Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 26, 2010

RE: J Street Comes Clean

J Street’s position on Jerusalem, detailed below by Jen Rubin, is a perfect example of why the proper way to understand the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization is as an export-import business. Bear with me for a moment.

There was a set of ideas about the Arab-Israeli conflict to which many people subscribed in the 80s and 90s. These ideas became the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords became an immense, catastrophic failure. Many people who were Oslo advocates, thus confronted with reality, changed their minds about the conflict (an obvious example is Benny Morris). Some Oslo advocates, however, did not, and adopted various theories to justify their continued membership in the peace-process-can-do-no-harm camp: the Israeli offers were never good enough, Sharon started the intifada, territorial withdrawal must come first, a conspiracy of neocons and AIPAC has always worked against peace, and so on. In 2000 in Lebanon and in 2005 in Gaza, territorial withdrawal was tried, and the results detonated a belief even deeper than Oslo, this one going all the way back to 1967 and perhaps even to 1948: the hope that land could be traded for peace and that the conflict is about borders, not Israel’s very existence.

These accumulated facts changed the attitude of Israelis in a dramatic way. The Oslo consensus disintegrated not only as an understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but as a political platform. In the early 90s, Labor and Meretz held a combined 56 Knesset seats. Today they have 16. Yet despite this political collapse in Israel, a few true believers still cling to the Oslo fantasy. How can these ideas survive their failure in the very place they’re supposed to be applied?

J Street, working with various Meretz has-beens in Israel, imports the ideas to America and tries to revive them here, where Jews are far less aware of their abysmal record of failure. J Street pushes them to the Obama administration, which is favorably disposed to them anyway. Here is where the exporting happens: Obama now seeks to impose them on an unreceptive Israel.

This is not just an insular story about Israeli-American-Jewish politics. It’s probably the major reason why there is so much conflict between the Obama and Netanyahu governments. The former is living on J Street, where it is not considered insane to demand that Israel relinquish the Western Wall, the most meaningful place in Judaism, to an “international force” (Israel should agree to this when the Pope and the Saudis surrender the Vatican and Mecca to an international force). The latter came to power as the culminating point of an Israeli consensus that understands the failures of the previous 17 years and rejects the ideas that J Street and the Obama administration are trying to force back to Israel. This is why J Street is, in its essence, a political export-import business.

J Street’s position on Jerusalem, detailed below by Jen Rubin, is a perfect example of why the proper way to understand the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization is as an export-import business. Bear with me for a moment.

There was a set of ideas about the Arab-Israeli conflict to which many people subscribed in the 80s and 90s. These ideas became the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords became an immense, catastrophic failure. Many people who were Oslo advocates, thus confronted with reality, changed their minds about the conflict (an obvious example is Benny Morris). Some Oslo advocates, however, did not, and adopted various theories to justify their continued membership in the peace-process-can-do-no-harm camp: the Israeli offers were never good enough, Sharon started the intifada, territorial withdrawal must come first, a conspiracy of neocons and AIPAC has always worked against peace, and so on. In 2000 in Lebanon and in 2005 in Gaza, territorial withdrawal was tried, and the results detonated a belief even deeper than Oslo, this one going all the way back to 1967 and perhaps even to 1948: the hope that land could be traded for peace and that the conflict is about borders, not Israel’s very existence.

These accumulated facts changed the attitude of Israelis in a dramatic way. The Oslo consensus disintegrated not only as an understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but as a political platform. In the early 90s, Labor and Meretz held a combined 56 Knesset seats. Today they have 16. Yet despite this political collapse in Israel, a few true believers still cling to the Oslo fantasy. How can these ideas survive their failure in the very place they’re supposed to be applied?

J Street, working with various Meretz has-beens in Israel, imports the ideas to America and tries to revive them here, where Jews are far less aware of their abysmal record of failure. J Street pushes them to the Obama administration, which is favorably disposed to them anyway. Here is where the exporting happens: Obama now seeks to impose them on an unreceptive Israel.

This is not just an insular story about Israeli-American-Jewish politics. It’s probably the major reason why there is so much conflict between the Obama and Netanyahu governments. The former is living on J Street, where it is not considered insane to demand that Israel relinquish the Western Wall, the most meaningful place in Judaism, to an “international force” (Israel should agree to this when the Pope and the Saudis surrender the Vatican and Mecca to an international force). The latter came to power as the culminating point of an Israeli consensus that understands the failures of the previous 17 years and rejects the ideas that J Street and the Obama administration are trying to force back to Israel. This is why J Street is, in its essence, a political export-import business.

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Obama Gets Thumbs Down — Again — in Israel

How’s Obama doing in Israel? Well, about the same — rotten. The latest poll, this one from Shvakim Panorama for Israel Television Channel 1, found that only 21.8 percent support Obama’s call for a housing freeze in Jerusalem, while 71.6 percent oppose. As to who is responsible for the tension between the U.S. and Israel, Obama “wins” that one, with 58.6 percent. Only 16.2 percent blame Netanyahu, while 17.6 percent say both are responsible.

When asked “Is Obama interested in improving relations with the Arab states at the expense of Israel?” 60.9 percent said yes, while 26.5% said no. The poll numbers are even more compelling given that respondents were Israeli adults, which would include Israeli Arabs.

Well, if the Obami game plan was to tap into some new political sentiment in Israel or to topple Bibi’s government, they seem to have miscalculated. But that’s nothing new for this crowd.

How’s Obama doing in Israel? Well, about the same — rotten. The latest poll, this one from Shvakim Panorama for Israel Television Channel 1, found that only 21.8 percent support Obama’s call for a housing freeze in Jerusalem, while 71.6 percent oppose. As to who is responsible for the tension between the U.S. and Israel, Obama “wins” that one, with 58.6 percent. Only 16.2 percent blame Netanyahu, while 17.6 percent say both are responsible.

When asked “Is Obama interested in improving relations with the Arab states at the expense of Israel?” 60.9 percent said yes, while 26.5% said no. The poll numbers are even more compelling given that respondents were Israeli adults, which would include Israeli Arabs.

Well, if the Obami game plan was to tap into some new political sentiment in Israel or to topple Bibi’s government, they seem to have miscalculated. But that’s nothing new for this crowd.

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Colombia Going Green?

The Wall Street Journal has a piece from the weekend pointing out the poll surge of the Colombian Green Party’s presidential candidate, Antanas Mockus. Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants and a former university professor, was mayor of Bogota for two non-consecutive terms. He gained fame in that office for walking around Bogota in a caped superhero costume, discouraging traffic violations by stationing mimes on street corners to embarrass drivers, and showering for a TV commercial to encourage water conservation.

Until early April, pundits had addressed the Mockus candidacy with the stock phrase “has trouble gaining voter interest outside of Bogota.” His Green Party run against Alvaro Uribe in 2006 netted him less than 5 percent of the national vote. But his surge with voters this month now has a poll showing that he would narrowly defeat Uribe’s former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, in a runoff between the two.

As this article indicates, the demographics of Mockus’s support are strikingly similar to Barack Obama’s in 2008. He galvanizes youth voters, independents, and the very wealthy. On the superficial trappings of the Green appeal, he is flawlessly Euro-Green: sunflower symbol, studied informality in attire and grooming, demure fist-pumping. The WSJ analysis that many Colombians are looking for something new is probably quite accurate; as Uribe’s tenure comes to an end, Colombians feel safer and less worried about internal security. Santos, in contrast to Mockus, is the scion of one of Colombia’s oldest and most entrenched political dynasties. For many voters, he reeks of a stuffy, irrelevant past.

How irrelevant that past truly is remains a question, however. The issue on which the Mockus candidacy still founders with many voters is his posture on “democratic security,” the Uribe-era policy expression for a tough stance on internal security and drug-fueled insurgencies like FARC. Mockus enthusiasts frame the dramatic improvement in internal security under Uribe in a somewhat disingenuous fashion, as if the situation simply changed on its own while Uribe was off menacing civil rights. But there is no question that Uribe’s policies and actions are what have wrought the transformation.

In addressing the particulars of democratic security policy, Mockus is alternately categorical and temporizing — in exactly the wrong places. His Green Party platform affirms without caveat, for example, that he would never pursue Colombian insurgents across the border as Uribe’s forces did in 2008. This would naturally be a green light for FARC to consolidate cross-border bases, something Hugo Chavez has been very accommodating about in neighboring Venezuela. On the question of holding a dialogue with FARC, however, Mockus deems it merely “unlikely” unless the guerrillas change their language and cease being “slaves to kidnapping.”

It’s not that Mockus appears to have any connection with Chavez or Castro, like such entrenched or aspiring presidents-for-life as Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Manuel Zelaya, lately ousted from Honduras. But policies like those embraced by Mockus quickly become prostrate and ineffective in the face of guerrilla aggression. Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez has ramped up a war of words against Juan Manuel Santos over the past week, calling him a “threat to the region” and predicting war if he wins the election. There’s no doubt whose policies Chavez expects to dislike. When Colombians go to the polls on May 30, we can hope they will remember what it has taken to transform their domestic-security environment — and why they now have the sense of political leisure to take flyers on theatrical boutique candidates.

The Wall Street Journal has a piece from the weekend pointing out the poll surge of the Colombian Green Party’s presidential candidate, Antanas Mockus. Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants and a former university professor, was mayor of Bogota for two non-consecutive terms. He gained fame in that office for walking around Bogota in a caped superhero costume, discouraging traffic violations by stationing mimes on street corners to embarrass drivers, and showering for a TV commercial to encourage water conservation.

Until early April, pundits had addressed the Mockus candidacy with the stock phrase “has trouble gaining voter interest outside of Bogota.” His Green Party run against Alvaro Uribe in 2006 netted him less than 5 percent of the national vote. But his surge with voters this month now has a poll showing that he would narrowly defeat Uribe’s former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, in a runoff between the two.

As this article indicates, the demographics of Mockus’s support are strikingly similar to Barack Obama’s in 2008. He galvanizes youth voters, independents, and the very wealthy. On the superficial trappings of the Green appeal, he is flawlessly Euro-Green: sunflower symbol, studied informality in attire and grooming, demure fist-pumping. The WSJ analysis that many Colombians are looking for something new is probably quite accurate; as Uribe’s tenure comes to an end, Colombians feel safer and less worried about internal security. Santos, in contrast to Mockus, is the scion of one of Colombia’s oldest and most entrenched political dynasties. For many voters, he reeks of a stuffy, irrelevant past.

How irrelevant that past truly is remains a question, however. The issue on which the Mockus candidacy still founders with many voters is his posture on “democratic security,” the Uribe-era policy expression for a tough stance on internal security and drug-fueled insurgencies like FARC. Mockus enthusiasts frame the dramatic improvement in internal security under Uribe in a somewhat disingenuous fashion, as if the situation simply changed on its own while Uribe was off menacing civil rights. But there is no question that Uribe’s policies and actions are what have wrought the transformation.

In addressing the particulars of democratic security policy, Mockus is alternately categorical and temporizing — in exactly the wrong places. His Green Party platform affirms without caveat, for example, that he would never pursue Colombian insurgents across the border as Uribe’s forces did in 2008. This would naturally be a green light for FARC to consolidate cross-border bases, something Hugo Chavez has been very accommodating about in neighboring Venezuela. On the question of holding a dialogue with FARC, however, Mockus deems it merely “unlikely” unless the guerrillas change their language and cease being “slaves to kidnapping.”

It’s not that Mockus appears to have any connection with Chavez or Castro, like such entrenched or aspiring presidents-for-life as Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Manuel Zelaya, lately ousted from Honduras. But policies like those embraced by Mockus quickly become prostrate and ineffective in the face of guerrilla aggression. Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez has ramped up a war of words against Juan Manuel Santos over the past week, calling him a “threat to the region” and predicting war if he wins the election. There’s no doubt whose policies Chavez expects to dislike. When Colombians go to the polls on May 30, we can hope they will remember what it has taken to transform their domestic-security environment — and why they now have the sense of political leisure to take flyers on theatrical boutique candidates.

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J Street Comes Clean: It Wants to Divide the Old City

The J Street Education Fund has taken out an ad that takes issue with Elie Wiesel’s criticism of Obama on building in Jerusalem. But J Street doesn’t merely call for a housing freeze or for outlying Arab neighborhoods to be ceded to a Palestinian state. Using the mouthpiece of former Knesset member Yossi Sarid, the J Streeters want to divide the Old City. Oh, yes:

Barack Obama appears well aware of his obligations to try to resolve the world’s ills, particularly ours here. Why then undercut him and tie his hands? On the contrary, let’s allow him to use his clout to save us from ourselves, to help both bruised and battered nations and free them from their prison. Then he can push both sides to divide the city into two capitals — to give Jewish areas to the Jews and Arab areas to the Arabs – and assign the Holy Basin to an agreed on international authority.

As an alarmed reader e-mails: “They specifically want to remove Israeli sovereignty over the Old City. I mean, they want the Western Wall NOT to be in Israeli hands. Wow.”

Wow, indeed. There is no mainstream Jewish organization that takes this position, and I dare say J Street wouldn’t find 5 percent of American Jews who do. Moreover, there is zero support for such a position within Israel. So J Street’s recommendation would be what? — that this be part of an imposed settlement on the Jewish state? It seems that the mask has been dropped and that J Street now reveals its true colors — which happen to be pretty much the same as the Palestinians’. The question remains: does the Obama administration agree? Stay tuned.

The J Street Education Fund has taken out an ad that takes issue with Elie Wiesel’s criticism of Obama on building in Jerusalem. But J Street doesn’t merely call for a housing freeze or for outlying Arab neighborhoods to be ceded to a Palestinian state. Using the mouthpiece of former Knesset member Yossi Sarid, the J Streeters want to divide the Old City. Oh, yes:

Barack Obama appears well aware of his obligations to try to resolve the world’s ills, particularly ours here. Why then undercut him and tie his hands? On the contrary, let’s allow him to use his clout to save us from ourselves, to help both bruised and battered nations and free them from their prison. Then he can push both sides to divide the city into two capitals — to give Jewish areas to the Jews and Arab areas to the Arabs – and assign the Holy Basin to an agreed on international authority.

As an alarmed reader e-mails: “They specifically want to remove Israeli sovereignty over the Old City. I mean, they want the Western Wall NOT to be in Israeli hands. Wow.”

Wow, indeed. There is no mainstream Jewish organization that takes this position, and I dare say J Street wouldn’t find 5 percent of American Jews who do. Moreover, there is zero support for such a position within Israel. So J Street’s recommendation would be what? — that this be part of an imposed settlement on the Jewish state? It seems that the mask has been dropped and that J Street now reveals its true colors — which happen to be pretty much the same as the Palestinians’. The question remains: does the Obama administration agree? Stay tuned.

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James Jones Apologizes for Jewish Joke

As I noted in this morning’s Flotsam and Jetsam, James Jones made a tasteless Jewish joke last week at the 25th anniversary of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Fox News reports: “Interestingly, it was not included in the official White House-provided transcript of the speech.” Indeed.

There has been some additional reaction — New York Magazine has a roundup of those who have commented on it. Now, sensing the brewing storm, Jones has apologized. Politico provides Jones’s statement today:

I wish that I had not made this off the cuff joke at the top of my remarks, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by it. It also distracted from the larger message I carried that day: that the United States commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct.

Ben Smith also reports, “White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday that the White House had ‘no intention to deceive’ in leaving the remarks off a transcript off the event, which he said were in fact the prepared text. He said the White House hadn’t asked for Jones’ apology which ‘rightly speaks for itself.'”

Let’s unpack this. First of all, I don’t believe the joke was made up on the spur of the moment. That’s not how these things work. As a reader pointed out to me, it’s quite likely that not only Jones but also a speechwriter or two thought there was nothing much wrong with this. Second, for an administration under criticism for insensitivity or outright animus in relation to Israel, why play with fire? If nothing else, this confirms the criticism of Jones — he’s a bit of a buffoon.

And finally, why didn’t the president demand an apology? Was he not alarmed that his national security adviser is cracking Jewish-merchant jokes?

It’s another reminder that what is said and done in this White House with regard to Israel would not be said or done in virtually any other administration.

As I noted in this morning’s Flotsam and Jetsam, James Jones made a tasteless Jewish joke last week at the 25th anniversary of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Fox News reports: “Interestingly, it was not included in the official White House-provided transcript of the speech.” Indeed.

There has been some additional reaction — New York Magazine has a roundup of those who have commented on it. Now, sensing the brewing storm, Jones has apologized. Politico provides Jones’s statement today:

I wish that I had not made this off the cuff joke at the top of my remarks, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by it. It also distracted from the larger message I carried that day: that the United States commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct.

Ben Smith also reports, “White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday that the White House had ‘no intention to deceive’ in leaving the remarks off a transcript off the event, which he said were in fact the prepared text. He said the White House hadn’t asked for Jones’ apology which ‘rightly speaks for itself.'”

Let’s unpack this. First of all, I don’t believe the joke was made up on the spur of the moment. That’s not how these things work. As a reader pointed out to me, it’s quite likely that not only Jones but also a speechwriter or two thought there was nothing much wrong with this. Second, for an administration under criticism for insensitivity or outright animus in relation to Israel, why play with fire? If nothing else, this confirms the criticism of Jones — he’s a bit of a buffoon.

And finally, why didn’t the president demand an apology? Was he not alarmed that his national security adviser is cracking Jewish-merchant jokes?

It’s another reminder that what is said and done in this White House with regard to Israel would not be said or done in virtually any other administration.

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Obama Pleads for His Base to Turn Out

This report tells us a lot about where Obama stands politically and the degree to which he has frittered away the promise of his candidacy:

The Democratic National Committee this morning released this clip of the president rallying the troops, if rather coolly, for 2010. Obama’s express goal: “reconnecting” with the voters who voted for the first time in 2008, but who may not plan to vote in the lower-profile Congressional elections this year.

Obama speaks with unusual demographic frankness about his coalition in his appeal to “young people, African-Americans, Latinos, and women who powered our victory in 2008 [to] stand together once again.”

Several things are noteworthy. First, so much for the post-racial presidency. We are back to naked pleas for racial solidarity. This comes from a man who told us that there were no Blue States or Red States, and that we should stop carving up the electorate into ethnic and racial groups. It was moving and appropriate and now it’s inoperative.

Second, this also suggests that just about everyone else in the electorate is a lost cause — whites, men, independents, and older voters. The Obama coalition has fractured — a little later than Hillary Clinton predicted, but it has. It seems he is reduced to the core left, not a recipe for successful governance or re-election.

And finally, the Democrats are in big, big trouble if they are banking on casual voters, especially young people, to turn out in large numbers in a midterm election. I’ll go out on a limb (I really don’t have to, because you can look at the turnout in New Jersey and Virginia) — the electorate in 2010 is not going to resemble the 20o8 electorate. It will be older and more conservative. In other words, the Democrats are throwing a Hail Mary.

This report tells us a lot about where Obama stands politically and the degree to which he has frittered away the promise of his candidacy:

The Democratic National Committee this morning released this clip of the president rallying the troops, if rather coolly, for 2010. Obama’s express goal: “reconnecting” with the voters who voted for the first time in 2008, but who may not plan to vote in the lower-profile Congressional elections this year.

Obama speaks with unusual demographic frankness about his coalition in his appeal to “young people, African-Americans, Latinos, and women who powered our victory in 2008 [to] stand together once again.”

Several things are noteworthy. First, so much for the post-racial presidency. We are back to naked pleas for racial solidarity. This comes from a man who told us that there were no Blue States or Red States, and that we should stop carving up the electorate into ethnic and racial groups. It was moving and appropriate and now it’s inoperative.

Second, this also suggests that just about everyone else in the electorate is a lost cause — whites, men, independents, and older voters. The Obama coalition has fractured — a little later than Hillary Clinton predicted, but it has. It seems he is reduced to the core left, not a recipe for successful governance or re-election.

And finally, the Democrats are in big, big trouble if they are banking on casual voters, especially young people, to turn out in large numbers in a midterm election. I’ll go out on a limb (I really don’t have to, because you can look at the turnout in New Jersey and Virginia) — the electorate in 2010 is not going to resemble the 20o8 electorate. It will be older and more conservative. In other words, the Democrats are throwing a Hail Mary.

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The South Park Test

I admit it. Until now I have always been a bit of an Islamophobia skeptic. Living in the Middle East, I have no illusions about what radical Islam, given the right kinds of fuel and the right weapons of oppression, can do in the parts of the world under its control, or to immediate neighbors who challenge its reign. And while I share in many Europeans’ concern about the spread of violent Islam’s influence across the Continent, I have never really seen it as cause for panic about the future of Western civilization, or even of Europe. An inveterate optimist, I have a great deal of faith that Europeans, deep down, understand what has made them special and will do what’s needed to defend themselves and their culture. And as for the U.S.? It frankly never occurred to me that there was any danger, not now, not ever. Americans cherish their freedom too much and are too willing to defend it even by force of arms for fans of Jefferson and Paine to be truly worried.

Until now. And all because of South Park.

For those of you who’ve missed it, this week South Park attempted to parody the prophet Muhammad, just as it’s parodied Jesus, God, Moses, and every institution of religion big enough to merit its parody. Yet after an Islamist website posted a veiled threat, to the effect that the creators of South Park would end up like Theo Van Gogh, the film director murdered in Amsterdam for publicly criticizing Islam, the folks at Comedy Central buckled. The episode was removed from the website. For more details about this and similar acts of self-censorship in the past few months, read Ross Douthat’s crucial column in the New York Times.

Something has gone terribly wrong. The core of liberal society is the belief that every new thought, every iconoclasm, every “dangerous” idea, can be uttered somewhere, by someone, as long as it doesn’t openly incite violence — and that every sacred cow is ultimately just a cow. I may watch my tongue about the things I hold sacred, but as long as others have a right to criticize, parody, or publicly rebuke even those things I revere without fear for their lives, I know that society is a free society, and that when the time comes, I too will be protected. (It is the fate of the Jew always to wonder what will happen to him when the mob goes wild. That is why so many Jews are liberals.) Religion, especially, needs to be protected — both its affirmation and its negation — precisely because religion claims to hold in its hands the ultimate truths, on which life and death, war and peace, often turn. And the more power hungry a given religion appears to be, the more we have to protect every person’s right to critique it, whether through parody or public debate. Nor is this just a matter of legal rights: the moment someone feels that his life is in danger because he publicly criticized a religious figure or institution, we are all in trouble.

No cultural institution in our world has embodied this right more than South Park. Aside from being very, very funny (my apologies to the dour souls who disagree), it is also often vile, filled with offensive ideas, language, images, and more. I have often been forced to turn it off, especially if kids are watching. But that’s the whole point of it, as everyone knows. South Park has, until now, been the one place where every holy thing can be made fun of, every taboo broken — especially religion, in the best tradition of Voltaire and Monty Python. Nobody has to watch it if they don’t like it. But it should be out there, somewhere.

With the collapse of South Park‘s credibility as the slayer of all cows, something has been lost, something very deep to the inner logic of liberty. We have caught a glimpse of a world where religion is, well, so sacred as to brook no humor whatsoever. It is a dark world that we escaped several centuries ago, a world where power and claims of ultimate truths fuse together to crush freedom, creativity, and the bold human endeavors that have given us our entire world of scientific and political advancement. In a flash, we moderns are now forced to contend with the myth of our own invincibility: are we so arrogant as to think that modernity can never be undone? (Oh, and another thing: this seems especially ironic at a time when the Catholic Church has been hammered with demands for transparency and accountability an a willingness to defy centuries-old sanctities, yet many of us refuse to demand the same from Islam.)

Many of us have been hoping that the emergence of democracy and liberty around much of the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union could have an impact within the Islamic world as well — that somehow there would emerge a force of religious moderation, a realm of truly free speech, that could some day form the basis of peaceful coexistence and an end to the endless bloodshed. Instead, the battle lines are shifting the other way — and freedom is in retreat. South Park was a temple to the healthy cynicism and pushing of boundaries that have to exist somewhere if we are to feel truly free anywhere. We may hate it, and hate ourselves for enjoying it. But now we need to protect it. Or we, too, like the third-grader South Park recently depicted in a scathing assault on Facebook, will have 0 friends.

I admit it. Until now I have always been a bit of an Islamophobia skeptic. Living in the Middle East, I have no illusions about what radical Islam, given the right kinds of fuel and the right weapons of oppression, can do in the parts of the world under its control, or to immediate neighbors who challenge its reign. And while I share in many Europeans’ concern about the spread of violent Islam’s influence across the Continent, I have never really seen it as cause for panic about the future of Western civilization, or even of Europe. An inveterate optimist, I have a great deal of faith that Europeans, deep down, understand what has made them special and will do what’s needed to defend themselves and their culture. And as for the U.S.? It frankly never occurred to me that there was any danger, not now, not ever. Americans cherish their freedom too much and are too willing to defend it even by force of arms for fans of Jefferson and Paine to be truly worried.

Until now. And all because of South Park.

For those of you who’ve missed it, this week South Park attempted to parody the prophet Muhammad, just as it’s parodied Jesus, God, Moses, and every institution of religion big enough to merit its parody. Yet after an Islamist website posted a veiled threat, to the effect that the creators of South Park would end up like Theo Van Gogh, the film director murdered in Amsterdam for publicly criticizing Islam, the folks at Comedy Central buckled. The episode was removed from the website. For more details about this and similar acts of self-censorship in the past few months, read Ross Douthat’s crucial column in the New York Times.

Something has gone terribly wrong. The core of liberal society is the belief that every new thought, every iconoclasm, every “dangerous” idea, can be uttered somewhere, by someone, as long as it doesn’t openly incite violence — and that every sacred cow is ultimately just a cow. I may watch my tongue about the things I hold sacred, but as long as others have a right to criticize, parody, or publicly rebuke even those things I revere without fear for their lives, I know that society is a free society, and that when the time comes, I too will be protected. (It is the fate of the Jew always to wonder what will happen to him when the mob goes wild. That is why so many Jews are liberals.) Religion, especially, needs to be protected — both its affirmation and its negation — precisely because religion claims to hold in its hands the ultimate truths, on which life and death, war and peace, often turn. And the more power hungry a given religion appears to be, the more we have to protect every person’s right to critique it, whether through parody or public debate. Nor is this just a matter of legal rights: the moment someone feels that his life is in danger because he publicly criticized a religious figure or institution, we are all in trouble.

No cultural institution in our world has embodied this right more than South Park. Aside from being very, very funny (my apologies to the dour souls who disagree), it is also often vile, filled with offensive ideas, language, images, and more. I have often been forced to turn it off, especially if kids are watching. But that’s the whole point of it, as everyone knows. South Park has, until now, been the one place where every holy thing can be made fun of, every taboo broken — especially religion, in the best tradition of Voltaire and Monty Python. Nobody has to watch it if they don’t like it. But it should be out there, somewhere.

With the collapse of South Park‘s credibility as the slayer of all cows, something has been lost, something very deep to the inner logic of liberty. We have caught a glimpse of a world where religion is, well, so sacred as to brook no humor whatsoever. It is a dark world that we escaped several centuries ago, a world where power and claims of ultimate truths fuse together to crush freedom, creativity, and the bold human endeavors that have given us our entire world of scientific and political advancement. In a flash, we moderns are now forced to contend with the myth of our own invincibility: are we so arrogant as to think that modernity can never be undone? (Oh, and another thing: this seems especially ironic at a time when the Catholic Church has been hammered with demands for transparency and accountability an a willingness to defy centuries-old sanctities, yet many of us refuse to demand the same from Islam.)

Many of us have been hoping that the emergence of democracy and liberty around much of the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union could have an impact within the Islamic world as well — that somehow there would emerge a force of religious moderation, a realm of truly free speech, that could some day form the basis of peaceful coexistence and an end to the endless bloodshed. Instead, the battle lines are shifting the other way — and freedom is in retreat. South Park was a temple to the healthy cynicism and pushing of boundaries that have to exist somewhere if we are to feel truly free anywhere. We may hate it, and hate ourselves for enjoying it. But now we need to protect it. Or we, too, like the third-grader South Park recently depicted in a scathing assault on Facebook, will have 0 friends.

Read Less

Iran Tests Obama — Again

A sharp-eyed reader calls my attention to this report over the weekend:

The Obama administration renewed calls Friday for Iran to immediately release three American hikers detained for nearly nine months and appealed to the Iranian government to issue their families visas to visit them.

A day after the families said two of the three are in poor health, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said there was no reason for their continued detention. He spoke after receiving a report from Swiss diplomats who were allowed to visit the trio in Tehran’s Evin prison Thursday.

The administration puts out a meek statement, pleading for the Americans’ release:

“While we welcome this news, we continue to call for their release,” Crowley said. “We are aware of the families’ concerns about their children’s physical and emotional state of health.” He said the families should be given visas.

“These three Americans have been in detention for almost nine months without formal charges or access to legal representation,” he said. “They should be released without further delay.”

Well, we certainly know the mullahs see no downside to holding Americans. No serious consequences will be forthcoming and they might even get a diplomatic pat on the back if they let them go before they perish in Evin. They have learned from this president that whether it is violations of existing UN sanctions, missed deadlines in nuclear talks, aggression by their junior partner Bashar Assad, or grabbing Americans, the administration never lowers the boom.

If you have the sense you’ve seen this before — a radical Iranian regime kidnapping Americans to demonstrate the impotence of a naive American president — you’re right. But now, with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, the stakes are much higher.

A sharp-eyed reader calls my attention to this report over the weekend:

The Obama administration renewed calls Friday for Iran to immediately release three American hikers detained for nearly nine months and appealed to the Iranian government to issue their families visas to visit them.

A day after the families said two of the three are in poor health, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said there was no reason for their continued detention. He spoke after receiving a report from Swiss diplomats who were allowed to visit the trio in Tehran’s Evin prison Thursday.

The administration puts out a meek statement, pleading for the Americans’ release:

“While we welcome this news, we continue to call for their release,” Crowley said. “We are aware of the families’ concerns about their children’s physical and emotional state of health.” He said the families should be given visas.

“These three Americans have been in detention for almost nine months without formal charges or access to legal representation,” he said. “They should be released without further delay.”

Well, we certainly know the mullahs see no downside to holding Americans. No serious consequences will be forthcoming and they might even get a diplomatic pat on the back if they let them go before they perish in Evin. They have learned from this president that whether it is violations of existing UN sanctions, missed deadlines in nuclear talks, aggression by their junior partner Bashar Assad, or grabbing Americans, the administration never lowers the boom.

If you have the sense you’ve seen this before — a radical Iranian regime kidnapping Americans to demonstrate the impotence of a naive American president — you’re right. But now, with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, the stakes are much higher.

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Not the Most Transparent Administration Ever: The Fort Hood Stonewall

Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, the chair and ranking minority leader on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, have been stymied in their effort to investigate the Fort Hood terrorist attack. They’ve been forced to now subpoena the records they are seeking, for it seems that the administration adamantly refuses to have anyone look over its shoulder. The senators take to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to argue:

The rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5, 2009 — after which U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan was charged with 13 counts of murder and 32 counts of attempted murder — has been reviewed by the administration and its group of handpicked outsiders, who were all formerly with either the Department of Defense or the Department of Justice. But the administration continues to withhold much of the crucial information from the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, of which we are chairman and ranking member.

This is just not good enough for the American people. There are too many questions that still demand answers. Whatever mistakes were made in the run-up to the Fort Hood shootings need to be uncovered, and an independent, bipartisan congressional investigation is the best way to do it.

As Lieberman makes clear, they aren’t seeking to investigate the shooting — it’s the Army they want to investigate. Specifically, the senators are concerned about the lack of attention which the FBI and Defense Department paid to Major Hassan’s radical behavior and to his e-mails with Anwar al-Awlaki. As they note, the Bush administration never tried this sort of stonewall. (“There is recent precedent for Congress to interview agents who may be prosecution witnesses. The Congressional Joint Inquiry into 9/11 interviewed FBI agents who were involved in arresting the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, even though they were potential witnesses in that case.”)

It is hard to escape the conclusion that this administration simply doesn’t want to be second-guessed. We’ve already investigated ourselves, they declare. Not good enough. The senators should keep at it. And the administration should be on notice: should one or both of the Senate or House flip to Republican control, there is going to be a renewed appreciation of the importance of Congressional oversight.

Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, the chair and ranking minority leader on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, have been stymied in their effort to investigate the Fort Hood terrorist attack. They’ve been forced to now subpoena the records they are seeking, for it seems that the administration adamantly refuses to have anyone look over its shoulder. The senators take to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to argue:

The rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5, 2009 — after which U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan was charged with 13 counts of murder and 32 counts of attempted murder — has been reviewed by the administration and its group of handpicked outsiders, who were all formerly with either the Department of Defense or the Department of Justice. But the administration continues to withhold much of the crucial information from the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, of which we are chairman and ranking member.

This is just not good enough for the American people. There are too many questions that still demand answers. Whatever mistakes were made in the run-up to the Fort Hood shootings need to be uncovered, and an independent, bipartisan congressional investigation is the best way to do it.

As Lieberman makes clear, they aren’t seeking to investigate the shooting — it’s the Army they want to investigate. Specifically, the senators are concerned about the lack of attention which the FBI and Defense Department paid to Major Hassan’s radical behavior and to his e-mails with Anwar al-Awlaki. As they note, the Bush administration never tried this sort of stonewall. (“There is recent precedent for Congress to interview agents who may be prosecution witnesses. The Congressional Joint Inquiry into 9/11 interviewed FBI agents who were involved in arresting the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, even though they were potential witnesses in that case.”)

It is hard to escape the conclusion that this administration simply doesn’t want to be second-guessed. We’ve already investigated ourselves, they declare. Not good enough. The senators should keep at it. And the administration should be on notice: should one or both of the Senate or House flip to Republican control, there is going to be a renewed appreciation of the importance of Congressional oversight.

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RE: Bullying in the Name of Financial Regulation

A reader calls my attention to Paul Krugman’s column. Krugman gets his share of criticism around here, so it’s only fair to point out when, as the reader put, he “actually makes sense.”

He gets points by conceding the point I raised: “When Goldman Sachs employees bragged about the money they had made by shorting the housing market, it was ugly, but that didn’t amount to wrongdoing.” I don’t concede it’s all that ugly, but for Krugman, that’s a step away from the populist drooling that has transfixed most of the media.

He then goes on to make a helpful suggestion:

No, the e-mail messages you should be focusing on are the ones from employees at the credit rating agencies, which bestowed AAA ratings on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of dubious assets, nearly all of which have since turned out to be toxic waste. And no, that’s not hyperbole: of AAA-rated subprime-mortgage-backed securities issued in 2006, 93 percent — 93 percent! — have now been downgraded to junk status.

What those e-mails reveal is a deeply corrupt system. And it’s a system that financial reform, as currently proposed, wouldn’t fix.

The rating agencies began as market researchers, selling assessments of corporate debt to people considering whether to buy that debt. Eventually, however, they morphed into something quite different: companies that were hired by the people selling debt to give that debt a seal of approval.

This at least seems to be an area worth exploring in greater depth. But as Krugman points out, the current legislation doesn’t do much about this issue. (“The only provision that might have teeth is one that would make it easier to sue rating agencies if they engaged in ‘knowing or reckless failure’ to do the right thing. But that surely isn’t enough, given the money at stake — and the fact that Wall Street can afford to hire very, very good lawyers.”)

One problem with huge reform efforts is that they usually focus on the wrong problem. In this case, the frenzy to eliminate risk — an impossibility if one wants to preserve entrepreneurial dynamism — has obscured more productive activities, including reduction or elimination of conflicts of interest, which is a worthy legislation goal. But “increasing rating companies’ independence” doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as “going after Wall Street greed.” So we never quite get around to it.

A reader calls my attention to Paul Krugman’s column. Krugman gets his share of criticism around here, so it’s only fair to point out when, as the reader put, he “actually makes sense.”

He gets points by conceding the point I raised: “When Goldman Sachs employees bragged about the money they had made by shorting the housing market, it was ugly, but that didn’t amount to wrongdoing.” I don’t concede it’s all that ugly, but for Krugman, that’s a step away from the populist drooling that has transfixed most of the media.

He then goes on to make a helpful suggestion:

No, the e-mail messages you should be focusing on are the ones from employees at the credit rating agencies, which bestowed AAA ratings on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of dubious assets, nearly all of which have since turned out to be toxic waste. And no, that’s not hyperbole: of AAA-rated subprime-mortgage-backed securities issued in 2006, 93 percent — 93 percent! — have now been downgraded to junk status.

What those e-mails reveal is a deeply corrupt system. And it’s a system that financial reform, as currently proposed, wouldn’t fix.

The rating agencies began as market researchers, selling assessments of corporate debt to people considering whether to buy that debt. Eventually, however, they morphed into something quite different: companies that were hired by the people selling debt to give that debt a seal of approval.

This at least seems to be an area worth exploring in greater depth. But as Krugman points out, the current legislation doesn’t do much about this issue. (“The only provision that might have teeth is one that would make it easier to sue rating agencies if they engaged in ‘knowing or reckless failure’ to do the right thing. But that surely isn’t enough, given the money at stake — and the fact that Wall Street can afford to hire very, very good lawyers.”)

One problem with huge reform efforts is that they usually focus on the wrong problem. In this case, the frenzy to eliminate risk — an impossibility if one wants to preserve entrepreneurial dynamism — has obscured more productive activities, including reduction or elimination of conflicts of interest, which is a worthy legislation goal. But “increasing rating companies’ independence” doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as “going after Wall Street greed.” So we never quite get around to it.

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Where Are the Jewish Tea Parties?

It seems that at least some Jews are so mad at Obama that they’ve taken to the streets. This WPIX report from New York explains:

Thousands of Jews gathered outside the Israeli Consulate Sunday to protest President Obama’s position towards Israel.

Organizers said the event supports “Israel’s right to build and live in its own country,” as well as its right to unite Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. They are also protesting the Obama Administrations’ alleged disregard of the democratic Jewish state.

“We are outraged that President Obama is scapegoating Israel and wants to expel Jews from their homes in Jerusalem. President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton show more anger about a Jewish family building a home in Jerusalem than Iran building a nuclear bomb,” states Beth Gilinsky of the Jewish Action Alliance. “Vast segments of the Jewish community will not tolerate the President’s continuing attacks on Israel. Grassroots Jewry will not be silent.”

Meanwhile, a taped statement by former NYC Mayor Ed Koch, who has openly expressed his displeasure with Obama’s policies, played for attendees. He slammed the president for his treatment of Israel and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Over 20 organizations, Jewish and other, united to support the event.

This event is newsworthy, not least because it is unique. Where have the Jewish Tea Parties been? Why haven’t we seen more of this? It was over 20 years ago that 250,000 people amassed in Washington D.C. for the cause of Soviet Jewry (for those who don’t recall 20 years’ worth of large and public protests, a useful summary can be found here), but the Obami’s pummeling of the Jewish state and its lackadaisical attitude toward a nuclear-armed Iran has not yet fully mobilized the Jewish community. Polite letters, lots of private hand-wringing, and a few pointed newspaper ads are about all we’ve seen. The response of American Jewish organizations — meek and subdued — seems grossly disproportionate to the stakes and underwhelming by historic standards.

It’s not clear what action by American Jewry, if any, would be effective with this administration. But the absence of organized protest and the subdued reaction to events that frankly should set off alarm bells with pro-Israel supporters are reminiscent of another era — the 1930s — in which American Jewry was too demure for too long. That had tragic results. Today’s reticence may as well.

It seems that at least some Jews are so mad at Obama that they’ve taken to the streets. This WPIX report from New York explains:

Thousands of Jews gathered outside the Israeli Consulate Sunday to protest President Obama’s position towards Israel.

Organizers said the event supports “Israel’s right to build and live in its own country,” as well as its right to unite Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. They are also protesting the Obama Administrations’ alleged disregard of the democratic Jewish state.

“We are outraged that President Obama is scapegoating Israel and wants to expel Jews from their homes in Jerusalem. President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton show more anger about a Jewish family building a home in Jerusalem than Iran building a nuclear bomb,” states Beth Gilinsky of the Jewish Action Alliance. “Vast segments of the Jewish community will not tolerate the President’s continuing attacks on Israel. Grassroots Jewry will not be silent.”

Meanwhile, a taped statement by former NYC Mayor Ed Koch, who has openly expressed his displeasure with Obama’s policies, played for attendees. He slammed the president for his treatment of Israel and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Over 20 organizations, Jewish and other, united to support the event.

This event is newsworthy, not least because it is unique. Where have the Jewish Tea Parties been? Why haven’t we seen more of this? It was over 20 years ago that 250,000 people amassed in Washington D.C. for the cause of Soviet Jewry (for those who don’t recall 20 years’ worth of large and public protests, a useful summary can be found here), but the Obami’s pummeling of the Jewish state and its lackadaisical attitude toward a nuclear-armed Iran has not yet fully mobilized the Jewish community. Polite letters, lots of private hand-wringing, and a few pointed newspaper ads are about all we’ve seen. The response of American Jewish organizations — meek and subdued — seems grossly disproportionate to the stakes and underwhelming by historic standards.

It’s not clear what action by American Jewry, if any, would be effective with this administration. But the absence of organized protest and the subdued reaction to events that frankly should set off alarm bells with pro-Israel supporters are reminiscent of another era — the 1930s — in which American Jewry was too demure for too long. That had tragic results. Today’s reticence may as well.

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Bullying in the Name of Financial Reform

In the frenzy to prove their populist bona fides, Sen. Carl Levin’s committee demanded and then leaked out a handful of Goldman Sachs e-mails. This led to a plethora of supposedly shocked mainstream reporters who were aghast to learn that there are times when one side profits by others’ losses. We do, after all, allow “selling short” in the U.S. Yes, it’s perfectly legal (not in Britain, however, so I suppose Levin could try to outlaw it here too). The issue with Goldman is whether fraud was committed in a deal with extremely sophisticated investors who understood all too well that others might gain from their losses. But that real case may be hard to prove and is not so politically attractive as the Wall Street “greed” story line.

The liberal spasm of outrage reached its low point on Fox News Sunday when Juan Williams went around the bend. The relevant exchange is comic but also instructive as to how liberals think of private industry, the rule of law, and government:

KRISTOL: Senator Levin’s committee — I’m sorry. Senator Levin authorized his staff to release e-mails that were provided to this investigation (inaudible) on the committee, ostensibly on the grounds that the committee was doing a serious investigation. Then they release e-mails that are simply, they say, embarrassing.

It’s an outrage, actually. What is — this is — now any business in the United States has to worry that any e-mail sent anywhere, at some point, if you — three years later, that could be made to look embarrassing to a chief executive who’s testifying on Tuesday.

And I say this as no fan of Goldman Sachs. But Lloyd Blankfein’s testifying Tuesday and they want to embarrass him or put him on the spot, and they release these e-mails.

KRISTOL: But the core issue here is the issue of rule of law and this notion that this bill increases executive authority discretion so much as opposed to other ways of fixing the financial crisis because of the bankruptcy code and the like, that it’s bad to increase the authority of the discretion of the big government in Washington this much. That is the core objection to the bill, the core dispute over the bill. For President Obama to pretend that the only reason you might not like this bill is if you were interested in bilking people as he said, that’s really ridiculous.

WILLIAMS: It’s not ridiculous when you read the e-mail. The core here is not the release of the e-mail but the content of the e- mail. The e-mails reveal that they are saying that people at Goldman Sachs are saying, you know what? We’re going to make money while investors are losing money. In fact, we’re going to have a windfall they say in the e- mail. That is the outrage in case you missed it. That’s why public outrage over the behavior by these Wall Street titans is over the top. And I might add, you know what else?

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: Shouldn’t Senator Levin’s e-mails be released? He’s the public official. I mean, if he believes that everything should be transparent, let’s see the e-mail to his staff when he discussed whether to embarrass Lloyd Blankfein or not.

WILLIAMS: Listen, you are lost in the weeds on this. It doesn’t matter who released —

KRISTOL: It doesn’t matter what the rule of law in Washington?

WILLIAMS: Of course it matters, rule of law. But let me just say, you sit at your desk at your corporation, guess what? Your boss can read your e-mail. That is not the issue.

KRISTOL: You know what?

WILLIAMS: The issue is the government of these people —

KRISTOL: The Senate of the United States is not the boss of every employee at Goldman Sachs. That is a very revealing statement, Juan. Let me tell you something, we all work for Carl Levin. That is the future — what about the investors, the people who are putting money in these Wall Street firms and being gyped?

So the Democrats’ view of private industry is that there is no private industry. There is no better argument against the ever-expanding reach of the federal government in the name of “financial reform” than this sort of devil-may-care attitude about the right of politicians to peer into every nook and cranny of a business, read every e-mail, and haul executives before the glare of the cameras and then harangue them for devising transactions that the politicians only dimly understand. With the power to regulate goes the power to snoop, harass, and bully. We should be very wary of giving government officials too much leeway; they are certain to abuse it.

In the frenzy to prove their populist bona fides, Sen. Carl Levin’s committee demanded and then leaked out a handful of Goldman Sachs e-mails. This led to a plethora of supposedly shocked mainstream reporters who were aghast to learn that there are times when one side profits by others’ losses. We do, after all, allow “selling short” in the U.S. Yes, it’s perfectly legal (not in Britain, however, so I suppose Levin could try to outlaw it here too). The issue with Goldman is whether fraud was committed in a deal with extremely sophisticated investors who understood all too well that others might gain from their losses. But that real case may be hard to prove and is not so politically attractive as the Wall Street “greed” story line.

The liberal spasm of outrage reached its low point on Fox News Sunday when Juan Williams went around the bend. The relevant exchange is comic but also instructive as to how liberals think of private industry, the rule of law, and government:

KRISTOL: Senator Levin’s committee — I’m sorry. Senator Levin authorized his staff to release e-mails that were provided to this investigation (inaudible) on the committee, ostensibly on the grounds that the committee was doing a serious investigation. Then they release e-mails that are simply, they say, embarrassing.

It’s an outrage, actually. What is — this is — now any business in the United States has to worry that any e-mail sent anywhere, at some point, if you — three years later, that could be made to look embarrassing to a chief executive who’s testifying on Tuesday.

And I say this as no fan of Goldman Sachs. But Lloyd Blankfein’s testifying Tuesday and they want to embarrass him or put him on the spot, and they release these e-mails.

KRISTOL: But the core issue here is the issue of rule of law and this notion that this bill increases executive authority discretion so much as opposed to other ways of fixing the financial crisis because of the bankruptcy code and the like, that it’s bad to increase the authority of the discretion of the big government in Washington this much. That is the core objection to the bill, the core dispute over the bill. For President Obama to pretend that the only reason you might not like this bill is if you were interested in bilking people as he said, that’s really ridiculous.

WILLIAMS: It’s not ridiculous when you read the e-mail. The core here is not the release of the e-mail but the content of the e- mail. The e-mails reveal that they are saying that people at Goldman Sachs are saying, you know what? We’re going to make money while investors are losing money. In fact, we’re going to have a windfall they say in the e- mail. That is the outrage in case you missed it. That’s why public outrage over the behavior by these Wall Street titans is over the top. And I might add, you know what else?

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: Shouldn’t Senator Levin’s e-mails be released? He’s the public official. I mean, if he believes that everything should be transparent, let’s see the e-mail to his staff when he discussed whether to embarrass Lloyd Blankfein or not.

WILLIAMS: Listen, you are lost in the weeds on this. It doesn’t matter who released —

KRISTOL: It doesn’t matter what the rule of law in Washington?

WILLIAMS: Of course it matters, rule of law. But let me just say, you sit at your desk at your corporation, guess what? Your boss can read your e-mail. That is not the issue.

KRISTOL: You know what?

WILLIAMS: The issue is the government of these people —

KRISTOL: The Senate of the United States is not the boss of every employee at Goldman Sachs. That is a very revealing statement, Juan. Let me tell you something, we all work for Carl Levin. That is the future — what about the investors, the people who are putting money in these Wall Street firms and being gyped?

So the Democrats’ view of private industry is that there is no private industry. There is no better argument against the ever-expanding reach of the federal government in the name of “financial reform” than this sort of devil-may-care attitude about the right of politicians to peer into every nook and cranny of a business, read every e-mail, and haul executives before the glare of the cameras and then harangue them for devising transactions that the politicians only dimly understand. With the power to regulate goes the power to snoop, harass, and bully. We should be very wary of giving government officials too much leeway; they are certain to abuse it.

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Richard Haass: Enough Peace Process

Richard Haass (who converted to the cause of regime change in Iran) writes again to criticize Obama, this time on his infatuation with the peace process:

To be sure, peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be of real value. It would constitute a major foreign-policy accomplishment for the United States. It would help ensure Israel’s survival as a democratic, secure, prosperous, Jewish state. It would reduce Palestinian and Arab alienation, a source of anti-Americanism and radicalism. And it would dilute the appeal of Iran and its clients.

But it is easy to exaggerate how central the Israel-Palestinian issue is and how much the U.S. pays for the current state of affairs. There are times one could be forgiven for thinking that solving the Palestinian problem would take care of every global challenge from climate change to the flu. But would it? The short answer is no. It matters, but both less and in a different way than people tend to think.

As he points out, it would make little or no difference to the sectarian conflicts in Iraq or the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. And as for Iran, “Peace between Israel and the Palestinians would not weaken Iran’s nuclear aspirations. It could even reinforce them. Iran and the groups it backs (notably Hamas and Hezbollah) would be sidelined by the region’s embrace of a Palestinian state and acceptance of Israel, perhaps causing Tehran to look to nuclear weapons to compensate for its loss of standing and influence.” Haass argues that a resolution of the Palestinian conflict wouldn’t even make much of a difference with other Arab states. Would they become more democratic? Would they be more inclined to oppose Iran? (They want the U.S. to do something about Iranian aggression now.) And we are nowhere close to the point at which a viable Palestinian state might emerge.

What’s the risk of persisting in the fruitless quest for a peace deal?

The danger of exaggerating the benefits of solving the Palestinian conflict is that doing so runs the risk of distorting American foreign policy. It accords the issue more prominence than it deserves, produces impatience, and tempts the U.S. government to adopt policies that are overly ambitious.

Haass is perhaps being too generous. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Obami are obsessed with the peace process because they have no viable policy with regard to Iran. It fills the time, it distracts attention, it takes the heat off the repressive Arab regimes, and it fulfills Obama’s own sense of grandeur and self-importance. And it provides a convenient way for Obama to demonstrate his affection for the “Muslim World” and disdain for the Jewish state.

It has also proved spectacularly unsuccessful if the real goal is a reduction of tensions and progress toward a two-state solution. And as Haass points out, we have made the vexing problem of nuclear-armed Iran even more difficult to resolve: “It is essential the two governments develop a modicum of trust if they are to manage inevitable differences over what to do about Iran’s nuclear program, a challenge that promises to be the most significant strategic threat of this decade. A protracted disagreement over the number of settlements or the contours of a final settlement is a distraction that would benefit neither the U.S. nor Israel, given an Iranian threat that is close at hand and a promise of peace that is distant.”

In short, by straining to resolve the unresolvable (at least at this stage) Palestinian problem, Obama has frittered away precious time and damaged our credibility with nearly every player in the region. (Haass doesn’t mention the degree to which our misdirected Middle East policy has increased anxiety among Israel’s neighbors, who want to know what we’re going to do about the Iran nuclear threat.) Meanwhile, democracy and human-rights activists in the region get the back of our hand, the mullahs’ move steadily ahead with their nuclear program, Syria flexes its muscles, and we are no closer to “peace” between Israel and the Palestinians. All in all, it’s the worst possible approach one could have devised for addressing the many challenges in the Middle East.

Richard Haass (who converted to the cause of regime change in Iran) writes again to criticize Obama, this time on his infatuation with the peace process:

To be sure, peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be of real value. It would constitute a major foreign-policy accomplishment for the United States. It would help ensure Israel’s survival as a democratic, secure, prosperous, Jewish state. It would reduce Palestinian and Arab alienation, a source of anti-Americanism and radicalism. And it would dilute the appeal of Iran and its clients.

But it is easy to exaggerate how central the Israel-Palestinian issue is and how much the U.S. pays for the current state of affairs. There are times one could be forgiven for thinking that solving the Palestinian problem would take care of every global challenge from climate change to the flu. But would it? The short answer is no. It matters, but both less and in a different way than people tend to think.

As he points out, it would make little or no difference to the sectarian conflicts in Iraq or the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. And as for Iran, “Peace between Israel and the Palestinians would not weaken Iran’s nuclear aspirations. It could even reinforce them. Iran and the groups it backs (notably Hamas and Hezbollah) would be sidelined by the region’s embrace of a Palestinian state and acceptance of Israel, perhaps causing Tehran to look to nuclear weapons to compensate for its loss of standing and influence.” Haass argues that a resolution of the Palestinian conflict wouldn’t even make much of a difference with other Arab states. Would they become more democratic? Would they be more inclined to oppose Iran? (They want the U.S. to do something about Iranian aggression now.) And we are nowhere close to the point at which a viable Palestinian state might emerge.

What’s the risk of persisting in the fruitless quest for a peace deal?

The danger of exaggerating the benefits of solving the Palestinian conflict is that doing so runs the risk of distorting American foreign policy. It accords the issue more prominence than it deserves, produces impatience, and tempts the U.S. government to adopt policies that are overly ambitious.

Haass is perhaps being too generous. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Obami are obsessed with the peace process because they have no viable policy with regard to Iran. It fills the time, it distracts attention, it takes the heat off the repressive Arab regimes, and it fulfills Obama’s own sense of grandeur and self-importance. And it provides a convenient way for Obama to demonstrate his affection for the “Muslim World” and disdain for the Jewish state.

It has also proved spectacularly unsuccessful if the real goal is a reduction of tensions and progress toward a two-state solution. And as Haass points out, we have made the vexing problem of nuclear-armed Iran even more difficult to resolve: “It is essential the two governments develop a modicum of trust if they are to manage inevitable differences over what to do about Iran’s nuclear program, a challenge that promises to be the most significant strategic threat of this decade. A protracted disagreement over the number of settlements or the contours of a final settlement is a distraction that would benefit neither the U.S. nor Israel, given an Iranian threat that is close at hand and a promise of peace that is distant.”

In short, by straining to resolve the unresolvable (at least at this stage) Palestinian problem, Obama has frittered away precious time and damaged our credibility with nearly every player in the region. (Haass doesn’t mention the degree to which our misdirected Middle East policy has increased anxiety among Israel’s neighbors, who want to know what we’re going to do about the Iran nuclear threat.) Meanwhile, democracy and human-rights activists in the region get the back of our hand, the mullahs’ move steadily ahead with their nuclear program, Syria flexes its muscles, and we are no closer to “peace” between Israel and the Palestinians. All in all, it’s the worst possible approach one could have devised for addressing the many challenges in the Middle East.

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Hillary Clinton: Errand Girl for Disastrous Foreign Policy

Michael Hirsh writes a lengthy piece on Hillary Clinton, confirming that she’s not much of a secretary of state. But then we knew that from the results of her handiwork — an unratifiable START treaty, a wrecked relationship with Israel, offended European allies, a Middle East “peace process” that has succeeded only in encouraging Palestinian intransigence, a failed Syrian-engagement gambit, and a dead-end Iran policy. So it’s not surprising that Hirsh focuses on her relationship with Obama — Starsky and Hutch! — and dwells on minutiae. After all, that’s what Hillary does best. The duo’s great accomplishment? Storming a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the ultimately meaningless Copenhagen global-warming conference. That’s the best Hirsch can come up with.

It’s hard to hide the problem, namely that she’s really not up to the job. Hirsh writes:

“She has no real strategic vision,” says an NSC official. “But she’ll get done what she has to do. She’s the good little Methodist girl. In the end she’ll have her list of the nine or 10 things she has to do and check them off one by one.”

Associates bridle at such condescension, and so do many White House officials, including General Jones. Clinton’s former longtime policy chief, Neera Tanden, sees nothing to apologize for: “She definitely has lists. And she really feels a sense of obligation, duty, responsibility, as part of her general outlook; perhaps it is her Methodism. It’s part of who she is.” Clinton herself ridicules the criticism. “At the end of the day, have you solved the problem or haven’t you? Have you crossed it off the list or haven’t you?”

Hmm. Do you suppose “Thwart Iran’s nuclear program” is on the list? What about “Reorient administration away from Israel”? That one gets a check mark.

Outside observers concede the obvious:

Clinton’s and Obama’s various policies do not yet add up to anything like a doctrine on America’s place in the world. Much of the first year was about “rebuilding the brand, rebuilding political capital,” says one official. And blaming George W. Bush for America’s dire situation, of course. Now, however, fewer world leaders care about the mistakes made by the previous administration. Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says he doesn’t think Clinton is of the caliber of James Baker, the George H.W. Bush secretary of state who was perhaps the last real superstar in the job. “She’s very smart,” he says. “She understands all these issues. You can have a good discussion with her on almost any [subject]. But she doesn’t pretend to be, nor is she, a strategist. When she goes to the National Security Council, she doesn’t bring that to the table.”

So what does she bring? It seems that Obama found the perfect errand girl for his bizarrely counterproductive strategy of cozying up to despots, shoving democracy promotion aside, dissing allies, and focusing on unilateral grand gestures — which suggests that no one in the administration has a workable strategy for promoting American interests and values. Obama imagines himself a great foreign-policy visionary, but the legacy he is creating is an America more estranged from allies and a Middle East on the tipping point of a deadly nuclear-arms race. Hillary might be just the enabler, but she’ll share in that legacy, which for now promises to be the most dismal of any American president’s since (maybe including) Jimmy Carter.

Michael Hirsh writes a lengthy piece on Hillary Clinton, confirming that she’s not much of a secretary of state. But then we knew that from the results of her handiwork — an unratifiable START treaty, a wrecked relationship with Israel, offended European allies, a Middle East “peace process” that has succeeded only in encouraging Palestinian intransigence, a failed Syrian-engagement gambit, and a dead-end Iran policy. So it’s not surprising that Hirsh focuses on her relationship with Obama — Starsky and Hutch! — and dwells on minutiae. After all, that’s what Hillary does best. The duo’s great accomplishment? Storming a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the ultimately meaningless Copenhagen global-warming conference. That’s the best Hirsch can come up with.

It’s hard to hide the problem, namely that she’s really not up to the job. Hirsh writes:

“She has no real strategic vision,” says an NSC official. “But she’ll get done what she has to do. She’s the good little Methodist girl. In the end she’ll have her list of the nine or 10 things she has to do and check them off one by one.”

Associates bridle at such condescension, and so do many White House officials, including General Jones. Clinton’s former longtime policy chief, Neera Tanden, sees nothing to apologize for: “She definitely has lists. And she really feels a sense of obligation, duty, responsibility, as part of her general outlook; perhaps it is her Methodism. It’s part of who she is.” Clinton herself ridicules the criticism. “At the end of the day, have you solved the problem or haven’t you? Have you crossed it off the list or haven’t you?”

Hmm. Do you suppose “Thwart Iran’s nuclear program” is on the list? What about “Reorient administration away from Israel”? That one gets a check mark.

Outside observers concede the obvious:

Clinton’s and Obama’s various policies do not yet add up to anything like a doctrine on America’s place in the world. Much of the first year was about “rebuilding the brand, rebuilding political capital,” says one official. And blaming George W. Bush for America’s dire situation, of course. Now, however, fewer world leaders care about the mistakes made by the previous administration. Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says he doesn’t think Clinton is of the caliber of James Baker, the George H.W. Bush secretary of state who was perhaps the last real superstar in the job. “She’s very smart,” he says. “She understands all these issues. You can have a good discussion with her on almost any [subject]. But she doesn’t pretend to be, nor is she, a strategist. When she goes to the National Security Council, she doesn’t bring that to the table.”

So what does she bring? It seems that Obama found the perfect errand girl for his bizarrely counterproductive strategy of cozying up to despots, shoving democracy promotion aside, dissing allies, and focusing on unilateral grand gestures — which suggests that no one in the administration has a workable strategy for promoting American interests and values. Obama imagines himself a great foreign-policy visionary, but the legacy he is creating is an America more estranged from allies and a Middle East on the tipping point of a deadly nuclear-arms race. Hillary might be just the enabler, but she’ll share in that legacy, which for now promises to be the most dismal of any American president’s since (maybe including) Jimmy Carter.

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New Black Panther Documents: Appellate Experts Overridden

At the heart of the New Black Panther Party case is a basic question: were the Justice Department trial lawyers ordered to withdraw the default judgment for proper, legal reasons (i.e., the trial team had erroneously pursued the case) or for improper, political reasons? At the Friday hearing before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Rep. Frank Wolf submitted with his testimony some internal Justice Department documents, including an internal memorandum from the Civil Rights Division’s appellate section, which was asked to weigh in by the Voting Rights Section. In a memo dated May 13, 2009 (just days before the Obama administration ordered the case pulled), the appellate lawyers offered their own opinion of the case. They included this in their summary:

We can make reasonable arguments in favor of default relief against all defendants and probably should, given the unusual procedural situation. The argument may well not succeed at the default stage, and we should expect the district court to schedule further proceedings But it would be curious not to pray for the relief on the default that we would seek following trial. Thus, we generally concur in Voting’s recommendation to go forward, with some suggested modifications in our argument, as set forth below.

Translation: the Voting Sections lawyers should go for it. This recommendation was overridden by the Obama administration. And the question we return to again and again is this: why did the Obama team reject the advice of not only the trial team of career lawyers but also of the experts in the appellate section? What infirmity did only the Obama team spot that somehow had eluded all these experienced voting-rights gurus? Well, we don’t know. The Obama administration so far has refused to permit the trial attorneys to testify to shed further light on what pressure they were subjected to and what they were told was the rationale for the dismissal. So for now, the mystery — and the stonewall — continues.

At the heart of the New Black Panther Party case is a basic question: were the Justice Department trial lawyers ordered to withdraw the default judgment for proper, legal reasons (i.e., the trial team had erroneously pursued the case) or for improper, political reasons? At the Friday hearing before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Rep. Frank Wolf submitted with his testimony some internal Justice Department documents, including an internal memorandum from the Civil Rights Division’s appellate section, which was asked to weigh in by the Voting Rights Section. In a memo dated May 13, 2009 (just days before the Obama administration ordered the case pulled), the appellate lawyers offered their own opinion of the case. They included this in their summary:

We can make reasonable arguments in favor of default relief against all defendants and probably should, given the unusual procedural situation. The argument may well not succeed at the default stage, and we should expect the district court to schedule further proceedings But it would be curious not to pray for the relief on the default that we would seek following trial. Thus, we generally concur in Voting’s recommendation to go forward, with some suggested modifications in our argument, as set forth below.

Translation: the Voting Sections lawyers should go for it. This recommendation was overridden by the Obama administration. And the question we return to again and again is this: why did the Obama team reject the advice of not only the trial team of career lawyers but also of the experts in the appellate section? What infirmity did only the Obama team spot that somehow had eluded all these experienced voting-rights gurus? Well, we don’t know. The Obama administration so far has refused to permit the trial attorneys to testify to shed further light on what pressure they were subjected to and what they were told was the rationale for the dismissal. So for now, the mystery — and the stonewall — continues.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

There’s something to cheer about: “The plan to unveil a bipartisan climate bill in the Senate on Monday collapsed over the weekend as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the bill’s three authors, declared he couldn’t support it if Democrats decided to prioritize immigration reform.”

Or is there? It seems Graham is just waiting for the Democrats’ immigration-reform ploy to blow over: “[Joe] Lieberman said [Harry] Reid pledged to bring the energy bill to the full Senate as soon as possible this year. In a separate conversation, according to Lieberman, Graham reiterated his support for the energy bill once it’s no longer tangled up with immigration legislation. ‘Now I’m encouraged,’ Lieberman said. Asked when the energy bill might advance, he said, ‘Sometime soon, as soon as we can get Lindsey on board.'”

Do we really think Obama is going to pick a non-judge to go toe-to-toe with Justices Alito, Scalia, and Roberts? “Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm (D) says she’s once again on President Obama’s short list for appointment to the Supreme Court. In an interview with CNN, the term-limited governor says she has talked with people in the Obama administration about the upcoming nomination to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.” Well, it would nail down that all-important Canadian-American vote.

Delusions of grandeur time: “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is talking up the healthcare reform law in a big way on the campaign trail. Reid, who led efforts to shepherd the $940 billion legislation through the Senate, is facing a tough reelection battle this fall. He spoke at several Democratic county conventions in northern Nevada on Saturday. ‘The most important thing we’ve done for the country and the world is health care’ he said.”

The GOP is expanding the playing field: “Representative David R. Obey has won 21 straight races, easily prevailing through wars and economic crises that have spanned presidencies from Nixon’s to Obama’s. Yet the discontent with Washington surging through politics is now threatening not only his seat but also Democratic control of Congress. Mr. Obey is one of nearly a dozen well-established House Democrats who are bracing for something they rarely face: serious competition. Their predicament is the latest sign of distress for their party and underlines why Republicans are confident of making big gains in November and perhaps even winning back the House.”

James Jones is now making Jewish jokes. The Forward, via Haaretz, notes that some were not amused: “After all, making jokes about greedy Jewish merchants can be seen at times as insensitive.”

An unnamed Obama official confesses: “We do not understand Syrian intentions. No one does, and until we get to that question we can never get to the root of the problem. … Until then it’s all damage control.” No one? Could it be that Assad is pushing the U.S. and Israel as far as they will go and cozying up to the Iranians, whom he sees as the rising power in the region? The Obami, however, are stumped.

On Friday, Charlie Crist has to decide whether to run for the Senate as an independent. Stories like this in the Miami Herald don’t help: “Charlie Crist, once Florida’s spectacularly popular governor, now in danger of seeing his political career washed up? ‘I honestly don’t know,’ Crist said Friday. ‘But I certainly think the economy played a role.” In hindsight, the warning signs were too numerous: Marco Rubio winning local ‘straw poll'; U.S. Senate elections that Crist brushed off as meaningless; prominent GOP allies publicly scolding him for endorsing President Barack Obama’s stimulus package; veteran party leaders beseeching him to remove or at least rein in his hand-picked Florida GOP chairman, Jim Greer.”

There’s something to cheer about: “The plan to unveil a bipartisan climate bill in the Senate on Monday collapsed over the weekend as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the bill’s three authors, declared he couldn’t support it if Democrats decided to prioritize immigration reform.”

Or is there? It seems Graham is just waiting for the Democrats’ immigration-reform ploy to blow over: “[Joe] Lieberman said [Harry] Reid pledged to bring the energy bill to the full Senate as soon as possible this year. In a separate conversation, according to Lieberman, Graham reiterated his support for the energy bill once it’s no longer tangled up with immigration legislation. ‘Now I’m encouraged,’ Lieberman said. Asked when the energy bill might advance, he said, ‘Sometime soon, as soon as we can get Lindsey on board.'”

Do we really think Obama is going to pick a non-judge to go toe-to-toe with Justices Alito, Scalia, and Roberts? “Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm (D) says she’s once again on President Obama’s short list for appointment to the Supreme Court. In an interview with CNN, the term-limited governor says she has talked with people in the Obama administration about the upcoming nomination to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.” Well, it would nail down that all-important Canadian-American vote.

Delusions of grandeur time: “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is talking up the healthcare reform law in a big way on the campaign trail. Reid, who led efforts to shepherd the $940 billion legislation through the Senate, is facing a tough reelection battle this fall. He spoke at several Democratic county conventions in northern Nevada on Saturday. ‘The most important thing we’ve done for the country and the world is health care’ he said.”

The GOP is expanding the playing field: “Representative David R. Obey has won 21 straight races, easily prevailing through wars and economic crises that have spanned presidencies from Nixon’s to Obama’s. Yet the discontent with Washington surging through politics is now threatening not only his seat but also Democratic control of Congress. Mr. Obey is one of nearly a dozen well-established House Democrats who are bracing for something they rarely face: serious competition. Their predicament is the latest sign of distress for their party and underlines why Republicans are confident of making big gains in November and perhaps even winning back the House.”

James Jones is now making Jewish jokes. The Forward, via Haaretz, notes that some were not amused: “After all, making jokes about greedy Jewish merchants can be seen at times as insensitive.”

An unnamed Obama official confesses: “We do not understand Syrian intentions. No one does, and until we get to that question we can never get to the root of the problem. … Until then it’s all damage control.” No one? Could it be that Assad is pushing the U.S. and Israel as far as they will go and cozying up to the Iranians, whom he sees as the rising power in the region? The Obami, however, are stumped.

On Friday, Charlie Crist has to decide whether to run for the Senate as an independent. Stories like this in the Miami Herald don’t help: “Charlie Crist, once Florida’s spectacularly popular governor, now in danger of seeing his political career washed up? ‘I honestly don’t know,’ Crist said Friday. ‘But I certainly think the economy played a role.” In hindsight, the warning signs were too numerous: Marco Rubio winning local ‘straw poll'; U.S. Senate elections that Crist brushed off as meaningless; prominent GOP allies publicly scolding him for endorsing President Barack Obama’s stimulus package; veteran party leaders beseeching him to remove or at least rein in his hand-picked Florida GOP chairman, Jim Greer.”

Read Less




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