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Posts For: March 28, 2007

The Arabs’ Turn

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just spent three days visiting Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. She spoke seven times, including interviews, press roundtables, and press conferences with assorted leaders. But reporters did not find much to say about Rice’s tour, beyond noting her announcement that henceforth Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas will hold meetings twice a month. (Perhaps she reasoned that the two leaders would end the conflict just to get out of having such frequent meetings.)

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just spent three days visiting Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. She spoke seven times, including interviews, press roundtables, and press conferences with assorted leaders. But reporters did not find much to say about Rice’s tour, beyond noting her announcement that henceforth Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas will hold meetings twice a month. (Perhaps she reasoned that the two leaders would end the conflict just to get out of having such frequent meetings.)

What wasn’t given due notice was Rice’s unveiling of a new philosophical component of the peace process, even though it cropped up across her whole trip, from her press roundtable in Washington on Friday to her closing statement in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning. Here it is, from that summary statement:

Just as Israelis and Palestinians must clarify a political horizon together, the Arab states must clarify a political horizon for Israel. These paths do not substitute for one another; they reinforce one another.

The Arab states should begin reaching out to Israel—to reassure Israel that its place in the region will be more, not less secure, by an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state; to show Israel that they accept its place in the Middle East; and to demonstrate that the peace they seek is greater than just the absence of war. Such bold outreach can turn the Arab League’s words into the basis of active diplomacy, and it can hasten the day when a state called Palestine will take its rightful place in the international community.

If pursued seriously, this new approach could be revolutionary. Rice is challenging a premise that has stood since the last Arab peace treaty with Israel over a decade ago: the idea that the Arab states can sit back and complain to the U.S. about Israel while taking no responsibility for moderating the Palestinians through their own example.

After Ehud Barak put a state on the table at Camp David, and Ariel Sharon disengaged from settlements in order to create one in 2005, there was not much more that Israel could do to demonstrate the obvious: it actively wants a Palestinian state. The Palestinians reacted to all this not by meeting Israel halfway, but by running in the other direction—becoming more violent and radicalized. And while all this was going on, the Sunni Arab world has been much more concerned about Iranian power in the region than about the Arab-Israel conflict, which has become a tool in Iran’s hands.

Rice is right: the Arab states need to help the Palestinians out of their radical spiral, and this means thawing Arab relations with Israel. But opening trade offices and holding low-level meetings will not be enough. Ultimately, the boulder that must be rolled aside to unblock the road to a Palestinian state is the Palestinian claim to a right of return, which infringes gravely on Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

The Palestinians are too weak and radicalized to make this move, so the Arab states have to start by saying there will be no “right of return” to Israel, only to Palestine. But why should the Arabs say this when even the U.S. hesitates to talk about it? Now that Israel has taken massive risks for peace and paid dearly, it is time for the U.S. and the Arab states to take much smaller risks with much greater chances of bearing fruit.

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Tiramisu, Andrew?

Joshua Muravchik wrote what I thought was a sharp and sensible item about Zbigniew Brzezinski here yesterday. Others disagree. Andrew Sullivan called Josh’s posting a “brutal, personal attack.” Andrew then proceeded to note that he is still waiting “for one leading neocon to examine some of the premises that led us into what is clearly a bloody and endless trap in Iraq.”

To paraphrase Josh, this is rich. Actually, it is not just rich, it is a parfait on top of tiramisu.

Leading neoconservatives have been examining the premises which led us to topple Saddam Hussein longer than Andrew has been lambasting conservatives—and avidly flagellating himself—for supporting the war.

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Joshua Muravchik wrote what I thought was a sharp and sensible item about Zbigniew Brzezinski here yesterday. Others disagree. Andrew Sullivan called Josh’s posting a “brutal, personal attack.” Andrew then proceeded to note that he is still waiting “for one leading neocon to examine some of the premises that led us into what is clearly a bloody and endless trap in Iraq.”

To paraphrase Josh, this is rich. Actually, it is not just rich, it is a parfait on top of tiramisu.

Leading neoconservatives have been examining the premises which led us to topple Saddam Hussein longer than Andrew has been lambasting conservatives—and avidly flagellating himself—for supporting the war.

One highly pertinent examination was Norman Podhoretz’s essay “Who Is Lying About Iraq?

As Podhoretz noted there, first and foremost among the reasons we went to war was the widely shared belief that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Podhoretz noted that in judging Iraq’s progress toward the acquisition of such weapons, Bush’s CIA director George Tenet

had the backing of all fifteen agencies involved in gathering intelligence for the United States. In the National Intelligence Estimate of 2002, where their collective views were summarized, one of the conclusions offered with “high confidence” was that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.” The intelligence agencies of Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Israel, and—yes—France all agreed with this judgment.

So did Andrew Sullivan. Here is one sample of what he was saying before the war was under way: “The question with Iraq is simple,” Andrew wrote on October 20, 2002:

in trying to stop Saddam getting a nuke, do we follow the same policies as Clinton and Carter in 1994 with North Korea, or do we try something else? Amazingly, large swathes of apparently intelligent people seem to think we should try the Carter/Clinton approach to Iraq. My view is simple: if we do not disarm Saddam now, we never will. And if we don’t, a full-scale nuclear, biological and chemical war is inevitable in the Middle East; and that war, with the help of terror groups like al Qaeda, will soon come to LA and New York and London and Washington. So the choice is a dangerous war now; or a much more destructive war later. I know democracies don’t like to hear these as the two options; democracies rightly, understandably hate to go to war. But these choices, in my view, are the only ones we actually have. So what’s it gonna be? Or do we still want to change the subject?

After we were already in the war and had toppled Saddam Hussein, and doubts began to arise about whether Iraq did in fact have weapons of mass destruction, Andrew continued his defense of the enterprise. On October 3, 2003, in the Washington Times, he wrote:

Today’s ubiquitous second-guessers would have us believe that there was an easy alternative to confronting Saddam earlier this year, and deposing him. But there were no good options—and none better than the difficult decision to go to war. President Bush should, in my view, say something similar at some point. I know that any concession with regard to prewar intelligence can lead to the anti-war hysterics piling on and the Democratic opportunists playing clairvoyants. But the point of concession is to say that he took the right decision—even if the intelligence turned out to be flawed—and may have to make a similar decision again. The threat has not gone away.

And a week later, also in the Washington Times, Andrew continued in the same vein, while adding some additional reasons we were still right to go to war:

The casus belli was not proof of Saddam’s existing weapons, but proof of his refusal to cooperate fully with U.N. inspectors or account fully for his WMD research. Nothing we have discovered after the war has debunked or undermined any of these reasons. And the moral reason for getting rid of an unconscionably evil regime has actually gotten stronger now that we see the full extent of his terror-state.

And by late January, 2004, when it was becoming clearer that Saddam did not have the arsenal of weapons of mass destruction all had feared, Andrew continued to remain on board, writing in the Washington Times yet again:

I still believe in the need to take out WMD threats before they take us out. And I don’t buy the argument that you have to have proof of actual ready-to-go weapons in order to take action. All you really need is componentry. And the preliminary Kay report convinced me—and still convinces me—that the war was worthwhile, that Saddam Hussein had been lying, that he couldn’t be trusted, that we had no viable future alternative to war [sanctions were becoming grotesquely immoral and porous] and that the future threat was absolutely real. But—and it’s a big but—we made the case on the existence of actual, operational WMD and stockpiles of the same. We did so publicly, openly, clearly to as big a global audience as we could find. We said: Trust us. We know. But we didn’t. I cannot see how a single ally will support us in future similar circumstances because of that. Certainly, Britain won’t be able to. And I think a large swathe of American public opinion will be more skeptical than ever. It’s not exactly a case of crying wolf. The wolf was there all right. It’s a function of exaggerating a threat. I believe it was an honest mistake.

In April 2004, around the time the Abu-Ghraib story broke, Andrew Sullivan came to have great misgivings about the way the Bush administration was handling the war. He’s been a shrill critic ever since and has expressed his “shame and sorrow” for his initial support of the war.

Some of his criticisms are legitimate. Many of them, expressed in lacerating—sometimes self-lacerating—tones, are not. But when it comes to the basic decision to go to war, Andrew has disavowed his initial position for reasons that hindsight, and only hindsight, can provide.

Given what we knew at the time, going to war was a necessary move. A legitimate debate can be held now about the mistakes made along the way, about the path forward, or about whether and how to exit. But in conducting that debate, let us not erase the past. By all means let us examine the premises that led us into this war. And let us examine exactly who shared those premises and why.

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The Future of Health Insurance

Monday’s New York Times highlighted one of the many ways that existing models of medical insurance are beginning to come undone. In this case the subject was long-term-care insurance, which is supposed to help cover the exceedingly high cost of intense chronic care required by some elderly Americans—especially those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. As policy-makers have looked at the economic forecasts for old-age health care in the past few decades, they have increasingly used tax incentives and other spurs to encourage middle-aged and older Americans to buy such insurance.

Insurance companies at first jumped right into the newly burgeoning field, but as the years have passed and more patients have made claims, insurers have come to realize that the economic model of long-term care does not work like the rest of their business: demographic changes mean much more demand than originally anticipated, costs are enormous and stretch on for years, and the normal insurance premium structure is often not adequate to make such insurance a profitable enterprise. Several of the biggest early players have suffered mightily. Conseco, which at one point was the leading insurer, actually went bankrupt.

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Monday’s New York Times highlighted one of the many ways that existing models of medical insurance are beginning to come undone. In this case the subject was long-term-care insurance, which is supposed to help cover the exceedingly high cost of intense chronic care required by some elderly Americans—especially those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. As policy-makers have looked at the economic forecasts for old-age health care in the past few decades, they have increasingly used tax incentives and other spurs to encourage middle-aged and older Americans to buy such insurance.

Insurance companies at first jumped right into the newly burgeoning field, but as the years have passed and more patients have made claims, insurers have come to realize that the economic model of long-term care does not work like the rest of their business: demographic changes mean much more demand than originally anticipated, costs are enormous and stretch on for years, and the normal insurance premium structure is often not adequate to make such insurance a profitable enterprise. Several of the biggest early players have suffered mightily. Conseco, which at one point was the leading insurer, actually went bankrupt.

The result is what the Times described this week: some patients who counted on their insurance have been let down as the industry has begun to come to terms with the economic realities of an aging society. The Times story goes too far in its criticism at some points—one California lawyer is quoted saying, “these companies have essentially turned their bureaucracies into profit centers.” Well, yes, that’s what companies are. But the article does get at a growing set of problems for the insurance industry.

The aging society is one source of the trouble, but advances in biological science are another. As genetic knowledge improves, some of the premises of the insurance system could come undone. Insurance is based on an assessment of risk that in turn relies on the inherent unknowability of the future, including our medical future. If that changes, if we become better able to predict with genuine precision our likelihood of falling prey to certain medical conditions, it will begin to make less and less sense for insurers to cover us for those illnesses. If they know with near certainty that we are likely to need a particular treatment, then insuring us for it would cease to be a risk, and would become just bad business judgment.

In both cases—long-term-care insurance and improving genetic knowledge—we find that the problem is not so much a lack of coverage or care, but a business model that’s failing to keep up with reality. The age of biotechnology, which has only begun, will certainly bring many more such challenges.

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Welcome, Wilfred McClay

contentions would like to welcome as a guest blogger Wilfred M. McClay, holder of the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a veteran COMMENTARY contributor. His most recent book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans). He’ll be blogging from Rome, where he is spending a term as senior Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Rome. Wilfred brings with him tremendous erudition and a distinct voice, and we’re delighted to have him.

contentions would like to welcome as a guest blogger Wilfred M. McClay, holder of the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a veteran COMMENTARY contributor. His most recent book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans). He’ll be blogging from Rome, where he is spending a term as senior Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Rome. Wilfred brings with him tremendous erudition and a distinct voice, and we’re delighted to have him.

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God and Man in Rome

When it comes to cultural exchange programs for academics, my reflexive attitude tends to be very much like my attitude toward the institution of tenure: it’s probably a bad idea in many cases, for most people, but if it’s going to exist . . . well, I shouldn’t deny myself the benefits. Thus I’ve come to Rome, under the auspices of the Fulbright program, for a semester of teaching and lecturing. I am not sure whether five months spent living in Rome and traveling around Italy will make me a better professor, but the experiment seemed worth conducting. So I have taken it on—strictly, I will have you know, in the severe spirit of disinterested scientific inquiry, a spirit I bring with particular asperity to my examination of Italian foods and wines.

I am teaching the history of American religion to graduate students in an American-studies program, and can report that the level of interest in the subject is extremely high. I had not really wanted to spend so much of my time teaching about American religion, but my Italian hosts insisted otherwise, and now I understand their wisdom.

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When it comes to cultural exchange programs for academics, my reflexive attitude tends to be very much like my attitude toward the institution of tenure: it’s probably a bad idea in many cases, for most people, but if it’s going to exist . . . well, I shouldn’t deny myself the benefits. Thus I’ve come to Rome, under the auspices of the Fulbright program, for a semester of teaching and lecturing. I am not sure whether five months spent living in Rome and traveling around Italy will make me a better professor, but the experiment seemed worth conducting. So I have taken it on—strictly, I will have you know, in the severe spirit of disinterested scientific inquiry, a spirit I bring with particular asperity to my examination of Italian foods and wines.

I am teaching the history of American religion to graduate students in an American-studies program, and can report that the level of interest in the subject is extremely high. I had not really wanted to spend so much of my time teaching about American religion, but my Italian hosts insisted otherwise, and now I understand their wisdom.

None of my students, so far as I can tell, consider themselves believers in any conventional sense, though I assume that most are at least nominally Roman Catholic, and have been baptized and confirmed. Italians, like most of us, hedge their bets; and given the remarkable closeness of Italian families, and the still-formidable presence of the Italian mama, I suspect that such young people go to mass more often than they let on.

But they are utterly without the kind of anti-religious or anti-clerical edge to their sentiments that one might expect, and seem genuinely curious to understand the reasons behind the otherwise inexplicable (to them) persistence of religion in America. They came into the course knowing nothing whatever about Protestantism, and are astonished to find out that the New England Puritans were such formidable intellects, to read documents like James Madison’s magisterial “Memorial and Remonstrance,” and to see the truth in Tocqueville’s assertion that in America, the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion actually supported one another, and that the Enlightenment and Protestantism coexisted with remarkable comfort.

Above all, they are curious: curious about revivalism and its relationship to social reform movements, curious about Mormonism, curious about all the utopian experiments of the 19th century and all the other wild edges of American religion, curious about the centrality of the conversion experience in American evangelicalism, about how Protestants understood the authority of the Bible, and perhaps above all, about the voluntaristic character of American religion. The Baptist emphasis on the primacy of the uncoerced conscience: this is an ideal that clearly intrigues them.

In other words, it is all entirely new to them, so that the experience of teaching them has been energizing, and has caused me to see my own subject afresh. (Thank you, Senator Fulbright.) From the inside of American culture, one is at times impressed by nothing so much as the anarchy and inanity of American religion: its thinness, its institutional chaos, its individualism, its trendiness, its willingness to pander to the consumer and to the culture. These observations remain as valid as ever. And yet my experiences here, listening to students who have grown up in a largely monochromatic religious culture, in which the choices placed before them are far more stark, cast it all in a different light.

We Americans take our freedoms too lightly in other respects, and our highly voluntaristic religious culture—and the boisterous vitality and variety of religious expression that have resulted from it—is no exception. Not all of what it produces is to my taste. But the exercise of freedom is not the same thing as good taste. “It is the duty of every man,” Madison said, “to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to Him.” My Italian students help me to see anew the grandeur in those words.

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