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The Threat From the Hamas-ISIS Connection

To listen to both Hamas and ISIS, the two Islamist terror groups are enemies. As Foreign Policy noted back in May, Hamas views the Islamic State as a threat to its despotic hold on power in Gaza and destroyed a mosque affiliated with its followers. ISIS returns the sentiment, condemning Hamas for its brutal rule and vowing as recently as this week that it will topple them. What then should we make of the news coming out of Israel this week that Hamas provided vital help to ISIS’s deadly terror attack on Egyptian security forces in the Sinai. No doubt some of Hamas’s apologists will dismiss the claim as an attempt by Israel to discredit an enemy in the eyes of the West. But given the scale of the Sinai attack it is hard to believe that ISIS would have been able to pull it off without serious assistance and the only possible source of that help would have to be Hamas-ruled Gaza. If true, this should not only heighten concerns about the spread of ISIS throughout the Middle East but also call into question some of the assumptions that many in the foreign policy establishment have held about Hamas being a stabilizing rather than a purely destructive force in the region.

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To listen to both Hamas and ISIS, the two Islamist terror groups are enemies. As Foreign Policy noted back in May, Hamas views the Islamic State as a threat to its despotic hold on power in Gaza and destroyed a mosque affiliated with its followers. ISIS returns the sentiment, condemning Hamas for its brutal rule and vowing as recently as this week that it will topple them. What then should we make of the news coming out of Israel this week that Hamas provided vital help to ISIS’s deadly terror attack on Egyptian security forces in the Sinai. No doubt some of Hamas’s apologists will dismiss the claim as an attempt by Israel to discredit an enemy in the eyes of the West. But given the scale of the Sinai attack it is hard to believe that ISIS would have been able to pull it off without serious assistance and the only possible source of that help would have to be Hamas-ruled Gaza. If true, this should not only heighten concerns about the spread of ISIS throughout the Middle East but also call into question some of the assumptions that many in the foreign policy establishment have held about Hamas being a stabilizing rather than a purely destructive force in the region.

As the Times of Israel reports, Israeli military intelligence has made public the fact that Hamas provided both military support to the ISIS operation that killed dozens of Egyptian but has also helped bring wounded ISIS terrorists out of Sinai into Gaza. The Israelis say they have direct proof of involvement in this week’s atrocity and also evidence that leading members of the Hamas’s military wing have been directly involved in assistance to ISIS.

Given the public hostility between the two groups, how is that possible?

The answer to that question comes in two parts. The first relates to the difference between public stances and political reality. The other is a function of the old saying about the enemy of my enemy being my friend.

It would be foolish to think that Hamas and ISIS don’t regard each other with hostility. Hamas rightly fears the growth of any Islamist group that might outflank it by posing as being even more belligerent and bloodthirsty than it may be. Hamas has dealt harshly with any potential rival in Gaza, be it the mainstream Fatah Palestinian party that rules the West Bank or the more radical Islamic Jihad. Hamas regards any rival faction as an enemy by definition and treats them accordingly.

By the same token, ISIS regards all those that won’t recognize the authority of its so-called “caliphate” as foes to be killed without mercy. Its rise throughout the region has been fueled in part by posing as a defender of Islamic values against corrupt elites. Though this is the same game that Hamas played as it gained a foothold in Palestinian politics at the expense of Fatah, they fit nicely into the same role that the corrupt party of Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas played for them. Hamas is every bit as tyrannical as any other Arab or Muslim regime and ISIS clearly thinks it can gain by pretending to be better.

Yet to think of ISIS and Hamas as being in a state of war may be to overestimate their hostility and underrate their grasp of political reality. Hamas doesn’t so much fear ISIS as it does worry about a wild card group making decisions for them about war with Israel at a moment when they might prefer to continue the truce with the Jewish state. Similarly, ISIS has enough on its plate fighting in Syria and Iraq against forces that would like to see it destroyed without opening up a new front in Gaza at a moment when its strength there is minuscule compared to the enormous military that Hamas can deploy against Israel.

But despite animosity and distrust, it is more than obvious that both Hamas and ISIS share a common enemy in Egypt. The Sisi government in Cairo is dedicated to the eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood and regards Hamas, which was founded by Brotherhood supporters and whose help to the group during the unrest in Egypt was included in the charges against former President Mohammed Morsi, as a hostile entity. Egypt is even more determined to isolate Gaza than Israel. In that sense, the Hamas-ISIS connection is a natural alliance.

That’s why Hamas has a vested interest in creating more chaos in Sinai than exists along its border with Israel. No matter what their opinion of each other might be, Hamas understands that the Egyptian government is a far more dangerous threat to its continued survival than is Israel. Under the circumstances it doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to believe that Israel’s intelligence about Hamas’s involvement in ISIS activities in Sinai has the ring of truth.

This realization ought to do more than cause concern in both Cairo and Jerusalem. The Sinai had already been transformed into something of a Wild West for terror in the years since a bloody Hamas coup allowed the group to seize control of the independent Palestinian state (in all but name) that currently exists in Gaza. But with ISIS moving into the void of security that the Sinai has become, a low level conflict with terrorists may be about to turn into something far more serious.

More to the point, this tacit alliance between otherwise rival Islamist terror groups ought to cause some foreign policy experts who have regarded Western acquiescence toward Hamas’s continued grip on Gaza as a given to rethink that assumption. If Gaza is no longer merely a launching pad for rockets and tunnels aimed at terrorizing Israelis but is also a base for terror aimed at toppling moderate Arab governments, continued tolerance of its sovereignty in Gaza is not only morally wrong; it is a suicidal proposition for the West.

Just as the Israelis have refrained from toppling Hamas in Gaza lest they be stuck governing the dysfunctional strip, so too do Western nations have a distaste for regime change in the strip. But perhaps it is time that those who were so quick to criticize Israel for launching a counter-attack against Gaza-based terrorism last summer realize that the perpetuation of Hamas rule there is a threat to more than the Jewish state. So long as an Islamist terror group has a secure base next to both Egypt and Israel and is getting aid from Iran, it is reasonable to assume that it will be undermining the security of both of those states as well as the rest of the region.

Rather than seeking to loosen up the blockade of Gaza that Israel and Egypt have been enforcing to limit Hamas’s ability to project terror abroad, perhaps the West should understand that pressure on the Islamist state needs to be heightened not diminished.

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Gaza Flotilla Activists Brought Hate, Not Aid

We all knew that the latest Gaza flotilla that attempted to land on the coast was a publicity stunt rather than an actual effort to bring assistance to the Palestinians. After all, international organizations can ship genuine humanitarian aid into Gaza via the Israeli land route. But instead they chose to try and run the naval blockade put in place to ensure that shiploads of non-humanitarian supplies like Iranian-supplied weapons don’t reach the terrorist Hamas government. But it turns out that all these so-called human rights advocates were bringing to Gaza was moral support for the right of the Islamist regime there to oppress Palestinians and wage war on Israel. After the Swedish-registered ship Marianne was detained and brought to Israel, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon dismissed the effort by revealing that the Navy discovered “there was no aid on the board” after examining the vessel. When queried about this by the Washington Post, members of the so-called Freedom Flotilla Coalition claimed Yaalon was wrong and sent a photograph to prove it. What did they bring? Two cardboard boxes.

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We all knew that the latest Gaza flotilla that attempted to land on the coast was a publicity stunt rather than an actual effort to bring assistance to the Palestinians. After all, international organizations can ship genuine humanitarian aid into Gaza via the Israeli land route. But instead they chose to try and run the naval blockade put in place to ensure that shiploads of non-humanitarian supplies like Iranian-supplied weapons don’t reach the terrorist Hamas government. But it turns out that all these so-called human rights advocates were bringing to Gaza was moral support for the right of the Islamist regime there to oppress Palestinians and wage war on Israel. After the Swedish-registered ship Marianne was detained and brought to Israel, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon dismissed the effort by revealing that the Navy discovered “there was no aid on the board” after examining the vessel. When queried about this by the Washington Post, members of the so-called Freedom Flotilla Coalition claimed Yaalon was wrong and sent a photograph to prove it. What did they bring? Two cardboard boxes.

According to one member of the group, the two boxes contained a solar panel and a nebulizer. I’m sure Gazans appreciate the gesture and, it’s likely that, as they’ve done before, the Israelis will ensure that any genuine aid packages will reach Gaza. After all, even on days when Hamas is shooting rockets at Israeli cities, convoys of up to 500 trucks pass through the border bringing food and medicine to the Palestinians. Israel also supplies the water and electricity that Palestinians in Gaza use.

That’s why talk of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza is a lie. There is no shortage of supplies needed to keep Palestinians in Gaza alive. What Hamas wants, and what these faux human rights activists want to give it, is a shot in the arm for a propaganda war against Israel that will reinforce the legitimacy of the Islamist regime that brutally oppresses its own people and uses them as human shields in order to conduct terrorist operations.

But it is no more of a lie than the claim that the point of this flotilla was humanitarian aid. That’s not just because the activists didn’t actually bring much, if any, aid material with them. It’s because the whole point of the exercise is to claim that efforts of both Israel and Egypt to isolate the Hamas terrorists that run Gaza are illegitimate.

The talk of bringing help to the Palestinians in Gaza is a sham that extends beyond the two cardboard boxes on the so-called aid ship. The Palestinians already have an entire United Nations refugee agency — UNRWA — devoted to them while the uncounted millions of other refugees around the world must make do with sharing one to tend to their needs. UNRWA operates in Gaza with Israeli cooperation, despite the fact that it is a highly political group that is not only dedicated to preventing refugee resettlement — the normal task of a refugee aid group — but also allows Hamas to use their facilities and schools for storing armaments.

What Gaza needs is not a ship with or without superfluous aid material but a government that isn’t a terrorist organization. It needs foreign friends who genuinely care about the plight of Palestinians caught in the grip of such Islamist tyrants. But instead it gets people whose main purpose is providing moral encouragement and public relations stunts aimed at undermining Israel’s legitimacy and supporting Hamas’ war on the existence of the Jewish state.

The paltry two boxes of assistance on the Marianne don’t amount to much for the poor of Gaza. Yet there is a reason why flotillas go to Gaza rather than Syria, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this week, where hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions have been made refugees. The flotilla activists don’t bother bring real aid to Gaza because the point of the flotilla wasn’t to promote “freedom” for the strip since their effort is aimed at bolstering Hamas and shaming the world into recognizing it. No, the “freedom” they are after is one that would allow Hamas to freely import weapons and construction materials that could be used to build fortifications and terror tunnels into Israel, such as the one that Hamas boasted about reconstructing this week.

You don’t need to bring actual aid if your goal is waging war on the existence of the sole Jewish state in the world. For that, you only need to be immersed in the anti-Semitic zeitgeist of a movement that thinks helping Hamas is a humanitarian gesture.

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Ignoring Iran Cheating is North Korea Redux

The Joint Plan of Action was meant to be so easy for Iran to comply with that it could not possibly run afoul of it. In effect, it was the equivalent of giving a field sobriety test and demanding the suspect count from zero to one. And yet, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, Iran has failed to meet its commitment to convert the low enriched uranium it produced into uranium dioxide, as required:

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The Joint Plan of Action was meant to be so easy for Iran to comply with that it could not possibly run afoul of it. In effect, it was the equivalent of giving a field sobriety test and demanding the suspect count from zero to one. And yet, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, Iran has failed to meet its commitment to convert the low enriched uranium it produced into uranium dioxide, as required:

Under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) Iran was expected to convert all newly produced LEU hexafluoride (LEUF6) into uranium dioxide (LEUO2), in order to ensure that the material was in a less proliferation resistant form and that Iran did not accumulate additional stocks of LEU hexafluoride at the end of the interim period of the JPA. This period has been extended twice so far, with the last period ending on June 30, 2015.The JPA provision is: “Beginning when the line for conversion of UF6 enriched up to 5% to UO2 [uranium dioxide] is ready, Iran has decided to convert to oxide UF6 newly enriched up to 5% during the 6 month period [and its extensions], as provided in the operational schedule of the conversion plant declared to the IAEA.” However, the IAEA’s recent report on the implementation of JPA shows that only 9 percent of Iran’s stockpile of newly produced LEU hexafluoride has actually been converted into uranium dioxide form.

As The Israel Project’s Omri Ceren points out, Reuters noted:

“When it became clear that Iran could not meet its commitment to convert the LEU into uranium dioxide, the United States revised its criteria for Iran meeting its obligations,” the institute said, adding that the LEU had apparently been converted into a form different from uranium dioxide.” Iran had two requirements under the (interim deal): to end the time period with the same amount of UF6 they began it with, and to convert any excess UF6 produced into an oxide form. They’ve done both,” a senior U.S. official told Reuters. The IAEA did not have an immediate response to a query about its report.

So, when Iran gets caught cheating or, to be more generous, not upholding its commitments, the U.S. negotiators, Obama administration officials, or State Department proxies bend over backwards to exculpate Iran or diminish the significance of its failure to abide by its commitments.

It’s déjà vu all over again. Consider North Korea: In early 1987, analysts suspected that North Korea intended to produce plutonium. Satellites the following year spotted a new structure at Yongbyon, two football fields long and six stories high. It appeared to be a smoking gun. But some intelligence analysts, eager to avoid conflict, suggested the building might be a factory producing something akin to nylon. This was nonsense, but it was enough to inject uncertainty into the debate and avoid offering politicians a cut-and-dried case to establish North Korean cheating. That was under the George H.W. Bush administration, but Clinton would be no more serious. Shortly after Clinton took office, the White House pressured the IAEA to downplay North Korean noncooperation. To describe events accurately might precipitate a crisis. Later, when South Korean President Kim Young Sam told the New York Times that the Dear Leader was simply buying time, the State Department was furious. When he repeated his criticism the following year, Clinton blew his top.

By 1997, there was little doubt that the 1994 Agreed Framework had failed, but diplomats refused to accept the intelligence community’s findings. Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman (and a proponent of the current Iran talks), asserted, “We are absolutely confident . . . that the agreed framework, put in place two and a half years ago is in place, it’s working. We are absolutely clear that North Korea’s nuclear program has been frozen and will remain frozen.” Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, also insisted that the Agreed Framework was on track. Nothing was further from the truth.

In 1999, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that it could no longer verify how North Korea distributed or used its food aid. The communist regime allowed World Food Program monitors to visit only 10 percent of food aid recipients. The North Korean military also blocked access to inspectors. The State Department refused to accept the GAO findings because to accept them would be to admit North Korean cheating and to undermine the premise of the diplomacy in which they had already invested too much. Likewise, when the GAO reported that monitoring of heavy fuel oil had gone awry, the State Department informed Congress that they trusted that the regime’s use of the heavy fuel oil was consistent with the Agreed Framework. Congress did not buy it. Wendy Sherman, a Clinton-era negotiator for North Korea and now the chief negotiator for Obama on Iran privately complained that the problem as that the Pentagon had made standards of compliance too precise. Regardless, the Clinton administration did not need a Senator Bob Corker to let the administration at the time off the hook. Secretary Warren Christopher effectively covered up North Korean noncompliance. He wasn’t the only one. In 2007, Christopher Hill, the point man on North Korean nuclear issues, presented to Congress an artificially rosy picture of the diplomatic process with North Korea, so as not to undercut support for engagement. To this day, the State Department continued to insist that the Agreed Framework was “a concrete success.”

Excusing cheating or non-compliance is a slippery slope. Allow a state to violate an agreement once, and it quickly becomes clear that more pronounced violations would become permissible down the pike. Obama and Kerry may be willing to overlook such violations as minor and easy to ignore, but the past history of negotiations with rogue regimes suggests that what might appear to be a molehill quickly becomes a mountain.

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Despite Obama, Business as Usual for Cuban Tyrants

Yesterday, President Obama formally announced his plan to re-open a U.S. embassy in Cuba at an event held in the Rose Garden in the White House, declaring that he was opening a “new chapter” in relations between the two countries. But while he was saying that “we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” the communist dictatorship in Havana was demonstrating that it had no intention of changing its character in order to justify the enormous boost the infusion of American cash will give the regime. In recent weeks, while the president was preparing to pat himself on the back for ending a policy aimed at isolating the Castro government, the Cuban tyrants arrested a prominent artist who had returned home to test whether Obama’s rapprochement would yield any tangible benefits for those seeking to promote freedom in the island nation. The answer to that query from the president’s new partners was a resounding “no.” The Congress, which is being asked to both fund the new embassy and to lift the embargo on Cuba, should be paying more attention to that arrest than to Obama’s talk about reconciliation.

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Yesterday, President Obama formally announced his plan to re-open a U.S. embassy in Cuba at an event held in the Rose Garden in the White House, declaring that he was opening a “new chapter” in relations between the two countries. But while he was saying that “we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” the communist dictatorship in Havana was demonstrating that it had no intention of changing its character in order to justify the enormous boost the infusion of American cash will give the regime. In recent weeks, while the president was preparing to pat himself on the back for ending a policy aimed at isolating the Castro government, the Cuban tyrants arrested a prominent artist who had returned home to test whether Obama’s rapprochement would yield any tangible benefits for those seeking to promote freedom in the island nation. The answer to that query from the president’s new partners was a resounding “no.” The Congress, which is being asked to both fund the new embassy and to lift the embargo on Cuba, should be paying more attention to that arrest than to Obama’s talk about reconciliation.

As the Arts section of the New York Times noted yesterday, performance artist Tania Bruguera returned to her native Cuba last December at the same time as the president’s announcement of his decision to resume diplomatic relations with the island’s communist government. As the newspaper reported, “implicit in this development was the idea that Cuba would gradually loosen up on its policing of public dissent. Ms. Bruguera decided to stage a public performance that would put that to the test.”

Her venue for that test was the Havana Biennial, an arts festival that draws international attention, and to which artists and art critics have flocked. Bruguera used the occasion to perform something she calls “Tatlin #6” in Havana’s Revolution Plaza. It consists of her setting up a microphone and inviting anyone who wanted to participate one minute to speak without censorship. But as soon as Bruguera announced her intentions, she was arrested. She was later released and then staged a marathon reading with supporters of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism at her Havana home. A government-hired road crew set up outside to drown out participants’ voices with jackhammers. Afterwards, she was again taken into custody and questioned for hours.

Bruguera’s fate is not yet decided. The regime would clearly like her to leave the country again but the artist has so far resisted, knowing she would likely be never allowed back home again.

The Times declared her protest a “success” since it overshadowed the festival and exposed the realities of Cuba that the government and the arts establishment in that country wish the world to ignore. That may well be true but unfortunately one of those who continue to ignore Cuban realities is the man in the White House, who worries more about American policy being “imprisoned” by the need to go on resisting Cuban tyranny than the actual imprisonment of dissidents in that country.

The problem with Obama’s decision is not so much that he is trying to deal with Cuba; it’s that he has gotten virtually nothing in return for the economic bounty and legitimacy that U.S. recognition will give one of the last vestiges of communism in the world. Like his negotiations with Iran, the president cared more about getting an agreement at any price than obtaining concessions from Cuba that might have justified the move (other, that is, than the release of American hostage Alan Gross). The repression of Tania Bruguera is just one small example of how Cuban tyranny operates in a country whose prisons are filled with dissenters. Though the president may argue that a U.S. diplomatic presence in Havana could aid dissenters, his embrace of the regime, without forcing it to change, undermines any notion that America will make much of a difference on the ground. The only thing we know for sure is that if the president gets his way, the regime will be enriched (along with those American businesses that choose to profit from the relationship) and that ordinary Cubans will remain silenced and impoverished.

That is why Congress should resist the president’s appeal to lift the embargo. If Cuba wants the benefits of relations with the United States, it must cease imprisoning people like Bruguera and allow genuine freedoms. In the absence of such a shift, Congress must maintain the embargo and refuse to fund the new embassy. Though foreign policy remains the province of the executive, in this case the power of the purse allows the legislative branch to take up a task that the president has shown no interest in pursuing: defending American principles and values.

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Why the New “NIAC Action” Iran Lobby Will Fail

If there’s one rule-of-thumb in Washington, it’s that you know your foreign policy legacy isn’t great when even Jimmy Carter criticizes it as weak and ineffective. That’s like “Seinfeld” character George Costanza bragging that he could beat an NBA star in one-on-one hoops, with everyone in the media just nodding in agreement. Democrats may still go through the motions of defending the president’s strategy or lack thereof, but when all is said and done, even they acknowledge Barack Obama’s foreign policy will be an outlier. Whether a Democrat on Republican comes next, there will likely never again in our lifetimes be a president as cavalier toward American security or disdainful of America’s place in the world as Obama has been.

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If there’s one rule-of-thumb in Washington, it’s that you know your foreign policy legacy isn’t great when even Jimmy Carter criticizes it as weak and ineffective. That’s like “Seinfeld” character George Costanza bragging that he could beat an NBA star in one-on-one hoops, with everyone in the media just nodding in agreement. Democrats may still go through the motions of defending the president’s strategy or lack thereof, but when all is said and done, even they acknowledge Barack Obama’s foreign policy will be an outlier. Whether a Democrat on Republican comes next, there will likely never again in our lifetimes be a president as cavalier toward American security or disdainful of America’s place in the world as Obama has been.

To believe that time spent cultivating the Obama White House will translate into lasting influence, therefore, is risible. But that’s exactly what the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) has done. The reality is that its access to the White House will end precipitously once the Obama administration ends, and its interaction with the State Department will peter out as diplomats increasingly recognize it for what it is: Through both rhetoric and action, NIAC has long acted as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s de facto lobby in Washington. Now, however, it plans to make it official. According to Politico:

NIAC Action aims to direct money from the Iranian-American community, which is relatively well-off compared to other immigrant groups, toward more concerted political activism. “We’ve got all this money on the table, all this political influence that’s not being utilized,” said Jamal Abdi, NIAC Action’s executive director. “Now we can actually start playing the full political game…” Abdi and others make no secret of their desire to shift the political landscape in Washington away from groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has criticized the talks with Iran, and toward movements more inclined to pursue diplomacy with the longtime U.S. nemesis.

Trita Parsi, NIAC’s leader for life, and Abdi make several crucial mistakes, though, that will undercut the success of the Iran lobby they seek to launch:

  • For what exactly is NIAC to lobby? Israel is a democracy that has exported medical devices across the globe; Iran is a theocratic dictatorship that has exported explosively formed projectiles. Israel accepts gays; the Iranian government claim they simply don’t exist in Iran (and it executes them when it finds them). The Iranian regime regularly spews the vilest rhetoric and publicly executes dozens per month. The realist argument that through size and resources the Islamic Republic can be a partner also falls flat. David Verbeteen, at the time a doctoral candidate at King’s College, University of London, penned an important analysis in 2009 about why President Eisenhower and the State Department’s plan to shift the United States away from partnership with Israel and into the Arab camp failed. In short, the White House and even the State Department quickly realized that Israel simply made a better ally than most if not all Arab states. Business may be one thing, but should the United States really align its policy with the chief state sponsor of terrorism, one that holds Americans hostage and represses religious minorities? Pride in Iranian heritage should never mean apologia for the Iranian regime. Iranian Americans understand that, and most everyone in the national security community does as well.
  • NIAC is not bipartisan; it is hyper-partisan. NIAC has aligned itself consistently with groups like CodePink, Daily Kos, the Institute for Policy Studies, and WarisaCrime.org, and political radicals like Stephen Walt and Juan Cole. Parsi has antagonized a broad range of mainstream policymakers of both parties with partisan cheap shots and polemic, anti-Semitic aspersions, and policy prescriptions far outside the mainstream. His twitter feed is a repository for snark, conspiracy, and personal aspersion. He and NIAC spin conspiracy theories about inevitable plans for war against Iran simply to fundraise. AIPAC, conversely, has always cultivated broad, bipartisan appeal and is probably the most effective lobbyist not only for a strong U.S.-Israel partnership, but also for moderate Arab states like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and the Gulf Cooperation Council emirates. Just the fact that NIAC casts itself as the anti-AIPAC suggests what a confrontational frame-of-reference the NIAC lobby espouses. Forget AIPAC. What about the Islamic Republic does NIAC really want to promote?
  • NIAC does not represent the broader Iranian-American community. The Iranian American community is diverse. As Ayatollah Khomeini led his Islamic Revolution, he ruthlessly purged political opponents and made life unbearable for religious minorities; many fled to Europe and the United States. Among the hundreds of thousands of Americans of Iranian descent are Baha’is, Christians, and Jews. NIAC’s fealty to the theocracy which oppressed them is unattractive to many, which is why NIAC remains relatively small compared to other Iranian-American organizations like the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) which already do what NIAC claims it wants to. The mistake NIAC makes is that it conflates pride in Iran and Iranian heritage with the Islamic Republic. Most Iranian Americans, however, recognize that the Islamic Republic is an anomaly and is not representative of the Iran most Iranians seek. And just as the Islamic Republic seeks to limit political discourse, so too does NIAC which remains incredibly hostile to monarchists and constitutional republicans on one hand, and the Mujahedin al-Khalq (MKO) on the other. Personally, I’m antagonistic to the MKO as well, but an organization that represents Iranian-Americans must take a big tent approach rather than allow Tehran to define political legitimacy.
  • Iranian-Americans should be Afraid to Donate to NIAC. Many Iranian-Americans, even those that agree with Parsi’s politics, recognize how careless NIAC can be. After launching a frivolous lawsuit to silence an Iranian-American journalist far from the mainstream, Parsi allowed reams of correspondence to be exposed to the press. Rather than acknowledge error, Parsi and NIAC have doubled down raising the possibility that they will treat confidential information frivolously in the future. Poor judgment can betray anonymity and betray donors. Also, while NIAC promises its donors anonymity, they should be aware that the government and journalists both will be putting NIAC fundraising under the microscope because of the suspicion, already voiced by many in the Iranian American community, that anonymous donations could provide a mechanism for other Iranian proxies or the Iranian government themselves to support NIAC. The FBI raid on the Alavi Foundation and subsequent convictions and confiscations provide a warning to those tempted to hide behind financial opacity.

Congratulations to NIAC for finally recognizing that, with the Obama administration ending, it could no longer risk violating lobbying rules. When it comes to foreign policy, however, democracy trumps theocracy every single time. Political tolerance will always trump polemic. And community representation can’t be fudged with empty platitudes. Nor can sleight-of-hand substitute for financial transparency.

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ISIS Opens New Front in Egypt

As early as November of last year, officials in the Islamic State confirmed their commitment to adorning themselves with the trappings statehood by minting their own currency. The world got its first look at these curious new coins this month. Reportedly modeled on coinage circulated in the Caliphate of Uthman in the middle of the seventh century, ISIS’s new coins included a decidedly modern addition: On the reverse of one is a depiction of the map of the world. It is a physical representation of ISIS’s internationalist ideology and harkens back to the State Emblem of the Soviet Union, which signified that state’s ideological commitment to the spread of communism by superimposing a hammer and sickle over the globe. Far from being destroyed or even degraded, as the president once pledged, ISIS has demonstrated its devotion to expansionism by exporting terrorism to places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. This week, ISIS mounted a series of spectacular attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that indicate the Islamic State is not only set on but capable of enlargement.

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As early as November of last year, officials in the Islamic State confirmed their commitment to adorning themselves with the trappings statehood by minting their own currency. The world got its first look at these curious new coins this month. Reportedly modeled on coinage circulated in the Caliphate of Uthman in the middle of the seventh century, ISIS’s new coins included a decidedly modern addition: On the reverse of one is a depiction of the map of the world. It is a physical representation of ISIS’s internationalist ideology and harkens back to the State Emblem of the Soviet Union, which signified that state’s ideological commitment to the spread of communism by superimposing a hammer and sickle over the globe. Far from being destroyed or even degraded, as the president once pledged, ISIS has demonstrated its devotion to expansionism by exporting terrorism to places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. This week, ISIS mounted a series of spectacular attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that indicate the Islamic State is not only set on but capable of enlargement.

Last month, on the heels of a Saudi raid that reportedly rolled up a nearly 100-member strong ISIS cell inside the Kingdom, ISIS-linked suicide bombers twice targeted Shiite Mosques with attacks amid Friday prayers. Last week, this style of attack was replicated in Kuwait. 27 worshipers packed into Kuwait City’s Al-Sadiq mosque were killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device amid a Friday prayer service. The bodies were still being removed when an ISIS-linked video claiming responsibility for that attack was posted online. On that same day, a radical Islamic gunman attacked a Tunisian hotel where he killed 38 and injured 39 more. Most of the casualties were British citizens, making this assault the deadliest terror attack targeting Britons since the 2005 bus bombings. “ISIS has claimed responsibility for that attack, as well, though this claim may be more tenuous,” CNN reported. Simultaneously, in France, the manager of a local transportation company was found beheaded at a United States-owned factory. His body was discovered alongside two banners bearing Islamic writing.

Whether all or some of these attacks are directly linked to ISIS or were merely inspired by the organization and its affiliates, it’s clear that the terrorist organization’s reach extends well beyond the fluid borders of its nascent caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Perhaps the most daring example of ISIS’s ability to project force across the region occurred this week on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The strategic land bridge between Egypt and Africa was turned into a battlefield on Wednesday when ISIS executed a coordinated military assault against Egyptian military personnel.

The New York Times report from the front lines of the assault reads like a dispatch from a war zone rather than the scene of a terrorist incident:

Dozens of Egyptian soldiers were killed, police officers were trapped in their posts, ambulances were paralyzed by booby-trapped roads and residents were warned to stay indoors by jihadists roaming on motorcycles. The Egyptian Army responded with warplanes in the area around the town, Sheikh Zuwaid, 200 miles northeast of Cairo, near the Gaza Strip.

The attack was the most audacious and deadliest yet for the Egyptian militants who have affiliated with the Islamic State, the extremist group that has emerged as the most potent jihadist force convulsing the Arab world. The group has established itself in Syria, expanded into Iraq and has strong footholds in Libya.

By nearly 5 p.m. local time, the attack that had begun in the early morning hours was still ongoing. Cairo boasted that its military had killed over 100 militants while just 10 of its soldiers had lost their lives, but local media outlets placed the military’s casualty rates as much as four times higher.

The attack also marked a shift in tactics by Islamic State fighters. “Isis has previously launched several bloody attacks on the Egyptian army in the north-eastern part of the peninsula – most notably this January and last October,” wrote The Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley. “But after those assaults, Isis quickly retreated – whereas after Wednesday’s attack the group appeared to try to advance.”

To what extent Isis had succeeded in holding territory is unclear, said Zack Gold, a Sinai-focused analyst, particularly as reporters have long been prevented from entering this area of Sinai, which lies far from the peninsula’s southern tourist resorts.

But any control of physical space would be significant, said Gold, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “The invading of a city, taking over buildings – that is a new development, and it’s similar to the over-running of cities that we’ve seen in Iraq and Syria,” said Gold.

In a thoughtful analysis of the spiraling violence in eastern Egypt, Michael Rubin observed that this assault came just hours after the assassination of the country’s top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat. “Barakat was the target of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist animus for his role prosecuting thousands of Islamists since Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi in 2013,” Rubin noted. He added that Egyptian media made short work of blaming regimes perceived to be sympathetic toward ISIS, like that of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of being complicit in the attack – or worse.

Despite almost a year long, U.S.-led campaign against ISIS, the group’s capabilities have not been appreciably disrupted. In fact, they are expanding their ability to destabilize the region either directly or through surrogates.

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The Jobs Report

The Bureau of Labor Statistics issued the monthly jobs report a day early because of the July 4th holiday. As usual, it has both good news and bad news.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics issued the monthly jobs report a day early because of the July 4th holiday. As usual, it has both good news and bad news.

The good news is that the American economy created 223,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate fell to 5.3 percent, the lowest since April 2008, as the recession was just beginning to gather steam. That’s down two-tenths of a percentage point from last month. Long-term unemployment (people out of work for more than 27 weeks) declined by 381,000 to 2.1 million.  It’s down 955,000 from a year ago.

The bad news is that 223,000 is slightly below the 12-month average of 250,000 per month. Jobs created in previous months were revised downward (May went from 280,000 to 254,000, April from 221,000 to 187,000).  And the workforce shrank last month by 432,000. The labor force participation rate went down a whopping .3 percentage points to a dismal 62.6 percent, the lowest since 1977. A year ago it was 63.4 percent. In April 2008, that last time the unemployment was below 5.3 percent, the participation rate was 65.9 percent, 3.3 percentage points higher.

In other words, much of the fall in the unemployment rate came not from new job creation, but from the shrinkage of the labor force.

The country, as always, has many reasons to celebrate on Saturday, its 239th birthday. A booming economy, alas, isn’t one of them.

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Rouhani Threatens Nuclear Breakout

Where brinkmanship is in the blood of Iranian negotiators, careerism and obsession about legacy appears to be in the blood of their American counterparts. By playing good cop, bad cop with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, by quibbling over every understanding previously reached, and by increasingly threatening to walk away, the Iranians appear to be wringing the Americans dry. Obama and Kerry have voided their own red lines, and prepare to normalize an Iranian path to a bomb whenever the Iranian government makes a decision to pursue that option.

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Where brinkmanship is in the blood of Iranian negotiators, careerism and obsession about legacy appears to be in the blood of their American counterparts. By playing good cop, bad cop with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, by quibbling over every understanding previously reached, and by increasingly threatening to walk away, the Iranians appear to be wringing the Americans dry. Obama and Kerry have voided their own red lines, and prepare to normalize an Iranian path to a bomb whenever the Iranian government makes a decision to pursue that option.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is part and parcel of Iran’s brinkmanship. According to the Islamic Republic News Agency in Persian, he declared: “…If they do not fulfill their commitments, the government will be ready to immediately reverse the path in a more severe way than they can ever dream of.”

If Iran’s program has always been peaceful—as repeated Iranian officials have maintained—then reverting to Iran’s previous behavior would mean what exactly?  Threats from Rouhani, the supposed moderate, should get the attention of Congress.

Increasingly, Iran is tripping upon its own internal inconsistencies. First, there was Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s (as yet unseen) sacrosanct nuclear fatwa that forbids nuclear weaponry and yet the Iranian leadership refuses to come clean on past nuclear work for fear it would show nuclear weaponry work. There has also been Iran’s insistence that it seeks a completely indigenous program, yet it doesn’t possess enough natural uranium to fuel an expanded civilian energy program. Now, Rouhani has more or less threatened to build a nuclear bomb, the same threat made previously by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and a number of clerical associates of Khamenei himself. On May 29, 2005, for example, Hojjat ol-Islam Gholam Reza Hasani, the Supreme Leader’s representative in the Iranian province of West Azerbaijan, declared possession of nuclear weapons to be one of Iran’s top goals. “An atom bomb …must be produced as well,” he said.

Obama, Kerry, and negotiator Wendy Sherman have effectively become Iran’s lawyers. In doing so, they have applied the logic of “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” to U.S. national security. All one has to do, however, is look at the thinly veiled threats and logical somersaults of Iran’s top leaders, however, to understand just what a capability Tehran is after.

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Giving Trump the Pariah Treatment May Help Him

Donald Trump has been a vulgar, if entertaining presence in American popular culture for a generation. His decision to run for president, as opposed to flirting with the idea, this year is, as I wrote last month, a disaster for the Republican Party. Aside from the fact that the real estate mogul/reality show star is unsuitable and unqualified to be president, his celebrity and his willingness to say and do outrageous things has the potential to distract the press and the voters from his more serious competitors and turn what had shaped up as a campaign that would only strengthen the GOP into a circus that will damage it and force everyone in it to react to his rants rather than state their own positions. And that’s not even taking into account the remote possibility that his celebrity and name recognition make him, at least according to current polls, a genuine threat to win the nomination. But even as I join in the laments about the Trump candidacy and his clown car campaign, it’s hard not to sympathize with Donald Trump today. Though his remarks about illegal immigrants from Mexico were outrageous, the campaign to force his business partners, such as NBC or Macy’s to drop their associations with him are so self-righteous that it not only makes even those who are critical of him feel a twinge of sympathy. Even worse, the campaign may do him more good than harm.

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Donald Trump has been a vulgar, if entertaining presence in American popular culture for a generation. His decision to run for president, as opposed to flirting with the idea, this year is, as I wrote last month, a disaster for the Republican Party. Aside from the fact that the real estate mogul/reality show star is unsuitable and unqualified to be president, his celebrity and his willingness to say and do outrageous things has the potential to distract the press and the voters from his more serious competitors and turn what had shaped up as a campaign that would only strengthen the GOP into a circus that will damage it and force everyone in it to react to his rants rather than state their own positions. And that’s not even taking into account the remote possibility that his celebrity and name recognition make him, at least according to current polls, a genuine threat to win the nomination. But even as I join in the laments about the Trump candidacy and his clown car campaign, it’s hard not to sympathize with Donald Trump today. Though his remarks about illegal immigrants from Mexico were outrageous, the campaign to force his business partners, such as NBC or Macy’s to drop their associations with him are so self-righteous that it not only makes even those who are critical of him feel a twinge of sympathy. Even worse, the campaign may do him more good than harm.

Let’s start with the fact that his comments at his campaign launch about illegal immigrants from Mexico were typically over the top and largely wrong. One can have concerns about illegal immigrants and even believe that they are disproportionately more likely to be criminals than those who come to this country without violating the law. But to characterize Mexicans as bringing drugs, crime and rapists into the country along, “with some good people” was an absurd and defamatory simplification of a complex problem. It is undoubtedly true that a lot of illegals are not model citizens. But most simply come here for work and to better their lives, the way the forebears of most Americans came here, albeit these have arrived in an era when it is not as easy for immigrants to come here legally as it was in the 19th or early 20th centuries. In his defense, he wasn’t saying all Mexicans were criminals since his point was that the worst elements in Mexican society, rather than its best, are crossing the border illegally. But much like anything that comes out of Trump’s mouth, his comments were more suited to a bar stool rant than a presidential campaign.

For this he deserved and got a great deal of criticism. But, as is typical of the way our pop culture works these days, mere outrage wasn’t enough. An effort to shun Trump and to force corporations that have enjoyed long and profitable associations with him to drop him became the preferred mode of response. And, as is also typical of the way a cowardly corporate culture reacts to anything that smacks of unsavory controversy — or at least a kerfuffle — that can get them labeled as prejudiced, it was immediately successful. First Univision dropped Trump’s Miss USA pageant from its schedule, and then its parent company NBC cut ties with the star of their successful “Apprentice” series. The latest to jump on the bandwagon is the Macy’s department store chain that will no longer sell a Trump clothing brand they’ve stocked for years.

Assuming that their contracts permit it, all of these companies are within their rights to drop anyone that may harm their business, a point that makes the decision of Univision, with its Hispanic audience, seem wise. Moreover, his new status as a candidate has to complicate relationships with companies that would prefer to stay out of the political maelstrom. But the rush to tar Trump with the pariah label seems as over-the-top as his comments as well as a bit belated. Trump has, after all, been saying outrageous things for a long time. For those who did business with him in the past to suddenly claim that they are shocked about his attitudes toward immigrants or anything else is hypocritical. Moreover, it ill behooves NBC, which currently employs Al Sharpton, a man who has incited deadly anti-Semitic riots and has been branded by the courts as not only a public liar but also a tax cheat, to declare that Trump doesn’t live up to their high standards of conduct.

But the real problem, especially for those who are wary of Trump’s impact on the GOP race, is that a lot of Americans look at the effort to drive him off the public stage and instinctively sympathize with him. For those who like to be served red meat about illegal immigration and who instinctively distrust the mainstream liberal media that is leading the charge against him, the fact that the left is trying to run Trump off the stage makes them want to embrace him. Even those not inclined to cheer anyone who runs afoul of political correctness, may find the effort to put him in the stocks is off-putting when it involves business partners who have long cherished the same qualities they now condemn in self-righteous tones.

In starting this firestorm, Trump may have been, as he usually is when money or fame is concerned, outthinking the competition. He remains the center of attention, and being the victim of a politically correct mob makes him a hero to some grassroots conservatives who ought to know better than to embrace a figure that is more charlatan than statesman. This gives the left even more incentive to concentrate their fire on him since they would certainly prefer Trump to be the face of the Republican Party rather than substantial figures such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker or any of the other credible candidates. All of which has to trouble a GOP that was already rightly worried about the ill effects a Trump candidacy will have on its 2016 prospects. For the left, Trump isn’t so much a pariah as he is a gift that will keep on giving.

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Egypt at War

Over the last few days, Egypt has faced a terrorist wave. First, there was the assassination of Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s state prosecutor, the equivalent of the Attorney General. Barakat was the target of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist animus for his role prosecuting thousands of Islamists since Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Now, today, a wave of attacks has killed at least 50 soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula. Ominously, several Egyptian security sources are pointing the finger at Turkey, Qatar, and Iran. According to Kirk Sowell, probably the best open source Arabic analyst today, the Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya satellite, the Egyptians are accusing Turkey of being operationally behind the attacks. Read More

Over the last few days, Egypt has faced a terrorist wave. First, there was the assassination of Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s state prosecutor, the equivalent of the Attorney General. Barakat was the target of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist animus for his role prosecuting thousands of Islamists since Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Now, today, a wave of attacks has killed at least 50 soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula. Ominously, several Egyptian security sources are pointing the finger at Turkey, Qatar, and Iran. According to Kirk Sowell, probably the best open source Arabic analyst today, the Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya satellite, the Egyptians are accusing Turkey of being operationally behind the attacks.

Western critics of Sisi base their criticism in the 2013 coup. Morsi was, after all, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. And while many observers acknowledge deep unease at Morsi’s attitude toward democracy as a means toward an undemocratic end, there is merit to their argument that forcing Morsi’s exit might provoke the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists to violence, whereas a better approach might be to allow subsequent elections delegitimize Morsi. The counterpoint to this argument, of course, was that Morsi might not allow future free-and-fair elections. Sisi won subsequent elections with 96 percent of the vote, a margin usually reserved for Arab autocrats. While Sisi certainly had the public behind him leading up to and in the immediate aftermath of the coup, the inflated margin also reflects the inability of any opponent to wage a serious campaign and receive equal attention in the state-controlled media. Over subsequent months, Sisi and his team have used security forces and the judiciary to devastating effect against those prone to seek a more Islamic order.

Unease at Egypt’s human rights situation may be real, but that does not mean that the United States can be sanguine about the fight Egypt now faces.

First of all, even for those prone to see democratic potential in the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sinai is a completely different ballgame. Even at the height of Mubarak’s security state, there was huge disaffection in the western Egyptian province of Matruh, in the Sinai, and Upper Egypt. Moderators had to silence regional delegates to Mubarak’s own party’s convention when they complained about the lack of infrastructure, housing, and opportunity.

The Sinai, however, was always a special case. There has always been a sharp cultural divide between Egyptians from Egypt proper and the Sinai. Egyptians did not consider themselves Arabs until the 1920s and 1930s, while the Bedouin consider themselves to be the proto-Arabs. Egyptians have long looked at the Bedouin with additional suspicion because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The first reason is that some lived under Israeli control between 1967 and 1982, when Israel completed its withdrawal from the Sinai. Second, many have distant relatives who are Israeli citizens, although no Egyptian I have interviewed has ever been able to cite an example of an Egyptian Bedouin betraying Egyptian security to Israel.

Over recent decades, Saudi television has also radicalized some Bedouin. Bedouin Arabic is closer to that spoken in the Arabian Peninsula than it is to mainstream Egyptian Arabic. Before the advent of satellite television, it could sometimes be easier for Bedouin to access terrestrially broadcast Saudi programs than Egyptian television and, given the choice of either, Bedouins often preferred to listen to the more easily accessible Saudi dialect. The Saudis, meanwhile, broadcast a steady stream of religious propaganda that encouraged radicalism. The Mubarak regime kept Bedouin radicalism at bay, but Morsi opened the floodgates. He stopped any serious security regimen and encouraged Hamas in the neighboring Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy held up the delivery of helicopters meant to counter the Al Qaeda threat. The rise of the Islamic State has only radicalized things further. The Ansar Bait al-Maqdis group targeting police and Egyptian soldiers stationed in the Sinai pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014. Europeans and American officials may be critical of Sisi and skeptical of his reformist pledges, but it can be incredibly shortsighted to risk a growing Islamic State foothold alongside the Suez Canal out of animus to the new Egyptian leader.

But what about the Muslim Brotherhood? Al-Watan online has reported in Arabic today that Egyptian security forces today killed nine Muslim Brotherhood operatives. Even if Western officials are more sympathetic to their political plight in the wake of the coup, it would be incredibly backward to rationalize the assassination of Barakat simply because of the events of 2013 left a bad taste to those seeking broader, faster democratization inside Egypt. First Morsi and then the coup may have polarized Egypt, but it’s important to deal with reality than fantasy. As broader violence erupts between Sisi on one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State proxies on the other, it’s crucial to back the former and a definitive U.S. interest to seek the defeat of the latter.

As for Turkey and Qatar, Saudi-backed media has to be taken with a grain of salt. But be it in Syria, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, and now Turkey, there is an uncomfortable pattern emerging of the Turkish state backing the most radical Islamist movements in the region. Diplomats might like to talk to the partner they’d like to imagine rather than the partner sitting in front of them, but it’s essential to deal with the reality: Egypt is a friend in the war against terror; Turkey is not.

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The Wages of Globalization in the South Pacific

In 1813, the frigate USS Essex, after having raided British merchant shipping around the coast of South America, needed to find an island where it could retrofit without fear of being set upon by the Royal Navy. So its captain, the brave and impetuous David Porter, ordered a 2,500-mile voyage to the Marquesas Islands, a chain of fourteen volcanic islands located in the South Pacific about 850 miles northeast of Tahiti. He arrived in the horseshoe-shaped harbor of Nuku Hiva on October 25, 1813, and soon set up camp on the shore. He dubbed the bay Massachusetts Bay and built a small fort he called Madisonville. He even tried to annex the islands for the United States—a proclamation that Congress ignored when lawmakers learned of it months later, thereby missing the chance to make the United States a Pacific power decades before California was granted statehood. Read More

In 1813, the frigate USS Essex, after having raided British merchant shipping around the coast of South America, needed to find an island where it could retrofit without fear of being set upon by the Royal Navy. So its captain, the brave and impetuous David Porter, ordered a 2,500-mile voyage to the Marquesas Islands, a chain of fourteen volcanic islands located in the South Pacific about 850 miles northeast of Tahiti. He arrived in the horseshoe-shaped harbor of Nuku Hiva on October 25, 1813, and soon set up camp on the shore. He dubbed the bay Massachusetts Bay and built a small fort he called Madisonville. He even tried to annex the islands for the United States—a proclamation that Congress ignored when lawmakers learned of it months later, thereby missing the chance to make the United States a Pacific power decades before California was granted statehood.

Before long, Porter and his men were embroiled in the violent politics of this Edenic island. Having aligned themselves with the Taaehs, the tribe which controlled the harbor where they landed, the American sailors found themselves drawn into conflict with the Taaehs’ local rivalries. The savage fighting, which traditionally ended with the victors eating the vanquished warriors, inflicted a number of casualties among the Americans. It was, in some ways, a harbinger of what the United States would encounter as its military forces ventured into the Asia-Pacific region to places such as the Philippines and Vietnam, where our involvement in local politics proved even more deadly.

I wrote about Captain Porter’s expedition in my 2002 book, The Savage Wars of Peace. But until now I had never visited Niku Hiva. Not many Americans have, aside from the contestants and crew of “Survivor: Marquesas” which was filmed here in 2001. I was intensely curious to find out how the island had fared in the years since Porter’s arrival, but I had not been able to arrange a journey until now. It is still not an easy place to visit: Getting there required multiple flights, first from New York to Los Angeles, then to Tahiti, then to Hiva Oa (another island in the Marquesas chain), and finally a puddle-jumper to Niku Huva.

Arriving 202 years after Porter, I was at no risk of being drawn into a war. The islands, having been claimed by France in 1842, are a peaceful if hardly bustling part of French Polynesia. The natives have long since giving up head-hunting in favor of tamer pursuits such as farming and selling tikis (carved wooden idols) to the small number of tourists who come here, mainly from France. The beauty of Nuku Hiva remains striking even if it is more tamed, less wild than it must have been in Porter’s day. (Hiva Oa, where Gaugian died in 1803, is less visited and hence its tropical vegetation is less under control.)

You can still pick bananas, coconuts, grapefruit, and much else off the trees free of charge. You can still hike treacherous mountain trails through the jungle similar to those that Porter and his men must have taken on their expeditions against the warlike Typees (made famous by another visitor: Herman Melville). And of course you can enjoy the striking beauty of the harbor where Porter first set foot.

The major difference since Porter’s day is not only the elimination of cannibalism but also the elimination of most of the local inhabitants. When Porter arrived, there were an estimated 80,000 people in the Marquesas. By 1926 the figure had fallen to just 2,000. Today the total population is still under 9,000 and many of the islands are entirely unpopulated. Nuku Hiva is the most populous of the Marquesas chain, but it has only 2,650 people — as many as live within a few blocks of me in New York.

What happened? Where did all the people go? In brief, what happened here is the same thing that happened to the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas: They were wiped out after the arrival of the Europeans. Some were killed in battle. Many more were killed by diseases to which they had no resistance that the Europeans brought with them. This was not a conscious genocide of the part of the Europeans, but the effect was no different than if it had been. The Polynesians were wiped out as thoroughly as the Sioux or Seminoles.

It is melancholy to reflect on this sad yet probably unavoidable chapter in the interchange between Europe and the non-European world. Polynesian attitudes toward France, their colonial master, have also been colored by the open-air nuclear testing that France regularly undertook in the South Pacific in the 1960s, sending radioactive clouds over these islands. As if in repayment, France heavily subsidizes these islands and provides for infrastructure — schools, hospitals, roads, an airline — that they would probably not be able to afford otherwise.

French Polynesia has the highest per capita GDP in the South Pacific — $14,500 compared to $4,300 in Fiji. Polynesia is not entirely independent as Fiji is, but it is largely autonomous in its internal affairs, with much of the bill footed by French taxpayers. Not a bad deal. Some forty percent of the workforce is employed by the government; on Hiva Oa, I was told by an expatriate French hotelier (a figure who seemed to have wandered out of a Somerset Maugham novel) that almost every family survives on the salary provided by one member who has been hired by the civil service.

Somehow, despite all the travails of the last two centuries, the Marquesans have managed to preserve major elements of their culture. They still speak their traditional language (Marquesan is distinct from Tahitian), usually complemented by French, the language of instruction in the schools. They still get tattoos — a Polynesian invention. They still partake in traditional festivals and celebrations. And they still eat many of their traditional dishes, such as goat in coconut milk curry (delicious!).

But they no longer worship the old gods; most have long since been converted to Christianity by missionaries who in the 19th century made the near-naked women wear unbecoming Mother Hubbard dresses. Marquesans now dress pretty much like everyone else in the tropics: t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops are the standard uniform. And like everywhere else around the world, their homes now feature TV sets blaring a daily diet of mindless fare.

But of all the places I have visited around the world the Marquesas are among the least spoiled. Certainly they have been considerably less touched by the modern world than tourist hubs such as Bora Bora or Moorea, to say nothing of Hawaii, which dwarves them all in the number of visitors. There are simply not a plethora of great beaches here, and hence no resort hotels, and hence few tourists.

Hoping to get a glimpse of what Captain Porter and his men had seen in 1813, I was not disappointed. But in addition I also got to meet, however briefly, some of its contemporary inhabitants — the distant offspring of the men and women that Porter met — who are struggling to hold onto the ways of their ancestors amid the inexorable forces of globalization.

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Hillary Clinton’s Emails Expose Washington’s Culture of Duplicity

“I was there. I was a senior advisor. I didn’t know that,” former White House political advisor David Axelrod said of Hillary Clinton’s shadowy private email practices. He offered that self-defense on June 17 in an unsolicited effort to defend former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, who claimed that he was similarly unaware of Clinton’s email methods. “The question is, what are people focused on? What do they care about?” Axelrod continued. His implication was that no one will or even should care about Clinton’s decision to jeopardize national security in service to her own cherished “convenience” and then lie repeatedly about the affair in a press conference. Axelrod was no doubt speaking for much of official Washington when he tried to wish Clinton’s email scandal away. Not only is he now implicated in it, it seems as though much of the American political class was well aware of Hillary Clinton’s careless and privileged communications practices. Read More

“I was there. I was a senior advisor. I didn’t know that,” former White House political advisor David Axelrod said of Hillary Clinton’s shadowy private email practices. He offered that self-defense on June 17 in an unsolicited effort to defend former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, who claimed that he was similarly unaware of Clinton’s email methods. “The question is, what are people focused on? What do they care about?” Axelrod continued. His implication was that no one will or even should care about Clinton’s decision to jeopardize national security in service to her own cherished “convenience” and then lie repeatedly about the affair in a press conference. Axelrod was no doubt speaking for much of official Washington when he tried to wish Clinton’s email scandal away. Not only is he now implicated in it, it seems as though much of the American political class was well aware of Hillary Clinton’s careless and privileged communications practices.

Axelrod, it turns out, was one of the many members of Washington’s political elite that emailed Clinton directly on one of her private email accounts (yes, there are at least three and possibly more). “I have hesitated to email because I’m sure you are being inundated with good wishes,” Axelrod wrote to [email protected] in one of the approximately 3,000 emails released by the State Department on Tuesday night following a court order. Axelrod’s polite note puts the lie to the notion that, as he told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, he “might have a few questions about” Clinton’s email practices had he known their extent.

“As I have said before, I knew HRC had private email,” Axelrod later tweeted in his defense. “I didn’t know she used it exclusively or had her own server.” That is a lawyerly evasion and an immaterial one. Even if this is true (a big “if”), it is irrelevant; if Clinton conducted State business via a private account, she was evading federal information preservation legal requirements. In the email exchange, the secretary of state proposes a meeting between herself and Axelrod, a senior White House advisor. Whether or not that constitutes official business is debatable, but it cannot be dismissed off hand as entirely personal in nature.

Axelrod isn’t the only household name caught up in Clinton’s pathological and compulsive pattern of deceit. Former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was granted access to Clinton’s private email address. Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden and the organization’s founder, John Podesta, also had access to Clinton’s private account. Former special counsel to Bill Clinton, Lanny Davis, emailed the former Secretary of State in regards to a Washington Times reporter being held captive in Iran. “He [the Washington Times executive editor] believes you are meeting with the Greek Foreign Minister tomorrow and hopes you can raise the issue with him,” Davis wrote in a message to [email protected] Even Democratic Senator Barbra Mikulski sent the former secretary well wishes on her private account.

There seems to have been a substantial amount of official American diplomatic business being conducted over Clinton’s private and poorly secured email server. In an email subject lined “confidential,” the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Cherie Blair, was apparently engaged in an effort to set up a bilateral meeting between Clinton and the leader of Qatar. At one point, Clinton asked an aide to load her personal mobile device with the contacts for an unspecified number of State Department personnel. That device was understood to be “much less secure than the State Department-issued devices used by her staff,” Politico reported on March. “And the security risks were magnified because Clinton used her personal BlackBerry on travel in foreign countries where State Department employees are routinely cautioned about the use of mobile devices.” And all of this was in deference to Madame Secretary’s privileged desire to preserve the “convenience” to which she had become accustomed.

To the extent that the press will report on this, the focus will apparently be on the more trivial and humanizing aspects of the information released in this latest tranche of Clinton emails. They will dwell on the silliness of one email chain that indicated Clinton could not understand how to use a fax machine, or another in which she demanded that her staff provide her with a glass of ice tea. Still more dispatches will be written about Clinton’s apparent isolation from the Obama White House. At one point, she confessed that she had heard on the radio the president was convening a Cabinet meeting and asked her aides if she was invited. At another, Clinton arrived at the White House only to learn that the meeting she was scheduled to attend had been canceled. “This is the second time this has happened,” the secretary griped. “What’s up??”

This focus serves the interests of the members of the reporting class who were swept up in this latest release, too. But to focus on the human interest elements of Clinton’s email release does the public a disservice.

Only a small fraction of Clinton’s emails have been released. The public will likely never see the majority of them because, according to Clinton, they were personal in nature and summarily destroyed despite the fact that those emails were under subpoena. This week, it became clear that Clinton did not hand over to the State Department all the emails that were work related, but that some of those emails she did surrender had been altered. “Hillary Clinton withheld Benghazi-related emails from the State Department that detailed her knowledge of the scramble for oil contracts in Libya and the shortcomings of the NATO-led military intervention for which she advocated,” the Washington Examiner’s Sarah Westwood reported. “Clinton removed specific portions of other emails she sent to State, suggesting the messages were screened closely enough to determine which paragraphs were unfit to be seen by the public.”

To claim, as Axelrod did, that the public generally doesn’t care about this slow-motion scandal inaugurated by Clinton’s monumental disregard for the public good is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and one which serves the interests of those, like Axelrod, who are now implicated in it. Breaches of trust this glaring must be elevated to front page, above the fold, and should occupy a prominent position on every evening newscast. The public must be made to care; basic civic hygiene demands it. Those in the establishment press would acquit themselves well if they were to treat this affair with the seriousness it deserves. To fail to do so is to become complicit in a scandal that appears to be slowly engulfing much of Washington D. C.

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Common Sense on Vaccinations in California

One doesn’t look for much common sense in a state whose politics is often dictated by fads and liberal myths and run by an aging politician who embodies most of what is wrong with American politics. Nevertheless, California Governor Jerry Brown deserves our applause for signing a mandatory vaccination bill that ended most exemptions for religious or personal reasons for parents of school children on Tuesday. This has prompted an outcry from critics that believe the bill, which allows exemptions based on health, to be a coercive measure that wrongfully interferes with the rights of parents to make health care decisions for their children who would not be permitted to stay in school if they remain unvaccinated. Some argue that the law infringes on religious liberty and may also be illegal because the state Constitution guarantees a right to public education. These are serious arguments that speak to a legitimate worry about expanding the power of government and of infringing on religious freedom. Nevertheless, the vaccination law is a good idea because its purpose — maintaining public safety — is a fundamental purpose of government. Another reason to favor it is the fact that most of the resistance is rooted in irrational myths about vaccines used to prevent infectious diseases that rational observers are obligated to oppose.

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One doesn’t look for much common sense in a state whose politics is often dictated by fads and liberal myths and run by an aging politician who embodies most of what is wrong with American politics. Nevertheless, California Governor Jerry Brown deserves our applause for signing a mandatory vaccination bill that ended most exemptions for religious or personal reasons for parents of school children on Tuesday. This has prompted an outcry from critics that believe the bill, which allows exemptions based on health, to be a coercive measure that wrongfully interferes with the rights of parents to make health care decisions for their children who would not be permitted to stay in school if they remain unvaccinated. Some argue that the law infringes on religious liberty and may also be illegal because the state Constitution guarantees a right to public education. These are serious arguments that speak to a legitimate worry about expanding the power of government and of infringing on religious freedom. Nevertheless, the vaccination law is a good idea because its purpose — maintaining public safety — is a fundamental purpose of government. Another reason to favor it is the fact that most of the resistance is rooted in irrational myths about vaccines used to prevent infectious diseases that rational observers are obligated to oppose.

No measure that does anything to increase the scope of an already bloated state bureaucracy should be viewed with anything but concern. Moreover, given the steady incursions of the federal government against religious liberty via ObamaCare and what may happen in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision to religious institutions that won’t change their beliefs to conform to that new reality, anything that takes away religious exemptions can only be contemplated as a last resort. But if libertarians believe that the fundamental purpose of government is to defend our freedom, we must start such a discussion by recognizing that its first job is to ensure public safety.

No freedom, not even those guaranteed by the First Amendment, is absolute. Our individual rights to make choices for our children and ourselves ends at the point when those decisions directly impact the safety of our neighbors and their kids. And that is exactly what happens when a critical mass of children are not vaccinated.

Opponents of mandatory vaccination laws say that if individuals want to take the risks that go with refraining from vaccinations, they should be allowed to do so. But the basic fact is that, on a societal level, once a critical mass of children are not vaccinated, dangerous diseases that were largely wiped out begin to come back. Mass vaccination creates a “herd immunity” for the entire community since even those who don’t get the shot for various reasons, such as pregnant women, infants, or individuals whose immune system is compromised, get a benefit because the spread of disease is contained. The inalienable right to make a fist ends at the tip of another person’s nose. Thus vaccination is more than a personal option; it is a societal choice.

That brings us to the reason that has driven most of the opposition to vaccines. In recent years, an urban myth about vaccines being responsible for the spread of autism has spread from the margins to mainstream pop culture where it has been championed by various celebrities that have no medical or research expertise. Study after study has proven that there is no link between autism and vaccines. Yet like most such irrational beliefs, the autism myth has survived largely because it fits in with a post-modern mindset that views science cynically and places blind faith in “natural” or “organic” remedies regardless of their merit. It would be unconscionable for those responsible for public health to allow such irrational reasoning to prevent them from acting to ensure the safety of the community. That’s why the decision of some politicians who ought to know better — like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Senator Rand Paul — to avoid taking a strong stand in favor of mandatory vaccination was so discouraging.

If, like the facts about smoking or drinking, individuals were able to make decisions about vaccines that would affect only their own health rather than that of the community as a whole, they would be within their rights to oppose vaccines. But that is not the case. Allowing increasing numbers of unvaccinated children into schools is a prescription for more outbreaks of measles like the one that happened at Disneyland late last year that influenced the California legislature to pass the law Brown signed yesterday.

It is to be hoped that the vaccination law survives legal challenges and that similar tough measures will be adopted elsewhere. The cost of allowing diseases that should be wiped out to come back is simply too high for us to allow irrational arguments or even legitimate concerns about government power, to endanger the health, if not the lives, of all Americans.

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What Will the West’s Many Concessions to Iran Produce?

It has been hard to keep up with the cascade of U.S. concessions in the negotiations with Iran, because there has been no natural stopping point. If you think virtually any deal is better than no deal, you need to keep making the concessions necessary to get it. If you have allowed Iran to get within a few months of a bomb and think extending the breakout period a few more months is a good deal, the concessions have to come. If you think a one-sided détente with Iran is strategic brilliance, you are less troubled by the concessions than by the fact that — if you don’t make them — your brilliant strategy will fail. We await the details of the coming deal, but the larger picture was made clear in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week, in the following exchange between Chairman Bob Corker and Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations:

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It has been hard to keep up with the cascade of U.S. concessions in the negotiations with Iran, because there has been no natural stopping point. If you think virtually any deal is better than no deal, you need to keep making the concessions necessary to get it. If you have allowed Iran to get within a few months of a bomb and think extending the breakout period a few more months is a good deal, the concessions have to come. If you think a one-sided détente with Iran is strategic brilliance, you are less troubled by the concessions than by the fact that — if you don’t make them — your brilliant strategy will fail. We await the details of the coming deal, but the larger picture was made clear in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week, in the following exchange between Chairman Bob Corker and Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations:

TAKEYH: … [T]he primary priority of [Iran] today is the projection of power in the Middle East. The Islamic Ali Khamenei is the most successful imperialist in the history of modern Iran. The Shah never had control of the Iraqi state … He never was a material player in Syria … Previously Iranian regimes were never main players in Lebanon … And of course in the Persian Gulf, the battered alliances of the United States make that particular sub-region a bit more susceptible to Iranian subversion. Imperialism is financially costly. The [Iranian] economy of 2013 could not have sustained the imperial surge Iran that has embarked upon … [T]his agreement enables both consolidation of power at home, the imperial surge in the region, as well as establishes a pathway for industrialization, upon which they can decide whether they have a nuclear weapon or not.

CORKER: So if I could paraphrase you … it allows them to meet their short term goals of consolidation …

TAKEYH: It allows them to exploit remarkable opportunities that they have in the region.

CORKER: … and still reach their longer-term goals of being a nuclear threshold country within a short amount of time.

TAKEYH: Yes, sir.

In his prepared testimony, Takeyh stated that while Iran has sustained its essential red lines, the U.S. has “systematically abandoned the sensible prohibitions that have long guided its policy,” and that the “impending agreement, whose duration is time-limited and sets the stage for the industrialization of Iran’s enrichment capacity, places Tehran inches away from the bomb.”

In the same hearing, David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), told the committee that the deal will establish “a new norm” – one that “legitimizes uranium enrichment despite the lack of need for the enriched uranium and a history of non-compliance and non-cooperation with the IAEA.” And good luck trying to inspect Iran’s military complex at Parchin, the suspected site of previous high-explosive testing linked to nuclear weapons development — assuming the U.S. doesn’t concede that, too. Here is what Albright told the committee about Parchin:

Since the IAEA asked to visit this site in early 2012, Iran has reconstructed much of it, making IAEA verification efforts all but impossible. Tehran has undertaken at this site what looks to most observers as a blatant effort to defeat IAEA verification. Because of such extensive modifications, the IAEA, once allowed access, may not be able to resolve all its concerns. Thus, access to Parchin alone is no longer sufficient to resolve the issues underlying the IAEA’s original request to access this site.

Albright told the committee that his organization has been calculating breakout timelines for many years in collaboration with centrifuge experts at the University of Virginia, and that for the prospective agreement with Iran, the administration’s estimate is too optimistic: “Our timelines [at ISIS] are less than 12 months.”

So, after all the concessions; after trashing UN resolutions that prohibit Iran’s nuclear program and substituting a UN resolution that permits it; after giving the Iranian regime the financial resources to consolidate its rule at home and its expansion abroad; after approving an industrial-grade nuclear program with early relief from sanctions; after agreeing to a sunset provision that will eliminate the key provisions of the agreement; after leaving Iran’s ballistic missile program and terror-sponsoring activities off the table and completely unaffected; and after destroying the respect for American leadership in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other U.S. allies (not only in the region, but in those watching from other areas of the world as well), the real breakout time is not even going to be a year.

Heckuva job.

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Drawing District Lines

In 2000, the people of Arizona, by initiative and referendum, took away from the state legislature the power to draw district lines for both the state legislature and for Congress. The argument that allowing the legislature to do so is an obvious conflict of interest, a conflict of interest that has been exploited to the hilt over the last two centuries in most states. The Arizona State Legislature sued in federal court, arguing that the Constitution’s elections clause, Article I, Section 4, gives the legislature the exclusive right to set the lines. On Monday, the Supreme Court in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission ruled in favor of the Redistricting Commission, 5-4. Read More

In 2000, the people of Arizona, by initiative and referendum, took away from the state legislature the power to draw district lines for both the state legislature and for Congress. The argument that allowing the legislature to do so is an obvious conflict of interest, a conflict of interest that has been exploited to the hilt over the last two centuries in most states. The Arizona State Legislature sued in federal court, arguing that the Constitution’s elections clause, Article I, Section 4, gives the legislature the exclusive right to set the lines. On Monday, the Supreme Court in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission ruled in favor of the Redistricting Commission, 5-4.

Gerrymandering is a uniquely American perversion of democracy, unknown elsewhere in the English-speaking world, where independent, non-partisan districting commissions are the norm. It’s end of this blot on American democracy would be more than welcome. But does this decision make a good constitutional argument? I don’t think so.

The elections clause says that “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; . . .” Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority, argues that since Arizona has initiative and referendum, “the people” constitute a legislature and thus the Arizona system comports with the Constitution. Chief Justice Roberts, in withering dissent, says that that is nonsense as the Constitution frequently uses the terms “legislature” and “the people” and never, ever interchangeably. In 1787, the idea of initiative and referendum — a reform of the Progressive era to circumvent legislative corruption — was unheard of. It seems incontestable that when the delegates to the Constitutional Convention wrote “legislature,” they meant a body of elected men empowered to write laws.

But does “Time, Places and Manner of holding Elections” encompass the drawing of district lines? Certainly “Time” and “Places” have obvious meanings. But does “Manner” mean anything more than the method of voting on Election Day, such as raising hands, paper ballots, etc.? I’m not at all sure that it does.

Gerrymandering was also unknown in 1787. It was invented in 1812 by Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. When one politically self-serving district he drew was said to resemble a salamander, a portmanteau word was born. (The governor’s name is pronounced with a hard G, however.) And I am not at all sure that the delegates even considered the problem of districting at all. The only precedent they had was the British Parliament, and it hadn’t been redistricted since the reign of Henry VIII.

Not even the conclave of geniuses that sat in Philadelphia in the hot summer of 1787 could anticipate everything. Just as they failed to anticipate the rise of factional parties so they failed to anticipate gerrymandering or, perhaps, the problem of districting at all.

And if the Constitution is silent on the subject of districting, are not the states free to handle the problem as they please, subject only to the Congressional override that Article I, Section 4 also provides for?

In other words, by narrowly construing the word “Manner” rather than very broadly construing the word “Legislature,” Justice Ginsburg could have achieved her end without doing unnecessary violence to both the Constitution and the English language.

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Lawless Administration Won’t Enforce Law Against Israel Boycotts

The signing of a trade bill last week that included provisions specifically requiring U.S. trade negotiators to oppose European boycotts of Israel was a signal defeat for the BDS — boycott, divest, sanction — movement. The willingness of a bipartisan majority of Congress to label efforts to wage economic war on the Jewish state as inconsistent with American law was especially important since it rightly dismissed any distinction between boycotts of all of Israel and those that only target Jewish communities in the West Bank and Jerusalem. But it appears celebrations about that victory were premature. Comments by State Department spokesman John Kirby let it be known that, although President Obama signed the bill, he won’t enforce it. As it has on so many other issues, such as immigration, this administration regards laws that it likes differently from those it doesn’t and will simply ignore the latter.

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The signing of a trade bill last week that included provisions specifically requiring U.S. trade negotiators to oppose European boycotts of Israel was a signal defeat for the BDS — boycott, divest, sanction — movement. The willingness of a bipartisan majority of Congress to label efforts to wage economic war on the Jewish state as inconsistent with American law was especially important since it rightly dismissed any distinction between boycotts of all of Israel and those that only target Jewish communities in the West Bank and Jerusalem. But it appears celebrations about that victory were premature. Comments by State Department spokesman John Kirby let it be known that, although President Obama signed the bill, he won’t enforce it. As it has on so many other issues, such as immigration, this administration regards laws that it likes differently from those it doesn’t and will simply ignore the latter.

The statement by Kirby, which was related on Twitter by the Associated Press’ Matt Lee and picked up by Lori Lowenthal Marcus of the Jewish Press, makes it clear that laws passed by Congress and signed by the president are null and void if they conflict with administration policy. According to Kirby:

By conflating Israel and “Israeli-controlled territories,” a provision of the Trade Promotion Authority legislation runs counter to longstanding U.S. policy towards the occupied territories, include with regard to settlement activity. Every U.S. administration since 1967 — Democrat and Republican alike — has opposed Israeli settlement activity beyond the 1967 lines. This administration is no different. The U.S. government has never defended or supported Israeli settlements and activity associated with them, and by extension, does not pursue policies or activities that would legitimize them.

Kirby is right that the U.S. government has never formally recognized the right of Jews to live in Jerusalem or the West Bank. But he’s wrong to assert that President Obama’s policies are entirely consistent with that of his predecessors. This administration has made an issue of the existence of 40-year-old neighborhoods in Jerusalem in a way that is unprecedented since it treats the presence of Jews in parts of Israel’s capital as being just as illegitimate as the most remote West Bank settlement. Moreover, no previous administration has ever considered boycotts of Israel, whether of the entire country or of the half million Jews who live on the other side of the 1967 lines as legitimate. Kirby’s statement is an implicit endorsement of some Israel boycotts while opposing others.

Nor does the focus on settlements aid the cause of peace as the administration claims. Israel has already made far-reaching offers of withdrawal from the West Bank including statehood that has been repeatedly rejected by the Palestinians. The refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn is the obstacle to peace, not the presence of Jews in Jerusalem or the West Bank.

As I have written previously, the notion that it is okay to boycott some Jews but not others is one that sends a dangerous signal to Israel’s enemies. Once it is deemed lawful to anathematize parts of the Israeli economy, it is a slippery slope to treating all such boycotts as legitimate. Since the original Arab boycott that sought to strangle the Israeli economy was only broken by U.S. efforts to ban trade with those who enforced the boycott, a Congressional effort to move against BDS now was entirely in keeping with longstanding U.S. policy. But since this administration is obsessed with the idea of banning settlements, it is prepared to let a Europe in which a rising tide of anti-Semitism has fueled support for BDS activity get away with such boycotts.

This is a disgrace, but any thought of a legal challenge to the decision is a waste of time. Since the U.S. Supreme Court gave President Obama the right to invalidate laws about Israeli rights to Jerusalem in a decision handed down earlier this month, he can be confident that he will be granted similar latitude to ignore anti-BDS law.

But it isn’t just friends of Israel who should be outraged about this decision. This is an administration that views law enforcement as an option, not an imperative. Just as he did on immigration, where he ignored the will of Congress and used executive orders to effectively annul legislation by not enforcing those concerning illegal immigrants, President Obama regards his personal opinion as being above the law. That is a dangerous tendency to substitute his preferences for the rule of law ought to scare all Americans, regardless of their views about trade or Israel.

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Liberal Gerrymander Myth Will Be Exposed

In yet another instance of the U.S. Supreme Court twisting the plain meaning of the words of the Constitution, a 5-4 majority ruled that states could bypass their legislatures to create commissions to determine Congressional districts. The U.S. Constitution states specifically, “The times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof,” but, in writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that “legislature” can mean a referendum. That’s absurd, but after a week in which “by the states” can be translated as “by the federal government” (Chief Justice Roberts on ObamaCare) and an amorphous concept not mentioned in the Constitution such as “dignity” can be used as justification for overturning state laws (Justice Kennedy on gay marriage), what’s one more legal fiction if it gets a liberal majority what it wants? As with those other two cases, this has excited a lot of liberals who believe, as Paul Blest writes in The New Republic, that this decision can lead to a political earthquake that could eventually give the Democrats back control of the House of Representatives. But unlike the other decisions that will help transform the world to conform to liberal preferences, this one is bound to disappoint the left. The reason why Republicans seem to have acquired a lock on the House has less to do with the gerrymander myth that claims the GOP wins by cheating than it does to with population patterns and the Voting Rights Act.

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In yet another instance of the U.S. Supreme Court twisting the plain meaning of the words of the Constitution, a 5-4 majority ruled that states could bypass their legislatures to create commissions to determine Congressional districts. The U.S. Constitution states specifically, “The times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof,” but, in writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that “legislature” can mean a referendum. That’s absurd, but after a week in which “by the states” can be translated as “by the federal government” (Chief Justice Roberts on ObamaCare) and an amorphous concept not mentioned in the Constitution such as “dignity” can be used as justification for overturning state laws (Justice Kennedy on gay marriage), what’s one more legal fiction if it gets a liberal majority what it wants? As with those other two cases, this has excited a lot of liberals who believe, as Paul Blest writes in The New Republic, that this decision can lead to a political earthquake that could eventually give the Democrats back control of the House of Representatives. But unlike the other decisions that will help transform the world to conform to liberal preferences, this one is bound to disappoint the left. The reason why Republicans seem to have acquired a lock on the House has less to do with the gerrymander myth that claims the GOP wins by cheating than it does to with population patterns and the Voting Rights Act.

Gerrymandering is almost as old as the republic, but it has always had a bad reputation. Both Democrats and Republicans have carved up states in bizarre patterns in order to maximize political advantage for one party or the other. But in recent years, as the GOP won midterm landslides that gained them control of the majority of state houses around the country, Republicans have had the opportunity to do more gerrymandering than Democrats.

Blest’s piece gives as good a summary of the gerrymander myth as can be found. In short, he blames the Republican victory in 2010 as enabling them to steal seats in Pennsylvania and Ohio by coming up with districts with “nonsensical formations.”

The effects of that redistricting were noticeable in 2012 when, despite easily holding the White House, adding to their Senate majority, and winning the popular vote in the House by over 1 million votes, Democrats only won back eight congressional districts. In Ohio, two longtime progressive members of Congress, Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich, were drawn into the same district, the boundaries of which are objectively ridiculous. After the 2012 election in Michigan, where Obama won by nearly ten points, Republicans held nine seats to just five for Democrats. And in Pennsylvania, the GOP picked up two seats despite Obama’s winning the state by over 300,000 votes and Senator Bob Casey’s winning re-election by an even wider margin. This process wasn’t limited to Republicans, either—they just had more opportunities to do it.

But while the GOP took advantage of their chance to redraw districts where they could, the sea change in House elections dates back more than two decades to the early 1990s when redistricting helped play a role in ending an almost unbroken 60-year streak (1946-48 and 1952-54 being the only brief exceptions) when Democrats controlled the House. Since then, the House has been generally trending to the Republicans, and they’ve run things other than Nancy Pelosi’s four-year reign from 2006-2010. But what happened in 1992 wasn’t the result of a vast GOP gerrymander. It was the result of court decisions interpreting the Voting Rights Act that demanded that states create minority-majority districts that would vastly expand the number of African-American and Hispanic members of the House. That effort succeeded brilliantly but though almost all of these members were Democrats, this triumph came at the expense of their party.

In the past, when Democrats had the chance to draw districts, they’d take advantage of the situation by trying to include areas with a high minority population in competitive districts. Since blacks were — and still are — an essential part of the base of the Democratic party, once they were concentrated into minority-majority districts, that left swing districts overwhelmingly white and as a consequence, far more likely to be won by Republicans. Moreover, the minority districts were far more “nonsensical” than anything any Republican or even Elbridge Gerry (after whom the practice is named) could have even dreamed of as they stretch across states and cross normal country and even geographic boundaries in order to corral as many minorities as possible into one district.

As Nate Cohn notes in the New York Times Upshot blogs, the Democrats’ dominance in urban districts with mostly minority voters inflates their national vote total in Congressional elections. But it does them little good to win inner city districts in cities by 8-1 margins while losing most of the competitive seats by close margins. What Cohn calls a “wasted vote problem” means that Democrats can win states like Pennsylvania decisively while losing the majority of Congressional seats.

The court, to the approval of liberal strongholds like the New York Times editorial page, believes good government pieties about non-partisanship will always favor the Democrats. But the liberal faith that supposedly non-partisan commissions such as the one created in Arizona will solve their problems is misplaced. Even non-partisan districts are always going to favor Republicans in states with minority and urban populations. Unless those commissions are prepared to break up minority districts and cost black and Hispanic politicians their jobs — something that is not only politically impossible but would be considered illegal by the courts — the fundamental GOP advantage will remain.

Moreover, as Cohn points out, instead of looking to the courts to win them victories they can’t achieve on their own, Democrats might do better to forget about commissions and concentrate on winning back state houses before the next census sets off the next round of redistricting. If the GOP wins the presidency in 2016, that might set up 2018 as the moment when Democrats might take advantage of the midterm pattern that gives the party out of power the edge. Of course, that means no President Hillary, so Democrats don’t even want to think about it.

But the most important lesson to be learned from this subject is that while redrawing districts can give political parties help, such devices are no substitute for popular support. If Democrats want to win back the House, they’ll have to do it at the ballot box winning swing districts and not by judicial fiat.

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Selling the Deal Via “the Other Iran” False Narrative

The nuclear negotiations with Iran are in their final stages. We don’t know exactly when the deal will be signed or what exactly it will say. But we already know that it will be the result of a series of humiliating retreats on the part of the United States from previous positions demanding an end to the Iranian program (for a comprehensive then and now comparison of the Obama administration’s positions, see this from the Foreign Policy Initiative). It will more or less guarantee that Iran will become a threshold nuclear state and will have two paths to a bomb — one by cheating the easily evaded terms of the deal, and the other by waiting patiently for it to expire in ten years. That means the real focus at this point will start to shift from the final details of the agreement to an effort to sell Congress and the American people on it. Administration spokespersons and other apologists will be spending the coming months defending the indefensible on the nuclear issue, as well as the failure to address Iran’s role as a state sponsor of terrorism. But the most telling aspect of their campaign will be the more subtle efforts to justify the real purpose of the deal: to create a new détente with the Islamist regime. And for that they need to create a narrative that portrays Iran as something other than the theocratic tyranny with ambitions of regional hegemony that actually exists. We will be hearing a lot about “the other Iran” of happy, forward-looking young people who are just like us. But, as seductive as these arguments will be, they must be rejected.

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The nuclear negotiations with Iran are in their final stages. We don’t know exactly when the deal will be signed or what exactly it will say. But we already know that it will be the result of a series of humiliating retreats on the part of the United States from previous positions demanding an end to the Iranian program (for a comprehensive then and now comparison of the Obama administration’s positions, see this from the Foreign Policy Initiative). It will more or less guarantee that Iran will become a threshold nuclear state and will have two paths to a bomb — one by cheating the easily evaded terms of the deal, and the other by waiting patiently for it to expire in ten years. That means the real focus at this point will start to shift from the final details of the agreement to an effort to sell Congress and the American people on it. Administration spokespersons and other apologists will be spending the coming months defending the indefensible on the nuclear issue, as well as the failure to address Iran’s role as a state sponsor of terrorism. But the most telling aspect of their campaign will be the more subtle efforts to justify the real purpose of the deal: to create a new détente with the Islamist regime. And for that they need to create a narrative that portrays Iran as something other than the theocratic tyranny with ambitions of regional hegemony that actually exists. We will be hearing a lot about “the other Iran” of happy, forward-looking young people who are just like us. But, as seductive as these arguments will be, they must be rejected.

The New York Times inaugurated this genre of journalism intended to justify Iran détente back in 2009 when Roger Cohen wrote a series of columns intended to both whitewash the regime’s anti-Semitism as well as to portray the country as a fun, exotic place we should like. Earlier this year, the Times had another piece about young American businesspeople visiting there that I wrote about in April. But the latest example of the “other Iran” narrative comes today from Politico where author Christopher Schroeder writes of his trip to the country along with other entrepreneurs where they met lots of nice Iranians. Schroeder tries to acknowledge that his frame of reference does not erase other concerns about Iran, but his argument is clear. He wants Americans to stop thinking of Iran solely through the lens of a conflict that dates back to the 1979 embassy hostage crisis, terrorism, and nuclear deceptions, and to start thinking of the Iranian people as potential business partners.

This is an attractive scenario for many in the business community that see Iran as an untapped market. They see European companies chomping at the bit waiting for the sanctions to collapse so they can dive into Iran and start making money and want their share, too. So, in order to justify an entente with Iran, those with a financial interest in ignoring the reality of Iran’s threats must tell us about the wonderful diversity of Iranian society. It is, they tell us, young and as in love with technology as Americans. They urge us to think about the country in more complex terms. Here’s an example of this kind of thinking from Schroeder’s “The Iran I Saw:”

It’s tempting to simplify these two tales of Iran into a polarizing discussion of “theocracy” versus “technology,” “closed” versus “open,” or even of the tension between “local” versus “global.” All of these simplifications are a huge mistake. For one thing, they grossly diminish an extremely rich, nuanced, and yes, sometimes messy story. Washington in particular and our media in general favors one tale by reducing complexity generally to an either/or (“Is it a good thing or a bad thing?”), when we all know things are much more complicated and contradictory.

Yes, things are always “more complicated and contradictory” than sound bytes. But all this talk about complexity has a clear political purpose: backing the president’s push for Iran detente.

Integral to that will not be a pitch that the deal will effectively prevent Iran from getting a bomb since the deal won’t do that. Instead, we’ll get clichés about Iran being “one of the oldest civilizations in the world” and also, “a magnet to the fastest growing economy in the world [China].” That may make you want to visit and to invest there, but this nothing more than a cheap diversion from the reality of Iranian terror, oppression, and aggression.

During the Soviet era, there was a long, disgraceful history of American journalists and fellow travelers who visited Communist Russia and returned to tell us about all the nice people they met and the wonderful, hopeful things they saw. They told us not to think of the country in terms of its murderous government or its threat to Western freedom and security. Such voices instructed us not to think of Russia as a nation of gulags (if they were willing to admit they existed) but one of opportunity. Though Iran is very different from the Soviet Union, the same dynamic applies to those who tell us about its diversity and the need to look at the world from its point of view.

Let’s be blunt. Whatever the personal motives of those who come back with such tales (and in the case of Schroeder and other business types the motivation is money rather than President Obama’s naïve belief that the ayatollahs want “to get right with the world”), their purpose is plain. They want us to ignore the truth about Iran’s despotic government, its abuse of human rights, its support for terrorism, and its desire to create an axis of terror including Iraqi militias, Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza to both advance its goal of regional hegemony and to destroy Israel (a goal for which its push for nuclear weapons is the only possible justification).

In order to justify striking deals with businesses that are controlled by the Iranian government or its Revolutionary Guard Corps, people like Schroeder need to confuse us with stories about hopeful Iranians. As President Obama seeks to convince us to accept his appeasement of Iran he needs voices like Schroeder to become louder. But neither Congress nor the American people should be fooled. The true face of Iran is not a 20-something with a cell phone that wants to get ahead, but the aging theocrats that govern the country and could soon have their hands on a nuclear weapon. Anything that distracts us from that truth is, at best, self-interested drivel by profit-hungry, unprincipled businesspeople. At worst, the other Iran narrative is a deliberate attempt to create a false narrative to justify the most far-reaching and dangerous act of American appeasement since the end of the Cold War.

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Obama’s ‘Best Week Ever’ and the Coming Backlash

Unless you’ve managed to lock yourself away in Henry Bemis’s bank vault, you’ve probably heard the national political press declare that President Barack Obama is once again cured of lame duck syndrome. Largely as a result of exogenous events over which this White House had little or no control, the political media is celebrating, some shamelessly and without regard for the pretense of objectivity, Obama’s “best week ever.” We’ve been here before. Concomitant with the impression that Obama is once again in command of events rather than battered by them, the president’s job approval ratings are on the rebound. Movement conservatives are understandably disappointed by the course of recent events, but there is every reason to believe that the American political pendulum hasn’t finished swinging back in the GOP’s direction. Read More

Unless you’ve managed to lock yourself away in Henry Bemis’s bank vault, you’ve probably heard the national political press declare that President Barack Obama is once again cured of lame duck syndrome. Largely as a result of exogenous events over which this White House had little or no control, the political media is celebrating, some shamelessly and without regard for the pretense of objectivity, Obama’s “best week ever.” We’ve been here before. Concomitant with the impression that Obama is once again in command of events rather than battered by them, the president’s job approval ratings are on the rebound. Movement conservatives are understandably disappointed by the course of recent events, but there is every reason to believe that the American political pendulum hasn’t finished swinging back in the GOP’s direction.

In a typically insightful column, National Review’s Kevin Williamson recently observed that we might have entered a period of “peak liberalism” characterized by frantic, almost manic, pursuits of trivial cultural victories followed by excessive celebratory displays that serve primarily as tribal self-affirmations. Williamson suggests that this conspicuous behavior might be a subtle acknowledgment of the fact that cultural progressivism has reached its zenith and will soon being to recede. “If there is desperation, it probably is because the Left is starting to suspect that the permanent Democratic majority it keeps promising itself may yet fail to materialize,” he wrote. Williamson has identified a condition of which partisans on either side of the aisle would be shocked to learn. For those on the left, progressivism’s march is relentless; it’s speed, constant; it’s course, unalterable. For conservatives, the Obama era has been an endless stream of disappointments punctuated by only occasional and minor reprieve. If there were a pendulum swing in the works, both Democratic and Republican partisans would probably contend that it is sub-rosa to the point of imperceptibility.

But conservatives have reason to indulge in a little optimism. Since the end of World War II, American political culture has a remarkably constant tendency to counter the excesses of those in power. At the presidential level, this propensity is exaggerated and most easily observed (there’s a reason why only once has a party won three consecutive terms in the White House in the post-war period). To some extent, this is a natural function of the physics of political coalitions. As Real Clear Politics analyst Sean Trende put it, political coalitions are like water balloons: “When you press down on one side, another side pops up,” he noted. A winning national coalition must necessarily be so broad and diverse that it will eventually mature into something unwieldy without substantial maintenance. As the Democratic coalition of voters forged in the New Deal era dissolved amid neglect, Republicans began to pick off key elements of this coalition (working class whites, in particular). Democrats hope to replace their winning alliance of voters with a new emerging group of ascendant voters – the backbone of which is made up of students, women, and minorities. Hillary Clinton’s frantic efforts to ingratiate herself to Barack Obama’s voters are indicative of how uncertain Democrats are that Obama’s coalition of voters is now a permanent Democratic voting bloc.

Making it permanent is an urgent Democratic project, in part, because history suggests that the wind will not be at Democratic backs in 2016. No matter how “ascendant” your coalition may be, securing that elusive third term in the White House, much less maintaining coattails for your party’s down-ballot candidates, is always a struggle. This condition will probably be made worse for Democrats insofar as the electorate has been registering various levels of dissatisfaction with the state of affairs now for three consecutive elections, only to see progressive causes continually advanced.

Following two consecutive Democratic wave elections in 2006 and 2008, the electorate soured on Democratic governance and delivered the House of Representatives (as well as a slew of statehouses and legislative chambers) to the GOP in 2010. It was a victory that indicated the Republican revolution of 1994 and their ensuing 12 years of governance in Congress after generations of Democratic supremacy was no fluke. And what did voters gain from this no confidence vote? The Affordable Care Act signed into law, the Budget Control Act (sequester) indiscriminate cuts to defense spending, and a series of executive orders that invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act, Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, the gutting of the 1996 welfare reform laws, and the watering down of American immigration law. Whether or not one views these as positive accomplishments, they are indisputably associated with liberal policy priorities.

The 2012 election can most charitably be described as a status quo election; Americans were dissatisfied with the state of affairs, both foreign and domestic, but were not sufficiently horrified by them to transfer any branch or chamber of government to the opposition party. The president and his party, however, chose to interpret his reelection as a mandate to redouble his efforts to set the nation down a liberal course. The Democratic Party rammed through tax increases on top marginal rates as well as payroll, which is not to mention the tax hikes associated with the implementation of the ACA. Democrats engaged in a failed gun control push that the president has pledged to pursue indefinitely regardless of how often it is rejected. Obama again rewrote immigration law via executive authority, pursued liberal priorities like carbon taxation and net neutrality through America’s regulatory agencies, and applauded as his party curtailed the minority party’s rights in Congress so as to see all of his nominees confirmed.

In 2014, the voters revolted again. A wave election arguably larger than 2010 swept a generation of liberal lawmakers out of office at the local level and delivered the U.S. Senate to the GOP. Again, the voters were ignored. The president’s party has obstructed the construction of the Keystone pipeline to death, preserved Obama’s determination not to enforce existing immigration law, and celebrated as the Supreme Court dubiously affirmed the ACA once more and dubbed same-sex marriage a constitutional right. Again, whether or not one agrees with these policy prescriptions is immaterial; they undeniably advance liberal objectives.

If history is any guide, change is coming. Dispirited conservatives will balk at the notion that Republicans can serve as change agents, but the out-party is the most frequent beneficiary of this voter sentiment. For progressives, the irrefutable moral justification of their cause renders any setback to its agenda a deviation from the norm, but this is self-flattery. American political history and the inherent dynamics of republican politics suggests that voters will soon correct for the excesses of the progressive left that it once empowered. When it happens, it will probably come as a shock to all those progressives who are forever citing the long march of history to justify their peculiar policy preferences.

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Will Obama Throw Lifeline to Bankrupt Iranian Media?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has made little secret that his primary motivation in talks with the P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear program is rescuing Iran’s anemic economy. The White House subtly acknowledges this fact, arguing that the Iranian government will use its unprecedented financial windfall — equivalent to 20 times the annual budget of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — to relieve the dire economic circumstances of the Iranian people. This, of course, is nonsense. Read More

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has made little secret that his primary motivation in talks with the P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear program is rescuing Iran’s anemic economy. The White House subtly acknowledges this fact, arguing that the Iranian government will use its unprecedented financial windfall — equivalent to 20 times the annual budget of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — to relieve the dire economic circumstances of the Iranian people. This, of course, is nonsense.

Rather, the financial windfall that Iran will receive will be pumped directly into its efforts to export its revolution, a concept which might seem foreign to effete politicians and diplomats like John Kerry, but which is nevertheless enshrined in both the Iranian Constitution and the founding statutes of the IRGC.

Some of Iran’s efforts to export its revolution occur through its various militias, such as Lebanese Hezbollah or Iraq’s Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. Other efforts occur through supposed charity work, conducted through such organizations as the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, some of whose branches the U.S. Treasury Department have designated terrorist entities. Cold, hard cash also plays a role. Iranian officials, for example, have long pursued a strategy to cultivate Africa. Tehran has sought to buy the votes of non-permanent African members of the UN Security Council and members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors, for example, beyond seeking logistical bases for its military and potential uranium exporters.

Tied into its Africa efforts has been its expanding media presence. Iranian-sponsored media saturates Bahrain and Iraq and has become an increasingly ubiquitous presence in the Middle East and Central Asia. Suffice to say, Iran relies on its media not only to get its message out to a susceptible audience, but also to provide cover for Iranian agents conducting espionage, surveillance, and engaged in terrorism.

Tehran’s economic mismanagement, however, has taken a toll, as have international sanctions. In January 2015, Tabnak, a news agency affiliated with former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, reported that all its television and news-gathering bureaus save four — London, Baghdad, Damascus, and New York — would close because of financial constraints.

Now it seems that, as of June 29, Iran was knocked off the air in Africa because of non-payment to Arabsat, the main regional satellite broadcast operator.

Now, that may not seem like much, but it is emblematic of just how much potential leverage the United States has over Iran and how much President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s coterie of negotiators have bungled the negotiations that are nearing conclusion. When Iran starts to shut down operations that should be a good thing; unfortunately, rather than permanent silence a source of hate and conspiracy, Obama and Kerry will throw a lifeline to an otherwise failing regime and enable it to amplify its prestige and footprint worldwide.

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