‐ The difference is, the Dancing with the Stars judges have a solid case against Tom DeLay.
‐ In a matter of about three weeks, the Left’s view of Afghanistan has gone from “the good war” to “the next Vietnam.” This turnabout — in effect, the Left is dumping the war now that it has stopped being politically useful — deserves an honored place in the annals of bad faith. Meantime, our troops in the field are still fighting. In an unsparing 66-page assessment, commanding general Stanley McChrystal warns of failure unless he gets more troops quickly for a counterinsurgency campaign to protect the population and to thwart the enemy’s momentum. McChrystal is President Obama’s hand-picked general, selected to carry out the “comprehensive” counterinsurgency strategy that Obama announced in March. But the White House now acts as if it barely knew its own four-star and had not heard of his strategy. It is understandable that Obama wants to be deliberate in committing perhaps tens of thousands more troops to the field, but his change of tune, away from his formerly approved strategy and the stalwart rhetoric (“the necessary war”) of a few months ago, indicates fecklessness or political calculation or both. If we want to keep al-Qaeda from reestablishing a base in parts of Afghanistan and militants from regaining the initiative in neighboring Pakistan, there is no alternative to defeating the Taliban and associated insurgencies in Afghanistan, and that will require manpower. Obama’s political advisers hate the war, and Vice President Biden is selling a characteristically unrealistic plan to fight it from afar. Obama should resist the urge to flinch.
‐ Obama had his U.N. debut. As in any speech before the General Assembly, there was a great deal of BOMFOG (a Nelson Rockefeller aide’s acronym for “brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God”). Obama’s was notably dense. “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation.” Don’t cut the NASA budget; that hope will never be fulfilled on this planet. Obama also spread a coating of narcissism. “For those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months.” Politics, they used to say, stopped at the water’s edge. Obama’s self-regarding politicking knows neither time nor place. “Democracy and human rights,” he concluded, “cannot be afterthoughts” — which, since he mentioned them in the home stretch, was what they were. The delegates of the General Assembly interrupted him with applause and took his picture. The podium is our president’s favorite communication tool. But imagery and, even more so, rhetoric have a very short international reach, especially when they are not ballasted by policy and power. Obama has sworn off the exceptionalism of the Bush years in order to get results abroad. But if his results are only good reviews of his speeches, what sort of a tradeoff is that?
‐ The good news is that the worst domestic-terrorism plot since 9/11 — a plan reminiscent of the attacks that rocked London in 2005 — was aborted without any bombings of New York’s transit system. The bad news is that interagency turf battles prematurely exposed the investigation. Thus only one man has been charged, meaning other members of a jihadist cell operating in the United States remain at large. Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old Afghan who grew up in Pakistan and trained in al-Qaeda camps, was apparently planning a series of bombings to coincide with the eighth anniversary of 9/11, but got tipped off that the FBI was on to him when New York City police rashly questioned a local imam. Zazi had driven for two days from Denver to get to New York in advance of September 11. He and unidentified confederates scouted targets, purchased explosive components, and attempted to rent a moving truck — an effort that was thwarted when the group of at least six men declined to produce identification other than invalid credit cards. Law enforcement now scrambles to locate other suspects, and we are again reminded that the threat to America is profound.
‐ George Stephanopoulos asked President Obama whether his proposed requirement that everyone buy health insurance is a “tax.” Obama said no, rejecting the host’s resort to the dictionary as “stretching.” Let’s see: The mandate forces people to part with some of their money. They get back a benefit, insurance, but that benefit must be worth less to them than the money, since they did not make the transaction voluntarily. The mandate will be enforced through what the Senate Finance Committee calls an “excise tax” on people who do not buy insurance. (Maybe Obama would call it a “fine.”) It will narrow the options of millions of people to two: They will have to buy the insurance their employer offers them, or else pay the penalty. There are taxes that are much less onerous.
‐ How many times have you read that deregulation has been discredited by the financial crisis? Conservatives and libertarians have worked hard to explain that the causes of the crisis were more complex than the Left’s narrative: that many anti-market policies, including unwise regulations, contributed to it, and that some of the specific deregulatory measures that have been blamed had nothing to do with it. Now it seems that the public has better sense than the commentariat. According to Gallup, 45 percent of Americans think there is “too much” regulation of business, compared with 24 percent who say that there is “too little.” That’s the most opposition to regulation Gallup has found in its history of asking the question, which dates back to 1993. The public may favor regulation in specific areas, and particular regulations may indeed make sense. But the notion that regulation is, generally, a good thing is a sentiment found mostly on op-ed pages.
‐ As the financial crisis has waned, so has the G-20’s appetite for consequential reforms. At the recent summit in Pittsburgh, most of the talk focused on reforming executive compensation, a feel-good policy that won’t do anything to prevent the next speculative bubble. The G-20 statement called for regulation that “aligns compensation with long-term performance,” but, as Kevin D. Williamson explains on page 16 of this issue, the banks that more closely tied their executives’ pay to corporate performance fared worse during the crisis. Wall Street wasn’t just selling the idea that housing prices would go up forever; its top executives bought big chunks of the fantasy for themselves and subsequently lost billions. Harmonization among the 20 largest economies could improve many areas of financial regulation; this demagogic attempt to curb bankers’ pay, however, represents the lowest common denominator.
‐ Humana, a large private insurer, told its Medicare Advantage customers that if Obamacare passes, “millions of seniors and disabled individuals . . . could lose many of the important benefits and services that make Medicare Advantage health plans so valuable.” Soon afterward, Medicare officials slapped the company with a gag order and announced that they were launching an investigation. A government spokesman explained: “Seniors on Medicare should not be subjected to misleading information about their Medicare benefits.” Yet the company’s assertions were correct; no less an authority than the Congressional Budget Office said so. No matter; at press time the gag order stood. It turns out that government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master, even as your business partner.
Economics in the Red Zone
Even as President Obama’s health-care gambit moves toward the endgame, the massive expansion of U.S. borrowing, both public and private, that has occurred in the past year is already pushing the U.S. fiscal situation to a very dangerous place.
Most Americans probably think that it is impossible for the U.S. government to reach the point where its checks start to bounce. The data say otherwise.
A country can find itself in severe trouble if it wakes up one day to discover that its government and citizens have borrowed a large amount of money from foreigners.
Both a nagging problem and another, potentially serious one are associated with such a situation. The nagging problem, the economic equivalent of letting air out of a balloon, is that interest payments head overseas and subtract from our ability to consume and invest. The serious problem is that the debt must be rolled over periodically, with the government and citizens alike borrowing from new lenders to pay off the old ones. As a nation gets overextended, red flags go up, lenders take their business elsewhere, and default becomes a real risk
How big a debt is too big, and has the U.S. passed that point? The accompanying chart explores these questions by comparing the external debt (debt held by foreigners) of the U.S. to the external debt of middle-income countries that experienced default (or restructuring) between 1970 and 2001. In both cases, the debt is scaled by GNP, and reflects, for those countries that defaulted, total debt outstanding in the year of default.
Sources: U.S. Treasury, St. Louis Federal Reserve, and NBER
The chart tells a chilling tale. U.S. debt is now higher relative to our national income than it was for the typical middle-income country that defaulted on its debt in the 31 years of this sample. Our total external debt has reached 94 percent, while public external debt is 24 percent, of GNP this year.
This puts the U.S. in very peculiar company. There were so many Latin American defaults in the sample (Argentina twice, Brazil, Chile twice, Ecuador twice, etc.) that the chart aggregates all Latin American countries into a single category. Latin America may have acquired a reputation for fiscal insanity, but the U.S. is now in worse shape than was the typical Latin American country that defaulted. Looking across the other defaults, there were only a couple of cases outside of Latin America (Jordan in 1989, and Egypt in 1984) where the defaulting county had racked up a debt that was higher than ours is now.
To be sure, the U.S. can continue on its merry way borrowing and spending so long as foreign lenders continue to flock to our Treasury auctions and continue to fund our private loans. They might oblige for decades. On the other hand, a precipitating event — say, the passage of a large expansion of entitlements — could easily set off the kind of panic that has devastated debt markets in the past.
– KEVIN A. HASSETT
‐ “Hello, Mister President / We honor you today / For all your great accomplishments / We all do say ‘Hooray!’” So sang the tots at a public elementary school in Burlington, N.J., under the direction of a teacher. This was by way of celebrating Black History Month, otherwise known as February. A video of the event has recently been circulated and its creepily totalitarian aspect much commented on. The school principal is unrepentant. Her school is apparently festooned with Obamaiana and associated slogans (“Yes we can! Yes we did!”). May we add, to the many questions raised by this event, the following: What, in February 2009, were Barack Obama’s “great accomplishments”? Other than inspiring New Jersey schoolteachers to North Korean levels of mindless adulation?
‐ The president’s “safe-schools czar,” Kevin Jennings, is the latest in a long line of ill-considered choices for high-level appointments (previous selections include everyone from tax cheats to an admitted former Communist and self-described “rowdy black nationalist”). Even in this context, however, the case of Jennings is particularly disturbing: In 1988, as a schoolteacher, Jennings knew a 15-year-old boy who confessed having been sexually involved with an older man he’d met in a bus-station bathroom. Rather than file a statutory-rape report (as the law requires), Jennings “listened, sympathized, and offered advice” (as he wrote in a 1994 memoir); he told the student, “You know, I hope you knew to use a condom” (as he stated before an Iowa rally of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, an organization he founded). This is not the kind of person to entrust with the job of keeping our schools safe.
‐ To nobody’s surprise, once the Cash for Clunkers program expired, auto sales plummeted: The rate for September was the lowest since 1981, and no improvement is likely for at least the rest of the year. So let’s review what happened: Cash for Clunkers paid people to buy cars, many of them Japanese, that they would have bought anyway. In so doing, it transferred several billion dollars to a small and far-from-poor sector of the public; burned up a lot more money in administrative expenses; scrapped the buyers’ old vehicles, thus raising the price of used cars; confused dealers and buyers alike with byzantine rules; swelled to several times its original cost because the experts’ projections were way off; and still hasn’t paid many of its intended beneficiaries, owing to bureaucratic snafus. By all means, let’s put these folks in charge of everyone’s health care.
‐ “I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed,” President Obama proclaimed to his admirers at the United Nations. But he knew even when giving this “order” that it would not actually mean Guantanamo’s closure. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged within days that the president’s January 22 deadline for shuttering the prison camp was “going to be tough” to meet. Gates, too, was being economical with the truth. In fact, the facility will remain open indefinitely. Obama’s ballyhooed order, issued in the opening hours of his administration, included no plan for what was to be done with the terrorist detainees. The president erroneously assumed he could charm other nations into taking the bulk of them off our hands, and Americans into accepting the rest on our soil in order to purge what he — unlike most voters — sees as the taint of Gitmo. With Congress revolting against transferring alien jihadists to American prisons, the Justice Department has quietly advised human-rights activists that Obama will continue relying on the president’s authority to detain enemy combatants under the laws of war. Don’t expect most of the remaining 223 detainees to be leaving Gitmo anytime soon.
‐ President Obama loves to say that he wants to “look forward, not backward” when it comes to evaluating Bush-era interrogation policies. His Justice Department, however, seems infatuated with the rear-view mirror. Attorney General Eric Holder recently named a special prosecutor to assess whether CIA officials should be subject to criminal charges for alleged acts of torture. The Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Democrat Dianne Feinstein, also opened an investigation. With Justice dangling prosecution, former CIA employees have had little incentive to open up to the Senate panel. And with no hope of making a full and fair Senate inquiry, Senate Republicans have now thrown up their hands in frustration and abandoned the probe. Besides, they reasoned, there are other issues to focus on, namely the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The committee cannot give these matters sufficient attention if we are spinning our wheels in an endless document review,” said Sen. Kit Bond (R., Mo.), the committee’s vice chairman. As the Democrats look backward, Republicans should back away.
‐ Sarah Palin gave her first paid speech after stepping down as governor of Alaska. In a long address to a conference of investors in Hong Kong, she defended “commonsense conservatism.” It was substantive, plainspoken, and — as billed — commonsensical. A nice coming out for the next stage of her career.
‐ President Obama’s recent flurry of TV interviews included one with the Spanish-language network Univision. The interviewer was ethnic activist and star Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, author of, among other books, No Borders and Tierra de Todos (“Land of Everyone”). Why was it, Mr. Ramos wanted to know, that during his presidential campaign Obama had used the term “undocumented immigrants,” but in his recent speech before Congress had decided to switch to “illegal immigrants”? Mr. Ramos drove home the question thus: “Why did you use language associated with the critics of immigrants?” Perhaps it is because most Americans think of illegal immigrants as, well, illegal immigrants — something the president knows, if not all of his supporters do.
‐ The administration has canceled the deployment of a powerful radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland. Obama and SecDef Robert Gates are presenting the move as a matter of switching from long-range to short-range missile defense — as though these were mutually exclusive options — and downplayed Iran’s potential to build intercontinental rockets. Everyone knows that the administration’s real purpose was to placate Russia, the favored policy of Obama’s defenders in the foreign-policy intelligentsia. Speaking in Prague this april, President Obama praised the Czech Republic and Poland for their courage in “agreeing to host a defense against [Iranian] missiles.” He did not promise to match that courage.
‐ Holocaust deniers, it is generally held, are trading in conspiratorial fantasies, and are therefore beyond the reach of rational discourse. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be president of a state, but he seems in the grip of just such fantasies. He recently said that Jews had “created the story of Holocaust,” that this was a “myth,” and that they are “criminals.” Can a man in his position really believe what he is spouting? Answering him before the U.N. General Assembly, Benjamin Netanyahu held aloft a copy of the plans of Auschwitz, signed by Heinrich Himmler, no less, and also a copy of the minutes of the Wannsee Conference at which the Final Solution was planned. Netanyahu was treating Ahmadinejad as a rational man, open to evidence. The compliment seems undeserved.
‐ We cannot always be responsible for who praises us, it is true. But we wonder what President Obama and his team think of praise from Hugo Chávez. When George W. Bush was president, and spoke at the U.N., Chávez condemned him as “the devil,” over and over. He said that Bush had made the quarters “smell of sulphur.” After Obama spoke at the U.N., Chávez’s tune was different. He said, “The smell of sulphur is gone. It smells of hope.” Obama might show a touch of class if he indicated that he prefers his predecessor as U.S. president, Republican though he may be, to the dictatorial thug down in Venezuela.
‐ Col. Moammar Qaddafi, fresh from welcoming Lockerbie bomber Abdel al-Megrahi back home, was pumped for his maiden speech to the United Nations General Assembly. He spoke for 94 minutes (heads of state are by the rules to be given 15), demanding investigations into the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr., wondering whether swine flu had come from a weapons laboratory, and praising President Obama (“We are content and happy if Obama can stay forever as the president”). Qaddafi even offered to move U.N. headquarters to Libya. (Please.) His translator broke down after 90 minutes, shouting, “I just can’t take it anymore!”; Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez said, not untruthfully, that Qaddafi had “said all there is to say.”
‐ Saif and Aisha Qaddafi are Libyan royalty — they are the son and daughter of the dictator — and they head up a couple of foundations. The causes of those foundations seem innocuous enough: “maintaining and protecting human rights,” “promoting women’s economic opportunities.” Who could object? The Obama administration is planning to send a little cash their way: just some small change, $400,000. But a bipartisan group on the Hill is firmly opposed to that plan. They say that foundations connected to Qaddafi cannot be entirely good, and that, in any case, the American taxpayer should not be contributing to them: particularly after the “hero’s welcome” that Libya gave the Lockerbie terrorist, killer of 190 Americans. Saif was with him, grinning, arms extended, when he stepped off the plane.
‐ The United Nations cultivates animus against Israel with unbounded enthusiasm. The body that gave the world the resolution that “Zionism is racism” has followed up with the Goldstone Report. This document of almost 600 pages was supposed to investigate last winter’s hostilities between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Over the last eight years, Hamas and other Islamist groups have fired somewhere on the order of 8,000 rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel, terrorizing whoever was in range. Last winter Israel had finally had enough. In a short time, its forces killed hundreds of members of Palestinian security forces, 80 percent of whom were identified as members of a terrorist organization. The Goldstone Report holds that this campaign — with its attendant civilian casualties, which Israel took pains to minimize — constituted a war crime, and even a crime against humanity. Moral equivalence is thus posited between those who really do commit such crimes and those who seek to defend themselves against them. The inversion of reality is startling. Nothing is made of the fact that Hamas has always been firing out of civilian areas, hiding and arming in hospitals and mosques, in effect using the Palestinian people as human shields and wagering that this would constrain Israel, as it did. The viewpoint of the Goldstone Report is that a state dealing with terror has no right to retaliate against terror, and no justification for any attempt to do so. Arab and Muslim states believe the report is a fruitful ploy in the long campaign to delegitimize Israel. Actually it makes the United Nations a laughingstock, yet again.
‐ What if Israel preemptively takes out Iran’s nuclear plants? London’s Daily Express gives further credence to a story that Saudi Arabia would permit Israeli aircraft to use its airspace. Zbigniew Brzezinski has another perspective. The Democratic foreign-policy sage told the Daily Beast, a star in the blogosphere, that in the case that Israeli aircraft overflew Iraq on their way to bomb Iranian sites, “you go up and confront them.” In the 1967 war, Israeli jets mistook the USS Liberty for an Egyptian ship, attacking and killing quite a few of its crew. Brzezinski is proposing a “Liberty in reverse,” or in other words, shooting down allies in order to protect enemies whose favorite slogan is “Death to America!”
‐ A new Law Library of Congress (LLC) report confirms what we have been arguing for three months: that Honduran authorities acted constitutionally in removing Manuel Zelaya from the presidency. As the report demonstrates, the Honduran supreme court has constitutional authority to hear a case brought against the president and issue a warrant for his arrest. It also has constitutional authority to request that the military execute an arrest order. This was the chain of events that led to Zelaya’s arrest by the armed forces. Afterward, the Honduran national congress formally removed him from office. While there is no explicit constitutional provision giving lawmakers that authority, the LLC report concludes that they “used several other constitutional powers to remove President Zelaya from office.” On the other hand, Article 102 stipulates that “no Honduran may be expatriated or handed over to the authorities of a foreign State.” Therefore, Zelaya’s deportation to Costa Rica was unconstitutional. Honduran authorities must decide how to resolve the matter of his exile, and whether to grant him an amnesty for his political crimes. (His non-political crimes are another story: Zelaya has been accused of looting the Honduran central bank.) But the LLC report should put to rest any notion that Zelaya still has a legitimate claim to the presidency.
‐ Since 1991, every president has met with the Dalai Lama, every time the Dalai Lama has traveled to Washington. That means Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43. The Dalai Lama is traveling to Washington this month (October). But President Obama has said no. He is going to China in November, and is not willing to upset Beijing, by receiving the Dalai Lama, until after that trip. He argues that a “strong” U.S.-China relationship can only help the Tibetans. Some supporters of Tibet are grumbling about “appeasement.” They wonder what Obama will have to show for his solicitousness of China. We wonder too. We also note that Obama fears not to offend China by slapping arbitrary tariffs on its goods while fearing to offend China by receiving one of the more admirable men on the planet, speaking for one of the more persecuted peoples on the planet. Maybe Big Labor should adopt the Tibetan cause?
‐ The Empire State Building, an enduring symbol of capitalism and aspiration, was defaced: lit up red and yellow in honor of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. There are many things to celebrate about the people and history of China, but the establishment of the Communist regime in Beijing is not one of them. That government has killed millions and oppressed uncounted numbers. It is the government of Red Guard terror, the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, famine, labor camps, organ harvesting, the oppression of ethnic and religious minorities — its story is a catalogue of misery and evil. The history of China did not begin with the establishment of the Communist regime, nor will it end when Mao’s heirs join Stalin’s in the dustbin of history. Light up the Empire State Building for that.
‐ French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced that from now on his country’s economic statisticians should include “happiness” in their official calculations of gross domestic product. Even Escoffier would be impressed at this cooking of the books; among other things, there are many possible definitions of “happiness” — as can be seen from an assortment of recent surveys, which have variously determined Costa Rica, Nigeria, and Denmark to be the happiest country on earth. (Within the U.S., one formula proclaims the happiest state to be Utah, and the happiest congressional district to be California’s 14th.) The yoking of these disparate concepts, money and happiness, is an odd one in any case; one might as well reduce France’s national debt when a new cheese is invented, or lower its lofty unemployment rate when the national soccer team wins. Still, we can easily see the Obama administration adopting Sarkozy’s policy, for two reasons: (1) It’s French, and (2) nearly as important, it would give them something new to tax.
‐ Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti has deep-sixed his Twitter account after being criticized for sharing his liberal enthusiasms with Post readers. So: He’ll still be liberal, we’ll all still know it, and the Post still will suffer for it, but Post readers will know a little less about the news, and how it is edited, than they did before. How is that an improvement?
‐ Chief Justice John Roberts was taking questions from students at the University of Michigan Law School. Someone asked him whether too many justices come from elite schools. Roberts, a graduate of Harvard College and Law School, said no: “Some went to Yale.”
‐ For years there has been a struggle over the Metropolitan Opera. Some people want its productions to be more hip, more with-it, more avant-garde — more like the productions in Europe, where the operas were born, and where they have recently been warped, undermined, and ruined. Others say, “Let the Met be the Met — a bastion of productions that are faithful and sane.” The former group is now winning. New management has taken over the Met, and that management is dedicated to making the company more like a European house. They have struck a blow with their season-opening Tosca: which has Scarpia humping a statue of the Virgin Mary in church, just as Puccini and his librettists intended, right? Thing is, Tosca is already depraved and carnal — it is written into the score and libretto. There is no need for this “Europeanization” — this intrusion of a stage director’s gross notions. On Opening Night, patrons were heard to call out, “Read the libretto!” and “Go back to Europe!” Usually the avant-garde types can intimidate the “traditionalists” into silence. The New York Times, ever helpful, ran a headline: “It’s a New Met. Get Over It.” But maybe New Yorkers, who have a reputation for boldness, will stand up against trendiness and for artistic integrity.
‐ Director Roman Polanski was arrested while visiting Switzerland, and faces extradition to the United States for a 32-year-old crime. In 1977, Polanski, then 43, raped a 13-year-old girl. He pleaded guilty but fled to France, which has no extradition treaty with the U.S., when he feared that a judge would sentence him to more than time served. “In the same way that there is a generous America that we like, there is also a scary America that has just shown its face,” said French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand. In the same way that there is a Polanski whose movies — Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown — we watch even now, there is a Polanski who raped a kid after giving her champagne and half a Quaalude, then used money and fame to beat the rap. Unless the law is only for the inhabitants of slums or trailers or suburbs, Polanski should obey it.
‐ Irving Kristol grew up in that greenhouse of American intellectual life, lower-class Jewish New York. What he retained from his past was a delight in analysis and polemic; what he left behind were its ideological temptations, seeing, with his native common sense, that the world didn’t work the way Trotsky said it did. By the mid-1960s, he saw that the world also didn’t work quite the way Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society hoped it would. Kristol failed to convert more than a handful of fellow intellectuals to his new views: Even longtime colleague Daniel Bell balked. But the essays he wrote in the Seventies for the Wall Street Journal, and the contacts he made with politicians, from Richard Nixon to Jack Kemp, spread his insights far and wide. Kristol focused on the political and social foundations of prosperity and order — and how America had supplied these to millions of people. Dead at 89. R.I.P.
‐ The peak of William Safire’s early career is a twice-told tale, but it deserves one more telling: As a 29-year-old PR man, he lured Vice President Richard Nixon and Premier Nikita Khrushchev to an exhibit of a “typical American house” that he was tending in Moscow, then snapped them debating the merits of capitalism. The photo made instant history; the haunch-faced bureaucrat at Nixon’s side was a young Leonid Brezhnev. Safire wrote speeches for Nixon and Spiro Agnew, then in 1973 began a twice-weekly column for the New York Times. They billed him as their conservative voice, which he wasn’t, quite: Safire was an anti-Communist liberal Republican. He had a sprightly style, a big bag of tricks (year-end predictions, first-person forays into leaders’ thoughts), and a willingness to work the phones and to chase down malefactors of every stripe, including liberal Democrats. He was missed when he retired in 2005; is missed now that he has died, age 79. R.I.P.
‐ The last sultan of the Ottoman Empire was Mehmet the Sixth, deposed in 1922 at the age of 61 and carried off to exile on a British warship. Fourth in line of succession at that point was ten-year-old Ertugrul Osman. Had the sultanate continued, Osman would have taken the title in 1994. As it was, he lived a modest life, domiciled for the last 64 years of it in a two-bedroom rent-controlled apartment over a restaurant on Lexington Avenue in New York City. He died September 23 at age 97, the last surviving Ottoman prince born into the empire, and so considered by Turks to be “the last Ottoman.” Six hundred years after the first Osman chased the Byzantine remnant out of Anatolia and established the empire named (via a twist of phonetics) after him, the last faint glow of that empire has guttered out. Sic transit gloria mundi. R.I.P.
Hiding in Plain Sight
The main thing to remember about the revelation that Iran has a secret uranium-enrichment facility is that it is not a revelation.
Sure, the facts are new. They are these: In addition to a uranium-enrichment site that international inspectors have monitored for years, Iran has been building a secret facility inside a mountain near the city of Qom. This facility is under the control of the Revolutionary Guards, the elite corps who take orders from the “Supreme Leader” and are imbued with that pious zeal for which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is celebrated. It appears to be too small for large-scale energy production, but would be suited to enriching uranium for atomic warheads.
Rather than revelatory, however, these facts are confirmatory. They confirm, for instance, that the Iranian regime lies through its teeth about its nuclear activities. We knew this already from, among other things, the revelation two years ago that it had run a secret program (now supposedly disbanded) to develop a nuclear warhead despite assurances that its intentions were peaceful, and the revelation in 2002 that it had been operating a secret nuclear program for the better part of two decades.
They confirm, additionally, that the European approach to the crisis has failed. That approach was to assure the Iranian regime that no, we didn’t want to do anything very hard on them, but yes, we would certainly like to give them a lot of money in exchange for their word that they are nice people.
Most important, they confirm that the Iranian regime is doing just what states do when they wish clandestinely to build nuclear weapons, and constitutes a very serious security threat. As though to drive this point home, Iran tested a group of medium-range missiles in the days following disclosure of the Qom facility.
Even President Obama seems not to feel very hopeful, having declared that the “configuration” of the facility is “not consistent with a peaceful program.” Right you are, Mr. President; now what are you going to do about it? Obama’s diplomacy remains one of wishful thinking and faith in international bureaucracy. He learned of the facility’s existence during his transition briefings. How, then, to justify his administration’s outreach to the Iranian regime? Why, then, did he waste his recent appearance at the U.N. uttering utopian-internationalist pabulum? Why did he not instead present the Qom facility — and the regime’s failure to report it at the planning stage, as treaty obligations required — to Russia and China as justification for placing a new sanctions resolution on the Security Council’s agenda?
We go to press just as the administration prepares to “engage” Iran in its October 1 talks with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany. It might use the occasion to demand major concessions, such as a suspension of enrichment and snap inspections, and to push for highly punitive sanctions in the face of Iranian intransigence. It might also send credible signals that the military option is back on the table (in part to prevent the need for exercise of the military option). Alas, there is no reason to think Obama will take such a tack, and every reason to think he will allow his Iran policy to founder upon the international bureaucratic procedures that allow diplomats to give the impression they are achieving something when manifestly they are not.
For the better part of a decade, the diplomatic establishment has wanted — for reasons self-interested in some cases and in others naïve — the world to think that Iran’s intentions are peaceful. Iran has proved it wrong several times over. How much more confirmation do we wish to see?
The Case against Baucus
Sen. Max Baucus’s health-care bill, now working its way through the Finance Committee, is a collection of regressive taxes, hidden spending, price controls, and empty promises. It was rigged so that the Congressional Budget Office would find that it does not increase the deficit. This finding is supposed to make it look better than all the other Democratic health-care bills. But the bill hides its costs in two ways.
First, it claims to squeeze payments to Medicare providers by $300 billion. Congress has passed smaller payment cuts before and then refused to let them take effect. There is no reason to expect a different outcome this time. Second, the bill forces individuals to cover many of its costs. (We called this maneuver a “tax increase” before President Obama brought terminological sophistication to Washington.)
Like all the Democratic legislation, the Baucus bill would increase premiums for most people: by increasing demand for health services among the newly insured; by prohibiting insurers from giving discounts to healthy customers; and by forcing all Americans to purchase more comprehensive policies than they might want to buy. Real wages could therefore be expected to fall, or at least to rise less. All those people who have, for whatever reason, turned down the insurance their employers offer would find themselves forced to buy it — actually, for the reasons mentioned, to buy a more expensive version of it — or to pay a $1,900 fine.
The bill would also crush any flickering chance at entitlement reform. Cutting provider payments is, given the government’s market power, an attempt to tighten price controls on the health-care industry, which has for decades been Washington’s preferred alternative to structural reforms. The price-control strategy has not brought costs under control, obviously, but has made the health sector more inefficient — and has also inspired provider groups to lobby Washington to keep the price controls weak. The Baucus bill further institutionalizes the price-control strategy by establishing a cost-cutting board insulated from congressional control that can, by law, only recommend provider cuts. Market reforms that escape from the price-controls-or-bankruptcy bind will be out of order.
Democrats believe that they have to pass major health-care legislation, no matter how much unease it inspires, or be branded as failures. We suspect that voters would be happy to see the Democrats work with Republicans to enact bipartisan improvements to the health-care system: increasing access to insurance by reducing the tax penalty on people who buy insurance for themselves; cutting costs by allowing a national market in individual insurance to emerge. If Democrats continue on their present course of folly, however, Republicans should do everything they can to defeat health-care legislation — and pledge, if it passes, to repeal it at their first opportunity.