Commentary Magazine


Topic: energy

President Obama Vetoes the Keystone XL Pipeline Bill

As expected, the president has vetoed the bill that passed both houses (surviving a Senate filibuster) that would have authorized a pipeline that would move crude oil from the Alberta oils sands region and the Bakken shield in North Dakota, a state now producing more oil than any other except Texas, to the Gulf coast.

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As expected, the president has vetoed the bill that passed both houses (surviving a Senate filibuster) that would have authorized a pipeline that would move crude oil from the Alberta oils sands region and the Bakken shield in North Dakota, a state now producing more oil than any other except Texas, to the Gulf coast.

The pipeline has consistently polled well with all groups, is environmentally harmless (indeed, beneficial as pipelines are safer than moving oil by train, as West Virginia found out last week), and would create many construction jobs. It would be a huge gesture of good will to our neighbor and ally, Canada, and a poke in the eye to our antagonist, Venezuela, whose oil exports to the United States would be curtailed. But the Tom-Steyer-lunatic-fringe of the environmental movement adamantly opposed it, so Obama delayed and delayed and delayed.

This veto was, of course, not unexpected and it is unlikely to be overridden in either house of Congress. So the bill was, in a sense, just a political gesture on the part of the new Republican-controlled Congress. It is only the president’s third veto in more than six years in office, but there is likely to be many more as he no longer has Harry Reed to protect him politically.

But his stated reasons for the veto are almost comical:

In a message to Congress, Mr. Obama cited the ongoing State Department review as the reason for his veto, saying “because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest—including our security, safety and environment—it has earned my veto.”

“Through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest,” Mr. Obama wrote. He added that while the presidential veto is an executive power he takes seriously, “I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people.”

Asked if the Obama administration might eventually approve the pipeline after the State Department review is complete, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, “That possibility still does exist. This is an ongoing review.”

This is truly rich. There is not a person on planet earth who thinks that the Keystone XL Pipeline has not been studied enough already to make informed judgments. And President Obama stated on 22 occasions that the executive branch lacked the power to change immigration law, a power reserved to Congress. But once the 2014 election was out of the way, he changed the law anyway by executive order. His complaint was that Congress had failed to act and so he had to. But when Congress, fed up with the unconscionable foot-dragging over an oil pipeline, tried to do by constitutionally correct means what the president had refused to do, he is outraged at an attempt “to circumvent longstanding and proven processes.” In other words, the Constitution is optional for the Obama administration, but executive branch procedures are absolute for Congress.

This is shameless, but what else could be expected of this administration?

Candidates for the Republican 2016 nomination should be clear that 1) once in the White House, they will clear the way for the pipeline and that, 2) they will not misuse procedures in order to avoid having to make difficult political decisions.

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Free Bobby Jindal!

In the last couple of days, two quotes from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal made the rounds. Neither quote was particularly noteworthy in itself, but the juxtaposition shows why Jindal, who is testing the waters for a presidential campaign, seems to be plagued by false starts. There are two Bobby Jindals, and they are getting in each other’s way.

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In the last couple of days, two quotes from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal made the rounds. Neither quote was particularly noteworthy in itself, but the juxtaposition shows why Jindal, who is testing the waters for a presidential campaign, seems to be plagued by false starts. There are two Bobby Jindals, and they are getting in each other’s way.

On Monday, Reason’s Nick Gillespie called attention to a curious statement from Jindal as the governor was courting religious leaders in Iowa: “The reality is I’m here today because I genuinely, sincerely, passionately believe that America’s in desperate need of a spiritual revival.” Jindal added: “We have tried everything and now it is time to turn back to God.”

Gillespie countered that “What ails the government is not a deficit of religiosity but a nearly complete failure to deal with practical issues of spending versus revenue, creating a simple and fair tax system, reforming entitlements, and getting real about the limits of America’s ability to control every corner of the globe.”

I’d add that when we think about the character of the citizenry, it isn’t just about what government policies force people to do (or not to do), nor do we need the president to be the country’s spiritual leader. Politicians who instinctively lean on government action as a way to regulate behavior often forget the ennobling role of freedom in America. Religious freedom has strengthened spiritual practice here in comparison to most other Western nations, and the American ethic of personal responsibility does more to cultivate moral seriousness than presidential speeches about spiritual malaise.

But of course Jindal doesn’t need to be told this. He knows it, and even nods to it in other speeches. Over at the Weekly Standard, Daniel Halper posts a preview of a forthcoming speech on foreign policy that Jindal will deliver in London. Jindal will criticize Hillary Clinton’s “mindless naiveté” in her call for American leaders to “empathize” with our enemies. And the speech challenges Muslim leaders to defend their faith (and their reputations) from the extremists among them. But he will also say this:

In my country, Christianity is the largest religion. And we require exactly no one to conform to it. And we do not discriminate against anyone who does not conform to it. It’s called freedom.

Now, to be fair, Jindal’s two comments are not mutually exclusive. He can believe we need to turn back to God and also that we’re all free to decline to do so. But the spirit of his remarks really calls attention to his great weakness as a candidate: inauthenticity.

Jindal is a wonk–not in the American leftist mold, but actually smart. And he’s a good governor. I suspect this is part of Gillespie’s frustration with Jindal, though I wouldn’t put words in his mouth. Gillespie opens his post with a rundown of Jindal’s accomplishments and conservative bona fides. Here is how Gillespie’s post begins:

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) has proven to be one of the most effective and incorruptible legislators that the Bayou State has had. Unlike a long line of pols from Louisiana, he is neither a demagogue, a racist, nor simply a criminal willing to take bribes and cut shady deals for his pals. A few years back, he pissed off Republicans by rightly insisting that the GOP stop being “the stupid party” when it came to policy debates.

He’s worked hard to help reform school finance in a way that accelerates not just choice for students and parents but better results too; he’s privatized and contracted-out many states services at great savings; and he’s pushed for common-sense policies such as making birth control available without a prescription.

Jindal has also presided over a period of strong economic growth. Last year, when challenged by an MSNBC commentator over his economic record, Jindal said: “In Louisiana, we now have more people working, highest incomes in our state’s history. Larger population than ever before. And the president can’t say all those things about the country. Our economy has grown 50 percent faster than the national GDP, even since the national recession.”

Salivating at the prospect of catching Jindal in a lie, the “fack-checker” site PolitiFact looked into Jindal’s claim and found that “Jindal actually understated the comparison.” Jindal was more right than even he knew. Jindal’s position on domestic energy production is admirable as well.

So Jindal has a fluent grasp of the issues and is fully comfortable discussing them at length. He also has a record to run on. But when Jindal takes his campaign national, he lapses into a particularly striking habit of pandering, perhaps because pandering on identity politics doesn’t come so naturally to him.

Conservatives and libertarians who appreciate what Jindal brings to the table on policy want the campaign to let Jindal be Jindal. Not Mike Huckabee at home and John Bolton abroad. Other prospective candidates fill those roles (such as, well, Huckabee and Bolton).

Jindal isn’t wrong in his critique of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy. And he obviously shouldn’t leave any issue completely to his rivals; if he wants to be president, he needs to display a well-rounded political philosophy. But he also needs to be himself. He’s a terrible panderer, and that is one of his finest virtues: he doesn’t know how to pretend to be something he’s not. And so he should stop trying.

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New SecDef Must Address Eastern Mediterranean

Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary, is expected to cruise through his confirmation hearings early this year. Unlike the controversial and inarticulate Chuck Hagel, apparently chosen because Obama felt camaraderie with him on a congressional trip and wanted to poke his opponents, Carter has broad bipartisan respect and clear mastery of the issues at hand. This is important not only because of the Pentagon’s budget crunch—cutbacks exacerbated by the inflexible mechanism of sequestration—but also because of the rise of new challenges the world over.

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Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary, is expected to cruise through his confirmation hearings early this year. Unlike the controversial and inarticulate Chuck Hagel, apparently chosen because Obama felt camaraderie with him on a congressional trip and wanted to poke his opponents, Carter has broad bipartisan respect and clear mastery of the issues at hand. This is important not only because of the Pentagon’s budget crunch—cutbacks exacerbated by the inflexible mechanism of sequestration—but also because of the rise of new challenges the world over.

But being Secretary of Defense is not simply about reacting to the latest crises. It’s also about planning for future ones. In theory, that might be the purview of the National Security Council and State Department Policy Planning Staff, but neither have distinguished themselves under Obama; quite the contrary, they have become dumping grounds for political loyalists and followers rather than thinkers.

Carter’s greatest legacy may not yet be on the radar screen of senators and their staff who are already pouring over his record to prepare their questions. But, the rise of Greek leftist Alexis Tsipras should highlight both the growing importance of the Eastern Mediterranean and America’s relative vulnerability.

The discovery and development of gas fields off the coast of Cyprus and Israel have infused the Eastern Mediterranean with new importance. Its gas may account for only slightly more than half that of Alaska’s northern coast and less than half of that of Saudi Arabia, but Eastern Mediterranean gas is closer to its customers and in a less extreme environment.

The gas fields might be good for both Israel and Cyprus’s economy, but can also be a source for instability. After Houston-based Noble Energy began drilling in Cypriot waters in September 2011, Egemen Bağış, at the time Turkey’s European Union Affairs minister and, despite corruption allegations, still a top advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, threatened, “This is what we have the navy for. We have trained our marines for this; we have equipped the navy for this. All options are on the table; anything can be done.”

Meanwhile, in May 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the permanent deployment of a 16-ship Mediterranean task force. With President Obama apparently willing to acquiesce to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, Russian use of Syria’s Tartous Naval Base is assured. Add into the mix Hezbollah, which brags that it is training in underwater sabotage, the Lebanese government which is voicing a new maritime dispute with Israel over 330 square miles of offshore waters, Hamas, a resurgent Iranian navy, and al-Qaeda’s rise in the Sinai peninsula, and the Eastern Mediterranean has not been so contested since the height of the Cold War.

The United States has one naval base in the region, in Souda Bay, Crete. But with Tsipras’s rise, that’s up for grabs. If Tsipras doesn’t expel the United States completely, he may go the Philippines’ route and raise the rent exorbitantly to the point where it becomes untenable to continue.

The United States maintains numerous installations around the Persian Gulf: In Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Over the next decade, however, the Eastern Mediterranean will only grow in importance, as fracking will continue to break the relative importance of Persian Gulf energy exporters. How the United States should position its forces in the Mediterranean may not seem like a pressing problem, but decisions made during Carter’s watch will reverberate for decades. He should be up to the challenge. Let us hope that the Senate explores the issue.

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Keystone Scramble Shows Dems Already Forgetting Midterms Defeat

Republican losses typically produce an outpouring of concern trolling from Democrats, eager to “help” Republicans turn their fortunes around. The advice usually includes loosening the hold of the base on the party’s agenda, to become less extreme; paying more attention to polls; and buying into a proactive, productive legislative agenda. Yet now that Democrats have been on the wrong end of a national wave, will they take their own advice? Not if the machinations around the Keystone XL pipeline are any indication.

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Republican losses typically produce an outpouring of concern trolling from Democrats, eager to “help” Republicans turn their fortunes around. The advice usually includes loosening the hold of the base on the party’s agenda, to become less extreme; paying more attention to polls; and buying into a proactive, productive legislative agenda. Yet now that Democrats have been on the wrong end of a national wave, will they take their own advice? Not if the machinations around the Keystone XL pipeline are any indication.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Democrats have for years opposed the pipeline, which would bring oil from Canada’s tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries. But Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu is facing an uphill battle in her December 6 runoff election against Republican Representative Bill Cassidy. Keystone would be a “boon” for Louisiana, as even the New York Times admits, so Landrieu is trying to push Keystone across the finish line hoping it’ll drag her there along with it.

Were the situation reversed, Democrats would be doing what Republicans are now: imploring them to stop getting in their own way and support the pipeline. After all, it’s popular, it would show the Democrats can support a legislative agenda that brings jobs to an important industry, and it’s only been sidelined so far because President Obama is hostage to the bidding of his extremist base. And yet, Landrieu is not having an easy time getting enough Democrats to join the 60-vote threshold for the vote expected to be held early this evening.

Of course, even if Landrieu can get the votes in the Senate, the Keystone vote is already a less-than-perfect subject for a Hail Mary, as the Times notes:

On Friday, a Keystone bill sponsored by Mr. Cassidy passed the House. Ms. Landrieu is now close to mustering a filibuster-proof 60 Senate votes in favor of the pipeline in the Senate. She told reporters on Friday that she had 59 votes and was reaching out aggressively to colleagues to round up the critical final vote necessary to send the bill to Mr. Obama’s desk.

That’s right–she’s been handed the baton by her rival, Bill Cassidy. It’s not as though Landrieu is in favor and her opponent isn’t. Landrieu is no better on the issue than Cassidy; in reality, she’s playing catch-up because of Democratic opposition to the plan. It’s unclear how passing the Keystone bill would give her the boost she needs to beat Cassidy, though the high-profile scramble for votes would seem to at least help her by elevating her profile.

But that’s only if it passes. And right now, Democrats aren’t so sure it’s worth helping her reelection, in part because it’s no guarantee they’ll retain the seat even if the bill passes. Here’s Politico:

With Keystone apparently stuck on 59 votes — one shy of the amount needed for passage — Landrieu has turned into a one-woman Senate whip, seeking a vote set for Tuesday night that would show her clout in oil-rich Louisiana ahead of her Dec. 6 runoff. …

Much of the focus of Monday’s guessing games was on Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who hails from a fossil fuel state and whose upcoming retirement could leave him with little to lose. But he said Monday evening that he’s voting no.

Another rumored waverer was Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats. He indicated he’s still leaning no but said, “I’ll make a decision when I vote.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said she’s voting no because she doesn’t think “Congress should be siting pipelines.”

And what if she does get that 60th vote? Back to the Times:

Even if the Senate supports building the pipeline in a vote on Tuesday night, President Obama is likely to veto the measure on the grounds that an environmental review of the process remains incomplete.

Nonetheless, the events of this week suggest that after the expected veto, Mr. Obama may eventually approve the pipeline, which would run from the oil sands of Alberta to the Gulf Coast. The project is anathema to the environmentalists who are part of the president’s political base.

Obama, who isn’t running again, is expected to choose his extremist base over a member of his party trying desperately to hold her seat. And that environmentalist base has not become any more moderate or levelheaded over the course of this administration; the liberal interest group MoveOn.org sent an email today about the Keystone vote with subject line: “Game over for our planet?”

The Times report also notes that in early 2015 there will be more Republicans in the Senate and thus fewer lawmakers held hostage to a fringe element of the liberal base. In such a case, an Obama veto now (if this bill passes) will invite yet another Keystone bill sent to his desk next year, and this one will be closer to having enough votes to even override his veto. If he’s going to deal with that kind of repeated showdown, the Times reports, he may want a trade.

And maybe he’ll get one. Or maybe he’ll have no leverage. Either way, it won’t do much for Landrieu in 2015. Not that the president cares much one way or the other.

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Fracking and Food Security: Eco-Leftists Lose Again

In a recent article on genetically modified organisms (GMO) in food crops, the New Yorker quotes an Indian farmer pushing back at Western crusaders against GMOs: “Why do rich people tell us to plant crops that will ruin our farms?” Indeed such “rich people,” usually eco-leftists, tend to fall into one of two categories. They are either conspiracy theorists who rail against lifesaving agricultural advancements and wonder drugs/vaccines as capitalist plots, or they push false environmental “science” intended to stop progress on energy development that lowers the cost of living while improving air quality.

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In a recent article on genetically modified organisms (GMO) in food crops, the New Yorker quotes an Indian farmer pushing back at Western crusaders against GMOs: “Why do rich people tell us to plant crops that will ruin our farms?” Indeed such “rich people,” usually eco-leftists, tend to fall into one of two categories. They are either conspiracy theorists who rail against lifesaving agricultural advancements and wonder drugs/vaccines as capitalist plots, or they push false environmental “science” intended to stop progress on energy development that lowers the cost of living while improving air quality.

These activists are, in other words, often exceedingly harmful to the planet. But GMOs aren’t the only aspect of feeding children eco-leftists oppose; sometimes their anti-science environmentalism and their anti-medical-advancement conspiracy theorism combine to form a potent enemy of genuine progress. Such is the case with fracking. As a result, more liberal-leaning states and politicians have restrained oil and gas extraction. More conservative, reality-based states and politicians have not. The results are clear: as Bloomberg reports, North Dakota is showing that fracking is not just about energy companies’ bottom line or the price at the pump. It’s about food security:

North Dakota’s oil and gas production boom has boosted incomes and, according to a government report today, left the state with the lowest percentage of households struggling to afford food.

An estimated 8.7 percent of North Dakota households were at risk of hunger in 2013, compared with 14.3 percent of U.S. households, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in an annual report. Virginia was second lowest, at 9.5 percent, the USDA reported, and Arkansas was highest at 21.2 percent.

“The prevalence of food insecurity varied considerably from state to state,” according to the report’s authors.

North Dakota, which has become the nation’s No. 2 oil producer after Texas as drillers use hydraulic fracturing to extract trapped oil and gas, had the nation’s lowest unemployment rate in July at 2.8 percent.

The state’s economic health index — which measures indicators such as employment, income, tax revenue and home prices — was up 2.7 percent in first quarter from the same period last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That put it among the top-performing states in the nation.

There are two caveats. The first is that this isn’t exactly earthshattering news. If you enable an economy to thrive, people will have jobs. If they have jobs, they can buy food. If they can buy food, they can feed their children. It’s not rocket science, it’s just a bit beyond the grasp of the average eco-leftist.

The second caveat is partially mitigated by the first, but is worth discussing. There are real problems with the way the government measures food insecurity. This is an annual report, and thus it is an annual argument, so much of this is repetitive. Nonetheless, the federal government seems to go out of its way to exaggerate Americans’ lack of access to food.

As James Bovard notes in today’s Wall Street Journal, the USDA, at the behest of the National Academy of Sciences, dropped its reference to “hunger”–the food insecurity it warned of was not the same thing as a lack of access to food. Bovard points out what it does mean:

Is being “food insecure” the same as going hungry? Not necessarily. The USDA defines a “food insecure” household in the U.S. as one that is “uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food” at times during the year. The USDA notes: “For most food-insecure households, the inadequacies were in the form of reduced quality and variety rather than insufficient quantity.”

Reduced quality and variety is not starvation. Of course, it certainly can mean a less healthy diet. Bovard says that low-income children, according to studies, consume more calories than others. But in raising this objection he might actually be falling prey to the kind of pro-government-regulation arguments that have been used here and in developing countries, which put too much emphasis on total calories consumed and thus often work at cross-purposes with those trying to improve health outcomes in poor populations.

On the other hand, Bovard is certainly right that the government tends to inflate such statistics, at times, in order to justify more government intervention, such as food stamps, which the data show do not improve overall food security. What does improve food security, however defined, is a serious energy policy like North Dakota’s, which shows the kind of prosperity that is possible when the government doesn’t let eco-leftists hijack policy.

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The Fierce Urgency of After the Midterms

The apocalyptic rhetoric from environmental groups has always put them in the spotlight, which can be a blessing and a curse: it helps their funding, though their dire predictions and alarmist proclamations are tested. But surely even worse for the greens’ prophetic pretensions than having to revise their forecasts of doom is their wavering sense of urgency when political expediency demands it.

And so while environmentalists make no secret of their fervent opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline extension, they’re also revealing that they are following the familiar trajectory of left-leaning interest groups by starting out as principled issue activists and becoming yet another Democratic Party adjunct. As the Hill reported yesterday:

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The apocalyptic rhetoric from environmental groups has always put them in the spotlight, which can be a blessing and a curse: it helps their funding, though their dire predictions and alarmist proclamations are tested. But surely even worse for the greens’ prophetic pretensions than having to revise their forecasts of doom is their wavering sense of urgency when political expediency demands it.

And so while environmentalists make no secret of their fervent opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline extension, they’re also revealing that they are following the familiar trajectory of left-leaning interest groups by starting out as principled issue activists and becoming yet another Democratic Party adjunct. As the Hill reported yesterday:

Centrist Democrats who support construction of the Keystone XL pipeline might not get the cold shoulder from green groups this fall. 

Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who’s challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), was the latest to buck her party’s leaders when she announced this week she supports construction of the pipeline. 

Democrats from conservative states have joined with Republicans in supporting Keystone XL, which they argue would create jobs and improve the country’s energy independence. In addition to Grimes, at least seven other Senate Democratic incumbents or candidates have supported its construction so far. 

But even though green groups have fought tooth and nail to block the oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. over environmental concerns, they aren’t making the issue into a litmus test for Democratic candidates they consider supporting.

Instead, organizations with environmental priorities are weighing Keystone along with other top environmental issues when deciding who to throw their weight behind.

They’ve spent a tremendous amount of effort on treating Keystone as a cause worth fighting for. And the fight has been good for their bottom line. As the New York Times reported back in January, “no one disputes that the issue has helped a new breed of environmental organizations build a mostly young army eager to donate money and time.” So why wouldn’t they live up to the hype and make this a litmus test issue?

Here’s the justification from the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, as reported by the Hill: “The action fund has made the strategic conclusion in this cycle to focus on climate change, and, specifically, the president’s climate plan.” So Keystone just isn’t much of a “climate change” issue then? On the contrary, says … the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Building the 875-mile northern segment of Keystone XL would lead to a dramatic increase in the carbon pollution that worsens the effects of climate change. Hence, construction of the pipeline fails the all-important carbon test the president laid out in his June 2013 climate address to the nation, when he said Keystone XL’s permit would be approved only if the pipeline “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

The dissembling makes it pretty clear just how the environmentalists choose their “litmus tests.” Another clue comes from the indications that President Obama has delayed a decision on Keystone in order to kill the pipeline deal after the midterm elections. That flies in the face of the science on Keystone, which effectively rebuts the greens’ anticommerce propaganda. But it is perfectly synchronous with the demands of Tom Steyer, the billionaire writing large checks to finance Democratic campaigns, especially those who fight Keystone.

Why wouldn’t Steyer demand–since he can, apparently–that the pipeline project get its rejection notice immediately, if it’s truly the right thing to do? Because while that would follow the professed principles of Steyer and others in the environmentalist far-left, it would also make life tougher for embattled Democrats in non-loony states who don’t want to oppose the commonsense job creator Keystone represents. This way, they can run in support of Keystone without suffering any consequences.

Now, you might say, that doesn’t sound quite so principled. Enabling Democrats to run in support of Keystone while plowing money into attacking Republicans because they also support Keystone would appear to elevate partisanship over principle. And aside from Steyer’s business interests, he appears to be mulling a political career of his own, possibly as a candidate for California governor. Initially, he seemed willing to attack Democrats who supported Keystone; as the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel noted, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu was, at first, on the list:

Mr. Steyer then spent some quality time with senior Democrats, who presumably explained that the establishment would not look kindly on a would-be governor who blew their control of the Senate. Ms. Landrieu came off the list, and Mr. Steyer has downgraded his criteria for playing in races to whether “something important” is at stake.

Despite the unhinged rhetoric from high-profile Democrats–for example, Harry Reid calling conservative political activism “un-American”–Steyer and the greens are perfectly entitled to participate in the electoral process. It’s just helpful to know that it’s about power and electing Democrats, not the Earth hanging in the balance.

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Obama (Still) Out of Excuses on Keystone

Proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline have always had the science, the politics, and the economics on their side. But the Obama administration, wary of upsetting the extreme voices in the environmentalist movement, has been looking for excuses to defy the science, politics, and economics and trash the pipeline anyway.

Last month, the president ran out of excuses–or so it seemed. The great hope of the left was that the administration could be relied upon to find a kernel of bad news on Keystone that it could exploit and exaggerate to kill the project. Thus they waited with bated breath on the State Department’s environmental impact report. At the end of January, it was released: the State Department confirmed the pipeline “would be unlikely to alter global greenhouse gas emissions.”

The left still had one straw at which to grasp, however. An investigation had been launched into whether the State Department violated conflict-of-interest rules in the course of conducting the environmental review. Yesterday, the inspector general’s report was released, absolving the State Department of the charges:

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Proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline have always had the science, the politics, and the economics on their side. But the Obama administration, wary of upsetting the extreme voices in the environmentalist movement, has been looking for excuses to defy the science, politics, and economics and trash the pipeline anyway.

Last month, the president ran out of excuses–or so it seemed. The great hope of the left was that the administration could be relied upon to find a kernel of bad news on Keystone that it could exploit and exaggerate to kill the project. Thus they waited with bated breath on the State Department’s environmental impact report. At the end of January, it was released: the State Department confirmed the pipeline “would be unlikely to alter global greenhouse gas emissions.”

The left still had one straw at which to grasp, however. An investigation had been launched into whether the State Department violated conflict-of-interest rules in the course of conducting the environmental review. Yesterday, the inspector general’s report was released, absolving the State Department of the charges:

The State Department’s inspector general largely cleared the department on Wednesday of allegations that it had violated its conflict-of-interest procedures when selecting a contractor to analyze the Keystone XL oil pipeline — the latest in a series of defeats for environmental groups fighting a last-ditch effort to block the project’s approval.

Republicans quickly claimed victory.

“Another day and another government report that finds no reason to continue blocking this common-sense, job-creating project,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said in a statement. “It’s long past time the president stop pandering to his extremist allies and just approve it so we can get people back to work.”

The Keystone pipeline system transports oil from Canada to refineries in the U.S. and the “XL” extension would further increase the system’s capacity, creating jobs along the way. The oil from Canada would go somewhere, of course, so blocking the pipeline wouldn’t change the environmental picture, it would simply reject an ally’s mutually beneficial project so leftist extremists wouldn’t be angry with Obama.

For a president who obnoxiously promised to “restore science to its rightful place,” and who has done precisely the opposite, Keystone was a chance for him to come back to reality. He’d rather not. But if the scientific facts, economic benefits, and job creation aren’t convincing to this president, he also has another reason to embrace the pipeline: safety.

There has been an unfortunate amount of scapegoating of the oil industry for accidents involving the rail transport of oil. The oil, after all, doesn’t make a train more likely to crash, regardless of how much the left would like to publicly shame energy companies. But if they don’t want to transport the oil by train, they’ll have to build the pipeline infrastructure necessary to ensure its timely delivery.

Well they don’t have to, I suppose. Perhaps they can teleport it. Or they can try sticking oil into an envelope and have the postal service mail it. Or they can eschew the oil altogether and ask the country’s motorists to follow the Flintstones method of powering their vehicles; the first lady, and her Let’s Move anti-obesity campaign, would surely approve.

This is the natural progression of progressivism, of course. I’ve written before about how the over-regulated state of New Jersey resulted in the government mandating activity it was also essentially legally prohibiting. In such cases, there is almost no way for the average citizen involved in certain activities to follow the law without also breaking the law. It sounds humorous, but to the people living under such a regime it’s not funny at all. It’s also morally repugnant, and evidence of a government filled with bureaucrats mad with power and contempt for the rule of law, to say nothing of basic democracy.

The oil transport situation isn’t quite there yet, to be sure. But it’s reminiscent of the same attitude that leads us there. We must transport oil, but we’re also not allowed to transport oil. The Obama administration is completely out of excuses–the president never had good reasons, only feeble excuses–to reject the pipeline. It’s time to act accordingly.

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The Oil and Gas Boom Booms On

The domestic oil and gas boom is rolling on, with no end of positive effects for the American economy. At the official end of the recession, in June 2009, we pumped 158.266 million barrels of oil that month. In November 2013, we pumped 233.051 million barrels, a 47.2 percent increase. This has led directly to much less imported oil, a much improved balance of trade, and a less influential OPEC.

But as Investor’s Business Daily points out, the economic benefits of the energy boom spread far beyond the oil industry into the economy as a whole. Jobs in the oil and gas fields are up about 40 percent since the end of the recession, and the ten states that are seeing substantially rising hydrocarbon production all have had job growth above the national average. And as IBD explains, “These jobs, moreover, are ‘sticky’ — anchored in the local economy and ranging from information services to training, health care, housing, education and related manufacturing.” North Dakota, battening on the rich oil resources of the Bakken Shield, has the lowest unemployment rate in the country.

And low-cost energy is attracting foreign investment. “The boom has also attracted a similar scale of new foreign direct investment,” IBD reports. “Because of low-cost energy abundance, 100 factories are set to come on line by 2017. When all are up and running, another $300 billion will be pumped into GDP and 1 million more jobs created.”

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The domestic oil and gas boom is rolling on, with no end of positive effects for the American economy. At the official end of the recession, in June 2009, we pumped 158.266 million barrels of oil that month. In November 2013, we pumped 233.051 million barrels, a 47.2 percent increase. This has led directly to much less imported oil, a much improved balance of trade, and a less influential OPEC.

But as Investor’s Business Daily points out, the economic benefits of the energy boom spread far beyond the oil industry into the economy as a whole. Jobs in the oil and gas fields are up about 40 percent since the end of the recession, and the ten states that are seeing substantially rising hydrocarbon production all have had job growth above the national average. And as IBD explains, “These jobs, moreover, are ‘sticky’ — anchored in the local economy and ranging from information services to training, health care, housing, education and related manufacturing.” North Dakota, battening on the rich oil resources of the Bakken Shield, has the lowest unemployment rate in the country.

And low-cost energy is attracting foreign investment. “The boom has also attracted a similar scale of new foreign direct investment,” IBD reports. “Because of low-cost energy abundance, 100 factories are set to come on line by 2017. When all are up and running, another $300 billion will be pumped into GDP and 1 million more jobs created.”

The Obama administration, naturally, is taking entirely undeserved credit for this, for its policies have slowed the oil and gas boom to the extent possible. Other Democrats, with the president’s blessing, have also been impeding oil and gas drilling. While Pennsylvania has been exploiting the vast gas reserves of the Marcellus shale, Governor Andrew Cuomo in neighboring New York has decided to let deeply depressed upstate go on being deeply depressed rather than drill into the Marcellus shale and, Cuomo proclaims, risk ground water contamination. This is, of course, nonsense. Fracking began in 1947 and hundreds of thousands of wells have been drilled in the last 67 years using the technique. There has not been a single case of documented ground water contamination from any of those wells.

Domestically, President Obama has, at best, slow walked the best and most obvious means of increasing American economic prosperity and employment. Internationally, he has worked to limit his country’s influence and prestige. I can think of no other example in all human history of a head of state whose policies were designed to weaken the country he headed.

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The Decline of Oil

So-called environmentalists never tire of predicting the end of oil. They’ve been talking about “peak oil” for decades, after which annual production would inevitably decline as we drain the world’s finite supply.

In fact, proven reserves (oil that we know is there and is recoverable with current technology and under current law) have been steadily rising, despite the fact that the world pumps 83.9 million barrels a day out of the ground, a 32 percent increase over 20 years ago. New techniques, such as fracking and horizontal drilling, have brought new life to both old fields and new ones whose oil had previously been unrecoverable. And vast new fields, such as the giant finds off the coast of Brazil, have added new reserves.

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So-called environmentalists never tire of predicting the end of oil. They’ve been talking about “peak oil” for decades, after which annual production would inevitably decline as we drain the world’s finite supply.

In fact, proven reserves (oil that we know is there and is recoverable with current technology and under current law) have been steadily rising, despite the fact that the world pumps 83.9 million barrels a day out of the ground, a 32 percent increase over 20 years ago. New techniques, such as fracking and horizontal drilling, have brought new life to both old fields and new ones whose oil had previously been unrecoverable. And vast new fields, such as the giant finds off the coast of Brazil, have added new reserves.

Much of that 32 percent increase in world production has gone to power the fast-rising economies of the developing world, such as China, India, and Brazil. Oil consumption has been rising very slowly in the United States, however, up a mere 8.1 percent in 20 years.

But the U.S. population has risen over 20 percent since 1993, so U.S. oil consumption is down significantly on a per capita basis. We used 24.15 barrels a year per person in 1993; today the figure is 21.6 barrels, a 10.6 percent drop per person. The decline in oil consumption on a GDP basis is even more dramatic. In 1993, the U.S. had $1,096 of GDP per barrel of oil consumed. Today the figure is $2,393 per barrel of oil. Taking inflation into account, GDP per barrel of oil is up a whopping 34.8 percent in the last 20 years.

What accounts for that? There are several things. One is a slow but steady switch to other power sources, such as natural gas. In 1993, natural gas produced 13 percent of total U.S. electricity; today it produces 24.7 percent. Oil, meanwhile, went from producing 3.5 percent of total electricity 20 years ago to a mere 0.7 percent today. Another reason is a steadily increasing efficiency. Space heating took 53.1 percent of home energy consumption in 1993; today it is only 41.5 percent. The nation’s fleet of cars and trucks have much higher average miles per gallon than 20 years ago. A third reason is that GDP growth in recent decades has been centered in non-energy-intensive industries. Manufacturing automobiles is energy intensive. Manufacturing software is not.

Once oil drilling began in 1859, petroleum became ever more central to the world’s economy, first as an illuminant (kerosene) and lubricant. Then, just as electricity began to replace kerosene for home lighting, the internal combustion engine produced a vast new market for petroleum. By the mid-20th century, oil was the world’s most important product and therefore it was a main driver of world politics. The Middle East would have been a backwater, seldom mentioned in the nightly news, had it not sat upon a very high percentage of the world’s then known oil.

We are a long way from seeing the end of oil as a major force in the world economy, but it is steadily losing its centrality. You would think that would be good news for environmentalists. But, of course, nothing is good news for them. Chicken Little runs the environmentalist public-relations operations, which goes a long way to explaining why fewer and fewer non-liberals listen to them anymore.

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In Oil and Gas, We’re No. 1

Guess who is the world’s largest producer of liquid and gaseous hydrocarbon fuels (oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids)? For years it has been Russia, which is deeply dependent on the production and export of such products (taxes and tariffs on them provide 40 percent of the government’s budget).

But this year, probably already, Russia will be overtaken by the United States, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. U.S. oil production increased by more than a million barrels a day last year, the largest annual increase since oil production began in 1859. Russian oil production has been falling.

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Guess who is the world’s largest producer of liquid and gaseous hydrocarbon fuels (oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids)? For years it has been Russia, which is deeply dependent on the production and export of such products (taxes and tariffs on them provide 40 percent of the government’s budget).

But this year, probably already, Russia will be overtaken by the United States, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. U.S. oil production increased by more than a million barrels a day last year, the largest annual increase since oil production began in 1859. Russian oil production has been falling.

This has huge geopolitical implications and those implications all favor the United States. Imports of oil and gas are falling, down 15 and 32 percent respectively in the last five years, improving the balance of trade and reducing the political leverage of such countries as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.

Whether the environmentalists like it or not (and they don’t), the world runs on hydrocarbons and will for the foreseeable future. Having ever more abundant domestic supplies, with vast additional supplies in neighboring, and friendly, Canada and Mexico, is a strategic advantage that would be very hard to overestimate.

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European Manufacturing

When I wrote yesterday about the growing unemployment in Europe, I noted that manufacturing in Europe was in real trouble, having been losing jobs every month for quite a while now.

Today Walter Russell Mead explains one big reason why: natural gas. Natural gas now costs about one-fourth as much in the United States as it does in Europe. The reason for that is, of course, fracking, which has been largely welcomed in the United States, except on federal land and such places as New York State. There Governor Andrew Cuomo would rather pander to the “environmentalists” who show up at expensive Democratic fundraisers in chic New York City venues than help out the deeply depressed upstate economy, which is sitting on trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

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When I wrote yesterday about the growing unemployment in Europe, I noted that manufacturing in Europe was in real trouble, having been losing jobs every month for quite a while now.

Today Walter Russell Mead explains one big reason why: natural gas. Natural gas now costs about one-fourth as much in the United States as it does in Europe. The reason for that is, of course, fracking, which has been largely welcomed in the United States, except on federal land and such places as New York State. There Governor Andrew Cuomo would rather pander to the “environmentalists” who show up at expensive Democratic fundraisers in chic New York City venues than help out the deeply depressed upstate economy, which is sitting on trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

In Europe, however, despite much potential for fracking natural gas, the greens have largely prevented its exploitation. That has had and will have a serious impact on European manufacturing. Mead quotes the Washington Post which graphs the price differential:

Top BASF [a giant German chemical firm] officials say that unless Europe allows a more aggressive approach to energy production, including broader use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, even more manufacturing will move to the United States.

As Mead says, “this is yet another reason to be optimistic about America’s future.”

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GOP Leadership Seeks Its Own Rebranding

As the Republican Party rolls out its rebranding efforts today, the RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” is getting the most press and the most attention. Flying slightly under the radar, however, is a piece of news related to the party’s rebranding efforts. Politico reports that a McLaughlin poll commissioned by the YG Network–an outgrowth of the “Young Guns” of the House GOP–is warning Republicans that the party’s focus on debt and deficits is missing the mark with voters.

I wrote about this subject last week, noting that the right’s focus on balancing the budget was crowding out the rest of its economic message and that it would ultimately prove a distraction from a more effective–and marketable–policy approach. Politico is reporting that the House GOP is getting similar feedback from its survey:

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As the Republican Party rolls out its rebranding efforts today, the RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” is getting the most press and the most attention. Flying slightly under the radar, however, is a piece of news related to the party’s rebranding efforts. Politico reports that a McLaughlin poll commissioned by the YG Network–an outgrowth of the “Young Guns” of the House GOP–is warning Republicans that the party’s focus on debt and deficits is missing the mark with voters.

I wrote about this subject last week, noting that the right’s focus on balancing the budget was crowding out the rest of its economic message and that it would ultimately prove a distraction from a more effective–and marketable–policy approach. Politico is reporting that the House GOP is getting similar feedback from its survey:

The YG Network polling, conducted by the GOP firm McLaughlin & Associates, found that 38 percent of Americans name the “economy and jobs” as the issue of greatest importance to them. Twenty percent named “deficit and debt” as their top concern, and 16 percent pointed to health care….

The polling questions related to entitlements are just as bracing. Voters are willing to consider some changes to the Medicare system – raising the eligibility age to 67 and means-testing benefits – but less than half are enthusiastic about changing the system immediately in order to balance the budget over a decade.

Asked to choose one government program they would be willing to cut, only 14 percent of respondents named Social Security or Medicare. Just over three quarters – 76 percent – picked military spending or other, unspecified “welfare programs.”

It remains the case that cutting debt is a worthy goal and finds support among the voters. But it is simply not enough of an agenda for them. Americans have a full range of concerns tied to the current economic challenges they face, and it’s not at all clear Republicans have really been listening. This doesn’t mean conservatives in Congress have to pander by offering free goodies or more government programs. But they have to be able to offer a range of solutions.

More important than the results of the survey, however, is where it came from. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is the highest ranking “young gun” and generally seen as a conservative force in the House, pulling Speaker John Boehner to the right on legislation. But what often gets missed is that Cantor has been trying to rebrand himself as being closer to the center than he is currently thought to be:

John Murray, who heads the YG Network, confirmed that the poll was “specifically designed to challenge the assumption that spending cuts as a central theme is sufficient.”

It’s not that spending restraint is a bad issue for conservatives, according to Murray; it’s just not enough, on its own, to drive middle-class support for a center-right policy vision.

“It doesn’t feel aspirational and it doesn’t feel like a message of the future,” said Murray, who suggested conservatives need an agenda “broad enough so [Americans] feel like it impacts them in a real way.” …

“You can see where you can have a very solid center-right platform,” he said.

The “young guns” include not just Cantor but Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy as well. And it’s clear they believe the efforts to label conservatives as unconcerned about the poor and middle class are working. They seem almost to be conceding the point by talking about switching to a “center-right” agenda. As Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee last year, Ryan was visibly troubled by this on the campaign trail. He gave speeches about strengthening civil society and the need for a social safety net that encompasses more than federal welfare or entitlement programs.

What is meaningful about the McLaughlin poll, then, is that Cantor’s office wanted a survey that would justify his own desire to move away from an all-debt-all-the-time message, fully aware that he was losing the attention of the American people. And if the poll was structured to tell Cantor basically what he wanted to hear, then the results are perhaps even more significant, because a look at the results shows that what Cantor wanted to hear was more about education, energy policy, and even comprehensive immigration reform.

Quite apart from the self-conscious use of the term “center-right,” these are also issues the GOP should want to address. The GOP would almost certainly gain from taking the immigration issue off the table (though immigration reform is the right thing to do anyway). And the lack of discussion on the right about education is mindboggling. Conservatives are winning the argument on school choice and opportunity, yet find themselves mostly talking about teacher contracts. And high-profile Democratic politicians have been caught suppressing scientific studies showing the safety of economy-boosting and job-creating domestic energy production at a time of high unemployment, putting the issue of energy on a silver platter for conservatives.

The RNC reboot is getting all the attention today, but if this story is to be believed, the shift in the House GOP leadership may be of greater consequence.

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More on the Freedom Agenda

I want to add several thought to John’s illuminating post on neoconservatism and democracy.

1. The most radical Islamic governments in the world — Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Sudan, Syria, the PLO under Yasir Arafat, and others — did not come to power through elections. The Middle East, without democracy, is hardly a region characterized by tranquility and peace. And we have plenty of successful precedents of authoritarian/totalitarian regimes making a successful transition to democracy (in Central and Eastern Europe, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Iraq, and post–WWII Japan and Germany among them).

2. The fact that not every election goes as we might hope does not invalidate support for elections or the effort to promote liberty in other lands. Adolf Hitler came to power through elections in Germany in 1933. Should that election have undermined democracy as an idea?

3. Freedom has a remarkable historical track record, including in regions of the world once thought to be inimical to it. But it takes patience and commitment to see it through to success. The democratic evolution of Iraq, while certainly imperfect and fragile, is a source of encouragement. And among the best testimonies to how lethal liberty is to the aims of militant Islam is the energy and ruthlessness with which al-Qaeda and Iran tried to strangle freedom in Iraq.

4. If a healthy political culture is the sine qua non for self-government, then we are essentially telling every, or at least many, non-democratic societies that freedom is beyond their reach. It’s not. Still, strong liberal institutions will certainly assist freedom to take root. That’s why American policy should encourage democratic institution-building. Our influence in this area is often limited; but limited is not the same as nonexistent.

5. It’s not clear what the alternative is for the critics of democracy. The Egyptian revolution began in response to the oppression of the Mubarak regime, without American support. Given where we are, do critics of the freedom agenda believe we should support more repression in order to exert even greater control within Arab societies — repression that helped give rise to the resentments, violence, and toxic anti-Americanism that has characterized much of the Middle East?

In the Middle East, Western nations tolerated oppression for the sake of “stability.” But this merely bought time as ideologies of violence took hold. As the events in Egypt demonstrate, the sand has just about run out of the hourglass.

This doesn’t mean that our policy should be indiscriminate. The goal isn’t for America to act as a scythe that decapitates every autocratic regime in the world. And it doesn’t mean that democratic-led revolutions can’t be hijacked.

Still, there’s no way other than democracy to fundamentally reform the Arab Middle East. Self-government and the accompanying rise in free institutions is the only route to a better world — and because the work is difficult, doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

I want to add several thought to John’s illuminating post on neoconservatism and democracy.

1. The most radical Islamic governments in the world — Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Sudan, Syria, the PLO under Yasir Arafat, and others — did not come to power through elections. The Middle East, without democracy, is hardly a region characterized by tranquility and peace. And we have plenty of successful precedents of authoritarian/totalitarian regimes making a successful transition to democracy (in Central and Eastern Europe, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Iraq, and post–WWII Japan and Germany among them).

2. The fact that not every election goes as we might hope does not invalidate support for elections or the effort to promote liberty in other lands. Adolf Hitler came to power through elections in Germany in 1933. Should that election have undermined democracy as an idea?

3. Freedom has a remarkable historical track record, including in regions of the world once thought to be inimical to it. But it takes patience and commitment to see it through to success. The democratic evolution of Iraq, while certainly imperfect and fragile, is a source of encouragement. And among the best testimonies to how lethal liberty is to the aims of militant Islam is the energy and ruthlessness with which al-Qaeda and Iran tried to strangle freedom in Iraq.

4. If a healthy political culture is the sine qua non for self-government, then we are essentially telling every, or at least many, non-democratic societies that freedom is beyond their reach. It’s not. Still, strong liberal institutions will certainly assist freedom to take root. That’s why American policy should encourage democratic institution-building. Our influence in this area is often limited; but limited is not the same as nonexistent.

5. It’s not clear what the alternative is for the critics of democracy. The Egyptian revolution began in response to the oppression of the Mubarak regime, without American support. Given where we are, do critics of the freedom agenda believe we should support more repression in order to exert even greater control within Arab societies — repression that helped give rise to the resentments, violence, and toxic anti-Americanism that has characterized much of the Middle East?

In the Middle East, Western nations tolerated oppression for the sake of “stability.” But this merely bought time as ideologies of violence took hold. As the events in Egypt demonstrate, the sand has just about run out of the hourglass.

This doesn’t mean that our policy should be indiscriminate. The goal isn’t for America to act as a scythe that decapitates every autocratic regime in the world. And it doesn’t mean that democratic-led revolutions can’t be hijacked.

Still, there’s no way other than democracy to fundamentally reform the Arab Middle East. Self-government and the accompanying rise in free institutions is the only route to a better world — and because the work is difficult, doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

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Media- and NGO-Fueled Ignorance on Egypt and Tunisia

Amnon Rubinstein, a former Knesset member and minister from Israel’s left-wing Meretz Party, made an important point in today’s Jerusalem Post. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt took the West by surprise, he wrote, because Westerners know almost nothing about what goes on in undemocratic societies. And this ignorance stems largely from the fact that the bodies it relies on to provide information — the media and nongovernmental organizations — devote most of their energy to the low-hanging fruit, exposing real or imagined failings by democracies, instead of focusing on dictatorships, where getting information is much harder.

The openly pro-Palestinian reporter Amira Hass provided an excellent example in Monday’s Haaretz. At a Ramallah store where everyone was watching Al Jazeera, an employee asked if she had caught what a Tunisian protester just said: that “the Palestinians’ situation is better than that of the Tunisians, that they [the Palestinians] have food.”

I told him this was the same impression members of Egyptian solidarity delegations had upon visiting the Gaza Strip after Operation Cast Lead [Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas]. They were amazed at the abundance of food, especially fruits and vegetables, they were able to find in Gaza. And I heard that not from the Israeli Civil Administration spokesmen but from Egyptians and Palestinians.

But nobody would know this from media or NGO reports. Can anyone remember reading a news story about food shortages in Egypt or Tunisia in recent years? Yet hundreds of articles have been published about alleged humanitarian distress in Gaza, including many that claimed Israel’s blockade was causing starvation.

Indeed, the UN has run an annual humanitarian-aid appeal for the West Bank and Gaza since 2003; this year, it’s seeking $567 million, making it the organization’s fifth-largest “emergency campaign.” Can anyone remember the last UN appeal for aid to Egypt or Tunisia?

The same goes for NGOs. On Amnesty International’s website, the “features” page has nothing about either Egypt or Tunisia. Yet Israel merits two condemnatory features (the only country so honored), including the top-billed story — which, naturally, alleges food shortages in Gaza due to Israel’s blockade.

Then there’s the UN Human Rights Council — which, as Rubinstein noted, actually praised the human-rights situation in both Egypt and Tunisia, even as it issued 27 separate resolutions slamming Israel.

Thus most Westerners were utterly clueless about the economic distress and oppression that fueled the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Indeed, based on the available information, the reasonable assumption would have been that Gaza, not Egypt or Tunisia, was the place most likely to explode.

Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein decried his own organization in 2009 for betraying its “original mission to pry open closed societies” — to shed light precisely on those dark corners where information isn’t easily available — in favor of a focus on open societies, especially Israel. That, as I’ve argued repeatedly, leaves the world’s most oppressed people voiceless.

But it turns out the obsessive media/NGO focus on Israel also has another price: depriving the West of the information it needs to make sound judgments and set wise policy.

Amnon Rubinstein, a former Knesset member and minister from Israel’s left-wing Meretz Party, made an important point in today’s Jerusalem Post. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt took the West by surprise, he wrote, because Westerners know almost nothing about what goes on in undemocratic societies. And this ignorance stems largely from the fact that the bodies it relies on to provide information — the media and nongovernmental organizations — devote most of their energy to the low-hanging fruit, exposing real or imagined failings by democracies, instead of focusing on dictatorships, where getting information is much harder.

The openly pro-Palestinian reporter Amira Hass provided an excellent example in Monday’s Haaretz. At a Ramallah store where everyone was watching Al Jazeera, an employee asked if she had caught what a Tunisian protester just said: that “the Palestinians’ situation is better than that of the Tunisians, that they [the Palestinians] have food.”

I told him this was the same impression members of Egyptian solidarity delegations had upon visiting the Gaza Strip after Operation Cast Lead [Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas]. They were amazed at the abundance of food, especially fruits and vegetables, they were able to find in Gaza. And I heard that not from the Israeli Civil Administration spokesmen but from Egyptians and Palestinians.

But nobody would know this from media or NGO reports. Can anyone remember reading a news story about food shortages in Egypt or Tunisia in recent years? Yet hundreds of articles have been published about alleged humanitarian distress in Gaza, including many that claimed Israel’s blockade was causing starvation.

Indeed, the UN has run an annual humanitarian-aid appeal for the West Bank and Gaza since 2003; this year, it’s seeking $567 million, making it the organization’s fifth-largest “emergency campaign.” Can anyone remember the last UN appeal for aid to Egypt or Tunisia?

The same goes for NGOs. On Amnesty International’s website, the “features” page has nothing about either Egypt or Tunisia. Yet Israel merits two condemnatory features (the only country so honored), including the top-billed story — which, naturally, alleges food shortages in Gaza due to Israel’s blockade.

Then there’s the UN Human Rights Council — which, as Rubinstein noted, actually praised the human-rights situation in both Egypt and Tunisia, even as it issued 27 separate resolutions slamming Israel.

Thus most Westerners were utterly clueless about the economic distress and oppression that fueled the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Indeed, based on the available information, the reasonable assumption would have been that Gaza, not Egypt or Tunisia, was the place most likely to explode.

Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein decried his own organization in 2009 for betraying its “original mission to pry open closed societies” — to shed light precisely on those dark corners where information isn’t easily available — in favor of a focus on open societies, especially Israel. That, as I’ve argued repeatedly, leaves the world’s most oppressed people voiceless.

But it turns out the obsessive media/NGO focus on Israel also has another price: depriving the West of the information it needs to make sound judgments and set wise policy.

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LIVE BLOG: Obama Is His Own Dick Morris

Stop giving tax breaks to oil companies! Let’s have lots of good energy by 2035! Help a roofer!

Stop giving tax breaks to oil companies! Let’s have lots of good energy by 2035! Help a roofer!

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Where Have All the Anti-War Rallies Gone?

President Obama has continued many of the global-war-on-terrorism policies that were initiated under the Bush administration. And yet the size of the anti-war movement — which grew when President Bush was in office — has plummeted under Obama.

Reason TV examines this trend in the following video:

As the video demonstrates, the popularity of the anti-war movement under Bush was based on pure partisan politics. While 78 percent of Democrats approved of Obama’s foreign policy in 2010, only 22 percent approved of Bush’s foreign policy in 2003.

And as historian Thaddeus Russell notes in the video, the overwhelming majority of the anti-war movement’s adherents exist on the political fringe.

“The people who populate the anti-war movement today are kind of on the fringes of American politics,” said Russell. “And so on the left you have hardcore socialists and on the right you have libertarians. There’s almost no one in the center who’s really putting any energy into stopping these wars.”

Something else that may have contributed to the drop of interest in the anti-war movement is Obama’s foreign-policy rhetoric. Bush was much more straightforward when he spoke about the wars, the danger posed by our enemies, and the importance of protecting human rights and freedom around the world. In comparison, Obama has often acted as if we aren’t fighting any wars — which may help Democrats feel less hypocritical about supporting the same foreign policy they previously protested.

President Obama has continued many of the global-war-on-terrorism policies that were initiated under the Bush administration. And yet the size of the anti-war movement — which grew when President Bush was in office — has plummeted under Obama.

Reason TV examines this trend in the following video:

As the video demonstrates, the popularity of the anti-war movement under Bush was based on pure partisan politics. While 78 percent of Democrats approved of Obama’s foreign policy in 2010, only 22 percent approved of Bush’s foreign policy in 2003.

And as historian Thaddeus Russell notes in the video, the overwhelming majority of the anti-war movement’s adherents exist on the political fringe.

“The people who populate the anti-war movement today are kind of on the fringes of American politics,” said Russell. “And so on the left you have hardcore socialists and on the right you have libertarians. There’s almost no one in the center who’s really putting any energy into stopping these wars.”

Something else that may have contributed to the drop of interest in the anti-war movement is Obama’s foreign-policy rhetoric. Bush was much more straightforward when he spoke about the wars, the danger posed by our enemies, and the importance of protecting human rights and freedom around the world. In comparison, Obama has often acted as if we aren’t fighting any wars — which may help Democrats feel less hypocritical about supporting the same foreign policy they previously protested.

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Morning Commentary

Despite the beltway chatter about President Obama’s recent “moves to the center,” Charles Krauthammer points out that the “shift” was just for show. Far from embracing a more moderate course, the president has instead used administrative power to stealthily impose several unpopular left-wing policies: “Now as always, Obama’s heart lies left. For those fooled into thinking otherwise by the new Obama of Dec. 22, his administration’s defiantly liberal regulatory moves — on the environment, energy and health care — should disabuse even the most beguiled.”

The U.S. military’s recent crackdown on the Taliban in the Kunduz province of Afghanistan is paying dividends. Officials confirmed this morning that NATO forces took out the Taliban’s shadow governor of Kunduz, Mullah Mawlawi Bahadur, last night. But the Washington Examiner’s Sara Carter reports that the region has also seen a steady increase in insurgents over the past year.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board looks back on the 111th Congress — and the assessment is not pretty: “The real story of 2010 is that the voters were finally able to see and judge this liberal agenda in its unvarnished form. For once, there was no Republican President to muddle the message or divide the accountability.”

At the New Republic, Eric Weinberger wonders whether academic freedom will be protected at Yale’s new college in Singapore. The idea seems unlikely given the trial of Alan Shadrake, a British journalist facing prison in that country for publishing an allegedly “defamatory” book about Singapore’s justice system.

M. Zuhdi Jasser throws his support behind Rep. Peter King’s plans to hold hearings on Islamic radicalization before the House Homeland Security Council next year: “Our national inability to discuss religious issues honestly is keeping American Muslims from having to accept the reforms needed to defeat political Islam and bring our faith into modernity. The victimization mantra feeds more Muslim isolation and radicalization.”

Secret papers released by the National Archives reveal how strained was the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Menachem Begin, who clashed over Begin’s support of the settlements in the West Bank. According to the papers, “Margaret Thatcher believed that Menachem Begin was the ‘most difficult’ man she had to deal with in the early years of her premiership, and thought his West Bank policy ‘absurd.’”

Despite the beltway chatter about President Obama’s recent “moves to the center,” Charles Krauthammer points out that the “shift” was just for show. Far from embracing a more moderate course, the president has instead used administrative power to stealthily impose several unpopular left-wing policies: “Now as always, Obama’s heart lies left. For those fooled into thinking otherwise by the new Obama of Dec. 22, his administration’s defiantly liberal regulatory moves — on the environment, energy and health care — should disabuse even the most beguiled.”

The U.S. military’s recent crackdown on the Taliban in the Kunduz province of Afghanistan is paying dividends. Officials confirmed this morning that NATO forces took out the Taliban’s shadow governor of Kunduz, Mullah Mawlawi Bahadur, last night. But the Washington Examiner’s Sara Carter reports that the region has also seen a steady increase in insurgents over the past year.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board looks back on the 111th Congress — and the assessment is not pretty: “The real story of 2010 is that the voters were finally able to see and judge this liberal agenda in its unvarnished form. For once, there was no Republican President to muddle the message or divide the accountability.”

At the New Republic, Eric Weinberger wonders whether academic freedom will be protected at Yale’s new college in Singapore. The idea seems unlikely given the trial of Alan Shadrake, a British journalist facing prison in that country for publishing an allegedly “defamatory” book about Singapore’s justice system.

M. Zuhdi Jasser throws his support behind Rep. Peter King’s plans to hold hearings on Islamic radicalization before the House Homeland Security Council next year: “Our national inability to discuss religious issues honestly is keeping American Muslims from having to accept the reforms needed to defeat political Islam and bring our faith into modernity. The victimization mantra feeds more Muslim isolation and radicalization.”

Secret papers released by the National Archives reveal how strained was the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Menachem Begin, who clashed over Begin’s support of the settlements in the West Bank. According to the papers, “Margaret Thatcher believed that Menachem Begin was the ‘most difficult’ man she had to deal with in the early years of her premiership, and thought his West Bank policy ‘absurd.’”

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An Edifice Over an Abyss

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s valuable interview with Jennifer Rubin (part one on Friday; part two today) contains a useful observation about the current Palestinian push for recognition of a state. Oren says there are two models of Middle East state-building:

In the first, you build from the bottom up. Then you are bestowed or declare independence. The second is that you attain independence and figure out what institutions you will have later. This was the model for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Israel is the first model. We had more than 60 years to build institutions. … Oslo was the classic second model, and Arafat rejected institution building. We saw how that worked out. It’s building an edifice over an abyss.

This reminds me of Ron Dermer’s presentation to AIPAC in May 2009, previewing the one Netanyahu would make days later in his first meeting with President Obama. Dermer described Netanyahu’s plan as a three-track approach: two bottom-up tracks (security and economic development) combined with a top-down one (political negotiations). The goal was not an immediate “peace-to-end-all-peace, deal of the century,” but developments on the ground necessary to make peace possible:

What happened in Annapolis is that the government almost exclusively focused on political negotiation. They invested all their energy … in reaching an elusive agreement. And I agree with Aaron [David Miller] that there is no way now on the Palestinian side to make the sorts of compromises that will be required for a deal on the core issues. Yet despite that, the previous government just decided to negotiate, and negotiate, and negotiate …

What Netanyahu will do – and you will see it in a rather dramatic fashion over the next two years … is work to change the reality on the ground, first through security [by facilitating creation of a Palestinian police force] … and [removing] bureaucratic obstacles to economic development. …

What has happened up to now is to try to build the pyramid from the top down. It doesn’t work that way. You have to … have the Palestinians have rule of law, have a decent economy … and slowly but surely you actually build lots of stakeholders.

In the last two years, security in the West Bank has improved, as has the Palestinian economy – developments for which Netanyahu has been given insufficient credit. But Palestinian society remains steeped in anti-Semitism, and the Palestinian Authority lacks the rule of law: a “president” whose term expired two years ago; an unelected “prime minister;” local elections that were cancelled; and political reform that is, in the words of a former PA minister, “a joke.” The next chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee says it is impossible to track the PA’s use of American aid (“Try looking at their budgets … you’ll never find out where that money goes”).

An undemocratic, anti-Semitic state, unwilling to recognize a Jewish one (much less one with defensible borders), is unlikely to “live side by side in peace.” The Palestinians are pushing the edifice, but the abyss is still there.

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s valuable interview with Jennifer Rubin (part one on Friday; part two today) contains a useful observation about the current Palestinian push for recognition of a state. Oren says there are two models of Middle East state-building:

In the first, you build from the bottom up. Then you are bestowed or declare independence. The second is that you attain independence and figure out what institutions you will have later. This was the model for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Israel is the first model. We had more than 60 years to build institutions. … Oslo was the classic second model, and Arafat rejected institution building. We saw how that worked out. It’s building an edifice over an abyss.

This reminds me of Ron Dermer’s presentation to AIPAC in May 2009, previewing the one Netanyahu would make days later in his first meeting with President Obama. Dermer described Netanyahu’s plan as a three-track approach: two bottom-up tracks (security and economic development) combined with a top-down one (political negotiations). The goal was not an immediate “peace-to-end-all-peace, deal of the century,” but developments on the ground necessary to make peace possible:

What happened in Annapolis is that the government almost exclusively focused on political negotiation. They invested all their energy … in reaching an elusive agreement. And I agree with Aaron [David Miller] that there is no way now on the Palestinian side to make the sorts of compromises that will be required for a deal on the core issues. Yet despite that, the previous government just decided to negotiate, and negotiate, and negotiate …

What Netanyahu will do – and you will see it in a rather dramatic fashion over the next two years … is work to change the reality on the ground, first through security [by facilitating creation of a Palestinian police force] … and [removing] bureaucratic obstacles to economic development. …

What has happened up to now is to try to build the pyramid from the top down. It doesn’t work that way. You have to … have the Palestinians have rule of law, have a decent economy … and slowly but surely you actually build lots of stakeholders.

In the last two years, security in the West Bank has improved, as has the Palestinian economy – developments for which Netanyahu has been given insufficient credit. But Palestinian society remains steeped in anti-Semitism, and the Palestinian Authority lacks the rule of law: a “president” whose term expired two years ago; an unelected “prime minister;” local elections that were cancelled; and political reform that is, in the words of a former PA minister, “a joke.” The next chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee says it is impossible to track the PA’s use of American aid (“Try looking at their budgets … you’ll never find out where that money goes”).

An undemocratic, anti-Semitic state, unwilling to recognize a Jewish one (much less one with defensible borders), is unlikely to “live side by side in peace.” The Palestinians are pushing the edifice, but the abyss is still there.

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Alan Wolfe’s Silly Essay

Sometimes, well-educated people can write the silliest essays. Take Boston College professor Alan Wolfe, who has written an article — “Why Conservatives Won’t Govern” — in the Winter 2011 issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

According to Wolfe:

There is much to be learned from the way Republicans behaved during the first two years of the Obama Administration. If that history is any indication, the problem will no longer be that conservatives cannot govern. We are instead in for an era in which conservatives will not govern. [emphasis in the original]

The problem with the GOP, you see, isn’t that it is cynical, because even a cynic cares. “What we witness instead is nihilism,” Wolfe writes, “and in the most literal sense of the term.”

Nihilism, we are told,

is as dangerous a political stance as one can find. Unlike polarization, it guarantees that words become divorced from any underlying reality they are meant to describe, that those watching the spectacle turn away in disgust, that tactical maneuvering replaces all discussion of substantive policy issues, and that political opponents are to be treated as enemies to be conquered. Lacking regenerative qualities of its own, nihilism can never produce new sources of political energy.

In case the point isn’t clear enough, Wolfe goes on to write:

[C]onservative nihilism poisons the soil that allows any set of ideas, liberal or conservative, to grow … a party that will not govern does not wish to replace strong government with weak and decentralized government in order to show how often the public sector fails. It instead much prefers to make it impossible for government to carry out its functions in the first place. If its political strategy is nihilistic, its ultimate outcome is anarchistic … when it comes to government, [conservatives] are as nihilistic as Abbie Hoffman. … No 1960s radical ever went as far as so many twenty-first century conservatives are going now.

All told, Wolfe used some version of the word “nihilism” more than 30 times in describing Republicans and conservatives.

The editor who allowed this essay to be published did Professor Wolfe no favors. His arguments are not only foolish; they are delusional. Read More

Sometimes, well-educated people can write the silliest essays. Take Boston College professor Alan Wolfe, who has written an article — “Why Conservatives Won’t Govern” — in the Winter 2011 issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

According to Wolfe:

There is much to be learned from the way Republicans behaved during the first two years of the Obama Administration. If that history is any indication, the problem will no longer be that conservatives cannot govern. We are instead in for an era in which conservatives will not govern. [emphasis in the original]

The problem with the GOP, you see, isn’t that it is cynical, because even a cynic cares. “What we witness instead is nihilism,” Wolfe writes, “and in the most literal sense of the term.”

Nihilism, we are told,

is as dangerous a political stance as one can find. Unlike polarization, it guarantees that words become divorced from any underlying reality they are meant to describe, that those watching the spectacle turn away in disgust, that tactical maneuvering replaces all discussion of substantive policy issues, and that political opponents are to be treated as enemies to be conquered. Lacking regenerative qualities of its own, nihilism can never produce new sources of political energy.

In case the point isn’t clear enough, Wolfe goes on to write:

[C]onservative nihilism poisons the soil that allows any set of ideas, liberal or conservative, to grow … a party that will not govern does not wish to replace strong government with weak and decentralized government in order to show how often the public sector fails. It instead much prefers to make it impossible for government to carry out its functions in the first place. If its political strategy is nihilistic, its ultimate outcome is anarchistic … when it comes to government, [conservatives] are as nihilistic as Abbie Hoffman. … No 1960s radical ever went as far as so many twenty-first century conservatives are going now.

All told, Wolfe used some version of the word “nihilism” more than 30 times in describing Republicans and conservatives.

The editor who allowed this essay to be published did Professor Wolfe no favors. His arguments are not only foolish; they are delusional.

According to Wolfe, “the shift from polarization to nihilism is well illustrated by the pre-election fate of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan’s ‘A Roadmap for America’s Future.’” During the campaign, Wolfe writes, “conservatives shunned Ryan’s plan like a virus.”

“Will Ryan become a conservative hero in the new House? Don’t bet on it,” Wolfe writes. “Once your purpose is to say no to everything the other side proposes, you do not want to put yourself in the position of saying yes to anything else, lest you actually have to spend your energy defending a position.”

In fact, many conservatives not only don’t shun Ryan’s plan; they enthusiastically embrace it. Sarah Palin did so as recently as a week ago. And while it’s true that the GOP leadership in the House hasn’t fully embraced the Roadmap, it is open to key elements of it. Any hesitancy in fully blessing Ryan’s roadmap doesn’t have to do with nihilism; it has to do with fear that reforming entitlements will be politically catastrophic.

More important, Ryan, the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, is going to present the GOP’s budget — in effect, its governing blueprint — in the spring. His plan will be far-reaching, bold, intellectually coherent — and it will have the support of the Republican caucus. Ryan will, in fact, be among the most important Republicans in America next year.

On the matter of judges, Professor Wolfe is terribly upset by the fact that fewer than half of Obama’s nominations for judgeships have been approved. “There can be little doubt that conservatives will now feel emboldened to continue and even ratchet-up their policy of judicial refusal in the next two years,” Wolfe writes. “It is, after all, a near-perfect expression of their nihilism; the best way to stop judges from interpreting the law, as conservatives like to call decisions they happen to disfavor, is to have fewer judges.” He goes on to say:

All this suggests that Elena Kagan will be the last judge Obama gets to place on the high court. This is not because openings are unlikely to occur. It is instead because Republicans, confident that Democrats will never come close to the 60 votes necessary to stop them, will use their veto power to block any Supreme Court nominee they dislike, which amounts to anyone Obama selects. On the court, if not in Congress, conservatives believe in an active government; they need judges who will say no to every piece of legislation they want to block.

It’s probably worth pointing out that it was Democrats, not Republicans, who did the most to politicize the appointment of judges and Supreme Court nominations, with their ferocious opposition to Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. No recent liberal nominee has been treated as disgracefully as were Bork and Thomas. It’s worth asking, too: was Senator Obama a nihilist for not only opposing the confirmation of Samuel Alito but also for supporting the filibuster of his nomination?

Beyond that, assume that Obama nominates centrist-to-conservative judges. Republicans would support them in the blink of an eye. The problem Obama would face would be with his liberal base, not with conservatives. This explodes the theory that Republicans are nihilists; if they were, they would oppose for the sake of opposition, as a means to achieving anarchy. But, of course, Republicans have no interest in such a thing.

And note well: the tax bill that was just agreed to was the product of a compromise between President Obama and the GOP leadership — precisely the kind of compromise that Wolfe says Republicans and conservatives oppose in principle and in every instance.

Professor Wolfe’s essay is instructive in this respect: it shows the kind of paranoia and diseased thinking that afflicts some liberals and progressives. He acts as if no conservative policy world exists and exerts any influence on lawmakers. This is flatly untrue. Professor Wolfe might, for starters, consider visiting the website of National Affairs in order to become acquainted with arguments and ideas he is now blind to.

Moreover, progressives like Wolfe seem to genuinely believe the cartoonish image they have created of Republicans and conservatives, portraying them as if they were characters out of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. They cannot seem to fathom that the differences between conservatives and liberals, between the incoming GOP Congress and Barack Obama, are rooted in different governing philosophies, not nihilism vs. non-nihilism. They do not even entertain the possibility that opposition to ObamaCare is based on the belief that a more sustainable, market-based, and patient-centered version of health reform is better for our nation. Conservatives may be wrong about this; but to hold this view does not mean they are pining for anarchy.

The Alan Wolfe approach, of course, makes governing in America much more difficult. If you view your opponents not simply as wrong but as a disciple of Nietzsche, eager to burn down the village, it changes almost everything about politics. It would be all to the good, I think, if people on both sides resisted the temptation — unless the evidence is overwhelming and to the contrary — to refer to one’s political opponents as Nazis, as terrorists, as nihilists, and so forth. This is almost always a sign of the weakness, not the strength, of one’s arguments.

In Fathers and Sons, the protagonist, Bazarov, says to the woman he loves, and hated himself for loving, “Breathe on the dying flame and let it go out. Enough!”

The same can be said about Professor Wolfe’s essay.

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Mitchell’s Back: The Fool Returns to His Errand

After two years of failure, George Mitchell is back in the Middle East to resume his fruitless negotiating between Israel and the Palestinians. In theory, Mitchell might have a better chance of achieving at least the semblance of progress now that the administration has dropped its obsession with forcing Israel to adopt a building freeze in the West Bank. Such a freeze was meaningless, since the question of where the borders would be in the event of a peace accord would not be affected by whether or not another Jewish home went up in the West Bank. As Israel showed in 2005 with its withdrawal from Gaza, the presence of settlements will not stop it from abandoning territory if a domestic consensus exists for such a policy.

But even without the burden of pushing Israel to freeze building before talks even begin, it’s not clear that there is any purpose to Mitchell’s visit other than a symbolic gesture of America’s continued interest in peace. Despite attempts by left-wing critics of Israel to demonize Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partners, the blame for this impasse remains with the Palestinians, who have more than once refused Israel’s offer of a state in the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem. But it is useful to review the past two years of failed American diplomacy during which Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have done a great deal to make a bad situation worse.

In 2008, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas was negotiating with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He refused to take yes for an answer, but the talks that were going on were direct and didn’t fail for lack of Israeli concessions. But when the Obama administration took up Middle East peace as its first foreign-policy priority in early 2009, it changed the dynamic of the situation, and not for the better. By asserting publicly that Israel had to freeze settlements first, and then insisting that such a freeze should include not only Jerusalem but also long-established Jewish neighborhoods in the Jewish state’s capital, the administration forced Abbas to harden his stand to avoid being seen as less hostile to Israel than the Americans were. Over the course of the last year and a half, as Mitchell and Clinton focused more on gaining new unilateral Israeli concessions as preconditions to talks, it was hardly surprising that the result was no serious negotiations as the Palestinians simply sat back and waited for the Americans to deliver for them.

While Mitchell loves to talk about his diplomatic success in Northern Ireland, where he helped bring the warring parties together for the first time, what has happened in the Middle East is just the opposite. When he arrived, direct talks were ongoing; now they are dead and there is little likelihood of a restart, since the administration has already tried and failed with its sole idea for promoting peace: pressure on Israel. While Israel’s critics and foes are urging Obama to double down on such pressure, it appears that even the president and the secretary of state are finally beginning to understand that there is little point to investing any energy in such a process when they know that even if they gain more concessions from the Israelis, the Palestinians will always say no in the end anyway.

The spectacle of Mitchell returning to a dumb show of diplomacy is a sorry indication of both the bankruptcy of the administration’s foreign policy as well as the ineptness of its principal player. Rather than the successful sequel to his Irish triumph that Mitchell keeps predicting, his latest mission resembles nothing so much as a fool’s errand.

After two years of failure, George Mitchell is back in the Middle East to resume his fruitless negotiating between Israel and the Palestinians. In theory, Mitchell might have a better chance of achieving at least the semblance of progress now that the administration has dropped its obsession with forcing Israel to adopt a building freeze in the West Bank. Such a freeze was meaningless, since the question of where the borders would be in the event of a peace accord would not be affected by whether or not another Jewish home went up in the West Bank. As Israel showed in 2005 with its withdrawal from Gaza, the presence of settlements will not stop it from abandoning territory if a domestic consensus exists for such a policy.

But even without the burden of pushing Israel to freeze building before talks even begin, it’s not clear that there is any purpose to Mitchell’s visit other than a symbolic gesture of America’s continued interest in peace. Despite attempts by left-wing critics of Israel to demonize Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partners, the blame for this impasse remains with the Palestinians, who have more than once refused Israel’s offer of a state in the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem. But it is useful to review the past two years of failed American diplomacy during which Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have done a great deal to make a bad situation worse.

In 2008, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas was negotiating with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He refused to take yes for an answer, but the talks that were going on were direct and didn’t fail for lack of Israeli concessions. But when the Obama administration took up Middle East peace as its first foreign-policy priority in early 2009, it changed the dynamic of the situation, and not for the better. By asserting publicly that Israel had to freeze settlements first, and then insisting that such a freeze should include not only Jerusalem but also long-established Jewish neighborhoods in the Jewish state’s capital, the administration forced Abbas to harden his stand to avoid being seen as less hostile to Israel than the Americans were. Over the course of the last year and a half, as Mitchell and Clinton focused more on gaining new unilateral Israeli concessions as preconditions to talks, it was hardly surprising that the result was no serious negotiations as the Palestinians simply sat back and waited for the Americans to deliver for them.

While Mitchell loves to talk about his diplomatic success in Northern Ireland, where he helped bring the warring parties together for the first time, what has happened in the Middle East is just the opposite. When he arrived, direct talks were ongoing; now they are dead and there is little likelihood of a restart, since the administration has already tried and failed with its sole idea for promoting peace: pressure on Israel. While Israel’s critics and foes are urging Obama to double down on such pressure, it appears that even the president and the secretary of state are finally beginning to understand that there is little point to investing any energy in such a process when they know that even if they gain more concessions from the Israelis, the Palestinians will always say no in the end anyway.

The spectacle of Mitchell returning to a dumb show of diplomacy is a sorry indication of both the bankruptcy of the administration’s foreign policy as well as the ineptness of its principal player. Rather than the successful sequel to his Irish triumph that Mitchell keeps predicting, his latest mission resembles nothing so much as a fool’s errand.

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