Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 24, 2012

The Saudis Want to Arm an Insurgency

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Tunis that backing an armed insurgency against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad “is an excellent idea.” He told her that because she asked his opinion, which means she’s thinking about it, as well.

The Iraqi insurgency soured most Americans on the idea of helping Arab countries get rid of a tyrant, but our interests in the region haven’t changed. Our biggest problem then as now is the Iranian- and Syrian-led resistance bloc, consisting not only of the odious regimes in Tehran and Damascus, but also their networks of terrorist organizations and insurgent groups from the Levant to Mesopotamia.

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Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Tunis that backing an armed insurgency against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad “is an excellent idea.” He told her that because she asked his opinion, which means she’s thinking about it, as well.

The Iraqi insurgency soured most Americans on the idea of helping Arab countries get rid of a tyrant, but our interests in the region haven’t changed. Our biggest problem then as now is the Iranian- and Syrian-led resistance bloc, consisting not only of the odious regimes in Tehran and Damascus, but also their networks of terrorist organizations and insurgent groups from the Levant to Mesopotamia.

Assad isn’t only just now becoming a headache. He backed anti-American and anti-Iraqi Sunni death squads and suicide bombers to the hilt. His family has spent decades arming an array of terrorist organizations that menace our friends and allies in Israel and Lebanon. And the longer the revolution continues, the more freelance foreign al-Qaeda fighters will pour into the country to “help.”

We aren’t the only ones wondering whether or not we should support the insurrection, or at least parts of it. If the United States doesn’t do it, the Saudis and Turks may do it themselves. Al-Qaeda fighters will most likely show up, if they haven’t already. Another question we’re going to have to start asking ourselves is whether or not we want any leverage in Syria after Assad is deposed. A hostile Islamist government in Damascus is far more likely to follow Baathist Syria if the Saudis and Turks decide who gets guns instead of us.

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Santorum’s Conservative Media Problem

There’s been a trend this week of prominent conservative women writers warning about Rick Santorum’s out-of-mainstream social views. They’ve all touched on a similar concern: Santorum’s past comments on social issues are so extreme that they likely render him unelectable.

This is alarming enough on its own. But the increasingly vocal criticism from right-leaning female pundits also indicates another problem on the horizon for Santorum: can he rely on the conservative media, particularly the women, to have his back on social issues in a general election?

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There’s been a trend this week of prominent conservative women writers warning about Rick Santorum’s out-of-mainstream social views. They’ve all touched on a similar concern: Santorum’s past comments on social issues are so extreme that they likely render him unelectable.

This is alarming enough on its own. But the increasingly vocal criticism from right-leaning female pundits also indicates another problem on the horizon for Santorum: can he rely on the conservative media, particularly the women, to have his back on social issues in a general election?

If Santorum secures the nomination, the mainstream media and Democrats will do their best to turn the election into a referendum on birth control and traditional gender roles. At that point it would be up to conservative journalists and commentators to stand up and defend Santorum on these issues. And as of right now, it doesn’t sound like there’d be many women in his corner.

But it’s not just female writers. The conservative media as a whole seems to have little desire to rehash the culture wars. There are plenty of pundits who will vigorously defend Santorum’s pro-life stance. But how many of them want to get into a brawl with the left over why birth control is harmful to society, or why gay marriage is akin to bestiality?

Then there’s the newer generation of conservative journalists and bloggers, which tends to lean more libertarian on social issues. They don’t have the same influence as TV pundits and columnists, but they’re still an integral part of the election coverage. Will they come out and defend Santorum’s comments about how the separation of church and state makes him “want to vomit”? How about his declaration that Satan is responsible for corrupting U.S. society?

It’s hard to imagine many who would. And that’s a serious problem Santorum needs to be prepared to deal with if he ends up securing the nomination.

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Racing for Israel at Daytona

If you’re watching the Daytona 500 – ‘‘The Great American Race’’ – this Sunday, look out for the No. 49 Robinson-Blakeney Toyota, sponsored by the non-profit, America-Israel Racing, and driven by J.J. Yeley, one of the top drivers in NASCAR.

Conceived last year by two Charlotte, N.C., men, America-Israel racing looks ‘‘to promote awareness of and support by Americans for Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East’’ and hopes ‘‘to educate Americans on the importance [of] the United States’ relationship with Israel through exposure provided by one of the largest spectator sports in the world.’’ Read More

If you’re watching the Daytona 500 – ‘‘The Great American Race’’ – this Sunday, look out for the No. 49 Robinson-Blakeney Toyota, sponsored by the non-profit, America-Israel Racing, and driven by J.J. Yeley, one of the top drivers in NASCAR.

Conceived last year by two Charlotte, N.C., men, America-Israel racing looks ‘‘to promote awareness of and support by Americans for Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East’’ and hopes ‘‘to educate Americans on the importance [of] the United States’ relationship with Israel through exposure provided by one of the largest spectator sports in the world.’’

The car design features a bald eagle with the national flags of the United States and Israel in its claws and an olive branch in its beak.

 

It may seem odd to make such a statement in sport – a realm often idealized as separate from politics. But it’s not about politics, they insist. And though advertising costs can run into the millions, they also note that it’s not a product they are trying to sell. Rather, ‘‘it’s a belief.’’ For probably the only televised sport where races are preceded by prayer, perhaps beliefs are appropriate.

The team has worked hard to qualify for the race, and hope to maintain the sponsorship throughout the season. As it happens, Daytona 500 is the only race televised in Israel. The Israeli government sent them a letter expressing excitement.

Here’s hoping they stay safe.

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The Next Russian Succession

Ellen Barry’s keen look at what many believe to be the final, legacy-cementing term as president for Vladimir Putin contains this nugget of nostalgia: “New tasks are at hand, like searching for a trusted person to whom Mr. Putin can eventually transfer his authority, just as Boris N. Yeltsin did with Mr. Putin 12 years ago.”

This would be, one expects, a moment of great fanfare and obsessive media coverage–assuming Putin serves out his full term and the raucous Russian blogosphere continues its spirited and playfully anarchic expansion. It will also, if covered honestly, be very different from Putin’s ascension a dozen years ago. The Western media’s reporting–especially that of American newspapers–was characterized by nothing so much as a hopeful construction of events that only slightly resembled reality.

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Ellen Barry’s keen look at what many believe to be the final, legacy-cementing term as president for Vladimir Putin contains this nugget of nostalgia: “New tasks are at hand, like searching for a trusted person to whom Mr. Putin can eventually transfer his authority, just as Boris N. Yeltsin did with Mr. Putin 12 years ago.”

This would be, one expects, a moment of great fanfare and obsessive media coverage–assuming Putin serves out his full term and the raucous Russian blogosphere continues its spirited and playfully anarchic expansion. It will also, if covered honestly, be very different from Putin’s ascension a dozen years ago. The Western media’s reporting–especially that of American newspapers–was characterized by nothing so much as a hopeful construction of events that only slightly resembled reality.

As Masha Gessen writes in her forthcoming biography of Putin, in 2000 the American media was obsessed with the Bush-Gore presidential election, but soon found other excuses to ignore what was happening in Russia:

Once the election story was finally over, American media had to deal with the aftermath of the dot-com bubble, beginning a wave of budget cuts and rollbacks that would last more than a decade. Many media outlets cut back on their foreign coverage, including Russia–and sometimes beginning with Russia. It became a self-perpetuating story: having told their audiences and themselves that Russia was safely entering a period of political and economic stability, American media effectively declared the Russia story dead, cut the resources available to cover it, and thereby killed their ability to report the story. ABC, which had had several dozen staffers occupying an entire building in central Moscow, closed its bureau altogether. Other outlets’ cuts were not as dramatic but just as drastic: entire bureaus were replaced by part-time freelancers.

Gessen saw this firsthand–she was working for U.S. News & World Report at the time. Russia was going through a change much different from the one Americans hoped and expected, and this change began gathering momentum and rolling downhill faster than even Russians realized.

By 2003, the American coverage had become comical. Russia held parliamentary elections in December of that year, and while other Western media seemed to have some idea what was happening, Gessen was horrified at what she saw in the States:

After the December 2003 parliamentary election, in which Putin’s United Russia took nearly half the seats […] while all remaining liberals and democrats lost their seats, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) reported: “The … elections … failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe commitments, calling into question Russia’s willingness to move towards European standards for democratic elections.” The New York Times reported something entirely different, publishing a condescending but approving editorial titled “Russians Inch Toward Democracy.” The paper of record did not mention international observers’ criticism in its news story the day of the election but published a separate piece on the critics the following day; the Washington Post and the Boston Globe left the critics out of their coverage altogether. The Los Angeles Times went even further: in a mammoth news story, it managed to downplay the OSCE’s conclusion in such a way that it sounded like the opposite of itself.

More than eight years after that, here we are. The transition from Yeltsin to Putin was more complicated than it may look in hindsight, and we should be careful not to oversimplify it. But neither should our major newspapers use hope and exhaustion as an excuse to phone in coverage of historic events. Much has changed since Russia’s last succession. Much needs to change about the coverage of the next one.

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Tapper’s Professionalism Shines Through

Every week one can find examples of why ABC’s Jake Tapper is one of the best and most fair-minded political reporters in America. (Hugh Hewitt says, “Jake Tapper is emerging as the next serious journalist in whom partisans of both sides will repose confidence.”) The latest example can be found here, in his exchange with Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest over gas prices. Here’s how part of the conversation went:

ABC’s Jake Tapper: “He [Barack Obama] ran a lot of commercials in 2008 about gas prices. It was a big part of his reelection campaign so I don’t understand – there seems to be a tone of indignance from the White House about the fact that people are talking about gas prices – this is one of the reasons why you guys have your jobs.”

Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest: “If I I – I’m showing a sign of indignance maybe it’s because I’m a little nervous in my first time. I’m not trying to demonstrate that there’s some indignance up here – ”

Tapper: “I actually meant the President.”

Earnest: “I appreciate that. It’s very generous of you.”

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Every week one can find examples of why ABC’s Jake Tapper is one of the best and most fair-minded political reporters in America. (Hugh Hewitt says, “Jake Tapper is emerging as the next serious journalist in whom partisans of both sides will repose confidence.”) The latest example can be found here, in his exchange with Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest over gas prices. Here’s how part of the conversation went:

ABC’s Jake Tapper: “He [Barack Obama] ran a lot of commercials in 2008 about gas prices. It was a big part of his reelection campaign so I don’t understand – there seems to be a tone of indignance from the White House about the fact that people are talking about gas prices – this is one of the reasons why you guys have your jobs.”

Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest: “If I I – I’m showing a sign of indignance maybe it’s because I’m a little nervous in my first time. I’m not trying to demonstrate that there’s some indignance up here – ”

Tapper: “I actually meant the President.”

Earnest: “I appreciate that. It’s very generous of you.”

Mr. Tapper’s point is that even if a president have very little control over gas prices, it’s only fair that the same standard that Barack Obama used against President Bush in 2008 be applied to him in 2012. That’s entirely reasonable. But that kind of scrutiny is often missing in the press coverage of the president, which is why Tapper’s willingness to challenge the Obama White House (just as he challenged the administration preceding Mr. Obama’s) stands out.

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Iranian Scientists’ Goals Should Be No Secret

The Drudge Report is including a link to an Israel National News story quoting an Iranian press report in which the widow of an Iranian nuclear scientist acknowledged that her husband sought “Israel’s annihilation.” Even before Drudge amplified it into headline news, this was a story that the keen eye of Jonathan Tobin had earlier picked up. But, it’s hardly the first time that Iranian officials intimately involved in their covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs have made this admission. In November 2011, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen. Hassan Tehrani-Moghadam died in a mysterious explosion that flattened the missile facility in which he worked. The Iranian press subsequently published his last will and testament, a document in which he requested the epitaph, “This is the grave of someone who wanted to destroy Israel.”

There’s a school of foreign policy thought predominant in the United States which teaches officials to ignore rhetoric. This would be a mistake, one which should have been corrected after the George H.W. Bush administration and the State Department largely ignored Saddam Hussein’s threats against Kuwait, only to learn that the dictator actually meant what he said.

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The Drudge Report is including a link to an Israel National News story quoting an Iranian press report in which the widow of an Iranian nuclear scientist acknowledged that her husband sought “Israel’s annihilation.” Even before Drudge amplified it into headline news, this was a story that the keen eye of Jonathan Tobin had earlier picked up. But, it’s hardly the first time that Iranian officials intimately involved in their covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs have made this admission. In November 2011, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen. Hassan Tehrani-Moghadam died in a mysterious explosion that flattened the missile facility in which he worked. The Iranian press subsequently published his last will and testament, a document in which he requested the epitaph, “This is the grave of someone who wanted to destroy Israel.”

There’s a school of foreign policy thought predominant in the United States which teaches officials to ignore rhetoric. This would be a mistake, one which should have been corrected after the George H.W. Bush administration and the State Department largely ignored Saddam Hussein’s threats against Kuwait, only to learn that the dictator actually meant what he said.

In government and intelligence circles, there is a persistent problem in which people cleared to read high level intelligence spend disproportionate time leafing through intercepts to the exclusion of the open-source material—newspapers and television transcripts—for which everyone is cleared. Intelligence is 90 percent open source, so to focus on the ten percent to the exclusion of the rest gives a skewed perspective. It is time the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency realize that when the Iranian regime says something in Persian, it might mean it, even if no one is around to translate it into English and even if it was only said in a national newspaper rather than a hurried cell phone call.

Ignoring rhetoric because they come through unclassified media is intelligence incompetence, but dismissing what the Iranians say becomes policy malpractice of the highest order.

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Venezuelan Oil and Iranian Arms Mean More to Syria Than American Hints

Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued another ringing condemnation of the brutal oppression going on in Syria. Clinton said that in today’s Internet culture, the Assad regime’s tactics could not be sustained indefinitely, as a “breaking point” would soon be reached. What’s more, Clinton also hinted that the Syrian opposition would be “increasingly capable,” a phrase that made it clear Washington would either arm the rebels or see to it that other nations did. She also expressed the hope that Russia and China, who have served as Syria’s diplomatic bodyguards in recent weeks and vetoed United Nations resolutions aimed at Assad, would also give way to pressure.

With the world watching helplessly as Bashar al-Assad continues to slaughter his own people, one would hope Clinton is right. But evidence continues to mount that Assad’s allies are betting the dictator will not only not crack but will succeed in suppressing the protests that have been going on there since last spring. Earlier this week, I noted the reports about Iranian naval vessels, including a supply ship, visiting a Syrian port where they may well have dropped off badly needed weapons for Assad’s security forces. Now a new report indicates that the international sanctions on Syria are being flouted by Venezuela, which is shipping oil directly to Assad. With the dictator showing no sign of losing his will to resist, and with the support of Iran, Venezuela as well as that of Russia and China, Clinton’s predictions are looking more like wishful thinking than a cogent analysis of the situation.

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Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued another ringing condemnation of the brutal oppression going on in Syria. Clinton said that in today’s Internet culture, the Assad regime’s tactics could not be sustained indefinitely, as a “breaking point” would soon be reached. What’s more, Clinton also hinted that the Syrian opposition would be “increasingly capable,” a phrase that made it clear Washington would either arm the rebels or see to it that other nations did. She also expressed the hope that Russia and China, who have served as Syria’s diplomatic bodyguards in recent weeks and vetoed United Nations resolutions aimed at Assad, would also give way to pressure.

With the world watching helplessly as Bashar al-Assad continues to slaughter his own people, one would hope Clinton is right. But evidence continues to mount that Assad’s allies are betting the dictator will not only not crack but will succeed in suppressing the protests that have been going on there since last spring. Earlier this week, I noted the reports about Iranian naval vessels, including a supply ship, visiting a Syrian port where they may well have dropped off badly needed weapons for Assad’s security forces. Now a new report indicates that the international sanctions on Syria are being flouted by Venezuela, which is shipping oil directly to Assad. With the dictator showing no sign of losing his will to resist, and with the support of Iran, Venezuela as well as that of Russia and China, Clinton’s predictions are looking more like wishful thinking than a cogent analysis of the situation.

The alliance between Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez and Iran is sufficiently close that his decision to come to the aid of Tehran’s beleaguered ally is hardly surprising. But the brazen nature of this gesture is one more sign that Syria’s friends are convinced Western optimism about Assad’s imminent fall is at best premature. Indeed, so long as they are able to keep him supplied with ammunition and oil and watch his back in the United Nations, the only thing that could lead to his demise is if he loses his nerve.

Clinton’s assumption about the inevitable end of any regime such as that of Assad is based on the idea that in an era of instant communication, violent tyrannies cannot sustain themselves. But it bears repeating that Assad is cut from a different stripe than the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt who went quietly to the chopping block last year. And Syria’s geographic position and military strength make a repeat of the rebel victory in Libya over a crumbling Qaddafi regime most unlikely.

So long as Assad doesn’t lose his willingness to shed his compatriots’ blood and has the loyalty of the majority of the members of his equally bloodthirsty security services, he has an excellent chance of surviving this crisis. Moreover, unless the West is prepared to take an active role in aiding and abetting the Syrian opposition as they did for the rebels in Libya, the contest there will continue to be a mismatch. Absent an American decision to do more about Syria than make empty predictions, Assad and his allies are unlikely to give up the struggle.

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Pascrell Stays Silent on Dual-Loyalty Slur

On Wednesday, I wondered whether Rep. Bill Pascrell would condemn a dual-loyalty charge one of his prominent supporters used against backers of Pascrell’s primary opponent, Rep. Steve Rothman. Yesterday, one of Pascrell’s surrogates, former Rep. Herb Klein, issued a statement dismissing the controversy as a “distraction.” But as the Washington Jewish Week reports, Pascrell’s campaign has declined to condemn the dual-loyalty slur directly.

Here’s a portion of Klein’s statement, via the Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo:

“The ongoing ‘controversy’ being laid at Bill Pascrell’s door as a result of an op-ed authored by someone not affiliated with the Pascrell campaign has proven to be a distraction from the issues confronting the 9th Congressional District’s Democratic voters,” Klein said.

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On Wednesday, I wondered whether Rep. Bill Pascrell would condemn a dual-loyalty charge one of his prominent supporters used against backers of Pascrell’s primary opponent, Rep. Steve Rothman. Yesterday, one of Pascrell’s surrogates, former Rep. Herb Klein, issued a statement dismissing the controversy as a “distraction.” But as the Washington Jewish Week reports, Pascrell’s campaign has declined to condemn the dual-loyalty slur directly.

Here’s a portion of Klein’s statement, via the Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo:

“The ongoing ‘controversy’ being laid at Bill Pascrell’s door as a result of an op-ed authored by someone not affiliated with the Pascrell campaign has proven to be a distraction from the issues confronting the 9th Congressional District’s Democratic voters,” Klein said.

The campaign’s response hasn’t satisfied Rep. Rothman. His spokesman Aaron Keyak issued the following statement:

Mr. Assaf is a supporter of and donor to Congressman Pascrell. We stand by our request that Congressman Pascrell disavow these attacks and ask his supporters to stop this harmful, dishonest, and bigoted rhetoric. Questioning Congressman Rothman’s loyalty to America is a serious charge. We are disappointed that Congressman Pascrell refuses to disavow his donor’s ridiculous and unfounded attack.

Pascrell has clashed with the pro-Israel community in the past, most recently when he signed onto the controversial “Gaza 54” letter, which was disproportionately critical of Israel.

Pascrell has also come under fire for facilitating Capitol Hill meetings for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group that has refused to condemn terrorist groups like Hamas. In 2006, Pascrell praised the organization, saying, “I want to personally commend CAIR for its work on issues including civil liberties and opening dialogue with various communities in America.”

When I reached out to Pascrell’s spokesperson Sean Darcy today, he again refused to condemn the dual-loyalty charge, telling me the same thing the campaign reportedly told the Washington Jewish Week: “[Klein’s] statement speaks for itself.”

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Iran and Obama Share a Common Goal: Stopping Israel

Veteran foreign policy pundit Leslie Gelb taps into an uncomfortable truth today when he writes in the Daily Beast about the unspoken agendas at play in the debate about how to stop a nuclear Iran. As Gelb puts it, both the Obama administration and the Islamist regime in Iran are employing a common tactic as well as a shared goal in their diplomatic maneuverings in the dispute about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Both are doing their best to pretend there is a serious chance for substantive negotiations on the nuclear issue. And both are doing so because their priority is not so much to actually resolve the issue but to prevent Israel from attacking Iran. Given that President Obama has been escalating his rhetoric about his determination to stop Iran’s plans, this is a shocking charge, since it casts everything Washington is saying on the subject in a cynical light. The problem though is Gelb is almost certainly right.

Gelb stipulates that the common agenda between Washington and Tehran does not mean they are acting in concert. The lines of communication between the two governments are so tenuous that such collaboration would be impossible even if suspicion between them were not so intense. But the priority for both is to be able to postpone any resolution of the issue. Obama’s hope is that by holding out the prospect sanctions will bring Tehran to heel, he can exert sufficient leverage on Israel in order to prevent them from attacking Iran. Such an attack would unleash a host of unforeseen circumstances that might upset his re-election plans. Similarly, the ayatollahs would like to give just enough room for talks about talks in order to play for more time to continue developing their weapon plans. Yet, because it is painfully obvious sanctions will not work and the only point of negotiations would be to allow Iran to run out the clock on their nuclear timetable, the push to put off any attack appears to be tantamount to a concession that the West and Israel will have to live with a nuclear Iran.

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Veteran foreign policy pundit Leslie Gelb taps into an uncomfortable truth today when he writes in the Daily Beast about the unspoken agendas at play in the debate about how to stop a nuclear Iran. As Gelb puts it, both the Obama administration and the Islamist regime in Iran are employing a common tactic as well as a shared goal in their diplomatic maneuverings in the dispute about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Both are doing their best to pretend there is a serious chance for substantive negotiations on the nuclear issue. And both are doing so because their priority is not so much to actually resolve the issue but to prevent Israel from attacking Iran. Given that President Obama has been escalating his rhetoric about his determination to stop Iran’s plans, this is a shocking charge, since it casts everything Washington is saying on the subject in a cynical light. The problem though is Gelb is almost certainly right.

Gelb stipulates that the common agenda between Washington and Tehran does not mean they are acting in concert. The lines of communication between the two governments are so tenuous that such collaboration would be impossible even if suspicion between them were not so intense. But the priority for both is to be able to postpone any resolution of the issue. Obama’s hope is that by holding out the prospect sanctions will bring Tehran to heel, he can exert sufficient leverage on Israel in order to prevent them from attacking Iran. Such an attack would unleash a host of unforeseen circumstances that might upset his re-election plans. Similarly, the ayatollahs would like to give just enough room for talks about talks in order to play for more time to continue developing their weapon plans. Yet, because it is painfully obvious sanctions will not work and the only point of negotiations would be to allow Iran to run out the clock on their nuclear timetable, the push to put off any attack appears to be tantamount to a concession that the West and Israel will have to live with a nuclear Iran.

An attack on Iran by Israel would be a perilous undertaking, so it is not surprising Israel’s government has not made up its mind about making such a decision. However, both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak understand that even if the West undertakes a complete oil embargo of Iran sometime later this year that would not guarantee Tehran would wave the white flag on its nuclear plans. They also know the longer they wait the chances for a successful strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities will diminish.

But the biggest factor influencing their decision will be their level of trust in President Obama’s promises on Iran. The administration has done little to inspire confidence in their sanctions plan due to the reluctance with which they have pursued the project. The Israelis know Obama’s default position will always be a preference for negotiations even if talks with Iran are not merely doomed to failure but will actually serve the Islamist regime’s purpose of delaying action.

Even more worrisome is that the administration’s determination to squelch unilateral action by Israel seems to be greater than its alarm about Iran. Hence, the multiple statements by American defense and military figures seeking to throw cold water on the idea of an attack on Iran may have had the opposite effect on Israel than Obama intended. Rather than convince them to listen to the Americans’ advice and rely on their diplomatic tactics to stop Iran, they may have instead persuaded Netanyahu and Barak that Obama has no intention of ever taking action. While Obama must continue to insist an Iranian nuke is a non-starter while he is running for re-election, the Israelis understand the White House may be singing a far different tune next January once Obama’s lease on the premises is extended for another four years.

Like Gelb, the Israelis may well believe Obama’s show of concern about Iran and his notion that sanctions and diplomacy will avert that nuclear threat is mere playacting whose only purpose is to put them off. The question facing Netanyahu and Barak is whether they are prepared to play along with Obama while hoping a delay will not prove fatal to their country’s security.

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Romney Widens Lead in Michigan

Rasmussen has the first post-debate poll out, and it looks like Mitt Romney has regained a comfortable lead over Rick Santorum in Michigan:

The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Republican Primary Voters in Michigan shows Romney with 40 percent of the vote and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum with 34 percent. The poll was conducted on Thursday night, following the last scheduled debate among the GOP candidates.

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Rasmussen has the first post-debate poll out, and it looks like Mitt Romney has regained a comfortable lead over Rick Santorum in Michigan:

The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Republican Primary Voters in Michigan shows Romney with 40 percent of the vote and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum with 34 percent. The poll was conducted on Thursday night, following the last scheduled debate among the GOP candidates.

The expectations for Romney’s performance in Michigan have been lowered slightly during the past week or so, but he still needs to win the state in order to avert disaster for his campaign. Even double-victories in Michigan and Arizona next Tuesday may only help him hold onto the status quo, and wouldn’t necessarily lock up the race. Writes the Washington Post’s Dan Balz:

How much would a pair of victories be worth? Republican strategists say that although they would restore Romney to front-runner status in the race, they could still leave the party looking at a long nomination battle. They also say that winning both states Tuesday wouldn’t be enough to resolve many of the doubts that still surround Romney.

Although he has long been seen as the candidate to beat for the nomination, Romney has fought to meet the expectations that go along with that status. He has been losing that battle of late. Against a relatively weak field of opponents, he has not been able to demonstrate consistent superiority. He has struggled to excite the Republican Party’s conservative grass-roots base. Conservative elites have been critical of his message and his candidacy. His shortcomings have engendered considerable talk about the still-remote possibility of another candidate entering the race.

Just the mere fact that Michigan became such a nail-biter is a serious concern that won’t be immediately placated by a Romney victory. Winning Michigan and Arizona would put the momentum back in Romney’s court and set him back on the right path, but it won’t be the end of the battle for him.

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Gingrich’s Criticism of Obama Response to Koran-Burning Is Way Off-Base

Newt Gingrich is way off-base in his criticism of President Obama’s response to the Koran-burning controversy in Afghanistan. The president sent an entirely proper letter of apology for the insensitive actions of American personnel who improperly disposed of Korans in a way that offends Muslim sensitivities. President Karzai responded properly too, criticizing the American actions but then accepting the American apology and trying to tamp down protests which have turned violent. For these actions, both men have gotten a double-barreled blast from the former House speaker and current presidential candidate. Politico quotes him as follows:

“It is an outrage that President Obama is the one apologizing to Afghan President Karzai on the same day two American troops were murdered and four others injured by an Afghan soldier,” the Republican candidate said in a statement. “It is Hamid Karzai who owes the American people an apology, not the other way around.”

The former House speaker continued his attack at a campaign rally in Spokane, Wash., charging that Obama had “surrendered twice” in one day, and demanded that the president request an apology from the Afghan government.

“Candidly, if Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, doesn’t feel like apologizing then we should say good bye and good luck, we don’t need to be here risking our lives and wasting our money on somebody who doesn’t care,” Gingrich said.

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Newt Gingrich is way off-base in his criticism of President Obama’s response to the Koran-burning controversy in Afghanistan. The president sent an entirely proper letter of apology for the insensitive actions of American personnel who improperly disposed of Korans in a way that offends Muslim sensitivities. President Karzai responded properly too, criticizing the American actions but then accepting the American apology and trying to tamp down protests which have turned violent. For these actions, both men have gotten a double-barreled blast from the former House speaker and current presidential candidate. Politico quotes him as follows:

“It is an outrage that President Obama is the one apologizing to Afghan President Karzai on the same day two American troops were murdered and four others injured by an Afghan soldier,” the Republican candidate said in a statement. “It is Hamid Karzai who owes the American people an apology, not the other way around.”

The former House speaker continued his attack at a campaign rally in Spokane, Wash., charging that Obama had “surrendered twice” in one day, and demanded that the president request an apology from the Afghan government.

“Candidly, if Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, doesn’t feel like apologizing then we should say good bye and good luck, we don’t need to be here risking our lives and wasting our money on somebody who doesn’t care,” Gingrich said.

Gingrich’s statements are ignorant and irresponsible. Obama deserves plenty of criticism for his actions in Afghanistan, namely his premature drawdown of U.S. forces and cutting funding for the Afghan Security Forces (see, e.g., my Los Angeles Times op-ed today) but not for this. It is hardly a “surrender” to apologize for insensitive actions by American personnel. As for Karzai, I don’t know what he should be apologizing for in Gingrich’s opinion–it’s not as if Karzai applauded the attacks on American troops which resulted from the Koran-burning controversy. In this incident his actions seem to me fairly proper, and the accusation that Karzai doesn’t “care” about the future of his own country is ludicrous.

Overall, Karzai has been a disappointing leader, but U.S. troops are not in Afghanistan as a favor to him–they are there to protect our national interest in not having Afghanistan once again become a safe haven for terrorists. That’s something that Gingrich, for all his background in national security policy, doesn’t seem to get.

 

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Votaries of the Snake

The novelist Robert Cohen, whom I have described as perhaps the best prose stylist of any American now writing, pulls together his own entertaining thoughts on narrative style in “Going to the Tigers,” an essay in the latest issue of the Believer (h/t: Matt Hunte).

Cohen makes the case for prose that leaves “lyricism and shapeliness behind” — more Philip Roth and less John Updike. On one side is the American habit of “rugged, Gary Cooperish laconicism” (represented in the American novel by Hemingway); on the other, an almost religious faith in language and its capacity to rival if not to replace the world. Sola lingua, the doctrine might be called, though Cohen doesn’t call it that (it’s represented in the American novel by Fitzgerald). Cohen recasts the antagonism as a “tug-of-war” — nouns and facts versus adjectives and beauty.

Much of what is now classified as “literary fiction” aspires to gasping beauty. Cohen has had enough, and he speaks for a lot of contemporary readers:

Point is, it gets old fast, this habit of rendering something in a manner that foregrounds the rendering, not the something. Reading a novel that feels overly finessed, not quite visceral, makes us antsy and peevish. Enough with the light show, we think, enough with the incense, the dry ice, the elaborate riddles and evasions. No wonder people hate novels.

He’s got a point. Here, for example, taken more or less at random, is a passage from Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning novel The Tiger’s Wife, which has been praised for its “weird beauty” and “luxuriant style.” The tiger has come to the grandfather’s village in an unnamed Balkan country:

Galina, meanwhile, had gone nervously about its business. The end of the year was marked with heavy snowstorms, knee-deep drifts that moved like sand in and out of doorways. There was a quiet, clotted feeling in the air, the electricity of fear. Snow had buried the mountain passes, and, with them, any news of the war. Somewhere nearby, high above them in the dense pine forests of Galina ridge, something large and red and unknown was stalking up and down and biding its time. They found evidence of it once — the woodcutter, reluctantly braving the undergrowth at the bottom of the mountain, had come across the head of a stag, fur matted and eyes gone white, the spinal column, like a braid of bone, rolling out gray along the ground — and this . . . sufficiently persuaded them against leaving the village.

Snowstorms like sandstorms! Clotted feeling! Twenty-five words on the head of a stag! Please don’t make me read any more! (Sorry, there’s another 228 pages to go.) And the overattentive prose does not even begin to address the “elaborate riddle and evasion” at the heart of Obreht’s novel: namely, how can the narrator describe in close-up detail things that she can only know at three removes, things that were not witnessed but only described to her grandfather, who was a small boy at the time?

A contemporary novelist can get away with “foregrounding the rendering” (as Cohen puts it) if and only if his prose style is the visible dance of his thought, if and only if the action of his novel is in the thought, and if and only if his thought is wild and wonderful. That is, only William Giraldi seems capable of writing like that at present.

Cohen prefers a “middle style” — halfway between an earth reduced to nouns and an empyrean clotted with adjectives (to pluck a word out of the air). “The middle style is clear, clear, clear,” J. V. Cunningham taught his classes on the history of criticism. Cohen goes further: what he has in mind is a writer’s “willingness to pare down, hurry up, and uglify his prose” — all for the sake of loosening his tongue and saying at last what is on his mind.

Auden says somewhere that a writer must occasionally write badly in order to write well. I’ve always took him to mean that exactitude of statement, a stubborn devotion to truth, may occasionally require a writer to swear off elegance and roundness and the lilt of tender consolation. Cohen associates this variety of the middle style with Jewish writers: Philip Roth, of course, but also Leonard Michaels, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel. Non-literary Jews may “incline, from Eden onward, less toward the snake than the snake victim.” The Jewish writers for whom he reserves praise, by contrast, are votaries of the snake. And Cohen himself is one of them.

If his own novels are not yet as entertaining as his prose, the reason is that he has not yet learned to trust his own irascibility, his aging impatience with literary politesse, his what-the-hell impulse to tell truth and shame the devil. On the evidence of his essay in the Believer, though, Robert Cohen’s next novel should be something special to read.

The novelist Robert Cohen, whom I have described as perhaps the best prose stylist of any American now writing, pulls together his own entertaining thoughts on narrative style in “Going to the Tigers,” an essay in the latest issue of the Believer (h/t: Matt Hunte).

Cohen makes the case for prose that leaves “lyricism and shapeliness behind” — more Philip Roth and less John Updike. On one side is the American habit of “rugged, Gary Cooperish laconicism” (represented in the American novel by Hemingway); on the other, an almost religious faith in language and its capacity to rival if not to replace the world. Sola lingua, the doctrine might be called, though Cohen doesn’t call it that (it’s represented in the American novel by Fitzgerald). Cohen recasts the antagonism as a “tug-of-war” — nouns and facts versus adjectives and beauty.

Much of what is now classified as “literary fiction” aspires to gasping beauty. Cohen has had enough, and he speaks for a lot of contemporary readers:

Point is, it gets old fast, this habit of rendering something in a manner that foregrounds the rendering, not the something. Reading a novel that feels overly finessed, not quite visceral, makes us antsy and peevish. Enough with the light show, we think, enough with the incense, the dry ice, the elaborate riddles and evasions. No wonder people hate novels.

He’s got a point. Here, for example, taken more or less at random, is a passage from Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning novel The Tiger’s Wife, which has been praised for its “weird beauty” and “luxuriant style.” The tiger has come to the grandfather’s village in an unnamed Balkan country:

Galina, meanwhile, had gone nervously about its business. The end of the year was marked with heavy snowstorms, knee-deep drifts that moved like sand in and out of doorways. There was a quiet, clotted feeling in the air, the electricity of fear. Snow had buried the mountain passes, and, with them, any news of the war. Somewhere nearby, high above them in the dense pine forests of Galina ridge, something large and red and unknown was stalking up and down and biding its time. They found evidence of it once — the woodcutter, reluctantly braving the undergrowth at the bottom of the mountain, had come across the head of a stag, fur matted and eyes gone white, the spinal column, like a braid of bone, rolling out gray along the ground — and this . . . sufficiently persuaded them against leaving the village.

Snowstorms like sandstorms! Clotted feeling! Twenty-five words on the head of a stag! Please don’t make me read any more! (Sorry, there’s another 228 pages to go.) And the overattentive prose does not even begin to address the “elaborate riddle and evasion” at the heart of Obreht’s novel: namely, how can the narrator describe in close-up detail things that she can only know at three removes, things that were not witnessed but only described to her grandfather, who was a small boy at the time?

A contemporary novelist can get away with “foregrounding the rendering” (as Cohen puts it) if and only if his prose style is the visible dance of his thought, if and only if the action of his novel is in the thought, and if and only if his thought is wild and wonderful. That is, only William Giraldi seems capable of writing like that at present.

Cohen prefers a “middle style” — halfway between an earth reduced to nouns and an empyrean clotted with adjectives (to pluck a word out of the air). “The middle style is clear, clear, clear,” J. V. Cunningham taught his classes on the history of criticism. Cohen goes further: what he has in mind is a writer’s “willingness to pare down, hurry up, and uglify his prose” — all for the sake of loosening his tongue and saying at last what is on his mind.

Auden says somewhere that a writer must occasionally write badly in order to write well. I’ve always took him to mean that exactitude of statement, a stubborn devotion to truth, may occasionally require a writer to swear off elegance and roundness and the lilt of tender consolation. Cohen associates this variety of the middle style with Jewish writers: Philip Roth, of course, but also Leonard Michaels, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel. Non-literary Jews may “incline, from Eden onward, less toward the snake than the snake victim.” The Jewish writers for whom he reserves praise, by contrast, are votaries of the snake. And Cohen himself is one of them.

If his own novels are not yet as entertaining as his prose, the reason is that he has not yet learned to trust his own irascibility, his aging impatience with literary politesse, his what-the-hell impulse to tell truth and shame the devil. On the evidence of his essay in the Believer, though, Robert Cohen’s next novel should be something special to read.

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Kofi Annan Wrong Man for Syria Job

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby have appointed former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to be their top envoy on the worsening situation in Syria. While Annan is certainly a better choice than was Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohammad al-Dabi, the Arab League’s previous pick and a man complicit in the Darfur genocide, Annan is not a good choice.

As head of peace-keeping during the Rwanda genocide, Annan hid behind legalisms and bureaucracy. Had he been bolder, his peacekeepers might actually have kept the peace, but for Annan, the path of least resistance enabled a quarter million civilians to die. His apology came years too late for people there.

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UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby have appointed former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to be their top envoy on the worsening situation in Syria. While Annan is certainly a better choice than was Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohammad al-Dabi, the Arab League’s previous pick and a man complicit in the Darfur genocide, Annan is not a good choice.

As head of peace-keeping during the Rwanda genocide, Annan hid behind legalisms and bureaucracy. Had he been bolder, his peacekeepers might actually have kept the peace, but for Annan, the path of least resistance enabled a quarter million civilians to die. His apology came years too late for people there.

Alas, Annan failed upwards. While Annan saw his position as secretary-general as a bully-pulpit, the world’s top diplomat as it were, that is not actually the job of the secretary-general. Rather, the secretary-general is supposed to be the UN’s top administrator, responsible for its running and operations so that diplomats appointed by sovereign states can get at the business of diplomacy. Annan, however, failed at this task. Overseeing the Oil-for-Food program, the UN’s largest humanitarian effort, Annan presided over unprecedented fraud, from which his family profited. Had Annan allowed the UN to be audited by outside forensic experts rather than the UN’s own hand-picked panel, much more might have come to light.

Annan’s utter incompetence would have landed any other executive out of a job or in prison, but the culture which the UN embraces values neither accountability nor transparency.

Unfortunately, lives are on the line in Syria, and so Annan’s incompetence will again have real world consequences. The Syrian people deserve better.

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Bill Maher’s Money and Democracy

Comedian Bill Maher made headlines yesterday by announcing he is giving $1 million to President Obama’s super PAC. The donation to Priorities USA Action was, Maher said, “the wisest investment I think I could make,” because he considers that living in a country governed by Obama rather than the Republicans is “worth a million dollars.” Anything a person like Maher does must be seen as a publicity stunt. but it will likely also be treated as proof of the absurdity of a system that allows wealthy people to use their money to promote their views. Maher’s million-dollar check will be seen as a sacrifice on the altar of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened up the floodgates for private groups and individuals to put their money where their mouths are.

But though his intent may be to satirize or to undermine existing law, Maher’s action is not only entirely appropriate; it is proof that the high court’s ruling was correct. If Maher believes Barack Obama should be re-elected, then neither the government nor those of us who disagree with him should have any right to stop him from spending his money in this fashion. Donations to candidates or causes, whether large or small, are a form of political speech. He is as entitled to his right to promote his side as a Republican like Sheldon Adelson or a fellow leftist such as George Soros.

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Comedian Bill Maher made headlines yesterday by announcing he is giving $1 million to President Obama’s super PAC. The donation to Priorities USA Action was, Maher said, “the wisest investment I think I could make,” because he considers that living in a country governed by Obama rather than the Republicans is “worth a million dollars.” Anything a person like Maher does must be seen as a publicity stunt. but it will likely also be treated as proof of the absurdity of a system that allows wealthy people to use their money to promote their views. Maher’s million-dollar check will be seen as a sacrifice on the altar of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened up the floodgates for private groups and individuals to put their money where their mouths are.

But though his intent may be to satirize or to undermine existing law, Maher’s action is not only entirely appropriate; it is proof that the high court’s ruling was correct. If Maher believes Barack Obama should be re-elected, then neither the government nor those of us who disagree with him should have any right to stop him from spending his money in this fashion. Donations to candidates or causes, whether large or small, are a form of political speech. He is as entitled to his right to promote his side as a Republican like Sheldon Adelson or a fellow leftist such as George Soros.

Hindering the right to donate funds to candidates and causes does not prevent the use of money in politics. It just causes it to be funneled into the system in different ways. Moreover, any system that makes such donations onerous merely enhances the power of those who have no such legal restrictions. This includes the news media, whose right to report about the campaign or various issues from a left or right wing slant and to shape public opinion is rightly protected by the Constitution.

Every attempt at campaign finance reform dating back to the initial surge of legislation after the Watergate scandal has only served to worsen the system. Instead of money flowing to candidates and parties, it must now be channeled to independent groups that are even less accountable. Unfortunately, stifling the free speech rights of independent groups is exactly what opponents of the Citizens United decision want to do. But so long as there is a majority on the court willing to defend the rights of citizens to individually or collectively express their views in this manner, such efforts will fail. In a country where flag burning is a constitutionally protected act of free speech, the idea that so-called “good government” types would have the right to prevent Adelson, Soros or even Bill Maher from promoting their views via expenditures is absurd.

I may not consider Bill Maher to be funny and view his political views with even more distaste than his attempts at humor. But I — and anyone else who cares about democracy and free speech — ought to be prepared to defend to the death his right to spend his money on any causes or candidates he likes.

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