Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 25, 2011

The Christie Delusion

Speculation about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has continued this weekend. Rick Perry’s dismal performance in the Florida debate and straw poll are inspiring many Republicans who are dismayed at the idea of Mitt Romney as their standard-bearer next year to beat the drums for Christie. But, as I first wrote last week, the latest Christie boomlet will only further fracture the Republican presidential race, not clarify it.

Even if we assume for the sake of argument Christie will succumb to the blandishments of those imploring him to run, the notion he will be instantly viable is a fantasy. Christie’s entry in the race will provide competition to Romney for center-right voters but none at all for Perry among conservative Christians and Tea Partiers. Indeed, rather than helping to stop the sinking Perry, Christie might do just the opposite. By weakening Romney just when he seemed to be on the rise, he might enable the Texan to survive his current crisis.

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Speculation about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has continued this weekend. Rick Perry’s dismal performance in the Florida debate and straw poll are inspiring many Republicans who are dismayed at the idea of Mitt Romney as their standard-bearer next year to beat the drums for Christie. But, as I first wrote last week, the latest Christie boomlet will only further fracture the Republican presidential race, not clarify it.

Even if we assume for the sake of argument Christie will succumb to the blandishments of those imploring him to run, the notion he will be instantly viable is a fantasy. Christie’s entry in the race will provide competition to Romney for center-right voters but none at all for Perry among conservative Christians and Tea Partiers. Indeed, rather than helping to stop the sinking Perry, Christie might do just the opposite. By weakening Romney just when he seemed to be on the rise, he might enable the Texan to survive his current crisis.

As is the case with the various potential saviors for the GOP, all we are hearing about these days are Christie’s strengths, not his weaknesses or the immense difficulties of starting this late without much preparation, a lesson one would think Perry’s example would make abundantly clear.

Christie does bring to the table a considerable reputation as an able executive who vanquished the public employee unions and their Democratic allies. But nobody has explained how a Northeastern governor with stands on both abortion and immigration that pass for conservative in New Jersey but not in most of the rest of the country can possibly compete for the votes of the GOP grass roots against people like Perry or Michele Bachmann. What Christie will do is to make serious inroads on Romney just at the time when he is gaining traction and erasing Perry’s once large lead. Romney’s path to the nomination is based on a belief he will win enough large states like Pennsylvania to offset the advantage his more conservative opponents have in much of the South and West. Christie might make that impossible without being able to win it either.

While possessing enormous political talent and a gift for winning the fights he picks, Christie is unprepared for a run for national office and the intrusive scrutiny that comes with it. Having bridled at the coverage he already gets in Trenton and with a skin every bit as thin as Barack Obama’s without the latter’s cool temperament, it isn’t hard to imagine how badly he will react to the nastiness of life on the presidential campaign trail. The results would be noisy and entertaining but not pretty.

I still believe Christie is too smart to go down a road that is unlikely to bring him the nomination. But if he does, his late entry in the race would be exactly what Perry needs and a terrible blow to Romney.

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Who’s Committing West Bank Violence?

To listen to some reporters and commentators, the only violence in the West Bank in recent years are attacks against Arabs by maniacal right-wing Jewish settlers. That was the conceit of a New York Times feature published on Friday — the same day Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas delivered his request for statehood at the United Nations. According to Ethan Bronner’s report, Israel’s main worry wasn’t about Palestinian terror but an escalation of settler violence. The story depicted the settlers as being out-of-control and having no respect for innocent Palestinians.

However, as Friday’s lethal attack on a Jewish vehicle in the West Bank proved, the belief violence on the West Bank is a one-way street is simply untrue. Settler violence is wrong, but the notion it is unprovoked or Jews are more likely to attack Arabs in the territory is an absurd distortion of the truth.

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To listen to some reporters and commentators, the only violence in the West Bank in recent years are attacks against Arabs by maniacal right-wing Jewish settlers. That was the conceit of a New York Times feature published on Friday — the same day Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas delivered his request for statehood at the United Nations. According to Ethan Bronner’s report, Israel’s main worry wasn’t about Palestinian terror but an escalation of settler violence. The story depicted the settlers as being out-of-control and having no respect for innocent Palestinians.

However, as Friday’s lethal attack on a Jewish vehicle in the West Bank proved, the belief violence on the West Bank is a one-way street is simply untrue. Settler violence is wrong, but the notion it is unprovoked or Jews are more likely to attack Arabs in the territory is an absurd distortion of the truth.

Yet that is exactly the impression Bronner’s story left about the situation in the West Bank. In this telling, the Jews living in settlements are giving the Israeli government nightmares because they are liable to attack peaceful Arab protesters with lethal force in the coming weeks. Even more worrisome is their propensity to launch “price tag” assaults on Arab persons or property, including mosques. Such attacks are routinely portrayed as a radical Jewish tactic designed to intimidate their neighbors as part of a plot, as the Palestinians allege, to “steal” their land.

While Bronner does reference one infamous act of mass slaughter committed by Arabs against the settlers that took place in 2002, there is no mention in the piece of contemporary Palestinian violence against Jews. But like the attack near Kiryat Arba in which a father and a child were killed after their vehicle crashed as a result of a rocks crashing through the windshield, the Jews in the settlements are routinely subjected to deadly attacks from Palestinians. According to the Israeli police, there were 18 such incidents in the Hebron area alone this month. Fortunately, the aim of the Arab stone-throwers is not always as accurate as the one who killed 25-year-old Hillel Palmer and his one-year-old son Jonathan on Friday.

The murder of these two people cannot justify any violence committed by settlers against Arabs. Any Jews carrying out vigilante attacks or any other illegal activity should be caught and punished. But the idea such Jewish crimes outnumber or are even remotely comparable to the vast total of Palestinian attacks on Jewish property or individuals in the West Bank is simply crazy. The nearly 300,000 Jews who live in the territories do so under constant threat of terror attacks and the sort of vehicular homicide that took the lives of the Palmers. Yet only a tiny minority has ever resorted to retaliation of any kind.

Recent events in the West Bank are merely a continuation of the same narrative that has characterized the conflict during the past century. The Arabs have always treated Jewish settlement in any part of the country as a foreign invasion to be resisted by all means. Jewish retaliation for this violence has been sporadic and rare. One needn’t be a proponent of the settlements or the settlers to understand the common portrayal of them in the Western press as violence-prone maniacs is a politicized distortion of the truth. The same can be said of the depiction of West Bank Arabs as only being hapless victims rather than is actually the case–the source of almost all of the violence.

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Mearsheimer’s Vanishing Veneer of Respectability

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have spent much of the last few years since the publication of their infamous screed The Israel Lobby posing as victims of vicious smears. They have claimed their careers were hurt by their willingness to denounce Israel and its supporters and cried bloody murder over the fact many commentators saw a clear connection between their absurd arguments that a vast conspiracy of allies of Zionism was manipulating American policy.

But it’s going to be just a little harder for one of this duo to assert his innocence when it comes to charges of Jew-hatred. Mearsheimer is rightly being called to account for his endorsement of a new book by a Holocaust denier. As Jeffrey Goldberg noted in The Atlantic, after years of pretending he is no anti-Semite, Mearsheimer isn’t even “bothering to make believe anymore.”

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John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have spent much of the last few years since the publication of their infamous screed The Israel Lobby posing as victims of vicious smears. They have claimed their careers were hurt by their willingness to denounce Israel and its supporters and cried bloody murder over the fact many commentators saw a clear connection between their absurd arguments that a vast conspiracy of allies of Zionism was manipulating American policy.

But it’s going to be just a little harder for one of this duo to assert his innocence when it comes to charges of Jew-hatred. Mearsheimer is rightly being called to account for his endorsement of a new book by a Holocaust denier. As Jeffrey Goldberg noted in The Atlantic, after years of pretending he is no anti-Semite, Mearsheimer isn’t even “bothering to make believe anymore.”

The author of the book Mearsheimer admires is Gilad Atzmon, an ex-Israeli who not only doubts the truth of the Holocaust but also thinks the Jews persecuted Hitler and Nazi persecution of the Jews was justified. For Atzmon, any expression of Jewish identity is tantamount to racism. He believes Israel is worse than Nazi Germany. His hatred of his own people has even motivated him to claim medieval blood libels might have been true, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion provides historical insights about the Jews.

When blogger Adam Holland contacted Mearsheimer about his praise of Atzmon, the University of Chicago professor didn’t back down from writing his blurb: “I have no reason to amend it or embellish it, as it accurately reflects my view of the book.”

The Israel Lobby was itself a typical example of anti-Semitic invective in the way it sought to delegitimize Israel’s American supporters and to single them out as sinister forces undermining democracy. But because its authors were two distinguished academics, they were able to cloak their prejudice in more respectable garb. One can only hope Mearsheimer’s endorsement of Atzmon helps to strip away that unjustified veneer of respectability that continues to attach to the authors’ work.

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Netanyahu’s Charm Offensive With Obama

It’s doubtful he will get any credit for it, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is conducting a full-throttle charm offensive on behalf of President Obama. Netanyahu’s praise for the president’s UN speech on Wednesday was fulsome and included no caveats about Obama’s bragging about trying to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians on the 1967 lines or his predilection for moral equivalence between the two sides in the Middle East conflict. Subsequently, Netanyahu also rebuked a member of his party who appeared with Texas Governor Rick Perry last week at a press conference during which Obama’s negative attitude toward Israel was denounced. And this was not long after Jerusalem treated Obama’s helpful phone call to Egypt during the attack on the Israel embassy in Cairo earlier this month as heroic rather than routine.

For those who think the primary image of the U.S.-Israel relationship is that of Netanyahu lecturing Obama about the dangers of a return to the 1967 lines during a White House photo op, the idea the prime minister is sucking up to the president is somewhat amusing. But it is nevertheless true. And as much as there has been no diminishment of the White House’s resentment of Netanyahu, the willingness of the Israeli leader to vouch for Obama may prove quite useful for the Democrats next year.

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It’s doubtful he will get any credit for it, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is conducting a full-throttle charm offensive on behalf of President Obama. Netanyahu’s praise for the president’s UN speech on Wednesday was fulsome and included no caveats about Obama’s bragging about trying to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians on the 1967 lines or his predilection for moral equivalence between the two sides in the Middle East conflict. Subsequently, Netanyahu also rebuked a member of his party who appeared with Texas Governor Rick Perry last week at a press conference during which Obama’s negative attitude toward Israel was denounced. And this was not long after Jerusalem treated Obama’s helpful phone call to Egypt during the attack on the Israel embassy in Cairo earlier this month as heroic rather than routine.

For those who think the primary image of the U.S.-Israel relationship is that of Netanyahu lecturing Obama about the dangers of a return to the 1967 lines during a White House photo op, the idea the prime minister is sucking up to the president is somewhat amusing. But it is nevertheless true. And as much as there has been no diminishment of the White House’s resentment of Netanyahu, the willingness of the Israeli leader to vouch for Obama may prove quite useful for the Democrats next year.

The Israeli leader has actually done his best to avoid spats with Obama. Netanyahu’s infamous lecture was an understandable reaction to Obama’s decision to ambush the prime minister in his Middle East policy speech on the eve of Netanyahu’s trip to Washington this spring. That spat, like the all too public arguments with Israel that have been an ongoing feature of the Obama administration from its first days in office, was the result of a deliberate decision by the president to pick a fight with Netanyahu. But even during the worst of the White House’s attempts to humiliate him, such as the argument over the supposed “insult” to Vice President Joe Biden over building in Jerusalem in 2010, Netanyahu has kept his cool. He refused to publicly answer the slights and genuine insults. It should also be remembered that during his triumphant address to Congress days after Obama’s ambush, Netanyahu spoke for the most part as if the president agreed with him and sought to highlight their points of agreement, not their differences.

Netanyahu’s critics will argue the current charm offensive with the White House is a matter of necessity. Israel needs Obama to veto a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence. They are right about that, but there’s more that motivates the Israeli’s actions. Should Obama follow up his veto at the UN with another campaign of brutal pressure on Israel, Netanyahu will hope to position himself in such a way as to rally his nation’s American supporters in both political parties to act as a brake on the president’s policies without openly offending the White House.

Netanyahu’s willingness to pile on the praise in quotes that can be used by Democrats next year to bolster Obama’s re-election campaign may annoy his Republican admirers, but it makes sense. If Obama is re-elected next year, that will present a challenge for Israel, but he won’t be able to blame Netanyahu for helping the Republicans. And if, as many in Israel hope, Obama is defeated, then none of this will matter.

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The Anti-Liberals Strike Back

If you missed Hussein Agha and Robert Malley’s long piece The Arab Counterrevolution in the New York Review of Books a couple of weeks ago, as I did, go back and take a look. It’s not the least bit dated and is, in fact, one of the better analyses published lately of what is called the Arab Spring.

Middle Eastern liberals, they argue, only affected the direction of Arab history this year for the briefest of periods. The Arab revolution began on December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi kicked off the revolt against Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali by setting himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid. The Arab revolution ended, they say, on February 12, the day after Hosni Mubarak was removed from his palace in Cairo. Men with guns and theology have been in charge of history’s direction since then.

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If you missed Hussein Agha and Robert Malley’s long piece The Arab Counterrevolution in the New York Review of Books a couple of weeks ago, as I did, go back and take a look. It’s not the least bit dated and is, in fact, one of the better analyses published lately of what is called the Arab Spring.

Middle Eastern liberals, they argue, only affected the direction of Arab history this year for the briefest of periods. The Arab revolution began on December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi kicked off the revolt against Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali by setting himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid. The Arab revolution ended, they say, on February 12, the day after Hosni Mubarak was removed from his palace in Cairo. Men with guns and theology have been in charge of history’s direction since then.

“The outcome of the Arab awakening,” they write, “will not be determined by those who launched it. The popular uprisings were broadly welcomed, but they do not neatly fit the social and political makeup of traditional communities often organized along tribal and kinship ties, where religion has a central part and foreign meddling is the norm. The result will be decided by other, more calculating and hard-nosed forces.”

A military junta rules Egypt and is cutting deals with Islamists. A motley collection of armed rebels is in charge of Libya. The ruthless Bashar al-Assad is still the tyrant of Syria. Tunisia looks better, as should be expected, but Islamists are gaining strength even there where they are weakest. Political liberalism (in the general and classical sense) has always been marginal in the Arab world and it still is. We shouldn’t expect mature democracies to emerge over there until that changes. The Arab Spring may well be the beginning of liberalism’s rise, but that doesn’t mean it’s dominant yet.

Agha and Malley go off the rails a bit when they argue so-called moderate Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood may turn out to be the West’s best allies against armed Islamists. That is unlikely. Most Sunni Arab terrorist organizations of the Islamist bent splintered off from the Muslim Brotherhood. Unless armed Islamists start targeting Egyptian civilians first and foremost, as their counterparts did in Iraq, Islamists of every variety will almost certainly band together against Westerners and the Arab world’s own liberal and genuinely moderate “infidels.” After all, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is currently aligned with the totalitarian Salafist movement, from which al-Qaeda springs, and is openly hostile toward not only Israel and the United States but also everyone and every party in Egypt that does not toe its line.

The West’s best and most natural allies in the Middle East and North Africa are the region’s liberals, which is why American foreign policy makers should do everything in their power, even when not much can be done, to give them a lift.

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Was Florida the Last Straw for Perry?

Unlike the Iowa Straw Poll, which has been around for a long time and has some relevance to the caucuses in that state, there is little reason to take the Florida Straw Poll conducted yesterday all that seriously. Even some of those who voted for Herman Cain, who was the unexpected winner, understood he has no chance to be elected president. But the fact Rick Perry competed and lost was more significant than Cain’s win.

Unlike Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, who wisely passed on the Florida poll, Perry went all out to win it and failed. Coming on the heels of his awful performance in the Orlando debate that preceded the event on Thursday, the campaign of the Texas governor looks to be in a free fall. The question for Perry is increasingly becoming not so much how he recovers his mojo as the frontrunner, but will he survive the grueling run up to the caucuses and primaries?

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Unlike the Iowa Straw Poll, which has been around for a long time and has some relevance to the caucuses in that state, there is little reason to take the Florida Straw Poll conducted yesterday all that seriously. Even some of those who voted for Herman Cain, who was the unexpected winner, understood he has no chance to be elected president. But the fact Rick Perry competed and lost was more significant than Cain’s win.

Unlike Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, who wisely passed on the Florida poll, Perry went all out to win it and failed. Coming on the heels of his awful performance in the Orlando debate that preceded the event on Thursday, the campaign of the Texas governor looks to be in a free fall. The question for Perry is increasingly becoming not so much how he recovers his mojo as the frontrunner, but will he survive the grueling run up to the caucuses and primaries?

It is hard to muster a case for optimism for Perry right now. Though he entered the race as a conservative savior and amassed a huge lead in the polls, the debates have exposed him. He has come across not merely as a poor debater but as someone without focus or energy. The attacks on his record from Romney and Bachmann as well as other candidates have hurt, but not as much as his own inability to offer a confident and articulate counter-attack. Yet, the willingness to write Perry off may be a bit premature.

Future debates will give Perry a chance to erase the fumbling impression he left the public with this past week. After three straight poor performances, his chances of winning the next one or two may seem dim, but we should remember, Perry is not a political novice. He may not have been prepared for the national stage, but this is a man who has won races in a large state. If he is willing to work at it, he could improve or at least not embarrass himself again.

Second, the real danger for Perry is his stance on immigration has allowed Romney to slip to the right of him on at least this one issue. This is crucial, because no matter how poor his competition fares, Romney must win over some conservatives if he is to win the nomination. But as much as rousing the rabble over the possibility the children of illegal immigrants might get an in-state discount to attend college offers Romney a chance to play the conservative, there is no reason to believe immigration has somehow eclipsed the budget and taxes as the prime issue for the Tea Party conservatives who gave Perry his lead in the polls.

Third, Perry is not so much competing for votes with Romney as he is with Bachmann and lesser conservatives like Rick Santorum and Cain. Romney’s record as the man who passed the bill that inspired Obamacare and his various flip-flops on the issues still renders him vulnerable to a strong conservative, assuming there is one still in the running by the time the votes start counting in 2012.

That means unless and until a more credible conservative challenger to Romney comes along, Perry still has a chance, albeit a far slimmer one than he had just a couple of weeks ago. As New York Times blogger Nate Silver wrote yesterday, “in the parlance of the bond rating agencies, it is appropriate to put Mr. Perry’s campaign on a ‘negative outlook,’ but it is a little early for a full downgrade.”

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