Commentary Magazine


Topic: czar

Get Your GM Stock!

Get out your checkbook — GM’s IPO is just around the corner. This report explains:

The Treasury is seeking to sell roughly $6 billion to $8 billion of its GM stock through the IPO, with other sellers taking the entire deal to a total of roughly $10 billion to $12 billion.

The government paid $40 billion for its stake, and risks political fallout if the share price sinks due to releasing too many shares at once on the market. That could send a signal the Obama administration won’t recoup its investment.

Yes, contrary to the administration’s spin, there is a strong likelihood of the shareholders not even coming close to getting their money back. In the short term, the numbers could look particularly grim:

Linda Killian, a principal of Renaissance Capital LLC in Greenwich, Conn., which specializes in IPO research, estimates GM’s valuation at $50 billion to $70 billion, yet added that the chances of the government breaking even are “low.”

Because the IPO should take place at a discount to the market price, the government is likely to show a big loss in realized proceeds on its sales on IPO day. If the IPO is priced at the $50 billion level, that would equate to a U.S. loss of approximately 38% on the first batch of shares it sells.

But not to worry; the former car czar, Steve Rattner (who’s about to enter a settlement regarding a kickback arrangement with the New York State pension fund and “accept a multi-year ban from the securities industry and pay a fine of more than $5 million”), says that our losses will only be in the “single-digit” billions. I’ll hang on to that rosy scenario.

The real problem is that GM is not all that attractive so long as it remains a subsidiary of Obama, Inc.

“Would I jump at the GM deal? Probably not,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer of Harris Private Bank in Chicago. He said the “overhang of government ownership” results in a “management straitjacket” that could require GM executives to “get permission every time they want to extend a bonus to somebody.”

Robert Pavlik, a senior partner at investment advisers Banyan Partners LLC in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., said he “wouldn’t put my clients’ money into it” because GM still carries the “stigma” of both bankruptcy and government ownership as well as recent top-management turnover.

“What’s going to drive their sales? The Chevrolet Volt? I think that’s going to turn out to be more of a publicity stunt than anything else,” Mr. Pavlik said.

This raises at least two troubling issues. First, the UAW is also going to get some of its (that is, its members’) money back in the IPO. It has a 17.5 percent stake in the company. So where is that money going — directly into the pension plan, or is the union taking some off the top? You know, for political contributions, union bosses’ salaries, and the upkeep of its swank golf course.

But the bigger issue is this: by stepping into the car business, the government is now in the position of hawking GM stock, singing the praises of the GM Volt, and persuading investors to put their money in this company as opposed to other businesses. There is something unseemly in all that. The administration finds itself in a classic case of conflict of interest. On the one hand, it is the federal regulator/pension guarantor/SEC monitor, and on the other, it is running the GM “road show” to sell, sell, sell GM. It is the natural and inevitable result of a move that should have never been made — namely, the injection of the U.S. government into the car industry.

All of that, plus the potential for billions in losses, should remind us why the Obama car bailout is a lemon.

Get out your checkbook — GM’s IPO is just around the corner. This report explains:

The Treasury is seeking to sell roughly $6 billion to $8 billion of its GM stock through the IPO, with other sellers taking the entire deal to a total of roughly $10 billion to $12 billion.

The government paid $40 billion for its stake, and risks political fallout if the share price sinks due to releasing too many shares at once on the market. That could send a signal the Obama administration won’t recoup its investment.

Yes, contrary to the administration’s spin, there is a strong likelihood of the shareholders not even coming close to getting their money back. In the short term, the numbers could look particularly grim:

Linda Killian, a principal of Renaissance Capital LLC in Greenwich, Conn., which specializes in IPO research, estimates GM’s valuation at $50 billion to $70 billion, yet added that the chances of the government breaking even are “low.”

Because the IPO should take place at a discount to the market price, the government is likely to show a big loss in realized proceeds on its sales on IPO day. If the IPO is priced at the $50 billion level, that would equate to a U.S. loss of approximately 38% on the first batch of shares it sells.

But not to worry; the former car czar, Steve Rattner (who’s about to enter a settlement regarding a kickback arrangement with the New York State pension fund and “accept a multi-year ban from the securities industry and pay a fine of more than $5 million”), says that our losses will only be in the “single-digit” billions. I’ll hang on to that rosy scenario.

The real problem is that GM is not all that attractive so long as it remains a subsidiary of Obama, Inc.

“Would I jump at the GM deal? Probably not,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer of Harris Private Bank in Chicago. He said the “overhang of government ownership” results in a “management straitjacket” that could require GM executives to “get permission every time they want to extend a bonus to somebody.”

Robert Pavlik, a senior partner at investment advisers Banyan Partners LLC in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., said he “wouldn’t put my clients’ money into it” because GM still carries the “stigma” of both bankruptcy and government ownership as well as recent top-management turnover.

“What’s going to drive their sales? The Chevrolet Volt? I think that’s going to turn out to be more of a publicity stunt than anything else,” Mr. Pavlik said.

This raises at least two troubling issues. First, the UAW is also going to get some of its (that is, its members’) money back in the IPO. It has a 17.5 percent stake in the company. So where is that money going — directly into the pension plan, or is the union taking some off the top? You know, for political contributions, union bosses’ salaries, and the upkeep of its swank golf course.

But the bigger issue is this: by stepping into the car business, the government is now in the position of hawking GM stock, singing the praises of the GM Volt, and persuading investors to put their money in this company as opposed to other businesses. There is something unseemly in all that. The administration finds itself in a classic case of conflict of interest. On the one hand, it is the federal regulator/pension guarantor/SEC monitor, and on the other, it is running the GM “road show” to sell, sell, sell GM. It is the natural and inevitable result of a move that should have never been made — namely, the injection of the U.S. government into the car industry.

All of that, plus the potential for billions in losses, should remind us why the Obama car bailout is a lemon.

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Enough with the Czars

These days, Obama is politically toxic and stymied at every turn. His stimulus plan has been rebuffed by a large segment of his party. He’s not going to get any further pieces of major legislation through, and the Senate has had it with his extreme, wacky nominees. So once again, he placates his base and does an end-around the Senate confirmation process:

President Obama plans to tap Harvard law Professor Elizabeth Warren to a special advisory role so she can help stand up a new consumer financial protection bureau while avoiding a potentially vicious Senate confirmation fight, according to a senior administration official with knowledge of the decision.

The appointment would place Warren in charge of the new watchdog agency she personally proposed three years ago to protect Americans against lending abuses.

Yes, it is brazen and outrageous — another unaccountable czar. The “vicious fight,” by the way, is code for “She is such an extremist, she couldn’t be confirmed.” The reaction is likely to be fierce:

In selecting Ms. Warren, the White House picks an outspoken, populist hero of liberal groups who emerged from the financial crisis as a top critic of Wall Street and banking industry practices. She has blasted the government’s response to the financial crisis and has a penchant for provocative statements. …

Senate Republicans will likely blast the White House’s move, seeing it is a backdoor way of putting Ms. Warren in charge of the agency. The head of the new agency “is unprecedented in the nature of its unfettered and unchecked authorities, which makes the confirmation process even more important to the interests of the American people,” Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) wrote in a letter to Mr. Obama Wednesday, before news broke of her likely appointment.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.) earlier this week said it would be a mistake for the White House to put her in an interim role without having her nominated for Senate scrutiny.

There is a solution to this, of course: it’s time for the Congress to reassert its legitimate role. How to do it? First, stop funding any agency or entity (start with the consumer protection agency, which should be defunded anyway) for which the Obami appoint a czar in lieu of a nominee subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. The power of the purse is Congress’s biggest stick, and it should start wielding it. And second, there are some positions — including those Cabinet ones likely to be vacated after the midterm election — that must be subject to confirmation. Put a halt to those unless and until the White House cuts this out and offloads some of the existing czars.

Extreme? Not really. What is extreme is an administration that treats its co-equal branches with such contempt. Congress has an institutional interest and responsibility to put an end to it.

These days, Obama is politically toxic and stymied at every turn. His stimulus plan has been rebuffed by a large segment of his party. He’s not going to get any further pieces of major legislation through, and the Senate has had it with his extreme, wacky nominees. So once again, he placates his base and does an end-around the Senate confirmation process:

President Obama plans to tap Harvard law Professor Elizabeth Warren to a special advisory role so she can help stand up a new consumer financial protection bureau while avoiding a potentially vicious Senate confirmation fight, according to a senior administration official with knowledge of the decision.

The appointment would place Warren in charge of the new watchdog agency she personally proposed three years ago to protect Americans against lending abuses.

Yes, it is brazen and outrageous — another unaccountable czar. The “vicious fight,” by the way, is code for “She is such an extremist, she couldn’t be confirmed.” The reaction is likely to be fierce:

In selecting Ms. Warren, the White House picks an outspoken, populist hero of liberal groups who emerged from the financial crisis as a top critic of Wall Street and banking industry practices. She has blasted the government’s response to the financial crisis and has a penchant for provocative statements. …

Senate Republicans will likely blast the White House’s move, seeing it is a backdoor way of putting Ms. Warren in charge of the agency. The head of the new agency “is unprecedented in the nature of its unfettered and unchecked authorities, which makes the confirmation process even more important to the interests of the American people,” Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) wrote in a letter to Mr. Obama Wednesday, before news broke of her likely appointment.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.) earlier this week said it would be a mistake for the White House to put her in an interim role without having her nominated for Senate scrutiny.

There is a solution to this, of course: it’s time for the Congress to reassert its legitimate role. How to do it? First, stop funding any agency or entity (start with the consumer protection agency, which should be defunded anyway) for which the Obami appoint a czar in lieu of a nominee subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. The power of the purse is Congress’s biggest stick, and it should start wielding it. And second, there are some positions — including those Cabinet ones likely to be vacated after the midterm election — that must be subject to confirmation. Put a halt to those unless and until the White House cuts this out and offloads some of the existing czars.

Extreme? Not really. What is extreme is an administration that treats its co-equal branches with such contempt. Congress has an institutional interest and responsibility to put an end to it.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

They need to get their stories straight. Raju Narisetti, the Washington Post managing editor, says that Dave Weigel was “vetted in the same way that other prospective Post journalists are screened.” But Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli says, “We don’t have the resources or ability to do Supreme Court justice-type investigations into people’s backgrounds. We will have to be more careful in the future.”

Obama needs to get his act together if we are going to win in Afghanistan. “Looming over America’s military and diplomatic efforts is the withdrawal timetable. It does not matter that the July 2011 date for the beginning of the draw-down is more nuanced than a complete ‘switching off the lights and closing the door behind us,’ as President Obama said on Thursday. The arbitrary date sends the message that America’s commitment is limited. Those in the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment who support the Afghan insurgents do so because they see them as a means to project power in Afghanistan. The timetable tells the Pakistanis that support for the Taliban and their ilk may be rewarded in the not distant future.”

What does Gen. David Petraeus need? Zalmay Khalilzad writes that “he will need to get our own house in order. An effective counterinsurgency strategy requires civil-military cooperation, coordination and integration. Petraeus should demand this and ought to have the lead in bringing it about. Given all that is at stake he must establish a one-mission, one-team spirit among various instruments of U.S. power. Those who do not cooperate should be replaced, and quickly.”

Obama needs to stop treating Britain like Israel. (He, of course, also needs to stop treating Israel like a skunk at his “international community” garden party.) “Obama’s face time with [David]Cameron does present him with an opportunity to personally put U.S. relations with Britain on a new footing. The president didn’t have a particularly warm relationship with [Gordon] Brown, Cameron’s dour predecessor. It got off to a rocky start – Obama did not hold a joint press conference during Brown’s first White House visit and it was widely noted that the gifts Obama presented to the prime minister were generic. The British press concluded that Brown had been snubbed, and the perception stuck.”

Rory Reid needs a new last name: “Republican Brian Sandoval continues to hold a lead of more than 20 points over Democrat Rory Reid in Nevada’s race for governor. A new Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Voters in the state shows Sandoval with 55% support, while Reid earns 33% of the vote.”

Two law professors say the Senate should take their word on Elena Kagan not being a boffo judge and forget about asking all those pesky questions: “We believe that she will take seriously the obligation to make fair and impartial decisions based on the briefs and arguments presented in the cases before her. Senators should not ask her to articulate her positions on legal issues in advance of her deciding cases. If they ask, she should decline to do so. That action would demonstrate, more than any pledge, that she understands what it means to be a judge.”

Haven’t you been thinking that what we really need is a fish czar? “As concerns mount about the presence of Asian carp near Lake Michigan, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin today urged President Obama to appoint a carp czar to oversee efforts to keep the invasive species out of the Great Lakes.”

They need to get their stories straight. Raju Narisetti, the Washington Post managing editor, says that Dave Weigel was “vetted in the same way that other prospective Post journalists are screened.” But Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli says, “We don’t have the resources or ability to do Supreme Court justice-type investigations into people’s backgrounds. We will have to be more careful in the future.”

Obama needs to get his act together if we are going to win in Afghanistan. “Looming over America’s military and diplomatic efforts is the withdrawal timetable. It does not matter that the July 2011 date for the beginning of the draw-down is more nuanced than a complete ‘switching off the lights and closing the door behind us,’ as President Obama said on Thursday. The arbitrary date sends the message that America’s commitment is limited. Those in the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment who support the Afghan insurgents do so because they see them as a means to project power in Afghanistan. The timetable tells the Pakistanis that support for the Taliban and their ilk may be rewarded in the not distant future.”

What does Gen. David Petraeus need? Zalmay Khalilzad writes that “he will need to get our own house in order. An effective counterinsurgency strategy requires civil-military cooperation, coordination and integration. Petraeus should demand this and ought to have the lead in bringing it about. Given all that is at stake he must establish a one-mission, one-team spirit among various instruments of U.S. power. Those who do not cooperate should be replaced, and quickly.”

Obama needs to stop treating Britain like Israel. (He, of course, also needs to stop treating Israel like a skunk at his “international community” garden party.) “Obama’s face time with [David]Cameron does present him with an opportunity to personally put U.S. relations with Britain on a new footing. The president didn’t have a particularly warm relationship with [Gordon] Brown, Cameron’s dour predecessor. It got off to a rocky start – Obama did not hold a joint press conference during Brown’s first White House visit and it was widely noted that the gifts Obama presented to the prime minister were generic. The British press concluded that Brown had been snubbed, and the perception stuck.”

Rory Reid needs a new last name: “Republican Brian Sandoval continues to hold a lead of more than 20 points over Democrat Rory Reid in Nevada’s race for governor. A new Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Voters in the state shows Sandoval with 55% support, while Reid earns 33% of the vote.”

Two law professors say the Senate should take their word on Elena Kagan not being a boffo judge and forget about asking all those pesky questions: “We believe that she will take seriously the obligation to make fair and impartial decisions based on the briefs and arguments presented in the cases before her. Senators should not ask her to articulate her positions on legal issues in advance of her deciding cases. If they ask, she should decline to do so. That action would demonstrate, more than any pledge, that she understands what it means to be a judge.”

Haven’t you been thinking that what we really need is a fish czar? “As concerns mount about the presence of Asian carp near Lake Michigan, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin today urged President Obama to appoint a carp czar to oversee efforts to keep the invasive species out of the Great Lakes.”

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The Ideological-Purity Canard

At the conclusion of his column today, the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. insists:

But all this [races leading up to the 2010 mid-term elections] underscores the real difference between the two parties. The Democrats will remain an intricate coalition that struggles to hold together the left, the center and bits of the right. Republicans, as Arlen Specter could tell you, are the ones opting for ideological purity.

Of course it does. The Democratic Party — led by those three well-known spokesmen for political centrism,  Obama, Pelosi, and Reid — is an extraordinarily intricate coalition characterized by amazing ideological diversity. It is a party that has given us (for starters) nationalized health care; nationalized student loans; record-breaking spending, deficits, and debt; a huge new entitlement program; the federal government essentially owning the nations’ largest bank and largest automaker; a federal “pay czar”; cap-and-trade; higher taxes (with much higher ones on the way); obeisance to labor unions; subsidization of abortions; liberal Supreme Court justices; unparalleled polarization; and unprecedented partisanship. You know, that centrist Democratic Party, that intricate political coalition.

In every election in which Democrats get hammered or are about to get hammered, it seems, liberals like E.J. return to their one-trick pony. They attempt to label the GOP as the party of “ideological purity” and worse. The Democrats are open-minded, flexible, pragmatic, moderate, don’t you know. Republicans, on the other hand, are narrow, dogmatic, mean-spirited, inflexible, rigid. Or so this stale narrative goes.

The truth is that the GOP is riding a fairly remarkable political wave right now, and the polling data tell us why: Obama and the Democrats are seen as profligate, ideological, and out-of-control liberals who need to be stopped. And as I pointed out here, even life-long Democrats, having witnessed Obama and Obamaism up close and personal, are planning to vote Republican.

In the age of Obama, and with astonishing speed, the nation is becoming more conservative and more Republican. Liberals like E.J. Dionne can’t stand this fact and are increasingly unable to process it.

For those of us on the right, it will be a fun few months watching all this play itself out — and it will culminate, I suspect, in a perfectly delightful November. Who knew ideological purity would turn out to be so darn popular?

At the conclusion of his column today, the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. insists:

But all this [races leading up to the 2010 mid-term elections] underscores the real difference between the two parties. The Democrats will remain an intricate coalition that struggles to hold together the left, the center and bits of the right. Republicans, as Arlen Specter could tell you, are the ones opting for ideological purity.

Of course it does. The Democratic Party — led by those three well-known spokesmen for political centrism,  Obama, Pelosi, and Reid — is an extraordinarily intricate coalition characterized by amazing ideological diversity. It is a party that has given us (for starters) nationalized health care; nationalized student loans; record-breaking spending, deficits, and debt; a huge new entitlement program; the federal government essentially owning the nations’ largest bank and largest automaker; a federal “pay czar”; cap-and-trade; higher taxes (with much higher ones on the way); obeisance to labor unions; subsidization of abortions; liberal Supreme Court justices; unparalleled polarization; and unprecedented partisanship. You know, that centrist Democratic Party, that intricate political coalition.

In every election in which Democrats get hammered or are about to get hammered, it seems, liberals like E.J. return to their one-trick pony. They attempt to label the GOP as the party of “ideological purity” and worse. The Democrats are open-minded, flexible, pragmatic, moderate, don’t you know. Republicans, on the other hand, are narrow, dogmatic, mean-spirited, inflexible, rigid. Or so this stale narrative goes.

The truth is that the GOP is riding a fairly remarkable political wave right now, and the polling data tell us why: Obama and the Democrats are seen as profligate, ideological, and out-of-control liberals who need to be stopped. And as I pointed out here, even life-long Democrats, having witnessed Obama and Obamaism up close and personal, are planning to vote Republican.

In the age of Obama, and with astonishing speed, the nation is becoming more conservative and more Republican. Liberals like E.J. Dionne can’t stand this fact and are increasingly unable to process it.

For those of us on the right, it will be a fun few months watching all this play itself out — and it will culminate, I suspect, in a perfectly delightful November. Who knew ideological purity would turn out to be so darn popular?

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The Limits of Charm

Obama’s “charm offensive” to the American Jewish community is underway, but the reality of the administration’s approach to Israel can’t be thoroughly disguised. The AP reports:

The Obama administration is preparing to join an international advisory group that the United States generally has shunned due to fears it would adopt anti-Israeli and anti-Western positions, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

The officials told The Associated Press the administration plans to announce as early as this week that it will begin a formal relationship with the Alliance of Civilizations. … The Bush administration boycotted the group when it was founded in 2005 over because it feared the group would become a forum for bashing Israel and the United States. Those concerns were magnified a year later when the alliance released a report that officials in Washington said unfairly blamed Israel and the United States for many of the world’s problems.

But the Obama administration assures us that this is all in the past. The Obama team, in its unending quest to accommodate and cozy up to the Muslim World, is convinced that the group has reformed:

The officials said earlier fears about the “imbalances” in the group, which was set up by Spain and Turkey, had been dealt with after the United States expressed “serious concerns” about the 2006 report.

That report focused on the Middle East and identified Israel’s “disproportionate retaliatory actions in Gaza and Lebanon” as a main cause of Muslim-Western tension.

The officials said the administration had been assured by its current leader, former Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio, that it would take a “more positive” approach to its work.

Needless to say, Israel isn’t joining up. And if the group — like the Human Right Council, which the U.S. joined ostensibly to engage the Israel-bashers — continues its anti-Israel tirades, will the Obama team leave? No, I don’t think so either.

One wonders: when the administration reveals its “charm offensive” as mere window dressing on the same policy, why doesn’t American Jewish officialdom speak out? One savvy critic wrote earlier this year:

As a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party, whose fidelity financial and electoral all Dem administrations can and do take fully for granted, American Jewry is in a quandary right now. It’s mostly private, as its quandaries usually are when it comes to the sins of Dem presidents against American Jews and the Jewish State. As if failing to do their duty to the Party were akin to rising up in rebellion against kaiser or czar and inviting the unleashing of Cossack fury against them, the Jews who ought to have something to say about the ill wind blowing toward Israel from Mr. Obama’s office are passing their whispered worries from one to another: “Oy! What should we do? Oy! What should we say? Is it enough that X is saying something? Can we hide behind that? Do we have to say something, too? Oy!”

But American Jewish “leaders” are busy now — cooing over the Jewish Supreme Court nominee. All is well with the administration, we are told – they like us, they really like us! Let’s see what happens when the next anti-Israel missive emanates from one of the groups the Obama team insisted on joining.

Obama’s “charm offensive” to the American Jewish community is underway, but the reality of the administration’s approach to Israel can’t be thoroughly disguised. The AP reports:

The Obama administration is preparing to join an international advisory group that the United States generally has shunned due to fears it would adopt anti-Israeli and anti-Western positions, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

The officials told The Associated Press the administration plans to announce as early as this week that it will begin a formal relationship with the Alliance of Civilizations. … The Bush administration boycotted the group when it was founded in 2005 over because it feared the group would become a forum for bashing Israel and the United States. Those concerns were magnified a year later when the alliance released a report that officials in Washington said unfairly blamed Israel and the United States for many of the world’s problems.

But the Obama administration assures us that this is all in the past. The Obama team, in its unending quest to accommodate and cozy up to the Muslim World, is convinced that the group has reformed:

The officials said earlier fears about the “imbalances” in the group, which was set up by Spain and Turkey, had been dealt with after the United States expressed “serious concerns” about the 2006 report.

That report focused on the Middle East and identified Israel’s “disproportionate retaliatory actions in Gaza and Lebanon” as a main cause of Muslim-Western tension.

The officials said the administration had been assured by its current leader, former Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio, that it would take a “more positive” approach to its work.

Needless to say, Israel isn’t joining up. And if the group — like the Human Right Council, which the U.S. joined ostensibly to engage the Israel-bashers — continues its anti-Israel tirades, will the Obama team leave? No, I don’t think so either.

One wonders: when the administration reveals its “charm offensive” as mere window dressing on the same policy, why doesn’t American Jewish officialdom speak out? One savvy critic wrote earlier this year:

As a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party, whose fidelity financial and electoral all Dem administrations can and do take fully for granted, American Jewry is in a quandary right now. It’s mostly private, as its quandaries usually are when it comes to the sins of Dem presidents against American Jews and the Jewish State. As if failing to do their duty to the Party were akin to rising up in rebellion against kaiser or czar and inviting the unleashing of Cossack fury against them, the Jews who ought to have something to say about the ill wind blowing toward Israel from Mr. Obama’s office are passing their whispered worries from one to another: “Oy! What should we do? Oy! What should we say? Is it enough that X is saying something? Can we hide behind that? Do we have to say something, too? Oy!”

But American Jewish “leaders” are busy now — cooing over the Jewish Supreme Court nominee. All is well with the administration, we are told – they like us, they really like us! Let’s see what happens when the next anti-Israel missive emanates from one of the groups the Obama team insisted on joining.

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If the Czar Only Knew

Democrats are loath to say outright what a political disaster Obama has been for their party. So they have seized upon his right-hand man:

Democrats in Congress are holding White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel accountable for his part in the collapse of healthcare reform.The emerging consensus among critics in both chambers is that Emanuel’s lack of Senate experience slowed President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.

The share of the blame comes as cracks are beginning to show in Emanuel’s once-impregnable political armor. Last week he had to apologize after a report surfaced that he called liberal groups “retarded” in a private meeting.

He had to apologize because some liberal in that meeting ratted him out, counting on the political-correctness industry to storm into action. (Little did those liberals know that their arch-villainess of the Right would help them by calling for Emanuel’s firing.) The Democrats’ criticisms are admittedly contradictory. Liberals think Emanuel sold them out on the public option and health care, while Senate insiders think he blew it by playing to the Left. (“‘Their plan was to keep all the Democrats together and work like hell to get Snowe and Collins. The Senate doesn’t work that way. You need a radius of 10 to 12 from the other side if you’re going to have a shot.’”)

That’s not to say that Emanuel doesn’t deserve criticism. He is the chief of staff in an administration sinking below the waterline. He reportedly mucked around in the Afghan war-strategy process, prolonging it and causing the president to look irresolute and weak. He has been front and center in the “bully Israel” approach to the Middle East, which ranks up there with the most lame-brained ideas of this administration. And he has set a tone of crass partisanship, arrogance, and plain mean-spiritedness that has not served the administration well.

But let’s face it: the president is thrilled with him. If David Brooks has it right, it’s a lovefest over at the White House. Everyone is on the same page, and nary a word of internal dissention is heard. (“Yet the atmosphere in the White House appears surprisingly tranquil. Emanuel is serving as a lighting rod for the president but remains crisply confident in his role as chief of staff.”) But that bit of Obama insidery might not be all that helpful in the long run. It undermines the theory — and the hope of Democrats — that the extreme policy, the tone deafness, and the ham-handedness are not Obama’s doing or his fault. You see, there’s little room for Obama to maneuver, shift the blame to errant aides, and maintain his deity-like status if all of this left-wing policy and the political faux pas festival stem from Obama’s policy vision and reflect his political instincts. Oops. Maybe not the most helpful column, after all.

Let’s get real. An administration reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the president. He sets the tone and controls policy. If Democrats and the country at large are unhappy with the results, there is only one person responsible. And it’s not Rahm Emanuel.

Democrats are loath to say outright what a political disaster Obama has been for their party. So they have seized upon his right-hand man:

Democrats in Congress are holding White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel accountable for his part in the collapse of healthcare reform.The emerging consensus among critics in both chambers is that Emanuel’s lack of Senate experience slowed President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.

The share of the blame comes as cracks are beginning to show in Emanuel’s once-impregnable political armor. Last week he had to apologize after a report surfaced that he called liberal groups “retarded” in a private meeting.

He had to apologize because some liberal in that meeting ratted him out, counting on the political-correctness industry to storm into action. (Little did those liberals know that their arch-villainess of the Right would help them by calling for Emanuel’s firing.) The Democrats’ criticisms are admittedly contradictory. Liberals think Emanuel sold them out on the public option and health care, while Senate insiders think he blew it by playing to the Left. (“‘Their plan was to keep all the Democrats together and work like hell to get Snowe and Collins. The Senate doesn’t work that way. You need a radius of 10 to 12 from the other side if you’re going to have a shot.’”)

That’s not to say that Emanuel doesn’t deserve criticism. He is the chief of staff in an administration sinking below the waterline. He reportedly mucked around in the Afghan war-strategy process, prolonging it and causing the president to look irresolute and weak. He has been front and center in the “bully Israel” approach to the Middle East, which ranks up there with the most lame-brained ideas of this administration. And he has set a tone of crass partisanship, arrogance, and plain mean-spiritedness that has not served the administration well.

But let’s face it: the president is thrilled with him. If David Brooks has it right, it’s a lovefest over at the White House. Everyone is on the same page, and nary a word of internal dissention is heard. (“Yet the atmosphere in the White House appears surprisingly tranquil. Emanuel is serving as a lighting rod for the president but remains crisply confident in his role as chief of staff.”) But that bit of Obama insidery might not be all that helpful in the long run. It undermines the theory — and the hope of Democrats — that the extreme policy, the tone deafness, and the ham-handedness are not Obama’s doing or his fault. You see, there’s little room for Obama to maneuver, shift the blame to errant aides, and maintain his deity-like status if all of this left-wing policy and the political faux pas festival stem from Obama’s policy vision and reflect his political instincts. Oops. Maybe not the most helpful column, after all.

Let’s get real. An administration reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the president. He sets the tone and controls policy. If Democrats and the country at large are unhappy with the results, there is only one person responsible. And it’s not Rahm Emanuel.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Good for the Senate. The nomination of lefty extremist Dawn Johnsen for the Office of Legal Counsel and two other nominations were returned to the White House. One of those is Mary Smith, nominated to head the tax division. She is not a tax lawyer, has never practiced tax law, and has never even taken continuing legal education in the subject area. But she is a Native American who worked on multiple Democratic campaigns. Perhaps we can finally begin to de-politicize the Justice Department.

Nebraska Gov. David Heineman blasts Sen. Ben Nelson. “The reason he’s in hot water right now is that he’s not listening to Nebraskans – it’s very unusual for him. . . I am shocked.” Sounds like the stump speech for Nelson’s 2012 opponent. But Michael Gerson suggests that Nelson is a sweet man who doesn’t understand what he agreed to on abortion subsidies. Maybe once he finds out, his mind can be changed.

Smart advice on the John Kerry trip to Tehran: “The Kerry mission would also look like a panicky effort to persuade the Ayatollah Ali Khamanei to accept the increasingly plaintive U.S. offers of engagement. Mr. Obama has set the end of this month as his latest deadline for progress on nuclear talks before he says he’ll seek tougher sanctions against Iran at the U.N. . .  The regime would probably exploit the visit for its own domestic purposes, perhaps adding to its P.R. coup by releasing to Mr. Kerry the three hapless American hikers it has promised to put on trial for having ‘suspicious aims’ as they wandered across the border with Iraq.”

Give the military option a chance, suggests Alan Kuperman from the pages of the New York Times: “Incentives and sanctions will not work, but air strikes could degrade and deter Iran’s bomb program at relatively little cost or risk, and therefore are worth a try. They should be precision attacks, aimed only at nuclear facilities, to remind Iran of the many other valuable sites that could be bombed if it were foolish enough to retaliate. . . Postponing military action merely provides Iran a window to expand, disperse and harden its nuclear facilities against attack. The sooner the United States takes action, the better.”

The U.S. launches a successful strike in Yemen, but Major Nadal Hassan’s favorite iman survives. So why is it that we are releasing Guantanamo detainees to a country so stocked with terrorists?

And although the Obami seem not to want to recognize it, we are in a war: “A Nigerian man, claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda, allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device aboard a transatlantic airplane Friday as it descended toward Detroit’s airport in what the White House called an attempted act of terrorism.” This would be the second domestic terrorist attack (Hassan, the first) this year. Oh, and the suspect claims he was given assistance in Yemen.

J Street Board member Hannah Rosenthal, now the Obami’s “anti-semitism czar(ina)” takes a shot at Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren for criticizing her J Street pals.

Jewish organizations respond with surprising vehemence. (Could the days of gritting their teeth over outrageous administration statements may be finally at an end?) The administration responds with a statement: “The Department of State values its close relationship with Ambassador Michael Oren and his staff at the Embassy of Israel in Washington. The United States and Israel enjoy extraordinarily close ties based on shared values, interests, and history, as well as the deep bonds between the Israeli people and the American people.” And so forth. So what about Rosenthal — if she is out of step with those she ostensibly serves (the Obama administration, not the J Street gang) what is she doing there?

Sen. Mark Warner insists he wants to be a radical centrist. But he keeps voting for Obama’s leftwing agenda including the government takeover of healthcare so he’s not doing much to differentiate himself from the run-of-mill liberal Democrats. Virginia voters have figured it out: “An automated poll conducted by SurveyUSA shows that Warner’s approval rating has fallen among independents and Republicans since January.”

Good for the Senate. The nomination of lefty extremist Dawn Johnsen for the Office of Legal Counsel and two other nominations were returned to the White House. One of those is Mary Smith, nominated to head the tax division. She is not a tax lawyer, has never practiced tax law, and has never even taken continuing legal education in the subject area. But she is a Native American who worked on multiple Democratic campaigns. Perhaps we can finally begin to de-politicize the Justice Department.

Nebraska Gov. David Heineman blasts Sen. Ben Nelson. “The reason he’s in hot water right now is that he’s not listening to Nebraskans – it’s very unusual for him. . . I am shocked.” Sounds like the stump speech for Nelson’s 2012 opponent. But Michael Gerson suggests that Nelson is a sweet man who doesn’t understand what he agreed to on abortion subsidies. Maybe once he finds out, his mind can be changed.

Smart advice on the John Kerry trip to Tehran: “The Kerry mission would also look like a panicky effort to persuade the Ayatollah Ali Khamanei to accept the increasingly plaintive U.S. offers of engagement. Mr. Obama has set the end of this month as his latest deadline for progress on nuclear talks before he says he’ll seek tougher sanctions against Iran at the U.N. . .  The regime would probably exploit the visit for its own domestic purposes, perhaps adding to its P.R. coup by releasing to Mr. Kerry the three hapless American hikers it has promised to put on trial for having ‘suspicious aims’ as they wandered across the border with Iraq.”

Give the military option a chance, suggests Alan Kuperman from the pages of the New York Times: “Incentives and sanctions will not work, but air strikes could degrade and deter Iran’s bomb program at relatively little cost or risk, and therefore are worth a try. They should be precision attacks, aimed only at nuclear facilities, to remind Iran of the many other valuable sites that could be bombed if it were foolish enough to retaliate. . . Postponing military action merely provides Iran a window to expand, disperse and harden its nuclear facilities against attack. The sooner the United States takes action, the better.”

The U.S. launches a successful strike in Yemen, but Major Nadal Hassan’s favorite iman survives. So why is it that we are releasing Guantanamo detainees to a country so stocked with terrorists?

And although the Obami seem not to want to recognize it, we are in a war: “A Nigerian man, claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda, allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device aboard a transatlantic airplane Friday as it descended toward Detroit’s airport in what the White House called an attempted act of terrorism.” This would be the second domestic terrorist attack (Hassan, the first) this year. Oh, and the suspect claims he was given assistance in Yemen.

J Street Board member Hannah Rosenthal, now the Obami’s “anti-semitism czar(ina)” takes a shot at Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren for criticizing her J Street pals.

Jewish organizations respond with surprising vehemence. (Could the days of gritting their teeth over outrageous administration statements may be finally at an end?) The administration responds with a statement: “The Department of State values its close relationship with Ambassador Michael Oren and his staff at the Embassy of Israel in Washington. The United States and Israel enjoy extraordinarily close ties based on shared values, interests, and history, as well as the deep bonds between the Israeli people and the American people.” And so forth. So what about Rosenthal — if she is out of step with those she ostensibly serves (the Obama administration, not the J Street gang) what is she doing there?

Sen. Mark Warner insists he wants to be a radical centrist. But he keeps voting for Obama’s leftwing agenda including the government takeover of healthcare so he’s not doing much to differentiate himself from the run-of-mill liberal Democrats. Virginia voters have figured it out: “An automated poll conducted by SurveyUSA shows that Warner’s approval rating has fallen among independents and Republicans since January.”

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Not the Social Diva, But the Presidential Diva

Maureen Dowd — I know you’re shocked I’d think this — doesn’t get it remotely right in her column on the fall from grace of Tiger Woods and Desiree Rogers. (I leave the Woods episode to others, who have greater interest in golf and sports-celebrity infidelity.) As for Rogers, Dowd observes:

Even if Desiree thought Congress was grandstanding, it was goofy of her to use the Constitution to get out of a Congressional summons. The Obama White House is morphing into the Bush White House with frightening speed. Its transparency is already fogged up.

The smart thing would have been for Desiree to sail up to Congress, wearing designer sackcloth and pearls of remorse, apologize for the oversight at her first state dinner and promise it wouldn’t happen again.

It just made her look weaker that she couldn’t simply accept some blame publicly for what happened at a dinner she was in charge of, and draw the heat away from the First Family she serves. She’s no G. Gordon Liddy.

But, of course, it is the president who holds the executive privilege and who asserts it. It is the president and his enablers, not Rogers, who is treating the Constitution as though it were silly putty, stretching and bending it however it suits their fancy. When Dowd writes, “Both the golf diva and the social diva mistakenly think the rules need not apply to them, ” she’s missing — or disguising — the point. It is the president who thinks the rules don’t apply to him. And even Dowd can’t really conceal what is going on as she declares, “Never mind the White House’s absurdly asserting executive privilege to dismiss a faux pas.” Well, we should mind.

Dowd may be obsessed with the golf and social divas, but there is a real and recurring theme here that should trouble those who used to inveigh against George W. Bush for “shredding the Constitution” or restoring the “imperial presidency.” The normal rules of restraint against political opponents and critical media outlets (e.g., the Chamber of Commerce, Fox News) don’t apply to Obama and his enablers. The normal rules of Constitutional interpretation don’t apply to them, whether it concerns czar mania or executive privilege. That’s a recipe for abuse, overreach, and the political landmines, which befall a White House indifferent to advice and hostile to criticism.

The troubling trends – from czars to the war on Fox to the stunt of elastic executive privilege – flow from the mindset and prickly personality of the president, not from his social secretary. Perhaps that’s why when you Google “Obama” and “Nixon” and “arrogance,” you get 4.29 million entries. Try it.

Maureen Dowd — I know you’re shocked I’d think this — doesn’t get it remotely right in her column on the fall from grace of Tiger Woods and Desiree Rogers. (I leave the Woods episode to others, who have greater interest in golf and sports-celebrity infidelity.) As for Rogers, Dowd observes:

Even if Desiree thought Congress was grandstanding, it was goofy of her to use the Constitution to get out of a Congressional summons. The Obama White House is morphing into the Bush White House with frightening speed. Its transparency is already fogged up.

The smart thing would have been for Desiree to sail up to Congress, wearing designer sackcloth and pearls of remorse, apologize for the oversight at her first state dinner and promise it wouldn’t happen again.

It just made her look weaker that she couldn’t simply accept some blame publicly for what happened at a dinner she was in charge of, and draw the heat away from the First Family she serves. She’s no G. Gordon Liddy.

But, of course, it is the president who holds the executive privilege and who asserts it. It is the president and his enablers, not Rogers, who is treating the Constitution as though it were silly putty, stretching and bending it however it suits their fancy. When Dowd writes, “Both the golf diva and the social diva mistakenly think the rules need not apply to them, ” she’s missing — or disguising — the point. It is the president who thinks the rules don’t apply to him. And even Dowd can’t really conceal what is going on as she declares, “Never mind the White House’s absurdly asserting executive privilege to dismiss a faux pas.” Well, we should mind.

Dowd may be obsessed with the golf and social divas, but there is a real and recurring theme here that should trouble those who used to inveigh against George W. Bush for “shredding the Constitution” or restoring the “imperial presidency.” The normal rules of restraint against political opponents and critical media outlets (e.g., the Chamber of Commerce, Fox News) don’t apply to Obama and his enablers. The normal rules of Constitutional interpretation don’t apply to them, whether it concerns czar mania or executive privilege. That’s a recipe for abuse, overreach, and the political landmines, which befall a White House indifferent to advice and hostile to criticism.

The troubling trends – from czars to the war on Fox to the stunt of elastic executive privilege – flow from the mindset and prickly personality of the president, not from his social secretary. Perhaps that’s why when you Google “Obama” and “Nixon” and “arrogance,” you get 4.29 million entries. Try it.

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The Politics of Hardship

Hillary Clinton, in what may be a final desperate bid to reel in an endorsement from John Edwards, makes a pitch for a “Poverty Czar.”Because the one thing we know is that adding another bureaucratic structure will end poverty. Forget all that stuff about behavioral attitudes and life choices having more to do with eliminating poverty than anything else–what we need is another cabinet official.

Meanwhile, the awful jobs numbers confirm that this will be an uphill fight for John McCain. Incumbent parties tend to lose (1980 and 1992 spring to mind) when the economy is skidding downhill. So it’s not surprising that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama put out statements linking McCain to President Bush.

McCain has learned now to express concern for those who are “hurting” (a small but needed step in anticipating his opponent’s sure-to-come effort to paint the cartoon-like picture of an uncaring Republican). He also takes it to the Democrats for “anti-growth” policies. Frankly, he will need to be a lot more graphic than that. I’m not sure the average voter would have a clue what that means. This is clearer: “They are going to raise your taxes and choke off trade which is a recipe for making the depression into a Great Depression.”

Hillary Clinton, in what may be a final desperate bid to reel in an endorsement from John Edwards, makes a pitch for a “Poverty Czar.”Because the one thing we know is that adding another bureaucratic structure will end poverty. Forget all that stuff about behavioral attitudes and life choices having more to do with eliminating poverty than anything else–what we need is another cabinet official.

Meanwhile, the awful jobs numbers confirm that this will be an uphill fight for John McCain. Incumbent parties tend to lose (1980 and 1992 spring to mind) when the economy is skidding downhill. So it’s not surprising that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama put out statements linking McCain to President Bush.

McCain has learned now to express concern for those who are “hurting” (a small but needed step in anticipating his opponent’s sure-to-come effort to paint the cartoon-like picture of an uncaring Republican). He also takes it to the Democrats for “anti-growth” policies. Frankly, he will need to be a lot more graphic than that. I’m not sure the average voter would have a clue what that means. This is clearer: “They are going to raise your taxes and choke off trade which is a recipe for making the depression into a Great Depression.”

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The Real Bush Intelligence Failure

On Sunday, CIA director Michael Hayden warned on Meet the Press that a reconstituting al Qaeda was preparing operatives in Afghanistan who would draw no attention while passing through U.S. airport checkpoints.

Exactly how vulnerable are we right now to a significant terrorist attack? No one can answer that question with any certainty. What we can say with assurance is that even as George W. Bush has overseen the single most far-reaching reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community (IC) since the CIA was created in 1947, his single greatest failure as a president might well be that American intelligence remains mired in bureaucratic mediocrity.

That bureaucratic mediocrity has already exacted a high price. A major installment came due when the CIA and FBI missed the Sept. 11 plot. A second came a year later with the CIA’s “slam-dunk” assessment that Saddam Hussein was acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In 2004, Congress radically reshuffled U.S. intelligence, creating a new intelligence “czar” — the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) — whose office, the ODNI, would assume many of the coordinating functions that had formerly been in the hands of the CIA.

This shift was intensely controversial. One of the most frequent criticisms was that grafting a new bureaucracy on top of an already dysfunctional system would only compound existing problems. Four years later, how is the ODNI faring?

I offer a partial answer to that question in The Real Bush Intelligence Failure in today’s Wall Street Journal.

On Sunday, CIA director Michael Hayden warned on Meet the Press that a reconstituting al Qaeda was preparing operatives in Afghanistan who would draw no attention while passing through U.S. airport checkpoints.

Exactly how vulnerable are we right now to a significant terrorist attack? No one can answer that question with any certainty. What we can say with assurance is that even as George W. Bush has overseen the single most far-reaching reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community (IC) since the CIA was created in 1947, his single greatest failure as a president might well be that American intelligence remains mired in bureaucratic mediocrity.

That bureaucratic mediocrity has already exacted a high price. A major installment came due when the CIA and FBI missed the Sept. 11 plot. A second came a year later with the CIA’s “slam-dunk” assessment that Saddam Hussein was acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In 2004, Congress radically reshuffled U.S. intelligence, creating a new intelligence “czar” — the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) — whose office, the ODNI, would assume many of the coordinating functions that had formerly been in the hands of the CIA.

This shift was intensely controversial. One of the most frequent criticisms was that grafting a new bureaucracy on top of an already dysfunctional system would only compound existing problems. Four years later, how is the ODNI faring?

I offer a partial answer to that question in The Real Bush Intelligence Failure in today’s Wall Street Journal.

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No More Carrots for Iran

Less than a week after the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1803, empowering EU foreign policy czar Javier Solana to meet with Iran’s officials for talks on Iran’s nuclear program, Iran has announced that it will only talk to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran’s decision is a slap in the face not only of the Security Council, but of the Europeans, who have long advocated the use of the carrot and stick with Iran–especially the carrot. Rumor had it in Brussels that Europe was preparing a much bigger incentive package for Iran than the one Iran was offered in June 2006–a package which resolution 1803 reiterates. Regardless, for now Iran will only talk to IAEA’s director general, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei.

The word in Brussels is that Iran is not interested in a new European offer because it lacks U.S. backing. The biggest prize for Tehran,  European pundits reason, is an American carrot in the form of explicit security guarantees. This much may be true. But the real reason for Iran to insist on talking with ElBaradei alone, at this point, is that the Director General has shown uncommon kindness to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. His latest report is a near-total whitewash of Iran’s activities. Had it not been for critical evidence supplied to the IAEA by several member states only a few weeks before ElBaradei submitted his report, Iran might have gotten away with its program and would have received a clean bill of health from ElBaradei.

As it happens, ElBaradei–whose track record suggests he is more worried about a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities than Iran getting nuclear weapons–managed to close just about every file of the nuclear dossier, often accepting Iran’s lame explanations at face value.

Will the IAEA’s director general give Iran another free pass in 90 days, when,  as requested by Resolution 1803, he must report again? Given that it took nearly a year for the international community to pass even a largely symbolic resolution, perhaps Iran hopes so. But this would be a mistake on their part–and on ElBaradei’s part as well. Given the evidence submitted to the IAEA and the nature of Iran’s nuclear program, a clean bill of health offered by ElBaradei will only further weaken the international resolve behind non-military pressure on Iran. Which will, of course, help to provide a case for military action to those who cannot afford to live under the shadow of Iran’s nuclear bomb.

Less than a week after the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1803, empowering EU foreign policy czar Javier Solana to meet with Iran’s officials for talks on Iran’s nuclear program, Iran has announced that it will only talk to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran’s decision is a slap in the face not only of the Security Council, but of the Europeans, who have long advocated the use of the carrot and stick with Iran–especially the carrot. Rumor had it in Brussels that Europe was preparing a much bigger incentive package for Iran than the one Iran was offered in June 2006–a package which resolution 1803 reiterates. Regardless, for now Iran will only talk to IAEA’s director general, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei.

The word in Brussels is that Iran is not interested in a new European offer because it lacks U.S. backing. The biggest prize for Tehran,  European pundits reason, is an American carrot in the form of explicit security guarantees. This much may be true. But the real reason for Iran to insist on talking with ElBaradei alone, at this point, is that the Director General has shown uncommon kindness to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. His latest report is a near-total whitewash of Iran’s activities. Had it not been for critical evidence supplied to the IAEA by several member states only a few weeks before ElBaradei submitted his report, Iran might have gotten away with its program and would have received a clean bill of health from ElBaradei.

As it happens, ElBaradei–whose track record suggests he is more worried about a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities than Iran getting nuclear weapons–managed to close just about every file of the nuclear dossier, often accepting Iran’s lame explanations at face value.

Will the IAEA’s director general give Iran another free pass in 90 days, when,  as requested by Resolution 1803, he must report again? Given that it took nearly a year for the international community to pass even a largely symbolic resolution, perhaps Iran hopes so. But this would be a mistake on their part–and on ElBaradei’s part as well. Given the evidence submitted to the IAEA and the nature of Iran’s nuclear program, a clean bill of health offered by ElBaradei will only further weaken the international resolve behind non-military pressure on Iran. Which will, of course, help to provide a case for military action to those who cannot afford to live under the shadow of Iran’s nuclear bomb.

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Putin’s Real Record

Surprise, surprise. In an “election” with all the suspense of the Harlem Globetrotters beating the Washington Generals, Russian voters dutifully handed their presidency to Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked successor, Dmitri Medvedev, who promised to keep Czar Vladimir around as his prime minister.

There is little doubt that Putin and Medvedev are genuinely popular, if only because their critics have been denied access to the news media, parliament, and any other possible source of opposition. But does Putin have a real record of achievement to run on? He tells Russian voters all the time that he restored the country’s greatness and prosperity after the terrible times of the 1990s. But an article in the last issue of Foreign Affairs, “The Myth of the Authoritarian Model” by Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss of Stanford University, shreds those claims.

The authors concede that Russia’s economy has done well in recent years:

As Putin has consolidated his authority, growth has averaged 6.7 percent — especially impressive against the backdrop of the depression in the early 1990s…. Since 2000, real disposable income has increased by more than 10 percent a year, consumer spending has skyrocketed, unemployment has fallen from 12 percent in 1999 to 6 percent in 2006, and poverty, according to one measure, has declined from 41 percent in 1999 to 14 percent in 2006. Russians are richer today than ever before.

But, they argue, most of this growth is not due to Putin’s policies. Instead it can be traced to the natural recovery from the traumas of communism combined with high oil prices. In fact, notwithstanding Russia’s mineral riches, it has not fared any better than most of its neighbors: “Between 1999 and 2006, Russia ranked ninth out of the 15 post-Soviet countries in terms of average growth. Similarly, investment in Russia, at 18 percent of GDP, although stronger today than ever before, is well below the average for democracies in the region.”

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Surprise, surprise. In an “election” with all the suspense of the Harlem Globetrotters beating the Washington Generals, Russian voters dutifully handed their presidency to Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked successor, Dmitri Medvedev, who promised to keep Czar Vladimir around as his prime minister.

There is little doubt that Putin and Medvedev are genuinely popular, if only because their critics have been denied access to the news media, parliament, and any other possible source of opposition. But does Putin have a real record of achievement to run on? He tells Russian voters all the time that he restored the country’s greatness and prosperity after the terrible times of the 1990s. But an article in the last issue of Foreign Affairs, “The Myth of the Authoritarian Model” by Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss of Stanford University, shreds those claims.

The authors concede that Russia’s economy has done well in recent years:

As Putin has consolidated his authority, growth has averaged 6.7 percent — especially impressive against the backdrop of the depression in the early 1990s…. Since 2000, real disposable income has increased by more than 10 percent a year, consumer spending has skyrocketed, unemployment has fallen from 12 percent in 1999 to 6 percent in 2006, and poverty, according to one measure, has declined from 41 percent in 1999 to 14 percent in 2006. Russians are richer today than ever before.

But, they argue, most of this growth is not due to Putin’s policies. Instead it can be traced to the natural recovery from the traumas of communism combined with high oil prices. In fact, notwithstanding Russia’s mineral riches, it has not fared any better than most of its neighbors: “Between 1999 and 2006, Russia ranked ninth out of the 15 post-Soviet countries in terms of average growth. Similarly, investment in Russia, at 18 percent of GDP, although stronger today than ever before, is well below the average for democracies in the region.”

Meanwhile, on a host of other measures relating to “public safety, health” and a “secure legal and property-owning environment,” Putin’s autocracy is doing no better, and in many cases worse, than the more democratic Yeltsin regime which preceded it.

McFaul and Stoner-Weiss cite a host of eye-opening statistics to make their point:

• “In the “anarchic” years of 1995-99, the average annual number of murders was 30,200; in the “orderly” years of 2000-2004, the number was 32,200.”

• “The frequency of terrorist attacks in Russia has increased under Putin. The two biggest terrorist attacks in Russia’s history — the Nord-Ost incident at a theater in Moscow in 2002, in which an estimated 300 Russians died, and the Beslan school hostage crisis, in which as many as 500 died — occurred under Putin’s autocracy, not Yeltsin’s democracy.”

• “The death rate from fires is around 40 a day in Russia, roughly ten times the average rate in western Europe.”

• “At the end of the 1990s, annual alcohol consumption per adult was 10.7 liters (compared with 8.6 liters in the United States and 9.7 in the United Kingdom); in 2004, this figure had increased to 14.5 liters. An estimated 0.9 percent of the Russian population is now infected with HIV, and rates of infection in Russia are now the highest of any country outside Africa.”

• “Life expectancy in Russia rose between 1995 and 1998. Since 1999, however, it has declined to 59 years for Russian men and 72 for Russian women.”

• “In 2006, Transparency International ranked Russia at an all-time worst of 121st out of 163 countries on corruption, putting it between the Philippines and Rwanda.

• “Russia ranked 62nd out of 125 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index in 2006, representing a fall of nine places in a year.”

• “On the World Bank’s 2006 “ease of doing business” index, Russia ranked 96th out of 175, also an all-time worst.”

If he had not eliminated the independence of the press and made it virtually impossible for the opposition to field candidates, Putin might have been made to pay a price for some of these problems at the ballot box.

It will be interesting to see what fate will befall the Kremlin clique if oil prices fall in a big way. By then, of course, their power might be so secure that it won’t make any difference, but a collapse in oil prices would make clear for all to see what McFaul and Stoner-Weiss argue so persuasively: that autocracy in Russia isn’t really a success story.

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Squeezing Iran

EU foreign policy czar Javier Solana is in Rome today to meet with Said Jalili, the new Iranian nuclear negotiator, and to bid farewell to Jalili’s predecessor, Ali Larijani. It is doubtful that Solana will enjoy the same quality of conversation with Jalili that he experienced with Larijani, whose profound knowledge of Western philosophy made him a valued companion for Solana, according to Brussels rumors. Jalili is expected to deliver his messages more bluntly than Larijani, and that might be a good thing. Larijani had fooled his European interlocutors into believing he was a moderate, inciting his European counterparts to budge while he held his ground. Jalili might not be as sophisticated.

But it is equally doubtful that Iran’s abrupt change of negotiator will induce Europe to shift its posture on the means to curb Iran’s nuclear program. As Italy’s weekly L’espresso reports in a lengthy and detailed piece on sanctions and their effectiveness, Iran still very much gets what it wants. Europeans are keen to circumvent sanctions and have not adopted the necessary practical measures to ensure that the sanctions regime works.

Last year’s bilateral trade volume for Italy and Iran exceeded five billion euros, making Italy the second biggest European trading partner of Iran, after Germany. L’espresso reveals that the Italian office in charge of trade inspections—a branch of the Ministry for Foreign Trade under Minister Emma Bonino—contains only twelve functionaries and four technicians. By comparison, its German equivalent, in charge of export control, has 200 people on its payroll. In practice, this means thousands of contracts annually and larger financial operations on a huge scale. The paucity of human resources invested in monitoring these activities means that almost no effective regulation of them exists. The scope for violations of all kinds is broad.

Whether Europeans will agree to a broader sanctions’ regime in weeks to come remains to be seen. It is clear, though, that what will matter ultimately is Europe’s willingness to give teeth to these measures. Without coupling UN resolutions with the practical means of putting the squeeze on Iran—like, say closely examining the huge business it does every year with Italy, or cutting off or restricting that business—even the toughest sanctions will fail.

EU foreign policy czar Javier Solana is in Rome today to meet with Said Jalili, the new Iranian nuclear negotiator, and to bid farewell to Jalili’s predecessor, Ali Larijani. It is doubtful that Solana will enjoy the same quality of conversation with Jalili that he experienced with Larijani, whose profound knowledge of Western philosophy made him a valued companion for Solana, according to Brussels rumors. Jalili is expected to deliver his messages more bluntly than Larijani, and that might be a good thing. Larijani had fooled his European interlocutors into believing he was a moderate, inciting his European counterparts to budge while he held his ground. Jalili might not be as sophisticated.

But it is equally doubtful that Iran’s abrupt change of negotiator will induce Europe to shift its posture on the means to curb Iran’s nuclear program. As Italy’s weekly L’espresso reports in a lengthy and detailed piece on sanctions and their effectiveness, Iran still very much gets what it wants. Europeans are keen to circumvent sanctions and have not adopted the necessary practical measures to ensure that the sanctions regime works.

Last year’s bilateral trade volume for Italy and Iran exceeded five billion euros, making Italy the second biggest European trading partner of Iran, after Germany. L’espresso reveals that the Italian office in charge of trade inspections—a branch of the Ministry for Foreign Trade under Minister Emma Bonino—contains only twelve functionaries and four technicians. By comparison, its German equivalent, in charge of export control, has 200 people on its payroll. In practice, this means thousands of contracts annually and larger financial operations on a huge scale. The paucity of human resources invested in monitoring these activities means that almost no effective regulation of them exists. The scope for violations of all kinds is broad.

Whether Europeans will agree to a broader sanctions’ regime in weeks to come remains to be seen. It is clear, though, that what will matter ultimately is Europe’s willingness to give teeth to these measures. Without coupling UN resolutions with the practical means of putting the squeeze on Iran—like, say closely examining the huge business it does every year with Italy, or cutting off or restricting that business—even the toughest sanctions will fail.

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Hamas and the Europeans

Noting that the EU had been accused of being too pro-Israel by Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, I recently wrote that

it seems more and more possible that the recent period of relative quiet with respect to Israel might in itself suffice for Hamas to win a hearing in Europe. If money were to begin flowing again into government coffers in Gaza, the “moderates” can argue, it would strengthen their hold on the PA and make it possible, at long last, for the government to meet the Quartet’s three demands. Hamas would not even have to say this much, only to make the EU believe that this might happen at some point in the future. The EU’s readiness for a diplomatic fire sale is already evident, with France and the UK leading the push to set aside the Quartet’s three burdensome preconditions.

Despite shows of unity with their U.S. partners, the Europeans are doing just that, now that the Palestinian “national unity” government is in place. The foreign minister of Norway traveled to Gaza to confer with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, after Norway’s government recognized the new executive.
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Noting that the EU had been accused of being too pro-Israel by Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, I recently wrote that

it seems more and more possible that the recent period of relative quiet with respect to Israel might in itself suffice for Hamas to win a hearing in Europe. If money were to begin flowing again into government coffers in Gaza, the “moderates” can argue, it would strengthen their hold on the PA and make it possible, at long last, for the government to meet the Quartet’s three demands. Hamas would not even have to say this much, only to make the EU believe that this might happen at some point in the future. The EU’s readiness for a diplomatic fire sale is already evident, with France and the UK leading the push to set aside the Quartet’s three burdensome preconditions.

Despite shows of unity with their U.S. partners, the Europeans are doing just that, now that the Palestinian “national unity” government is in place. The foreign minister of Norway traveled to Gaza to confer with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, after Norway’s government recognized the new executive.

Rumor has it that the next Norwegian diplomatic move was a phone call to the EU’s foreign policy czar, Javier Solana, asking EU states to emulate Norway (which is not a member). The EU chose caution instead: it would judge the new government by its deeds, a spokesman said, not only by its words. Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht, visiting Ramallah last Friday, reiterated this message. But he did so at a joint press conference with the new Palestinian foreign minister, Ziad Abu Amr. And Italy’s undersecretary for foreign affairs, Vittorio Craxi, called Haniyeh “in his personal capacity,” but did not pay an official visit.

Next, it was the turn of Marc Otte, the EU special envoy to the Middle East, who met the new PA finance minister, Salam Fayyad (as did the U.S. consul in Jerusalem). As the International Herald Tribune reports, the Swedish foreign minister is next; the Swiss and Russian ambassadors will also meet Fayyad. Switzerland and France have invited him to visit; the UK announced that it, too, will speak to non-Hamas ministers.

Unlike Norway, the EU still has a few problems talking to the PA while Hamas is part of the government: Hamas, after all, is on the EU terror list. And the Quartet, at least officially, still stands by the Roadmap and the three preconditions that any PA government must meet for the international embargo on aid and dialogue to be ended.

But even Europe’s modest overtures are quite astonishing when one considers how Hamas itself views the new “unity” government: as the group’s leaders have repeatedly emphasized, “resistance” in all its forms will continue. True to form, Hamas followed words with deeds, and proceeded to claim responsibility for the shooting of an Israeli worker only two days after the government was sworn in.

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