Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 14, 2011

Liberalism’s Auto-Da-Fe

Ed Schultz, the (white) host of MSNBC’s Ed Show, believes that Republican presidential contender Herman Cain is pandering to “white Republicans out there who don’t like black folks.” Professor Cornell West said that Mr. Cain needs to get off his “symbolic crack pipe” because Cain doesn’t believe racism is a major factor in keeping blacks behind these days. And Harry Belafonte says that Cain is a “bad apple in the black community.”

These statements should be considered along with the ones insisting that Republicans refuse to “put country ahead of party” (Barack Obama), that Republicans “don’t love this country” (Representative Linda Sanchez) and that Republicans who vote in favor of a bill that would prohibit federal funds from being used to pay for any part of a health plan that covers abortion will “be voting to say that women can die on the floor” (Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi).

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Ed Schultz, the (white) host of MSNBC’s Ed Show, believes that Republican presidential contender Herman Cain is pandering to “white Republicans out there who don’t like black folks.” Professor Cornell West said that Mr. Cain needs to get off his “symbolic crack pipe” because Cain doesn’t believe racism is a major factor in keeping blacks behind these days. And Harry Belafonte says that Cain is a “bad apple in the black community.”

These statements should be considered along with the ones insisting that Republicans refuse to “put country ahead of party” (Barack Obama), that Republicans “don’t love this country” (Representative Linda Sanchez) and that Republicans who vote in favor of a bill that would prohibit federal funds from being used to pay for any part of a health plan that covers abortion will “be voting to say that women can die on the floor” (Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi).

These recent remarks give you a sense of the lovely, uplifting, and edifying spirit of modern liberalism – which is, we’re told by liberals, the ideology of compassion.

Sure it is.

What we’re seeing from many liberal quarters these days is, to quote the words of Lionel Trilling, “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas” (Trilling’s words, said in 1950, were part of a sweeping condemnation of conservatism). But this may give liberals a bit too much credit. Many liberals–not all, but certainly enough–hardly seem able, and certainly don’t seem eager, to put up an argument on behalf of anything resembling an idea.

They cannot defend the record of their president. And so they have decided to give in to their worst impulses.

I imagine that napalming one’s political opponents may be, in certain respects, therapeutic. It undoubtedly makes liberals feel morally superior to conservatives. But it won’t win over any converts– and it will probably alienate precisely those voters (independents and moderates) they need. No matter. They are engaged in a rhetorical auto-da-fe, and nothing, certainly not good manners, basic civility, or a sense of respect for those with whom they disagree with, will rein them in.

It’s all very ugly, very discouraging, and very counterproductive. I should add that it would be helpful if the man who based his campaign on unifying Red and Blue America–who promised to listen to us, “especially when we disagree”–would try to calm passions instead of stoke the embers of anger. But Barack Obama has chosen a different, lower road on the path to re-election.

I doubt it will work. And no matter what happens, there is dishonor in his ways.

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On Rick Perry and Burning Bushes

While campaigning for her husband in South Carolina, Anita Perry said, “We are being brutalized by our opponents  and our own party. So much of that is, I think they look at him because of his faith. He’s the only true conservative — well, there are some conservatives, and they’re there for good reasons. And they may feel like God called them, too. But I truly feel like we are here for that purpose.”

When Governor Perry was asked about these comments, he answered, “I’ll stand by my wife. I think she’s right on both cases. My understanding is that she said I’m the most conservative candidate in the race and ‘he’s a Christian.’ So I haven’t got anything I can add to that and she’s hit me on my mark both times there,” Perry said on “Good Morning America.”

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While campaigning for her husband in South Carolina, Anita Perry said, “We are being brutalized by our opponents  and our own party. So much of that is, I think they look at him because of his faith. He’s the only true conservative — well, there are some conservatives, and they’re there for good reasons. And they may feel like God called them, too. But I truly feel like we are here for that purpose.”

When Governor Perry was asked about these comments, he answered, “I’ll stand by my wife. I think she’s right on both cases. My understanding is that she said I’m the most conservative candidate in the race and ‘he’s a Christian.’ So I haven’t got anything I can add to that and she’s hit me on my mark both times there,” Perry said on “Good Morning America.”

This is a complicated matter to weigh in on. Mrs. Perry’s remarks are emotional and heartfelt. She obviously believes in her husband and his campaign, perhaps even more than he does; and the last month has been rough on both of them. So one can understand why, in the face of the collapse of his campaign, she would search for some larger meaning to it all. Perry, on the other hand, could hardly repudiate his wife when asked about what she said.

Still, it’s worth pointing out a few things. The first is Perry hasn’t been “brutalized” by anyone because of his faith. What he’s been “brutalized” for are four poor debate performances. To the degree that faith has been used against anyone so far in the election, it’s been used against Governor Romney by a pastor, Robert Jeffress, who introduced Perry at a recent event and accused Romney of being a member of a “cult” and therefore unworthy of the support of evangelical Christians.

There’s a tendency many of us share, which is to try to rationalize our failures as a product of our virtues. In this case, then, Rick Perry’s declining political fortunes are said to be a product of resentment toward his religious faith. It’s probably worth bearing in mind, then, that there have been times in history in which the persecution for people’s faith meant the end of their lives (see the fate of most of the apostles). And of course, Christians themselves have over the centuries murdered people for their lack of belief.

It’s true, of course, there are some anti-Christian sentiments in America today – but Rick Perry isn’t being brutalized by Republicans because of them. This remains a predominantly Christian country. We’ve actually got things fairly easy, at least by any reasonable historical standard. And the odds are a political candidate would suffer much more in terms of electability if he said he didn’t believe in God than if he said he was a follower of Jesus.

My final point has to do with the matter of “calling.”

In her remarks, Mrs. Perry recounts how, when she was persuading her husband to run for president, his response was, “I don’t want to hear this.” But, she said, “God was already speaking to me, but he [Governor Perry] felt like he needed to see the burning bush. I said, ‘Let me tell you something: You might not see the burning bush, but other people are seeing it for you.’”

This is extremely subjective territory; it’s impossible to determine whether and how God speaks to a person and how he “calls” an individual to act, beyond the obvious moral precepts laid out in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. But as a general matter, we should be careful about claiming political campaigns, including a run for the presidency, is a response to a “burning bush.”

What I’ve found is a tendency among people of faith to tether their own personal and professional ambitions to the will of God. Now, I don’t deny such a thing is possible. Nor would I deny God can use one’s skills to further His purposes or one’s ambitions as means to “call” people to various tasks. On the other hand – and it’s an important other hand – there is a good deal more in the New Testament (and to some degree in the Hebrew Bible) about self-denial and taking up your cross than there is about achieving success in the world or attaining positions of political power. (Once you have made the world an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, Screwtape tells Wormwood, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.)

I’m aware this view isn’t terribly fashionable even in Christian circles — but it is, I think, a fair reading of the Scriptures. And my view has long been that one has to have a fairly deep spiritual life, including mastery of elementary duties, before one is equipped to discern the voice of the Lord on, say, career choices.

To repeat: the fact this is a personal and subjective matter makes it impossible to render a certain judgment. Yahweh can work in mysterious ways. I’m simply saying that all of us, myself included, are tempted to spiritualize what are fairly common (and not terribly spiritual) human ambitions. It’s quite comforting to believe God is calling us to succeed in this world. I don’t pretend to be an expert at sorting through all this. But I do think it’s wise to recall from time to time that humility in understanding the mind of God is a biblical virtue as well.

 

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A Sign of a Sick Regime

While the American media continues to debate the alleged Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington, there are other stories in Iran.

In the central Iranian town of Khomeinishahr, authorities executed a number of Iranians accused of corruption. A debate about capital punishment can be deferred to another day. That crowds encouraged children to watch, however, suggests something is very wrong in the Islamic Republic today.

While the American media continues to debate the alleged Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington, there are other stories in Iran.

In the central Iranian town of Khomeinishahr, authorities executed a number of Iranians accused of corruption. A debate about capital punishment can be deferred to another day. That crowds encouraged children to watch, however, suggests something is very wrong in the Islamic Republic today.

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Would Iran Subcontract to the Zetas?

Much of the skepticism among Iran experts toward Attorney General Holder’s allegations that elements of Iran’s Qods Force cooperated with the Zetas, a Mexican drug gang, revolves around disbelief that the Iranians would trust the Zetas. As the Congressional Research Service’s Kenneth Katzman explains:

The main element that falls apart dramatically is that the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington was supposed to be carried out by Mexican drug cartel members. Iran has never used surrogates with whom they are unfamiliar. Non-Muslim proxy groups are never used. The Iranians have always used very well-known, familiar groups that are operationally trusted, well integrated into the Iranian strategy, like Hezbollah. It’s illogical that they would subcontract a plot like this to the Mexican drug cartels. They’re not Muslim. The Iranians don’t have a lot of familiarity with these cartels. They would see the drug cartels as vulnerable to making a deal with the United States that would lead to the exposure of the plot, which indeed happened here when Arbabsiar thought he was contacting a member of a Mexican drug cartel, who was a double agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

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Much of the skepticism among Iran experts toward Attorney General Holder’s allegations that elements of Iran’s Qods Force cooperated with the Zetas, a Mexican drug gang, revolves around disbelief that the Iranians would trust the Zetas. As the Congressional Research Service’s Kenneth Katzman explains:

The main element that falls apart dramatically is that the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington was supposed to be carried out by Mexican drug cartel members. Iran has never used surrogates with whom they are unfamiliar. Non-Muslim proxy groups are never used. The Iranians have always used very well-known, familiar groups that are operationally trusted, well integrated into the Iranian strategy, like Hezbollah. It’s illogical that they would subcontract a plot like this to the Mexican drug cartels. They’re not Muslim. The Iranians don’t have a lot of familiarity with these cartels. They would see the drug cartels as vulnerable to making a deal with the United States that would lead to the exposure of the plot, which indeed happened here when Arbabsiar thought he was contacting a member of a Mexican drug cartel, who was a double agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

On his description of past patterns, Katzman, the author of the first serious book about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a true Iran expert, is correct.  And, certainly, the plot may still turn out not to be all that it’s cracked up to be. Let me push back against Katzman’s conclusions, for a second, however:

  • It is a mistake to overemphasize analysis of terrorism on past patterns. After all, it’s the goal of terrorists to surprise their targets. They are less willing to place themselves in a methodological straitjacket than are those who seek to defeat them; and,
  • while collaboration between the Qods Force and the Zetas break the traditional pattern, so too did collaboration between the Japanese Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Sometimes disparate groups can work together in pursuit of those they consider to be a common enemy.

It’s still possible this was truly a rogue operation and the Supreme Leader was not aware of it. Nevertheless, that a rogue operation could advance so far has other implications, given the high stakes of Iran’s nuclear game.

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Romney and the Not-Romneys

It is now clear that the dynamic of the Republican presidential nominating process has pivoted around Mitt Romney from the very beginning, as I explain today in the New York Post: 

The question now for Herman Cain, certainly the most charming Republican presidential contender since Ronald Reagan, is whether he’s a formidable candidate in his own right — or just the latest of the Not-Romneys.

The structure of the GOP race this year has been simple. There’s Mitt Romney and his solid 20-25 percent of the Republican electorate, the level of support the former Massachusetts governor has garnered in nearly every major poll this year. And then there’s the other 75 percent. They know Romney. They’ve been listening to him for nearly five years. And they’re not buying.

If you’re the pivot point of a race, you’re in the best possible position.

It is now clear that the dynamic of the Republican presidential nominating process has pivoted around Mitt Romney from the very beginning, as I explain today in the New York Post: 

The question now for Herman Cain, certainly the most charming Republican presidential contender since Ronald Reagan, is whether he’s a formidable candidate in his own right — or just the latest of the Not-Romneys.

The structure of the GOP race this year has been simple. There’s Mitt Romney and his solid 20-25 percent of the Republican electorate, the level of support the former Massachusetts governor has garnered in nearly every major poll this year. And then there’s the other 75 percent. They know Romney. They’ve been listening to him for nearly five years. And they’re not buying.

If you’re the pivot point of a race, you’re in the best possible position.

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Hmm: Obama Knew About “Fast and Furious” Before Holder?

During Eric Holder’s testimony to Congress in May, he claimed he had first heard about the “Fast and Furious” operation “over the last few weeks.” But CNN has unearthed an interview its Spanish-language station had with Obama in March, in which the president brings up “Fast and Furious “unprompted, and said that “Eric Holder has been very clear that he knew nothing about this.”

Obviously, this raises the question: how did the president know Holder was unaware of “Fast and Furious”…unless they spoke about it in the first place?

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During Eric Holder’s testimony to Congress in May, he claimed he had first heard about the “Fast and Furious” operation “over the last few weeks.” But CNN has unearthed an interview its Spanish-language station had with Obama in March, in which the president brings up “Fast and Furious “unprompted, and said that “Eric Holder has been very clear that he knew nothing about this.”

Obviously, this raises the question: how did the president know Holder was unaware of “Fast and Furious”…unless they spoke about it in the first place?

The CNN interview with Obama took place on March 22. Holder testified before Congress  he had just found out about the operation “over the last few weeks” on May 3. Charitably assuming Holder and Obama had first become aware of the operation the day of the CNN interview, that’s still a span of at least six weeks that the attorney general knew about it. Does that still fall within Holder’s terribly vague “few weeks” timeline? Maybe, but it’s stretching it.

What Congress needs to find out now is when exactly the president and attorney general first discussed the operation. If Obama knew Holder’s “few weeks” comment was deliberately misleading, he’s had plenty of time to correct the record. Instead, he’s defended the attorney general’s account.

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A Haughty Spirit Often Precedes a Fall

I want to make an observation related to the extraordinary (and ominous) allegation by the Obama administration of an alleged plot in which Iran’s vaunted Quds Force was trying to enlist a used-car salesman and a Mexican drug gang in a plan to kill Saudi Arabia’s U.S. ambassador as he dined at a Washington restaurant.

My point is not that, as David Ignatius of the Washington Post has said, this marks a significant escalation for Iran to conduct terror operations inside the United States (though it is). Nor is it that Iran trying to establish a terrorist beachhead in the North American continent is a dangerous turn of events (though it is). Nor is it that Iran’s actions are the result, at least in part, of weakness shown by the president (though it probably is).

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I want to make an observation related to the extraordinary (and ominous) allegation by the Obama administration of an alleged plot in which Iran’s vaunted Quds Force was trying to enlist a used-car salesman and a Mexican drug gang in a plan to kill Saudi Arabia’s U.S. ambassador as he dined at a Washington restaurant.

My point is not that, as David Ignatius of the Washington Post has said, this marks a significant escalation for Iran to conduct terror operations inside the United States (though it is). Nor is it that Iran trying to establish a terrorist beachhead in the North American continent is a dangerous turn of events (though it is). Nor is it that Iran’s actions are the result, at least in part, of weakness shown by the president (though it probably is).

I simply want to point out how Obama’s failures vis-à-vis Iran – from its escalating sponsorship of terrorism, to its efforts to destabilize Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations, to its pursuit of nuclear weapons — stand out particularly in light of how easy he once thought relations with that regime would be.

To take just one example: during the 2008 campaign, Obama argued the way to bring stability to Iraq was not by winning the war but rather by striking a “new compact in the region”—one that would include all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Syria and Iran. Such a compact, he said, will “secure Iraq’s borders, keep neighbors from meddling, isolate al-Qaeda, and support Iraq’s unity.”

Never mind that Syria and Iran had spent the previous years doing everything in their power to violate Iraq’s borders, meddle in its affairs, arm and support the factions that had been killing Iraqis and American troops alike, and fracture its unity. To Obama, all this murderous activity was but the understandable reaction of frustrated governments to the policies of George W. Bush. By contrast, if he himself were elected president, both Iran and Syria would utterly reverse direction.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way, has it?

Obama’s unlimited faith in diplomacy as a means of resolving deep-seated differences among nation-states was not exclusive to the Middle East. When asked, during the first year of his presidency, if he would meet individually and without precondition with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, Obama replied: “I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them . . . is ridiculous.” So enamored was he of this pledge that he re-stated it regularly in the course of the campaign. Whenever he was asked how he would address a thorny foreign-policy issue, he invoked the need for diplomacy — first, last, and always.

Charles Krauthammer once characterized this disposition as the “broken-telephone theory of international conflict” – that is, the belief that if nations fail to get along, the fault is to be found in some misunderstanding, some misperception, some problem of communication that can be cleared up by “talking.” In Obama’s case, the syndrome was compounded by unfeigned confidence in the power of his own personal charm to bridge whatever differences may separate us from those who hate us.

Thus, when it came to Iran and others, he refused even to entertain the possibility diplomacy might fail, or to consider what steps would be necessary should that in fact happen.

But happen it has.

I have some sympathy for the president and his advisers. The world always seems tidier and easier to influence when you’re on the outside looking in. It’s simpler offering opinions on “The Chris Matthews Show” than it is to reverse the effects of a nasty recession or to bring peace to the Middle East. This point also applies to those running for office versus those bearing the duties of governing. Everyone who works at a high level in government, including in the White House, finds events are not as easy to shape as hot wax. There are layers of complexity one can hardly imagine. So assuming things will be easier than they are isn’t an unforgivable sin; it’s a common human trait.

Nevertheless, I do think it’s fair to say Obama and his team were more imperious than most others who win the presidency. They seemed to believe their own rhetoric. They would transform the nation and remake the world with a snap of their talented fingers; those who came before them were either knaves or fools. To make matter worse, Obama’s performance in his first term has been marked by unusual ineptitude. Judged by his own administration’s standards – from promising unemployment would not rise to above 8 percent to the various “recovery  summers” we were told to expect to health care costs going down to reducing the deficit in half to Guantanamo Bay being closed to so much else – the president has failed and failed again. The gap between his promises and his performance, between his words and his deeds, is therefore a good deal wider than is usually the case. Even if one believes my judgment on Obama’s tenure is uncharitable, there isn’t any question his faith in his abilities far exceeded what was warranted.

The man who said his election would lead to a nation healed, a world repaired, and an America that believes again has proved unable to bend events and the world to his will and his ways. We are seeing an ancient truth being vindicated: a haughty spirit often precedes a fall.

 

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Boehner Confronts Obama on Phone Call

As The Hill reports, the call was supposed to be a congratulatory one – Obama was pleased the House passed the free trade agreements he’s been promoting–but it quickly turned serious when Boehner confronted the president about his distortions of the Republicans’ jobs plan.

Here’s the full readout from the phone call released by Boehner’s office last night:

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As The Hill reports, the call was supposed to be a congratulatory one – Obama was pleased the House passed the free trade agreements he’s been promoting–but it quickly turned serious when Boehner confronted the president about his distortions of the Republicans’ jobs plan.

Here’s the full readout from the phone call released by Boehner’s office last night:

This afternoon, President Obama called Speaker Boehner to congratulate him on passing the three free trade agreements. After they discussed trade, the Speaker brought up the President’s remarks today about “not having yet seen” a GOP plan for job creation, and respectfully challenged the President’s assertion.  “I want to make sure you have all the facts,” the Speaker told the President.  The Speaker reminded the President that House Republicans put forth a ‘Plan for America’s Job Creators’ in May, and noted that he and other members of the GOP leadership team have spoken with the President and his staff about the plan and referenced it on numerous occasions, in letters and elsewhere.

The Speaker told the President that when he sent his jobs plan to the Hill, Republicans pledged to give it consideration, and have done so.  The President was reminded of a memo written by GOP leaders outlining the specific areas where they believe common ground can be found.  The Speaker also noted that a number of the President’s ideas have already been acted on in the House, including a veterans hiring bill, trade agreements, and a three percent withholding bill approved by the Ways & Means Committee today that will be considered on the House floor this month.  They also discussed transportation and infrastructure, and the Speaker expressed his desire to do something on the issue, but to do it in a fiscally-responsible way.

Obama has been hammering the GOP in speeches for allegedly not releasing a job creation plan, but as Boehner pointed out, House Republicans put forward their Plan for America’s Job Creators five months ago – and it’s been discussed with the president on numerous occasions.

By pointing this out during a phone call – and providing a readout to the press – Boehner is making it difficult for Obama to keep claiming Republicans don’t have a plan for job creation. Clearly, the president is now fully aware of this plan, and will have to come up with something legitimate about which to criticize Republicans on the campaign trail.

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