Inequitable Treatment: IRS Style
Behold the consequences of targeting one group of 501(c)(4)s, while another group is completely left alone:
In February 2010, the Champaign Tea Party in Illinois received approval of its tax-exempt status from the IRS in 90 days, no questions asked.
That was the month before the Internal Revenue Service started singling out Tea Party groups for special treatment. There wouldn’t be another Tea Party application approved for 27 months.
In that time, the IRS approved perhaps dozens of applications from similar liberal and progressive groups, a USA TODAY review of IRS data shows.
As applications from conservative groups sat in limbo, groups with liberal-sounding names had their applications approved in as little as nine months. With names including words like “Progress” or “Progressive,” the liberal groups applied for the same tax status and were engaged in the same kinds of activities as the conservative groups. They included:
• Bus for Progress, a New Jersey non-profit that uses a red, white and blue bus to “drive the progressive change.” According to its website, its mission includes “support (for) progressive politicians with the courage to serve the people’s interests and make tough choices.” It got an IRS approval as a social welfare group in April 2011.
• Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment says it fights against corporate welfare and for increasing the minimum wage. “It would be fair to say we’re on the progressive end of the spectrum,” said executive director Jeff Ordower. He said the group got tax-exempt status in September 2011 in just nine months after “a pretty simple, straightforward process.”
• Progress Florida, granted tax-exempt status in January 2011, is lobbying the Florida Legislature to expand Medicaid under a provision of the Affordable Care Act, one of President Obama’s signature accomplishments. The group did not return phone calls. “We’re busy fighting to build a more progressive Florida and cannot take your call right now,” the group’s voice mail said.
I double-dog dare anyone to tell me why and how this is justified. (Link via InstaPundit.)
IRS Scandal Commentary: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff
There is a lot of nonsense being written on the IRS scandal—see here for nonsense from a reliably ridiculous source—but Professor Rick Hasen (who actually knows something about election and campaign finance law) has no problem whatsoever calling the IRS’s actions “terrible”:
Let’s not make excuses for the IRS. The agency shouldn’t have subjected conservative groups to special scrutiny. Campaign finance reform groups should have immediately called for hearings when this scandal broke: Imagine the hue and cry if the IRS during the Bush administration had singled out “progressive” groups for special tax scrutiny and sent them unprecedented questions about their contributors and activities. Given the danger going back to President Richard Nixon of using the IRS against political enemies, the agency has to be scrupulously nonpartisan and fair. Congressional investigations and the Department of Justice criminal investigation announced Tuesday are inevitable and warranted.
Professor Hasen thinks that the thing to do in response is to strengthen disclosure laws. I have no problem with that, but two things bear remembering: (1) Disclosure laws should not put any limits whatsoever on the amount of money that can be spent in supporting a 501(c)(4). I happen to think that money is speech, and if we can call flag-burning speech in Texas v. Johnson (a ruling I agree with, given my high regard for the First Amendment), then we can call spending money to advance political causes speech as well. (2) The identity of those who bankroll certain 501(c)(4)s may be somewhat interesting to know—I certainly would be less inclined to support a 501(c)(4) that I know is bankrolled by neo-Nazis or communists—but in the vast majority of cases, one really shouldn’t need to know the identity of bankrollers in order to be able to determine whether or not one supports the aims of various 501(c)(4)s. The nature and scope of the argument made by 501(c)(4)s matters a whole lot more than does the identity of those making the argument.
Given all of the new developments that seem to be occurring regarding Obama administration scandals, it’s a safe bet that five minutes after this blog post gets published, it will be out of date. But at least we can record the state of the administration’s scandals for the moment … until we discover, of course, that things are a lot worse than we thought they might be.
First off, it’s worth noting anew that when it rains, it pours:
When two storms collide, the weather gets hairy. For President Obama, the IRS and Benghazi stories converged this weekend for a self-inflicted tempest that threatens his credibility.
His people can’t get their stories straight.
Internal Revenue Service officials denied for months the targeting of conservative political groups for reviews of their tax exempt status. With investigators poised to expose the chilling operation, a high-ranking IRS official acknowledged it late last week and apologized for it.
The agency blamed low-level employees, saying no high-level officials were aware. That appears to be untrue. The Associated Press reported Saturday that senior IRS officials knew agents were targeting tea party groups as early as 2011, according to a draft of an inspector general’s report.
Politicizing the IRS threatens the integrity of an agency entrusted with Americans’ secrets and the taxes that fund government. It also fuels the paranoia of conspiracy theorists.
"This is outrageous," said Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis. "The administration and the president need to condem this and act immediately. This is not a right-left issue."
Several other Democratic allies of the White House expressed similiar sentiments while refusing to be named out of fear of retribution. Kofinis, who specializes in political communications, said the White House needs to explain itself. “Your first response can’t be to say the IRS is an independent agency,” a claim the White House has made, he said.
Later, at a White House news conference, Obama forcefully denounced the IRS actions as “outrageous” and said people will be held accountable.
On Benghazi, the president’s U.N. ambassador said five days after the Libya attack that the incident grew out of a street protest rather than a terrorist attack. Caught fudging the facts in the middle of a presidential campaign, a race in which Obama’s anti-terrorism record was a major selling point, the White House blamed Ambassador Susan Rice’s statement on “talking points” concocted by the CIA in virtual isolation.
Obama’s team stuck with that story until the truth was exposed amid a GOP congressional investigation. Emails leaked to news organizations last week show that both the White House and State Department were directly involved in scrubbing the CIA talking points of any mention of past threats and al-Qaida involvement. That is the exact opposite of what the Obama White House had claimed.
Inexplicably, White House spokesman Jay Carney refused late Friday to acknowledge the contradiction.
Even worse, Obama himself ignored his administration’s obfuscations today, and instead called the debate over shifting explanations “a sideshow.” At the news conference, he turned the tables on GOP critics and accused them of playing “political games.”
Concerning Benghazi, Glenn Kessler is forced to give the president four whole Pinocchios for his claim that he called the attacks in Benghazi “an act of terrorism.
Now, let’s turn to the IRS scandal. As has been noted many a time, Joe Klein has been an Obamaphile since Barack Obama first emerged on the national scene. But lately, Klein has had trouble defending the president:
Yet again, we have an example of Democrats simply not managing the government properly and with discipline. This is just poisonous at a time of skepticism about the efficacy of government. And the President should know this: the absence of scandal is not the presence of competence. His unwillingness to concentrate — and I mean concentrate obsessively — on making sure that government is managed efficiently will be part of his legacy.
Previous Presidents, including great ones like Roosevelt, have used the IRS against their enemies. But I don’t think Obama ever wanted to be on the same page as Richard Nixon. In this specific case, he now is.
Oh, lest you think that we are finished with the IRS scandal, behold:
The IRS acting chief acknowledged Tuesday that the agency demonstrated “a lack of sensitivity” in its screenings of political groups seeking tax-exempt status, but he said those mistakes won’t be repeated.
In his first public comment on the case, Steven Miller said there was “a shortcut taken in our processes” for determining which groups needed special screening.
Miller has emerged as a key figure in the controversy over the IRS’ singling out of conservative groups for extra scrutiny. President Barack Obama said Monday that if the agency intentionally targeted such groups, “that’s outrageous and there’s no place for it.”
In an opinion piece in Tuesday’s editions of USA Today, Miller said conceded that the agency demonstrated “a lack of sensitivity to the implications of some of the decisions that were made.” He said screening of advocacy groups is “factually complex, and it’s challenging to separate out political issues from those involving education or social welfare.”
"The mistakes we made were due to the absence of a sufficient process for working the increase in cases and a lack of sensitivity to the implications of some of the decisions that were made," Miller wrote.
Miller said the agency has implemented new procedures that will “ensure the mistakes won’t be repeated.”
On Monday, the IRS said Miller was first informed on May, 3, 2012, that applications for tax-exempt status by tea party groups were inappropriately singled out for extra scrutiny. Congress, though, was not told tea party groups were being inappropriately targeted, even after Miller had been briefed on the matter.
At least twice after the briefing, Miller wrote letters to members of Congress to explain the process of reviewing applications for tax-exempt status without disclosing that tea party groups had been targeted. On July 25, 2012, Miller testified before the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee, but again did not mention the additional scrutiny — despite being asked about it.
Miller’s op-ed, however, did not address why he did not inform Congress after he was briefed.
The same Internal Revenue Service office that singled out Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny also challenged Israel-related organizations, at least one of which filed suit over the agency’s handling of its application for tax-exempt status.
The trouble for the Israel-focused groups seems to have had different origins than that experienced by conservative groups, but at times the effort seems to have been equally ham-handed.
A leader of one of the organizations involved, Lori Lowenthal Marcus of Z Street, said Monday that she was convinced the added attention her group got was no accident.“I can’t believe it was just about Z Street, because it’s a tiny organization,” Lowenthal Marcus said of the group, which has been critical of President Barack Obama for being too cozy with left-leaning Jewish groups like J Street and with pro-Palestinian entities.
Maybe this story regarding Larry Conners’s claims is filled with falsehoods. But how many of you are willing to cavalierly dismiss it?
Larry Conners, a veteran local news anchor at KMOV Channel 4 in St. Louis, says that the Internal Revenue Service has been targeting him since an April 2012 interview he conducted with President Obama — a fact that he dismissed as coincidence until the recent reports about the IRS targeting conservative groups.
"Shortly after I did my April 2012 interview with President Obama, my wife, friends and some viewers suggested that I might need to watch out for the IRS. I don’t accept ‘conspiracy theories’, but I do know that almost immediately after the interview, the IRS started hammering me," Conners wrote on his Facebook page late Monday night.
And this story serves as a hilarious momentary coda to the IRS scandal.
Things have now gotten bad enough with the IRS scandal that the Department of Justice has been forced to investigate. But the Department of Justice has its own problems:
The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative’s top executive called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather the news.
The records obtained by the Justice Department listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP. It was not clear if the records also included incoming calls or the duration of the calls.
In all, the government seized the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown, but more than 100 journalists work in the offices where phone records were targeted, on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.
In a letter of protest sent to Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday, AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt said the government sought and obtained information far beyond anything that could be justified by any specific investigation. He demanded the return of the phone records and destruction of all copies.
"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know," Pruitt said.
There is a background to this latest scandal that is worth mentioning:
President Barack Obama came into office pledging an unprecedented commitment to government transparency. During his first days in the Oval Office, Obama issued an executive order and two memoranda that were supposed to create a new climate of openness in Washington. One of the memos instructed government officials to “adopt a presumption in favor” of releasing information.
Nine months later, Obama needs to reread his own instructions. A federal shield law for journalists that had been moving forward with broad support is now bogged down in the Senate Judiciary Committee due to limitations on information sought by the administration.
The Free Flow of Information Act strikes a reasonable balance between the public’s right to know and the government’s responsibility to protect the citizenry. It recognizes a reporter’s right to protect confidential sources in limited circumstances, as 36 states - including Texas - do.
The measure, however, would also compel journalists to disclose their sources in cases of imminent threats to national security or critical infrastructure and when the safety or welfare of individuals is at stake. In such cases, the government would take its arguments in favor of disclosing a reporter’s confidential sources before an impartial judge.
The administration initially supported this equitable process. Recently, however, it has decided it wants to be the arbiter of national security and its judge and jury. With White House opposition, the federal shield law legislation is now in danger of foundering in the Senate or being weakened to the point of ineffectuality.
This story is from three years ago. I guess it should have served as a warning of sorts. More:
Reporters across The Associated Press are outraged over the Justice Department’s sweeping seizure of staff phone records — and they say such an intrusion could chill their relationships with confidential sources.
In conversations with POLITICO on Tuesday, several AP staffers in Washington, D.C., described feelings of anger and frustration with the DOJ and with the Obama administration in general.“People are pretty mad — mad that government has not taken what we do seriously,” one reporter said on Tuesday. “When the news broke yesterday … people were outraged and disgusted. No one was yelling and screaming, but it was like, ‘Are you kidding me!?’”
At Rep. Steny Hoyer’s weekly meeting with reporters on Tuesday, the Maryland Democrat was asked if he was concerned about the DOJ seizing phone records from Associated Press journalists working in the House press gallery in the Capitol building.
Hoyer’s answer was well-delivered: Articulate, clear, firm and precise.
One problem: He responded to the wrong scandal.
"The IRS activity was inappropriate, inconsistent with our policies and practices as a country, very concerning, needs to be reviewed carefully," Hoyer, one of the top-ranking House Democrats, said in response to a question from Fox News’ Chad Pergram about the DOJ. "We need to ensure that this does not happen again, and we need to find out how long it continued, when it was stopped. It is my understanding—there was a front-page story on this at the [Washington] Post—it’s my understanding that [IRS official] Lois Lerner, who was apparently overseeing this, at some point in time found out about this and said …"
When Hoyer named Lerner, Pergram interrupted.
"We’re talking about two things," Pergram, who apparently had not heard the first mention of the IRS, said from across the table, "You said Lois Lerner and the IRS."
Another reporter sitting closer to Hoyer, Public Radio International’s Todd Zwillich, learned over and said softly, “He’s talking about the AP story.”
"Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, excuse me," Hoyer said, pausing briefly. "Whatever happened, we need to find out why it happened. But clearly it should not have happened. I don’t know enough about whether there was a warrant sought."
Boom. He nailed it!
But Hoyer wasn’t finished.
"I don’t know fully the rationalization or justification that was being used, but the president’s statement that it was outrageous, that there was no place for it and that they have to be held fully accountable is a statement in which I agree," Hoyer went on to say.
The only problem is that President Barack Obama didn’t comment about the DOJ story. And he certainly didn’t call it “outrageous.” In fact, the White House has declined to say much of anything about the DOJ investigation. Was he talking about the IRS story again? Yup.
What Happens when Truth is Spoken to Power in Cuba?
The editor of a publishing house in Cuba who wrote a critical article in The New York Times opinion section about persistent racial inequality on the island, something revolutionaries proudly say has lessened, has been removed from his post, associates said on Friday.
The author, Roberto Zurbano, in an article published March 23, described a long history of racial discrimination against blacks on the island and said “racial exclusion continued after Cuba became independent in 1902, and a half century of revolution since 1959 has been unable to overcome it.”
On Friday, The Havana Times blog reported that Mr. Zurbano had told a gathering of Afro-Cuban advocates that he had been dismissed from his post at the publishing house of the Casa de las Americas cultural center, leaving the implication that the dismissal was connected to the article. Other associates said Mr. Zurbano told them he had been removed but would continue working there.
Reached by telephone in Havana, Mr. Zurbano would not comment on his employment. “What is The New York Times going to do about it?” he asked. He angrily condemned the editors of the opinion section for a change in the headline that he felt had distorted his theme.
The article’s headline, which was translated from Spanish, was “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun,” but Mr. Zurbano said that in his version it had been “Not Yet Finished.”
“They changed the headline without consulting me,” he said. “It was a huge failure of ethics and of professionalism.”
Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for The Times, said the editor stood by the article’s preparation.
I am left with little doubt that Zurbano was dismissed because he had the temerity to point out that racial equality had not been achieved by a long shot in Cuba, and that the promises of the Cuban revolution—ephemeral though they have been for anyone not named “Castro” or not allied with the Castro brothers—have certainly not been fulfilled for Afro-Cubans. But the issue of whether the article should have been titled “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun,” or whether it should have been titled “Not Yet Finished” is also an interesting one. Let’s consider it by consulting the article in question:
CHANGE is the latest news to come out of Cuba, though for Afro-Cubans like myself, this is more dream than reality. Over the last decade, scores of ridiculous prohibitions for Cubans living on the island have been eliminated, among them sleeping at a hotel, buying a cellphone, selling a house or car and traveling abroad. These gestures have been celebrated as signs of openness and reform, though they are really nothing more than efforts to make life more normal. And the reality is that in Cuba, your experience of these changes depends on your skin color.
The private sector in Cuba now enjoys a certain degree of economic liberation, but blacks are not well positioned to take advantage of it. We inherited more than three centuries of slavery during the Spanish colonial era. Racial exclusion continued after Cuba became independent in 1902, and a half century of revolution since 1959 has been unable to overcome it.
In the early 1990s, after the cold war ended, Fidel Castro embarked on economic reforms that his brother and successor, Raúl, continues to pursue. Cuba had lost its greatest benefactor, the Soviet Union, and plunged into a deep recession that came to be known as the “Special Period.” There were frequent blackouts. Public transportation hardly functioned. Food was scarce. To stem unrest, the government ordered the economy split into two sectors: one for private businesses and foreign-oriented enterprises, which were essentially permitted to trade in United States dollars, and the other, the continuation of the old socialist order, built on government jobs that pay an average of $20 a month.
It’s true that Cubans still have a strong safety net: most do not pay rent, and education and health care are free. But the economic divergence created two contrasting realities that persist today. The first is that of white Cubans, who have leveraged their resources to enter the new market-driven economy and reap the benefits of a supposedly more open socialism. The other reality is that of the black plurality, which witnessed the demise of the socialist utopia from the island’s least comfortable quarters.
Putting aside the ridiculous notion that there is anything about the quality of life in Cuba that is worth celebrating in any significant way—dissidents have pointed out that when it comes to claims about “free health care” in Cuba, those claims are overblown and even if they aren’t, they are not worth the tyranny and oppression that Cubans experience at the hands of the Castro regime—this passage certainly reads more like the revolution for Afro-Cubans has not begun, not that it has not yet finished, a conclusion reinforced by reading the following passage:
Racism in Cuba has been concealed and reinforced in part because it isn’t talked about. The government hasn’t allowed racial prejudice to be debated or confronted politically or culturally, often pretending instead as though it didn’t exist. Before 1990, black Cubans suffered a paralysis of economic mobility while, paradoxically, the government decreed the end of racism in speeches and publications. To question the extent of racial progress was tantamount to a counterrevolutionary act. This made it almost impossible to point out the obvious: racism is alive and well.
So, good call by the Times on the headline. The fact of the matter is that there is a massive amount of racism alive and well in Cuba, the government has done nothing whatsoever to combat it, and Roberto Zurbano was likely sacked for having pointed it out. I am pretty sure that the headline of the piece did not drive him from his post; rather, the content did. But to the extent that headlines matter, the Times chose the right one. I am glad to see that I agree with them on some things.
And yes, before anyone says anything, I think that the embargo against Cuba has proven to be stupid and pointless. We trade with the Chinese—who are still technically communists—and everyone trades with the Cubans, so I see no reason why we shouldn’t trade with the Cubans as well; it will give American industries access to markets, put more Cubans in touch with more Americans, and possibly engender changes in Cuban society and politics. I am all for dropping the embargo. But I am also for calling things by their proper names, and when it comes to Cuba’s treatment of its Afro-Cuban population, I am all for calling that treatment “racism.”
Nota Bene: Incidentally, is it just me or do others find it weird that the same people who demand that we boycott, divest from and sanction Israel for its relations with the Palestinians simultaneously seem to have little problem with dropping the boycott against Cuba, despite the persistence of racism when it comes to dealings with the Afro-Cuban population? I am willing to drop the embargo because I don’t think that it serves American interests to continue it, but at least I am willing to acknowledge the presence of racism in Cuba, which is more than the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions-from/on Israel crowd is willing to do.
How to Negotiate with Iran
My latest article for the Atlantic Council is out. An excerpt:
It is still early in the second term of the Obama administration, and as with the beginning of all presidential terms, hope springs eternal in political circles that longstanding obstacles to policy progress will be swept away. In that spirit, a host of commentators are calling for the United States and Iran to make a renewed effort to resolve the differences between them.
Calls for the two countries to engage in talks have become especially insistent given the concern that Iran continues to make progress in its apparent effort to acquire nuclear weapons. Because of the urgency that issue, the United States may be tempted to make it the sole focus of talks with Iran. But a singular focus on the nuclear issue may not serve American interests well.
Both countries will use high profile negotiations to rally world opinion to their side; favorable public opinion will, after all, make it easier for the recipient of that public opinion to achieve its goals. In order to successfully rally world opinion to its side, United States would do well to make negotiations touch on a multitude of subjects that will serve to cement Iran’s image as a rogue state in the eyes of the international community. In particular, the United States should highlight the many human rights abuses that go on regularly in Iran, and make the case that through oppression of its people, the Iranian regime should be a pariah in the international community.
Charles Pierce: A Chuck Hagel Defender Who Is Even More Incoherent than Chuck Hagel
As far as Charles Pierce is concerned, flinging playground insults is an acceptable substitute for wit and intelligence. Let’s catalog the name-calling in his column on the Hagel hearings and see where it leads.
- John McCain is a “grumpy old RINO” who will “have to wait until Sunday morning to get the kind of fluffing that’s the only reason he’s still in public life any more. Well, that, and a war with Iran.” Additionally, McCain only has “alleged gravitas.”
- James Inhofe “was reduced to citing Jennifer (Wrong) Rubin’s account of the tiny Hagels that have replaced the tiny Romneys in her tiny brain.(This is the equivalent of a clown taking singing lessons from a goat.)”
- “Hagel’s fellow Nebraskan, Deb Fischer, who less than a year ago was a noisy state legislator and the third candidate in a three-candidate primary field, pretended to be well-briefed on nuclear policy.”
- “Ted Cruz, the Tea Party gossoon from Texas, took almost his entire opportunity to fit Hagel for a kaffiyeh.”
- “Lindsey Graham was conspicuously beset by the vapors.”
There. You got the gist of it. Now, consider that despite despite Pierce’s insults and his low opinion of the Republican senators on the Armed Services Committee, the best he can do to explain why Hagel floundered so badly is to tell us that “Hagel seemed thrown off-balance” by the questions from Republican senators, and to ask “[h]ow could anyone be properly prepared for Jim Inhofe and Ted Cruz in the same day? Those kind of mushrooms are still illegal.” These, of course, are not answers. They are mindless snark from a hack writer who is about as bad at ratiocination as the Republicans he thinks he is scorning effectively. You’d think that someone as allegedly smart as Hagel could easily outwit and out-debate the group of alleged mediocrities to whom Pierce pretends to be superior. But Hagel didn’t and Pierce can only try to laugh the whole thing off.
Pierce doesn’t try to explain why Hagel was unaware of administration policy regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons. He doesn’t try to explain why Hagel had to be corrected twice on the issue—with one correction being issued by Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who wants Hagel to be confirmed. He doesn’t tell us why Hagel should not have been embarrassed by the lack of knowledge regarding weapons systems and policy that he displayed at his confirmation hearings. He doesn’t tell us why Hagel was so singularly unprepared to explain his past statements and positions, despite knowing that he would be questioned on them. Rather, Pierce whines throughout his column and then expects us to take his whining seriously.
No thanks. Having written this blog post, I plan on never paying attention to Charles Pierce again. He is not worth my time, and his fans are welcome to have him. He and they deserve one another.
Once Upon a Time, Stephen Walt Was a Rigorous Scholar
I know this because I took college and graduate school courses with him—and with John Mearsheimer—before Walt decamped for Harvard. Of course, this was back before both Walt and Mearsheimer decided to go crazy, so a lot has changed since then, but back in the day, I admired their scholarship and their intellectual seriousness regarding foreign policy, national security and international relations issues.
I don’t know what has happened in the interim, but Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s reasoning skills have become remarkably slipshod. The latest example can be found here; Walt believes that because there were a lot of mentions of both Israel and the threat Iran may pose to Israel during the Hagel confirmation hearings, his and Mearsheimer’s theories regarding the Israel lobby have been borne out.
It may be that the references to Israel during the Hagel hearings were due to the Israel lobby’s alleged “almost unchallenged hold on Congress,” its supposed ability to stifle “[o]pen debate about U.S. policy toward Israel,” or the possibility that “[i]f public discourse about Israel can be shaped so that most American have generally positive impressions of the Jewish state, then politicians will have even more reason to follow the lobby’s lead.” Or, it may be that the references were due to the fact that Chuck Hagel said some pretty controversial things about Israel, and that got the attention of the senators on the Armed Services Committee. If Hagel hadn’t said controversial things about Israel, there may well not have been all that many references to Israel during the hearings. Likewise, if Hagel hadn’t said some controversial things regarding Iran, there may not have been all that many references to Iran during the confirmation hearings. In short, I am putting forth the fairly unremarkable contention that controversy regarding a particular subject matter serves to drive discussion regarding that particular subject matter. There is nothing magical about Israel that causes any kind of monomaniacal focus on the country or on our relationship with it.
To be sure, there is no way to determine how the confirmation hearings would have gone in some alternative universe in which Hagel did not make controversial comments regarding Israel or Iran. But I would not be surprised in the least that if he didn’t make such comments, there would have been few references to Israel or to Iran’s relationship with Israel. John Kerry, who is now our secretary of state, did not make Hagelian comments regarding Israel or Iran. I have searched in vain for a transcript of his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but I would be shocked if Israel or Iran’s relationship with Israel came up all that much during those hearings. I would be similarly shocked if they would have come up all that much if Kerry were nominated to be the secretary of defense and all else remained equal when he went before the Senate Armed Services Committee for confirmation hearings. As we know, Susan Rice is infamous not for any comments that she has made regarding Israel or Iran’s relationship with Israel, but rather for her comments regarding the attack on our consulate in Benghazi. I am willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that if she were nominated to be secretary of state, there would have been at least 166 references to the attacks during her confirmation hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Similarly, if either Hagel, Kerry or Rice said something controversial about Afghanistan, China, or Venezuela, and then got nominated for some major cabinet post, there likely would have been well over a hundred references to Afghanistan, China or Venezuela during their confirmation hearings.
My theories may be wrong, but I think that they are plausible and defensible, and they are certainly worth considering as alternatives to Walt’s flat declaration that the tone and tenor of the Hagel hearings prove that Walt and Mearsheimer were right all along about the Israel lobby. Just as I am willing to concede that Walt may have been right in what he wrote before putting out an alternative theory (even though I don’t believe he is right), Walt should have conceded that factors other than the ones that he and Mearsheimer identified might have helped shape the Hagel hearings into what they became. The old Stephen Walt would have considered alternative theories and ideas, even if they undercut the ones that he believed. Too bad the new Stephen Walt is too busy being a hater to show the kind of open-mindedness he used to be known and respected for.
Oh, and of course, Walt makes no reference to the fact that Hagel was terrible during his confirmation hearings. You’d expect a serious scholar—especially one who supports Hagel’s nomination as Walt does—to at least grapple with the fact that Hagel bombed before the committee, but again, Walt appears to have long ago given up the role of being a serious scholar. Speaking of scholarship, it is worth noting that the paper authored by Walt and Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby—which their now-infamous book is based on—is the product of incredibly bad social science. See also Benny Morris, who makes clear that Walt and Mearsheimer are as bad at history as they are at social science. Walt and Mearsheimer "relied heavily" on Morris’s historical scholarship in putting together their paper on the Israel lobby; thus, Morris’s evisceration of their work is especially devastating.
I should point out that the lack of rigor regarding Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s work regarding Israel and the Israel lobby does not denote a lack of rigor regarding realism as an explainer of past and present nation-state behavior, and/or as a predictor of future nation-state behavior. I classify myself as a classical realist irrespective of what Walt and Mearsheimer—who still claim to be realists themselves—say or do, and there is no reason why realism as a theory ought to be indicted along with Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s poor scholarship regarding Israel and the Israel lobby. Indeed, as I have argued before, the degree of attention that Walt and Mearsheimer pay to the Israel lobby and its alleged ability to shape foreign policy indicates a significant departure on their parts from the tenets of realism; while realists do pay attention to the nature of the political systems of nation-states, and while they concede that domestic factors can influence nation-state behavior somewhat, they believe that nation-state interests are largely independent of domestic factors and considerations, and it is those interests that drive nation-state behavior. Walt and Mearsheimer clearly believe that when it comes to Israel and the Middle East in general, the Israel lobby is the main driver behind the formulation and implementation of American policy. Regarding this issue, at least, it is impossible to call them realists anymore. Maybe if they stuck to realism, their theories and arguments regarding American policy towards Israel and the Middle East would make more sense and would be more defensible.
- The Mace
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