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Posts For: July 24, 2007

Blame the Victims

If you find Karen Armstrong’s argument that the creators and publishers of the Muhammad cartoons were guilty of “failing to live up to their own liberal values” to be outrageous, you should see the non sequitur that follows: “When 255,000 members of the so-called ‘Christian community’ signed a petition to prevent the building of a large mosque in Abbey Mills, east London, they sent a grim message to the Muslim world: western freedom of worship did not, apparently, apply to Islam. There were similar protests by some in the Jewish community, who . . . should be the first to protest against discrimination.”

What Ms. Armstrong does not say, though she must surely be aware of it, is that the controversy about the building of Europe’s largest mosque in London’s East End has nothing whatever to do with freedom of worship. London already has more mosques than any other city in Europe, and there are no restrictions on the practice of Islam in Britain, any more than there are restrictions in the United States or other western countries. The London Markaz, as the proposed “megamosque” would be known, is not a response to local Muslim communities, but the project of a global Islamist missionary organization, Tablighi Jamaat. The complex would include a mosque and other facilities for 70,000 worshipers—that is 67,000 more than the largest British cathedral—to be built next to the site of the 2012 Olympics. The religious compound is designed to attract Muslim pilgrims from all over the world, and to serve as the “Islamic quarter” for the games. The cost, an estimated £100 million ($200 million) would be paid by Saudi Arabia.
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If you find Karen Armstrong’s argument that the creators and publishers of the Muhammad cartoons were guilty of “failing to live up to their own liberal values” to be outrageous, you should see the non sequitur that follows: “When 255,000 members of the so-called ‘Christian community’ signed a petition to prevent the building of a large mosque in Abbey Mills, east London, they sent a grim message to the Muslim world: western freedom of worship did not, apparently, apply to Islam. There were similar protests by some in the Jewish community, who . . . should be the first to protest against discrimination.”

What Ms. Armstrong does not say, though she must surely be aware of it, is that the controversy about the building of Europe’s largest mosque in London’s East End has nothing whatever to do with freedom of worship. London already has more mosques than any other city in Europe, and there are no restrictions on the practice of Islam in Britain, any more than there are restrictions in the United States or other western countries. The London Markaz, as the proposed “megamosque” would be known, is not a response to local Muslim communities, but the project of a global Islamist missionary organization, Tablighi Jamaat. The complex would include a mosque and other facilities for 70,000 worshipers—that is 67,000 more than the largest British cathedral—to be built next to the site of the 2012 Olympics. The religious compound is designed to attract Muslim pilgrims from all over the world, and to serve as the “Islamic quarter” for the games. The cost, an estimated £100 million ($200 million) would be paid by Saudi Arabia.

The London Markaz project is a statement of Islamist triumphalism, intended to send out a signal to the billions watching the Olympic Games. While Mayor Livingstone has expressed support, there has been local opposition to the Markaz from the start. After it emerged that some of the terrorists involved in recent incidents in Britain and elsewhere were linked to Tablighi Jamaat (which is often described as the “antechamber” to terrorism), many Abbey Mills residents of all faiths became seriously concerned about the prospect of a vast Islamist fortress in their neighborhood. The concern about the Markaz is shared by many British Muslims, as well, most of whom are from South Asia, and have no sympathy for the Wahhabi fundamentalism that the new mosque undoubtedly will propagate. Ms. Armstrong seems to turn a blind eye to the neighborhood’s concerns about the mosque. She concludes her Guardian article: “Our inability to tolerate Islam not only contradicts our western values; it could also become a security risk.”

Armstrong’s visit to Malaysia should have shown her what intolerance really means. The country’s former prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, notoriously told a Muslim conference in 2003: “The Nazis killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.” In any western country, a politician who talked like this would be finished. But Dr. Mahathir is still treated with reverence in Malaysia.

It is shocking that an influential writer such as Karen Armstrong, who is regarded by millions as an expert on Islam, and whose best-sellers include Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time and The Battle for God, cannot bring herself to tell the truth about Islamic intolerance. Even when her own books become victims of an intolerant government, Karen Armstrong finds it easier to blame the victims.

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A Crafty Health Care Move

Earlier this summer, when Senate Democrats (with significant support from some Republicans) offered a bill that would expand federal subsidies for children’s health insurance , conservatives accused them of trying to bring government-funded health care in through the back door. Now, as if to prove the point, House Democrats this week are preparing to introduce a much more ambitious plan to fortify and expand the government’s role in health care.

The New York Times reported that the plan, slated to be made public in the coming days, would not only vastly expand the scope of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), it would also reduce the incentive for private health plans to participate in the Medicare program, and eliminate the requirement in current law to limit Medicare’s reliance on general revenue for its funding.

Two points about why this bill is a smart play by the Democrats. First of all, it’s intended to make the Senate plan (which would increase SCHIP funding by more than $35 billion) appear to be the most moderate of three alternatives, mediating between the White House’s proposal of a $5 billion increase and the House’s $50 billion.

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Earlier this summer, when Senate Democrats (with significant support from some Republicans) offered a bill that would expand federal subsidies for children’s health insurance , conservatives accused them of trying to bring government-funded health care in through the back door. Now, as if to prove the point, House Democrats this week are preparing to introduce a much more ambitious plan to fortify and expand the government’s role in health care.

The New York Times reported that the plan, slated to be made public in the coming days, would not only vastly expand the scope of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), it would also reduce the incentive for private health plans to participate in the Medicare program, and eliminate the requirement in current law to limit Medicare’s reliance on general revenue for its funding.

Two points about why this bill is a smart play by the Democrats. First of all, it’s intended to make the Senate plan (which would increase SCHIP funding by more than $35 billion) appear to be the most moderate of three alternatives, mediating between the White House’s proposal of a $5 billion increase and the House’s $50 billion.

Secondly, and more importantly in the long term, by tying together politically appealing cases for coverage—for the very old and very young—the Democrats are making a concerted effort to move toward government-funded health insurance. Historically, Medicare has been seen as a crucial foot in the door for advocates of government health insurance, and the SCHIP program, created in 1997, was very consciously conceived of as a step in this direction as well. By explicitly tying the two together in one bill, House Democrats can both gather a powerful coalition behind them (the AARP will mount a national campaign for the bill, for instance), and begin to press in on America’s private health care market from both sides.

Advocates of nationalized health care may, oddly enough, have learned a lesson from the pro-life movement: the way to achieve revolutionary goals in American politics is by taking one small step after another, each carefully designed to be emotionally appealing and hard to oppose.

Although President Bush has promised to veto both the House and Senate versions of the bill, the Democrats’ new strategy makes it more likely that the Senate bill might, in time, gain the votes to override such a veto. Fiscally, socially, politically, and practically, this would be a bad idea. But you have to admire the Democrats’ craftiness.

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New Polls on the War

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll brings moderately positive news about public attitudes toward the war in Iraq. For the raw results, click here. For the Times write-up, click here.

The percentage of the public saying that invading Iraq was the correct decision has risen slightly. Forty-two percent now say it was the right thing to do, while 51 percent say we should have stayed out. That’s a shift from the May poll that had found only 35 percent in support of the invasion and 61 percent claiming it was a mistake. In addition, the public assessment of how well things are going in Iraq has turned slightly more upbeat. While only 3 percent think that things are going “very well” (up from 2 percent), 29 percent now think things are going “somewhat well,” a six-point increase from the previous poll. At the same time, the percentage of those saying things are going “very badly” has fallen from 45 percent to 35 percent—a whopping 10-point decline.

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The latest New York Times/CBS News poll brings moderately positive news about public attitudes toward the war in Iraq. For the raw results, click here. For the Times write-up, click here.

The percentage of the public saying that invading Iraq was the correct decision has risen slightly. Forty-two percent now say it was the right thing to do, while 51 percent say we should have stayed out. That’s a shift from the May poll that had found only 35 percent in support of the invasion and 61 percent claiming it was a mistake. In addition, the public assessment of how well things are going in Iraq has turned slightly more upbeat. While only 3 percent think that things are going “very well” (up from 2 percent), 29 percent now think things are going “somewhat well,” a six-point increase from the previous poll. At the same time, the percentage of those saying things are going “very badly” has fallen from 45 percent to 35 percent—a whopping 10-point decline.

It would be a mistake to read too much into these results. It is not, by any stretch, evidence that the public has turned in favor of the war effort. But it is an indication that public sentiment remains a bit unsettled, and that positive news from the front—of the kind we have been hearing increasingly in the past couple of months—can have some impact on the public’s views.

Moreover, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll suggests that most Americans, while in favor of withdrawal, are not demanding a complete pullout. I found these findings, buried deep in the Post article, interesting:

About six in 10 said forces should be withdrawn to avoid further casualties, even if civil order is not restored, and 56 percent want to decrease the forces in Iraq. Both figures are at new highs, but few Republicans agree with either position.

Even among Democrats, there is no consensus about the timing of any troop withdrawal. While three-quarters want to decrease the number of troops in Iraq, only a third advocate a complete, immediate withdrawal. There is even less support for that option among independents (15 percent) and Republicans (6 percent).

If I had to sum up these findings, I would say that, while antiwar forces are still winning the battle for public opinion, an information surge is allowing supporters of the war effort to gain some ground. Whether they can consolidate and even expand these gains remains to be seen. That will turn on how much success American forces have over the next few months. But the war on the home front is not irretrievably lost.

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The Clintonites’ Silver Bullet

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, both Clinton-era staffers on the National Security Council, have a short, sharp, sensible op-ed in the New York Times today. They make a good point—that the CIA should be more involved in the special-operations business—but they also self-servingly distort history along the way.

Benjamin and Simon point to the chronic difficulties the U.S. military has created for itself in mounting commando raids against terrorist targets. The occasion for their piece is the revelations now coming out about an aborted 2005 operation against a terrorist haven in Pakistan’s lawless tribal region to capture or kill Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader.

The Pentagon, they note, through its bureaucratic processes, “added large numbers of troops to conduct additional intelligence, force protection, communications and extraction work. At that point, as one senior intelligence official told [the Times], ‘The whole thing turned into the invasion of Pakistan,’ and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pulled the plug.”

This episode, Benjamin and Simon tell us, is reminiscent of trouble faced by the Clinton administration. “The Clinton White House repeatedly requested options involving ground forces that could hunt and destroy terrorists in Afghanistan.” But repeatedly, they write, “senior military officials declared such a mission ‘would be Desert One,’ referring to the disastrous 1980 effort to free American hostages in Iran. When the Pentagon finally delivered a plan, the deployment envisioned would have been sufficient to take and hold Kabul but not to surprise and pin down a handful of terrorists.”

This is true. But it is also false. It provides only half the picture. For, even as the Clinton administration was contemplating military action against al-Qaeda safe havens, it was also planning much narrower commando operations, conceived and planned by the CIA, to seize Osama bin Laden—precisely the kind of raid Benjamin and Simon are recommending now.

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Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, both Clinton-era staffers on the National Security Council, have a short, sharp, sensible op-ed in the New York Times today. They make a good point—that the CIA should be more involved in the special-operations business—but they also self-servingly distort history along the way.

Benjamin and Simon point to the chronic difficulties the U.S. military has created for itself in mounting commando raids against terrorist targets. The occasion for their piece is the revelations now coming out about an aborted 2005 operation against a terrorist haven in Pakistan’s lawless tribal region to capture or kill Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader.

The Pentagon, they note, through its bureaucratic processes, “added large numbers of troops to conduct additional intelligence, force protection, communications and extraction work. At that point, as one senior intelligence official told [the Times], ‘The whole thing turned into the invasion of Pakistan,’ and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pulled the plug.”

This episode, Benjamin and Simon tell us, is reminiscent of trouble faced by the Clinton administration. “The Clinton White House repeatedly requested options involving ground forces that could hunt and destroy terrorists in Afghanistan.” But repeatedly, they write, “senior military officials declared such a mission ‘would be Desert One,’ referring to the disastrous 1980 effort to free American hostages in Iran. When the Pentagon finally delivered a plan, the deployment envisioned would have been sufficient to take and hold Kabul but not to surprise and pin down a handful of terrorists.”

This is true. But it is also false. It provides only half the picture. For, even as the Clinton administration was contemplating military action against al-Qaeda safe havens, it was also planning much narrower commando operations, conceived and planned by the CIA, to seize Osama bin Laden—precisely the kind of raid Benjamin and Simon are recommending now.

But what happened? It was not the military which screwed up the operation by beefing up the forces until it turned into a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan. It was the Clinton administration itself which called off the CIA action, out of fear that bin Laden would be killed—in violation of an executive order banning assassinations.

The 9/11 Commission Report contains a wealth of detail on this episode, including a remarkable kabuki dance of finger-pointing, with CIA Director George Tenet accepting most of the blame while implicitly suggesting that Sandy Berger, the National Security Council (NSC) chairman, should have been more vigorous in pressing ahead:

Impressions vary as to who actually decided not to proceed with the operation. [Richard] Clarke [NSC Counterterrorism] told us that the CSG [an interagency Counterterrorism Security Group] saw the plan as flawed. He was said to have described it to a colleague on the NSC staff as “half-assed” and predicted that the principals would not approve it. “Jeff ” [the CIA Counterterrorist Center Chief] thought the decision had been made at the cabinet level. [James] Pavitt [assistant head of the CIA Directorate of Operations] thought that it was [Sandy] Berger’s doing, though perhaps on Tenet’s advice. Tenet told us that given the recommendation of his chief operations officers, he alone had decided to “turn off” the operation. He had simply informed Berger, who had not pushed back. Berger’s recollection was similar. He said the plan was never presented to the White House for a decision.

Yes, it would be a good idea to make greater use of the CIA in the realm of special operations. But those advancing this recommendation would have done well to note that when they and the administration they served tried to fire this silver bullet themselves, they had a lot of trouble loading it and in the end could not bring themselves to squeeze the trigger.

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The Parliamentary Imagination

The House of Lords’ EU Committee just released its extensive report, “The EU and the Middle East Peace Process.” Among the pearls of wisdom the report contains: according to the Lords, the EU fathered the ‘imaginative idea’ of the two-state solution. Not the 1947 UN partition plan. Not the 1937 Peel Commission. It was the EU:

Though the U.S. has led the politics [of the peace process], the EU has made a significant policy contribution, not least by taking a lead in producing imaginative ideas, including the two state solution, which were subsequently adopted by the Quartet and the Arab League.

In case you were wondering, you now know why calls to reform this bedrock British institution (and bulwark of unelected privilege) are not entirely out of place.

The House of Lords’ EU Committee just released its extensive report, “The EU and the Middle East Peace Process.” Among the pearls of wisdom the report contains: according to the Lords, the EU fathered the ‘imaginative idea’ of the two-state solution. Not the 1947 UN partition plan. Not the 1937 Peel Commission. It was the EU:

Though the U.S. has led the politics [of the peace process], the EU has made a significant policy contribution, not least by taking a lead in producing imaginative ideas, including the two state solution, which were subsequently adopted by the Quartet and the Arab League.

In case you were wondering, you now know why calls to reform this bedrock British institution (and bulwark of unelected privilege) are not entirely out of place.

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Sound and Fury on the Economy

For all the hubbub about the innovative format of last night’s debate among Democratic presidential candidates, what was striking was how little effect the new format actually had. The debate was still, essentially, a group press conference in which—a few brief exchanges aside—the candidates displayed their placards. Take their rhetoric on the economy. As in earlier gatherings, the candidates handed out the same semi-populist doom and gloom about a country losing economic hope while only the very wealthy improve their lives. To listen to the candidates, you’d think the poor were sinking deeper into poverty due to predatory lending practices, while a cabal of insurance, pharmaceutical, and oil companies were conspiring to turn the U.S. into a giant New Orleans.

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For all the hubbub about the innovative format of last night’s debate among Democratic presidential candidates, what was striking was how little effect the new format actually had. The debate was still, essentially, a group press conference in which—a few brief exchanges aside—the candidates displayed their placards. Take their rhetoric on the economy. As in earlier gatherings, the candidates handed out the same semi-populist doom and gloom about a country losing economic hope while only the very wealthy improve their lives. To listen to the candidates, you’d think the poor were sinking deeper into poverty due to predatory lending practices, while a cabal of insurance, pharmaceutical, and oil companies were conspiring to turn the U.S. into a giant New Orleans.

But, as David Brooks notes in his column today, “after a lag, average wages are rising sharply. Real average wages rose by 2 percent in 2006, the second fastest rise in 30 years.” Similarly, he observes, “according to the Congressional Budget Office, earnings for the poorest fifth of Americans are also on the increase.” Nor, says Arthur Brooks, writing in the Wall Street Journal, are Americans sinking into a slough of economic despond. They continue to be optimistic about their chances for a better life. The National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey shows that in 1972, 30 percent of the population said that they were “very happy” with their lives; in 1982, 31 percent; in 1993, 32 percent; and in 2004, 31 percent. “In other words, no significant change in reported happiness occurred—even as income inequality has increased significantly.” “The data,” Arthur Brooks concludes, “do tell us that economic mobility—not equality—is associated with happiness.”

The Democrats definitely have some things right. They are leading the effort to expand the Trade Adjustment Assistance program—which aids workers who have lost their manufacturing jobs to foreign competition—to include service workers as well. But the Deomcrats are also looking to sink well-wrought trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia.

The Republicans definitely miss the mark at times, too, particularly on the genuine (and justified) anxieties of the public about the effects of globalization. Talk of the beauty, efficiency, and long-term benefits of markets is not enough; the public expects government to help balance large-scale risk and rewards in the here-and-now. The GOP would make a profound mistake, for both the future of free trade and for their own political future, if, as the White House seems inclined, they were to block the expansion of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program to include service workers.

“Feeding off pessimism about the war and anger at Washington, the candidates,” says David Brooks, “now compete to tell dark, angry, and conspiratorial stories about the economy.” This is not just a matter of rhetoric; these overheated arguments present a real danger. They might conflate the legitimate need to help cushion Americans from the increased risks of the global economy with an attempt to roll back the growth of free trade that has underwritten precisely the economic mobility so important to economic happiness. And that really would be bad news.

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Two Narratives

I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two recent articles, one in the New York Times and one in the Washington Post.

The Post article describes how Vladimir Putin’s acolytes are rewriting history textbooks used in Russian schools to give them a more nationalist flavor. One of the manuals issued to Russian teachers declares in its last chapter: “We see that practically every significant deed is connected with the name and activity of President V.V. Putin.” Another manual paints the United States as an empire that may be near “final collapse,” because “America can no longer integrate into a single unit or unite into a nation of ‘whites,’ ‘blacks,’ (they are called African-Americans in the language of political correctness) ‘Latinos’ (Latin Americans), and others.” Russia’s own history is whitewashed, with Stalin described as brutal but also “the most successful leader of the USSR.

The ethos of these textbooks was summed up by Putin, who told a meeting of educators that “we must not allow others to impose a feeling of guilt on us.”

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I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two recent articles, one in the New York Times and one in the Washington Post.

The Post article describes how Vladimir Putin’s acolytes are rewriting history textbooks used in Russian schools to give them a more nationalist flavor. One of the manuals issued to Russian teachers declares in its last chapter: “We see that practically every significant deed is connected with the name and activity of President V.V. Putin.” Another manual paints the United States as an empire that may be near “final collapse,” because “America can no longer integrate into a single unit or unite into a nation of ‘whites,’ ‘blacks,’ (they are called African-Americans in the language of political correctness) ‘Latinos’ (Latin Americans), and others.” Russia’s own history is whitewashed, with Stalin described as brutal but also “the most successful leader of the USSR.

The ethos of these textbooks was summed up by Putin, who told a meeting of educators that “we must not allow others to impose a feeling of guilt on us.”

The Times piece describes the new history textbooks in a very different kind of country—Israel. There, the Education Ministry is issuing texts to Arabic-speaking students that describe the foundation of Israel as a “catastrophe” for the Palestinians. (Emanuele Ottolenghi noted this development on contentions.)

In other words, a liberal democracy is incorporating in its curriculum the views of its enemies, while an authoritarian country is pushing a hard nationalist line in its own textbooks. Nothing surprising there, but what lesson does one draw from this disparity?

You could argue that this reveals a suicidal level of self-doubt in the West that puts us at a severe disadvantage in confronting our illiberal and often fanatical enemies. Or, you could argue that this capacity to question ourselves is actually an advantage in the competition with illiberal societies, and that dictators’ attempts to brainwash their populaces produce stunted societies incapable of competing with more dynamic ones.

Which of these “narratives” is right? At the risk of sounding like a typical, conflicted, namby-pamby, post-modern Westerner, I have to confess I’m not sure.

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