Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 2, 2014

The Disturbing Pollard Debate

The decision of Secretary of State John Kerry to inject the question of Jonathan Pollard into his quest to keep Middle East peace negotiations alive was a complete and total fiasco. As I noted earlier today, not only was it a futile “Hail Mary” pass that was contemptuously torpedoed by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, even if both the PA and Israel had agreed to the terms of the proposed deal—which would have required Israel to free another batch of terrorist murderers and several hundred other security prisoners—it would have only meant continued negotiations with little hope that they will lead to an actual agreement.

The collapse of this effort is a great disappointment to those who have worked for Pollard’s release and a relief to those who want him to rot in jail. But the most disturbing element of this incident is not so much the latest proof of Kerry’s foolishness as it is the way that the discussion over Pollard has brought back to the surface the myths and misinformation about the case that come to the fore every time his name is in the news. Though advocates for his release are right to view Pollard’s sentence as excessive, much of what we have been hearing about him this week demonstrates anew the extent of the damage that he and his handlers did to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

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The decision of Secretary of State John Kerry to inject the question of Jonathan Pollard into his quest to keep Middle East peace negotiations alive was a complete and total fiasco. As I noted earlier today, not only was it a futile “Hail Mary” pass that was contemptuously torpedoed by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, even if both the PA and Israel had agreed to the terms of the proposed deal—which would have required Israel to free another batch of terrorist murderers and several hundred other security prisoners—it would have only meant continued negotiations with little hope that they will lead to an actual agreement.

The collapse of this effort is a great disappointment to those who have worked for Pollard’s release and a relief to those who want him to rot in jail. But the most disturbing element of this incident is not so much the latest proof of Kerry’s foolishness as it is the way that the discussion over Pollard has brought back to the surface the myths and misinformation about the case that come to the fore every time his name is in the news. Though advocates for his release are right to view Pollard’s sentence as excessive, much of what we have been hearing about him this week demonstrates anew the extent of the damage that he and his handlers did to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

At its heart, the debate about Pollard is about two competing themes. As I wrote in a comprehensive summary of the case three years ago, both Pollard’s defenders and his critics exaggerate their arguments. Though the information Pollard passed to the Israelis was, no doubt, useful to them, the assumption that it was a game-changer in terms of its security is unfounded. So, too, is the notion that the Israelis had a “right” to the information.

By the same token, the comparisons made between Pollard and various Soviet agents are absurd. Pollard was not spying for a hostile power and there is no evidence, nor even a reasonable argument to be made on behalf of the notion that he was in any way responsible for the deaths of U.S. agents in the field. Nor was what he did was in any way comparable to the revelations of Edward Snowden who deliberately sought to undermine U.S. intelligence operations and then fled to the safety of a hostile nation where he continues to thumb his nose at the United States. What he did was bad enough and deserving of severe punishment, but the manner with which the intelligence establishment has demonized him and made his release even after decades in prison and long after any information he might have possessed was relevant is as excessive as it is illogical.

The fact remains no one who ever spied for an ally—something that the U.S. has no scruples about doing itself with regard to Israel or other friendly nations like Germany—has ever received such a harsh sentence. Most such incidents are quickly covered up and forgotten. While Pollard’s espionage was particularly egregious, the life sentence he received violated the plea bargain negotiated with him by the government. The main reason he is still in jail is not so much the desire of the government to keep him locked up but the result of legal errors by his original attorneys that prevented appeals that would have almost certainly been successful in reducing his sentence. After 28 years, many of them in solitary, it cannot be asserted that he has not been punished or that defense of the rule of law depends on his continued incarceration. Since he will be eligible for parole in the fall of 2015, the talk about keeping him in prison forever is just hot air.

Nevertheless, this is an apt moment for both Israelis and Americans who are campaigning for his release to recognize that efforts to portray him as a hero are as damaging as they are misguided. It is legitimate for the Israeli government to seek the release of someone who is being punished for acts committed in the name of their country. But those who succumb to the temptation to treat his actions as anything other than a profoundly misguided operation are dead wrong.

Anyone listening to the debate about Pollard being conducted in the last week must understand that his name is synonymous with charges of dual loyalty against American Jews who serve in both the U.S. government and its armed forces. As I detailed in my 2011 article, the damage that the cynical decision to employ a foolish and unstable person as a spy has done to American Jews and to the vital alliance between the U.S. and Israel is incalculable.

While after serving so much time in prison he is deserving of clemency, I stand by my previous conclusion about what should be the final word about this subject:

Long after his release or death, Pollard’s behavior will still be used to bolster the slurs of those who wish to promote the pernicious myth that there is a contradiction between American patriotism and deep concern for the safety of the State of Israel. It is this damning epitaph, and not the claims of martyrdom that have been put forward to stir sympathy for his plight, that will be Jonathan Pollard’s true legacy.

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State Dept. Sides with Hamas Funders

Though it is no longer called the “war on terror,” the Obama administration has been eager to be seen as a scourge of international terrorism. It has continued many of the Bush administration’s security policies with regard to seeking intelligence on terror groups and has been so aggressive about pursuing a policy of assassinating terrorists that liberals like Ron Wyden and libertarians like Rand Paul have attacked it. But when it comes to shutting down the financing of some terrorists, the administration is something of a house divided. As the New York Times reports today, the State Department is pressuring the Department of Justice to intervene on behalf of a Jordanian bank in a federal lawsuit in which it stands accused of funneling money to terrorists who killed Americans. Apparently, Foggy Bottom wants the administration to support the Arab Bank’s effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn sanctions imposed by a lower court because of the financial institution’s refusal to hand over customer records.

While this sounds like a complicated litigation, the issues at stake here are not difficult to comprehend. At issue is whether the United States will ignore the standards it has applied to other terror-related cases as well as its past stands on foreign bank secrecy rules in order to help get a bank owned by friendly Arabs off the hook for their role in funding the murder of American citizens. If President Obama’s solicitor general does what the State Department is asking him to do, it will mean the nation is not only turning its back on American victims of Hamas terrorism. It will also show that the administration’s much ballyhooed toughness on terror doesn’t apply to its efforts to bring supporters of Palestinian murderers to justice.

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Though it is no longer called the “war on terror,” the Obama administration has been eager to be seen as a scourge of international terrorism. It has continued many of the Bush administration’s security policies with regard to seeking intelligence on terror groups and has been so aggressive about pursuing a policy of assassinating terrorists that liberals like Ron Wyden and libertarians like Rand Paul have attacked it. But when it comes to shutting down the financing of some terrorists, the administration is something of a house divided. As the New York Times reports today, the State Department is pressuring the Department of Justice to intervene on behalf of a Jordanian bank in a federal lawsuit in which it stands accused of funneling money to terrorists who killed Americans. Apparently, Foggy Bottom wants the administration to support the Arab Bank’s effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn sanctions imposed by a lower court because of the financial institution’s refusal to hand over customer records.

While this sounds like a complicated litigation, the issues at stake here are not difficult to comprehend. At issue is whether the United States will ignore the standards it has applied to other terror-related cases as well as its past stands on foreign bank secrecy rules in order to help get a bank owned by friendly Arabs off the hook for their role in funding the murder of American citizens. If President Obama’s solicitor general does what the State Department is asking him to do, it will mean the nation is not only turning its back on American victims of Hamas terrorism. It will also show that the administration’s much ballyhooed toughness on terror doesn’t apply to its efforts to bring supporters of Palestinian murderers to justice.

The case, Linde v. Arab Bank, revolves around the efforts of relatives of Americans killed by Hamas terrorists during the second intifada to use the federal Anti-Terrorism Act to bring those who funded the Islamist terror group to book for aiding and abetting these atrocities.

As the Israeli Law Center, the group that has pursued a relentless and courageous campaign to hold terror funders accountable, notes on its website:

The Arab Bank is a Jordanian financial institution that has funneled funds for organizations claiming they are legitimate charities. In fact, they were routing large sums of money to support the violent activities of Hamas and other terrorist organizations. These organizations served as agents of Hamas and used the Arab Bank to receive deposits and process wire transfers. The Bank was aware that these organizations are fronts that support terrorist activities, such that the Bank’s continued provision of services to these groups facilitated their illegal activities. One account number belongs to Hamas itself and was used to collect funds in support of its violent activities.

Further, the Saudi Committee In Support of the Intifada Al Quds (“Saudi Committee”) was established as a private charity in Saudi Arabia whose purpose was to support the intifada and the families of the terrorists who have died, as well as subsidize the Palestinian terror campaign. The Saudi Committee furnishes awards to terrorists’ families as a reward for suicide attacks. The Arab Bank is the exclusive financial administrator for the Saudi Committee. These payments create an incentive to engage in terrorist acts by rewarding all Palestinian terrorists, regardless of their affiliation with a particular group.

Despite the Arab Bank’s pleas of innocence, the facts of their funding of Hamas are not in dispute. But, as the Times notes, Secretary of State John Kerry doesn’t want to upset either Jordan or the Saudis any more than they have already been by Obama administration policies that have strengthened Iran at their expense. What he wants is for the U.S. government to plead diplomatic necessity to the courts and tie up the plaintiffs in circles.

But in doing so, the Justice Department would be flouting the same standards they have applied to other cases in which they have doggedly pursued the funders of al-Qaeda and other groups that have targeted Americans as well as in tax cases in which the U.S. has sought to override the efforts of foreign banks to maintain secrecy about their activities.

Claims of diplomatic necessity are contradicted by the experience of the post 9/11-era in which all banking institutions have been forced to disassociate themselves with terror or face the consequences. Jordan will survive a court defeat by the Arab Bank, as will the Saudis.

A decision by the administration to side with the Arab Bank against terror victims would be an outrageous abuse of power as well as of hypocrisy. U.S. law demands that the government allow those who have been hurt by terrorists to pursue the funders of murder. For President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry to interfere with the course of justice would be yet another signal that their anti-terror principles don’t apply to the victims of Palestinian killers.

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OCare’s Milestone and Jindal’s Opportunity

Today’s Washington Post article on Bobby Jindal, by Robert Costa and Amy Goldstein, is a great example of how a newspaper’s reporting can be vastly improved by actually embracing ideological diversity. Costa was recently hired by the Post from National Review, where his access to the right side of the political isle had him running circles around other reporters when it came to conservative politics.

And today’s article is refreshingly free of condescension and peppered with actual information and verifiable claims, unlike the treatment Republican rising stars are used to getting in, say, the Washington Post. For example, the article centers on Jindal’s new health-care reform proposal, and rather than parrot DNC talking points that Republicans have no plans or ideas on offer, we read this:

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Today’s Washington Post article on Bobby Jindal, by Robert Costa and Amy Goldstein, is a great example of how a newspaper’s reporting can be vastly improved by actually embracing ideological diversity. Costa was recently hired by the Post from National Review, where his access to the right side of the political isle had him running circles around other reporters when it came to conservative politics.

And today’s article is refreshingly free of condescension and peppered with actual information and verifiable claims, unlike the treatment Republican rising stars are used to getting in, say, the Washington Post. For example, the article centers on Jindal’s new health-care reform proposal, and rather than parrot DNC talking points that Republicans have no plans or ideas on offer, we read this:

In his 26-page plan, Jindal lays out a lengthy critique of the health law — which he refers to throughout as “Obamacare” — and reiterates his belief that it needs to be entirely done away with. In its place, he sets forth a bevy of ideas that have run through conservative thought for years, in some cases renaming them and in other cases suggesting new variations on old themes.

Indeed, conservatives have been offering ideas–most of them better than the bureaucratic mess and extralegal application of ObamaCare–for years. The article is also interesting for its framing of Jindal within the 2016 presidential landscape. Jindal has long been a favorite of GOP policy wonks and proponents of education reform, but it’s an open question as to whether he could translate that into broader, television-friendly appeal.

The biggest setback to that possibility came when an overly-folksy Jindal delivered the GOP’s response to Obama’s 2009 national address. He was written off, unfairly; after all, Bill Clinton famously cratered at the 1988 Democratic nominating convention only to be nominated himself four years later. But the weakness in Jindal’s delivery was real: he had committed the modern age’s cardinal sin of discarding authenticity in an attempt to be memorable. (He was, but not for the right reasons.)

Jindal seems now to be more comfortable in his own skin:

Putting an emphasis on Jindal’s policy chops has become the latest project for his kitchen cabinet, which includes Curt Anderson, a former political director at the Republican National Committee, and political adviser Timmy Teepell. So is highlighting Jindal’s willingness to articulate an agenda — all while other hopefuls, from Christie to Paul, are making their own strides on the pre-primary stage.

“It’s early, but this is a good time for him to show how he belongs with the rest of those names,” said Charlie Black, a former campaign adviser to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee.

Jindal has been steeped in the world of health policy since early in his career. In his mid-20s he became secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, and then he was named the staff director of a bipartisan commission on the future of Medicare. A few years later, he became an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Is this a winning strategy? It always depends on the competition, of course, but Jindal is one of the few conservative leaders who could benefit from the enrollment numbers ObamaCare racked up thus far. ObamaCare is far from a success–indeed, even late-night host Jimmy Fallon greeted the “mission accomplished” ObamaCare announcement by noting that “it’s amazing what you can achieve when you make something mandatory, and fine people if they don’t do it — and keep extending the deadline for months.”

But the president’s celebration was telling. The point of the frantic enrollment rush was to try to mitigate what had made the enrollment rush possible in the first place–Obama’s cancellation of Americans’ insurance policies they actually liked–and get them in some way dependent on the state. At the outset, ObamaCare was weakest before it created millions of dependents. That’s the mark Obama was aiming for, not a more serious definition of “success,” which might be well beyond ObamaCare’s reach anyway.

Now the narrative has shifted, and Republicans who want to undo the damage ObamaCare has already done and prevent the damage it threatens to do must concentrate as much or more on the “replace” side of their “repeal and replace” slogan. It’s the first moment, in other words, in the post-2012 election drama that calls specifically for a wonk to step forward, and Jindal has done so. Whether that can enable him to compete with Republicans’ prospective first-tier candidates remains to be seen, but it’s clear he’s at least improved his sense of timing.

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Kerry’s Hubris Leads to a Great Fall

It was just a couple of months ago that Secretary of State John Kerry was being lauded as, in the words of CNN, “a surprise success.” He was hailed by the chattering classes as having exceeded Hillary Clinton’s record by showing daring instead of her instinctive caution. After all, hadn’t he managed to preside over a nuclear deal with Iran, saved President Obama’s face by negotiating a good deal with Russia about Syrian chemical weapons, and made progress on a withdrawal agreement in Afghanistan? Most of all, his audacious decision to restart Middle East peace talks when everyone was warning him it was a fool’s errand was seen as having great promise. As the Atlantic gushed, “It’s looking more and more possible that when the history of early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again.”

But that was then. Today, Kerry is being rightly lambasted by the left, right, and center for his idiotic decision to introduce the issue of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard’s release into the Middle East peace negotiations. The collapse of those talks and Kerry’s frantic and desperate Hail Mary pass merely to keep the sides talking after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to scuttle the effort illustrates the secretary’s flawed strategy and lack of a coherent backup plan. But the Middle East is not the only place where Kerry’s supposedly inspired leadership has failed. Kerry ignored and then mishandled unrest in Egypt and alienated allies across the Middle East. The special relationship that Kerry had cultivated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (according to the Times the two had bonded over their love of ice hockey) has also not only proved useless in getting the Russians to do what they promised in Syria but has led to further humiliations for the U.S. as the Putin regime overran Crimea and threatened the rest of the Ukraine. Kerry’s dependence on the Russians is also likely to lead to more failure on the Iranian nuclear front since Moscow is even less inclined than it already was to pressure Tehran to sign an agreement that can be represented as a victory for U.S. diplomacy.

A generous evaluation of Kerry’s actions might merely ascribe this to a string of bad luck. But luck has nothing to do with it. The common thread between these various diplomatic dead-ends isn’t that small-minded and recalcitrant foreign leaders thwarted Kerry’s bold initiatives. It’s that in all these situations, Kerry believed the force of his personality and his tenacity was equal to the task of solving problems that had flummoxed all of his predecessors. Aaron David Miller perceptively wrote last fall at a moment when Kerry’s fortunes seemed to be on the rise, “Rarely have I encountered anyone — let alone a secretary of state — who seemed more self-confident about his own point of view and not all that interested in somebody else’s.” It was this hubris that has led to his current humiliation.

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It was just a couple of months ago that Secretary of State John Kerry was being lauded as, in the words of CNN, “a surprise success.” He was hailed by the chattering classes as having exceeded Hillary Clinton’s record by showing daring instead of her instinctive caution. After all, hadn’t he managed to preside over a nuclear deal with Iran, saved President Obama’s face by negotiating a good deal with Russia about Syrian chemical weapons, and made progress on a withdrawal agreement in Afghanistan? Most of all, his audacious decision to restart Middle East peace talks when everyone was warning him it was a fool’s errand was seen as having great promise. As the Atlantic gushed, “It’s looking more and more possible that when the history of early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again.”

But that was then. Today, Kerry is being rightly lambasted by the left, right, and center for his idiotic decision to introduce the issue of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard’s release into the Middle East peace negotiations. The collapse of those talks and Kerry’s frantic and desperate Hail Mary pass merely to keep the sides talking after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to scuttle the effort illustrates the secretary’s flawed strategy and lack of a coherent backup plan. But the Middle East is not the only place where Kerry’s supposedly inspired leadership has failed. Kerry ignored and then mishandled unrest in Egypt and alienated allies across the Middle East. The special relationship that Kerry had cultivated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (according to the Times the two had bonded over their love of ice hockey) has also not only proved useless in getting the Russians to do what they promised in Syria but has led to further humiliations for the U.S. as the Putin regime overran Crimea and threatened the rest of the Ukraine. Kerry’s dependence on the Russians is also likely to lead to more failure on the Iranian nuclear front since Moscow is even less inclined than it already was to pressure Tehran to sign an agreement that can be represented as a victory for U.S. diplomacy.

A generous evaluation of Kerry’s actions might merely ascribe this to a string of bad luck. But luck has nothing to do with it. The common thread between these various diplomatic dead-ends isn’t that small-minded and recalcitrant foreign leaders thwarted Kerry’s bold initiatives. It’s that in all these situations, Kerry believed the force of his personality and his tenacity was equal to the task of solving problems that had flummoxed all of his predecessors. Aaron David Miller perceptively wrote last fall at a moment when Kerry’s fortunes seemed to be on the rise, “Rarely have I encountered anyone — let alone a secretary of state — who seemed more self-confident about his own point of view and not all that interested in somebody else’s.” It was this hubris that has led to his current humiliation.

In a rare example of agreement between the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, both ridiculed Kerry’s use of Pollard as a pathetic Hail Mary pass to revive the peace negotiations that had been scuttled by Abbas. Though the two papers came at the issue from different perspectives—the Journal correctly thought it was wrong to trade a spy for the terrorist murderers Abbas wanted Israel to free while the Times thought that the gesture would advance the negotiations—they spoke for just about everybody inside and outside the U.S. foreign-policy establishment in declaring the Pollard gambit to be a sign of desperation on the part of the secretary.

The problem here isn’t just that including Pollard in the talks was wrong-headed and unlikely to yield positive results. It’s that Kerry is so invested in trying to prop up a process that never had a chance of success that he’s willing to gamble with America’s credibility. While he proved able to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, Kerry’s naïve miscalculation about Abbas being willing or able to make peace has led to the current stalemate. Even worse, Kerry’s desperation has emboldened Abbas to keep asking for more and more with no sign that he will ever risk signing a deal that will end the conflict. The talk about Pollard is significant not just because it’s a bad idea but because it reflects American weakness rather than boldness.

But while Kerry’s self-image is sufficiently grandiose to insulate him against criticisms, those who will pay the price for his failures will not be so fortunate. The Ukrainians know they cannot count on the U.S., and by raising expectations that were inevitably dashed the secretary has increased the chances of violence in the wake of his Middle East fiasco. Nor will those who may eventually be faced with the reality of an Iranian bomb remember him kindly. Not long ago liberal pundits were singing his praises. Now he should consider himself lucky if he is not soon considered a consensus choice for the title of the worst secretary of state in recent memory.

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The Debate We Should Be Having About Rand Paul and Sanctions

Rand Paul was put on the defensive this week over criticism stemming from comments he made last year, posted on Jennifer Rubin’s Washington Post blog, on Iran sanctions: “There are times when sanctions have made it worse. There are times–leading up to World War II, we cut off trade with Japan. That probably caused Japan to react angrily. We also had a blockade on Germany after World War I, which may have encouraged some of their anger.”

As with a great many conversations involving Hitler, the debate went off course almost immediately in ways that were unfair to Paul. The senator’s senior advisor told the Post in response: “World War II was a necessary war, a just war, a fully declared war, and an entirely victorious war; the megalomaniac Hitler was to blame for the war and the Holocaust.” So some of the sympathy for Paul is warranted: his recorded statements didn’t suggest that the United States was at fault for Hitler’s rise and the subsequent consequences.

“There’s a debate to be had on foreign policy,” David Harsanyi argues, reasonably. “This isn’t it.” Harsanyi goes on to make the following point:

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Rand Paul was put on the defensive this week over criticism stemming from comments he made last year, posted on Jennifer Rubin’s Washington Post blog, on Iran sanctions: “There are times when sanctions have made it worse. There are times–leading up to World War II, we cut off trade with Japan. That probably caused Japan to react angrily. We also had a blockade on Germany after World War I, which may have encouraged some of their anger.”

As with a great many conversations involving Hitler, the debate went off course almost immediately in ways that were unfair to Paul. The senator’s senior advisor told the Post in response: “World War II was a necessary war, a just war, a fully declared war, and an entirely victorious war; the megalomaniac Hitler was to blame for the war and the Holocaust.” So some of the sympathy for Paul is warranted: his recorded statements didn’t suggest that the United States was at fault for Hitler’s rise and the subsequent consequences.

“There’s a debate to be had on foreign policy,” David Harsanyi argues, reasonably. “This isn’t it.” Harsanyi goes on to make the following point:

What Paul never contends is that Hitler’s ideology hinged on the idea of opposing Versailles. He was talking about Germany and Germans. In front of me is Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, where the author basically makes the same case and Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, in which she writes that though Versailles’ impact had likely been exaggerated by German governments, it allowed political parties like the Nazis to tap into widespread “anger” and resentment. Sounds like that’s what Rand was saying.

True enough, though it’s worth noting that in Modern Times, Johnson has much more to say about the grievances unleashed by Versailles, and they center on the ethnic strife sparked by transferring Europe to the individual nation-state model from the age of empires–“self-determination,” in Johnson’s writing, which created more restive minority populations because there were more states. Where economic factors played a role, Johnson seems to put emphasis on the fact that more states also meant more poor states, especially in the immediate postwar period, and he notes that Germany was considered to have defaulted on its postwar obligations as well. If any aspect of Versailles encouraged German expansionism, Johnson appears to blame the fact that “under the Treaty it was forbidden to seek union with Germany, which made the Anschluss seem more attractive than it actually was.”

But I think Paul’s defenders here are on less steady ground in dismissing Paul’s comments as they relate to Pearl Harbor. He prefaced his sanctions comments–at least on Pearl Harbor–by saying sometimes sanctions “have made it worse.” Taken individually, sanctions on a nation can be treated this way. But it doesn’t always apply, and it applies perhaps less to Japan than almost any other scenario (Germany, Iraq, Iran, etc.).

As some have said since Paul’s comments, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was a sort of preemptive strike to at least temporarily avert an American response to simultaneous Japanese aggression throughout the region, including on Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. But another important facet of this is that the sanctions weren’t a surprise to Japan, because they were in response to Japanese action. As the historian Ian Toll writes, Japan took action its leaders–reminded by Admiral Yamamoto, who initially wanted to avoid an unwinnable war–knew would precipitate sanctions, and the whole process would bring them toward war:

From his flagship, Nagato, usually anchored in Hiroshima Bay, Yamamoto continued to warn against joining with the Nazis. He reminded his government that Japan imported around four-fifths of its oil and steel from areas controlled by the Allies. To risk conflict, he wrote, was foolhardy, because “there is no chance of winning a war with the United States for some time to come.”

But Japan’s confused and divided government drifted toward war while refusing to face the strategic problems it posed. It signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in Berlin in September 1940. As Yamamoto had predicted, the American government quickly restricted and finally cut off exports of oil and other vital materials. The sanctions brought events to a head, because Japan had no domestic oil production to speak of, and would exhaust its stockpiles in about a year.

Yamamoto realized he had lost the fight to keep Japan out of war, and he fell in line with the planning process.

Yamamoto warned against the process because he wrongly thought his leaders wanted to avoid war, when in fact they provoked it. This doesn’t mean Paul is “blaming” the U.S. for the attack on Pearl Harbor (and by extension, American entry into World War II). But it raises questions about Paul’s selective use of history–and bad history does not usually inform good policy.

I have raised this issue with Paul before. When he made his major foreign-policy address a year ago, he advocated a greater emphasis on containment. But he conflated the Kennanite version of containment with the strategy that ultimately won the Cold War, which was far from the truth. In reality, Kennan’s ideas were central to the Truman administration’s decision to embrace containment, but his version of containment was so different that Kennan adamantly refused to take credit for it.

It is far from clear that a nuclear Iran would be containable the way the Soviet Union was–in fact, it’s unlikely. But Paul’s version of containment would not have even contained the Soviet Union. Paul’s habit of cherry-picking history to create precedents for his own preferred strategy seems to be present with his comments on Japanese sanctions and Pearl Harbor as well. It certainly doesn’t make him a blame-America-firster. But it does suggest unsound strategic judgment.

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Maduro’s Empty Call for “Dialogue”

Nicolas Maduro’s ghost writer should be commended for making the Venezuelan dictator sound, in his op-ed in today’s New York Times, like a reasonable man in search of a reasonable solution. You would never know, on the basis of this article alone, that this is the same Maduro who claims to have encountered the ghost of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, on the Caracas subway system; who instinctively denounces his opponents as “Nazis” and “fascists”; who alleged a conspiracy involving former Bush administration officials to assassinate a senior opposition leader to “create chaos” in Venezuela.

What the piece–written in reaction to a stirring Times op-ed by Leopoldo Lopez, a senior opposition leader incarcerated by the Maduro regime on charges of “terrorism”–attempts to do is persuade the reader that Venezuela is really a socialist paradise warmed by the Caribbean sun. Hence, Maduro trots out the some of the standard themes which are familiar to observers of chavismo, for example that the revolution inaugurated by Chavez has shattered income inequality, along with former President Jimmy Carter’s belief that Venezuela’s electoral process “is the best in the world” (an old but much utilized quote that will serve as an eternal reminder of Carter’s obsequious stance toward the chavistas).

But there are other themes that are, significantly, absent from the op-ed. Until quite recently, the chavistas made much of the bold percentage increases in the national minimum wage, but Maduro wisely chose not to mention this “fact.” Wisely, because Venezuela’s currency, the Bolivar, has been devalued by an accumulated total of 2,000 percent over the last 15 years, rendering meaningless any minimum wage boosts. As CENDAS, a Caracas-based research institute, has discovered, thanks to the shortages and inflation that have worsened radically during Maduro’s first year in power, each Venezuelan now needs four minimum wages to meet basic expenses for food, clothing, and health care.

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Nicolas Maduro’s ghost writer should be commended for making the Venezuelan dictator sound, in his op-ed in today’s New York Times, like a reasonable man in search of a reasonable solution. You would never know, on the basis of this article alone, that this is the same Maduro who claims to have encountered the ghost of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, on the Caracas subway system; who instinctively denounces his opponents as “Nazis” and “fascists”; who alleged a conspiracy involving former Bush administration officials to assassinate a senior opposition leader to “create chaos” in Venezuela.

What the piece–written in reaction to a stirring Times op-ed by Leopoldo Lopez, a senior opposition leader incarcerated by the Maduro regime on charges of “terrorism”–attempts to do is persuade the reader that Venezuela is really a socialist paradise warmed by the Caribbean sun. Hence, Maduro trots out the some of the standard themes which are familiar to observers of chavismo, for example that the revolution inaugurated by Chavez has shattered income inequality, along with former President Jimmy Carter’s belief that Venezuela’s electoral process “is the best in the world” (an old but much utilized quote that will serve as an eternal reminder of Carter’s obsequious stance toward the chavistas).

But there are other themes that are, significantly, absent from the op-ed. Until quite recently, the chavistas made much of the bold percentage increases in the national minimum wage, but Maduro wisely chose not to mention this “fact.” Wisely, because Venezuela’s currency, the Bolivar, has been devalued by an accumulated total of 2,000 percent over the last 15 years, rendering meaningless any minimum wage boosts. As CENDAS, a Caracas-based research institute, has discovered, thanks to the shortages and inflation that have worsened radically during Maduro’s first year in power, each Venezuelan now needs four minimum wages to meet basic expenses for food, clothing, and health care.

In tandem with the omissions are the lies and distortions that one would expect from Maduro; for example, the fabricated charge that students protesting the sexual assault of a young female by National Guard members “burned down a university in Táchira State.” He demonizes the last two months of protest as the temper tantrum of a spoiled, entitled middle class, asserting that “the protests have received no support in poor and working-class neighborhoods.” What he doesn’t add is that the overwhelming presence, in the same neighborhoods, of the paramilitary colectivos is something of a disincentive to participating in demonstrations that highlight the damage the regime is doing to everyone, especially the poor and vulnerable.

Maduro ends his piece with an appeal for “dialogue to move forward.” Who, exactly, will he dialogue with? Leopoldo Lopez is in jail, while his colleague Maria Corina Machado has been stripped of her parliamentary immunity. As the perceptive Argentinian journalist Daniel Lozano noted in his report of the attempt by Machado and her supporters to reach the National Assembly building, what they found resembled a “military fortress”:

An enormous deployment of the National Guard blocked off the National Assembly. An attempt at dialogue with them, once again, did no good. A group of government supporters surrounded the deputy shouting “Imperialist! Traitor! Murderer!” The rising tension forced Machado and her group to abandon the scene…Machado couldn’t speak to the chamber but made use of the street stage to ask a question. And to answer it. “Why do they want to silence me? Why do they want to do that? Because they are terrified of the truth and people on the streets fighting for their liberty.”

And it’s not just Lopez and Machado. Enzo Scarano and Daniel Ceballos, the respective mayors of the opposition strongholds of San Diego and San Cristobal, have been summarily dismissed and imprisoned. Nobody yet knows the total human cost of the regime’s brutal operation to drive demonstrators off the streets of San Cristobal. As for Maduro’s laughable statement in his Times piece that the government will prosecute human-rights abusers in the security forces, the complete collapse of Venezuela’s independent judicial system over the last decade is the best counter-argument to that claim.

Inter alia, Maduro says, “My government has also reached out to President Obama, expressing our desire to again exchange ambassadors. We hope his administration will respond in kind.” Responding “in kind” would signal that the U.S. government is, at best, indifferent to the fate of Venezuela under continued chavista rule. Far better to point out that the friendship of the United States is a privilege, and not a right. If Maduro releases the thousand-odd political prisoners detained during the protests and reins in the colectivos, perhaps then, and only then, might there be something to discuss.

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Sarah Palin Continues to Discredit Herself

Sarah Palin continues to act in ways that confirm some of the more negative things said about her.

For example, she’s taken to Facebook to attack the most recent budget plan by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. According to Ms. Palin:

The latest Ryan (R, Wisconsin) Budget is not an April Fool’s joke. But it really IS a joke because it is STILL not seeing the problem; it STILL is not proposing reining in wasteful government overspending TODAY, instead of speculating years out that some future Congress and White House may possibly, hopefully, eh-who-knows, take responsibility for today’s budgetary selfishness and shortsightedness to do so. THIS is the definition of insanity. Do we still not understand how dangerous it is to allow government to grow unchecked as we shackle ourselves with massive debt – a good portion of which is held by foreign nations who don’t necessarily like us? If we can’t balance the budget today, what on earth makes us think it will happen at some future date? The solution is staring us in the face. We need to rein in spending today, and don’t tell me there is nothing to cut when we know every omnibus bill is loaded with pork and kickbacks.

Reading the article linked below gave me the same reaction that my daughter just caused when she punked me with a very unfunny April Fool’s Day announcement. As my Dad would say after these April Fool’s announcements, “This would kill a lesser man.” This out-of-control debt is killing our economic future.

Whatever differences Ms. Palin may have with the Ryan plan–and perhaps she’ll take the time to offer an actual critique of if rather than a Facebook entry with lots of upper case words–it’s hardly a joke. But what might elicit a roll of the eyes is comparing Ms. Palin’s views now versus what they were nearly four years ago.

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Sarah Palin continues to act in ways that confirm some of the more negative things said about her.

For example, she’s taken to Facebook to attack the most recent budget plan by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. According to Ms. Palin:

The latest Ryan (R, Wisconsin) Budget is not an April Fool’s joke. But it really IS a joke because it is STILL not seeing the problem; it STILL is not proposing reining in wasteful government overspending TODAY, instead of speculating years out that some future Congress and White House may possibly, hopefully, eh-who-knows, take responsibility for today’s budgetary selfishness and shortsightedness to do so. THIS is the definition of insanity. Do we still not understand how dangerous it is to allow government to grow unchecked as we shackle ourselves with massive debt – a good portion of which is held by foreign nations who don’t necessarily like us? If we can’t balance the budget today, what on earth makes us think it will happen at some future date? The solution is staring us in the face. We need to rein in spending today, and don’t tell me there is nothing to cut when we know every omnibus bill is loaded with pork and kickbacks.

Reading the article linked below gave me the same reaction that my daughter just caused when she punked me with a very unfunny April Fool’s Day announcement. As my Dad would say after these April Fool’s announcements, “This would kill a lesser man.” This out-of-control debt is killing our economic future.

Whatever differences Ms. Palin may have with the Ryan plan–and perhaps she’ll take the time to offer an actual critique of if rather than a Facebook entry with lots of upper case words–it’s hardly a joke. But what might elicit a roll of the eyes is comparing Ms. Palin’s views now versus what they were nearly four years ago.

Consider this: On December 10, 2010, Ms. Palin published in her name an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “Why I Support the Ryan Roadmap.” Back then “the Roadmap for America’s Future produced by Rep. Paul Ryan… offers a reliable path to long-term solvency for our entitlement programs, and it does so by encouraging personal responsibility and independence.” And this: “Put simply: Our country is on the path toward bankruptcy. We must turn around before it’s too late, and the [Ryan] Roadmap offers a clear plan for doing so.”

And now consider this: The plan Palin supported in 2010 would have taken over 30 years to balance the budget. The plan she now opposes for not being sufficiently austere would balance the budget in ten years. Mr. Ryan himself has said that this plan cuts more spending than any budget he’s ever written, to the tune of $5.1 trillion over the next decade. In addition, Ryan’s plan calls for overhauling the tax code, repealing the Affordable Care Act, reforming entitlement programs, and promoting energy security.

Now you may believe, as I do, that Ms. Palin long ago ceased being a serious national voice. But she is representative of something real. She personifies a mindset within conservatism that is almost proudly anti-intellectual, one characterized by resentments, that relies on banalities, and is disconnected from reality. It views politics as a pose and seems to take special delight in targeting perceived heretics within the movement. It’s all rather silly.

At the same time, there is something problematic when people on the right, including the GOP vice presidential candidate in 2008, attack those who are actually doing the hard, necessary work of providing a conservative governing alternative to the Obama years. I recognize that posting shallow reactions on Facebook is easier than offering serious analysis or putting together an actual budget. 

Easier, perhaps, but ultimately discrediting.

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Court Strikes a Blow for Free Speech and Political Sanity

Liberals didn’t like the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that struck down federal limits on political speech from independent groups because they saw it as a the first step toward dismantling the campaign finance regulatory system that aimed to suppress political speech. They will be just as, if not more, unhappy with the court’s 5-4 ruling today in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission that rightly held that federal caps on the amount of money individuals could give to candidates, parties, and PACs are unconstitutional.

But while we can expect to hear a chorus of condemnation of the court from the White House, liberal Democrats, and mainstream media pundits who will see this as opening the floodgates to corruption, the warnings that these rulings herald the end of democracy are false. What the court has done today is to reaffirm core constitutional principles that protect the rights of every American to participate in the political system. But just as importantly, by taking the next step toward dismantling a dysfunctional and deeply unfair regulatory system, the court has opened the way toward a saner manner of conducting elections. While all past efforts at “reform” of contributions had driven donors away from the candidates and political parties, the majority opinion in McCutcheon will begin the process of returning them to a central role in campaign finance. That will create a system that is more accountable and freer of overweening governmental regulation of speech. Instead of condemning this sweeping ruling, liberals should be joining conservatives in cheering a step back toward a saner manner of conducting elections.

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Liberals didn’t like the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that struck down federal limits on political speech from independent groups because they saw it as a the first step toward dismantling the campaign finance regulatory system that aimed to suppress political speech. They will be just as, if not more, unhappy with the court’s 5-4 ruling today in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission that rightly held that federal caps on the amount of money individuals could give to candidates, parties, and PACs are unconstitutional.

But while we can expect to hear a chorus of condemnation of the court from the White House, liberal Democrats, and mainstream media pundits who will see this as opening the floodgates to corruption, the warnings that these rulings herald the end of democracy are false. What the court has done today is to reaffirm core constitutional principles that protect the rights of every American to participate in the political system. But just as importantly, by taking the next step toward dismantling a dysfunctional and deeply unfair regulatory system, the court has opened the way toward a saner manner of conducting elections. While all past efforts at “reform” of contributions had driven donors away from the candidates and political parties, the majority opinion in McCutcheon will begin the process of returning them to a central role in campaign finance. That will create a system that is more accountable and freer of overweening governmental regulation of speech. Instead of condemning this sweeping ruling, liberals should be joining conservatives in cheering a step back toward a saner manner of conducting elections.

For forty years liberals built a mountain of federal laws and regulations that sought to restrict the ability of individuals and groups to make their voices heard on political issues. The campaign finance reform movement was portrayed in the mainstream media as a high-minded force for good government. But the effort to rid politics of the scourge of money was as futile as it was counterproductive. Money is the mother’s milk of politics and the legal labyrinth created by the initial post-Watergate effort and its successors did nothing to curb corruption but it did make the system more and more unaccountable as the laws made it harder to give to individual candidates or political parties. The cumbersome apparatus of campaign finance law made it hard to comply with the law without legal specialists. But most damaging of all was the fact that the thrust of this body of legislation was aimed at suppressing political speech—the one type of activity that the Constitution most sought to protect from the government.

The court held today in McCutcheon that the right to contribute to campaigns is not absolute (Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the other members of 5-justice majority on this point). But, as Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out today in his ruling, the government  “may not, however, regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.”

The sordid truth at the heart of the campaign finance reform movement is that it has always been more about suppressing the free speech rights of individuals then about cleaning up government. There is no evidence the cap rules prevented corruption. But what they do accomplish is to make it harder to take down incumbents or to challenge the dominant voice of a mainstream media whose First Amendment rights to say what they like about candidates have rightly never been questioned.

Campaign finance laws never succeeded in driving money out of politics. But they have forced donors to resort to more indirect methods of financing candidates and causes they like, making the system less accountable. By removing such limits on donations to candidates and parties, the court will increase the influence of these institutions and allow more money to be put in the hands of those who are actually running the campaigns rather than outside groups. This will make elections more transparent and be good for democracy.

As they did with Citizens United, liberals will lament this ruling because it chips away further at the notion that government has a right to limit political speech. But, as Roberts said, “there is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our leaders.” Political donations are no different from any other kind of protected political speech. Allowing more speech, whether from conservatives or liberals, corporations or unions, won’t harm democracy; it enhances it. By ending the federal caps, the court has struck a blow for more freedom, not corruption.

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Twelve Questions About the “Peace Process”

In today’s New York Times, a letter from Dov Bruce Krulwich in Beit Shemesh, Israel, asks two questions about the possible release of Jonathan Pollard to encourage Israel to release Palestinian murderers to convince the Palestinians to discuss a Palestinian state, even though the Palestinians “refuse even to agree that the end game involves two states for two peoples”:

Shouldn’t a people who have never had a state be the ones making goodwill gestures to continue a process that will benefit them the most?

Why weren’t the previous good-will gestures, not to mention all the good-will gestures in the past 20 years, enough to expect the Palestinians to take a step themselves?

Those questions lead to some of my own:

In today’s New York Times, a letter from Dov Bruce Krulwich in Beit Shemesh, Israel, asks two questions about the possible release of Jonathan Pollard to encourage Israel to release Palestinian murderers to convince the Palestinians to discuss a Palestinian state, even though the Palestinians “refuse even to agree that the end game involves two states for two peoples”:

Shouldn’t a people who have never had a state be the ones making goodwill gestures to continue a process that will benefit them the most?

Why weren’t the previous good-will gestures, not to mention all the good-will gestures in the past 20 years, enough to expect the Palestinians to take a step themselves?

Those questions lead to some of my own:

  • Why do people have to be paid–in the form of cash, prisoners, freezes, etc.–to convince them to show up to negotiate a state for themselves?
  • Why do people who have signed a formal agreement, obligating themselves not to take “any step” outside bilateral negotiations to change the status of the disputed territories, have to be paid to convince them to adhere to their agreement?
  • Why are people who have already been offered (and rejected) a state three times in the last decade–with each offer covering substantially all of the disputed territories and a capital in Jerusalem–entitled to a fourth offer?
  • Why is a putative Palestinian state, ruled half by a terrorist group and half by a “president” currently in the 10th year of his four-year term, with the two groups unable to live side by side in peace with each other (much less Israel), ready to be a state–even assuming agreement could be reached on its borders or any other issue?
  • Why is U.S. foreign policy–with the Arab world in a state of chaos ranging from Libya to Egypt to Syria to Lebanon–fixated on trying to establish another already-failed state right next to Israel?

Which brings one again to the two questions posed by Dennis Ross last month in the course of summarizing the Israeli position in the current impasse:

[I]f you [the Palestinians] believe in two states, why is it that Israel being the nation-state of the Jewish people is something that you can’t accept?

Why is it that self-determination for the Jewish people in a part of historic Palestine is something that you [the Palestinians] can’t embrace?

As the American secretary of state reduces his goal from (a) reaching a peace agreement to (b) reaching a “framework” for an agreement to (c) simply keeping the Palestinian “president” at the negotiating table for six months, to be purchased by more Israeli pre-negotiation concessions, the pertinent questions include those that Elliott Abrams asked yesterday:

Where does it stop? What are the limiting principles? …What will [the secretary of state] want next year [from Israel] when Abbas threatens to leave the table again?

The history of the “peace process” is now several stages past tragedy and farce. The side that supposedly wants a state won’t discuss one without compensation to do so; won’t accept a state as an end-of-claims solution but only as a stage in a continuing attempt to “return” to the other one; won’t agree that “two states for two peoples” is the goal of the process, much less explicitly recognize a Jewish state; can’t even hold an election, much less manage a stable state; ignores obligations under its prior agreement with Israel while asking Israel to believe it would abide by a new one; has already demonstrated three times in less than a decade it will not accept the “Everyone [Supposedly] Knows” peace plan; and does not even have a “president” legally in office, able to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinian groups, much less enforce any agreement he might reach.

Meanwhile, the U.S. leans on Israel, because a Palestinian state remains the central goal of an American foreign policy that long ago lost sight of the fact that–under the above circumstances–a Palestinian state would not be a “solution” to anything.

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Curbing Deficits While Preserving Security

Those of us who have been warning about the consequences of the excessive budget cuts being forced on the U.S. Armed Forces often hear that such cuts are politically unavoidable–that there is simply no willingness in Washington to either raise taxes or cut entitlement spending. Well at least one major political figure is willing to go where others fear to tread. Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has just unveiled a budget blueprint that does the seemingly impossible–it balances the budget within 10 years without tax cuts and while restoring roughly $500 billion in defense cuts that will be forced upon the Pentagon if sequestration remains in effect.

The Washington Post summarizes his plan with a somewhat snarky spin: “Overall, Ryan would cut about $5.1 trillion from projected spending over the next decade, with nearly $3 trillion coming from repealing the health-care law and revamping Medicaid. Still, his proposals fall short of balancing the budget, forcing him to resort to a vague promise of new revenue from ‘economic growth’ to meet his goal of wiping out deficits by 2024.”

Actually it’s a good bet that the kind of budget-cutting, tax-simplifying blueprint Ryan proposes would, if adopted, accelerate economic growth, which is currently anemic. But even if it doesn’t, that’s not a big deal. There’s nothing wrong with running a reasonable budget deficit–just as families go into debt to buy a house, so the government can go into debt to achieve public objectives. The problem today is that the deficit is excessive. Ryan would bring it under control and do so without sacrificing defense spending.

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Those of us who have been warning about the consequences of the excessive budget cuts being forced on the U.S. Armed Forces often hear that such cuts are politically unavoidable–that there is simply no willingness in Washington to either raise taxes or cut entitlement spending. Well at least one major political figure is willing to go where others fear to tread. Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has just unveiled a budget blueprint that does the seemingly impossible–it balances the budget within 10 years without tax cuts and while restoring roughly $500 billion in defense cuts that will be forced upon the Pentagon if sequestration remains in effect.

The Washington Post summarizes his plan with a somewhat snarky spin: “Overall, Ryan would cut about $5.1 trillion from projected spending over the next decade, with nearly $3 trillion coming from repealing the health-care law and revamping Medicaid. Still, his proposals fall short of balancing the budget, forcing him to resort to a vague promise of new revenue from ‘economic growth’ to meet his goal of wiping out deficits by 2024.”

Actually it’s a good bet that the kind of budget-cutting, tax-simplifying blueprint Ryan proposes would, if adopted, accelerate economic growth, which is currently anemic. But even if it doesn’t, that’s not a big deal. There’s nothing wrong with running a reasonable budget deficit–just as families go into debt to buy a house, so the government can go into debt to achieve public objectives. The problem today is that the deficit is excessive. Ryan would bring it under control and do so without sacrificing defense spending.

Will his plan be adopted anytime soon? Of course not–not with Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House. But it at least shows what’s possible and it puts Republicans in a good position for future elections. If the party rallies behind the Ryan budget they will of course be accused of wanting to kick grandma to the curb, but such partisan charges ring increasingly hollow. Republicans will be able to counter that they have a serious plan to curb runaway deficits while at the same time preserving our defenses–that, in fact, there is no contradiction between those two goals.

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