The White House isn’t happy with a new Congressional Budget Office study of the economic impact of Obama’s proposed boost of the federal minimum wage. A gradual increase from the current $7.25 per hour to $10.10 would, they said, probably cause about half a million people to lose their jobs, but lift nearly twice that number out of poverty. Critics naturally pounced on the job-loss point. The administration is fighting back, releasing a statement from two members of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers charging that the CBO’s job-loss estimates “are not reflective of a consensus of the economics profession.” (Jim Antle disputed that here.) And in parallel, it’s engaging in a big social-media campaign, under the hashtag #RaiseTheWage, to stir up support for its plan. A key talking point has been that a minimum-wage hike will be good for the middle class—this was the second bullet of six from the CEA, and first of two tweets from the official White House Twitter account.
The White House played things about right in the face of the expected and usual snit by China regarding a meeting with the Dalai Lama: to proceed with the meeting—although not in the Oval Office—and to disregard Beijing's complaining. The complaint has no merit, no matter how much China whinges about interference in internal affairs. The Dalai Lama renounced a political role for himself a few years ago, he travels and speaks now as only a spiritual leader, and neither he nor President Obama favors anything like a secession of Tibet. If the conversation between the two leaders stirred up Chinese complaints, so much the better for getting increased attention to the cause of religious and cultural freedom.
So much the better also for distinguishing between what should and should not be respected regarding the sensitivities of foreign governments. There is a tendency, in assessing a relationship such as the one between the United States and China, to speak in terms of whether the overall relationship is, or should be, warm, cool, or whatever, while delving less into the merits of individual issues that affect the temperature. More attention ought to be paid to whether particular positions are or are not reasonable, even if it is just a matter of the other government griping about this or griping about that.
There are things to admire about Tony Blair. He refurbished the Labor Party, proving a deft steward who stripped it of the left-wing shibboleths that had become encrusted upon it like barnacles upon a rotting ship. None of his successors have matched his political successes. But then there are the things that are not so admirable, like the troublesome fact that he increasingly looks like one of the most mendacious prime ministers in British history.
The latest blot on Blair’s reputation is directly linked to his well-deserved reputation as a devious master of spin. A newly released email about him by Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, suggests a degree of callousness and cold contempt for the truth that even the Borgias might have marveled at. But this virago was laid low by her role, among other things, in the phone hacking revelations that swept the British press. As editor of the tabloid News of the World, she oversaw a staff that did things like hacking into the cell phone of Milly Dowler, a young murder victim. The ensuing scandal did further damage to Rupert Murdoch’s already questionable reputation. The predatory practices he had refined to an art almost ended up demolishing his own newspaper empire.
Since the wise setting aside of a negotiation-undermining bill that would have imposed still more sanctions on Iran, some members of Congress have been feeling itchy as a result of not getting their regular fix of votes that they can portray as support for Israel. Their unease is perhaps a testimony to the continued strength of the lobby that pushes for such votes, despite its recent setbacks on the sanctions bill and a couple of other issues. So some members of the House of Representatives have sent a letter to their chamber's leadership asking that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu be invited to address a joint session of Congress when he is in Washington next month to speak to AIPAC's annual mass meeting. “Doing so,” they say in the letter, “would send a clear message of U.S. support to Israel.”
Actually, the support involved would not be to Israel but instead to a particular Israeli government. In any event, one noteworthy attribute of the letter is the partisan make-up of the signatories: 79 Republicans and 17 Democrats. It is another indication of the increasing association of the lobby with only one side of the aisle, which cannot be very reassuring to the lobby. Possibly once the composition of the signatory list started to become clear some Republicans refrained from signing on to avoid making the partisan split appear even more lopsided.
As negotiations begin this week to reach a final agreement on restricting the Iranian nuclear program, some of the prognoses being offered sound like the deliberate lowering of expectations one commonly hears before U.S. presidential primary elections. President Obama already offered odds of 50-50 for success in the talks. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pre-empted all potential competition in a game of lowering expectations by stating on Monday, “the nuclear negotiations will lead nowhere.” Can't get much lower than that.
Given that vigorous opposition to reaching any agreement with Iran persists on the U.S. side (or more accurately, the Israeli side), even though that opposition suffered a temporary defeat with the sidelining of the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, expect to hear in the weeks ahead much commentary about any sour notes that are struck in the negotiations or in anything that takes place alongside the negotiations. The negative commentary will be coming not from people who, like the ayatollah, are trying to shield themselves from political ramifications of failure that may stem from reasons outside their control. Rather, it will come from people who want the negotiations to fail and will enthusiastically highlight anything that could be used as an argument to abandon the talks.
Once upon a time the role of the ambassador was, more often than not, that of a splendid figure who would help shape European diplomacy or even lay down the law in remote territories. But in the past century, the position's importance began steadily to diminish. And in recent decades the decline has continued: there is no contemporary Anatoly Dobrynin, who commanded a special entrance into the State Department, at least until the Reagan administration rescinded it, in Washington, DC. Nevertheless, it is possible to add insult to injury, and that is what the Obama administration is apparently doing.
In a well-researched story, the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports that President Obama is making dubious appointments at a new clip. A soap opera producer to Hungary. A nominee to Argentina who knows no Spanish. And so on.
What these choices have in common is that they have done something that Obama appreciates, which is to donate a lot of money to the Democratic party. Even the more recent and serious selections—Sen. Max Baucus to China—are questionable. Overall, according to NPR, the American Foreign Service Association says that Obama is naming a record number of political appointees in his second term.
If the American people's representatives in the U.S. Congress are looking for more productive ways to spend their time, one subject on which they could do useful work is reform of the legal basis for the use of force in the name of counterterrorism. The conceptual and legal foundation for lethal U.S. counterterrorist operations has had serious problems for some time. The problems extend at least through the past two presidential administrations, but in some respects are even older. Fuzziness remains to this day about exactly to what extent the Clinton administration authorized the use of lethal force in any encounter with Osama bin Laden. In brief, what is still lacking is a consistent and logical set of rules about how and when lethal force can be used against suspected terrorists—rules that set clear limits while also matching up any permitted use of force with those cases where such use would be necessary and effective.
It is easy to confuse possibility with responsibility, and policy with inescapable reality. Especially when headline-writers attempt to achieve compression—which, speaking of inescapable reality, is part of their job. An article by the Washington Post's Anne Gearan about Syria, which is mainly about the efforts of U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and humanitarian aid developments within Syria, leads with some remarks by President Obama at a joint press conference with visiting French President Hollande. Mr. Obama “acknowledged,” according to Gearan's account, that “diplomacy, the main pillar of its Syria policy, is failing...” The page one headline tracks the language in that lead sentence. A headline in bigger type after the jump sounds even more judgmental about U.S. policy: “Obama admits diplomatic failures”.
An op ed in the Washington Post carrying the joint byline of Barack Obama and François Hollande—on the occasion of the latter's visit to Washington—is one of the more conspicuous demonstrations of kumbaya within the North Atlantic alliance. For the two governments to produce such a statement reflects the extent to which harmonious relations between states generally considered to be friends or allies are, within the political discourse of each country, almost always considered to be a good thing. Demonstrating the ability to play well with others, as one might read on an elementary school report card, can help to offset poorer grades that critics might assign on other topics. Obama benefits from demonstrating close relations with a government that has taken a more forceful line toward some issues, such as the civil war in Syria, on which some of Obama's domestic critics wish he would be more forceful. Making nice with the U.S. president distracts from several of Hollande's problems, including his convoluted private liaisons that have gotten the attention even of the French public, which usually is nonchalant about its leaders' sex lives, and that have complicated the work of the White House social staff arranging this week's state dinner.
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview the other day, "Once the Palestinian problem is solved the conditions for an Iranian recognition of Israel will be possible.” Set aside for the moment the fact that Zarif was addressing only one-half of a process and left open the question of what it would take for an Israeli recognition of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which may be the more problematic part of the equation. Note how the mere possibility of the Islamic Republic recognizing the State of Israel is a universe apart from so much of what is continually said about Iran, especially said by the government of Israel. You know—all that rhetoric about how Iran is supposedly dedicated to the destruction of Israel and so forth.
They are a universe apart because the rhetoric is mistaken and Zarif's comment is an unexceptional reflection of history and of actual Iranian interests. There should be nothing surprising about his remark, and nothing surprising about it while taking it as an honest and direct expression of Iranian intentions. Amid today's rancor it is easy to forget the substantial history of Israeli-Iranian cooperation. That history included not only the time of the shah but also the early years of the Islamic republic, when Israel was providing logistical and training assistance to Iran and urging the United States to tilt toward Iran during the Iran-Iraq War.