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Posts For: October 16, 2011

Liberal Democracy in Egypt

The decree issued last week by Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces banning religious slogans in the parliamentary election campaign is a potentially positive development for the country’s post-Mubarak political reconstruction. In the run-up to the vote, beginning November 28, “electoral campaigns based on the use of religious slogans or on racial or gender segregation are banned.” Violators could face a fine and three months imprisonment.

Observers may regret such policies erode the very freedoms of speech which democracy is supposed to promote, but this is a misconstruction. Unrestrained democracy can lead anywhere; the secret of political stability, the route to international legitimacy, and the recipe to a secure freedom of speech in the longer run, is liberal democracy.

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The decree issued last week by Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces banning religious slogans in the parliamentary election campaign is a potentially positive development for the country’s post-Mubarak political reconstruction. In the run-up to the vote, beginning November 28, “electoral campaigns based on the use of religious slogans or on racial or gender segregation are banned.” Violators could face a fine and three months imprisonment.

Observers may regret such policies erode the very freedoms of speech which democracy is supposed to promote, but this is a misconstruction. Unrestrained democracy can lead anywhere; the secret of political stability, the route to international legitimacy, and the recipe to a secure freedom of speech in the longer run, is liberal democracy.

That is to say, the key lies less in the representation than in the restraint part, and not merely democratic election, but rather liberty, is the foundation for a promising future. This is an argument for the mitigation of democracy in its nascence, and it is the only way to moderate whatever political force manages to climb the greasy obelisk.

Egypt’s priority now is the pursuit of liberty, not simply of the vote, and other elements of the military council’s decree–harsh penalties for bribery and false media coverage during the campaign, and a pledge to support new youth parties–give some reason for cautious optimism regarding its intentions.

Therefore, reasonable measures to reduce racial or gender discrimination should be lauded. So should efforts to erode the appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, an advocate of the “one man, one vote, one time” approach (precisely antithetical to liberal democracy) and of the soon-to-be-discarded slogan, “Islam is the solution.” In the context of an upsurge of religious violence in the country recently, as far as Egypt’s leadership is concerned, political Islam is decidedly not the solution. The vote is about whether or not the electorate agrees.

 

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Herman Cain Still Proudly Ignorant on Foreign Policy

I’ve taken Herman Cain to task in the past for his appalling ignorance of foreign policy issues. He promised to brush up on these matters, but it appears that one of his greatest strengths — his unflappability and imperviousness to criticism — can also be a great weakness. As his appearance on “Meet the Press” this morning showed, rather than study up to fix an embarrassing shortcoming, the Godfather Pizza executive hasn’t done much to correct his lack of knowledge about war and peace issues which are, after all, a president’s first responsibility.

When pressed for answers today on Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq, the best Cain could do was to repeat his mantra that he would consult experts and then figure it out. Which is to say, he knows he hasn’t a clue but hopes no one will care. Durng the program, Cain admitted he had no familiarity with the neoconservative movement. While being a subscriber to COMMENTARY isn’t a requirement for the presidency, that someone running for that office has not even heard the term suggests Cain is not only bereft of foreign policy experience, he apparently has never even read much about it.

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I’ve taken Herman Cain to task in the past for his appalling ignorance of foreign policy issues. He promised to brush up on these matters, but it appears that one of his greatest strengths — his unflappability and imperviousness to criticism — can also be a great weakness. As his appearance on “Meet the Press” this morning showed, rather than study up to fix an embarrassing shortcoming, the Godfather Pizza executive hasn’t done much to correct his lack of knowledge about war and peace issues which are, after all, a president’s first responsibility.

When pressed for answers today on Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq, the best Cain could do was to repeat his mantra that he would consult experts and then figure it out. Which is to say, he knows he hasn’t a clue but hopes no one will care. Durng the program, Cain admitted he had no familiarity with the neoconservative movement. While being a subscriber to COMMENTARY isn’t a requirement for the presidency, that someone running for that office has not even heard the term suggests Cain is not only bereft of foreign policy experience, he apparently has never even read much about it.

As COMMENTARY readers know, neoconservatism has a long and honorable history as the movement that helped mobilize the country to oppose détente and the Soviet Union as well as having played a key role in critiquing the failures of the welfare state. During the Bush administration, leftists used the word as an epithet seeking to demonize those who believed not only in the need to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in the whole idea of promoting democracy abroad. After all that, it truly says something about a public figure who would admit to never having heard the word or knowing what it means.

Of course, neoconservatism isn’t the only term Cain hasn’t heard of. He was similarly stumped when asked about the Palestinian right of return. He also has said Iran’s imminent drive for nuclear weapons could be stopped by American energy independence that could take decades to achieve.

The point about Cain’s ignorance is not just that it’s noteworthy, not to mention faintly ridiculous, to have a person running for president for whom the debates and the ideas behind the great struggles of our time are a mystery. It is that it is impossible to trust such a person to do the right thing if elected. Cain’s mind is clearly a blank slate when it comes to having the knowledge to make the life and death decisions one faces as president. We would have to trust providence that the experts he listened to would correct his ignorance.

As we have seen on the campaign trail, Cain’s self-confidence is impregnable. That’s a good quality if it reinforces one’s adherence to principle. But when it allows a person to treat a major hole in one’s knowledge base as an unimportant detail, it is a terrible, disqualifying fault.

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When the Candidate Was a Bishop

Today’s front-page feature in the New York Times on Mitt Romney’s career as a leader in the Mormon Church has the feel of an article whose purpose was basically unfulfilled. Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s agenda seems to have been to dig up as much dirt as she could about the Republican’s activities. But unfortunately for the Times, she didn’t find much that would embarrass the candidate.

As much as Romney has been a familiar national political figure in the last several years, it may be many of us didn’t know that for a considerable period of time he was actually the lay head of the Mormon faith in the Boston area. But after reading the article, the reaction is, if this is the worst they can say about him, he’s not likely to provide Democratic opposition researchers with much fodder.

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Today’s front-page feature in the New York Times on Mitt Romney’s career as a leader in the Mormon Church has the feel of an article whose purpose was basically unfulfilled. Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s agenda seems to have been to dig up as much dirt as she could about the Republican’s activities. But unfortunately for the Times, she didn’t find much that would embarrass the candidate.

As much as Romney has been a familiar national political figure in the last several years, it may be many of us didn’t know that for a considerable period of time he was actually the lay head of the Mormon faith in the Boston area. But after reading the article, the reaction is, if this is the worst they can say about him, he’s not likely to provide Democratic opposition researchers with much fodder.

The one negative story the piece highlighted concerned Romney’s apparent opposition when a church member was contemplating an abortion. This elicited a stinging rebuke from a Mormon who is a feminist dissident within the church. While any discussion of abortion highlights the fact Romney has changed his position over the years, it may also reassure conservatives who don’t trust his current pro-life stand.

But everything else in the story paints a picture of a caring and involved churchman who showed both compassion toward congregants and support for others working for the church. It also portrays him as a take-charge leader, which is, after all, a characteristic needed in a president.

While this may disappoint a Times readership who may have read the story hoping for more juicy tidbits, it should reassure Republicans their frontrunner appears to be as squeaky clean as his image.

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The Stakes in Ohio’s Union Referendum

The off-year elections in the year before a presidential election often are not very interesting. In the year following a presidential election, there are races for governor of New Jersey and Virginia and the mayoralty of New York, a city with a larger population than 39 states. These can give an indication of how the political winds are blowing, as they certainly did in 2009.

This year, there are governorship races in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky. The Republican candidate in Mississippi seems very likely to win, taking over from the term-limited Republican Haley Barbour, and the incumbents (Republican in Louisiana and Democrat in Kentucky) seem equally likely to keep their jobs. Barring a late development, they should be ho-hum elections. But there is one election that people should keep their eye on, the referendum in Ohio to repeal a state law enacted last spring limiting collective bargaining for public employees.

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The off-year elections in the year before a presidential election often are not very interesting. In the year following a presidential election, there are races for governor of New Jersey and Virginia and the mayoralty of New York, a city with a larger population than 39 states. These can give an indication of how the political winds are blowing, as they certainly did in 2009.

This year, there are governorship races in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky. The Republican candidate in Mississippi seems very likely to win, taking over from the term-limited Republican Haley Barbour, and the incumbents (Republican in Louisiana and Democrat in Kentucky) seem equally likely to keep their jobs. Barring a late development, they should be ho-hum elections. But there is one election that people should keep their eye on, the referendum in Ohio to repeal a state law enacted last spring limiting collective bargaining for public employees.

The unions have been pouring money into repeal (about $5 million so far) and repeal is ahead in the polls although the lead has been dropping as anti-repeal forces have begun fighting back. The New York Times covered the story this morning.

This election is what American politics is all about these days. Will the old nexus between liberal politicians and public service unions continue in power, or will the change represented by the Tea Party continue the advances of the last two years? If repeal fails, President Obama can more or less kiss Ohio (18 electoral votes) goodbye. If it succeeds, it will be the best political news he has had in a long, long time.

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Obama on Iran: Is it Too Late for a Paper Tiger to Show He Has a Spine?

The Obama administration’s announcement that it will demand the International Atomic Energy Agency reveal classified information proving Iran is working on nuclear military weapons technology is meant to ramp up the pressure on Tehran in the wake of their failed assassination plot in the United States. But while such an action would be helpful in the struggle to restrain Iranian nuclear ambitions, it’s hard to argue such a belated measure would do much to either scare the ayatollahs or motivate America’s allies to take action to isolate them. Having spent his first three years in office doing everything to convince the Iranians that Obama’s America was a paper tiger, it would be hard to blame them for thinking they don’t have much to worry about.

The problem is not that the ideas being mooted by senior administration officials speaking off the record to newspapers like the New York Times about what they’d like to do are ill-conceived. The trouble is, they are nearly three years late.

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The Obama administration’s announcement that it will demand the International Atomic Energy Agency reveal classified information proving Iran is working on nuclear military weapons technology is meant to ramp up the pressure on Tehran in the wake of their failed assassination plot in the United States. But while such an action would be helpful in the struggle to restrain Iranian nuclear ambitions, it’s hard to argue such a belated measure would do much to either scare the ayatollahs or motivate America’s allies to take action to isolate them. Having spent his first three years in office doing everything to convince the Iranians that Obama’s America was a paper tiger, it would be hard to blame them for thinking they don’t have much to worry about.

The problem is not that the ideas being mooted by senior administration officials speaking off the record to newspapers like the New York Times about what they’d like to do are ill-conceived. The trouble is, they are nearly three years late.

Despite provocations that might have brought military retaliation from an administration less worried about offending Muslim sensibilities, the scariest thing contemplated by the administration appears to be a plan to ban financial transactions with Iran’s central bank as well as on the sale of oil produced by companies controlled by the regime’s Revolutionary Guards. Though such measures could be the start of a much-needed full-scale effort to cripple the Iranian economy, given the lack of enthusiasm for the plan on the part of America’s allies, let alone countries like Russia and China, the ayatollahs may be feeling confident about their ability to go on defying Washington.

The United States is paying the price for Obama’s hubris when he took office. The president arrived in Washington determined not only to reverse every conceivable policy put in place by the Bush administration but to ignore even those actions which dovetailed with his own ideas. Under Obama’s predecessor, diplomacy to Iran had been farmed out to Germany and France, who did their best to appease the ayatollahs. Obama, however, apparently thinking his own magic personality would convince Iran to give up their nukes, acted as if those years of attempts at engagement never happened. He then proceeded to waste three more years on similarly futile attempts.

The Iranians are wagering that neither Germany, nor Russia or China will suddenly reverse years of refusals to back serious sanctions just because Obama is mad about Iranian terrorism. A shutoff of oil imports from Iran could have a deleterious effect on the already tottering economies of the West at a time when many believe we are on the eve of another recession. And given the fact that Obama’s own re-election depends more on the state of the economy than his stance on Iran, Tehran may be calculating that the latest threats from Washington lack credibility.

It is too late to do anything about events that have created the image of Obama’s America as a paper tiger. But the situation is not irreparable. Were the administration to begin enforcing the existing sanctions on Iran and acting as if they really did think the ayatollahs had committed an act of war, there is a chance Europe would have to follow the president’s lead. An American effort, even if largely unilateral, to restrict not only Iran’s exports but to place limitations on the ability of even our allies to trade with it would not be popular in Europe but it might turn heads in Tehran.

Doing so requires the president to discard his almost religious belief in the United Nations and multilateralism. If he doesn’t, it will leave the West with the choice of using force or living with a nuclear Iran.

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African Mission Makes Mockery of Talk About Reducing Troop Commitments

I have no idea whether President Obama is right to send 100 U.S. troops to help Uganda and other African states to battle the homicidal Lord’s Resistance Army and its maniacal leader, Joseph Kony.

There is little doubt the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been responsible for more atrocities than anyone can count, is the embodiment of evil. Whether it should be America’s role to stop this particular manifestation of evil is another question. Too often in the past–e.g., in Beirut in 1983 and Somalia in 1993–good deeds went awry when our forces encountered stronger-than-expected resistance, and it turned out we had enough will to send troops but not enough to suffer any casualties.

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I have no idea whether President Obama is right to send 100 U.S. troops to help Uganda and other African states to battle the homicidal Lord’s Resistance Army and its maniacal leader, Joseph Kony.

There is little doubt the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been responsible for more atrocities than anyone can count, is the embodiment of evil. Whether it should be America’s role to stop this particular manifestation of evil is another question. Too often in the past–e.g., in Beirut in 1983 and Somalia in 1993–good deeds went awry when our forces encountered stronger-than-expected resistance, and it turned out we had enough will to send troops but not enough to suffer any casualties.

I don’t know enough about the situation on the ground in central Africa to know whether the introduction of 100 American personnel will make a major difference and will allow the eradication of the Lord’s Resistance Army at low cost. What I do know is missions such as this one–which are the very definition of a “war of choice”–make a mockery of talk about reducing our troop commitments in line with declining resources.

The defense budget has already been cut by more than $450 billion this year, and another $600 billion or more in cuts could be in the offing if the congressional super-committee does not find a good alternative. Yet, there has been no corresponding reduction of American commitments. Indeed this year, even while winding down (prematurely) our mission in Iraq, the administration has employed force against Muammar Qaddafi and now against Joseph Kony. Meanwhile, we are stepping up drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, fighting pirates off Somalia, battling the Taliban in Afghanistan, etc.

This is not because Obama is an especially militarist president. To the contrary, he is probably the most dovish president we have seen in a long time–possibly since Herbert Hoover. Yet the nature of American power is such that even a liberal president will find plenty of reasons to use force. Whatever you may think of each individual use of force–and I am hardly sold on the latest deployment–they suggest there will not be a decreasing demand on the American military. Yet the funds available to maintain these forces are being drastically slashed.

That is how you produce an overstretched, hollow force. Which, unfortunately, is where we are likely to be heading unless Congress  holds the line on further budget cuts.

 

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RE: Liberalism’s Auto-da-Fe

I certainly agree with Pete the face of modern-day liberalism is an ugly one indeed, with snarling leaders and snarling followers contemptuous of all opinions but their own. But this is not a new development and antedates Barack Obama’s disastrous presidency.

Remember when the New York Times announced in early 2008 that Bill Kristol would write a weekly column? The liberal blogosphere went
ballistic
, and the column lasted only a year, when the Times announced his departure from the op-ed page with nothing more than the one-line announcement at the end of his column, “This is William Kristol’s last column.” Harry Stein, the author of the article just referred to, wrote a book more than a decade ago about the fact that expressing any disagreement with liberal orthodoxy, however mild or measured, at New York dinner parties is likely to get you called a fascist.

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I certainly agree with Pete the face of modern-day liberalism is an ugly one indeed, with snarling leaders and snarling followers contemptuous of all opinions but their own. But this is not a new development and antedates Barack Obama’s disastrous presidency.

Remember when the New York Times announced in early 2008 that Bill Kristol would write a weekly column? The liberal blogosphere went
ballistic
, and the column lasted only a year, when the Times announced his departure from the op-ed page with nothing more than the one-line announcement at the end of his column, “This is William Kristol’s last column.” Harry Stein, the author of the article just referred to, wrote a book more than a decade ago about the fact that expressing any disagreement with liberal orthodoxy, however mild or measured, at New York dinner parties is likely to get you called a fascist.

Indeed, it goes back at least 40 years. It was, I think, in the administration of Lyndon Johnson that liberals ceased to be cheerful and self-confident in the power of their ideas. Recall Senator Hubert Humphrey’s acceptance speech for the vice-presidential nomination at the
1964 Democratic Convention, in which he endlessly–and joyously–repeated the refrain “but not Senator Goldwater!” That in turn recalled FDR’s famous Martin-Barton-and-Fish speech from the 1940 campaign. Or remember Roosevelt’s good-humored (and devastating) putdown of Republicans who had complained about “my little dog, Fala.” Fala is now immortalized in bronze in Washington, which is a good deal more than can be said for the grumpy Republicans who slandered him.

Both Humphrey and Roosevelt were confident the future was theirs. Conservatism in their day was a dying, backward looking political philosophy, bereft of ideas to meet new conditions and only wishing for a return to the glory days of Calvin Coolidge, glory days Roosevelt and Humphrey knew were gone forever. That makes for cheerfulness.

Today, the situation is reversed. Conservatism has been abubble with new ideas in the last 40 years. It is the liberals who cling to a creed outworn, developed in a world as dead and gone as the roaring 20s. Can you name a single liberal idea that postdates Lyndon Johnson’s administration, which ended 42 years ago, before the microprocessor was developed? The vast majority of the liberal agenda goes back to the late 19th century.

When you’re a merchant in the marketplace of ideas, and all your goods are shopworn ones that have been around for decades and can only be sold with the use of flagrant mendacity, you’re likely to be grumpy. The Federalists were equally grumpy 200 years ago and for the same reason: their day was over, but they couldn’t change.

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IDF Must Account for Shalit Failure

While many in Israel and elsewhere have spent the last few days bashing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his painful but unavoidable decision to pay an egregious price to ransom Gilad Shalit, one of the country’s sacred cows has, at least to this point, avoided much criticism. But an article in today’s Haaretz offers at least a partial answer to a question many friends of Israel have been wondering about in the days since the announcement of the deal with Hamas to free Gilad Shalit: Why was the Israel Defense Forces unable to rescue him at any point during his more than five years of captivity?

According to Ronen Cohen, a recently retired colonel in Israel’s military intelligence, “The IDF never took responsibility for the soldier and did not even set up a team to deal with bringing him back. They simply passed it on to the Shin Bet [security service].”

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While many in Israel and elsewhere have spent the last few days bashing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his painful but unavoidable decision to pay an egregious price to ransom Gilad Shalit, one of the country’s sacred cows has, at least to this point, avoided much criticism. But an article in today’s Haaretz offers at least a partial answer to a question many friends of Israel have been wondering about in the days since the announcement of the deal with Hamas to free Gilad Shalit: Why was the Israel Defense Forces unable to rescue him at any point during his more than five years of captivity?

According to Ronen Cohen, a recently retired colonel in Israel’s military intelligence, “The IDF never took responsibility for the soldier and did not even set up a team to deal with bringing him back. They simply passed it on to the Shin Bet [security service].”

Cohen said the IDF had “partial intelligence” about Shalit at one point but that this information ceased to be relevant in December 2008 when Operation Cast Lead — Israel’s counter-attack against Palestinian missile fire from Gaza — took place.

It should be specified that cracking Hamas’ Gaza stronghold is a challenge that would daunt any military strategist. The densely packed area is a warren of refugee housing that provides a plethora of places to hide weapons, personnel and captives. It is entirely possible if not likely any rescue operation would have resulted in Shalit’s death as well as the deaths of many of the soldiers sent to rescue him.

Nevertheless, the fact that the IDF never set up a unit or operational group specifically tasked with the Shalit problem is troubling. Perhaps the chain of command mandated that, as Cohen says, once Shalit was kidnapped he became the responsibility of the intelligence services. But the result of this failure to prepare or work on this critical situation was made clear when, as Cohen also points out,  Israel failed to take advantage of the chaos in Gaza during Cast Lead to try to rescue Shalit.

There is probably a lot more to this story than we know, and it may be that within the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus there were people working hard, albeit unsuccessfully, to get Shalit without forcing the government to release a thousand terrorists. But Cohen’s comments seem to indicate there was an unfortunate sentiment within the IDF that may have simply assumed rescue was impossible and a ransom of bloodthirsty killers was inevitable. Perhaps that is so, but a defeatist spirit within the defense establishment may have ensured a regrettable outcome.

Rather than beating up Netanyahu for bowing to the inevitable, friends of Israel might do better to focus their energies at this point on ramping up pressure on Washington to crack down hard on Iran which is Hamas’ leading supplier of armament and to stop pressuring Israel to make pointless concessions to the Palestinians to revive dead end peace talks. Shalit’s kidnappers are the true face of Palestinian statehood. The culture of Palestinian politics — where murderers are heroes — must change before there is any hope of a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel.

As for Israelis, the end of the Shalit tragedy might be a good time for them to look closely at the failures of their defense establishment that created Netanyahu’s dilemma.

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