Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 21, 2012

Iran Knows More About Syria Than Obama

The imminent demise of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has become such an article of faith among many American pundits that most have come to discuss the subject as no longer a matter of if, but merely when, his fall will occur. Unfortunately, for Western talking heads as well as President Obama, who has also predicted imminent regime change in Damascus, Assad has preferred to ignore their advice and instead stick to what his family has always done best: slaughter any and all domestic foes. After watching the fall of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the assumption was the logic of the Arab Spring would inevitably force out the Syrian member of a rapidly diminishing club of Arab autocrats. Few in the West believed Assad could survive. But it appears there was at least one group of observers who may have pegged the Syrian as a keeper: his Iranian allies.

The news that a pair of Iranian naval vessels just left a Syrian port and are now heading home through the Suez Canal ought to have brought home the fact that the Iranian ayatollahs may understand their client better than Western editorial writers. Combined with the decision of Russia to boycott a diplomatic effort aimed at bolstering Assad’s domestic foes, it is now clear that Syria’s two major foreign sponsors have not given up on the regime. Unlike Westerners who simply took it for granted that Assad must go, Ayatollah Khamenei and Vladimir Putin have remembered an ironclad rule of history: tyrants fall when they lose their taste for spilling their people’s blood, not when they loosen the reins.

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The imminent demise of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has become such an article of faith among many American pundits that most have come to discuss the subject as no longer a matter of if, but merely when, his fall will occur. Unfortunately, for Western talking heads as well as President Obama, who has also predicted imminent regime change in Damascus, Assad has preferred to ignore their advice and instead stick to what his family has always done best: slaughter any and all domestic foes. After watching the fall of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the assumption was the logic of the Arab Spring would inevitably force out the Syrian member of a rapidly diminishing club of Arab autocrats. Few in the West believed Assad could survive. But it appears there was at least one group of observers who may have pegged the Syrian as a keeper: his Iranian allies.

The news that a pair of Iranian naval vessels just left a Syrian port and are now heading home through the Suez Canal ought to have brought home the fact that the Iranian ayatollahs may understand their client better than Western editorial writers. Combined with the decision of Russia to boycott a diplomatic effort aimed at bolstering Assad’s domestic foes, it is now clear that Syria’s two major foreign sponsors have not given up on the regime. Unlike Westerners who simply took it for granted that Assad must go, Ayatollah Khamenei and Vladimir Putin have remembered an ironclad rule of history: tyrants fall when they lose their taste for spilling their people’s blood, not when they loosen the reins.

While the Pentagon was saying it had no knowledge of the Iranian ships ever docking in Syria, the brazen dash through the Mediterranean by Tehran’s mariners may have been more than just a morale boost for Assad. The ships, which reportedly consisted of a supply ship and an accompanying destroyer, may have delivered vital munitions to the Syrian security forces just as they were in the process of leveling the opposition stronghold of Homs.

Though defections from his army are a lethal threat to Assad, so long as he retains the loyalty of most of his regime’s security forces, the belief that his fall is inevitable is more a matter of wishful thinking than hardheaded analysis. Assad understands the stakes in the fighting in the streets of Homs and other cities where dissent has flourished is a life and death matter for him and his family. Moreover, it is often forgotten that unlike other dictatorial regimes where military elites can easily switch sides, many, if not most, of Assad’s praetorian guards don’t have that option. Since Bashar’s father first seized power in 1970, the government there has always been as much a sinecure for the Alawite minority to which his clan belonged as it was for the Assad family. The fate of the Alawites in a post-Assad Syria will be difficult, and that gives the many members of this group in positions of power within the army and security forces the same motive for hanging on no matter what the cost.

Iran also has much to lose if their Syrian ally falls, so it is to be expected it will do all in its power to help him prevail. With Russia and China prepared to prevent the United Nations from even condemning Assad, let alone sanctioning support for the opposition, that leaves the opposition looking to Europe and the United States for help. Even though Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham voiced their support for arming the Syrian rebels over the weekend, it isn’t likely that President Obama or the European Union will follow the same pattern that led to intervention in Libya last year as Qaddafi tottered, despite the fact that the situation was far less desperate than the human catastrophe unfolding in Homs.

The Arab Spring led many Westerners to believe that a paradigm shift in which murderous regimes could no longer get away with atrocities had rendered men like Assad obsolete. But Iran may have figured out that as long as Assad is willing to go on killing his countrymen, there is no reason to assume he can’t hold onto power. That’s an important lesson Western diplomats and leaders like President Obama–who have also underestimated Iran’s own willingness to abandon its nuclear ambitions–should learn.

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Bahrain Opposition Can’t Have it Both Ways

After a brief visit to Bahrain earlier this month, it is clear the situation in Bahrain is reaching a head. February 14 marked the year anniversary of demonstrations at the Pearl Monument. Clashes and arrests continue. The Bahraini government has not been as proactive with reform as perhaps it might. Grievances in Bahrain—where the majority population is Shi’ite whereas the royal family and security forces are overwhelmingly Sunni—are real, and stability, security, and economic growth ultimately require they be addressed.

Bahrain might be the smallest Arab state, but it has disproportionate importance for American national security. It hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, a vital tool in securing the Persian Gulf to international shipping and also, potentially, in containing Iran. While American officials generally recognize Bahraini grievances and pressure the king and prime minister to become more proactive with reform, the future of the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain will ultimately shape American decision-making.

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After a brief visit to Bahrain earlier this month, it is clear the situation in Bahrain is reaching a head. February 14 marked the year anniversary of demonstrations at the Pearl Monument. Clashes and arrests continue. The Bahraini government has not been as proactive with reform as perhaps it might. Grievances in Bahrain—where the majority population is Shi’ite whereas the royal family and security forces are overwhelmingly Sunni—are real, and stability, security, and economic growth ultimately require they be addressed.

Bahrain might be the smallest Arab state, but it has disproportionate importance for American national security. It hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, a vital tool in securing the Persian Gulf to international shipping and also, potentially, in containing Iran. While American officials generally recognize Bahraini grievances and pressure the king and prime minister to become more proactive with reform, the future of the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain will ultimately shape American decision-making.

The Bahraini opposition has generally argued—in English and to Western journalists and officials—that they are far more likely to acquiesce to the Fifth Fleet’s continued presence if the Americans side more completely with their demands for reform.

The problem is that some Bahraini activists have fallen into a trap of saying one thing in English, and yet another in Persian. Here, for example, is a statement reported in the Persian press in early September from a Bahraini activist that speaks of compromise in English:

Bahrain is America’s front line… The Americans will not easily allow removal of their stooges in the region unless the conditions dictate otherwise. Where can they find a ruler who is ready to give his oil to them for free? Or allow them to establish military bases? Allow them to do what they please in his country? To defend the Zionists and give them the domestic market and its chambers of commerce? This is what the Khalifa Dynasty has done for the Americans and it is documented.

Now, it is quite possible the person in question was misquoted by the Iranian press. And it is also true that the Bahraini opposition does not speak with a single voice. The words of a single activist do not obviate the need for reform. Still, the discrepancy between the opposition remarks in Persian and in English is glaring. Until the opposition describes its positions consistently in Persian, Arabic and English, distrust is going to hamper reform. It comes down to a choice: Bahraini opposition figures either need to tell the Americans what they do not want to hear in the American press, or tell the Iranians what they do not want to hear in the Iranian press. But it will not be possible to have it both ways.

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CAP a Shill-for-Hire on Natural Gas

The Washington Examiner’s Conn Carroll flags this interesting item from the Washington Post’s report on the messy break-up between environmental groups and the natural gas industry:

Natural gas entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens gave $453,250 to the liberal think tank Center for American Progress (CAP) in 2008 and 2009 through his nonprofit groups, to support its National Clean Energy Project events. At the time, Pickens was pressing lawmakers to adopt a bill to subsidize construction of natural gas filling stations. The legislation would have directly helped a company Pickens co-founded called Clean Energy Fuels, which describes itself as “the leading provider of natural gas for transportation.”

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The Washington Examiner’s Conn Carroll flags this interesting item from the Washington Post’s report on the messy break-up between environmental groups and the natural gas industry:

Natural gas entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens gave $453,250 to the liberal think tank Center for American Progress (CAP) in 2008 and 2009 through his nonprofit groups, to support its National Clean Energy Project events. At the time, Pickens was pressing lawmakers to adopt a bill to subsidize construction of natural gas filling stations. The legislation would have directly helped a company Pickens co-founded called Clean Energy Fuels, which describes itself as “the leading provider of natural gas for transportation.”

It’s odd that Pickens, a long-time funder of conservative groups and one of the heavyweight allies of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign, would throw his money behind the Center for American Progress. Carroll reports on how CAP used the funding to promote natural gas initiatives:

This forum will focus on modernizing and expanding the electricity grid, integrating energy efficiency and distributed generation into operation and regulation, rapidly increasing transmission capacity for renewable energy, and reducing our nation’s dependence on foreign oil by examining short- and long-term solutions to replace foreign oil with domestic resources to fuel vehicles and trucks, including natural gas.

Unfortunately for Pickens, his new friends didn’t stick around for long. As soon as his funding was used up, CAP became a critic of natural gas, which is increasingly unpopular in environmental circles:

Fast forward to this year and natural gas is no longer an alternative to oil. Here is a CAP headline from last month:

Natural Gas Is A Bridge To Nowhere

Apparently, on the left, money can buy you love … but only for so long.

If CAP’s agenda is being driven so transparently by the special interests of its donors, how can it call itself a credible think tank? It makes you wonder who else is giving money to the organization, and how much their political and business agendas are influencing the direction of the group.

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Rick Santorum and the Social Issues

One of the arguments Senator Rick Santorum made on behalf of his campaign was that if he were the nominee, he’d succeed in making Barack Obama the subject of the election, not himself.

That was before Santorum shot to the top of the GOP field. What candidates can never fully anticipate, until they’re considered a frontrunner, is the sheer intensity of the focus on their past record and words. That’s now happening to Santorum, and suddenly he’s on the defensive, despite his best efforts to avoid that from happening.

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One of the arguments Senator Rick Santorum made on behalf of his campaign was that if he were the nominee, he’d succeed in making Barack Obama the subject of the election, not himself.

That was before Santorum shot to the top of the GOP field. What candidates can never fully anticipate, until they’re considered a frontrunner, is the sheer intensity of the focus on their past record and words. That’s now happening to Santorum, and suddenly he’s on the defensive, despite his best efforts to avoid that from happening.

The main (though not exclusive) problem for Santorum is his rhetorical approach to social issues. He’s said he would be the one president who would talk about the damage contraception does to American society. He’s spoken quite openly about criminalizing doctors who perform abortions. He’s made a passionate case against prenatal testing. He’s been quite forthright in his views against homosexual acts, about women in combat, and about women in the workforce. He’s given a speech in which he’s said Satan has systematically targeted the key institutions in American life. The danger for Santorum is that, fairly or not, these statements and stands, separately and (especially) combined, create a portrait of a person who is censorious and sits in critical judgment of the lifestyle of most Americans.

The prospect of an American president using the “bully pulpit” to speak out about the dangers and damaging effects of contraception on American society (including among married couples) is not a reassuring one.

It’s almost impossible to overstate how important tone and countenance are when it comes to social issues. There is a great deal to be said for those who care about the cultural condition of American society. But the arguments on behalf of moral truth need to be made in ways that are winsome, in a manner that is meant to persuade. What this means, in part, is the person making the arguments needs to radiate some measure of grace and tolerance rather than condemnation and zeal. What we’re talking about is using a light touch rather than a heavy hand. To understand the difference, think about how the language (and spirit) of the pro-life movement shifted from accusing people of being “baby killers” to asking Americans to join a movement in which every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life. Social conservatism, if it ever hopes to succeed, needs to be articulated in a way that is seen as promoting the human good and advancing human dignity, rather than declaring a series of forbidden acts that are leading us to Gomorrah.

A wise observer told me years ago that for a politician to be seen as the aggressor in the culture wars is the quickest way to lose them. That is something Rick Santorum should bear in mind as this race moves forward.

 

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Another GOP Momentum Shift?

Just when the public was starting to get used to the idea of Rick Santorum perhaps becoming the new Republican presidential frontrunner, it appears that another momentum shift may be under way. After steady gains in national and state polls in the last two weeks, the Santorum juggernaut — which has been powered by both the passion of evangelicals and the widespread dissatisfaction on the right with Mitt Romney — may be starting to lose a bit of steam. Another new poll out of Michigan shows Romney gaining ground today and resuming a small lead over Santorum. When combined with other surveys showing the former Massachusetts governor assuming a sizeable lead in Arizona — which along with Michigan will hold primaries seven days from now — the Michigan polls ought to worry Santorum’s camp.

Up until late last week, Santorum had been leading a charmed life as far as avoiding negative publicity and engendering good will. But when the debate about contraception morphed from one about defending the religious freedom of the Catholic Church into one that centered on Santorum’s personal views on the matter, it served to remind Republicans his stands on social issues tend to be outside of the mainstream. While most Republicans do not hold his ideas about the importance of the family and opposition to abortion and gay marriage against him, the last week has been highly reminiscent of the way his 2006 Senate re-election campaign was dogged by controversial quotes from his book, It Takes a Family. Though Romney is still plagued by his inability to connect with ordinary voters and doubt has been cast on the notion of his greater electability, the kerfuffle about birth control may have been just enough to halt Santorum’s momentum and give his more moderate opponent a chance to save his candidacy before the voters in his home state of Michigan destroyed his hopes.

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Just when the public was starting to get used to the idea of Rick Santorum perhaps becoming the new Republican presidential frontrunner, it appears that another momentum shift may be under way. After steady gains in national and state polls in the last two weeks, the Santorum juggernaut — which has been powered by both the passion of evangelicals and the widespread dissatisfaction on the right with Mitt Romney — may be starting to lose a bit of steam. Another new poll out of Michigan shows Romney gaining ground today and resuming a small lead over Santorum. When combined with other surveys showing the former Massachusetts governor assuming a sizeable lead in Arizona — which along with Michigan will hold primaries seven days from now — the Michigan polls ought to worry Santorum’s camp.

Up until late last week, Santorum had been leading a charmed life as far as avoiding negative publicity and engendering good will. But when the debate about contraception morphed from one about defending the religious freedom of the Catholic Church into one that centered on Santorum’s personal views on the matter, it served to remind Republicans his stands on social issues tend to be outside of the mainstream. While most Republicans do not hold his ideas about the importance of the family and opposition to abortion and gay marriage against him, the last week has been highly reminiscent of the way his 2006 Senate re-election campaign was dogged by controversial quotes from his book, It Takes a Family. Though Romney is still plagued by his inability to connect with ordinary voters and doubt has been cast on the notion of his greater electability, the kerfuffle about birth control may have been just enough to halt Santorum’s momentum and give his more moderate opponent a chance to save his candidacy before the voters in his home state of Michigan destroyed his hopes.

The Mitchell/Rosetta Stone Poll of Michigan conducted for the Michigan Information & Research Service shows Romney gaining considerable ground in the last week. The previous poll of Michigan Republicans showed Santorum with a nine-point, 34-25 percent lead. In less than seven days, Romney gained seven percentage points to resume a 32-30 advantage.

But the news was not all bad for Santorum today as a Rasmussen poll showed him holding on to a 38-34 percent lead over Romney. That was a slight improvement over Rasmussen’s survey taken a week ago that showed him with a 35-32 percent lead.

Taken together, these latest polls indicate that the Michigan primary is still up for grabs, because no matter which one you think is more accurate, both have produced results within the statistical margin of error. Clearly, either of the two leading candidates can still win the state, but it is to Romney’s advantage that the trend of the last three weeks (in which Santorum made steady gains) appears to have ebbed. These polls also confirm Newt Gingrich is not a factor in Michigan or any other upcoming state besides his home in Georgia. If Gingrich continues to lose ground that will be a major problem for Romney. Voters who abandon the former speaker because he is no longer seen as viable are most likely to wind up in Santorum’s column.

A lot can happen in the next seven days with tomorrow night’s CNN debate from Michigan (the first GOP debate in nearly a month) assuming great importance in the minds of the media if not the voters. Santorum’s debate performances have been consistently outstanding, but this time he will be appearing as one of the frontrunners and with a big target on his back rather than being able to stand aside as Gingrich and Romney savage each other. Romney’s enormous financial advantage will also be the focus of much coverage as he is likely to continue swamping the state with advertisements in the upcoming days, and Santorum will not be able to match or even come close to his efforts.

Santorum’s message of blue-collar conservatism is tailor-made for Michigan. But the race is sufficiently close that any doubts about his viability because of his hard line social views could be enough to help Romney squeak through to victory. The halt in his momentum also could enable Romney to survive his campaign’s most severe test.

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A Sad Day for Science

When internal fundraising and strategy documents from the Heartland Institute, a conservative group skeptical of man-made climate change, were leaked online last week, global warming activists were ecstatic. That excitement ended today when a prominent climate scientist, Peter Gleick, admitted to using a fake identity to obtain donor and budget records from Heartland, supposedly in order to “confirm” an explosive internal memo on the group’s 2012 Climate Strategy, which he claims was sent to him anonymously.

Heartland has disputed the veracity of the memo, which was leaked to the press along with the other documents.

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When internal fundraising and strategy documents from the Heartland Institute, a conservative group skeptical of man-made climate change, were leaked online last week, global warming activists were ecstatic. That excitement ended today when a prominent climate scientist, Peter Gleick, admitted to using a fake identity to obtain donor and budget records from Heartland, supposedly in order to “confirm” an explosive internal memo on the group’s 2012 Climate Strategy, which he claims was sent to him anonymously.

Heartland has disputed the veracity of the memo, which was leaked to the press along with the other documents.

Here’s an excerpt of Gleick’s confession, which he posted in full at the Huffington Post:

At the beginning of 2012, I received an anonymous document in the mail describing what appeared to be details of the Heartland Institute’s climate program strategy. It contained information about their funders and the Institute’s apparent efforts to muddy public understanding about climate science and policy. I do not know the source of that original document but assumed it was sent to me because of my past exchanges with Heartland and because I was named in it.

Given the potential impact however, I attempted to confirm the accuracy of the information in this document. In an effort to do so, and in a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics, I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else’s name.

Gleick says he sent the documents to reporters before the story blew up last week. In a statement today, the Heartland Institute confirmed the legitimacy of the budget and fundraising documents, but maintained – as it has since the beginning – that the climate strategy memo that Gleick says was sent to him anonymously was falsified. Heartland also seemed to imply it would be taking legal action on the matter:

An additional document Gleick represented as coming from The Heartland Institute, a forged memo purporting to set out our strategies on global warming, has been extensively cited by newspapers and in news releases and articles posted on Web sites and blogs around the world. It has caused major and permanent damage to the reputations of The Heartland Institute and many of the scientists, policy experts, and organizations we work with.

A mere apology is not enough to undo the damage. …We hope Gleick will make a more complete confession in the next few days.

We are consulting with legal counsel to determine our next steps and plan to release a more complete statement about the situation tomorrow. In the meantime, we ask again that publishers, bloggers, and Web site hosts take the stolen and fraudulent documents off their sites, remove defamatory commentary based on them, and issue retractions.

Needless to say, Gleick’s confession will only fuel suspicions that the initial memo was a fake – and that the scientist may personally have been the one who fabricated it.

But even the staunchest climate change skeptics should have a hard time feeling good about the latest development. Gleick not only disgraced himself, he disgraced his profession, too – and during a time when Americans are increasingly distrustful of climate science. The good news is that Heartland caught onto Gleick’s identity fraud quickly, and may be able to repair the damage done to its image. Unfortunately, the damage that Gleick and the scientists involved in ClimateGate have done to the image of climate science may be permanent.

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Robot Romney for President

Today, BuzzFeed released “25 Photos of Mitt Romney Looking Normal,” and — to my surprise — he actually looks normal! Along with the photo series, one of BuzzFeed’s political reporters wrote a column highlighting the Romney family’s social media prowess, wondering why the candidate can’t connect as well as his family members seem to (without ever seeming to reach a conclusion). BuzzFeed reports:

Mary Romney’s blog, Kendrick said, is a “very typical” example of the genre. Titled “Me & My Boys,” it has apparently been open to public view for years, drawing occasional interest from the political class. The blog was made private shortly after BuzzFeed asked the campaign about it, and about the Romney family’s social media presence in general.

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Today, BuzzFeed released “25 Photos of Mitt Romney Looking Normal,” and — to my surprise — he actually looks normal! Along with the photo series, one of BuzzFeed’s political reporters wrote a column highlighting the Romney family’s social media prowess, wondering why the candidate can’t connect as well as his family members seem to (without ever seeming to reach a conclusion). BuzzFeed reports:

Mary Romney’s blog, Kendrick said, is a “very typical” example of the genre. Titled “Me & My Boys,” it has apparently been open to public view for years, drawing occasional interest from the political class. The blog was made private shortly after BuzzFeed asked the campaign about it, and about the Romney family’s social media presence in general.

This strikes me as perhaps the worst public relations idea the campaign has had in… days. The photos taken for the “Romney looking normal” series were taken from his daughter-in-law’s blog, which were then mined by the BuzzFeed staff. BuzzFeed, without a political agenda, wanted to highlight something foreign to its visitors – Mitt Romney looking non-robotic, unengineered. Finding photos of Romney looking this different, this average, was newsworthy enough on an otherwise slow news day. After these photos were gathered (by a staff not paid by the Romney campaign), the campaign’s response was to shut down the only public source of authentic Romney coverage, his daughter-in-law’s Mommy blog. This shut down will help perpetuate the same public image that has haunted Romney this entire campaign: a rich guy trying desperately to fit in with the Average Joe, but coming off inauthentic and slightly creepy in the process.

The Santorum campaign has been a success of late because of, not in spite of, the sweater vests – he is the anti-Romney. Santorum has spent a fraction of what his competitors have, instead making the rounds at venues large and small, connecting with voters one-on-one. In meetings, town halls and rallies across the country, voters see Santorum as a  genuine family-oriented conservative, the grandson of a coal miner and a devoted father.

What could the Romney campaign learn from Santorum? For starters: stop being afraid to be real, let down the walls around the campaign. Stop posting posed pictures of yourself doing laundry on your son’s Twitter account. Stop contacting Mormon Mommy bloggers, asking them to follow your messaging. Let your daughter-in-law do what she’s been doing: portraying you as a real person (if her blog had embarrassing details, BuzzFeed would have exposed them when the blog was public). Let voters see the real Mitt Romney, whoever he is.

If Romney can’t shake the perception others have of him, this will be a replay of the 2000 Gore campaign. In the summer before the 2000 election, the Washington Post reported that 65 percent of Americans thought Gore’s “stiffness” was a problem for his campaign, and the same amount of voters said the word “inspiring” did not apply to him. Leading up to the 2000 election, “Saturday Night Live‘s” number one caricature of Gore was how Romney will be portrayed if he becomes the nominee: A robot. With a public relations shop as bad as Romney’s, get ready for some reruns.

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Netanyahu Visit Will Highlight Obama’s Jewish Charm Offensive

During the first three years of the Obama administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visits to the White House have been the occasion for some memorable fights with the president. He has been ambushed, insulted, lectured and, on at least one occasion, gave back as good as he got as he pushed back against Obama’s attempt to undercut Israel’s negotiating position with the Palestinians and its rights in Jerusalem. But Netanyahu’s next visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will probably be a very different one entirely. With the president fighting hard to retain the votes and the financial support of American Jews and other friends of Israel, Netanyahu can expect that Obama will be on his very best behavior when he arrives next month for a visit that was announced yesterday.

With the threat of a nuclear Iran hanging over both nations and with the United States eager to dissuade Israel from striking first on its own, the two men have some serious business to conduct. But it is impossible to ignore the political implications of this summit. With evidence mounting that Obama and the Democrats have been bleeding Jewish support in the last year, the visit will take the president’s charm offensive aimed at convincing the Jewish community he is Israel’s best friend to a new level. Netanyahu has good reason to play along with Obama’s pretense, as he may have to go on dealing with him until January 2017. But the question remains whether the two men can sufficiently paper over their personal hostility and policy differences in order for the visit to have the effect the president’s political handlers are aiming for.

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During the first three years of the Obama administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visits to the White House have been the occasion for some memorable fights with the president. He has been ambushed, insulted, lectured and, on at least one occasion, gave back as good as he got as he pushed back against Obama’s attempt to undercut Israel’s negotiating position with the Palestinians and its rights in Jerusalem. But Netanyahu’s next visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will probably be a very different one entirely. With the president fighting hard to retain the votes and the financial support of American Jews and other friends of Israel, Netanyahu can expect that Obama will be on his very best behavior when he arrives next month for a visit that was announced yesterday.

With the threat of a nuclear Iran hanging over both nations and with the United States eager to dissuade Israel from striking first on its own, the two men have some serious business to conduct. But it is impossible to ignore the political implications of this summit. With evidence mounting that Obama and the Democrats have been bleeding Jewish support in the last year, the visit will take the president’s charm offensive aimed at convincing the Jewish community he is Israel’s best friend to a new level. Netanyahu has good reason to play along with Obama’s pretense, as he may have to go on dealing with him until January 2017. But the question remains whether the two men can sufficiently paper over their personal hostility and policy differences in order for the visit to have the effect the president’s political handlers are aiming for.

Netanyahu will be in Washington to speak to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in early March (Obama is also scheduled to speak at the conference), which makes the invitation to the White House a perfect opportunity for the administration to continue its attempt to erase the bad feelings three years of non-stop spats have created. Having arrived at the White House in January 2009 determined to scrap what he saw as the Bush administration’s preference for Israel over the Palestinians, Obama set out to create more distance between the two countries. That process was exacerbated by Netanyahu’s election as prime minister a month later. Obama, who even during the 2008 presidential campaign had made it clear he was no fan of the Likud, picked unnecessary fights with Netanyahu about settlement freezes and Jerusalem. Initially, the administration seemed to want to force Netanyahu from office, but when their strong-arm tactics strengthened rather than weakened him, Obama was forced to resort to a diplomatic war of attrition against the Israeli.

In 2010, following the president’s decision to treat a housing start in an existing Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem during a visit to the city by Vice President Biden as a crisis, Netanyahu was scolded by Secretary of State Clinton and then personally insulted by the president during a subsequent trip to Washington. A year later the tension boiled over again when Obama ambushed Netanyahu on the eve of another visit by announcing his intention to make the 1967 lines be the starting point for future peace negotiations. But the ploy backfired on Obama when even most members of his own party backed Netanyahu’s opposition to the stand. He was forced to endure a public lecture by the prime minister on the topic of Israel’s security and then look on as Netanyahu was cheered like a conquering hero by a joint meeting of Congress.

Since then, Obama has been more circumspect about his criticisms of Israel as he turned to the difficult task of walking back his antagonism in order to be re-elected. Of late, he has touted himself as having done more for Israel’s security than any president. Though this is, at best, an exaggeration, Obama has not obstructed the long-standing security alliance.

Fortunately for the president, the Palestinians never took advantage of the pressure he exerted on the Israelis, and the peace process will probably be on the back burner next month. But that doesn’t mean there will be no tension during the conclave. Though the administration has escalated its rhetoric against Iran and has, albeit unwillingly, started to take steps toward enforcing tough sanctions against Tehran, it has seemed more alarmed by the prospect of Israel striking Iran’s facilities than of the ayatollahs getting their hands on a nuclear weapon.

The question on the table in March will center on whether the United States can give Israel a reasonable alternative to the use of force. Given the existential threat a nuclear Iran poses to Israel — as well as to the rest of the region and the West — Netanyahu is rightly worried that any further delay will work to Iran’s interests and against that of his own country. Netanyahu will go to Washington probably hoping for a promise that the U.S. will not wait indefinitely for sanctions to work before agreeing to condone or join an Israeli strike. Obama wants Israel to agree not to strike this year and to present a united front that will strengthen both his diplomatic and political posture.

Though Netanyahu can expect a far friendlier reception than during his previous visits, the problem is not only that his goals are antithetical to those of the president but that Obama’s hostility to the Israeli (which he foolishly aired over an open microphone during a chat with French President Sarkozy) is such that it is far from clear whether he can contain his animus long enough to get the friendly photo-op he needs to bolster his re-election campaign.

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Off-Kilter Analysis on Public Radio

Last week, I noted how Geneive Abdo, a journalist and liaison to the UN’s “Dialogue of Civilizations” program, had promoted the wacky conspiracy theory on Australia’s national radio that Israel had bombed their own diplomats.

Increasingly, it appears as if the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is trying to give National Public Radio a run for its money in the promotion of some really off-kilter analysis. On February 20, for example, ABC asked Robert Fisk for his analysis of Syria. Fisk tried to shift the focus to condemnation of Israel—which he suggested was Assad’s big backer—and the United States.

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Last week, I noted how Geneive Abdo, a journalist and liaison to the UN’s “Dialogue of Civilizations” program, had promoted the wacky conspiracy theory on Australia’s national radio that Israel had bombed their own diplomats.

Increasingly, it appears as if the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is trying to give National Public Radio a run for its money in the promotion of some really off-kilter analysis. On February 20, for example, ABC asked Robert Fisk for his analysis of Syria. Fisk tried to shift the focus to condemnation of Israel—which he suggested was Assad’s big backer—and the United States.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz, a policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, makes short-work of Fisk’s misstatements and counterfactual analysis. It certainly is worth reading. Alas, public radio whether in the United States or Down Under does itself a disfavor when it allows itself to be used so blatantly for a political agenda.

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Walk Back to the Right Road to Marriage and Parenthood

A New York Times story during the weekend begins this way: “It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal. After steadily rising for five decades, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold: more than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage.”

The story goes on to point out that “motherhood without marriage has settled deeply into middle America.” The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree, according to Child Trends, a Washington research group. The Times points out “the surge of births outside marriage among younger women — nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are born to mothers under 30 — is both a symbol of the transforming family and a hint of coming generational change.” Researchers have “consistently found that children born outside marriage face elevated risks of falling into poverty, failing in school or suffering emotional and behavioral problems.”

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A New York Times story during the weekend begins this way: “It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal. After steadily rising for five decades, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold: more than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage.”

The story goes on to point out that “motherhood without marriage has settled deeply into middle America.” The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree, according to Child Trends, a Washington research group. The Times points out “the surge of births outside marriage among younger women — nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are born to mothers under 30 — is both a symbol of the transforming family and a hint of coming generational change.” Researchers have “consistently found that children born outside marriage face elevated risks of falling into poverty, failing in school or suffering emotional and behavioral problems.”

In all of this I’m reminded of the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who in 1995 was asked to identify the biggest change he had seen in his 40-year political career. To which Moynihan replied, “The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.” This tectonic shift has occurred, Moynihan said, “in an historical instant. Something that was not imaginable 40 years ago has happened.”

We have moved from a fracturing of the marital ideal toward what scholars call a “post-marriage” society. The causes for this are complicated, including shifts in moral and social attitudes, the after-effects of the sexual revolution, government policies on welfare, dramatic shifts in family law, the influence of popular culture, and modernity/post-modernity itself. Regardless of the root causes, the consequences of living in a society in which marriage is devalued and out-of-wedlock births are normative are not good, especially for the most vulnerable members of the human community. And so we have to recover our commitment to an institution that is, for much of American society, submerging like Atlantis.

In his 2001 book, The Broken Hearth, William Bennett put it this way:

The blessings that come to us through marriage and parenthood – I speak here of the deepest kind of human fulfillment – are immeasurable and irreplaceable and … incomparable. We live in an age in which we are continually being torn away from that which is priceless and enduring. This means that ours is the task of reminding ourselves, and each other, not only of what we have lost but of what, when it comes to marriage and the family, is still ours to regain.

Marriage and parenthood are not the sources of happiness and meaning for everyone, of course, and they can involve their own struggles and heartache. But for most people, marriage and parenthood are well-springs of great happiness. As for how to get to where we need to go, it does not require us “turning back the clock.” It requires us to renew the inward things of the heart, to take steps toward progress. To understand the distinction, listen to the words of C.S. Lewis:

I would rather get away from the whole idea of clocks. We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive … [and] going back is the quickest way on.

On matters of marriage and parenthood, then, we all need to begin to walk back to the right road, not in hopes of recapturing an Ozzie and Harriet world but for the sake of our society, human fulfillment, and the well-being of our children.

 

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Santorum Gaffes and Media Speculation

Did the Santorum campaign team call President Obama an “Islamic extremist” and “Hitler”? Based on the media coverage during the weekend, you’d think so. Of course, neither of the charges actually check out. Rick Santorum denies he compared Obama to Hitler during a recent speech, and based on the text it sounds like he may have just been making a WWII reference. Meanwhile, Santorum’s aide says she accidentally called Obama’s policies “radical Islamic” when she really meant “radical environmental” – and from the context, her excuse actually does makes sense.

But unfortunately for the Santorum campaign, the gaffes still provided tons of fodder for media speculation:

Rick Santorum on Monday denied he was comparing President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler while using a World War II analogy the previous day.

During a speech at a Georgia church on Sunday, Santorum paralleled the election to America’s slow response to the swelling Nazi presence during the late 1930s. He urged his audience to get involved and not sit on the sidelines like “the greatest generation” did for a year and a half while “Europe was under darkness.”

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Did the Santorum campaign team call President Obama an “Islamic extremist” and “Hitler”? Based on the media coverage during the weekend, you’d think so. Of course, neither of the charges actually check out. Rick Santorum denies he compared Obama to Hitler during a recent speech, and based on the text it sounds like he may have just been making a WWII reference. Meanwhile, Santorum’s aide says she accidentally called Obama’s policies “radical Islamic” when she really meant “radical environmental” – and from the context, her excuse actually does makes sense.

But unfortunately for the Santorum campaign, the gaffes still provided tons of fodder for media speculation:

Rick Santorum on Monday denied he was comparing President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler while using a World War II analogy the previous day.

During a speech at a Georgia church on Sunday, Santorum paralleled the election to America’s slow response to the swelling Nazi presence during the late 1930s. He urged his audience to get involved and not sit on the sidelines like “the greatest generation” did for a year and a half while “Europe was under darkness.”

Also:

Rick Santorum’s spokeswoman Alice Stewart said in a TV interview on Monday that Santorum was referring to President Barack Obama’s “radical Islamic policies” when he said the president’s agenda was driven by “phony theology” — but then quickly called up MSNBC after the segment aired to say she misspoke.

“There is a type of theological secularism when it comes to the global warmists in this country. That’s what he was referring to. He was referring to the president’s policies in terms of the radical Islamic policies the president has,” Stewart said on “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”

Mitchell later said on the air that Stewart phoned the show after the interview to say she had slipped up and said “radical Islamic policies” instead of Obama’s “radical environmental policies.”

No matter what the campaign may have meant to say, both stories play into the media perception of Santorum. He’s the conservative Tea Party candidate, and as we saw from 2009, the media thinks the Tea Party equates Obama to Hitler and believes he’s a secret Muslim.

Even though these allegations against the Tea Party have been largely debunked, the smears never went away entirely. Once the story is out, it’s hard to get rid of the perception. The same may go for this one. Now for the rest of eternity we’ll have to read in every liberal outlet from the Huffington Post to TPM that Santorum “once likened President Obama to Adolf Hitler” and “insinuated Obama is a Muslim extremist.” All thanks to a few unforced errors.

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The Legacy of the Nixon-to-China Moment

“China will never be a superpower and it opposes hegemony and power politics of any kind.” So reads the “Shanghai Communiqué,” the joint statement released by President Nixon and Chairman Mao Tse-tung during Nixon’s famous trip to China, which began exactly 40 years ago today. The street value of diplomatic joint statements is always lower than their face value, of course. Nonetheless, an argument can be made (and is being made far and wide) that there are no more pressing concerns for the West in this still-young century than China’s taste for hegemony and power politics, not to mention the possibility of parity with the world’s current sole superpower.

Nixon’s propensity for the historic left its mark on our political lexicon. Any scandal, no matter how ridiculous, earns a “-gate” suffix, and any major politician’s rebuke to his ideological compatriots, no matter how superficial, is a “Nixon-to-China moment.” But while Nixon’s critics are, for all the obvious reasons, reluctant to give him recognition for his accomplishments, Nixon deserves the credit for the China trip. (As he does, as we now know, for Operation Nickel Grass, the weapons airlift to Israel during the Yom Kippur War.) What was so notable about Nixon’s desire to work with China for mutual benefit is not that Nixon considered China a paper tiger—quite the opposite. Nixon understood China’s potential, once unlocked, to dominate, and worked to facilitate it anyway. As Niall Ferguson said in his opening remarks at last year’s Munk Debate on China:

Four decades ago Richard Nixon got this point sooner than most: [Nixon said,] “Well you can just stop and think of what would happen if anybody with a decent system of government got control of that mainland. Good God, there’d be no power in the world that could even…I mean, you put 800 million Chinese to work under a decent system and they will be the leaders of the world.”

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“China will never be a superpower and it opposes hegemony and power politics of any kind.” So reads the “Shanghai Communiqué,” the joint statement released by President Nixon and Chairman Mao Tse-tung during Nixon’s famous trip to China, which began exactly 40 years ago today. The street value of diplomatic joint statements is always lower than their face value, of course. Nonetheless, an argument can be made (and is being made far and wide) that there are no more pressing concerns for the West in this still-young century than China’s taste for hegemony and power politics, not to mention the possibility of parity with the world’s current sole superpower.

Nixon’s propensity for the historic left its mark on our political lexicon. Any scandal, no matter how ridiculous, earns a “-gate” suffix, and any major politician’s rebuke to his ideological compatriots, no matter how superficial, is a “Nixon-to-China moment.” But while Nixon’s critics are, for all the obvious reasons, reluctant to give him recognition for his accomplishments, Nixon deserves the credit for the China trip. (As he does, as we now know, for Operation Nickel Grass, the weapons airlift to Israel during the Yom Kippur War.) What was so notable about Nixon’s desire to work with China for mutual benefit is not that Nixon considered China a paper tiger—quite the opposite. Nixon understood China’s potential, once unlocked, to dominate, and worked to facilitate it anyway. As Niall Ferguson said in his opening remarks at last year’s Munk Debate on China:

Four decades ago Richard Nixon got this point sooner than most: [Nixon said,] “Well you can just stop and think of what would happen if anybody with a decent system of government got control of that mainland. Good God, there’d be no power in the world that could even…I mean, you put 800 million Chinese to work under a decent system and they will be the leaders of the world.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the presidency often (eventually) imbues the country’s chief executive with a bit of humility, even if hard earned. Once that happens, to these men history becomes not the vessel but the wave, if not the violent riptide underneath—seemingly beyond their control or design. So it appears to have been with Nixon, who saw a near future with China in pole position. Well, are we there yet? And more importantly, what is the status of U.S.-China relations, the legacy of the original Nixon-to-China moment?

Is it the story of, as Zachary Karabell believes, how the “two countries became one economy”? It certainly doesn’t appear that way, with the sitting president complaining of unfair trade practices (China’s obvious currency manipulation) with the Chinese vice president and heir apparent Xi Jinping in town for a major state visit. Mitt Romney says he’ll go even farther if he’s elected president this year, pledging to label China a currency manipulator on day one of his first term. That sounds an awful lot like the instigation of a trade war, and conservatives have been uneasy with a policy that reeks of protectionism. (And veteran foreign policy opinion writers aren’t too impressed, either; Dan Drezner describes the attitude as inspired by the Incredible Hulk—“Romney SMASH China!”)

But Irwin Stelzer, in an incisive post for the Weekly Standard, suggests there may be more behind the president’s and Romney’s vocal displeasure with China’s trade practices:

One reason Xi came to America is to protest Obama’s expansion of the American military presence in Asia. Hu Jintao had earlier complained that America is building “a wall of containment” around China, to use Kagan’s phrase. “What the Chinese find really upsetting,” he continues, “is the extent of American’s military alliances,” some fifty, whereas China has not a single ally in its region, with the exception of North Korea, as much a liability as an asset. To make American intentions at strengthening these alliances and its presence in Asia clear to Xi, Secretary Panetta timed congressional testimony detailing the expanding U.S. military presence and capabilities in Asia to coincide with the Washington visit of the future Chinese [leader].

And so China has responded with a see-and-raise maneuver that would be audacious if it weren’t so familiar:

Which suggests that American efforts to persuade China to abandon its trade practices, in any event doomed to failure, has as much to do with power as with money. China’s currency manipulation, subsidization of its SOEs and other export enhancing practices provide funds to pay for an expanded military. They also create a voracious demand for oil and other commodities, a demand that is forcing China to extend its reach to Africa and to America’s backyard, Latin America. In addition, the earnings from trade are used to make loans that add to Chinese influence. The Financial Times reports that the $75 billion China has lent to Latin America since 2005 exceed the total made available by the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the Export-Import Bank.

Stelzer’s article is titled “Trade Is War, By Other Means.” That “by other means” is obviously the way we intend to keep it, but still: It’s a far cry from China “oppos[ing] hegemony and power politics of any kind.”

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Gingrich’s Transcendent Self-Regard

The Washington Post has a fascinating story based on an examination of papers collected over nearly three decades, documents compiled by a former Newt Gingrich aide and archived at the University of West Georgia, where Gingrich was an assistant professor in the 1970s. What they reveal, according to the Post, is “a politician of moderate-to-liberal beginnings, a product of the civil rights era who moved to the right with an eye on political expediency — and privately savaged Republicans he was praising in public. Even as he gained a reputation as a conservative firebrand, the documents show Gingrich was viewed by his staff primarily as a tactician — the ‘tent evangelist’ of the conservative movement, one staffer said — with little ideological core.”

There’s a lot to sort through, but two things in particular stood out to me. One is that Gingrich’s chief of staff in 1983, Frank Gregorsky, said (according to a transcript of a staff meeting) that Gingrich “assumed that he’s the whole Republican Party. He knows more than the president [Ronald Reagan], the president’s people, [Robert H.] Michel, [James] Baker. He calls them stupid all the time, and I think that’s going to get him into big trouble someday.”

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The Washington Post has a fascinating story based on an examination of papers collected over nearly three decades, documents compiled by a former Newt Gingrich aide and archived at the University of West Georgia, where Gingrich was an assistant professor in the 1970s. What they reveal, according to the Post, is “a politician of moderate-to-liberal beginnings, a product of the civil rights era who moved to the right with an eye on political expediency — and privately savaged Republicans he was praising in public. Even as he gained a reputation as a conservative firebrand, the documents show Gingrich was viewed by his staff primarily as a tactician — the ‘tent evangelist’ of the conservative movement, one staffer said — with little ideological core.”

There’s a lot to sort through, but two things in particular stood out to me. One is that Gingrich’s chief of staff in 1983, Frank Gregorsky, said (according to a transcript of a staff meeting) that Gingrich “assumed that he’s the whole Republican Party. He knows more than the president [Ronald Reagan], the president’s people, [Robert H.] Michel, [James] Baker. He calls them stupid all the time, and I think that’s going to get him into big trouble someday.”

And then there’s what Gingrich said in a 1979 address to his congressional staff: “When I say save the West, I mean that. That is my job. . . . It is not my job to win reelection. It is not my job to take care of passport problems. It is not my job to get a bill through Congress. My job description as I have defined it is to save Western civilization.”

None of this is surprising to many of those who have watched Gingrich during the years, especially those who have worked with him and for him. A man of transcendent self-regard, Gingrich views himself as a world-historical figure, our Horatius at the bridge, one of the few people standing between (in Gingrich’s words) “us and Auschwitz.”

The former House speaker possesses some considerable talents. But there is such a thing as presidential temperament. Gingrich doesn’t have it–not by a country mile–and therefore, he will never be president of the United States.

 

 

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Ultrasounds Already Part of VA Planned Parenthood Abortion Procedure

The backlash against the new Virginia legislation requiring ultrasounds before an abortion procedure – which some have bizarrely compared to “forcible rape” – may be even more overblown than initially thought. Apparently, ultrasounds are already part of the abortion procedures at Virginia Planned Parenthoods.

The Virginia League for Planned Parenthood didn’t immediately return calls yesterday. But here’s what it said on the recording for its abortion services information hotline:

“Patients who have a surgical abortion generally come in for two appointments. At the first visit we do a health assessment, perform all the necessary lab work, and do an ultrasound. This visit generally takes about an hour. At the second visit, the procedure takes place. This visit takes about an hour as well. For out of town patients for whom it would be difficult to make two trips to our office, we’re able to schedule both the initial appointment and the procedure on the same day.

Medical abortions generally require three visits. At the first visit, we do a health assessment, perform all the necessary lab work, and do an ultrasound. This visit takes about an hour. At the second visit, the physician gives the first pill and directions for taking two more pills at home. The third visit is required during which you will have an exam and another ultrasound.”

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The backlash against the new Virginia legislation requiring ultrasounds before an abortion procedure – which some have bizarrely compared to “forcible rape” – may be even more overblown than initially thought. Apparently, ultrasounds are already part of the abortion procedures at Virginia Planned Parenthoods.

The Virginia League for Planned Parenthood didn’t immediately return calls yesterday. But here’s what it said on the recording for its abortion services information hotline:

“Patients who have a surgical abortion generally come in for two appointments. At the first visit we do a health assessment, perform all the necessary lab work, and do an ultrasound. This visit generally takes about an hour. At the second visit, the procedure takes place. This visit takes about an hour as well. For out of town patients for whom it would be difficult to make two trips to our office, we’re able to schedule both the initial appointment and the procedure on the same day.

Medical abortions generally require three visits. At the first visit, we do a health assessment, perform all the necessary lab work, and do an ultrasound. This visit takes about an hour. At the second visit, the physician gives the first pill and directions for taking two more pills at home. The third visit is required during which you will have an exam and another ultrasound.”

From a health perspective, these ultrasounds are critical. They detect the exact age of the fetus, which often dictates which type of abortion procedure the woman can receive. They can also spot potential complications that could impact the procedure, like ectopic pregnancies. In clinics that don’t have access to ultrasound technology, sometimes pelvic exams can be used as a substitute. But those are arguably just as invasive as the transvaginal ultrasounds pro-choice activists are decrying.

In other words, the real reason pro-choicers oppose the law isn’t because of the “invasiveness” or “creepiness” of ultrasounds. It can’t be it. Virginia Planned Parenthood clinics already include them in its abortion procedures.

And let’s be honest. The main reason pro-lifers support the Virginia ultrasound bill isn’t out of medical necessity — not if these scans are already standard operating procedure at clinics.

This fight, like virtually all abortion law fights, is about how much of a role religion and morality should play in regulating these procedures. Pro-choice activists seem to have no problem with ultrasounds, as long as they’re done for medical reasons. But the fact that ultrasounds tend to already be part of abortions isn’t enough for pro-life activists. They want the main purpose for the scans to be promoting the “culture of life.”  The Virginia law would mandate doctors to display and describe the ultrasound to the patient. And the image could end up dissuading many women from going ahead with the abortion.

While the pro-lifers have been pretty open about their motives, the pro-choicers – whose motto used to be “safe, legal and rare” – haven’t been. If they want to oppose the bill in order to keep morality out of abortion laws, that’s fine. But the rape comparisons are fundamentally dishonest and insult the intelligence of the public they’re trying to win over.

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