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Posts For: January 25, 2012

WikiLeaks Founder Gets a Talk Show…On “Russia Today”

When you’re a self-proclaimed government transparency crusader and whistleblower advocate, there’s obviously no better news outlet to air your talk show than the official Kremlin propaganda organ, “Russia Today“:

[WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange, self-styled foe of government secrets and conspiracies of the powerful, is going to be a star on a TV network backed by the Kremlin. The same Kremlin that has done suspiciously little to investigate or prevent the killings and beatings of journalists that have plagued Russia for more than a decade. The same Kremlin accused of blatant fraud in December’s parliamentary elections. The same Kremlin whose control of the country’s broadcast media allowed it to suppress coverage of the massive protests mounted in response to that fraud. The same Kremlin whose embrace of corruption led to Russia being named “the world’s most corrupt major economy” by Transparency International in 2011.

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When you’re a self-proclaimed government transparency crusader and whistleblower advocate, there’s obviously no better news outlet to air your talk show than the official Kremlin propaganda organ, “Russia Today“:

[WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange, self-styled foe of government secrets and conspiracies of the powerful, is going to be a star on a TV network backed by the Kremlin. The same Kremlin that has done suspiciously little to investigate or prevent the killings and beatings of journalists that have plagued Russia for more than a decade. The same Kremlin accused of blatant fraud in December’s parliamentary elections. The same Kremlin whose control of the country’s broadcast media allowed it to suppress coverage of the massive protests mounted in response to that fraud. The same Kremlin whose embrace of corruption led to Russia being named “the world’s most corrupt major economy” by Transparency International in 2011.

Assange has railed against the U.S. government’s prosecution of accused WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning, who he’s praised as an “unparalleled hero.”

Apparently, Assange isn’t bothered by the fact that anti-government whistleblowers and journalists he claims to support routinely turn up dead (or brutally assaulted) under mysterious circumstances in Russia. While Assange has railed against the U.S. government’s prosecution of accused WikiLeaks traitor Bradley Manning, how many in Russia have been denied the right to a fair trial that Manning’s receiving?

As ironic as this is, it’s not surprising. Assange was only interested in truth and transparency to the extent that it could be used to attack the United States, its military and its allies. And for that matter, so is “Russia Today,” which makes this new partnership particularly fitting.

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Obama and His “Lofty Speeches”

It’s stiff competition, but arguably Barack Obama’s chief courtier in the press is Jonathan Alter. Consider this analysis from a recent op-ed he wrote on five myths about Obama:

3. Obama is an effective public speaker.

Obama’s lofty speeches during the 2008 campaign led even his detractors to admit that he is a gifted orator. Some critics try to minimize his skill by saying he relies on a teleprompter–a ridiculous charge considering that he often writes big chunks of his speeches and often speaks off-the-cuff.

That said, there are few examples of Obama’s speeches actually moving popular opinion. That’s because he speaks in impressive paragraphs, not memorable sentences. He is allergic to sound bites, and that keeps him from effectively framing his goals and achievements.

The roots of this allergy may lie in his famous Philadelphia speech on race in 2008, which followed the revelations of incendiary comments by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The speech lacked memorable lines, but it was a big hit. I believe it convinced Obama that the public could absorb complex ideas without bumper sticker lines. He was wrong.

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It’s stiff competition, but arguably Barack Obama’s chief courtier in the press is Jonathan Alter. Consider this analysis from a recent op-ed he wrote on five myths about Obama:

3. Obama is an effective public speaker.

Obama’s lofty speeches during the 2008 campaign led even his detractors to admit that he is a gifted orator. Some critics try to minimize his skill by saying he relies on a teleprompter–a ridiculous charge considering that he often writes big chunks of his speeches and often speaks off-the-cuff.

That said, there are few examples of Obama’s speeches actually moving popular opinion. That’s because he speaks in impressive paragraphs, not memorable sentences. He is allergic to sound bites, and that keeps him from effectively framing his goals and achievements.

The roots of this allergy may lie in his famous Philadelphia speech on race in 2008, which followed the revelations of incendiary comments by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The speech lacked memorable lines, but it was a big hit. I believe it convinced Obama that the public could absorb complex ideas without bumper sticker lines. He was wrong.

James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal, whose daily take on events is very nearly indispensable, summarizes Alter’s argument this way: “So it turns out Obama is an ineffective public speaker because the public lacks the intellectual acumen to appreciate the brilliance of Obama’s speeches.”

All of this got me thinking about some other bumper-sticker lines in American history we could have done without. For example:

  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
  • “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
  • “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
  • “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
  • “I have a dream.”
  • “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall.”

The mistake Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, King, and Reagan made is in failing to understand that the public could absorb complex ideas without these bumper-sticker lines. (These sound bite artists unfortunately succumbed to the temptation to use memorable sentences to mask their shallow arguments and unimpressive paragraphs.) Obama, on the other hand, employed sophisticated and complicated phrases to articulate his public philosophy – phrases like “yes we can” and “hope and change.” Against such eloquence, Abraham Lincoln never stood a chance.

 

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Obama’s Fictional Narrative

I have some sympathy for President Obama’s speechwriters. A State of the Union address is inherently challenging to write because there’s a laundry list quality to them. (That was not the case for President Bush’s early State of the Union speeches, as we were able to focus on the war on terror, which created a clear hierarchy of priorities, allowing us to reject the usual input from various federal agencies). But what made Obama’s address last night doubly challenging is he clearly understands he cannot defend his record and won’t even try. That was obvious, given the glaring omissions in his speech. For example, Obamacare barely made a cameo appearance last night while his stimulus package was kept off-stage completely.

Then there is the fact that the president has no compelling second-term agenda to offer (something I wrote about yesterday). And since a State of the Union address imposes some constraints on Obama’s favorite rhetorical device these days, which is to accuse Republicans of being unpatriotic and very nearly sadistic, what’s a presidential speechwriter to do?

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I have some sympathy for President Obama’s speechwriters. A State of the Union address is inherently challenging to write because there’s a laundry list quality to them. (That was not the case for President Bush’s early State of the Union speeches, as we were able to focus on the war on terror, which created a clear hierarchy of priorities, allowing us to reject the usual input from various federal agencies). But what made Obama’s address last night doubly challenging is he clearly understands he cannot defend his record and won’t even try. That was obvious, given the glaring omissions in his speech. For example, Obamacare barely made a cameo appearance last night while his stimulus package was kept off-stage completely.

Then there is the fact that the president has no compelling second-term agenda to offer (something I wrote about yesterday). And since a State of the Union address imposes some constraints on Obama’s favorite rhetorical device these days, which is to accuse Republicans of being unpatriotic and very nearly sadistic, what’s a presidential speechwriter to do?

One option is to have Obama say in 2012 almost exactly what he said in 2010 and 2011. The problem with that is it’s not only rhetorically uncreative, it’s downright embarrassing. (See here:) Another is to try to recapture the glory days of 2008 by attacking “cynicism” and declaring “Washington is broken.” The problem here is the president himself has done an extraordinary amount to deepen cynicism and add to the disrepair of Washington. A third option would be to parrot Bill Clinton’s approach, right down to advocating “small ball” proposals and using Clintonian phrases like siding with Americans who “work hard and play by the rules.” But we can all agree there’s something a bit pathetic in seeing a president who views himself as a world-historical figure giving more attention to his proposed Trade Enforcement Unit than to his signature domestic achievement.

In any event, last night the president embroidered all three approaches into his speech, along with the usual touch of class warfare rhetoric and a few dollops of misleading claims. (To take but one example: Obama again said billionaire Warren Buffett “pays a lower tax rate than his secretary,” even though this assertion is at best wildly incomplete. What the president won’t tell you is that (a) corporations pay up to a 35 percent tax on their profits before shareholders receive a plug nickel and (b) the real tax rate on corporate income paid to individuals through capital gains and dividends is roughly 45 percent once you count the tax on corporate profits.)

The result of all this was yet one more mediocre address by a president who was, his supporters assured us only a few years ago, the greatest American orator since Lincoln. Obama’s State of the Union address was a political document, not a governing one, and the goal of this speech was transparently political: use poll-driven language and poll-driven proposals to appeal to white working-class Americans, a demographic which Obama is doing terribly with right now.

But what was perhaps most striking is the State of the Union address last night had almost nothing useful to say about how to create economic growth. Beyond that, there was no correspondence between the speech and the objective needs of the nation. The greatest domestic threat we face is our exploding debt. The main driver of it is entitlement programs, most especially Medicare. Which means the structural reform and modernization of Medicare should be a top priority for America. Yet the president not only isn’t addressing that problem; he’s done a tremendous amount during the last three years to worsen it. And now, with nine months to go before re-election, he’s attempting to distract the polity by offering up a counter-narrative that goes like this: The main problem in America today is income inequality, not the unprecedented projected trajectory of our debt. (Whatever one makes of income inequality, and there are problematic elements to it, it does not belong in the same galaxy of concerns as our exploding debt.)

Obama is doing everything in his power to promote this fiction. It is the duty of the loyal opposition and every honest public intellectual to call the president out on this.

 

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Smearing Gingrich as an Anti-Semite

Jewish liberals have a difficult task this year in defending Barack Obama’s record. But, luckily for them, it is far easier to stir up suspicion about conservative Republicans than it is to convince liberals to connect the dots about Barack Obama’s troubling record on Israel. Convincing wavering Jewish liberals and moderates to stick with the Democrats is generally just a matter of reminding these voters that conservative Republicans are generally allied with the Christian right, a group many Jews fear more than Hamas, Hezbollah or al-Qaeda. That is often enough to overcome the fact that even liberals are aware that with the exception of Ron Paul libertarians (most of whom are not even Republicans), the GOP is uniformly and ardently pro-Israel as well as overtly friendly to American Jews. Yet that has no deterred some from attempting to try to convince Jews that despite their support for Jewish causes, these same Republican politicians are actively sending out subliminal messages to reassure conservatives they should fear and hate Jews.

That’s the conceit of a poorly conceived article by Gal Beckerman in the Forward who sets out to convince us the real intent of Newt Gingrich’s brandishing of the name of Saul Alinsky when describing Obama’s radicalism is to send out anti-Semitic “dog whistles” to the right. This is absurd for three reasons.

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Jewish liberals have a difficult task this year in defending Barack Obama’s record. But, luckily for them, it is far easier to stir up suspicion about conservative Republicans than it is to convince liberals to connect the dots about Barack Obama’s troubling record on Israel. Convincing wavering Jewish liberals and moderates to stick with the Democrats is generally just a matter of reminding these voters that conservative Republicans are generally allied with the Christian right, a group many Jews fear more than Hamas, Hezbollah or al-Qaeda. That is often enough to overcome the fact that even liberals are aware that with the exception of Ron Paul libertarians (most of whom are not even Republicans), the GOP is uniformly and ardently pro-Israel as well as overtly friendly to American Jews. Yet that has no deterred some from attempting to try to convince Jews that despite their support for Jewish causes, these same Republican politicians are actively sending out subliminal messages to reassure conservatives they should fear and hate Jews.

That’s the conceit of a poorly conceived article by Gal Beckerman in the Forward who sets out to convince us the real intent of Newt Gingrich’s brandishing of the name of Saul Alinsky when describing Obama’s radicalism is to send out anti-Semitic “dog whistles” to the right. This is absurd for three reasons.

The first is that the idea that Alinsky’s 1971 book Rules for Radicals was a seminal work in instructing the American Left about how to gain power is hardly original with Gingrich. While Alinsky has gotten some new attention as a result of Gingrich’s attempt to link former community organizer Obama with the patron saint of community organizers, it is the left that has long held Alinsky up as a hero. Though some on the right have paid Alinsky the compliment of reading him and trying to copy some of his tactics, the truth is he has probably done more to influence radicals and their tactics than many other writers who were better known in their day. Though Democrats have fiercely resisted any attempt to get at the roots of Obama’s ideology via his associations, singling Alinsky out as such an influence has nothing to do with his Jewish origins, which are as unknown to most GOP voters as his writings.

Second, the notion that the frequent mention of Alinsky’s name is an attempt to remind Republicans his mentor was a Jew and somehow foreign is an unsubstantiated leap into conjecture that really ought to be beneath Beckerman, a writer whose history of the Soviet Jewry movement is the finest book yet written on the subject. It is a mere assertion with no argument behind it other than a claim that — like the mention of poverty and food stamps which he also takes to be a sign of Gingrich’s racism — is an attempt to get at the “subconscious” of Republicans.

Third, the whole argument is based on a fallacious assumption that most conservatives are closet anti-Semites who will vote for a candidate if they believe they are, in their hearts, against the Jews. This is, of course, an article of faith for many Jewish liberals whose heads are stuck in the politics of the 1930s when conservatism was associated with anti-Semites like Father Coughlin. While the vestiges of that old conservatism carry on in the person of paleo-con outliers such as Pat Buchanan and radical right-wingers who now support Ron Paul because of his negative attitude toward Israel, the rest of the GOP is nothing like that. Indeed, its evangelical and social conservative grass roots are largely comprised of ardent philo-Semites.

The notion that Gingrich, whose campaign has been revived by large contributions from Sheldon Adelson because of the candidate’s down-the-line backing for Israel, is somehow such a covert Jew-hater is simply a smear. Though his faults are many, he is, if anything, a more ardent Zionist than many Jewish liberals and has never done anything that could possibly link him to hatred for Jews. But even if he was such a hater, the fact is, his core audience on the right is the last demographic group in America (other than the Jews themselves), who would give a sympathetic hearing to such ideas.

Rather than seriously examine the contradiction at the heart of these assumptions, Beckerman merely nods to liberal myths and expects his readers to lap it up. Republicans back Israel not just because Sheldon Adelson and others give them money but also because sympathy for Zionism is ingrained in the political DNA of this country and is inherently popular. But it is easier to merely pander to liberal prejudices about the right than to seriously examine this conundrum.

That such arguments come now when the left is drifting closer to anti-Zionism, as we see with the Occupy Wall Street movement which will morph into an Occupy AIPAC gathering this spring, speaks to the blindness of liberals to what is happening on the left as well as the right.

People like Beckerman think Gingrich is employing anti-Semitism when he says Alinsky simply because he assumes conservatives must be anti-Semites.  Beckerman’s dark fears about the Christian right are ridiculous. He clearly knows little about them. But his fears speak volumes about the unfounded and politically prejudicial assumptions so common on the left.

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NY Times Calls Gingrich “Useful Obama Surrogate”

Who benefits the most from Newt Gingrich’s class warfare-themed attacks on Mitt Romney in Florida? According to a New York Times report, it might be the Obama campaign, which has been sitting back while Gingrich blasts Romney on everything from his low tax rate to his time at Bain Capital:

In recent weeks, Mr. Obama has had a useful surrogate in Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, who has accused Mr. Romney of destroying jobs while at Bain and pressured him to release his tax returns.

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Who benefits the most from Newt Gingrich’s class warfare-themed attacks on Mitt Romney in Florida? According to a New York Times report, it might be the Obama campaign, which has been sitting back while Gingrich blasts Romney on everything from his low tax rate to his time at Bain Capital:

In recent weeks, Mr. Obama has had a useful surrogate in Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, who has accused Mr. Romney of destroying jobs while at Bain and pressured him to release his tax returns.

The extent to which Gingrich has picked up the language of the left is astonishing – and it actually appears to be effective so far with Republican voters. Newt continues to climb in the polls, and now leads Romney by seven percent nationally. While criticizing Romney’s immigration stance in Florida today, Gingrich’s lines sounded like something you’d hear from Debbie Wasserman Schultz:

When asked about Romney’s position on immigration, Gingrich said that deporting all undocumented immigrants is unrealistic.

“You have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and making $20 million for no work, to have some fantasy this far from reality,” Gingrich said.

Here’s a depressing thought: Whether or not Gingrich wins the nomination, is he helping to reinvigorate a populist, anti-business, suspicious-of-the-rich strain in the conservative movement, just in time for Obama’s reelection campaign? And if even Republican voters are now persuaded by attacks on low taxes and creative destruction, then how much hope is there the GOP can win over independents?

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Newt Gingrich, Rockefeller Republican?

People can decide for themselves whether it matters or not, but for the record, Newt Gingrich was (based on his own words in 1988) a Rockefeller Republican. I point that out only because these days Gingrich likes to present himself as a “Goldwater Republican.” Ronald Reagan was a Goldwater Republican; Newt Gingrich was not.

The difference between Rockefeller and Goldwater is substantial. For the unaware, a Rockefeller Republican in the early 1960s is roughly what a Massachusetts Moderate would be five decades later.

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People can decide for themselves whether it matters or not, but for the record, Newt Gingrich was (based on his own words in 1988) a Rockefeller Republican. I point that out only because these days Gingrich likes to present himself as a “Goldwater Republican.” Ronald Reagan was a Goldwater Republican; Newt Gingrich was not.

The difference between Rockefeller and Goldwater is substantial. For the unaware, a Rockefeller Republican in the early 1960s is roughly what a Massachusetts Moderate would be five decades later.

If Gingrich has changed his mind, that’s fine and good. His achievements in the conservative movement are impressive enough; he really doesn’t need to pretend he was something he wasn’t.

 

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What Could Pelosi Possibly “Know” About Gingrich?

During an interview with CNN’s John King, Rep. Nancy Pelosi hinted she knows something big that would prevent Newt Gingrich from ever becoming president:

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During an interview with CNN’s John King, Rep. Nancy Pelosi hinted she knows something big that would prevent Newt Gingrich from ever becoming president:

If Pelosi’s talking about the ethics committee investigation again, it’s hard to believe there’s anything explosive there. If there was, Gingrich would have gotten more than just a reprimand from Congress – there would have been a serious criminal investigation. As it stands now, Gingrich was exonerated on some of the accusations by a subsequent IRS probe.

Plus, whatever damaging information on Gingrich that Nancy Pelosi claims to have in this clip, it apparently wasn’t horrible enough to stop her from teaming up with him on a global warming campaign. It seems more likely that Pelosi knows the same things everybody else does: that Gingrich cheated on two of his three wives, skirted ethics rules, left Congress in disgrace, alienated members of his own party, has an out-of-control ego, lobbied for Freddie Mac, flip-flopped on too many issues to count and seriously lacks self-discipline. So far, those problems haven’t dissuaded Republican voters from supporting him, but Pelosi certainly wouldn’t be far off to think these would be major – potentially insurmountable – obstacles during a general election.

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Bravo Zulu to Special Ops in Somalia

As they say in the military: Bravo Zulu to the Special Operations Forces who successfully rescued two Western hostages, an American woman and a Danish man, in Somalia–and to the commander-in-chief who ordered the operation.

The mission, with the Navy’s SEAL Team Six in the lead, displayed the professionalism and daring we have to come expect of our elite forces. But there was nothing routine about a rescue mission deep in “denied territory,” which is what Somalia is: a haven for pirates and Islamist terrorists. This was a major intelligence coup, to locate the camp where they were held, and a triumph of the military art to secure the two hostages unharmed in the midst of a firefight in which nine pirates were killed but all the members of the assault force survived.

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As they say in the military: Bravo Zulu to the Special Operations Forces who successfully rescued two Western hostages, an American woman and a Danish man, in Somalia–and to the commander-in-chief who ordered the operation.

The mission, with the Navy’s SEAL Team Six in the lead, displayed the professionalism and daring we have to come expect of our elite forces. But there was nothing routine about a rescue mission deep in “denied territory,” which is what Somalia is: a haven for pirates and Islamist terrorists. This was a major intelligence coup, to locate the camp where they were held, and a triumph of the military art to secure the two hostages unharmed in the midst of a firefight in which nine pirates were killed but all the members of the assault force survived.

President Obama authorized this mission knowing that much could go wrong–this is not as low-risk as a drone strike. It could easily have become another “Black Hawk Down,” in which case he would have been subject to withering criticism as President Clinton was about that earlier Special Operations mission in Somalia.

But he accepted the risk and forged ahead, which is what we expect a commander-in-chief to do. I have had my differences with President Obama about national security policy, but this, like the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, shows the president at his steely best.


		

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Ignoring Ahmadinejad’s Calls for Jewish Genocide is a Grave Mistake

The run-up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday has produced some excellent articles drawing parallels between the Holocaust and the threat posed by an Iranian nuclear bomb. But there’s another parallel that’s equally disturbing: the world’s indifference to the relentless incitement to genocide of both Hitler and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad never misses an opportunity to call for “wiping Israel off the map.” Since there’s no way to eradicate Israel without also slaughtering a large number of its 7.8 million inhabitants, that is a blatant call for mass murder. Yet he has never, for instance, been declared persona non grata by the EU or investigated for incitement to genocide by the International Criminal Court; indeed, he has been feted in many parts of the “enlightened” West, from lecture invitations at Columbia University to joint press conferences with a fawning Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey.

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The run-up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday has produced some excellent articles drawing parallels between the Holocaust and the threat posed by an Iranian nuclear bomb. But there’s another parallel that’s equally disturbing: the world’s indifference to the relentless incitement to genocide of both Hitler and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad never misses an opportunity to call for “wiping Israel off the map.” Since there’s no way to eradicate Israel without also slaughtering a large number of its 7.8 million inhabitants, that is a blatant call for mass murder. Yet he has never, for instance, been declared persona non grata by the EU or investigated for incitement to genocide by the International Criminal Court; indeed, he has been feted in many parts of the “enlightened” West, from lecture invitations at Columbia University to joint press conferences with a fawning Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey.

But as Prof. Shlomo Avineri pointed out this month, even more troubling is the silence of world Jewry on this issue – a stark contrast to its activism over, say, Soviet Jews.

“Through demonstrations outside Soviet embassies, embarrassing questions about freedom of emigration at all news conferences of Soviet leaders in the West, and in dozens of other ways,” Avineri noted, Jewish activists turned the Soviets’ refusal to let Jews emigrate into a burden on the regime. But they haven’t done the same with Iran, even though there’s “no reason why demonstrations should not be held outside Iranian embassies in any place in the world, why Iranian ambassadors should not be accompanied at every appearance or trip by demonstrators carrying placards with ‘Holocaust deniers – out!’”

Partly, this may be due to a widespread sentiment that words matter less than deeds – which explains why Jewish groups have been active in trying to persuade Western governments to take stronger steps against Iran’s nuclear program. Yet ignoring Ahmadinejad’s calls for genocide is a grave mistake, for two reasons.

First, history amply proves that when tyrants declare their intention to slaughter the Jews, they often mean exactly what they say. Hitler, who made his intentions crystal clear in Mein Kampf 14 years before World War II began, is only the most famous example. Nor is this unique to Jews: Most genocides begin with incitement; that’s precisely why incitement to genocide is a prosecutable international crime that has already produced several convictions, especially in connection with the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

But beyond that, Jews worldwide should be concerned with the desensitization effect: By consistently advocating genocide without eliciting any serious condemnatory response, Ahmadinejad is gradually turning “kill the Jews” into acceptable public discourse.

Last week, Adam Kirsch wrote a chilling analysis for Tablet of how “Jews control America” rhetoric has moved from the fringes to the respectable mainstream of American discourse in just a few short years. It takes longer to mainstream calls for mass murder. But if left unchallenged, Ahmadinejad’s calls for genocide will eventually become mainstream as well.

Judging by the degree to which he has not become a pariah, his rhetoric is already acceptable to far too many “enlightened” Westerners.

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Did Putin Outsmart Himself?

It’s official: the Russian presidential elections will have a new face. The election commission (a synonym for Vladimir Putin, of course) approved Mikhail Prokhorov’s presidential candidacy. Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets, seems like an awfully safe choice for Putin to run against. He tried to run as the head of a pro-Kremlin party during the summer, but was ousted for crossing Putin’s inner circle well before the December Duma elections.

Having no real contrasting ideology to speak of, Prokhorov would not seem to be much of a threat to Putin. The public mostly sees him as a tool of the regime–just the fact that the Kremlin is allowing him to run would undermine any claim to legitimacy he might make, such is the state of affairs in Russia today. And the regime clearly sees him as a tool of the regime. Prokhorov is no Garry Kasparov, to be sure. But has Putin been too clever by half? Is it possible that Putin’s biggest threat comes from within his administration, not the protesters in the streets? Some think so:

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It’s official: the Russian presidential elections will have a new face. The election commission (a synonym for Vladimir Putin, of course) approved Mikhail Prokhorov’s presidential candidacy. Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets, seems like an awfully safe choice for Putin to run against. He tried to run as the head of a pro-Kremlin party during the summer, but was ousted for crossing Putin’s inner circle well before the December Duma elections.

Having no real contrasting ideology to speak of, Prokhorov would not seem to be much of a threat to Putin. The public mostly sees him as a tool of the regime–just the fact that the Kremlin is allowing him to run would undermine any claim to legitimacy he might make, such is the state of affairs in Russia today. And the regime clearly sees him as a tool of the regime. Prokhorov is no Garry Kasparov, to be sure. But has Putin been too clever by half? Is it possible that Putin’s biggest threat comes from within his administration, not the protesters in the streets? Some think so:

Since his ascendancy over a decade ago, Putin designed and presided over a system of managed conflict within the elite in which various Kremlin clans and groups competed against each other — sometimes fiercely — for influence, access, and resources.

Putin kept control over the system by being a trusted arbiter who kept everything in rough balance. He was able to do this because while the clans tended to deeply distrust each other, they all trusted Putin. And the assumption was that without him, the various groupings would start fighting among themselves and bring the whole system crashing down.

That’s Brian Whitmore writing at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Whitmore notes that this system, in which Putin was “the indispensible man,” worked well because all the infighting was over the spoils of Russian governance–power and money. But the recent protest movement challenging the Duma elections, widely considered and in many cases proven to be fraudulent, has introduced a new element into the equation: the identity of the Russian state.

Prokhorov is telling reporters it is now fundamentally a battle between the liberal and more authoritarian wings of the government–a claim made more credible with the recent resignation of well-respected Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin over Putin’s planned return to the presidency and his promise that outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev would be Putin’s prime minister.

This shows just how much things have changed since the protests began. When I spoke to Kasparov before those December elections, he said the Kremlin was planning for Putin’s lifetime rule. Now he’s arguing that the insiders are planning for Putin’s exit:

It is all about the balance of power within the ruling elite, because now they all understand, if Putin goes, maybe 10, 15, maybe 20 percent of those who are surrounding him and making this core of the elite, they will be facing trial; they can lose money. But most of them — 80 percent at least, maybe more — will be making deals with the new government. Maybe giving up some money, but securing their fortunes. If they go into oppressive mode, then the numbers will change and any revolutionary explosion will blow them up.

Whitmore notes that other Russia analysts are thinking along the same lines. This is where Prokhorov’s political opacity actually helps him and hurts Putin. I doubt the Kremlin insiders would dare think this way if a true outsider were challenging Putin, because they couldn’t control him and could not guarantee their own safety. But Prokhorov has no desire to shake up the system, and therefore may be inspiring the insiders to consider the possibility that he could be their tool instead of Putin’s.

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West Cannot Settle for a Japanese-Style Status Quo in Iran

Can it really be that American and European officials can’t tell the difference between Japan and Iran? That is what you would think reading today’s article by Helene Cooper in the New York Times. She writes: “Several American and European officials say privately that the most attainable outcome for the West could be for Iran to maintain the knowledge and technology necessary to build a nuclear weapon while stopping short of doing so.” As a model for Iran, these unnamed officials cite Japan:

In other words, Iran would have to become a country like Japan, which has the capability to become an atomic power virtually overnight, if need be, but has rejected taking the final steps to possessing nuclear weapons. “If you’re asking whether we would be satisfied with Iran becoming Japan, then the answer is a qualified yes,” a senior European diplomat said. “But it would have to be verifiable, and we are a long ways away from trusting the regime.”

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Can it really be that American and European officials can’t tell the difference between Japan and Iran? That is what you would think reading today’s article by Helene Cooper in the New York Times. She writes: “Several American and European officials say privately that the most attainable outcome for the West could be for Iran to maintain the knowledge and technology necessary to build a nuclear weapon while stopping short of doing so.” As a model for Iran, these unnamed officials cite Japan:

In other words, Iran would have to become a country like Japan, which has the capability to become an atomic power virtually overnight, if need be, but has rejected taking the final steps to possessing nuclear weapons. “If you’re asking whether we would be satisfied with Iran becoming Japan, then the answer is a qualified yes,” a senior European diplomat said. “But it would have to be verifiable, and we are a long ways away from trusting the regime.”

In the very next sentence Cooper pours cold water on this analogy: “Today’s Iran is nothing like Japan, which has a deep aversion to nuclear weapons dating to the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” No kidding. One might also mention the fact that Japan is a democratic country that is a close ally of the United States, whereas Iran is ruled by messianic mullahs who are intent on making war on the U.S. and our regional allies in order to spread their totalitarian revolution around the Middle East. Iran’s leaders have publicly affirmed their commitment, in particular, to obliterating Israel; if Japanese leaders have voiced any hostile intentions against any other country since 1945, I must have missed it.

In short–to state the obvious–it is hard to think of two countries more dissimilar than Iran and Japan. The kind of trust we repose in Japanese decision-making cannot remotely be extended to Tehran’s opaque decision-making process. The West cannot settle for a Japanese-style status quo in Iran, hoping against hope the Iranian regime will not use its nuclear technology to produce a weapon. That is likely to prove a losing bet–something we won’t find out until after the first Iranian nuclear test. By which time, it will be too late.

 

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Romney Hanging on to Small Lead in Florida

Finally, Mitt Romney gets a poll this week that actually shows him in the lead. Unfortunately for him, this Quinnipiac survey still shows a major deterioration in his lead since early January, now that the momentum has shifted to Newt Gingrich:

The final tally is 36 percent for Romney to 34 percent for Gingrich among likely voters in the Florida Republican presidential primary, but Gingrich gets 40 percent to 34 percent for Romney among likely voters surveyed after the South Carolina primary.

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Finally, Mitt Romney gets a poll this week that actually shows him in the lead. Unfortunately for him, this Quinnipiac survey still shows a major deterioration in his lead since early January, now that the momentum has shifted to Newt Gingrich:

The final tally is 36 percent for Romney to 34 percent for Gingrich among likely voters in the Florida Republican presidential primary, but Gingrich gets 40 percent to 34 percent for Romney among likely voters surveyed after the South Carolina primary.

The later results showing Gingrich with a six-point lead are closer to the other Florida polls we’ve seen this week, though this survey seems to undercut the idea that Gingrich is surging too quickly to stop in the state. There’s still room for a lot of movement in the race. According to Quinnipiac, 45 percent of likely voters are either undecided or say they may change their minds before the primary:

No matter which candidate is ahead, the race for the Sunshine State’s delegates remains wide open. Although only 7 percent of likely voters are undecided, 38 percent say they might change their minds. There is little difference among Gingrich and Romney supporters in terms of thinking they might change their minds.

And there are also some interesting items when you take a closer look at the poll. Romney beats Gingrich in several critical areas: he has higher favorability ratings, he’s seen as the candidate who can best fix the economy, he’s viewed as more trustworthy, and – oddly enough – he’s seen as the candidate who best shares voters’ values.

He also leads Gingrich in electability, one of the most important traits for Florida GOP voters:

Voters say 49 – 35 percent that Romney is better able to defeat President Barack Obama in November. By 52 – 44 percent, likely voters say they prefer a candidate who can defeat President Obama over one who shares their values.

Meanwhile, Gingrich beats Romney in the areas of leadership and experience – important qualities, but ones you would think would take a backseat to economic expertise and electability during this primary.

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Obama Cites Military’s Many Virtues, But It’s Not a Model for Society

That was a very curious State of the Union address President Obama delivered, at least as it relates to our armed forces. Instead of beginning, as one would expect, with domestic issues, he began with a tribute to the armed forces and used that to segue to his domestic agenda. His words of praise for the armed forces were obviously heartfelt and eloquent: He cited “the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.” To which, one can only say: Amen.

But then his remarks took a curious turn. He said: “Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs.  A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.” In other words, the civilian population should emulate the military. There is something seductive in this appeal, which is why even many on the right (perhaps especially on the right) favor some form of “national service” requirement. And there is virtually universal nostalgia for the days of the Greatest Generation which won World War II and returned to build postwar America. Obama himself tapped into this nostalgic vein when he said: “We can do this. I know we can, because we’ve done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.”

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That was a very curious State of the Union address President Obama delivered, at least as it relates to our armed forces. Instead of beginning, as one would expect, with domestic issues, he began with a tribute to the armed forces and used that to segue to his domestic agenda. His words of praise for the armed forces were obviously heartfelt and eloquent: He cited “the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.” To which, one can only say: Amen.

But then his remarks took a curious turn. He said: “Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs.  A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.” In other words, the civilian population should emulate the military. There is something seductive in this appeal, which is why even many on the right (perhaps especially on the right) favor some form of “national service” requirement. And there is virtually universal nostalgia for the days of the Greatest Generation which won World War II and returned to build postwar America. Obama himself tapped into this nostalgic vein when he said: “We can do this. I know we can, because we’ve done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.”

But nostalgia should not mask the fact that the “Mad Men” world is not one most of us would like to live in today. It was, after all, a world where big institutions–whether big government, big media, big business or big unions–had far more power than they do today. The downside of this arrangement was captured in numerous contemporary critiques such as “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” and “The Organization Man” and “The Lonely Crowd” that were a touchstone for Baby Boomers rebelling against the conformism of the 1950s.

From our standpoint today, there are some good aspects of the 1950s–the hard work, the sense of common purpose–but also much that we would reject, especially the pervasive racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and other social attitudes–not to mention the pervasive drinking, smoking, and other bad habits. America today is far more individualistic and far more meritocratic with far less tolerance for rank prejudice and far less willingness to blindly follow the orders of rigid bureaucracies.

On the whole this is a positive development–it is what has made possible the dynamism of an information age economy symbolized by Apple’s staggering earnings. We would all be poorer–literally–if we went back to more of a top-down command economy, which is what Obama seems to be pining for. Indeed per capita income in 1950 was $1,500 (which, adjusted for inflation, works out to around $10,000 today) compared with almost $40,000 today.

Make no mistake: the military works well. But that’s because it’s comprised of volunteers with a mission–defending America. Members of the armed forces are willing to accept privations and hardships, and respond unquestioningly to orders, in a way that civilians will not and should not. Let’s temper our admiration of the military: For all its virtues, it is not a model for the rest of society.

 

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