarians to the margins of American politics.

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Cinematic Intifada: ‘Omar’ and the Oscars

Last night at the Oscars, the award for Best Foreign Language Film went to The Great Beauty, a Fellini-esque Italian movie. The most important story about the Oscar in this category, however, involves one of the films that failed to win: Omar, a film the Motion Picture Academy credited to a country it called “Palestine” – remarkably similar to another film, Bethlehem, which was Israel’s Oscar submission this year. In The New Yorker, film critic Anthony Lane noted the similarities:

The Israeli submission … was “Bethlehem,” a thriller about a young Palestinian man, with links to terrorist activities, who is secretly controlled by an Israeli handler. The Palestinian offering was “Omar,” a thriller about a young Palestinian man, with links to terrorist activities, who is secretly controlled by an Israeli handler. Who said the two sides in the conflict have no common ground?

There was a distinct difference, however, in the treatment of the two movies by the Academy, and in the two films themselves. Omar made it onto the Academy’s nine-film shortlist, and then was selected as one of the Oscar nominees. Bethlehem won the Ophir award in Israel (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars) for “Best Picture” of the year, but it did not make it onto the Academy’s shortlist, much less garner a nomination. And thereby hangs a tale.

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Last night at the Oscars, the award for Best Foreign Language Film went to The Great Beauty, a Fellini-esque Italian movie. The most important story about the Oscar in this category, however, involves one of the films that failed to win: Omar, a film the Motion Picture Academy credited to a country it called “Palestine” – remarkably similar to another film, Bethlehem, which was Israel’s Oscar submission this year. In The New Yorker, film critic Anthony Lane noted the similarities:

The Israeli submission … was “Bethlehem,” a thriller about a young Palestinian man, with links to terrorist activities, who is secretly controlled by an Israeli handler. The Palestinian offering was “Omar,” a thriller about a young Palestinian man, with links to terrorist activities, who is secretly controlled by an Israeli handler. Who said the two sides in the conflict have no common ground?

There was a distinct difference, however, in the treatment of the two movies by the Academy, and in the two films themselves. Omar made it onto the Academy’s nine-film shortlist, and then was selected as one of the Oscar nominees. Bethlehem won the Ophir award in Israel (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars) for “Best Picture” of the year, but it did not make it onto the Academy’s shortlist, much less garner a nomination. And thereby hangs a tale.

The two films have identical plot structures; each is very well made; but they do not in fact, as Lane wrote, show that the two sides in the conflict have common ground. On the contrary, for reasons I have addressed in the March issue of The Tower Magazine (“Ideology at the Oscars”), they demonstrate why common ground is a distant dream, and why the Academy’s Oscar nomination for Omar will have the effect of widening the gap. One of the films treats the young Palestinian terrorist as a thoughtful teenager in love, pushed into violence by Nazi-like Israelis; the other film, jointly written by a Jewish-Muslim team that treats both the Palestinian youth and the Israeli handler as complicated, conflicted characters, attempting to juggle personal and political loyalties, is all the more powerful for its nuance.

The two films, taken together, vividly demonstrate the inadequacy of “processes,” “parameters,” “plans,” or “frameworks” to produce peace, given the current Palestinian culture, even if the current Palestinian “president” – now finishing the first decade of his four-year term, still unable to set foot in the half of his putative country (controlled by the terrorist group with which he periodically tries to “reconcile”), governing his own half without any of the institutions necessary for a successful state (including the rule of law, a free press, elections, or a civil society or educational system not rampant with incitement) – were to sign a “historic” or “breakthrough” document embodying the latest process/plan/parameters/framework.

Although Omar did not receive the Oscar, the nomination itself implicated the Academy, perhaps unwittingly, in an ongoing cinematic intifada that is described in my Tower article. The Academy should engage in some serious self-reflection on the process it followed this year in elevating Omar and snubbing Bethlehem.

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AIPAC Will Survive While Obama Fails

With over 10,000 pro-Israel activists in Washington this week for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and members of both parties lining up as usual to demonstrate their support for the organization and its cause it may seem odd that so many pundits are prepared to bury the group. But given the Obama administration’s recent successful effort to derail Congressional action on Iran sanctions and the president’s own extraordinary attack on the government of the Jewish state this weekend in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, these are hard times for supporters of the umbrella pro-Israel lobby. Indeed, the collapse of the sanctions campaign combined with what our John Podhoretz correctly described as Obama’s threats against the Jewish state delivered in a pre-AIPAC ambush of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu—who was on his way to Washington to meet with the president and speak at the conference—the power of the lobby seems to have been revealed to be a myth.

As Lee Smith writes today in Tablet magazine, AIPAC’s reliance on the bipartisan coalition it has forged in support of the U.S.-Israel alliance has rendered it unable to punish those who cross it. Smith writes persuasively that President Obama has effectively checkmated AIPAC with a series of moves that demonstrated he couldn’t be constrained by its stands on either the Israel-Palestinian conflict or the Iran nuclear threat. Judged by that standard, he’s right to claim the group “flopped” on Iran sanctions this year. Given that the prospects of AIPAC mobilizing sufficient Democratic support in the Senate for a revived effort to pass a new sanctions bill in the face of Obama’s veto threats are poor, it’s hard to argue with Smith’s belief that the group has been isolated and its power exposed as more a figment of the overheated imaginations of anti-Semitic conspiracy mongers than reality.

But before we join Smith’s musings about AIPAC having to do “some hard thinking about its survival,” some perspective is needed. As bad as things look for the pro-Israel community today, the lobby’s business is in taking the long view of both Washington politics and the Middle East. President Obama may have gotten the upper hand over both AIPAC and Netanyahu in recent months, but any assumption that this situation is permanent rests on the idea that the administration’s diplomatic efforts on both the Palestinian and Iranian fronts will not falter or that these failures can be blamed on Israel and its supporters. As with the fights Obama has picked with Israel earlier in his administration, events have a way of eclipsing his temper tantrums. While it may be entirely in character for the president to choose the weekend when AIPAC is convening and Russia is invading the Ukraine to be issuing ultimatums to Israel, the collapse of U.S. influence abroad due to Obama’s weakness and delusions will make his victory over the lobby a short-lived triumph.

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With over 10,000 pro-Israel activists in Washington this week for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and members of both parties lining up as usual to demonstrate their support for the organization and its cause it may seem odd that so many pundits are prepared to bury the group. But given the Obama administration’s recent successful effort to derail Congressional action on Iran sanctions and the president’s own extraordinary attack on the government of the Jewish state this weekend in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, these are hard times for supporters of the umbrella pro-Israel lobby. Indeed, the collapse of the sanctions campaign combined with what our John Podhoretz correctly described as Obama’s threats against the Jewish state delivered in a pre-AIPAC ambush of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu—who was on his way to Washington to meet with the president and speak at the conference—the power of the lobby seems to have been revealed to be a myth.

As Lee Smith writes today in Tablet magazine, AIPAC’s reliance on the bipartisan coalition it has forged in support of the U.S.-Israel alliance has rendered it unable to punish those who cross it. Smith writes persuasively that President Obama has effectively checkmated AIPAC with a series of moves that demonstrated he couldn’t be constrained by its stands on either the Israel-Palestinian conflict or the Iran nuclear threat. Judged by that standard, he’s right to claim the group “flopped” on Iran sanctions this year. Given that the prospects of AIPAC mobilizing sufficient Democratic support in the Senate for a revived effort to pass a new sanctions bill in the face of Obama’s veto threats are poor, it’s hard to argue with Smith’s belief that the group has been isolated and its power exposed as more a figment of the overheated imaginations of anti-Semitic conspiracy mongers than reality.

But before we join Smith’s musings about AIPAC having to do “some hard thinking about its survival,” some perspective is needed. As bad as things look for the pro-Israel community today, the lobby’s business is in taking the long view of both Washington politics and the Middle East. President Obama may have gotten the upper hand over both AIPAC and Netanyahu in recent months, but any assumption that this situation is permanent rests on the idea that the administration’s diplomatic efforts on both the Palestinian and Iranian fronts will not falter or that these failures can be blamed on Israel and its supporters. As with the fights Obama has picked with Israel earlier in his administration, events have a way of eclipsing his temper tantrums. While it may be entirely in character for the president to choose the weekend when AIPAC is convening and Russia is invading the Ukraine to be issuing ultimatums to Israel, the collapse of U.S. influence abroad due to Obama’s weakness and delusions will make his victory over the lobby a short-lived triumph.

Smith is right to claim that AIPAC was thoroughly outmaneuvered by the administration in the last year. The group’s failure to oppose the nomination of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense was seen as a sign of weakness by the re-elected president. Smith believes AIPAC was set up by the administration when it agreed to lobby on behalf of the president’s efforts to get Congress to authorize the use of force in Syria. The writer believes Obama was never serious about striking the Assad regime in defense of the “red line” he enunciated about the use of chemical weapons and that the administration’s humiliating retreat from those threats was designed to strengthen its ties with Assad’s Iranian ally and to make AIPAC look foolish. That may be giving the president a little too much credit since Obama’s humiliation at the hands of the Russians and Congressional critics was far greater than any experienced by AIPAC. But Smith is correct that the episode damaged the lobby.

There’s also no arguing with the verdict that AIPAC was undone in the campaign for new Iran sanctions by its reliance on support from both sides of the aisle. There was never any chance that the group would be able to muscle sanctions through a Democratic-controlled Senate once the president issued a veto threat and falsely framed the debate as one between supporters of diplomacy and those who want war.  Nor can AIPAC seek to punish Democrats who have cowardly retreated in the face of pressure from the White House. Combined with the president’s bizarre attack on Israel and his almost total mischaracterization of the Palestinian position on the peace talks, there’s no disputing that this administration has defied supporters of Israel on their two most important issues and there’s nothing they can do about it at the moment.

But that doesn’t mean that AIPAC has failed or that the president now has carte blanche to force Israel to give in to his demands or to negotiate a deal with Iran that falls short of his promises to halt their nuclear drive.

The problem for this administration today when dealing with Israel and AIPAC is the same as it was in the president’s first term. He can engage in spats with Israel and its supporters as often as he likes and even sometimes gain a tactical advantage over them. But the bottom line in these disputes remains the unwillingness of either the Palestinians or the Iranians to behave in a manner that is compatible with Obama’s delusional view of the world.

Just as Obama’s attacks on Netanyahu on settlements, Jerusalem and the 1967 borders were rendered meaningless by the Palestinians refusal to negotiate, his latest tirade at the prime minister’s expense will also be overshadowed by Mahmoud Abbas’s inability to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or to sign a deal that will give up the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Israel will, as Netanyahu and his predecessors have proved, take risks for peace but the Palestinians will always say no because they remain mired in a culture of rejectionism that is at the core of their national identity.

Similarly, the president’s ability to hold off sanctions won’t mean much if the Iranians don’t do his biding in the P5+1 talks. The idea that he can go on negotiating and keep Congress from passing new sanctions indefinitely while the Iranians continue pushing towards a bomb is a misreading of the situation.

The bottom line is that 12 months from now, the president’s threats to Israel will be mere footnotes in the history of Kerry’s failed initiative and not even Obama will be able to persuade Congress or the American people that this entirely predictable result and any resulting violence in its aftermath was the fault of Israel rather than his hubristic secretary of state and Abbas. Nor will be able to pretend that his “moderate” Iranian interlocutors wish to embrace engagement after they spend the next year playing their usual delaying game that will bring them that much closer to their nuclear ambition that imperils both the U.S. and Israel.

But a year from now AIPAC will still be a strong voice in Washington for the U.S.-Israel alliance and it will have retained allies in the Democratic Party that will enable it to push for sanctions once the Iranians finish duping Obama. That is cold comfort for those who rightly worry about the damage the president is doing to U.S. interests now. But by playing the long game, AIPAC will survive to live to fight and win another day. Rather than worrying about the lobby’s survival, analysts would do better to ponder whether the president’s string of foreign policy disasters is hastening the moment when his lame duck status will make any further insults hurled by him at Israel and AIPAC pointless.

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Unskilled Labor and the Minimum Wage

Like single-payer medical care, the minimum wage has one great advantage as a political idea: It can be explained on the back of a post card.  If employers are forced to pay a living wage then no one will live in poverty. For low-information voters (and the vast majority of political reporters) that’s all there is to it. Q.E.D.

No wonder liberal politicians have been advocating the minimum wage since the New Deal era. It’s been winning them favorable headlines and elections for eighty years.

But, again like single-payer, because it is a good political idea doesn’t mean that it’s a good economic one. It isn’t. A mandated minimum wage is utterly the wrong way to approach the problem of some people being unable to earn a decent living. Here’s why.

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Like single-payer medical care, the minimum wage has one great advantage as a political idea: It can be explained on the back of a post card.  If employers are forced to pay a living wage then no one will live in poverty. For low-information voters (and the vast majority of political reporters) that’s all there is to it. Q.E.D.

No wonder liberal politicians have been advocating the minimum wage since the New Deal era. It’s been winning them favorable headlines and elections for eighty years.

But, again like single-payer, because it is a good political idea doesn’t mean that it’s a good economic one. It isn’t. A mandated minimum wage is utterly the wrong way to approach the problem of some people being unable to earn a decent living. Here’s why.

When we talk about the “U.S. economy” we are talking about the sum of all transactions that take place in the United States in a given time frame.  A transaction is nothing neither more nor less than, “an exchange of commodities between two parties that is to the benefit of both parties.” Each side of a transaction must value what it receives more than what it gives away or the transaction won’t take place. No one would willingly spend ten dollars to buy a five-dollar bill.

But a mandated minimum wage sometimes requires employers to do exactly that. No employer will willingly pay an employee X dollars an hour unless he is reasonably sure he will get more than X dollars worth of work from him. And workers just entering the marketplace are usually unskilled and therefore their labor isn’t worth much, especially as unskilled jobs are more and more being automated. In the 1940’s former Congressman Herman Badillo worked his way through high school and college by working as a pin-spotter in a bowling alley, as a dishwasher, and as an elevator boy. All three jobs are now extinct.

So a mandated minimum wage set at a level above what unskilled labor is worth has several pernicious economic effects.

First, it costs jobs. If we understand anything about economics, we understand that if you raise the price of a commodity there will be less demand for that commodity. That’s just as true of labor as it is of beef, cement, or automobiles. Teenage unemployment is currently at 20.7 percent (black teenage unemployment is at a horrendous 38 percent). Raising the minimum wage will increase that unemployment or the law of supply and demand is false. A job at a subpar wage is a lot better than no job at all. That’s especially true as very few full-time employees stay at the minimum wage they started at. Once they acquire some skills and become more valuable to the employer, they start getting raises. Raising the minimum wage just keeps them from getting on that all-important first rung of the ladder.

Second, it helps the wrong people. The typical minimum-wage earner is not a head of household or primary breadwinner. He’s a teenager flipping hamburgers or bagging groceries after school. Thirty-nine percent—well over a third—of minimum wage earners live in families with incomes at least three times the poverty level. The average family income of minimum wage earners is $48,000 a year.

Third, the people who need the help—heads of households—would be far better helped by the earned income tax credit, which is predicated on family income, not individual wages, with no economic disruption. In other words the EITC is a medicine with far fewer undesirable side effects than the minimum wage. One reason that politicians don’t like it is that it shows up on the federal books, adding to the deficit, which the minimum wage doesn’t.

Fourth, the reason the minimum wage is so strongly backed by labor unions (the prime lobbying force at work here) is that while few of their members earn the minimum wage, many of them contractually earn multiples of it. So raising the minimum wage for those earning $7.25 an hour bagging groceries also raises the wages of those earning, say, $29 an hour (plus benefits) as a skilled worker. In other words, raising the minimum wage tends to raise the price of labor across the wage-earning spectrum, reducing the demand for labor across that entire spectrum.

Fifth, raising the minimum wage will only accelerate the trend to robotics and automation replacing unskilled labor. Five years ago, the grocery store I often go to had fourteen checkout lines, all manned by clerks. Today it has fourteen checkout lines, six of them manned by computers. Jack up the minimum wage by 39 percent, as Obama wants to do, and do you think in a few years there might be only one line that’s manned by a minimum wage worker instead of a computer? I do.

The minimum wage is a classic example of a really lousy idea that, unexamined, sounds noble. It’s not, it’s economic poison.

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Shhh. Don’t Tell Anyone We’re Bashing Israel at NYU

William Jacobson has been a close follower of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement affecting our colleges and universities. He has drawn our attention to a conference that just took place at New York University, “Circuits of Influence: the U.S., Israel, and Palestine.”

A look at the program confirms that what took place was a pro-boycott organizing session disguised as an academic conference. So the flyer advertising the conference promises an inquiry into the question, “what can we learn from the record of using a boycotts as a tactic?” But consider who was on the panel that addressed this question.

Robin Kelley of U.C.L.A. is a member of the Advisory Board of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Salah Hassan of Michigan State is a member of the USACBI’s “Organizing Collective.” Riham Bhargouti is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

For balance, I suppose, the organizers included two participants who are not major figures in USACBI or PACBI. Maria LaHood is an attorney at the forefront of efforts to defend the right of organizations like the American Studies Association to boycott Israel. La Hood’s views can be gleaned from the description of a panel she served on last September at a conference put on by the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, one of whose primary purposes was “strategizing around boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns.” The panel, entitled “Joint Struggle Against Israel’s Role in Repression,” explained “why joint struggle is a necessity for Palestine solidarity activists, its challenges and how we can incorporate the intersectionality of different struggles to strengthen our education and BDS efforts.” We do not know what Sean Jacobs of the New School thinks about the boycott, though his opinion about the analogy between Israel and South Africa, on which BDS depends, is not hard to guess.

The panel was “moderated” by Lisa Duggan of NYU, incoming president of the American Studies Association and a leading supporter of its Israel boycott. Duggan has made herself ridiculous by accusing one boycott critic of homophobia and threatening to report another to the organization’s national council for his nonexistent connections to the “ultra right press.”

One can only imagine the dialogue that ensued at the panel.

And comically, as Jacobson reports, we will have to imagine it because Duggan did everything she could to keep the conference a secret. Although Duggan posted the conference flyer on her Facebook page, she asked friends not to “post or circulate” it, since she and other organizers were looking to “avoid press, protestors, and public attention.” When Elder of Ziyon reported on her posting, Duggan promptly took it down.

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William Jacobson has been a close follower of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement affecting our colleges and universities. He has drawn our attention to a conference that just took place at New York University, “Circuits of Influence: the U.S., Israel, and Palestine.”

A look at the program confirms that what took place was a pro-boycott organizing session disguised as an academic conference. So the flyer advertising the conference promises an inquiry into the question, “what can we learn from the record of using a boycotts as a tactic?” But consider who was on the panel that addressed this question.

Robin Kelley of U.C.L.A. is a member of the Advisory Board of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Salah Hassan of Michigan State is a member of the USACBI’s “Organizing Collective.” Riham Bhargouti is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

For balance, I suppose, the organizers included two participants who are not major figures in USACBI or PACBI. Maria LaHood is an attorney at the forefront of efforts to defend the right of organizations like the American Studies Association to boycott Israel. La Hood’s views can be gleaned from the description of a panel she served on last September at a conference put on by the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, one of whose primary purposes was “strategizing around boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns.” The panel, entitled “Joint Struggle Against Israel’s Role in Repression,” explained “why joint struggle is a necessity for Palestine solidarity activists, its challenges and how we can incorporate the intersectionality of different struggles to strengthen our education and BDS efforts.” We do not know what Sean Jacobs of the New School thinks about the boycott, though his opinion about the analogy between Israel and South Africa, on which BDS depends, is not hard to guess.

The panel was “moderated” by Lisa Duggan of NYU, incoming president of the American Studies Association and a leading supporter of its Israel boycott. Duggan has made herself ridiculous by accusing one boycott critic of homophobia and threatening to report another to the organization’s national council for his nonexistent connections to the “ultra right press.”

One can only imagine the dialogue that ensued at the panel.

And comically, as Jacobson reports, we will have to imagine it because Duggan did everything she could to keep the conference a secret. Although Duggan posted the conference flyer on her Facebook page, she asked friends not to “post or circulate” it, since she and other organizers were looking to “avoid press, protestors, and public attention.” When Elder of Ziyon reported on her posting, Duggan promptly took it down.

In one way this ridiculous episode is good news. Although BDS frequently boasts of turning the heat on Israel and of forcing a dialogue, the heat is evidently on BDS. The widespread disgust with which the ASA boycott was met has them fleeing the public attention and dialogue they claim to want.

But it is disappointing that an academic department sponsored an extended BDS rally s and centered it at NYU, including the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies and the Department of Social And Cultural Analysis (both its American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies programs). Since the conference featured workshops, run by activists, all engaged in the effort to delegitimize Israel, on movement building, student organizing, and engaging the public, it’s fair to say that academic departments at NYU now directly sponsor anti-Israel activism.

It is a shame that NYU’s president John Sexton does not see this sponsorship as a problem. An impressive group of student leaders wrote to him, observing that holding secret conferences that “unequivocally reject and refuse to acknowledge dissenting opinions is an appalling gesture of intolerance” that just might run contrary to the spirit of “debate and dialogue” that the university teaches. Sexton pompously responded that “the invocation of academic freedom is not a one-way street” and that he stands behind “the rights of our faculty to pursue their scholarship.”

I suppose that it is heartening that some of NYU’s students have a firmer grasp of the difference between a scholarly conference and a political rally than NYU’s president does. But these students could use some help from NYU’s alumni, who whether or not they are Jewish should be concerned that the leaders of their alma mater, who barely spoke up against the ASA boycott and are silent about the attempt to pass off an anti-Israel activist conclave as a scholarly conference.

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How Quickly Will It Be Back to Business As Usual For Relations With Russia?

It’s good to hear that John Kerry is going to Kiev. It’s good to hear that Russia’s G-8 Summit might be canceled and that Russia might be booted out of the G-8 altogether. And good to hear, as Kerry said Sunday, “there could even be, ultimately, asset freezes, visa bans.”

The problem is the words “could be.” They suggest an escape clause—namely that none of this may actually come to pass or, if it does, it will be for only a short period of time and then it will be back to business as normal with Russia.

Certainly Vladimir Putin did not suffer any lasting consequences the last time he violated one of the most basic norms in international law by invading a neighboring state. His 2008 invasion of Georgia, which occurred in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, caused no more than temporary consternation in Washington. Within a few months President Obama took office, promising a “reset” of relations with Russia.

The benefits of this “reset” are hard to find, unless one counts the Russian-orchestrated deal on Syrian chemical weapons which Bashar Assad is not carrying out on the agreed upon schedule. The costs of the “reset” are more obvious–it has convinced Putin that no matter how brazenly and unlawfully and thuggishly he acts, the U.S. will look the other way because semi-amicable relations with Russia are so important to whoever occupies the White House.

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It’s good to hear that John Kerry is going to Kiev. It’s good to hear that Russia’s G-8 Summit might be canceled and that Russia might be booted out of the G-8 altogether. And good to hear, as Kerry said Sunday, “there could even be, ultimately, asset freezes, visa bans.”

The problem is the words “could be.” They suggest an escape clause—namely that none of this may actually come to pass or, if it does, it will be for only a short period of time and then it will be back to business as normal with Russia.

Certainly Vladimir Putin did not suffer any lasting consequences the last time he violated one of the most basic norms in international law by invading a neighboring state. His 2008 invasion of Georgia, which occurred in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, caused no more than temporary consternation in Washington. Within a few months President Obama took office, promising a “reset” of relations with Russia.

The benefits of this “reset” are hard to find, unless one counts the Russian-orchestrated deal on Syrian chemical weapons which Bashar Assad is not carrying out on the agreed upon schedule. The costs of the “reset” are more obvious–it has convinced Putin that no matter how brazenly and unlawfully and thuggishly he acts, the U.S. will look the other way because semi-amicable relations with Russia are so important to whoever occupies the White House.

It is no coincidence that Putin has now invaded a second neighbor, taking control of Crimea and threatening to do the same with other parts of eastern Ukraine. For the second time Putin has committed armed aggression against a neighboring state. He will do it again in the future–and so too will other predators who are watching carefully what happens in the present instance–unless it is clear there is a real price to be paid for his flagrant misconduct.

Admittedly our options to make Russia pay a price are limited, but they are not nonexistent. John Kerry outlined some steps that can inflict a small but significant cost on the Russian elite–a cost that will grow if Russian financial institutions are banned from the U.S. banking system and if assets controlled by Putin and his cronies in the West are frozen and if their ability to travel in the West is curtailed. All this is within the power of the president of the Untied State to achieve–some of it can be done unilaterally, while other steps will recover winning the support of allies, which is difficult but not impossible.

And the possible American response does not have to be limited to sanctions. There are other steps that can be taken such as rushing military, intelligence, and economic aid to Kiev, and agreeing to station U.S. troops in Eastern European NATO members such as Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to make clear that they will never share the fate of Ukraine. Such a step is guaranteed to cause considerable consternation in the Kremlin.

Western European states, which are dependent on Russian natural gas, might fear retaliation from Moscow but there are sharp limits on Russia’s ability to stop selling its gas–it cannot afford the loss of revenue for long. In any case, Russia exercises much less leverage over the US which correspondingly has the ability to take a sterner line with Moscow’s misconduct, provided the president has the willpower for a showdown. That is what we are about to find out in the next few days.

If I had to guess I would say that relations with Russia will be back to “normal” within a year but I hope to be proven wrong, because if my hunch is right, Putin will become even more brazen in the future–and so too will other autocrats.

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