Commentary Magazine


The Debate We’re Not Having About Syria

There is a stunning gap in the public conversation about the war that President Obama is now waging on ISIS. We have paid some attention to the political future of Iraq, on the correct assumption that a longterm victory against ISIS in that country requires having a state in Baghdad capable of winning support from all of Iraq’s sectarian communities. Hence the administration’s successful push to replace Nouri al-Maliki with Haidar al-Abadi. Whether Abadi lives up to his billing as a more inclusive leader remains to be seen, but what is stunning to me is that we are not even having this conversation about Syria. What kind of political settlement would we like to see in Syria and how to achieve it?

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There is a stunning gap in the public conversation about the war that President Obama is now waging on ISIS. We have paid some attention to the political future of Iraq, on the correct assumption that a longterm victory against ISIS in that country requires having a state in Baghdad capable of winning support from all of Iraq’s sectarian communities. Hence the administration’s successful push to replace Nouri al-Maliki with Haidar al-Abadi. Whether Abadi lives up to his billing as a more inclusive leader remains to be seen, but what is stunning to me is that we are not even having this conversation about Syria. What kind of political settlement would we like to see in Syria and how to achieve it?

At the moment we are bombing ISIS a little bit in Syria as well as Iraq, while also planning to train on a very small scale elements of the Free Syrian Army–about 5,000 fighters are expected to be trained next year. How can anyone expect 5,000 fighters to defeat the 20,000-30,000 men under arms for ISIS? And if the Free Syrian Army doesn’t step forward, isn’t there a real danger of the Assad regime regaining lost ground because of the U.S. campaign against ISIS? Those are questions the administration has refused to answer, at least publicly.

Perhaps the Obama administration has reconciled itself to Assad staying in power indefinitely as the lesser evil, but the record of the past three years shows that Assad is incapable of ending the Syrian civil war. As long as he sticks around, the war will rage on with all of the catastrophic human cost that implies. It will also mean that there will be room for Salafist extremists to operate in ungoverned parts of the country where the government’s control does not extend. (In the parts of Syria under government control, a different set of extremists–the Shiite fanatics of Hezbollah and the Quds Forces–run wild.) As Frederic Hof, Obama’s former special representative for Syria, just wrote: “Blowing up Islamic State-related targets in Syria has intrinsic merit. Yet so long as the Assad regime exists, Syria will be fertile ground for jihadists and other criminals sporting political agendas. ”

The only way to rescue Syria from its nightmare is to overthrow Assad and install a government capable of keeping order and winning the assent of the country’s various constituent parts. As Hof writes, “The vacuum of state failure filled by the Islamic State will not be plugged until an inclusive national government in Syria replaces an Iranian- and Russian-abetted family business.” By this point, after three years of war fed by three years of American inaction, this admittedly seems a fantastic prospect. But just because we have trouble grappling with the enormity of the challenge doesn’t mean that it ceases to exist.

I commend Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution for at least starting to think about the unthinkable in this essay entitled “We need to Begin Nation-Building in Syria Right Now.” Pollack points out that even if Assad doesn’t fall anytime soon, now is the time to make plans for a post-Assad Syria–the kind of plans we failed to make in Iraq and Libya. Pollack rightly suggests that the U.S. should lead an international effort under UN auspices. “If all of this is addressed in a determined fashion,” he suggests, “the U.S. should provide most of the muscle, the Gulf states most of the money, and the international community most of the know-how.” There is much room for discussion about how such a plan could be implemented, but that’s a discussion we need to have–and we’re not having it.

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Why Panetta’s Lament Is Newsworthy

At the beginning of this year, when former defense secretary Bob Gates released his memoirs, he absorbed a fair amount of condemnation for his timing. In his book he criticized President Obama’s lack of commitment to the wars of which he took command as well as key players in the administration who had been poisoning the well against the military from within the White House. But, as I wrote, the criticism of his timing fell flat, since the book came after the 2012 election and therefore was not designed to undermine the president’s campaign, and it was too early to interfere in any real way with Hillary Clinton’s.

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At the beginning of this year, when former defense secretary Bob Gates released his memoirs, he absorbed a fair amount of condemnation for his timing. In his book he criticized President Obama’s lack of commitment to the wars of which he took command as well as key players in the administration who had been poisoning the well against the military from within the White House. But, as I wrote, the criticism of his timing fell flat, since the book came after the 2012 election and therefore was not designed to undermine the president’s campaign, and it was too early to interfere in any real way with Hillary Clinton’s.

Now we have a second voice from the administration to add to the chorus of ex-officials unhappy with the disastrous foreign-policy decisions made by Obama. That chorus includes Hillary Clinton as well as advisors loyal to her like Vali Nasr. And now it includes, significantly, Gates’s successor at Defense Leon Panetta. Although Gates served both Democratic and Republican administrations and has always been considered a loyal soldier and a man of sober judgment, the fact that he’s a Republican seemed to color some reactions to his criticism of Obama. The same, obviously, cannot be said for Panetta. Opposition to Obama’s rash, hasty, and overly ideological decisions is bipartisan.

In Panetta’s forthcoming memoir, excerpted and adapted in Time magazine, he writes that, as the deadline for combat operations approached, it was clear “withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together.” There needed to be some residual force maintained until Iraq was ready to shoulder the full burden of its own security and–crucially–stability. According to Panetta:

We had leverage. We could, for instance, have threatened to withdraw reconstruction aid to Iraq if al-Maliki would not support some sort of continued U.S. military presence. My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours. I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military.

Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.

The White House, he writes, wouldn’t lead the effort because the president was committed to getting out of Iraq, not winning the peace. Panetta does not let Maliki off the hook for the chaos that followed: “Al-Maliki was responsible, as he exacerbated the deep sectarian issues polarizing his country.” But it’s clear the president was, as always, more interested in hewing to bumper-sticker slogans than getting the policy right. The hyper-partisan, intensely ideological Obama would not be swayed.

Panetta’s comments have thus far been met with a more muted response than Gates’s, for a few simple reasons. First, as mentioned, Gates was a Republican holdover from the Bush era and Democrats maintain an ever-present suspicion of the motives of anyone to their right on the ideological spectrum. (Witness yesterday’s New York Times report on how the paper was thoroughly confused by the suggestion that Republicans want Obama to stay alive. What’s in it for them, the left wanted to know.)

Second, Gates’s career was far more defense- and security-centric than Panetta’s, having served in the CIA during the Cold War for several administrations (ultimately rising to director), serving on the National Security Council, and eventually serving as defense secretary for two consecutive presidents. As such, Gates’s views carry a certain amount of authority and gravitas that few possess; he’s been on the inside of national-security policy for nearly half a century.

Third, Gates’s memoir was published before Panetta’s. Whatever the criticism, it’s not going to be particularly revelatory for anyone to “me-too” his predecessor. And fourth, thanks to the rise of ISIS it is now undeniable that Iraq is in freefall and the security arrangements left in place when American troops left were insufficient. The fact that Obama has initiated a new war against ISIS (though he calls it an old war) in a new country is an implicit acknowledgement of that. In other words, it’s hard to argue with Panetta’s conclusion.

But that, paradoxically, ought to be a reason for this to be especially newsworthy. Panetta’s lament serves as an “I told you so,” not a “you’ll be sorry” moment. Even the president’s close advisors understand Obama was wrong, and everybody knows it. It’s safe now to disavow Obama’s Iraq strategy because it’s crystal clear it was a mammoth, deadly failure. The idea that Obama was completely, irresponsibly wrong is not controversial, even among dedicated Democrats. Panetta’s criticism isn’t really news, which is why it should be.

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Turkey’s Jihad Against Online News Portals

In 2002, Reporters without Frontiers ranked Turkey 99th in the world in terms of press freedom. That was a poor showing for a country aspiring to join the European Union, but it still placed Turkey well above countries like Burma, Russia, Ethiopia, and Iraq. No longer. Over his more than decade-long premiership, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used a number of tools to constrain press freedom.

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In 2002, Reporters without Frontiers ranked Turkey 99th in the world in terms of press freedom. That was a poor showing for a country aspiring to join the European Union, but it still placed Turkey well above countries like Burma, Russia, Ethiopia, and Iraq. No longer. Over his more than decade-long premiership, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used a number of tools to constrain press freedom.

After replacing technocrats on Turkey’s banking and tax boards with political loyalists, Erdoğan levelled ever-increasing tax liens against media organizations that criticized him or his agenda. If his targets did not forfeit their media outlets, Erdoğan would confiscate them. While, in theory, these media companies would come up for auction, Erdoğan would ensure that the only permissible bidders would be loyalists to his political party and, preferably, members of his own family.

Erdoğan would simultaneously employ other strategies as well. Turkey imprisons more journalists than Iran and China. It harasses female journalists and has recently begun targeting journalists working for foreign outlets as well. (I have not been immune; after I criticized Turkish corruption, Erdoğan aide Cuneyd Zapsu and (now disgraced and fired) EU Minister Egemen Bağış sued me in a Turkish court). He targeted authors to confiscate unpublished manuscripts; Turkey now prosecutes thought-crime rather than actual crime.

Now, alas, Turkey is no longer willing to simply go after traditional outlets. While Erdoğan’s jihad against social media is long standing, Erdoğan increasingly seeks to control what can be published online. Quite simply, the Internet—and, more broadly, free discourse—frustrates Erdoğan, who would much rather crush dissent than accept the accountability and transparency a free media encourages or address the merits of his opponents’ arguments. As journalists have moved to online outlets to escape Erdoğan’s authoritarian ambitions, the number of Turkish news portals has exploded online.

It is these that Erdoğan now targets. According to “the radical democrat,” a Turkish blog which closely follows free speech, Internet freedom, and individual liberty issues in Turkey:

Today, surprisingly access to Karsi‘s newsportal online was blocked… The portal continues to use a proxy newsportal for now “uncensored news” (sansursuz haber) until it also gets subjected to same treatment. Another surprise news of the day is that newly established “Gri Hat” (Grey Line) newsportal is also taken to court and blocking access is declared, for potential to distribute critical news material which has published the corruption records on the newsportal. Gri Hat was established not more than a month ago by unemployed/fired journalists and it was going to leak more news pieces regarding all kinds of corruption… If alternative/opposed news portals continue getting raided or subjected to threats and give in to such pressure, the future of democracy hangs on spikes in Turkey.

Turkey was never a beacon of freedom. But with Erdoğan’s latest move against Internet portals, it seems determined to fall further in international press freedom rankings, below even Iran, Belarus, and China.

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Columbia’s Slippery Boycotters

In a post in late August, I asked whether Columbia University’s federally-funded Middle East Institute was boycotting Israeli institutions of higher education. Why? Its director, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, has signed a pledge by some Middle East studies academics “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions.” Did that personal pledge extend to the Middle East Institute, a Title VI National Research Center under her direction?
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In a post in late August, I asked whether Columbia University’s federally-funded Middle East Institute was boycotting Israeli institutions of higher education. Why? Its director, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, has signed a pledge by some Middle East studies academics “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions.” Did that personal pledge extend to the Middle East Institute, a Title VI National Research Center under her direction?

I posed the question to David Stone, executive vice-president for communications at Columbia, and received this reply from him:

If an individual faculty member chooses not to participate in events involving Israel, that is a personal choice that has no effect on the programs of the Middle East Institute or the rest of the University. The Institute itself is home to a broad range of teaching and research including a number of fellowships and grants that support faculty and student research and study in Israel; and its faculty members are engaged in a variety of projects with Israeli scholars.

Alan Luxenberg, president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, posed the same question directly to Abu-Lughod, and received this reply:

My decision does not affect the Middle East Institute where we welcome distinguished scholars and students from all over the world, fund language training for students in all Middle Eastern languages, support study abroad in all the region’s universities, and support, modestly, summer research for students in all the countries of the region, including Israel.

The Middle East Institute serves the Columbia community. It does not have any institutional partnerships with other universities, whether in the US or abroad.

I’m not surprised (or persuaded) by these answers. I think it’s telling that Abu-Lughod has not issued a public statement of her position, which might be deemed an unacceptable compromise by the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) cult. After all, if you really believe that Israel is South Africa (or worse), why not demonstrably abjure any administrative role in academe that compels you to treat it equally? What’s the worth of a boycott if it doesn’t mean sacrificing your access to something to advance a cause—whether it’s a home soda maker or the coveted directorship of a Middle East center?

But that’s neither here nor there. The taxpaying public has the right to expect that every signatory of the boycott pledge who runs a Title VI National Research Center issue an assurance that the boycott doesn’t apply during working hours. And the public has the right to expect an equal assurance from a university’s higher administration. Anything less than that should be automatically suspect, because it’s the bare minimum, and because it’s obvious that even these assurances don’t mean that there isn’t a stealth boycott underway.

A Title VI federally-funded National Research Center is committed by law to making sure that its programming will reflect “diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions.” Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education, which administers the program, has failed even to define what this means. Consider this test case. On September 19, Columbia’s Middle East Institute co-sponsored (with the university’s Center for Palestine Studies) a panel entitled “The War on Gaza: Military Strategy and Historical Horizons.” (Notice the title, as though there wasn’t a war on Israel too.) It included three Palestinian-American boycotters: Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi, Barnard professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, and legal activist Noura Erakat. And that’s it. Read the live tweets from the session, and judge the tenor of the proceedings yourself. Did this event offer “diverse perspectives and a wide range of views,” and was it structured to “generate debate”? No. So just what must the Middle East Institute do now to assure that it meets its obligation?

My own view is that there’s nothing that a bureaucrat in Washington can do to assure that it does. No Department of Education official is going to detect a stealth boycott or do any serious follow-up on whether taxpayer dollars are going to political activists in academic guise. That means that the reform of Title VI, a creaking holdover from the Cold War, is impossible. If you think that Title VI, on balance, does more good than harm, you’re just going to have to accept that some of your tax dollars will go to agitprop for Hamas. If you think that’s totally unacceptable, you should favor the total elimination of Title VI from the Higher Education Act, now up for reauthorization. There is no middle ground.

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Will Afghanistan Turn the Tables on Pakistan?

Flying into Kabul earlier this week just before Afghanistan’s presidential inauguration, a number of embassy cars sat waiting to pick up VIPs and visitors from their respective nations. It was telling that the Pakistani embassy cars were the only ones not armored. After all, because Pakistan supports the Taliban and its terrorism, the visitors from Islamabad had about as much need for an armored car as Iranian diplomats would in Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon. Terrorism is not a random phenomenon.

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Flying into Kabul earlier this week just before Afghanistan’s presidential inauguration, a number of embassy cars sat waiting to pick up VIPs and visitors from their respective nations. It was telling that the Pakistani embassy cars were the only ones not armored. After all, because Pakistan supports the Taliban and its terrorism, the visitors from Islamabad had about as much need for an armored car as Iranian diplomats would in Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon. Terrorism is not a random phenomenon.

For many Americans, ancient history is anything more than a decade or two old. While a generation of American servicemen, diplomats, and journalists think about the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, they think about it in terms of one-way infiltration: Pakistani-supported Taliban or other terrorists infiltrating into Pakistan in order to conduct terrorism. In this, they are not wrong. But if the broader sweep of history is considered, then much of the infiltration went the other way, with Afghan and Pashtun nationalists sneaking across the border into Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the Northwest Frontier Province. (I had summed up a lot of that history, here.)

As U.S. forces and America’s NATO partners prepare to withdraw upon an arbitrary political deadline, terrorism will surge inside Afghanistan but terrorism will not be limited to that country. Many Afghans believe—and they are perhaps not wrong—that diplomacy will never convince Pakistan to curtail its terror sponsorship. Pakistani officials do not take American diplomats seriously. Pakistani diplomats either lie shamelessly or purposely keep themselves ignorant of the actions and policies of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Instead, Afghans may increasingly turn to tit-for-tat terrorism, all with plausible deniability: A bomb goes off in Kabul? Well, then a bomb will go off in Islamabad. A Talib shoots an Afghan colonel? Well, then a Pakistani colonel will mysteriously suffer the same fate.

Pakistan has supported Islamist radicalism since at least 1971, when its defeat at the hands of Bangladeshi nationalists convinced the ISI and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that radical Islam could be the glue that held Pakistan together and protect it against the corrosiveness of ethnic nationalism. President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq took that embrace of Islamism to a new level.

The Pakistani elite has not hesitated to use the Taliban and various Kashmiri and other jihadi and terrorist groups as a tool of what it perceives as Pakistani interests. Sitting within their elite bubble, they mistakenly believe that they can control these forces of radical Islamism. That Pakistan has suffered 50,000 deaths in its own fight against radicals suggests they are wrong. The blowback may only have just begun, however.

Pakistanis may believe that an American withdrawal will bring peace (on Pakistan’s terms) to Afghanistan, but they may soon learn the hard way that Afghanistan can be an independent actor; that not every official is under the control of, let alone easily intimidated by Pakistan; and that terrorism can go both ways. That is not to endorse terrorism—analysis is not advocacy—but simply a recognition that the regional reverberations of the forthcoming American and NATO drawdown will be far broader than perhaps both Washington and Islamabad consider.

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Palestinians Still Won’t Negotiate

The Palestinian Authority has submitted another one of its statehood bids to the United Nations, this time as a draft petition to the Security Council. These bids, like wars in Gaza, have become an almost biannual affair. Indeed, President Abbas expends far more energy on efforts to achieve statehood at the UN than he does with the Israelis through negotiations, despite the fact that all the governments of the world that really count have repeatedly told him that there is no alternative to a negotiated settlement. This time around Abbas’s UN stunt is a little different. The proposal put forward by the Palestinians today is asking the Security Council to enforce a framework on the negotiation process. In reality, however, what the Palestinians are asking for entirely invalidates the very idea of a negotiated peace.

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The Palestinian Authority has submitted another one of its statehood bids to the United Nations, this time as a draft petition to the Security Council. These bids, like wars in Gaza, have become an almost biannual affair. Indeed, President Abbas expends far more energy on efforts to achieve statehood at the UN than he does with the Israelis through negotiations, despite the fact that all the governments of the world that really count have repeatedly told him that there is no alternative to a negotiated settlement. This time around Abbas’s UN stunt is a little different. The proposal put forward by the Palestinians today is asking the Security Council to enforce a framework on the negotiation process. In reality, however, what the Palestinians are asking for entirely invalidates the very idea of a negotiated peace.

The draft of the Palestinian proposal, submitted just as Prime Minister Netanyahu was about to step into the Oval Office for a meeting with President Obama, seeks to win UN Security Council backing for a deadline that would force Israel to cede the West Bank by November 2016. But that is not all. The petition also gives an extensive rundown of what the final settlement must look like. In addition to the total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Jerusalem being turned into the Palestinian capital, the resolution also calls for a complete end to all Israeli military activity in the territories, an end to any Israeli settlement construction, an opening of all Gaza’s borders, and the deployment of an international force throughout the disputed territories–for the protection of Palestinian civilians, of course. Naturally the resolution draft also calls for a just settlement of Palestinian refugees, which is code for Israel being obliged to allow several million Arabs claiming Palestinian descent to relocate to the Jewish state.

Now, you can think these demands are reasonable or you can think that they are not. But what is undeniable is that it is ridiculous for Abbas to have essentially made meeting all his demands the precondition for his participation in any further peace talks. What kind of negotiation is it that can only begin once all of the outcomes have already been decided? In effect what the Palestinians have said is that there will now only be peace talks if the UN Security Council first obliges the Israelis to agree to grant to them everything they want in advance. And with the outcome of the talks predetermined, what exactly is supposed to be going on in that negotiating room? Abbas has it all worked out come November 2016, and in the meantime chief negotiators Saeb Erekat and Tzipi Livni will be in there whiling away the hours doing what? Parlor games perhaps?

The American, British, and Australian governments have all already said that they won’t be agreeing to the Palestinians’ non-negotiated statehood bid. Abbas and the PA know this. Yet apparently they are going to go ahead and lobby for a Security Council vote on their petition nonetheless. And when the bid gets knocked down by the inevitable U.S. veto, Abbas is threatening to submit an application for membership of the International Criminal Court. The Palestinians have been talking about doing this for years, but they still haven’t because they know that the PA—which now includes Hamas—is itself in full material breach of international law. Abbas is also threatening to end cooperation with Israel on security in the West Bank, an even more hollow threat given that, as we saw in the West Bank over the summer, the PA has been completely neglecting its commitments to keep down militants.

In an almost unreadable piece for Haaretz titled “Welcome to Post-Peace-Era Israel,” Carolina Landsman bemoans how both the Israeli right and left are gradually abandoning the notion of the two-state agreement. Landsman draws attention to an interesting reality and then, as if she hadn’t just read her own piece, promptly concludes by rehearsing the usual expressions about the need for a two-state arrangement anyway. But since Landsman is quite right about what she observes happening, she might at least stop to ask if there might not be a good reason that both sides of the political spectrum are finding themselves forced toward the same conclusion. Even if we leave Hamas out of the equation, the fact is that when Israelis look to Fatah they don’t see a negotiating partner there either. What they see is what they have: Abbas and his clique with their list of all-encompassing non-negotiable demands. Demands that they will not only not put up for discussion, but that they are now seeking to have imposed via the UN. And even with all the good will in the world, you still won’t get very far trying to negotiate with that.

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Should We Silence Those Who Monitor Anti-Semitism on Campus?

Virtually every university or college allows its students to rate their professors and the results of these surveys are usually published. Their contents are always of debatable quality but give incoming students a rough idea of what they are up against when they choose teachers and their courses. The prevailing principle of caveat emptor is generally accepted if not always enjoyed by the faculty. Yet the publication of a guide that attempts to give students and their families an idea about whether college faculty and courses are engaging in and/or supporting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity in the classroom appears to have aroused the ire of an influential group of Jewish academics.

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Virtually every university or college allows its students to rate their professors and the results of these surveys are usually published. Their contents are always of debatable quality but give incoming students a rough idea of what they are up against when they choose teachers and their courses. The prevailing principle of caveat emptor is generally accepted if not always enjoyed by the faculty. Yet the publication of a guide that attempts to give students and their families an idea about whether college faculty and courses are engaging in and/or supporting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity in the classroom appears to have aroused the ire of an influential group of Jewish academics.

As the Forward reports today, 50 North American Jewish Studies professors have signed a joint letter denouncing the work of the AMCHA Initiative. AMCHA is a Jewish campus-monitoring group that seeks to expose those academics that support boycott initiatives against Israel or who otherwise engage in anti-Semitic activity. It then publishes this information on its website. Those students who wish to avoid being trapped in such classrooms and donors to academia can draw their own conclusions from AMCHA’s writings.

AMCHA’s existence can be credited largely to the fact that over the past few decades, Middle Eastern studies in this country has become largely the preserve of scholars who not only espouse anti-Zionist views but who use their academic perches to both propagate their ideology and to intimidate students who dare to disagree. This activity often crosses the boundary between academic debate into open anti-Semitism and has encouraged the growth of groups on campus that seek to silence or intimidate pro-Israel and Jewish students. At a time when attacks on such students are becoming more commonplace and pro-Israel views are struggling to be heard in academia, it would seem as if the least the Jewish community could do is to arm its young people for this struggle. Families deserve information about what is happening in such programs and what exactly is being shoved down their children’s throats. The same applies to those who are asked to fund such programs.

But to the group of Jewish studies professors who signed the letter attacking AMCHA, this sort of effort is nothing less than an attempt to start a new academic boycott of critics of Israel that is no less contemptible than those that seek to isolate Israelis. They believe AMCHA’s efforts stifle academic freedom. They also contend that the definition of anti-Semitic activity used by AMCHA is so broad as to be meaningless. Are they right?

Let’s concede that any debate about what is being taught on campuses must be conducted in such a way as to not be construed as suppression of academic freedom. The Jewish studies professors are correct when they say free exchanges of ideas are the lifeblood of any university as well as a free society such as Israel.

If their letter against AMCHA stuck to these principles, it might have made some sense. But they go further than that and make the following very interesting demand:

The institutions where we teach, as well as many others we know well (including those appearing on AMCHA’s list), offer a broad array of courses dealing with Israel and Palestinian affairs. None of these, whether supportive or critical of Israeli policy, ought to be monitored for content or political orientation.

In other words, what they are really afraid of is not so much that anti-Israel or anti-Semitic academics will find themselves ostracized as they are of the entire concept of accountability for institutions of higher learning. That ought to be a bridge too far even for those who are least likely to care about the spread of incitement against Israel and Jews on the college campus. Their stand is not so much against a putative Jewish thought police as it is against any scrutiny of what goes on at universities and colleges. That is an absurd stand that deserves the contempt of the public and donors to such institutions, not their support.

We also need to ask whether the academic critics of AMCHA are right about the criteria used by the group to determine what is or is not anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. If AMCHA were merely labeling criticism of Israel’s government as beyond the pale, they’d be right. But that’s not the case. Here are AMCHA’s criteria for defining such behavior:

  1. Denying Jews Their Right to Self-Determination
  2. Using Symbols and Images Associated with Historical Anti-Semitism
  3. Comparing Jews to Nazis
  4. Accusing Jews and Israel of Inventing or Exaggerating the Holocaust
  5. Demonizing Israel
  6. Delegitimizing Israel
  7. Holding Israel to a Double Standard
  8. Promoting Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Against Israel
  9. Condoning Terrorism Against Jews, Supporting Terrorist Organizations
  10. Targeting Jewish Students for Discrimination, Harassment, or Intimidation

Do any of the group’s critics really want to argue that anyone who is guilty of behaving in this manner is not anti-Israel?

Let’s also understand that the attempt by this group to paint AMCHA as the forerunner of a new spirit of McCarthyism on campus is looking at the situation through the wrong end of the telescope. If anything, it is pro-Israel academics that are the endangered species on campus, not the Israel-haters. That is especially true in the field of Middle East studies where scholars who do not accept the anti-Zionist point of view or who in any way support the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and the right of self-defense in their ancient homeland find it impossible to get tenure or obtain employment. The fact that Arab and Muslim potentates increasingly fund many Middle Eastern studies departments makes this uniformity more understandable if not defensible.

More to the point, this is a moment in history when a rising tide of anti-Semitism that often seeks to cloak itself in criticism of Israel is sweeping through Europe and finding beachheads in North America, principally in academia. At such a time, it is more important than ever not only to combat this virus of hate but also to understand exactly who is promoting it and where such activity is condoned if not supported.

Let’s also understand that contrary to the aggressive and sometimes violent anti-Israel activities that take place in academia, all AMCHA does is publish a website which labels Israel-haters as such. Its critics are not so much disputing the problem of the growth of anti-Semitism that the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement is fronting as they are merely asking that Jews keep quiet about it and not seek even to hold those who promote such hate accountable for their actions. That is a prescription for complacency that will only aid the movement these professors say they oppose.

Rather than seeking to silence AMCHA, Jewish academics need to find the guts to speak up against the growth of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic activity on campuses. If they don’t, sooner or later Jews will find that it won’t just be Middle Eastern studies where they are unwelcome.

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Afghanistan Heading Toward Meltdown

I spent the past week in Afghanistan to attend the Herat Security Dialogue, an opportunity to meet and debate with Iranians, Pakistanis, Taliban representatives, and senior Afghan government officials, all in Herat’s historic citadel.

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I spent the past week in Afghanistan to attend the Herat Security Dialogue, an opportunity to meet and debate with Iranians, Pakistanis, Taliban representatives, and senior Afghan government officials, all in Herat’s historic citadel.

I’ve been traveling back and forth to Afghanistan since 1997—I was in Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban first attacked the city—and also spent time in Jalalabad, Kabul, Ghazni, and Kandahar when the Taliban controlled those cities in the days before 9/11. I have returned several times since: to visit my wife who worked as a military contractor in Kabul, see Afghan friends, conduct interviews while writing my recent book chapter on U.S.-Taliban diplomacy, and now attend Afghanistan’s premier strategic forum. Because I’m not a guest of the U.S. Embassy or military in Afghanistan, I’ve been able to avoid their security bubble.

The progress I’ve seen over the past 17 years has been remarkable. Flying into Herat is to fly into a bustling and vibrant city; Kabul now has the beginnings of a real skyline. Anyone caught in Kabul traffic would not believe the quiet of the place 14 years ago when cars were scarce. In both Herat and Kabul—the two cities I visited this past week—kites dipped and darted by the dozens, a sport which the Taliban banned. Women in Herat were outspoken about their refusal to go back to the segregation and, indeed, isolation they felt under the Taliban’s s Islamic Emirate. I had the pleasure to sit on a panel with Habiba Sarobi, a former governor of Bamiyan and the first woman ever to serve as an Afghan governor. On Monday, Afghanistan witnessed its first peaceful transfer of power in its history (or at least the first time a living ruler retired peacefully).

Alas, while it may be hard to imagine Afghanistan returning to the totalitarianism of the Taliban or the violence of the civil war years, many Afghans appear to be preparing for the worst. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the power-sharing accord which convinced former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah to cease contesting his second wrong loss and acquiesce to Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration. Abdullah will become a de facto prime minister. On paper, this looks like hard-won, creative diplomacy. In reality, it’s a recipe for disaster. Diplomats love power-sharing coalitions, the broader the better. In reality, these never work. John Bolton and Samantha Power would probably not work well together; neither would Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders. Healthy governance requires a strong opposition, not a broad tent with no one outside. Big tents are less about governance and more about patronage, the polite way of saying bribery.

While Kerry’s agreement allowed the inauguration to go ahead, neither Abdullah nor Ghani has been able to agree on ministerial posts. Afghans said that there are well over a dozen candidates for each post. Analysts criticize former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for monopolizing the interior and defense ministry posts, but in Afghanistan there is a government with far more posts—and all key posts—vacant.

Nor are Afghans optimistic that filling these posts will resolve problems. Most of Karzai’s ministers—or at least their close family members—appear to have made millions during their tenures. They did so against the backdrop of seemingly endless international assistance. Those days are fast coming to an end, which means that new ministers will likely look to accumulate as much money as possible before international troops depart and, with them, international aid.

That brings us to Afghanistan’s illicit economy. International eradication efforts have failed. Opium production is booming, and is only going to get worse. As international assistance dries up, Afghans are not going to sit idle; they are going to harvest and manufacture poppies. The whole reason why NATO has sought to combat poppy cultivation is because opium production funds insurgency, terrorism, and violence. So it stands to reason that Afghanistan is going to become more violent, suffer greater insurgency, and export more terrorism.

Hamid Karzai was a flawed individual, and not always a good leader. How sad it is that Afghans will someday look back on his corrupt rule as “the good old days.”

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Déjà Vu? Public Opinion on Obama’s ISIS Plan Starting to Look Familiar

The Washington Post has some relatively good news for the president–relatively being the key word there. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll finds 50-percent approval for Obama’s handling of the threat from ISIS after announcing and commencing air strikes in Syria. Only 44 percent disapprove. Before Syria was involved, only 42 percent approved of his handling of this one issue. But there is reason for any optimism to be tempered with caution.

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The Washington Post has some relatively good news for the president–relatively being the key word there. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll finds 50-percent approval for Obama’s handling of the threat from ISIS after announcing and commencing air strikes in Syria. Only 44 percent disapprove. Before Syria was involved, only 42 percent approved of his handling of this one issue. But there is reason for any optimism to be tempered with caution.

As Aaron Blake notes, “It has been eight months since Obama last cracked half the American public on any given issue — foreign policy or otherwise — in Washington Post/ABC News polling.” That should be encouraging for the president, as it means the numbers are moving in the right direction. But as Ed Morrissey points out, that 50 percent is actually noticeably lower than the percent of the public who had earlier said they would support this particular strategy. Morrissey writes, correctly:

Getting to 50% approval on a plan which 68% of Americans wanted three weeks ago isn’t really much of an accomplishment. In fact, it looks a little like — how to say it? – leading from behind.

Additionally, he writes that the boost in support is coming in part from Republicans, who are more likely to support hawkish policies. That’s not new, and it’s not really expanding Obama’s base of support–at least not in a way that could overflow onto other issues. (Republicans are unlikely to approve of Obama’s handling of health care or the economy no matter how successful are the anti-ISIS strikes.)

And in fact, we have precedent for warning the president of this effect. Let’s turn the clock back a few years to 2009, when we saw a very similar pattern on a very similar issue.

On December 1, 2009, Obama announced a surge for Afghanistan of an additional 30,000 troops. On the eve of that announcement, Gallup found his approval rating on his prosecution of the Afghanistan war was slipping, from 56 percent in July of that year to 49 percent in September and finally 35 percent just before the speech. After the announcement, Gallup found 51 percent approved of the Afghan surge, including a majority of Republicans and Democrats. Quinnipiac found even higher support for the plan, plus this, as Bloomberg explained: “Also, 57 percent said fighting in Afghanistan was the right course of action, up 9 points from a similar survey released Nov. 18.”

That latter nugget was arguably more important, because it showed that–as is the case with the president’s plan to fight ISIS–Americans approved of the idea behind the strategy. That is, they still wanted to fight, and Obama’s plan matched up to those preferences. Bloomberg added that it was an improvement on “Obama’s handling of the Afghan war, with 45 percent supporting him and 45 percent opposing him. That was a 7-point gain for the president.”

Gallup found Obama’s overall job approval got a bit of a bump too, reaching 52 percent after the announcement. But that dropped a few days later to 47 percent, which represented (at the time) a new low for the administration (though the administration was less than a year old).

Signs of trouble appeared even among the good news back then. For example, not even a majority of Americans believed the goals of the Afghanistan policy they supported would be met.

Which brings us back to ISIS. Obama said he “will not commit you and the rest of our Armed Forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” instead favoring air strikes. But a Wall Street Journal/NBC/Annenberg poll published over the weekend found the public wasn’t buying it: “72 percent of Americans believe the United States will still use its ground troops anyway against ISIS, versus just 20 percent who think it won’t.”

So there’s skepticism on the feasibility of Obama’s plan from the beginning. That doesn’t necessarily doom it in the eyes of the public: according to that same poll, a plurality (45 percent) support using ground troops if military commanders want them, with 37 percent opposed.

You can see what makes this particular issue so dicey for the president. The public seems ahead of him not only on the need to destroy ISIS but also on the possibility of using ground troops. So he could find that while the public isn’t exactly clamoring for another land war, they’re not enamored of too much restraint either. It looks less like a formula for presidential success and more like a formula to run afoul of virtually everyone’s expectations. Such are the perils of leading from behind a fickle public.

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Court Ensures ObamaCare Debate Is Just Getting Started

Even amid a spate of bad news about their Senate candidate’s chances in November, Democrats have been celebrating the way ObamaCare seems to have fallen off the country’s political radar recently. Though the president’s signature health-care law is still deeply unpopular, the issue has been largely eclipsed by general concerns about presidential leadership and scandals in the midterms. But the confidence on the part of the administration and its supporters that this issue was finally settled had to be shaken by a federal court decision yesterday that essentially eviscerated the ability of the law to function in most of the country. If it holds up on appeal, the ruling will not only largely undo the president’s legislative triumph but also set the stage for a new spirited debate on health care that Democrats were hoping to avoid.

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Even amid a spate of bad news about their Senate candidate’s chances in November, Democrats have been celebrating the way ObamaCare seems to have fallen off the country’s political radar recently. Though the president’s signature health-care law is still deeply unpopular, the issue has been largely eclipsed by general concerns about presidential leadership and scandals in the midterms. But the confidence on the part of the administration and its supporters that this issue was finally settled had to be shaken by a federal court decision yesterday that essentially eviscerated the ability of the law to function in most of the country. If it holds up on appeal, the ruling will not only largely undo the president’s legislative triumph but also set the stage for a new spirited debate on health care that Democrats were hoping to avoid.

A federal judge in Oklahoma ruled yesterday in Oklahoma v. Burwell that the government could not extend subsidies to ObamaCare customers in the 36 states where no state exchange currently exists. Judge Ronald A. White rightly decided that the president’s policy of giving the subsidies in all states flatly contradicted the wording of the Affordable Care Act which states that the tax credits could only apply to insurance purchased “through an exchange established by the state.” The administration had claimed it was “standing in the shoes” of the states that refused to set up their own insurance marketplaces, but this was correctly dismissed as an abuse of power with no basis in law.

Who’s to blame here? Democrats will blame Republican judges, but they should be castigating themselves. This is, after all, the bill that then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously said had to be passed before it could be understood. But in their rush to force it down the throats of the country in 2010, they made a fatal drafting error.

While the attorney general of Oklahoma, which challenged the Department of Health and Human Services in this case, praised the decision as “a victory for the rule of law,” there is more at stake here than the question of whether the administration can change an existing law by presidential fiat. This is no technicality. If upheld (other federal courts have split on the question), the ruling will cut off federal subsidies for more than 4.5 million of those who have enrolled in ObamaCare essentially gutting the effectiveness of the law. It cannot function without the subsidies. Since complying with the ruling would require Congress to amend the ACA to cope with the fact that a majority of states wouldn’t set up exchanges, this could end its implementation for the foreseeable future.

This means ObamaCare is heading back to the U.S. Supreme Court where Chief Justice John Roberts’ illogical decision allowed it to survive a challenge to its constitutionality. Would Roberts somehow step in again to save ObamaCare? There’s no telling which way he would jump. But no matter what he does, the president’s supporters can’t feel comfortable once again placing the future of the law in Roberts’ hands.

Just as important, this will also mean that the debate over ObamaCare will be heating up again in 2015. The expected skyrocketing of insurance rates caused by the law as well as what may be a disastrous impact on the economy when the employer mandate is put into effect already made Democratic predictions of its acceptance look foolish. But with the fate of the entire project now up in the air, the debate (which Democrats predicted would already be over) about the merits of this still unpopular law will be heating up next year.

Far from being consigned to the dustbin of history as the president and his fans have often claimed, the ObamaCare debate not only isn’t dead, but the flawed nature of the legislation has ensured it will be bedeviling Democrats in 2015 as much if not more than before.

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Lessons from Birzeit’s Expulsion of Haaretz’s Amira Hass

If the world hasn’t yet grasped that Palestinians aren’t interested in peace, it’s certainly not because Palestinians haven’t been working hard to make it clear. Mahmoud Abbas’s “genocide” speech at the UN last week did get momentary attention, being too public to ignore completely. But an even more telling incident has been almost completely overlooked: the expulsion of Haaretz reporter Amira Hass–a woman who has spent decades promoting the Palestinian cause–from a conference at Birzeit University near Ramallah, solely because she is an Israeli Jew.

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If the world hasn’t yet grasped that Palestinians aren’t interested in peace, it’s certainly not because Palestinians haven’t been working hard to make it clear. Mahmoud Abbas’s “genocide” speech at the UN last week did get momentary attention, being too public to ignore completely. But an even more telling incident has been almost completely overlooked: the expulsion of Haaretz reporter Amira Hass–a woman who has spent decades promoting the Palestinian cause–from a conference at Birzeit University near Ramallah, solely because she is an Israeli Jew.

Nobody, in Israel or outside it, is more pro-Palestinian than Hass. To the best of my knowledge, she’s the only Israeli reporter so dedicated to the Palestinians that she has made her home among them for decades, first in Gaza and then in Ramallah. She reports relentlessly on Palestinian suffering under the “occupation regime” and is a tireless apologist for unattractive Palestinian habits such as stone-throwing. Her latest op-ed, for instance, was an apologia for Abbas’s genocide speech, and her report on her expulsion from Birzeit was similarly forgiving of the bigoted policy that bans all Israeli Jews–though not Israeli Arabs–from the campus simply because they are Israeli Jews. So if students and faculty at Birzeit, the Palestinians’ flagship university, can’t even tolerate having Hass on their campus, what does that say about Palestinian readiness to make peace with the Israeli majority, which doesn’t share her belief that their own country is evil and all justice is on the Palestinians’ side?

After all, universities are where the next generation of leaders is nurtured; this makes Birzeit’s position far more important than that of the 79-year-old Abbas, now in the tenth year of his four-year term. Abbas will soon be gone. But Birzeit’s students and graduates will be an influential force in Palestinian society for decades to come.

So how is peace possible when Birzeit is educating these future Palestinian leaders to believe all Israeli Jews should be shunned simply because they are Israeli Jews? And how is peace possible when these future leaders won’t even listen to any view of the conflict that contradicts their own, such as an Israeli Jew (though not Hass) might provide?

Needless to say, this is the polar opposite of how Israeli universities act: Their faculties overwhelmingly favor a two-state solution and educate accordingly, and Palestinian students are welcome regardless of their views. Even Omar Barghouti, leader of the BDS movement, famously (and hypocritically) obtained his master’s degree from Tel Aviv University and is now pursuing his doctorate there in between trips abroad to urge others to boycott the institution.

Under pressure from her many influential fans–including Germany’s Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which sponsored the conference she was expelled from–Birzeit later said it would make an exception to its rule for “supporters of the Palestinian struggle” like Hass. But that doesn’t fundamentally alter either its bigoted policy or its unwillingness to listen to anyone who might challenge the Palestinian narrative.

Nor is Birzeit exceptional in this regard. In June, for instance, Prof. Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi was forced to resign from another leading Palestinian institution, Al-Quds University, for having dared to take some of his students to Auschwitz to teach them about the Holocaust. If a leading Palestinian university won’t even let its students learn about the Holocaust because it might increase their empathy for Israeli Jews, what does that say about prospects for peace?

As Haaretz blogger Matthew Kalman perceptively noted, peace isn’t the only victim of Birzeit’s behavior: Palestinian universities’ unwillingness to confront students with any perspective that might challenge their preexisting views has also hindered Palestinian economic development, because students aren’t developing the critical thinking skills necessary for success in today’s high-tech economy. But that’s the Palestinians’ problem.

Birzeit’s education to hatred and prejudice, in contrast, ought to be the problem of anyone who claims to care about Israeli-Palestinian peace. Unfortunately, most of the world would rather look the other way.

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Liberal Prejudices and the Secret Service Fiasco

When the director of the Secret Service was hauled before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, Democrats and Republicans were united by a sense of outrage over the agency’s inability to protect the president and the lack of clear answers about why an intruder was allowed to enter the White House. That sense of joint purpose and patriotism is exactly what Americans who are critical of Congress—and especially the GOP-controlled House—have been demanding for years. But that wasn’t good enough for the New York Times. It published an article today that attempted to question the sincerity of Republicans on the issue but which actually told us a lot more about the mindset of liberals than it did about conservatives.

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When the director of the Secret Service was hauled before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, Democrats and Republicans were united by a sense of outrage over the agency’s inability to protect the president and the lack of clear answers about why an intruder was allowed to enter the White House. That sense of joint purpose and patriotism is exactly what Americans who are critical of Congress—and especially the GOP-controlled House—have been demanding for years. But that wasn’t good enough for the New York Times. It published an article today that attempted to question the sincerity of Republicans on the issue but which actually told us a lot more about the mindset of liberals than it did about conservatives.

For Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker there’s something fishy about Republicans expressing concern about threats to the president’s safety. While liberals took umbrage at any attempt to question their patriotism during the years when George W. Bush—the object of their unbridled contempt and rage—was in the White House, Baker was reflecting the mindset of Democrats who think conservative criticism of the Secret Service is hypocritical. For the Times and Baker’s many sources on the left, there is something weird about the ability of Republicans to fiercely oppose President Obama’s policies while still being able to worry about possible threats to his life and that of his family.

According to some of the Democrats Baker quoted, the criticism being leveled at the Secret Service from Republicans is pure cynicism. They think any anger about the lapses in the president’s security—including an incident in Atlanta in which an armed man took pictures of the president in an elevator that was not known when Pierson testified yesterday—is merely an excuse to criticize the administration.

Baker did manage to find one Democrat to contradict his thesis. Paul Begala, a hyper-partisan political consultant who torches conservatives for a living on CNN rightly brushed back the Times’s thesis:

Paul Begala, no stranger to partisan warfare as a longtime adviser to Mr. Clinton, said Republican lawmakers were asking the right questions out of genuine concern. “This is totally on the level,” he said. “They’re acting like real human beings and patriotic Americans.”

But this was the exception in an article that didn’t bother to conceal the snark that dripped from every paragraph. Yet the overt partisanship that characterizes most pieces published in the Times, especially many of those that purport to be straight news, doesn’t entirely explain the decision to treat bipartisan anger about a government agency’s incompetence as an appropriate moment to question Republican sincerity about security at the presidential mansion.

Part of the problem stems from the White House itself. Rather than making clear that the president and his staff are as angry about this as everyone else, spokespeople for the administration were circling the wagons around Pierson until her resignation this afternoon. That was bizarre since as much as the GOP delights in pointing out Obama’s many failures, no reasonable person thinks there is a Republican or Democratic way of carrying out the Secret Service’s duties or believes the president wants the people protecting his family to fail.

Yet there is something more to this than the administration’s consistent tin ear about how to manage a scandal.

What Baker was tapping into with his article is the obvious yet unstated belief on the part of many of the left that Republicans are not just Americans who disagree with them and their leader about policy but are instead vicious racists who want Obama to die. There is no other way to explain not only Baker’s snark but also the refusal to understand that Republicans, like their Democratic colleagues, want government institutions and the commander in chief protected against attack.

Thus, rather than demonstrating the Republicans’ insincerity this reaction to the Secret Service fiasco tells us all we need to know about Washington gridlock. Rather than conservative extremism being the main factor behind the impasse in the capitol, it is actually the refusal of liberals to view Republicans through any prism but their own prejudices. There is plenty of bad will on both sides in our dysfunctional and deeply divided political system these days. But the reflexive refusal of liberals to believe that Republicans don’t actually want Obama to die at the hands of an assassin reveals just how deep the problem of hyper-partisanship is on the left.

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Obama’s Hypocrisy on Civilian Casualties

A few weeks ago, the State Department’s incoherent spokeswoman Marie Harf all but accused Israel of war crimes. As Tablet noted at the time, Harf said that “the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.” She said a full investigation and accounting of Israel’s actions was warranted (as if Israel doesn’t already conduct such investigations). Expect her, then, to be asked about the following:

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A few weeks ago, the State Department’s incoherent spokeswoman Marie Harf all but accused Israel of war crimes. As Tablet noted at the time, Harf said that “the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.” She said a full investigation and accounting of Israel’s actions was warranted (as if Israel doesn’t already conduct such investigations). Expect her, then, to be asked about the following:

The White House has acknowledged for the first time that strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes will not apply to U.S. military operations in Syria and Iraq.

A White House statement to Yahoo News confirming the looser policy came in response to questions about reports that as many as a dozen civilians, including women and young children, were killed when a Tomahawk missile struck the village of Kafr Daryan in Syria’s Idlib province on the morning of Sept. 23.

The Obama White House appears to have expanded Richard Nixon’s famous maxim to international law: when the (American) president does it, it’s not illegal. The Obama administration’s air war on terror has operated under the standard referred to as “near certainty”: that they be all but certain no civilians will be endangered by air strikes. But as the Obama administration continues withdrawing from these battlefields, that gets more difficult to ensure since sources of on-the-ground intelligence dry up.

Such sources weren’t there to begin with in Syria, at least not to the extent they were in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it’s not as though President Obama suddenly decided he doesn’t care about innocent Syrian lives. It’s that he’s doing his best to prevent civilian casualties within the realm of realistic but effective warfare. The double standard is still glaring, as Jonathan pointed out last week. And it only becomes more so with yesterday’s report on the shift in standards. The White House was asked about just how much effort they’re putting into their aim after a particularly damaging errant strike:

But at a briefing for members and staffers of the House Foreign Affairs Committee late last week, Syrian rebel commanders described women and children being hauled from the rubble after an errant cruise missile destroyed a home for displaced civilians. Images of badly injured children also appeared on YouTube, helping to fuel anti-U.S. protests in a number of Syrian villages last week.

“They were carrying bodies out of the rubble. … I saw seven or eight ambulances coming out of there,” said Abu Abdo Salabman, a political member of one of the Free Syria Army factions, who attended the briefing for Foreign Affairs Committee members and staff. “We believe this was a big mistake.”

Yes, a “big mistake” that mere weeks ago the State Department was calling unjustified–tantamount to a war crime, in other words–when committed by Israel. Now, there will be some leeway of course: it’s not as though Obama’s a Republican, so the laws of war are of minimal concern to the left. Additionally, everyone knows a double standard is applied to Israel, so no one expected Barack Obama to live up to his own words or follow his own administration’s sanctimonious pronouncements.

Nonetheless, even some Obama partisans are wondering if the president is simply making it up as he goes along. The Yahoo story that confirmed the removal of the “near certainty” standard quotes Harold Koh, formerly the Obama State Department’s top lawyer, trying mightily to figure out where Obama’s legal authority is coming from:

“They seem to be creating this grey zone” for the conflict, said Harold Koh, who served as the State Department’s top lawyer during President Obama’s first term. “If we’re not applying the strict rules [to prevent civilian casualties] to Syria and Iraq, then they are of relatively limited value.”

The difference, then, between the way the Obama administration and Israel conduct war boils down to: Israel puts the greatest effort it can into avoiding civilian casualties and then follows up with transparent investigations, while Obama basically just hopes for the best. The press should ask him about that.

Indeed, they should do more: will the New York Times shove down its readers’ throats a constant stream of enemy propaganda designed to engender sympathy for genocidal terrorists at the expense of the democratic West? To ask the question is to answer it. If Jews or Republicans can’t be blamed, what’s the point?

More likely, however, is the possibility that the walking disaster that is Marie Harf will be asked about it, since the diplomatic press pool tend not to find her petty sniping and cheerful ignorance intimidating in the least. Does she still think these acts are war crimes, now that her government is the one conducting them? And does she believe she owes Israel an apology? There’s no question she does owe Israel that apology, and so does the Obama administration more broadly. But it would be interesting to see if they could summon the necessary integrity to offer it.

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Historical Truth and the Future of Asia

Decades after the last major outpouring of support for an end to Communist oppression was crushed in the Tiananmen Square massacre, tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are attempting to keep the faltering cause of democracy alive in China. But lost amid the commentary about the world’s largest tyranny and the impotent empathy for the protesters on the part of the West is the context by which China’s democratic neighbor helps discredit the cause of liberty as well as giving the Communists ammunition to fuel nationalist sentiments that help enable them to cling to power.

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Decades after the last major outpouring of support for an end to Communist oppression was crushed in the Tiananmen Square massacre, tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are attempting to keep the faltering cause of democracy alive in China. But lost amid the commentary about the world’s largest tyranny and the impotent empathy for the protesters on the part of the West is the context by which China’s democratic neighbor helps discredit the cause of liberty as well as giving the Communists ammunition to fuel nationalist sentiments that help enable them to cling to power.

I refer to the way Japan’s current government led by Shinzo Abe has sought to revive nationalist fever by, among other things, continuing to own up to the country’s World War Two atrocities in China and throughout Asia. In recent years, this deplorable revisionism has complicated relations between Japan and Korea, which suffered under Tokyo’s brutal rule throughout the first half of the 20th century. But it has also enflamed relations between Japan and China, a regional superpower and a rising military force in the Pacific. While the barbarism practiced by the Japanese military in China curing the 1930s and 40s may seem like ancient history to Americans, it is still very much part of China’s national consciousness. And though we think of Japan as a peaceful economic partner of the United States which left its savage past behind after Hiroshima, the contrast between Germany’s honest if sometimes problematic dedication to tell the truth about the Nazis to its own people and Japan’s continuing denials still has the potential to play havoc with the politics of contemporary Asia.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Herbert P. Bix writes in today’s New York Times, the publication of an official biography of Emperor Hirohito shows that Japan is still refusing to tell the unvarnished truth about its past. The book, reportedly the work of an army of Japanese civil servants and historians who have been compiling it since Hirohito’s death in 1989, appears to stick to the old story that the emperor was a mere puppet in the hands of the country’s military. Moreover, Bix was told by a Japanese newspaper that asked him to write about an embargoed excerpt from the book that he could not comment about the emperor’s “role and responsibility” in the war.

Ironically, as Bix notes, the U.S. was complicit in this cover up for its own reasons. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, it served the cause of the American occupation to connive in the myth that the emperor was innocent of any part in his country’s aggression and the atrocities it committed in the name of its imperial ambition. The agreement to let the emperor remain in place helped smooth the transformation of Japan from a militarized authoritarian state to a pacifist democracy.

But though the myth of the helpless emperor was useful, it was always a lie. As Bix and other historians have demonstrated, far from the puppet depicted in most postwar analyses of Japan’s actions, Hirohito was a dynamic and powerful leader. Indeed, the transformation of the country’s government from one in which the emperor truly was a figurehead into a system in which he exercised direct power was the engine that drove Japan’s 19th century modernization. What historians call the Meiji Restoration—after Hirohito’s grandfather who took back power from the shoguns that had ruled Japan for centuries—was also directly linked to an expansionist spirit that led to war with first China, then Tsarist Russia, and ultimately to the Nazi-like aggression that led it to occupy most of China and to embark on a disastrous and bloody war with the United States.

The decision by General Douglas MacArthur and the Truman administration to give Hirohito a pass was also rooted in a lack of information about how Japan’s imperial system worked. Even during the war when anti-Japanese sentiment was its height, Americans focused their animus on General Hideki Tojo, the country’s prime minister from 1941 to 1944 rather than the emperor who had authorized the aggression carried out in his name. Tojo and other Japanese leaders were rightly held accountable in the Pacific version of the Nuremberg tribunals but they went to their deserved deaths knowing that doing so helped save the emperor from having to account for his own role in their crimes. But it also facilitated the creation of a mindset by which the Japanese seemed to think their part in World War Two was confined to having the first atomic bombs dropped on their cities and having to put up with an American occupation.

Why does this matter? As Bix points out, Japan’s determination to avoid telling the truth makes its neighbors suspicious of any effort to revise the postwar “peace constitution” imposed on the country by the United States. Bix wrongly denounces America’s justified concerns about China’s troubling drive to become a global military power and the need for Japan to assume some responsibility for protecting itself. But he’s right that the rest of Asia, including U.S. allies like Korea and the Philippines will never trust Japan until it owns up to its past.

If Japan wants to return to the world stage it will have to stop lying about Hirohito and the atrocities committed in his name in the last century. Just as important, Tokyo’s obsession with ignoring or covering up its history helps China’s contemporary tyrants whip up nationalism that can be used to suppress any hope of democracy.

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Zakaria Gets a Pass on Plagiarism

Fareed Zakaria has often been criticized in this space for being an inveterate peddler of conventional wisdom about the Middle East and for his tone deaf and often highly inaccurate writings about Israel, the peace process, and the Iranian nuclear threat. But while we don’t expect that his employers at CNN and the Washington Post would hold him accountable for these failings, it remains puzzling as to how it is that even this quintessential foreign-policy insider isn’t being held accountable for sins that have nothing to do with his biases.

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Fareed Zakaria has often been criticized in this space for being an inveterate peddler of conventional wisdom about the Middle East and for his tone deaf and often highly inaccurate writings about Israel, the peace process, and the Iranian nuclear threat. But while we don’t expect that his employers at CNN and the Washington Post would hold him accountable for these failings, it remains puzzling as to how it is that even this quintessential foreign-policy insider isn’t being held accountable for sins that have nothing to do with his biases.

As Dylan Byers reports in Politico, charges of plagiarism are now mounting against the TV personality and columnist to the point where Newsweek, one of his former publishers has now chosen to add a disclaimer on its website archive noting the charges and soliciting readers to send in any evidence where articles he wrote “lacked proper attribution.”

Zakaria was disciplined back in 2012 for plagiarism that he claimed at the time to be an unintentional “mistake.” But since then he has continued to be dogged by accusations that he routinely steals the work of others in his books, articles, and TV. The Our Bad Media website claims this has happened more than three dozen times in recent years. As Byers has noted, more recently they have cited 24 such incidents of plagiarism on his Sunday morning CNN show. After consulting with journalism professors, the Politico writer says there is little doubt about the seriousness of the problem. Yet both the Post and CNN are not only failing to hold him accountable for any of this; they have gone so far as to dismiss the complaints entirely. Even CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter merely called the instances “attribution mistakes,” which is a nice way of saying he knows what happened is generally considered plagiarism but understands that Zakaria has become a sacred cow at the network who may not be attacked even when evidence of misconduct is incontrovertible.

As Byers noted, none of the instances of plagiarism are egregious but the accumulation of dozens of instances in which Zakaria lifts the words of others and then uses them as his own makes it clear there is a pattern of misconduct that would normally result in a firing. Byers is at a loss as to explain not only why Zakaria seems to be in no danger at either the Post or CNN but the absence of a genuine hubbub in the media over offenses that normally draw the scorn if not the anger of fellow journalists.

Allow me to offer a possible explanation.

Just as in the business world there are sometimes businesses that are considered too big to fail, so, too, in journalism there appear to be personal brands that have attained untouchable status. While Zakaria is a foreign-policy wonk and not a network anchor, his access to President Obama has given him a cachet that would otherwise be impossible for other journalists to attain. As a faithful supporter, if not unofficial courtier of the administration, Zakaria can always be relied upon to defend the president and his foreign-policy team no matter how many mistakes they make. In a media environment where foreign news is often marginalized even on the cable news channels, Zakaria has somehow risen to the point where he and perhaps his employers labor under the delusion that he is a latter-day Walter Lippmann, an essential commentator who helps create foreign-policy consensus rather than report or write about it.

Such a person is surely not invulnerable but is nevertheless sufficiently powerful to be able to ignore criticisms even of blatant ethics violations. Moreover, admitting the truth of Our Bad Media’s accusations would call into question not just the judgment and behavior of Zakaria but of his bosses. Instead of facing that storm, they appear to be hoping that they can brazen it out.

But if they think this is going away, they are profoundly mistaken. As Newsweek’s call for more information illustrates, Zakaria’s routine theft is a not a case of a few mistakes but of behavior that he may be incapable of halting.

The Washington Post and CNN may believe that being Fareed Zakaria means never having to say you’re sorry. But, as Politico and Newsweek have already discovered, this story isn’t going away.

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Human Shields Aren’t Rethinking Hamas

In the aftermath of its disastrous 50-day war against Israel this past summer Hamas saw its popularity skyrocket with huge majorities in both Gaza and the West Bank telling pollsters that the Islamists “won” and that they supported their conduct. A month later, Palestinians have sobered up a bit. But the latest numbers paint a picture of a population that is still not ready for peace or anything that looks like it.

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In the aftermath of its disastrous 50-day war against Israel this past summer Hamas saw its popularity skyrocket with huge majorities in both Gaza and the West Bank telling pollsters that the Islamists “won” and that they supported their conduct. A month later, Palestinians have sobered up a bit. But the latest numbers paint a picture of a population that is still not ready for peace or anything that looks like it.

The latest survey taken by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) shows that the number of respondents who think Hamas won has declined from its postwar high of 79 percent to only 69 percent. As with the August findings, backing for Hamas and its methods are higher in the West Bank than in Gaza, where residents were directly affected by the fighting. But though the post-war surge reflects the ebbing of the high emotions engendered by the conflict, no one should mistake any of these numbers as a vote of no confidence in the Islamist terror group or a move in the direction of the supposedly more moderate Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas. To the contrary, the PSR results reinforce the conclusion that strong majorities of Palestinians support Hamas’s terror war even if those who must pay the price for this bloody gesture are less enthusiastic about it than onlookers.

Palestinians continue to support Hamas firing more rockets at Israel if the blockade of Gaza is not lifted with 80 percent overall endorsing this position and 72 percent of Gazans also backing the proposition. Given that the only reason the blockade was imposed on Gaza to begin with was the Hamas coup with which the group seized power in 2007, this position sets up a circular argument. But far more shocking than that is the response to the question posed about whether they support Hamas firing rockets from populated areas.

While Hamas generally denies doing this, it is not exactly a secret that it does it so as to use civilians as human shields against possible Israeli counter-attacks aimed at silencing the rocket launchers. Nor are Palestinians unaware of the fact that this practice deliberately exposes them to death and destruction, a cynical tactic whose purpose is to get as many civilians killed as possible.

Yet the survey showed that a solid majority of Palestinians—57 percent—supported this slaughter. Not surprisingly, only 48 percent in Gaza thought it was a good idea to stake them out as human sacrifices on the altar of Hamas’s unending war against the Jewish state. But an impressive 62 percent in the West Bank still endorsed the practice.

Just as ominous are the results to the question about who should lead the Palestinian people. As the Times of Israel reports:

If elections were held today, Hamas’s former Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh would still defeat PA President Mahmoud Abbas by a large majority of 55% compared to 38%, a margin which has, however, shrunk since August, when Haniyeh won 61% support and Abbas only 32%. But in Gaza the two leaders are currently neck and neck, with Abbas winning 47% and Haniyeh 50% in a poll with a 3% margin of error.

That neatly sums up the answer to the question as to whether Abbas, who is currently serving the 10th year of a four-year term as president of the PA will allow new elections anytime soon. It also shows why the only thing preventing another Hamas coup, this time on the West Bank in which Abbas would be deposed, is Israeli security.

Though enthusiasm for Hamas is not unanimous, it remains more popular than its Fatah rivals. Why? Because the unchanging dynamic of Palestinian politics is that whichever party spills the most Jewish blood will always have the upper hand. Since its inception a century ago, Palestinian Arab national identity has been inextricably tied to the war on Zionism.

That also explains, for those who haven’t been paying attention (a group that includes the Obama administration) why Abbas remains incapable of making peace even if the former Holocaust denier (a fact about his biography that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the nerve to mention in his address to the United Nations General Assembly) really wanted to do so. The population in both the West Bank and Gaza still are hostile to any agreement that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn even if meant removing the threat of war.

So long as Hamas’s human shields are ready to vote for more war, any further efforts toward peace are doomed to failure. While President Obama unfairly accused Israelis of not being willing to work for peace, this is a reality that most Israelis have accepted, albeit reluctantly. It’s something the administration, as well as those left-wingers eager to save Israel from itself, need to come to terms with.

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Why Erekat’s Anti-Israel Slander Matters

Those who want to blame Israel for the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians have long been running out of arguments. Israel keeps offering the Palestinians what they claim to want, and the Palestinian leadership keeps rejecting it out of hand. Because of the intellectual vacuity of the blame-Israel crowd, the rejectionists and their supporters increasingly resort to hysterical tirades in opposition to Israel’s survival as a Jewish state, which are nothing if not revealing. And the latest such outburst is no different.

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Those who want to blame Israel for the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians have long been running out of arguments. Israel keeps offering the Palestinians what they claim to want, and the Palestinian leadership keeps rejecting it out of hand. Because of the intellectual vacuity of the blame-Israel crowd, the rejectionists and their supporters increasingly resort to hysterical tirades in opposition to Israel’s survival as a Jewish state, which are nothing if not revealing. And the latest such outburst is no different.

Anti-Israel activist Max Blumenthal, son of Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal, last week compared Israel to ISIS/ISIL at the kangaroo court known as the Russell Tribunal, in which anti-Semites like Roger Waters gather to compare notes on their various libels against the Jews. The gag caught on, spawning the Twitter hashtag #JSIL. But it wasn’t used by anybody intelligent or important until lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat embraced it. According to the Times of Israel:

“Netanyahu is trying to disseminate fear of the Islamic State led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but Netanyahu forgets that he himself leads the Jewish state,” said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator in peace talks with Israel.

“He wants us to call Israel the Jewish state and supports terrorist settlers who kill, destroy and burn mosques and churches… like Baghdadi’s men kill and terrorize,” Erekat told AFP.

It sounds like an attempt at a clever play on words–attempt being the operative word here–but coming from Erekat it’s worth drawing attention to. First of all, Erekat is no stranger to historical fabrication–this is not even the first time this year he’s made up history in order to undermine the Jews’ connection to Israel. Erekat is not an honest man, and he has no qualms about preying on the historical ignorance and political correctness of Western media, who are loath to challenge the Palestinian narrative.

But he’s not a fringe activist, like those who came up with the JSIL hashtag. He’s the chief Palestinian negotiator, and thus the man the Palestinians put front and center to craft an agreement. As the Tower reported on Erekat’s earlier comments:

The Israelis have long insisted that any peace deal should include language recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state,” in part but not completely as a signal from the Palestinians that a final peace deal genuinely guaranteed the end of territorial claims. Palestinian leaders have refused the demand, and Erekat’s reemphasis of the position was described by one Palestinian news outlet as a rejection of “the Jewishness of Israel.” Top Palestinian figures, up to and including Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, have more broadly kept up a campaign denying a historical Jewish link to parts of Israel including Jerusalem.

The Palestinians’ refusal to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state is a refusal to accept the existence of Jews among them. This is why Israel wants the acknowledgement of Israel’s Jewish character: it would mean an end to the Palestinians’ campaign of extermination against the Jewish people. It’s the difference between a “peace process” and actual peace. The Israelis want peace; Western diplomats and their media cheerleaders want a peace process. The Palestinians want neither, but they’ll participate in the charade of a peace process as long as they continue to get concessions without having to give anything up. They are not yet ready to consider peace with Jews as a goal.

Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, and thus a guarantor of Jewish survival and continuity in a world that often appears indifferent to both, should not be controversial. But the survival of the Jewish people nonetheless remains a point of contention, something to be put on the table for the purposes of negotiation but not agreed to ahead of time. John Kerry, who led the last round of negotiations, has wavered on this, to his immense discredit.

Unfortunately, there remain those who believe the Jews should put their survival in the hands of the Palestinians out of some airy pseudoreligious devotion to multiculturalism. Orwell’s belief that some ideas are so foolish only an intellectual could believe them lives on in American academia: UCLA professor Patricia Marks Greenfield recently took to the pages of the Washington Post to declare that “If Gaza and the West Bank were truly part of Israel, and Israel were truly a multiethnic, secular society, there would be progress toward peace.”

Greenfield does not seem to fathom what this would truly mean for the Jews of Israel, nor does she express any desire for what Erekat ultimately seeks. And thus in the dry, innocuous-sounding parlance of the enlightened academic does the idea that the Jews should lose their state and control over their fate further the same ends, though certainly springing from a different mindset, as those of Saeb Erekat. And it is in that light that Erekat’s repulsive comparison of Israel to ISIS should be seen. Israel’s “partner for peace,” the Palestinian leadership, desires to see the end of the Jewish state which, in the minds of Israel’s enemies, means the end of the Jews.

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Keystone Kops at the White House

It might possibly be pathetically funny–if it weren’t so unnerving.

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It might possibly be pathetically funny–if it weren’t so unnerving.

Omar Gonzalez, a disturbed man, jumps over the White House fence and makes it past the staircase leading up to the President’s private quarters, and through the East Room all the way to the Green Room entrance, before finally being “tackled” and arrested.

Oh, and he “overpowered” a female Secret Service agent along the way. And, um, the front door to the White House was unlocked. And they couldn’t shoot the guy or anything because he was “unarmed”–except it turned out he had a knife on him, and 800 rounds of ammo, a machete, and two hatchets in his car, parked nearby. And he had been stopped on August 25 at the White House with a hatchet in his waistband. And just before he jumped the fence three weeks later, two Secret Service officers recognized him from that August encounter but did nothing about it. And he had been pulled over in July in Virginia, where cops found various weapons in his car, and a map with the White House circled–an incident duly reported to both the ATF and the Secret Service.

In keeping with the ethos of the Obama administration, the Secret Service lied about the incident, claiming the intruder had been stopped just inside the White House door–until “whistleblowers” revealed the truth.

The truth being that if Gonzalez had had a bomb hidden under his shirt instead of just a knife, and if the Obama family had been at home, the outcome could have been a national nightmare instead of a mere exercise in buffoonery.

“I am committed to a full and robust fact-finding that allows me to look at what went wrong.”

Thus spake Secret Service director Julia Pierson at the House hearing where she was raked over the coals–even by Democrats.

Apparently, what went wrong is that the Secret Service has turned into the Keystone Kops.

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More on The Rosh Hashanah Sermons

Yesterday, I highlighted two remarkable sermons given at synagogues in New York City, one conservative and one reform, by two rabbis who refused to stay silent on the subject of the summer’s war in Israel/Gaza. I’ve been sent another, this one from Houston, by Rabbi David Lyon of the reform shul Beth Israel, who uses the call of the shofar as the call to Jewish vigilance. It is worthy of attention as well. An excerpt:

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Yesterday, I highlighted two remarkable sermons given at synagogues in New York City, one conservative and one reform, by two rabbis who refused to stay silent on the subject of the summer’s war in Israel/Gaza. I’ve been sent another, this one from Houston, by Rabbi David Lyon of the reform shul Beth Israel, who uses the call of the shofar as the call to Jewish vigilance. It is worthy of attention as well. An excerpt:

On Rosh Hashanah, the sound of the Shofar is the music that awakens us to our phenomenal historical vision. When we hear Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah, Tekiah Gedolah, “our eyes close, turn inward, and an aura almost of sanctity enwraps us all.” It calls us to bear witness to our covenant. Ben Gurion said we can’t predict the future. But, the Shofar awakens us to the future. It compels us to engage with the Ultimate, for the sake of our people’s future.

Let us commit ourselves to throw down the cloak of despair and the yoke of passivity. Let us pick up the staff of leadership, and lead the way forward for our people and the civilized world. Let us be a light unto the nations without arrogance or apology; and, let us arrive at a time when God’s promise to our people is seen in the abundance of our people’s blessings in Israel and in all the places we call home.

This Rosh Hashanah is a defining moment for Israel and the Jewish people. For the sake of the children of the southern city of Sderot who deserve to play outside and the future generations of all God’s children who deserve to live in a world of greater peace, we must wear the prickly, sentimental attire that will bear up against our foes and be welcomed by our advocates.

You can read Lyon’s sermon here.

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Santorum and the Myths About 2012

If Republicans hold to past form, Rick Santorum, whose potential candidacy was profiled in Politico yesterday, ought to be their next presidential nominee. But the expectation that the runner up from the last race will win the next one—a pattern that applied in five out of the last six competitive GOP primary contests—is not one that will likely apply in 2016. The reasons why it won’t have less to do with Santorum’s shortcomings than with the very different composition of the likely field of candidates and the myths that have grown about the 2012 race in both the party’s establishment and its conservative grass roots.

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If Republicans hold to past form, Rick Santorum, whose potential candidacy was profiled in Politico yesterday, ought to be their next presidential nominee. But the expectation that the runner up from the last race will win the next one—a pattern that applied in five out of the last six competitive GOP primary contests—is not one that will likely apply in 2016. The reasons why it won’t have less to do with Santorum’s shortcomings than with the very different composition of the likely field of candidates and the myths that have grown about the 2012 race in both the party’s establishment and its conservative grass roots.

Almost everyone outside of his inner circle thought Santorum’s candidacy was pure folly heading into the 2012 cycle. But a combination of hard work beating the bushes in Iowa and the fact that he was the one true social conservative in the race enabled Santorum to emerge as the chief challenger to frontrunner Mitt Romney. Though Romney’s ultimate victory was never in doubt, Santorum won a dozen primaries and caucuses and earned the right to call himself the second-place finisher. Though politics isn’t horseshoes, coming close did help Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Romney get the nomination the next time out after similar failures.

But this “rule” about runners up won’t apply this time. Unfortunately for Santorum, politics isn’t a quilt pattern. The prospective Republican field is very difference than it was four years ago, and that will dictate very different results.

First of all, there is no true front-runner as there usually is for GOP races. Indeed, the closest thing to a leading candidate once New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was laid low by Bridgegate is Senator Rand Paul. But renewed fears about terrorism mean that Paul is going to have a hard time expanding his appeal significantly beyond his libertarian base. No one, including Santorum, will be able to head into the first contests playing off the base’s resentment of the eventual candidate since no one will be in that role.

Second, though Republicans will have their share of outliers like Dr. Ben Carson, the lineup in their debates could include some genuine heavy hitters. A roster that could include the likes of Paul, Senator Ted Cruz, Christie, Rick Perry (back for his own second go at the presidency), Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and maybe even Paul Ryan or Jeb Bush will leave less room for a dark horse like Santorum to squeeze through to the front of the pack.

Santorum does have on thing that his potential rivals don’t possess: The ability to play to working-class voters. Santorum was right when he criticized the 2012 Republican National Convention for its emphasis on small business owners with its attempt to counter President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” gaffe to the exclusion of those who work for them. But though Santorum brings plenty of substance to the table on economics, social issues, and foreign policy (raising the alarm about the Iranian nuclear threat was a key issue for him during his disastrous 2006 race for reelection to his Pennsylvania Senate seat), it’s far from clear the formula that worked for a time for him last time will do the trick against opponents who don’t fit as neatly into the establishment category as Romney or even New Gingrich did in 2012.

But the discussion of Santorum’s potential candidacy should also cause Republicans to rethink some other myths about their last go round.

One is the idea that Santorum’s challenge was somehow to blame for Romney’s defeat in November.

It is true that it would have been easier on Romney and saved him a great deal of money that he could have employed against Obama had Santorum quit in February rather than pushing on for another couple of months. But it should be recalled that although John McCain’s chief opponents (the most prominent of which was Romney himself) did him that favor in 2008, it didn’t help him win the general election. The same could be said of the 2012 GOP nominee. Even if his grass-roots critics had shut up about his shortcomings sooner and given him an easy glide to the nomination, he was never going to beat Obama. Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate and the enduring, if puzzling, popularity of Barack Obama beat him, not Santorum.

The other prominent 2012 myth among Republicans is the idea that the nomination of a relative moderate depressed the base so much that millions of conservatives stayed home in November ensuring a Democratic victory. That’s a theme that will be sounded by conservatives in the 2016 primaries but there’s little proof that “silent majorities” of right-wingers stayed home in the fall. But unless the GOP establishment coalesces behind a resurgent but still damaged Christie or Jeb Bush decides to run or, as some hope, Romney tries again, there will be little for the base to complain about in a race that will largely be a competition between conservatives.

Santorum’s 2012 achievements should mean that his ambitions deserve more respect from pundits than he’s currently getting. But he is, if anything, an even bigger underdog today than he was four years ago. The bottom line is that in politics there are no real precedents. Nor will rules seeking to end the race earlier than it did last time necessarily work or help the nominee win in November. The coming free-for-all will be played by a different cast and produce different results with the one exception being that it is unlikely to end in a Santorum triumph.

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