Commentary Magazine


Topic: Barack Obama

Is a National-Security Shakeup Coming?

So Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is gone but the nuclear talks with Iran seemingly go on and on and on. Tell me: How much has changed?

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So Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is gone but the nuclear talks with Iran seemingly go on and on and on. Tell me: How much has changed?

It is easy to see why Hagel has been jettisoned: the administration needs a scapegoat for the most disastrous U.S. foreign policy since the Carter administration. With ISIS and Putin on the march, while U.S. military capabilities deteriorate due to budget cuts, it has been pretty obvious for some time that the national-security team needed a dramatic overhaul. But firing Hagel is not going to fix the problems–not by a longshot. In fact the very reason he was so expendable was because he had so little influence: Unlike Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, or Valerie Jarrett, he was not a White House insider.

Instead Hagel (like General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) was the good soldier, plodding ahead to carry out the president’s orders without question–no matter how little sense those orders made. As the New York Times noted: Hagel “spent his time on the job largely carrying out Mr. Obama’s stated wishes on matters like bringing back American troops from Afghanistan and trimming the Pentagon budget, with little pushback.”

Indeed one of the few times that Hagel dared in public (or probably in private) to talk back to the president, he earned the ire of Obama and his loyalists for telling the truth. While Obama earlier this year was denigrating ISIS as the “JV team,” Hagel was calling them an “imminent threat to every interest we have” and saying “This is beyond anything we’ve seen.” As the Times drily notes, “White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful”–Washington code words for the fact that Obama’s top aides were infuriated by Hagel’s truth-telling.

The immediate question is whether Obama will be able to stomach a stronger personality in the secretary of defense job–someone like Bob Gates or Leon Panetta. If so, Michele Flournoy or Ash Carter, both of whom served at the Pentagon earlier in the Obama administration, could fill the job description. But if Obama were truly intent on a radical break with some of his failed policies he would opt for a true outsider like Joe Lieberman or David Petraeus or John Lehman.

Regardless of who fills the job at the Pentagon–or for that matter at State–the reality remains that in this administration all critical decisions are made in the White House by the president with a handful of loyalists who have little independent standing, knowledge, or credibility in national-security affairs. This has been a problem ever since the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, the point at which Obama stopped listening to independent advice and started acting on his own ideological worldview predicated on downsizing the American armed forces and retreating from the world.

If this were a parliamentary system, Obama would long ago have lost a vote of “no confidence” and been forced to step down. But because it’s a presidential system he will remain in power two more years. The firing of Hagel will be a positive step forward only if it signals a complete rethink of the president’s foreign policy a la Carter’s conversion to become a born-again hawk after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis.

The test of that will be to see how Obama deals with Iran now that nuclear talks have reached an impasse after a year. Will Obama allow the mullahs to drag out negotiations indefinitely while continuing to enjoy sanctions relief? Or will he clamp down with extra-tough sanctions and implement a plan to roll back Iran’s power grab in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen? My bet is that not much has changed in the president’s thinking beyond his desire to see a new, more credible face at the Pentagon, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.

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Iran Wins if Obama Extends Nuclear Talks

President Obama showed a bit of spine today when he said on ABC’s This Week that he would not roll back all the sanctions on Iran immediately if it signed a nuclear agreement with the West. But outside of that one sensible statement, the president’s comments should only strengthen Iran’s belief that they are winning any negotiation and getting closer to becoming a threshold nuclear power. Obama was otherwise all carrots and no sticks about the threat in keeping with the other news coming out of the talks. While Iran was not budging on any important issue, Western negotiators have indicated that they will not insist on Tehran divulging information about its military nuclear research program and were also saying they might extend the talks beyond Monday’s deadline. If true, either option would mark a signal victory for Iran and a blow to any hopes of stopping them from eventually going nuclear.

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President Obama showed a bit of spine today when he said on ABC’s This Week that he would not roll back all the sanctions on Iran immediately if it signed a nuclear agreement with the West. But outside of that one sensible statement, the president’s comments should only strengthen Iran’s belief that they are winning any negotiation and getting closer to becoming a threshold nuclear power. Obama was otherwise all carrots and no sticks about the threat in keeping with the other news coming out of the talks. While Iran was not budging on any important issue, Western negotiators have indicated that they will not insist on Tehran divulging information about its military nuclear research program and were also saying they might extend the talks beyond Monday’s deadline. If true, either option would mark a signal victory for Iran and a blow to any hopes of stopping them from eventually going nuclear.

The significance of the concession about full disclosure of Iran’s past research isn’t merely a matter of historical interest. Without a complete accounting of everything the Iranians have or are currently working on with respect to military applications for its nuclear program, there is simply no way of knowing how close they are to a bomb or whether there is any chance of preventing a “break out” or a “sneak out” to a bomb.

A breakout would involve the Iranians reconverting their stockpile of enriched uranium to a form that could be employed for a bomb. The U.S. strategy in the talks, which abandoned President Obama’s previous promises to dismantle Iran’s program and United Nations resolutions that demanded it halt enrichment, is to plea for terms that would lengthen a breakout period to one that would give the West time to react to stop a bomb from being produced. But without full knowledge of what Iran has been doing, all estimates about breakout time are completely unreliable, leaving open the very real possibility that a deal will not only fail to halt the Iranian project but set it up for success without a viable Western response.

Iran’s successful effort to wring this concession about non-disclosure dovetails with its continued and equally successful stonewalling of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s efforts to gain access to their entire nuclear infrastructure including those places where it is suspected of conducting military research. As the New York Times makes clear in a front-page article in today’s edition, the danger of a covert nuclear program is just as great, if not greater, than that emanating from its known facilities where the West has already failed to keep their efforts in check.

Just as dangerous is the chance that rather than take Iran’s refusal to say yes to what appears to be another weak Western offer, such as the interim deal signed a year ago, President Obama appears open to another extension of the talks.

The justification for sending the negotiations into what would amount to a second overtime period after the expiration of a previous deadline over the summer would grant Iran even more time to push closer to its nuclear ambition with not even the flimsiest of Western checks on its ability to advance its goals. Moreover, last year’s deal has not been scrupulously observed by Iran and, contrary to the president’s assurances, has neither stopped their program nor provided anything more than a flimsy obstacle to a break out or a sneak out.

The problem is not just that the U.S. seems to lack the will to get Iran to take seriously the consequences of a refusal. It’s that the president is still far more eager to inaugurate a new period of détente with Tehran than to take the sort of minimal actions required for making the Iranians see reason. Again today, Obama reiterated his desire for starting a new relationship with the Islamist regime while refusing to state his willingness to increase sanctions to end its continuing flow of oil revenue that keep the regime afloat. That’s exactly the kind of rhetoric inclined to reconfirm the Iranian leadership’s evaluation of the president as a weak leader who lacks the stomach for the kind of confrontations that they relish. With Western diplomats openly speculating about another 6-12 months being allowed for more negotiations, that not only makes the Iranians less inclined to yield but also should increase their covert activity while keeping the IAEA out of crucial sites.

While Iran sticks to its positions that protect its nuclear option, President Obama continues to show the world that his zeal for a deal far exceeds his intention to stop the Islamists from achieving their nuclear goal. Barring a last-minute change of heart on the part of the president, it appears that no matter whether they sign the weak deal offered or continue to hold out for an even weaker one at some point in the future, Iran wins and the security of the West and allies like Israel and moderate Arab states lose.

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Promise and Peril of Obama’s Triangulation

Bill Clinton was known as a master “triangulator” for his ability to come up with policies exactly equidistant between the extremes of left and right. Barack Obama has been pursuing a similar policy in foreign policy but with less success because national security is not a realm where half-measures tend to work. Yet that is what the president is constantly trying to do.

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Bill Clinton was known as a master “triangulator” for his ability to come up with policies exactly equidistant between the extremes of left and right. Barack Obama has been pursuing a similar policy in foreign policy but with less success because national security is not a realm where half-measures tend to work. Yet that is what the president is constantly trying to do.

He tripled the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan at the start of his administration, for example, but insisted on withdrawing surge troops within 18 months which undercut their effectiveness. He helped to topple Moammar Gaddafi but insisted on taking a backseat to the Europeans during the war and not doing anything to stabilize Libya afterward. More recently he has announced the dispatch of warplanes and 3,000 troops to Iraq to combat ISIS but the bombing campaign has been far more limited than previous U.S. air campaigns in Kosovo or Afghanistan and U.S. advisers have been prohibited from accompanying local troops into combat.

And now we see Obama triangulating in Afghanistan. Serious military analysts in and out of uniform thought we needed to leave at least 25,000-30,000 troops in Afghanistan past 2014, whereas Obama’s political advisers and his vice president argued for leaving at most a couple of thousand troops. Obama compromised by keeping slightly fewer than 10,000 troops after the end of the year but promising that he would withdraw them by the end of 2016.

There then ensued within the administration a debate over what authorities would be granted to those troops–could they target the Taliban or just al-Qaeda remnants? Could they provide close air support if needed to the Afghan security forces? According to a New York Times leak, Obama has settled the debate for now by granting the kind of expansive authorities requested by the military but opposed by his political advisers: “Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.”

This is good news because the Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, and other extremist elements are so intertwined that it makes no sense to target one without also targeting the others. But the actual combat operations carried out by U.S. forces will be highly limited–odds are that only a few Special Operations troops will come in direct contact with the enemy. Moreover, the number of U.S. troops left in Afghanistan is still going to be extremely small–the figure of under 10,000 troops was concocted by U.S. commanders to be palatable to the White House, not because they thought it was the optimal troop strength to accomplish the mission. And the withdrawal deadline of 2016 still looms even though there is no chance that the Pakistan-supported Taliban insurgency will be over by then.

We can only hope that Obama triangulates again to keep a substantial American troop contingent in Afghanistan past the end of his presidency–otherwise all that U.S. troops have sacrificed so much to achieve under his command risks being lost.

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Standing and Prosecutorial Discretion

There has been much talk of late, especially since President Obama’s speech last night, about how the new Republican congress can respond to his continual, indeed increasing, end runs around Congress’s power to make the laws. In almost so many words last night, he said to Congress, you didn’t reform immigration law so I will.

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There has been much talk of late, especially since President Obama’s speech last night, about how the new Republican congress can respond to his continual, indeed increasing, end runs around Congress’s power to make the laws. In almost so many words last night, he said to Congress, you didn’t reform immigration law so I will.

He used the common law principle of prosecutorial discretion—where the executive can choose what individual crimes to pursue and which to ignore—to do so. He was confident that the common law principle of standing—where an individual, corporation, or government body must have a personal or direct injury that he or it wants redressed in order to sue—would prevent the courts from interfering.

It’s clever lawyering if lousy politics.

The courts have long held that individual members of Congress cannot sue the president for ignoring the law.  It may get them a headline in tomorrow morning’s newspaper, which is what they are usually after anyway, but it won’t get them far in court.  Equally, prosecutorial discretion has always been used to allow prosecutors to choose strong cases to pursue, while letting weak ones go, or to prevent an injustice from occurring by pursuing the letter of the law.

But, as noted, both standing and prosecutorial discretion are largely common law principles, arising from centuries of court decisions on how justice should be done, guarded by the doctrine of stare decisis, which holds that settled principles of law should not be disturbed by the courts when deciding similar cases.

But statute trumps common law. It was common law that the age of majority was 21. But that didn’t prevent the states from making 18 the age at which, for instance, individuals could drink or marry without a parent’s permission or vote.  A constitutional amendment set the voting age at 18 nationwide.

So, while I am not a lawyer, I see no reason why the new Republican Congress could not pass a law granting itself standing to sue when it decides by majority vote that the President has trespassed on its power to make the law. Equally, it has the power to limit prosecutorial discretion to its traditional uses.

After all, President Obama was implicitly arguing in his speech last night that if Congress were to pass a law making, say, the transportation of widgets across a state line a felony, he would be free to order the Justice Department not to prosecute any cases under the Widget Law, effectively repealing it.

Defining standing and prosecutorial discretion by statute would prevent this usurpation of power.  Would President Obama veto such bills? Perhaps, but even with the mainstream media in look-a-squirrel overdrive, I think public pressure would force him to accept them.  If it didn’t, then a future president who thinks that James Madison is not just a dead white guy would.

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The Baleful Effects of the Obama Presidency

In his fine post on last night’s speech, Jonathan wrote, “But President Obama has made that impossible by firing the first shot in a political war intended to further polarize the nation. Nothing could be more cynical or less high-minded.”

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In his fine post on last night’s speech, Jonathan wrote, “But President Obama has made that impossible by firing the first shot in a political war intended to further polarize the nation. Nothing could be more cynical or less high-minded.”

This is not incidental damage to our republic.

There is such a thing as a nation’s political and civic culture. Ours is in some disrepair right now. This isn’t the only time that’s been the case, for sure. Politics in a free society–any free society–guarantees some amount of division and polarization. But beyond a certain point it’s not normative or healthy; and if there are large, difficult problems that need to be addressed, as is now the case, the political system has to work. Right now it’s not.

Why it’s not is a complicated matter. But there’s no question that President Obama bears a great deal of the responsibility for our political distemper. His announcement last night that he’s going to employ means that he himself deemed to be lawless and unconstitutional, in order to get his way on immigration, is guaranteed to further roil our politics. Indeed, it may well have been done in part to do just that. Whatever his motivations, Mr. Obama has taken an unprecedented step that will further split apart not just our two parties but our nation.

It’s worth reminding ourselves, then, that when he first ran for president, Mr. Obama not only promised to place greater limits on executive power; he also promised to “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger. He would end a politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” He would help us to “rediscover our bonds to each other and … get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.” His election, he informed us, was a sign we had “chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”

“I will listen to you,” Obama said on a stage in Grant Park on the night of his election, “especially when we disagree.” And on the day of his inauguration he came to proclaim “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

Yet here we are, six years later, with a president who has caused greater division and conflict, who has deepened public cynicism, and who has chosen–eagerly and gleefully chosen–conflict and discord over unity of purpose. This may not be the worst sin of the Obama era, but it ranks quite high on the list.

Other presidents have made mistakes, and some have committed impeachable offenses. But I would be hard-pressed to name a president who has so selfishly and narcissistically injured our constitutional order and political culture. The baleful effects of the Obama presidency are now nearly incalculable.

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Obama’s Orders: Politics, Not Compassion

President Obama was at his rhetorical best Thursday night in making an eloquent case for his executive orders that allow five million illegal immigrants to avoid deportation. But his eloquence invoking compassion for immigrants was the worst kind of cynical game being used to justify an unprecedented presidential usurpation of power. Even if one accepted the arguments he employed on behalf of fixing our broken immigration system or being fair to illegals, it was all beside the point. The purpose of this exercise was to vastly expand the scope of presidential power while provoking a confrontation with Republicans. None of it had much to do with actually changing the system.

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President Obama was at his rhetorical best Thursday night in making an eloquent case for his executive orders that allow five million illegal immigrants to avoid deportation. But his eloquence invoking compassion for immigrants was the worst kind of cynical game being used to justify an unprecedented presidential usurpation of power. Even if one accepted the arguments he employed on behalf of fixing our broken immigration system or being fair to illegals, it was all beside the point. The purpose of this exercise was to vastly expand the scope of presidential power while provoking a confrontation with Republicans. None of it had much to do with actually changing the system.

There are good reasons to support changes in the system. The status of the 11 million illegals in this country needs to be resolved in some rational manner. The president is right to state that mass deportations are both unlikely and undesirable. Even if they violated the law, many, if not most of the illegals are not bad people and some of their stories should inspire compassion from Americans.

But by acting unilaterally rather than returning to the hard work of crafting a bipartisan compromise on immigration with the new Republican majorities in Congress, Obama showed that he had other motives besides his supposed passion for the illegals.

The president’s argument remains that he is being forced to act because House Republicans refused to pass the bipartisan compromise bill passed by the Senate. This is a specious appeal for four reasons.

The first is that even if the Senate bill deserved support, it is the prerogative of the Congress to pass laws. The president may advocate, lobby, cajole, threaten, or bargain with members to get his way. But if the executive branch fails to get the legislative branch to approve measures, it must accept the verdict and try again. Such a failure does not grant the president the right to usurp Congress.

Second, this is no emergency that required immediate action. Comparisons to the Emancipation Proclamation or wartime emergency measures are absurd. If it were a genuine emergency, Obama would have acted on it during his first two years in office when he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and could have gotten any measure he liked. He might also have issued these orders at any time since then but instead waited until he was safely reelected and then for the midterms to be finished before acting.

Third, seen from the perspective of November 2014, it is clear the House was right not to pass the Senate bill. Though I did not think so at the time, the impulse to break up the measure and to pass border security legislation first and then and only then consider the future of the illegals already here was correct. Despite the president’s claims that the border is secure, last summer’s surge of illegals proved otherwise. Moreover, his boasts about the supposed decline in illegal immigration has little to do with the still shaky enforcement at the border and everything to do with the shaky economic recovery the president has presided over. Even worse, it is likely that today’s temporary amnesty—which may be reversed by the next president—will encourage another such surge. The same thing happened after President Reagan’s amnesty and that was not nearly so egregious as Obama’s and an attempt to clarify a law passed by Congress, not an end run around the Constitution.

Fourth, if, as he says, he wants a new bill, the only way to achieve any kind of reform would have been to work with the new Congress. Chances were admittedly slim for a new compromise but the president’s orders have now reduced it to zero. Hispanics and immigration-reform advocates applauding these orders should think about the fact that with a stroke of a pen, Obama has made it impossible for any Republican, no matter how committed to fixing the system, to vote for a new bill in the next two years. That is a greater setback for that cause than anything done by House Republicans in the past two years.

And that leads us to the most important conclusion to be drawn from the president’s move. It must be understood that this is as much a tactical political move as it an attempt to build a legacy as some of the president’s defenders claim.

By issuing his orders now in the wake of the Democrats’ drubbing in the midterms, Obama is attempting to take back the initiative from a victorious GOP. Despite the pious rhetoric he used about bipartisanship, his goal here is to goad a rightly furious Republican caucus into overreacting and to recreate the government shutdown confrontation of 2013 that he rightly believes himself to have won. In doing so, he hopes, with the help of a partisan liberal media that is already happily defending his measures and lambasting conservative anger, to gain an advantage in the latest episode of the pointless partisan squabbling that he has helped to engender.

By going outside of the constitutional order in this manner, the president has created a dangerous precedent that undermines both the rule of law and the concept of separation of powers. One may even agree with the substance of his ideas while also understanding that this is a radical action that puts more power in the hands of an already too-powerful executive branch.

But the fact that Democrats are already seeking to depict this struggle as one between a compassionate president and Republicans who want “ethnic cleansing” illustrates that this merely politics, not principle at play. Those who hoped they were electing a Congress to get things done were not wrong to think the new majorities had an opportunity to legislate. But President Obama has made that impossible by firing the first shot in a political war intended to further polarize the nation. Nothing could be more cynical or less high-minded.

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Did Obama Unite the GOP on Immigration?

Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen provided a moment of levity at a Secret Service hearing yesterday when he suggested that a moat might make a good upgrade for White House security. He backtracked today, saying he didn’t mean a moat-moat, just a water barrier of some sort. But the timing, as President Obama was feeling his monarchical oats, was impeccable. Indeed, this president’s preference for the authority of an elected kingship shows how Obama may have misjudged the Republican reaction to executive amnesty.

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Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen provided a moment of levity at a Secret Service hearing yesterday when he suggested that a moat might make a good upgrade for White House security. He backtracked today, saying he didn’t mean a moat-moat, just a water barrier of some sort. But the timing, as President Obama was feeling his monarchical oats, was impeccable. Indeed, this president’s preference for the authority of an elected kingship shows how Obama may have misjudged the Republican reaction to executive amnesty.

In the past, Obama has been fairly skilled in dividing Republicans against themselves, especially on the issue of immigration. And one might have expected something similar this time as well. Republicans are not, after all, of one mind in how to respond to the executive action he plans to announce tonight. Obama has twice scuttled immigration reform, once as senator and prospective presidential candidate and once as president as well, because the issue was thought to hurt Republicans with Hispanic voters.

The issue also seemed to weaken the Republican presidential fields. In 2012 Rick Perry stumbled badly over an immigration question at a primary debate and never really recovered. And for 2016, prospective candidates found themselves on different sides of the issue: Marco Rubio helped get comprehensive immigration reform through the Senate, Rand Paul wavered but ultimately voted against it, and Ted Cruz was opposed.

That, and the fact that reform died in the House anyway, was a setback for Rubio. The Florida senator had since recovered some of his earlier momentum thanks in part to the president’s vast array of foreign-policy blunders, and the president’s executive amnesty is likely to help the two GOP rising stars who voted for immigration reform last year: Rubio and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte.

Immigration hawks will still remember their votes for the reform bill. But the president’s actions do two things that will help them. First, it removes some of the fear the grassroots might have in what action a hypothetical President Rubio might take on immigration. That is, if amnesty is already done, then the only things that are left are issues that Republicans tend to broadly agree on, such as border security.

It’s true that comprehensive immigration reform was unlikely to pass the House in the near future anyway, but Obama has essentially taken the part of it that conservatives like the least off the table. There’s no looming threat of amnesty; it’s here. Having already supported immigration reform, Rubio will get some credit from Hispanic voters. But will his opposition to executive amnesty lose them?

That’s where the second aspect of Obama’s miscalculation comes in. By making such an obvious power grab, he has made opposition to his actions intellectually much simpler. The words “king” and “emperor” have been thrown around; Ted Cruz even referenced Cicero’s First Oration Against Catiline today, as if Obama would even know who that is:

“When, President Obama, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end to that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?” he said, using the beginning of Cicero’s First Oration Against Catiline.

Even Democrats seem to have no idea how to explain how the executive amnesty is legal.

Which is to say: it’s very easy to criticize this move without attacking immigrants–though the media, surely, will attempt to conflate the two. And doing so also enables Republican candidates to come out strongly against Obama’s power grabs more generally, and his immigration actions specifically, to a conservative audience in the same way they would do so to a general-election audience, without having to flip-flop or triangulate.

Obama has been criticized for this power grab by even traditionally supportive left-leaning media, such as the Washington Post and the Economist, because of the precedent it would set and the left’s fear of reprisals. This debate isn’t about the policy anymore, and anyone who pretends otherwise is selling something. Obama has given even supporters of immigration reform a way to oppose amnesty without opposing immigration in itself.

Obama has made the conversation about the damage this act would do to American democracy. That’s very comfortable terrain for Republicans, who are thus far more united on this issue than they would otherwise be.

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Pro-Palestinian, Pro-Peace, and Fading Fast

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the two-state solution in particular, is more than just a strategy. To some, as Aaron David Miller and others have written, it is a religion in itself. To others, such as Arab states in the Middle East, it is an excuse. To still others, like UNRWA, it is a self-enrichment scheme designed to perpetuate the conflict. But to nearly everyone, it is, at its most basic level, a market–for ideas, for products, for influence. And as some organizations are finding out now, the bungling of the peace process, such as that done by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, is bad for business.

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The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the two-state solution in particular, is more than just a strategy. To some, as Aaron David Miller and others have written, it is a religion in itself. To others, such as Arab states in the Middle East, it is an excuse. To still others, like UNRWA, it is a self-enrichment scheme designed to perpetuate the conflict. But to nearly everyone, it is, at its most basic level, a market–for ideas, for products, for influence. And as some organizations are finding out now, the bungling of the peace process, such as that done by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, is bad for business.

BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray documents the travails of one such group: the American Task Force on Palestine. It was founded in 2003, she notes, to advocate for Palestinian statehood among policymakers. It was self-consciously moderate, attracting political figures (like then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) to its events and associating itself with Palestinian figures like former prime minister Salam Fayyad, a moderate technocrat who hoped to crack down on corruption and bad governance and was driven out of Palestinian politics for his efforts.

Though the group wasn’t awash in money, things were going fairly well for a while, Gray writes. Indeed, though Gray doesn’t go into the political developments in the U.S. during ATFP’s rise, they are significant. George W. Bush publicly pushed for the creation of a Palestinian state early on in his presidency, giving renewed momentum to the idea of two states for two peoples. The Bush administration’s progress included giving Ariel Sharon the support he needed (later rescinded by Barack Obama in a damaging blow to hopes for peace) to withdraw from the entire Gaza Strip and set the stage for even more territorial concessions. By the end of the Bush administration, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was presenting a map and a generous offer of a deal to Mahmoud Abbas.

That’s when the backsliding began, as Abbas walked away from the offer without making a counteroffer. Then Obama came to office and began to dismantle the progress all sides had worked to achieve. Obama and Kerry, the arsonists of the ongoing blaze in Israel and the Palestinian territories, pushed the two sides farther apart, alienated everyone involved, and sided against not just Israel but also the Palestinian Authority whenever Hamas’s interests were at stake. The process, not exactly on the brink of success to begin with, collapsed.

So what happens to groups like the American Task Force on Palestine when the process is at a low ebb? Gray explains:

But things changed for ATFP this year. This summer’s war between Israel and Hamas and the breakdown of U.S.-mediated peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians aiming to broker a two-state solution, which is core to ATFP’s mission, have proven to be a toxic combination to the nonprofit. The group has decided to cancel its annual gala this year, which usually brings in half of its annual fundraising. And its founder says it will have to cut staff and office space. ATFP’s situation is a casualty of a larger shift: The hope for a two-state solution, which is official U.S. policy and regarded by the establishment as the only legitimate way to end the conflict, is running out of steam, causing a major existential crisis for some of those most dedicated to it.

There’s more than mere symbolism in what this says about the peace process. On a practical level, it shows that relying on the two-state solution as your raison d’être is a poor business model. The American government can afford for John Kerry to toss a match onto the Mideast tinderbox and walk away; private organizations, not so much.

On a political level, it shows the damage for a pro-Palestinian organization to align itself with moderate elements. With regard to the Palestinian polity, this means people like Fayyad, who represented a genuine desire for positive change and the willingness to do the hard work of state building. He was the only one, unfortunately.

It would be one thing if Fayyad had been forced to make only incremental change slowly so as not to rock the boat too much. Instead the system treated him like a virus, seeking to neutralize and then expel him. Which is exactly what happened. When moderate elements are not even tolerated, there’s not much room for a two-state solution or its supporters.

And domestically, it also says much about the hate and intolerance of the Palestinians’ Western supporters. Here’s Gray talking to ATFP’s president on what it’s like to be seen as a collaborator with the enemy merely for talking to Jews:

“That is part of the problem with raising money,” Asali said. “The mere fact that we talk to the Israelis publicly, here and in Israel, and to the Jewish organized and non-organized community has presented a major obstacle in our communication with our community.”

“We are for dealing with the establishment that deals with Palestine and Israel,” he said. “Which means by necessity that at least half of it would be Jewish or Israeli.”

Precisely. You can’t have a negotiating process leading to a two-state solution if you won’t deal with one side. Which raises the unfortunate fact: a great many of the Palestinians’ supporters and allies don’t actually want a two-state solution. They are not invested in real peace or ending the conflict; they are invested in ending Israel.

It’s tempting to say “with friends like these…” but that misses the point. The Palestinians’ supporters are not unintentionally undermining them with their hate. They are taking their cues from the Palestinian government. Those who support the Palestinians but also want peace and a two-state solution are few in number, and dwindling still.

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What Jonathan Gruber Didn’t Say

Despite the unmasking of ObamaCare architect Jonathan Gruber as a dishonest advisor hired by the Obama administration to mislead the public about the law, far too many commentators have still let Gruber set the terms of the debate about the lies used to pass ObamaCare. For example, an actual discussion over the “stupidity of the American voter” has ensued to pin down what exactly Gruber was saying. This requires putting words in Gruber’s mouth, so it’s worth pointing out what Gruber wasn’t saying.

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Despite the unmasking of ObamaCare architect Jonathan Gruber as a dishonest advisor hired by the Obama administration to mislead the public about the law, far too many commentators have still let Gruber set the terms of the debate about the lies used to pass ObamaCare. For example, an actual discussion over the “stupidity of the American voter” has ensued to pin down what exactly Gruber was saying. This requires putting words in Gruber’s mouth, so it’s worth pointing out what Gruber wasn’t saying.

Last week Dan Drezner made the absolutely correct argument that, in Gruber’s defense, social scientists broadly agree with the premise that voters are “rationally ignorant.” Fair enough, but rational ignorance results from a kind of prioritization of a voter’s time and resources. What Gruber was saying was that he and the Obama White House had to design policy to fool voters who were invested in understanding the issue. He wasn’t really saying “stupid” as a stand-in for “rationally ignorant”; he was saying that the Obama administration had to be particularly dishonest and opaque because voters were making the very rational decision to invest their energy in the health-care debate and thus they had to be intentionally confused, misdirected, and in some cases out and out lied to.

Drezner’s point about voters is valid. It’s just not the same point Gruber was making.

What else wasn’t Gruber saying? Well, he wasn’t really saying the voters are stupid in the traditional sense of the word either. To see what I mean, I recommend Jake Tapper’s post today at CNN about the so-called Cadillac tax–the tax on expensive employer-provided health plans.

Tapper starts out by recalling Obama’s 2009 attempts to sell health-care reform by assuring voters that any tax on insurance plans would be aimed at high-end plans and not at average Americans. Crucially, he said, he had “taken off the table” getting rid of the tax deduction on employer-provided plans so that employers wouldn’t stop providing insurance.

And yet, Tapper points out, “That promise is completely at odds with how Gruber describes not only that provision of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, but the intention of that provision.” One of the videos, for example, has Gruber explaining that they sought to get rid of that subsidy but had to be creative about it, since the subsidy is popular. So they had to trick Americans into thinking they weren’t going to lose the subsidy Gruber was purposely taking away from them.

Here’s Tapper:

Gruber said the only way those pushing for Obamacare could get rid of the tax subsidy for employer provider health insurance was to tax the more generous, or Cadillac, plans — “mislabeling it, calling it a tax on insurance plans rather than a tax on people when we all know it’s a tax on people who hold those insurance plans.”

The second way was have the tax kick in “late, starting in 2018″ and have its rate of growth tied to the consumer price index instead of to the much higher rate of medical inflation. Eventually, the 40% tax on the more expensive plans would impact every employer-provided insurance plan.

“What that means is the tax that starts out hitting only 8% of the insurance plans essentially amounts over the next 20 years essentially getting rid of the exclusion for employer sponsored plans,” Gruber said. “This was the only political way we were ever going to take on one of the worst public policies in America.”

Now, the voter who didn’t crunch the numbers and plan out how a consumer price index-tied tax would, over twenty years, slowly eat up all the other plans as well by mapping out the complicated financial landscape of health costs, taxes, and government spending over two decades: does he sound “stupid” to you? Not exactly, right? The administration needed an MIT economist to devise this scheme; it’s not like Nancy Pelosi put this together on the back of a napkin.

Gruber didn’t outsmart the voters so much as con them. He made loads of cash by tricking non-economist Americans into losing their health insurance. (He’s a heck of a guy, isn’t he?)

What else didn’t Gruber say? Here’s a post from the Fix’s Chris Cillizza (hat tip to Kevin Williamson) in which Cillizza says that conservatives are so outraged about Gruber’s comments because “it’s not just that the Obama administration is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. It’s that they think you, conservative American, are too stupid to even notice.”

You may notice that what Cillizza said is exactly the opposite of the truth. Gruber wasn’t saying conservative voters were stupid; they were against the bill, as were independents. They understood that it was a scam. If Gruber was calling anyone stupid, it could only possibly have been liberal voters. The scam didn’t work on non-liberals; it worked just well enough on liberals to get the bill through Congress.

Perhaps that gives us some clue as to why there’s so much debate about what Gruber really meant. Because what he said, essentially, was this: the people who supported this bill, the people who voted for this bill, and the people in the press who parroted the administration’s talking points about this bill–they’re idiots. It’s not a reality leftists want to accept, but the infamously evasive Gruber couldn’t be clearer this time.

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Obama’s Shattered Credibility

National Journals Ron Fournier, a journalist whom I respect, is hardly a conservative. He’s said before he supported passage of the Affordable Care Act. And so it’s worth noting when someone like Mr. Fournier says, as he did the other night, that “the central attribute you have to have as any leader, in any walk of life and certainly in government is trust — and this president has destroyed the credibility of his administration, himself and government itself.”

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National Journals Ron Fournier, a journalist whom I respect, is hardly a conservative. He’s said before he supported passage of the Affordable Care Act. And so it’s worth noting when someone like Mr. Fournier says, as he did the other night, that “the central attribute you have to have as any leader, in any walk of life and certainly in government is trust — and this president has destroyed the credibility of his administration, himself and government itself.”

Mr. Fournier’s judgment is a harsh one, but an entirely appropriate one. I take no joy in saying the president lies and then lies about his lies. But that is what the record shows, indisputably; and those lies have now caught up with Mr. Obama. They are having a corrosive effect on trust between him and the people he was elected to serve. It’s one thing to be inept, as the president surely is. It’s quite another to deceive and dissemble, to govern with the philosophy that the ends justify the means, and to act in ways that show contempt for the truth and for the American polity. This has been a hallmark of the Obama years, and it’s done irreparable damage to him, and great damage to our political and civic culture.

This is not what hope and changer were supposed to be.

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Obama Is About to Commit an Act of Constitutional Infamy

The president will present his case on behalf of his forthcoming executive order on amnesty tomorrow at 8 p.m. I certainly hope President Obama addresses the arguments against his action that were repeatedly and passionately made by … President Obama. Our friends at National Review have put together a nice video here; I’d urge you to watch it. Mr. Obama is now acting like, in his words, an “emperor.” His hypocrisy is, even by his standards, staggering.

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The president will present his case on behalf of his forthcoming executive order on amnesty tomorrow at 8 p.m. I certainly hope President Obama addresses the arguments against his action that were repeatedly and passionately made by … President Obama. Our friends at National Review have put together a nice video here; I’d urge you to watch it. Mr. Obama is now acting like, in his words, an “emperor.” His hypocrisy is, even by his standards, staggering.

But hypocrisy is not unusual in politicians and presidents; firing a missile aimed at our constitutional form of government is. And that is what Mr. Obama is about to do.

As the liberal law professor Jonathan Turley put it last night, this is a “particularly dangerous moment” for the president to defy the will of Congress yet again, just 15 days after an election in which the American people registered their emphatic (anti-Obama) judgment. “What the president is suggesting is tearing at the very fabric of the Constitution,” according to Professor Turley. “We have a separation of powers that gives us balance. And that doesn’t protect the branches — it’s not there to protect the executive branch or legislative branch — it’s to protect liberty. It’s to prevent any branch from assuming so much control that they become a threat to liberty.”

What is about to happen may be the low point in a presidency filled with them. Mr. Obama is acting in a way that he himself knows–that he himself has said–is unconstitutional and indefensible. No matter. In an act of unmatched narcissism and selfishness, the president will create–he is thirsting to create–a constitutional crisis that is utterly unnecessary and will further polarize our political culture.

Mr. Obama is about to commit an act of constitutional infamy. This is a stain that will stay with him.

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Presidents and Power Grabs: A Lesson From Harry Truman

There has been a lot of smart commentary on President Obama’s looming executive action on immigration–now expected to be announced tomorrow–and how Republicans might respond to it. Few on the right dispute the fact that Obama is creating a dangerous precedent, though there is disagreement over whether conservatives should embrace that precedent in order to get liberals to understand the gravity of it or whether legal challenges would suffice. But I think it’s worth contemplating just how much is lost with Obama’s actions, regardless of the right’s future success in rolling back the effects.

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There has been a lot of smart commentary on President Obama’s looming executive action on immigration–now expected to be announced tomorrow–and how Republicans might respond to it. Few on the right dispute the fact that Obama is creating a dangerous precedent, though there is disagreement over whether conservatives should embrace that precedent in order to get liberals to understand the gravity of it or whether legal challenges would suffice. But I think it’s worth contemplating just how much is lost with Obama’s actions, regardless of the right’s future success in rolling back the effects.

Indeed, the president’s actions might very well be legal, and they may survive a legal or constitutional (or even political) challenge. Even if they are not constitutional, the public rarely cares nearly as much about process as about policy. This favors the president, whose unilateral executive actions cannot be filibustered or vetoed. We like to think of our political system as one that restrains the executive, just as it restrains the other branches, through competition. And that’s true. But enough of the fundamentals of American politics favor the president to make it crucial that if the system is going to survive, presidents must not grab at all the power they can just because they won’t be stopped.

A good example of the right outlook of a president comes from Harry Truman. He notably and unilaterally rolled back several of what he thought were FDR’s power grabs. But the thought process behind one of those decisions stands out: Truman’s refusal to run for reelection in 1952.

In 1947 Congress passed the 22nd amendment, which forbade an elected third presidential term. It was ratified in 1951. The amendment was written to exclude the sitting president–Truman–from its restrictions, however, so as not to be seen as a Republican Congress targeting a sitting Democratic president. Truman was elected in 1948, and could have run again in 1952.

Yet he already knew in April 1950–before the Korean War–that he had no interest in testing those limits, or lack thereof. And here we have, from Truman’s biographer Robert J. Donovan, what Truman was thinking at the time, having written out his determination. Donovan smartly devotes a (brief) chapter to this decision, but here is what Truman wrote the day he made this decision:

“Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson as well as Calvin Coolidge stood by the precedent of two terms. Only Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and F.D.R. made the attempt to break that precedent. F.D.R. succeeded.

“In my opinion eight years as President is enough and sometimes too much for any man to serve in that capacity.

“There is a lure in power. It can get into a man’s blood just as gambling and lust for money have been known to do.

“This is a Republic. The greatest in the history of the world. I want this country to continue as a Republic. Cincinnatus and Washington pointed the way. When Rome forgot Cincinnatus, its down fall began. When we forget the examples of such men as Washington, Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, all of whom could have had continuation in the office, then will we start down the road to dictatorship and ruin. I know I could be elected again and continue to break the old precedent as it was broken by F.D.R. It should not be done. That precedent should continue–not by a Constitutional amendment but by custom based on the honor of the man in the office.

“Therefore to reestablish that custom, although by a quibble I could say I’ve only had one term, I am not a candidate and will not accept the nomination for another term.”

It’s significant also that Truman wrote this down but did not announce it at the time. He was not posturing or making excuses or trying to burnish his image in the minds of voters. He also didn’t want to be seen as a lame duck. And that just goes to show that he was, or would have been, an otherwise serious candidate for reelection.

But Truman’s words, as crisp and humble and wise as they may be, are not altogether easy to read nowadays. They serve as a rebuke to the way the presidency has grown in stature and power and they are also a reminder that not every president seeks to take all he can and that we shouldn’t simply assume presidents will expand their authority as far as the law will let them.

Truman understood that there is something about power that is unhealthy both for the man who possesses it and for those over whom he wields it. Getting presidents to act with that in mind shouldn’t take a constitutional amendment, Truman thought.

And he’s right, and it’s what makes Obama’s power grab so disconcerting. Truman understood that legally enforced limits aren’t the kinds of limits that show, shape, or test a person’s character. The limits presidents place on themselves, as honorable public servants, are. Something is lost, then–a great deal, in fact–when the law is the only limit on a president’s actions.

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Keystone Scramble Shows Dems Already Forgetting Midterms Defeat

Republican losses typically produce an outpouring of concern trolling from Democrats, eager to “help” Republicans turn their fortunes around. The advice usually includes loosening the hold of the base on the party’s agenda, to become less extreme; paying more attention to polls; and buying into a proactive, productive legislative agenda. Yet now that Democrats have been on the wrong end of a national wave, will they take their own advice? Not if the machinations around the Keystone XL pipeline are any indication.

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Republican losses typically produce an outpouring of concern trolling from Democrats, eager to “help” Republicans turn their fortunes around. The advice usually includes loosening the hold of the base on the party’s agenda, to become less extreme; paying more attention to polls; and buying into a proactive, productive legislative agenda. Yet now that Democrats have been on the wrong end of a national wave, will they take their own advice? Not if the machinations around the Keystone XL pipeline are any indication.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Democrats have for years opposed the pipeline, which would bring oil from Canada’s tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries. But Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu is facing an uphill battle in her December 6 runoff election against Republican Representative Bill Cassidy. Keystone would be a “boon” for Louisiana, as even the New York Times admits, so Landrieu is trying to push Keystone across the finish line hoping it’ll drag her there along with it.

Were the situation reversed, Democrats would be doing what Republicans are now: imploring them to stop getting in their own way and support the pipeline. After all, it’s popular, it would show the Democrats can support a legislative agenda that brings jobs to an important industry, and it’s only been sidelined so far because President Obama is hostage to the bidding of his extremist base. And yet, Landrieu is not having an easy time getting enough Democrats to join the 60-vote threshold for the vote expected to be held early this evening.

Of course, even if Landrieu can get the votes in the Senate, the Keystone vote is already a less-than-perfect subject for a Hail Mary, as the Times notes:

On Friday, a Keystone bill sponsored by Mr. Cassidy passed the House. Ms. Landrieu is now close to mustering a filibuster-proof 60 Senate votes in favor of the pipeline in the Senate. She told reporters on Friday that she had 59 votes and was reaching out aggressively to colleagues to round up the critical final vote necessary to send the bill to Mr. Obama’s desk.

That’s right–she’s been handed the baton by her rival, Bill Cassidy. It’s not as though Landrieu is in favor and her opponent isn’t. Landrieu is no better on the issue than Cassidy; in reality, she’s playing catch-up because of Democratic opposition to the plan. It’s unclear how passing the Keystone bill would give her the boost she needs to beat Cassidy, though the high-profile scramble for votes would seem to at least help her by elevating her profile.

But that’s only if it passes. And right now, Democrats aren’t so sure it’s worth helping her reelection, in part because it’s no guarantee they’ll retain the seat even if the bill passes. Here’s Politico:

With Keystone apparently stuck on 59 votes — one shy of the amount needed for passage — Landrieu has turned into a one-woman Senate whip, seeking a vote set for Tuesday night that would show her clout in oil-rich Louisiana ahead of her Dec. 6 runoff. …

Much of the focus of Monday’s guessing games was on Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who hails from a fossil fuel state and whose upcoming retirement could leave him with little to lose. But he said Monday evening that he’s voting no.

Another rumored waverer was Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats. He indicated he’s still leaning no but said, “I’ll make a decision when I vote.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said she’s voting no because she doesn’t think “Congress should be siting pipelines.”

And what if she does get that 60th vote? Back to the Times:

Even if the Senate supports building the pipeline in a vote on Tuesday night, President Obama is likely to veto the measure on the grounds that an environmental review of the process remains incomplete.

Nonetheless, the events of this week suggest that after the expected veto, Mr. Obama may eventually approve the pipeline, which would run from the oil sands of Alberta to the Gulf Coast. The project is anathema to the environmentalists who are part of the president’s political base.

Obama, who isn’t running again, is expected to choose his extremist base over a member of his party trying desperately to hold her seat. And that environmentalist base has not become any more moderate or levelheaded over the course of this administration; the liberal interest group MoveOn.org sent an email today about the Keystone vote with subject line: “Game over for our planet?”

The Times report also notes that in early 2015 there will be more Republicans in the Senate and thus fewer lawmakers held hostage to a fringe element of the liberal base. In such a case, an Obama veto now (if this bill passes) will invite yet another Keystone bill sent to his desk next year, and this one will be closer to having enough votes to even override his veto. If he’s going to deal with that kind of repeated showdown, the Times reports, he may want a trade.

And maybe he’ll get one. Or maybe he’ll have no leverage. Either way, it won’t do much for Landrieu in 2015. Not that the president cares much one way or the other.

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What Should Republicans Do to Stop This Aggressively Unconstitutional President?

It’s hard to overstate how irresponsible President Obama would be to go forward, as he almost surely will, with his sweeping executive order on amnesty. Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written a fine column on why doing so would be, in his words, a “disgrace.” What the president is on the verge of doing would do tremendous, long-term damage to our political culture and our constitutional order. It would set a dangerous precedent. And it would be an act of extraordinary selfishness.

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It’s hard to overstate how irresponsible President Obama would be to go forward, as he almost surely will, with his sweeping executive order on amnesty. Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written a fine column on why doing so would be, in his words, a “disgrace.” What the president is on the verge of doing would do tremendous, long-term damage to our political culture and our constitutional order. It would set a dangerous precedent. And it would be an act of extraordinary selfishness.

By now none of this should  surprise us. Yet on some level it’s hard to believe an American president would do something that is, as a friend of mine puts it, “constitutionally unconscionable”–and so at odds with what Obama himself has said repeatedly. Yet we are where we are, and Republicans need to prepare to respond to the president’s provocations.

What to do?

Some of the same people who embraced the stratagem that led to the government shutdown in 2013–they thought it would be a marvelous, can’t-miss, the-nation-will-rally-to-our-side idea–are eager to do the same thing again. The problem, of course, is that the government shutdown was a failure, for reasons I sketched out here. It didn’t achieve its purpose (repealing the Affordable Care Act), the public hated the shutdown, and by an overwhelming number Americans blamed Republicans for it. We know as an empirical fact that the GOP badly hurt its reputation with the public, and it took time to repair it. It doesn’t help that the same people who were so sure of the Ted Cruz-led gambit now refuse to admit it turned out much different, and much worse, they they said it would. In fact, some of them are even claiming it worked, which is simply silly.

That said, I’m not in principle opposed to creating a series of showdowns over funding the government to try to force the president to back down on his expected plan to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants (just as I wasn’t opposed to it as a means to defund the Affordable Care Act). The issue for me is one of efficacy and prudence. Will it work–or will it backfire? Will it help strengthen the conservative cause or set it back? Will Mr. Obama be forced to back down, or will he emerge stronger and Republicans weaker?

The issue has nothing to do with how much one opposes ObamaCare or is troubled by the president’s unconstitutional actions related to illegal immigrants. The most vocal advocates for government shutdowns often frame this as if they’re strongly opposed to the president’s agenda whereas those who are wary of the shutdown are not. That’s simply not the case. The difference has to do with tactics, not with the end goals. (Representative Paul Ryan thought the steps Republicans took that eventually led to the shutdown were unwise, and he’s done far more than almost anyone you can name to undo ObamaCare and advance a conservative governing agenda.) The mistake is to assume that simply because you support a particular approach the rest of America will, too; that because you think the nation should see things just as you do means it will.

Because I believe that what the president is about to do is egregious–constitutionally and institutionally, as an aggressive attack on the role of Congress and the separation of powers–I’m open to all sorts of recourses. Certainly Republicans in Congress need to respond in some manner. Those advocating a government shutdown aren’t being moronic or irresponsible; they want to protect our constitutional form of government. But neither are those who are warning against a shutdown being weak, impotent, or cowardly. It’s a matter on which intelligent people can disagree.

If you believe as I do that a government shutdown would in the end hurt more than help the conservative cause–that it simply won’t achieve its aim and it will cause collateral damage in the process–the obvious thing to do is to shift the fight onto terrain that is more favorable to the GOP. Republicans should therefore amass all the actions at their disposal to inflict maximum damage on Mr. Obama while not walking into his government shutdown trap. I wonder, for example, whether Republicans might simply refuse to act on the president’s judicial and Cabinet nominees unless and until he undoes his (forthcoming) executive action. Can similar steps be taken on a range of other issues? Can Republicans basically hit the “off” switch when it comes to the normal procedures and cooperation that takes place between a president and Congress, regardless of which party is in control?

It does strike me that we are facing an exceptional situation; that the president is inviting this needless confrontation and that he needs to pay quite a high price for it. It won’t be as high as many of us wish, but we have to adjust around that fact. The challenge for conservatives is to act in ways that are wise and realistic; that are guided not by fury but by clear thinking; and that ultimately persuade people to our point of view. We need calm, sober, intelligent, and enlightened individuals who can advance the arguments for constitutionalism and the rule of law. Because right now we have a president who is subverting both.

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Immigration, the Media, and Fictitious Conservative Heartlessness

President Obama’s threat to order an executive amnesty has touched off several simultaneous debates about the plan to legalize millions of illegal immigrants with the stroke of a pen. Left and right are arguing over: the premise of the plan that something must be done; the legality/constitutionality of the move; whether the actual policy aim would be attractive if done through Congress; whether the move would torpedo–again–comprehensive immigration reform; the resulting effect of the plan on future immigration; and other issues. And while the media have dumbed down this debate, no one has done so more plainly and in the service of self-aggrandizement than CNN’s Brian Stelter.

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President Obama’s threat to order an executive amnesty has touched off several simultaneous debates about the plan to legalize millions of illegal immigrants with the stroke of a pen. Left and right are arguing over: the premise of the plan that something must be done; the legality/constitutionality of the move; whether the actual policy aim would be attractive if done through Congress; whether the move would torpedo–again–comprehensive immigration reform; the resulting effect of the plan on future immigration; and other issues. And while the media have dumbed down this debate, no one has done so more plainly and in the service of self-aggrandizement than CNN’s Brian Stelter.

Stelter, the former New York Times media writer, hosts the Sunday morning show Reliable Sources, which examines the media coverage of major issues. Yet rather than offering some much-needed criticism, Stelter’s show has an unfortunate tendency to further elevate the media’s sense of self-importance. A case in point was yesterday’s “Red News/Blue News” segment on immigration.

The point of the regular segment is ostensibly to show how conservative and liberal outlets are covering a story, often talking right past each other. But yesterday Stelter took the opportunity to declare that the media weren’t reflecting the debate on the right and on the left; they were, instead, setting the terms of the debate for the brainwashed masses.

After playing a clip of Fox host Megyn Kelly interviewing GOP Senator Jeff Sessions about the executive amnesty and before putting up a clip of Charles Krauthammer using a form of “the I word,” as Stelter calls it–impeachment–Stelter says this:

Notice what the banner on the screen said. It said, “Plan May Let Millions of Illegals Stay,” illegals.

And when “The New York Times” confirmed FOX’s scoop in advance on Thursday, “The Times” headline said, plans may allow millions of immigrants to stay and work, immigrants.

See, it’s not really the numbers that are in dispute here. It’s not the facts or the figures. It’s the language, it’s the narrative. By Thursday, the FOX narrative was about lawlessness, President Obama acting unlawfully.

Stelter apparently wasn’t even listening to clip he played, because what he said is just plain wrong. But first, here’s how the “blue news” played it. “What you will almost never hear on FOX, though, what you’re unlikely to see on red state is the blue news narrative,” Stelter says. “That’s a very different one. That narrative is about families being wrecked by deportations and about a president standing up for what’s right and delivering on a campaign promise.”

Stelter then played a couple clips from liberal outlets, which included this exchange from MSNBC:

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are American families that are being torn apart by a policy that doesn’t work.

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: So why can’t a story like that move conservatives?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don’t understand how anyone couldn’t see the pro-family aspects of what we’re talking about here.

At that point, Stelter sought to wrap up the segment by imparting the following piece of wisdom to his viewers:

And I will try to answer that question for you. It’s because red news and blue news are talking about two separate things.

In this case, MSNBC is talking about what they would say is morality, while FOX is talking about what they would say is legality. Morality and legality.

There are two reactions to this. The first is that Stelter apparently believes that conservatives don’t see the liberal side of this issue because they watch Fox News, and vice versa. The idea that Fox brainwashes its viewers rather than reflecting the debate they’re having amongst themselves but can’t find on the other mainstream media channels is certainly a popular idea among leftists who want to discredit both Fox and the conservative movement.

Though most intelligent people know it’s just a caricature, the left’s extreme partisans don’t know or don’t care. For Stelter to trade in this tells you that media critics, like the supposedly nonpartisan “fact checker” columnists in newspapers, are simply joining the debate on one side, not enlightening their audience with honest assessments. And in defense of liberal viewers, the same can be said of Stelter’s judgment of “blue news.” I can assure Stelter that MSNBC and its nine viewers are not setting the agenda of American liberalism.

The second response to Stelter’s segment is to note that even the Fox programs that his staff researchers watch for his show prep don’t say what Stelter says they say. Here is the text of the brief clip Stelter played of Sessions’s response to Kelly:

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: And every one of these individuals are going to be given a photo I.D., a Social Security number, and the right to take a job in America, jobs that too few exist and too many Americans are looking for. It’s just the wrong policy and it will incentivize more illegality in the future.

So is it true that, as Stelter says, “it’s not really the numbers that are in dispute here. It’s not the facts or the figures”? Certainly not. Sessions is talking about the impact on employment and the number of jobs available as well as the warning that the practical effect of the executive amnesty will be far larger in number because it will incentivize further illegal immigration. And although Stelter would like to portray the right (with a nod to the MSNBC hosts he excerpts) as cold and impervious to the human factor, the opposite is the case. It’s just that Sessions is talking about the human cost to current citizens and future immigrants.

And it’s not as though the right doesn’t have an ongoing debate about the degree of compassion due illegal immigrants. We talk about that here at COMMENTARY quite often, but that aspect of the debate has been elevated for a couple of years now since both Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich used their 2012 presidential candidacies as a platform to advocate for keeping immigrant families together even if they came here illegally.

Maybe Stelter just watched a few minutes of Fox and didn’t see such an argument advanced. But that’s no excuse to play liberal talking heads leveling that accusation and then pretty much endorsing it (“I will try to answer that question for you”) instead of challenging it, all so conservatives could fit into the neat box that allows Stelter to condemn the supposed insularity of his cable competitors.

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What to Do About ISIS

It is easy to call ISIS’s beheading of poor Peter Kassig–a former U.S. Army Ranger turned humanitarian aid worker in Syria–an act of “pure evil,” as President Obama has done. It is considerably harder to know how to oppose such evil effectively. And that is where the president has so far fallen short. To take only one example, the U.S. air campaign against ISIS is ten times smaller than the one against the Taliban in the fall of 2001. And the total number of troops authorized for the mission–now 3,000–is well short of what serious experts believe is necessary, with most realistic estimates falling in the range of 10,000 to 25,000.

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It is easy to call ISIS’s beheading of poor Peter Kassig–a former U.S. Army Ranger turned humanitarian aid worker in Syria–an act of “pure evil,” as President Obama has done. It is considerably harder to know how to oppose such evil effectively. And that is where the president has so far fallen short. To take only one example, the U.S. air campaign against ISIS is ten times smaller than the one against the Taliban in the fall of 2001. And the total number of troops authorized for the mission–now 3,000–is well short of what serious experts believe is necessary, with most realistic estimates falling in the range of 10,000 to 25,000.

In this just-released Council on Foreign Relations policy innovation memorandum, I outline my view of what a real strategy designed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS would look like. As you will see, I call for not only increasing the military effort but also doing more to train and mobilize Sunni tribes on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, while extending our fight to the Assad regime in order to convince Sunnis to join the anti-ISIS campaign.

I also argue for preparing now to build a postwar order in both Syria and Iraq, unpalatable as the thought of “nation building” might be for some. It is hard to over-stress the importance of the latter point, because only by sketching out a hopeful future will the U.S. convince Syrians and Iraqis to risk their lives to fight ISIS. Declaring a no-fly zone over all or part of Syria would be an important first step in this regard because it would allow the Free Syrian Army to train and a free Syrian government to organize.

Sadly there is little sign so far that President Obama is willing to mount such a serious effort. But it is just possible that continuing outrage over ISIS beheading Americans could force his hand.

And for those who think that ISIS is deliberately trying to lure U.S. troops into Iraq and Syria: At the moment the desultory U.S. campaign is playing into their hands by allowing them to tell their followers that they have stood up to the Great Satan. A more effective U.S.-led campaign would not be so welcome to ISIS if it resulted in its dismemberment and defeat as previously happened to its forerunner, al-Qaeda in Iraq.

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Stephen Harper’s Moral Clarity

At a time when there is all too little bold and principled leadership among Western leaders–when memories of Reagan and Thatcher, to say nothing of Roosevelt and Churchill, grow increasingly distant–Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, stands out.

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At a time when there is all too little bold and principled leadership among Western leaders–when memories of Reagan and Thatcher, to say nothing of Roosevelt and Churchill, grow increasingly distant–Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, stands out.

He has already become well known for his full-throated, principled defense of Israel. For example this summer, when most Western leaders were condemning both Hamas and Israel as if a liberal democracy were equally culpable for a war started by a terrorist state, Harper spoke out forcefully and rightly: “The indiscriminate rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel are terrorist acts, for which there is no justification. It is evident that Hamas is deliberately using human shields to further terror in the region… Failure by the international community to condemn these reprehensible actions would encourage these terrorists to continue their appalling actions.”

And this weekend Harper was equally blunt–and equally right–in admonishing Vladimir Putin at the G20 meeting in Australia. He told Putin: “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.” This caused Putin to bluster, “That’s impossible because we are not there,” as if Russian tanks, soldiers, and artillery had not crossed en masse into Ukrainian territory.

It is easy to say that Harper’s comments are inconsequential because Canada doesn’t matter much on the world stage. And it’s true that such strong words would carry more weight if coming from Barack Obama. But that is impossible to imagine because President Obama has never once spoken with the kind of moral clarity that Harper exhibits on a regular basis.

What makes his language especially bracing–and politically brave–is that Canada has been far more liberal and less hawkish in its international politics than the United States. It is not the kind of place where you score points for defending Israel or offending the president of Russia. But whatever they may think of the specifics of his comments, Canadian voters clearly appreciate that Harper calls it like he sees it. That helps to explain why he is already in his third term in office.

It’s truly a shame that more leaders do not share Harper’s outlook or his willingness to express his views in plain language. Because of this deficit of leadership, criminals like Putin can show up at international meetings and be treated as respected statesmen instead of the rogues that they actually are. Quite aside from any concrete sanctions that Russia should suffer for its aggression, simply calling out Putin and exiling him from polite society would increase the cost to him of his actions since he transparently wants to be taken seriously and treated respectfully on the international stage. Putin would not be getting away with as much as he gets away with if there were more Stephen Harpers not just in Ottawa but in Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin.

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A Lawless Presidency Will Destroy Itself

There is no longer any doubt that perhaps within a matter of days, the president will issue executive orders that grant amnesty to up to 5 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States. While the administration is hoping the discussion that ensues will still be about the merits of immigration reform, they should understand that the president’s decision to use his executive authority to treat law enforcement as a function of his personal whim is bound to change the debate to one about an assault on constitutional principles. This means that rather than debating what can be done to stop him in the short term (the correct answer is not much), observers should be pondering the long-term effects of this move on both the future of immigration reform and the fortunes of our two political parties. The answers to both of these questions may not bring much comfort to the president and his supporters.

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There is no longer any doubt that perhaps within a matter of days, the president will issue executive orders that grant amnesty to up to 5 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States. While the administration is hoping the discussion that ensues will still be about the merits of immigration reform, they should understand that the president’s decision to use his executive authority to treat law enforcement as a function of his personal whim is bound to change the debate to one about an assault on constitutional principles. This means that rather than debating what can be done to stop him in the short term (the correct answer is not much), observers should be pondering the long-term effects of this move on both the future of immigration reform and the fortunes of our two political parties. The answers to both of these questions may not bring much comfort to the president and his supporters.

The GOP-controlled Congress doesn’t appear to have legislative options that won’t involve funding measures that can be portrayed as a new government shutdown. Though it would take presidential vetoes to kick off such a confrontation, with the help of a still docile mainstream media (see Grubergate), Republican leaders understand that this is a political trap they need to avoid. However, what Democrats who assume the mass amnesty will transform the political landscape in their favor and doom Republicans to perpetual defeat are ignoring is that the executive orders will change the terms of the debate about this issue. Though there may be no way of rescinding these orders while Obama remains in office, the real political trap may be the one that the president’s arrogant assumption of unprecedented personal power may be setting for his party.

As for the justification for this action, the notion that the president must act because Congress has not done so is utterly unconvincing even for those who support the cause of immigration reform.

The presence of an estimated 11 million illegals within our borders is a problem that must eventually be dealt with in a sensible manner. Mass deportations are neither feasible nor desirable, especially with those targeted by the president’s orders that may have children or other family members who are either citizens or legal residents. It is also true that many Republicans that supported the bipartisan immigration compromise that passed the Senate last year signed on to a process that would have given illegals a path, albeit a difficult one, to citizenship.

However, the need to address the problem doesn’t justify the president’s stand.

A measure that is imposed outside of the law that is not directly tied to border security and a reform of a broken immigration system does not solve the problem. If anything, as we saw last summer, such measures only encourage more illegal immigration. That surge of illegals proved that critics of the bipartisan bill were right and those of us (including me) who supported it were wrong. The border must be secured first and then and only then will it be possible to start sorting out those who are still here without permission. That was the approach favored by many in the House of Representatives last year and a new attempt at a fix to the problem should start there rather than trying to resurrect the Senate bill as the president demands.

That is why the administration’s narrative about the executive orders is simply false. Far from the president stepping in to provide a solution where Congress failed, what he is doing is making the problem worse, not better.

Far worse is the manner in which he is doing it.

It is, strictly speaking, within the president’s lawful authority to direct agencies operating under him to exercise prosecutorial discretion. But to do so on a mass scale isn’t merely unprecedented. It breaks new ground in the expansion of executive authority. As much as the president thinks the current law is inadequate to deal with the problem of illegal immigration, it is not up to him to unilaterally legislate a new solution. Only Congress may re-write the laws of the land. The idea of a president acting unilaterally to invalidate existing statutes in such a way as to change the status of millions of persons, however sympathetic we may be to their plight, places Obama outside the law and blaming Congress for inaction does not absolve him.

Nor can it be justified as falling within the executive’s right to act in a crisis.

There are circumstances when, usually in wartime, a crisis looms and broad presidential discretion is unavoidable. But as much as advocates for the illegals may trumpet their plight, this is not a ticking bomb that requires the normal constitutional order to be set aside. If majorities in both the House and the Senate could not be found to support a measure the president deemed important, he had the normal recourse of going to the people and asking them to elect a Congress that will do so. Unfortunately for those who claim that the president has no choice but to bypass Congress, we have just undergone such an election and the people’s answer was a resounding rebuff to the White House. The president may think it is in his interest to pretend as if the midterms should not determine his behavior in his final two years in office but it was he who said his policies were on the ballot. While there was an argument prior to November 4 that claimed that it was the GOP-controlled House that was thwarting public opinion on immigration, that claim disappeared in the Republican sweep.

That brings us to the long-term political consequences of this act.

While much has been made of the impact of amnesty on the Hispanic vote, with these orders the president is digging Democrats a hole that they will have difficulty climbing out of in the next two years.

Hispanics may be grateful for the temporary end of the deportations but it will not escape their notice that in doing so the president has ended any chance of immigration reform for the rest of his term. Nor will they be unaware that a GOP successor will invalidate amnesty with a stroke of the pen as easily as the president has enacted them. Republicans will rightly understand that there is no dealing with an administration that would rather go outside the law than first negotiate in good faith with a newly elected Congress on immigration. Nor can they be blamed for thinking any deal based on promises on border enforcement will be worthless with a president who thinks he has the right to simply order non-enforcement of the laws he doesn’t like.

Even more to the point, the orders will create a backlash among the rest of the electorate that always results when presidents begin to run afoul of both the law and public opinion. A lawless presidency is something that is, by definition, dysfunctional, and that is a term that has already defined Obama’s second term up until this point. Democrats who are counting on wild applause from their base should understand that just as Republicans learned that domination by their Tea Party wing undermines their electoral viability, they too should be wary of governing from the left.

The spectacle of mass amnesty without benefit of law will shock ordinary voters, including many who are Democrats or who think the immigration system should have been fixed. After the orders, responsibility for the failure to do so will rest on Obama, not the Republicans. What the president may be doing with these orders is to remind the voters that parties that grow too comfortable with exercising authority without benefit of law must be taught a lesson, one that will be paid for by his would-be Democratic successor in 2016. Rather than building his legacy, the president may actually be ensuring that his time in office is remembered more for his lack of respect for the rule of law than any actual accomplishments.

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Obama Is Now Lying About His Lies

This is getting pathological. According to this story in Politico, President Obama, when asked whether he had intentionally misled the public in order to get the law passed, he replied: “No. I did not.” He actually did, repeatedly. Here’s just one example–on the president’s pledge that “If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan, period”–that comes to us courtesy of Glenn Kessler, who works for that well-known right-wing outlet the Washington Post.

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This is getting pathological. According to this story in Politico, President Obama, when asked whether he had intentionally misled the public in order to get the law passed, he replied: “No. I did not.” He actually did, repeatedly. Here’s just one example–on the president’s pledge that “If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan, period”–that comes to us courtesy of Glenn Kessler, who works for that well-known right-wing outlet the Washington Post.

Mr. Obama added this: “I would just advise every press outlet here: Pull up every clip and every story. I think it’s fair to say there was not a provision in the health care law that was not extensively debated and was fully transparent. It was a tough debate.”

Mr. Obama is confusing some things. The issue isn’t whether there was an extensive and tough debate. There was. The issue is whether the president and his White House, during that debate, intentionally misled us. He and they did, all the time, on all sorts of matters related to the ACA. The conservative criticisms of the president were entirely on the mark. They were the truth-tellers; the president was not.

No American can take joy in saying this, but the evidence clearly warrants it: We have a president who is lying about his lies. It’s not good for him, for the office of the presidency, or for our political culture. He might try telling the truth. At this point it won’t salvage his presidency, but it might begin to repair some of the extraordinary damage to his credibility.

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Will Obama Abandon Israel at the UN? Abbas Wants to Find Out

If you want an indication of how Middle East governments are adjusting their calculus according to the Obama administration’s decision to loudly distance itself from Israel, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s deliberations over his UN strategy is a good place to start. Abbas is planning to ask for a vote requiring Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines at the United Nations Security Council. But he’s unsure about the timing, and President Obama’s flagging support for Israel is one reason why.

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If you want an indication of how Middle East governments are adjusting their calculus according to the Obama administration’s decision to loudly distance itself from Israel, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s deliberations over his UN strategy is a good place to start. Abbas is planning to ask for a vote requiring Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines at the United Nations Security Council. But he’s unsure about the timing, and President Obama’s flagging support for Israel is one reason why.

As Raphael Ahren discusses today at the Times of Israel, the current makeup of the Security Council’s rotating members–the supporting cast to the five permanent members–is not as amenable to Palestinian demands as next year’s roster will be. But then there’s the Obama factor. It would seem prudent for Abbas to wait, since he needs nine votes out of fifteen. But he also knows that if he gets those nine votes, the measure will be subject to the veto power of the permanent members of the council. That really means the United States, in this context. And the Palestinians think this might be their best window to get the U.S. to abandon Israel at the UNSC:

Relations between the White House and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are famously strained, and Barack Obama, now entering the last stretch of his presidency and no longer tied to electoral considerations, could decide to turn his back on Jerusalem.

The US might be reluctant to isolate itself internationally by stymieing a move supported by a large majority of states in the United Nations, including the entire Arab world, especially as Washington seeks allies in its fight against the Islamic State terrorist group.

Despite this being a low ebb in recent years in the U.S.-Israel relationship, I highly doubt Obama will consider sitting on his hands for such a vote at the Security Council, for several reasons. First, though he obviously doesn’t think much of the Israelis, it’s not clear his opinion of the Jewish state has sunk so low as to officially have the U.S. abandon Israel at the UN in favor of the Palestinians.

Second, even if his dislike of Israel has sunk to that level, he probably would still veto the resolution. Obama has indisputably downgraded the U.S.-Israel relationship, most clearly by changing protocol so as to put distance between the two militaries during the last war and by withholding weapons transfers to Israel during wartime. He’s also encouraged a bizarre series of name-calling outbursts aimed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, which have displayed this administration’s trademark grade-school intellect and overwhelming ignorance of world affairs. But the president tends to take out his anger on Israel in ways that he can always pretend are really just personal spats with Netanyahu.

Obama’s position is that he doesn’t mind being seen as hating Bibi, as long as he can retain plausible deniability that he also dislikes the Israelis who keep electing Bibi. Thus, blessing the Palestinian UN gambit would take away that plausible deniability. Keep in mind stopping the weapons transfer was not something the administration intended to make a public show of; it’s just that while the other mainstream outlets have become Obama’s press shop, the Wall Street Journal is still doing real journalism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they revealed the breach. Abandoning Israel at the UN Security Council would be a very public acknowledgement that Obama’s obsession with picking fights with Netanyahu is not really about Netanyahu at all.

A third reason Obama would still veto such a resolution is that there are domestic political constraints on his behavior toward Israel. (You’re probably thinking: This is Obama being constrained? Indeed, it’s not a pretty sight.) The Democratic Party has lost the battle to try to convince Americans that Obama is with them on Israel. But they would like not to be saddled with Obama’s reputation. They want to nominate Hillary Clinton, who does not have a great record on Israel but anything’s better than what she’d be replacing. The more Obama attacks Israel needlessly, the more complicated the Democrats’ sales job becomes.

That seems to factor into Abbas’s calculations:

After the midterm elections and the Republican takeover of the Senate earlier this month, Obama is unlikely to get much work done domestically and may want to focus on foreign policy issues that could shape his legacy. Besides a nuclear agreement with Iran, the White House might also want to promote Middle East peace and pressure Israel through a pro-Palestinian resolution at the UN.

The sooner Obama does that the more distance Democrats can try to put between his abandonment of Israel and their reputation rehabilitation efforts. Still, Obama must know that if he allows the vote to go through (if it passes), he will be effectively ceding the peace process entirely to unilateral actions. The United States will become at that moment totally irrelevant to how the process proceeds.

It will either finally kill the peace process once and for all, in which case that would be Obama’s legacy, or it will lead to Israelis and Palestinians abandoning the process and going their own way without mediation, in which case Obama would get no credit for any positive results. Obama may like kicking dirt at Israel, but he probably still likes the spotlight even more.

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