Last night CONTENTIONS and Alarming News threw a little blogger get-together, and I’m happy to say the turnout was excellent, the conversation scintillating, and the disagreements civil. I want to thank everyone for showing up, and that includes CONTENTIONS’ own Jennifer Rubin and Ted Bromund, as well as Pamela of Atlas Shrugs, Todd Seavey, Neo-Neocon, Walter Olson from Overlawyered, Sean Macomber from the American Spectator, and of course, Karol Sheinin of Alarming News. Let’s do it again soon — and in a slightly quieter spot.
Posts For: June 27, 2008
Barely three years ago, the Syrian regime was under severe pressure. In the aftermath of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination, Syria was forced to withdraw from Lebanon in the face of unprecedented protests both within Lebanon and around he world. Meanwhile, the regime was beset by internal strife: Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan allegedly committed suicide in October 2005 and, two months later, former Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam told al-Arabiyya television in Paris that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had personally threatened Hariri. As economic sanctions loomed, many speculated that Assad’s authoritarian excesses had finally crossed the line, and wondered whether his rule was nearing its end.
Well, despite lingering suspicion regarding his role in Hariri’s murder and an ongoing international investigation, Assad is suddenly more popular than ever. Indeed, the international community has responded to Assad’s role in the Doha agreement-which ended a political crisis that Syria had partially instigated by strengthening Syria’s allies in Lebanon-as if the Syrian dictator had performed charity work. This started last month, when French President Nicholas Sarkozy promised to improve French-Syrian ties across the board. Then, last week, India welcomed Assad in New Delhi for the first Syrian state visit in three decades, signing a series of new economic agreements. Then, on Wednesday, Assad greeted Icelandic Minister of Foreign Affairs Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir in Damascus, where Gisladottir vowed to improve bilateral relations and discussed European-Syrian relations. Finally, yesterday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called Assad to thank him for his role in Doha.
This recent acceleration in Syrian diplomatic relations has profound consequences for U.S. policy. Until now, the Bush administration has responded coolly to Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, wary that their fruition would build international support for Assad, thus preventing Damascus from being held accountable once the Hariri investigation is completed. Understandably, the administration didn’t anticipate that the international community would be willing to support Assad despite the Hariri investigation at a much cheaper price-namely, in exchange for short-term, Hezbollah-strengthening Lebanese stability. Washington is thus left with a stark choice: it can either jump on the Israeli-Syrian peace train, through which it would offer substantial incentives for Assad to abandon the Iranian axis; or it can press its allies to suspend rapprochement with Syria until the Hariri investigation is completed, perhaps asking the investigating commission to speed up the process.
In deciding between these two options, the administration must determine how much it values the decreasing possibility that the outcome of the Hariri investigation will significantly damage Assad and Hezbollah’s power within Lebanon. After all, as the international community has grown weary of Lebanese instability and bored by the investigation, it seems willing to concede Syrian influence in exchange for quiet. Whether the Bush administration hopes to buck this trend or exploit it as a tool against Iran, it must act quickly. Waiting for the verdict on Hariri’s murder to reshape the diplomatic environment is no longer an option.
Charles Krauthammer has a typically insightful column today on “the ever-malleable Mr. Obama.” The earth’s landscape is now littered with former Obama commitments, and his embrace of the conservative court’s views on the child rape and second amendment cases this week is head-snapping. Obama sounds like the president of the Federalist Society.
Barack Obama may be the best political embodiment of Woody Allen’s character Leonard Zelig we have seen. The complete ease with which Obama shifts positions, with only the slightest bit of media scrutiny, is quite amazing. And the original conceit of the Obama campaign, which is that he is above the “old politics,” won’t play the “Washington game” and is a one-man antidote to cynicism, should now evoke a belly laugh.
There is, though, a larger lesson to draw from what is unfolding. Obama, in order to win the presidency, is fleeing liberalism as fast as his feet will carry him. McCain, on the other hand, proudly presents himself as a “Ronald Reagan conservative.” That is the best testimony there is to the fact that America remains a center-right, and certainly not a liberal, nation. It is also an important reminder that the Republican Party and the conservative movement are separate, with the former in considerably worse shape than the latter.
The ways in which America is more and less conservative than it once was in an interesting matter to explore. But it’s safe to say, I think, that if the presidential race is framed as Barack Obama, Democrat v. John McCain, Republican, Obama will win. If on the other hand the race is framed as Barack Obama, liberal v. John McCain, conservative, McCain will win.
That is worth bearing in mind as one commentator after another speaks out about the supposed crisis afflicting conservatism. I don’t dispute that conservatism is in a time of some transition, which makes perfect sense. The problems we face today are in some respects different than they were a quarter-century ago– and even different than they were a decade ago (when welfare and crime were much more of a concern to voters). We sometimes forget that one of Ronald Reagan’s great gifts was the capacity to apply conservative principles to the challenges of his time, including “stagflation” and Soviet communism (for example, replacing détente with the theory of rollback). Prior to Reagan, in fact, supply-side economics wasn’t a serious economic theory, let alone a practical policy. Health care costs and jihadism were not issues – and forced busing and apartheid in South Africa were.
Times obviously change and conservatism, in the best Burkean tradition, adjusts to changing circumstances. But the core philosophy of American conservatism remains, unlike American liberalism, appealing. Just look at Barack Obama this week if you doubt it.
In one of his silliest columns in years, E. J. Dionne says that the majority in Heller abandoned originalism and precedent to reach a decision to please the Right. Yeah, except for the fact that the majority opinion is a tour de force of originalist research and reasoning. Randy Barnett explains:
Justice Scalia’s opinion is the finest example of what is now called “original public meaning” jurisprudence ever adopted by the Supreme Court. This approach stands in sharp contrast to Justice John Paul Stevens’s dissenting opinion that largely focused on “original intent” – the method that many historians employ to explain away the text of the Second Amendment by placing its words in what they call a “larger context.” Although original-intent jurisprudence was discredited years ago among constitutional law professors, that has not stopped nonoriginalists from using “original intent” – or the original principles “underlying” the text – to negate its original public meaning.
But I can imagine there is a bit of panic in the liberal ranks. You see, originalism was made out by the Left to be a myth — a tactic that was impossible to practice (because after all who knows what they were thinking 200 years ago) and an approach that should be dismissed out of hand by all modern legal scholars who know that the only way this really works is to get Justice Kennedy to agree with your desired policy outcome. But originalism does work, and it works because it is the only judicial theory which prevents judges from tripping down the path of policy preferences — making up spurious balancing tests and open-ended phrases to excuse their actions in replacing the decisions of the elected branches without constitutional warrant.
So I can understand that the liberal pundits and law professors are miffed. But they can take comfort, since they are only a justice away from steering the Court right back to where they want it. And Obama will be more than happy to send reinforcements for Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and the rest of the justices who really think originalism is piffle. Unfortunately for them, Justice Scalia has proven that it is not.
Liberal bloggers Andrew Sullivan and Josh Marshall are furiously attacking my comparison between Iraq and Germany. “There are almost countless differences between the two historical situations,” Marshall writes. And he’s right. But that’s the way historical analogies work: They are always imperfect and partial, but nevertheless everyone uses them to draw conclusions about international politics. In fact, Marshall himself draws comparisons between Iraq and Germany in the very same post!
Needless to say, I wasn’t denying the substantial differences between the two historical situations. I brought up the analogy only in a very limited context–to demonstrate what I meant by a long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq. I didn’t mean years of fighting. I didn’t mean years of occupation. I meant years of the same sort of presence we have in Germany to this day.
Sullivan thinks it’s impossible to imagine that we could have this sort of long-standing military presence in the Mideast without perpetual fighting. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that the U.S. already has a string of bases in Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and other Middle Eastern countries. Having visited many of these installations I haven’t noticed a lot of fighting there. In fact they are peaceful and relatively uncontroversial. Granted, the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia was more controversial: Osama bin Laden cited it as a justification for his campaign of terrorism. But we now know that was simply a pretext, since his calls for violence in his homeland have not ended even though we have withdrawn our troops.
What I find curious is that neither Marshall nor Sullivan has commented on the other historical analogy I drew when I wrote that
lots of Iraqis may well want an American presence to reassure competing sectarian groups that their historical enemies will not slaughter them. That is essentially the role that NATO troops still play in Kosovo and Bosnia, years after the end of the conflicts that brought them there. That is the kind of role I envision American troops playing in Iraq.
Lots of people couldn’t imagine when we first intervened in the former Yugoslavia that our troops would stay there for years and that they would not be violently contested. But that is, in fact, what’s happened. Obviously there are major differences between the Balkans and Iraq, which Sullivan and Marshall can no doubt cite ad nauseam. But those deployments also show the kind of long-term role that U.S. troops can play.
The broader point is that the success of American military interventions has usually been closely related to their length. The longer we stay, the more successful we are. When we get out too quickly–as we did in Haiti in the 1990′s–the situation often goes to hell. So if we want to secure a lasting victory in Iraq we need to stay around for a good long while.
But I get the sense that Marshall and Sullivan, like many of their antiwar compatriots, don’t really care about whether we win or lose in Iraq. They simply want to get out, and damn the consequences. That brings up another historical analogy that I’m sure they would rather forget: the way we pulled out of South Vietnam after the defeat of the North’s Tet and Easter Offensives when a decent outcome (namely the long-term preservation of South Vietnam’s independence) was within our grasp. A lot of antiwar voices back then said it would actually be good for the locals if we left, just as they now say it would be good for Iraq if we skedaddled. Tell it to the Vietnamese boat people or the victims of the Cambodian killing fields.
Let’s take a break from all this politics and do some — frankincense. In biblical times, this herb was used in the incense offered in the Temple in Jerusalem, offering priests a certain high when addressing the Almighty. According to the rabbis, it was also given to prisoners awaiting execution, so that they would “stop worrying.” And in the New Testament, it was one of the three gifts, along with gold and myrrh, brought by the wise men when Jesus was born.
Now researchers at the Hebrew University have begun studying the effects of frankincense on laboratory mice. The result: “We saw that the frankincense gave the mice a high,” says Prof. Esther Fride, the head of the research team. Apparently the herb triggers a receptor of the brain that is asociated with warmth and calm — one different from what is activated with the most commonly used psychiatric drugs. So the hope is that the new research will lead to new medicines, such as anti-depressants, without the same side effects or addictive properties.
All seriousness aside, though: Isn’t it about time that followers of the Bible had a drug they could call their own? Prophecy pills, anyone?
Whether they defend or attack him, most media observers have figured out that Barack Obama is playing fast and loose with the recent Supreme Court rulings and past positions on everything from NAFTA to FISA to campaign financing. His media fan club expresses admiration for how he is “moving to the center,” while conservative commentators express horror. But Obama should keep in mind two words: Mitt Romney.
Romney faltered in large part because he lacked a core — or rather couldn’t convince voters that he had a core set of beliefs that wasn’t contrived for political convenience. Many conservative pundits were just glad to have someone who agreed with them. But voters didn’t buy him as a cohesive candidate. Combined with a shifting message and a remote personality, he lost — despite a huge financial advantage.
Hmm. Does sound a tad familar. The problem for Obama is made more acute by several factors. First, the media is on to the shifts and evasions and has turned up the heat. Obama, as we saw yesterday, isn’t great at maneuvering through the incoming fire (in part because he’s never really had to do it before). Second, unlike Romney, Obama is running on a personal platform of political virtue and superiority. He’s above taking money from lobbyists, above political attacks, and above dishonesty. Except he’s not. And the hypocrisy charge is one which every pundit loves to make. (Which is why they were excessively harsh in their judgment of his campaign finance switcheroo.)
I sense the rules are changing and the New Obama is learning the new ground rules are far less accommodating than the old ones.
Well, it’s the end of the world as we know it. The Independent reports that “ice is on course to disappear entirely from the North Pole this year.”
This one-year ice is highly vulnerable to melting during the summer months and satellite data coming in over recent weeks shows that the rate of melting is faster than last year, when there was an all-time record loss of summer sea ice at the Arctic.
Ah, yes. Last year’s all-time record loss. Who could forget the dramatic time-lapse images of the melting arctic? Those shots were referred to as irrefutable and dramatic new evidence for about a month. Dramatic? Yes. But irrefutable?
We didn’t hear about it for two reasons. The first — it doesn’t make a good story. The second, more insidious reason is that corporations with their hands in both media and goods and services have sunk billions into green campaigns the success of which depends upon the perennial threat of extinction. So hang on for the next few months as the world ends once more.
Israel’s leading newspaper is undergoing a political makeover. For decades, Israel’s newspaper of record has suffered from a flagrant political bias of what can be called the “Left”: Its antipathy to capitalism, and especially its belief that all of Israel’s woes are to be blamed not on Arab bellicosity but rather on Israel’s occupation and settlement policies, made Haaretz the standard-bearer for a very specific, rapidly dwindling audience.
Not any more. According to the Jerusalem Post‘s Calev Ben-David, over the last few months many of Haaretz‘s writers — Akiva Eldar, Danny Rubinstein, Gideon Levi, and Amira Hass, to name the most notable — have been either released or had their space significantly curtailed, and a new, more moderate era has begun under the leadership of the paper’s new editor, Dov Alfon.
The essence of the problem, we may assume, is business: As the Israeli economy has boomed because of market reforms, and optimism about peace has vanished in the wake of the Second Intifada and the rise of Hamas, fewer and fewer readers want to hear what Haaretz‘s editors have been saying. But lest you think there’s an actual ideological change happening, here’s what Amos Schocken, the paper’s longtime owner, has to say about the shift:
I understand there are those readers who want Haaretz to look like a protest [manifesto] against the occupation – for example, Ashkenazi, secular and righteous, and focused on the occupation. But a newspaper is not a protest [manifesto]; it’s a newspaper. By the way, Haaretz was against the occupation before Amira Hass and Meron [Rappaport], and it will be after them. And don’t misunderstand me. I am certainly of the view that the occupation is Israel’s most severe ailment, one that endangers its very existence. If it were possible, then, I would be ready to be the publisher of a newspaper that solely campaigned against the occupation till its end. The problem is that some of those protesting against the occupation also want to know what is happening in the shops of Comme Il Faut [a clothing chain]. So we were concerned that they wouldn’t take out a subscription to the newspaper that I am prepared to be the publisher of.
I’m glad that’s cleared up.
In an election in which independent voters are thought to be key and voters blame excessive partisanship for what ills Washington, neither presidential candidate wants to be seen as a dogged party loyalist. John McCain would like to secure the maverick title, but he is constantly fending off claims that he is George Bush’s clone. (This job is made more difficult because his position on taxes and Iraq are, in fact, identical to Bush’s current stances.)
Barack Obama started the campaign as not just a bipartisan role model, but a post-partisan leader. Yet he too is having problems. His ultra-liberal voting record and lack of risk-taking has caught the attention of pundits. When presented with opportunities to push back against standard Democratic interest groups he hasn’t demonstrated much inclination to withstand the heat from his own side (e.g. pandering to Big labor on their wish list and resisting nuclear power which is an anathema to the Left). But what about FISA? When it counted, he sided with the Left while more recently he tried to fudge by supporting the compromise deal but opposing the key compromise (i.e. telecom immunity) so as to provide himself cover with the civil rights lobby.
So each candidate has his challenges. But McCain (out of political necessity) has picked some fights with President Bush. Will Obama challenge his base? He hasn’t yet. And at this point he seems to have at the very least lost his edge in the contest to project the least partisan image. But the race is just getting underway and there are plenty of chances to show he’s more than a doctrinaire liberal Democrat.
Others have pointed out that even after the Supreme Court’s decision in Heller, it was not clear precisely what Barack Obama thought of the opinion. Late in the day he came up with the whopper: he’s been saying the same thing as the Supreme Court all along. He, of course, hasn’t said anything of the sort, and he failed to join the amicus brief asking the Court to rule as it ultimately did.
Perhaps he was concerned that if had been crystal clear from the get-go, the media would have dragged out his prior statements and his support for gun-control efforts. But they were already doing that. So he didn’t avoid the consistency problem — he just added to it.
Why would Obama make a limited problem (gun rights and his inconsistency with regard to the same) into a larger one of leadership and political courage? I suspect his campaign is still surprised when he encounters pushback from the media and his opponent. Living in a media cocoon has its downside. One is the mistaken belief that he can slide through any issue with a slickly-crafted script.
All he did was spend a day making his problem worse and more pervasive with voters not necessarily tuned into the Second Amendment issue. If even sympathetic bloggers can spot the bobbing and weaving, won’t voters notice? Whatever voters’ beliefs on Second Amendment rights or Constitutional interpretation (or even if they don’t rate these concerns as key to their decision in selecting a candidate), they usually can spot someone trying to have it both ways. If that becomes a theme, then the “arrogant” meme will have stiff competition for the main Obama storyline.