Thursday, October 23, 2014

Kerry: 'Hopeful That We Can Avoid ... Another Cold War' With Russia

    While some in Congress have warned that Russian involvement in Ukraine portends a "looming" new cold war, Obama administration officials have for the most part brushed off the comparison. The president himself said in July in response to a reporter's question regarding the Ukrainian situation, "No, it’s not a new Cold War." But in Germany for a remembrance of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry seemed less sanguine about the outcome of the current conflict with Russia. While he did say that "we are very hopeful that we can avoid" a new Cold War, he left the door open to the possibility [emphasis added]:
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I wondered if I could ask: You’re here 25 years after the Berlin Wall came down. How confident are you that you can avoid a new Cold War growing over Ukraine? What are the prospects at the moment for the talks there? 
KERRY: ...On the subject of the Cold War, Frank and I talked about that last night and we actually talked about it with the kids this morning right over here by the wall. One of the kids asked us, “Do you think we’re going to be heading towards another Cold War?” And the question itself, frankly, is a question I wish I didn’t have to hear. None of us want another generation growing up with the foreboding sense of a Cold War. None of us want to see another generation see the resources and the efforts of nations diverted from building governments and societies and providing opportunity, and diverted into the mutual action and reaction that comes with a Cold War. 
So we are very, very hopeful – and that is why Germany and the United States and others have been engaged in such robust diplomacy – we are very hopeful that we can avoid that. And it’s certainly our primary mission to try to do so.
    As mentioned above, when directly asked about a new Cold War back in July, President Obama was unequivocal in his response:
Q    Is this a new Cold War, sir? 
THE PRESIDENT:  No, it’s not a new Cold War.  What it is, is a very specific issue related to Russia’s unwillingness to recognize that Ukraine can chart its own path.
    Earlier in the conflict as sanctions against Russia were being weighed, the president brought up the subject himself in remarks in a March press conference during a visit to Rome, saying that "we’re not looking at a possible return to the Cold War" with Russia:
None of [the snactions], to have a powerful impact on Russia, are going to have zero impact on us, because Russia is part of the world economy. This is part of the reason why I said yesterday we’re not looking at a possible return to the Cold War. The economies have changed, the politics have changed. Russia is not leading an ideological bloc that’s opposed to the world economy.
    The prior remarks the president referred to were made to a gathering of European Youth in Belgium on the day preceding his words in Rome [emphasis added]:
[T]he United States and our allies will continue to support the government of Ukraine as they chart a democratic course.  Together, we are going to provide a significant package of assistance that can help stabilize the Ukrainian economy, and meet the basic needs of the people.  Make no mistake:  Neither the United States, nor Europe has any interest in controlling Ukraine.  We have sent no troops there.  What we want is for the Ukrainian people to make their own decisions, just like other free people around the world. 
Understand, as well, this is not another Cold War that we’re entering into.  After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology.  The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.  In fact, for more than 60 years, we have come together in NATO -- not to claim other lands, but to keep nations free.  What we will do -- always -- is uphold our solemn obligation, our Article 5 duty to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our allies.  And in that promise we will never waver; NATO nations never stand alone.
    Kerry's full remarks in Germany, including video, are found here.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Healthcare.gov Down For 'Weekend' Scheduled Maintenance... On a Wednesday

    Healthcare.gov continues to prepare for open enrollment beginning on November 15, hoping to avoid a repeat of the disastrous launch in 2013. Apparently the preparations include extra "scheduled" maintenance. Wednesday morning, the site displays a message reading "The system isn’t available right now. We’re performing scheduled maintenance. Learn more." The message was posted on the site some time Tuesday evening:

    The notice links to a September 25 blog entry that explains, "We’re doing maintenance and upgrades to improve the site during certain time periods over the next few weekends."

    Attempts to log in are met with this screen:

    There was no reason given as to why the "scheduled maintenance" was taking place during the week rather than on weekends as planned. An email to the Department of Health and Human Services seeking an explanation has not been returned.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Healthcare.gov to Returning Obamacare Customers: 'We’ll TRY To Enroll You Automatically'

    People who signed up for health insurance through Healthcare.gov in 2013 might have deja vu this November. New information posted on the website indicates that everyone, new or returning customers, choosing a new plan or sticking with the current one, must complete five steps to get or maintain coverage for 2015. A new blog post on the site says:
To stay covered through the Marketplace for 2015, you’ll need to follow 5 Steps during Open Enrollment...You’ll need to complete all 5 Steps to staying covered in the Health Insurance Marketplace (PDF) to finish enrolling in a health plan, even if you want to stay in the same plan.
Returning customers will have one month (November 15 to December 15) to continue coverage beginning January 1, 2015. The five steps are:
  1. Review your current plan’s 2015 health coverage and costs.
  2. Update your Marketplace application, starting November 15.
  3. Compare the health plans available to you in 2015.
  4. Choose the plan that best meets your needs.
  5. Enroll in the health plan you want for 2015 coverage, by December 15, 2014.
What happens if a customer does not finished all five steps by December? A flyer produced by Healthcare.gov says, " If you don’t finish all of the steps by December 15, we’ll try to enroll you automatically so you stay covered.  But this coverage might not be your best option for 2015 and you could miss out on cost savings."

    The flyer does not explain exactly what will happen if Healthcare.gov "tries" and fails, or which steps, if left incomplete, will prevent the automatic enrollment from succeeding.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Billgate: President Obama and His Unpaid Bills [Updated]

    During various showdowns with Congress over the past few years (government shutdown, debt ceiling, sequester,) President Obama has declared that we've got to "pay our bills on time." Twice in the past week, President Obama has raised the issue of unpaid bills - but not those of the United States - his own personal bills.

President Obama, executive order signing , October 17, 2014:
I went to a restaurant up in New York when I was there during the General Assembly, and my credit card was rejected... And I was trying to explain to the waitress, no, I really think that I’ve been paying my bills.
 President Obama, Democratic fundraiser, October 20, 2014:
One of the nice things about being home is actually that it's a little bit like a time capsule. Because Michelle and I and the kids, we left so quickly that there’s still junk on my desk, including some unpaid bills (laughter) -- I think eventually they got paid -- but they're sort of stacked up. And messages, newspapers and all kinds of stuff.
    As Daniel Halper noted, the White House did not include the president's remarks about the unpaid bills in the official transcript of the October 20 remarks, but a White House pool reporter caught the omission.
    As they say in Washington, it's the cover up that gets you...


After initially posting a transcript that completely omitted the "unpaid bills" remark...

...the White House transcript was updated to include "-- (inaudible) --":

Apparently the pool reporters' hearing is superior to that of the White House transcriptionist. Or there was a gap in the tape.

UPDATE 2: Aha! So there WAS an issue with the tape...

Friday, October 17, 2014

State Department On Iran Nuke Negotiations: 'We Know Each Other Well Enough to Make Jokes'

    Some American and Iranian diplomats have been spending so much time together lately that they're beginning to crack jokes with one another. Even though the subject matter of the talks, Iran's nuclear ambitions, is quite serious, a senior state department official shared a lighter moment with reporters who had gathered for a background briefing at the P5+1 talks in Vienna, Austria:
I just told Deputy Foreign Minister Araghchi that that I was coming down to do a backgrounder, and I said, you know, “You’ll know what I’m going to say.” And his suggestion was that I simply hand you the transcript from the last one, and that would probably do the trick. (Laughter.) So we thought that was pretty funny. Obviously, you don’t think that’s so funny, but we all thought it was pretty funny.
    Further into the briefing, the official expanded on the state of the relationship that has developed between the Iranian and American negotiators:
In terms of mood, in a professional way, we all know each other pretty well now. You can tell when the [Iranian] Deputy Foreign Minister jokes. He reads the transcripts of these backgrounders, and when he can joke, “Why don’t you just hand over the last one? You’re going to say the same thing,” it’s reached a level of we know each other well enough to make jokes.
    The current round of talks has a November 24th deadline to reach a complete agreement. The official said there has been progress, but a lot of work remains. The talks have been extended in the past when an agreement could not be reached, but the official said to keep the pressure on, an extension has not been discussed this time around.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Admiral: 'Be Prepared' for Kobani, 'Other Towns and Other Cities to Fall' to ISIL

    Rear Admiral John Kirby appeared at a joint press briefing with Spokesperson Jen Psaki at the State Department Thursday and addressed the ongoing airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria. As a number of Pentagon officials have done in recent weeks, Admiral Kirby downplayed the impact that airstrikes alone can have on stopping ISIL, with particular emphasis on Kobani, Syria, which borders Turkey:
What makes Kobani significant is the fact that ISIL wants it. And the more they want it, the more forces and resources they apply to it, the more targets that are available for us to hit there. I said it yesterday, keep saying it: Kobani could still fall. Our military participation is from the air and the air only right now, and we’ve all been honest about the fact that air power alone is not going to be able to save any town in particular.
    Kirby said that ISIL is likely to continue to gain territory in spite of the coalition air campaign, and that Kobani is not the only city likely to fall:

I think we’ve been pretty consistent about the fact that we need to all be prepared for other towns and other cities to fall too. This group wants ground. They want territory, they want infrastructure. We all need to be prepared for them to continue to try to grab that, and succeed in taking it.

    The extra emphasis placed on strikes against ISIL forces around Kobani, Kirby said, is not only a matter of strategy, but also simply a matter of weather:
One of the reasons you’ve seen additional strikes in the last couple of days is because we haven’t been able to strike quite as much, quite as aggressively inside Iraq. There’s been terrible weather there, sandstorms this time of year. It’s made it very hard for us to get intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms up over to see what we’re trying to do in Iraq. So we’ve had resources available that we might not have otherwise had available to strike them there in Kobani.
    Under persistent question from reporters at the briefing, Admiral Kirby used some colorful language to further explain what the overall strategy of the air campaign is and what it is not:
Airstrikes are dynamic, they’re exciting, you can count them, you can get great video of them. I understand the drama around airstrikes, but we’ve said (a) airstrikes alone are not going to do this, military power alone is not going to do this, and it’s going to take some time...
So this isn’t – I hate to use this phrase, but it’s not whack-a-mole. We’re not going after this – the idea isn’t to just put a warhead on a forehead every single day. The idea is to try to get at their ability to sustain themselves and to disrupt their strategy.
    On the question of ground troops, the admiral made clear there are no plans for combat roles for U.S. forces in Iraq or Syria:
The commander-in-chief’s been pretty clear there’s not going to be a return to U.S. ground forces in a combat role in this effort. That said, we do have 12 advisor teams that are working with the Iraqi Security Forces at a very high level, brigade or division level, inside Iraq. They are not going out into the field. They are not accompanying Iraqi troops. They are simply offering advice and assistance at a headquarters level – seven in Baghdad and the other five are up near Erbil. I do not foresee any instance in which we would put ground troops inside Syria.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Michelle Obama Mocks Democratic Voters: 'I Ain’t Going to Vote... I Couldn’t Wake Up'

    In speeches designed to fire up Democrats to vote in midterm elections, President Obama has at times described voters in his party as having a "congenital defect." Wednesday, Michelle Obama suggested the problem might just be that they're sleepy.
    Mrs. Obama spoke at a rally in Philadelphia for the Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf. In an effort to boost turnout in November, the first lady told the crowd that she runs across voters "who are like, no, I ain’t going to vote, or I couldn’t wake up[.]" But she stressed that every vote matters:
So this is where -- when I find people who are like, no, I ain’t going to vote, or I couldn’t wake up, or it doesn’t matter, or why -- 20 votes decided who your Governor was in 2010, and it could decide who the Governor is this time. 
    The first lady wasn't finished with the sleepy-voter theme. Later in her remarks, she expanded on the idea:
You know your 20 people.  You know the people in your neighborhood, in your church, in your family who aren’t focused.  And you can’t leave anybody behind. 
That nephew you know who sleeps -- get him up.  Wake him up.  (Laughter.)  Young people, you all know folks who aren’t paying attention.  Your classmates, your dorm mates -- wake them up, get them out. 
    Mrs. Obama also told her audience that turnout was a large part of her husband's victories, especially "women and minorities and young people." Republicans, she explained, counted on "folks like us" to stay away from the polls:
And I don’t know if you remember, but people were shocked when Barack won -- they’re still shocked -- (laughter and applause) -- because they were counting on folks like us to stay home.  See, but then we proved them wrong.  Barack won because OF record numbers of women and minorities and young people who showed up and voted. 
See, but then when the midterms came along -- which is where we are now -- too many of our people just tuned out.  And that’s what folks on the other side are counting on right now, because when we stay home, they win.  So they’re assuming that we won’t care.  They’re hoping and praying that we’re not organized and energized.  But only we can prove them wrong.
    This Friday, the first lady will be in Florida for a Commit to Vote rally with gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, and next Tuesday will appear in Minnesota with Governor Mark Dayton and Senator Al Franken.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.