Commentary Magazine


Topic: War and Peace

The Global Reform Dodge

The original personal income tax law, passed in 1913, was only 14 pages long. Even the income tax law of 1942, which changed the tax from one on the affluent to include the middle class as well (and began withholding), was only 208 pages long. But the ObamaCare bill was over 2,400 pages, and the financial reform bill now working its way through Congress is about 1,400 pages long, at least at the moment.

The world is a more complicated place these days, but why are major congressional bills turning into such unreadable behemoths of mind-numbing legalese?

One reason, I cynically suspect, is precisely to make them unreadable. Nancy Pelosi’s now-famous remark that Congress would have to pass the health-care bill before people could know what was in it was more true than she realized.  The political elite would rather work in the dark and is confident that the Washington press corps won’t go to the trouble of actually reading a bill that’s longer than War and Peace (and a lot less entertaining). As a political public-relations man once told me, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the work ethic of the average reporter.”

But there are two other reasons. One is that a vast bill makes it easier to sneak in clauses that go unnoticed until they are law. If the best place to hide a book is in a library, then the best way to hide a favor for a contributor or a quiet little power grab is in a bill 2,000 pages long. The Washington Post recently reported that the financial reform bill would significantly increase the power of the Federal Trade Commission to regulate the Internet, something that has nothing to do with financial reform.

The second reason is Washington’s increasing fascination with global reform rather than piecemeal reform. Only touchdowns, it seems, are now allowed in the game of political football; moving the ball down the field just won’t do.  The health-care debate would have been a lot shorter and a lot less politically divisive had both sides simply agreed to enact those reforms that a substantial majority of each house agreed with — such as of insurance abuses — and then saw what else was needed. Regulating derivatives would be a piece of cake if it were not tied to “financial reform” in general.

And insisting on a global solution also makes it much easier to appear to favor reform while assuring that nothing actually gets reformed. Everyone supposedly agrees that the borders should be secured to prevent illegal immigration. The problem has been obvious for two decades and more. But by tying border security to the political hot potato of immigration reform in general, nothing is done and the possibility of offending the increasingly important Hispanic vote is avoided.

Roscoe Conkling, senator and Republican political boss of New York State in the 1870s and 1880s, once remarked that “when Dr. Johnson said that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,’ he was obviously unaware of the possibilities inherent in the word ‘reform.’”

The original personal income tax law, passed in 1913, was only 14 pages long. Even the income tax law of 1942, which changed the tax from one on the affluent to include the middle class as well (and began withholding), was only 208 pages long. But the ObamaCare bill was over 2,400 pages, and the financial reform bill now working its way through Congress is about 1,400 pages long, at least at the moment.

The world is a more complicated place these days, but why are major congressional bills turning into such unreadable behemoths of mind-numbing legalese?

One reason, I cynically suspect, is precisely to make them unreadable. Nancy Pelosi’s now-famous remark that Congress would have to pass the health-care bill before people could know what was in it was more true than she realized.  The political elite would rather work in the dark and is confident that the Washington press corps won’t go to the trouble of actually reading a bill that’s longer than War and Peace (and a lot less entertaining). As a political public-relations man once told me, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the work ethic of the average reporter.”

But there are two other reasons. One is that a vast bill makes it easier to sneak in clauses that go unnoticed until they are law. If the best place to hide a book is in a library, then the best way to hide a favor for a contributor or a quiet little power grab is in a bill 2,000 pages long. The Washington Post recently reported that the financial reform bill would significantly increase the power of the Federal Trade Commission to regulate the Internet, something that has nothing to do with financial reform.

The second reason is Washington’s increasing fascination with global reform rather than piecemeal reform. Only touchdowns, it seems, are now allowed in the game of political football; moving the ball down the field just won’t do.  The health-care debate would have been a lot shorter and a lot less politically divisive had both sides simply agreed to enact those reforms that a substantial majority of each house agreed with — such as of insurance abuses — and then saw what else was needed. Regulating derivatives would be a piece of cake if it were not tied to “financial reform” in general.

And insisting on a global solution also makes it much easier to appear to favor reform while assuring that nothing actually gets reformed. Everyone supposedly agrees that the borders should be secured to prevent illegal immigration. The problem has been obvious for two decades and more. But by tying border security to the political hot potato of immigration reform in general, nothing is done and the possibility of offending the increasingly important Hispanic vote is avoided.

Roscoe Conkling, senator and Republican political boss of New York State in the 1870s and 1880s, once remarked that “when Dr. Johnson said that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,’ he was obviously unaware of the possibilities inherent in the word ‘reform.’”

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War and Peace in the Levant

The dramatic scale of Hezbollah’s rearmament will not be without consequences. Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told Haaretz yesterday that “he was growing increasingly worried by reports describing the quantity and types of weapons being smuggled to the terrorist organization.” The Washington Post reports that Hezbollah has dispersed its rockets throughout Lebanon, ensuring a conflict that will engulf the entire country. Tony Badran wonders whether Bashar Assad has foolishly convinced himself that he will again be held harmless if another war breaks out.

The war calculations of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah involve an estimation of how much time the Obama administration will give Israel to fight. In 2006 — very much owing, of course, to Israel’s poor performance — the IDF fought for only a month before accepting terms from the UN. There are good reasons to believe that next time, Israel will have even less time.

A new war would explode the myth that Obama’s outreach to the Arabs and pressure on Israel have set the Middle East on a new path. Israeli-Arab wars, this narrative holds, were the kind of things that happened during the Bush years, when the president ignored the peace process and alienated Muslims, and neocons imperiled world peace before breakfast. To have a war unfold in the enlightened, post-Cairo speech era, after dozens of visits by George Mitchell to the region — that would be quite an embarrassment.

How many days — much less weeks — would pass before Obama began criticizing the Israeli operation and refusing diplomatic protection at the UN?

The resistance groups are surely counting on America to enforce a short conflict that restricts the IDF’s ability to strike back forcefully at Hezbollah. But it is not clear, given Obama’s declining political fortunes, how much leverage he will have over Israel. In private, the Arabs will be telling Obama to let Israel finish the job. What Nasrallah is counting on, Obama may not be able to deliver. Or may choose not to. Or F-16s may begin sorties over Damascus. The uncertainty about where America stands is dangerous.

Obama hoped that tilting the United States away from Israel and toward the Arabs would transform America into an “honest broker” and, therefore, a trusted mediator. He has been fastidiously promoting a narrative of equal culpability. But as we have seen over the past year, this rhetoric, aside from its departure from reality, alienates Israelis while gaining nothing from the Arabs but a hardening in their belief that their intransigence will win out in the end.

To the extent that Obama’s evenhandedness is interpreted by Hezbollah as a sign that the risks associated with another attack on Israel have been lessened, there will be a heightened likelihood of conflict. America, as the ultimate guarantor of the regional order, has over the past few decades internalized a hard truth about the Middle East: be a strong ally of Israel and prevent conflict, or be an indecisive friend and invite conflict. Obama imagines that his presidency allows the United States to transcend old choices — “false choices” as he calls them — but one decision he will always have to make is where he stands between friends and enemies. Not to choose is also a choice.

The dramatic scale of Hezbollah’s rearmament will not be without consequences. Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told Haaretz yesterday that “he was growing increasingly worried by reports describing the quantity and types of weapons being smuggled to the terrorist organization.” The Washington Post reports that Hezbollah has dispersed its rockets throughout Lebanon, ensuring a conflict that will engulf the entire country. Tony Badran wonders whether Bashar Assad has foolishly convinced himself that he will again be held harmless if another war breaks out.

The war calculations of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah involve an estimation of how much time the Obama administration will give Israel to fight. In 2006 — very much owing, of course, to Israel’s poor performance — the IDF fought for only a month before accepting terms from the UN. There are good reasons to believe that next time, Israel will have even less time.

A new war would explode the myth that Obama’s outreach to the Arabs and pressure on Israel have set the Middle East on a new path. Israeli-Arab wars, this narrative holds, were the kind of things that happened during the Bush years, when the president ignored the peace process and alienated Muslims, and neocons imperiled world peace before breakfast. To have a war unfold in the enlightened, post-Cairo speech era, after dozens of visits by George Mitchell to the region — that would be quite an embarrassment.

How many days — much less weeks — would pass before Obama began criticizing the Israeli operation and refusing diplomatic protection at the UN?

The resistance groups are surely counting on America to enforce a short conflict that restricts the IDF’s ability to strike back forcefully at Hezbollah. But it is not clear, given Obama’s declining political fortunes, how much leverage he will have over Israel. In private, the Arabs will be telling Obama to let Israel finish the job. What Nasrallah is counting on, Obama may not be able to deliver. Or may choose not to. Or F-16s may begin sorties over Damascus. The uncertainty about where America stands is dangerous.

Obama hoped that tilting the United States away from Israel and toward the Arabs would transform America into an “honest broker” and, therefore, a trusted mediator. He has been fastidiously promoting a narrative of equal culpability. But as we have seen over the past year, this rhetoric, aside from its departure from reality, alienates Israelis while gaining nothing from the Arabs but a hardening in their belief that their intransigence will win out in the end.

To the extent that Obama’s evenhandedness is interpreted by Hezbollah as a sign that the risks associated with another attack on Israel have been lessened, there will be a heightened likelihood of conflict. America, as the ultimate guarantor of the regional order, has over the past few decades internalized a hard truth about the Middle East: be a strong ally of Israel and prevent conflict, or be an indecisive friend and invite conflict. Obama imagines that his presidency allows the United States to transcend old choices — “false choices” as he calls them — but one decision he will always have to make is where he stands between friends and enemies. Not to choose is also a choice.

Read Less




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