Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 16, 2011

Were Wisconsin Rabbis Right to Take Sides in Union Battle? An Exchange.

On March 3, I wrote in Contentions about a public letter organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and signed by a group of Wisconsin rabbis that took the position that support for the state-worker unions in their dispute with the governor and the majority of the legislature of that state was mandated by Judaism. The RAC has replied to that blog post with the following letter. My response follows.

Responding to the effort in Wisconsin to sharply curtail collective bargaining rights of public employees, Wisconsin rabbis wrote a letter to the State Senate opposing Governor Scott Walker’s so-called “budget repair bill.” They asserted that Jews are inspired by our tradition to defend the rights of organized labor.

COMMENTARY’s Jonathan S. Tobin sharply criticized the letter, suggesting the rabbis overstepped their bounds as faith leaders. In doing so, he ignored central Jewish tenets commanding us to pursue justice and to serve as a moral goad to our communities. Jews are commanded to engage in tikkun olam — repair of the world. Government, with its immense resources, is indispensable in this task.

The Talmud alludes to a right to strike and to a precursor form of association akin to collective bargaining. Similarly, the medieval commentator Rashba talks about the right of the equivalent of trade associations and guilds to organize to protect the interests of workers. For the rabbis, the Jewish mandate of social justice included protection of workers and their rights. We do not believe Jewish law is binding upon non-Jewish societies, but we do believe that the manner in which rabbis applied the universal values of Jewish tradition to their own societies can be a model for us today. In that spirit, I am proud of our rabbis who spoke out on this issue. Read More

On March 3, I wrote in Contentions about a public letter organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and signed by a group of Wisconsin rabbis that took the position that support for the state-worker unions in their dispute with the governor and the majority of the legislature of that state was mandated by Judaism. The RAC has replied to that blog post with the following letter. My response follows.

Responding to the effort in Wisconsin to sharply curtail collective bargaining rights of public employees, Wisconsin rabbis wrote a letter to the State Senate opposing Governor Scott Walker’s so-called “budget repair bill.” They asserted that Jews are inspired by our tradition to defend the rights of organized labor.

COMMENTARY’s Jonathan S. Tobin sharply criticized the letter, suggesting the rabbis overstepped their bounds as faith leaders. In doing so, he ignored central Jewish tenets commanding us to pursue justice and to serve as a moral goad to our communities. Jews are commanded to engage in tikkun olam — repair of the world. Government, with its immense resources, is indispensable in this task.

The Talmud alludes to a right to strike and to a precursor form of association akin to collective bargaining. Similarly, the medieval commentator Rashba talks about the right of the equivalent of trade associations and guilds to organize to protect the interests of workers. For the rabbis, the Jewish mandate of social justice included protection of workers and their rights. We do not believe Jewish law is binding upon non-Jewish societies, but we do believe that the manner in which rabbis applied the universal values of Jewish tradition to their own societies can be a model for us today. In that spirit, I am proud of our rabbis who spoke out on this issue.

What seems to irk Mr. Tobin most is reflected in his argument that the Reform Movement, so critical of the Religious Right’s injection of religion into politics, was hypocritically doing just that on this issue. But no Jewish organization of which I am aware believes that the Religious Right does not have a right to speak out on public-policy issues or that religion in politics is bad. We have always defended the right of such groups to speak out. But just because you have a right to speak does not make what you say right. And in the free marketplace of ideas, based on insights from our own faith tradition, joined by almost every mainline religious organization, Jewish and Christian, we have challenged and criticized the narrow, extreme agenda of the Religious Right.

Further, some of what the Religious Right advocates is different from what other religious groups do. Based on their understanding of their own faith tradition, the Religious Right has advocated the use of the coercive power of government to impose religious practices on others (e.g., school prayer, banning evolution in science classes, religious symbols on government buildings). In order to avoid bumping into First Amendment limitations, they then support changing the Constitution.

Religious Right leaders have the right to make such arguments, but were they to succeed, the America that has given Jews more rights, freedoms, and opportunities than anywhere else in Diaspora life would be greatly altered. Those are the intrusions into our freedoms for which we have criticized the Religious Right.

In contrast, we defend the right of all religious groups to bring their moral perspective to the recent public debates over labor rights, whether in agreement with us (Catholic bishops, mainline Protestant denominations) or opposed. Anyone may disagree with the Wisconsin rabbis’ interpretation of Jewish text, law, and historical experience. But applying the lessons from our faith to current events is a sacred task for all Jews, especially our teachers and leaders, and I commend them for stressing the relevance and importance of values derived from their faith in the most urgent political decisions our nation is making.

Rabbi David Saperstein
Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Jonathan Backer
Religious Action Center Eisendrath Legislative Assistant

Jonathan S. Tobin writes:

No one disputes the right of any rabbi or group of rabbis to express their opinions about legislation in Wisconsin or any other issue. But an attempt to transform what was primarily a budget dispute as well as an open attempt to override the democratic will of a state’s voters into a matter of Jewish religious doctrine is the sort of overreach that brings no credit to either the rabbis or the cause they support.

Liberals can certainly mine Judaism’s sacred texts to bolster their partisan political stands much in the same way that some conservatives do. But the point here is that invoking the Rashba or the Talmud in order to preserve the political muscle of state-employee unions in 2011 and to counter the attempts of a state’s democratically elected government to bring their benefits into line with budget reality is the sort of implausible exercise that inevitably undermines respect for faith. The precepts of Judaism inform the full spectrum of Jewish life, but those who seek to use them, as the RAC has done in this case and other questionable causes, to gain an advantage in a bitterly divisive and partisan dispute does neither Judaism nor civil society any good. There are such things as political issues on which Jews can take a stand as Jews, but that does not mean that every conceivable political dust-up is a Jewish issue. Most Jews may be political liberals, but that does not mean that Judaism is itself liberal, let alone a partisan creed. Those who enter the public square to take stands on what are entirely secular issues need to be careful not to be perceived as speaking for all Jews, let alone Judaism, and that is precisely the danger that the Wisconsin rabbis and the RAC ran in their zeal to get in their two cents in favor of the unions and against the Republican governor and legislators.

As for my comparisons between this statement and liberal criticism of the Religious Right, the RAC is right to say that there is a difference between arguments over the extent of the right amount of separation between religion and state and purely secular disputes. Rabbi Saperstein and Mr. Backer claim to know of no liberal Jew who is critical of conservative Christian political activism per se. But the general disdain for such Christians and their political stands on a host of issues — and not just school prayer — among liberal Jews is so widespread and so adamant that it strikes me as highly unlikely that they have never encountered it. It is not difficult to imagine the scorn that a letter in support of Governor Walker and the Republicans signed by a group of conservative Christian clerics would provoke from the same liberal Jews who applauded the Wisconsin rabbis that signed the RAC’s letter.

Moreover, even on separation issues, the notion that Jewish interests demand opposition to religious conservatives is a matter of opinion. On school choice as well as on questions of state aid to religious schools, it can be argued that the extremist view of separationism that the RAC endorses is contrary to the best interests of the Jewish community as well as society in general.

A “naked public square” in which faith has no role in public policy is something that conservatives have always opposed. But those who enter that square to speak on behalf of Judaism need to be careful not to do so in a manner that attempts to place Judaism or any faith in a partisan context. Unfortunately, I believe that is exactly what the RAC’s Wisconsin letter did.

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U.S. Travel Association Calls for ‘Trusted Traveler Program’ to Cut Down on Airport Screenings

The outcry over increasingly invasive TSA screenings may have died down since last fall, but it isn’t going away anytime soon. At a press conference today, the U.S. Travel Association recommended that the government create a “trusted traveler program” that would allow qualified travelers to avoid the extra security:

That’s where the trusted traveler program would come in, designating some passengers as low-risk based on information such as a background check, employment history, lack of criminal record and other factors.

Once travelers enroll in the program and their identity is confirmed at the airport with the help of biometric information, they would be subject to less security, Ridge said.

It’s an interesting proposal, but it doesn’t sound extremely effective. Many would-be terrorists have clean records and backgrounds. And what kind of criminal record would disqualify someone from joining the trusted traveler program? If it’s a history of terrorism, then that person probably isn’t getting past airport security in the first place, let alone applying for a trusted traveler pass.

Not to mention, the program sounds like it would have to use some sort of profiling criteria to make it even slightly effective, which could open it up to legal problems. The security screening process right now is frustrating and difficult to deal with, but unfortunately this doesn’t seem like a viable alternative.

The outcry over increasingly invasive TSA screenings may have died down since last fall, but it isn’t going away anytime soon. At a press conference today, the U.S. Travel Association recommended that the government create a “trusted traveler program” that would allow qualified travelers to avoid the extra security:

That’s where the trusted traveler program would come in, designating some passengers as low-risk based on information such as a background check, employment history, lack of criminal record and other factors.

Once travelers enroll in the program and their identity is confirmed at the airport with the help of biometric information, they would be subject to less security, Ridge said.

It’s an interesting proposal, but it doesn’t sound extremely effective. Many would-be terrorists have clean records and backgrounds. And what kind of criminal record would disqualify someone from joining the trusted traveler program? If it’s a history of terrorism, then that person probably isn’t getting past airport security in the first place, let alone applying for a trusted traveler pass.

Not to mention, the program sounds like it would have to use some sort of profiling criteria to make it even slightly effective, which could open it up to legal problems. The security screening process right now is frustrating and difficult to deal with, but unfortunately this doesn’t seem like a viable alternative.

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I’m Ready for My Close-Up, Mr. Hu

The brave folks in Hollywood are scrambling to alter an upcoming movie so as not to offend the Chinese:

When MGM decided a few years ago to remake “Red Dawn,” a 1984 Cold War drama about a bunch of American farm kids repelling a Soviet invasion, the studio needed new villains, since the U.S.S.R. had collapsed in 1991. The producers substituted Chinese aggressors for the Soviets and filmed the movie in Michigan in 2009.

But potential distributors are nervous about becoming associated with the finished film, concerned that doing so would harm their ability to do business with the rising Asian superpower, one of the fastest-growing and potentially most lucrative markets for American movies, not to mention other U.S. products.

As a result, the filmmakers now are digitally erasing Chinese flags and military symbols from “Red Dawn,” substituting dialogue and altering the film to depict much of the invading force as being from North Korea, an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake.

Sure, this makes sense – because in their commercial ventures, the Chinese are so worried about American concerns. Why portray Chinese military aggression on the big screen when it’s more lucrative to facilitate Chinese financial aggression in real life?

Perhaps I’m just being insensitive. Dan Mintz, of DMG Entertainment, said if the Chinese weren’t swapped out for North Koreans, in the Chinese market “there would have been a real backlash. It’s like being invited to a dinner party and insulting the host all night long.”

And who would do such a thing? Actually, there is an answer. Here’s the January 24 New York Post:

Chinese-born pianist Lang Lang gave a musical shout out to America-hating patriots in his homeland when he played at the White House state dinner last week.

During his performance, Lang tinkled the ivories with the famous anti-American propaganda tune “My Motherland” — the theme song from the Chinese-made Korean War movie “Battle on Shangangling Mountain.”

Chinese President Hu Jintao, the guest of honor at the dinner, surely recognized the melody. The song has been a favorite anti-American propaganda tool for decades.

Yes, a favorite anti-American propaganda tool. Kind of like Hollywood.

The brave folks in Hollywood are scrambling to alter an upcoming movie so as not to offend the Chinese:

When MGM decided a few years ago to remake “Red Dawn,” a 1984 Cold War drama about a bunch of American farm kids repelling a Soviet invasion, the studio needed new villains, since the U.S.S.R. had collapsed in 1991. The producers substituted Chinese aggressors for the Soviets and filmed the movie in Michigan in 2009.

But potential distributors are nervous about becoming associated with the finished film, concerned that doing so would harm their ability to do business with the rising Asian superpower, one of the fastest-growing and potentially most lucrative markets for American movies, not to mention other U.S. products.

As a result, the filmmakers now are digitally erasing Chinese flags and military symbols from “Red Dawn,” substituting dialogue and altering the film to depict much of the invading force as being from North Korea, an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake.

Sure, this makes sense – because in their commercial ventures, the Chinese are so worried about American concerns. Why portray Chinese military aggression on the big screen when it’s more lucrative to facilitate Chinese financial aggression in real life?

Perhaps I’m just being insensitive. Dan Mintz, of DMG Entertainment, said if the Chinese weren’t swapped out for North Koreans, in the Chinese market “there would have been a real backlash. It’s like being invited to a dinner party and insulting the host all night long.”

And who would do such a thing? Actually, there is an answer. Here’s the January 24 New York Post:

Chinese-born pianist Lang Lang gave a musical shout out to America-hating patriots in his homeland when he played at the White House state dinner last week.

During his performance, Lang tinkled the ivories with the famous anti-American propaganda tune “My Motherland” — the theme song from the Chinese-made Korean War movie “Battle on Shangangling Mountain.”

Chinese President Hu Jintao, the guest of honor at the dinner, surely recognized the melody. The song has been a favorite anti-American propaganda tool for decades.

Yes, a favorite anti-American propaganda tool. Kind of like Hollywood.

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Barbour Heads South on Afghanistan

It’s never been clear to me exactly what niche Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is seeking to fill in the wide open 2012 GOP presidential race other, that is, than the Deep South veteran lobbyist niche. That’s the sort of profile that makes implausible candidates like Mitt Romney, who must carry his Massachusetts version of ObamaCare around on his shoulders like Atlas shlepping the globe, look somewhat plausible. But Barbour, whose reputation as one of the most competent governors in the country is offset by his corn-pone Confederate drawl and K Street instincts, is apparently experimenting with an approach that certainly runs against type for a Southern conservative: the GOP dove.

According to Politico, while trawling for future caucus support in Iowa on Monday, Barbour called for both cuts in defense spending and a potential bugout in Afghanistan. During a speech to county leaders and activists, Barbour said that Republicans must cut the defense budget to retain their credibility as deficit hawks. He then went on to say that the United States must also scale back its military presence in Afghanistan, not for financial reasons, but because he thinks the goal of wiping out al-Qaeda there isn’t sufficient to justify a “100,000-man Army mission.”

Barbour is right that U.S. troops alone won’t turn Afghanistan into “Ireland or a Western-style democracy.” But he fails to note what would come from that country being handed back to the Taliban and its network of Islamist terrorists, just as he seems oblivious of the other implications of the sort of deep cuts in defense he appears to be advocating.

The Mississippi governor, who has never been accused of being much of an ideologue of the right, is clearly seeking to pander to hardcore Tea Party activists, who may be right about the problem with government deficits but whose idea of foreign policy consists of building a bigger wall along our border with Mexico. The gambit might win Barbour a few more caucus votes, but it is also exactly the sort of cynicism that makes him such an unattractive national spokesman for the GOP, let alone a presidential contender. The Tea Party revolt transformed American politics last year, but the idea that a Republican can win the presidency by masquerading as a skinflint dove is pure science fiction. Barbour’s putative candidacy, like the mighty Mississippi itself, seems to be heading south.

It’s never been clear to me exactly what niche Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is seeking to fill in the wide open 2012 GOP presidential race other, that is, than the Deep South veteran lobbyist niche. That’s the sort of profile that makes implausible candidates like Mitt Romney, who must carry his Massachusetts version of ObamaCare around on his shoulders like Atlas shlepping the globe, look somewhat plausible. But Barbour, whose reputation as one of the most competent governors in the country is offset by his corn-pone Confederate drawl and K Street instincts, is apparently experimenting with an approach that certainly runs against type for a Southern conservative: the GOP dove.

According to Politico, while trawling for future caucus support in Iowa on Monday, Barbour called for both cuts in defense spending and a potential bugout in Afghanistan. During a speech to county leaders and activists, Barbour said that Republicans must cut the defense budget to retain their credibility as deficit hawks. He then went on to say that the United States must also scale back its military presence in Afghanistan, not for financial reasons, but because he thinks the goal of wiping out al-Qaeda there isn’t sufficient to justify a “100,000-man Army mission.”

Barbour is right that U.S. troops alone won’t turn Afghanistan into “Ireland or a Western-style democracy.” But he fails to note what would come from that country being handed back to the Taliban and its network of Islamist terrorists, just as he seems oblivious of the other implications of the sort of deep cuts in defense he appears to be advocating.

The Mississippi governor, who has never been accused of being much of an ideologue of the right, is clearly seeking to pander to hardcore Tea Party activists, who may be right about the problem with government deficits but whose idea of foreign policy consists of building a bigger wall along our border with Mexico. The gambit might win Barbour a few more caucus votes, but it is also exactly the sort of cynicism that makes him such an unattractive national spokesman for the GOP, let alone a presidential contender. The Tea Party revolt transformed American politics last year, but the idea that a Republican can win the presidency by masquerading as a skinflint dove is pure science fiction. Barbour’s putative candidacy, like the mighty Mississippi itself, seems to be heading south.

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A ‘Consensus’ on Israel Boycotts?

The Jewish Week today reports that there is a “consensus” forming in the Jewish community that boycotts of Israel are perfectly acceptable, as long as they simply target the settlements:

As the Jewish community struggles to combat efforts to delegitimize Israel and still retain a “big-tent” strategy, a mainstream consensus appears to have taken shape in recent weeks that boils down to this: one can support a targeted boycott of Israeli settlements and even a cultural ban against the West Bank settlement of Ariel — as long as one also supports Israel as a democratic Jewish state.

As evidence of this, the article quotes Israel Action Network’s Martin Raffel and a handful of leaders from left-wing Jewish groups. According to Raffel, the Jewish community can object to groups that support settlement boycotts, but these groups should still be welcomed into the “Jewish communal tent.” In other words, they should be supported with funding from mainstream Jewish organizations like Hillel and the Jewish Federations.

Raffel’s opinions on the issue clashed with those of another Jewish leader who spoke out about boycotts today. Dieter Graumann, the head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, called Israel boycotts “anti-Semitic in character,” according to the Jerusalem Post.

“This time, the initiators think they’re being especially clever by saying themselves that it has nothing to do with the Nazis’ slogan ‘Don’t Buy from Jews.’ But that doesn’t help. It is what it is,” said Graumann. “And by the way. Where are all these peace groups’ calls for boycotts of Iran, for example? That alone speaks volumes.”

Graumann’s point gets to the heart of the matter. Boycotts of Israel — including ones targeted at the settlements — place the blame for the absence of a peace deal solely on the shoulders of the Israelis. They suggest that the Palestinians have no responsibility in the matter, and single out the settlements as the only obstacle to a two-state solution.

Further, a targeted boycott of the settlements ignores the democratic nature of the Jewish state. Those who support Israel as a democratic state need to respect the legitimacy of the decisions made by its elected government.

The Jewish Week today reports that there is a “consensus” forming in the Jewish community that boycotts of Israel are perfectly acceptable, as long as they simply target the settlements:

As the Jewish community struggles to combat efforts to delegitimize Israel and still retain a “big-tent” strategy, a mainstream consensus appears to have taken shape in recent weeks that boils down to this: one can support a targeted boycott of Israeli settlements and even a cultural ban against the West Bank settlement of Ariel — as long as one also supports Israel as a democratic Jewish state.

As evidence of this, the article quotes Israel Action Network’s Martin Raffel and a handful of leaders from left-wing Jewish groups. According to Raffel, the Jewish community can object to groups that support settlement boycotts, but these groups should still be welcomed into the “Jewish communal tent.” In other words, they should be supported with funding from mainstream Jewish organizations like Hillel and the Jewish Federations.

Raffel’s opinions on the issue clashed with those of another Jewish leader who spoke out about boycotts today. Dieter Graumann, the head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, called Israel boycotts “anti-Semitic in character,” according to the Jerusalem Post.

“This time, the initiators think they’re being especially clever by saying themselves that it has nothing to do with the Nazis’ slogan ‘Don’t Buy from Jews.’ But that doesn’t help. It is what it is,” said Graumann. “And by the way. Where are all these peace groups’ calls for boycotts of Iran, for example? That alone speaks volumes.”

Graumann’s point gets to the heart of the matter. Boycotts of Israel — including ones targeted at the settlements — place the blame for the absence of a peace deal solely on the shoulders of the Israelis. They suggest that the Palestinians have no responsibility in the matter, and single out the settlements as the only obstacle to a two-state solution.

Further, a targeted boycott of the settlements ignores the democratic nature of the Jewish state. Those who support Israel as a democratic state need to respect the legitimacy of the decisions made by its elected government.

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Israel’s Hapless Victoria Cache Press Conference

From the Jerusalem Post today comes one example of why the Israeli government has had a difficult time getting its message about the Victoria — the cargo ship loaded with weapons headed for the Gaza Strip — out to the foreign media.

Yesterday, the government held a press conference to display to journalists the weapons confiscated from the Victoria. But unfortunately, many of the foreign reporters never saw the weapons, since they were allegedly deterred by the extensive security checks and hour-long wait in the Ashdod heat, the Jerusalem Post reported.

“Angry foreign reporters left a press conference on Wednesday which displayed the weapons aboard the Victoria,” wrote the Post. “The event was meant to show foreigners the successes of the Israeli commandos and to justify the naval blockade on Gaza, but the extensive security checks at the entrance led many reporters to leave.”

“We were told to get here at 12,” Jerusalem Post video reporter Ben Spier said, “and we waited about an hour and a half in the sun. A lot of foreign journalists decided to walk away.”

It’s understandable that there were security checks, since both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were speaking at the event. But this sounds like an error that could have been easily prevented by increasing the number of security staff, or by holding the speeches and the weapon display at different times and separate locations. Foreign journalists are already loath to give Israel positive press coverage, and it seems foolish to put additional obstacles in their path.

From the Jerusalem Post today comes one example of why the Israeli government has had a difficult time getting its message about the Victoria — the cargo ship loaded with weapons headed for the Gaza Strip — out to the foreign media.

Yesterday, the government held a press conference to display to journalists the weapons confiscated from the Victoria. But unfortunately, many of the foreign reporters never saw the weapons, since they were allegedly deterred by the extensive security checks and hour-long wait in the Ashdod heat, the Jerusalem Post reported.

“Angry foreign reporters left a press conference on Wednesday which displayed the weapons aboard the Victoria,” wrote the Post. “The event was meant to show foreigners the successes of the Israeli commandos and to justify the naval blockade on Gaza, but the extensive security checks at the entrance led many reporters to leave.”

“We were told to get here at 12,” Jerusalem Post video reporter Ben Spier said, “and we waited about an hour and a half in the sun. A lot of foreign journalists decided to walk away.”

It’s understandable that there were security checks, since both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were speaking at the event. But this sounds like an error that could have been easily prevented by increasing the number of security staff, or by holding the speeches and the weapon display at different times and separate locations. Foreign journalists are already loath to give Israel positive press coverage, and it seems foolish to put additional obstacles in their path.

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The 23rd Anniversary of Halabja—Part II

Kurdish suffering neither began nor ended with the attack on Halabja. Eight years after Saddam’s devastating bombardment of the city, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani made a deal with the devil and invited Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards into the regional capital Erbil. So long as the Guards let him keep power and his family fortune, Barzani agreed to turn a blind eye as Saddam’s storm troopers went door to door to round up and execute anti-Saddam elements, including those Iraqis based in Erbil who had been cooperating with the CIA. For Barzani, Kurdish nationalism is a business model, not a sincere belief.

During the 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war, Barzani and his rival (and current Iraqi president) Jalal Talabani rounded up and executed approximately 3,000 Kurds with whom they had political disagreements. Barzani and Talabani, like Saddam before them, simply dumped these Kurdish victims into mass graves; to date, they refuse to tell family members where their loved ones are buried, and they arrest any journalist or academic who raises the issue. Alas, in Iraqi Kurdistan, it seems that Saddam was not the last dictator, nor was Halabja the last massacre.

It is against this backdrop that for the past month, Iraqi Kurds have taken to the streets in Sulaymani to protest their leader’s corruption and demand real change and reform. Both Barzani’s and Talabani’s family-run militias have responded with lethal force, firing indiscriminately into crowds of protesters, killing several.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton may fiddle while Libya burns; in Iraqi Kurdistan, though, they have the opportunity to speak out for transparency, accountability, and nonviolence. They can call for those who ordered militiamen to open fire on crowds to be accountable under the law. Capital punishment exists for murder in Kurdistan, and Masud Barzani’s son Masrour should face the same penalty if he is guilty of murder. Stealing billions should not exempt anyone from justice. Obama and Clinton should also call for Barzani and Talabani to release immediately political prisoners, and on this anniversary of Saddam’s Halabja massacre, they might also demand closure for the families victimized by Barzani’s and Talabani’s selfish actions 15 years ago.

The Iraqi Kurds are perpetual victims of both history and their own poor leadership. Many Americans now regret President Obama’s betrayal of the Libyan people. The Kurds, however, are our traditional allies and deserve more support in their hour of need as their protests enter their second month.

Kurdish suffering neither began nor ended with the attack on Halabja. Eight years after Saddam’s devastating bombardment of the city, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani made a deal with the devil and invited Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards into the regional capital Erbil. So long as the Guards let him keep power and his family fortune, Barzani agreed to turn a blind eye as Saddam’s storm troopers went door to door to round up and execute anti-Saddam elements, including those Iraqis based in Erbil who had been cooperating with the CIA. For Barzani, Kurdish nationalism is a business model, not a sincere belief.

During the 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war, Barzani and his rival (and current Iraqi president) Jalal Talabani rounded up and executed approximately 3,000 Kurds with whom they had political disagreements. Barzani and Talabani, like Saddam before them, simply dumped these Kurdish victims into mass graves; to date, they refuse to tell family members where their loved ones are buried, and they arrest any journalist or academic who raises the issue. Alas, in Iraqi Kurdistan, it seems that Saddam was not the last dictator, nor was Halabja the last massacre.

It is against this backdrop that for the past month, Iraqi Kurds have taken to the streets in Sulaymani to protest their leader’s corruption and demand real change and reform. Both Barzani’s and Talabani’s family-run militias have responded with lethal force, firing indiscriminately into crowds of protesters, killing several.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton may fiddle while Libya burns; in Iraqi Kurdistan, though, they have the opportunity to speak out for transparency, accountability, and nonviolence. They can call for those who ordered militiamen to open fire on crowds to be accountable under the law. Capital punishment exists for murder in Kurdistan, and Masud Barzani’s son Masrour should face the same penalty if he is guilty of murder. Stealing billions should not exempt anyone from justice. Obama and Clinton should also call for Barzani and Talabani to release immediately political prisoners, and on this anniversary of Saddam’s Halabja massacre, they might also demand closure for the families victimized by Barzani’s and Talabani’s selfish actions 15 years ago.

The Iraqi Kurds are perpetual victims of both history and their own poor leadership. Many Americans now regret President Obama’s betrayal of the Libyan people. The Kurds, however, are our traditional allies and deserve more support in their hour of need as their protests enter their second month.

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Panic as Policy

Spiegel Online reports that Germany is reacting to the Japan catastrophe with a kind of madness:

The public fear is so great that Chancellor Angela Merkel, intent on avoiding defeat for her party in three state elections this month, pulled the plug on Monday on the most important policy of her second term in office, the extension of nuclear reactor lifetimes by an average of 12 years beyond the originally scheduled phase-out date of 2021.

Just 48 hours after the explosion at reactor No. 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant on Saturday, Merkel caved, ordering a three-month moratorium on the extension. The seven oldest of Germany’s 17 power stations, the ones that went into operation before the end of 1980, will be shut down immediately pending a three-month safety review.

It is unclear how many of them will be reopened.

Hysteria on the largest scale possible has become the default official response to all crises. A lay public furnished with near-instantaneous media coverage can be counted on to demand immediate and absolute measures so that the crisis can be scrubbed from consciousness, however crudely or illogically. And over-monitored leaders will be sure to comply. Today a politician can lose his job if he doesn’t swiftly change historical precedent to fit the frenzied misinterpretation of a still-breaking news story. This will continue to yield atrocious consequences.

We have become accustomed to seeing collective shock elevated to the realm of policy. In fact, it’s what we expect of responsible leadership. There’s an oil spill? Ban drilling. A shooting? Forbid even speaking in martial metaphors. A nuclear accident? Kill nuclear energy. This crude emotionalism is actually liberalism at warp speed. It demands that governments alleviate the immediate discomfort of the onlooker without regard for accuracy or consequence. It will produce many more historic disasters than it can manage.

Spiegel Online reports that Germany is reacting to the Japan catastrophe with a kind of madness:

The public fear is so great that Chancellor Angela Merkel, intent on avoiding defeat for her party in three state elections this month, pulled the plug on Monday on the most important policy of her second term in office, the extension of nuclear reactor lifetimes by an average of 12 years beyond the originally scheduled phase-out date of 2021.

Just 48 hours after the explosion at reactor No. 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant on Saturday, Merkel caved, ordering a three-month moratorium on the extension. The seven oldest of Germany’s 17 power stations, the ones that went into operation before the end of 1980, will be shut down immediately pending a three-month safety review.

It is unclear how many of them will be reopened.

Hysteria on the largest scale possible has become the default official response to all crises. A lay public furnished with near-instantaneous media coverage can be counted on to demand immediate and absolute measures so that the crisis can be scrubbed from consciousness, however crudely or illogically. And over-monitored leaders will be sure to comply. Today a politician can lose his job if he doesn’t swiftly change historical precedent to fit the frenzied misinterpretation of a still-breaking news story. This will continue to yield atrocious consequences.

We have become accustomed to seeing collective shock elevated to the realm of policy. In fact, it’s what we expect of responsible leadership. There’s an oil spill? Ban drilling. A shooting? Forbid even speaking in martial metaphors. A nuclear accident? Kill nuclear energy. This crude emotionalism is actually liberalism at warp speed. It demands that governments alleviate the immediate discomfort of the onlooker without regard for accuracy or consequence. It will produce many more historic disasters than it can manage.

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Obama to Receive ‘Transparency’ Award?

This isn’t the first undeserved award President Obama has won, but it’s still sure to surprise journalists and open-government advocates. Politico’s Mike Allen, reporting on President Obama’s schedule today, writes that later this afternoon, “the President will accept an award from a coalition of good government groups and transparency advocates to recognize ‘his deep commitment to an open and transparent government — of, by, and for the people’ in conjunction with Sunshine Week. There will be a pool spray at the top [brief photo opportunity].”

Of course, Obama’s notorious vow to run “the most transparent” administration in history has been an extraordinary failure, as AP reports today:

The administration refused to release any sought-after materials in more than 1-in-3 information requests, including cases when it couldn’t find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the request was determined to be improper under the law. It refused more often to quickly consider information requests about subjects described as urgent or especially newsworthy. And nearly half the agencies that AP examined took longer — weeks more, in some cases — to give out records last year than during the previous year.

The AP noted that the Obama administration even censored a cache of internal e-mails describing — ironically enough — its Open Government Directive, after the e-mails were requested by the news service.

“[T]he White House Office of Management and Budget blacked-out entire pages of some e-mails between federal employees discussing how to apply the new openness rules, and it blacked-out one e-mail discussing how to respond to AP’s request for information about the transparency directive,” AP reported.

And the lack of media transparency supposedly goes beyond just FOIA requests. Keith Koffler, a former White House reporter at Roll Call who now runs the White House Dossier blog, wrote a post on Monday about the administration’s alleged “bullying” of the press.

“President Obama’s conference on bullying Thursday was deeply ironic to some in the White House press corps,” wrote Keffler. “That’s because every reporter who regularly covers the place knows that President Obama’s staff has a policy – an actual, pre-conceived policy – of bullying. … The problem with this kind of intimidation is not that it hurt reporters’ feelings. The problem is that it is an assault on free speech.”

Koffler is not the first White House reporter to make this observation.

So Happy Sunshine Week, President Obama. And like your 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, consider this award more of “a call to action” as opposed to a recognition of past achievements.

This isn’t the first undeserved award President Obama has won, but it’s still sure to surprise journalists and open-government advocates. Politico’s Mike Allen, reporting on President Obama’s schedule today, writes that later this afternoon, “the President will accept an award from a coalition of good government groups and transparency advocates to recognize ‘his deep commitment to an open and transparent government — of, by, and for the people’ in conjunction with Sunshine Week. There will be a pool spray at the top [brief photo opportunity].”

Of course, Obama’s notorious vow to run “the most transparent” administration in history has been an extraordinary failure, as AP reports today:

The administration refused to release any sought-after materials in more than 1-in-3 information requests, including cases when it couldn’t find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the request was determined to be improper under the law. It refused more often to quickly consider information requests about subjects described as urgent or especially newsworthy. And nearly half the agencies that AP examined took longer — weeks more, in some cases — to give out records last year than during the previous year.

The AP noted that the Obama administration even censored a cache of internal e-mails describing — ironically enough — its Open Government Directive, after the e-mails were requested by the news service.

“[T]he White House Office of Management and Budget blacked-out entire pages of some e-mails between federal employees discussing how to apply the new openness rules, and it blacked-out one e-mail discussing how to respond to AP’s request for information about the transparency directive,” AP reported.

And the lack of media transparency supposedly goes beyond just FOIA requests. Keith Koffler, a former White House reporter at Roll Call who now runs the White House Dossier blog, wrote a post on Monday about the administration’s alleged “bullying” of the press.

“President Obama’s conference on bullying Thursday was deeply ironic to some in the White House press corps,” wrote Keffler. “That’s because every reporter who regularly covers the place knows that President Obama’s staff has a policy – an actual, pre-conceived policy – of bullying. … The problem with this kind of intimidation is not that it hurt reporters’ feelings. The problem is that it is an assault on free speech.”

Koffler is not the first White House reporter to make this observation.

So Happy Sunshine Week, President Obama. And like your 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, consider this award more of “a call to action” as opposed to a recognition of past achievements.

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Qaddafi Can Still Be Ousted, but Only if We Act Now

In the Wall Street Journal today, I have an op-ed headlined “It’s Not Too Late to Save Libya.” Unfortunately, due to the Obama administration’s policy paralysis, time is rapidly running out.

Yesterday Qaddafi’s forces appeared to have taken Ajdabiya, the last major town in eastern Libya before they reach the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. If Benghazi — Libya’s second-largest city — falls, the revolt is finished and the world will have to live with Qaddafi’s barbaric rule for years to come.

That is a prospect that should fill us with dread. If Mubarak was, from the West’s standpoint, a relatively benign dictator, Qaddafi has been a nightmare because of his incessant support of terrorism over the years and his attempts to destabilize neighboring regimes and to create a Libyan empire in Africa. For all these reasons, the Arab League has actually endorsed a no-fly zone over Libya — a momentous step for this group of autocrats to take.

It would have been much easier to topple Qaddafi a few weeks ago, when the rebels were on the offensive and the government forces were in disarray. At that crucial moment, Obama voted “present.” American inaction allowed Qaddafi to get back on his feet and start slaughtering his opponents.

Yet even now we can still keep the rebellion alive. We should pursue a no-fly zone combined with an enclave strategy centered on Benghazi. Read More

In the Wall Street Journal today, I have an op-ed headlined “It’s Not Too Late to Save Libya.” Unfortunately, due to the Obama administration’s policy paralysis, time is rapidly running out.

Yesterday Qaddafi’s forces appeared to have taken Ajdabiya, the last major town in eastern Libya before they reach the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. If Benghazi — Libya’s second-largest city — falls, the revolt is finished and the world will have to live with Qaddafi’s barbaric rule for years to come.

That is a prospect that should fill us with dread. If Mubarak was, from the West’s standpoint, a relatively benign dictator, Qaddafi has been a nightmare because of his incessant support of terrorism over the years and his attempts to destabilize neighboring regimes and to create a Libyan empire in Africa. For all these reasons, the Arab League has actually endorsed a no-fly zone over Libya — a momentous step for this group of autocrats to take.

It would have been much easier to topple Qaddafi a few weeks ago, when the rebels were on the offensive and the government forces were in disarray. At that crucial moment, Obama voted “present.” American inaction allowed Qaddafi to get back on his feet and start slaughtering his opponents.

Yet even now we can still keep the rebellion alive. We should pursue a no-fly zone combined with an enclave strategy centered on Benghazi.

The key military fact about Libya is that it is composed mostly of flat desert; this is where some of the most notable tank battles of World War II were fought pitting Rommel against Montgomery. There is nowhere for conventional forces to hide outside an urban area. To take Benghazi, Qaddafi’s forces would have to expose themselves. They would, in other words, become easy targets for air strikes by American, British, and French aircraft operating from a combination of aircraft carriers (the USS Enterprise is in the Red Sea, a day’s steam away from Libya) and from bases in southern Europe; we could even establish a forward operating base at a major Libyan airbase south of Tobruk that is currently in rebel hands.

Thus we could proclaim that we will recognize the National Transition Council ensconced in Benghazi and use our airpower to prevent Qaddafi’s forces from entering the capital of Free Libya. This would buy a precious commodity — time. We could use that time to train and arm the anti-Qaddafi forces. With the rebels secure behind a curtain of NATO airpower, they could organize a proper army and eventually mount a major offensive to finish off Qaddafi once and for all.

This would require a fairly limited commitment on our part that involved primarily airpower and some Special Forces working in cooperation with local rebels: the same combination that proved so effective in toppling the Taliban in 2001 and ousting the Serbs from Kosovo in 1999. Such a strategy is eminently feasible, but it has to be implemented right now. The time for dithering is past if there is to be any chance of saving the Libyan revolution — and incidentally, rescuing Obama’s plummeting reputation.

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Tax and Tax, Spend and Spend, Get the Boot

Mayor Carlos Alvarez of Miami-Dade County Florida lost a recall election yesterday, and it wasn’t close. He lost his job with 88 percent of the voters against him. (In 2003, Governor Gray Davis of California was recalled by a vote of only 55 percent.)

Although Miami has been especially hard hit by the meltdown in property values in recent years, Alvarez pushed through a 14 percent property-tax increase and then gave public employees fat salary increases in contract negotiations. He also championed a new baseball stadium publicly funded at the cost of $600 million, despite 12 percent unemployment in the area.

This election, I think, is just more evidence that the famous formula for political success, first enunciated by FDR’s close aide Harry Hopkins, “tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect,” is no longer operative. Another indication of that is the continuing resolution passed in the House yesterday, by a vote of  271-158, which continues the cuts of $2 billion a week initiated by the first resolution. The media has made a big deal of the fact that 58 Republicans voted against, wanting deeper cuts. But equally significant is the fact that fully 85 Democrats voted for it. Nancy Pelosi could persuade only 55 percent of her caucus to join her in voting against it.

There has been a sea change in American politics. The left should take notice unless it wants the 2012 election to be even worse than 2010.

Mayor Carlos Alvarez of Miami-Dade County Florida lost a recall election yesterday, and it wasn’t close. He lost his job with 88 percent of the voters against him. (In 2003, Governor Gray Davis of California was recalled by a vote of only 55 percent.)

Although Miami has been especially hard hit by the meltdown in property values in recent years, Alvarez pushed through a 14 percent property-tax increase and then gave public employees fat salary increases in contract negotiations. He also championed a new baseball stadium publicly funded at the cost of $600 million, despite 12 percent unemployment in the area.

This election, I think, is just more evidence that the famous formula for political success, first enunciated by FDR’s close aide Harry Hopkins, “tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect,” is no longer operative. Another indication of that is the continuing resolution passed in the House yesterday, by a vote of  271-158, which continues the cuts of $2 billion a week initiated by the first resolution. The media has made a big deal of the fact that 58 Republicans voted against, wanting deeper cuts. But equally significant is the fact that fully 85 Democrats voted for it. Nancy Pelosi could persuade only 55 percent of her caucus to join her in voting against it.

There has been a sea change in American politics. The left should take notice unless it wants the 2012 election to be even worse than 2010.

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Snubbing Hillary Clinton

According to ABC News, a coalition of six youth groups that emerged from Egypt’s revolution last month has refused to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Cairo yesterday, in protest of the United States’s strong support for former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted by the uprising.

“There was an invitation for members of the coalition to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but based on her negative position from the beginning of the revolution and the position of the US administration in the Middle East, we reject this invitation,” the January 25 Revolution Youth Coalition said in a statement posted on its Facebook page.

As the liberation uprising gained strength, both Secretary Clinton and President Obama were (correctly) perceived as slow to recognize the strength of the protest movement. In a separate statement provided to an Egyptian newspaper, the youth group said that “the US administration took Egypt’s revolution lightly and supported the old regime while Egyptian blood was being spilled.”

That is true enough. But compared with their passive and ambivalent stand in support of Libya’s liberation, Clinton and Obama were, on Egypt, pillars of strength.

The effort to win the hearts and minds of a new generation of Arabs seems to have run aground. It turns out that turning our backs on those seeking to replace dictatorships with liberal, democratic movements has consequences. Who knew?

According to ABC News, a coalition of six youth groups that emerged from Egypt’s revolution last month has refused to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Cairo yesterday, in protest of the United States’s strong support for former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted by the uprising.

“There was an invitation for members of the coalition to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but based on her negative position from the beginning of the revolution and the position of the US administration in the Middle East, we reject this invitation,” the January 25 Revolution Youth Coalition said in a statement posted on its Facebook page.

As the liberation uprising gained strength, both Secretary Clinton and President Obama were (correctly) perceived as slow to recognize the strength of the protest movement. In a separate statement provided to an Egyptian newspaper, the youth group said that “the US administration took Egypt’s revolution lightly and supported the old regime while Egyptian blood was being spilled.”

That is true enough. But compared with their passive and ambivalent stand in support of Libya’s liberation, Clinton and Obama were, on Egypt, pillars of strength.

The effort to win the hearts and minds of a new generation of Arabs seems to have run aground. It turns out that turning our backs on those seeking to replace dictatorships with liberal, democratic movements has consequences. Who knew?

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The 23rd Anniversary of Halabja—Part I

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of Saddam’s chemical-weapons attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja. The Reagan White House initially did nothing — realists argued both that the United States had no real interest in the matter and that acknowledging Saddam’s use of chemical weapons would undercut rapprochement with the dictator. The Kurds are still excavating mass graves.

In the wake of Operation Desert Storm, however, as Saddam once again turned his gunships on the Kurdish civilian population, President George H.W. Bush stepped in. His decision wasn’t just humanitarian; the United States had a real interest in ensuring that there was not a destabilizing refugee flow and that Saddam learned he could no longer get away with blatant murder. Because if there’s one truism about dictators, it’s that when they get away with murder once, they become more murderous in the future.

President Obama is impervious to the lessons of history and so fiddled while Libya burned. Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi has become the Charlie Sheen of dictators — completely out of control and on a downward spiral — yet defiant to the end. While Sheen just makes for sad television and tabloid headlines, Qaddafi’s descent will make for mass graves and body bags.

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of Saddam’s chemical-weapons attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja. The Reagan White House initially did nothing — realists argued both that the United States had no real interest in the matter and that acknowledging Saddam’s use of chemical weapons would undercut rapprochement with the dictator. The Kurds are still excavating mass graves.

In the wake of Operation Desert Storm, however, as Saddam once again turned his gunships on the Kurdish civilian population, President George H.W. Bush stepped in. His decision wasn’t just humanitarian; the United States had a real interest in ensuring that there was not a destabilizing refugee flow and that Saddam learned he could no longer get away with blatant murder. Because if there’s one truism about dictators, it’s that when they get away with murder once, they become more murderous in the future.

President Obama is impervious to the lessons of history and so fiddled while Libya burned. Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi has become the Charlie Sheen of dictators — completely out of control and on a downward spiral — yet defiant to the end. While Sheen just makes for sad television and tabloid headlines, Qaddafi’s descent will make for mass graves and body bags.

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Lessons from Libya for Dictators in Distress

1. If you want to remain in power, you need to do more than send a man on a camel into crowds. Declare war on your people; hire other people to help out.

2. Do not worry if the U.S. president says you must “step down” and “leave.” It is only his personal opinion.

3. To ensure that the president does not focus unduly on your war, schedule it while he is preoccupied with other matters: a Motown concert, a conference on bullying, his golf game, and finalizing his Final Four picks.

4. Declare that the opposition is not “organic.” The president will not assist a non-organic revolution. If the revolution is organic, do not worry: an organic revolution is by definition one he does not need to assist. Either way, you’re fine.

5. Recognize that your membership on the UN Human Rights Council will be suspended — the president will send his secretary of state there to ensure that. Do not start a war against your people if you are not prepared for this.

6. Do not worry about a “no-fly zone” or some other U.S. military response. The president will consider it only if the world speaks with one voice. The world includes Russia, China, and Turkey.

7. Remember when the president adopted his Afghanistan policy after an extensive “review;” selected his own general to implement it; got the general’s recommendations; and then held endless meetings before finally reluctantly approving them? That was about a war he was already in. He will need many more meetings than that before he considers any new action against you.

8. You may eventually be subject to sanctions, so check to see if they’ve worked yet with Cuba, North Korea, or Iran.

9. Consider restarting your nuclear program, since the conditions that caused you to suspend it are gone. At most, the president will form a committee of several nations to talk to you; he will consider more sanctions if the world speaks as one. You need not worry about his “deadlines.”

10. There is basically only one thing you do need to worry about: do not, under any circumstances, approve any future Jewish housing in Jerusalem. The president will go ballistic if you do.

1. If you want to remain in power, you need to do more than send a man on a camel into crowds. Declare war on your people; hire other people to help out.

2. Do not worry if the U.S. president says you must “step down” and “leave.” It is only his personal opinion.

3. To ensure that the president does not focus unduly on your war, schedule it while he is preoccupied with other matters: a Motown concert, a conference on bullying, his golf game, and finalizing his Final Four picks.

4. Declare that the opposition is not “organic.” The president will not assist a non-organic revolution. If the revolution is organic, do not worry: an organic revolution is by definition one he does not need to assist. Either way, you’re fine.

5. Recognize that your membership on the UN Human Rights Council will be suspended — the president will send his secretary of state there to ensure that. Do not start a war against your people if you are not prepared for this.

6. Do not worry about a “no-fly zone” or some other U.S. military response. The president will consider it only if the world speaks with one voice. The world includes Russia, China, and Turkey.

7. Remember when the president adopted his Afghanistan policy after an extensive “review;” selected his own general to implement it; got the general’s recommendations; and then held endless meetings before finally reluctantly approving them? That was about a war he was already in. He will need many more meetings than that before he considers any new action against you.

8. You may eventually be subject to sanctions, so check to see if they’ve worked yet with Cuba, North Korea, or Iran.

9. Consider restarting your nuclear program, since the conditions that caused you to suspend it are gone. At most, the president will form a committee of several nations to talk to you; he will consider more sanctions if the world speaks as one. You need not worry about his “deadlines.”

10. There is basically only one thing you do need to worry about: do not, under any circumstances, approve any future Jewish housing in Jerusalem. The president will go ballistic if you do.

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