Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 2013

Turkey’s Corruption Scandal Goes from Bad to Worse

Sometimes, bad things happen to bad people. I wrote here last week regarding the political civil war in Turkey which has erupted between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and followers of Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Many trusted Turkish interlocutors have written to expand on the topic, which has manifested itself as a bribery scandal. Erdoğan, in true banana republic style, reacted initially by seeking to sack the police chiefs overseeing the investigation. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is now threatening to classify any information from the bribery scandal as a “state secret,” the publishing of which could be punishable as treason.

Several Turkish journalists and academics point out that the investigation appears to now focus on Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, and one of Erdoğan’s closest aides. Illegality or not, Bağış is one of the AKP’s least-liked figures. AKP colleagues, Turkish journalists, and both American and European diplomats describe him as boorish, arrogant, and a bit of a blowhard. He is also extremely litigious, and has sought to sue Turkish journalists and analysts who have touched on some of his shadier dealings. Now that the arrests have propelled discussion of AKP corruption to the forefront, Hürriyet Daily News discusses the case in a bit more detail. Not surprisingly, it involves several AKP officials seeking to profit off of Iran’s sanctions-busting “Gold-for-Gas” scheme with Turkey:

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Sometimes, bad things happen to bad people. I wrote here last week regarding the political civil war in Turkey which has erupted between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and followers of Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Many trusted Turkish interlocutors have written to expand on the topic, which has manifested itself as a bribery scandal. Erdoğan, in true banana republic style, reacted initially by seeking to sack the police chiefs overseeing the investigation. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is now threatening to classify any information from the bribery scandal as a “state secret,” the publishing of which could be punishable as treason.

Several Turkish journalists and academics point out that the investigation appears to now focus on Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, and one of Erdoğan’s closest aides. Illegality or not, Bağış is one of the AKP’s least-liked figures. AKP colleagues, Turkish journalists, and both American and European diplomats describe him as boorish, arrogant, and a bit of a blowhard. He is also extremely litigious, and has sought to sue Turkish journalists and analysts who have touched on some of his shadier dealings. Now that the arrests have propelled discussion of AKP corruption to the forefront, Hürriyet Daily News discusses the case in a bit more detail. Not surprisingly, it involves several AKP officials seeking to profit off of Iran’s sanctions-busting “Gold-for-Gas” scheme with Turkey:

[Economy Minister Zafer] Çağlayan’s son was arrested during a corruption operation on Dec. 17, together with the sons of two other ministers;Environment and Urbanization Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar and Interior Minister Muammer Güler. The leaks, possibly from prosecutor’s office and police, to Turkish media claim that those ministers, plus Turkey’s European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış have been involved in facilitating the “business” of Reza Zarrab in Turkey by taking bribes and abusing their offices. The “business” is to transfer Zarrab’s money from gold trade over Turkey to Iran via the government-controlled Halkbank… the amount of the total bribery is reported in Turkish media to be as high as 142 million Turkish Liras, nearly $70 million….

Not mentioned in the Turkish press is the fact that the Obama administration issued sanctions waivers on Turkey’s business dealings with Iran because it concluded that the Turkish government was approaching the issue in good faith.

The wall of fear now seems to be breaking down. Newspapers journalists who once only whispered the truth about events in Turkey but whose employers would sanitize whatever they put in print, out of fear that the government might jail them or confiscate their newspaper, now publish what amounts to confessions about just how corrupt the AKP has become. Today’s Zaman, the English-language flagship paper of the Gülen movement, for example, wrote:

A foreign businessman who has been working in Turkey for over 10 years told me last week that he was not surprised at all by the allegations of corruption at the highest level. Without close connections in the ruling party and, apparently, big bribes, it was impossible to win any tender in the highly profitable energy sector, he explained.

The allegations of bribery and corruption are also starting to get too close to Erdoğan for his comfort. Supposedly, one element of the scandal is that the prime minister’s son, his wife, his in-laws, and some close friends set up a foundation last year for the “education of youth.” The foundation opened a residence for university students. Now it turns out the Foundation didn’t pay for the dormitory, but rather public money from the Fatih district municipality, which is headed by an AKP mayor now under detention. So what Erdoğan’s family did with the money they claimed was spent on the dormitory is an unanswered question.

The AKP has long claimed to have advanced Turkey’s democracy. If a core of democracy is rule of law, then Turkey now is put to the test.

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What Should the U.S. Ask from Iran?

The Obama administration’s decision to sign a deal with Iran has brought the differences between the U.S. and Israel on the issue of the Islamist regime’s nuclear ambitions out into the open. Much of the debate about the question has focused on the fears of the Israeli government and many Americans that an agreement that loosened sanctions while allowing Tehran to continue enriching uranium and while retaining its nuclear infrastructure will not halt Iran’s march to a weapon. Both countries have sought to minimize the argument by focusing on disagreements about negotiations or the proper timing and application of sanctions while still insisting that they share a common goal. But this may obscure a more fundamental disagreement about whether an Iran run by extremist clerics and still dedicated to spreading terror and achieving regional hegemony can be integrated into the international community.

That is the backdrop for the anger being expressed by the administration and its cheerleaders in the foreign-policy establishment at Israel’s criticisms of the Iran deal. As this analysis by Reuters explains, supporters of the administration’s policy believe the conditions being proposed by Israel about a final deal with Iran are intended to sabotage the diplomatic process. In this version of events, Reuters’ sources say Netanyahu’s attempt to get the West to force Iran not only to reduce its enrichment but also dismantle its nuclear plants, end its ballistic missile project, cease supporting terrorism and incitement against Israel, and commit to respecting human rights are “crazy maximalist demands.” In doing so, Netanyahu is seen as not only trying to derail the talks with Iran but also inciting Congress to forestall any effort to expand upon them to create a new détente between the ayatollah’s regime and the U.S. But rather than focusing solely on the administration’s frustration at Jerusalem’s efforts to slow down the administration’s rush to end the conflict, perhaps it might be a good time to ask what exactly the United States wants from Iran.

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The Obama administration’s decision to sign a deal with Iran has brought the differences between the U.S. and Israel on the issue of the Islamist regime’s nuclear ambitions out into the open. Much of the debate about the question has focused on the fears of the Israeli government and many Americans that an agreement that loosened sanctions while allowing Tehran to continue enriching uranium and while retaining its nuclear infrastructure will not halt Iran’s march to a weapon. Both countries have sought to minimize the argument by focusing on disagreements about negotiations or the proper timing and application of sanctions while still insisting that they share a common goal. But this may obscure a more fundamental disagreement about whether an Iran run by extremist clerics and still dedicated to spreading terror and achieving regional hegemony can be integrated into the international community.

That is the backdrop for the anger being expressed by the administration and its cheerleaders in the foreign-policy establishment at Israel’s criticisms of the Iran deal. As this analysis by Reuters explains, supporters of the administration’s policy believe the conditions being proposed by Israel about a final deal with Iran are intended to sabotage the diplomatic process. In this version of events, Reuters’ sources say Netanyahu’s attempt to get the West to force Iran not only to reduce its enrichment but also dismantle its nuclear plants, end its ballistic missile project, cease supporting terrorism and incitement against Israel, and commit to respecting human rights are “crazy maximalist demands.” In doing so, Netanyahu is seen as not only trying to derail the talks with Iran but also inciting Congress to forestall any effort to expand upon them to create a new détente between the ayatollah’s regime and the U.S. But rather than focusing solely on the administration’s frustration at Jerusalem’s efforts to slow down the administration’s rush to end the conflict, perhaps it might be a good time to ask what exactly the United States wants from Iran.

Dating back to his first presidential campaign, President Obama has been clear about his desire to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. There has never been any deviation from that goal in the rhetoric of the administration. But he has also been consistent in his desire not so much to strip the ayatollahs of their nuclear toys but to create a dialogue and an end to decades of confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. Obama’s desire for engagement with Iran was no secret during the 2008 campaign and was given a prominent mention in his first inaugural address. During his five years in office, Obama’s efforts to achieve engagement have been as fruitless as those of his predecessors. But the Geneva accord has given new life to the effort.

The desire for more than a nuclear deal with Iran is the only logical explanation for the hysteria emanating from the White House at the prospect of Congress passing another round of sanctions. Since the proposal being pushed by a bipartisan coalition in the Senate would do nothing more than strengthen Obama’s leverage in the talks with Iran, his threat of a veto and talk about opposing anything that would “break faith” with a regime that has never acted or negotiated in good faith seems bizarre. But if the president’s real object is not the narrow goal of ending the Iranian nuclear threat, it makes sense.

The same question applies to the anger expressed in Washington and in European capitals at Israel’s attempt to remind the West that uranium enrichment isn’t the only aspect of Iranian policy of concern.

First of all, it should be remembered that Netanyahu’s effort to get the West to force Iran to dismantle its nuclear project isn’t a new demand invented by Israel to stop the talks. It reflects President Obama’s explicit promises about the nuclear threat including this passage from his October 22, 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney:

So the work that we’ve done with respect to sanctions now offers Iran a choice. They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.

As the president rightly indicated at that time, anything short of that would pave the way for a bomb, especially given Iran’s history of promise-breaking and America’s experience of such deals with other scofflaws like North Korea.

Just as important, a tunnel vision-like focus on the nuclear issue that ignores Iran’s ballistic weapons program would be more than shortsighted. Iran may claim the goal of its missiles is a peaceful space program, but the Islamist regime is no more interested in space than it is in peaceful uses of nuclear energy. If anything, it would be “crazy” for the U.S. to ignore the missiles that could deliver potential Iranian weapons not only to Israel but also to Western targets.

Critics of Israel claim these are unrealistic demands, but that view reflects a defeatism about diplomacy that is unwarranted. With the military and economic leverage the U.S. possesses, there is no reason to think Iran can’t be compelled to give up its nukes or missiles.

That also applies to acknowledging  the fact that Iran is a state sponsor of terror as well as understanding that another Iranian goal is to extend its sphere of influence beyond its borders throughout the Middle East via allies like Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, and perhaps even Hamas. Nor should Iran’s demonization of Israel that Jerusalem has rightly termed “genocidal” be off the table. If Iran is really changing its stripes, a dubious assertion based on the victory of Hassan Rouhani in the country’s faux presidential election last summer, then surely it is not too much to ask that it change its tune about terror and end its incitement against Israel along with its nuclear project.

Rather than carping about Israel, these are exactly the questions that both the media and Congress should be asking about the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran in the wake of the Geneva deal. Were Iran as moderate as the U.S. hopes, its nuclear program would not be so troubling. The choice with Iran is not one between war and peace. Instead, it is whether the U.S. is prepared to make its peace with an aggressive nuclear Iran or a peaceful nation that is not a threat to its Arab neighbors as well as to Israel. If the administration isn’t prepared to ask Iran to change, then the result of any nuclear deal isn’t likely to make the region or the United States safer. Even assuming the doubtful proposition that the current diplomatic effort will actually stop Iran’s weapons program, a nuclear deal that leaves the ayatollah’s missiles, terror, and hate in place is an open invitation to future conflict, not peace or détente.

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Snowden, Spying, and Pollard

The outrage in Europe about the revelations by Edward Snowden of U.S. spying on allies embarrassed the Obama administration and caused the president to speak of trying to impose new guidelines on the National Security Agency and to try and distance himself from the affair. As Max Boot wrote here in October, the White House’s decision to throw the intelligence community under the bus was disgraceful. But the hypocrisy of America’s critics on this point was no less absurd. No one should doubt that the U.S. spies on its friends and that, in turn, its allies spy on America. Thus, the latest round of Snowden leaks published in the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times on Friday giving further details about such spying should surprise and outrage no one. But there is one aspect of the topic that is understandably causing something of a ruckus: U.S. efforts to keep tabs on Israeli leaders. According to the Snowden leaks, the United States worked with British intelligence to intercept the emails of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well as other Israeli targets. The reports also state that Barak’s home was under surveillance by the Americans.

For those inclined to outrage about friends spying on friends, this is no more nor less infuriating than the stories about other such incidents, such as the U.S. efforts to monitor German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. But there is one difference between the incidents involving other allies and what happened to Israel. The U.S. is not holding a German or French spy in prison for more than 28 years for doing what America did to them.

By that I refer to Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who betrayed his oath and spied on his country at the behest of Israeli handlers. Jailed in 1985, Pollard is still serving a draconian life sentence for espionage. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wisely not seeking to exacerbate the already tense relations between his government and the United States over the Snowden leaks, some in his Cabinet as well as other Israelis are saying the stories about U.S. spying should cause the Obama administration to rethink its determination (shared by all of its predecessors) to let Pollard rot in jail. Though I deprecate the attempt by some in Israel and elsewhere to depict Pollard as a hero or to minimize the severity of his crimes, they happen to be right.

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The outrage in Europe about the revelations by Edward Snowden of U.S. spying on allies embarrassed the Obama administration and caused the president to speak of trying to impose new guidelines on the National Security Agency and to try and distance himself from the affair. As Max Boot wrote here in October, the White House’s decision to throw the intelligence community under the bus was disgraceful. But the hypocrisy of America’s critics on this point was no less absurd. No one should doubt that the U.S. spies on its friends and that, in turn, its allies spy on America. Thus, the latest round of Snowden leaks published in the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times on Friday giving further details about such spying should surprise and outrage no one. But there is one aspect of the topic that is understandably causing something of a ruckus: U.S. efforts to keep tabs on Israeli leaders. According to the Snowden leaks, the United States worked with British intelligence to intercept the emails of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well as other Israeli targets. The reports also state that Barak’s home was under surveillance by the Americans.

For those inclined to outrage about friends spying on friends, this is no more nor less infuriating than the stories about other such incidents, such as the U.S. efforts to monitor German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. But there is one difference between the incidents involving other allies and what happened to Israel. The U.S. is not holding a German or French spy in prison for more than 28 years for doing what America did to them.

By that I refer to Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who betrayed his oath and spied on his country at the behest of Israeli handlers. Jailed in 1985, Pollard is still serving a draconian life sentence for espionage. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wisely not seeking to exacerbate the already tense relations between his government and the United States over the Snowden leaks, some in his Cabinet as well as other Israelis are saying the stories about U.S. spying should cause the Obama administration to rethink its determination (shared by all of its predecessors) to let Pollard rot in jail. Though I deprecate the attempt by some in Israel and elsewhere to depict Pollard as a hero or to minimize the severity of his crimes, they happen to be right.

As I wrote in an analysis of the Pollard case in the March 2011 issue of COMMENTARY, both the spy’s defenders and his worst critics tend to exaggerate his importance. But there should be no doubt that what he did was wrong and badly hurt Israel as well as the United States:

There is no underestimating the damage that Pollard and his Israeli handlers did to American Jewry. The decision on the part of a few operatives and their political masters to exploit what may well have been the romantic delusions of a man of questionable judgment and character did far more injury to the countless loyal Jews who have served the United States so well for generations than anything else. It is not inappropriate that Israel’s government would seek the freedom of a man who, however misguided and harmful his mission, served that nation. But whether or not Obama or a future president ever accedes to Israel’s request for Pollard’s release, his unfortunate example will always be exploited as a pretext to justify those enemies of Israel and other anti-Semites who wish to wrongly impugn the loyalty of American Jews.

Long after his release or death, Pollard’s behavior will still be used to bolster the slurs of those who wish to promote the pernicious myth that there is a contradiction between American patriotism and deep concern for the safety of the State of Israel. It is this damning epitaph, and not the claims of martyrdom that have been put forward to stir sympathy for his plight, that will be Jonathan Pollard’s true legacy.

But once we concede that point, it is difficult to view his continued incarceration as justified. While the United States, like any other country, has every right to capture and prosecute spies, Pollard’s sentence was disproportionate. No one who has ever spied for a U.S. ally has ever received a sentence of this kind. Indeed, such spies are usually quickly ushered out of the country rather than prosecuted in order to avoid unpleasantness. As a U.S. citizen, Pollard had to be punished, but the determination of the U.S. intelligence establishment to see that he dies in jail seems to be based more in a desire to let him serve as a warning to Israel than anything else.

Just as Pollard’s spying is not justified by America’s efforts to do the same to Israel, his lawbreaking can’t be rationalized by U.S. activities. Serious people understand that this is what nation states do. Some of the spying is more outrageous than others (certainly the decision of Israelis to use an American Jew and to loot the Navy’s intelligence falls into that category). But the Snowden leaks make it clear that the self-righteous attitude of U.S. intelligence about Pollard is, at best, hypocritical.

Washington’s attitude on this point may be that small allies that are dependent on big ones for help, such as Israel, can’t expect to be treated fairly or to be granted the same leeway on such matters. That may well be so. But the Snowden leaks erase any doubt that such a position can be justified. Though it’s doubtful that President Obama will make it up to Israel by granting Pollard clemency, there is no reason based in justice or morality for him not to do so. Whatever else Snowden (who deserves punishment no less than Pollard did) has accomplished, he has made it clear that it is long past time for the U.S. to end the Pollard affair by setting him free.

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Understanding Two Views of Modern Israel

This fall two important books about Israel have appeared in English and both are worthy of extended discussion. One is Yossi Klein Halevi’s rightly acclaimed Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, which was reviewed in the December issue of COMMENTARY. The other is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which has gotten a lot more play in the secular media and the approval of some of the Jewish state’s usual critics as well as praise from many of its friends. While both have provoked a lively discussion, anyone looking for an essay putting both in perspective could do no better than to read Ruth Wisse’s piece on the two volumes in Mosaic Magazine.

Wisse provides a valuable pushback against some of the unwarranted praise that Shavit’s book has received and provides both praise and criticism of Halevi’s book. I agree with her on the first but would like to provide a slightly different perspective on the latter.

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This fall two important books about Israel have appeared in English and both are worthy of extended discussion. One is Yossi Klein Halevi’s rightly acclaimed Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, which was reviewed in the December issue of COMMENTARY. The other is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which has gotten a lot more play in the secular media and the approval of some of the Jewish state’s usual critics as well as praise from many of its friends. While both have provoked a lively discussion, anyone looking for an essay putting both in perspective could do no better than to read Ruth Wisse’s piece on the two volumes in Mosaic Magazine.

Wisse provides a valuable pushback against some of the unwarranted praise that Shavit’s book has received and provides both praise and criticism of Halevi’s book. I agree with her on the first but would like to provide a slightly different perspective on the latter.

Wisse, a frequent and esteemed contributor to COMMENTARY, is one of the most astute writers about Jewish life. Her takedown of Shavit’s guilt- and fear-ridden approach to the triumph of Zionism, and in particular, her answer to his focus on the story of what happened in Lydda in 1948, is particularly valuable. She writes:

In his chronological march through Israel’s history, 1897, 1921, 1936, 1942, Shavit situates 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, not in Tel Aviv with David Ben Gurion reading the proclamation of independence under Herzl’s portrait, and not among the about-to-be savaged Jews of Jerusalem (in fact, not one of his chapters is situated in the capital, where Shavit has also lived part of his life), but in the battle over the Palestinian Arab town of Lydda (Lod), where he emblematically recasts the creation of the state of Israel as naqba, the “catastrophe” that is the founding myth of Arab Palestinians:

Lydda suspected nothing. Lydda did not imagine what was about to happen. For forty-four years it watched Zionism enter the valley: first the Atod factory, then the Kiryat Sefer school, then the olive forest, the artisan colony, the tiny workers’ village, the experimental farm, and the strange youth village headed by the eccentric German doctor who was so friendly to the people of Lydda and gave medical treatment to those in need…. The people of Lydda did not see that the Zionism that came into the valley to give hope to a nation of orphans had become a movement of cruel resolve, determined to take the land by force.

Like women who hold up bloody sheets to confirm a bride’s virginity, Shavit waves before his readers every bloody act committed by Jews in (what used to be known as) Israel’s war of independence. This chapter of the book was the one picked out to be featured, before the book’s publication, in the New Yorker, a venue in which Israel’s bloody sheets are regularly hoisted in place of its blue and white flag.

And what is “Lydda”? The researcher Alex Safian has taken the trouble to separate fact from propaganda in Shavit’s description of an alleged massacre in that town, second only to the more notorious alleged massacre in Deir Yasin. Starting with the Israelis’ cannon-bearing “giant armored vehicle”—actually, a recovered Jordanian light armored scout car the size of a Ford SUV—Safian deconstructs Shavit’s inflamed portrait to establish the following: the Arab inhabitants of Lydda first surrendered to Jewish soldiers and then, having retracted their surrender when it seemed that Jordanian forces had gained the upper hand, went about killing and mutilating Israeli fighters. This alone might be seen as cause enough for a “cruel” response at the height of a war launched by five invading armies against Jews who had been prevented by the British from preparing defenses and were relying on paramilitary forces of young volunteers. Once the town was secured, the Israelis let the Arabs leave, something both sides recognized would never have happened had victory gone the other way.

While acknowledging that Shavit deserves credit for recognizing before many of his fellow left-wingers at Haaretz that the Oslo peace process was a disaster, she rightly notes his inability to grasp the positive Jewish vision at the heart of the Zionist project or his lack of faith in the ability of his compatriots to resist the never-ceasing efforts of their foes to destroy their state. As she states:

Shavit ends his book as he begins it, with an image of concentric Islamic, Arab, and Palestinian circles closing in on Israel. But danger is different from tragedy, and the healthy fear that hostility inspires is different from the sickly fear of imagining that one is guilty of causing that hostility. Shavit fails to distinguish the triumph of Israel from the tragedy of the Arab and Muslim war against it—a war that began before 1948 and that has always been indifferent to concessionary adjustments of Israel’s boundaries or policies. The only harm Israelis ever did to Arabs—and I emphasize only—was to impose on the Palestinians a terrorist leader whom Israelis would never have allowed to rule over themselves. 

Wisse is more charitable to Halevi and it’s easy to understand why. Few books have offered more insight into what has happened in Israeli society since 1967. By telling the story of the lives of several of the paratroopers who ended the division of Jerusalem in 1967, he found the perfect vehicle for explaining both the Peace Now movement on the left as well as the settlement movement on the right. Their stories are remarkable and even readers who consider themselves well-versed in the history of modern Israel will find plenty here that is both fresh and full of insight about familiar topics as well as those that are less well known. It is nothing less than one of the best and most important books about Israel I’ve ever read.

Wisse notes one of its failings when she mentions that some readers are bound to find the large cast of characters confusing at times as well as the way the author bounces from one of their stories to the next and then back again. Like some classic Russian novels, this is a book that is best read with the page at the front of the volume with the “Who’s Who” permanently bookmarked. However, Wisse has a further criticism:

If there is a problem with this book’s back-and-forth method—and there is—the cause lies less in the disorder of its plot than in the flip side of the author’s eschewal of tendentiousness: namely, his studied disinclination to invest his plot with meaning. A book anchored in some of the most consequential battles for Israel’s life declines to tell us how or why those battles mattered. The same diffidence characterizes Like Dreamers’ tracing of the dissolution of the state’s regnant socialist ideology and the institutions of Labor Zionism, which we see crumbling from below as incrementally, as seemingly spontaneously, as Meir Ariel is drawn into the synagogue. As the book ends, in 2004, the former paratroopers are divided by clashing views on the fate of united Jerusalem, now claimed by the PLO as the locus of its capital; here again, in relaying the men’s arguments, the author strives for neutrality.

But why return to Israel’s “mythic moment” of victory in 1967 if one is unprepared to articulate what that moment signified, and what it continues to signify? If there is one thing the ideological wars over Israel legitimacy have taught us, it is that neutrality, impartiality, and indeterminacy are fodder for whoever and whatever is working actively against the very right of the Jewish state to exist.

In reading Halevi’s book, I share some of her frustration on this point. But any dissatisfaction on this point needs to be balanced by a recognition that what Halevi is doing in Like Dreamers is not so much a defense of Israel or a rationalization of its dilemma (as Shavit’s unsatisfactory book might well be described) as an attempt to explain the Jews to each other. Like the paratroopers who were divided along cultural and religious lines between the majority of kibbutzniks and the minority of modern Orthodox soldiers in the renowned 55th Brigade, both Israelis and American Jews alike need to transcend our differences. If Halevi chooses not to take sides in the arguments between Peace Now and Gush Emunim, it is because he, like some of his wiser subjects, has come to the conclusion that the left-right divide that has largely characterized Jewish and Israeli politics for the last generation has come to a dead end.

The events of the 20 years since Oslo have shown that the left was dead wrong about the Palestinians being willing to make peace and the right was mistaken to think that Israel could absorb the West Bank—Judea and Samaria, which form the heart of the Jewish homeland—without cost or with impunity. The battle facing both Israelis and their friends is not about where Israel’s borders should be or whether the settlements are good or bad, but whether the Jewish state should continue to exist. Like Dreamers calls upon us not to take sides in the deep division in Jewish life that arose after the paratroopers’ 1967 heroism but to rise above it in order to do what is necessary to preserve their sacrifices. Halevi does not tell us what to think about Israeli politics either in the past or the future, but he does remind us that those who focus exclusively on the old arguments are missing the point about the state’s current challenges.

As such, Halevi’s book is, perhaps even more than a pointed critique such as the one Wisse has given us, the perfect answer to Shavit’s ambivalence about Israel’s future. Halevi may not supply us with the conclusion that both Wisse and I would have preferred. But he has given his readers an essential starting point for a journey in the right direction.

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Why the Iran Sanctions Fight Matters

President Obama knows he’s got a fight on his hands. The decision of 26 members of the Senate, including several prominent Democrats, to sponsor a bill that would toughen sanctions on Iran showed that skepticism about the administration’s Iran policy and the nuclear deal signed with Tehran last month is still strong on both sides of the aisle. But rather than merely counting on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doing his bidding and putting off consideration of the bill until sometime next year, the White House went further, issuing a rare formal threat of a veto of the proposed legislation. Not content with that, the administration also prodded ten Senate committee chairs to sign a letter indicating their opposition to more sanctions against Iran, including as journalist (and leading advocate of appeasement of Iran) Laura Rozen noted on Twitter, four Jewish senators.

Why are the president and his supporters so alarmed by the prospect of a new sanctions law? Given that even if the bill introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez and ranking Republican Mark Kirk were put into law it would not go into effect until after the six-month period the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have set aside for negotiating a final resolution of the nuclear dispute, it’s hard to understand their argument. Since the only thing that appeared to bring the Iranians to the table in the first place was sanctions, why would the threat of tightening the noose on Tehran’s lucrative oil business make diplomacy more difficult as the president and his backers claim? More pressure on Iran should be exactly what they should want so as to convince the ayatollahs that they have no choice but to give up their nuclear dreams lest the U.S. make their lives even more difficult.

The answer to this question isn’t merely one of seeking the best tactic to stop Iran, as the president’s Senate supporters claim. Rather, it goes to the heart of the administration’s entire approach to Iran. The fear of more sanctions seems to indicate the president’s goal isn’t so much making good on his repeated promises to stop Iran as to achieve a new détente with the Islamist regime. As such, the battle over the sanctions bill may not be simply a tactical dispute in which both sides agree on the goal but rather one about the future of American foreign policy.

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President Obama knows he’s got a fight on his hands. The decision of 26 members of the Senate, including several prominent Democrats, to sponsor a bill that would toughen sanctions on Iran showed that skepticism about the administration’s Iran policy and the nuclear deal signed with Tehran last month is still strong on both sides of the aisle. But rather than merely counting on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doing his bidding and putting off consideration of the bill until sometime next year, the White House went further, issuing a rare formal threat of a veto of the proposed legislation. Not content with that, the administration also prodded ten Senate committee chairs to sign a letter indicating their opposition to more sanctions against Iran, including as journalist (and leading advocate of appeasement of Iran) Laura Rozen noted on Twitter, four Jewish senators.

Why are the president and his supporters so alarmed by the prospect of a new sanctions law? Given that even if the bill introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez and ranking Republican Mark Kirk were put into law it would not go into effect until after the six-month period the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have set aside for negotiating a final resolution of the nuclear dispute, it’s hard to understand their argument. Since the only thing that appeared to bring the Iranians to the table in the first place was sanctions, why would the threat of tightening the noose on Tehran’s lucrative oil business make diplomacy more difficult as the president and his backers claim? More pressure on Iran should be exactly what they should want so as to convince the ayatollahs that they have no choice but to give up their nuclear dreams lest the U.S. make their lives even more difficult.

The answer to this question isn’t merely one of seeking the best tactic to stop Iran, as the president’s Senate supporters claim. Rather, it goes to the heart of the administration’s entire approach to Iran. The fear of more sanctions seems to indicate the president’s goal isn’t so much making good on his repeated promises to stop Iran as to achieve a new détente with the Islamist regime. As such, the battle over the sanctions bill may not be simply a tactical dispute in which both sides agree on the goal but rather one about the future of American foreign policy.

The argument against the new sanctions bill is that any new legislation will be seen by the Iranians as evidence of the U.S. “breaking faith” with them and give them an excuse to end the negotiations. By speaking in this manner, the White House and Senate supporters aren’t just taking the Iranians at their word since regime figures have been making such threats ever since Secretary of State John Kerry signed a deal with them on November 24. They are acting, as the president and Kerry did throughout the negotiations, as if the U.S. is the suitor in these negotiations and that Tehran is the party with the whip hand.

If the goal of the talks is to use the formidable military and economic leverage of the United States over Iran to force it to finally comply with American demands and United Nations resolutions and cease its refinement of uranium and to give up (as the president explicitly said during his October 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney) its nuclear program, then it is hard to understand this line of thought. It is not just that it reflects an otherwise inexplicable defeatism about the dispute, but that it seems to indicate that the real objective is not the dismantling of Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure but something else.

Despite the lip service they have paid to the importance of sanctions, the administration’s stance indicates a belief that they do not–indeed, cannot–work to influence Iran’s decision-making. And since, contrary to some of their statements, this administration does not contemplate ever using force to stop Iran, what they intend here is not so much Iranian nuclear compliance as an accommodation that will somehow end U.S.-Iran tensions. Seen in that context, the last thing they want is to actually heighten the pressure on Iran, even if their current negotiations don’t get us closer to the goal of ending the nuclear threat.

Under these circumstances, one doesn’t have to use much imagination to see what they might be contemplating is a negotiating process that does not so much resolve the nuclear question as kick it down the road while further loosening sanctions so as to lower tensions between the two countries. The negotiations then become not so much a way of persuading Iran to give up its cherished nuclear dream as easing the way for Americans to come to terms with containing a nuclear Iran.

Administration supporters will dispute this and claim the president can still be counted on to keep his word on Iran. They believe the honey being offered by Kerry will do more to entice Iran to stop misbehaving than threats or sanctions. But in order to buy into this thesis, we have to forget everything we’ve learned about Iranian negotiating tactics and goals in the last 30 years.

This is, after all, an administration that actually opposed the existing sanctions that it now boasts have helped revive diplomacy. But what Obama and Kerry seem to be pushing for is a policy that values diplomacy for its own sake rather than as a means to stop a nuclear Iran.

Since the opposition of Reid and the threat of a veto is probably enough to stop more sanctions, we will probably have a chance to see whether Obama’s diplomatic strategy works. But if six, nine, or twelve months from now the West is still locked in dead-end talks while Tehran’s centrifuges continue to turn and bring Iran closer to a weapon, we may look back on what is being billed as a tactical dispute between some senators and the White House as the moment when the president’s abandonment of his promises on Iran first became obvious.

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A Government of Laws? The ObamaCare Rot

Nancy Pelosi is off the hook. Her famous comment that we had to pass ObamaCare to find out what was in it will live on as a shining example of legislative malfeasance and irresponsible governance, of course, but it’s no longer operative. The reason her remark resonated was because it was true: even the members of Congress who voted for the law seemed to have no idea what much of it said, and therefore they and the public they misled had to find out the hard way.

The reason she is off the hook, however, is that President Obama has now made it clear that it is scarcely relevant what the law says anyway. To review: ObamaCare required businesses with more than fifty full-time employees to provide health insurance to those workers, thereby threatening to increase unemployment and cut work hours for those employees who kept their jobs. After an outcry, the administration announced it was delaying the employer mandate for a year. But is it? Even policy analysts on the left say the employer mandate should be repealed, and some in Congress are pushing for that as well. So is there an employer mandate? Good question!

Then came the real confusion. Americans were told that if they liked their health insurance, they could keep it–“period.” This was false, and the administration knew it. Millions started receiving cancellation notices and the Healthcare.gov website wouldn’t work, so they were off their insurance often with no place to go. So the president announced–far too late to be of much help–that insurance companies were permitted to keep their customers on ObamaCare-outlawed policies for another year. But could they?

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Nancy Pelosi is off the hook. Her famous comment that we had to pass ObamaCare to find out what was in it will live on as a shining example of legislative malfeasance and irresponsible governance, of course, but it’s no longer operative. The reason her remark resonated was because it was true: even the members of Congress who voted for the law seemed to have no idea what much of it said, and therefore they and the public they misled had to find out the hard way.

The reason she is off the hook, however, is that President Obama has now made it clear that it is scarcely relevant what the law says anyway. To review: ObamaCare required businesses with more than fifty full-time employees to provide health insurance to those workers, thereby threatening to increase unemployment and cut work hours for those employees who kept their jobs. After an outcry, the administration announced it was delaying the employer mandate for a year. But is it? Even policy analysts on the left say the employer mandate should be repealed, and some in Congress are pushing for that as well. So is there an employer mandate? Good question!

Then came the real confusion. Americans were told that if they liked their health insurance, they could keep it–“period.” This was false, and the administration knew it. Millions started receiving cancellation notices and the Healthcare.gov website wouldn’t work, so they were off their insurance often with no place to go. So the president announced–far too late to be of much help–that insurance companies were permitted to keep their customers on ObamaCare-outlawed policies for another year. But could they?

Not really. The announcement was made after insurers made the requisite plans to adjust to ObamaCare’s onerous regulations, and those plans were generally off the table thanks to the president. And even those who were able to stay on their insurance into next year were going to be dropped next year anyway. Confusion reigned, and the main effect of ObamaCare was to increase the number of the nation’s uninsured without making up for it. Colossal failure amid chaos.

But millions did now realize that they’d be out of insurance with the deadline to have such insurance looming. So as slight improvements seemed to be taking place with the ObamaCare website, they started purchasing policies. Or so they thought. The Wall Street Journal reported that the site had a 25 percent error rate, so those who went through the whole process of enrolling may or may not actually have insurance. This was a major problem, because they needed to make their first payment to officially conclude the enrollment process. So the Obama administration took the unusual step of telling the insurance companies they should cover even those who haven’t paid yet–just pretend they’re paying customers so Obama’s numbers look better.

But perhaps the most controversial aspect of ObamaCare was the individual mandate, which the Supreme Court rewrote as a tax in order to make it plausibly constitutional. It is a central feature of the law and a fundamental funding mechanism: you have to buy health insurance. Or do you?

Last night the administration announced that, with enrollment numbers far below what they need to be, it was offering “hardship” exemptions for those whose policies had been cancelled–the “hardship,” in this case, being ObamaCare itself. (Finally some honesty from the administration!) As the Washington Post reported:

The ability to get an exemption means that the administration is freeing these people from one of the central features of the law: a requirement that most Americans have health insurance as of Jan. 1 or risk a fine. The exemption gives them the choice of having no insurance or of buying skimpy “catastrophic” coverage.

Until now, the law allowed people younger than 30 to buy catastrophic coverage — an exception to the law’s benefit rules in an effort to attract young adults who have been particularly prone to avoiding coverage in the past. The law also has allowed hardship exemptions for people 30 and older who could not afford the regular coverage.

Get used to those words: Until now, the law…. The president has decided this is now a nation of men, not laws. This is obviously a terrible precedent to set, but aside from that it will also have diminishing returns. The president’s “fixes” for the law he now acknowledges is creating “hardship” are intended to relieve that hardship, but the sheer number of them and the confusion they cause are going to limit their effect.

Do you need to comply with ObamaCare? Well, that depends on which part of the “law” you’re referring to and also on Obama’s mood, for in his mind, he is the state. Health-care hardship for millions, economic disarray, the redefinition of executive power to include the whims of the president–ObamaCare’s legacy grows more troubling by the day. Now we know what’s in the law, as Pelosi said, but it no longer matters.

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Latest Exemption Shows OCare Unraveling

Only a few months ago, the White House and Democrats scoffed when Republicans suggested that the implementation of ObamaCare be postponed in order for the government to understand exactly what it was foisting upon the country. Nothing could stop the administration’s determination to roll out the president’s signature health-care legislation on time. All liberals and some conservatives as well were convinced that once it began, the debate about its wisdom would cease as the extension of benefits would make it as universally popular as Social Security and Medicare. But though the White House is still insisting that all will come right in the end, they may be wishing they had taken the GOP’s offer. In the latest example of the problems the administration has encountered in trying to make ObamaCare work, it announced late yesterday that yet another aspect of the law will be delayed. As the New York Times reports:

Millions of people facing the cancellation of health insurance policies will be allowed to buy catastrophic coverage and will be exempt from penalties if they go without insurance next year, the White House said Thursday night.

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, disclosed the sudden policy shift in a letter to Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and five other senators. It was another effort by President Obama to cushion the impact of the health care law and minimize political damage to himself and Democrats in Congress who adopted the law in 2010 over solid Republican opposition.

The decision is an attempt to shield Democrats from voter outrage about the impact of the law until after the 2014 midterm elections. But while beleaguered Democrats are happy of any reprieve, however belated, the decision comes too late to avoid adding to the general public impression of the rollout as a disaster that doesn’t seem to get better despite repeated White House promises that the worst is behind them. Taken as a whole, the list of exemptions and delays in the implementation of the misnamed Affordable Care Act is leaving the country asking what exactly were all the geniuses in the West Wing and the Department of Health and Human Services doing during the two years between the bill’s passage and the start of this fiasco?

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Only a few months ago, the White House and Democrats scoffed when Republicans suggested that the implementation of ObamaCare be postponed in order for the government to understand exactly what it was foisting upon the country. Nothing could stop the administration’s determination to roll out the president’s signature health-care legislation on time. All liberals and some conservatives as well were convinced that once it began, the debate about its wisdom would cease as the extension of benefits would make it as universally popular as Social Security and Medicare. But though the White House is still insisting that all will come right in the end, they may be wishing they had taken the GOP’s offer. In the latest example of the problems the administration has encountered in trying to make ObamaCare work, it announced late yesterday that yet another aspect of the law will be delayed. As the New York Times reports:

Millions of people facing the cancellation of health insurance policies will be allowed to buy catastrophic coverage and will be exempt from penalties if they go without insurance next year, the White House said Thursday night.

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, disclosed the sudden policy shift in a letter to Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and five other senators. It was another effort by President Obama to cushion the impact of the health care law and minimize political damage to himself and Democrats in Congress who adopted the law in 2010 over solid Republican opposition.

The decision is an attempt to shield Democrats from voter outrage about the impact of the law until after the 2014 midterm elections. But while beleaguered Democrats are happy of any reprieve, however belated, the decision comes too late to avoid adding to the general public impression of the rollout as a disaster that doesn’t seem to get better despite repeated White House promises that the worst is behind them. Taken as a whole, the list of exemptions and delays in the implementation of the misnamed Affordable Care Act is leaving the country asking what exactly were all the geniuses in the West Wing and the Department of Health and Human Services doing during the two years between the bill’s passage and the start of this fiasco?

The list of ObamaCare delays is impressive. As the Times noted in the conclusion of their article about the latest one:

The move Thursday followed delays in many other parts of the health care law.

On July 2, the White House abruptly announced a one-year delay, until 2015, in a provision that requires larger employers to offer coverage to their workers or pay penalties. 

On Nov. 27, it deferred a major element of the law that would allow small businesses to buy insurance online for their employees through the federal exchange.

Earlier, in April, the administration said that the federal exchange would not offer employees of a small business the opportunity to choose from multiple health plans in 2014.

And in October 2011, the administration scrapped a long-term care insurance program created by the new law, saying it was too costly and would not work.

Each of these moves, if taken in isolation, might be defended as the exception to the rule of a smooth rollout. But taken together, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that what we are witnessing is the slow-motion unraveling of a hubristic and complicated big government plan whose consequences weren’t fully thought out by an administration whose sole focus was putting it in place before it could be stopped by Republicans.

But the problem here is more than just a matter of perceptions, though the decision not to mention the move during a press briefing yesterday and then to reveal it later in what was obviously an end-of-week news dump shows the administration knows all too well how badly they are losing the battle to brand their plan as anything but a costly failure. By waiting until only days before the deadline for consumers to purchase insurance without facing a fine, the government burned those who previously purchased more costly and often unwanted plans. It also is a slap at insurance companies that were forced to cancel the plans that millions of Americans preferred as a result of the ObamaCare fiat.

While the belated move will help some, it also makes it a given that, as Republicans have predicted for months, the number of Americans who lost their coverage as a result of ObamaCare will far exceed the number of those who signed up for the ACA via the government or the state exchanges. It now is highly unlikely that there will be anything like the number of people in the program that will be needed to make the plan work. Without vast numbers of younger, healthy people or former individual insurance consumers in the exchanges, there won’t be enough in it to pay for the elderly, poor, or those with pre-existing conditions that the plan was designed to help. That means that those who have been sucked into it will likely face far higher costs than the already expensive plans and exorbitant deductibles than even the government was planning to provide:

Insurers, already struggling with problems caused by the chaotic debut of the federal insurance exchange in October, expressed surprise and dismay.

“This latest rule change could cause significant instability in the marketplace and lead to further confusion and disruption for consumers,” said Karen M. Ignagni, the president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group.

Another insurance executive said that insurers had not expected a significant number of people over 30 to enroll in catastrophic plans, so their costs were not factored into the premiums.

Moreover, the executive said, the exemptions undermine the requirement for people to have coverage. That requirement, often called an individual mandate, is needed to guarantee that insurers attract young healthy people to help offset the costs of covering older Americans who require more medical care, insurers say.

Democrats continue to insist that once the bumps are smoothed out opposition will cease. But as we continue to learn, the problem with ObamaCare isn’t just a website that crashes or the lies that the president and his supporters were forced to tell Americans about the impact of the plan before it was passed. It’s that the scheme itself, which imposes government dictates on the private sector, simply wasn’t properly thought out before it was drafted or implemented. Had the president been honest and told the American people that it was a redistributionist plan that would hurt as many, if not more citizens than it helped, it would never have passed even on a straight party line vote.

More such announcements as the one handed down yesterday won’t convince the public that ObamaCare wasn’t a liberal nightmare that should never have been tried. Republicans will be asked, as they should, how they can deal with the problem of the uninsured or those with pre-existing conditions. But Democrats up for reelection anywhere but in the most blue of districts and states will continue to distance themselves from a bill that is now synonymous with incompetence. As the number of ObamaCare losers continues to grow while the ranks of those who have joined it continue to fall below expectations, the prospect of having to face the voters next year must chill the president’s party.

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Early Media Warnings About Deifying Obama

Yesterday I wrote about an interview in which ABC’s Barbara Walters, in speaking about Barack Obama, said “we” thought he would be “the next messiah.” I drew attention to some other comments by journalists and historians that illustrated just how much deification of Obama was going on a few years ago.

To their credit, some journalists called attention to this phenomenon at the time. Take CNN’s Jake Tapper, one of the best journalists in America. While at ABC News in 2008, Tapper posted a piece, “And Obama Wept,” in which he cited writers like Kathleen Geier, an Obama supporter who, in describing various encounters with Obama advocates, wrote this:

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Yesterday I wrote about an interview in which ABC’s Barbara Walters, in speaking about Barack Obama, said “we” thought he would be “the next messiah.” I drew attention to some other comments by journalists and historians that illustrated just how much deification of Obama was going on a few years ago.

To their credit, some journalists called attention to this phenomenon at the time. Take CNN’s Jake Tapper, one of the best journalists in America. While at ABC News in 2008, Tapper posted a piece, “And Obama Wept,” in which he cited writers like Kathleen Geier, an Obama supporter who, in describing various encounters with Obama advocates, wrote this:

Excuse me, but this sounds more like a cult than a political campaign. The language used here is the language of evangelical Christianity – the Obama volunteers speak of ‘coming to Obama’ in the same way born-again Christians talk about ‘coming to Jesus.’…So I say, we should all get a grip, stop all this unseemly mooning over Barack, see him and the political landscape he is a part of in a cooler, clearer, and more realistic light, and get to work.

Others, like Time magazine’s Joe Klein, offered similar warnings about the “mass  messianism” we were witnessing. Tapper wrote, “I’m not saying there shouldn’t be enthusiasm in politics. I’m merely touching on the fact that some Obama supporters’ exuberance seems to be getting a little out of hand.”

Indeed it was.

It’s a credit to journalists like Tapper and writers like Geier and Klein who warned about the cult-like effect Mr. Obama was having on people then rather than to those who, having bought into it five years ago, are now left scrambling to explain why Obama turned out to be merely mortal.

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The Iran Foray of the ASA

Critics of the Israel boycott resolution of the American Studies Association (ASA) sometimes ask why the ASA doesn’t also boycott Chinese or Iranian universities. (I make the double-standard argument myself, in a post today at Foreign Policy.) Even the president of the ASA, Curtis Marez, admits that Israel’s neighbors have worse human rights records, but adds that “one has to start somewhere.”

But the Israel boycott resolution isn’t the ASA’s first “start” in the Middle East. In fact, the ASA had an earlier foray, in Iran. More precisely, it coddled one of Iran’s most prominent America-bashing academics, at the very moment when Iran’s President Ahmedinejad was busy purging Iran’s universities.

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Critics of the Israel boycott resolution of the American Studies Association (ASA) sometimes ask why the ASA doesn’t also boycott Chinese or Iranian universities. (I make the double-standard argument myself, in a post today at Foreign Policy.) Even the president of the ASA, Curtis Marez, admits that Israel’s neighbors have worse human rights records, but adds that “one has to start somewhere.”

But the Israel boycott resolution isn’t the ASA’s first “start” in the Middle East. In fact, the ASA had an earlier foray, in Iran. More precisely, it coddled one of Iran’s most prominent America-bashing academics, at the very moment when Iran’s President Ahmedinejad was busy purging Iran’s universities.

In 2005, the University of Tehran established a Department of North American Studies, as part of a new Institute for North American and European Studies. The notion was that Iran needed to school experts on America, but in a way that wouldn’t pollute them with traces of sympathy for their object of study. For that, the project needed a regime loyalist knowledgeable about America but appropriately contemptuous of it.

Meet Seyed Mohammad Marandi. Born in the United States to an exiled Iranian physician, Marandi came to Iran at the age of thirteen, fought in the Iran-Iraq war, did an English lit Ph.D. in Britain, and worked his way up the university ladder, becoming director of the new department. Marandi is familiar to every Iran news addict. He’s the fellow the international networks can always depend upon to defend every action of the regime, from suppression of the “Green Revolution” to the shocking execution of dissidents (sorry, “terrorists”). This is a man capable of acclaiming Ayatollah Khamenei (a “just, pious, and courageous” leader) as being perhaps even greater than Ayatollah Khomeini himself—”as he did not have the advantage of being the Founder of the Revolution.”

The ASA brought Marandi to the United States for its annual conference in 2005. An American academic who knew Marandi in Iran at the time told the story:

Someone suggested to the leadership of the ASA that the organization invite him to attend the annual meeting that year in Washington, D.C., all expenses paid. The ASA paid for him to come and gave him a free registration and money for a hotel, and it didn’t ask him to do anything other than roam the corridors of those opulent hotels.

So Marandi got a taste of “state of the art” scholarship in American studies. As it turned out, this wasn’t as valuable as it might sound, or so his American friend reported:

The topics that this director found himself learning about, as he made his way through the hallways of this grand hotel, were so esoteric as to be of no help to him in planning how to teach himself American studies so that he could teach his students. He would stay for a few moments at each panel, trying to relate it to the needs of the institute he was building back home, before he staggered on to the next.

The ASA’s patronage of Marandi’s shop didn’t end there. In 2006, the Center for Distance Learning at SUNY Empire State College received a “partnership grant” from the ASA to promote its ties with Marandi’s department—”seed money” for a full-blown exchange. (It didn’t happen.) And in 2007, Marandi was back at the ASA, at its annual meeting in Philadelphia, to present a paper savaging literary memoirs written by Iranian critics of the regime, some of which had become popular in the United States (e.g., Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis).

If anyone had any doubt about Marandi’s standing as a regime stalwart, it should have been dissipated by the regime’s simultaneous purge of university faculty, at the University of Tehran and elsewhere. In September 2006, President Ahmadinejad launched a tirade against “the continued presence of liberal and secular professors in the country’s universities.” Word came that these professors were being retired en masse. The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) issued a letter urging that “Iran’s universities use transparent and non-discriminatory criteria in any decisions regarding compulsory retirement, and that no academics face dismissal solely or mainly because of political views that they express peacefully.” In May 2007, MESA issued another letter, noting that over the previous year, “students and professors from numerous Iranian universities have been disciplined, fired, forcibly retired, expelled, and otherwise harassed on grounds that are clearly related to their political opinions and associations.”

After suppression of the “Green Revolution,” the dismissals accelerated, provoking a flood of protests by human-rights organizations. In October 2009, MESA wrote to Ayatollah Khamenei, protesting the “harassment and dismissal of university faculty on grounds of political and ideological dissent,” and lamenting that “the abuses of power by the Iranian state and the atmosphere of fear to which students and faculty are subjected on and off the university campuses [are] by far among the most dismal in the world.”

Yet through all this turmoil, Marandi and his university program flourished, and he became the go-to man for the official point of view in the world media. At times, his slavish fealty to the regime, expressed in perfect American English, exasperated even the most indulgent interviewers. In one particularly memorable exchange, at the height of the street violence, Fareed Zakaria lost his patience, asking Marandi this question:

Do you worry that you will be seen in history as a mouthpiece for a dying, repressive regime in its death throes? That twenty years from now you’ll look back, and the world will look back at you, the way it did some of those smooth-talking, English-speaking, Soviet spokesmen who were telling us right in the middle 1980s, that the Soviet Union was all just fine and democratic and wonderful?

When Marandi retorted he was an academic and no one’s mouthpiece, Zakaria asked why “the only person we are allowed to speak to [via satellite from Iran] is you.”

Marandi’s performance during the “Green Revolution” seems to have put him beyond the pale, perhaps even for the ASA. But the episode casts a harsh light on the ASA’s latest decision to boycott Israel’s institutions of higher education. Israeli academe is chock-full of people who make names for themselves by lambasting the Israeli government of the day and the “occupation,” if not the very premises of Israel itself. Take Tel Aviv University, where I spent twenty-five years. There I was a colleague of the late Tanya Reinhart, a linguist who habitually accused Israel of genocide, and Shlomo Sand, a historian who has written two books insisting that the Jewish people and the Land of Israel are Zionist fabrications. (He’s also written a tract on when and how he stopped being a Jew.) These Israeli professors have no remote equivalents at the University of Tehran. But the ASA now boycotts Tel Aviv University, not the University of Tehran, and even worse, it has a record of legitimating the very faction on the Tehran campus installed by the regime as part of a purge.

Now that I think about it, the ASA boycott resolution of Israel provides a perfect opportunity for the ASA to renew its links with Marandi and the regime’s “American studies” project. After all, it’s the Islamic Republic of Iran that leads the world in promoting the isolation of Israel, as a prelude to its eventual dissolution. It’s a natural partner. So what if institutional members of the ASA like Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg drop out? There’s always the University of Tehran to take their place.

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When the Syrian Rebels Return…

While Secretary of State John Kerry is bending over backwards to find any sign of moderation among the Syrian opposition, regional authorities are confronting reality. Sometimes the enemy of our enemy is not a friend, but rather simply a partisan of al-Qaeda. Now, to be fair to Kerry (and to Sen. John McCain who has long advocated for support to the Syrian opposition), it hasn’t always been this way. Many Syrians left to their own devices would like nothing better than to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and replace his regime with something more moderate and representative. But President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s disinterested approach to the initial rebellion left the door open to the conflict’s internationalization. What Afghanistan was to the 1980s, Chechnya was to the 1990s, and Iraq became in the 2000s, Syria is today. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah help prop up the Assad regime, while Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and a host of international jihadists and al-Qaeda affiliates from across the globe now fight for if not lead the opposition. Increasingly, Syrians play second fiddle in their own struggle.

I am a frequent visitor to Iraq and, as I have written before, what once seemed a sectarian complaint leveled by the Iraqi government against the Syrian opposition is no longer: In my last visit to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, not only Iraqi Shi’ites, but also Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians all described the Syrian opposition as hopelessly radicalized and sympathetic to al-Qaeda. I spent much of last week in Morocco and, in Rabat, had the opportunity to speak to a number of senior security officials. They have identified several hundred Moroccans who have gone to Syria to “wage jihad.” (One of the ironies of the political correctness of American universities and military institutions is the prohibition on using the term jihadist as somehow demeaning to Islam when that is the term Muslims across the Middle East use to describe the phenomenon).

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While Secretary of State John Kerry is bending over backwards to find any sign of moderation among the Syrian opposition, regional authorities are confronting reality. Sometimes the enemy of our enemy is not a friend, but rather simply a partisan of al-Qaeda. Now, to be fair to Kerry (and to Sen. John McCain who has long advocated for support to the Syrian opposition), it hasn’t always been this way. Many Syrians left to their own devices would like nothing better than to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and replace his regime with something more moderate and representative. But President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s disinterested approach to the initial rebellion left the door open to the conflict’s internationalization. What Afghanistan was to the 1980s, Chechnya was to the 1990s, and Iraq became in the 2000s, Syria is today. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah help prop up the Assad regime, while Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and a host of international jihadists and al-Qaeda affiliates from across the globe now fight for if not lead the opposition. Increasingly, Syrians play second fiddle in their own struggle.

I am a frequent visitor to Iraq and, as I have written before, what once seemed a sectarian complaint leveled by the Iraqi government against the Syrian opposition is no longer: In my last visit to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, not only Iraqi Shi’ites, but also Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians all described the Syrian opposition as hopelessly radicalized and sympathetic to al-Qaeda. I spent much of last week in Morocco and, in Rabat, had the opportunity to speak to a number of senior security officials. They have identified several hundred Moroccans who have gone to Syria to “wage jihad.” (One of the ironies of the political correctness of American universities and military institutions is the prohibition on using the term jihadist as somehow demeaning to Islam when that is the term Muslims across the Middle East use to describe the phenomenon).

The Moroccans—like those flocking to Syria from other nationalities—travel by airline into Turkey, and then take the Turkish Air flight to Gaziantep, or some other town near the Syrian border. Rather than raise their eyebrows at flights packed with Moroccans, Mauritanians, Uighurs, Pakistanis, and Yemenis to towns where once none cared to go, Turkish police are happy simply to take their standard $40 bribe and wave them across the border into Syria. Just last week, according to SITE Monitoring, the Sham al-Islam Movement, a Moroccan-manned jihadi group fighting in Syria, released a video depicting the role of Moroccan jihadists participating on a raid on the prison complex in Aleppo.

The question states across the region are now considering is what happens when the veterans of the Syrian fighting return. The Moroccan jihadists did not buy return Turkish Air tickets, but instead will fly to Libya and then make their way overland through Algeria and re-enter Morocco through the permeable mountainous border in the northern region of both countries (the same route African migrants hoping to make it to Europe take). Tunisian jihadists likewise will return to Tunisia, Saudis to Saudi Arabia, and so on. What we are seeing in Syria is really just the first act. Act II will be how these battle-hardened jihadis conduct terrorism and destabilize the region upon their return. Perhaps rather than debate how to aid the foreign jihadis aiding the Syrian rebels, the time has come to have an uncomfortable discussion about how to intercept, neutralize, and, if necessary, eliminate them.

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Next Stop for the Israel Boycott Road Show

The great Karl Weintraub, a historian in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, once told me that anyone willing to exert a modicum of energy could have a lot of influence on the committee. After all, the members of the committee are distinguished scholars who, for the most part, prefer not to be bothered with administration. The same is true to a point of all academic governance. Not many people become professors in the hope of becoming movers and shakers in their departments or professional associations, and, in my experience, the majority of academics in my discipline, political science, have no idea of or interest in what resolutions the American Political Science Association is planning to pass.

For this reason, academic associations are vulnerable to takeover by determined activists. That is what happened at the American Studies Association. The ASA is no stranger to political activism, yet even its members were not prepared for the propaganda push that took place at their annual conference this year. For example, the pro-boycott forces organized a “town hall” to discuss the boycott that was, by design, more like a rally. Sharon Musher, director of American Studies at Richard Stockton College and an opponent of the boycott, has described what took place for the Times of Israel. The town hall

“was a vitriolic anti-Israel event that served as a platform for promoting the boycott resolution . . . .. One of the authors of the proposal (J. Kehaulani Kauanui) was on the panel, participants in the Activism Committee were pointed out to audience members, and the resolution was handed around the room of nearly 500 for signing. Each of the six speakers articulated the same ideological message about ending the settler-colonialist Zionist project and America’s complicity in maintaining an Apartheid state.”

The “pro-boycott rally was followed by an award ceremony — given to Angela Davis, an outspoken opponent of Israel – and then the Presidential Address … used to advocate for the boycott.”

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The great Karl Weintraub, a historian in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, once told me that anyone willing to exert a modicum of energy could have a lot of influence on the committee. After all, the members of the committee are distinguished scholars who, for the most part, prefer not to be bothered with administration. The same is true to a point of all academic governance. Not many people become professors in the hope of becoming movers and shakers in their departments or professional associations, and, in my experience, the majority of academics in my discipline, political science, have no idea of or interest in what resolutions the American Political Science Association is planning to pass.

For this reason, academic associations are vulnerable to takeover by determined activists. That is what happened at the American Studies Association. The ASA is no stranger to political activism, yet even its members were not prepared for the propaganda push that took place at their annual conference this year. For example, the pro-boycott forces organized a “town hall” to discuss the boycott that was, by design, more like a rally. Sharon Musher, director of American Studies at Richard Stockton College and an opponent of the boycott, has described what took place for the Times of Israel. The town hall

“was a vitriolic anti-Israel event that served as a platform for promoting the boycott resolution . . . .. One of the authors of the proposal (J. Kehaulani Kauanui) was on the panel, participants in the Activism Committee were pointed out to audience members, and the resolution was handed around the room of nearly 500 for signing. Each of the six speakers articulated the same ideological message about ending the settler-colonialist Zionist project and America’s complicity in maintaining an Apartheid state.”

The “pro-boycott rally was followed by an award ceremony — given to Angela Davis, an outspoken opponent of Israel – and then the Presidential Address … used to advocate for the boycott.”

Up next is the Modern Language Association which, with 30,000 members involved in the teaching and study of language and literature, is about six times the size of the American Studies Association. The MLA, at its annual conference early next month, does not have a boycott resolution before it, but it will have a boycott roundtable. It is supposedly an open discussion: “Many academics face questions about how to respond to this boycott or how to evaluate academic boycotts more generally.”

They have gathered an interesting panel for this “discussion.” Omar Bhargouti is a founder of and leader in the international BDS movement. Barbara Jane Harlow, a professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin, wrote a statement in favor of the ASA boycott and has long been on record in favor of one. David Lloyd is a member of the “Organizing Collective” of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Richard Ohmann, a professor of English at Wesleyan University, signed a 2009 letter calling Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times.”

Samer Ali, the chair and respondent of the panel, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he set up the panel to serve those who wished to discuss the pros and cons of the resolution. Yet, as Haaretz reports in its own piece on the stacked MLA roundtable, Ali has been vigorously defending the ASA boycott on his Facebook page and, unless there is more than one Samer Ali who lives in Austin, Texas and is interested in the ASA boycott, has signed a letter to the ASA (he is number 3,681) offering the signatories’ “deepest congratulations and full support for the ASA National Council’s historic and principled decision to endorse and honor the Palestinian civil society call for the academic boycott of Israel.”

His “response” should be interesting.

As Musher’s account indicates, this is the playbook. Once the roundtable, whose audience will no doubt be packed with boycott supporters, has come off, a boycott resolution will be proposed for next year, justified in part by the strength of support evident at the roundtable. Many members will be caught by surprise, just as members of the ASA were, because few academics pay attention to what their professional associations are doing.

The good news is that the ASA boycott has been a wake-up call, and it is becoming clear, because the ASA is being denounced in places like the Nation and by people like Michael Kazin, the editor of Dissent, that even the left has little appetite for an academic boycott. This will not and should not be primarily a struggle of pro-Israel against anti-Israel forces, or of the right against the left, but a struggle to preserve what integrity scholars have left, against attempts to turn them into mouthpieces for a fringe movement.

But there is no natural party of moderation. People who disdain academic politics will have to get organized. There is still time.

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Surplus Means Decision Time for Iran

It’s no secret that oil underwrites the Iranian economy, accounting for perhaps 80 percent of the Islamic Republic’s exports. Generations of Iranian officials have failed to diversify the Iranian economy, and so the Islamic Republic remains vulnerable to any fluctuations in the oil market. Certainly, that can be a detriment when the price of oil drops, but it can also mean a windfall when oil rises. One of the key factors which intelligence analysts and Iran watchers consider is at what price the Iranian government calculated their budget. If oil drops below that point, the Islamic Republic might have difficulty making payroll and so might spark a crisis or at least threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz to win a short-term spike in oil prices. When oil prices increase, however, then Iranian leaders have a slush fund with which to play. To what they allocate that extra money says more than any number of diplomatic statements about the direction in which the regime seeks to go.

That is exactly the situation in which the regime finds itself. According to the Iranian Oil Ministry, the average price of oil has been about $103, eleven dollars higher than the level authorities assumed when they set the budget. Back during the administration of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, there was a similar situation: the price of oil skyrocketed while simultaneously the European Union more than doubled its trade with Iran. Rather than apply the hard currency windfall to further Iran’s civilian economy, the regime invested that money into Iran’s then-covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Perhaps Khatami was lying when he spoke about a “Dialogue of Civilizations,” or perhaps he simply did not have the power to make the decisions that mattered in the Islamic Republic. Still, today he and his allies—including current President Hassan Rouhani—brag that they should gain credit for Iran’s nuclear program which advanced against the backdrop of the Dialogue.

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It’s no secret that oil underwrites the Iranian economy, accounting for perhaps 80 percent of the Islamic Republic’s exports. Generations of Iranian officials have failed to diversify the Iranian economy, and so the Islamic Republic remains vulnerable to any fluctuations in the oil market. Certainly, that can be a detriment when the price of oil drops, but it can also mean a windfall when oil rises. One of the key factors which intelligence analysts and Iran watchers consider is at what price the Iranian government calculated their budget. If oil drops below that point, the Islamic Republic might have difficulty making payroll and so might spark a crisis or at least threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz to win a short-term spike in oil prices. When oil prices increase, however, then Iranian leaders have a slush fund with which to play. To what they allocate that extra money says more than any number of diplomatic statements about the direction in which the regime seeks to go.

That is exactly the situation in which the regime finds itself. According to the Iranian Oil Ministry, the average price of oil has been about $103, eleven dollars higher than the level authorities assumed when they set the budget. Back during the administration of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, there was a similar situation: the price of oil skyrocketed while simultaneously the European Union more than doubled its trade with Iran. Rather than apply the hard currency windfall to further Iran’s civilian economy, the regime invested that money into Iran’s then-covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Perhaps Khatami was lying when he spoke about a “Dialogue of Civilizations,” or perhaps he simply did not have the power to make the decisions that mattered in the Islamic Republic. Still, today he and his allies—including current President Hassan Rouhani—brag that they should gain credit for Iran’s nuclear program which advanced against the backdrop of the Dialogue.

In my forthcoming book, Dancing with the Devil, a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I have one chapter that examines the history of the politicization of intelligence going back to the Johnson administration. The pattern is clear: administrations often twist intelligence not to achieve a casus belli, but rather to exculpate bad behavior to keep diplomacy alive and avoid any conclusion that an opponent is cheating. Let us hope that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry—and, more importantly, anyone in the U.S. Congress who takes seriously his or her oversight role—are paying careful attention to how Iran is now spending its money, for that better than any statement by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will show the Islamic Republic’s true intent.

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Duck Dynasty, Free Speech, and Hypocrisy

I don’t write this every day but sometimes it needs to be said. Liberals have a point. Not about ObamaCare or their plans to increase spending and taxes. But about Phil Robertson and the hypocrisy of some of his conservative supporters who are outraged about the fact that the Duck Dynasty star was suspended for uttering critical remarks about homosexuality as well as some bizarre comments about the Jim Crow era that for some reason got less attention than his conservative Christian take on gays and sex.

Robertson was suspended yesterday by the A&E network that runs the hit reality show about a family business that makes duck calls after an outcry over things the hunting patriarch said in a GQ interview. In response, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said Robertson (who is a resident of his state) was a victim of the “politically correct crowd.” Sarah Palin weighed in with her trademark lowbrow pandering style on her Facebook page:

Free speech is an endangered species. Those “intolerants” hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.

Are they right? Not really.

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I don’t write this every day but sometimes it needs to be said. Liberals have a point. Not about ObamaCare or their plans to increase spending and taxes. But about Phil Robertson and the hypocrisy of some of his conservative supporters who are outraged about the fact that the Duck Dynasty star was suspended for uttering critical remarks about homosexuality as well as some bizarre comments about the Jim Crow era that for some reason got less attention than his conservative Christian take on gays and sex.

Robertson was suspended yesterday by the A&E network that runs the hit reality show about a family business that makes duck calls after an outcry over things the hunting patriarch said in a GQ interview. In response, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said Robertson (who is a resident of his state) was a victim of the “politically correct crowd.” Sarah Palin weighed in with her trademark lowbrow pandering style on her Facebook page:

Free speech is an endangered species. Those “intolerants” hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.

Are they right? Not really.

Robertson is entitled to his opinion about faith, sex, race, or anything else on his mind. But his right to free speech doesn’t entitle him to a job on an A&E show. If the network doesn’t wish to be associated with such views, they are free to tell him to take a hike. For the same reason MSNBC was within its rights to can actor Alec Baldwin when he used a homophobic slur and then lied about it. The same network was also right when it eased Martin Bashir, one of the network’s left-wing opinion slingers, out after he used despicable language about the same Sarah Palin. At that time conservatives (including me) wondered what was going on when for weeks Bashir went unpunished for behaving in such an atrocious manner. Nobody on the right thought Bashir’s right of free speech was at stake. Instead, they correctly identified the issue as the hypocrisy of liberals who are quick to brand conservatives who speak out of turn as extremists and radicals who are primarily responsible for the lack of civility in politics today.

The right to free speech has nothing to do with having a gig on television. No one has a right to such a job and nothing prevents those who run these outfits from choosing who works for them. That applies to Bashir as well as to Robertson.

Those defending Robertson are making a broader point. They fear that anyone who is critical of gays and states it from a conservative theological frame of reference is particularly vulnerable to being singled out for being politically incorrect. There’s something to that, as popular culture has rendered those with negative views about homosexuality, whether rooted in faith or not, as anathema. Gays shouldn’t be subjected to abuse or insults, but the fact that Robertson’s comments about them sparked more outrage than his Christian chauvinism or his idiotic assertion that blacks were happy under Jim Crow tells us a lot about our culture these days.

It should also be pointed out that there’s something odd about A&E punishing a member of the cast of Duck Dynasty for uttering comments that seem in character for a program whose conceit is an opportunity to see backwoods hunters at home, work, and play. But if they think the bearded stars of the hit show shouldn’t offend people in this manner, then they can discharge him–although the suspension for future work would make more sense if they took the reruns that continue to appear on their channel off the air too. Reality shows are peopled largely by outrageous figures that specialize in foolish or vulgar behavior. Jindal wasn’t entirely wrong when he said on Twitter that there was something faintly ridiculous that there was plenty of room in the entertainment business for a trashy vulgarian like Miley Cyrus but none for the likes of Robertson.

But hypocrisy works both ways. Those who are chortling about Jindal and Palin’s support for Robertson were silent when Bashir was trashing the former Alaska governor. Liberals are quick to seize on any outrageous thing said by a figure on the right and shrug their shoulders or ignore it when left-wing politicians, pundits, or TV talkers make hateful or prejudicial remarks.

What we need here is not so much more civility—though that would be nice—but some consistency when it comes to outrage. If you think gays shouldn’t be subjected to negative or prejudicial remarks on TV, then try to be just as interested when people of faith or conservatives are given the same treatment. The same advice applies to conservatives. Selective outrage that is only generated when someone whose political opinions you disagree with crosses the line is what is really turning our public square into a verbal junkyard.

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The Discrediting of Government Continues

President Obama’s recent troubles have evoked various comparisons to his predecessor, whether they were the parallels between specific policies or simply the climbing disapproval ratings. To these we can add one more: the question of succession. Indeed the discussion about the makeup of the Democrats’ 2016 primary roster is quite relevant to this particular debate.

When George W. Bush left office amid low approval ratings, the Republican Party faced the challenge of trying to figure out its post-Bush identity–chiefly in the form of its 2008 presidential nominee–on the fly, without the benefit of years in the wilderness. Though Obama’s second term is far from over, Democrats will still face the same challenge.

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President Obama’s recent troubles have evoked various comparisons to his predecessor, whether they were the parallels between specific policies or simply the climbing disapproval ratings. To these we can add one more: the question of succession. Indeed the discussion about the makeup of the Democrats’ 2016 primary roster is quite relevant to this particular debate.

When George W. Bush left office amid low approval ratings, the Republican Party faced the challenge of trying to figure out its post-Bush identity–chiefly in the form of its 2008 presidential nominee–on the fly, without the benefit of years in the wilderness. Though Obama’s second term is far from over, Democrats will still face the same challenge.

In Hillary Clinton, for example, primary voters will have a reminder of the more successful Democratic governance of her husband but also the unprincipled, soulless pursuit of power that characterizes the Clintons’ political life and Hillary’s statist agenda. If Jerry Brown runs, they’ll see a candidate at once a throwback to 20th century politics of stagnation and a warning from the future, in the form of the failing state administration of California, as to where that leads. And if Brian Schweitzer runs, he’ll embody a halfhearted left-libertarianism that at least gestures toward a government less inclined to violate your personal space. The latest Gallup polling on the size and scope of government, however, does not bode as well for Clinton or Brown:

Seventy-two percent of Americans say big government is a greater threat to the U.S. in the future than is big business or big labor, a record high in the nearly 50-year history of this question. The prior high for big government was 65% in 1999 and 2000. Big government has always topped big business and big labor, including in the initial asking in 1965, but just 35% named it at that time.

But it’s the breakdown of the results by political party that is really striking:

Each party group currently rates big government as the greatest threat to the country, including a record-high 92% of Republicans and 71% of independents, as well as 56% of Democrats. Democrats are most likely of the partisan groups to name big business as the biggest threat, at 36%; relatively few Republicans, 4%, view big business as the most threatening.

It’s not just that a majority of Democrats (and large majority of independents) see government as the greatest threat to the country. It’s also the trajectory of those numbers that stands out. During the Bush administration 62 percent of Democrats felt this way, but were slowly reassured as the Democrats took back Congress and then Obama was elected president; the number dropped to 32 percent.

Some of Democrats’ fears about the government can be attributed, I suppose, to Republicans taking back the House earlier in this presidency. But they have not sponsored bills that chip away at individual liberty–just the opposite, they have stood opposed to ObamaCare’s mandates, EPA overregulation, Democrats’ anti-gun legislation, and so forth. It’s what made it so amusing when Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to spin congressional approval ratings against the GOP today by tweeting:

Congress is finishing this year less popular than a cockroach, and mindless, knee-jerk obstruction from Republicans is exactly why.

Not only was this the sort of tedious cant voters have come to expect from Reid, but it comes right after the Senate approved a bipartisan budget deal driven in large part by Paul Ryan. Reid, in other words, looks even more ridiculous than he normally would. But even more than Reid’s statement being patently false was its tone-deaf character: even a majority of Democrats see the government as getting too intrusive for comfort. Actions that put the breaks on this behavior are not what’s wrong with government. If anything, Reid only exacerbates this by deploying the “nuclear option” to get rid of the filibuster. Not only is Reid the problem, not the solution, but he’s advertising himself as such.

It won’t matter much to Reid, who isn’t running for president. But if ObamaCare isn’t fixed, the public’s faith in government will continue to collapse–among Democrats as well as Republicans. As the Democrats seek a presidential nominee that best embodies the party’s post-Obama identity, this will no doubt be a factor–and it could very well hold back the statists and elevate a candidate with a more rational approach to governance.

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Cairo Drama: Morsi, Hamas, and Obama

Human-rights organizations and many other Egypt-watchers are pouring scorn on the charges levied on deposed president Mohamed Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood activists by the military government in Cairo this week. The military has already charged Morsi for his complicity in attacks on demonstrators seeking his overthrow last summer. This is, of course, terribly hypocritical since, if anything, the military may have killed more people when it cracked down on the Brotherhood in the aftermath of the coup that knocked Morsi out of power and into jail. But they didn’t stop there. The government has now charged Morsi and others with engaging in terrorist plots with Hamas and Hezbollah operatives.

Much of the skepticism put forward by Human Rights Watch about all of this is justified. If the point of the charges is to claim Morsi was handing Hamas or Hezbollah control of Egypt or conspiring to give them vital national secrets, the whole thing is ridiculous. But Western observers should not be blinded to the basic facts upon which military prosecutors seem to have embroidered an extra layer of conspiracy theory. There is little doubt that Morsi regarded Hamas, and to a lesser extent Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors, as natural allies in a nation and a region where the Brotherhood is regarded with suspicion and fear. Take away the paranoia about foreign influences that lies not far below the surface in Egyptian culture and what you have is the reality of a Muslim Brotherhood government that naturally looked to Hamas for support in a pinch. Rather than all this being a cause for the Obama administration to further distance itself from the current Egyptian government, it ought to provoke some soul-searching on the part of those in the State Department and the White House that were prepared to assist Morsi’s ascent to the presidency of Egypt and his efforts to stay there.

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Human-rights organizations and many other Egypt-watchers are pouring scorn on the charges levied on deposed president Mohamed Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood activists by the military government in Cairo this week. The military has already charged Morsi for his complicity in attacks on demonstrators seeking his overthrow last summer. This is, of course, terribly hypocritical since, if anything, the military may have killed more people when it cracked down on the Brotherhood in the aftermath of the coup that knocked Morsi out of power and into jail. But they didn’t stop there. The government has now charged Morsi and others with engaging in terrorist plots with Hamas and Hezbollah operatives.

Much of the skepticism put forward by Human Rights Watch about all of this is justified. If the point of the charges is to claim Morsi was handing Hamas or Hezbollah control of Egypt or conspiring to give them vital national secrets, the whole thing is ridiculous. But Western observers should not be blinded to the basic facts upon which military prosecutors seem to have embroidered an extra layer of conspiracy theory. There is little doubt that Morsi regarded Hamas, and to a lesser extent Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors, as natural allies in a nation and a region where the Brotherhood is regarded with suspicion and fear. Take away the paranoia about foreign influences that lies not far below the surface in Egyptian culture and what you have is the reality of a Muslim Brotherhood government that naturally looked to Hamas for support in a pinch. Rather than all this being a cause for the Obama administration to further distance itself from the current Egyptian government, it ought to provoke some soul-searching on the part of those in the State Department and the White House that were prepared to assist Morsi’s ascent to the presidency of Egypt and his efforts to stay there.

The facts about relations between the Morsi government and the Brotherhood and their putative allies in Gaza and Lebanon are a little murky. It’s difficult to judge from afar exactly where the reality of a Brotherhood-Hamas alliance ends and the judicial railroading of Morsi and his colleagues by the military government begins. Suffice it to say that some of the charges may be either exaggerated or misinterpretations of routine interactions between these groups. It should also be noted that relations between the Brotherhood and Hamas were not all peaches and cream during their year in charge of things in Cairo. At various times, Morsi shut down the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza in a belated effort to rein in the growing chaos in the Sinai that had been unleashed by the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the infiltration of al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups.

But what can’t be denied is that Morsi still regarded Hamas as a close ally and a potential resource in the Cairo power game as well as the regional balance of power. Hamas had, as we have long known, helped Morsi break out of jail during the waning days of the Mubarak regime. Hamas was originally founded as an offshoot of the Brotherhood and Morsi looked to it as a natural ally. The notion that he helped arm it as well as being prepared to cooperate in various other ways–including as a backup against domestic opposition–shouldn’t strike anyone as far-fetched. Nor should we be surprised by allegations about Morsi and his crew contemplating an opening with fellow Islamists in Iran.

The prosecutions against Morsi and other Brotherhood officials are politically motivated and no one should expect them to get a fair trial from the military. But had he remained in power there’s equally little doubt that the Islamist alliances he was making could have altered not only the face of Egypt but also that of the rest of the region.

All this should serve as a reminder to Washington of how foolish its policies were in the prelude to the Brotherhood’s brief period of power as well as during its period of ascendancy. The Obama administration always sought to portray itself as neutral as to who ran things in Cairo, but the only times it has exercised its considerable leverage over Egypt is when it persuaded the military to let the Brotherhood take power and afterwards to punish the generals for ousting Morsi.

In doing so, it undid decades of hard work and investment of billions of aid dollars by previous administrations to keep Egypt as a U.S. ally so long as it kept the peace with Israel. It first failed to see the danger in allowing an Islamist authoritarian group to take control of the most populous Arab nation and then miscalculated how its pique about the coup would cause the military to embrace the efforts of the Russians to get their foot back in the door in Cairo. As I wrote earlier this week, the culmination of an arms deal between Russia and Egypt sets the stage for a decline in U.S. influence in the region and enhances Vladimir Putin’s ability to make mischief.

The reassertion of brutal military rule in Egypt is nothing to cheer about. But the only alternative in the form of an Islamist Brotherhood government was far worse. Morsi’s ties with Hamas are being used to trump up a dubious legal case against him, but they were still a threat to U.S. influence and regional stability. Instead of crying crocodile tears for Morsi (who is now getting the same treatment that he was happy to dish out to his foes), those who care about peace should be glad that the military is doing its utmost to ensure that he never gets another chance to disrupt the Middle East.

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A Solution in Search of a Problem

The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies is getting a lot of publicity for its recommendations to substantially scale back NSA surveillance. But reading its report, which has just been released, it’s not obvious what problem the panel is addressing or why its proposed “solution” is an improvement on the status quo.

The report includes a summary of how the government has in the past used the exigencies of war to trample on civil liberties–a theme developed more fully in panel member Geoffrey Stone’s book Perilous Times. All of the usual horrors are cited, from the Sedition Act of 1798, to the detention of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and the CIA/FBI spying on antiwar activists in the 1960s. The panel piously intones: “Too often,  we have overreacted in periods of national crisis and then later, with the  benefit of hindsight, recognized our failures, reevaluated our judgments,  and attempted to correct our policies going forward. We must learn the lessons of history.”

I kept expecting a similar set of excesses to be cited arising from the USA Patriot Act and the heightened activities it authorized on the part of the NSA. I waited in vain. The panel cites no examples–not one–of actual abuses committed by the NSA or other surveillance agencies today. In fact from everything we know the NSA has been scrupulous in its use of metadata. Although it has maintained a vast database of American calls overseas it queried that database only 300 times last year under procedures supervised by both Congress and the courts.

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The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies is getting a lot of publicity for its recommendations to substantially scale back NSA surveillance. But reading its report, which has just been released, it’s not obvious what problem the panel is addressing or why its proposed “solution” is an improvement on the status quo.

The report includes a summary of how the government has in the past used the exigencies of war to trample on civil liberties–a theme developed more fully in panel member Geoffrey Stone’s book Perilous Times. All of the usual horrors are cited, from the Sedition Act of 1798, to the detention of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and the CIA/FBI spying on antiwar activists in the 1960s. The panel piously intones: “Too often,  we have overreacted in periods of national crisis and then later, with the  benefit of hindsight, recognized our failures, reevaluated our judgments,  and attempted to correct our policies going forward. We must learn the lessons of history.”

I kept expecting a similar set of excesses to be cited arising from the USA Patriot Act and the heightened activities it authorized on the part of the NSA. I waited in vain. The panel cites no examples–not one–of actual abuses committed by the NSA or other surveillance agencies today. In fact from everything we know the NSA has been scrupulous in its use of metadata. Although it has maintained a vast database of American calls overseas it queried that database only 300 times last year under procedures supervised by both Congress and the courts.

For all of his leaks, Edward Snowden could not cite a single actual example of the NSA spying on someone it wasn’t supposed to be spying on or using the information it attained for personal or partisan advantage rather than to safeguard the national interest. The review group can’t cite a single such example either; it is forced to resort to generalized concerns about “privacy” being invaded by the government, even though the collection of metadata is a lot less intrusive than widespread surveillance by security cameras on the streets or by Internet commerce companies online. In short it seems that we have learned from history and figured out how to collect intelligence without committing the abuses of the past. But that doesn’t stop the panel from recommending steps that will hamper the NSA’s attempts to monitor terrorist groups and other threats to national security.

The headline recommendation is that “that Congress should end such storage and transition to a system in which such metadata is held privately for the government to query when necessary for national security purposes.” The panel claims that “this approach would allow the government access to the relevant  information when such access is justified, and thus protect national security without unnecessarily threatening privacy and liberty.”

This would obviously make searching the metadata more difficult, especially if the government has to contact multiple firms to get data rather than going to a single source. And why on earth do the panel members trust employees of Verizon and AT&T–much less of some potential future private corporation that would hold metadata records from all of the existing telecom firms–more than they trust the employees of the NSA?

Those NSA employees are carefully vetted and overseen and they operate with an ethos of service to the nation. Why should we repose more trust in random telecom company employees, who are motivated (and rightly so) by profits not patriotism, to hold records that the panel believes are so important? Elsewhere in the report, the panel calls for cutting back or eliminating the use of private firms to do background checks on intelligence community employees such as Edward Snowden. But while reining in private firms in one area, the panel seems to be reposing vast trust in them in another area.

Is the principle here that Big Business is more trustworthy than the U.S. government? This is a curious position for a panel appointed by a liberal Democratic administration to take, given that Democrats are normally suspicious of the excesses of big business, and rightly so given the fraud committed by large firms such as Qwest and WorldCom (both, interestingly enough, telecom companies). Are we supposed to believe our data is safer with Bernie Ebbers (the former Worldcom CEO who is now in jail) than with Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA?

In reality neither big corporations nor the government should automatically be trusted. In both cases safeguards and oversight need to be built in to prevent abuse. Such a system was built after 9/11 and it seems to be functioning well. It’s hard to see why we should mess with something that’s working and run the risk of making life easier for terrorists.

Sure, Snowden’s revelations are embarrassing. But let’s not compound the embarrassment by doing things we will regret later–as happened once before, in the 1970s, when Congress and the Carter administration severely hampered our intelligence capabilities in the wake of a series of scandals. Today, by contrast, the only scandal is that Snowden has turned traitor; there is no sign that the NSA is doing anything it isn’t authorized to do or that the U.S. has become a less free place over the last decade because of its activities. In other words, the review panel is offering solutions to address a nonexistent problem.

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Putin’s Smoke and Mirrors

You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. As a tactical politician, he has few if any equals in the world today; Barack Obama is a naïf by comparison. Just look at what Putin has accomplished this fall. He began by wrong-footing the U.S. in Syria, cobbling together a deal that keeps his ally Bashar Assad in power with de facto connivance from the U.S., all at the small price of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons. More recently he has wrested Ukraine away from the European Union with a generous bribe–er, loan–of $15 billion and a price reduction in the natural gas that Ukraine buys from Russia. And now, to complete his tour de force, he is magnanimously freeing from jails a few of the political dissidents he had earlier locked up.

On Wednesday, Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament passed a bill that will likely offer amnesty to two members of Pussy Riot and 30 Greenpeace activists who are currently in the slammer. Today, Putin suggested out of nowhere that he would release Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, who was arrested in 2003 on charges that were widely seen to be politically inspired, his crime being in essence to oppose Putin. Now that Khodorkovksy has lost control of Yukos Oil, and been subjected to a grueling confinement, Putin, in the manner of a medieval czar, will show his generosity of spirit by releasing him. Of course there is an obvious political payoff to Putin: he no doubt hopes that these prisoner releases will decrease the amount of controversy at the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia.

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You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. As a tactical politician, he has few if any equals in the world today; Barack Obama is a naïf by comparison. Just look at what Putin has accomplished this fall. He began by wrong-footing the U.S. in Syria, cobbling together a deal that keeps his ally Bashar Assad in power with de facto connivance from the U.S., all at the small price of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons. More recently he has wrested Ukraine away from the European Union with a generous bribe–er, loan–of $15 billion and a price reduction in the natural gas that Ukraine buys from Russia. And now, to complete his tour de force, he is magnanimously freeing from jails a few of the political dissidents he had earlier locked up.

On Wednesday, Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament passed a bill that will likely offer amnesty to two members of Pussy Riot and 30 Greenpeace activists who are currently in the slammer. Today, Putin suggested out of nowhere that he would release Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, who was arrested in 2003 on charges that were widely seen to be politically inspired, his crime being in essence to oppose Putin. Now that Khodorkovksy has lost control of Yukos Oil, and been subjected to a grueling confinement, Putin, in the manner of a medieval czar, will show his generosity of spirit by releasing him. Of course there is an obvious political payoff to Putin: he no doubt hopes that these prisoner releases will decrease the amount of controversy at the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia.

But while Putin is a skilled tactician, his larger vision is lacking. Russia has done relatively well on his watch because of its mineral wealth–it is Saudi Arabia with snow. But now the economy has slowed (growth next year is expected to be a paltry 1.4 percent) and even Putin’s own economy minister predicts that “stagnation will continue.” Indeed it will, for Russia is a ticking demographic time bomb.

Its population has been in freefall, as Reuters notes: “The population started declining sharply in the early 1990s amid political and economic turmoil, falling by 3.4 million in the 2000-2010 decade, according to census data. The impact is set to be felt sharply from now on, exactly when children born in 1990s would have started entering the workforce. The consequences are already being felt. Russia will close more than 700 schools this year for lack of pupils and the jobless rate has dipped to a record low of around 5 percent, not because the economy is booming but because the country is running out of people who can take the jobs.”

Even if Russia’s birth rate has now risen above its death rate, this is not a country with a healthy future. And while much of that is due to the legacy of 70 years of Communist failures, Putin has not done a good job of recovering from the baleful legacy he inherited. Instead he has focused on building up and milking the big oil companies, buying off or jailing opposition, and accumulating all power in his own hands. Putin may fool himself and some of his people that Russia remains a great power, but in fact it’s largely a matter of smoke and mirrors.

Putin deserves credit, I suppose, for his Machiavellian machinations. But no number of tactical victories in the realm of geopolitical maneuvering will improve life for average Russians (whose per capita GDP is lower than East Timor’s)–or Russia’s long-term prospects as a country, which would be better served by cooperation with, rather than animosity against, the West.

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Iran Knows Where It’s Going. Does Kerry?

Secretary of State John Kerry’s cheerleaders in the foreign-policy establishment and the mainstream media continue to write of his nuclear deal with Iran as if it were an unalloyed success. Having defended the agreement on the premise that the choice was between recognizing the legitimacy of Iran’s nuclear program and war, Kerry’s supporters have treated criticism as tantamount to a rejection of peace. The decision to tacitly recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and keep their nuclear facilities may have only made the threat more potent in the long run. But the willingness of the Iranians to sign any agreement seems to have engendered a sense that what the administration has done is to essentially take worries about conflict with Tehran off the table. But a look at what they’re saying about the agreement in Iran reminds us that whatever it is that Kerry did in Geneva, it did not alter Iran’s long-term goals and what they think the deal means for the future of their program and sanctions.

As the Times of Israel reports, the same foreign minister that Kerry has been dealing with told students in Tehran yesterday that the so-called freeze of enrichment that Iran agreed to can be reversed in a flash:

“The structure of our nuclear program has been maintained and the 20 percent enrichment can be resumed in less than 24 hours,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told a gathering of Iranian students in Tehran.

He added that “the structure of the sanctions and the antagonistic atmosphere created by the West against Iran is falling apart,” according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

Javad Zarif is right. Though Kerry and administration apologists defend the deal because it prevents Iran from enriching uranium at weapons grade levels, all it would take is a snap of Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fingers to turn up the dials on the centrifuges that President Obama and Kerry have decided they can keep.

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Secretary of State John Kerry’s cheerleaders in the foreign-policy establishment and the mainstream media continue to write of his nuclear deal with Iran as if it were an unalloyed success. Having defended the agreement on the premise that the choice was between recognizing the legitimacy of Iran’s nuclear program and war, Kerry’s supporters have treated criticism as tantamount to a rejection of peace. The decision to tacitly recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and keep their nuclear facilities may have only made the threat more potent in the long run. But the willingness of the Iranians to sign any agreement seems to have engendered a sense that what the administration has done is to essentially take worries about conflict with Tehran off the table. But a look at what they’re saying about the agreement in Iran reminds us that whatever it is that Kerry did in Geneva, it did not alter Iran’s long-term goals and what they think the deal means for the future of their program and sanctions.

As the Times of Israel reports, the same foreign minister that Kerry has been dealing with told students in Tehran yesterday that the so-called freeze of enrichment that Iran agreed to can be reversed in a flash:

“The structure of our nuclear program has been maintained and the 20 percent enrichment can be resumed in less than 24 hours,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told a gathering of Iranian students in Tehran.

He added that “the structure of the sanctions and the antagonistic atmosphere created by the West against Iran is falling apart,” according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

Javad Zarif is right. Though Kerry and administration apologists defend the deal because it prevents Iran from enriching uranium at weapons grade levels, all it would take is a snap of Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fingers to turn up the dials on the centrifuges that President Obama and Kerry have decided they can keep.

Optimists about the deal are also ignoring the dynamic between the two sides since the deal was signed on November 24. The agreement has not gone into effect because it is such a complicated mess that it requires follow-up negotiations to implement it. This is considered a mere detail to be cleared up by those extolling the accord, but it is actually a crucial reason why Iran thinks it is still in control of the conflict. By continuing their normal diplomatic practice of prevarication during the negotiations about implementation (as evidenced by their walk-out from those talks in Vienna last week), Iran hopes to delay and confuse an Obama administration that seems more interested in creating an opening for a game-changing détente with Iran than in spiking their nuclear ambitions.

But as Javad Zarif indicated, not only is the restriction on enrichment above five percent essentially meaningless in terms of its ability to prevent or lengthen the period of an Iranian “breakout” to nuclear capability, Tehran also thinks Kerry’s loosening of sanctions means that the West’s campaign of economic restrictions is doomed. As much as Kerry has been at pains to argue the contrary opinion, it’s hard to argue with the Iranian’s logic.

The whole point of the sanctions had been to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear dreams. But now that Kerry has signaled that Tehran will keep its nuclear program even after a final agreement, the implicit threat of the use of force should Iran balk is effectively off the table. Under those circumstances its difficult to imagine Washington’s European partners will be any more enthusiastic about enforcing the existing sanctions, let alone toughening them during follow-up negotiations.

More to the point, the Iranians seemed to have made their point about what they consider the spirit of Geneva. By arguing against an effort to toughen sanctions against Iran proposed by a bipartisan congressional coalition, both Obama and Kerry have said any further pressure on Tehran would “break faith” with their diplomatic partners. That gives the Iranians the power to brand any effort by the United States, including the enforcement of existing sanctions, as a reason for breaking off negotiations. This will allow them to drag out the preliminaries as well as anything that follows the six-month period when the two sides will supposedly be working on a final agreement.

The point is, Iran no longer thinks, if it ever did, that the U.S. has the will to stop them. And having gotten the administration to agree to the maintenance of their nuclear infrastructure, it is only a matter of time before they get their bomb, whether by evading agreements or stonewalling their implementation. As Javad Zarif’s statement and others coming out of Tehran demonstrate, they know where they’re going. The question is, does Kerry?

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Is Schweitzer the Dems’ Chris Christie?

At a 2007 event in Jacksonville, Florida for his presidential primary campaign, Fred Thompson offered a version of a line he used repeatedly when campaigning in the South: “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it to be back somewhere that they don’t think I talk with a funny accent.” (I vaguely remember hearing an even better version, in which he responded to a question about who his constituency was supposed to be by quipping that to many Republican voters, he was the only candidate in the race who spoke without an accent.)

The line worked because that year the better-known GOP candidates were from Massachusetts (Mitt Romney), New York (Rudy Giuliani), and Arizona (John McCain). But it would strike a chord in either party; in 2007, the three most recent Democratic presidents were Bill Clinton (Arkansas), Jimmy Carter (Georgia), and Lyndon Johnson (Texas). Yet beyond the specific issue of accents, politicians from coastal enclaves often struggle to relate to Middle America. And that’s why former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer might just make some trouble for Hillary Clinton in 2016–in part because of the possible presence in the race of, as Jonathan noted earlier, the California gadfly Jerry Brown.

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At a 2007 event in Jacksonville, Florida for his presidential primary campaign, Fred Thompson offered a version of a line he used repeatedly when campaigning in the South: “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it to be back somewhere that they don’t think I talk with a funny accent.” (I vaguely remember hearing an even better version, in which he responded to a question about who his constituency was supposed to be by quipping that to many Republican voters, he was the only candidate in the race who spoke without an accent.)

The line worked because that year the better-known GOP candidates were from Massachusetts (Mitt Romney), New York (Rudy Giuliani), and Arizona (John McCain). But it would strike a chord in either party; in 2007, the three most recent Democratic presidents were Bill Clinton (Arkansas), Jimmy Carter (Georgia), and Lyndon Johnson (Texas). Yet beyond the specific issue of accents, politicians from coastal enclaves often struggle to relate to Middle America. And that’s why former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer might just make some trouble for Hillary Clinton in 2016–in part because of the possible presence in the race of, as Jonathan noted earlier, the California gadfly Jerry Brown.

I say “make some trouble” because it’s not as though Schweitzer would be a juggernaut in a primary. He doesn’t have the name recognition of the others, and it’s doubtful his fundraising could keep pace with well-known candidates from California and New York. Additionally, in the Democratic Party coastal elitism sells, so Schweitzer may not have an advantage even if he can come across as the “normal” candidate. (And let’s be honest: if your opponent is known as “Moonbeam” Brown, you’d better come across as the normal candidate.)

In fact, the case can be made that Schweitzer would be more like the Democratic version of Chris Christie: perhaps too moderate for the base despite that crossover appeal’s advantage in a general election. Schweitzer’s moderation comes on an issue of new resonance to the Democratic Party’s base but on which they stand opposed to public opinion: gun rights.

Schweitzer’s support for gun rights was, once upon a time, part of what made him seem a dream candidate for Democrats–that combined with the fact that after Al Gore and John Kerry, the Democrats were worried they had nothing but self-serious, humorless, and completely unlikeable candidates to offer in national elections. In 2006, the New York Times’s profile of Schweitzer captured this dynamic perfectly. It began:

It’s fun being governor of Montana. Just watch Brian Schweitzer bouncing around the streets of Helena in the passenger seat of the state’s official S.U.V., fumbling with wires, trying to stick the flashing police light on the roof. When he spots some legislators on the sidewalk, he blasts them with the siren, then summons them by name on the loudspeaker. The men jump, and the governor tumbles out of the car, doubled in laughter, giving everyone a bear hug or a high-five or a soft slap on the cheek. Schweitzer, a Democrat in his first term, marches into a barroom in blue jeans and cowboy boots and a beaded bolo tie, and his border collie, Jag, leaps out of the vehicle and follows him in. The governor throws back a few pints of the local brew and introduces himself to everyone in the place, down to the servers and a small girl stuck there with her parents. He takes time from the backslapping to poach cubes of cheese from the snack platter and sneak them to the girl, who is now chasing his dog around the bar. “This is how you make friends with Jag,” he advises her. “Just hold it in your hand and let him take it.”

As soon as Schweitzer was elected in 2004 — the same night that George W. Bush carried Montana by 20 percentage points — pundits began declaring him the future of the Democratic Party. Never mind that it was his first elected office: the 51-year-old farmer and irrigation contractor had folksy charm and true-grit swagger. He shot guns, rode horses, took his dog to work and decimated his opponents with off-the-cuff one-liners heavy on the bull-and-horse metaphors. He didn’t act like a Democrat, in other words, and to many Democrats, reeling from consecutive losses to Bush, that seemed like a pretty good thing.

Schweitzer himself seems to view his support for gun rights as not just cultural, but ideological: National Journal calls his worldview a “brand of libertarian populism.” This certainly overstates the case: the same article even starts off with a riff on Schweitzer’s support for single-payer health care. But this does get at why Schweitzer would be a reasonably effective general-election candidate. In today’s Democratic Party, he is considered “libertarian,” underlining just how far to the left the Democrats have shifted as a national party.

That ideology would be a pleasant contrast with Hillary Clinton’s baldly statist impulses (“there isn’t really any such thing as someone else’s child,” etc.), and with Moonbeam Brown’s failed-state bureaucracy. And to many voters, he’d also be the only one without an accent.

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The Democrat Hillary Should Worry About

Since Barack Obama’s reelection, pundits have understandably focused their attention on Hillary Clinton’s intentions to run in 2016. The former secretary of state and first lady is the overwhelming frontrunner for the next Democratic presidential nomination. No other Democrat is anywhere close to Clinton in any poll of possible candidates with even Vice President Joe Biden trailing far behind her. Though one should always be careful about predicting political events this far in advance, with a little more than two years to go until the Iowa caucuses, the nomination is clearly hers for the asking.

But that near certainty hasn’t stopped the speculation about who will challenge Clinton in that caucus and other primaries in the first months of 2016. Unlike the last Democratic go-round when no one chose to play the gadfly and force President Obama to defend his record to party members, Clinton won’t go unopposed. But given the overwhelming odds against such an effort succeeding, the assumption is that no one, except perhaps Biden–who would be a plausible candidate were Clinton not in the running–would dare risk diminishing their political brand by engaging in a futile run. Any Democrat that did so would be deeply resented by party leaders and even some in the grass roots for doing the Republicans’ dirty work by taking shots at Clinton that would pave the way for even tougher GOP attacks in the general election. What they want is a coronation of Clinton, not a test of her mettle before she asks the voters to make her the first female president.

That means would-be Democratic stars like New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo or Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley or Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will stay out of the 2016 race. That’s left other, less highly regarded figures like former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer making noises about taking on Clinton from the left. Schweitzer might surprise us, but he isn’t the Democrat that Hillary should be worrying about. The real wild card for Democrats in 2016 is the same guy that gave heartburn to the last two Democrat presidents before Obama in primaries: Jerry Brown.

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Since Barack Obama’s reelection, pundits have understandably focused their attention on Hillary Clinton’s intentions to run in 2016. The former secretary of state and first lady is the overwhelming frontrunner for the next Democratic presidential nomination. No other Democrat is anywhere close to Clinton in any poll of possible candidates with even Vice President Joe Biden trailing far behind her. Though one should always be careful about predicting political events this far in advance, with a little more than two years to go until the Iowa caucuses, the nomination is clearly hers for the asking.

But that near certainty hasn’t stopped the speculation about who will challenge Clinton in that caucus and other primaries in the first months of 2016. Unlike the last Democratic go-round when no one chose to play the gadfly and force President Obama to defend his record to party members, Clinton won’t go unopposed. But given the overwhelming odds against such an effort succeeding, the assumption is that no one, except perhaps Biden–who would be a plausible candidate were Clinton not in the running–would dare risk diminishing their political brand by engaging in a futile run. Any Democrat that did so would be deeply resented by party leaders and even some in the grass roots for doing the Republicans’ dirty work by taking shots at Clinton that would pave the way for even tougher GOP attacks in the general election. What they want is a coronation of Clinton, not a test of her mettle before she asks the voters to make her the first female president.

That means would-be Democratic stars like New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo or Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley or Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will stay out of the 2016 race. That’s left other, less highly regarded figures like former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer making noises about taking on Clinton from the left. Schweitzer might surprise us, but he isn’t the Democrat that Hillary should be worrying about. The real wild card for Democrats in 2016 is the same guy that gave heartburn to the last two Democrat presidents before Obama in primaries: Jerry Brown.

The California governor is 75 years and thought by some to be too old to be even thinking about running for president in 2016. Brown is in some respects an artifact of American political history. He has been running for public office for more than 40 years with mixed success. He’s been elected governor of California three times (1974, 1978, 2010) as well as winning terms as the state’s secretary of state (1970) attorney general (2006), and mayor of Oakland (1998, 2002). But he’s also lost a lot of elections, including three runs for president (1976, 1980, and 1992) and one for the U.S. Senate (1982). Brown has said he isn’t ruling out a run, a stance that is fueling some of the speculation about him. There are good reasons to think that someone who will turn 78 in 2016 will take a pass, but the opportunity to play the spoiler may be too tempting.

It is, after all, a role he has played before. In 1976 when Jimmy Carter seemingly had the Democratic nomination sewn up, Brown was a late entry into the race and won several primaries, giving the Georgia governor a good scare before finally losing. His 1980 candidacy flopped as Ted Kennedy assumed the role of chief challenger to Carter. He failed again in 1992 but had more of an impact on the race eventually won by Bill Clinton. He won several primaries in small states and did more to discomfit Clinton in debates than any of the other candidates, especially by being the only one not afraid to bring up his troubled personal life.

Brown entered the national consciousness as “Governor Moonbeam” in the 1970s, but has lasted so long because there is a certain authenticity about a man who has stuck to the same left-wing populist style even as generations, styles, and political trends have come and gone. It is that authenticity as well as his perennial gadfly style that has the potential to unsettle Hillary. A conventional Democrat, especially a male one, has no answer to the push on the part of Clinton’s supporters to elect the first woman to the presidency. But Brown, who delights in playing the outlier, is the kind of person that could attract enough discontented Democrats who are sick of the Clintons to give Hillary reason to worry. As a governor who is perceived as something of a success, he would also be following the playbook of some potential Republican candidates, who realize the public wants candidates who are not tied to the current mess in Washington.

This isn’t to say Brown can beat Hillary Clinton. I don’t think there’s a chance that he would. But he is just offbeat enough to be able to portray her as the ultimate establishment figure and take advantage of it with primary voters who may be willing, as they occasionally have been in the past, to cast protest votes intended to shake up the nominee. With nothing to lose and no prospects for future presidential runs, Jerry Brown might be just the person to make Hillary’s life hell for a few months in 2016.

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