Commentary Magazine


Topic: Wall Street Journal

A Nation of Political Imbeciles

I strongly dislike, on general principle, descriptions of any country on earth as “a nation of political imbeciles,” or anything similarly obnoxious and dismissive, but I’m afraid Bret Stephens is right to describe Egypt this way in his latest Wall Street Journal piece “Egypt’s Prison of Hate.” “You know a nation is in political trouble,” he writes, “when it blames shark attacks on the Mossad.”

Uh huh.

Essam El-Irian, a ridiculous Muslim Brotherhood official I myself once interviewed years ago, now even suggests that al-Qaeda is under Israeli control. The Egyptian “street” loves taking this kind of hysterical nonsense with its coffee.

Iraq is a depressing, miserable, and frightening place, but I have to say that Cairo, in some ways, disturbs me more than Baghdad, despite the fact that I have much more personal security when visiting the former than the latter. One day Egypt’s current government will be replaced. And if it’s replaced by a regime that reflects the “street” and is popular — watch out.

Stephens is right that what Egypt needs more than anything is political liberalism, but God only knows how it is supposed to get it.

I strongly dislike, on general principle, descriptions of any country on earth as “a nation of political imbeciles,” or anything similarly obnoxious and dismissive, but I’m afraid Bret Stephens is right to describe Egypt this way in his latest Wall Street Journal piece “Egypt’s Prison of Hate.” “You know a nation is in political trouble,” he writes, “when it blames shark attacks on the Mossad.”

Uh huh.

Essam El-Irian, a ridiculous Muslim Brotherhood official I myself once interviewed years ago, now even suggests that al-Qaeda is under Israeli control. The Egyptian “street” loves taking this kind of hysterical nonsense with its coffee.

Iraq is a depressing, miserable, and frightening place, but I have to say that Cairo, in some ways, disturbs me more than Baghdad, despite the fact that I have much more personal security when visiting the former than the latter. One day Egypt’s current government will be replaced. And if it’s replaced by a regime that reflects the “street” and is popular — watch out.

Stephens is right that what Egypt needs more than anything is political liberalism, but God only knows how it is supposed to get it.

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Morning Commentary

So how’s that “reset” with Russia going? Turns out the U.S.’s light criticism of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s six-year prison sentence last week did little to faze the Kremlin. Russian police arrested 130 protesters during a New Year’s Eve demonstration against the Khodorkovsky verdict and the country’s prohibition of free assembly.

Greece and the state of California have two things in common — spiraling debt and an unwillingness to take responsibility for it. According to Victor Davis Hanson, it’s no coincidence that both populations can’t stop railing against “them” — the others who apparently created the financial messes Greece and California now face. Writes Hanson: “Oz is over with and the Greeks are furious at ‘them.’ Furious in the sense that everyone must be blamed except themselves. So they protest and demonstrate that they do not wish to stop borrowing money to sustain a lifestyle that they have not earned—but do not wish to cut ties either with their EU beneficiaries and go it alone as in the 1970s. So they rage against reality.”

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Jamie Kirchick calls out Julian Assange for leaking information that has served only to weaken our democracy-supporting allies, such as Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai: “Which leads us back to WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange, who lacks any appreciation for the subtleties of international statecraft, many of which are not at all devious. If Mr. Assange were genuinely committed to democracy, as he claims, he would reveal the minutes of Mr. Mugabe’s war cabinet, or the private musings of the Chinese Politburo that has sustained the Zimbabwean dictator for over three decades.”

Is Obama now cribbing speech tips from the National Review? Bill Kristol has the scoop on the president’s sudden appreciation for American exceptionalism.

With a new year comes a whole host of brand new state laws you may have already unwittingly broken. If you’re from California, check out Mark Hemingway’s post at the Washington Examiner — he has saved you the time of going through the Golden State’s 725 new laws by highlighting the ones that will probably irk you the most.

The incoming Republican chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa, told Ed Henry on CNN yesterday that he won’t investigate whether President Obama offered Joe Sestak a position in the administration in exchange for dropping out of the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania last year: “That’s — it was wrong if it was done in the Bush administration. It’s wrong in the Obama administration. But remember, the focus of our committee has always been, and you look at all the work I’ve done over the past four years on the oversight committee; it has been consistently about looking for waste, fraud and abuse. That’s the vast majority of what we do,” Issa told Henry. Issa had previously called the Sestak incident “Obama’s Watergate” and said that the Obama administration may have committed “up to three felonies” by making the deal.

So how’s that “reset” with Russia going? Turns out the U.S.’s light criticism of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s six-year prison sentence last week did little to faze the Kremlin. Russian police arrested 130 protesters during a New Year’s Eve demonstration against the Khodorkovsky verdict and the country’s prohibition of free assembly.

Greece and the state of California have two things in common — spiraling debt and an unwillingness to take responsibility for it. According to Victor Davis Hanson, it’s no coincidence that both populations can’t stop railing against “them” — the others who apparently created the financial messes Greece and California now face. Writes Hanson: “Oz is over with and the Greeks are furious at ‘them.’ Furious in the sense that everyone must be blamed except themselves. So they protest and demonstrate that they do not wish to stop borrowing money to sustain a lifestyle that they have not earned—but do not wish to cut ties either with their EU beneficiaries and go it alone as in the 1970s. So they rage against reality.”

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Jamie Kirchick calls out Julian Assange for leaking information that has served only to weaken our democracy-supporting allies, such as Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai: “Which leads us back to WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange, who lacks any appreciation for the subtleties of international statecraft, many of which are not at all devious. If Mr. Assange were genuinely committed to democracy, as he claims, he would reveal the minutes of Mr. Mugabe’s war cabinet, or the private musings of the Chinese Politburo that has sustained the Zimbabwean dictator for over three decades.”

Is Obama now cribbing speech tips from the National Review? Bill Kristol has the scoop on the president’s sudden appreciation for American exceptionalism.

With a new year comes a whole host of brand new state laws you may have already unwittingly broken. If you’re from California, check out Mark Hemingway’s post at the Washington Examiner — he has saved you the time of going through the Golden State’s 725 new laws by highlighting the ones that will probably irk you the most.

The incoming Republican chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa, told Ed Henry on CNN yesterday that he won’t investigate whether President Obama offered Joe Sestak a position in the administration in exchange for dropping out of the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania last year: “That’s — it was wrong if it was done in the Bush administration. It’s wrong in the Obama administration. But remember, the focus of our committee has always been, and you look at all the work I’ve done over the past four years on the oversight committee; it has been consistently about looking for waste, fraud and abuse. That’s the vast majority of what we do,” Issa told Henry. Issa had previously called the Sestak incident “Obama’s Watergate” and said that the Obama administration may have committed “up to three felonies” by making the deal.

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Morning Commentary

Despite the beltway chatter about President Obama’s recent “moves to the center,” Charles Krauthammer points out that the “shift” was just for show. Far from embracing a more moderate course, the president has instead used administrative power to stealthily impose several unpopular left-wing policies: “Now as always, Obama’s heart lies left. For those fooled into thinking otherwise by the new Obama of Dec. 22, his administration’s defiantly liberal regulatory moves — on the environment, energy and health care — should disabuse even the most beguiled.”

The U.S. military’s recent crackdown on the Taliban in the Kunduz province of Afghanistan is paying dividends. Officials confirmed this morning that NATO forces took out the Taliban’s shadow governor of Kunduz, Mullah Mawlawi Bahadur, last night. But the Washington Examiner’s Sara Carter reports that the region has also seen a steady increase in insurgents over the past year.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board looks back on the 111th Congress — and the assessment is not pretty: “The real story of 2010 is that the voters were finally able to see and judge this liberal agenda in its unvarnished form. For once, there was no Republican President to muddle the message or divide the accountability.”

At the New Republic, Eric Weinberger wonders whether academic freedom will be protected at Yale’s new college in Singapore. The idea seems unlikely given the trial of Alan Shadrake, a British journalist facing prison in that country for publishing an allegedly “defamatory” book about Singapore’s justice system.

M. Zuhdi Jasser throws his support behind Rep. Peter King’s plans to hold hearings on Islamic radicalization before the House Homeland Security Council next year: “Our national inability to discuss religious issues honestly is keeping American Muslims from having to accept the reforms needed to defeat political Islam and bring our faith into modernity. The victimization mantra feeds more Muslim isolation and radicalization.”

Secret papers released by the National Archives reveal how strained was the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Menachem Begin, who clashed over Begin’s support of the settlements in the West Bank. According to the papers, “Margaret Thatcher believed that Menachem Begin was the ‘most difficult’ man she had to deal with in the early years of her premiership, and thought his West Bank policy ‘absurd.’”

Despite the beltway chatter about President Obama’s recent “moves to the center,” Charles Krauthammer points out that the “shift” was just for show. Far from embracing a more moderate course, the president has instead used administrative power to stealthily impose several unpopular left-wing policies: “Now as always, Obama’s heart lies left. For those fooled into thinking otherwise by the new Obama of Dec. 22, his administration’s defiantly liberal regulatory moves — on the environment, energy and health care — should disabuse even the most beguiled.”

The U.S. military’s recent crackdown on the Taliban in the Kunduz province of Afghanistan is paying dividends. Officials confirmed this morning that NATO forces took out the Taliban’s shadow governor of Kunduz, Mullah Mawlawi Bahadur, last night. But the Washington Examiner’s Sara Carter reports that the region has also seen a steady increase in insurgents over the past year.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board looks back on the 111th Congress — and the assessment is not pretty: “The real story of 2010 is that the voters were finally able to see and judge this liberal agenda in its unvarnished form. For once, there was no Republican President to muddle the message or divide the accountability.”

At the New Republic, Eric Weinberger wonders whether academic freedom will be protected at Yale’s new college in Singapore. The idea seems unlikely given the trial of Alan Shadrake, a British journalist facing prison in that country for publishing an allegedly “defamatory” book about Singapore’s justice system.

M. Zuhdi Jasser throws his support behind Rep. Peter King’s plans to hold hearings on Islamic radicalization before the House Homeland Security Council next year: “Our national inability to discuss religious issues honestly is keeping American Muslims from having to accept the reforms needed to defeat political Islam and bring our faith into modernity. The victimization mantra feeds more Muslim isolation and radicalization.”

Secret papers released by the National Archives reveal how strained was the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Menachem Begin, who clashed over Begin’s support of the settlements in the West Bank. According to the papers, “Margaret Thatcher believed that Menachem Begin was the ‘most difficult’ man she had to deal with in the early years of her premiership, and thought his West Bank policy ‘absurd.’”

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Support for Terrorism Falls…but More Slowly Than During the Bush Years

In his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Joshua Muravchik points out that public support for terrorism is still dropping in Islamic countries, but more slowly than it did during the Bush years.

Using the results from the most recent Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, Muravchik focuses on attitudes toward terrorism in several Muslim countries. The results are mildly encouraging for America, he writes, but not necessarily for Mr. Obama and his outreach efforts.

In summarizing the data, Muravchik writes:

The survey gauges attitudes toward three crucial terrorism-related subjects: al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and suicide bombings. The good news is that the proportion of pro-terror opinion continues to decline. The bad news is that the minority holding such views remains considerable.

For example, 20% of Egyptians, 23% of Indonesians and 34% of Jordanians say they hold favorable views of al Qaeda. Asked whether they have confidence that bin Laden will “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” 19% of Egyptians, 25% of Indonesians and 14% of Jordanians responded positively. On the question of suicide bombing, 20% of Egyptians, 20% of Jordanians and 15% of Indonesians said it is “often” or “sometimes” justified (as opposed to “rarely” or “never”).

These results seem to reflect well on Mr. Obama’s engagement project, according to Muravchik, since a few years ago, these measures of support for terrorism were much higher. But he adds that the Pew report also offers a time-sequence chart, dating back to 2003, of answers to the question about bin Laden. And it shows

an encouraging decrease in support for terrorism—but the largest drop came when George W. Bush was president. The sharpest decrease in terror support in Indonesia, Turkey and Lebanon came between 2003 and 2005; in Jordan, between 2005 and 2006; and in Nigeria and Egypt between 2006 and 2007.

Only in Pakistan was the largest drop between 2008 and 2009—but the poll was taken in April 2009, so Mr. Bush was in office more than Mr. Obama during that one-year interval. From 2009 to 2010, the one full-year interval of Mr. Obama’s presidency for which Pew offers data, the decline was negligible everywhere except in Jordan, where the drop-off was smaller than it was from 2005 to 2006. [emphasis added]

In exploring the reasons for this, Muravchik concludes that “the data are too slender to sustain the claim that Mr. Bush’s policies succeeded in turning much of the Muslim world against terrorism. But they are substantial enough to inform our understanding that Mr. Obama’s approach has achieved little in this regard.”

My own hunch is, as Muravchik suggests, that the actions of al-Qaeda may be the crucial variable. As its savagery became more and more apparent in Iraq and elsewhere, large portions of the Islamic world turned against it and militant Islam more broadly.

But of course, Mr. Obama’s promise to transform the attitudes of the world didn’t take any of this into account. Through the force of his personality and charm, the wisdom of his policies, and his worldwide apology tours, Obama was going to win over the Muslim world in a way that was inescapable and unprecedented. The president’s speech in Cairo, you may recall, was going to be a tipping point in how the Muslim world viewed us and terrorism.

But like so many other hopes and dreams set forth by Mr. Obama, it hasn’t turned out that way. Not by a long shot.

In his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Joshua Muravchik points out that public support for terrorism is still dropping in Islamic countries, but more slowly than it did during the Bush years.

Using the results from the most recent Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, Muravchik focuses on attitudes toward terrorism in several Muslim countries. The results are mildly encouraging for America, he writes, but not necessarily for Mr. Obama and his outreach efforts.

In summarizing the data, Muravchik writes:

The survey gauges attitudes toward three crucial terrorism-related subjects: al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and suicide bombings. The good news is that the proportion of pro-terror opinion continues to decline. The bad news is that the minority holding such views remains considerable.

For example, 20% of Egyptians, 23% of Indonesians and 34% of Jordanians say they hold favorable views of al Qaeda. Asked whether they have confidence that bin Laden will “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” 19% of Egyptians, 25% of Indonesians and 14% of Jordanians responded positively. On the question of suicide bombing, 20% of Egyptians, 20% of Jordanians and 15% of Indonesians said it is “often” or “sometimes” justified (as opposed to “rarely” or “never”).

These results seem to reflect well on Mr. Obama’s engagement project, according to Muravchik, since a few years ago, these measures of support for terrorism were much higher. But he adds that the Pew report also offers a time-sequence chart, dating back to 2003, of answers to the question about bin Laden. And it shows

an encouraging decrease in support for terrorism—but the largest drop came when George W. Bush was president. The sharpest decrease in terror support in Indonesia, Turkey and Lebanon came between 2003 and 2005; in Jordan, between 2005 and 2006; and in Nigeria and Egypt between 2006 and 2007.

Only in Pakistan was the largest drop between 2008 and 2009—but the poll was taken in April 2009, so Mr. Bush was in office more than Mr. Obama during that one-year interval. From 2009 to 2010, the one full-year interval of Mr. Obama’s presidency for which Pew offers data, the decline was negligible everywhere except in Jordan, where the drop-off was smaller than it was from 2005 to 2006. [emphasis added]

In exploring the reasons for this, Muravchik concludes that “the data are too slender to sustain the claim that Mr. Bush’s policies succeeded in turning much of the Muslim world against terrorism. But they are substantial enough to inform our understanding that Mr. Obama’s approach has achieved little in this regard.”

My own hunch is, as Muravchik suggests, that the actions of al-Qaeda may be the crucial variable. As its savagery became more and more apparent in Iraq and elsewhere, large portions of the Islamic world turned against it and militant Islam more broadly.

But of course, Mr. Obama’s promise to transform the attitudes of the world didn’t take any of this into account. Through the force of his personality and charm, the wisdom of his policies, and his worldwide apology tours, Obama was going to win over the Muslim world in a way that was inescapable and unprecedented. The president’s speech in Cairo, you may recall, was going to be a tipping point in how the Muslim world viewed us and terrorism.

But like so many other hopes and dreams set forth by Mr. Obama, it hasn’t turned out that way. Not by a long shot.

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Obama Takes Moral Step Backward in Treatment of Suspected Terrorists

“No part of President Obama’s agenda has been as thoroughly repudiated as the one regarding terrorist detainees,” the Wall Street Journal has editorialized. That verdict seems reasonable given Mr. Obama’s unfulfilled pledge to close Guantanamo Bay, the administration’s reversal of the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Manhattan, and the near acquittal of Ahmed Ghailani in a civilian trial earlier this year.

But the editorial also reports this: White House aides say they are working up an executive order to allow the U.S. to hold enemy combatants indefinitely. “One reason Mr. Obama has been forced to allow indefinite detention is because he seems unwilling to allow more military commission trials at Guantanamo,” according to the Journal.

That is an extraordinary turn of events. Mr. Obama ran for president by lacerating his predecessor for acting in ways that were, he said, lawless and unconstitutional, in violation of basic human rights, and an affront to international law, and in ways that discredited and disgraced America’s name around the globe. And now we learn that Mr. Upholder of International Law himself, Barack Obama, is going to continue his policy of holding enemy combatants indefinitely.

At least the Bush policy of military tribunals, which was based on wartime precedent and previous Supreme Court rulings, allowed suspects a lawyer and a trial by jury. When in 2006 the Supreme Court struck down military tribunals (in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld), the Bush administration and Congress effectively rewrote the law, passing the Military Commissions Act of 2006. The administration was trying to find the right balance between indefinite detention on the one hand and not providing suspected terrorists with the full array of constitutional rights an American citizen possesses on the other. (The Supreme Court’s 2008 terribly misguided ruling in Boumediene v. Bush, which for the first time in our history conferred a constitutional right to habeas corpus to alien enemies detained abroad by our military force in an ongoing war, made striking this balance far more complicated.)

President Obama, because he appears unwilling to allow military commission trials at Guantanamo, seems to have settled on indefinite detention. This is a significant moral step backward.

Under the Obama regime, suspected terrorists have no rights and no recourse. It also means that terrorists who deserve to be convicted and punished for their malevolent acts will avoid that judgment. In the withering words of the Journal editorial, “Nazis Hermann Goering and Adolf Eichmann were sentenced to hang for their crimes, but KSM and Ramzi bin al Shibh get three squares a day and the hope that someday they might be released.”

Even allowing for the fact that governing is a good deal more difficult than issuing campaign promises, the Obama administration’s incompetence is striking, its course of action indefensible. The president has once again made a hash of things.

“No part of President Obama’s agenda has been as thoroughly repudiated as the one regarding terrorist detainees,” the Wall Street Journal has editorialized. That verdict seems reasonable given Mr. Obama’s unfulfilled pledge to close Guantanamo Bay, the administration’s reversal of the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Manhattan, and the near acquittal of Ahmed Ghailani in a civilian trial earlier this year.

But the editorial also reports this: White House aides say they are working up an executive order to allow the U.S. to hold enemy combatants indefinitely. “One reason Mr. Obama has been forced to allow indefinite detention is because he seems unwilling to allow more military commission trials at Guantanamo,” according to the Journal.

That is an extraordinary turn of events. Mr. Obama ran for president by lacerating his predecessor for acting in ways that were, he said, lawless and unconstitutional, in violation of basic human rights, and an affront to international law, and in ways that discredited and disgraced America’s name around the globe. And now we learn that Mr. Upholder of International Law himself, Barack Obama, is going to continue his policy of holding enemy combatants indefinitely.

At least the Bush policy of military tribunals, which was based on wartime precedent and previous Supreme Court rulings, allowed suspects a lawyer and a trial by jury. When in 2006 the Supreme Court struck down military tribunals (in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld), the Bush administration and Congress effectively rewrote the law, passing the Military Commissions Act of 2006. The administration was trying to find the right balance between indefinite detention on the one hand and not providing suspected terrorists with the full array of constitutional rights an American citizen possesses on the other. (The Supreme Court’s 2008 terribly misguided ruling in Boumediene v. Bush, which for the first time in our history conferred a constitutional right to habeas corpus to alien enemies detained abroad by our military force in an ongoing war, made striking this balance far more complicated.)

President Obama, because he appears unwilling to allow military commission trials at Guantanamo, seems to have settled on indefinite detention. This is a significant moral step backward.

Under the Obama regime, suspected terrorists have no rights and no recourse. It also means that terrorists who deserve to be convicted and punished for their malevolent acts will avoid that judgment. In the withering words of the Journal editorial, “Nazis Hermann Goering and Adolf Eichmann were sentenced to hang for their crimes, but KSM and Ramzi bin al Shibh get three squares a day and the hope that someday they might be released.”

Even allowing for the fact that governing is a good deal more difficult than issuing campaign promises, the Obama administration’s incompetence is striking, its course of action indefensible. The president has once again made a hash of things.

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More Progress in Afghanistan

The New York Times yesterday highlighted one of the more unsung good-news stories out of Afghanistan: the success that U.S. troops have been having in preventing catastrophic terrorist attacks in Kabul by the Haqqani Network. As reporter Eric Schmitt notes, the Haqqanis have been linked to the 2008 attacks against the Serena Hotel (which killed six) and Indian Embassy (which killed 58), but they “have not conducted a complicated attack in Kabul since a suicide bomber steered his explosives-laden Toyota minibus into an American convoy on May 18.”

U.S. commanders are naturally reluctant to publicly claim any kind of victory because they know that an attack could occur tomorrow but this is a testament to how effective the Joint Special Operations Command has been in targeting the Haqqani network with assistance of conventional American units. We should also not underestimate the contribution being made by Afghan security forces which police Kabul largely on their own. It has not gotten much attention but Gen. Petraeus has emphasized the need to secure the capital, where the largest concentration of the country’s population may be found, and then to expand the security zone outward. So far that plan is meeting with considerable success.

Which stands at odds with the UN findings, reported by the Wall Street Journal, which “show a marked deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan during this year’s fighting season.” I am at a loss to explain how the UN can claim that things are getting worse when not only is Kabul much safer but so also are most of the key districts in Kandahar and Helmand provinces targeted by coalition forces. Yes, there has been some deterioration in the north but it is nowhere as bad as the south had become–and it will never get as bad because the Taliban appeal only to Pashtuns and there are precious few in the north.

One partial explanation may be that the UN findings were made in October, thus ignoring at least two months of solid progress in the south. Another partial explanation may be that the UN is focusing on the uptick in fighting as coalition troops go into insurgent strong havens–rather than the result, which is less Taliban control. The early stages of any offensive always look messy; they certainly did in Iraq. And no doubt the UN was reporting in 2007 that the security situation was deteriorating in Iraq. But that was the price of breaking the insurgent grip. Something similar is happening now in Afghanistan. We can only hope the results will be as positive as they were in Iraq.

The New York Times yesterday highlighted one of the more unsung good-news stories out of Afghanistan: the success that U.S. troops have been having in preventing catastrophic terrorist attacks in Kabul by the Haqqani Network. As reporter Eric Schmitt notes, the Haqqanis have been linked to the 2008 attacks against the Serena Hotel (which killed six) and Indian Embassy (which killed 58), but they “have not conducted a complicated attack in Kabul since a suicide bomber steered his explosives-laden Toyota minibus into an American convoy on May 18.”

U.S. commanders are naturally reluctant to publicly claim any kind of victory because they know that an attack could occur tomorrow but this is a testament to how effective the Joint Special Operations Command has been in targeting the Haqqani network with assistance of conventional American units. We should also not underestimate the contribution being made by Afghan security forces which police Kabul largely on their own. It has not gotten much attention but Gen. Petraeus has emphasized the need to secure the capital, where the largest concentration of the country’s population may be found, and then to expand the security zone outward. So far that plan is meeting with considerable success.

Which stands at odds with the UN findings, reported by the Wall Street Journal, which “show a marked deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan during this year’s fighting season.” I am at a loss to explain how the UN can claim that things are getting worse when not only is Kabul much safer but so also are most of the key districts in Kandahar and Helmand provinces targeted by coalition forces. Yes, there has been some deterioration in the north but it is nowhere as bad as the south had become–and it will never get as bad because the Taliban appeal only to Pashtuns and there are precious few in the north.

One partial explanation may be that the UN findings were made in October, thus ignoring at least two months of solid progress in the south. Another partial explanation may be that the UN is focusing on the uptick in fighting as coalition troops go into insurgent strong havens–rather than the result, which is less Taliban control. The early stages of any offensive always look messy; they certainly did in Iraq. And no doubt the UN was reporting in 2007 that the security situation was deteriorating in Iraq. But that was the price of breaking the insurgent grip. Something similar is happening now in Afghanistan. We can only hope the results will be as positive as they were in Iraq.

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Morning Commentary

Iranian leaders have cut long-time food and gas subsidies in an attempt to boost the country’s sanctions-stifled economy. The move caused prices on everyday goods to skyrocket, angering an already unhappy citizenry. Truck drivers have been striking for days over gas costs, and it looks like more strikes at the marketplaces are imminent.

Bill Kristol urges conservatives not to get hysterical about the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal. Sure, it wasn’t the outcome that some wanted, but those who believe our troops can’t handle the policy change are seriously underestimating the strength and character of our soldiers: “[Blogger Cassy] Fiano’s advice to conservatives? Cool It. We join in her suggestion. … As Fiano writes, it’s a ‘massive insult to our military’ to assume that soldiers can’t handle the challenge of integrating openly gay troops. True, this is a burden they might have been spared while fighting two wars. But they’ll deal with it,” wrote Kristol.

The Wall Street Journal thinks PolitiFact may need a fact-checker. The media watchdog group recently declared that the phrase “government takeover of healthcare” was the “lie of the year.” Of course, that phrase isn’t so much a “fact” as it is an informed opinion about the recent health-care reforms. As the WSJ editorial board writes, “PolitiFact’s decree is part of a larger journalistic trend that seeks to recast all political debates as matters of lies, misinformation and ‘facts,’ rather than differences of world view or principles. PolitiFact wants to define for everyone else what qualifies as a ‘fact,’ though in political debates the facts are often legitimately in dispute.”

S.E. Cupp wonders how liberals can reconcile the campaign to save polar bears with their reverence for Darwinism. After all, if certain species can’t hack it on their own, should we really be messing with evolution’s master plan? “Maybe we should admit that our science is not as perfect as we would like to believe and that nature is ultimately inexplicable and beyond our control. There is no sense in meddling with the extinction of polar bears, not when so many more pressing human problems await,” argues Cupp.

Have you always wanted to combine the joyful celebration of the holiday season with a blind, irrational hatred for the Jewish state? Well now you can, thanks to the creative types at the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. NGO Monitor reports that “During the 2010 Christmas season, NGOs such as Sabeel, War on Want (UK), Trócaire, and Pax Christi are once again exploiting the holiday for radical attacks against Israel, through politicized Christmas carols, cards, and messages, and calls for donations and gift giving.” Yes, that holiday card featuring the three wise men blocked by an Israeli Apartheid Wall looks like it would be the perfect seasons-greeting for co-workers.

Iranian leaders have cut long-time food and gas subsidies in an attempt to boost the country’s sanctions-stifled economy. The move caused prices on everyday goods to skyrocket, angering an already unhappy citizenry. Truck drivers have been striking for days over gas costs, and it looks like more strikes at the marketplaces are imminent.

Bill Kristol urges conservatives not to get hysterical about the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal. Sure, it wasn’t the outcome that some wanted, but those who believe our troops can’t handle the policy change are seriously underestimating the strength and character of our soldiers: “[Blogger Cassy] Fiano’s advice to conservatives? Cool It. We join in her suggestion. … As Fiano writes, it’s a ‘massive insult to our military’ to assume that soldiers can’t handle the challenge of integrating openly gay troops. True, this is a burden they might have been spared while fighting two wars. But they’ll deal with it,” wrote Kristol.

The Wall Street Journal thinks PolitiFact may need a fact-checker. The media watchdog group recently declared that the phrase “government takeover of healthcare” was the “lie of the year.” Of course, that phrase isn’t so much a “fact” as it is an informed opinion about the recent health-care reforms. As the WSJ editorial board writes, “PolitiFact’s decree is part of a larger journalistic trend that seeks to recast all political debates as matters of lies, misinformation and ‘facts,’ rather than differences of world view or principles. PolitiFact wants to define for everyone else what qualifies as a ‘fact,’ though in political debates the facts are often legitimately in dispute.”

S.E. Cupp wonders how liberals can reconcile the campaign to save polar bears with their reverence for Darwinism. After all, if certain species can’t hack it on their own, should we really be messing with evolution’s master plan? “Maybe we should admit that our science is not as perfect as we would like to believe and that nature is ultimately inexplicable and beyond our control. There is no sense in meddling with the extinction of polar bears, not when so many more pressing human problems await,” argues Cupp.

Have you always wanted to combine the joyful celebration of the holiday season with a blind, irrational hatred for the Jewish state? Well now you can, thanks to the creative types at the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. NGO Monitor reports that “During the 2010 Christmas season, NGOs such as Sabeel, War on Want (UK), Trócaire, and Pax Christi are once again exploiting the holiday for radical attacks against Israel, through politicized Christmas carols, cards, and messages, and calls for donations and gift giving.” Yes, that holiday card featuring the three wise men blocked by an Israeli Apartheid Wall looks like it would be the perfect seasons-greeting for co-workers.

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Cut and Run Was No Strategy for Iraq and Isn’t One for Afghanistan

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has written in the Wall Street Journal that we should “un-surge” in Afghanistan. While arguing against total withdrawal, he says “the U.S. effort there should be sharply reduced.”

Mr. Haass’s recommendation on Afghanistan sounds similar to his (flawed) recommendation on Iraq during the debate about the surge.

In a November 13, 2006, interview with Der Spiegel, Haass said: “We’ve reached a point in Iraq where we’ve got to get real. … The Iraq situation is not winnable in any meaningful sense of the word ‘winnable.’ So what we need to do now is look for a way to limit the losses and costs, try to advance on other fronts in the region and try to limit the fallout of Iraq. That’s what you have to do sometimes when you’re a global power.”

A few weeks later, on November 30, Haass said, “It’s not clear to me that even if you double the level of American troops you would somehow stabilize the situation [in Iraq].”

And on December 10, 2006, on NBC’s Meet the Press, he said this:

I would perhaps do it for a short amount of time, a surge, as part, again, of this narrative, as part of saying, “We’ve gone the extra mile.” I want to take away the arguments, quite honestly, from the critics of the [Iraq Study Group] report. I want to take away the argument that if Iraq turns out as badly as I fear it might, I want to take away the argument that it was because of what we didn’t do. If Iraq doesn’t work, I think it’s incredibly important for the future of the Middle East and for the future of American foreign policy around the world that the principle lesson not be that the United States is unreliable or we lacked staying power. “If only we’d done a little bit more for a little bit longer it would’ve succeeded.” To me, it is essentially important for the future of this country that Iraq be seen, if you will, as Iraq’s failure, not as America’s failure.

So Haass supported a temporary surge in Iraq not because he thought it would work but in order to place the blame on the Iraqis when it failed. There was a notably amoral quality to Haass’s recommendation (the realpolitik Haass might accept this as a compliment). Read More

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has written in the Wall Street Journal that we should “un-surge” in Afghanistan. While arguing against total withdrawal, he says “the U.S. effort there should be sharply reduced.”

Mr. Haass’s recommendation on Afghanistan sounds similar to his (flawed) recommendation on Iraq during the debate about the surge.

In a November 13, 2006, interview with Der Spiegel, Haass said: “We’ve reached a point in Iraq where we’ve got to get real. … The Iraq situation is not winnable in any meaningful sense of the word ‘winnable.’ So what we need to do now is look for a way to limit the losses and costs, try to advance on other fronts in the region and try to limit the fallout of Iraq. That’s what you have to do sometimes when you’re a global power.”

A few weeks later, on November 30, Haass said, “It’s not clear to me that even if you double the level of American troops you would somehow stabilize the situation [in Iraq].”

And on December 10, 2006, on NBC’s Meet the Press, he said this:

I would perhaps do it for a short amount of time, a surge, as part, again, of this narrative, as part of saying, “We’ve gone the extra mile.” I want to take away the arguments, quite honestly, from the critics of the [Iraq Study Group] report. I want to take away the argument that if Iraq turns out as badly as I fear it might, I want to take away the argument that it was because of what we didn’t do. If Iraq doesn’t work, I think it’s incredibly important for the future of the Middle East and for the future of American foreign policy around the world that the principle lesson not be that the United States is unreliable or we lacked staying power. “If only we’d done a little bit more for a little bit longer it would’ve succeeded.” To me, it is essentially important for the future of this country that Iraq be seen, if you will, as Iraq’s failure, not as America’s failure.

So Haass supported a temporary surge in Iraq not because he thought it would work but in order to place the blame on the Iraqis when it failed. There was a notably amoral quality to Haass’s recommendation (the realpolitik Haass might accept this as a compliment).

In his Journal op-ed arguing for undoing the surge in Afghanistan, Haass lays out the “broader reasons to recast policy.” They include:

The greatest threat to U.S. national security stems from our own fiscal crisis. Afghanistan is a significant contributor to this situation and could play an important role in reducing it. A savings of $75 billion a year could help finance much-needed military modernization and reduce the deficit.

Another factor is the increased possibility of a conflict with a reckless North Korea and the continued possibility of a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program. U.S. military forces must be freed up to contend with these issues. The perception that we are tied down in Afghanistan makes it more difficult to threaten North Korea or Iran credibly—and makes it more difficult to muster the forces to deal with either if necessary.

Haass’s somewhat novel argument, then, is that in order to preserve our capacity to wage future wars, we should lose (in the guise of de-escalation) our current ones. He doesn’t take into account that retreating in Afghanistan would be (rightly) interpreted by nations like Iran and North Korea as weakness on the part of America, thereby emboldening our adversaries. And nowhere does Haass explain how his recommended offshore counterterrorism strategy would work, since credible counterterrorism strikes depend on good intelligence, which is best gathered by ground forces that enjoy the trust of the local population. If we pull out our troops, we lose even that capacity.

One cannot help but suspect that Haass has arrived at a position based on a theory he holds to with dogmatic certitude and has gone in search of arguments to support it. This may explain why Haass is forced to mimic David Stockman on the deficit and Richard Perle on Iran. It’s not a terribly persuasive pose.

Mr. Haass concludes his op-ed this way:

Ultimately Afghanistan is a strategic distraction. U.S. interests there are limited. So, too, are the resources available for national security. It is not surprising that the commander in the field, Gen. David Petraeus, is calling for committing greater resources to the theater. But it is the commander-in-chief’s responsibility to take into account the nation’s capacity to meet all of its challenges, national and international. It is for this reason that the perspectives of Gen. Petraeus and President Obama must necessarily diverge.

The notion that Afghanistan is nothing more than a “strategic distraction” is not terribly serious. Events of the past decade have turned it into something very much more than that.

Defeat there would have profound, negative effects on, among other nations, nuclear-armed Pakistan. While it’s obviously true that events in Afghanistan don’t have unlimited effects on Pakistan, Haass’s insistence that they are almost completely unrelated will come as news to the Pakistani government and virtually everyone else in the region. The capitulation of the United States and the fall of the existing government in a neighboring state, Afghanistan, would have significant ramifications in Pakistan. It would be an enormously important psychological victory for jihadists and the Taliban. Islamists all over the world would assume that if they wait long enough, the U.S. will cut out and move on. And defeat in Afghanistan would have baleful consequences for the people, and especially the women, of Afghanistan (though that dimension of this issue doesn’t appear to enter into Haass’s calculus at all).

When it comes to both military planning and strategic thinking, General Petraeus is simply in a different league than Mr. Haass. The four-star general and Princeton Ph.D. has proved himself to be far wiser, more prescient, and more knowledgeable than the former State Department official. Which is why I’m thankful that America’s 44th president, like America’s 43rd president, is listening to David Petraeus rather than to Richard Haass.

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Honduras, Obama, and Occam’s Razor

In the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Mary Anastasia O’Grady wrote that cables released by WikiLeaks show that the administration knew Honduran President Manuel Zelaya had threatened Honduran democracy — but supported him in order to offer President Obama a “bonding opportunity” with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and a chance to ingratiate himself with Latin America’s hard left.

O’Grady believes this helps explain why the administration went to such extremes to try to force Zelaya’s reinstatement despite the obvious remedy once the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court had upheld his removal for attempting to thwart the election of his successor — hold the already scheduled election between the already duly-chosen candidates, on the date already set, which was only a few months away.

I have a simpler explanation — not inconsistent with O’Grady’s analysis but closer to the common theme in Obama’s foreign policy in other areas. The day after Zelaya was removed, Obama pronounced it a “coup.” That snap judgment remained American policy even as more and more facts contradicting Obama’s description emerged. After months pushing a reinstatement that virtually every element of Honduran political and civil society opposed, and even though the proper and practical solution was apparent, Obama still engaged in mystifying diplomacy, cutting off aid to a poverty-stricken ally. Three months into the “crisis,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley made this statement about the Honduran government’s intent to hold its election:

There’s a sense that the de facto regime was thinking, if we can just get to an election, that this would absolve them of all their sins. And we’re saying, clearly, that is not the case.

Crowley asserted the election the Honduran legislature and judiciary sought to preserve would not “absolve” them of “all their sins.” Honduras had apparently offended some sort of god.

Obama brought to the Oval Office a self-regard probably unmatched in American history. He apologized for his country while praising it for electing him. He thought that Iran could be handled with his outstretched hand; that a foreign head of state should receive an iPod with his speeches on it; that a video of him was sufficient for the Berlin Wall anniversary; that a prime minister should be summoned to the White House after-hours without press or pictures; that a Palestinian state would be created because this time they had Him. Russia and China were treated with respect, as was Iran, even as it held a fraudulent election and blew through his successive “deadlines.” But allies such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Israel, and Britain were treated differently.

What was visited upon Honduras last year was of a piece.

In the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Mary Anastasia O’Grady wrote that cables released by WikiLeaks show that the administration knew Honduran President Manuel Zelaya had threatened Honduran democracy — but supported him in order to offer President Obama a “bonding opportunity” with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and a chance to ingratiate himself with Latin America’s hard left.

O’Grady believes this helps explain why the administration went to such extremes to try to force Zelaya’s reinstatement despite the obvious remedy once the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court had upheld his removal for attempting to thwart the election of his successor — hold the already scheduled election between the already duly-chosen candidates, on the date already set, which was only a few months away.

I have a simpler explanation — not inconsistent with O’Grady’s analysis but closer to the common theme in Obama’s foreign policy in other areas. The day after Zelaya was removed, Obama pronounced it a “coup.” That snap judgment remained American policy even as more and more facts contradicting Obama’s description emerged. After months pushing a reinstatement that virtually every element of Honduran political and civil society opposed, and even though the proper and practical solution was apparent, Obama still engaged in mystifying diplomacy, cutting off aid to a poverty-stricken ally. Three months into the “crisis,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley made this statement about the Honduran government’s intent to hold its election:

There’s a sense that the de facto regime was thinking, if we can just get to an election, that this would absolve them of all their sins. And we’re saying, clearly, that is not the case.

Crowley asserted the election the Honduran legislature and judiciary sought to preserve would not “absolve” them of “all their sins.” Honduras had apparently offended some sort of god.

Obama brought to the Oval Office a self-regard probably unmatched in American history. He apologized for his country while praising it for electing him. He thought that Iran could be handled with his outstretched hand; that a foreign head of state should receive an iPod with his speeches on it; that a video of him was sufficient for the Berlin Wall anniversary; that a prime minister should be summoned to the White House after-hours without press or pictures; that a Palestinian state would be created because this time they had Him. Russia and China were treated with respect, as was Iran, even as it held a fraudulent election and blew through his successive “deadlines.” But allies such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Israel, and Britain were treated differently.

What was visited upon Honduras last year was of a piece.

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Guess We’re Governable After All

Don’t look now, but the American government is working as it should. Harry Reid, bending to bipartisan reality, has quit fighting for his $1.2 trillion spending bill and turned to short-term budget solutions. We can debate the merits of the $858 billion tax compromise, but it passed without any trickery and, more important, we knew what was in it. Congress now turns to genuine deliberation on the Dream Act, the repeal of DADT, and the ratification of New START. Gone are the kabuki summits, unseemly prime-time sales pitches, and abstruse parliamentary con games. Where Nancy Pelosi had wielded a giant prop gavel and boasted of “making history” with ObamaCare, one real-life federal judge just declared it unconstitutional. How did all this happen? Only a year ago, liberal pundits had pronounced America ungovernable.

What spurred magazines like Newsweek to render that judgment in the first place? A civic and governmental travesty of such gargantuan proportion that it’s chilling to think it actually happened in the United States: Massachusetts elected a Republican senator.

This left little question about whom to blame. “Perhaps the greatest hindrance to good governance today is the Republican Party, which has adopted an agenda of pure nihilism for naked political gain,” the magazine’s editors wrote.  Moreover, “any regular observer of Washington would conclude that congressional Republicans have no desire to be reached out to — because they aren’t actually very interested in governing the country.”

Were grapes ever so sour? President Obama and an unbridled Democratic Congress drove Massachusetts into the arms of the GOP within one year, and this meant that Republicans were a danger to the union. The case made before the people was simply an inversion of reality. While Newsweek cited the “GOP’s flagrant use of parliamentary tricks,” Democrats on the Hill were employing maneuvers so recondite, few could accurately define or explain the intricacies of what was happening.  The editors lamented the Republicans’ bullying of the “spineless Democrats,” while Nancy Pelosi bragged of her commando legislation tactics: “We’ll go through the gate. If the gate’s closed, we’ll go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we’ll pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we’ll parachute in, but we’re going to get health-care reform passed for the America people.” Newsweek claimed that “congressional Republicans offered no serious counterproposals to the Democrats’ health-care initiative and sought instead to either mislead or simply lie about its key elements,” but it was President Obama who impatiently dismissed the prospect of a bipartisan effort as “another year of partisan wrangling around these issues, another six months’ or eight months’ or nine months’ worth of hearings in every single committee in the House and the Senate in which there’s a lot of posturing.”

What Obama’s first year actually proved was that America is undictatable. Scott Brown was elected because Americans were screaming out for governance and rejecting rule by decree. If a year ago liberals were weeping for America the ungovernable, less than a year later, with the midterm-election trouncing, only celebrity activists and zombified Democratic operatives continue to make such claims. Read More

Don’t look now, but the American government is working as it should. Harry Reid, bending to bipartisan reality, has quit fighting for his $1.2 trillion spending bill and turned to short-term budget solutions. We can debate the merits of the $858 billion tax compromise, but it passed without any trickery and, more important, we knew what was in it. Congress now turns to genuine deliberation on the Dream Act, the repeal of DADT, and the ratification of New START. Gone are the kabuki summits, unseemly prime-time sales pitches, and abstruse parliamentary con games. Where Nancy Pelosi had wielded a giant prop gavel and boasted of “making history” with ObamaCare, one real-life federal judge just declared it unconstitutional. How did all this happen? Only a year ago, liberal pundits had pronounced America ungovernable.

What spurred magazines like Newsweek to render that judgment in the first place? A civic and governmental travesty of such gargantuan proportion that it’s chilling to think it actually happened in the United States: Massachusetts elected a Republican senator.

This left little question about whom to blame. “Perhaps the greatest hindrance to good governance today is the Republican Party, which has adopted an agenda of pure nihilism for naked political gain,” the magazine’s editors wrote.  Moreover, “any regular observer of Washington would conclude that congressional Republicans have no desire to be reached out to — because they aren’t actually very interested in governing the country.”

Were grapes ever so sour? President Obama and an unbridled Democratic Congress drove Massachusetts into the arms of the GOP within one year, and this meant that Republicans were a danger to the union. The case made before the people was simply an inversion of reality. While Newsweek cited the “GOP’s flagrant use of parliamentary tricks,” Democrats on the Hill were employing maneuvers so recondite, few could accurately define or explain the intricacies of what was happening.  The editors lamented the Republicans’ bullying of the “spineless Democrats,” while Nancy Pelosi bragged of her commando legislation tactics: “We’ll go through the gate. If the gate’s closed, we’ll go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we’ll pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we’ll parachute in, but we’re going to get health-care reform passed for the America people.” Newsweek claimed that “congressional Republicans offered no serious counterproposals to the Democrats’ health-care initiative and sought instead to either mislead or simply lie about its key elements,” but it was President Obama who impatiently dismissed the prospect of a bipartisan effort as “another year of partisan wrangling around these issues, another six months’ or eight months’ or nine months’ worth of hearings in every single committee in the House and the Senate in which there’s a lot of posturing.”

What Obama’s first year actually proved was that America is undictatable. Scott Brown was elected because Americans were screaming out for governance and rejecting rule by decree. If a year ago liberals were weeping for America the ungovernable, less than a year later, with the midterm-election trouncing, only celebrity activists and zombified Democratic operatives continue to make such claims.

The present circumstance should serve as a “teachable moment” for those frustrated Obama enthusiasts who were more outraged by a non-compliant citizenry than they were by an entitled leadership. If there was a threat to the structural soundness of our democracy, it came not from voices of opposition but rather from the ideological bullies who assumed that dissent could only mean defectiveness. In a democracy, the machinery of governance comes to a halt when the people sense someone has tried to override the system. In despotic countries, friction can stop the gears. In the U.S., it’s the energy source that keeps things moving.

On matters of policy, this administration still has much to learn. A new NBC–Wall Street Journal poll shows that 63 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. This is the highest wrong-track number since Obama became president. The figure mostly reflects Americans’ concern about the economy and the government’s failure to raise employment prospects. As grim as things are, the good news is that America is now poised to tackle its toughest challenges. Accountability and ideological pluralism have come out of hiding. As Americans, we need to panic only when they go missing, not when our elected officials don’t get their way.

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The Estate Tax

The tax bill that passed the House last night and headed to the president’s desk (he’ll sign it this afternoon, apparently) raises the estate tax to 35 percent on estates over $5 million ($10 million for couples), from zero percent this year. Had nothing been done, however, it would have reverted to what it had been in 2000: 55 percent on estates over $1 million.

The estate tax goes all the way back to 1797, when Congress passed a stamp tax on wills to help finance the new American Navy. It was repealed in 1801. The Civil War and Spanish American War also saw estate taxes that were soon repealed when the wars were over. But the modern estate tax was not enacted as a revenue-raising measure so much as a social engineering one. Theodore Roosevelt was the first major politician to call for an estate tax to prevent the accumulation of great fortunes from one generation to the next. In 1906, he wrote:

As a matter of personal conviction, and without pretending to discuss the details or formulate the system, I feel that we shall ultimately have to consider the adoption of some such scheme as that of a progressive tax on all fortunes, beyond a certain amount, either given in life or devised or bequeathed upon death to any individual — a tax so framed as to put it out of the power of the owner of one of these enormous fortunes to hand on more than a certain amount to any one individual; the tax of course, to be imposed by the national and not the state government.

The colossal fortunes created by the industrialization of the country in the post–Civil War era caused many to worry about the development of a plutocracy, a few families with so much money, and thus power, that they could dictate policy. In 1916, the modern estate tax was passed. It called for a 1 percent tax on estates over $50,000 and going up to 10 percent on estates over $5 million (a very large fortune indeed in 1916). The tax was raised the next year, lowered but not eliminated in the 1920s, and then raised sky-high by Franklin Roosevelt, peaking at 71 percent for estates over $50 million in 1941. FDR made no bones about his reasons: “The transmission from generation to generation of vast fortunes by will, inheritance or gift is not consistent with the ideals and sentiments of the American people.” FDR, it turns out, was wrong. Read More

The tax bill that passed the House last night and headed to the president’s desk (he’ll sign it this afternoon, apparently) raises the estate tax to 35 percent on estates over $5 million ($10 million for couples), from zero percent this year. Had nothing been done, however, it would have reverted to what it had been in 2000: 55 percent on estates over $1 million.

The estate tax goes all the way back to 1797, when Congress passed a stamp tax on wills to help finance the new American Navy. It was repealed in 1801. The Civil War and Spanish American War also saw estate taxes that were soon repealed when the wars were over. But the modern estate tax was not enacted as a revenue-raising measure so much as a social engineering one. Theodore Roosevelt was the first major politician to call for an estate tax to prevent the accumulation of great fortunes from one generation to the next. In 1906, he wrote:

As a matter of personal conviction, and without pretending to discuss the details or formulate the system, I feel that we shall ultimately have to consider the adoption of some such scheme as that of a progressive tax on all fortunes, beyond a certain amount, either given in life or devised or bequeathed upon death to any individual — a tax so framed as to put it out of the power of the owner of one of these enormous fortunes to hand on more than a certain amount to any one individual; the tax of course, to be imposed by the national and not the state government.

The colossal fortunes created by the industrialization of the country in the post–Civil War era caused many to worry about the development of a plutocracy, a few families with so much money, and thus power, that they could dictate policy. In 1916, the modern estate tax was passed. It called for a 1 percent tax on estates over $50,000 and going up to 10 percent on estates over $5 million (a very large fortune indeed in 1916). The tax was raised the next year, lowered but not eliminated in the 1920s, and then raised sky-high by Franklin Roosevelt, peaking at 71 percent for estates over $50 million in 1941. FDR made no bones about his reasons: “The transmission from generation to generation of vast fortunes by will, inheritance or gift is not consistent with the ideals and sentiments of the American people.” FDR, it turns out, was wrong.

In the post–World War II era, the estate tax had little to do with revenues, never providing more than 2 percent of total federal income. Nor was it about plutocracy prevention. As I pointed out in a recent article in Philanthropy magazine, unlike European fortunes, American ones just don’t last, thanks to the tradition of dividing them among many heirs, new and larger fortunes being created in each generation, and the grand American tradition of the American rich making massive eleemosynary bequests. Of all names associated with the great fortunes of the Gilded Age, only Rockefeller, Mellon, and Hearst are to be found on the Forbes 400 list today. A considerable majority of the current list created their own fortunes.

Today only the liberal elite still subscribes to the idea of estate taxes. As William McGurn pointed out in the Wall Street Journal the other day, the American dream of getting rich and passing that wealth on to one’s children is very much alive and well. In the 1972 campaign, George McGovern called for a tax of 100 percent on estates over $500,000. The socialist Michael Harrington said to a friend who had been campaigning for McGovern in New York’s garment district that he must have had an easy time selling the idea to the poorly paid workers there:

The friend informed Harrington how wrong he was: “Those underpaid women … were outraged that the government would confiscate the money they would hand down to their children if they made a million dollars.” No matter how he tried to tell these garment workers how unlikely they ever were to see a million dollars in their lifetimes, they couldn’t get past the idea that the government would take it from them if they did.

The liberal elite has been agonizing over the zero-percent estate tax rate this year, as most recently manifested in Bernie Sanders’s socialist cri de coeur in the Senate. But while the estate tax was zero in 2010 (Good timing, George Steinbrenner and John Kluge!), the capital-gains tax applied. Most great fortunes consist of unrealized capital gains, but after the estate tax is paid, the heirs’ cost basis for the stock they inherit is bumped up to the date of death. Not in 2010, when it remained at the decedent’s cost basis, which is often virtually zero. That strikes me as the only estate tax we should have in a country where even the poorest can dream of one day being rich.

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Private Sector Voicing Outrage at Bankrolling Public-Employee Benefits

Unions are a declining factor in the U.S. economy, but they still wield enormous political clout. Only about 7 percent of American workers in the private sector are union members, while 37.4 percent of public employees belong to unions. But unions have played an outsize role in American politics by bankrolling Democratic candidates for decades. And Democratic lawmakers have repaid union support by providing generous salaries and benefits for state and municipal workers.

But there is growing resentment among the public at this arrangement, as Gov. Tim Pawlenty points out in an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal. Public-employee unions are becoming a huge burden for workers in the private sector, who must pay higher taxes for public-employee salaries, benefits, and pensions that are far more generous than they themselves enjoy.

According to one study, the present value of unfunded liabilities for local-government pensions amounts to $7,000 per municipal household in 2009 (using local-government accounting methods), but the actual cost may be much higher. Several states are already trying to rein in public-employee benefits, according to this Bloomberg Businessweek piece:

Already this year, 16 states have required public employees to pay more into retirement plans or cut benefits for new hires. Nine states increased the number of years new hires must work to earn full retirement benefits. Two states, Missouri and Illinois, raised the retirement age to 67. California’s new budget requires current state workers to contribute more toward their retirement and rolls back new hires’ pension benefits to 1998 levels.

With Republican governors now in control of 30 states, and the GOP in control of legislatures in 25 states (with Dems in control in only 16), public-employee unions may have a real battle on their hands.  And even with the money unions spent in the last election — $91 million in direct contributions, going almost entirely to Democrats — they weren’t able to overcome public outrage. But don’t expect unions to rethink their strategy; the likelihood is they’ll double-down in 2012.

Unions are a declining factor in the U.S. economy, but they still wield enormous political clout. Only about 7 percent of American workers in the private sector are union members, while 37.4 percent of public employees belong to unions. But unions have played an outsize role in American politics by bankrolling Democratic candidates for decades. And Democratic lawmakers have repaid union support by providing generous salaries and benefits for state and municipal workers.

But there is growing resentment among the public at this arrangement, as Gov. Tim Pawlenty points out in an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal. Public-employee unions are becoming a huge burden for workers in the private sector, who must pay higher taxes for public-employee salaries, benefits, and pensions that are far more generous than they themselves enjoy.

According to one study, the present value of unfunded liabilities for local-government pensions amounts to $7,000 per municipal household in 2009 (using local-government accounting methods), but the actual cost may be much higher. Several states are already trying to rein in public-employee benefits, according to this Bloomberg Businessweek piece:

Already this year, 16 states have required public employees to pay more into retirement plans or cut benefits for new hires. Nine states increased the number of years new hires must work to earn full retirement benefits. Two states, Missouri and Illinois, raised the retirement age to 67. California’s new budget requires current state workers to contribute more toward their retirement and rolls back new hires’ pension benefits to 1998 levels.

With Republican governors now in control of 30 states, and the GOP in control of legislatures in 25 states (with Dems in control in only 16), public-employee unions may have a real battle on their hands.  And even with the money unions spent in the last election — $91 million in direct contributions, going almost entirely to Democrats — they weren’t able to overcome public outrage. But don’t expect unions to rethink their strategy; the likelihood is they’ll double-down in 2012.

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Evening Commentary

Secret recordings were released this week showing Nixon and Kissinger callously dismissing the plight of Soviet Jews. But Seth Lipsky argues that leaders should be judged by their actions — such as Nixon’s appointment of Jews to high-level posts in his administration and support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War — as opposed to their private prejudices: “Is it better to have a president who loves African Americans and Jews and disappoints them strategically? Or one who privately voices prejudice but defends their rights and supports them strategically?”

There was a time when Ehud Barak could have made this call. Bibi kindly points out that now is not that time.

Reports this week that 25 percent of Gitmo alums have already returned to the battlefield further highlight the necessity of keeping the detention center open: “Contrary to the Gitmo myth, innocent teenagers and wandering goat herders do not fill the base. Last May, an administration task force found that of the 240 detainees at Gitmo when Mr. Obama took office, almost all were leaders, fighters or organizers for al Qaeda, the Taliban or other jihadist groups. None was judged innocent,” write John Yoo and Robert Delahunty in the Wall Street Journal.

Mitch Daniels is known for his laser focus on the economic crisis, but values voters shouldn’t discount his solid track record on social issues, writes Mona Charen.

With Rahm Emanuel gone, Joe Biden will begin playing a much larger role in the Obama administration, reports the New York Times. (Could this translate into even more inside access for Bad Rachel?)

Even as the controversy over Juan Williams’s firing dies down, Republicans are still preparing to battle NPR over public funding next year, reports Politico.

Secret recordings were released this week showing Nixon and Kissinger callously dismissing the plight of Soviet Jews. But Seth Lipsky argues that leaders should be judged by their actions — such as Nixon’s appointment of Jews to high-level posts in his administration and support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War — as opposed to their private prejudices: “Is it better to have a president who loves African Americans and Jews and disappoints them strategically? Or one who privately voices prejudice but defends their rights and supports them strategically?”

There was a time when Ehud Barak could have made this call. Bibi kindly points out that now is not that time.

Reports this week that 25 percent of Gitmo alums have already returned to the battlefield further highlight the necessity of keeping the detention center open: “Contrary to the Gitmo myth, innocent teenagers and wandering goat herders do not fill the base. Last May, an administration task force found that of the 240 detainees at Gitmo when Mr. Obama took office, almost all were leaders, fighters or organizers for al Qaeda, the Taliban or other jihadist groups. None was judged innocent,” write John Yoo and Robert Delahunty in the Wall Street Journal.

Mitch Daniels is known for his laser focus on the economic crisis, but values voters shouldn’t discount his solid track record on social issues, writes Mona Charen.

With Rahm Emanuel gone, Joe Biden will begin playing a much larger role in the Obama administration, reports the New York Times. (Could this translate into even more inside access for Bad Rachel?)

Even as the controversy over Juan Williams’s firing dies down, Republicans are still preparing to battle NPR over public funding next year, reports Politico.

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A Disappointing Jobs Report

The recession officially ended 17 months ago. But the economy added only a net of 39,000 jobs last month, when 100,000 jobs a month is needed just to keep pace with population growth.

Indeed, the unemployment rate ticked up to 9.8 percent from 9.6 percent in October. That, counterintuitively, is probably a good sign, the result of more people, encouraged by their prospects, now actively looking for work. The number of people who are unemployed, have settled for a part-time job, or are discouraged and not currently looking for a job remained unchanged (at a dismal 17 million).

A particularly nasty surprise was the loss of 28,000 retail jobs, which most economists, responding to fairly good news about holiday sales, etc., expected to increase. But more and more of those sales are happening online, which is a much less labor-intensive means of selling goods. Online sales on the Monday after Thanksgiving were up a whopping 20 percent from last year.

This, of course, is just more evidence that the on-rolling digital revolution is causing unemployment to recover from recession much more slowly than the economy as a whole. After each of the four recessions since 1980, the number of months needed to bring unemployment back down to normal levels has been longer. Unemployment has been above 9 percent now for 19 months (all but two of them post-recession). That’s the longest period of such elevated unemployment since World War II.

I confess to being a hopeless sucker for interactive charts, and the Wall Street Journal has a cool one that tracks unemployment month by month since 1948.

The recession officially ended 17 months ago. But the economy added only a net of 39,000 jobs last month, when 100,000 jobs a month is needed just to keep pace with population growth.

Indeed, the unemployment rate ticked up to 9.8 percent from 9.6 percent in October. That, counterintuitively, is probably a good sign, the result of more people, encouraged by their prospects, now actively looking for work. The number of people who are unemployed, have settled for a part-time job, or are discouraged and not currently looking for a job remained unchanged (at a dismal 17 million).

A particularly nasty surprise was the loss of 28,000 retail jobs, which most economists, responding to fairly good news about holiday sales, etc., expected to increase. But more and more of those sales are happening online, which is a much less labor-intensive means of selling goods. Online sales on the Monday after Thanksgiving were up a whopping 20 percent from last year.

This, of course, is just more evidence that the on-rolling digital revolution is causing unemployment to recover from recession much more slowly than the economy as a whole. After each of the four recessions since 1980, the number of months needed to bring unemployment back down to normal levels has been longer. Unemployment has been above 9 percent now for 19 months (all but two of them post-recession). That’s the longest period of such elevated unemployment since World War II.

I confess to being a hopeless sucker for interactive charts, and the Wall Street Journal has a cool one that tracks unemployment month by month since 1948.

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RE: A Change, Literally, in the Meaning of the Word “Life”

I certainly agree with John that this is a very significant development, but I’m not sure it is quite so epic-making. For one thing, this was life created (or rather evolved) in a Petri dish. It was the ancestors of these bacteria who came from the ghastly waters of Mono Lake and had evolved there to be arsenic-tolerant. See this report in the Wall Street Journal:

The bacteria were dredged from the briny sludge of California’s Mono Lake, where the water is richly laced with arsenic and with bacteria that can survive in it. In the lab, the researchers grew the bacteria in Petri dishes in which phosphate salt normally essential for life was gradually replaced by arsenic, until the bacteria could grow without needing phosphate.

We have been finding life in places no one thought it could exist — such as hot springs in Yellowstone that sometimes exceed the boiling point of water, the tar in Pitch lake in Trinidad, and near “black smokers” many thousands of feet beneath the sea — for decades. These last organisms are completely independent of what was long thought to be another sine qua non of life: the energy of the sun, either directly, as in plants, or indirectly, as in animals. These “extremophiles” testify to the enormous power of evolution to create organisms that can exploit almost any environment. Read More

I certainly agree with John that this is a very significant development, but I’m not sure it is quite so epic-making. For one thing, this was life created (or rather evolved) in a Petri dish. It was the ancestors of these bacteria who came from the ghastly waters of Mono Lake and had evolved there to be arsenic-tolerant. See this report in the Wall Street Journal:

The bacteria were dredged from the briny sludge of California’s Mono Lake, where the water is richly laced with arsenic and with bacteria that can survive in it. In the lab, the researchers grew the bacteria in Petri dishes in which phosphate salt normally essential for life was gradually replaced by arsenic, until the bacteria could grow without needing phosphate.

We have been finding life in places no one thought it could exist — such as hot springs in Yellowstone that sometimes exceed the boiling point of water, the tar in Pitch lake in Trinidad, and near “black smokers” many thousands of feet beneath the sea — for decades. These last organisms are completely independent of what was long thought to be another sine qua non of life: the energy of the sun, either directly, as in plants, or indirectly, as in animals. These “extremophiles” testify to the enormous power of evolution to create organisms that can exploit almost any environment.

The environmental movement has been the propaganda engine behind the ludicrous idea that life is delicate, a bunch of butterflies that can only thrive in a benign — and preferably human-free — environment. In enviro-speak, every ecosystem is a fragile one, every species threatened. In fact, of course, life is tenacious in the extreme and both can and will evolve as necessary and rebound from abuse with surprising speed.

I think the true eureka moment will come when we find an exoplanet (one that orbits a star other than the sun) that has a large percentage of molecular oxygen in its atmosphere. That moment might come soon. Before 1995, we knew of no exoplanets and could only speculate as to how many, if any, existed. Today we know of more than 500 and the number is growing rapidly. It will soon explode, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope, designed specifically to find them. We are not yet able to analyze their atmospheres, but we will, at least in some cases, be able to soon.

And when we find one with lots of free oxygen, it will be headlines around the world. Why? Because oxygen is chemically very reactive, forming molecules with abandon. So it doesn’t hang around in the free state very long. Earth is the only place we know where there is lots of free oxygen (about 20 percent of the atmosphere). And the reason is that earth teems with plant life that absorbs carbon dioxide, uses sunlight to crack it, builds more plants with the carbon, and spits out the oxygen. We animals then exploit the oxygen (and the plants). Such a find won’t prove the existence of non-earth life, but it would be a powerful piece of evidence for the proposition, one that would cause a surge of scientific investigation such as we haven’t seen since the Manhattan Project.

And of course, finding Earth-like life won’t rule out in any way planets with utterly alien biologies, built on molecular structures we cannot even dream of. Since we don’t know their signatures (such as free oxygen), however, finding them will be a long time coming (assuming they don’t land in Central Park and ask — politely one hopes — to be taken to our leader).

My guess is that life, Earth-like or otherwise, exists wherever conditions allow it to. After all, it arose here on Earth almost as soon as things settled down enough to make it possible.

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Net Neutrality and Your Internet Bill

I must applaud John for making the philosophical case for opposing the “net neutrality” plan, which he accurately identifies as a yawn-inducing, eyelid-closing irritant for most of us. The philosophical case is ultimately more important than the “wow, this hits my wallet” case — but it’s the latter that is starting to be clarified in the business press. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) plan to impose net neutrality will include an authorization for Internet providers to meter net usage and charge more to those who move more data around on the Web.

Today the average customer pays for a certain minimum level of bandwidth, regardless of how much data he interacts with. Under net neutrality, he will be charged for a capped amount of data per month, beyond which he will pay extra. Most of us probably think of this as a limit on our ability to download things: to view videos or play games online. But the entertainment-industry press reports from a different perspective – one that every content provider, including bloggers, ought to pay attention to. Among content creators in Hollywood, it is understood that a net-neutrality scheme based on data surcharges will put smaller, less-well-heeled producers at a disadvantage when it comes to uploading their content and ensuring it is available to consumers.

Big media corporations have the deep pockets to keep their content available to Web consumers even if the basis for user billing shifts to the amount of data involved, as opposed to the data rate. If net neutrality is implemented on the proposed basis, those corporations can absorb the extra costs to their customers; an obvious method would be subscription schemes that relieve customers of data surcharges. But however many permutations there are for adjusting to net neutrality, its bottom line for smaller content providers will be limiting the types of content they can offer. Live-streaming, as well as Web distribution of longer videos, will be increasingly limited to the bigger, established corporations. Data surcharges will limit others — both customers and providers — to word processing and low-resolution images. Surcharges may well limit the amount of Web research bloggers like those at CONTENTIONS can do.

Net neutrality will make the same level of service cost users more. This first-order impact is probably the most significant to the immediate political equation. It will be unpopular, particularly among online video and gaming customers, and it will affect a lot of medium-size businesses. But in the longer term, net neutrality promises to be inimical to our opportunities for free intellectual communication. Today, the Internet is a unique vehicle for initiative in that regard. There is no information medium of similar reach to which unlicensed content providers have access, with low overhead and little regulation.

It is instructive to review the history of regulation for the cable industry. Channelization, licensing, and regulation of content providers are the norm to which the FCC will revert whenever it is given the opportunity. With net neutrality, the FCC appears to be starting down that path — not by explicitly declaring an intention to, but by preparing to price many of the less-regulated providers out of the Internet content business. If the principle of regulatory authority is established, the FCC is unlikely to stop with pushing prices up. John is right: even if you can’t remember exactly what net neutrality is about, knowing that it would expand the basis for federal regulation is a good reason to be “agin’ it.”

I must applaud John for making the philosophical case for opposing the “net neutrality” plan, which he accurately identifies as a yawn-inducing, eyelid-closing irritant for most of us. The philosophical case is ultimately more important than the “wow, this hits my wallet” case — but it’s the latter that is starting to be clarified in the business press. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) plan to impose net neutrality will include an authorization for Internet providers to meter net usage and charge more to those who move more data around on the Web.

Today the average customer pays for a certain minimum level of bandwidth, regardless of how much data he interacts with. Under net neutrality, he will be charged for a capped amount of data per month, beyond which he will pay extra. Most of us probably think of this as a limit on our ability to download things: to view videos or play games online. But the entertainment-industry press reports from a different perspective – one that every content provider, including bloggers, ought to pay attention to. Among content creators in Hollywood, it is understood that a net-neutrality scheme based on data surcharges will put smaller, less-well-heeled producers at a disadvantage when it comes to uploading their content and ensuring it is available to consumers.

Big media corporations have the deep pockets to keep their content available to Web consumers even if the basis for user billing shifts to the amount of data involved, as opposed to the data rate. If net neutrality is implemented on the proposed basis, those corporations can absorb the extra costs to their customers; an obvious method would be subscription schemes that relieve customers of data surcharges. But however many permutations there are for adjusting to net neutrality, its bottom line for smaller content providers will be limiting the types of content they can offer. Live-streaming, as well as Web distribution of longer videos, will be increasingly limited to the bigger, established corporations. Data surcharges will limit others — both customers and providers — to word processing and low-resolution images. Surcharges may well limit the amount of Web research bloggers like those at CONTENTIONS can do.

Net neutrality will make the same level of service cost users more. This first-order impact is probably the most significant to the immediate political equation. It will be unpopular, particularly among online video and gaming customers, and it will affect a lot of medium-size businesses. But in the longer term, net neutrality promises to be inimical to our opportunities for free intellectual communication. Today, the Internet is a unique vehicle for initiative in that regard. There is no information medium of similar reach to which unlicensed content providers have access, with low overhead and little regulation.

It is instructive to review the history of regulation for the cable industry. Channelization, licensing, and regulation of content providers are the norm to which the FCC will revert whenever it is given the opportunity. With net neutrality, the FCC appears to be starting down that path — not by explicitly declaring an intention to, but by preparing to price many of the less-regulated providers out of the Internet content business. If the principle of regulatory authority is established, the FCC is unlikely to stop with pushing prices up. John is right: even if you can’t remember exactly what net neutrality is about, knowing that it would expand the basis for federal regulation is a good reason to be “agin’ it.”

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An Exceptional Life

I admit to being a fan of obituaries, not only those of the most famous or infamous but also of those whose lives were not played out in daily headlines. They are tiny history lessons and morality tales. They are vivid reminders that ordinary people are capable of doing remarkable things, and they prod us to ask: what would I have done?

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a gem. We learn:

Shortly after German troops invaded Belgium in 1940, Gaston Vandermeerssche, a Belgian university student, bicycled 800 miles to the south of France and became a spy.

Mr. Vandermeerssche, who died Nov. 1 at age 89 in Milwaukee, joined the resistance and ferried microfilm documents over the Pyrenees to Spain, where intermediaries sent the information on to London.

Later in the war he helped organize the Dutch underground, which came to comprise hundreds of agents and safe houses. After his network was penetrated by the Germans, he tried to escape, but was arrested near the Spanish border. He spent 24 months being interrogated in prison, but by his own account never broke.

The details of his exploits are eye-popping. (“He became a courier, making weekly trips from Brussels to Toulouse to Barcelona. The last leg involved trudging over snowy passes in the Pyrenees by moonlight. The microfilms he carried bore information collected by members of the underground on shipyards, gun emplacements and the like.”) But it is also the details of his very unextraordinary life — the son of a furniture maker who ended life in the U.S. as an executive of Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. — that remind us of the innate decency and capacity for greatness that ordinary people possess. Indeed, it was Vandermeerssche’s unexceptionalness that confounded his captors:

Mr. Vandermeerssche was arrested in Perpignan, France, in 1943 with a cache of microfilm stuffed into butter tubs. His German interrogators suspected his role in the Dutch underground, but couldn’t prove it.

“I was so young, the Germans did not believe that this kid was the head of that large network,” he said in the oral history. “And I told them, ‘Are you crazy? I couldn’t have done this.’ ”

Months of brutal interrogation and solitary confinement failed to break Mr. Vandermeerssche’s will. He was betrayed by another member of the underground, and was sentenced to death in a military trial. But he was freed by American troops near the end of the war.

Although shattered by his experiences in prison—he said he couldn’t eat or sleep normally for a decade—Mr. Vandermeerssche resumed his studies, earning a Ph.D. in physics.

You can understand my fondness for obits.

I admit to being a fan of obituaries, not only those of the most famous or infamous but also of those whose lives were not played out in daily headlines. They are tiny history lessons and morality tales. They are vivid reminders that ordinary people are capable of doing remarkable things, and they prod us to ask: what would I have done?

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a gem. We learn:

Shortly after German troops invaded Belgium in 1940, Gaston Vandermeerssche, a Belgian university student, bicycled 800 miles to the south of France and became a spy.

Mr. Vandermeerssche, who died Nov. 1 at age 89 in Milwaukee, joined the resistance and ferried microfilm documents over the Pyrenees to Spain, where intermediaries sent the information on to London.

Later in the war he helped organize the Dutch underground, which came to comprise hundreds of agents and safe houses. After his network was penetrated by the Germans, he tried to escape, but was arrested near the Spanish border. He spent 24 months being interrogated in prison, but by his own account never broke.

The details of his exploits are eye-popping. (“He became a courier, making weekly trips from Brussels to Toulouse to Barcelona. The last leg involved trudging over snowy passes in the Pyrenees by moonlight. The microfilms he carried bore information collected by members of the underground on shipyards, gun emplacements and the like.”) But it is also the details of his very unextraordinary life — the son of a furniture maker who ended life in the U.S. as an executive of Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. — that remind us of the innate decency and capacity for greatness that ordinary people possess. Indeed, it was Vandermeerssche’s unexceptionalness that confounded his captors:

Mr. Vandermeerssche was arrested in Perpignan, France, in 1943 with a cache of microfilm stuffed into butter tubs. His German interrogators suspected his role in the Dutch underground, but couldn’t prove it.

“I was so young, the Germans did not believe that this kid was the head of that large network,” he said in the oral history. “And I told them, ‘Are you crazy? I couldn’t have done this.’ ”

Months of brutal interrogation and solitary confinement failed to break Mr. Vandermeerssche’s will. He was betrayed by another member of the underground, and was sentenced to death in a military trial. But he was freed by American troops near the end of the war.

Although shattered by his experiences in prison—he said he couldn’t eat or sleep normally for a decade—Mr. Vandermeerssche resumed his studies, earning a Ph.D. in physics.

You can understand my fondness for obits.

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Karzai’s Words, and His Actions

Hamid Karzai has caused considerable consternation with his weekend interview with the Washington Post. He told Post editors and reporters: “The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan . . . to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life…. It’s not desirable for the Afghan people either to have 100,000 or more foreign troops going around the country endlessly.” He also criticized “night raids”–Special Operations raids that occur at night–as he has in the past.

The Post reports that General Petraeus expressed “astonishment and disappointment” as his remarks which seem to fly in the face of NATO’s strategy. Today Karzai’s spokesman was rapidly backtracking, stressing that Karzai’s comments about the desirability of a troop pullout were “conditioned on the ability of the Afghan security forces to take responsibility.” The spokesman made clear that Karzai supports NATO’s goal to begin withdrawing in 2014.

This kerfuffle reminds me of many similar statements made over the years by Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq. As I noted in this 2008 Washington Post op-ed, Maliki, too, has had a history of calling for U.S. troop withdrawals:

In May 2006, shortly after becoming prime minister, he claimed, “Our forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half.”

In October 2006, when violence was spinning out of control, Maliki declared that it would be “only a matter of months” before his security forces could “take over the security portfolio entirely and keep some multinational forces only in a supporting role.”

President Bush wisely ignored Maliki. Instead of withdrawing U.S. troops, he sent more. The prime minister wasn’t happy. On Dec. 15, 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has flatly told Gen. George Casey, the top American military commander in Iraq, that he doesn’t want more U.S. personnel deployed to the country, according to U.S. military officials.” When the surge went ahead anyway, Maliki gave it an endorsement described in news accounts as “lukewarm.”

I suggested in the op-ed that it was wise to judge Maliki by what he did, not what he said. For all of his public doubts about the U.S. troop presence he generally supported American actions behind-the-scenes–although often only after considerable arm-twisting from Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Karzai, too, should be judged by his actions, rather than by his occasional expressions of public frustration with the coalition. He has not done anything as dramatic as Maliki, who ordered his security forces to clear Basra and Sadr City of the Sadrist militia, but he has taken some positive steps such as agreeing to the setting up of the Afghan Local Police program to augment the Afghan security forces.

Moreover, some of his criticisms of international forces are on the mark–the U.S. and its allies have done much to fuel corruption in Afghanistan, as he complains, and their employment of local security forces has often been a contributor to instability. Yet at the end of the day Afghanistan would be far more insecure without an America troop presence, and that is something I suspect Karzai, for all his misguided public statements, actually realizes.

Hamid Karzai has caused considerable consternation with his weekend interview with the Washington Post. He told Post editors and reporters: “The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan . . . to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life…. It’s not desirable for the Afghan people either to have 100,000 or more foreign troops going around the country endlessly.” He also criticized “night raids”–Special Operations raids that occur at night–as he has in the past.

The Post reports that General Petraeus expressed “astonishment and disappointment” as his remarks which seem to fly in the face of NATO’s strategy. Today Karzai’s spokesman was rapidly backtracking, stressing that Karzai’s comments about the desirability of a troop pullout were “conditioned on the ability of the Afghan security forces to take responsibility.” The spokesman made clear that Karzai supports NATO’s goal to begin withdrawing in 2014.

This kerfuffle reminds me of many similar statements made over the years by Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq. As I noted in this 2008 Washington Post op-ed, Maliki, too, has had a history of calling for U.S. troop withdrawals:

In May 2006, shortly after becoming prime minister, he claimed, “Our forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half.”

In October 2006, when violence was spinning out of control, Maliki declared that it would be “only a matter of months” before his security forces could “take over the security portfolio entirely and keep some multinational forces only in a supporting role.”

President Bush wisely ignored Maliki. Instead of withdrawing U.S. troops, he sent more. The prime minister wasn’t happy. On Dec. 15, 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has flatly told Gen. George Casey, the top American military commander in Iraq, that he doesn’t want more U.S. personnel deployed to the country, according to U.S. military officials.” When the surge went ahead anyway, Maliki gave it an endorsement described in news accounts as “lukewarm.”

I suggested in the op-ed that it was wise to judge Maliki by what he did, not what he said. For all of his public doubts about the U.S. troop presence he generally supported American actions behind-the-scenes–although often only after considerable arm-twisting from Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Karzai, too, should be judged by his actions, rather than by his occasional expressions of public frustration with the coalition. He has not done anything as dramatic as Maliki, who ordered his security forces to clear Basra and Sadr City of the Sadrist militia, but he has taken some positive steps such as agreeing to the setting up of the Afghan Local Police program to augment the Afghan security forces.

Moreover, some of his criticisms of international forces are on the mark–the U.S. and its allies have done much to fuel corruption in Afghanistan, as he complains, and their employment of local security forces has often been a contributor to instability. Yet at the end of the day Afghanistan would be far more insecure without an America troop presence, and that is something I suspect Karzai, for all his misguided public statements, actually realizes.

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RE: A Significant Letter

I concur with Pete and the e21 authors. The e21 group not only has the benefit of Pete’s wisdom but that of a number of other key thinkers also. Keith Hennessey, formerly Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the National Economic Council under President Bush; Bill Kristol; and Andrew Laperriere, a Managing Director of International Strategy and Investment Group Inc., are on its board of advisers. And its staff and contributors includes impressive, serious economic and policy gurus. We’ll be hearing more from them in the days and weeks ahead. The group that released an open letter signed by a list of economists, business leaders, and policy wonks (including Michael Boskin, Roger Hertog, Amity Shlaes, Paul Singer, and John Taylor) is certainly going to be of critical importance in the public discussion ahead.

As the Wall Street Journal points out, this group is not alone in raising concerns about the Fed’s printing press. The e21 group has been discussing the issue with Republican office holders and potential 2012 candidates and has come on the heels of criticism of the plan both by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin. The report explains:

“Printing money is no substitute for pro-growth fiscal policy,” said Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican who has been privy to early discussions with the group of conservatives rallying opposition to the Fed plan. He said the signatories to the letter “represent a growing chorus of Americans who know that we should be seeking to stimulate our economy with tax relief, spending restraint and regulatory reform rather than masking our fundamental problems by artificially creating inflation.”

The Fed faces potential pressure of a different sort from the left as well. Some prominent Democratic congressmen, including the current chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, have endorsed the quantitative-easing move.

If nothing else, the letter and the emergence on the scene of a group like e21 will demonstrate that Republicans are serious about weighty economic issues and focused on the long-term health of the dollar and the U.S. economy. The party of no — which really was never only about no — is getting some intellectual heft. This is good for it, but even more important for the country and the public debate.

I concur with Pete and the e21 authors. The e21 group not only has the benefit of Pete’s wisdom but that of a number of other key thinkers also. Keith Hennessey, formerly Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the National Economic Council under President Bush; Bill Kristol; and Andrew Laperriere, a Managing Director of International Strategy and Investment Group Inc., are on its board of advisers. And its staff and contributors includes impressive, serious economic and policy gurus. We’ll be hearing more from them in the days and weeks ahead. The group that released an open letter signed by a list of economists, business leaders, and policy wonks (including Michael Boskin, Roger Hertog, Amity Shlaes, Paul Singer, and John Taylor) is certainly going to be of critical importance in the public discussion ahead.

As the Wall Street Journal points out, this group is not alone in raising concerns about the Fed’s printing press. The e21 group has been discussing the issue with Republican office holders and potential 2012 candidates and has come on the heels of criticism of the plan both by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin. The report explains:

“Printing money is no substitute for pro-growth fiscal policy,” said Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican who has been privy to early discussions with the group of conservatives rallying opposition to the Fed plan. He said the signatories to the letter “represent a growing chorus of Americans who know that we should be seeking to stimulate our economy with tax relief, spending restraint and regulatory reform rather than masking our fundamental problems by artificially creating inflation.”

The Fed faces potential pressure of a different sort from the left as well. Some prominent Democratic congressmen, including the current chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, have endorsed the quantitative-easing move.

If nothing else, the letter and the emergence on the scene of a group like e21 will demonstrate that Republicans are serious about weighty economic issues and focused on the long-term health of the dollar and the U.S. economy. The party of no — which really was never only about no — is getting some intellectual heft. This is good for it, but even more important for the country and the public debate.

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The First Test

Elections matter. Not only in number of Republicans but also in their zest for fiscal restraint, the Senate is soon to be a very different place. As the Wall Street Journal editors note:

On earmarks, the House GOP leadership has rallied behind a ban, and 11 of 13 newly elected Republicans in the Senate—including Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Ron Johnson and Rand Paul—campaigned against these special- interest spending projects that are typically dropped into bills with little debate or scrutiny. A Senate earmark moratorium is sponsored by veterans Tom Coburn (Oklahoma) and Jim DeMint (South Carolina) and newly elected Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire).

Some Senate veterans are either indifferent or actively hostile to the idea. Yes, it’s true the earmarks are chump change when it comes to entitlement spending, but then so is public funding of the NPR. The importance lies in the symbolism and the message it sends in larger budget fights:

After tolerating Democratic earmarks for two years, President Obama is also now pushing an earmark ban, and Republicans will give him a major talking point if they maintain earmarks as usual. If this means Senators have to give up some of their own spending priorities, then they have only themselves to blame for making earmarks so notorious.

If it were only about earmarks, the tussle would hardly be noteworthy. But it is, instead, a test as to how readily the Tea Party’s agenda — fiscal restraint, smaller government, Congressional accountability — can be integrated in the GOP’s agenda. If the Old Bulls of the Senate win this one, the outlook is not good for larger, more controversial undertakings. As for the House, this is the first of many instances, I suspect, in which it will lead the debate and set the example.

Elections matter. Not only in number of Republicans but also in their zest for fiscal restraint, the Senate is soon to be a very different place. As the Wall Street Journal editors note:

On earmarks, the House GOP leadership has rallied behind a ban, and 11 of 13 newly elected Republicans in the Senate—including Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Ron Johnson and Rand Paul—campaigned against these special- interest spending projects that are typically dropped into bills with little debate or scrutiny. A Senate earmark moratorium is sponsored by veterans Tom Coburn (Oklahoma) and Jim DeMint (South Carolina) and newly elected Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire).

Some Senate veterans are either indifferent or actively hostile to the idea. Yes, it’s true the earmarks are chump change when it comes to entitlement spending, but then so is public funding of the NPR. The importance lies in the symbolism and the message it sends in larger budget fights:

After tolerating Democratic earmarks for two years, President Obama is also now pushing an earmark ban, and Republicans will give him a major talking point if they maintain earmarks as usual. If this means Senators have to give up some of their own spending priorities, then they have only themselves to blame for making earmarks so notorious.

If it were only about earmarks, the tussle would hardly be noteworthy. But it is, instead, a test as to how readily the Tea Party’s agenda — fiscal restraint, smaller government, Congressional accountability — can be integrated in the GOP’s agenda. If the Old Bulls of the Senate win this one, the outlook is not good for larger, more controversial undertakings. As for the House, this is the first of many instances, I suspect, in which it will lead the debate and set the example.

Read Less




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