Last week, the New York Times finally ran a piece on a story that had been circulation around the Internet for months. A woman purchasing a package of Halloween decorations at a K-Mart in Oregon found a letter in English placed there by one of the workers who had made the product. It said the following:
“Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization,” said the note, which was tucked between two ersatz tombstones and fell out when the woman, Julie Keith, opened the box in her living room last October. “Thousands people here who are under the persicution [sic] of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”
Ms. Keith was profoundly affected by this shocking message—whose author was recently found—but knew nothing about the situation in the Laogai, the Chinese gulag where “re-education through labor” subjects hundreds of thousands if not many millions of Chinese criminals as well as religious believers and political dissidents to horrific conditions as well as torture and death. So do most Americans. But the really awful truth about the American view of China is that even those who know or ought to know what is going on there simply don’t care. Five days after the Times ran the story about the inmate’s letter, it published a piece about New York University’s decision to push out a prominent Chinese dissident for fear that his continued presence on campus would harm the school’s close financial relationship with Beijing. Just as any hope of abolishing these camps is made impossible by the fact that the Chinese police profit from the suffering of their inmates, so, too, American institutions and businesses are compromised by their financial ties to an evil system.
The ongoing saga of Edward Snowden has at least been moving in the right direction for President Obama. Snowden may once have tried to position himself as a whistleblower, but he has since devolved into ingratiating himself with authoritarian regimes by plying them with American national security secrets. While Pete is correct that the NSA story seems to be hurting voters’ opinion of Obama’s trustworthiness, Americans are by now realizing that they would be foolish to go the other extreme and place that trust in Snowden.
It is also (understandably) distracting the public’s attention from the scandals that preceded it, such as the IRS’s targeting of conservative political groups. And that scandal was a threat to Obama’s popularity as well because the administration’s story kept changing each time it was shown to be false. Americans were tuning in to coverage of the IRS scandal because it just kept getting worse. And the latest testimony released by the House Oversight Committee should make the president thankful to have Snowden’s distraction. The Hill reports:
With the Palestinians stiffing Secretary of State John Kerry’s calls for them to rejoin talks with Israel without—as President Obama has asked them to do—preconditions, there really isn’t much to talk about what we call, for lack of a better term, the Middle East peace process. So instead the media is focusing on what is a purely theoretical argument between members of Israel’s government and claiming that this dispute, rather than the failure of the Palestinians to take advantage of President Obama’s advocacy for a two-state solution, is responsible for the impasse.
That’s the upshot of the furor over recent statements by Israel’s Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads one of the parties that make up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud, to the extent that the two-state solution is already dead and buried. According to Jodi Rudoren of the New York Times, this illustrates the deep division within Israeli society about both the desirability and the viability of the idea that peace will be achieved by creating a Palestinian state living alongside Israel. But the tempest over Bennett and Danon, both of whom would like Israel to begin to act as if there will never be a resolution of the conflict, isn’t really a new version of a decades-old internal debate about how peace can be achieved. That strategic argument was pretty much resolved in the last 20 years as even most of the political right that had long believed that Israel could settle all of the land west of the Jordan River as well as having peace came to understand that wasn’t going to happen.
Instead, what Israel is currently experiencing is a debate about tactics. Namely, should the country go on pretending as if peace with the Palestinians is possible to please Washington or call things by their rightful names and simply do what they want in terms of annexing part of the West Bank (Bennett’s solution) or simply stop talking about two states as Danon seems to want to do. The former position is more practical in terms of bolstering Israel’s diplomatic position, but the fact that Bennett and Danon are saying that there will be no two-state solution does not make it any less likely to happen if the Palestinians are willing to accept it. Those who claim these statements are actually damaging the prospects of peace don’t understand the facts of life in the Middle East or the realities of Israeli politics.
There is only one reason why Bennett and Danon are able to claim that the two-state solution is dead. It’s because they’re right.
If you believe the headlines, peace is breaking out–or about to break out–in Afghanistan. The breathlessly relayed news of the moment is that the Taliban have agreed to open a diplomatic office in Qatar to launch peace talks with the U.S. and the Karzai government. All I can say is: Don’t get your hopes up.
There have been numerous reports in the past about peace talks starting and even preliminary contacts between the U.S. and the Taliban. (For a list, click here.) Most recently, in 2011, the Taliban actually dispatched negotiators to Qatar and talks were on the verge of starting except that, under heavy criticism, the Obama administration balked at releasing senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo as a confidence-boosting measure.
Did you think the seemingly endless 2012 presidential election started way too soon? If so, you weren’t alone. But we may think back on that long slog as a brief interlude long before we get to November 2016. Though the discussion about the next presidential election began even before Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, the 2016 race may have begun for all intents and purposes yesterday when the first official endorsement was announced. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said she was backing Hillary Clinton in an official statement that was posted on the ReadyforHillary.com website. McCaskill’s backing for Clinton is hardly a surprise but the timing may indicate a deliberate strategy on the part of the former first lady and secretary of state. The announcement may be the first of a series of high-profile endorsements that will occur at regular intervals over the course of the next year as Clinton seeks to do something that only incumbent presidents can generally aspire to: clear the field of all serious competition among Democrats.
Clinton’s not the only likely presidential contender making noises these days. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who shapes up as a first-tier candidate for the Republican nod, has been concentrating on his re-election race this year. But this morning on “Morning Joe” he showed he was thinking 2016 by taking a shot at President Obama for what seemed like the first time since Hurricane Sandy when he mocked his belated “charm offensive” with the GOP.
But both Clinton and Christie (whose late night TV appearances have kept him in the public eye even on days when he’s not making news), might want to pause and consider whether their high profile this early in the run-up to 2016 is entirely a good thing. Clinton’s favorability ratings have dropped drastically since leaving the State Department and returning, albeit sparingly, back into the political fray. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll may indicate that the best thing for a 2016 contender would be to keep their profile low at this incredibly early stage of the contest.
Two and half years into the Syrian civil war, with 93,000 confirmed deaths and counting, more than 5 million displaced civilians (that’s 25 percent of the entire population) and evidence of chemical weapons’ use, Western reluctance to intervene is still driven by our inability to decide who, among the contenders, is worse.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made up his mind–a victory by the Sunni Salafists, which include Chechen fighters, is the worst-case scenario. He thus sought to leverage Western discomfort yesterday at the G-8 in Northern Ireland by highlighting their savagery, referring to an act of cannibalism filmed on YouTube by what appears to be a rebel fighter, and then asking, rhetorically, “Are these the people you want to support?”
For all the cynicism directed at the rational self-interest of American politicians, it does serve to simplify political interpretation: when we aren’t expressly told the motives of a given political actor, we can pretty well figure them out. The upcoming special Senate election in Massachusetts is a good example.
Last month, Julio Ricardo Varela took to the pages of the Boston Globe to ask a seemingly important question: “Gabriel Gomez is the GOP’s dream. So why isn’t the party backing him?” What he meant was that Gomez, the Republican nominee for the seat vacated by John Kerry, is a pathbreaking Hispanic candidate with an impressive background in both the military and the private sector. Yet he wasn’t getting much financial help from the national Republican Party.
Despite widespread disagreement about how Hassan Rowhani’s election as president affects the chances of a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program, just about everyone appears to agree on one thing: The victory of a “relative moderate” came as a complete and unwelcome surprise to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. I’d been wondering whether anyone was ever going to challenge this blatantly irrational consensus, but finally, someone has. “I interpret his election in one way only: The regime wanted him to win,” said Dr. Soli Shahvar, head of Haifa University’s Ezri Center for Iran and Gulf Studies, in an interview with the Tower.
Shahvar pointed out that not only was Rowhani handpicked by the regime to be one of only eight candidates, while hundreds of others were disqualified, but the candidate list was blatantly tilted to ensure that he would place first: It pitted a single “moderate” against five conservatives (two candidates dropped out before the vote), thereby ensuring that the conservative vote would fragment. “If they had wanted one of the conservatives to win, they would have gotten four of the five conservatives to drop out of the race,” Shahvar said.
I have been traveling in Azerbaijan and Iraq for the better part of a month with sometimes limited Internet access, and so I missed this speech by second-term congressman Mike Pompeo. It is worth watching. Pompeo serves on the House Intelligence Committee, and is a graduate both of West Point and Harvard Law School. Pompeo notes:
There have now been at least a dozen attacks by Muslim terrorists on U.S. soil since Ramzi Yousef’s parked rental van exploded in the basement of the World Trade Center on February 26 of 1993. Some have caused death and injury—such as the 9/11 attacks in 2001and Nidal Hasan’s mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. Other attacks—such as Faisal Shahzad’s fizzled Times Square bombing or the unsuccessful underwear bombing of a flight—were thwarted or aborted…
He then argues that it is no longer enough simply to dismiss those who justify terrorism in religion as misunderstanding religion:
If a religion claims to be one of peace, Mr. Speaker, its leaders must reject violence that is perpetrated in its name. Some clerics today suggest that modern jihad is non-violent and is only about making oneself a better Muslim. Perhaps that’s true for moderate Muslims, but extremists seek to revive the era when most Islamic clerics understood jihad to be holy war.
The problem with the willingness of so many in the West to buy into the myth that Hassan Rowhani’s election in Iran provides a meaningful opening for nuclear diplomacy isn’t so much the possibility that the U.S. will be suckered into a terrible agreement with Tehran. The Iranians have proved time and again—including during the time when it was Rowhani being the chief deceiver—that they are never going to sign any deal that will place meaningful restrictions on their ability to enrich uranium. There is even less chance that the ayatollahs will allow the West to impose a solution that will “end” Iran’s nuclear program as the president pledged to do during the foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney last fall. No matter how many concessions the United States and its European allies offer Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the answer is always going to be no to any accord.
The real problem with the idiocy being promoted by purveyors of conventional foreign policy wisdom this week is that the infatuation with Rowhani will mean the United States will play the next year of Iran policy according to Tehran’s timetable.
That’s the main advantage that Khamenei has gained by allowing a seeming opponent to assume an office that has no real power over Iran’s nuclear program, its intervention in Syria or its support for international terrorism. If President Obama is serious about waiting, as he hinted at on Charlie Rose’s show last night, to see if Rowhani’s win will portend change, that means Iran may have obtained at least another year to develop a weapon before the Americans are ready to think about doing anything to redeem the president’s pledge to stop Iran.
According to the most recent CNN poll, President Obama’s approval rating dropped eight points over the past month (it’s down to 45 percent, his lowest in more than a year and a half). The main erosion occurred among people under 30 years of age (-17 points) and independents (-10). Mr. Obama’s approval-disapproval rating among independents is now 37/61.
Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed say they disagree with the president’s views on the size and power of the federal government. Fifty-three percent say Mr. Obama cannot manage the government effectively. And for the first time in his presidency, half of the public says they don’t believe Mr. Obama is honest and trustworthy. (The number of Americans who think he is honest has dropped nine points over the past month, to 49 percent.)
It’s always risky when congressmen affix their names to organizations which sound both innocuous and harmless, because they seldom are. It used to be common practice, for example, for articulate and beautiful young ladies to ask congressmen (and European Union parliamentarians) to sign petitions calling for democracy or human rights in Iran. Few congressmen realized before it was too late that the sponsor of the petition was actually the Mujahedin al-Khalq, a creepy and authoritarian cult which at the time the United States still considered to be a terrorist organization.
Now, the same issue applies in a different way to Turkey: Take, for example, the 135 members of congress who count themselves as “members of Caucus on US Turkish Relations & Turkish Americans,” better known in Congress as the Turkey Caucus. The Turkish Coalition of America explains that the Turkey Caucus “is a bi-partisan platform for members of Congress to focus on US-Turkish relations and issues that concern Turkish Americans.” Now that sounds innocent enough and, indeed, as Turkey Caucus co-chair Gerry Connolly explained at a congressional hearing several years ago examining “Turkey’s New Foreign Policy Direction,” Turkey hosts an American military base and the two countries cooperate in Afghanistan.
Much of the discussion about the Middle East peace process tends to focus almost entirely on what Israelis do and what the implications of more concessions to the Palestinians will be for the Jewish state. Some of this emphasis is justified, as Israel ought to do what is not only right but is in its long-term interest. For some on the left that means ignoring not only the openly stated intentions of the Palestinians and their supporters in the Muslim and Arab worlds but also their long record of rejecting peace. But as difficult as it might be to focus the international press as well as liberal Jews on the historical record of the Palestinians and their political culture that makes peace improbable if not impossible, it may be just as important to broaden the discussion to that of the culture of the entire region. If Palestinians have never found the will to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn it is in no small measure because doing so is viewed as treason to the general anti-Zionist cause.
It is that context an item brought to our attention by the Elder of Ziyon website. In one we are informed that a new blockbuster miniseries slated for broadcast throughout the Muslim world in July as part of the region’s version of sweeps week for the Ramadan holiday may not be aired after all. But rather than “Khaybar” being axed for its widely reported anti-Semitic theme, the series may be in trouble because it portrays some of the Prophet Muhammad’s “companions” and therefore offends the religious sensibilities of Dubai TV and other broadcasters. While I have no position about what Muslims ought to consider taboo, the fact that “Khaybar” is still slated to run in most of the Middle East tells us more about what the contemporary Arab world thinks about Jews than canned statements about peace intended for the Western press that peace advocates rely upon.
Writing today in the Corner at National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg takes up the point I discussed earlier today about the necessity for Republicans not to frame the immigration reform issue as one in which their principal motivation is to avoid allowing more Hispanics to become Democratic voters. He agrees with me that’s wrong, but he also says that supporters of the gang of eight bill are mistaken to try and sell their legislation to the GOP on the grounds that it is good politics. He thinks the debate on the bill should rise and fall on its merits, and I’m perfectly happy to join him in supporting that sentiment.
Reform of a failed immigration system that makes a mockery of the rule of law and replacing it with something that both strengthens border security and provides productive and otherwise law-abiding residents of the United States a path to legalization is good policy. Contrary to many of our friends on the right who claim Republicans have a vital interest in derailing efforts to bring about that change, I see no conservative principle at stake in either defending the status quo or an unrealistic call for the deportation of 11 million people that we know are going nowhere. As many conservatives and most of the business community have long argued, immigration is not only a response to economic reality, it continues to be one of America’s great strengths and should be encouraged rather than opposed.
However, I disagree with Goldberg when he says that Republicans should not consider the political implications of the issue. He’s right that votes on the bill should be determined by “the national interest” on such a major issue and that, as I noted in my piece, there is no guarantee that poor Hispanics will become Republicans just because the party backs immigration reform. But while the bill isn’t going to be sold to the party simply because it is good politics, the problem is that strident anti-immigration voices on the right have already put the GOP in a position where it must do something to rebrand itself on the issue in order to have a hope of turning the situation around.
Alas, bad news from Indonesia, which otherwise has managed its counter-radicalization program well in recent years. The last synagogue in Java—a historical building that predated Indonesian independence—has been destroyed after having been blockaded for several years by Indonesian Islamists. From the Jakarta Globe:
The last vestige of one Indonesia’s oldest and largest Jewish communities is now just a pile of rubble. Beth Shalom in Surabaya — Java’s one and only synagogue — was demolished in May after being sealed off by Islamic hard-liners in 2009. “It’s not clear when exactly it was demolished and who did it,” Freddy Istanto, the director of the Surabaya Heritage Society (SHS), told the Jakarta Globe. “In mid-May, I was informed by a member of the SHS that the synagogue was destroyed. In disbelief, I went over there and it had been flattened.”
New Iranian President Hassan Rowhani is already proving the truth of my assertion that allowing his election was the smartest thing his country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has done in a long time. Speaking for the first time since winning in a landslide last Friday, Rowhani presented a far more reasonable face to the world than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Islamist cleric that had the distinction of being the most “moderate” of the regime supporters that Khamenei allowed to run said he wanted to reduce tensions with the United States. Though he reiterated that he would never budge from defending Iran’s “right” to continue to enrich uranium that the world rightly fears will be used to make bombs, this half-hearted olive branch is probably all he thinks he needs to do to string the West along for another round of negotiations that will do nothing but buy more time for Iran to achieve its nuclear ambition.
The bad news is that he’s probably right about that.
The willingness of White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough to embrace Rowhani’s election as “a potentially hopeful sign” was a signal that President Obama is ready to head down the garden path with the Iranians again despite the fact that every previous such effort has ended in a failure that only advanced the ayatollahs toward their nuclear goal. As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the “myth of the moderate mullah” dies hard in Washington. But the problem here probably goes a lot deeper than the nonsense being spouted on cable news shows about the nonexistent chances that Rowhani represents the start of a chance to transform Iran from an Islamist tyranny to something less awful. Given the fact that everyone knows that real power resides in the hands of the supreme leader, the desire to pump meaning into his election may be more about the desire of the president and those elements of the foreign policy establishment that are keen to avoid having to face up to the truth about the Iranian nuclear peril than any belief in Rowhani’s moderation.
One of the bedrocks of the U.S.-Turkey partnership has been U.S. provision of so-called counter-terrorism assistance to Turkey. In theory, the counter-terrorism assistance is meant to allow Turkey to counter its Kurdish insurgency, long led by the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK. However, for the past three months, the Turkish government and PKK have been in active peace talks and the truce between them has held.
I have written before about how a lack of a universal definition of what terrorism is hampers the fight against it. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will label the PKK as terrorists, but somehow say that Hamas is not a terrorist group. Indeed, as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Jonathan Schanzer pointed out, Erdoğan took time out from managing the state response to protests by liberals, secularists, trade unionists, educators, and others to meet with senior Hamas leaders today.
Like Max, I couldn’t help but notice our president’s ambivalence about the Syrian civil war. But I was surprised to read this sentence, in the Times story that Max quotes: “Coming so late into the conflict, Mr. Obama expressed no confidence it would change the outcome, but privately expressed hope it might buy time to bring about a negotiated settlement.” This, to me, is a perfect example of how fetishizing diplomacy undermines it.
It is appropriate for that quote to appear in a story in the New York Times, because the Times has reported extensively on how diplomacy is probably President Obama’s most glaring weakness of statecraft. And they deserve credit for doing so, because it is rare for the mainstream media to report on domestic politics in ways that contradict their own narratives. Since the narrative on Obama is that he is a thoughtful proponent of engagement, it took some contrarian instincts for the Times to reveal what many of us already knew: no, he’s not. He’s an egotist who believes in the power of his own command, and the cult of personality that surrounded him for so long insulated him from the reality of his own limitations.
If Obama can’t fool the media into thinking he wants to win in Syria, what are the odds he can fool the Kremlin? One of the complaints about Obama from the right and from the interventionist center-left is that he avoids talk of victory–everything he does and says is about ending a given conflict, not winning the conflict. Telegraphing this substantially reduces his negotiating leverage. It’s ironic, but Obama’s obsession with engagement severely weakens his ability to engage.
As I noted earlier today, Marco Rubio is taking the brunt of the backlash from some conservatives who oppose efforts to reform America’s failed immigration system. But whatever impact Rubio’s stand in favor of the bipartisan compromise bill currently being considered by the Senate has on his presidential prospects, Republicans should be worried about the tenor of the debate that is developing on the right about the legislation.
While I think GOP critics of the immigration reform bill that claim any path to citizenship for illegals undermines the rule of law have a weak case (since the status quo makes a mockery of the rule of law), it is at least an argument based in principle. But if the main theme of those trying to block reform becomes one that centers on the idea that illegals that become citizens will by themselves tip the political balance of the country toward Democrats, as talk show host Steve Deace writes today in Politico, then the problem is not so much Rubio’s as it is the party as a whole. It is a short leap from that assertion to one of general resentment of a national demographic shift in which the percentage of Hispanics has risen. Loose talk along these lines has become endemic in some quarters of the right and it is time for leading Republicans—including those who disagree with Rubio on the reform bill—to stamp it out before it saddles the GOP with liberal attacks that won’t be easily answered by the usual (and generally correct) rejoinder about media bias.
Pete Wehner has rightly called out Sarah Palin for claiming that the US is “becoming a totalitarian surveillance state.” That is not her only mindless and stupid comment of late. She also had this to say Saturday about the terrible conflict in Syria:
I say until we know what we’re doing, until we have a commander in chief who knows what he’s doing, well, let these radical Islamic countries who aren’t even respecting basic human rights, where both sides are slaughtering each other as they scream over an arbitrary red line, ‘Allah Akbar,’ I say until we have someone who knows what they’re doing, I say let Allah sort it out.”
This is both offensive and puzzling. Start with puzzling: She claims that Syrians are fighting over a “red line.” Perhaps she’s confusing it with the Green Line that once divided Christian Beirut from Muslim Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War? In Syria the only “red line” is the imaginary one that Obama drew to discourage Bashar Assad from using chemical weapons.