Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 26, 2007

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Hypocrisy is an abiding weakness of most politicians. Republicans tend to specialize in hypocrisy regarding sex and family—think of Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, or Robert Livingstone—while Democrats go in for financial or class hypocrisy—think of John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, or John Edwards.

Recently, I went with friends to a talk by former Senator Edwards at New York’s Cooper Union, to hear, in the candidate’s words, how he plans to “dramatically reduce poverty.” Laudably, he wants to cut the current poverty rate of 12.6 percent by a third within a decade. But he offered few specifics. Those that were trotted out, such as more job-training programs, sounded like leftovers from the Great Society days. But if Edwards is retrogressive about poverty, he’s been very progressive in building up a fortune of as much as $62 million.

Tim Middleton of MSN, evaluating the former Senator’s new financial disclosure statement, describes Edwards as a man “of the people and profits” with “substantial investments in limited partnerships, sub-prime mortgage lenders, and an offshore hedge fund.” Edwards has (to some degree rightly) criticized offshore hedge funds as unpatriotic, and sub-prime lenders as piratical. He’s described the sub-prime lending business as the “wild west of the credit industry, where . . . abusive and predatory lenders are robbing families blind.”

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Hypocrisy is an abiding weakness of most politicians. Republicans tend to specialize in hypocrisy regarding sex and family—think of Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, or Robert Livingstone—while Democrats go in for financial or class hypocrisy—think of John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, or John Edwards.

Recently, I went with friends to a talk by former Senator Edwards at New York’s Cooper Union, to hear, in the candidate’s words, how he plans to “dramatically reduce poverty.” Laudably, he wants to cut the current poverty rate of 12.6 percent by a third within a decade. But he offered few specifics. Those that were trotted out, such as more job-training programs, sounded like leftovers from the Great Society days. But if Edwards is retrogressive about poverty, he’s been very progressive in building up a fortune of as much as $62 million.

Tim Middleton of MSN, evaluating the former Senator’s new financial disclosure statement, describes Edwards as a man “of the people and profits” with “substantial investments in limited partnerships, sub-prime mortgage lenders, and an offshore hedge fund.” Edwards has (to some degree rightly) criticized offshore hedge funds as unpatriotic, and sub-prime lenders as piratical. He’s described the sub-prime lending business as the “wild west of the credit industry, where . . . abusive and predatory lenders are robbing families blind.”

But Edwards’s principal employer in recent years, Fortress Investment Fund III, is based in the Cayman Islands. Fortress owns Nationstar mortgage, which describes itself as “one of the nation’s leading mortgage lenders offering non-prime mortgages,” and should presumably be one of the objects of Edwards’s scorn. Fortress (where Edwards has $16 million invested) has also agreed to purchase Penn National Gambling, the third largest gambling company in the U.S. Anyone who has visited casinos in urban wastelands like Atlantic City, New Orleans, or Gary, Indiana knows that such places prey on the delusional hopes of the less-well-off. Edwards is, in effect, investing in a tax on the poor. (He also owns stocks in Schlumberger, Haliburton’s chief rival. Could this affect his political judgment?) These sorts of contradictions are not exclusive to Edwards. Fred Thompson, whose dealings as an attorney were subjected to scrutiny today in the Washington Post, has been described as both a million-dollar lawyer-lobbbyist in a pickup truck and a Washington outsider from the D.C. suburbs.

But then what? Shouldn’t it possible to have an adult debate about politics that recognizes that politicians, even more than the rest of us, are sometimes caught up in contradictions? What’s not adult is when Edwards, speaking to citizens as if they were children, hypocritically argues that he joined Fortress to learn more about the connections between financial markets and poverty.

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Free Trade on Planet Kristof

This morning, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof launched a full-throated—and empty-headed—defense of free trade. Along the way he praised President Bush and attacked Senators Clinton and Obama.

Their offense? The pair of presidential hopefuls engaged in “cowboy diplomacy” by co-sponsoring legislation that targets China for manipulating the value of its currency (he was referring to the bipartisan Baucus-Grassley-Schumer-Graham bill). The proposed legislation, in Kristof’s view, will antagonize the Chinese, politicize trade disputes, and betray President Clinton’s “outstanding legacy on economic issues.”

Outstanding legacy? There may be many magnificent aspects of Bill Clinton’s economic policies, but his strategy for dealing with the mercantilists in Beijing is not one of them. It was he, after all, who decided that China should be permitted to join the World Trade Organization without first reforming its currency regime. The Chinese, once admitted to the global trading body, pegged the renminbi and from July 2005 on have maintained a managed float. As a result, Middle Kingdom manufacturers have obtained an enormous price advantage, which has translated into outsized Chinese trade surpluses against the United States.

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This morning, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof launched a full-throated—and empty-headed—defense of free trade. Along the way he praised President Bush and attacked Senators Clinton and Obama.

Their offense? The pair of presidential hopefuls engaged in “cowboy diplomacy” by co-sponsoring legislation that targets China for manipulating the value of its currency (he was referring to the bipartisan Baucus-Grassley-Schumer-Graham bill). The proposed legislation, in Kristof’s view, will antagonize the Chinese, politicize trade disputes, and betray President Clinton’s “outstanding legacy on economic issues.”

Outstanding legacy? There may be many magnificent aspects of Bill Clinton’s economic policies, but his strategy for dealing with the mercantilists in Beijing is not one of them. It was he, after all, who decided that China should be permitted to join the World Trade Organization without first reforming its currency regime. The Chinese, once admitted to the global trading body, pegged the renminbi and from July 2005 on have maintained a managed float. As a result, Middle Kingdom manufacturers have obtained an enormous price advantage, which has translated into outsized Chinese trade surpluses against the United States.

These surpluses have, in turn, cost Americans jobs, undermined our manufacturing base, and de-legitimized free trade. President Clinton engaged China before it was willing to embrace the notion of the mutuality of international commerce, and President Bush, for his part, has failed to hold China accountable for predatory trade and currency policies.

These policies, apparently, do not bother Kristof. In his view, it’s fine for the Chinese to pursue one-sided trade strategies and violate the obligations they undertook in joining the WTO. Only Americans, apparently, deserve condemnation on Planet Kristof.

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Will the Real Sarkozy Please Stand Up

In his victory speech on election night this past May, Nicolas Sarkozy declared that under his reign, “the pride and the duty of France” will be on the side of “all those who are persecuted by tyranny and dictatorship.” Sarkozy appealed to “all those in the world who believe in the values of tolerance and democracy” to join him. Specifically, Sarkozy pledged, “France will be on the side of the locked-up nurses in Libya.” Whereas his predecessor Jacques Chirac acted out of delusions of grandeur, Sarkozy’s goal is to restore identity to a nation imbued with failure and doubt.

This week Sarkozy produced a “success,” bringing home the nurses. But aiding the persecuted should not entail paying off their persecutors. Sarkozy’s pledge became farce when Madame Sarkozy, followed by le président de la République himself, sat in Colonel Qaddafi’s tent, after which the Madame said that she and the Libyan dictator had built “a real relationship of trust.”

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In his victory speech on election night this past May, Nicolas Sarkozy declared that under his reign, “the pride and the duty of France” will be on the side of “all those who are persecuted by tyranny and dictatorship.” Sarkozy appealed to “all those in the world who believe in the values of tolerance and democracy” to join him. Specifically, Sarkozy pledged, “France will be on the side of the locked-up nurses in Libya.” Whereas his predecessor Jacques Chirac acted out of delusions of grandeur, Sarkozy’s goal is to restore identity to a nation imbued with failure and doubt.

This week Sarkozy produced a “success,” bringing home the nurses. But aiding the persecuted should not entail paying off their persecutors. Sarkozy’s pledge became farce when Madame Sarkozy, followed by le président de la République himself, sat in Colonel Qaddafi’s tent, after which the Madame said that she and the Libyan dictator had built “a real relationship of trust.”

But it was more than “trust” that convinced the Libyan to free his hostages. Qaddafi’s blackmail went something like this: in exchange for freeing the nurses, European countries would forgive $400 million of Libya’s foreign debt and allow Libya (Libya!) to host the next UN conference on racism. The parties also agreed to deepen Franco-Libyan relations to include a possible military-industrial partnership and, not least, contracts for French oil companies. (Compare this haggle to Natan Sharansky’s defiant crossing of the Glienicke Bridge into West Berlin.)

The cost, when viewed in the proper context, is very high: others (North Korea, but especially Iran) are surely watching. Even the impression of relenting to blackmail and terrorism is self-defeating. To be sure, this is a very bizarre affair with a long and twisted history, and Qaddafi, though truly a crackpot, did surrender his weapons of mass destruction to the United States. But even a little goodwill in the face of brutality can be perilous.

Sarkozy remains a mystery. He showed independence when he called Hizballah a “terrorist” organization, which of course it is, even though it is not classified as such by the European Union. And whereas Chirac blocked action on Darfur, Sarkozy is eager to stop genocide—in cooperation with the United States. Still, this week’s events suggest that Sarkozy is shirking his generation’s tasks: curbing nuclear proliferation abroad and, at home, overcoming the entrenched enarchs and ending their long collaboration with Islamism and terrorism.

Far from shaking up French foreign policy, Sarkozy’s actions this week were eerily reminiscent of Monsieur Chirac’s: Sarkozy cheered on Arab nuclear power while seeking conciliation and contracts from Arab regimes. (When asked to describe Chirac, the great British historian Paul Johnson responded: “Why are the French so notorious for shiftiness? Because there are plenty of Chiracs there.”) Yes, the world looks different from the Elysée than it did from the victory stage, but, by collaborating with tyrants and dictators, Sarkozy further degrades “the pride and the duty of France.”

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(Un)Fair Trade

Speaking at the UN Security Council on Wednesday, UN Special Envoy to the Middle East Michael Williams noted that “Unless the crossings [into Gaza] are open for imports and exports, the downward economic spiral will lead to extensive hardship for an already impoverished Gaza Strip.” He also highlighted the plight of 6,000 Palestinians, currently stranded in Egypt, who cannot re-enter the Strip because Hamas will only let them in through the Rafah crossing (which Israel has relinquished), while Egypt and Israel are ready to let them in only through the Kerem Shalom crossing.

Why anyone would wish to re-enter Gaza may be a mystery. But that question is beside the point. Israel is not the only country sharing a border with Gaza, though it is the only country bordering Gaza that Gaza’s rulers wish and work to destroy. That the UN wants Israel to conduct trade negotiations with them boggles the mind.

Speaking at the UN Security Council on Wednesday, UN Special Envoy to the Middle East Michael Williams noted that “Unless the crossings [into Gaza] are open for imports and exports, the downward economic spiral will lead to extensive hardship for an already impoverished Gaza Strip.” He also highlighted the plight of 6,000 Palestinians, currently stranded in Egypt, who cannot re-enter the Strip because Hamas will only let them in through the Rafah crossing (which Israel has relinquished), while Egypt and Israel are ready to let them in only through the Kerem Shalom crossing.

Why anyone would wish to re-enter Gaza may be a mystery. But that question is beside the point. Israel is not the only country sharing a border with Gaza, though it is the only country bordering Gaza that Gaza’s rulers wish and work to destroy. That the UN wants Israel to conduct trade negotiations with them boggles the mind.

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Jihad on Campus?

Many Americans I know are dismayed by the British academic boycott of Israel. What, they wonder, lies behind the rise of such attitudes on British campuses? The truth is, however, we do not know the half of it. A case that has just ended at the Old Bailey criminal court in London—a case that has gone largely unreported—throws light on this dark corner of university life.

This morning, the BBC’s flagship radio news program, Today, reported on the case. It involves a schoolboy and four Muslim students at Bradford University who have been convicted of “possessing articles for terrorism”—in other words, downloading jihadist material from the Internet. The only reason this particular group came to light was that a 17-year-old member, who had run away from home, told his parents about the group’s activities. The parents decided to tell the police, who arrested the other group members.

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Many Americans I know are dismayed by the British academic boycott of Israel. What, they wonder, lies behind the rise of such attitudes on British campuses? The truth is, however, we do not know the half of it. A case that has just ended at the Old Bailey criminal court in London—a case that has gone largely unreported—throws light on this dark corner of university life.

This morning, the BBC’s flagship radio news program, Today, reported on the case. It involves a schoolboy and four Muslim students at Bradford University who have been convicted of “possessing articles for terrorism”—in other words, downloading jihadist material from the Internet. The only reason this particular group came to light was that a 17-year-old member, who had run away from home, told his parents about the group’s activities. The parents decided to tell the police, who arrested the other group members.

It is, to say the least, unusual in Britain to interview a convicted felon about his crime before he has even been sentenced. Nobody explained why the authorities had permitted an exception in this case, but the Today program gave its prime breakfast time slot at 8:10 a.m. to one of the students, in order that he might explain why the jury had been wrong to convict him. The student was handled very gently by the interviewer, a Muslim woman, who seemed to assume that he was just a kid who had gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd. The interviewer did not challenge the student’s claim that he had not actually seen or read the violent material, including terrorism manuals, found on his computer. Unfortunately for the BBC, the young man did not quite follow its script: he insisted that he still believed he had a duty to fight those who “invaded Muslim lands.”

Today then brought in David Livingstone, who had been an expert witness in the trial, and who works for Chatham House—yes, the place where the famous “Chatham House rules” for conferences was invented. Chatham House is also the more sinister source of the Arabist “Chatham House version” of Middle East history, which was dissected many years ago by the great scholar Elie Kedourie, but which is still as influential as ever in the western academy.

It took Professor Anthony Glees to introduce some sanity into the proceedings. Professor Glees is the only person who has taken the Islamist radicalization of the British campus with the seriousness that it deserves. In a series of reports, Glees has forced the government and the media to take some notice of the threat that such radicalization poses.

Regarding the case involving the Bradford University students, Glees thanked the jury for its courage, and welcomed the deterrent effect that the guilty verdict might have. Glees also praised the parents who went to the police, thereby setting an example for other members of the Muslim community, who rarely inform on family or neighbors whom they suspect of terrorist involvement.

Glees also, however, revealed the extent of complacency among the authorities. The Minister for Higher Education, Bill Rammell, has often dismissed Professor Glees’s warnings about Islamist activism on campus. Now, Rammell is sufficiently worried about it to have proposed what Glees described as “modest” guidelines to make academics and administrators more aware of the danger of infiltration by Islamists, some of whom come from abroad specifically to target British universities. According to Glees, the guidelines were rejected unanimously by the academic unions and by Universities U.K., which represents administrators. As things stand, the administrators have no idea how widespread the phenomenon of Islamism on campus is: students are not asked about their views or affiliations before being accepted.

Ultimately, the five Bradford students are unlikely to be unique. It is possible, in fact, that we are witnessing a prelude to a generational radicalization such that we have not witnessed since the 1960′s—and perhaps not even then. Left-wing terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof or Red Brigade variety never enjoyed the popular base that Islamism can now boast, nor did it have the Internet as a tool of propaganda and organization. American universities are still dominated by the coat-and-tie radicals of the 1960′s. How long before the headscarf radicals of the Oughts dominate British campuses?

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