Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 14, 2014

Kerry’s Counterproductive Peace Diplomacy

Give Secretary of State John Kerry credit. His pursuit of Middle East peace may be futile, but it is determined. Weeks after Palestinian decisions to return to the United Nations for an end run around Kerry’s efforts and then a Fatah-Hamas unity pact blew them up, Kerry is back at it. He is scheduled to meet tomorrow in London with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the peace process and the future of the relationship between the United States and the PA. Most observers are treating this meeting as evidence of Kerry’s determination never to give up the search for peace and therefore a praiseworthy act almost by definition.

But even if we are prepared to praise the secretary for never giving up hope for peace, this effort to entice Abbas back to the table to talk with Israel is misguided. While the U.S. has falsely sought to portray the collapse of the talks as being the fault of both sides in the negotiations in order not to alienate the Palestinians, the latest evidence of Kerry’s belief that sweet talking the PA is the only way to go is likely to do more harm than good. After nine months of praise of Abbas as a man of peace coming from the mouths of President Obama and Kerry while they were also trashing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the U.S. is not merely presiding over a standoff; the administration has become one of its main causes. If Kerry isn’t prepared to start pressuring Abbas to make peace and stating that there will be stark consequences for the PA if he fails to do so, the secretary would be better off avoiding the Palestinian leader.

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Give Secretary of State John Kerry credit. His pursuit of Middle East peace may be futile, but it is determined. Weeks after Palestinian decisions to return to the United Nations for an end run around Kerry’s efforts and then a Fatah-Hamas unity pact blew them up, Kerry is back at it. He is scheduled to meet tomorrow in London with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the peace process and the future of the relationship between the United States and the PA. Most observers are treating this meeting as evidence of Kerry’s determination never to give up the search for peace and therefore a praiseworthy act almost by definition.

But even if we are prepared to praise the secretary for never giving up hope for peace, this effort to entice Abbas back to the table to talk with Israel is misguided. While the U.S. has falsely sought to portray the collapse of the talks as being the fault of both sides in the negotiations in order not to alienate the Palestinians, the latest evidence of Kerry’s belief that sweet talking the PA is the only way to go is likely to do more harm than good. After nine months of praise of Abbas as a man of peace coming from the mouths of President Obama and Kerry while they were also trashing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the U.S. is not merely presiding over a standoff; the administration has become one of its main causes. If Kerry isn’t prepared to start pressuring Abbas to make peace and stating that there will be stark consequences for the PA if he fails to do so, the secretary would be better off avoiding the Palestinian leader.

Kerry embarked on his quest for Middle East peace despite advice from nearly every veteran foreign-policy hand that he was wasting his time. The Palestinians were too divided and had demonstrated no sign that they had evolved from the rejectionist stance they adopted when Israel made three separate offers of statehood in 2000, 2001, and 2008. That skepticism was justified when, once again, Abbas refused Kerry’s entreaties to make a symbolic acceptance that Israel was the Jewish state and therefore signaling that the conflict was over. But despite Netanyahu’s willingness to talk about a large-scale withdrawal from the West Bank in exchange for peace, Abbas never budged from his previous positions on territory, Jerusalem, and refugees. He then fled the talks at the first pretext, an announcement of building in a 40-year-old neighborhood of the capital that everyone knows will never change hands even in the event of a peace treaty. In doing so, he walked away from what was, for all intents and purposes, a fourth Israeli offer of peace. He solidified that lack of interest in peace by signing an agreement with the Islamists of Hamas rather than with Israel. The new coalition may provide the Palestinians with unity, but it will be unity in favor of continued conflict, not peace.

At this point the only rational response to these Palestinian decisions ought to be to warn the Palestinians that the unity pact necessitates the end of U.S. aid to the PA. But Kerry has been soft-pedaling the fact that such aid is now illegal under U.S. law and continuing to pretend that Israel, rather than Palestinians, are the main problem. Just as important, even if Obama and Kerry think they must continue to play the even-handed moderator and criticize Israel at every conceivable opportunity, they need to understand that unless they use the considerable leverage the U.S. has over the Palestinians, there is not even a remote chance that Abbas will return to the talks, let alone do what he must to make peace.

If Kerry must meet with Abbas, it is not too late to stop coddling him. The secretary isn’t big on admitting failure, but unless he stops pretending that Abbas is a force for peace when he is anything but, Kerry will remain part of the peace process problem, not its solution. 

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Is Obama Signing Away the Last Chance to Stop the Iranian Nuclear Threat?

The Iran nuclear talks resumed in Vienna today with Western negotiators still saying that their goal is to prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon. But while Secretary of State John Kerry was talking tough when he declared that the Islamist regime faced tough decisions in the talks, now it is the Iranians who are laying down the law. On the eve of the resumption of the P5+1 negotiations, Iran’s Press TV reported that the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi declared, “The U.S. must make tough decisions in negotiations and stop threats and sanctions.” While Washington is acting as if the Iranians are blowing smoke, the initial reports coming out of today’s meetings make it clear that they are not. If, as Reuters reported, the talks have past the exploratory stage and the parties are now preparing to draft an agreement, it may be that the real decisions have already been made.

Since Iran is already signaling that it has refused to reduce the number of its centrifuges enriching uranium–let alone eliminate them and put an end to the nuclear threat–the choice is no longer the one Kerry spoke of after signing a weak interim agreement with Iran last November in which he said no deal was better than a “bad deal.” If the drafting of the next-stage nuclear agreement has indeed begun, then the decision facing President Obama is not between a bad deal and a good one but between a bad one and none at all. Unfortunately, every signal coming out of Vienna, as opposed to the administration spin heard in Washington, must lead to the conclusion that Obama and Kerry believe they can sell an increasingly isolationist and war-weary American public on the virtues of a bad deal in order to put the issue, if not the threat, to rest.

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The Iran nuclear talks resumed in Vienna today with Western negotiators still saying that their goal is to prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon. But while Secretary of State John Kerry was talking tough when he declared that the Islamist regime faced tough decisions in the talks, now it is the Iranians who are laying down the law. On the eve of the resumption of the P5+1 negotiations, Iran’s Press TV reported that the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi declared, “The U.S. must make tough decisions in negotiations and stop threats and sanctions.” While Washington is acting as if the Iranians are blowing smoke, the initial reports coming out of today’s meetings make it clear that they are not. If, as Reuters reported, the talks have past the exploratory stage and the parties are now preparing to draft an agreement, it may be that the real decisions have already been made.

Since Iran is already signaling that it has refused to reduce the number of its centrifuges enriching uranium–let alone eliminate them and put an end to the nuclear threat–the choice is no longer the one Kerry spoke of after signing a weak interim agreement with Iran last November in which he said no deal was better than a “bad deal.” If the drafting of the next-stage nuclear agreement has indeed begun, then the decision facing President Obama is not between a bad deal and a good one but between a bad one and none at all. Unfortunately, every signal coming out of Vienna, as opposed to the administration spin heard in Washington, must lead to the conclusion that Obama and Kerry believe they can sell an increasingly isolationist and war-weary American public on the virtues of a bad deal in order to put the issue, if not the threat, to rest.

It should be remembered that the president sought reelection in 2012 by promising never to contain a nuclear Iran and to demand that Tehran’s entire program be halted. But in getting the Iranians to return to the table in exchange for loosening economic sanctions, the administration has been slowly backing away from those principled stands. At this point the talks seem to center on a proposed deal that would do nothing more than extend the time the Iranians would have to conduct a nuclear “breakout” and build a bomb in exchange for dismantling sanctions.

While U.S. diplomats have indicated that there are still considerable “gaps” between their position and that of Iran, there is no sign that this disagreement involves an American effort to ensure that the Islamist regime won’t have the capacity to build a bomb anytime it decides it is in its interest to do so.

Obama would like nothing better than to declare victory in the talks and then hope that the Iranians delay their breakout until after he leaves office. But by backing away from demanding an end to enrichment, the U.S. is tacitly endorsing not only Iran’s “right” to create nuclear fuel but leaving it both a stockpile of uranium and the infrastructure by which it could race to a bomb assuming that the ayatollahs even bother to sign the deal that Obama is so desperate to conclude. By leaving their centrifuges in place and by not making them surrender their stockpile of uranium, which could easily be reconverted to weapons use, Tehran’s path to a bomb is not obstructed.

As the negotiators are busy drafting their document, the administration will do its best to shroud the effort in secrecy. But this is exactly the moment when they should be putting their cards on the table. Obama and Kerry already showed that they will exchange tangible concessions on sanctions in exchange for very little in return from Iran and the likelihood is that they will get even less this time while more or less dismantling the economic pressure that created an opportunity for stopping the nuclear threat. With the focus shifting to sanctions on Russia, European support for holding Iran’s feet to the fire is rapidly evaporating.

Once the agreement is drafted, the president will, as he did last November, present the public with a fait accompli and brand anyone who points out the gap between his promises and what the deal delivers as warmongers. If the West is signing away what could be the last chance to prevent a nuclear Iran, then Congress and the American people deserve to know about it before it is already a done deal.

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Truman’s Earned More Than a Train Station

Is there anything Congress does better than identifying a problem that is within its power to solve and then to push a solution that will only exacerbate it? It’s a strange feeling indeed to hear your government pledge to address something you think should be remedied and be filled with dread instead of relief. And so it was with a story I missed last week but noticed when the historian Michael Beschloss mentioned it this morning: the proposed renaming of Union Station in D.C. after Harry Truman.

As the Washington Post reported, Missouri’s two senators, Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, would like to honor the man from Independence:

McCaskill said she wanted to give Truman the honor because no site in Washington carried the Truman name. “I hear Republicans all the time comparing themselves to Harry Truman. So I figured, with so many people wanting to grab Harry Truman’s mantle, this could turn into a great bipartisan effort,” she said.

She may have forgotten that the main building housing the State Department in Washington is named for Truman.

Actually, though the Post is right here, having the State Department building named for Truman doesn’t solve the issue. I’ve never quite been able to decide if it’s insultingly tone deaf or hilariously mischievous to name a major State Department building after a president who practically faced a silent coup from his own State Department but who ultimately got the last laugh. Either way, Truman’s immediate predecessor and his immediate successor either have or will have major national monuments on the Mall. Truman deserves the same honor.

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Is there anything Congress does better than identifying a problem that is within its power to solve and then to push a solution that will only exacerbate it? It’s a strange feeling indeed to hear your government pledge to address something you think should be remedied and be filled with dread instead of relief. And so it was with a story I missed last week but noticed when the historian Michael Beschloss mentioned it this morning: the proposed renaming of Union Station in D.C. after Harry Truman.

As the Washington Post reported, Missouri’s two senators, Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, would like to honor the man from Independence:

McCaskill said she wanted to give Truman the honor because no site in Washington carried the Truman name. “I hear Republicans all the time comparing themselves to Harry Truman. So I figured, with so many people wanting to grab Harry Truman’s mantle, this could turn into a great bipartisan effort,” she said.

She may have forgotten that the main building housing the State Department in Washington is named for Truman.

Actually, though the Post is right here, having the State Department building named for Truman doesn’t solve the issue. I’ve never quite been able to decide if it’s insultingly tone deaf or hilariously mischievous to name a major State Department building after a president who practically faced a silent coup from his own State Department but who ultimately got the last laugh. Either way, Truman’s immediate predecessor and his immediate successor either have or will have major national monuments on the Mall. Truman deserves the same honor.

It wasn’t just what Truman did, but what he built that sets him apart. In Leslie Gelb’s book on power and strategy, he claims there were three occasions when American presidents concocted “brilliant” strategies to help win the Cold War. Truman’s foreign policy was one of those three, but is reserved for special commendation from Gelb: “The Truman team’s strategy marked the golden age of U.S. foreign policy, as glorious in our history as the founding fathers’ creation of the Constitution.”

That may sound like hyperbole–or worse, to the ears of an anti-interventionist–but the fact remains it’s not easy to talk about American foreign policy without bumping into Truman in the hallway. I wrote earlier today about the National Security Agency, for example: a creation of the Truman administration. So is NATO, a constant topic of discussion these days with the unrest in Ukraine. We are marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, but Truman arguably started the ball rolling at the federal level with the integration of the Armed Forces.

Any time we talk of economic intervention we reference the Marshall Plan, but many forget just what postwar Europe looked like when Truman came into office. A couple of recent books, including Ian Buruma’s haunting Year Zero and Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent, review the extent of the damage, the violence, the sickness, the hunger, the hate, and the rubble from which today’s peaceful European Union rose.

We don’t need to recount all of Truman’s successes and trailblazing–but that’s the point. We could throw in the Truman Doctrine, the success of South Korea, victory in the Pacific, etc. The list is long indeed. So McCaskill is right on the money: Truman deserves more. But a train station?

There is some logic to it, as the Post mentions: “Union Station once housed U.S. Car No. 1, or the presidential rail car, which Truman used for campaigning and other out-of-town trips.” Great. The building “once housed” a car Truman used.

There is also the matter of the name. D.C.’s delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, said she’s fine with adding Truman’s name to the building, “so long as ‘Union Station’ remained a part of it,” according to the Post. Welcome to Harry S. Truman Union Station. Not only does that not exactly roll right off the tongue, but in all likelihood everyone will still call it Union Station. (Unlike Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which everyone calls “Reagan” or “Reagan National.”)

Of course, Truman himself was too humble to want such things anyway. On MSNBC this morning, Chuck Todd confronted McCaskill with a letter Truman wrote in which he said he had “no desire to have roads, bridges, or buildings named after me.” (Hey, he didn’t say “monuments.”) McCaskill said the thought might make Truman a bit “cranky,” but she’d press on.

After Truman was sworn in, he famously told reporters, “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.” It’s easy to imagine that’s how he felt: he tried to decline the vice presidency, finally guilted into it by a president who then ignored him. The responsibility he inherited with no previous guidance, armed only with common sense and Midwestern American values, was that of the world hanging in the balance. A look at the world today makes it pretty clear a train station doesn’t quite do him justice.

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Sorry Harry, ObamaCare Debate Isn’t Over

Majority Leader Harry Reid took to the floor of the Senate yesterday to gloat about the fact that he hasn’t been hearing as much Republican rhetoric about ObamaCare in recent weeks. Parsing some partially favorable poll figures and attempting to connect the dots between those figures and President Obama’s touchdown dance over enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, the Democrat concluded that the GOP is in full retreat on the issue. In doing so, Reid spoke for many fellow liberals who think the long debate about the law is over or are least praying that it is. With, according to some sources, Democratic chances of retaining the Senate improving, the president’s party seems to think the crisis over ObamaCare has passed.

But before they start celebrating too loudly, Reid and the rest of the president’s cheering section in the Congress and the media should think again. Though the administration has managed to convince many in the press that the enrollment figures are synonymous with voter satisfaction with the scheme, there’s little reason to believe that public sentiment on the law has changed much. The current lull in the health-care debate should not be seen as a temporary cease-fire after months of furious discussion as both parties prepare for the midterms. If Reid thinks his endangered red state incumbent colleagues will be doing much campaigning about how proud they are of the law or that their opponents will not be attempting to saddle the Democrats with responsibility for it, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell him. Moreover, as Reid and Obama ought to know, no matter how much impact health care has on the outcome in November, the fact that most of the onerous regulations and mandates of ObamaCare will only go into effect next year virtually guarantees that the arguments will not only continue but will probably increase in virulence in 2015.

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Majority Leader Harry Reid took to the floor of the Senate yesterday to gloat about the fact that he hasn’t been hearing as much Republican rhetoric about ObamaCare in recent weeks. Parsing some partially favorable poll figures and attempting to connect the dots between those figures and President Obama’s touchdown dance over enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, the Democrat concluded that the GOP is in full retreat on the issue. In doing so, Reid spoke for many fellow liberals who think the long debate about the law is over or are least praying that it is. With, according to some sources, Democratic chances of retaining the Senate improving, the president’s party seems to think the crisis over ObamaCare has passed.

But before they start celebrating too loudly, Reid and the rest of the president’s cheering section in the Congress and the media should think again. Though the administration has managed to convince many in the press that the enrollment figures are synonymous with voter satisfaction with the scheme, there’s little reason to believe that public sentiment on the law has changed much. The current lull in the health-care debate should not be seen as a temporary cease-fire after months of furious discussion as both parties prepare for the midterms. If Reid thinks his endangered red state incumbent colleagues will be doing much campaigning about how proud they are of the law or that their opponents will not be attempting to saddle the Democrats with responsibility for it, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell him. Moreover, as Reid and Obama ought to know, no matter how much impact health care has on the outcome in November, the fact that most of the onerous regulations and mandates of ObamaCare will only go into effect next year virtually guarantees that the arguments will not only continue but will probably increase in virulence in 2015.

Reid says that he’s always been puzzled about how it is that polls have always showed that a majority of Americans disapprove of ObamaCare but are wary of scrapping it. He interprets these results as most waiting to see if it will succeed or fail. But as is the case with the attempt to assert that the numbers of those enrolled prove its success, this effort falls flat. That’s because a large number of those who are now relying on ObamaCare are also unhappy about losing their previous coverage and perhaps their doctors. They also don’t like the lack of choices available to them and are now paying more for services they never asked for or needed.

It’s clear that many of those who are now part of the scheme were not previously uninsured. While a minority of Americans are benefitting from the law, most have not yet been personally affected by the way it will transform the health-care system. Many are aware of the potential change that will occur in the next year and that has fueled anxiety about the law. Though, as Byron York noted in the Washington Examiner earlier this week, up until now most of those who have run up against ObamaCare haven’t liked it, that not insignificant number may increase exponentially in 2015.

Thus while a non-stop barrage of anti-ObamaCare efforts probably doesn’t make sense this far out from November, Democrats should expect Republicans to double down on their previous attacks as the midterms approach. Given the trouble the law has already caused, the coming dislocations will not be accepted passively by either the public or the president’s opposition. With so much of the law’s provisions yet to be implemented because of postponements designed to increase the Democrats’ chances of winning this year, the debate over ObamaCare is not only not finished, it has only just begun. 

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What the Mine Disaster Says About Turkey

The explosion in a mine in Soma, western Turkey, has now killed almost 250 people and is an unmitigated disaster. Turkey no longer has a free press—Freedom House has taken the unprecedented step of ranking it “not free”—and so it’s important here to fill in some of the gaps and add some context about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s behavior, because they really do reflect the type of religious autocracy over which Erdoğan now presides with an iron fist.

First of all, the mine disaster reflects the incompetence of Erdoğan and his cronies. Any criticism of the status quo, however constructive, he sees as a personal attack to be deflected and against which to retaliate rather than to be addressed. Less than a year ago, his energy minister praised the mine’s leadership for prioritizing worker safety. And, just 19 days ago, Erdoğan used his parliamentary supermajority to defeat in parliament a proposal by the opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP) to set up a parliamentary inquiry to examine safety concerns at coal mines. The CHP had raised the issue based on numerous complaints by miners about lax or disregarded safety measures at their mines. Erdoğan refused: Better to bury reports of security problems or flaws rather than acknowledge such things occur on his party’s watch.

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The explosion in a mine in Soma, western Turkey, has now killed almost 250 people and is an unmitigated disaster. Turkey no longer has a free press—Freedom House has taken the unprecedented step of ranking it “not free”—and so it’s important here to fill in some of the gaps and add some context about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s behavior, because they really do reflect the type of religious autocracy over which Erdoğan now presides with an iron fist.

First of all, the mine disaster reflects the incompetence of Erdoğan and his cronies. Any criticism of the status quo, however constructive, he sees as a personal attack to be deflected and against which to retaliate rather than to be addressed. Less than a year ago, his energy minister praised the mine’s leadership for prioritizing worker safety. And, just 19 days ago, Erdoğan used his parliamentary supermajority to defeat in parliament a proposal by the opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP) to set up a parliamentary inquiry to examine safety concerns at coal mines. The CHP had raised the issue based on numerous complaints by miners about lax or disregarded safety measures at their mines. Erdoğan refused: Better to bury reports of security problems or flaws rather than acknowledge such things occur on his party’s watch.

Second, rather than acknowledge that this horrific accident might have been avoided or, perhaps more realistically, working to determine how it might have been avoided so as to prevent its repeat, Erdoğan has simply declared the accident to be the work of fate or a “divine conclusion.” For Erdoğan, success is because of his own wisdom and failure is because of God. As one Turkish correspondent quips with tongue in cheek in an emailed response to Erdoğan’s comments, “What I do not understand is, why God is punishing us and not Germany or USA or even Poland. God must not like us.”

As if on cue, the Turkish government is now using force to crackdown on protests questioning the government’s record. Welcome to Turkey: an autocracy marked by gross incompetence but according to Erdoğan, to push for anything else would be to interfere with divine fate.

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Rubio and the Modernization of the GOP

For the last several years the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do: what intellectually serious reforms it needs to make to improve the lives of (in particular) middle-class Americans.

That’s changing, thanks in good measure to people like Marco Rubio.

I’ve had some differences with Senator Rubio in the past. (For example, I strongly opposed the legislative tactic that led to the shutdown of the federal government last October.) But Senator Rubio–along with Senators Mike Lee and Rob Portman, Representative Paul Ryan, and Governors Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker, among others–is making an important contribution to the Republican Party by offering ideas on how to reform government to meet 21st century challenges.

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For the last several years the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do: what intellectually serious reforms it needs to make to improve the lives of (in particular) middle-class Americans.

That’s changing, thanks in good measure to people like Marco Rubio.

I’ve had some differences with Senator Rubio in the past. (For example, I strongly opposed the legislative tactic that led to the shutdown of the federal government last October.) But Senator Rubio–along with Senators Mike Lee and Rob Portman, Representative Paul Ryan, and Governors Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker, among others–is making an important contribution to the Republican Party by offering ideas on how to reform government to meet 21st century challenges.

On Tuesday the junior senator from Florida focused his attention on retirement security. In a speech at the National Press Club, Rubio offered a plan to open up to more Americans the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) offered to every member of Congress and federal employee. The TSP allows federal employees to save pre-tax money for their retirement with fees lower than most private defined-contribution plans. Senator Rubio proposed that all Americans who do not have access to employer-sponsored plan be given the option of enrolling, which would boost Americans’ savings and help to supplement Social Security income.

“The twisted irony is that members of Congress – who are employees of the citizens of the United States – have access to a superior savings plan, while many of their employers – the American people – are often left with access to no plan at all,” Rubio said during his speech.

Other proposals include eliminating the 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax for all individuals who have reached retirement age; eliminating the Retirement Earnings Test that can take away some Social Security benefits for recipients who continue to work (eliminating the RET would raise employment among early retirees); reducing the growth of benefits for upper income seniors; raising the retirement age for younger workers; and transitioning Medicare to a premium support system, which would give seniors a fixed amount of money to use for purchasing health insurance from either Medicare or a private provider.

There are several notable things about Senator Rubio’s speech. (I should say that in my position as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center I met with Senator Rubio and several policy experts prior to the speech and reacted favorably to an early draft of it.) The first is the educative quality of the address, laying out the case for reform in a calm, reasonable, and empirical way. The second is an admirable candor, with Rubio saying, “While [economic] growth is essential, growth alone will not be enough.” A third thing to note about the speech is that Senator Rubio spoke about wanting to strengthen and save, not uproot and eliminate, programs like Social Security and Medicare. He spoke in personal terms about the role those programs have played in the lives of his parents. Fourth, he attempted to put opponents of reform on the defensive, saying, “Anyone who is in favor of doing nothing about Social Security and Medicare is in favor of bankrupting Social Security and Medicare.”

Fifth and finally, Senator Rubio put a frame around this issue that is quite important. He explained that the retirement system we have in place does not line up with the needs and realities of our post-industrial economy. 

“In this new century, most people will live longer and voluntarily work longer,” Rubio said. “And many people will change jobs countless times, often in business for themselves or working for companies that do not offer retirement savings plans or pensions. Therefore, our retirement programs must be modernized and restructured to address the new economy that is here to stay.”

What Senator Rubio is doing, then, is putting the Republican Party on the side of modernization and reform in contrast to reactionary liberalism, which is sclerotic and brittle, out of ideas and out of energy. This is precisely what needs to happen if the GOP hopes to become the majority party in America. Senator Rubio–energetic, engaging, interested in ideas, and cheerful rather than resentful–is among the most persuasive advocates for his party.

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International Crisis Group’s Recipe for an Iraq Bloodbath

There’s a conceit out there prevalent among both past and present diplomats and conflict resolution activists that if only all parties sat down and engaged in dialogue, seemingly inextricable crises would evaporate. It really is kindergarten philosophy which, when applied to the real world, can and will backfire.

Hence it is with the most recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on Iraq. The ICG has some very good people but, because it embraces a sometimes simplistic notion of dialogue, most of its reports are predictable. Separatists beheading Christians in Southeastasiastan? It’s imperative that the two sides sit down and talk. Civil war breaks out in Formersovietakazia? Dialogue. Tribal violence erupts in Centralafricaland? Negotiations. Al-Qaeda rears its ugly head in Iraq? More talks. And if there already is a precedent of talks failing, and failing miserably? No matter. That must be the exception rather than the rule, no matter if reality shows exceptions to trump the rule each and every time.

On April 28, the International Crisis Group released “Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain” which seeks to put the crisis in al-Anbar in the following context:

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There’s a conceit out there prevalent among both past and present diplomats and conflict resolution activists that if only all parties sat down and engaged in dialogue, seemingly inextricable crises would evaporate. It really is kindergarten philosophy which, when applied to the real world, can and will backfire.

Hence it is with the most recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on Iraq. The ICG has some very good people but, because it embraces a sometimes simplistic notion of dialogue, most of its reports are predictable. Separatists beheading Christians in Southeastasiastan? It’s imperative that the two sides sit down and talk. Civil war breaks out in Formersovietakazia? Dialogue. Tribal violence erupts in Centralafricaland? Negotiations. Al-Qaeda rears its ugly head in Iraq? More talks. And if there already is a precedent of talks failing, and failing miserably? No matter. That must be the exception rather than the rule, no matter if reality shows exceptions to trump the rule each and every time.

On April 28, the International Crisis Group released “Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain” which seeks to put the crisis in al-Anbar in the following context:

When in December 2013 Iraq’s central authorities cleared a year-long sit-in in the city that was demanding better treatment from Baghdad, Falluja’s residents took to the streets. ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) took advantage of the ensuing chaos, moved forces into the city and asserted it had seized control. The claim was greatly exaggerated: while it raised its black flag above some administration buildings in the city centre, locals blocked most of their forays and forced them to retreat to the outskirts.

But Baghdad had a casus belli: it besieged the city, ignored local attempts to mediate an ISIL withdrawal and threatened to attack. Falluja residents held no brief for ISIL, but their hatred of the Iraqi army – seen as the instrument of a Shiite, sectarian regime, directed from Tehran, that discriminates against Sunnis in general and Anbar in particular – ran even deeper. The city’s rebels struck a Faustian bargain, forming an alliance of convenience with ISIL. The jihadis’ military might kept the army at bay, but their presence justified the government’s claim that the entire city was under jihadi control. A self-reinforcing cycle has taken root: jihadi activity encourages government truculence that in turn requires greater jihadi protection.

This is a pretty problematic recasting of a narrative of what happened. While I fault Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for letting electoral calculations color the timing of military action against al-Qaeda in al-Anbar (and while I find reason to criticize Maliki for other aspects of his administration as well), it is inane to suggest that the protest camps did not include al-Qaeda elements. Indeed, there is quite a lot of video evidence to suggest they did. The ICG, for its part, confuses chronology when they declare, “The crisis has rescued Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s chances in the parliamentary elections, which, until ISIL entered the picture, appeared grim.” As the Syrian conflict has metathesized, ISIL had been a growing threat in Iraq, responsible for dozens of attacks that killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians. And while Maliki’s third term was and is far from certain, the idea that his chances were ever “grim” is simply wrong. Elections should determine destiny. Alas, rather than simply let elections determine al-Anbar’s fate, the ICG appears to castigate the many Sunnis from local parties who have joined in coalition against the terrorists in al-Anbar. Encouraging cross-sectarian (and cross-ethnic) political groupings is something the ICG should encourage. Shame on them and anyone else who does not do so.

The ICG continues—as per its apparent organizational template—to recommend that the central government begin negotiations with Fallujah’s military council. This seems to be the repeat of the disastrous experience with the so-called Fallujah brigades at the beginning of the insurgency in 2004. Hence, once again, the religion of dialogue trumps empirical evidence that talking to the wrong people can make matters much, much worse.

Twisting reality to encourage dialogue permeates the report. The Baath Party was an ethnic and sectarian chauvinist party that imposed a brutal dictatorship responsible for the murders of hundreds of thousands of people. Here’s how the ICG describes it, though: “An ostensibly secular party that monopolized political representation under Saddam Hussein.” It describes the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) as “nationalists” and suggests they want merely to establish “a new political system without sectarian and ethnic quotas.” First of all, they are not simply nationalists. Both have embraced the most brutal terror tactics and pronounced their desire to target “unbelievers,” which suggests that religion trumps nationalism in their worldview. As for eliminating sectarian quotas, that’s merely the slogan both groups have sold to gullible Westerners to explain their vision to purge Iraq of all sectarian diversity altogether.It’s akin to apologists for Attila the Hun to describe his refusal to take prisoners and engage in wholesale massacres as evidence that he is truly committed to reducing prison overpopulation.

The ICG is no better when it comes to individuals. It describes Harith al-Dhari, who is on Interpol’s wanted list and is also sanctioned by the UN for al-Qaeda activity, merely as “a cleric with an affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood.” It describes Izzat al-Duri, Saddam Hussein’s former deputy and the most wanted man still on the run, as merely “an ex-senior official under Saddam and reputed Sufi.”

There’s a time and a place for dialogue, but that dialogue should never extend to those who reject constitutionalism, disregard the rule of law or, absent a broad-based revolution such as that which heralded the collapse of the Eastern bloc or Brotherhood rule in Syria, seek to achieve through violence what they are unable to achieve via the ballot box. Nor in the face of terrorism—a military challenge that rejects every aspect of the established order—is it wise to recommend that the United States cut off assistance to the Iraqi government. Terrorists respond to weakness not with compromise, but with redoubling their efforts.

Just as when the American Friends Service Committee–the official NGO of the Quakers–embraced the Khmer Rouge, good intentions are not an excuse when the result is the empowerment of hateful groups which do not recognize the value of human life for those who do not share their beliefs. The ICG has wrapped itself in an ideological cocoon from which it has crafted a reality that does not match what is on the ground. The result of following ICG recommendations would be a bloodbath. Talking to terrorists doesn’t bring peace; it simply legitimizes and empowers terrorists. Most Iraqis recognize this. Let us hope that John Kerry’s State Department does as well.

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Hillary’s Rules of Engagement for 2016

It’s doubtful that anyone who watched the cringe-inducing moment on Election Night 2012 when Karl Rove refused to believe President Obama had won Ohio would ever again think of the veteran strategist as a political genius. Rove, whose guru status was earned by piloting George W. Bush’s ascent to the presidency and managing his reelection, is still a major player in GOP politics with an influential PAC and is a regular presence in the media. But his ham-handed effort to raise the question of Hillary Clinton’s health damaged him more than it did her. Though everyone agrees that a presidential candidate’s health is fair game for comment, the blowback from the New York Post’s Page Six report of remarks he made about her having possible “brain damage” isn’t likely to convince anyone not to vote for the former secretary of state and first lady and made it harder to take Rove seriously as an analyst.

But that’s not the spin coming from much of the left today. Rather than merely joining much of the mainstream media including a number of leading conservative voices in scratching their heads at Rove’s poor judgment, liberals are using his gaffe not so much to defend Clinton but to prepare the ground for a general counter-offensive against any criticism of the likely Democratic candidate for president in 2016. According to Peter Beinart, Rove’s comments were just the latest example of his “dirty tricks.” Raising Hillary’s health in this manner was, he thought, a calculated attempt to smear the Democrat favorite.

While Beinart is right to note that “defining” one’s opponent in a pejorative fashion has become an integral part of American politics, the furious pushback from Clinton’s camp and the universal outrage from liberals about Rove’s temerity in even discussing any possible flaws in her armor smacks of something other than high-minded disdain for gutter politics. If Rove’s comments were, as Beinart suggests, among the first shots fired in the 2016 campaign, it appears most of the bullets are flying not at the Democrat but at her detractors. Like the outrage on the left about the notion of Clinton being forced to answer questions about Benghazi or why she failed to designate the Boko Haram Islamists as terrorists two years ago, the main point to be gleaned from this dustup is not the nastiness of the GOP but a strategy in which any and all criticism of Clinton is viewed as just another dastardly instance of a Republican war on women.

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It’s doubtful that anyone who watched the cringe-inducing moment on Election Night 2012 when Karl Rove refused to believe President Obama had won Ohio would ever again think of the veteran strategist as a political genius. Rove, whose guru status was earned by piloting George W. Bush’s ascent to the presidency and managing his reelection, is still a major player in GOP politics with an influential PAC and is a regular presence in the media. But his ham-handed effort to raise the question of Hillary Clinton’s health damaged him more than it did her. Though everyone agrees that a presidential candidate’s health is fair game for comment, the blowback from the New York Post’s Page Six report of remarks he made about her having possible “brain damage” isn’t likely to convince anyone not to vote for the former secretary of state and first lady and made it harder to take Rove seriously as an analyst.

But that’s not the spin coming from much of the left today. Rather than merely joining much of the mainstream media including a number of leading conservative voices in scratching their heads at Rove’s poor judgment, liberals are using his gaffe not so much to defend Clinton but to prepare the ground for a general counter-offensive against any criticism of the likely Democratic candidate for president in 2016. According to Peter Beinart, Rove’s comments were just the latest example of his “dirty tricks.” Raising Hillary’s health in this manner was, he thought, a calculated attempt to smear the Democrat favorite.

While Beinart is right to note that “defining” one’s opponent in a pejorative fashion has become an integral part of American politics, the furious pushback from Clinton’s camp and the universal outrage from liberals about Rove’s temerity in even discussing any possible flaws in her armor smacks of something other than high-minded disdain for gutter politics. If Rove’s comments were, as Beinart suggests, among the first shots fired in the 2016 campaign, it appears most of the bullets are flying not at the Democrat but at her detractors. Like the outrage on the left about the notion of Clinton being forced to answer questions about Benghazi or why she failed to designate the Boko Haram Islamists as terrorists two years ago, the main point to be gleaned from this dustup is not the nastiness of the GOP but a strategy in which any and all criticism of Clinton is viewed as just another dastardly instance of a Republican war on women.

In 2012 Democrats devoted more effort to smearing Mitt Romney than in defending Obama’s poor record as president. It worked, as by the time voters went to the polls that November Romney, who is one of the most decent men to run for the presidency in recent memory, had been tarred as a rapacious capitalist as well as a high school bully and a man who tied his dog to the roof of his car. That Republicans failed to defend him adequately or to highlight what a mensch he actually was is to their discredit. But perhaps their real mistake was in acting as if those attempting to cut him down had a right to do so.

Clinton’s defenders are, however, not making that mistake.

While paying lip service to the notion that the health of presidential candidates is fair game, the counterattack to Rove’s remarks has not been so much about the inaccuracy of the Post’s quotes (and Rove says he was misquoted) but to depict him as a bully who is cleverly (!) trying to intimidate the Democrat frontrunner. If Rove’s decision to inject Hillary’s health into the political discussion was as premeditated as liberals assert, neither is it an accident that the left is so determined to squelch even the merest hint of a debate about any potential problem for Clinton.

Rather than stick to the facts about her health—which I hope is as good as her spokesman says it is—or to claim that she made no mistakes on Benghazi or Boko Haram, not to mention the other terrible blunders she committed as secretary of state like the Russia reset, Clinton’s defenders are doing something different. What we are witnessing now is proof that they are prepared to answer any attacks with a scorched earth approach that will make any mainstream conservative think twice before trying to muss up her hair, let alone make a point about her supposedly glittering resume for high office. Anyone making any attack on her, whether reasoned or as goofy as Rove’s comments, will be the subject of the kind of opprobrium that was once only leveled at other candidates.

What Democrats are doing now is to establish rules of engagement that will insulate Clinton in much the same manner that Obama was protected by charging his opponents with racism no matter what the substance of their criticism. Though Rove doesn’t deserve much sympathy, his demolition is a warning shot fired at the GOP to show that all criticism of Hillary will be treated as a dirty trick or a sexist assault on the first female president.

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Snowden and the Cold Warriors

A curious display of projection has characterized the response by many to the revelations leaked by NSA defector Edward Snowden. The projection is understandable–even, perhaps, honorable in some cases–but projection it is. Essentially, many American commentators genuinely believed that America would be better for having Snowden divulge all this information. The problem is that the evidence suggests Snowden didn’t.

Those who thought Snowden’s revelations about domestic surveillance were an opportune moment to have an honest conversation about American national security thought Snowden did too. Those who saw in the trove of secret information the key to returning American governance to its constitutional principles took Snowden’s declaration of same without reservation. Those who thought America would be stronger for having cause to apply much-needed reforms to its overly bureaucratized national security state assumed Snowden, too, saw himself as a blessing in disguise for the Pentagon.

As the revelations began to stray from having anything to do with domestic surveillance into having everything to do with benefiting America’s enemies into whose arms Snowden ran, it became utterly clear that Snowden was not an honest man seeking an honest conversation or that he had any interest in preserving democracy (in fact just the opposite: he expressed strident hostility to the democratic process). Snowden was not a man of peace; he defected to bloodthirsty authoritarians on the eve of war.

And today an intriguing essay in Politico Magazine shines some light on who misjudged Snowden and why. Jack Devine, a former CIA veteran, sees a familiar archetype in Snowden:

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A curious display of projection has characterized the response by many to the revelations leaked by NSA defector Edward Snowden. The projection is understandable–even, perhaps, honorable in some cases–but projection it is. Essentially, many American commentators genuinely believed that America would be better for having Snowden divulge all this information. The problem is that the evidence suggests Snowden didn’t.

Those who thought Snowden’s revelations about domestic surveillance were an opportune moment to have an honest conversation about American national security thought Snowden did too. Those who saw in the trove of secret information the key to returning American governance to its constitutional principles took Snowden’s declaration of same without reservation. Those who thought America would be stronger for having cause to apply much-needed reforms to its overly bureaucratized national security state assumed Snowden, too, saw himself as a blessing in disguise for the Pentagon.

As the revelations began to stray from having anything to do with domestic surveillance into having everything to do with benefiting America’s enemies into whose arms Snowden ran, it became utterly clear that Snowden was not an honest man seeking an honest conversation or that he had any interest in preserving democracy (in fact just the opposite: he expressed strident hostility to the democratic process). Snowden was not a man of peace; he defected to bloodthirsty authoritarians on the eve of war.

And today an intriguing essay in Politico Magazine shines some light on who misjudged Snowden and why. Jack Devine, a former CIA veteran, sees a familiar archetype in Snowden:

In his new book, No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald tells how Edward Snowden once confided to him, “with a hint of embarrassment,” how much he had learned from playing video games. In the black-and-white world of video games, “the protagonist is often an ordinary person, who finds himself faced with grave injustices from powerful forces and has the choice to flee in fear or to fight for his beliefs,” Greenwald writes.

But Edward Snowden’s video-game world is not the real world. As a former director of operations for the CIA, I see Snowden in a very different light. My colleagues and I in the agency spent our careers looking for people like him—on the other side, that is. We worked hard to locate the kind of person who could be persuaded to give up his country’s secrets: narcissistic, often delusional under-achievers whom we could hope to turn into loose-lipped sources in our enemies’ camps and other hostile locations. We understood just how valuable it was to every aspect of our foreign policy to know the plans and intentions of our enemies; the best way to do this was to look for a source and exploit people like Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker, ­ to target for this purpose.

Devine does not oppose sensible reforms to the NSA data collection programs. But contrary to those who think Snowden has added much-needed context to our national-security debate, Devine correctly notes that “Like the video-game fanatic he appears to have been, Snowden has made black-and-white what is actually a very complex issue.”

Snowden and his defenders have wallowed in shallow waters, leaving the task of complicated analysis to those who can ill afford to engage merely in smug sloganeering. But another interesting aspect to this is what the whole affair tells us about why Snowden’s defenders got him so wrong. Critics of the national security state have enjoyed embarrassing themselves recently by glomming on to the notion that hawks are stuck in a Cold War frame of mind, only to have Putin’s Russia make it clear that they are the ones out of touch.

Something similar happened with Snowden. His defenders–again, out of honorable, if naïve intentions–saw in him what they wanted to see. Those who recognized Snowden right away for who he really was, it turned out, were the folks like Devine, who had decades of experience in American national security during the Cold War. Because the Cold War is basically the history of the second half of the twentieth century, it always struck me as odd that people would actually boast of ignoring that history when making policy pronouncements.

Yet that’s what the Snowden apologists did. Those with real on-the-ground experience, who weren’t willing to dismiss decades of history because it didn’t conform to their ideal of a video-game world, were the ones who understood the story from the beginning.

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SJP Vassar: Sorry, Not Sorry

The Vassar chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine has finally issued an apology for posting anti-Semitic material. They say: “Up until this point, the social media platforms (tumblr and twitter) associated with SJP Vassar’s name have been managed by one person and the SJP general body was not involved in decisions made about what was being posted. We condemn any and all hate speech including any form of anti-Semitism and we are deeply sorry several offensive posts were made in SJP Vassar’s name.”

This apology is better than anything SJP Vassar has said so far, though it does not account for the rant, linked to on SJP Vassar’s Facebook page, that I wrote about earlier in the week, accusing its critics of being “Zionist watchdogs,” paid by “Zionist watchdog organizations” to make “slanderous claims.” This rant, issued in the name of the organization, was presumably written in full knowledge of the posts the “SJP Vassar General Body” now disavows.

Now consider the post that immediately follows the apology, a quotation attributed to George Habash. “In today’s world no one is innocent, no one is neutral. A man is either with the oppressor or the oppressed. He who takes no interest in politics gives his blessing to the prevailing order.”

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The Vassar chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine has finally issued an apology for posting anti-Semitic material. They say: “Up until this point, the social media platforms (tumblr and twitter) associated with SJP Vassar’s name have been managed by one person and the SJP general body was not involved in decisions made about what was being posted. We condemn any and all hate speech including any form of anti-Semitism and we are deeply sorry several offensive posts were made in SJP Vassar’s name.”

This apology is better than anything SJP Vassar has said so far, though it does not account for the rant, linked to on SJP Vassar’s Facebook page, that I wrote about earlier in the week, accusing its critics of being “Zionist watchdogs,” paid by “Zionist watchdog organizations” to make “slanderous claims.” This rant, issued in the name of the organization, was presumably written in full knowledge of the posts the “SJP Vassar General Body” now disavows.

Now consider the post that immediately follows the apology, a quotation attributed to George Habash. “In today’s world no one is innocent, no one is neutral. A man is either with the oppressor or the oppressed. He who takes no interest in politics gives his blessing to the prevailing order.”

COMMENTARY readers will know that Habash founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an organization committed to the recovery, through violence, of the whole of what is now Israel, or what Habash called “the Occupied Territories of 1948.” The “only language,” says the PFLP’s founding document, “that the enemy understands is the language of revolutionary violence.” The PFLP pursued its program not only through a series of airline hijackings but also through actions like the 1972 Lods Airport massacre, in which terrorists working with the PFLP fired machine guns and threw grenades into crowds of people waiting in what is now Ben Gurion airport, killing 39. It is in this context that we have to consider the Habash quotation which begins, “Has it been said that these operations expose the lives of innocent people to danger?” Or, as Habash stated more boldly in a 1970 interview, to “kill a Jew far from the battlefield has more effect than killing 100 of them in battle.” That the new post-apology era begins with Habash is, to say the least, not encouraging.

In its apology, SJP Vassar says that it is “now reevaluating how social media associated with SJP Vassar will be managed as we sincerely want these outlets to reflect our mission of social justice, opposition to all forms of racism, and solidarity with the Palestinian people.” The first fruits of this reevaluation suggest that disentangling the ostensibly nonviolent radical movement of which SJP is a part from the romanticization of violence against Jews is going to be more difficult than the students or the faculty members who guide them imagine.

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Martin Indyk’s Appalling Answers

Ambassador Martin Indyk’s address last week to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, castigating Israel for “rampant settlement activity,” featured assertions that, as Elliott Abrams and Tom Wilson have noted, were simply wrong. Settlement activity was not rampant, and almost all of it was in areas Israel would retain under any peace agreement. Indyk nevertheless made it clear he subscribes to the “poof” theory of peace-process failure.  

Even more troubling than Indyk’s prepared remarks, however, were his unscripted replies in the Q & A session. By pre-arrangement, he took only three questions–all from the Institute’s executive director, Robert Satloff. In response to the first, about settlements, Indyk said he had no idea what Satloff was talking about. In response to the second, about Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, Indyk misstated the year Israel first raised the issue–by 14 years. In response to the third, about the U.S. role in the process, Indyk acknowledged that Mahmoud Abbas was “quite content to sit back and enjoy the show” of Israeli-American disharmony, but Indyk said it was a “puzzle” to figure out “what happened” after that. 

I think I can help here. I know what Satloff was talking about; I know when recognition of a Jewish state was first raised; and I have a theory about Abbas that might solve the mystery that puzzled Indyk. 

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Ambassador Martin Indyk’s address last week to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, castigating Israel for “rampant settlement activity,” featured assertions that, as Elliott Abrams and Tom Wilson have noted, were simply wrong. Settlement activity was not rampant, and almost all of it was in areas Israel would retain under any peace agreement. Indyk nevertheless made it clear he subscribes to the “poof” theory of peace-process failure.  

Even more troubling than Indyk’s prepared remarks, however, were his unscripted replies in the Q & A session. By pre-arrangement, he took only three questions–all from the Institute’s executive director, Robert Satloff. In response to the first, about settlements, Indyk said he had no idea what Satloff was talking about. In response to the second, about Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, Indyk misstated the year Israel first raised the issue–by 14 years. In response to the third, about the U.S. role in the process, Indyk acknowledged that Mahmoud Abbas was “quite content to sit back and enjoy the show” of Israeli-American disharmony, but Indyk said it was a “puzzle” to figure out “what happened” after that. 

I think I can help here. I know what Satloff was talking about; I know when recognition of a Jewish state was first raised; and I have a theory about Abbas that might solve the mystery that puzzled Indyk. 

In his first question, Satloff noted that an “unnamed American diplomat” (reliably reported to have been Martin Indyk) told the Israeli media that settlements were the reason talks ended, but Satloff informed Indyk that others took a different view, believing Prime Minister Netanyahu, far from authorizing “rampant” settlement activity, in fact limited it, but had failed to “take public credit for how little there was,” lest he isolate the Israeli right. Indyk replied: 

I’ve not heard of this second account — it doesn’t make any sense to me — and I honestly don’t understand what it means. Maybe someone else can explain it to me.  

Allow me. When Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, he sought to correct what he saw as the main error in his first term (1996-99): governing from a narrow political base. In his second term, he formed as wide a coalition as possible to negotiate peace. Ron Dermer, currently Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., described Netanyahu’s approach in 2009. The approach gave Netanyahu support across the Israeli political spectrum, so he could explore a different path to peace than those that had failed. He supported the principle that Jews could build anywhere in their capital or in the disputed territories, while in practice significantly limited actual building. Indyk’s ungracious (not to say undiplomatic) response to Satloff’s question demonstrates that Indyk was oblivious to this.   

In his reply to Satloff’s second question, on the Palestinian refusal to discuss recognition of a Jewish state, Indyk seemed to accept Abbas’s assertion this was “a new requirement.” Just two months earlier, though, Ambassador Dennis Ross stated unequivocally that it was first raised in 2000, and he had pointed words for those who pretend otherwise: 

When I hear it said that this is the first time this issue has been raised – the people who say that think that no one knows history… When we were at Camp David [in 2000], this issue was raised. 

The Palestinians still refuse to recognize a Jewish state 14 years later. Credulous journalists may report the issue as a last-minute obstacle, but one would not have expected the current U.S. peace envoy to permit such disinformation to stand.   

Replying to Satloff’s third question, musing on the mystery of Abbas’s withdrawal from serious negotiations after he observed the American-Israeli split, Indyk seemed oblivious to the fact that this was precisely the strategy Abbas announced in 2009 in the Washington Post: that he planned to do “nothing” in the peace process but watch the Obama administration pressure Netanyahu on settlements. This year, Abbas resorted yet again to the pretext of settlements as a reason to abandon negotiations.  

Abbas bet that an American administration that conducts its foreign policy like a troupe of innocents abroad would once again blame Israel. Indyk’s appalling performance last week demonstrated it was a good bet.

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Would You Trust Ahmadinejad with Unrestricted Nukes?

The Obama administration’s deal-making with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is based on two assumptions, both of which are false. The first is that the president matters in Iran. The reality is that, in the Islamic Republic, the supreme leader calls the shots, not the president. Simply put, the president is about style, the supreme leader is about substance. The second assumption underlying Obama’s diplomacy is that Hassan Rouhani is the Iranian incarnation of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, someone with a hardline past but reform in his heart. At best, this is wishful thinking. It involves dismissing Rouhani’s record and all of his past statements.

Obama is undertaking a huge gamble: He is betting American national security and broader Middle Eastern security on the notion that somehow Rouhani is different than his record indicates and that he knows better than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei what Rouhani’s true intentions are. That’s not a good bet to take, especially since it looks like Rouhani’s honeymoon is rapidly coming to an end, but Obama—like all second-term presidents—is willing to put on blinders in his quest for a legacy.

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The Obama administration’s deal-making with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is based on two assumptions, both of which are false. The first is that the president matters in Iran. The reality is that, in the Islamic Republic, the supreme leader calls the shots, not the president. Simply put, the president is about style, the supreme leader is about substance. The second assumption underlying Obama’s diplomacy is that Hassan Rouhani is the Iranian incarnation of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, someone with a hardline past but reform in his heart. At best, this is wishful thinking. It involves dismissing Rouhani’s record and all of his past statements.

Obama is undertaking a huge gamble: He is betting American national security and broader Middle Eastern security on the notion that somehow Rouhani is different than his record indicates and that he knows better than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei what Rouhani’s true intentions are. That’s not a good bet to take, especially since it looks like Rouhani’s honeymoon is rapidly coming to an end, but Obama—like all second-term presidents—is willing to put on blinders in his quest for a legacy.

Obama is putting all of his eggs in Rouhani’s basket, but what happens if Rouhani is removed from the picture? The purpose of a nuclear deal with Iran—at least from the Iranian perspective—is to normalize Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s de facto lobbyists in the United States are already arguing that after a short period of Iranian compliance with the deal, Iran should be free and clear from restrictions and, in effect, be treated as it had never cheated, never experimented with nuclear-weapons triggers, and never constructed secret nuclear facilities.

Within the Islamic Republic, there is not an inexorable march to reform. The birthrate in Iran today is only half of what is was in the 1980s, and so Iranian leaders figure that there will be fewer hot-headed young people in coming decades. As students start families, they become less willing to rock the boat. Hardliners figure their moment is yet to come. To read Rouhani’s election as the permanent victory of reform or democracy is to misunderstand Iran: There are no free elections inside the Islamic Republic. The Guardian Council selects candidates, and so sets the parameters of debate.

The supreme leader keeps power by insuring a rotation of factions. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005, he cleaned house of reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s followers. Likewise, when Rouhani won the presidency, the press cheered as he began his purge of Ahmadinejad’s supporters (never mind he simply replaced the pro-Ahmadinejad Revolutionary Guards veterans with intelligence ministry veterans, hardly the sign of sincere reform). It is reasonable to assume that the supreme leader will try to keep Rouhani’s minions from growing too powerful by orchestrating the revival of the Ahmadinejadniks.

And, indeed, that is what is happening according to the Iranian press. The Open Source Center has compiled a number of Iranian press reporters discussing Ahmadinejad’s rehabilitation. On April 3, for example, the hardline website Shafaf spoke about Ahmadinejad fielding a candidate in a by-election this coming fall. Ten days later, Mosalas Online hinted that Ahmadinejad was crafting a strategy to retake the Majlis. This is no idle talk. After all, Ahmadinejad’s pre-presidency claim to fame was organizing the rise of the conservatives in local elections. Entekhab has speculated that Ahmadinejad has his sights set on the 2017 election. Most importantly, the state-controlled Iranian press has begun publishing photographs of the supreme leader with Ahmadinejad (scroll to the third photo from the left). There is no better indication that Ahmadinejad is not so down and out as perhaps many American diplomats hope.

Perhaps Obama has put great faith in Rouhani, and is willing to take risks for a nuclear deal because of him. The question Obama won’t consider—but Congress should—is whether they would trust Ahmadinejad to again take the reins of a nuclear-capable Iran, albeit one with sanctions and controls removed thanks to Obama’s naive faith and misreading of the Iranian political system. Alas, that appears to be the situation in which Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are putting the United States.

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