Commentary Magazine


Topic: Secretary of State

The Myths and Facts of a Possible Hillary Clinton Presidential Candidacy

In the contest for most enjoyable political Tumblr–essentially a photo blog conducive to snapshot satire–of the season, the stiffest competition faced by the runaway leader “Newt Judges You” came, surprisingly, from one devoted to Hillary Clinton. Even more surprisingly, it portrayed her convincingly as endlessly cool–an impression all the more cemented by Clinton’s handwritten note of appreciation to the previously obscure creators.

This coolness factor has only increased speculation that Clinton may still be interested in running for president in 2016. Time’s Michael Crowley dives into the debate, noting–correctly–that Clinton seems to have washed away the ill will of her Democratic Party rivals from the bitter 2008 campaign in her term as the embattled president’s secretary of state. But I think Crowley, in turns, overestimates Clinton’s appeal as well as one of the obstacles in her way. He writes:

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In the contest for most enjoyable political Tumblr–essentially a photo blog conducive to snapshot satire–of the season, the stiffest competition faced by the runaway leader “Newt Judges You” came, surprisingly, from one devoted to Hillary Clinton. Even more surprisingly, it portrayed her convincingly as endlessly cool–an impression all the more cemented by Clinton’s handwritten note of appreciation to the previously obscure creators.

This coolness factor has only increased speculation that Clinton may still be interested in running for president in 2016. Time’s Michael Crowley dives into the debate, noting–correctly–that Clinton seems to have washed away the ill will of her Democratic Party rivals from the bitter 2008 campaign in her term as the embattled president’s secretary of state. But I think Crowley, in turns, overestimates Clinton’s appeal as well as one of the obstacles in her way. He writes:

She’s pulled off the neat trick of being a loyal soldier to Obama while restoring her own poll numbers to record highs. And she’s won high marks for her performance as secretary of state — perhaps in part because she has managed, whether through accident or design, not to get bogged down in some of the Obama administration’s thorniest foreign policy challenges, including the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Iran nuclear showdown.

Will Clinton run in 2016? Who knows? Party insiders certainly don’t rule it out, though they tend to say it probably depends on whether Obama wins a second term. It’s easier for her if he doesn’t, especially because she won’t have to challenge a sitting Vice President.

It’s true that last year Clinton’s job approval hit 66 percent. But while she certainly has done some things right, her job approval mirrors that of her predecessors. That Gallup poll was accompanied by a description of previous secretaries of state, and Clinton’s numbers were right around those of Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright. They come nowhere close, however, to Colin Powell’s approval ratings at Foggy Bottom, which were consistently in the 80s, reaching a high of 88 percent. This is no knock on Clinton, but there is no guarantee–indeed it is unlikely–that her high approval ratings would follow her back into the political sphere, where she has always been considered an especially divisive figure.

Whether or not it would be easier for Clinton to run in 2016 if President Obama loses this year would depend greatly on the first term of his would-be Republican successor. It’s also possible that an Obama victory this year could hurt Clinton’s chances in 2016 because it is difficult for any party to win the White House three times in a row.

Contra Crowley, however, having to compete for her party’s nomination with Joe Biden would be a gift from the heavens for Clinton. First of all, Biden’s approval ratings now, at a time when his gobsmacking inability to speak coherently is relegated to the vice presidential sideshow, is 46 percent, according to that same Gallup poll. Biden’s racially insensitive remarks about African-Americans and Indian-Americans and his other horrific displays of unfiltered logorrhea are either papered over by a friendly media or dismissed with a condescending pat on the head. It would be difficult to ignore him if he were in any position to win his party’s nomination for president.

He was put on the ticket in 2008 ostensibly for his “foreign policy experience,” though his relevant ideas turn out to be excruciatingly half-baked, indecipherable, or just plain wrong. Hillary Clinton would face several challenges if she decides to run for president again. Running against Joe Biden would not be one of them.

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Fareed Zakaria for Secretary of State?

Adam Kredo at the Washington Free Beacon reports on speculation that the Obama administration might consider CNN talk show host Fareed Zakaria for a senior diplomatic post, perhaps even Secretary of State. Kredo raises concern regarding Zakaria’s naiveté regarding Iran, and to this one could add his pronounced lack of appreciation for fundamental tenets such as freedom and liberty.

What concerns me more about Zakaria, however, is his willing to compromise on basic American political freedoms. In his capacity as a trustee on the Yale Corporation, Yale University’s governing body, Zakaria counseled the university to embrace censorship ahead of its decision to interfere editorially in the nominally independent Yale University Press to censor an academic work on the Danish cartoon controversy. “You’re balancing issues of the First Amendment and academic freedom, but then you have this real question of what would be the consequences on human life,’’ he explained.

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Adam Kredo at the Washington Free Beacon reports on speculation that the Obama administration might consider CNN talk show host Fareed Zakaria for a senior diplomatic post, perhaps even Secretary of State. Kredo raises concern regarding Zakaria’s naiveté regarding Iran, and to this one could add his pronounced lack of appreciation for fundamental tenets such as freedom and liberty.

What concerns me more about Zakaria, however, is his willing to compromise on basic American political freedoms. In his capacity as a trustee on the Yale Corporation, Yale University’s governing body, Zakaria counseled the university to embrace censorship ahead of its decision to interfere editorially in the nominally independent Yale University Press to censor an academic work on the Danish cartoon controversy. “You’re balancing issues of the First Amendment and academic freedom, but then you have this real question of what would be the consequences on human life,’’ he explained.

Now, Yale had received no threats whatsoever, so what Zakaria counseled was preemptive surrender. If the United States is to triumph over its enemies, ready abandonment of traditional American values is not a reflex the United States needs.

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Sharansky: Reagan Right, Critics Wrong

Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California, he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan states in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations. Even so — and this underscores the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents — he found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but there were no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan notes in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge. … I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.” Read More

Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California, he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan states in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations. Even so — and this underscores the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents — he found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but there were no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan notes in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge. … I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Later in 1981, a bitter fight was played out in Congress between the White House and supporters of Israel over Reagan’s determination to follow through on the Carter administration’s decision to sell Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS) to Saudi Arabia. The sale was finally approved by a narrow margin, but the confrontation left bruised feelings and egos on both sides.

Ironically, Israeli military leaders were never in the forefront of the AWACS opposition; according to Raviv and Melman, “the commanders of the Israeli air force — the officers most directly concerned — were willing to live with AWACS flying over Saudi Arabia. They did not see them as a serious threat to Israel’s security.”

The U.S.-Israel relationship was strong enough by then to survive a series of mini-crises during the Reagan era, including Washington’s dismay at the scope of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon; the failure of the so-called Reagan Plan, which called for a freeze on Israeli settlements and the eventual creation of a quasi-independent Palestinian entity; the visit by Reagan to a German cemetery that contained the remains of SS soldiers; the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Israel played a major role; the arrest and conviction of an American citizen, Jonathan Pollard, on charges of spying for Israel; and the administration’s 1988 decision to talk to the PLO after Yasir Arafat made the requisite noises about recognizing Israel.

Through it all, Reagan provided more military and financial aid to Israel than any of his predecessors. Washington also worked closer with Israel on the economic front, and in 1985 the administration signed a landmark Free Trade Area agreement, long sought by Israel, which resulted in a hefty boost in Israeli exports to the U.S.

Beyond the Middle East, the plight of Soviet Jews was bound to strike a sympathetic chord with someone as unbendingly anti-Communist as Reagan.

“The Soviet leaders,” recalled former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir,  “told me that every time they met with [Secretary of State George] Shultz, he raised the issue of Soviet Jewry.”

The Reagan administration was instrumental in gaining the release in 1986 of prominent Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky, imprisoned for nine years on trumped-up treason charges. Sharansky has written of his reaction when, in 1983, confined to a tiny cell in a prison near the Siberian border, he saw on the front page of Pravda that Reagan — much to the ridicule and outrage of American and European liberals — had labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

As Sharansky describes it:

Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s “provocation” quickly spread throughout the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us. I never imagined that three years later I would be in the White House telling this story to the president. … Reagan was right and his critics were wrong.

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Neoconservatives and Democracy: A 30-Year Story

So it comes as a shock to many people, evidently, that “neoconservative” American intellectuals are consistent in holding the opinion that the national interest is best served by offering moral, logistical, and rhetorical support to those who seek “regime change” in dictatorial societies.

The plain fact of the matter is that this has been the “neoconservative” view for nearly three decades now — since the decision was made during the effort to save El Salvador from Soviet- and Cuban-aligned guerrilla forces to simultaneously push for elections there. That was a controversial choice then; people on the liberal left considered the El Salvador democratization policy mere window dressing for alignment with right-wing thugs, and realist conservatives considered it a display of ludicrous sentimentality.

The 1982 election in El Salvador was a turning point, however, a moment when the people of that country made it clear that they wanted a way out of the binary choice of a junta or a Castro-ite state. It had been Jeane Kirkpatrick’s argument in her great 1979 COMMENTARY article that, when there is a binary choice between authoritarians and totalitarians, it is not only prudent but moral to choose the former, in part because authoritarian societies can change and evolve.

But what if there are choices that go beyond the binary? That was, in effect, what the democratization strategy was all about. It complemented Kirkpatrick’s argument in one sense because it was predicated on the notion that authoritarian regimes could be pushed toward change. But it also superseded it, since it suggested that the citizens of these nations could and would play a vital role not only in creating the change but also in implementing it.

This was not a developed philosophy at the time; indeed, the El Salvador policy was conceived in response to events on the ground and the need to build domestic support for anti-Communist efforts in Latin America. But over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, with lessons learned along the way, the democratization strategy became something more coherent. Read More

So it comes as a shock to many people, evidently, that “neoconservative” American intellectuals are consistent in holding the opinion that the national interest is best served by offering moral, logistical, and rhetorical support to those who seek “regime change” in dictatorial societies.

The plain fact of the matter is that this has been the “neoconservative” view for nearly three decades now — since the decision was made during the effort to save El Salvador from Soviet- and Cuban-aligned guerrilla forces to simultaneously push for elections there. That was a controversial choice then; people on the liberal left considered the El Salvador democratization policy mere window dressing for alignment with right-wing thugs, and realist conservatives considered it a display of ludicrous sentimentality.

The 1982 election in El Salvador was a turning point, however, a moment when the people of that country made it clear that they wanted a way out of the binary choice of a junta or a Castro-ite state. It had been Jeane Kirkpatrick’s argument in her great 1979 COMMENTARY article that, when there is a binary choice between authoritarians and totalitarians, it is not only prudent but moral to choose the former, in part because authoritarian societies can change and evolve.

But what if there are choices that go beyond the binary? That was, in effect, what the democratization strategy was all about. It complemented Kirkpatrick’s argument in one sense because it was predicated on the notion that authoritarian regimes could be pushed toward change. But it also superseded it, since it suggested that the citizens of these nations could and would play a vital role not only in creating the change but also in implementing it.

This was not a developed philosophy at the time; indeed, the El Salvador policy was conceived in response to events on the ground and the need to build domestic support for anti-Communist efforts in Latin America. But over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, with lessons learned along the way, the democratization strategy became something more coherent.

For example, in the case of the anti-Communist efforts in Nicaragua, the CIA preferred working with the Contras, for whom its agents had essentially bought and paid, no matter their political coloration; officials at the State Department, however, thought that it was a mistake to align the United States with elements of the previous thug regime and that the U.S. should be promoting liberal forces within the Contra movement.

But probably the key year for the maturation of these ideas was 1986. It was a general axiom on the right, including among neoconservatives, that efforts to impose an economic embargo on South Africa were dangerous and naive because, though the apartheid regime might be unjust, it could be pushed to reform, and the sanctions might lead to a Soviet-aligned takeover of a strategically important country. When Congress voted for such sanctions, Ronald Reagan vetoed them. His veto was overridden.

And those of us who thought the sanctions would be disastrous were proved utterly mistaken. They turned out to be an effective strategy for crippling the regime without toppling it and forcing its end in a manner more pacific than anyone expected. (Not that South Africa post-apartheid is a wonderful model, but it was a gravely wounded civil society, and its healing will take a long time.) Part of the reason that sanctions have been a part of the American diplomatic toolbox ever since, and always with neoconservative support, is that they proved successful in South Africa.

The other thing that happened was an election in the Philippines, whose authoritarian junta regime was closely allied with the United States. The clear theft of the election by Ferdinand Marcos’s forces created a massive groundswell in the streets. At first, the White House did what Barack Obama did with the revolt in Egypt — it tried to stay out of it. Then-Secretary of State George Shultz, together with the later-notorious Paul Wolfowitz, who ran the State Department’s East Asia bureau, convinced Ronald Reagan to change policy, support those who said the election had been stolen, and eventually, with great efficiency, convince Marcos it was time for him to go.

And on it went, with South Korea and Taiwan and Chile and many other nations whose authoritarian regimes peacefully gave way to more liberal ones in part because of the encouragement of the United States.

It’s not a perfect strategy, by any means. No strategy is, and no strategy is applicable in every circumstance. The danger that Egypt might not follow in the path of the Philippines but rather in the path of revolutionary Iran is very real. But as the year of Carter-administration fecklessness on Iran that preceded Khomeini’s takeover in 1979 proved, a policy of passivity is not a way out for a president who does not know what to do.

America can’t not choose sides in such a struggle. Not choosing sides is, in effect, to choose sides. So it’s better to have a policy that offers a direction congruent with our values, and with a proven track record, than one that offers nothing but confusion.

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Georgian Prime Minister: New START Will Help Make Russia ‘More Civilized’

As President Obama prepared to sign the final paperwork for New START today,  Georgian Prime Minister Nikoloz Gilauri publicly praised the treaty and the U.S.-Russia reset at a breakfast with reporters.

“Whatever makes Russia more civilized, we’ll be happy to see,” said Gilauri. “And I think this move by President Obama was to make Russia more civilized.”

The prime minister also seemed satisfied with the small victories Georgia has achieved so far. For example, he noted that, despite the reset, President Obama has voiced his disapproval of the Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“The whole world right now admits that the Russian forces in Georgia are occupying forces,” he said. “And occupation cannot last long.”

Some foreign-policy experts have been critical of the U.S.’s position on Russia’s occupation of Georgia, saying that the Obama administration has offered lip service and little else.

“Beyond symbolism and semantics … the change does not seem to reflect any pro-active U.S. policy to reverse Russia’s conquests,” Jamestown Foundation senior fellow Vladimir Socor wrote in the Eurasia Daily Monitor last summer, in reference to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of the term “occupation” to describe the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But Georgia’s praise of New START and the reset shows that the country is eager to do what it can to prove itself a reliable ally of the U.S. — in contrast to its unpredictable neighbor.

“We feel like the leaders of democracy and western values in that part of the world,” said Gilauri.

New START is expected to take effect on Feb. 5, when Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov exchange ratification documents at a security conference in Munich.

As President Obama prepared to sign the final paperwork for New START today,  Georgian Prime Minister Nikoloz Gilauri publicly praised the treaty and the U.S.-Russia reset at a breakfast with reporters.

“Whatever makes Russia more civilized, we’ll be happy to see,” said Gilauri. “And I think this move by President Obama was to make Russia more civilized.”

The prime minister also seemed satisfied with the small victories Georgia has achieved so far. For example, he noted that, despite the reset, President Obama has voiced his disapproval of the Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“The whole world right now admits that the Russian forces in Georgia are occupying forces,” he said. “And occupation cannot last long.”

Some foreign-policy experts have been critical of the U.S.’s position on Russia’s occupation of Georgia, saying that the Obama administration has offered lip service and little else.

“Beyond symbolism and semantics … the change does not seem to reflect any pro-active U.S. policy to reverse Russia’s conquests,” Jamestown Foundation senior fellow Vladimir Socor wrote in the Eurasia Daily Monitor last summer, in reference to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of the term “occupation” to describe the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But Georgia’s praise of New START and the reset shows that the country is eager to do what it can to prove itself a reliable ally of the U.S. — in contrast to its unpredictable neighbor.

“We feel like the leaders of democracy and western values in that part of the world,” said Gilauri.

New START is expected to take effect on Feb. 5, when Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov exchange ratification documents at a security conference in Munich.

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Realpolitik vs. the Long-Term Good

One of the ironies of the present crisis in Egypt is that it is exposing once again the ridiculousness of one of the nasty slurs flung against neocons by the likes of John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt who accuse them of being — what else? — agents of Israel, Likud, the International Zionist Conspiracy, or whatever. To hear these realpolitikers tell it, when neocons advocate liberal reform in the Middle East, they are secretly doing the bidding of their Zionist puppet-masters to the detriment of American interests (as understood, of course, by the same folks who thought that Mubarak was a rock of stability — and before him, the Shah of Iran). In reality, most Israelis fall firmly in the realpolitik camp and, were it not for their knee-jerk Israel-bashing, would agree with Mearsheimer/Walt about how to define American interests in the Middle East. (Natan Sharansky, a prominent advocate of Arab democratization, is one of the few exceptions, but he is seen as very much an outlier.)

Consider this Reuters dispatch headlined “Israel Shocked by Obama’s ‘Betrayal’ of Mubarak.” It quotes some truly hysterical comments from Israeli commentators bemoaning the apparent end of the Mubarak regime. A sample:

One comment by Aviad Pohoryles in the daily Maariv was entitled “A Bullet in the Back from Uncle Sam.” It accused Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of pursuing a naive, smug, and insular diplomacy heedless of the risks.

Who is advising them, he asked, “to fuel the mob raging in the streets of Egypt and to demand the head of the person who five minutes ago was the bold ally of the president … an almost lone voice of sanity in a Middle East?”

“The politically correct diplomacy of American presidents throughout the generations … is painfully naive.”

This is the authentic voice of the Israeli public facing the loss of “their” man in Cairo. Like many Western realpolitikers, most Israelis I have spoken with assume that Arabs are incapable of practicing democracy and that any attempt to tinker with the stable if oppressive status quo in surrounding states will lead only to the creation of more anti-Israeli regimes. I have heard Israeli officials defend keeping in power the Assad regime in Syria, which is still technically at war with Israel. Needless to say, Israelis are even more devoted to Mubarak and the Hashemites in Jordan, who have actually made peace with them. Read More

One of the ironies of the present crisis in Egypt is that it is exposing once again the ridiculousness of one of the nasty slurs flung against neocons by the likes of John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt who accuse them of being — what else? — agents of Israel, Likud, the International Zionist Conspiracy, or whatever. To hear these realpolitikers tell it, when neocons advocate liberal reform in the Middle East, they are secretly doing the bidding of their Zionist puppet-masters to the detriment of American interests (as understood, of course, by the same folks who thought that Mubarak was a rock of stability — and before him, the Shah of Iran). In reality, most Israelis fall firmly in the realpolitik camp and, were it not for their knee-jerk Israel-bashing, would agree with Mearsheimer/Walt about how to define American interests in the Middle East. (Natan Sharansky, a prominent advocate of Arab democratization, is one of the few exceptions, but he is seen as very much an outlier.)

Consider this Reuters dispatch headlined “Israel Shocked by Obama’s ‘Betrayal’ of Mubarak.” It quotes some truly hysterical comments from Israeli commentators bemoaning the apparent end of the Mubarak regime. A sample:

One comment by Aviad Pohoryles in the daily Maariv was entitled “A Bullet in the Back from Uncle Sam.” It accused Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of pursuing a naive, smug, and insular diplomacy heedless of the risks.

Who is advising them, he asked, “to fuel the mob raging in the streets of Egypt and to demand the head of the person who five minutes ago was the bold ally of the president … an almost lone voice of sanity in a Middle East?”

“The politically correct diplomacy of American presidents throughout the generations … is painfully naive.”

This is the authentic voice of the Israeli public facing the loss of “their” man in Cairo. Like many Western realpolitikers, most Israelis I have spoken with assume that Arabs are incapable of practicing democracy and that any attempt to tinker with the stable if oppressive status quo in surrounding states will lead only to the creation of more anti-Israeli regimes. I have heard Israeli officials defend keeping in power the Assad regime in Syria, which is still technically at war with Israel. Needless to say, Israelis are even more devoted to Mubarak and the Hashemites in Jordan, who have actually made peace with them.

Their outlook is understandable, but, I believe, short-sighted. As I argue in the Wall Street Journal today, Mubarak may have been friendly with Israeli and American leaders, but he also turned a blind eye to the vile anti-Semitic and anti-Western propaganda spread by his state media, schools, and mosques. This, along with the stagnation of his sclerotic regime, has made Egypt a prime breeding ground for Islamist extremism.

The U.S. and Israel have bought ourselves some help from Mubarak over the past 30 years but at a high price. It was always obvious that the bargain couldn’t last forever, because Mubarak was intensely unpopular and would fall sooner or later. Some of us were arguing for years that the U.S. had to do more to pressure Mubarak to reform, even to hold hostage his American aid package (see, for instance, this 2006 op-ed I wrote). Our concerns were dismissed by the realpolitikers, in both the U.S. and Israel, who said it was no business of ours to meddle in Egyptian politics. Now events are spinning out of control and we can do little to affect the outcome.

If there is one lesson that should be drawn from this crisis it is that we can’t back an unpopular and illegitimate status quo indefinitely. Now is the time to push for real reform in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other allied states — not to mention in hostile states such as Syria and Iran. But I bet Israel will prefer to cling to its realpolitik policies.

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The Slap Heard Round the World

It is amazing that the political revolution now sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa was started by a 26-year-old unemployed Tunisian man who self-immolated.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits-and-vegetables market stand was confiscated by police because it had no permit, tried to yank back his apples. He was slapped in the face by a female municipal inspector and eventually beaten by her colleagues. His later appeals were ignored. Humiliated, he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. He died on January 4.

That incident was the spark that set ablaze the revolution that overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for more than two decades — and that, in turn, spread to Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign of power is about to end. Anti-government protests are also happening in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and elsewhere. It’s hard to tell where all this will end; but how it began may rank among the more extraordinary hinge moments in history. It may come to be known as the Slap Heard Round the World.

How hopeful or fearful one feels about the unfolding events in Egypt depends in large measure on which revolutionary model one believes applies to this situation. Is it the French, Russian, or Iranian revolution, which ended with the guillotine, gulags, and an Islamic theocracy; or the American Revolution and what happened in the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile, and Argentina, authoritarian regimes that made a relatively smooth transition to self-government? Or is it something entirely different? Here it’s worth bearing in mind the counsel of Henry Kissinger, who wrote, “History is not … a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the driving force of events in Egypt are tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression. What the 2002 Arab Human Development Report called a “freedom deficit” in the Middle East is at the core of the unrest. Events seem to be vindicating those who said that siding with the forces of “stability” [read: dictatorships] rather than reform was unwise and ultimately unsustainable. At some point the lid would blow. Now it has. Read More

It is amazing that the political revolution now sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa was started by a 26-year-old unemployed Tunisian man who self-immolated.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits-and-vegetables market stand was confiscated by police because it had no permit, tried to yank back his apples. He was slapped in the face by a female municipal inspector and eventually beaten by her colleagues. His later appeals were ignored. Humiliated, he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. He died on January 4.

That incident was the spark that set ablaze the revolution that overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for more than two decades — and that, in turn, spread to Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign of power is about to end. Anti-government protests are also happening in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and elsewhere. It’s hard to tell where all this will end; but how it began may rank among the more extraordinary hinge moments in history. It may come to be known as the Slap Heard Round the World.

How hopeful or fearful one feels about the unfolding events in Egypt depends in large measure on which revolutionary model one believes applies to this situation. Is it the French, Russian, or Iranian revolution, which ended with the guillotine, gulags, and an Islamic theocracy; or the American Revolution and what happened in the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile, and Argentina, authoritarian regimes that made a relatively smooth transition to self-government? Or is it something entirely different? Here it’s worth bearing in mind the counsel of Henry Kissinger, who wrote, “History is not … a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the driving force of events in Egypt are tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression. What the 2002 Arab Human Development Report called a “freedom deficit” in the Middle East is at the core of the unrest. Events seem to be vindicating those who said that siding with the forces of “stability” [read: dictatorships] rather than reform was unwise and ultimately unsustainable. At some point the lid would blow. Now it has.

The danger is that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which is hostile to Israel and close to Hamas, hijacks the revolution. The goal of U.S policy must therefore be to influence this revolution, to the degree we can, in a way that advances U.S. interests and American ideals. This means taking an active role, both publicly and behind the scenes, in support of those who stand for liberal democracy (for more, see here).

The hour has grown quite late. As Max Boot points out, the equivocation of the Obama administration needs to end. Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading Egyptian dissident who appears to be rapidly gaining power, is right when he said the United States is “losing credibility by the day” by its support for the Egyptian dictator. Mr. Mubarak is, politically speaking, a Dead Man Walking. There is still time, but not much time, for the president to get on the right side of this revolution and the right side of history. Secretary of State Clinton’s comments yesterday, in which she called for an “orderly transition” to a representative government, were certainly an improvement from where the administration was last week, when she was assuring the world of the staying power of Mr. Mubarak and Vice President Biden was declaring, against three decades of evidence, that the Egyptian president was not a dictator.

Having worked in three administrations and in the White House during a series of crises, I have some sympathy for how difficult it is to navigate through roiling waters, when one has to act on incomplete information in the midst of chaotic and constantly changing events, the outcome of which is impossible to know. In that respect, the Obama administration deserves some empathy. It’s never as easy to guide events when you’re in government as it is to critique events when you’re outside of government.

Still, as my former colleague William Inboden has written, it seems to me that the Obama administration can be held responsible for two important errors: (a) its failure to anticipate what is happening in Egypt and prepare contingency plans. and (b) its neglect of human rights, democracy, and economic reform in Egypt for the previous two years. “These failures should be front and center in any post-mortem policy review,” Professor Inboden writes. “The Mubarak regime’s brittleness and Egypt’s stagnation have long been apparent to many observers.” But not, apparently, to the Obama administration, which seems to have been caught completely off guard. If the spark that set the region afire was impossible to anticipate, the dry tinder of the region was not.

One Arab nation that so far hasn’t been convulsed by the political revolution now sweeping the Middle East is Iraq — the one Arab nation whose government is legitimate, the produce of free elections and political compromise, and that has the consent of the people. When it came to Iraqi democracy, most of the foreign-policy establishment assured us that self-government there could never take root, that Iraq would simply be a pawn of Iran, that the ethnic divisions in Iraq were too deep to overcome, and that (as Joe Biden argued at the time) the only solution was partition. At this stage, it’s reasonable to conclude that these judgments were quite wrong. And while one can certainly debate whether the Iraq war was worth the blood, treasure, and opportunities it cost, it appears as if the Egyptian people, and not only the Egyptian people, are longing for what the people of Iraq have embraced: self-government. It isn’t perfect by any means — but for the Arab Middle East, it is a model for other nations to aspire.

(h/t: Victor Davis Hanson)

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‘Getting Out in Front’ on Egypt?

The administration’s handling of the Egypt crisis — as typified by the bizarre set of mixed messages sent by Secretary of State Clinton yesterday as she wandered without point from Sunday morning show to Sunday morning show — has demonstrated a stunning lack of elementary preparation or thinking on a matter that has been under discussion among serious Egypt-watchers for at least six years now. That said, the demand that the administration “get out in front” on the need for democratic change with extreme haste is more a result of the increasingly hysterical tempo of the news in the age of Twitter than it is a central need for U.S. foreign policy.

The idea that Egyptians will like us better and that their new government will be friendlier to us because we said X on Sunday rather than on Wednesday is wishful thinking. A country of 80 million people with a complex economic and political structure and a radical Islamist wing will not make its future foreign-policy decisions based on when the U.S. said what. That might change if the army really opens fire on protesters and we do not instantly divide ourselves from Mubarak, or if we’re seen taking significant steps to bolster Mubarak’s regime, but that’s not the situation on the ground at present and looks unlikely to be the situation going forward.

Like many who supported the Bush push to open these closed societies to democratic change, I’m delighted to see the realists who pooh-poohed the agenda as unrealistic and foolish made to look unrealistic and foolish themselves — since if Mubarak had embraced rather than rejected the democracy agenda to the knowing nods of the foreign-policy cognoscenti, he might have ended his days as a hero of his nation rather than as a despised and rejected despot. And the fact that the Obama administration has come through two years without a clue when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East should be sobering for everybody.

But at this point, whatever part the U.S. plays in the Mubarak endgame is likely to be very, very minor. What our refusal to speak out forthrightly against dictatorships and for popular change says about us is more the issue.

The administration’s handling of the Egypt crisis — as typified by the bizarre set of mixed messages sent by Secretary of State Clinton yesterday as she wandered without point from Sunday morning show to Sunday morning show — has demonstrated a stunning lack of elementary preparation or thinking on a matter that has been under discussion among serious Egypt-watchers for at least six years now. That said, the demand that the administration “get out in front” on the need for democratic change with extreme haste is more a result of the increasingly hysterical tempo of the news in the age of Twitter than it is a central need for U.S. foreign policy.

The idea that Egyptians will like us better and that their new government will be friendlier to us because we said X on Sunday rather than on Wednesday is wishful thinking. A country of 80 million people with a complex economic and political structure and a radical Islamist wing will not make its future foreign-policy decisions based on when the U.S. said what. That might change if the army really opens fire on protesters and we do not instantly divide ourselves from Mubarak, or if we’re seen taking significant steps to bolster Mubarak’s regime, but that’s not the situation on the ground at present and looks unlikely to be the situation going forward.

Like many who supported the Bush push to open these closed societies to democratic change, I’m delighted to see the realists who pooh-poohed the agenda as unrealistic and foolish made to look unrealistic and foolish themselves — since if Mubarak had embraced rather than rejected the democracy agenda to the knowing nods of the foreign-policy cognoscenti, he might have ended his days as a hero of his nation rather than as a despised and rejected despot. And the fact that the Obama administration has come through two years without a clue when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East should be sobering for everybody.

But at this point, whatever part the U.S. plays in the Mubarak endgame is likely to be very, very minor. What our refusal to speak out forthrightly against dictatorships and for popular change says about us is more the issue.

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Are We All Neocons Now?

Ministers being forced to resign. The army in the streets. Bloody clashes in major cities. The ruling party headquarters in ashes.

Events in Egypt have moved beyond the demonstration stage. This is a revolution in progress. Whether it is a successful revolution or not remains to be seen. From 1848 to 1989, there have been no end of uprisings that have been successfully repressed. Hosni Mubarak may still succeed in hanging on to power, although that’s looking less likely with every passing hour of street clashes.

But whatever happens, one thing is already clear: as Pete Wehner has already noted, President Bush was right in pushing his “freedom agenda” for the Middle East.

When he pushed for democratic change in the region, legions of know-it-all skeptics — including Barack Obama — scoffed. What business was it of America to comment on, much less try to change, other countries’ internal affairs? Why meddle with reliable allies? Wasn’t it the height of neocon folly to imagine a more democratic future for places like Iraq or Egypt?

Turns out that Bush knew a thing or two. He may not have been all that sophisticated by some standards, but like Ronald Reagan, he grasped basic truths that eluded the intellectuals. Reagan, recall, earned endless scorn for suggesting that the “evil empire” might soon be consigned to the “ash heap of history.” But he understood that basic human desires for freedom could not be repressed forever. Bush understood precisely the same thing, and like Reagan he also realized that the U.S. had to get on the right side of history by championing freedom rather than by cutting disreputable deals with dictators.

Too bad he didn’t have more success in pushing the “freedom agenda.” If he had — if, for example, he had been willing to hold back American aid to force Egypt to make liberal reforms — the U.S. might possibly have averted the explosion currently seen on the streets of Egypt by engineering a more orderly transition to democracy. But in his second term, humbled by setbacks in Iraq, Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, charted a different course. They did little or nothing while Mubarak locked up liberal dissident Ayman Nour. Instead, they concentrated their energies on the vaunted Middle East peace process, which ended in a predictable failure.

Obama has essentially continued this policy, which he — and legions of like-minded thinkers — sees as the height of “realism.” But what’s so realistic about endorsing a sclerotic status quo? The answer is being delivered in the streets of Egypt. So having already endorsed the essentials of the Bush war on terror, Obama is now belatedly embracing the freedom agenda too. Does that mean we’re all neocons now?

Ministers being forced to resign. The army in the streets. Bloody clashes in major cities. The ruling party headquarters in ashes.

Events in Egypt have moved beyond the demonstration stage. This is a revolution in progress. Whether it is a successful revolution or not remains to be seen. From 1848 to 1989, there have been no end of uprisings that have been successfully repressed. Hosni Mubarak may still succeed in hanging on to power, although that’s looking less likely with every passing hour of street clashes.

But whatever happens, one thing is already clear: as Pete Wehner has already noted, President Bush was right in pushing his “freedom agenda” for the Middle East.

When he pushed for democratic change in the region, legions of know-it-all skeptics — including Barack Obama — scoffed. What business was it of America to comment on, much less try to change, other countries’ internal affairs? Why meddle with reliable allies? Wasn’t it the height of neocon folly to imagine a more democratic future for places like Iraq or Egypt?

Turns out that Bush knew a thing or two. He may not have been all that sophisticated by some standards, but like Ronald Reagan, he grasped basic truths that eluded the intellectuals. Reagan, recall, earned endless scorn for suggesting that the “evil empire” might soon be consigned to the “ash heap of history.” But he understood that basic human desires for freedom could not be repressed forever. Bush understood precisely the same thing, and like Reagan he also realized that the U.S. had to get on the right side of history by championing freedom rather than by cutting disreputable deals with dictators.

Too bad he didn’t have more success in pushing the “freedom agenda.” If he had — if, for example, he had been willing to hold back American aid to force Egypt to make liberal reforms — the U.S. might possibly have averted the explosion currently seen on the streets of Egypt by engineering a more orderly transition to democracy. But in his second term, humbled by setbacks in Iraq, Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, charted a different course. They did little or nothing while Mubarak locked up liberal dissident Ayman Nour. Instead, they concentrated their energies on the vaunted Middle East peace process, which ended in a predictable failure.

Obama has essentially continued this policy, which he — and legions of like-minded thinkers — sees as the height of “realism.” But what’s so realistic about endorsing a sclerotic status quo? The answer is being delivered in the streets of Egypt. So having already endorsed the essentials of the Bush war on terror, Obama is now belatedly embracing the freedom agenda too. Does that mean we’re all neocons now?

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Clinton, Jordanian FM: No. 1 Priority Is Israeli/Palestinian Peace Process

Tunisia’s transition government is creating black lists of long-serving officials to be expelled from the government, which covers most of the people who have experience governing. Egypt is literally on fire, Yemen is about to follow, and Jordan is on deck. The nightmare land-for-peace scenario — where Israel cedes strategic depth to a stable government only to see it fall to radicals who abandon previous agreements — is roughly at 50/50 right now, with only an unstable Egyptian government standing in the way.

Under normal thinking, the uncertainty over land-for-peace would cause a rethinking of land-for-peace, and violent riots would engender a focus on things that aren’t violent riots. But dogma is dogma:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that peace in the Middle East remained the top US priority, despite unrest in the region and a leak of alleged Palestinian negotiation documents. Clinton confirmed she would head next week to Munich for talks of the “Quartet” of Middle East mediators and said she spoke at length about the conflict with Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh of Jordan, a close US partner. “For both our nations, permanent peace in the Middle East remains our number one priority,” Clinton told a joint news conference with Judeh. … “Such an agreement, Jordan and the United States believe, will not only bring peace and prosperity to those who are directly affected, but it will be a major step toward a world free of extremism,” she said. [emphasis added]

Good to see that the Jordanians are keeping their eyes on the ball, too, despite already facing tribal pressure and now being subject to the same economic-Islamist alliance sweeping the rest of the Middle East. Given the Palestinian Authority’s precarious weakness, it’s not unlikely that a West Bank state would quickly become radicalized, with the instability spilling across the Jordan River and all the way into Amman. Though, in fairness, under this scenario, their declared “number one priority” would have been solved, and Israel would be out of the West Bank, such that they’d finally be able to focus on less-critical issues like the Jordanian kingdom not getting overthrown.

Usually the diplomatic obsession with Israel — irrational and incoherent as it is — at least has the quality of being interesting. Foreign-policy experts have to invent elaborate geopolitical and geo-cultural theories like linkage. Then, because those theories are wrong, they have to come up with creative epistemic and rhetorical ways of justifying them — insider access to Muslim diplomats, movement detectable only to experts, critical distinctions between public and private spheres in the Arab world, etc. It’s like reading about all the brilliant people who tried to save the medieval church’s Earth-centered solar system by sticking epicycles everywhere. Sure, it’s a last-ditch effort to save a fundamentally incorrect theory, one being propped up in the interests of ideology — but at least it’s interesting.

This, in sharp contrast, is just silly. And while I hope and think that the secretary of state was just mouthing the usual ritualistic incantations, the fact that she felt the need to do so shows how far removed from reality Middle East diplomacy has gotten.

Tunisia’s transition government is creating black lists of long-serving officials to be expelled from the government, which covers most of the people who have experience governing. Egypt is literally on fire, Yemen is about to follow, and Jordan is on deck. The nightmare land-for-peace scenario — where Israel cedes strategic depth to a stable government only to see it fall to radicals who abandon previous agreements — is roughly at 50/50 right now, with only an unstable Egyptian government standing in the way.

Under normal thinking, the uncertainty over land-for-peace would cause a rethinking of land-for-peace, and violent riots would engender a focus on things that aren’t violent riots. But dogma is dogma:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that peace in the Middle East remained the top US priority, despite unrest in the region and a leak of alleged Palestinian negotiation documents. Clinton confirmed she would head next week to Munich for talks of the “Quartet” of Middle East mediators and said she spoke at length about the conflict with Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh of Jordan, a close US partner. “For both our nations, permanent peace in the Middle East remains our number one priority,” Clinton told a joint news conference with Judeh. … “Such an agreement, Jordan and the United States believe, will not only bring peace and prosperity to those who are directly affected, but it will be a major step toward a world free of extremism,” she said. [emphasis added]

Good to see that the Jordanians are keeping their eyes on the ball, too, despite already facing tribal pressure and now being subject to the same economic-Islamist alliance sweeping the rest of the Middle East. Given the Palestinian Authority’s precarious weakness, it’s not unlikely that a West Bank state would quickly become radicalized, with the instability spilling across the Jordan River and all the way into Amman. Though, in fairness, under this scenario, their declared “number one priority” would have been solved, and Israel would be out of the West Bank, such that they’d finally be able to focus on less-critical issues like the Jordanian kingdom not getting overthrown.

Usually the diplomatic obsession with Israel — irrational and incoherent as it is — at least has the quality of being interesting. Foreign-policy experts have to invent elaborate geopolitical and geo-cultural theories like linkage. Then, because those theories are wrong, they have to come up with creative epistemic and rhetorical ways of justifying them — insider access to Muslim diplomats, movement detectable only to experts, critical distinctions between public and private spheres in the Arab world, etc. It’s like reading about all the brilliant people who tried to save the medieval church’s Earth-centered solar system by sticking epicycles everywhere. Sure, it’s a last-ditch effort to save a fundamentally incorrect theory, one being propped up in the interests of ideology — but at least it’s interesting.

This, in sharp contrast, is just silly. And while I hope and think that the secretary of state was just mouthing the usual ritualistic incantations, the fact that she felt the need to do so shows how far removed from reality Middle East diplomacy has gotten.

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Smart-Power Whiplash

During her Senate confirmation hearing in January of 2009, Hillary Clinton described smart power — her preferred approach to American foreign policy — as “picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.” Two years later, we’re finally getting a sense of what this means. Recent events and statements have been clarifying.

When the situation is a conference on democracy, the right tool is a pro-democracy statement. Thus Clinton said to the attendees at this year’s Forum for the Future in Doha, Qatar, “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. . . . The region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”

But when the situation is an actual and potentially democratic Arab revolt, the right tool is fence-sitting. When Clinton was asked for her thoughts on the popular uprising against the corrupt regime in Tunisia, she said, “We are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it.”

When the situation is the announcement of planned elections after said uprising, the right tool is, once again, a pro-democracy statement. Today, after Clinton spoke with Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane and interim Tunisian leader Mohammed Ghannouchi, she told the press, “I’m encouraged by the direction that they are setting towards inclusive elections that will be held as soon as practicable.”

But when the situation is once again a potentially democratic Arab uprising, the right tool is urging restraint and giving cover to the repressive Arab regime being opposed. Today thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets to protest the Mubarak government, and Reuters reports the following: “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday urged all sides in Egypt to exercise restraint following street protests and said she believed the Egyptian government was stable and looking for ways to respond to its people’s aspirations.”

For those playing along at home, that’s defending democracy and Hosni Mubarak in the same day. Imagine how difficult it would be to practice smart power if you actually believed in something.

During her Senate confirmation hearing in January of 2009, Hillary Clinton described smart power — her preferred approach to American foreign policy — as “picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.” Two years later, we’re finally getting a sense of what this means. Recent events and statements have been clarifying.

When the situation is a conference on democracy, the right tool is a pro-democracy statement. Thus Clinton said to the attendees at this year’s Forum for the Future in Doha, Qatar, “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. . . . The region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”

But when the situation is an actual and potentially democratic Arab revolt, the right tool is fence-sitting. When Clinton was asked for her thoughts on the popular uprising against the corrupt regime in Tunisia, she said, “We are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it.”

When the situation is the announcement of planned elections after said uprising, the right tool is, once again, a pro-democracy statement. Today, after Clinton spoke with Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane and interim Tunisian leader Mohammed Ghannouchi, she told the press, “I’m encouraged by the direction that they are setting towards inclusive elections that will be held as soon as practicable.”

But when the situation is once again a potentially democratic Arab uprising, the right tool is urging restraint and giving cover to the repressive Arab regime being opposed. Today thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets to protest the Mubarak government, and Reuters reports the following: “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday urged all sides in Egypt to exercise restraint following street protests and said she believed the Egyptian government was stable and looking for ways to respond to its people’s aspirations.”

For those playing along at home, that’s defending democracy and Hosni Mubarak in the same day. Imagine how difficult it would be to practice smart power if you actually believed in something.

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Colin Powell: Budget Cutter

On CNN yesterday, in discussing the budget, Colin Powell said that “the real money [is] in the entitlements … and unless we do something about those, you can’t balance the budget.” He added, “You can’t fix the deficit or the national debt by killing NPR or National Endowment for the Humanities or the Arts. Nice political chatter, but that doesn’t do it.” And then, putting on his David Stockman cape, Powell said: “Don’t tell me you’re going to freeze to a level. That usually is a very inefficient way of doing it. Tell me what you’re going to cut, and nobody up there yet is being very, very candid about what they are going to cut to fix this problem.”

Secretary Powell is quite right that entitlement programs are where the real money is. And Powell is also correct when he says that you can’t fix the deficit or the national debt by killing NPR or the NEA. Of course, the former secretary of state can’t name a single influential Republican figure who has made such a claim.

The case against NPR and the NEA isn’t that they absorb a huge percentage of federal dollars; it is that they are undeserving of taxpayer money. They don’t have a legitimate claim on public funds. Why should NPR get taxpayer subsidies when no other news outlet does? And why should the federal government be subsidizing such a thing in the first place? Does anyone really believe Diane Rehm or Terry Gross are national treasures who merit taxpayer support?

Beyond that, symbolism matters. Having the House cuts its own budget won’t fix our fiscal imbalance either — but it’s still a worthwhile thing to do, both symbolically and on the merits.

Finally, Powell wants to know specifically what Republicans are going to cut. To which I would say: Patience, Mr. Secretary, patience. In just a matter of months, Representative Paul Ryan is going to produce a detailed budget, and his colleagues on the appropriations committee are going to list specific programs they want to cut. This will cause official Washington to shriek in protest, even though those cuts by themselves won’t be nearly enough. But it will be a start.

I hope conservative lawmakers can count on Powell’s support rather than criticism once they gin up the courage and do what Powell is now demanding of them. As this drama unfolds, will he be arguing for fiscal discipline and limited government — or will he try to ward off cuts in his favorite programs?

I would be delighted — and frankly surprised — if Secretary Powell ends up being a strong, visible ally of genuine budget cutters. But here’s to hoping.

On CNN yesterday, in discussing the budget, Colin Powell said that “the real money [is] in the entitlements … and unless we do something about those, you can’t balance the budget.” He added, “You can’t fix the deficit or the national debt by killing NPR or National Endowment for the Humanities or the Arts. Nice political chatter, but that doesn’t do it.” And then, putting on his David Stockman cape, Powell said: “Don’t tell me you’re going to freeze to a level. That usually is a very inefficient way of doing it. Tell me what you’re going to cut, and nobody up there yet is being very, very candid about what they are going to cut to fix this problem.”

Secretary Powell is quite right that entitlement programs are where the real money is. And Powell is also correct when he says that you can’t fix the deficit or the national debt by killing NPR or the NEA. Of course, the former secretary of state can’t name a single influential Republican figure who has made such a claim.

The case against NPR and the NEA isn’t that they absorb a huge percentage of federal dollars; it is that they are undeserving of taxpayer money. They don’t have a legitimate claim on public funds. Why should NPR get taxpayer subsidies when no other news outlet does? And why should the federal government be subsidizing such a thing in the first place? Does anyone really believe Diane Rehm or Terry Gross are national treasures who merit taxpayer support?

Beyond that, symbolism matters. Having the House cuts its own budget won’t fix our fiscal imbalance either — but it’s still a worthwhile thing to do, both symbolically and on the merits.

Finally, Powell wants to know specifically what Republicans are going to cut. To which I would say: Patience, Mr. Secretary, patience. In just a matter of months, Representative Paul Ryan is going to produce a detailed budget, and his colleagues on the appropriations committee are going to list specific programs they want to cut. This will cause official Washington to shriek in protest, even though those cuts by themselves won’t be nearly enough. But it will be a start.

I hope conservative lawmakers can count on Powell’s support rather than criticism once they gin up the courage and do what Powell is now demanding of them. As this drama unfolds, will he be arguing for fiscal discipline and limited government — or will he try to ward off cuts in his favorite programs?

I would be delighted — and frankly surprised — if Secretary Powell ends up being a strong, visible ally of genuine budget cutters. But here’s to hoping.

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House Republicans Want to Cut UN Funding

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the new House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, has come up with another superb proposal. The congresswoman wants to cut funding for the UN — particularly the money that goes toward supporting the UN Human Rights Council.

“The fact that the U.S. continues to contribute billions of taxpayer dollars every year to an unaccountable, unreformed U.N. is no laughing matter,” she said in a statement. “These allegations reinforce the need for expanded and effective oversight of the U.N. Next week, our committee will lead the way by holding the first of several briefings and hearings on UN reform.”

Ros-Lehtinen is holding a panel tomorrow that will discuss the problems with the UN and how Congress can take steps to solve them.

One of the main issues with the Human Rights Council, of course, is that its entire existence revolves around demonizing Israel at every opportunity. It’s also composed of many of the same countries that commit the worst human-rights abuse.

The executive director of UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, told the Hill that out of the 45 resolutions passed by the UNHRC over the past half-decade, 35 of them have been “one-sided measures against Israel.”

“One of the most significant tools has been used to wallop Israel over the head and not to promote peace,” added Neuer.

The 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act prohibited the U.S. from funding the UNHRC unless the secretary of state certified that this funding was in the “national interest of the United States” or if the U.S. were a member of the council.

The U.S. was voted off the UNHRC under the Bush administration, but President Obama lobbied to get us back on after he was elected. So even if the council works against our national interest, there’s no current prohibition against funding it.

Also, defunding the UNHRC would be mainly a symbolic act, since the U.S. allocates money to the entire UN, not specific parts of it. Because of that, we could withhold a budgetary amount that’s equal to the cost of the UNHRC, but it appears that there’s no way of knowing whether the money will be spent on the council or not.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the new House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, has come up with another superb proposal. The congresswoman wants to cut funding for the UN — particularly the money that goes toward supporting the UN Human Rights Council.

“The fact that the U.S. continues to contribute billions of taxpayer dollars every year to an unaccountable, unreformed U.N. is no laughing matter,” she said in a statement. “These allegations reinforce the need for expanded and effective oversight of the U.N. Next week, our committee will lead the way by holding the first of several briefings and hearings on UN reform.”

Ros-Lehtinen is holding a panel tomorrow that will discuss the problems with the UN and how Congress can take steps to solve them.

One of the main issues with the Human Rights Council, of course, is that its entire existence revolves around demonizing Israel at every opportunity. It’s also composed of many of the same countries that commit the worst human-rights abuse.

The executive director of UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, told the Hill that out of the 45 resolutions passed by the UNHRC over the past half-decade, 35 of them have been “one-sided measures against Israel.”

“One of the most significant tools has been used to wallop Israel over the head and not to promote peace,” added Neuer.

The 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act prohibited the U.S. from funding the UNHRC unless the secretary of state certified that this funding was in the “national interest of the United States” or if the U.S. were a member of the council.

The U.S. was voted off the UNHRC under the Bush administration, but President Obama lobbied to get us back on after he was elected. So even if the council works against our national interest, there’s no current prohibition against funding it.

Also, defunding the UNHRC would be mainly a symbolic act, since the U.S. allocates money to the entire UN, not specific parts of it. Because of that, we could withhold a budgetary amount that’s equal to the cost of the UNHRC, but it appears that there’s no way of knowing whether the money will be spent on the council or not.

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Lieberman May Drop Out of 2012 Race

The Hartford Courant’s website is reporting that Senator Joseph Lieberman is poised to announce that he won’t run for re-election in 2012. Lieberman will announce his 2012 plans Wednesday in his hometown of Stamford, at an event where he will be surrounded by longtime supporters, adding to speculation that he will speak of the end of his political career in the place where he grew up. The decision not to wait is being linked to the announcement by Susan Bysiewicz, a popular Democrat who has served as Connecticut’s secretary of state and was ruled off the ballot last year for state attorney general by a technicality, that she will run for Lieberman’s seat.

The Courant speculates that the reason Lieberman is not waiting until later in the election cycle to pull out is because he wants to make his statement “while there’s still speculation that he could still win if he chose to run.” Maybe. But the only reason Lieberman is bailing now is because he knows he has no chance to win in 2012.

I wrote last month that indications that Linda McMahon was going to make another try for the Senate in 2012 made a repeat of Lieberman’s 2006 win as an independent virtually impossible because he would need the GOP to more or less not show up the way they did in that race. In response, some readers contended that if Connecticut Democrats nominated an unpopular hard-core left-winger, Lieberman could still squeak through. But given that the Democratic field is already shaping up as one populated by highly electable candidates like Bysiewicz and Rep. Joseph Courtney, who has also indicated interest, this is an extremely unlikely scenario. Sam Stein at the Huffington Post reports that Patty Murray, the new chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has told Lieberman that her group might back him in a primary if he returned to the Democrats. But that seems like an empty promise, since even more Democrats are angry with Lieberman today than they were when he lost his party’s primary in 2006. With party activists in both parties dead set against Lieberman, he has no chance to win either party’s nomination, and if faced with two strong opponents rather than just one, which now seems to be a given, he has no chance to win.

Lieberman has had a remarkable run in elected office. He started out as a stereotypical liberal Democrat when he first ran for the State Senate from New Haven (the young Bill Clinton was a campaign volunteer). Lieberman later became state attorney general and then turned conventional wisdom on its head by running to the right of liberal Republican Lowell Weicker in 1988. Once in office, he became enormously popular, striking a balance between conventionally liberal economic stands while also articulating centrist stands on foreign policy and social issues. Lieberman came within a few hanging chads of becoming vice president in 2000, but the moral tone and foreign policy stands that helped win him that nomination would ultimately alienate him from fellow Democrats. His principled support for the Iraq war was the turning point for him, and it ultimately ensured that he would be the last of the Scoop Jackson Democrats in the U.S. Senate. While he wasn’t always right on all the issues, his is a voice that would, come 2013, be greatly missed.

The Hartford Courant’s website is reporting that Senator Joseph Lieberman is poised to announce that he won’t run for re-election in 2012. Lieberman will announce his 2012 plans Wednesday in his hometown of Stamford, at an event where he will be surrounded by longtime supporters, adding to speculation that he will speak of the end of his political career in the place where he grew up. The decision not to wait is being linked to the announcement by Susan Bysiewicz, a popular Democrat who has served as Connecticut’s secretary of state and was ruled off the ballot last year for state attorney general by a technicality, that she will run for Lieberman’s seat.

The Courant speculates that the reason Lieberman is not waiting until later in the election cycle to pull out is because he wants to make his statement “while there’s still speculation that he could still win if he chose to run.” Maybe. But the only reason Lieberman is bailing now is because he knows he has no chance to win in 2012.

I wrote last month that indications that Linda McMahon was going to make another try for the Senate in 2012 made a repeat of Lieberman’s 2006 win as an independent virtually impossible because he would need the GOP to more or less not show up the way they did in that race. In response, some readers contended that if Connecticut Democrats nominated an unpopular hard-core left-winger, Lieberman could still squeak through. But given that the Democratic field is already shaping up as one populated by highly electable candidates like Bysiewicz and Rep. Joseph Courtney, who has also indicated interest, this is an extremely unlikely scenario. Sam Stein at the Huffington Post reports that Patty Murray, the new chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has told Lieberman that her group might back him in a primary if he returned to the Democrats. But that seems like an empty promise, since even more Democrats are angry with Lieberman today than they were when he lost his party’s primary in 2006. With party activists in both parties dead set against Lieberman, he has no chance to win either party’s nomination, and if faced with two strong opponents rather than just one, which now seems to be a given, he has no chance to win.

Lieberman has had a remarkable run in elected office. He started out as a stereotypical liberal Democrat when he first ran for the State Senate from New Haven (the young Bill Clinton was a campaign volunteer). Lieberman later became state attorney general and then turned conventional wisdom on its head by running to the right of liberal Republican Lowell Weicker in 1988. Once in office, he became enormously popular, striking a balance between conventionally liberal economic stands while also articulating centrist stands on foreign policy and social issues. Lieberman came within a few hanging chads of becoming vice president in 2000, but the moral tone and foreign policy stands that helped win him that nomination would ultimately alienate him from fellow Democrats. His principled support for the Iraq war was the turning point for him, and it ultimately ensured that he would be the last of the Scoop Jackson Democrats in the U.S. Senate. While he wasn’t always right on all the issues, his is a voice that would, come 2013, be greatly missed.

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Obama’s Tack to the Center

Over at the Washington Post, Ramesh Ponnuru writes this:

I count five rightward moves by the president since the midterm elections. First he agreed to delay any tax increases on high earners. He made William Daley chief of staff over progressive objections. He implicitly rebuked the Left’s attempt to exploit the Tucson shootings for political advantage. The administration, its hand forced by Vice President Biden’s comments about leaving Afghanistan in 2014 “come hell or high water,” made it clearer than ever that it does not regard 2014 as a hard deadline. And now President Obama has announced a review of burdensome regulations.

One might even add Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s newly tough line on human rights in China–which isn’t exactly a move to the right but will nonetheless please most conservatives.

My conclusions: 1) The next two years will be long ones for liberals. 2) Obama is going to be harder to beat in 2012 than many Republicans believe. 3) If Obama does win, though, the Obama of 2013 will be closer to the Obama of 2009 than the Obama of 2011. The move to the center is tactical and temporary.

Ramesh’s analysis sounds (as usual) right to me. The only amendment I’d make is that conservatives I hear from, at least for the most part, don’t assume President Obama will be easy to beat. Quite the opposite, in fact. They recognize that the incumbent president, especially if he doesn’t face a primary challenge, usually has the advantage. In addition, their concern is that the current group of potential presidential candidates — those sure to run and those thinking about running — aren’t up to the task. We’ll see.

In any event, Obama’s tack to the center underscores the fact that this is not a liberal country and it does not like to be governed by liberal lawmakers.

That was one large lesson from the 2010 election — and it’s one the president seems to have internalized.

Over at the Washington Post, Ramesh Ponnuru writes this:

I count five rightward moves by the president since the midterm elections. First he agreed to delay any tax increases on high earners. He made William Daley chief of staff over progressive objections. He implicitly rebuked the Left’s attempt to exploit the Tucson shootings for political advantage. The administration, its hand forced by Vice President Biden’s comments about leaving Afghanistan in 2014 “come hell or high water,” made it clearer than ever that it does not regard 2014 as a hard deadline. And now President Obama has announced a review of burdensome regulations.

One might even add Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s newly tough line on human rights in China–which isn’t exactly a move to the right but will nonetheless please most conservatives.

My conclusions: 1) The next two years will be long ones for liberals. 2) Obama is going to be harder to beat in 2012 than many Republicans believe. 3) If Obama does win, though, the Obama of 2013 will be closer to the Obama of 2009 than the Obama of 2011. The move to the center is tactical and temporary.

Ramesh’s analysis sounds (as usual) right to me. The only amendment I’d make is that conservatives I hear from, at least for the most part, don’t assume President Obama will be easy to beat. Quite the opposite, in fact. They recognize that the incumbent president, especially if he doesn’t face a primary challenge, usually has the advantage. In addition, their concern is that the current group of potential presidential candidates — those sure to run and those thinking about running — aren’t up to the task. We’ll see.

In any event, Obama’s tack to the center underscores the fact that this is not a liberal country and it does not like to be governed by liberal lawmakers.

That was one large lesson from the 2010 election — and it’s one the president seems to have internalized.

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The Berlin-Rome-Tehran Axis

One of those dirty secrets that broad swaths of European media and politicians avoid like the plague is the ways in which European countries are propping up Tehran’s regime and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah via their pro-Iranian trade policies. Last year, Italy and Germany turned out to be Europe’s major economic respirators for Iran’s stagnating economic system, with an overall joint business volume of 10 billion euros.

Last summer, the EU signed off on watered-down economic sanctions targeting Iran. Nevertheless, the EU did awaken from its slumber and banned the delivery of crucial energy technology to the Islamic Republic. Whereas the more robust U.S. sanctions prohibit the acquisition of Iranian gas and crude oil, European countries are permitted to consume vast amounts of the stuff. Iran’s lifeline is the sale of its crude oil, and Italy has an Iranian oil addiction, with imports mushrooming by 90 percent in 2010.

Traditionally, Germany has  been Europe’s No. 1 trade partner with Iran. During the second Bush administration, U.S. diplomats urged German engineering firms and banks to end their flourishing deals with Iran. Bush had some striking successes, such as major German financial institutions like Deutsche Bank shutting down their Iranian operations. Bush twisted arms in Germany.

President Obama is limping on both legs in trying to convince Chancellor Angela Merkel to shut down Iranian banks in Germany. Last summer, he called Merkel to persuade her to pull the plug on the Hamburg-based European-Iranian trade bank, an entity that was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department because of its involvement in Iran’s illicit nuclear-proliferation and ballistic-missile program. Merkel simply snubbed Obama.

Despite Merkel’s promises to the Israeli Knesset in 2008 and to the U.S. Congress in 2009 that Israel’s security is “non-negotiable“ and that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program must be stopped, business as usual takes priority over the so-called German-Israeli special relationship and defending Western and global security.

It seems that the time is ripe for President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to flex their diplomatic muscles and publicly urge Rome and Berlin to implement unilateral sanctions against Iran, as Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are a making a mockery of President Obama’s multilateral effort to isolate the Islamic Republic.

One of those dirty secrets that broad swaths of European media and politicians avoid like the plague is the ways in which European countries are propping up Tehran’s regime and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah via their pro-Iranian trade policies. Last year, Italy and Germany turned out to be Europe’s major economic respirators for Iran’s stagnating economic system, with an overall joint business volume of 10 billion euros.

Last summer, the EU signed off on watered-down economic sanctions targeting Iran. Nevertheless, the EU did awaken from its slumber and banned the delivery of crucial energy technology to the Islamic Republic. Whereas the more robust U.S. sanctions prohibit the acquisition of Iranian gas and crude oil, European countries are permitted to consume vast amounts of the stuff. Iran’s lifeline is the sale of its crude oil, and Italy has an Iranian oil addiction, with imports mushrooming by 90 percent in 2010.

Traditionally, Germany has  been Europe’s No. 1 trade partner with Iran. During the second Bush administration, U.S. diplomats urged German engineering firms and banks to end their flourishing deals with Iran. Bush had some striking successes, such as major German financial institutions like Deutsche Bank shutting down their Iranian operations. Bush twisted arms in Germany.

President Obama is limping on both legs in trying to convince Chancellor Angela Merkel to shut down Iranian banks in Germany. Last summer, he called Merkel to persuade her to pull the plug on the Hamburg-based European-Iranian trade bank, an entity that was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department because of its involvement in Iran’s illicit nuclear-proliferation and ballistic-missile program. Merkel simply snubbed Obama.

Despite Merkel’s promises to the Israeli Knesset in 2008 and to the U.S. Congress in 2009 that Israel’s security is “non-negotiable“ and that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program must be stopped, business as usual takes priority over the so-called German-Israeli special relationship and defending Western and global security.

It seems that the time is ripe for President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to flex their diplomatic muscles and publicly urge Rome and Berlin to implement unilateral sanctions against Iran, as Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are a making a mockery of President Obama’s multilateral effort to isolate the Islamic Republic.

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Israeli Shakeup Another Setback for Obama

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to break away from the Labor Party and form his own centrist faction is a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. With the remaining members of Labor now shifted to the opposition, Netanyahu has rid his coalition of several Knesset members who are opposed to his policies. In the long run, Barak’s new party will, as David Hazony noted yesterday, provide unwanted competition for the largest opposition party, Kadima, making the path to power for it and its leader, Tzipi Livni, far more difficult.

Livni is understandably upset about this development and vented her spleen today in some over-the-top comments when she complained that Barak’s decision was “the dirtiest act in history.” Given the fact that party-jumping has been a staple of Israeli politics throughout the country’s short history, it’s hard to make an argument that this understandable breakup between the centrists and the old leftists in Labor is any kind of a scandal. It is just the belated recognition on the part of Barak that he is better off letting Labor’s far-left activists merge with what remains of those factions that were to Labor’s left rather than sticking with them. Labor was once Israel’s dominant and natural party of government, but today it is as bankrupt — and obsolete — as the kibbutzim that symbolized the country’s socialist dreams.

But while Livni is the biggest Israeli loser in this transaction, there’s little doubt that it is just as much of a blow to President Barak Obama and his unrealistic approach to the Middle East. Read More

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to break away from the Labor Party and form his own centrist faction is a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. With the remaining members of Labor now shifted to the opposition, Netanyahu has rid his coalition of several Knesset members who are opposed to his policies. In the long run, Barak’s new party will, as David Hazony noted yesterday, provide unwanted competition for the largest opposition party, Kadima, making the path to power for it and its leader, Tzipi Livni, far more difficult.

Livni is understandably upset about this development and vented her spleen today in some over-the-top comments when she complained that Barak’s decision was “the dirtiest act in history.” Given the fact that party-jumping has been a staple of Israeli politics throughout the country’s short history, it’s hard to make an argument that this understandable breakup between the centrists and the old leftists in Labor is any kind of a scandal. It is just the belated recognition on the part of Barak that he is better off letting Labor’s far-left activists merge with what remains of those factions that were to Labor’s left rather than sticking with them. Labor was once Israel’s dominant and natural party of government, but today it is as bankrupt — and obsolete — as the kibbutzim that symbolized the country’s socialist dreams.

But while Livni is the biggest Israeli loser in this transaction, there’s little doubt that it is just as much of a blow to President Barak Obama and his unrealistic approach to the Middle East.

From the moment he took office, Obama has sought to overturn the cozier relationship that existed between Washington and Jerusalem under his predecessor. Throughout his first year in office, Obama seemed to be aiming at unseating Netanyahu, who had been elected weeks after the president was sworn in. By picking pointless fights over settlements and Jewish building in Jerusalem, Obama sought to destabilize Netanyahu’s coalition and hoped Livni would soon replace him. But his ill-considered attacks merely strengthened Netanyahu, who wisely sought to avoid a direct confrontation with his country’s only ally. It was already obvious that, far from collapsing, Netanyahu’s government would survive to the end of its four-year term or close to it. While the outcome of the next Israeli election that will probably occur in 2013 is as difficult to predict as that of Obama’s own re-election effort in 2012, Barak’s move renders the hopes of Livni — the Israeli leader whom both Obama and Secretary of State Clinton continue to treat as America’s favorite Israeli — less likely.

That means Obama is going to have to spend the rest of his term continuing to try to learn to live with the wily Netanyahu. Both Obama and the Palestinian Authority have spent the past two years acting as if they were just waiting around for a new weaker-willed Israeli government to materialize that would then magically create the circumstances under which peace would be achieved. As Barak-faction member Einat Wilf told the New York Times today, “I don’t belong to the camp that believes Israel is solely responsible for the failure of these negotiations. The Palestinians bear responsibility for not entering the talks. Some people have sent them a message to wait around for a new government.”

Barak’s move makes it clear that isn’t going to happen. While Israel’s critics will lament this development, it is high time that Americans accept the fact that the verdict of the Jewish state’s voters must be respected and that the Israeli consensus that has developed about the futility of further unilateral concessions to the Palestinians is entirely justified.

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The China Show

According to the New York Times, Barack Obama is about to get tough on China. Helene Cooper quotes Clinton administration national-security expert David Rothkopf, who says, “There’s been this well-orchestrated and clearly well thought-out campaign, over the past two weeks, involving the secretary of state, Treasury, defense and commerce making strong statements regarding currency, the trade imbalance, human rights and China’s military stance.” Cooper notes: “The more assertive strategy comes after Mr. Obama was criticized as appearing to kowtow to China in his visit there in 2009, and then again for allowing Beijing to get the upper hand against the United States at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Seoul late last year.”

A genuine policy shift is certainly welcome, but this is not it. The administration’s new approach on China will likely fail because it is compartmentalized. Without a bold change in America’s larger foreign policy, these feints amount to no more than fleeting imitations of power. Why would Hu Jintao concern himself with a one-day human-rights condemnation from an administration that has spent two straight years softening its human-rights rhetoric? Why would Hu fear the retaliation of a president who is so mild on international trade that now, as the Times puts it, “corporate leaders are pressing” him to “take a tougher stance”? Why would Beijing be concerned with a narrow and localized military investment boost pledged by a White House that has sworn to shrink America’s military posture around the globe?

America cannot simultaneously apologize and intimidate. So long as there remains no connection between this week’s slapdash simulation of American confidence and long-term American policy, we are negotiating without credibility. Which will prove no more effective than asking nicely.

According to the New York Times, Barack Obama is about to get tough on China. Helene Cooper quotes Clinton administration national-security expert David Rothkopf, who says, “There’s been this well-orchestrated and clearly well thought-out campaign, over the past two weeks, involving the secretary of state, Treasury, defense and commerce making strong statements regarding currency, the trade imbalance, human rights and China’s military stance.” Cooper notes: “The more assertive strategy comes after Mr. Obama was criticized as appearing to kowtow to China in his visit there in 2009, and then again for allowing Beijing to get the upper hand against the United States at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Seoul late last year.”

A genuine policy shift is certainly welcome, but this is not it. The administration’s new approach on China will likely fail because it is compartmentalized. Without a bold change in America’s larger foreign policy, these feints amount to no more than fleeting imitations of power. Why would Hu Jintao concern himself with a one-day human-rights condemnation from an administration that has spent two straight years softening its human-rights rhetoric? Why would Hu fear the retaliation of a president who is so mild on international trade that now, as the Times puts it, “corporate leaders are pressing” him to “take a tougher stance”? Why would Beijing be concerned with a narrow and localized military investment boost pledged by a White House that has sworn to shrink America’s military posture around the globe?

America cannot simultaneously apologize and intimidate. So long as there remains no connection between this week’s slapdash simulation of American confidence and long-term American policy, we are negotiating without credibility. Which will prove no more effective than asking nicely.

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A ‘Historic Opportunity’ in Tunisia

The Washington Post has a typically excellent editorial on the situation in Tunisia. The Post, with deputy editorial-page editor Jackson Diehl in the lead, has long been a courageous voice in the wilderness championing the embattled cause of Arab democracy. Now the Post editors write that the Jasmine Revolution presents a “historic opportunity”:

Though the revolution has no clear leaders and organized opposition parties are weak, the country is in other respects ready for a democratic transition. Its population is relatively well educated and its middle class substantial, and its women are emancipated by regional standards; Islamic fundamentalist forces are not as strong as they are in Algeria or Egypt. The constitution calls for fresh presidential elections in 60 days, and the country’s interim president indicated that calendar would be respected. The United States can join with France and the European Union in supporting and even helping to organize truly fair elections and in pushing back against those in Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world, who will seek a quick restoration of autocracy.

Good advice.

The Obama administration came into office disdainful of President Bush’s pursuit of democracy in the Middle East. Now some senior officials may be having a change of heart, as witnessed by Secretary of State Clinton’s recent speech taking Arab states to task for not doing more to reform themselves. We shouldn’t get our hopes up — an awful lot can still go wrong in Tunisia. Certainly in the past we have seen hopes of democracy in the region dashed (Lebanon) or delayed (Iraq). But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and Tunisia offers a great opportunity for the United States to show that it will stand with the Arab people, not just with their corrupt, unelected rulers.

The Washington Post has a typically excellent editorial on the situation in Tunisia. The Post, with deputy editorial-page editor Jackson Diehl in the lead, has long been a courageous voice in the wilderness championing the embattled cause of Arab democracy. Now the Post editors write that the Jasmine Revolution presents a “historic opportunity”:

Though the revolution has no clear leaders and organized opposition parties are weak, the country is in other respects ready for a democratic transition. Its population is relatively well educated and its middle class substantial, and its women are emancipated by regional standards; Islamic fundamentalist forces are not as strong as they are in Algeria or Egypt. The constitution calls for fresh presidential elections in 60 days, and the country’s interim president indicated that calendar would be respected. The United States can join with France and the European Union in supporting and even helping to organize truly fair elections and in pushing back against those in Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world, who will seek a quick restoration of autocracy.

Good advice.

The Obama administration came into office disdainful of President Bush’s pursuit of democracy in the Middle East. Now some senior officials may be having a change of heart, as witnessed by Secretary of State Clinton’s recent speech taking Arab states to task for not doing more to reform themselves. We shouldn’t get our hopes up — an awful lot can still go wrong in Tunisia. Certainly in the past we have seen hopes of democracy in the region dashed (Lebanon) or delayed (Iraq). But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and Tunisia offers a great opportunity for the United States to show that it will stand with the Arab people, not just with their corrupt, unelected rulers.

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Hillary Speaks Loudly and Carries Off Big Shtick

Every once in a while, someone high up in the Obama administration says something halfway meaningful about human rights. Immediately afterward, pundits celebrate the statement, regardless of its having no connection to anything the administration actually does. In this way, America’s foundational defense of liberty is morphing into a series of symbolic nods to bygone superstition. Soon parents will explain to puzzled kids, “You see, in olden days, Americans believed they could impact freedom around the world if they did certain things, and so it’s tradition for leaders to praise ‘human rights’ when talking about oppressed people.”

Only such an explanation could make sense of the ambivalence toward human freedom displayed by Hillary Clinton this week. “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, adopting a tone reminiscent of the Bush administration, blasted Arab governments for stalled political change, warning that extremists were exploiting a lack of democracy to promote radical agendas across the Middle East,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon on Friday.

Here’s the “blast”: “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. The region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”

Well and good. But here’s the secretary of state’s less-celebrated remark, made in an interview with Al Arabiya, regarding actual American policy and the revolt in Tunisia: “We are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it.” Look who’s sinking in the sand now.

It’s one thing to note that the revolution in Tunisia, like all infant revolutions, could lead to better or worse conditions. It’s quite another not to take the side of the oppressed at the outset — especially after delivering a “blast” to corrupt Arab governments. And especially after leaked diplomatic cables show American officials describing the regime of ousted Tunisian president Ben Ali as corrupt and “sclerotic,” with “no checks in the system.”

The Obama administration feels that the U.S. has no dog in the fight between freedom and autocracy. As a country, we’ve been there before — pre-9/11, to be exact. Look how peacefully those days came to a resolution. Still, one must pay lip service to tradition. So every now and then, the secretary of state or the president talk of reforming stagnant political orders and we all applaud. It’s kind of like saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes. It’s a question of manners, mostly. No one really believes, as they used to, that your soul escapes through your nose. We now know it evaporates through the process of American smart power.

Every once in a while, someone high up in the Obama administration says something halfway meaningful about human rights. Immediately afterward, pundits celebrate the statement, regardless of its having no connection to anything the administration actually does. In this way, America’s foundational defense of liberty is morphing into a series of symbolic nods to bygone superstition. Soon parents will explain to puzzled kids, “You see, in olden days, Americans believed they could impact freedom around the world if they did certain things, and so it’s tradition for leaders to praise ‘human rights’ when talking about oppressed people.”

Only such an explanation could make sense of the ambivalence toward human freedom displayed by Hillary Clinton this week. “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, adopting a tone reminiscent of the Bush administration, blasted Arab governments for stalled political change, warning that extremists were exploiting a lack of democracy to promote radical agendas across the Middle East,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon on Friday.

Here’s the “blast”: “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. The region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”

Well and good. But here’s the secretary of state’s less-celebrated remark, made in an interview with Al Arabiya, regarding actual American policy and the revolt in Tunisia: “We are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it.” Look who’s sinking in the sand now.

It’s one thing to note that the revolution in Tunisia, like all infant revolutions, could lead to better or worse conditions. It’s quite another not to take the side of the oppressed at the outset — especially after delivering a “blast” to corrupt Arab governments. And especially after leaked diplomatic cables show American officials describing the regime of ousted Tunisian president Ben Ali as corrupt and “sclerotic,” with “no checks in the system.”

The Obama administration feels that the U.S. has no dog in the fight between freedom and autocracy. As a country, we’ve been there before — pre-9/11, to be exact. Look how peacefully those days came to a resolution. Still, one must pay lip service to tradition. So every now and then, the secretary of state or the president talk of reforming stagnant political orders and we all applaud. It’s kind of like saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes. It’s a question of manners, mostly. No one really believes, as they used to, that your soul escapes through your nose. We now know it evaporates through the process of American smart power.

Read Less




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