Commentary Magazine


Erdoğan’s Historical Truthiness

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that Muslims discovered America, speculation he read in a pamphlet which lacked supporting evidence, tells a lot about the Turkish president’s mind. After all, anyone who has traveled along the book stores of Beirut, or among the book sellers’ stalls in Cairo, will find dozens of similar pamphlets claiming that Islam was actually responsible for everything from the discovery of gravity to the moon landing. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare was really Sheikh Zubayr bin William, a Muslim Arab living in Britain.

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Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that Muslims discovered America, speculation he read in a pamphlet which lacked supporting evidence, tells a lot about the Turkish president’s mind. After all, anyone who has traveled along the book stores of Beirut, or among the book sellers’ stalls in Cairo, will find dozens of similar pamphlets claiming that Islam was actually responsible for everything from the discovery of gravity to the moon landing. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare was really Sheikh Zubayr bin William, a Muslim Arab living in Britain.

Erdoğan, for his part, doubled down on his claim, demanding that his theory now be taught as reality in Turkey’s schools.

While Western officials might shrug and chuckle at Erdoğan’s declaration, it’s important to realize it’s no outlier for the Turkish president. A Turkish interlocutor noted how historians in Turkey have long chafed at Erdoğan’s theories:

In Antalya, Erdoğan explained how “the word Olympics takes its name from a mountain near Antalya, Mt. Olympus.” The mountain is in northern Greece, and nowhere near Antalya.

It’s not just geography that confuses Mr. Erdoğan. When discussing the Battle of Manzikert in 1070 CE, a battle in which the Muslim Seljuqs defeated the larger Byzantine army and captured the Byzantine emperor, Erdoğan declared, “Seljuq soldiers fought with their swords against the iron balls of the Byzantine artillery, raining on their heads.” Artillery and gunpowder didn’t come to the region for another three centuries. Oops.

Then, again, this wasn’t the only time he was publicly confused about the Seljuqs. In one speech, he described Ankara as “the capital of the Seljuqs.” In reality, though, Konya was the Seljuq capital. Ankara, at the time, was little more than a small town or large village.

Fast forward about 500 years, to the reign of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Back in 2011, Erdoğan went on a rant about a popular Turkish serial depicting his life and times, complaining that it concentrated too much on his lavish life in the harem. Erdoğan explained that Suleiman had in reality spent 30 of his 46 years on the throne on horseback, running from battle to battle. During Suleiman’s reign, however, the Ottomans were at war for just ten years, and so were at peace for 36.

He has repeatedly become exacerbated by the constraints of facts. When some historians began using old documents and records, and historical artifacts to research old Istanbul churches, Erdoğan grew annoyed that anyone would record or discuss Istanbul’s pre-Islamic past. He chided, “They don’t know Istanbul’s history. They go around with magnifying glass in their hand like [the Byzantine Emperor] Romanus Diogenes.” He apparently confused Romanus IV with Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who lived more than a millennium before, and who went around with a lantern, not a magnifying glass. Philosophers, however, have not been his thing. After all, he once said, “If the Germans have Goethe and if the Spaniards have Socrates….”

Now, it’s perfectly true that other world leaders can occasionally get history wrong. George H.W. Bush once mistakenly commemorated the anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day on September 7 rather than December 7. When mistakes happen, however, leaders acknowledge them. President Bush corrected himself; he didn’t order textbooks re-written to make his error the new norm.

Erdoğan may sound foolish, but the importance of his errors extends far beyond himself. Rather, they reflect the future of Turkey. Erdoğan is a product of an İmam Hatip education, the Turkish equivalent of a madrasa. Prior to Erdoğan’s rise, İmam Hatip graduates would primarily become mullahs or perhaps work in family businesses. Their lack of grounding in liberal arts and science disqualified them from most university programs and the government service which might follow. But Erdoğan has bolstered and promoted the İmam Hatips, so that their graduates now dominate Turkey’s bureaucracy. Erdoğan may be no historian, but he has become the rule rather than the exception for the Turkish government he leads. He has ensured that there are thousands if not tens of thousands of protégés marching in lockstep behind him, all of whom treat fact with disdain and embrace mindless revisionism. Welcome to the future of Turkey.

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Promise and Peril of Obama’s Triangulation

Bill Clinton was known as a master “triangulator” for his ability to come up with policies exactly equidistant between the extremes of left and right. Barack Obama has been pursuing a similar policy in foreign policy but with less success because national security is not a realm where half-measures tend to work. Yet that is what the president is constantly trying to do.

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Bill Clinton was known as a master “triangulator” for his ability to come up with policies exactly equidistant between the extremes of left and right. Barack Obama has been pursuing a similar policy in foreign policy but with less success because national security is not a realm where half-measures tend to work. Yet that is what the president is constantly trying to do.

He tripled the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan at the start of his administration, for example, but insisted on withdrawing surge troops within 18 months which undercut their effectiveness. He helped to topple Moammar Gaddafi but insisted on taking a backseat to the Europeans during the war and not doing anything to stabilize Libya afterward. More recently he has announced the dispatch of warplanes and 3,000 troops to Iraq to combat ISIS but the bombing campaign has been far more limited than previous U.S. air campaigns in Kosovo or Afghanistan and U.S. advisers have been prohibited from accompanying local troops into combat.

And now we see Obama triangulating in Afghanistan. Serious military analysts in and out of uniform thought we needed to leave at least 25,000-30,000 troops in Afghanistan past 2014, whereas Obama’s political advisers and his vice president argued for leaving at most a couple of thousand troops. Obama compromised by keeping slightly fewer than 10,000 troops after the end of the year but promising that he would withdraw them by the end of 2016.

There then ensued within the administration a debate over what authorities would be granted to those troops–could they target the Taliban or just al-Qaeda remnants? Could they provide close air support if needed to the Afghan security forces? According to a New York Times leak, Obama has settled the debate for now by granting the kind of expansive authorities requested by the military but opposed by his political advisers: “Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.”

This is good news because the Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, and other extremist elements are so intertwined that it makes no sense to target one without also targeting the others. But the actual combat operations carried out by U.S. forces will be highly limited–odds are that only a few Special Operations troops will come in direct contact with the enemy. Moreover, the number of U.S. troops left in Afghanistan is still going to be extremely small–the figure of under 10,000 troops was concocted by U.S. commanders to be palatable to the White House, not because they thought it was the optimal troop strength to accomplish the mission. And the withdrawal deadline of 2016 still looms even though there is no chance that the Pakistan-supported Taliban insurgency will be over by then.

We can only hope that Obama triangulates again to keep a substantial American troop contingent in Afghanistan past the end of his presidency–otherwise all that U.S. troops have sacrificed so much to achieve under his command risks being lost.

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Me and My MESA

Over the coming days, I’ll be attending the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference in Washington. It’s time for me to catch up on the zeitgeist in my field, and there’s no better place to do that than at MESA. It’s been a long time—to be precise, sixteen years—since my last attendance at a MESA conference. MESA veterans might remember the occasion: Edward Said was being feted for his contribution (such as it was) to Middle Eastern studies. He was on the plenary podium, and I was in the audience. The British historian Robert Irwin hasn’t forgotten:

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Over the coming days, I’ll be attending the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference in Washington. It’s time for me to catch up on the zeitgeist in my field, and there’s no better place to do that than at MESA. It’s been a long time—to be precise, sixteen years—since my last attendance at a MESA conference. MESA veterans might remember the occasion: Edward Said was being feted for his contribution (such as it was) to Middle Eastern studies. He was on the plenary podium, and I was in the audience. The British historian Robert Irwin hasn’t forgotten:

I well remember the 1998 Middle East studies association meeting held in the Chicago Hilton to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Orientalism. Said appeared on a platform that was packed with his supporters. Critics from the floor were shouted down. I can still see and hear Homi Bhabha on the platform contemptuously booming out “Who are you? Who are you?” to one hapless member of the audience who was trying to make a point from the floor.

That “hapless member” was me. Irwin is accurate, except that there weren’t any other “critics from the floor” aside from me. Said, knowing I was in the audience, specifically invited me to stand up and challenge him, as though he were interested in a debate. That turned out to be a set-up. (Homi Bhabha, Said’s chivalrous defender on that occasion, is now alleged by the keepers of Said’s flame to have betrayed him by criticizing the departed Said through “Zionist argumentation.” Bhabha furthermore stands accused of being “popular in some leftist Israeli academic circles.” A falling out among post-colonialism’s thieves.)

The next time I figured in a MESA plenary, I wasn’t even there. It was in San Francisco in 2001, shortly after 9/11 and the publication of my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Franklin Foer went out to cover the conference for The New Republic, and in his report I read this: “There was one universally acknowledged villain at the conference—it just wasn’t Osama bin Laden. No, the man everyone loved to hate was Martin Kramer.” When my name was mentioned by someone in the plenary, “some in the audience actually hissed.” I suppose that was better than “Who are you?”

So now I’m back, not as a participant but as an observer. I’ve registered for the conference as a non-member, and that non-membership is principled. Its specific origin is the failure of MESA to overcome its political instincts and confer on Bernard Lewis the title of honorary fellow, reserved for a select few who’ve made exceptional contributions to the field. Whatever one thinks of Lewis’s politics, only an ignoramus or hack would deny his massive contribution to the field. Writing of Lewis, one former MESA president has testified to

the extraordinary range of his scholarship, his capacity to command the totality of Islamic and Middle Eastern history from Muhammad down to the present day. This is not merely a matter of erudition; rather, it reflects an almost unparalleled ability to fit things together into a detailed and comprehensive synthesis. In this regard, it is hard to imagine that Lewis will have any true successors.

Yet not only did MESA deign not to confer the honor upon Lewis, it bestowed it upon Edward Said, who brought Middle Eastern studies to the brink of ruin. Lewis never needed any honors from MESA: it was MESA that needed to honor him, and MESA’s failure to do so is evidence that it isn’t a scholarly association in the pure sense. So why join it?

That brings me to this year’s conference. MESA meets once every three years in Washington, to demonstrate its relevance to the powers that be. University-based Middle East centers feed at the taxpayers’ trough, and so it’s important to show up every few years at the doorstep of Congress, in an effort to prove that academe is “relevant” to the national interest. Some aspect of the program is pitched just for that purpose. (This year, it’s a panel on ISIS.)

The problem is that the radicals’ hormones are raging in the wake the Israel-Hamas war, and many of the rank-and-file would like to add MESA to the list of associations that have passed resolutions calling for an academic boycott of Israel. This isn’t such a smart thing to propose in Washington, and MESA’s president, Nathan Brown, has already reminded the members that MESA is “a non-political association.” But some MESA members think otherwise, and they’re always looking for ways to shove MESA even deeper into politics than it already is. In short, the conference is bound to be contentious.

In my next post, I’ll share my impressions of the triumphal reception accorded by MESAns to Steven Salaita, the anti-Israel tweet artist who got canned at the University of Illinois, and who’s become a jobless martyr.

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Forfeiting Hearts and Minds in Southern Iraq

I spent the last week in Karbala, Iraq, invited by local religious authorities to speak at a conference about the writings of Imam Sejjad. Karbala is easily the most vibrant city in Iraq, and one of the most important religiously. It was the site of the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, whom Shi‘ites venerate, and today home not only to the Shrine of Abbas, but also to the Shrine of Imam Hussein himself.

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I spent the last week in Karbala, Iraq, invited by local religious authorities to speak at a conference about the writings of Imam Sejjad. Karbala is easily the most vibrant city in Iraq, and one of the most important religiously. It was the site of the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, whom Shi‘ites venerate, and today home not only to the Shrine of Abbas, but also to the Shrine of Imam Hussein himself.

Needless to say, after Mecca, there is no place as important for Shi‘ite Muslims than Najaf and Karbala. It is a major center of pilgrimage. During the day and a half I spent in the Shrine of Imam Hussein itself, I saw delegations of pilgrims from Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Bahrain, India, Lebanon, and Syria. Many had saved up for years to visit the shrine, just as Christians might make a trip to Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Diaspora Jews a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Beyond the casket itself, inside the shrine is a small but very rich museum dedicated to the shrine and to Imam Hussein. It is accessible to all, unlike the trend begun by Salafis to deny access to holy sites, an unfortunate phenomenon that has spread outward from Saudi Arabia to the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and increasingly across the Sunni world. People can say what they will about Shi‘ites, but I have never been denied access to a Shi‘ite mosque, even in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The museum was excellent: it had Islamic and cultural artifacts dating back centuries, as well as photos of Saddam’s 1991 looting of the shrine, and material recovered in its aftermath. One recent display listed all the invading armies that pillaged and looted Karbala: Ottomans, Saudis, Saddam. Importantly, the United States was not listed. Some American policymakers may believe that Iraqi Shi‘ites are fools for Iran’s anti-American vitriol, but they readily see through the Islamic Republic’s propaganda and recognize the 2003 invasion for what it was: liberation.

I spoke with the museum director. He mentioned that the British ambassador had visited—“the British understand such things”—but the Americans ambassador and, indeed, the embassy has been absent. Karbala is a safe, secure city. Politicians wring their hands that the United States spent blood and treasure in Iraq, and the Iraqis don’t fully appreciate it. But, when American diplomats remain too often behind the blast walls of the American embassy, when the Islamic Republic opens a consulate in Karbala but the United States avoids the symbolic center of the Shi‘ite world, then the United States doesn’t lose hearts and minds, it forfeits them.

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Philosophers Behaving Badly: Brooklyn College BDS Edition

Steven Salaita, the professor whose University of Illinois job offer was rescinded earlier this year over his inflammatory comments about Israel, is now on a road show, talking about how people like him are not allowed to talk. So far, he has discussed this silencing at, among other places, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Princeton, the New School, and Rutgers University. His determination to keep speaking until he is allowed to speak took him on Thursday night to Brooklyn College.

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Steven Salaita, the professor whose University of Illinois job offer was rescinded earlier this year over his inflammatory comments about Israel, is now on a road show, talking about how people like him are not allowed to talk. So far, he has discussed this silencing at, among other places, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Princeton, the New School, and Rutgers University. His determination to keep speaking until he is allowed to speak took him on Thursday night to Brooklyn College.

More than a year ago, Brooklyn College made news because its department of political science sponsored what amounted to a rally for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement against Israel. So faculty members there have had a long time to reflect on the question of whether academic departments should sponsor anti-Israel activism. The philosophy department of Brooklyn College, presumably using the tools acquired in the course of many years of philosophic training and practice, recently delivered an answer: absolutely!

Samir Chopra, a professor of philosophy at BC, has described the arguments that won over his colleagues. First, the event would be good for students. They’d get to hear a “debate” about academic freedom and other issues raised by the Salaita case. Salaita, after all, did not have the stage to himself, but shared it “with a law professor” and a moderator, a “political theorist” (who also teaches Constitutional Law).”

Chopra does not mention that the “law professor” in question, Katherine Franke, is a boycott advocate, a leader in the effort to reinstate Salaita, and an adviser to Salaita’s legal team. The political theorist and “moderator,” Corey Robin, has “turned his blog into a Salaita war room.” One Salaita advocate adds that “we’ve all looked to him as a central source of information about new developments.” That advocate’s name, by the way, is Katherine Franke. I am sure the debate over who loved whom more got heated.
Say what you want about Students for Justice in Palestine. At least they forthrightly admitted that students were being invited to witness a “conversation” about “the constant push by Zionists to silence academic discourse relating to the Palestinian struggle and criticisms of Israel.” It’s not strange that the SJP, which is engaged in a propaganda campaign against Israel, would try to draw as many people as possible to an event that would further their delegitimization efforts. But it’s remarkable—and suggests that their department possesses not only philosophical acumen but also pedagogical creativity—that the philosophers of Brooklyn College saw SJP’s event as a great learning opportunity, worthy of support.

Just in case his colleagues, being professional philosophers, were not floored by his first argument, Chopra made another. He “analogized our sponsorship decision as akin to the inclusion of a reading on a class syllabus.” Now I am a long way from my philosophy degree. But although I was not surprised when a professor had us read excerpts from Mein Kampf in our class on Western Civilization, I would have been surprised had I learned that he voted to sponsor a panel of neo-Nazis. Yet the philosophers voted with Chopra. Perhaps they deferred to him because—drum roll please—he began his academic career as a logician.

In many academic free speech cases, we defend the principle and distance ourselves from the speaker. You would think that even those who believe Salaita’s speech was not grounds for withdrawing his job offer would take this stance about a man who said, in response to news of the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing,” especially in the face of evidence that this statement was not an outlier.

But Salaita’s sponsors, including the trained philosophers of Brooklyn College, aren’t distancing themselves. They’re holding Salaita close, quite as if they like what the man has to say.

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‘The Thing About Candied Yams’

If you’ll forgive me a personal post; some of you may recall an article I wrote for the July/August 2013 issue of COMMENTARY called “My Sister Rachel,” about the passing of a most extraordinary person. Rachel’s daughter Nani Beraha has just written a beautiful and angry memory piece about her mother, Thanksgiving, and trying to recover a part of a holiday that Rachel always celebrated in a raucous fashion with dozens around her Northern Virginia table. It’s called ‘The Thing About Candied Yams.” It’s the best thing you’ll read today, or this week, or maybe ever. (It has one rough use of language in it, fitting for the emotion it evokes.) You can find it here.

If you’ll forgive me a personal post; some of you may recall an article I wrote for the July/August 2013 issue of COMMENTARY called “My Sister Rachel,” about the passing of a most extraordinary person. Rachel’s daughter Nani Beraha has just written a beautiful and angry memory piece about her mother, Thanksgiving, and trying to recover a part of a holiday that Rachel always celebrated in a raucous fashion with dozens around her Northern Virginia table. It’s called ‘The Thing About Candied Yams.” It’s the best thing you’ll read today, or this week, or maybe ever. (It has one rough use of language in it, fitting for the emotion it evokes.) You can find it here.

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The Day After—for Obama and the Right

The president’s impending decision to act unilaterally to regularize the presence of 5 million illegals in the United States provoked several days of almost incredulous outrage on the Right, along with charges that these actions would basically provoke a Constitutional crisis.  Now that it’s happened, it’s become a political matter that will have profound political ramifications, and no one knows what those are going to be. Obama is flying blind. And so are Republicans and conservatives. We’re in a new political moment, and the fallout will take a long time to come clear. Read More

The president’s impending decision to act unilaterally to regularize the presence of 5 million illegals in the United States provoked several days of almost incredulous outrage on the Right, along with charges that these actions would basically provoke a Constitutional crisis.  Now that it’s happened, it’s become a political matter that will have profound political ramifications, and no one knows what those are going to be. Obama is flying blind. And so are Republicans and conservatives. We’re in a new political moment, and the fallout will take a long time to come clear. The truth is, though, that Obama has a history of comically misjudging just how much the American people are with him, and how angry they will get at his rivals for attempting to stymie him. He may be wrong again. The White House is banking on the fact that majorities in the polls support more open immigration policies than the Republican party does. But what’s interesting to me is that those polls suggest the American people believe in setting up a “path to citizenship.” This new policy is not that. Instead, it creates a new kind of status for people who have been here illegally for more than five years. The two are very far from the same thing, and there’s a very real question whether this new system will seem a fair process to the American people or rather an arbitrary act of line-drawing. Nor is there any real support for the president’s deep conviction that, in general, the public is with him, the source of his bizarre evident certainty that the two-thirds of the American voting population that did not vote is on his side. In fact, polling after the election suggests the American people want policy in general to be set by Congress rather than Obama, and it’s not even close; in Gallup, the pro-GOP margin is 17 points. He is sure to have his vanity assuaged over the next couple of weeks by the thrilled coverage of his action by the editorial pages he loves and the ideological reporters and bloggers he relies on. His bubble is very thick and it may not be penetrated by the news that ordinary Americans have been made uneasy by what he has done. That said,  it’s interesting to note that the day after the president’s speech, the Right feels unsure, unsteady, and even a little depressed. Perhaps that’s because, after three years of talking about it, Obama has essentially called his own bluff. He began with the “we can’t wait” and “I’ll act because Congress won’t” lines in the wake of the fiscal-cliff showdown in the summer of 2011, but it was mostly just talk until last night. I think people on the Right thought Obama was a paper tiger, and that he would be even more of one in the wake of his party’s swamping on election day. Obama has begun a victory lap, going to Las Vegas today to accept the thanks of a grateful Hispanic public. Again, he has a bad habit of thinking he’s winning when he’s actually losing. That is really not the GOP’s problem.

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Standing and Prosecutorial Discretion

There has been much talk of late, especially since President Obama’s speech last night, about how the new Republican congress can respond to his continual, indeed increasing, end runs around Congress’s power to make the laws. In almost so many words last night, he said to Congress, you didn’t reform immigration law so I will.

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There has been much talk of late, especially since President Obama’s speech last night, about how the new Republican congress can respond to his continual, indeed increasing, end runs around Congress’s power to make the laws. In almost so many words last night, he said to Congress, you didn’t reform immigration law so I will.

He used the common law principle of prosecutorial discretion—where the executive can choose what individual crimes to pursue and which to ignore—to do so. He was confident that the common law principle of standing—where an individual, corporation, or government body must have a personal or direct injury that he or it wants redressed in order to sue—would prevent the courts from interfering.

It’s clever lawyering if lousy politics.

The courts have long held that individual members of Congress cannot sue the president for ignoring the law.  It may get them a headline in tomorrow morning’s newspaper, which is what they are usually after anyway, but it won’t get them far in court.  Equally, prosecutorial discretion has always been used to allow prosecutors to choose strong cases to pursue, while letting weak ones go, or to prevent an injustice from occurring by pursuing the letter of the law.

But, as noted, both standing and prosecutorial discretion are largely common law principles, arising from centuries of court decisions on how justice should be done, guarded by the doctrine of stare decisis, which holds that settled principles of law should not be disturbed by the courts when deciding similar cases.

But statute trumps common law. It was common law that the age of majority was 21. But that didn’t prevent the states from making 18 the age at which, for instance, individuals could drink or marry without a parent’s permission or vote.  A constitutional amendment set the voting age at 18 nationwide.

So, while I am not a lawyer, I see no reason why the new Republican Congress could not pass a law granting itself standing to sue when it decides by majority vote that the President has trespassed on its power to make the law. Equally, it has the power to limit prosecutorial discretion to its traditional uses.

After all, President Obama was implicitly arguing in his speech last night that if Congress were to pass a law making, say, the transportation of widgets across a state line a felony, he would be free to order the Justice Department not to prosecute any cases under the Widget Law, effectively repealing it.

Defining standing and prosecutorial discretion by statute would prevent this usurpation of power.  Would President Obama veto such bills? Perhaps, but even with the mainstream media in look-a-squirrel overdrive, I think public pressure would force him to accept them.  If it didn’t, then a future president who thinks that James Madison is not just a dead white guy would.

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Conspiracy Theories and Palestinian Terror

Israel is not only still reeling from the horror of a Palestinian terror attack on a Jerusalem synagogue earlier this week. Almost as shocking is the spectacle of hatred in Arab neighborhoods and cities in Jerusalem, the West Bank Gaza in which the two terrorists that hacked and shot four Jews praying and a Druze policeman are being treated as heroes. Yet the crime as well as the sometimes-violent demonstrations of glee and laudatory statements from Palestinian leaders about the murder of civilians has been largely treated in the Western media as just another unfortunate tit-for-tat between two warring peoples. Even worse, the motivation for terror attacks as well as the applause they generate is being represented as a function of Palestinian complaints about settlements, alleged discrimination or funding issues. But, as this report from the Times of Israel tracing the events of the last week shows, the explanations offered by the New York Times, to choose just the most egregious example of distorted coverage, are completely missing the madness that is driving the conflict.

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Israel is not only still reeling from the horror of a Palestinian terror attack on a Jerusalem synagogue earlier this week. Almost as shocking is the spectacle of hatred in Arab neighborhoods and cities in Jerusalem, the West Bank Gaza in which the two terrorists that hacked and shot four Jews praying and a Druze policeman are being treated as heroes. Yet the crime as well as the sometimes-violent demonstrations of glee and laudatory statements from Palestinian leaders about the murder of civilians has been largely treated in the Western media as just another unfortunate tit-for-tat between two warring peoples. Even worse, the motivation for terror attacks as well as the applause they generate is being represented as a function of Palestinian complaints about settlements, alleged discrimination or funding issues. But, as this report from the Times of Israel tracing the events of the last week shows, the explanations offered by the New York Times, to choose just the most egregious example of distorted coverage, are completely missing the madness that is driving the conflict.

As the Times of Israel reports, the genesis of the synagogue attack and its violent aftermath may have been fueled in no small part by false reports about the murder of a Palestinian bus driver. The man was found hanged in his bus and both Israeli and Palestinian coroners ruled that the death was obviously a suicide. But in the hothouse Palestinian rumor mill in which conspiracy theories about alleged Jewish atrocities are the coin of the realm, this, along with wild claims about Israeli “violation of women at al-Aksa” was enough to send two men into a synagogue to murder and untold thousands of their compatriots into the streets to support their crime.

This is a significant fact because Western journalists, such as the New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren, have been seeking to explain the atrocity and the support for it by linking it to critiques of Israeli policies about allowing Jews to move to parts of Jerusalem or municipal funding policies that may short change Arabs. I have already critiqued Rudoren’s reporting in terms of its misperceptions about what is negotiable in the conflict as well as her false claims of moral equivalence about attacks on houses of worship. Our Seth Mandel also touched on these issues as well as Rudoren’s claims that her critics are biased.

But the big picture here is not so much the poor performance of the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief as it is the failure by her paper and most other mainstream publishing outlets to delve deeper into the real roots of Palestinian anger. By choosing to obsess over policy questions that dovetail with Obama administration complaints about Israel’s government, Rudoren ignored the mania of hate that seems to bubble up from the Palestinian street. That not only fails to explain what sends Palestinians out to slaughter Jews or to cheer such actions, it also demonstrates a lack of understanding as to why the conflict as a whole is so impervious to solutions.

If Palestinian leaders have consistently and repeatedly rejected Israeli peace offers throughout the last 15 years and, indeed, all chances at territorial compromise dating back to the 1930s, it is because their political culture is still driven by the same factors that led to the Har Nof massacre this week as well as the pogroms of 1929 and 1936 that were similarly motivated by false rumors about Jewish activity on the Temple Mount. It’s not just that Palestinians have had hatred for Jews driven into them by their leaders and media for a century, it’s that their view of the conflict is one that is rooted in belief that Jews are an enemy that must be driven from the land.

Israelis and their government are not perfect but the willingness of Palestinians to believe any tall tale about Jewish crimes has little to do with the Netanyahu government’s policies and everything to do with a variant of Jew hatred that has found a home in the Middle East in the last 100 years. While it is possible to talk about what Israel might do to appease their antagonists’ ambitions in order to promote peace, it is this virus of anti-Semitism that must be addressed if any Palestinian leader will ever have the courage to sign a peace deal with the Israelis that will recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn.

The lunacy that leads to blood-soaked bodies lying on a synagogue floor begins with this hate and paranoia that has driven itself deep into the psyche of the Palestinian imagination. It is the same psychosis that allows Palestinian Authority media and officials to promote conspiracy theories and praise terrorists. So long as even a supposed moderate such as PA leader Mahmoud Abbas can call a terrorist murderer a “martyr” who went straight to heaven, why should we be surprised that Jerusalem and West Bank Arabs think the Jews are raping Muslims on the Temple Mount or murdering bus drivers, even though these are imaginary crimes?

So long as mainstream media outlets ignore the truth about Palestinian politics and terror, it is also no surprise that their coverage of the conflict tells us more about their biases than anything happening on the ground.

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Mark Levin’s Distortions of Reagan  

Mark Levin – a popular talk radio host and best-selling author — recently responded to a piece in which I was critical of him. I’ll take up two things Mr. Levin said, starting with the charge that I am “an adamant and flailing progressive.”

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Mark Levin – a popular talk radio host and best-selling author — recently responded to a piece in which I was critical of him. I’ll take up two things Mr. Levin said, starting with the charge that I am “an adamant and flailing progressive.”

Of course. I’m that rare adamant, flailing progressive who worked in the Reagan administration and considers Reagan to be among the greatest presidents in our history; who is a consistent, often harsh critic of President Obama; and who wrote a book offering a moral defense of democratic capitalism. I’m also that atypical adamant progressive who is pro-life, pro-school choice, and pro-Keystone XL pipeline; who has pushed for personal accounts in Social Security and a premium support system for Medicare; and who wants to reform the tax code by lowering the top rates and broadening the base. Then there’s the fact that I oppose drug legalization, was (and remain) an advocate for greater work requirements in welfare programs, and favor the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. I also supported the “surge” in Iraq and spending more on the defense budget. I could go on, but you get the point. The last time I saw Mr. Levin in person, by the way, was at an infamous gathering of adamant and flailing progressives: Rush Limbaugh’s wedding in 2010.

Let me move to another point made by Levin. I wrote that if the absolutist mindset that characterizes some on the right, including Levin, were applied to Ronald Reagan’s record; their logic would compel them to label him a RINO (Republican In Name Only). I mentioned as but one example the fact the Reagan chose Richard Schweiker to be his vice presidential nominee in 1976. And this is where Levin gets all tangled up. He writes:

Wehner only tells half the story about Dick Schweiker … I am reminded that Schweiker was pro-labor but also pro-life, anti-communist, pro-Second Amendment, pro-freeing the Captive-Nations. I was not a great Scweiker [sic] fan, but he was no crazed leftist. The same can be said of George H. W. Bush.

I never said that Senator Schweiker was a “crazed leftist.” What I did say (in this COMMENTARY essay I co-authored with Henry Olsen) is that Senator Schweiker was a liberal. If anything, we understated the case. As this document shows, the left-wing group Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) gave Senator Schweiker an approval rating of 85% in 1974, which is the same rating the ADA gave to Senator George McGovern; and in 1975, the year before Reagan picked Schweiker to be his running mate, Senator Schweiker received an 89% rating. Senator Schweiker cosponsored a national health insurance bill introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy; was a primary sponsor of legislation (the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act) that created a massive federal jobs program; voted against an attempt to stop federal funds from paying for abortions; supported the Equal Rights Amendment; opposed the Vietnam War; and opposed funding key defense systems. Steven Hayward, in his wonderful book The Age of Reagan, wrote, “Schweiker was arguably as liberal as Jimmy Carter’s running mate, Sen. Walter Mondale.”

Anyone who listens to Mr. Levin knows he would excoriate any conservative today who named a liberal like Schweiker to be his vice presidential nominee, as Reagan did. And an honest reading of some parts of Reagan’s political record — when he was governor of California he liberalized abortion laws, and when he was president he signed into law record tax increases and he championed amnesty — means that he would fail the purity test that Levin applies to conservatives today.

Which gets to the heart of the matter. Mr. Levin appears less interested in learning from the real Reagan record than in using the Gipper as a battering ram against other conservatives, whom he routinely accuses of being RINOs, cowards, statists, leftists, phony pseudo-conservatives, and so forth. But the Reagan invoked by Levin is a figure of his own invention, a caricature of the real man and the great president. The purpose of the distortion is to advance Levin’s own ideology, which is increasingly more radical than conservative.

In any event, the real Reagan is far more impressive — politically, philosophically, and temperamentally — than the one summoned from Mark Levin’s imagination. One example: Reagan would admonish his staff, “Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents.” Yet Levin — who prides himself on being a true Reaganite, the Keeper of the Flame — treats almost everyone he disagrees with as an enemy. Ronald Reagan’s conservatism was not coursing with anger. He was an affable and optimistic populist — one who, as his biographer Edmund Morris put it, “represented the better temper of his times.”

As Henry Olsen and I argued, the Reagan legacy matters — to history, and to modern-day conservatives. Our fortieth president was a multi-dimensional and immensely interesting figure, and there is much that both the GOP “establishment” and Tea Party populists can learn from his life and his political record. But for that to happen, he needs to be rescued from those who distort history while claiming to be his heirs.

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The GOP Governors’ 2016 Derby

Chris Christie took a well-deserved victory lap this week at the annual meeting of the Republican Governor’s Association, basking in the glow of a midterm victory that capped off a highly successful year for him as chairman of the group. The New Jersey governor’s formidable fundraising skills played a significant role in the GOP’s victories around the country, including in blue states such as Maryland and Massachusetts. But, as Politico notes, Christie wasn’t getting much love, in terms of his 2016 prospects, from the candidates he helped. That’s not terribly surprising given the plethora of potential candidates, including a bevy of his fellow Republican governors. But the impressive lineup of would-be presidents in attendance at the RGA highlights a key problem for all of these hopefuls: the crowded field in which seemingly none of them has a political or even a geographical advantage renders the talk of the inevitability of a governor being the nominee a piece of useless conventional wisdom.

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Chris Christie took a well-deserved victory lap this week at the annual meeting of the Republican Governor’s Association, basking in the glow of a midterm victory that capped off a highly successful year for him as chairman of the group. The New Jersey governor’s formidable fundraising skills played a significant role in the GOP’s victories around the country, including in blue states such as Maryland and Massachusetts. But, as Politico notes, Christie wasn’t getting much love, in terms of his 2016 prospects, from the candidates he helped. That’s not terribly surprising given the plethora of potential candidates, including a bevy of his fellow Republican governors. But the impressive lineup of would-be presidents in attendance at the RGA highlights a key problem for all of these hopefuls: the crowded field in which seemingly none of them has a political or even a geographical advantage renders the talk of the inevitability of a governor being the nominee a piece of useless conventional wisdom.

As I noted last week, the assumption that governors make better presidents than, say, senators gets a mixed verdict from history. But the current crop of GOP governors do have a strong argument that their distance from Washington dysfunction and records of accomplishment stand them in good stead in any presidential race. The problem is not only that each of them also has their own set of liabilities but also that the sheer volume of contenders with a gubernatorial resume line makes it difficult for any one of them to credibly claim the mantle of the chief non-Washingtonian candidate of good governance.

Christie’s difficult path to the nomination is already well documented. While he may be in the process of putting the Bridgegate accusations behind him, the antipathy of the party’s conservative base for Christie is a formidable obstacle. So, too, is the difficulty of imagining someone with his irascible nature (“sit down and shut up”) and thin skin surviving on the stump amid the intense scrutiny of a presidential race.

But while doubts about the resurrection of Christie’s once high presidential expectations are well founded, the same skepticism ought to apply to the other governors preening for the national press this week. Chief among them is Ohio Governor John Kasich, who seems to be the flavor of the month after his huge reelection victory in perhaps the most crucial swing state in the country. But Kasich, with his equivocal stance on Medicare and ObamaCare as well his more moderate views on immigration is no more likely to be liked by the base than Christie, leaving him competing for establishment support with Christie and a flock of others.

Those others include Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who will have a stronger claim on the base while also being able to connect with moderates. Indiana’s Mike Pence is similarly situated, albeit without the folk hero status Walker earned among conservatives with his epic battles with unions and the unsuccessful liberal attempt to recall him. But as much as both men are veteran politicians, they are untested outside of their states leaving even their fans uncertain as to how they’d fare in a presidential campaign.

Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal is another smart Republican governor with conservative credentials, but his efforts to edge out onto the national stage haven’t been universally successful. Buying into the notion that an intellectual southern governor/social conservative with as little charisma as he demonstrates can make the leap to the first tier in the primaries requires more religious faith than political acumen.

As for others, we also need to realize that the overlap between these candidates is a big problem. Whether or not you think Texas Governor Rick Perry has a shot at doing better in his second try for the presidency (after a wince-inducing and disastrous 2012 campaign), he is up against the fact that he will be competing for support with another Texan, Senator Ted Cruz, who has much a better chance of exciting Tea Partiers and other conservatives than Mr. “Oops.” Walker, Kasich, and Pence will compete for the title of leading Midwest governor making it difficult for any of them to seize a niche and make it their own.

That’s why outsiders like Carly Fiorina and Dr. Ben Carson are spinning scenarios in their heads about a path to the nomination even if their claims are far more dubious than those of potential competitors. The same applies to would-be establishment standard bearers like Jeb Bush and Christie. Yet Bush would also face competition in Florida from Senator Marco Rubio and Walker must also deal with the possibility that Rep. Paul Ryan, a fellow Wisconsin resident, will run.

Only Senator Rand Paul seems to have a constituency locked up—the libertarian crowd he seems to have inherited from his outlier father Ron—but there is doubt as to whether they will follow him blindly if he continues to edge closer to mainstream views on foreign policy in order to be more presentable.

But Kasich’s recent boomlet should also remind us about what will be the key factor in winnowing this field down to those who have an actual chance: gaffes. Kasich has stayed at home in Columbus the past few years far away from national media centers and earned a reputation as a good governor. But his past as a fast-talking, albeit relatively moderate conservative congressman and then as a sometime replacement host on Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly show makes it more than probable that Kasich will eventually say something that will undermine a presidential campaign. The same is true of the rest of this crowd. If it’s hard to know what will happen in the next year during the run-up to the start of the 2016 primaries, it is because we don’t know which of the candidates will sink themselves with a stray remark.

Seen in that light the competition for the 2016 nomination isn’t so much a cattle call for a bunch of governors as it is a demolition derby that will probably determine the outcome via gaffes and self-destructive impulses. All these governors have a chance but the one that is best at avoiding mistakes is the one who will get a shot at winning.

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Jodi Rudoren and the Key Fallacy That Explains Media Ignorance

When I began my career as a young reporter straight out of college, it became immediately clear to me how much I didn’t know. That realization almost certainly saved my career because it taught me a lesson I later heard best expressed by Brit Hume: “Fairness is not an attitude. Fairness is a skill.” My editors took journalistic ethics seriously, and the reporters at our company took notice. When reporters in our newsroom got criticism over accusations of bias, they gave them appropriate consideration. They never would have worn them as a badge of honor. They never would have acted as unethically and unprofessionally, in other words, as Jodi Rudoren.

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When I began my career as a young reporter straight out of college, it became immediately clear to me how much I didn’t know. That realization almost certainly saved my career because it taught me a lesson I later heard best expressed by Brit Hume: “Fairness is not an attitude. Fairness is a skill.” My editors took journalistic ethics seriously, and the reporters at our company took notice. When reporters in our newsroom got criticism over accusations of bias, they gave them appropriate consideration. They never would have worn them as a badge of honor. They never would have acted as unethically and unprofessionally, in other words, as Jodi Rudoren.

The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief has established a record of not just inaccurate reporting but the kind of mistakes that should never get through layers of editors and fact checkers. This week on Twitter I criticized Rudoren’s latest batch of advocacy journalism for its many mistakes and also for how easily those mistakes could be prevented by going through the normal reporting process. Rudoren has responded to the Washington Examiner, and her reaction is quite telling. It boils down to: nothing will change, because she refuses to know what she doesn’t know.

The Examiner tried to reach out to me for comment, the request never came through, and so the article went up without it. It’s worth responding now, especially since Rudoren’s comments are so revealing and are themselves a thorough indictment of mainstream journalistic ethics. Here is the crux of her response to the Examiner:

“Broadly speaking, most of the criticism of our coverage, and it is immense, is not rooted in the values of mainstream journalism, but is done from the prism of advocacy. Frequently, these critics ignore the stories or parts of stories that don’t fit with their pre-determined conclusion of our bias (and we have pretty much equal accusations of biases on both sides),” New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren told the Washington Examiner.

“They often try to subject stories or sentences to some kind of scoring system — good for Israel, bad for Israel — which is problematic because the stories, and the subjects, are much more complex and nuanced than that,” Rudoren added.

It’s impossible not to notice that Rudoren’s comments prove the criticism of her to be completely correct. And she is making it clear she refuses to learn more, because she regards that learning process itself as a concession to her critics. Out of sheer pride, Rudoren will remain uninformed.

There are several critiques to unpack in her response, but the most important one is this: “we have pretty much equal accusations of biases on both sides.” Rudoren is a firm believer in the single most toxic fallacy that bad reporters believe in. Namely, the idea that if both sides of an issue hate your writing, you must be doing something right. In fact, it often means you are doing a great deal wrong.

That’s because both sides can be right in their criticism. Imagine another industry in which someone’s behavior receives howls of disapproval from all sides, and the person involved takes that to mean they must be doing their job well. It’s delusional, and we would say so. And so we should say so here. If there is a consensus that you’re terrible at your job, that consensus is not to be worn as a badge of honor. Rudoren, embarrassingly enough, believes it should be.

But there’s more to Rudoren’s statement, and it explains why she sees criticism of her as illegitimate. Pro-Israel readers who object to Rudoren’s reporting are considered by her to be uninterested in the truth and acting out of loyalty to Israel. It’s not surprising that a resident of the leftist bubble that is the Times would think this, but it’s rather amazing that she thinks it’s appropriate to say.

Later on in the article, she tells the Examiner that “People who are passionate about the issue and have a personal stake in it often struggle to see the full picture.” What she is saying is that people devoted to an issue–experts, for example–are to be dismissed. Rarely has a mainstream reporter embraced this kind of strident anti-intellectualism publicly, and even suggested that it forms the bedrock of their professional outlook.

And in addition to the anti-intellectualism, Rudoren says that her detractors are not “rooted in the values of mainstream journalism.” This is provably false. In fact, much of the criticism of her that prompted this exchange was based precisely in her own failure to adhere to basic journalistic ethics. I noted, for example, that she made statements about vandalism against mosques in Israel without providing numbers or even a citation. It turned out not to be true; she is just making up inflammatory “facts.” But in order to know that, you have to do the journalism that Rudoren refuses to do. You have to be her fact checker, in other words.

The ignorance of reporters about the subjects they cover is an ongoing problem, and it’s especially egregious when the subject turns to religion. Yet often when reporters take their base of knowledge of a subject and arrogantly assume it’s all they’ll ever need to know, they at least know something–anything, even basic information–about the issue. That’s not the case with Rudoren. Her mistakes include those that are disproved by merely looking at a map, for instance.

Somewhere along the line, liberal reporters and editors decided that the greater the depth and breadth of criticism of their work, the better they assumed it to be. This attitude has produced the work of Jodi Rudoren as its inevitable consequence. And it’s how, seemingly against all odds, coverage of Israel is still getting worse. The hope is that Rudoren represents the media hitting bottom, but I fear we’re not there yet.

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The Baleful Effects of the Obama Presidency

In his fine post on last night’s speech, Jonathan wrote, “But President Obama has made that impossible by firing the first shot in a political war intended to further polarize the nation. Nothing could be more cynical or less high-minded.”

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In his fine post on last night’s speech, Jonathan wrote, “But President Obama has made that impossible by firing the first shot in a political war intended to further polarize the nation. Nothing could be more cynical or less high-minded.”

This is not incidental damage to our republic.

There is such a thing as a nation’s political and civic culture. Ours is in some disrepair right now. This isn’t the only time that’s been the case, for sure. Politics in a free society–any free society–guarantees some amount of division and polarization. But beyond a certain point it’s not normative or healthy; and if there are large, difficult problems that need to be addressed, as is now the case, the political system has to work. Right now it’s not.

Why it’s not is a complicated matter. But there’s no question that President Obama bears a great deal of the responsibility for our political distemper. His announcement last night that he’s going to employ means that he himself deemed to be lawless and unconstitutional, in order to get his way on immigration, is guaranteed to further roil our politics. Indeed, it may well have been done in part to do just that. Whatever his motivations, Mr. Obama has taken an unprecedented step that will further split apart not just our two parties but our nation.

It’s worth reminding ourselves, then, that when he first ran for president, Mr. Obama not only promised to place greater limits on executive power; he also promised to “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger. He would end a politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” He would help us to “rediscover our bonds to each other and … get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.” His election, he informed us, was a sign we had “chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”

“I will listen to you,” Obama said on a stage in Grant Park on the night of his election, “especially when we disagree.” And on the day of his inauguration he came to proclaim “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

Yet here we are, six years later, with a president who has caused greater division and conflict, who has deepened public cynicism, and who has chosen–eagerly and gleefully chosen–conflict and discord over unity of purpose. This may not be the worst sin of the Obama era, but it ranks quite high on the list.

Other presidents have made mistakes, and some have committed impeachable offenses. But I would be hard-pressed to name a president who has so selfishly and narcissistically injured our constitutional order and political culture. The baleful effects of the Obama presidency are now nearly incalculable.

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Obama’s Orders: Politics, Not Compassion

President Obama was at his rhetorical best Thursday night in making an eloquent case for his executive orders that allow five million illegal immigrants to avoid deportation. But his eloquence invoking compassion for immigrants was the worst kind of cynical game being used to justify an unprecedented presidential usurpation of power. Even if one accepted the arguments he employed on behalf of fixing our broken immigration system or being fair to illegals, it was all beside the point. The purpose of this exercise was to vastly expand the scope of presidential power while provoking a confrontation with Republicans. None of it had much to do with actually changing the system.

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President Obama was at his rhetorical best Thursday night in making an eloquent case for his executive orders that allow five million illegal immigrants to avoid deportation. But his eloquence invoking compassion for immigrants was the worst kind of cynical game being used to justify an unprecedented presidential usurpation of power. Even if one accepted the arguments he employed on behalf of fixing our broken immigration system or being fair to illegals, it was all beside the point. The purpose of this exercise was to vastly expand the scope of presidential power while provoking a confrontation with Republicans. None of it had much to do with actually changing the system.

There are good reasons to support changes in the system. The status of the 11 million illegals in this country needs to be resolved in some rational manner. The president is right to state that mass deportations are both unlikely and undesirable. Even if they violated the law, many, if not most of the illegals are not bad people and some of their stories should inspire compassion from Americans.

But by acting unilaterally rather than returning to the hard work of crafting a bipartisan compromise on immigration with the new Republican majorities in Congress, Obama showed that he had other motives besides his supposed passion for the illegals.

The president’s argument remains that he is being forced to act because House Republicans refused to pass the bipartisan compromise bill passed by the Senate. This is a specious appeal for four reasons.

The first is that even if the Senate bill deserved support, it is the prerogative of the Congress to pass laws. The president may advocate, lobby, cajole, threaten, or bargain with members to get his way. But if the executive branch fails to get the legislative branch to approve measures, it must accept the verdict and try again. Such a failure does not grant the president the right to usurp Congress.

Second, this is no emergency that required immediate action. Comparisons to the Emancipation Proclamation or wartime emergency measures are absurd. If it were a genuine emergency, Obama would have acted on it during his first two years in office when he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and could have gotten any measure he liked. He might also have issued these orders at any time since then but instead waited until he was safely reelected and then for the midterms to be finished before acting.

Third, seen from the perspective of November 2014, it is clear the House was right not to pass the Senate bill. Though I did not think so at the time, the impulse to break up the measure and to pass border security legislation first and then and only then consider the future of the illegals already here was correct. Despite the president’s claims that the border is secure, last summer’s surge of illegals proved otherwise. Moreover, his boasts about the supposed decline in illegal immigration has little to do with the still shaky enforcement at the border and everything to do with the shaky economic recovery the president has presided over. Even worse, it is likely that today’s temporary amnesty—which may be reversed by the next president—will encourage another such surge. The same thing happened after President Reagan’s amnesty and that was not nearly so egregious as Obama’s and an attempt to clarify a law passed by Congress, not an end run around the Constitution.

Fourth, if, as he says, he wants a new bill, the only way to achieve any kind of reform would have been to work with the new Congress. Chances were admittedly slim for a new compromise but the president’s orders have now reduced it to zero. Hispanics and immigration-reform advocates applauding these orders should think about the fact that with a stroke of a pen, Obama has made it impossible for any Republican, no matter how committed to fixing the system, to vote for a new bill in the next two years. That is a greater setback for that cause than anything done by House Republicans in the past two years.

And that leads us to the most important conclusion to be drawn from the president’s move. It must be understood that this is as much a tactical political move as it an attempt to build a legacy as some of the president’s defenders claim.

By issuing his orders now in the wake of the Democrats’ drubbing in the midterms, Obama is attempting to take back the initiative from a victorious GOP. Despite the pious rhetoric he used about bipartisanship, his goal here is to goad a rightly furious Republican caucus into overreacting and to recreate the government shutdown confrontation of 2013 that he rightly believes himself to have won. In doing so, he hopes, with the help of a partisan liberal media that is already happily defending his measures and lambasting conservative anger, to gain an advantage in the latest episode of the pointless partisan squabbling that he has helped to engender.

By going outside of the constitutional order in this manner, the president has created a dangerous precedent that undermines both the rule of law and the concept of separation of powers. One may even agree with the substance of his ideas while also understanding that this is a radical action that puts more power in the hands of an already too-powerful executive branch.

But the fact that Democrats are already seeking to depict this struggle as one between a compassionate president and Republicans who want “ethnic cleansing” illustrates that this merely politics, not principle at play. Those who hoped they were electing a Congress to get things done were not wrong to think the new majorities had an opportunity to legislate. But President Obama has made that impossible by firing the first shot in a political war intended to further polarize the nation. Nothing could be more cynical or less high-minded.

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The Weird Logic of Obama’s Immigration Speech

Tonight, the president announced unilateral changes in the enforcement of immigration law that will essentially create renewable (and therefore effectively permanent) residency and work rights for  5 million illegals. There have been, and will be, many blogposts on this site discussing the procedural and Constitutional problems with the president’s approach. For now, I want to concentrate on the logic of the president’s own speech. Simply put, the president offers no explanation for why he is ordering these changes only for 5 million of the nearly 12 million illegals in the United States. Everything he said in his speech about the value of immigrants, and the need to show kindness to the stranger, ought in theory to apply to any illegal but a criminal. But Obama has limited its reach to people who have been here for several years and have children who are American citizens. This means either his arguments are disingenuous, or he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions, or he’s calibrating his responses to satisfy a political constituency without causing a wholesale eruption inside the country. Or all three.

Tonight, the president announced unilateral changes in the enforcement of immigration law that will essentially create renewable (and therefore effectively permanent) residency and work rights for  5 million illegals. There have been, and will be, many blogposts on this site discussing the procedural and Constitutional problems with the president’s approach. For now, I want to concentrate on the logic of the president’s own speech. Simply put, the president offers no explanation for why he is ordering these changes only for 5 million of the nearly 12 million illegals in the United States. Everything he said in his speech about the value of immigrants, and the need to show kindness to the stranger, ought in theory to apply to any illegal but a criminal. But Obama has limited its reach to people who have been here for several years and have children who are American citizens. This means either his arguments are disingenuous, or he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions, or he’s calibrating his responses to satisfy a political constituency without causing a wholesale eruption inside the country. Or all three.

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From Our October Issue: “Obama’s Con Law”

If you want to understand what’s happening with the president’s behavior on the immigration issue and the 40 years of law theory leading up to it, you should read David Bernstein’s article from our October issue called “Obama’s Con Law.” Here’s the link.

If you want to understand what’s happening with the president’s behavior on the immigration issue and the 40 years of law theory leading up to it, you should read David Bernstein’s article from our October issue called “Obama’s Con Law.” Here’s the link.

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Did Obama Unite the GOP on Immigration?

Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen provided a moment of levity at a Secret Service hearing yesterday when he suggested that a moat might make a good upgrade for White House security. He backtracked today, saying he didn’t mean a moat-moat, just a water barrier of some sort. But the timing, as President Obama was feeling his monarchical oats, was impeccable. Indeed, this president’s preference for the authority of an elected kingship shows how Obama may have misjudged the Republican reaction to executive amnesty.

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Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen provided a moment of levity at a Secret Service hearing yesterday when he suggested that a moat might make a good upgrade for White House security. He backtracked today, saying he didn’t mean a moat-moat, just a water barrier of some sort. But the timing, as President Obama was feeling his monarchical oats, was impeccable. Indeed, this president’s preference for the authority of an elected kingship shows how Obama may have misjudged the Republican reaction to executive amnesty.

In the past, Obama has been fairly skilled in dividing Republicans against themselves, especially on the issue of immigration. And one might have expected something similar this time as well. Republicans are not, after all, of one mind in how to respond to the executive action he plans to announce tonight. Obama has twice scuttled immigration reform, once as senator and prospective presidential candidate and once as president as well, because the issue was thought to hurt Republicans with Hispanic voters.

The issue also seemed to weaken the Republican presidential fields. In 2012 Rick Perry stumbled badly over an immigration question at a primary debate and never really recovered. And for 2016, prospective candidates found themselves on different sides of the issue: Marco Rubio helped get comprehensive immigration reform through the Senate, Rand Paul wavered but ultimately voted against it, and Ted Cruz was opposed.

That, and the fact that reform died in the House anyway, was a setback for Rubio. The Florida senator had since recovered some of his earlier momentum thanks in part to the president’s vast array of foreign-policy blunders, and the president’s executive amnesty is likely to help the two GOP rising stars who voted for immigration reform last year: Rubio and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte.

Immigration hawks will still remember their votes for the reform bill. But the president’s actions do two things that will help them. First, it removes some of the fear the grassroots might have in what action a hypothetical President Rubio might take on immigration. That is, if amnesty is already done, then the only things that are left are issues that Republicans tend to broadly agree on, such as border security.

It’s true that comprehensive immigration reform was unlikely to pass the House in the near future anyway, but Obama has essentially taken the part of it that conservatives like the least off the table. There’s no looming threat of amnesty; it’s here. Having already supported immigration reform, Rubio will get some credit from Hispanic voters. But will his opposition to executive amnesty lose them?

That’s where the second aspect of Obama’s miscalculation comes in. By making such an obvious power grab, he has made opposition to his actions intellectually much simpler. The words “king” and “emperor” have been thrown around; Ted Cruz even referenced Cicero’s First Oration Against Catiline today, as if Obama would even know who that is:

“When, President Obama, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end to that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?” he said, using the beginning of Cicero’s First Oration Against Catiline.

Even Democrats seem to have no idea how to explain how the executive amnesty is legal.

Which is to say: it’s very easy to criticize this move without attacking immigrants–though the media, surely, will attempt to conflate the two. And doing so also enables Republican candidates to come out strongly against Obama’s power grabs more generally, and his immigration actions specifically, to a conservative audience in the same way they would do so to a general-election audience, without having to flip-flop or triangulate.

Obama has been criticized for this power grab by even traditionally supportive left-leaning media, such as the Washington Post and the Economist, because of the precedent it would set and the left’s fear of reprisals. This debate isn’t about the policy anymore, and anyone who pretends otherwise is selling something. Obama has given even supporters of immigration reform a way to oppose amnesty without opposing immigration in itself.

Obama has made the conversation about the damage this act would do to American democracy. That’s very comfortable terrain for Republicans, who are thus far more united on this issue than they would otherwise be.

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No Moral Equivalence for Synagogue Terror

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s terror attack in Jerusalem in which two Palestinian terrorists slaughtered four Jews in a synagogue, the international media was forced to change, at least for a day or two, their consistent narrative about the Middle East conflict which centered on alleged Israeli misbehavior rather than the reality of Palestinian intransigence, incitement, and violence. But even under these egregious circumstances, mainstream journalists sought to establish a flimsy moral equivalence between this atrocity and what they sought to claim were comparable Israeli outrages conducted against Muslims. An example of this came in the analysis by the New York Times’s Jodi Rudoren who asserted, “Jewish vandalism against mosques is a regular occurrence.” But while such regrettable instances have occurred, they are not “regular” and pale in comparison to the toll of Arab terrorism directed at Jewish targets.

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In the aftermath of Tuesday’s terror attack in Jerusalem in which two Palestinian terrorists slaughtered four Jews in a synagogue, the international media was forced to change, at least for a day or two, their consistent narrative about the Middle East conflict which centered on alleged Israeli misbehavior rather than the reality of Palestinian intransigence, incitement, and violence. But even under these egregious circumstances, mainstream journalists sought to establish a flimsy moral equivalence between this atrocity and what they sought to claim were comparable Israeli outrages conducted against Muslims. An example of this came in the analysis by the New York Times’s Jodi Rudoren who asserted, “Jewish vandalism against mosques is a regular occurrence.” But while such regrettable instances have occurred, they are not “regular” and pale in comparison to the toll of Arab terrorism directed at Jewish targets.

While much is made in both the Israeli and international media about “price tag” attacks from Israelis, especially West Bank settlers, against Arabs, an Internet listing of all such attacks in the last seven years yields approximately 20 such vandalism incidents against mosques. While each one deserves condemnation and punishment for the perpetrators, an average of two or three a year hardly counts as an epidemic. That is especially true when the same vilified West Bank settlers suffer daily attacks on their persons and property including deadly instances of terrorism as well as mere graffiti or arson. These attacks are so common that they rarely merit news coverage even in Israel, let alone the foreign press.

Among the attacks on Jewish targets in the West Bank was the burning of a historic Jewish synagogue in Jericho and the sack of the synagogue at the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus in 2000 at the start of the second intifada. During that assault a Muslim mob assisted by Palestinian Authority policemen desecrated sacred Jewish objects and then burned the building to the ground. Rudoren felt no need to mention these incidents in her attempt to provide historical context for this week’s terror attack.

Yet she did cite the 1994 murder of 29 Muslim worshippers by Baruch Goldstein as an example of how Jews have also committed terror. But that example actually tells us more about the lack of moral equivalence than anything else.

It should be remembered that Goldstein’s insane murder spree was condemned not only by the Israeli government but was widely condemned by a consensus of Israeli society. Goldstein’s act was considered a blot on the honor of the Jewish people by all but a few mad extremists on the far right. Just as important, it resulted in the banning by the Israeli government of Kach, the group of radical followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane.

By contrast, Palestinian society embraced the two synagogue murderers as heroes this week. Their act of barbarism was celebrated in the streets of Palestinian cities and endorsed by members of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah Party (though, forced by Secretary of State John Kerry, Abbas issued a condemnation) as well as their Hamas rivals. This is hardly surprising since Abbas had praised recent terror attacks on Jews by Palestinians and even said one who attempted to murder a Jewish activist was a “martyr” who went straight to heaven. Moreover, Goldstein’s murders still stand as one of the few examples of anti-Arab terrorism while attacks on Jews in the 20 years since his crime are almost too numerous to count.

The point here is not to excuse or rationalize any violence against Muslims, acts that are committed by only tiny minority and which almost all Israelis rightly condemn. It is to note that violence against Jews is considered praiseworthy by mainstream Palestinian culture. Seeking to treat such acts as if they are merely the other side of the coin from Jewish crimes isn’t merely a distortion of the facts, it is a willful attempt to obfuscate the truth about a conflict in which only one side is committed to the destruction of the other.

As I wrote yesterday, the cycle of violence in the Middle East is fed by a political culture that treats the war on Jews and Zionism as inextricably linked to Palestinian national identity. No amount of false moral equivalence by Rudoren or any other Western reporter can alter the fact that until that changes, we will continue to see more such attacks on Jews. Until the West and its media stops treating the Palestinian commitment to violence as somehow the fault of Israeli misbehavior or no different than isolated acts committed by Israelis, the Palestinians won’t get the message that this has to end if peace is to ever be achieved.

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Pro-Palestinian, Pro-Peace, and Fading Fast

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the two-state solution in particular, is more than just a strategy. To some, as Aaron David Miller and others have written, it is a religion in itself. To others, such as Arab states in the Middle East, it is an excuse. To still others, like UNRWA, it is a self-enrichment scheme designed to perpetuate the conflict. But to nearly everyone, it is, at its most basic level, a market–for ideas, for products, for influence. And as some organizations are finding out now, the bungling of the peace process, such as that done by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, is bad for business.

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The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the two-state solution in particular, is more than just a strategy. To some, as Aaron David Miller and others have written, it is a religion in itself. To others, such as Arab states in the Middle East, it is an excuse. To still others, like UNRWA, it is a self-enrichment scheme designed to perpetuate the conflict. But to nearly everyone, it is, at its most basic level, a market–for ideas, for products, for influence. And as some organizations are finding out now, the bungling of the peace process, such as that done by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, is bad for business.

BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray documents the travails of one such group: the American Task Force on Palestine. It was founded in 2003, she notes, to advocate for Palestinian statehood among policymakers. It was self-consciously moderate, attracting political figures (like then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) to its events and associating itself with Palestinian figures like former prime minister Salam Fayyad, a moderate technocrat who hoped to crack down on corruption and bad governance and was driven out of Palestinian politics for his efforts.

Though the group wasn’t awash in money, things were going fairly well for a while, Gray writes. Indeed, though Gray doesn’t go into the political developments in the U.S. during ATFP’s rise, they are significant. George W. Bush publicly pushed for the creation of a Palestinian state early on in his presidency, giving renewed momentum to the idea of two states for two peoples. The Bush administration’s progress included giving Ariel Sharon the support he needed (later rescinded by Barack Obama in a damaging blow to hopes for peace) to withdraw from the entire Gaza Strip and set the stage for even more territorial concessions. By the end of the Bush administration, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was presenting a map and a generous offer of a deal to Mahmoud Abbas.

That’s when the backsliding began, as Abbas walked away from the offer without making a counteroffer. Then Obama came to office and began to dismantle the progress all sides had worked to achieve. Obama and Kerry, the arsonists of the ongoing blaze in Israel and the Palestinian territories, pushed the two sides farther apart, alienated everyone involved, and sided against not just Israel but also the Palestinian Authority whenever Hamas’s interests were at stake. The process, not exactly on the brink of success to begin with, collapsed.

So what happens to groups like the American Task Force on Palestine when the process is at a low ebb? Gray explains:

But things changed for ATFP this year. This summer’s war between Israel and Hamas and the breakdown of U.S.-mediated peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians aiming to broker a two-state solution, which is core to ATFP’s mission, have proven to be a toxic combination to the nonprofit. The group has decided to cancel its annual gala this year, which usually brings in half of its annual fundraising. And its founder says it will have to cut staff and office space. ATFP’s situation is a casualty of a larger shift: The hope for a two-state solution, which is official U.S. policy and regarded by the establishment as the only legitimate way to end the conflict, is running out of steam, causing a major existential crisis for some of those most dedicated to it.

There’s more than mere symbolism in what this says about the peace process. On a practical level, it shows that relying on the two-state solution as your raison d’être is a poor business model. The American government can afford for John Kerry to toss a match onto the Mideast tinderbox and walk away; private organizations, not so much.

On a political level, it shows the damage for a pro-Palestinian organization to align itself with moderate elements. With regard to the Palestinian polity, this means people like Fayyad, who represented a genuine desire for positive change and the willingness to do the hard work of state building. He was the only one, unfortunately.

It would be one thing if Fayyad had been forced to make only incremental change slowly so as not to rock the boat too much. Instead the system treated him like a virus, seeking to neutralize and then expel him. Which is exactly what happened. When moderate elements are not even tolerated, there’s not much room for a two-state solution or its supporters.

And domestically, it also says much about the hate and intolerance of the Palestinians’ Western supporters. Here’s Gray talking to ATFP’s president on what it’s like to be seen as a collaborator with the enemy merely for talking to Jews:

“That is part of the problem with raising money,” Asali said. “The mere fact that we talk to the Israelis publicly, here and in Israel, and to the Jewish organized and non-organized community has presented a major obstacle in our communication with our community.”

“We are for dealing with the establishment that deals with Palestine and Israel,” he said. “Which means by necessity that at least half of it would be Jewish or Israeli.”

Precisely. You can’t have a negotiating process leading to a two-state solution if you won’t deal with one side. Which raises the unfortunate fact: a great many of the Palestinians’ supporters and allies don’t actually want a two-state solution. They are not invested in real peace or ending the conflict; they are invested in ending Israel.

It’s tempting to say “with friends like these…” but that misses the point. The Palestinians’ supporters are not unintentionally undermining them with their hate. They are taking their cues from the Palestinian government. Those who support the Palestinians but also want peace and a two-state solution are few in number, and dwindling still.

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The Dubious Embrace of Palestinian Unilateralism

A new craze is sweeping European politics: Palestinian unilateralism. One by one Europe’s parliaments and governments are choosing to endorse recognition of Palestinian statehood outside of any peace process with Israel. In doing so these democratic assemblies are sabotaging the very peaceful two-state outcome that they claim to believe in. And yet for many of those driving these moves, although they may talk the language of peace, this is now becoming about something quite different. It is not so much ending the conflict that appears to be galvanizing these parliamentary resolutions, but rather a completely warped notion of “justice.” Realizing the obsession of Palestinian statehood is the goal, regardless of whether it brings peace or not.

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A new craze is sweeping European politics: Palestinian unilateralism. One by one Europe’s parliaments and governments are choosing to endorse recognition of Palestinian statehood outside of any peace process with Israel. In doing so these democratic assemblies are sabotaging the very peaceful two-state outcome that they claim to believe in. And yet for many of those driving these moves, although they may talk the language of peace, this is now becoming about something quite different. It is not so much ending the conflict that appears to be galvanizing these parliamentary resolutions, but rather a completely warped notion of “justice.” Realizing the obsession of Palestinian statehood is the goal, regardless of whether it brings peace or not.

Just this week the Spanish parliament voted in favor of such a move advocating recognition of Palestinian statehood, with 319 parliamentarians supporting the motion and just two opposing, and one abstention. Similar votes have already passed the British and Irish parliaments and the French are to have an equivalent vote at the end of the month. In these countries the parliamentary motions in question have been non-binding on the governments, although the French president already appeared to express support for backing unilateral Palestinian moves at the Security Council. The Swedish government, meanwhile, officially recognized Palestinian statehood back in October.

For anyone genuinely committed to a peaceful two-state outcome it should be plain enough to see that such votes can only hinder attempts to achieve a meaningful resolution of this conflict. Quite apart from the fact that these purely symbolic resolutions do nothing material to make Palestinian statehood a reality, they actually make reaching a two-state agreement still less likely. After all, the reasoning behind the two-state process was that the Palestinians would receive sovereignty in return for committing to safeguard Israel’s security. But if Palestinians are led to believe that ultimately the world will intervene to force their state into being, then all incentive to reach an agreement with Israel is nullified.

By supporting Palestinian unilateralism European countries threaten to wreck the possibility of the very land for peace agreement that they themselves have repeatedly insisted they wish to be the guarantors of. Because when it comes to land for peace they are telling the Palestinians that they can now get the former without having to give the latter in return. What Europe’s parliamentary assemblies are conspiring to create is a two-state non-solution in which conceivably a Palestinian state might be made a reality, but the conflict would only continue, and in all likelihood intensify.

The problem is that Israel and many of her supporters have in fact unwittingly laid the groundwork for such an outcome. Since the advent of Oslo, Israel has been embarking on a peace process that hasn’t brought it any closer to peace, but has gradually eroded its claim to much of the territory it holds and with that its international standing. The eagerness to end the conflict with the Palestinians by establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank has led Israel to surrender its claim to these territories, so inadvertently accepting the role as an illegitimate occupier of Palestinian land. As such, for the rest of the world creating a Palestinian state is becoming less and less about achieving peace and more and more about winning “justice” for the Palestinians.

After all, European lawmakers can hardly have failed to notice the way things have been going. Quite the opposite. Not only are they well aware that twenty years of negotiations have gone nowhere, but they must also have noticed that far from Israel’s territorial concessions advancing peace, these moves have only assisted Palestinian militants in waging war and in the process getting as many of their own people killed as possible. And yet Europe’s politicians don’t seem to care.

Another thing that they can’t have missed, and don’t seem to care about, is what Palestinians have actually done with sovereignty when they’ve achieved it. The brutal theocratic despotism of Hamas in Gaza cuts a pretty chilling impression of what life might be like in a Palestinian state of the future. Yet equally Mahmoud Abbas’s semi-autonomous polity in the West Bank is not only deeply undemocratic, it is also viciously oppressive of its own Palestinian population. And what’s more, rather than use this opportunity for nation building, Abbas and his gang have instead channeled their energies into endless incitement against Israel, the consequences of which we are only now beginning to see borne out with incidents such as this week’s horrific synagogue attack in Jerusalem. As Ruthie Blum pointed out in her recent Israel Hayom column, the way is being paved for Islamic State in Israel.

If European parliamentarians really cared about making peace through two states a reality then they would be doing everything to make it clear to Palestinians that intransigence, incitement, and violence will get them nowhere. Yet having lost interest in such tiresome matters as security and stability for Israelis and Palestinians, Europe’s politicians prefer to champion an abstract notion of “justice,” no matter how many people get hurt along the way.

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