Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 31, 2014

Breaking Faith Is No “Profile In Courage”

John F. Kennedy may well be, as syndicated columnist Drew Pearson famously asserted back in 1957, the only person to win a Pulitzer Prize for a ghostwritten book. But the memory of his (or Ted Sorenson’s, assuming you don’t believe that faithful JFK courtier’s steadfast denials of authorship) Profiles in Courage is kept alive every year by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which hands out an award to a politician they deem to be in the tradition of the book’s celebration of U.S. senators that bucked the tide of public opinion to do what they thought was right. Their latest choice—former President George H.W. Bush—is one that ought to appeal to both sides of the political aisle. Bush 41 is probably the closest thing we have these days to a consensus beloved elder statesman. Unlike every other living president, the elder Bush stopped being a lightening rod soon after leaving office. Given the hyper-partisanship of our times and the way that every president that followed him has spawned a derangement syndrome named in their honor, he may well be the last such figure to be viewed this way for the foreseeable future.

But the Foundation’s award has nevertheless spawned a rather spirited argument. The notion that Bush deserves to be honored for violating his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge is one that ought to be fiercely disputed. At stake here is not so much the 41st president’s honor, but the sanctity of political promises as well as the principle of fiscal prudence that was at the heart of his shameless and ultimately self-destructive decision to repudiate that famous promise. To claim, as does the Foundation, that Bush was right to abandon conservative principles isn’t merely a liberal cheer to a GOP leader’s choice to frustrate the voters who put him in office. It is a celebration of a longstanding tradition in which those who hold office are supposed to disregard the views of the mob in favor of the public interest.

That’s the sort of view with which many of our Founders might have sympathized (not to mention British parliamentarian and conservative icon Edmund Burke), but as often as not it is also the refuge of scoundrels. The point about Bush’s “courage” in raising taxes as well as the decisions taken by many, if not most of the examples cited in Profiles, is that they were dead wrong.

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John F. Kennedy may well be, as syndicated columnist Drew Pearson famously asserted back in 1957, the only person to win a Pulitzer Prize for a ghostwritten book. But the memory of his (or Ted Sorenson’s, assuming you don’t believe that faithful JFK courtier’s steadfast denials of authorship) Profiles in Courage is kept alive every year by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which hands out an award to a politician they deem to be in the tradition of the book’s celebration of U.S. senators that bucked the tide of public opinion to do what they thought was right. Their latest choice—former President George H.W. Bush—is one that ought to appeal to both sides of the political aisle. Bush 41 is probably the closest thing we have these days to a consensus beloved elder statesman. Unlike every other living president, the elder Bush stopped being a lightening rod soon after leaving office. Given the hyper-partisanship of our times and the way that every president that followed him has spawned a derangement syndrome named in their honor, he may well be the last such figure to be viewed this way for the foreseeable future.

But the Foundation’s award has nevertheless spawned a rather spirited argument. The notion that Bush deserves to be honored for violating his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge is one that ought to be fiercely disputed. At stake here is not so much the 41st president’s honor, but the sanctity of political promises as well as the principle of fiscal prudence that was at the heart of his shameless and ultimately self-destructive decision to repudiate that famous promise. To claim, as does the Foundation, that Bush was right to abandon conservative principles isn’t merely a liberal cheer to a GOP leader’s choice to frustrate the voters who put him in office. It is a celebration of a longstanding tradition in which those who hold office are supposed to disregard the views of the mob in favor of the public interest.

That’s the sort of view with which many of our Founders might have sympathized (not to mention British parliamentarian and conservative icon Edmund Burke), but as often as not it is also the refuge of scoundrels. The point about Bush’s “courage” in raising taxes as well as the decisions taken by many, if not most of the examples cited in Profiles, is that they were dead wrong.

The choice of Bush was cheered in particular by New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, whose piece about it not only sought to perpetuate the myth that raising taxes ensured the country’s subsequent prosperity but also engaged in snark at the expense of the younger President Bush and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. But in this case Norquist had the better argument. Having been elected on a pledge to fight back against the tax and spend inertia of the federal leviathan, Bush 41’s spineless surrender to the conventional wisdom imposed on him by the liberal media establishment and a Democratic-controlled Congress dedicated to opposing any reform was more than just your everyday political betrayal. It was an act of contempt for not only his party’s core political constituency but also for the whole point of the Reagan Revolution on which he had hitched a ride in 1980. By raising taxes Bush didn’t ensure the nation’s well being, but he did postpone the day of reckoning for the political establishment that was unable to see that the system had to be changed. The betrayal of the pledge he made when accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency was a low point in his career.

But it bears pointing out that in that sense he is no different from many of the senators lauded by JKF/Sorenson in the book. While a few of their examples are inarguably praiseworthy—Thomas Hart Benton for opposing the extension of slavery, Sam Houston for opposing secession, and Lucius Lamar for promoting post Civil War reconciliation—most of its subjects actually merited the abuse they received for their “courageous” decisions.

In it they laud Daniel Webster for embracing the Compromise of 1850 which sacrificed the right of free states to shelter runaway slaves. In essence Webster traded his honor and his principles for a measure that didn’t so much postpone the Civil War as to ensure it would tear the country apart. They also praise John Quincy Adams for leaving the Federalists in what was an act of intelligent if not particularly principled opportunism; George Norris for undermining U.S. preparedness before World War One and for later supporting a corrupt Democrat for president; and Robert A. Taft for opposing the Nuremberg Trials as ex post facto law rather than an effort to create international standards for human rights.

I might add Kansas Senator Edmund Ross—the Republican who cast the deciding vote not to convict Andrew Johnson after his impeachment—to the list of bad choices. I think Lincoln’s successor richly deserved eviction from office for his obstruction of reconstruction policies that might have granted some justice to freed slaves and avoided much of the harm that restoring the south to white rule did in the century that followed. But I also understand that there was some value to not creating a precedent that would have led to the impeachment of every president who displeased two-thirds of the Senate.

But the point here is that while there is something to be said for a politician that puts his principles above his political future, most of the subjects in Profiles did nothing of the sort. Most, like Webster and Ross, discarded their principles and took what they considered to be the pragmatic move and were rightly reviled for it. That’s what Bush did too, only perhaps in embracing an unnecessary tax increase he demonstrated that he never really had any principles on the issue of the size of government and taxation in the first place. Like the senators in the famous book, Bush paid for it with his political career. But there was nothing particularly courageous about his actions. To the contrary, standing for your principles against the force of conventional wisdom rather than caving in to it is the hardest thing you can do in Washington. Sometimes doing so is right and sometimes it is a mistake (see Cruz, Ted; government shutdown) but betraying your principles is almost always an act of craven cowardice. That the New York Times applauded such behavior should surprise no one.

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Kerry’s “Last Chance” Diplomacy Implodes

Secretary of State John Kerry is back in Israel today attempting to breath life into the peace talks that he initiated last year. With the Palestinians refusing to accept the framework for further talks the secretary tried to broker, and the Israelis seeing little purpose in releasing more Palestinian terrorist murderers to bribe Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas if the PA won’t keep negotiating, the whole scheme is on the brink of collapse. Thus, Kerry is working furiously to try and come up with a way to entice the Israelis to give Abbas what he wants in terms of either more prisoner releases or a settlement freeze.

The latest idea on the table, which has now been publicly confirmed by U.S. officials speaking off the record, is for the U.S. to hand convicted spy Jonathan Pollard to the Israelis in exchange for the last batch of terrorists already scheduled for release from Israeli jails as well as a further group to be let go after that. Presumably this latest batch of terrorist prisoners would be enough to bribe Abbas to keep talking even though he has already signaled that he isn’t that interested in the discussions, especially if they require him to agree to measures that herald an end to the conflict with Israel. As I wrote last week, the idea of trading Pollard for murderers is a bad deal for Israel. If Prime Minister Netanyahu is to keep making concessions to Abbas then he should expect something of substance in return from the Palestinians that would bring peace closer. Doing so for the sake of Pollard makes no sense for anyone.

But the real problem here isn’t the unbalanced nature of such a deal that is not likely to be carried out anyway. Rather, it is the sense of hysteria that has been invested in the latest iteration of the Middle East peace process. Having decided to try to succeed where all of his predecessors have failed, Kerry did so by claiming that it was the region’s last chance for peace even though there was no reason to believe the conflict was in danger of re-igniting or there were reasonable prospects for success. But now that he appears to be failing, his frequent predictions of doom have become self-fulfilling prophecies.

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Secretary of State John Kerry is back in Israel today attempting to breath life into the peace talks that he initiated last year. With the Palestinians refusing to accept the framework for further talks the secretary tried to broker, and the Israelis seeing little purpose in releasing more Palestinian terrorist murderers to bribe Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas if the PA won’t keep negotiating, the whole scheme is on the brink of collapse. Thus, Kerry is working furiously to try and come up with a way to entice the Israelis to give Abbas what he wants in terms of either more prisoner releases or a settlement freeze.

The latest idea on the table, which has now been publicly confirmed by U.S. officials speaking off the record, is for the U.S. to hand convicted spy Jonathan Pollard to the Israelis in exchange for the last batch of terrorists already scheduled for release from Israeli jails as well as a further group to be let go after that. Presumably this latest batch of terrorist prisoners would be enough to bribe Abbas to keep talking even though he has already signaled that he isn’t that interested in the discussions, especially if they require him to agree to measures that herald an end to the conflict with Israel. As I wrote last week, the idea of trading Pollard for murderers is a bad deal for Israel. If Prime Minister Netanyahu is to keep making concessions to Abbas then he should expect something of substance in return from the Palestinians that would bring peace closer. Doing so for the sake of Pollard makes no sense for anyone.

But the real problem here isn’t the unbalanced nature of such a deal that is not likely to be carried out anyway. Rather, it is the sense of hysteria that has been invested in the latest iteration of the Middle East peace process. Having decided to try to succeed where all of his predecessors have failed, Kerry did so by claiming that it was the region’s last chance for peace even though there was no reason to believe the conflict was in danger of re-igniting or there were reasonable prospects for success. But now that he appears to be failing, his frequent predictions of doom have become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The secretary invested time, energy, and the prestige of the United States on a negotiation that few thought had a chance because he was convinced there was no alternative and that a failure to advance a peace process that has been stuck in neutral ever since the Palestinians rejected the third Israeli offer of independence and statehood would lead to disaster. But as Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl aptly noted today, prior to the start of Kerry’s talks, “Israel and the Palestinian territories” were “an island of tranquility in a blood-drenched Middle East.” If the Palestinians preferred meaningless symbolic victories at the United Nations to statehood, such folly was rooted in Abbas’s belief that his people were not ready to give up their century-long war to destroy Israel.

Though Netanyahu has reluctantly agreed to a framework that is based on the 1967 lines, the Palestinians are still not ready to give up their “right of return” for the 1948 refugees and their descendants or to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, thereby signaling an end to the conflict. But by raising the stakes in the conflict and repeatedly warning the Israelis that they would suffer violence in the form of a third intifada and increased boycott efforts if they did not agree to peace, Kerry has raised the stakes for the Palestinians. In a foolish repeat of earlier mistakes made by the Obama administration, the Palestinian leadership is being put in a position of having to match Kerry’s warnings with provocative actions of their own. And since a resolution of these disputes is beyond Abbas’s power or will to achieve, the collapse of Kerry’s diplomacy may spiral out of control.

Continually crying that this is the “last chance” for peace is not only inaccurate—diplomats have been saying the same thing for decades and have always been wrong, since peace will come the day the Palestinians give up their illusions about re-writing history and not one day sooner—it is also the sort of sentiment that rationalizes the actions of extremists who don’t want peace on any terms. 

It is true that many Israelis worry about the long-term consequences of the current impasse which leaves the West Bank in limbo while Hamas-ruled Gaza functions as the independent Palestinian state in all but name. But as Diehl says, the alternative to Kerry’s apocalyptic warnings was an embrace of the reality of a conflict that couldn’t be solved but might be managed. Measures aimed at giving the Palestinians a bigger stake in an improved economy and better governance wouldn’t have cut the Gordian knot of Middle East peace but would have provided Abbas and his Fatah Party a reason to keep a lid on the territories as well as more of an incentive to think about preparing the way for eventual peace. Instead, Kerry has brought Abbas to the brink where he feels he has no alternative but to give the back of his hand to a negotiation that he never wanted to be part of in the first place. If violence in the form of a third intifada (perhaps funded in part by Iran via aid to Islamic Jihad or Hamas) follows, then it should be remembered that it was Kerry who set a potentially tragic series of events in motion.

What the secretary is learning is that as bad as a situation seems, it can only be made worse by hubris and naïveté, qualities Kerry possesses in abundance. Whether or not he manages to bribe either the Israelis or the Palestinians to keep talking in the coming days, the most important point to be gleaned from this chapter is that stoking fear in order to build support for peace isn’t merely counter-productive. It’s a recipe for disaster.

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Kochs Shouldn’t Sink to Reid’s Level

I have made no secret of my disdain for Harry Reid’s continued unraveling. Reid’s practice of leveling false charges about other politicians and even private citizens–calling cancer patients liars, for example, because they have been hurt by ObamaCare–from the floor of the Senate is assuredly a new low for the upper chamber. And his demonization of his fellow citizens with whom he disagrees on policy as “un-American” for participating in the electoral process has shown him to be both a proper heir to the vengeful, debased politics of Ted Kennedy as well as a particularly odious opponent of the democratic process.

And so it is precisely because I find his loathsome attacks on the Koch brothers so contemptible that I think the Kochs’ attempt to hit back, however clever, misses the mark. It’s not that the Kochs shouldn’t hit back–they can handle this as they choose, and are certainly entitled to respond to Reid’s mindless demagoguery. But in the ad they apparently released today, they fight fire with fire, taking aim at Reid’s relationship with liberal billionaire donors. National Review’s Eliana Johnson has the video of the ad as well as a brief write-up on it, and it’s clear that the Kochs have decided two can play this game. It would be far preferable if neither did so:

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I have made no secret of my disdain for Harry Reid’s continued unraveling. Reid’s practice of leveling false charges about other politicians and even private citizens–calling cancer patients liars, for example, because they have been hurt by ObamaCare–from the floor of the Senate is assuredly a new low for the upper chamber. And his demonization of his fellow citizens with whom he disagrees on policy as “un-American” for participating in the electoral process has shown him to be both a proper heir to the vengeful, debased politics of Ted Kennedy as well as a particularly odious opponent of the democratic process.

And so it is precisely because I find his loathsome attacks on the Koch brothers so contemptible that I think the Kochs’ attempt to hit back, however clever, misses the mark. It’s not that the Kochs shouldn’t hit back–they can handle this as they choose, and are certainly entitled to respond to Reid’s mindless demagoguery. But in the ad they apparently released today, they fight fire with fire, taking aim at Reid’s relationship with liberal billionaire donors. National Review’s Eliana Johnson has the video of the ad as well as a brief write-up on it, and it’s clear that the Kochs have decided two can play this game. It would be far preferable if neither did so:

The ad, “Steyer Infection,” juxtaposes Harry Reid’s denunciation of the Koch brothers with a narrative about Reid’s relationship with billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and his brother Jim, who runs a ratings service for children’s products.

“This is about two very wealthy brothers who intend to buy their own Congress,” it shows Reid saying in a speech earlier this month on the Senate floor. “You see when you make billions of dollars a year, you can be I guess as immoral and dishonest as your money will allow you to be.”​

The narrator says, “Billionaires like Tom Steyer, who just hosted Reid and other Senate Democrats at his San Francisco mansion? Steyer has a history of ‘environmentally destructive business ventures.’ And he wants regulators to strangle energy opportunities here in America, even though he helped finance the second-largest coal company in Indonesia.”

Here’s the ad itself:

Again, it is rational to respond to allegations and to push back on Reid. There’s no question Reid’s a hypocrite, though that’s far from his worst quality. As Johnson’s report notes, the Kochs are apparently being targeted as “out-of-state billionaires” in ads funded in part by Michael Bloomberg–in other words, an out-of-state billionaire. And Reid’s unseemly brand of crony capitalism is certainly worth addressing.

But the Kochs’ ad doesn’t merely explain that Reid accepts support from prominent billionaires while slamming those who are supported by other, conservative billionaires. It turns into an attack ad on the Steyers. If the Kochs and Steyers take this game to its logical conclusion, the airwaves would be blanketed during election season by wealthy philanthropists attacking each other. No thank you.

Such a development would reinforce the notion–pushed by Reid, among others–that what is important in these statewide elections is not who is running for office but who is funding them. It actually embraces the stereotype of politicians as bought-and-paid-for agents of powerful moneyed interests. The Kochs presumably think this is a caricature–otherwise why take it so personally–but this would bring the caricature to life.

The national media’s lack of outrage, with rare notable exceptions, toward Reid’s McCarthyism is certainly dispiriting. The silver lining, I suppose, is that the next time the mainstream papers complain about a lack of civility in American politics the only appropriate response would be to laugh them out of the room. Indeed, the New York Times editorial board even gave its endorsement to this abuse of power. Apparently the problem with Joe McCarthy, in the Times’s estimation, was that he was simply working for the wrong political party.

Nonetheless, two wrongs don’t make a right. The ad attacking the Steyers attempts to prove Reid’s hypocrisy by applying Reid’s own floor speeches to the Steyers’ political and economic activity, implying the path of attack is fair game. Reid’s example is one that should not be followed. It would be quite troublesome if it instead became standard.

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Europe Tilts Right on Immigration

Last night riot police had to be dispatched to disperse angry crowds in some of the French towns where the far-right National Front has been voted into power. While FN leader Marine Le Pen claims to have gone to considerable lengths to rid her party of the open anti-Semitism and xenophobia that marred its image under her father’s leadership, many remain skeptical about how much of an integral change has really taken place within the FN.

Yet for the first time since 1995 Le Pen’s party has mayors back in office, having won control of 11 towns in the local elections held this weekend. Indeed, from having just 60 councilors the party has jumped to some 12,000 as of the latest elections. This surge may become a familiar pattern in Europe, for amidst worsening economic conditions throughout many European countries, observers acknowledge a revival of far-right and neo-fascist forces, most notably with parties such as Jobbik in Hungary or Golden Dawn in Greece.

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Last night riot police had to be dispatched to disperse angry crowds in some of the French towns where the far-right National Front has been voted into power. While FN leader Marine Le Pen claims to have gone to considerable lengths to rid her party of the open anti-Semitism and xenophobia that marred its image under her father’s leadership, many remain skeptical about how much of an integral change has really taken place within the FN.

Yet for the first time since 1995 Le Pen’s party has mayors back in office, having won control of 11 towns in the local elections held this weekend. Indeed, from having just 60 councilors the party has jumped to some 12,000 as of the latest elections. This surge may become a familiar pattern in Europe, for amidst worsening economic conditions throughout many European countries, observers acknowledge a revival of far-right and neo-fascist forces, most notably with parties such as Jobbik in Hungary or Golden Dawn in Greece.

In with this evident rise of nationalistic and anti-immigration parties some choose to include the improving fortunes of the United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain. Writing for the Gatestone Institute, Peter Martino draws a direct comparison between Le Pen’s FN and Nigel Farage’s UKIP, noting that in both cases these parties have been able to exploit growing public dissatisfaction with the liberal ruling elite and the lackluster politics of the governing class. While UKIP is certainly an expression of a populist conservative backlash, it would be wrong to group it in with the far-right parties on the march in mainland Europe.

As with the first time that Europe was convulsed by the rallying of far-right and fascist movements, the impetus has been primarily economic. No doubt today’s far-right parties feed on general dissatisfaction with the multiculturalist policies promoted by Europe’s metropolitan politicians, but much of the anti-immigrant animus is undoubtedly being driven by dizzying levels of unemployment. In France unemployment exceeds three million where just 40 percent of the population has work. Socialist France has not run a surplus since 1974; it is unsurprising, then, that President Hollande, with his 75 percent top tax rate, is disliked by a record three-quarters of voters.

The New Yorker’s Alexander Stille has implied that the weekend’s election results stem from a failure of Hollande’s party to reform its socialist ways. Yet in casting their votes for the National Front, those who did so were hardly going for a more free-market option. Just like the populist right-wing parties of the past, Le Pen claims that her party is neither left nor right. When it comes to economic matters the FN is both undeniably protectionist and essentially anti-capitalist. Le Pen has actually called for still higher state investment and backs government control over everything from energy to financial services. And like other far-right European parties, such as Austria’s Freedom Party, the French National Front is vocally hostile to globalization.

Peter Martino does give recognition to the differing stance that FN and UKIP take on economic matters, but this difference is far more fundamental than might be initially apparent. UKIP has increasingly been stressing itself as the party of liberty, perhaps seeking to imitate at least some of the sentiments popular in the Tea Party. Its primary quarrel with the EU appears to be a democracy-oriented one; that Brussels’s bureaucracy is draining sovereignty from the British parliament and its electorate. More so than even the Conservative party, UKIP is presenting itself as the party of private enterprise and small business. Many in both the UKIP leadership and the rank and file have taken to describing themselves as libertarian–although one gets the impression that they don’t quite understand the term in the same way that Americans do. In many respects UKIP is the most socially conservative political grouping in Britain, the only major party to take a stand against the recent implementation of gay marriage. 

While UKIP has voiced opposition to multicultualism, as well as to the political correctness that surrounds it, the party’s calls for reducing immigration levels seem not to be motivated by the xenophobia that its detractors allege. UKIP has won voters by condemning the mass flow of immigrants brought by the EU’s open border policy, but party spokespeople have emphasized that this isn’t a matter of race, claiming that they would much prefer to see highly skilled immigrants coming to Britain from other parts of the world than unskilled workers from Eastern and Southern Europe. Indeed, Farage has advocated leaving the EU on the grounds that Britain could then become more engaged with the global economy, a far cry from Le Pen’s protectionist anti-globalization.

Of course, both UKIP and the National Front expect significant wins in the upcoming EU elections, and both hope to expand their representation to their respective national parliaments at the first opportunity. Yet whereas anti-immigrant racism and anti-Semitism was very much the FN’s raison d’etre under Jean Marie Le Pen, it is not clear that this was ever the case for UKIP. As Martino also noted, UKIP refuses to ally with the FN so long as it has anti-Semites in its midst. Furthermore, in those instances where its own candidates have been exposed as racist they have been rapidly and unceremoniously ejected from the party. Across Europe the far-right may be benefiting from the economic difficulties currently marring the continent, but it would be wrong to throw Britain’s more liberty-oriented UKIP in with those parading neo-fascist tendencies.   

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The Obama Doctrine of Selective Memory

On June 17, 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said something strange. On the topic of a deal struck on settlement construction between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, Clinton said: “In looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the official record of the administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility.”

It’s important to clarify what is “strange” about this comment. It was a strange thing to say because it is flatly untrue: the agreement most certainly existed, and was put to writing. But it was not strange that Clinton was the one to say it: as Omri Ceren meticulously explained for the magazine in May 2012, the Obama administration’s disastrous policies toward Israel were predicated on ignoring, and at times outright falsifying, history.

Sharon made real strategic concessions to boost the peace process at great political and personal cost because he knew he had America’s support. When Obama came into office, American allies learned the hard way that the White House was no longer bound by such agreements, regardless of the danger it put those allies in. Ukrainian leaders now appear to be running into the same problem.

According to the Budapest memorandum of 1994, Ukraine would give up its nukes in return for the recognition and maintenance of its territorial integrity. That ship has very clearly sailed, since the United States is now asking Vladimir Putin’s Russia to please only take from Ukraine that which they have already pilfered. Putin is considering this request–which is exactly what it is: a request. Thus, Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” does not, at the moment, exist in any meaningful sense.

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On June 17, 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said something strange. On the topic of a deal struck on settlement construction between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, Clinton said: “In looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the official record of the administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility.”

It’s important to clarify what is “strange” about this comment. It was a strange thing to say because it is flatly untrue: the agreement most certainly existed, and was put to writing. But it was not strange that Clinton was the one to say it: as Omri Ceren meticulously explained for the magazine in May 2012, the Obama administration’s disastrous policies toward Israel were predicated on ignoring, and at times outright falsifying, history.

Sharon made real strategic concessions to boost the peace process at great political and personal cost because he knew he had America’s support. When Obama came into office, American allies learned the hard way that the White House was no longer bound by such agreements, regardless of the danger it put those allies in. Ukrainian leaders now appear to be running into the same problem.

According to the Budapest memorandum of 1994, Ukraine would give up its nukes in return for the recognition and maintenance of its territorial integrity. That ship has very clearly sailed, since the United States is now asking Vladimir Putin’s Russia to please only take from Ukraine that which they have already pilfered. Putin is considering this request–which is exactly what it is: a request. Thus, Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” does not, at the moment, exist in any meaningful sense.

Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, has taken to the Daily Beast to describe the Budapest memorandum in terms nearly identical to the way the Bush-Sharon letter was described by those who wanted Obama to respect the promises of the White House. When Clinton denied an agreement that plainly existed, she tried to hedge, in part by saying she found no “enforceable” deals. As Elliott Abrams noted in the Wall Street Journal at the time: “How exactly would Israel enforce any agreement against an American decision to renege on it? Take it to the International Court in The Hague?”

Gelb acknowledges that the Budapest deal does not specifically obligate America to use force against Russia to repel its Ukrainian adventure. But Gelb wants the administration to stop insulting the intelligence of the Ukrainians:

The Budapest document makes sense historically only as a quid pro quo agreement resting upon American credibility to act. The United States cannot simply walk away from the plain meaning of the Budapest Memorandum and leave Ukraine in the lurch. And how would this complete washing of U.S. hands affect U.S. efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, supposedly a top national priority? Why should any nation forego nukes or give them away like Ukraine, if other nations, and especially the U.S., feel zero responsibility for their defense? It’s not that Washington has to send ground troops or start using its nuclear weapons; it’s just that potential aggressors have to see some potential military cost.

And that’s the consequence of the administration’s penchant for selective memory in foreign affairs that Obama brushed aside when it came to Israel. It’s not about whether Obama would or would not have signed such a deal himself. It’s about whether American promises evaporate every four or eight years.

The obvious rejoinder is that presidential administrations cannot be bound by every political or strategic principle of their predecessors–otherwise why have elections? True, but the question is one of written agreements, “memoranda,” and understandings, especially those offered as the American side of a deal that has been otherwise fulfilled. Sharon pulled out not just of Gaza but also parts of the West Bank and made concessions on security in both territories he was hesitant to offer. He held up his end of the bargain, and Israelis were only asking that the administration hold up Washington’s.

That’s the point Gelb is making on Ukraine, and it’s an important one. He is saying that the United States’ decision on how to respond to Russia’s aggression should not be made in a vacuum. This may bind Obama’s hands a bit, but there is danger in reneging on this agreement. It’s a danger that was mostly ignored when it came to Israel. But now it’s clear that this is a pattern with Obama, and that American promises are suspended on his watch. It’s no surprise that the world is acting accordingly.

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Deadline Is ObamaCare’s “Mission Accomplished” Moment

It was, perhaps, fitting that the same website that debuted to the scorn of the nation last fall would crash on the last day of the six-month period for enrollment in ObamaCare. Just as the administration and its media cheerleaders were declaring victory in their effort to reach the goal of seven million enrolled in the scheme, the HealthCare.gov website was down for six hours this morning due to what we are told was a software bug that caused a crash rather than a surge in traffic. Though the site was supposedly back up and running, the event was an appropriate metaphor for a flawed law’s implementation. Having overpromised throughout this process, the government couldn’t even keep its website up during the last day of its self-imposed deadline.

Yet the real problem with the White House’s triumphant spin on the enrollment figures isn’t that “glitchy” website. It’s the fact that the numbers that are being cited as proof that, despite all its travails, more than six and perhaps even seven million people have signed up for ObamaCare are thoroughly unreliable. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to know that the books are being cooked. With as many as 20 percent of those being counted as enrolled yet to pay a premium and thus not actually covered, the talk about success is mere hot air.

So, too, are the claims that the scheme has met or exceeded its goal of expanding the pool of insured Americans. Since the overwhelming majority of those participating were already covered by insurance and are being forced onto ObamaCare by the new law’s regulations, the accomplishment being touted today is more one of bureaucratic bookkeeping than a meaningful expansion of health care. Nor is there any sign that the flood of young and healthy Americans into the ranks of those participating is occurring, meaning that what will follow today’s great victory will be a gradual recognition that what the country has been saddled with is a mess that will cause insurance costs to skyrocket rather than go down.

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It was, perhaps, fitting that the same website that debuted to the scorn of the nation last fall would crash on the last day of the six-month period for enrollment in ObamaCare. Just as the administration and its media cheerleaders were declaring victory in their effort to reach the goal of seven million enrolled in the scheme, the HealthCare.gov website was down for six hours this morning due to what we are told was a software bug that caused a crash rather than a surge in traffic. Though the site was supposedly back up and running, the event was an appropriate metaphor for a flawed law’s implementation. Having overpromised throughout this process, the government couldn’t even keep its website up during the last day of its self-imposed deadline.

Yet the real problem with the White House’s triumphant spin on the enrollment figures isn’t that “glitchy” website. It’s the fact that the numbers that are being cited as proof that, despite all its travails, more than six and perhaps even seven million people have signed up for ObamaCare are thoroughly unreliable. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to know that the books are being cooked. With as many as 20 percent of those being counted as enrolled yet to pay a premium and thus not actually covered, the talk about success is mere hot air.

So, too, are the claims that the scheme has met or exceeded its goal of expanding the pool of insured Americans. Since the overwhelming majority of those participating were already covered by insurance and are being forced onto ObamaCare by the new law’s regulations, the accomplishment being touted today is more one of bureaucratic bookkeeping than a meaningful expansion of health care. Nor is there any sign that the flood of young and healthy Americans into the ranks of those participating is occurring, meaning that what will follow today’s great victory will be a gradual recognition that what the country has been saddled with is a mess that will cause insurance costs to skyrocket rather than go down.

It should be acknowledged that the pictures of people standing on line waiting to talk about getting ObamaCare and the reports of large numbers visiting the website or trying to call in to get the insurance sounds like a vindication of the law or at least of the all-out enrollment push being conducted by the president and the rest of his administration. But the fact remains that merely signing onto the website and creating an account is not the same thing as actually buying the product. If by the end of the day, the administration is claiming that they have met or come close to the seven million enrollments it wanted, it must be remembered that this number must be reduced by at least 20 percent to account for the vast numbers who haven’t completed the purchase and may never do so.

Just as deceptive is the fact that among the millions being counted as happy ObamaCare customers are a huge number of Americans who already had health insurance they liked but lost it as a result of the passage of the misnamed Affordable Care Act. They are now stuck with coverage that is likely more expensive and which contains provisions they didn’t want. As a New York Times front-page feature that was, no doubt, intended to tout the law’s benefits in Kentucky—a rare example where a state exchange appears to be working well—illustrated, administration triumphalism has little connection to the reality faced by many of those affected by the president’s signature health-care law. Including those Americans who are the big losers in the passage of this law as being part of the supposed flood of those who need and want ObamaCare is the ultimate in double counting.

No matter what the numbers of those enrolled actually turn out to be, without millions more young and healthy Americans included in the plan, it will be a financial disaster and force the government to bail out the insurance companies. That will be unfortunate. But if those more profitable young and healthy customers don’t listen to the president’s pleas, who can blame them? The product that is being shoved down their throats is inferior, costly, and a bad deal to boot. With pre-existing conditions no longer a bar to insurance coverage there is no longer much reason for those who are less likely to get sick to enroll before they are placed in the position of needing insurance. And with much of the plan’s provisions being postponed or otherwise delayed in order to lessen the pain to the nation and increase the Democrats’ chances of success in November, there is no way of knowing just how unpopular this law will be when all is said and done.

It is entirely possible that we will look back on today’s deadline and administration celebrations about enrollment as Obama’s version of George W. Bush’s infamous “mission accomplished” moment after Iraq. Democrats who dream that today’s numbers will get them off the hook in the midterms should think again.

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Environmentalists to the Peasants: Drop Dead

California is going through a terrible drought and 2013 was the driest on record in the state. So who is suffering, financially and otherwise, from its effects?

Hint: it is not the coastal elite. The water still flows to the upscale neighborhoods of La Jolla, Malibu, and Marin County. Their lawns are watered, their BMW’s washed and polished, their swimming pools full.

No, it’s the farmers in the Central Valley and the agricultural workers who are idled as 500,000 acres of the best farmland on the planet lies fallow. Where is their water going? To save the environment. It’s better, according to the coastal elite, that Juan and José should wonder how they are going to feed their families, since there are no strawberries to pick, than that the delta smelt should be inconvenienced in a drought.

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California is going through a terrible drought and 2013 was the driest on record in the state. So who is suffering, financially and otherwise, from its effects?

Hint: it is not the coastal elite. The water still flows to the upscale neighborhoods of La Jolla, Malibu, and Marin County. Their lawns are watered, their BMW’s washed and polished, their swimming pools full.

No, it’s the farmers in the Central Valley and the agricultural workers who are idled as 500,000 acres of the best farmland on the planet lies fallow. Where is their water going? To save the environment. It’s better, according to the coastal elite, that Juan and José should wonder how they are going to feed their families, since there are no strawberries to pick, than that the delta smelt should be inconvenienced in a drought.

And, of course, the heart and soul of the environmental movement in California is the coastal elite, insulated from its consequences by their six- and seven-figure incomes. As Victor Davis Hanson points out in a devastating “j’accuse,” there seems to be few limits to the amount of suffering the California aristocracy is willing to impose on the peasants so that they can pat themselves on the back for their environmental stewardship.

As Hanson explains, while California’s population grew from 23 million in 1976 to 40 million today, the water projects needed to supply that 79 percent increase, such as the state California Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, were cancelled in the name of the environment:

At some fateful moment in the 1970s, the other California on the coast, drunk with the globalized wealth that poured into Napa Valley, the Silicon Valley, the great coastal university nexuses at Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, and Caltech, the entertainment industry, the defense industry, and the financial industry decided that they had transcended the old warnings of more Californians needing far more water to survive more droughts. When you are rich, you can afford for the first time in your life to favor a newt with spots on his toes over someone else that lacks your money, clout, and sensitivities.

They are equally indifferent to the effects that rising fuel and electricity costs have on people of limited incomes. If the price of a year’s worth of gasoline were to rise from $3,000 to $6,000 (i.e. from $4 to $8 a gallon), it wouldn’t affect the lifestyle of someone earning $1 million one bit, a mere 3/10ths of one percent. For someone living on $50,000, it’s a devastating six percent hit.

But, as Marie Antoinette never actually said, they can always eat cake.

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The Silver Lining in Israel’s Legal Dramas

The conviction of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on corruption charges, stemming from his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem, no doubt dismays his supporters who were hoping he would stage a political comeback. It also, no doubt, dismays many Israelis who must be wondering about the quality of their political leaders.

Olmert is, of course, just the latest senior Israeli figure to be convicted of crimes. Former president Moshe Katsav is now serving a prison sentence for rape. Former finance minister Abraham Hirschson was sent to jail for five years in 2009 for “stealing more than $500,000 from a trade union he led before becoming a cabinet member.” Another former cabinet minister, Shlomo Benizri, was sentenced the same year for taking tribes. Former defense minister and general Yitzhak Mordechai was convicted in 2001 of two counts of sexual assault. Others, such as former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, have been tried and acquitted.

So should Israelis be worried that they are being governed by a pack of crooks and predators? Undoubtedly corruption is a problem in Israeli politics–as it is everywhere. But Israel still ranks head and shoulders above its neighbors on any measure of governance and (no coincidence) on economic performance.

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The conviction of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on corruption charges, stemming from his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem, no doubt dismays his supporters who were hoping he would stage a political comeback. It also, no doubt, dismays many Israelis who must be wondering about the quality of their political leaders.

Olmert is, of course, just the latest senior Israeli figure to be convicted of crimes. Former president Moshe Katsav is now serving a prison sentence for rape. Former finance minister Abraham Hirschson was sent to jail for five years in 2009 for “stealing more than $500,000 from a trade union he led before becoming a cabinet member.” Another former cabinet minister, Shlomo Benizri, was sentenced the same year for taking tribes. Former defense minister and general Yitzhak Mordechai was convicted in 2001 of two counts of sexual assault. Others, such as former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, have been tried and acquitted.

So should Israelis be worried that they are being governed by a pack of crooks and predators? Undoubtedly corruption is a problem in Israeli politics–as it is everywhere. But Israel still ranks head and shoulders above its neighbors on any measure of governance and (no coincidence) on economic performance.

The latest Transparency International survey of global corruption puts Israel at No. 36 out of 177 countries. It is far behind clean government leaders Denmark and New Zealand, but it is ahead of every other country in the Middle East except for UAE and Qatar, where corruption is a lot more difficult to measure because it is hard to know where public revenues end and royal family income begins.

The fact that Israel is actually able to prosecute and convict former prime ministers and presidents is a stunning achievement which would be unthinkable in most countries where leaders wind up in the dock only when their regime is overthrown. (Think Egypt.) While Israelis do have some cause for concern about the quality of their politics, on the whole, I would argue that they should take pride in their ability to hold political leaders to account. While the neighboring Arab states may well crow over Olmert’s conviction–there is no love lost for him because of his role in directing the 2006 war against Hezbollah–their populations, reading the news, may well wonder why their own politicians aren’t being exposed for their far greater thievery.

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On Peace Talks and Prisoner Releases

We have come a long way from the days when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu used to call for negotiations without preconditions. Now it has simply become expected that Israel must demonstrate “good will” by purchasing the presence of the Palestinians at the negotiating table with round after round of painful concessions. And few things must be more painful for Israelis than having to see those who murdered their loved ones walk free. It flies in the face of the most basic notions about justice and, of course, it’s tactically suicidal: those well-schooled in terror go free to resume their activities; those contemplating the path of terrorism know that in the event they are captured they will likely be released in a prisoner exchange eventually. Yet, the Israeli government has set a dangerous precedent and throwing on the breaks now may prove easier said than done.

The Palestinians have recently issued a new demand. Either Israel lets 1,000 Palestinian prisoners walk free or Palestinian negotiators will walk from the current round of peace talks. The previous nine months of fruitless negotiations were paid for by the Israelis agreeing to release 104 Palestinian security prisoners. These were to be released in stages so as to ensure that the Palestinians wouldn’t simply take the prisoners and run. At each stage the Palestinians would be obliged to continue with the negotiations and the next batch of terrorists would be released. But the deadline for the final installment of convicted criminals came and went this weekend. With Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas refusing to carry on with the talks, Israel announced that this last prisoner release would not be made.

This was hardly an unfair decision. With the Palestinians insisting the talks were over and that they were going back to the United Nations to pursue statehood there, the Israelis had nothing to gain from setting more terrorists loose. Yet, not releasing the prisoners was only ever going to invite more condemnation, despite the fact that threatening not to do so is arguably Israel’s way of attempting to keep talks open.

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We have come a long way from the days when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu used to call for negotiations without preconditions. Now it has simply become expected that Israel must demonstrate “good will” by purchasing the presence of the Palestinians at the negotiating table with round after round of painful concessions. And few things must be more painful for Israelis than having to see those who murdered their loved ones walk free. It flies in the face of the most basic notions about justice and, of course, it’s tactically suicidal: those well-schooled in terror go free to resume their activities; those contemplating the path of terrorism know that in the event they are captured they will likely be released in a prisoner exchange eventually. Yet, the Israeli government has set a dangerous precedent and throwing on the breaks now may prove easier said than done.

The Palestinians have recently issued a new demand. Either Israel lets 1,000 Palestinian prisoners walk free or Palestinian negotiators will walk from the current round of peace talks. The previous nine months of fruitless negotiations were paid for by the Israelis agreeing to release 104 Palestinian security prisoners. These were to be released in stages so as to ensure that the Palestinians wouldn’t simply take the prisoners and run. At each stage the Palestinians would be obliged to continue with the negotiations and the next batch of terrorists would be released. But the deadline for the final installment of convicted criminals came and went this weekend. With Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas refusing to carry on with the talks, Israel announced that this last prisoner release would not be made.

This was hardly an unfair decision. With the Palestinians insisting the talks were over and that they were going back to the United Nations to pursue statehood there, the Israelis had nothing to gain from setting more terrorists loose. Yet, not releasing the prisoners was only ever going to invite more condemnation, despite the fact that threatening not to do so is arguably Israel’s way of attempting to keep talks open.

Indeed, it has been reported that the State Department was not at all pleased about the prospect of Israel backing out on the prisoner release. By all accounts U.S. officials have warned Israel that if the Palestinians leave talks then America will not be able to stop them from going to the UN. In reality there is much that the U.S. could do to keep Abbas from leaving the talks in the first place, if only it chose to. The Palestinian Authority is in a dire financial mess; the threat of withholding the large amounts of U.S. funding the PA relies on to function would be one way of tying the Palestinians to the peace table.

Yet remarkably, it seems that the Israeli government has actually come forward with still more concessions of its own. This time the Israelis are offering 400 Palestinian terrorists in return for six more months of negotiations. That’s quite an inflation from the 104 terrorists agreed upon for nine months of talks. No doubt sensing that he is gaining the upper hand in all of this, Abbas has now done what tyrants always do when they sense they’re being appeased: he has demanded more. This time, says Abbas, Israel will have to release 1,000 prisoners to renew Palestinian participation in peace talks.

That last demand should be a signal to America and the world that the Palestinians are not remotely serious about the negotiation process. Not that any such signal should be needed by now. Perhaps the international community would be forced to note this if the Israelis weren’t sending out their own signal, one that only serves to undermine their ability to hold out against such unreasonableness on the part of the Palestinians. By upping the offer to 400, Israel is indicating that it is perfectly reasonable that large numbers of murderers should be released in return for halfhearted Palestinian participation in talks. All that has to be haggled over now is how many.

But this is a disastrous message to send to the world. It gives the impression that a negotiated peace is not in the Palestinians’ interest–that they would indeed be better off taking unilateral moves, and that all these talks are primarily for Israel’s benefit. That last point is the line that Obama pushes too.

Oh, but there is just one other small thing that Abbas is asking for along with that minor matter of the 1,000 terrorists going free. Abbas is now saying that Israel must agree to transfer parts of Israeli controlled Area C of the West Bank into PA control. But this demand may give a clue about where Abbas is weak and what he most fears from Israel. He has been threatening that the Palestinians will go back to the UN to continue pushing for unilateral recognition there. Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has suggested that Israel should simply let Abbas go. But Bennett and his party, along with much of the Likud, have also been calling for the annexation of Area C to Israel. It is possible that Abbas is demanding a reduction in the size of Area C precisely because he fears an Israeli annexation. That should tell Israel something about where it has some leverage.    

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