Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 25, 2012

Fake But Original

The New York Times memorable headline on the falsified documents relating to George W. Bush’s military service — “Fake but Accurate” — has almost been matched by a Haaretz columnist’s description of Peter Beinart’s theory on Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu: he writes that the theory “may not be accurate but is nonetheless spectacularly original.”

Beinart’s theory — that what Netanyahu supposedly dislikes about Jews is what Vladimir Jabotinsky supposedly disliked about them — is not supported by the Jabotinsky essay Beinart cited as evidence for it. “Spectacularly original” does not seem quite the right phrase for what Beinart did.

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The New York Times memorable headline on the falsified documents relating to George W. Bush’s military service — “Fake but Accurate” — has almost been matched by a Haaretz columnist’s description of Peter Beinart’s theory on Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu: he writes that the theory “may not be accurate but is nonetheless spectacularly original.”

Beinart’s theory — that what Netanyahu supposedly dislikes about Jews is what Vladimir Jabotinsky supposedly disliked about them — is not supported by the Jabotinsky essay Beinart cited as evidence for it. “Spectacularly original” does not seem quite the right phrase for what Beinart did.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Beinart’s book, whose publication date is not until this coming Tuesday, is how quickly the new media was able to analyze his March 19 New York Times op-ed that excerpted part of the book’s conclusion. Before the end of the day, not only had COMMENTARY posted three stellar analyses (by Omri Ceren, Seth Mandel, and Sol Stern), but there were more than 20 other critical pieces — from the left, right, and center – elsewhere the same day. It used to take truth a long time to get its boots on; these days it can get dressed almost simultaneously.

The debate regarding Beinart’s op-ed and book continued after March 19 – the contributions later in the week by Gary Rosenblatt, David Wolpe, Naftali Moses, and Ruthie Blum are particularly noteworthy. Your best 20 minutes today might be spent watching the video of the impassioned sermon by Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch (a self-described liberal) at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, entitled “Peter Beinart’s Offense Against Liberalism.”

After that, you might look at the list of Jabotinsky essays posted today at Boker tov, Boulder! His 1911 Passover essay, “The Four Sons,” could facilitate an interesting discussion at this year’s seder, recognizing the essay was written 37 years before the re-creation of the Jewish state for which Jabotinsky worked his entire adult life, including his final day.

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Failed Middle East Theories? Look in the Mirror, Tom Friedman

Thomas Friedman’s rants about foreign policy on the op-ed page of the New York Times are generally predictable if not particularly insightful. But today’s installment is original in one respect. In it he references an article in the National Review by respected conservative scholar Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson gives a laundry list of American foreign policy failures in the Middle East and concludes that maybe America should just realize that all of the existing theories about the Arab and Muslim world are fatally flawed. Hanson is generally right, but what rings false about Friedman’s praise for the piece is that in doing so he fails to acknowledge his own support for some of those failed approaches. He also slyly tries to include one other aspect of American policy in the list of failures that was conspicuous by its absence from Hanson’s article: support for Israel.

It’s true that, as Hanson points out:

Military assistance or punitive intervention without follow-up mostly failed. The verdict on far more costly nation-building is still out. Trying to help popular insurgents topple unpopular dictators does not guarantee anything better. Propping up dictators with military aid is both odious and counterproductive. Keeping clear of maniacal regimes leads to either nuclear acquisition or genocide — or 16 acres of rubble in Manhattan.

But in endorsing this sobering judgment, Friedman fails to note that he has served for the last 20 years as a faithful advocate for the foreign policy “realism” that he criticizes. Nor does he have the guts to point out that his best-selling “flat earth” theories about how economic concerns will trump those of religion and nationalism in the 21st century have been shown to be as laughably out of touch with the reality of the Middle East as any other.

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Thomas Friedman’s rants about foreign policy on the op-ed page of the New York Times are generally predictable if not particularly insightful. But today’s installment is original in one respect. In it he references an article in the National Review by respected conservative scholar Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson gives a laundry list of American foreign policy failures in the Middle East and concludes that maybe America should just realize that all of the existing theories about the Arab and Muslim world are fatally flawed. Hanson is generally right, but what rings false about Friedman’s praise for the piece is that in doing so he fails to acknowledge his own support for some of those failed approaches. He also slyly tries to include one other aspect of American policy in the list of failures that was conspicuous by its absence from Hanson’s article: support for Israel.

It’s true that, as Hanson points out:

Military assistance or punitive intervention without follow-up mostly failed. The verdict on far more costly nation-building is still out. Trying to help popular insurgents topple unpopular dictators does not guarantee anything better. Propping up dictators with military aid is both odious and counterproductive. Keeping clear of maniacal regimes leads to either nuclear acquisition or genocide — or 16 acres of rubble in Manhattan.

But in endorsing this sobering judgment, Friedman fails to note that he has served for the last 20 years as a faithful advocate for the foreign policy “realism” that he criticizes. Nor does he have the guts to point out that his best-selling “flat earth” theories about how economic concerns will trump those of religion and nationalism in the 21st century have been shown to be as laughably out of touch with the reality of the Middle East as any other.

But even more dishonest is his decision to try and throw in the one element of American foreign policy that Hanson does not denounce: the alliance with Israel. According to Friedman, America’s unwillingness to strong arm Israel into making concessions on territory to Palestinians who have already demonstrated their complete disinterest in making peace on any terms is also undermining our foreign policy. But no other theory about how America should approach the Middle East has been proven to be false as conclusively as Friedman’s blind faith in “land for peace.”

Even worse, in summarizing our refusal to “tell the truth” to countries in the Middle East, he makes the following generalizations:

But we don’t tell Pakistan the truth because it has nukes. We don’t tell the Saudis the truth because we’re addicted to their oil. We don’t tell Bahrain the truth because we need its naval base. We don’t tell Egypt the truth because we’re afraid it will walk from Camp David. We don’t tell Israel the truth because it has votes. And we don’t tell Karzai the truth because Obama is afraid John McCain will call him a wimp.

The United States may be guilty of a great many faults in the Middle East but let’s not pretend that America’s views have been kept a secret. Pakistan is well aware of American public opinion of its double game on terrorism. The Saudis know Washington is dubious about their ability to maintain an oil-fueled oligarchy. The same can be said of Bahrain and the Afghan government is under no misapprehension about American doubts about its future. And certainly after three plus years of Barack Obama in the White House, Israel is aware (not withstanding Obama’s election year charm offensive aimed at Jewish voters) that he takes a dim view of the Jewish state’s position on the territories.

In adding Israel to that list, Friedman once again slips in offensive language that is redolent of the Walt-Mearsheimer conspiracy theories about The Israel Lobby. In December, Friedman earned the scorn of the Jewish world for falsely claiming that the Congressional ovations for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Here, he seems to be repeating that anti-Semitic slur by alleging that the votes of the pro-Israel community — a vast bi-partisan force that encompasses the overwhelming majority of all Americans — has prevented the U.S. from placing enough pressure on the Jewish state.

But a different twist on that phrase shows why Hanson rightly did not include Israel in his formulation. It is the “votes” of Israelis — which makes it the one true democracy in the Middle East — that makes it the exception to his rule in which the lack of shared values prevents the United States from establishing a coherent relationship with the other countries in the region.

We can debate just how effective a U.S. policy of democracy promotion can be but the one thing that the alliance with Israel proves is that its absence makes a long-term commitment to a nation a shaky proposition. While American Middle East policy has been a mess, Thomas Friedman’s contributions to that legacy as well as his smears of Israel’s supporters deserve prominent mention in any list of such failures.

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Health Insurance Mandate Now, Forced Loans Tomorrow?

The five and a half hours of oral argument before the Supreme Court this week are probably the most anticipated since the final days of the Watergate scandal. Barring a major unanticipated event, it will utterly dominate this week’s news out of Washington. Indeed people have been camped out since Friday in order to get one of the very few seats available to the public. (For those not inclined to sit on the street for three days to hear it directly, audiotapes of the arguments will be available each afternoon). A good summary of the cases and the players can be found here.

In 1974, as the nation hung on every word, the Court heard arguments in United States v. Nixon on July 8th, 1974, and on July 24th delivered its unanimous verdict (8-0, Justice Rehnquist, later Chief Justice, having recused himself because he had worked in the Nixon Justice Department). The verdict, denying the president’s power to assert executive privilege over tapes relevant to the case, doomed the Nixon presidency and led to Nixon’s resignation on August 9th. For those of us old enough to be around in those days, now nearly forty years ago, it was the great constitutional drama of our lives. (You can hear the oral arguments and the delivery of the decision here.)

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The five and a half hours of oral argument before the Supreme Court this week are probably the most anticipated since the final days of the Watergate scandal. Barring a major unanticipated event, it will utterly dominate this week’s news out of Washington. Indeed people have been camped out since Friday in order to get one of the very few seats available to the public. (For those not inclined to sit on the street for three days to hear it directly, audiotapes of the arguments will be available each afternoon). A good summary of the cases and the players can be found here.

In 1974, as the nation hung on every word, the Court heard arguments in United States v. Nixon on July 8th, 1974, and on July 24th delivered its unanimous verdict (8-0, Justice Rehnquist, later Chief Justice, having recused himself because he had worked in the Nixon Justice Department). The verdict, denying the president’s power to assert executive privilege over tapes relevant to the case, doomed the Nixon presidency and led to Nixon’s resignation on August 9th. For those of us old enough to be around in those days, now nearly forty years ago, it was the great constitutional drama of our lives. (You can hear the oral arguments and the delivery of the decision here.)

The present cases don’t quite rise to that level, but they are crucial nonetheless. The American political landscape will be deeply affected by the Court’s rulings on this issue. Assuming the whole issue doesn’t run afoul of the Anti-Injunction Act, the subject of Monday’s argument, the crux of the matter is whether Congress, pursuant to its power (Article I, section 8)  to regulate commerce “among the several states,” can mandate that individuals enter into a contract with health insurance providers. This will be the argument heard on Tuesday. (Wednesday’s argument will deal with the severability issue, whether a judgment against the mandate would invalidate the whole law, or just that part of it. As a practical matter, the loss of the mandate would probably make the rest of the law unworkable.)

The mandate, forcing individuals to participate in commerce, is a breathtaking enlargement of federal power under the commerce clause. If Congress can mandate this under the commerce clause, what can’t it mandate? Can we be required to buy certain types of automobiles (about the only way the Chevy Volt, it seems, can be a commercial success)?

Or how about this for a scenario. Treasury securities circulate in interstate commerce, being bought and sold by the millions every workday. So, could Congress mandate that individuals purchase treasury bonds, bills, and notes, perhaps requiring that a certain portion of 401(k)s and IRA’s be invested in treasuries? That, of course, would be tantamount to a “forced loan.”  The Romans used that technique to help finance the Punic Wars. But when King Charles I tried it early in his reign it led directly to the Petition of Right of 1628, one of the fundamental documents that make up the British Constitution and deeply influenced our own. Indeed the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Amendments of the Bill of Rights derive directly from it. The U. S. Constitution does not, however, expressly forbid forced loans.

Argentina did this a couple of years ago, forcing citizens to convert the securities in their retirement accounts into government bonds.  The Chicago way has been bad enough the last three years, the Buenos Aires way would be a lot worse.

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Dick Cheney Always Had Heart

The news that former Vice President Dick Cheney underwent a heart transplant procedure yesterday will be, no doubt, greeted with jokes, sniping about his age (at 71, he is near the upper limit for such an operation) and rehearsals of the laundry list of conspiratorial accusations that have always been thrown in his direction from the far left. Though we have grown use to seeing our leaders demonized by their opponents, no public servant in our time has been subjected to as much ill tempered imprecation as Dick Cheney. Yet throughout his long career Cheney has risen above such foolishness to compile an enviable record of achievement.

The power of popular culture is such that the mere mention of Cheney’s name is enough to conjure up images of Darth Vader-like villains and puppet-masters pulling the strings on a vast empire of evil right-wing minions. This is a tribute to the ability of the political left to manipulate opinion. His critics made him the whipping boy for all the second guesses about the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism policies. Cheney’s unapologetic approach to politics and to the causes to which he served made him the ideal target for such smears. But the truth was simple and readily understood by Americans who were not deceived by liberal conventional wisdom. Dick Cheney is a man who dedicated his life to serving his country, safeguarding its liberties and national defense.

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The news that former Vice President Dick Cheney underwent a heart transplant procedure yesterday will be, no doubt, greeted with jokes, sniping about his age (at 71, he is near the upper limit for such an operation) and rehearsals of the laundry list of conspiratorial accusations that have always been thrown in his direction from the far left. Though we have grown use to seeing our leaders demonized by their opponents, no public servant in our time has been subjected to as much ill tempered imprecation as Dick Cheney. Yet throughout his long career Cheney has risen above such foolishness to compile an enviable record of achievement.

The power of popular culture is such that the mere mention of Cheney’s name is enough to conjure up images of Darth Vader-like villains and puppet-masters pulling the strings on a vast empire of evil right-wing minions. This is a tribute to the ability of the political left to manipulate opinion. His critics made him the whipping boy for all the second guesses about the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism policies. Cheney’s unapologetic approach to politics and to the causes to which he served made him the ideal target for such smears. But the truth was simple and readily understood by Americans who were not deceived by liberal conventional wisdom. Dick Cheney is a man who dedicated his life to serving his country, safeguarding its liberties and national defense.

Over the last two years as Cheney’s health worsened, his public appearances and statements were few and far between. As we now know, he had been waiting for a possible heart transplant for 20 months. During this time, we have missed his voice of wisdom and common sense. Though Cheney, whose career in public service stretches back to the 1970s, has earned the right to relax and to leave the battle of ideas to others, we pray that his surgery not only allows him long life but the strength to return to the fray. Though no man is irreplaceable, Cheney has a special place in the hearts of conservatives and others who value his ability to cut through the nonsense and articulate the principles of limited government as well as his vision of America’s necessary role in defending the values and the security of the West against the forces of totalitarianism and radical Islam.

Dick Cheney may not have been willing to stoop to win the applause of the chattering classes but his heart was always in the right place when it came to defending America. Let us hope that his new heart will ensure that he will be with us for many years to come. Our hearts as well as our prayers are with him and his family.

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