Not a hard choice.
The fact that Iran’s anti-regime protests appear to have died down is not a reason to relax the pressure on Tehran. On the contrary, it’s a reason to increase it through serious sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program as well as its support for terror and regional aggression. The protests will only become a truly mass movement if enough Iranians come to realize what the protesters already have: Contrary to the promise held out by the nuclear deal, Iran can’t have it all. Terror and military aggression are incompatible with a thriving economy.
To understand why more pressure is needed, it’s worth revisiting a New York Times article from November that has been widely but somewhat unfairly derided. In it, reporter Thomas Erdbrink wrote that “The two most popular stars in Iran today—a country with thriving film, theater, and music industries—are not actors or singers but two establishment figures: Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s regional military effort, which is widely seen as a smashing success; and the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the symbol of a reasonable and measured Iran.”
The derision stems from the fact that the protesters assailed both Suleimani’s military adventurism and the government of which Zarif is a pillar, proving that neither is quite as popular as Erdbrink thought. Like many Westerners reporting from abroad, he committed the cardinal error of thinking that the fairly narrow circles he frequents represent the country as a whole. Yet within those circles, his analysis of the status of these two men appears to be accurate. That was made clear by the fact that Tehran’s educated middle classes, who formed the core of Iran’s 2009 protests, largely sat this round out.
And in truth, Suleimani and Zarif deserved star status. Together, they seemed to have severed the inverse relationship between military adventurism and economic wellbeing. Thanks to the nuclear deal Barack Obama signed with Iran in 2015, it seemed as if Iran really could have it all. It could maintain an active nuclear program (enriching uranium, conducting research and development, and replacing old, slow centrifuges with new ones that will make the enrichment process 20 times faster); expand its ballistic missile program; become a regional superpower with control, or at least major influence, over four nearby countries (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen); and still receive sanctions relief worth billions of dollars and have European companies lining up to do business with it, resulting in booming 12 percent growth and plummeting inflation.
That’s precisely why this status was accorded equally to both the “moderate” Zarif and the “hardline” Suleimani, defying the “moderates versus hardliners” prism through which many Westerners misread Iran. Iranians understand quite well that “moderates” and “hardliners” are both part of the ayatollahs’ regime and, in this case, they worked together seamlessly to produce the best of all possible worlds.
Zarif negotiated the nuclear deal, which provided the sanctions relief and the European business interest while Suleimani parlayed it into regional dominance–not merely by orchestrating Iran’s successful military interventions in other countries, but above all by understanding that the nuclear deal enabled Iran to conduct such interventions with impunity. As noted by commentators across the political spectrum–from Samuel Tadros of the conservative Hoover Institute to left-wing Haaretz analyst Zvi Bar’el–both the Obama Administration and the European Union were afraid to penalize Iran’s military adventurism lest Tehran use this as a pretext to quit the nuclear deal.
Iran’s decision to spend most of its sanctions relief on guns rather than butter meant ordinary Iranians saw little improvement in their own situation. Until recently, however, the regime could mollify public anxieties by stalling for time. The money is going to keep pouring in, they’d note, and soon there will be enough for everyone.
But President Trump’s decertification of the nuclear deal in October upended this calculus. European companies became more reluctant to do business with Iran, fearing loss of access to the much more important American market. And new American sanctions on Iran became a real possibility.
Consequently, the continued influx of money was no longer guaranteed. The billions Suleimani spent on his military adventures weren’t necessarily going to be replaced by a flood of European investment, and surging economic growth might once again be crimped by new sanctions. Ordinary Iranians were suddenly back in the pre-nuclear deal world, where the regime’s bad behavior had real economic costs.
In this sense, the media debate over whether the protests were “economic” or “political” was ludicrous. They were both because the protesters understood that their economic woes stemmed from their government’s political choices. That’s why they chanted slogans like “Forget about Palestine, forget about Gaza, think about us” and “Leave Syria alone, think about us instead.”
They also understood that those political choices were a product of the regime’s very nature, which is why they chanted slogans like “Death to the Dictator” and “Death to the Islamic Republic.” The nuclear deal was the Islamic Republic’s best shot at reconciling its desire to export Shi’ite revolution with its need to satisfy its people’s desire for a decent quality of life. If that doesn’t work, the regime clearly doesn’t have any solution to this dilemma and never will.
But if protests are ever to grow to the point that they actually threaten the regime, many more Iranians–especially the middle-class Tehranis who sat this round out–must come to understand this. And easing economic pressure on Iran would send the exact opposite message: that the world actually will let the Islamic Republic have its cake and eat it, too.
Thus to drive home the message that the ayatollahs’ regime is incompatible with economic wellbeing, America must counteract the effect of the nuclear deal by imposing stiff new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missiles, support for terror and military aggression – together with Europe if possible, but alone if necessary. Additionally, assuming Trump signs the nuclear sanctions waiver on January 15, he should make clear that he is doing so only to give Congress, which has been too busy with tax reform to do much else recently, time to pass serious legislation to fix the nuclear deal’s flaws.
The nuclear deal told Iranians they really could have it all. Trump’s job now is to prove that was a delusion.
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The U.S. Must Show Iranians That They Can’t Have It All
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When the Anti-Defamation League tapped Jonathan Greenblatt to serve as its CEO in 2015, there were concerns that the Obama White House alumnus would turn the venerable civil-rights group into an arm of the Democratic Party. Alas, those concerns have proved well-founded. Witness Greenblatt’s letter this week opposing Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s choice for America’s next secretary of state, for the flimsiest of reasons.
Running to more than 5,000 words, the letter accuses the CIA director of fanning bigotry with irresponsible statements about radical Islam. Greenblatt goes so far as to suggest that Pompeo’s attitudes are redolent of classic anti-Semitism. That’s a serious charge. It is also utterly baseless. If Pompeo is “Islamophobic,” then so is the ADL. As it turns out, the secretary of state-designate and the ADL have remarkably similar views on the nature of the Islamist threat.
Let’s compare Pompeo’s allegedly culpable statements with the ADL’s long record of public advocacy on radical Islam, the homegrown Islamist threat, and Islamist ideologues and networks operating in the U.S. homeland.
The Silence of American Muslim Organizations
The ADL fulminates against Pompeo for suggesting that some American Muslim organizations don’t go far enough in condemning terrorism and the ideologies that inspire it. Here’s Greenblatt’s letter:
In the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing when responsible leaders were attempting to calm interfaith tensions, Mr. Pompeo did the opposite. . . . Despite the numerous and repeated condemnations of extremism that Muslims and Muslim leaders had voiced, then-Rep. Pompeo said that ‘silence in the face of extremism coming from the best funded Islamic advocacy organizations, and many mosques across America, is absolutely deafening.’
Yet the ADL has also criticized American Muslim organizations for failing to condemn terrorism unequivocally, and in terms that have been as harsh if not harsher than Pompeo’s. Consider the ADL’s profile of the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, one of the largest and most visible of such groups. “CAIR’s stated commitment to ‘justice and mutual understanding,’” the ADL argued,
. . . is undermined by its anti-Israel agenda. . . . While CAIR has denounced specific acts of terrorism in the U.S. and abroad, for many years it refused to unequivocally condemn Palestinian terror organizations and Hebzollah by name. . . . CAIR’s more recent criticism on Hezbollah began only when the terrorist organization stopped focusing solely on Israel and began engaging in military operations against Sunni Muslim fighters in Syria and Iraq.
In 2010—three years before Pompeo made his speech on the House floor calling on American Muslim organizations to more forcefully condemn terror—the ADL described major Muslim-American organizations’ anti-radicalization efforts as “a sham.” The ADL news release read:
As the number of American Muslim extremists allegedly involved in terror plots in the U.S. and abroad continues to grow, major Muslim-American organizations have publicly acknowledged the existence of a problem in their community and vowed to tackle it head on. But the initial efforts to root out radicalization—announced by a few of these groups in the wake of the arrests in Pakistan of five Muslim-American students from Virginia for allegedly attempting to join a terrorist group—has proven to be a sham and a cover for anti-Semitism and extremism, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
So much for Greenblatt’s claim that Pompeo’s concerns about Muslim organizations made the then-congressman an outlier in the American conversation about Islamism and terror. That is, unless Greenblatt is willing to concede that the ADL, too, was bigoted and out of the mainstream as recently as a few years ago.
Homegrown Radical Islamic Networks
The ADL’s letter also takes Pompeo to task for allegedly promoting a “conspiracy theory that a fifth column of Muslims exists in the United States with the express purpose of undermining the country.” To prove the charge, the ADL quotes from a 2014 interview with Pompeo in which he said:
There are organizations and networks here in the United States tied to radical Islam in deep and fundamental ways, and they’re not just in places like Libya, and Syria, and Iraq, but in places like Coldwater, Kansas and small towns all throughout America. This network is real. The efforts to expand the caliphate are not limited to the physical geography of the Middle East or in the other places where there are large Muslim majorities.
The ADL also quoted from a 2015 speech in which then-Congressman Pompeo said:
I don’t think that you can define the challenge by geography but rather we have a military, political, and diplomatic challenge and a faith-driven challenge to figure out how to contain what is not a small minority inside the Islamic faith that believes in much of what it is we are facing in the Middle East today and the threats that we face here in America as well.
To summarize Pompeo’s views, he believes, first, that there are radical-Islamic networks that operate in the American heartland, and, second, that the Islamist threat is not a geographic one but an ideological and globe-spanning challenge to Western security. Well, the ADL has long suggested the same things, sometimes in nearly identical language.
Here’s a statement from an ADL report marking a decade after 9/11:
The ideologies of extreme intolerance that motivated the 19 hijackers responsible for carrying out the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks continue to pose a serious threat to the U.S.
While no attacks of that magnitude have been successful on American soil in the ten years since 9/11, one of the most striking elements of today’s terror threat picture is the role that a growing number of American citizens and residents motivated by radical interpretations of Islam have played in criminal plots to attack Americans in the United States and abroad.
Although they do not constitute a fully coherent movement in the U.S., more and more American citizens and residents are being influenced by ideologies that justify and sanction violence commonly propagated by Islamic terrorist movements overseas.
In addition to disagreements with perceived American actions against Muslims around the world, these extremists believe that the West (and America specifically) is at war with Islam and it is the duty of Muslims to defend the global Muslim community through violent means. They come from diverse backgrounds and, as a whole, do not easily fit a specific profile. About one fourth are converts to Islam who embrace the most extreme interpretations of the religion.
Likewise, in a 2013 report on homegrown Islamism that was published in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, the ADL noted:
The Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013 served as a tragic reminder of the persistent threat posed to the United States by homegrown extremists motivated by the ideologies and objectives commonly propagated by Islamic terrorist movements overseas. The bombing also underscored the significant influence and impact of online terrorist propaganda on a new generation of homegrown Islamic extremists.
As Internet proficiency and the use of social media grow ever-more universal, so too do the efforts of terrorist groups to exploit new technology in order to make materials that justify and sanction violence more accessible and practical. Terrorist groups are not only using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and various other platforms to spread their messages, but also to actively recruit adherents who live in the communities they seek to target. . . .
While the fundamental ideological content of terrorist propaganda has remained consistent for two decades—replete with militant condemnations of perceived American transgressions against Muslims worldwide, appeals for violence and anti-Semitism—terrorists groups are now able to reach, recruit and motivate homegrown extremists more quickly and effectively than ever before by adapting their messages to new technology. One clear indication of the success of these efforts is the number of homegrown extremists that have been found in possession of terrorist propaganda.
Although most homegrown Islamic extremists have lacked the capacity to carry out violent attacks—plots have been foiled by law enforcement at various stages—the Boston bombing showed how two brothers influenced by online terrorist propaganda can terrorize our communities and undermine our security.
The ADL, then, acknowledged the ideological nature of the Islamist threat and its homegrown dimension. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If Pompeo’s remarks are beyond the pale, so are the ADL’s positions. Senators weighing Pompeo’s fitness to serve as America’s top diplomat can be forgiven for dismissing this cheap attempt at sliming him. It is the ADL’s donors and supporters who should be asking tough questions—of Greenblatt.
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"I don't get confused."
Nikki Haley, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, is not confused. “With all due respect,” she said in a pithy and empowering statement to Fox News anchor Dana Perino, “I don’t get confused.”
She issued this pointed assertion in response to National Economic Council chief Larry Kudlow, who accused Haley of getting “ahead of the curve” and suffering a “momentary confusion” when she announced on Sunday morning that the Trump administration planned more punitive sanctions on Moscow over its support for the murderous Assad regime in Syria. But Haley seems to have been on firm ground when she made those remarks.
Shortly after Donald Trump’s address last Friday night announcing strikes on Syrian targets, the Republican National Committee distributed to its surrogates a set of “White House talking points” previewing a new round of “specific additional sanctions against Russia.” President Donald Trump reportedly intervened as late as Sunday night to put a halt to a policy that was all but in motion. The only person who was confused here seems to have been the president. Kudlow later apologized for his remarks about Haley’s competence.
The bewildering 24-hour period between the coordinated announcement of new Russia sanction and the administration’s retreat from that policy is typical of this administration. The source of the White House’s confusion is not hard to identify.
Before Haley suffered the insults of those dedicated to insulating Donald Trump from the consequences of his indecision and ambiguity, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the man in the barrel. Tillerson surely thought he was representing American diplomatic interests when he revealed last September that the U.S. was “probing” North Korea for an opening that might lead to direct negotiations. “Save your energy, Rex,” the president tweeted. The comment cut the legs out from under his chief diplomat, who he said was “wasting his time” by seeking talks with the Kim regime.
When Tillerson conspicuously continued to lobby the North Korean government for an introductory first meeting “without precondition,” a spokesperson for the president’s National Security Council corrected him. There could be no talks, the NSC spokesman said, until North Korea stops testing missiles and nuclear devices for an unspecified period of time. “The President’s views on North Korea have not changed,” the White House said. But the White House was engaging in back-channel communications with the Kim regime with the goal of a face-to-face encounter between both nations’ principals.
The president’s Northeast Asia policy is about as clear as his Middle East policy. When Trump announced to an Ohio crowd in late March that the U.S. would withdraw its approximately 2,000 troops from Syria “very soon,” to let “the other people take care of it,” it came as a surprise to his administration. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said she was “unaware” of any plan to pull troops out of Syria, and Pentagon officials had spent that same week previewing plans to augment U.S. deployments to Syria. The White House later disclosed that Trump had been convinced of the virtue of maintaining a footprint in Syria indefinitely.
In fact, the president has a bad habit of forcing his staff and allies to clean up after his messes.
When Donald Trump explicitly agreed to a Democratic proposal to make the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program permanent without reciprocal border security legislation at an on-camera meeting with legislators, he had to be reminded that his comment did not reflect the GOP’s position. The transcript of the event was initially written to omit the president’s injudicious comments.
In a similar meeting with lawmakers regarding American gun policy, Donald Trump declared his support for legislative measures that would expeditiously strip guns from the hands of potentially dangerous people. Due process rights, he said, were a secondary consideration. The remarks sent Trump’s GOP allies reeling, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders quickly dialed the president’s position back to one that was recognizably Republican.
Former Press Secretary Sean Spicer has had to correct the president for misstating the number of Guantanamo Bay detainees released under the Obama administration. In response to Trump’s comments about the value of raciallycharged protests that culminated in violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, the White House released a statement clarifying that Trump “of course” condemns white supremacists.
The White House has had to walk back Trump’s criticism of German trade policy, his claims about specific terrorist events in Sweden, his support for blanket tariffs on a variety of commodities, his intention to leave three college basketball players in a Chinese prison in response to personal criticism from one of the player’s fathers, and a statement about whether or not the travel ban was (as Trump called it) a “ban.”
The White House corrected the president’s myriad eye-popping assertions made before an audience of Boy Scouts last year, confirming that no one called Trump to congratulate him on “the greatest speech that was ever made” before this audience. They were also compelled to admit that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto did not call Trump to confess that the flow of Central American migrants north through Mexico had ebbed to a trickle as a result of Trump’s policies on the border.
Trump has reserved for himself both sides of the issue when it’s come to major U.S. policy initiatives such removing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accords, corporate tax rates, whether ObamaCare will be stabilized or allowed to “explode,” and almost every aspect of America’s strategic relationship with Russia. Trump has promised to eliminate the carried-interest loophole, reduce individual tax brackets to just three tiers, and create targeted tax credits for working parents with elderly or young dependents—proposals Congress simply ignored.
If there is confusion within the administration as to what Donald Trump’s policy preferences are at any given moment, the president only has himself to blame. Nikki Haley might have been the first administration official to refuse to take the fall for Trump’s lack of clarity, but she is unlikely to be the last.
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Podcast: North Korea talks and Trump's legal troubles.
On our latest COMMENTARY podcast we wonder at the fact that Democrats are going to vote en masse against Mike Pompeo as secretary of state for no real reason other than that they don’t like Trump—and how this marks the fulfillment of a degradation in the advise-and-consent process that’s been accelerating for the past couple of decades. Also, we talk about Stormy Daniels, alas. Give a listen.
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The other last refuge.
Someone in the 19th century (Mark Twain attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli, but that’s dubious) said that there are three forms of lying: lies, damned lies, and statistics. If you would like a beautiful example of the last category of mendacity, check out David Leonhardt’s April 15th column in the New York Times, entitled (try not to laugh) “The Democrats Are the Party of Fiscal Responsibility.”
In it, he compared the deficits run up by each Democratic and Republican administration from Jimmy Carter on to the present with the GDP of that time. Precisely how he did this is anything but clear. Is he, perhaps, confusing the debt with the deficit? For instance, he has the ratio for George H. W. Bush’s term as 0.4 percentage points. But the total deficits in those years were $932 billion and the total GDP was $23.9 trillion. That’s 3.8 percentage points. And how the national debt could double in eight unprosperous years under Obama while the “change in deficit, in percentage points of GDP” went down 0.1 percent is totally mystifying
Thus, Leonhardt committed the cardinal sin of statistics: using obscure methodology, which is the way people lie with statistics—presuming they are not just making the numbers up.
Whatever his methodology, Leonhardt was comparing apples and oranges. For instance, he ignores such factors as the raging inflation of the Carter years, when income tax brackets were not adjusted for inflation, pushing people into higher and higher brackets when their real income had not increased at all (This, of course, was one of the reasons why Carter carried fewer states in 1980 than Herbert Hoover won in 1932).
Leonhardt implicitly ascribed to the president the power to shape the budget and, thus, the deficit. But presidents have been effectively bit players when it comes to federal spending levels since the wildly misnamed Budget Control Act of 1974. It was not Bill Clinton who slew the deficit dragon in the 1990’s but the Congress, which the public transferred to Republican control in 1994 for the first time in 40 years following an outcry over Democratic profligacy. The Republican Congress increased spending by a mere 18 percent between 1995 and 2000, while the roaring economy increased tax revenues by 51 percent.
Nor did Leonhardt take into account the phony accounting the federal government uses to obscure reality. Officially, we ran surpluses (meaning, by definition, that income exceeded outgo) in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001. But the national debt went up, not down, in each of those four years.
Nor did he take into account the fact that recessions cause government spending to go up and government revenues to go down—something quite beyond the control of Congress or the President. The brutal recession of the early 1980’s (when unemployment reached 10.8 percent), for instance, skewed Reagan’s numbers while Carter’s four years were largely recession-free.
There’s plenty of blame for both parties, of course. As Jesse Unruh famously said, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” But in the last forty years, the only time the federal government made a serious, sustained effort to rein in the deficit was when a Republican Congress was writing the checks.