Back Home in Indiana

There are no kinder, more generous, more welcoming, more hospitable people in America than the people of Indiana, and there’s that song:

Back home again in Indiana,
And it seems that I can see
The gleaming candle light, still shining bright,
Through the Sycamores for me.
The new-mowed hay sends all its fragrance
From the fields I used to roam.
When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash
Then I long for my Indiana home.

And then there’s the famous poet Ezra Pound:

From the fall of 1907 Pound taught Romance languages at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, a conservative town that he called the sixth circle of hell, and an equally conservative college from which he was dismissed after deliberately provoking the college authorities. Smoking was forbidden, but he would smoke cigarillos in his office down the corridor from the president’s. He annoyed his landlords by entertaining friends, including women… He was eventually caught in flagrante, although the details remain unclear and he denied any wrongdoing. The incident involved a stranded chorus girl to whom he offered tea and his bed for the night when she was caught in a snowstorm; when she was discovered the next morning by the landladies, his insistence that he had slept on the floor was met with disbelief and he was asked to leave the college. Glad to be free of the place, he left for Europe soon after, sailing from New York in March 1908.

He never went back. It was London and then Paris. He helped discover and edit the work of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. He slapped their stuff into shape, and he was responsible for the 1915 publication of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and in 1918, Joyce’s Ulysses. His own poetry wasn’t bad either. He spent no further time dreaming of that moonlight on the Wabash. He had no use for that place or those people, and he hadn’t even dealt with the politicians.

Everyone knows the type. Barry Goldwater knew the type, and on the floor of the Senate, on September 16, 1981, he lit into such folks:

I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person I must believe in “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of “conservatism.”

What? Conservatives aren’t supposed to say such things, and Tom Jackson takes it from there:

Yes, THAT Barry Goldwater. The Arizona Republican whose reward for writing “The Conscience of a Conservative” – a surprise best-seller in 1960 – was to serve as his party’s sacrificial presidential nominee in 1964 when the nation ached to venerate the memory of the slain John F. Kennedy.

It was also 1964 when Goldwater cast what has been described, uniformly, as a “reluctant” vote against that year’s sweeping Civil Rights Act. A preaching and practicing anti-segregationist, Goldwater nonetheless recoiled from two provisions in the 1964 bill – public accommodation and fair employment – he regarded as unconstitutional meddling in the private sector.

We’ve been wrestling with the proper balance to those intrusions ever since…

That is a problem:

Goldwater spoke often and passionately about the need to treat each other equally, and he was on board with making sure government expunged discrimination from its policies, as well as those mandating discrimination in the private sector.

But he also figured Americans were endowed by their creator with the unalienable right to the dopiness of economic bigotry. Once laws requiring businesses to treat minorities differently – the heart of Jim Crow – were revoked, he reasoned, it was on employers and shopkeepers to decide whether to maintain their overtly prejudiced practices at the risk of creating opportunities for enlightened entrepreneurs eager to recruit well-qualified employees and customers regardless of background.

Some feel that way now, given what happened last week in Indiana:

Bucking intense criticism from citizens, celebrities, tech leaders, and convention customers, Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mike Pence quietly signed a controversial religious freedom bill into law on Thursday. Opponents warn the measure will sanction discrimination against LGBT people, and cost the Hoosier State millions in tourism revenue.

“Today I signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because I support the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith,” the governor said in a statement released shortly after he signed Senate Bill 101, otherwise known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA.) “The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action.”

Ah, the evil government tells people of faith that they cannot turn away gay customers, or black customers, or short customers, depending on their religious beliefs about who is a sinner and must be cast out. Mike Pence thinks that’s an intrusion by government into religion, so this bill fixes that:

The new law will prohibit a governmental entity from substantially burdening a person’s religious beliefs, unless that entity can prove it’s relying on the least restrictive means possible to further a compelling governmental interest. It’s modeled off of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which gained notoriety in the Supreme Court’s controversial Hobby Lobby ruling last year. That decision found that closely-held corporations wouldn’t have to comply with the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate if the owners had a sincerely-held religious objection to birth control.

Supporters say RFRA is designed to protect people’s religious beliefs from unnecessary government intrusion. But opponents argue the measure serves as a license to discriminate, particularly against LGBT people, on religious grounds.

Which is it? There is that 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act – and yes, Clinton signed that, but don’t blame him. Many on the left and the right were all for it at the time and Slate’s David Weigel explains why:

Cast your mind back to 1990… It’s April 17, and a 6–3 Supreme Court majority is ruling against Native Americans who ingested peyote as part of a religious service, then lost their jobs for doing drugs.

One justice added this:

“Precisely because ‘we are a cosmopolitan nation made up of people of almost every conceivable religious preference,'” wrote Antonin Scalia, quoting from Braunfeld v. Brown, “and precisely because we value and protect that religious divergence, we cannot afford the luxury of deeming presumptively invalid, as applied to the religious objector, every regulation of conduct that does not protect an interest of the highest order. The rule that respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind.”

Scalia was being the separation-of-church-and-state liberal here. We can’t have everyone claiming certain pesky laws don’t apply to them, because of their particular and unique religious beliefs, but that led to the new legislation saying that yes, we certainly can:

Three years later, after Bill Clinton becomes president, the Democratic Congress quickly passes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. According to the new law, “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” It is generally understood that this will prevent religious minorities from being unfairly fired, like those poor peyote-takers were.

The new law made Justice Scalia’s opinion moot. Native Americans who ingest peyote harm no one – let them be. If the government is going to restrict religious practices, and forbid some, they’d now have to come up with a compelling reason to do so – public safety or something or other. Rules may apply to all, general applicability as the statute says, but not really. Religious freedom matters more than the law, unless the government can prove, conclusively, that in any particular case that it doesn’t. The burden of proof was now on the government, and that was a change – and life went on. No one thought about this much ever again.

That was a time bomb, and in June 2014, that time bomb kind of exploded:

A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that some companies with religious objections can avoid the contraceptives requirement in President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, the first time the high court has declared that businesses can hold religious views under federal law.

The justices’ 5-4 decision, splitting conservatives and liberals, means the Obama administration must search for a different way of providing free contraception to women who are covered under the health insurance plans of objecting companies.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his majority opinion, over a dissent from the four liberal justices, that forcing companies to pay for methods of women’s contraception to which they object violates the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

That framework was set down in the Clinton administration, but no one saw this coming, but Justice Alito explained it all in the majority opinion:

Alito held that this provision of the health care law, as applied to Hobby Lobby, ran afoul of the terms of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 law signed by President Bill Clinton which says the government may not “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion,” unless it has a “compelling” justification and has used “the least restrictive means” available.

“Under RFRA, a Government action that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise must serve a compelling government interest, and we assume that the HHS regulations satisfy this requirement. But in order for the HHS mandate to be sustained,” Alito continued, “it must also constitute the least restrictive means of serving that interest, and the mandate plainly fails that test.”

That’s what Mike Pence was thinking about. Entities that employ workers, corporations, can have religious beliefs, and they can skip any part of the law that offends those beliefs. They can refuse to provide a benefit mandated by law, if providing that benefit would condemn their soul to hell, presuming corporations have souls. It seems they do, at least under law. Pence was just extending the argument, pretty much to all commercial interactions, and employment practices, and schools and such. They have that unalienable right to the dopiness of economic bigotry, now guaranteed by state law. Barry Goldwater would understand.

That’s a fine theory, but it all blew up:

Gov. Mike Pence called off public appearances Monday and sports officials planned an “Indy Welcomes All” campaign ahead of this weekend’s NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis as lawmakers scrambled to quiet the firestorm over a new law that has much of the country portraying Indiana as a state of intolerance.

Republican legislative leaders said they are working on adding language to the religious-objections law to make it clear that the measure does not allow discrimination against gays and lesbians. As signed by Pence last week, the measure prohibits state laws that “substantially burden” a person’s ability to follow his or her religious beliefs. The definition of “person” includes religious institutions, businesses and associations.

“What we had hoped for with the bill was a message of inclusion, inclusion of all religious beliefs,” Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said. “What instead has come out is a message of exclusion, and that was not the intent.”

If the act allows and protects exclusion, what else would people think? They didn’t think nice thoughts:

“They’re scrambling to put a good face on a bad issue. What puzzles me is how this effort came to the top of the legislative agenda when clearly the business community doesn’t support it,” said Bill Oesterle, an aide to Republican former Gov. Mitch Daniels and CEO of consumer reporting agency Angie’s List, which canceled expansion plans in Indianapolis because of the law.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, said the law threatens to undermine the city’s economic growth and reputation as a convention and tourism destination and called for lawmakers to add protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to Indiana civil-rights laws.

“I call upon Governor Pence and the Indiana Legislature to fix this law. Either repeal it or pass a law that protects all who live, work and visit Indiana. And do so immediately. Indianapolis will not be defined by this,” Ballard said.

But after a two-hour private meeting of House Republicans, House Speaker Bosma said that repealing the law isn’t “a realistic goal at this point” – they all like the idea of protecting religion. Conservative Christians have a problem with gays. Do we tell them their religious beliefs don’t matter? It’s 1993 again:

Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long stressed that the new law is based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which has been upheld by courts.

“This law does not and will not be allowed to discriminate against anyone,” Long said.

But the Human Rights Campaign said it’s disingenuous to compare the two laws.

The campaign’s legal director, Sarah Warbelow, said the federal law was designed to ensure religious minorities were protected from laws passed by the federal government that might not have been intended to discriminate but had that effect.

The Indiana law, she said, allows individuals to invoke government action even when the government is not a party to a lawsuit. It also allows all businesses to assert religious beliefs regardless of whether they are actually religious organizations.

This needs to be settled:

Meanwhile, the fallout continued. The public-employee union known as AFSCME announced Monday it was canceling a planned women’s conference in Indianapolis this year because of the law. The band Wilco said it was canceling a May performance. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an open letter to Indiana corporations saying Virginia is a business-friendly state that does “not discriminate against our friends and neighbors,” while Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent letters to more than a dozen Indiana businesses, urging them to relocate to a “welcoming place to people of all races, faiths and countries of origin.”

Half the corporations in America are now walking away from Indiana too, so this is a problem, but CNN reports on how this is a problem for the Republican Party:

The party’s leaders – and potential presidential candidates – risk alienating young voters and important allies in the business sector by fully embracing the law. But criticizing the legislation would guarantee the wrath of evangelical leaders who are crucial in early-voting states like Iowa. …

“Nobody is saying that it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or at a hotel because of their sexual orientation. I think that’s a consensus view in America,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said on Fox News. “The flip side is, should a photographer be punished for refusing to do a wedding that their faith teaches them is not one that is valid in the eyes of God?”

Jeb Bush also backed Indiana’s law, telling conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that “Governor Pence has done the right thing.”

“This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs – to be able to be people of conscience,” Bush said. “I think once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all.”

Franklin Graham, the evangelical preacher, and presidential contenders Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and Ben Carson also backed the Indiana bill on Monday.

Other Republicans don’t agree:

Scott Smith, the former GOP mayor of Mesa, Arizona, who opposed his state’s religious freedom bill, said he was “surprised” that some Indiana Republicans seemed unprepared for the level of backlash against the law.

“If Republicans truly want to expand their base and broaden the tent, they have to avoid these kinds of situations,” Smith said. “There’s no doubt that Republican candidates would be better off not being drawn into this kind of dialogue. They had nothing to do with Indiana.”

Pence tried to regain control over the situation on Monday night, arguing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the law doesn’t open the door for discrimination.

“If I saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, I wouldn’t eat there anymore,” Pence wrote. “As governor of Indiana, if I were presented a bill that legalized discrimination against any person or group, I would veto it. Indiana’s new law contains no reference to sexual orientation. It simply mirrors federal law that President Bill Clinton signed in 1993.”

It’s harmless, really it is, but Republicans have to make a choice now:

Bob Vander Plaats, an Iowa conservative power broker who supports Indiana’s law, said religious liberty will be a key issue in 2016.

“No one’s going to be able to walk away from this issue,” Vander Plaats said, adding that a Republican candidate that doesn’t support the Indiana law “will not be the nominee.”

There may be a problem with that. George Stephanopoulos tried really hard on his Sunday morning talk show to get Mike Pence to clarify the intent of his state’s new religious freedom bill, and that didn’t go well:

Stephanopoulos: I’m just bringing up a question from one of your supporters talking about the bill right there. It said it would protect a Christian florist. Against any kind of punishment. Is that true or not?

Pence: George, look… You’ve been to Indiana a bunch of times. You know it. There are no kinder, more generous, more welcoming, more hospitable people in America than in the 92 counties of Indiana. Yet, because we stepped forward for the purpose of recognizing the religious liberty rights of all the people of Indiana, of every faith, we suffer under this avalanche for the last several days of condemnation and it’s completely baseless. …

Stephanopoulos: So when you say tolerance is a two-way street, does that mean that Christians who want to refuse service, or people of any other faith who want to refuse service to gays and lesbians, that’s legal in the state of Indiana? That’s a simple yes or no question.

Pence: George, the question here is, is if there is a government action or law that an individual believes impinges on their freedom of religion, they have the opportunity to go to court… This is not about disputes between individuals. It’s about government overreach. And I’m proud that Indiana stepped forward. And I’m working hard to clarify this.

He was also tap-dancing, and Garrett Epps at the Atlantic Online suggests this guy doesn’t know his own law:

The Indiana statute has two features the federal RFRA – and most state RFRAs – do not. First, the Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion.” The federal RFRA doesn’t contain such language, and neither does any of the state RFRAs except South Carolina’s; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their RFRAs.

The new Indiana statute also contains this odd language: “A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a violation of this chapter may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding.” Neither the federal RFRA, nor 18 of the 19 state statutes say anything like this; only the Texas RFRA, passed in 1999, contains similar language.

This is a big deal:

What these words mean is, first, that the Indiana statute explicitly recognizes that a for-profit corporation has “free exercise” rights matching those of individuals or churches. A lot of legal thinkers thought that idea was outlandish until last year’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, in which the Court’s five conservatives interpreted the federal RFRA to give some corporate employers a religious veto over their employees’ statutory right to contraceptive coverage.

Second, the Indiana statute explicitly makes a business’s “free exercise” right a defense against a private lawsuit by another person, rather than simply against actions brought by government. Why does this matter? Well, there’s a lot of evidence that the new wave of “religious freedom” legislation was impelled, at least in part, by a panic over a New Mexico state-court decision, Elane Photography v. Willock. In that case, a same-sex couple sued a professional photography studio that refused to photograph the couple’s wedding. New Mexico law bars discrimination in “public accommodations” on the basis of sexual orientation. The studio said that New Mexico’s RFRA nonetheless barred the suit; but the state’s Supreme Court held that the RFRA did not apply “because the government is not a party.”

That’s the big difference:

Language found its way into the Indiana statute to make sure that no Indiana court could ever make a similar decision. Democrats also offered the Republican legislative majority a chance to amend the new act to say that it did not permit businesses to discriminate; they voted that amendment down.

Kevin Drums sums up the net effect:

Hoosiers may indeed be the kindest and most welcoming folks in the country, but that cuts no ice in court. In court, any business can claim that it’s being discriminated against if it’s forced to sell its services to a gay couple, and thanks to specific language in the Indiana statute, no court can throw out the claim on the grounds that a business is a public accommodation.

That’s different from other RFRAs, and it’s neither especially kind nor welcoming. Indiana has taken anti-gay hostility to a new and higher level, and Pence and his legislature deserve all the flack they’re getting for it. They should be ashamed of themselves.

On the other hand, if you’re thinking of running for president, I guess it’s a great entry in the base-pandering, more-conservative-than-thou sweepstakes. So at least Pence now has that going for him.

None of this should be surprising. Talking Points Memo reminds us of who Mike Pence is:

In 2014, he said the question of same-sex marriage should be left up to the states rather than the federal government.

“In the state of Indiana, marriage is recognized as between a man and a woman, and I think that’s how it should remain,” Pence said in 2014 in an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd.

However, after a federal appeals court ruling halting another court’s ruling striking down the state’s gay marriage ban, he also vowed that the state would not recognize same-sex couples.

Pence took the Indiana governor’s mansion in 2013, following his time in the House of Representatives, where he made opposition to gay rights in general, and gay marriage in particular, his standard practice.

In 2010, Pence signed an open letter by the anti-gay marriage Family Research Council that ran in Politico and the Washington Examiner expressing support for organizations that oppose same-sex marriage and “protect and promote natural marriage and family.” (A year earlier, the FRC’s Tony Perkins praised Pence for joining a private briefing with local pastors on efforts to pass a traditional “marriage protection amendment.” Perkins praised Pence as a “solid ally on this issue in the U.S. House.”)

In December 2010, Pence appeared on CNN and argued against repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the official U.S. military policy that governed service by gays and lesbians. He said that repealing the act would be using the American military “as a backdrop for social experimentation.”

“So I don’t believe the time has come to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Pence said. “I really believe our soldiers that are at the tip of the spear know that. We ought to put their interests and the interests of our national security first.”

Not surprisingly, during his time in the House, Pence voted “yes” on legislation defining marriage as only between one man and one woman, and he opposed legislation that prohibited workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In 2011, an opinion piece by Wendy Kaminer in The Atlantic quoted Pence arguing that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act “wages war on freedom of religion in the workplace.”

Pence has said he doesn’t regret signing the law. He knows what he’s doing, and Talking Points Memo points to another part of the George Stephanopoulos interview:

Stephanopoulos also asked Pence if he would support adding sexual orientation to the group of protected classes listed under the state’s civil rights laws. Critics of Pence’s law point out that other states may have similar religious freedom laws but also include sexual orientation under protected classes.

“I will not push for that, that’s not on my agenda and that’s not been an agenda of the people of Indiana,” Pence said.

There are no kinder, more generous, more welcoming, more hospitable people in America than the people of Indiana, with exceptions. For some it will now be that sixth circle of hell that Ezra Pound found. But he left. Not everyone can. When they dream about that moonlight on the Wabash they’re in a nightmare.

Posted in Gay Rights, Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Religious Exemptions to the Law | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

America Finally Steps Back

Things became clear last week – Iran, our enemy, has been fighting ISIS – those Sunni madmen – for us. They’re going at them in both Syria and in Iraq, and we can live with that. Someone has to do something to keep Iraq from disappearing. Otherwise, our eight years there would have been our worst foreign policy disaster ever. We’d have squandered five thousand of our troops, dead, and a hundred thousand wounded beyond repair, and one or two trillion dollars, and our international reputation, for nothing at all. Iran is fighting to save Iraq for us, although they don’t see it that way at all. Iraq is now thoroughly Shiite and thus their ally. The Sunni despot, Saddam Hussein, is gone. The Iraqi Sunnis are being disappeared. We disbanded the previous Iraqi army, so all the top Sunni generals who were tossed out on their ear, and resent that their nation went all Shiite, joined ISIS – making ISIS rather formidable. We need Iran’s help here. Once ISIS is gone we can get back to what might have been the original idea. We can work on getting the current Iraqi leader, Haider al-Abadi, the man we made sure replaced that Maliki fellow, to kiss and make up with the Sunnis there. Maliki wouldn’t do that. Haider al-Abadi might.

That’s for later. Iran is now using the many Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq to fight ISIS, because the regular Iraq Army is hopeless, even after all our training. Iran’s generals, invited in by Iraq, have been directing that effort, most recently to get ISIS out of Tikrit – but it didn’t go well there. 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 seemed to want to jump in once again. Let them. Take the weekend off. Let them fight the Sunni madmen in Tikrit – so the Iranian generals backed off and we’re bombing the crap out of ISIS in Tikrit now. We’re good at such things. And we have unlimited resources. Everybody’s happy, sort of, for now.

If only it were that simple. We’re also supporting the Sunni Saudis fighting the Iranian-backed Shiite madmen in Yemen. That’s a switch. 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 Saddam Hussein – the Sunni despot that al-Qaeda hated, because he was too secular – and now ISIS. Those Sunni madmen have always been out to get us – but our long-time ally in the region has always been Saudi Arabia, which is a Sunni nation with Sharia Law and all that. They do behead folks and stone others to death, and there women are not allowed to be seen in public without their husband or a male guardian from the family. Saudi Arabia is a nasty place, and then there’s that Wahhabi stuff. 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 was from a prominent Saudi family. Is Saudi Arabia out to get us too? No, but that relationship cannot be clarified easily, other than the obvious. They had the oil we wanted, and they wanted to sell it to us. We needed that oil. We’d buy it all and rule the world. In return, they’d get rich. Everything else could be overlooked. One must be practical about these things.

There are, however, limits to practicality. We want ISIS gone, but ISIS wants Assad in Syria gone, and so do we. People do notice:

NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel criticized the Obama Administration’s foreign policy toward Iran on Friday, saying it seems “convoluted” and “incoherent” at best, given the fact that the U.S. seems to be contradicting itself in its support and opposition to Iran in a number of countries.

Engel explained how the U.S. is fighting both with and against Iran in Syria, which he said is “an incredibly convoluted dynamic.” He said that while the U.S. is negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, it is supporting the fight against Iran in Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels recently forced out that country’s president and Saudi Arabia launched air strikes against them in retaliation.

“We’re fighting both with and against Iran in Syria, and fighting with Iran in Iraq,” Engel said. “There are many people who I’ve spoken to – many in the military, many policy analysts – who say that what we’re seeing here is an incoherent policy regarding not just Iran, but regarding the Middle East in general.”

There’s also this:

The former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency on Sunday described President Obama’s Middle East policy as one of “willful ignorance,” saying the administration needs a clearer strategy for dealing with conflicts emerging across the region.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn said during an interview on “Fox News Sunday” that recent developments in the Middle East are moving in a bad direction for the United States, with Iran “clearly on the march” to influence events in a “regional sectarian war.” …

“At the end of the day, we have just this incredible policy confusion – never mind what our strategy is to execute that policy,” Flynn said. “We have to stop what we’re doing and take a hard look at everything going on the Middle East because it’s not going in the right direction.”

Is there a right direction? Kevin Drum offers this:

Saudi Arabia is a Sunni ally of the US that hates Iran. Iraq is a Shiite ally who’s cozy with Iran. The US itself is hostile toward Iran, but shares a common enemy in ISIS. Syria is a total mess with no clear good guys. And, yes, a good nuclear deal with Iran would be a bonus for the safety of the entire region.

That’s it. That’s the way the world is. The United States is not allied solely with Shiite or Sunni regimes and hasn’t been since at least 9/11. It’s confusing. It’s messy. And maybe President Obama hasn’t handled it as skillfully as he could have. But who could have done any better? There just aren’t any clean battle lines here, and the sooner everyone faces up to that, the better off we’ll be.

Ah, but there is a plan, and in the Washington Post, Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan look into that:

President Obama has for years stuck to a strategy aimed at keeping the United States from getting pulled into a big regional war between Iran and America’s traditional Arab allies.

The net result was a tailored, country-by-country approach to the region’s turmoil that put a priority on nuclear negotiations with Iran and the fight against terrorism. Containing Iranian proxies took a back seat.

As chaos and sectarian bloodshed have spread, the White House is facing heavy pressure from its traditional Sunni Arab allies, Congress and some in the U.S. military to confront Iran more forcefully over its support for militant groups.

Such a pivot carries big risks for the White House, which doesn’t want to be drawn into a worsening conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that its policies didn’t start and that it cannot stop. “We’ve always had concerns about Iran’s destabilizing behavior and abetting some of the worst actors in the region,” said a senior administration official who was authorized to speak on the issue, but not be quoted by name. “We also have a realization of the precise limitations of how much we can impact that behavior.”

Things are as they are:

Even if the United States had confronted Iran more, it is not clear it would have produced a more stable Middle East. The violent chaos upending the region is the culmination of decades of poor governance, economic deprivation and brutal crackdowns by dictators desperate to cling to power.

Following the Arab Spring, the White House set objectives on a country-by-country basis that reflected the complicated mix of forces driving the unrest in each country, and U.S. core interests. It backed swift military action against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, but stopped short of doing the same with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

In impoverished, heavily armed Yemen, American policy focused on destroying an al-Qaeda affiliate, which posed the gravest threat to the United States. Relatively little attention was paid to the rise of the Iranian-backed Houthis, who toppled the Yemeni government and forced the United States last week to pull out the last of its Special Operations troops and counterterrorism advisers.

Some praise the piecemeal approach as a modest, measured and pragmatic response to a crisis that will probably roil the region for decades to come.

There may be no other choice:

“The administration wants to be realistic about what the United States can actually achieve when the tectonic plates of the region are shifting so dramatically,” said Brian Katulis, a Middle East analyst with the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

He described the Obama approach as “ad hoc crisis management mode” at a time when no Middle Eastern nation “seems to have a realistic long-term vision and set of clear goals for what they want to see the region look like in five years.”

But that has “unnerved” our closest allies and “emboldened” Iran – out there to fill every possible power vacuum. That’s a plan?

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat puts things this way:

Our military is fighting in a tacit alliance with Iranian proxies in Iraq, even as it assists in a campaign against Iranian-backed forces in Yemen. We are formally committed to regime change in Syria, but we’re intervening against the regime’s Islamist enemies. Our strongest allies, officially, are still Israel and Saudi Arabia, but we’re busy alienating them by pushing for détente with Iran. And please don’t mention Libya or Al Qaeda – you’ll confuse everyone even more.

Still, he sees a plan:

This administration has been persistently surprised by Middle East developments, and its self-justifications alternate between the exasperated (why don’t you try it if you’re so smart?) and the delusional (as soon as we get the Iran deal, game changer, baby!).

But there is a strategic element in how the Obama White House ended up here. Haltingly but persistently, this administration has pursued a paradigm shift in how the United States relates to the Middle East, a shift from a Pax Americana model toward a strategy its supporters call “offshore balancing.”

Douthat sees the first big shift in our foreign policy since 1945 or so:

In a Pax Americana system, the United States enjoys a dominant position within a network of allies and clients; actors outside that network are considered rogues and threats, to be restrained and coerced by our overwhelming military might. Ideally, over time our clients become more prosperous and more democratic, the benefits of joining the network become obvious, and the military canopy both expands and becomes less necessary.

In an offshore balancing system, our clients are fewer, and our commitments are reduced. Regional powers bear the primary responsibility for dealing with crises on the ground, our military strategy is oriented toward policing the sea lanes and the skies, and direct intervention is contemplated only when the balance of power is dramatically upset.

And we accept that? We may have to accept that:

Since the Cold War, and especially since 1991, the Pax Americana idea has predominated in our foreign policy thinking. But in the Middle East, there has been no real evolution toward democracy among our network of allies; instead, their persistent corruption has fed terrorism and contributed to Al Qaeda’s rise.

Hence the Bush administration’s post-9/11 decision to try to start afresh, by transforming a rogue state into a regional model, a foundation for a new American-led order that would be less morally compromised than the old.

That order did not, of course, emerge. Instead, it took all-the-king’s horses and all of David Petraeus’s men just to hold Iraq together; a different bad actor, Iran, ended up empowered; and the old problem of repression led to the Arab Spring and the civil wars that followed.

We may have no choice here:

Sticking to the Pax Americana model after these developments would have required keeping American troops in Iraq for decades. It might have forced us to choose between bombing Iran and extending a Cold War-style nuclear umbrella over most of the Arab world. And there still would have been no easy answers about how to deal with corrupt allies, or with the zealots who move in when they fall.

So it’s understandable that the Obama White House has sought a different role. Our withdrawal from Iraq and light-footprint approach to counterterrorism, our strange dance with Bashar al-Assad, our limited intervention against ISIS – they all aim at a more “offshore” approach to the Middle East’s problems. Likewise, the long-sought détente with Iran, which assumes that once the nuclear issue is resolved, Tehran can gradually join Riyadh, Cairo and Tel Aviv in a multipolar order.

Douthat thinks that might work, but won’t work:

First, offshore balancing offers the most benefits when your entanglements are truly minimal, but it’s very hard for a hegemon to simply sidle offstage, shedding expectations and leaving allies in the lurch. And when you’re still effectively involved everywhere, trying to tip the balance of power this way and that with occasional airstrikes, it’s easy to end up in a contradictory, six-degrees-of-enmity scenario, with no clear goal in mind.

Second, multipolar environments are often more unstable and violent, period, than unipolar ones. So offshoring American power and hoping that Iran, Iran’s Sunni neighbors and Israel will find some kind of balance on their own will probably increase the risk of arms races, cross-border invasions and full-scale regional war. The conflicts we have now are ugly enough, but absent the restraint still imposed by American military dominance, it’s easy to imagine something worse.

We are getting something worse:

Alarmed by the potential for civil war in Yemen, Arab leaders agreed Sunday to the creation of a joint military force that would attempt to bring some stability to the region and serve as a counterweight to the influence of Iran.

The heads of the Arab League countries said the unit would be made up of volunteers and could be called up if a member state were facing a security or safety threat.

Fahad Nazer, a political analyst in Washington who specializes in Saudi Arabia, said the creation of the force is “a defining moment for the Saudis, and it might be a defining moment for the region in general.”

The agreement was made on the second day of the Arab summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, where the crisis in Yemen was high on the agenda.

They’re serious:

The creation of the unified force, announced by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, has long been an ambition of the 22-member Arab League, but one that had proved unattainable.

“The Arab leaders have decided to agree to the principle of a joint Arab military force,” Sisi said.

A “high-level” team would be created to look at the structure of the force, he said.

Citing Egyptian military and security officials, the Associated Press reported that the proposed force would comprise 40,000 elite troops and have its headquarters in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, or Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Douthat says that the Obama administration has pursued a paradigm shift of sorts, and this is the complimentary one:

Nazer, who works for JTG Inc., an intelligence and analysis company based in Vienna, Va., said the force’s creation reflected a “paradigm shift” for the Saudis, who haven’t typically taken such an assertive role.

“It’s about the need for the Arab region as a whole to be more assertive and take control of their future and not keep forever dependent on the West and the U.S. to secure their security,” he said.

“The Saudis have never had this kind of hands-on military approach that they’ve already demonstrated over the past few days,” said Nazer, who formerly worked for the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

Douthat also mentioned cross-border invasions and full-scale regional war, and this may be it:

Medical sources in Hudaydah said the airstrikes that targeted the airport there had damaged some nearby houses and injured 30 people, mostly women and children. Some were in critical condition.

Saudi tanks were also seen mobilizing toward the Yemeni border, heightening fear that a ground invasion could be imminent.

Should we be in on it? They’re having themselves a war to determine the fate of the Middle East and they didn’t invite us, and they certainly didn’t ask us to lead it. How are we supposed to feel about that? The New American Century will never happen now, not that that ever would have happened, and this is just odd:

Israel’s fighter jets have taken part in the Thursday Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen, sources in Sanaa disclosed on Friday.

“This is for the first time that the Zionists are conducting a joint operation in coalition with Arabs,” Secretary General of Yemen’s Al-Haq Political Party Hassan Zayd wrote on his Facebook page.

He noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had issued direct orders for the Israeli air force to send fighter jets to the Saudi-led air raid on Yemen.

We sold those fancy fighter jets to both the Saudis and Israel – the exact same planes – so we’ll do fine and stand back:

US President Barack Obama authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to the military operations, National Security Council Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said late Wednesday night.

She added that while US forces were not taking direct military action in Yemen, Washington was establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate US military and intelligence support.

It’s their war. Let them fight it. Can any president who effectively says that avoid impeachment? And can we go back and get Vietnam right, and win this time? But the Saudis, and their Arab League, and Israel, might get their own Vietnam:

Rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi angrily accused the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel of launching a “criminal, unjust, brutal and sinful” campaign aimed at invading and occupying Yemen.

“Yemenis won’t accept such humiliation,” he said in a televised speech Thursday night, calling the Saudis “stupid” and “evil.”

The Houthis, who have taken over much of the country, mobilized thousands of supporters to protest the air strikes, with one speaker lashing out at the Saudi-led coalition and warning that Yemen “will be the tomb” of the aggressors.

It’s odd to hear that sort of thing directed to someone other than the United States, and it’s oddly refreshing. Be outraged that there has been a paradigm shift and the United States has stepped back from all this, or be relieved, but we have stepped back. We actually may have had no choice. One must be practical about these things.

Posted in Foreign Policy, Regional War in the Middle East | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Good Conservative

After six years of Barack Obama, conservatives have managed to give themselves a bad name. If Obama was for it, they were against it, even if they were for it in the first place – the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act was an idea that came from their own Heritage Foundation, and that was the key part of Romney’s universal healthcare thing in Massachusetts, where it was just fine. Obamacare was Romneycare writ large, but now the whole thing was all wrong. Now they want to repeal Obamacare, every single word of it, as they all say, which would now leave somewhere around sixteen million people, who finally were able to buy health insurance, without it. Every single Republican wants Obamacare gone, but not one of them has any plan to account for those sixteen million people suddenly left high and dry, or for the collapse of the health insurance markets, now structured around the new system. That seems a bit callous, but they’re always proposing cuts to every part of the social safety net we have, such as it is, and vow that they will never raise the minimum wage ever again, and they will rid the nation of the last of the labor unions, so whining workers will never be able to gang up on employers ever again. Those spoiled brats – American workers – and ruining this country for the rest of us. That is not a popular position, unless you own a business. But who doesn’t? That’s the thinking.

That may be flawed thinking, and they also seem to think that someone out there thinks that they’re heroic for periodically shutting down the government, or for regular threats to do so, to get rid of Obamacare, even if it is the law, or to end all access to abortion, as the woman’s choice, not the government’s choice, even if that is the law too – or for something or other. This never works and some think they look like fools – even some of them think they look like fools – but they keep doing it. One man’s heroic and tragic failed resistance is another man’s childish temper tantrum – and along the way they’ve alienated Hispanic voters with their nastiness on immigration reform, and women with their talk of legitimate rape and how women’s bodies “really” work, and the young, and gays, and those who think science is useful, and those who think the filthy rich aren’t pulling their weight these days, and those who think the government ought to ensure the air is breathable and the water won’t catch fire. They’ve written off such people. Those people have returned the favor.

They have made a mess of things, but there’s nothing wrong with being conservative. Being cautious about change is a good thing. Being prudent with the limited funds available to government is a good thing. There might be such a thing as a good conservative, and a fine and sensible conservatism, which Andrew Sullivan once described this way:

I view conservatism as the practical engagement with policy and political institutions to adapt modestly and incrementally to social and economic change with the goal of maintaining the coherence and stability of a polity and a culture. It is a philosophy of moderation and balance, constantly alert to the manifold ways in which societies can, over time, lose their equilibrium. It is defined, along Edmund Burke’s foundational lines, as an opposition to ideological and theological politics in every form. And so it is a perfectly admirable conservative idea to respond to capitalism’s modern mercilessness by trying to support, encourage and help the traditional family structure and traditional religious practice. The point is a pragmatic response to contingent events that threaten social coherence. But it is equally conservative to note that a group in society – openly gay people – have emerged as a force and are best integrated within an existing institution – civil marriage – than by continued ostracism or new institutions like “civil unions” that have not stood the test of time.

Sullivan went on to argue we have that kind of conservatism in one seminal conservative leader:

On that pragmatic, non-ideological definition of conservatism, on a wide array of issues, Obama wins hands down.

Sullivan offered his proofs of that, in detail, but it comes down to this:

On almost every question – a stimulus one-third tax cuts, a healthcare reform based on the Heritage Foundation model, cap-and-trade for carbon, and solid support for Israel while trying to nudge it away from self-destruction – Obama is in a right-of-center consensus as of a decade ago. … As for temperament, the GOP is too consumed with cultural hatred to acknowledge the grace and calm of a man forced to grapple with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression with no help whatsoever from his opponents, a black man who has buried identity politics and remains a family man Republicans would fawn over if he were one of them.

Alas, the GOP is stuck in the 1984 of its own fetid imagination, incapable of acknowledging the real failures of the last Republican administration or the new, actual, vital questions we have to answer in this millennium: How do we make our healthcare system much more efficient? How do we best mitigate climate change? How do we tackle the problem of economic hyper-inequality? How do we advance US interests in a time of upheaval and revolution in the Arab world? How do we make government solvent?

It comes down to this:

We should be grateful a de facto moderate Republican is president while conservatism has a chance to regroup.

That was posted on July 30, 2012, and conservatism has had a chance to regroup, not that it did. Only one person has, and that would be Ohio’s current governor John Kasich – the former Ohio congressman of many a term. He should have been down-to-earth boring – after all, he grew up in Pittsburgh, in McKees Rocks of all places, and one side of his family was Czech and the other side Croatian. You don’t get much more down to earth than that. Those of us who also grew up in the Czech enclaves on the north side of Pittsburgh, at roughly the same time, know that. You don’t put on airs. There’s no point. But somehow, after congress, Kasich ended up at Lehman Brothers’ investment banking division in Columbus as a managing director. He was playing in the big leagues. And after seven years there it was over – Lehman Brothers was gone in a puff of smoke as the whole economy imploded – so he ended up with his own show on Fox News, offering their usual blend of contempt for government and greedy workers, and cheering for the captains of industry – the few guys at the very top, the really important people. He was no longer boring.

The people of Ohio elected Kasich governor anyway – after which he and his shiny new Republican legislature went about privatizing everything in sight and going after the public sector unions – excoriating teachers in particular, along with cops and firefighters and road workers and whatnot. Suddenly there was a new law stripping them all of their collective bargaining rights. After all they were useless folks. None of them ever “created wealth” and they certainly weren’t job creators. They had no right to demand more money or any sort of benefits package or retirement plan. They just sucked up money, money that should go to tax cuts for corporations or the wealthy. One has to make the state business-friendly after all.

Scott Walker had done the same thing in Wisconsin and found himself facing a recall election. He survived but many members of his shiny new Republican legislature didn’t. Kasich got off easy – the people of Ohio gathered the necessary signatures and forced a vote on the new law. They repealed it by popular vote. Too many people knew teachers, personally, and too many of them also kind of liked cops and firefighters – and no one really had a gripe about the workers who fill the potholes in summer and plow the snow off the roads in winter. They got their collective bargaining rights back. Kasich may never work at Fox News again.

This made the national news for a time but then Ohio returned to the bland obscurity of the kind of place where nothing much ever happens – just how they like it there. Let everyone else get all hot and bothered. But something happened. John Kasich, without any indication he had ever read one word Andrew Sullivan ever wrote, decided he could be that hypothetical good conservative who was also a Republican. The New York Times’ Trip Gabriel in late 2013 reported on that:

In his grand Statehouse office beneath a bust of Lincoln, Gov. John R. Kasich let loose on fellow Republicans in Washington.

“I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor,” he said, sitting at the head of a burnished table as members of his cabinet lingered after a meeting. “That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.”

“You know what?” he said. “The very people who complain ought to ask their grandparents if they worked at the WPA.”

Ever since Republicans in Congress shut down the federal government in an attempt to remove funding for President Obama’s health care law Republican governors have been trying to distance themselves from Washington.

Kasich regrouped:

Once a leader of the conservative firebrands in Congress under Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, Mr. Kasich has surprised and disarmed some former critics on the left with his championing of Ohio’s disadvantaged, which he frames as a matter of Christian compassion.

He embodies conventional Republican fiscal priorities – balancing the budget by cutting aid to local governments and education – but he defies many conservatives in believing government should ensure a strong social safety net. In his three years as governor, he has expanded programs for the mentally ill, fought the nursing home lobby to bring down Medicaid costs and backed Cleveland’s Democratic mayor, Frank Jackson, in raising local taxes to improve schools.

He also told his conservative Republican state legislature to stuff it. Ohio would accept that Medicaid money that was part of the Affordable Care Act.

This is odd, or maybe too odd:

He still angers many on the left; he signed a budget in June that cut revenues to local governments and mandates that women seeking an abortion listen to the fetal heartbeat. Democrats see his centrist swing as mere calculation, a prelude to a tough re-election fight.

“This is someone who realized he had to get to the center and chose Medicaid as the issue,” said Danny Kanner, communications director of the Democratic Governors Association. “That doesn’t erase the first three years of his governorship when he pursued polices that rewarded the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.”

Kasich shrugged:

The governor dismissed the notion that his Medicaid decision was political. “I have an opportunity to do good – to lift people – and that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “You know what?” he added, using a phrase he utters before aiming a jab. “Let the chips fall where they may.”

Add this:

He supported President Bill Clinton’s assault weapons ban while in Congress in 1994, and he teamed with Ralph Nader to close corporate tax loopholes.

In the interview in his office, he criticized a widespread conservative antipathy toward government social programs, which regards the safety net as enabling a “culture of dependency.”

Mr. Kasich, who occasionally sounds more like an heir to Lyndon B. Johnson than to Ronald Reagan, urged sympathy for “the lady working down here in the doughnut shop that doesn’t have any health insurance – think about that, if you put yourself in their shoes.”

He said it made no sense to turn down $2.5 billion in federal Medicaid funds over the next two years, a position backed by state hospitals and Ohio businesses.

One can be conservative, but there’s no need to be stupid about it:

“For those who live in the shadows of life, for those who are the least among us,” Mr. Kasich said in a February speech, echoing the Bible, “I will not accept the fact that the most vulnerable in our state should be ignored.” …

The governor cast a cold eye on hard-liners in his party, especially in Washington. “Nowhere in life do we not compromise and give.”

Andrew Romano offers this:

The GOP is at a turning point. For the past six years, Washington Republicans have Just Said No – to Obama, to spending, to governing itself – without offering voters much of an alternative vision. But now what? Deficits are shrinking. Jobs are returning. The GOP controls both houses of Congress and stands a good chance of recapturing the White House. How should a Republican run, and lead, in post-recession, post-Obama America?

The Scott Walker model – crushing the unions, opposing immigration reform, rejecting Medicaid money, austerity above all else – will always appeal to the GOP base. But it may be too 2010 for 2016: a hard-right roadmap that would scare off swing voters and prove impossible for any president to implement.

Then there’s Kasich.

He may be what conservatives need right now:

Fifteen years ago, George W. Bush steered the GOP out of a similar dead end – Newt Gingrich, the shutdown, impeachment – by branding himself a compassionate conservative. “It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need,” Bush argued at the time. “It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results.” His brother Jeb is now saying a lot of the same things.

Kasich can outdo the third Bush:

The real bet Kasich is making in Ohio – the bet he would be making if he ran for president – is that he can do compassion better than Bush, too. “The old way” – compassionate conservatism 1.0 – “would have been going into a prison and talking to inmates or praying with them or whatever,” he told me. “A ‘woe is us’ kind of thing. But in Ohio, we’re innovating with our prison system.” (Kasich has implemented policies that help inmates reintegrate into their communities; he also wants to reduce mandatory minimum sentences.) “I believe you can solve more problems – probably with less money – if you apply your resources more effectively.” … His gospel doesn’t stop with spending cuts. He wants conservatives to finally walk the walk on social welfare, too.

Romero sees hope for conservatives here:

It’s a forward-looking but still fundamentally conservative message that might make more sense in 2016 – and beyond – than tea party talking points and reactionary red meat. There’s a reason, after all, why Jeb has now taken to calling himself an “inclusive conservative.” But what if the right messenger for the moment wasn’t burdened with a lot of Bush family baggage? What if he hadn’t been making money on Wall Street for the entire Obama presidency, but had been implementing his reforms instead? And what if he were just re-elected – by more than 30 percentage points – in the one state Republicans absolutely can’t afford to lose on Election Day? (No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.)

Could John Kasich – provocative, self-important and more than a little abrasive – actually be the GOP’s secret weapon?

At least John Kasich thinks so.

Fine, but others don’t think so:

Dining with a group of influential pro-growth conservatives at the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan on Wednesday – economists Larry Kudlow, Arthur Laffer, and Stephen Moore were in attendance – Kasich voiced his support for Medicaid and for renewing a spirit of bipartisanship within the Republican party. Fox News hosts Bill Hemmer and John Stossel, and Gristedes Foods founder John Catsimatidis were also on hand.

Kasich, a former nine-term congressman who won a resounding reelection victory in November, is eyeing a presidential bid but, at the dinner’s close, there was little appetite for a Kasich presidency among those who’d assembled to hear him.

The governor showed his prickly side during a testy back-and-forth with Manhattan Institute health-care scholar Avik Roy, who has provided advice to several of the potential 2016 contenders. “Is it fair to say you support repealing Obamacare except for the Medicaid expansion?” Roy asked. Kasich answered in the affirmative.

“Obamacare’s a bad idea because it’s top-down and does not control costs,” Kasich said. Roy interjected again, “You’re saying Obamacare is top-down government. Is Medicaid not top-down government?”

Kasich appeared to view the remark as a jab at Medicaid recipients. “Maybe you think we should put them in prison. I don’t,” he told Roy. “I don’t think that’s a conservative position. Because the reality is, if you don’t treat the drug addicted and the mentally ill and the working poor, you’re gonna have them and they’re gonna be a big cost to society.”

That’s what Andrew Sullivan, the devout Catholic and a conservative, had been saying three years earlier, so Sullivan wouldn’t have been surprised by this:

The governor took heat from his fellow conservatives two years ago when he bucked Ohio’s Republican legislature to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The reason he offered for his decision further inflamed their passions. “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor,” Kasich said at the time. “You better have a good answer.”

The man can piss people off, and that’s a problem:

He is the governor of a swing state with a strong record of achievement who has been a part of the Republican sweep of the Midwest that, in 2014, finally captured Illinois. But the governor’s remarks on Wednesday didn’t stoke much desire from the conservative crowd for a Kasich candidacy, even as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has faltered and his fellow Midwestern governor, Indiana’s Mike Pence, has shown few signs of launching a bid.

But for Kasich, who is 62, who was first elected to Congress in 1978, and who hosted a successful show on the Fox News Channel before he ran for governor, that may not matter. “I have no regrets whatsoever about my political career,” he said last night.

Salon’s Joan Walsh adds this:

Just like Kasich is an actual reformist conservative who blends traditional GOP tax and budget cutting with maverick stands like expanding Medicaid and criminal justice reform – compared with supposedly reformist Bush, whose economic program consists of warmed over supply side policies – Kasich is what Scott Walker pretends to be: A practical Midwestern governor of a hugely important swing state with a track record of governing.

Kasich’s state is also rebounding well from the recession, while Walker’s is last in Midwestern job creation and first in the nation in middle-class wage decline. So, why is Walker still considered Bush’s top primary challenger, especially for the donor class, while Kasich can’t get started?

She had no good answer:

It made me think about why the bumbling Walker inspires such passion from the donor class: It’s that he decimated public sector unions, is trying to do the same to private sector unions with “Right to Work”, while slashing holes in Wisconsin’s safety net by cutting Badgercare and rejecting Medicaid expansion. So his lackluster record, his state’s struggling economy and his stumbling campaign can be forgiven – to a point.

Meanwhile Kasich, the two-term Midwestern governor of a crucial swing state, who is presiding over a rebounding economy and has made innovative policy choices (while cutting taxes) can’t get any donor love, because he compromised with the state’s unions – admittedly after voters repealed his anti-union measures – and expanded Medicaid.

To recap: Walker is stumbling, Bush is widely viewed as a vulnerable frontrunner and Ted Cruz is running for president of the he-man Obama haters club and scaring GOP pragmatists. It’s clearly time for a fresher face, and some journalists think it could be Kasich. Yet his refusal to apologize for expanding Medicaid or participate in bashing the poor makes him unacceptable to many in the donor class.

There you have it. John Kasich is not a good conservative. He’s only a good conservative in the pragmatic non-ideological sense, and conservatism is now an ideology, not practical engagement with policy and political institutions to adapt modestly and incrementally to social and economic change. That doesn’t seem to matter to what Walsh calls the donor class. Ideology matters. Whatever John Kasich is, we need another name for it. There can be no good conservatives now.

Posted in Conservatism, John Kasich, Republican Heartlessness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Finally Establishing the Legal Right to Do Wrong

From January 21, 2009, through January 5, 2015, the always controversial Jan Brewer was governor of Arizona, and it was quite a ride. It was high drama, all the time, but she was born out here in Hollywood, so of course she had a bit of the drama queen about her. After a short career as a chiropractor and then a real estate agent, she got into Republican politics and rose quickly, because she was right out there, in your face, being boldly ultraconservative. There is that iconic 2012 photo of her wagging her finger in President Obama’s face – screaming at him about his immigration policies that were going to ruin America for all the good white folks. That wasn’t the welcome he expected at the Phoenix airport that day, but she got her photo-op. Fox News loved it. Rush Limbaugh loved it. It would do.

Two years earlier she had said that “law enforcement agencies have found bodies in the desert, either buried or just lying out there, that have been beheaded” – those illegal immigrants crossing over were beheading good white folks left and right, and it’s all in the files of this agency or that. No law enforcement agency knew what the hell she was talking about. Brewer later said she “misspoke” – which wasn’t exactly taking it back. But she did sign Arizona SB 1070 into law, the show-your-papers legislation that charged law enforcement at all levels with the task of demanding that anyone who looked even slightly Hispanic prove that they had the right to be here, or go to jail until they could prove it. That seemed a bit much, and SB 1070 was largely eviscerated by the courts, but she had made her point. In 2011, Brewer stopped Medicaid funding for organ transplants to save the state a million and a half dollars. Ninety eight patients were waiting for transplants. She caught crap for that, and the funding was restored, but she had made her point, and there’s this:

Jan Brewer signed a law repealing legislation put into place by former governor Janet Napolitano, which had granted domestic partners of state employees the ability to be considered as “dependents”, similar to the way married spouses are handled.

According to an editorial in the Arizona Daily Star on October 13, 2009, the Department of Administration in Arizona “stated that about 800 state employees are affected and that the cost to insure domestic partners is about $3 million of the $625 million the state spends on benefits”. However, the state was giving those employees another year of coverage, due to legal necessity: “A legal review determined existing contracts with state employees will be honored.”

She was foiled by contract law, but again, she had made her point. Someone has to stand up and say gay is just not normal, and it shouldn’t ever be treated as such. She’d be that person. By the way, one of her sons was declared not guilty by reason of insanity for the rape of a Phoenix woman in 1989, and he has been a psychiatric patient for twenty-five years in the Arizona State Hospital. She says that gives her perspective – because she’s not crazy.

No, really, she isn’t. She proved that in February 2014:

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have opened the door to discrimination of gays and lesbians. It was a swift and major victory for gay rights after a week of sustained pressure from corporations, lawmakers, the NFL, and even Major League Baseball, all of which urged Brewer to veto the bill.

“After weighing all of the arguments, I vetoed Senate Bill 1062 moments ago,” Brewer said in a televised statement Wednesday night. She said the bill had been broadly worded and did not address any identifiable “concern related to religious liberty in Arizona.”

The religious right wept, but there was no choice:

SB 1062 would have allowed businesses to turn away gay and lesbians based on claims of sincerely held religious beliefs. Supporters of the bill argued it would protect “religious freedom.” But opponents saw it as sweeping discrimination that would harm the community.

Brewer, a Republican governor who is familiar with taking the national stage to weigh in on social issues from guns to immigration, is no progressive. But in the end, she caved to Big Business – a strong constituent-base with major clout in Arizona – over the religious right.

Apple, Intel, Marriott Hotels, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, PetSmart, Yelp, Delta and American Airlines all denounced the proposed legislation. The NFL wouldn’t rule out the possibility of moving Super Bowl XLIX – due to take place next year at University of Phoenix Stadium – in protest.

No, she’s not crazy, but at the time, others were:

On Tuesday, Georgia became the latest state to consider legislation that could sanction discrimination in the name of religious freedom. Similar legislation was introduced this week in Missouri. And the state House of Representatives in Kansas passed its version earlier this month, before it became stalled in the state Senate.

Things stalled everywhere, but now it finally happened:

Bucking intense criticism from citizens, celebrities, tech leaders, and convention customers, Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mike Pence quietly signed a controversial religious freedom bill into law on Thursday. Opponents warn the measure will sanction discrimination against LGBT people, and cost the Hoosier State millions in tourism revenue.

“Today I signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because I support the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith,” the governor said in a statement released shortly after he signed Senate Bill 101, otherwise known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA.) “The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action.”

Yeah, the government tells them that they cannot turn away gay customers, or black customers, or short customers, depending on their religious beliefs about who is a sinner and must be cast out. Mike Pence thinks that’s a shame, and an intrusion by government into religion, so this bill fixes that:

The new law will prohibit a governmental entity from substantially burdening a person’s religious beliefs, unless that entity can prove it’s relying on the least restrictive means possible to further a compelling governmental interest. It’s modeled off of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which gained notoriety in the Supreme Court’s controversial Hobby Lobby ruling last year. That decision found that closely-held corporations wouldn’t have to comply with the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate if the owners had a sincerely-held religious objection to birth control.

Supporters say RFRA is designed to protect people’s religious beliefs from unnecessary government intrusion. But opponents argue the measure serves as a license to discriminate, particularly against LGBT people, on religious grounds.

Here we go again:

In the past week, a wide array of critics put pressure on Pence to veto the measure, including actor and director George Takei, the CEO of Salesforce, and the organizers of Gen Con – billed on its website as “the original, longest-running, best-attended, gaming convention in the world.” Adrian Swartout, CEO and owner of Gen Con LLC, said in a letter addressed to Pence that if Indiana’s RFRA became law, he would consider moving the convention to a different state in future years – a move that’s expected to cost Indiana more than $50 million annually.

But Pence pushed back against the accusation that the religious freedom measure would open the door to discrimination.

“This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it,” he said. “In fact, it does not even apply to disputes between private parties unless government action is involved. For more than twenty years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana.”

Some don’t see it that way, and this is telling:

Pence signed the measure during a private ceremony just before 10 a.m. Thursday morning. Members of the media were not allowed to even be in the waiting area of the governor’s office, The Indianapolis Star reported.

Ah, but folks noticed:

Mark Emmert, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, said in a statement Thursday that the Indianapolis-based NCAA was “especially concerned” about how the legislation would affect student athletes and employees.

“We will work diligently to assure student athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill,” the statement read. “Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”

Emmert’s statement should concern Pence – not only because Indianapolis is set to host next month’s Division 1 Men’s Championship, but also because the NCAA could decide to move several big money events set to take place in the Hoosier State over the next year. Those include the 2015 Big Ten Football Championship Game, scheduled for Dec. 5, the 2016 Women’s Final Four, scheduled for April of next year, and the 2016 Olympic Trials for diving. All three events are scheduled to take place in Indianapolis.

With less than 10 days to go before the Men’s Final Four, it would be impossible for the NCAA to relocate the championship over concerns about the new law. However, the events scheduled further in the future could be in jeopardy.

And there’s this:

Salesforce Cancels All Indiana Travel

That’s exactly what Salesforce, a $4 billion tech company based in San Francisco which increased its presence in Indiana in 2013, is planning to do now that the RFRA has become law.

The CEO of the company, valued at $4 billion and listed on the prestigious Standard & Poor 500, authored an open letter to Indiana lawmakers urging them to reject the bill last week. Now that Gov. Pence has signed the bill into law, Mike Benioff, CEO of the Salesforce Marketing Cloud Division, says his company has no choice but to “dramatically reduce” its investment in Indiana. In a series of tweets, Benioff, a 50-year-old man married to a woman, announced the company was canceling all of its programs that required employees to customers to travel to Indiana, and encouraged other tech companies to follow suit.

That’s trouble, and Eric Rosenbaum at CNBC sees nothing but trouble:

The new law allows businesses to use an owner’s faith as a reason to refuse service to customers, including same-sex married couples. The risks from the act range from potential workplace lawsuits on religious grounds to a broader and deeper business chill in the Hoosier State with money-making conferences and major corporations threatening to pull out, with difficulty attracting key job creators like tech sector companies, and with a wide-ranging ripple effect on small-business owners.

The governor’s move comes during a sensitive period of time for Indiana’s economy – it has shown signs of a small-business boom in recent years, and has fared relatively well in job creation and new-company formation, but is also seeking to break out from the sluggish growth that has typified the post-crisis economic recovery.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce would only say that the thing was unnecessary, but others weren’t so tepid:

Columbus, Indiana-based Cummins, the world’s largest diesel engine maker – which has been among the nation’s most outspoken business voices against LGBT discrimination statutes – publicly opposed the new law in strong terms, fearing a weakened hand for corporations based in Indiana when trying to lure top talent to the state.

“We’re disappointed with the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” said a Cummins spokesman. “Cummins believes it’s bad for business and bad for Indiana and sends the message that the state is unwelcoming.” He added, “We are a global company in a competitive environment and it could hinder our ability to attract and retain top talent.”

There is that talent issue:

Timothy Slaper, who directs the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University, said while critics point to convention dollars lost from events like Super Bowls, the real threat is to the future growth of Indiana’s economy. It is still dominated by traditional industries, including agriculture and auto manufacturing.

“I’m more concerned about the longer-term cultural implications in terms of the magnetism of the state to attract the young creative class,” Slaper said. “The engineers or artists you want to have in your city and state to cultivate the ecosystem for entrepreneurs. It’s the location decisions of companies like Salesforce and attracting this brain power for the next several decades.”

Slaper said new industries will have the greatest effect on Indiana’s economy. “We’ll never see an increase in per capita income if all we do is attract standard manufacturing jobs. The jobs that pay well are engineers and designers and marketers and if we’re not able to attract those workers in the occupation class; it’s gonna be a tough road to hoe,” Slaper said.

He noted that even in manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and medical devices have been among the growth areas, and those are areas where engineers are among the top talent. “We’re relying on our old core strengths in an age when we need to be a little more aspirational.”

“Indiana desperately needs hipster brains. This probably isn’t a great way to cultivate them,” Slaper added.

Everyone knows this:

The Indy Chamber, which represents the economic interests of the state’s largest city, said in a statement that it remains opposed to the “divisive and unnecessary law.”

Its president and CEO Michael Huber said: “We warned of the impending negative economic impact this legislation would have on our ability to attract and retain jobs, talent and investment, noting the bill will encourage current and potential residents, and visitors to take their business elsewhere. Within moments of this legislation being signed, this warning became a stark reality. The Indy Chamber pledges to work with our partners across the state to strengthen nondiscrimination policies at the state and local level. This is clearly not how we want to be perceived and is not reflective of how we do business in Indianapolis.”

Mike Pence really stepped into it, and Paul Waldman sees what comes next:

The Indiana bill is part of a wave of recent legislation seeking to guarantee “religious freedom” on the part of organizations or businesses who want to retain the right to discriminate against gay people. While the advocates usually posit a baker who doesn’t want to have to take business from a gay couple seeking a wedding cake as the person the law would protect, the laws are often written so vaguely that they would allow almost any kind of discrimination, so long as the discriminator justifies it on the basis of their religious beliefs.

The bill in Indiana doesn’t mention words like “gay” at all. It merely says that the government can’t “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.” And a key element of the conservative Christian argument about religious freedom is that “exercise” of religion isn’t just about rituals and prayer and worship; it extends to everything, including commerce.

The implications are therefore enormous. Forget about the baker — what if you own a restaurant and think homosexuality is an abomination, and therefore you want to hang a “No gays allowed” sign in your window? Under this law, you’d be able to. Or what if you’re a Muslim who owns an auto repair shop and you want to refuse to serve women, because you say your religion tells you that women shouldn’t drive?

Those kinds of concerns are what led former governor Jan Brewer to veto a similar bill in Arizona, after she got all kinds of pressure from the state’s business community, which feared boycotts of the state.

Mike Pence isn’t that sane, even if the bar here is low, and what comes next is Republican chaos:

The more news this Indiana law gets, the more likely it is that it will become an issue in the presidential primaries. And it fits neatly within the key divide among Republicans: on one side you could have business groups that are nervous about negative economic impacts and strategists who don’t want the GOP to be known as the party of discrimination, while on the other side you have candidates eager for the votes of religious right primary voters.

I have no doubt that candidates like Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, or Mike Huckabee will rush to support the Indiana law. The real question is what happens with the candidates who want to get as much support as they can from conservative Christians but also want to appeal to the more moderate voters (and funders) who may not be so pleased with these kinds of laws. Those candidates also surely know that general election voters will be much less favorably inclined toward this law, and that it could well fit into a broad theme of Republicans as intolerant, not only on issues affecting gay people but on immigration as well. If you’re Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush, this could be a very tricky issue to confront.

And John Cole has two quick questions:

1.) What criteria will business owners be using to determine who is and who is not gay? Ordering a latte? Saying please? Not liking President Bush? Or do you just have to be suspiciously gay-like to impinge enough on someone’s religious freedom to warrant being denied service.

2.) As the Klan also operated under the auspices of Christianity, what is to keep businesses from kicking out or denying service to blacks, and when confronted, just say “Oh, we didn’t kick them out because they were black, we kicked them out because they were gay.”

This is a mess, and Andy Borowitz has the final word:

In a history-making decision, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana has signed into law a bill that officially recognizes stupidity as a religion.

Pence said that he hoped the law would protect millions of state residents “who, like me, have been practicing this religion passionately for years.”

The bill would grant politicians like Pence the right to observe their faith freely, even if their practice of stupidity costs the state billions of dollars.

While Pence’s action drew the praise of stupid people across America, former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was not among them. “Even I wasn’t dumb enough to sign a bill like that,” she said.

When Jan Brewer becomes the face of sanity and reason and tolerance… Damn, there’s no way to finish that sentence. How did this happen?

Posted in Indiana Religious Freedom Act, Religious Exemptions to the Law | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Afghanistan, Middle East at War, Proxy Wars | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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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