Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 8, 2012

The Left’s Weekend (Culture) Warriors

When Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels was considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination, he suggested—and then repeatedly defended—the concept of a “truce” on social issues.

Daniels was making the point that the country’s fiscal challenges were so great—he likened them repeatedly to a “red menace” of our time—that everything else would have to take a backseat in the name of practicality. The main problem with this approach, as Bill McGurn pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, was that a truce among Republicans on such issues would be meaningless:

To begin with, the aggression on social issues today emanates mostly from the left, whose preferred vehicle is a willing judge inflicting his private social preferences on the law. Anyone who believes that a Republican call for a truce will end this is living in dreamland.

If the culture wars have followed any blueprint, it’s that the left initiates the battles and the right plays defense, only to have the media scold the right for engaging in the culture wars to begin with. As James W. Caesar wrote in a 2007 essay on conservatism:

The Religious Right objects to liberalism’s secularism. Secularism goes well beyond the espousal of an interpretation of the Constitution, where it has sought to erect a famous “wall of separation” between religion and the state. Its fundamental objective extends far beyond the legal realm. Liberal secularism is a project in its own right that is bent on eliminating any recognized place for biblical faith as the guiding light of the culture. It will not rest content until faith withdraws from playing any public role, direct or indirect. The conflict of secularism and faith is at the heart of the so-called “culture war.”

If the debates of this weekend did anything more clearly than vindicate social conservatives’ in this regard, I didn’t catch it. The concentration on social issues so flooded the debates that the topic was roundly mocked on Twitter more than any other aspect of the moderators’ behavior. But the moment that typified this was when George Stephanopoulos asked Mitt Romney the following question: “Governor Romney, do you believe that states have the right to ban contraception, or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?”

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When Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels was considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination, he suggested—and then repeatedly defended—the concept of a “truce” on social issues.

Daniels was making the point that the country’s fiscal challenges were so great—he likened them repeatedly to a “red menace” of our time—that everything else would have to take a backseat in the name of practicality. The main problem with this approach, as Bill McGurn pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, was that a truce among Republicans on such issues would be meaningless:

To begin with, the aggression on social issues today emanates mostly from the left, whose preferred vehicle is a willing judge inflicting his private social preferences on the law. Anyone who believes that a Republican call for a truce will end this is living in dreamland.

If the culture wars have followed any blueprint, it’s that the left initiates the battles and the right plays defense, only to have the media scold the right for engaging in the culture wars to begin with. As James W. Caesar wrote in a 2007 essay on conservatism:

The Religious Right objects to liberalism’s secularism. Secularism goes well beyond the espousal of an interpretation of the Constitution, where it has sought to erect a famous “wall of separation” between religion and the state. Its fundamental objective extends far beyond the legal realm. Liberal secularism is a project in its own right that is bent on eliminating any recognized place for biblical faith as the guiding light of the culture. It will not rest content until faith withdraws from playing any public role, direct or indirect. The conflict of secularism and faith is at the heart of the so-called “culture war.”

If the debates of this weekend did anything more clearly than vindicate social conservatives’ in this regard, I didn’t catch it. The concentration on social issues so flooded the debates that the topic was roundly mocked on Twitter more than any other aspect of the moderators’ behavior. But the moment that typified this was when George Stephanopoulos asked Mitt Romney the following question: “Governor Romney, do you believe that states have the right to ban contraception, or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?”

Romney, baffled as to why such an utterly irrelevant question would be asked, shook his head and then said: “George, this is an unusual topic that you’re raising, states have a right to ban contraception?” Romney eventually got around to pointing out that “no state wants to. So the idea of you putting forward things that states might want to do that no state wants to do and asking me whether they can do it or not, is kind of a silly thing, I think.”

Silly, yes. Atypical, no. Stephanopoulos was doing nothing out of character when he attempted to relitigate a fight that had been settled. Conservatives have not maintained any kind of serious opposition to the legality of contraception, but since the modern liberal psyche exists fully within the angry walls of 1960s counterculture, Stephanopoulos doesn’t see anything “silly” about it at all, even if most of the country does.

The other such moment this weekend occurred during this morning’s MSNBC debate. Santorum was asked how he would react if his son came out of the closet. Santorum responded, without hesitation, “I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it. And I would try to do everything I can to be as good a father to him as possible.” MSNBC talking head Lawrence O’Donnell tweeted: “Santorum “gay son” answer is simple direct and correct. And surprising.”

And surprising? O’Donnell is surprised by which part, that Santorum would love his son or that he would try to be a good father? The way Santorum has been treated—first by Alan Colmes (who sincerely and respectfully apologized) and Eugene Robinson on the issue of his deceased child, then on this issue of a hypothetically gay son—is truly disturbing. But at the very least, these discussions have shown Santorum to be a serious defender of human dignity and liberalism’s spokesmen to be caricatures of their movement, unworthy even of the networks they represent.

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Does Israel Cause Arab Anti-Semitism?

In recent years, a myth has taken root that the intense Jew-hatred that permeates Arab countries is simply the outgrowth of territorial disputes between Israel and Arab countries. Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, created a mini-firestorm when he embraced this view, declaring, “Hatred and indeed sometimes… violence directed at Jews generally [is] a result of the continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories.”

Colin Rubenstein and the good folks Down Under at AIJAC have done a useful service by tackling this myth, noting the long history of anti-Semitism in the Middle East:

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In recent years, a myth has taken root that the intense Jew-hatred that permeates Arab countries is simply the outgrowth of territorial disputes between Israel and Arab countries. Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, created a mini-firestorm when he embraced this view, declaring, “Hatred and indeed sometimes… violence directed at Jews generally [is] a result of the continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories.”

Colin Rubenstein and the good folks Down Under at AIJAC have done a useful service by tackling this myth, noting the long history of anti-Semitism in the Middle East:

Jews across the Middle East began to suffer heightened violent hatred well before Israel and Zionism emerged on the agenda. In 1912, the Jewish quarter in Fez was almost destroyed in a mob attack. In the 1930s and 1940s pogroms and other attacks on the Jews were widespread in Iraq and Libya. Pro-Nazi Arabs slaughtered dozens of Jews in the “Farhoud” pogrom in Baghdad in 1941.

Tzvi Fleisher, editor of AIJAC’s The Review, goes further, taking a snap shot of anti-Semitism in the Middle East in 1835, and providing some suggestions for further reading.

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Rivals Attack Romney, But to No Avail

At last night’s debate, there were surprisingly few direct attacks on Mitt Romney. This morning, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum finally went after him, but neither was able to land a knockout punch:

Santorum began the morning’s attacks, accusing Romney of abandoning Republicans in Massachusetts by “bailing” from a difficult 2006 reelection campaign. When Romney cast his decision not to run for a second term as a selfless choice – saying he engaged in politics as a “citizen,” not a longtime official – Gingrich pounced. …

But the bad blood between Romney and his foes resurfaced before the debate was out, as Gingrich again went on the offensive – this time accusing Romney of duplicity in distancing himself from negative ads run by a super PAC funded by his “millionaire friends.”

Romney once more avoided a deer-in-the-headlights moment, though his speech was uncharacteristically halting as he explained that he wouldn’t support any attack ads that were inaccurate.

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At last night’s debate, there were surprisingly few direct attacks on Mitt Romney. This morning, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum finally went after him, but neither was able to land a knockout punch:

Santorum began the morning’s attacks, accusing Romney of abandoning Republicans in Massachusetts by “bailing” from a difficult 2006 reelection campaign. When Romney cast his decision not to run for a second term as a selfless choice – saying he engaged in politics as a “citizen,” not a longtime official – Gingrich pounced. …

But the bad blood between Romney and his foes resurfaced before the debate was out, as Gingrich again went on the offensive – this time accusing Romney of duplicity in distancing himself from negative ads run by a super PAC funded by his “millionaire friends.”

Romney once more avoided a deer-in-the-headlights moment, though his speech was uncharacteristically halting as he explained that he wouldn’t support any attack ads that were inaccurate.

Romney’s response to Gingrich’s attack on a pro-Romney super PAC was mystifying – he first said he never saw the PAC’s anti-Gingrich ad, and then went on to recite it blow-by-blow. But he managed to keep his composure,and came out of the dustup without any serious damage.

The question many observers have been asking is why are Romney’s rivals treating him so lightly? At the Daily Caller, Matt Lewis raises an interesting possibility:

Some of the candidates, by now, know they cannot win. As such, they have little incentive to attack Romney. (Perhaps he will give them a position in his administration if they help him? — Why ruin that? Or maybe he would counter-attack them and make them look bad if they criticize him? …. Or maybe they just want to be thought of as “nice”?)

Meanwhile, the candidates who think they can win — Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — probably believe their best shot at the nomination is to finish second in New Hampshire. And while going “negative” in a debate may hurt Romney, it would also tarnish their reputation, as well.

Lewis’s take makes sense. Perry isn’t hitting Romney because his past attempts to do so have blown up in his face (the convoluted “flip-flop” attack, for example). Whether Perry’s staying in the race because he actually believes he can compete seriously in South Carolina, or whether he’s simply to redeem his national reputation after multiple embarrassments, he has little incentive to go after Romney. The possibility of a future appointment may not even factor into the equation.

As for Huntsman and Paul – could they really be pulling punches with Romney because they’re gunning for administration positions? There’s notoriously bad blood between Huntsman and Romney, and Paul doesn’t have a shot at an appointment.

But at least Huntsman isn’t afraid of sparring with Romney once in awhile. Paul’s unwillingness to attack the frontrunner is actually the most confounding out of all of the candidates. He actually turned down an opportunity to criticize Romney this morning when it was explicitly presented to him. Paul’s polling second in New Hampshire, so why is he spending his time punching down at Santorum and Gingrich, who are both polling at single digits? It makes no sense.

Beyond that, Santorum and Gingrich are going to have to start turning their guns on each other at some point soon. Gingrich is fading in South Carolina, but not fast enough that Santorum can rest easy. Meanwhile, Gingrich can’t allow Santorum’s recent burst of popularity to propel him to the top of the polls there. Of course both of them have to attack Romney – they’re locked in a three-man race with him in South Carolina right now – but one of them will also have to definitively capture the not-Romney title. That means they’ll have to take the gloves off pronto – and with Santorum’s recent fundraising boost and Gingrich’s $5 million cash infusion, they now have the money to do it.

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Can Sanctions Work on Iran?

There’s a growing chorus of skeptics among the foreign policy establishment who argue that sanctions will not change the Iranian regime’s behavior. After all, the Islamic Republic prioritizes ideology ahead of its own public’s well-being and, having grown up at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, many of Tehran’s ruling elite have faced far worse deprivation.

It is curious that proponents of engagement cite Iran’s pragmatism when it comes to the possibilities of successful diplomacy, but then acknowledge the Iranian leadership’s ideological commitment when it comes to reasons not to utilize tools of coercion.

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There’s a growing chorus of skeptics among the foreign policy establishment who argue that sanctions will not change the Iranian regime’s behavior. After all, the Islamic Republic prioritizes ideology ahead of its own public’s well-being and, having grown up at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, many of Tehran’s ruling elite have faced far worse deprivation.

It is curious that proponents of engagement cite Iran’s pragmatism when it comes to the possibilities of successful diplomacy, but then acknowledge the Iranian leadership’s ideological commitment when it comes to reasons not to utilize tools of coercion.

History, however, can be a guide. Twice, in the Islamic Republic’s history, the Iranian leadership has sworn no surrender. In 1979, they said they would not release their American hostages until Washington met Ayatollah Khomeini’s demands not only of the forcible extradition of the Shah and his family, but also apologies, compensation, and a return of all Iranian assets, real or imagined. While cancer claimed the Shah during the crisis, Khomeini reversed course against the backdrop of the Iraqi invasion: The cost of Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation had simply grown too great to bear; Khomeini preferred to focus on the greater danger posed by Iraq and so cut the deal he had determinedly refused for the prior year.

Saddam Hussein’s invasion fanned the flames of Khomeini’s fervor. While Iranian forces had largely expelled Iraqi forces from Iranian territory by 1982, Khomeini shrugged off suggestions that he accept a ceasefire and instead committed Iran to end Saddam’s regime once and for all. During the course of the following six years, the Iranians lost hundreds of thousands of men and gained nothing. In the end, however, the tremendous human cost, isolation, and sanctions took their toll.

When Khomeini announced a ceasefire with Iraq, he likened it to drinking a chalice of poison but said preserving the Islamic Republic gave him no choice. Herein, the precedent is clear: Years of diplomacy have achieved nothing. The Iranian government has mastered the art of stringing credulous diplomats along. But if the cost becomes too high for Iranians to bear, even the government will swallow its pride and reverse course. The only question for diplomats and congressmen should be how to maximize the pain sanctions can cause the Iranian regime.

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