A Final Fine Mess

It seems we’ve lost Luke Skywalker’s home planet:

Tataouine, the town in Tunisia where George Lucas filmed parts of Star Wars, has become embroiled in the country’s unrest with Isis.

The town’s simple domed structures became iconic after they were used for Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine, and die-hard fans often make pilgrimages to them. But the town has become increasingly unsafe, as it is a waypoint for Isis fighters travelling to and from training bases in Libya, 60 miles to the east.

CNN reports that major arms caches have been found in the area this month, one of them with 20,000 rounds of ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Yeah, well, Obi-Wan Kenobi did warn Luke about the place, the day they showed up in that one dusty Tatooine town to find someone who would get them out of there so they could go fight the bad guys – “Mos Eisley spaceport: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”

Sometimes location mangers get it right, but Tunisia is being cautious, after two ISIS gunmen stormed into the Bardo museum in Tunis on March 18 – shooting 23 people quite dead (for real) before being killed by security forces. This item also goes on to report that Tunisia “has massively stepped up military presence in cities, and created a buffer zone around the border to restrict passage to Libya and Algeria.” One can’t be too cautious. They need that tourist trade, although the new Star Wars movie – The Force Awakens – uses locations in Ireland and the UK and Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is still safe. Check out the world’s biggest roller-coaster restaurant that just opened there. Perhaps that’s the world’s only roller-coaster restaurant.

The rest of the region is just a roller-coaster. Nowhere is safe, so of course we’re staying in Afghanistan:

President Obama’s decision to maintain troop levels in Afghanistan through 2015 is partly designed to bolster American counterterrorism efforts in that country, including the Central Intelligence Agency’s ability to conduct secret drone strikes and other paramilitary operations from United States military bases, administration officials said Tuesday.

Mr. Obama on Tuesday announced that he would leave 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan until at least the end of the year. The announcement came after a daylong White House meeting with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan. The two men said the decision was a necessary response to the expected springtime resurgence of Taliban aggression and the need to give more training to the struggling Afghan security forces.

But two American officials said that a significant part of the deliberations on the pace of the withdrawal had been focused on the need for the CIA and military special operations forces to operate out of two large military bases: Kandahar Air Base in southern Afghanistan and a base in Jalalabad, the biggest city in the country’s east. Reducing the military force by half from its current level, as planned, would have meant closing the bases and relocating many of the CIA’s personnel and its contractors.

That wouldn’t do:

The resilience of Al Qaeda in the mountains that straddle the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has surprised many American officials, and there are fears that the Islamic State could gain a foothold in the Afghan conflict. Mr. Ghani has repeatedly raised the specter of the Islamic State in comments ahead of his trip to Washington and during his visit.

Yes, those Sunni madmen, first al-Qaeda and then ISIS, are a bother, and this Shiite guy is quite okay:

While the primary mission of Mr. Ghani’s trip is a military extension, he is also using his visit as a public-relations blitz aimed at repairing Afghanistan’s reputation as a country whose leaders have taken American help for granted over the past decade.

In a series of appearances Monday and Tuesday, Mr. Ghani repeatedly thanked American troops for their sacrifices in his country, and he promised that Afghanistan would reciprocate by building a government that could stand on its own economically, socially and militarily.

“You stood shoulder to shoulder with us, and I’d like to say thank you,” Mr. Ghani said at the news conference on Tuesday. “I would also like to thank the American taxpayer for his and her hard-earned dollars that has enabled us.”

The last guy, Hamad Karzai, never said such things. He was a bit of a jerk, but Ashraf Ghani proved he wasn’t in his address to a Joint Meeting of Congress. Unlike Benjamin Netanyahu, Ashraf Ghani was invited by all the members of Congress, not just the Republicans, in coordination with the White House and the Department of State – no one was blindsided – and Ashraf Ghani wasn’t there to proclaim that Obama was a fool and should be stopped from having anything to do with foreign policy, immediately. Ashraf Ghani is not Netanyahu and this went well:

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani invoked Islamic State as the latest threat to his country in a speech to the U.S. Congress seeking continued backing for America’s longest war.

While offering effusive thanks for 13 years of support in combat that cost more than 2,300 American lives, Ghani said Wednesday in an address to Congress that Islamic State and other terrorist groups are seeking inroads in Afghanistan and its neighbors. …

Attempting to depict the defense of Afghanistan in terms of terror threats now gaining the most attention, Ghani said the Sunni extremists of Islamic State are “already sending advance guards to southern and western Afghanistan to test for vulnerabilities.”

Even as he appealed for continued U.S. support, Ghani said he was determined to create a “self-sustaining Afghanistan” that would contribute to the global economy, bolster women’s rights and serve as “the graveyard of al-Qaeda and their foreign terrorist associates.”

He was different. He wasn’t going to be a whining freeloader, playing victim all the time, asking for billions here and billions there, and then calling American leaders fools – perhaps he was saying he wasn’t going to be Benjamin Netanyahu – and that won the day:

“The speech was quite extraordinary in every regard,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

“I know he made a lot of bold statements,” said Corker, referring to Ghani’s aspirations for the next decade. “But I do feel certain he’s going to make a lot of progress.”

Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Ghani’s advocacy for women’s rights is a “shining example of the real difference we have made in Afghanistan.”

But Obama is still a fool:

Republican lawmakers were less eager to praise Obama’s decision on suspending U.S. withdrawals because he stood by his vow to remove all but about 1,000 troops from Afghanistan by January 2017.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said while he welcomed Obama’s decision to delay the drawdown, he worries about the timeline.

“Don’t pick an arbitrary date,” said Graham, a Republican on the Armed Services Committee and a potential presidential candidate next year. “ISIL and other groups are looking for places to go,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Oh well, there’s no pleasing these people, but this is interesting:

Some lawmakers noted a welcome contrast exhibited by Ghani and the oftentimes frosty relations with Karzai.

Representative Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised Ghani as a “very humble man” whose “recognition of the sacrifices of the U.S.” marks a shift from his predecessor.

“It’s like night and day,” Engel said.

There was that, and this:

Ghani used much of his speech to thank everyone from Obama to U.S. taxpayers for years of sacrifice battling al-Qaeda and its Taliban sympathizers.

He said that someday he hoped U.S. combat veterans would return to visit Afghanistan “not as soldiers, but as parents showing their children the beautiful country where they served in the war that defeated terror.”

The American-educated Ghani, a former World Bank official, described being in the bank’s New York offices when terrorists struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and even recalled eating “corned beef at Katz’s, New York’s greatest, greasiest, pickle-lined melting pot.”

There you have it – Katz’s Delicatessen isn’t strictly kosher, but it’s pretty damned Jewish. There was a lot of signaling going on, and everyone remembers Katz’s from Meg Ryan’s famous fake orgasm scene at a table there in When Harry Met Sally… – where the woman at the next table says “I’ll have what she’s having.”

That’s what Ghani was saying too, and as he has a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University (1982) he also got to swap college stories with Obama, who did his undergraduate work at Columbia. This guy is good. Of course we’re staying in Afghanistan. After fourteen years, what’s another year or two, or three, or more, among friends?

So be it, but in Iraq, things are less clear-cut:

American warplanes began airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Tikrit late Wednesday, finally joining a stalled offensive to retake the Iraqi city as American officials sought to seize the initiative from Iran, which had taken a major role in directing the operation.

The decision to directly aid the offensive was made by President Obama on Wednesday, American officials said, and represented a significant shift in the Iraqi campaign. For more than three weeks, the Americans had stayed on the sideline of the battle for Tikrit, wary of being in the position of aiding an essentially Iranian-led operation. Senior Iranian officials had been on the scene, and allied Shiite militias had made up the bulk of the force.

Mr. Obama approved the airstrikes after a request from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the condition that Iranian-backed Shiite militias move aside to allow a larger role for Iraqi government counterterrorism forces that have worked most closely with United States troops, American officials said. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who has been advising forces around Tikrit, was reported on Sunday to have left the area.

To clarify – Iran had been in Iraq fighting ISIS – those Sunni madmen – for us there, using the many Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq, because the regular Iraq Army is hopeless, even after all our training. Their generals, from Iran, were directing the effort, there on the ground. Haider al-Abadi must have had a back-channel conversation with the folks in Tehran – one Shiite leader to another (they are close allies now) – and convinced the Iranians to stand down, to see if Iraq and the Americans could take care of the bad guys. Iraq isn’t part of Iran, not quite yet, and the Americans seem to want to jump in once again. Let them. Take the weekend off.

We did want to jump in again, to make eight years of war in Iraq, and five thousand lives, and two trillion dollars, worth all that:

The United States has struggled to maintain influence in Iraq, even as Iran has helped direct the war on the ground against the Islamic State. But as the struggles to take Tikrit mounted, with a small band of Islamic State militants holding out against a combined Iraqi force of more than 30,000 for weeks, American officials saw a chance not only to turn the momentum against the Islamic State but to gain an edge against the Iranians.

If the Americans did not engage, they feared becoming marginalized by Tehran in a country where they had spilled much blood in the last decade, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

American officials now hope that an American-assisted victory by Mr. Abadi and his forces will politically bolster him and counter the view of Iranian officials, and many Iraqi Shiites, that Iran is Iraq’s vital ally. “Taking back Tikrit is important, but it gives us an opportunity to have our half of the operation win this one,” one American official said. “It’s somewhat of a gamble.”

The administration also hopes that a Tikrit victory with American air power will ensure that it is their coalition with Mr. Abadi’s forces, and not the faction led by Mr. Suleimani, that then proceeds to try to recapture the larger and more pivotal city of Mosul.

Iran may not care about all that. Get rid of those awful Sunni ISIS folks and they’ll be happy. America will be gone one day, and then Iraq can become one of the provinces. They can wait, even if there was a little grumbling:

Shiite militia figures have criticized any outreach toward the United States. “Some of the weaklings in the army say that we need the Americans, but we say we do not need the Americans,” Hadi al-Ameri, the prominent leader of the group of Shiite militias known here as popular mobilization committees, said last week. …

At Friday Prayer in Karbala last week, a sermon by Sheikh Abdul Mehdi al-Karbalaee, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the powerful spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, pointedly called for more unity and better organization in the fight in Tikrit. That was widely taken as implicit criticism of the offensive’s lack of success.

The representative also said that fighters should refrain from flying Shiite religious banners, suggesting that better efforts should be made to involve Sunnis in the fight.

Yeah, that’s a problem:

American officials seemed heartened that Mr. Abadi had made a point of calling the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey last weekend to reassure them that once the Islamic State is rooted out of Tikrit, the Sunni city would be returned to the control of its Sunni police, not dominated by Shiite forces.

We did create a monster. We got rid of the Sunni despot Saddam Hussein, claiming he was in cahoots with al-Qaeda, even if al-Qaeda had been saying for years that they hated Saddam Hussein. Sure, he was a Sunni like them, but he was a secular Sunni. He wore western suits. He lived a lavish lifestyle. He never seemed to mention Allah. He wasn’t seventh-century austere. He wasn’t serious. They had no problem with America spending its blood and treasure, and ruining its reputation around the world, to get rid of that one guy. And they could wait. America got rid of the Sunni fool.

They shouldn’t have wished for that. It was inevitable that Iraq would end up with that Maliki fellow – a Shiite strongman who marginalized and humiliated every Sunni in Iraq, just as Saddam Hussein had marginalized and humiliated every Shiite in sight, for decades. The sectarian civil war continued, with the roles reversed. Our famous “surge” was supposed to end that – we bribed the Sunni militias at the time to fight the new al-Qaeda in Iraq, and told them that any new Shiite leader, like Maliki, would promise to be nice to Sunnis, because we’d tell him to. Yeah, sure – that wasn’t going to happen. Iraq would never be a whole nation of equals. It’s no wonder Sunnis in Iraq seem okay with ISIS at times. The ISIS crowd may be awful, but they’re better than that Shiite crowd in Baghdad. A little hope is better than none.

And there’s one other complication to this. Early on, Paul Bremmer ordered the Iraq Army disbanded, and ordered that every member of Saddam’s Baath Party be purged from government. Sunni generals from the former Iraq Army are now senior ISIS commanders, and many of the Sunni Baathists who lost everything are its foot soldiers. Paul Bremmer didn’t create ISIS, but he helped staff it. We pulled a few strings two years ago and got rid of Maliki, but Haider al-Abadi is little more than a more pleasant version of Maliki – a Shiite strongman who smiles and says he’s working on that be-nice-to-Sunnis thing. Now and then he makes the right sounds. That’s about it.

We did make a few mistakes in Iraq, but like Iran, we’ve always been fighting those deadly Sunni madmen, first al-Qaeda and then ISIS. They’re out to get us, but our long-time ally in the region has always been Saudi Arabia, a Sunni nation with Sharia Law and all that – they do behead folks and stone others to death, where women are not allowed to drive or be seen in public without their husband or a male guardian from the family. Saudi Arabia is an odd place, and then there’s that Wahhabi stuff – and a lot of private Saudi donations have always funded al-Qaeda – and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia – and Osama bin Laden is from a prominent Saudi family. Is Saudi Arabia out to get us? No, this is all about the oil. We’re close.

Fine, but then this happens:

Saudi Arabia led a coalition of 10 Sunni-ruled nations to begin massive air strikes against Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels as it seeks to stop the spread of Iranian influence on its southern border.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, has accused Shiite Iran of fomenting unrest in Yemen, which has emerged as the latest ground for a proxy confrontation between the two regional rivals. The air strikes come after forces loyal to the rebel group marched on the southern port city of Aden, the stronghold of Yemen’s President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi.

The operation is aimed at protecting “the legitimate government from a takeover by the Houthis,” Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Adel al-Jubeir said. Huge blasts could be heard all over Sana’a, as well as explosions at the al-Dailami air base near the capital.

Up north and a bit to the east we’re siding with the Shiites and hoping the “good” Sunnis don’t mind, but here we may have to go the other way, because these Sunnis have a coalition:

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar said they responded to a request from Hadi, according to a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco and Jordan are also part of the operation, according to Al Arabiya TV, bringing the total number of aircraft involved to 185.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations say they are taking more assertive military action to prevent the instability across the Middle East from hurting their interests in the region.

We have to be careful here:

U.S. President Barack Obama has “authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support” for the operation, the White House said in a statement. “While U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support.”

Escalating chaos in Yemen threatens the Obama administration’s ability to combat the al-Qaeda affiliate that’s most intent on attacking the U.S. and its allies. Obama singled out Yemen last June as a model for U.S. efforts to fight terrorism by relying on training allied forces rather than risk American lives.

Yeah, we wanted to combat a Sunni al-Qaeda affiliate there, but now the bad guys are Shiites, aligned with our enemy, Iran, with whom we have a shared interest in knocking off Sunni madmen, not Shiites, at the moment:

The Houthis marched from their northern base to capture Sana’a last year. The group then moved to strengthen ties with Iran, sending a delegation this month to Tehran to discuss economic cooperation and starting direct flights with the Iranian capital.

The Houthis, who follow the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam, say they operate independently of Iran and represent only their group’s interests.

That doesn’t help. Obi-Wan Kenobi had it right – “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”

If only it were that easy. Obi-Wan Kenobi should have had a word with George Bush back in 2003 – not that it matters now. We’re all-in now. We’ll just have to muddle through.

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When Not To Say the Right Thing

One must be careful what one says. That’s only polite, and it’s also useful. When the wife asks if that dress makes her look fat, it doesn’t. It never does. Use the right words. Lie. Otherwise, there will be trouble. Some words – like “fat” – just aren’t spoken in certain contexts. She looks sexy – that always works. Or it doesn’t. These things are tricky, and they’re even trickier in politics. The brash and spherical tell-it-like-it-is guy from New Jersey found that out in March 2014:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie apologized to Sheldon Adelson in a meeting Saturday for stepping on a fault line in Middle East politics during a speech he gave earlier in the day, according to a source familiar with the conversation.

Invoking a 2012 trip he and his family took to Israel, Christie recalled in the speech: “I took a helicopter ride from the occupied territories across and just felt personally how extraordinary that was to understand, the military risk that Israel faces every day.”

While the story was intended to forge common cause with Adelson and the several hundred donors to the Republican Jewish Coalition to which Christie was speaking, his use of the term “occupied territories” set off murmurs in the crowd. The term refers to lands in which Palestinians live where Israel maintains a military presence, including the West Bank.

Republican Jewish Coalition and conservative Zionists like Adelson don’t use the term “occupied territories” – that makes it sound like the Palestinians have a point, and they don’t – so the big guy did what he had to do:

Not long after his speech, Christie met with Adelson privately in the casino mogul’s office in the Venetian hotel and casino, which hosted the RJC meeting.

The source told POLITICO that Christie “clarified in the strongest terms possible that his remarks today were not meant to be a statement of policy.”

Instead, the source said, Christie made clear “that he misspoke when he referred to the ‘occupied territories.’ And he conveyed that he is an unwavering friend and committed supporter of Israel, and was sorry for any confusion that came across as a result of the misstatement.”

Adelson accepted Christie’s explanation, the source said.

That doesn’t mean anyone else did:

The mini-controversy and quick apology highlight both the importance of Adelson as the reigning mega-donor in GOP politics, as well as the tricky terrain that Middle East politics can pose for American politicians courting Jewish donors and voters.

Before the meeting, Adelson ally Morton Klein, president of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, had confronted Christie about his use of the term, telling POLITICO he explained to the New Jersey governor that “at minimum you should call it disputed territories.”

Christie was non-committal, said Klein, who concluded afterwards that the governor “either doesn’t understand the issue at all, or he’s hostile to Israel.”

Christie was toast, and still is, even if his speech contained this:

Christie recounted meeting the hawkish Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an RJC favorite, and being “extraordinarily taken by his strength and resolve.”

That’s fine, but Adelson had also invited Scott Walker and John Kasich that weekend and they didn’t screw up. Last time around, Adelson had dropped ten million dollars on Newt Gingrich, to get him to say things like there was no such thing as the Palestinian people, and that had been throwing money away. Mitt Romney got the nomination. This time Adelson is being more careful. You want his money? Use the right words. And that dress doesn’t make him look fat.

Fine, but facts are facts:

The Israeli-occupied territories are the territories occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967 from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. They consist of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem; much of the Golan Heights; the Gaza Strip, and, until 1982, the Sinai Peninsula. Israel maintains that the West Bank is disputed territory and asserts that since the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, it no longer occupies it. The West Bank and Gaza Strip are also referred to as the Palestinian territories or Occupied Palestinian Territory. The Palestinian Authority, the EU, the International Court of Justice, the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council consider East Jerusalem to be part of the West Bank and occupied by Israel; Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its capital and sovereign territory. West Jerusalem is considered to be occupied by Arab and Palestinian representatives.

The International Court of Justice, the UN General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council regard Israel as the “Occupying Power.” UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk called Israel’s occupation “an affront to international law.”

Ah, but there is the counterargument:

According to the views of most religious and traditional Jews and scholars belonging to Religious Zionism and to many streams of Orthodox Judaism, there are no, and cannot be, “occupied territories” – because all of the Land of Israel belongs to the Jews, also known as the Children of Israel, since the times of Biblical antiquity based on various Hebrew Bible passages.

The Jewish religious belief that the area is a God-given inheritance of the Jewish people is based on the Torah, especially the books of Genesis and Exodus, as well as the Prophets. According to the Book of Genesis, the land was promised by God to the descendants of Abraham through his son Isaac and to the Israelites, descendants of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. A literal reading of the text suggests that the land promise is (or was at one time) one of the Biblical covenants between God and the Israelites, as the following verses show…

Genesis 15:18-21
Exodus 23:28-33
Numbers 34:1-15
Deuteronomy 11:24
Deuteronomy 1:7
Ezekiel 47:13-20

The boundaries of the Land of Israel are different from the borders of historical Israelite kingdoms. The Bar Kokhba state, the Herodian Kingdom, the Hasmonean Kingdom, and possibly the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah ruled lands with similar but not identical boundaries. The current State of Israel also has similar but not identical boundaries.

A small sect of Haredi Jews, the Neturei Karta opposes Zionism and calls for a peaceful dismantling of the State of Israel, in the belief that Jews are forbidden to have their own state until the coming of the Messiah.

The Haredi Jews are the oddballs, and of course our evangelical Christians over here point out that the Messiah already showed up, over two thousand years ago. The Jews will figure that out one day, and accept Jesus as the personal savior, or burn in hell forever, after the Rapture and all that. Either way, our evangelical Christians here, and the Zionist Jews there, agree. Those Palestinians just don’t belong there.

Hollywood helped with that, with the 1960 film Exodus – a heroic epic about the founding of Israel, produced and directed by Otto Preminger, based on the 1958 novel Exodus by Leon Uris. The appropriate heroic music was by Ernest Gold and his theme song for the movie won Best Song at the Grammy Awards that year (the next year it was Moon River) – so soon everyone from Edith Piaf to Connie Francis to Andy Williams was singing “This land is mine, God gave this land to me…”

He did? Yes, He did, so Hollywood had a hand in all this – “Although the Preminger film softened the anti-British and anti-Arab sentiment of the novel, the film remains controversial for its depiction of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and for what some scholars perceive to be its lasting impact on American views of the regional turmoil.”

Sheldon Adelson probably still hums that Ernest Gold tune a lot, but this was the week the music stopped:

The White House issued a passionate call for eventual Palestinian statehood on Monday as it stepped up criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, for appearing to question a two-state solution to Middle East peace.

“An occupation that has lasted for almost fifty years must end,” Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, told a conference of liberal activists in Washington. “Israel cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely,” he added.

Despite Netanyahu’s efforts to distance himself from pre-election comments that appeared to rule out a Palestinian state, the US administration remains skeptical about his commitment to peace.

They’re just not buying it:

“We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made, or that they don’t raise questions about the prime minister’s commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations,” McDonough told 3,000 delegates at the national conference of J-Street, a Washington lobby group which describes itself as pro-Israel but supports a two-state peace process for a Palestinian state.

“Palestinian children deserve the same right to be free in their own land as Israeli children in their land,” he added. “A two-state solution will finally bring Israelis the security and normalcy to which they are entitled, and Palestinians the sovereignty and dignity they deserve.”

Fair is fair, and good for everyone, but one doesn’t say these things:

South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham blasted White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough’s statements at a conference held by the anti-Israel group J Street, calling them the same language used by terrorists. McDonough told the gleeful crowd, “An occupation that has lasted more – almost 50 years must end.”

Graham ripped McDonough, saying on the Senate floor on Monday, “The language used by the chief of staff of the president of the United States is exactly what Hamas uses … Today the chief of staff of the president of the United States used language that has been reserved for terrorist organizations.”

Lindsey Graham has been talking about running for president too, so maybe he wants that Adelson money:

Graham said of McDonough’s remarks, “All I can say is, when I thought it couldn’t get worse, it has … Wake up and change your policies before you set the whole world on fire. Please watch your language. …You’re making everything worse, and now you’ve added fuel to the fire.”

Graham also issued a warning to the White House, stating that if Obama abandons Israel at the United Nations, “Congress will recalculate how we relate to the United Nations.”

McDonough used the wrong words. Don’t set the whole world on fire, or Congress will force the United States to pull out of the United Nations. Those folks at the UN hate Israel too. Everyone hates Israel. Cue the movie music.

At the Atlantic Online, David Graham (no relation) points out that it’s been that kind of week:

It was an open secret that the White House was rooting for Israeli voters to turn Netanyahu out of office on March 17. Instead, they returned him the premiership, with a stronger and more right-wing coalition than before. Obama took his time placing a congratulatory phone call to Netanyahu, and when he did, two days later, he used the occasion to scold the PM for his pre-election renunciation of a two-state solution. Meanwhile, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S. would “reevaluate our approach” to the peace process (such as it is) in light of Netanyahu’s words. It was rumored that such a shift could include ending U.S. policy of blocking UN resolutions and actions critical of Israel.

Netanyahu has hastily moved to walk back his comments after the vote, insisting he really does want a two-state solution, but when a reporter asked why the administration didn’t just take Bibi at his word, Earnest replied acidly, “Well, I guess the question is, which one?” Lest that seem like just a spokesman firing from the hip during a briefing, Obama used a similar line during an in-depth interview with The Huffington Post: “We take him at his word when he said that it wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership, and so that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region.”

On Monday, Netanyahu tried again to clean up after comments he made during the election, in this case dark warnings that his opponents were busing Israeli Arabs to the polls to defeat him. It was a classic non-apology apology, regretting mostly the offense: “I know that my comments last week offended some Israeli citizens and offended members of the Israeli Arab community. This was never my intent. I apologize for this.” The White House was, as The New York Times put it, “unmoved,” and speaking at a conference of the liberal Zionist group J Street, Obama’s chief of staff kept up the heat.

And then it got worse, with the Wall Street Journal scoop Tuesday – Adam Entous reporting that the United States had discovered that Israel was spying on negotiations with Iran on a nuclear deal. Israeli officials immediately rejected the report – “Israel does not spy on the United States, period, exclamation mark.” That’s what Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said – “Whoever published those false allegations possibly wanted to damage the excellent intelligence cooperation between us and the United States.”

Yeah, well, the Wall Street Journal story cites “senior White House officials” and “a senior US official” – so David Graham adds this:

How did the U.S. find out that Israel, its close ally, was spying on the talks? When the U.S. was spying on its close ally Israel, of course! Both sides spy on each other all the time, with each having full knowledge of the other’s activities. In fact, the Journal’s sources acknowledge the hypocrisy involved – they only got angry when Israel took the info they’d intercepted and handed it over to Congress.

“It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” “a senior U.S. official” told the paper.

There you have it:

The U.S. wasn’t really offended by the spying, and delivering the story to the press is really just another way to turn the pressure up on Israel and express the administration’s displeasure. However, as my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg noted on Twitter, the story does raise the question of whether the administration – already committed to bypassing Congress in negotiations toward a nuclear deal with Iran – was also withholding essential information from legislators.

And there was this – “Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday he was ‘shocked’ and ‘baffled’ by reports the Israeli government had spied on sensitive U.S.-Iran nuclear talks and passed information to members of Congress to whip up opposition to a potential deal.”

John Boehner is perpetually shocked and baffled, so ignore that, but don’t ignore this:

It’s not just Democrats and White House officials who’ve got problems with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Blasting “diplomatic missteps and political gamesmanship,” former Secretary of State James Baker laid in hard to the Israeli prime minister on Monday evening, criticizing him for an insufficient commitment to peace and an absolutist opposition to the Iran nuclear talks.

No one expected that:

Baker, who was the chief diplomat for President George H. W. Bush and is now advising Jeb Bush on his presidential campaign, cited mounting frustrations with Netanyahu over the past six years – but particularly with comments he made in the closing days of last week’s election disavowing his support for a two-state solution and support for settlements strategically placed to attempt to change the borders between Israel and the West Bank.

“Frankly, I have been disappointed with the lack of progress regarding a lasting peace – and I have been for some time,” Baker said. And “in the aftermath of Netanyahu’s recent election victory, the chance of a two-state solution seems even slimmer, given his reversal on the issue.”

Baker said while Netanyahu has said he’s for peace, “his actions have not matched his rhetoric.”

This was a problem for Jeb Bush, who needs Sheldon Adelson on his side, so there was this:

Presumed Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush says he disagrees with critical comments about Israel made Monday by former Secretary of State James Baker, according to his campaign team.

Baker, a longtime friend of the Bush family and an unpaid adviser to Jeb Bush’s expected presidential campaign, has been an outspoken advocate for the former Florida governor’s possible White House bid. Bush touted Baker’s support last month when he announced a 21-member foreign policy advisory team that is counseling him as he prepares to run for president.

The group of nearly two dozen Republican experts also includes former secretaries of state George Schultz and Condoleezza Rice and other veterans of the two Bush administrations, including Paul Wolfowitz and John Negroponte. Aides have said that the group embodies the broad base of support for Bush, but that the luminaries are not advising the former governor on a daily basis.

Jeb knows trouble when he sees it, but then there was this:

The United States signaled no change in its support for Israel at the United Nations on Monday, refusing to take part in a forum on alleged Israeli human rights violations.

Despite the Obama administration’s pledge to rethink its support for Israel at the United Nations in response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign rejection of a Palestinian state, the United States’ refusal to discuss alleged Israeli abuses at the U.N. Human Rights Council was consistent with the previous U.S. position.

Netanyahu must be confused now, because Obama still has his back on some pretty obvious war crimes, but Obama seems to be pulling out all the stops on the “occupied territories” thing, but there’s nothing new here. Consider May 2011:

President Barack Obama yesterday endorsed a key Palestinian demand, calling on Israel to agree to borders of a Palestinian state “based on the 1967 lines” that existed before Israel captured the West Bank and Jerusalem that year in the Six Day War with Arab nations.

It was the first time a U.S. president has explicitly backed using the 1967 boundaries as the starting point for talks that would have Israel cede control of land to Palestinians in return for peace and security. The proposal may have little impact, as Obama offered no steps to restart the stalled peace talks.

The proposal drew immediate fire from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who meets with Obama at the White House today. Netanyahu said in a statement that the 1967 boundaries would be “indefensible” and could leave major Jewish population centers behind Palestinian lines.

Obama said a deal along 1967 lines needs to include land exchanges to allow Israel to retain major settlement blocs in return for granting offsetting land to Palestinians.

“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states,” Obama said in a major policy speech at the State Department in Washington outlining his vision for the Middle East.

Someone else wanted Obama’s job back then, but there was nothing new:

“President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus,” former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said in a statement.

Obama’s language was an incremental move, not a break with what has been U.S. policy, said Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt. He said that while it has long been assumed that 1967 borders will form the basis for an agreement, “when you finally get an articulation of U.S. policy, it means something.”

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, said, “I think it’s a small step in the right direction because it reaffirms the U.S. commitment to the 1967 lines, two states and equal swaps.”

“We know by now that left to themselves, the Israelis and Palestinians will never resolve” their issues, Brzezinski, who serves as a counselor and trustee for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an interview.

And Obama saw what was coming:

Time is working against Israel, Obama said. The Palestinian population is increasing and “the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation,” he said.

The president also called for “permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.” The statement didn’t seem to leave room for Israel’s position that any agreement must allow Israeli troops to patrol the western seam of an eventual Palestinian state and Jordan to prevent terrorist groups from entering.

Netanyahu announced in his statement that when he meets with Obama, he “will make clear that the defense of Israel requires an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River.”

Reaction from members of Netanyahu’s coalition government was even harsher.

Danny Danon, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, likened Obama’s plan to one to eliminate Israel by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, adding that the U.S. president hoped “to remove the State of Israel from the map.”

That’s what Lindsey Graham was just saying, but there was the guy before Obama:

Obama’s mention of land swaps seemed to endorse a 2004 agreement between then-President George W. Bush and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

In a 2004 letter Bush sent to Sharon, he recognized that any peace agreement must take into account major settlement blocs built since Israel gained control of the West Bank and Jerusalem in June 1967, as well as the fact that Israel would not relinquish Jerusalem. In return, Sharon moved to withdraw completely from Gaza and some parts of the West Bank.

This sort of thing has been going on a long time, as Dan Murphy notes here:

Barack Obama isn’t the only American president to chafe at an Israeli prime minister trying to go behind his back to the US Congress on foreign policy.

In September 1981, President Ronald Reagan welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin – who founded the Likud Party Benjamin Netanyahu now leads – to Washington, at a time that he was seeking approval of the sale of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes to Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Begin was furious about it, saying it would irreparably harm Israel’s security and launching a full-court lobbying effort in Washington to upend the sale. “We can only repeat our position that it will endanger very seriously the security of Israel,” Begin said after touching down in the US.

Reagan writes in his autobiography of meeting Begin on that trip, and of the Israeli’s objections to the AWACS deal.

Reagan told Begin that the US thought the deal wouldn’t harm Israel’s security, and might open a deal to a peace deal with Saudi Arabia, much like the one recently signed with Egypt.

Murphy quotes Reagan on how that went:

Although I felt that our relationship had gotten off to a good start and that I had Begin’s confidence that we would do whatever it took to ensure the safety of Israel, I learned that almost immediately after he left the White House, Begin went to Capitol Hill and began lobbying very hard against me, the administration, and the AWACS sale – after he had told me he wouldn’t do that.

I didn’t like having representatives of a foreign country – any foreign country – trying to interfere in what I regarded as our domestic political process and the setting of our foreign policy. I told the State Department to let Begin know I didn’t like it and that he was jeopardizing the close relationship or our countries unless he backed off. Privately, I felt he’d broken his word and I was angry about it.

Of course he was, and Murphy adds this:

The bad taste this episode left probably contributed to Reagan’s cutting off of supplies of cluster-bombs to Israel the next year, and to the decision in early 1992 by Reagan’s vice president and successor, George H. W. Bush, to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees for Israel until the country agreed to freeze settlement expansion, something Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to that July, though settlement expansion continued.

As for Reagan, he went public too:

On Oct. 1, an angry Reagan told a press conference that “it is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy.” When asked if that meant Israel, he responded. “Well… or anyone else…”

That wasn’t the right thing to say, but that was the appropriate thing to say. The George Bush that followed Reagan did the same. The second George Bush did the same. Now it’s Obama’s turn, and Sheldon Adelson can keep his money, and he can hum the theme from Exodus all he wants. This isn’t a movie. Yes, one must be careful what one says. But the truth works just fine. Sometimes it’s necessary.

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Off and Running

Off and running… Off, and running… Commas matter. And Ted Cruz pulled the trigger:

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas announced on Monday morning that he would run for president in 2016, becoming the first Republican candidate to declare himself officially in the race.

Linking the determination of his immigrant father with the resolve of the founding fathers and his own faith in “the promise of America,” Mr. Cruz spoke at length about his family and his faith as he laid out a case for his candidacy.

“God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation, and I believe God isn’t done with America yet,” Mr. Cruz said before thousands of cheering students here at Liberty University. “I believe in you. I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to re-ignite the promise of America.”

“Today, I am announcing that I am running for president of the United States,” Mr. Cruz added. “It is a time for truth, it is a time for liberty – it is a time to reclaim the Constitution of the United States.”

Yes, the venue was Liberty University – “The University was founded as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971 by Jerry Falwell, who was also Senior Pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church. The name was changed to Liberty Baptist College in 1976 before settling on its current name, Liberty University, in 1984, when it obtained university status. Liberty University describes itself as a Christian academic community.”

Note that Ed Dobson is a former dean there – the former head of the now disbanded Moral Majority organization, the group that started the whole business of making Christianity, and Jesus, exclusively Republican. Cruz may be only a first-term senator, and seen by most Republicans and all Democrats as the most divisive figure to pop up in Washington in many a long year, but he was positioning himself as “a truth-telling hero” to conservatives and particularly to evangelicals, and this speech was a barn-burner:

His speech was packed with calls to “imagine a president” who would repeal the Affordable Care Act, abolish the Internal Revenue Service, “defend the sanctity of human life and uphold the sacrament of marriage.”

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy heard this:

He started out by talking about his background as the son of a Cuban immigrant who fought to bring down the dictator Fulgencio Batista during the Cuban revolution, but who subsequently turned against Fidel Castro and, at the age of eighteen, decided to move to the United States. “Imagine, for a second, the hope that was in his heart as he rode that ferry boat across to Key West and got onboard a Greyhound bus to head to Austin, Texas, to begin working, washing dishes, making fifty cents an hour,” Cruz said. But the thoughts of an immigrant fifty-odd years ago weren’t the only thing that he wanted the crowd to imagine. Indeed, as the speech developed, it sounded increasingly like he was channeling John Lennon. But not Lennon the atheist skeptic and peacenik: this was a Liberty University version of the Beatle.

“Imagine, instead of economic stagnation, booming economic growth,” Cruz said. “Imagine young people coming out of school with four, five, six job offers. … Imagine in 2017 a new President signing legislation repealing every word of Obamacare. … Imagine a simple flat tax that lets every American fill out his or her taxes on a postcard. … Imagine abolishing the IRS … Imagine a federal government that works to defend the sanctity of human life and to uphold the sacrament of marriage. … Imagine a federal government that protects the right to keep and bear arms of all law-abiding Americans.”

If there were any liberal Democrats tuning in, they were probably hurling things at the screen by now. Cruz wasn’t done. “Imagine repealing every word of Common Core,” he went on. “Imagine a President who stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel.” (That one earned him his biggest cheer yet.) “Imagine a President who says, ‘I will honor the Constitution.’ … Imagine a President who says, ‘We will stand up and defeat radical Islamic terrorism, and we will call it by its name.'”

It was the same old stuff, but delivered well, although Cassidy wonders what good it did:

Appearing to be thoroughly enjoying himself, Cruz conceded that some of his wish list might be difficult, or even impossible, to imagine. He reminded his audience that, in 1979, when Ronald Reagan started his second Presidential campaign, it would have been equally impossible to imagine the Berlin Wall coming down and the Soviet Union collapsing. “Compared to that, repealing Obamacare and abolishing the IRS ain’t all that tough,” Cruz said. Then he asked the audience members, most of who weren’t born when Reagan left office, to text the words “Constitution” or “imagine” to the number 33733.

What did that mean? Most likely that Cruz intends to run as the Howard Dean of the religious right – a tub-thumping insurgent who uses social media to outmaneuver better-financed rivals. Speaking on Fox News, Joe Trippi, the Democratic strategist who ran Dean’s campaign in 2004, said after the speech, “I thought he did a great job.” Ed Rollins, the veteran Republican operative who was once Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager, was equally impressed. He raised the prospect of Cruz winning the Texas primary, which will take place next March, and emerging as a serious contender.

That’s looking a long way ahead, and Cruz has a lot of ground to make up.

The New York Times account offered this:

At times a history lesson – he invoked both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Patrick Henry – and at times a call to action, Mr. Cruz sought to position himself as the candidate who would give the Republican Party’s right wing the country they desire. He spoke directly to conservatives, with no real broad appeal to the more moderate wing of his party.

But not to worry:

Several Republicans said on Monday that given Mr. Cruz’s rhetorical skills and passion, and his ability to inspire restless or disenchanted conservatives and evangelical Americans, his candidacy should not be underestimated.

“He has had the single best sound bite over the last three years, saying that the big problem in Washington is we don’t listen,” said Frank Luntz, a longtime Republican pollster. “That message transcends ideology and partisanship, because so many in the public think Washington is out of touch.”

Mr. Cruz’s chief downside, Mr. Luntz said, is reflected in his relationships with other Republicans in the Senate.

“His colleagues really don’t like him, and it’s very difficult when your own colleagues won’t stand up for you,” Mr. Luntz said. “There’s a subtle message that there is something wrong.”

In fact, Cruz was off, and running anyway, because he had to run now:

In part, financial urgency prompted the accelerated timetable: advisers to Mr. Cruz have seen donors of the party flock to other potential candidates, including Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who since January has won the most notice among Republicans clamoring for a nominee other than former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. Mr. Cruz’s advisers say his goal is to raise at least $40 million, with roughly $1 million in the first week.

This was all about the money, but his party has issues:

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) on Monday mocked his party’s first major presidential contender, Sen. Ted Cruz (TX), as “a carnival barker.”

“Shutting down the federal government and reading Dr. Seuss on the Senate floor are the marks of a carnival barker, not the leader of the free world,” King said in a Facebook post.

King said the Republican Party could do better than Cruz…

And there was this:

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said on Monday that he won’t back his fellow Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) during the 2016 Republican presidential primary.

In an interview with Politico, Cornyn said that he would not endorse any candidate in the primary.

“You know, we’ve got a lot of Texans who are running for president, so I’m going to watch from the sidelines,” he said.

When asked if he would support Cruz’s run financially, Cornyn responded, “Nope. You got a lot of people involved, and I don’t see any benefit to them or to me.”

Cornyn’s lack of support does not come as a huge surprise, as Cruz would not endorse Cornyn in his 2014 Senate re-election primary against Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX). Cruz later endorsed Cornyn after he defeated Stockman.

Nate Cohn at the Upshot statistical blog at New York Times explains the problem:

In April 2013, Cruz was identified as “The Most Hated Man in the Senate” by Foreign Policy magazine, which described him as “the human equivalent of one of those flower-squirters that clowns wear on their lapels.” And that was before he led the government shutdown. If you did a web search for “Senators Hate Ted Cruz” on Sunday, that Foreign Policy article wouldn’t have even come up on the first Google page. It was supplanted by titles like “Why Senate Republicans Hate Ted Cruz,” “GOP Still Despises Ted Cruz,” “Everybody Hates Ted Cruz” and the generously titled “How Unpopular Is Ted Cruz Right Now?” Answer: very.

This man dug his own grave:

Mr. Cruz is not an outsider, grass-roots version of President Obama in 2008. He is unacceptable to many conservative officials, operatives, interest group leaders and pundits. If they don’t take him seriously, voters won’t either. The elites would rally to defeat such a candidate if he ever seemed poised to win.

I can already hear the conservative, grass-roots activists complaining about this establishment, elite-driven model of Republican primary politics. I can hear them promising to prove the mainstream news media, and every one of Mr. Cruz’s detractors, wrong. But much of the Republican rank-and-file has reached the same conclusion as the party’s elite, whether they’ve done so because of elite signaling or by some other means.

Just 40 percent of Republicans in an NBC/WSJ poll last month said they could see themselves supporting Mr. Cruz, while 38 percent said they couldn’t. That two-point margin in the plus column was the second worst among the elected officials who are thought to be major contenders for the nomination. Only Chris Christie fared worse.

No one likes the guy:

Despite considerable national media attention, Mr. Cruz holds only about 6 percent of the vote in national polls. Early national polls aren’t exactly predictive of the nomination, but every presidential nominee since 1976 except Bill Clinton has reached about 15 percent of the vote by this point in the campaign.

The point isn’t that Mr. Cruz’s low level of support precludes him from winning the nomination. But he clearly hasn’t entered the race as the favorite of conservatives, and there isn’t much reason to assume that he will eventually become the favorite. The fight for conservatives will be hotly contested. Viable candidates with a far more plausible shot to win the nomination, like Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, or even Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry and Mike Huckabee, will all be competing for these voters.

Ah, but that may be the plan. This man is very clever, and Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine argues that Ted Cruz actually wants Republicans to hate him:

In the course of a short political career, Ted Cruz, who today announced his campaign for the presidency, has defined himself in singular terms as the authentic representation of the right. He is loathed by nearly all Democrats and many Republicans, and treated by the Washington Establishment with unusually undisguised contempt, a man apart from the crowd. And yet there is very little in his platform to distinguish him from the rest of the party. In his announcement speech, Cruz ticked through his plans for America: repealing Obamacare, a flat tax, securing the border, banning abortion, preserving traditional marriage, opposing Common Core, and unyielding support for Israel and opposition to terrorism. Cruz’s style is uniquely terrifying to his critics (or thrilling to his supporters), but the substance is unremarkable standard-issue Republicanism.

But if policy does not explain Cruz’s “uniquely radical image” what does? Chait cites the Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway – “It’s not necessary for him to show that he’s the most conservative, but that he’s the most courageous conservative.” And there’s Mike Needham, head of the conservative lobby Heritage Action for America – “Ted is exactly where most Republican voters are. Most people go to Washington and get co-opted. And Ted clearly is somebody that hasn’t been.”

Then there’s Cruz himself – “Every candidate is going to come in front of you and say I’m the most conservative guy who ever lived. Well gosh darn it, talk is cheap. One of the most important roles men and women of Iowa will play is to say, ‘Don’t talk, show me.'”

So there you have it:

Cruz is not attempting to distinguish himself from his party substantively. He is attempting to distinguish himself characterologically. Cruz depicts a party Establishment too cowardly to actually fight for the conservative agenda.

Cruz is doing what he should be doing:

This is not only an old idea in conservative politics – it is the foundational idea of the conservative movement. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Republican Party had largely made its peace with the new role of government created by the New Deal. Conservatives were merely one faction within the GOP, frustrated by their powerlessness to influence its agenda. The conservative movement, which was identified intellectually with National Review and politically with Barry Goldwater, wanted their party to launch a full-throated counterattack on big government. They had an ideological program that differed sharply from the reigning ideology of Eisenhower and Nixon: a straightforward attack on big government as socialism.

Their substantive policies were complemented by a unique political analysis. The conservative believes that – in contrast to Republican leaders who cautioned that moderation was required in order to compete for mainstream votes – moving to the right in this way offered the party its greatest chance to win a national majority.

And they’re still mad that didn’t work out for them:

Conservatives believed they had been thwarted by feckless or even traitorous leaders. Conservative activists identified as their primary enemy the eastern Establishment, led by the hated Nelson Rockefeller, who supported what Goldwater dismissed as a “dime-store New Deal” – a pathetic capitulation to big government. “A Choice Not an Echo,” Phyllis Schlafly’s wildly successful campaign tract on Goldwater’s behalf, charged, “In each of their losing presidential years, a small group of secret kingmakers, using hidden persuaders and psychological warfare techniques, manipulated the Republican National Convention to nominate candidates who would sidestep or suppress the key issues.”

When Schlafly wrote this, the conservative movement was in a state of open mutiny against the Republican Party leadership. In the years since, conservatives have slowly won control of the party apparatus. There is no longer any serious intellectual resistance to conservatism among Republicans. Everybody within the party accepts its fundamental precepts (markets good, government bad), reveres the teachings of Ronald Reagan (himself a key force in the Goldwater movement), and draws ideological support from institutions aligned with conservatism.

The Phyllis Schlafly crowd took over the party, and Cruz knows it, so he thinks he’ll do just fine, maybe:

Goldwater had both a substantive program and a political theory that distinguished him from his party’s leaders. Cruz has only a political theory. Because he agrees with the policy goals of figures like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, all he can do to distinguish himself from them is stoke the suspicions of the base that those goals have been undermined from within. His shutdowns, his filibusters, his wild personal attacks – they all reinforce Cruz’s story. He is the one Republican too brave and pure to submit to the Obama agenda. If his tactics fall short, it merely serves to dramatize his colleague’s fecklessness.

All this is why so many Republicans despise Cruz, and it will make it difficult for him to win the nomination. But the loathing between Cruz and his party is not some failing of etiquette. It is his entire plan.

Will that work? Scott Lemieux, the professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, who focused on the Supreme Court and constitutional law, does wonder about that:

The left will enjoy beating up on Ted Cruz. Will the right rally behind him? Cruz is a long shot to win the nomination, but he is a canny politician with enough of a base of support to act as an ideological enforcer during the primaries. And one of the most important orthodoxies he will be policing is total, uncompromising opposition to what will invariably be referred to as “Obamacare.”

Another notable aspect of Cruz’s announcement was the date: Monday was the fifth anniversary of President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act. The significance of this was swiftly grasped. Republican power broker William Kristol explained the symbolic importance of the date to his Twitter followers, and added that if “he makes zeal for repeal AND real plan to replace a centerpiece of his run, has a shot.”

Somehow I doubt that Cruz will propose that replacement. Cruz isn’t methodical; he’s all zeal and no plan, as evidenced by his unusual, quick burst announcement that he’s running for president. But before he burns out he’ll provide plenty of amusement for the left, and plenty of trouble for his more cautious colleagues on the right.

He was always formidable, as John Cassidy notes:

At Princeton, Cruz was a national debating champion (and was, according to a roommate, known to carry a book entitled, “Was Karl Marx a Satanist?”). At Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1995, he was also known as a formidable public speaker. “He had brilliant insights and he was clearly among the top students, as revealed by his class responses,” the Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz told the Daily Caller last year.

Those were the days, and Josh Marshall, back in September, 2013, was surprised when the woman who is now his wife reminded him that they both knew Cruz back at Princeton:

Ted and I went to college together. And not just we happened to be at the same place at the same time. We were both at a pretty small part of a relatively small university. We both went to Princeton. I was one year ahead of him. But we were both in the same residential college, which basically meant a small cluster of dorms of freshmen and sophomores numbering four or five hundred students who all ate in the same dining hall.

My wife meanwhile was also in the same residential college and she was actually Ted’s year – Class of 92. She totally remembered Ted and basically as a conceited and fairly nerdy jerk.

But the weird thing was I didn’t remember him. And the context here is that I have a really good memory. If we meet after twenty years, I’m far more likely to remember you than vice versa and I’ll probably remember little details about you too. I don’t forget a lot of stuff, especially people. But I didn’t remember the name or the guy I was seeing on TV.

As it turned out, though, almost everyone I knew well in college remembered him really well – vividly. And I knew a number of his friends. But for whatever reason I just didn’t remember him. When I saw college pictures of him, I thought okay, yeah, I remember that guy but sort of in the way where you’re not 100% sure you’re not manufacturing the recollection.

Marshall was curious about that:

Was this just my wife who tends to be a get-along and go-along kind of person? So I started getting in touch with a lot of old friends and asking whether they remembered Ted. It was an experience really unlike I’ve ever had. Everybody I talked to – men and women, cool kids and nerds, conservative and liberal – started the conversation pretty much the same.

“Ted? Oh yeah, immense asshole.” Sometimes “total raging asshole.” Sometimes other variations on the theme. But you get the idea. … But that wasn’t all. Before retelling this or that anecdote, there was one other thing that everybody said, “A really, really smart dude.”

Not much changed, and there’s this:

But there’s more to the story – because my wife didn’t just go to college with Ted. She also went to law school with him. They were both in the same class at Harvard Law School. And it was actually from Harvard where she seemed to have the strongest and most negative memories of him. So I started asking Harvard classmates about him too. Same stories:

One of the best was one I heard early this year from a number of people. Here’s the version I heard from an email back in February:

“My friend [redacted] went to Harvard Law with Ted. [He] says that Ted shocked people when during the first week, he announced that he was creating a study group and only people with high GPAs from the Big Three Ivies could apply for admission. In short, Ted managed to come off as a pompous asshole at Harvard Law.”

As my correspondent notes, Ted managed to distinguish himself as an arrogant asshole at Harvard Law School, which is an amazing accomplishment since the competition there for that description is intense. …

At each stage, Ted did seem to collect a quite small but core group of friends/followers, mainly people who were deeply in tune with his politics (he was as rightwing on day one at college as he is today) and who took what most found to be his assholery as a form of take-no-prisoners conservative badassdom. Indeed, if you think this is an issue of whom I talked to, just like-minded people maybe, consider this: It perfectly mirrors what’s happened over the last year in the Senate. Cruz has a small handful of followers in the Senate; but basically everyone else in his Republican caucus despises him.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ted was a big, big deal in the hyper-competitive and – c’mon – somewhat ridiculous world of college debate. So again … let’s not even belabor it.

There you have it:

This is why I’ve been saying since Ted Cruz replaced Michele Bachmann as the King of the Tea Partiers, that the reaction to Cruz in the Senate is simply the reaction Ted’s gotten at least at every stage of his life since he arrived at college in 1988 – an incredibly bright guy who’s an arrogant jerk who basically everybody ends up hating.

And now he’s running for president. He’s off, way off, and running – and Democrats could not be happier. A good chunk of the modern Republican Party will be pulling for an arrogant jerk that everybody eventually ends up hating. The rest of the Republican Party will be dismayed at that, and try to talk them into someone less maddening. The base will have none of that. Nominate a squish and they’ll stay home on Election Day. And so it goes. There’s no more to be said.

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The End of the Line

This started long ago. In 1947, the British government withdrew from its commitment to the 1923 Mandate for Palestine – the Ottoman Empire was long gone, and now so were the Nazis, but now there was no way to arrive at a solution of who should run what, in that little corner of the world, that was acceptable to both Arabs and Jews, Jews who might finally have their homeland. The Brits threw up their hands and walked away. Their own country was in shambles after six years of war, even if they had won, and the days of the British Empire were long gone. They were in no position to make things orderly and proper in places far away. They needed to make things orderly and proper in their own green and pleasant land. Someone else would have to take care of the daily administration of political matters in Palestine. They were out of there.

All bets were off, so the newly created United Nations – created here in San Francisco and then headquartered in New York – approved the UN Partition Plan (United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181) on November 29, 1947, to divide Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. Jerusalem was to be designated an international city administered by the UN, to avoid conflict over its status.

Cool. That should work, so on May 14, 1948, the day before the end of the British Mandate, the Jewish Agency proclaimed independence, naming the country Israel, and then we had a decision to make:

Margaret Truman said it was the most difficult decision Harry Truman ever faced as president. Should he support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, or shouldn’t he?

Presidential advisers and the government were split. Clark Clifford, Truman’s legal counsel, strongly favored recognition. The Jews deserved a sanctuary after the horror of the Holocaust, Clifford argued. Besides, the new state would likely come to pass whether Truman urged it or not.

But the Department of State, including the highly respected Secretary of State, George Marshall, advised against it, as did much of his cabinet. Truman greatly admired Marshall and had said that “there wasn’t a decoration big enough” to honor Marshall’s leadership during World War II. At a White House meeting on May 12, 1948, Marshall objected to quick US recognition of a Jewish homeland. It would look as if Truman was angling for Jewish votes, he said, and might endanger access to Arab oil. He went so far as to say that if Truman went ahead and recognized the new state, then Marshall would vote against him in the coming election.

Truman made his own decision. Two days later, May 14, 1948, Israel was born at the stroke of midnight, Jerusalem time. The United States announced its recognition of the new nation only 11 minutes later.

And no one has been happy since. One side got its own nation. The other side somehow didn’t. Israel fights daily for its very existence and the Palestinians want them gone. A smaller and smaller number on each side still think they can get along with the other side – just establish an actual Palestinian state with real borders and all that, and then work out the details of that original 1947 UN Partition Plan, a simple plan for something like coexistence. That plan called for an economic union between the two proposed states, and for the protection of religious and minority rights. How hard can that be? But the current Israeli government, building settlements in any disputed lands and saying, look, that’s Israel now, is not helping much. Angry factions of the Palestinians, lobbing rockets into Israel and occasionally blowing up a bus, don’t make things easier either. Sometimes it’s all-out war. The Israelis always win. The Palestinians seethe. Then it all begins again. For those of us born in 1947 – we’re old now – this has been going on for as long as we have lived.

We side with Israel in all this. Harry Truman sided with Clark Clifford, not George Marshall, and that eventually led to this:

Israel announced Wednesday it will refuse entry to United Nations human rights investigators who seek to probe potential war crimes committed in the latest 50-day military assault on Gaza.

The 47-member UN Human Rights Council in July approved the inquiry into “all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Gaza Strip in the context of military operations conducted since mid-June,” focusing on the actions of Israel as well as Hamas. Twenty-nine nations voted in favor of the investigation, with the U.S. issuing the sole “no” vote.

That’s what we do:

Critics charge that the UN, in fact, does not go far enough, as U.S. veto power prevents the international community from acting on this and other inquiries, including the Goldstone Report, which reviewed a previous Israeli military attack on Gaza in 2009.

We’ve got their back, except nearly sixty Democrats, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, decided to boycott Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. Netanyahu did come to Congress in defiance of the White House, to upbraid and shame our young and hopelessly naïve president – invited to do so by the few remaining Real Americans – those who prefer war to diplomacy, or at least prefer Israel’s prime minister to our president, or who just love Israel a whole lot. Obama was preparing to reach a “bad deal” on Iran’s nuclear program. This man had to be stopped. The Republicans agreed. It was time to side with Israel against our president. It was the patriotic thing to do.

It was? That notion was a bit confusing, as was the fact that many of those who boycotted the Netanyahu speech were Jewish, cheered on by other American Jews. That led to an odd interview up in Elizabeth Warren’s state:

Republican Rep. Steve King suggested Friday that some American Jews feel like “Democrats first and Jewish second.”

“Here is what I don’t understand, I don’t understand how Jews in America can be Democrats first and Jewish second and support Israel along the line of just following their President,” King, a hardline conservative from Iowa, said Friday on Boston Herald Radio.

“It says this, they’re knee-jerk supporters of the President’s policy,” King said.

How can these Jews abandon Israel? This Goy is puzzled, and he’s an important Goy:

As a Republican from Iowa, King has met with virtually every Republican considering a 2016 presidential run, hosting the first cattle call of 2016 Republican hopefuls in Iowa in January.

Iowa is the first station of the cross in the primary process. Every Republican hopeful has to get though Iowa to move on. Each needs the blessing of Steve King. You don’t piss this guy off. Say the right thing about all those self-hating Jews out there.

He might be wrong:

Executive director of the American Jewish Committee, a leading global Jewish advocacy group, David Harris, was quick to condemn King’s comments, calling them “painfully wrongheaded and hurtful.”

“It’s a painfully wrongheaded understanding of American Jews and this kind of collective description should have no place in American political discourse,” Harris told CNN. “American Jews, like other faith and ethnic groups, are a very diverse community in their thinking, in their policies and in their voting behavior.”

Harris added it was wrong to equate criticism of Netanyahu as anti-Israel, pointing out that there’s no “single Jewish outlook or point of view.”

“I know lots of American Jews who support the President and many others who don’t support the President on Israel on Iran policy,” Harris added.

The Goy doesn’t care:

When asked if anti-Semitism was a factor – it’s not clear if the host was referring to Obama’s policies – King said yes, along with “plain liberalism.” King’s office did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.

Well, a majority of American Jews support the Democratic Party – they always have – and there’s this:

Several Jewish groups also criticized Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and his repudiation last week of a Palestinian state in the lead-up to the elections. Netanyahu has since walked back those comments, insisting that he supports a “sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”

A number of Jewish groups – both in the US and Israel – advocate for a two-state solution and some oppose Netanyahu’s position on the peace process.

Daniel Gordis says there’s a reason for that, and he opens with an anecdote:

There is a relatively new dimension to the ritual of taking off on an El Al flight: security, boarding, stowing bags, getting seated … and waiting. The wait is due to Haredi men, ultra-Orthodox Jews, who refuse to sit next to a woman during the flight. They demand to be reseated, not an easy task on a packed 747, all the more so because many passengers, outraged by what they perceive as medieval behavior, refuse to be complicit by moving. Because El Al security doesn’t allow the plane to leave with the bags of those who deplane, even throwing the Haredim off the flight wouldn’t save time. Finding their bags in the belly of the plane would take longer than the reseating.

Other Israelis increasingly resent this enormous bloc of black-clothed Jews who impose such trouble on them. They were delighted when the finance minister, Yair Lapid, led a campaign in the previous government to force Haredim to serve in the army and to curtail government subvention of Haredi schools. Now that the Haredim will once again be in the governing coalition and Lapid will not, the Haredim have already announced that they intend to undo any “damage” Lapid inflicted.

To many American Jews, this Haredi power, with its rejection of pluralism and blatant use of raw political force, is beyond distasteful. It reflects a dimension of Israeli society they cannot abide. Many of those same American Jews were distressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-election announcement that he no longer supported the two-state solution, and mortified by his appeal to Jewish voters to rush to the polls because Arabs were voting in huge numbers (they weren’t, by the way). Those Americans will comfort themselves, albeit with sadness, that Israelis voted for security rather than a domestic agenda.

Gordis says that’s naïve, because something deeper is going on here:

It is not just security versus economy. Israeli society is increasingly divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardi, European sensibilities versus Middle Eastern pugnaciousness, a tendency toward secularism versus a reverence for religion even among the nonobservant.

Although precise numbers are not out yet, it is clear that Isaac Herzog’s voters were overwhelmingly Ashkenazi and European in origin. The Mizrachim, Israelis of Middle Eastern ethnicity who first swept the Likud and Menachem Begin into power in 1977, may surely have voted for Netanyahu because they trust him on Iran. But it’s more than that. The refined, Western, soft-spoken Herzog feels foreign to them; Netanyahu’s pugnaciousness seems better suited to this part of the world, where pride and bravado are valuable assets in conflict. Talk to the taxi drivers; these non-European Israelis are unabashed about saying that they do not want Protestant Caucasians in Washington telling them what to do.

Truman and Clifford and Marshall were Protestant Caucasians in Washington, but that was a long time ago:

Mizrachim now account for half of Israel’s population, and that percentage is slowly growing. Thus, values that are important to many American Jews – openness to non-Orthodox varieties of Judaism, giving women greater access to places of religious worship, softening Israel’s footprint in the West Bank – will matter much less to an increasing number of Israelis.

That is going to make Israel an ever more complex cause for many American Jews. To the extent that they identify with and support an Israel that seems like the U.S. except for its being Hebrew-speaking and falafel-eating, the Israel of yesteryear will have much more appeal than the Israel of tomorrow. As Israel becomes more Middle Eastern and less European, and especially as the Middle East becomes increasingly dangerous, Israelis’ instincts are likely to be very different from what many American Jews wish they would be.

That is a problem for American Jews, but Gordis says that may prove problematic for Israelis too:

Obama is clearly getting ready to put the squeeze on Israel. He snubbed the prime minister by not calling him to congratulate him on his victory, and the White House announced that it might consider a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, precisely what the Palestinians demand. Israelis who voted for a Netanyahu locked in mortal combat with the American president may well have assumed that they had that luxury because American Jews have their backs. What those Israelis might not fully appreciate, because they are much more at home in the rough and tumble Middle East than in the nuances of the West, is that the society they are now shaping will probably seem ever more foreign – and unappealing – to the very Jews whose support enables them to feel so secure.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank sees that too:

The Law of Return, enacted by David Ben-Gurion’s government in 1950, guarantees Israeli citizenship to all Jews who move to Israel. This was meant to guarantee that Israel would remain Jewish (Palestinians, controversially, are not granted this right) but it also meant that, after the Holocaust, and thousands of years of wandering, there was finally a place to which all Jews could go, and defend ourselves, if nowhere else was safe.

This is why Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions on the eve of this week’s Israeli elections were so monstrous. In a successful bid to take votes from far-right parties, the prime minister vowed that there would be no Palestinian state as long as he’s in charge. It was an unmasking of sorts, revealing what many suspected all along: He had no interest in a two-state solution.

Netanyahu backed off that position after the election, assuring American news outlets NBC, NPR and Fox on Thursday that he still backs a two-state solution, in theory. His backtracking seemed nominal and insincere, but even that gesture is reassuring, for abandoning the idea of a Palestinian state will destroy the Jewish state just as surely, if not as swiftly, as an Iranian nuclear bomb.

The problem is the notion of democracy:

Without a Palestinian state, Israel can be either a Jewish state or a democracy but not both. If it annexes the Palestinian territories and remains democratic, it will be split roughly evenly between Jews and Arabs; if it annexes the territories and suppresses the rights of Arabs, it ceases to be democratic.

There are roughly 4.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and another 1.4 million living inside Israel. That puts them in rough parity with Jews, who number just over 6 million. Higher Palestinian population growth and fertility rates indicate that Jews will be a minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean in a few years.

Some right-wing outfits contest these numbers and try to make the dubious case that Israel can annex the Palestinian territories and still survive as a democratic Jewish state. Those were the type of voters Netanyahu was fishing for when he said before the election that he would not allow a Palestinian state – and when he warned on Election Day that “Arab voters are coming out in droves.” But in the end there can be no democratic Jewish state unless there is also a Palestinian state.

That’s kind of what United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 said back in 1947, but Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (that would be Reformed, not Haredi, of course) sees this:

I believe in Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. In fact, I wish all other nations in the region would follow Israel’s lead and also protect every citizen’s right to express him or herself freely and without fear at the ballot box. So it was with deep sadness and concern that on Election Day, I read this statement on the prime minister’s Facebook page: “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls.”

No public figure should lament his fellow citizens’ right to vote. Indeed, that right is fundamental to the health of any democracy, which Israel has been since its founding nearly 68 years ago. In Israel as in the United States, devotion to democratic values is meant to transcend politics and partisanship. I am not alone in that belief. Not only has the leadership of my own branch of Judaism roundly condemned the prime minister’s remarks, but we were joined by many others in the broader Jewish community.

The sad truth is that voting rights are not being celebrated or even protected as they must be – in Israel or in the United States. As troubling as the prime minister’s words were, they are reminiscent of the sentiments expressed in 2012 by then-Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan who lamented voter turnout “especially in urban areas.” And the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidating key parts of the Voting Rights Act that has for decades, and with bipartisan support, thwarted efforts to limit access to the polls, was similarly misguided.

Misguided, perhaps, but not unexpected. Netanyahu thinks like a Republican, or it’s the other way around, but this American Jew doesn’t think that way:

Two weeks ago, I stood with thousands of others in Selma, Alabama, marking the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march for voting rights. I was there because I am deeply proud of the long history American Jews have fighting for voting rights, from the thousands of activists who marched alongside their African American sisters and brothers in the 1960s to those who helped draft the Voting Rights Act in the conference room of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center. Those rights must be defended in the U.S. as in Israel.

Each of us must reject initiatives that seek to constrict rights, instead of expand them. Rather than passively celebrating the democratic values that the United States and Israel share, we must hold both nations to a higher standard and demand an uncompromising commitment to ensuring and, indeed, encouraging, access to the polls for all citizens. We need a commitment from our leaders to advocate for the inalienable right to vote – even for their most strident critics.

All democracies are judged by how well they uphold the rights of their minority communities. It is incumbent upon each of us – as Jews who care about the health and future of the state of Israel, as descendants of ancestors who spent centuries dwelling in nations that did not allow them the right to vote, and as Americans who treasure the rights enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights including religious freedom and voting rights — to reach out across the divides of race, class and faith to build a more equal and more just future for all.

Would Steve King dismiss Rabbi Jonah Pesner as an anti-Semite? Perhaps he would. Steve King might say the same about George Marshall, but Slate’s William Saletan has had just about enough of this nonsense:

Netanyahu can no longer be dismissed as a rogue. He has proved that his people stand behind him. They have given him more seats in parliament than he had before and a more hawkish coalition of ruling parties. We don’t have a Netanyahu problem anymore. We have an Israel problem.

Israel and the United States have a long, deep friendship. It’s based on shared interests and values. But it’s no longer clear that the old interests and values are shared. The U.S. government believes that Palestinian Arabs, like Jews, are entitled to a sovereign state. We believe it’s wrong to build settlements on land that doesn’t belong to you. We believe that ethnic minorities are entitled to participate in the political process and that they shouldn’t be vilified to scare up votes. The events of the past week suggest that the prime minister of Israel doesn’t believe these things and that most of his people either agree with him or don’t care enough to vote the other way.

It’s true that Israelis have other concerns, such as the high cost of housing. But when you set aside an issue, such as the rights of Palestinians, you’re saying it isn’t important to you. It’s also true that it’s easy for Americans like me to talk about this without facing the threat of terrorism. But sometimes distance is helpful. A friend can help you see changes in yourself. The constant pressure of war, terrorism, and peril has hardened Israel’s heart.

Those of us who were born in 1947 remember an old advertising tagline – “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” This is not your father’s Israel either:

When you look for a pattern in Netanyahu’s behavior – the settlements, the ethnic demagoguery, the speech to Congress, the retraction of his commitment to an independent Palestine – no moral principle unites them. What unites them is audacity and calculation. Netanyahu does whatever he thinks he can get away with. That’s how he describes the thinking of his adversaries, because that’s how he thinks, too. If you listen to Israeli leaders who are trying to influence the behavior of their nation’s enemies, the word you’ll hear again and again is price.

That’s why Israel has descended to its current level of disregard for others. It hasn’t paid a price. Even in the face of Netanyahu’s unwelcome speech to Congress, the Obama administration sent officials to the AIPAC annual conference to pledge that the United States would stand by Israel no matter what. “We have Israel’s back, come hell or high water,” national security adviser Susan Rice assured the crowd. So Netanyahu delivered his speech, went home, and gave the United States, Europe, and the Palestinians more hell. And Israelis re-elected him.

We have enabled this behavior, and we must end it. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. We must clarify the price Israel will pay for continuing to flout international norms and commitments. The challenge is to find the right measure.

That is a problem, but in an interview with the Huffington Post, President Obama did say this:

Well, I had a chance to speak to Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday, congratulated his party on his victory. I did indicate to him that we continue to believe that a two-state solution is the only way for the long-term security of Israel, if it wants to stay both a Jewish state and democratic. And I indicated to him that given his statements prior to the election, it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible.

Juan Cole offers a simple translation:

For appearances sake I had to call that son of a bitch and pretend to congratulate him. But I let him know that his outrageous torpedoing of any Palestinian state has two consequences:

1. Israel isn’t a democracy any more – you don’t get to call yourself that if you plan to rule 4 million occupied people with martial law forever.

2. The Palestinians and the Americans are not falling ever again for this two-faced lying bastard’s charade of “peace talks” that actually just provide a fig leaf to massive and expanding Israeli theft of Palestinian land.

There you have it. After sixty-six years and ten months, Harry Truman’s decision doesn’t seem all that wise now – not that it was the wrong decision at the time – but times change. Nations change too. This is not your father’s Israel? No, it’s not. And the last Oldsmobile rolled off the production line on April 29, 2004, by the way. The brand no longer meant anything. It was just another dumb car – as dumb as all the others. There’s a lesson there.

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Alternatives to Anger

Extroverts don’t understand introverts. Free-spirited Greeks and passionate Italians just don’t understand those silent coldblooded Scandinavians, or the ironic Czechs who do no more than smile, knowingly, much less those Keep-Calm-and-Carry-On Brits with their stuff upper lips. That’s what that 1964 movie Zorba the Greek was about – the earthy and impulsive and direct Zorba, played by Anthony Quinn, a Mexican by the way, finally gets the uptight prissy Brit, played by Alan Bates, to loosen up and live life, damn it! This seems to involve a whole lot of male line-dancing to strange bouzouki music in odd tempos, but one can imagine the mirror-opposite movie. That would be the movie where the Brit, a man of discretion and honor, gets the free-spirited Greek to get a grip, and get a job, and get serious about one’s responsibilities in this hard and cruel world – kind of like what the Germans are now trying with the Greeks on economic issues.

That wouldn’t be much fun, but the misunderstanding is universal. On Star Trek, Captain Kirk never did understand Spock – who could never get angry, only more thoughtful and efficient, and even calmer, and then subtlety ironic. That was maddening, and of course that’s what drives everyone on the right, and particularly Rush Limbaugh and his cohorts on talk radio, crazy about Obama. He doesn’t love America!

How do they know? Obama does his job thoughtfully and carefully, and when things get especially tough, he gets even more thoughtful and careful. Disagree with his policies, and the assumptions that underlie them. That’s fine, but faulting Obama for a lack of sufficient overt passion, displayed on cue, seems a bit silly. Why should that be important? And how does anyone know what he “feels” anyway? Some folks like to keep their passions to themselves. They only get in the way of getting the problem solved, so perhaps Zorba was wrong. Greece and Italy are a mess now, aren’t they? Where did their openness and passion get them?

This is the sort of thing that splits liberals and conservatives. Liberals have preferred guys like Adlai Stevenson – the thoughtful and calming egghead who ran for president, and lost twice – all the way through the thoughtful and calming Barack Obama, who won twice. Conservatives seem to prefer the outraged and passionate. Now it’s the Tea Party crowd – all passion and little sense, because passion is what matters. They have a simple question for the rest of America. Aren’t you outraged?

They seem puzzled when they hear the answer from most Americans. No, we’re not particularly outraged. Yes, there are big problems to solve, but outrage, even if justified, won’t solve those problems. Careful thinking and hard work, and folks of all sorts working with each other, will solve those problems. Talk of who loves America, and who doesn’t, won’t. That’s why the polling shows that Congress is now viewed less favorably than root canals, head lice, colonoscopies, traffic jams, cockroaches, Donald Trump, France, Genghis Khan, used-car salesmen and Brussel sprouts. Congress not only gets nothing done, it does it with intense passion. Outrage and anger are not only tiresome, they’ve ruined everything. The public has spoken.

Liberals have long known this, and liberals usually don’t get angry. They don’t even get even. Don’t get angry, get even? What’s the point in that? Solve the problems at hand. Get your folks elected. Solve the problems. That was the dynamic that played out in the 2008 presidential election. McCain was the outraged angry man. Anything would set him off. Sarah Palin was all outrage, without discernable focus, unfortunately. Obama was cool and calm – we can fix this, and we can fix that, so you two rant all you want. If he was angry about anything he kept it to himself. He still does. Anger never did do anyone any good. That’s Tea Party stuff.

That’s why it’s odd that the New York Times’ Paul Krugman has just called for everyone to be angry, and the proximate cause is this:

By now it’s a Republican Party tradition: Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits, but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar “magic asterisk” – a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from.

But the just-released budgets from the House and Senate majorities break new ground. Each contains not one but two trillion-dollar magic asterisks: one on spending, one on revenue. And that’s actually an understatement. If either budget were to become law, it would leave the federal government several trillion dollars deeper in debt than claimed, and that’s just in the first decade.

You might be tempted to shrug this off, since these budgets will not, in fact, become law. Or you might say that this is what all politicians do. But it isn’t. The modern GOP’s raw fiscal dishonesty is something new in American politics. And that’s telling us something important about what has happened to half of our political spectrum.

Krugman recommends this backgrounder on the magic asterisk on spending and this one on the magic asterisk on revenue – but he’s an economist and likes dense analysis of dry numbers, so he gives us a break, and a quick summary of that raw fiscal dishonesty:

So, about those budgets: both claim drastic reductions in federal spending. Some of those spending reductions are specified: There would be savage cuts in food stamps, similarly savage cuts in Medicaid over and above reversing the recent expansion, and an end to Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies. Rough estimates suggest that either plan would roughly double the number of Americans without health insurance. But both also claim more than a trillion dollars in further cuts to mandatory spending, which would almost surely have to come out of Medicare or Social Security. What form would these further cuts take? We get no hint.

Meanwhile, both budgets call for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, including the taxes that pay for the insurance subsidies. That’s $1 trillion of revenue. Yet both claim to have no effect on tax receipts; somehow, the federal government is supposed to make up for the lost Obamacare revenue. How, exactly? We are, again, given no hint.

And there’s more: The budgets also claim large reductions in spending on other programs. How would these be achieved? You know the answer.

This, then, calls for anger:

It’s very important to realize that this isn’t normal political behavior. The George W. Bush administration was no slouch when it came to deceptive presentation of tax plans, but it was never this blatant. And the Obama administration has been remarkably scrupulous in its fiscal pronouncements.

Okay, I can already hear the snickering, but it’s the simple truth. Remember all the ridicule heaped on the spending projections in the Affordable Care Act? Actual spending is coming in well below expectations, and the Congressional Budget Office has marked its forecast for the next decade down by 20 percent. Remember the jeering when President Obama declared that he would cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term? Well, a sluggish economy delayed things, but only by a year. The deficit in calendar 2013 was less than half its 2009 level, and it has continued to fall.

So, no, outrageous fiscal mendacity is neither historically normal nor bipartisan. It’s a modern Republican thing. And the question we should ask is why.

Why? Krugman offers this:

One answer you sometimes hear is that what Republicans really believe is that tax cuts for the rich would generate a huge boom and a surge in revenue, but they’re afraid that the public won’t find such claims credible – so magic asterisks are really stand-ins for their belief in the magic of supply-side economics, a belief that remains intact even though proponents in that doctrine have been wrong about everything for decades.

But I’m partial to a more cynical explanation. Think about what these budgets would do if you ignore the mysterious trillions in unspecified spending cuts and revenue enhancements. What you’re left with are huge transfers of income from the poor and the working class, who would see severe benefit cuts, to the rich, who would see big tax cuts. And the simplest way to understand these budgets is surely to suppose that they are intended to do what they would, in fact, actually do: make the rich richer and ordinary families poorer.

But this is, of course, not a policy direction the public would support if it were clearly explained. So the budgets must be sold as courageous efforts to eliminate deficits and pay down debt – which means that they must include trillions in imaginary, unexplained savings.

Does this mean that all those politicians declaiming about the evils of budget deficits and their determination to end the scourge of debt were never sincere? Yes, it does.

If so, only one response is appropriate:

Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence. But please try. We’re looking at an enormous, destructive con job, and you should be very, very angry.

The blogger Zandar, at Balloon Juice (a counter to the hard-right site Hot Air) is fine with anger:

Well, the “why” part seems pretty obvious. “Break the government, and then blame the government for being broken” has been the game at least since Reagan, and the solution is always to take a larger hammer to the federal machinery. Rolling back everything since the New Deal seems pretty much par for the course for these guys, if not cynically burning out the last of America’s consumerist resources before going on to new markets in China and India to exploit. It’s always been about pillaging the treasury and setting the place on fire on the way out the door. …

And our problem is that we’re always finding new and exciting ways to direct that outrage at President Obama and the Democrats rather than the Republicans trying to talk us into self-immolation.

Digby (Heather Parton) digs a bit deeper than that:

It must be springtime since all of the Village is once again excitedly poring over the Republican budget plan. As usual they are searching for reasons to praise its responsible agenda of slashing benefits for poor, old and sick people in order that we all be forced to “take our medicine” and recognize that “we are all going to have to sacrifice.” (Of course the millionaire celebrities who are saying won’t feel any pain, but you can be sure they have your best interests at heart.)

In years past, the star of the show was Very Serious Person, Paul Ryan, the Republican budget savant who everyone agreed was so spectacularly serious that even though his budget numbers never added up, he was still worthy of deep respect and rapt attention just because he was so darned… serious.

No, really, and she recommends this 2012 piece by William Saletan to show what she means:

Ryan is a real fiscal conservative. He isn’t just another Tea-Party ideologue spouting dogma about less government and the magic of free enterprise. He has actually crunched the numbers and laid out long-term budget proposals.

Even back then Paul Krugman was astounded by that:

Look, Ryan hasn’t “crunched the numbers”; he has just scribbled some stuff down, without checking at all to see if it makes sense. He asserts that he can cut taxes without net loss of revenue by closing unspecified loopholes; he asserts that he can cut discretionary spending to levels not seen since Calvin Coolidge, without saying how; he asserts that he can convert Medicare to a voucher system, with much lower spending than now projected, without even a hint of how this is supposed to work. This is just a fantasy, not a serious policy proposal. So why does Saletan believe otherwise? Has he crunched the numbers himself? Of course not. What he’s doing – and what the whole Beltway media crowd has done – is to slot Ryan into a role someone is supposed to be playing in their political play, that of the thoughtful, serious conservative wonk. In reality, Ryan is nothing like that; he’s a hard-core conservative, with a voting record as far right as Michelle Bachman’s, who has shown no competence at all on the numbers thing.

What Ryan is good at is exploiting the willful gullibility of the Beltway media, using a soft-focus style to play into their desire to have a conservative wonk they can say nice things about. And apparently the trick still works.

Digby sees it still working:

For years, no matter how tragically misguided the proposed tax cuts for the rich and benefits cuts for the poor and whatever hare-brained “reforms” he pretended to propose the commentariat acted as if the yearly Republican budget had been delivered directly from Mt Sinai. This year proves that they will greet every braindead, extremist GOP budget with similar excitement regardless of Ryan’s involvement. The 2015 Budget Committee proposal under the new chairman Tom Price, for instance, has garnered tremendous coverage even as it’s acknowledged by everyone that it has as much chance of passing as a ban on flying American flags at political events.

After much hemming and hawing and jockeying between the defense hawks and the fiscal hawks with the Tea Party vultures pacing around with a ravenous look in their eyes, the House GOP budget committee finally managed to pass a document. Passing the budget in the full House and then coming together with the Senate in reconciliation is a long shot to say the least, despite the fact that they are promising to lard the reconciliation process with as many offensive proposals as they can muster. It would be entertaining if it weren’t such a stale and boring storyline by now. But the beltway wags can’t stop themselves from writing breathless story after breathless story, even as they acknowledge that the budget features draconian cuts to necessary services has little chance of passage and no chance of being signed by the president. The fact that the numbers never add up is barely mentioned.

She seems beyond anger now and into bitter resignation, but she does note that every year the Congressional Progressive Caucus releases what they call The People’s Budget – with numbers that actually add up, that also reduce the deficit reduction and offer protection for “the most vulnerable” – all paid for by higher taxes on the wealthiest folks, and cites Katrina vanden Heuvel describing it in the Washington Post:

On the investment side, the CPC expands investments in areas vital to our future. It would rebuild America, modernizing our outmoded infrastructure. It would invest to lead the green industrial revolution that is already forging markets and creating jobs across the globe.

The CPC understands that we must do the basics in education. It would provide pre-K for every child, the most important single reform we can make in education. It calls for increasing investment in our public schools, helping to mitigate the destructive inequality between rich districts and poor. It would provide students with four years of debt-free college education, and pay for renegotiating existing student loans, relieving the burden now crushing an entire generation.

The CPC recognizes that more seniors are facing a retirement crisis. On budget, it would adopt an inflation measure for Social Security that reflects the rising costs seniors face in areas like health care. Off budget, the CPC calls for expanded Social Security benefits, paid for by lifting the income cap on Social Security payroll contributions. No longer would Donald Trump pay a lower rate in Social Security taxes than the police who guard his palaces.

The CPC would also expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, giving a break to low-wage workers and to parents struggling with the costs of childcare. And needless to say, the CPC would defend Medicare and Medicaid, not privatize it, and strengthen health-care reform, not eliminate it.

Digby adds this:

With the exception of a few scattered liberal writers, that proposal might as well have been released underwater for all the attention it gets. If it is mentioned by the mainstream cognoscenti it’s usually accompanied by eye-rolling and barely suppressed giggles as if this proposal was found on the back cover of Angela Davis’s copy of Das Kapital. Meanwhile, the dead-on-arrival GOP slash-and-burn budget is discussed endlessly on every cable network.

That’s something to be angry about, and there’s Paul Waldman with this:

Today, the Economic Policy Institute – a liberal think tank that gets support from labor unions – released an 11-point “Agenda to Raise America’s Pay,” and it’s worth paying attention to because something like it will probably become Hillary Clinton’s economic plan. Conservatives would probably look at it and say this is the same old thing: Increase the minimum wage, lower barriers to collective bargaining, invest in infrastructure, reform immigration, raise taxes on the wealthy, and so on. … But the fact that many of these ideas are familiar doesn’t diminish the degree to which they’re both popular and aimed directly at income inequality. And some of the proposals, such as increasing the availability of overtime pay and sick leave, or encouraging the Fed to prioritize lowering unemployment over protecting against future inflation, haven’t been as commonly discussed among regular people sitting around kitchen tables.


It’s doubtful that most Americans have discussed more than a few high profile proposals like the minimum wage at the dinner table. Why would they? The media never mentions them. Now, if Clinton wins the nomination and does adopt this agenda as her own, they will certainly get more play. But it starts at a disadvantage compared to the GOP budget plans because people have heard all these conservative proposals again and again being discussed respectfully in the media while the liberal agenda sounds like something jarring and odd.

The People’s Budget and the Agenda to Raise America’s Pay are mainstream programs that would be eminently achievable if the Republicans and the moneyed elites would allow taxes on the people who are reaping all the benefits in this economy to be raised to a level that makes sense. They do not need all the money, they really don’t. If they are taxed at the rates people of vast wealth have historically been taxed they will still have vast wealth. But this is considered crazy talk in the political world.

Perhaps Krugman is asking everyone to be angry at the wrong thing. Don’t be angry at these two Republican budgets. Be angry that they’re the only ideas being taken seriously – or don’t be angry at all. Be calm. Be cool. Be ironic if that’s your thing. But get your own ideas out there. Make the other guys angry. They’re good at it, and it will sink them. Everyone is tired of righteous anger now. And that Zorba fellow was a real loser, by the way.

Posted in Politics of Anger, Republican Addiction to Outrage, Republican Budget Plans | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Institutionalized Shouting

The day arrives late out here in Los Angeles. When the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard – like in that once wildly popular Sheryl Crow song (although three blocks up the hill here the sun comes up over the Griffith Park Observatory just across the hills) – the sun has been up back east for three hours. Back in New York and Washington, where the important stuff happens, the important stuff is well underway, or it already happened. If it happened in Paris, it happened nine hours earlier – but nothing important has happened in Paris since the late eighteenth century, save for the recent international rally regarding the mass murder of those Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and editors by the Jihadist assholes. The whole western world stood up for free speech, and then everyone went home. No, the big stuff happens in New York and Washington.

Dawn is when we catch up out here. It’s black coffee and the morning paper – yesterday’s stuff – and burbling away on the television in the other room, the local news (fluff and nonsense) and CNBC with the financial news – the markets already way up or way down and Cramer and Santelli ranting about this or that – and CNN with the big stories as they break. That’s kind of background noise, because most of the news is ongoing news – riots that continue, trials that continue, airplanes that are still missing, and of course wars that go on and on. The Sunnis still hate the Shiites. Vladimir Putin still wants the Ukraine back – and maybe the Baltic States too. The Republicans still hate Obamacare, and Obama, by the way, and Donald Trump says he will run for president again. CNN reports “developments” – new news is rare. There’s seldom anything all that surprising.

That’s why the news is on in the background. What happened, happened earlier, or it’s happening now, far away. We’re a bit mellow about such things out here on the West Coast – but sometimes there’s a ruckus in the other room. This time it was two senators shouting at each other:

In an emotional speech on the Senate floor Thursday, Republican Sen. John McCain blasted Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois for recent comments suggesting Republicans had racial motivations for delaying a vote on Loretta Lynch to be attorney general.

“That is unfair, it is unjust. It is beneath the decorum and dignity of the United States Senate,” McCain said. “Such inflammatory rhetoric has no place in this body and serves no purpose other than to further divide us.”

Durbin’s controversial comment came during a floor speech Wednesday when he complained that Lynch “is being asked to sit on the back of the bus when it comes to Senate calendar.”

That back-of-the-bus comment made McCain go ballistic, but the Republicans are a little defensive about such things after the big event marking the fiftieth anniversary of that march in Selma across that bridge. No one in the Republican leadership in Congress decided to attend. Maybe they thought they’d get booed. Maybe they would have been booed, so maybe they made the right decision – the cost of showing up was probably higher than the cost of not showing up and looking like racists, even if they’re not racists, or don’t want to be seen as racists.

That’s part of what was behind McCain’s anger, the unfairness of it all:

“At no time has the majority leader ever indicated that he would not bring the Lynch nomination to the floor,” McCain said. “Had the senator from Illinois and my colleagues on the other side of the aisle not filibustered this bill over a manufactured crisis we could have considered the Lynch nomination this week.”

“I deeply regret that the senator from Illinois chose to come here yesterday and question the integrity and motivation, mine and my Republican colleagues,” McCain went on. “It was offensive and unnecessary and I think he owes this body, Ms. Lynch, and all Americans an apology.”

That warranted a response:

Durbin, who listened while McCain spoke, took to the floor immediately after but never directly discussed his “back of the bus” comment. Instead he spoke about how unfair it is that Lynch, who was first nominated in November, has had to wait so long to get a vote.

He said Lynch has had her nomination pending for 131 days, which he says was twice the length it took for Attorney General Eric Holder to be confirmed.

“Why?” he asked. “I sat in the hearing, the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, for this nominee Loretta Lynch. There were no questions raised of any nature of any kind questioning her ability to serve as attorney general, none.”

Wednesday in response, Durbin told the Senate floor that “Loretta Lynch, the first African-American woman nominated to be attorney general, is asked to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to the Senate calendar.”

“That is unfair. It’s unjust. It is beneath the decorum and dignity of the United States Senate. This woman deserves fairness,” he added.

Lynch would be replacing an African-American attorney general, Eric Holder, so McCain might have had a point, but this was about something else. It always is, and the Los Angeles Times covers the basics:

The nomination of Loretta Lynch, currently the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee and was tentatively slated for a vote this week after languishing for more than four months.

But the delay now seems likely to continue. In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would not bring the nomination to the Senate floor until the chamber passes a bill to assist victims of human trafficking. Democrats oppose that bill because it includes a controversial provision on abortion.

“I had hoped to turn to her next week. But if we can’t finish the trafficking bill, she will be put off again,” McConnell said.

Ah, so this was about a bill to assist victims of human trafficking – and no one would vote against that – but the Republicans slipped in some anti-abortion stuff that the Democrats would have to vote for too, or else be in favor of human trafficking. This was clever, the perfect trap, but the Democrats held firm. Take out the anti-abortion stuff or we’ll continue to filibuster the bill. Oh yeah? Keep doing that and they’ll be no new attorney general. So there!

That’s what all the shouting was about, but this tactic is not new. Initially, Republicans held up the nomination to demonstrate their outrage about Obama’s immigration policies. Reverse those executive directives or they’ll be no new attorney general! That didn’t work. That wasn’t attached to any pending legislation. This is, and it comes down to this:

The human trafficking bill would set up a special fund to assist victims. Both parties support that proposal. But Republicans put language in the bill barring any use of the money for abortions. Democrats voted for the trafficking bill three months ago in the Judiciary Committee, but later noticed the abortion provision and now want it removed.

Of course they do. This is the first legislation that would require victims of rape and incest to carry to full term, and give birth. The idea on the right is that abortion should be illegal, no matter what the Supreme Court once said, and there should be no exceptions, ever – not for rape or incest or the health of the mother – none of that immoral nonsense. God said so. Did they expect the Democrats to agree?

So that’s what all the shouting was about:

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Lynch had “an impeccable record for prosecuting terrorists and criminals.”

“Senate Republicans appear intent on making history for all the wrong reasons,” Leahy said in a statement. No other nominee for attorney general in the last three decades has waited as long for a confirmation vote, he said.

And there was this:

Several Republicans have said they will vote for Lynch once the nomination comes to the floor – enough for her to be confirmed, although passage might require Vice President Joe Biden to cast a tie-breaking vote. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. has said he will continue in the job until his successor is confirmed.

There you have it. She’s a shoe-in if they ever vote, and Eric Holder is fine with taking care of things until they vote. Everyone knows how this ends up. She’ll be confirmed, after all the shouting.

Dana Milbank has some thoughts about this:

The very white, very male Republican Party has managed to get itself caught in another thicket in the hostile terrain of identity politics. Ashton Carter, Obama’s white, male nominee to be defense secretary, was confirmed in just under 70 days. But Lynch, nominated a month before Carter, continues to languish in the Senate – 131 days and counting – even though she is by all accounts superbly qualified for the job and she got through her confirmation hearings without so much as a scratch.

It didn’t have to be this way:

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and his fellow Senate Republicans got themselves into this situation by violating the first rule of extortion: Don’t take a hostage you aren’t willing to shoot. McConnell on Sunday said he wouldn’t take up the Lynch nomination until Democrats acted on a sex-trafficking bill that had enjoyed bipartisan support before Democrats noticed that it included an antiabortion provision. But Democrats have little political incentive to comply with his demands, because they know Lynch has the votes to be confirmed and because the GOP’s troubles with women and minorities worsen each day McConnell delays.

This is a done deal, and the incentive structure shows that, but the fight will go on:

The controversial provision, blocking funds from being used to perform abortions, has been in the legislation since it was introduced in January, and Democrats and abortion rights groups apparently failed to notice it. Democrats also contributed to the Lynch delay, by discouraging Obama from making a nomination before the election and by declining to move the nomination during the lame-duck session.

But McConnell lost whatever high ground he held when he decided to hold up Lynch unless Democrats swallowed the abortion provision in the sex-trafficking bill. Harry Reid (Nev.), the minority leader, protested before Wednesday’s attempt to break the Democrats’ filibuster that “Loretta Lynch has waited 130 days. There’s no reason to delay her confirmation another minute.”

That may not be true:

McConnell is himself being held hostage. He can’t bring up the Lynch confirmation without the unanimous consent of his caucus, which he probably couldn’t get. And if he was to shelve the trafficking bill, Republican senators would be furious at him for backing down. That’s not something McConnell is likely to risk after inflaming conservatives with his surrender in the Department of Homeland Security funding battle last month.

And so Democrats are watching McConnell squirm. They point out that Lynch has waited longer for a confirmation vote than any nominee since Edwin Meese 30 years ago. And they say that she has been on the “executive calendar” – awaiting a Senate floor vote – for 18 days, longer than the last five attorneys general combined.

“It’s time for the majority leader to release the hostage,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) demanded Wednesday morning at a news conference featuring four U.S. flags and seven women: Murray, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and representatives of five women’s groups.

Patty Murray knows what she’s doing, and the New York Times’ Gail Collins piles on:

The United States Senate is worse than ever.

I know this is hard for you to believe, people. But, really, this week was a new bottom. The Senate found itself unable to pass a bill aiding victims of human trafficking, a practice so terrible that it is one of the few subjects on which members of Congress find it fairly easy to work in bipartisan amity.

“This has got to get done for me to continue having faith in this institution,” said Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat who’s particularly concerned about sexual exploitation of Native American women. She has always struck me as one of the more cheerful members of the Senate, so this seems like a bad sign.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has passed twelve bills against human trafficking already this year.

Wow, the House is doing great! If you overlook the introduction of a budget that features terrible math and many assaults on hapless poor people, the lower chamber has been on a roll lately. Speaker John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, rescued the budget for the Department of Homeland Security, and now they’re working out a plan to avoid the next fiscal cliff, which involves keeping Medicare running.

Plus, this week, the Republican majority got rid of disgraced Representative Aaron Schock, who decorated his office as if it was a scene from “Downton Abbey.” In the wake of questions about his mileage reimbursement requests, Schock announced his resignation. Since he had never successfully sponsored any legislation in his six-year congressional career, his greatest legacy may be a reminder that members of the House of Representatives should avoid brightening the workplace with vases of pheasant feathers.

So the House is working on a new fiscal-cliff plan, passed twelve human trafficking bills and subtracted Aaron Schock. Maybe it’s going to become the center of bipartisan cooperation the nation has been waiting for!

At least the House is better than the Senate:

At the beginning of the month, the Senate was working on its own anti-trafficking bill, sponsored by Republican John Cornyn of Texas, with several Democratic co-sponsors. The idea was to fine sexual predators and give the money to groups that help sex-trafficking victims.

Sounded promising! The Senate Judiciary Committee had easily approved Cornyn’s bill earlier this year. Then before it reached the floor, someone discovered that it had acquired a clause forbidding the use of the money to provide victims with access to abortions.

“They’re putting poison pills in their own bills!” said Senator Chuck Schumer in a phone interview.

Before we discuss how badly the Republicans behaved, we need to take time out to note that none of the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee seem to have noticed that somewhere along the line this change had been inserted in the bill. (One senator acknowledged that an aide knew, but never shared the information.)

It was easy to miss, the Democrats contended, being very oblique and super-tiny. “Out of a 112-page bill, there is this one sentence,” complained Democrat Dick Durbin.

I believe I speak for many Americans when I say that missing a change in important legislation is excusable only if the Senate Judiciary Committee is suffering from a shortage of lawyers.

That’s not the half of it:

No one seemed clear on how the new language got there in the first place, but abortion restriction is not something you casually toss into a bill that you want to pass with support from both parties. It would be as if the Democrats had quietly added a stipulation requiring all trafficking victims be barred from carrying a concealed weapon.

Cornyn argued that it made no difference whatsoever because there were plenty of exemptions that would allow any sexually exploited trafficking victim to qualify for an abortion anyway. That was a good point, except for the part where you wondered why he was so insistent that this allegedly meaningless language be preserved at all costs.

Yeah, there is that, and this:

Lynch did get some support from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who penned a letter urging Republicans to get behind her. When Giuliani is the most sensible voice in the room, there’s not much farther down to go…

There’s only McCain and Durbin shouting at each other on the television in the other room, but Sahil Kapur of Talking Points Memo reports this:

The House’s top two leaders are on the verge of securing a sweeping deal to permanently fix a gaping hole in Medicare that has haunted Congress for more than a decade while also securing significant long-term savings in the program.

And shockingly, it has broad support among Democrats and Republicans, including even some hardline conservatives who have spent years thwarting bipartisan agreements.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) are aiming to finalize the deal this week and put it to a vote next week, leadership sources said. There’s always a possibility of it imploding, but if the plan passes and is signed into law, it would be the most important piece of health care legislation since Obamacare, and a huge achievement for a Congress that has so far been marked by unusual dysfunction.

The deal would end the perennial Medicare “doc fix” problem by replacing the widely-maligned formula for reimbursing physicians, which currently imposes steep annual cuts that Congress has regularly overridden since 2002. It’s a huge headache for lawmakers as powerful health industry groups have been clamoring for a permanent fix for years. The cost of repealing the existing “Sustainable Growth Rate” payment formula is $170 billion over a decade.

The plan would also extend for two years the Children’s Health Care Program, which helps insure families with children, and runs out of funding on October 1, lawmakers and aides said.

Something will get done without muss and fuss? It seems so, and Paul Waldman has the details:

Just to clarify, the Sustainable Growth Rate sets the level of Medicare reimbursements; without the doc fix, doctors would see the amount they get paid for treating Medicare patients slashed. But because the fixes have always been temporary – not changing the SGR itself but only addressing it for a year at a time – Congress has had to come back and pass doc fixes over and over, every time finding some way to pay for it. It’s a ritual nobody likes, because they’re under pressure from doctors in their districts, it requires finding spending cuts or tax increases elsewhere, and it doesn’t get you a whole lot of credit with the voters. What Congress is contemplating now is essentially ripping off the bandage all at once and making the fix permanent.

This is indeed a big deal, an important piece of legislation of the kind we thought Congress incapable of achieving (and let’s not forget that nothing has actually been accomplished yet). So why can they do it now?

It’s a matter of incentives:

To understand why plenty of Republicans will go along, you have to ask: What do they have to lose, and what do they have to gain?

The answer to the first question is, not much. The doc fix is a wonk’s issue, not one that stirs partisan passions, so Republicans aren’t really risking the ire of their base by solving the problem. There are unlikely to be fiery denunciations from right-wing radio hosts over it, and no tea partyer is going to mount a primary challenge to a sitting member of Congress because he supported this deal.

And there are a few things to gain. The first is substantive: Republicans find the status quo as absurd as Democrats do, and no one likes having to come back year after year to pass temporary fixes. Second, Republicans would like to have something they can point to and say see, we can govern responsibly and solve problems; this is as good a candidate as any. Third, it will get the doctors in their districts off their backs; that may be a small constituency, but it’s a vocal and wealthy one. Fourth, paying for it by making high-income seniors pay higher premiums is something Republicans find appealing.

That may sound strange, since Republicans are supposed to be the guardians of the interests of the wealthy – but when it comes to a social program, the calculus changes. Many conservatives have supported greater means-testing for Social Security and Medicare in the past, and the best explanation for why is that universal government programs are a little unsettling to small-government conservatives. Benefits equally shared by all, which join rich, poor, and middle class in a common set of interests, make for bulletproof programs. On the other hand, if you make different groups pay different amounts – and you have those with the most political influence (the wealthy) paying more, that can reduce their affection for the program in ways that make future change possible. When you then propose something like a partial privatization of Medicare, wealthier recipients may say, “Well, I’m already paying more than I’d like to for this benefit, so I guess that’s OK with me.”

That’s a long-term and hypothetical connection, of course. But it explains why means-testing a program such as Medicare is something Republicans often advocate and why Democrats have traditionally been against it: They want to maintain universal support for the program by making the benefits as universal and equal as possible.

But it looks as though Democrats are willing to accept some higher premiums for wealthier recipients, if it means they get a permanent doc fix and an extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program as part of the bargain, something they very much want.

That may be a bit hard to follow, but our politics are like that, all about secondary incentives:

This deal looks like one in which both sides gain something they want and neither side loses very much. That’s true not just on the collective level, but for each individual member as well. And this is a key point, because there are plenty of occasions in which the group can’t do what seems like the rational thing, because on an individual basis it’s actually irrational. The Republican Party would like to pass comprehensive immigration reform to appeal to Latino voters, but such reform is deeply unpopular in the districts of most Republicans in the House, so it goes nowhere. Causing a crisis over something such as the debt ceiling makes the party look bad, but those individual members need to show they’re standing up to President Obama to avoid primary challenges. And so on.

That makes this rather special:

The doc fix is a rare case where the incentives for Republicans and Democrats run in the same direction, one that may actually lead to solving the problem. If this deal actually happens we should savor it, because we won’t see many more like it for some time.

We may never see such a thing again, so out here on the West Coast, when the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard, occasionally there will be the sound of someone shouting at someone else from the next room, something that’s happening far away. That’s fine, let them shout, but it’s not far enough away.

Posted in Loretta Lynch Nomination, Political Incentives | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The End of Purposeful Ambiguity

Henry Kissinger once described diplomacy as “purposeful ambiguity” – and he was either a brilliant diplomat or a war criminal – or maybe he was both. The two are not mutually exclusive, because diplomacy relies on agreements to keep things a bit murky, so his clever two-word definition of diplomacy seems useful. It’s best for each side to say it got exactly what it wanted, that it won in the negotiations, even if that’s not quite true, because inevitable odd compromises were made by each side. Just don’t say that. Say something ambiguous – but say it with conviction. Everything worked out just fine. Really, it did.

Henry Kissinger knew how to play that game. On January 27, 1973, both parties signed off on the Paris Peace Accords that ended our war in Vietnam. That was Henry Kissinger’s triumph, even if the process was messy. In 1968, Richard Nixon had promised “peace with honor” – because we really did have to get out of Vietnam. There was no point any longer. Even Richard Nixon knew that. The whole thing had been a bad idea, but then, Americans don’t cut and run. Hippies do, but not honorable Americans – but we did have to end that mess, and it couldn’t look as if we lost. That was unacceptable.

This was a situation that called for some serious ambiguity, and Kissinger provided that. The terms of the Paris accords had been agreed to the previous October, but we needed to bomb the crap out of North Vietnam for a few more months, to show that we could – we were bugging out, but everyone was supposed to see that we didn’t have to, because we were awesome. That added a nice touch of ambiguity to our agreeing to leave, and as for “honor” – well, that’s a rather ambiguous term. We said we were doing the honorable thing – we had met all our commitments – but we were saying that about ourselves. Anyone can say anything about themselves. That doesn’t make it true – and that war in Vietnam actually ended April 30, 1975, as the last of our helicopters lifted off from the roof of our embassy in Saigon, with the last of our folks. Peace, with honor, two years earlier, had been a bit of purposeful ambiguity.

It didn’t matter. Henry Kissinger and Lê Đức Thọ were awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for those Paris Peace Accords. Lê Đức Thọ refused to accept the award. He knew better. Each side had agreed to present likely-sounding nonsense, to save face, but peace would come when the Americans were finally gone, and talk of honor is inherently empty. Diplomacy is deception. It was as if he was sorry he ever got involved in agreeing to say things he didn’t mean, to people who were saying things that they clearly didn’t mean. Who needs that crap? The point was to get the Americans out of there. There were other ways to do that. He found those ways. The folks in Oslo could keep their damned prize.

Perhaps it is best to say what you mean and mean what you say. To be diplomatic is to be dishonest, and being dishonest makes you a coward. Perhaps Kissinger is right and purposeful ambiguity keeps the world in something like peace, for a time, but then no one knows what’s really going on, and they certainly don’t know what you think really matters. Perhaps it’s better to let things blow up rather than bullshit everyone. Why not be honest? What’s the worst thing that could happen? What could go wrong?

Benjamin Netanyahu just made that calculation:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged on Wednesday to form a new governing coalition quickly after an upset election victory that was built on a shift to the right and drew an immediate rebuke from the White House.

In the final days of campaigning, Netanyahu abandoned a commitment to negotiate a Palestinian state – the basis of more than two decades of Middle East peacemaking – and promised to go on building settlements on occupied land. Such policies defy the core vision of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict embraced by President Barack Obama and his Republican and Democratic predecessors.

With nearly all votes counted, Netanyahu’s Likud had won 29 or 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, comfortably defeating the center-left Zionist Union opposition on 24 seats. A united list of Israeli Arab parties came third.

The result was a dramatic and unexpected victory for Netanyahu – the last opinion polls four days before the vote had shown Likud trailing the Zionist Union by four seats.

Yes, everyone was surprised, even if things could go wrong:

The promises he made to ultranationalist voters in the final days of the campaign could have wide consequences, including deepening rifts with the United States and Europe and potentially emboldening Palestinians to take unilateral steps toward statehood in the absence of any prospect of talks.

The White House scolded Netanyahu for abandoning his commitment to negotiate for a Palestinian state and for what it called “divisive” campaign rhetoric toward Israel’s minority Arab voters.

Washington signaled that its deep disagreements with Netanyahu will persist on issues ranging from Middle East peacemaking to Iran nuclear diplomacy.

Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator in peace talks that collapsed last year, lamented “the success of a campaign based on settlements, racism, apartheid and the denial of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people”.

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman elaborates on that:

You cannot win that dirty and just walk away like nothing happened. In the days before Israelis went to the polls, Netanyahu was asked by the Israeli news site, NRG, if it was true that a Palestinian state would never be formed on his watch as prime minister, Netanyahu replied, “Indeed,” adding: “Anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state, anyone who is going to evacuate territories today, is simply giving a base for attacks to the radical Islam against Israel.”

This makes null and void his speech in June 2009 at Bar Ilan University, where Netanyahu had laid out a different “vision of peace,” saying: “In this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side by side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other.” Provided the Palestinian state recognizes Israel’s Jewish character and accepts demilitarization, he added, “We will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.”

Now, if there are not going to be two states for two peoples in the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean, then there is going to be only one state – and that one state will either be a Jewish democracy that systematically denies the voting rights of about one-third of its people or it will be a democracy and systematically erodes the Jewish character of Israel.

That’s the new problem:

If there is only one state, Israel cannot be Jewish and permit West Bank Palestinians to exercise any voting rights alongside Israeli Arabs. But if Israel is one state and wants to be democratic, how does it continue depriving West Bankers of the vote – when you can be sure they will make it their No. 1 demand?

I doubt, in the heat of the campaign, Netanyahu gave any of this much thought when he tossed the two-state solution out the window of his campaign bus in a successful 11th-hour grab for far-right voters. To be sure, he could disavow his two-state disavowal tomorrow. It would not surprise me. He is that cynical. But, if he doesn’t – if the official platform of his new government is that there is no more two-state solution – it will produce both a hostile global reaction and, in time, a Palestinian move in the West Bank for voting rights in Israel, combined with an attempt to put Israel in the docket in the International Criminal Court. How far is the Obama administration going to go in defending Israel after it officially rejects a two-state solution? I don’t know. But we’ll be in a new world.

But Netanyahu had made someone happy:

No one on the planet will enjoy watching Israel and America caught on the horns of this dilemma more than the clerical regime in Tehran. It is a godsend for them. Iran’s unstated position is that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem must be perpetuated forever. Because few things serve Iran’s interests more than having radical Jewish settlers in a never-ending grinding conflict with Palestinians – and the more bloodshed and squashing of any two-state diplomatic options the better – because, in that conflict, the Palestinians are almost always depicted as the underdogs and the Israelis as the bullies trying to deprive them of basic rights.

From Iran’s point of view, it makes fantastic TV on Al Jazeera, and all the European networks; it undermines Israel’s legitimacy with the young generation on college campuses around the globe; and it keeps the whole world much more focused on Israeli civil rights abuses against Palestinians rather than the massive civil rights abuses perpetrated by the Iranian regime against its own people.

Purposeful ambiguity would have served Netanyahu better, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan explains here:

Key here is Netanyahu’s declaration on the eve of the vote that there will never be a Palestinian state as long as he is prime minister – thus reversing his commitment, in 2009, to a peace process capped by a two-state solution.

This earlier commitment was widely seen as purely rhetorical. In fact, the whole notion of serious peace talks, or a peace-inducing formula for an Israeli-Palestinian border, has long devolved into a bit of convenient fiction. But the operative word here is convenient. As long as all sides say they support a two-state solution (or any commonly held formula for peace) as a goal, a lot of awkward issues can be swept under the rug – and in a region where one lit match can set off a conflagration, fire-dousing rugs aren’t such bad things.

Ambiguous likely-sounding nonsense keeps the peace – the Kissinger model. This guy will have none of it, but he’ll be sorry:

Netanyahu has now ripped away the rug, revealing that the floorboards had collapsed long ago: There’s no floor at all, only chasms and crumbling sheet rock overlooking a dark abyss.

What is the nature of the abyss, from Israel’s perspective? Above all, there is the real possibility of the loss of international legitimacy. This is not an abstract matter. In November 2012, the U.N. General Assembly voted, by an overwhelming margin (138–9, with 41 abstentions), to recognize Palestine as a “nonmember observer state.” This fell short of becoming a full-fledged “member state;” only the Security Council can bestow that status, and it isn’t likely to do so, since the United States, as a permanent member, holds veto power.

But the General Assembly vote wasn’t entirely symbolic. The International Criminal Court took the occasion to recognize Palestinian statehood, and here’s the thing: On April 1, Palestine’s membership at the ICC takes effect, and its delegation is expected to refer the status of Israel’s occupied territories to the court for investigation.

That’s when all hell could break loose:

The ICC, the European Union, and the U.S. State Department formally regard the West Bank and Gaza as “occupied territories.” The ICC and EU apply the same label to East Jerusalem. (The State Department takes an ambiguous stand on that issue, though it does not recognize the area to be part of Israel.) David Bosco, professor at American University… says that the ICC could conceivably condemn Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories and even indict Israeli leaders for war crimes. The ICC has no enforcement arm, but many European nations recognize its authority, so some Israelis officials may be barred from traveling to parts of Europe.

Even if things didn’t go that far, one can easily imagine a renewed effort in the United Nations to push Palestine statehood beyond that of a nonmember observer. Or some of the nations that supported, or stayed neutral, on the resolution could take tangible action: for instance, allowing Palestine to staff embassies on their soil.

The United States and Israel are quite alone in their opposition to the notion. Apart from Canada, the nations that joined them in voting “nay” in 2012 were not exactly powerhouses: the Czech Republic, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Panama, and Palau. American diplomats persuaded a few European allies – Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Poland – to abstain. They did so, arguing that statehood must be dangled as a bargaining chip to lure the Palestinians to the peace table; if it were granted unconditionally, they’d have no incentive to negotiate.

Now that Netanyahu has said he won’t ever recognize a Palestinian state, none of that pertains, so this wasn’t a brilliant win for the hero our Republicans admire:

This is another instance of Netanyahu’s parochial shortsightedness. The Palestinians, especially in Gaza, are at least as much to blame as Israel for the shuttering of peace talks. But Netanyahu’s brusque rejection gives them an excuse – which many nations and people will happily second – to pin all the blame on Israeli intransigence.

Netanyahu’s horrendous March 3 speech to Congress could have the same backfiring effect on the nuclear negotiations with Iran: President Obama had won some leverage in the talks by saying that if a deal falls through, he would step up sanctions and possibly pursue more aggressive actions, on the grounds that he’d given the Iranians a chance to prove their peaceful intentions, to no avail. Now, however, if the talks fail, Iran can blame Netanyahu and his lemmings in the U.S. Congress – and much of the world will accept that analysis, keen to lift sanctions and resume the profits of commerce.

And then there are internal matters where Netanyahu may have messed things up big time:

If he manages to assemble a governing coalition, it will be by capturing all the other right-wing and ultra-religious parties. As a result, his new government could be even less liberal, secular, and internationalist than his current government – and that means it will be less able, in its speedy trek toward self-isolation, to lean on the support of Jewish Americans, whose allegiance has already faded in recent years.

There’s a reason for that:

It is always a terrible thing when Netanyahu visits the United States. He flies home, chest out, head high, believing that the rapturous reception he received at the AIPAC convention and the joint session of Congress reflect American public opinion. A majority of Americans do support Israel, in part, I suspect, because the sorts of Americans who don’t care for Jews dislike Muslims and Arabs even more. American Jews, especially liberal and Democratic Jews, who still form a critical base of Israel’s support, were angered enough by Netanyahu’s cynical dagger toss at Obama during his last visit. His 11th-hour campaign remarks against a Palestinian state, compounded by his sheer racist gibe at Israeli Arabs (exhorting his right-wing base to counter the Arabs, who were turning out to the polls “in droves”), will make these Americans still less comfortable about supporting an Israel led by the likes of Netanyahu – and populated by the likes of his base.

No good will come of this:

For some time now, the Israeli ideal, as once envisioned by American Jews, has been the stuff of mythology. It’s not entirely Netanyahu’s fault; a few years of rocket attacks, bus bombings, “Death to Israel” parades, and the sheer geography of the region – such a small state, surrounded by armed enemies – can harden the most elegiac utopia, and Israel has never been that. Still, there are shrewd ways to play the survival game of shrimp-among-whales. Many past Israeli leaders knew how; there are many Israeli security officers, outspoken opponents of Netanyahu, who have ideas on how to revive the gamesmanship. Netanyahu isn’t playing it shrewdly and his reckless rhetoric in the campaign – designed to win a few more seats in the Knesset – may lose him, and his nation, much more in the end.

Ah, but he’s being honest! Henry Kissinger would nod sadly. What good is that? And Jonathan Alter adds this:

Bibi and Likud might be in for a rude shock at the United Nations. On Tuesday, moderate Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN that it was “hard to imagine” there would be no consequences from Netanyahu’s new one-state views.

Bibi has placed all his chips on the Republican Congress, which has no say over how the US votes in the UN. Schiff – who often reflects the view of the White House – hinted that the Obama administration might consider selectively lifting the American veto in the Security Council that has protected Israel for more than six decades.

While the US will no doubt continue to veto the most obnoxious UN resolutions, others (like those based on comments of US officials about the need for a two-state solution) are now more likely to pass with the tacit support of the US – opening a new chapter in international pressure on Israel.

It won’t be like the old days:

Last November, the U.N. Security Council considered a draft resolution, pushed by the Palestinians and Arab countries, demanding an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank within three years. The U.S. quietly quashed the effort.

In February 2011, Obama exercised his first Security Council veto to strike down a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian territory. Every other one of the Security Council’s 15 members supported the resolution.

Obama officials must now decide whether more international pressure on Israel can help bring a conservative Netanyahu-led government back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians – or whether such pressure would simply provoke a defiant reaction, as some fear.

Obama has other diplomatic options. He could expend less political capital to oppose growing momentum within the European Union to impose sanctions on Israel for its settlement activity.

More provocative to Israel would be any softening of Obama’s opposition to Palestinian efforts to join the International Criminal Court, which the Palestinian Authority will formally join on April 1. Under a law passed by Congress, any Palestinian bid to bring war crimes charges against Israel at the court will automatically sever America’s $400 million in annual aid to the Palestinian Authority, although some experts suggested Obama could find indirect ways to continue some funding – even if only to prevent a dangerous collapse of the Palestinian governing body.

So, who actually won this election? There seems to be a corollary to Kissinger’s definition of diplomacy as purposeful ambiguity. That would be this: In politics, and especially in governing, ambiguity is your friend. Of course, over here we have a political party that despises the whole concept of ambiguity, and they’re deliriously happy with Netanyahu’s upset win in Israel. This finally clarifies matters.

Indeed it does, and that’s the problem here. Ambiguity is what keeps us from tearing each other apart. Now it’s gone. Bring on endless war. That clarifies matters too, the hard way.

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