Commentary Magazine


Why Obama Thinks He Can’t Get a Better Iran Deal

If he did nothing else, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with his speech to a joint session of Congress, started a national conversation on the merits, or lack thereof, of a potential nuclear deal with Iran. Here are a few thoughts, after several days of intense, back and forth debate.

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If he did nothing else, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with his speech to a joint session of Congress, started a national conversation on the merits, or lack thereof, of a potential nuclear deal with Iran. Here are a few thoughts, after several days of intense, back and forth debate.

Thought No. 1: The defenders of the nuclear deal claim that Iranian compliance could be verified and that a one-year heads-up about Iranian non-compliance would be plenty of time for a robust American response. After all, we have considerable forces pre-positioned in the Persian Gulf region, ready to strike Iran if need be. However, I remain skeptical that either (a) the U.S. would necessarily detect a violation or (b) that if we did detect it, that we would do anything about it.

The U.S. intelligence community has a terrible track record of detecting nuclear work in other countries. We were caught off guard by the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949, the first Indian test in 1974, the first Pakistani test in 1998, the first North Korean test in 2006. Likewise, we were surprised by the extent of the Iraqi nuclear program in 1992.

Is there cause to hope that we would be better informed about the Iranian program? Only if we get truly intrusive inspection that allows international monitors to roam the country at will with no need to announce visits in advance. I am skeptical whether the mullahs will agree to that. The 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea shows how easily a state can cheat on a nuclear accord: The North agreed to shut down a plutonium reactor at Yongbyon but proceeded with the secret enrichment of uranium.

And even if we find out about Iranian nuclear cheating, what would we do about it? The Russians have been cheating on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement since at least 2007 but the Obama administration hesitated to publicize their breach, much less to do anything about it. Is there any reason to believe we would be more willing to go to war with Iran in a few years’ time than we are today?

Thought No. 2: While a nuclear agreement may or may not retard the Iranian development of an atomic bomb, it will have one undoubted consequence: it will provide the Iranian government with a lot more money by lifting or at least relaxing sanctions. Already, just by agreeing to talk to the U.S., Iran has received an estimated $11.9 billion in sanctions relief. That’s a lot of money that Iran can use to create considerable mischief. Given that the U.S. estimates that Iran provides $100 million to $200 million a year to Hezbollah, that’s enough funding right there to fund Hezbollah until the mid-21st century. It’s also money that can be used to fund Iranian-supported terrorist groups in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and other countries.

And it’s only a drop in the (oil) barrel that will fill up with cash if Iran signs a long-term nuclear deal. Iran is already at a peak of its regional power, and its power will only grow with all this money at its disposal. That will have catastrophic consequences for regional security because the stronger Iran gets, the more that Sunnis will take matters into their own hands. Saudi Arabia has the capability to acquire nuclear weapons in short order from Pakistan. It, and other Gulf states, will also likely wind up supporting the Al-Nusra Front, ISIS, and other Sunni terrorist groups as a bulwark against Iranian influence. Thus by helping Iran, we are also indirectly helping ISIS.

Thought No. 3: Beyond all these problems, the value of any agreement is vitiated if it includes a ten-year expiration date and if it allows Iran to keep tens of thousands of centrifuges intact–as appears to be the case if press leaks are to believed. This would not end the Iranian program and not even pause it: at most it might delay the moment when Iran goes from a nuclear-capable state to a state in possession of actual nukes. And it will ensure that when Iran does decide to produce nukes, it will have a lot of them, not just one or two.

It’s hard to know why the Obama administration thinks it’s OK to grant Iran the “right” to field nuclear weapons in 2025, aside from the obvious fact that Obama will no longer be in office and thus can’t be blamed for the outcome. Perhaps the White House hopes that, Ayatollah Khamenei presumably having died by then (there are reports he has prostate cancer), the Iranian regime might have reformed itself to become one that we can more easily live with. But hope isn’t a policy (except for this White House). If the U.S. does agree to this ten-year deal, it would be imperative to do what we could during this period to bring about peaceful regime change in Iran–a democratic Iran with a bomb would be a lot less threatening than a jihadist Iran with a bomb. But there is scant sign that the Obama administration is thinking along those lines. And even if it were, the U.S. ability to push regime change, never that strong to begin with, would be further weakened by the conclusion of a nuclear deal with Tehran which would be seen by Iranian dissidents (as well as by the entire region) as conferring Washington’s seal of approval on the existing regime.

Thought No. 4: The most common rebuttal from the administration and its defenders, against those who criticize the projected accord, is that critics offer no real alternative. Netanyahu’s claim that the alternative is a better deal is dismissed on the grounds that no better deal is possible. That may be true in the current atmosphere, with the White House patently telegraphing its eagerness to achieve a deal at all costs and having lost all leverage when it allowed the “red line” in Syria to be crossed with impunity. But what if the U.S. could present Iran with a credible threat of military action? Recall that the only time in recent decades when Iran interrupted its nuclear program was in 2003, because the mullahs were afraid that after the fall of Saddam Hussein, they would be next in the American military’s cross hairs. But when the U.S. got bogged down in Iraq, the Iranian leaders realized they had nothing to fear from George W. Bush, and of course now they have even less to fear from Barack Obama, who is obviously determined to start no new wars on his watch.

If there is one thing that could nudge Iran toward a serious agreement, it would be fear of whoever is in the White House. Recall how Eisenhower helped to end the Korean War in 1953, and a year later to end the French Indochina War on relatively favorable terms to the West, by dropping broad hints that he was contemplating the use of nuclear weapons. Likewise Nixon helped to achieve a peace accord in Vietnam by bombing North Vietnam with B-52s over Christmas 1952. He later said that it helped to be perceived as a “madman” who is capable of anything. And Ronald Reagan helped to revive arms control with the Soviet Union by projecting the image of a gun-toting cowboy. Alas there is no president of the last half century, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter, who projects a weaker image than Obama. That is why he is not going to get a deal with Iran on any terms that should be acceptable to the U.S. or our allies.

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End the GOP’s Iowa Ethanol Panderfest

Wherever Iowa famers gather, presidential candidates are never in short supply. So if you’re planning on attending the annual Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines tomorrow, it may be difficult to avoid tripping over potential Republican contenders. But not all the GOP hopefuls will be there. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Senator Marco Rubio and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal are skipping the event. Why? Both oppose the renewable fuel standard, a measure beloved by Iowa corn growers that requires blending corn-based ethanol and other biofuels into the gasoline supply. Rubio and Jindal aren’t the ones who have crossed the Iowa agriculture industry. Other candidates have voted for measures seeking to eventually end ethanol subsidies. But the farm lobby has forced Republicans who believe in the free market to bend to their will before and is determined to punish those who don’t pledge allegiance to ethanol and make them pay at the Iowa Caucuses next year. The question is, will 2016 mark the moment when conservatives prefer their principles to corn-based votes?

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Wherever Iowa famers gather, presidential candidates are never in short supply. So if you’re planning on attending the annual Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines tomorrow, it may be difficult to avoid tripping over potential Republican contenders. But not all the GOP hopefuls will be there. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Senator Marco Rubio and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal are skipping the event. Why? Both oppose the renewable fuel standard, a measure beloved by Iowa corn growers that requires blending corn-based ethanol and other biofuels into the gasoline supply. Rubio and Jindal aren’t the ones who have crossed the Iowa agriculture industry. Other candidates have voted for measures seeking to eventually end ethanol subsidies. But the farm lobby has forced Republicans who believe in the free market to bend to their will before and is determined to punish those who don’t pledge allegiance to ethanol and make them pay at the Iowa Caucuses next year. The question is, will 2016 mark the moment when conservatives prefer their principles to corn-based votes?

Ethanol and biofuels sound like a green dream that combines the needs of farmers with the nation’s desire for energy independence and less carbon-based pollution. The clout of the powerful farm lobby might have been enough to ensure that Congress subsidized the ethanol business. But the fact that Iowa becomes the center of the political universe once every four years with the campaign lasting longer every election has made corn king.

But even the outsized influence of the Hawkeye State has not been enough to suppress the growing realization that the massive federal subsidies lavished on corn growers was a boondoggle of epic proportions that has done little to help the environment and a lot for the bank accounts of those connected to this industry. After a long fight, Congress passed a sunset provision on the subsidies, but Iowans who are used to being Uncle Sam’s favored relations aren’t giving up. They are defending the renewable fuel standards against sensible criticisms and seek, as they always do, to use the first-in-the-nation caucuses to bend would-be presidents to their will.

Industry groups are prepared to invest millions in media blitzes backing candidates who conform to their wishes and oppose those who don’t. Given its past success, it’s hard to blame the corn/ethanol lobby for feeling confident that they can intimidate Republicans again.

After all, a free market supporter like Mitt Romney folded like a cheap suit in 2012 in his bid to win the caucus. As it turns out, Rick Santorum, another conservative who discovered how much he loved corn when running for president, edged him. They weren’t alone; that year Michelle Bachmann, the Tea Party favorite candidate who won the Iowa Straw Poll before flopping in the caucus, also dropped her anti-government mantra long enough to embrace ethanol.

Going back to 2008, the caucus was won by Mike Huckabee, another politician who extolled the virtues of small government except when it came to federal largesse being doled out to Iowa farmers. Among the losers in Iowa that year was John McCain, the eventual nominee who largely stuck to his guns when it came to opposing ethanol subsidies.

Will a Republican Party whose mainstream as well as its Tea Party faction have spent the last several years lambasting the Obama administration for its green corruption schemes like Solyndra make an exception for Iowa again? To their credit, Rubio and Jindal say no. As the Journal notes, Jeb Bush has yet to say much about the issue but has in the past backed a Brazilian ethanol scheme that irked Iowans. Libertarian Rand Paul is in no position to genuflect to the corn growers. Tea Party stalwart Ted Cruz is risking the ire of the lobby by co-sponsoring legislation to repeal the renewable fuels standard.

But past Iowa winners Huckabee and Santorum are back to try again in 2016 and appear ready to pander to ethanol if that’s what it takes to get them into the first tier of a race with a huge field.

That leaves Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has an early but commanding lead in Iowa right now. Will Walker, a man who became a conservative folk hero by opposing big government and unions, decide that government handouts to farmers don’t offend his conscience? If not, then perhaps we will have really turned a corner. But until a candidate who spurns corn wins the caucus, Iowa will remain a quadrennial panderfest. Conservatives who are dismayed by the way their would-be standard-bearers check their principles at the state border when they enter Iowa hope 2016 is the year when this will happen.

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The End of “Economic Terrorism”: Dems and the Obstruction Double Standard

The Washington Post has an interesting story on how Democrats, now in the minority in both houses of Congress, have so far fulfilled their intent to clog the legislative pipeline. There are many words in the story, about 1,200 or so. But you understand why the story needed that many words once you complete it and notice the one word the author had to get creative to avoid using, thus necessitating the prolixity of the piece. Never mentioned once is any form of the word “obstruction.”

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The Washington Post has an interesting story on how Democrats, now in the minority in both houses of Congress, have so far fulfilled their intent to clog the legislative pipeline. There are many words in the story, about 1,200 or so. But you understand why the story needed that many words once you complete it and notice the one word the author had to get creative to avoid using, thus necessitating the prolixity of the piece. Never mentioned once is any form of the word “obstruction.”

Now, ordinarily that would be just fine. After all, what the Democrats are doing by using the filibuster and other procedures to prevent even popular legislation from getting through is entirely within their constitutional rights. But of course, we don’t live in ordinary times; we live in the Dark Age of Republican Obstructionist Terror, and therefore the Post should be appalled at what they would normally consider a blatant attempt to burn American democracy to the ground. If, that is, Republicans were doing it.

Last month, Democrats attempted to shut down the Department of Homeland Security unless and until Republicans removed part of the funding bill that Democrats opposed. Republicans blinked, and rather than allow the shutdown that Democrats threatened, pulled the contested part of the bill. Were the two sides reversed, Republicans would be accused of rank economic terrorism. Instead, here’s how the Post describes Democrats’ actions:

Nancy Pelosi had a plan. Democrats were outnumbered, obviously, and she no longer had the power to impose her will the way she did when she was Speaker of the House. But neither did the current speaker, John A. Boehner (R-Ohio.).

With a partial Department of Homeland Security shutdown looming, Pelosi saw a way to torpedo Boehner, and get exactly what she and other Democrats wanted for President Obama. The plan was simple: when Boehner needed her the most, she would not be there for him.

She encouraged her caucus to reject the Speaker’s proposal on a stopgap DHS funding bill, knowing that Boehner could not sufficiently rally his own caucus to pass the bill without Democratic help.

Five days later, Pelosi and Obama got exactly what they wanted: DHS was fully funded without any rollback of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

The Post goes on to explain how Democrats did something similar–though no shutdown was involved–with regard to a bill approving the Keystone pipeline. The pipeline is popular, but opposed by Democratic money man Tom Steyer and fringe environmental extremists (of whom the president is one, thus explaining the White House’s opposition to an energy and jobs bill).

But more importantly, the bill had the votes to pass, which it eventually did on a later re-vote. At the time though, Democratic leadership wanted to take a shot at the GOP leadership to make a point, and Democrats fell in line, even on a bill that had enough of their support to pass. So they blocked that too.

Again: fully within their rights as the minority party. And yet, the Post seems to agree–when conducted by Democrats. When it came to the GOP in the minority, not only did the Post throw the term “obstructionism” around, but the paper’s reporters used it without any qualifiers.

Of course the Post’s opinion writers are going to be hypocrites about this; that’s not of interest here. No one’s expecting intellectual honesty from liberal columnists. In October 2013, a supposedly straight news story carried this headline: “Obama says he feels ‘enormous frustration’ with GOP obstruction.” Not only was “obstruction” the word provided by the Post, not the president, but the whole article was merely reporting on Obama’s complaints. It was a press release disguised as a news story.

For opinion pieces, the Post reveled in hysteria; see this Jonathan Capehart piece titled–seriously–“The GOP is out to destroy the country.” But reporters on the news side of the office shouldn’t also lose their minds. The word “obstruction” shows up in other places it shouldn’t.

I don’t mean to pick on the Post. It’s not as though they invented this obsession over Republican “obstruction” or created the bias in which they participate. But their reporting is in desperate need of a tune-up. Instead of angry accusations of gumming up the works of democracy, the Post tells us Pelosi and Harry Reid are “deftly navigating the big legislative debates to maximum advantage, thwarting the new majorities early ambitions and protecting Obama from the GOP assaults on his agenda.”

The metaphorical violence is always been committed by the GOP, as far as the media is concerned.

The problem with the piece on Pelosi isn’t only that the word “obstruction” doesn’t get thrown around. It’s that the whole structure of the piece is borderline admiration. “Democrats say they are optimistic about holding members together in the next big legislative debates,” we learn. “But they could encounter difficulties in areas where they do not have a rallying cry that resonates as powerfully as immigration and a shutdown.”

This is how a shutdown goes from economic terrorism to powerful rallying cry for a plucky minority party. And it’s also one more reminder to Republicans: the left may make GOP tactics the issue, but they aren’t. It’s never about the means, but the ends. When the left approves of the ends, anything goes.

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Netanyahu and Churchill: Analogy and Error

The Churchill analogies flew fast and furious around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. The prompt: until this week, only Winston Churchill had addressed a joint session three times. (Netanyahu’s tying of this record moved House Speaker John Boehner to present him with a bust of Churchill.)

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The Churchill analogies flew fast and furious around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. The prompt: until this week, only Winston Churchill had addressed a joint session three times. (Netanyahu’s tying of this record moved House Speaker John Boehner to present him with a bust of Churchill.)

The subject of the speech also lent itself to comparisons. “There is a reason that the adjective most often applied to Prime Minister Netanyahu with respect to Iran is Churchillian,” said Senator Ted Cruz the day before the speech, comparing an Iran deal to Munich and “peace for our time.” “In a way,” said columnist Charles Krauthammer in a post-speech assessment, “it was Churchillian—not in delivery; it was not up to Bibi’s norm—but in the sonorousness and the seriousness of what he said. And it was not Churchill of the ’40s. This was the desperate Churchill of the ’30s. This was a speech of, I think, extraordinary power but great desperation.”

This was followed by the inevitable “he’s-no-Churchill” rebuttals, the most noteworthy by former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy. Netanyahu, he opined, “is the absolute antithesis of Churchill; whereas Churchill projected power, confidence, strategy and absolute belief in Britain’s ultimate victory, Netanyahu repeatedly mentions the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, terror, anti-Semitism, isolation and despair.” Most of the other criticisms emphasized that Churchill worked with, not against, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For this reason, wrote Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, Netanyahu’s decision to accept the invitation to speak didn’t pass “the Churchill test.”

All’s fair in love, war, and analogies, and self-serving or rival-deprecating historical analogies are part and parcel of politics. But it irks me when analogies are constructed on error. I’m not talking about spin; I’m talking about grievous error. My topic here is a particularly egregious example, from a journalist interviewing a journalist: NPR’s Robert Siegel interviewing Israeli celebrity journalist and best-selling author Ari Shavit (now an anti-Netanyahu partisan).

Shavit: Let’s go with Netanyahu’s own Churchillian logic. Winston Churchill—the great thing Winston Churchill did was not to give great speeches—although he was a great speaker—but he understood that to stop Nazi Germany he needs American support. He came in the middle of the war to this town, to Washington, and he worked with President Roosevelt, really seducing him, courting him, doing everything possible to have him on his side, and in the process guaranteeing the dismantling of the British Empire, something that was very difficult to Winston Churchill. Netanyahu, who saw the threat—the Iranian threat—in an accurate way in my mind, never did that. He didn’t go the extra mile to reach out, whether to President Obama and to other liberal leaders around the world—in Europe. He never did what he had to do, which is to stop settlement activities so the Palestinian issue will not produce bad blood. And so people will really be able to listen to his accurate arguments regarding Iran. Israel…

Siegel: This would be his equivalent of Churchill saying India will be independent and Africa will be free after the war.

Shavit: It’s—Churchill had that. And Netanyahu, who wants to be Churchill, never had the greatness and the generosity and the flexibility to pay.

What’s the problem here? I’ll leave aside the implied (and absurd) comparison between the Jewish presence from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, and British imperial rule from Suez to Singapore. There’s a larger problem obvious to anyone who knows the history: contra Shavit, Churchill didn’t guarantee to Roosevelt that the British Empire would be dismantled, and pace Siegel, he never said that India would be granted independence after the war. In fact, Churchill fought tooth and nail to assure that the Empire would emerge intact from the war, and that India, in particular, would remain the heart of it. He showed no trace of either generosity or flexibility.

It’s true that the Atlantic Charter, which Roosevelt and Churchill signed in Newfoundland in August 1941, promised (clause three) “to respect the rights of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcefully deprived of them.” The Americans thought this should apply to the subject peoples of the British Empire. But Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons on his return home, insisted the clause only applied to “the states and nations of Europe now under the Nazi yoke.”

To mollify Roosevelt (and the Labour party at home), Churchill did dispatch a (Labourite) negotiator in the spring of 1942 to present an “offer” to Indian nationalists (the Cripps Mission). He also did everything to assure that the take-it-or-leave-it “offer” would be unacceptable to them. When the mission failed, Britain’s Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office launched a well-orchestrated propaganda effort in the United States, to persuade American opinion that the Indian Congress Party couldn’t be relied upon to negotiate in good faith. They worked to portray Gandhi and Congress, which had declared their wartime neutrality, as potential fifth columnists for Japan and intransigents incapable of reaching any workable agreement.

As the war continued, Churchill never flagged. “Let me make this clear, in case there should be any mistake about it in any quarter,” he told told an audience in November 1942 (the “End of the Beginning” speech after El Alamein). “We mean to hold our own. I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire. For that task, if ever it were prescribed, someone else would have to be found, and under a democracy I suppose the nation would have to be consulted.”

Roosevelt and his advisers understood that mention of India, in particular, could bring forth Churchill’s wrath. Robert Sherwood, a wartime speechwriter for Roosevelt, described India as

one subject on which the normally broad-minded, good-humored, give-and-take attitude which prevailed between the two statesmen was stopped cold. It may be said that Churchill would see the Empire in ruins and himself buried under them before he would concede the right of any American, however great and illustrious a friend, to make any suggestion as to what he should do about India.

In the interest of amity, the President sometimes tried to raise the matter indirectly, with predictable results. In 1943, Roosevelt gave a lunch for Churchill at the White House, and invited the publisher Helen Reid, an outspoken opponent of British rule in India. As the host expected, she turned on Churchill to ask what would become of “those wretched Indians.” Churchill’s reply (according to an aide): “Before we proceed any further, let us get one thing clear. Are we talking about the brown Indians of India, who have multiplied alarmingly under benevolent British rule? Or are we speaking of the red Indians in America, who, I understand, are almost extinct?” Mrs. Reid shrank, Roosevelt laughed heartily, and yet another witty barb entered the Churchill corpus.

Churchill remained unyielding right through the war’s end. In December 1944, when the State Department tried to revive the idea of international trusteeship as an alternative to British imperial rule, Churchill shot off this missive to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden: “There must be no question of our being hustled or seduced into declarations affecting British sovereignty in any of the Dominions or Colonies. Pray remember my declaration against liquidating the British Empire… ‘Hands off the British Empire’ is our maxim and it must not be weakened or smirched to please sob-stuff merchants at home or foreigners of any hue.”

Eden told Churchill he had no cause to worry. Perhaps that’s because Roosevelt, taking the larger view of the war, had given up, leaving the question of India and the British Empire for post-war resolution. Had Churchill had his way, the Empire would have lasted indefinitely, according to Lawrence James (author of the recent Churchill and Empire: Portrait of an Imperialist): “Restoring the authority of the Raj was essential to the Churchillian vision of the post-war global order in which the Empire would remain intact and, as ever, substantiate Britain’s claim to global power.” It took Churchill’s fall from power and a Labour government to extricate Britain from both India and the Empire.

In sum, the notion that Churchill showed Roosevelt “generosity” and “flexibility” regarding British sway over the Empire, “guaranteeing the dismantling” of it, is utterly without foundation. In the end, it was Roosevelt who showed flexibility, in the interest of the alliance. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for President Obama. But then, he’s no Roosevelt, is he?

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The Jobs Report

The American economy created 295,000 jobs in February, well above the 230,000 predicted. The unemployment rate dropped from 5.7 percent to 5.5 percent. January’s jobs number was revised downward from 257,000 to 239,000. The participation rate dropped a bit to 62.8 percent, just one-tenth of a percent above where it was a year ago.

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The American economy created 295,000 jobs in February, well above the 230,000 predicted. The unemployment rate dropped from 5.7 percent to 5.5 percent. January’s jobs number was revised downward from 257,000 to 239,000. The participation rate dropped a bit to 62.8 percent, just one-tenth of a percent above where it was a year ago.

The long-term unemployed, out of work for six months or more, is at 2,709,000, 31.7 percent of the total unemployed. That’s down from 3,886,000 and 35.7 percent a year ago. So it’s trending in the right direction, but doing so slowly.

Wages remain sticky. Non-farm private payrolls went up only three cents, to $24.78. Over the last year wages are up only about two percent.

As the labor market slowly tightens, we should see wages increasing at a faster pace. But increases in the participation rate could negate that as more workers enter the labor market, confident they can now find a job. The Fed is unlikely to begin to tighten as long as wage growth is so slow.

The American economy has now created more than 200,000 new jobs a month for a year, and the slow-but-steady recovery remains on track.

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ObamaCare, SCOTUS and the Constitution

Yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing on the King v. Burwell challenge to ObamaCare produced a lot of the usual tealeaf reading from SCOTUS watchers. Most of those who commented on the proceedings concentrated on trying to figure out the outcome by interpreting the comments from the bench. There seems little doubt that seven of the judges’ votes are already a given with the four liberals lining up behind the legality of the federal subsidies being given to consumers in states that did not set up their own ObamaCare exchange and three conservatives believing them to contradict the text of the law. That means the speculation centers on the thinking of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s usual swing vote and that of Chief Justice John Roberts, who usually lines up with the other conservatives but abandoned them in 2012 in order to register an illogical opinion that allowed ObamaCare to survive a constitutional challenge that was far more substantial than the one put forward in the current case. That means there’s no telling how the case will be decided. But if Roberts does another ideological somersault in order to avoid getting the court in the middle of a political tangle it will be another telling blow to the system of checks and balances created by the Founders.

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Yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing on the King v. Burwell challenge to ObamaCare produced a lot of the usual tealeaf reading from SCOTUS watchers. Most of those who commented on the proceedings concentrated on trying to figure out the outcome by interpreting the comments from the bench. There seems little doubt that seven of the judges’ votes are already a given with the four liberals lining up behind the legality of the federal subsidies being given to consumers in states that did not set up their own ObamaCare exchange and three conservatives believing them to contradict the text of the law. That means the speculation centers on the thinking of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s usual swing vote and that of Chief Justice John Roberts, who usually lines up with the other conservatives but abandoned them in 2012 in order to register an illogical opinion that allowed ObamaCare to survive a constitutional challenge that was far more substantial than the one put forward in the current case. That means there’s no telling how the case will be decided. But if Roberts does another ideological somersault in order to avoid getting the court in the middle of a political tangle it will be another telling blow to the system of checks and balances created by the Founders.

ObamaCare defenders have tried to argue that the challenge to the law is a narrow technicality that ought not to invalidate the president’s signature health care legislation. From the frame of reference of most liberals, the Affordable Care Act is, however flawed it might be, another step on the inevitable path to an enlightened society that the left has been pulling the country toward for the last century. The idea of striking down a key element of the enforcement of a law simply because it is contradicted by the text of the legislation strikes them as unfair as well as bad policy.

This is hypocritical cant since Roberts’ decision that validated the law’s constitutionality was itself based on a technicality — the notion that it was a tax even though its authors and the president claimed it was nothing of the kind — and liberals cheered rather than complained about the convoluted and narrow reasoning behind the decision.

But the claim that the absence of language in the statute that would authorize the federal government to set up exchanges in states that refused to operate them is a technicality is a false argument. The legislative history shows that the intent was to force states to run the exchanges and that having Washington step in where they didn’t was contrary to its purpose.

That means the outcome of King v. Burwell hinges on whether a majority of justices think the purpose of the Supreme Court is to interpret the laws as they were written or to simply judge them on the desires of the political forces that back the program. Four liberals say to hell with the text of the law. Three conservatives say the law must be judged by its text not the desire of the administration to see its unpopular achievement preserved in spite of its obvious shortcomings.

That leaves Kennedy and Roberts to decide whether they are prepared to do what the Court couldn’t bring itself to do in 2012: take a stand on the Constitution even if it meant that their institution would be seen as responsible for an outcome that would offend one half of the electorate.

Interpretations of Roberts’ bizarre opinion on the original ObamaCare case have been all over the map but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the chief justice was convinced it would be bad for the high court if it decided something that would better be determined by the voters. He seemed to be challenging the country in his opinion (which confirmed that the law violated the Commerce clause but then said it was alright because it was a tax) to make up their own minds on the law by either voting for President Obama or his opponent Mitt Romney who vowed the law’s repeal would be his top priority.

This is not the first time in history the Supreme Court has gotten out of the way and let the politicians and the voters decide major issues. But for Roberts to find two separate excuses to defy logic and render something legal that is clearly anything but would be egregious.

It’s easy to sympathize with Roberts’ desire to avoid having a court with a narrow conservative majority be seen as partisans in the way it did when Bush v. Gore was decided. If the court is to punt every time the fates put it in a position to perform its constitutional obligation to provide a legal check to the legislative and executive branches, why do we have a judiciary? It is the duty of the court to speak up when Congress or the president overstep their power or create laws that don’t stand up to scrutiny. If Roberts is going to decide King v. Burwell on the same bizarre lines that he used last time, it will do more damage to the court than any political brickbats that are tossed in its direction by angry supporters of the president.

If Roberts and Kennedy honestly thinks the federal exchanges are legal, then they should rule accordingly. But if they don’t but let them stand for fear of being criticized then they will deserve the opprobrium that conservatives and posterity will heap on them.

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The Speech and Friedman’s Recycled Slurs

The Obama administration is determined to treat Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Iran as a non-event. As negotiations with Iran continued, the White House and its apologists in both Congress and the press dismissed Netanyahu’s pointed criticisms of the nuclear deal President Obama is offering the Islamist regime and acted as if he hadn’t proposed a sensible alternative to his policy of appeasement and acceptance of Iran as a threshold nuclear power and, in the long run, one with weapons capacity. But that isn’t enough for some of Obama’s partisans in the media who aren’t satisfied merely to see the administration continue on its path to disaster but wish to use this controversy to delegitimize the entire pro-Israel coalition in Washington. Unsurprisingly, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is at the head of the pack in this regard but his column about the speech was a triumph of incoherence and specious arguments even by the debased standards by which he has operated on the Grey Lady’s op-ed page. Worse than that, the speech gave the writer an excuse to recycle anti-Semitic slurs he floated the last time Netanyahu spoke to Congress.

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The Obama administration is determined to treat Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Iran as a non-event. As negotiations with Iran continued, the White House and its apologists in both Congress and the press dismissed Netanyahu’s pointed criticisms of the nuclear deal President Obama is offering the Islamist regime and acted as if he hadn’t proposed a sensible alternative to his policy of appeasement and acceptance of Iran as a threshold nuclear power and, in the long run, one with weapons capacity. But that isn’t enough for some of Obama’s partisans in the media who aren’t satisfied merely to see the administration continue on its path to disaster but wish to use this controversy to delegitimize the entire pro-Israel coalition in Washington. Unsurprisingly, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is at the head of the pack in this regard but his column about the speech was a triumph of incoherence and specious arguments even by the debased standards by which he has operated on the Grey Lady’s op-ed page. Worse than that, the speech gave the writer an excuse to recycle anti-Semitic slurs he floated the last time Netanyahu spoke to Congress.

Friedman didn’t claim that Netanyahu misrepresented the facts about the proposed Iran deal or even dispute the danger that an Iranian bomb would represent. His problem is with what is to him an even more dangerous idea: that the security interests of Israel and the United States might overlap. He asserts that a weak deal that might prevent Iran from getting a bomb for ten years would be perfectly adequate as far as defending American security even if, as he seems to be implying, it might not be what is good for Israel or the Arab nations in the region that are every bit as upset with the administration policy as the Jewish state. Demands that Iran give up its nuclear infrastructure, something that President Obama promised in his 2012 foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney would be integral to any deal struck by the United States, are simply unrealistic and therefore must be dismissed even if that’s what most Israelis and Arabs think is necessary for their security.

Friedman’s right about one thing. A nuclear deal with Iran would only work if the regime changed its nature and was ready to “get right with the rest of the world,” as President Obama put it. But though he likes to pose as a tough-minded analyst, he leaves unsaid the fact that no serious person thinks Iran is moderating under its current government. Nor is logical to believe that it would do so if that tyrannical, terror-supporting, anti-Semitic regime were to get the major economic boost and political prestige that would it get from a nuclear deal with the United States.

But by the end of his column, Friedman runs out of ideas or even the energy to try and square his prejudices with the facts and simply lets loose with an anti-Netanyahu rant. He argues that if Netanyahu really wanted support for his position on Iran, he’d make concessions to the Palestinians even though he knows very well that those wouldn’t bring the region one inch closer to peace. In fact, Netanyahu has the tacit support of most of the Arab world for his speech. It’s only the Obama administration and others obsessed with the idea that détente with Iran is possible that didn’t like it.

Friedman concludes his piece by saying that it “rubs me the wrong way” to see a foreign leader pointing out the mistakes of an American president in front of Congress. But in that paragraph he lets us on to his real problem with the speech and the entire discussion about Iran: the existence of a solid pro-Israel coalition in Congress that thinks Netanyahu’s concerns are worth a hearing. Friedman says, “I have a problem with my own Congress howling in support of a flawed foreign leader.”

With this phrase he reminds us of his reaction to Netanyahu’s last speech to Congress in 2011. At that time, Friedman couldn’t restrain his bile and claimed that the ovations the prime minister received were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby,” a smear that was reminiscent of the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis about a vast Jewish conspiracy controlling U.S. foreign policy to benefit Israel. The point of that thinly disguised piece of anti-Semitic invective was to delegitimize supporters of Israel who had the temerity to back Netanyahu against the Obama administration’s assault on the alliance between the two democracies.

Friedman didn’t go quite as far as that sort of libel this time though his contempt for a Congress “howling” in support of Netanyahu betrayed his animus. But he did let down his hair a bit in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2. Friedman claimed the only reason Netanyahu received tumultuous applause for his brilliant speech was that he was speaking in “Sheldon’s world” a reference to casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a leading Jewish philanthropist and pro-Israel political donor.

Whatever you may think of Adelson’s politics, the point of that comment is to reintroduce Friedman’s 2011 slur about Congress being purchased by a ruthless Jewish minority. This is a classic anti-Semitic trope in which Jews are accused of using money to insinuate themselves into power and subverting the interests of the nation in favor of their own agenda. It is, of course, pure tripe, since support for Israel is overwhelming throughout the country and undiminished by either the media barrage against Netanyahu or the efforts of the administration to distance itself from the Jewish state.

Friedman then claimed that had Netanyahu spoken to the real America, rather than the Congress that is supposedly owned by the Jews, he would have gotten a different response. His example of a real American venue is the University of Wisconsin. It’s true that if Netanyahu or any friend of Israel were to speak at a leftist enclave such as the one in Madison, they would not be cheered. But who, other than Friedman, actually thinks that opinion there is representative of anything but the prejudices of liberal academics.

But the truth is, as a poll suggest, most Americans agree with Netanyahu on Iran, not Obama or Friedman. That’s why Friedman’s canard about Congress, Adelson and the “Israel lobby” is a lie. But like Obama’s Iran policy, Friedman is as undaunted by the prospect of repeating untruths about Israel as his newspaper is unashamed about printing them.

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Republicans Who Are Rising to the Challenge

A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that 72 percent of those polled say that, in general, the government’s policies since the recession have done little or nothing to help middle class people. This isn’t surprising, since median household income actually decreased after the official end of the recession in the summer of 2009. As many of us have argued before, the middle class is feeling anxious, insecure and uneasy — and they are right to feel that way.

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A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that 72 percent of those polled say that, in general, the government’s policies since the recession have done little or nothing to help middle class people. This isn’t surprising, since median household income actually decreased after the official end of the recession in the summer of 2009. As many of us have argued before, the middle class is feeling anxious, insecure and uneasy — and they are right to feel that way.

This unhappiness provides Republicans with an opportunity — and two senators, Mike Lee and Marco Rubio, are stepping up at just the right time. Senators Lee and Rubio, the Tea Party’s great gifts to American politics, have put forward an outstanding tax plan. As my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin writes in summarizing the plan, it would:

  • Cut the business tax rate to 25 percent (including for all pass-through business income, so that large and small businesses pay the same rate);
  • End the taxation of capital gains, dividends, and interest;
  • Allow businesses to deduct capital investments from their taxable income immediately rather than over time;
  • Consolidate today’s seven tax brackets into two brackets at a 15 percent and 35 percent rate (although business income would be taxed at 25 percent and income from savings would not be taxed);
  • Repeal the Alternative Minimum Tax and most of the deductions in the code (leaving only the charitable deduction and a capped mortgage interest deduction that would both be available to all taxpayers, not just those who itemize); and
  • Replace today’s standard deduction with a $2,000 individual ($4,000 per married couple) credit, end the marriage penalty in the tax code, and provide a new $2,500 per child credit (alongside the existing $1,000 credit, which phases out with income).

There’s more to it than that, of course, and there are still important matters still to be determined, most especially the details of the cap on mortgage interest deductions (meaning the design and level of the cap). But the key thing to take away from this effort, I think, is that it would lesson the tax burden on working families and businesses, and in doing so provide help to the middle class and promote economic growth.

“Our hope here isn’t to pick winners and losers. Our hope here is to trigger economic growth,” Senator Rubio told reporters. He added that he believes “the vast majority of Americans” would see tax cuts if the plan was implemented.

This is a model approach for Republicans, whether they are running for president, the House or Senate, governor, or state legislator: To put forward ideas that are substantive and specific, bold, and address to the needs and challenges of our time. By which I mean they will actually and materially improve the conditions of ordinary Americans.

Too often these days politics is about theatrics, about silly threats, banalities and rhetorical recklessness. What Senators Lee and Rubio have done is to provide something of an antidote to this. Like others — Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Rob Portman, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Mike Pence and many more — these are serious individuals promoting good (conservative) ideas in a responsible fashion, and in a way that will appeal to voters. It’s a powerful contrast to the Democratic Party, which is reactionary, tired, increasingly bitter and out of ideas.

These are politically interesting times we’re in — and for conservatives, increasingly hopeful ones.

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Democrats and the Hillary Train Wreck

How can something that is such a sure thing seem so shaky? That’s the question that many supporters of Hillary Clinton are wondering this week as reports about her exclusive use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state prove to be the latest indication of her bad political judgment. Though many Democrats insist that there’s nothing to this story, others speaking off the record to journalist are less sanguine and admit that this just the latest evidence that shows that her apparent coronation as Democratic presidential nominee is only partially obscuring her genuine shortcomings as a candidate. Though Clinton’s loyalists are bravely, if somewhat inadequately, defending her, the email story looks to have legs. The real question many in the part are asking today is whether the former First Lady’s current troubles will be enough to tempt Senator Elizabeth Warren to jump into the 2016 presidential race.

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How can something that is such a sure thing seem so shaky? That’s the question that many supporters of Hillary Clinton are wondering this week as reports about her exclusive use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state prove to be the latest indication of her bad political judgment. Though many Democrats insist that there’s nothing to this story, others speaking off the record to journalist are less sanguine and admit that this just the latest evidence that shows that her apparent coronation as Democratic presidential nominee is only partially obscuring her genuine shortcomings as a candidate. Though Clinton’s loyalists are bravely, if somewhat inadequately, defending her, the email story looks to have legs. The real question many in the part are asking today is whether the former First Lady’s current troubles will be enough to tempt Senator Elizabeth Warren to jump into the 2016 presidential race.

There are some reasons for the Clinton camp to be confident that nothing in the story about her emails will stop Democrats from nominating her for president. The Clintons have always operated under different rules than lesser political mortals and they and their fans probably think there’s nothing to this issue that should cause Democrats to treat them differently than in the past. But the willingness of the New York Times, the flagship of the liberal mainstream media establishment to run with this story rather than treating it as just another minor sidebar generated by Republicans investigating the Benghazi attacks was an indication that Hillary could not count on getting a pass.

Nor did the story die after a day as Clinton’s camp hoped it would because there was more to it. The revelation that Clinton not only refrained from using a government (and therefore relatively secure) email address but used one whose server was located in her home is even more egregious than one would have thought. That raises questions about whether she violated government regulations instituted in 2009. Though much correspondence was subsequently handed over to the government, the decision as to what was public and what private was made by Clinton’s staff leaving open the possibility that anything that might prove embarrassing or troubling — such as Clinton’s knowledge or encouragement for efforts by her husband to raise money from foreign governments for their family foundation — was either erased or held back from archivists or the State Department.

Some Democrats are claiming that conservative critics complaining about Clinton’s emails are hypocrites because various Republican governors have been hounded about some of their own emails. That’s a fair point but only to a point. Anyone running for president is going to have to be transparent about their official conduct, an issue that Jeb Bush got in front of when he released his emails from his time as governor of Florida. But none of those Republicans were in charge of U.S. foreign policy while their spouse was shaking down foreigners for contributions to their family foundation.

Even more to the point, it is important to play the substitution game. Imagine the reaction from Democrats if highly placed figures in a Republican administration were accused of doing far less than what Clinton has done when it comes to emails. Substitute the words Dick Cheney for Hillary Clinton and just imagine the same liberals telling us there’s nothing to see and that this is mere Republican lunacy about Benghazi as their heads explode.

But actually we don’t have to use our imaginations. We can just find the video of Hillary Clinton speaking in June 2007 about accusations about Republicans like Karl Rove using private email accounts some of the time while working in the White House. Rove wasn’t violating any federal regulations as Clinton did but that didn’t stop the then junior senator from New York from decrying those in her sights of “shredding the Constitution” and engaging in corrupt activities.

Nor will this story go away. There’s plenty of exposure for everyone involved here who didn’t follow the rules. But with news organizations like the Associated Press that have already filed Freedom of Information lawsuits to find out what Clinton has been up to now discovering that there is a lot of data it wanted that the government doesn’t have, the fate of those emails that were not given to the State Department could haunt Clinton.

But none of this bothers Democrats as much as the perception that Clinton and her staff were unprepared for this latest land mine in her path and have no clue about defusing it. Though the Clinton political machine is a formidable entity, she currently lacks the kind of staff with the ability to respond immediately to problems. Instead, they bumble around for days doing little to make things better for their candidate. Clinton’s own public statements have also been entirely inadequate. Merely saying that she wants the public to have access to her emails does little to reassure since she didn’t promise to take any steps that would ensure that these communications will be brought forward or that the process by which private emails will be sorted from the official ones will be supervised by anyone but her personal minions.

As with her gaffe-ridden book tour last year, Clinton has done nothing to make it appear that she has acquired the political skills needed to weather a competitive presidential campaign. With no serious Democratic opposition in sight that means she will head into the general election next year with full coffers but unready to mix it up with what might be a strong GOP opponent. At this point the fact that she has no opposition worth the name inside her party starts to look less like a huge advantage and more like a liability.

Will this tempt Warren to run against her? If she has any interest in running for president — a question to which we don’t know the answer — it ought to. At worst, the email story is the sort of thing that will feed cynicism about Clinton among ordinary voters as well as the imaginations of conspiracy theorists. At best, it shows she has poor political judgment ad lacks the ability to comprehend and deal with problems. Either way, this train wreck makes for a poor presidential candidate and an even worse president. The former should scare Democrats who want to win in 2016. The latter should scare all Americans.

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Why Politicians Are Right To Refuse to Take the Anti-Tax Pledge

Jeb Bush’s spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, said in a recent statement that the former Florida governor would not sign any pledges, including ones saying he won’t increase taxes. Not surprisingly, some anti-tax crusaders aren’t happy. No matter. Governor Bush is right.

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Jeb Bush’s spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, said in a recent statement that the former Florida governor would not sign any pledges, including ones saying he won’t increase taxes. Not surprisingly, some anti-tax crusaders aren’t happy. No matter. Governor Bush is right.

Before explaining why, it’s worth pointing out that Bush’s decision – contrary to some silly headlines — is not based on a desire to raise taxes. How do I know? Because Bush, as governor of Florida, had an impeccable tax-cutting record, having cut them every year he was governor — a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion. In that sense, Bush is exactly the right person to oppose taking an anti-tax pledge, since no governor I’m aware of has a better record on taxes than Bush. (As a reference point, as governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”–one four times as large as the previous record set by Governor Pat Brown.)

Now let’s turn to the substantive arguments against signing the anti-tax pledge.

It’s one thing to believe, as I do, that taxes should be lower. (I’m partial to this plan by Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio.) But it’s quite another to declare that there are no circumstances, ever, in which taxes can be raised. The proper tax rate is a prudential matter, not an inviolate principle. It needs to be judged in the context of circumstances and trade-offs. Which taxes are we talking about? Increasing them in exchange for what?

Here’s where this mindset eventually leads. In a 2011 GOP presidential debate, eight candidates were given a hypothetical: If you could get $10 in spending cuts for $1 in tax increases – the assumption in the question was that the cuts could be enforced, that they were real — would you walk away from the 10-to-one deal? All eight candidates said they would.

I was critical of them at the time, believing this was turning an economic policy into a dogma, conservatism into an adamantine ideology, and lawmakers into absolutists. I get why people whose professional lives are dedicated to low taxes want politicians to take pledges. But it’s the job of politicians and lawmakers to have the courage and wisdom to say: I’m sympathetic to your cause, but I’ll respectfully decline your offer.

It’s perhaps worth keeping in mind that if the Founders had taken and abided by the 18th-century equivalent of the anti-tax pledge, the Constitution would never have been created. After all, it was the product of a remarkable series of difficult compromises on matters ranging from the Bill of Rights to proportional representation to how we elect the president to how Supreme Court justices were picked to the thorniest issue of all: slavery.

Taxes are obviously in a wholly different category than slavery, which was a moral obscenity. Yet in the words of James Madison, “great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” What the wisest Founders understood is that the Constitution would put slavery on a path to extinction. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a great abolitionist leader, would later say, “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” But if abolitionists had insisted that the Founders, including those who supported their cause, take a pledge that they would not become a signatory to the Constitution unless it ended slavery, the whole project would have come crashing down. (The Southern delegates would never have supported the new Constitution if it meant the abolition of slavery.)

So here’s my advice to conservatives: Familiarize yourselves with the records of the candidates. Learn their stands and listen to their arguments. Make a judgment about their public and personal character. Judge them in the totality of their acts. And then vote for the individual you believe will govern in the most responsible way — without taking pledges to do anything except to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. George Washington did it. Abraham Lincoln did it. Ronald Reagan did it. And they did just fine.

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Professors of Propaganda at the University of Washington

Edward Alexander, author of the forthcoming Jews Against Themselves, reports on a program at the University of Washington that, even by the relatively low standards of contemporary humanities scholarship, is a travesty of scholarship.

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Edward Alexander, author of the forthcoming Jews Against Themselves, reports on a program at the University of Washington that, even by the relatively low standards of contemporary humanities scholarship, is a travesty of scholarship.

The Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington supports “cross disciplinary understanding, collaboration, and research.” In the service of that goal, it funds “cross disciplinary research clusters,” which “seed new collaborations between faculty and graduate students who share research interests.” Among the clusters presently funded is Palestine and the Public Sphere.

One notices right away that the project was chosen because of its cross disciplinary character, as it takes in a professor from the Department of English, another professor from the Department of English, and a third professor from the Department of English. So far, so good.

But there are further indications that the project will elevate our level of discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, only two of the three professors involved, Anis Bawarshi and Eva Cherniavsky, have signed on to the 2009 “Dear President Elect Obama” letter, which describes Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times” and opines that a one state solution—that is the erasure of Israel as a Jewish state—is “almost certainly” the only hope. They do not straightforwardly say, as University of Pennsylvania professor and one-stater Ian Lustick has, that such a solution is almost certainly bound to entail “ruthless oppression, mass mobilization, riots, brutality, terror [and] Jewish and Arab emigration” before Israel is brought to its knees. But we can cross that bridge when we come to it.

Speaking of Lustick, his piece appeared in the New York Times. Yet the very description of the research program, if we can call it that, assumes that “as mergers have transferred control of most major news outlets to a handful of mega-corporations,” criticism of Israel has been stifled. Admittedly, I am not a trained reader of English texts, as the organizers are, but I would think that the frequent appearance of such criticism in major media outlets makes this assertion borderline delusional. Even Omar Barghouti, a founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel has graced the pages of the Times. The Guardian, BBC, Bloomberg, and CNN have published Barghouti’s work.

But speaking of Omar Barghouti, the Palestine in the Public Sphere group decided the first way they could advance the cause of scholarly research was to invite Barghouti to speak. Because the way to show that you are concerned about elevating the scholarly discourse is to invite, on the first day of Israeli apartheid week, a figure whose sole claim to fame is setting a campaign to demonize Israel into motion. I am not as schooled in discourse analysis as even one English professor, much less three, but it seems to me that this sends a message.

Here’s a tip for those who worry about the defunding of public higher education. Call out people who use state institutions to advance propaganda campaigns under the guise of scholarship.

 

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Can Congress Wait to Act on Iran?

The wisdom of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to fast track legislation requiring the administration to submit any nuclear deal with Iran to Congress for approval may depend on how seriously you take the noise coming out of the nuclear talks that an agreement may soon be reached. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told NBC News yesterday that the countries were “very close” to a deal. At the same time, a “senior State Department official” said an “understanding” with Iran about the outlines of a deal by the end of the month was the goal of the talks. Both statements make it clear that the administration is expecting that it will have something it can tout as a success. If true, that puts both McConnell and Senate Democrats in an interesting position until the March 24 date for the negotiations to conclude. If, as they have promised, Democrats will filibuster votes on the bills requiring Congressional approval and the imposition of harsher sanctions on Iran, until then, they may be facilitating the outcome they oppose. But if McConnell pushes too hard on the issue now, he may be ruining the chances of a bipartisan veto-proof majority for these measures after the deadline.

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The wisdom of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to fast track legislation requiring the administration to submit any nuclear deal with Iran to Congress for approval may depend on how seriously you take the noise coming out of the nuclear talks that an agreement may soon be reached. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told NBC News yesterday that the countries were “very close” to a deal. At the same time, a “senior State Department official” said an “understanding” with Iran about the outlines of a deal by the end of the month was the goal of the talks. Both statements make it clear that the administration is expecting that it will have something it can tout as a success. If true, that puts both McConnell and Senate Democrats in an interesting position until the March 24 date for the negotiations to conclude. If, as they have promised, Democrats will filibuster votes on the bills requiring Congressional approval and the imposition of harsher sanctions on Iran, until then, they may be facilitating the outcome they oppose. But if McConnell pushes too hard on the issue now, he may be ruining the chances of a bipartisan veto-proof majority for these measures after the deadline.

McConnell is taking plenty of flak for deciding to use Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress about the threat from Iran to push forward the legislation proposed by Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Bob Menendez for a quick vote. That’s because weeks ago Menendez and other Democrats publicly told the White House they would hold off on their plans to push for any legislation on Iran until after the March 24 deadline for the end of the current round of talks expired. That concession came in the wake of the furor over the announcement of Netanyahu’s speech that was treated by Democrats as an insult to President Obama hatched by Republicans and the Israeli government.

However, this willingness to wait a few weeks was not a sign that Menendez was any less interested in opposing the president’s appeasement of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Menendez has been among the fiercest advocates of a tougher stance on Iran in the Congress. But McConnell’s move embarrassed him and other Democrats who were trying not to burn their bridges to the White House in spite of the disagreement. Indeed, even some Republican supporters of the anti-Iran bills worried that the majority leader was endangering the chances of maintaining the bipartisan coalition that backs these measures. As Senator Lindsey Graham noted, anything that lessened the chances that large numbers of Democrats will eventually vote for the two bills may be a mistake.

That’s the same reason so many in the pro-Israel community have worried about the way the administration has shamelessly manipulated a controversy over the Netanyahu speech that the White House did so much to promote and exacerbate. Until the announcement of the speech, The Corker-Menendez and the Kirk-Menendez bills seemed to have at least a fighting chance of veto-proof majorities. But the ability of the White House to manipulate the false issues of a breach of protocol and the supposed “insult” to President Obama from the speech, that enabled the administration to pick off wavering Democrats from the ranks of sanctions supporters.

The smart play would seem to be for McConnell to wait until March 24 and then bring both bills to the floor in the hope that a large number of Democrats will buck the president and give Congress the right to a say about an Iran deal.

But the urgency about stopping the rush to détente with Tehran isn’t just a function of McConnell’s desire to wrong-foot the president as the clock winds down until March 24. It is entirely possible that by then a deal or at least an “understanding” with Iran will be in place making it even easier for the president to persuade Democrats not to support measures intended to limit the impact of an agreement with Iran.

As Netanyahu rightly pointed out in his speech, the stakes here couldn’t be greater and have little or nothing to do with the feud between the prime minister and the president. A nuclear deal that leaves Iran in possession of all of its nuclear infrastructure including thousands of centrifuges and which hinges on a Western belief that a relatively short “breakout” period to a bomb is enough of a deterrent to prevent the Islamist regime from building a weapon is a disaster for the security of the West, moderate Arab states and Israel. If, as even President Obama hinted, the deal will include a sunset clause that will end sanctions and any restrictions at some point, then what is happening is not so much a Western seal of approval on Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state but a deferred acquiescence to it getting a bomb.

That makes it imperative that the terms of the deal be debated by Congress and subjected to an up or down vote. Passing such a bill after Iran signs will be harder so its easy to understand why McConnell wants one now. But that may be a terrible mistake.

Although time is a factor here, the only chance to do something to check the president or at least to hold him accountable is to get 67 votes in place in favor of the two Iran bills. That will require considerable Democratic support. Though some of the Democrats who made the promise to Obama may be wavering, Menendez deserves some deference from McConnell. Without his help, the bipartisan majority on Iran will collapse. After all, even if a deal is made with Iran, that won’t be the end of the debate. President Obama doesn’t need any help from Republicans that will make it easier for him to avoid being called to account.

Worries about diplomacy outstripping the ability of Congress to pass laws designed to impede the president’s reckless disregard for the truth about Iran are real. But rushing these bills won’t solve the problem. Counting on Iran doing what Obama wants it to do may not be a safe bet meaning that the need for action on March 24 may be just as if not greater than it is today. The American public is also likely to be supportive of any effort to restrain Obama on Iran. The bogus claims about the Netanyahu speech notwithstanding, Congressional leaders need to avoid taking actions that will make it harder for Democrats to back legislation seeking to slow the rush to appeasement.

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The American People Don’t Like the Terms of the Iran Deal (UPDATED)

A new poll signals more trouble for Barack Obama with voters and the Senate if indeed he and Iran come to terms on a nuke deal. (One-third of the interviews for the poll were conducted after the Netanyahu speech.) Specifically, as Dana Blanton, Fox News’s pollster, reports,

In a Monday interview with Reuters, President Obama said, “If, in fact, Iran is willing to agree to double-digit years of keeping their program where it is right now and, in fact, rolling back elements of it that currently exist … if we’ve got that, and we’ve got a way of verifying that, there’s no other steps we can take that would give us such assurance that they don’t have a nuclear weapon.”

Voters overwhelmingly reject that deal: 84 percent—including 80 percent of Democrats—think it’s a bad idea to allow Iran to get nuclear weapons 10 years from now in return for agreeing it won’t obtain nukes before then.

The poll of 1,001 registered voters must be taken seriously because its results show real consistency over time.

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A new poll signals more trouble for Barack Obama with voters and the Senate if indeed he and Iran come to terms on a nuke deal. (One-third of the interviews for the poll were conducted after the Netanyahu speech.) Specifically, as Dana Blanton, Fox News’s pollster, reports,

In a Monday interview with Reuters, President Obama said, “If, in fact, Iran is willing to agree to double-digit years of keeping their program where it is right now and, in fact, rolling back elements of it that currently exist … if we’ve got that, and we’ve got a way of verifying that, there’s no other steps we can take that would give us such assurance that they don’t have a nuclear weapon.”

Voters overwhelmingly reject that deal: 84 percent—including 80 percent of Democrats—think it’s a bad idea to allow Iran to get nuclear weapons 10 years from now in return for agreeing it won’t obtain nukes before then.

The poll of 1,001 registered voters must be taken seriously because its results show real consistency over time.

For example, “Some 55 percent think it would be ‘a disaster’ if Iran were to obtain the capability to use nuclear weapons, while 40 percent sees it as ‘a problem that can be managed.’ Those sentiments are unchanged from 2010 [emphasis added].” It shows a sharp partisan divide, which clearly reflects the reality of the present moment. But here is the most remarkable finding, to my mind:

Overall, two-thirds of voters (65 percent) favor the U.S. using military action, if necessary, to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Just 28 percent are opposed.

To varying degrees, majorities of Republicans (81 percent), Democrats (54 percent) and independents (53 percent) agree on using force to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

Here’s how the question was worded: “Do you favor or oppose the United States taking military action against Iran if that were the only way to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons?” Exclude Republicans from the equation and it’s still the case that a majority of Democrats and independents would support military action. That number has risen sharply since October 2013, a month before the “interim accord” between the United States (and five other nations) and Iran was announced. At the time, it was 51-39 in support of military action if there were no other way to deny Iran the bomb. (The question then was worded more capaciously: “Do you support or oppose the United States taking military action to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons?”) This suggests the drawn-out negotiations and the leaks about American concessions have done the opposite of easing the concerns of voters.

All this matters not simply because it tells us the American electorate is deeply skeptical of the deal the administration seems determined to strike if Iran will allow it. It matters because of the Senate. Next week, it appears, the Senate will take up a bill requiring the administration to submit the Iran deal for its consideration (using the power of the purse to threaten to withhold funds required to implement it). The bill will certainly pass, and the president will certainly veto it. Two pieces of legislation for the Senate to consider in the coming weeks or months involve 1) compelling the administration to submit any deal it makes for its consideration and 2) the imposition of new sanctions. When either or both of those bills come to th Senate floor for a vote, it or they will pass. And the president will veto. So the question then becomes whether his veto(es) can be overriden. It will take 13 Democratic senators for an override. Poll numbers like these make that possibility far more likely.

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A Pardon for Petraeus?

David Petraeus’s acceptance of a plea bargain–he pled guilty to the unauthorized sharing of classified information in return for paying a fine of $40,000 and serving two year of probation–has been met both with unseemly Schadenfreude by some who delight in seeing an America hero revealed to have flaws as well as criticism from others who believe that he got off too lightly.

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David Petraeus’s acceptance of a plea bargain–he pled guilty to the unauthorized sharing of classified information in return for paying a fine of $40,000 and serving two year of probation–has been met both with unseemly Schadenfreude by some who delight in seeing an America hero revealed to have flaws as well as criticism from others who believe that he got off too lightly.

It’s certainly true that others have faced stiffer sentences for revealing classified information. As Eli Lake notes: “John Kiriakou, a former CIA employee who pleaded guilty to disclosing the identity of an undercover officer, was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison — even though the employee’s identity was never made public. Stephen Kim, a federal contractor, went to prison for a year after leaking secrets about North Korea to a Fox News reporter. Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer, is facing a longer prison term for leaking secrets to a New York Times reporter.”

But it’s also the case that other leaks have not been punished at all. Leaks of classified information to journalists or authors are a routine occurrence in Washington. As Lake notes, “last summer a federal judge ordered the Barack Obama administration to release a classified memo on the legal justification for its drone attacks because officials had spoken publicly about its contents so often it was no longer a secret.”

This is hardly the only secret that the Obama administration didn’t keep–most of the highly classified details of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden were immediately leaked, much to the consternation of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The administration even opened its doors to a film-maker researching a film that ultimately became Zero Dark Thirty.

Few senior officials are ever prosecuted for mishandling classified information, even though such breaches are commonplace–given the level of over-classification in Washington, simply mentioning where the CIA training facility known as The Farm is located (near Williamsburg, Virginia) is technically a crime even though that information is freely available to anyone who has access to Google. There is little logic to the way that secrecy laws are enforced. Almost anyone in a position of authority can be prosecuted if prosecutors are so inclined.

It is ironic that the Petraeus plea bargain was concluded at virtually the same time that news emerged that Hillary Clinton had used a private, unsecure email address for all of her emailing as secretary of state. So, it turns out, had Colin Powell. They of course claim they never revealed anything secret in their emails, but what, I wonder, would the FBI find if it devoted considerable man hours to reading all of their emails? It is hard to believe that not a single email over the course of years contained any “sensitive” or “secret” information (which is usually information which is also available in the New York Times) even if by some miracle they managed to avoid alluding to “top secret” or “secure compartmented” information.

A breach of security far more egregious than Petraesus’s was committed by one of his predecessors as CIA director, John Deutch, who routinely kept classified material on unclassified computers. A CIA investigation subsequently revealed, that all of these computers “were connected to or contained modems that allowed external connectivity to computer networks such as the Internet. Such computers are vulnerable to attacks by unauthorized persons. CIA personnel retrieved [classified] information from Deutch’s unclassified computers and magnetic media related to covert action, Top Secret communications intelligence and the National Reconnaissance Program budget.” And yet what penalty did Deutch suffer? The Justice Department under Janet Reno declined to prosecute him, and President Clinton issued him a pardon to make sure not that no future prosecutor could ever come after him.

By comparison with what Clinton or Deutch did, Petraeus’s offense is pretty minor. As his plea bargain reveals, he shared with his biographer (and mistress) Paula Broadwell, who had a security clearance of her own, some of the “black books” that he used to keep notes as the top commander in Afghanistan. The black books, according to the plea bargain, “contained national defense information, including Top Secret/SCI and code word information,” yet none of the classified information ever wound up in Broadwell’s book, or anywhere else. Petraeus was also accused of lying to FBI agents who asked him whether he had provided classified information to his biographer, although it’s quite possible he simply forgot about this very mundane matter: It’s not as if he was trying to leak any secrets to Broadwell; he merely provided her with his records so she could check dates and other details.

It is not at all unusual, by the way, for senior military officers to keep such “black books” upon retirement. A friend in the military writes, “They have pursued him for a charge of which virtually every senior officer in the US military has been guilty. EVERY senior officer has such notebooks (we are a notetaking military, as you know) and EVERY senior officer carries those notebooks around with them. And ALMOST EVERY senior officer I have encountered keeps them after retirement.” Indeed, such records form the basis on which senior officers can subsequently write their memoirs.

In short, the incident over which Petraeus has pleaded guilty is a minor one, discovered in the course of a fishing expedition by the FBI, whose agents searched his house. There is no evidence of any harm to national security. This is not remotely comparable to the case of malicious leakers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. It is not even, as I have argued, comparable to the breaches committed by John Deutch. If Deutch could get a presidential pardon, why not Petraeus, who has dedicated most of his life to serving and defending our country?

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The Supreme Court and Religious Freedom: A Step Back?

As a teenager applying for a job at The Gap, I wore my yarmulke to the interview. There were no questions about my head covering, and I got the job. I can’t imagine the kippah violated a store dress code (though I don’t think I checked before applying), and I had a tendency to wear black knitted kippot which, atop a head of dark brown hair, were probably barely noticeable. But of course, it doesn’t feel that way to the person wearing the religious head covering in an environment in which no one else does (in this case, a clothing store), especially to a self-conscious teen. Which is to say that what happened to a Muslim teenager named Samantha Elauf would almost certainly never happen to me in the same situation. And what happened to Samantha Elauf appears to be blatant religious discrimination.

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As a teenager applying for a job at The Gap, I wore my yarmulke to the interview. There were no questions about my head covering, and I got the job. I can’t imagine the kippah violated a store dress code (though I don’t think I checked before applying), and I had a tendency to wear black knitted kippot which, atop a head of dark brown hair, were probably barely noticeable. But of course, it doesn’t feel that way to the person wearing the religious head covering in an environment in which no one else does (in this case, a clothing store), especially to a self-conscious teen. Which is to say that what happened to a Muslim teenager named Samantha Elauf would almost certainly never happen to me in the same situation. And what happened to Samantha Elauf appears to be blatant religious discrimination.

Elauf’s case is before the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on the issue last week. The story is this, neatly explained by the Atlantic: When Elauf was 17, she applied for a job at an Abercrombie Kids shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She wore her headscarf to the interview. The hiring manager understood the headscarf violated the company’s dress policy, but realizing that it was probably religious, she asked the district manager if an exception could be made. The answer was no; Elauf was turned down.

It was unjust, and it probably was a bit mortifying for teenager seeking to blend in, or at least attain a measure of acceptance, in a mainstream American clothing store. And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission thought it was illegal, and filed a discrimination suit. After all, employment law requires religious accommodation unless it will create “undue hardship” on the business. But it’s apparently not so simple.

In what sounds like a parody of a Talmudic dispute, the case is before the Supreme Court because, according to the Atlantic, “the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that correctly assuming that Elauf’s headscarf was religious is not the same as actually knowing her headscarf was religious.”

Over at SCOTUSblog, Amy Howe explains how the Supreme Court justices, during oral arguments, got tripped up by the fact that Elauf did not ask for a religious exemption; it was clear she needed some exemption, and the reason for it was assumed, and she was denied the exemption. Thus did the justices dive down the rabbit hole over the very meaning of knowledge:

Justice Antonin Scalia was, to put it mildly, dubious about how “straightforward” the government’s test actually is.  He pressed Gershengorn to explain the difference between “knowing” something and “correctly understanding” it; when Gershengorn tried to elaborate, Scalia told him that “that doesn’t make any sense to me.”

And although Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that there was “substantial force” to the government’s argument that an applicant doesn’t have to take the initiative to mention the religious practice to a would-be employer, he emphasized that the government’s reliance on the word “understand” rather than “know” was “confusing.

Even Justice Elena Kagan – whose vote we would expect the government to need to prevail – expressed some skepticism about how the government’s rule would apply.  If an employer doesn’t have to be certain that a job applicant’s practice derives from her religion, she asked, what level of confidence does it need?  Would it be enough for an employer to be two-thirds certain that a potential conflict with its work rules is the result of the applicant’s religious practices?  What about fifty-percent certainty, she queried?

Justices Sotomayor and Alito broached similar versions of a compromise, in which the employer would mention a rule and ask if the applicant could abide, something like: “We have a no-head covering rule. Could you comply?”

And that could work–for headscarves. Or beards, another one of the possibilities offered by the justices. Howe says several justices, “perhaps enough to form a majority,” sounded like they approved of the compromise. But there are two obvious problems with it that the Court really ought not ignore.

The first is scope: According to Howe, Scalia asked a question along the lines of: “what if an applicant could comply, but it would make her uncomfortable?” Maybe he’s talking about modesty, which would certainly force the employer to wade into various scriptural interpretations.

A more pressing problem is Chief Justice Roberts’s objection: such a rule would not “cover anything that’s not readily apparent.” The other justices didn’t seem to be so bothered by this, but I think it’s a fatal flaw in the compromise. You could argue, I suppose, that if you don’t notice it then it’s probably not a violation of a dress code. But that might also depend on the store.

It seems to me common sense needs to play a role here. If a manager guesses correctly that certain garb is religious, we don’t need to split hairs over whether they actually “know.” What happened here in this case is that a manager took a look at teenage girl wearing a headscarf, understood it was because she was a devout Muslim, and denied her the job because of it.

The Atlantic quotes an attorney for the district manager as paraphrasing his argument this way: “if we allow this then someone will paint themselves green and call it a religion.” I don’t know if anything sums up the current trend in the culture wars better than employers worrying that making accommodations will lead to lots and lots of religious freedom.

And the slippery slope argument fails here just as it did in the Hobby Lobby case, in which the Court ruled that the government could not force the company’s owners to pay for contraceptives and abortifacients to which they had religious objections. Although the standard there was slightly different, the truth is in this case there is no blanket religious protection: if it causes “undue hardship” to the company, the exemption can be denied.

Maybe the green man of the attorney’s construction would hurt the business, maybe not. But Elauf’s adherence to her religious practice was apparent and would not have wrecked the company’s bottom line. It was rank religious discrimination, and no quibbling over degrees of certainty can change that.

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Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Speech from the steps of the Capitol.

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One hundred and fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Speech from the steps of the Capitol.

Inaugural speeches, with rare exceptions, are not memorable. They tend to be laundry lists of what the new or reelected president hopes to accomplish in his term in office, along with boilerplate on the virtues of democracy and representative government.

But Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is different. Despite being delivered in the midst of some of the most momentous events in American history, it is notably short. Indeed, so short it could be carved in its entirety on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial, opposite Lincoln’s other famously short speech, the Gettysburg Address. It takes no more than five minutes to read and yet it encapsulates the whole agony of the greatest and bloodiest war this nation has ever fought.

Filled with biblical allusions, it eschews even a hint of triumphalism that the war was finally coming to a successful end and that the Union, the world’s “last, best hope,” would endure. Instead it dwells on the evils of slavery that brought the war about and how all Americans bear some responsibility for it:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

He ends with the quiet hope that the country “may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Leaving aside its historic importance, if that’s possible, just consider the prose. All who love the power and majesty of the English language and the heights to which it can soar when in the hands of a master—and Lincoln was the best writer ever to live in the White House—can only stand in awe of the Second Inaugural’s sheer literary perfection.

So I would recommend that you take five minutes and read the Second Inaugural. It is the greatest speech ever given on American soil.

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Clinton’s Parallel Government and Obama’s Great Miscalculation

When it was revealed last week that the Clinton Foundation accepted money from foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, Fox anchor Bret Baier asked a good question: “How big a problem is this becoming? Now not only for Clinton but for the [Obama] administration?” Now with latest revelations that for purposes of digital communication Hillary essentially ran her own parallel government, it’s clear that Clinton’s ethical lapses should also be a scandal for President Obama. But to understand where Obama went wrong here it’s instructive to remember how he approached the idea of nominating Hillary to be his secretary of state after the 2008 election.

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When it was revealed last week that the Clinton Foundation accepted money from foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, Fox anchor Bret Baier asked a good question: “How big a problem is this becoming? Now not only for Clinton but for the [Obama] administration?” Now with latest revelations that for purposes of digital communication Hillary essentially ran her own parallel government, it’s clear that Clinton’s ethical lapses should also be a scandal for President Obama. But to understand where Obama went wrong here it’s instructive to remember how he approached the idea of nominating Hillary to be his secretary of state after the 2008 election.

First, the latest: not only did Hillary Clinton exclusively use private email addresses to avoid transparency and record keeping. She, as the AP reveals today, operated her own server at her home:

The computer server that transmitted and received Hillary Clinton’s emails — on a private account she used exclusively for official business when she was secretary of state — traced back to an Internet service registered to her family’s home in Chappaqua, New York, according to Internet records reviewed by The Associated Press.

Later, the AP explains why she did it, and how great of a security risk it was:

Operating her own server would have afforded Clinton additional legal opportunities to block government or private subpoenas in criminal, administrative or civil cases because her lawyers could object in court before being forced to turn over any emails. And since the Secret Service was guarding Clinton’s home, an email server there would have been well protected from theft or a physical hacking.

But homebrew email servers are generally not as reliable, secure from hackers or protected from fires or floods as those in commercial data centers. Those professional facilities provide monitoring for viruses or hacking attempts, regulated temperatures, off-site backups, generators in case of power outages, fire-suppression systems and redundant communications lines.

As I said, Clinton essentially operated her own parallel government. Several commentators raised the same question with regard to Clinton only using private email addresses to conduct state business: Didn’t President Obama and his staff notice immediately that she was emailing them from a non-government account? The answer is: of course. The Obama White House is certainly implicated in this.

But it’s also worth pointing out that Obama always overestimated the degree to which he could control Clintonworld. As Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes detail in their admiring book on Hillary’s time at State, HRC, Obama made the classic mistake of trying to coopt a force that would otherwise be disruptive to his agenda. Clinton seemed intent on going back to the Senate, where she could act as a kind of gatekeeper to Obama’s legislative agenda. Understandably, Obama would rather have her on his team.

Obama didn’t think much of Clinton’s experience abroad. HRC notes Obama’s belief that Hillary’s sense of worldliness amounted to “what world leader I went and talked to in the ambassador’s house, who I had tea with.” In Obama’s estimation, Hillary was not up to the task of being a top figure on the world stage.

But Obama wasn’t looking necessarily for competence or experience. His view in piecing together his team has always been about sidelining critics and rivals. So, fully aware that Hillary was unqualified, he asked her to be secretary of state. Allen and Parnes write:

Obama wanted Hillary on his team, and in making the case to his own aides, he knocked down the argument he had made on the trail that her experience was limited to tea parties. As important, having Hillary on the inside would let Obama keep control over perhaps the nation’s most potent political force other than himself.

Except it wouldn’t. Sometimes the Clintons’ parallel government works in Obama’s favor, such as Clinton’s Benghazi disaster. Her independent email server and private addresses enabled her to hide her correspondence on the attack, which also shielded the rest of the administration from that scrutiny. Obama is infamously secretive about his own records and his administration’s unprecedented lack of transparency was a good match for the Clintons.

But it also meant a certain degree of this went beyond his control. Hillary’s family foundation, which essentially became a super-PAC for foreign governments, was supposed to have donations vetted. They didn’t. They were supposed to have Bill Clinton’s paid events cleared. And they did–they were cleared by Hillary’s State Department. They weren’t supposed to accept foreign-government money while Hillary was secretary of state. They did.

Clintonworld operated as a distinct, independent entity for its own purposes while also running American foreign policy. The phrase “conflict of interest” does not even begin to approach the disturbing ethical calculations here. But it can’t be argued that Obama didn’t know what he was getting the country into. He just thought he could control it. He was wrong, and he was wrong to try. And we’re only beginning to see the consequences.

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Ukraine, Iran, and the Threat of a Nuclear Middle East

One very important word was missing from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress yesterday. Not that I blame him; inserting “Ukraine” into that particular speech would have been counterproductive. Yet without considering America’s Ukraine policy, it’s impossible to grasp quite how disastrous the emerging Iran deal really is.

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One very important word was missing from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress yesterday. Not that I blame him; inserting “Ukraine” into that particular speech would have been counterproductive. Yet without considering America’s Ukraine policy, it’s impossible to grasp quite how disastrous the emerging Iran deal really is.

To understand why, consider the curious threat issued by an unnamed White House official last week, in the run-up to Netanyahu’s speech: “The dispute with Netanyahu prevents all possibility for discussing security guarantees for Israel as part of the emerging Iran deal.” That particular threat was empty, because Israel has never wanted security guarantees from this or any other administration; its policy has always been that it must be able to defend itself by itself. But if Washington was considering security guarantees for Israel, it’s surely considering them for its Arab allies, since they, unlike Israel, always have relied on America’s protection. In fact, there have been recurrent rumors that it might offer Arab states a nuclear umbrella as part of the deal, so they wouldn’t feel the need to develop nuclear capabilities themselves–something they have long threatened to do if Iran’s nuclear program isn’t stopped.

And a year ago, such a promise might have worked. After all, America’s guarantees had proven trustworthy in the past; see, for instance, 1991, when U.S. troops liberated Kuwait from Iraq’s invasion.

But last year, Russia invaded Ukraine, exactly 20 years after the latter gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a signed commitment by Washington, Moscow, and London to respect its “independence,” “sovereignty,” and “existing borders” and “refrain from the threat or use of force” against its “territorial integrity or political independence.” After swiftly annexing Crimea, Russia proceeded to foment rebellion in eastern Ukraine; the rebels now control sizable chunks of territory, thanks mainly to arms, money, and even “off-duty” troops from Russia.

And what have Ukraine’s other guarantors, America and Britain, done to uphold the commitment they signed in 1994? Absolute zilch. They refuse to even give Ukraine the arms it’s been begging for so it can try to fight back on its own.

Given the Ukrainian example, any Arab leader would be a fool to stake his country’s security on U.S. guarantees against Iran, which, like Russia, is a highly aggressive power. Iran already boasts of controlling four Arab capitals–Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, and, most recently, Sana’a–and shows no signs of wanting to stop. So if Arab leaders think the emerging Iranian deal is a bad one, no U.S. guarantee will suffice to dissuade them from acquiring their own nukes.

And unfortunately, that’s what they do think. As evidence, just consider the cascade of Saudi commentators publicly begging Obama to heed, of all people, the head of a country they don’t even recognize. Like Al Arabiya editor-in-chief Faisal Abbas, who published a column yesterday titled, “President Obama, listen to Netanyahu on Iran,” which began as follows: “It is extremely rare for any reasonable person to ever agree with anything Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says or does. However, one must admit, Bibi did get it right, at least when it came to dealing with Iran.” Or columnist Ahmad al-Faraj, who wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah on Monday: “I am very glad of Netanyahu’s firm stance and [his decision] to speak against the nuclear agreement at the American Congress despite the Obama administration’s anger and fury. I believe that Netanyahu’s conduct will serve our interests, the people of the Gulf, much more than the foolish behavior of one of the worst American presidents.”

Clearly, letting Iran go nuclear would be terrible. But letting the entire Mideast–one of the world’s most unstable regions–go nuclear would be infinitely worse. And the only way any deal with Tehran can prevent that is if it’s acceptable to Iran’s Arab neighbors. Thanks to Ukraine, no U.S. security guarantee can compensate them for a deal they deem inadequate.

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Does it Matter if Iran’s Leaders Aren’t Suicidal?

Over at the Atlantic, Peter Beinart argues that concern about the potential for a nuclear Iran is exaggerated because, he suggests, Iran’s leaders aren’t suicidal. Let’s accept for a moment they are not. Here are two problems which Beinart ignores:

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Over at the Atlantic, Peter Beinart argues that concern about the potential for a nuclear Iran is exaggerated because, he suggests, Iran’s leaders aren’t suicidal. Let’s accept for a moment they are not. Here are two problems which Beinart ignores:

  • Even if the Islamic Republic isn’t suicidal, what happens if it’s terminally ill? Popular protests have shaken the Islamic Republic in 1999, 2001, and 2009. What happens if they do so again, but this time members of the security forces join in so we have in Iran a parallel to Romania in 1989 or Libya in 2011? If the fall of the regime is inevitable, what’s to stop those with command, control, and custody of a nuclear Iran from utilizing their power for ideological imperatives knowing that the regime to which they dedicate their lives is dead within hours anyway? Neither Israel nor the United States would retaliate against a country which already had regime change. Indeed, Beinart errs by failing to address precisely who would have control over any Iranian nuclear arsenal should Tehran develop one. Clearly, any nuclear weapon(s) would be put not only in the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but those units vetted to be most ideologically pure.
  • Likewise, if we look back to the Cold War, perhaps it can be argued that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States were suicidal, and so mutually-assured destruction (MAD) worked. But did MAD really bring stability, or did we simply get luck? Not only was there a close call during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but we came closer to nuclear Armageddon than many at the time realized in the wake of the Soviet downing of a Korean passenger jet in 1983. There were other near misses as well.

Simply put, the question about whether the Iranian regime is suicidal or not is beside the point given its historical instability and the questionability of the model for stability upon which Beinart seems to rely. If countries in the Middle East did what was in their best interest, economically or diplomatically, the region would be a very different place. The fact that over decades they have not simply underlines the importance of ideology in the region, a factor which Beinart downplays. The simple truth is this: the region would be far more secure if Iran did not have nuclear weapons than if it did. And it would be policy malpractice of the highest order to shrug our shoulders and say it’s too hard to prevent, simply because what we would face otherwise would be a far more difficult environment in which to live and work.

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Netanyahu’s Masterpiece

From the perspective of the craft of speechwriting, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of Congress was a masterpiece.

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From the perspective of the craft of speechwriting, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of Congress was a masterpiece.

The speech started out appropriately high-minded and gracious. It laid out Mr. Netanyahu’s case with logic and care, offering a crisp and indisputable indictment of the Iranian regime and, especially, the fundamental flaws in the deal President Obama wants to strike with Iran. The conclusion of the speech–where the Israeli prime minister said “I can guarantee you this, the days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over”–was stirring and evocative. So was Mr. Netanyahu’s obvious love and affection for America. (Unlike President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu, when he describes America, isn’t inclined to criticize her.) And the speech itself included some terrific and memorable lines:

  • At a time when many hope that Iran will join the community of nations, Iran is busy gobbling up the nations.
  • So when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.
  • That’s why this deal is so bad. It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.
  • This deal won’t be a farewell to arms. It would be a farewell to arms control.
  • If Iran changes its behavior, the restrictions would be lifted. If Iran doesn’t change its behavior, the restrictions should not be lifted.
  • Now we’re being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That’s just not true. The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal.
  • For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves. This is why as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand. But I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel. I know that you stand with Israel.

In watching the speech, one could not help but feel that this was not only a dramatic moment–thanks in large part to President Obama’s pre-speech campaign to smear the Israeli leader–but a remarkable one, thanks to Prime Minister Netanyahu. He was fully in command.

As someone who is a lifelong lover of words and the power of words to persuade and reveal the truth of things, it was a relief to finally have a leader of a nation speak to a joint session of Congress and demonstrate intellectual integrity. Unlike President Obama, who never engages the argument of his critics in an honest manner, Prime Minister Netanyahu fairly (if briefly) stated the arguments of those with whom he disagrees. And he proceeded to deal with them in a methodical, empirical, logical way, which of course explains why Mr. Obama fought so hard to prevent Mr. Netanyahu from speaking in the first place. The president knew his position would wither when exposed to reality. There was a maturity and seriousness of purpose in the Israeli prime minister that is missing from our president.

It’s a shame we Americans have to wait for a foreign leader to speak to us in a manner characterized by intellectual excellence and moral seriousness. But such are the times in which we live.

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