Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 12, 2014

Was Russia’s WTO Membership a Mistake?

A couple of years ago I was having a discussion with a critic of Putin’s Russia–who was expelled for his trouble–who noted with alarm the Russian-owned gas companies dotting American highways. I said I saw that as a good sign: at the very least the economic integration meant Russia had more skin in the game, and would probably be less abusive to Western companies doing business in Russia.

In the broader sense, though, the benefits were potentially endless, in large part because the more that Russian citizens dealt directly with Americans the better for both countries. My interlocutor saw it differently, because America will play by the rules whether Russia does or not. I thought of his warning, and dismissed it, in the debate over Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Russia’s membership in the WTO, I argued repeatedly, was overdue and would benefit American companies, and the increased trade would restrain Putin’s ability to manipulate American policy while boosting American leverage over Russia.

I was sure I was right. I’m not so sure now. But it’s not because Russia doesn’t “deserve” to be in the WTO or that the benefits were a mirage. And it’s not because of the push to “punish” Russia for its invasion of Ukraine–though sanctions are surely appropriate. It’s because the economic integration of Russia has done precisely the opposite of what it was expected to do in one crucial regard: the recent events in Ukraine and the West’s unsteady response indicate Russia’s increased leverage instead. Today’s New York Times story on the Obama administration’s internal debate over Ukraine demonstrates this perfectly.

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A couple of years ago I was having a discussion with a critic of Putin’s Russia–who was expelled for his trouble–who noted with alarm the Russian-owned gas companies dotting American highways. I said I saw that as a good sign: at the very least the economic integration meant Russia had more skin in the game, and would probably be less abusive to Western companies doing business in Russia.

In the broader sense, though, the benefits were potentially endless, in large part because the more that Russian citizens dealt directly with Americans the better for both countries. My interlocutor saw it differently, because America will play by the rules whether Russia does or not. I thought of his warning, and dismissed it, in the debate over Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Russia’s membership in the WTO, I argued repeatedly, was overdue and would benefit American companies, and the increased trade would restrain Putin’s ability to manipulate American policy while boosting American leverage over Russia.

I was sure I was right. I’m not so sure now. But it’s not because Russia doesn’t “deserve” to be in the WTO or that the benefits were a mirage. And it’s not because of the push to “punish” Russia for its invasion of Ukraine–though sanctions are surely appropriate. It’s because the economic integration of Russia has done precisely the opposite of what it was expected to do in one crucial regard: the recent events in Ukraine and the West’s unsteady response indicate Russia’s increased leverage instead. Today’s New York Times story on the Obama administration’s internal debate over Ukraine demonstrates this perfectly.

It reveals that there are two sides in the administration: those who want to swiftly punish Russia and those who want to show extreme caution toward something that could reverberate throughout the economy. That’s why, the Times explains, “Obama has the power to go much further even without new legislation from Congress” but hasn’t done so. And the roster of administration advisors line up pretty much exactly where you’d expect them to on this, with those like Victoria Nuland supporting more aggressive sanctions and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew opposed. The Times continues:

But American businesses are warning against overreaction. Representatives of groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the United States-Russia Business Council have been holding meetings at the White House or in Congress to share their views.

They are urging policy makers to be sure that any sanctions would actually have an impact on Russian behavior, that the costs not outweigh the benefits and that they be multilateral. “We are working closely with policy makers on both sides of the aisle to safeguard manufacturing employees and manufacturers’ investments around the world,” said Jay Timmons, president of the manufacturers association.

Although the United States does only $40 billion in trade with Russia each year, American businesses argue that the amount understates the real economic ties. Ford, for instance, has two assembly plants in Russia that make cars with material that comes from Europe, so that would not be reflected in import-export figures.

Boeing has sold or leased hundreds of planes in Russia and projects that the republics of the former Soviet Union will need an additional 1,170 planes worth nearly $140 billion over the next 20 years. Moreover, the company has a design center in Moscow, has just announced new manufacturing and training facilities in Russia and depends on Russia for 35 percent of its titanium.

“There’s no doubt that key economic groups, especially energy, don’t want us to act,” said James B. Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state under Mr. Obama and now dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

I’m not suggesting that U.S.-Russia trade suddenly materialized out of nowhere when Russia joined the WTO–of course that’s not the case. But it does raise questions about authoritarian actors joining international institutions that don’t require more sturdy political liberalization (like NATO). I’ve written in the past about “reverse integration,” James Mann’s theory of how China could take advantage of economic integration not to play by international rules but to weaken the threshold for rogue regimes to be granted increased international legitimacy and thus dilute, not enhance, global democracy.

That is not quite the concern here with Putin (or at least not the main concern). Russia’s membership in the WTO doesn’t seem to be de-democratizing economic institutions here or abroad. Rather, Putin has taken advantage of economic integration with the U.S. to dull any American response to his adventuresome foreign policy. Because that response already had virtually no military component, weakening or greatly delaying any financial sanctions would tie both the West’s hands behind its back while he did what he wanted.

There has been some talk of how a more proactive energy policy, in terms of American production and export, could have already put a more effective sanctions infrastructure in place. But it’s also worth pondering if, with the best of intentions, we’ve not only depleted our own sanctions arsenal but bolstered Putin’s.

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Re-Open the Lockerbie Case? Not If It Means Facing the Truth About Iran.

Could there be a worse week for new revelations about the 1988 Lockerbie tragedy to be unveiled? The report claiming that Iran rather than Libya was the culprit in the atrocity should raise eyebrows around the globe. But despite the persuasive case made for this theory, don’t expect the United States or any other Western country to heed the new evidence and re-open the case. With both the U.S. and its European allies desperate to reach a new nuclear deal with Tehran that will enable them to halt the sanctions on the Islamist regime, discussions about the true nature of the administration’s diplomatic partner are, to put it mildly, unwelcome. If Washington isn’t interested in drawing conclusions about Iran from the seizure of an arms ship bound for terrorist-run Gaza last week or even the latest threat from its Revolutionary Guard about destroying Israel uttered yesterday, why would anyone think the Obama administration would be willing to rethink its conclusions about a crime that was long thought to be solved?

To be fair to the administration, a lot of time has passed since the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that cost the lives of 259 passengers and crew and 11 persons on the ground. The U.S. and the West put a lot of energy into proving that agents of the Libyan Gaddafi regime were responsible. The Libyans were known state sponsors of terror and had an axe to grind against the U.S. at the time. After the conviction of a Libyan intelligence agent for these murders, even more energy was spent on vainly trying to persuade a Scottish court from letting him go home to Libya, where he eventually died of cancer. Why would anyone in the U.S. government want to admit that we were wrong all these years? Nor would most Americans think an investigation undertaken by a news organization like the reliably anti-American Al Jazeera, no matter how meticulous, would persuade them to rethink their long-held conclusions about the case.

But, as David Horovitz writes persuasively in the Times of Israel, Al Jazeera’s report is based on information from the same Iranian defector that accurately testified about the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, Argentina that killed 85 persons. Though the full truth about Lockerbie is yet to be uncovered, Horovitz is right to point out that if we accept the word of former Iranian intelligence agent Abolghasem Mesbahi about Tehran’s terrorist plot in South America, there’s no reason to dismiss his detailed claims about Lockerbie. The pieces here fit too well to allow us to merely shrug and move on.

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Could there be a worse week for new revelations about the 1988 Lockerbie tragedy to be unveiled? The report claiming that Iran rather than Libya was the culprit in the atrocity should raise eyebrows around the globe. But despite the persuasive case made for this theory, don’t expect the United States or any other Western country to heed the new evidence and re-open the case. With both the U.S. and its European allies desperate to reach a new nuclear deal with Tehran that will enable them to halt the sanctions on the Islamist regime, discussions about the true nature of the administration’s diplomatic partner are, to put it mildly, unwelcome. If Washington isn’t interested in drawing conclusions about Iran from the seizure of an arms ship bound for terrorist-run Gaza last week or even the latest threat from its Revolutionary Guard about destroying Israel uttered yesterday, why would anyone think the Obama administration would be willing to rethink its conclusions about a crime that was long thought to be solved?

To be fair to the administration, a lot of time has passed since the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that cost the lives of 259 passengers and crew and 11 persons on the ground. The U.S. and the West put a lot of energy into proving that agents of the Libyan Gaddafi regime were responsible. The Libyans were known state sponsors of terror and had an axe to grind against the U.S. at the time. After the conviction of a Libyan intelligence agent for these murders, even more energy was spent on vainly trying to persuade a Scottish court from letting him go home to Libya, where he eventually died of cancer. Why would anyone in the U.S. government want to admit that we were wrong all these years? Nor would most Americans think an investigation undertaken by a news organization like the reliably anti-American Al Jazeera, no matter how meticulous, would persuade them to rethink their long-held conclusions about the case.

But, as David Horovitz writes persuasively in the Times of Israel, Al Jazeera’s report is based on information from the same Iranian defector that accurately testified about the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, Argentina that killed 85 persons. Though the full truth about Lockerbie is yet to be uncovered, Horovitz is right to point out that if we accept the word of former Iranian intelligence agent Abolghasem Mesbahi about Tehran’s terrorist plot in South America, there’s no reason to dismiss his detailed claims about Lockerbie. The pieces here fit too well to allow us to merely shrug and move on.

But the problem isn’t Mesbahi’s credibility or even the embarrassment that a finding that debunked previous Western intelligence work on Lockerbie would cause in Washington and London. Rather, it’s the fact that the defector is pointing the finger at a government that the West wants very much to rehabilitate these days.

The United States and its European allies are deeply invested in the notion that Hassan Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s faux election last year marked a genuine change in the country’s political culture. Justifying a weak interim nuclear deal that granted Iran both significant sanctions relief and a tacit recognition of its “right” to enrich uranium was made possible not only by the arguments about Iran’s supposed desire for a new start with the West but also by a determination by the administration that it wanted to step away from confrontation with Tehran at all costs.

The president is so worried about hurting the delicate feelings of the anti-Semitic government in Tehran that he is willing to veto new sanctions legislation that would have strengthened his hand in the talks. This policy is difficult enough to justify in the face of Iran’s continued support for terrorism, its genocidal threats against Israel (which make its possession of nuclear weapons more than a theoretical security problem), and its long record of diplomatic deception. The last thing the president and Secretary of State Kerry want is to have the Lockerbie case disinterred and for the regime—many of whose leading players were active in the security apparatus at the time—indicted for mass murder of innocent Americans.

So don’t expect anyone in Washington to take the new evidence about Lockerbie seriously or even to pay lip service to the notion of re-opening the case. Horovitz is right that Al Jazeera’s report ought to justify a new investigation that will fearlessly follow the evidence to the guilty parties. But as long as making nice with Iran is one of the diplomatic priorities of the United States, the truth about Lockerbie is likely to be ignored.

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Gaza Missiles: Palestinian State in Practice

In recent months, there’s been a lot of debate about the best answer to the Middle East conflict. The consensus here in the United States is that the answer is a two-state solution that envisages the creation of a Palestinian Arab state alongside the nation state of the Jewish people, i.e. the State of Israel. There are good arguments to be made that such an arrangement would be the ideal conclusion to the century-long war that Arabs have waged to extinguish Zionism. Indeed, should the political culture of the Palestinians ever change to the point where their leaders could count on strong support for a deal that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn, there would be no resisting such an outcome.

For now such a scenario remains more a matter of science fiction than political reality. In the meantime, while Israelis await that happy future, they must contend with a Palestinian leadership and terror groups that, unfortunately, continue to better represent the wishes of their people than any pious platitudes about peace that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas utters when in the presence of Western reporters or gullible Israelis.

Even more to the point, the theoretical arguments about a Palestinian state tend to ignore the fact that one currently exists in all but name in Gaza. There, a Hamas government continues its tyrannical Islamist rule over more than a million people with no interference from Israel other than the imposition of a loose blockade on the strip (food, medicine, and other essential items enter it daily from Israel). But as today’s barrage of missile fire aimed at southern Israel from Gaza shows, this Palestinian state presents a clear and present danger to both the Jewish state and regional stability. While no casualties resulted from the 50 rockets fired from Gaza, the incident not only terrorized southern Israel. It also demonstrated the inherent danger that an irredentist Palestinian state where armed terrorists are free to plan mayhem poses to Israel’s security. While peace activists claim all problems will be solved by Israeli territorial withdrawals, the example of Gaza, where every single settlement, soldier, and individual Jew was pulled out in 2005, continues to operate as a powerful argument against repeating the experiment in the West Bank as much of the world insists Israel must do.

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In recent months, there’s been a lot of debate about the best answer to the Middle East conflict. The consensus here in the United States is that the answer is a two-state solution that envisages the creation of a Palestinian Arab state alongside the nation state of the Jewish people, i.e. the State of Israel. There are good arguments to be made that such an arrangement would be the ideal conclusion to the century-long war that Arabs have waged to extinguish Zionism. Indeed, should the political culture of the Palestinians ever change to the point where their leaders could count on strong support for a deal that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn, there would be no resisting such an outcome.

For now such a scenario remains more a matter of science fiction than political reality. In the meantime, while Israelis await that happy future, they must contend with a Palestinian leadership and terror groups that, unfortunately, continue to better represent the wishes of their people than any pious platitudes about peace that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas utters when in the presence of Western reporters or gullible Israelis.

Even more to the point, the theoretical arguments about a Palestinian state tend to ignore the fact that one currently exists in all but name in Gaza. There, a Hamas government continues its tyrannical Islamist rule over more than a million people with no interference from Israel other than the imposition of a loose blockade on the strip (food, medicine, and other essential items enter it daily from Israel). But as today’s barrage of missile fire aimed at southern Israel from Gaza shows, this Palestinian state presents a clear and present danger to both the Jewish state and regional stability. While no casualties resulted from the 50 rockets fired from Gaza, the incident not only terrorized southern Israel. It also demonstrated the inherent danger that an irredentist Palestinian state where armed terrorists are free to plan mayhem poses to Israel’s security. While peace activists claim all problems will be solved by Israeli territorial withdrawals, the example of Gaza, where every single settlement, soldier, and individual Jew was pulled out in 2005, continues to operate as a powerful argument against repeating the experiment in the West Bank as much of the world insists Israel must do.

It is true that Gaza is not technically independent. Its status is, like that of the West Bank, legally murky as no nation can claim unchallenged sovereignty on these portions of the former British Mandate for Palestine. Israel maintains a presence in the West Bank in the form of settlements, many of which it rightly expects to keep even in the event of a peace deal with the PA, as well as a strong security apparatus that exists to prevent a recurrence of the terror campaign of the second intifada that cost more than 1,000 Israeli lives. But Israel abandoned all claims to Gaza in 2005. It does attempt to keep the terrorist enclave in check via a blockade in which Egypt actively participates and which is legal under international law. That leaves some leftist propagandists to claim that it is still occupied, but this is nonsense. For all intents and purposes, Gaza is completely independent. And therein lies the problem.

The Palestinian state in all but name is bristling with weapons and honeycombed with fortifications aimed at making it difficult for Israel to counterattack against terror attacks launched from the strip. Though Hamas has largely observed the cease-fire which ended the daily assaults on southern Israel, it remains ready to use its military forces to counteract any possible peace moves from Abbas. Even worse, it tolerates the existence of another even more extreme Islamist terrorist movement in the area. Islamic Jihad has grown in strength and influence in recent years as a battered Hamas has grown more gun shy about confrontations with Israel.

The dynamics of Palestinian politics are such that these movements’ credibility rests on their ability to inflict pain on Israel. That means Islamic Jihad—which is allied with Iran and apparently the intended recipient of the Klos-C arms ship that Israeli forces intercepted last week—has an active interest in keeping the border hot in order to maintain pressure on Hamas to maintain its war on the Jewish state. Whether today’s missile fire was a local initiative that sought to remind Abbas or Hamas that movement toward peace was unacceptable or the result of an Iranian request, the net effect is the same.

The point here is that an independent Gaza is an armed camp that stands ready and willing to attack Israel at a moment’s notice. Yet as dangerous as it is, it remains hemmed in on the Jewish state’s southern periphery and its ability to inflict terror is limited. That would not be the case in the West Bank where, absent Israeli security forces, terror groups would have the ability to strike the country’s main population centers with impunity and with deadly effect.

It is true that if the conflict were settled and the Palestinian people accepted Israel’s permanence while giving up their dreams of destroying it either by armed conflict or by swamping it with the descendants of the 1948 refugees, there would be no need to fear that Palestinian sovereignty would pose a threat to the Jewish state. But one needn’t be a supporter of Israel’s right-wing parties or the settlement movement to understand that recreating the independent state in Gaza in the West Bank would be suicidal for Israel.

Though foreign observers strain to avoid drawing the obvious conclusion, a two- or three-state solution (if the PA achieves sovereignty in the West Bank while Hamas or Islamic Jihad holds onto Gaza) under the current circumstances would actually worsen the conflict rather than solving it. As long as Gaza provides an example of what Palestinian statehood means in practice, it is not reasonable to expect Israelis to replicate it in the West Bank or in portions of Jerusalem. If Palestinians and their foreign supporters wish to convince them otherwise, they can start by transforming their state in Gaza into one that is less dangerous for themselves and the Israelis. Until they do, no one should take their appeals for two states seriously.

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EU Report Demonizes Israel as Threatening Regional Security

The European Union has released a breathtaking and spurious report on the present situation in Gaza, one that is disproportionately malicious even by European standards. The report attempts to give the impression of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which it quite predictably blames on Israel, and claims that this crisis has implications for destabilizing the security of the entire region. Once again, Europeans are attempting to blame Jews and their state for the wider problems of the world. Perhaps most shocking of all are the numerous ways in which this report seeks to legitimate the Hamas narrative.

The underlying thesis appears to be that Israel is implementing a blockade on Gaza, which must be lifted, or else there will be terrible consequences for all of us. Even if Europe’s allegations about the blockade were accurate, which they are not, what is particularly noteworthy about the report is the shameless way it seeks to frame Israel as the guilty party. Apparently allotting little or no responsibility to Hamas–which only governs the place after all–the report accuses that, “Israel bears the prime responsibility for the situation in Gaza.” Yet this cannot possibly be the case. Gaza has a border with Egypt, one that the Egyptians have policed more stringently at some times than others, depending on who has been governing there. Even if the most severe siege was being inflicted against Gaza, it could not be maintained without the participation of both countries. One cannot be more to blame than the other. Yet, the European report tarnishes Israel nonetheless.

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The European Union has released a breathtaking and spurious report on the present situation in Gaza, one that is disproportionately malicious even by European standards. The report attempts to give the impression of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which it quite predictably blames on Israel, and claims that this crisis has implications for destabilizing the security of the entire region. Once again, Europeans are attempting to blame Jews and their state for the wider problems of the world. Perhaps most shocking of all are the numerous ways in which this report seeks to legitimate the Hamas narrative.

The underlying thesis appears to be that Israel is implementing a blockade on Gaza, which must be lifted, or else there will be terrible consequences for all of us. Even if Europe’s allegations about the blockade were accurate, which they are not, what is particularly noteworthy about the report is the shameless way it seeks to frame Israel as the guilty party. Apparently allotting little or no responsibility to Hamas–which only governs the place after all–the report accuses that, “Israel bears the prime responsibility for the situation in Gaza.” Yet this cannot possibly be the case. Gaza has a border with Egypt, one that the Egyptians have policed more stringently at some times than others, depending on who has been governing there. Even if the most severe siege was being inflicted against Gaza, it could not be maintained without the participation of both countries. One cannot be more to blame than the other. Yet, the European report tarnishes Israel nonetheless.

That said, the report does also seek to criticize Egypt, yet it does so on the most extraordinary account. In recent months Egyptian authorities have gone to great lengths to shut down vast networks of illegal smuggling tunnels that exist beneath the Rafah border. These are the tunnels used to bring lethal weapons into the Islamist-run enclave. The Iranian-supplied arms aboard the ship seized by Israel in recent days were intended to enter Gaza via these very tunnels. This report, however, alleges that these tunnels provided 80 percent of Gaza’s food and medical supplies. By presenting the closure of the terror tunnels as a lamentable move, the EU report seeks to legitimize the means by which terrorists arm themselves against Israeli civilians.

More to the point, the report’s underlying claim about the blockade of such essential items is simply untrue. Not only have the restrictions on goods allowed into Gaza been greatly relaxed in recent years, there was never any blockade on such humanitarian items as medical supplies in the first place. Even during the intensity of the fighting of the 2009 war in Gaza, Israel held daily ceasefires for bringing such supplies into Gaza.

When flowers and fruits grown in Gaza are on sale in Europe, it is the height of European hypocrisy to claim that there is a “pressing humanitarian situation” and “increased food insecurity” in the Gaza Strip. Goods and people are allowed to cross between Israel and Gaza all the time. Weapons are not permitted into Gaza, nor are dual-use items that could be used for military purposes, which includes certain building materials—although Israel does permit building materials for internationally approved projects. But with little else to focus on, the report makes misleading claims about fuel supplies and bemoans Gaza’s ailing construction industry.

Given that this report attempts to argue that Israel is instigating a crisis that could have dire consequences for the entire region, it seems to essentially be making the bizarre claim that if construction workers in Gaza remain idle much longer then there will be some kind of security catastrophe. As is so typical of European policy toward the region, the positions taken in this report are a moral and logical inversion. The report insists that if Israel does not ease it restrictions on the Gaza border still further then there could be serious consequences for stability and security. Quite the opposite is the case. Israel’s restrictions are entirely necessitated by security concerns; easing them or not cracking down on smuggling tunnels would allow for a flow of weapons and related materials to militants that would only facilitate more terrorist violence, more insecurity, and more instability.

Yet, the report also calls for reconciliation between the listed terrorist organization Hamas and the only marginally more moderate Fatah, which currently runs the Palestinian Authority and is engaged in U.S.-sponsored talks with Israel. If Hamas were to join the already intransigent Fatah, then what remains of the peace process would likely disintegrate altogether.   

This EU report attempts to cast Israel as irresponsibly enforcing a blockade that jeopardizes the security of the entire region. In fact, emboldening Islamists by legitimizing their demands and narrative, or challenging security arrangements that keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists, is what really threatens stability in the area. Yet, given the Europeans’ ever more warped view of Israel, we should have expected nothing less.  

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Obama’s Free Lunch One-Man Government

As the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows, confidence in President Obama’s ability to handle the economy or put the country on the right path continues to decline. But with more than two and a half years to go until his successor is chosen, the president is barreling ahead and attempting to implement his liberal agenda without congressional assent or much public support. This is a dubious strategy for any president, let alone one whose approval ratings are at all-time lows with little prospect that they will recover as he heads inevitably to the lame duck portion of his second term.

But in order to counteract these trends, the president has chosen what, at least in theory, are the most populist measures available to him. Hence, the “give America a raise” theme he introduced in his State of the Union speech in January that sought to pin a comeback on an effort to implement a hefty increase in the minimum wage. The follow-up comes this week as he builds on that sweeping measure with another designed to play to the same populist sentiment: changing the regulations about overtime payments. The law requires workers to be paid overtime for the hours they labor above the normal confines of the workweek. But the same laws have always exempted supervisors and management employees from these regulations. Obama wants to change that to allow more of those who run the workplace to benefit along with their employees with extra pay for extra hours.

But the truth about this proposal is that it is just as much an example of liberal economic snake oil as the minimum wage. Promising people a free lunch is always popular. But someone has to pay for it, and those who will be most affected by the president’s fiat will not be rich or powerful. That the president is shoving this down the throat of the country in a manner that undermines constitutional checks and balances that provide for accountability shows how desperate the White House has become for cheap and ultimately ephemeral political wins.

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As the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows, confidence in President Obama’s ability to handle the economy or put the country on the right path continues to decline. But with more than two and a half years to go until his successor is chosen, the president is barreling ahead and attempting to implement his liberal agenda without congressional assent or much public support. This is a dubious strategy for any president, let alone one whose approval ratings are at all-time lows with little prospect that they will recover as he heads inevitably to the lame duck portion of his second term.

But in order to counteract these trends, the president has chosen what, at least in theory, are the most populist measures available to him. Hence, the “give America a raise” theme he introduced in his State of the Union speech in January that sought to pin a comeback on an effort to implement a hefty increase in the minimum wage. The follow-up comes this week as he builds on that sweeping measure with another designed to play to the same populist sentiment: changing the regulations about overtime payments. The law requires workers to be paid overtime for the hours they labor above the normal confines of the workweek. But the same laws have always exempted supervisors and management employees from these regulations. Obama wants to change that to allow more of those who run the workplace to benefit along with their employees with extra pay for extra hours.

But the truth about this proposal is that it is just as much an example of liberal economic snake oil as the minimum wage. Promising people a free lunch is always popular. But someone has to pay for it, and those who will be most affected by the president’s fiat will not be rich or powerful. That the president is shoving this down the throat of the country in a manner that undermines constitutional checks and balances that provide for accountability shows how desperate the White House has become for cheap and ultimately ephemeral political wins.

Like the hike in the minimum wage, it sounds perfectly fair and seems to address the supposed problem of income inequality. Why shouldn’t government force profitable companies to fork over more of their profits to their workers? Such measures appeal to resentment about big business and sympathy for those struggling to get by in a struggling economy.

But while implementing the new overtime rules may direct more cash to the pockets of some deserving workers, it will also hurt the very companies the country is counting on to help pull us out of the economic malaise that America is currently stuck in and reduce employment and growth.

As was the case with his blithe admonition for all Americans to get a raise, President Obama speaks as if money can be pulled out of the air to give to those who are hard-working or deserving without anyone other than the undeserving rich being made to pay for it. But this sort of magical economic thinking seems more appropriate to a banana republic than the economic engine of the free world.

The basic facts of life are that the increases in pay will have to be paid for by cuts in overall employment and wages. That will mean companies—large and small—will be forced to cut back on their workforces or to think twice about expanding their businesses. Once the applause for the free lunches being delivered by the president dies down, many of those who think they will benefit from his largesse will soon realize that they have become victims of basic rules of economics. And unlike the president, they will not be able to disregard or pretend that the force of Obama’s personality and good intentions or the wave of his imperial hand can override the math.

It is also remarkable that a president who claims to be clued into technology and cutting edge innovation would choose to ignore the economic models that show a better and more productive way to reward supervisors. The high-tech companies Obama loves to laud have always preferred rewarding those ascending the ladder of company responsibility with stock and other benefits that get them invested in their employers’ success. Merely raising wages is not only economically unsound, it is also less likely to incentivize workers and supervisors to work hard and get ahead. For a president who claims to champion the middle class, this measure is profoundly counterintuitive and unlikely to help anyone.

Last, by directing the Labor Department to change regulations in order to force through this change rather than asking Congress to do so, the president is again trying to see how far he can go in governing by executive order. The answer is that he can do a great deal on his own and the low approval ratings for Congress ought to enable him to get away with it without paying much of a political price. But if he thinks the American people are longing for him to govern as a benevolent despot, he is misreading the poll numbers. As unpopular as Congress may be, voters tend take an equally dim view of the president and still expect him to govern within the bounds of the Constitution.

Promising the voters free lunches via executive orders may garner the president cheers from his political base. But it won’t save the Democrats in a midterm election that is increasingly looking as if ObamaCare will produce another GOP landslide.

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Muslim Minorities Under Siege While the West Is Silent

In 1995, Matthew Kaminski traveled to Crimea and met with a Tatar family named the Tarsinovs. They had moved from Central Asia almost as soon as the Tatar diaspora was permitted to return to Crimea when the Soviet Union fell, half a century after Stalin ordered the Tatars’ mass deportation. Over the weekend Kaminski, now with the Wall Street Journal, went back to visit with the Tarsinovs. Where his first visit with them was filled with hope and some relief, this latest was clouded by fear and uncertainty.

That’s because the “return of history” story line in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its attempted annexation of Crimea has dark and potentially tragic implications for the Tatars, the Muslim minority citizens of the peninsula. As journalists like Kaminski have found since Russian soldiers showed up in southern Ukraine, Crimean Tatars’ homes have been marked with an “x” not only because they are taunted as the ethnic inferiors of “true” Russian Slavs but also because they are (perhaps in part because of this history) loyal to Ukraine.

Stalin considered them (potentially) disloyal citizens; Vladimir Putin has moved to treat Crimea as either Russian territory or Russian-aligned quasi-independent territory. It’s possible the latter is merely the road to the former, as the upcoming referendum on Crimea’s future indicates. Even if not, however, the fudging of Crimea’s status means Russia is at least treating it as separate from Ukraine. That would mean the Tatars are, once again, in the Russian leader’s eyes disloyal citizens (or worse: an enemy on Russia’s ever-expanding border). Kaminski notes:

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In 1995, Matthew Kaminski traveled to Crimea and met with a Tatar family named the Tarsinovs. They had moved from Central Asia almost as soon as the Tatar diaspora was permitted to return to Crimea when the Soviet Union fell, half a century after Stalin ordered the Tatars’ mass deportation. Over the weekend Kaminski, now with the Wall Street Journal, went back to visit with the Tarsinovs. Where his first visit with them was filled with hope and some relief, this latest was clouded by fear and uncertainty.

That’s because the “return of history” story line in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its attempted annexation of Crimea has dark and potentially tragic implications for the Tatars, the Muslim minority citizens of the peninsula. As journalists like Kaminski have found since Russian soldiers showed up in southern Ukraine, Crimean Tatars’ homes have been marked with an “x” not only because they are taunted as the ethnic inferiors of “true” Russian Slavs but also because they are (perhaps in part because of this history) loyal to Ukraine.

Stalin considered them (potentially) disloyal citizens; Vladimir Putin has moved to treat Crimea as either Russian territory or Russian-aligned quasi-independent territory. It’s possible the latter is merely the road to the former, as the upcoming referendum on Crimea’s future indicates. Even if not, however, the fudging of Crimea’s status means Russia is at least treating it as separate from Ukraine. That would mean the Tatars are, once again, in the Russian leader’s eyes disloyal citizens (or worse: an enemy on Russia’s ever-expanding border). Kaminski notes:

If retribution comes, will it be through violence or other means? The rights to their property could be challenged. “The Russians will go further,” says Ali. “They will come and we won’t be able to go to meetings and talk freely. We have gotten used to, over the last 20 years, life in freedom.”

Tatars have been told by their leaders about America’s promise to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the 1994 Budapest agreement, when Kiev gave up its nuclear weapons. Now, walking around Tatar neighborhoods, I was repeatedly asked: Will Barack Obama help us? What will the U.S. do? I had no answer. Damir Tarsinov —Ali’s eldest son, now a stout man with two daughters—fumes that the world has “already let Putin get away with it.”

What’s the answer to the Tatars’ question? Will the U.S. help them? The track record isn’t great, not only because of the West’s inability to muster the necessary resistance to Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty or America’s utter refusal to even address Russia’s violations of Georgian sovereignty, but also because the Tatars are not the only Muslim minority whose country’s politics is in flux and who are in grave danger because (or in spite) of it.

The Rohingya of Burma are in far worse shape yet, paradoxically, less likely to get help from the West. Ukraine has consistently been at the center of the news cycle while Burma has never made it very far from the fringes of the news. There are several reasons for that, but surely one of them is that the news out of Burma over the last couple of years has been generally good–and thus boring, unfortunately.

Burma has been in the midst of real progress in its efforts to liberalize domestic politics and phase the country away from military rule. But that has obscured some very real backsliding on human-rights issues, especially for its Muslim Rohingya minority. The Associate Press reports on the steadily worsening conditions for the Rohingya: they were marginalized and ostracized, and then the violence came, pushing them to remote patches of desert without medical care. The AP offers a glimpse of what that means:

Noor Jahan rocked slowly on the floor, trying to steady her weak body. Her chest heaved and her eyes closed with each raspy breath. She could no longer eat or speak, throwing up even spoonfuls of tea.

Two years ago, she would have left her upscale home — one of the nicest in the community — and gone to a hospital to get tests and medicine for her failing liver and kidneys. But that was before Buddhist mobs torched and pillaged her neighborhood, forcing thousands of ethnic Rohingya like herself to flee to a hot, desert-like patch of land on the outskirts of town. …

Living conditions in The’ Chaung village and surrounding camps of Myanmar’s northwestern state of Rakhine are desperate for the healthiest residents. For those who are sick, they are unbearable. The situation became even worse two weeks ago, when the aid group Doctors Without Borders was forced to stop working in Rakhine, where most Rohingya live.

They’ve been discriminated against for decades, but the AP notes that “their lives were far more peaceful before ethnic violence erupted in mid-2012.” That was also the time that the lifting of American sanctions against Burma really picked up steam.

Violence against ethnic minorities has become a regular feature of the upheaval in the wake of the Arab Spring and the unrest outside the Arab world. It is certainly present in modern-day Russia, which is why the Tatars have plenty of reason to fear their fate may resemble that of their forebears–or the Rohingya. Putin’s odious brand of nationalism is not unique to the Kremlin; the Russian opposition’s most well-known figure, Aleksei Navalny, has a history of allying with racist thugs and has been dogged by accusations that he shares their bigotry.

The West has mostly ignored violence against Christian minorities, behaving as though being on the wrong side of such persecution is some sort of historical karma. These days, Islamist governments and transnational terrorist groups have perhaps accustomed the West to seeing displays of power from the Muslim world. If that blinds them to the Muslim minorities on the wrong end of such violence, it will be a colossal moral failure.

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Cameron’s Knesset Speech: Closer to Australia and Canada than Obama

Observers awaiting British Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech to Israel’s Knesset, which he delivered earlier today, had been unsure of what to expect. Would the prime minister present a speech similar to the warm pledges of unadulterated support recently offered by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or would it be closer to the barbed lecture Israel received from Martin Shulz, president of the European parliament, who visited in February?

Indeed, given the harsh misrepresentation that Israel’s government suffered from President Obama in his recent Bloomberg interview, the way had certainly been cleared for Cameron to deliver a tough message if he felt so inclined. And Cameron certainly has no shortage of domestic incentives to appear critical of Israel; large parts of the British public are actively hostile to Israel, while the British Foreign Office is also notoriously cold in its attitude to Israel–hence the unfortunate comments made by Cameron about Gaza during his 2010 visit to Turkey.

Given this background, the speech that Cameron delivered today was decidedly more supportive of Israel than might have been expected. The tone was much closer to that given by Harper, and if this attitude comes to be fully borne out in British policy, then it would place the UK in the same camp as the governments of other pro-Israel English speaking democracies such as Canada and Australia. In this sense the sentiments Cameron expressed today are quite at odds with the increasingly thinly veiled threats coming from Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Crucially, Cameron set himself apart from both the Europeans and the Obama administration by announcing that he wouldn’t be giving Israel any “lectures” on how to run the peace process.

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Observers awaiting British Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech to Israel’s Knesset, which he delivered earlier today, had been unsure of what to expect. Would the prime minister present a speech similar to the warm pledges of unadulterated support recently offered by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or would it be closer to the barbed lecture Israel received from Martin Shulz, president of the European parliament, who visited in February?

Indeed, given the harsh misrepresentation that Israel’s government suffered from President Obama in his recent Bloomberg interview, the way had certainly been cleared for Cameron to deliver a tough message if he felt so inclined. And Cameron certainly has no shortage of domestic incentives to appear critical of Israel; large parts of the British public are actively hostile to Israel, while the British Foreign Office is also notoriously cold in its attitude to Israel–hence the unfortunate comments made by Cameron about Gaza during his 2010 visit to Turkey.

Given this background, the speech that Cameron delivered today was decidedly more supportive of Israel than might have been expected. The tone was much closer to that given by Harper, and if this attitude comes to be fully borne out in British policy, then it would place the UK in the same camp as the governments of other pro-Israel English speaking democracies such as Canada and Australia. In this sense the sentiments Cameron expressed today are quite at odds with the increasingly thinly veiled threats coming from Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Crucially, Cameron set himself apart from both the Europeans and the Obama administration by announcing that he wouldn’t be giving Israel any “lectures” on how to run the peace process.

Perhaps the most significant remarks made by Cameron in the course of his speech were those concerning the Jewish nature of Israel. There had been much anticipation about whether or not Cameron would utter the words “Jewish state.” Given that the Palestinians have said they will refuse under any circumstances to recognize Israel as being the state of the Jewish people, and that the European Union has expressed ambivalence about this Israeli demand, many were waiting to see which side Britain would come out for on this issue. It is heartening then that, in addition to referencing Israel as a “secure homeland for the Jewish people,” Cameron’s outline of his vision for peace included an endorsement of the formulation: “mutual recognition of the nation state of the Palestinian people and the nation state of the Jewish people.” 

Cameron was sure to stress the long and ancient history of the Jews to the land of Israel and spoke of his appreciation of the Jewish people, for their contribution to his country and to the world, as well as of his own distant Jewish ancestry. Naturally, the prime minister spoke at lengths about the history of anti-Semitism and the need to remember the Holocaust, as well as pledging his commitment to defending Jewish practices in Britain today, including kosher slaughtering, which is currently under attack there.

Indeed, Mr. Cameron articulated the all-important connection between remembering the past and acting in the present for Israel’s safety. Touching on the early British role in advancing Zionism, he then went on to declare, “So let me say to you very clearly: with me, you have a British prime minister whose belief in Israel is unbreakable and whose commitment to Israel’s security will always be rock solid.” The prime minister detailed how he had worked to overturn British laws on universal jurisdiction, which were being used by anti-Israel campaigners to keep senior Israelis out of Britain. He claimed credit for acting to create a European consensus for proscribing Hezbollah, for working to try and drive anti-Semitic incitement from British universities, and for keeping anti-Semitic Islamist preachers out of Britain. Equally, Cameron condemned all attempts to boycott Israel, saying, “Israel’s place as a homeland for the Jewish people will never rest on hollow resolutions passed by amateur politicians.”

Having referred to the questioning of Israel’s right to exist as “despicable” and “abhorrent,” Cameron spoke of how Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people is founded in international law and “destiny,” and assured his listeners that “together we will defeat [delegitimization].” Similarly, the prime minister described Israel’s defense of its citizens as “enshrined in international law, natural justice and fundamental morality.” Cameron recognized the concern of territory ceded by Israel becoming a terror base, mentioning the recent interception of a ship carrying Iranian weapons to Gaza and the danger posed by Palestinian incitement, specifically deploring the naming of schools after suicide bombers.

Whereas Obama has threatened Israel that it will become more internationally isolated, Cameron asserted, “No more excuses for the 32 countries who refuse to recognize Israel,” and described as “outrageous” and “ridiculous” the lectures Israel receives at the UN. And Cameron also broke with Obama doctrine, and no doubt the thinking of his own diplomatic service, by refuting the notion that Israel and the absence of an agreement with the Palestinians is causing the problems in the region. Rather, Cameron spoke at considerable length about the “poison” of Islamism. A peace agreement would not stop Iran, noted Cameron, and he stressed that he was not “starry-eyed about the new regime” and shared Israel’s “skepticism” on that front.

If the attitude expressed in this speech were implemented as British policy, then Cameron would rightfully earn himself a place alongside Stephen Harper, Australia’s Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop, and the English speaking leaders of the West. Meanwhile Obama is earning himself a place alongside Martin Shulz and the Europeans.  

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Finessing ObamaCare Won’t Save Dems

Like all special elections, it is possible to overstate the implications of yesterday’s Republican victory in Florida’s 13th Congressional District. Democrats have eight months to figure out how to survive the 2014 midterm elections without suffering a repeat of their landslide loss in 2010. But there’s no way for Democrats to spin the Florida 13 results as anything but a portent of disaster. Democrats had a much better candidate who raised more money running against a weak and apparently disorganized Republican effort in a genuine swing district that Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012. More importantly the Democrat, Alex Sink, won the district in her unsuccessful run for governor in 2010. In other words, if Democrats can’t win this sort of competitive district under these favorable circumstances, it begs the question of how they can hope to win anywhere else outside of deep blue strongholds.

The explanation for this is the obvious dissatisfaction with President Obama and ObamaCare that is being expressed across the country. As a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reveals, the president is at his all-time low in terms of approval. Even worse, voters say they are far more unlikely to vote for a candidate who is endorsed by President Obama than if they did not back the administration. While Republicans and the Tea Party are also unpopular, these midterms stack up, as has every previous off-year election, as a referendum on the president with his signature health-care plan looking to be the key issue much as it was in 2010. But while we pundits can debate just how much these factors will impact what happens in November, what isn’t debatable is that the Sink candidacy was a test case for a specific Democratic approach to the ObamaCare problem.

Sink ran as a moderate Democrat who promised to work across party lines, characteristics that polls show voters like. Knowing that ObamaCare is deeply disliked by the public, she attempted to finesse the issue by acknowledging its problems but urging that it be fixed rather than thrown out. This seems like the most sensible poll-tested method for Democrats to deal with health care, but it failed miserably. If we learned anything last night it is that ObamaCare is so toxic that any attempt by Democrats to maneuver around it is bound to fail.

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Like all special elections, it is possible to overstate the implications of yesterday’s Republican victory in Florida’s 13th Congressional District. Democrats have eight months to figure out how to survive the 2014 midterm elections without suffering a repeat of their landslide loss in 2010. But there’s no way for Democrats to spin the Florida 13 results as anything but a portent of disaster. Democrats had a much better candidate who raised more money running against a weak and apparently disorganized Republican effort in a genuine swing district that Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012. More importantly the Democrat, Alex Sink, won the district in her unsuccessful run for governor in 2010. In other words, if Democrats can’t win this sort of competitive district under these favorable circumstances, it begs the question of how they can hope to win anywhere else outside of deep blue strongholds.

The explanation for this is the obvious dissatisfaction with President Obama and ObamaCare that is being expressed across the country. As a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reveals, the president is at his all-time low in terms of approval. Even worse, voters say they are far more unlikely to vote for a candidate who is endorsed by President Obama than if they did not back the administration. While Republicans and the Tea Party are also unpopular, these midterms stack up, as has every previous off-year election, as a referendum on the president with his signature health-care plan looking to be the key issue much as it was in 2010. But while we pundits can debate just how much these factors will impact what happens in November, what isn’t debatable is that the Sink candidacy was a test case for a specific Democratic approach to the ObamaCare problem.

Sink ran as a moderate Democrat who promised to work across party lines, characteristics that polls show voters like. Knowing that ObamaCare is deeply disliked by the public, she attempted to finesse the issue by acknowledging its problems but urging that it be fixed rather than thrown out. This seems like the most sensible poll-tested method for Democrats to deal with health care, but it failed miserably. If we learned anything last night it is that ObamaCare is so toxic that any attempt by Democrats to maneuver around it is bound to fail.

The “fix it” strategy seems to be the stance that many Democrats are trying across the country this year. The conceit of the approach is that while voters may not like the idea of the misnamed Affordable Care Act, they will probably be uncertain of the impact of a full repeal. If Democrats can focus on the improvements that can be made to the tottering scheme, much like the controversial repaired website healthcare.gov, it is hoped that they can find an electoral sweet spot that will enable them to evade responsibility for its passage.

There are two fundamental flaws to this approach. One is tactical and the other is strategic.

The tactical problem is that the “fix it” spin on ObamaCare compels Democrats to play on Republican territory. While it is only common sense for candidates to concede that the ObamaCare rollout was a disaster and that the disruptions it will cause will hurt a lot of people, taking that as your main position on the most important issue of the day is conceding that the GOP’s stance is basically correct. Like moderate Republicans who for decades seemed to adopt Democratic positions on the welfare state and entitlements with the caveat that they would administer them in a manner that was more fiscally sound, “fix it” is a political loser. While a full-throated defense of ObamaCare would probably be suicidal in a swing district where most voters oppose the measure, trying to have it both ways on health care puts Democrats in a weak position that only the most brilliant candidates can possible pull off.

The strategic problem is that Democrats were sure that public opinion on ObamaCare would turn once it was implemented. Bur rather than become as popular as Social Security or Medicare, as they though it would, right now it looks to be every bit as unpopular as it was in 2010. That puts in place the possibility that 2014 will be another wave election in which swing districts and states will turn on that issue rather than be decided principally by local personalities and issues. Though President Obama’s decision to postpone the imposition of the law’s mandate on many employers and individual insurance customers will lessen the blow for Democrats, they can’t evade the fact that in contrast to Social Security and Medicare, there are as many if not more voters who will be negatively affected by ObamaCare as those who are helped by it. That is something that the “fix it” approach won’t change.

Like Alex Sink, endangered Democratic Senate incumbents like Mary Landrieu, Mark Begich, Kay Hagan, and Mark Pryor will try the “fix it” approach and hope to do better in November. But unlike Sink, they are also burdened by their votes for ObamaCare. Looked at from that perspective, the Florida 13th special makes it look as if anger at the president and his signature health-care law will create a tide that no amount of clever Democratic tactics or fundraising advantages will overcome.

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Feinstein vs. the CIA

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, made headlines yesterday with a speech accusing the CIA of a host of improprieties. As the New York Times account noted, Feinstein, normally a defender of the intelligence community, claimed “the C.I.A. had removed documents from computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff members working on a report about the agency’s detention program, searched the computers after the committee completed its report and referred a criminal case to the Justice Department in an attempt to thwart their investigation.”

Nothing offends members of Congress more than an infringement of their own authority, so naturally Feinstein’s charges led to a predictable chorus of anger on Capitol Hill. Yet key members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Richard Burr, are refusing to back up Feinstein, which suggests the case may not be as clear-cut as Feinstein alleges. Certainly CIA Director John Brennan denies her charges.

On closer examination the controversy becomes murkier and turns on legalities such as who owned the database used by Feinstein’s staff which was located at a facility in northern Virginia. She claims it was Senate property and therefore everything on it was privileged; the CIA seems to be claiming it was owned by the intelligence agency which granted shared access to the Senate gumshoes, thereby making it lawful for the CIA to move documents on the database or to check access logs in order to determine how the Senate got its hands on an internal CIA investigation of interrogation practices which the CIA claims is privileged information.

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, made headlines yesterday with a speech accusing the CIA of a host of improprieties. As the New York Times account noted, Feinstein, normally a defender of the intelligence community, claimed “the C.I.A. had removed documents from computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff members working on a report about the agency’s detention program, searched the computers after the committee completed its report and referred a criminal case to the Justice Department in an attempt to thwart their investigation.”

Nothing offends members of Congress more than an infringement of their own authority, so naturally Feinstein’s charges led to a predictable chorus of anger on Capitol Hill. Yet key members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Richard Burr, are refusing to back up Feinstein, which suggests the case may not be as clear-cut as Feinstein alleges. Certainly CIA Director John Brennan denies her charges.

On closer examination the controversy becomes murkier and turns on legalities such as who owned the database used by Feinstein’s staff which was located at a facility in northern Virginia. She claims it was Senate property and therefore everything on it was privileged; the CIA seems to be claiming it was owned by the intelligence agency which granted shared access to the Senate gumshoes, thereby making it lawful for the CIA to move documents on the database or to check access logs in order to determine how the Senate got its hands on an internal CIA investigation of interrogation practices which the CIA claims is privileged information.

Based on the limited information publicly available, it’s impossible for an outsider to judge the merits of the charges and counter charges. The only thing we can say for sure is that it’s a critical blow to the CIA to lose Feinstein’s support. The rupture in her relationship with John Brennan threatens the agency’s effectiveness, at least as long as she stays chairwoman, which may be less than a year if Republicans pick up the Senate in November.

But let’s not be so caught up in the current charges that we lose sight of the underlying dispute, which concerns the CIA’s use of renditions, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” black sites, and the like in the years after 9/11. Feinstein is simmering in essence because the CIA has tried to slowroll and possibly even obstruct her staff investigation into these interrogation practices. Her staff has produced a 6,300-page report, which is still going through the declassification process and is said to be critical of the CIA.

It is important to get to the truth about interrogations, but it is also important not to scapegoat the CIA for controversial practices that, by all accounts, were approved by the most senior officials of the Bush administration and briefed, at least in some form, to Congress. There is no suggestion that the CIA was a rogue operation. It was simply doing what most Americans–and what its political bosses–wanted done in the wake of 9/11 to prevent another spectacular attack on the United States. What it did obviously worked, although there is controversy about how much of an intelligence payoff the coercive interrogations, which (let’s be frank) included the use of torture, produced.

It is not productive now to embarrass and shame the agency, much less to put individual intelligence operatives in the hot seat, for practices that were fully authorized by their superiors. That will only lead to the demoralization of the agency and a lack of the kind of risk-taking we need to keep us safe in the future. Of course the agency is not justified in obstructing justice to protect itself. But it’s far from clear yet that’s what it did. Sensational headlines about the CIA “spying” on Congress don’t help. We need to examine this controversy calmly and wait for more facts to emerge before making any judgment.

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Playing Politics with NYC’s Magnet Schools

Eight of the specialized public high schools in New York City, including Stuyvesant High School, The Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech, rely on a standardized admissions exam. Mayor Bill de Blasio said during his campaign that this system, although it treats every student the same, is unfair, because it does not allow a sufficient number of minority candidates to prevail. This year, just 8 black students and 21 Latino students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School (disclosure: I attended Stuyvesant in the 1980s), leading de Blasio to repeat his claim that admission should be based on a range of factors, including recommendations and grades. Blacks and Hispanics, who make up about 70 percent of the city’s eighth grade class, make up only about 12 percent of the group of students admitted to the elite schools that use the exam.

To judge the controversy, it is worth reading this New York Times story from last year, which observes that at least one minority has enjoyed great success on the admissions exam: 72 percent of Stuyvesant’s students at that time were Asian. The story begins with Ting Shi, who, for his first two years in the States, “slept in a bunk bed in the same room with his grandparents and a cousin in Chinatown.” Because his parents worked 12-hour shifts, he “saw them only on Sundays.” After two years of test prep, including after-school and summer classes, Ting scored well enough on the exam to get into Stuyvesant.

The public magnet schools have been a means for non-affluent families to get an education on par with the education they would receive at a first-rate private school. You would think that people on the left would view the success of Asians in the system as a sign of the triumph of merit over racial and, in many cases, economic privilege. But Asians are the wrong kind of minority, and their success, far from meriting celebration, apparently needs to be rolled back.

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Eight of the specialized public high schools in New York City, including Stuyvesant High School, The Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech, rely on a standardized admissions exam. Mayor Bill de Blasio said during his campaign that this system, although it treats every student the same, is unfair, because it does not allow a sufficient number of minority candidates to prevail. This year, just 8 black students and 21 Latino students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School (disclosure: I attended Stuyvesant in the 1980s), leading de Blasio to repeat his claim that admission should be based on a range of factors, including recommendations and grades. Blacks and Hispanics, who make up about 70 percent of the city’s eighth grade class, make up only about 12 percent of the group of students admitted to the elite schools that use the exam.

To judge the controversy, it is worth reading this New York Times story from last year, which observes that at least one minority has enjoyed great success on the admissions exam: 72 percent of Stuyvesant’s students at that time were Asian. The story begins with Ting Shi, who, for his first two years in the States, “slept in a bunk bed in the same room with his grandparents and a cousin in Chinatown.” Because his parents worked 12-hour shifts, he “saw them only on Sundays.” After two years of test prep, including after-school and summer classes, Ting scored well enough on the exam to get into Stuyvesant.

The public magnet schools have been a means for non-affluent families to get an education on par with the education they would receive at a first-rate private school. You would think that people on the left would view the success of Asians in the system as a sign of the triumph of merit over racial and, in many cases, economic privilege. But Asians are the wrong kind of minority, and their success, far from meriting celebration, apparently needs to be rolled back.

It must be acknowledged that, although the city has made free test prep available and is engaged in outreach efforts, children in better school systems on average have a better chance of scoring well on the test. Children in “lower-income families have less access to high-quality elementary and middle schools.” But this argument proves too much. Since the quality of one’s elementary and middle school education presumably has something to do with one’s preparation for high school, the claim that standardized tests are imperfect indicators of merit, which is true enough, is a front for a call to lower admissions standards. Any standard that fails to admit a sufficient number of blacks and Hispanics will be denounced as, in the words of Lazar Treschan of the Community Service Society of New York, “academic apartheid.”

To see that this complaint–that the tests don’t really measure merit–is a front, one has only to imagine what would follow if New York took the route of considering recommendations in admissions, which, incidentally, would mean that someone would have to be paid to read all those recommendations. It seems likely that this standard would benefit children in affluent school districts whose parents will push for such recommendations and whose teachers will have more time and resources to devote to identifying and helping promising students. If, after adopting this more expensive admissions system, we found that no more or only a few more black and Hispanic students were admitted, a new measure of merit would have to be found. The sole guide to whether or not a system is gauging merit, for those who object to the admissions exams, is whether an unspecified target number of blacks and Hispanics are admitted.

Asian parents and students compelled to defend the tests have been “puzzled about having to defend a process they viewed as a vital steppingstone for immigrants. And more than a few see the criticism of the test as an attack on their cultures.” While one should hesitate to characterize “Asian culture,” there is no question that attitudes toward test taking play a role in this debate. Students interviewed by the Times asserted that “rigorous testing was generally an accepted practice in their home countries.” In contrast, those who object to the exams on “philosophical grounds” argue that “you shouldn’t have to prep Sunday to Sunday, to get into a good high school.”

Although I agree that deploying so much industriousness to pass a standardized exam is not the best possible use of an eighth graders’s time, I suspect that this time is better used than that of parents and children struggling to game the more holistic standards used for admission to private schools. However that may be, once we concede what seems undeniably true: that children are not responsible for the families they were born into or the school districts in which they happen to reside, we also have to acknowledge what attempting to rectify that unfairness at the level of admissions standards requires: not developing a new merit system, but doing away with merit systems altogether.

State Assemblyman Karim Camara, a Democrat from Brooklyn, plans to introduce legislation that would give the city power to change the admissions criteria for the specialized schools (the admissions criteria for three of the schools are fixed by state law) and “specify what other admissions criteria should be used.” This move, which affects only the small percentage of New York City’s students who attend public magnets and seeks to replace a system that has worked for students like Ting Shi, is unlikely to improve New York City’s school system in any way. But it is certainly, as Mayor de Blasio has shown, good politics.

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