Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 9, 2012

Israel’s Iranian Allies of Convenience

If politics makes strange bedfellows, wars make even stranger ones. That has always been true for all nations and is no less the case for the state of Israel in our own day. Beset by a world of Arab and Islamic foes, it has taken its allies wherever it can find them. A generation ago that meant a cozy if embarrassing relationship with apartheid-era South Africa. Those critics of the Jewish state who wish to make much of this should remember Nelson Mandela was happy to embrace the support of the Soviet Union and totalitarian Cuba. Today, with an Islamist regime in Iran threatening not just the security of Israel but the existence of the nation via a nuclear weapons program the world has been powerless to stop, Israel has reportedly found another set of unsavory allies: the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (also known by their Farsi acronym MEK), a dissident group that has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States.

According to a report from NBC News, U.S. officials believe Israel has employed members of the People’s Mujahedin in harassing the Iranian government and its minions. While the group denies it is involved with Israel, it is difficult to doubt the truth of the allegation that the Iranian dissidents have been receiving Israeli training and have been used to carry out attacks on Tehran’s nuclear program, in particular the assassination of Iranian scientists. While Jerusalem’s critics will call this hypocritical and illegal, their qualms won’t impress many Israelis.

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If politics makes strange bedfellows, wars make even stranger ones. That has always been true for all nations and is no less the case for the state of Israel in our own day. Beset by a world of Arab and Islamic foes, it has taken its allies wherever it can find them. A generation ago that meant a cozy if embarrassing relationship with apartheid-era South Africa. Those critics of the Jewish state who wish to make much of this should remember Nelson Mandela was happy to embrace the support of the Soviet Union and totalitarian Cuba. Today, with an Islamist regime in Iran threatening not just the security of Israel but the existence of the nation via a nuclear weapons program the world has been powerless to stop, Israel has reportedly found another set of unsavory allies: the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (also known by their Farsi acronym MEK), a dissident group that has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States.

According to a report from NBC News, U.S. officials believe Israel has employed members of the People’s Mujahedin in harassing the Iranian government and its minions. While the group denies it is involved with Israel, it is difficult to doubt the truth of the allegation that the Iranian dissidents have been receiving Israeli training and have been used to carry out attacks on Tehran’s nuclear program, in particular the assassination of Iranian scientists. While Jerusalem’s critics will call this hypocritical and illegal, their qualms won’t impress many Israelis.

Israel is, after all, locked in a conflict with an Iranian regime that has made no bones about its intentions. Just last week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei repeated the standard Iranian line about Israel being a “cancerous tumor” that must be eradicated. Coming from a man who leads a regime based on religious fanaticism and which is dedicating massive amounts of the country’s resources towards achieving its nuclear ambitions, this is no idle threat. Under these circumstances, Israel is entirely justified in using whatever means it has to prevent Khameini’s government from achieving its genocidal ends. The MEK may be an unattractive ally, but with its Iranian members and infrastructure of support inside the country, it is an ideal weapon to use against the ayatollahs.

This is not just the standard and cynical argument about the ends justifying the means but rather an entirely defensible strategy in which a vicious and tyrannical government’s foes become legitimate allies in what is for all intents and purposes a war. Israel’s alliance is no more nor less moral than that of the United States and Great Britain with an even worse set of criminals than the MEK: Stalin’s Soviet Union. To those who say it is immoral to use those who have employed terrorism, the only reply can be that it would be far worse for Israel’s government to allow such scruples to prevent them from carrying out actions that might stop the Iranians from going nuclear. Indeed, those who cry out against the possibility of Israeli or American air strikes on Iran to demolish nuclear facilities cannot at the same time criticize covert actions that could theoretically obviate the need for the use of force on that scale. Moreover, in a conflict in which Iran has served as the chief sponsor and source of funds and munitions for the Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist groups, it is ridiculous to expect Israel to unilaterally decide using unsavory friends should be beyond the pale.

The MEK are allies of convenience and, just like many wartime allies in other conflicts, share only a common enemy with Israel. But however nasty they may be, Israel need not blush about using them. For a democracy at war, the only truly immoral thing to do would be to let totalitarian Islamists like those in Tehran triumph.

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Ex-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: We Have to Arm Syrian Opposition

Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, said today the “decision has to be made” for the U.S. to arm the opposition in Syria, but cautioned that the weapons should be ones that wouldn’t be used against Israel if they fall into the wrong hands.

“That’s not us fighting. (The Syrian opposition is) fighting, they’re dying, and they should be given as much a chance as possible to do it,” Khalilzad told me, after a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, in which he harshly criticized the Obama administration for what he called a failed strategy to “appease and engage adversaries” in the Middle East.

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Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, said today the “decision has to be made” for the U.S. to arm the opposition in Syria, but cautioned that the weapons should be ones that wouldn’t be used against Israel if they fall into the wrong hands.

“That’s not us fighting. (The Syrian opposition is) fighting, they’re dying, and they should be given as much a chance as possible to do it,” Khalilzad told me, after a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, in which he harshly criticized the Obama administration for what he called a failed strategy to “appease and engage adversaries” in the Middle East.

While it’s critical for the U.S. to do what it can to influence the situation in Syria, the idea of arming the opposition is controversial. Not only is there concern about who the opposition actually is, and whether they’re a group the U.S. would want to help bring to power, there’s also a distinct possibility the weapons could fall into the wrong hands. Khalilzad said this could be addressed by limiting our material support to purely defensive weapons.

“We need to be careful about what kind of weapons we give in terms of our regional interest. And we wouldn’t want to give them things that could be useful against our friends and allies,” he said. “I would think more in defensive weapons would be very helpful. Like anti-tank weapons because (the Assad regime is) using tanks to mow people and bomb.”

Outside of arming the opposition, there are also other–albeit, less effective–steps the U.S. can take. Khalilzad proposed reaching out to Christians and Kurds in the region to persuade them to join up with the opposition. He also suggested working with the Iraqis to block Iran from using Iraq as a corridor to channel supplies and weapons to Assad.

But in the end, Khalilzad said, “The will and decision has to be made that we will give them weapons, because this is important and the outcome will be important.”

 

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Who’s Not Listening to Israeli Soldiers?

On Tuesday, Peter Beinart chastised American Jews for not listening more closely to Israeli soldiers. “There’s nothing American Jews love more than Israeli soldiers, except perhaps, Israeli spies,” he wrote in a piece in the Daily Beast titled “U.S. Jews Should Heed Top Israeli Soldiers Who Oppose Bombing Iran.” “So perhaps American Jews should start noticing that an astonishing number of Israel’s top soldiers and spies are warning against bombing Iran.”

A few years ago, I witnessed a debate inside the Israeli Knesset between two former heads of Israeli military intelligence, research and assessment, General Yaakov Amidror and General Danny Rothschild. The veterans disagreed on everything — technology, threats, solutions, defensible borders, control of territory and disengagement. During my service in the military, I saw the same phenomenon among officers at every rank. In robust democracies “listening” to soldiers—or civilians—is almost never a shortcut to obvious or unanimous answers.

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On Tuesday, Peter Beinart chastised American Jews for not listening more closely to Israeli soldiers. “There’s nothing American Jews love more than Israeli soldiers, except perhaps, Israeli spies,” he wrote in a piece in the Daily Beast titled “U.S. Jews Should Heed Top Israeli Soldiers Who Oppose Bombing Iran.” “So perhaps American Jews should start noticing that an astonishing number of Israel’s top soldiers and spies are warning against bombing Iran.”

A few years ago, I witnessed a debate inside the Israeli Knesset between two former heads of Israeli military intelligence, research and assessment, General Yaakov Amidror and General Danny Rothschild. The veterans disagreed on everything — technology, threats, solutions, defensible borders, control of territory and disengagement. During my service in the military, I saw the same phenomenon among officers at every rank. In robust democracies “listening” to soldiers—or civilians—is almost never a shortcut to obvious or unanimous answers.

With that in mind, Beinart is as guilty as anyone of not listening to Israeli soldiers. Consider all the Israeli generals whose opinions he casts aside because they differ from his. On the matter of Gaza and the West Bank, he rejects the opinion of former Chief of Staff General (ret.) Moshe Ya’alon, who opposes disengagements on security grounds. He disregards the former head of Israel’s General Security Service, Avi Dichter, who warned that “the evacuation [from Gaza] is dangerous, and the retreat will give the Palestinians a sense of victory and encouragement for terrorism.” Beinart dismisses the assessments of withdrawals of former head of Israeli intelligence, General Zeevi Farkash, former Israeli Air Force Chief General Ben Eliyahu, and former military secretary to the prime minister, General Gadi Shamni. He also rejects the advice of current National Security Advisor General Amidror, who believes control of territory is essential to defeating terrorism.

On the Iranian threat, he casts aside the warnings of former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, that a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is the best way to keep Israel safe.

Beinart has every right to favor withdrawals from territories and oppose a strike on Iran, but this has little to do with his listening to Israeli soldiers.

The heart of the Iran question is complex. What to do when a brutal theocracy regularly threatens to destroy a member state of the UN and is on the verge of acquiring the most deadly weapons known to man?

Instead of addressing the issue on that basis, Beinart prefers tendentious guilt-by-association. He writes, “Netanyahu’s taste for the apocalyptic flows less from his Jewishness than from his conservatism—a conservatism learned during his close association with the Republican right while he served as a diplomat in Washington and New York in the 1980s.”

Iran does not stand in violation of the Genocide Convention because Netanyahu was hanging out with Republicans in the 1980s. Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani said triumphantly, “an atomic bomb would leave nothing in Israel.” Does his actual “taste for the apocalyptic” flow from his time spent secretly cavorting with Republicans in the 1980s?

Seventy percent of Israel’s population and 80 percent of its industrial capacity resides on a tiny strip of coastal territory, which two nuclear bombs could obliterate. Israeli military officials who work day and night to thwart this scenario aren’t fear-mongering right-wingers. They despise war, but many of them have come to the conclusion after painstaking deliberation that only Israeli jets can stop Iranian nukes. It was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after all, who described his nuclear program as a train without brakes.

Beinart writes that “shifting power balances and increased threat levels” coming from Iran are “a far cry from Netanyahu’s language of existential destruction.” Others believe when a country threatens genocide, it should be taken seriously. Iranian euphemisms for Israel’s destruction such as “erased from the pages of history” don’t placate Israeli fears much. Nor does the Iranian leader’s reference to Israel as a “black and dirty microbe” and the subsequent parading of Shihab-3 missiles covered in banners reading, “Israel must be uprooted and erased from history.”

No one outside of a tiny circle of theocratic, apocalyptic, terrorist fanatics knows if Iran will actually use nuclear bombs. But would you bet the lives of millions of civilians on the guess that the Iranian regime’s stated goal is no more than a rhetorical ruse?

By all means, Americans should listen to Israeli soldiers—those who agree with them and those who don’t. But let no one slander those dedicated to stopping the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism from attaining the most deadly weapons on the planet as right-wing warmongers unwilling to listen to Israeli soldiers.

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Turkish Islamists Turn Church Into Mosque

A story in today’s International Herald Tribune (read here on the New York Times website) provides an interesting insight into exactly what happens when a secular state is taken over by Islamists. The piece concerned the Hagia Sophia of Iznik, an ancient church that brought 40,000 tourists to the town south of Istanbul much to the delight of the locals. Iznik was once known as Nicaea, and it was there the first Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church met at the Hagia Sophia in the year 325. But the Islamist government of Turkey has put a damper on the prosperity of those who profited from the museum by formally converting the building into a mosque.

Of course, after the Muslim conquest of the Byzantine Empire, all churches in the region were turned into mosques, with the most conspicuous example being the majestic Hagia Sophia of Constantinople (now Istanbul). But unlike that more famous site, which was registered as a museum when Turkey became a secular republic, the one in Iznik was never formally named as such, though it served in that function and had not been used as a mosque in well over a century. The ruling AKP party of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken the initiative to reinstitute Muslim-only worship at the place, much to the dismay of the Muslim residents of the town who point out there was no shortage of mosques there. But to the AKP, the ancient surge to plant the flag of Islam over the ruins of other cultures is more important than tourism.

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A story in today’s International Herald Tribune (read here on the New York Times website) provides an interesting insight into exactly what happens when a secular state is taken over by Islamists. The piece concerned the Hagia Sophia of Iznik, an ancient church that brought 40,000 tourists to the town south of Istanbul much to the delight of the locals. Iznik was once known as Nicaea, and it was there the first Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church met at the Hagia Sophia in the year 325. But the Islamist government of Turkey has put a damper on the prosperity of those who profited from the museum by formally converting the building into a mosque.

Of course, after the Muslim conquest of the Byzantine Empire, all churches in the region were turned into mosques, with the most conspicuous example being the majestic Hagia Sophia of Constantinople (now Istanbul). But unlike that more famous site, which was registered as a museum when Turkey became a secular republic, the one in Iznik was never formally named as such, though it served in that function and had not been used as a mosque in well over a century. The ruling AKP party of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken the initiative to reinstitute Muslim-only worship at the place, much to the dismay of the Muslim residents of the town who point out there was no shortage of mosques there. But to the AKP, the ancient surge to plant the flag of Islam over the ruins of other cultures is more important than tourism.

The irony here is the Turkish Ministry of Culture had been hoping to promote the place to increase its share of tourists from Europe and elsewhere, especially those interested in the considerable Christian heritage of the region. But like the abortive effort to entice Americans to go to Turkey to see the place where the original Saint Nicholas lived during their Christmas holidays, the AKP’s intolerance trumps other considerations.

While people in the town are appalled at this turn of events, it appears the decision came straight from the top, with Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc taking credit for the conversion of the site. When the Culture Ministry asked to take over the place, Arinc said, “We told them that it is a mosque and that it cannot be used for any other purpose.”

Need we ask how Muslims would feel if an ancient mosque were converted into a church or a synagogue? The answer to that question is obvious. There would be riots, murders and terrorism, with the blame put on those who offended Islamic sensibilities. But the Muslims who run the Turkish government do not think tolerance or religious sensitivity is a two-way street even when their decisions hurt Muslims who stood to benefit from a policy that honored Turkey’s Christian heritage.

The story of the Hagia Sophia of Iznik is a sad one, but what is truly troubling about this tale is the way it illustrates the triumphalist spirit of Islamism redolent of the era of the Ottoman conquest and the short shrift its advocates have for respect for other faiths. Those optimists who keep telling us Turkey can be an Islamic democracy and a model for the Middle East need to look at what happened at Iznik and realize what is happening there is symbolic of that country’s drift toward Islamist tyranny.

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McConnell: Iran Making “Idle Threats”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed Iran’s warnings about closing the Strait of Hormuz as “idle threats,” during a small round table discussion with reporters today.

“This idle threat that they’re going to interrupt the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz is not enforceable. We have a carrier there, that will not happen,” McConnell told me. “So this is the time to squeeze the Iranians in every direction possible.”

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed Iran’s warnings about closing the Strait of Hormuz as “idle threats,” during a small round table discussion with reporters today.

“This idle threat that they’re going to interrupt the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz is not enforceable. We have a carrier there, that will not happen,” McConnell told me. “So this is the time to squeeze the Iranians in every direction possible.”

He added that the Saudis would assist with any fallout in oil production.

“The Saudis have already indicated that whatever reduction in oil production might occur as a result of this, they’ll make up,” said McConnell.

The Senate Minority Leader’s comments put him at odds with many military experts who say the regime’s threats are a real risk. The U.S. Navy has reportedly been training for a potential clash with Iran over the strait.

McConnell also blasted Obama’s leadership on Iran, saying that the president only ordered the latest round of tough Iran bank sanctions because Senate Republicans forced him to do it. Obama was required to institute these sanctions under a bill championed by Sens. Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez.

“We forced it on him. He didn’t want the authority,” said McConnell.

He added that Obama now has “greater tools to use on the Iranians. I hope he uses them all.”

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The Times Gets Confused About Iran Nukes

There are two common reporting challenges that inevitably become more pronounced when a topic of great interest and importance becomes part of the day-to-day news: the tendency of stories to offer no new information whatsoever, and the habit of reporters to allow themselves to be spun into writing self-contradicting pieces.

Today’s New York Times dispatch on Iran is an example of both. The takeaway from the story is that American and Israeli officials talk to each other about the Iranian nuclear program, and that they sometimes agree and sometimes disagree, but don’t expect that to result in an Israeli airstrike on Iran anytime this afternoon, certainly not before dinner. The reporters write that a phone call last month between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu left American officials “persuaded that Mr. Netanyahu was willing to give economic sanctions and other steps time to work.” This is a sentence that could have been written anytime over the last fifteen years, and in fact is only relevant now (a full month after this phone call) because it still hasn’t changed.

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There are two common reporting challenges that inevitably become more pronounced when a topic of great interest and importance becomes part of the day-to-day news: the tendency of stories to offer no new information whatsoever, and the habit of reporters to allow themselves to be spun into writing self-contradicting pieces.

Today’s New York Times dispatch on Iran is an example of both. The takeaway from the story is that American and Israeli officials talk to each other about the Iranian nuclear program, and that they sometimes agree and sometimes disagree, but don’t expect that to result in an Israeli airstrike on Iran anytime this afternoon, certainly not before dinner. The reporters write that a phone call last month between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu left American officials “persuaded that Mr. Netanyahu was willing to give economic sanctions and other steps time to work.” This is a sentence that could have been written anytime over the last fifteen years, and in fact is only relevant now (a full month after this phone call) because it still hasn’t changed.

But the curious aspect of this article is that the writers seem to contradict that point in the next paragraph — or, rather, contradict the relevance of even using that quote. They write:

The difference of opinion over Iran’s nuclear “immunity” is critical because it plays into not just the timing — or bluffing — about a possible military strike, but the calculations about how deeply and quickly sanctions against Iran must bite. If the Israeli argument is right, the question of how fast the Iranians can assemble a weapon becomes less important than whether there is any way to stop them.

“‘Zone of immunity’ is an ill-defined term,” said a senior Obama administration official, expressing frustration that the Israelis are looking at the problem too narrowly, given the many kinds of pressure being placed on Tehran and the increasing evidence that far tougher sanctions are having an effect.

The Israelis have zeroed in on Iran’s plan to put much of its uranium enrichment near Qum in an underground facility beneath so many layers of granite that even the Pentagon acknowledges it would be out of the reach of its best bunker-busting bombs. Once enrichment activities are under way at Qum, the Israelis argue, Iran could throw out United Nations inspectors and produce bomb-grade fuel without fear the facility would be destroyed.

Now hang on a minute. That sounds like the opposite of an “ill-defined” term. It sounds like the Israelis have clearly and explicitly defined it, in order to reduce possible confusion on the part of, say, unnamed Obama administration officials or reporters. Additionally, if it is merely a question of when the Iranians finish this underground facility, then sanctions have a built-in clock; at some point, they become irrelevant, and according to the logic of this story that is when Israel (or someone) will strike. The moment Netanyahu believes time has run out, something will be done about it. Until then, it is extraordinarily obvious that Netanyahu will give sanctions “time to work.”

It’s entirely possible, of course, that that Netanyahu must be persuaded by the Americans that this Iranian facility is not at the point of no return, and that American intelligence on this matter is superior to the intelligence available to the Israelis. But that’s not what the article says. In fact, the article is actually making the opposite case. The Obama administration official talking to the Times reporters is presenting the case that the administration believes Netanyahu is using the wrong benchmark.

The article explicitly states this. The reporters write that Netanyahu is concerned about the Iranians’ “impregnable breakout capability,” the term for this point of no return. “The Americans have a very different view,” according to the Times.

The article pulls the rug out from under itself in this matter several times. Perhaps these unnamed administration officials were “not authorized to describe the conversation” in part because they have no idea what they’re talking about.

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My Encounter with the PCUSA

I wanted to add a personal word to Jonathan’s post regarding the Presbyterian Church USA’s anti-Israel bias.

Years ago my wife, children, and I attended a PCUSA church, where we enjoyed a very good relationship with the senior pastor, who baptized two of our children. Our church was fairly orthodox theologically and certainly more conservative theologically than the official positions of the PCUSA. But in a relatively short period of time, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, my wife and I heard a guest speaker from the pulpit and a guest Sunday school teacher make wholly inappropriate statements against Israel. I raised the matter with the minister, who put me in touch with an associate pastor who oversaw such matters. And in the course of my discussions with her, I eventually learned our church was serving as host to a group with deep and troubling biases against Israel.

It is one thing, and a commendable thing, to show concern for the plight of Palestinian Christians. But it is quite another to use that issue as a pre-text to excoriate Israel. And so I raised my objections, including in e-mails which went into excruciating detail to refute the claims that were being made against the Jewish state and to underscore how unwise and offensive it was to allow our church to become a tool in the propaganda war against Israel. I also made personal appeals to leaders in our church to pull back from its stance. It never really did, and eventually, we left the church. We had established close friendships over the years, but I didn’t feel like we could be a part of a church that was not simply political (which as a general matter I find quite troublesome), but which in this case was promoting pernicious falsehoods.

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I wanted to add a personal word to Jonathan’s post regarding the Presbyterian Church USA’s anti-Israel bias.

Years ago my wife, children, and I attended a PCUSA church, where we enjoyed a very good relationship with the senior pastor, who baptized two of our children. Our church was fairly orthodox theologically and certainly more conservative theologically than the official positions of the PCUSA. But in a relatively short period of time, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, my wife and I heard a guest speaker from the pulpit and a guest Sunday school teacher make wholly inappropriate statements against Israel. I raised the matter with the minister, who put me in touch with an associate pastor who oversaw such matters. And in the course of my discussions with her, I eventually learned our church was serving as host to a group with deep and troubling biases against Israel.

It is one thing, and a commendable thing, to show concern for the plight of Palestinian Christians. But it is quite another to use that issue as a pre-text to excoriate Israel. And so I raised my objections, including in e-mails which went into excruciating detail to refute the claims that were being made against the Jewish state and to underscore how unwise and offensive it was to allow our church to become a tool in the propaganda war against Israel. I also made personal appeals to leaders in our church to pull back from its stance. It never really did, and eventually, we left the church. We had established close friendships over the years, but I didn’t feel like we could be a part of a church that was not simply political (which as a general matter I find quite troublesome), but which in this case was promoting pernicious falsehoods.

I relay this episode simply to underscore how prevalent the anti-Israeli bias is within certain liberal religious institutions. Those who represent them often speak about “social justice” — and yet they implicitly side with the forces of injustice, of hate, and of violence. One is reminded of the words of Isaiah, who prophesied, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

 

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Time to Target Insurgents in Pakistan

Gen. Jack Keane, one of the architects of the surge in Iraq, is always a font of good sense when it comes to America’s wars. Thus, it is worth listening—and acting on his advice—when he suggests that our drone strikes in Pakistan be expanded beyond al-Qaeda targets to focus on the Taliban and related insurgent groups. The Washington Times quotes him as follows: “If we don’t start targeting the Taliban leadership now … the risk is much too high in terms of our ability to sustain the successes that we’ve had. We cannot let that Afghan Taliban leadership that lives in Pakistan continue to preside over this war and recruit and provide resources.”

He is absolutely right, and it is imperative to follow his advice even at the risk of further blowback from Pakistan, because there is no other way to achieve any degree of success in Afghanistan while pulling back as quickly as the Obama administration wants to do—namely a switch from combat to advising in 2013 and a complete pull-out in 2014. Even with stepped up drone strikes, the Obama timeline is probably a prescription for disaster and defeat. But if we at least do more to target the insurgent leadership which enjoys safe havens in Pakistan, our forces can somewhat increase their odds of success notwithstanding the rapid collapse of political will in the White House to prosecute this war to a successful conclusion.

 

Gen. Jack Keane, one of the architects of the surge in Iraq, is always a font of good sense when it comes to America’s wars. Thus, it is worth listening—and acting on his advice—when he suggests that our drone strikes in Pakistan be expanded beyond al-Qaeda targets to focus on the Taliban and related insurgent groups. The Washington Times quotes him as follows: “If we don’t start targeting the Taliban leadership now … the risk is much too high in terms of our ability to sustain the successes that we’ve had. We cannot let that Afghan Taliban leadership that lives in Pakistan continue to preside over this war and recruit and provide resources.”

He is absolutely right, and it is imperative to follow his advice even at the risk of further blowback from Pakistan, because there is no other way to achieve any degree of success in Afghanistan while pulling back as quickly as the Obama administration wants to do—namely a switch from combat to advising in 2013 and a complete pull-out in 2014. Even with stepped up drone strikes, the Obama timeline is probably a prescription for disaster and defeat. But if we at least do more to target the insurgent leadership which enjoys safe havens in Pakistan, our forces can somewhat increase their odds of success notwithstanding the rapid collapse of political will in the White House to prosecute this war to a successful conclusion.

 

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Nothing Left in Romney’s Bag of Tricks

In the aftermath of Rick Santorum’s sweep of the three states that held elections on Tuesday, many observers are counseling Mitt Romney to do something to energize a conservative base that is having trouble mustering any enthusiasm for the Republican frontrunner. Pundits have pondered his dilemma and prescribed a full program of activities and speeches designed to fire up the GOP grass roots and to finally convince them the former Massachusetts governor cares deeply about their issues and can be trusted to govern as a conservative.

But the problem with this analysis is those demanding Romney to inspire conservative passion are asking him to do the impossible. While such a feat would certainly be desirable — for both him and his party — Romney can still win the Republican nomination without morphing into Ronald Reagan, let alone Mike Huckabee. But if he is to win — and that’s a proposition that looks a bit less inevitable than it did on Monday — it will only be on his own terms. If Republicans are to embrace Romney, it must be the real Mitt Romney–flaws and all–not an artifice designed to please the audience at the CPAC conference. Those who wish for Romney to discover some new approach to Republicans are dreaming. After a campaign that has been going full bore for the last nine months — not to mention his first presidential run four years ago — and 16 debates, we have already seen all that Mitt Romney has to offer Republicans.

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In the aftermath of Rick Santorum’s sweep of the three states that held elections on Tuesday, many observers are counseling Mitt Romney to do something to energize a conservative base that is having trouble mustering any enthusiasm for the Republican frontrunner. Pundits have pondered his dilemma and prescribed a full program of activities and speeches designed to fire up the GOP grass roots and to finally convince them the former Massachusetts governor cares deeply about their issues and can be trusted to govern as a conservative.

But the problem with this analysis is those demanding Romney to inspire conservative passion are asking him to do the impossible. While such a feat would certainly be desirable — for both him and his party — Romney can still win the Republican nomination without morphing into Ronald Reagan, let alone Mike Huckabee. But if he is to win — and that’s a proposition that looks a bit less inevitable than it did on Monday — it will only be on his own terms. If Republicans are to embrace Romney, it must be the real Mitt Romney–flaws and all–not an artifice designed to please the audience at the CPAC conference. Those who wish for Romney to discover some new approach to Republicans are dreaming. After a campaign that has been going full bore for the last nine months — not to mention his first presidential run four years ago — and 16 debates, we have already seen all that Mitt Romney has to offer Republicans.

Romney’s strengths are obvious and impressive. He is someone with a deep understanding of economic issues and vast executive experience in both the public and private sectors. He can also put forward credible conservative positions on foreign policy and has come to embrace stands that satisfy the right on social issues. Though he is rightly accused of having flip-flopped on some issues, he is also a person who has lived an exemplary life and embodies the values of morality, decency and hard work.

But he is not a man who can fire up the base with his ability to articulate conservative ideas or the resentment that so many on the right feel about the liberal establishment, the media or popular culture. That’s Newt Gingrich’s territory. Nor is he a fervent social conservative in the manner of Santorum. He is a technocratic problem solver who can read the lyrics from the conservative hymnal but is no better at singing its melody than he is at finding the correct tune to “America the Beautiful.”

Romney’s inability to connect with ordinary voters or conservatives can’t be fixed. The only real passion in his political portfolio comes out when he discusses economic ideas or when he tries to articulate his belief in American exceptionalism that is at the heart of his life’s work in politics, business and his church. And it is to those virtues that he must cling. Given his opponents’ liabilities and political weaknesses, this ought to be good enough to win him the GOP nomination, even if it turns out to be less of the cakewalk that seemed likely only a few days ago.

Should Romney try to change his approach in order to keep up with Santorum’s passion or should he allow his advisers to convince him to go negative on the Pennsylvanian the way he took down Gingrich, it will not help him. It may be once the cloak of inevitability is stripped away from Romney, most conservatives will flock to a candidate like Santorum who is better at playing to the conservative crowd. But if Romney is to win it will be as the Mitt Romney we already know. He literally has no more tricks to pull out of his bag, and to expect him to come up with new ones is unrealistic and somewhat unfair.

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One of the Sillier Statements of Any Modern Political Figure

In his interview with Scott Hennen, Newt Gingrich was asked what he thought about the “good Newt” versus “bad Newt” narrative. Gingrich responded this way: “I think it’s a foolish narrative. I mean, when you are drowning in being outspent 5 to 1 with negative ads, there’s a tendency to want to respond to them. Now I don’t know if that is bad Newt. Does that mean that there is a bad Mitt and a good Mitt? I mean, give me a break.”

But Gingrich went beyond that to say, “But I can tell you is that, if you look at my whole career, and Scott you’ve known me for many years, you look at the 24 books we’ve written, you look at the 7 movies we’ve made, you know, I like ideas, I like being a candidate of ideas and that’s far and away what I prefer to do and I think if people go to Newt.org and look at all the positive things we have there — just our 54-page paper on how to rebalance the judiciary and force the judges back within the Constitution. Just that one paper would frankly justify the campaign because it is the boldest statement of the founding fathers, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers I think that any modern political figure has written in my lifetime.”

Not quite.

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In his interview with Scott Hennen, Newt Gingrich was asked what he thought about the “good Newt” versus “bad Newt” narrative. Gingrich responded this way: “I think it’s a foolish narrative. I mean, when you are drowning in being outspent 5 to 1 with negative ads, there’s a tendency to want to respond to them. Now I don’t know if that is bad Newt. Does that mean that there is a bad Mitt and a good Mitt? I mean, give me a break.”

But Gingrich went beyond that to say, “But I can tell you is that, if you look at my whole career, and Scott you’ve known me for many years, you look at the 24 books we’ve written, you look at the 7 movies we’ve made, you know, I like ideas, I like being a candidate of ideas and that’s far and away what I prefer to do and I think if people go to Newt.org and look at all the positive things we have there — just our 54-page paper on how to rebalance the judiciary and force the judges back within the Constitution. Just that one paper would frankly justify the campaign because it is the boldest statement of the founding fathers, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers I think that any modern political figure has written in my lifetime.”

Not quite.

The paper itself, “Bringing the Courts Back Under the Constitution,” makes some useful and interesting points, as my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Ed Whelan points out. But there are also some problematic recommendations. Whelan and Matthew J. Franck lay out (here, here, here and here what they refer to as Gingrich’s “awful proposal to abolish judgeships.” George Will has written that Gingrich’s proposals make him the “first presidential candidate to propose a thorough assault on the rule of law.” Gingrich’s effort to intimidate the courts qualify as, in Will’s words, a “descent into sinister radicalism.” And former Attorney General Michael Mukasey has said that if Gingrich’s plans were put into effect, America would become a “banana republic, in which administrations would become regimes, and each regime would feel it perfectly appropriate to disregard decisions by courts staffed by previous regimes.”

Whelan, Franck, Will, and Mukasey are right, and Gingrich is wrong.

Having read “that one paper” the former speaker refers to, I can say with some degree of confidence that it alone does not “frankly justify the campaign.” And for Gingrich to claim it constitutes “the boldest statement of the founding fathers, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers I think that any modern political figure has written in my lifetime” constitutes one of the sillier statements of any modern political figure in my lifetime.

 

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Obama’s Attack on Religious Liberty

The Obama administration’s decision to require Catholic hospitals, charities and universities to provide insurance coverage that includes contraceptives and abortifacients — in violation of their conscience and creed — is among the most offensive and troubling of the Obama era. And that is not an easy designation to achieve.

Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan said, “The federal government should do what it’s traditionally done since July 4, 1776, namely back out of intruding into the internal life of a church.” Bishops are writing letters to their congregants saying, “We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law.” Presidents of Catholic universities insist they will reject “this religious intolerance and will not bow down before government regulations that are manifestly unjust.” The National Association of Evangelicals put out a statement saying, “Freedom of conscience is a sacred gift from God, not a grant from the state. No government has the right to compel its citizens to violate their conscience. The HHS rules trample on our most cherished freedoms and set a dangerous precedent.””

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The Obama administration’s decision to require Catholic hospitals, charities and universities to provide insurance coverage that includes contraceptives and abortifacients — in violation of their conscience and creed — is among the most offensive and troubling of the Obama era. And that is not an easy designation to achieve.

Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan said, “The federal government should do what it’s traditionally done since July 4, 1776, namely back out of intruding into the internal life of a church.” Bishops are writing letters to their congregants saying, “We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law.” Presidents of Catholic universities insist they will reject “this religious intolerance and will not bow down before government regulations that are manifestly unjust.” The National Association of Evangelicals put out a statement saying, “Freedom of conscience is a sacred gift from God, not a grant from the state. No government has the right to compel its citizens to violate their conscience. The HHS rules trample on our most cherished freedoms and set a dangerous precedent.””

This issue is about to go super-nova. According to Politico, “A handful of high-profile Catholic Democrats are bailing on the president and joining the GOP chorus of critics… They include two swing-state pols on the November ballot… Obama’s former DNC chairman, Tim Kaine, who’s running for Senate in Virginia, and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey — as well as House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson.” Freshman Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who’s up for reelection this year, called the Obama edict “un-American” and a “direct affront to the religious freedoms protected under the First Amendment.””

For the White House to engage in what Michael Gerson of the Washington Post calls “the most aggressive attack on the liberty of religious institutions since the 19th century” is a staggeringly stupid political act. Some people offer a fairly benign interpretation of the Obama administration’s motives, calling them technocrats. Perhaps. But I think a stronger case can be made that this act — which is so aggressive, so indefensible, and so at odds with the American creed — is a window into the mind and soul of America’s 44th president.

Not that many years ago, then-Senator Obama gave a speech in which he said, “Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square.” President Obama has done the secularists one better. He’s asking believers to leave their religion at the door before entering religious hospitals, charities, and universities. Believers across the land are rising up to say to Obama, in the most respectful way possible, “Get lost.”

 

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Leaked Syrian E-Mails Instruct on Handling American Press

When I did a post-doc in Israel back in academic year 2001-2002, the Palestinian terror and bombing campaign was at its height. Hordes of Western journalists circulated through Israel on their way to the West Bank and Gaza. Having coffee with a producer at the time, I was surprised to learn it was common practice among major American networks and their European counterparts to pay PLO and Hamas “fixers” for access. The implication was that if the payment was not made, not only would meetings not be granted, but the crews’ safety might be endangered. News agencies never acknowledged they had paid terrorists and fixers in the subsequent news reports.

Journalists have long expressed self-righteous indignation if confronted with the fact that many Arab states and terrorist groups consider them useful idiots, easy to dupe, and tools for propaganda projection. Leaked Syrian e-mails should put a rest to such protests, however.

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When I did a post-doc in Israel back in academic year 2001-2002, the Palestinian terror and bombing campaign was at its height. Hordes of Western journalists circulated through Israel on their way to the West Bank and Gaza. Having coffee with a producer at the time, I was surprised to learn it was common practice among major American networks and their European counterparts to pay PLO and Hamas “fixers” for access. The implication was that if the payment was not made, not only would meetings not be granted, but the crews’ safety might be endangered. News agencies never acknowledged they had paid terrorists and fixers in the subsequent news reports.

Journalists have long expressed self-righteous indignation if confronted with the fact that many Arab states and terrorist groups consider them useful idiots, easy to dupe, and tools for propaganda projection. Leaked Syrian e-mails should put a rest to such protests, however.

Here’s the advice Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s media adviser gave him before Assad’s interview with Barbara Walters:

“It is hugely important and worth mentioning that ‘mistakes’ have been done in the beginning of the crises because we did not have a well-organized ‘police force.’ American psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that there are ‘mistakes’ done and now we are ‘fixing it.’ It’s worth mentioning also what is happening now in Wall Street and the way the demonstrations are been [sic] suppressed by policemen, police dogs and beatings.”

The Syrian briefing paper is certainly worth reading, as is the Syrian regime’s willingness to use the supposed cultural sensitivity of American progressives to shield Syria against American accusations of Syrian atrocities.

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Will Presbyterians Repudiate Church’s Hate for Israel and Jews?

The disconnect between the views of the leadership of mainline Protestant churches on the Middle East and those of the rank-and-file members of their congregations has been growing in recent decades. Activists and leading clergy of liberal Protestant denominations have embraced the Palestinian cause while most of those who attend their churches are, like most Americans, warm supporters of Israel. But in the case of at least one of these churches — the Presbyterian Church USA — the gap between those who speak in the name of these institutions and those whom they claim to represent has grown to the point where communal relations are at the brink of a breakdown. Institutions connected with the Presbyterians have become a font of anti-Israel invective that has crossed the line into outright anti-Semitism.

In the course of promoting their anti-Israel policies, church leaders have engaged in rhetoric that seeks not only to delegitimize the state of Israel but also the Jewish community. The actions and statements of the church’s Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN-PCUSA) have been so egregious that the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella network of Jewish community relations groups, has been forced to go public with their complaints in hopes that ordinary Presbyterians will do something about the epidemic of hate speech springing from church activists.

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The disconnect between the views of the leadership of mainline Protestant churches on the Middle East and those of the rank-and-file members of their congregations has been growing in recent decades. Activists and leading clergy of liberal Protestant denominations have embraced the Palestinian cause while most of those who attend their churches are, like most Americans, warm supporters of Israel. But in the case of at least one of these churches — the Presbyterian Church USA — the gap between those who speak in the name of these institutions and those whom they claim to represent has grown to the point where communal relations are at the brink of a breakdown. Institutions connected with the Presbyterians have become a font of anti-Israel invective that has crossed the line into outright anti-Semitism.

In the course of promoting their anti-Israel policies, church leaders have engaged in rhetoric that seeks not only to delegitimize the state of Israel but also the Jewish community. The actions and statements of the church’s Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN-PCUSA) have been so egregious that the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella network of Jewish community relations groups, has been forced to go public with their complaints in hopes that ordinary Presbyterians will do something about the epidemic of hate speech springing from church activists.

Even a partial list of offensive statements made by Presbyterian activists on Israel and the Jews ought to send a chill down the spines of church members who may be unaware of what is going on:

At an opening program of the IPMN-PCUSA annual conference, the Rev. Craig Hunter said “greed and injustice is a cancer at the very core of Zionism.”  In a 2010 letter to church delegates, the IPMN-PCUSA falsely accused the Jewish community of intimidating Presbyterians by sending a letter-bomb to the church’s headquarters and setting fire to a church. IPMN-PCUSA tweeted an article proclaiming “Jewish power + Jewish hubris = moral catastrophe of epic proportions.”   IPMN-PCUSA also has supported virulently anti-Israel resolutions including those equating Israel with apartheid and has been a vocal supporter of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanction movement. …

The IPMN-PCUSA Facebook page includes a cartoon of President Obama wearing weighty Jewish star earrings to suggest Jewish control of the American leaders, a common theme on the site.  The IPMN-PCUSA has posted articles that accuse Jews of controlling Hollywood, the media, and American politics – and blaming Israel for the American housing and economic crisis. IPMN-PCUSA’s communications chair also posted her opposition to a two-state solution and the existence of a Jewish state, something which she terms “anachronistic.”  The same IPMN leader, Noushin Framke, clicked “like” on the Obama cartoon with the Jewish stars and another post that Hamas should keep Israeli Gilad Shalit hostage until Palestinians are granted a right of return.

The idea that a mainstream American church would engage in this sort of abuse of Jews and the Jewish state is shameful. Moreover, this is not about church activists engaging in legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. By participating in a propaganda war against Zionism and the existence of Israel and its right of self-defense, these Presbyterian activists have crossed the line that separates criticism from delegitimization. Anyone who would deny Jews the same rights of self-determination and self-defense they would never think of questioning when it comes to any other country is engaging in bigotry. The church’s activities have nothing to do with the promotion of peace and everything to do with scapegoating Israel and the Jews.

While this has nothing to do with the beliefs, let alone the actions of the overwhelming majority of American Presbyterians, it goes without saying the responsibility for policing these institutions belongs to church members. Because Jewish community relations professionals have failed to get the church hierarchy to act on this question up until now, it is up to the rank-and-file to speak out against this behavior and see that it ends. Those Presbyterians who say they wish to live in fellowship with their Jewish neighbors are obligated to ensure their church does not engage in anti-Semitism or support an economic war on the Jewish state. On this point, there can be no middle ground. The church must repudiate these extremists who have appropriated their good name to promote a hateful cause.

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