Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 2, 2014

Was Rand Paul Wrong on Aid to the Palestinians? Not Entirely.

Something interesting happened in the Senate this week. Senator Rand Paul is someone who is not generally considered a great friend of Israel because of his knee-jerk isolationism that has led him as well as his far more extreme father to take stands that are antithetical to the U.S.-Israel alliance. But Paul just proposed something most ardent supporters of the Jewish state generally agree with: an aid cutoff to the Palestinian Authority to punish it for the decision to ally itself with Hamas terrorists. Yet AIPAC, the group that is synonymous with the pro-Israel community, wouldn’t support the bill.

That led Paul to go on Steve Malzberg’s Newsmax.com TV show yesterday to express his dismay at AIPAC in what must be considered an attempt to be more Catholic than the pope. His gibes had to sting, especially since most AIPAC supporters are also deeply critical of the PA. AIPAC wasn’t talking but was clearly pleased when Paul didn’t get unanimous consent to put forward his bill and it died on the Senate floor. However Jennifer Rubin, our former COMMENTARY colleague, didn’t pull any punches in her Washington Post blog denouncing Paul’s gesture as a “phony pro-Israel bill.”

Who’s right in this confused squabble? As difficult as it may be to unravel this tangle, the correct answer is all of them, at least in part. How is that possible? It’s complicated.

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Something interesting happened in the Senate this week. Senator Rand Paul is someone who is not generally considered a great friend of Israel because of his knee-jerk isolationism that has led him as well as his far more extreme father to take stands that are antithetical to the U.S.-Israel alliance. But Paul just proposed something most ardent supporters of the Jewish state generally agree with: an aid cutoff to the Palestinian Authority to punish it for the decision to ally itself with Hamas terrorists. Yet AIPAC, the group that is synonymous with the pro-Israel community, wouldn’t support the bill.

That led Paul to go on Steve Malzberg’s Newsmax.com TV show yesterday to express his dismay at AIPAC in what must be considered an attempt to be more Catholic than the pope. His gibes had to sting, especially since most AIPAC supporters are also deeply critical of the PA. AIPAC wasn’t talking but was clearly pleased when Paul didn’t get unanimous consent to put forward his bill and it died on the Senate floor. However Jennifer Rubin, our former COMMENTARY colleague, didn’t pull any punches in her Washington Post blog denouncing Paul’s gesture as a “phony pro-Israel bill.”

Who’s right in this confused squabble? As difficult as it may be to unravel this tangle, the correct answer is all of them, at least in part. How is that possible? It’s complicated.

Let’s state upfront that Paul’s objectives here are to:

a. Seize any opportunity to cut any kind of foreign aid, a cost-effective measure that the isolationist from Kentucky opposes in principle and which enables him to pander to the large group of Americans who also dislike the idea of sending money abroad, especially to unsavory types like Abbas; and

b. Pander to pro-Israel Jewish voters and donors in preparation for his expected 2016 run for president.

Whether one considers Paul to be sincere in his professions of friendship for Israel or not, attacking aid to the PA is an easy way to achieve both objectives and distract Americans from the fact that he also opposes the vital aid that Israel gets to maintain its qualitative military edge over its enemies.

Rubin explains the opposition to the cutoff as something that is both reasonable and linked to Israel’s interests. Quoting the insightful Elliott Abrams, she explains that pulling the plug on all U.S. aid to the Palestinians is not something the Netanyahu government wants. Some of the money goes to help fund the PA security forces that cooperate extensively with the Israelis. Without these funds the PA could collapse and leave the Israelis with the messy job of having to administer the territories as well as depriving them of the assistance that the Palestinians provide in keeping a lid on terror in the West Bank.

Thus, while the Israelis have been denouncing the PA in the last week since Abbas announced the deal with Hamas that put a formal end to the peace talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry, they actually don’t want anyone in Washington to act on those complaints, at least with regard to the money that the U.S. funnels to the PA.

That means Paul’s line about AIPAC being derelict in its job is, at best, a cheap shot, and, at worse, a devious attack on a group that rightly suspects that his overtures toward the Jewish state are not to be trusted.

But before we file this incident away as an incomplete forward pass cynically aimed at Jewish voters by Paul, those who care about Israel and the slim hopes for peace need to acknowledge that the isolationist isn’t completely wrong here.

The security cooperation between the two peace partners/antagonists helps the PA as much if not more than Israel because without it Hamas might have toppled Abbas in the West Bank just as it did in Gaza in 2007. But, like it or not, Israel needs the PA to stay afloat even if it is an untrustworthy, hate fomenting foe as much as a partner.

Yet part of the problem with the PA dating back to its beginnings in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords is that it has exploited Israel’s dependence on it as a shield against accountability. Rather than use aid to the PA as leverage to force it to stand up against terror and to stop broadcasting hate and undermining peace, the U.S., often with Israel’s connivance, has given it a pass. It has been all carrot and no stick, a situation that has allowed the PA to become an institution that works hard to stoke the fires of the conflict even as it is insincerely praised as a force for peace. No matter what it does, up to and including forming a new alliance with a group that is dedicated not just to Israel’s elimination but also to genocide, it knows it can be sure that the spigot of U.S. taxpayer money funneling into the pockets of Abbas’s Fatah cronies will never be turned off. Just as Kerry’s initiative failed in large measure because of the administration’s unwillingness to press the Palestinians while they were also mercilessly bashing Israel, so, too, does the aid perpetuate the conflict as much it helps keep the peace.

While it is true the Israelis are no more interested in cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinians than the administration, Paul is right in the sense that unless something is eventually done to scare the PA straight, it will never stop feeding the anti-Zionist hate that fuels the conflict. This is a sentiment that is shared by most supporters of Israel, including AIPAC members. Nor is it surprising that the Zionist Organization of America formally endorsed Paul’s proposal.

So while Paul’s swipe at AIPAC was wrongheaded and has more to do with his ambition than any love for Israel, his critics shouldn’t be so blithe about spiking his proposal. It’s time to start holding the PA accountable for its behavior. What’s too bad is that Paul, of all people, seems to be the only one ready to do so.

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Pace Max Boot

Here are five words I’m reluctant to write: I disagree with Max Boot.

In this case, however, I do. My views are much more in line with what Jonathan wrote here

To be sure, I don’t disagree with Max on everything. I don’t disagree with his list of Obama foreign-policy blunders. I agree with him that (a) Republicans may not profit politically from investigating the events surrounding the deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and (b) the public has been mostly indifferent to the story so far. I’m also confident that this story won’t help a GOP nominee defeat Hillary Clinton (assuming she’s the Democratic nominee). But the politics of this isn’t really the point, is it? The point is that a public trust has been violated; and laws may have been, too. On the latter, we need to wait and see. But what we know right now goes well beyond what Max calls “the same old Washington spinning that every administration engages in.”

What has occurred is not spinning; it is at minimum lying about the central role the White House played in misleading the American people in a terrorist attack that killed four Americans. And it now looks like there was an effort to cover up the White House’s role by intentionally hiding incriminating evidence from Congress by ignoring a subpoena.

Is that really just “the same old Washington spinning”?

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Here are five words I’m reluctant to write: I disagree with Max Boot.

In this case, however, I do. My views are much more in line with what Jonathan wrote here

To be sure, I don’t disagree with Max on everything. I don’t disagree with his list of Obama foreign-policy blunders. I agree with him that (a) Republicans may not profit politically from investigating the events surrounding the deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and (b) the public has been mostly indifferent to the story so far. I’m also confident that this story won’t help a GOP nominee defeat Hillary Clinton (assuming she’s the Democratic nominee). But the politics of this isn’t really the point, is it? The point is that a public trust has been violated; and laws may have been, too. On the latter, we need to wait and see. But what we know right now goes well beyond what Max calls “the same old Washington spinning that every administration engages in.”

What has occurred is not spinning; it is at minimum lying about the central role the White House played in misleading the American people in a terrorist attack that killed four Americans. And it now looks like there was an effort to cover up the White House’s role by intentionally hiding incriminating evidence from Congress by ignoring a subpoena.

Is that really just “the same old Washington spinning”?

An offense doesn’t have to be impeachable to be serious. And it’s impossible to say just how serious this matter is at this point without further investigation. Which is what Republicans are calling for.  

If those in the White House, including the president, repeatedly lied about what they knew weeks and months after they knew it, and if the administration covered up what they knew by ignoring a congressional subpoena, those actions actually do qualify as “real issues.” 

Republicans shouldn’t obsess about attacks that occurred in Benghazi or prejudge things. But at this point, based on the revelations of this week, it strikes me as odd to argue how insignificant and what a distraction this story is. There are a lot of scandals, including even a two-bit burglary, that seemed inconsequential before they were fully investigated.

Max is right. We’re not talking about Watergate. But we’re not talking about nothing, either.  

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Treacherous Political Terrain for Democrats

This week several national polls were released. If you shift through and aggregate the data, they spell trouble for Democrats in the mid-term elections later this year. Here’s why.

Historically, mid-term elections in the second term of a presidency are rough on the party in power. In this case, the president’s overall approval rating is in the low-to-mid 40s, meaning Senate Democrats in red states (where the president’s approval ratings are even lower) need to run roughly 10 points ahead of Mr. Obama to win. That’s tough.

In addition, by several key metrics Democrats are in worse shape now than they were at a comparable time in 2010, when Republicans won the most lopsided mid-term election since before the middle part of the last century. The generic ballot right now is essentially tied, which is historically good news for the GOP. Voter intensity favors Republicans, while some key Democratic constituencies (like young voters) are losing interest in politics. The president’s policies are generally quite unpopular, with little evidence that support for the Affordable Care Act is increasing (independents oppose it more than they favor it by double digits). The economy remains sluggish (growth in the first quarter of this year was only 0.1 percent). There is widespread pessimism in the country and near-record distrust of government.

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This week several national polls were released. If you shift through and aggregate the data, they spell trouble for Democrats in the mid-term elections later this year. Here’s why.

Historically, mid-term elections in the second term of a presidency are rough on the party in power. In this case, the president’s overall approval rating is in the low-to-mid 40s, meaning Senate Democrats in red states (where the president’s approval ratings are even lower) need to run roughly 10 points ahead of Mr. Obama to win. That’s tough.

In addition, by several key metrics Democrats are in worse shape now than they were at a comparable time in 2010, when Republicans won the most lopsided mid-term election since before the middle part of the last century. The generic ballot right now is essentially tied, which is historically good news for the GOP. Voter intensity favors Republicans, while some key Democratic constituencies (like young voters) are losing interest in politics. The president’s policies are generally quite unpopular, with little evidence that support for the Affordable Care Act is increasing (independents oppose it more than they favor it by double digits). The economy remains sluggish (growth in the first quarter of this year was only 0.1 percent). There is widespread pessimism in the country and near-record distrust of government.

The political landscape for Democrats, then, is treacherous, and the president knows that another blowout in a mid-term election will not only complicate the last two years of his presidency but also damage his legacy. 

In response, the White House seems to have settled on a strategy of trying to energize its base voters, which means the president is going to focus on “wedge issues” rather than common ground with Republicans; and ratchet up rather than down his polarizing language.

My guess is the president and his party will gain relatively little electorally from this. On the flip side, he will continue to discredit what was once his most appealing quality as a political leader–his promise that he would put an end to “the politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism”; that he would not pit red America against blue America; and that he would help Americans to “rediscover our bonds to each other and to get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.”

No one believes that has happened, and in fact polls suggest Mr. Obama to be the most polarizing president in the history of modern polling. Democrats will blame Republicans for the bitter nature of our politics while Republicans will say that the responsibility for this rests with him rather than his critics. Whatever the case, there is no dispute about the fact that the president has failed to achieve his core commitment when he first ran. Having to explain failure is never a good position for a president to be in; but that is the situation Mr. Obama finds himself in these days, on issue after issue.  

The Obama presidency continues to come apart. 

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Dude! Benghazi Won’t Go Away Until We Get the Truth

Democrats will probably greet the news that the House of Representatives is assembling a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attack by cheering what they think is a Republican charge down a rabbit hole that will do them little political good. That is a viewed shared by some more objective observers like our Max Boot who think the controversy over the infamous talking points is not that big a deal and fear that the entire discussion about Benghazi is a distraction from the administration’s more important foreign-policy failures. He’s right that the administration’s fiascos on issues like Ukraine, Syria, and the Middle East peace process are a bigger deal in the grand scheme of things. And he’s also right that the question of why our diplomats were not better protected, why help was not sent in time to save them, and, even more importantly, why none of the terrorists have been caught are actually far more egregious administration shortcomings than the false story about the attack being caused by an Internet video.

But even when those concerns are taken into account, House Speaker John Boehner is right to convene a select committee. Indeed, the decision is long overdue since the various competing committees that have already held hearings on the issue have generally botched the issue because of the uncoordinated questions from members more interested in grandstanding for the television cameras than in ascertaining the truth. A select committee with staff that will depose witnesses cannot be so easily dismissed.

As to the talking points themselves, however, I think those counseling conservatives to move on are wrong. What we have seen this week is not just the usual spin on events that you get from any White House. This administration has been acting as if no one, not Congress, the press, or the people, has the right to answers about its actions during and after the Benghazi attack. In a telling moment last night on Fox News, former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, one of the people responsible for the famous talking points that claimed the attack was a case of film criticism run amok, had this exchange with Bret Baer:

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Democrats will probably greet the news that the House of Representatives is assembling a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attack by cheering what they think is a Republican charge down a rabbit hole that will do them little political good. That is a viewed shared by some more objective observers like our Max Boot who think the controversy over the infamous talking points is not that big a deal and fear that the entire discussion about Benghazi is a distraction from the administration’s more important foreign-policy failures. He’s right that the administration’s fiascos on issues like Ukraine, Syria, and the Middle East peace process are a bigger deal in the grand scheme of things. And he’s also right that the question of why our diplomats were not better protected, why help was not sent in time to save them, and, even more importantly, why none of the terrorists have been caught are actually far more egregious administration shortcomings than the false story about the attack being caused by an Internet video.

But even when those concerns are taken into account, House Speaker John Boehner is right to convene a select committee. Indeed, the decision is long overdue since the various competing committees that have already held hearings on the issue have generally botched the issue because of the uncoordinated questions from members more interested in grandstanding for the television cameras than in ascertaining the truth. A select committee with staff that will depose witnesses cannot be so easily dismissed.

As to the talking points themselves, however, I think those counseling conservatives to move on are wrong. What we have seen this week is not just the usual spin on events that you get from any White House. This administration has been acting as if no one, not Congress, the press, or the people, has the right to answers about its actions during and after the Benghazi attack. In a telling moment last night on Fox News, former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, one of the people responsible for the famous talking points that claimed the attack was a case of film criticism run amok, had this exchange with Bret Baer:

BRET BAIER: According to the e-mails and the time line, the CIA circulates new talking points after they’ve removed the mention of al Qaeda and then at 6:21 the White House, you, add a line about the administration warning on September 10th of social media reports calling for demonstrations. True?

TOMMY VIETOR: I believe so.

BAIER: Did you also change attacks to demonstrations in the talking points? VIETOR: Maybe. I don’t really remember.

VIETOR: Dude, this was like two years ago. We’re still talking about the most mundane thing.

BAIER: Dude, it’s what everybody is talking about.

While Vietor is being rightly mocked for his cavalier and sophomoric attitude about a famous lie, it’s actually quite telling. Democrats are befuddled as to why the Benghazi story is still being discussed since they think there’s nothing to it and that we should have all moved on a year ago. But it won’t go away until they start telling the truth.

This exchange came on the heels of the delayed release of the shocking email from Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and the repeated arrogant lies told about this communication by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. This is more than mere fodder for conspiracy theorists and partisans who watch Fox News. They speak to an arrogant contempt for the public and the press that is rooted in a belief that this administration is above scrutiny and that anyone who wants to know the truth about the misleading talking points or anything else about this event should just shut up.

Though their performance on this issue may argue to the contrary, Republicans can walk and chew gum at the same time. They are perfectly capable of persisting in efforts to get to the bottom of Benghazi while holding the president accountable for what is happening in Ukraine, Syria, and the Middle East.

As I’ve written previously, Benghazi won’t be a decisive factor in the 2014 midterms or the 2016 presidential election. But this story isn’t going away no matter how much Obama and his putative successor Hillary Clinton want it to. That’s not because GOP fanatics are deranged haters but because the White House seems to think telling the truth is an option rather than an obligation. That’s a belief that was reinforced for a long time in much of the mainstream media that seemed to take its marching orders from the White House. But the belated release and attempts to cover up and then lie about the smoking gun email on the talking points has aroused even some sectors of the press that might once have been counted on not to try to expose the administration to ridicule.

It’s not too late for a select committee to explore why Ambassador Chris Stevens and four other Americans were left to die in Benghazi without adequate protection or U.S. forces being able to rush to their aid. It should press the administration about its failure to catch the terrorists even though they continue to operate in plain view in the region. And it should also force officials to finally fess up about their political motivations for trying to pretend that a video rather than a revived al-Qaeda coalition was responsible as well as to how and why this was covered up.

These are not trivial concerns and if the House does its job, finding the answers to these questions will not be either a distraction from other foreign-policy failures or a political bonanza for Democrats. We can’t move on until we know the truth and that is something that has not happened yet. Much to the frustration of the White House, Benghazi will be over when we find out the truth and not a day sooner.

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The Business of Statecraft and the Abandonment of Ukraine

The news in Ukraine gets bleaker, but a Rubicon of sorts has been crossed. What has turned into a civil war in eastern Ukraine cannot go back to its designation as a series of “protests,” nor can Vladimir Putin’s Russia plausibly go back to feigning nonintervention. Pro-Russian forces have reportedly shot down two Ukrainian government helicopters, at least one of them with shoulder-fired missiles.

The Ukrainian intelligence service is claiming that those “separatists” probably didn’t have shoulder-fired missile launchers stocked away in the linen closet for a rainy day, a sentiment based on some pretty sound logic. This is not Occupy Slavyansk. And yet, the West–especially Europe, quelle surprise–is acting as if it were. As Angela Merkel meets today with President Obama in Washington to discuss the next steps in the synchronized frowning that has characterized the response to Russian aggression thus far, the Wall Street Journal reports she is delivering some bad news for Kiev, with a predictable explanation.

“Angela Merkel is carrying a clear message from Germany’s business lobby to the White House: No more sanctions,” according to the Journal. “Several of the biggest names in German business,” including Siemens, Adidas, Volkswagen, and Deutsche Bank, “have made their opposition to broader economic sanctions against Russia clear in recent weeks, both in public and in private.” The Journal goes on to explain that, essentially, we have a new answer to Henry Kissinger’s famous question. If you want to talk to Europe, call the CEO of Adidas:

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The news in Ukraine gets bleaker, but a Rubicon of sorts has been crossed. What has turned into a civil war in eastern Ukraine cannot go back to its designation as a series of “protests,” nor can Vladimir Putin’s Russia plausibly go back to feigning nonintervention. Pro-Russian forces have reportedly shot down two Ukrainian government helicopters, at least one of them with shoulder-fired missiles.

The Ukrainian intelligence service is claiming that those “separatists” probably didn’t have shoulder-fired missile launchers stocked away in the linen closet for a rainy day, a sentiment based on some pretty sound logic. This is not Occupy Slavyansk. And yet, the West–especially Europe, quelle surprise–is acting as if it were. As Angela Merkel meets today with President Obama in Washington to discuss the next steps in the synchronized frowning that has characterized the response to Russian aggression thus far, the Wall Street Journal reports she is delivering some bad news for Kiev, with a predictable explanation.

“Angela Merkel is carrying a clear message from Germany’s business lobby to the White House: No more sanctions,” according to the Journal. “Several of the biggest names in German business,” including Siemens, Adidas, Volkswagen, and Deutsche Bank, “have made their opposition to broader economic sanctions against Russia clear in recent weeks, both in public and in private.” The Journal goes on to explain that, essentially, we have a new answer to Henry Kissinger’s famous question. If you want to talk to Europe, call the CEO of Adidas:

In most countries, it would be highly unusual for corporate executives to inject themselves into geopolitics and matters of national security with the forcefulness that a number of German business leaders have. But many of Germany’s largest companies have substantial Russian operations, built in some cases over decades, and worry that tough economic sanctions would rob them of a key growth market when their home market—Europe—is stagnant.

That has led to intense pressure on Berlin. Germany’s chancellor has repeatedly criticized Russia for its actions in Ukraine and warned the Kremlin it would face serious consequences if it doesn’t change course. Yet Ms. Merkel has stopped short of endorsing broader economic sanctions, opting instead to impose travel bans and asset freezes on individuals with close ties to the Kremlin.

It’s easy to begin, at least, with some sympathy for Merkel. Thanks to the EU’s fiscal troubles, Germany has taken the role of Europe’s financial backstop. It’s a mostly thankless job that earns the German government, when they try to fix the messes caused by other reckless European countries, obnoxious and offensive Nazi comparisons. This resistance to German hegemony is, for obvious reasons, coded into the continent’s DNA. Germany’s response has often been resignation to the role: to simply sign the checks while letting France command Europe’s military decisions.

Because of all that, Germany’s economic policy does not exist in a vacuum. Whether as penance for past sins or a paternal responsibility to Europe’s wayward sons, Germany must consider others when setting policy, ever mindful that Berlin can absorb losses others cannot.

However: there’s a limit to such excuses, and it’s not clear that long-term this would even be the right economic approach, let alone the right moral approach, which it plainly is not. After all, is constant political and military turmoil in major energy producers good for global markets and trade in the long run? And how will it affect European markets for expansionist powers to continue encroaching on Europe’s borders? (There are concerns Russia could target Moldova next, which is west of Ukraine.)

The state system in place is far from perfect, but allowing it to be undermined is unlikely to be good for business. After all, Merkel surely remembers how Germany came to be economically successful and the EU common market broadly integrated, and it began with throwing off the yoke of Russian tyranny and imperialism.

Merkel knows this not only because she is the head of government of the country that has basically become Europe’s central banker. She knows this because she grew up in East Germany. And here is where the moral and the material meet. It can’t be good for Europe’s economic future to yawn at Europe’s steady destabilization. But it certainly isn’t right. Merkel is where she is because there is no more East Germany, no more suffocating control by Moscow. Other independent states with sovereign borders deserve the same, no matter what the management at Adidas thinks.

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The Benghazi Distraction

The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

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The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

Granted, those early talking points were off base. I will even grant that they may have been off-base for political rather than policy reasons: With an election two months away, and Obama doing his utmost to take credit for killing Osama bin Laden and finishing off al-Qaeda, the White House did not want to be blamed for a major terrorist attack. But this is not Watergate. It’s not even Iran-Contra. Unless something radically new emerges, it looks to me like the same old Washington spinning that every administration engages in–a bit reminiscent of Bush administration denials in the summer of 2003 that Iraq faced a growing insurgency. 

If you listened to Bush spokesmen, you would have been told that Iraq only faced a few random attacks from “dead-enders” and they were of little broader concern. This was not just a question of PR–it was also a policy misjudgment with serious consequences because the Bush administration failed to adequately respond to a growing insurgency. But it wasn’t an impeachable offense and neither are the far less consequential Benghazi talking points. 

Republicans should focus on the shameful failures of Obama’s defense and foreign policy but Benghazi, in my view, is a distraction from the real issues–and it’s not even likely to help Republicans politically. It certainly did little good for Mitt Romney and I suspect Republicans are now dreaming if they think it will help a GOP nominee defeat Hillary Clinton. I just don’t see much evidence that most Americans–as opposed to Fox News Channel viewers–are focused on, or care about, this issue. Republicans would be better advised to focus on the bigger issues and rebuild their tattered foreign policy credibility, which is being damaged by the isolationist pronouncements of Rand Paul and his ilk.

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The Jobs Report

If the Commerce Department’s first-quarter GDP report that came out on Wednesday was bad news for the administration, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ jobs report this morning is good news.

The economy added 288,000 new jobs last month and the February and March figures were upped from previous estimates to 222,000 and 203,000 respectively. The 288,000 figure represents the largest number of jobs added in a month since January 2012, and the second biggest since recovery began in June 2009. The statistics for most subgroups moved in the right direction as well. Black unemployment, for instance, fell from 12.4 percent to 11.6 percent.

But the big news is that the unemployment rate fell a whopping four-tenths of a percent to 6.3 percent, the lowest since September 2008, just before the financial crisis struck with full force. Economists had been expecting a drop to 6.6 percent. However, part of that drop can be attributed to a sharp drop in the total labor force, which shrank by 806,000. The labor force participation rate also fell by 0.4 percent to a dismal 62.8 percent. It was 66 percent in September 2008. If it were still at 66 percent the unemployment rate would be far higher than it is.

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If the Commerce Department’s first-quarter GDP report that came out on Wednesday was bad news for the administration, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ jobs report this morning is good news.

The economy added 288,000 new jobs last month and the February and March figures were upped from previous estimates to 222,000 and 203,000 respectively. The 288,000 figure represents the largest number of jobs added in a month since January 2012, and the second biggest since recovery began in June 2009. The statistics for most subgroups moved in the right direction as well. Black unemployment, for instance, fell from 12.4 percent to 11.6 percent.

But the big news is that the unemployment rate fell a whopping four-tenths of a percent to 6.3 percent, the lowest since September 2008, just before the financial crisis struck with full force. Economists had been expecting a drop to 6.6 percent. However, part of that drop can be attributed to a sharp drop in the total labor force, which shrank by 806,000. The labor force participation rate also fell by 0.4 percent to a dismal 62.8 percent. It was 66 percent in September 2008. If it were still at 66 percent the unemployment rate would be far higher than it is.

If the trend of the last three months continues, one would expect more people to enter the labor force and that could push the unemployment rate back up for a while.

All in all, the Obama White House is happy this morning. Well, at least about the employment statistics if nothing else.

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