Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 28, 2011

An Epochal Disaster for al-Qaeda

The New York Times published a story that points out that (a) citizens of Arab nations have toppled dictators who al-Qaeda (AQ) leaders loathed — and these citizens have done so without the help of AQ; and (b) the opposition movements in the Arab Middle East have “shunned the two central tenets of the Qaeda credo: murderous violence and religious fanaticism. The demonstrators have used force defensively, treated Islam as an afterthought and embraced democracy, which is anathema to Osama bin Laden and his followers.”

For many specialists on terrorism and the Middle East, “the past few weeks have the makings of an epochal disaster for Al Qaeda, making the jihadists look like ineffectual bystanders to history while offering young Muslims an appealing alternative to terrorism.”

AQ is ruthless and resourceful; its leaders will try to adjust and take advantage of new conditions on the ground. So it’s far too early to count AQ out (and the Times story rightly does not). Still, it is satisfying to hear even fierce critics of the Bush administration admit, as one does in the story, that “[d]emocracy is bad news for terrorists. The more peaceful channels people have to express grievances and pursue their goals, the less likely they are to turn to violence.” Read More

The New York Times published a story that points out that (a) citizens of Arab nations have toppled dictators who al-Qaeda (AQ) leaders loathed — and these citizens have done so without the help of AQ; and (b) the opposition movements in the Arab Middle East have “shunned the two central tenets of the Qaeda credo: murderous violence and religious fanaticism. The demonstrators have used force defensively, treated Islam as an afterthought and embraced democracy, which is anathema to Osama bin Laden and his followers.”

For many specialists on terrorism and the Middle East, “the past few weeks have the makings of an epochal disaster for Al Qaeda, making the jihadists look like ineffectual bystanders to history while offering young Muslims an appealing alternative to terrorism.”

AQ is ruthless and resourceful; its leaders will try to adjust and take advantage of new conditions on the ground. So it’s far too early to count AQ out (and the Times story rightly does not). Still, it is satisfying to hear even fierce critics of the Bush administration admit, as one does in the story, that “[d]emocracy is bad news for terrorists. The more peaceful channels people have to express grievances and pursue their goals, the less likely they are to turn to violence.”

This insight was obvious to some people, and to some presidents, some time ago. “Islamic radicalism, like the ideology of communism, contains inherent contradictions that doom it to failure,” America’s 43rd president said in 2005. “By fearing freedom — by distrusting human creativity, and punishing change, and limiting the contributions of half the population — this ideology undermines the very qualities that make human progress possible, and human societies successful. The only thing modern about the militants’ vision is the weapons they want to use against us. The rest of their grim vision is defined by a warped image of the past — a declaration of war on the idea of progress, itself. And whatever lies ahead in the war against this ideology, the outcome is not in doubt: Those who despise freedom and progress have condemned themselves to isolation, decline, and collapse. Because free peoples believe in the future, free peoples will own the future.”

While conceding that this is a difficult, long-term project, America’s commander in chief suggested that there was no alternative to it. He then offered this observation:

Our future and the future of that region are linked. If the broader Middle East is left to grow in bitterness, if countries remain in misery, while radicals stir the resentments of millions, then that part of the world will be a source of endless conflict and mounting danger, and for our generation and the next. If the peoples of that region are permitted to choose their own destiny, and advance by their own energy and by their participation as free men and women, then the extremists will be marginalized, and the flow of violent radicalism to the rest of the world will slow, and eventually end. By standing for the hope and freedom of others, we make our own freedom more secure.

A half-dozen years ago, these observations were derided in many quarters; today they are commonplace. There is credit in recognizing these truths now, but there is greater credit for having recognized them early on.

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Ezra Klein, Troglodyte

Ezra Klein, whistling bravely past the graveyard, has a piece in the Daily Beast today in which he argues that the fight over public unions in Wisconsin is

the best thing to happen to the union movement in recent memory. Give the man some credit: In seven days, Walker did what unions have been trying and failing to do for decades. He united the famously fractious movement, reknit its emotional connection with allies ranging from students to national Democratic leaders, and brought the decline of organized labor to the forefront of the national agenda. The question is: Will it matter?

The answer, I’m confident, is no. As Klein points out, union membership as a percentage of the workforce has been declining steadily for decades (it peaked about 1953). As manufacturing jobs continue to decline, thanks to globalization, automation, and other forces more profound than the union movement ever was, it will continue to decline until it is essentially one with the Greenback Party and the Wobblies. And for the same reason: they were an answer to yesterday’s problems, not today’s.

Klein’s arguments are remarkably out-of-date, but then, of course, so is liberalism. Read More

Ezra Klein, whistling bravely past the graveyard, has a piece in the Daily Beast today in which he argues that the fight over public unions in Wisconsin is

the best thing to happen to the union movement in recent memory. Give the man some credit: In seven days, Walker did what unions have been trying and failing to do for decades. He united the famously fractious movement, reknit its emotional connection with allies ranging from students to national Democratic leaders, and brought the decline of organized labor to the forefront of the national agenda. The question is: Will it matter?

The answer, I’m confident, is no. As Klein points out, union membership as a percentage of the workforce has been declining steadily for decades (it peaked about 1953). As manufacturing jobs continue to decline, thanks to globalization, automation, and other forces more profound than the union movement ever was, it will continue to decline until it is essentially one with the Greenback Party and the Wobblies. And for the same reason: they were an answer to yesterday’s problems, not today’s.

Klein’s arguments are remarkably out-of-date, but then, of course, so is liberalism.

He argues that unions “give workers a voice within — and, when necessary, leverage against — their employer.” That was true in the days when most industrial jobs were repetitive and low-skill. When workers were interchangeable, they had no bargaining power, except collectively. Today most industries hire people for their individual talents and skills, not for their ability to screw the same top onto the same ketchup bottle for hours at a time. Just consider: the Wagner Act, as amended by Taft-Hartley, still governs union organizing. If the employees of Microsoft and Intel wanted to unionize, they could easily do so, and unions are free to encourage them to do so. But the very idea is laughable.

Klein quotes John Kenneth Galbraith (whose career as an economic thinker peaked in 1958 with the publication of The Affluent Society) that unions are a “‘countervailing power’ in an economy dominated by large corporations.” Of the 30 corporations that made up the Dow-Jones Industrial Average in 1958, exactly two are still in it, DuPont and Exxon. Many of those in the Dow in 1958 are bankrupt or have merged. The economy may (or may not) be dominated by large corporations, but the corporations doing the dominating are not the same. Intel, Microsoft, Google, Wal-Mart, and other “dominating corporations” today were not even founded (and in some cases, their founders not even born) in 1958. Unions, far from being a countervailing force in the economy, are a reactionary force, resisting change at every turn because their “business model” is so outdated.

Klein argues that “unions bring some semblance of balance to the political system. A lot of what happens in politics is, unfortunately, the result of moneyed, organized interests who lobby strategically and patiently to get their way. Most of that money is coming from various business interests.” As I pointed out the other day when Paul Krugman was beating this drum — that’s nonsense. Labor is a bigger supplier of money than business, and the top 10 industries in the country as ranked by political contributions all give more to Democrats than to Republicans.

Finally, he argues that a “world without organized labor is a world where workers have less voice and corporations are even more dominant and unchecked across both the economy and the political system.” What Klein very carefully fails to point out, of course, is that the fight in Wisconsin is not over unions and collective bargaining with corporations (an argument that was settled in the 1930s); it is over unions and collective bargaining with governments. The evidence that that is a recipe for fiscal disaster is now overwhelming. Of course, most of that evidence postdates the 1950s, when public-employee unions were very rare and collective bargaining with governments even rarer. George Meany, who headed up the AFL-CIO after their merger in 1955, thought collective bargaining with governments was “impossible.”

You would think that someone like Ezra Klein, who seems to live in a 1950s time warp economically despite having been born in 1984, would know that.

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Rep. Keith Ellison: ‘There Are Prices to Pay’ for Supporting Anti-Israel Policies in Congress

Three years after J Street’s formation, it’s still politically toxic for members of Congress to support J Street’s policies, said Rep. Keith Ellison during a panel discussion at the liberal lobbying group’s conference.

Ellison, who co-chairs the House Progressive Caucus, said that fellow caucus members who took positions that aren’t traditionally pro-Israel “found themselves primaried from the right on the issue of Israel.”

“There are prices to pay,” he added. “These folks who have impeccable pro Israel credentials found themselves in pretty tough primary races, and not just in one part of the country.”

He also stressed that J Street needed to be more effective at protecting these members of Congress from attacks from groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel.

“J Street needs to continue to strengthen its muscles … so that a politician can take a position that is pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-Palestinian … and not have to worry about [election-cycle attacks],” said Ellison.

During the 2010 midterm elections, J Street’s critics argued that it’s become politically harmful for members of Congress to align themselves with the lobbying group. J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami seemed to reject this notion during a meeting with reporters today, saying that the group has made it much easier for politicians to take controversial positions on Israel. “The change in Congress is notable,” he said. “The sense of openness on Capitol Hill is greater than three years ago.”

But according to Ellison, the pressure to be pro-Israel is so intense that the House Progressive Caucus often avoids taking positions on Israel because its members are so concerned about being attacked by pro-Israel organizations. “We don’t take them on because we can’t come to a clear consensus on the question,” said the congressman.

J Street was formed as an alternative lobby to AIPAC. But three years later, it’s noteworthy that the group is still unable to influence many of the most progressive politicians on Capitol Hill.

Three years after J Street’s formation, it’s still politically toxic for members of Congress to support J Street’s policies, said Rep. Keith Ellison during a panel discussion at the liberal lobbying group’s conference.

Ellison, who co-chairs the House Progressive Caucus, said that fellow caucus members who took positions that aren’t traditionally pro-Israel “found themselves primaried from the right on the issue of Israel.”

“There are prices to pay,” he added. “These folks who have impeccable pro Israel credentials found themselves in pretty tough primary races, and not just in one part of the country.”

He also stressed that J Street needed to be more effective at protecting these members of Congress from attacks from groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel.

“J Street needs to continue to strengthen its muscles … so that a politician can take a position that is pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-Palestinian … and not have to worry about [election-cycle attacks],” said Ellison.

During the 2010 midterm elections, J Street’s critics argued that it’s become politically harmful for members of Congress to align themselves with the lobbying group. J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami seemed to reject this notion during a meeting with reporters today, saying that the group has made it much easier for politicians to take controversial positions on Israel. “The change in Congress is notable,” he said. “The sense of openness on Capitol Hill is greater than three years ago.”

But according to Ellison, the pressure to be pro-Israel is so intense that the House Progressive Caucus often avoids taking positions on Israel because its members are so concerned about being attacked by pro-Israel organizations. “We don’t take them on because we can’t come to a clear consensus on the question,” said the congressman.

J Street was formed as an alternative lobby to AIPAC. But three years later, it’s noteworthy that the group is still unable to influence many of the most progressive politicians on Capitol Hill.

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Barack Obama’s Moral Concession to Evil

According to a story in Sunday’s Washington Post, as President Obama and his advisers measured their response to the mass killing in Libya, they were mindful of the fact that diplomats in Tripoli had told them, in the words of one official, that “certain kinds of messaging from the American government could endanger the security of American citizens.”

“Overruling that kind of advice would be a very difficult and dangerous thing to do,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “That was the debate, and frankly we erred on the side of caution, for certain, and at the cost of some criticism,” he continued. “But when you’re sitting in government and you’re told that ignoring that advice could endanger American citizens, that’s a line you don’t feel very comfortable crossing.”

The Obama administration’s position assumes that Muammar Qaddafi needs a pretext to kill Americans. He actually doesn’t. He has done so in the past, and he could just as easily do so now, regardless of what kind of “messaging” emerges from our government.

Beyond that, as Christopher Hitchens points out, the leaders of nations far less powerful than the United States, many with large expatriate populations in Libya, took much more forceful (and much earlier) stances against Qaddafi than did Obama. The president was the last major Western leader to speak up on Libya.

On a more fundamental level, what the Obama administration did was create quite a dangerous precedent. It has now signaled to the most malevolent regimes in the world that the way to delay (or perhaps even avoid) American condemnation, let alone American action, is to threaten the lives of American citizens. The message sent to, and surely the message received by, despots around the world is this: If you want to neuter America, threaten to harm its citizens. Mr. Obama will bend like red-hot steel pulled from a furnace.

There were, of course, other options available to the president, including informing Mr. Qaddafi through the appropriate channels that a terrible fate would await him and his pack of jackals if a single American was harmed (see here). The president did very nearly the opposite. He showed weakness, irresolution, fear. I wonder if people have focused on just how troubling this action, and the mindset it manifests, really is.

Sidney Hook once said that those who make survival the supreme value are declaring that there is nothing they will not betray. Professor Hook’s statement could be amended and updated: American presidents who declare that they will bow to the demands of dictators who threaten American citizens are declaring that there is nothing they will not betray. For those who were disturbed by President Obama’s diffidence in the face of Qaddafi’s wickedness, it’s worse than you think. The ramifications of Mr. Obama’s actions will outlive whatever happens in Tripoli.

According to a story in Sunday’s Washington Post, as President Obama and his advisers measured their response to the mass killing in Libya, they were mindful of the fact that diplomats in Tripoli had told them, in the words of one official, that “certain kinds of messaging from the American government could endanger the security of American citizens.”

“Overruling that kind of advice would be a very difficult and dangerous thing to do,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “That was the debate, and frankly we erred on the side of caution, for certain, and at the cost of some criticism,” he continued. “But when you’re sitting in government and you’re told that ignoring that advice could endanger American citizens, that’s a line you don’t feel very comfortable crossing.”

The Obama administration’s position assumes that Muammar Qaddafi needs a pretext to kill Americans. He actually doesn’t. He has done so in the past, and he could just as easily do so now, regardless of what kind of “messaging” emerges from our government.

Beyond that, as Christopher Hitchens points out, the leaders of nations far less powerful than the United States, many with large expatriate populations in Libya, took much more forceful (and much earlier) stances against Qaddafi than did Obama. The president was the last major Western leader to speak up on Libya.

On a more fundamental level, what the Obama administration did was create quite a dangerous precedent. It has now signaled to the most malevolent regimes in the world that the way to delay (or perhaps even avoid) American condemnation, let alone American action, is to threaten the lives of American citizens. The message sent to, and surely the message received by, despots around the world is this: If you want to neuter America, threaten to harm its citizens. Mr. Obama will bend like red-hot steel pulled from a furnace.

There were, of course, other options available to the president, including informing Mr. Qaddafi through the appropriate channels that a terrible fate would await him and his pack of jackals if a single American was harmed (see here). The president did very nearly the opposite. He showed weakness, irresolution, fear. I wonder if people have focused on just how troubling this action, and the mindset it manifests, really is.

Sidney Hook once said that those who make survival the supreme value are declaring that there is nothing they will not betray. Professor Hook’s statement could be amended and updated: American presidents who declare that they will bow to the demands of dictators who threaten American citizens are declaring that there is nothing they will not betray. For those who were disturbed by President Obama’s diffidence in the face of Qaddafi’s wickedness, it’s worse than you think. The ramifications of Mr. Obama’s actions will outlive whatever happens in Tripoli.

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UN to Adopt Report Commending Qaddafi’s Human Rights Record

The UN Human Rights Council, which just voted to suspend Libya as a member due to the country’s bloody crackdown on protesters, apparently doesn’t find it contradictory to release a report praising the Qaddafi regime’s human-rights record. From UN Watch:

Despite having just voted to suspend Libya from its ranks (to be finalized by the UNGA tomorrow), the UN Human Rights Council, according to the agenda of its current session, is planning to “consider and adopt the final outcome of the review of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” According to the council’s timetable, the lengthy report hailing Libya’s human rights record will be presented on March 18, and then adopted by the council at the end of the month. The report, which the UN has published on the council website, is the outcome of a recent session that was meant to review Libya’s human rights record.

“Protection of human rights was guaranteed in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya; this included not only political rights, but also economic, social and cultural rights,” reads the report. The countries lauding Libya’s human-rights record include Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

UN Watch has called on the UN Human Rights Council to rescind the report. “The report is a fraud, an insult to Libya’s victims, and should be withdrawn immediately,” said Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch, in a statement on the group’s website.

After this, do we really need any more evidence of how useless the Human Rights Council is? It’s a wonder that the U.S. taxpayers are still forced to support this sort of nonsense.

The UN Human Rights Council, which just voted to suspend Libya as a member due to the country’s bloody crackdown on protesters, apparently doesn’t find it contradictory to release a report praising the Qaddafi regime’s human-rights record. From UN Watch:

Despite having just voted to suspend Libya from its ranks (to be finalized by the UNGA tomorrow), the UN Human Rights Council, according to the agenda of its current session, is planning to “consider and adopt the final outcome of the review of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” According to the council’s timetable, the lengthy report hailing Libya’s human rights record will be presented on March 18, and then adopted by the council at the end of the month. The report, which the UN has published on the council website, is the outcome of a recent session that was meant to review Libya’s human rights record.

“Protection of human rights was guaranteed in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya; this included not only political rights, but also economic, social and cultural rights,” reads the report. The countries lauding Libya’s human-rights record include Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

UN Watch has called on the UN Human Rights Council to rescind the report. “The report is a fraud, an insult to Libya’s victims, and should be withdrawn immediately,” said Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch, in a statement on the group’s website.

After this, do we really need any more evidence of how useless the Human Rights Council is? It’s a wonder that the U.S. taxpayers are still forced to support this sort of nonsense.

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RE: Standing on the Sidelines of History

Rick’s characterization of the Obama posture on the Middle East is regrettably apt. American news media are dutifully reporting on the UN sanctions against Qaddafi and Hillary Clinton’s trip to Geneva, which we now hear has produced a promise of EU sanctions as well. But sanctions have never yet dislodged a brutal dictator, and they are not particularly meaningful to the problem at hand in Libya. As long as Qaddafi remains in the country, he will continue killing civilians in whatever quantities necessary to restore his control. A disorderly transfer of power could be equally sanguinary.

The nations of the EU are starting to take action. France is reportedly dispatching a humanitarian airlift to bring medical and other aid to the opposition group in Benghazi. Britain’s David Cameron, speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, referred to the possibility of arming the Libyan opposition as well as enforcing a no-fly zone. Italy has suspended its friendship treaty with Libya, paving the way for supporting no-fly zone enforcement from Italian territory.

Perhaps we should read into these events the galvanizing effect of President Obama’s phone call with Angela Merkel on Saturday. Meanwhile, the news Monday morning is that the USS Enterprise is being moved from the Red Sea back into the Mediterranean in case it is needed to assist in a response to the Libyan crisis. About this, too, the administration is somewhere between cryptic and behindhand: the Defense Department spokesman explained that U.S. forces might provide humanitarian relief, but nothing has been decided yet, and the State Department “has not yet made a request to the military.” Read More

Rick’s characterization of the Obama posture on the Middle East is regrettably apt. American news media are dutifully reporting on the UN sanctions against Qaddafi and Hillary Clinton’s trip to Geneva, which we now hear has produced a promise of EU sanctions as well. But sanctions have never yet dislodged a brutal dictator, and they are not particularly meaningful to the problem at hand in Libya. As long as Qaddafi remains in the country, he will continue killing civilians in whatever quantities necessary to restore his control. A disorderly transfer of power could be equally sanguinary.

The nations of the EU are starting to take action. France is reportedly dispatching a humanitarian airlift to bring medical and other aid to the opposition group in Benghazi. Britain’s David Cameron, speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, referred to the possibility of arming the Libyan opposition as well as enforcing a no-fly zone. Italy has suspended its friendship treaty with Libya, paving the way for supporting no-fly zone enforcement from Italian territory.

Perhaps we should read into these events the galvanizing effect of President Obama’s phone call with Angela Merkel on Saturday. Meanwhile, the news Monday morning is that the USS Enterprise is being moved from the Red Sea back into the Mediterranean in case it is needed to assist in a response to the Libyan crisis. About this, too, the administration is somewhere between cryptic and behindhand: the Defense Department spokesman explained that U.S. forces might provide humanitarian relief, but nothing has been decided yet, and the State Department “has not yet made a request to the military.”

Thirteen days into what has become a civil war in Libya, the president should not be waiting for the State Department to make requests. We are past that stage in the Libyan crisis. The administration’s official patter is out of sync with the current conditions: whatever inter-agency process Obama has going, it should by now be producing a deliberate, unified national message, not departmental alibis.

Bloggers and the mainstream media are reading into the various developments — sanctions, ship movements, discussion of a no-fly zone — the prospect that Team Obama will catch up, at some point, to where Americans sense it should be. But mechanistic activities won’t achieve that goal. The world should not have to divine America’s intentions from oracles and signs. Indeed, deploying force as if it were an announcement of policy is a particularly bad practice. What’s missing is leadership regarding the meaning of the crisis — its meaning to the Libyan people, to the rolling back of dictators and the spread of democracy — and an articulation of how that meaning animates the actions of the United States.

In one sense, Rick’s “sidelines” metaphor is sadly ironic. The players on the bench occupy the sidelines, but so do the coach and his staff. No one is mistaking Team Obama for the latter.

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Where Is Obama’s Outrage Over the Vilification of Governor Walker?

President Obama today said, “I don’t think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon.”

I wonder if the president, who loves to portray himself as the high-minded arbiter of what is and what is not appropriate in American political discourse, might say something — anything — about the denigration and vilification of the governor of Wisconsin, who has been compared to Mubarak, Mussolini, bin Laden, and Hitler. There is nothing comparable being said about public employees.

If Obama were genuine in his concern about putting an end to (in his words, on the night of his election) “the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for too long,” he would have spoken out long ago on the slandering of Governor Walker. But he has not.

With each passing week, the president provides more and more evidence of his hypocrisy and cynicism. One cannot help but wonder if he even realizes it or whether his ideology has blinded him to it all. Whatever the case, it isn’t a good thing for him or for the country.

President Obama today said, “I don’t think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon.”

I wonder if the president, who loves to portray himself as the high-minded arbiter of what is and what is not appropriate in American political discourse, might say something — anything — about the denigration and vilification of the governor of Wisconsin, who has been compared to Mubarak, Mussolini, bin Laden, and Hitler. There is nothing comparable being said about public employees.

If Obama were genuine in his concern about putting an end to (in his words, on the night of his election) “the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for too long,” he would have spoken out long ago on the slandering of Governor Walker. But he has not.

With each passing week, the president provides more and more evidence of his hypocrisy and cynicism. One cannot help but wonder if he even realizes it or whether his ideology has blinded him to it all. Whatever the case, it isn’t a good thing for him or for the country.

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J Streeters Continue to Bash Dennis Ross Speech

Dennis Ross may have been the only notably mainstream pro-Israel speaker to attend the J Street conference, but the other attendees didn’t exactly seem grateful for his participation. At a conference panel about engaging Hamas, one speaker had some pointed criticisms about the group’s decision to appoint Dennis Ross as the keynote speaker. “It’s disappointing that you would still host someone like Dennis Ross after 20 years of peace failure,” said Marwan Bishara, a senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. His comment was met with an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience, suggesting that many conference-goers agreed with the sentiment.

In a meeting with reporters, I asked J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami about the criticism, and he made it clear that his organization wasn’t involved in the decision to invite Ross. “We asked the [Obama] administration for a speaker, and they chose Dennis Ross,” he said.

Asked about Bishara’s comments specifically, Ben-Ami called his complaint “ridiculous.”

“We host plenty of people we don’t agree with, and that’s sort of ludicrous,” said Ben-Ami, implying that J Street sees itself at odds with Ross on the issues.

But while Ben-Ami rejected Bishara’s criticism of Ross, he also suggested that he wasn’t pleased that Ross avoided addressing Israel issues in his speech.

But the fact is, Ross’s views on Israel are undeniably different from the views held by many of the conference attendees. If his fairly broad speech about Middle East policy sparked such hostility, it seems likely that an address that focused more on Israel would have drawn even more ire from the crowd.

Obama-administration officials may be asking themselves why they bothered sending a representative at all, considering the chilly reception Ross received.

Dennis Ross may have been the only notably mainstream pro-Israel speaker to attend the J Street conference, but the other attendees didn’t exactly seem grateful for his participation. At a conference panel about engaging Hamas, one speaker had some pointed criticisms about the group’s decision to appoint Dennis Ross as the keynote speaker. “It’s disappointing that you would still host someone like Dennis Ross after 20 years of peace failure,” said Marwan Bishara, a senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. His comment was met with an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience, suggesting that many conference-goers agreed with the sentiment.

In a meeting with reporters, I asked J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami about the criticism, and he made it clear that his organization wasn’t involved in the decision to invite Ross. “We asked the [Obama] administration for a speaker, and they chose Dennis Ross,” he said.

Asked about Bishara’s comments specifically, Ben-Ami called his complaint “ridiculous.”

“We host plenty of people we don’t agree with, and that’s sort of ludicrous,” said Ben-Ami, implying that J Street sees itself at odds with Ross on the issues.

But while Ben-Ami rejected Bishara’s criticism of Ross, he also suggested that he wasn’t pleased that Ross avoided addressing Israel issues in his speech.

But the fact is, Ross’s views on Israel are undeniably different from the views held by many of the conference attendees. If his fairly broad speech about Middle East policy sparked such hostility, it seems likely that an address that focused more on Israel would have drawn even more ire from the crowd.

Obama-administration officials may be asking themselves why they bothered sending a representative at all, considering the chilly reception Ross received.

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Turkey: In Vino Veritas

In 1996, Necmettin Erbakan became modern Turkey’s first conservative Islamic prime minister and started a revolution that is still changing the face of modern Turkey. The founder of Turkey’s Islamic political movement died Sunday at the age of 84. Erbakan was also the mentor of the ruling AKP leadership, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul — both of whom have in the past been active members of Erbakan’s political parties, filling mayoral, ministerial, and parliamentary posts.

The Islamization of the Turkish society is now visible at all levels. In a television interview in 2007, for instance, Erbakan declared that the Jews are “bacteria” and “disease.” But a more mundane example can be found in the Islamists’ campaign against alcohol. A Turkish glass of wine is one of the most expensive in the world. And it’s not because of the special quality of the wines, but because Erdogan’s government since 2002 has increased the price of alcohol of 737 percent. Thousands of people recently took the streets of Turkey to protest Erdogan’s moral policy against alcohol. “No to fascism,” protesters shouted as others clinked glasses made of lightbulbs — the symbol of the ruling Justice and Development Party. In the last draconian sting, the tax on alcoholic beverages was raised from 25.1 to 30 percent. Before the advent of Erdogan, the tax was steady at 18 percent. Read More

In 1996, Necmettin Erbakan became modern Turkey’s first conservative Islamic prime minister and started a revolution that is still changing the face of modern Turkey. The founder of Turkey’s Islamic political movement died Sunday at the age of 84. Erbakan was also the mentor of the ruling AKP leadership, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul — both of whom have in the past been active members of Erbakan’s political parties, filling mayoral, ministerial, and parliamentary posts.

The Islamization of the Turkish society is now visible at all levels. In a television interview in 2007, for instance, Erbakan declared that the Jews are “bacteria” and “disease.” But a more mundane example can be found in the Islamists’ campaign against alcohol. A Turkish glass of wine is one of the most expensive in the world. And it’s not because of the special quality of the wines, but because Erdogan’s government since 2002 has increased the price of alcohol of 737 percent. Thousands of people recently took the streets of Turkey to protest Erdogan’s moral policy against alcohol. “No to fascism,” protesters shouted as others clinked glasses made of lightbulbs — the symbol of the ruling Justice and Development Party. In the last draconian sting, the tax on alcoholic beverages was raised from 25.1 to 30 percent. Before the advent of Erdogan, the tax was steady at 18 percent.

Between 2009 and 2010, the Turkish tax on beer increased by 45 percent. The cost of raki, the aniseed-flavored Turkish drink par excellence, has quadrupled. According to secular observers, this is another demonstration of the Islamist agenda of Mr. Erdogan. Freedom to drink alcohol — in keeping with the legacy of Ataturk, who downed liberal amounts of raki — is embedded in the Turkish vision of a modern and Western society. Which may be why when Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Tehran, the first thing he did was to destroy the bottles of wines in the foreign embassies.

Erdogan always had a problem with alcohol, ever since he was mayor of Istanbul and banned it from municipality-run restaurants. In 2008, the Erdogan government forced Turkish consumers to make an uneasy choice: buy the whole bottle (too expensive for the Turkish pockets) or decide in favor of a soft drink.

Islamization also has struck cigarettes, another habit deeply rooted in the Turkish society. The Islamists in Turkey have made no secret of hating Ataturk, the “apostate” and libertine who defeated the religious brotherhoods, who loved to dance, who attended beautiful women, who abolished the polygamy, who adopted the Gregorian calendar, and who swept away the caliphate, installing in its place a Western constitution. Among the worst things they can do to his legacy, it appears, is to label Ataturk a “drunk” who died of cirrhosis of the liver.

It seems that his legacy of Westernization may finally die of abstemiousness.

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Vogue Defends Glowing Profile of Asma al-Assad

The Atlantic’s Max Fisher tracked down and interviewed Vogue senior editor Chris Knutsen, who unabashedly stood by the magazine’s fawning March cover story on Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad:

“We felt that a personal interview with Syria’s first lady would hold strong interest for our readers,” he said. “We thought we could open up that very closed world a very little bit.” When I asked why they chose to dedicate so much space to praising the Assads without at least noting his brutal practices, he explained, “The piece was not meant in any way to be a referendum on the al-Assad regime. It was a profile of the first lady.” He noted the country’s difficult media restrictions and touted the article’s passing reference to “shadow zones,” saying, “we strived within those limitations to provide a balanced view of the first lady and her self-defined role as Syria’s cultural ambassador.”

The article, which portrays the Syrian leader and his wife as enlightened liberal democrats, is in poor taste to begin with. That its publication coincided with al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters makes the piece appear even more tone-deaf and insulting.

But Vogue seems to be unfazed by the PR disaster. When Fisher asked Knutsen whether the magazine would print a profile of the wife of Kim Jong-Il, the editor even refused to dismiss the possibility. “That’s the kind of hypothetical that — we really do that on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

And while Knutsen did grudgingly admit that al-Assad was an autocrat, he did so only when pressed by Fisher. “Yeah. I would call him an autocrat,” he said. “[T]here’s no freedom there.”

Vogue clearly doesn’t grasp the problem. But at least we can take solace in the fact that the magazine doesn’t weigh in on issues of any substance.

The Atlantic’s Max Fisher tracked down and interviewed Vogue senior editor Chris Knutsen, who unabashedly stood by the magazine’s fawning March cover story on Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad:

“We felt that a personal interview with Syria’s first lady would hold strong interest for our readers,” he said. “We thought we could open up that very closed world a very little bit.” When I asked why they chose to dedicate so much space to praising the Assads without at least noting his brutal practices, he explained, “The piece was not meant in any way to be a referendum on the al-Assad regime. It was a profile of the first lady.” He noted the country’s difficult media restrictions and touted the article’s passing reference to “shadow zones,” saying, “we strived within those limitations to provide a balanced view of the first lady and her self-defined role as Syria’s cultural ambassador.”

The article, which portrays the Syrian leader and his wife as enlightened liberal democrats, is in poor taste to begin with. That its publication coincided with al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters makes the piece appear even more tone-deaf and insulting.

But Vogue seems to be unfazed by the PR disaster. When Fisher asked Knutsen whether the magazine would print a profile of the wife of Kim Jong-Il, the editor even refused to dismiss the possibility. “That’s the kind of hypothetical that — we really do that on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

And while Knutsen did grudgingly admit that al-Assad was an autocrat, he did so only when pressed by Fisher. “Yeah. I would call him an autocrat,” he said. “[T]here’s no freedom there.”

Vogue clearly doesn’t grasp the problem. But at least we can take solace in the fact that the magazine doesn’t weigh in on issues of any substance.

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Who Refuses to Sanction Libya?

Over the weekend, the United Nations Security Council sanctioned Libya. So did the European Union. There has been only one notable exception to the condemnation of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s mass murder. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this weekend spoke out against any sanctioning of Qaddafi’s regime.

It says a lot about Turkey when even China takes a harder line on human-rights abuses. Then again, perhaps it pays well to be, like Erdoğan, a recipient of the Muammar Qaddafi Human Rights Award. Turkey has changed.

Over the weekend, the United Nations Security Council sanctioned Libya. So did the European Union. There has been only one notable exception to the condemnation of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s mass murder. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this weekend spoke out against any sanctioning of Qaddafi’s regime.

It says a lot about Turkey when even China takes a harder line on human-rights abuses. Then again, perhaps it pays well to be, like Erdoğan, a recipient of the Muammar Qaddafi Human Rights Award. Turkey has changed.

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What Dennis Ross Said, and Didn’t Say, at J Street

Dennis Ross spoke at the J Street conference for 30 minutes this morning, and he spent most of that time trying to avoid any mention of Israel (a smart move). The first 20 minutes of his speech were about Egypt and the recent uprisings in the Middle East; the last five minutes of his speech were devoted to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And somewhere in between, he managed to squeeze in a few prosaic words about Israel.

The “status quo” in Israel is “unsustainable,” said Ross,

much applause from the audience. He continued, saying that the only method for securing peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is “negotiation — there is no other.” That statement elicited far less applause.

Ross then added that the claim by Arab autocrats that “there can be no reforms until there is peace” is simply an “excuse” — a comment that was met with conspicuous silence. Clearly, many in the audience still believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the reason for the oppression across the Muslim world.

Ross escaped immediately after his speech, leaving a panel made up of author Bernard Avishai, the New York Times’s Roger Cohen, and the New America Foundation’s Daniel Levy free to mock his address onstage.

“We need a little more Dr. Kissinger and a little less Dr. Phil,” said Avishai about Ross, to enthusiastic applause.

It’s now apparent why J Street called on President Obama to withhold its veto on the anti-Israel resolution at the UN Security Council — because, based on the sentiments of the audience, the majority of J Street’s supporters won’t accept anything less.

Dennis Ross spoke at the J Street conference for 30 minutes this morning, and he spent most of that time trying to avoid any mention of Israel (a smart move). The first 20 minutes of his speech were about Egypt and the recent uprisings in the Middle East; the last five minutes of his speech were devoted to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And somewhere in between, he managed to squeeze in a few prosaic words about Israel.

The “status quo” in Israel is “unsustainable,” said Ross,

much applause from the audience. He continued, saying that the only method for securing peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is “negotiation — there is no other.” That statement elicited far less applause.

Ross then added that the claim by Arab autocrats that “there can be no reforms until there is peace” is simply an “excuse” — a comment that was met with conspicuous silence. Clearly, many in the audience still believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the reason for the oppression across the Muslim world.

Ross escaped immediately after his speech, leaving a panel made up of author Bernard Avishai, the New York Times’s Roger Cohen, and the New America Foundation’s Daniel Levy free to mock his address onstage.

“We need a little more Dr. Kissinger and a little less Dr. Phil,” said Avishai about Ross, to enthusiastic applause.

It’s now apparent why J Street called on President Obama to withhold its veto on the anti-Israel resolution at the UN Security Council — because, based on the sentiments of the audience, the majority of J Street’s supporters won’t accept anything less.

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The Media Balance Between Truth and Access

The media prides itself on keeping public officials honest but too seldom steps back to draw lessons from their own mistakes.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, CNN’s chief news executive Eason Jordan penned a New York Times op-ed describing the self-censorship in which CNN engaged in order to maintain access to Iraq. Commentators wrung their hands and rightly castigated CNN, but the real scandal was that no one asked what else CNN and other major media outlets were censoring.

Libya, too, presents opportunities for media introspection. Consider this Washington Post profile of Saif Qaddafi. Will Washington Post editors and Africa Bureau chief Sudarsan Raghavan consider how they were spun by a man for whom reform was simply an outfit to wear when venturing out to meet Americans and Europeans? Did the Washington Post, like Eason Jordan’s CNN, simply self-censor and spin for access?

Perhaps it’s also time to dispense with the idea that European education gives the progeny of Arab autocrats — be they Saif Qaddafi or Bashar al-Assad — liberalism. Rather, it gives them Western style and skills necessary to better deceive Western audiences.

The media prides itself on keeping public officials honest but too seldom steps back to draw lessons from their own mistakes.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, CNN’s chief news executive Eason Jordan penned a New York Times op-ed describing the self-censorship in which CNN engaged in order to maintain access to Iraq. Commentators wrung their hands and rightly castigated CNN, but the real scandal was that no one asked what else CNN and other major media outlets were censoring.

Libya, too, presents opportunities for media introspection. Consider this Washington Post profile of Saif Qaddafi. Will Washington Post editors and Africa Bureau chief Sudarsan Raghavan consider how they were spun by a man for whom reform was simply an outfit to wear when venturing out to meet Americans and Europeans? Did the Washington Post, like Eason Jordan’s CNN, simply self-censor and spin for access?

Perhaps it’s also time to dispense with the idea that European education gives the progeny of Arab autocrats — be they Saif Qaddafi or Bashar al-Assad — liberalism. Rather, it gives them Western style and skills necessary to better deceive Western audiences.

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What Qaddafi Can Teach Obama

Critics castigated George W. Bush for his Manichaeism, especially after the Axis of Evil speech. The same progressives and realists who were silent while North Korea, Iran, Saddam’s Iraq, Turkey, and nearly every Arab state invoked crude rhetoric against the United States, blew a gasket when Bush called the three brutal dictatorships evil. Muammar Qaddafi’s mass murder should be a wake-up call.

In this YouTube clip, Saif Qaddafi, a partner for progressive and realist engagement throughout the Bush years, holds an AK-47 while telling the crowd: “Those who are facing you are nothing but kids. Today, at night, I want you [to finish them off.]” The mob chants in response: “Allah, Muammar and Libya,” “You despicable Aljazeera, we want no one other than Muammar,” “The people only want Muammar the Colonel.”

If President Obama learns any lessons from Qaddafi’s actions over the past few weeks, they should be these:

  • Evil exists.
  • There is nothing sophisticated about moral equivalence.
  • Engagement does not change dictators; regime change does.
  • Think twice before apologizing for America, because you look foolish when those you are apologizing to are guilty of far more than the university-club cocktail circuit can imagine.
  • What Arab autocrats (and their sons) say behind closed doors is irrelevant; what they say to their own people is what we should judge them by.

Critics castigated George W. Bush for his Manichaeism, especially after the Axis of Evil speech. The same progressives and realists who were silent while North Korea, Iran, Saddam’s Iraq, Turkey, and nearly every Arab state invoked crude rhetoric against the United States, blew a gasket when Bush called the three brutal dictatorships evil. Muammar Qaddafi’s mass murder should be a wake-up call.

In this YouTube clip, Saif Qaddafi, a partner for progressive and realist engagement throughout the Bush years, holds an AK-47 while telling the crowd: “Those who are facing you are nothing but kids. Today, at night, I want you [to finish them off.]” The mob chants in response: “Allah, Muammar and Libya,” “You despicable Aljazeera, we want no one other than Muammar,” “The people only want Muammar the Colonel.”

If President Obama learns any lessons from Qaddafi’s actions over the past few weeks, they should be these:

  • Evil exists.
  • There is nothing sophisticated about moral equivalence.
  • Engagement does not change dictators; regime change does.
  • Think twice before apologizing for America, because you look foolish when those you are apologizing to are guilty of far more than the university-club cocktail circuit can imagine.
  • What Arab autocrats (and their sons) say behind closed doors is irrelevant; what they say to their own people is what we should judge them by.

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Gender Apartheid in Iran

A visual reminder that, while the United Nations Human Rights Council has finally gotten around to condemning former member state Libya, there was also a time when Iran sat on the UN Commission on the Status of Women. From that lofty perch, the Islamic Republic was entitled to — and did — rail against Israel’s behavior in the West Bank, because that’s the pressing women’s-rights issue in the Middle East.

I’m not sure if any part of this video includes the pregnant woman they stoned to death, but please observe an EXTREMELY STRONG CONTENT WARNING for graphic images.

I would have liked to have seen a little more about temporary marriages, which are institutionalized clearinghouses for prepubescent rape and sexual slavery, but that’s not strictly an apartheid issue as much as it is something that’s just deeply evil. Add to that 62,000 legal citations to improperly veiled women and restrictions on women’s cycling and women’s soccer, which do count as apartheid.

In any case, something to remember the next time mindless European multiculturalists not so subtly imply that the status of Iranian women is quite nuanced, actually.

A visual reminder that, while the United Nations Human Rights Council has finally gotten around to condemning former member state Libya, there was also a time when Iran sat on the UN Commission on the Status of Women. From that lofty perch, the Islamic Republic was entitled to — and did — rail against Israel’s behavior in the West Bank, because that’s the pressing women’s-rights issue in the Middle East.

I’m not sure if any part of this video includes the pregnant woman they stoned to death, but please observe an EXTREMELY STRONG CONTENT WARNING for graphic images.

I would have liked to have seen a little more about temporary marriages, which are institutionalized clearinghouses for prepubescent rape and sexual slavery, but that’s not strictly an apartheid issue as much as it is something that’s just deeply evil. Add to that 62,000 legal citations to improperly veiled women and restrictions on women’s cycling and women’s soccer, which do count as apartheid.

In any case, something to remember the next time mindless European multiculturalists not so subtly imply that the status of Iranian women is quite nuanced, actually.

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