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Cracker Squire


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Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Nuclear deal with Iran gets closer as Netanyahu comes to Washington

From The Washington Post:

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be in Washington, trying to spur Congress to cut short what he considers a feeble and dangerous deal in the works over Iran’s nuclear program.
Simultaneously, as if on a split screen, Secretary of State John F. Kerry will be in Montreaux, Switzerland, trying to nail down a historic accord that could give the world a year to react if Iran were to stockpile nuclear materials for a bomb and that could wean Iran away from international pariah status.

The tension between those two competing worldviews on Iran — one judging the risks too great to take and the other finding a greater risk in walking away from a deal — has persisted for years. But it has reached an apex for a simple reason: Iran and the United States, plus its five negotiating partners, appear closer to a deal than at any time in more than a decade of talks.

GOP states revisit Obamacare as Supreme Court weighs subsidies

From The Washington Post:

Officials in several Republican states that balked at participating in President Obama’s ­health-care initiative are now revisiting the issue amid mounting panic over a possible Supreme Court decision that would revoke federal insurance subsidies for millions of Americans.

The discussions taking place in state capitals around the country are part of a flurry of planning and lobbying by officials, insurance and hospital executives, and health-care advocates to blunt the possible impact of a court ruling.

The justices hear arguments about the matter next week. If the court sides with the plaintiffs, who argue that subsidies are not allowed in the 34 states that opted against setting up their own insurance marketplaces, the ruling could spark an immediate crisis. People could see their insurance bills skyrocket and be forced to abruptly cancel their coverage.

At least six states where ­Republican leaders had previously refused to set up state marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act are now considering what steps they might take to preserve the subsidies being paid to their residents.

Efforts to hold on to the subsidies are under consideration even in South Carolina, which supported the challenge now ­before the Supreme Court. Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said in an interview that South Carolina may consider setting up a marketplace, though it is unclear how such a proposal would fare in the staunchly conservative state.

“We’re going to start in this next week working on some things statewide,” said Haley, who says she still opposes setting up an exchange.

Nine states now have bills under consideration to set up their own marketplaces, ­according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, although in some cases these efforts began before the court accepted the subsidies case.

Lobbyists for insurers, hospitals and consumer groups are alerting legislators in some states to what they call the potentially disastrous consequences if the subsidies are suddenly revoked. In Pennsylvania, for example, hospitals and insurers are trying to coax the Republican-led legislature to back a state marketplace if immediate action is needed to preserve the subsidies.

But there are enormous logistical and financial barriers to setting up a marketplace this late in the game, experts say. The states that already have their own marketplaces took several years to set up the Web sites, contract with insurance companies and establish call centers. They did so with the help of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants that are no longer available.

Lobbying is also taking place in Congress. Aetna’s chief executive, Mark T. Bertolini, for instance, is in regular contact with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on this matter, a company executive said. Aetna participates in insurance exchanges in 17 states, only one of which set up its own marketplace.

Insurers are gaming out who is going to drop coverage, and how quickly, if the subsidies dry up. The companies have begun devising strategies to hold on to these customers. Insurers that did major hiring to handle the new business created by the marketplaces are figuring out whether layoffs may be needed.

About 8.8 million Americans this year have signed up for insurance through HealthCare.gov, the enrollment Web site serving nearly three dozen states that did not set up their own marketplaces. Of those who signed up, about 87 percent qualified for subsidies, according to administration data. The subsidies were key to making coverage affordable for the vast majority of these people, cutting monthly premiums on average by nearly three-quarters, according to administration figures.

The health-care law provides subsidies to low- and middle-income families who can’t get coverage through their job, Medicaid or Medicare. To qualify, they must earn between $11,500 and $46,680 a year as individuals, or between $25,850 and $95,400 for a family of four. The subsidies are paid directly to insurers, who then apply the discount to their customers’ monthly premiums.

Plaintiffs in the case before the court contend that the law as written allows subsidies to go only to people who buy coverage in marketplaces “established by the state.” The Obama administration has countered that it is clear Congress meant for the subsidies to go to all marketplaces.

If the justices strike down the subsidies for federal marketplace states, those payments could halt as quickly as 25 days later, although the court or Congress could allow for a longer transition period.

A court decision invalidating the subsidies could undermine the market for individual insurance, said Larry Levitt, an insurance industry expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation. Rather than risk facing financial catastrophe, insurers are likely to pull out of the federal marketplace, dismantling a central piece of the health law and leaving millions without the new coverage they received under it, he said.

“I don’t think any insurer would want to stay in the market under those circumstances,” ­Levitt said. “It would be too unstable.”

But some conservative scholars have suggested that the sky will not fall. The potential consequences are so great that it will put “hydraulic pressure” on the states to act, said Thomas P. Miller, a fellow at the free-market American Enterprise Institute, who predicted that as many as 10 states would set up their own marketplaces. Congress would also be forced to step in, and Obama could be compelled to work with Republicans on a solution, some experts have said.

Republicans in Congress have sought to show they are trying to devise solutions that could salvage the assistance in some form. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, has said it is a top priority for GOP leaders to come up with a plan if the subsidies are gutted, although he declined to provide specifics. A trio of senior Republican lawmakers this month outlined their principles for a health-care plan. But five years after the health law’s enactment, the party remains divided on how to replace Obamacare.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell has said publicly that the federal government does not have a backup plan.

State governments are confronting the prospect of a public backlash if insurance prices ­skyrocket.

“Now that we have so many Ohioans enrolled, this has a significant impact on their care and what direction we’re going as a state,” said Michael Stinziano, a Democratic legislator who is ­co-sponsoring a bill in Ohio to set up a state exchange.

Among the other Republican-led states where officials are now looking at options for engaging with the ACA health-care ­program are Maine, South Dakota and Utah, as well as South Carolina. Pennsylvania’s newly minted Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has said he supports going forward with a state exchange, a shift from the position of his Republican predecessor.

Opposition to the health law remains fierce in some states. This week, a Tennessee legislator introduced a bill barring the state from setting up an exchange. In Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence (R) has said he has ruled out a state-based marketplace regardless of what the Supreme Court does and urged Congress to craft a solution that gives states more flexibility.

Conservative activists also are ramping up their efforts to stiffen the spines of states that have rejected the health-care law.

“We’re prepared for being able to educate state policymakers on the risks and costs of setting up a state exchange should they revisit this after the court decision,” said Tarren Bragdon, president of the Foundation for Government Accountability, a free-market policy organization that has already begun talking to lawmakers in eight states.

On the other side, politically powerful hospitals and insurers in states such as Pennsylvania are pressing lawmakers to establish state-based exchanges rather than risk the consequences if the subsidies vanish.

So far, these lobbyists have faced a challenge in persuading Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature. But a court decision against the subsidies “could change the dynamic” in the Pennsylvania legislature, said James Redmond, a former hospital association executive and senior adviser to the Health Policy Institute of Pittsburgh. “The big question is, ‘Where will the money come from?’ ”

Hospitals are counting on the revenue generated under Obamacare from newly insured patients who come through their doors. In the years before the health-care law was enacted, many hospitals saw their costs soar for providing care to patients without adequate insurance.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, the cost to hospitals of providing care to uninsured and underinsured patients increased from just over $670 million in 2007 to over $1 billion in 2012, an increase of about 50 percent, said Paula Bussard, chief strategy officer for the ­Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania. If the subsidies disappear, many people could lose their coverage and hospitals could see their uncompensated costs spike, she said.

The association’s representatives have been warning legislators about this possibility in ­face-to-face meetings, Bussard said.

Insurers may be in an even more difficult position. Open ­enrollment for 2015 just finished. Insurers will be completing their calculations for next year’s premiums this spring and submitting them to state insurance departments before knowing the outcome of the Supreme Court decision.

Because of this uncertainty, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, the national trade association, is working on “deep scenario analysis” to model what would happen if the subsidies are invalidated, said Brian Caveney, vice president and medical director of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina.

The insurer has hired thousands of people to staff customer service call centers, process claims and provide care management. Without sufficient revenue, the insurer would have to cut those jobs, he said.

At the same time, a court ruling striking down the payments could inundate insurers with queries and concerns from panicked customers.

“If all of a sudden consumers realize they are losing their health insurance in the middle of the year, how on earth are you supposed to explain the implications to the policyholder on very short notice?” said Russell Davis, who consults for health plans at the Advisory Board Company.

The Rocks, a/k/a The Broxton Rocks - Douglas On My Mind, February 16, 2015, Part 2

A local treasure we grew up visting often, including camping there many nights as boy scouts.  I am proud to have had in a minor role several years ago by handling the legal work for The Nature Conservacy when it acquired the Rocks.

I have a photograph of the Rocks in my office that I often ask newcomers to our community: "Do you recognize this place?"  The response is often something along the line: "Is must be from the mountains in North Georgia."  No," I reply, "that is Coffee County, Georgia."

The male in in the interview is my brother Jim, number 5 of 6 siblings.

U.S. Rethinks Plan to Retake Mosul - The U.S. military is considering a months-long campaign of airstrikes to squeeze Islamic State fighters in the Iraqi city

From The Wall Street Journal:

WASHINGTON—The U.S. military is considering a months-long campaign of airstrikes to squeeze Islamic State fighters in Mosul before inserting Iraqi ground forces to retake the city, officials said Friday.

The on-the-ground fight to retake Mosul isn’t likely to start until the fall at the earliest, after an intensified air campaign to target Islamic State leaders and cut off supply lines in and around the city, the officials said.

The emerging plan is at odds with a briefing by a U.S. military’s Central Command official in February in which he said the U.S. and Iraq were looking at starting a campaign to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, by April or May.

Afterward, Iraqi and American officials cast doubt on the likely readiness of Iraqi forces.

U.S. military officials now say they believe that Iraqi’s best military units are many months away from being in a position to successfully conduct such an operation. Those forces haven’t yet begun their training at the bases set up by American military officers in Iraq.

“When we feel that the Iraqi forces are ready to go and win decisively, we will go and advise the Iraqis to begin the operation,” a military official said.

White House Plays Down Use of Military Force Over Iran’s Nuclear Hopes - Recent comments by officials suggest shift from Obama’s previous threats

From The Wall Street Journal:

WASHINGTON—The Obama administration, seeking to strike a nuclear agreement with Tehran by late March, is significantly playing down the utility of using military force to deny Iran an atomic bomb.

Recent comments by senior U.S. officials suggest a shift in emphasis from President Barack Obama’s previous threats to use military force. Officials now are arguing that any military action would only guarantee Iran’s Islamist leaders would move to develop nuclear weapons.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Noonan: An Administration Adrift on Denial - Why won’t the president think clearly about the nature of the Islamic State?

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Great essays tell big truths. A deeply reported piece in next month’s Atlantic magazine does precisely that, and in a way devastating to the Obama administration’s thinking on ISIS.

“What ISIS Really Wants,” by contributing editor Graeme Wood, is going to change the debate. (It ought to become a book.)

Mr. Wood describes a dynamic, savage and so far successful organization whose members mean business. Their mettle should not be doubted. ISIS controls an area larger than the United Kingdom and intends to restore, and expand, the caliphate. Mr. Wood interviewed Anjem Choudary of the banned London-based Islamist group Al Muhajiroun, who characterized ISIS’ laws of war as policies of mercy, not brutality. “He told me the state has an obligation to terrorize its enemies,” Mr. Wood writes, “because doing so hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict.”

ISIS has allure: Tens of thousands of foreign Muslims are believed to have joined. The organization is clear in its objectives: “We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change . . . that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world. . . . The Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people.”

The scale of the savagery is difficult to comprehend and not precisely known. Regional social media posts “suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks.” Most, not all, of the victims are Muslims.

The West, Mr. Wood argues, has been misled “by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. . . . The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers,” drawn largely from the disaffected. “But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” Its actions reflect “a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bring about the apocalypse.”

Mr. Wood acknowledges that ISIS reflects only one, minority strain within Islam. “Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.”

He quotes Princeton’s Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on ISIS’ theology. The group’s fighters, Mr. Haykel says, “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition,” and denials of its religious nature spring from embarrassment, political correctness and an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

The Islamic State is different from al Qaeda and almost all other jihadist movements, according to Mr. Wood, “in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character.” Its spokesman has vowed: “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women.” They believe we are in the End of Days. They speak of how “the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria.” The battle will be Rome’s Waterloo. After that, a countdown to the apocalypse.

Who exactly is “Rome”? That’s unclear. Maybe Turkey, maybe any infidel army. Maybe America.

What should the West do to meet the challenge? Here Mr. Wood’s tone turns more tentative. We should help the Islamic State “self-immolate.”

Those urging America to commit tens of thousand of troops “should not be dismissed too quickly.” ISIS is, after all, an avowedly genocidal and expansionist organization, and its mystique can be damaged if it loses its grip on the territory it holds. Al Qaeda, from which ISIS is estranged and which it has eclipsed, can operate as an underground network. ISIS cannot, “because territorial authority is a requirement.”

But ISIS wants to draw America into the fight. A U.S. invasion and occupation, Mr. Wood argues, would be a propaganda victory for them, because they’ve long said the U.S. has always intended to embark on a modern-day crusade against Islam. And if a U.S. ground invasion launched and failed, it would be a disaster.

The best of bad options, Mr. Wood believes, is to “slowly bleed” ISIS through air strikes and proxy warfare. The Kurds and the Shiites cannot vanquish them, but they can “keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand.” That would make it look less like “the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammed. ” As time passed ISIS could “stagnate” and begin to sink. Word of its cruelties would spread; it could become another failed state.

But that death, as Mr. Wood notes, “is unlikely to be quick,” and any number of things could go wrong, including a dangerous rapprochement with al Qaeda.

Mr. Wood’s piece is bracing because it is fearless—he is apparently not afraid of being called a bigot or an Islamophobe. It is important because it gives people, especially political leaders, information they need to understand a phenomenon that may urgently shape U.S. foreign policy for the next 10 years.

In sorry contrast, of course, are the Obama administration’s willful delusions and dodges. They reached their height this week when State Department spokesman Marie Harf talked on MSNBC of the “root causes” that drive jihadists, such as “lack of opportunity for jobs.” She later went on CNN to explain: “Where there’s a lack of governance, you’ve had young men attracted to this terrorist cause where there aren’t other opportunities. . . . So how do you get at that root causes?” She admitted her view “might be too nuanced of an argument for some.”

Yes, it might.

It isn’t about getting a job. They have a job: waging jihad.

The president famously cannot even name the ISIS threat forthrightly, and that is a criticism not of semantics but of his thinking. ISIS isn’t the only terrorist group, he says, Christians have committed their own sins over history, what about the Crusades, don’t get on your high horse. It’s all so evasive. Each speech comes across as an attempt to make up for the previous speech’s mistakes in tone and substance. At the “violent extremism” summit this week he emphasized Islamic “legitimate grievances” and lectured America on the need for tolerance toward American Muslims.

Of extremists he said: “They say they are religious leaders—they are not religious leaders, they are terrorists.” But ISIS and its followers believe they are religious leaders, prophets who use terrorism to achieve aims they find in religious texts.

On the closing day of the summit the president said, “When people are oppressed and human rights are denied . . . when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism.” Yes, sure. But isn’t ISIS oppressing people, denying their human rights and silencing dissent?

“When peaceful democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only available answer.” Yes, sure. But the young men and women ISIS recruits from Western nations already live in peaceful democracies.

It’s not enough. They want something else. It is, ironically, disrespectful not to name what they are, and what they are about.

With Friends Like These - It’s time for an honest conversation about Saudi Arabia and the roots of Islamist terror

Joe Klein writes in TIME:

“We … see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge–or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon,” President Barack Obama recently told the National Prayer Breakfast. “We have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism.” A pretty strong statement, one would think. But it went largely unnoticed because of what the President said next: that Christians should be humble, because terrible acts–the Crusades, the Inquisition–had been committed in the name of Christ. Undoubtedly true too. My family was chased from Spain by the Christians in 1492, after Jews had lived there for centuries peacefully–if not totally free–under Muslim rule.

Assorted historical ignorami rose to challenge the President on the Crusades, including, sadly, former governor of Virginia Jim Gilmore, who accused the President of not believing “in America and the values we share.” But I’m not going to waste a column shooting ducks in a barrel. I’m more interested in another question. Why is the President willing to say all that stuff about ISIS terrorists and not call them what they actually are: Islamic radicals?

At first glance, this might seem a classic case of political correctness–which can be defined as avoiding hard truths in order to salve soft sensibilities. It’s certainly true that it is unfair to indict a global faith followed by more than 1.6 billion people, the overwhelming majority of whom consider ISIS an insane distortion of the Prophet’s teachings. “ISIS is a political movement,” says Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies and a former Obama Administration official. “It is an anticolonial movement, an attempt to separate whites from browns … Why should we be coronating ISIS and giving it the credibility it craves by calling it an ‘Islamic’ movement?”

But ISIS is, most definitely, a twisted extrapolation of a religious-political trend that gained traction in the region about a hundred years ago, after the egregious European gobbling, slicing and dicing of the Middle East. When you look at all the straight-line borders in that part of the world, you can be sure the locals didn’t draw them. Anger over the European usurpation is one thing Shi’ites and Sunnis have in common. The Iranian revolution of 1979, which imposed a brand-new form of political Shi’ism on a freewheeling country, was a reaction to the Western-imposed government of the Shah. On the Sunni side, the radical Salafist movement began in the late 19th century, also as a reaction to Western imperialism and ideas. It has become a powerful strand of thought in the Arab world.

“We have a serious internal debate in one of the world’s three great monotheisms,” says Michael Hayden, the former CIA director. “It has to be faced head on.” It is fine to call the ISIS adherents thugs and gangsters, but they are also Muslims. “Of course this is an Islamic issue,” Hayden continues. “It’s not about all Muslims or even the vast majority,” but reactionary Islamic radicalism–militant Salafism–is the source of the ongoing violence.
And the wellspring of Salafism is Saudi Arabia’s extreme, expansionist Wahhabi Islamic sect. Part of the reason Obama can’t utter the words Islamic radicals is that we have not been able to have an honest conversation about our Arabian ally. The Saudi royal family is a source of stability in the region, and under the late King Abdullah, it was a mild force for reform, especially in education. But the Saudi elites have funded not just al-Qaeda but also radical madrasahs throughout the Islamic world. They do it cleverly, privately, through “charitable” institutions. The impact has been enormous. In the 1990s, I asked Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan how her country had changed in the previous 25 years. “I used to be able to go out on the street wearing jeans” and without a headscarf, she said. I asked her why she couldn’t do that now. “The Saudis,” she replied, immediately–a reference to the Saudi-funded madrasahs that were rapidly replacing the ineffective public schools in her country. The Taliban came out of those madrasahs, just as a great many of the ISIS criminals do now.

This is not just an Obama problem. Both presidents Bush were way too close to the royal family. There is a secret section of a report by congressional intelligence committees that may relate to the Saudi role in the attacks. That section should be made public now, as an ongoing suit by the families of 9/11 victims has demanded. If we are going to continue to donate American lives to the fight–and sadly, we must, to protect our country from terrorist attacks–we need to be clear about exactly who the enemy is.

As following headline says, it is all white voters, not just getting a renewed focus winning back white Southern voters: Democrats Call for Focus on Narrative, White Voters After 2014 Losses - The party chair calls a new report "tough love"

From TIME:
The Democratic Party’s autopsy of its devastating defeat in 2014 calls for a renewed focus on the party’s message and winning back white Southern voters.

In preliminary findings unveiled Saturday at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee, a task force studied the party’s defeats in 2010 and 2014—despite its victories in the 2008 and 2012 presidential years. It called for the creation of a “National Narrative Project” to help the party develop a message that can survive in midterm election years.
“This morning we’re going to hear some tough love, and frankly we need to hear it,” said Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the DNC.
“It is strongly believed that the Democratic Party is loosely understood as a long list of policy statements and not as people with a common set of core values (fairness, equality, opportunity),” the report found. “This lack of cohesive narrative impedes the party’s ability to develop and maintain a lifelong dialogue and partnership with voters.”
The report, developed by party leaders and operatives, encourages Democrats to develop a three-cycle plan to increase representation in state legislatures for the purposes of the 2020 redistricting cycle. Republican gains in states in 2010 led to gerrymandering in their favor in the last decennial redrawing of congressional district lines, and further gains in 2014 made the Democrats’ challenge to reverse the trend all the greater.
“The Task Force recommends that the DNC—along with the Democratic family of organizations, state parties and allied organizations—create and resource a three-cycle plan that targets and wins back legislative chambers in order to prepare for redistricting efforts,” the document states.
The report also calls on the party to continue pushing for right-to-vote legislation, as well as step up efforts nationwide to recruit candidates at local and state levels to build the next generation of party leaders. Additionally, it calls on the party to continue to study why voters drop-off from presidential years to midterm elections, resulting in a more favorable playing field for the GOP, as well as ways to prevent the hemorrhaging of white voters.
“In order to win elections, the Democratic Party must reclaim voters that we’ve lost including white Southern voters,” the report states. The topic was a subject of discussion Thursday during a meeting of state party chairs, led by South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison. On Saturday, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who chaired the task force, faulted the party for having “a single-minded electoral strategy” focused on White house and said, “the Democratic Party has lost its way.”
Republicans reacted skeptically.
“The first step toward fixing a problem is admitting that you have one, but it’s clear the DNC isn’t willing to come to terms with why their party lost in historic fashion last November,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short said in a statement. “The reality is their divisive message doesn’t resonate and their liberal policies don’t work. And after years of neglect from President Obama, his chosen heir Hillary Clinton will be inheriting a cash-strapped national party teetering on the edge of complete irrelevancy.”

Friday, February 20, 2015

How Rudy Giuliani marginalized himself

Chris Cillizza writes in The Washington Post:

Here's Rudy Giuliani Wednesday night on President Obama, according to a report in Politico:

“I do not believe — and I know this is a horrible thing to say — but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

First off, a piece of advice. If you have to preface what you are planning to say with "this is a horrible thing to say," you probably shouldn't say it. Second, Giuliani's comments seems to reflect a final stage of his transformation from serious politician to guy-who-says-inflamatory-things-just-to-say-inflammatory-things. (Remember his comments about the deaths of young black men last fall?)

Let's be clear: NO politician with any sort of national ambition -- or any sort of ambition at all, really -- would say what Giuliani reportedly said about Obama. Not one. Questioning patriotism is a line that simply is not crossed at that level of politics. And there's a reason for that: Once you question whether someone "loves" this country, the possibility -- remote as it may have been before that comment -- of a civilized debate between two sides goes out the window.

But there's something even more noxious, politically speaking, going on with Giuliani's comments. It's not just the questioning of Obama's patriotism but also the suggested "otherness" of Obama that is at work here. "He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up," said Giuliani. Context matters here -- and makes matters worse for the former New York mayor.

The setting was a private dinner -- featuring Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- at a New York restaurant to a group described by Politico as "60 right-leaning business executives and conservative media types." Making the "Obama isn't really like you and me" argument in that setting plays into a corrosive racial narrative that Republicans have worked very hard to steer away from -- and smartly so -- during the Obama presidency.

So, why the hell did Giuliani say it? Most likely because he believes it. Remember that Giuliani's most formative experience as a national politician was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he was serving as New York's mayor. In the aftermath of those attacks and during the entirety of his 2008 bid for president, he was the most aggressive voice in the party for an active policy to root out the growing threat of non-state terrorists.

Since leaving the national spotlight, Giuliani appears to have become even more convinced of the rightness of such an aggressive approach in the face of the rise of the Islamic State. And, like many conservatives, Giuliani is quite clearly annoyed by Obama's unwillingness to label the threat as Islamic terrorism or, in his view, to take the necessary measures to combat it. “What country has left so many young men and women dead abroad to save other countries without taking land?," Giuliani asked, again, according to Politico. "This is not the colonial empire that somehow he has in his hand. I’ve never felt that from [Obama]."

Here's the thing: Giuliani was once a very important -- and intriguing -- player in American politics: A tough-on-crime, take-charge guy tasked with running the biggest city in the country. Now, thanks to comments like this one on Obama, he is turning into something far more run-of-the-mill in the political world: A rank partisan willing to say the most outlandish of things to get attention.

Republicans -- like Walker -- who may be courting Giuliani's support in 2016 would do well to remember the transformation of the mayor and the risks that his endorsement may now carry.

If early returns are any indication, however, they won't be heeding that advice.

"The gist of what Mayor Giuliani said -- that the president has shown himself to be completely unable to speak the truth about the nature of the threats from these ISIS terrorists -- is true," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another presidential aspirant, on Thursday. "If you are looking for someone to condemn the mayor, look elsewhere."

Will do.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

I go with the White House on this one: U.S. officials, in blunt language, say Israel is distorting reality of Iran talks

From The Washington Post:

The Obama administration on Wednesday accused the Israeli government of misleading the public over the Iran nuclear negotiations, using unusually blunt and terse language that once again highlighted the rift between the two sides.

In briefings with reporters, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki and White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested Israeli officials were not being truthful about how the United States is handling the secretive talks.

“I think it is safe to say not everything you are hearing from the Israeli government is an accurate reflection of the details of the talks,” said Psaki, who acknowledged that the State Department is withholding some details from the Israelis out of concern they will share them more broadly.

Earnest said U.S. officials routinely speak with their Israeli counterparts. But, he added, the administration “is not going to be in a position of negotiating this agreement in public, particularly when we see that there is a continued practice of cherry-picking specific pieces of information and using them out of context to distort the negotiating position of the United States.”

A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
The immediate cause of the dual rebukes is the administration’s unhappiness over Israeli leaks of some details on the nuclear talks, shared by U.S. negotiators in private conversations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials.

For days, administration officials have denied reports that they were keeping Israelis in the dark about some aspects of the negotiations. On Wednesday, Psaki acknowledged that “there’s a selective sharing of information.”

Netanyahu considers a deal being worked on with Iran an existential threat to Israel and has made clear his intention to voice his concerns during an address to Congress on March 3.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) invited the prime minister to Washington and notified the White House afterward — a breach of protocol by which a country’s leader generally contacts the White House before planning a visit.

Obama has said he will not meet with Netanyahu while he is in town, citing the coming Israeli elections and precedent whereby a U.S. president does not meet with foreign leaders close to balloting. In recent days, officials have said neither Vice President Biden nor Secretary of State John F. Kerry will be in town to meet with Netanyahu, although they have not specified where the two will be.

The United States, France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany have spent more than a year negotiating with Iran about ways to curtail its nuclear program so it cannot develop nuclear weapons — arms that Iran contends it has no desire to build. In exchange for limits and monitoring, Iran would have sanctions eased and eventually lifted.

The talks have been extended twice, and although the deadline for talks is not until June 30, Kerry has said that Iran must agree on major principles by late March if there is to be hope of reaching a deal.

Jeb Bush Calls for Expanding U.S. Influence Abroad - Former Florida governor acknowledges ‘mistakes made in Iraq’ under his brother

From The Wall Street Journal:

CHICAGO—Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, seeking to distinguish himself from his father and brother, said Wednesday the U.S. should pursue a strategy of “liberty diplomacy,” using American influence to gradually shape global affairs.

For the first time since Mr. Bush declared his interest as a Republican Party presidential candidate, he acknowledged “mistakes made in Iraq’’ under his brother, former President George W. Bush, while also lauding him for sending more U.S. troops to Iraq in 2007 to stem rising violence.

Mr. Bush also said he supported the National Security Agency’s collection of phone records, while blasting U.S. negotiations with Iran and calling for more spending to rebuild the military—positions more in line with hawkish elements of the GOP.

As a likely 2016 candidate, Mr. Bush has to navigate the legacies of his father and brother, drawing on their insight to politics and policy-making while keeping distance from their less-successful endeavors.

“I love my brother. I love my dad,” Mr. Bush said in his speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “But I’m my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences.”

One of the biggest hurdles for Mr. Bush is public unease with the Bush name and political dynasties. That vulnerability is particularly pronounced in foreign policy, given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started under his brother’s administration.

“As you might know, I’ve also been fortunate to have a father and brother who helped shape America’s foreign policy from the Oval Office,” he said. “I recognize that, as a result, my views will often be held up in comparison to theirs.”

Mr. Bush went on to define his own view as “liberty diplomacy,” what he described as a U.S. commitment to stand up for personal liberty around the world. The idea is that personal liberty brings political progress. “Time and time again we have learned that if we withdraw from the defense of liberty elsewhere,” he said, “the battle eventually comes to us, anyway.”

Democrats said the speech echoed his brother’s administration. “Jeb Bush has made it clear that if he were in charge, our brave men and women would be stationed in Iraq indefinitely,” said Mo Elleithee, of the Democratic National Committee.

Mr. Bush also called for arming the Ukrainian government in its standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin , and he drew a hard line against Islamic State, saying the U.S. needs to “tighten the noose and then take them out.”

Throughout his remarks, Mr. Bush leveled criticism at President Barack Obama , accusing the president of diminishing America’s role in the world. “The great irony of the Obama presidency is this: Someone who came to office promising greater engagement with the world has left America less influential,” he said.

The White House wouldn’t comment on the criticism.

Mr. Bush challenged the president and congressional leaders to scrap a series of mandatory budget cuts that he said threatened military strength. “Our military is not a discretionary expense,” he said. “Weakness invites war. Strength encourages peace.”

The former Florida governor also drew a hard line against Islamic State, saying the U.S. needs to “tighten the noose and then take them out.” He called for the creation of a U.S.-led alliance with Middle Eastern allies to undertake that effort and said the U.S. should show stronger support for Egypt in its effort to combat ISIS militants.

Mr. Bush didn’t limit his comments to global hot spots, highlighting the need for the U.S. to expand its influence in Central and South America, warning that the Chinese are playing a greater role in the politics and economies of these countries. He also criticized Mr. Obama for easing the economic embargo on Cuba.

On China, where Mr. Bush’s father once served as U.S. ambassador, the former governor took a more gentle approach than the last GOP White House nominee, Mitt Romney , who held the Chinese up as a top threat to American sovereignty. Mr. Bush said “we have an ongoing, deep relationship” with them and counseled to let it evolve.

The former Florida governor said more robust U.S. economic growth held the key to American influence in the world, setting a growth target of 4% as the best method to boost the middle-class, pull other Americans out of poverty and set a standard for other countries to follow.

“Growth first,” Mr. Bush declared. “Growth above all else.”

His message, balancing an assertive foreign policy with one that is also more restrained, resonated with many of the business-friendly crowd.

“Jeb showed he has the capability and the perspective to lead on day one, that he really knows these issues,” said David Orman, an Iowa businessman and prominent Republican donor who raised money for Mr. Romney.

Judge’s immigration ruling adds to Obama’s list of potential legal pitfalls

From The Washington Post:

President Obama’s new immigration program was supposed to begin accepting applications Wednesday from thousands of illegal immigrants hoping for relief from the threat of sudden deportation. Instead, the administration abruptly postponed the launch after a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked the White House initiative.

In a decision late Monday, U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen ruled that the deferred-deportation program should not move forward while a lawsuit filed by 26 states challenging it was being decided. Though Hanen did not rule on the constitutionality of Obama’s November immigration order, he said there was sufficient merit to warrant a suspension of the new program while the case goes forward. All told, Obama’s immigration actions are projected to benefit as many as 5 million immigrants, many of whom could receive work permits if they qualified.

The effects of Hanen’s procedural ruling rippled through Washington and underscored a broader challenge to the president as he seeks to solidify the legacy of his administration.

Along with the immigration action, the fate of two of Obama’s other signature initiatives — a landmark health-care law and a series of aggressive executive actions on climate change — now rests in the hands of federal judges. It is a daunting prospect for a president in the final two years of his tenure who believes he is on the path to leaving a lasting impact on in­trac­table and politically perilous issues, despite an often bitter relationship with Congress.

Now, Obama and his Republican antagonists in Congress face the uncertainty of having their disputes mediated by the third branch of government. In an appearance in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Obama said he was confident that he would prevail, telling reporters, “The law is on our side and history is on our side.”

“This is not the first time where a lower-court judge has blocked something or attempted to block something that ultimately is going to be lawful,” he added, “and I’m confident that it is well within my authority” to execute this policy.

The immigration fight will probably head next to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit after the White House vowed to quickly appeal Hanen’s ruling. In the meantime, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Tuesday that his agency would postpone plans to begin accepting applications for the new program, which would expand a 2012 program that defers deportations of immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children. (The 700,000 people who have already benefited from that program will not be affected by Hanen’s ruling.)

A second, much larger program designed to protect from deportation the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents was not scheduled to begin accepting applications until late May, and its future remains uncertain.

Democrats are bracing for another Obamacare backlash

From The Washington Post:

The Obamacare window technically just closed this weekend, but a new round of political headaches could just be beginning for the administration.

That's because it's tax season, and many Americans could soon be getting an unwelcome surprise that they owe the government a penalty for skipping health insurance coverage.

Up to 6 million Americans are expected to pay a penalty for not having coverage in 2014, according to recent Obama administration projections. The 2014 penalty for this tax season is $95, or 1 percent of family income — purposefully on the weaker side to let people adjust to this new coverage scheme. Most of the uninsured won't actually face the penalty because they'll qualify for an exemption, either related to their inability to afford coverage or some other hardship.

But it's likely that a lot of people who will have to pay don't know it yet. Despite the unpopularity of the individual mandate and the high-stakes Supreme Court case over it three years ago, there's still limited awareness of the penalty among those who could risk triggering it. Nearly half of uninsured Americans weren't aware of the penalty, and almost as many don't realize the law offers financial help to purchase coverage, according to a Harris Poll survey in the fall.

That means millions of people won't learn they'll have to pay the penalty until they file taxes this year, and at that point, it will have been too late to buy 2015 coverage since the enrollment deadline was Feb. 15. The minimum individual mandate penalty more than triples this year, rising to $325, or to 2 percent of income.

"It's the fact that if you didn't apply by Feb. 15, you have no way of escaping the penalty in 2015," said Stan Dorn, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. "It's not something that a lot of people have necessarily thought through."

To head off the potential backlash, Democratic lawmakers and groups supporting the health-care law in the past few days have urged the administration to keep the enrollment period open for people who won't figure out they owe a penalty until it's too late.

The whole point of having defined enrollment periods in the Affordable Care Act is to discourage people — who can no longer be denied coverage because of pre-existing medical condition — from waiting until they get sick to purchase coverage. Allowing that would make the individual markets less healthy financially and boost costs for those who have coverage. So the law requires an annual enrollment window, and people run the risk of facing the penalty if they don't get purchase coverage.

Dorn, who recently wrote a paper making the case for a special enrollment window for those facing the penalty, said he doesn't think a two-month extension would hurt the functioning of the insurance system. Health insurance officials, who are already starting to prepare 2016 health plans, say they want to make sure a special enrollment period — if one is approved — would be defined specifically enough so only those facing the penalty would be eligible to enroll in coverage.

The administration seems to be exploring the idea of extending the enrollment period for those dinged by the individual mandate. “You’re going to hear from us, one way or another, within the next two weeks on whether that’s something that we would do,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said Friday, according to Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, the administration and states running their own insurance marketplaces have already made some accommodations to extend the enrollment period for some. People who had already started an application on HealthCare.gov but weren't able to complete it by the Feb. 15 deadline have until this Sunday to enroll and avoid the 2015 individual mandate penalty. All but one of the 13 states (plus the District of Columbia) running their own exchanges have offered some sort of extension beyond the Feb. 15 enrollment window, according to Charles Gaba of ACAsignups.net.

The most generous of these extensions comes from Washington state, which created a two-month special enrollment period for people facing the penalty. "This is the first year that residents may incur a tax penalty for not having health insurance under the Affordable Care Act," Richard Onizuka, chief executive of the Washington exchange, explained in a statement.

At the same time, Obamacare advocates have also been pushing the administration to schedule future enrollment periods to better coincide with tax season instead of the holiday season. They argue consumers will have more disposable income when they get a tax return, and the threat of the individual mandate penalty could spur more healthy people to sign up for coverage instead of paying the fine. The administration, however, has indicated that future ACA enrollment periods will likely run from October to mid-December.

What will Jeb Bush say about Iraq?

From The Washington Post:

Shortly before Jeb Bush made his first moves toward a presidential campaign, he took to a stage in Miami and tore into President Obama on foreign policy.

Bush described in a speech in December how the United States has kept thousands of troops deployed on the Korean Peninsula to help avoid a major conflict in Asia. But as he built up to his attack line against Obama, the former Florida governor stumbled — reaching for a word that threatens to loom large over his expected White House run.

“This president missed an opportunity to do the exact same thing in, in, in, um, Iraq,” he said.

Bush, a son and brother of former presidents, finds himself in a unique and difficult position within the Republican field as he works to formulate a foreign policy agenda. Voters and rival campaigns are watching closely to see how heavily he leans on veterans of the two past Bush administrations — and, in particular, how he addresses the ongoing instability in Iraq, the country where his father, George H.W. Bush, fought a war and the country his brother George W. Bush would later invade and occupy.

Jeb Bush is expected to offer some clues to his foreign policy views in a speech Wednesday at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. More than 700 people are expected to attend the morning address, according to organizers.
“We’re on the verge of the greatest time to be alive in American history. I honestly believe that,” he told reporters in Florida last week. “But we have some big, hairy, complicated things we need to fix, and one of those is what the role of America is in the world to protect our safety and security, but also to promote security and peace around the world.”

Aides declined to preview Bush’s Chicago speech, and they refused to name his advisers or describe his process for developing thoughts on global affairs.

Bush is only now beginning to fully articulate his worldview. It remains unclear where he might draw distinctions with the records of his father and brother, other than saying that he aims to “talk about the future” rather than the past. Both Bush presidencies were defined in part by conflict in Iraq, with the second President Bush’s war there resulting in a long and costly occupation.

Many conservatives are “waiting to see how he splits the difference between what he perceives — or what his advisers perceive — to be the pluses and minuses of his father’s and brother’s administrations,” said Gary J. Schmitt, a former Reagan administration official now with the American Enterprise Institute. “My view would be that his brother’s principles fit the time. The question is whether Jeb Bush can improve on carrying out those principles.”

Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP strategist, said: “We go in cycles in this country. We hate foreign affairs and foreign entanglements and foreign engagements right until somebody punches us in the face. I can’t speak to Jeb’s foreign policy direction, but what could be worse than the present alternative?”

Peter D. Feaver, a former National Security Council official under George W. Bush with responsibility for Iraq, said Jeb Bush appears to be adopting a “big-tent approach” as he reaches out to a cross section of GOP experts. Bush is consulting with people including Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official during George W. Bush’s first term; former deputy secretary of state and former World Bank president Robert Zoellick; and Meghan O’Sullivan, a former George W. Bush national security adviser on Iraq, according to another Republican foreign policy expert who has spoken with Bush but is not aligned with him or any other campaign and asked for anonymity in order speak frankly about those talks.

Bush has also consulted with former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, but his interactions with her are “more complicated because if she’s too involved I think there’s a sensitivity that it would be a carbon copy of his brother’s administration,” the foreign policy expert said.

Said Feaver: “He’s not giving in to the idea that anyone associated with the Iraq war is out of consideration. That’s not practical. Keeping them out would reinforce a cartoon critique of the former president’s Iraq policy.”

Democrats have long blamed George W. Bush with a failed execution of the Iraq war.

“If you thought George Bush’s foreign policy made the world less safe, then you’re going to really hate Jeb Bush’s approach,” Mo Elleithee, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, wrote in an e-mail. “Even with the benefit of hindsight, he’s one of the few people left who still stands by the decision to rush into a war in Iraq based on false information, even when it took resources away from the hunt for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.”

Obama won the White House in 2008 in part because of his opposition to the war, which had its roots in a 2002 speech he gave as an Illinois state senator opposing military action in Iraq.

The presumptive 2016 front-runner on the Democratic side, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, would be formidable on foreign policy in the campaign but has her own vulnerabilities. Her 2002 Senate vote in favor of the Iraq war haunted her throughout her failed 2008 presidential campaign as the war dragged on. The U.S.-backed Iraqi government was weak and poorly equipped to handle the civil war that U.S. military action had helped to unleash, and American popular opinion had turned to view the war as a mistake.

Clinton did not call her vote a mistake until she wrote last year in her State Department memoir, “Hard Choices,” that “I still got it wrong.”

Over the course of his brother’s presidency, Bush frequently expressed support for the war. Just as the Iraq conflict began in 2003, he told Florida reporters that “in his heart, I know he is doing what he thinks is right, and I concur with him.”

He traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan with other Republican governors in April 2006 to visit U.S. troops, and they appeared together in the White House Rose Garden upon their return.

In 2013, nearing the 10th anniversary of the start of the war, Bush told NBC that “history will be kind to my brother the further out you get from this and the more people compare his tenure to what’s going on now.”

He has sharply criticized Obama’s foreign policy since emerging as a potential presidential candidate.

In his Miami speech in December, Bush faulted Obama’s “indecisiveness, his concern for domestic political considerations in the formulation of foreign policy, his seeming inability to engage in the personal diplomacy needed to build the trust to be able to forge consensus in foreign policy — but what the heck, I might as well mention domestic policy as well in that regard.”

The speech was hosted by the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC, a group strongly opposed to Obama's decision to restart diplomatic relations with Cuba. Bush has long aligned himself with the influential Cuban American community in South Florida.

“Instead of lifting the embargo, I would argue that we should strengthen it to put pressure on the Cuban regime,” Bush said, adding later that “I am not a pessimist about the future of Cuba” but that “the Castro brothers are on the wrong side of history.”

His views on Cuba are shared by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Bush protege who is also considering a 2016 campaign. But they are at odds with the views of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), another potential candidate, and a growing number of GOP lawmakers, mostly from farming states, who are working with Democrats to ease travel restrictions and lift the embargo.

Bush sprinkled his December speech with references to Latin America. He equated “Chavistas” — supporters of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez — to the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah and the Islamic militant movement Hamas.

When discussing Latin America or any other issue, Bush can speak fluently in Spanish, which he began learning during a high school visit to Mexico, where he met his future wife, Columba.

“I would not be surprised if he wrote it totally on his own,” said former GOP congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who introduced Bush to the crowd. “For years I have known Jeb to be constantly studying and thinking. He knows the world.”

Obamacare and subsidies

From The Washington Post:

The Supreme Court on March 4 will hear the case of King v. Burwell, which threatens to unravel the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, because the plaintiffs argue that the health-care law does not authorize subsidies through federally run insurance marketplaces; instead, they say, the law only allows such subsidies in the 14 states (and District of Columbia) which set up their own exchanges. The subsidies, which come in the form of a tax credit, reduce the cost of premiums by as much as 89 percent. A court ruling denying subsidies to states on the federal exchange will cause the law to collapse, many experts say.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Jordan leads the Arab world in the fight against extremists

David Ignatius writes in The Washington Post:

One of the weaknesses of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State is that America isn’t trusted as a messenger in much of the Arab world. So it is important that Jordan’s King Abdullah II seems ready to play an unusually visible role in organizing Arab opposition to the extremists.

Abdullah is moving against the jihadists on two fronts, ideological and military. He is bolstered by a rare national consensus in Jordan after Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh was burned alive in a cage by the jihadists. The pilot was from a bedrock tribal family in the East Bank town of Karak, and his death angered and unified the country. Jordanians who have been carrying placards saying, “We are all Muath,” seem to mean it.

What’s crucial about Jordan’s new activism is that it could give the coalition an Arab and Muslim face, rather than just an American one. The United States is viewed with such deep suspicion in the region that Arab leaders who cooperate too openly are often branded as puppets of the “Crusaders.” At some political risk, Abdullah has decided to break that taboo.

The ideological side of the campaign will begin with an effort to gather a core group of Arab and Muslim countries that share opposition to the Islamic State. In addition to Jordan, this nucleus would likely include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Pakistan.

This Muslim coalition plans to convene a conference within the next month or so at Al-Azhar University in Egypt, which for centuries has been the arbiter of mainstream Sunni doctrine. The hope is that Al-Azhar would provide religious authority for a continuing battle against extremism. The United States would help the coalition create a global network of counter-messaging centers. This approach will be discussed this week at a White House conference on countering violent extremism.

On the military side, the Jordanians have for weeks been bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. But a more important move may be their effort to work with the Iraqi government to arm and train a Sunni “national guard” that can eventually help liberate Sunni areas that were overrun last year by the Islamic State. This cooperation with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad would once have been heresy for Jordan.

The Jordanians seem convinced that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, though friendly with Iran, is also serious about outreach to Sunnis. The groundwork for cooperation was laid when Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi visited Amman in December. Gen. Mashal al-Zaben, Jordan’s military chief of staff, paid a reciprocal visit to Baghdad last week to negotiate details of the training plan. But the deal hasn’t been pinned down yet, which makes some Sunnis worry that it’s just talk.

Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq are caught between their resentment of Islamic State fighters who have seized their towns and their mistrust of Abadi’s government. This ambivalence was evident Friday when I interviewed two tribal leaders, Sheikh Zaydan al-Jibouri and Jalal al-Gaood. They were wary of cooperating with Baghdad so long as Abadi allows Shiite militias to operate in Anbar province. An angry Jibouri showed grisly cellphone pictures of the corpses of two members of his tribe who had been brutally murdered a week earlier by Shiite militiamen in Ramadi.

But Sunni support for cooperation seemed to increase Friday night after more than 50 tribal sheikhs met in Amman with the governor of Anbar province and the head of the governing council there. The visiting Iraqis said that the Sunni speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Salim al-Jibouri, would convene a Baghdad conference soon to rally resistance to the jihadists. The sheikhs came away encouraged.

The dealbreaker is the expanding role across Iraq of the Shiite militias. If Abadi can’t prevent these Iranian-backed fighters from operating in Sunni areas, the budding alliance between Amman and Baghdad is likely to fail. It’s an example of the central dilemma in the U.S. strategy, which requires cooperation between two groups that have been fighting a sectarian war.

Until there’s solid evidence that Abadi is serious about arming a Sunni national guard and containing the Shiite militias, I’m skeptical about whether this strategy will work. But I agree with Gaood, a leader of the Albu Nimr tribe that was ravaged last fall by the extremists. Even after such disasters, he told me, if a just balance can be found in Iraq, “we are all brought back from the brink.”

Houthi rebels in Yemen eye oil-rich province, sparking fears of all-out civil war

From The Washington Post:

The Shiite insurgents who have toppled Yemen’s government are threatening to take over a key oil-producing province to the east of the capital, triggering fears that the country could explode in all-out civil war.

The rebels, known as Houthis, have already seized much of the country’s north with relative ease. But they are likely to encounter stiff resistance if they move into Marib province. Already, the largely Sunni tribes in the region are arming themselves with tanks and rocket-propelled grenades, according to tribal leaders, and the governor has ringed the area with tribal fighters and military units.

“It will be civil war if they come here,” said Mohammed al-Wills, a leader of the Murad tribe in Marib, who has begun coordinating with fellow tribesmen and soldiers to defend the province.

The Houthis say they want to protect residents of Marib from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whose fighters have launched periodic attacks in the province. But diplomats and analysts say a conflict could wind up strengthening Yemen’s franchise of al-Qaeda, which has plotted high-profile attacks on the United States. A battle could also draw in tribesmen and Sunni fighters from other provinces.

Sectarian tensions are inflaming the situation. The Houthis follow the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, but the majority of Yemen’s 24 million citizens are Sunni. While Yemen has a history of conflict, it has been spared the kind of Sunni-Shiite rivalry that has torn apart Syria and Iraq.

Many Yemenis believe that the Houthi rebels are backed by Iran, a majority-Shiite nation. Neighboring Saudi Arabia — a Sunni powerhouse — has long seen Yemen as within its sphere of influence. Now, Houthi officials and Western diplomats say, Saudi Arabia is providing cash to Marib residents to arm themselves for a confrontation.

“This is becoming a sectarian-driven war because of these outside powers,” said Ali Saif Hassan, a Yemeni political analyst.

The Houthis swept into Sanaa in the fall and effectively forced out the pro-U.S. government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi last month. The rebels recently seized a military base on the way to Marib, and they have taken over parts of the province to its south, heightening speculation that they might soon move on to the important oil-producing province.

Marib is a strategic prize. Yemen is a small petroleum producer compared with some of its neighbors. But the national government’s budget is overwhelmingly dependent on oil sales. Marib is also home to power plants that provide electricity to Sanaa and other areas of the country, giving whoever controls the province a chokehold over Yemen’s energy supply.

“Everybody’s bracing for a clash there. It’s about the resources,” said a Western diplomat who until recently was based in Yemen and who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The governor of Marib, Sultan al-Arada, said in a telephone interview that the Houthis had carried out an Iranian-backed “coup” against the Yemeni government. He said his office is coordinating the defense of the province and its oil installations with local tribes as well as military units that are not loyal to the Houthis. He denied that the Saudis were pouring money into the area to parry a rebel advance.

Tribesmen from neighboring regions have pledged to help the province hold off the Houthis, he said.

“We have thousands of people from the tribes forming a security belt on the edges of the province, and the military is coordinating with us and preparing to defend us, too,” he said.

The Houthis have called on Arada to step down. Last month, before forcing the resignation of the national government, the insurgents’ leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, warned that his fighters could intervene in Marib. He said the potential operation might be necessary to fight al-Qaeda and “support the honorable people of Marib.”

An impoverished state

Located about 75 miles east of the capital, Marib is poor even by Yemeni standards. The government in Sanaa has long been accused by residents of taking the area’s resources but offering few public services in return. In the political void created by the government’s collapse, the role of the area’s already powerful tribes appears to have been strengthened.

Hussein Hazeb, 50, another leader of the Murad tribe, said that tribesmen in the Marib area had armed themselves in part by seizing weapons from a military unit that recently passed through the province.

Some tribal leaders have long received financial support from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, he said, but the recent influxes of cash have been noticeably large.

“All of a sudden you’re seeing people with brand-new pickup trucks and new guns, and you know that they’re getting this from Saudi [Arabia],” Hazeb said.

An official at the Saudi Embassy in Sanaa declined last week to comment on the issue. The embassy closed its operations in Yemen on Friday.

Houthi officials also say that cash is being smuggled from the Saudi border to Marib. The Houthis deny that they are backed by Iran.

Possible gains for al-Qaeda

Analysts, diplomats and many Yemenis fear that the escalating violence could strengthen al-Qaeda’s franchise here by enabling it to portray itself as a champion of the Sunnis. Already, AQAP fighters may be moving from other parts of Yemen into Marib in advance of a fight, diplomats and analysts say.

On Thursday, militants from the radical Sunni group stormed a military base about 60 miles from Marib in a southern province, saying that they wanted to protect it from Houthi attacks.

In Marib, some tribes have fought AQAP, but the extremist group’s sectarian rhetoric appears to be resonating even among those Sunnis who have been its enemies.

The Houthis “are Shiites and they reject Islam,” said Hamed Wahaed, a Marib tribal leader. He has been storing weapons in preparation for a Houthi assault; he boasted by telephone that he owns 10 Toyota pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, two artillery pieces, and rocket-propelled grenades.

He added that Marib has “to fight the Shiite Iranian terrorists.” Still, he said he opposed al-Qaeda and wouldn’t accept its support.

Some tribal officials have threatened to blow up power lines and oil installations in the province to deter a Houthi attack. That would be a serious blow to Yemen’s already weak economy.

“There is no doubt that such an attack on the oil and gas pipelines, as well as on the power plant, will cause a huge crisis for Yemen,” said Hassan Thabet, a professor of economics at Sanaa University.

Wills, the tribal leader, said he opposes damaging the oil and power lines, but he described the threats as a last-resort measure against the Houthis.

“Some of the tribes see this as something like, ‘You may try to take us down, but we’ll take down the whole country if you try,’ ” he said.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Pro-Iran militias’ success in Iraq could undermine U.S.

From The Washington Post:

Shiite militias backed by Iran are increasingly taking the lead in Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State, threatening to undermine U.S. strategies intended to bolster the central government, rebuild the Iraqi army and promote reconciliation with the country’s embittered Sunni minority.

With an estimated 100,000 to 120,000 armed men, the militias are rapidly eclipsing the depleted and demoralized Iraqi army, whose fighting strength has dwindled to about 48,000 troops since the government forces were routed in the northern city of Mosul last summer, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.

A recent offensive against Islamic State militants in the province of Diyala led by the Badr Organization further reinforced the militias’ standing as the dominant military force across a swath of territory stretching from southern Iraq to Kirkuk in the north.

As they assume a greater role, the militias are sometimes resorting to tactics that risk further alienating Sunnis and sharpening the sectarian dimensions of the fight.

They are also entrenching Iran’s already substantial hold over Iraq in ways that may prove difficult to reverse. Backed and in some instances armed and funded by Iran, the militias openly proclaim allegiance to Tehran. Many of the groups, such as the powerful Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kitaeb Hezbollah, are veterans of the fight to eject American troops in the years before their 2011 departure.

The militias’ growing clout is calling into question the sustainability of a strategy in which U.S. warplanes are bombing from the sky to advance the consolidation of power on the ground by groups that are backed by Iran and potentially hostile to the United States, analysts say.

If the fighting continues on its current trajectory, there is a real risk the United States will defeat the Islamic State but lose Iraq to Iran in the process, said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Though Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has welcomed American assistance and is calling for more, the militias’ strength threatens to undermine his authority and turn Iraq into a version of Lebanon, where a weak government is hostage to the whims of the powerful Hezbollah movement.

“The Shiite militias don’t want the Americans there and they never did,” Knights said. “Will we see an attempt by these Iranian-backed militias to push us out completely?”

As U.S. commanders mull sending ground troops to assist a planned offensive to retake Mosul, some militia groups are already starting to question the need for U.S. help.

“We don’t need them, either on the ground or in the air,” said Karim al-Nouri, spokesman and military commander for the Badr Organization, which has emerged as the most powerful of the armed groups. “We can defeat the Islamic State on our own.”

‘Exceptional methods’

Iraqi officials point out that militias have filled a huge need, providing muscle and manpower at a critical time and helping reverse the Islamic State’s advance toward Baghdad. U.S. help came late, more than two months after the militants surged toward the capital, they complain. An effort to rebuild the collapsed Iraqi army only began in December and so far has not graduated any trainees.

“We are in a transitional period, and we are in a state of emergency,” said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a member of parliament with Abadi’s State of Law coalition. “There is an existential threat, and that threat warrants using exceptional methods.”

The militias, which prefer to be described as “popular mobilization forces,” point out that their deployment has been authorized both by the government and by a fatwa from Iraq’s chief religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

But the militias’ chain of command runs through their own leaders, and in many instances directly to Iran. The man appointed to coordinate their activities is Iraq’s deputy national security adviser, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the nom de guerre of an Iraqi sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for his role as a top Iraqi commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. He was convicted in absentia by Kuwait for his part in bombings at the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait in 1983.

Qassem Soleimani, the top commander of the Iranian force, makes regular appearances on the front lines in Iraq, echoing the battlefield swings undertaken in the last decade by U.S. generals.

Direct battlefield command is increasingly being assumed by the newly powerful Badr leader Hadi al-Amiri, who claims to be responsible for drawing up war plans on behalf of the security forces as well as the militias.

At a rally held earlier this month to celebrate the rout of Islamic State fighters in the province of Diyala, Amiri took the starring role.

“Our mission is to liberate Iraq with Iraqis, and not with foreigners,” Amiri told jubilant fighters chanting his name. “We must fight sectarianism, bring reconciliation and maintain the unity of Iraq.”

Killings in a village

On a tour of the recently liberated villages, the danger that the militias’ role might only serve to enhance sectarianism was apparent. In one village, al-Askari, every home had been burned, a tactic Sunni politicians allege is intended to cleanse whole areas of Sunnis and prevent them from returning home.

Badr escorts declined to take reporters to another village, Barwana, where at least 53 and possibly as many as 70 Sunni men were found shot dead execution-style after the Islamic State defeat. Witnesses and Sunni politicians say the men were civilians who had taken refuge in Barwana after their own village was overrun by the militants. They accuse Shiite militias of carrying out the killings.

The Badr Organization has denied that it was involved, but its leaders also deny that the men were civilians.

“Those Barwana people who stayed belonged to the Islamic State,” said Nouri. “What were we to do? Throw roses to them, or kill them?”

“The Islamic State are savages,” he added. “When we face them, we expect mosques to fall down and houses to burn, because we are not playing a football match with them, and we are not having a picnic.”

‘Terrified’ Sunnis

Such methods will not help promote the reconciliation that forms a central plank of U.S. policies toward Iraq, said Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, who recently visited Baghdad and noted the surge in militia influence with alarm.

“The Iraqis are getting ready to reconquer the Sunni heartland, and they’re going to go in with a Shiite force,” he said. “The Sunni populace are terrified, and they will regard this as a Shiite invasion of their homeland. That won’t end the civil war, it will inflame it.”

Despite the militias’ boasts, however, it is unclear whether they are capable of pursuing the fight into the Sunni heartland, including the provinces of Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh, where the Islamic State is most firmly established.

So far their successes have been confined mostly to areas where Shiites predominate, including to the south of Baghdad, some parts of eastern Salahuddin and most recently, Diyala.

But Nouri, the Badr commander, said the militias would prefer not to have American help even for an assault on Mosul.

If the United States wants to continue with its airstrikes now, “we don’t have a problem,” he said. “But they should not strike while we are on the ground. We don’t want history to record that we conducted an offensive with American cover.”

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Republicans Eye Changes to Food-Stamp Program - House Lawmakers Want Revision After Plan’s Sharp Expansion During Recession

From The Wall Street Journal:

House Republicans are laying the groundwork for a revision of the food-stamps program after its sharp expansion during the recession.

The effort kicks off Feb. 25 when the House Agriculture Committee holds the first of several hearings scheduled this year on food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R., Texas), who is leading the charge, said he wants to stay away from the type of party politics that can doom reforms before they are proposed. But as the son of a roughneck on oil rigs, he said he favors the kind of hard work that “built America,” suggesting any changes will lead to a smaller program and fewer recipients.

“A family that depends on their own work is more secure,” he said in an interview. “There’s a dignity in taking care of yourself.”

Some 46.5 million people—about 15% of the U.S. population—receive benefits, double the number from a decade ago. The costs, meanwhile, have nearly tripled in that time, going from $27 billion in fiscal year 2004 to $74 billion in 2014.

Mr. Conaway said it is too early to talk of specific changes, but critics cite a need for tighter eligibility requirements. Under current limits, a family of four earning less than $2,584 in gross monthly income can qualify.

“The program was structured when malnutrition was a real problem,” said Douglas Besharov, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. “It has now become a form of income support.”

The program dates back to the 1930s, when unemployment was high, and was made permanent in 1964.

States, which manage the Agriculture Department program, are already starting to cut back. More than 20 are preparing to reinstate time limits that most states had waived in the recession. Healthy adults without children will be limited to three months of benefits every three years unless they are working or enrolled in job training for at least 20 hours a week.

The move to reinstate those limits could end benefits for about 1 million people, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank specializing in low-income policies.

“It was and still is a well-functioning program,” said Ed Bolen, a food-stamp expert at the center. “But we need to figure out what works and for whom.”

Mr. Bolen said critics often assume recipients don’t want to work, although many are employed. USDA data show nearly 43% of recipients live in a household where someone is earning.

Democrats are likely to fight moves to cut benefits and make them tougher to get. Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said the Obama administration should push back against any cuts to food stamps. “We cannot balance the budget on the backs of poor people,” he said.

As the economic recovery continues, the Congressional Budget Office projects the number of recipients will drop 30% to 33 million by 2025. Already, rolls shrank by more than 1 million between fiscal 2013 and 2014.

This won’t be the first time Republicans have addressed the issue of food stamps. In 2013, they tried to cut the program by $40 billion as part of the farm-bill reauthorization. A compromise with Democrats yielded $8.6 billion in cuts over 10 years, achieved by tightening standards for the so-called heat-and-eat program, under which food-stamp recipients qualify for higher benefits if they get heating assistance from their states.

Congress includes food-stamp funding in the farm bill because it is believed that lawmakers from large cities need a reason to approve money for agriculture.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he plans to keep a “close eye” on efforts to rework the program. “Finding out what’s broken is the first step, then we’ll get to work on improving the program,” he said in a statement.

According to the Agriculture Department, the average recipient receives about $125 a month. The money, uploaded to a debit card that can be used at grocery stores, can’t be used for alcohol, cigarettes and prepared foods. Some say the government should toughen nutrition requirements to ban purchases of soda and other sweetened beverages.

“I think it’s worthy to ask what people are buying,” said Robert Doar, an expert on poverty issues at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Nearly 40% of recipients are able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 60, according to 2013 government data. The rest are children, elderly or disabled adults. The average gross income for all recipient households is $758 a month.

The department is close to awarding $200 million in grants to states to experiment with ways to get recipients into jobs. That could provide data on what works, something Mr. Conaway said is lacking. “We really have a hard time saying whether the program is successful,” he said.

Mr. Conaway figures that writing a bill to overhaul food stamps will take months, if not years. The time will be needed, he said, to persuade lawmakers to change the biggest nutrition safety-net program without defaulting to old political debates that pit one party against the other.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Medicare and Social Security Costs? Out of Sight, Out of Mind - Combination of Factors Blunts Reform

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Two words seem to be slipping from the Washington vernacular: entitlement reform.

There was a time, not long ago, when both parties were at least paying lip service to the idea that the Social Security and Medicare entitlement programs—their long-term solvency in peril, their contributions to long-term deficits and debt daunting—needed to be adjusted before they either broke the bank or failed future retirees.

Now a combination of factors has blunted the reform drive. Declining short-term deficits, the salve of slower increases in health costs, the sheer failure of repeated attempts to find bipartisan common ground on changes, traditional Democratic reluctance and the growing dependence of Republicans on senior citizens’ votes all reduce Washington’s interest in tackling this toughest of problems.

Yet the need isn’t going away; it simply has slipped out of sight for now.

Indeed, the emergence of senior voters, once a core Democratic constituency, as a foundation of the Republican Party is one of the most striking trends in today’s politics.

In the 2014 midterm election—the one that brought full Republican control of Congress—GOP candidates won voters aged 65 and older by a whopping 16 percentage points, 57% to 41%, exit polls showed. Meanwhile, they lost voters aged 18 to 29 by 11 percentage points, 54% to 43%.

And in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, broader public sentiment toward the two parties is, if anything, even more starkly divided along generational lines. Fully 40% of those aged 65 and older reported positive feelings about the Republican Party—twice the share among those aged 18 to 34.

In any case, both parties, which a few years ago seemed driven by record budget deficits to the water’s edge on the subject of Medicare and Social Security changes, now don’t seem particularly inclined to take a dive into those shark-infested waters.

Indeed, some Democrats actually instead are pushing to increase Social Security benefits.

Meanwhile, here’s the long-term picture, as seen in the projections contained in a new analysis from the Congressional Budget Office: Social Security will rise in cost by 77% during the next decade, and Medicare by 89%, under current policies.

Meantime, the federal government’s bill for paying interest on the accumulating national debt will more than triple. Good luck getting any other domestic initiatives funded in that environment.

The need for sustained discussion and tough decisions to reduce the long-term cost of Medicare and Social Security is as real as ever, and the cost of avoiding it continues to rise.