Commentary Magazine


Obama Admits Iran’s Breakout Time Will Shrink

State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf did some fancy footwork today as she tried to explain a damning admission about the Iran nuclear deal made yesterday by President Obama in an interview with NPR. In addition to dismissing the possibility of asking Iran to back away from its threats about Israel’s existence before putting the Western seal of approval on it becoming a threshold nuclear power, the president also had something to say about the back end of the as-yet-unwritten agreement. In it, he conceded that in years 13, 14, and 15 of the restrictions that will be lifted at the end of that period, the “breakout” period for Iran to build a bomb despite its assurances to the contrary would be down to zero from the current two to three months. That tells us much about how little the nuclear agreement will accomplish in terms of keeping the president’s pledge to prevent Iran from getting a bomb.

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State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf did some fancy footwork today as she tried to explain a damning admission about the Iran nuclear deal made yesterday by President Obama in an interview with NPR. In addition to dismissing the possibility of asking Iran to back away from its threats about Israel’s existence before putting the Western seal of approval on it becoming a threshold nuclear power, the president also had something to say about the back end of the as-yet-unwritten agreement. In it, he conceded that in years 13, 14, and 15 of the restrictions that will be lifted at the end of that period, the “breakout” period for Iran to build a bomb despite its assurances to the contrary would be down to zero from the current two to three months. That tells us much about how little the nuclear agreement will accomplish in terms of keeping the president’s pledge to prevent Iran from getting a bomb.

Here’s what the president said:

What is a more relevant fear would be that in year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.

Keep in mind, though, currently, the breakout times are only about two to three months by our intelligence estimates. So essentially, we’re purchasing for 13, 14, 15 years assurances that the breakout is at least a year … that — that if they decided to break the deal, kick out all the inspectors, break the seals and go for a bomb, we’d have over a year to respond. And we have those assurances for at least well over a decade.

And then in years 13 and 14, it is possible that those breakout times would have been much shorter, but at that point we have much better ideas about what it is that their program involves. We have much more insight into their capabilities. And the option of a future president to take action if in fact they try to obtain a nuclear weapon is undiminished.

According to Harf, what the president was trying to say is that he thinks the agreement guarantees a one-year breakout period throughout the years of restrictions. It doesn’t quite read that way though, does it?

A non-spin explication of the passage requires us to accept that the president is already conceding that Iran will continue to work on its nuclear program to the point that breakout times will continue to shrink throughout the agreement. Though he understands that this presents a danger, he appears to be insisting that somehow through the magic of diplomacy and inspections the U.S. will have learned so much about what the Islamist regime is up to that a future president will be in good shape to take immediate action if something is afoot.

There’s a lot to unwrap here. But let’s stick to what Obama said.

The first point to understand is that the president is conceding in a way that he has not previously acknowledged how close the Iranians are to a breakout right now. He’s hoping, and the word to be emphasized is “hope,” that the reductions in Iran’s nuclear infrastructure that are part of the deal he’s promoting will increase that period from three months to a year, even though experts say these are mere estimates while Obama is treating them as certainties.

The next point to hone in on is that although at one point the president claims that he is “purchasing” a longer breakout period throughout the length of the agreement, a few lines later he acknowledges that this won’t really be the case since that time will shrink during the course of the deal. Why is that? He doesn’t say. But what it clearly means is that despite his boasts about shutting down a path to a bomb, the Iranians will be busy throughout the agreement expanding their capabilities and their stockpile of nuclear fuel that can be quickly converted to use for a bomb should they ever choose to do so.

Even worse is the fact that despite the bold talk about tough inspections, the deal as the Iranians understand it doesn’t call for United Nations inspectors to have immediate access to nuclear facilities on a surprise basis. The Iranians will have the right to delay or deny access. That will, no doubt, lead to protests, but given the investment in keeping the deal alive, it’s unlikely that Obama or a Democratic successor would risk it in order to make a point about inspections.

In other words, while the president is making it clear that he understands Iran will continue to make progress toward a bomb even while they are supposedly abiding by the terms of the deal, should they choose to cheat on it–as they have on every previous arrangement–they will be even more likely to be ready to quickly break out to a bomb before it expires. Just as discouraging is the certitude that once it does end, Iran will have not only the wherewithal to immediately start producing a nuclear arsenal; they will be doing so with tacit Western approval in the absence of a follow-up agreement.

What the president was confirming, albeit unwittingly, is that even under the best of circumstances involving Iranian compliance, the most that can be hoped for from this agreement is that the Iranian bomb has been postponed for 15 years. It should be conceded that this is not completely negligible. But under the circumstances under which the West is throwing away all its economic, political, and military leverage for such a minimal achievement, it is a telling statement about the incompetence of American diplomacy.

All this also puts into proper perspective Obama’s refusal to include other issues, such as Iran’s support for terrorism, its threats against Israel’s existence, and its drive for regional hegemony (made clear by its push to take control of Yemen through Shia auxiliaries and financial support and arms supplies for Hamas terrorists in Gaza) in the deal. Rather than ensuring that Iran won’t get the bomb, the deal makes it a threshold nuclear power immediately. The best we can hope for from it going forward is a mere delay until the moment when an aggressive, anti-Semitic Islamist power gets a bomb. At worst, it will do little to reduce a breakout period that is already shrinking down to zero. That’s not much to show for all the concessions that Obama has made during the course of these negotiations.

If this is, as the president insists it is, the best America could possibly have achieved, how much more emboldened must an Islamist regime, which will soon have a bustling economy thanks to the end of sanctions, be to commit further mayhem in an already troubled region?

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Where Terrorists Thrive and Why

Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

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Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

This increase in attacks is not a sign that Shabab is growing in power—rather, the reverse. But even though Shabab has been steadily losing ground on its home turf of Somalia, where it has been pushed back by an African Union military force supported by the U.S., it is far from finished as a fighting force. Essentially, Shabab is going back down Mao Zedong’s ladder of guerrilla warfare: from having fielded a quasi-conventional army that could control a Denmark-sized portion of Somalia, it is now reverting back to being primarily a terrorist and guerrilla force that is kept on the run by its better-armed enemies.

Staging attacks in Kenya, one of the nations that has committed military forces to fight Shabab in Somalia, is an easy way for the terrorists to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies and to garner the media attention that all terrorist groups covet. By terrorizing Kenya, Shabab risks destabilizing the economic and political powerhouse of East Africa—a country that the U.S. counts upon in the region and that President Obama (whose father was born there) is due to visit this summer.

Shabab’s latest atrocities demonstrate, if nothing else, the staying power, resilience, and attraction of Islamist insurgent groups—and the difficulty that corrupt and ramshackle states in the Third World have in stamping them out. The fundamental problem is that even with African Union help, the government of Somalia barely functions and cannot control all of its soil. The Kenyan state is more robust but also mired in problems of corruption, ineffectiveness, and poverty, which prevent it from effectively policing its 424-mile border with Somalia. Moreover, Kenya has a substantial Muslim minority (roughly 5.5 million people, or almost 9 percent of the population) that is not entirely immune to the siren song of radical Islam. Indeed one of the gunmen who carried out the university massacre last week turns out to have been a Kenyan who was the son of a local government official.

All of these problems are even more severe in Nigeria, which has a bigger Muslim population (almost half of the entire population) and a more corrupt and dysfunctional government than Kenya—which helps to explain why Boko Haram is on a rampage. Many of the same afflictions are evident in Yemen, which is why that country’s territory is being divided between two extremist groups—the Houthis, who are aligned with Shiite Iran, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is, like Shabab and Boko Haram, a Sunni jihadist organization.

There is not, to put it mildly, an obvious fix that the U.S. can administer to any of these problems. But as a general matter the lesson I would draw is that U.S. aid should be focused on improving the effectiveness of local government—not merely on hunting down individual terrorists who can be replaced all too easily if the territory in which they operate remains ungoverned. This is a lesson that runs counter to the preferred Obama strategy of sending drones and occasionally Special Operations Forces to take out bad guys, including Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Shabab, who was killed in an American airstrike last fall. Unfortunately his death has not eliminated the Shabab threat, any more than the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi eliminated al-Qaeda in Iraq (now renamed ISIS) or the death of Osama bin Laden eliminated al-Qaeda.

These terrorist groups are tough and tenacious and to truly defeat them the U.S. needs to work with local partners to implement comprehensive “population-centric” counterinsurgency plans of the kind that have succeeded in the past in countries as disparate as Iraq, Northern Ireland, Malaya, Colombia, and El Salvador. But that runs counter to the usual White House preference—especially pronounced in this White House, which resists putting any “boots on the ground”—to opt for quick and flashy technological fixes instead.

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Obama’s Right

Whenever Barack Obama says, as he often does, that another war in the Middle East is the only alternative to the deal he is making with Iran, his critics immediately accuse him of setting up a straw man, which indeed he also often does. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the sternest and most effective critic of Obama’s deal, declares that the true alternative to it is not war but “a better deal.” So, too, leading domestic opponents like Senators Lindsay Graham and Tom Cotton.

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Whenever Barack Obama says, as he often does, that another war in the Middle East is the only alternative to the deal he is making with Iran, his critics immediately accuse him of setting up a straw man, which indeed he also often does. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the sternest and most effective critic of Obama’s deal, declares that the true alternative to it is not war but “a better deal.” So, too, leading domestic opponents like Senators Lindsay Graham and Tom Cotton.

Now I consider the agreement Obama has negotiated a dishonorable and dangerous product of appeasement, and so it pains me to side with him against political figures I admire and generally support. Nevertheless, I have to confess that I think he is right in arguing that the only alternative to a deal is war.

By this I do not mean that war is the only alternative to Obama’s deal alone. What I mean is that war is the only alternative to any deal the Iranians would be willing to sign–if, that is, the purpose is really to prevent them from getting the bomb. Obama keeps insisting that this is what his deal will accomplish. But it seems increasingly clear that he no longer thinks, if he ever did, that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons would be so dangerous that it must be prevented at all costs from getting them.

Up until a few years ago, there was hardly any dissent from this conviction. Yet while just about every political leader and pundit throughout the West agreed that the threat of military force had to be “kept on the table” in order for peaceful means to succeed, most of them were confident that a judicious combination of carrots and sticks would do the trick and that military force would never need to be taken off the table and actually used.

There was, however, a small minority–myself included–who contended that the Iranians were so determined to build a nuclear arsenal that nothing, not sanctions and not the chance (in Barack Obama’s words) to “get right with the world,” could ever induce them to give up their pursuit of it. And since we were convinced that negotiations could accomplish nothing but buy the Iranians more time to forge ahead, we also thought that the sooner we bombed their nuclear facilities the better.

We were fully aware that such a course was very risky. It would almost certainly trigger Iranian retaliation against our troops in the region and against Israel, and it might well lead to the dire economic consequences that Iran could let loose by blocking the flow of oil. Yet in our view all this was as nothing compared with the nuclear arms race that an Iranian bomb would set off throughout the Middle East.

Even worse, there was also the high probability that Iran–once possessed of the means to make good on their openly and repeatedly stated dream of “wiping Israel off the map”–would either provoke the Israelis into a preemptive nuclear strike or try to beat them to the punch with a preemptive nuclear strike of its own. Either way, the casualties and the destruction would reach unimaginable heights.

Our position was summed up in the slogan “the only thing worse than bombing Iran is letting Iran get the bomb.” And to those like President Obama who charged us with warmongering, our response was that the choice was not between a negotiated settlement and war. It was between a conventional war now and a nuclear war later.

As for the Obama deal, if its purpose were really to prevent the Iranians from getting the bomb, it would be a total failure, if only because it leaves their nuclear infrastructure intact and gives them plenty of room to cheat. But judging by deeds rather than words, it is reasonable to conclude that what Obama is trying to do is not to keep Iran from getting the bomb but to further his quest for a detente, or even a de facto alliance, with Iran. Already we see the foreshadowing of such an alliance in his willingness to cooperate with the Iranians in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and his reluctance to take any steps in the Middle East (against their ally Syria, for example) that might displease them.

At this point, the slogan that best applies comes from Winston Churchill’s devastating comment on Neville Chamberlain’s pact with Hitler at Munich in 1938: “You were given a choice between dishonor and war. You have chosen dishonor and now you will get war”–and this time a nuclear war at that. Unless, that is, the Israelis were to choose conventional war now over nuclear war later. My guess is that they will, but it is just as likely that Obama, despite his repeated assurances that he “has Israel’s back,” will stop them by threatening to withhold the diplomatic support and the resupply of lost weaponry they would need. In that case God help us all.

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Did the Revolutionary Guards Really Endorse the Nuclear Deal?

One of the problems with American journalists who feel themselves vested in a topic is that they become prone to cherry pick. Hence, the New York Times reported Iranian celebrations in the streets, but failed to report the “Death to America” chants at the state-sanctioned, supreme leader-directed weekly prayers in Tehran and every provincial capital.

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One of the problems with American journalists who feel themselves vested in a topic is that they become prone to cherry pick. Hence, the New York Times reported Iranian celebrations in the streets, but failed to report the “Death to America” chants at the state-sanctioned, supreme leader-directed weekly prayers in Tehran and every provincial capital.

Now, both Agence France Presse and the Associated Press are reporting that Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has endorsed the nuclear deal. From the Associated Press:

Iranian state television is reporting that the chief of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard has offered his support to Iranian nuclear negotiators. The reported comments by Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari come as some 200 hard-liners protested Tuesday against the framework deal struck last week between Iran and six world powers. State TV’s website quoted Jafari as saying: “With God’s grace, the revolutionary children of Islamic Iran have succeeded in defending the rights of the Iranian nation and the Iranian nation and the Guard appreciate their honest political efforts.” He also said Iran as a nation supported the diplomatic efforts.

Make no mistake, IRGC endorsement would be a positive sign; the lack of IRGC buy-in has been a consistent worry. Alas, the wire services are a bit selective is shaping Jafari’s statement. Here, for example, is Jafari in the Iranian press outlet Tasnim:

“The resistance of the Iranian nation against the United States rendered ineffective the US attempt to impose [its] political will against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Jafari said on the sidelines of a conference. “Thank God, the revolutionary children of Islamic Iran have managed to decently uphold the rights of the Iranian nation in their diplomatic campaign. The Iranian nation and the IRGC appreciate these dear [officials] for their honest efforts, political endeavors, and their resistance [defense] of the specified red lines,” the commander said.

Jafari warned that Washington’s “dishonesty” will create a challenging path ahead of “this diplomatic jihad,” but expressed confidence that Iran’s red lines, including the recognition of its nuclear rights and the removal of all sanctions, will remain “the focal point of the Iranian nation’s demands.” The Iranian nation will support “its nuclear diplomatic front and will not allow misleading tricks from the enemy, particularly the US, in the recent talks, [such as] the fake translation of the joint statement, to tarnish the trust between the nation and government,” the commander added.

Hence, Jafari is not agreeing to the parameters announced by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, but the significantly more permissive interpretation announced by Iranian leaders to their own people. Jafari simply reiterates the idea that Iran’s redlines are restrictions on uranium enrichment and continued sanctions.

The BBC, much like the Open Source Center, also maintains a translation service which has surveyed IRGC-linked websites:

  • The Ammariyon website, close to the IRGC, published an article by hardliner MP Hamid Rasa’i titled “Red lines violated by Lausanne Treaty of Turkmenchay.” (The Treaty of Turkmenchay was the agreement imposed by the Russian Tsar on Iran following its defeat in 1828 which permanently separated what now is Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.)
  • The 598.ir website, also close to the IRGC, likewise criticized the discrepancies between the U.S. version and Iranian versions of the framework. The U.S. factsheet is a non-starter, it suggested.
  • Farhang News, another IRGC outlet, demanded the Iranian government publish its own factsheet.

It’s all well and good for journalists to engage in political spin in order to support a process with which they agree. But, simply repeating mantras of success or cherry picking what news to report does not further understanding; rather, it makes the crash seem all the more sudden.

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What Is Schumer Really Up to on Iran Vote?

Yesterday Senator Chuck Schumer fired a shot over the bow of the White House when he reaffirmed his support for giving Congress a say in the Iran nuclear deal. At a time when President Obama is going all-out to convince the country—and especially wavering Senate Democrats—that he should be trusted to strike a nuclear bargain with the Islamist regime without congressional interference, Schumer’s defection is a blow to the administration. Or is it? Keen political observers need to judge Schumer’s conduct not so much on his own vote but by whether he helps persuade other Democrats to join him. If in the end, the Corker-Menendez bill that would mandate a Senate vote on any agreement with Iran falls short of a veto-proof majority, there will be reasonable suspicions as to whether Democrats played a vote-trading game that will allow senators with strong pro-Israel constituencies to vote against the White House while others provide Obama with the margin he needs.

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Yesterday Senator Chuck Schumer fired a shot over the bow of the White House when he reaffirmed his support for giving Congress a say in the Iran nuclear deal. At a time when President Obama is going all-out to convince the country—and especially wavering Senate Democrats—that he should be trusted to strike a nuclear bargain with the Islamist regime without congressional interference, Schumer’s defection is a blow to the administration. Or is it? Keen political observers need to judge Schumer’s conduct not so much on his own vote but by whether he helps persuade other Democrats to join him. If in the end, the Corker-Menendez bill that would mandate a Senate vote on any agreement with Iran falls short of a veto-proof majority, there will be reasonable suspicions as to whether Democrats played a vote-trading game that will allow senators with strong pro-Israel constituencies to vote against the White House while others provide Obama with the margin he needs.

As I wrote last week, Schumer is in a very difficult position on the Iran debate because of his status as the Senate Democratic leader-in-waiting. Having secured the support of his caucus 21 months in advance of current Minority Leader Harry Reid’s retirement, Schumer is preparing to assume a role that brings with it the responsibility of backing the president in confrontations with Republicans. While on most issues that will be no problem for a reliable liberal such as Schumer, with respect to Israel it is increasingly impossible for any Democrat to remain loyal to the president and to their principles about backing the Jewish state.

Contrary to the White House talking points in which tension between Israel and the United States is blamed on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s supposed tilt toward the Republicans, the fault for this situation is almost completely the work of President Obama. It is he who has sought to split the formerly bipartisan consensus on Israel and Iran sanctions by seeking to persuade Democrats to stick with him on a course of appeasement because of party loyalty. Though some, like currently embattled Senator Bob Menendez, have stood up to Obama, many others have backed away from their previous stands. Others, like Schumer, have tried to plot a middle course in which he seeks to keep good relations with the White House while taking an independent position.

But while it is one thing for members of the Senate who are not part of the leadership to challenge Obama, it is far more difficult for someone like Schumer. Seen in that light, his announcement about support for Corker-Menendez is quite significant. Indeed, it is possible that Schumer’s statement could give cover to other Democrats to follow suit. Given that a dozen are already on record as backing the bill, if all of them vote for it along with a unanimous Republican caucus, that would leave the measure just one vote short of a veto-proof majority.

Getting one more vote for something that he cares deeply about ought to be no trouble for a legislator of Schumer’s acumen. But getting to 67 votes for the bill as currently constituted may be a heavier lift than it looks. There are two distinct possibilities that may derail the effort.

One is if some of the dozen Democrats currently co-sponsoring Corker-Menendez are persuaded by the White House to agree to watering it down. The White House has said it is prepared to live with a version of the bill that would allow a purely symbolic vote on an Iran deal. That could satisfy some Democrats who want to be able to tell their constituents and pro-Israel donors that they had voted for accountability on the deal while at the same time they were actually doing the bidding of the president. Schumer has rightly said that Congress deserves an up-or-down vote on the deal itself rather than a meaningless symbolic ballot on it. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker has said that he also can’t accept that, even if he is someone who appears to want to do business with the administration and may not be counted on to hold the line on opposing a dangerously weak Iran deal. But it is possible that some of the Democratic co-sponsors like Kirsten Gillibrand or Joe Manchin may insist on symbolism rather than the Senate exercising its constitutional obligation to vote on what may be among the most significant foreign treaties agreed to by the United States in the last generation.

But assuming that Corker and Schumer stand up for a real vote, another possibility may prevent a veto-proof majority that seems easily within reach. With the White House ruthlessly lobbying Democrats to vote against the bill in order to defend the president’s prerogatives, it won’t be easy getting to 67. At that point, Schumer and other leading Democrats may engage in one of the age-old traditions of Congress in which votes are traded.

If Schumer is not truly serious about passing Corker-Menendez, what will follow will be a series of bargains struck between various senators and the White House that would allow just enough Democrats to vote for the bill without allowing it to get to 67. In that case, senators like Schumer and Gillibrand might be freed up to vote against the president just as long as they are sure that enough Democrats will vote with him in order to ensure the margin of victory falls short of the two-thirds mark that would make it veto-proof.

If that happens, then the blame will fall not just on the Democrats who allow the president to veto the bill with impunity but on those who helped negotiate the deals that enabled this to happen. And Chuck Schumer, the master-manipulator seeking to serve both the White House and the pro-Israel community, will stand accused as the chief architect of the outcome. Schumer may vote for Corker-Menendez but if it fails to get to 67, you may be sure that he had a hand in that coming to pass. If so, his protestations of sorrow about the failure may convince some of his supporters, but those with a better grasp of how the Senate works will know better.

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When Conservative School Reforms Work

Conservative education reformers are at several distinct disadvantages: union control of public education, the government’s broad power to protect its market dominance, restrictions on leveling the playing field between public and parochial schools, etc. Yet sometimes favored conservative policies succeed despite the institutional road blocks, and other times those road blocks inspire creative alternatives. Readers of today’s New York Times will find important examples of both.

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Conservative education reformers are at several distinct disadvantages: union control of public education, the government’s broad power to protect its market dominance, restrictions on leveling the playing field between public and parochial schools, etc. Yet sometimes favored conservative policies succeed despite the institutional road blocks, and other times those road blocks inspire creative alternatives. Readers of today’s New York Times will find important examples of both.

The first is a very long, but quite worthwhile feature on Eva Moskowitz’s New York charter-school phenomenon, the Success Academy schools. But conservatives should pay special attention to it because it’s not just about the concept of choice; it actually addresses a great weakness of conservative education reform as well.

Reformers on the right correctly note the unfairness and immoral nature of the current government-mandated segregation in the public-school system. They are also correct when they say that while school choice does tend to improve test scores in many cases, the case for school choice rests on more than just grades. Conservatives are dedicated proponents of equality of opportunity, and school choice, thanks to liberal policies, is one area where such equality is close to nonexistent.

But a crucial component of reform, and arguably the most challenging, is to change the actual classroom educational experience. The Times gives us a glimpse at one way Success tackles this issue:

In a rare look inside the network, including visits to several schools and interviews with dozens of current and former employees, The New York Times chronicled a system driven by the relentless pursuit of better results, one that can be exhilarating for teachers and students who keep up with its demands and agonizing for those who do not.

Rules are explicit and expectations precise. Students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker; reading passages must be neatly annotated with a main idea.

Incentives are offered, such as candy for good behavior, and Nerf guns and basketballs for high scores on practice tests. For those deemed not trying hard enough, there is “effort academy,” which is part detention, part study hall.

For teachers, who are not unionized and usually just out of college, 11-hour days are the norm, and each one is under constant monitoring, by principals who make frequent visits, and by databases that record quiz scores. Teachers who do well can expect quick promotions, with some becoming principals while still in their 20s. Teachers who struggle can expect coaching or, if that does not help, possible demotion.

Accountability for students and teachers–what a novel idea! And it gets results:

Though it serves primarily poor, mostly black and Hispanic students, Success is a testing dynamo, outscoring schools in many wealthy suburbs, let alone their urban counterparts. In New York City last year, 29 percent of public school students passed the state reading tests, and 35 percent passed the math tests. At Success schools, the corresponding percentages were 64 and 94 percent.

For disadvantaged students, throwing money at them isn’t what helps them succeed. Moskowitz may be a “self-proclaimed liberal,” but at this rate she may one day have a seat next to Milton Friedman in the conservative pantheon.

The Success Academy schools combine school choice with real classroom reform. And the schools live up to their name.

The other story in today’s Times about education is easier to miss because it’s less controversial. But it could have a meaningful impact if it catches on.

Some of the right’s frustration with race-based admissions is not only that they think college admissions should be colorblind but also that the left’s definition of “diversity” is entirely skin-deep. If you want to help struggling inner-city students, conservatives argue, wouldn’t you do better to base affirmative action policies around socioeconomic factors instead of skin color?

The political obstacles to such reform are obvious. So instead of waiting for government to take the lead, the market is moving in. Here’s the Times:

Top colleges have many reasons to avoid enrolling a lot of low-income students.

The students need financial aid, which can strain a university’s budget. Although many of the students have stellar grades, they often have somewhat lower SAT scores than affluent students, which can hurt a university’s ranking. Low-income students also tend to lack the campus sway of other groups, like athletes or children of alumni, in lobbying for admission slots.

In an effort to push back against these incentives — even just a little — a foundation in Northern Virginia on Tuesday is announcing a new no-strings-attached $1 million prize. It will be awarded each year to a college that excels in enrolling and graduating low-income high achievers. The inaugural winner of the money — from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which also runs a large scholarship program — is Vassar College.

This strikes me as a very good idea, even if its effects will be marginal for now. And its focus not just on enrolling but on “graduating low-income high achievers” is important as well. One weakness of affirmative action, as proponents of the “mismatch” theory argue, is that enrolling students should not be treated as a stand-in for educating them, and in many cases bringing in students through affirmative action does them more harm than good.

Yet even if you don’t believe the mismatch theory, the genius of the Jack Kent Cooke program is that it doesn’t reallocate public resources. No one would object to incentivizing low-income students’ college graduation.

“Rather than spend the money to enroll lower-income students,” the Times’s David Leonhardt writes, “many colleges have instead built student bodies that are diverse in many other ways — geography, religion, ethnicity — but still overwhelmingly affluent.”

Indeed. The best of the American education system is too often off-limits to those who can’t afford it, and the government-inflated loan bubble, liberal opposition to school choice, and an admissions process that judges students on the color of their skin won’t change that. Conservatives are not the only ones advancing conservative education reforms, in yet another sign that the tide might be turning in favor of the disadvantaged students so ill-served by the existing educational order.

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Why Is Obama’s Stance on Israel Questioned by So Many?

Yesterday in an interview with the New York Times Thomas Friedman, President Obama purported to be aggrieved that anyone would question his support for Israel or his respect for concerns about its security. Not satisfied with merely asserting his devotion to the Jewish state, he said it was “personally difficult” to hear such criticism and that he would consider his presidency “a failure” if anything he did weakened it. Six years of endless attempts to undermine Israel’s diplomatic position and the last few months of bitter, personal and even vulgar criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu culminating in threats to leave it isolated at the United Nations made his protestations absurd if not completely disingenuous. But Israelis could at least console themselves that in the course of trying to sell his appeasement of Iran to Congress, he was trying to downplay the crisis in the alliance that he had created. But it only took 24 hours for Obama to answer his own question about why so many Americans and Israelis question his attitude about Israel. In another interview, this time with another friendly questioner from the reliably liberal NPR, Obama dismissed the suggestion that Iran be asked to recognize Israel as part of the nuclear deal he is promoting. His reason: doing so would mean asking Iran to change the nature of its regime. To which critics must respond that this is exactly why it can’t be trusted with a nuclear infrastructure.

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Yesterday in an interview with the New York Times Thomas Friedman, President Obama purported to be aggrieved that anyone would question his support for Israel or his respect for concerns about its security. Not satisfied with merely asserting his devotion to the Jewish state, he said it was “personally difficult” to hear such criticism and that he would consider his presidency “a failure” if anything he did weakened it. Six years of endless attempts to undermine Israel’s diplomatic position and the last few months of bitter, personal and even vulgar criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu culminating in threats to leave it isolated at the United Nations made his protestations absurd if not completely disingenuous. But Israelis could at least console themselves that in the course of trying to sell his appeasement of Iran to Congress, he was trying to downplay the crisis in the alliance that he had created. But it only took 24 hours for Obama to answer his own question about why so many Americans and Israelis question his attitude about Israel. In another interview, this time with another friendly questioner from the reliably liberal NPR, Obama dismissed the suggestion that Iran be asked to recognize Israel as part of the nuclear deal he is promoting. His reason: doing so would mean asking Iran to change the nature of its regime. To which critics must respond that this is exactly why it can’t be trusted with a nuclear infrastructure.

Obama said the following to NPR’s Steve Inskeep:

The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons in a verifiable deal on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won’t sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms. And that is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment.

Obama went on to say that he believed the reason why the deal couldn’t be struck in that matter was because his goal was to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons and that he couldn’t count on it changing.

That makes a sort of superficial sense. And if the as yet unwritten deal actually ensured that Iran could never get a nuclear weapon, he might have a strong case for ignoring the nature of the Iranian government. But despite his ardent salesmanship, he can’t honestly claim that it does. Obama has made an endless string of concessions that have allowed to keep its nuclear infrastructure, included its fortified bunker at Fordow, not forced it to export its stockpile of nuclear fuel, reveal the extent of its nuclear research and put an expiration date on the restrictions on its program. All this means that Iran can, if it is patient, build up its nuclear capabilities and then have a bomb in short order at the end of the agreement. Or, if it is not that patient, it can easily cheat its way to a weapon due to the weakness of the deal and the lack of a truly strict inspections regime or the ability of the West to quickly reimpose sanctions.

At best, all Obama has accomplished is to delay an Iranian bomb. At worst, he has allowed it to get close to one with Western permission and after having made it impossible to reassemble the international coalition that might have brought Iran to its knees had it been led by an American president with the guts to stick to a tough line rather than one that folded at every opportunity. The reason for this was that Obama’s goal throughout this process was détente with an aggressive, anti-Semitic and tyrannical regime rather than an effort to keep his 2012 campaign promise to eliminate its nuclear program.

Thus, the question about forcing it to recognize Israel is actually an apt one. Having empowered Iran at a time when its quest for regional hegemony via actions in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and now Gaza are scaring Israelis as well as moderate Arabs, it is fair to ask why the deal ignored Tehran’s support for terrorism and its frequent threats to obliterate Israel.

The president is right that to ask Iran to give up its rhetoric about Israel, let alone its policies aimed at bringing its dream of its elimination about, is to seek to change the nature of its theocratic government. But that is exactly why any deal that leaves people who have such goals in possession of thousands of nuclear centrifuges and a stockpile of nuclear fuel and a free pass to build a bomb in 15 years is tantamount to saying you don’t give a damn about Israel’s legitimate worries about Iran.

It was beneath the dignity of the presidency for Obama to feign hurt feelings about criticism for his efforts to undermine the U.S.-Israel alliance. Had he not spent most of his presidency (with the exception of the one year grace period of a Jewish charm offensive that accompanied his re-election campaign) sniping at Netanyahu, tilting the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians and ignoring the latter’s consistent rejection of peace, there would be no justifications for questioning his bona fides as a friend of Israel.

But when he treats the vile threats against Israel as an insignificant detail about his prized negotiating partner, he betrays his own mindset that sees the Jewish state’s existential worries as a tiresome drag on his diplomatic ambitions. The president would probably prefer that the Iranians pipe down about their desire to destroy Israel but he doesn’t feel strongly enough about it to let it derail his grand design for a rapprochement with Tehran.

The president can complain about his hurt feelings as much as he wants though to do so strains even the credulity of his most fawning interviewers. But by agreeing to a deal that makes Iran a threshold nuclear power without insisting on it dropping its ideology of hate, the president has answered questions about his negative attitude toward Israel by confirming the worst fears of his critics.

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Netanyahu Can’t Back Down On Iran Now

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned up on the Sunday morning talk shows yesterday as the principal voice speaking out against the Iran nuclear deal, there’s little doubt that many people in the White House breathed a sigh of relief. Having sent President Obama out to talk to friendly outlets like the New York Times to defend an agreement that has yet to be put onto paper and which the Iranian regime is characterizing in a wholly different manner from that of the administration, they understand that the more the public understands about the details, the less they are going to like it. Advocacy for a pact about which the best that can be said is that it is better than a false choice of war is not easy. Nor is attempting to claim that the president alone ought to be able to decide about this rather than allowing Congress to exercise its constitutional responsibility to an up or down vote on foreign treaties. Yet the president is probably entirely comfortable if this argument is reduced to another Barack versus Bibi debate such as the one about the latter’s address to Congress last month. But though Netanyahu is being set up for another beating in the press, he has little choice but to continue to speak out.

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When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned up on the Sunday morning talk shows yesterday as the principal voice speaking out against the Iran nuclear deal, there’s little doubt that many people in the White House breathed a sigh of relief. Having sent President Obama out to talk to friendly outlets like the New York Times to defend an agreement that has yet to be put onto paper and which the Iranian regime is characterizing in a wholly different manner from that of the administration, they understand that the more the public understands about the details, the less they are going to like it. Advocacy for a pact about which the best that can be said is that it is better than a false choice of war is not easy. Nor is attempting to claim that the president alone ought to be able to decide about this rather than allowing Congress to exercise its constitutional responsibility to an up or down vote on foreign treaties. Yet the president is probably entirely comfortable if this argument is reduced to another Barack versus Bibi debate such as the one about the latter’s address to Congress last month. But though Netanyahu is being set up for another beating in the press, he has little choice but to continue to speak out.

The arguments about whether Netanyahu erred in accepting House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to speak to Congress earlier this year are moot. In doing so, he allowed the White House to divert the discussion from one about their indefensible appeasement of Iran to whether the prime minister and his GOP hosts had violated protocol or were “insulting” the president. That didn’t help those attempting to muster a veto-proof majority for more sanctions on Iran as well as the Corker-Menendez bill requiring the pact to be ratified by Congress before going into effect. But in the long run the arguments about the speech were meaningless. Netanyahu gave a great speech but nothing he said could have possibly altered the course of the negotiations in Switzerland. Nor did it galvanize Congress into immediate action.

Now that Iran has finally deigned to accept an agreement that allows it to become a threshold nuclear power and gives it a legal path to a bomb if it passes the time until the deal ends or to cheat its way to one if it doesn’t want to wait, Netanyahu has been put in an unenviable position. If he speaks up now, it allows the president to claim that the Israelis are allying themselves with his Republican opponents and gives him more ammunition with which he can try to persuade wavering Democrats to abandon the bipartisan consensus behind Corker-Menendez. If he remains silent, he abandons the field to Obama and his apologists at a time when Israel’s security—and that of its erstwhile antagonists among the moderate Arab nations in the region—is being imperiled.

It is unfortunate that the attitude among many Democrats, including many who claim to be friends of Israel, is such that they no longer hesitate to attack Netanyahu or dismiss his strong arguments about the nuclear deal with impunity. One such was California Senator Dianne Feinstein who more or less told Netanyahu to shut up and stop annoying his betters in an interview on CNN yesterday. Part of the fault for this is Netanyahu’s pre-election statements about the two-state solution and Arab voters that offended many Americans as well as the backwash from the speech controversy. But the bottom line here is that all of these anti-Netanyahu talking points have been ginned up primarily by an Obama administration that wants to silence the most prominent and articulate critic of its feckless quest for détente with Iran.

But whether or not Democrats and other liberals are putting their fingers in their ears and chanting “la, la, la” every time he speaks up about the obvious weaknesses to the Iran deal, Netanyahu can’t back down now.

Some criticized his speech to Congress as a mere appeal to history rather than a pragmatic effort to influence U.S. policy. There was some truth to that point but it is not one that is to Netanyahu’s discredit. Given the presence in the White House of a president who has been obsessed with ending 35 years of enmity between the U.S. and Iran, there was never anything that Netanyahu or any Israeli leader could ever do to stop Obama from getting his deal if he made as many concessions to the Islamist regime as he did. All Netanyahu can do at this point is make clear the danger that the president is creating for Israel, moderate Arabs, and the West.

Moreover, despite the dismissals of his plea for Western patience and courage to broker a better deal with Iran, Netanyahu does have a coherent alternative to Obama’s path. The U.S. could have, and still could if it had a president who wasn’t besotted with Iran détente, use all the economic and political weapons at its disposal to bring Tehran’s economy to its knees. It could insist that any deal be dependent on an end to Iranian support for international terrorism as well as force it to give up far more of its nuclear infrastructure and its fuel stockpile. It won’t because Obama didn’t have the guts to stick to his position when push came to shove.

Israel has no good options to deal with the threat from Iran. It cannot—and won’t—bomb Iran while it is negotiating with the United States. Nor can it shame the West into better behavior. But Netanyahu can speak. In spite of the opprobrium that has been hurled against him, he remains a strong voice respected by most of the American public. The list of improvements in this very bad agreement put forward by the Israelis are informative and will be useful to Congress and members of the American general public. Netanyahu must, if possible, avoid making himself the center of the argument. But he cannot be silent. Though the chances of success in this effort may not be good, he has no choice but to continue to speak lest history judge him and anyone else who punts on the issue as being complicit in one of the most disgraceful examples of appeasement in modern history.

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Could Indiana RFRA Debate Influence 2016? Not in the Way Moderates Think.

To listen to most of the mainstream media, the debate over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been a disaster for the Republican Party. They’re certainly right about Governor Mike Pence, whose bumbling response to the controversy put an end to any 2016 speculation for him. But while liberals believe the groupthink response from the media that depicted the possibility that some bakers and florists might use the law to discriminate against gays illustrated how out of touch the GOP is with popular culture and opinion, a lot of conservatives drew a very different conclusion. Though they have been taking a beating on it, the primary response to this may not be the sort of rethinking of the issue that characterized the actions of Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who refused to sign a similar bill into law last week after he saw what happened to Pence. Though the media may consider this counter-intuitive, the rush to brand anyone who might dissent from the new consensus on gay marriage as a bigot may actually help energize evangelicals and aid the efforts of those, like Ted Cruz, who are betting on a resurgent Christian conservative vote to carry them to relevance, if not victory.

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To listen to most of the mainstream media, the debate over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been a disaster for the Republican Party. They’re certainly right about Governor Mike Pence, whose bumbling response to the controversy put an end to any 2016 speculation for him. But while liberals believe the groupthink response from the media that depicted the possibility that some bakers and florists might use the law to discriminate against gays illustrated how out of touch the GOP is with popular culture and opinion, a lot of conservatives drew a very different conclusion. Though they have been taking a beating on it, the primary response to this may not be the sort of rethinking of the issue that characterized the actions of Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who refused to sign a similar bill into law last week after he saw what happened to Pence. Though the media may consider this counter-intuitive, the rush to brand anyone who might dissent from the new consensus on gay marriage as a bigot may actually help energize evangelicals and aid the efforts of those, like Ted Cruz, who are betting on a resurgent Christian conservative vote to carry them to relevance, if not victory.

After Pence’s confused statements and Hutchinson’s pulling the plug on the Arkansas RFRA, liberals may be forgiven for thinking they won last week’s news cycle. The effort to stigmatize even a theoretical faith-based dissent on gay marriage succeeded in a manner that made the issue toxic. And that will continue to be the case as long as the discussion centers on the notion that refusing to take part in a gay wedding is a form of illegal discrimination rather than on the desire of an intolerant, albeit newly-minted majority to bully a religious minority into compliance or silence.

But evangelicals, or other conservatives who think the media groupthink about Indiana reflected inaccurate and biased reporting, may have a difference response from that of Hutchinson. To the contrary, and to the consternation of mainstream Republicans who believe that it is madness for the GOP to contest culture-war issues where they have already been routed, the religious right may use Indiana as an incentive to use the 2016 race to make their voices heard.

The importance of this demographic in Republican primaries is nothing new. The last two Iowa caucuses have gone to the candidate who appealed most effectively to religious conservatives—Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. But that influence may be even greater in 2016, especially if southern states coordinate what is being widely called an SEC regional primary (after college football’s Southeastern Conference) where these voters will play a major role in determining the outcome.

And that is where Ted Cruz’s gamble on mobilizing the religious right comes in. Cruz got reviews for his effort in being the first GOP candidate to formally declare for the presidency. But the consensus among most talking heads is that he is still out of touch with mainstream voters and has little chance of winning the nomination, let alone a general election. They may well be right about the latter, but in a contest where Christian conservatives largely dominate most of the early states, Cruz’s strategy seemed smart. After the Indiana kerfuffle, it may turn out to be even smarter than he thought.

It may be that the avalanche of opprobrium that rained down on the state of Indiana would serve as a deterrent to religious conservatives speaking up. Certainly those responsible for promoting the state’s economy may think so after the way a liberal lynch mob was able to intimidate corporations into joining their anti-RFRA protests, even causing some to boycott the Final Four weekend in Indianapolis.

But the spectacle of the chattering classes chanting in unison may only help convince conservatives that piping down about their beliefs are the worst mistake they can make. And candidates who seek to appeal to those who are most outraged about the way their beliefs are being anathematized could stand to benefit.

Cruz will have a lot of competition for religious conservative votes. Former Iowa winners Huckabee and Santorum are back for another try. Rick Perry will also seek to win their affection. Like Cruz, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is the son of a preacher and an evangelical who has often spoken of his faith. So will Senator Marco Rubio. Even a libertarian like Rand Paul will make a pass at the religious right even if his heart isn’t in it. But Jeb Bush, who has spoken of running against the party base on issues like immigration and Common Core, is in a bad position to do so.

But the point here is that someone who gets out early and establishes himself as the voice of conservatives will be in a far stronger position than most of those seeking to put Christian bakers and florists in the stocks think. Cruz may not sustain his effort and someone else, perhaps Walker or Rubio, who can appeal to other sectors of the party will prevail. But far from shutting up the evangelicals, the Indiana dustup may give them an added incentive not to lose control of the Republican Party to someone they perceive as a moderate like Bush. And that is very bad news for those in the GOP who think Indiana is an object lesson in how not to win a presidential election.

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Why Rand Paul Doesn’t Need to Tell Us Why He’s Running (But Hillary Does)

Contrary to what may seem like a mad dash for the Republican presidential nomination, the distribution of candidate announcements so far has actually been quite rational. Those who had the most to gain by jumping into the race early have done so. Tomorrow brings the beginning of the next phase: the entry into the race of the group of candidates known as “everyone else.”

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Contrary to what may seem like a mad dash for the Republican presidential nomination, the distribution of candidate announcements so far has actually been quite rational. Those who had the most to gain by jumping into the race early have done so. Tomorrow brings the beginning of the next phase: the entry into the race of the group of candidates known as “everyone else.”

Tomorrow Rand Paul is expected to officially launch his presidential campaign. A week later, Marco Rubio will likely do the same. And on the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton may formally announce her candidacy as early as the day after Rubio’s campaign launch. The campaign will be underway in earnest, though this will start a less interesting chapter in the 2016 story.

Although Jeb Bush has not officially launched his campaign, he was the first to make an announcement that made plain the fact that his campaign was functionally underway and also opened the gates to the 2016 primary race. This made a great deal of sense: it was unclear if Jeb really was going to run, and he wanted to assuage all doubt and signal to donors and staffers he was in.

Jeb is also vying for the affections of the party establishment, and he had a chance to deliver a knockout blow to his chief establishment rival, Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor is limited in what steps he can take toward a candidacy right now and is bound by his day job. Jeb isn’t, and so he knew if he could jump in and crowd out the donor/staffer field on the establishment side of the race, he could make it impossible for Christie to have a path to the nomination, and maybe even convince him not to run at all.

The next candidate to remove all doubt, and the first to officially announce his campaign, was Ted Cruz. The Texas senator seemed more likely than Jeb to run, but that perception might have had something to do with the fact that Cruz is currently in office and Jeb isn’t, and Cruz’s actions in the Senate always seemed to be aiming at something larger than the individual votes around which they were taken.

But Cruz is also a young, freshman senator in a (prospective) field with other young, freshman senators. It made sense that one of the freshmen toying with the idea of running for president would sit this one out and wait for a future election, especially if they felt generally confident in their reelection prospects. Cruz fit the bill of the member of the club who might have been most likely to wait. Jumping into the race officially, then, was the smart play: like Jeb, there was a genuine will-he-or-won’t-he aspect to his compelling freshman term, even if he did always seem to lean toward running.

Cruz also might have an in-state rival for conservative affection in Rick Perry. Cruz will benefit greatly from a head start on Perry, a three-term governor with national connections and some (rather bumpy) presidential campaign experience.

In other words, those who needed a head start entered the race early enough to get one. The natural reaction of the others, then, would be to enter the race as well and limit that head start. And so that’s what they’re doing.

Tomorrow Rand Paul is expected to announce his candidacy, and he’s released a campaign trailer to preview it. We’re told he’s a “new kind of Republican,” and the message on screen at the close of the video says: “On April 7 one leader will stand up to defeat the Washington machine and unleash the American dream.” It’s a message clearly directed at Cruz, Rubio, and any other members of Congress considering running (Lindsey Graham, Peter King). This, too, makes sense: Paul actually benefits from Jeb winning establishment backing and older candidates reinforce his past-vs.-future message. Cruz, however, is a real impediment to his chances of winning the nomination, though it’s unclear how he’ll present himself as more of an outsider than Cruz.

But the key is that he doesn’t have to–at least not yet. The announcement doesn’t have to break any new ground or present anything more than a general message. Politicians with relatively strong name identification build their own reputations over time. Paul doesn’t need to say anything more than “I’m running.”

And it puts into stark relief the difference between such politicians and those who actually need to say who they are and what they stand for on every re-introduction. Hillary Clinton’s nascent campaign is a perfect example. She has nothing interesting to say about anything. The news stories on her campaign take on a distinctly dopey quality because of this.

Commentators had some fun with an Associated Press dispatch on Clinton in late February. As the Free Beacon notes, the AP’s initial headline was “Clinton says she would push problem-solving if she runs.” It was later changed to “Clinton says she would push for inclusive problem-solving.”

Clinton is running for president because she believes it’s owed to her. Her new campaign focus is no better. Here’s the AP from this morning: “Clinton to start 2016 bid with focus on voter interaction.” Hillary Clinton is now willing to do anything to become president, even if it means talking to the unwashed masses.

This problem keeps cropping up because Clinton stands for nothing and believes nothing, and is at constant pains to justify her candidacy. Rand Paul doesn’t have to justify anything, which is why his announcement tomorrow won’t actually be very dramatic. And that’s a good thing.

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The Most Troubling Line in Obama’s NYT Interview

Barack Obama sat down with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman over the weekend to defend his framework nuclear deal. Obama argues that he had a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and so he gave it a chance. And he also suggests that it was a risk worth taking. “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand,” he said. This, of course, is ironic because the outside world often accuses Americans of navel-gazing and not caring about reverberations in the rest of the world. Here, however, the president once embraced as a multilateralist messiah—and a leader who won a Nobel Peace Prize on rhetoric alone—pretty much acknowledges that he discounts regional reverberations to his actions.

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Barack Obama sat down with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman over the weekend to defend his framework nuclear deal. Obama argues that he had a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and so he gave it a chance. And he also suggests that it was a risk worth taking. “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand,” he said. This, of course, is ironic because the outside world often accuses Americans of navel-gazing and not caring about reverberations in the rest of the world. Here, however, the president once embraced as a multilateralist messiah—and a leader who won a Nobel Peace Prize on rhetoric alone—pretty much acknowledges that he discounts regional reverberations to his actions.

It’s almost as if Gerald Ford held an olive branch out to the Khmer Rouge, saying, “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk,” never mind the regime’s genocidal ideology. Obama and supporters of his deal, of course, would argue that such a characterization isn’t fair: Obama took pains to tell Friedman how hurt he was that so many in Israel and the United States believed the U.S. president was willing to throw the Jewish state under the bus.

Obama also subtly changes U.S. policy. While across administrations, the policy of the United States was that Iran would not get a nuclear weapon, President Obama now seems to envision a Plan B of nuclear deterrence:

The notion that Iran is undeterrable — “it’s simply not the case,” he added. “And so for us to say, ‘Let’s try’ — understanding that we’re preserving all our options, that we’re not naïve — but if in fact we can resolve these issues diplomatically, we are more likely to be safe, more likely to be secure, in a better position to protect our allies, and who knows? Iran may change. If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place.

First of all, Obama’s confidence is misplaced. The Iranian regime may not be suicidal, but what if it’s terminally ill? The most ideologically pure elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would have custody over any nuclear arsenal, and if the regime were collapsing around them, they might launch for ideological reasons knowing the regime was over anyway. This is one of the reasons why America’s Gulf allies were so upset when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised a trial balloon of a nuclear umbrella should Iran achieve a nuclear weapon.

The most troubling line in Obama’s interview—and one upon which Friedman didn’t push the president—was this:

I’ve been very clear that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon on my watch, and I think they should understand that we mean it.

Here’s the problem: Obama’s watch will last just over another 20 months. The job of a U.S. president isn’t to squander tremendous diplomatic capital and leverage to kick the can down the road for 20 months and then claim, well, “it didn’t happen on my watch.” With this statement, Obama is effectively acknowledging that Iran very well develop a military nuclear capacity during the next administration. After all, the so-called nuclear fatwa which Obama repeatedly cites very specifically avoids the word never.

Obama’s political career may end in 2017. He may be short-sighted enough to care only about what such a deal would mean for him. Alas, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia nor the rest of the world has the ability to force its security to conform to the exigencies of a Washington political calendar. It’s not Obama’s watch—or any politician’s tenure—that should be the basis for judging a deal’s success. It should be whether or not the deal allows Tehran to pursue a nuclear weapon should it so choose. Alas, it seems, Obama has just acknowledged voiding another red line.

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Iran Understands Momentum; Obama Does Not

President Barack Obama bases his surrender to Iran’s nuclear ambitions on the notion that his olive branch is reversible. In effect, he believes, it can’t hurt to talk. That’s a notion inculcated into diplomatic culture, and put forward by at various times by accomplished diplomats like Nicholas Burns and Ryan Crocker. It’s also a notion which is demonstrably wrong.

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President Barack Obama bases his surrender to Iran’s nuclear ambitions on the notion that his olive branch is reversible. In effect, he believes, it can’t hurt to talk. That’s a notion inculcated into diplomatic culture, and put forward by at various times by accomplished diplomats like Nicholas Burns and Ryan Crocker. It’s also a notion which is demonstrably wrong.

A nuclear deal isn’t like mail ordering a child’s toy with 100-percent guarantee on returns. Once Obama went down the path toward even a framework agreement—never mind that the framework seems increasingly illusionary by the day—he effectively ceded any and all momentum to the Iranians.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif once studied in the States. He speaks English. But spending time in America and speaking English does not make a foreign ideologue sympathetic to America; rather, it simply enables that ideologue to be able to communicate more easily with Americans. Just as after a visit to Damascus as senator, John Kerry became convinced of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s reformist nature, now as secretary of state, Kerry has allowed Zarif to substitute charm for sincerity.

Hence, Zarif’s triumphalist gloating upon his return to Tehran: Bahman Kalbasi, a correspondent for BBC TV Persian Service, tweeted, “State TV host: ‘But the US says the architecture of sanctions stays?’ Zarif laughs: It has already collapsed.” Rouhani, likewise, has been triumphalist as he once again lives up to his reputation as the regime’s “Mr. Fix-It,” getting the financial relief the Iranian leadership so craved at little or no cost to the Islamic Republic itself. The sanctions, Obama promised, would “snap back into place” if Iran didn’t meet its obligations.

But since the death fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, through the early days of Critical Dialogue (when, against Europe’s outstretched hand, Iranian hitmen assassinated dissidents in downtown Berlin), and after the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center, the Iranian government understands that the European Union cares more about mercantile issues than human rights or international security. Nor does Russian President Vladimir Putin even bother about the pretense of caring about human rights. Zarif is right; international sanctions crafted and carefully pushed through the Security Council by men like John Bolton (something Obama and partisans forget) have effectively been squandered upon the altar of Obama’s ego and Kerry’s ambition. There is no going back. Deal or no deal on June 30, Iran’s goal in negotiations has always been sanctions relief, not nuclear normalization. Tehran has won; international momentum against it has evaporated. From Iran’s perspective, Zarif has reason to gloat.

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Does Iran Agreement Make an Israeli Unity Government More Likely?

The negotiating posture of the Jewish Home party’s Naftali Bennett can best be described as a strange mix of hardball and desperation. After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud won the most seats in last month’s Knesset elections, he was tasked with forming a governing coalition. Jewish Home’s share of the Knesset seats dropped to single digits. The result has left Bennett demanding a princely sum to join the coalition while also insisting he’s being ignored so Likud can bring Labor into the coalition. Only a couple of weeks ago it seemed completely unrealistic, but is it less so now in light of the U.S.-Iran “framework” agreement?

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The negotiating posture of the Jewish Home party’s Naftali Bennett can best be described as a strange mix of hardball and desperation. After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud won the most seats in last month’s Knesset elections, he was tasked with forming a governing coalition. Jewish Home’s share of the Knesset seats dropped to single digits. The result has left Bennett demanding a princely sum to join the coalition while also insisting he’s being ignored so Likud can bring Labor into the coalition. Only a couple of weeks ago it seemed completely unrealistic, but is it less so now in light of the U.S.-Iran “framework” agreement?

The argument goes something like this. The classic cliché of Israeli politics is that only the left can make war and only the right can make peace, because each would have enough support for the initiative from the opposition leaders to prevent domestic politics from getting in the way. It’s an exaggeration but there’s much truth to it. Netanyahu signed a deal with Arafat at Wye River and Ariel Sharon instituted the Gaza disengagement, while Israel’s major land wars were mostly wrapped up by the time the left lost its first Knesset election.

This dynamic, plus the politician’s ever-present desire to be a part of legacy-defining events, has made a possible unity government in which Likud would bring Labor into the coalition more realistic. The event in question, of course, is an attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

If a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program does actually get signed, whether it’s by the June 30 deadline or a later date, the devil will be in the details. But the framework agreement, intended to be an outline for a final deal, is a monument to the Obama administration’s serial capitulation.

A best-case scenario is that the deal would establish and legitimize Iran as a threshold nuclear power–though it is unlikely anyone will be able to see the best-case scenario from wherever we actually end up in late June. All of which means Obama is willing to toss some more fuel on the fires of the Middle East on his way out the door. The allies he’s abandoned to this future will have to decide how best to put out the flames of Obama’s failures.

One way would be do something Netanyahu has always wanted to avoid: an Israeli strike on Iran. The Obama administration has boasted in the past that it exploited Netanyahu’s hesitation to use military force and Israel’s trust in America to prevent a strike on Iran. Team Obama now thinks an Israeli strike is so unlikely as to openly mock Bibi’s moderation (a moderation they won’t admit to unless it involves getting to toss grade-school insults at the Israelis).

Isaac Herzog, whose Labor Party seemed poised to go into the opposition, is not the dove the White House obviously thinks he is. Hence, a unity government might make sense.

But those who advocate a unity government, such as Haaretz’s Aluf Benn, are missing the fact that it is Herzog, not Netanyahu who is likely to be the largest impediment to such a coalition. Benn writes:

Netanyahu needs Herzog as a moderate foreign minister, who will be in charge of repairing relations with the Obama administration. There is no one suitable for the job in the proposed right-wing government. … Appointing Herzog will also enable Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, a right-wing political hack who is disconnected from the administration, to be replaced by a professional diplomat with experience and multiple connections, such as Israel’s ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor.

Why would Netanyahu dislike this arrangement? He would oppose swapping out Dermer not because he’d have any objection to Prosor but because it would be a stinging rebuke to his own close advisor. But giving a major position like foreign minister to Herzog would have a great deal of upside for him. Bringing Herzog into the government gives him an excuse not to have to choose between Avigdor Lieberman and Bennett for the Foreign Ministry. It would give him a more expansive governing mandate. It would not only tamp down leftist discontent if Israel does decide it needs to strike Iran but would also make it more challenging for Western leaders to whine about right-wing militancy after such a strike. It would clear the space, also, for possible electoral reforms that might make coalition-building less of a headache. And it would have Labor buy-in on Netanyahu’s preferred economic policies.

Indeed, in 2009 Netanyahu brought Labor into his coalition, though he perhaps wanted to have Ehud Barak as his defense minister more than any other benefit the party brought to the table. And he wanted the opposition party, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, in the coalition too. Why not? The more the merrier.

But is there such a clear case for Herzog? Here he has to game out a few scenarios. Kadima went into steep decline soon after that election and Livni lost a battle for the party’s leadership. So Herzog might look at that and think the lesson is he should join the government when given the opportunity. Yet at the same time, Labor’s joining the Netanyahu government in that very same coalition was the final straw for Laborites who finally had their opportunity to get rid of Barak.

Herzog also has to be quite careful about internal dissent. After improving Labor’s gains in the last election, then-party leader Shelly Yachimovich lost her leadership battle to … Herzog. Meanwhile, Yachimovich might have been better positioned to lead Labor in this past election, in which economic issues played an important role. The last thing Herzog needs now is buyer’s remorse from his own supporters.

Additionally, Labor was neck and neck with Likud in the polls and then established a lead before the elections. Yet they lost, and it wasn’t all that close either. Perhaps Labor dropped the ball, or perhaps they just didn’t see what Likud pollsters swear they saw all along. Whatever the case, discontent with Herzog is likely to bubble up to the surface.

Will joining a Netanyahu government protect his leadership? It can be argued that it will increase his national stature by demonstrating a willingness to put patriotism above politics. And it might show the country that he is, in fact, no dove, and thus make him a more plausible prime minister going forward.

The problem is that all these benefits will likely inflame his leftist base, who are not so hawkish and who are sensitive to the idea of being coopted by Likud. Herzog will try to find the right balance, but it’s doubtful Netanyahu is the one who needs convincing here.

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Iran Funds the Building of New Terror Tunnels for Hamas

President Obama’s all-out effort to sell his deal with Iran has largely gained a sympathetic hearing in the press. But while Obama is trying to pretend to be on his guard about Iran’s ambitions and even, in a departure from recent statements, showing respect for Israel’s legitimate concerns about this, the Iranians are, once again, demonstrating their contempt for Western illusions. The point isn’t just that Iran’s understanding of their commitments under the yet-to-be-drafted deal differs markedly from what the United States has claimed. It’s that the underlying purpose of President Obama’s initiative—allowing Iran to “get right with the world” and to inaugurate a new era of cooperation with Tehran—is being undermined by Iranian actions that already demonstrate that they intend to redouble efforts to achieve their goal of regional hegemony and destabilization of U.S. allies. Even before the announcement of last week’s agreement, Iranian-backed Shia rebels were taking over Yemen. But now comes news that makes the president’s hopes for a more moderate Iran seem even more ludicrous: the Islamist regime is funneling money to Hamas in Gaza to help it rebuild the tunnels it hopes to use to launch new terror raids inside Israel.

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President Obama’s all-out effort to sell his deal with Iran has largely gained a sympathetic hearing in the press. But while Obama is trying to pretend to be on his guard about Iran’s ambitions and even, in a departure from recent statements, showing respect for Israel’s legitimate concerns about this, the Iranians are, once again, demonstrating their contempt for Western illusions. The point isn’t just that Iran’s understanding of their commitments under the yet-to-be-drafted deal differs markedly from what the United States has claimed. It’s that the underlying purpose of President Obama’s initiative—allowing Iran to “get right with the world” and to inaugurate a new era of cooperation with Tehran—is being undermined by Iranian actions that already demonstrate that they intend to redouble efforts to achieve their goal of regional hegemony and destabilization of U.S. allies. Even before the announcement of last week’s agreement, Iranian-backed Shia rebels were taking over Yemen. But now comes news that makes the president’s hopes for a more moderate Iran seem even more ludicrous: the Islamist regime is funneling money to Hamas in Gaza to help it rebuild the tunnels it hopes to use to launch new terror raids inside Israel.

As Britain’s Daily Telegraph reports:

Iran has sent Hamas’s military wing tens of millions of dollars to help it rebuild the network of tunnels in Gaza destroyed by Israel’s invasion last summer, intelligence sources have told The Sunday Telegraph. It is also funding new missile supplies to replenish stocks used to bombard residential neighbourhoods in Israel during the war, code-named Operation Protective Edge by Israel.

Much like the White House’s determination to ignore everything the Iranians have continued to say about eliminating Israel, not to mention its history of violating commitments, this effort isn’t influencing the administration’s determination to press ahead with the nuclear agreement. Everything that might distract us from embracing the possibility that Iran is changing and will use its nuclear technology for peaceful purposes is deemed irrelevant to the issue at hand by the president and his defenders. So no one should think the thought of Iran directly attempting to foment a new war between Israel and Hamas will lessen the president’s enthusiasm for what he clearly believes to be a legacy achievement.

But those who, unlike President Obama, are not already besotted with the notion of détente with Iran should think very seriously about what this means for the future of the Middle East.

Even if the Iranians observe the rather loose limits on their nuclear ambitions and do not cheat their way to a bomb—as they could easily do given their continued possession of their nuclear infrastructure and stockpile—it must be understood that the deal makes their eventual possession of a bomb inevitable once the agreement expires. But even if we are to, as the administration demands, ignore this certainty, we must confront just how much the economic boost the deal will give its economy and the legitimacy it will grant the regime will impact its efforts to spread its influence and sow the seeds of conflict between Arab and Jew as well as Sunni and Shia.

It is one thing to claim, as President Obama does, that he got the best deal with Iran that was possible. On its face, that assertion can sound reasonable even if it is given the lie by the fact that he spent the last two years discarding all of his political and economic leverage over the Islamist regime and making endless concessions that make it a threshold nuclear power. But it is not much of a secret that the president sees his diplomatic efforts as having a larger goal than a technical and rather insubstantial check on the nuclear program that he pledged to dismantle in his 2012 reelection campaign.

The ultimate goal of the negotiations is to end the 36 years of strife between Iran and the West that followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought the theocratic regime to power. After decades of supporting terrorism against the West and threatening Israel’s destruction, the president is laboring under the delusion that what he has done is to open up a chance for a true rapprochement with Iran. That’s the argument some of his cheerleaders like the New York Times’s Roger Cohen and Nicholas Kristof have been making. They have long campaigned for changing the West’s view of Iran from that of a rigid, tyrannical, aggressive, and anti-Semitic regime to one that Americans can feel comfortable doing business with and embracing. The images of a kind, friendly Iran these writers and others like them have worked so hard to promote is based on the notion that the differences between the countries are just politics. The president’s own assertions about Iran being a “complicated” country that is on some levels no different from the United States echoes these disingenuous claims.

But while Iran has political factions that contend for influence and is populated by many nice people who might want to be kind to visiting Americans, none of this changes the fact that its government and military have very different intentions. The real Iran is not the picture postcard version writers like Cohen and Kristof give us but the cold hard facts of Iranian arms shipments and financial support for terrorists in Gaza and its auxiliaries in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria. None of those “complicated” factions disagree about war on Israel or their nuclear goals.

This agreement will not just empower Iran’s nuclear efforts but will strengthen the regime economically in such a way as to make its replacement by more moderate forces unthinkable.

While Americans dream of an entente with exotic Persia, Iran’s leaders are busy preparing the way for violence. The Gaza terror tunnels and missiles are just the tip of the iceberg of Iranian efforts. The American seal of approval that the deal will give will make it easier for them to spread their influence, further isolating and endangering both moderate Arab governments and Israel. That is the cold, hard reality of Iranian power that defenders of this effort to appease Tehran must take into account. Senators pondering whether to vote to give themselves the right to approve the deal should be focused on events in Gaza and Yemen and not just the president’s empty promises about a new era of hope and change in the Middle East.

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Steven Salaita at the University of Washington

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” By and large organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have encouraged that way of dealing with offensive speech. So, for example, when Steven Salaita, then of Virginia Tech, tweeted his wish that “all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” as a desperate search was underway for three kidnapped Jewish teens already feared dead, a principled defender of academic freedom could reasonably think that Salaita’s words were despicable but protected. If you thought, as I do not, that Steven Salaita had a binding contract with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, you might also think that the University violated Salaita’s academic freedom when it decided not to go through with hiring him for a tenured position there.

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“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” By and large organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have encouraged that way of dealing with offensive speech. So, for example, when Steven Salaita, then of Virginia Tech, tweeted his wish that “all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” as a desperate search was underway for three kidnapped Jewish teens already feared dead, a principled defender of academic freedom could reasonably think that Salaita’s words were despicable but protected. If you thought, as I do not, that Steven Salaita had a binding contract with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, you might also think that the University violated Salaita’s academic freedom when it decided not to go through with hiring him for a tenured position there.

Supporters of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement have gone much further than that, as I have reported here, hosting Salaita at venue after venue as if he were a hero. That is not surprising, since, despite their official nonviolent stance, BDS supporters have been known to stand with figures and organizations who preach and sometimes practice violence against Israeli civilians.

What is surprising is that one local branch of the AAUP, at the University of Washington, has also decided to fete Salaita. To be more precise, they are co-sponsoring an April 6 lecture by Salaita. This lecture takes place just a little more than a month after BDS leader Omar Bhargouti’s appearance, which I wrote about here.

The University of Washington AAUP insists that it is not endorsing Salaita’s views but merely taking a position that both the national AAUP and FIRE have taken: that the University of Illinois did Salaita wrong. Sponsoring Salaita is simply signaling UW-AAUP’s “unwavering support of the core principles of our profession and the academy.” This defense is, of course, preposterous. The AAUP and FIRE defend all kinds of people who say terrible things. Presumably UW-AAUP would not sponsor a talk by a person who had been fired for uttering racial slurs or denying the Holocaust, even if its members considered the firing unwarranted. Even a child can tell the difference between sponsoring an advocate of academic freedom who thinks that even neo-Nazi speeches and writings require protection, and sponsoring a neo-Nazi.

If this distinction is lost on this particular AAUP chapter, that may have something to do with the anti-Israel views of some of its members. As is par for the course of anti-Israel efforts in academia, these members have attempted to use the AAUP to attack Israel, even though the mission of the organization has absolutely nothing to do with the Middle East conflict.

In April 2013, the UW-AAUP circulated a resolution urging TIAA-CREF, which handles retirement funds for many colleges and universities, to drop four companies from its “social choice” fund. These companies, according to the resolution, produce military equipment used to “oppress the Palestinian people.” In other words, UW-AAUP was urging a divestment action directed solely against Israeli policies. Although some members questioned “the focus on Israel,” a vote went ahead, and the resolution just barely failed to gain a majority, with six votes for and six votes against.

Also in 2013, Robert Wood, professor of atmospheric science, president of UW-AAUP, and amateur Middle East policy maker signed a letter denouncing Caterpillar Inc. for selling to the Israel military.

Professor Wood is, of course, entitled to his opinions, but dues paying members of UW-AAUP should be asking why their organization is being used to prop up Salaita, whose comments have been called “loathsome,” “incendiary,” “violent,” and “racist” even by those inclined to defend his academic freedom. I’m afraid this kind of thing is unlikely to end until people start withholding their dues.

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America’s Cooperation with Iran in Iraq Has Consequences

The Obama administration seems to be taking a victory lap after ISIS fighters were pushed from Tikrit, but the aftermath of the town’s fall has not been pretty. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which the administration disingenuously claimed had left the scene prior to the start of U.S. bombing, rushed into the Sunni town and launched a wave of looting, murder, arson, and general mayhem.

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The Obama administration seems to be taking a victory lap after ISIS fighters were pushed from Tikrit, but the aftermath of the town’s fall has not been pretty. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which the administration disingenuously claimed had left the scene prior to the start of U.S. bombing, rushed into the Sunni town and launched a wave of looting, murder, arson, and general mayhem.

Reuters reports: “Near the charred, bullet-scarred government headquarters, two federal policemen flanked a suspected Islamic State fighter. Urged on by a furious mob, the two officers took out knives and repeatedly stabbed the man in the neck and slit his throat….In addition to the killing of the extremist combatant, Reuters correspondents also saw a convoy of Shi’ite paramilitary fighters – the government’s partners in liberating the city – drag a corpse through the streets behind their car.”

Some might say “good riddance” to the supposed ISIS fighters who are receiving what might be seen as rough justice. But of course there is no impartial court to judge guilt or innocence. Those being tortured could have been chosen simply because they are Sunnis, not because they were members of ISIS. Certainly the stores being looted and the homes being burned did not belong to ISIS but to local Sunnis. The abuse they have suffered at the hands of Shiite militias will make Sunnis resist all the harder in places like Mosul when the Shiite hordes appear before their gates.

And who is responsible for this undisciplined mob violence? The primary perpetrators are of course the Shiite militias themselves, but their enablers are both Iran and the United States. In a remarkably candid account, the New York Times disposes of administration claims that it is not cooperating with Iran.

Writes the Times: “In the battle to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, from the Islamic State, the United States and Iran have found a template for fighting the Sunni militancy in other parts of Iraq: American airstrikes and Iranian-backed ground assaults, with the Iraqi military serving as the go-between for two global adversaries that do not want to publicly acknowledge that they are working together.”

Further, the Times quotes a “senior administration official” disavowing the comments made by Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, who told Congress: “I will not — and I hope we will never — coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias,” which of course  were responsible for killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. The administration official told the Times that Austin’s comments  “may have gone a little far.” “What we’ve been trying to say is that we are not coordinating directly with Iran,” said the official, suggesting that indirect cooperation is just fine.

The administration may be proud of its Machiavellian machinations, but it should own up to the consequences of its indirect cooperation with Iran: The U.S. is enabling an Iranian power grab in Iraq that is not only enhancing Iran’s regional power but also marginalizing the Sunni community and driving them further into the arms of ISIS. It is hard to imagine a more self-defeating or ill-advised policy.

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Inability to Free Iran’s American Hostages Shows Deal’s Faulty Logic

With the United States, as part of the P5+1, striking a framework deal with Iran, the issue of the four American hostages seized in and still held by Iran has once again come to the forefront. It’s hard to conceive that the United States would have given the Islamic Republic of Iran $11.9 billion in unfrozen assets and not received a simple gesture of goodwill in return, although it is also true that the United States should not offer concessions to regimes like Iran and North Korea which so often seek to profit from seizing Americans.

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With the United States, as part of the P5+1, striking a framework deal with Iran, the issue of the four American hostages seized in and still held by Iran has once again come to the forefront. It’s hard to conceive that the United States would have given the Islamic Republic of Iran $11.9 billion in unfrozen assets and not received a simple gesture of goodwill in return, although it is also true that the United States should not offer concessions to regimes like Iran and North Korea which so often seek to profit from seizing Americans.

Beyond the fate of the individual hostages, the inability of the Obama administration to release them—despite Secretary of State John Kerry insisting he raises their cases at every opportunity—suggests a greater logical flaw in Obama’s outreach to Iran. In briefings with Congress, former Policy Planning Director Jake Sullivan—an initiator of the talks under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—has suggested that Team Obama sees Rouhani as a Deng Xiaoping figure. They believe that by working with Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and giving them a victory of an economy-rescuing deal, they can permanently strengthen the reformist camp against regime hardliners. This represents a fundamental misreading of Rouhani, who is Khamenei’s “Mr. Fix-It,” but even that can be put aside.

Here’s the problem: If Obama and Kerry give Rouhani and Zarif a pass on the hostages because, presumably, Rouhani and Zarif say that they are held by hardline circles to embarrass the United States and cannot easily be sprung, then what does that say about Rouhani and Zarif’s ability to impact the more troubling aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, for example its possible military dimensions. After all, if Rouhani and Zarif cannot overcome hardliners on such a simple matter as the hostages, how can they be expected to overcome the Iranian hardline bureaucracy which controls the nuclear program? Obama may believe he has negotiated a “historic” deal, but all indications are he might have simply bought the Brooklyn Bridge—or perhaps the Karun River Bridge—because if Team Obama’s failure to spring the hostages is any indication, they are negotiating with Iranian figures who lack the power to impact Iranian policy. No wonder Rouhani is already back-peddling.

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Religious Liberty and the Intolerance of the Left

The explosion of criticism against Governor Mike Pence and his state, in the aftermath of Indiana passing a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is quite telling in several respects.

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The explosion of criticism against Governor Mike Pence and his state, in the aftermath of Indiana passing a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is quite telling in several respects.

The first is that there’s a great deal of misunderstanding of what the law does, as this editorial in the Wall Street Journal from earlier this week makes clear. The Indiana law is a version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that passed the Senate by an overwhelming margin in 1993 (97-3) and was signed into law by President Clinton. As the editorial puts it:

Individuals must show that their religious liberty has been “substantially burdened,” and the government must demonstrate its actions represent the least restrictive means to achieve a “compelling” state interest. Indiana’s law adds a provision that offers a potential religious defense in private disputes, but then four federal appellate circuits have also interpreted the federal statute to apply to private disputes.

If florists or wedding photographers don’t want to work a gay wedding based on their religious convictions, under the RFRA test,

such a commercial vendor would still have to prove that his religious convictions were substantially burdened. And he would also come up against the reality that most courts have found that the government has a compelling interest in enforcing antidiscrimination laws. In all these states for two decades, no court we’re aware of has granted such a religious accommodation to an antidiscrimination law. Restaurants and hotels that refused to host gay marriage parties would have a particularly high burden in overcoming public accommodation laws.

The RFRA law, then, is a careful, prudential law, attempting to balance competing claims and interests–and in any event, the type of cases we’re focused on involving florists and wedding photographers is extremely rare.

Whatever you think about Governor Pence (and I think he did a very poor job of defending his actions on ABC’s This Week on March 29) and the decision by florists and photographs to boycott gay weddings, what is most alarming to me, and should alarm you, is the rising intolerance and mob mentality that is evident on the left.

We saw it in the Mozilla case, in which the CEO, Brendan Eich, was forced out after having given money in support of a California referendum supporting traditional marriage, as well as in the effort to target (possibly through the denial of accreditation) Christian colleges like Gordon, whose Life and Conduct Policy limits students and employees to sexual activity in the context of marriage, defined as the union of one man and one woman. “Never mind that the policy allows any person of any sexual orientation to attend Gordon, teach at Gordon, or serve in its administration,” as David French of National Review writes. “The fact that its Life and Conduct Policy prohibits ‘sexual relations outside marriage’ and ‘homosexual practice’ (explained as ‘sexual intercourse’) was enough to take action, to declare it bigoted and not fit for inclusion in society.”

This is a deeply illiberal impulse, aimed at the core of American freedom (religious liberty), and if it is not checked, it will do tremendous damage to our civil culture as well as to our basic freedoms. To be sure, this illiberal impulse isn’t characteristic of everyone who champions gays rights (Jonathan Rauch is an admirable example). And I’ve pointed out before where I think evangelical Christians have erred in their cultural engagement, in ways that I believe are both counterproductive and at times deeply at odds with the spirit of Christian faith.

But that is only part of the story; and the case of Indiana is only the latest example of a crusading and authoritarian mindset on the left, which is both quite worrisome and potentially explosive. It is one thing to have differences over issues like gay marriage, which intelligent and honorable people can disagree on. It is quite another to try to force Christians to choose between progressive orthodoxy and their deeply held (and centuries-long) religious beliefs–and to punish them if they refuse not only to support gay marriage but actively participate in ceremonies. As my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin has written, if reasonably possible “people should not be compelled as the price of entry to the public square to honor as true what their understanding of their religious obligations compels them to judge false.”

That is what some on the left seem determined to do–and if they keep doing it, this won’t end well.

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Can U.S. Slash Military Budget When Russia’s Preparing for War?

The battle over sequestration continues, as Congress mandates that the Pentagon continue to slash the U.S. army down to pre-World War II levels. Meanwhile, the Iranian military is resurgent, peace deal or not, with the Islamic Republic increasing its defense budget by some 33.5 percent. Then, again, being militarily active in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq takes money.

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The battle over sequestration continues, as Congress mandates that the Pentagon continue to slash the U.S. army down to pre-World War II levels. Meanwhile, the Iranian military is resurgent, peace deal or not, with the Islamic Republic increasing its defense budget by some 33.5 percent. Then, again, being militarily active in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq takes money.

Perhaps President Obama believes he has solved the Iran problem, or is well on his way to doing so. But even if his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to insist her “reset” policy with Russia worked, Russian President Vladimir Putin poses an increasing threat to international security, as anyone in Georgia or Ukraine can attest. Obama may believe the situation has stabilized—after all, press attention has moved on—but it looks like the situation might soon go from bad to worse.

According to this analysis in The Interpreter, Russian military spending has increased sharply. Of course, it is pretty certain that the real budget is even higher than the official, sanitized version. According to the article, based on the analysis of Russian economist Andrey Illarionov as published on opposition leader Garry Kasparov’s website:

Between the time that Putin came to power up to January 2014, the Moscow economist and commentator says, Moscow has spent on average 2.5 to 3.2 percent of GDP on the military, with the figure tending to rise over time. During the first 13 years of his rule, Illarionov says, spending in constant prices went up 2.6 times…. After Putin made his final decision to intervene in Ukraine in February 2014, he says, Moscow’s military expenditures “were increased by more than twice,” a figure that suggested the Russian government intended not only to seize and occupy Crimea but all of what it calls “Novorossiya.” In February, March and April of last year, Russian military spending amounted to 6.7 percent of GDP and 27.7 percent of all budget expenditures.

The situation is getting worse. Here’s the alarming section:

According to Illarionov, official Russian government figures show that “the situation radically changed” in the first two months of this year, the latest period for which figures are available. Average monthly military spending increased 2.3 times, compared to the May-December 2014 period, 3.3. times compared to the last pre-war period, and 8.8 times compared to 2000. For those two months alone, he says, military spending was more than 1.3 trillion rubles – that is, more than 20 billion US dollars – and it constituted 43.3. percent of the federal budget and 12.7 percent of Russia’s admittedly diminished GDP.

So, the Russian economy is getting worse, yet Putin is rapidly expanding his defense budget. The question is to what end? Alas, it seems not to be a question which the White House cares to consider, although certainly the leaders of the Baltic States and Poland are. Perhaps Congress should as well, because continuing sequestration is leaving the United States dangerously unprepared to face a mounting crisis which, if Illarionov’s analysis is true, seems to be looming ever larger. Vladimir Putin exploits weakness and indecision, characteristics which for too long Obama has projected. The United States cannot afford sequestration. Rather than resolve budget deficits, sequestration will make them worse because such weakness is encouraging dictators to aggression in a manner which no U.S. president will be able to long ignore.

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Rouhani Throws Down the Gauntlet on Lifting Sanctions

Despite President Obama’s straw man argument positing a false choice between diplomacy and war, critics of Obama administration strategy object not to the idea of diplomacy with Iran, but rather the manner in which Team Obama carried it out. Whereas Ronald Reagan prefaced his diplomacy with the Soviet Union with a massive military buildup both to negotiate from a position of strength and, in hindsight, to bankrupt his Soviet adversary, President Obama’s willingness to unfreeze assets and offer sanctions relief suggested the White House considered leverage a dirty word.

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Despite President Obama’s straw man argument positing a false choice between diplomacy and war, critics of Obama administration strategy object not to the idea of diplomacy with Iran, but rather the manner in which Team Obama carried it out. Whereas Ronald Reagan prefaced his diplomacy with the Soviet Union with a massive military buildup both to negotiate from a position of strength and, in hindsight, to bankrupt his Soviet adversary, President Obama’s willingness to unfreeze assets and offer sanctions relief suggested the White House considered leverage a dirty word.

When engaging rogue regimes—and Iran is the textbook example of the concept encoded by President Clinton’s national security advisor Tony Lake—it is important to recognize that not all parties come to the bargaining table motivated by the same desires. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry may truly have sought to bring an enemy in from the cold, and their actions may also have been motivated by ambition, hence the liberal use of the term “historic” in their subsequent statements. But for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, traditionally the supreme leader’s Mr. Fix-It, the goal was simply to relieve the financial pressure decades of mismanagement, declining oil prices, and sanctions had put upon the Islamic Republic.

Hence, as Seth Mandel notes, the idea of how to implement, and the extent of, sanctions relief seems increasingly to loom large and could potentially disrupt the entire accord. Obama suggested—wisely—that any relief would be gradual, calibrated to Iranian behavior. Speaking from the Rose Garden yesterday, he said:

In return for Iran’s actions, the international community has agreed to provide Iran with relief from certain sanctions — our own sanctions, and international sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.  This relief will be phased as Iran takes steps to adhere to the deal.

The State Department’s press sheet, for its part, says:

Iran will receive sanctions relief, if it verifiably abides by its commitments. U.S. and E.U. nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps. If at any time Iran fails to fulfill its commitments, these sanctions will snap back into place… All past UN Security Council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue will be lifted simultaneous with the completion, by Iran, of nuclear-related actions addressing all key concerns (enrichment, Fordow, Arak, PMD, and transparency).

That’s not the Iranian understanding, however, nor does the Iranian leadership believe this to be an issue that can be swept under the rug. Speaking on Iranian television today at around 2 p.m. Tehran time, Rouhani said:

All sanctions will be terminated on the day of the agreement’s implementation. Based on this framework, all sanctions — financial, economic, and banking sanctions — will be terminated on the same day that the agreement is implemented. On the same day of the deal’s implementation, all [UN Security Council] Resolutions against Iran — meaning six resolutions — will be terminated.

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been increasingly strident in his tweets regarding the question of when Iran would see sanctions relief.

The questions before President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are: first, whether they will forfeit what little remaining leverage the international community has in order to keep Iran at the table. And, second, how such a misunderstanding could occur between Kerry and Zarif after the two spent so much time together. Simply put, did Zarif say one thing to Kerry, and then another to Rouhani? If so, then what does this suggest about the charming diplomat’s integrity and the future course of the agreement?

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