After the last couple of months of scandals, it’s hard to blame Americans who wonder exactly how far our cynicism about big government should go. With the Internal Revenue Service discriminating against conservatives and Tea Party groups, the Justice Department spying on journalists and unanswered questions still lingering about the Benghazi terror attack and the lies the Obama administration told about it, the government’s credibility has nose-dived along with trust in our institutions. These cases deserve to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb by Congress, and those who seek to minimize or rationalize the outrageous behavior we’ve learned about are sacrificing their own reputations for what appears to be partisan motivations. But even in this season of scandal, it’s necessary for thinking citizens to resist the temptation to believe every conspiracy theory that comes down the block or to impute the most evil motives to the government in every possible circumstance.
Understanding the difference between legitimate government scandals and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories is not always easy. That’s why so many Americans are assuming the worst about the National Security Agency’s accumulation of data about everyone’s phone calls. That’s especially true since many conservatives—most of whom were fierce defenders of the equally broad though perhaps not quite so transparent information gathering conducted by the Bush administration—have good reason not to trust the Obama administration. Yet that doesn’t relieve them of the obligation to assess the revelations of leaker Edward Snowden by the same criteria they did Bush’s actions. The same is true when we look at the latest conspiracy theory to float up to the top of the news cycle: the allegations in a new documentary that the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 that killed 230 people was no accident but rather the result of some external explosion that was subsequently covered up by the government. In both these cases, we do well to look closely at the charges of conspiracy but should not buy into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories just because we’re in a doubting mood about the government and the people who run it.
Here’s an interesting headline’s role reversal:
“The EU lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization”–plausible but false.
“The Gulf Security Council designates Hezbollah as a terrorist organization”–implausible but true.
Europe’s failure to list Hezbollah as a terror organization is a byproduct of its inability to change its world view on the Middle East even after the harsh reality check of the last two years.
The attitude of author Alice Walker toward Israel and Jews has become a key point of contention in the debate about the connection between anti-Semitism and the boycott-Israel movement. Twice in the last year, Walker’s hostility to Israel gained notoriety. Last year, she publicly refused to allow The Color Purple—her most famous work—to be translated into Hebrew as a protest against Israel and Zionism. Then last month, she took her act to New York where the 92nd Street Y hosted her in an event that was bitterly criticized by many Jews. But each time, Walker’s critics—including this writer—accused her of anti-Semitism, the writer’s defenders claimed that such charges were overblown or an attempt to blur the difference between reasonable disapproval of Israeli policies expressed via the BDS movement and Jew hatred.
I’ve written about how the BDS movement is inherently prejudicial, but Walker’s case is one that doesn’t require us to resort to theoretical arguments. Jonathan Kay added some insight to our knowledge of Walker’s belief earlier this month when he pointed out her embrace of a book that put forward bizarre conspiracy theories involving UFOs and Jew hatred. But apparently Walker is not satisfied with applauding other writers’ wacky anti-Semitism. As the Anti-Defamation League writes in a report on her new book The Cushion in the Road, Walker has crossed the line between any notion of legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. She doesn’t merely rationalize Palestinian terror, trash the state of Israel and compare it to Nazi Germany. She also blasts Judaism and traditional Jewish beliefs (for which she blames any alleged misbehavior by individual Israelis or the state itself) and writes of Israelis in terms that are undeniably anti-Semitic.
On May 20, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that gave federal agencies increased deference as to their own scope of authority at the expense of Congress. It was only the latest win, law professor Jonathan Turley wrote in the Washington Post later that week, for the “fourth branch” of the federal government, “an administrative state of sprawling departments and agencies that govern with increasing autonomy and decreasing transparency.”
We often talk about the growth of the federal government and especially the bureaucracy associated with it, and those topics are getting even more attention as the IRS scandal develops. But Turley put his argument in numbers: according to one study, “in 2007, Congress enacted 138 public laws, while federal agencies finalized 2,926 rules, including 61 major regulations.” With the growth of the state came the creation of administrative courts tied to agencies to relieve the judiciary of regulatory cases. As a result, Turley writes, “a citizen is 10 times more likely to be tried by an agency than by an actual court.”
It’s easy to understand why agencies of the administrative state behave as if they are above the law: in many cases, they very nearly are. They have put themselves (often with lazy congressional collusion) beyond the oversight of the other branches of government. They are unelected, and therefore unaccountable–and in many cases their employees are impossible to fire. But beyond the abuse of power and undemocratic nature of this “fourth branch” are the costs. Taxpayers are on the hook for the generous salaries and lavish benefits of corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats. But they are also, as Niall Ferguson writes today in the Wall Street Journal in discussing a new study from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, paying the compliance costs.
Well, that didn’t take long. Yesterday I predicted that peace negotiations with the Taliban would not make much progress. Today I woke up to the news that President Karzai had pulled out of the talks even before they had begun because he was concerned that the Taliban were opening a government in exile in Qatar, complete with a big banner proclaiming the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”—the name the Taliban had used for their reviled and discredited state while in power. Karzai was so perturbed that he suspended Washington-Kabul negotiations on an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan.
While suspending U.S.-Afghan talks was an overreaction he is sure to walk back in the days ahead, Karzai is right to be worried. The Taliban appear to be playing up the opening of negotiations to confer international legitimacy on themselves. As one news account noted:
On Tuesday Representative Paul Ryan was interviewed by radio talk show host Mark Levin on immigration reform. It’s a very good interview. Mr. Levin, a harsh critic of immigration reform, asks direct and informed questions. Representative Ryan answers them in a precise and knowledgeable way. He is clearly in command of the issue.
It’s fair to say, I think, that Levin simply doesn’t believe any bill under consideration will do what needs to be done–that claims of increased border security and e-verify screenings are illusory. We’ve been promised them before, and they have never come to pass. Mr. Ryan, on the other hand, argues that even if immigration legislation is imperfect, the right policies, if written into law and enforced, would dramatically improve the current situation (in which we have, among other things, de facto amnesty).
One surprising side effect of Syria’s civil war is that it’s causing a few people in the Arab world to question their society’s accepted view of Israel as evil incarnate. These people are still very much a minority: The majority’s attitude is exemplified by the Syrian rebel commander who, without batting an eyelash, last month espoused the delusional theory that “Iran and Hezbollah are cooperating with Israel” to support Syrian President Bashar Assad. Nevertheless, two notable examples of a rethink have surfaced recently.
One involved a seriously wounded Syrian treated at an Israeli hospital this month. He isn’t the first Syrian to be treated in Israel, but he was the first to arrive with a note from the Syrian doctor who treated him initially. “To the honorable doctor, hello,” it began, before launching into a description of his symptoms, his treatment to date and suggestions for further treatment. “Please do what you think needs to be done,” it concluded. “Thanks in advance.”
Over the years I’ve been involved in a lot of debates and the subject of a fair amount of attacks. But rarely have the attacks been quite as shallow as the one leveled at me by Jeffrey Lord of the American Spectator.
Let’s start with Lord’s suggestion that he should have titled his reply to my post criticizing Herman Cain and Sarah Palin as the “Wimpy Wussings of Wehner.” Perhaps that’s what qualifies for wit these days at the American Spectator. Mr. Lord’s comment qualifies him as the Oscar Wilde of the second grade.
Then there’s Lord’s claim, laughable to anyone who is familiar with my views, that I am a “collectivist conservative.” I guess I qualify as one of those one-in-a-million “collectivist conservatives” who was critical of Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann for her lukewarm support of free-market reforms for Medicare. As I wrote with Yuval Levin in 2011:
Supporters of the bipartisan immigration reform bill being debated in the Senate got a shot in the arm yesterday when the Congressional Budget Office issued a report that did no more than verify what has always been the commonsense position on the issue. Fixing a failed system that could bring millions of much needed workers out of the shadows and into the federal tax regime will be a net plus for the government’s bottom line. Reform will bring in hundreds of billions in revenue to Washington due to a work force that will be bolstered by a new guest worker program as well as the ability of currently undocumented aliens to take part in economic activity in ways currently impossible. Even in the second decade after adoption of the reform package when currently illegal residents become eligible for government benefits, their positive impact on the country’s fiscal health will outweigh any outlays. As Representative Paul Ryan said today, immigration is vital to America’s future economic health as our population ages, making passage of a reform package—whether the gang of eight’s Senate bill or a House version—imperative.
But don’t expect the CBO to influence the conservative activists deluging Republican senators and House members with messages urging them to defeat the plan. Much of the party’s grass roots are so committed to the idea that any path to citizenship is an outrage that they are not likely to listen to reason about immigration’s impact on the economy any more than they are to those that point out that it is foolish to think the 11 million illegals in the country can be deported. The gang of eight’s bill may not be perfect, but it is rooted in a decision to face reality about our current situation that has not been matched by any compelling points in the responses being mustered against it. Whatever the outcome of this debate, the willingness of so many Republicans to associate themselves with arguments that seem to align them with those who oppose immigration in principle is a huge potential problem for the party. If gang members are reluctant to alter the bill to make it more acceptable to opponents, it’s because it’s increasingly clear that a lot of those complaining about it wouldn’t be satisfied with anything but the construction of a 700-foot-tall ice wall along the border with Mexico just like the one in the popular Game of Thrones show on HBO whose purpose is to keep out zombies.
It was difficult to escape the too-perfect photo making the rounds yesterday of the G-8 country leaders smiling as a mammoth storm cloud ominously approached. The metaphor was obvious, but it was an appropriate lead-in to the press coverage greeting President Obama this morning on his growing isolation on the world stage. The Europeans are disappointed, it seems, in anything Obama does. The Germans say his NSA snooping is too much a projection of American meddling and militarism abroad, and the French say his lack of resolve on Syria is evidence of not enough American meddling and militarism abroad.
And don’t even get them started on his inability to lower the ocean tides. But it’s not just “friends.” While Obama has spent his time in office deriding Cold War parallels, the New York Times has an extensive story today that touches on why that conflict is suddenly relevant. The Times reports on Obama’s recent time spent “tangling with the leaders of two cold war antagonists,” the presidents of China and Russia, and their newfound refusal to feign warmth. And what’s more, though the president has always been unable to get much cooperation from Russia or China, it seems to be dawning on the White House that there was a subtle shift in attitudes and suspicions somewhere along the way, undetected at the time but undeniable now.
That, too, makes the Times’s historical echoes apt. As John Lewis Gaddis has written about the post-World War II security dilemmas and the expanding mutual distrust:
After a miserable May in which he found himself beset by a trio of scandals, President Obama sought solace in foreign policy this month. But June hasn’t proved to be much better for the president as a disastrous meeting with the president of China was followed by an equally problematic confrontation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit in Ireland. Nor was he likely to do better elsewhere in Europe, where he was once held in high esteem. Today’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin only emphasized the contrast between the ecstatic reaction he received there from a huge audience in 2008 and the tepid response he got today to a laundry list of foreign policy proposals including a call for reductions in nuclear weapons that will likely go nowhere. As even the president’s cheering section at the New York Times noted today in an astonishingly frank assessment of the failure of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, the president has been looking for love in all the wrong places abroad and now finds himself alienated from allies, despised by America’s foes and saddled with friendships with Middle East Islamists that are as embarrassing as they are unproductive.
The string of foreign policy setbacks on the heels of a domestic meltdown shows that Obama is already deep into the usual second term malaise suffered by presidents who won reelection. But the problem here isn’t just a run of bad luck. As the Times discusses, Obama has trouble relating to foreign leaders and has made some astoundingly bad choices in selecting those to whom he became close. The bad chemistry not only makes for silly photo ops, like the awkward confrontation with Putin that was a clinic in how to read bad body language. Nobody expects an authoritarian like Putin to favor America or its policies. But what we are witnessing again this week is a president who is unable to muster significant foreign support for his policies or to mend fences with friends. That Obama’s election was greeted abroad with joy only makes it that much more noticeable that his former fan base no longer has any use for him. Where once we were told that Obama would end America’s isolation, now even the Times is willing to concede that George W. Bush was a better diplomat:
Mr. Obama differs from his most recent predecessors, who made personal relationships with leaders the cornerstone of their foreign policies. The first George Bush moved gracefully in foreign capitals, while Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush related to fellow leaders as politicians, trying to understand their pressures and constituencies.
“That’s not President Obama’s style,” said James B. Steinberg, Mr. Clinton’s deputy national security adviser and Mr. Obama’s deputy secretary of state.
Last week, the New York Times finally ran a piece on a story that had been circulation around the Internet for months. A woman purchasing a package of Halloween decorations at a K-Mart in Oregon found a letter in English placed there by one of the workers who had made the product. It said the following:
“Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization,” said the note, which was tucked between two ersatz tombstones and fell out when the woman, Julie Keith, opened the box in her living room last October. “Thousands people here who are under the persicution [sic] of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”
Ms. Keith was profoundly affected by this shocking message—whose author was recently found—but knew nothing about the situation in the Laogai, the Chinese gulag where “re-education through labor” subjects hundreds of thousands if not many millions of Chinese criminals as well as religious believers and political dissidents to horrific conditions as well as torture and death. So do most Americans. But the really awful truth about the American view of China is that even those who know or ought to know what is going on there simply don’t care. Five days after the Times ran the story about the inmate’s letter, it published a piece about New York University’s decision to push out a prominent Chinese dissident for fear that his continued presence on campus would harm the school’s close financial relationship with Beijing. Just as any hope of abolishing these camps is made impossible by the fact that the Chinese police profit from the suffering of their inmates, so, too, American institutions and businesses are compromised by their financial ties to an evil system.
The ongoing saga of Edward Snowden has at least been moving in the right direction for President Obama. Snowden may once have tried to position himself as a whistleblower, but he has since devolved into ingratiating himself with authoritarian regimes by plying them with American national security secrets. While Pete is correct that the NSA story seems to be hurting voters’ opinion of Obama’s trustworthiness, Americans are by now realizing that they would be foolish to go the other extreme and place that trust in Snowden.
It is also (understandably) distracting the public’s attention from the scandals that preceded it, such as the IRS’s targeting of conservative political groups. And that scandal was a threat to Obama’s popularity as well because the administration’s story kept changing each time it was shown to be false. Americans were tuning in to coverage of the IRS scandal because it just kept getting worse. And the latest testimony released by the House Oversight Committee should make the president thankful to have Snowden’s distraction. The Hill reports:
With the Palestinians stiffing Secretary of State John Kerry’s calls for them to rejoin talks with Israel without—as President Obama has asked them to do—preconditions, there really isn’t much to talk about what we call, for lack of a better term, the Middle East peace process. So instead the media is focusing on what is a purely theoretical argument between members of Israel’s government and claiming that this dispute, rather than the failure of the Palestinians to take advantage of President Obama’s advocacy for a two-state solution, is responsible for the impasse.
That’s the upshot of the furor over recent statements by Israel’s Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads one of the parties that make up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud, to the extent that the two-state solution is already dead and buried. According to Jodi Rudoren of the New York Times, this illustrates the deep division within Israeli society about both the desirability and the viability of the idea that peace will be achieved by creating a Palestinian state living alongside Israel. But the tempest over Bennett and Danon, both of whom would like Israel to begin to act as if there will never be a resolution of the conflict, isn’t really a new version of a decades-old internal debate about how peace can be achieved. That strategic argument was pretty much resolved in the last 20 years as even most of the political right that had long believed that Israel could settle all of the land west of the Jordan River as well as having peace came to understand that wasn’t going to happen.
Instead, what Israel is currently experiencing is a debate about tactics. Namely, should the country go on pretending as if peace with the Palestinians is possible to please Washington or call things by their rightful names and simply do what they want in terms of annexing part of the West Bank (Bennett’s solution) or simply stop talking about two states as Danon seems to want to do. The former position is more practical in terms of bolstering Israel’s diplomatic position, but the fact that Bennett and Danon are saying that there will be no two-state solution does not make it any less likely to happen if the Palestinians are willing to accept it. Those who claim these statements are actually damaging the prospects of peace don’t understand the facts of life in the Middle East or the realities of Israeli politics.
There is only one reason why Bennett and Danon are able to claim that the two-state solution is dead. It’s because they’re right.
If you believe the headlines, peace is breaking out–or about to break out–in Afghanistan. The breathlessly relayed news of the moment is that the Taliban have agreed to open a diplomatic office in Qatar to launch peace talks with the U.S. and the Karzai government. All I can say is: Don’t get your hopes up.
There have been numerous reports in the past about peace talks starting and even preliminary contacts between the U.S. and the Taliban. (For a list, click here.) Most recently, in 2011, the Taliban actually dispatched negotiators to Qatar and talks were on the verge of starting except that, under heavy criticism, the Obama administration balked at releasing senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo as a confidence-boosting measure.
Did you think the seemingly endless 2012 presidential election started way too soon? If so, you weren’t alone. But we may think back on that long slog as a brief interlude long before we get to November 2016. Though the discussion about the next presidential election began even before Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, the 2016 race may have begun for all intents and purposes yesterday when the first official endorsement was announced. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said she was backing Hillary Clinton in an official statement that was posted on the ReadyforHillary.com website. McCaskill’s backing for Clinton is hardly a surprise but the timing may indicate a deliberate strategy on the part of the former first lady and secretary of state. The announcement may be the first of a series of high-profile endorsements that will occur at regular intervals over the course of the next year as Clinton seeks to do something that only incumbent presidents can generally aspire to: clear the field of all serious competition among Democrats.
Clinton’s not the only likely presidential contender making noises these days. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who shapes up as a first-tier candidate for the Republican nod, has been concentrating on his re-election race this year. But this morning on “Morning Joe” he showed he was thinking 2016 by taking a shot at President Obama for what seemed like the first time since Hurricane Sandy when he mocked his belated “charm offensive” with the GOP.
But both Clinton and Christie (whose late night TV appearances have kept him in the public eye even on days when he’s not making news), might want to pause and consider whether their high profile this early in the run-up to 2016 is entirely a good thing. Clinton’s favorability ratings have dropped drastically since leaving the State Department and returning, albeit sparingly, back into the political fray. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll may indicate that the best thing for a 2016 contender would be to keep their profile low at this incredibly early stage of the contest.
Two and half years into the Syrian civil war, with 93,000 confirmed deaths and counting, more than 5 million displaced civilians (that’s 25 percent of the entire population) and evidence of chemical weapons’ use, Western reluctance to intervene is still driven by our inability to decide who, among the contenders, is worse.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made up his mind–a victory by the Sunni Salafists, which include Chechen fighters, is the worst-case scenario. He thus sought to leverage Western discomfort yesterday at the G-8 in Northern Ireland by highlighting their savagery, referring to an act of cannibalism filmed on YouTube by what appears to be a rebel fighter, and then asking, rhetorically, “Are these the people you want to support?”
For all the cynicism directed at the rational self-interest of American politicians, it does serve to simplify political interpretation: when we aren’t expressly told the motives of a given political actor, we can pretty well figure them out. The upcoming special Senate election in Massachusetts is a good example.
Last month, Julio Ricardo Varela took to the pages of the Boston Globe to ask a seemingly important question: “Gabriel Gomez is the GOP’s dream. So why isn’t the party backing him?” What he meant was that Gomez, the Republican nominee for the seat vacated by John Kerry, is a pathbreaking Hispanic candidate with an impressive background in both the military and the private sector. Yet he wasn’t getting much financial help from the national Republican Party.
Despite widespread disagreement about how Hassan Rowhani’s election as president affects the chances of a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program, just about everyone appears to agree on one thing: The victory of a “relative moderate” came as a complete and unwelcome surprise to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. I’d been wondering whether anyone was ever going to challenge this blatantly irrational consensus, but finally, someone has. “I interpret his election in one way only: The regime wanted him to win,” said Dr. Soli Shahvar, head of Haifa University’s Ezri Center for Iran and Gulf Studies, in an interview with the Tower.
Shahvar pointed out that not only was Rowhani handpicked by the regime to be one of only eight candidates, while hundreds of others were disqualified, but the candidate list was blatantly tilted to ensure that he would place first: It pitted a single “moderate” against five conservatives (two candidates dropped out before the vote), thereby ensuring that the conservative vote would fragment. “If they had wanted one of the conservatives to win, they would have gotten four of the five conservatives to drop out of the race,” Shahvar said.
I have been traveling in Azerbaijan and Iraq for the better part of a month with sometimes limited Internet access, and so I missed this speech by second-term congressman Mike Pompeo. It is worth watching. Pompeo serves on the House Intelligence Committee, and is a graduate both of West Point and Harvard Law School. Pompeo notes:
There have now been at least a dozen attacks by Muslim terrorists on U.S. soil since Ramzi Yousef’s parked rental van exploded in the basement of the World Trade Center on February 26 of 1993. Some have caused death and injury—such as the 9/11 attacks in 2001and Nidal Hasan’s mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. Other attacks—such as Faisal Shahzad’s fizzled Times Square bombing or the unsuccessful underwear bombing of a flight—were thwarted or aborted…
He then argues that it is no longer enough simply to dismiss those who justify terrorism in religion as misunderstanding religion:
If a religion claims to be one of peace, Mr. Speaker, its leaders must reject violence that is perpetrated in its name. Some clerics today suggest that modern jihad is non-violent and is only about making oneself a better Muslim. Perhaps that’s true for moderate Muslims, but extremists seek to revive the era when most Islamic clerics understood jihad to be holy war.