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COMMENTARY—website, magazine, bedrock American institution—is a not-for-profit 501 (c) 3 that relies upon the generosity of donors as well as the subscription revenue we derive from our readers and the advertising we generate. We think what we do is important and valuable, and if you do too, I hope you’ll click here and donate to keep us alive and healthy and going for another year.

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Winning Establishment Primary Guarantees Jeb Nothing in 2016

The reasoning behind Jeb Bush’s decision to announce that he would “actively explore” a run for the presidency isn’t hard to figure out. With rumors flying that Mitt Romney was considering making a third try for the presidency as major Republican donors waited to see whether to throw their support to Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, or wait for the 2012 nominee to decide on his plans, Jeb needed to act quickly. By announcing so early, he not only dispelled doubts about his own willingness to run but gained a significant advantage in the hidden primary contest that will decide who represents the party’s establishment in 2016. But as much as this was a coup for Bush, the obstacles to victory for him in his party’s nominating contest are far greater than his fans seem to think.

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The reasoning behind Jeb Bush’s decision to announce that he would “actively explore” a run for the presidency isn’t hard to figure out. With rumors flying that Mitt Romney was considering making a third try for the presidency as major Republican donors waited to see whether to throw their support to Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, or wait for the 2012 nominee to decide on his plans, Jeb needed to act quickly. By announcing so early, he not only dispelled doubts about his own willingness to run but gained a significant advantage in the hidden primary contest that will decide who represents the party’s establishment in 2016. But as much as this was a coup for Bush, the obstacles to victory for him in his party’s nominating contest are far greater than his fans seem to think.

Last week’s stories about Romney changing his mind had to unsettle the Bush camp largely because they hinged on Mitt’s doubts about both Jeb and Christie’s ability to win the nomination. The prospect of a Romney re-entry into the fray froze many establishment donors in place but the Bush announcement will lead some to join his camp rather than to be left outside once the bandwagon starts rolling. Indeed, by doing so now at a point when Romney is probably nowhere near ready to decide and Christie’s effort has yet to move into action, Bush may have already won the establishment primary even before it began.

Up until recently Bush was the one playing Hamlet about running, with many people believing he would ultimately pass on an attempt to be the third member of his family elected to the White House. But now that he’s all but in it, the pressure will grow on Romney to get in or get out. Christie’s hand is also forced since Bush will hope to win the backing of many of the same financial big shots that are key to the New Jersey governor’s chances of launching a credible campaign. Now that everyone is convinced that Bush is running, the longer Christie, who has still never completely recovered from the blow to his reputation that Bridgegate dealt him, waits to make the same sort of announcement, the harder it will be for him to compete for large donors.

But even if we were to concede that Bush is in excellent position to outmaneuver both Romney and Christie, the assumption on the part of the party’s establishment that they will designate the nominee is mistaken.

The experience of both 2008 and 2012 when relative moderates won the Republican nomination has convinced some that no matter what the party’s grassroots say about establishment choices, sooner or later they will have to accept them. That may have been true when both John McCain and Romney turned aside challengers in those years, but the candidates that Bush will have to beat in 2016 are both more diverse and far more formidable. Moreover, as I noted earlier this month, the real problem for Bush isn’t so much his stands on immigration and education as it is his apparent determination to run against the base.

That a man with a longstanding and well-earned reputation as a principled conservative should find himself at odds with the Republican base is a matter of irony as well as concerning to the Bush camp. But having thrown down the gauntlet to the Tea Party and other elements of the base on the Common Core education program and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, Bush hasn’t left himself much room to maneuver. McCain sought to appease the base on immigration when he ran in 2008 and Romney survived his vulnerability on health care by tacking hard to the right on immigration. If Bush sticks to his current positions on those two key points, he will be hardpressed to win Republican primaries where conservatives will dominate.

It is true that a wide-open race with a large field may favor the one man in it with the most name recognition and money. But if Bush thinks establishment donors represent the critical mass of the GOP, he has lost touch with reality. As much as establishment candidates seemed to beat most Tea Party challengers in 2014, the Republican electorate has gotten more conservative, not less, in the last four years. Moreover, governors like Scott Walker, John Kasich, or Mike Pence may have more appeal to moderate voters than a bigger name who must also labor, as John Podhoretz noted in today’s New York Post, under the burden of being the third Bush and yet another son of privilege at a time when the GOP must concentrate on appealing to middle- and working-class voters. Nor can he count on keeping fellow Floridian Senator Marco Rubio out of the race.

Perhaps Bush’s intelligence, grasp of the issues, temperament, and ability to appeal to the center will prevail in the end. But everything we’ve heard from him lately gives the impression that he has lost touch with his party’s grassroots and isn’t particularly interested in reconnecting with it on any terms except as a conqueror. That isn’t a formula for a primary victory or even one in the general election for any candidate. For good or for ill, six years of Barack Obama in the White House has driven the center of the GOP to the right. Even if he keeps Romney out of the race and leaves Christie in the dust, unless Jeb Bush shows us that he knows that, he’ll never win his party’s nomination.

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This Is Cyberwar, Not Tabloid Fodder

The Sony hacking story has largely been treated as a juicy showbiz gossip scandal. We’re probably going to regret that. Read More

The Sony hacking story has largely been treated as a juicy showbiz gossip scandal. We’re probably going to regret that.

If North Korea is behind the computer hacks and threats to terrorize theaters showing The Interview, it confirms a new era of rogue-state terrorism, one for which there’s no counterterrorism blueprint. According to the New York Times, Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema has killed its scheduled New York premier of the anti-Kim Jong-un comedy. The Hollywood Reporter says that the country’s top five theater chains have pulled out of showing the film. Time says the movie’s stars, James Franco and Seth Rogen, have called off their publicity tour. A spate of film executives are backpedaling for their lives as their emails are picked through and published to viral derision. The Times’s Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes write that the theater threat “opens a new range of worry for Hollywood.”

But the danger is larger and graver than that.

In February, hackers laid digital waste to Sheldon Adelson’s Sands casino, forcing the Sands to temporarily disconnect from the Internet. It was a massive undertaking that wiped out or compromised millions of files. Bloomberg reports that “recovering data and building new systems could cost the company $40 million or more” (a figure coincidently close to the $44 million Sony sunk into The Interview). Why did hackers target Adelson? The cyberterrorists who hit him call themselves the “Anti-WMD Team.” They are based in Iran, and claim retaliation for Adelson’s hawkish remarks about the Islamic Republic. Here’s the rub, via Bloomberg:

The security team couldn’t determine if Iran’s government played a role, but it’s unlikely that any hackers inside the country could pull off an attack of that scope without its knowledge, given the close scrutiny of Internet use within its borders. “This isn’t the kind of business you can get into in Iran without the government knowing,” says James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

So, if the evidence is pointing in the right direction, dictatorships are tanking our enterprise, holding us hostage, and essentially turning us into their offshore subjects.

This isn’t a gossip story or an industry problem. It’s war. Moreover, it’s a war we don’t know how to fight. In 2011, the U.S. military declared cyberattacks tantamount to acts of war and therefore liable to military response. But that statement concerned cyberattacks on our government or infastructure. We now have rogue regimes going after American citizens and corporations. There’s nothing on the books for that. There’s been talk of “hacking back” among corporate victims, but that’s a reckless and probably illegal option. There needs to be fresh strategic thinking about this, and fast. We’re catching up to a challenge that’s already out of control.

In his worthwhile 2008 book, Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt noted the paradox of increased technological interconnectivity. As digital networks grow and grow, larger numbers of people become vulnerable to a simple malicious flick of the switch. Today, we live and breathe online. Our money, our secrets, our stray thoughts are now potential weapons to be used against us. What’s most interesting about the attacks on Sony and the Sands is that they weren’t the grand cyberthefts we’d been warned about for years (and which are already happening regularly). The hackers weren’t interested in stealing money. Their aims were anarchic, seeking to disrupt operations and to blackmail with information.

The hackers behind the Sony attack have invoked comparisons to 9/11. They are right in at least one respect. Look where they attacked: The American film industry carries as much symbolic weight as did the World Trade Center. Culturally, perhaps more so. Hollywood movies are a monolithic U.S. export that have served to plant American notions of freedom and unbridled possibility in the minds of untold millions. From now on, filmmakers will think twice before crossing the next paranoid despot. That’s tragic.

But as for all that goofy Dear Leader humor—good riddance. A psychopathic dictator imprisons and starves 25 million people and we make fun of his haircut. That’s a shabby response from history’s greatest defender of human liberty. It’s no wonder that Hollywood laughed at Kim’s fragile ego right up until it found itself cowering before it. Political satire is only effective when it dissuades those who would otherwise aid or support the target of the joke. On this point Kim humor is doubly useless. No citizen of North Korea sees these gags, and, even if they did, their opinion is irrelevant to the whims of the regime.

Perhaps such jokes make us feel better about our own inaction. North Korea propagates an evil too great to countenance. It’s very enormity has become its defense. “The wicked know that if the ill they do be of sufficient horror that men will not speak against it,” said one of Cormac McCarthy’s characters in his novel The Crossing. “That men have just enough stomach for small evils and only these will they oppose.” So while North Korea goes on the attack Americans denounce the perceived racial insensitivities of a film executive’s email correspondence.

With the United States now taking big commercial hits, inaction may no longer be an option. But before we can figure out how to fight back, we need to be clear about the difference between show-business inanities and enemy attacks.

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Exonerating Hamas and Europe’s Moral Bankruptcy

Considering the amount of time that European Union politicians and diplomats channel into obsessing about Israel, one would assume that Europe has no problems of its own. After all, today, in addition to the European Parliament voting in favor of Palestinian statehood there have been reports that the Europeans and Palestinians have now agreed upon a joint resolution to take to the UN Security Council. But perhaps the most glaringly reprehensible decision to have come out of the EU today is the ruling by the union’s General Court that Hamas must be struck from Brussels’s terror blacklist.

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Considering the amount of time that European Union politicians and diplomats channel into obsessing about Israel, one would assume that Europe has no problems of its own. After all, today, in addition to the European Parliament voting in favor of Palestinian statehood there have been reports that the Europeans and Palestinians have now agreed upon a joint resolution to take to the UN Security Council. But perhaps the most glaringly reprehensible decision to have come out of the EU today is the ruling by the union’s General Court that Hamas must be struck from Brussels’s terror blacklist.

The EU’s foreign ministry has reportedly asked the Israeli government not to cause a storm over this ruling and at the moment the official line from Brussels is that they will be appealing the court’s decision. And yet given that at the time of the signing of the short-lived Hamas-Fatah unity deal the EU’s foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton welcomed the move, or the huge amount of funding that the EU channels into Hamas-controlled Gaza, one wonders where exactly EU officials really stand on condemning Hamas. After all, during Israel’s war with the terror group this summer, the EU was particularly vocal in its support for imposing a ceasefire that would leave Hamas in control of Gaza and grant many of Hamas’s key demands in return for more paper promises about ending the rocket fire.

The timing of this ruling also seems more than a little coincidental. Not only is there the expectation of an imminent Palestinian UN statehood bid, but it also coincides with today’s Geneva Convention conference, which among other things is expected to cover issues of international law and alleged war crimes in Gaza. Removing Hamas from the terror list at this time only gives added weight to the arguments of those looking to exonerate Gaza’s Islamist rulers while wishing to have Israel indicted as the key aggressor. And of course, Hamas and its supporters worldwide are hailing the decision as a great breakthrough and victory.

But if there is no politics at work here then it is still far from clear why this ruling came about now, or indeed at all. After all, Europe’s classification of Hamas as a terrorist organization has been good since to 2001. Apparently, the change in designation only comes after a petition to the European Court of Human Rights regarding the designation of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers as terrorists. It seems that the case of the Tamil militants has then been used to springboard this subsequent ruling on Hamas. Indeed, the court’s reasons for annulling the Council of the European Union’s 2001 decision appears incredibly feeble. The court’s grounds for suddenly ruling that the initial classification was invalid simply rests on the claim that the earlier decision was based on evidence that had come from “the press and Internet” and as such must now be deemed insufficient.

Given everything that happened this summer, Hamas’s terrorist credentials should hardly be in doubt. Indeed, both the court and the EU foreign ministry have insisted that the decision was technical and not political. But as anyone who knows how the EU elites function will attest, this is a world in which the technical is consistently manipulated to suit the political. As Daniel Hannan describes in his excellent book How We Invented Freedom, unlike in the English speaking democracies (and indeed the Jewish tradition), within the EU the rule of law is routinely subordinated in favor of political whims and interests. As Hannan points out, the recent economic bailouts of several European states were illegal under the EU’s own laws, but those inconvenient laws were then simply dismissed when they started getting in the way of the greater quest for European federalism. And when the British press noted this hypocrisy the eurocrats mocked what they saw as “Anglo-Saxon literal-mindedness.”

The reality is that European lawmakers are notorious for manipulating the procedures and language of legality to suit political ends. It is simply not conceivable that those who made this ruling were not to some degree swayed by their own slanted view of Hamas, a group which all too many Europeans regard as oppressed freedom fighters. The EU now has just three months to appeal the court ruling, and if it fails to put together a successful case in that time then presumably the existing legislation that prohibits the funding of Hamas and Hamas activities within Europe will become null and void. Although the UK has at least confirmed that it will unilaterally keep Hamas blacklisted anyway.

And so on the same day that the European Parliament voted in favor of Palestinian statehood and Switzerland convened the signatories of the Geneva Convention to pass judgment on Israel’s activities in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem, let it also be remembered that the General Court of the European Union ruled that Hamas should be removed from the union’s terror list. Europe’s moral bankruptcy has never been clearer.

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Yes, It’s Time to Lift the Cuban Embargo

Better Cuba than Iran. That’s my reaction to the news that after months of secret negotiations the U.S. has agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half a century.

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Better Cuba than Iran. That’s my reaction to the news that after months of secret negotiations the U.S. has agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half a century.

This is part of a broader effort by President Obama to reorder American diplomacy during the last two years of his presidency in keeping with his 2008 campaign pledge to talk to any dictator anytime without any preconditions. The centerpiece of his push is an effort to restore relations with Iran in return for a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program. That is a very bad idea because (a) Iran is certain to cheat on any such deal, (b) such a deal would not address Iran’s attempts to dominate the Middle East through the use of its terrorist proxies, and (c) such a deal would likely cause Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia to launch their own nuclear weapons. More broadly, Iran is an expansionist power that threatens core American interests in a vital region of the world; it is also supporting the slaughter of more than 200,000 people in Syria. We should be trying to contain Iran rather than cuddling up to it.

Cuba is different. I recall going to Cuba a few years ago and finding a sad, decrepit relic state–a place where old American clunkers from the 1950s somehow stayed on the road, the buildings were falling down, and people lined up for hours to buy eggs. Its biggest ideological export these days seems to be doctors, not bombs. It’s hard to see this broken-down Communist has-been, ruled by a pair of geriatric brothers, as a major threat to American interests.

Once an exporter of revolution to Africa and Latin America, a trend made famous by Che Guevara, Cuba is now but a shadow of its old subversive self. It still remains a sponsor of terrorism but just barely. According to the State Department, Cuba remains on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list because of its links to the Colombian FARC and ETA groups but those are largely beaten and not much of a threat anymore; indeed Cuba is now facilitating peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government. Certainly the groups sponsored by Cuba are not remotely as dangerous as Hezbollah, the Houthis, Asaib Ahl ah-Haq, and other Iranian proxies.

Cuba also remains a notorious human rights violator but its record is not as bad as Iran and it’s cheering to see that as part of the deal to restore relations with the U.S. it is releasing 53 political prisoners, in addition to two Americans who are being swapped for three Cuban spies held in the U.S. Certainly Cuba’s human-rights record is no worse than Vietnam, another Communist state with which the U.S. restored diplomatic relations. Indeed over the years the U.S. has had diplomatic relations with many more noxious regimes including the Soviet Union–so why not Cuba?

The restoration of diplomatic relations will, in any case, deliver some benefits to the U.S. by allowing us to beef up the staff of the American interests section in Havana, thus increasing our ability to (at least in theory) subvert the regime through the promotion of human rights. Moreover the U.S. embargo on Cuba stays in effect, although President Obama is urging Congress to lift it.

After more than 50 years, it seems hard to argue that the embargo is doing much to undermine the rule of the Castro brothers. It’s time, at long last, to lift the embargo and see if it’s possible to do more to promote a post-Communist future for Cuba with openness than we have been able to accomplish with a standoffish attitude over the past half century.

This is one diplomatic initiative on Obama’s part that I can applaud. I just hope it will sate his appetite for diplomatic achievements before he makes ruinous concessions to the Iranians.

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Cuba and the Price of Normalization

Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

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Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

We are told that Gross’s freedom, along with that of 53 human-rights prisoners, is for humanitarian reasons and not part of a prisoner exchange in which Havana released another person (dubbed a U.S. “intelligence asset”) for three Cuban spies. But the real focus of American policy here was on President Obama’s goal of engagement with America’s foes. As with his outreach to Iran, the president’s belief that diplomacy can smooth out if not entirely erase our differences with dangerous regimes has become the engine of American foreign policy during his administration. Whether it is the failed attempts at resets of relations with the Putin regime in Russia or the long-running effort to appease the Islamist regime in Tehran, the point of American efforts is not so much the achievement of tangible goals or the enhancement of U.S. security as it is on the promotion of good will with nations that have little or no regard for U.S. values or interests.

In pursuit of this amorphous goal, the administration has made bargains, like the interim nuclear accord signed with Iran last year, that do little to promote U.S. goals but allow the president to keep talking with hostile nations. It is in this context that we must view any effort to normalize relations with a tyrannical Cuban government.

It should be conceded that the American embargo on Cuba, which can only be lifted by Congress and not by presidential fiat, has not been effective in isolating that country or in promoting change there. But even if we recognize that this is true, neither should the U.S. be blamed for the endemic poverty in Cuba. After all, many American businesses have obtained exemptions for conducting commerce there and virtually every other nation on the planet does have trade with Cuba. Poverty in Cuba is caused by Communism and the repression that is inherent in the system that the aging Castro brothers have imposed on this tortured island prison.

The arguments for opening U.S. trade with Cuba revolve around the idea that engagement will undermine the Communist system and the regime. It should also be noted that when you consider that America has intense economic relations with China, the world’s largest tyranny, the insistence on isolating a far smaller one in Cuba doesn’t seem to make sense. Seen from that perspective, President Obama’s decision to end 51 years of diplomatic estrangement and to open up trade with it will probably do little harm and perhaps lead to some good.

But there are two underlying dynamics to the decision that are deeply troubling.

The first is that this rapprochement has been achieved by blackmail by a vicious totalitarian state rather than an honest and open diplomatic process. Though we are supposed to believe that Gross’s freedom was incidental to the agreement, it’s clear that his unjust imprisonment raised the price of the payoff Obama was preparing to hand the Castros in order to achieve what he is claiming as a foreign-policy triumph. This is a clear signal to other tyrannies that Washington can be fleeced if a U.S. hostage can be held for ransom.

Second, while America’s efforts had not led to freedom for Cuba, it’s far from clear that what will follow the president’s decision will actually end the Cuban people’s long Communist ordeal. Here, the China precedent is both instructive and chilling. By cooperating in this manner the U.S. is going from a position of futile hostility against Communism to one in which it will be directly complicit in the efforts of this brutal regime to survive. Just as American economic ties helped the communists in Beijing to succeed where those in Moscow failed at the end of the Cold War, so, too, is it likely that all that will be accomplished here is an infusion of American cash and legitimacy that will give a failed, bankrupt yet vicious government a new lease on life.

Though he paid lip service to the cause of promoting freedom when he spoke today, as with so many of his foreign-policy initiatives, the president’s focus is more on repudiating longstanding American policies than on actually helping anyone in Cuba. Nor has he extracted a fair price for granting the Castros what they have been demanding for decades. At a time when Cuba’s main allies, especially Venezuela, are in extremis due to the fall in oil prices, this was the moment for the U.S. to get more than just the freedom of Gross. But, as he has done with the even more dangerous regime in Iran, Obama paid a lot and got nothing for the Cuban people.

We can hope that Cubans will benefit to some extent from this decision but it is doubtful that they will be freer or that their prospects for liberty have been improved. Though the end of the break with Cuba is not nearly as significant as it might have been during the Cold War, it does send a message to every other American foe that the U.S. can be bought off cheaply. That’s an ominous precedent for the nuclear talks with Iran and every other dangerous situation faced by the U.S. while Obama is in the White House.

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Grading Congress: A Bipartisan Failure

“The least-productive Congress in modern history drew to an abrupt close late Tuesday,” the Washington Post reports, echoing the conventional wisdom about this Congress: it’s terrible because of how rarely it legislates its nosy way further into your life. Yet this is also a good opportunity to point out that while this narrative is wrong in how it measures the value of a Congress, it’s not completely wrong. That is, an un-legislating Congress is not as inactive as it seems, and this tends to fool not only the left but also limited-government conservatives as well.

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“The least-productive Congress in modern history drew to an abrupt close late Tuesday,” the Washington Post reports, echoing the conventional wisdom about this Congress: it’s terrible because of how rarely it legislates its nosy way further into your life. Yet this is also a good opportunity to point out that while this narrative is wrong in how it measures the value of a Congress, it’s not completely wrong. That is, an un-legislating Congress is not as inactive as it seems, and this tends to fool not only the left but also limited-government conservatives as well.

First, the obvious. Passing few laws is better than passing bad laws. Grading a Congress by how “productive” it was would be like grading a war by how many bombs were dropped. As the legislative branch, Congress should have goals. Those goals should not be numerical, and members of Congress should not be engaged in federal busywork. Yesterday, CBS’s White House correspondent Mark Knoller tweeted out some last-minute governing done by Congress and the president. For example, he tweeted: “By Act of Congress and Presidential Proclamation, tomorrow is Wright Brothers Day.”

According to the media’s scorecard, this Congress would have been better had it used every day of the year to make such proclamations. We wouldn’t even need a classical calendar anymore: “The president is scheduled to attend a fundraiser this coming Led Zeppelin Day, followed by a speech in Iowa on Dunkin Donuts Iced Dark Roast Blend Day.” Thanks Congress!

And though it wasn’t an act of Congress, a second proclamation was noted by Knoller: “Also by presidential proclamation, today marks the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.” If there is anything that so ably demonstrates the obsessive delusions of the governing class, it is that basic math now must be affirmed by presidential proclamation.

We don’t need, and shouldn’t want, legislating for its own sake. On a more serious note, bad legislation results in far worse than such proclamations. As I and others have noted, the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of police came about because he was engaged in commerce in a market created by the government’s nanny-state regulations run amok. (As James Taranto points out, while liberals initially scoffed at this plain truth it appears Mayor Bill de Blasio “implicitly” acknowledges it.)

Another example: studies show mandatory calorie counts in restaurants are ineffective in changing eating habits, but Reason magazine this week drew attention to “the deleterious effect of this mandate on the estimated twenty million women and ten million men who struggle with eating disorders during their lifetimes (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, and Hudson, 2011). For those working toward recovery, this policy impedes a foundational part of their efforts.”

The government’s “just do something” instincts often take the form of experimenting on the citizenry. They usually turn out to be bad laws, poorly conceived and detrimental to the people. But they stay on the books. We don’t need a Congress that believes it has a responsibility to legislate as an end in itself.

However: a total lack of legislating can have deleterious effects on the effort to keep government limited and transparent as well. As the Economist noted last year in an article on the wordiness and complexity of modern laws:

As the number of new laws has fallen, their average length has increased (see chart). Because relatively few bills pass, a congressman with a proposal will often try to hitch it to an unrelated must-pass bill. When 500 lawmakers do this at once, the result is laws that make “War and Peace” look like a haiku. …

If longer bills were merely a byproduct of cleaner government, that would be a reason to celebrate. But they also reflect a more open form of corruption. Complex systems reward those who know how to navigate them. Over the past decade, Washington has added more households whose income puts them in the top 1% than any other city in America. Many of them made money from government contracting in the defence and security boom the (sic) followed September 11th 2001. But plenty made their money lobbying to slip clauses that benefit their clients into mega-bills that no one can be bothered to read. Long laws suit them rather well.

The Economist puts some of the blame on the anti-earmark crusade, which removed one tool for lawmakers to corral votes, especially from those on the other side of the aisle. But even aside from that issue and the one of lobbying, it remains a fact that–as conservatives rightly point out–there are very few “must-pass” bills.

This is one way to create a Cromnibus. Shoving a year’s worth of legislating into one bill isn’t limited government. It’s binge governing. Liberals are wrong to assume that the number of bills passed by a Congress tells you how valuable that Congress has been. But conservatives make a similar mistake. A year’s worth of legislating is a year’s worth of legislating, no matter how you slice it. And if you’re going to do such an amount of lawmaking, it’s far better to do so in pieces, when there is transparency and debate on what is actually being voted on.

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The GOP’s Resurging Public Image

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Scott Clement write about a new Washington Post-ABC News poll:

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The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Scott Clement write about a new Washington Post-ABC News poll:

Republican victories in the midterm elections have translated into an immediate boost in the party’s image, putting the GOP at its highest point in eight years, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The spike in the party’s standing comes after Republicans picked up nine seats to take control of the Senate, raised their numbers in the House to the highest level in more than half a century and added new governorships to its already clear majority.

In the new poll, 47 percent say they have a favorable impression of the Republican Party, compared with 33 percent in the month before the midterm elections. An equal percentage have an unfavorable view, which marks the first time in six years that fewer than half of Americans said they saw Republicans negatively.

This news is welcome news for the GOP. What it means, I think, is that the American people are giving the Republican Party a careful second look in the aftermath of the multiplying failures of the Obama presidency. (Not only do 50 percent of those surveyed have an unfavorable impression of the Democratic Party; a majority of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the presidency, the economy, immigration, and international affairs, while a plurality disapprove of how he’s handling the threat of terrorism.) It’s quite striking that those surveyed give Republicans in Congress a nine-point advantage over Obama when it comes to handling both the economy and immigration.

At the same time, this boost in the GOP’s image is at least in part a temporary development, one you’d expect in the wake of a very successful midterm election. To their credit, the congressional leadership of the Republican Party has been smart enough to avoid taking steps that might have led to a government shutdown, which would have more than washed away the progress the party has made without achieving anything useful.

The task of the GOP during the next two years is to act in ways that are responsible and adult-like, that shift perceptions of it from being the Party of No to being the party of prosperity and the middle class. There are limits to what the Republican Party can do without a presidential nominee. But between now and when it chooses one, the GOP can avoid traps set for it by the president, present itself as a principled and constructive force in American politics, and hand off to the eventual nominee a party that is better positioned than it has been in a decade.

That may not be everything–but it wouldn’t be nothing, either.

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Writing a Better UN Resolution Won’t Work

European and American diplomats have spent the last week locked in negotiations with representatives of the Palestinian Authority over a draft resolution that may be presented tomorrow to the United Nations Security Council. The measure will be an attempt to get UN recognition for a Palestinian state in the lands taken by Israel in the Six-Day War and to force the Jewish state to accept this diktat. But the effort expended trying to modify the resolution so as to make it a genuine step toward peace is a waste of time. If the Palestinians wanted to negotiate peace with Israel, the conflict would have ended a long time ago. The purpose of this exercise is not to jumpstart negotiations; the purpose is to help the Palestinians avoid them while placing intolerable pressure on Israel to make dangerous concessions.

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European and American diplomats have spent the last week locked in negotiations with representatives of the Palestinian Authority over a draft resolution that may be presented tomorrow to the United Nations Security Council. The measure will be an attempt to get UN recognition for a Palestinian state in the lands taken by Israel in the Six-Day War and to force the Jewish state to accept this diktat. But the effort expended trying to modify the resolution so as to make it a genuine step toward peace is a waste of time. If the Palestinians wanted to negotiate peace with Israel, the conflict would have ended a long time ago. The purpose of this exercise is not to jumpstart negotiations; the purpose is to help the Palestinians avoid them while placing intolerable pressure on Israel to make dangerous concessions.

In theory, the work of the Americans and the Europeans, especially the French, after whom the current draft is being called, is laudable. Knowing that the Palestinians intend to push hard for a resolution at the Security Council, the diplomats have reacted instinctively and sought to create a draft that will do as little harm as possible. In practice that means they have tried to include language that would call for the parties to recognize each other and even hinted at a text that would recognize in some way that Israel is a Jewish state. They’ve also sought to make it require the two sides to negotiate peace before Israel would be forced to withdraw to the 1967 lines and allow a sovereign Palestinian state to be created in the West Bank and part of Jerusalem.

On the surface, that sounds fair to most people. After all, Israel’s position all along has been that it is willing, even eager to negotiate peace with the Palestinians and even the supposedly “hard line” Netanyahu government has said that it was willing to accept a two-state solution. But contrary to the conventional wisdom of the mainstream media, it has never been Israel or Netanyahu that was the obstacle to negotiations or peace. The Palestinians turned down Israeli offers of peace and statehood including Gaza almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem in 2000, 2001, and 2008 and blew up the talks with Netanyahu last year because PA leader Mahmoud Abbas feared being put in a position where he would have to either accept an accord or formally turn it down.

What Abbas wants is to avoid being put in such a difficult position again. That is why he has undertaken an end-run around the peace negotiations sponsored by the U.S. The purpose of the stunt is not to jumpstart more talks but to avoid them altogether.

The point is, even if the draft produced by the French and the Obama administration were to include language about mutual recognition of “Palestine” and a specifically Jewish state of Israel and stating that a withdrawal from the West Bank and Jerusalem would have to be preceded by talks between the parties, that wouldn’t motivate the Palestinians to negotiate peace. Indeed, once they have the force of a UN resolution mandating Israel’s complete withdrawal from the territories they would be officially absolved of any need to talk. They would then merely sit back and wait until the two-year deadline expired and then demand, with the support of the rest of a world that is irredeemably hostile to Israel, a complete Israeli withdrawal from all of the land including Jerusalem without paying for any of it in terms of mutual recognition, security guarantees, or any real assurance that they are prepared to end the conflict.

The reason why this is not an abstract point is that Palestinian nationalism remains inextricably tied to a war against Zionism that has lasted more than a century. Abbas, the supposed moderate, remains adamantly opposed to recognition of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn and continues to speak of a “right of return”—a measure that is synonymous with Israel’s destruction. Meanwhile his erstwhile partners/rivals, the Hamas terrorist group that operates an independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza, remain wedded not merely to the principle of Israel’s destruction but to waging active war upon it.

A Security Council resolution that will have the effect of binding international law will not merely further stiffen the resistance of either Hamas or Abbas’s Fatah to making the sort of concessions that are required for peace; it will embolden them never to do so. Indeed, that is why the wording of the final text doesn’t matter. So long as it contains language that demands that Israel withdraw from all of the land, there will be nothing to negotiate about. The Palestinians will simply demand everything and unless it is prepared to repeat the experiment of the Gaza withdrawal in the West Bank, Israel must say no and face mounting international isolation.

This may please some Americans, including the Obama foreign-policy team, which has always sought to pressure the Israelis into wholesale withdrawals regardless of the consequences for its security or its rights to what is disputed territory. But such a resolution is a guarantee that not only is peace impossible but that the process the U.S. has worked so hard to revive will be dead as well.

That is why the Obama administration should cease wasting time negotiating with the French over the language of the resolution and instead concentrate on ensuring that it does not get the nine voters in the Council that would force a vote. If it does come to a vote, the U.S. must, regardless of President Obama’s antipathy for Netanyahu, veto it. The alternative is the end of any hope for peace as well as of any U.S. influence over events.

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Jennifer Rubin: COMMENTARY Is a Treasure Trove of Rational Thinking

If you are like me, there are times when you think the political world has gone insane. The left indulges in constant Israel-bashing and believes if America retreats from the world, wars will “end.” The free-market system, the best antidote to poverty the planet has ever known, is being systematically dismantled. And without naming names, too many conservatives have taken a holiday from reality. While there are many reasons to love COMMENTARY, the most critical for me is that it provides a treasure trove of rational thinking, clearheaded analysis—and even some optimism about the future of America, the conservative movement, and the West.

We all need an intellectual refuge now and then and access to respected, honest voices trying to make sense of the world. Most of all we need perspective that is rarely available in the 24/7 news environment. Does democracy work in the Arab world? What’s the future of free-market capitalism in the U.S.? Is the American Jewish community self-destructing? It is for answers to these and a hundred other questions that we can turn to COMMENTARY.

COMMENTARY helps ground us in reality and lifts our spirits in very troubled times. I couldn’t survive without it.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

If you are like me, there are times when you think the political world has gone insane. The left indulges in constant Israel-bashing and believes if America retreats from the world, wars will “end.” The free-market system, the best antidote to poverty the planet has ever known, is being systematically dismantled. And without naming names, too many conservatives have taken a holiday from reality. While there are many reasons to love COMMENTARY, the most critical for me is that it provides a treasure trove of rational thinking, clearheaded analysis—and even some optimism about the future of America, the conservative movement, and the West.

We all need an intellectual refuge now and then and access to respected, honest voices trying to make sense of the world. Most of all we need perspective that is rarely available in the 24/7 news environment. Does democracy work in the Arab world? What’s the future of free-market capitalism in the U.S.? Is the American Jewish community self-destructing? It is for answers to these and a hundred other questions that we can turn to COMMENTARY.

COMMENTARY helps ground us in reality and lifts our spirits in very troubled times. I couldn’t survive without it.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

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Pakistan: Incubator of Evil

Jihadist terrorist attacks are, sadly, not a rarity these days. They are, in fact, a daily occurrence. So it takes a special kind of depravity to break through the numbness that repeated atrocities induce. The Pakistani Taliban have done just that by sending their gunmen into a military-run school for the children of Pakistani military personnel. The result was an eight-hour gun battle which apparently left 145 people dead, most of them school children. There are few parallels to such an atrocity beyond the Beslan school massacre in 2004 in which Chechen separatists struck a Russian school, leaving a reported 385 hostages dead, including 186 children.

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Jihadist terrorist attacks are, sadly, not a rarity these days. They are, in fact, a daily occurrence. So it takes a special kind of depravity to break through the numbness that repeated atrocities induce. The Pakistani Taliban have done just that by sending their gunmen into a military-run school for the children of Pakistani military personnel. The result was an eight-hour gun battle which apparently left 145 people dead, most of them school children. There are few parallels to such an atrocity beyond the Beslan school massacre in 2004 in which Chechen separatists struck a Russian school, leaving a reported 385 hostages dead, including 186 children.

It is hardly surprising, of course, that in both cases the perpetrators of these horrifying outrages were killing in the name of Islam. That is not because Islam is a religion uniquely conducive to this sort of evil. Recall that in the 17th century massacres every bit as vile were routinely carried out in Germany in the name of Christianity during the Thirty Years War. In more recent years Serb Orthodox extremists murdered Muslim Bosnians in similar fashion during the wars of Yugoslav succession in the early 1990s. And of course the most costly conflict of modern times, the civil war in Congo, has nothing to do with Islam–it is, rather, all about tribal antagonisms.

But there is no doubt that Islamism–not Islam, per se, but the extremist variant practiced by groups such as the Taliban and ISIS–has become the most important animating philosophy for terrorism today and Pakistan has established itself as one of the centers of this violent faith. For this development Pakistani leaders have no one to blame but themselves: They have been promoting violent Islamism as a state policy since the early 1980s when then-President Zia al Huq was supporting the most extreme elements of the Afghan mujahideen.

More recently Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency has emerged as one of the two leading state sponsors of terrorism in the world (the other being the Iranian Quds Force). It is directly responsible for a long string of atrocities carried out in Afghanistan and India by ISI proxies such as the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. In short, the Pakistani state has a lot of blood on its hands–not only Indian and Afghan blood but a lot of American blood too, because a lot of Americans have died in Pakistani-sponsored attacks in Afghanistan. And not just in Afghanistan: There is also good cause to think the ISI consciously gave Osama bin Laden shelter in Pakistan after he had to leave Afghanistan in a hurry.

Unfortunately for Pakistan it cannot control where extremists strike. The old adage holds that if you keep snakes in your backyard you can expect to be bitten. Pakistan proves how true that is–and now it has been bitten especially hard by monsters who deliberately set out to kill children. True, these particular monsters are from the Pakistani Taliban (the TTP) which is not exactly the same group as the Afghan Taliban. But the two in fact share an ideology, among other things. Both, for instance, acknowledge Mullah Omar as their spiritual leader.

Sooner or later the Pakistani army must learn that it cannot fight some Islamist extremists while making common cause with others. My fear is that after decades of cooperation with these fanatics, the army itself may be so sympathetic to this extremist ideology that significant elements of it have essentially gone over to the enemy. Aside from an Iranian nuke, it is hard to imagine a scarier scenario in the world today than these Pakistani extremists-in-uniform getting access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

For too long America has tended to look away from the problem or pretended that Pakistan is really our friend. I don’t know what the solution is to this enormous menace, but at a minimum we need to stop lying to ourselves and recognize Pakistan for what it is: an incubator of evil.

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PolitiFact’s Ebola Distortions

On October 19 on Fox News Sunday, with the debate over the U.S. response to the spread of Ebola in full swing, George Will quoted a University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy report that challenged the conventional wisdom. The center claimed that “there is scientific and epidemiological evidence that Ebola virus has the potential to be transmitted via infectious aerosol particles both near and at a distance from infected patients.”

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On October 19 on Fox News Sunday, with the debate over the U.S. response to the spread of Ebola in full swing, George Will quoted a University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy report that challenged the conventional wisdom. The center claimed that “there is scientific and epidemiological evidence that Ebola virus has the potential to be transmitted via infectious aerosol particles both near and at a distance from infected patients.”

This was controversial. But it wasn’t made up out of whole cloth; Will quoted a center for infectious disease report. And what it most certainly was not was a lie. According to any reasonable definition of the word, there’s no way to legitimately argue that Will was lying. The accusation doesn’t even make sense. And yet, Will’s comment is the central plank in the liberal opinion column PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year.”

To be fair to PolitiFact, it wasn’t only Will’s comment. But that’s not much of a defense, really. Different statements being grouped together into one “lie”–especially when they’re not lies, even if they’re mistaken–will not do wonders for PolitiFact’s already rock-bottom credibility. But in fact it’s really worse than that. Here’s PolitiFact’s explanation for their choice of “Lie of the Year,” demonstrating beyond any semblance of a doubt that those who run PolitiFact don’t understand the concept around which they’ve supposedly built their business model:

Yet fear of the disease stretched to every corner of America this fall, stoked by exaggerated claims from politicians and pundits. They said Ebola was easy to catch, that illegal immigrants may be carrying the virus across the southern border, that it was all part of a government or corporate conspiracy.

The claims — all wrong — distorted the debate about a serious public health issue. Together, they earn our Lie of the Year for 2014.

You’ll notice right there that PolitiFact engages in its own bit of shameless dishonesty. Grouping those who worried it was easily communicable with those who claimed it was all a government conspiracy is far more deceitful than anything Will or others said. PolitiFact can argue Will was wrong to rely on that particular report, or that he might have misread the report. But PolitiFact is equating statements it knows are completely different.

And yet:

Fox News analyst George Will claimed Ebola could be spread into the general population through a sneeze or a cough, saying the conventional wisdom that Ebola spreads only through direct contact with bodily fluids was wrong.

“The problem is the original assumption, said with great certitude if not certainty, was that you need to have direct contact, meaning with bodily fluids from someone, because it’s not airborne,” Will said. “There are doctors who are saying that in a sneeze or some cough, some of the airborne particles can be infectious.” False.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., described Ebola as “incredibly contagious,” “very transmissible” and “easy to catch.” Mostly False.

Internet conspirators claimed President Obama intended to detain people who had signs of illness. Pants on Fire. Bloggers also said the outbreak was started in a bioweapons lab funded by George Soros and Bill Gates. Pants on Fire.

You get the point. Why group them all together? Because “When combined, the claims edged the nation toward panic.” We can rate that one Pants on Fire. First and foremost, there was no national panic. You can add “panic” to “lie” in the list of words PolitiFact’s writers and editors cannot define. But what actually happened was the reverse: the disease seemed to be spreading more easily than previously thought, and commentators were reacting to it by wondering if U.S. officials were wrong about some aspects of the disease. (It’s also worth noting that in PolitiFact’s supposed debunking of Will’s claim, PolitiFact also got what he said wrong.)

But the other aspect of this is that officials were losing their own credibility, inviting such questions. People were told that if certain precautions were taken, Ebola would not be transmitted from one person to another. Then a nurse treating an Ebola patient claimed to follow those precautions and yet caught the disease. The CDC, for its part, permitted a nurse who treated an Ebola patient and had a fever to fly from Dallas to Ohio to visit family. She was soon diagnosed with Ebola. The CDC later said it erred in letting her fly.

So mistakes were made. There were those who violated quarantines, and medical professionals exposed to Ebola acted irresponsibly on top of the governmental agency’s mistakes. This was not a great moment for figures of authority. They lost some of the public’s trust, and invited the kinds of questions that PolitiFact scoffs at.

The country didn’t “panic.” People started asking questions, and were shouted down. The wacky statements from conspiracy theorists invited their own ridicule, sure, but they had no serious impact on the national conversation. That alone means they shouldn’t even be considered for “Lie of the Year.” I’m sure there were better choices, but it doesn’t matter: it’s clear PolitiFact wasn’t looking for them.

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Walker’s Drug Test Move Is a Mistake

During his successful reelection fight, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker let the public know that in his second term, he intended to challenge federal rules about eligibility for food stamps and unemployment insurance. In the month since his victory, Walker’s determination to see that those seeking this aid should be tested for drugs is undiminished. The measure is, as Walker proved again at the polls, very popular. But as he begins the process of deciding whether a 2016 presidential run is in the cards, Walker ought to think twice about picking a fight that would ultimately be fought on unfavorable ground for conservatives and which will probably be thrown out by the courts anyway.

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During his successful reelection fight, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker let the public know that in his second term, he intended to challenge federal rules about eligibility for food stamps and unemployment insurance. In the month since his victory, Walker’s determination to see that those seeking this aid should be tested for drugs is undiminished. The measure is, as Walker proved again at the polls, very popular. But as he begins the process of deciding whether a 2016 presidential run is in the cards, Walker ought to think twice about picking a fight that would ultimately be fought on unfavorable ground for conservatives and which will probably be thrown out by the courts anyway.

Walker’s plans are, as the Wall Street Journal reported today, part of a series of similar moves by Republican governors across the nation seeking to create a new wave of welfare-reform measures to help people rise above poverty while also providing accountability for the taxpayers. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has already tightened restrictions on assistance and Indiana Governor Mike Pence, whom some also see as a potential presidential candidate even though he seems far less eager than Walker, wants Medicaid recipients to give back some of what they get to the state as a condition for their participation.

All of these ideas are, in theory, quite reasonable. Requiring people to stay off drugs while they are seeking work or getting extra assistance makes sense. The worst aspect of the welfare state is the way it subsidizes and even encourages destructive behavior. It’s also usually good politics since most citizens think of welfare as a privilege rather than a right and believe those who get it should give up a bit of their right to misbehave since such activities are, almost by definition, being conducted on the public’s money.

But Walker, who has to this point moved steadily if not flawlessly from a Milwaukee county executive unknown outside of his state to the status of a conservative folk hero on the strength of his epic fight with public employee unions and their Democratic allies, should rethink any emphasis on this issue if he really wants to run for president. This is not because he’s wrong—he’s not—but because what works politically when you’re running for governor can come across very differently when the presidency is the goal.

The problem with drug testing is twofold. The first is the legal obstacle to implementing such measures. Federal laws about such tests are fairly clear and have consistently been upheld by the courts. While states have rightly sought to gain the right to carry out assistance plans according to their own lights rather than being forced to follow rules designed by out-of-touch D.C. bureaucrats, such battles tend to end in the same way. While the fight for drug testing goes on all across the nations, the legal battles this idea has engendered don’t usually end well for conservatives.

Either the states give up and concede that this isn’t a fight they can win or they are slam dunked by the courts.

But the problem goes further than legal technicalities. Though the issue polls and often tests well at the local or statewide ballot box for conservatives, running for the presidency on the strength of denying aid to poor people may be a different story. The reason why these laws are usually overturned by judges is that they presuppose guilt in a manner that singles out the needy for treatment not afforded other Americans. Drug testing may be a good incentive to keep the poor out of trouble but it also can be portrayed as a form of discrimination. Even worse, it can be blamed for denying help to the poor, especially minorities.

Rightly or wrongly, this is a time when Americans are becoming more focused on racial issues because of the Ferguson, Missouri shooting and the choking death of Eric Garner. That’s why Republican presidential candidates need to remember that the liberal press will interpret any move on their part that relates to large numbers of minorities as an excuse to justify tearing them apart.

The reason Walker has been so successful is that his conservative activism has focused on public-employee unions and their members who often receive better pay and far more benefits than ordinary citizens in the private sector get. Though the unions worked hard in three elections in four years to convince Wisconsin voters that Walker was a villain, he won each time because the object of his wrath was a class of people most citizens despise.

Walker has as good an argument to be made for his presidential candidacy as anyone else in the field including figures like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, who have more establishment support but can’t rouse the enthusiasm of the Tea Party or the GOP base as Walker can. But that doesn’t mean he is immune to liberal efforts to smear him as a racist because of his welfare reform fight.

Welfare recipients aren’t terribly popular but measures that can be distorted to portray Walker as not only insensitive but responsible for taking away food stamps or unemployment from the poor won’t help elect him president. While welfare reform is the right thing to do, Walker and other Republicans should avoid picking fights with people who are far more sympathetic than union fat cats and their thuggish storm troops. This is a battle that he can’t win and will damage his political brand.

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Why Warren Is a Threat to Clinton

In his New York Times column, “Warren Can Win,” David Brooks writes this:

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In his New York Times column, “Warren Can Win,” David Brooks writes this:

[Hillary] Clinton is obviously tough, but she just can’t speak with a clear voice against Wall Street and Washington insiders. [Elizabeth] Warren’s wing shows increasing passion and strength, both in opposing certain Obama nominees and in last week’s budget fight.

The history of populist candidates is that they never actually get the nomination. The establishment wins. That’s still likely. But there is something in the air. The fundamental truth is that every structural and historical advantage favors Clinton, but every day more Democrats embrace the emotion and view defined by Warren.

That strikes me as right. Senator Warren has a hold on the hearts of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in a way that Mrs. Clinton does not. And one can imagine that Warren’s anti-Wall Street stand will be in 2016 what Barack Obama’s anti-Iraq war stand was in 2008–an issue that ignites a political fire that consumes Hillary Clinton.

Secretary Clinton is still the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, of course, and it remains to be seen if Senator Warren–if she decides to run–has anything like the political skills Barack Obama possesses. That’s highly unlikely. On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton is quite an average political talent–inauthentic, often stiff and uninteresting, not at all a natural campaigner (as her husband was). And if there’s a compelling rationale for her to run, it’s not clear to me what it is. As President Obama’s longtime political adviser David Axelrod put it, “What happened in 2008 was that Hillary’s candidacy got out in front of any rationale for it. And the danger is that’s happening again. You hear Ready for Hillary — it’s like, Ready for What? And now Hillary’s task is to find what it is she’s running for and running about, and what would the future look like under another President Clinton. … She has to answer that question.”

Mrs. Clinton couldn’t do that in 2008; it’s an open question if she can in 2016.

The current political climate is unusually unstable for both political parties. We’re seeing populist anger from both the left and the right. At this moment it looks to be more on the rise among Democrats than Republicans. And that can’t be good news for Hillary Clinton.

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Obama’s ISIS Boasts Ring Hollow

President Obama went to New Jersey yesterday to speak to troops at a military base to thank them for their service, as is appropriate for the commander in chief. But the president used the occasion to tout the campaign against the ISIS terror group he began at the end of the summer as a success. Comparing this effort to America’s encounters with al-Qaeda, the president boasted of “hammering” ISIS and having “put them on the defensive.” But as the year heads to a close, there is no sign that the group’s grip on much of Iraq and Syria is slipping. Though Americans must hope that Obama’s optimism about ISIS’s certain doom is well founded, given the half-hearted nature of the U.S. commitment to the fight and the paucity of results, it may be that the group’s continued strength is doing more to undermine confidence in the U.S. commitment to the fight than bolstering it.

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President Obama went to New Jersey yesterday to speak to troops at a military base to thank them for their service, as is appropriate for the commander in chief. But the president used the occasion to tout the campaign against the ISIS terror group he began at the end of the summer as a success. Comparing this effort to America’s encounters with al-Qaeda, the president boasted of “hammering” ISIS and having “put them on the defensive.” But as the year heads to a close, there is no sign that the group’s grip on much of Iraq and Syria is slipping. Though Americans must hope that Obama’s optimism about ISIS’s certain doom is well founded, given the half-hearted nature of the U.S. commitment to the fight and the paucity of results, it may be that the group’s continued strength is doing more to undermine confidence in the U.S. commitment to the fight than bolstering it.

As our Max Boot wrote last month, the administration has only been taking small steps toward assembling the forces needed to defeat ISIS, let alone implanting a war-winning strategy. The few troops and air crew being used to hit ISIS may have done some hammering of the Islamists, but to date there is nothing indicating that either the U.S. or its allies in this battle are anywhere close to being able to start rolling back ISIS’s massive territorial gains of the past year.

The comparison between past American campaigns in both Kosovo and Afghanistan is apt. When those commitments began, the U.S. deployed the kind of force and began bombing the foe on a scale that soon crumpled the resistance of the Serbs and the Taliban respectively. Though the Afghan war continues to this day, the offensive to rout the Islamists out of control of most of the country was successful. But what the U.S. has done so far in the fight against ISIS are pinpricks by comparison. Given the vast territory it has gained on Obama’s watch, the notion that three months of combat have merely “blunted its momentum” is hardly comforting to those suffering under its murderous rule or neighboring countries that were hoping the U.S. would act decisively.

The president was dragged into this fight reluctantly after years of refusing to take action in Syria as the situation there worsened along with the options available to the U.S. The U.S. is paying a high price for Obama’s Hamlet-like dithering before the decision to fight ISIS was taken. But it is also going to be paying a price for the half-hearted nature of the efforts against ISIS going on now.

It’s not just that it is appalling that the world’s sole superpower finds itself either unable or unwilling to muster sufficient force to be able to defeat a group that Obama continues to speak of with contempt. Nor can he use the excuse that it is a guerrilla group hiding out in the mountains that can’t be defeated by the conventional military tactics and airpower that the U.S. military excels in using. ISIS has, in fact, conducted its own conventional war and has managed somehow to go on fighting on two fronts in two countries with no signs that it is cracking.

That was bad enough when the administration was still able to pretend that this wasn’t their fight. But once the beheadings of American citizens forced Obama to act, he has continued to treat this as a minor affair that the U.S. can conduct on the cheap. But wars fought on the cheap tend to be very expensive in the long run. So far, all this campaign has gotten Washington is a closer relationship with an equally dangerous Iranian regime and the loss of trust in American power on the part of its allies.

Though the temptation to speak is obvious, it is a mistake for the president to be running his mouth about desultory achievements that do more to highlight the shortcomings of his strategy than proving their value. So long as it stays in the field in control of the bulk of the territory of two countries while fighting the U.S., ISIS is winning and showing the people of the region that they would be fools not to back the “strong horse” that is standing up to the Americans. Until he can announce some real victories against ISIS, President Obama should stop drawing attention to his failures with foolish boasts that do more to undermine U.S. security than to enhance it.

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The Sydney Siege and the Lone-Wolf Copout

The phenomenon of “lone-wolf” terrorism is vexing to policymakers because it is so hard to predict and prevent. But it also has too often provided an excuse–a way for the political class or security forces to avoid any blame for a successful domestic attack. Even worse, anti-anti-terrorism commentators use lone-wolf attacks to cast doubt on the whole war on terror enterprise as doing more harm than good, or at least not doing much good. Something similar seems to be taking shape in the wake of the Sydney, Australia siege this week.

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The phenomenon of “lone-wolf” terrorism is vexing to policymakers because it is so hard to predict and prevent. But it also has too often provided an excuse–a way for the political class or security forces to avoid any blame for a successful domestic attack. Even worse, anti-anti-terrorism commentators use lone-wolf attacks to cast doubt on the whole war on terror enterprise as doing more harm than good, or at least not doing much good. Something similar seems to be taking shape in the wake of the Sydney, Australia siege this week.

Iranian immigrant Man Haron Monis took a Sydney café full of customers hostage for about sixteen hours; Monis and two of the hostages were killed before the café was cleared. Monis reportedly had recently converted from Shia to Sunni Islam and professed his desire to hang an ISIS flag during the siege (he displayed a more generic Islamic flag while demanding to be brought an ISIS flag). He holds extremist views and has what appears to be a violent history.

And yet, the narrative forming is one of failed antiterror legislation. As the New York Times reports:

The laws, which passed the Australian Parliament with wide support, made it an offense to advocate terrorism, even on social media; banned Australians from going to fight overseas; allowed the authorities to confiscate and cancel passports; and provided for the sharing of information between security services and defense personnel. The government also deployed hundreds of police officers in counterterrorism sweeps across the country.

None of these measures prevented a man known to both the police and leaders of Muslim organizations as deeply troubled and with a long history of run-ins with the law from laying siege to a popular downtown cafe in Sydney, Australia, this week and holding hostages for 16 hours. The attacker, Man Haron Monis, an Iranian immigrant, and two of the 17 hostages were killed early Tuesday amid the chaos of a police raid. …

The case, like recent lone-wolf jihadist attacks in Brussels, Ottawa and New York, raises troubling questions about the ability of governments to monitor homegrown, radicalized would-be jihadists and prevent them from doing harm.

That’s true as far as it goes … but it doesn’t go very far. There was, in fact, plenty that could have been done and the authorities knew it. As the Times notes, Monis was charged last year as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife (she was apparently stabbed and then burned alive). He was out on bail. Then in April he was charged in an older sexual assault case. And here’s the kicker: “Forty more counts of sexual assault relating to six other women were later added to that case.”

So here’s what we have: a Muslim extremist whose current charge sheet includes accessory to murder and more than forty counts of sexual assault who was granted bail. He was free until trial, despite all this. So here’s one obvious measure the authorities could have taken: deny him bail, or even rescind bail once the assault charges started getting counted by the dozen. You shouldn’t have to wave the ISIS flag to get attention; murder and sexual assault over a period of more than a decade should be enough.

According to the L.A. Times, Australia’s bail laws were amended to make such action easier, but not in time to stop Monis. That may or may not be a dodge, but it certainly makes clear that there is something that could have been done to keep Monis off the streets. Throwing up your hands and sighing “lone wolf” is just a copout.

What else can governments learn about domestic extremists from the case? Here’s one more clue, from the New York Times:

In Australia, the government even had information that the Islamic State sought to recruit just such an attacker to carry out a bold attack in Sydney. “All that would be needed to conduct such an attack is a knife, a camera-phone and a victim,” Mr. Abbott warned Parliament in September.

Mr. Monis, who was reported to be armed with a gun, did not appear to have put a great deal of planning into his attack at the Lindt Cafe. Lacking an Islamic State banner, he demanded one in exchange for several hostages, local news media reported.

ISIS and groups like them are thus a domestic threat in two ways. First, the obvious: they can plan attacks on the homeland and try to attract jihadists to a war zone who have Western passports. They can provide training and contacts for someone looking to go back home and cause trouble.

And second, they can plan terrorist attacks from abroad without ever having to enter the target country and without the domestic attacker ever having to leave. This is the intersection of foreign policy and domestic security. If ISIS is seeking to turn disaffected radicals into one-man sleeper agents then the “lone wolf” tag isn’t very edifying–or accurate. And it points to a lesson about the futility of shortcuts: There is no substitute for actually defeating the enemy.

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Obama Falls For Iran’s ‘Good Cop’ Routine

Since winning election in 2013, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has been accorded sympathetic treatment in the foreign press. That his moderation was largely a fictional construct didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Iran had replaced a cartoonlike villain—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—with someone who could be called a moderate. That was bad enough when it came to whitewashing the regime he fronted before the nuclear talks began. However, Rouhani’s fake identity is crucial to the effort to sell the West on the need to appease Iran by signing a deal that would fail to prevent it from becoming a threshold nuclear power. The key to Iran’s success in the talks is for the U.S. to fall for Rouhani’s pose as the good cop resisting the evil influence of the “bad cop” hardliners.

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Since winning election in 2013, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has been accorded sympathetic treatment in the foreign press. That his moderation was largely a fictional construct didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Iran had replaced a cartoonlike villain—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—with someone who could be called a moderate. That was bad enough when it came to whitewashing the regime he fronted before the nuclear talks began. However, Rouhani’s fake identity is crucial to the effort to sell the West on the need to appease Iran by signing a deal that would fail to prevent it from becoming a threshold nuclear power. The key to Iran’s success in the talks is for the U.S. to fall for Rouhani’s pose as the good cop resisting the evil influence of the “bad cop” hardliners.

Rouhani was the least extreme of the set of loyal Islamists who were allowed to run for president but his victory served the purposes of the country’s radical rulers. His pose of moderation has always been more about the need to sell the world a narrative about Iran being on the cusp of change. It didn’t matter that the election that he won was hardly democratic or that he has no real power, which remains firmly in the hands of the country’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nor did anyone care that Rouhani has a long record as a faithful servant of the radical Islamist regime, including a stint at diplomacy after which he boasted of his ability to deceive the West on the nuclear issue. Indeed, the secret talks conducted by the Obama administration that led to the interim nuclear deal signed last November preceded Rouhani’s victory.

Rouhani’s election hasn’t moderated Iran’s behavior either at home or abroad. The country remains a brutal tyranny that punishes dissent, either political or religious, without mercy and spews anti-Semitic hate. It has not ceased to support terrorism abroad and has used its Hezbollah auxiliaries as well as the regime’s own forces to help ally Bashar Assad defend his reign of terror in Syria by slaughtering opponents. And it has continued to defy the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors who want to find out what’s going in its nuclear military research sites.

It is true that there are competing factions within Iran and some of them would like to see Rouhani and his friends fall. That has allowed credulous foreign journalists to buy into the narrative about the moderate Rouhani championing accommodation with the West while the hardliners seek to shut down the nuclear talks. This leads to articles like the one published in today’s New York Times that centers on Rouhani’s pledges to resist his opponents and fight for a nuclear deal that would end sanctions on Iran. Some within the regime are so distrustful of the West that even the sham of a détente with the United States is unacceptable to them.

But the problem with this narrative is that the two sides have the same goal: a nuclear Iran and a U.S. retreat from the region allowing the regime to exercise hegemony in a way that would destabilize and endanger U.S. allies.

Appeasing Iran sufficiently in order to allow Rouhani to tell his opponents that he had bested the U.S. would give President Obama an agreement that he could attempt to portray as a badly needed foreign-policy triumph. But what the president and his foreign-policy team miss in their zeal for a deal is that lifting sanctions and making Rouhani a hero in Iran won’t make that nation less murderous either at home or abroad. Iran’s failing economy and plunging oil prices give the president an opportunity to press the regime to make real concessions on the nuclear issue that would truly end the threat. But rather than risk a confrontation that would force it to give up their nuclear infrastructure, the president, with his press cheering section aiding his cause, seems more worried about helping Rouhani.

The good Iranian cop may have his differences with the bad ones that are closer in many ways to Khamenei. But the U.S. ought to be indifferent as to which Islamist faction rules in Tehran. Rouhani won’t bring freedom to Iran or give up its deadly foreign ambitions to undermine moderate Arab governments and to destroy Israel. Rather than worrying about his factional fights, U.S. negotiators should not be fooled by this transparent charade. But so long as Rouhani can count on Obama and friendly outlets like the Times to make his case for him, the chances that any deal reached will actually prevent Iran from eventually getting a bomb seem small.

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Cheney’s Critics and Moral Clarity in War

As far as America’s political left is concerned, Dick Cheney isn’t merely a wrong-headed Republican; he’s the spawn of the devil. The liberal mainstream media always treated Cheney as George W. Bush’s whipping boy during his administration and this week he’s been continuing that tradition by being willing to get out in front of the cameras after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture. Cheney’s unrepentant and unapologetic defense of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques during his appearance yesterday on Meet the Press, where he was closely questioned by host Chuck Todd, has sent his detractors over the cliff into heights of rhetorical excess and rage that make this debate take on the appearance of a Medieval theological disputation. But while Cheney may be accused of sounding insensitive about some of the very nasty things that were done to al-Qaeda prisoners, he nevertheless seems to posses a degree of moral clarity that few of his critics seem to have.

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As far as America’s political left is concerned, Dick Cheney isn’t merely a wrong-headed Republican; he’s the spawn of the devil. The liberal mainstream media always treated Cheney as George W. Bush’s whipping boy during his administration and this week he’s been continuing that tradition by being willing to get out in front of the cameras after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture. Cheney’s unrepentant and unapologetic defense of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques during his appearance yesterday on Meet the Press, where he was closely questioned by host Chuck Todd, has sent his detractors over the cliff into heights of rhetorical excess and rage that make this debate take on the appearance of a Medieval theological disputation. But while Cheney may be accused of sounding insensitive about some of the very nasty things that were done to al-Qaeda prisoners, he nevertheless seems to posses a degree of moral clarity that few of his critics seem to have.

The discussion about torture reminds us of the qualities that always annoyed his opponents most about Cheney. It’s not just that he does things they hate, it’s his air of defiance in which he doesn’t even accept the premise of the questions posed to him that makes them think he is evil. One example comes from New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait who commented on an earlier appearance by the former vice president on Fox News during which he wouldn’t budge from his stance even when asked about some particularly brutal conditions imposed on the terror suspects:

The host, Bret Baier, asked Cheney about Bush’s reported discomfort when told of a detainee’s having been chained to a dungeon ceiling, clothed only in a diaper, and forced to urinate and defecate on himself. “What are we supposed to do? Kiss him on both cheeks and say ‘Please, please, tell us what you know’?” Cheney said. “Of course not. We did exactly what needed to be done in order to catch those who were guilty on 9/11 and prevent a further attack, and we were successful on both parts.”

Here, finally, was the brutal moral logic of Cheneyism on bright display. The insistence by his fellow partisans on averting their eyes from the horrible truth at least grows out of a human reaction. Cheney does not even understand why somebody would look away. His soul is a cold, black void.

Chait’s argument rests on the notion that even if you thought torture might be necessary, the decent thing to do is to act shocked or horrified by the ill treatment of even the bad guys of al-Qaeda. Cheney won’t play that game and that makes him not only infuriating to liberals but a poster child for the necessity of prosecuting Bush administration figures involved in the practice because, as the New York Times’s Juliet Lapidos wrote, he is “among those looking forward—to a time when, under a different administration, it might be possible to “do it again.” They believe his steely resolution that the right thing was done and lack of qualms about these admittedly tough measures show he lacks a soul that even people like Chait are willing to concede Bush might have possessed.

But while in private life the characteristics Cheney is exhibiting might seem egregious, they are also evidence of exactly what we need from wartime leaders.

What Cheney remembers and all of those who are carrying on about the one-sided and often misleading Senate report forget, is that the Bush administration’s primary responsibility after 9/11 was ensuring that another atrocity didn’t occur and that the U.S. didn’t lose the war that al-Qaeda was waging against it. Throughout the history of this republic, wartime leaders have always been forced to do some things that don’t look too good outside of the context of the time and the situation. As I wrote last week after the report was released, war is, at best, a morally ambiguous affair and always involves brutality and bloodshed even waged for moral causes.

When pressed about specifics about torture, Cheney stands his ground and answers that the real definition of torture is what happened to the victims of 9/11, not the temporary discomfort of their murderers. That can rightly be put down as sophistry. As Chait writes, there is a difference between mass murder and torture. But to those charged with the responsibility of defending America, the only real bottom line is whether the enemy is stopped and defeated. According to most of those in the know, the committee’s report is wrong to assert that the controversial interrogations did not provide useful intelligence. As long as that is true, Cheney won’t be squeamish or play the hypocrite. He believes it was the right thing to do and won’t avert his gaze from the behavior that helped achieve this result.

That may not strike most people as the sort of public attitude they want our leaders to display since Americans have always clung to the notion that they never had to stoop to the level of their enemies to win wars even if that was always a myth. But is Cheney’s attitude really any different from the defiant defense of drone attacks that we hear from the Obama administration? In the last several years, America has fought the war against Islamist terror mainly by waging remote-control war with bombs that kill civilians along with the bad guys. Everyone knows this, but somehow this preference for killing rather than capturing and then interrogating prisoners is somehow considered more moral.

Dick Cheney’s soul isn’t any less than that of Barack Obama because he was willing to unflinchingly defend torture to extract intelligence while the latter prefers to order strikes that kill rather than merely harm civilians along with terrorists.

This quality may not make Cheney likeable but it was the reason why he was the right man for the job at the time. It may not be easy for liberals to admit, but he helped keep us safe and ensured that al-Qaeda would be beaten. The tactics aren’t easy to look at, but as he can rightly assert, the only thing in war that counts in the long run is the results. That’s all the moral clarity history ever asks of wartime leaders.

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How Many Snowden Documents Are Fake?

The 2014 Pulitzers gave supporters of NSA leaker and defector Edward Snowden an opportunity to spike the football. And they would do so. “The Pulitzer Prizes Just Demolished The Idea That Edward Snowden Is A Traitor,” crowed the Huffington Post. The Pulitzer is indeed a prestigious award, though I would doubt that the Huffington Post would claim that the 1932 Pulitzer Prizes demolished the idea that Stalin was a murderous tyrant. Even after the award, Snowden’s actions have given his critics more reason to doubt him. And now we have another.

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The 2014 Pulitzers gave supporters of NSA leaker and defector Edward Snowden an opportunity to spike the football. And they would do so. “The Pulitzer Prizes Just Demolished The Idea That Edward Snowden Is A Traitor,” crowed the Huffington Post. The Pulitzer is indeed a prestigious award, though I would doubt that the Huffington Post would claim that the 1932 Pulitzer Prizes demolished the idea that Stalin was a murderous tyrant. Even after the award, Snowden’s actions have given his critics more reason to doubt him. And now we have another.

Last year, the German publication Spiegel, which had been publishing some of the leaked Snowden documents, alleged that the NSA was bugging Angela Merkel’s phone. I say “alleged” rather than “revealed” because the credibility of that story just took a major hit. The story caused ripples of consternation throughout Europe and threatened to rupture U.S.-German relations, and President Obama apologized, though he denied knowing anything about it. The denial seemed implausible at the time; it turns out the president was probably telling the truth.

The German government began an investigation into the allegations this year, and they have come to some preliminary findings, as Reuters reported:

Germany’s top public prosecutor said an investigation into suspected tapping of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone by U.S. spies had so far failed to find any concrete evidence.

Revelations by former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden that Washington carried out large-scale electronic espionage in Germany provoked widespread outrage — particularly the allegation that the NSA had bugged Merkel’s phone.

Harald Range launched an official investigation in June, believing there was enough preliminary evidence to show unknown U.S. intelligence officers had tapped the phone, although there was not enough clarity on the issue to bring charges.

On Wednesday he said however, “the document presented in public as proof of an actual tapping of the mobile phone is not an authentic surveillance order by the NSA. It does not come from the NSA database.

“Not an authentic surveillance order by the NSA” is an extremely important detail. If that’s true, here’s what appears to have happened: an American defector to Russia (Snowden had been granted asylum in Russia just a couple months before the Spiegel story was published) passed along a fake document designed to throw a wrench in U.S.-German (and U.S.-European) relations.

But we don’t know that either. In fact, this episode raises more questions than it answers. We already know Snowden isn’t trustworthy, and we know his story has changed. We know he has embraced a role as a Putin propagandist. We know that, according to Snowden himself, he doesn’t know everything that’s included in the trove of documents he stole and released on his way to Russia.

So there’s much we already know about Snowden. But if this document is fake, there’s a lot we don’t know about the leaks. First and foremost, we don’t know how much is fake. This is important, because careers were made and Pulitzers were won on the backs of this document trove. NSA reform efforts took shape based on the supposed revelations (many of them surely actual revelations; no one should think all the documents are false).

And it’s also why Snowden’s credibility is so crucial to sorting all this out. The debate that raged in the aftermath of the first disclosures and the news that Snowden had taken much more, which would amount to a steady drip-drip of American secrets, took for granted that the United States government did what Snowden said it did.

In this, Snowden was aided by two things: first and foremost, the journalists who essentially worked as his secretaries. And second, the overwhelming amount of documents he took.

If it’s true that the NSA order regarding Merkel was a fake, why didn’t the NSA show it to be at the time? One possibility is that the size of the bureaucracy of America’s intelligence apparatus makes such a denial a bit like proving a negative: how could the entire organization be sure it never came from NSA? The president’s initial denial suggests the top leaders at the organization truly didn’t recognize the order. But if you redact names and other essential information from such a document, it’s not so easy to trace it.

And who has the resources to conduct such an investigation? Remember, the documents were not handed back to the government. Clearly some of the information released by Snowden’s secretaries was accurate, the rest believable. Snowden seems to have been relying on this.

And he also seems to have been relying on the media. The public doesn’t have access to Snowden’s haul. They trust reporters to sift through them and present them accurately. This is not exactly the golden age of ethics in media, but the public doesn’t really have a choice. They now know that their faith in the media was misplaced. The press isn’t qualified to interpret massive amounts of national-security documents. That doesn’t mean there’s another option; there isn’t. The press still does a great service when correctly reporting on government malfeasance. It would just be nice if the press got the story right far more often than it does.

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No UN Palestinian Veto? Obama’s Tempted.

This week push may come to shove on the long-simmering feud between President Obama and the Israeli government. With the Palestinians pushing for a United Nations Security Council resolution that would unilaterally recognize their independence in the territory won by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, the administration must decide whether it is truly in its interests to facilitate an end run around the peace process it has sponsored by refusing to veto the measure just to demonstrate its pique at Prime Minister Netanyahu and or undermine his chances for reelection in the March elections. But while the stakes here are high for both Israel, whose isolation could be greatly increased by passage of such a resolution, and Netanyahu, the danger to Obama’s foreign policy and U.S. interests from such a vote is high as well. Just as important, the notion that passage of this resolution has anything to do with promoting peace is farcical.

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This week push may come to shove on the long-simmering feud between President Obama and the Israeli government. With the Palestinians pushing for a United Nations Security Council resolution that would unilaterally recognize their independence in the territory won by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, the administration must decide whether it is truly in its interests to facilitate an end run around the peace process it has sponsored by refusing to veto the measure just to demonstrate its pique at Prime Minister Netanyahu and or undermine his chances for reelection in the March elections. But while the stakes here are high for both Israel, whose isolation could be greatly increased by passage of such a resolution, and Netanyahu, the danger to Obama’s foreign policy and U.S. interests from such a vote is high as well. Just as important, the notion that passage of this resolution has anything to do with promoting peace is farcical.

The Palestinian Authority’s motives for seeking to gain a Security Council vote on recognition of their independence are clear. They claim that the peace negotiations promoted by the U.S. over the years has not brought them closer to their declared goal of gaining a state and that only by having the international community force its hand will Israel ever be willing to retreat to the 1967 lines and let Palestinians enjoy sovereignty and self-determination. That is the argument behind the decisions of several European parliaments to adopt resolutions endorsing Palestinian statehood.

But it must be understood that this campaign is about avoiding a negotiated end to the conflict, not finding a shortcut to one. The Palestinians have, after all, been offered statehood in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank, and a share of Jerusalem three times by the Israelis in 2000, 2001, and 2008. Even Netanyahu’s government arrived at the negotiations sponsored by Secretary of State Kerry in the last year prepared to offer another two-state solution with a prominent advocate of this plan, Tzipi Livni, as their negotiator. But PA leader Mahmoud Abbas blew up those talks just as he fled the table in 2008 when Ehud Olmert offered him virtually everything he had asked for. The obstacle wasn’t Israeli settlements or intransigence, but the fact that Abbas knows it would be political suicide for him to sign any deal that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one, no matter where its borders were drawn.

What the Palestinians want, in other words, is a way to avoid negotiations that would obligate them in one form or another to end the conflict with Israel as the price of their independence. The problem with negotiations isn’t that the Israelis, even Netanyahu, have been intransigent, but that no matter how much Obama and Kerry tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, a solution must in the end require them to make peace. The UN resolution they want would merely obligate the Israelis to retreat from more territory without any assurances that what happened when they gave up every inch of Gaza in 2005—the creation of a terrorist Hamas state—would not happen again in the more strategic and larger West Bank.

Obama would savor the embarrassment this would cause Netanyahu, whose chances for reelection might be damaged by an open breach with the United States and the country’s increased isolation as the world demanded it give up land without offering it peace. But this would also mean the effective end of a major portion of the president’s foreign-policy focus: the achievement of a Middle East peace agreement. It would also mark the end of U.S. influence over either side to the confrontation as both Israelis and Palestinians would no longer need or have any desire to gravitate to the U.S.

The surge in Palestinian violence and the growing support for their statehood among European governments may cause Obama to feel more pressure to go along with Western European allies. Just as important, he may be dismayed by the thought that another veto that backs up a negotiated path to Palestinian statehood will be interpreted by Israelis as proving that Netanyahu has, contrary to his critics, not destroyed the alliance. The irony that a decision by the prime minister’s bitter American enemy would help undermine arguments for Netanyahu’s replacement has to worry Obama. But he should also be worried by the blowback from a failure to order a veto.

The president’s hard-core left-wing supporters might defend such a decision but it would be widely condemned by most Democrats, who will rightly see it as a cynical betrayal of principle motivated more by personal grudges than the national interest. It might also backfire in Israel since voters there would be entitled to say the non-veto was proof of Obama’s irremediable hostility to the Jewish state and might motivate many to back Netanyahu so as to demonstrate their unwillingness to be intimidated into accepting measures that would undermine their security and rights.

The optimal scenario for Obama is to avoid any vote on Palestinian independence in the Security Council that would destroy the peace process. But if he is in this difficult position, it’s largely the fault of his own efforts. After spending the last few years bending over backwards trying to demonstrate daylight between the positions of Israel and the United States, the Palestinians have come to believe that sooner or later the president will hand them the diplomatic victory they long for without being forced to pay any price for it. Doing so will be as much a blow to U.S. interests as it will be to Israel, but it’s hard to blame either the Palestinians or the Europeans for thinking that this time, Obama will really betray the Israelis simply in order to harm Netanyahu. If he does, it will mark a new low for an administration that has already turned undermining allies into an art form.

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Sydney Siege and Monitoring Extremists

In the annals of terrorism, 2014 will be notable for two trends: the rise of ISIS, eclipsing al-Qaeda, and the rise of “lone wolf” terrorists carrying out heinous attacks with little if any help from anyone. The two trends are, in fact, related, because ISIS is now becoming as much an inspiration for violent fanatics as al-Qaeda once was.

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In the annals of terrorism, 2014 will be notable for two trends: the rise of ISIS, eclipsing al-Qaeda, and the rise of “lone wolf” terrorists carrying out heinous attacks with little if any help from anyone. The two trends are, in fact, related, because ISIS is now becoming as much an inspiration for violent fanatics as al-Qaeda once was.

Both trends are evident in Australia which saw a 16-hour siege of a cafe in Sydney carried out by a 50-year-old Iranian immigrant calling himself Man Haron Monis, a self-styled sheikh who has preached an extremist gospel and recently converted from Shiite to Sunni Islam. His own lawyer calls him a “damaged goods individual” who was apparently on bail in two different criminal cases–he is charged “with being an accessory before and after the fact in the murder of his ex-wife, Noleen Hayson Pal, who was stabbed and set on fire” and with “the indecent and sexual assault of a woman in western Sydney.” In yet another case, he “pleaded guilty in 2013 to 12 charges related to the sending of poison-pen letters to the families of Australian servicemen who were killed overseas.”

What a charmer. A marginal, criminal character, Monis was apparently spurred into taking hostages because he was exercised about Australian military actions, in cooperation with the U.S. and other allies, against ISIS.

There is little that anyone can do to anticipate such random attacks but there is more that can be done to monitor known extremists such as Monis. Unfortunately standing in the way is a misconceived reading of the freedom of religion which is a bedrock of any free society.

It’s absolutely true that anyone should have the freedom to practice any religion–as long as it doesn’t involve advocating or carrying out acts of violence. Extremists should not be able to hide in a mosque any more than in a synagogue or church. That is why it is deeply unfortunate that Mayor Bill de Blasio shut down a New York Police Department program that sent plainclothes officers to mosques, among other locations, to look for signs of terrorist plotting.

Shutting down this surveillance is a politically correct gesture that arises from the same mindset that had Australians tweeting “#IllRideWithYou” after the Sydney siege started to make clear they would accept taxi rides from drivers in traditional Muslim garb–as if the real problem that Australia faces is “Islamophobia” rather than Islamist terrorism. But while silly, the Sydney tweet campaign was also a harmless gesture. De Blasio’s actions are far more significant. They make New Yorkers less safe from the kind of lone wolf attack that just hit Sydney.

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