Commentary Magazine


Abbas’s Palestine is the Real Apartheid State

In recent weeks, critics of Israel have been crying foul over the fact that Jews have moved into some apartments in East Jerusalem neighborhoods. The fact that the homes were legally purchased and that the new residents were merely attempting to reside in the country’s as yet undivided capital was seen as irrelevant since the presence of Jews in Arab majority areas is considered to be an obstacle to a potential partition of the city should a peace agreement with the Palestinians ever be signed. But even if we were to concede that such moves do infuriate Arabs, surely no one, not even Israel’s most adamant opponents, would be comfortable with laws that banned the presence of Jews in parts of Jerusalem or anywhere else. Right? Wrong.

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In recent weeks, critics of Israel have been crying foul over the fact that Jews have moved into some apartments in East Jerusalem neighborhoods. The fact that the homes were legally purchased and that the new residents were merely attempting to reside in the country’s as yet undivided capital was seen as irrelevant since the presence of Jews in Arab majority areas is considered to be an obstacle to a potential partition of the city should a peace agreement with the Palestinians ever be signed. But even if we were to concede that such moves do infuriate Arabs, surely no one, not even Israel’s most adamant opponents, would be comfortable with laws that banned the presence of Jews in parts of Jerusalem or anywhere else. Right? Wrong.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas reacted to the fact that Jews have bought homes from Palestinians in parts of Jerusalem by vowing to toughen existing PA laws that forbid such sales. Yes, that’s right. In “Palestine” — be it the existing PA or Hamas states or the future independent Palestinian state that Europe is so eager to recognize even without it having to make peace with Israel — it is against the law to sell land or a home to a Jew.

The question of whether Jews should move into majority Arab neighborhoods or towns is a question of judgment. Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected any peace deal that would give them an independent state and a share of Jerusalem since it would require them to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. It is possible to argue that the two communities are better off living separately. But voluntary separation is one thing, legal restrictions on the right of Jews to live in some areas is something very different.

After all, in the state of Israel, which is routinely and falsely accused of being an “apartheid state,” Arabs may live where they please. When some areas have tried to restrict sales of property to Arabs, Israel’s courts have ruled that this is inconsistent with the principles enunciated in the country’s basic laws. While Israel is not a perfect society and the Arab minority faces challenges that are often rooted in the century-old war over the land, the principle of equality before the law for all citizens is upheld.

But in “Palestine,” not only are there no courts or government to prevent individuals or groups from discriminating, there it is the government that both promulgates and ruthlessly enforces such bias.

As the Times of Israel reports:

According to the official Palestinian Wafa news agency, Abbas on Monday imposed a sentence of hard labor for life on “anyone diverting, renting or selling land to an enemy state or one of its subjects.”

Jordan’s penal code number 16 article 114, applicable in the Palestinian territories, previously subscribed “temporary hard labor” to perpetrators of the crime.

In practice, this means Jews may not buy, rent or sell land. In other words, should the state of Palestine that sits in the United Nations ever become a real sovereign country it will be the apartheid state, not democratic Israel.

The purpose of such laws is to thwart the Zionist enterprise by which Jews have returned to their ancient homeland by legally purchasing land. But the motivating factor here is Jew hatred. Should Palestine ever become a reality, the neighborhoods where Jews have bought homes would be part of it. At that point these few Jews would be no threat to the Arab majority. But the Palestinian vision of statehood remains one in which Israel would be a country where Jews and Arabs live while Palestine will be a Judenrein — Jew free entity.

The point here is that peace is possible if both sides are prepared to compromise and recognize each other’s legitimacy. But the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority of Abbas, that both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry constantly praise as a true peace partner for Israel, is not only not interested in compromising. It is also promulgating and attempting to enforce laws that are based in anti-Semitic incitement. Were Israel to ban Arabs from moving into homes they owned in West Jerusalem, it would prompt an international outcry and condemnations from the United States. But instead America condemns Jews who move into Arab neighborhoods and stays silent when Abbas seeks to treat those who sell to Jews as criminals.

Instead of the Jewish home buying in Jerusalem being an obstacle to peace as Israel’s critics claim, it is the Arab attempt to criminalize selling to a Jew that best illustrates why peace is not yet possible.

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Tom Steyer and the Right to Free Speech

Democrats have spent much of the last year trying to fuel outrage about the efforts of what they claim is nothing less than a plot by rich conservatives to purchase American democracy. At the center of that campaign is an effort to demonize the Koch brothers with a secondary role being played by Sheldon Adelson. But, as the New York Times reports today, liberal environmentalist Tom Steyer has now exceeded Adelson as the country’s largest donor to Super PACs with at least $55 million dollars donated in the last year to help defeat Republicans in the 2014 midterms. While Steyer is within his rights to spend his money as he likes, his move into first place in the Super PAC rankings effectively demonstrates not only the hypocrisy of attacks on the Kochs but the disingenuous nature of the Democrats’ claim that the GOP is buying the election.

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Democrats have spent much of the last year trying to fuel outrage about the efforts of what they claim is nothing less than a plot by rich conservatives to purchase American democracy. At the center of that campaign is an effort to demonize the Koch brothers with a secondary role being played by Sheldon Adelson. But, as the New York Times reports today, liberal environmentalist Tom Steyer has now exceeded Adelson as the country’s largest donor to Super PACs with at least $55 million dollars donated in the last year to help defeat Republicans in the 2014 midterms. While Steyer is within his rights to spend his money as he likes, his move into first place in the Super PAC rankings effectively demonstrates not only the hypocrisy of attacks on the Kochs but the disingenuous nature of the Democrats’ claim that the GOP is buying the election.

Though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has made the libertarian Koch brothers the centerpiece of his and other Democratic efforts to portray the conservative and Tea Party pushback against the Obama administration’s big-government agenda as nothing less than an “anti-American” conspiracy to defraud the republic, Steyer’s efforts and those of many other wealthy liberals give the lie to these claims. Steyer has been pouring money into Democratic campaigns like it was water in the last few months. Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action Committee reported yesterday that it had received $15 million from the billionaire that it, in turn, is distributing to Democrats in battleground races. He also gave $15 million in August.

Democrats say Steyer’s efforts shouldn’t be lumped in with those of the Kochs because the latter are venal while he is principled (though Reid exempts Adelson from his critique so as to avoid his Nevada resident aiming his considerable fortune at his own career). But this is nothing short of slander. As they have consistently demonstrated over the years, the Kochs’ belief in libertarian principles is no less rooted in ideology than Steyer’s belief that the world is melting and must be saved from global warming. Moreover, Koch Industries are so diversified that it is almost impossible to make a coherent argument that any measures they support are likely to make more money for them than they could lose. Moreover, the list of prominent Democratic donors that made money off of crony capitalist “green” deals with the government—of which the Solyndra scam was just the most prominent—undermines any notion that one party has cleaner hands than the other with respect to fundraising.

Liberals also contend that talk about Democratic hypocrisy on campaign finance is silly because it is wrong to ask one party to unilaterally disarm in a tough fight when the other side is deploying major donors who are willing to give millions to advance their cause. They have a point. But what they miss about all this is that their constant complaints about the supposedly disastrous impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is that the bipartisan billionaire competition shows the system is working as it should.

Liberals think even more restrictive campaign-finance laws that would limit the ability of Americans to express their opinions would better serve the country. But that would mean less political speech and less debate about issues and candidates. That would make the mainstream media—to which such restrictions would not apply—even more powerful. It would also help incumbents who are better placed to attract publicity in an environment where challengers would be hard placed to raise enough money to get noticed. Outsiders on both the left and the right would have trouble making their voices heard. But that wouldn’t make the system more democratic.

While many people profess to be disgusted by the importance of money in politics, these scruples ignore the fact that money has, and always will, play a role in elections. The only question is whether we will have laws that protect the right of all Americans to exercise their right to political speech or if we will create one in which a liberal establishment that dominates the media can game the system. Both liberals and conservatives have benefited from Citizens United; the only difference is that liberal big donors pretend to be disgusted by the freedom they are afforded. Steyer’s ideas have as much right to be heard as those of the Kochs or those of the New York Times editorial page. The push to shut down political speech is a thinly veiled effort to manipulate the system. And that is a lot worse than hypocrisy.

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Gay Marriage and the Myth of Progressive American Secularism

Over the last few days a story has made the rounds about the state of Idaho coercing pastors into officiating same-sex weddings or risk a fine and jail time. The story has changed a bit, but its disturbing core remains. And there’s an aspect to this scandal that shows what’s been missing from our debate over the thought police’s consistent targeting of religious believers.

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Over the last few days a story has made the rounds about the state of Idaho coercing pastors into officiating same-sex weddings or risk a fine and jail time. The story has changed a bit, but its disturbing core remains. And there’s an aspect to this scandal that shows what’s been missing from our debate over the thought police’s consistent targeting of religious believers.

On Saturday, the faith group Alliance Defending Freedom posted a press release about the Knapps, a married couple both of whom are ordained ministers. The Knapps own and run the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The state recently passed an anti-discrimination law that applies to the state’s businesses. Hitching Post is a for-profit chapel. Thus, according to state officials, the law plainly applies without exception to the Knapps.

The ADF press release was a bit ahead of itself. “Officials threaten to punish senior citizen couple – both ordained pastors – if they decline to officiate same-sex ceremonies,” it said up top. But the threat, really, was as-yet implied. The state did, however, confirm that the law applies to the Knapps, and the Knapps have since refused to perform a wedding ceremony for a same-sex couple. The clock, then, is ticking–though as of Monday the Knapps had not been charged. They are suing the state to ensure they won’t be, by asking a federal judge to bar enforcement.

Over at the Federalist, Robert Tracinski makes an astute observation:

No one ever expects the Secular Inquisition.

Except that we actually did expect it. In fact, it’s inherent in the fundamental basis of the left’s arguments for gay marriage.

Tracinski has no objection to gay marriage, and in fact considers himself “an advocate of secularism—including secular morality and a secular basis for liberty.” He therefore opposes coercing couples like the Knapps because he doesn’t want his “views similarly discredited by association with the oppressive acts of a new Secular Inquisition.” When he says “similarly discredited,” he is referring to the fact that the Spanish Inquisition “served to discredit religion by associating it with brutality.”

Perhaps. But there’s another way of thinking about this: we should operate under the assumption that there is no secular party in this drama at all.

On October 1, Mosaic Magazine republished Irving Kristol’s 1991 COMMENTARY essay on “The Future of American Jewry.” (Mosaic has just published an e-book of Kristol’s writings on Judaism.) It is a trenchant–and just as relevant today as it was then–take on American Judaism and its entanglement with secular humanism.

About the emergence of the “American creed” of toleration mixed with relegating religion in America to a more private role, Kristol wrote:

Historians call this phase of our intellectual history, now more than a century old, “secularization,” and they point to analogous developments in other lands to sustain the thesis that secularization is an integral part of modernization. It is impossible to argue with this thesis, for which the evidence is overwhelming. But it is possible and legitimate to question the explanatory power of the concept of secularization. Something important happened, that is certain. Secularization is doubtless as good a shorthand term as any to describe what happened. It is not, however, a useful concept if one wishes to explain what happened. For what we call secularization is an idea that only makes sense from a point of view that regards traditional religions as survivals that can, at best, be adapted to a nonreligious society.

Instead, he explained, in what might be the single best one-paragraph précis of left-liberalism then and now:

When we look at secularization without an ideological parti pris, we can fairly—and, I would suggest, more accurately—describe it as the victory of a new, emergent religious impulse over the traditional biblical religions that formed the framework of Western civilization. Nor is there any mystery as to the identity of this new religious impulse. It is named, fairly and accurately, secular humanism. Merely because it incorporates the word “secular” in its self-identification does not mean that it cannot be seriously viewed as a competitive religion—though its adherents resent and resist any such ascription. Such resentment and resistance are, of course, a natural consequence of seeing the human world through “secularist” spectacles. Because secular humanism has, from the very beginning, incorporated the modern scientific view of the universe, it has always felt itself—and today still feels itself—“liberated” from any kind of religious perspective. But secular humanism is more than science, because it proceeds to make all kinds of inferences about the human condition and human possibilities that are not, in any authentic sense, scientific. Those inferences are metaphysical, and in the end theological.

Kristol wrote that in 1991, but in some ways was ahead of his time. Seventeen years later the Democratic Party nominated for president a man who appealed directly to the left’s religious zealotry by painting himself as a progressive prophet and redeemer. Announcing that his looming nomination victory “was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” is the language of a religious fanatic, which Obama is and which his followers are as well.

And this is a religious country. Obama won, after all, promising various forms of redemption to his supporters. But the Obama phenomenon was only possible because the demand for such a false prophet existed in the first place. In fact, anyone who has observed American politics and religious discourse in recent years will be aware that when it comes to evangelism, those professing to be godless or secular or progressive are the most thorough. (For a clever take on this, watch Portlandia’s hipster version of door-knocking missionaries. Example: approaching Seattle residents with the line, “We were wondering if you were interested in accepting Portland into your life.”)

Atheists have begun to bring that spirit to life. Last year, the Associated Press detailed the rise of “atheist mega-churches” around the world. (Complete with “Born Again Humanist” bumper stickers.) That movement inspired a column in (where else?) the Guardian railing against the idea of a church for nonbelievers. As the column’s author Sadhbh Walshe, a devout nonbeliever, wrote:

I would have thought the message of atheism (if there needs to be one) is that churches and ritualized worship (whatever the focus of that worship might be) are best left to the people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives.

Ah, but Walshe is right! The trappings of religion are for “people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives.” And that is, it appears, most people. Especially in Western countries with religious heritage but aggressive and modern nihilistic instincts. The “secular” left needs a God figure just as much as the religious right. The difference is that the religious right eschews Inquisitions, and the left is just learning how effective they can be. Just ask the Knapps.

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Congress Can Stop Obama’s Iran Appeasement End Run

While most of the attention on the Iran nuclear issue has rightly been on the negotiations being conducted by the U.S. and its allies with Tehran, the Obama administration is already planning for the aftermath of what it hopes will be a new agreement. But rather than preparing for an effort to persuade Congress of the merits of its diplomatic efforts, the president is planning on an end run around the laws it passed and unilaterally suspending enforcement of the sanctions on Iran. In doing so, he will not only be continuing a path he has pursued on issues such as immigration but will go even further in violating the constitutional requirement that the legislative branch approve all treaties with foreign powers.

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While most of the attention on the Iran nuclear issue has rightly been on the negotiations being conducted by the U.S. and its allies with Tehran, the Obama administration is already planning for the aftermath of what it hopes will be a new agreement. But rather than preparing for an effort to persuade Congress of the merits of its diplomatic efforts, the president is planning on an end run around the laws it passed and unilaterally suspending enforcement of the sanctions on Iran. In doing so, he will not only be continuing a path he has pursued on issues such as immigration but will go even further in violating the constitutional requirement that the legislative branch approve all treaties with foreign powers.

The president’s problem isn’t limited to the fact that many Americans are rightly worried that the deal in the works with Iran is one that won’t do much to prevent the Islamist regime from eventually realizing its nuclear ambition. It’s that the economic sanctions that were imposed on Iran by laws enacted by Congress must be rescinded in the same manner that they were passed: by a vote. If the agreement that the U.S. is pushing hard to conclude with Iran is a good one, then the president and Secretary of State John Kerry should have no problem selling it to Congress, which could then simply vote to rescind the sanctions.

But such a vote would require hearings and a full debate on the matter. During the course of that debate, it almost certainly would become clear that what the administration is prepared to allow Iran would fall far short of the president’s campaign pledges to end Tehran’s nuclear program or to prevent it from ever getting a bomb. The administration has already publicly floated some of the terms it is offering the Iranians. While last year’s weak interim deal tacitly endorsed Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium that could be used for a weapon, the U.S. has retreated further from its initial tough position and is now prepared to allow the Iranians to have at least 1,000 centrifuges that could process the material to build nuclear fuel. Since the Iranians are insisting with their usual persistence that they be allowed to keep all of their centrifuges, most observers now assume that the U.S. will agree to a deal that will allow them to have thousands.

In order to save face, American negotiators have reportedly suggested that the pipes connecting the centrifuges be disconnected, a pathetic stance that further undermines American credibility since it is understood that they can easily be reconnected anytime the ayatollahs deem it in their interest. The same can be said of Iran’s agreement to deactivate its existing stockpile of enriched uranium since that too can be reversed with ease.

Seen in that light any agreement—assuming the Iranians are willing to agree to another weak deal rather than simply waiting until the international coalition Obama is leading unravels—will be difficult to sell to a skeptical Congress that pushed an unwilling administration into agreeing to the sanctions in the first place.

In order to evade the law, the president will have to do two things.

First, he will have to declare that any agreement will be merely an informal add-on to existing international deals rather than a treaty and so avoid a constitutionally required two-thirds ratification vote in the Senate he’d be unlikely to win. That will be a blatant lie but since the move would have to be taken to court, it’s a gamble he’d likely win.

Second, he will have to unilaterally suspend enforcement of the sanctions on Iran passed by Congress rather than have them rescinded. As even the New York Times notes in its article on the topic yesterday, that is not a stance even most Democrats would tolerate.

More to the point, the president’s prepared end run also signals the resumption of a political battle over renewed sanctions that the administration thought it had conclusively won last winter. At the time, majorities in the House and the Senate were prepared to enact even tougher restrictions on commerce with Iran that would have tightened the noose on Tehran’s oil business. But, with the able assistance of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the president was able to stop the Senate from voting on the measure proposed by Senator Robert Menendez, the Foreign Relations Committee chair and Senator Mark Kirk. Supporters of more sanctions (which would not have gone into effect until the next phase of negotiations with Iran was pronounced a failure) were branded “warmongers” who didn’t want to give diplomacy a chance and thus effectively silenced.

But this time that strategy won’t work.

After a year of talks that have been dragged beyond the original six-month deadline and may yet be further extended as Iran continues its decade-old strategy of running out the clock on the West, it is no longer possible to argue that Obama needs to be given an opportunity to test the good will of the Iranians. Nor can the president pretend that the current terms are anything but a transparent surrender to Iranian demands and not a fulfillment of his pledges.

That’s why Menendez is prepared to try again this fall when Congress returns to Washington after the midterm elections. As the Times reports:

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat, said over the weekend that, “If a potential deal does not substantially and effectively dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, I expect Congress will respond. An agreement cannot allow Iran to be a threshold nuclear state.” He has sponsored legislation to tighten sanctions if no agreement is reached by Nov. 24.

If that weren’t enough of a threat to force the administration to stiffen its spin in negotiations with Iran, there is also the real possibility that in January the president will not be able to rely on Reid to spike sanctions legislation. If, as they are favored to do, the Republicans take control of the Senate, it is highly likely that Obama will find himself presented with new sanctions legislation on his desk in the new year whether or not he has signed off on a deal with Iran.

This is a crucial moment in the negotiations with Iran when the outcome is not yet determined. Unfortunately, the president’s efforts to loosen sanctions have already undermined international support for isolating Iran. With the possibility of a new deal, they are on the verge of complete collapse. But renewed and even tougher sanctions on Iran will signal to Europe that their expectations of a return to business as usual with Iran were a bit premature.

While the president thinks he can evade his constitutional requirements to let Congress vote on a treaty or rescind another law he doesn’t like, members of both parties appear ready to respond appropriately to this lawless plan. Unlike environmental regulations or even immigration laws, appeasement of Iran isn’t something that can be imposed on the country by presidential whim.

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The Anti-ISIS Campaign’s Long Road Ahead

In recent days there has been some incremental progress against ISIS. Turkey has finally given agreement to allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its territory to help the embattled town of Kobani, while the U.S. has airdropped some weapons and supplies to Kobani’s defenders. ISIS is making a major push toward Kobani but it is no longer in imminent danger of falling, which it appeared to be only a few days ago.

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In recent days there has been some incremental progress against ISIS. Turkey has finally given agreement to allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its territory to help the embattled town of Kobani, while the U.S. has airdropped some weapons and supplies to Kobani’s defenders. ISIS is making a major push toward Kobani but it is no longer in imminent danger of falling, which it appeared to be only a few days ago.

But not all the news is good. Indeed ISIS continues to push forward in Anbar Province as well as in northern Iraq. It is on the outskirts of Baghdad and it is renewing its offensive against the Iraqi Yazidis and Kurds, while also setting off numerous car bombs and suicide bombs targeting Shiites.

And the U.S. response? It continues to be anemic as this article in Military Times points out. While the Department of Defense is authorized to put 1,600 troops into Iraq–itself an inadequate figure–only 1,400 have been deployed. Only 12 Special Forces teams have been deployed and then only at the brigade level. That means that “less than half of the 26 Iraqi brigades that Pentagon officials in September said were initially identified as ‘reliable partners’ among the Iraqi army’s roughly 50 total brigades” currently have advisers. And none of those advisers are allowed to go into combat with Iraqi units. Moreover, no Iraqi units below the brigade level have advisers and “there are no U.S. advisers with any Iraqi units in Anbar province,” where ISIS is busy consolidating its power.

The picture is no better when it comes to air strikes, which continue to occur at a low level, far below those of previous air campaigns. As two security analysts recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. has been flying an average of seven strikes a day compared to 138 a day against Serbia in 1999 and 86 a day against the Taliban in 2001.

So it’s good to see a little progress in Kobani but don’t be fooled–the anti-ISIS campaign as a whole is a long, long way from achieving President Obama’s objectives to “degrade and ultimately destroy” this terrorist state. Unless the U.S. picks up its efforts, it is doubtful that goal will ever be achieved.

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The President Is Madder than Hell. Again.

A few days ago the New York Times published an article saying this:

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A few days ago the New York Times published an article saying this:

Beneath the calming reassurance that President Obama has repeatedly offered during the Ebola crisis, there is a deepening frustration, even anger, with how the government has handled key elements of the response.

Those frustrations spilled over when Mr. Obama convened his top aides in the Cabinet room after canceling his schedule on Wednesday. Medical officials were providing information that later turned out to be wrong. Guidance to local health teams was not adequate. It was unclear which Ebola patients belonged in which threat categories.

“It’s not tight,” a visibly angry Mr. Obama said of the response, according to people briefed on the meeting. He told aides they needed to get ahead of events and demanded a more hands-on approach, particularly from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “He was not satisfied with the response,” a senior official said.

This reminded me of this recent exchange with Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes:

Steve Kraft: I understand all the caveats about these regional groups. But this is an army of 40,000 people, according to some of the military estimates I heard the other day, very well-trained, very motivated.

President Obama: Well, part of it was that…

Steve Kroft: What? How did they end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise to you?

President Obama: Well I think, our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.

Not “we,” but “they.”

What we have here is a chief executive who obsessively blames others (through planned leaks or public statements, or both) for failures that occur on his watch. In the case of our intelligence agencies, they made it crystal clear after the 60 Minutes interview that the president had been warned about ISIS but simply ignored those warnings. So the fault was his, not theirs.

Beyond that, though, it doesn’t seem to have dawned on Mr. Obama that he’s the chief executive, that agencies and individuals answer to him and to his White House. And that when these failures occur, it’s actually his responsibility. It’s part of the job description of being president. But Mr. Obama doesn’t seem to get it. When things go wrong, he reverts to a most peculiar habit, in which he speaks almost as if he’s an outside observer of his own administration. He complains about things going wrong as if he has no capacity to correct them. He seems to defer to others rather than exercise control over them, and then he seethes when things aren’t done right. As a result, Mr. Obama has spent much of his presidency madder than hell. See for yourself.

In this respect, Mr. Obama is the antithesis of President Kennedy. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy didn’t publicly blame his intelligence agencies (although there were arguably some grounds for him to do so). Nor did he refer to those intelligence agencies as “they.” Rather, JFK declared “I’m the responsible officer of the government.” He didn’t point fingers at others. And he learned from his error in judgment.

How much different, and how much worse, this Democratic president is from the one who governed a half-century ago.

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Muslims Fight for ISIS But Not Palestine

For anyone who thinks the lack of a Palestinian state is a primary cause of Muslim grievance, the flood of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq in recent years poses a real problem. After all, none of the jihadi groups in those countries are fighting against Israel or for the Palestinians; indeed, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh pointed out yesterday, ISIS ranks “liberating Jerusalem” way down on its list of goals and “did not even bother to comment” on this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Yet while ISIS and its ilk have attracted thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, the number of foreigners who have joined the Palestinian fight against Israel is near zero.

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For anyone who thinks the lack of a Palestinian state is a primary cause of Muslim grievance, the flood of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq in recent years poses a real problem. After all, none of the jihadi groups in those countries are fighting against Israel or for the Palestinians; indeed, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh pointed out yesterday, ISIS ranks “liberating Jerusalem” way down on its list of goals and “did not even bother to comment” on this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Yet while ISIS and its ilk have attracted thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, the number of foreigners who have joined the Palestinian fight against Israel is near zero.

This certainly isn’t a problem of access. The thousands of Western Muslims now fighting in Iraq and Syria could easily and legally have reached the West Bank via either Israel or Jordan; so could those from Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. They simply never cared enough to do so.

And until last year, when Egypt cracked down on the cross-border smuggling tunnels, Gaza was accessible even to nationals of Muslim countries that lack diplomatic relations with Israel: They could enter Egypt legally and cross to Gaza via the tunnels. Hamas would surely have welcomed reinforcements, but they never cared enough to come.

In short, no matter how often Westerners like Secretary of State John Kerry say the Palestinian issue is a major source of the “street anger and agitation … humiliation and denial and absence of dignity” that helps jihadi groups recruit foreign Muslims, Muslims themselves are saying the opposite with their feet: There are causes they are willing to travel across the world to fight and die for, including the dream of an Islamic caliphate and the sectarian Sunni fight against Shi’ite- and Alawite-dominated governments in Iraq and Syria. But “Palestine” isn’t one of them.

The foreign fighters flocking to Iraq and Syria also undermine another common canard: that Israel is a “racist” or “apartheid” state. After all, a “racist, apartheid state” by definition subjects its minorities to far more “humiliation and denial and absence of dignity” than non-racist, non-apartheid Europe does, so if Israel were really such a state, one would expect its Arab citizens to head the pack of foreign recruits to ISIS and company.

Yet in fact, as journalist Yossi Melman noted yesterday, only about 30 of Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens have gone to fight for ISIS, a “much, much smaller” percentage than the “hundreds of French or British Muslims” who have done so. Based on his figures, a mere 0.002% of Israel’s Arab population is fighting abroad. Exact numbers for either the size of European countries’ Muslim populations or the number of fighters they have in Iraq and Syria are hard to find, but based on estimates gleaned from various press reports, my own rough calculation is that the proportion of British and French Muslims fighting abroad is at least three or four times higher.

And this isn’t because Israeli Arabs are flocking to the Palestinian fight instead: Few Israeli Arabs get involved in Palestinian terror, either.

This data reinforces a point I’ve made many times before: While Jewish-Arab relations in Israel aren’t perfect, overall, Israeli Arabs are reasonably well integrated and steadily becoming more so. Thus few have any desire to go off and join a glorious jihad.

The John Kerrys of the world rarely let facts disturb their theories. But for anyone who does care about facts, the foreign fighters flocking to Iraq and Syria offer a good clue as to what issues really inflame the Muslim world. And neither Israel nor the Palestinians are high on the list.

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North Korea Agreed Framework Turns 20

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Clinton administration’s signing of the Agreed Framework with North Korea. The lead up to the agreement and its aftermath should be a “teachable moment” for all those in the Obama administration intent on reaching a nuclear deal whatever the costs. After all, just as in 1994, the White House has committed itself to reach a deal with a rogue state with nuclear ambitions, regardless of the cost. White House actions suggest a belief that a bad deal would be better than no deal. Indeed, when researching my book on the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes—research that took me to Korea—what became clear was that the Clinton negotiating team knew they had a bad deal but didn’t care. Communist regimes were collapsing around the globe, and so negotiators confided in private that they needn’t worry about the details, because just how long could the North Korean dictatorship last? In hindsight, the diplomatic process with North Korea was a disaster. After all, it has been against the backdrop of engagement and negotiated agreements with North Korea that the communist state has developed nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. Far from ending the threat from North Korea, it has been against the backdrop of often-desperate diplomacy that the threat became worse.

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Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Clinton administration’s signing of the Agreed Framework with North Korea. The lead up to the agreement and its aftermath should be a “teachable moment” for all those in the Obama administration intent on reaching a nuclear deal whatever the costs. After all, just as in 1994, the White House has committed itself to reach a deal with a rogue state with nuclear ambitions, regardless of the cost. White House actions suggest a belief that a bad deal would be better than no deal. Indeed, when researching my book on the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes—research that took me to Korea—what became clear was that the Clinton negotiating team knew they had a bad deal but didn’t care. Communist regimes were collapsing around the globe, and so negotiators confided in private that they needn’t worry about the details, because just how long could the North Korean dictatorship last? In hindsight, the diplomatic process with North Korea was a disaster. After all, it has been against the backdrop of engagement and negotiated agreements with North Korea that the communist state has developed nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. Far from ending the threat from North Korea, it has been against the backdrop of often-desperate diplomacy that the threat became worse.

What happened? Bill Clinton had been president barely a month when the North Korean regime decided to test the new president. It refused to allow IAEA inspections, and soon after announced that it would withdraw from the NPT in three months’ time. Kim Il Sung expected Washington to flinch, and he was right. The State Department aimed to keep North Korea within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at almost any price. Robert (“Bob”) Gallucci and his colleagues later explained, “If North Korea could walk away from the treaty’s obligations with impunity at the very moment its nuclear program appeared poised for weapons production, it would have dealt a devastating blow from which the treaty might never recover.” Preserving the Treaty – even if that meant covering up the fiction of its effectiveness – trumped all else. This reaction played into Pyongyang’s hands. The scramble to preserve the NPT distracted the United States from North Korea’s greater interest: preventing inspectors from accessing sites that would demonstrate weaponization work.

Clinton’s team, unwilling to take any path that could lead to military action, sought to talk Pyongyang down from its nuclear defiance. Talking meant legitimizing brinkmanship. Sparking and riding crises became Pyongyang’s interest. Clinton’s willingness, meanwhile, to negotiate North Korea’s nuclear compliance was a concession, albeit one to which Clinton was oblivious. The 1953 armistice agreement demanded that Pyongyang reveal all military facilities and, in case of dispute, enable the Military Armistice Commission to determine the purpose of suspect facilities. By making weaker nonproliferation frameworks the new baseline, Clinton let North Korea off the hook before talks even began. Indeed, two decades later, Obama has done much the same thing with Iran: The United Nations Security Council resolutions were clear with respect to Iran’s obligations, but for the sake of compromise, Obama allowed Iran wiggle room to which it wasn’t entitled. Iran responded predictably: Given an inch, it took a mile.

Back to North Korea: As the clock ticked down on North Korea’s threat to leave the NPT, Pyongyang’s bluster and defiance increased, but Galluci’s team saw progress simply because talks continued. North Korea’s team played their American counterparts like a fiddle. Once talks began, Pyongyang recognized that the State Department’s goal always changed from protecting national security to simply keeping talks alive. If process trumped peace, then why make the final step to resolve the core conflict?

It was against the backdrop of North Korea’s refusal to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections that talk turned to providing the communist kingdom with supposed proliferation-proof light-water reactors. Galluci agreed to “support” their construction, a concession that came absent any North Korean movement to allow IAEA inspection of suspect sites. To American diplomats, this became a “step forward.”

Just as with Iran now, the IAEA held firmer to the demands for North Korean compliance than did American negotiators who feared too strict a verification and inspection regimen might undercut the possibility of a deal. When Clinton’s national security team met to discuss North Korea against the backdrop of the president’s unease with North Korea’s continued bluster, they concluded that unease or not, diplomacy was the only real choice. Clinton began almost immediately to mollify Pyongyang. Just as Obama has moved to “de-conflict the Persian Gulf,” Clinton canceled the joint U.S.–South Korea military exercise for 1994, out of deference to North Korea. When North Korean officials balked at intrusive inspections, the Clinton team agreed to negotiate what had once been North Korean commitments. And just as the Obama team bashes Israel and America’s moderate Arab allies for raising concern about Iran, twenty years ago, the Clinton team focused its ire on South Korea for raising concerns about how far American negotiators were prepared to go, and the loop holes they were prepared to tolerate.

When talks resumed, North Korea abandoned any pretense of flexibility on inspections, so the State Department doubled down on conciliation. Its no wonder Iranian negotiators have upheld North Korea as a model to emulate rather than a state to condemn.

Meanwhile, North Korean bluster increased in the face of American conciliation. Pyongyang, for example, threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” North Korea also announced that it would remove irradiated fuel rods from Yongbyon, a process that would both eliminate evidence about Pyongyang’s intentions and enable North Korea to separate plutonium. Iran has, in this too, followed suit—eliminating evidence at Parchin knowing full well that the State Department would lose interest in order to keep diplomacy alive.

Clinton wasn’t initially as much of a pushover as his diplomats. But as the president lost patience, Kim Il Sung simply took a step back and promised renewed diplomacy to well meaning but naïve interlocutors. Today with Iran, Thomas Pickering and William Miller simply fulfill the role Jimmy Carter played twenty years ago.

Diplomacy began again, albeit with a new partner. On July 8, 1994, a heart attack felled the immortal North Korean leader, and Kim Jong-il, eldest son and mastermind of past terrorist attacks, assumed command. Negotiations progressed quickly. North Korea wanted compensation for shuttering its reactors and energy assistance until the light-water reactors would come on line. Gallucci and his team agreed. The North Korean team agreed to submit to inspections of suspect plutonium sites, but only after most light-water reactor components had shipped. Only under concerted press questioning did Clinton acknowledge that this might mean North Korea would be inspection-free for five years. What had begun as an illicit North Korean nuclear program had netted the rogue communist regime billions of dollars in aid.

Clinton’s high-stakes engagement had a cost beyond the price tag. On October 7, 1994, President Kim Young Sam of South Korea blasted Clinton’s deal with the North, saying, “If the United States wants to settle with a half-baked compromise and the media wants to describe it as a good agreement, they can. But I think it would bring more danger and peril.” There was nothing wrong with trying to resolve the problem through dialogue, he acknowledged, but the South Koreans knew very well how the North operated. “We have spoken with North Korea more than 400 times. It didn’t get us anywhere. They are not sincere,” Kim said, urging the United States not to “be led on by the manipulations of North Korea.” While Kim Young Sam was right to doubt Pyongyang’s sincerity, his outburst drew Clinton’s ire. The administration did not want any complications to derail a deal, and Clinton was willing to ignore evidence that might undercut the initiative. Two weeks later, Gallucci and Kang signed the Agreed Framework.

That Gallucci’s team believed they had salvaged North Korea’s membership in the Non-Proliferation Treaty was self-delusion. Pyongyang was never been sincere in its membership. North Korean diplomats confided that they had joined only to receive a Soviet reactor, but the Soviet Union collapsed before the Kremlin made good on the deal. Gallucci had been had.

Shortly after oil shipments to North Korea began, Pyongyang began to divert oil to its steel industry in violation of the Agreed Framework. Diplomats chose to see virtue in the regime’s cheating. Although Gallucci and his team acknowledged that North Korea “was willing to look for ways to stretch the limits of or evade the terms of agreements,” they rationalized that the regime’s oil diversion “also demonstrated the North’s ability to turn on a dime and to take surprising steps to resolve potential problems that might undercut its broader interests.” Like Wendy Sherman or Jake Sullivan today with Iran, Gallucci had become so invested in the Agreed Framework’s success that he and his team, behind the scenes, blamed other American officials for pointing out or questioning non-compliance.

Albert Einstein quipped that insanity was conducting the same action repeatedly but expecting different results each time. Twenty years ago today, American negotiators signed an agreement with North Korea in order to constrain that rogue’s nuclear ambitions. The result was an unmitigated failure. And yet, twenty years later the Obama administration is working to replicate the diplomatic disaster with another agreement, no more solid. Just as North Korea destabilizes East Asia twenty years later, so too will Obama’s diplomatic path lead to a nuclear Iran.

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To Fix Iraq: Administrative Federalism, not Tripartite Division

Max Boot picks up on former Council on Foreign Relations boss Les Gelb’s revival of Gelb’s previous proposal to divide Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. Let there be no confusion: Gelb’s idea is as bad an idea now as it was then. The problem isn’t Gelb’s embrace of federalism; rather, the problem is the idea that such federalism needs to be based on ethnicity or religion.

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Max Boot picks up on former Council on Foreign Relations boss Les Gelb’s revival of Gelb’s previous proposal to divide Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. Let there be no confusion: Gelb’s idea is as bad an idea now as it was then. The problem isn’t Gelb’s embrace of federalism; rather, the problem is the idea that such federalism needs to be based on ethnicity or religion.

True, there are three main communities in Iraq: Arab Sunnis, Arab Shiites, and Kurdish Sunnis. However, there are many smaller communities as well: The Faylis (Kurdish Shiites); both Sunni and Shiite Turkmen, Christians of different denominations; Shaykhis; and Yezidis. The geographical dividing lines between the communities can be blurrier than an Obama red line: Sunnis live in Basra; Baghdad, despite the civil war, remains a mixed city. Kirkuk is a mélange of almost every community that lives in Iraq.

Nor are those areas which are more homogeneous in ethnic or sectarian terms prone to agree with each other politically. The Kurds, after all, fought a civil war between 1994 and 1997, and despite efforts to bury the hatchet in public, events are still too fresh for three major political parties to come clean with regard to the disappeared. Shiite parties are often at odds with each other; Basra, for example, has long been the focal point of a struggle between Da’wa on one hand and a coalition of Sadrists and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq on the other. Nor would a Sunni canton address the fundamental problem of ISIS. The primary problem Sunni Arabs face is not poor governance in Baghdad; it is the lack of Sunni Arab leadership within their own community.

I’m fortunate enough to visit three or four times a year, heading to different regions on each trip. In January, for example, I visited Kirkuk, Tikrit, Mosul, and Kurdistan. In March, I visited Baghdad. And my next trip will take me to southern Iraq. And, in July, I was able to sit down with former officials from Saddam Hussein’s regime in Jordan. None of my trips are sponsored by or coordinated with the embassy or U.S. military, and therefore I’m not subject to the security bubble or limited in my meetings only to U.S. military and embassy interlocutors. What is most interesting when talking to Iraqis is not simply the complaints of various groups or communities toward each other or the central government, but rather the subject on which many Iraqis agree: Decentralization.

Concentrating power locally is not the same as communal federalism. Iraq has 18 governorates. Rather than treat some governorates as Shiite, others as Sunni, and the remainder as Kurdish, any federalism should be based on administrative boundaries: Rather than have Baghdad (try to) control the country, the Iraqi central government should focus on defense and foreign affairs and divide Iraq’s substantial oil revenue according to estimated proportion of the population in each governorate. Administrative federalism would be healthier for Iraq than playing into the ethnic and sectarian morass.

Les Gelb cites his 2003 New York Times op-ed; let me dredge up my 2002 New York Times piece that I wrote after having spent nine months in Iraqi Kurdistan, and which discussed the nuance of federalism. Much of the piece holds true today. True, Kurdish leaders oppose administrative federalism out of fear that direct infusions of cash to Kurdish governorates might undercut their own rule, but there is nothing that prevents governorates to act in concert with each other of they so choose, as Iraqi Kurds likely would.

Nor must administrative federalism be based simply on provinces, as I had related twelve years ago. Sunni leaders suggest devolving political power even further, to districts or sub-districts bringing government closer to the people.

The reason for Iraq’s postwar over-centralization has less to do with democracy or Iraq’s long-term stability and more to do with American shortsightedness. When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was putting together Iraq’s Fiscal Year 2004 budget, there was a brief debate about getting provinces to build a proposed budget to pass to Baghdad which would then mediate and determine a national budget. Patrick Kennedy, then Bremer’s chief of staff, vetoed the idea: The CPA leadership was fixated on donor conferences and so needed a budget done more quickly; that required concentrating the process in Baghdad. It was the triumph of narrow, bureaucratic considerations over the big picture, and one for which Iraqis continue to pay a price. Perhaps, a decade later, it is time to reconsider, and encourage Iraq to prioritize local governance over Baghdad’s dysfunctional bureaucracy.

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Has Obama Realized the PKK Can Be Allies?

Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The problem is this: While to most American audiences the Kurds might simply be the Kurds, they are divided politically, linguistically, and culturally. In short, the United States now works closely with Iraqi Kurds, but labels the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist group. Herein lies the problem: Masud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, may depict himself and may be considered by some American officials to be a Kurdish nationalist leader, but his popularity is largely limited to two Iraqi provinces: Duhok and Erbil. And even in Erbil, his popularity is tenuous.

The imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan remains the most popular figure among Turkey’s Kurds, enjoying the support of perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds, whereas Barzani barely musters 10 percent popularity there. Whereas Turkey long sought to declare Öcalan irrelevant, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reconfirmed Öcalan as the paramount Kurdish leader in Turkey when he had his administration negotiate a ceasefire with the imprisoned Kurdish leader. This may not have been Erdoğan’s intention, but it was the result. The irony here for Turkish nationalists is that Erdoğan was likely never sincere about achieving peace with the Kurds, or at least with those Kurds who continued to embrace ethnicity rather than Sunni Islam as their predominant identity. After all, every Erdoğan outreach to the Kurds occurred in the months before elections, and was abandoned in the weeks following them, when Erdoğan no longer needed Kurdish electoral support.

Even as Erdoğan now acquiesces to some support for the besieged Kurds of Kobane, he seeks to limit the provision of that support to his allies among Barzani’s peshmerga, never mind that KDP peshmerga would be out of place in Syria and do not have the skill or dedication that the PKK’s Syrian peshmerga, the YPG, have exhibited. If Erdoğan thinks Barzani’s peshmerga can save him, he is kidding himself: As soon as those Kurdish fighters enter Syria, they will subordinate themselves to the YPG which know the ground and are, at this point, better motivated and more skilled.

Erdoğan continues to insist that there is no difference in his mind between the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the PKK: To the Turkish President, they’re all terrorists. Evidently, however, the American position is shifting. Obama has insisted that he approve every military operation in Syria. This is why the recent airdrop of supplies to Kobane is so important: That airdrop directly assists the PYD, YPG, and the PKK. In effect, Obama is now aiding a group that his State Department still designates a terrorist group.

In reality, that designation is probably long overdue for a review if not elimination. The PYD governs Syrian Kurdistan better than any other group which holds territory runs its government. Nowhere else in Syria can girls walk to school without escort (let alone attend school) or is there regularly scheduled municipal trash pick up. And the YPG, meanwhile, has been the most effective force fighting ISIS and the Nusra Front. Given a choice between ISIS and the PKK, the United States should choose the PKK. The group may not be perfect—it retains too much of a personality cult around Öcalan and internally could become more transparent and democratic—but in this, it is no different than Barzani’s KDP. Indeed, the only difference between the two is that the PKK has not indulged in the same sort of corruption that has transformed Barzani and his sons into billionaires.

The most interesting aspect of the U.S. airdrop to the Kurds of Kobane is how muted the reaction has been. Turkey might like to think the nearly 150 members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus would hold water for Ankara and object to the provision of arms and aid to a group Turkey’s president considers to be a terrorist entity, but its members recognize that most American officials now consider the Hamas-loving Erdoğan to be more of a threat to peace than the PKK. Indeed, perhaps with this airdrop, the change so long denied by diplomats is now apparent: The Emperor Erdoğan has no clothes. It is too early to suggest that Öcalan trumps Erdoğan in the American mind but thanks to more than a decade of Erdoğan’s rule, when deciding between Turkey and the PKK, American officials no longer will automatically side with Turkey.

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Do Early 2016 Polls Matter? For Democrats, Not Republicans

There’s a strange asymmetry to the 2016 presidential primary polls. For the Democrats, the polls actually matter, or at least tell us something important. Hillary Clinton’s dominance over her rivals has led to some recalling the “inevitability” narrative in 2008 that was, of course, shattered by Barack Obama. But the polls that showed Clinton ahead in those days weren’t as lopsided, and the path wasn’t quite so clear. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a sure thing, but Clinton’s chances of cruising to the nomination are much better this time around.

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There’s a strange asymmetry to the 2016 presidential primary polls. For the Democrats, the polls actually matter, or at least tell us something important. Hillary Clinton’s dominance over her rivals has led to some recalling the “inevitability” narrative in 2008 that was, of course, shattered by Barack Obama. But the polls that showed Clinton ahead in those days weren’t as lopsided, and the path wasn’t quite so clear. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a sure thing, but Clinton’s chances of cruising to the nomination are much better this time around.

Additionally, the polls tell us something else: Democratic voters are not interested in nominating Joe Biden. That’s significant this time if only because he’s the sitting vice president, and therefore has some claim to be next in line. It also means he has high name recognition, which is the key to leading such early polls. (Although it’s worth pointing out that if this Jimmy Kimmel man-on-the-street experiment is any indication, Biden has lower name recognition than you might otherwise think.)

Name recognition, in fact, is basically both the question and answer to deciphering such early polls. So while it’s the reason polls showing Clinton in the lead are worth paying attention to, it’s simultaneously the reason polls of the Republican side of the equation are meaningless. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll makes this point pretty clearly:

Hillary Clinton continues to hold a commanding lead in the potential Democratic field for president in 2016, while the GOP frontrunner in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll is a familiar figure – but one not favored by eight in 10 potential Republican voters.

That would be Mitt Romney, supported for the GOP nomination by 21 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. That’s double the support of his closest potential rival, but it also leaves 79 percent who prefer one of 13 other possible candidates tested, or none of them.

But what happens when you remove Romney’s name from contention and ask his supporters the same question? This:

When Romney is excluded from the race, his supporters scatter, adding no clarity to the GOP free-for-all. In that scenario former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have 12 or 13 percent support from leaned Republicans who are registered to vote. All others have support in the single digits.

As I wrote last month on Republicans and name recognition:

Take this summer poll from Gallup on the public’s familiarity with 2016 candidates. The only two Republicans to crack 60 percent were Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. … If he wins reelection in Wisconsin, Scott Walker would be considered among the GOP’s strongest candidates (on paper at least, which is all we have so far for the newbies). … Yet Gallup found Walker with the lowest familiarity of any of the GOP candidates, at just 34 percent.

Similarly, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal–the human résumé–was at just 38 percent. Huckabee was at 54 percent, higher than previous candidate Rick Santorum (but lower than Rick Perry) as well as all the non-previous candidates except Christie, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, who was at 55 percent. Huckabee also tied Christie for the highest favorability rating in that poll.

Now look at the new ABC/WaPo poll. There’s Huckabee, along with Jeb Bush and Rand Paul plus Romney at the top. Name recognition still roughly determines the outline of the race.

And that brings up another reason these polls aren’t much help: the actual makeup of the field when the primaries get under way. It’s doubtful Romney will run again. Huckabee is far from a sure thing to run again. Jeb Bush is probably more likely than not to pass as well, considering the fact that Christie still appears to be running and so does Bush’s fellow Floridian Marco Rubio.

Yet according to the ABC/WaPo poll, the top three vote getters on the GOP side are … Romney, Bush, and Huckabee. The pollsters took Romney out of the lineup to get a better sense of where Romney’s support was coming from (leaving Bush and Huckabee still in the top three), but they might have done better taking all three out of an additional question and seeing where the field would be without them. Rand Paul is the top voter-getter among those who either haven’t previously run for president or whose last name isn’t Bush.

After that, it gets more interesting–but not by much. Paul Ryan is a popular choice, but that’s name recognition as well since he ran on the 2012 national ticket. He also doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic about a run for president. If he doesn’t run, that means there’s a good chance three of the top four vote getters in the Romney-free version of the poll aren’t running, leaving Romney’s supporters without any of their favored candidates except Rand Paul.

Here’s another such poll, this one of Iowa voters from last week. The top two choices are Romney and Ben Carson, followed by Paul, Huckabee, and Ryan. Perhaps Romney really is running and Carson is a strong sleeper pick. But I doubt it on both counts. I also doubt Romney would win Iowa even if he ran, no matter what the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll says.

This is an indication of how wide-open the race is on the GOP side. But not much else. And the polls should be treated that way.

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What Federalism Will and Won’t Do in Iraq

My old boss Les Gelb makes a good case for breaking up Iraq, more or less, into three autonomous areas: Sunni, Kurdish, and Shiite. I used to be skeptical that this was either practical or desirable and I still don’t think it can stand alone as the solution to Iraq’s deep problems. But I am increasingly drawn to the conclusion that such a proposal should be part of the ultimate solution.

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My old boss Les Gelb makes a good case for breaking up Iraq, more or less, into three autonomous areas: Sunni, Kurdish, and Shiite. I used to be skeptical that this was either practical or desirable and I still don’t think it can stand alone as the solution to Iraq’s deep problems. But I am increasingly drawn to the conclusion that such a proposal should be part of the ultimate solution.

This does not mean creating three new states. That won’t work for many reasons including the fact that cities like Baghdad and Mosul contain a mixed population, that the Sunni areas of Iraq lack much oil revenue, and Sunnis have an emotional attachment to Baghdad and the Iraqi state. But it is looking increasingly unlikely that Iraq can be put together as a strongly centralized state without a larger commitment of U.S. troops than is likely in the future.

The Kurdish region is already de facto autonomous; in fact it’s almost an independent country but one that still has representation in Baghdad and gets a share of the country’s oil revenues. We need to think strongly about whether opposing de jure Kurdish independence is even in our interest anymore–would it be so bad if the Kurds realized their age-old dream to have their own state? In theory a new Kurdistan could emerge as America’s second-strongest ally in the region (after Israel with which the Kurds would likely establish ties), one that would be happy to host U.S. troops and aircraft.

Whatever happens with the Kurds, I think that it now makes sense to offer Sunnis an autonomous region of their own in return for fighting against ISIS. Indeed it may be the only way to get them to take up arms since they have no desire to be subordinate to Shiite sectarians in Baghdad who still control the government even if Nouri al-Maliki is no longer prime minister. (The appointment of a member of the Badr Corps, an Iranian-backed militia, as interior minister is evidence of that.)

But while important, federalism is not by itself the solution to Iraq’s woes. Whether the Sunnis have autonomy or not, they will still need to be trained and armed and motivated to fight against ISIS–and that won’t be easy to do no matter what political arrangements are promised since they have felt betrayed in the past by the U.S. and the Baghdad government. So the onus is still on the Obama administration to ramp up its anti-ISIS efforts which, despite some recent gains in Kobani, seem on the whole to be rather anemic. But the incentive of federalism can be one of the carrots dangled before Sunnis to get them to participate in a larger counterinsurgency campaign should one ever develop.

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Obama Hypocrisy of Avoiding Congress on Iran Deal

The New York Times is reporting that President Obama envisions an Iran deal which could avoid the need for congressional approval:

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The New York Times is reporting that President Obama envisions an Iran deal which could avoid the need for congressional approval:

No one knows if the Obama administration will manage in the next five weeks to strike what many in the White House consider the most important foreign policy deal of his presidency: an accord with Iran that would forestall its ability to make a nuclear weapon. But the White House has made one significant decision: If agreement is reached, President Obama will do everything in his power to avoid letting Congress vote on it.

Let’s put aside the notion that no one in Congress seeks permanent enmity with Tehran: What they see is a solution that addresses American security concerns and, absent that, they might criticize any deal that comes before them. That the administration has so little confidence in its own negotiating team that it fears congressional buy-in says a lot about the weakness of Obama and his team’s way of negotiating. Simply put, for Obama it seems, increasingly, that a bad deal trumps no deal.

The real hypocrisy is this, however: While the Obama administration explained its decision to withdraw completely from Iraq on the fact that the Iraqi government wouldn’t give American forces remaining in the country immunity, this isn’t fully accurate. According to Iraqis, the American negotiating team working out the details simply wouldn’t take yes for an answer for a continued American presence: Prime Minister Maliki offered immunity, but the Obama administration insisted that he get parliamentary approval for any immunity component of the deal. That was politically impossible—as the American team knew it would be—and so Obama had an excuse to walk away.

How ironic it is, then, that the Obama White House insisted that the Iraqi parliament approve such deals, but then turns around and seeks to diminish the role of the U.S. Congress in a decision that is just as momentous for U.S. national security. Obama is no stranger to hypocrisy. In this case, however, it seems that Obama’s attitude toward legislatures is much less guided by law or principle than by his own political ambitions at any given time.

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The Western Enablers of Abbas’s Incitement

It was not a quiet holiday weekend in Jerusalem, though all things considered the violence and anti-Semitism against Jews in their eternal home and capital was not as vicious as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might have hoped. Abbas, Israel’s supposed “peace partner” and raving anti-Semite, echoed some of the ugliest moments in the modern history of the land when he explicitly attempted to incite violence against Jews seeking to enter the Temple Mount and resorted to the kind of fear mongering over Jerusalem that has long been a prelude to anti-Jewish rioting.

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It was not a quiet holiday weekend in Jerusalem, though all things considered the violence and anti-Semitism against Jews in their eternal home and capital was not as vicious as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might have hoped. Abbas, Israel’s supposed “peace partner” and raving anti-Semite, echoed some of the ugliest moments in the modern history of the land when he explicitly attempted to incite violence against Jews seeking to enter the Temple Mount and resorted to the kind of fear mongering over Jerusalem that has long been a prelude to anti-Jewish rioting.

And yet the revolting persona Abbas has adopted more publicly of late is an indictment of the international community as well. Here is a brief rundown of Abbas’s Jew hate over the weekend:

Abbas said it was not enough for Palestinians to say that “settlers” have come to the Temple Mount.

“We should all remain present at the Noble Sanctuary [Temple Mount],” he added.

“We must prevent them from entering the Noble Sanctuary in any way. This is our Al-Aksa and our church. They have no right to enter and desecrate them. We must confront them and defend our holy sites.”

Abbas said Palestinians must be united to defend Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem has a special flavor and taste not only in our hearts, but also in the hearts of all Arabs and Muslims and Christians,” he said. “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Palestinian state and without it there will be no state.”

What Abbas wants is to enforce by terror and rioting a full-fledged ethnic and religious apartheid against Jews on the Jewish holy site. He won’t be the target of “apartheid weeks” the way Israel is on college campuses because most young leftists are ignorant hypocrites, and their defense of “human rights” in the Middle East has always had precisely zero to do with human rights. But Abbas would be a good candidate for such opprobrium, were the Western left to at any point develop a degree of intellectual integrity.

Avigdor Lieberman responded to Abbas:

Later on Saturday, Lieberman said that Abbas had again revealed his true face as a “Holocaust denier who speaks about a Palestinian state free of Jews.” The foreign minister added that Abbas was and remains an anti-Semite.

“Behind the suit and the pleasantries aimed at the international community, he is raising the level of incitement against Israel and the Jews and is calling for a religious war,” Lieberman said.

That is correct. And it continued: graffiti comparing the Jews to Nazis was painted at the Temple Mount. But the return of Abbas the Pogromist is not happening in a vacuum. The previous weekend, the Gaza reconstruction racket commenced in earnest, with a donor conference pledging billions in new cash for the terrorist-controlled Gaza Strip after Hamas’s war against Israel over the summer. The most risible, yet predictable, aspect of the AP’s story on that donor conference was this:

Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende, who co-chaired the one-day meeting with Egypt, said pledges of $5.4 billion have been made, but that only half of that money would be “dedicated” to the reconstruction of the coastal strip.

Brende did not say what the other half of the funds would be spent on. Other delegates have spoken of budgetary support, boosting economic activity, emergency relief and other projects.

It’s a toss-up as to which part is more ridiculous: the fact that they wouldn’t even say where half of the money goes or that they pretended half the cash would go toward reconstruction. In all likelihood, half will be earmarked for rockets and the other half for terror tunnels, though it’s always unclear how much money the terrorist funders of Qatar will seek to add to the pot above and beyond their conference pledge.

What does this have to do with Abbas’s incitement? Quite a bit, actually. The competition between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah/PA is generally a race to the bottom. Until there is a sea change in the culture of the Palestinian polity, appealing to the Palestinian public’s attraction to “resistance” against Israel will always be a key battleground between the two governing factions.

Hamas may have lost its summer war against Israel, but it scored a few key victories. Chief among those victories was the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s temporary flight ban imposed on Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport. Ben-Gurion is the country’s gateway to the outside world, and banning flights to it isolates Israel physically from the international community (not to mention the global Jewish community). For that ban to have come from the United States was especially dispiriting.

And why was that ban enacted? Because of a Hamas rocket that escaped Israeli missile defense systems and landed about a mile outside of the airport. Hamas showed the Palestinians that all of Abbas’s bad-faith negotiating is basically a delaying tactic that enables the further deterioration of Israeli-European relations but amounts to a slow bleed of public opinion. Meanwhile Hamas, the resisters, can shut down the Israeli economy and its contact with the outside world with a few rockets.

Hamas gets results, in other words, though they may come at a high price. Abbas does not spill enough Jewish blood and he does not put enough fear into the hearts of Israeli civilians to compare favorably to the genocidal murderers of Hamas. Therefore, he has to step up his game. If the international community were to do the right thing and isolate Hamas while refusing to fund the next war on Israel, Abbas could plausibly have the space to do something other than incite holy war. But they won’t do the right thing, and Abbas predictably resorts to terror and incitement. I hope the humanitarians of Washington and Brussels are proud of themselves.

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America’s Anxious Mood and What it Means for Republicans

Every political and presidential election takes place within a context and environment. And while it’s impossible to know what things will look like two Novembers from now, the overall mood of the nation then is bound to have some similarities to the mood of the nation now.

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Every political and presidential election takes place within a context and environment. And while it’s impossible to know what things will look like two Novembers from now, the overall mood of the nation then is bound to have some similarities to the mood of the nation now.

So what is the mood at this moment? The predominant feeling of Americans, according to polling data, is deeply unsettled and anxious, the product in large part of the multiplying failures of the Obama administration.

Think of the list from just the last year, from the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov to the VA scandal, the flood of immigrants (many of them children) crossing the southern border, the Russian invasion of Crimea and its destabilization of Ukraine, Islamist advances in Libya, the colossal misjudgment about ISIS and the half-hearted air campaign the president is waging against it, and now the string of mistakes by the CDC in dealing with the Ebola virus.

Beyond this is the sluggishness of the economy, which has lasted the entire Obama presidency. Despite some encouraging recent jobs reports, overall the situation remains quite problematic: a drop in median household income even after the recession officially ended, the unusually low workforce participation rate (the lowest in 36 years), the broader failures of the Affordable Care Act, the rise in income inequality (nearing its highest levels of the last 100 years) and poverty (the poverty rate has stood at 15 percent for three consecutive years, the first time that has happened since the mid-1960s), the record number of people on food stamps and the fact that this year China overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy, the first time America has been in second place since 1872. It’s little wonder, then, that only around a quarter of Americans believe the country is on the right track.

In addition to all this, there are longer-term trends, such as middle-class Americans working longer hours than they did since 1979 while median net worth is lower, adjusted for inflation, than it was in 1989. Trust in government is at all-time lows. Disdain for the political class (especially Congress and the media) is sky-high. Americans are less trusting of our public institutions and of one another. More and more of us are living in “ideological silos”. Two-thirds of Americans think it is harder to reach the American Dream today than it was for their parents, and three quarters believe it will be harder for their children and grandchildren to succeed. Americans are pessimistic, feeling unusually vulnerable and polarized. (Political polarization is “the defining feature of early 21st century American politics,” according to the Pew Research Center.)

Given all of this, and assuming that in two years the political environment and psychological state of Americans is roughly what it is now, it’s interesting to contemplate some of the qualities they may be looking for in a GOP nominee.

My guess: A conservative who radiates competence, steadiness, and reassurance; who is perceived as principled, reform-minded, and reality-based; and who’s comfortably associated with a middle-class governing agenda. “Our main task is not to see that people of great wealth add to it but that those without much money have a greater chance to earn some,” is how former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels put it in 2011, and his critique still holds. This can be done while also focusing needed attention on those living in the shadows of society.

In the aftermath of the Obama era, Americans will be a good deal more skeptical of empty, extravagant rhetoric. The public can also do without political figures comparing themselves to Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Jesus (all of whom Obama or his closest aides have compared Mr. Obama to). A modesty about what government can accomplish would be most welcomed; so would distrust of those who cling to ideology even when facts argue the contrary.

Voters are likely to trust individuals who have demonstrated a mastery of governing and can identify with, and have something to say about, the challenges facing many Americans. (One example is soaring higher education costs, a subject very few Republicans talk about and even fewer Republicans have solutions for.) The Republican Party’s standard-bearer certainly needs to be perceived as modern, future-oriented, and understanding the ways the world is changing.

A GOP nominee will also have to speak more to people’s aspirations than to their fears. A campaign that could be symbolized by an angry, clenched fist won’t work. Demonstrating touches of grace and winsomeness probably will. And because Republicans are on a long-term losing streak at the presidential level, including having lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections, they’ll need to find someone who is able to do more than rally the faithful. They’ll have to win over a significant number of people who are not now voting Republican but are persuadable. Which means Republicans might want to look to someone characterized by intellectual depth and calm purpose rather than stridency. In a recent speech, Tony Blair said, “In the end parties can please themselves or please the people.” He contrasted those who have the character of a governing party with those who seem like the shriekers at the gates outside. That’s a distinction worth bearing in mind.

To be sure, no single individual will embody all these qualities, and someone may well come along who personifies other characteristics in a way that is highly appealing. In addition, of course, politics is never static. But my guess is that given the mood and attitudes of Americans right now, some combination of the traits I’ve sketched out will be needed if Republicans hope to win.

While I fully expect Republicans to do quite well in the mid-term elections 15 days from now, it’s worth recalling that Republicans did historically well in 2010 (adding 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate) yet lost the presidency and House and Senate seats in 2012. And like it or not, we’re in a period when the Republican Party’s image has reached a historic low; when a majority of Americans said last year that the GOP is out of touch (62 percent), not open to change (56 percent), and too extreme (52 percent); and when, at the presidential level at least, the GOP faces an uphill climb.

President Obama’s cascading failures will make things easier for Republicans in 2016, but it still won’t be easy.

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Ebola, Politics, and Life’s Unfairness

Polls are telling us that Americans think their government is incompetent and that President Obama has lost their confidence. That’s the upshot of the new Politico poll that shows Obama is now regarded as a worse manager than George W. Bush, whose administration was widely derided as a mess by most people in its last years. That this trend has been exacerbated by the Ebola crisis is unquestioned. And that has some liberals crying foul. But all this means is that Democrats are learning something that was brought home to Republicans after Hurricane Katrina: life is unfair.

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Polls are telling us that Americans think their government is incompetent and that President Obama has lost their confidence. That’s the upshot of the new Politico poll that shows Obama is now regarded as a worse manager than George W. Bush, whose administration was widely derided as a mess by most people in its last years. That this trend has been exacerbated by the Ebola crisis is unquestioned. And that has some liberals crying foul. But all this means is that Democrats are learning something that was brought home to Republicans after Hurricane Katrina: life is unfair.

The embrace of the Ebola story by the mainstream media and especially the cable news networks is infuriating many on the left. As Eric Boehlert whined on Media Matters’ website on Friday, by going whole hog on Ebola and thus heightening the fear many Americans understandably fear about it, “the press is doing the GOP’s Ebola bidding.” Boehlert speaks for many liberals when he complained that by stoking fear rather than concentrating on educating us about a disease that, at worst, only few Americans will probably contract, the media is strengthening the critique of the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis. Along with the worries about the rise of ISIS terrorists in the Middle East, the federal government’s initial fumbling and sometimes mistaken response to the virus has reinforced the notion that President Obama isn’t capable of protecting the American people.

If this strikes Democrats as unfair, they are not entirely wrong. While the emergence of ISIS can be blamed in no small measure on a president who pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq and refused to intervene in Syria without worrying about the consequences, no reasonable person should think that his decisions could be linked to the spread of a disease in West Africa. Nor can the errors of the Center for Disease Control or those made by the Dallas hospital that treated the first Ebola victim in the U.S. be seriously argued as having flowed from President Obama’s desk.

But these failures do fit in with a narrative that has been building throughout the president’s second term in which government has been associated more with scandals (the VA, the IRS, spying on the press, Benghazi) and incompetence (the ObamaCare rollout) than anything else. So it is hardly surprising that many view the administration’s halting response to Ebola as merely confirming an existing diagnosis that Obama hasn’t the capacity or the will to govern effectively or, more importantly, carrying out government’s first obligation: protect the people.

Much like the way the government’s failures during Hurricane Katrina fed an existing Democratic narrative about Bush’s incompetence and the mess in Iraq, so, too, does the news about Ebola bolster Republican carping about Obama. Bush was no more responsible for bad weather in the Gulf of Mexico, the collapse of the levees, and the dereliction of duty on the part of local first responders in New Orleans than Obama is for the fool who told a nurse infected with Ebola to get on a plane to Cleveland.

Yet just as presidents are allowed to take credit for actions undertaken by the government to which their contribution has been minimal, so, too, must they take the blame for failures in which their role was equally small. All of which reminds us that sometimes life isn’t fair. People are often wrongly put down as failures because of circumstances they didn’t create. But when you are president of the United States, you have to take the good with the bad.

But if that was true for Bush, who was not only wrongly blamed for the devastation in New Orleans but also maliciously branded as a racist for the initial failures of first responders, it is even more so for Obama. It was he, after all, who ran for president not so much as a problem fixer but as a would-be messiah of hope and change who would turn back the oceans as well as sweep Washington clean. It was Obama who championed the idea that we must give more power to government so it could both help and protect us. So when government is seen to fail to the point where the president is now forced to appoint a veteran political spin master to be the new “czar” to manage its response to Ebola, he and his fans are in no position to complain about the public’s unrealistic expectations or its willingness to blame the administration for a climate of fear that arose from its failure to take steps that might restore confidence.

But there is more going on here than poetic justice. In and of itself Ebola isn’t a good reason to vote for the Republicans in 2014 any more than a hurricane was to vote for Democrats in 2006. But politics is about perceptions, not fairness. Americans deserve a government they can trust. If President Obama has lost it, he can curse the fates or blame the press but the person he should be holding responsible for this breakdown of trust is the one staring back at him in the mirror.

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De Blasio to Central Park: Your Money or Your Life

Imagine if New York City’s mayor ordered the Metropolitan Museum to turn over 20 percent of its income to other museums that he would designate. That’s exactly what New York Mayor Bill de Blasio had in mind with park conservancies. “During his campaign,” the New York Times reported, “Mr. de Blasio endorsed a plan to force the private groups that raise money for the city’s richest parks to hand over as much as a fifth of their budgets to needier parks.” He’s backed off from that, perhaps because it is blatantly unconstitutional, but, as the New York Post editorializes, “The public sector is putting our money where our mouth is,” de Blasio said. “We will…also turn to the major parks conservancies…[and] expect to get some real important contributions from the conservancies, as part of these processes.” Or, as the muggers who used to abound in Central Park would say, “Your money or your life.”

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Imagine if New York City’s mayor ordered the Metropolitan Museum to turn over 20 percent of its income to other museums that he would designate. That’s exactly what New York Mayor Bill de Blasio had in mind with park conservancies. “During his campaign,” the New York Times reported, “Mr. de Blasio endorsed a plan to force the private groups that raise money for the city’s richest parks to hand over as much as a fifth of their budgets to needier parks.” He’s backed off from that, perhaps because it is blatantly unconstitutional, but, as the New York Post editorializes, “The public sector is putting our money where our mouth is,” de Blasio said. “We will…also turn to the major parks conservancies…[and] expect to get some real important contributions from the conservancies, as part of these processes.” Or, as the muggers who used to abound in Central Park would say, “Your money or your life.”

Back in the bad old days of the 1970s, New York City’s Parks Department more or less collapsed. The system’s crown jewel, Central Park, was a graffiti- and crime-ridden mess. Half the benches couldn’t be sat on because they were in such disrepair. Vast stretches of the Sheep Meadow, the East Meadow, and the Great Lawn were barren dirt. Litter was everywhere. No water flowed in Bethesda Fountain and its great Angel of the Waters statue stared down at mud and worse.

But in 1980, the Central Park Conservancy was formed to take over maintenance of the park with contributions from surrounding buildings and their residents, foundations, and others. About $700 million and 34 years later, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvin Vaux can rest easy. Their masterpiece, Central Park, one of the supreme artistic achievements of the 19th century in this country, is once again as it should be. The park is clean and safe, the lawns green. In spring vast drifts of daffodils can be seen “fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” The 9,000 benches have been restored, thanks to the Conservancy’s adopt-a-bench program. The many bridges (no two are alike) and other structures have been restored. Forty million visitors a year testify to the park’s magnificence.

The Conservancy supplies 75 percent of Central Park’s budget, freeing city funds for other parks. Its experts train Parks Department employees in best practices. It has restored, at its own expense, four small parks in Harlem. But, as the Post writes,  “Apparently it’s not enough for Bill de Blasio for people to be generous and make up for the city’s incompetence. He also wants the right to take your donations and spend them on what he wants.”

No wonder he and his wife honeymooned in Castro’s Cuba. Kleptocracy is Bill de Blasio’s preferred form of government.

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The Issue is Kerry’s Incompetence, Not Israeli Manners

On Friday, the U.S. State Department rejected criticisms from Israeli Economic Minister Naftali Bennett that Secretary of State John Kerry had sought to blame the rise of ISIS on Israel. Spokesperson Marie Harf said Kerry’s remarks a day earlier were “taken out of context” for “political reasons” by Bennett and other Israelis who cried foul. That in turn set off criticisms of Bennett by his Cabinet colleague and rival, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said the Jewish Home Party leader should keep his mouth shut about the United States. But while most observers seemed to focus on the Israeli political dimension of the controversy or the chances that the spat would worsen the already shaky relations between Israel and the U.S., what escaped notice was the fact that in claiming that the failure to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians was helping ISIS, Kerry was actually contradicting President Obama.

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On Friday, the U.S. State Department rejected criticisms from Israeli Economic Minister Naftali Bennett that Secretary of State John Kerry had sought to blame the rise of ISIS on Israel. Spokesperson Marie Harf said Kerry’s remarks a day earlier were “taken out of context” for “political reasons” by Bennett and other Israelis who cried foul. That in turn set off criticisms of Bennett by his Cabinet colleague and rival, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said the Jewish Home Party leader should keep his mouth shut about the United States. But while most observers seemed to focus on the Israeli political dimension of the controversy or the chances that the spat would worsen the already shaky relations between Israel and the U.S., what escaped notice was the fact that in claiming that the failure to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians was helping ISIS, Kerry was actually contradicting President Obama.

On September 24, in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, Obama said the following:

Leadership will also be necessary to address the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. As bleak as the landscape appears, America will never give up the pursuit of peace. The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long; it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home. And the violence engulfing the region today has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace.

Leaving aside Obama’s willingness to blame Israel for not working for peace when, in fact, all they are reacting to is the consistent refusal of their supposed Palestinian peace partners to accept repeated offers of independence and peace, this statement represented genuine progress in the president’s thinking. Obama had in the past repeatedly embraced the notion that ending the Arab-Israeli conflict would solve all the problems in the region but the rise of ISIS had sobered him up a bit. The willingness of many Arab regimes to make common cause with Israel against both ISIS and radical Islamists such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood illustrated the obvious fact that conflict within the Arab world is a function of the division among Muslims, not discontent about Israel’s existence or the failure of peace negotiations.

This was a remarkable departure for a president who had spoken of Western and Israeli guilt for Muslim grievances in his address to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009, seemingly having finally woken up to the fact that no amount of apologizing or engagement will make radical Islam go away. But for some reason Kerry is still sticking to the old playbook in which Israelis can be scapegoated for the existence of bloody conflicts in which Jews play no part.

Kerry was, no doubt, playing to his audience of Muslims when he told a State Department ceremony honoring the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha that resentment about the Arab-Israeli conflict was fueling recruitment for ISIS. Since Kerry has consistently and wrongly blamed Israel for the collapse of his peace initiative, it didn’t take much imagination to see that what he was doing was blaming the Jewish state for the fact that ISIS terrorists have overrun much of Syria and Iraq while beheading Westerners. But while the Arab leaders he cited may pay lip service to anti-Israel sentiment by referencing the alleged “humiliation and denial and lack of human dignity” suffered by the Palestinians, ISIS’s popularity is based on promoting hatred of all Westerners and non-Muslims, not just Israelis. Which is to say that Bennett wasn’t off target or taking things out of context when he said, “When a British Muslim decapitates a British Christian, there will always be someone to blame the Jew.”

Yet while Obama called on Muslims to unite against ISIS and to recognize their responsibility to combat radical Islamists, Kerry is still using the same tired clichés about Israel and the Palestinians that even many Arabs are shelving and then looking to pick a fight with Israelis over their umbrage about his lack of perspective.

Israel’s government is probably better off not making much of an issue about Kerry’s latest vile assertion, but there should be no illusions about the attitudes his comments illustrated. If even after the outbreak of a war in Syria in which Muslims have slaughtered Muslims without a mention of Israelis Kerry is capable of sticking to the notion that the grievances of Palestinians who have repeatedly refused to make peace is the reason for ISIS, then his intellectual bankruptcy could not be more obvious.

The point here isn’t that Kerry is foolishly picking quarrels with Israel but that he has demonstrated his unfitness for office at a time when the United States is once again engaging in a conflict with a dangerous Islamist foe. President Obama has allowed Kerry to embark on a futile effort to revive the dead-in-the-water peace process thinking that there would be few consequences for another failure. But Kerry’s incapacity to focus on the ISIS threat presents a bigger problem for the president. If he is truly serious about building a coalition against ISIS, the president needs to stop letting his administration pick pointless fights with Israel. Kerry needs to be fired.

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“It’s Called the Department of Justice. It’s Not Called the Department of Revenue.”

In 2007, a huge forest fire burned 65,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada in California and neighboring states. The Justice Department and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) went after Sierra Pacific, the largest landowner in California, claiming its logging operations had caused the fire when a bulldozer hit a rock and struck a spark. Knuckling under to the enormous leverage government has in even civil litigation, Sierra Pacific, which claimed it was innocent, settled for $55 million and 22,500 acres of forest land, which was to be deeded over to the federal government.

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In 2007, a huge forest fire burned 65,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada in California and neighboring states. The Justice Department and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) went after Sierra Pacific, the largest landowner in California, claiming its logging operations had caused the fire when a bulldozer hit a rock and struck a spark. Knuckling under to the enormous leverage government has in even civil litigation, Sierra Pacific, which claimed it was innocent, settled for $55 million and 22,500 acres of forest land, which was to be deeded over to the federal government.

But in an almost unprecedented action this month, the chief judge of the eastern district of California, Morrison C. England, Jr., has ordered all federal judges in the district to recuse themselves from the case and has asked the chief judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal to appoint an outside judge, stating the possibility of a fraud upon the court by the Justice Department. A fraud upon the court happens when one party deliberately misleads the court in order to win a case. The chief judge, Alex Kozinski, is likely to oblige, as he has been seriously alarmed by what he calls an “epidemic” of prosecutorial misconduct in recent years.

Sierra Pacific claims that,

The United States presented false evidence to the Defendants and the Court; advanced arguments to the Court premised on that false evidence; or, for which material evidence had been withheld, and obtaining court rulings based thereon; prepared key Moonlight Fire [as this fire was called] investigators for depositions, and allowed them to repeatedly give false testimony about the most important aspects of their investigation; and failed to disclose the facts and circumstances associated with the Moonlight Fire lead investigator’s direct financial interest in the outcome of the investigation arising from an illegal bank account that has since been exposed and terminated.

Their evidence is the sworn testimony of two assistant U.S. attorneys, one of whom was fired from the case for raising ethical considerations and another who quit in disgust as it became plain to him that the Justice Department’s actions in this case were not to find justice but to extract a lucrative settlement, saying,“It’s called the Department of Justice. It’s not called the Department of Revenue.”

The state case against Sierra Pacific has also fallen apart. The state judge not only decided against the state’s case for lack of sufficient evidence, but also ordered it to pay $30 million in attorney’s fees. He wrote in his decision that, “the misconduct is so pervasive that it would serve no purpose for the Court to attempt to recite it all here.” But he recites enough: “CalFire failed to comply with discovery orders and directives, destroyed critical evidence, failed to produce documents it should have produced months earlier, and engaged in a systematic campaign of misdirection with the purpose of recovering money from the defendants.”

The Justice Department under Eric Holder is not only using its power for illicit reasons, it is divvying up the money with its favored pals. The stench of corruption at Justice is becoming overpowering. If this had come out prior to January 20th, 2009, it would be a front-page-above-the-fold story.

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The Root of Middle East’s Economic Woes

I admit, I’m a bit late getting to this in my read pile, but Dalibor Rohac’s CATO Institute essay, “The Dead Hand of Socialism: State Ownership in the Arab World,” is a must-read for anyone who truly cares about stability in the Middle East or who goes beyond the usual “autocracy vs. theocracy” arguments in the Middle East to look at why both extremes tend to do so poorly in practice.

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I admit, I’m a bit late getting to this in my read pile, but Dalibor Rohac’s CATO Institute essay, “The Dead Hand of Socialism: State Ownership in the Arab World,” is a must-read for anyone who truly cares about stability in the Middle East or who goes beyond the usual “autocracy vs. theocracy” arguments in the Middle East to look at why both extremes tend to do so poorly in practice.

Indeed, whereas a couple decades ago, the Middle East was on par with most Asian economies and well above sub-Saharan Africa, now Arab economies trail well beyond their East Asian counterparts, and may soon find themselves in the basement as stable economic development takes root in sub-Saharan Africa, fears of Ebola in West Africa notwithstanding.

Rohac argues clearly and with much evidence that “extensive government ownership in the economy is a source of inefficiency and a barrier to economic development.” Indeed, it’s not uncommon in some Arab countries for the government to control half the GDP.

Not all Arab countries are the same, of course. As Rohac demonstrates, some countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt) have undertaken large-scale and serious privatization over the last two decades while Lebanon has never had large government ownership of the economy. Government enterprise continues to dominate Algeria, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt, despite the latter’s Mubarak-era reforms. The issue isn’t simply the gas and oil industries, but also utilities, banks, and, in some cases, broader manufacturing.

Rohac goes further, however, and discusses various case studies and methods of privatization, recognizing that one size does not fit all and the devil is often in the details. Certainly, after all, part of the problem with Egypt’s privatization was that while it spurred growth, it also retrenched its kleptocracy as political and military connections trumped competence and further convinced the broader Egyptian public that government was accountable and responsible to only the few.

That said, I’d go even further than Rohac in one aspect which is crucial to opportunity and building a stable middle class beyond simply the issue of state-owned enterprises: In too many Arab countries, whether monarchies or republics and regardless of whether oil-rich or oil-poor, there are franchise and sector monopolies that discourage competition. For example, Mercedes or McDonalds or any other big-name Western company may grant contracts to partners and work exclusively with one business. While in the United States, there are dozens of franchisees for big chain restaurants and hundreds for automobile dealerships, this is a rarity in the Middle East. One person will gain the contract for “McBurger King Hut,” for example, and will never have to face competition in the country for which the license was granted. This, in turn, means that international companies most often will deal exclusively with a country’s top and most politically-connected businessmen. In Kurdistan, for example, forget working with anyone who’s not connected to the Barzani family or former President Jalal Talabani’s wife Hero Khan. And, in Bahrain, any businessman worth even a thousandth of his income will partner with an al-Khalifa. (I’ve already written about the problem of the Middle East’s first sons, here.)

For the soft drink companies, fast food joints, car manufacturers, or any large company, it’s often easier to deal with a single businessman. But so long as various country’s legislatures in the Arab world allow such concessionaire monopolies, they will be undermining the growth of their middle class and constraining opportunity which ultimately would contribute to greater stability.

Democracy needn’t be a lost cause in the Middle East. But, demanding radical political change without catalyzing growth and opening economic opportunity to grow the middle class is to repeat the mistakes of the last three years. It’s time to get serious about Arab economic reform.

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