Yesterday’s meeting between President Obama and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas brought no surprises. In contrast to the frosty reception that greeted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu two weeks ago, Abbas basked in Obama’s praise. In his public remarks the president also chose to emphasize those elements of the U.S.-sponsored framework for Middle East peace that conform to some of the Palestinians’ demands, such as a state along the 1967 borders with mutually agreed territorial swaps. But though the president also said that the Palestinians needed to take risks for peace, there was none of the heavy-handed pressure or criticism of Abbas that Netanyahu received. Nor was there even a mention of the need for Abbas to say the two little words that would guarantee a surge of Israeli support for concessions to the Palestinians: “Jewish state.”
Abbas didn’t miss the significance of that omission, which was foreshadowed by Secretary of State Kerry’s complaint last week about the necessity of making the Palestinians make a statement signaling the end of their war to destroy Israel. As the New York Times noted in a story published today, the president seems to be at pains to “right the balance” in the negotiations. Apparently, the White House has come to the conclusion that Secretary Kerry’s efforts to revive the peace process have been too focused on measures intended to convince Israelis that the Palestinians are finally ready for peace or guarantee their security in the event a deal is struck. The president appears to think it’s time to shift back to the combative tone he struck toward Israel during most of his first term prior to his election-year Jewish charm offensive. Even though the Israelis have shown that they will accept Kerry’s framework that reportedly includes a Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, Obama’s intention seems to be aimed at placing the onus for the potential failure of the talks squarely on the Israelis.
That’s good news for Abbas who has made it clear he has no intention of agreeing to the framework. But it begs the question of whether Obama is more interested in venting his spleen at Netanyahu or brokering peace.
Israelis will, no doubt, be surprised to learn that the administration thinks it has spent the last few months tilting the diplomatic playing field in their direction. After all, it was the Jewish state that paid a high price in terms of U.S. pressure that demanded the release of more than 100 terrorist murderers in order to persuade Abbas to come back to the negotiating table. And it was Israel that was the prime focus of pressure from Kerry throughout the first months of the talks as the secretary threatened it with a new intifada and growing economic boycotts if they failed to make sufficient concessions to the Palestinians in statements that appeared to justify such acts.
Kerry included in his framework the Jewish state demand as well as more concrete measures aimed at ensuring that the new Palestinian state would not pose a security threat to Israel. In doing so Kerry was rightly seeking an agreement that would actually bring a conclusion to the conflict rather than a pause before the Palestinians resumed it on more advantageous terms. But that was apparently too much for both the Palestinians and their friend in the White House. Thus, rather than using this visit by Abbas to pressure him to say those two little words and to recognize that peace must be final, the president appears to have employed it as a signal to Israel to back off lest it be blamed for the collapse of the talks.
The president is being assisted in this gambit by a liberal mainstream news media that knows how to pick up on administration cues. The headline on the Times article, “Jewish State Declaration is Unyielding Block to a Deal,” made it clear that Washington wants to leave no doubt that even though it is Abbas that is the one who is saying “no” to a peace framework, they blame the Jews for asking him to do something unreasonable.
Abbas’s refusal to take the steps necessary to make peace is nothing new when you consider that he and his predecessor Yasir Arafat have already turned down three Israeli offers of peace and statehood. This has been a consistent pattern for the PA. As the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl noted on Sunday, Abbas thinks he can get away with this because the Obama administration has no intention of pressuring him or holding him accountable for Palestinian incitement, terror connections, or diplomatic intransigence.
If the president were genuinely interested in pursuing peace he would be hammering the Palestinians for their behavior and making it clear they would pay a high price for saying no to Kerry’s framework. Instead, he has given Abbas carte blanche to maintain the same obdurate stance he has taken since he took over the PA from his longtime boss Arafat.
What will this accomplish? It won’t advance the cause of peace. But it will make it easier for Israel’s critics to blame Netanyahu for the inevitable collapse of Kerry’s effort and serve to rationalize the violence and the boycotts the secretary threatened the Jewish state with. All Obama is doing is setting up Israel to take the fall for a fourth Palestinian “no” to peace.
Obama Setting Israel Up to Take the Blame
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Is Iran becoming a Chinese proxy?
More than two years after Secretary of State John Kerry and his European Union counterpart Federica Mogherini acquiesced to the last Iranian demands and signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, has the threat from Iran actually diminished?
Iran’s ballistic missile program continues to expand rapidly. Yesterday, Iran inaugurated its new launch facility by sending a rocket into low earth orbit. The same technology could be used to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.
For those living in the Middle East, the idea that the Iranian threat has diminished is laughable. Tehran continues to eviscerate Lebanon from the inside out through its proxy, Hezbollah. More than 1,000 Iranians have died fighting in Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Iran has stepped up its efforts to undermine both Yemen and Bahrain.
Rather than show any indication that it seeks rapprochement with the West, Iran increasingly appears to be using its relationship with China and Russia to stymie the West. Consider the following from the Iranian press: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ special airborne unit is training in China with Chinese special forces, who are drilling the Iranians on artillery as well as parachuting and jumping from Chinese Z8KA helicopters.
Given the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in projecting Iranian power, as well as training proxy forces and terrorist groups, it’s not a leap to believe that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps might take the lessons learned in China and transmit them to Hezbollah, Hamas, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
Kerry myopically viewed diplomacy as a compromise to resolve conflict. He never understood—and his aides were too ambitious to warn him—that countries like Iran, China, and Russia often use diplomacy insincerely as an asymmetric strategy to advance their own power while hamstringing the United States. That does not mean that diplomacy is not valuable; it remains a tool of statecraft. But to enter into it naively severely undercuts the security of the United States and its allies.
Tweeting his way into obscurity.
Exactly two years ago yesterday, I published a blog post on this site called Trump: The Case for Despairing—About America. I wrote: “The issue with Trump is that his approach can only be called ‘the politics of unseriousness.’ He engages with no issue, merely offers a hostile and pithy soundbite bromide about it. He yammers. He describes how wonderful things will be when he acts against something or other without explaining how he will act, what he will do, or how it will work.”
Reader, we married him. He is our president. And his unseriousness just played a key role in the disastrous fate of the Republican effort to save the country from ObamaCare.
Remember that it was Trump, in the weeks before his inauguration, who went on “60 Minutes” and insisted that repealing ObamaCare and replacing it simply had to happen at the same moment. That announcement—made with little or no preparation or forethought, it won’t surprise you to recall—instantly made the job of coming up with a political strategy to secure victories on health care vastly more difficult.
It was also a mark of that unseriousness. Here’s what I mean: Say a President Trump who was a different sort of person had convened meetings during the transition period to devise a long-term strategy for the passage of health-care reform legislation. In those meetings, all kinds of obvious scenarios could have been gamed out, including the nature of the attacks against reform. With those scenarios in mind, arguments could have been devised to counter the attacks.
For example, on the question of “lost” coverage, Republicans could have commissioned studies to demonstrate (as Avik Roy detailed last week) that the vast majority of those who would “lose” coverage would be people who chose to do so as adults in a free marketplace. With such studies in hand even before the possible legislation had been proposed, studies showing 6 million rather than 24 million would be thrown out of the marketplace, strategies to provide them with stopgap coverage could then have been devised and announced before the attacks came.
This is what a serious effort to enact health-care reform would have entailed—both a substantive approach to answer weaknesses in the GOP effort and a communications approach to go on the offensive to explain why this would be better than the status quo.
There was nothing. Trump wandered around the White House eating two scoops of ice cream and watching TV and tweeting. He left the communicating to Republicans on Capitol Hill, who proved uniquely incapable of making any kind of case for anything. But cut them some slack—with no administration involvement whatever, they were both shaping bills and trying to keep Republicans on board and figuring out tricky ways to pass legislation without triggering the need for 60 Senate votes. For them also to be in charge of selling the bill when selling isn’t really part of either Paul Ryan’s or Mitch McConnell’s skill set was jawdroppingly negligent.
There is only one possible salesman for a major national shift in policy, and that is the president of the United States. And Trump is a salesman. The problem is he knows only how to sell himself. He has no clue how to sell anything else.
Ryan and McConnell had to focus on bringing together people with wildly varying constituencies and purposes, and basically ended up throwing crap against the walls to see what would stick. The final humiliation of the process on Thursday—in which the Senate basically agreed to debate a bill that night that had only come into existence at lunchtime—was the necessary end result of seven months in which the president of the United States ate up all the oxygen in Washington with his ugly, petty, seething, resentful rages and foolishnesses as expressed in 140 illiterate characters.
There is plenty of blame to go around, of course. But this failure was in the cards the minute Trump both limited his party’s freedom of action by blathering ignorantly on national television and decided to conduct his presidency as though he were Judge Judy.
A bell that can't be un-rung.
Let me get this straight. Last night, Republicans in the Senate were virtually paralyzed with the fear that the bill on which they were voting “aye” might actually become law. They were so terrified, in fact, that some key senators would only vote for the measure with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s assurances that his chamber would never pass “skinny repeal” outright. Only by the slimmest of margins did the bill that no one wanted to see become law fail when Senator John McCain surprisingly voted “no.” And now everyone is mad at McCain for killing a bill that they all hated anyway.
This confused and humiliating debacle puts a period on the GOP’s first attempt to repeal ObamaCare by applying the political capital they’ve accumulated from six years of promising to repeal it. The word “first” is key. Many assume that the GOP now has a choice; maybe they rethink the reformation of the Affordable Care Act (or try another attempt at repeal), or maybe they move on to other items on the agenda. The reality is that health care is never going to go away for either party.
Republicans are now obliged to administer ObamaCare. A Republican-led White House oversees subsidies to insurers to defer the cost of low-income ObamaCare enrollees. Donald Trump has on more than one occasion threatened to close off the spigot and allow ObamaCare to wither on the vine. The GOP in Congress, too, will have to own the Affordable Care Act. Every time they pass a budget or a continuing resolution, they will be ratifying the Affordable Care Act’s taxes and passing that on to the president to sign.
Even absent Republican meddling, ObamaCare is not stable. Despite an infusion of $2.4 billion in tax dollars, 20 of 24 ObamaCare non-profit health insurance cooperatives have collapsed. The National Alliance of State Health Cooperatives, which represented those cooperative efforts to compete with private sector insurers, has closed its doors.
Insurers continue to flee the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges. When Trump took the oath of office, there were 1,000 counties served by only a single insurance provider (with a handful of counties utterly bereft of participating insurers). That trend has only accelerated. Amid an exodus, Iowa’s last major Affordable Care Act insurer threatened to pull out of the exchanges—leaving the state without ACA-linked insurance in 2018. In May, Aetna abandoned Virginia. Humana pulled out of Tennessee in February. Blue Cross Blue Shield has picked up the slack in some places but, in Alabama, for example, it spends $1.20 for every $1 it collects in premiums. This is not a sustainable status quo.
Democrats appear genuinely convinced that the 1,000 seats their party lost over the course of the Obama years were the result of mass hysteria from which the nation has finally awoken. They seem to think that the fever has broken, and the public is now convinced that this onerous law is popular in its own right and not just when compared to Republican alternatives. The system is broken, and someone has to repair it. Even if it becomes the Union siege of Fredericksburg, in which wave after wave was mowed down by dug-in defenders, Republicans are obliged to keep making runs at Obamacare. The Democrats, too, will have to “fix” the law, as so many insist they must. By 2016, even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were resigned to the fact that legislation to relieve the stress on insurers was an imperative. But what the Democratic Congress wants isn’t what the party’s liberal activist base wants.
Republicans performed a politically savvy maneuver on Thursday evening (yes, just one) by compelling their Democratic counterparts to vote on a “Medicare-for-all” single-payer national health plan. The bait drew precisely zero votes in favor, with 43 Democrats opting only to vote “present.” Centrist Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, Jon Tester, and Jo Donnelly and Independent Sen. Angus King contributed to a total of 57 “no” votes. Congressional Democrats’ trouble getting to yes on single payer isn’t all about tactics. A June effort to pass a single-payer system in the state of California failed because, as Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon wrote, it failed to address major hurdles including delivery of care, cost controls, and, most important, financing. The program was estimated to cost $400 billion per year—more than twice the state budget in 2017. At a national scale, a single payer program would be a struggle to finance. Democratic lawmakers may soon find themselves as shackled to the unrealistic hopes of their base voters as are Republicans today.
Republicans surely would like to move on to reforming the tax code for the first time since 1986, but that won’t be a simple task. All the while, the taxes in the Affordable Care Act and the revenue dedicated to it will hinder their efforts. Democrats, too, would love to be able to move on from the Affordable Care Act, but they are similarly doomed forever to tinker with “fixes”—at least until their liberal base voters cobble together a party in which nationalized health care is the consensus. Even if lawmakers wanted to move on from health care, they can’t.
Sleepwalking toward a revolution.
The most important news of the week was buried underneath an avalanche of dispatches involving palace intrigue in the White House and the Republican Party’s effort to deconstruct the Affordable Care Act. A team of scientists at the Oregon Health and Science University had, according to the MIT Technology Review, used a relatively new gene-editing technique to alter the DNA of a single-cell human embryo.
“Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans,” the report read. This represents the first known (emphasis on known) effort to genetically modify a human embryo, and it won’t be the last.
The speed with which this scientific milestone was reached has outpaced society’s ability to process it. Already, the outlines of a conflict over the nature of this practice—its ethicality, its utility, and its displacing effects on the American workforce—are visible, but no one seems prepared to talk about them. What was once science fiction is perfectly thinkable today. It’s time to do some thinking.
First, it is incumbent upon Americans of all political stripes—not just conservatives or the faithful—to consider the moral implications of embryonic genetic engineering. In April of 2015, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins issued a statement pledging that “NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos,” but this prohibition does not apply to private endeavors. Public ethos guides private industry, but what is public philosophy regarding the interference with genetic destiny?
Are we obliged to eradicate genetic disorders? Is it unethical not to intervene in the development of an embryo if we have the capacity to alleviate future suffering and hardship? Is it morally questionable to select for various cosmetic traits that prospective parents might find desirable? Do we engage in this process of upending the natural order without knowing the long-term effects of genetic manipulation? Is a modified population a form of eugenics?
This leads us to ponder the public-policy implications of a world in which genetic modification is a fact of life. NIH guidelines will constrain some in the United States from overreaching, but every nation will have its own standards, and genetic medical tourism is undoubtedly the industry of the future. Should Congress seek to limit or even prohibit the practice of elective embryonic genetic engineering? Is such a notion constitutional, to say nothing of economically and socially advantageous?
The American right is guaranteed to be suspicious of an activity that intervenes in the spheres of natural life previously exclusive to the divine. “I don’t trust ‘the scientists’ to regulate themselves,” wrote National Review’s Wesley Smith. “Mr. President: We need a presidential bioethics/biotechnology commission now!” A commission is fine, but one with an eye toward restricting technological advance is swimming against the tide. Scientific achievement cannot be prevented—Pandora’s Box cannot be un-opened, and it is far better that the person doing the opening is someone subject to laws and mores than someone beyond those constraints. Smith’s fear is, however, valid. It’s reminiscent of the way in which automation crashed over the American economy like a tsunami.
Simple robots have been stealing away from Americans the ability to be paid for the completion of rote tasks for over a generation, but it was the onset of artificial intelligence that truly upended the economy. Only in the last few years were occupations previously thought immune to the effects of technology imperiled; office administration, sales and service jobs, and transportation may all headed for the chopping block. In February of 2016, Citibank in coordination with the University of Oxford predicted that automation will threaten 47 percent of existing U.S. jobs.
The effect of this radically disruptive technological revolution on American politics is only just beginning to be felt. What seemed like science fiction only a few years ago—for example, increasingly ubiquitous self-piloted commercial and military vehicles and self-service kiosks at food and retail outlets—are a reality today. And they will create an army of otherwise unemployable low-skilled workers who demand some legislative remedy for their condition. Is the prospect of a stratified, dystopian society envisioned in films like “Gattaca” so hard to envision? If not, how can it be prevented before those class structures become intractable? Is genetic modification at birth a privilege reserved for the nation’s wealthiest, or should all Americans have access to a potentially life-saving therapy?
These all seem like far-fetched questions today, but they might be standard in only five or ten years. Society’s capacity to cope with technological advance is not infrequently outpaced by the speed of those advances, and genetic modification will surely not buck that trend. It is, however, incumbent upon us to think about the consequences of that civilization-shaping breakthrough; what could go wrong, how it will benefit mankind, and how best to guide its development. The American right has as many modern Ned Ludds as do their progressive counterparts. There will be those who rage against technological advance as though it could be stopped, but it cannot. Therefore, it’s time to ask a number of uncomfortable questions. They’ll be answered one way or another, with us or without.
Podcast: Is it a purge or a plan? Or both!
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I get into it with Noah Rothman on whether the president’s behavior toward his attorney general and the new White House communications director’s conduct toward the White House chief of staff constitute a “plan” of action or whether we are just living through nihilistic chaos. Where does Abe Greenwald come out? You’ll have to give a listen.
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