Saturday, April 3, 2010
Toothless Iran Sanctions - Trade Off With China's Bite?
1)Many argue Palin knows nothing about foreign policy but in this case she might be right when she described Obama's foreign policy as effectively kissing up to our enemies and dumping on our allies, particularly "our most treasured ally, Israel." (See 1 below.)
2) Is Obama going to agree to toothless sanctions against Iran by agreeing with China's proposal that will bite Israel? It would not be out of character for Obama to send a soothing message to American Jewry's leadership while simultaneously sticking it to Israel. The end is the goal and the means are simply a method of achieving same.
Obama continues to thread the needle when it comes to pressuring Israel yet retaining the Liberal Jewish vote. Obama has a lot of room before he pricks his finger because Liberal Jews are slaves to the Democrat Party more than any sub group.
Their faith in Obama's commitment to Israel to protect it against Iran's nuclear development is not worth spittle but by the time Liberal Jews are convinced of this it will be too late. (See 2, 2a and 2b below.)
As U.S. foreign policy changes towards Israel it negates former agreements and progress and allows Abbas to dig in his heels. Though, Obama is pursing a no win policy that seems to suit his ulterior motive which is to make Israel buckle to his demands.
In the short term Obama may gain some advantage and support, in the long term bad policy will result in disastrous consequences.
More on American foreign policy vis a vis the Middle East.(See 3 and 3a below.)
Are the Arts threatened in our nation? Is it a matter of cost, lack of interest in cultural matters, a combination? Can a nation remain great when support of its culture is in decline?
Abstract of an article that recently appeared in Commentary Magazine. (See 4 below.)
Obama will get a second appointment to Supreme Court if and when Stevens retires. Maybe he will try and appoint Attorney General Holder. That would make for an exciting nominating process. (See 5 below.)
Shrill, shrill, shrill headlines exceed the amount of actual drill drill drilling that will take place under Obama but even a single drop points the nation in the right direction. (See 6 below.)
Obama would like to move towards a no nuke world but he runs up against several problems. First, there is political opposition to unilateral disarmament and second, terrorists are not co-operative. Beyond those two impediments Obama will try and initiate change. (See 7 below.)
Though this analyst raises the question about housing possibly spoiling the punch in the punch bowl he concludes Obama will keep spending, the Fed will not rock the boat by withdrawing money and are more likely to overstay. Meanwhile, he believes Obama's Greek Model fiscal policies will lead to a price to be paid at a future date.
As I recently wrote, voters have short memories, increasingly know little about their history and economics and thus, as the economy recovers they are likely to mis-calculate the longer term effect of Obamaism. (See 8,8a and 8b below.)
Another writer looks and finds an empty suit. (See 9 below.)
Israel's Jerusalem policy has not changed in 16 years according to Michael Oren - Ambassador and historian. (See 10 below.)
This is a very important read. (See 11 below.)
1) Saudi Arabia and the Peace Process
By Ted Belman
The trouble with the peace process is that it is rigged against Israel. It is a vehicle forced on her by the international community to enable it to impose its will on her.
It all started with UNSC Res 242, which established the principle of land for peace. Just how much land or peace was not described. It was left to the parties to each cut a deal. This resolution in no way threatened Israel because she was left with a free hand to define what she considered to be "secure" borders. In the meantime, she was authorized by the U.N., by virtue of this resolution, to remain in occupation.
Over the years, the U.S. forced Israel to participate in a "peace process" that kept limiting her negotiating room. Today she is faced with accepting the Saudi Plan (1967 borders and a divided Jerusalem) or having it imposed on her.
This is so even though both houses of Congress have in the past supported a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
In April 1990, the House, with the Senate concurring, passed a resolution acknowledging that "Jerusalem is and should remain the capital of the State of Israel" and expressing the belief that "Jerusalem must remain an undivided city. It did so recognizing that "since 1967[,] Jerusalem has been a united city administered by Israel" and because of "ambiguous statements by the Government of the United States concerning the right of Jews to live in all parts of Jerusalem [that] raise concerns in Israel that Jerusalem might one day be redivided."
In 1995, the Jerusalem Embassy Act was passed with overwhelming majorities in both houses. It provided that "Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel; and the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999." It went so far as to cut appropriations to the Executive by 50% for certain purposes until such time as the Embassy was opened.
This legislation was at odds with the constitutional power of the president to conduct foreign policy and to recognize foreign sovereignty over territory. All presidents since its passage have exercised their waivers semi-annually to postpone this legislation.
It seems reasonably clear that Congress cannot usurp the power of the president to make foreign policy.
Israel's liberation from this deadly process depends solely on Americans taking back their country. A new president could overrule the State Department and endorse the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995.
You will recall that President Truman thwarted his State Department and instructed his Ambassador to the U.N. to be the first to recognize Israel.
Richard Holbrooke, in a fascinating article titled "Washington's Battle Over Israel's Birth" explains the tug-of-war between two groups: President Truman and Clark Clifford favoring recognition on the one side, and Secretary of State George C. Marshall and his entourage at the State Department favoring a U.N. trusteeship instead of partition on the other.
Secretary of Defense Forrestal explained to Clifford what motivated his group: "There are thirty million Arabs on one side and about 600,000 Jews on the other. Why don't you face up to the realities?"
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they remain the same.)
But to this day, many think that Marshall and Lovett were right on the merits and that domestic politics was the real reason for Truman's decision. Israel, they argue, has been nothing but trouble for the United States.
But Holbrooke himself begged to differ:
Truman's decision, although opposed by almost the entire foreign policy establishment, was the right one -- and despite complicated consequences that continue to this day, it is a decision all Americans should recognize and admire.
A recent bipartisan poll commissioned by The Israel Project found that "[by an 8 to 1Margin, Americans Say U.S. Should Side with Israel in Conflict with the Palestinians."] Yet Obama and the State Department have a polar opposite view.
Governor Palin has described Obama's foreign policy effectively as kissing up to our enemies and dumping on our allies, particularly "our most treasured ally, Israel."
Just in the past week, 327 congressmen signed a letter to Secretary Clinton, above mentioned, reaffirming support for Israel in these terms,
The United States and Israel are close allies whose people share a deep andabiding friendship based on a shared commitment to core values including democracy, human rights and freedom of the press and religion. Our two countries are partners in the fight against terrorism and share an important strategic relationship. A strong Israel is an asset to the national security of the United States and brings stability to the Middle East ...
...and expressing "deep concern over recent tension." In other words, Obama was being blamed for the tension and was expected to end it. The letter also said that "we must remain focused on the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear weapons program."
Unfortunately, this letter was silent on Obama's plans to divide Jerusalem. It would be of great value in the battle for Jerusalem now being waged by Israel if both houses would once again reaffirm their desire to have the U.S. recognize a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
There is a headwind blowing in U.S. national politics, and Israel can surely benefit from it. At the moment, the headwind is fueled by the anger over the passing of the health care bill and the growing debt and deficits. But it goes beyond specifics to general anger over Obama's apparent Marxist and Muslim proclivities manifested in his policies.
"Take back our country" means return it to our constitutional, capitalistic, and Judeo-Christian roots. This movement will embrace a united Jerusalem as Israel's capital in a heartbeat.
While President Obama is not about to oppose the State Department, the next president could, particularly if he or she campaigns on the issue. Governors Palin and Huckabee are already on record in support of a United Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
The problem is that the Saudis have the U.S. over a barrel of oil. When P.M. Sharon formed a government in 2001, he sent his son to advise Arafat that Barak's deal was off the table and that Sharon could envision a process whereby the Palestinians might end up with forty-five percent of the occupied territories, but not Jerusalem.
Bush 43, on taking office in 2000, decided not to get involved with a peace process as President Clinton had done. For the Saudis, this wasn't good enough.
It appeared that the United States had made a strategic decision to adopt Sharon's policy as American policy, or so the Crown Prince understood.
He sent Prince Bandar to Bush with an urgent message: "Starting today, you go your way and we will go our way. From then on, the Saudis will look out for their own national interests."
Within thirty-six hours, Bandar was on his way to Riyadh with a conciliatory response from Bush. When Bandar returned, Powell cornered him.
"What the f*ck are you doing?" witnesses recall Powell asking. "You're putting the fear of God in everybody's hearts here. We've all come rushing here to hear this revelation that you bring from Saudi Arabia. You scared the sh*t out of everybody."
As a result of this exchange, Pres Bush made his vision speech in June '02 in which he supported a Palestinian state subject to many preconditions. Ten months later, the U.S. invaded Iraq with Saudi blessing, and one week later, the Roadmap was announced, which included the Saudi Plan calling for a Palestinian state with '67 borders subject to minor changes and East Jerusalem as its capital.
Sharon first reacted to the new American direction by saying that Israel was no Czechoslovakia, and then he never mentioned it again. He decided to cut his losses. He announced the Disengagement Plan from Gaza, thinking it would strengthen Israel's hold on Judea and Samaria. He even got Bush to issue a letter in '04 acknowledging that "[i]n light of the new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be the full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."
Obama has now rejected that letter as binding and is pushing for the Saudi Plan. Obviously, the Saudis and Obama will not give up on East Jerusalem for the Palestinians.
Israel must continue to claim Jerusalem -- all of it -- as its undivided capital. Obama will be left with no option but to abandon Israel so far as his executive powers permit him. Should the S.C. go so far as to attempt to impose a solution, it will have in effect abrogated the Roadmap, thereby freeing Israel of it. Obama may not be prepared to go this far, what with Nov. '10 elections looming and presidential primaries a year later.
In addition, Saudi Arabia is pushing America to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This is a more pressing concern for them. So far, Obama has not agreed.
Other factors that may force the peace process to the back burner is a possible third intifadah or war with Hamas or Hezbollah, or an Israeli attack on Iran.
Israel must withstand the pressure to give into Obama's demands. The upcoming elections will ameliorate the pressure, and hopefully the next president, probably a Republican, will end the pressure altogether.
Republicans should pledge themselves in these upcoming elections to make America energy-independent within ten years by exploiting all available sources of energy. It can be done. It's the only that way Americans can fully take back their country and rid themselves of Saudi pressure both at home and abroad.
Without the Saudis making trouble, America and Israel are natural allies.
Ted Belman is the editor of Israpundit. He recently made aliyah from Canada and is now living in Jerusalem.
2)Unserious About Iran:Obama is acting as if he believes a nuclear Tehran is inevitable
'Our aim is not incremental sanctions, but sanctions that will bite." Thus did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seek to reassure the crowd at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee two weeks ago about the Obama Administration's resolve on Iran. Three days later, this newspaper reported on its front page that "the U.S. has backed away from pursuing a number of tough measures against Iran" in order to win Russian and Chinese support for one more U.N. sanctions resolution.
This fits the pattern we have seen across the 14 months of the Obama Presidency. Mrs. Clinton called a nuclear-armed Iran "unacceptable" no fewer than four times in a single paragraph in her AIPAC speech. But why should the Iranians believe her? President Obama set a number of deadlines last year for a negotiated settlement of Iran's nuclear file, all of which Tehran ignored, and then Mr. Obama ignored them too.
In his latest Persian New Year message to Iran, Mr. Obama made the deadline-waiver permanent, saying "our offer of comprehensive diplomatic contacts and dialogue stands." Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had a quick rejoinder. "They say they have extended a hand to Iran," the Iranian President said Saturday, "but the Iranian government and nation declined to welcome that."
The Iranians have good reason to think they have little to lose from continued defiance. Tehran's nuclear negotiator emerged from two days of talks in Beijing on Friday saying, "We agreed, sanctions as a tool have already lost their effectiveness." He has a point.
The Chinese have indicated that the most they are prepared to support are narrow sanctions on Iran's nuclear program of the type Tehran has already sneered at. As the Journal's Peter Fritsch and David Crawford reported this weekend, the Iranians continue to acquire key nuclear components from unsuspecting Western companies via intermediaries, including some Chinese firms.
Yet the Administration still rolls the sanctions rock up the U.N. hill, in a fantastic belief that Russian and Chinese support is vital even if the price is sanctions that are toothless. French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged Mr. Obama a year ago to move ahead with sanctions even without the Russians and Chinese, but Mr. Obama insisted he needed both. A year later, everyone except apparently Mr. Obama can see who was right.
The Administration also argued upon taking office that by making good-faith offers to Iran last year, the U.S. would gain the diplomatic capital needed to steel the world for a tougher approach. Yet a year later the U.S. finds itself begging for U.N. Security Council votes even from such nonpermanent members as Brazil and Turkey, both of which have noticeably improved their ties with Iran in recent months.
The U.S. can at this point do more unilaterally by imposing and enforcing sanctions on companies that do business in Iran's energy industry. But so far the Administration has shown considerably less enthusiasm for these measures than has even a Democratic Congress.
As for the potential threat of military strikes to assist diplomacy, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made his doubts about their efficacy very public. The President's two-week public attempt to humiliate Benjamin Netanyahu has also considerably lessened the perceived likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran, thereby further diminishing whatever momentum remains for strong sanctions.
All of these actions suggest to us that Mr. Obama has concluded that a nuclear Iran is inevitable, even if he can't or won't admit it publicly. Last year Mrs. Clinton floated the idea of expanding the U.S. nuclear umbrella to the entire Middle East if Iran does get the bomb. She quickly backtracked, but many viewed that as an Obama-ian slip.
Most of the U.S. and European foreign policy establishment has already concluded that Iran will succeed, and the current issue of Foreign Affairs makes the public case for what to do "After Iran Gets the Bomb." Authors James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh argue that a nuclear Iran is containable, and that it is better than the alternative of a pre-emptive U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
However, even they acknowledge that a nuclear Iran "would be seen as a major diplomatic defeat for the United States," in which "friends would respond by distancing themselves from Washington [and] foes would challenge U.S. policies more aggressively." And that's the optimistic scenario.
Meanwhile, the CIA has recently reported that Iran more than tripled its stockpile of low-enriched uranium in 2009; that it has "[moved] toward self-sufficiency in the production of ballistic missiles"; and that it "continues to develop a range of capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons." A senior Western official recently told us he is confident the Iranians either have or are building secret nuclear facilities beyond the one near Qom that was disclosed last year.
President George W. Bush will share responsibility for a nuclear Iran given his own failure to act more firmly against the Islamic Republic or to allow Israel to do so, thereby failing to make good on his pledge not to allow the world's most dangerous regimes to get the world's most dangerous weapons. But it is now Mr. Obama's watch, and for a year he has behaved like a President who would rather live with a nuclear Iran than do what it takes to stop it.
Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
2a)Obama, Hu weigh sanctions tradeoff against Iran, Israel Matching up anti-Iran, anti-Israel policies?
Chinese president Hu Jintao indicated a willingness to consider abstaining on a UN Security Council vote imposing sanctions against Iran - if the United States reciprocated by withholding its vote on sanctions against Israel over its construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. US president Barack Obama did not reject the idea out of hand when it was raised in his hour-long telephone conversation with President Hu Thursday, April 1.
They decided to talk again about a coordinated, tit-for-tat US-Chinese sanctions deal with regard to Israel and Iran when they meet at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 12-13.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was invited to the conference; Iranian leaders were not.
After the Obama-Hu phone conversation, the foreign ministry in Beijing delivered the Chinese president's consent to attend the summit. His reply was delayed to signal displeasure over US arms sales to Taiwan and Obama's White House welcome for the Dalai Lama.
It would be the first time a US president has come close to considering withholding his veto from an anti-Israel resolution at the Security Council. This implied willingness may have been partly responsible for breaking the ice in Sino-US relations.
According to Middle East sources, White House officials dealing with Arab governments were quick to pass the word around of the evolving Obama approach. They tied it in with the US president's special envoy George Mitchell's new plan to push for a negotiated Israel-Palestinian deal on the borders of a Palestinian state to be struck within four months. Mitchell arrives in Jerusalem on April 12 - shortly before the Israeli prime minister is due to take off for Washington.
The two combined US steps add up to a further widening of the Obama administration's distance from Jerusalem, a rift which may even lead at some point to his facilitating parallel condemnatory sanctions against Israel and Iran. He is determined to force the Netanyahu government to bow to Washington's say-so on issues vital to Israel's security, namely the Iranian nuclear threat and its claim to secure borders.
Beijing's turnabout on sanctions against Iran brought Saeed Jalili, the director of Iran's National Security Council, running to Beijing Thursday to demand explanations.
The US president's openness to Beijing's proposed sanctions trade belies the outreach his aide Dan Shapiro, National Security Council Middle East Senior Director, sought to achiieve in a call to Jewish community representatives Friday. He tried denying relations were in crisis after Netanyahu's chilly welcome at the White House last month and insisted that there had been more agreement than disagreement between the two leaders.
The American-Jewish leaders addressed by Shapiro received his message with extreme skepticism.
2b)Fallout: Electoral Impact of US-Israeli Tensions
By David Paul Kuhn
US-Israeli tensions are having subtle ripple effects on the electorate. Polls show, however, that President Obama retains leeway with Jewish voters, like the public overall, to reasonably pressure Israel.
US Jewish support for Obama remains strong. American Jews also back his position on several key Israeli policies. A large majority oppose settlement expansion, for example. But on other issues, like pressuring Israel to take the first steps toward a peace agreement, American Jews are deeply ambivalent. And this is why Obama's Israeli policy is generally less popular with Jews than the president himself.
Obama could cross a red line that severely risked Israel's security. That would undercut his Jewish backing. But no modern president has broadly shifted away from the US-Israeli alliance. And there is no indication Obama would veer widely from that precedent. Such a move would, in political terms, likely risk more than his Jewish support.
In February, for the first time in almost two decades, more than six in 10 Americans told the Gallup poll that they are more sympathetic to the Israelis than Palestinians.
Recent events have, however, chipped away at that support. Fifty-eight percent of voters recently described Israel as an ally. Hardly low. It's the same share of Americans who view Japan as an ally. But the March result on views of Israel is a dozen percentage points below what the Rasmussen poll found last August.
The backdrop is chilling relations. The latest drama began with Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel in early March. The trip soured after Israel announced plans to build 1,600 homes in an East Jerusalem settlement. Obama's subsequent meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to improve matters. The British Telegraph reported: "Benjamin Netanyahu was left to stew in a White House meeting room for over an hour after President Barack Obama abruptly walked out of tense talks..."
Less discussed stateside, but heard loudly in Israel, was General David Petraeus mid-March congressional testimony describing Israel as a strategic burden – no top US official has used those terms in recent memory.
This tension, inevitably, raises the question of whether Obama's Jewish support is vulnerable. Jews are an influential pillar of the Democratic base and a key fundraising constituency Republicans have long courted, though to little avail.
Jews approval of Obama, 62 percent in the recent Gerstein-Agne poll, is at least a dozen points above the president's overall approval rating. Obama has fallen 11 points with Jews since March 2009. But the Jewish decline is only a few points above his decline with Hispanics and still roughly half Obama's decline with the general public.
The Gerstein-Agne poll tellingly reveals that only 44 percent of US Jews have a favorable opinion of Netanyahu, whose conservative views are to the right of most American Jews. And when Jews were asked whether they approved of the strong US criticism following the Biden-settlement incident, 55 percent said "yes."
Nevertheless, there are signs of strain between Jews and Obama. Consider the 45 percent who disapproved of the US criticism. Last year, the same poll found that American Jews oppose Israeli settlement expansion by a 60 to 40 percent margin. This means at least a fifth of Jews who voted for Obama maintain policy differences with him on Israel.
Pollster Mark Mehlman, an expert on the Jewish vote, believes Obama faces some "difficulty" with US Jews today. "How much difficulty and how long," he added, "it depends on what happens. And ultimately, President Obama will face a Republican whose views on a range of issues will likely to be anathema to most American Jews."
Obama won 78 percent of Jews in 2008, more than John Kerry before him. In fact, despite a string of stories hinting otherwise, Obama was never really at risk of losing Jews in 2008. No Republican has won Jews since 1920 (and that was due to a third-party candidate). Only blacks are a more loyal bloc of the Democratic Party.
"The segment of the American Jewish community that votes most on Israel and is really hawkish has long voted Republican," said Kenneth Wald, a University of Florida political scientist who specializes in the Jewish vote.
Few American Jews actually vote on the Israeli issue. The economy is the top issue for 55 percent of Jews today. Only 10 percent of American Jews said Israel, according to the Gerstein-Agne poll, ranking Israel the sixth most important issue along with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most US Jews don't view Israel as a top issue partly because of America's strong support, despite periodic flare-ups, of the Jewish state. Western Europe tells another story. In recent decades, the rise of considerable anti-Israeli sentiment on the European left pushed many Jews rightward. In 2001, to win English Jews back to the liberal Labor Party, a Labor advocate told a reporter that British Prime Minister Tony Blair "has attacked the anti-Israelism that had existed in the Labor Party." But this "anti-Israelism" is far less prevalent stateside.
So Obama attempts to thread the needle: pressure Israel for diplomatic gain without risking significant domestic political loss. Obama is gambling that the ends might justify the means. But he is also unlikely to dramatically escalate those means and risk too much political cost. After all, like so many before him, the ends will likely escape this president as well.
David Paul Kuhn is the Chief Political Correspondent for RealClearPolitics and the author of The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma.
3)Obama's Foolish Settlements Ultimatum
By Steven J. Rosen
U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to confront Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Israeli construction activity in East Jerusalem has been greeted by a hail of praise, especially from people impatient to proceed with peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The belief seems to be that meeting this issue head-on will accelerate progress toward an agreement ending a conflict that has festered for generations. The historical record suggests a different conclusion.
The assumption that a face off over construction in Jerusalem will advance negotiations has not been subjected to much scrutiny. But the last two decades show that progress has occurred not when this issue was put first, but when it was finessed and left for the final status negotiations on Jerusalem.
Consider this: If, 17 years ago, U.S. President Bill Clinton or Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat had insisted that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin freeze all settlement construction, including in Jerusalem, before Arafat would sit down with Rabin, there would have been no Oslo agreements. By Rabin's own account, in comments before the Knesset, Israel's parliament, he had to fudge the issue.
"I explained to the president of the United States," he said,"that I wouldn't forbid Jews from building privately in the area of Judea and Samaria ... I am sorry that within united Jerusalem construction is not more massive."
The same year as the famous handshake on the White House lawn, 1993, the Rabin government completed the construction of more than 6,000 units in the Pisgat Zeev neighborhood of East Jerusalem, out of a total of 13,000 units that were in various stages of completion in areas of the city that had been outside Israeli lines before 1967.
So Arafat did sit down with Rabin, even while Israel's construction in Jerusalem continued. And, on Sept. 13, 1993, the Oslo peace accord was signed -- by the same Mahmoud Abbas who refuses to sit down today. And on October 14, 1994, Rabin, who built homes for Jews in East Jerusalem, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Altogether, Israel completed 30,000 dwelling units in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem in the four years of Rabin's government. Even the Jan. 9, 1995, announcement of a plan to build 15,000 additional apartments in East Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the 1967 borders (especially Pisgat Zeev, Neve Yaacov, Gilo, and Har Homa) did not stop negotiations, which resulted in the Oslo II accord of September 28, 1995. Israeli construction continued while Abbas and Rabin signed an historic accord.
And what was the American policy toward Rabin's construction of Jewish homes in East Jerusalem? Mild annoyance.
On Jan. 3, 1995, the State Department spokesman said mildly, in response to the Rabin government's announcement of expanded construction, "The parties themselves ... have to judge whether it presents any kind of a problem in their own dialogue. The important thing is to continue to meet." The spokesman added on Jan. 10, 1995, "We admit that settlements are a problem, but we ... enjoin the parties to deal with these issues in their negotiations."
Clinton's Middle East peace advisor, Martin Indyk, told the U.S. Senate on Feb. 2, 1995, that Rabin's government had recently "given approval for something like 4,000 to 5,000 new housing units to go up in settlements around the Jerusalem area." But, he said, Clinton had decided to stay out of it. "To take action now that would in one way or another ... would be very explosive in the negotiations, and frankly, would put us out of business as a facilitator of those negotiations." Had Clinton taken Obama's approach, it might well have exploded the negotiations and brought the Oslo process to a halt.
Nor was this example of construction in Jerusalem while diplomacy made progress an isolated exception. Two years after Oslo II, in January 1997, Abbas and Arafat sat down with another Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu, to sign the Hebron Protocol, which provided for the withdrawal of the Israeli armed forces from 80 percent of the very sensitive area of Hebron in the West Bank. Arafat and Abbas had no illusions that Netanyahu intended to freeze Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. In fact, Netanyahu had announced that he would proceed with the building of Har Homa, a controversial Israeli suburb conceived by Rabin. Nor, another 18 months later, did the Palestinians' fierce objections to Har Homa stop them from joining the Wye Plantation negotiations from October 15-23, 1998. These talks led to an agreement known as the Wye River Memorandum, in which Netanyahu, under considerable pressure from President Clinton, agreed to pull the Israel Defense Forces out of an additional 13 percent of the West Bank. This move was fiercely opposed by Netanyahu's right flank, and it led to his downfall in January 1999 when the hard-liners in his coalition defected.
Had Clinton demanded Netanyahu freeze construction in Jerusalem and Arafat made it a precondition for negotiations, neither the Hebron nor Wye agreements would have been signed.
The Labor government that was elected in the wake of Netanyahu's ouster continued the pattern of building in Jerusalem while moving forward in negotiations with the Palestinians. At the Camp David Summit (July 11-25, 2000), then Prime Minister Ehud Barak went past Israel's past "red lines" and the Palestinians most of the West Bank and a capital in Jerusalem, along with land swaps. But, at the same time that he was taking these unprecedented steps, Barak was accelerating the construction of Har Homa and other Jerusalem communities across the pre-1967 line. While the talks accelerated, Barak also moved ahead with the Ras al-Amud neighborhood on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. President Clinton said he " would have preferred that this decision was not taken." But Clinton added that the United States "cannot prevent Israel from building in Har-Homa." Haim Ramon, Rabin's minister for Jerusalem affairs, said "I would like to make it clear that the government has no intention of stopping the building at Har Homa."
Here again, had Clinton taken Obama's position and issued an ultimatum demanding that all construction in Jerusalem stop, and had Arafat made that American demand a precondition to begin negotiations, the Camp David Summit of 2000 and the Taba talks in January 2001 would not have occurred.
The next Israeli government, headed by retired general Ariel Sharon, did not seek any breakthroughs in negotiations with the Palestinians. But Sharon ordered the most dramatic territorial concession in Israel's history since 1967: the withdrawal of all Israeli soldiers from every square inch of Gaza along with the abandonment of 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank, in the "unilateral disengagement" of August-December 2005. Sharon pulled 8,000 Israeli settlers from their homes against fierce opposition from his right flank.
President George W. Bush played a key role in making Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza possible by softening U.S. policy on the settlement issue. To offset the concession that Sharon was making, and counter opposition to it from Israel's right, he wrote a letter to Sharon on April 14, 2004, acknowledging that, "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949. ... It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities." One implication of the letter was that the United States would treat Israeli construction in communities that all parties knew will remain part of Israel in any future two-state agreement, like the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, differently from settlement activity on controversial areas in the interior of the West Bank.
Elliott Abrams, the White House advisor who negotiated the Bush administration's compromises on the natural growth of settlement, explained the significance of the step Bush took last June in the Wall Street Journal: "There were indeed agreements between Israel and the United States regarding the growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. ... The prime minister of Israel relied on them in undertaking a wrenching political reorientation ... the removal of every single Israeli citizen, settlement and military position in Gaza. ... There was a bargained-for exchange. Mr. Sharon was determined to ... confront his former allies on Israel's right by abandoning the 'Greater Israel' position. ... He asked for our support and got it, including the agreement that we would not demand a total settlement freeze."
There were expressions of unhappiness by Palestinian leaders and European diplomats about the Bush policy of giving a green light to limited construction in Jerusalem and certain settlement blocs. But the Bush administration defended it as a realistic policy that moved the peace process forward.
Four months after the disengagement from Gaza, on Jan. 4, 2006, Sharon went into a coma. His deputy, Ehud Olmert, became prime minister. Olmert sought a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. Following the Annapolis Summit in November 2007, Abbas, who had taken over as president of the Palestinian Authority and head of the PLO after Arafat's death in November 2004, agreed to begin intensive negotiations with Olmert. While Abbas expressed his unhappiness with continued Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs, he did not make cancelation of these projects a precondition for talks. In fact, Olmert said, "It was clear from day one to Abbas ... that construction would continue in population concentrations -- the areas mentioned in Bush's 2004 letter. ... Beitar Illit will be built, Gush Etzion will be built; there will be construction in Pisgat Zeev and in the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem ... areas [that] will remain under Israeli control in any future settlement."
These negotiations produced significant results: on Sept. 16, 2008, Olmert offered Abbas 93 percent of the West Bank, partition of Jerusalem, and a land swap. Abbas's deputy Saeb Erekat boasted to a Jordanian newspaper that he and Abbas had achieved considerable progress with the Olmert government between the November 2007 Annapolis talks and the end of 2008 in as many as 288 negotiation sessions by 12 committees -- all while Israeli construction continued.
The record is clear and consistent: The United States has never liked Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, and frequently stated that it complicated the peace process. But until Obama, no U.S. president had made its cancelation a precondition for negotiations, and until Obama, Palestinian leaders including Abbas did not make it a precondition either. For 19 years -- from the Madrid conference of October 1991 through the Olmert/Abbas negotiations that ended in 2008, negotiations moved forward while Jerusalem construction continued. Madrid, Oslo I, Oslo II, the Hebron Protocol, the Wye River Memorandum, Camp David, Taba, the disengagement from Gaza, and the Olmert offer to Abbas -- all these events over the course of two decades were made possible by a continuing agreement to disagree about Israeli construction of Jewish homes in Jewish neighborhoods outside the pre-1967 line in East Jerusalem.
Today, for the first time in 19 years, we have an aministration unable to produce Israeli-Palestinian negotiations . Abbas is following Obama's lead in demanding an unprecedented precondition that Israel cannot satisfy. This is the same Abbas who negotiated with seven previous Israeli prime ministers -- Shamir, Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu (in his first term), Barak, Sharon, and Olmert, without the precondition that he now demands of Netanyahu. We have a crisis. Netanyahu is doing something that every past Israeli prime minister of the left and right has done, but Obama is doing something that past American leaders considered unwise. It is the U.S. behavior that has changed.
At this moment, Obama's decision to confront Netanyahu about construction in Jerusalem wins wide praise. Whether Obama's policy will still look good in six months, when people realize he has mired the negotiations in quicksand, remains to be seen.
Obama would do better to take the advice of his own Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, who wisely told PBS host Charlie Rose, "For the Israelis, what they're building in is in part of Israel. Now, the others don't see it that way. So you have these widely divergent perspectives on the subject. Our view is, let's get into negotiations, let's deal with the issues and come up with a solution to all of them including Jerusalem. ... The Israelis are not going to stop settlements in or construction in East Jerusalem. ... There are disputed legal issues. ... And we could spend the next 14 years arguing over disputed legal issues or we can try to get a negotiation to resolve them in a manner that meets the aspirations of both societies."
Steven J. Rosen served for 23 years as foreign-policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and was a defendant in the recently dismissed AIPAC case. He is now director of the Washington Project at the Middle East Forum.
4)Balancing Middle East Interests
Donald M. Snow
In a recent CNN appearance, Obama administration official David Axelrod answered a question about American-Israeli relations with the reply that it is the U.S. interest to guarantee “the long-term security of Israel and the region.” It was a standard, boiler plate answer and undoubtedly intended as such: Axelrod, after all, is not a foreign policy expert. It was, however, the kind of bland response that obscures the real nature and complexity of American interests in the region and leads to entirely contradictory policy advocacies in the United States, especially about Israel.
What exactly is the American interest in the Middle East?
Unsurprisingly, the answer is that the United States has multiple interests, depending on the country and part of the region about which one is talking. Those interests, however, boil down to two basic items: the security of Israel and access to Middle Eastern petroleum. Part of the debate over policy is about which of those priorities is the most important, and the overall policy one advocates may well derive from the answer one gives to that question. As a practical matter, however, the answer is both, and one can scarcely survive politically advocating one but not the other. In fact, however, those making policy do, at least implicitly, elevate oil or Israel to the first order of importance, with consequences for overall policy.
To try to achieve these sometimes contradictory priorities, the bottom line is that U.S. policy is best served by regional peace. Peace within the region means an end to the active Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would remove Arab-Israeli animosity from center stage of regional dynamics. If Israel and its neighbors were no longer at loggerheads (admittedly no easy task), there would be much less resistance to the United States, which is seen among the oil producers as pro-Israeli or, at a minimum, so politically entrapped by pro-Israeli (which is to say pro-Likud) forces as to be difficult to reach accommodation with. Whether Muslim advocacy of the Palestinians is sincere or hypocritical is not the point; the point is that the Islamic states support the need for a Palestinian settlement (which means a sovereign state), and they are bound to oppose anyone who is (or appears) to oppose the establishment of such a state.
In the United States, the effort to bring about a peace in the region has had two contradictory paths. During the Bush administration, the neo-conservatives held sway, and their answer was democratization of the region. Invading and converting Iraq was the centerpiece of that effort. The idea was that if democracy took hold in a linchpin state like Iraq, it might spread more broadly until it encompasses the region. Were the area to democratize, the argument goes, then animosity toward Israel would also disappear, since political democracies do not fight one another. This position is, as one might guess, held most firmly by those who place primary emphasis on the Israeli part of security. The length and unpopularity of the war and the election of non-neo-con Obama has sidetracked this emphasis. It may work in Iraq and beyond, but who knows?
The other argument starts with Israel and the Palestinians and argues that until a viable solution to the regional problem must begin with an equitable (read one acceptable to the Palestinians) solution to the West Bank. The reasoning is that a solution is necessary so that less radical states in the Islamic Middle East can reduce their animosity toward Israel. The heart of this approach is the two-state solution (a separate Israel and Palestine), which the Obama administration advocates. Although many of its advocates would not openly admit this, this position implicitly argues access to petroleum as the premier U.S. interest.
All of this, of course, is much more complicated than the Axelrod quote or, for that matter, the lingering holdover from last week’s mini-brouhaha between the Netanyahu and Obama regimes. It can, and often does, manifest itself in quite different policy advocacies between the U.S. and Israel. If one starts from the assumption that Israeli security trumps broader and more abstract regional security, then one may well back the current government in Tel Aviv and even the growth of West Bank settlements. If one believes regional peace is the necessary precursor to Israeli-Palestinian peace, one is more likely to favor the two-state solution.
The objective, at least from the viewpoint of the United States, is an enduring, stable peace in the region. The question is which approach best moves in that direction. It becomes a highly emotional question because the worst possible case outcome could be the survival of Israel, and given Twentieth Century history (the Holocaust), that possibility must be guarded against with vigor.
The debate is currently at best a standoff. Americans disagree with other Americans on the proper course, some Israelis and some Americans agree or disagree with other Israelis and other Americans on the proper course, and the Islamic states have their own preferences as well. It is not anywhere near as simple as supporting the “long-term security of Israel and the region,” but I suspect David Axelrod knows that. Let’s hope the American people do as well.
Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations and national security topics.
4)The Decline of the Audience
By Terry Teachout
Anyone who goes to the theater or to classical-music performances has long been accustomed to sitting among a sea of bald and gray heads. Even such technologically up-to-date enterprises as the closed-circuit opera telecasts transmitted from New York’s Metropolitan Opera House to movie theaters across America draw crowds consisting mainly of senior citizens. A sobering report issued in November has put statistical flesh on the bones of the anecdotal evidence of a looming disaster for the arts in the United States.
The latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the fourth such survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts since 1982, reveals an across-the-board decline in public attendance at fine-arts events of all kinds (it concentrates on performing-arts events in the fields of classical music and opera, ballet and modern dance, and plays and musicals). Specifically, “a smaller segment of the adult population either attended arts performances or visited arts museums or galleries than in any prior survey.”
Terry Teachout, COMMENTARY’s chief culture critic and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of: "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong."
5)Justice Stevens to leave while Obama in office
WASHINGTON – Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens says he "will surely" retire while President Barack Obama is still in office, giving the president the opportunity to maintain the high court's ideological balance.
Stevens said in newspaper interviews on the Web Saturday that he will decide soon on the timing of his retirement, whether it will be this year or next. Stevens, the leader of the court's liberals, turns 90 this month and is the oldest justice.
His departure would give Obama his second nomination to the court, enabling him to ensure there would continue to be at least four liberal-leaning justices. The high court is often split 5 to 4 on major cases, with the vote of moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy often deciding which side prevails.
"I will surely do it while he's still president," Stevens told The Washington Post.
But Stevens, who was named to the court by Republican President Gerald R. Ford in 1975, says he still loves the job, and says he continues to write the first draft of his own opinions.
Stevens says if it ever gets to point where he stopped doing that, it would be a sign he wasn't up to the job anymore.
Stevens is the second-oldest justice in the court's history, after Oliver Wendell Holmes. He is the seventh-longest-serving justice, with more than 34 years on the court.
Another liberal, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had surgery last year for early-stage pancreatic cancer. While Ginsburg has been her usual energetic self, including frequent speaking engagements and a teaching stint in Europe, long-term survival rates for pancreatic cancer are low.
Ginsburg, 77, has said she intends to serve into her early 80s, and she has hired her clerks for the court term that begins in October 2010.
Justices are reluctant to retire in bunches, mainly because they want the nine-member court as close to full strength as possible.
Stevens also is nearing two longevity records. When he joined the court, he replaced the longest-serving justice, William O. Douglas, and would need to serve until mid-July 2012 to top that service record. He would surpass Holmes as the oldest sitting justice if he were to remain on the court until Feb. 24, 2011.
"I do have to fish or cut bait, just for my own personal peace of mind and also in fairness to the process," Stevens told The New York Times. "The president and the Senate need plenty of time to fill a vacancy."
5)Obama To Open Up Offshore Drilling, But Not That Much
By SEAN HIGGINS, INVESTOR'S BUSINESS DAILY
It wasn't exactly "Drill, baby, drill" but President Obama has surprised friends and critics alike by announcing the administration would allow some off-shore drilling.
The operative word here is "some." Industry experts and key congressional staffers told IBD that the policy change really creates only the possibility of drilling off Virginia's coast. In most other cases, huge procedural, legal and legislative hurdles remain.
"Virginia is the closest to having real oil and gas development. The rest is all exploration," said Bill Wicker, spokesman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. And even Virginia drilling will probably take years to happen.
A 'Media Stunt'?
Other Democratic staffers echoed Wicker's assessment. A Republican staffer called it simply a "well-orchestrated media stunt."
"They got a lot of stories that said 'the president opens vast areas,' when in reality he closed more than he opened," the GOP staffer said.
House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, whose district includes Richmond, Va., applauded the decision but said it wasn't much good to anybody outside his state.
"By standing in the way of developing these vast resources in an environmentally safe way, the administration is actively blocking job creation and needed revenue at a time when our country needs it most," he said in a statement.
The timing of the announcement sparked speculation among congressional staffers and energy lobbyists. Some thought the administration was offering an olive branch to industry and the GOP ahead of a proposed cap-and-trade bill. That follows Obama's recent moves to help finance new nuclear power plants.
Others thought it might be a pre-emptive move to take drilling off the table during those cap-and-trade bill negotiations.
The general impression was that the less-than-meets-the-eye drilling plan would not move the ball much on cap-and-trade.
Others noted that the announcement came as Congress was in recess and followed controversial appointments to a panel that oversees labor. The administration is simply dumping all of the awkward stuff into a single news cycle, staffers on both sides said.
Obama himself was guarded in his announcement, stressing that the exploration was limited and subject to strict oversight.
"We're announcing the expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration, but in ways that balance the need to harness domestic energy resources and the need to protect America's natural resources," he told an audience at Andrews Air Force Base.
The announcement drew polite applause from the oil and gas industry. American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard called it a "positive development" in a statement.
Gerard added that he hoped similar consideration could be given to "other resource-rich regions," such as parts of Alaska, the Pacific Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.
Attacks From The Left
Liberal groups thought the president's announcement went too far. Public Citizen called it "intolerable" in a statement, while the Sierra Club said flatly: "There's no reason to drill our coasts."
Ten Democratic senators opposed offshore drilling in a March 23 letter to three senators trying to craft a climate and energy bill.
Obama's announcement, made with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, allows development to go ahead 50 miles off the coast of Virginia. It allows initial exploration elsewhere on the south Atlantic and mid-Atlantic coasts, though not leasing.
Experts on both sides point out that all the data on possible oil and gas reserves in these regions is at least 35 years old. So it could take years of exploration before they could even find where to drill.
"There has to be an environment impact statement done before you can even do the seismic work ... needed to get the confidence to go ahead with a lease sale," said John Felmy, an economist at API. "You're talking about a few years before you can get those preliminary steps done."
Drilling would be possible off the Gulf of Mexico's eastern coast and Florida's Gulf coastline, assuming Congress let moratoriums there expire. The administration would also allow an expansion of existing drilling in Alaska's Cook Inlet and will let exploration projects progress in the remote Chukchi Sea, northwest of Alaska.
But he canceled last year's decision to open up parts of Bristol Bay to drilling.
No further expansions elsewhere in Alaska would be allowed, and a moratorium on the West Coast and upper East Coast would remain intact. API estimates those regions could provide 13 billion barrels of oil.
Among the various hurdles is the fact that Congress has not approved legislation to let states share the revenue from drilling. That makes state legislatures less likely to approve drilling, a key issue for many.
"That wasn't addressed by the president's statement," said Spencer Pederson, spokesman for Washington Rep. Doc Hastings, ranking Republican on the Natural Resources Committee.
7)This Spring, Barack Obama will push toward his goal of a nuclear-free world. But the stiffest resistance may be at home.
By John Barry and Evan Thomas
For many years, America's master plan for nuclear war with the Soviet Union was called the SIOP—the Single Integrated Operational Plan. Beginning in 1962, the U.S. president was given some options to mull in the few minutes he had to decide before Soviet missiles bore down on Washington. He could, for instance, choose to spare the Soviet satellites, the Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe. Or he could opt for, say, the "urban-industrial" strike option—1,500 or so warheads dropped on 300 Russian cities. After a briefing on the SIOP on Sept. 14, 1962, President John F. Kennedy turned to his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, and remarked, "And they call us human beings."
Ever since the dawn of the atomic age at Hiroshima in August 1945, American presidents have been trying to figure out how to climb off the nuclear treadmill. The urgency may have faded in the post–Cold War era, but the weapons are still there. By 2002, President George W. Bush was signing off on a document containing his administration's Nuclear Posture Review, an -analysis of how America's nuclear arms might be used. Bush scribbled on the cover, "But why do we still have to have so many?" According to a knowledgeable source who would not be identified discussing sensitive national-security matters, President Obama wasn't briefed on the U.S. nuclear-strike plan against Russia and China until some months after he had taken office. "He thought it was insane," says the source. (The reason for the delay is unclear; the White House did not respond to repeated inquiries.)
During his presidential campaign, Obama embraced a dream first articulated by President Reagan: the abolition of nuclear weapons. The idea is no longer all that radical. In January 2007, an op-ed piece calling for a nuclear-weapons-free world appeared in The Wall Street Journal, signed by Reagan's secretary of state George Shultz; Nixon's and Ford's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger; Clinton's secretary of defense Bill Perry; and Sam Nunn, the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and longtime wise man of the defense establishment. "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," as they were quickly dubbed, had gotten together to give cover to politicians. "We wanted the candidates of both parties to feel they could debate the issue freely," said Nunn.
So when Obama joined the cry for a world without nukes in his campaign, he wasn't taking a big political chance. His Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, did not seem to disagree. And yet, accomplishing this goal—or even taking some meaningful steps toward it—makes health-care reform look easy. As president, Obama the idealist has had to become Obama the realist: working for a nuclear-free world tomorrow, but at the same time, and at great cost, keeping up America's nuclear forces today.
In a speech in Prague last spring, Obama noted that "in a strange turn of history, the threat of global war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up." He warned that with more nations acquiring nuclear weapons, or wishing to, the scary but oddly stable reign of "mutual assured destruction" was giving way to a new disorder. "As more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold." Obama stated "clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." But, he added, "I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime." And he threw in an important caveat: "Make no mistake. As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies."
Nuclear policy will be front and center for Obama this spring, but in a way that may reveal more about limits than possibilities. On April 8, the president will sign an arms-control treaty with Russia that will set limits on numbers of warheads and launchers, lower than any previously agreed. Progress, to be sure. But it's not entirely clear that a polarized Congress will find the two-thirds majority to ratify the treaty. Its most impassioned opponent, Sen. Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, is already demanding to know whether the "New START" treaty represents "a new era in arms control or unilateral disarmament." For their part the Russians are still smarting from perceived humiliations at the end of the Cold War and are increasingly dependent on nuclear weapons as their conventional forces wither. They seem unlikely to go much further in cutting their arsenal.
The prospect of nuclear proliferation is anxiety-inducing for all presidents, especially as terrorists try to get their hands on loose nukes. Obama is convinced that nuclear terrorism now poses a greater threat than the remote possibility of a nuclear war. On April 12 and 13, he will host a Washington summit of more than 40 heads of government with the aim of getting tougher measures to secure the fissile material still lying unprotected around the world. He's set a deadline of four years for truly securing the most dangerous materials. His own advisers suspect he is being overambitious but see the summit as a "consciousness-raising exercise." Every five years, the signers of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty meet to review progress, and in May they will meet again. The Obama team hopes to use the conference to push his no-nukes agenda, but he will be resisted by countries, like Iran, that resent American power. At the same time, Obama can't cut America's arsenal as much as he might like. Countries long under U.S. nuclear protection, like Japan, may decide they need their own nuclear arms as American power declines in the world. Countries choosing to stay under the nuclear umbrella will want reassurances that they can depend on it.
Obama's dream of a nuke-free world will encounter the stiffest resistance at home—from the people who make and safeguard nuclear weapons. America's nuclear systems are aging, raising questions about the reliability of bombs, planes, and missiles. The U.S. Senate never ratified the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and though the White House has talked hopefully of getting a vote on the CTBT sometime in a first Obama term, congressional staff experts are skeptical. "The CTBT is going nowhere," says a staffer who declined to be named. "The Republicans are not going to go for it." The GOP rationale: the United States needs to at least preserve the option of testing the reliability of old weapons or developing new ones.
For the past 15 years, the United States has been pursuing what it calls "stockpile stewardship." Atomic labs have used elaborate computer simulations and chemical and physical testing to ascertain whether the aging bombs would still go off. But at some point, the older weapons may have to be seriously upgraded or replaced. The Obama administration is proposing to increase funding for nuclear-weapons work by some $5 billion over five years. The United States needs to train a new generation of nuclear-weapons scientists and build a new plant at Los Alamos to construct plutonium "pits," the fissile cores of U.S. warheads.
Some Obama supporters on the left are outraged. Last month in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a well-informed antinuke group, bitterly decried "one of the larger increases in warhead spending history." Even so, the sweeteners may not be enough. In January, the directors of America's three nuclear labs told Republicans in Congress that they couldn't be confident that stockpile stewardship would work indefinitely to guarantee America's arsenal.
Sometime this week, Obama is supposed to release a long-delayed Nuclear Posture Review. The hope is to lay out a "paradigm shift" in thinking—to move away from war planning and focus on steps toward a nuclear-free world. There will be ambitious plans to safeguard against proliferation, in part by strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency; by providing nuclear fuel to countries that need it (so they don't try to enrich their own uranium); and by better securing nuclear materials from reactors around the world used for research and medicine, ingredients that might be used to build a "dirty bomb."
These are all sensible steps. But on the question of what Obama will do with America's own nuclear weapons, the president is sure to fall shy of his ambitions. Obama has rejected calls to scrap one leg of the "triad" of U.S. nuclear forces: missiles, submarines, and bombers. He does want to get away from the alert status known as "prompt launch," so there is talk of "repositioning" U.S. forces so they could not be quickly taken out by surprise. (The old standards were "launch on warning" or "launch under attack." Obama wants to avoid any kind of hasty response.) But the United States is likely to keep some ICBMs on alert against a Russian or Chinese missile attack.
Obama will call for improved communications with the Russian leadership to avoid what are tactfully called "misperceptions." Obama is also un-likely to make a "no first use" pledge, though the wording will be fudged. The new members of NATO—former Soviet satellites like the Baltic states—would be aghast at any such promise. As for future reductions, the United States has already removed all battlefield nukes from Europe. The Russians have not. Obama's advisers are hoping to trade some of America's "reserve force" of intercontinental weapons for those Russian tactical weapons.
But Obama is still faced with the age-old question of targeting America's strategic weapons. Will American missiles be aimed at Moscow or Beijing—or Tehran? No, cities are off-limits. But even if the targets are military forces, millions would still die. Obama is still pondering the dilemma; the matter is said by administration officials to be under secret review.
8)Housing market could spoil the recovery partyIrwin Stelzer: American Accounts
The gloom is dissipating. The jobs market is improving: 162,000 new jobs were created in March. Factor out the 48,000 hired temporarily to help with the census, and you still have positive growth. Employment in the hard-hit construction industry — which lost 864,000 jobs in the past 12 months — held steady, while jobs were added in manufacturing, mining, healthcare and temporary services.
But not all the news is good: the number of people out of work for more than 27 weeks rose to 6.5m, the unemployment rate remains stuck at 9.7%, and the total unemployed, involuntarily underemployed and too discouraged to look for work rose, and now constitute 16.9% of the workforce.
Still, the resumption of job creation is good news, and only one of the signs that the recovery continues. Share prices in the first quarter were up about 5%, their best start in more than a decade, as corporate profits came in better than expected after rising 8% in the fourth quarter of 2009, and corporate balance sheets remained strong. Bonds also did well, with investment-grade US debt and junk bonds up from their 2008 lows by 35% and 82%, respectively. So far, the fear that huge fiscal deficits will trigger inflation, a rise in interest rates and therefore a fall in bond prices, seems to be confined to a minority of investors. The majority are ignoring what might be the canary in the coal mine — a rise in interest rates demanded by purchasers of US government bonds. The yield on the Treasury’s 10-year note is hovering round the psychologically important 4% level, the highest since June 2009.
The performance of share and bond prices contributed to a recovery in consumer confidence after a sharp fall in February — it rose from 46.4 to 52.5 in March (1985=100). Which might explain last month’s spurt in car sales. General Motors’ sales of brands it intends to keep were up 43% year-on-year, Ford sales were up 40%, Toyota used incentives (discounts) of $2,256 per vehicle to drive sales up 41%, and although Chrysler’s sales fell 8%, the company expects to break even this year.
The good news was not confined to the motor sector. Overall consumer spending is growing at an inflation-adjusted annual rate of 3%, the highest since the first quarter of 2007. Rosalind Wells, chief economist at the National Retail Federation, says “consumers are coming back to life a little”. With mortgage defaults and personal bankruptcies rising, relieving many consumers of debt and mortgage payments, those consumers have more cash to spend.
The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) reports that the manufacturing sector as a whole grew in March for the eighth straight month, and at the fastest pace since July 2004, to a six-year high. Seventeen of eighteen industries reported growth (only plastics lagged). Exports were up, as were inventories, the latter in anticipation of restocking by retailers and higher sales. A global survey of 11,000 companies by KPMG shows mounting optimism, with American manufacturing and service sector firms the second most optimistic (Brazilian ones were first). That confidence accounts for the increase recently recorded in business investment, which just might drive growth if consumers retreat from the malls again.
Most forecasters are guessing that when the final numbers for the overall economy are in, they will show that it grew at an annual rate of about 3% in the first quarter of this year, below the 5.6% rate of the final quarter of last year, but more than satisfactory. Several businessmen, some of whom were in the pessimist camp until recently, are now talking to me about a V-shaped recovery, a rebound of vigour and duration.
That view is not uniform. Small-business owners and entrepreneurs are somewhat gloomier. Some do not do much or any export business, and so are not sharing in the recovery of world trade. Many complain that their banks don’t want to know them when they ask for credit. Others worry that the president’s healthcare bill will drive up their insurance premiums. Still others know that the taxes on their personal incomes are due to rise, reducing their incentive to invest and hire.
Then there is the housing market, which remains an enigma. There are signs of stability. Twelve of the 20 cities covered by the S&P/Case-Shiller index of home prices show modest increases, and the overall index has risen for eight consecutive months, to almost year-ago levels for the first time in three years. Big publicly traded builders are again buying construction-ready lots. Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway owns Clayton Homes, a maker of manufactured housing, predicts that “within a year or so residential housing problems should be behind us”. Investors are among the optimists: homebuilders’ shares have nearly doubled over the past year.
They may be in for an unpleasant surprise. New home sales are still lagging, the supply of unsold homes remains high, the tax credit for first-time buyers expired last week, at the same time as the Federal Reserve Board discontinued its $1.4 trillion programme to purchase mortgage-backed securities. The housing market is key to creating construction jobs, and all the jobs that go with furnishing a home.
If these headwinds prove too strong, the arrival of spring will see the bears emerge from hibernation, especially if the recovery proves to be only “a sugar high” based on unsustainable government spending and low interest rates, which the bond vigilantes will, sooner rather than later, drive up.
My own guess is that the recovery will gather pace. If the Fed is to err, it will err on the side of waiting too long to “exit”. There is no sign that the government will rein in spending — increases are more likely — and a wall of money is sitting on the sidelines looking for investments or deals.
In the longer run, of course, we will have to pay the piper for the administration’s Greek-style fiscal policy. Meanwhile, enjoy the ride.
Irwin Stelzer is a business adviser and director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute
8a) Spoiling the Spoilsport
By Randall Hoven
I hate to do it, but I must be a spoilsport to the spoilsports. I'm afraid we are now in an economic recovery. What's worse, it will become apparent to the general public as we approach the 2010 elections. The message to Republicans: Don't gloat. Rather, gird your loins.
You can look at economic indicator after indicator, and the conclusion is apparent: The worst is behind us (at least for now). Real GDP, industrial production, and exports and imports all bottomed out several months ago, in June 2009.
Even jobs have bottomed out. The "establishment survey" showed that December and February were the low months of the Great Recession. March saw 162,000 jobs added. That cannot all be attributed to government jobs, either. Private industry added jobs in each month of 2010 and now employs 147,000 more than it did in December. The "household survey" shows even bigger job growth since bottoming out in December: 1,113,000.
Unemployment is considered a lagging indicator, but it reached its peak of 10.1% last October. It has been below 10% every month this year.
Pretty much no matter how you measure it, the Great Recession ended some time between June and December 2009 -- last year. I'm betting that the National Bureau of Economic Research says exactly that very soon. And my best guess of the NBER's best guess is June 2009.
As I write, the S&P 500 is up 46% from the day President Obama was inaugurated. It is up 74% from its low point in March 2009. And it is up over 5% in 2010 so far. The stock market is at a level not seen since September 2008, when George Bush was president and bailouts were king. Gloat over the polls on ObamaCare all you want, but the market does not seem spooked by them.
Happy days are not yet here again, but this business cycle hit bottom and is on the rebound. The real questions now are how good will it get and how long will it last?
Politically speaking, all the Democrats need is for the second dip of the double-dip to hold off until after November. Their story should be simple:
The Great Recession was Bush's fault.
Things started getting better in mid-2009, when Obama's policies started taking effect.
Things have been getting better ever since.
Republican stories of gloom, doom, and Armageddon were hogwash.
I could write their speeches for them. In fact, it's so easy that even a Democrat could do it.
Just to be clear, I don't actually believe any of that. The recession was just a recession. It would have been less bad if Bush had not passed the bailout and Obama had not passed the stimulus. I wrote the following in January 2009.
So simply going by averages, this recession should end this year, maybe even in this quarter or the next. If things go bad, or no worse than in the last 60 years, we might not pull out of it until late this year, with lousy employment figures lagging into 2010.
I would now, fifteen months later and in all humility, evaluate that statement as being just about exactly correct.
My theory is this: the government has to really screw up bad to choke off the market to near-death. Think Hoover and FDR combined. The market, like a living creature, hates to die. Bush and Obama together were only about 10% to 20% of Hoover and FDR together. So we got only a Great Recession (4% GDP decline), not a Great Depression (25% GDP decline). The market is gasping for breath, and Obama's shoe is still on its neck, but it's alive.
Besides, the real threat to the market is unsustainable government debt driven by entitlement programs, also known as the economic booby traps left by FDR and LBJ. Compared to the debt blob, even Bailout 1.0, Stimulus 1.0, and ObamaCare 1.0 together are mere bagatelles -- maybe a combined $3 trillion compared to a $30-$50-trillion debt problem.
That puts us in an "OK so far" economic condition: just recovering from an ugly business cycle, but waiting for the real storm to hit. It's the perfect time for an election...if you are a Democrat.
It's possible that things could take a turn for the worse in the next few months: perhaps a stock market collapse or the second dip of a double-dip. But do not count on such "luck" to bail you out, Republicans.
My head is still reeling from a financial system collapse and an unprecedented government bailout barely one month before the 2008 presidential election. If you recall, the news from Iraq had just turned good then, and the McCain-Palin ticket was a smidgeon ahead in the polls at that point. (Bush and Paulson couldn't wait one more month? But I digress.)
Now look for the opposite. Expect unemployment to go below 9% before November. Imagine how good 8.x% unemployment will feel, and how good a year straight of economic growth will feel. The easily swayed -- exactly that 20% of morons who decide elections -- will tend to believe that Obama really did do it, especially when dawn-to-dawn TV coverage reinforces that paradigm.
Remember, this is April. The good news needs to last only another seven months. And if this is an average recovery, or even a less-than-average recovery, then things will trend up for at least that long. And the pain was so bad that simply stopping the pain will look like progress.
Does that mean that Democrats have it made in the shade? Nope. The Tea Parties and the polls indicate that the opposition is both sizeable and zealous. But Republicans have a long way to go. Democrats have near-60% majorities in both houses of Congress now.
I stated the obvious Democrat talking points before: Blame Bush, etc. What should be the Republican talking points?
For my money, Paul Ryan gave the speech of the decade on March 31. Republican politicians and PR men should stop thinking on their own (as if they were!) and follow Ryan's script to the letter.
ObamaCare front and center: "The reform is an atrocity ... The first order of business will be 'repeal and replace.'"
A clear choice: "Should unchecked centralized government be allowed to grow and grow in power ... or should its powers be limited and returned to the people?"
An honest approach: "Tell Americans the truth, offer them a choice, and count on them to do what's right."
American exceptionalism: "Dedicated to the life and freedom of every person ... The American Revolution and the Constitution replaced class rule with a better idea: equal opportunity for all."
A real plan and a responsible plan: Ryan's "Roadmap," scored by the Congressional Budget Office. It gets our fiscal house back in order, promotes growth, and returns us to a country our founders might recognize.
I believe that even the middle 20% of voters sense that something has gone wrong, that government budgets are out of control, that no one quite seems responsible anymore. That sense is what Republicans need to build on. And Ryan is superb at it.
Two more pieces of advice:
(1) For this 2010 congressional election, Republicans need to emphasize how well things ran when Republicans had Congress: 1995-2000 and 2003-2006. When Democrats bring their Blame-Bush knives, bring your Blame-the-Democrat-Congress guns.
(2) Republicans need to have an answer ready for "Why didn't you do, or even try to do, all these great ideas when you had the power?" I don't have the answer to that one. In fact, I'd really love to hear that answer.
Seven months. Game face. Showtime.
8b)National debt seen heading for crisis level
By Carolyn Lochhead
Health care may have been the last big bang of the Obama presidency.
With ferocious speed, the financial crisis, recession and efforts to combat the recession have swung the U.S. debt from worrisome to ruinous, promising to handcuff the administration.
Lost amid last month's passage of the new health care law, the Congressional Budget Office issued a report showing that within this decade, President Obama's own budget sends the U.S. government to a potential tipping point where the debt reaches 90 percent of gross domestic product.
Economists Carmen Reinhart of the University of Maryland and Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard University have recently shown that a 90 percent debt-to-GDP ratio usually touches off a crisis.
This year, the debt will reach 63 percent of GDP, a ratio that has ignited crises in smaller wealthy nations. Fiscal crises gripped Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Ireland when their debts were below where the United States is shortly headed.
Japan's debt is much higher, but most of it is held domestically, and Japan's economy has been weak for 20 years. "I really don't think we want to be like Japan," said UC Berkeley economist Alan Auerbach.
One advantage the United States has - and it is a big one - is that it issues the world's reserve currency and so can print dollars to service its debt.
The Obama budget will add $10 trillion to the national debt in the next decade and will not stabilize the deficit, the CBO found. Deficits are expected to dip as the recovery takes hold, but never below $724 billion a year. Interest costs alone will consume $5.6 trillion this decade. A balanced budget has been widely ruled out as unattainable.
"The real problem is not just current deficits but where we're heading," Auerbach said. "We're on a trajectory where the deficit's going to go down a little and then go up again. And we have no solution for that."
Deficits won't reverse
No one is advocating big tax increases or spending cuts before a recovery takes hold. The problem is that deficits will not reverse even after a full recovery.
Credit rating agency Moody's warned last month of a possible downgrade in U.S. Treasury debt. This year, Social Security is crossing a long-feared milestone at which it is paying more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes. Study after study in the last year has raised alarms.
"In my judgment, a crisis could occur next week or 10 years from now," said Rudolph Penner, an Urban Institute economist who co-chaired a huge budget report sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Public Administration. "I don't really think we can go much beyond 10 years."
Polls show rising public alarm - and public refusal of specific spending cuts or tax increases required to change course. A Field Poll last month showed most Californians do not want to cut the largest parts of the state budget, such as education or transportation.
The polling firm Democracy Corps recently warned Democrats that the deficit now tops unemployment as a voter concern. But it also found voters "unenthusiastic" about the options to close the deficit. Voters overwhelmingly prefer spending cuts to tax hikes but reject cutting specific programs.
Republicans promise to make deficits a premier political issue. But during the health care debate, they opposed any cuts to Medicare, the chief source of rising deficits. They also oppose tax increases and defense cuts. In January, they sabotaged rare bipartisan legislation to create a powerful deficit-reduction commission that would have forced action.
Stabilizing the debt without raising taxes, cutting Medicare or defense, or defaulting on the debt would eviscerate everything else, from the Border Patrol to highways. Earmarks constitute a pittance.
The numbers don't add up for Democrats either. For all their railing against the Bush tax cuts that contributed to the current dilemma, Obama intends to extend almost all of them. That will cost $2.5 trillion, said the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Obama also escalated the war in Afghanistan.
And he joined Republicans in sabotaging the deficit commission by creating a substitute commission by executive order that seems designed to fail. It cannot compel action, and its recommendations are postponed until after the November election.
Obama and party leaders stacked it with partisans, from Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, to Andrew Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union, making it difficult to get the 14 out of 18 votes required to agree on anything.
The executive order is a study in artfulness. It calls for a deficit target in 2015 that will be largely reached through the recovery and opens a wide escape hatch by saying decisions are contingent on the economy.
Democrats are already picking off low-hanging, deficit-reduction fruit to increase spending instead. Led by Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, Democrats approved $61 billion in savings last week by cutting banks out of student lending - and used it to expand aid to students and colleges.
Democrats often give the impression that taxes on the rich can fix everything. But the center-left Tax Policy Center ran simulations showing that Obama's budget would have to raise $775 billion in new taxes every year to stabilize deficits at 2 percent of GDP. That means that if Obama keeps his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class, the rich would pay 90 percent of their income in taxes, the center said.
Obama "promised to be honest with the public, and he has a talent for doing so," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the moderate Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "Yet he hasn't used it yet to describe what types of hard choices will be involved."
Soaring levels of debt
$10 trillion Amount the
Obama budget will add to the national debt in the next decade.
$5.6 trillion Amount interest costs alone will consume this decade.
63% Debt-to-gross domestic product
ratio this year.
90% Debt-to-gross domestic product ratio anticipated within this decade.
9)The Empty Vessel President
By Dutch Brewer
In the brief time that has passed since Barack Obama burst onto the world political stage, he has been viewed as many things by many people.
By taking Tom Daschle's advice to "run before you have a record that they can use against you," he was able to present himself not as a candidate with a past, but as a concept with a future. His potential election was viewed as historic -- for some because of his proclaimed status as "the first black president of the United States," by others as the fulfillment, fifty years later, of the interrupted promise of Camelot. A large portion of the electorate bought into the Obama brand -- designed as the anti-Bush, a cool, constitutional lecturer who would bring a new tone, memorable rhetoric, and a likable family to Washington.
His opponents have struggled, largely unsuccessfully, to make allegations of radicalism stick, despite a record of personal associations that would have precluded his serving in any defense position requiring security clearance. Early in his presidency, he was feared to be a Muslim "Manchurian Candidate," having an ostensibly Muslim father and a childhood spent in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation on earth.
Over time, as we have seen and heard (and heard and heard and heard) from our new leader, each of these views which had been projected onto The One have gradually fallen away. With inner-city and minority unemployment at historic highs and no substantive programs focused on the problem, the Black Caucus complains of a conspicuous lack of commitment on Obama's part to "the black agenda."
The constitutional scholar with a supposed gift for rhetoric has professed to be uninterested in "the process" of drafting and passing legislation while showing a strong preference for victory at any cost. His rhetoric has been shown to be the same hackneyed product of political speechwriters, his communication skills very similar to that of any good news anchor ("Just read the news, Barry"), and his language has shown a disturbing tendency towards propaganda...short on facts, long on emotion, and big on inverted meanings where taxes are investments, spending is saving, and more government intrusion is freedom. Indeed, there is a new tone: a more toxic, intolerant, suspicious, taunting tone that has driven Americans' view of their government to new lows as our debt and tax load climb to stratospheric heights.
For all of the fears about Islam creeping into the White House, the POTUS has shown himself to be a purely secular leader. In his mind, all religions are equal (as are all nations in their claims to exceptionalism) and profoundly irrelevant. No church, no mosque -- just a spiritual e-mail a day from his staff to keep the Great One on track. As for the family, Michelle appears embittered by the lack of universal admiration which has played out for the past year, and the girls are safely ensconced at a prestigious private school in D.C., as the pampered children of any Harvard-educated senior bureaucrat should be.
Following a recent interview of the POTUS in which his handlers complained that he was questioned a bit too closely by interviewer Brett Baier, columnist Peggy Noonan neatly summarized the event. In her estimation, Obama revealed what he wanted to, which was that he didn't want to reveal much at all.
In point of fact, Obama has been shown to be an empty vessel into which hopeful Americans poured their hopes and dreams in 2008. In the same way that he described the U.S. Constitution as a "charter of negative liberties," distinguished by the behaviors it does not compel, so too is Obama a person of negative, or missing, traits.
Although African-American in appearance, he was raised by whites and educated in the most elite Eastern liberal tradition, with only a thin veneer of calculated street cred imbued by his time in the south side of Chicago.
Although swept to office as the recipient of the gift of soaring rhetoric, he has been found to be as heavily dependent on a teleprompter as any beginning mass communications student, and prone to stammering and self-contradiction in its absence.
So what's left? Start with Obama the candidate and remove the scripted speechifying, the calculated racial identity, and any pretense of spiritual engagement, and only a few unflattering character traits remain. The traits increasingly on display are dominated by Obama's unshaken confidence in himself, his willingness to dehumanize not only the opposition, but also his "poster child" examples (see also Marcellus Owens), and his peculiar view that the change demanded by Americans is "the great leveling" -- a spreading around of wealth among Americans, and eventually among nations, that will reposition the United States in its rightful place as one unremarkable, one unexceptional, one "fair" nation in which every American child can grow up expecting not equal opportunity, but equal outcome.
That's the kind of work that not only doesn't require a soul...but it's easier if you haven't got one. We've found just the man for the job: a post-racial, post-religious, post-American narcissist out to correct four hundred years of history as he sees fit.
If that doesn't scare you, then you aren't paying attention.
10)Michael Oren: Israel's Jerusalem policy hasn't changed in 16 years
Israel's Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, on Sunday described the ties between Israel and the U.S. as 'great.'
In an interview with CNN, reporter Cindy Crowley said "I literally need a one-word answer. The state of U.S.- Israeli relations is..."
"Great," Oren replied.
The envoy also said that conditions for renewing peace talks with the Palestinians are as good as they have been in some time, and that Israel is prepared to make difficult decisions in order to achieve peace.
"There has been 16 years of negotiations with the Palestinians, including two cases where Israeli prime ministers put complete peace plans on the table, including Jerusalem," Oren said. "And throughout that entire period of peace-making, Israel's policy on Jerusalem remained unchanged.
"We feel that now we should proceed directly to peace negotiations without a change in policy," he added. "We understand that Jerusalem will be one of the core issues discussed in those peace negotiations, but the main issue is to get the peace negotiations started. We are waiting for the Palestinians to join us at the table. So far, they have not done so."
He also addressed the dispute between Israel and the U.S. over construction in East Jerusalem, saying that "any Jew or Arab has the right to build legally in Jerusalem, as in any other city in the country."
"That's our policy," Oren said. "The policy is not going to change.?
However, Oren added, "But we understand - we understand that Jerusalem is sensitive."
Oren last month was reported to have said that Israel-U.S. relations were at a 35-year low because of the row that developed over the East Jerusalem construction.
Israel announced the plan to build 1,600 more homes for Jews in East Jerusalem during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden aimed at ushering in indirect peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
11)The Poisonous Politics of Self-Esteem
By Robert Samuelson
WASHINGTON -- Some while back, I proposed a concept that did not stick. I called it "the politics of self-esteem." My argument was that politics increasingly devotes itself to making people feel good about themselves -- elevating their sense of self-worth and affirming their belief in their moral superiority. By contrast, the standard view of politics is that it mediates conflicting interests and ideas. The winners receive economic benefits and political privileges; the losers don't. This an apt time to resurrect my rival theory because it helps explain, I think, why the health care debate became so inflamed.
The two theories are not incompatible. They can and do coexist. In fiscal 2010, the federal government will distribute about $2.4 trillion in benefits to individuals. Taxes and regulations discriminate for and against various groups. Politics shapes this process. But in truth, differences between parties are often small. Democrats want to spend more and don't want to raise taxes, except on higher earners. Republicans want to reduce taxes but don't want to spend less. Vast budget deficits reflect both parties' unwillingness to make unpopular choices of whose benefits to cut or whose taxes to boost.
Given this evasion, the public agenda gravitates toward issues framed as moral matters. Global warming is about "saving the planet." Abortion and gay marriage evoke deep values, each side believing it commands the high ground. Certainly, President Obama pitched his health care plan as a moral issue. It embodies "the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care," as he said when signing the legislation. Health care is a "right"; opponents are, by extension, less moral.
Obama's approach was politically necessary. On a simple calculus of benefits, his proposal would have failed. Perhaps 32 million Americans will receive insurance coverage -- about 10 percent of the population. Other provisions add somewhat to total beneficiaries. Still, for most Americans, the bill won't do much. It may impose costs: higher taxes, longer waits for appointments.
People backed it because they thought it "the right thing"; it made them feel good about themselves. What they got from the political process are what I call "psychic benefits." Economic benefits aim to make people richer. Psychic benefits strive to make them feel morally upright and superior. But this emphasis often obscures practical realities and qualifications. For example: The uninsured already receive substantial medical care, and it's unclear how much insurance will improve their health.
Purging moral questions from politics is both impossible and undesirable. But today's tendency to turn every contentious issue into a moral confrontation is divisive. One way of fortifying people's self-esteem is praising them as smart, public-spirited and virtuous. But an easier way is to portray the "other side" as scum: The more scummy "they" are, the more superior "we" are. This logic governs the political conversation of both left and right, especially talk radio, cable channels and the blogosphere.
Unlike economic benefits, psychic benefits can be dispensed without going through Congress. Mere talk does the trick. Shrillness and venom are the coin of the realm. The opposition cannot simply be mistaken. It must be evil, selfish, racist, unpatriotic, immoral or just stupid. A culture of self-righteousness reigns across the political spectrum. Stridency from one feeds the other. Political polarization deepens; compromise becomes harder. How can anyone negotiate if the other side is so extreme?
Dangers are plain, as political scientists Morris Fiorina and Samuel Abrams argue in their book "Disconnect: the Breakdown of Representation in American Politics." Using opinion surveys, they show that polarization is stronger among elites (elected officials, activists, journalists) than the broad public. About 40 percent to 50 percent of Americans consistently classify themselves as "moderates." By contrast, political activists tend to identify themselves as "very liberal" or "very conservative." But it is the political class of activists that "dominate the political agenda" and determine "how the debate is conducted."
Various "disconnects" result. Politics that seems too bare-knuckled alienates voters. Or Congress responds to the passionate party "base" and enacts major programs without wide support. This happened with the health overhaul. A new USA Today/Gallup poll finds tepid backing: 40 percent of respondents think the country's health will improve, but 35 percent think it will get worse (the rest: no change); 35 percent think their own health care will worsen, and only 21 percent think it will improve; 50 percent expect higher costs than without the bill, only 21 percent lower.
American politics caters to people's natural desire to think well of themselves. But in so doing, it often sacrifices pragmatic goals and sows rancor that brings government and the political system into disrepute. The ultimate danger is that the poisonous polarization of elites spreads to the country at large.