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The 2012 Vote

A Message To GOP Candidates: Start Invoking Hope, Not Just Fear, In US Foreign Policy

April 12th 2012

Mitt Romney expansive

Throughout the countless Republican Presidential debates this election season, candidates were often asked about the greatest threats facing America.
Depending on how each contender answered, political pundits then resorted to identifying whether that potential Republican nominee was ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ on national security. Asking candidates to identify the most urgent challenges that America faces is not inappropriate; however, it only demonstrates one side of the debate. The fear debate.

Any politician should, of course, have a grasp on America’s main foreign policy issues. But as much as he should identify the threat, he should also identify the hope when it comes to dealing with countries abroad. Particularly those countries that do not necessarily have the interests of the United States at heart. Read more ..

Religious Tolerance

Israel's Ban of Gunter Grass is Foolish and Self-Defeating

April 11th 2012

Alan Dershowitz lecture

The decision by Israel's Interior Minister to bar German writer, Gunter Grass, from entering the Jewish state is both foolish and self-defeating. Grass wrote an absurdly ignorant and perversely bigoted poem comparing Israel to Iran and declaring Israel to pose a great danger to world peace. He also warned Germany that by selling submarines to Israel, it is becoming complicit in a crime against humanity.

These wrong-headed views deserve to be rebutted on their demerits, as Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did quite effectively in his public response to Grass, by exposing his "shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran, a regime that denies the Holocaust and threatens to annihilate Israel," by pointing out that "it is Iran, not Israel, that threatens other states with annihilation," and that it is Iran who supports the Syrian regime's crackdown of its people and "stones women, hangs gays and brutally represses tens of millions of its own citizens."

Grass' poem has also been effectively critiqued by Israelis across the political and literary spectrum. That is as it should be in an open, vibrant democracy, accustomed to rancorous public debate. But a great nation, committed to freedom of expression and dissent, should not bar a critic, even a critic as bigoted as Grass, from its territory. Read more ..

Caribbean Edge

Time to End the 50-Year Embargo of Cuba

April 11th 2012

American and Cuban flags

This past February marked the 50th anniversary of Washington’s embargo against Cuba. The birthday, which went uncelebrated here and in the Caribbean, was a grim reminder of the persistence of one of Washington’s most egregious foreign policy blunders. Enacted less than a year after President Kennedy’s ill-fated attempt to unseat Fidel Castro’s fledgling communist government at the Bay of Pigs, the embargo was designed with the express purpose of ousting Castro and his fellow revolutionaries from power. Renewed on a yearly basis under the aegis of the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, the policy was last extended in September 2011 by President Obama, who stated, “I hereby determine that the continuation for 1 year of [the embargo] with respect to Cuba is in the national interest of the United States.”

But is it?

Foreign Affairs on Edge

Brazil: The India of Latin America?

April 11th 2012

biblioteca nacional brasilia
Biblioteca Nacional Brasília (credit: Antonio Cruz/Agência Brasil)

In 2001, Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill famously coined the acronym “BRIC” to describe four of the world’s most populous countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China. At the time, each boasted great economic potential. Since then, China has enjoyed breakneck GDP growth while making very little progress on economic or political reform, and Russia has devolved into a petro-autocracy dangerously reliant on global oil prices. As for Brazil and India, they have reaped consistent accolades for their commitment to democracy and economic stability.

The differences between Brazil (population: 195 million) and India (home to 1.2 billion) are too numerous to count, yet the countries also share certain broad similarities. Both are rising democracies with rapidly growing middle classes. Both have a history of promoting dialogue and cooperation with developing countries. Both have a foreign policy establishment that has traditionally been somewhat hostile to the United States. Both remain reluctant to speak out for democracy and human rights abroad. Both have aroused suspicion and resentment among their smaller neighbors. Both continue to embrace protectionist economic policies.

And, of course, both are critically important to U.S. interests in their respective regions. Read more ..

China on Edge

Is China Slowing Down?

April 10th 2012

The East is Red

China’s economy is slowing down, from a reported 9.2 percent annual rate of growth at the end of last year to approximately 7 percent during the first quarter of this year. Whether China’s growth will reaccelerate later this year depends on the global growth driving Chinese exports and on Chinese government policies—especially credit policies impacting China’s housing market and fiscal measures aimed at spending on infrastructure.

The tangible signs of slowing Chinese growth include a March drop in a manufacturing index that accurately tracks overall gross domestic product (GDP) growth. The March purchasing manager’s index (PMI) estimate from HSBC Holdings was reported at 48.3 in late March, a four-month low that is down substantially from last year’s level of 52. Interestingly, in contrast to the HSBC index, the official Chinese March PMI index (which was reported at the same time as HSBC’s) rose sharply to 53.1. Most analysts attributed the rise in the official index to seasonal factors that will subsequently be reversed. The fact that most Chinese stocks were down slightly after HSBC’s PMI index was announced suggests that the official PMI figure is not being taken at face value. Read more ..

Religious Tolerance

TAPPS Board Can Learn from Children

April 9th 2012

Beren BBall team

The recent controversy involving a Houston Jewish high school basketball team and the Texas Association of Parochial and Private Schools, or TAPPS, has died down. But there's still some unfinished business.

The kids at Beren Academy take both their religion and their basketball seriously. How seriously? They got all the way to the state championship semifinals wearing their yarmulkes while competing.

The Beren boys were temporarily stymied when the TAPPS board brought national ridicule upon itself by unanimously voting not to allow the boys to change the semifinal game from Saturday afternoon until Saturday night in order to honor their Sabbath, even though their opponents had no problem with the switch. The players voted to forfeit the game rather than violate their religious beliefs, but some of their parents went to court. Only then did TAPPS agree to allow the game to start a few hours later than scheduled. Beren lost the game by two baskets, but they had a great season and generated a great story.


The War on Drugs

When Saying 'No' to the War on Drugs May Mean 'Yes'

April 8th 2012

Mexican Drug Police2
Mexican anti-narcotics police squad

Just say no? It is not only a viable statement to make; it should also be imperative when seeking alternatives for the drug-trafficking problem. Countries’ national spirits have been asphyxiated due to drug violence. In some instances, a number of towns and cities throughout northern Mexico exist under a near perpetual state of siege, with drug cartels serving as the arbiter of the rule of law. Nonetheless, as long as the demand for drugs exists, there is always a provider. For instance, in the early 1990s, the slaying of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar did not eliminate the problem.

Today, narcotrafficking is alive and well in Colombia. In addition, the yawning void Escobar left was filled by the Mexican cartels, which have become the main suppliers of illicit drugs in the hemisphere. To counter this, in 2008 the American and Mexican governments signed the Merida Initiative, a plan that would provide Mexico with predictable amounts of economic and military assistance.  Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Campaigns Are Up for The Highest Bidder

April 8th 2012

Bundles of Cash

Our elections should be a marketplace of ideas. Instead, they increasingly look like an auction that rewards the highest bidder. The damaging influence of money on our campaigns dates back decades, but the Supreme Court opened up the floodgates with its woefully misguided Citizens United v. FEC decision. Powerful special interests and corporations now enjoy the same free-speech protections as individual Americans.

The result? Huge sums of unregulated, unaccountable money by super-PACs are flooding the airwaves. An endless wave of attack ads, paid for by billionaires hovering in dark corners, is poisoning our political discourse. The American public, rightly so, looks on in dismay and disgust. As this election year unfolds, the checkbooks are out and the money is gushing. And too often we don’t even know whose hand is on the faucet. Today, a corporation can push “dark money” into a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization anonymously. And then the 501(c)(4) slips the money into a super-PAC to run campaign ads.

In any world other than the shadowy world of campaign finance, that would be called money laundering. And yet, so far in the 2012 primaries, about 40 percent of TV ads — worth more than $24 million— are funded by nonprofit groups that don’t reveal their contributors. Read more ..

The Obama Edge

Obama Economy Leaves Little Changed

April 7th 2012

Click to select Image

America is at a crossroads. Today’s jobs report shows that two years into recovery the U.S. economy is still woefully underperforming, adding only 120,000 new jobs in March, about half the rate of job growth of the previous three months which were, themselves, somewhat disappointing for this stage of recovery. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the jobs report is the extent to which the labor market was “little changed,” an impression the report returns to repeatedly. For example, the unemployment rate at 8.2 percent, still two full percentage points higher than the peak during the 2001 recession, was “little changed.” Other examples, with italics added:

The number of unemployed persons (12.7 million) was “little changed in March.”

“Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rate for adult men (7.6 percent), adult women (7.4 percent), teenagers (25.0 percent), whites (7.3 percent), blacks (14.0 percent), and Hispanics (10.3 percent) showed little or no change.” Read more ..

Edge of Rare Earth

Dangerous Dependence: US Beholden to Imported Raw Material

April 6th 2012

Rare Earth Minerals
A collection of rare earth minerals

Despite China's emergence as an economic power and all the talk about how America has become a service economy, U.S. manufacturing is alive and well.

Judging by impressive gains in productivity and America's high-tech advantage, manufacturing in the United States has shown surprising resiliency. While the nation's overall economy grew only 1.7 percent last year, the manufacturing sector of U.S. industrial production increased at almost three times that rate, rising 4.7 percent. And manufacturing output in the Midwest rose by a robust 8.4 percent last year, indicating that America's manufacturing heartland is leading the industrial comeback.

But there is a fly in the ointment.In recent years, the United States has become dangerously dependent on imports of raw materials that are needed to keep our economy moving. U.S. manufacturers are now more than 40 percent dependent on imports of many commodity and rare earth metals. For example, import reliance on gallium is at 94 percent, cobalt and titanium 81 percent, chromium 56 percent, silicon 44 percent and nickel 43 percent. These minerals are critical for defense and energy technologies and many high-tech consumer products. Read more ..

Inside Israel

Israel's Resilient Democracy: Flawed, yet True

April 6th 2012

Michael Oren
Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren

At 64, Israel is older than more than half of the democracies in the world. The Jewish state, moreover, belongs to a tiny group of countries -- the United States, Britain, and Canada among them -- never to have suffered intervals of non-democratic governance. Since its inception, Israel has been threatened ceaselessly with destruction. Yet it never once succumbed to the wartime pressures that often crush democracies.

On the contrary, conflict has only tempered an Israeli democracy that affords equal rights even to those Arabs and Jews who deny the state's legitimacy. Is there another democracy that would uphold the immunity of legislators who praise the terrorists sworn to destroy it? Where else could more than 5 percent of the population -- the equivalent of 15 million Americans -- rally in protest without incident and be protected by the police. And which country could rival the commitment to the rule of law displayed by the Jewish state, whose former president was convicted and jailed for sexual offenses by three Supreme Court justices -- two women and an Arab? Israeli democracy, according to pollster Khalil Shikaki, topped the United States as the most admired government in the world -- by the Palestinians.

These facts are incontestable, and yet recent media reports suggest that democracy in Israel is endangered. The Washington Post was "shock[ed] to see Israel's democratic government propose measures that could silence its own critics" after several Israeli ministers proposed limiting contributions to political NGOs by foreign governments. Citing "sickening reports of ultra-Orthodox men spitting on school girls whose attire they consider insufficiently demure, and demanding that women sit at the back of public buses," New Yorker editor David Remnick warned that the dream of a democratic, Jewish state "may be painfully, even fatally, deferred." In response to legislation sanctioning civil suits against those who boycott Israelis living in the West Bank, the New York Times concluded that "Israel's reputation as a vibrant democracy has been seriously tarnished." Read more ..

Edge of Reality

Jews Must Pass Over their Search for World Approval

April 5th 2012

Tom Lehrer
Tom Lehrer

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,

And the Catholics hate the Protestants,

And the Hindus hate the Moslems,

And everybody hates the Jews.

More apt lyrics have yet to be found on the matter than these which comedian, mathematician and lecturer Tom Lehrer wrote in his satirical "National Brotherhood Week" in 1965.

That was before the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, before Israel was attacked from all sides by its peace-seeking neighbors, and before Israel seized the land near its borders to protect its population and keep her enemies even further away from its larger cities.

Even though Lehrer was being sardonic, his “joke” is only funny because it rings with some truth. Comedy is often inspired by the truths that we have a harder time coping with on a serious level.  Lehrer knew something back then that so many fail to recognize today, and it is that intentional disregard for the facts that help some Jews cope with their guilt for being who they are; it helps the cause of those who would see Israel fall. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

The Free Syrian Army vs. the Syrian National Council -- Which Should We Support?

April 5th 2012

Syrian uprising

A year into the Syrian uprising against Bashar Al-Assad, the dysfunctional nature of Syrian opposition politics isn't exactly news. But the resignation last month of Syrian dissident Kamal Labwani fro2012m the Syrian National Council (SNC) -- which he accused not only of being "undemocratic" and incompetent, but intent on undermining the secular basis of the revolution -- is an especially troubling indictment of the opposition's hapless government in exile. The Obama administration should heed Labwani's testimony, and reassess its diplomacy accordingly. Indeed, taking a cue from Labwani's experience, Washington should refocus its attention away from the SNC, in favor of providing more active support for the less centralized, but potentially more effective Free Syrian Army (FSA).

I can personally attest to the depth of Labwani's commitment to a free Syria. I first met him in 2005, when he was in Washington for meetings with Bush administration officials. During a meeting at the Pentagon that I attended, Labwani, a medical doctor who was a prominent member of the "Damascus Spring" reform movement in 2001, did not ask for U.S. assistance in toppling Syria's Assad regime. Instead, he spoke eloquently about the need for political reform in his country. When I asked him whether he feared being jailed on his return, he said he knew he would be arrested, but nonetheless believed it was important for U.S. officials to hear this message. As anticipated, Labwani was arrested upon his arrival in Damascus, and subsequently sentenced to twelve years of hard labor. He had spent five years in prison when he was released early last November, eight months after the start of the current uprising against the Assad regime. Read more ..

International Justice

Peace Must Not Be the Victim of International Justice

April 4th 2012

International Court The Hague

An African proverb states, “Peace is costly but it is worth the expense.” This week the International Criminal Court delivered its first guilty verdict in its nearly 10-year existence, with the conviction of the warlord Thomas Lubanga for the coercion of children as soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The court to date has spent around $1 billion. Justice has been done, but there is no peace in that country.

The court’s success as a vehicle for delivering justice continues to be debated. The I.C.C. was founded amid much fanfare, but its track record — with only this single conviction — has been poor. Arguably, the cases before it are complex, and it was always going to take time for a new institution to complete them.

But this misses the point. The I.C.C. was intended as an instrument for delivering peace. In this respect it has not been a success. It will continue to falter because its current methods go against the experience of many places in Africa and around the world where peace has been delivered through political negotiations and reconciliation efforts, not the imposition of international justice. Read more ..

America and Palestine

U.S. Complicit with Palestinian Authority Budgeting Mischief

April 3rd 2012

Palestinian Finance

The Palestinian Authority is crying poverty again, complaining about a decrease in expected levels of foreign aid that will force Palestinians into penury or — heaven forbid — tax increases. The Palestinian public is in no mood for that, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

In a recent poll, 48% of the respondents rejected solving Palestinian fiscal problems by increasing taxes or by forcing the early retirement of public sector employees. Asked what they would do, 27% would dissolve the PA itself and 52% would enter negotiations with Israel "in order to obtain greater international financial support." The poll notes, however, that half of those choosing negotiations would do so only if Israel agreed first to a settlement freeze and the 1967 borders.

The PA is unlikely to dissolve itself and Israel is unlikely to acquiesce. So a look at the phantasmagorical system of Palestinian budget building — and American complicity — is in order. Read more ..

Religious Tolerance

One Academic’s Breathtakingly Dishonest Attack on Israel’s Press Freedoms

April 3rd 2012

U of Maine

It’s easy to find examples of anti-Israel partisans, having run out of actual Israeli imperfections over which to obsess, literally inventing Israeli behavior to condemn. Last January, U.K. diplomats attacked Israel over an East Jerusalem construction announcement that they made up. The most generous interpretation is that they made a genuine albeit revelatory mistake: already suspecting the worst about Israel, they had their suspicions confirmed.

This week’s example of anti-Israel partisanship in search of a pretext doesn’t have that excuse. University of Maine journalism professor Justin D. Martin posted an article in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) asserting that it “is a powerful statement” to note that Israel is second only to Eritrea in “per capita” jailed reporters. He defined “per capita” as the number of imprisoned journalists per the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), divided by a country’s size in millions (for Israel, 4 divided by 7). The attack collapses so quickly, and is such a transparent hatchet job, that it raises legitimate questions of intellectual and academic integrity. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

"Targeted Assassination" by the U.S. Security Establishment?

April 3rd 2012

Israeli Jet

When President Obama wants to impress Jewish audiences, such as AIPAC, he frequently casts U.S.-Israel relations in a military context. How much military aid Israel receives (although he had nothing to do with the level; President Bush set the level in a 10-year deal), how many exercises the two militaries do together (the last one was canceled; previous ones were on a regular multi-year schedule); provision of the X-Band radar to Israel (done single-handedly by now-Sen. Mark Kirk during the Bush Administration) and missile defense cooperation (for which the Administration has reduced its financial request for 2013). Intelligence cooperation is assumed. "I've got Israel's back," he says.

But how good is the Obama administration on security for Israel? And how does that impact upon American security interests in the Middle East and Southwest Asia? There have been a series of media reports recently suggesting that intelligence cooperation has been reduced, in part because of a "trust gap" that developed when Israel became concerned that the U.S. did not share Israel's sense of urgency on Iran. A visit to Israel by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Donilon's subsequent report to Capitol Hill did not help. Testimony by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called Israel's strategic security choices "imprudent" – a line repeated and expanded upon by other American military officers, both active and retired. Read more ..

Israel and America

Should Israel be American Jewry’s Football Team?

April 3rd 2012

Cheering for Israel

We get excited over our sports teams, don’t we? We go to games and scalp tickets to get great seats. We buy hot dogs, peanuts and beer, and spend ridiculous amounts at the stadiums. We wear the jerseys; hang the pennants on our walls, and get custom license plates to demonstrate our pride. We call in to radio shows or write in blogs opining over a player’s action or a referee’s call. We are loud, boisterous and passionate.

There is little we won’t do, and few expenses we won’t incur. Yet that is all we do, because we have no real say in how a team is managed, or which players are traded. Team owners and coaches may hear or read our opinions, but they make their own choices.

For many Jews and Christian Zionists in America, Israel is the team we love. We rush to visit, bring planeloads of people, like a busload of children arriving at Yankee Stadium; if they’re from an influential school, they may even step onto the field to shake Derek Jeter’s hand. Zion-seekers with the right organization might get to the Knesset floor or be welcomed at the home of Israel’s president. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

The Steve Jobs Legacy

April 2nd 2012

Click to select Image

The legacy of Steve Jobs appears to be following the inevitable adoption arc from bleeding edge to Successories; today’s WSJ describes managers’ often excruciating attempts to channel their inner Steve Jobs, and apply his management secrets to their parochial situations.
As the authors note, “Mimicking Mr. Jobs’s keynote style and adopting catch phrases like ‘one more thing’—the words Mr. Jobs often used to introduce products—may make bosses think they’re operating more like the genius himself. But it has provoked plenty of eye-rolling among staffers.”
This isn’t new, of course; in consulting, an innovation deck wasn’t complete without the obligatory references to Apple and Google.  It’s also very common within companies for advocates of ideas (occasionally profound, more often not) to invoke Jobs, especially when presented with contradictory information.  Common response: “Well, as Steve Jobs said, ‘customers don’t always know what they want.’”

Perhaps the most awkward example I’ve seen – albeit involving Apple rather than Jobs directly – was an academic speaker at an innovation conference pointedly emphasize his use of an Apple laptop “like most of the other creatives in this room.”  So uncomfortable.  So bad, in the Paul Fussell sense of the term.
The obvious problem here, of course, is that while adding “in bed” may make bland comments amusing, adding “like Steve Jobs” certainly doesn’t make dumb ideas interesting – or executable.
I suspect this trend is likely to be self-limited, however, given that the misappropriation is generally as painful as it is evident. Read more ..

Obama and Israel

Obama's Cut to Israeli Missile Defense Aid Reflects Larger Policy

April 2nd 2012

Obama and Israel

Why is the Obama administration cutting funding to Israeli missile defense just as talk of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is reaching a crescendo?

As it did last year, Congress, frustrated with the administration's reduced request, has already moved to supplement the funding. Reps. Howard Berman,D-Calif., and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,R-Fla., have introduced the bipartisan Iron Dome Support Act, which would provide funding, as of yet unspecified, for more Iron Dome systems, which the administration's budget had zeroed out. Only now that Congress has moved to boost support for Iron Dome has the Pentagon followed behind and responded with a funding request of its own. Far from seeking to cow Israel into political concessions, however, the president's budget merely reflects his disenchantment with missile defense. Israeli missile defense is merely a pawn in his greater budgetary chess game. Read more ..

Immigration Reform on Edge

Immigration Detention is No “Holiday”

April 1st 2012

detention facility interior

In his recent op-ed, “Alleged illegal and criminal immigrants should not be taxpayer-supported guests,” Rep. Lamar Smith gets several things wrong. While attacking the newest detention facility opened by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Rep. Smith complains that the facility’s cost was “[over] $30 million taxpayer dollars.”

To quote Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Rep. Smith’s claim is completely false. The $32 million facility was built at the expense of the Geo Group, Inc., a private prison company that no doubt expects to make a profit on the venture. The facility, with grim bunk beds eight to a room and prison-like walls is far from plush.The actual cost to taxpayers of holding detainees at this facility is about half as much, on average, as at other facilities. The truth is this facility actually saves taxpayer dollars.

Rep. Smith has been wrong on this point before. At Wednesday’s Immigration Subcommittee detention standards hearing derisively titled, “Holiday on ICE,” Rep. Smith made this claim even though his own witness testified correctly that taxpayers did not fund the construction. Read more ..

Inside America

A Plea For Beauty: A Manifesto For A New Urbanism

April 1st 2012

Baltimore Corner

In a free market, prices are reliable signals of the scarcity of products, goods flow from those who do not want them to those who do, and order arises by an “invisible hand” from the free dealings of the many participants. That these facts are all common knowledge does not detract from their truth.

Not surprisingly, conservatives tend to look to markets as proof that effective social order can exist without the state and that freedom and order are not opposites but two sides of the same coin. When it comes to the difficult problems faced by our ever-growing societies, conservatives tend to favor market solutions. This is especially true of conservatives in America, who have inherited the American spirit of enterprise and self-reliance and refuse to be dictated to by people who have not proven their right to take charge. Confronted by problems like environmental degradation, educational decline, health care inefficiencies, or crime, American conservatives’ first response is to look to the free actions of individuals rather than to the state for a solution. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Appeal helps Obama

March 31st 2012

Barack Obama

Irony alert — President Obama gets a boost no matter what the Supreme Court decides on his politically toxic healthcare reform law.

The high court either upholds Obama’s signature domestic accomplishment, imprinting it for history, or it overturns the law, thereby breaking a big stick with which the GOP planned to beat Obama this fall. Should front-runner Mitt Romney become the GOP nominee, what’s left of the stick would more likely resemble a Q-Tip.

Although a final ruling is nearly four months away, oral arguments at the Supreme Court on Tuesday called into question the constitutionality of a mandate to purchase insurance. But recall that four years ago, then-Sen. Barack Obama opposed a mandate for the purchase of healthcare insurance when he was running against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Four years ago, Romney, on the other hand, admitted his support for mandates.

Obama ultimately changed his mind, and followed the example then-Gov. Romney had set when he signed healthcare reform into law in Massachusetts in 2006. Both men concluded that conservative think tank Heritage Foundation was correct decades ago in deciding there was no way, without a mandate to buy coverage, to control prices or to protect the taxpayer from uninsured free riders who leech off the government every time they go to the emergency room. Read more ..

Venezuela on Edge

Golden Boy Could Put Abrupt Stop to Chavez’s Winning Streak

March 31st 2012

Henrique Capriles Radonski

In February, a lively contender emerged with an unanticipated and unprecedented confidence in his ability to go hand to hand with Venezuela’s longtime president Hugo Chávez. Henrique Capriles Radonski, the governor of the Miranda state seeks to defeat Chávez in the upcoming October presidential election. The recent commotion and continuous media coverage surrounding the upcoming Presidential election has incited interest among the more politically conscious Venezuelan people, who have grown accustomed to Chávez’s seemingly perpetual reign and eternal blusters. Capriles’s oppositional primary victory in February has given him riveting momentum in taking on the daunting task of wrapping up Hugo Chávez’s 13-year rule.

The recent oppositional presidential primary attracted nearly 3 million voters, a landmark in terms of Venezuelan voter turnout. Capriles captured around 2/3 of all votes in the primary election within his party, routing Governor Pablo Perez of the Zulia state by an imposing margin. The youthful and enthusiastic Capriles has been more than willing to appear in front of a media hungry for an anti-Chávez spin.

Capriles has been packaged as a youthful and worthy alternative to Hugo Chávez, who has made the public slowly aware of the true nature of his fragile physical state. Though Chávez has augmented his public appearances following his short-lived convalescence, there still exists a lingering uncertainty regarding the stability of his health. Apparently, Chávez’s battle with cancer is far from over. Read more ..

Edge on Afghanistan

How America Can Learn from the Case of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales

March 31st 2012

Staff Sgt Robert Bales
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, U.S. Army

It was only a matter of time until the tragic incident attributed to Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales occurred. That doesn’t dismiss or excuse it, just acknowledges the consequences of more than 10 years of hard combat. Forty years ago, the trial over the events at My Lai startled the country as the Vietnam War was winding down. It fed even more anti-war sentiment. In this case, the conduct of a soldier on the ground has the capacity to unravel the end game for Afghanistan. Stepping aside from the impending trial and personal tragedy, Bales and his actions focus attention on lessons to be learned for the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) coming out of the longest engagement ever in its history, not withstanding its higher quality and tremendous capability.

Once again, the nation faces tough choices in sustaining and rebuilding a strong military in the midst of a weak economy and huge deficits. The Army is projected to downsize from a high of 570,000 to 490,000 troops and must still be ready to meet unpredictable and growing threats to national security. Its equipment and resources are worn and need repair and modernization. The food fight has commenced in the halls of the Pentagon and Congress over investing in weapons or personnel. But limited funding might not allow for both equipping the military and refitting its warriors. Historically, personnel requirements have been subordinated to lobbying for bigger and better weapons systems. Read more ..

The Iranian Threat

Iran Must Be Stopped

March 30th 2012

ahmadinejad and zion

Recent advances in Iran’s nuclear weapons  program show that  events  are  moving extraordinarily swiftly, as Tehran nears  the end  of its decades-long quest  to possess  a lethal  WMD capability.

One  thing  is certain: If Iran  succeeds, the Middle  East  – and  the world – will be far more dangerous  and  unstable, with  substantially  increased prospects for further nuclear  proliferation. That is why we are facing difficult, risky, and uncertain decisions. Iran has pursued nuclear weapons since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 overthrew the shah, replacing the monarchy with an authoritarian, theocratic regime. The mullahs placed the nuclear program (camouflaged as a “civil nuclear power” project) under the increasingly powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps  (IRGC),  a force independent of lran’s regular army, devoted  passionately to preserving the revolution. Read more ..

America and Israel

AIPAC at the Pinnacle of Success

March 30th 2012


The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a uniquely American organization supported by the majority of American Jews, is the most important global Jewish association engaged in Israel advocacy.

Jews on the far left, like those associated with J Street, an organization created with the sole objective of discrediting AIPAC, seek to besmirch it. They accuse its leaders of being partisan right wing extremists out of synch with the attitudes of the majority of American Jews. On Sunday, Amos Oz the talented Israeli author whose political sophistication regrettably does not match his literary talent, told the J Street Conference: “I have been waiting for you all my adult life” and condemned AIPAC for being “militant”, “extremist” and “hawkish”.

Other detractors, highlighted by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their book Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, accuse AIPAC of imposing “a stranglehold on US Congress” and distorting American foreign policy.

Israeli fringe groups also try to demonize the organization which is committed to their security and wellbeing. Former Meretz Minister Yossi Sarid recently remarked pathetically that “AIPAC is a hostile organization: Those Jews are endangering our lives here, now more than ever. If only they would leave us alone, if only they would stick to their own affairs and release us from the punishment of their support…Why do you insist on being portrayed as the ones who are pushing your country into another war? Why are you doing this to yourselves? …Is it right for you to once again reawaken the question of dual loyalty?” Most Israelis would dismiss such remarks as demented ravings. Read more ..

The Obama Edge

Obama's 'Space' for Russia

March 30th 2012

Barack Obama in Thought

The sound bite went viral -- the president of the United States asking the Russian president to carry a message to Putin for "space" in dealing with contentious missile defense issues until after the election so the American president would have "more flexibility." The photos went viral as well: President Obama's hand on Medvedev's knee, the smiling president with his arm around Medvedev's shoulder, the two of them sipping tea.

It is bad, of course, on many levels, but historically consistent. The president is notoriously hostile to missile defense, as are the Russians. The Russians are particularly hostile to U.S. missile defenses, which they believe threaten their offensive missile programs, such as those planned by NATO for Europe during the Bush administration. In September 2009, Mr. Obama introduced his Russian "reset" in a speech at Moscow's New Economic School by adopting Russia's greatest concern as a point of bilateral agreement.

"America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia ... on the fundamental issues that will shape this century, Americans and Russians share common interests that form a basis for co-operation," he said. Including, it seems, cooperation on Iran, which the Russians had assisted with (allegedly peaceful) nuclear technology at Bushehr. The President promised, "If the threat from Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile program is eliminated, the driving force for missile defense in Europe will be eliminated." Something the U.S. wanted for something Russia wanted -- but at whose expense? It didn't take long to find out. Read more ..

Israel and Palestine

Where 8,000 Rocket Launches Are Not a Casus Belli

March 29th 2012

Iron Dome

The most chilling comment I’ve seen on the mid-March surge of violence from Gaza, when terrorists fired 300 rockets at Israel in four days, was made almost three weeks earlier. The rocket fire had been steadily increasing, indicating that the deterrent effect of Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza was fading, and Israel Defense Forces officers were discussing whether another large-scale operation in Gaza was needed. “The debate within the IDF,” the Jerusalem Post reported, “is whether it needs to wait for a successful attack by Gaza terrorists—be it a rocket attack that causes casualties or a successful cross border attack—or if the sporadic rocket fire is enough of a justification to launch an operation today.” Israel has allowed the world to think rocket fire from Gaza isn’t so terrible. Undoing that misperception is a crucial first step toward taking effective action to protect its population.

Think about that: Palestinian terrorists have fired more than 8,000 rockets at Israel since its mid-2005 pullout from Gaza, along with thousands of mortar shells; even in 2011, a “quiet” year, there were 680 rocket and mortar launches, almost two a day.

A million residents of Israel’s south live in permanent fear, punctuated every few months by more intensive bouts of violence that, like the one in mid-March, close schools for days and empty workplaces of parents, who must stay home with their kids. In Sderot, the town closest to Gaza, an incredible 45 percent of children under six have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, as have 41 percent of mothers and 33 percent of fathers; these statistics will presumably be replicated elsewhere as the rockets’ increasing range brings ever more locales under regular fire. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Kofi Annan's Plan Is Destined to Fail

March 28th 2012

Syria protests Apr 2011

President Bashar al-Assad has agreed to U.N. envoy and former Secretary-General Kofi Annan's six-point plan to end the bloodshed in Syria. Al-Assad was wise to do so. The U.N. initiative, which endorses al-Assad's oversight of a "political process to address the legitimate aspirations" of the Syrian people, is a boon to the dictator and a setback for the opposition.

Al-Assad had little to lose by signing on to the plan. The concessions he made in the deal -- the ceasefire, the ensuring of humanitarian assistance, a release of political prisoners, allowing entry to journalists, and permitting demonstrations -- can all be reversed relatively quickly.

Meanwhile, the benefits for al-Assad are significant. Notwithstanding the fact that the regime has killed nearly 10,000 Syrian citizens, some U.N. member states will likely view the president's acceptance of the plan as a positive step providing evidence of the regime's new willingness to compromise with the opposition. More importantly, Annan's plan says nothing about al-Assad having to leave, much less face trial for crimes against humanity. To wit, when queried on March 27 about whether al-Assad would step down, Annan said "it's up to the Syrian people." Read more ..

Religious Tolerance

Lessons of the Beren Accommodation

March 28th 2012

Beren BBall team

On the morning of February 28, Alyza Lewin of the law firm Lewin & Lewin, invited me to participate in a conference call to discuss the controversy involving the basketball team of the Robert M. Beren Academy, an Orthodox Jewish School in Houston. Alyza and her father, constitutional lawyer Nathan Lewin, had been informed the preceding evening by Etan Mirwis, whose son is the Beren team captain, that Beren was on the verge of forfeiting eligibility for a Texas state championship slotted to be played over the upcoming Shabbat.

In 2009, I had enlisted the Lewins’ help to secure a scheduling accommodation for members of the mock trial team at the Maimonides School of Brookline, Mass. to participate in the National High School Mock Trial Championship. The Beren situation would mirror the Maimonides experience in many ways, with the Lewins ultimately instituting legal action that enabled the Beren basketball players to be accommodated.

Many are proud that Beren competed, but the school publicly declared opposition to the legal action. In 2009, Maimonides was also against a legal challenge. In other words, both schools thought it inappropriate to pursue a forceful response, preferring only to make respectful requests. Both schools recognized that, without the legal option, the students would not participate because the associations administering the competitions would not alter schedules—even minimally—unless ordered to do so. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Whitfield Stands Up to EPA for Lower Gas Prices

March 27th 2012

Oil Barrels 400px

Congressman Ed Whitfield (R–KY) released legislation yesterday that would force the Obama Administration to reveal how its environmental regulations impact gasoline prices.

Specifically, the Gasoline Regulations Act of 2012 would create a Transportation Fuels Regulatory Committee consisting of officials from the Departments of Energy, Transportation, Commerce, Labor, and Treasury, plus representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the International Trade Commission, and the Energy Information Agency. The purpose of the committee would be to report on the full economic impact of a series of EPA actions on gasoline prices.

Energy Accountability

The legislation requires that the final report be completed within just over six months and places a freeze on related EPA action for another 180 days after that.  By slowing the Obama regulatory juggernaut, the act gives both policymakers and the public an opportunity to fully understand the economic impact of pending regulations and adjust policy accordingly. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Not Supporting the Opposition "Within Syria" Is Supporting Assad

March 27th 2012

Syrian protests 2011

During their March 25 meeting, President Obama and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed that part of the agenda of the April 1 "Friends of Syria" summit in Istanbul will concern "nonlethal assistance" to the opposition "within Syria." This indicates that the administration is beginning to accept a "tragic truth": without much greater U.S. support for the opposition on the ground, Bashar al-Assad's regime will certainly massacre many more civilians all over Syria, and Assad himself will almost certainly remain in power for the foreseeable future.

Civil Protest and Armed Opposition

The Assad regime's bloody military crackdown in Homs and Idlib governorates has not driven people from the streets, a fact that the daily protest map continues to lay bare. But for Syria's civil protest movement to survive in the long term and consolidate its political gains, it will need to regroup tactically. Instead of relying solely on street demonstrations that make protestors vulnerable to the worst regime violence, they might wish to intensify what civil resistance experts refer to as "methods of dispersion" -- boycotts, general strikes, slowdowns, and other kinds of noncooperation -- to keep out of the line of fire and keep up political and economic pressure on the regime. Read more ..

East Asia on Edge

Kremlinology in Beijing and Pyongyang

March 26th 2012

kremlinology in beijing

Let’s face it, compared with the Arab Spring, euro-zone drama, and even the roller-coaster GOP primary season, East Asia is pretty boring. Sure, there was a flurry of excitement when Dear Leader Kim Jong Il “died” two years after probably actually dying, but hey, everything turned out for the best, what with Number Three Son, Kim Jong Un smoothly becoming the figurehead of Kim, Inc. As for China, their economic growth has lagged a bit, but no moment of doom has befallen the regime, whose decennial turnovers of power are predictably staid. For East Asian politicos, there’s not that much to grab headline attention in the world’s most economically dynamic region. Or maybe there is. Washington Asia watchers are tantalized, and some are quite worried, over recent events in both Beijing and Pyongyang that may indicate hitherto unrecognized levels of dissension and possibly tension within the secretive ruling circles of both nations.

In China, as I talk about on the homepage, one of the more colorful and controversial leaders, Bo Xilai, was fired from his job as party boss of massive Chongqing city. This almost certainly derailed his chances of becoming one of China’s “Supremes,” the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee. Read more ..

Healthcare on Edge

Setting the Record Straight on Obamacare

March 26th 2012

Obama in front of AMA

On March 23, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) into law, which reformed the health insurance industry to expand access to insurance to over 30 million Americans while lowering projected Medicare spending.

Often referred to as Obamacare, the PPACA will establish new competitive insurance marketplaces. These marketplaces will include state-run health insurance exchanges where millions of Americans and small businesses will be able to purchase affordable coverage, and have the same choices of insurance as Members of Congress. Here in Maryland, we are focusing on getting our Health Benefit Exchange ready for 2014. This open marketplace will help increase coverage while reducing costs for all Americans.

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States began hearing oral arguments on the PPACA. I want to share with you some of the benefits of this landmark legislation, while also correcting some of the incorrect statements that have been spread.

Fact: The PPACA closes the Medicare “donut hole”
Under Medicare Part D, patients were responsible for 100 percent of prescription drug costs up to $310 and 25 percent of the cost up to $2,800. After that point, you have reached the “donut hole” and are again responsible for 100 percent of prescription drug costs until reaching the yearly out-of-pocket limit of $4,550. The PPACA will change this. More than 4 million rebate checks have already been mailed to seniors who reached the “donut hole” and certain brand name drugs are available at 50 percent of their usual cost and by 2020 the “donut hole” will be completely eliminated. Read more ..

The Defense Edge

Ryan's Path to Prosperity Can be Trusted to Keep America Strong

March 26th 2012

F15 in Afghanistan

Rep. Paul Ryan calls his budget plan the “Path to Prosperity,” but it could be termed as well a “Path to Security.” In reclaiming more than $200 billion of the nearly $500 billion in military cuts made in last year’s Budget Control Act (BCA), the House Budget Committee chairman takes national security more seriously than does our commander in chief.

To be sure, these are only first steps toward undoing the damage of the Obama years. In 2009, President Obama’s first year in office—and while ramming an $800 billion “stimulus” bill through Congress—the White House directed $330 billion in defense cuts. The next year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates went looking for “efficiencies” to reinvest in priority programs; thank you, said the president, I’ll take another $100 billion from your budget. And under the 2011 BCA, Obama harvested $487 billion from the Pentagon, charging it with the full bill for cuts needed from all “security” accounts, as the law described them. So Barack Obama has racked up about $920 billion in defense cuts to date.

But the president wants more. Because the congressional “supercommittee” could not agree to the larger savings mandated in the budget control law, the president’s 2013 budget does nothing to keep the sequestration guillotine from coming down on October 1, chopping an automatic $55 billion per year out of defense budgets, allocated across each and every program. That would push the administration’s defense-cut total past $1.4 trillion. Read more ..

Healthcare on Edge

Ripple Effects of Uncompensated Medical Care

March 25th 2012

medicine and money #2

If I were trying to persuade the Supreme Court that the Affordable Care Act—“Obamacare”—should not be declared unconstitutional, I would tell the story of the woman who was the original named plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), one of the fiercest critics of the health care reform law.

The NFIB thought it had found the perfect person when one of its members, Mary Brown, a 56-year-old owner of an automobile repair shop in Panama City, Florida, volunteered to lend her name to the lawsuit.

Brown was outspoken in her belief that Congress had gone beyond what the U.S. Constitution allows when it included in the reform law a requirement that, beginning in 2014, most Americans will have to obtain health insurance or pay a fine to the IRS. She said she was uninsured and was that way by choice.

“She firmly believes that no one should have the right to tell her she has to use her own money to pay for health insurance,” Karen Harned, executive director of the NFIB legal center, said when the NFIB filed its lawsuit in 2010.

She turned out not to be such a perfect choice after all. Read more ..

The Weapon's Edge

U.S. Needs Red Lines for Arms Trade Treaty Negotiations

March 24th 2012

Damn the Koregal Valley

The final Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in February decided that, in preparation for the July 2–27 conference in New York that will finalize the ATT, U.N. member states should by March 31 submit short statements on the provisions that they believe should define any ATT.

The U.S. should use this opportunity to establish firm red lines for the July conference and to make it clear that it will reject an unacceptable ATT that originates in either the July conference or in any other venue.

The Obama Administration wants to achieve two incompatible objectives. It wants the ATT to embody what it describes as a “strong international standard.” It also wants to avoid playing the role of treaty spoiler in the hope that this will prevent the U.S. from becoming the rallying point for the nations and activist NGOs that support an ATT. But the more the Administration urges other nations to adopt export controls on arms that are comparable to the high existing U.S. standards, the more the U.S. will be perceived as the spoiler, because it will be the nation rejecting the consensus on lower standards. Read more ..

The Arab Winter in Egypt

Caught in Egypt's Political Cross-Fire

March 23rd 2012

NGO workers detained in Egypt

The Egyptian government's prosecution this winter of seven American democracy workers catalyzed a two-month crisis in American-Egyptian relations.

But after Washington threatened to withhold $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt, the standoff swiftly subsided. The presiding judge resigned from the case, travel bans on the Americans were lifted, and most of the Americans were on their way home by the beginning of March. This rapid turn of events surprised many Americans, but it shouldn't have. The prosecutions targeted the Americans, but they weren't really about them. The democracy workers had merely become pawns in a bitter domestic power struggle over Egypt's future, in which rival groups competed by appealing to anti-Americanism. For that reason, the crisis didn't change America's core interests in Egypt. But it should prompt Washington to develop a strategy for persuading the various political forces in Egypt to cooperate in pursuit of those interests rather than allowing American-sponsored efforts to become political footballs there. Read more ..

Islam's War with Christians

A Bleak Future Unveiled for Christians in Islamic Countries

March 23rd 2012

Coptic Christian prays at blood splattered wall
Egyptian prays at bloodspattered mural of a Coptic Church in Cairo

Wearing a frown that creased his unreasonably handsome features, Georg Clooney was handcuffed by police outside the gates of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, DC on March 16, during a protest against a renewed military offensive by the Khartoum regime in the border areas of newly independent South Sudan. The Hollywood actor was shepherded to a waiting patrol car along with a troupe of civil rights leaders, including several Jewish representatives, who were also detained.

The spectacle was a timely reminder that the coalition which crystallized around the genocide in Sudan's Darfur region -- in which Jewish communal organizations were heavily involved, together with assorted celebrities and civil rights groups -- has endured. South Sudan is the site of a bloody and seemingly endless conflict that has already claimed upwards of two million lives. The country now faces a new round of murder and mass displacement at the hands of its northern neighbor.

How should these latest horrors be contextualized? In a recent interview, Clooney discussed his visit to the Nuba Mountains, the inhospitable terrain that lies at the heart of the current conflict. "Religion is not an issue," he said, when asked about the causes of the war. "In the camps you will find Christians and Muslims hiding together. It is ethnic in nature." Read more ..

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