Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 11, 2011

Why Are We Not Doing More to Topple Assad?

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.

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.

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A Great Time for Jewish Music

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:

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:

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Re: Arab League Wants No-Fly Zone in Gaza

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.

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.

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The Squeaky Wheel Syndome

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?

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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 seems, alas, that only the squeaky wheels get the grease. Demonstrators must use bombs and bullets if they want to be heard. That is not a message Washington should send.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, protesters have been out in the street for more than 50 days protesting peacefully against corruption, nepotism, and the lack of democracy. Even though the demonstrations have been peaceful—some rock-throwing aside–Masud Barzani and Jalal Talabani’s militias have opened fire on crowds, killing at least eight. Journalists have been leading the charge, and a number have been arrested, beaten, or shot. And yet, through it all, the Obama administration has been largely silent.

Silence is not neutrality; it benefits dictatorships. Last week, during his swing through Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Barzani. Gates’s mission was straightforward. He was seeking resolution on Iraq’s unresolved government formation, and was also discussing flashpoints such as Kirkuk. What he was not doing, according to members of his team, was showing any shade of green light to Barzani’s actions to crackdown on the democracy protestors. But the U.S. silence has given Barzani an opening to do what Barzani does best: spread falsehoods in the interest of his own political power. Iraqi Kurdish officials have hinted darkly to the protesters that the Obama administration has blessed a crackdown. The only certainty amid the Kurdish crisis is that “the most pro-American people in the Middle East” will now blame the United States the next time Barzani decides to kidnap a journalist or shoot a 14-year-oid.

Perhaps now would be a good time for the White House to call publicly for Barzani’s restraint, and work privately to lay the foundations of a real democracy and human rights regime in Iraqi Kurdistan. And if Barzani must retire for that to happen, so be it.

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The Aesthetics of Divided Government

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.

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.

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Betting on Criticism from the Left

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.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll do so quietly.

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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.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll do so quietly.

Irritated at being taken for granted, liberals have already begun lashing out at the president and calling for a “get tough” strategy. Cenk Uyger writes:

It’s time to stop playing nice with Democrats. Good cop-good cop doesn’t work. We need a bad cop. We need a strong progressive wing to keep shouting “no deal!” every time the White House wants to concede (which will be every time). You can ignore this, blame me and go hug the president one more time, but you won’t be doing your side any favors. If you actually care about policy and progressive priorities, you must get tough with the president right now. There is no next time.

At the New York Times, a less-brash Paul Krugman is obviously distressed by Obama’s plan as well:

[H]is political strategists seem to believe that [Obama] can win re-election by positioning himself as being conciliatory and reasonable, by always being willing to compromise. . . . But if you ask me, I’d say that the nation wants—and more important, the nation needs—a president who believes in something, and is willing to take a stand. And that’s not what we’re seeing.

But this presents another problem for the left: their attacks may only play into his reelection strategy. Criticism from both GOP candidates and the liberal base may be the exactly what the president is betting on.

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Why We Should Give a Damn

“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.

So why should we give a damn?

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“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.

So why should we give a damn?

The answer is an important one, since it helps shape a world view. And the answer to it depends on the premises from which we begin—in this case regarding teleology, the purpose and design of human nature, and the rights we are owed simply and only because we are human beings. For many of us this inevitably leads to the subject of theology—whether there is a Creator and if so, whether we are made in His image and precious in His sight. Assuming we are, certain rights are deemed to be unalienable, and willful indifference to human suffering is contrary to the mind and heart of God.

This is what Lincoln was getting at, I think, when he said, in his meditation on the words in the Declaration of Independence,

This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by his fellows.

For me as a Christian, McCarthy’s question is answered on the road to Jericho. It was in parable in Luke in which a Samaritan—who was viewed as a hated foreigner and a spiritual half-breed—showed mercy to a wounded stranger. What Jesus was teaching is that love and mercy are not restricted by national boundaries, that to “love your neighbor” means caring for strangers in need, and that as recipients of grace, we ought to demonstrate it to the outcast, to those deemed to be the “other.”

Now this ethic is not only intensely difficult to uphold in our daily lives, it’s extremely unclear how to translate it into public policy. A nation of limited resources cannot help everyone in need. We need to prioritize our commitments, including what we owe to our fellow citizens. And the compassion we might act on as individuals should not always express itself in action by the state. So it would certainly be wrong to draw the conclusion that mercy self-evidently demands that we remain in Afghanistan. But this ethic does, I think, begin to answer McCarthy’s question.

After reading McCarthy’s words I pulled from my shelf Something Beautiful for God, a short book on Mother Teresa in which Malcolm Muggeridge writes,

Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and in some the other. The God Mother Teresa worships cannot, we are told, see a sparrow fall to the ground without concern. For man, made in God’s image, to turn aside from the universal love, and fashion his own judgments based on his own fears and disparities, is a fearful thing bound to have fearful consequences.

That may not provide us with a governing blueprint. It doesn’t specify how mercy should manifest itself. But it is at least a reason we should give a damn.

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Phillipines: New President, Same Problems

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.

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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.

When I visited recently along with a group from the Council on Foreign Relations, we stayed at a fancy hotel that was surrounded by miles of girly bars and massage parlors. When I mentioned this fact to a Filipino, he said, with only slight exaggeration, that whole country is a red light district. Indeed, trafficking in women is a growth industry—placing the Philippines behind only Thailand in the region.

I got a vivid glimpse of the country’s problem when we went to meetings with cabinet ministers and other senior officials. Visiting the “comfort room” before our talks (the Filipino term for bathroom) I discovered stalls without toilet paper and sinks without soap or towels. Call it the bathroom test: a country whose leaders can’t even stock their own bathrooms is a dysfunctional place.

That impression was confirmed by our travel in and out of Manila’s international airport which makes New York’s dilapidated Kennedy airport seem like the height of modernity by comparison. When we flew from Manila to Seoul it was like leaving the third world and arriving in the first world. Yet only a few decades ago South Korea was as poor as the Philippines.

What happened? Residents I talked to offered a variety of explanations, from overpopulation to corruption to an inbred ruling class to a stifling Catholic orthodoxy. In the end I think it boils down to leadership, or lack thereof.

Ferdinand Marcos hijacked the county in the 1960s and for the next twenty years presided over an increasingly corrupt and ramshackle government. The return of democracy was no panacea: Marcos was followed by the ineffectual Corazon Aquino and the more effective Fidel Ramos, who in turn was succeeded by the clownish former actor Joseph Estrada (no Ronald Reagan, he) and the ineffective Maria Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, both of whom presided over free-flowing corruption.

All those bad leaders have done a lot of damage to an English-speaking country that has a lot of unrealized potential. Now it is up to young Aquino to unlock some of that potential. The Philippines could be another India or Malaysia, but major reforms will be required to point it in the right direction.

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Boehner’s Victory

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.

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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.

Friday night’s agreement to avert a government shutdown also needs to be placed within a wider context. During the 111th Congress’s Lame Duck session in December, Republicans were able to get the president to agree to extend the Bush-era tax cuts. What is happening before our eyes is the slow undoing of the Obama economic agenda. It certainly isn’t everything conservatives would hope for, but given that Republicans control only the House, it’s an impressive achievement.

Some conservatives insist on viewing this victory, limited but important, as a strategic defeat, a capitulation, a show of weakness. One could detect in them not simply a willingness to accept a shutdown of the government but an eagerness for one. That would have been a mistake on every level, in part because most of the public doesn’t consider a shutdown of government to be an achievement of any kind.

Nor were these conservatives ever able to explain what principle was at stake. Even they had to concede that the differences under discussion (a few billion dollars in a budget of more than $3.5 trillion) were minuscule. On top of that a shutdown would almost surely have weakened, not strengthened, the GOP’s negotiating hand as lawmakers shift their attention to the next looming budget battles, including (next month) raising the debt limit and debating the budget submitted last week by Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Less than six months after the 2010 mid-term elections and three months after taking majority control of one half of one-third of the three branches of government, we’re seeing a significant reversal in direction. We’ve gone from historic spending increases to historic cuts. There’s still a huge amount of repair work that needs to be done, but the House leadership has, so far, acted in a manner that is both principled and prudent.

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Stop Playing the “Apartheid Card”

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.”

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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.”

Hayes said that this was the Vanguard Leadership Group’s third initiative on international issues. Previously, the organization has taken stances against the genocide in Sudan and the Iranian regime’s antagonism toward the U.S. The group believed that it needed to speak out on the Israel apartheid comparisons, Hayes said, because otherwise “people just accept it for what it is.”

In the open letter to Students for Justice in Palestine—which a few campus papers reportedly refused to print because it was too “controversial”—Vanguard called for “an immediate cessation to the deliberate misappropriation of words and of the flagrant mischaracterizations of Israel. Your compliance with this request will be viewed as a responsible and appropriate first step toward raising the level of discourse.”

Hayes said that the group is still awaiting a response from the Students for Justice in Palestine. While it would be welcome if this letter caused the pro-Palestinian organization to rethink its misinformed and abhorrent rhetoric toward Israel, that seems a bit unlikely considering the intensity of anti-Israel hatred entrenched in it. But the benefit of having this letter published in multiple students papers is that at least other students will be able to read a side of the story that is sadly lacking on college campuses.

Update: There has been some uncertainty about whether the letter was published as an advertisement. I asked Hayes to clarify, and here’s his emailed response: “When we spoke I must have misunderstood your question concerning the way the article was published. The JTA and J[erusalem] Post are correct in their assertion that, our ‘Letter’ was published as an advertisement. Apologies for the miscommunication.” Hayes also told me that Vanguard picked up the tab. “Vanguard Leadership Group paid for all of the advertisements at all the institutions they were sent to,” he said.

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Taiwan Must Do More to Defend Itself

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.

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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.

The problem for Taiwan is that China has been increasingly successful in increasing its diplomatic and military isolation. The U.S. is Taiwan’s main, perhaps sole, ally, and while we are committed to its defense, American politicos appear increasingly wary of offending Beijing’s sensitivities by too openly backing this embattled democracy. Taiwanese diplomats complained that they are no longer receiving visits from American cabinet secretaries or high-profile lawmakers; whenever such visits are contemplated, Chinese officials threaten economic retaliation

Last year the Obama administration approved more than $6 billion in arms sales to Taiwan, but these were mainly defensive systems such as Black Hawk helicopters and Patriot missile-defense battery which are incapable of threatening the mainland. What Taiwan really wants are new F-16s to replace its aging air force and new diesel submarines. Together those systems could pose a potent threat to any Chinese invasion force. But the U.S. hasn’t sold Taiwan F-16s since 1992 and a pending request remains stalemated in the bureaucracy. The submarine request formally was approved by the Bush administration in 2001 but then quietly shelved by the Pentagon with the White House’s acquiescence

Faced with these limitations, Taiwan is wisely adopting a policy of self-help. It has just unveiled a squadron of ten locally manufactured missile boats, and it is reportedly developing two new cruise missiles capable of hitting the mainland. The missiles are a particularly good idea because they offer the prospect of reestablishing some deterrence which has been eroding in the face of China’s alarming military build-up. Beijing might think twice about invading Taiwan if it thought that Taiwan could retaliate by destroying, say, the Three Gorges Dam

But if it is truly to safeguard its independence Taiwan must go further. It should try to develop a much larger domestic arms industry, so that it is less dependent on increasingly uncertain American support in the future. Why not try to build its own diesel subs or fighter aircraft? The challenges are formidable but hardly insuperable for such a rich and technologically sophisticated country

The model here is Israel, which, while receiving copious American aid, has developed its own aerospace industry and arms manufacturing sector which has produced such high-profile successes as the Merkava tank, the Uzi submachine gun, the Iron Dome missile defense system, and numerous UAVs. There is no reason Taiwan cannot emulate Israel’s example—it is, after all, considerably larger and wealthier (its GDP and population are roughly four times larger than Israel’s). The problem is that it has not made as much of a commitment to its own defense. Israel spends 7.3% of GDP on defense; Taiwan, only 2.7%.

The U.S. needs to make more of a commitment to Taiwan’s defense to avert the possibility of a tragic and destructive conflict that could be triggered by Chinese aggression. But Taiwan also needs to do more to defend itself—otherwise this Asian success story, the first Chinese democracy, could be in danger of perishing at some point in the not-too-distant future.

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Arab League Wants No-Fly Zone in Gaza

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.

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.

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Maybe the Right Term is “Land for Defensible Borders”

Today’s Wall Street Journal publishes a letter from Richard Calkins under the heading “Maybe the Right Middle East Term Is ‘Peace For Land.’ ” Calkins argues that the order of the peace process should be reversed:

“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.

Today’s Wall Street Journal publishes a letter from Richard Calkins under the heading “Maybe the Right Middle East Term Is ‘Peace For Land.’ ” Calkins argues that the order of the peace process should be reversed:

“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.

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Meet Barack O’Cameron

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.

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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.

On the policy level, there’s no good reason for Britain to insert itself into resolving the Kashmir issue. Like an open sore, it is not going to get better if people keep poking at it, and any external mediator who sought to wave a magic wand and make the problem go away would find—as the Obama Adminstration has found to its cost in the Middle East—that energetic diplomacy, by its very display of eagerness, only raises the price of peace. Just as it’s bad business to enter a car dealership and announce that you must buy, so it’s poor diplomacy to rush into a conflict with a panting desire for a solution now, which only gives the power in the negotiations to the spoilers.

But by putting the blame for Kashmir and everything else on Britain, Cameron’s statement was classically gratuitous. Predictably, the liberal British media have lapped it up, with the Independent claiming that Britain is also primarily responsible for all the world’s wars. As Robin Simcox points out, it’s not the first time a British Prime Minister has embarked on a wave of sorry-making: Tony Blair (Irish potato famine, slave trade) and Gordon Brown (child abuse in Canada) were there before him. Nor is it easy to see what Britain has to gain domestically by apologizing, especially since many of the most dangerous Islamists in Britain hail from the Kashmir region and are hardly likely to be mollified by comments that reinforce their hatred.

Simcox views Cameron’s statement as a classic example of post-colonial guilt. It is an expression of the liberal fallacy that weakness, humility, self-laceration, and regret are a kind of strength, which is true only if the other side is composed of liberals. Regrettably, liberals of any sort are thin on the ground in Pakistan. As the Heritage Foundation’s Lisa Curtis observes, the Kashmir issue “represents Pakistani paranoia about a growing and emerging India.” Resolving it is fundamentally a job for Pakistan and India, backed by very quiet U.S. and allied diplomacy. Statements like Cameron’s are tiresome and irrelevant in their guilt, and by suggesting that Pakistan can continue to get mileage out of blaming outsiders for its problems, are also distinctly unhelpful to everyone involved.

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Sesame Street Goes to Pakistan

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:

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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:

The furry Muppets will trade 123 Sesame Street and Mr. Hooper’s Store for some local flavoring – they’ll live in a dhaba, a traditional Pakistani village with teacarts roaming the streets and simple homes dotting the landscape. The star of the show will be neither an oversized bird nor a blue junk-food lover, but rather a six-year-old Muppet child named Rani, the child of a local farmer sporting pigtails and a distinct curiosity about the world. But Elmo is also poised for a starring role in the Pakistani version.

To make a female character the lead is wonderful, especially with the persecution that women face in Pakistan. But at Hot Air, Jazz Shaw is a bit skeptical about whether the show will reach the audience it needs to in order to make an impact on the culture. “The areas where we really need to reach people and begin to change their way of thinking are more with the tribal groups than in the urban areas which are somewhat friendlier to western interests,” he writes. “And those are the areas which will have the least access to television programming.”

He’s right that that should be the focus, but there’s also significant work that has to be done to change the way of thinking among the mainstream population. The assassinations of two liberal Pakistani leaders over the past few months wasn’t just cheered on by the tribal communities—they were also cheered by many in the urban areas as well.

However, one unanswered question about the program is how much control USAID will have over its content. If the U.S. is putting up $20 million, we better have a say in what makes the final cut for the show.

Which is why this interview with the show’s creators is worrying:

[Quote] But the shows are not about only reading, writing and arithmetic, they also teach Islamic principles. “The meaning of jihad (struggle) can be told with lots of colours and a little bird and a flower. No one needs to be a villain. This is what we try to put into the minds of children: the biggest jihad begins when you look into your own self,” they said. [Quote]

Spending U.S. money to teach Pakistani children basic academic lessons and tolerance is one thing. But our government should not be spending it to teach Islamic religious principles.

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