Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 29, 2011

Pressure Shalit’s Kidnappers, Not Netanyahu

Yesterday, many Israelis and Jews around the world marked the 25th birthday of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas five years ago. Israeli demonstrators demanded his release but seemed to focus more on the unwillingness of the Israeli government to release 1,000 imprisoned terrorists — including many with Jewish blood on their hands — than on the killers who are holding Shalit.

That is the irony of all such activist efforts undertaken on behalf of a hostage being held by terrorists. It is the democratic governments who are forced to weigh the dangers of releasing terrorists against the imperative to ransom a captive who wind up being in the crosshairs of the controversy rather than the criminals. Our own Evelyn Gordon summed up this dilemma neatly last year when in writing about the case in the May 2010 issue of COMMENTARY she stated that despair over peace had led to defeatism about dealing with such instances of terror:

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Yesterday, many Israelis and Jews around the world marked the 25th birthday of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas five years ago. Israeli demonstrators demanded his release but seemed to focus more on the unwillingness of the Israeli government to release 1,000 imprisoned terrorists — including many with Jewish blood on their hands — than on the killers who are holding Shalit.

That is the irony of all such activist efforts undertaken on behalf of a hostage being held by terrorists. It is the democratic governments who are forced to weigh the dangers of releasing terrorists against the imperative to ransom a captive who wind up being in the crosshairs of the controversy rather than the criminals. Our own Evelyn Gordon summed up this dilemma neatly last year when in writing about the case in the May 2010 issue of COMMENTARY she stated that despair over peace had led to defeatism about dealing with such instances of terror:

So long as the only factors in the equation that determine Israeli thinking are love of their children and the imperative to ransom captives, no political leader is likely to have the courage to resist the overwhelming public pressure for a deal. So there will be more Gilad Shalits, and the price the country will pay for their freedom will go even higher.

As much as we should all sympathize with the Shalit family, those seeking to increase the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to give in to extortionate ransom demands are aiding Hamas, not Gilad Shalit. The only legitimate point of discussion about this issue should be the determination of the civilized world to isolate and bring down the independent terrorist state in Gaza that is holding the 25-year-old prisoner. So long as this group is able to exert sovereignty over that territory and continue to launch terror strikes at Israel with impunity, there will indeed be no end to the number of Israelis killed or kidnapped.

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Beinart Pronounces Neoconservatism Dead

It’s hard to keep track of how many times neoconservatism has been pronounced dead by critics. At the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart pens the latest eulogy:

And not only is al-Qaeda sliding into irrelevance, its demise is being hastened by exactly the narrowly targeted policies that neoconservatives derided.

The Obama administration is destroying al-Qaeda not by remaking Afghanistan—a project that looks increasingly far-fetched—but through intelligence cooperation and drone strikes. And while political change—and maybe even democracy—is indeed coming to the Middle East, it is coming because younger Muslims are fed up with corruption and dictatorship, not because of anything done by the Fourth Infantry Division.

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It’s hard to keep track of how many times neoconservatism has been pronounced dead by critics. At the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart pens the latest eulogy:

And not only is al-Qaeda sliding into irrelevance, its demise is being hastened by exactly the narrowly targeted policies that neoconservatives derided.

The Obama administration is destroying al-Qaeda not by remaking Afghanistan—a project that looks increasingly far-fetched—but through intelligence cooperation and drone strikes. And while political change—and maybe even democracy—is indeed coming to the Middle East, it is coming because younger Muslims are fed up with corruption and dictatorship, not because of anything done by the Fourth Infantry Division.

Throughout his essay, Beinart seems to falsely conflate neoconservatism with endless military action and the idea democracy can only be instituted by military force. These are both strawman arguments. In fact, the neocon position – that promoting democracy is both an American value and a national security interest – has become so widely accepted during the past decade it barely needs defending.

Beinart’s praise for Obama’s counterterrorism policies (really a continuation of the Bush policies) highlights how mainstream neoconservative ideas have become. His assertion that the Arab Spring was a result of young Muslims “fed up with corruption and dictatorship” stems from the notion dictatorships are not sustainable U.S. partners — a fact that’s barely even up for debate anymore.

And it’s because during the past few years, even progressives have become more open to neoconservative ideas. Obama came into office on promises to sit down with tyrants like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He ended up sending American troops to Libya to oust Qaddafi. Now, critics like Beinart have been reduced to claiming neocons oppose drone strikes or organic pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world – blatantly ridiculous allegations. From that standpoint, Beinart’s article pretty much refutes itself.

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Poll: Government’s Image at All-Time Low

According to a new Gallup survey, the image of the federal government is at an all-time low.

According to the poll, Americans view the computer industry the most positively and the federal government the least positively when asked to rate 25 business and industry sectors.

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According to a new Gallup survey, the image of the federal government is at an all-time low.

According to the poll, Americans view the computer industry the most positively and the federal government the least positively when asked to rate 25 business and industry sectors.

The federal government has been near the bottom of the list in previous years, Gallup reports, but is at the absolute bottom this year for the first time, displacing the oil and gas industry. Only 17 percent of Americans have a positive view of the federal government while 63 percent have a negative image, a staggering 46-point gap. Real estate, health care, banking, and the legal field all rank above the federal government. The images of the federal government and the real estate industry have dropped the most during the past decade, with the percentage of Americans rating the government positively has declined 24 points since 2003, when George W. Bush was president.

There are a number of (tentative) conclusions that might be drawn from this finding, including this one: when liberals are in charge of government, confidence in it tends to collapse. That happened with Jimmy Carter, and it’s happening again with Barack Obama. (Bill Clinton succeeded most often when he governed more as a conservative than a liberal. See welfare reform and the 1997 budget agreement for more.)

Modern-day liberals have enormous–and very nearly unlimited–faith in the power, efficacy and healing effects of the federal government. They want it to control more and more areas of our lives (the Affordable Care Act is a prime example). And yet the more it does, the more opposition to government increases.

That isn’t always the case, of course. But it happens often enough that one cannot help but be struck by the irony of it all. Liberals assume office because of their enormous confidence in government to do good – and they often leave office having convinced much of the public of just the opposite. Which is why Barack Obama may be among the best things to happen to conservatism since Ronald Wilson Reagan. Having felt the effects of liberalism up close and personal, the alternative looks mighty fine right about now.

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Tea or No Tea: Perry Way Ahead in GOP

A new CNN/ORC International Poll released today confirms the results of last week’s Gallup survey: Rick Perry has jumped way ahead of the rest of the Republican presidential field. Republicans and GOP-leaning independents gave the Texas governor a 27-14 percent lead over Mitt Romney in a questionnaire that included Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani as choices. When those two non-candidates were eliminated, Perry’s advantage increased to 32-18 percent.

The most interesting piece of intelligence from the breakdown of the survey was that Perry had an overwhelming advantage among those who counted themselves as supporters of the Tea Party, with 37 percent of that group backing him to only 11 percent for Romney. Even more significant is Perry had an edge even among those who considered themselves neutral about the Tea Party, leading Romney 18-16 percent. This means that within only a couple of weeks of his campaign launch, Perry is not only the choice of conservatives but is competitive with GOP moderates.

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A new CNN/ORC International Poll released today confirms the results of last week’s Gallup survey: Rick Perry has jumped way ahead of the rest of the Republican presidential field. Republicans and GOP-leaning independents gave the Texas governor a 27-14 percent lead over Mitt Romney in a questionnaire that included Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani as choices. When those two non-candidates were eliminated, Perry’s advantage increased to 32-18 percent.

The most interesting piece of intelligence from the breakdown of the survey was that Perry had an overwhelming advantage among those who counted themselves as supporters of the Tea Party, with 37 percent of that group backing him to only 11 percent for Romney. Even more significant is Perry had an edge even among those who considered themselves neutral about the Tea Party, leading Romney 18-16 percent. This means that within only a couple of weeks of his campaign launch, Perry is not only the choice of conservatives but is competitive with GOP moderates.

Obviously, this is bad news for Romney. His default position as frontrunner against the likes of Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty through the spring and summer is officially over. It is worse news for Bachmann, whose brief stay in the first tier is also finished. That the woman who was the leading advocate of the Tea Party in Congress during the last two years trails Perry by a shocking margin of 37-14 among those who identify with that group says all we need to know about who is at this moment the overwhelming choice of conservatives. Even if Bachmann shines at the upcoming debates, Perry will have to falter badly for her to make up so much ground.

As for the rest of the field, it is also no longer in doubt that every other GOP candidate is more or less running for symbolic or personal reasons. While men like Rick Santorum or Herman Cain could never have been said to have a reasonable chance of winning, that is not the case for Jon Huntsman, whom many in the media believed to be a serious contender when he announced. That the well-funded Huntsman is registering only one percent in this poll and trailing even former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson–who gets two percent but has not even been invited to take part in the upcoming debates–must be considered quite an accomplishment. When you take into account the fact Huntsman, Cain, Santorum and Johnson are all registering support that is less than the three percent margin of error in this poll, perhaps we should stop worrying about how much coverage marginal candidates like Ron Paul (six percent support) get and wonder why anyone bothers to note Huntsman is still wandering the country pretending to be a serious candidate.

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The Sainted Colin Powell’s Shocking Distortions

Jennifer Rubin, our former colleague, catches Colin Powell out in a disgraceful effort to rewrite the history of his own department’s—and his own deputy’s—outing of the identity of Victoria Plame. He did so in response to Dick Cheney’s book. Jen’s post can’t be improved on. Read it here.

Jennifer Rubin, our former colleague, catches Colin Powell out in a disgraceful effort to rewrite the history of his own department’s—and his own deputy’s—outing of the identity of Victoria Plame. He did so in response to Dick Cheney’s book. Jen’s post can’t be improved on. Read it here.

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The End of Books—This Time for Sure!

Bill Quick is the latest pundit to join the book-is-dead parade. Most of this ground has already been covered in a friendly debate between John Podhoretz and me. John claimed here that “the end of the physical book” is near. I expressed some skepticism here, John chuffed me for thinking like a book collector here, and I mounted a defense of the “physical book” here.

The only reason to hand out these links is that Quick fires off assertions as if, unlike him, no one had ever, you know, actually made an argument to back them up. Or — here’s a radical notion — pondered his assertions and actually disagreed with them.

Thus “Books have no real future,” Quick declares. After all, a book is an object. “The core of the matter is story, not object!” he writes, underlining every word. (By “story,” he means a piece of writing’s intellectual content. He would have been better off speaking of “text,” because a piece of writing also consists of its language and structure.) But books are objects, stories are not, and old objects are replaced by newer objects. “We have had other such objects,” he observes — “scrolls, chapbooks [another kind of physical book], writing on walls, whatever.”

That the physical book (or the codex, as it is more properly called) has outlasted his “other such objects,” sometimes by a factor of ten, goes entirely overlooked. Quick gives no thought to whether the codex might have some qualities that make it superior to scrolls and writing on walls, and might even make it superior to Kindles and iPads. (Hint: reading is not, whatever he thinks, sheerly a mental activity.)

The real reason Quick has not thought about these issues is that he has confused two separate questions. But to declare that books have no real future is not the same as pronouncing the death of the “commercial structure undergirding our previous method of story delivery,” as he calls it — the corporate publishing model, with a single large company in control of all post-production aspects of literature (manuscript acceptance, editing, printing, distribution, advertising). As I’ve said before, it is a vulgar error to confuse the decline of publishing with anything else, including premature announcements of the book’s demise.

Electronic media, including self-publishing for the Kindle and iPad, have begun to liberate writers from the closed shops of the big publishing houses. Writers have begun to connect directly with readers, without the intermediacy of editors or even booksellers. That’s what has everybody excited. Whether electronic media are the best objects for the storing and retrieval of literary texts — well, that’s a different question altogether. Perhaps writers may even find a way to take control of the best possible object for literature, whatever it might turn out to be.

Update: In an update to his original post, Quick dismisses my reply as the “turgid” reflections of a mere “academic.” “Those that can’t write, teach,” he sneers. (Do you show pictures with these clichés, Bill?) He’s probably right about the “vapidity” of my intellect. God knows I bore my wife and children to tears!

But on one thing he is wrong, no matter how often he congratulates himself for publishing more books than I have. I admit it! I’m a one-book author! (My poor Elephants Teach, in print for fifteen years now.) When he says, though, that “those who can do neither [write or teach] become critics,” he is a buffoon. Like it or not, some of the best English writing — better writing even than Quick’s, if you can believe it — has been in the form of literary criticism. The only question about writing is whether it is any good: not whether it is written by an “academic” or a cheerleader for the singularity.

Bill Quick is the latest pundit to join the book-is-dead parade. Most of this ground has already been covered in a friendly debate between John Podhoretz and me. John claimed here that “the end of the physical book” is near. I expressed some skepticism here, John chuffed me for thinking like a book collector here, and I mounted a defense of the “physical book” here.

The only reason to hand out these links is that Quick fires off assertions as if, unlike him, no one had ever, you know, actually made an argument to back them up. Or — here’s a radical notion — pondered his assertions and actually disagreed with them.

Thus “Books have no real future,” Quick declares. After all, a book is an object. “The core of the matter is story, not object!” he writes, underlining every word. (By “story,” he means a piece of writing’s intellectual content. He would have been better off speaking of “text,” because a piece of writing also consists of its language and structure.) But books are objects, stories are not, and old objects are replaced by newer objects. “We have had other such objects,” he observes — “scrolls, chapbooks [another kind of physical book], writing on walls, whatever.”

That the physical book (or the codex, as it is more properly called) has outlasted his “other such objects,” sometimes by a factor of ten, goes entirely overlooked. Quick gives no thought to whether the codex might have some qualities that make it superior to scrolls and writing on walls, and might even make it superior to Kindles and iPads. (Hint: reading is not, whatever he thinks, sheerly a mental activity.)

The real reason Quick has not thought about these issues is that he has confused two separate questions. But to declare that books have no real future is not the same as pronouncing the death of the “commercial structure undergirding our previous method of story delivery,” as he calls it — the corporate publishing model, with a single large company in control of all post-production aspects of literature (manuscript acceptance, editing, printing, distribution, advertising). As I’ve said before, it is a vulgar error to confuse the decline of publishing with anything else, including premature announcements of the book’s demise.

Electronic media, including self-publishing for the Kindle and iPad, have begun to liberate writers from the closed shops of the big publishing houses. Writers have begun to connect directly with readers, without the intermediacy of editors or even booksellers. That’s what has everybody excited. Whether electronic media are the best objects for the storing and retrieval of literary texts — well, that’s a different question altogether. Perhaps writers may even find a way to take control of the best possible object for literature, whatever it might turn out to be.

Update: In an update to his original post, Quick dismisses my reply as the “turgid” reflections of a mere “academic.” “Those that can’t write, teach,” he sneers. (Do you show pictures with these clichés, Bill?) He’s probably right about the “vapidity” of my intellect. God knows I bore my wife and children to tears!

But on one thing he is wrong, no matter how often he congratulates himself for publishing more books than I have. I admit it! I’m a one-book author! (My poor Elephants Teach, in print for fifteen years now.) When he says, though, that “those who can do neither [write or teach] become critics,” he is a buffoon. Like it or not, some of the best English writing — better writing even than Quick’s, if you can believe it — has been in the form of literary criticism. The only question about writing is whether it is any good: not whether it is written by an “academic” or a cheerleader for the singularity.

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Within Spitting Distance of Carter Country

President Obama is now within spitting distance of Carter Country.

According to Gallup’s Daily Tracking Poll, Obama’s approval rating has fallen to 38 percent, and his disapproval rating has risen to 55 percent, both new records for him. These are depression-inducing numbers for Obama supporters. This has been a brutal summer for the president; he is rapidly digging himself a hole so deep it might soon be nearly impossible for him to climb out of it. No president since Harry Truman has won re-election with numbers this bad, this late into his first term.

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President Obama is now within spitting distance of Carter Country.

According to Gallup’s Daily Tracking Poll, Obama’s approval rating has fallen to 38 percent, and his disapproval rating has risen to 55 percent, both new records for him. These are depression-inducing numbers for Obama supporters. This has been a brutal summer for the president; he is rapidly digging himself a hole so deep it might soon be nearly impossible for him to climb out of it. No president since Harry Truman has won re-election with numbers this bad, this late into his first term.

As a reference point, Jimmy Carter’s approval rating for the period September 7-10, 1979 – a roughly comparable period in their presidencies – was 30 percent approval and 55 percent disapproval. Obama’s approval rating among independent voters is 35 percent while Carter’s was 30 percent. (Carter’s approval rating in early January 1980 shot up to 56 percent, only to begin another downward trend that lasted for most of the rest of the year). Add to that the fact Americans’ satisfaction with the way things are going in the country is now 11 percent, below even what it was during the Carter presidency.

Obama is clearly in a perilous situation.

The president can already count among his political achievements having been the architect of a disastrous mid-term election for Democrats. How much more can they expect to take until the president has a full-scale intra-party revolt on his hands? We’ve seen indications of unhappiness here and there (like Representative Maxine Waters voicing anger at the president). But if this downward trend continues for a few more weeks, we could well reach a critical mass of concern and anger directed at the president by members of his own party – a growing sense Obama is going down and will (continue to) take his party down with him. What response this might elicit from Democrats would be fascinating to watch.

Desperate politicians can make for interesting politics.

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Why Ron Paul Will Never Be Treated Like a Real Candidate

Not only did Ron Paul place second in the Iowa straw poll, he’s also been pulling in some respectable national polling numbers during the last few weeks. According to his RealClearPolitics average, he’s in a virtual dead heat with Michele Bachmann, and he even leads her in several polls.

But while the media treats Bachmann like a serious frontrunner, devoting significant time and resources covering her campaign, Paul has received far less coverage. According to his supporters, this is a testament to his appeal as a candidate: he’s been able to secure a top position in the race, despite the fact his message hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.

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Not only did Ron Paul place second in the Iowa straw poll, he’s also been pulling in some respectable national polling numbers during the last few weeks. According to his RealClearPolitics average, he’s in a virtual dead heat with Michele Bachmann, and he even leads her in several polls.

But while the media treats Bachmann like a serious frontrunner, devoting significant time and resources covering her campaign, Paul has received far less coverage. According to his supporters, this is a testament to his appeal as a candidate: he’s been able to secure a top position in the race, despite the fact his message hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.

But could the lack of press have actually helped him? At Politico, Ben Smith writes Paul’s success might be due to the fact his libertarian ideas haven’t been spotlighted by the media:

I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that Paul is boosted, not undermined, by the glancing coverage. Many of his supporters, of course, believe that his variety full-throated libertarianism would win the day if only given a platform, but I haven’t seen much evidence in American politics at any level that that’s the case.

Smith makes a good point. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter what’s behind Paul’s decent showing in the polls. He will never be taken seriously by the media, because he was already destroyed as a candidate in 2008. James Kirchick’s devastating New Republic article – which exposed the racism and homophobia printed for years in Paul’s newsletters – shattered any remnant of Paul’s credibility.

News coverage of the primaries is basically a mad dash for gaffes, controversial associations, alliances and feuds. But who cares if Paul makes another unhinged statement about Iran on the campaign trail? He once published newsletters that claimed gay people were attempting to poison the blood supply and referred to Black History Day as “Hate Whitey Day.” Is there really any need to dig further?

There are some scandals you just don’t bounce back from in politics. This is one of them.

 

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Media to Rick Perry: The Truth Isn’t Good Enough

The most revealing comment on Rick Perry’s denunciation of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme came at the end of Maggie Haberman’s post on the subject yesterday. In Perry’s book, “Fed Up!” he comes close to calling the country’s entitlement programs “unconstitutional,” and is unrelenting in his criticism of their contribution to America’s fiscal difficulties.

He has also been hitting the theme these “social safety nets” are far from safe if they go bankrupt, leaving beneficiaries who paid into the system their whole lives out of luck. Haberman notes Perry was asked repeatedly about this by reporters at campaign stops, and his response has been to assert that his book doesn’t say what reporters insist it says. Haberman thinks this isn’t good enough:

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The most revealing comment on Rick Perry’s denunciation of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme came at the end of Maggie Haberman’s post on the subject yesterday. In Perry’s book, “Fed Up!” he comes close to calling the country’s entitlement programs “unconstitutional,” and is unrelenting in his criticism of their contribution to America’s fiscal difficulties.

He has also been hitting the theme these “social safety nets” are far from safe if they go bankrupt, leaving beneficiaries who paid into the system their whole lives out of luck. Haberman notes Perry was asked repeatedly about this by reporters at campaign stops, and his response has been to assert that his book doesn’t say what reporters insist it says. Haberman thinks this isn’t good enough:

The whole episode underscores how difficult “Fed Up!,” which strongly favors states’ rights and is getting picked over by reporters and opposition researchers alike, will be for Perry to explain on the trail….

For Perry, saying a version of “that’s not what I said” is unlikely to do the trick.

First of all, “getting picked over” is the wrong word. Reporters and bloggers have, as the Politico post indicates, developed a fairly discomfiting track record when trying to explain what Perry’s book actually says. (See Avik Roy at National Review and Dan McLaughlin at RedState for two important correctives of some of the more egregious manipulations of the text.)

But what really jumps out at the reader is the latter sentence in Haberman’s quote. Pointing out that he didn’t actually say what reporters claim is, according to Haberman, “unlikely to do the trick.” Why on earth would that be? It’s unclear whether Haberman doubts the truth will be good enough for reporters or for senior citizens, but so far it’s the reporters questioning Perry on it and misquoting him.

Either way, Perry has been warned: reporters are not interested in nuance or that silly “legitimate, honest, national discussion” you say you want to have about entitlements. (On a side note, keep in mind these are the journalists asking if Rick Perry is “dumb.”) But on the other hand, these stories are doing Perry a favor. If he is the nominee, the Obama campaign will also helpfully elide the difference between what Perry said and what Perry didn’t say. And you can bet the advertisements will quote Politico, the Washington Post, and the other outlets that have pulled this stunt. Obama has already begun to demagogue the issue.

Another question, of course, is whether Perry should be repeating his attacks on entitlements. David Frum makes a good point when he asks: “Do [Republicans] really want to volunteer to reverse this election from a referendum on President Obama’s record to a referendum on Rick Perry’s intentions?”

Perry has two ready-made issues for the general election, should he become the nominee: his record of job creation vs. that of President Obama, and his creative and well-regarded approach to reforming schools in ways that will help the poorest students get access to a better education. But that’s a question for Perry to answer, and he may decide reforming entitlements is more important than winning an election. It’s a shame, however, that Perry’s call for an honest national discussion about the issues has already been rejected both by campaign reporters and the president.

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A Whole New Genre of Mystery

Six and a half decades ago, Edmund Wilson demolished mystery stories with a single title: “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” The mass of mysteries, he says, are “sub-literary.” They are badly written, almost devoid of “human interest or even atmosphere,” good examples of bad storytelling. Wilson concludes that mystery stories are “simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles.”

Smoking is no longer considered a harmless vice, and mysteries are now taken seriously as literature if and only if they are transformed, according to Ted Gioia, into a “playground for the most experimental tendencies and avant-garde techniques.” Gioia has dedicated an entire website to the genre that he calls postmodern mysteries. Fifty of them are “essential reading.” And a couple of them — The Trial, Nabokov’s Pale Fire — are even better than essential. They are masterpieces.

The bulk of Gioia’s list, though, consists of fashionable glop. Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union, for reasons I’ve given elsewhere, is a complete fraud. The moral bankruptcy of Paul Auster’s Leviathan, which shrugs off terrorism (“if these two-bit explosions forced people to rethink their positions about life, then maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all”), was fully exposed by 9/11. Truman Capote’s famous In Cold Blood is little more than a chic cooperation with evil.

Perhaps two titles left off Gioia’s reading list suggest the limitations of the whole genre. Thomas Berger’s Who Is Teddy Villanova? (1977) is a learned spoof of the detective novel. It is nearly as much about literature as anything else. Not entirely, however. Berger’s detective Russel Wren has what Gioia calls an “obsession with texts,” but only because literature for him is a refuge from modern culture’s descent into violent and foul-smelling anarchy. The moral dimension of Berger’s novel is unlikely to appeal to fans of the postmodern mystery (which might better be called the post-moral mystery), although Who Is Teddy Villanova? is both hilarious and intellectual satisfying.

The other title Gioia leaves off his list is Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (also 1977) by the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. The target of Vargas Llosa’s spoof is soap operas, not mysteries. But still. The novel raises serious questions about the relation of “serious” literature to real life, since soap operas (and other kinds of popular storytelling, like mysteries) are so much more successful in blurring the lines between fiction and reality for their devoted followers — or “mashing” them up, as the current saying goes.

Vargas Llosa’s novel alternates between the story of a young man named Mario (the first “meme” of the postmodern mystery, Gioia says, is that “The Author Appears as a Character”), who romantically pursues his aunt, and Pedro Camacho, a writer of radio scripts for the soaps, for whom Mario works. As his scripts become progressively more outlandish — they are reproduced as separate chapters — Camacho becomes lost in them. But that only increases Mario’s admiration for him:

Why should those persons who used literature as an ornament or a pretext have any more right to be considered real writers than Pedro Camacho, who lived only to write? Because they had read (or at least knew that they should have read) Proust, Faulkner, Joyce, while Pedro Camacho was nearly illiterate?

The message — that literature is a far more serious business than some of its most famous champions are prepared to admit — is not exactly an affirmation of postmodern play and experiment, but Vargas Llosa’s novel has at least one redeeming feature. It will make you laugh out loud.

And if you really want to read an anti-detective anti-mystery, who better to seek out than the British writer Bill James? His novel The Detective Is Dead defines a whole new genre (“The detective as species” is dead, he explains, because “Courts won’t hear confessions, they throw out informant cases, still give every career villain the right to silence, disbelieve police evidence as a matter of course”). It is, however, a genre that does not consider crime detection a playful matter.

Six and a half decades ago, Edmund Wilson demolished mystery stories with a single title: “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” The mass of mysteries, he says, are “sub-literary.” They are badly written, almost devoid of “human interest or even atmosphere,” good examples of bad storytelling. Wilson concludes that mystery stories are “simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles.”

Smoking is no longer considered a harmless vice, and mysteries are now taken seriously as literature if and only if they are transformed, according to Ted Gioia, into a “playground for the most experimental tendencies and avant-garde techniques.” Gioia has dedicated an entire website to the genre that he calls postmodern mysteries. Fifty of them are “essential reading.” And a couple of them — The Trial, Nabokov’s Pale Fire — are even better than essential. They are masterpieces.

The bulk of Gioia’s list, though, consists of fashionable glop. Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union, for reasons I’ve given elsewhere, is a complete fraud. The moral bankruptcy of Paul Auster’s Leviathan, which shrugs off terrorism (“if these two-bit explosions forced people to rethink their positions about life, then maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all”), was fully exposed by 9/11. Truman Capote’s famous In Cold Blood is little more than a chic cooperation with evil.

Perhaps two titles left off Gioia’s reading list suggest the limitations of the whole genre. Thomas Berger’s Who Is Teddy Villanova? (1977) is a learned spoof of the detective novel. It is nearly as much about literature as anything else. Not entirely, however. Berger’s detective Russel Wren has what Gioia calls an “obsession with texts,” but only because literature for him is a refuge from modern culture’s descent into violent and foul-smelling anarchy. The moral dimension of Berger’s novel is unlikely to appeal to fans of the postmodern mystery (which might better be called the post-moral mystery), although Who Is Teddy Villanova? is both hilarious and intellectual satisfying.

The other title Gioia leaves off his list is Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (also 1977) by the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. The target of Vargas Llosa’s spoof is soap operas, not mysteries. But still. The novel raises serious questions about the relation of “serious” literature to real life, since soap operas (and other kinds of popular storytelling, like mysteries) are so much more successful in blurring the lines between fiction and reality for their devoted followers — or “mashing” them up, as the current saying goes.

Vargas Llosa’s novel alternates between the story of a young man named Mario (the first “meme” of the postmodern mystery, Gioia says, is that “The Author Appears as a Character”), who romantically pursues his aunt, and Pedro Camacho, a writer of radio scripts for the soaps, for whom Mario works. As his scripts become progressively more outlandish — they are reproduced as separate chapters — Camacho becomes lost in them. But that only increases Mario’s admiration for him:

Why should those persons who used literature as an ornament or a pretext have any more right to be considered real writers than Pedro Camacho, who lived only to write? Because they had read (or at least knew that they should have read) Proust, Faulkner, Joyce, while Pedro Camacho was nearly illiterate?

The message — that literature is a far more serious business than some of its most famous champions are prepared to admit — is not exactly an affirmation of postmodern play and experiment, but Vargas Llosa’s novel has at least one redeeming feature. It will make you laugh out loud.

And if you really want to read an anti-detective anti-mystery, who better to seek out than the British writer Bill James? His novel The Detective Is Dead defines a whole new genre (“The detective as species” is dead, he explains, because “Courts won’t hear confessions, they throw out informant cases, still give every career villain the right to silence, disbelieve police evidence as a matter of course”). It is, however, a genre that does not consider crime detection a playful matter.

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Headwinds and Hot Air

Here is some Ivy League economic analysis, via the Wall Street Journal: “Some economists, among them Harvard University’s Kenneth Rogoff, say today’s painfully slow economic growth is the inevitable result of the massive headwinds that follow a recession caused by a banking and financial crisis.”

Good thing academia is there to explain the complexities of the economy to us.  Without Professor Rogoff, I would have incorrectly assumed that our stagnation was attributable to something more substantive than a metaphor. Silly me: what we’re looking at is obviously a case of “massive headwinds.” Next, Yale economists are expected to weigh in, noting conclusively that we are “on shaky ground.”

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Here is some Ivy League economic analysis, via the Wall Street Journal: “Some economists, among them Harvard University’s Kenneth Rogoff, say today’s painfully slow economic growth is the inevitable result of the massive headwinds that follow a recession caused by a banking and financial crisis.”

Good thing academia is there to explain the complexities of the economy to us.  Without Professor Rogoff, I would have incorrectly assumed that our stagnation was attributable to something more substantive than a metaphor. Silly me: what we’re looking at is obviously a case of “massive headwinds.” Next, Yale economists are expected to weigh in, noting conclusively that we are “on shaky ground.”

Of course, one shouldn’t be too critical of this kind of analysis. It exposes the level of intellectual exhaustion that all parties have reached in trying to come up with solutions to our woes. When you turn to an Ivy League economist to get the same level of professional scrutiny you can get from a cast member of “Jersey Shore,” you’re in trouble. “Headwinds” has become a popular buzzword and a bit of a dodge, which is why Barack Obama also uses it to describe the bedeviling forces holding us back. It is a worrying feature of the ongoing economic crisis that pundits and politicians are becoming less articulate diagnosticians as our problems drag on.

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Perry’s Ronald Reagan Test

Today’s lead Politico article titled “Is Rick Perry Dumb?” is yet another indication of the heightened scrutiny the Texas governor will undergo in his new role as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Despite the inflammatory headline, this piece doesn’t provide much fodder for the debate about Perry. Yet in the coming weeks and months, as every thing he has ever done or said will be examined with a fine tooth comb, we can expect that critics — and Democrats doing opposition research — will jump on any indication he is not a genius or lacks interest in policy. By contrast, his loyalists will be working hard to dismiss this line of inquiry while railing at the bias of the mainstream media and liberal elitism.

But the really interesting question this line of attack raises is not whether Perry has a high enough IQ to be president. Whether you love him or hate him, it’s fairly obvious after more than a decade as governor of Texas, he clearly knows how to govern. What the attacks on his intelligence will show us is not how smart he is but whether he has the temperament to run for national office. What Perry is undergoing is what I like to call the Ronald Reagan test.

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Today’s lead Politico article titled “Is Rick Perry Dumb?” is yet another indication of the heightened scrutiny the Texas governor will undergo in his new role as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Despite the inflammatory headline, this piece doesn’t provide much fodder for the debate about Perry. Yet in the coming weeks and months, as every thing he has ever done or said will be examined with a fine tooth comb, we can expect that critics — and Democrats doing opposition research — will jump on any indication he is not a genius or lacks interest in policy. By contrast, his loyalists will be working hard to dismiss this line of inquiry while railing at the bias of the mainstream media and liberal elitism.

But the really interesting question this line of attack raises is not whether Perry has a high enough IQ to be president. Whether you love him or hate him, it’s fairly obvious after more than a decade as governor of Texas, he clearly knows how to govern. What the attacks on his intelligence will show us is not how smart he is but whether he has the temperament to run for national office. What Perry is undergoing is what I like to call the Ronald Reagan test.

Though even liberals now read Reagan’s letters and speeches and marvel at how literate and thoughtful he was, in his day, the 40th president was widely denounced as an “amiable dunce” by Washington insiders and liberal pundits. The contempt for Reagan from our cultural elites and the media was enormous. Yet Reagan never stooped to bitter counter-attacks against those who slurred him. He smiled, rose above it and simply stayed on message. His grace, good humor and sunny personality inspired trust just as much as his trenchant critiques of liberalism. Against him, the “stupid” argument simply failed on its merits, a result that left his political enemies deeply frustrated.

This is a test other conservatives have undergone sometimes with notably less favorable results. Sarah Palin is just the most famous example of a conservative politician who failed the Reagan test. Faced with a harsh press and liberal contempt, she not only failed to rise above her critics, Palin’s angry reactions and foolish comments wound up confirming some of the public’s suspicions about her failings.

Passing the Reagan test means not only must a conservative have the self-control to avoid lashing out at foes but also the self confidence to understand such attacks can’t hurt them. They must also have a sufficiently broad view of the political world to understand playing only to one’s core supporters — who will inevitably cheer bitter ripostes at unfair jibes — is not in their best long term interests.

Rick Perry’s intelligence isn’t going to be a major issue in 2012. After all, common sense is more important to being a good president than advanced degrees or even top grades in college. The real measure of his ability to be elected and to be successful after he is sworn in will be whether he passes the Ronald Reagan test by ignoring and even laughing off personal attacks.

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Gaza’s Terrorist Regime Must Be Destroyed

Today’s terror attack in Tel Aviv was unusual in that it originated in the West Bank, where a continuous, proactive Israel Defense Forces presence has virtually eradicated terror. In contrast, Israel suffers daily terrorism from Gaza, which the IDF left six years ago, and repeated “cease-fires” never actually cease the fire: This weekend, for instance, three rockets hit southern Israel despite the “cease-fire” announced last week by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees.

During the last six years, Gazan terrorists have fired more  than 7,000 rockets and mortars at Israel. That successive Israeli governments have allowed this terror to continue is an abdication of any government’s primary responsibility: ensuring its citizens’ security. But it has also had devastating strategic consequences.

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Today’s terror attack in Tel Aviv was unusual in that it originated in the West Bank, where a continuous, proactive Israel Defense Forces presence has virtually eradicated terror. In contrast, Israel suffers daily terrorism from Gaza, which the IDF left six years ago, and repeated “cease-fires” never actually cease the fire: This weekend, for instance, three rockets hit southern Israel despite the “cease-fire” announced last week by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees.

During the last six years, Gazan terrorists have fired more  than 7,000 rockets and mortars at Israel. That successive Israeli governments have allowed this terror to continue is an abdication of any government’s primary responsibility: ensuring its citizens’ security. But it has also had devastating strategic consequences.

As former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer noted, it acclimated the world to the idea rocket fire on Israel is perfectly acceptable, with the result that when Israel finally did strike back in 2008, it suffered universal condemnation, culminating in the infamous Goldstone Report. As Haaretz Palestinian affairs correspondent Avi Issacharoff  noted, it has convinced the terrorists Israel fears them, emboldening them to escalate their terror. As Rabbi Eric Yoffie noted, it undermines the raison d’etre of a Jewish state, which is to protect Jews. And you needn’t be “right-wing” to reach these conclusions; all of the above are outspoken liberal doves.

Now, as I’ve written elsewhere, the terrorist enclave in Gaza also threatens Israel’s peace with Egypt. This month’s terror attacks near Eilat, perpetrated by Gazans who traversed the  Sinai to attack across the Egyptian-Israeli border, sparked a major diplomatic crisis with Cairo when several Egyptian soldiers were killed in the cross-fire; this success will surely prompt the terrorists to try to repeat it. And if enough Israelis and Egyptians are killed along their mutual border, an Egyptian-Israeli war could erupt.

For all these reasons, eliminating the Gazan terrorist enclave is imperative. But this can’t be done via a short-term operation like 2008’s; only a long-term IDF presence in Gaza will do.

The claim “there’s no military solution to rocket fire” is patently absurd. During those same years when Gazan terrorists fired more than 7,000 missiles at Israel, not a single rocket was fired from the West Bank. So unless you believe that West Bank terrorists, unlike their Gazan counterparts, never wanted to launch rockets,  the obvious conclusion is the IDF’s continuous, proactive presence has thus far prevented West Bank terrorists from acquiring rocket-launching capabilities.

The diplomatic arguments against such a move are far more serious: The international outcry would be enormous. But continued delay will only further embolden the terrorists, further accustom the world to the idea terrorists are entitled to shoot rockets at Israel with impunity, and make war with Egypt more likely. Indeed, the Eilat attacks put the diplomatic consequences of inaction on stark display: Though Israel had precise intelligence about the attacks, its government rejected a Shin Bet security service recommendation to thwart them via a preventive strike on Gaza, fearing Egypt’s anger. In consequence, the attacks went ahead and several Egyptians were killed – outraging Egyptian public opinion far more than a strike on Gaza would have.

Gaza’s terrorist regime must be destroyed. Israel can no longer afford any other outcome.

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The Big “R” Theory Known as Realism

I have the utmost respect for Robert Kaplan, one of our greatest travel writers. With his combination of vast historical knowledge, willingness to travel under the most shabby and dangerous conditions, and his acute powers of observation, he is a fitting heir to Sir Richard Francis Burton, Freya Stark, Rebecca West, and other masters of the genre. But I believe he is somewhat offbase in his Financial Times paean to “realism” today.

He claims the way President Obama has conducted the Libya intervention is along realist lines. This may or not be true when it comes to small “r” realism (that remains to be seen); it is definitely not true when it comes to the big “R” theory known as Realism, or Realpolitik, defined by Wikipedia as follows:

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I have the utmost respect for Robert Kaplan, one of our greatest travel writers. With his combination of vast historical knowledge, willingness to travel under the most shabby and dangerous conditions, and his acute powers of observation, he is a fitting heir to Sir Richard Francis Burton, Freya Stark, Rebecca West, and other masters of the genre. But I believe he is somewhat offbase in his Financial Times paean to “realism” today.

He claims the way President Obama has conducted the Libya intervention is along realist lines. This may or not be true when it comes to small “r” realism (that remains to be seen); it is definitely not true when it comes to the big “R” theory known as Realism, or Realpolitik, defined by Wikipedia as follows:

“In the study of international relations, Realism or political realism prioritizes national interest and security over ideology, moral concerns and social reconstructions. This term is often synonymous with power politics.” I’m not a political scientist, but that strikes me as more or less accurate, and it shows why fundamentally the Libya intervention–undertaken to prevent a dictator from slaughtering his own people–was not Realism in action; it was actually the height of idealism, albeit tempered by concerns of national interest.

Kaplan goes on to praise Obama’s haphazard policy in the Middle East–“supporting democracy where he can, and stability where he must”–as another example of Realpolitik, but again he seems to confuse “realism” with “Realism”: There is nothing remotely “Realistic” about U.S. interventions in other countries’ politics to support change; classic Realpolitikers prefer to deal with existing regimes, no matter how distasteful, rather than usher in more liberal alternatives. Classic Realpolitikers in this regard were Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Kaplan is off the mark again in praising them as follows:

The humanitarian interventionism in the Balkans notwithstanding, the greatest humanitarian gesture in living memory was U.S. President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, engineered by Henry Kissinger, his national security advisor. By dropping the notion that Taiwan was the real China, they obtained China’s agreement to stop supporting communist insurgencies throughout southeast Asia.

Also, with the U.S.  implicitly providing protection against the Soviet Union and an economically resurgent Japan, China was able to devote itself to the peaceful growth that would lift most of Asia out of poverty. As more than a billion people saw their living standards rise, there was a consequent explosion of personal freedoms. Such can be the wages of realism.

Did all these consequences really flow from Nixon’s amoral willingness to clink glasses with Mao Tse-tung, one of the greatest mass murderers in history? Hardly. Mao most assuredly did not repay Nixon’s kowtow by stopping support for “communist insurgencies throughout southeast Asia”; in fact, China continued supporting both the North Vietnamese Communists and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, both of whom seized power within three years of Nixon’s visit to China. The real transformation in China did not occur until after the death of Mao in 1976 which allowed for the ascension of the reform-minded Deng Xiaoping who instituted the changes which have led to a growth in Chinese living standards. In other words, the story of China provides repudiation for the cynical theories of Realpolitik which holds that savvy statesman can change history with their daring diplomatic forays; in fact, a nation’s internal politics is usually far more important in determining its course–a point argued by international relations “idealists.”

Finally, Kaplan is offbase, or at the very least premature, in suggesting Obama’s “impatience for troop withdrawals in Afghanistan implies a rejection of nation-building in the Middle East, so as – in effect – to focus on something more crucial: maintaining U.S. maritime power in Asia.” I see scant evidence Obama is doing anything to maintain U.S. power in Asia given the fact the U.S. fleet is at its smallest level since 1940 (280 ships and falling) while China is in the midst of its biggest naval buildup ever. In fact, Obama is determined to cut U.S. defense spending, which could leave the U.S. unprepared to deal with China’s rise. We have already cancelled the best-in-the-world F-22 Stealth fighter even as China fields its own Stealth aircraft for the first time.

I do not mean to suggest Kaplan is entirely wrong in this article; in fact, I agree with many of his points about the need to pick our spots and make strategic decisions about where to commit resources. That is the essence of leadership, but it is hardly a defining feature of Realism or any other international relations
system. All preconceived ideologies or systems must–if a statesman is to be successful–be tempered by the realities of the world. In fact, what I think Kaplan
is arguing for is not “Realism” but rather simply prudence–an idea all foreign policy practitioners can endorse even if they differ about what’s prudent and what isn’t.

 

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Bachmann Channels Pat Robertson

Predictably, global warming activists were quick to blame hurricane-turned-tropical storm Irene on man-made climate change, despite the fact these weather incidents are far from a rare occurrence. But at a campaign event in Florida yesterday, Michele Bachmann suggested a different culprit:

 She hailed the Tea Party as being common-sense Americans who understand government shouldn’t spend more than it takes in, know they’re taxed enough already and want government to abide by the Constitution.

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Predictably, global warming activists were quick to blame hurricane-turned-tropical storm Irene on man-made climate change, despite the fact these weather incidents are far from a rare occurrence. But at a campaign event in Florida yesterday, Michele Bachmann suggested a different culprit:

 She hailed the Tea Party as being common-sense Americans who understand government shouldn’t spend more than it takes in, know they’re taxed enough already and want government to abide by the Constitution.

“I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.”

This is one of the easiest mistakes for politicians to avoid, and it’s amazing some of them continue to make it. If you want to look like a religious zealot, blame a wrathful Almighty Creator for natural disasters. And if you want to also look like an egotistic political opportunist, make sure to mention that His motive for downing trees, destroying homes, and inconveniencing commuters is the same reason you’re running for office.

Fortunately for Bachmann, she said this on a Sunday dominated by post-storm coverage, so it hasn’t gotten much attention yet. But hopefully, her campaign will have the good sense to leave this line out of her future stump speeches.

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Abbas Won’t Give Way on Refugee “Return” Even If He Gets State

Those inclined to blame Israel for the lack of peace in the Middle East like to talk about the necessity of a two-state solution. But as much as a scheme that left  Jewish and Palestinian Arab states living in peace with each other might seem like the only way out of the century-long conflict, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas gave us yet another reminder yesterday about the problem with merely focusing on the creation of a Palestinian state. As the Jerusalem Post reports, in an interview with a Jordanian newspaper, Abbas made it clear even if the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to recognize an independent Palestinian state in the 1967 lines, the PA would continue to insist on the “right of return” for Arab refugees to swamp Israel.

If he gets his way, Abbas will have a Jew-free state in the West Bank and Gaza next to a Jewish state that will have to live under the threat of being deluged with Palestinians who would transform it into yet another Arab state. That helps explain why he continues to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. But, along with this promise of unending strife, Abbas’ statement also points to another issue that explains why his UN initiative represents more of a danger to the PA than it does to Israel.

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Those inclined to blame Israel for the lack of peace in the Middle East like to talk about the necessity of a two-state solution. But as much as a scheme that left  Jewish and Palestinian Arab states living in peace with each other might seem like the only way out of the century-long conflict, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas gave us yet another reminder yesterday about the problem with merely focusing on the creation of a Palestinian state. As the Jerusalem Post reports, in an interview with a Jordanian newspaper, Abbas made it clear even if the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to recognize an independent Palestinian state in the 1967 lines, the PA would continue to insist on the “right of return” for Arab refugees to swamp Israel.

If he gets his way, Abbas will have a Jew-free state in the West Bank and Gaza next to a Jewish state that will have to live under the threat of being deluged with Palestinians who would transform it into yet another Arab state. That helps explain why he continues to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. But, along with this promise of unending strife, Abbas’ statement also points to another issue that explains why his UN initiative represents more of a danger to the PA than it does to Israel.

As Khaled Abu Toameh explains in the Post, if the General Assembly does vote in favor of the Palestinian statehood resolution, it won’t actually create such a state, but it will raise the question of whether or not the PA could be said to still represent the interests of the millions of descendants of the 1948-49 refugees who are still kept in camps by Arab nations. They are currently represented in New York by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s UN observer office. But if the GA votes in favor of statehood then that status will be transferred to the PA, which is the putative government of the West Bank, though not Gaza, which remains under the thrall of the Hamas terrorist movement.

Considering the PLO created the PA after Israel allowed Yasir Arafat back into the territories after the 1993 Oslo Accords, this may strike those not immersed in the legalisms of the UN as confusing. But the transference of representation from the PLO to the PA may actually complicate the efforts of Abbas to try to legally represent the refugees.

Abbas’ remarks about not giving up the right of return also illustrate the zero-sum nature of the conflict from the Palestinian frame of reference. Abbas still balks at recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. Left-wing critics of Israel dismiss this as a non-issue, but the PLO and the PA it spawned came into being fighting against the existence of Israel before the so-called “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian national identity is inseparable from the idea of opposing Zionist sovereignty over any part of the country and of returning refugees to pre-1967 Israel.

This is why Abbas and his predecessor Yasir Arafat have always refused Israeli offers of an independent state no matter the terms. Though their UN gambit is creating legal problems for the PA, the refugee issue shows it must nonetheless stick to it simply because Abbas’ overriding imperative is to avoid peace talks at any price.

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Forewarned is Forearmed

Like millions of other East Coasters, I sat in my house on Sunday morning, windows boarded up, surrounded by flashlights, bathtub filled up, ample supplies of water and Heaven knows what else in the basement. We were ready for Armageddon. What we got instead was a few puffs of wind, a few bursts of rain showers, and a few downed tree branches. Small branches. Power did go out briefly in the suburbs where I live–but only for a few hours. I remember plenty of storms in recent years that didn’t get half the billing of Irene–supposed to be the storm of the century only yesterday!–that seemed to do more damage.

And therein lies a moral. I have long been convinced the odds of disaster go down dramatically precisely when–and because–we are all ready for the worst. Remember Y2K? SARS? Avian flu? The “surprise” October 2004 al-Qaeda attack designed to influence the U.S. presidential election? All were hyped mercilessly by the same iron triangle of politicians, pundits, and journalists who hyped Irene; and all sputtered out just as inconsequentially as this weekend’s tropical storm/hurricane.

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Like millions of other East Coasters, I sat in my house on Sunday morning, windows boarded up, surrounded by flashlights, bathtub filled up, ample supplies of water and Heaven knows what else in the basement. We were ready for Armageddon. What we got instead was a few puffs of wind, a few bursts of rain showers, and a few downed tree branches. Small branches. Power did go out briefly in the suburbs where I live–but only for a few hours. I remember plenty of storms in recent years that didn’t get half the billing of Irene–supposed to be the storm of the century only yesterday!–that seemed to do more damage.

And therein lies a moral. I have long been convinced the odds of disaster go down dramatically precisely when–and because–we are all ready for the worst. Remember Y2K? SARS? Avian flu? The “surprise” October 2004 al-Qaeda attack designed to influence the U.S. presidential election? All were hyped mercilessly by the same iron triangle of politicians, pundits, and journalists who hyped Irene; and all sputtered out just as inconsequentially as this weekend’s tropical storm/hurricane.

It is precisely those events we don’t expect–whether 9/11 or the levees in New Orleans breaking because of Hurricane Katrina–that turn out to be the real disasters. I suspect other predicted disasters–whether from global warming or out-of-control federal spending or the retirement of the Baby Boomers–will similarly not come to pass simply because forewarned is forearmed.

As they used to say (more or less) in old war movies: You never hear the one with your name on it. The corollary is the ones you do hear about–ad nauseam–you can often ignore, or at least not hyperventilate about.

 

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Bachmann Swamped by Perry and Irene

It hasn’t been a good week for Michele Bachmann’s presidential candidacy. Rick Perry’s surge not only eclipsed Mitt Romney’s previous status as the frontrunner. It also seemed to knock Bachmann, whose strong summer had elevated her to the first tier, back into the field of also-rans. Bachmann shifted tactics this weekend as she finally started to address economic issues in a more substantive way, But, the focus on Hurricane Irene pretty much wiped out any coverage of her remarks.

If Bachmann is going to hang on in this race — and right now a lot of the smart money is saying she can’t stay with Perry and Romney — she’s going to have to keep trying to articulate serious points about economic policy. Yet as much as she has to give the impression she is someone who can govern, Bachmann now finds herself in a situation where she is competing with Perry for social conservative and Tea Party support that seemed to be in her pocket only a few weeks ago.

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It hasn’t been a good week for Michele Bachmann’s presidential candidacy. Rick Perry’s surge not only eclipsed Mitt Romney’s previous status as the frontrunner. It also seemed to knock Bachmann, whose strong summer had elevated her to the first tier, back into the field of also-rans. Bachmann shifted tactics this weekend as she finally started to address economic issues in a more substantive way, But, the focus on Hurricane Irene pretty much wiped out any coverage of her remarks.

If Bachmann is going to hang on in this race — and right now a lot of the smart money is saying she can’t stay with Perry and Romney — she’s going to have to keep trying to articulate serious points about economic policy. Yet as much as she has to give the impression she is someone who can govern, Bachmann now finds herself in a situation where she is competing with Perry for social conservative and Tea Party support that seemed to be in her pocket only a few weeks ago.

That’s her dilemma. Bachmann’s greatest strength is the way she connects with the GOP core on social issues and her anti-government view of taxes and debt. If she gets off that message to talk about the economy in order to gain credibility with more centrist conservatives and independents, she runs the risk of losing more of her base to Perry, whose stands on social issues and contempt for Washington are every bit as strong as hers.

Bachmann’s remarks at a town hall meeting in Poinciana, Florida were not the stuff of a serious economic treatise, but they were more than her usual sound bites about the evils of debt. Rather than merely bragging about being among the few members of Congress to refuse to vote to raise the debt ceiling, Bachmann concentrated on the need for lower taxes on business — in particular, she expressed support for a tax holiday on profits earned abroad — which she rightly noted was the best way for government to help lower unemployment.

But as necessary as speeches such as this may be, they are not the answer to Bachmann’s Perry problem. Right now, Perry is making Republicans think he is not only the conservative best able to face off against Romney in the later primaries, but the likely nominee. If Bachmann is going to survive as a serious contender until the actual votes are cast this winter, she’s going to have to concentrate on holding onto her Christian conservative and Tea Party support.

The odds of her surviving the early primaries look a lot dimmer than they did just two weeks ago before Perry jumped in. At the upcoming GOP debates, she’s going to have to remind viewers about why they were so impressed with her in the first place in order to avoid being relegated to the status of the hopeless along with Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman. And she’s got to get lucky. Which is to say, she must hope that somehow Perry’s propensity for gaffes will prove to be greater than her own. If it isn’t, then Bachmann’s career as a serious presidential candidate will soon be over.

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