Commentary Magazine


The Left’s Intellectual and Moral Corruption

Back in January 2009, at the dawn of the Age of Obama, I made four predictions, the first of which was this 

while Obama is riding high, race relations will be excellent. But once Obama goes down in the polls and he does things that elicit criticism, be prepared for the “race card” to be played. If it is, then race relations could be set back, because the charges will be so transparently false. If race was used by Obamacons against Bill Clinton, it will certainly be used against Republicans.

And so it has. Consider just the past few weeks. Representative Steve Israel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was asked by CNN’s Candy Crowley, “Do you think your Republican colleagues are racists?” To which Israel replied, “Not all of them, no. Of course not. But to a significant extent, the Republican base does have elements that are animated by racism.”

When Representative Paul Ryan made the perfectly obvious observation that there’s a real culture problem plaguing America’s inner cities, Representative Barbara Lee issued a statement saying, “My colleague, Congressman Ryan’s comments about inner city poverty are thinly-veiled racial attack and cannot be tolerated.”

Last week House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi blamed race issues for the GOP’s failure to act on comprehensive immigration legislation. “I think race has something to do with the fact that they’re not bringing up an immigration bill,” she told reporters at her regular weekly press conference.

On and on it goes, to the point that the charge has been used so promiscuously and indiscriminately used that it is virtually meaningless. It tells you something about the modern left’s desperation that they invoke the racism charge so recklessly. It also provides us with a glimpse into the deep intellectual and moral corruption that has occurred. Many progressives seem to thrive on ad hominem attacks; it is the first response they reach for.

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Back in January 2009, at the dawn of the Age of Obama, I made four predictions, the first of which was this 

while Obama is riding high, race relations will be excellent. But once Obama goes down in the polls and he does things that elicit criticism, be prepared for the “race card” to be played. If it is, then race relations could be set back, because the charges will be so transparently false. If race was used by Obamacons against Bill Clinton, it will certainly be used against Republicans.

And so it has. Consider just the past few weeks. Representative Steve Israel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was asked by CNN’s Candy Crowley, “Do you think your Republican colleagues are racists?” To which Israel replied, “Not all of them, no. Of course not. But to a significant extent, the Republican base does have elements that are animated by racism.”

When Representative Paul Ryan made the perfectly obvious observation that there’s a real culture problem plaguing America’s inner cities, Representative Barbara Lee issued a statement saying, “My colleague, Congressman Ryan’s comments about inner city poverty are thinly-veiled racial attack and cannot be tolerated.”

Last week House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi blamed race issues for the GOP’s failure to act on comprehensive immigration legislation. “I think race has something to do with the fact that they’re not bringing up an immigration bill,” she told reporters at her regular weekly press conference.

On and on it goes, to the point that the charge has been used so promiscuously and indiscriminately used that it is virtually meaningless. It tells you something about the modern left’s desperation that they invoke the racism charge so recklessly. It also provides us with a glimpse into the deep intellectual and moral corruption that has occurred. Many progressives seem to thrive on ad hominem attacks; it is the first response they reach for.

We saw it with the forced resignation of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich because a half-dozen years ago he supported an effort by California citizens to prevent the redefinition of traditional marriage, thereby making him (in the eyes of some on the left) a bigot. We’ve seen it as well with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid repeatedly attacking the Koch brothers for being “un-American” and accusing Mitt Romney of not paying income taxes; with allies of President Obama accusing Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign of being responsible for the cancer-related death of a steel worker’s wife; with Vice President Biden saying Republicans want to put African-Americans “back in chains;” and with Mr. Obama accusing Republicans of being “social Darwinists,” of putting their party ahead of their country, of wanting dirty air and dirty water, and of wanting autistic and Down syndrome children to “fend for themselves.”

I have no idea whether those making these charges are being incredibly cynical or whether they’ve actually convinced themselves that those with whom they disagree, simply because they disagree, must be malignant. Whatever the explanation, the eagerness for any political movement, whatever its philosophy, to demonize rather than engage in an honest debate has an acidic effect on our civic and political culture. To be sure, no political party, and neither the left nor the right, have a monopoly on virtue. (It would help if more people were willing to call out those on their own side when lines of decency and propriety have been crossed.) In addition, politics has been a contact sport since our founding. (For more, see the brutal election of 1800 between Jefferson and Adams.) Still, we can do better, much better than we are; and for the sake of our country, we really should. 

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What Would a Military DREAM Act Mean?

One of the top ideas floating around the orbit of immigration reform is to allow a faster path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, “undocumented residents,” or whatever the latest politically correct term is, if they join and serve in the U.S. military. In effect, this means opening the U.S. military to illegal aliens.

Now, there is a long history of non-Americans joining the U.S. military. Filipinos joined the U.S. Navy in significant numbers from the first years of the 20th century through World War II and, indeed, even after the Philippines’ 1947 independence. Non-citizens who were legal residents have served honorably in the U.S. military up to and during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Many still do, and they deserve the quicker path to citizenship that their service enables. 

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One of the top ideas floating around the orbit of immigration reform is to allow a faster path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, “undocumented residents,” or whatever the latest politically correct term is, if they join and serve in the U.S. military. In effect, this means opening the U.S. military to illegal aliens.

Now, there is a long history of non-Americans joining the U.S. military. Filipinos joined the U.S. Navy in significant numbers from the first years of the 20th century through World War II and, indeed, even after the Philippines’ 1947 independence. Non-citizens who were legal residents have served honorably in the U.S. military up to and during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Many still do, and they deserve the quicker path to citizenship that their service enables. 

That does not mean that President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and the various Democratic and Republican representatives and senators who are pushing immigration reform should endorse the idea of illegal or undocumented aliens serving in the U.S. military. The reason is simple: It creates a precedent by which the U.S. military welcomes lawbreakers. Illegal aliens may find their plight unfair and unjust, but they do know their actions violate U.S. law. Just as the military has upheld physical standards in its recruitment, it has also weeded out those who knowingly do not abide by the law. Certainly, there are waivers for certain crimes: Some civil offences, non-traffic-related crimes, and misdemeanors might be forgiven. This is done on an individual, case-by-case basis. To open the doors of the U.S. military to illegal aliens, however, not only is a slap in the face of those who have respected U.S. law, but also raises questions as to the motive of service. Regardless, the question both Democrats and Republicans should ask is more basic than whether there should be a military equivalent of the DREAM Act. Instead, the question at hand is whether the U.S. military should any longer use respect for the law as a selection criteria.

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A Weak and Ugly Smear Against Veterans

One of the most welcome differences between the post-Vietnam and the post-Iraq/Afghanistan eras is that veterans are not being vilified for serving in an unpopular war. Even anti-war activists have generally drawn a distinction between opposing the war and attacking those who served—although that line got blurry at times, as when Moveon.org, for example, ran a full-page newspaper ad in 2007 slandering General David Petraeus as “General Betray Us.”

Now that both wars are ending—or, to be more accurate, now that American involvement is ending—there is, however, a disturbing tendency to paint veterans as mentally deranged ticking time bombs. That tendency grows when veterans commit horrifying acts of violence—as, for example, when Specialist Ivan Lopez, killed three people at Fort Hood on April 2. Lopez, it seems, briefly served in Iraq but saw no combat, yet there was the usual leap to judgment among those who decided that his murderous rampage must have been caused by battlefield trauma.

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One of the most welcome differences between the post-Vietnam and the post-Iraq/Afghanistan eras is that veterans are not being vilified for serving in an unpopular war. Even anti-war activists have generally drawn a distinction between opposing the war and attacking those who served—although that line got blurry at times, as when Moveon.org, for example, ran a full-page newspaper ad in 2007 slandering General David Petraeus as “General Betray Us.”

Now that both wars are ending—or, to be more accurate, now that American involvement is ending—there is, however, a disturbing tendency to paint veterans as mentally deranged ticking time bombs. That tendency grows when veterans commit horrifying acts of violence—as, for example, when Specialist Ivan Lopez, killed three people at Fort Hood on April 2. Lopez, it seems, briefly served in Iraq but saw no combat, yet there was the usual leap to judgment among those who decided that his murderous rampage must have been caused by battlefield trauma.

Now we are hearing something similar about Frazier Glenn Miller, the neo-Nazi nut who shot and killed three people outside a Jewish community center in Kansas. Miller, you see, served in the army in Vietnam—therefore his military service must be directly related to his violent and extremist acts more than 40 years later. It may not make much sense to you or me, but it seems to be a compelling case to Kathleen Belew, a post-doctoral fellow at Northwestern, who has used Miller’s shooting as a peg to publish an op-ed in the New York Times suggesting that veterans are behind the white supremacist movement.

Here is Belew’s shoddy logic. Step A: “Vietnam veterans forged the first links between Klansmen and Nazis since World War II. They were central in leading Klan and neo-Nazi groups past the anti-civil rights backlash of the 1960s and toward paramilitary violence.” Step B: “It would be irresponsible to overlook the high rates of combat trauma among the 2.4 million Americans who have served in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the full impact of which has not yet materialized.” Implication: Many Iraq and Afghanistan vets are about to become violent white supremacists.

This doesn’t add up, to put it mildly, as even Belew (or her editors) seem to recognize because they put so many qualifiers into her argument. For example, she admits that “the number of Vietnam veterans in that [white supremacist] movement was small — a tiny proportion of those who served.” She also adds: “A vast majority of veterans are neither violent nor mentally ill. When they turn violent, they often harm themselves, by committing suicide.” But those qualifiers easily get loss amid the gist of the article, which clearly implies that the U.S. armed forces are a breeding ground for violent extremists.

The reality, of course, is that, while there are bound to be a few mentally unstable individuals in any group as large and varied as the armed forces, by and large veterans are more law-abiding, more successful, and better-adjusted than the population at large. To suggest some correlation between military service and membership in extremist groups, based on a tiny percentage of outliers, is a gross calumny on the millions of Americans who have served their country honorably and have adjusted to make a useful contribution in civilian life too.

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Reports of a Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

The Open Source Center flags a report posted on a British blog purporting to show video of a new chemical weapons attack in Syria. From the blog:

While there’s been a number of small alleged chemical attacks reported in the months since the August 21st Sarin attack, this attack was unusual for a number of reasons.  First, earlier attacks have mostly (if not entirely) been on front-line positions with adult males being the victims, while in the Kafr Zita attack it appears children made up a significant number of victims.  Second, it’s a rare occasion both the government and opposition claim an attack took place, with the government claiming Jabhat al-Nusra launched the attack.  As reports claim a helicopter dropped the bomb, it seems highly unlikely Jabhat al-Nusra would have been operating a helicopter, unless they have a previously unheard of air-force the Syrian air defence system failed to detect. Syrian State TV felt confident enough to specify the type of agent used, “there is information that the terrorist Nusra Front released toxic chlorine… leading to the death of two people and causing more than 100 people to suffer from suffocation”.  Now, videos and photographs from Kafr Zita provides evidence of a second, failed chemical attack, on the night of April 12th, with the following video showing a container supposedly used in the attack.

On the original website, there are more photographs and explanations. That said, however, if the video linked above is accurate, then the logic of the explanation is sound, for as noxious as the Nusra Front might be, there is no indication that they would have helicopters from which to release chemical munitions. So much for the Russia-brokered breakthrough on chemical weapons disposal, or the contrition of the Assad regime in the wake of last summer’s apparent Sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus.

The Open Source Center flags a report posted on a British blog purporting to show video of a new chemical weapons attack in Syria. From the blog:

While there’s been a number of small alleged chemical attacks reported in the months since the August 21st Sarin attack, this attack was unusual for a number of reasons.  First, earlier attacks have mostly (if not entirely) been on front-line positions with adult males being the victims, while in the Kafr Zita attack it appears children made up a significant number of victims.  Second, it’s a rare occasion both the government and opposition claim an attack took place, with the government claiming Jabhat al-Nusra launched the attack.  As reports claim a helicopter dropped the bomb, it seems highly unlikely Jabhat al-Nusra would have been operating a helicopter, unless they have a previously unheard of air-force the Syrian air defence system failed to detect. Syrian State TV felt confident enough to specify the type of agent used, “there is information that the terrorist Nusra Front released toxic chlorine… leading to the death of two people and causing more than 100 people to suffer from suffocation”.  Now, videos and photographs from Kafr Zita provides evidence of a second, failed chemical attack, on the night of April 12th, with the following video showing a container supposedly used in the attack.

On the original website, there are more photographs and explanations. That said, however, if the video linked above is accurate, then the logic of the explanation is sound, for as noxious as the Nusra Front might be, there is no indication that they would have helicopters from which to release chemical munitions. So much for the Russia-brokered breakthrough on chemical weapons disposal, or the contrition of the Assad regime in the wake of last summer’s apparent Sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus.

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Will a Nuclear Japan be Obama’s Legacy?

Almost every recent second-term president, burdened by the record of his failures, has sought a “Hail Mary” foreign-policy success to define his legacy: Bill Clinton sought successfully to normalize ties with Vietnam, but also wanted to shake hands with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and broker a final peace deal between Israel, the Palestinians, and the broader Arab world. And for all of George W. Bush’s talk about a war on terrorism, he effectively let North Korea off the hook, removing it from the state sponsor of terrorism list, because Condoleezza Rice thought a North Korea break through could change her boss’s legacy. Ditto the rushed 2007 Annapolis conference, which, as process for the sake of process, symbolized everything wrong with the approach of Bush’s predecessors. Like Clinton, Obama is turning to Middle East peace and Iran to reverse a legacy marred by the troubled roll-out of the Affordable Healthcare Act (“Obamacare”), the failure of the reset in Russia, and chaos in Syria. In neither case, however, will Obama see success. Neither he nor Secretary of State John Kerry recognize that their rhetoric does not sound as insightful or brilliant to outsiders as it does to their own ears or to those of their sycophantic aides. When it comes to strategy, determination, or pursuit of pure national objectives, Obama is simply no match for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, or North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un.

And so most U.S. allies now recognize that they cannot trust the United States. In the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Southeast Asia, and East Asia, traditional American allies are increasingly concluding that they need a Plan B. Those Plan B’s could actually become Obama’s greatest foreign-policy legacy.

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Almost every recent second-term president, burdened by the record of his failures, has sought a “Hail Mary” foreign-policy success to define his legacy: Bill Clinton sought successfully to normalize ties with Vietnam, but also wanted to shake hands with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and broker a final peace deal between Israel, the Palestinians, and the broader Arab world. And for all of George W. Bush’s talk about a war on terrorism, he effectively let North Korea off the hook, removing it from the state sponsor of terrorism list, because Condoleezza Rice thought a North Korea break through could change her boss’s legacy. Ditto the rushed 2007 Annapolis conference, which, as process for the sake of process, symbolized everything wrong with the approach of Bush’s predecessors. Like Clinton, Obama is turning to Middle East peace and Iran to reverse a legacy marred by the troubled roll-out of the Affordable Healthcare Act (“Obamacare”), the failure of the reset in Russia, and chaos in Syria. In neither case, however, will Obama see success. Neither he nor Secretary of State John Kerry recognize that their rhetoric does not sound as insightful or brilliant to outsiders as it does to their own ears or to those of their sycophantic aides. When it comes to strategy, determination, or pursuit of pure national objectives, Obama is simply no match for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, or North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un.

And so most U.S. allies now recognize that they cannot trust the United States. In the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Southeast Asia, and East Asia, traditional American allies are increasingly concluding that they need a Plan B. Those Plan B’s could actually become Obama’s greatest foreign-policy legacy.

The notion of Japan armed with nuclear weapons might seem far-fetched or bizarre given that Japan remains to this day the only country against whom nuclear weapons were used. After World War II, the new Japanese constitution declared that its military would be for self-defense only. Regional states know, however, that if pushed too far—by a resurgent and aggressive China, an unstable and unpredictable North Korea, or a Cold War-fixated Russia—Japan could resort to a nuclear deterrent in order to protect itself. A number of other analysts have written openly about Japan’s nuclear option. Given how the American pivot to Asia has evaporated, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s acknowledgment that the American forces would scale back to pre-World War II levels, and the fact that the Japan-based carrier, the USS George Washington, will within a couple years need to be withdrawn for a multi-year refueling, it should become clear to Japan that any U.S. security guarantees are rhetorical and ephemeral rather than real. It should be hard for Japanese leaders not to conclude that if they want to defend their territory and people, the time is nearing when they will have to cross the nuclear weapons threshold.

How ironic it is that Obama campaigned on a nuclear zero option, but the weakness of his policies now convince states that they have little choice but to embrace nuclear weapons they once so disdained.

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Why Do Diplomats Tweet?

Whatever one’s opinion of Obama administration policies—and even on these pages there are different assessments—it is clear that President Obama and his administration have embraced social media far more than his predecessors.  During the 2012 campaign, journalists noted that Obama had an order of magnitude more Twitter followers than his challenger, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even if those counting deducted the millions of Obama’s fake followers.

Not only does the State Department tweet, but so does John Kerry. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweets constantly, even if at times nonsensically. While it’s all well and good to embrace the new communications tool, the technology is no substitute for substance.

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Whatever one’s opinion of Obama administration policies—and even on these pages there are different assessments—it is clear that President Obama and his administration have embraced social media far more than his predecessors.  During the 2012 campaign, journalists noted that Obama had an order of magnitude more Twitter followers than his challenger, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even if those counting deducted the millions of Obama’s fake followers.

Not only does the State Department tweet, but so does John Kerry. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweets constantly, even if at times nonsensically. While it’s all well and good to embrace the new communications tool, the technology is no substitute for substance.

Last month, the Public Diplomacy Council published an insightful interview with Laurence Pope, an experienced diplomat with long service in the Middle East. Pope was asked a long-overdue question with regard to the State Department’s Twitter outreach:

Q:  The Department has embraced the social media to re-shape public diplomacy and transform American diplomacy.  What contribution can it make?

POPE:  There is nothing wrong with the use of Twitter and Facebook and Zillow and Youtube and all the rest of it, but diplomacy requires speech on behalf of the state, and social media are individual expressions by definition.  This can easily create confusion —think for example of Susan Rice tweeting about the need to bomb Syria while the President was changing his mind about that.  I don’t know how many Facebook pages and Twitter accounts there are at the State Department —hundreds if not thousands.  When individuals speak through them, one of two things are true: either they are expressing American policy, in which case 140 characters is unlikely to be a useful way of doing so, or they aren’t, in which case their views may be interesting, but there is a risk of confusion… The Youtube videos newly minted ambassadors make are downright embarrassing.  They give an impression of proconsular self-regard which is in bad taste.  Diplomacy is premised on a world of sovereign states.  The State Department’s  fascination with social media suggests that it no longer thinks that is the world we live in, a strange notion for a foreign ministry.  

Just as diplomatic correspondents and the secretaries of state they cover err by seeming to conflate miles flown with success, so too does the State Department fail by believing tweets matter. Russian President Vladimir Putin must laugh when, against the backdrop of ordering the invasion of Crimea, he faced little more than a cavalcade of angry tweets from Power. The sad thing is that the State Department now spends millions on public diplomacy, Twitter, and translations of its Twitter feed without once asking what good its Twitter feed does. That is not to deny that outreach can be positive, but it’s silly to spend such money without ever establishing metrics by which to judge Twitter diplomacy—and sillier to treat new communications technology as a substitute for substance.

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A Pitiful Pulitzer Pick

The Pulitzer Prize board has just managed to do the impossible. It has awarded a prize that deserves to be spoken of in the same conversation with its risible 1932 award to the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty for articles whitewashing the evils of Stalinist Russia.

The award of the Public Service prize to the Washington Post and the Guardian for serving as a mouthpiece for Edward Snowden is an attempt by the journalistic establishment to put its stamp of approval on the actions of one of the most destructive traitors in U.S. history—a former NSA contractor who has done untold damage to American intelligence gathering efforts against Russia, China, Al Qaeda, and other essential targets by revealing some of the most secret information that the U.S. government possesses. As Politico notes, this prize is “certain to be interpreted as a vindication of the former government contractor’s efforts.”

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The Pulitzer Prize board has just managed to do the impossible. It has awarded a prize that deserves to be spoken of in the same conversation with its risible 1932 award to the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty for articles whitewashing the evils of Stalinist Russia.

The award of the Public Service prize to the Washington Post and the Guardian for serving as a mouthpiece for Edward Snowden is an attempt by the journalistic establishment to put its stamp of approval on the actions of one of the most destructive traitors in U.S. history—a former NSA contractor who has done untold damage to American intelligence gathering efforts against Russia, China, Al Qaeda, and other essential targets by revealing some of the most secret information that the U.S. government possesses. As Politico notes, this prize is “certain to be interpreted as a vindication of the former government contractor’s efforts.”

Certainly that’s how Snowden sees it. In a statement typical of his nauseating and entirely unearned self-righteousness—released, it should be noted, from his current exile as an honored guest of Vladimir Putin’s police state—Snowden said: “Today’s decision is a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government. We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognizes was work of vital public importance.”

Funny, if you didn’t know the context, you might think that Snowden is praising the efforts of dissidents in Russia who face jail terms or even death if they dare to tell the truth about how Putin represses dissent and mobilizes the public behind his dictatorial and expansionist agenda. But, no, of course Snowden wouldn’t dare to bite the hand that feeds him–even if that hand belongs to an increasingly repressive regime which labels as “traitor” anyone who dares question any aspect of the Kremlin’s agenda .

In reality, Snowden is heaping eye-rolling praise on his own efforts, and those of his journalistic collaborators, to cripple the legitimate and lawful intelligence gathering efforts of the NSA. The public, it goes without saying, had a role in government long before Edward Snowden came along. The public’s role in the U.S. government actually goes back to our Founding and has remained robust ever since. The public even has an important role in oversight of the intelligence community—a role assigned by our political system to Congress’s intelligence committees and the intelligence community’s in-house inspectors-general, not to twentysomething contractors with extreme an libertarian ideology and a messiah complex. 

For all his self-preening, Snowden did not actually disclose any activity by the NSA that was illegal or unauthorized; what he disclosed was wide-ranging collection efforts that had ample safeguards built in to prevent abuse. There is still no evidence that any of the intelligence-gathering activities of the NSA were directed for personal or political gain. 

Rather, these efforts have helped to keep the country safe from follow-on 9/11 attacks and other threats to our security. Now this important line of defense has been compromised, perhaps fatally, by Snowden’s illegal and unethical disclosures, most of which have focused not on intelligence gathering at home (which is admittedly controversial) but on intelligence gathering abroad in countries that regularly spy on the U.S. too—and which should not remotely be a cause for controversy unless you subscribe to Henry Stimson’s naïve and outdated conviction that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”

There is nothing remotely brave about publishing the most sensitive secrets of the U.S. government—an activity that is arguably protected by the First Amendment and that is unlikely ever to be prosecuted by a U.S. government which is rightly respectful of journalists’ rights. Nor is there anything remotely brave about disclosing those same secrets and then fleeing to exile in Russia rather than facing the consequences in a U.S. court. The word to describe such activities is not “brave” but, rather, “reprehensible.” And that is what the Pulitzer committee is rewarding.

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When Terrorists Tweet

My 1999 Ph.D. dissertation examined the introduction of the telegraph to 19th century Iran. At first, the Shah supported the telegraph: the wires made the Iranian government more efficient in a time of dwindling resources and power. Over the years, however, the opposition learned what a powerful tool the telegraph could be. The late-19th century was a time of battle for the new technology as both the government and opposition fought for the upper hand. Ultimately, the opposition won: the government lost its communications monopoly and the opposition was able to organize a mass movement culminating in a constitution revolution. There was a financial side to the technology as well: For much of the 19th century, Iran did not use paper money. It had done so once under the Mongols, but that experiment had failed. Caravans carried tons of coin over weeks in order to complete transactions. With the telegraph, however, various agents could complete trades in a matter of hours, with money changing hands not in Tehran but in London and St. Petersburg.

Twitter and other social media tools are the 21st century equivalent of that 19th century technology. They have empowered ordinary citizens in their fight for freedom and liberty against oppressive governments like those in Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Twitter was also a powerful tool, of course, in the Arab Spring protests that led to the ouster of dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Too often, however, Twitter is depicted as a panacea just as the telegraph once was 150 years ago. In the wrong hands Twitter can be used to undercut life and liberty as terrorists embrace the technology to raise funds and solicit support.

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My 1999 Ph.D. dissertation examined the introduction of the telegraph to 19th century Iran. At first, the Shah supported the telegraph: the wires made the Iranian government more efficient in a time of dwindling resources and power. Over the years, however, the opposition learned what a powerful tool the telegraph could be. The late-19th century was a time of battle for the new technology as both the government and opposition fought for the upper hand. Ultimately, the opposition won: the government lost its communications monopoly and the opposition was able to organize a mass movement culminating in a constitution revolution. There was a financial side to the technology as well: For much of the 19th century, Iran did not use paper money. It had done so once under the Mongols, but that experiment had failed. Caravans carried tons of coin over weeks in order to complete transactions. With the telegraph, however, various agents could complete trades in a matter of hours, with money changing hands not in Tehran but in London and St. Petersburg.

Twitter and other social media tools are the 21st century equivalent of that 19th century technology. They have empowered ordinary citizens in their fight for freedom and liberty against oppressive governments like those in Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Twitter was also a powerful tool, of course, in the Arab Spring protests that led to the ouster of dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Too often, however, Twitter is depicted as a panacea just as the telegraph once was 150 years ago. In the wrong hands Twitter can be used to undercut life and liberty as terrorists embrace the technology to raise funds and solicit support.

Alas, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are together showing how such technology can be used to kill rather than save helpless populations. Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaisani, who regularly uses Youtube to solicit funding for Al Qaeda-linked extremists in Syria, has now taken to Twitter to raise money for an Al Qaeda-style jihad. He is not shy about listing the Qatari and Turkish phone numbers to collect the pledges. That, of course, is simply further evidence that those two nominal U.S. allies are complicit in supporting terror.

(When I was in Syria in January, most everyone relied on Turkish cell phones, as it seemed that Turkey had bolstered its network’s power in order to cover more of northern Syria than it did before the conflict. Turkey therefore has good intelligence on almost everything occurring in that region of Syria, including the activities of the Nusra Front and the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham).

Al-Muhaisani’s feed is illuminating: According to this tweet, 650 Saudi riyals (about $175) buys 150 Kalashnikov bullets or 50 sniper bullets. Muhaisani’s official twitter account has almost 300,000 followers.

In the right hands, Twitter is a wonderful tool that threatens the autocratic monopoly over information and assembly. But, in the wrong hands, it enables terrorists to become more active and more lethal. The answer is not to ban the technology, but to monitor it closely. There is no need to tap it: Simply following it can provide an intelligence trove. Let us hope that the U.S. government and its counter-terror analysts will never be so gun shy, nor American diplomats too language-poor to tune into a source that is far more illuminating than so many of the classified cables that the likes of Edward Snowden dealt in.

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The West Is Emboldening Putin

It has been almost exactly two months since mysterious “self-defense” forces in unmarked uniforms began appearing all over Crimea—a prelude to the annexation of the Ukrainian province by Russia only a few weeks ago. The U.S. and the European Union reacted to this unprovoked aggression—of a kind rarely if ever seen in Europe since 1945—with almost comical self-restraint. They sanctioned a few dozen Ukrainian and Russian individuals associated with this aggression, along with one Russian bank, and suspended—rather than simply kicked out—Russia from the G-8.

Ukrainian pleas for military aid were met by President Obama with a laughable offer to send MREs (meals ready to eat), which were dispatched by civilian trucks rather than by U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft, which were deemed too provocative to employ. Requests from General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, to share intelligence with the Ukrainians and to provide them with enhanced training and communications equipment were apparently rebuffed by the White House. Requests from Poland, the Baltic Republics, and other frontline NATO states for the dispatch of more NATO troops, including American troops, to their soil have been ignored. 

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It has been almost exactly two months since mysterious “self-defense” forces in unmarked uniforms began appearing all over Crimea—a prelude to the annexation of the Ukrainian province by Russia only a few weeks ago. The U.S. and the European Union reacted to this unprovoked aggression—of a kind rarely if ever seen in Europe since 1945—with almost comical self-restraint. They sanctioned a few dozen Ukrainian and Russian individuals associated with this aggression, along with one Russian bank, and suspended—rather than simply kicked out—Russia from the G-8.

Ukrainian pleas for military aid were met by President Obama with a laughable offer to send MREs (meals ready to eat), which were dispatched by civilian trucks rather than by U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft, which were deemed too provocative to employ. Requests from General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, to share intelligence with the Ukrainians and to provide them with enhanced training and communications equipment were apparently rebuffed by the White House. Requests from Poland, the Baltic Republics, and other frontline NATO states for the dispatch of more NATO troops, including American troops, to their soil have been ignored. 

U.S. and European leaders have made clear they are so paralyzed by fear of provoking Vladimir Putin that they dare not do more. Only if Putin went further and extended his aggression to the rest of Ukraine would the Russian dictator suffer more severe “repercussions.” Or so we were told by Secretary of State John Kerry and his European counterparts.

It is by now obvious that the West’s self-restraint—so reminiscent of similar self-restraint after Adolf Hitler’s military buildup, militarization of the Rhineland, Anschluss with Austria, and seizure of the Sudetenland—has not convinced Putin to exercise self-restraint in response.  Instead he has, correctly, read the West’s non-response as an expression of weakness that he can exploit to make further territorial gains toward his ultimate dream of reestablishing the Russian Empire, of which Ukraine was a satrapy until 1991.

So over the last week mysterious masked gunmen, reminiscent of those seen earlier in Crimea, have been appearing all over eastern Ukraine where they have been seizing police stations and other symbols of governmental authority. As American officials have made plain, these are not spontaneous demonstrations organized by aggrieved Russian-speaking locals. Rather these are carefully planned provocations organized and abetted by Russian security forces even if the on-the-ground Russian special forces presence has been less numerous, so far, than it was in Crimea.

The new, pro-Western government in Kiev stood by as Crimea was wrested away by Russia. It cannot stand by and lose the entire eastern part of the country without a fight. So Ukraine has mobilized what scant military forces it has and threatens to pacify the increasingly wild east by force if necessary. This, of course, is catnip to Putin. By responding in kind to semi-covert Russian aggression, Ukraine risks provoking a confrontation which would provide an excuse for Russian troops—an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 are deployed on Ukraine’s borders in a high state of readiness—to come pouring across the frontier on the pretext of protecting Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority.

On the other hand if the government in Kiev does nothing, Russian allies would simply declare the region’s independence from Ukraine, as many have already been doing. Heads you lose, tails I win: Ukraine is a no-win confrontation with its much bigger and better-armed neighbor.

The only hope that Ukraine now has of emerging as a whole and democratic state aligned to the West is to see dramatic action on the part of the U.S. and Europe to demonstrate to the Kremlin that the cost of further aggression is too high to be borne. What would this mean in practice? Practical steps would extend from rushing military aid to Ukraine, to reversing the dangerous drawdown of U.S. military strength, to rushing U.S. army brigades to Poland and the Baltics, to expelling every Russian financial institution from access to the Western financial system and seizing the ill-gained loot that Putin and his cronies keep in Western banks.

Simply to lay out what a serious response from the West would look like is to make obvious how unlikely it is to be implemented by the feckless leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Ukraine, I fear, has pretty much no chance of prevailing, because it is clear that the spirit of Neville Chamberlain, rather than that of Winston Churchill, is in charge of the Western response. The most that Ukraine can hope for is that Putin will choose not to annex its eastern territory outright, at least not yet, preferring for the time being to keep the region in an uproar to blackmail Kiev into remaining in the Russian orbit. (Nice country you have, he may be saying implicitly, in the fashion of movie gangsters, it would be a shame if anything happened to it.)

Alas the consequences of Western pusillanimity will be felt far outside Ukraine’s borders. Letting Ukraine be dismembered, even after the U.S., UK and Russia had guaranteed its territorial integrity, will send a signal to Putin that he can repeat the same stunt elsewhere. First Sevastopol, now Donetsk, next Tallinn? Likewise it will send a message to China’s leaders that they can act in similar fashion. If Putin can get away with aggression in Ukraine, why can’t China do the same in the South China Sea and East China Sea where it is locked in numerous territorial disputes with its neighbors?

With every fresh act of aggression by Russia which is met by Western confusion, hesitation, and weakness, the world becomes a more dangerous and unstable place.

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Turkey Shows the Risk of Politicized Tax Collectors

There is little question now that at least some Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees abused their position to allow partisanship to determine their actions. Who authorized such behavior, if anyone, remains subject to fierce partisan dispute. If the IRS targeted conservatives on the basis of their political belief and on the orders of anyone in the White House, most Americans would find such facts scandalous, and rightly so.

Many supporters of the Obama administration have pooh-poohed the scandal, or suggested that it comes from the fevered imaginations of Republican activists. They should not. Too many many fierce partisans will play hardball or engage in dirty tricks, all the more so if a precedent exists that leads them to believe they can get away with it.

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There is little question now that at least some Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees abused their position to allow partisanship to determine their actions. Who authorized such behavior, if anyone, remains subject to fierce partisan dispute. If the IRS targeted conservatives on the basis of their political belief and on the orders of anyone in the White House, most Americans would find such facts scandalous, and rightly so.

Many supporters of the Obama administration have pooh-poohed the scandal, or suggested that it comes from the fevered imaginations of Republican activists. They should not. Too many many fierce partisans will play hardball or engage in dirty tricks, all the more so if a precedent exists that leads them to believe they can get away with it.

Here, Turkey illustrates just what can happen when politicized tax collection is allowed to continue unabated. Turkey today has threatened to go after Twitter on tax evasion charges. According to an Agence France Presse report:

“Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are international companies established for profit and making money,” Erdogan said. “Twitter is at the same time a tax evader. We will go after it,” he added. “These companies, like every international company, will abide by my country’s constitution, laws and tax rules”

In Turkey, the issue is not rule of law, for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan interprets the law through the narrow prism of his personal interest. Simply put, his philosophy is the 21st century equivalent of “L’État, c’est moi.” Erdoğan has a long history of using arbitrary tax enforcement to target opponents.  He leveled a multimillion-dollar tax fine against the owner of a newspaper critical of his abuse-of-power and, then, when that media group actually found the funds to pay up, he leveled a multi-billion dollar fine. The world saw the tax lien for what it was, and roundly condemned Erdoğan for using the tax man to crush opponents. It was a tried and true strategy. With one of his political allies facing tough competition in Istanbul, Erdoğan used the tax man to levy a fine against the chief secular competitor in the race for an allegedly unpaid loan, draining his campaign chest.  Turkey has effectively become a third world dictatorship, and its tax service more a mechanism to punish than simply raise revenue.

When tax collectors lose their credibility and become little more than political weapons, there is no restoring that credibility. How sad it is that so many supporters of President Obama for partisan reasons appear to turn a blind eye to the apparent attempt by some in the IRS to wield their power like a weapon. For Turkey shows what happens when such behavior is not nipped in the bud. Let us hope that Erdoğan’s embrace of executive order and financial punishment has not become a model which Obama knowingly or unconsciously follows.

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Will Egypt’s Elections Be Free and Fair?

After the July 2013 uprising, coup, or correction in Egypt—the debate over the terminology, while relevant to U.S. law regarding foreign assistance, can nonetheless be distracting to the broader conversation—the Egyptian military promised a quick transition back to civilian rule, a new constitutional order, and elections.

The Egyptian military has been true to its word in reality, even if Western policymakers debate the spirit of its moves. After the Egyptian military arrested former President Mohamed Morsi and ousted his government, it did appoint civilian place-keepers—Adly Mansour as president, for example, and Hazem al-Beblawi as prime minister (Beblawi resigned in February). Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi might be the paramount power and he could very well be the next president, but he did not assume all power. That said, there is plenty of evidence upon which those who see Sisi’s ambitions more cynically can grasp.

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After the July 2013 uprising, coup, or correction in Egypt—the debate over the terminology, while relevant to U.S. law regarding foreign assistance, can nonetheless be distracting to the broader conversation—the Egyptian military promised a quick transition back to civilian rule, a new constitutional order, and elections.

The Egyptian military has been true to its word in reality, even if Western policymakers debate the spirit of its moves. After the Egyptian military arrested former President Mohamed Morsi and ousted his government, it did appoint civilian place-keepers—Adly Mansour as president, for example, and Hazem al-Beblawi as prime minister (Beblawi resigned in February). Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi might be the paramount power and he could very well be the next president, but he did not assume all power. That said, there is plenty of evidence upon which those who see Sisi’s ambitions more cynically can grasp.

Sisi did, however, keep his word and return Egypt to a constitutional order, scrapping the constitution that Morsi pushed through that would have taken women back decades and entrenched Islamism beyond its electoral mandate. Critics, however, argued that the drafting of the new constitution was not inclusive enough. That was not entirely the interim government’s fault: With the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to reject the post-Morsi order rather than participate in it, there was little choice the new government had to move forward other than scrap the drafting of a new constitution; fortunately, they chose to push forward despite the Brotherhood’s attempts to delegitimize the new constitution.

The next step is elections. U.S. policymakers should certainly recognize by now after its democracy promotion experience of the Bush and Obama years that elections do not make a democracy. Nor are all elections free and fair. While many critics of the Egyptian government effectively want to move back to the pre-July order and allow the Muslim Brotherhood to hang itself with a rope of its owning making, that sentiment discounts the fact that Morsi and the Brotherhood did not seem to be as committed to democratic checks and balances once they entered office and consolidated control, and so may never have allowed the public to try them at the ballot box. Regardless, it is simply impossible to go back to the past. The question then becomes how to push ahead into the future. It would be self-defeating to call for democratization but denounce any attempt at a new election. At the same time, there is no reason to take the Egyptian government at its word when it says that it wants free and fair elections.

That is why last week’s announcement by the Egyptian government that they will allow not only outside observation of the May 26-27 elections, but credible outside observation, is good sign. Allowing the European Union to send observers is probably the best possible choice. Neither the National Democratic Institute nor the International Republican Institute would be keen let alone welcome to send observers after the Egyptian military had scapegoated them against the backdrop of the initial Arab Spring protests. Nor is the Carter Center credible, given President Jimmy Carter’s outspoken and seemingly unbalanced support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is a lot of anger on all sides relating to the situation in Egypt. No one is satisfied. Rather than nihilistically condemn Egypt to limbo because of anger over the events of last July, however, it is important to make the most of the current situation, and push Egypt to the reforms it so desperately needs to make so that the next president doesn’t simply engage in the same corruption and crony capitalism that led to anger boiling over in 2011. Let us hope that the European Union monitors will observe Egypt’s elections both in the long and short term, and that the Egyptian government will continue to have the self-confidence to embrace transparency as it moves forward. If the authorities in Cairo are showing good faith, that should be reciprocated.

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Patrick Seale in Israel

Patrick Seale, journalist and author, best known for his reportage on Syria and his mediation between Hafez Asad and the West, has passed away at the age of 83, after a battle with brain cancer. Here are a few impressions of my few encounters with him, from an Israeli point of view.

In the world of Israeli Middle East expertise, Seale’s 1965 book The Struggle for Syria had an almost iconic status. When it first appeared, there weren’t a lot of books on contemporary Syria, and Israeli analysts parsed every word. Seale didn’t just rely on published sources, he interviewed all the actors, and he became renowned for his access to otherwise taciturn Arab politicians. Ma’arachot, the publishing house of the Israel Defense Forces, published a Hebrew translation of the book in 1968, and it quickly found its way to every relevant shelf.

In 1988, he published a biography of Syria’s ruler, under the title Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. There was that word “struggle” again, although this time his book had the flavor of a semi-official enterprise. Indeed, Seale ended it with this sentence: “When asked how he would wish this chronicle to be concluded, Asad replied: ‘Say simply that the struggle continues.’” Footnoted: “Interview with President Asad, Damascus, 18 March 1988.” Of course, this only enhanced the aura surrounding Seale in Israeli eyes, and the biography immediately appeared in Hebrew translation. (In contrast, the book’s distribution was banned in Syria. Seale’s account was fine for Westerners, but some passages weren’t sufficiently obsequious for consumption in Damascus.)

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Patrick Seale, journalist and author, best known for his reportage on Syria and his mediation between Hafez Asad and the West, has passed away at the age of 83, after a battle with brain cancer. Here are a few impressions of my few encounters with him, from an Israeli point of view.

In the world of Israeli Middle East expertise, Seale’s 1965 book The Struggle for Syria had an almost iconic status. When it first appeared, there weren’t a lot of books on contemporary Syria, and Israeli analysts parsed every word. Seale didn’t just rely on published sources, he interviewed all the actors, and he became renowned for his access to otherwise taciturn Arab politicians. Ma’arachot, the publishing house of the Israel Defense Forces, published a Hebrew translation of the book in 1968, and it quickly found its way to every relevant shelf.

In 1988, he published a biography of Syria’s ruler, under the title Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. There was that word “struggle” again, although this time his book had the flavor of a semi-official enterprise. Indeed, Seale ended it with this sentence: “When asked how he would wish this chronicle to be concluded, Asad replied: ‘Say simply that the struggle continues.’” Footnoted: “Interview with President Asad, Damascus, 18 March 1988.” Of course, this only enhanced the aura surrounding Seale in Israeli eyes, and the biography immediately appeared in Hebrew translation. (In contrast, the book’s distribution was banned in Syria. Seale’s account was fine for Westerners, but some passages weren’t sufficiently obsequious for consumption in Damascus.)

But when I first met Seale, it wasn’t in connection with his Syria work. The date was February 5, 1992, and the place, the Chicago studio of Milt Rosenberg’s highly regarded talk show, “Extension 720.” I was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, and Seale was passing through town to promote a new book, Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire. It was a wretched piece of conspiracy mongering (the Economist called it “ludicrous”), claiming that the Mossad was behind the Palestinian terrorist Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal). Seale didn’t bring a single shred of evidence. I read and notated the book, and came to the studio loaded for bear. In the waiting room, where we met, Seale seemed almost apologetic: “I’ve written something of a potboiler.” In the on-air exchange, I quoted his claims line by line, pressing him to produce even a scintilla of evidence, of which there was none. At one point, I told Seale that I respected his Struggle for Syria, but each of his subsequent efforts was less rigorous than its predecessor, and with Abu Nidal he’d scraped bottom. Maybe one day I’ll put the exchange online (I have the tape). I remember thinking it was a nice evening’s work; it certainly wasn’t the beginning of a friendship.

I didn’t expect to encounter Seale again, but later events in the 1990s set in motion Israel-Syria feelers and intermittent peace talks, and when the Labor party prevailed in the May 1999 elections, prime minister-elect Ehud Barak indicated that he wanted to relaunch negotiations. It was Barak who asked my colleague Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s preeminent Syria hand, to invite Seale to Israel to speak publicly. (Seale knew and respected Rabinovich, although the tie had been severed for a few years, after Rabinovich disparaged Seale’s Assad biography in a review.) I headed the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University at that time, and that’s how I came to co-sponsor and co-chair Patrick Seale’s first and only public address in Israel. The date: June 9, 1999.

I’ll not forget the Seale-fest that ensued in the lead-up and sequel to his appearance. Everyone wanted to know Asad’s real redlines, and everyone assumed Seale was on a quasi-official mission to relay a message from Damascus. The media besieged us with requests to interview him. When he came to the university to speak, more than five hundred people packed the hall. He had audiences with Barak (a “red-carpet reception,” said one source), President Ezer Weizman (who gave Seale a Golan-must-go interview), and former prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres. Uri Saguy, a former head of military intelligence and Barak’s expected point man on Syria, took Seale to the Golan, where Saguy told Israeli settlers, with tears in his eyes, that “hard decisions may be coming.”

Rabinovich was the go-to for these meetings, but I also found myself consumed with the management of Patrick Seale, media star, for the better part of a week. He was charming, diplomatic, and precise in his formulations, and he clearly enjoyed the limelight. Seale genuinely yearned to facilitate a breakthrough—on Asad’s terms, of course. Later that month, Seale published side-by-side interviews with Barak and Asad, in which they signaled hope for this and that. Seale denied being a go-between, but that’s exactly how Israelis regarded him.

It turned out to be a bridge too far, for reasons that will keep historians busy for years to come. When Asad died a year later and his son Bashar took over, Israelis concluded that Seale didn’t have the same access in Damascus that he’d had under the old man. Failure at Camp David, Intifada II, Barak’s departure, Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush, 9/11, and the Iraq war all pushed Syrian-Israel peace off the agenda, and put Syria on the defensive. Seale slipped into Israel-bashing on a scale unprecedented even for him. Read the columns yourself.

And that’s where my Seale story ends, but there’s a footnote. Whenever Seale came up in Israeli discussions, there usually would be a fair bit of winking and nodding about his ancestry. His father, a Russian Jew born (I think) in Jerusalem under the name of Ephraim Sigel, converted to Christianity, changed his name to Morris Seale, studied theology in Belfast (where Patrick was born), and became an ordained minister of the Irish Presbyterian Church. Sigel-Seale then went out as a missionary to Damascus, where Patrick spent his childhood. Nothing more excites speculation among Israelis than the discovery that a foreign friend or foe is a blood member of the tribe. (Albright, Kerry… it happens all the time.) Did Hafez Asad and his cronies know that their Patrick wasn’t purely Irish? Did it matter? How could it not? Etcetera—for what it’s worth. (Not much, I think.)

Seale has left a world in which even the idea of Syria is in peril, as nearly every achievement of Hafez Asad unravels. In the preface to a 1986 reedition of The Struggle for Syria, Seale wrote that Hafez Asad

seeks to discipline Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians, preventing them from entering into any relationship with Israel without his consent, trying to turn the Arab Levant into a bastion against Israeli expansion… But just as Asad needs to unite the Levant in order to recover the occupied territories, Israel needs to divide it in order to keep them… “Greater Syria” is a sort of mirror-image of “Greater Israel” and its inevitable opponent. Both cannot win.

It might not be as black-and-white as all that, but if Seale was right, there can be no doubt today who the winner is. Syria is prostrate, an arena for the meddling of others, while the Arab Levant continues to divide and subdivide into its smallest parts. As the old man told Seale back in 1988, “the struggle continues,” but it’s not the one he or Seale envisioned. Theirs will be a sad reunion.

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ObamaCare’s Day of Reckoning Can’t Be Postponed

The Obama administration is, along with liberals like Ezra Klein, promoting a new narrative: The Affordable Care Act, after a rough start, is now a raging success. More than 7.5 million Americans have enrolled. The resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will act as a circuit breaker. Here’s how Mr. Klein put it:

the law has won its survival. The Obama administration can exhale. Personnel changes can be made. A new team — led by Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Matthews Burwell, who the White House calls a proven manager— can be brought in to continue to improve the law. And Sebelius can leave with her head held high. She can leave with the law she helped build looking, shockingly, like a success.

Some of us have a different interpretation, which is that the enrollment figures are dubious, that premiums will rise sharply later in the spring, and that the problems plaguing ObamaCare are systemic and won’t be fixed. The endless number of waivers, exemptions, and delays are evidence of that. The law will, in fact, remain highly unpopular with the public. And this will become most obvious on the night of November 4, when the returns from mid-term elections are in.

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The Obama administration is, along with liberals like Ezra Klein, promoting a new narrative: The Affordable Care Act, after a rough start, is now a raging success. More than 7.5 million Americans have enrolled. The resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will act as a circuit breaker. Here’s how Mr. Klein put it:

the law has won its survival. The Obama administration can exhale. Personnel changes can be made. A new team — led by Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Matthews Burwell, who the White House calls a proven manager— can be brought in to continue to improve the law. And Sebelius can leave with her head held high. She can leave with the law she helped build looking, shockingly, like a success.

Some of us have a different interpretation, which is that the enrollment figures are dubious, that premiums will rise sharply later in the spring, and that the problems plaguing ObamaCare are systemic and won’t be fixed. The endless number of waivers, exemptions, and delays are evidence of that. The law will, in fact, remain highly unpopular with the public. And this will become most obvious on the night of November 4, when the returns from mid-term elections are in.

What the Obama White House is hoping is that, with the help of the press, which is tired of writing about the failures of ObamaCare, they can not only reframe events but reinvent reality.

I’m rather doubtful it will work. The debate over the ACA has gone from an abstract one to a real one, one negatively affecting the lives of millions upon of Americans. And when you have a facts-on-the-ground problem, as the president and his party do, spin and invoking banal talking points are ultimately of little use.

The president can postpone implementation of various parts of his law. But what he can’t postpone indefinitely is his and his party’s day of reckoning.

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“Something That Was Not Imaginable 40 years Ago Has Happened”

Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, has written a sobering and important essay for National Affairs on marriage, parenthood, and public policy. I thought it might be useful to highlight data from the Haskins essay, in order to understand just how profound the changes in family composition have been over the last four decades. 

Marriage Rates

In 1970, 83 percent of women ages 30 to 34 were married. By 2010, that number had fallen to 57 percent.

For almost every demographic group, whether broken down by age, education, or race and ethnicity, marriage rates have declined nearly continuously since 1970. Marriage rates for 20- to 24-year-olds, for instance, fell from 61 percent to 16 percent, a decline of almost 75 percent in four decades. The rate for 35- to 39-year-olds declined by 25 percent, from 83 percent to 62 percent. (The only exception to the pattern of decline was for women with a college degree or more. After a modest decline of about 11 percent between 1970 and 1990, the marriage rate for college-educated women stopped declining and even increased by about 1 percent between 1990 and 2010.)

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Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, has written a sobering and important essay for National Affairs on marriage, parenthood, and public policy. I thought it might be useful to highlight data from the Haskins essay, in order to understand just how profound the changes in family composition have been over the last four decades. 

Marriage Rates

In 1970, 83 percent of women ages 30 to 34 were married. By 2010, that number had fallen to 57 percent.

For almost every demographic group, whether broken down by age, education, or race and ethnicity, marriage rates have declined nearly continuously since 1970. Marriage rates for 20- to 24-year-olds, for instance, fell from 61 percent to 16 percent, a decline of almost 75 percent in four decades. The rate for 35- to 39-year-olds declined by 25 percent, from 83 percent to 62 percent. (The only exception to the pattern of decline was for women with a college degree or more. After a modest decline of about 11 percent between 1970 and 1990, the marriage rate for college-educated women stopped declining and even increased by about 1 percent between 1990 and 2010.)

Non-Marital Birth Rates

The non-marital birth rate among all demographic groups has increased from 11 percent to almost 41 percent over the same four decades. In 2010, 72 percent of births to African-American women were out of wedlock. The Hispanic rate was 53 percent, a 50 percent increase over 1989 (when data on Hispanic birth rates first began to be collected separately from non-Hispanic whites). The rate for non-Hispanic whites, which stood at 16 percent in 1989, had increased to 29 percent by 2010, a larger increase in percentage terms than for any other group over that period.

Teen pregnancy rates have declined almost every year since 1991, and the number of teen births has declined by more than 50 percent since that time. The problem of non-marital pregnancy is now greatest among adults in their 20s and 30s.

Married-with-Children Households

Over the four-decade period, the percentage of married-with-children households declined by well over a third to just 51 percent. By contrast, the percentages of all three other types of households increased: married without children by 72 percent, single with children by 122 percent, and single without children by 165 percent.

Single Parent Households

In 1970, 12 percent of children lived with a single parent at any given time; over the next 40 years, that number increased by 124 percent, rising to 27 percent of children in 2010. Over the course of their childhoods, as many as half of all American children will spend some time in a single-parent household.

Child Poverty

According to the Census Bureau, in 2012 the poverty rate among children living with only their mother was 47.2 percent; by contrast, the poverty rate among children living with their married parents was 11.1 percent, meaning that a child living with a single mother was almost five times as likely to be poor as a child living with married parents.

As the Haskins essay makes clear, there is a high human cost to children in particular when marriage collapses–in terms of high school dropout rates, delinquency, crime and incarceration, drug use, mental illness, suicide, poverty, idleness in later years, and more. “If we want to address the challenges of income inequality and immobility,” he writes, “we must address one of the main causes – non-marital births and single parenting.”

Mr. Haskins, in reviewing programs tried at all levels of government, finds that the results have been mixed and, for the most part, hardly encouraging. We are dealing in a realm of human behavior where the positive effects of public policy look to be quite limited. What will be required is a substantial shift in social mores–in how we view the institution and purposes of marriage, the duties of parenthood, our commitments to one another, and even human fulfillment itself–and there’s little evidence that is about to occur anytime soon. 

In 2000, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was asked to identify the biggest change he had seen in his 40-year political career. Moynihan responded, “The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.” This change has occurred in “an historical instant,” Moynihan said. “Something that was not imaginable 40 years ago has happened.”

Indeed it has. (The trends that concerned Moynihan have, in fact, accelerated.) The historian Lawrence Stone said the scale of marital breakdown in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent. It is unique. And as a civilization we seem unable, or at least unwilling, to do much of anything about it.

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The Reality of Anti-Semitism

Today’s tragic shooting in Kansas City doesn’t mean that the United States has become unsafe for Jews. The person arrested for the incident at the Jewish Community Center campus in Johnson County, Kansas which left three dead allegedly yelled “Heil Hitler” and sought to inquire if his victims were Jewish. Only the tiniest minority of Americans shares such hatred. Unlike attacks on Jews in Europe where a rising tide of anti-Semitism has called the viability of Jewish life there into question, even a shocking event such as this one doesn’t change the fact that Jew hatred remains a marginal phenomenon on these shores. American society has embraced Jews in every possible way. But however much we should resist the temptation to draw broad conclusions from the acts of what may be a lone madman, it is a reminder that anti-Semitic violence remains the most common form of religious-based hate crime committed in this country.

While much of our chattering classes remain obsessed with the fear of Islamophobia and are determined to keep alive the myth of a post 9/11 backlash against American Muslims, FBI hate crime statistics continue to show that anti-Jewish attacks outnumber those directed at Muslims by a huge margin. In every year since 9/11, the numbers show that attacks on Muslims are far less frequent than those on Jews. This is especially important to remember not just because of the sad violence in Kansas City but because so much of the media and other institutions are so heavily invested in the myths about Islamophobia while not taking strong stands against non-violent forms of anti-Semitism, such as the movement to wage economic warfare against the State of Israel.

Sadly, even institutions such as Brandeis University, which has strong ties to the Jewish community, remain so sensitive to charges of hostility to Islam that they are afraid to honor a person like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has spoken out against Islamic oppression of women. But while worries about a non-existent wave of prejudice against Muslims are without basis, even in the United States those willing to express hostility to Jews and to, as the BDS movement has shown, subject their state to prejudicial treatment they would not inflict on any other religious or ethnic group, remains an unfortunate reality.

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Today’s tragic shooting in Kansas City doesn’t mean that the United States has become unsafe for Jews. The person arrested for the incident at the Jewish Community Center campus in Johnson County, Kansas which left three dead allegedly yelled “Heil Hitler” and sought to inquire if his victims were Jewish. Only the tiniest minority of Americans shares such hatred. Unlike attacks on Jews in Europe where a rising tide of anti-Semitism has called the viability of Jewish life there into question, even a shocking event such as this one doesn’t change the fact that Jew hatred remains a marginal phenomenon on these shores. American society has embraced Jews in every possible way. But however much we should resist the temptation to draw broad conclusions from the acts of what may be a lone madman, it is a reminder that anti-Semitic violence remains the most common form of religious-based hate crime committed in this country.

While much of our chattering classes remain obsessed with the fear of Islamophobia and are determined to keep alive the myth of a post 9/11 backlash against American Muslims, FBI hate crime statistics continue to show that anti-Jewish attacks outnumber those directed at Muslims by a huge margin. In every year since 9/11, the numbers show that attacks on Muslims are far less frequent than those on Jews. This is especially important to remember not just because of the sad violence in Kansas City but because so much of the media and other institutions are so heavily invested in the myths about Islamophobia while not taking strong stands against non-violent forms of anti-Semitism, such as the movement to wage economic warfare against the State of Israel.

Sadly, even institutions such as Brandeis University, which has strong ties to the Jewish community, remain so sensitive to charges of hostility to Islam that they are afraid to honor a person like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has spoken out against Islamic oppression of women. But while worries about a non-existent wave of prejudice against Muslims are without basis, even in the United States those willing to express hostility to Jews and to, as the BDS movement has shown, subject their state to prejudicial treatment they would not inflict on any other religious or ethnic group, remains an unfortunate reality.

In her classic 1992 book If I Am Not For Myself … The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews, Ruth Wisse wrote that anti-Semitism was “the 20th century’s most durable ideology”  since it was employed by several movements including fascists, Nazis, and Communists and yet had survived and transcended those horrors to reassert itself in a new era. Today the greatest threat to the Jewish people comes not from stray neo-Nazis but from Islamist terror and a genocidal theocracy in Iran that seeks nuclear capability. But whether focused on the remnants of old threats or the peril from the new, Jew hatred remains an unfortunate fact of life. While the crime that took place in Kansas City should not distort our view of American society or cause us to forget that barriers to acceptance of Jews have been almost totally erased, it should serve as a reminder that Jew hatred is far from dead.

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Why Smear Israel and Whitewash Iran?

The decision of the Obama administration to take a firm stand on Iran’s decision to send one of the participants in the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran to serve as its ambassador to the United Nations may have surprised the Islamist regime. A year of diplomacy aimed at appeasing the Iranians and allowing them to keep their nuclear infrastructure must have convinced Tehran that there was almost nothing it could do to get a rise out of Washington. By denying the terrorist turned diplomat a visa, the president indicated that he understood there are limits to how far he can go toward accommodating the ayatollahs in an effort to get out of having to keep his campaign pledges on the nuclear issue. The dismay among some of the foreign-policy establishment about the latent hostility toward Iran that was illustrated by the anger over the appointment was palpable.

But those determined to push the dubious theory that the election of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s faux presidential election last year indicates a shift to moderation are undaunted. The New York Times has been a notable advocate for this position on both its editorial and news pages, but it surpassed itself today with the publication of a remarkable piece by two scholars alleging that not only is the Islamist regime changing but that Iran and Israel are like two ships passing in the night as the Jewish state becomes an extremist theocracy. That its thesis is an absurd libel of Israel and a whitewash of Iran is so obvious it is barely worth the effort to refute it. In short, Israel is a pluralist democracy where the rule of law prevails despite the ongoing war being waged against its existence by most of the Arab and Muslim world. Iran is a theocratic tyranny where free expression and freedom of religion are forbidden and women, gays, and minorities are brutally oppressed. Iran is also the world’s leading state sponsor of terror and its foreign policy is aimed at propping up one of the world’s worst tyrants in Syria’s Bashar Assad as well as Hezbollah and other terrorists seeking to destabilize the Middle East.

So while the argument that the Times featured today is so risible as to merit satire rather than a lengthy response, it is worth asking why the newspaper gives space to such laughable arguments. The answer is both simple and not particularly funny. Some portions of the foreign-policy establishment in this country—of which the Times remains a leading outlet—are deeply unhappy about the resilience of the U.S.-Israel alliance even after more than five years of Obama administration efforts to downgrade these ties and desirous of détente with Iran. Such articles say more about confidence in the success of the slow-motion betrayal of President Obama’s promise to stop Iran’s nuclear program than they do about either Israel or Iran.

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The decision of the Obama administration to take a firm stand on Iran’s decision to send one of the participants in the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran to serve as its ambassador to the United Nations may have surprised the Islamist regime. A year of diplomacy aimed at appeasing the Iranians and allowing them to keep their nuclear infrastructure must have convinced Tehran that there was almost nothing it could do to get a rise out of Washington. By denying the terrorist turned diplomat a visa, the president indicated that he understood there are limits to how far he can go toward accommodating the ayatollahs in an effort to get out of having to keep his campaign pledges on the nuclear issue. The dismay among some of the foreign-policy establishment about the latent hostility toward Iran that was illustrated by the anger over the appointment was palpable.

But those determined to push the dubious theory that the election of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s faux presidential election last year indicates a shift to moderation are undaunted. The New York Times has been a notable advocate for this position on both its editorial and news pages, but it surpassed itself today with the publication of a remarkable piece by two scholars alleging that not only is the Islamist regime changing but that Iran and Israel are like two ships passing in the night as the Jewish state becomes an extremist theocracy. That its thesis is an absurd libel of Israel and a whitewash of Iran is so obvious it is barely worth the effort to refute it. In short, Israel is a pluralist democracy where the rule of law prevails despite the ongoing war being waged against its existence by most of the Arab and Muslim world. Iran is a theocratic tyranny where free expression and freedom of religion are forbidden and women, gays, and minorities are brutally oppressed. Iran is also the world’s leading state sponsor of terror and its foreign policy is aimed at propping up one of the world’s worst tyrants in Syria’s Bashar Assad as well as Hezbollah and other terrorists seeking to destabilize the Middle East.

So while the argument that the Times featured today is so risible as to merit satire rather than a lengthy response, it is worth asking why the newspaper gives space to such laughable arguments. The answer is both simple and not particularly funny. Some portions of the foreign-policy establishment in this country—of which the Times remains a leading outlet—are deeply unhappy about the resilience of the U.S.-Israel alliance even after more than five years of Obama administration efforts to downgrade these ties and desirous of détente with Iran. Such articles say more about confidence in the success of the slow-motion betrayal of President Obama’s promise to stop Iran’s nuclear program than they do about either Israel or Iran.

As for the notion that Israel is becoming more extremist and Iran more moderate, only by cherry-picking scattered facts about either nation can one possibly justify such an absurd pair of arguments. Suffice it to say that while Israel’s Orthodox population is growing and the conflict between some elements of the Haredi community and the rest of the country is troubling, there is simply no coherent analogy to be drawn between even the ultra-Orthodox parties and the Islamist leadership in Iran. While the Haredi leadership deserves criticism for the way it has discredited Judaism in the eyes of Israel’s secular majority as well its stances on education and universal military service, it is not guilty of terrorism. Moreover, despite the assumption that Israel is becoming more extreme, it must be pointed out that the political influence of the Haredim is at its lowest point in the country’s recent history as their parties have, for the first time in decades, been excluded from the government, even one led from the right by Benjamin Netanyahu. The authors assume that criticism from that government of U.S. pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians is a sign of extremism. But such sentiments merely represent realism on the part of an Israeli public—both secular and religious—that understands that the Palestinians aren’t interested in peace. Far from Israels government and people abandoning democracy as the authors charge, it is those Israelis who rationalize the anti-Semitic boycotts of the state who are seeking to overturn the verdicts of the ballot box by foreign pressure and economic warfare.

As for Iran, the authors can cite no real evidence that Rouhani’s election has changed the country. That’s because there is none. It remains a vicious tyranny and the clerics and their military followers show no sign of loosening the grip on power as the reaction to the 2009 Tehran protests illustrated.

But the willingness of the Times to give such prominent play to the authors’ ridiculous assertions does tell us a lot about how important the smearing of Israel and the whitewashing of Iran is to the success of a foreign policy aimed at détente with Tehran. While seemingly unimportant in the great scheme of things, the dustup about Iran’s U.N. appointment shows that Americans and in particular Congress has not yet been persuaded by Kerry to think well of Iran. Those who confidently predict, as do the authors of this travesty, that Israel’s alliance with the U.S. will not stand the test of time understand neither the lasting bonds between these two great democracies nor the difference between Israeli freedom and Iranian despotism.

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Obama’s Slow-Motion Betrayal on Iran

The latest round of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran took place this past week with little of the fanfare that surrounded previous negotiations. Other international issues, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, have largely superseded Iran as the top foreign-policy news story. This allowed the Obama administration and its European partners, along with the uneasy participation of Russia, to pursue an agenda of accommodation with the Islamist regime without having to answer too many questions about the direction of the talks. After two days of meetings in Vienna, the parties recessed last Wednesday with vows to meet again next month. Though they admitted there were still gaps between the two sides, everyone seemed to express confidence that an agreement would eventually be reached even if lasted longer than the July deadline for negotiations that was set in the interim agreement with Iran that was signed last November.

Interestingly, the same day as the diplomats kissed goodbye in Vienna, Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei helped celebrate National Nuclear Day. In his remarks, he vowed that the P5+1 process would not curtail Iran’s program while also expressing the usual malevolence toward the United States. But, crucially, he also indicated that he had given the green light to continuing the talks with the West. And, given Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that indicated the entire purpose of the negotiations was not to halt Iran’s nuclear program, as President Obama explicitly vowed during his 2012 reelection campaign, but to merely extend the time frame during which Tehran could “break out” to a nuclear weapon, Khamenei’s faith in the process seems justified.

If, as the New York Times noted in an editorial yesterday, there is a good chance a deal giving Western approval to an Iranian nuclear infrastructure that could build a nuclear weapon is signed by July 20 or sometime after that, will Congress or the media care enough about the fact that this will constitute a betrayal of the pledges that the president has been making about Iran since he first started running for president several years ago? Judging by the ease with which the administration seems to have fended off a congressional push for more sanctions on Iran earlier this year as well as the lack of outrage about Kerry’s comments this week, it’s hard to argue with the White House’s evident conclusion that they will get away with it without too much trouble.

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The latest round of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran took place this past week with little of the fanfare that surrounded previous negotiations. Other international issues, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, have largely superseded Iran as the top foreign-policy news story. This allowed the Obama administration and its European partners, along with the uneasy participation of Russia, to pursue an agenda of accommodation with the Islamist regime without having to answer too many questions about the direction of the talks. After two days of meetings in Vienna, the parties recessed last Wednesday with vows to meet again next month. Though they admitted there were still gaps between the two sides, everyone seemed to express confidence that an agreement would eventually be reached even if lasted longer than the July deadline for negotiations that was set in the interim agreement with Iran that was signed last November.

Interestingly, the same day as the diplomats kissed goodbye in Vienna, Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei helped celebrate National Nuclear Day. In his remarks, he vowed that the P5+1 process would not curtail Iran’s program while also expressing the usual malevolence toward the United States. But, crucially, he also indicated that he had given the green light to continuing the talks with the West. And, given Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that indicated the entire purpose of the negotiations was not to halt Iran’s nuclear program, as President Obama explicitly vowed during his 2012 reelection campaign, but to merely extend the time frame during which Tehran could “break out” to a nuclear weapon, Khamenei’s faith in the process seems justified.

If, as the New York Times noted in an editorial yesterday, there is a good chance a deal giving Western approval to an Iranian nuclear infrastructure that could build a nuclear weapon is signed by July 20 or sometime after that, will Congress or the media care enough about the fact that this will constitute a betrayal of the pledges that the president has been making about Iran since he first started running for president several years ago? Judging by the ease with which the administration seems to have fended off a congressional push for more sanctions on Iran earlier this year as well as the lack of outrage about Kerry’s comments this week, it’s hard to argue with the White House’s evident conclusion that they will get away with it without too much trouble.

During the debate this past winter about a measure that would have increased sanctions on Iran if the next bout of P5+1 diplomacy failed, we were not only assured of the administration’s desire to ensure that Tehran wouldn’t get a weapon but also promised that the president would not settle for a bad deal or be snookered by the ayatollahs into endless futile talks. There was little doubt that Obama didn’t want to try to enforce a complete economic embargo on Iran, the only measure short of the use of force that might stop the nuclear threat, but he was also wary of being seen to have broken his pledges on the issue. Yet it is clear that during the secret talks that led to last year’s weak interim agreement with Iran, Kerry concluded that the way out of this dilemma was a diplomatic “solution” that would allow Obama and the West to pretend that they had done something to stop the Islamist regime from going nuclear without, in fact, doing much to prevent them from doing so. The only question was whether the Iranians were smart enough to take them up on the offer. Ayatollah Khamenei seems to have answered that it in the affirmative.

Critics of this betrayal are accused of sounding the alarm about Iran while also seeking to hamper a diplomatic solution to the threat. But the problem is that the approach that the administration has embraced is no solution at all. The consequences of the “success” of this diplomatic track are incalculable both for the future of the Middle East as well as the security of the West. There should be no doubt about the fact that if the West agrees to a situation whereby Iran’s nuclear infrastructure including its refinement of uranium, plutonium nuclear plant, nuclear military research, and ballistic missile programs are left in place, it is only a matter of time before Tehran will have its weapon. Stretching out the breakout period will, in fact, lessen the likelihood that the West would or could react in time to stop them because once an agreement is signed the administration will have a vested interest in pretending that Iran is not embarrassing them. The end of sanctions that will accompany such an agreement will also make it impossible to reassert the economic leverage that Kerry threw away last year. While defenders of this policy claim that insisting on dismantling Iran’s program is “unrealistic,” what they fail to mention is that the administration’s clear preference for appeasing Tehran is what has made tough diplomacy unthinkable.

The president’s betrayal of his Iran promises has been conducted in slow motion over the course of the last two years. There is still plenty of time for Iran to revert to its past practice of teasing the West by seeming to be ready to sign an agreement only to revoke their approval at the last minute or for President Obama and Kerry to wise up to this scam or to realize that what they are doing is making an Iranian nuclear weapon more rather than less likely. Though a wise person should never bet against the former, only a fool would count on the latter. 

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A Tale of Two Letters: Why the Peace Process Went Poof

Last week Zbigniew Brzezinski, joined by five other foreign-policy experts from the past, issued an open letter entitled “Stand Firm, John Kerry,” calling for “clarity” on “the critical moral and political issues” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The letter castigated Israeli settlements and proposed “halting the diplomatic process” to “help stop this activity.” At “Pressure Points,” Elliott Abrams dismantled the letter, noting that, among other things, it ignored history.  

As it happens, tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of one of the more important items of history the Brzezinski group ignored: the April 14, 2004 letter from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Abrams recounts how the letter went through “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and out,” ending with a “headline” that was clear: “There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.” In her  own memoir, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recounted spending three hours on the letter with Sharon the night before it was issued, and described the agreement to apply a “Google Earth test” for settlements: no new ones, no expanding the boundaries of them, but allowing building within existing settlements, since that would not reduce the land available for a Palestinian state. In his recent biography of Sharon, David Landau writes:

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Last week Zbigniew Brzezinski, joined by five other foreign-policy experts from the past, issued an open letter entitled “Stand Firm, John Kerry,” calling for “clarity” on “the critical moral and political issues” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The letter castigated Israeli settlements and proposed “halting the diplomatic process” to “help stop this activity.” At “Pressure Points,” Elliott Abrams dismantled the letter, noting that, among other things, it ignored history.  

As it happens, tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of one of the more important items of history the Brzezinski group ignored: the April 14, 2004 letter from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Abrams recounts how the letter went through “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and out,” ending with a “headline” that was clear: “There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.” In her  own memoir, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recounted spending three hours on the letter with Sharon the night before it was issued, and described the agreement to apply a “Google Earth test” for settlements: no new ones, no expanding the boundaries of them, but allowing building within existing settlements, since that would not reduce the land available for a Palestinian state. In his recent biography of Sharon, David Landau writes:

The American-Israeli diplomacy culminated in a hugely significant exchange of letters between Bush and Sharon in April 2004. In his letter, Sharon committed to carry out the [Gaza] disengagement. In his response, President Bush committed to back Israel on two vital issues: the Palestinian refugees would not return en masse to the State of Israel; and – by clear implication – the large settlement blocs on the West Bank, close to the 1967 line, would remain part of Israel in a final status agreement. Sharon regarded the exchange of letters as his most salient achievement as prime minister. He was probably right.

Last year, as Secretary Kerry was in Israel seeking to restart peace negotiations, an Israeli reporter asked him about “a guarantee from the past”–“telling that blocs of settlements can stay.” His question was straightforward: “does [the guarantee] exist?” Kerry responded: “I remember that commitment very well because I was running for president then, and I personally have supported the notion that the situation on the ground has changed.” Indeed, four days after the Bush letter was issued, Kerry was asked directly about it on Meet the Press:

MR. RUSSERT: On Thursday, President Bush … said that Israel can keep part of the land seized in the 1967 Middle East War and asserted the Palestinian refugees cannot go back to their particular homes. Do you support President Bush?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Completely?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

The 2004 Bush letter was not simply a statement of policy; it was a negotiated deal, on which Israel relied in carrying out the Gaza disengagement, dismantling every settlement there and four others in the disputed territories as well. Sharon made the Bush letter part of the formal disengagement plan submitted to the Knesset for its approval. The U.S. Congress also endorsed the letter, in joint resolutions by the Senate (95-3) and House (407-9). The letter was endorsed in unambiguous terms by the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, who in 2013 as secretary of state correctly called it a “commitment.”

The Obama administration, when it took office in 2009, repeatedly refused to answer whether it was bound by the Bush letter. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied there were any “enforceable” understandings with Israel. The day before Palestinian President Abbas met with President Obama, Clinton told the press Obama had been “very clear” with Prime Minister Netanyahu that he “wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions”–and that this had been “communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others.” The same day, Abbas told the Washington Post he would do nothing but watch the Obama administration pressure Netanyahu. The administration eventually got a ten-month construction freeze, which both Clinton and Obama envoy George Mitchell called “unprecedented.” It produced nothing from the Palestinians other than a demand in the tenth month that it be continued.

Now flash forward five years, to Secretary of State Kerry’s April 8, 2014 Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, in which he said “both sides … wound up in positions where things happened that were unhelpful,” but that “when they were about to maybe [resume negotiations], 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem, and poof, that was sort of the moment.” Kerry knew the 700 “settlement units” [sic] were in a longstanding Jewish area in the capital of the Jewish state; that the area will be retained by Israel in any conceivable peace agreement; that Israel had made no commitment to Kerry to stop any construction there; and that Israel was working on an expanded prisoner release when the Palestinians went to the UN.

The peace process went “poof” not because of 700 units in Jerusalem, but because–for the third time in three years–the Palestinians violated the foundational agreement of the process, which obligates them not to take “any step” outside bilateral negotiations to change the status of the disputed territories. For the third time, the Palestinians went to the UN; for the third time, there was no American response; for the third time, there was no penalty for the violation; and on April 8, there was not even an honest assessment of the situation by the secretary of state.

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Sebelius’s Dangerous Legacy of Incompetence and Deception

President Obama’s cheerleaders like to compare him to Abraham Lincoln. In most respects, this is a travesty that both inflates the meager accomplishments of our 44th president and demeans the heroic achievements of our 16th. But in seeking the right moment to dump Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius after her shocking failures during the ObamaCare rollout, the president did take a page out of Lincoln’s handbook.

When Lincoln was thinking about the right moment to unveil the Emancipation Proclamation he told his Cabinet that it had to wait until after the Union won a victory over heretofore-ascendant rebel armies. Though the victory he seized upon for the announcement—the battle of Antietam—was really a bloody draw from which the Confederate army was allowed to escape, it was enough to provide cover for a great and historic act that was intensely controversial at the time. Similarly, President Obama knew that the necessary transition at HHS would have to wait until after the storm of criticism that had come down on Sebelius during the ObamaCare rollout had subsided. But after the administration was able to pump up the number of those enrolled in the program to the 7 million figure by the April 1 deadline, the president declared a victory in the battle over the unpopular program that was far shakier than even the Union’s claims after Antietam.

In announcing Sebelius’s departure and the appointment of Sylvia Matthews Burwell to succeed her at a White House pep rally today, the president continued the pretense that all is well is with ObamaCare and that Sebelius’s tenure at HHS was one of success achieved over immense odds because of the enrollment of over 7 million people in the program. But rarely has any single public official done more to undermine the public’s confidence in the ability of government to function than Kathleen Sebelius. Her incapacity to manage a huge federal bureaucracy was never exactly a secret prior to the October 1, 2013 rollout of the misnamed Affordable Care Act, but from that date on, Sebelius’s out-of-touch leadership style gave new meaning to the term clueless. Her departure for the more competent Burwell is a relief even for those who oppose the president’s signature health-care legislation. But what she leaves behind will always stand as a warning to both presidents and their appointees about the damage they can do.

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President Obama’s cheerleaders like to compare him to Abraham Lincoln. In most respects, this is a travesty that both inflates the meager accomplishments of our 44th president and demeans the heroic achievements of our 16th. But in seeking the right moment to dump Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius after her shocking failures during the ObamaCare rollout, the president did take a page out of Lincoln’s handbook.

When Lincoln was thinking about the right moment to unveil the Emancipation Proclamation he told his Cabinet that it had to wait until after the Union won a victory over heretofore-ascendant rebel armies. Though the victory he seized upon for the announcement—the battle of Antietam—was really a bloody draw from which the Confederate army was allowed to escape, it was enough to provide cover for a great and historic act that was intensely controversial at the time. Similarly, President Obama knew that the necessary transition at HHS would have to wait until after the storm of criticism that had come down on Sebelius during the ObamaCare rollout had subsided. But after the administration was able to pump up the number of those enrolled in the program to the 7 million figure by the April 1 deadline, the president declared a victory in the battle over the unpopular program that was far shakier than even the Union’s claims after Antietam.

In announcing Sebelius’s departure and the appointment of Sylvia Matthews Burwell to succeed her at a White House pep rally today, the president continued the pretense that all is well is with ObamaCare and that Sebelius’s tenure at HHS was one of success achieved over immense odds because of the enrollment of over 7 million people in the program. But rarely has any single public official done more to undermine the public’s confidence in the ability of government to function than Kathleen Sebelius. Her incapacity to manage a huge federal bureaucracy was never exactly a secret prior to the October 1, 2013 rollout of the misnamed Affordable Care Act, but from that date on, Sebelius’s out-of-touch leadership style gave new meaning to the term clueless. Her departure for the more competent Burwell is a relief even for those who oppose the president’s signature health-care legislation. But what she leaves behind will always stand as a warning to both presidents and their appointees about the damage they can do.

In fairness to Sebelius, it must be noted that she was not the architect of ObamaCare. The president and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi deserve principle credit for the monstrosity that emerged from Congress in 2010. But her hands-off management led to disaster as she failed to alert the president to the fact that her department was simply nowhere near ready to launch the law in October. The result was the infamous Healthcare.gov website that made a laughingstock of Sebelius but also called into question the basic competence of the administration.

Of course, the real problem with ObamaCare was never the “glitchy” website but the entire concept of a government takeover of health care that would hurt as many, if not more, people than it helped. Yet Sebelius’s foolish confidence and stonewalling of Congress about the disaster will forever stick in the public consciousness as a symbolic of what can go wrong when a career politician is asked to do the job only a technocrat can deal with.

But there’s more to Sebelius’s legacy than incompetence. By refusing to tell the truth about how many of those being counted as enrollees (including the 20 percent of those who signed up on the website but never paid for their coverage) and by delaying much of the more unpopular aspects of the rollout until after this year’s midterm elections, Sebelius not only deepened the cynicism about the law but further undermined the credibility of the government. President Obama claimed today that the “final score speaks for itself” in terms of what Sebelius accomplished, but the real pain inflicted by this program and the massive dislocation in the health-care system as well as job losses and skyrocketing insurance costs that will be felt in the years to come will always be associated with Sebelius.

It should also be noted that by imposing an HHS mandate to force all employers, even those with religious objections, to pay for free contraception and abortion drugs (a provision that is not in the text of ObamaCare but was instead promulgated by her department), Sebelius struck a formidable blow against religious liberty that can only be repaired by the U.S. Supreme Court.

What occurred this year was no victory for health care, President Obama, or Kathleen Sebelius. But her legacy of incompetence and deception will live on long after her departure or even that of her boss.

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Hillary’s Best Defense: She’s Not John Kerry

Yesterday the Morning Joe crew supplied a moment of unintentional comedy when they tried to name Hillary Clinton’s major accomplishment as secretary of state. As noted over at Ace of Spades, “It’s funny watching the question of Hillary’s greatest accomplishment asked and laughingly rejected as ridiculous at first, then having it slowly dawn on the panel that none of them has an answer.”

One answer offered by the panel was that this great accomplishment shall be revealed by Clinton herself upon publication of her memoir. Her greatness is difficult for mere mortals to comprehend, but the former diplomat will try her best to help Americans understand what a privilege it has been to be served by Mrs. Clinton. Just because you didn’t see any accomplishments doesn’t mean they weren’t there; the Clintons work in mysterious ways.

But in fact we may have a preview of that revelation, provided by Byron York at the Washington Examiner. York writes that Clinton was on a panel last week moderated by Tom Friedman and was asked this very question. What was her great accomplishment? York quotes Hillary’s response:

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Yesterday the Morning Joe crew supplied a moment of unintentional comedy when they tried to name Hillary Clinton’s major accomplishment as secretary of state. As noted over at Ace of Spades, “It’s funny watching the question of Hillary’s greatest accomplishment asked and laughingly rejected as ridiculous at first, then having it slowly dawn on the panel that none of them has an answer.”

One answer offered by the panel was that this great accomplishment shall be revealed by Clinton herself upon publication of her memoir. Her greatness is difficult for mere mortals to comprehend, but the former diplomat will try her best to help Americans understand what a privilege it has been to be served by Mrs. Clinton. Just because you didn’t see any accomplishments doesn’t mean they weren’t there; the Clintons work in mysterious ways.

But in fact we may have a preview of that revelation, provided by Byron York at the Washington Examiner. York writes that Clinton was on a panel last week moderated by Tom Friedman and was asked this very question. What was her great accomplishment? York quotes Hillary’s response:

“We had the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we had two wars, we had continuing threats from all kinds of corners around the world,” Clinton said. Obama told her his top priority had to be dealing with the economic crisis, so he asked her to “represent us around the world.”

Clinton’s job was to “make it clear to the rest of the world that we were going to get our house in order.” But what did “in order” mean? Clinton described it this way: “We were going to stimulate and grow and get back to positive growth and work with our friends and partners.”

On the basis of that “stimulate and grow” policy, Clinton continued, the United States returned to strength and can now deal with foreign crises like the Ukraine without having to worry about a world economic collapse. “I think we really restored American leadership in the best sense,” she said. “That, you know, once again, people began to rely on us, to look at us as, you know, setting the values, setting the standards.”

Clinton, then, has no idea what she accomplished at State. But the answer offers an important clue as to how Clinton must manage the perception that she didn’t really do anything as secretary of state. In many ways, this was by design. Clinton knew she was considering a run for the presidency, and so didn’t want to take any risks at Foggy Bottom. She wasn’t there to accomplish big things; she was there to pad her resume and bide her time.

For this reason, you’ll recall, she lobbied against Susan Rice’s nomination as her successor in favor of the current secretary of state, John Kerry. Clinton’s caution as the nation’s chief diplomat meant she couldn’t afford to be followed by someone with competence and clear vision. She needed to be followed by someone like Kerry.

And the strategy is beginning to pay dividends. Not every secretary of state has to be Dean Acheson, and there’s something unfair about expecting greatness–and something dangerous in promoting it–in every secretary of state. Had Clinton not experienced major failures, such as the “reset” with Russia and collapse of security in Libya following her administration’s “leading from behind” intervention, she wouldn’t need any major accomplishments to justify her time there. It’s just that she could really use a better resume to at least offset the damage she did.

Kerry, however, doesn’t believe in diplomatic pacing or modesty; he wants to be present at the creation–of something. Hence his disastrous stream of diplomatic crises, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Iran to Syria to Russia. Kerry’s approach to American diplomacy is best understood as the Foggy Bottom version of the broken windows theory of economics. He will stimulate a demand for American diplomacy, whatever it takes. If there isn’t a four-alarm diplomatic fire–well, Kerry happens to have a box of matches on him.

It would be more helpful to Clinton if she could run against Kerry’s record as a contrast to her own. That’s tricky, but she’ll probably have to do so in some form. She might cast herself as more cynical toward Russia’s intentions, skeptical of Iranian “reform,” and supportive of Israel, for example, in a subtle but intentional way of responding to questions about her success by hinting that, at least, she did not set any raging fires. It’s not particularly compelling, but it’s the best she’s got.

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