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It is hard not to see the United States in willful strategic collapse. The Islamic Republic of Iran has made no secret of the fact that it sees the United States as the Great Satan. This isn’t mere rhetorical opprobrium: Over the past ten years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operating on the orders of Iran’s top leadership have killed hundreds of Americans. Current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also has blood on his hands, having served as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council at a time when Iranian-backed militias were targeting both American servicemen and civilians. And yet, when the Iranian public rose up in disgust at the Iranian leadership’s dishonesty in 2009, President Obama sided not with the Iranian people but with their oppressors.

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It is hard not to see the United States in willful strategic collapse. The Islamic Republic of Iran has made no secret of the fact that it sees the United States as the Great Satan. This isn’t mere rhetorical opprobrium: Over the past ten years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operating on the orders of Iran’s top leadership have killed hundreds of Americans. Current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also has blood on his hands, having served as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council at a time when Iranian-backed militias were targeting both American servicemen and civilians. And yet, when the Iranian public rose up in disgust at the Iranian leadership’s dishonesty in 2009, President Obama sided not with the Iranian people but with their oppressors.

China has stolen at least 14 million present and former government officials’ personal information, including mine, according to Office of Personal Management emails I received. And the consequences for Chinese actions? None. And, for that matter, the consequences for those within the U.S. government charged with keeping our personal information secure? Again, zero.

As the world approaches the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnians might reflect at how much worse the massacre might have been had it been Obama rather than Bill Clinton at the helm. At least the U.S. under NATO auspices launched an air campaign later that summer to bring the horrific violence to an end. Obama would likely have found a reason not to enforce any humanitarian or strategic red lines whatsoever. And, as for the Ukraine? It’s easy to talk about helping a fledgling democracy counter naked aggression but when push comes to shove, Obama seems perfectly willing to sell Ukrainians down the river as well.

Of course, it gets worse. After having invested hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama is preparing to pull the plug on the former and has already largely done so on the latter.

It is increasingly clear that neither U.S. national security nor human rights are criteria upon which Obama bases decisions. Max Boot is absolutely right that the Obama administration is readily ceding Iraq to Iranian influence, all the more ironic since many of the Iraqi Shi‘ites hugely resent Iran’s ambitions: If a traveler ever wants to experience true anti-Iranian sentiment, forget Jerusalem or Riyadh and visit Fao, the southern-most fishing village in Iraq, or have hushed conversations in some of the hill villages of southern Lebanon. I have also had the opportunity to see Hayya Bina, the Lebanese group to which Max refers, in action during some of my trips to Beirut and southern Lebanon. The Obama administration has demanded the group stop working among Lebanese Shi‘ites to organize or support any work or opposition to Hezbollah.

Nowhere has the Obama administration been so cavalier toward freedom, liberty, and the fight against terrorism as in Syria. As secretary of State, Hillary Clinton continued to call Bashar al-Assad a “reformer” even after his murderous rampage began. And, as senator, John Kerry made his aides blanch when he repeatedly described Assad as “my good friend” after bonding during a motorcycle ride. Let’s just be glad that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah doesn’t like yachting, as Kerry’s moral vacuity and poor character judgment might have led him to say something equally regrettable.

Whatever the hope for the Syrian opposition in the initial months, the group radicalized tremendously. Advocates for the opposition like Sen. John McCain have their hearts in the right place, but have allowed their tenaciousness to trump good judgment: Supporting the Syrian Sunni Arab opposition would, at this point, be akin to supporting Al Qaeda. McCain should not become Erdoğan with a better sense of humor. At the same time, though, the idea of reconciliation or even a hands-off approach to Assad is noxious. This is a man that not only uses chemical weapons against his own people, but also refused to order his air force to strike the Islamic State’s headquarters at Raqqa at any point during the pre-September 2014 period when he had uncontested dominance over Syrian airspace.

There is only one group that has had any modicum of success fighting radicals and counter Assad inside Syria, and that is the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎ (YPG), the People’s Protection Units or the Syrian Peshmerga. I was fortunate to meet the YPG last year during a trip to northeastern Syria. They have sacrificed tremendously: I visited both memorial shrines, spaces reserved for families of martyrs, and fresh graves, while also hanging out at YPG checkpoints and talking to YPG commanders. Aside from a few airdrops around Kobane and, in the last few days, some air support around Ayn Issa, a town north of Raqqa, they have received little from the United States. The Syrian opposition that the United States does support has little to show for its money.

The YPG – and the Syrian Kurdish administration to which they answer – has the added benefit of being largely tolerant. They host tens of thousands of Arab refugees from the Aleppo area, and churches, mosques and, for that matter, Yezidi temples. And yet, the Obama administration and Kerry specifically give the Syrian Kurds the cold shoulder. The State Department refuses Salih Muslim, the Syrian Kurdish leader, a visa and it is a rarity that U.S. diplomats will speak with him, even if in the same room. Kerry has welcomed Syrian militants with blood on their hands to join the international diplomatic process but continues to veto any real Kurdish participation, at least among the Kurds representative of the Rojava administration.

In the last few days, the YPG has captured a strategic town just 30 miles north of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital. It’s an opportunity that should be supported. Clearly, the YPG fulfill Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s “will to fight” prerequisite. If Obama truly wishes to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, then working with the YPG should be the central pillar. It’s time to work in the realm of reality and seize every opportunity, rather than continue to embrace the fantasy of Assad’s responsibility or other Syrian opposition’s credibility and moderation.

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Russia Outmaneuvers Obama in the Middle East

Being a revanchist means being keenly aware of your country’s history, its interests as defined by prior generations, and that which they so carelessly lost. Steeped as he is in revanchism, Vladimir Putin has put a premium on the national interests of Russia’s leaders of another era. He covets the Black Sea coast, as have all his predecessors dating back to Catherine. He views the United States has his country’s strategic competitor in Europe, as did the Soviets who inherited Stalin’s post-War order. And, like many of the ghosts who roam the Kremlin’s halls, Putin is uniquely conscious of the strategic value of the Middle East. He is fortunate in that the American president is equally determined to extricate his country from Middle Eastern affairs and is presently engaged in a disruptive project to reorder the region so as to facilitate that retreat. Putin has taken full advantage of the every opportunity American military retrenchment and diplomatic restructuring in the Middle East has afforded him, and the future will be darker for it. Read More

Being a revanchist means being keenly aware of your country’s history, its interests as defined by prior generations, and that which they so carelessly lost. Steeped as he is in revanchism, Vladimir Putin has put a premium on the national interests of Russia’s leaders of another era. He covets the Black Sea coast, as have all his predecessors dating back to Catherine. He views the United States has his country’s strategic competitor in Europe, as did the Soviets who inherited Stalin’s post-War order. And, like many of the ghosts who roam the Kremlin’s halls, Putin is uniquely conscious of the strategic value of the Middle East. He is fortunate in that the American president is equally determined to extricate his country from Middle Eastern affairs and is presently engaged in a disruptive project to reorder the region so as to facilitate that retreat. Putin has taken full advantage of the every opportunity American military retrenchment and diplomatic restructuring in the Middle East has afforded him, and the future will be darker for it.

In February, when Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi chose Russia as the first non-Arab state to which he would make a formal trip, it set off alarm bells in Washington. America’s bilateral relationship with that flawed but nevertheless critical nation’s military leadership had long been strained. Relations between American and Egyptian officials grew tense when President Barack Obama demanded Washington’s ally of over three decades, Hosni Mubarak, leave office amid anti-government protests and spiraling violence. At first welcoming the election of Mohamed Morsi and then standing by him when it became clear that he and his political allies would use every lever of Egyptian democracy at their disposal to destroy it, Barack Obama alienated the members of the Egyptian military with whom America had once had firm relations since the late 1970s. Finally, after being visibly paralyzed by events in Egypt following Morsi’s ouster – vexed by the notion of whether to punish the putsch leaders by calling the events they welcomed a “coup” – Obama’s government eventually withdrew a significant amount of the military aid the world’s most populous Arab country had come to rely upon.

The result of this fecklessness was to alienate Egypt’s democrats, frustrate its Islamists, and terrify the members of its military establishment. It’s one thing to have an idealistic foreign policy that eschews legacy obligations to unsavory actors established by foreign policy realists, but it’s quite another to adopt an approach to international affairs that apparently has no philosophical moorings whatsoever. Obama embraced the latter course.

“Washington’s rather limited criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood during its year in power, as well as the intensifying swirl of conspiracy theories about the U.S. role in Egypt, have fostered a severely anti-American political atmosphere that may welcome a shift away from Washington,” The Washington Institute’s David Schenker and Eric Trager observed.

If the alarm bells were ringing in February, they screamed like an air raid siren by March. It was then that the Sisi government announced that it had secured a deal to purchase $2 billion in arms from Moscow. The arrangement represented the ruination of the post-Sadat status quo, in which the former Egyptian leader and American administrations under three successive presidents over the skillfully disentangled Egypt from the Soviet sphere of influence. Indeed, the importance with which Russia viewed Egypt was revealed when Sadat flamboyantly expelled Soviet advisors and he was subsequently rewarded with even more military aid from Moscow. Putin had effectively reversed Leonid Brezhnev’s folly in Egypt.

But this would not be the end of the West’s humiliation on the Nile. According to a report via the Egyptian Independent, Cairo has agreed to establish a free-trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union – a trade zone dominated by Russia and comprised of the former Soviet Republics Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia.

“Egypt’s trade agreement with the EEU would ideally give it preferential access to the integrated single market of 176 million people and a GDP of over US$4 trillion,” The publication wrote of the trade zone designed to serve as a counterbalance to the European Union. “A Russian industrial zone near the Suez Canal and a number of other joint projects in the areas of transport, manufacturing, and energy are on the table, and the upcoming free trade agreement, expanding the scope of cooperation, would undoubtedly contribute to increasing EEU’s influence…”

As Washington makes no secret of its desire to see Iran rise and become the region’s prohibitive stabilizing power, it isn’t just Egypt that has turned its jilted eyes toward Moscow. “Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman visited St. Petersburg in the last week and signed several agreements with the Russians concerning cooperation on oil, space and peaceful nuclear energy, as well as nuclear technology sharing,” Al-Monitor reported on Wednesday. Between the Saudis proxy war in Yemen against Iran-backed Shiite rebels and its speedy pursuit of nuclear technology from countries like France and Russia, the Saudi Kingdom’s behavior a virtual textbook example of how sovereign powers react to shifting regional dynamics and alliance structures.

In fact, the effects of the Obama administration’s approach to regional power politics in the Middle East might have been pulled directly from one of the late University of California, Berkeley, Professor Kenneth Waltz’s lectures. As the United States has become an unreliable ally, propping up a revisionist aspiring hegemon in their neighborhood, the region’s Sunni states have gone in search of some insurance. This real world experiment in international relations theory is actually quite fascinating. If only it were not so extremely dangerous.

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Rightfully Reversing Decades of Secessionist Rehabilitation

In the wake of the Charleston massacre, a bipartisan consensus has formed in South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag that has been flying over the grounds of the statehouse. And the movement has spread well beyond South Carolina, with retailers such as Wal-Mart removing Confederate flag merchandise and states from Mississippi to Virginia taking steps to remove the Stars and Bars from license plates, flags, etc. I have suggested going further and renaming streets and schools named in honor of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, as well as taking down public statues in honor of those men and others who fought for the Confederacy. Read More

In the wake of the Charleston massacre, a bipartisan consensus has formed in South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag that has been flying over the grounds of the statehouse. And the movement has spread well beyond South Carolina, with retailers such as Wal-Mart removing Confederate flag merchandise and states from Mississippi to Virginia taking steps to remove the Stars and Bars from license plates, flags, etc. I have suggested going further and renaming streets and schools named in honor of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, as well as taking down public statues in honor of those men and others who fought for the Confederacy.

This has caused a predictable backlash from some conservatives who compare what is going on now to the rewriting of history undertaken by French revolutionaries, Russian Bolsheviks, and other radicals after seizing power — the kind of historical rewriting satirized in Orwell’s “1984.” I believe that these criticisms are wide of the mark.

No one is suggesting the rewriting of history — something that cannot be ordered by the government in any case, at least not in this country. Nor is anyone suggesting — at least I am not — removing the books of Mark Twain or William Faulkner from libraries because they contain depictions of racism. Heck, I’m not even suggesting that Amazon should stop selling bigoted, pro-Confederate tracts such as Thomas E. Woods’ crackpot Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Confederate flags can continue to be displayed in museums and Southerners can continue to go to Civil War cemeteries to honor the sacrifices of their ancestors who fought bravely in a bad cause.

But there is a big distinction to be made between remembering the past — something that, as a historian, I’m all in favor of — and honoring those who did bad things in the past. Remembrance does not require public displays of the Confederate flag, nor streets with names such as Jefferson Davis Highway — a road that always rankles me to drive down in Northern Virginia. Such gestures are designed to honor leaders of the Confederacy, who were responsible for the costliest war in American history — men who were traitors to this country, inveterate racists, and champions of slavery.

In this regard, honoring Jefferson Davis is particularly egregious, or, for that matter, Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. But I believe even honoring the nobler Robert E. Lee is inappropriate. True, he was a brave and skilled soldier, but he fought in a bad cause. Modern Germany does not have statues to Erwin Rommel even though he — unlike Lee — turned at the end of the day against the monstrous regime in whose cause he fought so skillfully. Thus, I don’t believe it is appropriate to have statues of Lee, or schools named after him, although I admit in his case it’s a closer call than with Jefferson Davis.

This is not “rewriting” history; it’s getting history right. The rewriting was done by Lost Cause mythologists who created pro-Confederate propaganda (such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind) to convince their countrymen that the South was actually in the right even as it imposed slavery and then segregation. This required impugning those Northerners who went south after the Civil War to try to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. They were labeled “carpetbaggers,” and their memory was tarnished while the actions of the white supremacists they opposed were glorified.

As Sally Jenkins recently noted in the Washington Post, “[I]n 1957, John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, in which he distorted and maligned the character of Union Medal of Honor winner Adelbert Ames, chased from the Mississippi governor’s office during Reconstruction by White Line terrorists, while instead lauding L.Q.C. Lamar as the more heroic figure. Lamar drafted Mississippi’s ordinance of secession and raised the 19th Mississippi Infantry Regiment.”

JFK was not especially racist by the standards of his time and place; he was just the victim of the Lost Cause mythology that made flying the Confederate battle flag appear to be a legitimate act of reverence for one’s ancestors. Southerners can continue to honor their ancestors, but doing so does not necessitate embracing the vile cause for which they fought — just as Germans can honor their ancestors without embracing Nazism and Japanese without embracing militarism.

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A Welcome Tipping Point for Republicans and the Confederate Flag

As everyone knows by now, in the wake of the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina lasted week, allegedly perpetrated by a racist, Dylann Roof, there have been renewed calls to remove the Confederate flag from state grounds.

Among Republicans, those calls have come from prominent lawmakers from South Carolina, most especially  Governor Nikki Haley, who is playing a significant role in transforming this debate. Among those running (or are likely soon to run) for president, Jeb Bush and Rick Perry signaled early on they wanted the flag taken down. Scott Walker, after days of hesitation, then followed. So, now, has Rand Paul. (Here’s a good score card of who stands where.) Read More

As everyone knows by now, in the wake of the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina lasted week, allegedly perpetrated by a racist, Dylann Roof, there have been renewed calls to remove the Confederate flag from state grounds.

Among Republicans, those calls have come from prominent lawmakers from South Carolina, most especially  Governor Nikki Haley, who is playing a significant role in transforming this debate. Among those running (or are likely soon to run) for president, Jeb Bush and Rick Perry signaled early on they wanted the flag taken down. Scott Walker, after days of hesitation, then followed. So, now, has Rand Paul. (Here’s a good score card of who stands where.)

Yet several others – including Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson and Marco Rubio – have said it’s a decision best left to South Carolinians. They have so far remained basically neutral when it comes to rendering a judgment on the Confederate flag.

They shouldn’t. In politics there are a lot of hard calls; this isn’t one of them.

As the old arguments in favor of allowing the Confederate flag to fly on state grounds crumble before our eyes — they already seem bizarrely antiquated — it’s worth recapitulating the reasons the debate has changed in such a decisive way. The first one has to do with the history of the Confederate flag. For all the talk from defenders of the flag who insist otherwise, it was a symbol of slavery, white supremacy, and the dissolution of the Union. The flag was fundamentally about hate, not heritage; about subjugation, not Southern ancestry. There is a reason white supremacist groups embrace the Confederate flag as their symbol, and it doesn’t have to do with its aesthetic appeal.

The second reason has to do with the history of the Republican Party. It was founded in the 1850s by anti-slavery activists and in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Its slogan in 1856 was “free labor, free land, free men.” The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, was America’s “great emancipator” who freed the slaves. So the Confederate flag was never a symbol associated with the Republican Party – including in South Carolina, where the flag was first flown over the statehouse in 1962, at the request of Democrats in the state like Governor Fritz Hollings and Representative John A. May. Yet the Republican Party has somehow found a way to get itself attached to this toxic symbol of division and repression.

The third reason it’s an obvious decision to call for the Confederate flag to come down is political. Among those who have a reaction to the flag, more than three times as many  say they have a negative reaction as a positive reaction.

Beyond that, the United States is rapidly changing. It’s becoming increasingly non-white. One reason Republicans are consistently losing presidential elections is that they are doing dismally among minorities. For example, in 2012 the Republican nominee won just 17 percent of nonwhite voters. (The white share of the eligible voting population has been dropping by about two points every four years, and next year minorities may make up a record 30 percent of the vote.) Republicans are unlikely to endear themselves with this rising demographic if they refuse to take a stand against flying the Confederate flag.

There is, finally, the issue of civic comity. The Confederate flag not only represents the ugliest part of our history; it is a symbol that makes many Americans feel like outsiders in their own land, alienated from their fellow citizens. Not giving that kind of offense is a basic commitment of democratic life.

But there are still holdouts. In his appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, who in 2008 finished second to John McCain in the Republican primaries delegate count, claimed the Confederate flag is not an issue for someone running for president. Governor Huckabee told host Chuck Todd, “if you can point me to an article and section of the Constitution in which a United States president ought to weigh in on what states use as symbols, then please refresh my memory on that.” Set aside the fact that people running for president weigh in on matters beyond the scope of the Constitution all the time. (A few weeks ago Huckabee spoke out on the matter of Caitlyn Jenner’s sex-change operation, an issue on which the Founders were silent.) It seemed entirely lost on Governor Huckabee that the Confederate flag was the symbol of a rebellion against and violent assault on the very Constitution Mr. Huckabee invoked.

To their credit, in just a few days a rapidly growing number of Republicans – Governor Haley and the presidential candidates I mentioned, RNC chairman Reince Priebus, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney and others, with many more to follow – have urged the Confederate flag be taken down. We’re clearly at a much-welcomed tipping point. The tragic event in Charleston, and the extraordinary grace demonstrated by the families of the victims, seems to have allowed long-standing arguments to gain traction in ways they never had before. And for those Republicans who are still agnostic or ambivalent when speaking on this issue, they need not be. They should view this as an opportunity to finally put to rest an issue that has bedeviled their party; to stand four-square against a symbol of cruelty and, in so doing, remind voters that theirs is the proud Party of Lincoln.

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Prosecuting the Islamic State’s ‘Willing Executioners’

In 1997, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book that argued that ordinary Germans were far more complicit in the Holocaust than previously acknowledged. He traced the evolution of German anti-Semitism and described how it became “eliminationist.” He also suggested that it was not only the Nazi Party that cheered the demise of the Jews but, even among those who did not directly participate or cheer on the genocide, there was pronounced indifference.

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In 1997, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book that argued that ordinary Germans were far more complicit in the Holocaust than previously acknowledged. He traced the evolution of German anti-Semitism and described how it became “eliminationist.” He also suggested that it was not only the Nazi Party that cheered the demise of the Jews but, even among those who did not directly participate or cheer on the genocide, there was pronounced indifference.

Historians still debate Goldhagen’s thesis today, but the issues he raises about mass psychology and complicity in war crimes are relevant beyond simply the Holocaust. On June 23, 2015, the Ninawa Division of the Islamic State distributed the link to a video via twitter depicting the execution of alleged spies. The first group was forced to sit in a car that an Islamic State adherent then blew up with a rocket-propelled grenade. The second group was forced into a cage, which was then slowly submerged underwater until all the prisoners had drowned. The third group was decapitated with explosive cord.

Snuff videos are unfortunately common with the Islamic State, but all too often politicians and press ignore an important aspect of them: What happens behind the camera is as important as what happens in front of it. Take all the focus on Mohammed Emwazi, a.k.a. “Jihadi John.” He featured in at least seven videos, but who held the camera? Who transported the prisoners? Are they any less culpable? And, with each of the execution videos, assume that the prisoners and hostages endured several — arbitrarily, let’s say five — mock executions (that’s why so many appear calm; most may not believe the video would be anything but another bluff). So, there is then the responsibility of their wardens, drivers, and even house cleaners.

President Obama prefers to see terrorism as a criminal rather than a military problem. Certainly, there are elements of both. But, if the criminal analogy is pursued, then it is crucial to understanding the extent of culpability. The 1988 movie “The Accused” starring Jodie Foster was inspired by the true story of the gang rape of Cheryl Araujo in a Massachusetts bar. In the movie, Foster, playing a character named Sarah Tobias, is unwilling to accept only the prosecution of the three rapists, and demands — successfully — prosecution of those in the bar who cheered the rapists on.

Inevitably, if and when the Islamic State collapses — and it very well might when there is more concerted leadership in the White House — countries across the globe will have to consider how to address their citizens who travelled to and/or volunteered for the Islamic State. Many will claim that they committed no war crimes, but only played a supporting role. Indeed, Islamic State recruiters often promise their recruits that they need not fight if they choose not to: there are many other roles — guard duty, laundry and catering, and burying bodies, for example. Even some seeking the glory of jihad found themselves in these support roles. None of this should be exculpatory, however. “Jihad John” might be the face in front of the camera, but every single individual who volunteered to fight or aid the Islamic State bears responsibility. Indeed, most learned of and chose to assist the Islamic State precisely because they had seen the depiction of Islamist power and the humiliation of opponents or non-Muslims depicted in those videos. They are little different than those in Big Dan’s Bar in New Bedford, Massachusetts, who enabled and cheered on a rape, even if they themselves did not penetrate the victim.

It’s essential also to recognize that while not all residents of the Islamic State support it, an uncomfortable number of local Syrians and Iraqis have enabled and accepted its arrival. These, even more than the foreign Jihadis, are the Islamic State’s equivalent of “willing executioners.” They are the ones who have informed on neighbors hiding wanted opponents or lending their service to the terrorist entity. So-called Jihadi brides who travel from the West to Syria and Iraq are knowingly and willingly providing solace to murderers. They should be treated no more leniently than the wife of a serial killer who helped her husband commit his crimes.

And while the children and students indoctrinated into the Islamic State might not (yet) share the same level of guilt, their teachers do — whether Iraqi, Syrian, or foreign.

The Iraqi Army and Shi‘ite militias in Iraq, and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighting in Syria have so far been remarkably restrained as they reconquer territory, although their records have not been perfect. Just as the Islamic State’s victories have been quick and caught the world largely by surprise, their defeat might be similar.

It pays to be prepared. If 22,000 jihadis from 90 countries now fight for the Islamic State, then it behooves those 90 countries to create and share a database with names, photographs, and any biometric information to hamper not only their return to their home country, but also their relocation elsewhere.

The International Criminal Court is woefully inefficient. And justice should not be a jobs industry for NGOs. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International furthermore have disqualified themselves with their previous partnership with an Al Qaeda financier. In addition, Human Rights Watch’s previous fundraising in Saudi Arabia creates a conflict of interest, to say the least, given Saudi culpability in funding extremism in Iraq and Syria. While governance in Syria remains uncertain, the Iraqi government should have first crack at prosecuting any member of or volunteer for the Islamic State in much the same way as it tried Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants. Only then can the healing truly begin.

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The Ayatollah Throws Down Another Challenge to Obama

What is supposed to be the last round of talks before a nuclear deal is sealed between the West and Iran is about to begin in Vienna. But lest anyone doubt who has the whip hand in the negotiations at this crucial moment, Iran’s Supreme Leader sent a strong message to President Obama on Tuesday. In a speech broadcast live on Iranian television, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he would not permit any long freeze on Iran’s nuclear research, absolutely ruled out foreign inspections of the country’s military nuclear facilities and made it clear he expected all sanctions on Iran to be lifted as soon as an agreement is signed. This Khamenei challenge lays out positions that are incompatible with the terms that President Obama said would be enforced when he announced U.S. acceptance of a proposed nuclear framework with Iran back in April. The speech may be dismissed as mere posturing for a domestic audience by the Iranian theocrat, but, given the history of the past two years of talks between the administration and Iran, it also demonstrated that Khamenei expects the next round of talks to follow the same pattern as previous negotiations with the U.S. In other words, if Obama wants there to be a nuclear deal with Iran, he’s going to have to concede to Iran on all these issues just as he has done on virtually every other point in the last two years.

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What is supposed to be the last round of talks before a nuclear deal is sealed between the West and Iran is about to begin in Vienna. But lest anyone doubt who has the whip hand in the negotiations at this crucial moment, Iran’s Supreme Leader sent a strong message to President Obama on Tuesday. In a speech broadcast live on Iranian television, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he would not permit any long freeze on Iran’s nuclear research, absolutely ruled out foreign inspections of the country’s military nuclear facilities and made it clear he expected all sanctions on Iran to be lifted as soon as an agreement is signed. This Khamenei challenge lays out positions that are incompatible with the terms that President Obama said would be enforced when he announced U.S. acceptance of a proposed nuclear framework with Iran back in April. The speech may be dismissed as mere posturing for a domestic audience by the Iranian theocrat, but, given the history of the past two years of talks between the administration and Iran, it also demonstrated that Khamenei expects the next round of talks to follow the same pattern as previous negotiations with the U.S. In other words, if Obama wants there to be a nuclear deal with Iran, he’s going to have to concede to Iran on all these issues just as he has done on virtually every other point in the last two years.

Secretary of State John Kerry has been lambasted by critics of the negotiations for the latest U.S. retreat in the face of Iranian intransigence. Having stated explicitly, both to the media and to Congress, that any agreement would have to be premised on Iran coming clean about its past military nuclear research, his recent decision to back down on that demand was rightly seen as a humiliating retreat that demonstrated the administration’s zeal for a deal far exceeding its willingness to press for a pact that would actually achieve its goal of stopping Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon. Without the extent of progress toward possible military dimensions of their nuclear project there’s simply no way the U.S. can accurately gauge how much time it would take for Iran to “break out” to a weapon, a key point on which President Obama’s promises about the deal hinge.

That followed a familiar pattern of American diplomacy toward Iran. Whenever an impasse arose during the past two years of talks, the administration has always backed down. It was true of the president’s original goal that a deal would mean the end of Iran’s nuclear program (which he promised the nation during his 2012 foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney), it’s right to enrich uranium, or to keep thousands of centrifuges. On these key sticking points as well as on the notion of a deal that would permanently prevent Iran’s nuclear efforts, the president has never stood his ground but instead surrendered and then justified the move by saying that he had no choice and that the world was better off with a deal of some kind than with none at all.

Nevertheless, administration supporters keep insisting that the president means what he says about insisting that the deal will include intrusive inspections of Iran’s facilities that will come without warning, the only thing that might actually deter cheating. They also say he means it this time when he says that sanctions would only be lifted gradually rather than at once and that the U.S. should be able to snap them back into place if Tehran cheats.

But as Khamenei has repeatedly said, the Iranians will never agree to any of these points. Indeed, having claimed that Iran could be a good nuclear negotiating partner because of a fatwa supposedly issued by Khamenei that prevented Iran from building a weapon, the administration is now worried about another religious fiat dictated by the Supreme Leader that forbids foreign inspections. While the credibility of the Khamenei fatwa against nukes is doubtful, we can be sure he means what he says about no inspections and the lifting of sanctions.

The framework Obama touted in April as heralding a new era with Iran already provided Iran with two paths to a bomb: one by cheating on its easily evaded restrictions and the other by merely patiently waiting for it to expire in ten years. But without inspections and gradual sanctions relief, even that dubious concept is exposed as a sham that even a docile Democratic caucus in Congress could never approve.

Yet it is impossible to blame Khamenei and the Iranian negotiators for thinking that they can always bludgeon Obama and Kerry into submission by merely saying no. Why would they think that after so many retreats that this is the one time the president will stand up to them? That’s especially true when you realize that he has staked so much of his legacy on the dubious concept of a new détente with the Islamist regime. As much as Iran needs sanctions relief, the president has shown he needs this deal at any price. Without a nuclear deal with Iran, Obama’s foreign policy collapses in ruins. Khamenei knows this as well as Obama, and that is why he is raising the ante in the last days of the talks. If Obama accepts these terms, it won’t merely be another humiliation for the administration. It will be a signal to even wavering supporters of the president, that this bad deal must be rejected.

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The World Forced to Invest in Iran’s Nuclear Breakout Capacity

The following is a dispatch from Omri Ceren of The Israel Project regarding the state of nuclear negotiations with Iran: Read More

The following is a dispatch from Omri Ceren of The Israel Project regarding the state of nuclear negotiations with Iran:

The Associated Press got ahold of one of the five secret annexes being worked on ahead of a final deal between the P5+1 global powers and Iran. This one – titled “Civil Nuclear Cooperation” – details a range of nuclear technology that various members of the P5+1 will be obligated to provide Iran, including “high-tech reactors and other state-of-the-art equipment.” The draft that the AP saw wasn’t finalized, and so some of the concessions are subject to change.

As the annex is written right now, however, this is no longer a deal to stop the Iranian nuclear program. It’s a deal to let the Iranians perfect their nuclear program with international assistance and under international protection.

The uranium concession: As well, it firms up earlier tentative agreement on what to do with the underground site of Fordo, saying it will be used for isotope production instead of uranium enrichment. Washington and its allies had long insisted that the facility be repurposed away from enrichment because Fordo is dug deep into a mountain and thought resistant to air strikes — an option neither the U.S. nor Israel has ruled out should talks fail. But because isotope production uses the same technology as enrichment and can be quickly re-engineered to enriching uranium, the compromise has been criticized by congressional opponents of the deal.

Some country in the P5+1 will be helping the Iranians develop next-generation centrifuges in a facility impenetrable to American and Israeli bombs. Conversely, any country that wants to sabotage that development will be unable to do so, because the program will be protected and maintained by a major power.

As the centrifuges are being developed they’ll be spinning non-nuclear elements, but once they’re perfected the Iranians will be able to use them to enrich uranium. The international community will literally be investing in helping Iran achieve a zero breakout.

A couple of obvious points: First, it means the P5+1 will be actively providing the Iranians with the tools to break out while a deal is in place. The Iranians will already have 300kg of 3.67% uranium on hand, and they’ll be able to scale up production as they need because the JCPOA lets them keep 5,000 centrifuges enriching uranium at Natanz and lets them keep another 10,000 centrifuges in storage available to be installed. They can bring low-enriched material to Fordow and quickly enrich it to weapons-grade levels in the next-generation centrifuges they’ll have developed with P5+1 assistance. Second – again – it means that the P5+1 will be actively ensuring that Iran will have the technology to go nuclear at will the instant the deal expires. The technology the Iranians learn to develop at Fordow will be applied on a mass scale.

The plutonium concession: To that end, the draft, entitled “Civil Nuclear Cooperation,” promises to supply Iran with light-water nuclear reactors instead of its nearly completed heavy-water facility at Arak, which would produce enough plutonium for several bombs a year if completed as planned… Outlining plans to modify that heavy-water reactor, the draft, dated June 19, offers to “establish an international partnership” to rebuild it into a less proliferation-prone facility while leaving Iran in “the leadership role as the project owner and manager.”

Lightwater reactors are significantly more proliferation-resistant than heavy-water reactors (in fact there’s no reason to build a heavy water reactor – of the type that the Iranians have been working on – unless you want to produce plutonium for a nuclear weapon). But even LWRs are not proliferation proof, and a plutonium bomb isn’t the only concern.

Imagine that 15 years from now the Iranians have built a dozen LWRs with help from a P5+1 nation. One concern is indeed that they’ll kick out inspectors, keep the spent fuel, and start reprocessing on the way to creating a plutonium bomb. But a more subtle concern is that they will use the existence of the LWRs as a pretext for industrial-scale uranium enrichment – because they’ll say they need the uranium fuel for their plutonium plants – which can serve as a cover for breaking out with a uranium bomb. The P5+1 would be actively providing the Iranians with diplomatic leverage to use against the P5+1 in the future. The answer to this latter concern is that the JCPOA sunset clause already allows the Iranians to have an industrial-scale uranium enrichment program that can serve as a cover for breaking out with a uranium bomb. I’m not sure the administration wants to overemphasize that point.

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Obama Gives Terrorists Another Incentive to Kidnap Americans

It appears that Iran isn’t the only Islamist entity that is about to get an infusion of cash from the Obama administration. With the announcement yesterday that the U.S. has revised its policy that seeks to prevent the families of hostages held by terrorists from paying ransom, the president has just given those criminals another incentive to target Americans. The president’s order also will mandate that the government provide more support and information for these unfortunate families, something that should have already been done a long time ago. But while the policy shift has been generated in no small measure by the enormous sympathy felt by most Americans for the captives’ relatives, the real reason this is happening isn’t purely humanitarian. It has also been dictated by the exposure of the administration’s hypocrisy in paying a huge ransom in released terrorist prisoners for the freedom of Bowe Bergdahl, an American deserter that wound up in the hands of the Taliban. That blunder was bad enough, but by opening a way for Americans to start pouring money into the coffers of ISIS and other Islamist groups in hostage ransoms, President Obama has again made it clear that this administration isn’t prepared to do what it takes to defeat these killers.

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It appears that Iran isn’t the only Islamist entity that is about to get an infusion of cash from the Obama administration. With the announcement yesterday that the U.S. has revised its policy that seeks to prevent the families of hostages held by terrorists from paying ransom, the president has just given those criminals another incentive to target Americans. The president’s order also will mandate that the government provide more support and information for these unfortunate families, something that should have already been done a long time ago. But while the policy shift has been generated in no small measure by the enormous sympathy felt by most Americans for the captives’ relatives, the real reason this is happening isn’t purely humanitarian. It has also been dictated by the exposure of the administration’s hypocrisy in paying a huge ransom in released terrorist prisoners for the freedom of Bowe Bergdahl, an American deserter that wound up in the hands of the Taliban. That blunder was bad enough, but by opening a way for Americans to start pouring money into the coffers of ISIS and other Islamist groups in hostage ransoms, President Obama has again made it clear that this administration isn’t prepared to do what it takes to defeat these killers.

There’s little question that most Americans both sympathize and identify with the situation that families like the Foleys, whose son James was beheaded by ISIS last year after rescue and ransom attempts failed. The fact that the Foleys and other families whose loved ones were held by terrorists were threatened with prosecution by the government if they attempted to pay a ransom for their release is seen as an egregious overreach by a heavy-handed administration that hadn’t the guts or smarts to rescue American hostages while refusing to let them be ransomed.

The Foleys and other hostage families were merely doing what any of us would do in their position. If my child or yours were in the hands of the enemy, any parent would move heaven and earth, and sell every principle we held about fighting terrorism down the drain, in order to ensure their safe release. But there is a difference between the impulse of a parent and the duty of a government that is supposed to be waging a war on the hostage takers.

One of the reasons behind the success of ISIS in recent years, other, that is, from the Obama administration’s precipitate withdrawal from Iraq and refusal to take action in Syria when it might have forestalled the victory of these terrorists, is their ability to generate huge amounts of revenue by taking Westerners prisoner. Most European nations have paid the ransoms demanded turning a ragtag bunch of terrorists that Obama once dismissed as the “JV” for al-Qaeda into a force that now controls much of the territory of two nations.

But the United States has rightly refused to add to ISIS’s wealth. Saying no to families in such distress is difficult, and better leaders than President Obama have sometimes succumbed to the pressure to salve their pain. President Reagan did so when he approved a guns-for-hostages swap with Iran. Various Israeli governments, including the one led by current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have traded thousands of convicted terrorists to gain the release of a handful of Israeli prisoners. The reason for those swaps was understandable, and, in Netanyahu’s case, almost a political necessity given the outcry from Israelis demanding action to save kidnaped soldier Gilad Shalit. But that didn’t make them wise decisions.

Opening the door to American ransom payments to ISIS is even worse than those admittedly egregious examples of supposedly tough government jettisoning their principles in order to avoid being seen as hardhearted in the face of the tears of parents. Unlike Iran in the 1980s or even Hamas, ISIS is a dynamic organization that has shown itself capable of spreading its control over the Middle East. Though it can be argued that ISIS and the Taliban and every other Islamist terrorist group is already bent on capturing as many Americans as possible, the president has just given them an extra incentive to seek out U.S. citizens, perhaps by expanding its area of activity to places outside of its nominal control in the region in search of prey.

What’s more the real reason why the administration has been pressured into bending on this issue has less to do with sympathy for the Foleys than outrage over Obama’s hypocrisy in letting five terrorist killers with American blood on their hands go free to obtain Bergdahl’s release. The administration’s argument has been that regardless of Bergdhal’s disgraceful behavior, the United States was still obligated to bring him home. Perhaps so, but not at the cost of undermining the war the country has been waging against the Taliban. While Bergdahl may have been suffering, the notion that the plight of prisoners of war must take precedence over measures taken to win the war they were fighting in is indefensible. Such ransoms also give the lie to the idea that the U.S. is serious about fighting and defeating its enemies.

But instead of admitting they made a mistake with Bergdahl — something this president seems incapable of doing under any circumstances — the administration has doubled down on its error by extending tolerance towards other measures that will benefit the nation’s enemies.

We all should agree that families like the Foleys and others placed in that awful situation deserve to be treated with greater care than they have previously been given by the administration. After all, no one was ever going to actually be prosecuted for trying to ransom a relative. But the proper response to their tragedy is a greater determination to rescue hostages and to kill their captors. If American counterterror policy now shifts to one that focuses more on alleviating the pain of hostage families, then the only thing we can be sure of is that there were will be even more grieving Americans in the future than in the past. Like Iran, which is happy to accept U.S. appeasement that will lead to a massive infusion of cash due to the relaxation of economic sanctions, ISIS will be cheering the president’s decision.

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The GOP’s King v. Burwell Trap

Republican opponents of the Affordable Care Act are licking their chops at the prospect of the Supreme Court ruling in the upcoming King v. Burwell case against the government. By doing so, the Court would strip ObamaCare of the very rule that make so many ACA-related plans “affordable”: namely, the federal subsidies for those insured who purchased their plans in states that elected not to establish their own insurance exchange marketplaces. Thousands would instantly find the already dubiously named health care reform law prohibitively expensive, making an already unpopular law even more so. But Republicans are, for the most part, agreed that to allow those who were tricked into buying an unsustainable health insurance plan to go uncovered would be both morally wrong and politically disastrous. Until a more permanent solution is worked out, even conservative lawmakers agree the subsidies must be restored, albeit temporarily. But this is a fraught course, and Republicans would do well to take stock of the high stakes should they pursue it. Read More

Republican opponents of the Affordable Care Act are licking their chops at the prospect of the Supreme Court ruling in the upcoming King v. Burwell case against the government. By doing so, the Court would strip ObamaCare of the very rule that make so many ACA-related plans “affordable”: namely, the federal subsidies for those insured who purchased their plans in states that elected not to establish their own insurance exchange marketplaces. Thousands would instantly find the already dubiously named health care reform law prohibitively expensive, making an already unpopular law even more so. But Republicans are, for the most part, agreed that to allow those who were tricked into buying an unsustainable health insurance plan to go uncovered would be both morally wrong and politically disastrous. Until a more permanent solution is worked out, even conservative lawmakers agree the subsidies must be restored, albeit temporarily. But this is a fraught course, and Republicans would do well to take stock of the high stakes should they pursue it.

The following is, of course, premised on the notion that the Supreme Court elects to rule on the law as it is written rather than to rewrite it entirely. It is not as though there is no precedent for the latter. In 2012, the Roberts Court effectively ignored the administration and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli who argued that the penalty associated with not purchasing insurance was not a tax and ruled that it was, in fact, a tax. The Court could easily determine that the intent of the law was clear (though the justices must ignore one of its framers in order to reach this conclusion), restore the subsidies to states that operate only a federal exchange, and leave ObamaCare intact.

If the Court rules in the alternative, however, the GOP’s course is clear. They will communicate to the public that this law is hopelessly flawed, and it must be fully repealed. They will note that the only way that can be done is when this recalcitrant president, who views this law that has created so much hardship as a legacy item, is gone. As part of the party’s 2016 pitch, they will note that only a Republican-led Congress and a Republican president will fully repeal the ACA. Only then will congressional Republicans embark on a course of restoring subsidies to those states that lost them until early in 2017.

But grassroots conservatives will resent and stridently oppose a clean reinstitution of ObamaCare subsidies, so the GOP in Congress will seek a concession from the president. And it will have to be substantial. Anything other than a clean restoration of subsidies will be met with a veto threat from the president, so Republicans are advised to go for broke. The repeal of the individual or employer mandates — preferably both – would do the trick. Even the elimination of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) might be a palatable tradeoff for conservative voters. It would be an uphill battle to force Senate Democrats to sign on to this approach, but Republicans would do well to try and to try hard. If the GOP cannot send a bill to the president’s desk that seeks substantial changes to ObamaCare, the consequences for the party will be significant.

“Can’t see GOP voting to re-victimize millions of people by legalizing the mandates,” wrote American Commitment President Phil Kerpen. “I’d give up on the party.” He wouldn’t be alone. Republicans are in a politically advantageous position with regards to the ACA insofar as not a single Republican has so much as a fingerprint on it. It is a wholly-owned Democratic enterprise, and the members of the president’s party have coveted that condition figuring that, some day, they will eventually get credit for the law’s net positive effects. If Republicans fail to secure a presidential veto on the repeal of one of this law’s more odious mandates and kicks the whole can down the road into 2017 – mandates and all – conservatives and liberals will declare that Republicans have abandoned their traditional antipathy toward those mandates and legitimized them. And they will have a point.

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse saw much of this coming. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed in mid-March, and in subsequent legislation, he proposed an 18-month Cobra extension for workers who lose their health coverage in the wake of a verdict in King that cuts against the administration. “Second, Republicans need to unify around a specific set of constructive, longer-term solutions, and then turn the 2016 presidential election into a referendum on two competing visions of health care,” the senator wrote.

But even this will be met with virtually the same criticism from the right if the GOP simply extended the law in its present form. “Sasse’s plan reinforces the notion that we have an uninsured problem rather than a price-controlled marketplace problem that needs less government interference,” The Federalist’s David Harsanyi contended in a reply to Sasse’s op-ed. “Once you’ve acquiesced to the idea that billions in subsidies are needed, the idea becomes bipartisan.”

There is almost no way to escape this criticism without coalescing behind and promoting a comprehensive alternative to the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have been unable to do that, and they squandered precious weeks in which they could have been making the case for a conservative alternative to the ACA to the public. Today, Republicans have few viable options available to them that could preserve the noble opposition to ObamaCare that they secured in 2010. One would be to force the president’s hand and compel him to veto a repeal of the ACA’s burdensome mandates before inevitably bowing to political realities. The Congressional GOP, a deeply unpopular set of prominent targets, will still draw fire from their conservative base voters and even a few 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls for allegedly “embracing” ObamaCare, but it will be baseless criticism. If, however, they merely reintroduce subsidies and the mandates with a modest concession like the repeal of the medical device tax, Republicans will invite a mutiny. And they would deserve it.

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Rand Paul’s Flat Tax Plan II

When I wrote about Senator Rand Paul’s new tax plan that he outlined in the Wall Street Journal on June 17th, I wrote that he advocated a 14.5 percent tax on both individual and corporate incomes. But that turns out to be not quite true, for Paul was more than a little disingenuous, as the New York Times pointed out Tuesday morning.  Read More

When I wrote about Senator Rand Paul’s new tax plan that he outlined in the Wall Street Journal on June 17th, I wrote that he advocated a 14.5 percent tax on both individual and corporate incomes. But that turns out to be not quite true, for Paul was more than a little disingenuous, as the New York Times pointed out Tuesday morning. 

Paul wrote,

I would also apply this uniform 14.5% business-activity tax on all companies—down from as high as nearly 40% for small businesses and 35% for corporations. This tax would be levied on revenues minus allowable expenses, such as the purchase of parts, computers and office equipment. All capital purchases would be immediately expensed, ending complicated depreciation schedules.

Since he is talking about bringing the taxes on corporations “down from as high as nearly 40 percent…” most people read that to mean the corporate income tax would be reduced to 14.5 percent. But notice, which I did not, the phrase “business-activity tax.” That is a euphemism for a value-added tax, or VAT. And a VAT is a very different beast than a corporate income tax.

The corporate income tax is laid on corporate profits. If a corporation makes a pretax profit of $1 million, it would owe the government $350,000 in taxes (ignoring all the infinite complications of the tax code). Since corporations are pieces of paper, corporate income taxes are actually paid by stockholders, in lower profits; workers, in lower wages; and customers, in higher prices. The particular distribution of the tax burden depends on the particular competitive situation of the company. (Figure out a formula for reliably determining the distribution in each case and you will have a Nobel Economics Prize on your mantel.)

A VAT works very differently. To oversimplify for purposes of illustration, say a bakery buys a plain cake for $2.00 and icing for $1.00. It ices the cake and plans to sell it for $5.00, a “value added” of $2.00. But with a VAT of 14.5 percent, the price tag on the cake would be $5.73. That 73 cents in tax is paid entirely by the customer. In other words, a VAT is a consumption tax not an income tax at all. Lay a 14.5 percent VAT and the price of everything goes up 14.5 percent the next morning. It would be indistinguishable from a severe bout of inflation.

And consumption taxes are inherently regressive, falling more heavily on the poor than on the rich and, indeed, the poorer you are, the more heavily they fall on you. The poor, by definition, must spend their entire income on necessities. So a VAT tax of 14.5 percent would reduce the purchasing power of the poor by 14.5 percent. Thanks, Senator. The rich, on the other hand, do not spend all their income, and the richer they are, the less of their income they spend, banking the rest. If a family has a take-home income of $10 million, they might live like kings on $2 million a year and add $8 million to their capital. So the man just getting by pays tax on 100 percent of his income while the Wall Street banker pays taxes on 20 percent of his income.

Governments love the VAT tax because, unlike a sales tax, which shows up on the receipt, it is hidden in the price of everything. Thus, it is politically easier to raise it as, again, it would appear as inflation. Every member of the OECD has a VAT, including Canada (5 percent) except the United States. We should keep it that way and not increase the tax burden on the poor.

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Obama Cedes Iraq to Iran

U.S. forces in Anbar province sharing a base with Iranian-directed militias? A few years ago, I would have been incredulous; after all, these are the same militias that killed hundreds of American troops, and they are just as dangerous and extremist as ever. But now, there is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about this scoop from Josh Rogin and Eli LakeRead More

U.S. forces in Anbar province sharing a base with Iranian-directed militias? A few years ago, I would have been incredulous; after all, these are the same militias that killed hundreds of American troops, and they are just as dangerous and extremist as ever. But now, there is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about this scoop from Josh Rogin and Eli Lake

It is all part and parcel of the Obama policy of tilting toward Tehran that has been evident for several years now — a trend that Michael Doran and I noted in January 2014 in this New York Times op-ed and that Doran had identified even earlier. This strategy has been evident at least since the president’s decision in the fall of 2013 not to bomb Iran’s client, Bashar Assad, for violating a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. Instead, Obama reached a deal with Assad for the peaceful removal of his chemical weapons — a deal that has made the U.S. complicit in Assad’s continuance in power even as Assad has continued to drop chlorine gas and barrel bombs on civilians.

Since then, the administration has bombed in Tikrit in support of an offensive mounted, for the most part, by Iranian-backed militias rather than Iraqi troops. It has cut funding to anti-Hezbollah Shiites in Lebanon. And, of course, it has continued to make crippling concessions to Iran in order to get a nuclear deal — even if the terms of the deal only increase Iran’s breakout time from two months to three months.

The administration is not vocal about what it is up to, but it is consistent: It is trying to realign the strategic chessboard of the Middle East so that Iran becomes a de facto partner of the U.S. rather than its adversary. Amazingly enough, the president does not seem to be deterred by the meager returns on his strategy so far: a region in flames.

There is every indication to believe that, as Doran and I predicted, the administration outreach to Iran is only exacerbating the sectarian divide and emboldening extremists of both Sunni and Shiite persuasion. The problem will become much more severe once a nuclear deal is concluded with Iran, because that could well spur Saudi Arabia to seek its own nuclear weapons and it will provide billions of dollars more that the mullahs can use to subvert their neighbors.

It is still not too late for the administration to reverse course — to demand more of Iran at the negotiating table and to take actions against Iran’s proxies in Syria and Iraq. A good beginning would be to ground Assad’s air force and declare safe zones along the borders where the moderate opposition can organize. But the intertwining of U.S. forces and Shiite militias in Iraq makes such a decision more dangerous because it will be all too easy for Iranian militias to attack U.S. forces again as they have in the past. Not that it matters: Obama has shown no desire to check Iranian designs. As long as that’s the case, the Iranian militias will happily coexist with U.S. troops because they will perceive, correctly, that the American presence is actually aiding their power grab.

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Did Ted Cruz Just Pull a John Kerry on Trade?

Senator Ted Cruz started off his presidential campaign with a bang but, in recent weeks, he’s been falling back in the polls as other candidates have gotten most of the publicity. Part of that stemmed from the ability of his competitors to steal the spotlight with their own announcements as well as the ability of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio to inch ahead of the pack and form what looks like a top tier in a race that may eventually include up to 20 candidates. With only four percent of Republicans supporting him in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Cruz seems to be lagging in the competition for his natural constituency: Tea Party voters. So in order to recapture their affection, Cruz needs to do something to illustrate once again that he is the true rebel against the GOP party establishment. His answer: come out against the fast-track trade bill currently working its way through Congress. A stand geared toward exploiting conservative animus toward President Obama and illegal immigration may give him a boost. But the only problem with this decision is that Cruz already voted for the Trade Protection Authority (TPA) bill back in May. He’s claiming that nefarious secret deals between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Democrats are motivating his switch. But a Ted Cruz flip on trade could undermine the key element to his political identity as the one man in Washington who will never compromise on his principles. Read More

Senator Ted Cruz started off his presidential campaign with a bang but, in recent weeks, he’s been falling back in the polls as other candidates have gotten most of the publicity. Part of that stemmed from the ability of his competitors to steal the spotlight with their own announcements as well as the ability of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio to inch ahead of the pack and form what looks like a top tier in a race that may eventually include up to 20 candidates. With only four percent of Republicans supporting him in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Cruz seems to be lagging in the competition for his natural constituency: Tea Party voters. So in order to recapture their affection, Cruz needs to do something to illustrate once again that he is the true rebel against the GOP party establishment. His answer: come out against the fast-track trade bill currently working its way through Congress. A stand geared toward exploiting conservative animus toward President Obama and illegal immigration may give him a boost. But the only problem with this decision is that Cruz already voted for the Trade Protection Authority (TPA) bill back in May. He’s claiming that nefarious secret deals between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Democrats are motivating his switch. But a Ted Cruz flip on trade could undermine the key element to his political identity as the one man in Washington who will never compromise on his principles.

As Cruz notes in his Breitbart.com op-ed explaining his change of heart, he is an ideological supporter of free trade. But he took a lot of criticism from some Tea Partiers for his vote in favor of TPA who seem to think anything that President Obama favors should be opposed. In the piece, Cruz exploits fears about trade leading to efforts toward amnesty for illegal immigration and sounds a populist note about opposition to reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank whose fate has become tied to that of TPA. Sounding more like the Ted Cruz who took the GOP down the rabbit hole of the government shutdown than the more reasonable senator who voted for a trade bill that most of his party has always supported, Cruz now says the whole thing must be stopped.

Trade appeared to be the one issue on which common ground could be found between the administration and the Republican leadership in Congress. Though the left wing of the Democrats and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has so far prevented passage of TPA, the vote today to end debate on the measure in the Senate (on which Cruz was on the losing side) seems to ensure that it will ultimately be passed and signed into law.

Cruz’s enlistment to the ranks of those trying to stop the trade bill does not appear to have derailed the legislation. But that does not appear to be his main objective. Instead, Cruz is making a cold hard calculation that he can rally a critical mass of his party’s base to his candidacy by positioning himself in opposition to the party establishment. The Ex-Im bank issue doesn’t have a lot of resonance with the grassroots, but merely mentioning immigration in connection with the name Obama may be enough to convince a lot of Republicans that Cruz is once again leading the charge against a party establishment they despise. Running against “backroom deal-making” is always popular, and most Tea Partiers already like Cruz and think any cooperation with the Obama White House is wrong in principle.

But there’s something of an air of desperation to this move that makes me think that Cruz’s normally deft touch with the party base may be slightly out of order here.

It’s all well and good to accuse Mitch McConnell of being a slippery customer or criticizing House Speaker John Boehner of acting the tyrant in punishing House Republicans who rebelled on this issue. But it is just as easy to accuse Cruz of putting himself into a tacit alliance with Pelosi and the labor unions in an effort to halt much needed international trade as it is to label supporters of TPA as being closet Obama-lovers. As much as many Tea Partiers have opposed the bill because of the Obama connections, standing up against free trade is still a better tactic to win the Democratic nomination than that of the Republicans.

Moreover, Cruz is also setting himself up for a classic putdown in the presidential debates. Every one of his competitors will hope for a chance to call out Cruz for pulling a John Kerry on trade by saying he opposed it after he voted for it. That’s not a winning formula for Cruz, who hopes to parlay a brilliant speaking style (and champion debating skills) into a shot at the Republican nomination. Up until now, the one thing you could never accuse Ted Cruz of doing is flip-flopping on the issues. With his turnabout on trade, that record is broken.

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Chinese Cyber Attack on OPM Goes Unpunished

So, the penetration of the Office of Personnel Management computer systems is even more pervasive than previously reported.

CNN reported yesterday: “The personal data of an estimated 18 million current, former and prospective federal employees were affected by a cyber breach at the Office of Personnel Management – more than four times the 4.2 million the agency has publicly acknowledged. The number is expected to grow, according to U.S. officials briefed on the investigation.” Read More

So, the penetration of the Office of Personnel Management computer systems is even more pervasive than previously reported.

CNN reported yesterday: “The personal data of an estimated 18 million current, former and prospective federal employees were affected by a cyber breach at the Office of Personnel Management – more than four times the 4.2 million the agency has publicly acknowledged. The number is expected to grow, according to U.S. officials briefed on the investigation.”

The hack is not only gigantic and appalling but also inexplicable. CNN also reported:

OPM’s internal auditors told a House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee last week that key databases housing sensitive national security data, including applications for background checks, had not met federal security standards.

“Not only was a large volume (11 out of 47 systems) of OPM’s IT systems operating without a valid Authorization, but several of these systems are among the most critical and sensitive applications owned by the agency,” Michael Esser, OPM’s assistant inspector general for audits, wrote in testimony prepared for committee.

Yet, faced with this terrible failure, which exposes the most intimate data of countless Americans (including pretty much all of our national security officials, past and present) to Chinese espionage, what has been the Obama administration response?

Yesterday an official identified only as “senior State Department official” was asked about the issue at a press conference — and specifically what the US is doing to redress this Chinese intrusion. Here is what he or she said:

So we have had discussions ongoing with the Chinese in multilateral fora, in bilateral fora about all of the various aspects about cyber security, the activity of IT companies in China, in the United States, et cetera. It’s a very wide-ranging, obviously, topic. It’s a fast-changing area, and it’s an ongoing topic of discussion. We’re the two biggest users of the internet. We both have huge global sort of interests in seeing the internet be secured. I understand that iPhone – more iPhones were sold in China last year than in the United States. So it’s a huge area of interest for both of our countries, and we have ongoing conversations about all aspects.

That’s weak even by State Department standards. The notion that the U.S. and China have shared interests on the Internet is farcical, since China has emerged as the No. 1 hacker of American computer systems for both commercial and national security advantage. Saying that Washington and Beijing have a shared interest in Internet security is like saying that a cop and a robber have a shared interest in law enforcement.

Little wonder that members of Congress, Democrats as well as Republicans, are frustrated with the administration attempts to minimize the size and severity of this breach. At a hearing last week in the House, Rep. Stephen Lynch (D., Mass.), told OPM chief Katherine Archuleta: “I wish that you were as strenuous and hardworking at keeping information out of the hands of hacker as are at keeping information out of the hands of Congress.”

What’s truly dismaying here is that this is hardly the first breach of cyber-security experienced by this administration. Recall that the massive breaches committed by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden occurred since President Obama took office. That’s not to suggest that the president is personally to blame for this negligence, but he is certainly as much to blame for these failures as President George W. Bush was for failures to respond to Hurricane Katrina and to a growing insurgency in Iraq. Yet, so far, the Obama administration has largely managed to avoid the kind of censure and wrath that the Bush administration earned for its handling of Katrina and the Iraq War.

Granted, these cyber breaches have not resulted in massive casualties and catastrophes that can be seen in video footage and photos. But these are catastrophes nevertheless that have done great (if hidden) damage to American security, and it’s high time that the public took this more seriously and demanded that high-level officials be held to account. At least FEMA director Michael Brown was fired over Katrina and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was ultimately ousted over Iraq. Who, if anyone, is going to be held accountable for the massive cyber-breaches the government has been suffering of late?

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Assessing Shi’ite Militias in Iraq

The rise of the Shi‘ite militias has complicated if not undercut American policy from the 2003 occupation of Iraq to the present. Shortly before U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, then-National Security Council official Zalmay Khalilzad and State Department official Ryan Crocker (both future ambassadors to Iraq) met with Iran’s UN Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif (now foreign minister) in Geneva. Zarif promised non-interference: there would be no direct Iranian intervention, nor would Iran allow the militias which its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) trained to interfere. Read More

The rise of the Shi‘ite militias has complicated if not undercut American policy from the 2003 occupation of Iraq to the present. Shortly before U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, then-National Security Council official Zalmay Khalilzad and State Department official Ryan Crocker (both future ambassadors to Iraq) met with Iran’s UN Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif (now foreign minister) in Geneva. Zarif promised non-interference: there would be no direct Iranian intervention, nor would Iran allow the militias which its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) trained to interfere.

Zarif, of course, either lied or was powerless to prevent the IRGC from acting autonomously (it is ironic, therefore, that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are so willing to trust Zarif despite his previous refusal to uphold diplomatic agreements). Even Iranian journalists remarked about how quickly the IRGC inserted itself and militias like the Badr Corps into Iraq. Meanwhile, for all the chatter about why Washington policymakers erred by working with Iraqi politicians who had spent some time in exile, the most powerful insider, firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, sought power by leveraging a militia equally anti-American, violent toward other Iraqis, and engaged in criminal enterprise.

During the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, U.S. forces just as often found themselves in conflict with Shi‘ite militias as with Sunni insurgents. Hassan Kazemi Qomi, a Qods Force operative who worked as Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, oversaw the smuggling into Iraq of explosively-formed projectiles used to kill hundreds of Americans. Then, in 2007, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-sponsored militia, kidnaped five American soldiers, and then tortured and executed them. They and Kata’ib Hezbollah still undermine rule-of-law and government authority in Iraq.

In the wake of the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh)and the collapse of several units of the Iraqi army, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for volunteers to help defend Iraqi Shi‘ites (and non-Shi’ite Iraqis) and protect both the shrine cities and the capital from ISIS’ advance. The resulting Popular Mobilization Forces (alHashd al-Shaabi) are often treated almost cartoonishly among many Western commentators. They describe them as uniformly Shi‘ite (they are not, even if Shi’ites make up the vast majority) and Iranian proxies (certainly, Iranian officials would like to co-opt them and perhaps do some but most are at heart Iraqi nationalists). Contrary to some reports, there was no widespread abuse, looting, or burning of homes in Tikrit when the volunteers defeated ISIS.

At any rate, if the goal is to fight and defeat ISIS and if Iraqis cannot rely on outside powers to help with any consistency, then they would be foolish to sit around and wait to conduct full military training, nor do many ordinary Iraqis have any wish to make a three-year commitment to the Iraqi army. The training program announced by President Obama for Syrians to fight ISIS has gone nowhere, but perhaps that was the point, and so the Hashd has become an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem. Does that mean the United States, Iraqis, or others should be sanguine about the Hashd? No. They are a short-term solution which will pose a long-term threat to Iraq, as many will expect a reward or patronage position for their service.

Norman Cigar, perhaps the most skilled and precise linguist and military analyst of the Middle East (whose work I have previously cited here) is out with a new publication through the United States Army War College Press entitled “Iraqi Shi’a Warlords and Their Militias,” which is a free .pdf here. It’s probably the most complete, nuanced, and realistic take to date on both the various militias and the issues raised by their existence, especially in the post-ISIS order. He addresses key questions such as how the militias are mobilized, and the breakdown between those used to fight versus those deemed unfit and perhaps instead relegated to guard duty. He breaks down the numbers in each militia and, for all the talk about leveraging tribes, he discusses how various tribes delivered volunteers for the militias. He also addresses training, equipping, maintaining, and feeding the militias, the logistical elements seldom discussed.

Looking to the future, Cigar is realistic. Iraqis will continue to embrace the militias unless there is a significant foreign military force that can supplant them to counter the Islamic State challenge. Americans like to condemn the militias, but at the same time there is no appetite in the White House or Congress for a significant military deployment back into Iraq. That means the militias are here to stay. The Kurds provide no substitute. Not only is Cigar realistic about the capabilities of the Peshmerga, but he also recognizes the political limitations given Kurdish disunity and disinterest in combatting ISIS in territories in which the Kurds have no interest. Then the question turns into how the militia reality might impact future organization. Will, he ponders, the militias be folded into an organization much like Iran’s Basij? Indeed, for better or worse, this might be the model that most Iraqis are familiar. And if, alternately, there is demobilization, how will that occur?

A decade ago, no one foresaw the rise of the Islamic State or, conversely, of the Hashd. And while the Islamic State needn’t be a fact-of-life if the United States and regional powers were serious about defeating it, the Hashd are now here to stay. Simply condemning them all as Iranian agents is neither accurate nor productive. Rather, it’s time to confront the new reality and craft policies to accommodate or perhaps alter it. Either way, Cigar’s monograph is unique, essential, and a great place to start.

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Capitalism at Work

The secret of capitalism is free entry to the marketplace. In theory in a capitalist economy, if you have an idea for a product that you think you can sell at a profit, you need merely produce it and take it to market. If you are right, you create wealth for yourself and others. If you’re wrong, you lose money. (In the real world, of course, government often restricts access to the marketplace, requiring licenses and certificates of need for all sorts of goods and services.) Read More

The secret of capitalism is free entry to the marketplace. In theory in a capitalist economy, if you have an idea for a product that you think you can sell at a profit, you need merely produce it and take it to market. If you are right, you create wealth for yourself and others. If you’re wrong, you lose money. (In the real world, of course, government often restricts access to the marketplace, requiring licenses and certificates of need for all sorts of goods and services.)

There have been some spectacular miscalculations, such as New Coke and the Edsel, but also equally spectacular home runs, such as the iPhone and, in the 1980’s, the video cassette recorder (VCR).

There have also been no shortage of silly, but fleetingly profitable, ideas such as the Pet Rock introduced in 1975. And, of course, many a profit has been made off human gullibility and ignorance. It is an abiding characteristic of free markets that fools and their money are soon parted.

Yesterday I ran across a great example of this. At my local supermarket, you can now buy water for $2.50 a quart. Milk at this supermarket costs $1.48 a quart, $2.44 a half gallon.

Water

The market (DeCicco’s) is, admittedly, a rather upscale one, with lots of fancy cheeses, pâtés, microbrewery beers, and organic and gluten-free everything. They even have gluten-free ice cream, which is interesting as ice cream doesn’t have gluten in it to begin with. Gluten is a protein found only in wheat, barley, and rye products. But DeCicco’s also has everything from Wheaties to Hamburger Helper.

The marketing gimmick here is that a box made from recycled whatever is more eco-friendly than the ubiquitous plastic bottles supermarket water usually comes in. The water itself is merely an afterthought. It doesn’t come from some secret spring in the Austrian Alps known only to yodeling goatherds. Indeed, there is no indication where the water comes from, which means it comes from the tap at the factory.

So the business plan for “Boxed Water” is that there are people out there so anxious to save the planet that they will fork over $2.50 for a quart of tap water.

I admit to having a double dose of the Scottish frugality gene, but really. Who would be that stupid (and affluent) to pay $2.50 a quart for tap water? Apparently quite a few as, according to the check-out girl, it is selling quite briskly. P. T. Barnum, call your office.

Perhaps the next attempt to capture the damn-fools-with-too-much-money market will be organic, gluten-free air, packaged in recyclable balloons, $2.50 a lungful.

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The Beatification of Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton’s effort to run among the most anodyne, milquetoast campaigns for the presidency in American history is apparently paying off. A candidate who dares not speak much, and when she does says only aphorisms universally beloved by the left-leaning constituents she is courting, should inspire frustration among those tasked with speaking truth to power: namely, the political press. Instead, when Clinton dares to open her mouth on even a modestly controversial subject, she is lauded as a figure of unparalleled bravery and poise. Meanwhile, those candidates who have traversed objectively stormy seas, navigated political minefields, taken legitimately controversial stands, and stared down their constituents are given sideways glances by their chroniclers in the media. The latest example of this phenomenon from the Washington Post is nothing short of a disgrace. Read More

Hillary Clinton’s effort to run among the most anodyne, milquetoast campaigns for the presidency in American history is apparently paying off. A candidate who dares not speak much, and when she does says only aphorisms universally beloved by the left-leaning constituents she is courting, should inspire frustration among those tasked with speaking truth to power: namely, the political press. Instead, when Clinton dares to open her mouth on even a modestly controversial subject, she is lauded as a figure of unparalleled bravery and poise. Meanwhile, those candidates who have traversed objectively stormy seas, navigated political minefields, taken legitimately controversial stands, and stared down their constituents are given sideways glances by their chroniclers in the media. The latest example of this phenomenon from the Washington Post is nothing short of a disgrace.

Reporters often loathe being accused of crafting or husbanding a “narrative.” For obvious reasons, they would prefer to think of themselves as neutral arbiters of facts and stewards of balance. But the disbelief one is required to suspend to maintain that fiction while reading Washington Post reporters Phillip Rucker and Anne Gearen’s latest dispatch is too much to suffer. Their latest, “While GOP candidates stammer, Clinton directly confronts race,” is not inaccurate so much as it is a transparent hagiography of the prohibitive Democratic presidential nominee. Her accomplishment? Nobly committing to endure the absolute minimum level of discomfort expected of a presidential candidate.

In assessing the political impact of the aftermath of the atrocity in Charleston, South Carolina perpetrated by an anachronistic racist terrorist, Rucker and Gearen make no pretense of their cause: They came to praise Clinton and to bury those Republicans vying to challenge her next year.

Noting, also not inaccurately, that Republican 2016 hopefuls largely “stammered and stumbled,” or even “lacked sensitivity” when addressing the violence, these Washington Post reporters maintained that Clinton “has forcefully initiated a conversation about race and bigotry.” Quite the “contrast,” they add in a piece that is ostensibly straight reportage.

“The candidates have been balancing the political imperative to present a welcoming face to minority and moderate voters with hesitancy to turn off conservative white voters who see the Confederate flag as a representation of their family heritage and Southern traditions,” The report added. “Clinton’s allies said that her focus on race relations was in keeping with her life’s journey. She grew up during the 1960s civil rights movement and has said that going to see the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Chicago as a teenager was a formative moment.”

It’s almost as if that “contrast” these reporters are observing is one that they are also committed to enabling.

At no point in this piece did the reporters note the Clintons, too, have a complex relationship with the Confederate flag. A Clinton-Gore button from 1992 graced with the Confederate battle flag has led many to wonder if Hillary Clinton’s husband’s campaign endorsed it. But the likely Democratic standard-bearer’s campaign has thus far refused to comment on that matter. How courageous.

There are reasons to believe that Bill Clinton might have embraced this and other campaign buttons that cast him and his Tennessee-based running mate as sons of the South. As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton  signed a bill affirming that one of the stars on his state’s flag would stand in commemoration of the Confederate States of America. Even former Clinton advisor Paul Begala insisted that Hillary Clinton “absolutely” has to answer for standing by her husband’s decision on that matter all those years ago. The Post, however, seems unconcerned with Clinton’s silence on this issue, too.

As narratives go, the Post’s reporters made a conscious effort to embrace one over another equally compelling version of the aftermath of the Charleston shootings. The reporters spent an inordinate amount of time, perhaps reluctantly, noting that Clinton was forced after lagging behind events to praise Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley for having the real courage to defy her constituents and demand that the rebel flag be furled forever. Haley is, after all, a Southern Republican governor — a woman and a minority — taking down the flag that was erected first by one of her Democratic predecessors in 1962. Republicans purged the South of the scourge of slavery amid a bloody civil war; Republicans oversaw the dismantling of Jim Crow and the desegregation of the Deep South; and now Republicans, from South Carolina to Mississippi, are flouting some of their more recalcitrant voters and ridding the South of that symbol of rebellion once and for all. The last time Clinton called for the Confederate flag to be lowered in the South was, her campaign insists, 2007. Such bravery.

This narrative didn’t seem to interest the Post’s neutral and dispassionate political reporters. Instead, what captured their imaginations was a speech Clinton gave to a room full of liberal supporters where she lamented persistent racial tensions and gun violence in America. What courage is there to be found in a liberal telling a room full of like-minded fellows what they already believe? It takes an empirical, objective political reporter to see it. For Rucker who was among the many reporters seen celebrating at the wedding of a Ready for Hillary staff member and her campaign’s director for grassroots engagement over the weekend, you would think he would display a bit more decorum. Apparently, modesty and an adversarial relationship with those on whom you are required to report is no longer a value that the nation’s journalistic class is prepared to uphold or enforce with much vigor. Unless, of course, that subject is a Republican.

The Post is not alone in effusively praising the pabulum on race that passes for courage from Hillary Clinton. New York Times reporter Amy Chozick averred yesterday that “frank discussions” on race have characterized Clinton’s whole career in politics, and she will continue those discussions this week. Assertions from Clinton like her pledge to make “voting easier” for African-Americans and her lament that “America’s long struggle with race is far from finished” are not brave displays, as Chozick contends. They are, in fact, rather unsubstantial polemics. There are real hard questions and thorny issues relating to race in America. On specific and potentially alienating policy preferences that would be required to address them, Clinton has largely chosen to remain silent. It should now be clear that this is a feature, not a bug, associated with Hillary Clinton 2.0.

Republicans like Haley, Senator Tim Scott, and Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn who are telling their voters that they are wrong, that they have made a virtue of vice, and to suffer the associated consequences is truly courageous. To preach shibboleths before roomfuls of the already converted is something else entirely. For reporters in desperate need of a story that paints Clinton in a favorable light, however, the latter will do in a pinch.

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It’s Not France, But an Obama Diktat That Israel Fears

With Western nations concentrating on finalizing a nuclear deal with Iran this month, efforts to restart the Israel-Palestinian peace talks have been relegated to the diplomatic back burner. Even President Obama, who made the creation of a Palestinian state a priority from his first moment in office appears to have accepted that further efforts on that front will have to wait until after his cherished new entente with Tehran is safely signed and then ratified by Congress (or saved by a presidential veto). But Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister was in the Middle East this past weekend giving Israelis a sneak preview of what they can expect once appeasement of Iran is checked off on the West’s to-do-list. Once the dust settles on Iran, France is expected to propose a resolution in the United Nations Security Council that would seek to impose a framework on future negotiations with the Palestinians. Such a framework would likely make the 1967 lines the basis of talks and treat Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Jerusalem a foregone conclusion making it unlikely that the Palestinians would budge an inch on any vital issue. Israel would not have greeted this news happily under any circumstances, but it so happened that Fabius arrived just after a series of terror attacks on Jews that illustrated just how dangerous any such unilateral concessions on Israel’s part would be.

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With Western nations concentrating on finalizing a nuclear deal with Iran this month, efforts to restart the Israel-Palestinian peace talks have been relegated to the diplomatic back burner. Even President Obama, who made the creation of a Palestinian state a priority from his first moment in office appears to have accepted that further efforts on that front will have to wait until after his cherished new entente with Tehran is safely signed and then ratified by Congress (or saved by a presidential veto). But Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister was in the Middle East this past weekend giving Israelis a sneak preview of what they can expect once appeasement of Iran is checked off on the West’s to-do-list. Once the dust settles on Iran, France is expected to propose a resolution in the United Nations Security Council that would seek to impose a framework on future negotiations with the Palestinians. Such a framework would likely make the 1967 lines the basis of talks and treat Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Jerusalem a foregone conclusion making it unlikely that the Palestinians would budge an inch on any vital issue. Israel would not have greeted this news happily under any circumstances, but it so happened that Fabius arrived just after a series of terror attacks on Jews that illustrated just how dangerous any such unilateral concessions on Israel’s part would be.

On Friday, one Israeli was killed and another wounded in a shooting attack in the West Bank applauded by Hamas. On Sunday, a West Bank Palestinian stabbed an Israeli policeman in Jerusalem in another of what are actually fairly routine incidents of terror. Though the Netanyahu has recently relaxed security measures intended to forestall such attacks, Palestinian assaults on Israelis are so commonplace that U.S. newspapers like the New York Times mention them only in passing and sometimes not all.

While a two-state solution would be ideal and is favored, at least in principle, by most Israelis, terror incidents highlight why large majorities regard the prospect of a complete withdrawal from the West Bank or a partition of Jerusalem are seen as madness. It’s not just that the Palestinian Authority has repeatedly shown that it has no intention of ever recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Nor that Hamas, though it might endorse a continuation of the cease-fire along the Gaza border is utterly committed to war to destroy Israel. It’s also that both the PA and its Hamas rivals routinely broadcast hate and sympathy for terrorists who slaughter Jews. It is that culture of violence and rejection of coexistence still governs Palestinian politics making a two-state solution impossible even if their leaders were prepared to try to make peace.

As President Obama’s fruitless attempts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ direction showed over the last six years, more initiatives aimed at pressuring Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians actually lessened the chances of peace rather than strengthening them. That’s because each such gesture that demonstrated the unfortunate daylight that Michael Oren wrote about in his memoir only convinced the Palestinians that they need only wait for the West to deliver Israel’s surrender to them on a silver platter. That’s as true today as it has ever been.

The danger here is not just of French or European meddling that will encourage the Palestinians to keep refusing to return to direct negotiations with Israel. It’s that a proposal put forward in the next few months (assuming that Iran is off the table by then) will give President Obama a chance to demonstrate whether the off-the-record comments of administration aides that predict a U.S. abandonment of Israel at the UN are accurate. Obama has been sending clear signals to Israel and its supporters — even as he seeks to disarm their justified alarm at his Iran entente — that this administration intends to take at least one more shot at bludgeoning the Netanyahu government into submission,

Under the circumstances, Netanyahu’s warning to Fabius that Israel will never accept a “diktat” on matters that concern its security was entirely justified. In response, Fabius said diktat wasn’t a word that was part of his French vocabulary. But it’s not a French initiative that worries Netanyahu but the very real possibility of an Obama diktat that lurks behind it. Though President Obama may not speak German, Netanyahu is right to fear that the lame duck in the White House understands the word all too well.

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Why the State Department Won’t Discuss ‘Parameters’ for Iran

Another day, another attempt to have the State Department – one week before the deadline for a deal – state the U.S. position regarding Iran’s obligation to enable the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to determine the possible military dimensions (PMDs) of Iran’s nuclear program. At yesterday’s press conference, the State Department spokesperson was asked to clarify his comments from Friday, which he had made in response to requests that he clarify his comments from Wednesday, and once again he declined to answer a basic question about the deal:

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Another day, another attempt to have the State Department – one week before the deadline for a deal – state the U.S. position regarding Iran’s obligation to enable the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to determine the possible military dimensions (PMDs) of Iran’s nuclear program. At yesterday’s press conference, the State Department spokesperson was asked to clarify his comments from Friday, which he had made in response to requests that he clarify his comments from Wednesday, and once again he declined to answer a basic question about the deal:

QUESTION: … In your responses to us on Friday, you alluded to the possibility that the final deal could contain – your word now – “parameters” for IAEA access. And I just want to nail this down with you so that there is clarity. Could it be the case that any final deal that we would negotiate and ink would itself contain parameters for access that would be subject to further negotiation after the finalization of the final deal?

MR KIRBY: I am not going to talk about what the final deal will or will not look like. Again, negotiators are hard at work right now, and I think we need to give them the space to do that work. What I – what is true, however, is that at Lausanne in April, it was agreed that Iran would provide the parameters to allow the necessary access by IAEA inspectors. That was agreed in April, and that agreement is still in effect. That does not constitute the final deal, though, James, and that’s what they’re working out right now. And that’s really as far as I can go with it today.

Actually, the April 2, 2015 “Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” does not contain the word “parameters” in the bullet point regarding the IAEA’s longstanding concerns about Iran’s PMDs. The bullet point provides as follows: “Iran will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of its program” (emphasis added).

In four successive press conferences, reporters have asked whether the deal is going to contain the “measures,” or just “parameters”; whether requiring Iran to “address” the IAEA concerns means Iran must resolve them, or just make some response to the IAEA (since Iran has been stiffing the IAEA’s questions for years); whether the IAEA’s concerns regarding PMDs need to be fully resolved before sanctions are eased or removed or suspended; etc. In the four days, no less than seven reporters have been asking the questions, and none of the questions has been answered.

Perhaps reporters will try a fifth time, but there is a reason the State Department spokesperson will not answer these questions. Whatever the administration is able to negotiate with Iran, the administration is going to call a “good deal.” If it were to state now that the deal must contain specific measures enabling the IAEA to fully resolve its concerns about the PMDs before sanctions are eased, removed, or suspended, the administration will have provided Congress a standard by which to judge whether the deal is a good one. But it has become obvious that the administration believes that any deal is better than no deal, so that any deal is – by definition – good, even if it only has “parameters” that “address” PMD concerns but do not resolve them, and even if sanctions relief is not dependent on such a resolution.

After four days of questions that could easily be answered if the administration were concerned about having its demands met, rather than having a deal done, it is clear that the almost comic refusal of the State Department spokesperson to answer direct questions, posed multiple times by multiple reporters day after day, is a reflection of the colossal collapse on PMDs, which itself is simply the latest in the cascade of concessions by an administration desperate for a deal. There will be more.

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Anbar Sleeps Once More

For years, the United States has been throwing away the hard-won successes of the Iraq Surge. They were, however, previously discarded largely as a result of President Barack Obama’s ambivalence toward their value. Today, the president abandons America’s gains in Iraq actively and with insight into the dire consequences of his actions. It’s time to abandon Hanlon’s Razor; for the sake of political expediency, this White House is prepared to bequeath his successor not just an Iraq in tatters but also a region in flames.

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For years, the United States has been throwing away the hard-won successes of the Iraq Surge. They were, however, previously discarded largely as a result of President Barack Obama’s ambivalence toward their value. Today, the president abandons America’s gains in Iraq actively and with insight into the dire consequences of his actions. It’s time to abandon Hanlon’s Razor; for the sake of political expediency, this White House is prepared to bequeath his successor not just an Iraq in tatters but also a region in flames.

One of the great gains of the Surge is what came to be known as the “Anbar Awakening.” In late 2006 and into 2007, Sunni Arab leaders in the restive western Anbar Province that had once tolerated the heavy hand of al-Qaeda in Iraq in order to prevent encroaching Shiite influence united against their oppressors. Contrary to the popular mythology espoused by al-Qaeda leadership, the United States had demonstrated that it was a Middle Eastern power. It would not simply retreat amid a slow bloodletting at the hands of the insurgency. As Bing West observed, the American military showed that it was “the strongest tribe,” and the region’s leaders were prepared to throw their lots in with America.

Today, with the fall of Ramadi to ISIS apparently representing a new status quo, there is no doubt about who is the strongest tribe in Anbar. Many of the region’s Sunni clerics and tribal leaders who resisted ISIS’s advance were exiled or slaughtered by the renewed insurgency. Those who remain have now accepted their overlords. “A number of Sunni tribal sheikhs and tribes in Iraq’s Anbar province have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group,” Al Jazeera reported earlier this month. “The sheikhs and tribal leaders made the pledge on Wednesday in Fallujah in a statement read out by Ahmed Dara al-Jumaili, an influential sheikh, after a meeting.”

The gains of the Surge are lost. Anbar is again asleep.

Compounding the impression among Anbar’s Sunni elites that a Shiite conspiracy is afoot that will only further undermine their influence in their home governorate is the fact that the United States has so flagrantly traded expediency for strategic competence by, reportedly, inviting Iran-backed Shiite militias into Anbar. Not only are militias loyal to Tehran operating inside Anbar, they are doing so alongside U.S. service personnel and within the same base.

“Two senior administration officials confirmed to us that U.S. soldiers and Shiite militia groups are both using the Taqqadum military base in Anbar, the same Iraqi base where President Obama is sending an additional 450 U.S. military personnel to help train the local forces fighting against the Islamic State,” Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reported. “Some of the Iran-backed Shiite militias at the base have killed American soldiers in the past.”

As galling as that last sentence may be — and it is galling — it is even more disheartening to know that the Sunni leaders in Anbar now have even more reason to tacitly or even openly welcome the ISIS insurgency, regardless of how brutal it might be. It’s hard to square the revelation that American troops and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power’s September 2014 contention that “we are not coordinating military operations or sharing intelligence with Iran.” The direct communication between forces that take orders from the Pentagon and those that are loyal to Tehran is now overt.

What’s harder to comprehend, however, is how this strategy would lead to a lasting victory against ISIS in Iraq. What seems more likely is that it would sow the seeds of a new civil war, and a real one, in the vacuum that would follow ISIS’s retreat and America’s second withdrawal from Iraq.

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As the Flag Comes Down, the Civil War May Finally Be Over

Let’s hope South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley finally put an end to the debate over the Confederate flag Monday afternoon with her announcement that, “It’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds.” Long viewed by African Americans and others as an offensive symbol of racism, the flag became an issue again last week when a lone wolf racist terrorist entered the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston and killed nine black Americans at prayer. Alleged murderer Dylann Roof had embraced the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy on his website where he also spewed racist and anti-Semitic hate. The response from some was that we should respect the flag as part of Southern heritage and a piece of history. But, fortunately, the impulse among some in South Carolina to reject these calls as Yankee interference was overcome both by grief over the murders and common sense. But beyond the imperative of the moment to make some symbolic gesture against hate (that also simplifies things for Republicans who feared to cross conservatives who might still revere the flag), the governor’s decision signals that, even in some parts of the Southern imagination, the Civil War is finally over. This isn’t political correctness or revisionism; it’s closure that was long overdue. And it’s absolutely vital if we are to rise above a persistent racism that President Obama cited in an interview that, like many of his pronouncements on race, seemed designed more to inflame sentiments than heal them.

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Let’s hope South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley finally put an end to the debate over the Confederate flag Monday afternoon with her announcement that, “It’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds.” Long viewed by African Americans and others as an offensive symbol of racism, the flag became an issue again last week when a lone wolf racist terrorist entered the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston and killed nine black Americans at prayer. Alleged murderer Dylann Roof had embraced the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy on his website where he also spewed racist and anti-Semitic hate. The response from some was that we should respect the flag as part of Southern heritage and a piece of history. But, fortunately, the impulse among some in South Carolina to reject these calls as Yankee interference was overcome both by grief over the murders and common sense. But beyond the imperative of the moment to make some symbolic gesture against hate (that also simplifies things for Republicans who feared to cross conservatives who might still revere the flag), the governor’s decision signals that, even in some parts of the Southern imagination, the Civil War is finally over. This isn’t political correctness or revisionism; it’s closure that was long overdue. And it’s absolutely vital if we are to rise above a persistent racism that President Obama cited in an interview that, like many of his pronouncements on race, seemed designed more to inflame sentiments than heal them.

One must respect the respect for history on the part of those who, like our John Steele Gordon, see honoring the legacy of those who fought for the Confederacy as distinct from the pro-slavery cause or the post-war atrocities committed in the name of the so-called “lost cause.” As our Max Boot rightly pointed out earlier today, the myths about the Confederacy helped fuel a political culture that created despicable Jim Crow laws and segregationist practices that were a blot on America’s honor for a century.

Part of the debate about the symbols of the Confederacy was an attempt to paint the Civil War as being a conflict primarily motivated by the defense of state’s rights as opposed to slavery. That was always dubious history, but it fed the idea that that two sides to the war were essentially both justified or at least not involved in a conflict between good and evil. It is true that the North had no monopoly on righteousness, especially when one takes into account the crucial role those in the free states had in keeping slavery alive and even profitable. But lost in the attempt to bridge the divide between the two sides and make them both equally heroic, if not right, was the fact that those who fought for the Confederacy were fighting to keep slavery even if they were not slaveholders. Though we cannot judge them by the standards of our own day (a scrutiny that even Lincoln might not withstand), neither should we accept the conceit that both sides were engaged in an equally glorious endeavor. African-Americans rightly believed that the embrace of the Confederacy was not only offensive but also a denial of the basic truth that in a war over slavery. We should not be honoring both sides equally.

For a century, some southerners kept the war alive. At first, it was to rationalize their mad decision to destroy their region in a war that couldn’t be won. Then, it was to justify Jim Crow. As Max wrote, that South is dead. It lives on only in the fever swamps where extremists like Roof rage and neo-Confederates confuse legitimate contemporary arguments about the abuse of power by the federal government with illegitimate ones against the efforts of the Lincoln administration to preserve the Union. Those who want to celebrate the heritage of the South might do well in the future to refocus their hero-worship on the many Southerners that kept their oaths to the United States and fought for the Union rather than to destroy it to preserve an evil that still should still horrify us.

It took 150 years but Governor Haley’s promise that as of the next July 4th, only the flags of the United States and South Carolina would fly over state property was a much needed official acknowledgement in the place where the Civil War started that any governmental embrace of these symbols is outdated and harmful. While individuals have as much right to wave the Confederate flag as they do to burn an American one, let this be the end of the argument as well as an end to any idea of treating the Confederacy as anything but an embarrassing stain on American history.

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