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Jacob Heilbrunn

Europe, Russia, and the Mess in Cyprus

If you were a stolid burgher living in prosperous Bavaria who had conscientiously salted away his savings over the past several decades, would you really want to hand them over to Greece, Portugal, and even Cyprus? That's the conundrum facing the technocrats who are striving mightily in Brussels, Frankfurt, and Berlin to hold together the rickety contraption known as Europe. Now that Cyprus--which is more like a city-state than a country, with its one million inhabitants--needs a big bailout, the unresolved tensions of the European unification are becoming increasingly acute.

It seems like every few months Europe confronts a fresh crisis and then muddles through. But this time the Cypriots are putting up more resistance than usual to the financial engineers in Brussels and Berlin. What's more, there's a Russian connection that is also causing more than a bit of consternation among the Eurocrats. Cyprus is, at bottom, an old-fashioned kind of place--a country where you can park billions earned licitly or illicitly and figure, with a pretty high degree of confidence, that no pesky inspectors from the international community will be able to snoop around and discover the amount stashed away. Now that Switzerland is getting more transparent, Cyprus looks to be one of the last redoubts of a great banking tradition.

Which is why Russian president Vladimir Putin is having conniptions over the notion that a tax will be imposed upon deposit holders in Cyprus as an integral part of the bailout package. He's making the uncomfortable discoverey that Russia, too, is not immune to the European banking crisis. Putin says it would be "unfair, unprofessional, and dangerous" to impose a 9.9 percent tax on accounts worth over 100,000 Euros--a move that could cost Russian investors billions. For all we know, Putin himself may have stashed away a goodly amount in Cyprus. There is a solution: he could simply have Russia back its own bailout and buy Cyprus outright, turning it into an appanage of Russia. This would take Brussels off the hook and provide Moscow with a convenient banking station abroad. Putin wouldn't have to demand that the Cypriots learn to read and write Cyrillic, but he would certainly be within his rights to have the flag of the Russian federation flying over the island nation. In addition, Russian suzerainty would be another way of taking a swipe at the Cyprus-loving British, with whom Putin has frosty relations. 

For now, it looks as though Cyprus and its 56-member parliament will reject the bailout package sanctioned by Brussels. The plucky Cypriots don't want to pay what amounts to a tax on their own debt. Who can blame them?

But at the same time, it's more than a little peculiar that Europe would be so eager to rescue Cyprus. As the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung points out, Cyprus is of negligible importance. It accounts for 1.2 percent of the European Union's economic activity. Whether a contagion would really spread from Cyprus to the rest of Europe that afflicts its banking system is dubious. Berlin, for one, would probably be better off letting Cyprus sink.

At the moment, Cyprus is on bank holiday. But the moment its bank do open, the chance of a run on them is dauntingly high. There is one plus to the crisis. At least the chance of renewed conflict between Greece and Turkey over the nation is low. Greece doesn't have the money to go to war, Turkey is preoccupied with Syria, and, by now, who other than Russia would really want to possess it?

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Cyprus Investment Promotion Agency. CC BY-SA 3.0.


Wacko Birds And Republican Foreign Policy

Senator John McCain has apparently become a foreign policy ornithologist. He recently dismissed his fellow Senator Rand Paul and others who share his views on a less expansive American foreign policy as "wacko birds," a term, one might think, that would most appropriately apply to the woman from the frozen wasteland of Alaska that he selected to become his vice-presidential candidate. Paul's feathers appear to be unruffled. At the CPAC convention, Paul, fresh off his drones filibuster triumph, which earned him kudos on both the left and right, gave as good as he got, suggesting that McCain and his chum Senator Lindsey Graham are mossbacks, relics of a past era.

These verbal fusillades have prompted the media to conclude that a civil war is taking place in the GOP on foreign affairs (though the current attacks look more like preliminary shots than all-out combat). A case in point is an article about the GOP by Michael D. Shearer in today's New York Times. Shearer correctly suggests that the GOP is starting to revisit the question of whether America should intervene abroad or mind its own knitting. He quotes Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass (the author of a new book called Foreign Policy Begins At Home), who appears to approve of some aspects of Paul's approach to foreign affairs and worry about others. He also zeroes in on the views of neocons such as Dan Senor who profess to be worried about the prospect of a Pauline conversion in the GOP. Shearer's conclusion:

The question for the Republican Party is whether Mr. Paul and his followers will emerge as a vocal enough part of the Republican electorate to reshape the party’s foreign policy without taking it back to the strictly isolationist approach.

It's true that the GOP was strictly isolationist before World War II. At the outset of the cold war, however, the GOP was more interested in Asia than Europe. To call it isolationist is a bit of a misnomer. Still, the point is clear. Paul does represent a challenge to both the realist-internationalist and neocon wings of the GOP. Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush were realists rather than neocons. But that didn't mean that they scanted the importance of international relations. Quite the contrary.

But it's premature to concludes exactly where Paul will land in these debates. For one thing, it's hard to believe that a truly isolationist platform would have much electoral appeal beyond a hardened rump of libertarians. The significant thing is that, after about a decade of neocon suzerainty, the GOP is recognizing, however belatedly, that it needs to entertain ideas other than the reflexive interventionism championed by the old guard. Once a realist, McCain, for reasons known only to himself, has turned himself into the handmaiden of the neocons. These days he doesn't espouse realism, but mindlessness. It is good to see him get his comeuppance. Wacko bird indeed.

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The Egregious Joe Lieberman Heads to AEI

There is no shortage of windbags in the Senate. Nor is there ever likely to be one. But among his colleagues, Joseph Lieberman has stood out in out in recent years for his particularly grating blend of pomposity and hubris, prattle and sanctimony. Seldom has a Senator who has been wrong so often on foreign affairs trumpeted his alleged superiority more loudly. Whether it is Iraq or Syria or Georgia, the orgulous Lieberman seems never to have met a war he wouldn't like to fight. He is a champion about whining that his extreme views don't meet with greater approbation in the Democratic party.

Now Lieberman is heading to the American Enterprise Institute to co-chair a group with former Senator Jon Kyl called the American Internationalism Project. It is supposed to be bipartisan and set a new agenda for foreign policy. Lieberman and Kyl should spare themselves the work of assembling their little group. The conclusions are already preordained. Far from being bipartisan, it would require super-resolution microscopy to discover any real distinctions between Lieberman's and Kyl's views, not to mention AEI's. Lieberman, a preeminent neocon, should feel right at home there. There is nothing remotely bipartisan about his views. They are those of an unreconstructed neocon. His tenure at AEI will allow him to continue pontificate to a sympathetic audience about why he regards even mild opposition to his intransigent bellicosity as benighted obstructionism.

Lieberman's most egregious mistake, of course, has been not only to endorse the Iraq War, but also never, ever to acknowledge that it was a calamitous mistake, one that has stoked anti-Americanism around the globe, tarnished America's image, and led to the senseless deaths of thousands of American soldiers, who were sent improperly equipped into battle and became mired in fighting for...what?

No, Lieberman serenely overlooks what went wrong. Instead, when it comes to explaining the war, Lieberman's stance has been pure Cheneyism. Here he is engaging in obfuscation and denial in 2011 on the "Morning Joe" program:

Saddam was threatening the stability of the entire region. He’d shown that by his actions. I believe that the evidence is very clear that he was developing weapons of mass destruction.

Obviously we don’t have evidence that he had a big program. But the most official and comprehensive report show that’s true. He was also, the evidence shows, beginning really tactically to support the terrorist movements that had attack us on 9/11 and today, to make a long story short, instead of a brutally repressive dictator in Iraq, we’ve got a government that was elected, that’s self-governing and the country is self-defending. By the end of this year, we’re going to have most of our troops out of there. I think that’s had a major effect on the entire region. Iraq is now the most democratic country in the Arab world. so, yes, I think it was the right thing to do. Terrible cost we paid in life and treasure, but ultimately I think the right decision.

Obviously? The Bush administration claimed that it was patently clear. Didn't have evidence that he had a big program? There was no evidence that he had any program. Nor was there any that he was supporting outside terrorist groupings. Far from being friendly to America, Iraq's democratic government has been cozying up to Iran. Lieberman is purveying delusions, not realism. Like many neocon proponents of the war, however, he has refused to examine it forthrightly. Instead, he is purveying self-exculpatory ideological pap. The mind reels at the notion that he would now have the temerity to instruct America on its future course in foreign affairs. His counsel should be shunned, not followed.

Still, it is unlikely that he will retain much influence. Even if he commands some lingering stature in Washington, the correlation of forces, to use the old Soviet term, is shifting inexorably against him. President Obama, compelled by mounting budget deficits and the hideous costs of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is scaling back America's commitments abroad. Meanwhile, the GOP is starting to begin a painful reassessment of its own foreign policy stances that have, again and again, led to disaster. It seems safe to conclude that Liebermanism—the pose of ostentatiously pretending to be a beleaguered moderate internationalist while endorsing the most retrograde Republican foreign policy stances—is reaching its terminus.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Sebastian Zwez. CC BY 3.0.

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Rand Paul Is Right To Filibuster John Brennan

Senator Rand Paul is taking the kind of gutsy move that is almost never seen in today's GOP, which has routinely elevated militarism above common sense. His decision to filibuster John Brennan's nomination to head the CIA is right-on. Brennan is a slippery character who has oiled his way up both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. His answers about his knowledge of CIA torture during the Bush administration were evasive and unconvincing and his nomination should never be approved. Now Paul is calling him out on the administration's secret drone war policy in particular and its contempt for civil liberties in general.

To his credit, Paul is doing it the right way. The Senate has gotten lazy about filibusters, which is to say that Senators aren't required to talk continuously to maintain one. This is a reform that Sen. Harry Reid should have insisted on in his negotiations with the GOP. He didn't. Paul, however, says "I will speak until I can no longer speak." That Americans, he said, could be assassinated by a drone sitting in a cafe in San Francisco is an "abomination."  Strong words. But they are also merited. Paul's defense of the constitutional rights of Americans is stirring and admirable.

The kinds of questions that Paul is raising about the drone program have not been aired enough on the floor of the Senate. Who is to say that the drone program won't rebound on America? Will our leaders be targeted by them? Will drones be used in American airspace to kill civilians? Isn't the cost of drones higher than the reward? Are we simply stirring up more enmity in the Muslim world by wantonly killing civilians as well as terrorists?

It's easy to see why the antiseptic drone program appeals to American officials. As Andrew J. Bacevich has argued, Americans have become enamoured of air power and the notion that warfare can be conducted like a video game. The drone program is the quintessence of that ethos. With a push of a button, officials can take out someone that they believe is plotting against America. But the easiness with which they are making these decisions is redolent of former vice Dick Cheney's contempt for democratic procedures. As Maureen Dowd points out in today's New York Times, the hideous Cheney doesn't even maintain the fiction in the new documentary about him called The World According to Dick Cheney that Bush was in charge during the first term. In the Obama White House it's clear that the president, who has constructed a national security team that he tightly controls, is in charge. But the secrecy that surrounds the drone program suggests that the Obama White House may not be all that different from the Bush one when it comes to the war on terrorism.

So far, Obama has pretty much gotten a pass. But the Brennan nomination suggests the extent to which Obama has become entangled in a secretive world that may be better at protecting its own perks and prerogatives than American security. "Where is the Barack Obama of 2007," Rand Paul pointedly asked. He is setting himself up, Paul said, to become "executioner-in-chief." Obama may be undermining the very liberties he purports to be protecting. No one person, Paul noted, should, willy-nilly, have the power to order the death of an American citizen.

Paul's protest will probably prove to be an ineffective one, at least when it comes to blocking Brennan. But he is laying down a marker as an independent-minded conservative who will not simply go along with the claustrophobic party line on national security. "If there were an ounce of courage in this body, I would be joined by many other senators. Are we going to give up our rights to politicians?" For an answer to that question perhaps he need look no further than the cover of the current National Interest, which features a cover story by his fellow Senator James Webb on congressional abdication over foreign affairs.

The Presidency
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Nazism and the Vienna Philharmonic

After World War II Austria portrayed itself as the leading victim of Nazism. It had been conscripted into the Third Reich in 1938, so the story went. Forgotten were the jubilant crowds at the Heldenplatz in Vienna where the Fuhrer addressed his adoring countrymen after the Anschluss. After 1945 Austrians hastily said goodbye to all that even as Nazis were reincorporated wholesale into postwar society. Membership in the SS was no barrier to high political office, as the socialist chancellor Bruno Kreisky demonstrated when in 1975 he contemplated a coalition with Friedrich Peter, a former member of the Waffen-SS and leader of the postwar Freedom Party. Then came the Waldheim affair in 1986, when the former Secretary-General of the United Nations decided to run for the Austrian presidency. He won, but his past as a Wehrmacht officer in Nazi war crimes focused a spotlight on Austrian complicity with Nazism that Austrians deeply resented.

Now Austria is experiencing a new bout of controversy over the role of the Vienna Philharmonic and Nazism. 47 percent of the orchestra's members belonged to the Nazi party in 1939. Jews were expelled with seven members dying in death camps or during deportation. The orchestra, the New York Times reports, is investigating its past more closely, focusing on a ring of honor that was awarded to Baldur von Schirach, who was the Gauleiter of Vienna. Schirach, who deported tens of thousands of Jews to concentration camps, escaped the noose at Nuremberg. He received twenty years of imprisonment. Upon release, it seems, a mysterious emissary from the orchestra presented him with a replacement ring. Three historians, led by the industrious University of Vienna professor Oliver Rathkolb, are probing into the archives of the orchestra at the fabled Musikverein. Until now access to them has been restricted. New records have been discovered.

The tale of the tortured relationship between art and totalitarianism is not a new one. For Hitler, who saw himself as an artistic genius, the arts were an essential part of his attempt to remake Germany into a new order. In both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, artists made their compromises. Thomas Mann, in Doctor Faustus, described the seductive temptations posed by Nazism for artists on the make. It was a bargain that not a few Germans, including the Wagner clan in Bayreuth, were eager to strike. But it was in Austria that anti-Semitism was perhaps most fervently embraced.

The Vienna Philharmonic did not remain aloof--a summary report discussed by the Times says that trumpeter Helmut Wobisch, for example, turns out to have been a member of the SS who spied on his colleagues. He became executive director of the orchestra in 1953 and, according to Wikipedia, received a high award for services to the Austrian Republic in 1967. The New Year's Concert was originally devised to celebrated the 1938 union with the Third Reich, a fact that the orchestra apparently disguises on its website. Today the orchestra remains a fairly homogenous unit with few women and fewer foreigners. It is, if you will, a politically incorrect ensemble. Proudly so. Bloomberg says that "Franz Welser-Most, music director of the State Opera and conductor of the 2013 New Year’s Day concert, voiced a widespread fear when, in a speech, he demanded: 'Are we faced with a phenomenon of ‘Asianization,’ much like the ‘Americanization’ of a century ago?'”

So far, the orchestra--indisputably one of the best--has resisted any real attempt at change in its personnel policy, which has remained largely unchanged since its founding in 1842. It is self-governing and does as it pleases. But when it comes to the history of the orchestra, it is clearly no longer able to cover up its past. That attempt to efface its history should come as no surprise. Austria has expertly avoided examining much of it as far as possible. Once in a while, though, a fresh scandal erupts. Now the country that exported Hitler to Bavaria is in for another reckoning with its tenebrous past.

Wikimedia Commons/Clemens PFEIFFER, A-1190 Wien. CC BY-SA 3.0.


Conservatism and the Demise of Human Events

It was Ronald Reagan's favorite newspaper. Now Human Events, a conservative stalwart publication for decades, has hit the skids. It will maintain an online "presence," as the saying goes, but no more print. Is it an omen of a larger conservative failure, or, to put it more precisely, the collapse, not just of moderate Republicans, but also the traditional establishment right?

The most comprehensive report has been issued by FishbowlDC. Most of the staff has been let go. Subscribers, the FishbowlDC report indicates, won't be left in the lurch: "An internal email at Eagle Publishing obtained by FishbowlDC indicated subscriptions to Human Events will be replaced by subscriptions to Forecasts & Strategies, an investment news letter published by Eagle." An interesting form of compensation, but perhaps Eagle knows its market after all. Younger, more aggressive conservative websites have captured much of the audience that might once have thronged to Human Events, which used to be a lodestar of what conservatives were thinking—a kind of tip sheet to the mind of the right. In the end, it couldn't move fast enough to keep up with the morphing of conservatism into its current incarnations. Human Events was no shrinking violet, but on a more elevated plane, the end of the Hoover Institution's Policy Review suggests some of the dilemmas of conservatism as a calming rather than a raging intellectual force.

The truth is that it is becoming more difficult to discern what the right wants, or whether it even knows what it would really like--where the movement, in other words, would like to move, other than remaining stuck in reverse gear. In a bracing analysis, the redoubtable Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University suggests that conservatives are actually winning many of the political battles in Congress, partly because of the filibuster, partly because of the existence of conservative Democrats. He argues that "the polity is not gridlocked, but instead produces the policies and insitutional changes sought by the conservative majority of voters."

There is something to this. But, as a lengthy piece in the New Yorker by Ryan Lizza on the House GOP and Eric Cantor illustrates, it is hard to avoid the sense that the movement is lurching into incoherence. Demographic changes and the emergence of younger voters who view government more favorably are conspiring to render much of the GOP's program otiose. Indeed, Lizza observes that the GOP faces a big stumbling block into trying to reinvent itself:

The House is rarely the source of renewal for a political party. In the nineteen-eighties, during a low point for the Democrats, it was Democratic governors like Bill Clinton, not the unpopular Democratic-controlled House, who pointed the way out of the wilderness for the Party. Major change almost always comes from a party’s aspiring Presidential candidates, and almost never from the House.

Though Cantor expresses the hope that he can reach a compromise with President Obama, it's a feeble one. Lizza adds, "Days after Cantor told me that he wanted to rise above the budget squabbling, he was back in the thick of the fight over the sequester—a policy that, whether he deems it a sideshow or not, will have a more immediate impact on real Americans than any of the issues he mentioned in his think-tank speech" at the American Enterprise Institute.

The refusal to invite New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is now being deemed a pseudo-conservative, to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference is another sign of the tensions roiling the GOP. He may be the most popular GOP Governor, but he is coming into bad odor on the right because of his support for a bailout for the victims of the Hurricane Sandy flood. How long the party can continue to ostracize the moderates in its ranks—and Christie is, at bottom, a conservative—without courting further electoral peril is a question that it seems reluctant to address. Perhaps the most remarkable quote in Ryan Lizza's essay comes from Congressman David Dreier, who is stepping down. Dreier calls himself a "Reagan Republican" which, he says, "makes me left of center in my party."

It can't get any stranger than that. Or can it? The Gipper, it seems safe to say, would not be pleased.

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Andrew Bacevich's Shrewd Letter to Paul Wolfowitz

To mark the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war, Andrew J. Bacevich has adopted the epistolary mode of communication in the latest Harper's, a magazine that can always be counted on for elegantly turned essays, to implore Paul Wolfowitz to come to terms with the conflict that he played a key role in promoting and, moreover, that he really only addressed once in a lengthy interview with Sam Tanenhaus in Vanity Fair, in which he conceded that weapons of mass destruction had been fastened upon by the George W. Bush administration as the most persuasive way to sell the war to the public. Now Bacevich is urging Wolfowitz, more or less, to come clean about the war, to reflect upon what went awry in an intellectually honest fashion. Addressing Wolfowitz as "Dear Paul," a privilege he grants himself based upon the fact that Wolfowitz gave him a job when he needed one several decades ago at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Bacevich has composed a remarkably personal and penetrating missive.

As Bacevich observes, the post, however minor, offered him the chance to participate in meetings led by Zbigniew Brzezinski at SAIS where the great events of the day were discussed with various luminaries. Bacevich says it was a learning experience, not so much for what he learned about foreign affairs but about the people who professed to be expert about them. He reached the conclusion—rapidly, I suspect—that "people said to be smart...really aren't. They excel mostly in recycling bromides. When it came sustenance, the sandwiches were superior to the chitchat." Wolfowtiz, however, was an exception. He was bored with administrative work, Bacevich indicates, but when it came to discussing foreign policy, he had game—"at Zbig's luncheons, when you riffed on some policy was a treat to watch you become so animated."

The heart of Bacevich's essay, however, is about Wolfowitz's relationship with the legendary strategist Albert Wohlstetter. Bacevich suggests that Wolfowitz was never really a neocon; rather, his "approach owed more to Wohlstetter Inc.—a firm less interested in ideology than in power and its employment." Bacevich outlines what he sees as Wohlstetter's approach to international relations (though in a rare lapse he omits to mention the key role played by Wohlstetter's wife Roberta, the author of a highly regarded scholarly study of Pearl Harbor which had a decisive effect on Dick Cheney's thinking about unexpected threats—indeed, a good argument could be made that she was the more rigorous thinker of the two). As Bacevich presents it, Wohlstetter was interested in dominion abroad and believed that "transforming the very nature of war, information technology—an arena in which the United States has historically enjoyed a clear edge—brings outright supremacy within reach." He adds, "of all the products of Albert Wohlstetter's fertile brain, this one impressed you most. The potential implications were dazzling." Iraq provided the pretext to attempt to implement the Wohlstetter doctrine. A successful conflict would allow America to proclaim without fear of contradiction, "I am the greatest!" It failed.

What would Wohlstetter have made of it all?

Bacevich suggests that the ruthlessly pragmatic Wohlstetter, who died in 1997, would have taken a hard look at what went wrong—the war in Afghanistan dragging on into a second decade, Iran's influence increasing almost daily in Iraq, and U.S. and Israeli security interests "rapidly slipping out of sync." (Still, it's fair to wonder if Wohlstetter himself would have endorsed the war in the first place, which Bacevich appears to assume.) No one among George W. Bush's votaries has offered anything other than valedictory statements. But why not the most gifted of the bunch, Wolfowitz? Why doesn't he take a fresh look?  It is incumbent upon him, Bacevich mordantly concludes, to "give it a shot."

My own suggestion: Bacevich and Wolfowitz should carry on a prolonged correspondence about foreign policy that could be turned into a book. Neither of these two perspicuous observers would be able to evade the other. This would surely constitute one of the more illuminating exchanges that Washington, DC has witnessed in many moons.

Muckety Mucks
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Why Does Martin Peretz Hate the New Republic?

Martin Peretz is going to war again, or at least he thinks he is. The former owner of the New Republic began his intellectual career as a man of the left before he began drifting towards neoconservatism in the early 1970s. Now his drift appears to have been consummated. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Peretz retails many of the grievances that the neocons historically directed toward his magazine. In the  Journal, which appears to be one of the few outlets that will publish him, Peretz complains that his former magazine is becoming a redoubt of leftism. Whether his account amounts to more than peevish rantings, however, is another matter.

Peretz, who most recently got into hot water for his musings about denying American Muslims their constitutional rights and then issued a mealy-mouthed apology, may not be the best judge of what constitutes the appropriate boundaries of debate about race in America. But he doesn't let that stop him. On the contrary, he assails New York Times editor Sam Tanenhaus for publishing a provocative piece that delved deeply into American political history called "Original Sin" about the Republican party and race. Merely raising the topic appears to be taboo for Peretz who declares but does not show why the essay is intellectually wanting. Nor, for that matter, does he acknowledge that Tanenhaus published a number of important pieces during Peretz's own tenure at the magazine.

Nevertheless, for all his indignation over Tanenhaus, Peretz's real aim is to depict himself as the victim of a terrible betrayal. Peretz suggests that he has been betrayed by Chris Hughes, the new owner of the magazine who is trying to revive it. According to Peretz,

What made the "Original Sin" issue unrecognizable to this former owner is that it established as fact what had only been suggested by the magazine in the early days of its new administration: The New Republic has abandoned its liberal but heterodox tradition and embraced a leftist outlook as predictable as that of Mother Jones or the Nation.

Yikes! This is quite a claim to advance since only two issues of the magazine in its fresh incarnation have appeared. Peretz, however, is undaunted. He adds, "Mr. Hughes is not from the world of Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann, the old-school liberals who founded the `journal of opinion' in the hope that it would foment in its readers `little insurrections of the mind.'" But how does Peretz know that? And is the stuffy "world of Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann," as Peretz pretentiously puts it, something that is worthy of aspiration a century later? In any case, his dismissive depiction of Hughes is redolent of the worst kind of intellectual snobbery.

The preening Peretz goes on to boast about his own record as editor, pointing to his support of the Nicaraguan contras and Israel as the kind of heteredox positions on the left that testify to his own bravery. What he does not acknowledge, however, is that his increasing intellectual rigidity and incessant fulgurations ended up running the magazine into the ground. His views were not fresh and surprising and insightful; they were utterly predictable. His revelations were only revelatory to himself. Now that he has been stripped of his blog at TNR, he can only broadcast them occasionally and is lurching ever further into cranky irrelevance. By now Peretz isn't worthy of scorn but pity.

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The End of No Drama Obama

President Obama is ending the no drama phase of his presidency. Ever since his pallid performance against Mitt Romney in the first debate, Obama has been reinventing himself. Last night he emerged as the liberal president that has always been suppressed under his careful carapace of cool and calm. Taking a leaf from George W. Bush, Obama went on the offensive. He ended his speech with a fervent plea for gun control—a moralistic rather than policy-wonk ending that allowed him to claim the moral high ground. The only thing that threatened to overshadow his speech was the spectacle of Christopher J. Dorner engaged in a shootout in a cabin in California with the police.

Despite the nuclear test in North Korea—an ominous move that could portend real trouble for the administration in its second term—Obama treated foreign affairs almost as an afterthought, which, given the tenor of the Senate hearings on Chuck Hagel's nomination, in which Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made the odious suggestion that Hagel may have received tens of millions from North Korea and is, in effect, a communist fellow traveler, Obama might be pardoned for not wanting to tackle. But problems and threats are mounting abroad. But Obama made it clear that his focus will be on domestic policy. Troops are coming home from Afghanistan. No new wars are in the offing.

Obama staked out a firmly progressive program on guns, schools, climate change, and, above all, jobs. For those who proclaimed that he took a prolonged detour in enacting health-care during his first term, Obama made it clear that he's going to focus on employment in his second. And the deficit? Not so much. "Most Americans," he said, "understand that we can't just cut our way to prosperity. They know that broad-based economic growth requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue." The line coming from the White House will be that economic growth commands priority over cutting entitlement benefits. The unpleasant task of trimming, or even slashing, benefits for the elderly—something that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans really want to tackle—will be a problem for Obama's successor, whoever he or she may be.

Judging by Sen. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul's responses to Obama last night, it won't be either of them. At least if they don't become more polished. Rubio made waves not for what he said, but for his lunge for a water bottle during his response. Rand Paul always looks a little unkempt. Why the GOP, which proclaimed that it was going to speak with one voice, needed two to answer Obama is somewhat mysterious. But infighting among the Republicans is what Obama will rely upon to pass as much of his program as he can squeak through a fractured Congress. The complaint that Obama is promoting "big government" is too vague; the GOP would have to enunicate a program of what it envisions as reviving an economy that remains very much on the artificial life support being supplied by the Federal Reserve. The GOP's boldest move to counter Obama seems to have been to invite the rock star Ted Nugent who once advised him to "suck on my machine gun." But such inflammatory rhetoric was nowhere in evidence as the GOP tries to mount its new charm offensive with voters. It's dropped the searing language and becoming rather goody two-shoes. Senator Mike Johanns told the New York Times: "Good people will show that we're a governing party. You win elections because people believe you can make a difference."

Which is what Obama was trying to demonstrate last night. His new persona is winning him plaudits among liberals. David Corn, for example, observed,

With this address, he didn't hold back. And if he only succeeds in placing this nation on the road to universal preschool, that in itself would be a historic accomplishment of fundamental consequence. With this address—which seemed to bore House Speaker John Boehner—the president was not trying to win over recalcitrant Republicans and nudge them toward the compromises they have by and large eschewed. He was trying to lead.

For all Obama's rhetorical skills on Tuesday night, however, he will be judged not by his efforts on gun control or expanding preschools, but on his ability to improve the economy. If the unemployment rate falls significantly and if inflation remains low and the stock market continues to rise, the rest will follow. If they don't, he could still go down as a very unpopular president.

The Presidency
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The Demise of Karl Rove?

Karl Rove's mishap on election night, when he insisted that Ohio, contrary to all factual evidence, might end up in Mitt Romney's victory column, is apprently not being held against him at Fox News, where, unlike Sarah Palin, he was recently awarded a lucrative contract extension. But since then the burgeoning civil war in the GOP is starting to raise questions about Rove's own political viability, his status, in short, as a kingmaker inside the party. The proximate cause of the discussion is Rove's avowed aim to target candidates that he views as too extreme to compete effectively in congressional races. Rove is announcing that he will use an organization called the Conservative Victory Project to ensure that Republicans emerge—what else?—victorious in the next round of national elections.

It's an audacious promise from an operative who sunk about $300 million into the 2012 election and ended up with scant results to show for it. In the business world, Rove's performance would have earned him the heave-ho. But in the political world the former wonder boy who stage managed George W. Bush's ascent—an ascension that explains much of the GOP's current woes—is moving on to his next act, which is to try and salvage something from the mess he helped create. Can he do it?

Writing at the Huffington Post, Howard Fineman flatly declares that Rove is "done." The GOP may revive, but it won't because of Rove's efforts:

Tea Partiers rightly ask what Rove and his rich-as-Croesus American Crossroads super PAC have gotten for conservatives or even the GOP. Rove is a master tactician, but not necessarily a great judge of political horseflesh. His taste tends to run to rich guys who can pay him a lot -- which worked out well only in the case of W., and then only by skin of Justice Antonin Scalia's ("get over it") teeth.

Now come the likes of senators such as Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky to challenge him: smart, angry and anti-establishment conservatives who loath the country club types and who want to remake the Republican Party in their own uncompromisingly isolationist, anti-governmental, anti-social-welfare and anti-tax image.

As Fineman sees, a battle is erupting between the establishment and Tea Party types. Fineman believes that the establishment may win in the end, harnessing the energy of the grass roots. But Rove will not be the leader of this charge. It will be younger figures in the GOP such Florida Senator Marco Rubio who, like Richard Nixon, will have to perform the act of uniting the two wings of the party.

Maybe so. But over at TalkingPointsMemo, it is possible to glean the animus that animates both wings of the GOP. This is not a fight. It is a blood feud. Here are what some of the principals are saying about each other:

“The Empire is striking back,” warned Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks.

Tea party-backed former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) told TPM he’ll start a super PAC to counter Rove’s effort, declaring, “If Rove wants a fight for the soul of the Republican Party, bring it on.”

In the Georgia Senate race, Congressman Broun vowed not to be “intimidated” by the establishment. In Iowa, Congressman King declared that “[n]obody can bully me out of running for the U.S. Senate, not even Karl Rove and his hefty war chest.”

RedState’s Erick Erickson wrote: “I dare say any candidate who gets this group’s support should be targeted for destruction by the conservative movement.”

Brent Bozell of the conservative Media Research Center slammed Rove’s group, calling it “shamelessly” named, arguing that right-wing candidates like Ted Cruz (TX), Marco Rubio (FL), and Pat Toomey (PA) have won Senate seats. In response, Rove’s spokesman Jonathan Collegio called Bozell a “hater.”

The real question is whether the verbal hand grenades that these conservatives are lobbing at each other will revive or annihilate the GOP. The midterm elections will go some ways toward settling that question. If the Tea Party continues to make inroads into the GOP, then the die will be cast. The movement conservatism that began in the 1950s will continue its capture of the GOP, but the question will be whether it is actually capturing anything other than a shell of a party. This time there is no Dwight Eisenhower lurking in the wings to capture the nomination and quash the hard right.

But another possiblity does exist. Perhaps the various factions will end up declaring a truce with Rubio moving toward the center and Tea Party darling Rand Paul running as his vice-presidential candidate. If Rove wants to prove that he isn't finished, maybe he can even preside over the reunification of the GOP. So far, it resembles two warring camps rather than a coherent political party.

Image: Flickr/Llyn Hunter, Bobcat Publishing. CC BY 2.0.

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April 20, 2014