Institutionalized Shouting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That warranted a response:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s what all the shouting was about:

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

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

And there was this:

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

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

Dana Milbank has some thoughts about this:

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

It didn’t have to be this way:

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

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

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

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

That may not be true:

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

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

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

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

The United States Senate is worse than ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least the House is better than the Senate:

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not the half of it:

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

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

Yeah, there is that, and this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a matter of incentives:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That makes this rather special:

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

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

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The End of Purposeful Ambiguity

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

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Netanyahu just made that calculation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman elaborates on that:

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

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

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

That’s the new problem:

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

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

But Netanyahu had made someone happy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s when all hell could break loose:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a reason for that:

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

No good will come of this:

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

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

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

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

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

It won’t be like the old days:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel and America | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Positioning by Posturing

The next year and a half is going to be painful. We elect another president in 2016 – in November, late in the year. Everyone knows what’s coming. Between now and then the news will be full of politicians trying to be likable, or to be awesome in their moral character, or awesome in their efficient and useful ruthlessness, if they’re not particularly likeable. They will be positioning themselves. Each will say that they believe just what you believe. They know what you believe? Of course they do. They have their own research teams doing private polls. Sometimes some of them actually leave the Washington beltway and talk to “real” people out there in the “real” world, or they send some of their people out there to do that sort of tedious stuff, or they may keep an eye on what’s hot on Fox News, or on MSNBC, or on what’s trending on Twitter. Sometimes they just guess. There are also those who just know that they have an infallible sense of “where the people really are” on all the issues at any given time.

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. They usually don’t, but even if they get it right, they still have to do the work of letting the people know that they “get it” – whatever it is. Everyone hates Obamacare and gay folks and folks among us who don’t speak English all that well, and uppity black kids giving our heroic cops grief, kids who should be shot dead, and freeloaders in general, and Muslims, and the French, sometimes. Or it’s the other way around – everyone hates the rich dudes getting all the goodies, all the time, while no one else gets a damned thing, and everyone is getting pretty damned tired of the Republican lists of who we should hate this week.

Which is it? It’s a crap-shoot. That’s why there are focus groups, but those aren’t that helpful. Those are for fine-tuning your message. You try out your basic message in the year and a half of making endless “important” speeches and in the primaries that follow those. You try things out, to see if folks love you for what you’re saying. If they do, then you fine-tune it. If they don’t, you drop it. You do your political posturing.

You hope people don’t laugh. If your party doesn’t laugh, you get the nomination. Then you’ll have to adjust it all for the general election. Those outside the base of your party tend to laugh at what thrilled the base of your party. Change your posture or you’ll lose, and in 2012, Mitt Romney had that problem. He had the deer-in-the-headlights look far too often. His posturing skills were impressive, but he always seemed to manage to strike just the right pose, for the week before, or for the wrong audience – and he was the best of the lot that year. In the last two election cycles the Republicans have had what might be called a positioning problem. Their posturing – the display of their ideas – appalled enough voters to hand the presidency to Obama, twice.

They won’t face Obama this time – a man entirely comfortable with what he believes and why he believes it. They called him arrogant. They only wish they could pull off that sort of political gracefulness, but this time they will probably face Hillary Clinton, whose every word seems calculated, as if it had been focus-group tested, five or six times. She is not that formidable, but she’s hardly the problem. You still have to try things out to see if folks love you for what you’re saying.

That’s where it gets tricky. America is far and away the most religious of all the developed nations, and Rick Santorum knows it, so this was worth a try:

Why are Bibles no longer in public schools? Don’t give me the Supreme Court. The reason Bibles are no longer in the public schools is because we let them take them out of the public schools… You say, “Well we can’t get them back in.” Yes we can. Yes we can!

How much are you willing to sacrifice? … One person got the Bibles out of the schools. We have more than one person here! But you’ve got to have the same passion in preserving our country as they do to transform it.

Yes we can? That worked for Obama, but that might not work here, and Steve Benen offers a sensible response:

Santorum doesn’t seem to fully appreciate is that no one has removed the Bible or any other religious text from schools. Right now, under current law, if a student wants to bring a religious text to a public school, he or she is allowed to do exactly that. If a group of students want to form an after-school Bible study, that’s fine, too.

All’s that required is neutrality from the school. That’s it. Students can pray, say grace in the cafeteria, read Scripture during free time, invite classmates to religious services, etc. So long as the school isn’t taking sides or getting involved in religious lessons, everything’s kosher.

Santorum, however, evidently believes that’s not good enough. What’s necessary, he suggested over the weekend, is to roll back the clock to a time when public-sector employees – the folks Santorum and his party aren’t usually fond of – took a direct role in imposing religion on children.

It doesn’t matter. This was posturing, and Santorum is going nowhere, and American Jews, and many others, might think that moving America closer to a “Christian” nation could be a bit dangerous. It was a trial balloon. The press didn’t report a sudden surge of support for Rick Santorum, the surprising new Republican frontrunner. That balloon didn’t fly.

The new Republican frontrunner, at the moment, is actually Scott Walker, who recently found that political posturing, for positioning himself as the guy who will win it all next year, is a bit trickier than it seems:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) on Thursday said that his experience with protests over his law eliminating collective bargaining rights for public employees has prepared him to confront terrorists.

After his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an audience member asked Walker how he would deal with threats like the Islamic State if he were president.

“I want a commander-in-chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists do not wash up on American soil. We will have someone who leads and ultimately will send a message not only that we will protect American soil but do not take this upon freedom-loving people anywhere else in the world,” he responded. “We need a leader with that kind of confidence. If I can take on a 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”

Oops:

National Review’s Jim Geraghty lambasted Walker’s “terrible” response on how he would address ISIL.

“The protesters in Wisconsin, so furiously angry over Walker’s reforms and disruptive to the procedures of passing laws, earned plenty of legitimate criticism. But they’re not ISIS,” Geraghty wrote. “They’re not beheading innocent people. They’re Americans, and as much as we may find their ideas, worldview, and perspective spectacularly wrongheaded, they don’t deserve to be compared to murderous terrorists.”

The Democratic National Committee also denounced Walker’s comparison.

“If Scott Walker thinks that it’s appropriate to compare working people speaking up for their rights to brutal terrorists, then he is even less qualified to be president than I thought,” DNC Communications Director Mo Elleithee said in a Thursday statement.

Rick Perry said here that it was “inappropriate” for Walker to have compared the Madison protesters to the extremist jihadists of ISIS. When you lose the moral high ground to Rick Perry you’re in trouble – so Walker issued a statement saying that he wasn’t going to take the media’s bait. Everyone has misunderstood him. He was just saying he was a tough guy who would fight America’s enemies – but American workers are fine folks, even if they are ruining America with their demands for better pay and better working conditions, and with claiming they have the right to organize, to see if they can get both. That could destroy America, but they were fine folks, or something.

Slate’s John Dickerson adds a coda to all this talk of strength:

This is a particular gambit of governors who try to create future competency in foreign affairs based on accomplishments that don’t have anything to do with foreign affairs.

Fighting an extended war against terrorism will require focus and commitment, but the situations are so different that the skills required go well beyond mere demonstrations of strength. But that is often not the view as foreign policy is discussed in the Republican campaign, where strength is prized above all. Donald Trump received roaring applause from the CPAC audience when he offered his version of Walker’s claim. What was Trump’s policy? Strength. “Nobody would be tougher than Donald Trump,” he said appealing to that portion of the electorate hungry for a candidate who also refers to themselves in the third person. “I would hit them so hard and so fast that they wouldn’t know what happened.”

Walker said he was taken out of context, and he was. That doesn’t mean there were no questions raised by his remarks. The biggest one that remains is the one that faces all Republican candidates running on the idea of strength: What does that mean in a practical sense in a complicated world?

Who knows? This was no more than posturing, to establish position, to see if folks will cheer at what you say, or laugh, and the Republicans, as Jonathan Weisman notes, just tried that on a grand scale:

House Republicans called it streamlining, empowering states or “achieving sustainability.” They couched deep spending reductions in any number of gauzy euphemisms.

What they would not do on Tuesday was call their budget plan, which slashes spending by $5.5 trillion over 10 years, a “cut.”

The 10-year blueprint for taxes and spending they formally unveiled would balance the federal budget, even promising a surplus by 2024, but only with the sort of sleights of hand that Republicans have so often derided.

The budget – the first since Republicans regained control of Congress this year – largely reflects the four previous versions written by Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin when he was chairman of the Budget Committee. But this plan may fare better than Mr. Ryan’s since Senate Republicans will be under pressure to reach an accord.

“A budget is a moral document; it talks about where your values are,” said Representative Rob Woodall, Republican of Georgia and a member of the Budget Committee. “We’ve never had the opportunity to partner with the Senate to provide real certainty.”

The House Republicans just admitted this was no more than posturing, and they were hoping for cheers not laughs, and a little help from the Senate Republicans, but that may be unlikely:

Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, saw it differently: “This takes budget quackery to a new level.”

Without relying on tax increases, budget writers were forced into contortions to bring the budget into balance while placating defense hawks clamoring for increased military spending. They added nearly $40 billion in “emergency” war funding to the defense budget for next year – raising military spending without technically breaking strict caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

The plan contains more than $1 trillion in savings from unspecified cuts to programs like food stamps and welfare. To make matters more complicated, the budget demands the full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, including the tax increases that finance the health care law. But the plan assumes the same level of federal revenue over the next 10 years that the Congressional Budget Office foresees with those tax increases in place – essentially counting $1 trillion of taxes that the same budget swears to forgo.

And still, it achieves balance only by counting $147 billion in “dynamic” economic growth spurred by the policies of the budget itself. In 2024, the budget would produce a thirteen-billion-dollar surplus, thanks in part to $53 billion in a projected “macroeconomic impact” generated by Republican policies. That surplus would grow to $33 billion in 2025, and so would the macroeconomic impact, to $83 billion.

Dynamic scoring is wonderful. Make the cuts and the economy will soar, so count in how much it will soar – cool – and the rest is like that:

The prescribed cuts would be deep, but Republicans cast them as positive. The budget does not cut popular Pell Grants for higher education; it “makes the Pell Grant program permanently sustainable,” the document says. Spending on Medicaid may fall $913 billion over a decade once the health program is turned to block grants to the states, but House Republicans preferred to say in the plan, “Our budget realigns the relationship the federal government has with states and local communities by respecting and restoring the principle of federalism.”

The plan would cut billions of dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, but that was not exactly how the budget phrased the reductions.

“This budget converts SNAP to a State Flexibility Fund so state governments have the power to administer the program in ways that best fit the needs of their communities with greater incentives to achieve better results,” the document says.

Domestic programs would be cut $519 billion below the already restrictive caps set in 2011. White House officials estimated that between the Affordable Care Act repeal and the cuts to Medicaid, 37 million people would lose health insurance, more than doubling the ranks of the uninsured.

There is no Republican plan to account for that last bit, but maybe those people don’t deserve health insurance. Here, in America, you pay for something or do without. You’re on your own. That’s freedom, and so on. Let them die. That’s their problem.

This came next:

President Barack Obama blasted the budget plan House Republicans released Tuesday, saying it underfunds critical national priorities and sets up a “robust debate” over how to help the middle class.

“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing right now is a failure to invest in education, infrastructure, research and national defense. All the things that we need to grow, need to create jobs, to stay at the forefront of innovation and to keep our country safe,” Obama told reporters at the White House as he met with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.

Obama’s comments, and those of other White House officials Tuesday, capture the White House strategy for trying to dominate the budget debate against Republicans: Insist on increasing defense and nondefense discretionary spending in equal amounts, and hammer Obama’s “middle-class economics” themes at every possible opportunity.

Each side is trying to establish a position:

Republicans are trying to set the tone for the debate by pointing out that Obama’s budget never balances, while the House budget plan is designed to balance within 10 years. Senate Republicans are expected to release their plan on Wednesday.

“Where is President Obama’s plan to balance the budget? He doesn’t have one,” said Cory Fritz, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “Republicans are the only ones offering a responsible budget that balances and paves the way for growth, jobs and new opportunities for American families.”

The White House isn’t disputing the idea that Obama isn’t trying to balance the budget. But Obama and his aides insist that it does enough for deficit reduction – and that House Republicans would have to slash spending so deeply that they’re trying to hide the impact by not scheduling any cuts for the first year. Republicans have to reduce spending by $5.5 trillion over 10 years to balance the budget.

At a news briefing, White House press secretary Josh Earnest accused House Republicans of trying to dodge the true impact of their budget by not spelling out the “draconian cuts” that would be required in the first year. He also charged that it attempts to balance the budget by “further slashing middle-class investments after 2016.”

And so it goes:

The White House hopes to use the Republican budgets to draw another round of attention to Obama’s proposals – which would increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for new tax credits for middle-class and low-income workers – and warn about the impact of the GOP budget on domestic priorities like education, an issue Obama and White House aides highlighted on Monday.

None of this has much to do with anything that will actually happen, but the Associated Press notes this:

The White House has put a spotlight on GOP missteps and infighting in recent weeks, arguing that Republicans who promised to govern effectively are falling down on the job since taking control of Congress earlier this year. Drawing an implicit contrast, Obama has been playing up his own, unilateral economic steps as a way to show he’s the one setting Washington’s agenda.

“We’re going to have a robust debate,” Obama pledged Tuesday shortly after House Republicans released their $3.8 trillion budget.

Obama sets the agenda, and that may be what really matters:

The current debate is over a budget resolution, a non-binding measure that doesn’t require Obama’s signature. Typically, Congress uses separate appropriations bills to fund various parts of the government, which makes it harder for the president to insist that Republicans pass funding for his priorities before he’ll approve funding for theirs.

As a result, the White House strategy is not so much designed to negotiate a bargain with Republicans as it is to keep Obama’s underlying economic message at the forefront while Republicans play out their own internal struggles. Such GOP divisions were on full display earlier in March when Republicans dropped their insistence on repealing Obama’s immigration directives and agreed to fund the Homeland Security Department – calling into question the GOP’s broader strategy to use spending bills as leverage against the president.

Still, the White House is taking a much more aggressive stance than it has in the past. In his budget proposal this year, Obama called for an equal surge in both domestic and defense spending, and his budget director, Shaun Donovan, told Congress on Monday that Obama “will not accept a budget” that does otherwise.

“It gives Democrats cover to say ‘no,'” said Stan Collender, a long-time budget analyst now with the Qorvis-MSL Group. “It gives them some backbone.”

Well, the Republicans have a backbone now too, except that Russell Berman at the Atlantic Online reports this:

House Republicans writing the party’s annual budget proposal this year found themselves with an impossible circle to square. Conservative spending hawks insisted that the GOP stick to the budget ceiling Congress imposed four years ago, while the party’s other hawks – those who prioritize a robust national defense above all else – demanded that the plan pour more money into the Pentagon as it fights a new war against ISIS.

“This is a war within the Republican Party,” the always-understated Senator Lindsey Graham told The New York Times. “You can shade it any way you want, but this is war.”

Seeking an armistice in this war over war spending, the new House GOP budget chief, Representative Tom Price of Georgia, turned to an old accounting gimmick that both Republicans and Democrats have decried in previous years. He allocated an additional $94 billion (18 percent more than the base defense spending of $523 billion) to a separate budget known as the “overseas contingency fund” that was first used to finance the war on terrorism after September 11. The off-the-books emergency war fund allows Republicans to boost total defense spending over the budget proposed by President Obama, who simply ignored the legal caps currently in place.

Berman notes that Politico’s David Rogers calls the House budget “a sweeping end-run around” the ceiling that Congress itself established in 2011 as part of a deal to avoid a default on the nation’s debt, so it’s all a mess, and it’s unclear if the Republican House can agree with the Republican Senate on any of this:

The fact that a budget can pass the Senate by a simple majority, without support from Democrats, will help. But if the bickering between House and Senate Republicans over homeland security funding earlier this year is any indication, the negotiation won’t be easy. Many Republicans in the Senate have never been big fans of the conservative House budgets, so Tea Party hardliners in the lower chamber likely will have to compromise – something they are often loath to do – in any deal.

Yes, those Tea Party hardliners in the lower chamber never compromise. They’re always taking maximalist positions. That’s pure posturing – displaying their plumage – to get what they want, which they never get, but they’re proud of that, because everyone knows their position on this and that, which is enough. They think people cheer. Most people laugh – and the House Republicans now have their new budget, none of which will ever be implemented – but they are proud of that too. Now people know where they stand, even if no one is exactly cheering – and their Senate counterparts are fed up with them – and the party’s defense hawks are ticked off at the deficit hawks, who return the favor. And Obama offered a budget which would increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for new tax credits for middle-class and low-income workers, which might please a whole lot of Americans but will never get anywhere with a Republican Congress – and all that Rick Santorum wants is the Bible taught in every classroom in America – and all of this is about an election a year and a half away. Perhaps it can be ignored. Even laughter seems inappropriate. It can wait.

Posted in Political Posturing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Last Minute Adjustments

Obama is not going to admit he was born in Kenya and resign. Bill O’Reilly isn’t going to quit Fox News to open a Buddhist retreat in Nepal. Justin Bieber isn’t going to admit he’s a talentless spoiled brat and apologize for being a total asshole. Donald Trump isn’t going to do the same. Tom Cruise isn’t going to finally let on that Scientology was a scam to part celebrities from their money. But something is up. Something seems about to change, something that will force a rethink of what we think. It was a rally in Jerusalem. The fellow that the Republicans say is the real leader of the free world may be gone soon:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned supporters at a rally here Sunday that he and his Likud party may not win Tuesday’s election, a potentially dramatic fall for a consummate political survivor whose nine years in office transformed him into the public face of contemporary Israel.

A loss by Netanyahu – or a razor-thin win and the prospect that he would be forced to enter into an unwieldy “government of national unity” with his rivals – would mark a sobering reversal for Israel’s security hawks, in a country where the electorate has been moving steadily rightward for the past 15 years.

The final round of opinion polls Friday showed Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party facing a surprisingly strong challenge by Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left Labor Party, and his running mate, former peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, who hold a small but steady lead. Their campaign has emphasized economic issues and the soaring cost of living.

What, the economy matters? What were these whining Israelis thinking? Something had to be done, so something was done:

Under pressure on the eve of a surprisingly close election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Monday doubled down on his appeal to right-wing voters, declaring definitively that if he was returned to office he would never establish a Palestinian state.

The statement reversed Mr. Netanyahu’s endorsement of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University, and fulfilled many world leaders’ suspicions that he was never really serious about peace negotiations. If he manages to eke out a fourth term, the new stance would further fray Mr. Netanyahu’s ruinous relationship with the Obama administration and heighten tension with European countries already frustrated with the stalled peace process.

“I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel,” he said in a video interview published on NRG, an Israeli news site that leans to the right. “There is a real threat here that a left-wing government will join the international community and follow its orders.”

So, Israel doesn’t the need the international community of nations. They’re all fools, dangerous fools. Israel welcomes the scorn of every other nation on earth – or something like that.

The other guy doesn’t think that way:

Mr. Netanyahu’s chief challenger, Isaac Herzog of the center-left Zionist Union, backs the two-state solution and has promised to try to restart talks with the Palestinians, though he has warned an agreement may not be possible. He has, however, made Mr. Netanyahu’s alienation of allies, especially Washington, a prime campaign point, and said Israel’s international isolation is itself a security threat.

That’s one way to see it. Shedding all allies, by systematically insulting them, leaves you with no allies, doesn’t it? This isn’t rocket science, but something has gone sour for Bibi:

With his conservative Likud Party trailing the Zionist Union in the last pre-election polls, Mr. Netanyahu has ratcheted up his statements in a panicky blitz of interviews and campaign stops in recent days. He accuses rivals of colluding with Arabs and moneyed antagonists in a global conspiracy to oust him. He has also belatedly begun to address the pocketbook questions that polls suggest will drive most people’s votes.

But in many corners, these efforts and the Palestinian flip-flop only underscore a longstanding critique: that Mr. Netanyahu, 65, who led Israel for three years in the 1990s and returned to the premiership in 2009, places staying in power above all else.

He himself called these early elections three months ago, confidently aiming to replace a governing coalition fractured over the Palestinian conflict and matters of religion with one he could more easily control. Instead, as Israelis head to the polls Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu is struggling for political survival in a nation itself riven over those issues and consumed with the high cost of housing and groceries.

Suddenly, the man crowned “King Bibi” – whose hardline stance against the Iranian nuclear program and continued construction in West Bank settlements hurt him in some foreign capitals but resonated in an increasingly fearful and religious Israel – is being asked whether he would retire if he were not re-elected.

They’ve had just about enough of this guy, and there are other issues:

Mr. Netanyahu’s emphasis on security, his strong suit, backfired somewhat with the sharp Democratic criticism of his speech to Congress this month opposing the emerging nuclear deal between six world powers and Iran. He got the standing ovations he expected, but also provided an opening for attacks on his preferred playing field.

Mr. Herzog and others argued that he was actually threatening Israel’s security by angering the White House and that all his strident speeches had not yielded results on improving the terms of the Iran negotiations.

The Zionist Union, meanwhile, hammered Mr. Netanyahu on domestic issues, especially housing, helped by a harsh state comptroller’s report showing prices shot up 55 percent from 2008 to 2013 and had continued to climb since. (A previous comptroller’s report on spending at the prime minister’s residences, including a $40,000 take-out tab one year, hardly helped the Netanyahu fatigue.)

The economic platform was also seized by Yesh Atid, the centrist faction that had stunned Israel by winning 19 Parliament seats in the last election, 2013, and Kulanu, a new party led by a popular former minister who broke from the Likud and had few nice things to say about his former boss.

“What’s striking is that the Israeli public seems to have lost interest with the Palestinian question – the general feeling is that it’s like the weather, nothing you can do about it,” observed Guy Ben-Porat, a political scientist at Ben Gurion University. “Economy, housing, all these issues where nobody’s sure what the difference is, exactly, between the parties, there’s a feeling of government failure. I think it’s really a personal election, meaning anti-Netanyahu.”

That’s the broad view of things, but Netanyahu had an answer:

As Israelis prepared to head to the polls in a tightly contested national election, embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday got one last bit of help from septuagenarian tough guy Chuck Norris.

The former star of “Walker Texas Ranger” stumped for Netanyahu in a YouTube video posted to the star’s own account, simply titled, “Please vote for Prime Minister Netanyahu!”

“I watched Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech before Congress, and I saw a man who loves his country with all his heart and soul,” Norris said in the video.

The actor and martial arts enthusiast stressed that only Netanyahu’s Likud Party could bring Israel peace and security.

“I have done three movies in Israel, Delta Force being my favorite, and I formed many friendships while there,” he went on. “You have an incredible country, and we want to keep it that way.”

That may not swing things back in Netanyahu favor. Chuck Norris is a pleasant forth-rate actor in preposterous movies and in an equally preposterous television show, from long ago, but then Ronald Reagan was the same. Who knows? The only thing even vaguely interesting about the endorsement was this:

Norris said that Americans needed a leader like Netanyahu just as much as Israelis, in order to ward off “evil forces” in the Middle East and throughout the world.

Americans wish Netanyahu were their president, not Obama. Saying that may shift a few more Israeli votes to Netanyahu, even if it may not be true. Chuck Norris needs to get out more. Mention of Delta Force and Walker Texas Ranger, however, certainly won’t shift any votes over there. Who the hell is this Chuck Norris person anyway?

Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic Online sees issues that are far beyond Chuck Norris:

Of the many differences between Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and the man who may unseat him, Isaac “Buji” Herzog (I’ll post separately on the ridiculousness of Israeli nicknames), none strikes me as more immediately consequential than the contrasting ways in which they view President Barack Obama.

Yes, Netanyahu and Herzog differ stylistically and dispositionally, and yes, their views on a range of economic, security, and social issues are miles apart, but it is their diverging approaches to management of the American file that is most dramatic.

Compare and contrast:

About Netanyahu’s approach, what else is there to say? The prime minister decided to turn the leader of the United States, the country that is Israel’s chief benefactor, diplomatic protector, weapons supplier and strategic partner, into an adversary by, among other things, making common cause with Obama’s domestic political adversaries. Netanyahu has legitimate criticisms of the Obama administration’s handling of the Iranian nuclear issue, but he mismanaged the relationship so badly that the doors of the White House are practically closed to him. (And yes, it may be unpleasant to acknowledge, but it is true that responsibility for the maintenance of the relationship rests with the junior, dependent, partner, not with the superpower…)

We know, alas, what Netanyahu thinks of Obama – last year, people close to the prime minister told me that he had “written off” Obama, which is, of course, a geopolitical impossibility. But what does Herzog think about Obama – and specifically, about his handling of the Iran nuclear talks? Here is what he told me in December, when I interviewed him at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum: “I trust the Obama administration to get a good deal.”

That’s his advantage:

Whether he actually does, I do not know. But I do know that he is clever enough to talk about the U.S.-Israel relationship with discretion and nuance. Herzog is more hawkish than his right-wing foes have painted him, and his principal adviser on defense affairs, Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief who was one of the eight Israeli pilots who bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, is not soft on the issue. But what he is – and what Herzog is – is practical. Both men know that Israel loses in the Iran equation if it alienates the U.S. president, and both men believe that Obama’s pursuit of a deal is not Chamberlain-like, but instead a regional necessity – so long as Iran is kept at least a year away from nuclear breakout.

Herzog does not downplay the Iran matter, but nor does he cast it in apocalyptic terms, as Netanyahu does. “I agree that a nuclear Iran is extremely dangerous, and I believe that it must be prevented,” Herzog told The Washington Post recently. “No Israeli leader will accept a nuclear Iran. All options for me are still on the table,” including the military option. But when asked if a nuclear Iran posed an “existential threat,” he demurred: “It is a big threat. That’s enough.”

On another pressing, possibly existential issue, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Herzog argues that the status is quo is unsustainable, which puts him in line with Obama’s own thinking on the subject: “This is not a situation where you wait and the problem goes away,” the U.S. president said in an interview I conducted with him in 2013.

Herzog seems to know that spitting in everyone’s face gets you nowhere. That sort of thing only worked for Dick Cheney, and even that is debatable. Here Netanyahu “heroically” spit in the face of the international community – there will NEVER be a two-state solution as long as he’s around – but also seemed to spit in the face of his Republican allies over here. Igor Volsky at ThinkProgress explains the problem:

Republican President George W. Bush was “the first American President to call for a Palestinian state” and invested his presidency in building support for a “two-state solution.” During a speech in 2008, Bush described that goal as “one of the highest priorities of my Presidency” and to this day the Republican platform calls for the establishment of “two democratic states – Israel with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestine – living in peace and security.”

Netanyahu announced his support for Palestine in a landmark 2009 address and reiterated his commitment to Congress just two years later.

“Palestinians should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people living in their own state,” he told a joint session. “They should enjoy a prosperous economy, where their creativity and initiative can flourish.”

At the time, Republican leaders eagerly echoed Netanyahu’s remarks and praised his commitment to peace.

“Israel has demonstrated time and again it seeks nothing more than peace … a peace agreed to by the two states and only the two states,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told a Jewish group in Cincinnati that year. “Like every prime minister before him, Prime Minister Netanyahu knows peace will require compromise – and he accepts that. He welcomes that.”

Netanyahu has now put these folks on the spot:

“American politicians who have aligned themselves with Netanyahu must now be asked where they stand in relation to the two-state solution,” Matt Duss, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview from the West Bank. He expressed concern that Netanyahu misled U.S. lawmakers about his true intentions for attaining peace with the Palestinians.

Boehner’s office did not return ThinkProgress’ request for comment about Netanyahu’s opposition to the two-state solution.

John Boehner needs to think about this, but Paul Waldman does the thinking:

In recent years, the Republican Party has elevated “support for Israel” to a level of passion and consensus usually reserved for things such as tax cuts and opposition to abortion rights. But that happened during a string of conservative Israeli governments. If Israel is led by a Labor Party prime minister and begins to change some of its policies, will Republicans decide that “support” is more complicated than they used to think?

Waldman wonders about that:

It may be hard to remember now, but Israel became a Republican fetish object relatively recently. At times in the past, support for Israel was seen as a liberal cause, but as the Labor Party’s long dominance of the country’s politics faded and policy toward the Palestinians hardened, Republicans became more and more devoted to the country. The real shift probably started in 2001, when Ariel Sharon took over for the last Labor prime minister, Ehud Barak. Since then, the opinions of Democrats and Republicans about Israel have diverged, and the Republican evangelical base has grown intensely interested in the country. These days, one of the first things a freshman Republican member of Congress does is book a trip to the Holy Land (lots of Democrats go too, it should be said). Mike Huckabee leads regular tours there. Sarah Palin used to brag that she displayed an Israeli flag in her office during her brief tenure as governor of Alaska. Given the rapturous reception he got from GOP members when he came at John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress, Netanyahu could become the 2016 Republican nominee for president in a landslide, if it were possible.

But what you don’t find within the Republican Party when it comes to Israel is anything resembling a debate. As far as Republicans are concerned, Israel is just right; whatever Israel wants to do is right; and whatever Israel asks of the United States is precisely what we should do. The only question is whether you’re “supporting” the country with the proper zeal. Republicans don’t concern themselves much with the lively debates over policy within Israel, because the government is controlled by conservatives (Netanyahu’s Likud Party has ruled since 2001, with an interregnum of control by Kadima, a Likud offshoot). “Support for Israel” just means support for the current Israeli government.

That could change now:

Republicans could learn that by the standard they’ve been using, most Israelis are insufficiently pro-Israel. And then what? What if a Labor-led government moves toward a two-state solution, or a curtailing of Jewish settlement in the West Bank? And what if those changes are enthusiastically supported by President Obama and Hillary Clinton? “Support for Israel” sounds great when the country’s prime minister and a Democratic president regard each other with barely disguised contempt, but things could get complicated.

That might actually force Republicans to think about Israel, and America’s relationship to it, with a little more nuance. They’d have to admit that when they used to say “I support Israel,” what they actually meant was that they support the Likud and its vision for Israel’s future. More broadly, they’d have to acknowledge that one can disagree with what the Israeli government does and still support the country, since that’s the position they would find themselves in. They might even realize that you can take a one-week trip to the country during which you climb Masada and go for a dip in the Sea of Galilee and still not know everything there is to know about the Middle East.

Maybe expecting Republican politicians to arrive at a complex understanding of an important foreign policy concern is a little too much to ask. But there’s always hope.

They may soon have no choice but to come to that complex understanding. Or if not now, one day they will have no choice, but Ed Kilgore worries about a post-Netanyahu Republican foreign policy:

The crisis a Netanyahu loss could produce for Republicans goes far beyond how they talk about Israel or the Middle East. If Israel’s no longer the measure of all good things in a “world on fire” what becomes the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy? Straight out Islamophobia?

“U.S. leadership” as defined by the determination to remind the bad actors of the world that Americans have gotten over their “Iraq Syndrome” and are again prepared to fight a war, or maybe multiple wars? It has been pretty easy up until now for Republicans to point at Bibi and intone: “What he said!” I’m not sure they are ready for the possibility of losing their foreign policy spokesman.

What’s this about the world on fire? Ashley Killough at CNN explains:

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was delivering his normal rhetoric during a New Hampshire speech on Sunday, hitting the current administration on the economy, Obamacare and national security.

“And the Obama-Clinton foreign policy of leading from behind – the whole world is on fire,” the senator from Texas declared.

But he was stopped by a 3-year-old girl sitting in the front row.

“The world is on fire?” she yelled out.

Cruz took it and ran with it.

“The world is on fire – yes! Your world is on fire,” he exclaimed, seizing the moment as the crowd burst out into laughter. “But you know what? Your mommy’s here and everyone’s here to make sure that the world you grow up in is even better.”

The scene – while cute – captured Cruz’s determination to remain unwavering in his views and language, never backtracking. There was no “just kidding” or “that was only a metaphor” to assuage the little girl.

That’s the new post-Netanyahu Republican foreign policy? It could be, but as Thomas Friedman explains, Netanyahu does have friends:

As anyone who watched Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last week in Congress knows, one of the people prominently seated in the House gallery was the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a primary financial backer of both the Republican Party and Netanyahu. As The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz reported, at one point Adelson’s wife, Miriam, accidentally knocked her purse off the House gallery railing and it hit Representative Brad Ashford, a Nebraska Democrat seated below. The Post noted that Adelson had given $5 million to the GOP’s Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, which had spent $35,000 in a failed effort to defeat Ashford in his 2014 race against Representative Lee Terry. Ashford later joked to The Omaha World-Herald: “I wish I’d opened the purse. Do you think she carries cash?”

We certainly know that Mr. Adelson does. And when it came to showering that cash on Republican presidential hopefuls and right-wing PACs trying to defeat President Obama (reportedly $150 million in 2012), and on keeping Netanyahu and his Likud party in office, no single billionaire-donor is more influential than Sheldon. No matter what his agenda, it is troubling that one man, with a willingness and ability to give away giant sums, can now tilt Israeli and American politics his way at the same time.

Perhaps so, but the guy bought his influence fair and square:

Israel has much stricter laws on individuals donating to political campaigns, so Adelson got around that in 2007 by founding a free, giveaway newspaper in Israel – Israel Hayom – whose sole purpose is to back Netanyahu, attack his enemies in politics and the media, and enforce a far-right political agenda to prevent any Israeli territorial compromise on the West Bank (which, in time, could undermine Israel as a Jewish democracy). Graphically attractive, Israel Hayom is now the biggest-circulation daily in Israel. Precisely because it is free, it is putting a heavy strain on competitors, like Yediot and Haaretz, which both charge and are not pro-Netanyahu.

Adelson then bought the most important newspaper of the religious-nationalist right in Israel, Makor Rishon, long considered the main backer of Netanyahu’s biggest right-wing rival, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Last March, in an interview with Israel Army Radio after the Makor Rishon sale, Bennett said: “It saddens me. Israel Hayom is not a newspaper. It is Pravda. It’s the mouthpiece of one person, the prime minister. At every junction point, every point of friction between the national interest and the interest of the prime minister, they chose the side of the prime minister.”

The Washington Post said that last November at a conference of the Israel American Council, a lobbying group Adelson has funded, he joked in a public discussion with a wealthy Israeli: “Why don’t you and I go after The New York Times?” Told it was family owned, Adelson quipped, “There is only one way to fight it: money.” At this same conference Adelson was quoted as saying that Israel would not be able to survive as a democracy: “So Israel won’t be a democratic state,” he added. “So what?”

That’s pretty straightforward, and there was March, in Las Vegas, where Adelson summoned Jeb Bush and Chris Christie and John Kasich and Scott Walker to explain why he should fund any of them, and this was about Israel:

When Christie, in his speech before Adelson, described the West Bank as “occupied territories,” some Republican Jews in the audience were appalled. So, Politico reported, Christie hastily arranged a meeting with Adelson to explain that he had misspoken and that he was a true friend of Israel. “The New Jersey governor apologized in a private meeting in the casino mogul’s Venetian office shortly afterward,” Politico reported. It said Adelson “accepted” Christie’s “explanation” and “quick apology.”

Friedman is not happy:

When money in politics gets this big, when it can make elected officials bow and scrape in two different countries at the same time, it is troubling. I’m sure Adelson cares deeply about Israel, but he lacks any sense of limits in how he exercises his extraordinary financial power – power he is using to simultaneously push Israel and America toward eliminating any two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, toward defunding the Palestinian Authority and toward a confrontation with Iran, not a diplomatic solution. People need to know this.

People may actually know this. A good number of folks in Israel seem to be tired of being jerked around by the American guy in Las Vegas, who makes most of his money in Macau. They may not know about him, specifically, but that hardly matters. They know his man, Netanyahu, and that’s enough. Something is going to change there, and here, eventually if not now. No last minute adjustments will work. And Tom Cruise won’t be able to save Scientology either. A scam is a scam.

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That International Man of Mystery

Some of us prefer scotch, but all these small-batch craft beers are interesting – although Imperial Crème Brûlée Stout may be taking things a bit too far. Out here you can get Stone Crime Chili Beer – yes, infused with chili peppers, from the folks that gave the world Arrogant Bastard, which isn’t half bad. There’s a market for the unusual, which is supposed to be so beyond hip that you’re automatically too cool for words if you even know about such things. Large-volume commercial beers are for losers. This Bud’s for you? It is, if you’re the guy who never knows what’s going on, whose life is and always was a dead end, the guy always trying to figure things out but never will. You should just give up.

This presents a problem for the major commercial brewers. They may not lose much actual market share to the little guys, but they have to counter that message. There’s no way that beer produced in giant factories by large corporations will ever be hip, but their commercials are full of people who are supposed to be hip – young fit guys with hard bodies and lithe young women with sly smiles. Maybe that works, but the folks who make Dos Equis decided it was better to mock the whole narrative. They came up with their The Most Interesting Man in the World campaign:

The advertisements feature a bearded, debonair gentleman roughly in his 70s, portrayed by actor Jonathan Goldsmith, with Frontline narrator Will Lyman conducting voiceovers. They also feature a montage (mostly in black and white) of daring exploits involving “the most interesting man” when he was younger.

The precise settings are never revealed, but he performs feats such as freeing an angry bear from a painful-looking bear trap; shooting a pool trick shot before an Indian audience (by shooting the cue ball out of the mouth of a man lying on the pool table); catching a marlin while cavorting in a Hemingway-esque scene with a beautiful young woman; winning an arm-wrestling match in a South American setting; surfing the killer wave; and bench pressing two young East Asian women in a casino setting, each woman being seated in a chair.

These folks are mocking the idea of hip, and mocking manly manliness, and the voiceovers, about this far-beyond-cool guy are deadly:

He lives vicariously through himself.
He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels.
His beard alone has experienced more than a lesser man’s entire body.
The police often question him just because they find him interesting.
His blood smells like cologne.
In museums, he is allowed to touch the art.
If he were to punch you in the face, you would have to fight off the urge to thank him.

And thenf he speaks – “I don’t always drink beer. But when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.”

This is a pretty sly use of irony. One should drink Dos Equis just to stick it to the pretentious shits, those irritating hipsters, who think they’re so cool. Each commercial ends with the same tagline – “Stay thirsty, my friends.” There’s an implicit secondary massage there – “But don’t be an asshole about it.” Worshiping those virile manly men can make you look like a fool. Think about what you think is so damned cool. You may be being had.

It’s easy to fall into that trap. There’s always the Most Interesting Man in the World. After all, everyone will now remember the day the real leader of the free world came to the United States to address a Joint Session of Congress, to upbraid and shame the young and hopelessly naïve president of this now equally hopeless country – invited to do so by the few remaining Real Americans – those who prefer war to diplomacy, and don’t like gays, and who prefer minorities stay in the background, quietly, and like their women modest and generally silent. That would be the Republicans of course. Benjamin Netanyahu finally gave that speech, which actually contained nothing new. But National Review columnist Quin Hillyer wrote that “Netanyahu, not Obama, speaks for us” – and called him “the leader of the free world” – the real manly man.

Now there are questions. Who runs our foreign policy? That’s never been in dispute before. Nixon “opened China” – a complete surprise that no one in Congress saw coming. Obama is trying to do the same thing with Cuba – and as much as Congress fumes, or a few in Congress fume, there’s not a damned thing that they can do about it. That’s not how things work. Everyone knows the rules, but John Boehner and the Republicans invited Benjamin Netanyahu to come on over and say, that given this Obama fellow, it was time to break the rules. If you love Israel, break your silly American rules, now. If you love Iran and terrorism and think there are a few good Muslims out there, don’t break your rules – but you’ll be sorry. Benjamin Netanyahu says it’s time we moved on. He has said he speaks for Israel and all Jews, living or dead or yet to be born. He has graciously and heroically granted Americans the right to move on. And his blood smells like cologne.

We cannot have an agreement with Iran that only halts their nuclear program. That’s not good enough. The only thing to do was send a letter to the Iranian government, saying that the Republican Senate over here didn’t like the deal, and if this were a treaty, they’d never ratify it. As it’s not a treaty – if Obama pulls this off it would be a series of executive agreements – they wanted to remind Iran that the next president will be a Republican, who would revoke it all. It was a reminder to the Iranian government to explain how our government really works. The president is a figurehead. He’s not a manly man.

The letter backfired. This was breaking all the reasonable constitutional rules about who does what, and that could lead to chaos, or worse – and it looks as if Netanyahu might lose the upcoming elections in Israel, and he’d be out of a job – a sudden nobody. The Most Interesting Man in the World probably isn’t. Didn’t these guys watch those beer commercials? Maybe they didn’t get the joke.

No, they didn’t. The same thing happened a year earlier:

Without suggesting any love for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, Republicans in Congress have asserted that Russia’s incursion into Ukraine would not have happened had Obama not been such a wimp in his dealings with Moscow. …

John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio echoed that sentiment at the CPAC conference in Washington on Thursday.

“We cannot ignore that the flawed foreign policy of the last few years has brought us to this stage, because we have a president who believed but by the sheer force of his personality he would be able to shape global events,” Rubio said.

The GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers of Michigan, said Putin is playing chess while Obama is playing marbles.

Obama was not a manly man, and Ukraine wasn’t the only issue:

Other conservatives have taken this critique a step or two further. On Fox News, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared that Putin has shown what leadership is by acting boldly and rapidly to assert his nation’s interests in Crimea. Also on Fox, right-wing celebrity Sarah Palin suggested that the Russian president is far manlier than the U.S. president.

“Obama, the perception of him and his ‘potency’ across the world is one of such weakness,” Palin said. “Look it, people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”

The guy in the beer commercial wrestles bears too, and of course real men hate gays:

In recent days, Rush Limbaugh has surprised himself (so he says) by finding admirable qualities in Putin that Obama lacks. He joins the ranks of numerous social conservatives, such as Pat Buchanan, who were already Putin fans due to his support for the Russian Orthodox Church and his opposition to gay rights.

In December, Buchanan wrote a column lauding Putin for his opposition to same-sex marriage. “While his stance as a defender of traditional values has drawn the mockery of Western media and cultural elites, Putin is not wrong in saying that he can speak for much of mankind.” Buchanan wrote. “He is seeking to redefine the ‘Us vs. Them’ world conflict of the future as one in which conservatives, traditionalists and nationalists of all continents and countries stand up against the cultural and ideological imperialism of what he sees as a decadent West.”

He was their hero, and then his Ukrainian rebels shot down that airliner, killing everyone on board, and his economy collapsed. Obama’s sanctions started to work and the price of oil collapsed, which might mean that Obama was the one playing chess and Putin was the one who lost all his marbles. Then Putin’s main political rival was gunned down in broad daylight in Moscow, a few feet from the Kremlin – which might seem like Putin acting boldly and rapidly to assert his nation’s interests, as Rudy Giuliani might see it. No one else saw it that way. Everyone seems to think Putin has something to do with that, although no one will ever know.

That particular Most Interesting Man in the World was no longer cool. Benjamin Netanyahu was. He will be until he isn’t, but now there’s more on Putin:

Russia was prepared to activate its nuclear arsenal a year ago when its troops secured the Crimean peninsula and eventually annexed it to the Russian Federation, President Vladimir Putin said in a broadcast aired Sunday.

In the documentary-cum-reenactment timed to Monday’s anniversary of a referendum in which Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine, the film, “Crimea: Path to the Motherland,” features Putin justifying Moscow’s seizure of the Black Sea territory as necessary to protect Russians and military bases from what he described as a nationalist junta that had taken power in Kiev.

We’re talking global thermonuclear war here, and a sense of things that doesn’t match our sense of things:

Putin accused the United States of masterminding the three-month uprising in the Ukrainian capital that ended with the ouster of Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovych, who has since taken refuge in Russia. He said the “beneficiaries of the armed coup” planned to kill Yanukovych, prompting Putin to personally order Russian military intervention to protect the political ally and save Crimea from attack by Ukrainian nationalists.

This was also high drama:

The film was a montage of images of Russian paratroopers coming to the rescue of Crimeans, Putin’s observations on his obligation to protect Russians outside his country and reenacted clashes between Ukrainian nationalists and the police and security forces defeated by the popular uprising in Kiev.

Masked Ukrainian zealots were depicted in the reenacted segments hunting Russians with attack dogs and barbed-wire-wrapped truncheons. Fiery scenes of torched police vehicles and black-clad rightists attacking law enforcement cast the overthrow of Yanukovych as a violent, Western-inspired coup d’état, and the Russian minority in Crimea and eastern Ukraine as the targets of fascist death squads.

The United States, along with Poland and Lithuania, “facilitated the armed coup” by training the nationalists, Putin said.

This plays well at home, except, as Adam Taylor reports in the Washington Post, Putin doesn’t seem to be at home:

On Thursday, Putin’s spokesman announced that the president would not attend a meeting with the Federal Security Service (FSB), which he usually attends. But no, Putin was “absolutely” healthy, Dmitry Peskov told Russia’s Ekho Moskvy, before adding that the president’s handshake was so strong it could “break your hand.”

Putin’s absence at the FSB meeting comes just a day after he unexpectedly canceled a trip to Kazakhstan. “The visit has been canceled. It looks like he [Putin] has fallen ill,” an anonymous Kazakh official told Reuters afterward, prompting a flurry of speculation.

To make matters more confusing, on Wednesday the Kremlin released an image of Putin meeting with the regional governor of Karelia. But local Web site Vesti Karelii reported that Putin actually had met with the head of the Republic of Karelia, Alexander Khudilainen, on March 4. In fact, RBC.ru reported that a number of events posted by the Kremlin appeared to have been recycled from earlier events. If this is correct, the last time Putin was seen in public may have been March 5, when he met the Italian prime minister in Moscow.

On Friday, as speculation grew further, state TV released footage showing Putin meeting with the head of Russia’s Supreme Court at his residence outside of Moscow. It was not clear, however, when the meeting had occurred.

Putin has disappeared, without explanation, and this had to happen:

The rumor mill went into overdrive, churning out possible explanations from the simple to the salacious to the sinister. He had been stricken by the particularly devastating strain of flu going around Moscow just now. He sneaked off to Switzerland for the birth of his love child. He had a stroke. The victim of a palace coup, he was imprisoned within the Kremlin. He was dead, aged 62.

Dmitry S. Peskov, the presidential spokesman, treated all the health questions with a certain wry humor initially, coming up with new and inventive ways to say, “He’s fine.”

Yet, the fact that the story proved impossible to quash underscored the uneasy mood gripping the Russian capital for months now, an atmosphere in which speculation about the health of just one man can provoke fears about death and succession.

Folks should be worried:

There have been periodic glimpses of the tension behind the high red walls of the Kremlin, infighting over the wisdom of waging war in Ukraine that has only deepened as the value of the ruble crumbled under the combined weight of an oil price collapse and Western economic sanctions over the annexation of Crimea.

Those pressures seemed to culminate in the Feb. 27 assassination of Boris Y. Nemtsov, the opposition leader and former deputy prime minister who was gunned down near the Kremlin. Mr. Nemtsov’s supporters blamed the atmosphere of hate that has been brewing in Russia, with the state-controlled news media labeling him a ringleader among the “enemies of the state.”

All that seemed to feed some of the darker interpretations of Mr. Putin’s disappearance. Andrei Illarionov, a former presidential adviser, wrote a blog post suggesting that the president had been overthrown by hard-liners in a palace coup endorsed by the Russian Orthodox Church. …

Of course, the “wag-the-dog” grandfather of all the conspiracy theories surfaced as well, that Mr. Putin disappeared on purpose to distract everyone from the problems and economic pressures piling up around them.

This is odd, and then there’s history:

In the early 1980s, when three Soviet rulers – Leonid I. Brezhnev, Yuri V. Andropov and Konstantin U. Chernenko – died in quick succession, the public was among the last to be informed.

“If an American president dies, not that much changes” said a reporter who has covered Mr. Putin for years, not wanting to be quoted by name on the subject of the president’s possible demise. “But if a Russian leader dies everything can change – we just don’t know for better or worse, but usually for worse.”

Or else he caught a bug, or didn’t:

The simplest explanation appeared to come from an unidentified government source in Kazakhstan, who told Reuters “it looks like he has fallen ill.”

Since half of Moscow seemed racked with a flu that knocks people onto their backs for days at a time, that seemed the most likely explanation. (Who knows how many hands he shakes in a day?)

But there seemed to be a certain reluctance to admit that Russia’s leader, who cultivates a macho image of ruddy good health, might have been felled like a mere mortal.

His spokesman told any media outlet that called (and most did) that his boss was in fine fettle, holding meetings and performing other duties of the office.

“No need to worry, everything is all right,” Mr. Peskov said Thursday in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio. “He has working meetings all the time, only not all of these meetings are public.”

Ah, but say there’s no need to work and others will wonder what’s really going on:

A Swiss tabloid reported that Mr. Putin had spent the past week accompanying his mistress – the Olympic gymnastics medalist Alina Kabayeva – to give birth in a clinic in Switzerland’s Ticino canton favored by the family of Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister. (It would be the third child, none confirmed.) …

Of course, Mr. Putin’s opponents next door in Ukraine lost no time celebrating the possible news. One set up a clock using a joyous chorus from “Swan Lake” to count off the time since Mr. Putin last appeared alive.

One of Mr. Putin’s predecessors, Boris N. Yeltsin, used to disappear frequently as well. But that was due either to drinking bouts or, at least once, an undisclosed heart attack. His spokesman settled on a standard explanation that Mr. Yeltsin still had a firm handshake and was busy working on documents.

Mr. Peskov drolly resorted to both explanations, telling Echo of Moscow that Mr. Putin’s handshake could break hands and that he was working “exhaustively” with documents.

Yeah, sure, but Matt Schiavenza, writing in the Atlantic Online, is a bit worried:

Putin’s reemergence will, probably to the disappointment of journalists everywhere, put a slew of salacious rumors to rest. Even if the president resumes power as before, however, his extended absence raises an uncomfortable question. What would happen in Russia, hypothetically, if Putin dies?

Until this week, analysts had little reason to contemplate the scenario. Putin is just 62 years old and, as Russian propaganda regularly reminds the world, in good shape. But nobody expected Kim Jong Il, just 69, to die young – until he did in 2011. And there’s even a precedent in recent Russian history. Three leaders of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko, died in rapid succession from 1982 to 1985, a series of events that brought the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev to power.

This could be trouble, because unlike Brezhnev and Andropov and Chernenko, Putin has been playing that guy in the beer commercial, the cool manly guy, who has to be the most interesting guy in the world:

Given Russia’s size, nuclear arsenal, and regional influence, the passing of its leader would have significant consequences – no matter who it is. But a Putin death could be particularly destabilizing. Since assuming Russia’s presidency in 2000 following the resignation of predecessor Boris Yeltsin, who had appointed the then-unknown ex-KGB officer Prime Minister just months before, Putin has spent the next 15 years centralizing state power. Many democratic institutions established in the 1990s – such as the popular election of regional officials – exist just in memory, and the only office for which Russians vote directly is Putin’s itself. Putin controls Russia’s television, where 90 percent of the population receives its news, and strictly censors the Internet. Political opposition in Russia is largely weak and fragmented – outspoken critics end up in prison or dead, a trend continued with the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in Moscow last month.

Contemporary Russia is often compared to China, a fellow authoritarian power with which Moscow enjoys a chummy relationship on the UN Security Council. Xi Jinping, Putin’s Chinese counterpart, is thought by some to be China’s most powerful ruler in decades. But Xi must still contend with powerful rivals from within the Communist Party. Putin appears to face less intra-party competition. Because of the personal nature of his rule, Vladimir Putin was named the world’s most powerful individual by the political scientist Ian Bremmer in 2013.

If Putin dies, power would in theory pass to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who under the Russian constitution would then have three months to organize a presidential election. The boyish Medvedev, technically, held the job from 2008 to 2012, and may be in position to govern again – this time without Putin looking over his shoulder.

And if Putin were to punch you in the face, you would have to fight off the urge to thank him. There’s no one like him:

A smooth transition to power, rather than a protracted power struggle, would seem to be the best case scenario for Russia. Even then, a post-Putin Russia would probably not deviate far from the authoritarian’s policies. Putin remains broadly popular in the country, despite an economy teetering under the weight of Western sanctions and collapsed oil prices. A relatively liberal, pro-Western government, such as Boris Yeltsin’s, is unlikely to emerge.

“I am hesitant when people call for a Russia without Putin.” Dmitry Oreshkin, a pro-opposition analyst who heads the Moscow-based Mercator political research group, told Vocativ. “What do they think is going to follow him? Some liberal politician? No, things would only get worse.”

Amanda Taub adds this:

Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev would take over if Putin were to suddenly die or become incapacitated. But the real question isn’t who would assume Putin’s office, but who would assume his role: who would really take power after he is gone. That question remains unanswered.

That is a significant source of potential instability for Russia, and it deserves to be taken seriously, even if the rumors themselves do not. It is easy to mistake Putin’s personal control over the levers of power in Russia for a sign of strength – after all, it makes him look like an especially powerful leader. But for Russia, it is a weakness. And that means that for the rest of the world, and for Russians, it is a potential source of instability and danger.

Putin’s personal control over the levers of power in Russia isn’t a sign of strength? Someone tell Rudy and Sarah. The idea that one man, who is manly and cool, and who once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels, is to be held in awe, is kind of silly. For Republicans, that man was Putin, and then it was Netanyahu. For the rest of us it’s the guy in the beer commercial. The Most Interesting Man in the world was a spoof. Some folks just don’t get it.

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Assuring the Worst Possible Outcome

It’s a sports thing. Teams fall behind and panic – they forget their game plan that they had so cleverly and carefully practiced, over and over, until every move was instinctive. They’re losing and get desperate. This player or that will try to win the game all on his own – forget what the coach says, and forget teamwork. Forget winning too. Bold and unlikely moves, out of the blue with no thought and planning, without any practice to see if they work, end in disaster again and again. Trying too hard is the problem. That’s far worse than not trying at all. There’s a reason there’s a game plan. There’s a reason for all that practice. There’s a reason there’s a coach. He’s there to head off desperation moves by the next guy who has a brilliant idea that just might work. That brilliant idea that just might work almost always assures the worst possible outcome. Stick to the game plan.

This was the week the Republicans forgot that, and they paid the price:

The backlash continued Tuesday after 47 Republican senators sent a signed letter to Iran’s leaders warning them against cutting a nuclear deal with the Obama administration.

The letter, organized by Senator Tom Cotton, a freshman from Arkansas, warned Iran that “we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”

The New York Daily News on Tuesday put photos of Cotton, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on its front page along with the boldfaced headline “TRAITORS.”

Things weren’t any better by the end of the week. One-third of Republican insiders in Iowa and New Hampshire have problems with the open letter to Iran from Senate Republicans, according to Politico’s ongoing anonymous survey – where folks can let it rip. “More than 100 of the most plugged-in activists, operatives and elected officials in Iowa and New Hampshire” saw a disaster and were saying things like this:

“The GOP letter – while sound in substance – caused the debate to shift from the administration’s wrongheadedness to the GOP’s tactics,” said a New Hampshire Republican, who – like all 92 respondents this week – completed the survey anonymously in order to speak candidly. “That’s not helpful.”

“Policy wise, the deal Obama is trying to cut is a bad one,” said another. “Politically speaking, however, the letter has been a disaster. The Democrats have totally framed and owned the debate, and our GOP senators are getting pummeled.”

This was a desperation move by a team that had fallen behind. Obama was going to get Iran to stop trying to make nuclear weapons, for at least ten years, with intrusive inspections and all the rest. In return, we would start to lift all the economic sanctions, and so would the other five nations who were part of the negotiations. But this would be a triumph for Obama. He’d win. Republicans would lose. The only thing to do was send a letter to the Iranian government, saying that the Republican Senate over here didn’t like the deal, and if this were a treaty, they’d never ratify it. As it’s not a treaty – if Obama pulls this off it would be a series of executive agreements – they wanted to remind Iran that the next president will be a Republican, who would revoke it all. It was a reminder to the Iranian government to explain how our government really works. The president is a figurehead. They were dealing with the wrong guy. They should be dealing with Tom Cotton, who speaks for the Republican Senate, which determines this nation’s foreign policy, and which speaks for America. Tom Cotton is the new guy on the team – he’s been a senator for two months now – and this was his idea.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, was not impressed – “This kind of communication is unprecedented and undiplomatic” – and he dismissed the letter as purely political. He knows our constitution better than Tom Cotton does. He shrugged. This was Obama’s problem, if it was a problem. It was more like an irritant. Zarif could have easily said Iran would stop negotiating with the United States for now, because the United States seems to be in the midst of a coup and it might be best to pause negotiations until the Americans decide who actually runs their government – but he wants the sanctions lifted and doesn’t mind giving up on the bomb thing for now. He’ll deal with Obama and with the other five nations at the table. He’ll deal with the Republicans when they’ve abolished the presidency, have their own Army, and declare the Constitution null and void, but until then… whatever.

Then there was this:

President Barack Obama said he’s “embarrassed” for the 47 Republican senators who signed a letter to Iranian leaders earlier this week.

“I’m embarrassed for them. For them to address a letter to the ayatollah who they claim is our mortal enemy, and their basic argument to them is ‘don’t deal with our president ’cause you can’t trust him to follow through on agreement,” Obama said in a trailer for a Vice News interview scheduled to run in full on Monday.

This item also mentions that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Twitter account said that the Cotton letter “is indicative” of an American “collapse in ethics” – whatever that means. Americans aren’t honorable people? Who knows? Twitter is not a place for depth.

Jonathan Chait has a different take. He points to Bill Kristol behind this:

The letter, which was conceived of by freshman GOP Sen. Tom Cotton, was influenced in part by prominent national security hawk and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. Kristol said he had no part in drafting or editing the letter, but did consult with the senator about it.

“I did discuss it with Tom as he was conceiving it and pondering whether and how to do it. I know he consulted with others as well with some government and foreign policy experience, as you’d expect,” Kristol told The Daily Beast.

Given that, Chait sees Cotton as the future of neoconservatism:

The letter episode contains all the characteristic traits of a neoconservative project. First, of course, is the wild confrontationalism, which in this case was directed not against Iran but against the Obama administration. It may not be treason for the Senate to undermine the president’s negotiations with a foreign power, but it surely represents the bluntest and most hostile possible exercise of opposition to the executive branch’s strategy. Kristol’s advice in any situation, domestic or foreign, is for his side to display maximum belligerence, and the Cotton letter reflected that impulse.

Second, the letter was drafted and signed with maximum haste and a total contempt for planning or serious thought of any kind. “It was kind of a very rapid process. Everybody was looking forward to getting out of town because of the snowstorm,” confessed John McCain. “Many of the 47 signatories reasoned that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s endorsement was vetting enough,” notes former Bush administration speechwriter Michael Gerson, disgustedly. “There was no caucus-wide debate about strategy; no consultation with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has studiously followed the nuclear talks (and who refused to sign).” Most people who signed on did so because they assumed somebody else had thought through the details. It was the Iraq invasion of foreign-policy maneuvers.

Third, the ploy has failed even by the standards of its own logic. The neoconservative plan for Iran is to undermine Obama’s Iran deal and replace it with what Benjamin Netanyahu called, vaguely, a “better deal.” The sequence of this strategy requires getting a bipartisan Senate group to impose more stringent sanctions on Iran, thus forcing Iran away from the table, and then securing international cooperation for stricter sanctions.

That’s not going to happen now:

The partisanship of the letter undermines the prospects of any additional Democrats giving the Iran sanctions bill the veto-proof majority it needs. And if Iran does walk away from negotiations, it will argue that negotiations were sabotaged by Republican ultra-hawks, not its own recalcitrance. That would make the international cooperation required for effective sanctions even harder to round up. As Gerson puts it, “this approach depends on the tightening of sanctions in cooperation with Europe, as well as Russia and China. And this effort can be held together only by the impression that the United States has negotiated with Iran in good faith.”

How can we negotiate in good faith when we’re in the middle of a coup? The Republicans have announced to the world that they alone speak for us. The Constitution – see the Treaty Clause and the War Powers Clause and the Appointments Clause and the Foreign Commerce Clause – and the law – the Logan Act specifically – say Obama speaks for us. Who is right? With whom does one negotiate?

Chait is just amazed:

Numerous Republican signatories have admitted, tacitly or overtly, that the letter was a mistake. Senator Pat Toomey concedes he “didn’t have any particular anticipation of the level of controversy.” His colleague Ron Johnson now says maybe the letter should not have been addressed to the Iranian regime. But Kristol regards the concession of error as a form of weakness. His response to his own party’s queasiness at its hastily conceived and botched maneuver is the same as it was when the Iraq occupation began to disintegrate. He is scolding the doubters for their half-heartedness and calling for renewed willpower…

His Weekly Standard colleague Stephen Hayes, author of a book touting the connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, insists the Cotton letter has succeeded spectacularly. “The Cotton letter has already achieved its goal,” writes Hayes, “We are, finally, engaged in a serious national debate about the threat from Iran.”

You may think people were already debating Iran before Cotton’s letter, and you may further think the letter has changed the subject from Obama’s negotiating strategy (which may or may not work) to the GOP’s highly controversial attempt to subvert it. But you’d be wrong, say the neocons. It was a cakewalk.

Those neocons are a hoot, aren’t they? But ever since their singular foreign policy achievement, the war in Iraq, fell apart on them, they’ve been like that team that falls behind, and sees the end of their season facing them, and then tries too hard, assuring the worst possible outcome. That’s what they got, and then there’s this:

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unannounced visit this week to the Mahane Yehuda market here [in Jerusalem] he did not invite the local news media. Instead, selected scenes from his tour were filmed and the video released by his campaign.

The curious decision to not invite the press stemmed from security concerns, campaign aides said, but Israeli security officials told reporters they had not made the decision. Israeli political commentators concluded that even in this traditional stronghold of support for his conservative Likud Party, Mr. Netanyahu was worried about being heckled.

By Friday, with just days to go before the national elections, the reasons for Mr. Netanyahu’s concern were apparent. Most of the last polls to be published before the vote showed Likud trailing its main rival, the Zionist Union, a center-left slate headed by the Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and his running mate, Tzipi Livni, the leader of a small centrist party.

Mr. Herzog and Ms. Livni have agreed to split the four-year term as prime minister if they win, with Mr. Herzog serving in the post for the first two years and Ms. Livni for the second.

How did that happen? Slate’s Fred Kaplan sees a guy who is trying too hard:

Trailing in polls four days before Israel’s parliamentary election, he’s shedding his pretense of friendly relations with the United States. Finishing second next Tuesday won’t, by itself, destroy Netanyahu’s career. But the manner in which he’s doing it has made him toxic. His days as a credible representative of his country are over.

Blaming others is always a bad idea, and now he’s blaming us:

Netanyahu has blamed “European states” for some of his election troubles. Until recently, he had left the most explicit America-bashing to surrogates such as his intelligence minister, who warned Israelis on Tuesday of a “mobilization … by elements in the United States against us.” But in the last two days, Netanyahu has sharpened his attacks. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post on Thursday, he accused his rivals of suggesting that “we should bow our heads to the U.S.” Under his own leadership, Netanyahu pledged, “The days when Jews bow their heads are over.” He argued that an Israeli prime minister must “draw the line” not only against Iran’s nuclear program, but also against dividing Jerusalem and withdrawing to Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

On Friday, speaking with the Times of Israel, Netanyahu implied that some Americans and their government were targeting him for his resistance. He denounced “an effort by leftist NGOs throughout the world, and left-leaning tycoons and consultants from various political parties, including from the United States, to try to bring down the Likud and me.” The Times asked him: “Do you think the Obama administration wants to see the back of you as prime minister?” Netanyahu replied: “Well, it’s not a tremendous leap of imagination, don’t you think?” He pointed to the “enormous campaign here from abroad … to get out the Arab vote in vast numbers, get out the left vote in vast numbers, and conduct a negative campaign against me.”

Now everyone is out to get him:

Sometimes, Netanyahu pretends that his defiance is just about an existential threat from Iran. But then he brags about standing up for settlements, which every U.S. administration has opposed. On Thursday, in a letter to right-wing voters, Netanyahu touted his refusal to halt Jewish construction in the West Bank, not just during his current term, but also in his prior term, when Bill Clinton was president. “We stood up against great international pressure to withdraw,” he crowed. “We built thousands of housing units in Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem.”

And, he might have said, he really stuck it to those useless Americans, from Clinton, to the second Bush, to Obama. Well, screw them all! That would be all except the current Republicans, and Kaplan finds all of this mighty odd:

When Netanyahu addressed Congress on March 3, he swore his trip wasn’t political. “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political,” he told the assembled lawmakers. “That was never my intention.” But on Thursday, Likud released a commercial that shows the prime minister receiving a standing ovation in the House chamber.

Think about that. First, Netanyahu accepted a unilateral invitation from congressional Republicans. Then he ignored signals from the White House not to come. He stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and urged Congress to oppose the Obama administration’s foreign policy. He lamented, in a tone of wounded piety, the notion that anyone might think his speech was political. Hundreds of lawmakers, taking him at his word, stood and applauded. And then Netanyahu used their applause in a campaign ad. There is no greater chutzpah.

Netanyahu does, however, claim the speech helped his country:

“Respect for Israel in the U.S. is at a record high, despite the differences there have been with the administration,” he told the Post. But after the trip, Netanyahu’s favorable rating in the United States dropped seven points, and his unfavorable rating rose five points. Nor did the visit help his campaign. Likud officials admit that they had counted on the trip to boost their party and that it didn’t work. “Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last week should have created a turning point for us and strengthened Likud in the polls,” a Likud insider told Haaretz. “It’s clear that we didn’t achieve the desired outcome.”

Oops. When you’re behind, in this case when Obama is probably going to get a pretty good deal with Iran, even if not the best deal anyone could ever even imagine, and you also know that then you’re going to look like a jerk, you try too hard. That only makes matters worse. It did here:

It turns out that when you go to the capital of your most important ally and slap its president in the face – particularly when that ally is the only friend standing between your country and near-total international isolation – your own people don’t necessarily conclude that you’re a hero. Many of them conclude that you’re a jerk, a fool, and a hazard. In a poll released Tuesday, 49 percent of Israeli Jews said the U.S. would be less friendly to a government led by Netanyahu than to a government led by his rivals. Only 7 percent said the opposite. When Jewish Israelis were asked which head of state was responsible for frayed relations with the United States, only 32 percent blamed Obama. Twenty-seven percent blamed their own prime minister.

Maybe Netanyahu is right. Maybe the whole world is out to get him. But if that’s true, it’s not because he’s brave or righteous. It’s because he has gone out of his way to antagonize so many people. Obama is just another leader he couldn’t get along with. Among heads of state, rolling your eyes at Netanyahu has become a bonding experience.

Of course, like Bill Kristol and Tom Cotton and Dick Cheney, this guy doesn’t think that way:

Netanyahu thinks his behavior earns him “respect.” He has invincible faith in his ability to outtalk, outmaneuver, and impose his will on others. That’s why Israel is holding this election. In December, Netanyahu fired the ministers whose parties were propping up his government. He thought he could win without these partners. He would just tell Israelis what’s what, and they’d sweep him back into power with an incontestable mandate. Today, as Likud stumbles toward a second-place showing that will force it to bargain with other parties for the chance to form a government, Netanyahu refuses to compromise. His rivals are willing to share the prime minister’s office, but he isn’t. “I won’t rotate the premiership,” he says.

Netanyahu has thus assured the worst possible outcome:

Even his own party is fed up. In anonymous interviews, Likud officials are burying him. “Netanyahu kept Likud ministers far from decisions,” says one, citing the prime minister’s “excessive focus” on himself. Another complains: “He decided to put himself at the front. … It turns out the public is weary of Netanyahu, but he didn’t think that was a good enough reason to scale back his presence in the campaign.”

There is such a thing as trying too hard:

Netanyahu is botching the election the same way he botched Israel’s leverage in the Iran deal, its relations with the United States, and everything else. He commandeers the stage, insults his allies, and refuses to shut up. That’s who he is. And that’s who he’ll still be a year or two from now. But he won’t be prime minister of Israel.

That brilliant idea that just might work almost always assures the worst possible outcome. Stick to the game plan. Hell, have a game plan. That seems to be the lesson in both these cases.

Posted in Iran, Neoconservate Thought, Republican Extremism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hillary by Default

A little over seven years ago there was that Los Angeles Democratic Presidential Debate, on January 31, 2008, at the Kodak Theater over on Hollywood Boulevard. Kodak has pretty much gone bankrupt – everything went digital and Kodak didn’t – and that’s now the Dolby Theater. Things change, but that was the big faceoff between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. This was a big deal, and press credentials are cool. Having a friend high-up in CNN is cool – CNN hosted the thing. That meant live-blogging the debate on site – and then it was over – and the drive home was tedious. It would have been better to walk. The apartment here, just off the Sunset Strip, is only a little more than a mile west of that theater where they hold the Oscars, and only that one time, hosted a political debate.

The rest of the political year was tedious too. Obama was going to win. He was cool, and made amazing speeches, and then reverted to being calm and reasonable about every damned thing. That was reassuring, and that seemed to drive Hillary Clinton crazy. She gave her best approximation of being passionate about this and that, and when no one was buying it, she went on a rant about Obama’s big fancy speeches. He was all talk, damn it. She had been there, wherever that “there” might be. Obama smiled, made no comment at all, and kept giving the speeches. She seemed unhinged. He didn’t have to do a thing. He let her lose it all on her own, in public, perhaps as a calculated strategy, to show her passion and seriousness. It showed something else instead.

It wasn’t pretty, and he did the same thing to John McCain in the general election that year, when McCain tried to cancel that one debate because he had decided to fly back to Washington to solve the financial crisis, all by himself. Cancel the debate? “You know, it’s a funny thing, but presidents often have to be able to deal with two things at the same time.” McCain had no response to that. He debated Obama, on schedule, and he didn’t fix the financial crisis. When McCain finally got to Washington he made things worse – he blew up the deal on TARP by getting all passionate and confusing his own party. It took a week to fix that, but there was no fixing McCain’s reputation as an angry old man who just didn’t get it. Obama won easily. Obama knows how to play this game.

Hillary Clinton had other problems that year, of course. After her years as First Lady, in the Senate, she had voted for the authorizations that gave George Bush the war that he wanted in Iraq, and by 2008, no one thought that war had been a fine idea. She had to dance around those votes, and there was the matter of smugness. She and her amazingly popular husband controlled the Democratic Party – all the key people were their friends, and they seemed to have locked up the donor base. That made her “inevitable” that year. Maybe she should have been, but she shouldn’t have acted as if she were. A sense of entitlement just pisses people off. It was time for a woman? Perhaps it was. But why did she think it had to be her, by default? She was a driven and calculating and thoroughly unpleasant person, who happened to be a woman. The former outweighed the latter. Obama made her his secretary of state, where such qualities are useful.

But Obama will be gone soon, and it seems that Hillary Clinton will again run for president, again by default, again as inevitable – only as more inevitable this time, as Obama will soon ride off into the sunset and never be a problem for anyone ever again. It should be smooth sailing for her, but as David Graham reports in the Atlantic, she may be unable to be anything other than smug:

In her first public comments on a controversy involving her emails, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answered questions from the press for 20 minutes, but her response amounted to this: You’ve just got to trust me.

Clinton revealed that she had sent and received more than 62,320 emails from her private account. Of those, 30,490 she deemed work-related and turned over to the State Department. The other 31,830 she apparently deleted. The central question of the jousting match between Clinton and reporters was how she distinguished the personal emails from those relating to her official duties. Her explanation was simple: She decided.

That may not sit well with voters, for good reason:

As Clinton pointed out, that may follow the letter of federal rules. Government employees are allowed to use their personal email, and they’re expected to choose which are professional and have to be turned over for public records, and which are personal. She said that even if she had used two devices or only a state.gov email address, she would still have made that decision. But that legalistic defense doesn’t necessarily do much to quash her political problem. The question at the heart of the scandal is what might have been hiding in the emails that were not put in the public record – dealings with corporations, with aides, and with foreign heads of state, for example – that may be relevant to her duties as secretary or her presumed presidential bid.

“I have no doubt that we’ve done exactly what we should have done,” Clinton said.

Is that so? Graham is not so sure:

On the trust question, however, there were troubling signs. “When I got to work as secretary of state I opted for convenience to use my personal email account, which was allowed by the State Department, because I thought it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and personal emails,” Clinton said. “Looking back, it would’ve been better if I’d simply used a second email account and carried a second phone.” Yet as recently as two weeks ago, she told journalist Kara Swisher that she carried two phones during at least part of her tenure as secretary of state.

Clinton also argued that because most of her work-related emails were sent to other people using official government accounts, they were being recorded, anyway.

Something seems amiss here:

On two questions, Clinton offered surprisingly blunt and unequivocal answers: She said there were no security breaches on her email server, and she said she did not email any classified information.

But seldom were Clinton’s answers so straightforward and simple. Far from putting an end to questions, the press conference seemed to raise a whole new set of concerns. Three seem especially salient to her political prospects. First, do Americans buy her explanation that she used personal email out of convenience rather than as an attempt to shield her work from public scrutiny? Second, do they trust her to have sorted her emails honestly and correctly, dividing work from personal matters? And third, will any of this make any electoral difference, or is it a process-oriented Beltway brouhaha? The last question will probably be the easiest to answer.

Yeah, this may mean nothing. The party is behind her, even if it is by default. There’s no other serious candidate out there on their side, just a few interesting firebrands. She’s it, but Clinton served on the board of Wal-Mart between 1986 and 1992, when her husband was governor down there, and the law firm she worked for at the time represented the company. She sat on the Wal-Mart board for years, as the richest family in America fought any attempts by their workers to unionize and they fended off suit after suit about paying even less than minimum wage to those workers, many of whom, working full time, ended up on food stamps. Can she explain that?

She won’t have a primary challenger so that may not be an issue, but at least those folks have been good to her. Wal-Mart has donated nearly $1.2 million to the Clinton Foundation for a program that issues grants to student-run charitable projects, and also paid more than $370,000 in membership fees to the foundation since 2008, according to a Wal-Mart spokesman. That’s not going to help anyone somehow making less than minimum wage at Wal-Mart, but that’s how she rolls, as a background article in the Wall Street Journal explains:

Among recent secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton was one of the most aggressive global cheerleaders for American companies, pushing governments to sign deals and change policies to the advantage of corporate giants such as General Electric Co., Exxon Mobil Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Boeing Co.

At the same time, those companies were among the many that gave to the Clinton family’s global foundation set up by her husband, former President Bill Clinton. At least 60 companies that lobbied the State Department during her tenure donated a total of more than $26 million to the Clinton Foundation, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of public and foundation disclosures.

This is a sweet deal but with its dangers:

As Mrs. Clinton prepares to embark on a race for the presidency, she has a web of connections to big corporations unique in American politics – ties forged both as secretary of state and by her family’s charitable interests. Those relationships are emerging as an issue for Mrs. Clinton’s expected presidential campaign as income disparity and other populist themes gain early attention.

Indeed, Clinton Foundation money-raising already is drawing attention. “To a lot of progressive Democrats, Clinton’s ties to corporate America are disturbing,” says Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College who once worked for congressional Republicans. Mrs. Clinton’s connections to companies, he says, “are a bonanza for opposition researchers because they enable her critics to suggest the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Yes, there is that, and unsavory connections:

Both Exxon and Chevron are supporters of the Clinton Foundation. Chevron donated $250,000 in 2013. A Chevron spokesman said the Clinton charity “is one of many programs and partnerships that the company has had or maintains across a number of issue areas and topics pertinent to our business.”

Exxon Mobil has given about $2 million to the Clinton Global Initiative, starting in 2009. Since 2007, Exxon Mobil also has given $16.8 million to Vital Voices, the nonprofit women’s group co-founded by Mrs. Clinton, according to the group’s spokeswoman.

An Exxon Mobil spokesman said the donations were made to support work on issues Exxon Mobil has long championed, such as programs to fight malaria and empower women. “That is the sole motivation for our support of charitable programs associated with the Clintons,” he said.

And back in the sixties guys only read Playboy for the articles. Hillary Clinton is working on this issue, hiring advisors, and David Atkins at the Washington Monthly wondered about that:

It’s hard to say what is more disturbing: that Clinton doesn’t know what she thinks needs to be said and done about the economy and needs 200 advisers working for months to cobble a plan together, or that she does know and is so fretful of offending wealthy donors and centrist voters that she needs to micromanage her economic policy.

One of the reasons that people love Elizabeth Warren is that she speaks from the heart with an instant authenticity that demonstrates a genuine understanding of what ails the economy, a knack for communicating progressive values in plain speaking, and a willingness to tell hard truths even if it offends Wall Street.

It’s more than likely that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee, and that tens of millions of Americans on the left will need to grow comfortable with her if they aren’t already. But Clinton herself would do well to learn the lessons of her own 2008 campaign, John Kerry’s failure in 2004 and Mitt Romney’s failure in 2012: that voters don’t relate well to safe, micromanaged talking points devoid of energy, inspiration or authenticity.

Approximations of being passionate about this and that just don’t cut it. She should have learned that seven years ago, and William Cohan – the author of Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World recently reported this:

Many of the rich and powerful in the financial industry – among them, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, Tom Nides, a powerful vice chairman at Morgan Stanley, and the heads of JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America – consider Clinton a pragmatic problem-solver not prone to populist rhetoric. To them, she’s someone who gets the idea that we all benefit if Wall Street and American business thrive. What about her forays into fiery rhetoric? They dismiss it quickly as political maneuvers. None of them think she really means her populism.

They’re smart guys. They know she’s faking it, and they like what they see:

Although Hillary Clinton has made no formal announcement of her candidacy, the consensus on Wall Street is that she is running – and running hard – and that her national organization is quickly falling into place behind the scenes. That all makes her attractive. Wall Street, above all, loves a winner, especially one who is not likely to tamper too radically with its vast money pot.

According to a wide assortment of bankers and hedge-fund managers I spoke to for this article, Clinton’s rock-solid support on Wall Street is not anything that can be dislodged based on a few seemingly off-the-cuff comments in Boston calculated to protect her left flank. (For the record, she quickly walked them back, saying she had “short-handed” her comments about the failures of trickle-down economics by suggesting, absurdly, that corporations don’t create jobs.) “I think people are very excited about Hillary,” says one Wall Street investment professional with close ties to Washington. “Most people in New York on the finance side view her as being very pragmatic. I think they have confidence that she understands how things work and that she’s not a populist.”

She’s not something else either, if we go back to July 2007:

Barack Obama’s offer to meet without precondition with leaders of renegade nations such as Cuba, North Korea and Iran touched off a war of words, with rival Hillary Rodham Clinton calling him naive and Obama linking her to President Bush’s diplomacy.

Older politicians in both parties questioned the wisdom of such a course, while Obama’s supporters characterized it as a repudiation of Bush policies of refusing to engage with certain adversaries.

It triggered a round of competing memos and statements Tuesday between the chief Democratic presidential rivals. Obama’s team portrayed it as a bold stroke; Clinton supporters saw it as a gaffe that underscored the freshman senator’s lack of foreign policy experience.

“I thought that was irresponsible and frankly naive,” Clinton was quoted in an interview with the Quad-City Times that was posted on the Iowa newspaper’s website on Tuesday.

In response, Obama told the newspaper that her stand puts her in line with the Bush administration.

There was a great deal of back-and-forth on this idea that it is irresponsible and naïve to just talk to these folks. They need to fear you first. Make demands. If they don’t meet them they’ll be damned sorry. Put the fear of death in them – not that she put it that way. But that was implied. She was saying that Obama just didn’t get it, and the next April it was this:

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton warned Tehran on Tuesday that if she were president, the United States could “totally obliterate” Iran in retaliation for a nuclear strike against Israel.

On the day of a crucial vote in her nomination battle against fellow Democrat Barack Obama, the New York senator said she wanted to make clear to Tehran what she was prepared to do as president in hopes that this warning would deter any Iranian nuclear attack against the Jewish state.

“I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran (if it attacks Israel),” Clinton said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them,” she said.

This was a continuation of the same argument. As president, she might negotiate with Iran, or she might not, but they should know she was ready to wipe out every man and every women and child there, and leave the place a desert of glowing radioactive sand-turned-to-glass if they did anything stupid, or even thought of it. She wouldn’t hesitate. That’s why people should vote for her, because everyone knows that the judicious application of death, or the fear of death, is real leadership. Dick Cheney said so. No, wait – she didn’t mention Dick Cheney.

She could have. Jacob Heilbrunn – the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons – offers this look at that world:

After nearly a decade in the political wilderness, the neoconservative movement is back, using the turmoil in Iraq and Ukraine to claim that it is President Obama – not the movement’s interventionist foreign policy that dominated early George W. Bush-era Washington – that bears responsibility for the current round of global crises.

Even as they castigate Mr. Obama, the neocons may be preparing a more brazen feat: aligning themselves with Hillary Rodham Clinton and her nascent presidential campaign, in a bid to return to the driver’s seat of American foreign policy.

To be sure, the careers and reputations of the older generation of neocons – Paul D. Wolfowitz, L. Paul Bremer III, Douglas J. Feith, Richard N. Perle – are permanently buried in the sands of Iraq. And not all of them are eager to switch parties: In April, William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, said that, as president, Mrs. Clinton would “be a dutiful chaperone of further American decline.”

But others appear to envisage a different direction – one that might allow them to restore the neocon brand, at a time when their erstwhile home in the Republican Party is turning away from its traditional interventionist foreign policy.

They now see her as one of them:

These neocons have a point. Mrs. Clinton voted for the Iraq war; supported sending arms to Syrian rebels; likened Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, to Adolf Hitler; wholeheartedly backs Israel; and stresses the importance of promoting democracy.

It’s easy to imagine Mrs. Clinton’s making room for the neocons in her administration.

Maybe there’s a place for Dick Cheney. The inevitable Democratic candidate seems to be a severely conservative Republican, but that’s all they’ve got:

They shrug off questions about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s email habits. They roll with the attacks on her family’s foundation, the big checks from foreign governments, the torpid response of her not-yet-campaign.

They have little choice: As Mrs. Clinton prepares to begin her second presidential campaign, amid a froth of criticism and outrage, Democrats are not just “Ready for Hillary” – as supporters named one pro-Clinton SuperPAC – they are desperate for her.

Congressional Democrats are counting on a strong Clinton campaign to help lift them back into the majority. Party leaders at all levels want her fund-raising help and demographic appeal. And from the top of the party to its grass roots, Mrs. Clinton’s pseudo-incumbency is papering over significant disadvantages: a weak bench, a long-term House minority and a white middle class defecting to the Republican Party faster than the Democrats’ hoped-for demographic future is expected to arrive.

She’s too big to fail:

“There is no one else – she’s the whole plan,” said Sarah Kovner, a leading Democratic donor and fund-raiser in New York. “She is by far the most experienced and qualified person we could possibly nominate. Not even on the horizon but on the far horizon.”

Her party’s urgent need for her to succeed explains, in part, how Democrats have responded to revelations that Mrs. Clinton used a private email address for all of her government correspondence as secretary of state and skirted public and congressional records requests. But it also suggests the Democrats’ peril: Should Mrs. Clinton falter, the party has no easy way to replace her.

“Anytime you have all your eggs in one basket, it is a concern,” said Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware, acknowledging the risk Democrats were running by deferring to Mrs. Clinton – “although, if you’re going to have them all in one, this basket is a good place to be.”

She is a lock:

For two years, Mrs. Clinton has been the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination, keeping the party’s strongest alternatives on the sidelines and depriving those who remain of potential donors and staff. Senior Democrats have built a multimillion-dollar political infrastructure to pave the way for her candidacy, and while Republicans openly fretted about the need for a candidate of their own who could match her, Democrats gently tamped down concerns that the party was too heavily invested in a single flag bearer. For House Democrats, Mrs. Clinton’s impending candidacy has figured centrally in pitches to donors, who are skeptical of their chances to win the chamber back.

Winning matters, not what she believes, because there won’t be another young Obama:

Her broad appeal among Democratic voters has prevented liberal complaints against the party’s Wall Street faction from mushrooming into an electoral insurgency. Her star power – and the potential for a ceiling-breaking White House victory – has helped obscure a vexing reality for the post-Obama Democratic Party: As much as it advertises itself as the party of a rising generation, the Democrats’ farm team is severely understaffed, and many of its leading lights are eligible for Social Security.

Jerry Brown, perhaps the most successful big-state Democratic governor in the country, is 76. (He ran for president two decades ago – as the anti-Clinton candidate.) The top four congressional Democrats are all 70 or older. And as Democrats look for new recruits to run in 2016, there are fewer up-and-comers, and more prospects older than 60 looking to make up for losses in previous elections, including Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Ted Strickland of Ohio, who are all eying Senate seats.

They’ve got no one else. Hillary Clinton might win this time, actually by default. That would deny the Bush family its third president, presuming Jeb Bush is the Republican nominee. But then George W. Bush would get a third term. Obama is gone. It was nice while it lasted.

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