Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 10, 2009

The Contradictions of Roger Cohen

Two important pieces track the incredible tergiversations of Roger Cohen. Jordan Hirsch points to the contradictions implicit in the New York Times columnist’s heartfelt expressions of support for Iran’s democratic dissidents and his ever shifting calls for “engagement” with the regime that is murdering them.

Is diplomacy with the Ayatollah only ethically repugnant for, say, the next six months? Will we, by then, have conveniently forgotten about the Green Wave? Will it no longer be too distasteful to resume “business as usual”?

There are further discrepancies. Cohen derides George W. Bush’s “radical White House” and praises Barack Obama for “plac[ing] the Iranian regime on the defensive.” Yet it is Obama—and not Bush—who was so slow to issue any positive expression of support for the people on the streets of Tehran and who nonetheless held out the olive branch of “engagement” irrespective of how many dissidents the Iranian regime imprisons, tortures, or kills (entreaties, by the way, that have been abjectly dismissed by Iran’s leaders). Meanwhile, two days after the election devolved into mass protests and violent repression, Cohen said that outreach should “await a decent interval.” Two weeks later he declared, “Meddling be damned.”

Hirsch writes that Cohen possesses two “inherently conflicting aspirations for the direction of U.S. foreign policy.” One is “enthralled by Obama’s ‘heady, history-making’ wish for rapprochement,” an echo of Cohen’s apologias for the regime issued for months on end prior to the brutal crackdowns, while the other “marvels at the ‘limitless potential’ of the three million Iranians who gathered to protest the election results, and glorifies the dissident movement.” Cohen writes as if these contradictory analyses of the regime’s nature were in perfect harmony.

What accounts for the persistence of such hypocrisy? In a devastating piece for the Forward, J.J. Goldberg chalks it up to the worst of journalistic impulses: cynical attention-seeking. A columnist for the past five years, Cohen was regularly spouting “conventional wisdom.” Slate’s Jack Shafer observed that Cohen’s writing “establishes new standards for the aggressive pursuit of the trite” and “dares the reader to wade through a mush of platitudes.” So why not push the envelope and write ridiculous things about the hospitality of the ayatollahs toward Iran’s 25,000 Jews and how the image of a radical, Islamist regime is but a dangerous fiction concocted by a cabal of actual fanatics, that is, American neoconservatives?

Cohen’s spate of columns spinning these yarns have earned him a great deal of attention, but he has also made a fool of himself. Repeatedly. For instance, he simultaneously called predictions of Iranian nuclear capability fear-mongering—more likely to produce a “Persian Chernobyl”—while advising that it is “almost certainly too late to stop Iran from achieving virtual nuclear power status” and that the West should reconcile itself to that anodyne fact. Moreover, the real problem in the region was Israel, whose belligerence needed to be “rein[ed] in.”

The height (or, more accurately, the depth) of Cohen’s quest for provocation was witnessed last week in a 5,000-word piece for the Times Magazine, where he expressed concern over National Security Council staffer Dennis Ross’s “well-known ties with the American Jewish community.” Never mind that these “well-known ties” do not seem to bother President Obama, who, after all, wanted to bring Ross closer to the action of Iran policy. Goldberg asks:

That, in effect, is the dilemma facing American policy toward Iran at this pivotal moment: Is there too much Jewish influence? We’ve heard the question before in Hamas sermons, in Al Qaeda videos and on some left-wing blogs. Now it’s been incorporated into the nation’s newspaper of record.

Cohen was indeed “mugged by reality”—Hirsch’s description of the Times writer’s Iranian odyssey. Finding oneself among the participants of a real-life counterrevolution in the streets of Tehran will change the attitude of everyone but the most coldhearted of “realists.” Yet at the same time, Cohen remains obsessed with exposing nefarious influence in the American government, which is the true impediment to a detente with the Iranians—a detente which, depending on the day, Cohen finds impossible to achieve.

Cohen has received many plaudits over the past two months, not just from those who found his earlier work about Iran naive, but also, ironically, from the very same people who were nodding their heads at his earlier assessments of neoconservative perfidy and Iranian reasonableness. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” There exists a distinction between acknowledging the nuances of an issue—the meaning of Fitzgerald’s aphorism—and espousing utterly contradictory opinions. It is a testament to the intellectual muddiness of our times that so many people cannot recognize the difference.

Two important pieces track the incredible tergiversations of Roger Cohen. Jordan Hirsch points to the contradictions implicit in the New York Times columnist’s heartfelt expressions of support for Iran’s democratic dissidents and his ever shifting calls for “engagement” with the regime that is murdering them.

Is diplomacy with the Ayatollah only ethically repugnant for, say, the next six months? Will we, by then, have conveniently forgotten about the Green Wave? Will it no longer be too distasteful to resume “business as usual”?

There are further discrepancies. Cohen derides George W. Bush’s “radical White House” and praises Barack Obama for “plac[ing] the Iranian regime on the defensive.” Yet it is Obama—and not Bush—who was so slow to issue any positive expression of support for the people on the streets of Tehran and who nonetheless held out the olive branch of “engagement” irrespective of how many dissidents the Iranian regime imprisons, tortures, or kills (entreaties, by the way, that have been abjectly dismissed by Iran’s leaders). Meanwhile, two days after the election devolved into mass protests and violent repression, Cohen said that outreach should “await a decent interval.” Two weeks later he declared, “Meddling be damned.”

Hirsch writes that Cohen possesses two “inherently conflicting aspirations for the direction of U.S. foreign policy.” One is “enthralled by Obama’s ‘heady, history-making’ wish for rapprochement,” an echo of Cohen’s apologias for the regime issued for months on end prior to the brutal crackdowns, while the other “marvels at the ‘limitless potential’ of the three million Iranians who gathered to protest the election results, and glorifies the dissident movement.” Cohen writes as if these contradictory analyses of the regime’s nature were in perfect harmony.

What accounts for the persistence of such hypocrisy? In a devastating piece for the Forward, J.J. Goldberg chalks it up to the worst of journalistic impulses: cynical attention-seeking. A columnist for the past five years, Cohen was regularly spouting “conventional wisdom.” Slate’s Jack Shafer observed that Cohen’s writing “establishes new standards for the aggressive pursuit of the trite” and “dares the reader to wade through a mush of platitudes.” So why not push the envelope and write ridiculous things about the hospitality of the ayatollahs toward Iran’s 25,000 Jews and how the image of a radical, Islamist regime is but a dangerous fiction concocted by a cabal of actual fanatics, that is, American neoconservatives?

Cohen’s spate of columns spinning these yarns have earned him a great deal of attention, but he has also made a fool of himself. Repeatedly. For instance, he simultaneously called predictions of Iranian nuclear capability fear-mongering—more likely to produce a “Persian Chernobyl”—while advising that it is “almost certainly too late to stop Iran from achieving virtual nuclear power status” and that the West should reconcile itself to that anodyne fact. Moreover, the real problem in the region was Israel, whose belligerence needed to be “rein[ed] in.”

The height (or, more accurately, the depth) of Cohen’s quest for provocation was witnessed last week in a 5,000-word piece for the Times Magazine, where he expressed concern over National Security Council staffer Dennis Ross’s “well-known ties with the American Jewish community.” Never mind that these “well-known ties” do not seem to bother President Obama, who, after all, wanted to bring Ross closer to the action of Iran policy. Goldberg asks:

That, in effect, is the dilemma facing American policy toward Iran at this pivotal moment: Is there too much Jewish influence? We’ve heard the question before in Hamas sermons, in Al Qaeda videos and on some left-wing blogs. Now it’s been incorporated into the nation’s newspaper of record.

Cohen was indeed “mugged by reality”—Hirsch’s description of the Times writer’s Iranian odyssey. Finding oneself among the participants of a real-life counterrevolution in the streets of Tehran will change the attitude of everyone but the most coldhearted of “realists.” Yet at the same time, Cohen remains obsessed with exposing nefarious influence in the American government, which is the true impediment to a detente with the Iranians—a detente which, depending on the day, Cohen finds impossible to achieve.

Cohen has received many plaudits over the past two months, not just from those who found his earlier work about Iran naive, but also, ironically, from the very same people who were nodding their heads at his earlier assessments of neoconservative perfidy and Iranian reasonableness. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” There exists a distinction between acknowledging the nuances of an issue—the meaning of Fitzgerald’s aphorism—and espousing utterly contradictory opinions. It is a testament to the intellectual muddiness of our times that so many people cannot recognize the difference.

Read Less

How Could Robinson Be a Vetting Error?

CONTENTIONS contributor Jamie Kirchick provides an exacting and valuable look at Mary Robinson’s role not only as the ring master at Durban but also as an expert practitioner of moral equivalence—of the sort that gives the term a bad name. Ever the critic of any step Israel and the U.S. might take to defend themselves against terrorists (these are always dubbed as “losing the moral high ground”—only passive victimhood appeals to her), she never, as Kirchick notes, “lifted a finger when it came to serial abusers of human rights” among the world’s miscreants.

It is hard to believe that the Obama team was unaware of all this. Neither Durban nor Robinson’s UN tenure is incidental to her career. Moreover, her rhetoric and outlook bear an uncanny resemblance to the approach taken by the Obama administration. Obama is full of invective and regret for America’s actions—be they in the war on terror or in our historic record of dealing with Iran and Central America. As for human-rights outrages in Cuba, Iran, North Korea, or China, he has been largely, if not entirely, mute. No wonder Robinson was selected.

And on Israel itself, Robinson’s elevation of Palestinian suffering without context or reference to their contribution to their own misery echoes both candidate Obama (who decried that no people had suffered as the Palestinians had) and President Obama at Cairo (who elevated the Palestinian cause to the same plane as the horrors of the Holocaust).

One can’t help but conclude that Robinson was chosen precisely because and not in spite of her worldview, which differs not that appreciably from Obama’s. Yes, Obama chose not to attend Durban II—that was a bridge too far. But let’s get real—is it more likely that the Obama team “missed” the entire focus of Robinson’s career or that she embodies in meaningful ways their vision of the world and underlying unease with American exceptionalism? They would have us believe the former—pleading incompetence. But the more one recalls Robinson’s career, the weaker that excuse seems.

CONTENTIONS contributor Jamie Kirchick provides an exacting and valuable look at Mary Robinson’s role not only as the ring master at Durban but also as an expert practitioner of moral equivalence—of the sort that gives the term a bad name. Ever the critic of any step Israel and the U.S. might take to defend themselves against terrorists (these are always dubbed as “losing the moral high ground”—only passive victimhood appeals to her), she never, as Kirchick notes, “lifted a finger when it came to serial abusers of human rights” among the world’s miscreants.

It is hard to believe that the Obama team was unaware of all this. Neither Durban nor Robinson’s UN tenure is incidental to her career. Moreover, her rhetoric and outlook bear an uncanny resemblance to the approach taken by the Obama administration. Obama is full of invective and regret for America’s actions—be they in the war on terror or in our historic record of dealing with Iran and Central America. As for human-rights outrages in Cuba, Iran, North Korea, or China, he has been largely, if not entirely, mute. No wonder Robinson was selected.

And on Israel itself, Robinson’s elevation of Palestinian suffering without context or reference to their contribution to their own misery echoes both candidate Obama (who decried that no people had suffered as the Palestinians had) and President Obama at Cairo (who elevated the Palestinian cause to the same plane as the horrors of the Holocaust).

One can’t help but conclude that Robinson was chosen precisely because and not in spite of her worldview, which differs not that appreciably from Obama’s. Yes, Obama chose not to attend Durban II—that was a bridge too far. But let’s get real—is it more likely that the Obama team “missed” the entire focus of Robinson’s career or that she embodies in meaningful ways their vision of the world and underlying unease with American exceptionalism? They would have us believe the former—pleading incompetence. But the more one recalls Robinson’s career, the weaker that excuse seems.

Read Less

A Naval Exercise, Off the Beaten Path

In late July, Russia and Iran quietly held their first ever joint naval exercise. Its Caspian Sea location made it less visible to the Western media—but no less significant as a regional signal. The exercise involved about 30 small ships (neither navy has anything larger than a small corvette in the Caspian Sea) and focused on responding to an environmental disaster, a common and apolitical theme in multinational exercises.

The strengthening of a Russia-Iran axis has obvious implications for the commercial independence of Caspian Sea natural gas. A naval understanding between Russia and Iran might also, of course, portend a regular role for the Russian navy in the Persian Gulf. With Russia’s navy already operating off Somalia and planning to resume using its Cold War–era ports in the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Aden, resurrecting its former Soviet profile in the Persian Gulf is the last step in re-establishing a presence in the Middle East.

These perspectives are valid, but they tend to ignore the broader objectives held by both Russia and Iran. Russia puts as much emphasis on consolidating hegemonic control of Central Asia and the Caucasus as it does on getting its navy around that region and establishing patrol stations on the other side. Intimidating Ukraine, partitioning Georgia, extorting policy conformity from the Central Asian “Stans,” participating politically in the multinational effort in Afghanistan—all these measures have the same importance to Russia as naval-power projection and basing privileges in the Persian Gulf.

Iran, meanwhile, has its own ideas on expanding regional power and no interest in functioning as Moscow’s doorstep to the Middle East. Iran’s concept of itself as an independent actor—benefiting from but not beholden to Russia—is evident in the vigor of Tehran’s autonomous initiatives, from Lebanon and the Red Sea to Latin America. The stop-and-start history of progress with Russia on the sale of the S-300 air-defense system and bringing the Bushehr nuclear reactor online (a project Russia signed on for in 1995) is emblematic of the prickly relations between the two countries. We can expect Iran to exact a very high price from Moscow for any basing concession on the Persian Gulf.

What the July naval exercise indicates is that existing ties are being carefully cultivated on both sides, even though game-changing decisions such as Russia’s actually shipping the S-300 to Iran, or Iran hosting Russian ships in the Persian Gulf, remain bargaining chips. The unprecedented exercise, with its implication of analogous possibilities off Iran’s southern coast, may also have functioned as a test of U.S. reaction. Our feedback to this and other regional developments will be a major factor in Moscow’s decisions in the coming months, such as the impending one to take the Bushehr reactor critical. Russia will consider everything we do—from outlining a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan to responding to aggression against Georgia—as information about how we will respond to the activation of the reactor.

In late July, Russia and Iran quietly held their first ever joint naval exercise. Its Caspian Sea location made it less visible to the Western media—but no less significant as a regional signal. The exercise involved about 30 small ships (neither navy has anything larger than a small corvette in the Caspian Sea) and focused on responding to an environmental disaster, a common and apolitical theme in multinational exercises.

The strengthening of a Russia-Iran axis has obvious implications for the commercial independence of Caspian Sea natural gas. A naval understanding between Russia and Iran might also, of course, portend a regular role for the Russian navy in the Persian Gulf. With Russia’s navy already operating off Somalia and planning to resume using its Cold War–era ports in the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Aden, resurrecting its former Soviet profile in the Persian Gulf is the last step in re-establishing a presence in the Middle East.

These perspectives are valid, but they tend to ignore the broader objectives held by both Russia and Iran. Russia puts as much emphasis on consolidating hegemonic control of Central Asia and the Caucasus as it does on getting its navy around that region and establishing patrol stations on the other side. Intimidating Ukraine, partitioning Georgia, extorting policy conformity from the Central Asian “Stans,” participating politically in the multinational effort in Afghanistan—all these measures have the same importance to Russia as naval-power projection and basing privileges in the Persian Gulf.

Iran, meanwhile, has its own ideas on expanding regional power and no interest in functioning as Moscow’s doorstep to the Middle East. Iran’s concept of itself as an independent actor—benefiting from but not beholden to Russia—is evident in the vigor of Tehran’s autonomous initiatives, from Lebanon and the Red Sea to Latin America. The stop-and-start history of progress with Russia on the sale of the S-300 air-defense system and bringing the Bushehr nuclear reactor online (a project Russia signed on for in 1995) is emblematic of the prickly relations between the two countries. We can expect Iran to exact a very high price from Moscow for any basing concession on the Persian Gulf.

What the July naval exercise indicates is that existing ties are being carefully cultivated on both sides, even though game-changing decisions such as Russia’s actually shipping the S-300 to Iran, or Iran hosting Russian ships in the Persian Gulf, remain bargaining chips. The unprecedented exercise, with its implication of analogous possibilities off Iran’s southern coast, may also have functioned as a test of U.S. reaction. Our feedback to this and other regional developments will be a major factor in Moscow’s decisions in the coming months, such as the impending one to take the Bushehr reactor critical. Russia will consider everything we do—from outlining a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan to responding to aggression against Georgia—as information about how we will respond to the activation of the reactor.

Read Less

Obama’s Israeli Friend in Boston

A controversy over the conduct of Nadav Tamir, Israel’s consul general for New England, is roiling the Israeli Foreign Ministry as well as Boston Jewry. Tamir, a career diplomat, is apparently not fond of Israel’s current government led by Benjamin Netanyahu and its policies. He seems to have something of a crush on the Obama administration despite its propensity to pick fights with Israel and to curry favor with its Arab foes. But rather than merely gripe privately about his bosses, the consul wrote a memo detailing his disagreements with his country’s policies on settlements and defending Obama’s stands. The memo was leaked to an Israeli TV station last week, and not surprisingly, Tamir was recalled to Jerusalem for an explanation of his conduct.

The text of that memo can be found on a website run by a Boston blogger, Martin Solomon. It reflects, as Solomon notes, the J Street view of the world. Indeed, Tamir seems to think that most Americans see Israel as part of a troika of states that won’t cooperate with Obama’s vision—in the same realm as Iran and North Korea, in a new version of the old axis of evil. Tamir attacks the George W. Bush administration as being run by neoconservatives who were more naive about the world than are Obama’s realists. He laments most Israelis’ distrust of Obama and says that Israel’s government must accommodate the U.S. president’s wishes. Most interestingly, he says that Jerusalem is making a mistake in trying to rally support among American Jews. Tamir apparently believes this approach has no chance, since most Jews voted for and still like Obama.

It should be understood that there is nothing wrong with a diplomat writing a confidential memo expressing an opinion that differs from that of his masters at home. However, when such a diplomat leaks the document in an effort to embarrass those whom his country’s voters have elected to be his superiors, then his behavior is no longer defensible.

Tamir may not be representative of Israeli public opinion, but he does sound like someone with his finger on the pulse of the liberal Jewish establishment in this country, as the Boston Globe reports today that the leaders of major Jewish organizations in New England have spoken out in support of Tamir.

While Tamir’s conduct is unusual (he is widely suspected to have leaked the document himself), it is not without precedent. At the start of Netanyahu’s first term in office in the 1990s, Colette Avital, a follower of Shimon Peres, who had just been defeated by Netanyahu, led Israel’s crucial New York consulate. Until she was finally replaced, Avital made it clear to anyone who had contact with her that her office was not there to defend her country’s government, a stance that clearly differed with her conduct when someone whom she liked better than Bibi led it.

Like Avital, Tamir seems deeply frustrated by Israeli voters’ thorough rejection of policies he supports. But like other left-wingers who hope to win by American pressure what they could not achieve at the Israeli ballot box, he sympathizes with an American administration and its Jewish apologists who seek to hammer his own government.

More important than the fate of Tamir is what this incident says about Israel’s ability to defend itself in the United States. Israel has a strong case to make, and it still resonates with the majority of Americans, including the majority of Jews who voted for Obama. But if its appointed representatives are so out of sync with the will of Israel’s voters that they identify more with their country’s American opponents than its defenders, then any efforts to explain to Americans that Israel’s stances on settlements, Jerusalem, and security issues are justified are bound to be compromised.

A controversy over the conduct of Nadav Tamir, Israel’s consul general for New England, is roiling the Israeli Foreign Ministry as well as Boston Jewry. Tamir, a career diplomat, is apparently not fond of Israel’s current government led by Benjamin Netanyahu and its policies. He seems to have something of a crush on the Obama administration despite its propensity to pick fights with Israel and to curry favor with its Arab foes. But rather than merely gripe privately about his bosses, the consul wrote a memo detailing his disagreements with his country’s policies on settlements and defending Obama’s stands. The memo was leaked to an Israeli TV station last week, and not surprisingly, Tamir was recalled to Jerusalem for an explanation of his conduct.

The text of that memo can be found on a website run by a Boston blogger, Martin Solomon. It reflects, as Solomon notes, the J Street view of the world. Indeed, Tamir seems to think that most Americans see Israel as part of a troika of states that won’t cooperate with Obama’s vision—in the same realm as Iran and North Korea, in a new version of the old axis of evil. Tamir attacks the George W. Bush administration as being run by neoconservatives who were more naive about the world than are Obama’s realists. He laments most Israelis’ distrust of Obama and says that Israel’s government must accommodate the U.S. president’s wishes. Most interestingly, he says that Jerusalem is making a mistake in trying to rally support among American Jews. Tamir apparently believes this approach has no chance, since most Jews voted for and still like Obama.

It should be understood that there is nothing wrong with a diplomat writing a confidential memo expressing an opinion that differs from that of his masters at home. However, when such a diplomat leaks the document in an effort to embarrass those whom his country’s voters have elected to be his superiors, then his behavior is no longer defensible.

Tamir may not be representative of Israeli public opinion, but he does sound like someone with his finger on the pulse of the liberal Jewish establishment in this country, as the Boston Globe reports today that the leaders of major Jewish organizations in New England have spoken out in support of Tamir.

While Tamir’s conduct is unusual (he is widely suspected to have leaked the document himself), it is not without precedent. At the start of Netanyahu’s first term in office in the 1990s, Colette Avital, a follower of Shimon Peres, who had just been defeated by Netanyahu, led Israel’s crucial New York consulate. Until she was finally replaced, Avital made it clear to anyone who had contact with her that her office was not there to defend her country’s government, a stance that clearly differed with her conduct when someone whom she liked better than Bibi led it.

Like Avital, Tamir seems deeply frustrated by Israeli voters’ thorough rejection of policies he supports. But like other left-wingers who hope to win by American pressure what they could not achieve at the Israeli ballot box, he sympathizes with an American administration and its Jewish apologists who seek to hammer his own government.

More important than the fate of Tamir is what this incident says about Israel’s ability to defend itself in the United States. Israel has a strong case to make, and it still resonates with the majority of Americans, including the majority of Jews who voted for Obama. But if its appointed representatives are so out of sync with the will of Israel’s voters that they identify more with their country’s American opponents than its defenders, then any efforts to explain to Americans that Israel’s stances on settlements, Jerusalem, and security issues are justified are bound to be compromised.

Read Less

Explaining the Significance of the Mary Robinson Nomination

Campaigning in Virginia on Thursday, Barack Obama said he did not mind the responsibility of cleaning up the health-care “mess”—but he does not want “the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking.” He wants them to “get out of the way.” John Hinderaker and Glenn Reynolds both titled their posts on Obama’s remarks “Shut Up, He Explained.”

James Besser has brought this high concept to the discussion of Obama’s nomination of Mary Robinson for the Presidential Medal of Honor. Besser ponders the “correct response” for Jewish leaders who think honoring Robinson legitimizes her anti-Israel views and the anti-Semitic Durban conference in which she was a key player. Here is his answer:

I’m not sure (I’m a journalist, not a high-paid Jewish executive), but I suspect groups that genuinely object to the decision to award the medal to Robinson should simply express disappointment, explain the reasons—and shut up.

I would be glad to shut up if the president would clean up the mess. But I suspect it is not going to be cleaned up—and not simply because withdrawing the nomination or criticizing the nominee would be embarrassing. The mess may have been the reason for the nomination in the first place, in a way that has not yet been fully appreciated. Let me explain.

It is highly unlikely that the nomination was the result of poor vetting, which involves nominating someone who appears appropriate and then discovering he has a tax problem, for example. But if you know about the tax problem and nominate him anyway—because you think his services are necessary to solve a more important problem—the issue is not one of vetting but of judgment, as well as what you are trying to achieve with the nomination.

Ed Lasky has marshaled a lot of evidence indicating that the person responsible for selecting and/or vetting Robinson was the president’s close friend and White House adviser Samantha Power, who would likely have been familiar with Robinson’s background. Robinson’s record at Durban did not, in any event, need a background check; it was in the foreground of her public record (see Tom Lantos’s lengthy Durban report). It was not a hidden tax problem but a known quality deemed not disqualifying given the larger problem to be solved by the nomination.

What was that problem? In an important 7,345-word post (with a 1,700-word follow-up), Catherine Fitzpatrick—who was at Durban I and watched Robinson’s performance there, and who is both her defender and her critic—says the nomination was “an effort to deflect criticism of the United States coming furiously from some leftist groups for the U.S. decision not to participate in the follow-up conference in Durban in April.” She concludes that “at the end of the day, the Obama Administration chose Mary Robinson because they felt she was one of their own.”

Fitzpatrick’s post is a revealing picture of the swamp into which the international human-rights movement has descended, typified by the UN Human Rights Council that George W. Bush shunned because of its membership and its anti-Israel agenda, and which Barack Obama joined with no real hope of changing—a course of action Obama affirmed (and wanted to be seen as affirming) by giving Robinson the highest civilian honor in the United States.

The administration is thus not likely to explain the Robinson nomination by blaming poor vetting, because the vetting was not poor. The president is not likely to criticize the views of the nominee, because the criticism would jeopardize the purpose of the nomination. There will likely be no explanation or criticism at all. On the contrary, the administration will be pleased to remain silent as its media allies tell Jewish leaders the appropriate reaction is to express “disappointment”—and shut up.

The significance of the Robinson nomination is that—in the end—it is not, at least not exclusively, a Jewish issue. The canary’s distress is never only about the canary. The nomination is another signpost along the well-paved road Obama’s foreign policy is traveling, another marker showing its increasingly clear direction.

Campaigning in Virginia on Thursday, Barack Obama said he did not mind the responsibility of cleaning up the health-care “mess”—but he does not want “the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking.” He wants them to “get out of the way.” John Hinderaker and Glenn Reynolds both titled their posts on Obama’s remarks “Shut Up, He Explained.”

James Besser has brought this high concept to the discussion of Obama’s nomination of Mary Robinson for the Presidential Medal of Honor. Besser ponders the “correct response” for Jewish leaders who think honoring Robinson legitimizes her anti-Israel views and the anti-Semitic Durban conference in which she was a key player. Here is his answer:

I’m not sure (I’m a journalist, not a high-paid Jewish executive), but I suspect groups that genuinely object to the decision to award the medal to Robinson should simply express disappointment, explain the reasons—and shut up.

I would be glad to shut up if the president would clean up the mess. But I suspect it is not going to be cleaned up—and not simply because withdrawing the nomination or criticizing the nominee would be embarrassing. The mess may have been the reason for the nomination in the first place, in a way that has not yet been fully appreciated. Let me explain.

It is highly unlikely that the nomination was the result of poor vetting, which involves nominating someone who appears appropriate and then discovering he has a tax problem, for example. But if you know about the tax problem and nominate him anyway—because you think his services are necessary to solve a more important problem—the issue is not one of vetting but of judgment, as well as what you are trying to achieve with the nomination.

Ed Lasky has marshaled a lot of evidence indicating that the person responsible for selecting and/or vetting Robinson was the president’s close friend and White House adviser Samantha Power, who would likely have been familiar with Robinson’s background. Robinson’s record at Durban did not, in any event, need a background check; it was in the foreground of her public record (see Tom Lantos’s lengthy Durban report). It was not a hidden tax problem but a known quality deemed not disqualifying given the larger problem to be solved by the nomination.

What was that problem? In an important 7,345-word post (with a 1,700-word follow-up), Catherine Fitzpatrick—who was at Durban I and watched Robinson’s performance there, and who is both her defender and her critic—says the nomination was “an effort to deflect criticism of the United States coming furiously from some leftist groups for the U.S. decision not to participate in the follow-up conference in Durban in April.” She concludes that “at the end of the day, the Obama Administration chose Mary Robinson because they felt she was one of their own.”

Fitzpatrick’s post is a revealing picture of the swamp into which the international human-rights movement has descended, typified by the UN Human Rights Council that George W. Bush shunned because of its membership and its anti-Israel agenda, and which Barack Obama joined with no real hope of changing—a course of action Obama affirmed (and wanted to be seen as affirming) by giving Robinson the highest civilian honor in the United States.

The administration is thus not likely to explain the Robinson nomination by blaming poor vetting, because the vetting was not poor. The president is not likely to criticize the views of the nominee, because the criticism would jeopardize the purpose of the nomination. There will likely be no explanation or criticism at all. On the contrary, the administration will be pleased to remain silent as its media allies tell Jewish leaders the appropriate reaction is to express “disappointment”—and shut up.

The significance of the Robinson nomination is that—in the end—it is not, at least not exclusively, a Jewish issue. The canary’s distress is never only about the canary. The nomination is another signpost along the well-paved road Obama’s foreign policy is traveling, another marker showing its increasingly clear direction.

Read Less

Desperation from Deeds

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds is desperate. The race in Virginia is slipping from his grasp, and the president’s fading popularity in that state has knocked out a potential lifeline. The solution: dredge up abortion as a wedge issue to scare Virginia’s suburban voters. Even the Washington Post is skeptical. After all, Deeds’s opponent Bob McDonnell is solidly pro-life but has barely mentioned social issues. He’s talking about bread-and-butter issues like jobs, education, and transportation. So Deeds now wants to bring up and dwell on social issues, trying to make the case that McDonnell is out of the mainstream. This, of course, comes from the party that insists Republicans only want to talk about social issues. McDonnell, with substantial justification, declares that Deeds is practicing “the politics of division.”

Well, that’s what Democrats are now reduced to—jobs, Obama, health-care reform, taxes, and transportation don’t work, so they bring up social issues, which aren’t close to being on the voters’ radar screen. If it seems half-baked and panicky, it is. And McDonnell now predictably and with much justification will claim that Deeds is out of touch with Virginians.

Since last November, we’ve had quite a political readjustment. We’ll see just how extensive it has been—as well as what happens in a swing state when one national party embraces an extremist agenda.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds is desperate. The race in Virginia is slipping from his grasp, and the president’s fading popularity in that state has knocked out a potential lifeline. The solution: dredge up abortion as a wedge issue to scare Virginia’s suburban voters. Even the Washington Post is skeptical. After all, Deeds’s opponent Bob McDonnell is solidly pro-life but has barely mentioned social issues. He’s talking about bread-and-butter issues like jobs, education, and transportation. So Deeds now wants to bring up and dwell on social issues, trying to make the case that McDonnell is out of the mainstream. This, of course, comes from the party that insists Republicans only want to talk about social issues. McDonnell, with substantial justification, declares that Deeds is practicing “the politics of division.”

Well, that’s what Democrats are now reduced to—jobs, Obama, health-care reform, taxes, and transportation don’t work, so they bring up social issues, which aren’t close to being on the voters’ radar screen. If it seems half-baked and panicky, it is. And McDonnell now predictably and with much justification will claim that Deeds is out of touch with Virginians.

Since last November, we’ve had quite a political readjustment. We’ll see just how extensive it has been—as well as what happens in a swing state when one national party embraces an extremist agenda.

Read Less

Backward on the Burqa

One of the more disturbing, and perplexing, parts of Barack Obama’s much-lauded Cairo speech was his endorsement of the “right” of women to the hijab—as if the great problem faced by Muslim females is the inability to cover their faces (and whole bodies) rather than the subjugation and compulsion to do so. In a not-so-subtle attempt to distinguish the United States from the government of France, which has gone so far as to ban such vestments from its schools, the president stated that “the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.”

As Peter Daou, the former Internet director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, wrote:

Is that a joke? With women being stoned, raped, abused, battered, mutilated, and slaughtered on a daily basis across the globe, violence that is so often perpetrated in the name of religion, the most our president can speak about is protecting their right to wear the hijab?

A story in yesterday’s Washington Post reveals just how foolish and counterproductive the president’s words were. It details the ongoing debate in France over the veil, a policy that is overwhelmingly popular with French citizens. It is also popular with older Muslim immigrants to France, people who made their way to the country long before Islamic extremists began to earn a footing in Europe. “If they don’t like it here, they can always leave,” the Post quotes one 65-year-old Muslim Frenchman.

Most interesting, however, is just how widespread the veil is in French Muslim society. Despite all the controversy, the French Interior Ministry estimates that “fewer than 400 women wear the full veil in France.” So here we have the president of the United States wading into an internal debate among one of our allies, rebuking a policy very sensibly adopted by that nation’s government and that affects a scant 400 people. (France, keep in mind, hosts the largest Muslim population on the Continent, some 6 million out of a total population of 64 million.) President Obama entered office promising better relations with Europe and the Muslim world. His backward position on Islamic dress will not help him accomplish that goal.

One of the more disturbing, and perplexing, parts of Barack Obama’s much-lauded Cairo speech was his endorsement of the “right” of women to the hijab—as if the great problem faced by Muslim females is the inability to cover their faces (and whole bodies) rather than the subjugation and compulsion to do so. In a not-so-subtle attempt to distinguish the United States from the government of France, which has gone so far as to ban such vestments from its schools, the president stated that “the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.”

As Peter Daou, the former Internet director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, wrote:

Is that a joke? With women being stoned, raped, abused, battered, mutilated, and slaughtered on a daily basis across the globe, violence that is so often perpetrated in the name of religion, the most our president can speak about is protecting their right to wear the hijab?

A story in yesterday’s Washington Post reveals just how foolish and counterproductive the president’s words were. It details the ongoing debate in France over the veil, a policy that is overwhelmingly popular with French citizens. It is also popular with older Muslim immigrants to France, people who made their way to the country long before Islamic extremists began to earn a footing in Europe. “If they don’t like it here, they can always leave,” the Post quotes one 65-year-old Muslim Frenchman.

Most interesting, however, is just how widespread the veil is in French Muslim society. Despite all the controversy, the French Interior Ministry estimates that “fewer than 400 women wear the full veil in France.” So here we have the president of the United States wading into an internal debate among one of our allies, rebuking a policy very sensibly adopted by that nation’s government and that affects a scant 400 people. (France, keep in mind, hosts the largest Muslim population on the Continent, some 6 million out of a total population of 64 million.) President Obama entered office promising better relations with Europe and the Muslim world. His backward position on Islamic dress will not help him accomplish that goal.

Read Less

Less Spin, More Listening

The Washington Post solicited advice on behalf of the president from a variety of pollsters, consultants, and analysts. Their advice is predictable. Get more rest. No, demand everyone go back to Washington. Explain why ObamaCare is good for everyone. No, dump ObamaCare and work on incremental reform. But they all seem to agree on one thing—the president has reached a perilous time in his term. Voters are tuning him out.

His health-care plan and, indeed, his entire agenda may have overreached and freaked out the public. But it is not yet clear whether the president thinks there’s much wrong with his policy or his strategy. Instead, we hear a flood of invective at his opponents and at voters. The straw men are back in droves: The Republicans don’t want reform. The critics don’t want health care for uninsured Americans. And on it goes. The crowds protesting his health-care plans are thugs or puppets. That doesn’t sound very self-reflective, does it?

We have yet to hear the president say he has listened to the concerns of his critics. He has started bashing insurance companies—and “health-care reform” is increasingly more often referred to as “health-insurance reform,” but we don’t know if that is just a pollster-driven readjustment in rhetoric or some broader revision in strategy.

If Obama is to regain lost ground, it may take a wholesale rethinking of his agenda and the political landscape. He sees a country amenable to a far-Left revolution. But the country is already exhausted and weary. He sees a discredited private sector. The public sees an overreaching government. He sees the 2008 election as an ideological mandate. The public just wants an economic recovery. There is a gap in both perception and expectation—one that won’t be easily solved by consultant-speak or by an avalanche of negative attacks against everyone not on board with Obama’s agenda. Either the public or the president needs to shift. Otherwise, the president’s fortunes will not improve anytime soon.

So forget the consultants’ advice. Instead, the president would do well to spend his vacation time listening rather than accusing. He might then understand why he has been losing the trust and support of his fellow citizens.

The Washington Post solicited advice on behalf of the president from a variety of pollsters, consultants, and analysts. Their advice is predictable. Get more rest. No, demand everyone go back to Washington. Explain why ObamaCare is good for everyone. No, dump ObamaCare and work on incremental reform. But they all seem to agree on one thing—the president has reached a perilous time in his term. Voters are tuning him out.

His health-care plan and, indeed, his entire agenda may have overreached and freaked out the public. But it is not yet clear whether the president thinks there’s much wrong with his policy or his strategy. Instead, we hear a flood of invective at his opponents and at voters. The straw men are back in droves: The Republicans don’t want reform. The critics don’t want health care for uninsured Americans. And on it goes. The crowds protesting his health-care plans are thugs or puppets. That doesn’t sound very self-reflective, does it?

We have yet to hear the president say he has listened to the concerns of his critics. He has started bashing insurance companies—and “health-care reform” is increasingly more often referred to as “health-insurance reform,” but we don’t know if that is just a pollster-driven readjustment in rhetoric or some broader revision in strategy.

If Obama is to regain lost ground, it may take a wholesale rethinking of his agenda and the political landscape. He sees a country amenable to a far-Left revolution. But the country is already exhausted and weary. He sees a discredited private sector. The public sees an overreaching government. He sees the 2008 election as an ideological mandate. The public just wants an economic recovery. There is a gap in both perception and expectation—one that won’t be easily solved by consultant-speak or by an avalanche of negative attacks against everyone not on board with Obama’s agenda. Either the public or the president needs to shift. Otherwise, the president’s fortunes will not improve anytime soon.

So forget the consultants’ advice. Instead, the president would do well to spend his vacation time listening rather than accusing. He might then understand why he has been losing the trust and support of his fellow citizens.

Read Less

Who Are These People?

This probably isn’t the ideal way for congressmen to handle their constituents:

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), at a town hall meeting about a highway project in his district on Friday, accused audience members who asked about healthcare reform during a question-and-answer session of being outsiders who “hijacked” his meeting.

“I’m listening to my constituents. These are people who live in the 13th congressional district, who vote in this district,” he said. “That’s who I’ve got to respond to.”

In fact, Scott directed his remark at Dr. Brian Hill, who is a resident of the 13th district. Hill asked why Scott is “voting for a healthcare plan that is shown not to work in Massachusetts.”

“Those of you here who have taken, and came, and hijacked this event that we’re dealing with here,” Scott said. “This is not a healthcare event. You made the choice to come here!”

Scott’s outburst came during the meeting’s question and answer session in which constituents were allowed to ask questions on any topic. A local NBC affiliate in Atlanta captured video of the meeting. Hill later stressed to the network that he’s not even a Republican.

At one point, Scott stood up and pointed, shouting, “You want a meeting with me on healthcare? I’ll give it to you!”

One has the sense that lawmakers are just stunned that ordinary citizens would have the temerity to speak up. Spending most of their time with staffers, lobbyists, and fellow legislators (i.e., sheltered from real people) and soaking up the talking points from their leadership, they simply never encounter people who disagree so bluntly and so loudly with them. Until now, the average town hall was a lightly attended snooze-fest where a few seniors came to complain about late checks and a question or two came up about a local pork-barrel project.

But then citizens got the idea that they could come out—in droves—and give their representatives a piece of their mind. It is all quite a culture shock for the lawmakers, who seem blissfully unaware that somewhere in just about every crowd there is someone with a video camera or a cell phone recording how they respond to criticism. And so far, it’s not a pretty sight.

This probably isn’t the ideal way for congressmen to handle their constituents:

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), at a town hall meeting about a highway project in his district on Friday, accused audience members who asked about healthcare reform during a question-and-answer session of being outsiders who “hijacked” his meeting.

“I’m listening to my constituents. These are people who live in the 13th congressional district, who vote in this district,” he said. “That’s who I’ve got to respond to.”

In fact, Scott directed his remark at Dr. Brian Hill, who is a resident of the 13th district. Hill asked why Scott is “voting for a healthcare plan that is shown not to work in Massachusetts.”

“Those of you here who have taken, and came, and hijacked this event that we’re dealing with here,” Scott said. “This is not a healthcare event. You made the choice to come here!”

Scott’s outburst came during the meeting’s question and answer session in which constituents were allowed to ask questions on any topic. A local NBC affiliate in Atlanta captured video of the meeting. Hill later stressed to the network that he’s not even a Republican.

At one point, Scott stood up and pointed, shouting, “You want a meeting with me on healthcare? I’ll give it to you!”

One has the sense that lawmakers are just stunned that ordinary citizens would have the temerity to speak up. Spending most of their time with staffers, lobbyists, and fellow legislators (i.e., sheltered from real people) and soaking up the talking points from their leadership, they simply never encounter people who disagree so bluntly and so loudly with them. Until now, the average town hall was a lightly attended snooze-fest where a few seniors came to complain about late checks and a question or two came up about a local pork-barrel project.

But then citizens got the idea that they could come out—in droves—and give their representatives a piece of their mind. It is all quite a culture shock for the lawmakers, who seem blissfully unaware that somewhere in just about every crowd there is someone with a video camera or a cell phone recording how they respond to criticism. And so far, it’s not a pretty sight.

Read Less

Flotsam and Jetsam

David Broder demeans both women and the Supreme Court by adopting the “wise woman” pose. Because, using Amy Klobuchar to make his case, Broder explains that it really takes a woman to understand how the law impacts people in their daily lives. Somehow they never made that argument for Janice Rogers Brown.

Obama reneges on his deal: “Caught between a pivotal industry ally and the protests of Congressional Democrats, the Obama administration on Friday backed away from what drug industry lobbyists had said this week was a firm White House promise to exclude from a proposed health care overhaul the possibility of allowing the government to negotiate lower drug prices under Medicare.” Making the president into a liar for the sake of a stalled health-care scheme may be a big mistake. It’s not smart to devalue the president’s word.

Ronald and Allis Radosh explain: “By initiating the peace process with demands that Israel freeze settlements, he has given the impression that if only it would comply, there’d be peace. And he has given the Palestinians and Arab leaders a rationale for again refusing to accept their neighbor’s legitimacy. Not surprising, a recent survey shows only 6 percent of Israelis consider Obama a friend.”

In a must-read on health-care reform, Yuval Levin explains that liberals didn’t learn the right lesson from the demise of HillaryCare: “In this sense, today’s Democrats have repeated a crucial error of the Clinton health care initiative of 1993-94: They have tried to take on the entire massive and complex American health care system at once, rather than pursuing discrete solutions to particular problems in manageable steps. This is not an incidental feature of the liberal approach to health care reform. It is a function of the left’s deeply held view that reform must involve wholesale reinvention from scratch, so that every last detail can be subjected to rational control and centralized expertise. Inevitably, the result is a project too large, too complicated, too expensive, and too disruptive to succeed. And the public knows it.”

You mean it’s not all about extra bedrooms in East Jerusalem? “Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said his organization is ready for any outbreak in hostilities that may erupt along the border with Israel. Qassem, who spoke during a remembrance gathering marking three years since Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war, said the Shi’ite militia is not waiting for Israel to begin fighting before making the necessary preparations.”

And when it comes to borders, I must have missed the State Department’s objections to this sort of declaration from the Fatah conference: “Fatah will continue to sacrifice victims until Jerusalem will be returned [to the Palestinians], clean of settlements and settlers.” And in case you were wondering, there is no “distinction between the eastern and western halves of the capital, nor does it distinguish between the territories within the Israeli side of the Green Line and the areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.”

Dan Balz thinks Obama needs August to “rebalance” his presidency. Not sure how telling critics to get out of the way or hobnobbing in Martha’s Vineyard does that.

Max Schulz reports on a town hall in Maryland—contentious, though civilized. “The discontent is neither faked nor staged by the GOP. At the Mardela Springs event I attended, the parking lot was filled with Maryland license plates, the speakers made references to local areas and events, and everyone of the several people I spoke with lived in the congressman’s district. They were just upset and worried that the reforms Democrats were bent on enacting would hurt the economy and their ability to get the health care they needed. This crowd was probably far more representative of the national mood than Mrs. Pelosi realizes.”

David Broder demeans both women and the Supreme Court by adopting the “wise woman” pose. Because, using Amy Klobuchar to make his case, Broder explains that it really takes a woman to understand how the law impacts people in their daily lives. Somehow they never made that argument for Janice Rogers Brown.

Obama reneges on his deal: “Caught between a pivotal industry ally and the protests of Congressional Democrats, the Obama administration on Friday backed away from what drug industry lobbyists had said this week was a firm White House promise to exclude from a proposed health care overhaul the possibility of allowing the government to negotiate lower drug prices under Medicare.” Making the president into a liar for the sake of a stalled health-care scheme may be a big mistake. It’s not smart to devalue the president’s word.

Ronald and Allis Radosh explain: “By initiating the peace process with demands that Israel freeze settlements, he has given the impression that if only it would comply, there’d be peace. And he has given the Palestinians and Arab leaders a rationale for again refusing to accept their neighbor’s legitimacy. Not surprising, a recent survey shows only 6 percent of Israelis consider Obama a friend.”

In a must-read on health-care reform, Yuval Levin explains that liberals didn’t learn the right lesson from the demise of HillaryCare: “In this sense, today’s Democrats have repeated a crucial error of the Clinton health care initiative of 1993-94: They have tried to take on the entire massive and complex American health care system at once, rather than pursuing discrete solutions to particular problems in manageable steps. This is not an incidental feature of the liberal approach to health care reform. It is a function of the left’s deeply held view that reform must involve wholesale reinvention from scratch, so that every last detail can be subjected to rational control and centralized expertise. Inevitably, the result is a project too large, too complicated, too expensive, and too disruptive to succeed. And the public knows it.”

You mean it’s not all about extra bedrooms in East Jerusalem? “Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said his organization is ready for any outbreak in hostilities that may erupt along the border with Israel. Qassem, who spoke during a remembrance gathering marking three years since Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war, said the Shi’ite militia is not waiting for Israel to begin fighting before making the necessary preparations.”

And when it comes to borders, I must have missed the State Department’s objections to this sort of declaration from the Fatah conference: “Fatah will continue to sacrifice victims until Jerusalem will be returned [to the Palestinians], clean of settlements and settlers.” And in case you were wondering, there is no “distinction between the eastern and western halves of the capital, nor does it distinguish between the territories within the Israeli side of the Green Line and the areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.”

Dan Balz thinks Obama needs August to “rebalance” his presidency. Not sure how telling critics to get out of the way or hobnobbing in Martha’s Vineyard does that.

Max Schulz reports on a town hall in Maryland—contentious, though civilized. “The discontent is neither faked nor staged by the GOP. At the Mardela Springs event I attended, the parking lot was filled with Maryland license plates, the speakers made references to local areas and events, and everyone of the several people I spoke with lived in the congressman’s district. They were just upset and worried that the reforms Democrats were bent on enacting would hurt the economy and their ability to get the health care they needed. This crowd was probably far more representative of the national mood than Mrs. Pelosi realizes.”

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.