Commentary Magazine


Topic: Obama administration

Large Wage Discrepancy in the White House

Talk about a perfect follow-up to the story about women losing seven times as many jobs as men since President Obama’s taken office. The Washington Free Beacon’s Andrew Stiles reports on the gender pay gap in the White House:

Female employees in the Obama White House make considerably less than their male colleagues, records show.

According to the 2011 annual report on White House staff, female employees earned a median annual salary of $60,000, which was about 18 percent less than the median salary for male employees ($71,000).

The Obama campaign on Wednesday lashed out at presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney for his failure to  immediately endorse the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, a controversial law enacted in 2009 that made it easier to file discrimination lawsuits.

President Obama has frequently criticized the gender pay gap, such as the one that exists in White House.

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Talk about a perfect follow-up to the story about women losing seven times as many jobs as men since President Obama’s taken office. The Washington Free Beacon’s Andrew Stiles reports on the gender pay gap in the White House:

Female employees in the Obama White House make considerably less than their male colleagues, records show.

According to the 2011 annual report on White House staff, female employees earned a median annual salary of $60,000, which was about 18 percent less than the median salary for male employees ($71,000).

The Obama campaign on Wednesday lashed out at presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney for his failure to  immediately endorse the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, a controversial law enacted in 2009 that made it easier to file discrimination lawsuits.

President Obama has frequently criticized the gender pay gap, such as the one that exists in White House.

Why the large wage discrepancy in a White House that has regularly railed against the gender pay gap in the workforce? HotAir’s Allahpundit raises a few theories:

In some industries there may be a nondiscriminatory reason for a gender gap in pay, e.g., men may be overrepresented in jobs that require lots of strength or dangerous duties, which in turn may pay better because of the risk. But that’s surely not the case in the cubicle utopia of the West Wing. The most obvious explanation in an office setting is that men tend to earn more because there are more of them in senior positions. Is that true, champ? If so, how come?

If the White House’s defense is that women aren’t equally represented in senior positions, let’s see David Axelrod take that case to the public.

It really is baffling that President Obama would make the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act into a campaign issue when his own house is literally not living up to the standards he’s demanding from others. Perhaps the Democratic Party thought the issue would instantly push the GOP into defense mode and the White House’s own failings would never become an issue. Clearly, they miscalculated. While Democrats are trying to win over women voters by claiming Republicans are waging a war on female reproductive rights, the women’s vote tends to be influenced far more by economic issues. Judging from that, the stories today about how women workers are faring under Obama will be very effective messaging points for Republicans.

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Are Women Hurt the Most in Job Market?

Mitt Romney said yesterday that women lost 92.3 percent of all jobs lost under the Obama administration, a claim that earned the suspicious distinction of “true but false” from the Washington Post fact-check team. The reason for this contradictory finding? While WaPo conceded the statistic was mathematically accurate, they added the odd, squishy disclaimer that it “may simply [be] a function of a coincidence of timing — a brief blip that could have little to do with ‘Obama’s job market.’”

But while it might be unfair to say Obama’s policies are fully responsible for the disproportionate impact the recession has had on women, there’s no denying that fact that women have been hit hardest. Even WaPo fact-checker Glenn Kessler notes this in his analysis:

In other words, men did lose more jobs in the recession. Now that the economy is growing again, men are recovering jobs at a faster pace than women.  In fact, the latest employment report shows that male participation in the work force was up 14,000 while female participation fell 177,000, in part because women tend to work in retail or government jobs (such as teaching), which have been cut in recent months.

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Mitt Romney said yesterday that women lost 92.3 percent of all jobs lost under the Obama administration, a claim that earned the suspicious distinction of “true but false” from the Washington Post fact-check team. The reason for this contradictory finding? While WaPo conceded the statistic was mathematically accurate, they added the odd, squishy disclaimer that it “may simply [be] a function of a coincidence of timing — a brief blip that could have little to do with ‘Obama’s job market.’”

But while it might be unfair to say Obama’s policies are fully responsible for the disproportionate impact the recession has had on women, there’s no denying that fact that women have been hit hardest. Even WaPo fact-checker Glenn Kessler notes this in his analysis:

In other words, men did lose more jobs in the recession. Now that the economy is growing again, men are recovering jobs at a faster pace than women.  In fact, the latest employment report shows that male participation in the work force was up 14,000 while female participation fell 177,000, in part because women tend to work in retail or government jobs (such as teaching), which have been cut in recent months.

They’ve been cut in recent months because they were either temporary jobs (retail) or because stimulus money that once shielded certain jobs is now running out (education). This was an outcome many warned about and will likely continue as the year goes on. While the recent drop in unemployment has been encouraging, most of the job growth has been in low-wage sectors and temporary positions.

Romney is right to criticize Obama for the job-loss gender gap, particularly because Democrats have been falsely claiming that the GOP has been waging a war on women. But Romney also needs to explain why his policies would address the high job loss among women, and why Obama’s have so far failed to do so.

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Texas Public Policy Is Case Study

Labor-related immigration to the United States has always been driven by basic economics. Border security is certainly essential to any country’s obligation to safeguard its homeland, but the volume of immigration from Mexico was a blaring message from the labor market that even (sometimes especially) self-described free marketers chose to ignore.

Hopefully those politicians will heed the lessons in a new report, mentioned approvingly here by Michael Barone at the Washington Examiner, that net illegal immigration from Mexico is now zero–that is, immigration has tapered off and is now below replacement levels. Barone says he cannot vouch for the exact numbers in the report, but he thinks “they’re very much in the ballpark.” Falling birthrates in Mexico and an American recession have contributed to the change, but they do not seem to be the main drivers. Here’s Barone:

For some years I feared that Mexico could not achieve higher economic growth than the United States since our economies have been tied so tightly together by NAFTA since 1993. But in the past two years, Mexico’s growth rate has been on the order of 5 percent to 7 percent. It’s looking like Mexico’s growth rate is tied not to that of the United States but to that of Texas, which has been a growth leader because of its intelligent public policies which have prevented public employee unions from plundering the private sector economy.

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Labor-related immigration to the United States has always been driven by basic economics. Border security is certainly essential to any country’s obligation to safeguard its homeland, but the volume of immigration from Mexico was a blaring message from the labor market that even (sometimes especially) self-described free marketers chose to ignore.

Hopefully those politicians will heed the lessons in a new report, mentioned approvingly here by Michael Barone at the Washington Examiner, that net illegal immigration from Mexico is now zero–that is, immigration has tapered off and is now below replacement levels. Barone says he cannot vouch for the exact numbers in the report, but he thinks “they’re very much in the ballpark.” Falling birthrates in Mexico and an American recession have contributed to the change, but they do not seem to be the main drivers. Here’s Barone:

For some years I feared that Mexico could not achieve higher economic growth than the United States since our economies have been tied so tightly together by NAFTA since 1993. But in the past two years, Mexico’s growth rate has been on the order of 5 percent to 7 percent. It’s looking like Mexico’s growth rate is tied not to that of the United States but to that of Texas, which has been a growth leader because of its intelligent public policies which have prevented public employee unions from plundering the private sector economy.

Remember when a certain Texas governor was warning fellow Republicans that education and a strong economy were better solutions than a fence? Though the symbiotic economic relationship between Texas and Mexico is long established, and Mexican reforms in the mid-1990s have helped keep the peso stable, recent trade between the two has increased and been a boon to both countries:

Three Texas customs districts, Laredo, El Paso and Houston, rank among Mexico’s top four trading partners. Collectively, they accounted for roughly $235 billion in trade between Texas and Mexico from January to September 2011, according to United States Census data analyzed by WorldCity, which tracks global trade patterns. The figures show an increase over 2010 despite the American recession and unprecedented violence in Mexico because of warring drug cartels.

One more time: an increase over 2010 despite the American recession and unprecedented violence in Mexico. Texas has been a job creator and engine of growth during a recession and global economic downturn in two countries, stabilizing immigration levels along the way and buttressing the argument for free trade. Of course, it’s worth noting that to produce this economic success story, Texan public policy is just about the polar opposite of that of the Obama administration. If nothing else, the first Obama term has at least given us a tidy case study.

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Egyptian Outlook Grows More Desperate

While the Obama administration appears to be convincing itself that there’s nothing wrong with the Muslim Brotherhood acquiring a monopoly on power in Egypt, it looks as if that country’s military is panicking about the prospect. Though the Egyptian presidential race–in which the Brotherhood’s candidate and one from an even more extreme Islamist party are the favorites–may be in a state of flux, the decision of a former key member of the army leadership to enter the race may be a sign the generals are far from confident about what may be about to happen in Cairo.

The entry of Omar Suleiman, who served as head of military intelligence during the regime of Hosni Mubarak, into Egypt’s presidential sweepstakes adds one more element of uncertainty in a situation that may be about to unravel. Suleiman, who reportedly is still close with the army’s ruling council, is a much-hated figure among both secular liberals and the Islamists for his role in suppressing dissent under the Mubarak dictatorship. Even though observers give him little chance of winning, the decision of the army to have one of their own get into the race may show just how scared they are of the Brotherhood and its allies imposing its beliefs on the country. The fact that President Obama isn’t scared too may be even more frightening to those Egyptians wondering what their fate will be once the Brotherhood assumes control of the presidency as well as the parliament and the constituent assembly writing a new constitution.

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While the Obama administration appears to be convincing itself that there’s nothing wrong with the Muslim Brotherhood acquiring a monopoly on power in Egypt, it looks as if that country’s military is panicking about the prospect. Though the Egyptian presidential race–in which the Brotherhood’s candidate and one from an even more extreme Islamist party are the favorites–may be in a state of flux, the decision of a former key member of the army leadership to enter the race may be a sign the generals are far from confident about what may be about to happen in Cairo.

The entry of Omar Suleiman, who served as head of military intelligence during the regime of Hosni Mubarak, into Egypt’s presidential sweepstakes adds one more element of uncertainty in a situation that may be about to unravel. Suleiman, who reportedly is still close with the army’s ruling council, is a much-hated figure among both secular liberals and the Islamists for his role in suppressing dissent under the Mubarak dictatorship. Even though observers give him little chance of winning, the decision of the army to have one of their own get into the race may show just how scared they are of the Brotherhood and its allies imposing its beliefs on the country. The fact that President Obama isn’t scared too may be even more frightening to those Egyptians wondering what their fate will be once the Brotherhood assumes control of the presidency as well as the parliament and the constituent assembly writing a new constitution.

As Eric Trager writes in The New Republic, the Brotherhood’s Washington offensive has convinced many in Washington that there is nothing to fear from their drive to obtain absolute power in Cairo. But for the military, which seemed for a while to be confident it could go on governing Egypt in partnership with the Brotherhood without allowing the latter to enact fundamental changes in society, the group’s behavior in recent months is alarming. Though it has presented a smiling face of tolerance to American journalists, as Trager points out, there has been no alteration of their ideology or of their determination to transform Egypt into a theocracy.

As for Suleiman, he can expect especially rough treatment from the Brotherhood if he actually gets on the ballot for the May election. As the Associated Press pointed out, the Islamists were quick to brand him not so much as the official torturer of the Mubarak era but as the man whose task it was to manage the country’s relationships with the United States and Israel. The Brotherhood’s mocking welcome to the Suleiman candidacy was to post a picture of him in which he is posed against the backdrop of an Israeli flag. Those administration officials confident that a Brotherhood-run Egypt will keep the peace treaty with Israel or remain an ally of the United States (for which they receive more than $1 billion in annual U.S. aid) may eventually have a lot of explaining to do.

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The Future of Defense Spending

The Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee have a new chart out today that really clarifies what President Obama’s budget will mean for future national spending priorities. Under Obama’s budget, interest payments on debt will exceed national defense spending by 2019:

The reason for this is that under Obama’s budget, rapidly growing debt would lead to higher interest payments, and substantial cuts to the defense budget would cause defense spending to increase at a slower rate.

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The Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee have a new chart out today that really clarifies what President Obama’s budget will mean for future national spending priorities. Under Obama’s budget, interest payments on debt will exceed national defense spending by 2019:

The reason for this is that under Obama’s budget, rapidly growing debt would lead to higher interest payments, and substantial cuts to the defense budget would cause defense spending to increase at a slower rate.

Incidentally, the House Budget Committee office tells me the same thing doesn’t happen under chairman Paul Ryan’s budget. Here is their chart for comparison:

Under Ryan’s plan, the defense spending and interest payments are actually the inverse of the levels in Obama’s plan by 2022. As you can see, the interest payments still rise with Ryan’s budget, but at a slower pace, while defense spending increases at a healthy rate during the next decade.

This is a prime example of why getting the debt under control is crucial for the future of national security. But under the president’s budget, neither debt reduction nor defense spending are a priority. Liberals have argued that cutting defense is the best way to get the national debt problem under control, but as these two charts show, that’s not the outcome from Obama’s defense cuts. Even with defense reductions, the interest payments still rise faster than under Ryan’s plan.

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Another Unforced Obama Error on Egypt

Yesterday, I wrote about the Obama administration’s decision to back the Muslim Brotherhood’s bid for a monopoly on power in Egypt. The rationale behind this startling decision was the possibility that an even more extreme Islamist appeared likely to win the upcoming presidential election. But now it appears that the candidacy of Sheik Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafi leader who appeared to be taking the country by storm, is in jeopardy.

If so, and the possibility that the most radical Islamist in the race will not be running Egypt has receded, the question for Washington is how President Obama’s foreign policy team — which met this week with a delegation of radical Islamists from the Brotherhood in the White House — proposes to walk back their latest unforced error on Egypt? Given the dangers that would accrue from the Brotherhood adding the presidency to their control of Egypt’s new parliament, it looks as if the administration has given sanction to a development that will alter the political landscape of the Middle East in a manner that will severely diminish American influence and increase the possibility of more Islamist violence against Israel.

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Yesterday, I wrote about the Obama administration’s decision to back the Muslim Brotherhood’s bid for a monopoly on power in Egypt. The rationale behind this startling decision was the possibility that an even more extreme Islamist appeared likely to win the upcoming presidential election. But now it appears that the candidacy of Sheik Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafi leader who appeared to be taking the country by storm, is in jeopardy.

If so, and the possibility that the most radical Islamist in the race will not be running Egypt has receded, the question for Washington is how President Obama’s foreign policy team — which met this week with a delegation of radical Islamists from the Brotherhood in the White House — proposes to walk back their latest unforced error on Egypt? Given the dangers that would accrue from the Brotherhood adding the presidency to their control of Egypt’s new parliament, it looks as if the administration has given sanction to a development that will alter the political landscape of the Middle East in a manner that will severely diminish American influence and increase the possibility of more Islamist violence against Israel.

The problems of Sheik Ismail provide a bit of comic relief to an otherwise grim situation in Cairo. The radical leader is an ardent foe of the United States, but it appears that his mother, who went to California to be with Ismail’s sister who had previously immigrated there, obtained American citizenship before she died. If so, that would contravene a law passed last year that mandated that the parents of any Egyptian president must not have any other passport. Should the charge be true and Ismail is forced to leave the contest, that would be a huge victory for the Brotherhood and their candidate, wealthy businessman Khairat Al Shater.

But this is nothing for the United States to cheer about. Though the White House may be buying into the Brotherhood’s assurances of moderation and devotion to peace and stability, a closer look at Al Shater reveals that the Islamist group hasn’t really changed its stripes. As Bret Stephens wrote earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, the Brotherhood candidate is anything but moderate on the question of Middle East peace and doesn’t sound like someone the White House should be rolling out the red carpet for:

On the subject of Israel, Mr. Shater noted that the killing of Hamas’s Ahmed Yassin was “a heinous crime corresponding to the perfidious nature of the Zionist enemy.” As for negotiating with Israel, he called it “mindless”: “The only way” to deal with the Jewish state, he insisted, “is jihad.” He faulted “the enemies of Islam” for trying to “distort and remove [jihad] from the hearts and minds and souls of Muslims.” He blasted the U.S. for preventing “the Islamic nation in its entirety” from eliminating “the usurper Zionist enemy.”

Moreover, although as Stephens notes, some of the things the candidate says are pleasing to Western ears, there’s no denying his goal is to impose Islam on every aspect of Egyptian society. If, in the most optimistic scenario, the Brotherhood wants to emulate Turkey rather than Iran, that means the transformation of a secular Western ally into an Islamist nation that will always be hostile to U.S. interests and peace.

Yet, by diving into the election and giving the Brotherhood its seal of approval, the White House may have once again undermined any hope that the military or secular moderates could hold off the Islamist surge.

The list of administration errors on Egypt is long. It refused to promote democracy or human rights while Hosni Mubarak still ruled, but then compounded that error by quickly dumping Mubarak. It repeated that pattern by seeking to attack the military government that succeeded Mubarak and then appeased them by continuing the aid in the face of provocations. Now, it has put its chips on the Brotherhood even though there is still a chance it can be stopped. After all this, the only question is what Obama blunder will be next?

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The President’s Abysmal Record

Is this the week the Obama administration’s remarkable incompetence begins to be the narrative? If so, he’s toast.

The president’s astonishing, not to mention indefensible, lecture to the Supreme Court this week, in which he turned 200 years of American constitutional history on its head, has been the talk of the blogosphere. But it’s not just the fact that he pretends to have not heard of Marbury v. Madison, it’s the anger behind his remarks that he is having trouble concealing. Even his old professor at Harvard felt he had to weigh in.

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Is this the week the Obama administration’s remarkable incompetence begins to be the narrative? If so, he’s toast.

The president’s astonishing, not to mention indefensible, lecture to the Supreme Court this week, in which he turned 200 years of American constitutional history on its head, has been the talk of the blogosphere. But it’s not just the fact that he pretends to have not heard of Marbury v. Madison, it’s the anger behind his remarks that he is having trouble concealing. Even his old professor at Harvard felt he had to weigh in.

It is not hard to see why he might be angry. His single major domestic accomplishment, Obamacare, is in mortal peril in the Supreme Court. InTrade has the chances of its being overturned at 63.8 percent this morning. And it remains deeply unpopular with the public at large. His other domestic efforts have been largely a bust. The stimulus did not produce the promised economic boost and recovery from the recession remains stubbornly slow and unemployment stubbornly high. Green energy is failing and failing and failing. The price of gas has nearly doubled since he became president, despite the recession, while domestic production of oil and natural gas has been rising despite his policies, not because of them.

And, of course, the country continues hell-bent towards the fiscal cliff at the rate of $1 trillion plus per year. Obama, and the Senate Democrats, have not even tried to do anything about something the people in poll after poll have called their number one concern.

As for his foreign policy successes, I’d list them except there haven’t been any. His failures are numerous. Our antagonists, such as Iran, Korea, Russia, and China have little or no respect for him, and thus no inclination to play ball. He has managed to alienate such important allies as Britain and Israel. Indeed, his very first foreign policy act was to insult Britain by summarily returning a bust of its great national hero, Winston Churchill–the man who saved the world in 1940–to the British Embassy. It’s only gotten worse. Last week, his open-mic gaffe with the Russian president was greatly embarrassing. This week’s summit with Mexico and Canada revealed deep problems within the North American alliance, problems that were hardly noted in the American mainstream press–a wholly owned subsidiary of the Obama re-election campaign–but were widely on view in the Mexican and Canadian media.

In sum, it’s a remarkable record, especially for a man who thinks of himself as a transformational figure in American history. The president looks in the mirror and sees FDR. Increasingly, the rest of the country look at him and see Jimmy Carter, perhaps even James Buchanan. They were both one-term presidents.

 

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Washington Helpless as Islamists Play for Keeps in Egypt

How bad is the current political situation in Egypt? So bad, it appears, that the Obama administration actually believes it ought to throw its support behind the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop an even more radical Islamist from being elected to the presidency of the most populous Arab nation. That’s the predicament Washington faces after the Brotherhood broke its pledge not to field a candidate for Egypt’s presidency. But as much as the surge in popularity of the Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail may make a tilt toward the Brotherhood seem understandable, the situation illustrates the depths to which the administration’s Middle East cluelessness has sunk.

During the weekend, anonymous State Department officials told the New York Times they were quite happy about the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate entering the race for the Egyptian presidency. Though the U.S. rightly considered the Brotherhood to be a potent threat to American interests as well as Middle East peace, in light of the strength shown by even more extreme Islamists, President Obama’s diplomatic team now apparently considers it to be an acceptable alternative. But this U.S. tilt toward the Brotherhood is just the latest of a series of inept moves that has destroyed American influence in Egypt.

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How bad is the current political situation in Egypt? So bad, it appears, that the Obama administration actually believes it ought to throw its support behind the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop an even more radical Islamist from being elected to the presidency of the most populous Arab nation. That’s the predicament Washington faces after the Brotherhood broke its pledge not to field a candidate for Egypt’s presidency. But as much as the surge in popularity of the Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail may make a tilt toward the Brotherhood seem understandable, the situation illustrates the depths to which the administration’s Middle East cluelessness has sunk.

During the weekend, anonymous State Department officials told the New York Times they were quite happy about the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate entering the race for the Egyptian presidency. Though the U.S. rightly considered the Brotherhood to be a potent threat to American interests as well as Middle East peace, in light of the strength shown by even more extreme Islamists, President Obama’s diplomatic team now apparently considers it to be an acceptable alternative. But this U.S. tilt toward the Brotherhood is just the latest of a series of inept moves that has destroyed American influence in Egypt.

Should the Brotherhood candidate for president succeed, it would create a dangerous situation in which this Islamist party would control both the executive and the parliament. This would place intolerable pressure on the army — which remains the sole force in the country that could act as a check on the Islamists — to back down and allow the Brotherhood untrammeled power.

Washington seemingly has no problems with this happening as it has bought hook, line and sinker, the Brotherhood’s claims it is now ready to embrace peace with Israel, avoid persecution of Egypt’s Christian minority, and promote a free enterprise model for economic development. As Eric Trager writes for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s website, the Brotherhood’s “détente” with the army command, in which they had promised not to try and run roughshod over secularists or to take over the country, is now in tatters, as their drive for power goes into overdrive. There is also the possibility the Salafis will beat the Brotherhood candidate anyway, in which case the country would drift even farther to the extremes.

Washington’s thinking appears to be that they would prefer an Islamist government along the lines of Turkey — which is what they assume the Brotherhood’s goal is — to one that is modeled after Iran. But either choice would be terrible. An Egypt in which the Brotherhood had a monopoly on power would not be friendly to the United States. And because the administration has discouraged the army from acting to head off the danger, it is difficult to see how any of this will turn out well unless the secular candidate, Amr Moussa, beats both Islamist candidates.

Obama abandoned Hosni Mubarak last year. With our embassy now backing the Brotherhood, secularists and the army must assume the president means to ditch them, too. In the meantime, Washington has failed to promote secular democratic groups and then appeased the military by not putting hold on U.S. aid when Americans were prosecuted for aiding dissidents. In other words, the only thing consistent about U.S. policy toward Egypt in the last year has been its inconsistency.

The result is that Egypt, once a staunch U.S. ally, has now fallen into the grip of competing Islamist parties while Washington foolishly tries to play favorites among a group that has little use for American interests or values. The rise of the Islamists in Cairo strengthens the hand of extremists like Hamas among the Palestinians and reduces the already minimal chances for peace with Israel.

President Obama chose Cairo as the venue for his vaunted attempt at outreach to the Muslim world while slighting Israel. Yet, if there is anything we can conclude from the past year it is that Egyptians and other Muslims who are embracing Islamist parties throughout the Middle East have no interest in Obama’s ideas and no use for the United States. That Cairo will soon be in the hands of competing factions of Islamists is a sobering but fitting epitaph for the administration’s feckless foreign policy.

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Iran’s Stalling Tactics Humiliate Obama

The Obama administration has spent the last few months furiously arguing that diplomacy backed up by tough sanctions is the only possible path to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear capability. But in agreeing to a new round of negotiations with the Iranians, Washington has set itself up to be made to look ridiculous. The ayatollahs have shown themselves to be masters of diplomatic gamesmanship as they have repeatedly made fools out of the European negotiators who have sought in recent years to craft some sort of compromise on the nuclear issue.

But anyone in either the White House or the State Department who thought this latest round of diplomacy would go differently got a shock today when the Iranians made it clear that as far as they were concerned the agreement to talk was merely a signal for the games to begin. As the New York Times reports, the Iranians have already started to stall by insisting on changing the venue of the talks. Though the negotiations were scheduled to begin next week in Turkey, a country that is openly siding with the Iranians, having as their host another Islamist government wasn’t good enough for Tehran. They are now suggesting Iraq or China as alternatives. To show just how far the Iranians are prepared to go to turn this process into a farce, they are also considering suggesting the talks be held in Syria, where, presumably, negotiators can witness Iran’s ally mowing down dissenters in the streets.

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The Obama administration has spent the last few months furiously arguing that diplomacy backed up by tough sanctions is the only possible path to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear capability. But in agreeing to a new round of negotiations with the Iranians, Washington has set itself up to be made to look ridiculous. The ayatollahs have shown themselves to be masters of diplomatic gamesmanship as they have repeatedly made fools out of the European negotiators who have sought in recent years to craft some sort of compromise on the nuclear issue.

But anyone in either the White House or the State Department who thought this latest round of diplomacy would go differently got a shock today when the Iranians made it clear that as far as they were concerned the agreement to talk was merely a signal for the games to begin. As the New York Times reports, the Iranians have already started to stall by insisting on changing the venue of the talks. Though the negotiations were scheduled to begin next week in Turkey, a country that is openly siding with the Iranians, having as their host another Islamist government wasn’t good enough for Tehran. They are now suggesting Iraq or China as alternatives. To show just how far the Iranians are prepared to go to turn this process into a farce, they are also considering suggesting the talks be held in Syria, where, presumably, negotiators can witness Iran’s ally mowing down dissenters in the streets.

The excuse for the last-minute change supposedly stems from Iran’s irritation with the Turks because of their stands on the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria as well as its membership in NATO, because of that alliance’s role in promoting missile defense systems to guard against possible Iranian attacks. But these flimsy excuses should fool no one. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was feted just last week in Tehran where he pledged to support the Iranians against “Western arrogance.”

The only possible reason to demand a change in the venue of the talks is to delay the process. Even if the West were to agree to this request — and it shouldn’t — it would only be followed by further stalling tactics straight out of the North Vietnamese handbook. Don’t be surprised if the shape of the table is raised. And then even if an agreement on some unsatisfactory compromise is reached, we should expect the Iranians to stall on its implementation and then renege on it altogether as they have done more than once with the Europeans.

Iran’s negotiating partner, the P5-plus 1 countries — Britain, China, France, Russia, Germany and the United States — have painted themselves into a corner in these talks. They have, as President Obama has stated repeatedly, pledged themselves to stopping Iran’s nuclear program. But if, as is almost certain, the talks with the Iranians get nowhere, if indeed they ever get started, then what will the president and his European colleagues do?

It is not exactly a secret the only reason the U.S. and the Euros have agreed to enforce tough sanctions and threatened an oil embargo of Iran is their fear that absent such efforts, Israel would have no choice but to attack in order to remove an existential threat to its existence. To that end, the Obama administration has gone all out to pressure Israel to hold off on any attack this year while what the president calls a “window of diplomacy” is explored. But if the diplomatic window is publicly seen to be only a ruse on Iran’s part, what then will Washington tell Israel or the American people?

If the Israelis have agreed, as reports claim, to hold off on a military solution to the Iran problem, they have, in effect, put responsibility for stopping Iran clearly on the shoulders of President Obama. But by agreeing to deal with the diplomatic tricksters in Tehran, the president has in effect made himself a hostage to the ayatollahs’ caprices. Though the administration has placed a priority on measures that will enable them to kick the Iranian can down the road until after the November election, the president may soon discover that his negotiating partners in Tehran have no intention of sparing him the embarrassment that is an inevitable part of dealing with them.

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Obama’s Inept Aides

Via Mediate, Bret Baier of Fox News, in the most professional way possible, destroys White House press secretary Jay Carney in an interview. Baier did the same thing to President Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod (see here). Chris Wallace tied top White House aide David Plouffe into knots in a recent interview. And Solicitor General Donald Verrilli was, by all accounts, wiped out during the Supreme Court’s oral arguments over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

I realize that we’re supposed to be enormously impressed with the intelligence and skill of this generation’s version of the Best and Brightest. But here’s the thing: these fellows are just not that good. Like the man they work for, they often come across as arrogant and inept, prickly and unable to directly answer questions. It’s a bad combination — and for top Obama aides, apparently, a widespread one.

 

Via Mediate, Bret Baier of Fox News, in the most professional way possible, destroys White House press secretary Jay Carney in an interview. Baier did the same thing to President Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod (see here). Chris Wallace tied top White House aide David Plouffe into knots in a recent interview. And Solicitor General Donald Verrilli was, by all accounts, wiped out during the Supreme Court’s oral arguments over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

I realize that we’re supposed to be enormously impressed with the intelligence and skill of this generation’s version of the Best and Brightest. But here’s the thing: these fellows are just not that good. Like the man they work for, they often come across as arrogant and inept, prickly and unable to directly answer questions. It’s a bad combination — and for top Obama aides, apparently, a widespread one.

 

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Appeals Court Orders DOJ to Clarify “Judicial Restraint” Position

An unusual request, but then again, the president’s critical remarks about the Supreme Court on Monday were also unusual. A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, all Republican appointees, is requiring the Department of Justice to submit a three-page, single-spaced letter tomorrow on whether the Executive Branch believes that courts can strike down laws that are found to be unconstitutional.

CBS News reports:

In the escalating battle between the administration and the judiciary, a federal appeals court apparently is calling the president’s bluff — ordering the Justice Department to answer by Thursday whether the Obama Administration believes that the courts have the right to strike down a federal law, according to a lawyer who was in the courtroom. …

The panel is hearing a separate challenge to the health care law by physician-owned hospitals. The issue arose when a lawyer for the Justice Department began arguing before the judges. Appeals Court Judge Jerry Smith immediately interrupted, asking if DOJ agreed that the judiciary could strike down an unconstitutional law.

The DOJ lawyer, Dana Lydia Kaersvang, answered yes — and mentioned Marbury v. Madison, the landmark case that firmly established the principle of judicial review more than 200 years ago, according to the lawyer in the courtroom.

Smith then became “very stern,” the source said, telling the lawyers arguing the case it was not clear to “many of us” whether the president believes such a right exists. The other two judges on the panel, Emilio Garza and Leslie Southwick–both Republican appointees–remained silent, the source said.

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An unusual request, but then again, the president’s critical remarks about the Supreme Court on Monday were also unusual. A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, all Republican appointees, is requiring the Department of Justice to submit a three-page, single-spaced letter tomorrow on whether the Executive Branch believes that courts can strike down laws that are found to be unconstitutional.

CBS News reports:

In the escalating battle between the administration and the judiciary, a federal appeals court apparently is calling the president’s bluff — ordering the Justice Department to answer by Thursday whether the Obama Administration believes that the courts have the right to strike down a federal law, according to a lawyer who was in the courtroom. …

The panel is hearing a separate challenge to the health care law by physician-owned hospitals. The issue arose when a lawyer for the Justice Department began arguing before the judges. Appeals Court Judge Jerry Smith immediately interrupted, asking if DOJ agreed that the judiciary could strike down an unconstitutional law.

The DOJ lawyer, Dana Lydia Kaersvang, answered yes — and mentioned Marbury v. Madison, the landmark case that firmly established the principle of judicial review more than 200 years ago, according to the lawyer in the courtroom.

Smith then became “very stern,” the source said, telling the lawyers arguing the case it was not clear to “many of us” whether the president believes such a right exists. The other two judges on the panel, Emilio Garza and Leslie Southwick–both Republican appointees–remained silent, the source said.

Was this an honest request, or a political stunt? Obviously, the Obama administration’s position on this is relevant in this case. However, this is only going to feed into the latest contention from Democrats that there’s too much politicization in the courts. At Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr writes that the 5th Circuit’s request was inappropriate, particularly since the DOJ lawyer had already responded to the question in court:

Having heard the audio, the tone of the questions was quite different from what I was expecting based on the story. It came off to me as earnest and genuine, not just an effort to score a cheap political point. With that said, the order still strikes me as highly inappropriate: The DOJ lawyer was quite clear as to DOJ’s position, and lower court judges deciding cases based on briefing and argument should not be going outside the record to come up with assignments to litigants based on press releases by politicians in such politically charged matters. It just makes the judges look like political actors themselves, which doesn’t help anyone.

President Obama has also clarified his comments since Monday, which could change the court’s mind about the order before the deadline tomorrow.

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Israel Policy to Blame if Obama Loses Jewish Votes

Earlier today, Seth commented on the results from a poll conducted by the liberal-leaning Public Religion Research Institute that contained some mixed results for the Obama administration. As Seth noted, the survey showed that even among a liberal population, the president didn’t find broad support for his policies on Israel. But, predictably, the New York Times is spinning the poll in a very different way. The headline in the paper’s political blog The Caucus is simply: “In Poll, Jewish Voters Overwhelmingly Support Obama.” The Times reports that it finds:

Support for Mr. Obama is still higher among Jews than among the general electorate, with 62 percent of Jewish voters saying they would like to see him elected, and 30 percent saying they preferred the Republican candidate.

The Times interprets this result as meaning:

The results cast doubt on the claim that Mr. Obama has alienated a significant swath of Jewish voters because of his rocky relationship with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

But does it really? Considering the president won a whopping 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, even if he does wind up getting 62 percent that would mean a loss of a fifth of the Jewish support he got four years ago.

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Earlier today, Seth commented on the results from a poll conducted by the liberal-leaning Public Religion Research Institute that contained some mixed results for the Obama administration. As Seth noted, the survey showed that even among a liberal population, the president didn’t find broad support for his policies on Israel. But, predictably, the New York Times is spinning the poll in a very different way. The headline in the paper’s political blog The Caucus is simply: “In Poll, Jewish Voters Overwhelmingly Support Obama.” The Times reports that it finds:

Support for Mr. Obama is still higher among Jews than among the general electorate, with 62 percent of Jewish voters saying they would like to see him elected, and 30 percent saying they preferred the Republican candidate.

The Times interprets this result as meaning:

The results cast doubt on the claim that Mr. Obama has alienated a significant swath of Jewish voters because of his rocky relationship with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

But does it really? Considering the president won a whopping 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, even if he does wind up getting 62 percent that would mean a loss of a fifth of the Jewish support he got four years ago.

To place this result in perspective, it should be remembered that it has been 24 years since a Republican got as much as 30 percent of the Jewish vote. If Mitt Romney, the likely GOP nominee, equals or tops that figure while the Democrats’ share declines that far, Jewish Republicans would consider it a major victory. Moreover, as I pointed out in the March issue of COMMENTARY, such a swing of Jewish votes could conceivably make a difference in determining the outcome of the election should states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and especially Florida go down to the wire.

If Obama does lose a fifth of his Jewish support when compared to four years ago, what other explanation can there be for such a result other than the fact that many Jewish Democrats are rightly concerned about the administration’s policy of hostility toward Israel during its first three years? While the current Jewish charm offensive may help shore up the president’s backing in this overwhelmingly Democratic demographic, if this poll is correct and the Republicans make such large gains, the most likely reason for a shift in the Jewish vote would be Israel.  Indeed, given the fact that the poll shows Jews having grave doubts about Obama’s attitude toward Israel, the idea that it would not be responsible for the shrinkage of the Democrats’ share of the Jewish vote makes no sense.

While there is no doubt there is virtually nothing Obama could do to prevent the majority of Jews from voting for him, even this liberal poll illustrates that Democrats are going into the fall with much lower expectations than they might have had four years ago.

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Is Obama Blaming Israel for Gas Prices?

The campaign of administration leaks aimed at undermining Israel’s position on Iran has been widely noted. But according to Robert Satloff, the respected head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the White House isn’t satisfied with blaming Israel for the chance that Americans might be killed in the event force is used against Iran. Satloff says the Israelis see President Obama as blaming them for rising oil prices as well.

In comments quoted in the WorldTribune.com:

Satloff, who met “virtually everybody in the Iran debate,” said the Israeli leadership also saw the administration as blaming Israel for the sharp rise in U.S. gasoline prices. He said Washington attributed the higher prices to “Israel’s posturing” on Iran. “They [the Israelis] think the Iranians should be held responsible for the higher gasoline prices,” Satloff said.

The possibility that Washington would seek to scapegoat Israel for higher oil prices is an ominous development. While there have been, as yet, no public statements to that effect, or, as is generally the case with this administration, front page features in the New York Times claiming this is what anonymous senior officials are thinking, Israeli may believe this is something they expect to happen. Perhaps by making their fears on this score public, they hope to head off what they believe is an obvious next step from an administration that is friendly to Israel in public but oozing with hostility off the record.
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The campaign of administration leaks aimed at undermining Israel’s position on Iran has been widely noted. But according to Robert Satloff, the respected head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the White House isn’t satisfied with blaming Israel for the chance that Americans might be killed in the event force is used against Iran. Satloff says the Israelis see President Obama as blaming them for rising oil prices as well.

In comments quoted in the WorldTribune.com:

Satloff, who met “virtually everybody in the Iran debate,” said the Israeli leadership also saw the administration as blaming Israel for the sharp rise in U.S. gasoline prices. He said Washington attributed the higher prices to “Israel’s posturing” on Iran. “They [the Israelis] think the Iranians should be held responsible for the higher gasoline prices,” Satloff said.

The possibility that Washington would seek to scapegoat Israel for higher oil prices is an ominous development. While there have been, as yet, no public statements to that effect, or, as is generally the case with this administration, front page features in the New York Times claiming this is what anonymous senior officials are thinking, Israeli may believe this is something they expect to happen. Perhaps by making their fears on this score public, they hope to head off what they believe is an obvious next step from an administration that is friendly to Israel in public but oozing with hostility off the record.

Rising gas prices are a direct threat to the president’s re-election and, as some administration officials made clear in a leaked story in the Times last week, they think Obama’s desire to sound tough on Iran in order to win votes in November is heightening tension with Tehran. As that leak made clear, the president has boxed himself in with his public declaration that he was not willing to “contain” a nuclear Iran. That means the U.S. and its European allies are going to have to make good on their threat of an oil embargo this summer, just when gas prices normally go up anyway. If Obama and the Euros blink on Iran and pass on the embargo, they will rightly be accused of appeasing the ayatollahs. In the event that they keep their word and choke off Iran’s oil export business, the consequent dislocation of petroleum supplies will cause a politically expensive hike in the price of gas.

The Israelis are right to complain that if anyone should be blamed, it is Iran. It should also be pointed out that if Obama hadn’t wasted much of his first three years in office trying to “engage” Iran rather than enforcing sanctions on the regime, he might not be in this bind now. Blame should also go to those countries that may well continue to buy Iranian oil, such as China, India and Obama’s special friend, Turkey.

But while U.S. officials may grouse about Israeli pressure to act on Iran and leak damaging stories about them to the press, any comments that could be traced back to the White House about Israel and oil prices would boomerang on the president. Scapegoating the Jews on oil is exactly the sort of strategic mistake rooted in the administration’s true sentiments that could have a highly negative impact on the voters in November.

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China’s Getting Our Oil Because of Obama, Says Canada PM

This is big news, and not just because it refutes a lot of the skepticism that Canada would ever actually go through with its threats to sell its oil to China. It also shows there will be major consequences from what the Obama administration clearly believed was a harmless little political game it could play with the Keystone XL permitting. Even if the president backs down from his Keystone XL objections now – as Republicans have continued to urge him to do – Canadian PM Stephen Harper says it won’t make a difference.

Canada’s Sun News reports:

In a public one-on-one interview here with Jane Harman, head of the Wilson Centre think-tank, Harper said Obama’s rejection of the controversial pipeline — even temporarily — stressed Canada’s need to find other buyers for oilsands crude.

And that wouldn’t change even if the president’s mind did.

“Look, the very fact that a ‘no’ could even be said underscores to our country that we must diversify our energy export markets,” Harper told Harman in front of a live audience of businesspeople, scholars, diplomats, and journalists.

“We cannot be, as a country, in a situation where our one and, in many cases, only energy partner could say no to our energy products. We just cannot be in that position.” Read More

This is big news, and not just because it refutes a lot of the skepticism that Canada would ever actually go through with its threats to sell its oil to China. It also shows there will be major consequences from what the Obama administration clearly believed was a harmless little political game it could play with the Keystone XL permitting. Even if the president backs down from his Keystone XL objections now – as Republicans have continued to urge him to do – Canadian PM Stephen Harper says it won’t make a difference.

Canada’s Sun News reports:

In a public one-on-one interview here with Jane Harman, head of the Wilson Centre think-tank, Harper said Obama’s rejection of the controversial pipeline — even temporarily — stressed Canada’s need to find other buyers for oilsands crude.

And that wouldn’t change even if the president’s mind did.

“Look, the very fact that a ‘no’ could even be said underscores to our country that we must diversify our energy export markets,” Harper told Harman in front of a live audience of businesspeople, scholars, diplomats, and journalists.

“We cannot be, as a country, in a situation where our one and, in many cases, only energy partner could say no to our energy products. We just cannot be in that position.”

Where to begin on this? First, there’s the amateurishness of an administration that thinks it can string along Canada for political convenience, without realizing the potential fallout. It’s also yet another example of Obama’s commitment to alienating allies while simultaneously aiding adversaries.

And the damages aren’t limited to diplomacy and the U.S. losing out on oil to China. The U.S. will also take a hit on the oil it already purchases, at a reduced rate, from Canada, because of the added competition in the market:

Harper also told Harman that Canada has been selling its oil to the United States at a discounted price.

So not only will America be able to buy less Canadian oil even if Keystone is eventually approved, the U.S. will also have to pay more for it because the market for oilsands crude will be more competitive.

“We have taken a significant price hit by virtue of the fact that we are a captive supplier and that just does not make sense in terms of the broader interests of the Canadian economy,” Harper said. “We’re still going to be a major supplier of the United States. It will be a long time, if ever, before the United States isn’t our number one export market, but for us the United States cannot be our only export market.

“That is not in our interest, either commercially or in terms of pricing.”

The U.S. could be paying for Obama’s political stunt long after he leaves office.

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Survey: Even Liberal Jews Not Crazy About Obama’s Israel Policy

The Public Religion Research Institute, recently in the news for its survey on Catholic attitudes toward the Obama administration’s decision to include religious institutions in its contraception mandate, today released the findings of its polling on American Jewish values: “Chosen for What? Jewish Values in 2012,” a report based on its recent survey of 1,004 self-identified American Jews. Here is one of the key findings highlighted by the report:

When asked which qualities are most important to their Jewish identity, nearly half (46 percent) of American Jews cite a commitment to social equality, twice as many as cite support for Israel (20 percent) or religious observance (17 percent). Fewer than 1-in-10 say that a sense of cultural heritage and tradition (6 percent) or a general set of values (3 percent) are most important to their Jewish identity.

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The Public Religion Research Institute, recently in the news for its survey on Catholic attitudes toward the Obama administration’s decision to include religious institutions in its contraception mandate, today released the findings of its polling on American Jewish values: “Chosen for What? Jewish Values in 2012,” a report based on its recent survey of 1,004 self-identified American Jews. Here is one of the key findings highlighted by the report:

When asked which qualities are most important to their Jewish identity, nearly half (46 percent) of American Jews cite a commitment to social equality, twice as many as cite support for Israel (20 percent) or religious observance (17 percent). Fewer than 1-in-10 say that a sense of cultural heritage and tradition (6 percent) or a general set of values (3 percent) are most important to their Jewish identity.

This is a strong theme of secular liberalism running through the report, authored by PPRI’s Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox, who recently contributed an essay on President Obama for an anthology of presidents and religious influence. The organization’s surveys often focus on testing the Obama administration’s most visible narratives on policy issues. (The previous three surveys were on whether religious liberty is under attack, Americans’ opinion on economic inequality, and whether Catholics support the contraception mandate.)

“Chosen for What?” tests many of these themes among the Jewish population, with similar findings. Tikkun olam, for example, is held to be either somewhat important or very important to 72 percent of respondents. On religion, however, a full 41 percent say it is not too important or not at all important. About 18 percent of respondents said they do not believe in God.

Partisan splits account for some of the other issues polled. On health care, for example, Jewish Republicans say they would overwhelmingly support a Supreme Court decision overturning Obamacare, while Jewish Democrats favor keeping the law by about the same margin. A majority of Jewish independents would favor overturning the administration’s health care reform law.

While the poll paints a picture of a markedly liberal American Jewish community, that fact should give Obama supporters pause on certain issues. Though only 4 percent say Israel is the most important issue for them in the upcoming presidential election, Obama gets mixed reviews for his Middle East policies: “Twenty percent report that they agree with the president’s policies and that they like the way he is executing these policies. Fifteen percent say that they agree with the president’s policies but don’t like the way he is executing these policies. About 3-in-10 (28 percent) say they disagree with the president’s policies.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets high marks, which may help explain why even many of those who agree with Obama’s Mideast policies don’t like the way he carries them out, which usually involved picking a fight with or expressing his contempt for Netanyahu. A majority (59 percent) also support the U.S. taking military action against Iran’s nuclear program if sanctions fail.

This polling institute is led by outspoken allies of, and current or former advisers to, President Obama (as Alana pointed out last month, David Saperstein is its chairman), that polled what turned out to be a mostly liberal population with very liberal answers (high support for abortion in all cases and a majority who think Israel’s “ultra-Orthodox” are too powerful and a “major problem”), and still the president can’t find broad support for his treatment of Israel.

This is a subset of the population ready to defend the president’s policies. They are, however, still waiting for a defensible Israel policy.

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Why Did the Administration Leak the Israel-Azerbaijan Story?

Veteran Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari has written in the Times of Israel claiming last week’s bombshell from Foreign Policy magazine about Azerbaijan’s willingness to allow Israel to use its air bases to strike Iran was pure fiction. Yaari excoriates the editors of Foreign Policy, the Israeli press (including, presumably, the Times of Israel, which prominently reported it) and anyone else (including, presumably, me) for taking it seriously. But though Yaari presents some good arguments why it might not be true, unlike magazine author Mark Perry, he offers no sources or reporting to back up his assertion.

But even if we assume Yaari is right and Perry’s piece is wrong, there are some interesting questions to be posed about the piece. Unless you are willing to believe, as perhaps Yaari and others disputing its authenticity do, that Perry is lying about the fact that senior officials in the Obama administration leaked the story to him, it’s still important to ask why they did so. What possible motive could they have had?

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Veteran Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari has written in the Times of Israel claiming last week’s bombshell from Foreign Policy magazine about Azerbaijan’s willingness to allow Israel to use its air bases to strike Iran was pure fiction. Yaari excoriates the editors of Foreign Policy, the Israeli press (including, presumably, the Times of Israel, which prominently reported it) and anyone else (including, presumably, me) for taking it seriously. But though Yaari presents some good arguments why it might not be true, unlike magazine author Mark Perry, he offers no sources or reporting to back up his assertion.

But even if we assume Yaari is right and Perry’s piece is wrong, there are some interesting questions to be posed about the piece. Unless you are willing to believe, as perhaps Yaari and others disputing its authenticity do, that Perry is lying about the fact that senior officials in the Obama administration leaked the story to him, it’s still important to ask why they did so. What possible motive could they have had?

The answer is simple. Whether the air base angle was true or not, publicizing the ongoing close cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan (something Yaari actually concedes is factual) can only make it more difficult for that relationship to continue. Because, as Yaari rightly notes, Perry is no friend of Israel, the willingness of Obama’s minions to circulate the tale speaks volumes about the off-the-record malevolence that lurks beneath the surface of the president’s current charm offensive aimed at Jewish voters.

As to the facts of the piece, Yaari has a fair point when he asks how Israeli planes could fly to Azerbaijan to launch strikes against Iran. As he notes, Iran’s friend Turkey is not likely to permit the Israeli Air Force to fly over its territory to get to the Azeri bases. But Perry’s story seems to indicate that the use of the bases would be used to land the planes after an attack on Iran, not necessarily as the source of possible attacks. Because Yaari knows Israel is currently able to fly in arms it is supplying to the Azeris, the notion that it has the ability to send personnel needed for refueling, rescue or other services that the IAF might need in the event of an attack on Iran does not seem to be such a flight of fancy.

Yaari also has a cogent criticism when he ponders how exactly the authoritarian government of Azerbaijan could hope to get away with defying Iran as Tehran has been so helpful to the Azeris in their conflict with Armenia. He also might have asked whether Russia would tolerate such behavior. But to ask such questions is not the same thing as having proof that the Azeris are not contemplating life after Iran’s regional ambitions are cut down to size by an Israeli attack. Moreover, as Yaari himself readily concedes, the fact that Azerbaijan “maintains close relations with Israel including big arms and oil deals,” it is also not unreasonable to assume that the conflict with Iran is now part of that equation.

Yaari seems to infer that because Perry has no love for Israel, his effort to publicize the Israel-Azeri alliance is to undermine it. Yaari also appears to believe that any story whose premise is based on the likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran is similarly ill-intentioned. But that brings us back to what I have always thought was just as important as the idea of the air bases themselves: why the Obama administration leaked it in the first place.

Rather than breaking our heads on the question of just how far the Azeris are prepared to go in defying Iran for the sake of their friendship with Israel (the answer to which is as much a mystery to Yaari as it is to me), we would all do better to consider why it was so important for the State Department and the White House that this friendship be placed in jeopardy. Those pondering what a second term for President Obama would mean to Israel need to think more about the leakers’ motives than those of Perry or the editors at Foreign Policy.

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Russia Ambassador “New to Diplomacy?”

Last week, President Obama won fulsome praise from outgoing Russian President Medvedev, this after the Obama administration spent four years ignoring how the Russians were by turns intimidating and outflanking our diplomats.

With impeccable timing, last week was also when U.S. diplomacy in Russia slipped into some kind of foreign policy Twilight Zone, in which naive geopolitical plotting merged with bumbling incompetence merged with admitted inexperience merged even with the State Department’s now-tired but still obnoxious fascination with Twitter – all covered with a thick coat of irony.

It was like a cosmic convergence of every criticism ever leveled about how the Obama administration conducts foreign affairs. Even the really churlish and tangential ones.

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Last week, President Obama won fulsome praise from outgoing Russian President Medvedev, this after the Obama administration spent four years ignoring how the Russians were by turns intimidating and outflanking our diplomats.

With impeccable timing, last week was also when U.S. diplomacy in Russia slipped into some kind of foreign policy Twilight Zone, in which naive geopolitical plotting merged with bumbling incompetence merged with admitted inexperience merged even with the State Department’s now-tired but still obnoxious fascination with Twitter – all covered with a thick coat of irony.

It was like a cosmic convergence of every criticism ever leveled about how the Obama administration conducts foreign affairs. Even the really churlish and tangential ones.

U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, the architect of the “reset” by which President Obama would use his personal charm to get Russia to cease pursuing its national interest, thew something of a fit. Hostile Russian journalists kept ambushing him at events, which he took – correctly – to mean they were getting his schedule in advance. In the midst of a longer rant about said ambushes, the ambassador accused the reporters of tapping his phone and email. The meltdown was preceded and followed by tweets similarly implying that Russian media organizations were diving into his personal communications.

Eventually someone explained to the ambassador that he was actually the target of a harassment campaign coordinated with Russian officials, ergo, press access to his schedule. McFaul tweeted an apology to the journalists whom he had accused of spying on him, reminding everyone that – hey – this whole diplomacy thing is new to him. Seriously:

McFaul seemed relieved to hear that Russian journalists are not tapping his phones. But he emphasized that the U.S. government does not tip off reporters in Washington about the travels of his Russian counterpart. “I am new to the world of diplomacy and did not [know] this fact. Thanks. I know we do not do the same with Russian ambo in U.S.,” McFaul tweeted. “Maybe I should start publishing my schedule? I am always happy to interact with press.”

Now it’s not impossible the ambassador was being sardonic, and he isn’t a dangerously inexperienced diplomat naively invested in a bonny fantasy of international harmony. Maybe the upshot of his tweet was “of course I know it’s the Russian government you guys; I’m obviously being passive-aggressive about naming names.” But the tweet’s overall tone, coupled with the earnest offer at the end, makes that interpretation unlikely. And as Seth recently noted, the kinds of conversations that Obama officials have with their Russian counterparts are in stark contrast to how petulant Russian power plays were dealt with during the Bush years. If the ambassador was sarcastically addressing Russian officials, it would be a departure.

Historians will wonder how the Obama administration could possibly have ignored all the evidence cutting against hopes for Russian good behavior. This minor but revealing affair with McFaul, where ideology insulated by inexperience prevented him from drawing some fairly obvious conclusions about Russian behavior, probably won’t make an appearance. But it should.

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Rep. Ryan: “I Misspoke” About the Generals

In an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, Rep. Paul Ryan backed away from his comments that questioned whether generals were being honest with Congress by supporting the Obama administration’s defense budget proposal.

Ryan told Crowley that he “misspoke” last week, and said he has called Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and apologized:

“Yes – no, I really misspoke, to be candid with you, Candy. I didn’t mean to make that kind of an impression. So I was clumsy in how I was describing the point I was trying to make. And the point I was trying to make – and General Dempsey and I spoke after that. And we – I wanted to give that point to him, which was, that was not what I was attempting to say.

What I was attempting to say is, President Obama put out his budget number for the Pentagon first, $500 billion cut, and then they began the strategy review to conform the budget to meet that number.

We think it should have been the other way around. What is the best strategy for our military and so we have a strategy driven budget. Now the result of our review of the president’s budget on the military was we should cut $3 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next 10 years instead of the $500 billion.”

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In an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, Rep. Paul Ryan backed away from his comments that questioned whether generals were being honest with Congress by supporting the Obama administration’s defense budget proposal.

Ryan told Crowley that he “misspoke” last week, and said he has called Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and apologized:

“Yes – no, I really misspoke, to be candid with you, Candy. I didn’t mean to make that kind of an impression. So I was clumsy in how I was describing the point I was trying to make. And the point I was trying to make – and General Dempsey and I spoke after that. And we – I wanted to give that point to him, which was, that was not what I was attempting to say.

What I was attempting to say is, President Obama put out his budget number for the Pentagon first, $500 billion cut, and then they began the strategy review to conform the budget to meet that number.

We think it should have been the other way around. What is the best strategy for our military and so we have a strategy driven budget. Now the result of our review of the president’s budget on the military was we should cut $3 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next 10 years instead of the $500 billion.”

This should put that matter to rest, though it was an unfortunate unforced error for Ryan to make the same week he rolled out his budget plan. The proposal is enough of a magnet for criticism on its own without the additional controversy. Ryan wasn’t necessarily wrong in his assertion, but putting the generals on the spot like that is unhelpful, and of course they’re going to stand by their original testimony. Whatever military brass is telling Ryan behind the scenes, and I don’t doubt it’s critical of the president’s proposals, this was a losing way for him to frame the argument.

But Ryan was right to steer the conversation back to the real issue, which is that the president wrote down a budget cut number and asked the Pentagon to meet it. As Republicans have been arguing, that’s a risky way to handle reductions. Few would say the defense budget should be exempt from scrutiny and potential cuts, but they should be with security as the priority, not an arbitrary number handed down by the administration.

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U.S. Intel Undermined by Iraq, Obama

Much of Sunday’s New York Times story by James Risen suggests that U.S. intelligence analysts are overcompensating for their past failures on Iraqi WMDs by minimizing the risk of Iranian WMDs in the future. The upshot is that the Israelis might be right to distrust President Obama’s “we can wait until the very last minute” reassurances on Iranian weaponization, as politicized and skittish U.S. intelligence evaluations might miss that signal.

But Iraq isn’t the only ghost the article finds wandering around the hallways. The phrase you’re looking for is “top-down pressure,” which appears right below a paragraph about how the Obama administration is committed to studious denial of Iranian intentions:

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Much of Sunday’s New York Times story by James Risen suggests that U.S. intelligence analysts are overcompensating for their past failures on Iraqi WMDs by minimizing the risk of Iranian WMDs in the future. The upshot is that the Israelis might be right to distrust President Obama’s “we can wait until the very last minute” reassurances on Iranian weaponization, as politicized and skittish U.S. intelligence evaluations might miss that signal.

But Iraq isn’t the only ghost the article finds wandering around the hallways. The phrase you’re looking for is “top-down pressure,” which appears right below a paragraph about how the Obama administration is committed to studious denial of Iranian intentions:

But some conservatives who support more aggressive action to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon argue that the C.I.A.’s restraint has, in fact, been influenced by political pressure exerted by the Obama administration. President Obama has said he would use military force only as a last resort against Iran, and conservatives argue that the Obama administration does not want the intelligence community to produce any reports suggesting the Iranians are moving swiftly to build a bomb.

“The intelligence analysts I’ve dealt with have always been willing to engage in debates on their conclusions, but there is top-down pressure to make the assessments come out a certain way,” said John R. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former ambassador to the United Nations in the Bush administration.

Previous and subsequent paragraphs reference the notoriously politicized and eventually discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) – a quasi-putsch created to knock out President Bush’s knees lest he act on Iranian nuclearization – that certain intelligence sources have been shopping around to the media. The article further points out that the unpublished 2010 NIE concluded that Iran had restarted “some basic weapons-related research” but had not “restarted the actual weapons program.”

That’s the kind of semantic distinction-without-a-difference that makes people – described in the article as “some conservatives” – worry that U.S. intelligence agencies are trying a little too hard to avoid drawing obvious conclusions.

A more popular version of the same basic talking point is that “the Iranian leadership has not made a decision to build an atomic bomb,” a phrase that also makes an appearance in the article. This is not a good argument. Of course the mullahs haven’t made the decision to construct a bomb yet. They’re not there yet. When they have the components for a nuclear device, then it will make sense to talk about their decision to construct one. They’re not at a point where they can say “yay” or “nay,” so they still haven’t said “yay.” No kidding.

This reasoning is the equivalent of me pointing out how “I have not made a decision to spend my lottery millions on an island.” That’s technically true, but only in the trivial sense that – having not yet won the lottery – I haven’t gotten to the point where I can sensibly make a decision on whether I’m going to spend my winnings. Iran hasn’t made a decision to build a nuclear weapon in the same technically true but totally trivial sense. And yet public and private Iran analysts insist there’s some significance in the mullahs not having made a decision on something they’re still incapable of deciding upon.

It’s getting easier and easier to understand why the Israelis don’t take those arguments seriously, and why they’re nervous that some in the U.S. intelligence community seem to.

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Administration Iran Leakfest Means Obama’s Tough Stance is Just Talk

Nothing annoys foreign policy establishment types more than the need for presidents to pander to the opinions of the voters. That’s even more true this year than most as President Obama’s desire to pose as Israel’s best friend ever to sit in the White House has caused him to take stands that not only bother veteran Foggy Bottom “realists” but also his core supporters and staffers who apparently take a dim view of the desire of the overwhelming majority of the American people to support Israel and to vigorously oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But though Obama’s Jewish charm offensive may still be in full swing, government insiders are apparently working overtime to send Israel and the rest of the world the signal that the president’s political commitments ought not to be taken all that seriously.

That’s the upshot of a week of heavy duty leaking on the part of administration officials who are less than thrilled about the fact that the president has publicly enlisted them in an effort to stop Iran. Yesterday, there was the attempt by Washington to expose Israel’s secret alliance with Azerbaijan and thereby ensure that it would be broken off so as to render an attack on Iran more difficult. Today, the New York Times has another leaked story in which anonymous government figures state their concern the president’s public rhetoric on Iran has boxed them into a spot that neither he nor they want to be in.

Read More

Nothing annoys foreign policy establishment types more than the need for presidents to pander to the opinions of the voters. That’s even more true this year than most as President Obama’s desire to pose as Israel’s best friend ever to sit in the White House has caused him to take stands that not only bother veteran Foggy Bottom “realists” but also his core supporters and staffers who apparently take a dim view of the desire of the overwhelming majority of the American people to support Israel and to vigorously oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But though Obama’s Jewish charm offensive may still be in full swing, government insiders are apparently working overtime to send Israel and the rest of the world the signal that the president’s political commitments ought not to be taken all that seriously.

That’s the upshot of a week of heavy duty leaking on the part of administration officials who are less than thrilled about the fact that the president has publicly enlisted them in an effort to stop Iran. Yesterday, there was the attempt by Washington to expose Israel’s secret alliance with Azerbaijan and thereby ensure that it would be broken off so as to render an attack on Iran more difficult. Today, the New York Times has another leaked story in which anonymous government figures state their concern the president’s public rhetoric on Iran has boxed them into a spot that neither he nor they want to be in.

The leaking demonstrates just how unhappy the Washington foreign and defense policy establishment is about the way the president’s re-election campaign has led him to commit himself to action on Iran. Lest there be any doubt about the purpose of these disclosures, the officials tell the Times their hope is these stories as well as the recent leak about a Pentagon war simulation that was specifically crafted to feed speculation about possible U.S. casualties in the event of a conflict with Iran are designed to “provide the president with some political cover.”

The “cover” will presumably be necessary because the administration has no intention of ever actually going to the mat with Iran in spite of all the tough talk that comes out of the president’s mouth when addressing pro-Israel audiences. Some of the anonymous sources for the Times story are worried about the tough talk taking on a life of its own and overwhelming their proposed diplomatic plans on Iran. But the underlying assumption of these leaks is that the real truth about the president’s plans was revealed in his “hot mic” moment with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev when he spoke of having more “flexibility” after his “last election,” not his speech to AIPAC.

But for all the duplicity involved in the formulation of current U.S. policy toward Iran, the leakers have brought attention to a genuine dilemma. The president has condemned “loose talk” about war with Iran and has stuck to his belief that diplomacy can find a way to beguile the Iranians to abandon their nuclear plans. But the talkative administration officials understand all too well that the president’s “window of diplomacy” never really existed. No matter how much they boast of their success in creating an international coalition to back sanctions against Iran, they know this is mere talk. The Iranians don’t believe the Europeans will, when push comes to shove, enforce crippling sanctions against them. And they have no intention of backing down.

That means sooner or later, President Obama will have to choose between actually taking action on Iran and breaking his promise to ensure that Iran never goes nuclear. His staffers just hope that moment comes after November when, they presume, he can safely break his word. After all these leaks, if the Iranians didn’t already know this to be true, they know it now.

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