Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 29, 2008

The Politics of Rambo

Is the new Rambo an argument for American intervention? Matt Zoller Seitz, who says that he “can’t think of another blockbuster action franchise that has been so unabashedly right wing in its world view,” makes the case:

Cowritten and directed by Stallone, the fourth Rambo movie is a bracingly political picture — as much an argument in movie form as No End In Sight; a pro-interventionist rebuttal to all the 2007 documentaries and dramas about America losing bits of its soul in Iraq. The I-word is never spoken in Rambo, yet in its coded way, the film makes a case for why we are in Iraq and should stay there until the job is done, whenever that may be.

In the comments section below Seitz’s long and intelligent post, the author further notes that Stallone, who co-wrote and directed the film, recently endorsed John McCain, and considers this further evidence that the film is a pro-intervention parable. Overall, it’s a very savvy reading of a very workmanlike film (I focused more on the film’s working- class ethos in my review), but I think Seitz gives the film too much credit when he calls it “an argument in movie form.”

Rambo, as the protypical 80’s action hero, is a macho man’s macho man—a tough-talking, bulked-up, weapon-wielding one-man army. He’s a militarized, ultra-violent version of Superman (same jaw, same over-muscled physique, same one-man-against-the-world ideals). Violence isn’t just his way—it’s his nature. It’s central to the character in the way that, say, bedding beautiful women is inherent to James Bond. You simply can’t separate the two. Moreover, the Rambo films themselves are, essentially, violence-delivery systems. They’re simple, straightforward pictures that exist almost solely to give audiences their violent jollies and let them be on their way.

But to justify that nature and purpose, and to sell it to a movie-going audience who wants to get their fill of bloodletting but also feel fine about it, you need two things: innocent victims and a cause. Because he’s a populist hero, aimed at entertaining the masses, that cause can’t be too complicated. And because he’s an American, that cause is inevitably going to end up aligned with basic American values, meaning freedom, justice, individualism, anti-authoritarianism—ideals that will easily and quickly appeal to a wide swath of the movie-going public. The victims, then, must consist of those whose freedoms are most obviously in danger, making the go-to helpless victims those who’ve been oppressed by violent totalitarians around the world (Communists in the second and third films, sadistic Burmese military warlords in the latest outing).

It’s not so much, I think, that Rambo makes an explicit argument for intervention as that it uses the widely understood morality of intervention (and not even political intervention, per se, so much as the basic rightness of protecting or avenging the innocent) as a pretext for indulging in extreme cinematic violence. Stallone’s personal politics no doubt flavor the film, but I think it’s a mistake to assign much force to the film as argument. Violence is the series’ product, and intervention is the simplest, most broadly appealing way to sell it.

Is the new Rambo an argument for American intervention? Matt Zoller Seitz, who says that he “can’t think of another blockbuster action franchise that has been so unabashedly right wing in its world view,” makes the case:

Cowritten and directed by Stallone, the fourth Rambo movie is a bracingly political picture — as much an argument in movie form as No End In Sight; a pro-interventionist rebuttal to all the 2007 documentaries and dramas about America losing bits of its soul in Iraq. The I-word is never spoken in Rambo, yet in its coded way, the film makes a case for why we are in Iraq and should stay there until the job is done, whenever that may be.

In the comments section below Seitz’s long and intelligent post, the author further notes that Stallone, who co-wrote and directed the film, recently endorsed John McCain, and considers this further evidence that the film is a pro-intervention parable. Overall, it’s a very savvy reading of a very workmanlike film (I focused more on the film’s working- class ethos in my review), but I think Seitz gives the film too much credit when he calls it “an argument in movie form.”

Rambo, as the protypical 80’s action hero, is a macho man’s macho man—a tough-talking, bulked-up, weapon-wielding one-man army. He’s a militarized, ultra-violent version of Superman (same jaw, same over-muscled physique, same one-man-against-the-world ideals). Violence isn’t just his way—it’s his nature. It’s central to the character in the way that, say, bedding beautiful women is inherent to James Bond. You simply can’t separate the two. Moreover, the Rambo films themselves are, essentially, violence-delivery systems. They’re simple, straightforward pictures that exist almost solely to give audiences their violent jollies and let them be on their way.

But to justify that nature and purpose, and to sell it to a movie-going audience who wants to get their fill of bloodletting but also feel fine about it, you need two things: innocent victims and a cause. Because he’s a populist hero, aimed at entertaining the masses, that cause can’t be too complicated. And because he’s an American, that cause is inevitably going to end up aligned with basic American values, meaning freedom, justice, individualism, anti-authoritarianism—ideals that will easily and quickly appeal to a wide swath of the movie-going public. The victims, then, must consist of those whose freedoms are most obviously in danger, making the go-to helpless victims those who’ve been oppressed by violent totalitarians around the world (Communists in the second and third films, sadistic Burmese military warlords in the latest outing).

It’s not so much, I think, that Rambo makes an explicit argument for intervention as that it uses the widely understood morality of intervention (and not even political intervention, per se, so much as the basic rightness of protecting or avenging the innocent) as a pretext for indulging in extreme cinematic violence. Stallone’s personal politics no doubt flavor the film, but I think it’s a mistake to assign much force to the film as argument. Violence is the series’ product, and intervention is the simplest, most broadly appealing way to sell it.

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Cyberprotection

It didn’t get a mention in the State of the Union, but the Wall Street Journal reports on an important initiative that will be contained in President Bush’s forthcoming budget: “an estimated $6 billion to build a secretive system protecting U.S. communication networks from attacks by terrorists, spies and hackers.”

The Journal writes that this proposal is stirring “controversy,” because civil libertarians object to the idea of the government monitoring computer networks. It’s stances like this that give self-proclaimed civil libertarians a bad name. How can the government avoid monitoring computer networks to some extent if it is going to protect them? That’s like saying that police forces shouldn’t monitor what occurs in the streets. Of course that is pretty much the position that some civil liberties groups take, but that’s a subject for another day.

At the moment the possibility that America’s enemies might hack into and damage, destroy, or spoof our computer and communications networks represents one of our biggest strategic vulnerabilities. We’re building a missile defense program to protect against ballistic missile attack. We need to build a system to defend against cyberattack which, while not as devastating as a nuclear missile strike, could nevertheless be extremely damaging given the extent to which every facet of our national life is reliant on computers. And unlike missile attacks the danger of cyberattacks is not theoretical: they already occur tens of thousands of times a year and cause varying degrees of damage, most of which remain secret, because no one wants to release information that will encourage more hacking.

Kudos to the administration for recognizing the danger. I only hope that Congress comes through with the needed funding: $6 billion is just the down payment on an estimated $30 billion program. If it keeps our cyberinfrastructure intact, it will be money well spent.

It didn’t get a mention in the State of the Union, but the Wall Street Journal reports on an important initiative that will be contained in President Bush’s forthcoming budget: “an estimated $6 billion to build a secretive system protecting U.S. communication networks from attacks by terrorists, spies and hackers.”

The Journal writes that this proposal is stirring “controversy,” because civil libertarians object to the idea of the government monitoring computer networks. It’s stances like this that give self-proclaimed civil libertarians a bad name. How can the government avoid monitoring computer networks to some extent if it is going to protect them? That’s like saying that police forces shouldn’t monitor what occurs in the streets. Of course that is pretty much the position that some civil liberties groups take, but that’s a subject for another day.

At the moment the possibility that America’s enemies might hack into and damage, destroy, or spoof our computer and communications networks represents one of our biggest strategic vulnerabilities. We’re building a missile defense program to protect against ballistic missile attack. We need to build a system to defend against cyberattack which, while not as devastating as a nuclear missile strike, could nevertheless be extremely damaging given the extent to which every facet of our national life is reliant on computers. And unlike missile attacks the danger of cyberattacks is not theoretical: they already occur tens of thousands of times a year and cause varying degrees of damage, most of which remain secret, because no one wants to release information that will encourage more hacking.

Kudos to the administration for recognizing the danger. I only hope that Congress comes through with the needed funding: $6 billion is just the down payment on an estimated $30 billion program. If it keeps our cyberinfrastructure intact, it will be money well spent.

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Tom Lantos Is Shocked

In a UN speech delivered by his daughter on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, U.S. congressman and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Tom Lantos (D-CA) laid into the UN for its efforts to de-legitimatize Israel, as the Jewish state faces a renewed threat to its very existence:

Two generations after the Holocaust, I never thought – I could not even have imagined – that within the structure of the United Nations there would be some who would attempt to de-legitimatize the Jewish State, the State of Israel, founded and built by the remnants of European Jewry and by the hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from Arab lands.

The UN deserves to be hammered on this point, but Lantos’ words raise the question: why was he so ill-prepared for this revelation? It’s harder to imagine that there are some “within the structure of the United Nations” who don’t attempt to de-legitimatize Israel. The Jerusalem Post reports: “Lantos lamented the fact that the UN chamber was too often the setting for “shameless invective against Israel.” Well, it’s his fellow Democrats who seek the approval of said chamber.

Lantos added, “Just as an earlier dictator pledged to destroy the Jews of Europe, so a new one is threatening to destroy the Jewish State.” But according to prominent members of his party, Iran has been effectively deterred from waging such an attack. Moreover, after the release of December’s NIE claiming that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons development, Lantos had this to say:

This newest information supports what I have said all along: We need to give diplomacy with Iran more of a chance. I continue to favor dialogue between our two countries, in contrast to the Administration’s belligerent and stiff-necked refusal to talk with Tehran. And I believe we need to use every means at our disposal – economic, political and diplomatic – to persuade Iranians that peaceful development of energy options, free of any hint of military use, is well within reach.

So: which is it Tom?

In a UN speech delivered by his daughter on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, U.S. congressman and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Tom Lantos (D-CA) laid into the UN for its efforts to de-legitimatize Israel, as the Jewish state faces a renewed threat to its very existence:

Two generations after the Holocaust, I never thought – I could not even have imagined – that within the structure of the United Nations there would be some who would attempt to de-legitimatize the Jewish State, the State of Israel, founded and built by the remnants of European Jewry and by the hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from Arab lands.

The UN deserves to be hammered on this point, but Lantos’ words raise the question: why was he so ill-prepared for this revelation? It’s harder to imagine that there are some “within the structure of the United Nations” who don’t attempt to de-legitimatize Israel. The Jerusalem Post reports: “Lantos lamented the fact that the UN chamber was too often the setting for “shameless invective against Israel.” Well, it’s his fellow Democrats who seek the approval of said chamber.

Lantos added, “Just as an earlier dictator pledged to destroy the Jews of Europe, so a new one is threatening to destroy the Jewish State.” But according to prominent members of his party, Iran has been effectively deterred from waging such an attack. Moreover, after the release of December’s NIE claiming that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons development, Lantos had this to say:

This newest information supports what I have said all along: We need to give diplomacy with Iran more of a chance. I continue to favor dialogue between our two countries, in contrast to the Administration’s belligerent and stiff-necked refusal to talk with Tehran. And I believe we need to use every means at our disposal – economic, political and diplomatic – to persuade Iranians that peaceful development of energy options, free of any hint of military use, is well within reach.

So: which is it Tom?

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Waiting

On primary days, unlike primary evenings, the political news pickings are slight. Robert Kagan weighs in here on the politics of the surge and Mitt Romney’s calculated language last year when the new policy was at risk. Stephen Hayes reaches the same conclusion I do on the flap about Justice Alito. Otherwise, the lack of heated Democratic responses to the State of the Union is a telling sign–there was not much there, there and even less new there. The last year of the Bush presidency appears to be guided by the Hippocratic Oath: do no harm. If President Bush can block any tax increases, prevent Democratic interference with Iraq policy, and maintain a measure of fiscal discipline, then conservatives and the potential Republican presidential nominees will no doubt be pleased.
On primary days, unlike primary evenings, the political news pickings are slight. Robert Kagan weighs in here on the politics of the surge and Mitt Romney’s calculated language last year when the new policy was at risk. Stephen Hayes reaches the same conclusion I do on the flap about Justice Alito. Otherwise, the lack of heated Democratic responses to the State of the Union is a telling sign–there was not much there, there and even less new there. The last year of the Bush presidency appears to be guided by the Hippocratic Oath: do no harm. If President Bush can block any tax increases, prevent Democratic interference with Iraq policy, and maintain a measure of fiscal discipline, then conservatives and the potential Republican presidential nominees will no doubt be pleased.

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State of the Union: China

Last night President Bush mentioned China just once in his State of the Union address, a passing reference in a recommendation to “create a new international clean technology fund.” He wants the fund to help Beijing “make greater use of clean energy sources.”

Whether or not one thinks the Chinese will own this century—it is unlikely they will—and whether or not we think Beijing is benign—it is not—one cannot assess the state of the American union without mentioning China in a more comprehensive fashion. Due in part to Washington’s generous and indulgent policies, the modern Chinese state has become increasingly assertive and now has attained the power to steer the world ahead or throw it into reverse. What Beijing and its proxies do in the months and years ahead will have a far larger impact on America than anything the President discussed last night.

Since the last State of the Union message, China has supported the nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea, flooded our markets with toxic products and impure food, and injured our businesses by violating trade pledges. It threatened to dump its dollar holdings to devastate our economy and warned American forces to stay away from Asian waters. It has encouraged our adversaries and bullied our friends. Wasn’t any of this worth a mention last night?

Last night President Bush mentioned China just once in his State of the Union address, a passing reference in a recommendation to “create a new international clean technology fund.” He wants the fund to help Beijing “make greater use of clean energy sources.”

Whether or not one thinks the Chinese will own this century—it is unlikely they will—and whether or not we think Beijing is benign—it is not—one cannot assess the state of the American union without mentioning China in a more comprehensive fashion. Due in part to Washington’s generous and indulgent policies, the modern Chinese state has become increasingly assertive and now has attained the power to steer the world ahead or throw it into reverse. What Beijing and its proxies do in the months and years ahead will have a far larger impact on America than anything the President discussed last night.

Since the last State of the Union message, China has supported the nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea, flooded our markets with toxic products and impure food, and injured our businesses by violating trade pledges. It threatened to dump its dollar holdings to devastate our economy and warned American forces to stay away from Asian waters. It has encouraged our adversaries and bullied our friends. Wasn’t any of this worth a mention last night?

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All the Falsehoods Fit to Print

What are we to make of President Bush’s final State of the Union Address? The New York Times has an answer. When it comes to Iraq, says the paper,

Mr. Bush’s annual addresses will be remembered most for his false claims — the fictitious “axis of evil,” nonexistent aluminum tubes and African uranium, dangerous weapons that did not exist. No President can want that as his legacy.

There’s a lot to unpack here. To begin with, is the “axis of evil” really “fictitious”? What is the Times driving at here? Perhaps it is quarreling with the use of the word “evil” to characterize North Korea, Iran, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. But if the editors of the Times do not regard these particular dictatorships as evil, than what is?

Alternatively, perhaps the paper is quarreling with the word “axis.” But Connecting the Dots seems to recall that it was only this past September when North Korea was observed supplying some sort of nuclear technology to Syria, a close ally of Iran. Some reports suggest that Israel seized the material in its raid on a Syrian facility that month. Doesn’t such proliferation activity — along with North Korea’s collaboration with Iran in the field of offensive missiles — make for an “axis”? If not, how does the Times define “axis”?

One might also ask in response to the Times editorial: was Iraq under Saddam Hussein part of an axis of evil? True, only scant and highly debatable evidence has emerged suggesting Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks. But did he not have ties to al Qaeda, and isn’t al Qaeda evil?

Here is an October 2002 letter from CIA Director George Tenet to Senator Pat Roberts that is quite relevant:

We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade.

Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression. Since Operation Enduring Freedom [the military operations that commenced shortly after September 11, 2001], we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad.

We have credible reporting that al-Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al-Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.

Iraq’s increasing support to extremist Palestinians, coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al Qaeda, suggest that Baghdad’s links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action (emphasis added).

How about the aluminum tubes? According to numerous reports, including in the Times itself, Iraq had acquired, or was in the process of acquiring, some 60,000 of them before the U.S. invasion. 60,000 doesn’t sound like “non-existent” to Connecting the Dots. The real issue, as the Times presumably knows but found inconvenient to say, was what the tubes were going to be used for, a nuclear program or a rocket program? As the Times also presumably knows, there was a vigorous debate inside the intelligence community about this question. 

How about the African uranium? Was that also “non-existent”? Here the Times is referring to Bush’s first State of the Union address in which he uttered the soon-to-be controversial sixteen words: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Whatever the Times might now be insinuating in its editorial, every single one of those words is true. That is exactly what British intelligence had learned and exactly what it told the United States. Bush’s speech had been vetted by the CIA, which had left the sixteen words in.

Finally, there are the non-existent “dangerous weapons” referred to by the Times. But the newspaper itself was warning about Iraq’s “dangerous weapons” at the very same moment, and on the basis of roughly the same evidence, that Bush was relying on, when he made the allegedly “false claims.” The question is: were Bush’s statements about these weapons (and the Times’s statements) “false” or were they knowingly false? There is a world of difference between the two, which the Times editorial page elects to fudge.

No President, concludes the Times editorial, wants all these “false claims” as his legacy. But when the history of this period is written, it is the knowingly false claims found day after day on the editorial pages of the New York Times that will deserve a chapter of their own.

What are we to make of President Bush’s final State of the Union Address? The New York Times has an answer. When it comes to Iraq, says the paper,

Mr. Bush’s annual addresses will be remembered most for his false claims — the fictitious “axis of evil,” nonexistent aluminum tubes and African uranium, dangerous weapons that did not exist. No President can want that as his legacy.

There’s a lot to unpack here. To begin with, is the “axis of evil” really “fictitious”? What is the Times driving at here? Perhaps it is quarreling with the use of the word “evil” to characterize North Korea, Iran, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. But if the editors of the Times do not regard these particular dictatorships as evil, than what is?

Alternatively, perhaps the paper is quarreling with the word “axis.” But Connecting the Dots seems to recall that it was only this past September when North Korea was observed supplying some sort of nuclear technology to Syria, a close ally of Iran. Some reports suggest that Israel seized the material in its raid on a Syrian facility that month. Doesn’t such proliferation activity — along with North Korea’s collaboration with Iran in the field of offensive missiles — make for an “axis”? If not, how does the Times define “axis”?

One might also ask in response to the Times editorial: was Iraq under Saddam Hussein part of an axis of evil? True, only scant and highly debatable evidence has emerged suggesting Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks. But did he not have ties to al Qaeda, and isn’t al Qaeda evil?

Here is an October 2002 letter from CIA Director George Tenet to Senator Pat Roberts that is quite relevant:

We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade.

Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression. Since Operation Enduring Freedom [the military operations that commenced shortly after September 11, 2001], we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad.

We have credible reporting that al-Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al-Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.

Iraq’s increasing support to extremist Palestinians, coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al Qaeda, suggest that Baghdad’s links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action (emphasis added).

How about the aluminum tubes? According to numerous reports, including in the Times itself, Iraq had acquired, or was in the process of acquiring, some 60,000 of them before the U.S. invasion. 60,000 doesn’t sound like “non-existent” to Connecting the Dots. The real issue, as the Times presumably knows but found inconvenient to say, was what the tubes were going to be used for, a nuclear program or a rocket program? As the Times also presumably knows, there was a vigorous debate inside the intelligence community about this question. 

How about the African uranium? Was that also “non-existent”? Here the Times is referring to Bush’s first State of the Union address in which he uttered the soon-to-be controversial sixteen words: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Whatever the Times might now be insinuating in its editorial, every single one of those words is true. That is exactly what British intelligence had learned and exactly what it told the United States. Bush’s speech had been vetted by the CIA, which had left the sixteen words in.

Finally, there are the non-existent “dangerous weapons” referred to by the Times. But the newspaper itself was warning about Iraq’s “dangerous weapons” at the very same moment, and on the basis of roughly the same evidence, that Bush was relying on, when he made the allegedly “false claims.” The question is: were Bush’s statements about these weapons (and the Times’s statements) “false” or were they knowingly false? There is a world of difference between the two, which the Times editorial page elects to fudge.

No President, concludes the Times editorial, wants all these “false claims” as his legacy. But when the history of this period is written, it is the knowingly false claims found day after day on the editorial pages of the New York Times that will deserve a chapter of their own.

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Democratic Twister

In today’s Kansas City Star Steve Kraske writes of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ Democratic response to President Bush’ final State of the Union address, “Sebelius looked nervous during the 10-minute speech she had a big hand in writing.”

So would I have, if I’d once been caught cheaply exploiting partisan rifts only to find myself delivering a message of trans-partisan unity to the entire nation. In spring 2007, a deadly tornado hit Greensburg, Kansas. Governor Sebelius wasted no time pulling the Katrina card, and then some. From Yahoo News via Hotair:

With President Bush set to travel to now-razed Greensburg, Kan., on Wednesday to view the destruction wrought by Friday’s 205 mph twister, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said she planned to talk with him about her contention that National Guard deployments to Iraq hampered the disaster response.

“I don’t think there is any question if you are missing trucks, Humvees and helicopters that the response is going to be slower,” she said Monday. “The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg, because the recovery will be at a slower pace.”

Rumors followed, alleging Sebelius to have said of her claim, “With his (Bush’s) numbers, you can’t really blame me for usin’ that.” In fairness, that part of the story is flatly denied by everyone implicated. But Gov. Sebelius’ words on the record still stand as a testament to her exemplary status as a partisan sniper.

Watching Kathleen Sebelius hop on Obama’s peace-and-love train last night was like watching Bobby Darin try to transform himself into Bob Dylan. “We have no more patience for divisive politics,” she said. The American people “are not nearly as divided as our rancorous politics might suggest.” Then what, Governor, were you so nervous about?

In today’s Kansas City Star Steve Kraske writes of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ Democratic response to President Bush’ final State of the Union address, “Sebelius looked nervous during the 10-minute speech she had a big hand in writing.”

So would I have, if I’d once been caught cheaply exploiting partisan rifts only to find myself delivering a message of trans-partisan unity to the entire nation. In spring 2007, a deadly tornado hit Greensburg, Kansas. Governor Sebelius wasted no time pulling the Katrina card, and then some. From Yahoo News via Hotair:

With President Bush set to travel to now-razed Greensburg, Kan., on Wednesday to view the destruction wrought by Friday’s 205 mph twister, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said she planned to talk with him about her contention that National Guard deployments to Iraq hampered the disaster response.

“I don’t think there is any question if you are missing trucks, Humvees and helicopters that the response is going to be slower,” she said Monday. “The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg, because the recovery will be at a slower pace.”

Rumors followed, alleging Sebelius to have said of her claim, “With his (Bush’s) numbers, you can’t really blame me for usin’ that.” In fairness, that part of the story is flatly denied by everyone implicated. But Gov. Sebelius’ words on the record still stand as a testament to her exemplary status as a partisan sniper.

Watching Kathleen Sebelius hop on Obama’s peace-and-love train last night was like watching Bobby Darin try to transform himself into Bob Dylan. “We have no more patience for divisive politics,” she said. The American people “are not nearly as divided as our rancorous politics might suggest.” Then what, Governor, were you so nervous about?

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Obama and American Jews

Throughout his presidential campaign, Barack Obama has faced a series of disturbingly slanderous e-mails. Obama has been falsely accused of being secretly Muslim; studying in an Indonesian madrassa; and refusing to say the pledge of allegiance, among other charges. Sensing that these e-mails were particularly prevalent within Jewish circles, Obama held a conference call with Jewish journalists yesterday afternoon.

During the call, Obama sought to reassure the Jewish community by addressing Jewish identity issues. He thus declared his support for Israel “as a Jewish state”; expressed concern for continued rocket attacks from Gaza; stated that the Palestinian right of return could not be interpreted “in any literal way”; and opposed negotiations with Hamas so long as it denies Israel’s right to exist. He further denied that he had ever practiced Islam, and said that his church leader had made a “mistake of judgment” in honoring Louis Farrakhan. “My church has never issued anti-Semitic statements, nor have I heard my pastor utter anything anti-Semitic,” he said. “If I have, I would have left the church.”

The implication that Obama—by virtue of his church leader’s connections with Farrakhan—is anti-Semitic is hard to swallow. After all, Obama remains one solid degree removed from Farrakhan—highly significant in a political environment in which Joseph Lieberman declared his “respect” for Farrakhan during his 2000 vice-presidential candidacy. Moreover, it is saddening that Obama continually feels the need to address his non-Islamic faith, particularly when doing so insultingly implies that Islam is undesirable.

Yet one question remains legitimate: how can voters who care about the U.S.-Israel relationship be reassured that Obama’s staunchly pro-Israel declarations are not mere pandering? After all, Obama is on record as having called for an “even-handed approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2000, just as the Palestinians commenced the Second Intifada following Camp David. According to Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abunimah, Obama’s pro-Israel epiphany occurred shortly before his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign—an about-face for which Obama apologized to Abunimah. “Hey, I’m sorry I haven’t said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I’m hoping when things calm down I can be more up front,” Obama said at the time.

Obama’s apology to Abunimah—a major proponent of the one-state “solution”— indicates an unsophisticated view of American politics, in which success requires whispering sweet Zionist nothings to satisfy the almighty, one-issue Jewish electorate. Obama’s foreign policy advisers have similarly promoted this inflated vision of Jewish power. As my contentions colleague Noah Pollak has assiduously noted, Obama adviser Samantha Power has declared that sound Middle East policy might require “alienating a domestic constituency”—guess which one. His staff further features Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has defended the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that the U.S.-Israel relationship is the product of Jewish power politics, rather than strategic interest.

This mixture of prior statements and advisory influences suggests little regarding how Obama might act towards Israel if elected. Obama has repudiated Brzezinski’s call for dialogue with Hamas, while Power’s support for ending U.S. foreign military aid to Israel probably represents too radical a departure from historic U.S. policy to be taken seriously.

Rather, Jewish concerns regarding Obama’s candidacy should focus on whether Obama and his posse view American Jewry as a stumbling block in the way of promoting U.S. interests in the Middle East. This is the insidious crux of the “Israel Lobby” thesis, and Obama’s prior statements to Abunimah—as well as the writings of Power and Brzezinski—are hardly reassuring.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Barack Obama has faced a series of disturbingly slanderous e-mails. Obama has been falsely accused of being secretly Muslim; studying in an Indonesian madrassa; and refusing to say the pledge of allegiance, among other charges. Sensing that these e-mails were particularly prevalent within Jewish circles, Obama held a conference call with Jewish journalists yesterday afternoon.

During the call, Obama sought to reassure the Jewish community by addressing Jewish identity issues. He thus declared his support for Israel “as a Jewish state”; expressed concern for continued rocket attacks from Gaza; stated that the Palestinian right of return could not be interpreted “in any literal way”; and opposed negotiations with Hamas so long as it denies Israel’s right to exist. He further denied that he had ever practiced Islam, and said that his church leader had made a “mistake of judgment” in honoring Louis Farrakhan. “My church has never issued anti-Semitic statements, nor have I heard my pastor utter anything anti-Semitic,” he said. “If I have, I would have left the church.”

The implication that Obama—by virtue of his church leader’s connections with Farrakhan—is anti-Semitic is hard to swallow. After all, Obama remains one solid degree removed from Farrakhan—highly significant in a political environment in which Joseph Lieberman declared his “respect” for Farrakhan during his 2000 vice-presidential candidacy. Moreover, it is saddening that Obama continually feels the need to address his non-Islamic faith, particularly when doing so insultingly implies that Islam is undesirable.

Yet one question remains legitimate: how can voters who care about the U.S.-Israel relationship be reassured that Obama’s staunchly pro-Israel declarations are not mere pandering? After all, Obama is on record as having called for an “even-handed approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2000, just as the Palestinians commenced the Second Intifada following Camp David. According to Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abunimah, Obama’s pro-Israel epiphany occurred shortly before his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign—an about-face for which Obama apologized to Abunimah. “Hey, I’m sorry I haven’t said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I’m hoping when things calm down I can be more up front,” Obama said at the time.

Obama’s apology to Abunimah—a major proponent of the one-state “solution”— indicates an unsophisticated view of American politics, in which success requires whispering sweet Zionist nothings to satisfy the almighty, one-issue Jewish electorate. Obama’s foreign policy advisers have similarly promoted this inflated vision of Jewish power. As my contentions colleague Noah Pollak has assiduously noted, Obama adviser Samantha Power has declared that sound Middle East policy might require “alienating a domestic constituency”—guess which one. His staff further features Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has defended the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that the U.S.-Israel relationship is the product of Jewish power politics, rather than strategic interest.

This mixture of prior statements and advisory influences suggests little regarding how Obama might act towards Israel if elected. Obama has repudiated Brzezinski’s call for dialogue with Hamas, while Power’s support for ending U.S. foreign military aid to Israel probably represents too radical a departure from historic U.S. policy to be taken seriously.

Rather, Jewish concerns regarding Obama’s candidacy should focus on whether Obama and his posse view American Jewry as a stumbling block in the way of promoting U.S. interests in the Middle East. This is the insidious crux of the “Israel Lobby” thesis, and Obama’s prior statements to Abunimah—as well as the writings of Power and Brzezinski—are hardly reassuring.

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Good News, Bad News

The good news from Gaza today is that Israel will not prevent PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas from taking control of the Gaza-Egypt border. Even better news is that Egypt apparently will similarly acquiesce. The initiative enjoys the backing of Europe and Condoleeza Rice as well, according to media reports. The bad news is the only group whose agreement is really relevant–Hamas–is not going to let the Chairman have it.

The good news from Gaza today is that Israel will not prevent PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas from taking control of the Gaza-Egypt border. Even better news is that Egypt apparently will similarly acquiesce. The initiative enjoys the backing of Europe and Condoleeza Rice as well, according to media reports. The bad news is the only group whose agreement is really relevant–Hamas–is not going to let the Chairman have it.

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Not Quite Camelot

Journalists, of the overt and covert liberal variety, went gaga yesterday over Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, his dutiful son and Rhode Island Congressman Patrick, and his niece Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg endorsing Barack Obama and all but crowning him as the successor to JFK. A “Mount Rushmore of Kennedy faces was arrayed behind” Obama, gushed The Nation. “Kennedy focused on Obama’s ability to channel JFK-levels of inspiration and use good judgment on foreign policy and other issues,” crowed the ever-earnest American Prospect. About 100 journalists were turned away from the event, which says something about reporters and their love for these sorts of staged, media-friendly spectacles.

I was born and raised in Massachusetts. Yet the Kennedy bug never quite rubbed off on me. In fact, my feelings toward the Kennedys have been quite the opposite from those of my parents’ generation. Perhaps it’s because I was born in 1983, long after the fabled days of “Camelot.” The Kennedys I grew up with weren’t Jack and Bobby, but Michael (who sexually molested his children’s 14-year-old babysitter and died skiing down a mountain while recklessly tossing around a football), William Kennedy Smith, and the aforementioned Patrick (whose antics frequently show that Rhode Island’s First Congressional District is the most forgiving in the nation, second only to the entire state of Massachusetts). Worst of all might be Joe Kennedy, a former Congressman who now spends his days shilling on behalf of the Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.

And, of course, there was Ted himself. I was a very liberal and politically active teenager, but something always struck me as profoundly wrong with the way people in my state lionized Ted Kennedy. I had a foggy knowledge of Chappaquiddick, but it was enough. The fact that this man was re-elected, time and time again, shocked my faith in America’s system of justice. But more than that, it made me question my own liberal faith. That so many of my fellow liberals would apologize for and explain away a man who–were it not for his privileged station in life–would have served a long jail sentence, seemed to contradict the most fundamental tenets of liberalism, namely, equality before the law and opposition to political power accrued by dynastic lineage.

In light of yesterday’s endorsement, now is as good a time as any to go back and re-read the classic GQ story on Kennedy by Michael Kelly, former editor of The New Republic, entitled “Ted Kennedy on the Rocks.” It’s a different animal entirely from yesterday’s herd-like and fawning press coverage of the Kennedy clan.

Journalists, of the overt and covert liberal variety, went gaga yesterday over Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, his dutiful son and Rhode Island Congressman Patrick, and his niece Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg endorsing Barack Obama and all but crowning him as the successor to JFK. A “Mount Rushmore of Kennedy faces was arrayed behind” Obama, gushed The Nation. “Kennedy focused on Obama’s ability to channel JFK-levels of inspiration and use good judgment on foreign policy and other issues,” crowed the ever-earnest American Prospect. About 100 journalists were turned away from the event, which says something about reporters and their love for these sorts of staged, media-friendly spectacles.

I was born and raised in Massachusetts. Yet the Kennedy bug never quite rubbed off on me. In fact, my feelings toward the Kennedys have been quite the opposite from those of my parents’ generation. Perhaps it’s because I was born in 1983, long after the fabled days of “Camelot.” The Kennedys I grew up with weren’t Jack and Bobby, but Michael (who sexually molested his children’s 14-year-old babysitter and died skiing down a mountain while recklessly tossing around a football), William Kennedy Smith, and the aforementioned Patrick (whose antics frequently show that Rhode Island’s First Congressional District is the most forgiving in the nation, second only to the entire state of Massachusetts). Worst of all might be Joe Kennedy, a former Congressman who now spends his days shilling on behalf of the Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.

And, of course, there was Ted himself. I was a very liberal and politically active teenager, but something always struck me as profoundly wrong with the way people in my state lionized Ted Kennedy. I had a foggy knowledge of Chappaquiddick, but it was enough. The fact that this man was re-elected, time and time again, shocked my faith in America’s system of justice. But more than that, it made me question my own liberal faith. That so many of my fellow liberals would apologize for and explain away a man who–were it not for his privileged station in life–would have served a long jail sentence, seemed to contradict the most fundamental tenets of liberalism, namely, equality before the law and opposition to political power accrued by dynastic lineage.

In light of yesterday’s endorsement, now is as good a time as any to go back and re-read the classic GQ story on Kennedy by Michael Kelly, former editor of The New Republic, entitled “Ted Kennedy on the Rocks.” It’s a different animal entirely from yesterday’s herd-like and fawning press coverage of the Kennedy clan.

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Game Day

A couple of final Florida polls indicate a very small advantage for John McCain, with Rudy sliding further behind. However, neither side seems entirely confident.

In the final hours last night before zero day the final jabs were taken. Mitt Romney says he would not be McCain’s Vice President. Well, given the recent expressions of disdain from McCain, I don’t think Romney need worry about being asked. On the issue of the surge, I would agree with Stephen Hayes, and find it remarkable not more has been made of Romney’s prior evasions on the surge policy.

Although Romney last night on an appearance on Fox News said that the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation would vouch for his fiscal record as Governor of Massachusetts, this group, the McCain folks are happy to remind us, actually attacked Romney for a calculated $700M in increased fees and “loophole” closings. Finally, Professor Stephen Bainbridge offers up some helpful research on McCain’s prior support for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

At this point, all that matters is who turns out to vote and how many of those half a million early voters each side banked.

A couple of final Florida polls indicate a very small advantage for John McCain, with Rudy sliding further behind. However, neither side seems entirely confident.

In the final hours last night before zero day the final jabs were taken. Mitt Romney says he would not be McCain’s Vice President. Well, given the recent expressions of disdain from McCain, I don’t think Romney need worry about being asked. On the issue of the surge, I would agree with Stephen Hayes, and find it remarkable not more has been made of Romney’s prior evasions on the surge policy.

Although Romney last night on an appearance on Fox News said that the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation would vouch for his fiscal record as Governor of Massachusetts, this group, the McCain folks are happy to remind us, actually attacked Romney for a calculated $700M in increased fees and “loophole” closings. Finally, Professor Stephen Bainbridge offers up some helpful research on McCain’s prior support for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

At this point, all that matters is who turns out to vote and how many of those half a million early voters each side banked.

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