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TGIF: Rich Men, Poor Men Nellie Bowles

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Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy toasts his rising poll numbers at the Iowa State Fair. (Brandon Bell via Getty Images)

Welcome back. Let’s stagger out of the week together. And as your weekly reminder, come find each other at our first IRL event, a debate in Los Angeles on September 13. 

Another week, a fourth indictment: You might think one, two, three Trump indictments are enough. But you’d be wrong, because now there are four indictments. Each one, we’re told, is the big one, but I can’t pretend to know which one is the big one. Anyway, Trump was indicted this week in connection with interfering with Georgia’s election results. There are 19 named defendants and as many as thirty unnamed co-conspirators. As usual, my only advice in a D.C. quagmire of these proportions is to turn to Politico, which has a very helpful chart of each indictment and the strengths and weaknesses of the cases. 

One question I have: if it’s illegal to say an election was stolen in Georgia and to try to convince people of this, then what are we going to do about Stacey Abrams? Am I willing to believe crimes were committed by Trump and allies in 2020? Of course. Do I feel a sinking in my stomach when I think of those classified documents stacked high in a Mar-a-Lago bathroom? Yes sir, I do. Do I think the entire justice system should sic elected officials when they leave office, crimes or not, and hound them for years until they’re jailed or broke? Again, that’s a yes.

→ Rudy Giuliani faces financial ruin: Under the weight of the legal bills from all these lawsuits and without the insulation of the donor dollars Trump has at his disposal, former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani is going broke. This is being written about by the mainstream media as righteous comeuppance, like how great that lawyers can ruin him without a conviction. Here’s Vanity Fair: “Rudy Giuliani Can’t Pay His Bills After Hitching His Wagon to Trump’s Failed Election Coup.” 

Giuliani’s facing $90,000 in sanctions from a defamation case brought by two Georgia election workers, plus a monthly $20,000 to host his electronic records and more than $70,000 in other judgments and legal bills. Giuliani’s lawyers wrote: “He is having financial difficulties. Giuliani needs more time to pay the attorneys’ fees and would like the opportunity to seek an extension from the Court.” He’s put a Manhattan apartment up for sale. 

Vanity Fair’s take: “On a practical level, it also turns out to be a really bad idea to try and overturn an election if you don’t have the deep pockets. . . ” Like, LOL, sorry you’re poor now Rudy! (Again, imagine that this is Stacey Abrams after trying to overturn her lost election; imagine if she faced financial ruin from it and how it would be covered.) Anyway, Rudy Giuliani will send you a personalized video message on the website Cameo if you pay him $20. As his life whittles down, reporters sniffing for any dollar that might let him buy dinner, prepare for articles about how Cameo shouldn’t platform such a fascist. 

→ Disney, let’s stop fighting. Love, Ron: Ron DeSantis is waving a white flag in his battle against Big Mouse. Here’s what he said this week on CNBC, a channel that Disney executives for sure watch: “[W]here we are today, you know, we’ve basically moved on. They’re suing the state of Florida. They’re going to lose that lawsuit. So what I would say is, drop the lawsuit.” He continued, reminding Disney that he’s their buddy: “No one has made Disney more money recently than me. Because during Covid, they were open in Florida.” As an obsessive of this particular political drama (and really, all of them) I want to believe this is a tactic. Reverse psychology. DeSantis is letting DeDisney think that they’re safe, so that they’ll start getting loose with the nonbinary cartoon characters, his political opponent of choice. 

But the other part of me knew that the Mouse Wars were all about making a name for himself on the battlefield. So until there’s a new they/them princess, DeSantis will pivot (according to leaked debate prep documents) and fight his real threat: Vivek Ramaswamy. 

→ Vivek continues to rap all over Iowa: As DeSantis falls in the Republican primary polls—from a high of 28 percent in February to 16 percent now—one man rises: Vivek Ramaswamy. He’s jumped to 11 percent. And no doubt feeling exuberant about it, he’s doing what he loves: rapping Eminem songs. Here he is doing “Lose Yourself” at the Iowa State Fair. While other politicians glad-hand over pork chops, our Ramaswamy is spitting, which is honestly inspiring. This is a Republican presidential contender. I remember when my usually free-range parent mom overheard Eminem blasting in my room and made me throw out the CD, but Ma, look at where I could have been! The only better teenage revenge will be when our first Zoomer presidential candidate holds a Twitch event, gaming while they talk tax policy. Vivek also had a very articulate—and viral—response to a reporter asking about his stances on LGBTQIA2S+ issues. (Watch Ben Kawaller of The Free Press at the Iowa State Fair for more.)


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Iran Comes Out of the Shadows Bari Weiss

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Iranians celebrate Iran’s attack against Israel in downtown Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Over the past 24 hours, the war that has raged in the Middle East since October 7 took on a new dimension.

In a historic first, Iran directly attacked Israel from its own territory—launching more than 300 drones and missiles toward Israel.

As Free Press columnist Matti Friedman writes today from Jerusalem: “Like a flash going off in a dark room, the attack has finally given the world something valuable: a glimpse of the real war in the Middle East.”

Tehran’s strike on Israel—who thankfully had defensive help from the U.S., Britain, France, Jordan, and reportedly Saudi Arabia—should make clear, for those still in doubt, that this war is not about Gaza, or even about Israel and a single Iranian proxy in Hamas. It is about Iran.

“The importance of last night’s barrage was that for the first time, the full Iranian alliance gave us a practical demonstration of its scope, orchestration, and intentions,” Matti writes. “If you’d been watching from space, you probably could have seen the lines of this new Middle East etched in orange and red across the map of the region.”

READ MATTI FRIEDMAN HERE.

Some Americans understand that clearly—and aren’t condemning it, but cheering it on. Our Olivia Reingold found herself at a conference of anti-war activists in Chicago on Saturday. Activists were taught how to chant “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” in Farsi. Watch:

And, when news of the attack broke, the crowd cheered and burst into chants of “Hands off Iran.” 

READ OLIVIA’S DISPATCH HERE.

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April 13, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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Michael Oren: How Did the War Begin? With Iran’s Appeasers in Washington Michael Oren

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Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. As Iranian provocations have mounted, the Biden administration has refrained from holding Tehran accountable. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Historians writing years from now about the Middle East conflagration of 2024 will undoubtedly ask, “When did it all begin?” Some will point to the Bush administration which, demoralized by its inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, rejected Israel’s entreaties to take out Iran’s then-inchoate nuclear program in 2008.

Others might cite Israel’s willingness to play by the mullahs’ rules, retaliating against their Hezbollah and Hamas proxies rather than against Iran itself, enabling it to emerge from each round of fighting utterly unscathed. 

But the bulk of the blame, fair historians will likely agree, will have to fall on the policies of those in Washington who sought to appease Iran at almost any price and ignore its serial aggressions.

Those policies began in the week after President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. In one of the forty-fourth president’s first acts of foreign diplomacy, Obama sent an offer of reconciliation to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That June, in his historic Cairo speech, Obama became the first president to refer to Tehran’s regime as the Islamic Republic of Iran—legitimizing the oppressive theocracy—and stood aside while that republic’s thugs beat and shot hundreds of Iranian citizens protesting for their freedom.

Over the next four years, the White House ignored a relentless spate of Iranian aggressions—attacks against U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf; backing for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups dedicated to America’s destruction; and barely disguised efforts to undermine pro-Western Middle Eastern governments.

At the same time, Iran supported Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s mass slaughter—often with poison gas—of his own countrymen. Obama had declared Syria’s use of chemical weapons as “a red line” that would have “enormous consequences” on America’s involvement in the war. It didn’t.

In Washington, the administration overlooked an Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi and Israeli ambassadors (including me) and ended a federal investigation of a billion-dollar Hezbollah drug and arms trafficking ring in the United States. Most egregiously, Iran constructed secret underground nuclear facilities and developed an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system that threatened the entire Middle East and much of Europe.

Why would any White House, even one devoted to rebuilding America’s relationship with the Islamic world, seek rapprochement with such a regime? 

At the time, there were multiple reasons. First, there was the desire of the United States, tired of Middle Eastern wars and no longer dependent on Arab oil, to withdraw from the region and focus on the Far East. Next, there was the belief that the U.S. had traditionally relied on its Sunni and Israeli allies only to discover that Sunnis perpetrated 9/11 and Israelis defied American policy in the West Bank. The Iranians, stronger, modern, and open to the West—so many American policymakers concluded—offered a better alternative if only their leadership were assuaged. Lastly, and ultimately most decisively, was the Iranian nuclear program, a burgeoning strategic threat that the White House refused to interdict by military means.

The nuclear agreement reached in 2015 between the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Germany, and Iran—euphemistically called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—had three major objectives: to block Iran’s path to the bomb, ensure that Iran became what Obama called “a responsible regional power,” and, failing that, to kick the “nuclear can” down the road. The first two goals proved illusory. 

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei adjusts his eyeglasses after casting his ballots during the parliamentary and key clerical body elections at a polling station in Tehran on March 1, 2024. (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

Rather than block Iran’s path to the bomb, the agreement solidly paved it by allowing Iran to retain most of its nuclear infrastructure and to continue producing ever more advanced centrifuges capable of reducing Iran’s breakout time to mere weeks. The deal put no meaningful restrictions on Iran’s missile delivery systems or its clandestine weapons programs. And even then, the largely cosmetic limitations were set to expire in less than a decade. Well before that time, though, Iran harnessed the deal’s financial and strategic rewards to expand its sphere of influence across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. So much for the responsible regional power.

In 2018, President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, reinstated punishing sanctions on Iran, and retaliated for Iranian attacks against Americans, indicating a different approach to the issue, but that policy proved short-lived. A centerpiece of Joe Biden’s 2019 presidential campaign was his pledge to restore America’s adherence to the JCPOA. No sooner had the Democrats regained the White House than the Iranians began to violate the agreement on a massive scale, gradually achieving military nuclear threshold capacity.

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Obama’s singular foreign policy achievement.

As the Iranian centrifuges spun, the Biden administration entered into intense negotiations to renew the JCPOA. The talks were headed by Robert Malley, who was evicted from the Obama campaign in 2008 for meeting with Hamas. Under Biden, Malley became America’s special envoy to Iran, but he was recently ousted for mishandling sensitive information. Though the initiative to reinstate the deal eventually failed, the U.S. still provided Iran with at least $10 billion in funds that had been frozen, and reportedly much more than that in quiet sanction relief. 

Meanwhile, the Iranian provocations mounted. An ally of Russia, Iran provided thousands of offensive drones and long-range missiles used to kill America’s allies in Ukraine. Since the start of the war against Hamas, Iranian proxies have launched more than 170 attacks against U.S. military bases in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, and all but blocked international shipping through the strategically crucial Bab al-Mandeb Strait. 

Still, the U.S. refrained from retaliating against Iran directly, or even holding it publicly responsible. When, in January, three American soldiers were killed by a drone strike by an Iranian-backed militia, the U.S. struck back at the militia and not at the country—or even the factory—that produced the bomb. 

Then, on Sunday, a historic first: Tehran directly attacked Israel from its territory with hundreds of drones and missiles.

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran to repeatedly assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one. 

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. Press reports about President Biden’s refusal to support an Israeli counterattack against Iran indicate, sadly, that nothing substantial in the U.S. position has changed. He has reportedly urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to see the coordinated response to the attack as a “win.”

The Iranians, though, will not see things that way. Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity. If Israel follows Biden’s advice it will send one message to the ayatollahs: “You can launch another 350 missiles and drones at Israel or try to kill Israelis by other means. Either way, the United States won’t stop you.” 

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

The story of America can end only one of two ways: either it stands up boldly against Iran and joins Israel in deterring it, or Iran emerges from this conflict once again unpunished, undiminished, and ready to inflict yet more devastating damage.

Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Knesset member, and deputy minister for diplomacy in the Israeli prime minister’s office, is the author of the Substack publication Clarity.

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