Over at the Huffington Post, Marc Ginsberg, a prominent Democrat and former U.S. ambassador to Morocco (under Bill Clinton), offers some good advice to President Obama to fix his disgraceful policy toward Syria which so far has been primarily focused on “engagement” with the baby butcher of Damascus—Bashar al Assad—even as his people rise up to demand change. He writes:
First of all, it’s time for the Obama to scuttle the two-track approach to Assad. Too often, Washington looked the other way at Assad’s domestic repression and his overt support for terrorism in the name of safeguarding a future possibility of neutralizing Syria’s potential troublemaking role to thwart a U.S.-brokered peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Assad has no more credit left in that bank account and he has blackmailed us enough into believing Syria is the yellow brick road to peace in the Middle East. It is not.
Rather than continue to kowtow to Assad, Ginsberg writes that “President Obama needs to ratchet up the rhetoric against Assad and his regime to provide far more moral support to the protestors. . . . Washington,” he says, “should begin seizing the assets of prominent Syrian government officials directly responsible for the violence, including members of the Assad family.” Also: “[T]he White House should marshal global cooperation to impose the same set of economic sanctions imposed on Libya.” And: “[T]he U.S. should immediately begin providing Syria’s activists the same forms of social networking and internet technology assistance that it is providing Egypt’s activists.” Finally: “[P]lace Assad on notice that the U.S. will lead efforts to present international criminal charges against him and anyone else in his government directly or indirectly responsible for killing innocent Syrians unless he yields power in a negotiated exit.”
These all sound like excellent ideas to me. Having thrown our weight behind the protesters in Egypt and Libya, it is hard to see why we are not doing more to help topple Bashar al Assad—one of the linchpins of the Iranian strategy to dominate the region.
The rabbinical doctrine of kol isha, which forbids an Orthodox Jewish man from listening to a woman’s voice, was a target of Jewish feminists from the start. The late Debbie Friedman, who revitalized Jewish liturgical singing for a generation of Reform and some Conservative Jews, said that she was “inspired” by the prohibition to “write inclusive music.” The rise of a Jewish “women only” music scene is an “interesting side effect” of kol isha, according to the music blogger Jack Zaientz, who writes at Teruah.
Another side effect has been the rise of Orthodox men’s a capella singing groups. John introduced readers of Contentions to the “insanely catchy” Maccabeats last December. Now comes Six13—their name alludes to the traditional number of commandments given by God to the Jews—whose song “P-A-S-S-O-V-E-R” suggests not only that an exciting Jewish “men only” music scene has arisen, but that, with so much of it around by women and men, it’s a great time to be singing and bouncing to Jewish music:
Alana Goodman makes good points, of course. But the type of audacity that she describes is nothing new. In 1990, after he ordered the Iraqi Army into Kuwait, Saddam Hussein sought to confuse and delay accountability for his actions by trying to link his withdrawal from Kuwait to an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. Some in the elder Bush’s administration were willing to negotiate, but fortunately Bush (perhaps with Margaret Thatcher nudging him quietly in private) refused to be drawn into such moral equivalence. Let’s hope that President Obama will not play the dictators’ moral equivalence game, or barring that, he might listen to Nicholas Sarkozy, who seems to be filling Thatcher’s role today—even if imperfectly.
Can President Obama, Vice President Biden, or Secretary of State Clinton walk and chew gum at the same time? Evidently not. Perhaps Obama can take the 3:00 a.m. phone call, but alas he and his team are ill-prepared to take that, and the 3:10 a.m. and the 3:15 a.m. phone calls together.
What is going on in the Middle East is truly incredible. A Tunisian fruit vendor’s self-immolation leads to the fall of the Tunisian dictator—truly a noxious character albeit a secular one—followed in short order by Hosni Mubarak, an ally in name only. Now, Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh is hanging by a thread, NATO forces are half-heartedly trying to undermine Qaddafi’s hold on Libya, and trouble has started in Syria. In all these cases, the Obama administration has been behind the curve. Obama’s foreign policy style is akin to a gambler at a blackjack table who wants to sit at the table, but place his bets only after the dealer has laid out the cards.
In all these crises, President Obama has only reacted after violence has occurred. What message does this send to dissidents and those peacefully seeking reform?
It’s fashionable among many commentators (like CNN’s David Gergen) to describe the near-shutdown of the federal government last week as a disgrace, an embarrassment, unbecoming a great nation. In one respect, Gergen and those who share his views are correct. The 111th Congress not only failed to pass a budget but even failed to propose one—the first time since 1974 a Congress failed to pass a budget. That is why last year’s budget was being debated last week.
But the showdown that almost lead to a shutdown is the aesthetics of divided government. We might as well get used to it. What we have, after all, are two political parties that hold different views and represent different interests, negotiating hard and down to the wire to get the best agreement they could. It isn’t pretty or perfect by any means, but it is the natural result of the system of government our founders put in place. And lawmakers were acting as people in many other areas of life do, from professional sports (see the NFL players versus the NFL owners) to people buying homes and attending yard sales to political commentators negotiating television contracts. It’s easy for pundits to lecture lawmakers about finding areas of common ground and compromise. But when you’re actually fighting for principles and issues you believe in, it gets more complicated. And in the case of last week’s budget showdown, it had a fine (and predictable) outcome: after having issued threats and denunciations, a good agreement was struck at the last minute. A shutdown was averted. And a budget was passed, although much later than it should have been.
The results matter more than the process—and the process really wasn’t quite as unseemly and upsetting as some would have it.
As independent voters continue to flee the president they once sought, Obama’s reelection campaign plans to adopt a middle-of-the-road strategy in an pitch to win them back:
President Obama opened the week by calling on Democrats to embrace his re-election campaign. He closed it by praising Republicans for forging a compromise to cut spending this year and avert a government shutdown. The juxtaposition made clearer than ever the more centrist governing style Mr. Obama has adopted since his party’s big losses in November and his recapture-the-middle strategy for winning a second term.
Politically this is the safest bet. As the Republican candidates play to the conservative base, Obama will have months to recast himself as a centrist while his proxies paint the GOP field as “extreme” and “right-wing.” This gives him to ability to simultaneously court independents while keeping his left-wing base in line. Liberals may grumble that Obama is kowtowing to the center too, but as long as he manages to make Republicans look frightening, his campaign calculates that the left will still fall into line.
“Why should we give a damn about the Afghan people?” Andy McCarthy asks. Our presence in Afghanistan, he says, is “pointless.”
Now, this is different than saying we would like to help them but the ability to do so is beyond our reach. It’s also a separate matter from saying that there are countless claims on our conscience, but because of inherent limitations on our resources, the suffering the Afghan people are experiencing doesn’t warrant our assistance. And it’s a different argument from saying we shouldn’t continue to expend American blood in a 10-year-old war.
No, what McCarthy is arguing, in intentionally provocative words, is that we shouldn’t give a damn about the Afghan people at all. The argument, presumably, is that Afghanistan is an impoverished country located on the other side of the world, inhabited by people who are not worthy even of our concern, let alone our care. If the Taliban retook control in Afghanistan and returned to their barbaric practices should be a matter of complete indifference to us. A similar argument could apply to the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the dissidents in China, the orphans in Romania, the earthquake victims in Haiti and Japan, and the children with malaria in Nigeria.
The Philippines has a new president—Benigno Aquino III—but the same old problems. Aquino’s pedigree is impeccable. The president comes from one of the country’s wealthiest families. His father was a martyred opposition leader whose assassination at the airport that now bears his name triggered the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. His mother, Corazon Aquino, was Marcos’s successor as president.
There is a general consensus that young “PNoy,” who is just approaching the end of his first year in office, is capable and honest. But there is also general concern that neither he nor any other president may be able to reverse his country’s long, slow slide which has made it into the laughingstock of Asia. A country that was once proud of its role as the first democracy in Asia, and that seemed ready for economic takeoff decades ago, now has a per capita GDP, in purchasing power terms, of just $3,500 per person making it, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, No. 162 in the world when ranked by relative wealth.
Just about the only industry that seems to be flourishing in the Philippines is the sex trade.
Speaker John Boehner is turning out to be one shrewd negotiator. In the budget agreement that Congress reached late Friday night, he was able to persuade Democrats to agree to unprecedented cuts in spending, on the order of almost $40 billion, despite their not wanting to give up anything. And this happened after Majority Leader Harry Reid said $31 billion in cuts was completely unacceptable. Republicans succeeded in reducing discretionary spending to pre-Obama levels, and they lowered the baseline for next year’s budget, which will result in hundreds of billions of dollars in savings over the next decade.
After two years of double digit increases in domestic discretionary spending, spending will now be reduced by 4 percent. Republican also restored funding for the school voucher program and banned federal funding for abortions in Washington, D.C. Boehner secured a commitment from Reid to have votes in the Senate on repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the defunding of Planned Parenthood. He also did a superb job in using the Planned Parenthood rider as a bargaining chip, agreeing to give it up for deeper cuts than Democrats originally wanted. And through it all Boehner kept his caucus remarkably unified.
The Vanguard Leadership Group, a national development academy and honor society for student leaders from historically black college and universities, has come out in strong opposition to the characterization of Israel as an “apartheid state” on college campuses, a comparison which it says is “patently false and deeply offensive.” The group sent an open letter to campus newspapers at UCLA, Brown, the University of Maryland, and Columbia, calling on the anti-Israel organization Students for Justice in Palestine immediately to cease equating Israel to apartheid South Africa.
“Playing the ‘apartheid card’ is a calculated attempt to conjure up images associated with the racist South African regimes of the 20th century,” the group said in an open letter. “The strategy is as transparent as it is base. Beyond that, it is highly objectionable to those who know the truth about the Israeli’s record on human rights and how it so clearly contrasts with South Africa’s.” The letter was signed by 15 student leaders at historically black colleges and universities.
The Israel apartheid characterization is “not only manipulative but ill informed,” Michael Hayes of Clark Atlanta University, the group’s president, told me in an interview. “Anyone who knows the history of South Africa and the apartheid regime would understand that these are totally different things.”
Along with a delegation from the Council on Foreign Relations, I recently visited Taiwan, and got an earful about the continuing buildup of military might on the opposite side of the Taiwan Strait. The People’s Republic of China is increasing defense spending by double digits every year. An estimated 2,000 missiles are aimed at Taiwan. Also in the works are a new stealth aircraft, an aircraft carrier, cyber- and space weapons, submarines of all kinds, and a ballistic missile dubbed a “carrier killer” for its ability to target American aircraft carriers. All of these developments were summed up in a hair-raising PowerPoint brief at the Ministry of National Defense
Taiwan’s president is Ma Ying-jeou, a former mayor of Taipei and member of the Kuomintang Party. He has adopted a friendlier approach to China than his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (currently serving time in prison for corruption), who talked openly about Taiwanese independence. Under President Ma, Taiwan has even signed a trade accord with the mainland. One of the biggest changes from when I was last in Taiwan nearly a decade ago was the presence of mainland tourists—they jostled anyone trying to get glimpse of some of the more popular exhibits at the National Palace Museum.
But while Ma is intent on ratcheting down tensions with the mainland, he is hardly in favor of reunification with a communist-dominated China.
This has to be the height of audacity. Gaza terrorists have pummeled Israel with over 120 rockets in the past few days, and now the Arab League is calling for the UN to establish a no-fly zone to shield Gaza from the justified military response from Israel:
The Arab League on Sunday announced during a special meeting in Cairo that it plans to press the UN to impose a no-fly zone over Gaza amid an escalation in violence in the area, AFP reported. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said he plans to present the proposal to the UN Security Council, the report said.
The issue isn’t whether a no-fly zone will be imposed. While it would gain support from the usual Israel haters on the council, any such resolution would quickly be vetoed. But now that the international community has intervened in Libya with the goal of protecting civilians, the Arab League will likely continue to try to draw absurd comparisons between the situations in Libya and Israel.
And this is yet another reason why NATO must take a side in Libya. By simply focusing the mission on protecting civilians, NATO is creating a dangerous moral equivalency between the Qaddafi regime and the rebel forces. And this precedent is now being exploited by the Arab League as yet another tactic in its Hundred Years’ campaign to demonize Israel.
“Peace for land” calls for the Palestinians to accept responsibility to demonstrate a commitment to peace with Israel in return for statehood and land. . . . Unless Palestinians demonstrate an irreversible commitment to peace, they don’t have standing to expect statehood and an irreversible grant of land. Even this won’t work unless the international community accepts a legal obligation, via treaty, to enforce the agreement.
But maybe the right term is “Land for Defensible Borders,” since—as an anonymous soldier once said—“there is no such thing as peace.” There is certainly no such thing as an “irreversible commitment” to it. The Oslo accords were sold as such a commitment, but ended instead with a terror war initiated by the Palestinian who coined the phrase “peace of the brave.”
Nor is there such a thing as an “international community” obligated to enforce an agreement. After Israel withdrew completely from Lebanon, the “international community” adopted a “binding” UN resolution prohibiting rearmament in southern Lebanon, put boots on the ground to “enforce” it—and then didn’t.
UN Resolution 242, the founding document of the peace process, did not refer to “land for peace” but to withdrawal from an unspecified amount of territories for “secure” borders. In exchange for withdrawals from Hebron and Gaza, the Clinton and Bush administrations provided Israel with formal commitments of support for “defensible borders.” Those who accept indefensible borders in exchange for “irreversible commitments” of “peace,” to be “guaranteed” by the “international community,” are likely to be trading land for war.
David Cameron has taken a leaf from the Book of Obama and launched a worldwide apology tour. On his recent visit to Pakistan, he rightly declined to get involved in Kashmir, but for the wrong reasons. He said he does not “want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.”
Figuring out where Cameron stands on international affairs is a full-time job. He’s capable of condemning “naïve neoconservative[s] who [think] you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet,” and then taking the lead role in the Libya intervention. He makes speeches condemning multiculturalism in Germany, and attacking Islamist extremism at home, and then wanders off to Pakistan and makes apologies for a problem that is fuelled by extremists with pan-Islamist goals that involve perpetuating violent conflict anywhere they can.
USAID will spent $20 million to bring Sesame Street to Pakistan. But it is not the price tag that should raise concerns. In the scheme of things, it seems a little impractical to get wound up over what amounts to less than pocket change in terms of the federal budget. And the project is more than worth $20 million if it ends up helping to liberalize Pakistani children, which is the goal.
Here’s the premise of the Urdu-language Sesame Street: