Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 8, 2011

We’ve Made Impressive Progress Since 9/11, But Danger Remains

As the war on terror—or whatever we’re calling it this week—approaches its tenth anniversary, much of the popular analysis is founded on the premise that, following Osama bin Laden’s death and numerous other setbacks for the terrorist group, the threat from al-Qaeda has been radically reduced, perhaps even eradicated. As White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan said today, al-Qaeda “has taken it on the chin.”

The big point of debate at the moment seems to be whether we need to maintain the current level of counter-terrorist activity or whether we can safely relax our vigilance. At Intelligence Squared U.S. last night, I witnessed two expert teams of debaters hash out that very question. (Rich Falkenrath and Michael Hayden won the debate by convincing a substantial portion of the audience that we shouldn’t “end the war on terror” just yet.)

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As the war on terror—or whatever we’re calling it this week—approaches its tenth anniversary, much of the popular analysis is founded on the premise that, following Osama bin Laden’s death and numerous other setbacks for the terrorist group, the threat from al-Qaeda has been radically reduced, perhaps even eradicated. As White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan said today, al-Qaeda “has taken it on the chin.”

The big point of debate at the moment seems to be whether we need to maintain the current level of counter-terrorist activity or whether we can safely relax our vigilance. At Intelligence Squared U.S. last night, I witnessed two expert teams of debaters hash out that very question. (Rich Falkenrath and Michael Hayden won the debate by convincing a substantial portion of the audience that we shouldn’t “end the war on terror” just yet.)

The always-provocative Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has another perspective: He argues in this Atlantic article that al-Qaeda is actually winning. To back up that startling claim, he makes several arguments, including noting that predictions of al-Qaeda’s demise have been wrong before and pointing out al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen and elsewhere are still going strong. But his big point is to argue that “even if al-Qaeda has experienced a decline in the past decade, then the U.S. has declined more steeply,” because of our economic woes. “Overspending on homeland defense….” he argues, “has been one of our key errors over the post-September 11 decade.”

I give Gartenstein-Ross credit for an ingenious argument that goes completely against the conventional wisdom. But I am largely unconvinced. For one thing, as he himself acknowledges, “we can’t blame everything on the fight against terrorism: al-Qaeda didn’t trigger the sub-prime mortgage crisis, for example.” In reality security spending is minuscule as a percentage of the overall, $15 trillion economy: Even by a generous count, we are spending only $85 billion or so a year on homeland defense. That is no more responsible for our economic woes than is the overall defense budget: the culprit is lack of economic growth which has to do with high tax rates, a high regulatory burden, and so forth. Homeland defense isn’t even responsible for our federal budget woes which are driven by entitlements.

The broader point is that I find it hard to believe al-Qaeda is winning when it has not managed to topple a single government, and it appears to have been superseded as an agent of change in the Middle East by the Arab Spring. By all accounts, the core al-Qaeda organization has been decimated, its capabilities vastly reduced from what they were in 2001.

But if Gartenstein-Ross goes too far in the direction of pessimism, many other commentators veer too much toward excessive optimism. They ignore the important point that Gartenstein-Ross makes about the dangers from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other al-Qaeda affiliates which are actively plotting attacks against the West. To his list I would organizations such as the Haqqani Network and the Taliban (both Afghan and Pakistani) which, while not formally affiliated with al-Qaeda, are pursuing a similar agenda.

It’s certainly not time to declare victory in the war on terrorism. But nor is it time to concede defeat. The reality—as it usually is in these murky low-intensity wars—is somewhere in between: We have made impressive progress since 9/11 but considerable danger remains. That danger will grow, I might add, if, as a result of feelings of complacency, we dismantle the security infrastructure erected after 9/11, as some urge us to do.

 

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Nothing Wrong With Candidates Going After One Another

At last night’s debate, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was asked about the “genuine philosophical differences” between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry on health care. To which Gingrich responded, “I’m frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting with each other.” He added, “I for one – and I hope all of my friends up here — are going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated…”

It’s clear to me Gingrich was itching for a fight with the news media, continuing a pattern that began at the last GOP debate. People can decide for themselves how effective that strategy is. I find it slightly off-putting, though I know that many in the base, who have contempt for the media, probably find it refreshing.

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At last night’s debate, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was asked about the “genuine philosophical differences” between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry on health care. To which Gingrich responded, “I’m frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting with each other.” He added, “I for one – and I hope all of my friends up here — are going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated…”

It’s clear to me Gingrich was itching for a fight with the news media, continuing a pattern that began at the last GOP debate. People can decide for themselves how effective that strategy is. I find it slightly off-putting, though I know that many in the base, who have contempt for the media, probably find it refreshing.

My main disagreement with Gingrich goes deeper than that. I actually believe primaries are for spelling out differences among the candidates, not cheering one another on. They should do so, of course, in an intelligent, informed and properly respectful fashion. But I had no problem at all with spirited debates and sharp differences, even sparks, whether it’s Romney v. Perry or Santorum v. Paul or Bachmann v. Pawlenty. In fact, it’s quite useful. After all, the primary season is for testing – and I can promise you that whatever the Republican candidates will say about one another will pale in comparison to what the Obama campaign will do to them.

It’s better that we find out now, sooner rather than later, who can take a punch – and who can deliver one.

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Sessions: Obama Plan Unlikely to Pass Without Offsets

A victory for Obama tonight is pretty straightforward: he needs a strong, reasonable-sounding proposal with new ideas to perk up the financial markets and give his approval ratings a bump. But the long-term impact his plan has on unemployment, which is supposed to be the real point of the address, depends on whether it can get through Congress – a task that already seems destined for failure.

According to Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, the only way the president will get GOP support is if he can propose cuts that will offset the cost of the stimulus immediately.

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A victory for Obama tonight is pretty straightforward: he needs a strong, reasonable-sounding proposal with new ideas to perk up the financial markets and give his approval ratings a bump. But the long-term impact his plan has on unemployment, which is supposed to be the real point of the address, depends on whether it can get through Congress – a task that already seems destined for failure.

According to Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, the only way the president will get GOP support is if he can propose cuts that will offset the cost of the stimulus immediately.

“I think it could be in total jeopardy if there are no real offsets and this is added debt,” Sessions said during a phone call with reporters.

The White House has already said the president will introduce a cost-cutting plan equal to the size of the stimulus. But Sessions is concerned this proposal will stretch the reductions out over a 10-year period, while most of the $300 billion stimulus funds will be spent in the next two years. This would mean the U.S. would have to shoulder an additional burden of debt for years to come.

He added that Obama’s speech was a sign of “political panic,” and worried it could actually be “dangerous” for the economy.

“I think it could be dangerous for him and the economy if the American people and the business community see it as not serious,” Sessions said. “He could cause even more disappointment and more concern and hurt the economy instead of helping it. I’m worried they don’t even have a plan that, when it’s fairly evaluated, will do any good.”

There’s definitely the possibility of a negative outcome if Obama fails to deliver. Earlier today, stocks fell after Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke gave a disappointingly vague speech about the government’s efforts to boost the economy:

“The Fed hasn’t come out with more options or tools that the market wants or was expecting,” said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer of Solaris Asset Management in Bedford Hills, New York. “The market was disappointed because this wasn’t a game changer.”

The political difficulty of getting Obama’s new stimulus through Congress, and the prospect the plan will pile on more debt, already has Wall Street downplaying any temporary market bounce:

 “It is unclear exactly what the president can conjure up in the short term that will promote job growth without significantly deepening the current budget shortfall,” writes UBS’s [chief investment strategist] Mike Ryan.

Given that the president’s jobs plan is unlikely to pass Congress — and won’t do much even if it does — “there is considerable room for disappointment this week from Washington,” Ryan says.

That has to be a lot of pressure on the president, and we’ll soon see if he can deliver.

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Even Obama is Preferable to Ron Paul

There is one line the GOP presidential candidates often repeat during their debates, and it goes like this: Anyone on this stage would be a better president than the current occupant of the Oval Office. That sounds good, except it isn’t actually true. And the reason is because a fellow by the name of Ron Paul is among those on the stage.

No one who has read what I’ve written about Barack Obama during the last two-and-three-quarter years can come away with anything except the impression that I’m a strong, and at times even a fierce, critic of his. But whatever my disagreements with Obama, even he is preferable to Ron Paul. The first duty of a president, after all, is commander-in-chief. It is in the area of foreign policy and national security that he exercises disproportionate influence. And it is in that arena where Ron Paul is particularly reckless, particularly irresponsible, and (if he were ever to possess any real power and influence) particularly dangerous.

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There is one line the GOP presidential candidates often repeat during their debates, and it goes like this: Anyone on this stage would be a better president than the current occupant of the Oval Office. That sounds good, except it isn’t actually true. And the reason is because a fellow by the name of Ron Paul is among those on the stage.

No one who has read what I’ve written about Barack Obama during the last two-and-three-quarter years can come away with anything except the impression that I’m a strong, and at times even a fierce, critic of his. But whatever my disagreements with Obama, even he is preferable to Ron Paul. The first duty of a president, after all, is commander-in-chief. It is in the area of foreign policy and national security that he exercises disproportionate influence. And it is in that arena where Ron Paul is particularly reckless, particularly irresponsible, and (if he were ever to possess any real power and influence) particularly dangerous.

There is plenty of room for differences within conservatism. But Ron Paul’s views, on the substance, are indefensible, at least for a conservative.

Barack Obama is a terrible president. But Ron Paul would be worse.

 

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Romney Goes After Perry

“I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em,” was the guiding philosophy of the Tammany politician George Washington Plunkitt. Mitt Romney seen his opportunity today and he’s taking it, going after Rick Perry on Social Security. The GOP will be “obliterated as a party” if it nominates someone who opposes Social Security rather than someone who wishes to save it.

He’s absolutely right in that no one who opposes a guaranteed income for seniors could be elected in the United States in 2012. Where he may be wrong is the presumption that Social Security as it is currently constituted is sacrosanct. Perry’s challenge is to demonstrate that he can attack Social Security in its present form and advocate its gradual replacement by a better system. It appears we are going to have a real-world test of this in the months to come.

But there is something else to be said here about Mitt Romney. Some, like my colleague Pete Wehner, were disturbed by Perry’s somewhat aggressive manner last night, and think his combativeness may wear poorly. But the Perry challenge is now clearly forcing Romney to get aggressive right back, so there are going to be two openly combative guys going at each other.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. Far from it. When the candidates are willing to draw distinctions with each other, voters can better determine who would a) be better as a leader and b) be more electable. Angry Mitt may be the side of Romney the GOP voter needs to see, because it’s the side he hasn’t shown. And that’s a problem for him.

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“I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em,” was the guiding philosophy of the Tammany politician George Washington Plunkitt. Mitt Romney seen his opportunity today and he’s taking it, going after Rick Perry on Social Security. The GOP will be “obliterated as a party” if it nominates someone who opposes Social Security rather than someone who wishes to save it.

He’s absolutely right in that no one who opposes a guaranteed income for seniors could be elected in the United States in 2012. Where he may be wrong is the presumption that Social Security as it is currently constituted is sacrosanct. Perry’s challenge is to demonstrate that he can attack Social Security in its present form and advocate its gradual replacement by a better system. It appears we are going to have a real-world test of this in the months to come.

But there is something else to be said here about Mitt Romney. Some, like my colleague Pete Wehner, were disturbed by Perry’s somewhat aggressive manner last night, and think his combativeness may wear poorly. But the Perry challenge is now clearly forcing Romney to get aggressive right back, so there are going to be two openly combative guys going at each other.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. Far from it. When the candidates are willing to draw distinctions with each other, voters can better determine who would a) be better as a leader and b) be more electable. Angry Mitt may be the side of Romney the GOP voter needs to see, because it’s the side he hasn’t shown. And that’s a problem for him.

Romney has been running for president now, non-stop, for four years and nine months. Republicans who pay attention to politics know who he is, have heard him speak, and have a real sense of him. And the key fact about him is this: Nearly five years in and probably $100 million spent, and Romney hasn’t made the sale. Period. Perry’s instant rise to the top in a matter of days spoke less to his natural advantages than to Romney’s inability to achieve a real connection with GOP primary voters.

If he does so by finding a voice in attacking Perry, then Romney will have to thank the Texas governor for getting in. But, and this is a big “but,” if he goes after Perry big-time over the next two weeks and Perry’s numbers don’t start sinking as a result, the case that the GOP really doesn’t want Mitt Romney to the nominee will have pretty much been made. They may settle for him if Perry really does prove impossible to vote for, but they will be settling.

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The Times’ Spectacular Bias Against Israel

I was hoping I could begin this post with an opening like “Day 2 of this nonsense.” But I checked, and technically this is only the second time in three days that the New York Times has displayed spectacular bias against Israel, borne of something between poor judgment and a wholly absent sensitivity to Jewish sensibilities. Again it involves a spy case, again Scott Shane is the author, and again there are brief but pointed insinuations of American-Jewish collusion with Israel.

In contrast to Tuesday’s nonsense, though, there’s nothing particularly subtle about the bias on display. It’s simply a case of the Times throwing around an anti-Semitic dual loyalty accusation – which is also becoming kind of a thing in certain corners of the public sphere – with quite literally no justification. A White House scientist tried to sell classified data to an FBI agent posing as an Israeli spy, and he was arrested and duly convicted.

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I was hoping I could begin this post with an opening like “Day 2 of this nonsense.” But I checked, and technically this is only the second time in three days that the New York Times has displayed spectacular bias against Israel, borne of something between poor judgment and a wholly absent sensitivity to Jewish sensibilities. Again it involves a spy case, again Scott Shane is the author, and again there are brief but pointed insinuations of American-Jewish collusion with Israel.

In contrast to Tuesday’s nonsense, though, there’s nothing particularly subtle about the bias on display. It’s simply a case of the Times throwing around an anti-Semitic dual loyalty accusation – which is also becoming kind of a thing in certain corners of the public sphere – with quite literally no justification. A White House scientist tried to sell classified data to an FBI agent posing as an Israeli spy, and he was arrested and duly convicted.

But the case as such never involved Israel, and the way you tell that is because it says so right there in the story. It was just a domestic sting:

The scientist, Stewart D. Nozette, 54, who worked at the White House in 1989-90 and helped lead the search for water on the moon, was not charged with spying for Israel…. The plea deal ends the espionage case against one of the highest-ranking American scientists ever charged with trying to spy for a foreign power…. The investigation did not allege that Israel or anyone acting on its behalf committed any offense, the Justice Department said.

So naturally, the Times’ headline for the story is “Ex-White House Scientist Pleads Guilty in Spy Case Tied to Israel,” because the natural way to describe a spy case that does not allege any ties to Israel is to say it’s tied to Israel. Now it’s true the convicted spy himself had once worked as a totally legal consultant for an Israeli firm until 2008. But that had precisely as much to do with the spy case as the fact he once attended MIT. And yet the Times’ headline didn’t say the spy case was tied to MIT, because that aspect of his past life wasn’t relevant to the spy case.

Of course, linking the case to MIT wouldn’t have injected a sensationalist century-old anti-Jewish canard – and an ever-popular anti-Israel theme – into public discourse. So that wouldn’t have been as exciting.

Honestly, what the hell is going on over there?

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The Challenge of Entitlement Reform

Here are some impressions of last night’s GOP presidential debate:

Mitt Romney is a much better candidate than he was four years ago. He seems much more sure of himself, more authentic, more in command. He projects confidence and competence, basic decency, and has the ability to reassure more than inspire. He certainly has the ability to defeat the current occupant of the White House. In most years that would be enough. Whether it’s sufficient this year, with a primary electorate that is more ideological than it has been in the past, is an open question.

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Here are some impressions of last night’s GOP presidential debate:

Mitt Romney is a much better candidate than he was four years ago. He seems much more sure of himself, more authentic, more in command. He projects confidence and competence, basic decency, and has the ability to reassure more than inspire. He certainly has the ability to defeat the current occupant of the White House. In most years that would be enough. Whether it’s sufficient this year, with a primary electorate that is more ideological than it has been in the past, is an open question.

Most of the attention, however, was focused on Rick Perry’s maiden voyage, and I found his performance to be somewhat uneven. He was strong at certain points, most especially on his response to the question about the use of the death penalty in Texas. But he also came across as a bit unsteady at times, brittle at others, and somewhat unprepared on issues ranging from global warming to (surprisingly) matters having to do with Texas. In addition, he mishandled his response on his decision to mandate HPV vaccinations for school-age girls.

Perry possesses a strong, forceful personality; he was easily the most dominating presence on the stage last night. The question is whether he can leaven his personality with charm, (self-deprecating) humor, and a touch of winsomeness. That doesn’t seem to be his natural disposition. Bluntness, even aggression, does. And my hunch – and it’s only a hunch at this stage – is he won’t wear terribly well over time.

Unlike many conservative commentators, then, I believe Perry emerged from the debate in somewhat worse shape. He certainly wasn’t out of his depth – but I doubt many people who thought poorly of Perry came away convinced they were wrong; or those who are inclined to support him came away more enthused. To be fair, the expectations for him were quite high, and he’s still the frontrunner. But he lost a bit of ground last night and opened himself up to future attacks.

My main worry is rooted in my belief that the major non-security threat to America is health care entitlements. Our crushing, coming debt crisis cannot be averted unless health care costs are brought under control, and that cannot be done unless the basic structure of the Medicare program is reformed. If we ignore Medicare, we ignore the debt problem. Which brings us back to Messrs. Romney and Perry.

I wonder if either man, if elected, is up to this challenge. Based on his campaign so far, one senses that Romney has little heart for entitlement reform, especially Medicare. We’ll see where Perry ends up on this matter (most of what he’s had to say about entitlements so far have to do with Social Security, which is a problem but not a lethal fiscal threat to America). The danger regarding him, though, is two-fold: Perry avoids Medicare as much as possible even while his rhetoric becomes increasingly “provocative” (to use his word), with the effect being that even if he wanted to, people won’t trust him to reform entitlement programs he seems to want to blow torch.

It seems to me conservatives need a standard bearer who speaks about entitlements in an informed, measured manner while carefully laying the groundwork for reforms that will fundamentally restructure our health entitlements. That person has yet to emerge.

It’s still early, of course, and this was Perry’s first presidential debate. He’s shown impressive political skills in the past, and he may well improve during the course of this campaign. That’s what long primary seasons are for.

In any event, John is correct. From here on in, it’s a Perry-Romney cagematch. Unless Chris Christie throws his considerable mass into the ring. That possibility shouldn’t be discounted. Not yet, anyway.

 

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“The Plot against America” as a 9/11 Novel

No novel is better than Philip Roth’s Plot against America at summoning up the Jews’ fear that, after 9/11, their enemies would find some way to drive a wedge between the majority of Americans and themselves. Roth’s great 2004 novel is a “parable for the post-Sept. 11 world.”

So at least Adam Kirsch argued in Tablet on Tuesday. And following his lead, readers have now written to ask why The Plot against America is not included in my list of 9/11 novels.

The answer is simple. It’s absurd to suggest that Roth’s Plot is any kind of “parable for the post-Sept. 11 world,” that’s why. The novel was an experiment in imagining what it would have been like, as Roth himself put it, for “America’s Jews to feel the pressure of a genuine anti-Semitic threat.” But if Jews are now under the threat of genuine anti-Semitism — and they are — the threat does not come from the quarter described in Roth’s Plot.

The book is about what might have happened if Charles A. Lindbergh had won the Republican nomination for president and defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. For unexplained reasons, Lindbergh’s election causes Philip’s mother to start crying at the sight of a leather-jacketed D.C. motorcycle policeman, leads Herman Roth to be called a “loudmouth Jew” in a restaurant, and gets the Roths kicked out of their hotel. (The leading characters in this nightmare vision are drawn from Roth’s own family.)

After President Lindbergh mysteriously disappears, his protofascist successor (Burton K. Wheeler, an antiwar Democratic senator from Montana who in historical reality cofounded the America First Committee along with Lindbergh) imposes martial law and accuses “warmongers,” by which everyone understands him to mean the Jews, of seeking to maneuver the U.S. into war against Germany. Anti-Semitic rioting kills 122.

On the literal level, the parallel between 9/11 and Roth’s Plot is hard to discern. It’s true that crackpots like the poet Amiri Baraka shrilled that “4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers” had been told “To stay home that day.” There is no popular audience for anti-Semitism in America, though. Baraka was booed when he read the poem at a poetry festival, and New Jersey officials eventually found a way to remove him as the state’s poet laureate.

It’s also true that some Democratic Party isolationists, who might perhaps be called latter-day Wheelers, argued against taking the war on terror to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But not even the most extreme of conservatives accused them of being fascists. And what is more, American Jews continued to vote for Democrats in numbers that suggested they did not associate the party with anti-Semitism.

The real fascists on 9/11 were the Islamist terrorists who brought down the towers. Shortly afterwards, Christopher Hitchens described the ideology behind the attacks as “fascism with an Islamic face,” and since then he has not flinched at the term Islamofascism. The fascists in Roth’s Plot, however, are native-born Americans. They are suspicious of the Jews as a foreign element in the American bloodstream. But the post-9/11 suspicion of a “foreign element” in this country, at least according to sources like the Center for American Progress and the novelist Kamila Shamsie, is directed toward Arab Muslims, “America’s persecuted minority of the moment,” as Heeb magazine called them. Yet Roth’s foreign element are warmongers, while American Muslims overwhelmingly opposed the war in Iraq.

I’m confused.

The confusion is not merely the result of misreading The Plot against America as a parable, however. Much of the confusion belongs to the novel itself. As Ruth R. Wisse said in her masterful review in COMMENTARY, the genuine threat to American Jews, “aside from the real possibility of Islamic terrorism,” arises from a “kind of homegrown anti-Semitic coalition, combining elements of the isolationist Buchananite Right (Lindbergh’s direct heirs) with the much more energetic and influential forces of the anti-Israel and anti-American Left,” which increasingly find a welcome refuge on American university campuses. Such a threat could easily serve as the basis of a frightening dystopic novel, but as Wisse observed, that novel would not be entitled The Plot against America. Nor would Adam Kirsch be likely to praise it even if it were.

No novel is better than Philip Roth’s Plot against America at summoning up the Jews’ fear that, after 9/11, their enemies would find some way to drive a wedge between the majority of Americans and themselves. Roth’s great 2004 novel is a “parable for the post-Sept. 11 world.”

So at least Adam Kirsch argued in Tablet on Tuesday. And following his lead, readers have now written to ask why The Plot against America is not included in my list of 9/11 novels.

The answer is simple. It’s absurd to suggest that Roth’s Plot is any kind of “parable for the post-Sept. 11 world,” that’s why. The novel was an experiment in imagining what it would have been like, as Roth himself put it, for “America’s Jews to feel the pressure of a genuine anti-Semitic threat.” But if Jews are now under the threat of genuine anti-Semitism — and they are — the threat does not come from the quarter described in Roth’s Plot.

The book is about what might have happened if Charles A. Lindbergh had won the Republican nomination for president and defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. For unexplained reasons, Lindbergh’s election causes Philip’s mother to start crying at the sight of a leather-jacketed D.C. motorcycle policeman, leads Herman Roth to be called a “loudmouth Jew” in a restaurant, and gets the Roths kicked out of their hotel. (The leading characters in this nightmare vision are drawn from Roth’s own family.)

After President Lindbergh mysteriously disappears, his protofascist successor (Burton K. Wheeler, an antiwar Democratic senator from Montana who in historical reality cofounded the America First Committee along with Lindbergh) imposes martial law and accuses “warmongers,” by which everyone understands him to mean the Jews, of seeking to maneuver the U.S. into war against Germany. Anti-Semitic rioting kills 122.

On the literal level, the parallel between 9/11 and Roth’s Plot is hard to discern. It’s true that crackpots like the poet Amiri Baraka shrilled that “4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers” had been told “To stay home that day.” There is no popular audience for anti-Semitism in America, though. Baraka was booed when he read the poem at a poetry festival, and New Jersey officials eventually found a way to remove him as the state’s poet laureate.

It’s also true that some Democratic Party isolationists, who might perhaps be called latter-day Wheelers, argued against taking the war on terror to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But not even the most extreme of conservatives accused them of being fascists. And what is more, American Jews continued to vote for Democrats in numbers that suggested they did not associate the party with anti-Semitism.

The real fascists on 9/11 were the Islamist terrorists who brought down the towers. Shortly afterwards, Christopher Hitchens described the ideology behind the attacks as “fascism with an Islamic face,” and since then he has not flinched at the term Islamofascism. The fascists in Roth’s Plot, however, are native-born Americans. They are suspicious of the Jews as a foreign element in the American bloodstream. But the post-9/11 suspicion of a “foreign element” in this country, at least according to sources like the Center for American Progress and the novelist Kamila Shamsie, is directed toward Arab Muslims, “America’s persecuted minority of the moment,” as Heeb magazine called them. Yet Roth’s foreign element are warmongers, while American Muslims overwhelmingly opposed the war in Iraq.

I’m confused.

The confusion is not merely the result of misreading The Plot against America as a parable, however. Much of the confusion belongs to the novel itself. As Ruth R. Wisse said in her masterful review in COMMENTARY, the genuine threat to American Jews, “aside from the real possibility of Islamic terrorism,” arises from a “kind of homegrown anti-Semitic coalition, combining elements of the isolationist Buchananite Right (Lindbergh’s direct heirs) with the much more energetic and influential forces of the anti-Israel and anti-American Left,” which increasingly find a welcome refuge on American university campuses. Such a threat could easily serve as the basis of a frightening dystopic novel, but as Wisse observed, that novel would not be entitled The Plot against America. Nor would Adam Kirsch be likely to praise it even if it were.

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Can the “Merchant of Death” Get a Fair Trial?

Municipal reporters covering the police beat often hear the common complaint about the “CSI effect”–that juries (and the curious public) expect criminal prosecutions to include every form of DNA evidence they would see on the show. David French wrote about how this might have been applicable in the acquittal of Casey Anthony, whose murder trial “was notable for its strong circumstantial evidence and serious lack of conclusive forensics.”

But there is another modern contrivance increasingly invading courtrooms: the “Google effect.” And it’s worrying Judge Shira Scheindlin, who is presiding over the trial of alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, also known as the “Merchant of Death”:

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Municipal reporters covering the police beat often hear the common complaint about the “CSI effect”–that juries (and the curious public) expect criminal prosecutions to include every form of DNA evidence they would see on the show. David French wrote about how this might have been applicable in the acquittal of Casey Anthony, whose murder trial “was notable for its strong circumstantial evidence and serious lack of conclusive forensics.”

But there is another modern contrivance increasingly invading courtrooms: the “Google effect.” And it’s worrying Judge Shira Scheindlin, who is presiding over the trial of alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, also known as the “Merchant of Death”:

Portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the film “Lord of War,” targeted by the United Nations, and finally extradited to New York after a U.S. sting operation in Thailand, Bout has his own Wikipedia page and nearly half a million Google search entries.

Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin said that this could be “a major problem” in making sure that the jury trial, which starts October 11, is fair.

“I’m concerned too,” she told defense lawyers at a pretrial hearing in New York. “This is an easy case to Google. All you have to do is get the spelling right.”

Bout has been phenomenally successful, building up his business in his early 20s (he’s now 43) by supplying the Northern Command in Afghanistan in the 1990s while also selling weapons to the Alliance’s enemy, the Taliban. As Bout’s biographers Douglas Farah and Steven Braun have written, Africa has provided plenty of well-paying customers over the years, from Angola and Zaire to Charles Taylor’s Liberia and Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya. We, too, have used Bout’s services:

But it was the same access to rogue aircraft in growing swaths of ungoverned spaces in Africa and Afghanistan that made him useful to the governments that were pursuing him. Need supplies for U.S. troops flown into Baghdad in 2003 when U.S. forces lacked airlift capacity? Bout’s planes were available. Need to fly emergency food aid into the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Bout had the planes and pilots. From gladiolas to frozen chicken to AK-47s, Bout was the deliveryman par excellence.

One of the smartest–and most dangerous–moves Vladimir Putin made when he brought his fellow siloviki to power in Russia was to co-opt Bout and get him working for the Kremlin. But this created something of a paper trail, and when Bout was found delivering weapons to Hezbollah as they prepared for their 2006 war with Israel, he was ostensibly doing so on behalf of Putin (or at least Putin’s powerful deputy, Igor Sechin). So when Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008–American agents were posing as weapons buyers on behalf of the Colombian FARC terrorist group–Russia insisted Bout not be extradited to the U.S. But he was, and he now awaits a trial in New York expected to begin next month.

His attorneys’ anxiety over jury bias is well founded. I’m not quite sure at what point the “Google effect” kicks in, but I would wager that if you’re known as the “Merchant of Death” and Nicolas Cage has played you in a major studio action film, a fair trial is a reasonable concern. But he should get it, because a trial meant to untangle the web of Bout’s career will illuminate the mostly hidden world of the illicit global weapons trade. And that will be even better than a movie.

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UN Veto Not in Question, But Questions Remain About How Obama Will Do It

Any remaining doubt the Obama administration will veto a resolution on Palestinian independence should it come before the United Nations Security Council was removed yesterday. Wendy Sherman, President Obama’s nominee for undersecretary of state for policy, the department’s third-ranking position, confirmed the veto pledge during her Senate confirmation hearings. But as much as Obama will deserve some credit for spiking the Palestinian Authority’s effort to evade peace negotiations, there is more to this issue than merely an American “no” vote.

The prospect of a UN debate on Palestinian statehood has caused something akin to panic among some Israelis, especially their diplomatic corps. But though the fear of a “diplomatic tsunami” against them is real, it is far from clear an already isolated Jewish state will be any more or less of a pariah after votes in the Security Council or even a victory for the Palestinians in the UN General Assembly. No Palestinian state will materialize on their borders after such a vote, though the terrorist state in Gaza that already presents a potent threat to Israeli security will still be there.

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Any remaining doubt the Obama administration will veto a resolution on Palestinian independence should it come before the United Nations Security Council was removed yesterday. Wendy Sherman, President Obama’s nominee for undersecretary of state for policy, the department’s third-ranking position, confirmed the veto pledge during her Senate confirmation hearings. But as much as Obama will deserve some credit for spiking the Palestinian Authority’s effort to evade peace negotiations, there is more to this issue than merely an American “no” vote.

The prospect of a UN debate on Palestinian statehood has caused something akin to panic among some Israelis, especially their diplomatic corps. But though the fear of a “diplomatic tsunami” against them is real, it is far from clear an already isolated Jewish state will be any more or less of a pariah after votes in the Security Council or even a victory for the Palestinians in the UN General Assembly. No Palestinian state will materialize on their borders after such a vote, though the terrorist state in Gaza that already presents a potent threat to Israeli security will still be there.

But on the diplomatic front, it is American prestige in the region and sponsorship of the peace process that is potentially at risk in the Palestinian “tsunami.” A failure to veto would effectively end any hope for a negotiated settlement of the conflict, something no U.S. government can possibly accept.

Much will depend on the manner in which the U.S. delegation to the UN conduct themselves during the debate and whether or not the veto is cast in a manner which will add to, rather than detract from, the non-stop assault on Israel that will commence once the world body gathers for its annual meeting. Much like the infamous “Zionism is Racism” debate that is remembered just as much for U.S. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s eloquent and principled defense of Israel, this debate presents a similar opportunity for Susan Rice, President Obama’s envoy to the UN. But if Rice, who has at times been an acerbic critic of Israel, plays along with the false narrative of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians rather than refuting it, she will send a damaging and confused message to the world about the state of the U.S.-Israel alliance. Rather than showing the Palestinians and their UN cheerleaders that refusing to negotiate will cost them dearly, a statement aimed at appeasing rather than chastising the PA could well encourage them to continue their prevarications.

As I wrote earlier this week, the Palestinian Authority will itself be a big loser if their UN gambit leads to violence that undermines Mahmoud Abbas’s shaky hold on the West Bank and strengthens Hamas. That’s why Obama administration efforts to try to bribe the Palestinians to back off on their UN effort are particularly ill-conceived. Though a U.S. veto is assured, if it is accompanied by further attempts to reward Abbas for his refusal to make peace, it is American influence and not Israel that will suffer.

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Why Would U.S. Taxpayers Publish a Celebration of the 9/11 Attack?

A while ago I had blogged about how the Voice of America- Persian Service was politicking blatantly in its news coverage– accusing without so much as an interview or factual reference–neoconservatives of hating Iran.  (VOA-Persian Service did not publish a correction).

Now, as the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks nears, it may be time for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) to consider its mission and how it achieves it. “Winston,” an Iranian expatriate blogger, points me to a section on the RFE/RL homepage called “highlights” which includes a section called #my911, which features personal remembrances of that horrific day. Below is one of the remembrances published on a website funded by American taxpayers and written by a contributor from Peshawar, Pakistan:

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A while ago I had blogged about how the Voice of America- Persian Service was politicking blatantly in its news coverage– accusing without so much as an interview or factual reference–neoconservatives of hating Iran.  (VOA-Persian Service did not publish a correction).

Now, as the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks nears, it may be time for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) to consider its mission and how it achieves it. “Winston,” an Iranian expatriate blogger, points me to a section on the RFE/RL homepage called “highlights” which includes a section called #my911, which features personal remembrances of that horrific day. Below is one of the remembrances published on a website funded by American taxpayers and written by a contributor from Peshawar, Pakistan:

On that day my father and I were going from Peshawar to Charsadda to attend my cousin’s marriage… While on the way one of my friends called me on my cell phone, the use of which was still rare in those days, and he told me to switch on my television. However, I told him, “I am on the road and not able to get to a television now.” At the same time he told me that someone had attacked America. It was unbelievable for me but when I turned and told this to my father, a big smile appeared on his face. He replied that it had happened because of what America is doing with the international community. After that, when I reached Charsadda, I came to know that everyone was happy about the attack.

There’s a tendency among many U.S.-government funded broadcasters to believe broadcasting criticism bolsters credibility. In reality, many foreigners just find the self-flagellation pathetic. They tune into VOA and RFE/RL to hear news which their own governments censor, or which their own journalists could never tackle. Expressions of glee at the murder of nearly 3,000 people are not something RFE/RL should tolerate, whether on the RFE/RL website directly, or in a separate project among the “highlights.”

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Lindsey Graham Seeks Changes to Debt Deal Trigger

Sen. Lindsey Graham blasted segments of his own party for agreeing to a debt ceiling deal that puts the defense budget at significant risk, and said he would push for changes to the agreement, at a defense forum in Washington today.

Graham called the deal, which includes a trigger that would slash the defense budget by up to $600 billion if the super committee doesn’t agree to $1.4 trillion in deficit reductions, “a philosophical shift of the Reagan party that we have to push back against.”

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Sen. Lindsey Graham blasted segments of his own party for agreeing to a debt ceiling deal that puts the defense budget at significant risk, and said he would push for changes to the agreement, at a defense forum in Washington today.

Graham called the deal, which includes a trigger that would slash the defense budget by up to $600 billion if the super committee doesn’t agree to $1.4 trillion in deficit reductions, “a philosophical shift of the Reagan party that we have to push back against.”

He said he will try to get the trigger replaced with an across-the-board reduction and proposed a 10 percent pay cut for members of Congress.

“What I’m going to do, is try to replace the triggers to Medicare and defense cuts if the super committee doesn’t do their job in finding $1.4 trillion…with an across-the-board cut, let everybody pay a little bit more if we can’t get our act together in Washington,” said Graham. “And how about this idea: A 10 percent pay cut for Congress. So let’s think big, and let’s get the party of Ronald Reagan back to acting like the part of Ronald Reagan.”

Graham’s recommendations are great for those who are concerned about defense (and who isn’t worried about the defense budget getting gutted by a $600 billion cut?). But the problem is, does he have any chance at getting them implemented? It’s hard to believe many Republicans have an appetite for renegotiating or tweaking the debt ceiling deal, especially after the nightmare of getting it passed in the first place.

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William Frost, z”l

William Frost died yesterday at the age of 84. He was a quiet giant in the world of Jewish philanthropy as the head of the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, which delivers micro-grants to important academic and social-science work relating to the American Jewish community and has endowed chairs at major universities. He was part of a vanishing breed of lay leaders—secular Jews whose commitment to their people and their people’s future was ironclad, passionate, and ever-enduring.

William Frost died yesterday at the age of 84. He was a quiet giant in the world of Jewish philanthropy as the head of the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, which delivers micro-grants to important academic and social-science work relating to the American Jewish community and has endowed chairs at major universities. He was part of a vanishing breed of lay leaders—secular Jews whose commitment to their people and their people’s future was ironclad, passionate, and ever-enduring.

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How the Gardasil Debate Could Help Perry

As Jonathan wrote, after last night’s debate it appears that Rick Perry is going to steamroll the rest of the GOP field unless he “does something a lot worse than using rhetoric about Social Security that the GOP core applauds.”

Only one moment in last night’s debate pitted the probable nominee against other conservatives on stage. The issue was about Perry’s executive order requiring Texas’ girls to have the Gardasil vaccine against the HPV virus. Many on the right have accused Perry of overstepping his bounds, of promoting promiscuity among 12-year old girls in the state. In August, Hot Air’s Jazz Shaw had a great piece defending Perry’s decision to mandate a vaccine that prevents cervical cancer.

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As Jonathan wrote, after last night’s debate it appears that Rick Perry is going to steamroll the rest of the GOP field unless he “does something a lot worse than using rhetoric about Social Security that the GOP core applauds.”

Only one moment in last night’s debate pitted the probable nominee against other conservatives on stage. The issue was about Perry’s executive order requiring Texas’ girls to have the Gardasil vaccine against the HPV virus. Many on the right have accused Perry of overstepping his bounds, of promoting promiscuity among 12-year old girls in the state. In August, Hot Air’s Jazz Shaw had a great piece defending Perry’s decision to mandate a vaccine that prevents cervical cancer.

Shaw explains this FDA-approved vaccine has been proven to prevent a virus that causes cancer in 12,000 women a year in the United States, taking the lives of a full third of them.  Last night, Perry didn’t step down from his decision, explaining, “We wanted to bring that to the attention of these thousands of … tens of thousands of young people in our state. We allowed for an opt-out.”

Will this row between Perry and the right help or hurt his possible candidacy against Barack Obama next November? The more Perry is forced to talk about his decision, the more centrist he appears to independent and undecided voters. While many on the right resent (usually rightfully so) any intrusion of the government in their lives, Perry’s decision to mandate a life-saving vaccine is not unprecedented. Most voters don’t take a Ron Paul view of the world, recognizing that the requirement to obtain a proven safe and effective vaccine is not the government’s way of taking control of citizens’ private lives.

Perry’s decision to stand by his executive order last night sent a message to middle-of-the-road voters: I am of the Tea Party, but I am not controlled by it. For the 30 percent of self-described moderate voters who oppose the movement, this independent streak could only help his campaign among that demographic. For the almost 50 percent of Republican voters who count themselves as supporters, this issue won’t prevent them from campaigning and voting for the only choice against four more years of Barack Obama, if Perry becomes the Republican nominee.

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Perry’s Challenge and Opportunity

So the big story after Rick Perry’s credible performance in last night’s debate is whether his hostile description of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” (and his defiantly peculiar suggestion in his suprisingly interesting and quite radical book Fed Up that states should be able to opt out of Social Security) is a ticking time bomb that will, in time, blow up his campaign—either in the primary or the general election.

The virtue of primaries for those who go through them is that they’re like old-time out-of-town tryouts for Broadway musicals—they reveal early weaknesses that can be corrected on the road before opening night in New York. Granted, just as they don’t go from Boston to New Haven to Broadway any longer, primaries do not take place out of view any longer and candidates therefore have a harder time refining their message.

But they can.

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So the big story after Rick Perry’s credible performance in last night’s debate is whether his hostile description of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” (and his defiantly peculiar suggestion in his suprisingly interesting and quite radical book Fed Up that states should be able to opt out of Social Security) is a ticking time bomb that will, in time, blow up his campaign—either in the primary or the general election.

The virtue of primaries for those who go through them is that they’re like old-time out-of-town tryouts for Broadway musicals—they reveal early weaknesses that can be corrected on the road before opening night in New York. Granted, just as they don’t go from Boston to New Haven to Broadway any longer, primaries do not take place out of view any longer and candidates therefore have a harder time refining their message.

But they can.

Indeed, they can take primary troubles and turn them into advantages—which is what happened when Barack Obama found himself having to deal with his association with Jeremiah Wright. In the end, he was aided immeasurably by the fact that the controversy emerged before the general election—and by his own slippery speech on the subject of race in Philadelphia, in which he simultaneously distanced himself from Wright but did not disown him. Obviously, the same was true for Bill Clinton, whose adultery was revealed just before the 1992 New Hampshire primary. Imagine if it had come out the way that, say, George W. Bush’s DUI arrest came out a week before the general election.

Rick Perry won’t have the benefit of a compliant media, as Obama and Clinton did. But he is lucky that this debate, which is very early, exposed a weakness that he can turn into a strength. As Rich Lowry pointed out, Perry’s statements last night reflected a softening of his position as expressed in his book and he can redirect the discussion still further into an area that will be discussed ad nauseam during the 2012 campaign—the future of entitlements.

Perry’s handling of the question was crude last night, but Perry’s critics are foolish, including Mitt Romney’s team, to imagine that a candidate who says Social Security is unsustainable in its current configuration and that it needs to be changed if today’s 25 year-olds are to receive any kind of benefit has traveled beyond the pale. The president of the United States himself–the very liberal president of the United States—has said the same thing about entitlements in their present form.

If a general-election race ends up with Barack Obama defending the government status quo because he thinks he can best Perry using Social Security while Perry charts a course to a more sustainable future, that’s a fight Republicans should welcome not only conceptually, but also electorally.

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Universities Receive Legal Warning About Anti-Semitism on Campuses

Campus anti-Semitism is a tricky issue to tackle, and not just because it usually hides behind the mask of anti-Zionism. Pro-Israel students on campus also grapple with a lot of other issues: should they respond to the insane and baseless attacks on Israel from anti-Zionist groups, or would that just give these organizations credibility? Should they try to play up the “positive” contributions Israel and Jews have made the world, or is that overly defensive and banal?

The pro-Israel legal center Shurat HaDin (which I previously profiled here) is taking a different and much blunter approach. If U.S. public universities don’t deal with anti-Semitism on campus, they’re going to have to deal with it in court:

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Campus anti-Semitism is a tricky issue to tackle, and not just because it usually hides behind the mask of anti-Zionism. Pro-Israel students on campus also grapple with a lot of other issues: should they respond to the insane and baseless attacks on Israel from anti-Zionist groups, or would that just give these organizations credibility? Should they try to play up the “positive” contributions Israel and Jews have made the world, or is that overly defensive and banal?

The pro-Israel legal center Shurat HaDin (which I previously profiled here) is taking a different and much blunter approach. If U.S. public universities don’t deal with anti-Semitism on campus, they’re going to have to deal with it in court:

Hundreds of U.S. college and university presidents were set to receive warning letters on Thursday morning, instructing them of their legal obligations to prevent anti-Semitism on campus.

The letters also remind universities it is their legal duty to prevent university funds from being diverted to unlawful activities directed against the State of Israel.

Civil rights group the Israel Law Center (Shurat HaDin) is carrying out the legal campaign in response to “an alarming number of incidents of harassment and hate crimes against Jewish and Israeli students on U.S. college campuses.”

“Anti-Israel rallies and events frequently exceed legitimate criticism of Israel and cross the line into blatant anti-Semitism, resulting in hateful attacks against Jews,” the center’s lawyer Nitsana Darshan-Leitner said on Wednesday.

The letter also calls on universities to ensure student funds aren’t going toward terrorist entities, citing a recent Supreme Court ruling:

The Law Center’s letter also reminds schools of their legal obligation to monitor the funding and activities of all on-campus student groups, and warns them that by failing to do so, they could unwittingly fall foul of stringent U.S. legislation.

The letter cites a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project case, which held it is illegal to provide any support to a terrorist organization – even if that support appears to be relatively benign.

The letter specifically mentions the Muslim Student Association, which it says diverted funds to Hamas in the past. While there’s no evidence the MSA has done this recently, it sounds like the legal center may be closely monitoring specific groups.

Shurat HaDin’s latest campaign isn’t surprising, considering the fact its model is based on the liberal Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC helped destroy the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi movement. “We talked to [the SPLC] when we started, and they gave us the inspiration,” Darshan-Leitner told me when I spoke to her last month. “They gave us the idea, and we followed what they did.”

If the history of the SPLC is any indication, this is the first of many actions Shurat HaDin will be taking against anti-Semitism on campus.

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Palestinians Oppose Unilateral Declaration

Yesterday, Jeffrey Goldberg linked to an Al Arabiya story about how, thanks to the rivalry between the Palestinians’ two ruling parties, a Hamas-affiliated school in Gaza is operating according to a different time zone than the Fatah-affiliated school next door. Goldberg’s headline had some fun with the idea that the Palestinians cannot even agree on the time of day.

Today brings another story of Palestinian intramural confusion. Al-Jazeera notes that as the Palestinians prepare their bid for statehood at the United Nations this month, they don’t actually know who would represent them if such a state were to come into being:

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Yesterday, Jeffrey Goldberg linked to an Al Arabiya story about how, thanks to the rivalry between the Palestinians’ two ruling parties, a Hamas-affiliated school in Gaza is operating according to a different time zone than the Fatah-affiliated school next door. Goldberg’s headline had some fun with the idea that the Palestinians cannot even agree on the time of day.

Today brings another story of Palestinian intramural confusion. Al-Jazeera notes that as the Palestinians prepare their bid for statehood at the United Nations this month, they don’t actually know who would represent them if such a state were to come into being:

The PA is not recognised by many within the diaspora as a legitimate representative of the Palestinians, as it is a temporary administrative body whose authority lies solely within the West Bank and Gaza. The presidency of the PA is still held by Mahmoud Abbas, even though his term expired in January 2009, further adding to the arguments of illegitimate representation.

Karma Nabulsi, a scholar at Oxford University and former PLO representative, found it necessary to focus on the findings of Goodwin-Gill. She has appealed on a number of occasions to those presenting the statehood bid to reassess their position. “We have been informed by our officials that the initiative will advance our rights to self-determination,” she told Al Jazeera. “However, as it is currently constructed, this initiative does not actually advance or protect this collective right of the Palestinian people.”

An activist in the West Bank wants a promise the PLO will be kept on as the Palestinians’ UN representation, because the Palestinian Authority doesn’t represent the diaspora and has a tenuous claim of authority within the territories as well:

“Although we are lacking clarity on what the initiative is, in its current form it will replace the PLO as our representation at the UN with the Palestinian State (which is not yet liberated),” she said, “thereby disenfranchising the majority of our own people.”

Nabulsi adds: “Palestinian people as a whole stand to lose the most out of this, as it shatters their long-held and internationally-recognised unity in their struggle for their inalienable rights.”

Well, this certainly sounds like a terrible idea for everyone involved. So here’s a question for Western supporters of the unilateral declaration: Why do you support the disenfranchisement of the Palestinian people?

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Sickroom Reading

You are confined to bed. Your eyes feel as if they have been pulled farther apart. A gritty smoke of feverish thoughts fills the space between. You turn on the TV, but old reruns and soaps and trash-talk shows only make you more aware of how lousy you feel. You want to read; you want to lose yourself in a book. After all, that’s what books are for — they are the light-footed transports for carrying you out of yourself.

So. What do you read? Last week in the Guardian, Sarah Crown offered some excellent reading advice (h/t: Books, Inq.). In fact, she broke down her advice into three convenient rules:

     1. Don’t tackle anything new. “Just as the point at which you’re lying feverish and fretful in your bed is not the moment to send out to the brand-new super-spicy curry house round the corner,” Crown wrote, “so it is not the moment to essay an untested novel, either.”
     2. No horror. That is, in Crown’s portmanteau, no “laceration/disemboweling/putrefaction.”
     3. Old favorites that strike the right “balance of familiarity, likeability and narrative” — those are the best. “Detective fiction,” Crown says, “hits all three spots perfectly.”

As someone who’s spent some time there and given some thought to the question, I was particularly interested in Crown’s rules for sickroom reading. Although she never says as much, Crown is pretty clearly talking about an illness that is not life-threatening. The rules change when you are facing death.

Unlike Crown, I was unsuccessful at reading detective fiction while I was sick. I tried everyone from the violent and straight-talking (Ross Macdonald, James Crumley) to the elegant and puzzling (Ellery Queen, Rex Stout). Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t keep the suspects and the clues straight. My fuzzy brain quickly got hopelessly lost.

Nor did I follow (by anticipating it) the advice to avoid anything new and stick to old favorites. If by “new” Crown means experimental writing, writing that sets out to accomplish something never attempted before, she is spot-on. William Vollman may be a great writer, but his Europe Central, which I had been meaning to get to ever since it won the National Book Award in 2005, dropped me into a groaning sleep. Richard Powers, Mark Z. Danielewski, David Mitchell, John Banville — their new books left me weakened, coughing.

The ideal prescription for sickbed reading is what Crown describes as a balance of familiarity, likeability, and narrative. But the rule of familiarity doesn’t have to be satisfied by familiar authors. A familiar kind of writing is enough to do the trick. I reread John Williams’s Stoner, but what was soothing was its quiet beauty, not my long acquaintance with it. (At least that’s why I’d recommend it to other sickroom patients.)

Old-fashioned plot-driven storytelling was deeply comforting, even where I was unused to the writers: Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps, Richard Hughes’s High Wind in Jamaica, Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart, John P. Marquand’s H. M. Pulham, Esquire, William Maxwell’s Folded Leaf, anything by P. G. Wodehouse — books that are removed from the buzzing and humming present, yet written in a near-contemporary style (reading them was not like learning a new language), light on social concerns, thick with human drama. I don’t know whether such reading is fit for every sickroom. But this is the kind of reading that, at least in my bilious experience, is the best place to start.

You are confined to bed. Your eyes feel as if they have been pulled farther apart. A gritty smoke of feverish thoughts fills the space between. You turn on the TV, but old reruns and soaps and trash-talk shows only make you more aware of how lousy you feel. You want to read; you want to lose yourself in a book. After all, that’s what books are for — they are the light-footed transports for carrying you out of yourself.

So. What do you read? Last week in the Guardian, Sarah Crown offered some excellent reading advice (h/t: Books, Inq.). In fact, she broke down her advice into three convenient rules:

     1. Don’t tackle anything new. “Just as the point at which you’re lying feverish and fretful in your bed is not the moment to send out to the brand-new super-spicy curry house round the corner,” Crown wrote, “so it is not the moment to essay an untested novel, either.”
     2. No horror. That is, in Crown’s portmanteau, no “laceration/disemboweling/putrefaction.”
     3. Old favorites that strike the right “balance of familiarity, likeability and narrative” — those are the best. “Detective fiction,” Crown says, “hits all three spots perfectly.”

As someone who’s spent some time there and given some thought to the question, I was particularly interested in Crown’s rules for sickroom reading. Although she never says as much, Crown is pretty clearly talking about an illness that is not life-threatening. The rules change when you are facing death.

Unlike Crown, I was unsuccessful at reading detective fiction while I was sick. I tried everyone from the violent and straight-talking (Ross Macdonald, James Crumley) to the elegant and puzzling (Ellery Queen, Rex Stout). Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t keep the suspects and the clues straight. My fuzzy brain quickly got hopelessly lost.

Nor did I follow (by anticipating it) the advice to avoid anything new and stick to old favorites. If by “new” Crown means experimental writing, writing that sets out to accomplish something never attempted before, she is spot-on. William Vollman may be a great writer, but his Europe Central, which I had been meaning to get to ever since it won the National Book Award in 2005, dropped me into a groaning sleep. Richard Powers, Mark Z. Danielewski, David Mitchell, John Banville — their new books left me weakened, coughing.

The ideal prescription for sickbed reading is what Crown describes as a balance of familiarity, likeability, and narrative. But the rule of familiarity doesn’t have to be satisfied by familiar authors. A familiar kind of writing is enough to do the trick. I reread John Williams’s Stoner, but what was soothing was its quiet beauty, not my long acquaintance with it. (At least that’s why I’d recommend it to other sickroom patients.)

Old-fashioned plot-driven storytelling was deeply comforting, even where I was unused to the writers: Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps, Richard Hughes’s High Wind in Jamaica, Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart, John P. Marquand’s H. M. Pulham, Esquire, William Maxwell’s Folded Leaf, anything by P. G. Wodehouse — books that are removed from the buzzing and humming present, yet written in a near-contemporary style (reading them was not like learning a new language), light on social concerns, thick with human drama. I don’t know whether such reading is fit for every sickroom. But this is the kind of reading that, at least in my bilious experience, is the best place to start.

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Is Social Security a Ponzi Scheme?

Last night, Rick Perry put the financing of Social Security and its essential nature front and center in the 2012 presidential campaign. He had called it a Ponzi scheme in a book he published last year, and he didn’t back away from the accusation last night. But is it a Ponzi scheme?

Well, yes and no.

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Last night, Rick Perry put the financing of Social Security and its essential nature front and center in the 2012 presidential campaign. He had called it a Ponzi scheme in a book he published last year, and he didn’t back away from the accusation last night. But is it a Ponzi scheme?

Well, yes and no.

A Ponzi scheme is a species of fraud where the fraudster promises great returns on money invested and pays those returns out of money paid in by new investors. If the money comes in fast enough, the amounts involved can get quite impressive. Although he didn’t invent the idea, the fraud is named for Charles Ponzi, who promised investors a 100 percent return in 90 days. In February 1920, he took in $5,000. By July, he was taking in $250,000 a day. The tricky bit, of course, is knowing when to take the money and run. Ponzi mistimed it and spent three-and-a-half years in federal jail for mail fraud and seven years in state jail as a “notorious and common criminal.” Bernard Madoff ran the greatest Ponzi scheme of all time until his arrest in December 2008.

Social Security is a Ponzi scheme in the sense that the sums invested in it by today’s workers are paid out to today’s retirees. It is most certainly not a Ponzi scheme in the fraudulent sense, as the mechanism is above board and visible to all. The problem is a profound demographic shift since Social Security began in 1935. Then, there were some 20 workers for every recipient, and life expectancy was about 65, the age when retirees became eligible to receive benefits. Today, there are only three workers for every retiree, and life expectancy is fast approaching 80. By 2030, there will be only two workers for every recipient and life expectancy is likely to be well over 80.

Obviously, the current system cannot be sustained without ruinous FICA tax increases, drastic cuts in benefits for future retirees, or a vast and lethal plague that affects only the elderly. Liberals can vow to protect Social Security all they want, but that is “Canutinomics”: the mathematics are inexorable. As the late economist Herbert Stein famously explained, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

Gradually raising the retirement age, adjusting the way cost-of-living increases are calculated to bring them more in line with economic reality, and ceasing to raise Social Security benefits to keep them in line with increasing wage rates would go a long way to making Social Security financially stable. A gradual transition to the Chilean retirement scheme touted (quite correctly) by Herman Cain last night, in which people make mandatory payments into an account they actually own and which is managed, very conservatively, by independent financial institutions, is the long-term solution.

If you want fraud in the current Social Security system, however, it is in what happened to the surpluses that were run up by Social Security to help fund the retirement of the baby boomers. The money was transferred to the Treasury, which called it income, in exchange for non-marketable federal bonds, and Congress promptly spent it. If someone in the private sector tried a scheme like that it would be accounting fraud and earn him a stretch in Club Fed. One reform Congress should enact tomorrow–but won’t–is to require that Social Security surpluses be invested in federal bonds bought in the bond market. This would keep the surpluses out of the hands of politicians (and, by the way, lower the interest costs on other federal borrowing).

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Causes for Concern in the New Libya

More than two weeks after rebels entered Tripoli, there are plenty of good–and bad–signs about the emergence of the new Libya.

On the positive side is the cynicism of many former Qaddafi supporters who are embracing the rebel cause and in many cases performing the same jobs for the new regime as they did under the old. Just as significant, the rebels are accepting these last-minute defectors into their ranks. Retribution has been kept to a minimum so far. Tripoli has been mercifully quiet so far, with little of the looting or senseless violence which accompanied the fall of Baghdad.

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More than two weeks after rebels entered Tripoli, there are plenty of good–and bad–signs about the emergence of the new Libya.

On the positive side is the cynicism of many former Qaddafi supporters who are embracing the rebel cause and in many cases performing the same jobs for the new regime as they did under the old. Just as significant, the rebels are accepting these last-minute defectors into their ranks. Retribution has been kept to a minimum so far. Tripoli has been mercifully quiet so far, with little of the looting or senseless violence which accompanied the fall of Baghdad.

But there are also causes  for concern–including the fact Qaddafi’s arsenals of chemical weapons and portable anti-aircraft missiles still haven’t been fully accounted for. Indeed, in the case of the missiles, many of them are missing from warehouses–which raises the danger they could show up on the black market and find their way into terrorist hands. Such missiles are not much of a danger to military aircraft which generally have defenses, but they are a mortal danger to civilian airliners which don’t. Which is why it is so alarming to read in the New York Times that buildings housing these missiles and tons of other munitions “are completely unguarded more than two weeks after the fall of the capital.” All this ordnance could be utilized by Qaddafi and his hard-core supporters to wage an insurgency as the colonel seems to be threatening from hiding.

At this stage, we should be concerned but not alarmed. By most indicators, things are going better than they did in Iraq in 2003. But it’s still very early, and the ultimate fate of Libya remains up for grabs.

 

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