Ready to Govern

Forget Putin and the Ukraine and the hot-war developing there. The few remaining bodies left rotting in the fields from the Malaysian airliner Putin’s separatists shot down two weeks ago aren’t going anywhere. And forget Israel in Gaza blowing up everything in sight, and demanding the world’s approval for that. All the dead Palestinian children aren’t coming back to life, and those who side with Israel will side with Israel, and those who are outraged, and those who are now finally troubled, for the first time, by what Israel has been doing, won’t side with Israel. Everything there is locked in place. And forget ISIS taking over a big chunk of the Middle East to form a Sunni caliphate and take the place back to the eighth century. That Shiite Iraqi Army that we equipped and trained isn’t going to fight them – they all ran away – and what are we going to do, side with Syria and Iran, the Shiite powers in the region, to fight the Sunni ISIS crowd? Young men here won’t run down to the recruiting office to fight over there, for that. And Libya has fallen apart, but there are no good guys anywhere there we can support – they’re all rather nasty folks, and there is no government there anyway. There isn’t even the possibility of a government there. Gaddafi is long gone – fine – the people can choose a new leader. They cannot, or they won’t, so we evacuated our embassy – we shut it down – for safety reasons. We didn’t want our people killed, but what is the point of having an embassy in a country when there is no country any longer? We would have had to shut it down anyway. Who would they talk to? That’s the problem, but the American people have no appetite for sending in a few hundred thousand of our troops to spend eight years in Libya setting up a government for them. We tried that in Iraq. It didn’t go well.

All of these are “intractable” problems – and that’s a fine adjective for such problems, because the root of that adjective is the word “traction” – and we ain’t got any. In spite of Republican fantasies about American exceptionalism and how the world loves us, perhaps secretly, or fears us so much they will bend to our wishes, we have little or no leverage in all these matters. We can thump our chests, but we’ll still be spinning our wheels, like some fifties teenage drag-racer smoking his tires. That’s impressive, but the other guy, who gets a grip, wins the race. No traction, you’re left behind. That’s the situation we have here.

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum gets specific about that, discussing the situation in Gaza:

Kerry has made only one mistake, and that was trying to negotiate a ceasefire in the first place. He didn’t fail because of any personal shortcomings; he failed because there were no terms under which either side would ever have agreed to a ceasefire. The fighting will stop when both sides decide to stop, and not a minute before. It’s long past time for everyone to acknowledge this.

The United States has been trying to broker peace in the Middle East for the past 20 years. Maybe longer, depending on how you count. But 20 years at least – and every attempt has failed. Various Americans have tried, all with different approaches, and the result has been the same every time: not just failure, but a steady and inexorable deterioration of the situation. It’s no longer credible to pretend that maybe a different person with a different approach and different sympathies might have made a difference in any particular situation. Blaming Kerry for this latest failure is just delusional.

It’ time to get real:

Quite famously, we all “know” what a deal between Israel and the Palestinians needs to look like. It’s obvious. Everyone says so. The only wee obstacle is that neither side is willing to accept this obvious deal. They just aren’t. The problem isn’t agreeing on a line on a map, or a particular circumlocution in a particular document. The problem is much simpler than that, so simple that sophisticated people are embarrassed to say it outright: Two groups of people want the same piece of land. Both of them feel they have a right to it. Both of them are, for the time being, willing to fight for it. Neither is inclined to give up anything for a peace that neither side believes in.

That’s it. That’s all there is.

Drum is right. We have no leverage, so of course John Kerry is spinning his wheels. There’s no way to gain traction, and that means that there’s no more to discuss, and it may be the same with all these other issues. All the what-if speculation is about an alternative universe. In fact, it might be called speculative fiction, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov stuff, without the spaceships and other planets, stuff that could happen one day, maybe, and is interesting to think about, if that’s your thing. Maybe it is, but it would be nice if, just once, there was news that was news – a dramatic change no one expected.

The Republicans must have sensed this, because on the last weekend in July, in the middle of the second term of the Obama presidency, after six years (or more) of opposing everything that man tried to get done, and doing nothing but oppose him, offering no alternatives to anything, the Republicans announced that they are ready to govern, and for the first time in many years, they will suddenly prove to a skeptical America that they actually can govern:

House Republicans want to use their final week in Washington before the August recess to send a signal that they are ready to govern.

As the country’s attention turns to the fight for control of the House and Senate, Republicans want to show they are capable of handling two of the nation’s toughest issues: the thousands of children crossing the border, and the veterans in need of healthcare.

“This is a crisis situation. We need to show that we can respond in a crisis in a thoughtful way,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said of the effort to move a border bill.

They’re out to surprise everyone, although there’s reason to doubt there will be any surprises, as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes:

Can Republicans package themselves as “ready to govern” in the run-up to the 2014 Congressional elections without pursuing serious policy accomplishments?

Multiple reports this morning tell us House Republicans have reached a consensus: it’s far better politically to hold off on acting on immigration, tax reform, and other issues, to avoid fracturing the party for the rest of the year. The problem, as some admit, is that a majority of House Republicans probably can’t unite behind solutions.

They too can’t gain traction, so showing that they are ready to govern will be a minor show – avoid unruly theatrics – keep a low profile and keep the government running. Forget major bills. Pass small stuff. That’s about it, but they did one thing:

After six weeks of contentious, closed-door negotiations, the House and Senate have reached a deal to overhaul the Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system — just in time for senators to vote on a bill before they leave Washington for a month-long break.

The compromise bill will include $17 billion in spending, with $12 billion of that as entirely new funding. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Jeff Miller, Democratic and Republican chairmen of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees, respectively, worked through the weekend to come to an agreement.

Fine, but even that was like pulling teeth. A lot of the Tea Party crowd is still seething at the thought of spending any more government money on anything that government does – but they were trapped. You cannot go back home and boast to your constituents that you screwed our veterans, our heroes and all that, to help kill big government. Killing our veterans to accomplish that aim is a no-no, but at least they accomplished this:

House Republicans unveiled a significantly pared-back emergency funding package of $659 million for the border crisis and are angling for a Thursday vote before Congress flees Washington for the August recess.

That figure is dramatically lower than the $3.7 billion President Barack Obama originally requested from Capitol Hill to respond to the influx of unaccompanied children, primarily from Central America, at the Texas border.

It’s also a far cry from the $1.5 billion in emergency funding that was initially proposed last week by House Republicans.

They’ll get their “border bill” – that will prove they can govern – but it will be massively underfunded. They couldn’t even pass what they said they wanted to pass – the Tea Party crowd had the leverage to screw John Boehner once again. He’s not a happy man, so these guys might not be ready for prime time. On the other hand last year there was this – “Republicans will offer their own wholesale substitute for the Affordable Care Act in the spring or summer, making full repeal of the law a keystone of their election-year message.”

It’s now the middle of summer, but it’s almost ready, finally. Cool, but they have been promising an alternative for over three years now, and no one knows any alternative that they come up with can even pass the Republican-controlled House. At Salon, Brian Beutler runs through all the recent Republican attacks on Obamacare and concludes these have added new constraints that prevent Republicans from agreeing on any alternative – so maybe they cannot come up with anything, and thus really cannot govern. They’re spinning their wheels too – no traction.

The whole thing seems like a charade, when the only thing Washington is talking about is Boehner suing Obama, over Obama’s administrative decision to delay one small part of the Affordable Care Act, which no one thinks is very important, the employer mandate, to give small business more time to work things out, to help them out. Boehner claims that Obama has no right to do that. Obama should be forced to implement, precisely, on schedule, this one part of the law that the Republicans hate, and be forced to stick it to small businesses, which Republicans love. It’s the principle of the thing. Go figure – but at least it’s not impeachment, which Boehner knows would be a disaster for the Republicans. He remembers the Clinton impeachment. The nation hated them for that. They lost big time just after sticking it to Clinton, over the sex stuff. That obsession made them look like leering perverts. Obsessing over the wrong sort of people being able to buy affordable and quality health insurance is less problematic, but no one is sure what the grounds for impeachment will be, yet, and the more vague those terms, the more this looks like racist crap. They don’t want to come off as a white supremacist party. Not now, not given the nation’s changing demographics.

It may be too late. The base is itching to impeach Obama, and that explains this:

House Speaker John Boehner torched Democrats on Tuesday over talk of impeaching President Barack Obama, insisting that Republicans have no such plans and that Democrats are using the issue to gin up their base.

“Listen, this whole talk about impeachment is coming from the president’s own staff, and coming from Democrats on Capitol Hill. Why? Because they’re trying to rally their people to give money and to show up in this year’s election,” the Ohio Republican told reporters, in response to a question.

“We have no plans to impeach the president. We have no future plans,” a visibly frustrated Boehner said. “Listen, it’s all a scam started by Democrats at the White House.”

Not so:

White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer made waves last week when he said Republicans have “opened the door” to impeachment by moving to sue Obama, saying it would be “foolish to discount the possibility.” Over the last week, national Democrats have sent at least a dozen fundraising emails to prospective donors which mention impeachment, some of them suggesting it’s imminent.

It could be. Talking Point Memo’s Sahil Kapur explains why:

President Barack Obama’s promised executive actions on immigration are shaping up to put Speaker John Boehner in a bind between the passions of his conservative base and the GOP’s long-term viability as a national party. Some staunch conservatives are hopping mad and already floating impeachment over it – but could that actually spur House GOP leaders to do it?

That might do it:

The question political scientists and strategists are mulling is whether Obama’s executive move, which is expected to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, could actually inflame the GOP base enough to push Boehner down that path.

“From my standpoint, if the president [enacts more executive actions], we need to bring impeachment hearings immediately before the House of Representatives. That’s my position and that’s my prediction,” Rep. Steve King (R-IA) told over the weekend. King and other immigration-weary conservatives are already furious with the president for unilaterally granting temporary reprieve to young people brought to the country illegally as children.

Most House conservatives say they don’t want to bring up impeachment, at least for now. But 57 percent of national Republicans want Obama impeached, according to a CNN poll on Friday. A smattering of GOP figures inside and outside Congress, have signaled some degree of sympathy with the idea. Over the weekend, incoming House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) refused to take the idea off the table.

Something is up:

“The zeal for impeachment among the radical forces has been building for some time, fueled by local talk radio demonization of Obama and by blogs and emails reinforcing the message. Boehner is smart enough and pragmatic enough to know that both the anti-immigration zeal and the impeachment fire are disastrous for the GOP,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “How long he can damp down the latter, especially if Obama takes a series of executive steps on the border, deportations and other immigration issues, is hard to say. But I will be quite surprised if we do not see a very strong impeachment drive next year.”

Yes, but Boehner isn’t trapped yet:

Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, said most Republicans understand that impeachment is “not a serious option” but said Boehner would face pressure to rebuke Obama’s move. He said Speaker would have other options to address GOP discontent, such as passing legislation in the House to reverse the president’s actions.

“And if the House passed a legislative response, it would not get past the Senate. But either way, Boehner would get at least some credit from the GOP for trying,” Pitney said. “There is some risk, of course. Democrats could portray the GOP response as anti-Hispanic.”

That is a problem:

From a political standpoint impeachment is dangerous enough because most of the country opposes it. But impeachment over relief for undocumented immigrants is doubly problematic: it threatens to damage the GOP’s already weak brand with Hispanic voters, whom strategists say are critical to the party’s ability to remain competitive in presidential elections.

“Steve King is the gift that keeps giving. House leadership can’t or won’t contain him, and he’s come to define the party on immigration,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice. “He is so valuable to the Democrats that he should be on the DNC’s payroll.”

And there’s history here:

White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Boehner has “opened the door” to impeachment by moving to sue Obama, and predicted that the president’s immigration actions will “up the likelihood” of impeachment. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said it wouldn’t be the first time Boehner gave in to the right’s passions.

“Well, I do believe that the Speaker on a number of occasions said that there were not going to be steps taken by Republicans to shut down the government over health care,” Earnest said. “We did see that that happened.”

That wasn’t a very nice thing to say. On the very week that the Republicans announced that after six long years of saying no to everything and proposing nothing, they were finally ready to govern, and that they’d prove to everyone that they actually could govern, Dan Pfeiffer pointed out that Boehner can’t even govern his own House caucus. That wasn’t very nice, but it was a fair assessment.

Paul Waldman sees the problem here:

Boehner and other Republican leaders are now trying to walk an impossible tightrope. On one hand, they’re arguing that they have no interest in impeaching the president – they know that it would be a political catastrophe if they did – and any suggestion to the contrary is nothing but Democratic calumny. On the other hand, they’re arguing that Obama is a lawless tyrant who is trampling on the Constitution. If that contradiction has put them in a difficult situation, they have no one to blame but themselves.

They cannot, after all, run from their base:

It’s true that the only prominent Republicans explicitly calling for impeachment are ones like Michele Bachmann, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), or Sarah Palin. But you can see the quandary in people like Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was on Fox News Sunday this week, and when Chris Wallace tried to pin him down to say that Republicans wouldn’t impeachment Obama, Scalise wouldn’t do it.

It’s probably because Scalise knows that impeachment isn’t supported just by his party’s fringe. According to a YouGov poll taken earlier this month, 89 percent of Republicans think “Barack Obama has exceeded the limits of authority granted a President by the US Constitution,” and 68 percent think there is “justification for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against President Obama at this time.” Even when given a number of options including “President Obama has abused his powers as president which rise to the level of impeachable offenses under the Constitution, but he should not be impeached,” 63 percent still said he ought to be impeached. A CNN poll found a smaller number of Republicans saying Obama should be impeached, but still a majority of 57 percent.

So the idea that Boehner characterizes as a crazy Democratic slander is the majority position among Republican voters. And they didn’t get the idea from nowhere. They got it because the people they trust – Republican politicians and conservative media figures – have been telling them for years, but with particularly ferocity in the last few months, that Barack Obama is a lawless tyrant who is trampling on the Constitution. They’ve been hearing this not just from the Sean Hannitys and Steve Kings of the world, but from every Republican, up to and including the GOP congressional leadership, on a daily basis. Of course those Republican voters think he should be impeached. It’s absurd for people like Boehner to turn around and say, “Whoa now, who’s thinking of impeachment? That’s just Democrats saying that.”

This means that they have, ironically, given Obama all the traction here:

As much as he has been under attack from Republicans over executive authority, he has a political incentive to bait Republicans into talking more about impeachment, which would both build pressure for it within the GOP and force them to deny it to the media. The best way for him to do so is to take more unilateral action on issues like immigration. That would incense Republicans, who would then rush to the cameras to decry his lawlessness, which would lead journalists to ask them whether they’re going to impeach him, which would lead them to tie themselves in knots denying it. Obama would get both the policy results he wants and the political benefit of making his opponents look like they’re about to drag the country into a repeat of the farce of 1998.

It’s almost unfair. Obama did it again. Let your opponent get all hot and bothered and go nuts, and then raise one eyebrow. He did it to Mitt Romney with one line – “Proceed, Governor.” He did it to Hillary Clinton when she went on a rant about his big fancy speeches. He smiled, made no comment at all, and kept giving the speeches. She seemed unhinged. He didn’t have to do a thing, and he did the same thing to John McCain in the general election, when McCain tried to cancel that one debate because he had decided to fly back to Washington to solve the financial crisis, all by himself. Cancel the debate? “You know, it’s a funny thing, but presidents often have to be able to deal with two things at the same time.” McCain had no response to that. He debated Obama, on schedule. And he didn’t fix the financial crisis, he made things worse. Obama knows how to play this game.

Okay then, what was the one news story of the week, where there was actual big change? The Republicans announced that after six long years of saying no to everything and proposing nothing, they were finally ready to govern, and that they’d prove to everyone that they actually could govern? Sorry – forget that one too. Things are what they are, intractable.

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If Everybody’s Wrong

Don’t watch the news. The word is that Obama is a weak leader. Everyone knows that – he should tell Putin to stop the bullshit in eastern Ukraine, and tell Hamas to stop the bullshit in Gaza and just let the Israelis have it all and do what they want, and also tell Iran to stop their bullshit with those nuclear reactors and all those centrifuges, and as for Sunnis these days, Obama should just tell ISIS to stop their bullshit about building a new Islamic Sunni caliphate in the middle of a lot of actual countries over there. In short, show some leadership. Take charge. Be a man. It’s all very simple. They’d have to be submissive and compliant. They’d have no choice. Everyone knows this, and everyone kind of knows this is utter nonsense – but they don’t want to believe that it’s nonsense. All this can be fixed, and we can fix it. Obama should fix it. The world cannot be falling apart like this.

But it is. It always has been falling apart like this. This particular date, July 28, 2014, is exactly one hundred years after the start of the First World War – July 28, 1914, the day the Austro-Hungarians fired the first shots in their invasion of Serbia, then Russia mobilized, Germany invaded neutral Belgium and Luxembourg, then moved on France, leading Britain to declare war on Germany, and so on. Nine million died. We’re not there yet, even if things seem dismal. They are dismal, but they’re not unusual.

As a species, we’ve been trying to explain this to ourselves for forever. Forget Eve and the Apple and Original Sin – in Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on Earth. Zeus ordered Hephaestus to create her, so he did, and the gods endowed her with all sorts of gifts – Athena (wisdom) clothed her, Aphrodite (love) gave her beauty, Apollo gave her musical ability, and Hermes gave her speech. Cool, but when Prometheus stole fire from heaven, to help mankind, Zeus was pissed off and had Pandora marry Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus, and gave her a wedding gift – a beautiful jar. Zeus told her not open it under any circumstance, without telling her why, but there was her curiosity – also given to her by the gods of course– so she opened the thing. Oops. It contained all the evils, and they escaped and spread over the earth. She tried to close the jar, which we now call Pandora’s Box for some reason, but it was too late – the only thing left in the box was the Spirit of Hope, Elpis. Zeus, however, shrugged. Yeah, Pandora didn’t follow the instructions on the label, so to speak, and she ruined the world forever, but he knew this would happen. Mortals are useless.

Does that explain anything? As a symbolic argument for why the world is a mess, it’s almost the same as the story of Eve and that nasty snake that talked her into eating that damned apple, except in that story God doesn’t shrug – he gets very angry and casts Adam and Eve out of Eden, and then He sets up the terms under which they can make up for being jerks, maybe, or maybe not. They’d better be really, really good, and subservient and submissive, and worship Him in just the right way. They fail at that, again and again and again, and he has to wipe out all but a handful of them with that Flood, but He wants them to shape up. Zeus, on the other hand, doesn’t give a shit. It’s hard to say which symbolic argument is more comforting.

Either way, we screwed up. In these two patriarchal cultures the problem is always a weak and silly woman, but now that seems only a historical curiosity. Any guy, with any sense of curiosity, left on his own, would open that jar, or box, or take a bite of that apple. That apple comes from the Tree of Knowledge after all. Everyone wants to know what’s going on, and Prometheus probably planted that tree anyway. These two odd stories may be absurd – no one in the right mind even thought that these events actually happened – but we’ve always known that we always screw up.

That’s why myth persists. It’s useful as a framing devise, even now, even here in Hollywood. There’s the small shopping center down on the corner here, with a Starbucks and a multiplex and a trendy fitness gym and a Trader Joe’s – where Schwab’s Drug Store used to sit, where Lana Turner, in her tight sweater, wasn’t really discovered – and there at the southwest corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights, at the foot of Laurel Canyon, there’s a bus stop, a little island of brutal concrete with no shade at all, where there was once a little ramshackle club, Pandora’s Box. Actually it was more of a coffee house, but on November 12, 1966, that’s where the somewhat famous riots on the Sunset Strip began. The evils were loosed.

That may be overstating it, but at the time the local merchants wanted all the long-hair dope-smoking hippie types to just go away – they simply hung around too much, looking strange, driving the paying customers away. So the police obliged, and it didn’t go well. Perhaps they shouldn’t have started at Pandora’s Box. That somehow made it all about the new sixties music and the new counterculture then developing – Peter Fonda, who would later make that Easy Rider movie with Dennis Hopper, was arrested there that night – and rioting spread west and the whole Strip was in chaos. It took a few days for everything to settle down.

Probably no one else in the country heard about these riots – it was a local matter, really – but Buffalo Springfield got a new song out of it. That was For What It’s Worth – recorded a few weeks later, on December 5, 1966. Steven Stills and Neil Young lived just up the hill in Laurel Canyon at the time and had been there. And soon enough all the radio stations in the country were playing that song with words like this:

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong…

A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side…

That was a big hit, and even if no one knew what event Buffalo Springfield was singing about, specifically, they got the general idea. People are always fussing and fighting and not listening to each other, while screaming at each other, and there’ll soon be a riot, or sometimes a war. That’s just how we are, as a species. Steven Stills just happened to write a song about that, and that this particular riot started at Pandora’s Box is only a bit of obscure delicious irony, and fitting. That the place is now just another Los Angeles municipal bus stop is also fitting. Sooner or later people forget what all the fussing and fighting was about in the first place.

That’s hard to see when you’re in the middle of things, and in Gaza, the battle lines have been drawn. Israel is only trying to defend itself, by wiping out Hamas, but the Palestinians in Gaza, after having been starved nearly to death in what seems, to many folks, to be the world’s largest prison camp, for two decades, might be fine with Hamas doing what they’re doing. Fire those rockets at Israel. Let’s fight our oppressor. Hooray for our side, but Israel keeps saying the same thing about their side. They’re the good guys. Either way, the other side is wrong – and each side has good reason to say the other side is wrong. Those who are sort of singing songs and carrying signs in this case seem unaware of the problem here. Israel seems blind to the world turning against them, even if the Hamas folks are as nasty as they come. Who is right and who is wrong?

That depends on who you ask. At Salon, Omar Baddar offers this:

For most media outlets, the current crisis began with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank. This is, of course, an arbitrary starting point. Just one day before the kidnappings, a Palestinian man and a 10-year-old child were killed in Gaza by an Israeli airstrike. Why wasn’t that the starting point of the violence? Has the media internalized Israel’s narrative to such an extent that they only see Israel as “responding” to violence rather than initiating it?

That is possible, making that hooray-for-our-side stuff absurd, and there’s also this:

Israel initially blamed Hamas for the teens’ kidnapping, and “responded” by going on a violent rampage in the West Bank, invading homes, killing demonstrators, and arresting hundreds of Palestinians, including 60 Hamas members who had been freed in an earlier prisoner swap. Imagine the opposite scenario for a moment: When Israeli troops were caught on tape killing unarmed Palestinian teens just a few weeks before the kidnapping of the Israeli teens, imagine if Hamas responded by invading Israeli homes, shooting Israeli demonstrators and kidnapping hundreds of Israeli troops. Would media outlets cover such actions with the same sympathy and understanding afforded to Israel’s actions?

It’s all arbitrary, and there’s this too:

We hear a lot about how many rockets Hamas fired, but rarely in a proper timeline. Hamas had been strictly observing a cease-fire agreement since it was brokered in 2012, and was even arresting Palestinian militants from rival factions who fired rockets at Israel as recently as last month. Hamas ultimately did resume firing rockets into Israel, but only after the massive crackdown Israel initiated against Hamas in the West Bank (and by some accounts, even after an Israeli airstrike on Gaza).

And it turns out the initial crackdown against Hamas was also without basis. Israeli officials now acknowledge, in direct contradiction to statements by Israel’s prime minister, that Hamas was actually not responsible for the kidnappings of the three Israeli teens after all. And this is not just a realization Israel made over the weekend: Israeli intelligence officers reportedly noted as early as June 30 that there was no evidence implicating Hamas as an organization.

Now it’s getting confusing, so Baddar provides context that might explain why Israel rolled into Gaza:

For more than two decades, Palestinians and Israelis have been engaged in a so-called peace process, which aims to establish a Palestinian state on the occupied territories, the small areas from which Israel is legally required to withdraw. But that peace process failed time and again because Israel was never serious about allowing a viable Palestinian state to exist, and insisted on swallowing up more and more Palestinian land through relentless settlement expansion, in direct violation of international law. More recently, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu candidly (though only in Hebrew) ruled out the possibility of allowing a sovereign Palestinian state to exist.

Baddar isn’t lying – follow the links – and one thing leads to another:

Because global perceptions are important, Israel is always looking for a way to deflect responsibility for the failure of the peace process onto the Palestinians. One of the talking points used to that end is the claim that there is “no partner for peace” on the Palestinian side because the leadership was divided. So when Hamas and the Palestinian Authority agreed to end their division in recent months, Netanyahu’s government freaked out and demanded Western governments boycott the new united Palestinian leadership. When, to Netanyahu’s bitter disappointment, the U.S. insisted on dealing with the new Palestinian government anyway, Israel seems to have opted for a direct confrontation with Hamas to break up the unity government. One can see the cynical exploitation of the teens’ kidnapping to this end simply by looking at the Jerusalem Post headline, which reads: “Netanyahu to Kerry: PA’s Hamas-backed unity government to blame for missing teens.”

Evidence for this sort of nonsense, of course, is nowhere to be seen.

As for Israel’s right to self-defense, Baddar offers this:

To personalize this for a moment, imagine a bully sitting on a smaller child, and every time someone objects to the fact that the bully is beating the smaller child with an iron rod, the bully exclaims, “Well, he tried to slap me, so I was forced to defend myself.” No, you can’t claim that you’re beating the smaller child with an iron rod in self-defense, especially when you can end the entire confrontation simply by getting off him. Back to the political reality, Norman Finkelstein put it best: “The refrain that Israel has the right to self-defense is a red herring: the real question is, does Israel have the right to use force to maintain an illegal occupation? The answer is no.”

There’s much more, but Baddar is obviously tired of hearing Israel, and the American press, and every Republican, and every Democrat whose state or district has a sizable Jewish population, shout hooray for our side. It’s not that simple, even if he ends up saying hooray for the other side. On the other hand, the battle lines have been drawn, and there’s a price to pay for not singing songs and carrying signs that say hooray:

Obama administration officials were fuming Monday over a torrent of Israeli criticism of Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest bid to secure a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

In unusually harsh language, officials said the criticism of Kerry could put the relationship between the U.S. and Israel in jeopardy. They also said the personal attacks on Kerry crossed a line and were particularly disappointing at a time of active conflict.

Israeli media commentators have leveled almost nonstop criticism at Kerry in recent days over his attempts to bring Qatar and Turkey – two countries viewed by Israel as strong Hamas supporters – into the cease-fire negotiations. Kerry was also being accused of abandoning some of Israel’s key demands during the negotiations.

In trying to implement the cease-fire over the weekend, “U.S. Secretary of State of State John Kerry ruined everything,” wrote columnist Ari Shavit in Monday’s Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper. “Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a ‘strategic terrorist attack’.”

Israel is very mad at us, or at least at Obama and Kerry. They might even cut off all their foreign aid to us, and then where would we be? No, wait… but they’re very angry, and so is our administration. This is nonsense, and Josh Marshall explains the administration’s anger:

Nothing gets the Obama administration’s ire up like the perception (very often grounded in reality) that Netanyahu and his government ministers are trying to scuttle his initiatives by inveigling themselves into domestic partisan conflict in the US. – Specifically, using GOP proxies as cut-outs to push back against the President’s initiatives.

This is not entirely new. There was an episode during the first Bush administration when the shoe was on the other partisan foot. But Netanyahu, who speaks perfect English and lived a number of years in the United States, is better able to do it than many of his predecessors. And the US partisan alignment creates more tools to do it with.

Marshall offers an example of that:

Israel’s current Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, is a former GOP political operative who once worked for Frank Luntz, and only made Aliyah (immigrated to Israel) in 2005. He even reportedly played some role (though I suspect a small one since he was just out of college at the time) in creating the 1994 Contract with America. It’s usually good for both countries when a country’s ambassador has a deep relationship with the country’s head of government. It makes more seamless and reliable communication possible. And all seem to agree that Dermer’s relationship with Netanyahu is very, very deep…

Yep, and out of respect for Karl Rove, Dermer has been called “Bibi’s Brain” of course, and all of this seems odd to Marshall:

I don’t know what role Dermer himself plays in the working the general ties with US Republicans, though I suspect it’s substantial. But Netanyahu has made the de facto alliance between the Likud or what remains of the faction he owns (that part gets very complicated) and the US Republican party increasingly explicit. And that’s dangerous – dangerous for all concerned but particularly for Israel. I wish Netanyahu and his government had a better sense of the toxic repercussions of mobilizing GOP proxies as cut-outs in this way. It should go without saying that the Israel-US alliance becomes more brittle as it becomes more clearly identified with a single US political party. And perhaps more than that, as it becomes more clearly identified with the ties between Netanyahu and US Republicans.

The battle lines have been drawn and everything becomes toxic, but one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers tries to step away from this riot at Pandora’s Box:

For 47 of my 56 years, Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza. (Yes, Israel “withdrew” from Gaza some time ago, but it is still very much Israel’s captive.) In modern times, there is no single other example of a nation that supposedly shares “western” values sustaining such a long occupation of another people. Yes, Israel has a right to defend itself. Yes, Israel has every right to question whether it has a partner to make peace. Of course I don’t trust Hamas. Of course the rockets merit a vigorous no nonsense response. But one question sticks in my mind about the position of Israel: If Israel really wanted peace, why does it keep building those darn settlements?

Every answer I’ve ever heard – the irrelevant “there never really was a Palestinian state on this land”, the hopeless “even if Israel did that what makes you think they’d suddenly change their stripes?”, or the more limited “construction is for the most part only expansion of existing settlements anyway”, whatever – all of them only go so far as to try to justify why Israel should be permitted to continue to build. It doesn’t explain why it is a good idea for Israel to continue to build.

This is very simple:

Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. And in that sense, there is no justification I have ever heard for the settlements that one can reconcile with trying to make the two-state solution a reality, or indeed even with leaving it open as a possibility. Just the opposite – until there is an answer to that question, in my mind, Israel cannot and will not be guilt free. Maybe if those of us who love Israel but think it has lost its way focused on that one simple question until it is answered, we might get somewhere.

Sullivan’s response:

That’s where I’m at as well. At some point, the denials and equivocations and diversions and distractions fade away to that core reality: why are they continuing to settle the West Bank? It empowers Hamas, it weakens the Palestinian Authority – it is a constant grinding of salt into an open wound.

The Israelis had a golden opportunity with Barack Obama’s presidency to make a historic peace; and they didn’t just throw it away, they treated the US president with contempt for even trying, and now cast ugly, public insults at the secretary of state.

Hey, that’s what happens in riots at Pandora’s Box. Steven Stills looks on and then drives up Laurel Canyon, and once at home in the hills writes a song about how stupid the whole thing was. Everyone thinks they’re right and the other side is absolutely wrong, and in a way they are wrong, but both sides are wrong in their own way – and nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.

And Zeus shrugs, knowing full well what Pandora has done, releasing all that evil crap into the world. He knew that would happen. It did, and the only thing left in that jar or box or whatever it was, is hope. How useful is that? Ask Obama about his “Hope” thing now. That’s the way it is. All myths are inherently silly, and also useful and true.

Posted in Israel and the Palestinians | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding the Right Words

Former English teachers form the tiniest sliver of the general population, and many of them would never admit that they once made confused and truculent adolescents write essays on what Hamlet’s problem was with his mother and that sweet but dim Ophelia lass, but some of us would admit that we once did something useful. It is important to be able to explain what you mean, to put what you think that you’re thinking into words that others can understand, and that takes practice. Try getting through life saying “Oh, you know what I mean.” That doesn’t cut it. People won’t know what you mean, and pretty soon they’ll figure out you don’t even know what you mean – you don’t even know what you’re thinking. You can’t put it into words? We think with words. You’re a bundle of confused vague emotions, sincere or not – no one can even tell which. You’ll be dismissed as useless. You’ll be isolated from human society, which may be no more than people explaining to each other what they mean, sometimes not very nicely. That’s what sentient beings do. That’s pretty much all that human civilization is, for better or worse.

It may have been cruel, however, to use Shakespeare on the kids, forcing them to figure out what he seemed to be getting at – the language is difficult – but that’s life. Listening to what others say, or reading what they have written, is often a process of figuring out what the hell this person is saying, and what the hell they’re thinking. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Sometimes they’re toying with you. Sometimes they’re boring, or hysterical. Sometimes they’re a bit contradictory. At least with Shakespeare it’s worth the effort – there’s cool stuff there. And as for making the kids write those essays, that’s just what they needed – practice at deciding what they think and putting it into words – stated clearly, then argued coherently, and supported by logic and precise reference back to the matter at hand. That’s a useful skill, and the skill is transferable. It’s actually more than a useful skill of course. If you can’t put what you’re thinking into words, well, you’re not actually thinking, are you?

This is why former English teachers didn’t find George Bush – the son, not the father – cute and amusing. People smiled when he mangled the language:

Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.

See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.

We ought to make the pie higher.

There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.

Well, I think if you say you’re going to do something and don’t do it, that’s trustworthiness.

People smiled. It was cute, or manly in a cowboy sort of way. Heck, everyone knew what he meant, right?

Former English teachers didn’t smile. They know sloppy thinking when they see it – or what’s worse, someone who just isn’t thinking – or the thing that’s even worse. They can spot someone who doesn’t even know that he’s not thinking. Read enough crappy student essays and you get the hang of it. This sort of thing is easy to spot – and that person shouldn’t be in charge of the free world. He shouldn’t be the decider, as George Bush liked to call himself. Others, better with words, can tell him what he’s thinking and he’ll believe it – it’s just easier for him. Which others? Dick Cheney comes to mind. Sure, Americans distrust those who are prissy and precise in their choice of words, and who offer long and logical and detailed arguments for their positions – they’re inauthentic, not “of the people” in a tribal sort of way, and they’re probably up to something – but they are thinking. A little more prissy and precise thinking might have kept us from taking over Iraq for eight years to make it a showplace of Jeffersonian democracy. A little more prissy and precise thinking might have had us look into what the financial industry had been up to for a decade, so that the economy really would not have had to collapse at the end of Bush’s last year in office. Oh well.

Former English teachers saw these things coming a mile away – maybe not these two things, but something bad. They know this kid. They had the conversation before. Oh, you know what I’m thinking here! No, YOU don’t even know what you’re thinking here!

All of that is ancient history now. George Bush has disappeared – he’s painting pictures of puppies and kittens these days – and Barack Obama has spent six or more years working on finding a balance between precise language and aw-shucks loose talk, usually successfully. Agree with his policies or not, there’s always something there to work with, not word soup. The word soup has migrated elsewhere, to other issues, like gun control. At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall and his crew have been on the side of those who don’t think every American should be well-armed at all times, and curiously, they’ve now run into a language problem:

Over the last eighteen months, we’ve made an on-going effort to highlight various cases of accidental shootings – sometimes leading to grave injuries, other times to minor ones, but usually illustrating the straightforward fact that guns are dangerous and people often do stupid things with them. Like showing them off to friends while they’re loaded, or showing them off when the gun is loaded and the gun-shower is also loaded, or leaving them unsecured where three-year-olds can find them and blow their heads off. But frequently, and increasingly of late, we get emails from readers criticizing our decision to call these shootings ‘accidents’ because that is not, in their view, what they are.

But, of course, that is exactly what they are. Of course, shooters may have fooled authorities into believing an intentional homicide was unintentional. But that’s a different issue.

This issue here is one word – accidental – which isn’t some odd word from a minor Shakespeare play. Everyone knows what that word means, except they keep getting emails like this, about the article about a pregnant Florida woman shot dead by a friend who was showing her some of his new guns:

Please, I am tired of this misrepresentation. She was not accidentally shot in the head. She was shot in the head by a grossly negligent gun owner. These are not accidents.

Is that so? Josh Marshall isn’t so sure:

I am always a little mystified by these emails because at one level they seem to show a simple lack of understanding of what the word ‘accident’ means. The primary meaning of ‘accident’ is an unfortunate and usually unexpected event that happens without anyone intending it. Most of us know this. So I assume there’s no need to belabor the point. Calling something an ‘accident’ doesn’t mean it is blameless or doesn’t involve negligence. In fact, most accidental shootings almost by definition involve some level of negligence, whether or not authorities decide it rises to the level of criminal culpability. Indeed, calling something “grossly negligent” basically requires an ‘accident’ since a person cannot be negligent about something if the outcome is one they intended.

Something else must be going on here, and is:

What interests me about these emails is the pervasive need, which we are probably all liable to, to distort language as a signal or measure of moral outrage. In other cases, we do this to stifle discussion or even thought – such as when we recoil from calling terrorists “brave”. Terrorists are often very brave, even when they’re evil. You can be both. There’s no necessary contradiction but for the fact that we think they’re evil so we don’t want to credit them for what we usually see as a virtue.

No we don’t. Ask Bill Maher about that. He lost his show on ABC, Politically Incorrect, over that very thing:

In the aftermath of the attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush said that the terrorists responsible were cowards. On the Politically Incorrect September 17 show, Maher’s guest Dinesh D’Souza disputed Bush’s label, saying the terrorists were warriors. Maher agreed, and replied: “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”

While similar comments had been made in other media, Maher’s comments became a major controversy. Some advertisers withdrew their support and some ABC affiliates stopped airing the show temporarily. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer denounced Maher, warning that “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.”

Maher apologized, and explained that he had been criticizing U.S. military policy, not American soldiers. He pointed out that whether the attacks were cowardly was irrelevant to whether they were morally right or wrong.

It was too late. The advertisers bailed. The show was canceled. Terrorists cannot be brave, when they’re evil. That word – brave – now could not mean what it had always meant before, and Marshall sighs:

Almost all the major errors or mistakes or great instances of public bamboozlement I recall over the last twenty-five-odd years involved major distortions of language or the aggressive policing of language to prevent certain ideas or possibilities from being discussed or considered. The lead up to the Iraq War comes to mind. But it’s only one example and possibly only extreme in terms of the consequences involved.

Still his reader persists:

I believe if we change the perception of the act so that it is not immediately assumed it is an accident and people believe they may be charged most people will think twice when they have a gun in their possession.

Now Marshall is appalled:

The logic behind distorting the language was different and perhaps more considered than I realized… indeed, the amount of conscious thought that went into it seems to make it worse. …

But language really is our only vehicle for thought and our ability to communicate with other humans. So its clarity, its ability to signify meaning with precision, to mean one thing and not the other, is critical to the most important things in our lives. Orwell’s big insight was that clarity of language is not only an aesthetic issue but a moral one as well, frequently a political one too – an insight particularly appealing to writers of course, but valid nonetheless.

Simply put, we shouldn’t do it [revise the meaning of specific words] – even when we imagine it may force an outcome we believe is a good one.

Marshall is referring the George Orwell’s seminal essay Politics and the English Language – “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.” We should know better. We don’t. We’ll make certain words mean what we find them useful to mean, even if that makes certain people very angry:

Rula Jebreal, whose contract as an MSNBC contributor ended last month, on Sunday criticized the network for suddenly describing her as a Palestinian journalist.

“I felt terrible because I was hired by MSNBC and for two years I was labeled as analyst, journalist, foreign policy expert, contributor. I was never labeled a Palestinian journalist,” she said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

Jebreal said that there’s no reason to label her by her ethnicity, especially when she’s been counted on in the past to weigh in on issues across the Middle East as a journalist and expert.

“Is this how we label people? I think whoever is doing this PR campaign for MSNBC needs to rethink these issues,” she said.

She then suggested that MSNBC labeled her that way to make her seem “emotional.”

“Did I become Palestinian because this way you can describe me as emotional and as biased, and this way can avoid debate as to who is really biased on this issues?” she asked.

Those who watch MSNBC regularly, because we’re children of the sixties and bleeding-heart liberals to the core, know she has a point. She was on-air often and was never a Palestinian before, and now she is one, even if she doesn’t speak for them. You know how those people are. MSNBC might not have intended that – they’re not completely pro-Israel like Fox News – but their intentions don’t matter much in this case. She is a Palestinian by chance. She used to speak for herself, as an analyst and foreign policy expert. Now they’ve decided she speaks as a Palestinian, and even if MSNBC claims to respect that, and laud that, she’s been stripped of her expertise. She doesn’t like that, but the words we use matter. Or more precisely, what we all have agreed the words now mean is what matters. She can run but she can’t hide. She’s now one of them.

The problem is that the word Palestinian has become toxic, which explains David Horovitz in the Times of Israel with John Kerry: The Betrayal:

When the Times of Israel’s Avi Issacharoff first reported the content of John Kerry’s ceasefire proposal on Friday afternoon, I wondered if something had gotten lost in translation. It seemed inconceivable that the American secretary of state would have drafted an initiative that, as a priority, did not require the dismantling of Hamas’s rocket arsenal and network of tunnels dug under the Israeli border. Yet the reported text did not address these issues at all, nor call for the demilitarization of Gaza.

It seemed inconceivable that the secretary’s initiative would specify the need to address Hamas’s demands for a lifting of the siege of Gaza, as though Hamas were a legitimate injured party acting in the interests of the people of Gaza – rather than the terror group that violently seized control of the Strip in 2007, diverted Gaza’s resources to its war effort against Israel, and could be relied upon to exploit any lifting of the “siege” in order to import yet more devastating weaponry with which to kill Israelis.

That’s the opening, and this goes on and on, and is mostly about Hamas, but it is also about who is the aggrieved party here, and the distinction between Hamas and the Palestinians doesn’t allow for the possibility that the Palestinians in Gaza, after having been starved nearly to death in what seems to many to be the world’s largest prison camp, for two decades, might be fine with Hamas doing what they’re doing. For them, Israel is not a magical word for all that is good, and Palestinian is not a word for hopeless losers who should not even be there in Gaza, or in the West Bank, who foolishly align themselves with nasty terrorists because they don’t know any better. This is a war of words, or of those two words.

This leads Jeffrey Goldberg to conclude that Israel is losing a war it’s winning:

Israel is losing the war in Gaza, even as it wins the battle against Hamas’s rocket arsenal, and even as it destroys the tunnels meant to convey terrorists underground to Israel (and to carry Israeli hostages back to Gaza). This is not the first time Israel has found itself losing on the battlefield of perception.

That’s what matters, and Goldberg sees a few reasons for that, including this:

In a fight between a state actor and a non-state actor, the non-state actor can win merely by surviving. The party with tanks and planes is expected to win; the non-state group merely has to stay alive in order to declare victory. In a completely decontextualized, emotion-driven environment, Hamas can portray itself as the besieged upstart, even when it is the party that rejects ceasefires, and in particular because it is skilled at preventing journalists from documenting the activities of its armed wing. (I am differentiating here between Hamas’s leadership and Gaza’s civilians, who are genuinely besieged, from all directions.)

And this:

Hamas’s strategy is to bait Israel into killing Palestinian civilians, and Israel usually takes the bait. This time, because of the cautious nature of its prime minister, Israel waited longer than usual before succumbing to the temptation of bait-taking, but it took it all the same. (As I’ve written, the seemingly miraculous Iron Dome anti-rocket system could have provided Israel with the space to be more patient than it was.) Hamas’s principal goal is killing Jews, and it is very good at this… but it knows that it advances its own (perverse) narrative even more when it induces Israel to kill Palestinian civilians. This tactic would not work if the world understood this, and rejected it. But in the main, it doesn’t. Why people don’t see the cynicism at the heart of terrorist groups like Hamas is a bit of a mystery.

Those are two of his many examples of how Israel has blown it, but the real issue is how Israel has ruined the word Israel itself:

Israel’s political leadership has done little in recent years to make their cause seem appealing. It is impossible to convince a Judeophobe that Israel can do anything good or useful, short of collective suicide. But there are millions of people of good will across the world that look at the decision-making of Israel’s government and ask themselves if this is a country doing all it can do to bring about peace and tranquility in its region. Hamas is a theocratic fascist cult committed to the obliteration of Israel. But it doesn’t represent all Palestinians. Polls suggest that it may very well not represent all of the Palestinians in Gaza. There is a spectrum of Palestinian opinion, just as there is a spectrum of Jewish opinion.

I don’t know if the majority of Palestinians would ultimately agree to a two-state solution. But I do know that Israel, while combating the extremists, could do a great deal more to buttress the moderates. This would mean, in practical terms, working as hard as possible to build wealth and hope on the West Bank. A moderate-minded Palestinian who watches Israel expand its settlements on lands that most of the world believes should fall within the borders of a future Palestinian state might legitimately come to doubt Israel’s intentions.

There is, however, a way to deal with that, to redefine what we think of when we think of the word Israel, and the word Palestinian too:

Reversing the settlement project, and moving the West Bank toward eventual independence, would not only give Palestinians hope, but it would convince Israel’s sometimes-ambivalent friends that it truly seeks peace, and that it treats extremists differently than it treats moderates. And yes, I know that in the chaos of the Middle East, which is currently a vast swamp of extremism, the thought of a West Bank susceptible to the predations of Islamist extremists is a frightening one. But independence – in particular security independence – can be negotiated in stages. The Palestinians must go free, because there is no other way.

Of course there’s no other way, but it may be too late for that. We’ve locked in what two certain words mean now, and if Marshall is right – that language really is our only vehicle for thought and what provides us our ability to communicate with other humans, and that its ability to signify meaning with precision, to mean one thing and not the other, is critical to the most important things in our lives – and he is right – then the situation is hopeless. All the high school English teachers in the world couldn’t fix this – not now. It is important to be able to explain what you mean, to put what you think that you’re thinking into words that others can understand, but when the words float free from what they once meant and now mean something else, depending on who wants to use them for other ends, then things break down. At least George Bush was only incoherent, unable or unwilling to think things through. This is far worse. Key words have been redefined and weaponized. And former English teachers weep.

Posted in Israel and the Palestinians, Language and Cognition, Words as Weapons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ryan to the Rescue

A curious news story got buried this week, one that seemed to signal a shift in American politics, but that’s understandable. In Gaza, the Israelis are rolling on, intent on wiping out Hamas and smashing everything in sight, and most of the world is appalled at their ruthlessness. Palestinian civilian deaths are nearing a thousand, with more than two thirds of them women and children, while Israeli military casualties have reached thirty, with maybe one Israeli civilian casualty in all this – and the Israelis are still howling they’re the victim in all this. Even if Hamas is pretty much a terrorist organization, as we have designated it, Israel may be charged with war crimes. There’s been a massive shift in public opinion – except on Fox News and in the offices of the Weekly Standard. That’s news, and that has put the United States in an awkward position. We send Israel over three billions dollars in foreign aid each year, mostly military aid, and that does make us complicit in blowing up schools full of little children, because God promised Israel this land in the Bible.

We may want to rethink this, but we can’t. We’re committed, and Netanyahu thinks Barack Obama and John Kerry are fools – he was rather open in his enthusiastic support of Mitt Romney the last time around – so Republicans like Ted Cruz can ride the Obama-hates-Jews thing to new heights, and the rest of the Republican Party can too. Israel can send every Palestinian man, woman and child in Gaza – or on the West Bank too, which has just irrupted – to the gas chamber, as a final solution, which given their history they would never do, and the dynamics of American politics is clear. We’d support that genocide. This is Israel. If we turn our back on Israel, God will turn His back on us – Senator Lindsey Graham said so – so that’s that.

Israel is sitting pretty. They know they’ve got us by the balls. America’s Christian right turned out to be useful after all, at least useful to Israel, and it’s little wonder this mess consumed every news cycle for the week, when there wasn’t breathless coverage of the awful mess in Ukraine, created by Vladimir Putin and now being escalated by him, for Greater Russia. We can’t fix that alone, and where we did fix something, ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein, the fix made things even worse – ISIS is establishing a Sunni caliphate there and in parts of Syria, our Shiite government in Baghdad has an army we trained that won’t fight them, and only our Shiite enemies, Iran and Syria, can help out. That’s a mess, and there are the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America who have crossed the border illegally and asked for refuge here. That’s not been resolved, and every time our government finds another place to house them, mobs of True Christians and True Patriots – perhaps those are registered trademarks now – show up to scream obscenities at them and spit on them – and that is great copy. Bewildered and frightened little kids, in a tight spot in a new land, are always great copy – it tugs on the heartstrings and all that. Obamacare may be in trouble now, because of ambiguous wording in one subsection of an obscure paragraph, but that story was secondary to all the rest this week, and John Boehner is suing Barack Obama over how he scheduled something or other, but no one cares, and the IRS scandal and the Benghazi scandal, such as they are, were forgotten. Oh, and of course no one was following the Tour de France – strange man in spandex on bicycles is a French thing. Who cares? There were other things to worry about, real issues and real problems.

That means that Paul Ryan’s effort to save the Republican Party was hardly noticed. The man who is in a constant struggle to reconcile his deep love of that Ayn Rand stuff – selfishness is a virtue, so greed is good, and it should be every man for himself because that’s freedom, and the morally superior Makers should just let the morally inferior Takers die – with his Catholicism – feed the hungry and clothe the naked and take care of the blameless poor, for they shall inherit the earth, not the rich man – was at it again. He knows as well as anyone that the Republicans may never win another Hispanic vote ever again, given their stance on immigration reform, or many women votes, as the party is now firmly opposed to forcing health plans to cover contraception, which is for sluts, and opposed to equal pay for women, as mandating that would distort the free market, which is the source of all good. The party also may not win many black votes or urban votes or the votes of anyone under thirty, or the votes of those who think science is useful.

All of that is a given – Paul Ryan lived through that with Mitt Romney. They got clobbered, but it was Romney’s forty-seven percent comment that did them in. Romney was caught on tape saying that forty-seven percent of Americans are useless parasites, who think the government owes them something, as if this is some sort of cooperative where everyone chips in to cover those who run into trouble, when these losers should take care of themselves, damn it. They have no sense of personal responsibility and never will have – they are simply morally inadequate. Maybe they were born that way. There was no point in trying to get their vote. He didn’t want their vote anyway.

Those remarks were meant to be private, but it’s just as well that they surfaced and were discussed endlessly. They clarified matters. One side did hold that government is not some sort of cooperative where everyone chips in to cover those who run into trouble. It can’t be, if freedom means anything at all. Government exists to provide the freedom to succeed, or fail, and then gets out of the way – or it should. Obama had always run on the idea that our government really is sort of cooperative where everyone chips in to cover those who run into trouble – we’ve got each other’s backs, as he had been saying since 2004 when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic convention in Boston, where John Kerry was nominated. Some called that socialism, the most evil thing any American could ever propose, while others called it patriotism and a sense of community, a sense that we’re one people, almost family perhaps. The nation was split on that, implicitly. Romney’s comments on that one odd evening, made in private, made the two ways of looking at government explicit. Romney tried to walk them back a bit but got all tongue-tied the more he tried. It’s hard to go back and obfuscate what you just made quite clear.

Now it’s time for the man who was once his running mate to walk them back. There’s all this talk about income inequality in the air, and what is left of the middle class, and those who have tumbled out of it, know the economic recovery, from the collapse of everything in 2008, is a bit of a joke, a cruel one. They know they haven’t recovered at all. Only the One Percent is now fat and happy again, and they also know the Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, blocked any extension of long-term unemployment benefits – Ryan called that “hammock money” that would keep people from getting off their lazy asses and actually finding work. They also know that the Republicans will make sure the minimum wage will not be raised – that would hurt businesses, cutting into their profits – and know the Republicans are always pressing for tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, because they are the “job creators” – even if the whole idea is nonsense – empirically, that is. It’s almost as if Republicans still think that the struggling middle class, and those who have fallen out of it, and the persistently poor, are scum, that they are inadequate people in some moral sense. Why are they even here on this earth?

The problem is that such people are still allowed to vote, at least for now, and Paul Ryan knows it, so this week he tried to undo the Romney damage:

Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, outlined a plan to combat poverty on Thursday that would consolidate a dozen programs into a single “Opportunity Grant” that largely shifts antipoverty efforts from the federal government to the states.

Mr. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and a leading voice in his party on fiscal matters, said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that the federal government represents the “rear guard – it protects the supply lines.”

In short, get the federal government out of all this social safety net stuff. Let each state do what it wants. Let’s see what happens, and let’s make whatever each state comes up with be a plan to make these struggling folks better people, which is the real problem:

Mr. Ryan tumbled somewhat awkwardly into the antipoverty discussion this year when he said a “tailspin of culture in our inner cities” perpetuated poverty, a comment that Democrats and some African-American groups called racist. But since then, Mr. Ryan has appeared to try to make amends, traveling the country to listen to Americans in poorer cities as he prepared to unveil this proposal.

The Opportunity Grants resemble block grants to individual states, which would have autonomy to spend on whatever antipoverty programs they desire as long as Washington approves the plan. The federal government currently spends about $800 billion on social welfare programs like food stamps and housing assistance. Mr. Ryan said that total spending would remain the same, and that his plan would not add to the deficit.

It’s just a different way of doing what needs to be done with confused and morally inadequate human beings:

If a state opted into the pilot program, it would have low-income residents meet with case managers who would create an “opportunity plan” offering both financial advice and coordinating the provisions of the several different programs they need. The residents would sign contracts with these case managers that would offer incentives to reach financial security and sanctions if they do not.

In short, we don’t need to spend more money. We have to force people to shape up, with an approved plan to be a better person, and fine them heavily if they don’t meet the specific milestones in the plan. All they need is a kind of “life coach” to help them become adequate human beings, and that sets off Slate’s Jamelle Bouie:

Even for conservatives – who champion welfare drug tests and robust work requirements – this is breathtakingly paternalistic. As Annie Lowrey notes for New York magazine, “It isolates the poor. Middle-class families don’t need to justify and prostrate themselves for tax credits. Businesses aren’t required to submit an ‘action plan’ to let the government know when they’ll stop sucking the oxygen provided by federal grant programs.”

What’s more, as she also points out, it treats the poor as if they want to stay that way and all but punishes “the poorest and most unstable families for their poverty and instability.” As with other measures that tie aid to “accountability”—like family caps for welfare—a sanction can spark a downward spiral to deeper poverty.

The Annie Lowrey item is here and Bouie also cites Reihan Salam arguing that paternalism is exactly what is called for here in America:

People with low or no earnings, in contrast, face diverse obstacles. Some need short-term help to, say, fix their car, which will allow them to commute to work, or to make a deposit on a rental apartment. Others don’t have the skills they need to earn enough to support themselves and, for whatever reason, will have a very hard time acquiring them. Sure, you could give both kinds of people food stamps and call it a day. Or you could recognize that one-size-fits-all programs don’t do justice to the ways in which individual circumstances vary. …

The theory behind having smart, dedicated caseworkers working on behalf of people who are down on their luck is that spending a bit more time and money now could help save time and money later.

That sounds sensible, but Bouie isn’t buying it:

The idea that life skills are necessary to climb out of poverty – that the poor are plagued by low income and bad habits – doesn’t jibe with the facts on the ground.

Mandatory life coaching makes sense if most poverty is persistent and generational. Even with federal assistance, adults with little-to-no market income – and little experience in the workforce – are at a long-term disadvantage and likely to pass those barriers on to their children. But poverty in America is fluid; depending on the season, the unstable nature of market work may force a period of personal retrenchment.

The research bears this out. According to the latest Survey of Income and Program Participation, which draws from three years of interviews from a representative sample of American households, almost one-third of Americans were poor for two months or more during 2009, 2010, and 2011. More importantly, 44 percent of those poverty “spells” ended within four months and only 15.2 percent lasted more than two years. By contrast, just 3.5 percent of the population was poor for all three years—a tiny constituency for the kind of generational poverty that needs a Ryan-esque intervention.

At the left-leaning think tank Demos, Matt Bruenig crunches the numbers of the Census Bureau’s 2012 social and economic supplement to its annual population survey and identifies the “officially poor” as “35 percent children, 8 percent elderly, 9 percent disabled, 8 percent student, 18 percent working, and 21 percent everyone else.” He concludes: “The adult, able-bodied, non-student poor who lack personal market income comprise 3 percent of the population.” It’s just a snapshot, but it tells us there aren’t many Americans who need the intense paternalism recommended by Ryan and others.

Jared Bernstein simply wonders what the hell Ryan is talking about:

The broader reason his plan is misguided is because Ryan starts from the mistaken assumption that the current U.S. anti-poverty system is broken, when in fact it’s actually quite effective, and not just in lowering market-based poverty rates, which it does by almost half, but also by investing in the longer term well-being of its beneficiaries. (Bob Greenstein provides the details here.) That’s not good enough by a long shot, but neither is it motivation to radically change the system in ways that introduce a dangerous set of new risks, as this new plan does…

The implication here is that while a faceless bureaucrat in D.C. can’t possibly evaluate your nutritional needs, for example, a bureaucrat in Albany or Sacramento can easily and efficiently do so. And while the plan requires state officials to use the resources for poverty reduction, and not, say, tax reduction, consolidation also raises serious risks of diverting funds to areas of anti-poverty interventions that state officials favor vs. areas of need.

Well yes, there is that possibility. Officials in a red state could that take massive amount of what was once federal social safety net money and declare that the poor are real losers and what they need is a copy of the collected works of Ayn Rand in their home, which they must read – there will be quizzes – and since that costs next to nothing, the rest of the money could be used to do what really fights poverty. Cut taxes on the rich and on corporations. You know, like the Republicans did in Kansas – where the state is now near bankruptcy.

As for Ryan, Bouie adds this:

At some point in their lives, millions of Americans will experience a short spell of poverty. Not because they don’t have a plan to fix their lives or lack the skills to move forward, but because our economy isn’t run to create demand for labor, isn’t equipped to deliver stable work to everyone who wants it, and wasn’t built to address the distributive needs of everyone who works.

It’s the economic system, not the losers who are just like little children. They need mommy or daddy to force them to follow a step by step plan for being a better person, or maybe even an adult one day. That’s what Ryan is proposing, something not far from making the poor – people he now says he really cares about – memorize long passages from Atlas Shrugged. Make them study how “good” people operate. It’ll work wonders. The implication is that Romney should have suggested something like that – classes in how to be more like Mitt Romney perhaps. That would have shown he cares. Ryan wants to show he cares.

That may be hard for Republicans, which is why a lifelong conservative like Andrew Sullivan gets upset when people assume that means he’s a Republican. He’s had it with Ryan and his party:

Any party that can respond to the fact of yawning economic inequality in the 21st Century by blaming the 99 percent for not working hard enough has put ideology before reality. Any party that even now thinks slashing taxes below their current historically low levels will cure our economic ills is utterly delusional. Any party that is unconcerned with the social dangers of an economic system that increasingly rewards only the very, very rich cannot be trusted with government. There has to be a pragmatic element to any conservatism and an ability to adjust to new circumstances and new problems.

Oh yeah, there’s this too:

The conduct of the GOP during the Obama administration has been a nihilist disgrace. In 2009, Obama inherited crises on every front: an economy in terrifying free-fall, a bankrupted Treasury, an even more morally bankrupt foreign policy, and two failed wars. He deserved some measure of cooperation in that hour of extreme national peril and need. He got none. From the get-go, they were clearly prepared to destroy the country if it also meant they could destroy him.

In fact, from that first stimulus vote on, Obama faced a unanimous and relentless nullification Congress. If he favored something, they opposed it. Despite Obama’s exemplary family life, public grace and composure, and willingness to compromise, they decided to cast him as a tyrant, a radical, a traitor and an incompetent. Their demonization of a decent, pragmatic man simply disgusts me to the core. And, sorry, if you do not smell any whiff of racism in all of this, you’re a better person than I am.

Wow. Can Paul Ryan rescue this party? Can he rescue this party by taking this one first step of boldly saying he actually cares for the poor – that like any good Catholic he actually loves the poor as God’s children too – that in fact, unlike Mitt Romney, he actually loves the forty-seven percent too? He only wants to help them grow up and become something like marginally adequate people. What’s wrong with that? He does have a plan.

So he does, and he’s lucky that Israel rolled into Gaza, and ISIS is taking over the center of the Middle East, and the Russians are still helping the Ukraine separatists, even if they do blow Malaysian airliners out of the sky by mistake, and that all those little kids are showing up at the border, alone, asking for help, and being reviled and harassed. Had Ryan introduced his new antipoverty plan on a slow news day, in a slow news week, he’d be toast. And he cannot save the party anyway. It’s too far gone. Too many Americans have decided that they do live in a sort of cooperative where everyone chips in to cover those who run into trouble, and we’re all adults here. No one needs a “life coach” – just some support now and then from our brothers and sisters, which we would offer to them when they’re in trouble. But it doesn’t matter. No one is listening to Paul Ryan anymore.

Posted in Income Inequality, Paul Ryan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Crazy for Israel

The world is a wonderful, various place. Grow up in Pittsburgh and do college in the empty middle of Ohio, and then do graduate school in the South – if North Carolina counts as the South – then teach English at a progressive prep school in upstate New York, and then chuck it all and move to the beach in Southern California and work in aerospace, and then find yourself running the systems shop at a locomotive factory just west of Toronto, and then find yourself settled here in Hollywood just off the Sunset Strip – with a lot of long trips to Paris on the side – and of course the world will seem full of glorious ambiguities, where nothing is ever black and white. There are all sorts of ways of looking at things. They’re all out there, and then there’s Texas, where there are no ambiguities about anything. What you see is what you get. The business trips to Plano, on systems issues, were odd – women with big hair and men in elegant expensive business suits, but wearing bolo ties and cowboy boots, and pick-up trucks with gun racks everywhere, with guns, and bumper stickers that warned the world that you Don’t Mess with Texas. There was nothing subtle about any of that, and that weekend in El Paso, visiting Fort Bliss to see the nephew get his first battalion command, was just as odd. El Paso is the baked and dry end of the world, with Juarez just across the river, with a murder a minute, and the White Sands desert stretching endlessly out to forever to the north, out to Alamogordo, where they tested the very first atomic bomb. It worked.

There’s something unapologetically apocalyptic about that part of the world, and unapologetic Texas, where they don’t do nuance, seems to be at the center of it all. The second George Bush, the one who decided he was thoroughly Texan, no matter what his family’s antecedents, told us that he didn’t do nuance. He actually may not have known the meaning of word, given his scorn for anything that had anything to do with fancy words and subtlety. That’s how he ran things for eight years. There were good guys and bad guys. That was it – nothing in between – and you were with us or you were with the terrorists, and thus as bad as them, and thus our enemy. It was simple. It was Texan. And it was apocalyptic. It was time to settle things, once and for all.

That didn’t work out. The world wouldn’t cooperate with that Texan denial of the possibility of even a little ambiguity here and there. Look at the Middle East exploding now, from Libya through Egypt through Syria on into Iraq with ISIS taking over half the place, and then to the mess that is Afghanistan and on to Iran and its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, with Israel rolling into Gaza again. Bush took care of “the bad guy” and nothing was settled. Saddam Hussein wasn’t the problem. Obama finally took care of the real bad guy, Osama bin Laden, and still nothing was settled. There is no Texas Solution to the woes of the world.

Don’t tell Texans that. Cowboys don’t believe it, and don’t tell that other iconic Texan, the apocalyptic evangelical world-famous leader of one of those sprawling megachurches, who preaches about good and evil and nothing in between. The state is full of guys like John Hagee:

Hagee is the President and CEO of John Hagee Ministries, which telecasts his national radio and television ministry carried in the United States on ten television networks, including 62 high-power stations aired to more than 150 million households. He is shown on networks around the globe, including The Inspiration Network (INSP), Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), and Inspiration Now TV. John Hagee Ministries is in Canada on the Miracle Channel and CTS and can be seen in places including Africa, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Hagee is the founder and National Chairman of the Christian-Zionist organization Christians United for Israel, incorporated on February 7, 2006.

He’s a San Antonio guy, and in 2008, John McCain had his problems with the guy:

In the face of mounting controversy over headline-grabbing statements from the Rev. John Hagee, CNN has learned that presumptive Republican nominee John McCain decided Thursday to reject his endorsement.

McCain later also repudiated the support of Rod Parsley, an Ohio preacher who has called Islam an inherently violent religion.

McCain told CNN’s Brian Todd that he rejected Hagee’s endorsement after Todd brought to his attention Hagee’s comments that Adolf Hitler had been fulfilling God’s will by hastening the desire of Jews to return to Israel in accordance with biblical prophecy.

“God says in Jeremiah 16: ‘Behold, I will bring them the Jewish people again unto their land that I gave to their fathers. … Behold, I will send for many fishers, and after will I send for many hunters. And they the hunters shall hunt them.’ That would be the Jews. … Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone who comes with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter,” Hagee said, according to a transcript of his sermon.

In a statement to CNN on Thursday, McCain said “Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them. I did not know of them before Rev. Hagee’s endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well.”

Yeah, you probably don’t want the endorsement of someone who says Hitler was actually doing God’s work – that sounds like something Sarah Palin would say – so McCain walked away from him. Hagee then said he never wanted to endorse McCain anyway, so THERE! It was a mess, but McCain dodged a bullet. It wasn’t just the Hitler thing. Hagee calls the Catholic Church the Great Whore and succinctly dismissed what Catholicism has done for the world – “A Godless theology of hate that no one dared try to stop for a thousand years produced a harvest of hate.”

Hagee doesn’t much care for those folks, and he likes to keep it simple – no nuance, no ambiguity. He’s as Texan as George Bush pretended to be.

Only one area of ambiguity is allowed:

John Hagee was the leader of the charismatic San Antonio megachurch Trinity Church in the 1970s and is the father of two children with his first wife, Martha Downing. In 1975, Hagee was involved in a personal scandal in which he admitted in a letter to his congregation that he had been guilty of “immorality.” He subsequently divorced his wife of 15 years and, one year later on April 12, 1976, married 24-year old Diana Castro, his current wife. Castro was a member of the Trinity Church congregation at the time of Hagee’s confession.

Well, these things happen, but Catholics are still evil, and say what you will, Hitler did a lot of good, and he loves Israel. In fact, his Christians United for Israel is the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States, and given this third week of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, they just had to have a big meeting. They did, in Jerusalem, and Slate’s David Weigel was there:

On the morning of July 21, as they trickled into the annual Christians United for Israel conference, the mostly American supporters of the Jewish state walked past muted TVs blaring out the latest damage reports from this-or-that foreign correspondent. More than 100 Palestinians died in one day; more than 445 Palestinians since the operation started.

The supporters of CUFI moved up the convention center escalators and took their seats for a plenary session. Onstage were the first guests, all recognizable from Fox News – Weekly Standard editor-in-chief Bill Kristol, onetime CIA director James Woolsey, and the Council on Foreign Relations fellow Elliott Abrams, a presidentially pardoned veteran of foreign policy disasters on two continents. Sitting right next to them was John Hagee, the burly Christian Zionist pastor who founded CUFI in 2006 He leaned into a microphone, passionately explaining why supporters of Israel should not be tricked by casualty reports.

“Since July 8, more than 1,000 rockets have been launched into Israel by Hamas from Gaza,” said Hagee, who speaks with a captivating rumble that could make a brunch order sound like a lost gospel. “Two-thirds of Israel’s population has had to run to bomb shelters, having 90 seconds to save their lives.”

The objective of Hamas, said Hagee, “is to win the media war with dead civilians. We’ve come to Washington to ask our government to stop demanding for Israel to show restraint.”

It was a kill-them-all sort of thing:

More than 4,800 evangelicals and Jews broke into applause. Some raised their arms and turned up their palms; a shofar-maker from New Jersey blew on one of his horns.

They all thought they were in Texas, but there was a plan to all this:

This year’s CUFI conference, followed by its members’ lobbying trips to Congress, would pressure the Obama administration not to broker an early cease-fire in Israel. The people of Israel would not suffer so that “John Kerry could win his Nobel Peace prize.”

There really is something unapologetically apocalyptic about all this:

In 2007, after CUFI started to gain momentum, Hagee published a book laying out how the apocalypse would happen – the Antichrist, if you were wondering, would be “the head of the European Union” – and in 2008 John McCain’s presidential campaign was cowed into denouncing him. Progressive journalist Max Blumenthal reported on the 2007 Christians for United Israel conference and asked the faithful if they were looking forward to the rapture. After getting a few yeses – and after asking Hagee pointed questions about Scripture – Blumenthal was sent to the exits and CUFI got more gingerly and careful in its approach to the media.

How careful? The reporters who showed up – many from conservative or pro-Israel media- were guided through a metal detector to a filing center, away from the main conference. At the appropriate times, we were guided from the first floor hideaway to the third-floor ballroom where the plenary sessions were being held. When the sessions ended, we were given time to wrap up, and then politely guided back downstairs.

That’s both spooky and comic. They are certain that the end of the world is coming and they don’t want reporters to report why they’re saying that? That’s odd, but Andrew Sullivan – a Catholic (evil) and gay (beyond evil) – has had enough of this nonsense:

Every now and again, the absurd that is familiar can become fresh again. What’s absurd is the lockstep support for anything Israel might do in the United States. It’s the only country which, in a conflict with a US administration, will have Congressional Republicans and Democrats backing a foreign government over their own – and being rewarded for it in terms of money and votes. It’s the only country in which a foreign leader can address the US Congress as a rebuke to the US president – and get a standing ovation. It’s the only foreign country that receives $3 billion in aid and still gets to dress down the US president in the White House itself.

And the most important reason why is Christianism – the commitment of America’s evangelicals to the maximalist claims of Greater Israel has only intensified over the last couple of decades. The leader of this movement is a crackpot – a man who believes that the end-times are imminent, that the anti-Christ will be the head of the EU, and that Russia will invade Israel as a harbinger of the Apocalypse. He was once famous for intensely anti-Catholic bigotry, arguing that “a Godless theology of hate that no one dared try to stop for a thousand years produced a harvest of hate.” He’s bonkers, but he’s fanatically pro-Israel, which is why his annual conference of Christians United for Israel attracts the likes of Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer…

Sullivan then cites this passage from the Weigel report on the conference:

American evangelicals needed to imagine themselves as Israelis, praise the “miracle” of the Iron Dome missile defense system, and understand that the Jews had a biblical mandate to the entire Holy Land. “I’ll bless those that bless you and I’ll curse those that curse you,” said Hagee, quoting from the book of Genesis. “That’s God’s foreign policy statement, and it has not changed.” …

Speaker after speaker gave the evangelicals ammunition for the next time someone criticized the Gaza operation, or shamed Israel over the body count. “Here’s a message for America: Don’t ever turn your back on Israel, because God will turn his back on us,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. “More Germans died in World War II than American soldiers. That didn’t make the Germans right.”

So we’re talking about God’s foreign policy here, as Sullivan sees it, and he noted this too, the testimony of IDF Sergeant Benjamin Anthony:

What the IDF needed was a total victory. “Rocket factories can be destroyed,” said Anthony. “Weapon factories can be destroyed. Terrorists can be eliminated. Tunnels can be dug out.” But it could only happen if America resisted the temptation to criticize Israel or to stop the operation. “Hamas started this war,” said Anthony. “The soldiers of Israel must smash their skulls and break their spines.”

When he said that, a standing-room crowd of pastors and activists and politicians rose to its feet, waving the twin flags of the countries God loved.


If there were ever the spirit of Jesus, there it is.

And yet wry humor at this point doesn’t quite capture the bizarreness of this entire enterprise. These belligerent fanatics take Greater Israel as a non-negotiable; they exercise enormous power in the Republican coalition; they foment a foreign policy that is based not on a prudent weighing of America’s national interests, but on reflexive aggressive support for a foreign country based on Biblical texts. In any sane polity, they would be treated as dangerous kooks. And yet they are addressed by Senators as a badge of honor.

Sullivan should just get over it. Americans, even many Democrats, are crazy for Israel, or they’re just crazy, although Sullivan notes this:

You can see some of the effects in the latest CNN poll on the subject. Among Democrats, 49 percent say they have mostly or very favorable views of the Jewish state; but 48 percent have mostly or very unfavorable views – it’s split down the middle. On the question of whether Israel was justified “in taking military action against Hamas and the Palestinians in the area known as Gaza”, Democrats are also split 45 to 42 percent. There’s also a generation gap: among those over 50, an overwhelming majority – 65 to 26 – believe the Gaza campaign is justified; among the under 35, it’s an even split: 47 to 45. I’d say this is a problem for the Greater Israel lobby. The differential between their lock-step Democratic support in the Congress and the real divisions in the party at large may soon become much harder to disguise.

At least on the Democratic side, things may shift, and meanwhile in Gaza:

Gazan authorities said Israeli forces shelled a shelter at a U.N.-run school, killing at least 15 people, as the Palestinian death toll in the conflict reached 796 and attempts at a truce remained elusive.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed horror at the Thursday attack on the school at Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza strip. “Many have been killed – including women and children, as well as U.N. staff,” he said in a statement. “Circumstances are still unclear. I strongly condemn this act.”

Ban later arrived at Cairo where he was expected to meet U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been working the telephones to try to broker a truce.

Good luck with that. It sure looks like the Israelis tell the women and children that they’re going to blow up this building or that, so get out quick and go someplace safe, someplace designated as safe, because they really don’t want to blow up women and children, and then they blow up that place. That’s pretty clever, but they say that’s not so:

Israel Defense Forces spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner told Reuters TV: “It could be errant fire from the IDF or rockets landing from Gaza terrorists but we still don’t know, there’s still a question mark.”

A spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency said it had tried in vain to arrange an evacuation of civilians from the school with the Israeli army, and noted reports of Hamas rockets falling in the area at the same time.

There’s some ambiguity for you. The Israeli army wouldn’t let them leave the building, but Hamas rockets were falling in the neighborhood too. Still, this was inevitable:

Israel may have committed war crimes by killing civilians and shelling houses and hospitals during its two-week-old offensive in the Gaza Strip, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said on Wednesday. Pillay, opening an emergency debate at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, also condemned the indiscriminate firing of rockets and mortars by Palestinian militants into Israel.

Citing cases Israeli air strikes and shelling hitting houses and hospitals in the coastal enclave, she said: “These are just a few examples where there seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes. Every one of these incidents must be properly and independently investigated.” Israel, which accuses the Council of bias, boycotted the Geneva forum for 20 months, resuming cooperation in October. Its main ally the United States, a member state, has also said Israel is unfairly singled out.

We will stand with Israel here. We’re crazy about Israel, or just crazy, but this too was inevitable:

Israeli soldiers have shot and killed three Palestinian protesters and wounded about 100 on Thursday in confrontations with several thousand people demonstrating in the occupied West Bank against a 17-day-old Israeli offensive in Gaza, Palestinian medical officials said. …

The Israeli military confirmed troops had used “riot dispersal means” – a term used to cover weapons such as rubber bullets and tear gas – against protesters who threw rocks and firebombs at them and blocked a road with burning tires. …

The protest erupted after allies of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement marched from the West Bank city of Ramallah to the edges of Jerusalem in protest against Israel’s war against Hamas militants in Gaza, where the Palestinian death toll has topped 760.

Off to the northeast, in the other Israeli occupied Palestinian territory, the West Bank not Gaza, the “moderate” Palestinians crowd ain’t gonna be moderate one minute longer. Abbas and his boring Palestinian Authority will do the Hamas thing that is being done down in the Gaza Strip. Smash their skulls and break their spines? Yeah, that’ll work. That just turned the Palestinian Authority into a branch of Hamas.

That was a Texas Solution, a John Hagee or George Bush sort of answer to everything bad, enthusiastically embraced by the Israelis, but there are other ways to think of this, and the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson offers this:

I support Israel. I abhor Hamas. But unleashing such devastating firepower on a tiny, densely crowded enclave in which civilians are trapped – and thus destined to become casualties – is wrong by any reasonable moral standard.

The Israeli government’s motivations in Gaza deserve to be taken seriously. But they do not justify the onslaught that is now in its third week. For Israeli military action to be justifiable, it must be proportionate. What we’re witnessing is not.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Hamas is “targeting civilians and hiding behind civilians,” which he called a “double war crime.” He was referring to the fact that Hamas targets Israeli civilians with its rocket attacks and positions its military installations in residential neighborhoods or near schools and hospitals.

Netanyahu is right that these practices are reprehensible and that Israel has every right to respond. But none of this absolves Israel from its own moral responsibility. A civilized nation does not repay every heinous act in kind.

That’s another way to look at this, and of course Robinson is not from Texas – he grew up in South Carolina and headed off to the University of Michigan, and then was off to the Washington Post and his Pulitzer Prize and all that. It pays to get around. It makes the denial of the possibility of even a little ambiguity here and there seem kind of stupid.

It happens. Seeing the world has that odd effect. Stay in Texas, or perhaps in Pittsburgh, and you run the risk of deciding that what you see is what is good and what is evil, and that there’s nothing in between, and then deciding that the apocalypse is coming any day now. It isn’t, but the Israelis may have an excuse here. When you displace millions of people, and marginalize them and then try to starve them into submission, and they come to hate you for that and start to launch hundreds of crude rockets your way, it can seem like the end of the world where there’s no ambiguity at all. Smash their skulls and break their spines, or, alternatively, refuse to be a Texan. Go visit. You’ll see. They’re crazy for Israel down there, or just crazy.

Posted in Israel in Gaza, Israeli War Crimes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Never Quite in Charge

Any movie with Mel Brooks as King Louis XVI is bound to be good, even if his 1981 History of the World, Part I was a bit of a mess. Maybe it was supposed to be a mess, because the world is a mess and always has been a mess, but Brooks gets to deliver that one line everyone remembers from that elaborate bagatelle – “It’s good to be the king!”

It was, but only for a short time. The peasants revolted of course, and then it wasn’t good to be the king at all, and of course Brooks was doing a goof on the persistent notion that those in charge always seem to have, the idea that they’re actually in charge. They aren’t. Things don’t work that way, which was the whole point of that movie, and probably the basis for all comedy. Still, people don’t get the joke. Think about it. Every worker in America ends up fantasizing about being the boss, or being his or her own boss. As boss, they could do things right for a change. They could force others to do things right too.

That would be so cool, and then the inevitable promotions come along and that worker ends up in management with Mel Brooks giggling in the background. Damn. You can’t do what you want – there are cost and schedule restraints, and the market for your goods or services can suddenly turn elsewhere for better or cheaper stuff – and those who work for you don’t seem to be doing quite what you want, as they have ideas of their own, or personal issues. Fine – that happens. But fire them, and replace them with folks who are more submissive and compliant, and in a few months you’ll discover that those who seemed refreshingly submissive and compliant quickly turned out to be just as pesky as those you showed the door. There’s no winning. It’s not good to be king. That was the joke all along. People should pay more attention to Mel Brooks.

Dick Cheney and William Kristol and the rest of the remaining neoconservatives, and John McCain and the rest of the Republicans, should pay more attention to Mel Brooks. Their notion seems to be that if Obama is the boss he should act like one – he should slap down Putin for his nonsense in the Crimea and now eastern Ukraine, even if it means war – and he should have slapped down Assad in Syria, and told Malaki we were keeping our troops in Iraq no matter what Malaki or any of his folks said, and we should say the same to whoever ends up running Afghanistan now, and we should stop those talks with Iran on ending their nuclear weapons program, if that’s what it is. Tell them to stop it or we’ll nuke them to make them stop it – plain and simple.

That’s what leadership is, even if it means war again, or many wars again. Maybe no one wants another war or two, or three or four, but Kristol has said that a real leader would rally the nation to the great cause – every single young man in America, or every young single man in America, would drop everything and run off to enlist. Obama can’t do that because he’s a weak leader – he doesn’t know how to bend people to his will. He doesn’t know how to be boss. He’s hopeless. Dick Cheney’s new career is telling America just that – repeatedly saying that Obama is the weakest president he has seen in his lifetime – and this had made America weak. No nation will bend to our will any longer.

This notion took some odd turns last year, with Mitt Romney saying that Vladimir Putin is a far better president that Obama could ever be – then walking that back, and he certainly hasn’t said that lately. His point, however, was clear. Real leaders are bold. They do what they want and take what they want and set things right, no matter who is whining about what. Not that long ago that was the buzz – the American people agreed that Putin was cool, a great leader, and Obama was hopeless. Putin even sent the gay folks off to Siberia. He’s even a better Christian than Obama is, if Obama is even a Christian.

No one is saying that now, after Putin’s guys in eastern Ukraine shot down that passenger jet and killed three hundred men and women and (lots of) children, but that talk was in the air not so long ago, and that’s always been in the air. Back in 2006, when Iraq was falling apart, John McCain, in Manhattan for an exclusive fundraiser, explained what a real leader would do about that:

In a small, mirror-paneled room guarded by a Secret Service agent and packed with some of the city’s wealthiest and most influential political donors, Mr. McCain got right to the point.

“One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit,'” said Mr. McCain, according to Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, an invitee, and two other guests.

Hey, when you’re Boss of the World, when you’re in charge of things, they’d have to stop the bullshit. They’d have no choice, and now those on the right are saying the same sort of thing. Obama should tell Putin to stop the bullshit in eastern Ukraine, and tell Hamas to stop the bullshit in Gaza and just let the Israelis have it all and do what they want, and also tell Iran to stop their bullshit with those nuclear reactors and all those centrifuges, and as for Sunnis these days, Obama should just tell ISIS to stop their bullshit about building an new Islamic Sunni caliphate in the middle of a lot of actual countries over there. In short, show some leadership. Take charge. Be a man. It’s all very simple. They’d have to be submissive and compliant. They’d have no choice.

Mel Brooks is still giggling, because it really isn’t good to be king. Take charge and resentments grow and grow, until they explode, and you’re never really in charge anyway. Even last year’s hero on the right, Vladimir Putin, is finding that out. Things turned on him:

As a military trumpet sounded in tribute, the first bodies of victims from the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash arrived in the Netherlands on Wednesday after an airborne journey from Ukraine.

Sixteen coffins were aboard a Dutch military flight and 24 aboard an Australian jet, both of which left the northeast Ukrainian city of Kharkiv after a solemn ceremony. They landed a couple of hours later at Amsterdam’s small Eindhoven airport to a somber reception from King Willem-Alexander, Queen Maxima, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and others.

Black hearses pulled up on the tarmac to receive the coffins. A moment of silence was observed.

Wednesday was an official day of mourning in the Netherlands, with bells tolling throughout the country at various times of the day. Flags on all Dutch government buildings and diplomatic missions around the world were ordered to fly at half-staff.

These are the first of the hundreds of bodies that will be arriving and this is not what Putin intended. There weren’t supposed to be all these dead kids. He was the bold guy who took Crimea, because he could, and was going to take eastern Ukraine, and he would be awesome and make Obama look like a fool. His daughter lives in the Netherlands and now they want to deport her – they know what happened. They cannot do anything about him, but they don’t have to host this jerk’s daughter. Their own kids are dead.

Louis XVI eventually faced the same thing. Eventually it’s not good to be king, and at Business Insider, Bill Nichols explains the new panic in the Kremlin:

The one emotion most of us who study Russia never associate with the men of the Kremlin is panic. They’re not the type. They’re more like mobsters, prone to say “we have a problem,” rather than to freak out.

They think everything has a solution, although sometimes that solution might mean someone has to take nine grams of lead behind the ear.

They do not raise their voices – my experience is that most Russian tough-guys are mumblers, not yellers – and they get things done, even if the final outcome might lack a certain, say, elegance.

That’s why it’s unusual to see the government of Vladimir Putin, and maybe even Putin himself, panicking over the downing of Malaysian Airline Flight 17. For the first time in a long time, maybe even since Putin’s first election to power, the Russian regime has a problem it cannot solve, one that will cost the Kremlin in both money and reputation.

They were in charge, chipping away at Ukraine without leaving any fingerprints, but that’s changed now:

We have a mountain of evidence that the Russians were up to their necks in this. The BUK is a Russian system, found in both Ukraine and Russia, but it looks like the Russians brought some over the border, along with Russian military intelligence guys – the men actually running this “partition Ukraine” operation – and they taught some of the locals, including transplanted mercenary “separatists,” how to use them. The thing is, the BUK is really too complicated to use without adult supervision, and that’s especially true of a battery.

And now we get to the panic. Evidence is mounting not only that the BUK that killed MH17 came from Russia, but that the firing on the airliner was either supervised or ordered, or even operated, by Russian personnel.

If this is the case, the “lone rebel with an itchy trigger finger” theory goes out the window, and the “Russia is running a reckless and undeclared air war inside Ukraine” theory comes into sharp focus. Suddenly, an act of terrorism becomes an act of interstate war, directed with subterfuge and deniability… with the goal of dismembering the Ukrainian state.

Nichols imagines the briefings Putin got:

No, Mr. President, we will sweep any Ukrainian military jets from the sky. Yes, Mr. President, we will control their airspace, and paralyze them, until they accept partition, as we did with Crimea. No, Mr. President, we are professionals and there is no chance of error or detection. We have trained to fight Americans. This will be a piece of cake. …

And then a few weeks later, some somber-looking, sorry bastard walks in and says: Sir, we have a problem…

It was our stuff. Our missile. Our goons. Commanded by our officers. Yes, we’ve been caught on camera. Yes, there was some clumsiness on social media. No, we have not allowed anyone near the crash site, but we can’t hold it off forever. The men involved are in hiding. Except Strelkov, who has said the plane was full of dead bodies. (He freelanced that one, sir.)

How far does this go, Mr. President? Well, sir – and here the aide might shuffle some papers uncomfortably to avoid noting that the orders came from the very top – we can deny it all, but sooner or later the trail leads back through military intelligence to special channels in the military, to special channels here in the President’s office, to… well, you know…

The game is up, and Nichols is not surprised by their next steps:

Put out the story that Ukraine was responsible. Suggest the plane was off course and thus imply it was doing something nefarious. (Didn’t we work that angle in the 1983 crash?) Pledge our cooperation, but tell those idiots in Donetsk we want the black boxes in Moscow immediately. Don’t talk to the Western press. Send Churkin to take his obligatory ass-whipping from Sam Power…

But most importantly, keep doubling-down on everything.

Make sure the crash site belongs to us and no one else. Obfuscate as much as possible about who was doing what, and where. Suggest the Ukraine military planned this all along. See if you can dig up old stories about that Iranian plane the Americans hit, what was it? Iran 655? Yeah, work that for a while.

Yeah, we sort of did do the same thing in 1988 – we accidentally shot down a passenger plan and killed almost exactly the same number of people – but this is different. Nichols says the Russians’ mistake is a little different:

Panic in Moscow is hard to spot, but even from 6000 miles away, it’s easy to smell, and the metallic stink of fear is rising off the palace offices of the Russian executive as if from the gurneys in a cancer ward on the morning of an operation.

The only question, really, is how far Putin wants to go toward a trade war, economic collapse, further status as a pariah, maybe even open war, only in order to save face. The conventional wisdom is that he has to cut the insurgency loose.

Maybe. But if he doesn’t want to, he may settle for leaving a grinding conflict in place for now, in which he will claim that any real investigation and closure is impossible. He can then place his hopes in the West’s short attention span, and wait until all this blows over.

It won’t blow over:

I suspect the investigation, the tick-tock of the moments before the BUK fire, is already clear enough and widely distributed enough that we have the complete case against the “separatists” with a bill of particulars that stretches right to the rug in front of Putin’s desk.

And he knows it, and he knows that we know it. And until he finds a way to square this circle, panic – and more death – will be the order of the day.

Actually, all the signs are that he now knows he has lost control over the guys fighting his clever separatist war eastern Ukraine – those guys won’t even listen to him now. He’s not the good guy now and not even in control of things. Panic might be appropriate, but things had been going so well. Drat. It’s good to be king? That’s a joke.

The same sort of thing is happening in Gaza. The Israelis are in charge and they’ve had just about enough of Hamas, and they have all the power to wipe them out, and will do so. Their modern military is ten thousand times stronger than whatever ragtag crap that Hamas can come up with – mostly lots of high-trajectory missiles, ballistic missiles not guided missiles, rockets really, that can’t hit a damned thing except by chance, and ambushes and an occasional bomb in a café or bus. This will also be a piece of cake, although what has happened so far makes Israel seem like bullies. They do have the right to protect themselves – but the kill-ratio looks bad. That runs about two hundred to one, and there are too many dead Palestinian kids. It’s hard to get warm fuzzy feelings about Israeli heroes when four kids are blown away while playing soccer on a beach, or they blow up a Palestinian hospital. At least they don’t shoot down passenger planes, but they’re not as in charge there as they think they are.

Zack Beauchamp in this item takes a look at Israel’s new strategy in Gaza, based on the idea that “Israel would have to live with a certain level of threat but would use its military to occasionally weaken those threats and ensure they didn’t ever reach truly existential proportions.”

Beauchamp sees some flaws in that:

Obviously, Israel recognizes that the threats from groups like the Gaza-based militant group Hamas aren’t the same as the Cold War-era threats it faced from Arab invasions. So it’s developed a new version of its long-held threat management strategy, which is often called “mowing the grass.” It’s a pretty creepy term, as it implies that periodically killing people is the same as keeping your lawn groomed. But that’s the basic analogy: Hamas, like grass, can’t disappear, but it can be regularly cut down to size. And, like mowing the grass, it’s implied that this is a routine that will be continued forever.

According to Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir, Israeli academics based at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the basic difference between “mowing the grass” and Israel’s old strategy is that the end-goal has changed. In the era of wars with Arab conventional armies, Israel hoped that eventually “a long and violent struggle, punctuated by decisive battlefield victories, could eventually lead Arab states to accept the notion of Israel’s permanence.” In other words, Israel believed that its threat-management strategy would eventually lead to peace, which in cases such as Egypt it did.

Israel does not believe the same thing today about applying this strategy to non-state militant groups. Israel sees Hamas and other militants as “implacable enemies, who want to destroy the Jewish state and there is very little Israel can do on the political front to mitigate this risk.”

Fine, but “mowing the grass” will not make Israel safe:

Israel’s approach to Arab states worked, after a fashion, because it accomplished critical political ends. Some of Israel’s greatest enemies, such as Egypt and Jordan, gave up on the quest to destroy Israel. They’ve even signed peace treaties with Israel, making the Jewish state far more secure than it was during the Cold War.

But there’s no equivalent political endgame in mind here. Israel has no vision for how to “solve” the Hamas problem, which means rocket fire and periodic crises are inevitable for the foreseeable future. In both 2009 and 2012, Israel fought similar wars against Hamas, both designed to stop rocket fire out of Gaza. Yet here we are today.

In the New York Times, Gershon Baskin argues they got it wrong, because there is no military solution here:

The underground bunkers are protecting the Hamas leadership and its military commanders. Those taking the hits are the Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Not a single important Hamas commander has been killed, but hundreds of civilians have paid with their lives. … The Hamas regime can be brought down by Israel; Israel has the capabilities to do this. But it will require a full reoccupation of Gaza for an extended period of time and in the end, I fear the Israeli victory in Gaza will look very much like the victory of George W. Bush over Saddam Hussein – and look at Iraq today.

Wait! George Bush was a “strong” president. He did what he wanted – damn the Geneva Conventions and international law. Could it be that that’s foolish? Don’t tell Dick Cheney.

Also in the New York Times, Daniel Levy argues that there always has been an alternative to Israeli big-stick strength:

Perhaps start by not denying another people’s rights in perpetuity, including the right to self-determination. Reverse the current incentive structure that reciprocates both Fatah demilitarization and Hamas cease-fires with variations on an Israeli brand of deepening occupation. There is no military solution, but Israel’s government refuses any political solution – neither it nor the governing Likud Party have ever voted to accept a Palestinian state. Hamas’s non-recognition of Israel is troubling, and so should this be.

Humans do not respond well to humiliation, repression and attempts to deny their most basic dignity. Palestinians are human. Palestinians will find ways to resist – that is human – and sometimes that resistance will be armed. … What would you do under such circumstances? Start by treating the Palestinians as humans, as you yourself would wish to be treated.

That would be a start, but Alex Massie suggests that might be impossible:

Israel’s tragedy – or rather, one strand of the several tragedies threatening Israel – is that it feels obliged to follow a course of action in which it cannot quite believe. It must do something, make some response to Palestinian provocation even though any such response offers at best a period of temporary relief and, quite probably, will make matters worse in the longer-term. But what else can she do? Doing nothing is not an option either.

The rockets fired from Gaza are a kind of trap. Hamas knows that and so does Israel and so do all the rest of us. But Israel will fight anyway because it cannot avoid doing so even though if fights on ground that is not of its choosing and on terrain upon which, in terms of international opinion, it cannot possibly win. It is futile and counter-productive and unavoidable.

It’s the trap of not being in control when, given who has what capabilities, you should be. That’s not fair and that’s not right, but Andrew Sullivan is not cutting Israel any slack here:

Hamas did not initiate this round of conflict. Netanyahu used the murder of three Israeli teens by a splinter Hamas group often at odds with Hamas proper to sweep across the West Bank, and imprisoning countless Hamas operatives and supporters who had nothing to do with the horrible crime. And he did so while suppressing the full facts at his disposal and whipping up the Israeli populace to a Putinesque degree. Equally, Israel is not a victim when it comes to the settlements. It can choose to end them but has instead chosen to accelerate them as its most important priority. This empowers Hamas as much as it undermines Abbas.

Those in power in Israel have always had these choices. They still do. They had a super-power willing and able to hold their hands through the entire process and an international community committed to Israel’s security in return for some basic equity for the Palestinians. Netanyahu didn’t only say no; he did all he could to humiliate president Obama and even back his opponent in 2012.

This cul-de-sac has always been a choice. And I’m tired of finding excuses for the inexcusable crime of the settlements – a permanent and constant provocation every day.

Now imagine Mel Brooks strutting around in that movie, in his powder wig and velvet pantaloons, blurting out that it’s good to be king. Now imagine Netanyahu doing the same thing, and Putin doing the same thing. It is the same thing. Now pretend it’s a comedy. That’s the hard part.

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One Nit Successfully Picked

By all accounts Ronald Reagan was a pleasant fellow, and he was thoroughly sincere about what he believed without being a jerk about it, at least too often. Those who thought that what he believed was dangerous nonsense still liked that man. Tip O’Neill, a Democrat’s Democrat, stalwart friend of the unions and the poor working stiff who was never going to get rich, got along famously with Reagan. They were two Irishmen of the American sort – full of bluster and blarney and good humor. They could get things done on the side and then swap old stories over a few drinks, or more than a few drinks.

Reagan was, then, a good guy, a man’s man, and that goes a long way in national politics. Voters may not have paid close attention to what Reagan was actually proposing, but they never do pay attention to such things. They took the measure of the man and he would do just fine. In 1980, Reagan defeated the enigmatic Jimmy Carter easily, and in 1984 he wiped out Walter Mondale, carrying all but one state. Mondale carried only his home state of Minnesota (by 3,800 votes) and the District of Columbia – that was it. But this wasn’t surprising. As usual, and is always the case, the two Democrats insisted on talking about policy, and what needed to be done and could be done, and what we shouldn’t be doing at all. Reagan smiled. His message was simple. You know me. I’m a good guy. There was no arguing with that, and now, to everyone on the right, he is that on iconic heroic figure from the past, the man who got everything right and convinced America that it was right.

That’s odd, because Reagan, who hated the whole idea of taxes, which led to big government doing things the private sector should be doing, raised taxes several times, out of necessity, and his deficit spending on the military made the deficit grow enormously. His virulent anticommunism, which had to do with being strong and never giving an inch, was impressive, but at his summit with Gorbachev in Reykjavik he almost reached an agreement to have both the Soviets and us get rid of all nuclear weapons of any sort, finally settling for an agreement for both sides to get rid of a lot of them. Reagan wasn’t a tax-and-spend Democrat or a peace-and-love hippie, but these things happened. They are left out of the grand narrative about the guy, and the angry old white Tea Party crowd, who want the government to keep its hands off “their” Medicare, tend to forget that 1961 LP Reagan made, financed by the American Medical Association, of a speech he often gave that was all about how Medicare, if passed, would be the end of America as we know it – “We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”

In 1980, Jimmy Carter called him out on that. Reagan bumbled about and finally said he never opposed Medicare, really – old folks should be cared for by this sort of program – but he was lying. The evidence was there, on vinyl. He hated the idea of social insurance, a government safety net for everyone who is foolish enough to get old without being smart enough to get rich. If that happened, well, that was their problem. What about personal responsibility? We all should be free to succeed, or fail, and the consequences of either are ours alone. That’s what freedom is all about, and Medicare was socialized medicine. If it was passed, as it was four years later, our precious freedom would be gone forever.

Medicare actually was socialized medicine i a way, and our precious freedom wasn’t gone forever. Those over sixty-five ended up with a lot more freedom – they were free from worry about how the hell they’d be able pay for their inevitable increasing medical needs and still manage to live out their sunset years without ending up dead in the gutter next week. They were free to tell their children and their children’s children what it was like when few of those who somehow got old had any way to keep themselves relatively healthy, or even alive, way back when. They were also free, now that they had few worries about medical costs and had the free time to get involved in big issues, to tell everyone in sight that the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, would be the end of America as we know it. It was socialized medicine, of a sort, even if it was no more than a way to hook up those who need health insurance with private parties willing to sell it to them, providing a government subsidy for those who couldn’t pay what those private parties decided to charge, and setting minimum standards for what a health plan should cover. No matter – it was still wrong. What about personal responsibility? What about freedom? And what about the free market too? If enough people want something, the private sector will see those dollar signs and sell it to them. If there’s no money to be made insuring certain people, well, maybe it’s not worth doing. That’s how capitalism works. Health insurance should be market-based. The free market, through competition for what enough people want and are willing to pay for, will provide just that thing, and at the lowest cost and most efficiency, as private parties scramble to outdo each other to grab the few available dollars people are shoving at them to get what they want and need. Everyone wins. That’s our system, and the last thing we want is socialized medicine. What does the government know about medicine anyway?

These were the exact same arguments that their hero, Ronald Reagan, offered in his noble last plea not to pass anything like Medicare. Irony is a bitch, but Republicans didn’t have the votes to stop the Affordable Care Act from passing in 2010. They didn’t have the votes to repeal it in 2011. They didn’t have the votes to win the presidency and the Senate by campaigning against it in 2012, explicitly. The law was passed fair and square, long ago, by both houses of Congress, and survived a Supreme Court challenge too. The rules of the system were followed, scrupulously, and there are explicit rules for repealing a law. You find the votes to pass something else in its place. If you don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes – at least the Republicans don’t have the necessary votes in the Senate. Obamacare is in place and working rather well. It’s a lot like Medicare now. It’s a given, and it also frees a lot of people from worry, and frees a lot of folks, who can now buy their own insurance, good stuff at a good price, from having to keep a job they hate just for some kind of health coverage. They can quit and start their own businesses. They can become entrepreneurs. Republicans love entrepreneurs and they love personal freedom. What’s the problem here?

The problem is that along with Obamacare setting minimum standards for what an actual health plan should include, where some of what is included is what Jesus hates and wants His followers to stop at any cost, with Obamacare the wrong sort of people are getting government help purchasing what they should pay for themselves, or do without. There is such a thing as personal responsibility. Those who choose to be poor need to face the consequences of that decision. That’s the American way. We don’t do socialism.

It may be too late to do anything about that. That horse has left the barn so to speak. Obamacare, like Medicare, is settled law. There’s not much that can be done to get rid of it now, but then with enough nitpicking there might be one special nit to pick that will make it all fall down. You never know. It might happen. And it just happened:

Two federal appeals court panels issued conflicting rulings Tuesday on whether the government could subsidize health insurance premiums for millions of Americans, raising yet more questions about the future of the health care law four years after it was signed by President Obama.

The contradictory rulings will apparently have no immediate impact on consumers. But they could inject uncertainty, confusion and turmoil into health insurance markets as the administration firms up plans for another open enrollment season starting in November.

By a vote of 2 to 1, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down a regulation issued by the Internal Revenue Service that authorizes the payment of premium subsidies in states that rely on the federal insurance exchange.

If it stands, the ruling could cut off financial assistance for more than 4.5 million people who were found eligible for subsidized insurance in the federal exchange, or marketplace. It could also undercut enforcement of the requirement for most Americans to have insurance and the requirement for larger employers to offer it to their full-time employees.

That will end what Reagan would have seen as evil nonsense, or it won’t:

Critics of the law, who said the ruling in Washington vindicated their opposition to it, did not have much time to celebrate. Within hours, a unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., issued a ruling that came to the opposite conclusion.

The Fourth Circuit panel upheld the subsidies, saying the IRS rule was “a permissible exercise of the agency’s discretion.”

The language of the Affordable Care Act on this point is “ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations,” the Fourth Circuit panel said, so it gave deference to the tax agency.

This is a mess, but it’s pretty basic:

Subsidies, in the form of tax credits, are a major element of the health care law. Without them, many more consumers would be unable to afford coverage and could be exempted from the “individual mandate” to have insurance.

The employer mandate is enforced through penalties imposed on employers if any of their workers receive subsidies, so it could become meaningless in states where subsidies were unavailable.

And there are at least two other cases on subsidies pending in federal district courts, in Oklahoma and Indiana, so this will go on and on. And Kevin Drum explains the nitpicking here:

Well, the DC circuit court has ruled 2-1 that Obamacare subsidies apply only to exchanges set up by states, not to exchanges set up by the federal government. This is because one section of the law says that taxpayers can receive tax credits only if they enroll in a plan “through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311 of the [ACA].” The court ruled that a state is a state, and as far as that goes, it’s reasonable enough. Even if this was merely a drafting error, it’s pretty clear that the federal government isn’t a state.

The problem is that there’s more to it than that. The court is also required to ensure that its interpretation of a single clause doesn’t make a hash out of the entire statutory construction of a law. The majority opinion makes heavy weather of this for a simple reason: virtually everything in the language of the law assumes that subsidies are available to everyone. Why, for example, would federal exchanges have to report detailed subsidy information if no one even gets subsidies on federal exchanges in the first place? The court blithely waves this off, suggesting that it’s merely to allow the IRS to enforce the individual mandate. But that’s pretty strained. Enforcing the mandate requires only a single piece of information: whether a taxpayer is insured. It doesn’t require detailed information about eligibility for subsidies and the amount of the subsidies each taxpayer gets. The fact that all these details are required certainly suggests that Congress assumed everyone was getting subsidies.

The court, following the arguments of the plaintiffs, also makes a brave effort to figure out why Congress might have done something so transparently ridiculous as limiting subsidies to state exchanges. Their conclusion is that Congress deliberately withheld subsidies from federal exchanges as an incentive for states to set up exchanges of their own.

Yeah, well, in his dissent in the DC court, it seems Judge Harry Edwards wasn’t buying that:

Perhaps because they appreciate that no legitimate method of statutory interpretation ascribes to Congress the aim of tearing down the very thing it attempted to construct, Appellants in this litigation have invented a narrative to explain why Congress would want health insurance markets to fail in States that did not elect to create their own Exchanges. Congress, they assert, made the subsidies conditional in order to incentivize the States to create their own exchanges. This argument is disingenuous, and it is wrong. Not only is there no evidence that anyone in Congress thought § 36B operated as a condition, there is also no evidence that any State thought of it as such. And no wonder: The statutory provision presumes the existence of subsidies and was drafted to establish a formula for the payment of tax credits, not to impose a significant and substantial condition on the States.

It makes little sense to think that Congress would have imposed so substantial a condition in such an oblique and circuitous manner… The simple truth is that Appellants’ incentive story is a fiction, a post hoc narrative concocted to provide a colorable explanation for the otherwise risible notion that Congress would have wanted insurance markets to collapse in States that elected not to create their own Exchanges.

All that may be a bit hard to follow, so Drum clarifies:

There’s no evidence that Congress ever thought it needed to provide incentives for states to set up their own exchanges. Certainly they could have made that clear if that had been their intention. As Edwards says, this claim is simply made up of whole cloth. In fact, he says acerbically, the entire suit is little more than a “not-so-veiled attempt to gut the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”

Yes, and it may work, or not, but Brian Beutler in the New Republic sees trouble from Republicans either way:

The case of Halbig v. Burwell (formerly Halbig v. Sebelius), in which plaintiffs are attempting to void Affordable Care Act subsidies in states that didn’t set up their own healthcare exchanges, was and remains a fundamentally dishonest solicitation of right-wing judicial activism.

But that doesn’t mean right-wing judges won’t accept the invite, potentially devastating ACA marketplaces across the country. And on Tuesday, two Republican-appointed judges on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia drew up RSVPs, creating a template that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court may ultimately follow.

An adverse ruling would be devastating to the law itself. But the politics of a victory for conservatives would be anything but predictable.

And there’s this:

A majority on the three-judge panel essentially held that phrases read out of context in a section of the ACA statute “unambiguously” prohibit the IRS from subsidizing insurance plans in states that didn’t set up their own exchanges. That’s what the originators of the suit wanted them to do. But it required those judges to ignore no less a conservative than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who last month described the “fundamental canon of statutory construction that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.”

This then will be fun if it gets to the Supreme Court:

What the challengers have asked judges to do is to ignore the “fundamental canon” and buy into the idea that the Democrats who passed the law unambiguously structured it to withhold premium subsidies from states that refused to set up their own exchanges, as some sort of high-stakes inducement. This is plainly false. It’s the giant whopper underlying the entire theory of Halbig. A completely fabricated history of the Affordable Care Act, which treats the scores of reporters who covered the drafting of the law as idiots, and the aides and members who actually drafted it as bigger idiots and liars as well.

But the Supreme Court is a danger to both sides in the Obamacare fight:

An adverse Supreme Court ruling would throw the ACA into chaos in three dozen states, including huge states like Florida and Texas. The vast majority of beneficiaries in those states would be suddenly unable to afford their premiums (and might even be required to reimburse the government for unlawful subsidies they’ve already spent). Millions of people would drop out of the insurance marketplaces. Premiums would skyrocket for the very sick people who need coverage the most.

But that’s where the conservatives’ “victory” would turn into a big political liability for red- and purple-state Republicans. An adverse ruling would create a problem that could be fixed in two ways: With an astonishingly trivial technical corrections bill in Congress or with states setting up their own exchanges. If you’re a Republican senator from a purple state – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, and others – you’ll be under tremendous pressure to pass the legislative fix. If you’re a Republican governor in any state, many thousands of your constituents will expect you to both pressure Congress to fix the problem, and prepare to launch your own exchange.

Or, on the other hand, you could lecture everyone on personal responsibility and leave it at that. That could happen, and Kevin Drum plays this out:

So let’s suppose the Halbig case goes up to the Supreme Court and they rule for the plaintiffs: in a stroke, everyone enrolled in Obamacare through a federal exchange is no longer eligible for subsidies. What happens then? Is Obamacare doomed?

Not at all. What happens is that people in blue states like California and New York, which operate their own exchanges, continue getting their federal subsidies. People in red states, which punted the job to the feds, will suddenly have their subsidies yanked away. Half the country will have access to a generous entitlement and the other half won’t.

How many people will this affect? The earliest we’ll get a Supreme Court ruling on this is mid-2015, and mid-2016 is more likely. At a guess, maybe 12 million people will have exchange coverage by 2015 and about 20 million by 2016. Let’s split the difference and call it 15 million. About 80 percent of them qualify for subsidies, which brings the number to about 12 million. Roughly half of them are in states that would be affected by Halbig.

So that means about 6 million people who are currently getting subsidies would suddenly have them yanked away.

That’s unfortunate, but those six million would be in red states, and that changes things:

The key point here is that people respond much more strongly to losing things than they do to not getting them in the first place. For example, there are lots of poor people in red states who currently aren’t receiving Medicaid benefits thanks to their states’ refusal to participate in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. This hasn’t caused a revolt because nothing was taken away. They just never got Medicaid in the first place.

The subsidies would be a different story. You’d have roughly six million people who would suddenly lose a benefit that they’ve come to value highly. This would cause a huge backlash. It’s hard to say if this would be enough to move Congress to action, but I think this is nonetheless the basic lay of the land. Obamacare wouldn’t be destroyed – it would merely be taken away from a lot of people who are currently benefiting from it. They’d fight to get it back, and that changes the political calculus.

That also makes the new anti-fraud voter-ID laws and clever restrictions on the time and place of voting in those red states – which will, by an odd coincidence, keep the poor and the elderly and those pesky black folks from ever voting again – even more important. But how many people can you keep from ever voting again and for how long? And what if they get angry because they can’t vote? The Republicans may have found that nit that will destroy Obamacare, three or four ambiguous words buried deep in some subparagraph or another, but taking away what millions desperately needed and that they now have, finally, is a dangerous business. Reagan ended up expanding Medicare – once in office he knew better. Even he didn’t take the crazy things he said all that seriously. It was blarney. He was Irish. Those who worship him forget that. Let them pick nits. The joke’s on them.

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