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Broken Economy

The Ongoing and Hugely Risky Bailout of the Housing Market

March 3rd 2013

Home Foreclosure

After a long and wrenching plunge, the housing sector has finally bottomed out and seems to be recovering. According to the latest S&P/Case-Shiller index, home prices rose in nearly every metropolitan area during 2012 and turned in a solid gain of 7 percent nationally. Celebration would be premature, however. The human cost of the housing crash has been fearful. Trillions of dollars of household wealth have evaporated, 5 million people have lost their homes, and 22 percent of the remaining homeowners still have mortgages exceeding the value of their properties. With housing prices still 30 percent below their (admittedly unrealistic) 2006 peak, it will take average homeowners many years to rebuild the savings that their home equity once represented.

Even worse, the federal government’s response to the housing crisis is now becoming part of the problem. When the sector crashed, destroying the balance sheets of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government had no choice but to take them over, at a net cost to the taxpayer (so far) of $141 billion—by far the costliest bailout in the Great Recession. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Hezbollah's Next Move

March 2nd 2013

Hezbollah rally

The escalating war between Assad's and the rebels' forces in Syria have dramatically increased the number of Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah martyrs.  Dismayed, the Party of God's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, expressing his sorrow last week over the killing of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force's senior representative in Lebanon, Gen. Hassan Shateri. Nasrallah noted that Shateri was not the first Iranian to be killed in Syria while on a mission with Hezbollah. Their fighting along Assad's forces was noted last December, in the U.N. report on human rights violations committed by the groups fighting in Syria. Even the New Yorker magazine reported last week:"Hezbollah's direct involvement [in Syria] has led to new martyrs, who are buried privately and quickly." However, the scope and the exact number of Hezbollah casualties in Syriais unknown to outsiders. Read more ..


Catholicism on Edge

Will the Next Pope be an Anti-Semite?

March 1st 2013

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga

Among those being considered to succeed Pope Benedict XVI is a notorious anti-Semite, Cardinal Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras. His name has appeared on various media short lists and his photograph was featured, along with other possible candidates, on the front page of the Miami Herald. He was also under consideration the last time around, and his Latin American heritage is considered a plus this time. He is very charismatic and popular in his home country and was recently invited to speak to Latino Catholics in the United States.

To put it most simply, Rodriguez Maradiaga is an out and out Jew-hater. He has said that "the Jews" are to blame for the scandal surrounding the sexual misconduct of priests toward young parishioners! The Jews? How did Rodriguez Maradiaga ever come up with this hair-brained idea? Here is his "logic." He begins by asserting that the Vatican is anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian (as he says it should be). It follows, therefore, that "the Jews" had to get even with the Catholic Church, while at the same time deflecting attention away from Israeli injustices against the Palestinians. The Jews managed to do this by arranging for the media—which he says they control—to give disproportionate attention on the Vatican sex scandal. Read more ..


Edge of the Cliff

Sequestration's Devastating Effects Will Be Felt at Home and Abroad

February 28th 2013

Tank

Unless Congress and President Obama agree to change the current law, $42 billion in mandatory cuts to the U.S. defense budget will go into effect immediately. On March 27, an additional $6 billion in defense cuts from the Administration’s budget request will also go into effect. These reductions, which will be applied retroactively to this year's defense budget, do not apply to military personnel and overseas operations; therefore, they are to be taken out of only a portion of the defense budget including readiness funding and equipment acquisition. This will have devastating effects on current military operations. These cuts come in addition to the unprecedented $487 billion in defense cuts to be carried out over the next ten years as required by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called this budget sequestration, a "meat ax" approach to budget cutting that will force the Administration to reexamine its entire national defense strategy, announced only one year ago. Not only would the half a trillion dollars in cuts over the next decade "hollow out the force," it would reduce the United States to a "second-rate power," Panetta said. Read more ..


Inside Judaism

The Pope is not the Only Cleric to Watch: Pay Attention to the Rabbinate, for it is the Heart of Israel’s Existence

February 27th 2013

Dovid Stav
Chief Rabbi Candidate Dovid Stav

Anyone following politics in Israel over the past few months, and especially the campaigns for Knesset mandates, saw the true face of Israel’s complicated internal predicament. To those outside of Israel’s daily life, its story is one of existentialism because of an ever-looming threat from seemingly trigger-happy neighbors. And not just Hamas in the south and Hizbullah in the north. There also is the nuclear threat posed by Iran, and whether Syria will launch attacks on Israel as a way of giving its rebellious citizens a different outlet for their anger.

If we accept the current world view of events, Israel is a country mired in a muck of its own making: an unwillingness to come to a peaceful coexistence with the hundreds of millions Arabs living alongside and within missile-shot of the small state. This is an absurd view, of course, but that is for another column to address. Read more ..


Russia and America

U.S. Policy on Russia for Obama’s Second Term

February 27th 2013

Putin

Since Vladimir Putin’s third inauguration as Russian president last May, U.S.–Russian relations have deteriorated sharply. Officials on both sides have moved past the “reset” honeymoon as disagreements over geopolitics and human rights abound.

Spanning two continents and with a veto on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Russia is uniquely positioned to play a prominent role in U.S. foreign policy. However, the United States needs a new course of action for the next four years to prevent Russia from negatively affecting U.S. interests across the globe.

Anti-Americanism
The current Russian ruling elite has not overcome the anti-Americanism imbued in their Soviet upbringing. State-controlled media and government officials openly perpetuate it. Russian politicians have sought a ban on American English “foreign words” in the media, have forbidden Russian nongovernmental organizations from taking U.S. donations, and banned Americans from adopting Russian orphans. Anti-Americanism is part of a concerted effort to secure the regime against dissent, counter Western influence, and undermine already brittle U.S.–Russian relations.

Strategic Disagreements
Differences over Syria and Iran continue to prevent strategic action on two of the world’s most pressing issues. Russia has not wavered in its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, vetoing any meaningful sanctions at the UNSC. While Russian officials do not support an Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, their selective commitment to the principle of noninterference in internal affairs of state causes resistance to potent sanctions and opposition to the potential use of force. High-level talks have not solved these issues, and as each one moves to a breaking point, Russia only hardens its resolve. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Why Bulgaria? Why Now?

February 27th 2013

Hezbollah

The announcement by Bulgaria that the airport bus bombing there last July was likely the handiwork of Hezbollah operatives now has European officials scrambling to decide what, if anything, to do about the fact that the group has now resumed executing attacks on European soil.

In the 1980s, Hezbollah carried out attacks across the continent, and since then it has used Europe as a near-abroad where it could conveniently raise money, procure weapons and provide logistical support for attacks to be carried out elsewhere. But the Bulgarian investigation raises as many questions as it answers. In particular, why would Hezbollah specifically choose to carry out an attack there? And why now?

While it kept up its relentless campaign of military and terrorist activities targeting Israel, and despite unabated tensions with the West, Hezbollah had not carried out a successful spectacular attack targeting Western interests beyond Israel since the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. Read more ..


Broken Government

A Bad Sequester Is Worlds Better Than No Budget Deal At All

February 26th 2013

US Capital Day

Barring an unexpected breakthrough agreement between the Democratic Senate and the Republican House, the federal budget will be subjected to a sequester which will reduce discretionary spending by about $86 billion in calendar 2013.

That $86 billion is only a bit more than 10 percent of the “fiscal cliff” that faced the country at the end of the year. It’s a painful cliff, but not a large one. The American Taxpayer Relief Act resolved most the cliff problem, but the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says that the sequester will reduce short-term growth in an already slow economy. On the other hand, no sequester at all would mean an even greater reduction in long-term growth. 

The worst feature of the sequester is that it is the wrong way to reduce spending. The cuts are mandated across-the-board in most discretionary spending areas. The good programs will be cut along with the bad. The most hard-hit casualty will be the Defense Department (DOD). It can stand cuts, but they need to be carefully selected. The sequester does not select. The sequester meat-axe slices muscle along with the fat. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

Iran Can't Agree to a Damn Thing

February 25th 2013

Iran centrifuges

During the chaotic days of Iran's Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the country's emerging "supreme leader," assured Iranians that their supposed oppressor, the United States, would not be able to put the hated shah back on his throne. "America can't do a damn thing against us," he inveighed, a winning line that became the uprising's unofficial slogan. It's a catchphrase Iran has deployed time and again since, most recently in a taunting billboard along the Iran-Iraq border and in a banner hung in front of a captured American drone (though hilariously, in the latter case, the hapless banner-makers mistranslated the phrase as "America Can Do No Wrong").

Khomeini's slogan was true enough at the time: There wasn't much U.S. President Jimmy Carter could do to intervene in one of the most stunning uprisings in history. But today, when it comes to Iran's endless nuclear impasse with the West, one might turn the phrase back on the Iranians: The problem, in a nutshell, is that Iran can't agree to a damn thing. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

A Hard Rain is Going to Fall on Syria's Bashar al-Assad

February 25th 2013

syria-killing

Bashar Assad faces a hard reckoning. Not the one that comes from rebels battling for control of key Syrian assets, or the one that may come some day from charges of genocide at the International Criminal Court. The reckoning that comes from understanding that your key ally, Iran, has interests in your country other than you, and regional interests bigger than you.

Iran connects with a variety of countries and non-state actors to advance its worldwide interests; Assad's Syria is only part of the equation. Iran continues to supply the Syrian army and has military forces of its own there, but Iran is also moving to protect and preserve its Mediterranean proxy Hezbollah. Read more ..


Edge of the Cliff

Sequestration Impact on Defense Capabilities and National Security

February 25th 2013

USAF Desert Storm

The last four years seem now as the preamble to downgrade the U.S. intelligence and defense capabilities. While leading from behind on the world stage, the Obama administration is confidently emasculating the U.S. ability to protect its interests abroad and use force do defend the homeland. Apparently, the Administration does not consider the destabilization of the Middle East, or the Iranian and North Korean rapidly growing nuclear ability, and China's growing defense and attack capabilities as serious threats. Otherwise, the President would have not even suggested sequestration of our defense complex.

Along with the Defense sequester, there are other ominous signs regarding our retreat from sensible national security. First, there was the dismissal in December of Marine Gen. James Mattis as commander of Central Command, because the White House didn't like Mattis's efforts to change the strategic framework regarding Iran. Gen. Mattis thought we should be planning for what Iran is capable of doing -- such as closing the Strait of Hormuz, or attacking Israel-- instead of gambling that it lacks the teeth to match its bite with its loud bark. Read more ..


Healthcare on Edge

Drug Firms Say No to Rebates

February 24th 2013

Lots of Pills

If you watched President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, you might have missed the scheme he unveiled that will lead to the ruination of the Medicare prescription drug program, destroy pharmaceutical companies’ incentive to develop new life-saving medicines and even imperil our country’s economic growth. I know I missed it.

Fortunately, the top PR guy at the drug companies’ big trade association in Washington quickly issued a press release to clue us in on what the President is really up to and what will happen if he can follow through on his pledge to curtail Medicare spending by reducing “taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies.” Here’s what Matthew D. Bennett, senior vice president of communications and public affairs at Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), wrote within hours of the speech: Read more ..


Israel and Palestine

Hamas Terrorists Prepare a Greeting for Obama

February 23rd 2013

Hamas head

As Jonathan Halevi demonstrates, Hamas rules Gaza. And it is now ready to assume its role as the leader also of the Palestinians in the West Bank. Given its support by the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and Turkey, Qatar and UNRWA, Hamas is unlikely to face opposition it couldn't overtake.

Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the PA 'Democratic" election in the 2006. While designated as a terrorist organization, the world community allowed Hamas to participate in the election under the name "List of Change and Reform." In June 2007, Hamas took control over the Gaza Strip from the PA. Since then, despite repeated promises to cut off funds to Hamas, international aid organizations and many countries have continued funneling money to Gaza, purportedly for humanitarian aid, but more recently to fund the "Gaza Administration." Hamas rule over Gaza does not seem to be an obstacle to funding it. Read more ..


Edge of Terrorism

Hamas Holds All the Cards in Rocket Launches from Gaza

February 23rd 2013

Hamas Rocket

Israel military's Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip, which began on November 14, 2012, and ended on the 21st of that month with an unwritten ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, has produced a new security reality, if transitory, in Israel's south.

According to data released by the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, since the ceasefire agreement (as of January 22, 2013), there has not been even one missile launching from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, and only a single report of a mortar shell being fired.

The reasons for this calm in the South can be attributed mainly to Hamas's interest to maximize its diplomatic gains from the ceasefire, by upgrading the status of the Gaza Strip, which it rules, to a legitimate political entity representing the Palestinians. According to the Hamas, the Prime Minister and the Parliament are working to strengthen the Gaza economy, [enforcing sharia in the name of democracy (latest example is that women students has to cover up completely)] while simultaneously developing Hamas's military capabilities in advance of future military conflicts. Read more ..


Edge of the Cliff

Blame Game Rages on Over Looming Sequester

February 22nd 2013

US Capital Day

We are just days away from a cataclysm of biblical proportions. The cuts foretold in the Budget Control Act of 2011 are young as far as prophecies go, but apparently they are every bit as terrifying as rivers of blood and plagues of locusts. Any day now we can expect White House spokesman Jay Carney to take to the podium and read a prepared statement: “And when he opened the seventh seal, there was a small decrease in the rate of increase in federal spending.”

The great game in Washington is who will get the blame for something both House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama agree will be calamitous for the country. It is an argument so idiotic, it could pass for seriousness only in Washington. The Republicans correctly note that the president proposed the sequester. In fact, back when the president believed that Republicans were more terrified of these automatic budget cuts than Democrats were, he pretended that he would veto any attempts to get rid of them that didn’t give him even more of the tax hikes he holds so dear. Now that Republicans have already agreed to a tax hike, they’ll be damned if they’ll raise them even more. Read more ..


The Edge of Immigration

U.S.–Mexico Border: Tighter Border Security Requires Mexico’s Cooperation

February 22nd 2013

US Border Patrol arrest

As the debate over immigration reform heats up, the topic of border security—especially on the southwest border with Mexico—looms larger. Washington policymakers ask: How many miles of fence, how many Border Patrol agents, how many billions of tax dollars will be enough to finally “secure” the border?

There is no easy answer. Airtight border security is more an abstract concept than a practical goal. It is difficult to envision a system of airport-like security or 100 percent “operational control” of 2,000 miles of often rugged and inhospitable terrain.

Ultimately, an effective border security policy requires a reliable security partner in Mexico. Thankfully, the objectives of Mexico’s new government are to engineer a more secure, more prosperous, and more rule-of-law-oriented future. Read more ..


Broken Borders

Let's Have More Immigrants, Not More Babies

February 21st 2013

Immigration Protest

Fertility has fallen in all advanced countries and will almost surely continue to fall in the future. In the United States, the fertility rate is now 1.93 children per women, a little below the replacement level of 2.1. It waxes and wanes with the state of the economy and other factors, but the long-term trend is pretty clear: women have fewer children as their own opportunities, along with their ability to control their reproductive destinies, expand.

Bear in mind that right now roughly a quarter of all childbearing in the U.S. is unintended. As women's employment opportunities continue to grow, as marriage rates continue to decline, and as the promise of newer and more effective long-acting contraceptives is realized, women will almost surely have even fewer children than they do today with some ,opting out of childbearing altogether. As one indicator of where we may be headed consider the data on the number of women who have remained childless by the age of 40-44. It was 18 percent in 2008, up from 10 percent in 1976, an increase of 80 percent. Should this be a concern? Read more ..


Broken Economy

Want a Stronger Economic Recovery? Encourage More Home Refinancing

February 21st 2013

Home Foreclosure

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama urged Congress to pass legislation that would help more homeowners refinance. Much of the policy focus in this area has been on proposals that would modify the government’s Home Affordable Refinance Program, which helps borrowers with loans insured by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. However, other proposals would go further, such as one that is reportedly being developed to facilitate the refinancing of mortgage loans that are not backed by the government.

Finding ways to encourage refinancing is good policy. The Federal Reserve has done its part: Its asset purchase programs have helped to lower long-term interest rates to historically low levels. The interest rate on new 30-year fixed-rate mortgages is now around 3.5 percent, down from more than 6 percent prior to the financial crisis. Yet, many homeowners appear to have been blocked from refinancing into lower-rate mortgages. Indeed, data from the Commerce Department suggest that the average home mortgage has an interest rate of around 5 percent right now—much higher than the rate available on new loans. Read more ..


Edge of the Cliff

Defense Sequestration Targets Small Business

February 20th 2013

B-1 Bomber

Washington lawmakers have failed to reach a compromise over how to reduce the national debt, and the automatic budget cuts of the 2011 Budget Control Act are set to take force on January 2, 2013. These automatic cuts, known as sequestration, are inflexible, across-the-board cuts that were designed to be so harmful that no politician would ever let them occur. Unfortunately, the White House and Congress have yet to reach a deal that would prevent their implementation.

Sequestration is particularly harmful for national defense, as it would cut another half trillion from the military's budget on top of nearly $900 billion in cuts already under the Obama administration.

Contrary to public perception, most defense dollars today go to small and medium-sized businesses rather than large firms. In a recent letter to Ohio's congressional delegation, concerned small businesses wrote, "[b]etween two-thirds and three-quarters of defense industrial purchases go to smaller suppliers, and three-quarters of all defense related manufacturing jobs are at supply chain firms." This means the real harm of sequestration will fall disproportionately on small business owners and entrepreneurs. Read more ..


Broken Borders

Dispensing With a New 'Dagger' Against Immigration Reform

February 19th 2013

Juan Williams 02

There’s a new “Dagger” of an argument against immigration reform being heard on Capitol Hill and it needs to be dispensed with quickly.
But first some history: In 2007, the “Dagger” of an idea that killed President Bush’s effort at reforming the immigration system was lax border security. Talk radio fired up the opposition by claiming that the borders were so porous that reform was just a reward for people who had already broken the law and a magnet for others to follow them and illegally enter the U.S.

In 2013, that argument has lost its edge. There are a record number of border patrol agents in place, along with electronic surveillance and even walls to seal off the borders. Illegal border crossings are now so low that some estimate more people are leaving than arriving.

So opponents of reform have turned to a new argument to fire up the far-right talk show crowd, scare Tea Party politicians and block GOP support for reform. It goes like this: Immigrants, both legal and illegal, are “Takers” not “Makers.”

This latest “Dagger” aimed at killing reform is a pointed look at the cost of allowing the 11 million estimated illegal immigrants in the U.S. to have a pathway to citizenship. “When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith [R-Texas]. Or as one visitor to my Facebook page described illegal immigrants last week: They are “just more liberals leeches looking for handouts. Typical democRAT voters.” He also added: “Screw ‘em.” Read more ..


India and America

U.S. Should Back India’s Membership in APEC

February 17th 2013

Population Boom

It has been a bad half-decade for American foreign economic policy. The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Doha round was mortally wounded in 2008. The last three bilateral trade agreements were stalled and then renegotiated. The next one is not even on the radar screen. While the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and a possible agreement with the 27-nation European Union are potentially transformative, the trend suggests they could also fizzle.

In such an environment, the U.S. should worry a little less about short-term trade policy problems—there are plenty of those already—and more about long-term gains. With sustained free-market reforms, India offers a source of huge long-term economic gain. One step in a corresponding long-term approach to maximize this gain would be to invite India into the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Read more ..


Venezuela on Edge

Revealing Photos of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez Emerge

February 16th 2013

Hugo chavez and daughters

At Chavista demonstrations in Caracas recently, images of Hugo Chavez juxtaposed with icons of Jesus Christ have been a common sight. In part, that’s because Venezuelans are a devoutly Catholic people, and Chavez’s health has been the subject of many prayers. But there is also a sinister messianism around Chavez, which his cohorts, none of whom remotely enjoy the same level of popularity as he does, have eagerly stoked.

Today, then, amounts to a resurrection of sorts. More than two months after disappearing from view, following his return to Havana to seek medical treatment for cancer, the Cuban regime released photos of Chavez lying in his hospital bed, flanked by his two smiling daughters, Rosa and Maria. Read more ..


The Iranian Threat

The Army, the Congress and the Mullahs

February 16th 2013

Strait of Homurz1

While Republican members of Congress arm-wrestle the White House, battling over sequestration and debt limits, the mother of all sea-battles is brewing in the Persian Gulf. Whoever wins the budget struggle, it is likely the U.S. Navy will lose the fight to keep the Strait of Hormuz open, should Iran decide to close it.

There are awesome American naval forces in the Gulf that include carrier strike groups, cruisers, destroyers, guided missile frigates, submarines and other warships. These large targets are crammed into a very busy, shallow body of water with one entrance: the Strait of Hormuz, which is 21 miles wide at its narrowest point. Iran promises that if it suffers intolerable sanctions or a direct attack on its nuclear weapons program, it will close Hormuz, choking off 35% of the world's oil traded by sea. The U.S. Navy vows to keep the vital waterway open. What, then, will happen if all of the mullahs' naval, land and air weaponry is thrown against our fleet in the Gulf? We've known the answer for 11 years. Read more ..


Broken Government

The Hagel Filibuster and its Political Implications

February 15th 2013

Chuck Hagel

I’m late to the conversation about whether or not Republican efforts to insist on sixty votes for cloture on Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense constitutes a filibuster. Bernstein’s earlier piece ("This is what a filibuster looks like") and Fallows’ recent contribution provide good, nuanced accounts of why Republican tactics amount to a filibuster, even if some GOP senators insist otherwise. In short, the duck test applies: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then …. it’s a filibuster!

Still, I think there’s more to be said about the politics and implications of the Hagel nomination. A few brief thoughts:

First, let’s put to rest the debate about whether insisting on sixty votes to cut off debate on a nomination is a filibuster or, at a minimum, a threatened filibuster. It is. Even if both parties have moved over the past decade(s) to more regularly insist on sixty votes to secure passage of major (and often minor) legislative measures and confirmation of Courts of Appeals nominees, we shouldn’t be fooled by the institutionalization—and the apparent normalization—of the 60-vote Senate. Refusing to consent to a majority’s effort to take a vote means (by definition) that a minority of the Senate has flexed its parliamentary muscles to block Senate action. I think it’s fair to characterize such behavior as evidence of at least a threatened filibuster—even if senators insist that they are holding up a nomination only until their informational demands are met. Read more ..


Broken Banking

Break up the Banks

February 15th 2013

I Bailed Out a Bank

I agree with George Will about as often as the Boston Red Sox agree with the New York Yankees, but as the law of broken clocks suggests, we must both be right at least twice a day. Will has recently suggested that conservatives should consider joining the effort to “break up the banks.” As a progressive and populist I agree, and today I offer two separate proposals in the spirit of two late and great men, named Lloyd Bentsen and Jack Kemp.

First, regarding the breaking up of banks, let’s enact a capital gains tax cut for long-term investors in “too big to fail” banks whose boards and shareholders voluntarily spin off component businesses to effectively restore the Glass-Steagall separation of financial businesses.

Second, regarding the repatriation of American multinational corporate finances that are currently sitting abroad, which could bring back to America up to $2 trillion, let’s enact a tax holiday contingent on participating companies increasing their net American employment by 5 to 10 percent. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Hezbollah & Iran vs. U.S. "Containment"

February 14th 2013

Bus bombing, Bulgaria, 18 Jul 2012 out

The Bulgarians have concluded their investigation of the July 18, 2012, Burgas' bus bombing that killed five Israelis and the Bulgarian driver. They have named the instigators and participants and found Hezbollah responsible. They have done this despite pressure from Western Europe (especially Brussels) not to raise the hackles of who was responsible: namely, Hezbollah.

Interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov not only announced that at least two members of the bombing team were Hezbollah, but also that they were part of Hezbollah's military wing. ("Military wing" is an expression Western Europeans have long ago adopted to maintain the fiction that there are "civil" and "military" wings of terrorist organizations, such as the IRA, PLO and HAMAS. This has justified their negotiations with the terrorists). Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

Obama Abstract on Middle East Admits Jihadi Expansion Ignores Taliban After 2014

February 13th 2013

Obama

In his State of the Union speech of 2013, President Barack Obama addressed several crises in the Middle East and on the front of fighting terror. On Afghanistan President Obama assessed the outcome of his policies as a weakening of the Taliban and committed to a sustained withdrawal from the country while helping the Afghan Government to take the lead in military missions. The role of the US after withdrawal in 2014, according to Obama will be to assist the fight against al Qaeda. There was no mention of a fight against the Taliban after 2014. Does that mean that there will be a political engagement or even a partnership with the Taliban while pursuing combat with al Qaeda? How will that be to short of having the Taliban and al Qaeda splitting off? The Taliban is a Jihadist organization which is projected to make advances inside Afghanistan upon US and NATO withdrawal. It is to al Qaeda what bone is to flesh, cemented by ideology. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

On a Military Wing and a Prayer

February 13th 2013

Hezbollah

Bulgaria's interior minister announced on Feb. 5 the result of his country's investigation into the July 2012 bombing of a bus filled with Israeli tourists in the city of Burgas, which killed five Israelis and the vehicle's Bulgarian driver. Two of the individuals who carried out the terrorist attack, he said, "belonged to the military formation of Hezbollah."

It was not by chance that his statement fingered only the military wing of Hezbollah, not the group as a whole. Within the European Union, the findings of the Bulgarian investigation have kicked off a firestorm over whether to add the Lebanese militant organization -- in whole, or perhaps just its military or terrorist wings -- to the EU's list of banned terrorist groups. But are there in fact distinct wings within the self-styled "Party of God"?

Hezbollah is many things. It is one of the dominant political parties in Lebanon, as well as a social and religious movement catering first and foremost -- though not exclusively -- to Lebanon's Shiite community. Hezbollah is also Lebanon's largest militia, the only one to keep its weapons and rebrand its armed elements as an "Islamic resistance" in response to the terms of the 1989 Taif Accord, which ended the Lebanese Civil War. Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

Obama Reveals the Man Behind the Curtain

February 12th 2013

Obama Bowed Head

Free from the burdens of a reelection campaign, presidents who win second terms reveal themselves when they come to Congress to give their fifth State of the Union address. They can’t say the same thing that they just said in their inaugural address, because that would be really boring (not that most States of the Union aren’t boring. They are.).

George W. Bush revealed himself to be a confident gambler who decided to bet all of his chips on Social Security reform. Bill Clinton revealed himself to be a careful centrist, looking to achieve a detailed checklist of things that polled well in focus groups. Ronald Reagan revealed himself to be a poetic philosopher. Dwight Eisenhower revealed himself to be technocratic moralist, worried about corporate profiteers who might unnecessarily push up inflation.

Barack Obama will reveal himself to be a poll-tested populist progressive. He is not a careful pragmatist. He is not trying to find the vital center. Nor is he is trying to bring the country together, to find common ground between red and blue states. It is said that Obama will turn his attention again to jobs and the economy. This is the sixth time he has pivoted to jobs and the economy in the five years he has been president. He will do this not long after he decided to terminate his Jobs Council, a group of business leaders with whom Obama rarely met over the life of its tenure. Read more ..


The New Egypt

Why Obama Should Postpone Giving Advanced Weapons to Egypt

February 12th 2013

Morsi

They were celebrating in Cairo the arrival of four new U.S. F-16s and the likelihood that the United States would give $2 billion in aid to Egypt this year. Yet given the ongoing violence in Egypt and the Islamist regime’s declaration of a state of emergency in three governates—a policy it and other opposition groups always rejected under the previous government—it is reasonable for the United States to postpone military gifts of F16s, advanced tanks, and other weapons to Cairo.

Regarding the state of emergency—and the state of democracy in Egypt–Mohamed Al-Kholi, a member of the upper house of Egypt’s parliament that approved the proposal, tweeted, “It is clear the Islamist-dominated council rejects listening to any kind of opposition and that it is just interested in rubber-stamping Morsi’s authoritarian measures.” Emad Gad, a political analyst for the state-controlled al-Ahram newspaper, warned, “The mobilization of [the] Shura Council [upper house of parliament] to endorse Morsi’s authoritarian measures offers renewed proof that the council exists solely to rubber-stamp Morsi’s decrees and promote the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood.” That was especially brave, by the way, since Gad knows the Muslim Brotherhood will soon be choosing his new boss. Read more ..


Islam On Edge

Arab Moderation Murdered: The Meaning of an Assassination in Tunisia

February 11th 2013

Chokri Belaid

And if the good men are murdered by the forces of political evil than they certainly cannot do anything. Hence, the outcome is assured. Thus, the “Arab Spring” has just been murdered with bullets and hijacked amid bloodstains. Here is the list of countries in the Middle East area currently ruled by Islamists: Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Iran, Lebanon, and Turkey. Syria will probably join them soon. Qatar has a pro-Islamist policy. Morocco technically has an Islamist government though the king neutralizes it in practice. Saudi Arabia is ruled by a strict Islamic regime but opposes the revolutionary Islamists though its money often spreads their doctrines elsewhere. Everyone is being forced into Sunni or Shia Islamist camps, backing radical forces in other countries so that their religious allegiance can conquer.

In this situation, only in Tunisia could the non-Islamists win fairly conducted elections. But an election isn’t fair if one side uses violence to ensure its victory and its ability to transform the country into a social-political dictatorship afterward. I know that whenever I write an article on Tunisia it will have fewer readers than other topics. That’s understandable from the standpoint that Tunisia is a small country with little international impact and limited U.S. interests. Read more ..


Taxing America

The Affordable Care Act and its Tax Support that You Almost Forgot About

February 10th 2013

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has a lot to do with tax policy, and the new taxes it created are starting to add up. A 2.3 percent medical device excise tax will raise $1.7 billion in revenues this year, while the new unearned income Medicare contribution tax on high-income savers will raise $20.5 billion. A tax on pharmaceuticals that took effect in 2011 will also raise $2.9 billion this year.

One of the next ACA taxes scheduled to take effect is a health insurance tax that will hit small businesses and their employees particularly hard. The tax is officially imposed on health insurance companies, but the greatest effect will be felt by their customers because the insurance companies will pass most of the burden on through higher premiums. An analysis by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation found that the tax will raise insurance premiums on average by $350–$400 per affected family in 2016. Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

Mideast War and Peace

February 9th 2013

Obama Bibi

As President Obama prepares to visit the Middle East and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposes an Israeli government of national unity, let me suggest the United States work with leading nations to create a three-year, $1 trillion mini-Marshall Plan of aid, trade, loans and credits to become available to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and potentially others upon ratification of peace agreements between Israel and her neighbors.

In June, America will reflect on the 50th anniversary of the iconic speech by President Kennedy at American University that outlined the deadly dangers of a world plagued by the threat of nuclear extermination and offered a path to a better and safer world. Kennedy understood that it is not the job of statesmen to see the world as it is and complain but to envision the world as it can be and act. Read more ..


Edge of Terrorism

Obama, Drones, and the Imaginary World of the “War Against al-Qaeda”

February 8th 2013

The on-again, off-again debate is on again: Does the executive branch of the United States government ever have the right to assassinate American citizens without due process of law? A brave soul, who hopefully will remain nameless, has leaked an internal Justice Department “White Paper” outlining the Obama administration's reasons for answering “Yes.” A chorus of critical voices answers, just as loudly, “No.”

But most of the critics agree with the administration and its supporters on one point: The question here is about the executive’s power in wartime.

If that is indeed the question -- a big “if” -- history offers a certain kind of answer. Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt all pushed their constitutional authority to the limit during war -- and beyond the limit, critics in their own day and ever since contended. Yet the overreach of these three presidents (if overreach it was) did little to tarnish their reputations. Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

Should President Obama’s SOTU Mirror His Second Inaugural?

February 8th 2013

Obama

Former New York governor Mario Cuomo famously remarked that “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.”  His aphorism offers a concise summary of the relation between inaugural addresses and the State of the Union addresses that follow them.  Compare, for example, JFK’s soaring inaugural (“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you . . .) with his 1961 State of the Union, delivered just ten days later.  A sample sentence offers the flavor of the latter: “The overall deficit in our balance of payments increased by nearly $11 billion in the 3 years [1958-1960]—and the holders of dollars abroad converted them to gold in such a quantity as to cause a total outflow of nearly $5 billion of gold from our reserve.”  It is reasonable to expect that President Obama will execute a similar, if perhaps less abrupt, shift from the elevated poetry of his second inaugural to the more prosaic task of laying out a governing agenda for his second term. Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

State of The Union: Refocus Economic Policy and Full Employment

February 8th 2013

Obama

Much of Washington’s punditry class has already issued a collective yawn over the prospects of the State of the Union, arguing (probably correctly) that the President’s inaugural was far more inspiring and interesting than anything we are likely to hear on Tuesday night. Yet the upcoming speech provides an important and rare opportunity for the newly re-elected president. While the proximity to last month’s inaugural festivities will probably depress viewership, it is still reasonable to expect that more than 30 million Americans will tune in on February 12 to hear what their commander-in-chief has to say. The State of the Union represents one of few moments of collective popular engagement in American politics. It is all too easy for those in Washington who spend their days following the political debates to forget this critical fact.

With so many Americans tuning in to hear what he has to say, what should President Obama offer? A renewed focus on equitable economic growth and full employment as his top economic policy priority, above and beyond the deficit. Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

Just Calm Down About that DOJ White Paper

February 7th 2013

MQ-1 Predator Drone

Okay, everyone, take a deep breath. Chill out. The DOJ’s “White Paper” on targeted killing is no big deal. Really. You wouldn’t know this from reading the somewhat breathless press coverage of the document, much of which offers a reasonable reader some confusion as to what the White Paper actually is.

The more responsible reporters have been reasonably careful. Michael Isikoff’s original story for NBC News calls the document a “confidential Justice Department memo,” and a “confidential Justice Department ‘white paper.’” Isikoff goes one to say that, “Although not an official legal memo, the white paper was represented by administration officials as a policy document that closely mirrors the arguments of classified memos on targeted killings by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.” Isikoff then says, rather more tendentiously, that the document authorizes the killing of U.S. citizens who are top operational Al Qaeda figures “even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.” This latter point is, to put it mildly, a stretch. Read more ..


Broken Borders

How the Politics of Immigration Reform Have Changed

February 7th 2013

Border Patrol-Arizona

Last Fall, it would have been hard to imagine Republicans and Democrats working together to fix our broken immigration system. The country was locked in highly polarized discussions about a number of major issues and political dysfunction in Washington created little hope of action on this contentious subject.

But now we have leading Democrats and Republicans who have announced their support of a bipartisan reform package. With the Senate moving towards action, House Republicans indicating we should be open to immigrants, and President Barack Obama making immigration reform a top priority, the country appears close to taking meaningful action on this important issue. While there are many hurdles yet to overcome, it is important to note the dramatic changes in the politics of immigration reform that have unfolded in the past few months. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Dereliction of Duty

February 6th 2013

Syria fighting injured baby

One of the stories obscured by recent revelations about the breadth of devastation in the two-year-old Syrian civil war is that of the Palestinian refugees of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. Yarmouk, the largest of nine official Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, has been targeted by both the Assad regime and rebel forces - killing many and forcing the reported exodus of at least half of its 150,000 residents (according to UN estimates). As recently as January 8, fighting in and around the camp killed 5,000 of the over 60,000 people killed over the past few months.

Complicating events further, many Palestinians have allied themselves with either the Assad regime's supporters, or rebel supporters, intensifying the internecine violence within the camp itself. Divisions have tended to reflect religious and secular fault lines within the Palestinian ideological spectrum. Secular/socialist groups like the PFLP-GC align with the Assad regime (as longstanding supporters) while Ikhwan/Hamas supporters side with the rebel militias. Yet, in a telling warning, the Assad regime cautioned the Palestinians not to aid the insurgency in its fighting against the regime with the hope of maintaining their historical support. Read more ..


Broken Tax System

The Downside of States as Laboratories for Tax Reform

February 6th 2013

Tax Protest

With state finances gradually improving, some Republican governors are turning their attention to fundamental tax reform. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has proposed replacing his state’s personal and corporate income taxes with higher sales taxes. Nebraska’s Dave Heineman and North Carolina’s Pat McCrory would do the same, broadening the sales tax base and perhaps including some previously tax-exempt services.

With Washington apparently stuck in gear on taxes among other issues, it may be tempting to see the states as leading a way to reform. Unfortunately, some of the proposals currently circulating—and the idea of states as laboratories for a fundamental federal tax reform—are fundamentally flawed.

First, as my Tax Policy Center colleague Ben Harris has noted, income-sales tax swaps would be regressive—or hit low income household the hardest. This is because low income households must dedicate a greater share of their income to consumption to achieve a basic standard of living and more of their consumption tends to go toward goods (which are taxed) versus services (which are typically not). These households also often benefit from income tax rebates which presumably would be wiped out along with the tax. Read more ..



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