Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 2, 2012

Even Relativism is Relative

In his Weekly Standard cover story on Allan Bloom’s book “The Closing of the American Mind” 25 years later, Andrew Ferguson writes of Bloom, “As well as anyone then or now, he understood that the intellectual fashion of materialism —of explaining all life, human or animal, mental or otherwise, by means of physical processes alone— had led inescapably to a doctrinaire relativism that would prove to be a universal corrosive.”

Ferguson adds,

The crisis was–— is–—a crisis of confidence in the principle that serves as the premise of liberal education: that reason, informed by learning and experience, can arrive at truth, and that one truth may be truer than another. This loss of faith had consequences and causes far beyond higher ed. Bloom was a believer in intellectual trickle-down theory, and it is the comprehensiveness of his thesis that may have attracted readers to him and his book. The coarsening of public manners, the decline in academic achievement, the general dumbing down of America– even Jerry Springer–—had a long pedigree that Bloom was at pains to describe for a general reader.

“[College students] are united only in their relativism,” he wrote. “The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate.”

Relativism, in fact, was the only moral postulate that went unchallenged in academic life … What follows when a belief in objectivity and truth dies away in higher education? In time an educated person comes to doubt that purpose and meaning are discoverable…— he doubts, finally, that they even exist.

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In his Weekly Standard cover story on Allan Bloom’s book “The Closing of the American Mind” 25 years later, Andrew Ferguson writes of Bloom, “As well as anyone then or now, he understood that the intellectual fashion of materialism —of explaining all life, human or animal, mental or otherwise, by means of physical processes alone— had led inescapably to a doctrinaire relativism that would prove to be a universal corrosive.”

Ferguson adds,

The crisis was–— is–—a crisis of confidence in the principle that serves as the premise of liberal education: that reason, informed by learning and experience, can arrive at truth, and that one truth may be truer than another. This loss of faith had consequences and causes far beyond higher ed. Bloom was a believer in intellectual trickle-down theory, and it is the comprehensiveness of his thesis that may have attracted readers to him and his book. The coarsening of public manners, the decline in academic achievement, the general dumbing down of America– even Jerry Springer–—had a long pedigree that Bloom was at pains to describe for a general reader.

“[College students] are united only in their relativism,” he wrote. “The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate.”

Relativism, in fact, was the only moral postulate that went unchallenged in academic life … What follows when a belief in objectivity and truth dies away in higher education? In time an educated person comes to doubt that purpose and meaning are discoverable…— he doubts, finally, that they even exist.

I think Professor Bloom was only partially right. It’s quite true that an unwillingness to believe in objective moral truth is widespread in the academy and among those on the left — but only on certain issues. On other matters –gay rights and same-sex marriage, race-based affirmative action, a constitutional right to an abortion, gun control, Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, Guantanamo Bay, rendition, the right to a Palestinian state, anthropological global warming, the Tea Party v. the Occupy Wall Street movement, Rush Limbaugh v. Sandra Fluke, and others — those on the left don’t believe truth is relative. They believe, in fact, that their positions are right, moral, and objectively true and better. If a social conservatives debates a social liberal on gay marriage, the odds are quite high that the latter will not say to the former, “Your values are as good as mine. Truth is relative. Who am I to judge?” If you ask liberals “whose truth?” they will gladly tell you, “my truth.”

The problem is that many modern-day liberals can’t quite tell you why their truth is superior to the one embraced by conservatives. They might invoke fairness, though without being able to anchor it in anything permanent or normative. But they are not relativistic or especially tolerant of views they consider to be unenlightened, benighted, and primative. Quite the opposite, in fact. Ask liberal New York Times columnists about Rick Santorum’s social views and you’ll get more than a shrug of the shoulders.

Their relativism, then, is selective, a moral postulate in some circumstances but not others. It turns out that even relativism is little more than an instrument to advance an ideology.

 

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Identity Politics in the Empire City

The recent political history of New York City would suggest that Bill Thompson, the former city comptroller, should be in pole position heading into the 2013 mayoral election. That’s because when Thompson challenged current Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009 he went into the election the longest of long shots and managed to come within five points of the mayor, who also happens to be a billionaire and global brand.

That the election turned out to have been winnable for the unknown Democrat left the national Democratic Party–which completely ignored its nominee–furiously shifting the blame. Anthony Weiner (remember him?), who considered running against Bloomberg that year, suggested one of President Obama’s futile trips out to New Jersey to help the sinking political fortunes of Jon Corzine might have been better spent helping Thompson. “Maybe,” the White House viciously shot back, “Anthony Weiner should have manned-up and run against Michael Bloomberg.”

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The recent political history of New York City would suggest that Bill Thompson, the former city comptroller, should be in pole position heading into the 2013 mayoral election. That’s because when Thompson challenged current Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009 he went into the election the longest of long shots and managed to come within five points of the mayor, who also happens to be a billionaire and global brand.

That the election turned out to have been winnable for the unknown Democrat left the national Democratic Party–which completely ignored its nominee–furiously shifting the blame. Anthony Weiner (remember him?), who considered running against Bloomberg that year, suggested one of President Obama’s futile trips out to New Jersey to help the sinking political fortunes of Jon Corzine might have been better spent helping Thompson. “Maybe,” the White House viciously shot back, “Anthony Weiner should have manned-up and run against Michael Bloomberg.”

But for obvious reasons, Weiner won’t run for the Democratic mayoral nomination this time either, and Bloomberg will not attempt to run for his third second term. So it should fall to Thompson, logic tells us, to become New York’s next mayor. Yet Thompson is already an underdog. The frontrunner is City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Quinn has establishment support and is generating some excitement for the fact that the city has never had a woman mayor. She is also openly gay, and planning to marry her partner this year. Identity politics are never far from the spotlight during New York mayoral elections, but the fact that Quinn is running against Thompson, who is black, virtually guarantees this element of city politics will be present during the 2013 contest.

And in New York, such politics often place New York’s Finest, the NYPD, at the center of attention. The police department’s stop-and-frisk policy has come under fire from minority advocates claiming racial profiling, which is how to understand this part of Thompson’s platform, as reported by the New York Times:

He pledged to replace the current police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, and he said he would oppose any tax increases.

Kelly, however, is currently enjoying a 64 percent approval rating (ten points higher than the mayor), and the NYPD earns an approval rating of 63 percent from New Yorkers. But black New Yorkers give Kelly only a 51-percent approval rating, and give his NYPD only 42. (Fifty percent of the city’s black voters disapprove of the NYPD.) So if you’re Christine Quinn, and the city’s minority residents are giving the NYPD a bit of the cold shoulder, how do you support the very popular police commissioner and his very popular police department without alienating black voters?

Quinn had an answer. While Thompson responded to the stop-and-frisk policy by threatening to fire Kelly, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who is also likely running for the Democratic nomination, lashed out at both the possible profiling element and the efficacy of the policy, Quinn took a more thoughtful tack. She suggested some changes to the policy in a letter to Kelly, but did not advocate scrapping it. She also included some praise for the policy: “We understand the vast majority of the lives saved were men of color and that part of the NYPD’s policing strategy that led to this decline is based on stop, question and frisk.”

“Politically, that line is important,” wrote Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah. It’s also true, and carries echoes of the unmatched and dramatic drop in crime in New York City that began in the 1990s. As Heather Mac Donald recently reflected on that time:

This massive crime rout has transformed the entire metropolis, but the most dramatic benefits have been concentrated in minority neighborhoods. Mothers no longer put their children to sleep in bathtubs to protect them from stray bullets, and senior citizens can walk to the grocery store without fear of getting mugged. New businesses and restaurants have revitalized once desolate commercial strips now that proprietors no longer have to worry about violence from the drug trade. Over ten thousand minority males are alive today who would have been killed had homicide remained at its earlier levels; the steep decline in killings among black males under the age of twenty-five has cut the death rate for all young men in New York by half.

New York is still a liberal city with liberal sensibilities, but if the NYPD’s poll numbers are any indication, it remains a city with a deep and abiding respect for its renowned police force. That respect is hard-earned and well-deserved, and it’s no surprise that the candidate who appears to share that sentiment has found herself at the front of the pack.

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Obama’s Sign of Madness

During remarks in Portland, Maine, on Friday, President Obama said, “We won’t win the race for new jobs and new businesses and middle-class security if we cling to this same old, worn-out, tired ‘you’re on your own’ economics that the other side is peddling. It was tried in the decades before the Great Depression. It didn’t work then. It was tried in the last decade. It didn’t work. You know, the idea you would keep on doing the same thing over and over again, even though it’s been proven not to work. That’s a sign of madness.”

You might think that a man who is on track to have the worst jobs record of any president in the modern era and is presiding over the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression — not to mention the first credit rating downgrade in American history, the longest stretch of high unemployment since the Great Depression, chronic unemployment that is worse than the Great Depression, a housing crisis that is worse than the Great Depression, a standard of living for Americans that has fallen further and more steeply than at any time since the government began recording it five decades ago, and a record increase in the number of people who are in poverty — would be a little more careful when it came to lecturing the rest of us when it comes to what works in economics.

You might even say it was a sign of madness.

 

During remarks in Portland, Maine, on Friday, President Obama said, “We won’t win the race for new jobs and new businesses and middle-class security if we cling to this same old, worn-out, tired ‘you’re on your own’ economics that the other side is peddling. It was tried in the decades before the Great Depression. It didn’t work then. It was tried in the last decade. It didn’t work. You know, the idea you would keep on doing the same thing over and over again, even though it’s been proven not to work. That’s a sign of madness.”

You might think that a man who is on track to have the worst jobs record of any president in the modern era and is presiding over the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression — not to mention the first credit rating downgrade in American history, the longest stretch of high unemployment since the Great Depression, chronic unemployment that is worse than the Great Depression, a housing crisis that is worse than the Great Depression, a standard of living for Americans that has fallen further and more steeply than at any time since the government began recording it five decades ago, and a record increase in the number of people who are in poverty — would be a little more careful when it came to lecturing the rest of us when it comes to what works in economics.

You might even say it was a sign of madness.

 

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Educational Reform in Turkey?

While President Obama hugs Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and solicits advice from the Islamist premier on how to raise daughters, fundamental change is under way in Turkey. Having won a third term, Erdogan has set his goals on changing Turkey fundamentally. He has abandoned minimum age requirements for Quran classes, and also undercut regulation of those teaching them. The net effect is that unregistered, Saudi-trained imams can now indoctrinate children as young as 3 or 4, raising a generation who will think like Saudis.

While Turks wait to see what Erdogan’s proposed new constitution will bring, Erdogan has given a preview, effectively side-stepping virulent political debate to ram through more sweeping education reforms. Among his changes is restructuring the educational experience into three four-year blocks, much like elementary, middle, and high school in the States. Students might enter vocational schools earlier. Opponents fear, however, that the new system may lead to earlier withdrawal of girls, a spike in child marriages, and gender imbalance in many programs. Admittedly, some liberal and secular suspicion may be motivated less by the facts of the bill, but by the poor record of the Islamist government when it comes to women’s rights. Erdogan has already allowed women wearing Saudi-style coverings to wear them while on university campuses; most Turkish universities had previously banned the practice to prevent religious coercion.

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While President Obama hugs Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and solicits advice from the Islamist premier on how to raise daughters, fundamental change is under way in Turkey. Having won a third term, Erdogan has set his goals on changing Turkey fundamentally. He has abandoned minimum age requirements for Quran classes, and also undercut regulation of those teaching them. The net effect is that unregistered, Saudi-trained imams can now indoctrinate children as young as 3 or 4, raising a generation who will think like Saudis.

While Turks wait to see what Erdogan’s proposed new constitution will bring, Erdogan has given a preview, effectively side-stepping virulent political debate to ram through more sweeping education reforms. Among his changes is restructuring the educational experience into three four-year blocks, much like elementary, middle, and high school in the States. Students might enter vocational schools earlier. Opponents fear, however, that the new system may lead to earlier withdrawal of girls, a spike in child marriages, and gender imbalance in many programs. Admittedly, some liberal and secular suspicion may be motivated less by the facts of the bill, but by the poor record of the Islamist government when it comes to women’s rights. Erdogan has already allowed women wearing Saudi-style coverings to wear them while on university campuses; most Turkish universities had previously banned the practice to prevent religious coercion.

Erdogan’s educational reforms have also seen the introduction of more religious classes into the high school curriculum; and the equalization for the purpose of college admission of those who attended religious academies and those who attended schools with a humanities- and science-based curriculum. The net effect of this reform is to allow Islamists who have no solid basis in basic humanities to enter and, over the course of a generation, fundamentally alter the government bureaucracy.

A decade ago, when politicians said Turkey was a model, they referred to how it blended East and West and had transformed itself into a vibrant democracy. Increasingly, Erdogan’s model is about eviscerating democracy from inside. At best, Turkey has become Malaysia; at worst, it has become Russia.

Perhaps, of course, this is not fair. Russia and Malaysia both rank above Turkey in terms of press freedom and education.

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Some Hope for the American Jewish Future

An observer of the Jews of the United States will find no shortage of reasons to be depressed. But the language of an introductory address at a dinner with a traveling group of Knesset members and select young American Jewish invitees at the Avi Chai foundation’s headquarters in New York this past Thursday night gave small reason for hope.

First, a short review of Jewish troubles:

For 20 years, the intermarriage rate has hovered around 50 percent, and the overall population has likely not increased since the 1970s. Worse, both of these topics are today usually either studiously avoided or strangely characterized as strengths.

The vast majority of those Jews born since the 1970s have little Jewish knowledge, and so have unsurprisingly shown little interest in connecting to Jewish institutions as they have become adults. A corresponding drop off in “affiliation” rates with synagogues and organized charities has, since the mid-1990s, been dramatic.

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An observer of the Jews of the United States will find no shortage of reasons to be depressed. But the language of an introductory address at a dinner with a traveling group of Knesset members and select young American Jewish invitees at the Avi Chai foundation’s headquarters in New York this past Thursday night gave small reason for hope.

First, a short review of Jewish troubles:

For 20 years, the intermarriage rate has hovered around 50 percent, and the overall population has likely not increased since the 1970s. Worse, both of these topics are today usually either studiously avoided or strangely characterized as strengths.

The vast majority of those Jews born since the 1970s have little Jewish knowledge, and so have unsurprisingly shown little interest in connecting to Jewish institutions as they have become adults. A corresponding drop off in “affiliation” rates with synagogues and organized charities has, since the mid-1990s, been dramatic.

Most of the parents of those Jews don’t seem to be much wiser, just a lot more instinctively concerned with the Holocaust and Israel.

The main source of vitality in the population – the Orthodox – still make up less than 20 percent of the overall total and either deliberately cloister themselves in insular “black-hat” communities or are generally too preoccupied with paying hefty day-school tuition fees and too lacking in confidence or concern to engage the larger Jewish world (to say nothing of the larger non-Jewish world beyond that) on the pressing cultural and political questions of the day. (Yeshiva University’s Straus Center is a notable caveat.)

That preoccupation with tuition fees derives, in part, from the continuing avoidance of the most pressing domestic Jewish issue today by most of the organized Jewish community: the high cost of Jewish living.

It must be said: most of the problems that afflict American Jewry are less Jewish-specific problems than the Jewish symptoms of larger American social problems. Jews can certainly do a lot more for themselves than they seem to realize, but the denigration of established institutions and the communal bonds they form wasn’t caused by Jews, and won’t be solved by them, either.

Nevertheless, at that dinner on Thursday night, the welcome address was offered entirely in Hebrew out of respect for the Israeli guests and the expectation that the American Jews would be able to understand. As I was able to follow all of it, it is safe to assume the rest of the room could as well. And at my table at least a good portion of the subsequent dinner conversation was also conducted in Hebrew.

I don’t know for sure, but I can’t imagine that American Jewish gatherings of this kind where even a portion is conducted in Hebrew have much of a precedent, if any, no matter the presence of Israelis. (I know that all meetings I myself had previously attended had proceeded seemingly without a thought toward Hebrew, and that this has been the overwhelming historical norm. Among other points of evidence for the trend, Leon Wieseltier told a story in 2008 about the then-exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s failed attempt to address a meeting of Jewish leaders in Hebrew, a language he knew but they didn’t.)

It may not seem like much. But an American Jewry with even a small portion of its young people both deeply interested in public affairs and capable of hearing about them in its people’s language is one with at least some cause for pride. May there be many more similar signs of American Jewish hope in the future.

 

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Polls Show Romney Headed for Victories in Wisconsin, Maryland

Public Policy Polling shows Mitt Romney with a healthy lead over Rick Santorum in Wisconsin and a very strong lead in Maryland, heading into the primaries tomorrow:

Mitt Romney looks to be headed for another pair of victories in Tuesday’s primaries. Maryland is likely to be a blow out with Romney at 52 percent to 27 percent for Rick Santorum, 10 percent for Newt Gingrich, and 9 percent for Ron Paul. Wisconsin should be a good deal closer. There Romney’s at 43 percent to 36 percent for Santorum, 11 percent for Paul, and 8 percent for Gingrich.

Romney’s starting to have some success with groups that have generally been key components of Santorum’s base over the last two months. For instance, he leads with Tea Party voters in both states, 43-34 in Maryland and 46-38 in Wisconsin. He’s also becoming more competitive with evangelical voters, leading 43-36 with them in Maryland and trailing only47-35 with them in Wisconsin. In the states where Santorum’s been victorious, he’s generally won evangelicals by a much wider margin than that.

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Public Policy Polling shows Mitt Romney with a healthy lead over Rick Santorum in Wisconsin and a very strong lead in Maryland, heading into the primaries tomorrow:

Mitt Romney looks to be headed for another pair of victories in Tuesday’s primaries. Maryland is likely to be a blow out with Romney at 52 percent to 27 percent for Rick Santorum, 10 percent for Newt Gingrich, and 9 percent for Ron Paul. Wisconsin should be a good deal closer. There Romney’s at 43 percent to 36 percent for Santorum, 11 percent for Paul, and 8 percent for Gingrich.

Romney’s starting to have some success with groups that have generally been key components of Santorum’s base over the last two months. For instance, he leads with Tea Party voters in both states, 43-34 in Maryland and 46-38 in Wisconsin. He’s also becoming more competitive with evangelical voters, leading 43-36 with them in Maryland and trailing only47-35 with them in Wisconsin. In the states where Santorum’s been victorious, he’s generally won evangelicals by a much wider margin than that.

The Santorum campaign is still holding out hope for an upset in Wisconsin tomorrow, but the polls out today by PPP and We Ask America make that possibility increasingly farfetched. The two states where Santorum most notably outperformed the polls and won an upset were Alabama and Mississippi, but he was still closer to the lead in those surveys. The polling in Wisconsin has been fairly consistent during the past couple of weeks, and Santorum has trailed Romney by a good seven or eight points.

The pressure for Santorum to drop out of the race is growing, in expectation for his likely loss in Wisconsin, Maryland and D.C. And short of a miracle for Santorum in Wisconsin, these calls are going to get much louder the day after tomorrow.

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Remembering Nancy Pelosi’s Syria Junket

Five years ago this coming Wednesday, House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi defied President Bush’s request and his strategy isolating Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad by going to Damascus. “We do not encourage and, in fact, we discourage members of Congress to make such visits to Syria,” the White House spokesman said. “This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror.”

Pelosi would have none of that. She had known evil and to her, he resided in the White House. The Syrian dictator, however, was a reforming, Western educated eye doctor. Bilateral problems might be real, but they might be resolved through dialogue. “We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace,” she told reporters.

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Five years ago this coming Wednesday, House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi defied President Bush’s request and his strategy isolating Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad by going to Damascus. “We do not encourage and, in fact, we discourage members of Congress to make such visits to Syria,” the White House spokesman said. “This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror.”

Pelosi would have none of that. She had known evil and to her, he resided in the White House. The Syrian dictator, however, was a reforming, Western educated eye doctor. Bilateral problems might be real, but they might be resolved through dialogue. “We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace,” she told reporters.

The Syrian regime used her meeting to its full propaganda advantage. After concluding his meeting with Pelosi, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, said, “These people in the United States who are opposing dialogue I tell them one thing: Dialogue is … the only method to close the gap existing between two countries.” Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Pelosi, Syrian officers and North Korean scientists scrambled to put the finishing touches on a covert nuclear facility, and Syrian dissidents dove for cover, interpreting correctly that Assad would interpret the end of America’s isolation of Assad as a green light for murder. Assad, in hindsight, welcomed Pelosi not as a politician with whom to have sincere dialogue, but rather as a useful idiot who might help relieve him of international pressure.

Five years later, Bashar al-Assad has not changed and, alas, neither has Nancy Pelosi.

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Despite Mistakes by U.S. Military, Still Not Time to Pull Out of Afghanistan

There are few if any Afghanistan experts I respect more than Sarah Chayes. A former NPR reporter, she came to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, but unlike most journalists, she did not immediately leave for some other hot spot. She stayed. And she left journalism to make a difference. She founded a cooperative business in Kandahar, Arghand, employing Afghanistan’s lush fruits and herbs to produce first-class soaps and lotions which were then exported abroad, creating a source of employment other than drug production. She also wrote a first-rate book about post-Taliban Afghanistan, “The Punishment of Virtue,”  and went on to serve as an adviser to senior U.S. generals. I got to know Chayes during my own trips to Afghanistan and even worked with her briefly on an advisory team in Kabul, and came away tremendously impressed by her depth of knowledge of, and her empathy for, the long-suffering people of Afghanistan.

Yet I must respectfully dissent, just a bit, from this op-ed she just published in the Washington Post which reflects her understandable frustration with the many mistakes made by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. (I should note that I just left Afghanistan after another visit with U.S. troops and their Afghan allies.) She writes that both Staff Sgt. Robert Bales–the soldier who killed 17 civilians in the Panjwai district of southern Afghanistan–and the innocent Afghans he killed are both victims “of a war whose basis in falsehood and self-deception is growing daily more untenable.”

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There are few if any Afghanistan experts I respect more than Sarah Chayes. A former NPR reporter, she came to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, but unlike most journalists, she did not immediately leave for some other hot spot. She stayed. And she left journalism to make a difference. She founded a cooperative business in Kandahar, Arghand, employing Afghanistan’s lush fruits and herbs to produce first-class soaps and lotions which were then exported abroad, creating a source of employment other than drug production. She also wrote a first-rate book about post-Taliban Afghanistan, “The Punishment of Virtue,”  and went on to serve as an adviser to senior U.S. generals. I got to know Chayes during my own trips to Afghanistan and even worked with her briefly on an advisory team in Kabul, and came away tremendously impressed by her depth of knowledge of, and her empathy for, the long-suffering people of Afghanistan.

Yet I must respectfully dissent, just a bit, from this op-ed she just published in the Washington Post which reflects her understandable frustration with the many mistakes made by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. (I should note that I just left Afghanistan after another visit with U.S. troops and their Afghan allies.) She writes that both Staff Sgt. Robert Bales–the soldier who killed 17 civilians in the Panjwai district of southern Afghanistan–and the innocent Afghans he killed are both victims “of a war whose basis in falsehood and self-deception is growing daily more untenable.”

In support of this provocative claim, Chayes cites various incidents where international troops have accidentally killed other Afghan civilians–including her fellow cooperative workers–and inflicted damage property in the course of their war against the Taliban. The war, she argues, is “chewing up the villagers”–and the men who are called upon to leave their homes to fight in Afghanistan. Men like Bales. She writes:

Never before has so much been asked of such a small segment of the American population. A startling proportion of the troops I’ve seen in Afghanistan have deployed three or more times: They make up less than 12 percent of the less than 1 percent of us in uniform. They endure multiple tours, layering scars on top of scars, becoming strangers to their children, unable to readjust to family life before shipping out again, bearing physical and psychological wounds in aching loneliness.

Chayes is absolutely right about the cost of the war on all concerned and about the serious mistakes made by the coalition, including not taking seriously enough the issue of corruption–a concern Chayes has repeatedly and courageously and correctly raised. Where I dissent is in her implication that Bales was a victim of a misguided war policy or that the mistakes that have been made could justify simply pulling out of Afghanistan–not a contention that Chayes makes in her article but a conclusion some will surely take away from it.

However much we ask of men like Bales who have deployed to combat on multiple occasions–however much stress we place on these men or, perhaps more accurately because they are all volunteers, however much stress they place on themselves–it can in no way justify or even explain his terrible acts. Tens of thousands of other veterans have served just as much if not longer in ground combat than Bales has, and they have not turned into homicidal monsters. In fact, their restraint in the use of force and empathy for civilians–exemplified by the recent story of a soldier who gave his life to save an Afghan child–has been exemplary by any standard. No doubt many soldiers have experienced stress and various traumas; but no one has done anything as heinous as what Bales is accused of doing. His act of evil cannot be cited as an example of combat stress. It is sui generis.

As for the Afghan victims of American and other international mistakes: I feel for them, but we must never forget that the international presence is the only thing keeping a far greater evil from taking power–namely the Taliban. Chayes knows better than I do the terrible cruelty inflicted by the Taliban during their years of rule. If we pull out prematurely there is unfortunately a good chance the Taliban will come back into power and  Afghanistan will be plunged into another terrible civil war as it was in the 1990s. By contrast, U.S. troops, for all their faults, have managed to push the Taliban out of many of their sanctuaries in Helmand and Kandahar and have given Afghans a chance at a better life. Kabul, for what it’s worth, is a bustling city full of street life, as I saw for myself for the umpteenth time a few days ago–it is a far cry from the devastated metropolis of the 1990s.

I sympathize with Chayes’ laments about American mistakes and the suffering of the Afghan people. But it would be to compound the errors of the past and to increase their suffering of the Afghans for the U.S. to leave prematurely.

 

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Russia Ambassador “New to Diplomacy?”

Last week, President Obama won fulsome praise from outgoing Russian President Medvedev, this after the Obama administration spent four years ignoring how the Russians were by turns intimidating and outflanking our diplomats.

With impeccable timing, last week was also when U.S. diplomacy in Russia slipped into some kind of foreign policy Twilight Zone, in which naive geopolitical plotting merged with bumbling incompetence merged with admitted inexperience merged even with the State Department’s now-tired but still obnoxious fascination with Twitter – all covered with a thick coat of irony.

It was like a cosmic convergence of every criticism ever leveled about how the Obama administration conducts foreign affairs. Even the really churlish and tangential ones.

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Last week, President Obama won fulsome praise from outgoing Russian President Medvedev, this after the Obama administration spent four years ignoring how the Russians were by turns intimidating and outflanking our diplomats.

With impeccable timing, last week was also when U.S. diplomacy in Russia slipped into some kind of foreign policy Twilight Zone, in which naive geopolitical plotting merged with bumbling incompetence merged with admitted inexperience merged even with the State Department’s now-tired but still obnoxious fascination with Twitter – all covered with a thick coat of irony.

It was like a cosmic convergence of every criticism ever leveled about how the Obama administration conducts foreign affairs. Even the really churlish and tangential ones.

U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, the architect of the “reset” by which President Obama would use his personal charm to get Russia to cease pursuing its national interest, thew something of a fit. Hostile Russian journalists kept ambushing him at events, which he took – correctly – to mean they were getting his schedule in advance. In the midst of a longer rant about said ambushes, the ambassador accused the reporters of tapping his phone and email. The meltdown was preceded and followed by tweets similarly implying that Russian media organizations were diving into his personal communications.

Eventually someone explained to the ambassador that he was actually the target of a harassment campaign coordinated with Russian officials, ergo, press access to his schedule. McFaul tweeted an apology to the journalists whom he had accused of spying on him, reminding everyone that – hey – this whole diplomacy thing is new to him. Seriously:

McFaul seemed relieved to hear that Russian journalists are not tapping his phones. But he emphasized that the U.S. government does not tip off reporters in Washington about the travels of his Russian counterpart. “I am new to the world of diplomacy and did not [know] this fact. Thanks. I know we do not do the same with Russian ambo in U.S.,” McFaul tweeted. “Maybe I should start publishing my schedule? I am always happy to interact with press.”

Now it’s not impossible the ambassador was being sardonic, and he isn’t a dangerously inexperienced diplomat naively invested in a bonny fantasy of international harmony. Maybe the upshot of his tweet was “of course I know it’s the Russian government you guys; I’m obviously being passive-aggressive about naming names.” But the tweet’s overall tone, coupled with the earnest offer at the end, makes that interpretation unlikely. And as Seth recently noted, the kinds of conversations that Obama officials have with their Russian counterparts are in stark contrast to how petulant Russian power plays were dealt with during the Bush years. If the ambassador was sarcastically addressing Russian officials, it would be a departure.

Historians will wonder how the Obama administration could possibly have ignored all the evidence cutting against hopes for Russian good behavior. This minor but revealing affair with McFaul, where ideology insulated by inexperience prevented him from drawing some fairly obvious conclusions about Russian behavior, probably won’t make an appearance. But it should.

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Liberal Congressman Urges Obama to Campaign Against SCOTUS

Between now and the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obamacare in June, we’re sure to see a lot of these attacks on the supposedly activist conservative court. The Wall Street Journal editorial board did a good job yesterday skewering the idea that overturning the mandate would be an example of judicial activism, but if the court strikes down the mandate or full law as many have speculated, the “activist” argument is really the only card the Democrats can play.

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said President Obama should campaign against the Supreme Court, painting it as a conservative, activist institution if it rules that the administration’s healthcare law is unconstitutional.

“In terms of the Congress, I believe that it would be off-base for us to do that, but for the president, I don’t think it is,” Clyburn said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. “I think the president ought to take a look at what happened in years before — we’ve seen presidents run against Congress and we’ve seen presidents run against the Supreme Court. Franklin Roosevelt did it to the Supreme Court; [Harry] Truman did it to the Congress.”

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Between now and the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obamacare in June, we’re sure to see a lot of these attacks on the supposedly activist conservative court. The Wall Street Journal editorial board did a good job yesterday skewering the idea that overturning the mandate would be an example of judicial activism, but if the court strikes down the mandate or full law as many have speculated, the “activist” argument is really the only card the Democrats can play.

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said President Obama should campaign against the Supreme Court, painting it as a conservative, activist institution if it rules that the administration’s healthcare law is unconstitutional.

“In terms of the Congress, I believe that it would be off-base for us to do that, but for the president, I don’t think it is,” Clyburn said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. “I think the president ought to take a look at what happened in years before — we’ve seen presidents run against Congress and we’ve seen presidents run against the Supreme Court. Franklin Roosevelt did it to the Supreme Court; [Harry] Truman did it to the Congress.”

Obama probably isn’t looking to Clyburn for campaign strategy, but the congressman’s comments do provide insight into the liberal mindset at the moment. The Supreme Court went into the Obamacare hearings with record low approval ratings of just 28 percent in the latest Rasmussen, and perhaps the Wall Street Journal is right that the criticism of the court is purely a public lobbying effort by the left – a warning to Justice Kennedy that his legacy hangs in the balance and an appeal to Chief Justice Roberts’ supposed sensitivity about the public image of his court.

On the other hand, liberals may actually have an appetite for an anti-SCOTUS campaign led by the president next fall, especially as their anger about the Citizens United ruling still hasn’t ebbed. But even with the court’s low approval rating, this seems like an ill-advised strategy. Obama’s health care law is unpopular, and the majority of Americans believe it’s unconstitutional. If the Supreme Court also takes that position in June, then Obama attacking the justices for it on the campaign trail isn’t going to be very helpful.

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“Where Are the Women?”

“Where are the women?” Rep. Carolyn Maloney demanded of five clergymen who appeared before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Obama administration’s “contraception mandate” in February. Exactly this question, in just these words, has become the the first challenge in any catechism of our times.

Maloney’s demand effaced the religious differences between the five witnesses (a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a Lutheran minister, and two Southern Baptist scholars, a theologian and a biomedical ethicist), but her refusal to see the men as individuals went entirely unremarked in the news coverage that followed. A photo of the five men went “viral,” as the saying now goes, and disregarding the most basic of journalistic standards, newspapers ran it without identifying the five men (see here, for example, and here). If a quintet of women was similarly treated as a faceless and nameless blur, if the philosophical differences between them were erased (and indeed the racial difference too, since one of the five clergymen was black), a question like Maloney’s would have been seen for what it was — a spasm of bigotry.

Not in our day, though. In our day the question “Where are the women?” is received as a knockdown argument. It is unanswerable. It embarrasses the pathetic sexist into silence. In our day, after all, feminism is taken for granted as established science. A good person would no more struggle against it than he would struggle against the theory of relativity. The universal relevance of the woman question has been accepted once for all.

But what if its self-evident justice is not a sign that feminism is the common opinion of all good people, but merely the governing ideology of our day? What if feminism’s universal acceptance is a “pseudo-universalism which assumed that the culture of the dominant group was a universal culture, the culture of true civilization, against which all else was barbarism”? The quoted words belong to a feminist, Rosemary Ruether, who pointed out that this was exactly the assumption of the early Christian church, which treated Jewish difference as invisible.

Indeed, since Christianity reckoned itself the messianic fulfillment of their election at Sinai, the Jews’ distinctiveness was beneath notice to the early church. “But the Jews held out against it in principle,” Ruether wrote in Faith and Fratricide, “and struggled to be recognized as a people who defined their own identity independently of this imperial ideology, challenging thereby its universality.”

Imagine Maloney’s question being asked before a tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition. “Where are the Christians?” the inquisitor would thunder at a table of Jews. In February, the five clergymen were not given the opportunity to answer Maloney’s question. Here is the correct answer: “In your seat, Congresswoman.”

These reflections are provoked by a hastily written 2,100-word article that was posted over at Jezebel last Friday. “The Literary Canon Is Still One Big Sausage Fest,” by someone with the Shakespearean name of Doug Barry, was occasioned by my scandalous MLA Rankings of American Writers. “What Myers’ list . . . shows is that, of 25 lionized, aggrandized, perpetuated American scribblers,” Barry whimpered, “only five — or a good tip on a small lunch check — are women.”

I’m not really sure why Barry needed 2,100 words to ask the same question Maloney asked in four. But perhaps even more surprising is his confidence that what he is writing is a brave new dissent from literary orthodoxy, a loud fart in the temple of belles lettres, when everything he has to say is almost as unusual and pioneering as movie villains who can’t seem to hit the action hero no matter how many times they shoot at him. “The canon according to Myers’ appraisal of the MLA’s information attempts to validate male hegemony,” Barry concludes. “That’s all it exists for.” Which explains, I suppose, why at last count Barry’s article had been “liked” on Facebook 155 times more often than my original list at COMMENTARY.

The truth is that the complaint “Where are the women?” is 155 times more likely than a validation of male literary hegemony. Any time a list of writers is drawn up these days someone somewhere will complain about the insufficient number of women. What no one has ever been able to define is the precise proper proportion of women on any list of writers. For Barry, five of 25 is too few — “a good tip on a small lunch check.” It is prima facie evidence of the patriarchy.

And yet President Bill Clinton had almost exactly the same proportion of women in his cabinet over the eight years of his presidency:

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, 1993
Madeleine Albright, 1996
Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen, 1993
Robert E. Rubin, 1995–1999
Lawrence H. Summers, 1999
Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, 1993
William J. Perry, 1994
William S. Cohen, 1997
Attorney General Janet Reno, 1993
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, 1993
Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, 1993
Dan Glickman, 1995
Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown, 1993
Mickey Kantor, 1996
William M. Daley, 1997
Norman Y. Mineta, 2000
Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, 1993
Alexis Herman, 1997
Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala, 1993
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry G. Cisneros, 1993
Andrew M. Cuomo, 1997
Secretary of Transportation Federico F. Peña, 1993
Rodney Slater, 1997
Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O’Leary, 1993
Frederico F. Peña, 1997
Bill Richardson, 1998
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, 1993
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown, 1993
Togo D. West, Jr., 1998

Five of 28: President Clinton was obviously more patriarchal than literary scholars, whose research choices over the past two-and-a-half decades have accomplished little more, despite the campaign to “open up” the canon, than to validate male hegemony.

The other sad truth is that feminist courtiers like Barry take no account of history in their loud routine complaints about the paucity of women in the American literary canon. Toni Morrison has been the subject of nearly 2,000 pieces of scholarship in the past 25 years, which is pretty remarkable considering her masterpiece Beloved was published 25 years ago this fall.

Henry James has been favored by not quite twice the amount of attention, but James had exactly a century’s head start. Watch and Ward, his first novel, was published in 1871, while Morrison’s first, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. That Morrison has begun to catch up so quickly is, to a different frame of literary mind than Barry’s, far more startling than the fact that, in his phrase, James “crowns the list.”

By all means, let us read more women writers! I have done my small part, writing the first critical appreciation of Francine Prose. In the nearly two years since I described her in COMMENTARY as “without peer in contemporary American fiction,” not one more article on her has been published. The same could be said for Chava Rosenfarb, whom Ruth R. Wisse enshrined in The Modern Jewish Canon in 2000, but who still awaits her first scholarly notice. (The other women writers named by Wisse — Esther Kreitman, Shulamith Hareven, and Adele Wiseman — have fared slightly better, but only slightly.) Three years ago Nicola Beauman published a good biography of The Other Elizabeth Taylor, and though NYRB Classics republished two of her novels in February — Angel and A Game of Hide and Seek — she remains widely ignored by those who are quick to complain about the number of women on any literary list.

The examples could be multiplied indefinitely, but the point will elude the complainers. The point is this. If you want more women writers to receive more critical attention, you have to give them the attention. You have to read them and then you have to write about them. As I’ve said before, you need to start doing the work. Complaining isn’t work. It’s party-going.

“Where are the women?” Rep. Carolyn Maloney demanded of five clergymen who appeared before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Obama administration’s “contraception mandate” in February. Exactly this question, in just these words, has become the the first challenge in any catechism of our times.

Maloney’s demand effaced the religious differences between the five witnesses (a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a Lutheran minister, and two Southern Baptist scholars, a theologian and a biomedical ethicist), but her refusal to see the men as individuals went entirely unremarked in the news coverage that followed. A photo of the five men went “viral,” as the saying now goes, and disregarding the most basic of journalistic standards, newspapers ran it without identifying the five men (see here, for example, and here). If a quintet of women was similarly treated as a faceless and nameless blur, if the philosophical differences between them were erased (and indeed the racial difference too, since one of the five clergymen was black), a question like Maloney’s would have been seen for what it was — a spasm of bigotry.

Not in our day, though. In our day the question “Where are the women?” is received as a knockdown argument. It is unanswerable. It embarrasses the pathetic sexist into silence. In our day, after all, feminism is taken for granted as established science. A good person would no more struggle against it than he would struggle against the theory of relativity. The universal relevance of the woman question has been accepted once for all.

But what if its self-evident justice is not a sign that feminism is the common opinion of all good people, but merely the governing ideology of our day? What if feminism’s universal acceptance is a “pseudo-universalism which assumed that the culture of the dominant group was a universal culture, the culture of true civilization, against which all else was barbarism”? The quoted words belong to a feminist, Rosemary Ruether, who pointed out that this was exactly the assumption of the early Christian church, which treated Jewish difference as invisible.

Indeed, since Christianity reckoned itself the messianic fulfillment of their election at Sinai, the Jews’ distinctiveness was beneath notice to the early church. “But the Jews held out against it in principle,” Ruether wrote in Faith and Fratricide, “and struggled to be recognized as a people who defined their own identity independently of this imperial ideology, challenging thereby its universality.”

Imagine Maloney’s question being asked before a tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition. “Where are the Christians?” the inquisitor would thunder at a table of Jews. In February, the five clergymen were not given the opportunity to answer Maloney’s question. Here is the correct answer: “In your seat, Congresswoman.”

These reflections are provoked by a hastily written 2,100-word article that was posted over at Jezebel last Friday. “The Literary Canon Is Still One Big Sausage Fest,” by someone with the Shakespearean name of Doug Barry, was occasioned by my scandalous MLA Rankings of American Writers. “What Myers’ list . . . shows is that, of 25 lionized, aggrandized, perpetuated American scribblers,” Barry whimpered, “only five — or a good tip on a small lunch check — are women.”

I’m not really sure why Barry needed 2,100 words to ask the same question Maloney asked in four. But perhaps even more surprising is his confidence that what he is writing is a brave new dissent from literary orthodoxy, a loud fart in the temple of belles lettres, when everything he has to say is almost as unusual and pioneering as movie villains who can’t seem to hit the action hero no matter how many times they shoot at him. “The canon according to Myers’ appraisal of the MLA’s information attempts to validate male hegemony,” Barry concludes. “That’s all it exists for.” Which explains, I suppose, why at last count Barry’s article had been “liked” on Facebook 155 times more often than my original list at COMMENTARY.

The truth is that the complaint “Where are the women?” is 155 times more likely than a validation of male literary hegemony. Any time a list of writers is drawn up these days someone somewhere will complain about the insufficient number of women. What no one has ever been able to define is the precise proper proportion of women on any list of writers. For Barry, five of 25 is too few — “a good tip on a small lunch check.” It is prima facie evidence of the patriarchy.

And yet President Bill Clinton had almost exactly the same proportion of women in his cabinet over the eight years of his presidency:

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, 1993
Madeleine Albright, 1996
Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen, 1993
Robert E. Rubin, 1995–1999
Lawrence H. Summers, 1999
Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, 1993
William J. Perry, 1994
William S. Cohen, 1997
Attorney General Janet Reno, 1993
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, 1993
Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, 1993
Dan Glickman, 1995
Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown, 1993
Mickey Kantor, 1996
William M. Daley, 1997
Norman Y. Mineta, 2000
Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, 1993
Alexis Herman, 1997
Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala, 1993
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry G. Cisneros, 1993
Andrew M. Cuomo, 1997
Secretary of Transportation Federico F. Peña, 1993
Rodney Slater, 1997
Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O’Leary, 1993
Frederico F. Peña, 1997
Bill Richardson, 1998
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, 1993
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown, 1993
Togo D. West, Jr., 1998

Five of 28: President Clinton was obviously more patriarchal than literary scholars, whose research choices over the past two-and-a-half decades have accomplished little more, despite the campaign to “open up” the canon, than to validate male hegemony.

The other sad truth is that feminist courtiers like Barry take no account of history in their loud routine complaints about the paucity of women in the American literary canon. Toni Morrison has been the subject of nearly 2,000 pieces of scholarship in the past 25 years, which is pretty remarkable considering her masterpiece Beloved was published 25 years ago this fall.

Henry James has been favored by not quite twice the amount of attention, but James had exactly a century’s head start. Watch and Ward, his first novel, was published in 1871, while Morrison’s first, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. That Morrison has begun to catch up so quickly is, to a different frame of literary mind than Barry’s, far more startling than the fact that, in his phrase, James “crowns the list.”

By all means, let us read more women writers! I have done my small part, writing the first critical appreciation of Francine Prose. In the nearly two years since I described her in COMMENTARY as “without peer in contemporary American fiction,” not one more article on her has been published. The same could be said for Chava Rosenfarb, whom Ruth R. Wisse enshrined in The Modern Jewish Canon in 2000, but who still awaits her first scholarly notice. (The other women writers named by Wisse — Esther Kreitman, Shulamith Hareven, and Adele Wiseman — have fared slightly better, but only slightly.) Three years ago Nicola Beauman published a good biography of The Other Elizabeth Taylor, and though NYRB Classics republished two of her novels in February — Angel and A Game of Hide and Seek — she remains widely ignored by those who are quick to complain about the number of women on any literary list.

The examples could be multiplied indefinitely, but the point will elude the complainers. The point is this. If you want more women writers to receive more critical attention, you have to give them the attention. You have to read them and then you have to write about them. As I’ve said before, you need to start doing the work. Complaining isn’t work. It’s party-going.

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Nations Step Up Syrian Rebel Aid

Under the category of “better late than never” (but just barely): An international “Friends of Syria” group of nations agreed in Istanbul to step up aid, at least of the non-lethal sort, to the Syrian rebels. Gulf nations pledged $100 million to pay salaries to the anti-Assad fighters while the U.S. agreed to send communications equipment to help the rebels get better organized.

That’s certainly a step forward, but it’s not as far as the U.S. and its allies should go. As Molham Al Drobi, a member of the Syrian National Council, told the New York Times:  “Our people are killed in the streets. If the international community prefers not to do it themselves, they should at least help us doing it by giving us the green light, by providing us the arms, or anything else that needs to be done.”

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Under the category of “better late than never” (but just barely): An international “Friends of Syria” group of nations agreed in Istanbul to step up aid, at least of the non-lethal sort, to the Syrian rebels. Gulf nations pledged $100 million to pay salaries to the anti-Assad fighters while the U.S. agreed to send communications equipment to help the rebels get better organized.

That’s certainly a step forward, but it’s not as far as the U.S. and its allies should go. As Molham Al Drobi, a member of the Syrian National Council, told the New York Times:  “Our people are killed in the streets. If the international community prefers not to do it themselves, they should at least help us doing it by giving us the green light, by providing us the arms, or anything else that needs to be done.”

He’s absolutely right. With more than 9,000 Syrians having already been slaughtered–and possibly far more–it is imperative that the international community do more to even the odds for the embattled rebel fighters by providing them with arms and ammunition. These need not be heavy weapons that could potentially threaten Israel or destabilize neighboring countries–AK-47s, RPGs, and lots of ammunition will do. Otherwise, Bashar al-Assad will continue his homicidal campaign to stamp out the rebellion with the help of the Iranian regime–and prevent the U.S. from seizing a major opportunity to alter the balance of power in the Middle East against the ayatollahs.

 

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Medvedev: Obama Gave Moscow Best Years

Late last week, outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave a speech in which he praised the Obama administration’s effect on the U.S.-Russian relationship, commenting that “these have perhaps been the best three years in relations between our two countries over the last decade.” His statement was made at the same conference in which Obama promised to sell out Poland (at least that’s how the Poles interpreted the president’s gaffe) just as soon as he won reelection. That the White House has not seen fit to trumpet Medvedev’s warm words perhaps indicates a heretofore undetected modicum of self-awareness.

The Russians are pleased. Of course they are.

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Late last week, outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave a speech in which he praised the Obama administration’s effect on the U.S.-Russian relationship, commenting that “these have perhaps been the best three years in relations between our two countries over the last decade.” His statement was made at the same conference in which Obama promised to sell out Poland (at least that’s how the Poles interpreted the president’s gaffe) just as soon as he won reelection. That the White House has not seen fit to trumpet Medvedev’s warm words perhaps indicates a heretofore undetected modicum of self-awareness.

The Russians are pleased. Of course they are.

To preserve its vaunted “reset,” the Obama administration has systematically downplayed and acquiesced to a four-year Russian campaign of intimidation and dirty tricks against our diplomats, extending into threats, home break-ins, and manufactured sex scandals.

Despite Secretary Clinton twice raising with Foreign Minister Lavrov the issue of Russian intelligence officers helping to bomb our Georgia embassy, the GRU officer linked to the blast was pointedly not even recalled. The Kremlin was either unwilling or unable to act, meaning that either the government was smugly pocketing U.S. concessions or that Moscow had become a more stable Islamabad, with military intelligence outfits both more powerful than and working at cross-purposes to elected officials. This rather stark double-bind, with either conclusion making a mockery of a political reset, was lost on the Russia apologists who rushed to attack Eli Lake for blowing open the affair (some initial skeptics recanted on the basis of facts; others never did; none drew the obvious conclusions, with one even holding out hope that the bombing was being ignored to preserve the by-then incoherent reset).

All of which might have been justified if we were getting anything in exchange for letting the Russians push us and our diplomats around. But instead, Russian officials have dismissed IAEA reports on Iran’s drive to weaponize its nuclear program, and have threatened to intervene should the West take military action. Putin himself once described Khamenei as literally Christ-like, which in retrospect might have been a clue that an anti-Iran coalition was going to be a tough sell.

The Russians have similarly blocked international action on Syria and begun aggressively crowding out the West, not only sending in naval assets but even reportedly dispatching “anti-terrorism” troops. (Assad’s evaluation of Russia’s approach: “balanced”).

But at least Medvedev feels good about U.S.-Russian relations, and is appreciative of how Obama helped him feel good. And in fairness, Russian harassment could have been worse (at least if you ignore the bombing thing). In comparison to how Russian diplomats and agents comport themselves in the U.K., our officials have actually been treated fairly well.

So that’s not one but two silver linings around this cloud of lost global influence and supine geopolitical stumbling.

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South Africa’s Double Game on Iran

South Africa’s emergence from apartheid was among the greatest moral victories of the 20th century. How sad it is, therefore, to see how the South Africans have squandered it. In recent years, the South African government has cozied up to such regimes as Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Far from being a moral authority, Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu has subscribed to numerous anti-Semitic tropes.

South Africa has long maintained cordial if not friendly relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Iranians have long sought to cultivate African countries with votes on the IAEA Board of Governors or the Security Council. A recent lawsuit by Turkcell against a South African phone company has shed new light on the depth of the relationship, however. According to Bloomberg:

Turkcell, which initially was awarded the Iranian mobile- phone license, sued its Johannesburg-based rival yesterday in federal court in Washington for $4.2 billion in damages. The suit includes numerous alleged internal MTN memos that detail the company’s efforts to win the Iranian business after losing the bid to Turkcell in February 2004… MTN prevailed upon the South African government to abstain from three votes on Iran’s nuclear energy program at the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in 2005 and 2006, according to the complaint. The Iranian communications ministry allegedly told MTN it was withholding its license until it saw how South Africa voted at an upcoming IAEA meeting.  South Africa’s representative to the IAEA, Abdul Minty, abstained from an IAEA vote on Iran on Nov. 24, 2005. The license was delivered three days later, the complaint states.

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South Africa’s emergence from apartheid was among the greatest moral victories of the 20th century. How sad it is, therefore, to see how the South Africans have squandered it. In recent years, the South African government has cozied up to such regimes as Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Far from being a moral authority, Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu has subscribed to numerous anti-Semitic tropes.

South Africa has long maintained cordial if not friendly relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Iranians have long sought to cultivate African countries with votes on the IAEA Board of Governors or the Security Council. A recent lawsuit by Turkcell against a South African phone company has shed new light on the depth of the relationship, however. According to Bloomberg:

Turkcell, which initially was awarded the Iranian mobile- phone license, sued its Johannesburg-based rival yesterday in federal court in Washington for $4.2 billion in damages. The suit includes numerous alleged internal MTN memos that detail the company’s efforts to win the Iranian business after losing the bid to Turkcell in February 2004… MTN prevailed upon the South African government to abstain from three votes on Iran’s nuclear energy program at the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in 2005 and 2006, according to the complaint. The Iranian communications ministry allegedly told MTN it was withholding its license until it saw how South Africa voted at an upcoming IAEA meeting.  South Africa’s representative to the IAEA, Abdul Minty, abstained from an IAEA vote on Iran on Nov. 24, 2005. The license was delivered three days later, the complaint states.

The story continues to describe how the South African government greased the deal with helicopters, artillery, communications equipment, and radar technology.

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Re: Beinart’s Slippery Slope on Boycotts

This weekend Jonathan weighed in on the letter signed by a number of UK artists calling for a boycott of Israel’s Habima theatre company.

Had the letter not contained the names of celebrities Emma Thompson and Mike Leigh, I doubt it would have made the splash it did – and, to further Jonathan’s point about Peter Beinart and the role he plays in delegitimating Israel, the letter’s signatories include the usual suspects among the Jews-for-Justice-for-anyone-but-the-Jews, whose fame, in the world of the performing arts, is more closely linked to their anti-Zionist crusades than their artistic talents.

Still, one point deserves to be added to Jonathan’s excellent take-down.

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This weekend Jonathan weighed in on the letter signed by a number of UK artists calling for a boycott of Israel’s Habima theatre company.

Had the letter not contained the names of celebrities Emma Thompson and Mike Leigh, I doubt it would have made the splash it did – and, to further Jonathan’s point about Peter Beinart and the role he plays in delegitimating Israel, the letter’s signatories include the usual suspects among the Jews-for-Justice-for-anyone-but-the-Jews, whose fame, in the world of the performing arts, is more closely linked to their anti-Zionist crusades than their artistic talents.

Still, one point deserves to be added to Jonathan’s excellent take-down.

The “artists” explain their call to target Habima on the grounds that Habima performed in the Territories and that “By inviting Habima, Shakespeare’s Globe is undermining the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to break international law.” The inference here is that giving a stage to Habima will undermine those in Israel who refused to go along and perform in Ariel and other settlements.

But it also suggests that performing in the Territories is a breach of international law.

Now that’s something else. There is no clause in the Fourth Geneva Convention forbidding theatre companies from performing a play in Territories under military occupation as a result of a conflict still waiting to be settled.

As an international law scholar whom I turned to in order to confirm the absence of such a rule from the annals of international law said with reference to the boycotters – “for them it is not international law, it is ‘my’ law.”

Same with Beinart and others afflicted by the same selective moral indignation – they make up facts and rules as they go along, which they then invoke to prove their hatred for Israel right.

 

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Study Debunks Crisis of Zionism Myth

The Jewish People Policy Institute has just published a new paper by Shmuel Rosner and Inbal Hakman on the so-called Distancing Hypothesis, analyzing “trends of distancing and… policy proposals for strengthening the attachment of young American Jews to Israel in the time of the distancing discourse.” The 53-page PDF comprehensively evaluates current surveys, contains 77 footnotes, walks the reader through dizzying charts, and is worth reading just for the appendices.

The authors outline a series of straightforward recommendations, including an emphasis on the methodological and normative value of discussing “attachment” rather than “distancing.” Along the way they note:

There is no conclusive evidence of an erosion of U.S. Jewry’s attachment to Israel. On the contrary, the studies that included a longitudinal comparative examination indicate a sustained and even increased level of attachment. In short, there is no evidence of distancing as compared to the past.

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The Jewish People Policy Institute has just published a new paper by Shmuel Rosner and Inbal Hakman on the so-called Distancing Hypothesis, analyzing “trends of distancing and… policy proposals for strengthening the attachment of young American Jews to Israel in the time of the distancing discourse.” The 53-page PDF comprehensively evaluates current surveys, contains 77 footnotes, walks the reader through dizzying charts, and is worth reading just for the appendices.

The authors outline a series of straightforward recommendations, including an emphasis on the methodological and normative value of discussing “attachment” rather than “distancing.” Along the way they note:

There is no conclusive evidence of an erosion of U.S. Jewry’s attachment to Israel. On the contrary, the studies that included a longitudinal comparative examination indicate a sustained and even increased level of attachment. In short, there is no evidence of distancing as compared to the past.

The findings are in line with the consensus of polling and trends in American-Jewish philanthropy, to say nothing of the near-universal rejection of Peter Beinart’s call to economically suffocate Israeli communities he doesn’t like while funding Israelis who live where he wants them to.

The exception proving that rule has been Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now, who embraced Beinart’s call after returning from a vicious anti-Israel hatefest at which she and her organization were on the speaker list. Her participation in that conference was as out of the mainstream as her support for Beinart.

On the other side, for example, is liberal Tablet editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse. Last week, Newhouse wrote in the Washington Post that Beinart’s book and campaign have “ruined his chance to be a leader for many” progressive American Jews. She specifically pointed out what might be called Beinart’s epistemic solipsism, noting that his book “offers little in the way of personal reporting on the Israelis or the Palestinians themselves” and relies instead on secondary sources and his impressions of same.

Newhouse’s comment is not the first time Beinart’s lack of enthusiasm for field reporting has raised eyebrows. But his habit of taking what’s inside his head and generalizing outward extends beyond his research and analysis, and into his entire ethical case against Israel. He condemns Israel’s presence beyond the Green Line on account of the toll it takes on his conscience. He blasts Israeli self-defense campaigns because they complicate conversations with his child. And he’s personally haunted by the audio tracks of YouTube videos showing Israeli police actions, so he declares that Zionism is in crisis.

Not so much, it turns out.

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Rep. Ryan: “I Misspoke” About the Generals

In an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, Rep. Paul Ryan backed away from his comments that questioned whether generals were being honest with Congress by supporting the Obama administration’s defense budget proposal.

Ryan told Crowley that he “misspoke” last week, and said he has called Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and apologized:

“Yes – no, I really misspoke, to be candid with you, Candy. I didn’t mean to make that kind of an impression. So I was clumsy in how I was describing the point I was trying to make. And the point I was trying to make – and General Dempsey and I spoke after that. And we – I wanted to give that point to him, which was, that was not what I was attempting to say.

What I was attempting to say is, President Obama put out his budget number for the Pentagon first, $500 billion cut, and then they began the strategy review to conform the budget to meet that number.

We think it should have been the other way around. What is the best strategy for our military and so we have a strategy driven budget. Now the result of our review of the president’s budget on the military was we should cut $3 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next 10 years instead of the $500 billion.”

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In an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, Rep. Paul Ryan backed away from his comments that questioned whether generals were being honest with Congress by supporting the Obama administration’s defense budget proposal.

Ryan told Crowley that he “misspoke” last week, and said he has called Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and apologized:

“Yes – no, I really misspoke, to be candid with you, Candy. I didn’t mean to make that kind of an impression. So I was clumsy in how I was describing the point I was trying to make. And the point I was trying to make – and General Dempsey and I spoke after that. And we – I wanted to give that point to him, which was, that was not what I was attempting to say.

What I was attempting to say is, President Obama put out his budget number for the Pentagon first, $500 billion cut, and then they began the strategy review to conform the budget to meet that number.

We think it should have been the other way around. What is the best strategy for our military and so we have a strategy driven budget. Now the result of our review of the president’s budget on the military was we should cut $3 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next 10 years instead of the $500 billion.”

This should put that matter to rest, though it was an unfortunate unforced error for Ryan to make the same week he rolled out his budget plan. The proposal is enough of a magnet for criticism on its own without the additional controversy. Ryan wasn’t necessarily wrong in his assertion, but putting the generals on the spot like that is unhelpful, and of course they’re going to stand by their original testimony. Whatever military brass is telling Ryan behind the scenes, and I don’t doubt it’s critical of the president’s proposals, this was a losing way for him to frame the argument.

But Ryan was right to steer the conversation back to the real issue, which is that the president wrote down a budget cut number and asked the Pentagon to meet it. As Republicans have been arguing, that’s a risky way to handle reductions. Few would say the defense budget should be exempt from scrutiny and potential cuts, but they should be with security as the priority, not an arbitrary number handed down by the administration.

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The UN Wants its Own Drones?

A friend on the Hill alerted me to this story which should raise red flags for any number of reasons:

The United Nations is weighing the possibility of using unmanned airplanes (drones) in intelligence operations and to searching for information… The issue was submitted to a committee of the UN General Assembly by the peacekeeping operations department, according to the organization’s official joint spokesman, Eduardo del Buey. Del Buey said that the United Nations is analyzing the potential use of that technology, including the support that the organization needs from the member countries if its use were recommended. The unarmed drones would be used for surveillance operations and to gather information, said the spokesman, adding that no conclusions or recommendations have been made on the matter.

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A friend on the Hill alerted me to this story which should raise red flags for any number of reasons:

The United Nations is weighing the possibility of using unmanned airplanes (drones) in intelligence operations and to searching for information… The issue was submitted to a committee of the UN General Assembly by the peacekeeping operations department, according to the organization’s official joint spokesman, Eduardo del Buey. Del Buey said that the United Nations is analyzing the potential use of that technology, including the support that the organization needs from the member countries if its use were recommended. The unarmed drones would be used for surveillance operations and to gather information, said the spokesman, adding that no conclusions or recommendations have been made on the matter.

The Obama administration unwisely puts the UN on a pedestal on a number of issues, but hopefully will quash any request that the United States share its drones with UN peacekeepers. Putting aside the question of what mandate or authority the UN has to conduct intelligence work in the first place, any UN drone capability—even in the name of peacekeeping—could greatly undermine U.S. national security. Even innocuous missions like the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire include personnel from countries such as China, Russia, and Pakistan, each of which would like to get their hands on the latest American technology.

Providing autonomous surveillance capabilities can provoke conflict rather than prevent it. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been, for nearly 35 years, an unmitigated disaster. As Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, the Israeli army handed its positions over to UNIFIL to transfer to the Lebanese army. UNIFIL chose instead to provide the posts to Hezbollah. Then, less than five months later, Hezbollah guerrillas—dressed in UNIFIL regalia—kidnapped three Israelis from the Israeli side of the border. UNIFIL personnel were conducting surveillance at the time. They videotaped Hezbollah operatives dressed in UNIFIL uniforms and driving vehicles with UNIFIL markings but, for nine months, refused to acknowledge a video that could have provided the information necessary to identify the perpetrators and rescue the Israelis. Only after the outcry grew too loud to ignore did UN Secretary General Kofi Annan order an investigation. The results were damning.

Too many UN personnel are corrupt, venial, and untrustworthy. To offer them independent surveillance capability when they have so often abused their positions would be unwise and a danger to American national security. Alas, that makes the possibility that Obama would oblige even greater.

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U.S. Intel Undermined by Iraq, Obama

Much of Sunday’s New York Times story by James Risen suggests that U.S. intelligence analysts are overcompensating for their past failures on Iraqi WMDs by minimizing the risk of Iranian WMDs in the future. The upshot is that the Israelis might be right to distrust President Obama’s “we can wait until the very last minute” reassurances on Iranian weaponization, as politicized and skittish U.S. intelligence evaluations might miss that signal.

But Iraq isn’t the only ghost the article finds wandering around the hallways. The phrase you’re looking for is “top-down pressure,” which appears right below a paragraph about how the Obama administration is committed to studious denial of Iranian intentions:

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Much of Sunday’s New York Times story by James Risen suggests that U.S. intelligence analysts are overcompensating for their past failures on Iraqi WMDs by minimizing the risk of Iranian WMDs in the future. The upshot is that the Israelis might be right to distrust President Obama’s “we can wait until the very last minute” reassurances on Iranian weaponization, as politicized and skittish U.S. intelligence evaluations might miss that signal.

But Iraq isn’t the only ghost the article finds wandering around the hallways. The phrase you’re looking for is “top-down pressure,” which appears right below a paragraph about how the Obama administration is committed to studious denial of Iranian intentions:

But some conservatives who support more aggressive action to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon argue that the C.I.A.’s restraint has, in fact, been influenced by political pressure exerted by the Obama administration. President Obama has said he would use military force only as a last resort against Iran, and conservatives argue that the Obama administration does not want the intelligence community to produce any reports suggesting the Iranians are moving swiftly to build a bomb.

“The intelligence analysts I’ve dealt with have always been willing to engage in debates on their conclusions, but there is top-down pressure to make the assessments come out a certain way,” said John R. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former ambassador to the United Nations in the Bush administration.

Previous and subsequent paragraphs reference the notoriously politicized and eventually discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) – a quasi-putsch created to knock out President Bush’s knees lest he act on Iranian nuclearization – that certain intelligence sources have been shopping around to the media. The article further points out that the unpublished 2010 NIE concluded that Iran had restarted “some basic weapons-related research” but had not “restarted the actual weapons program.”

That’s the kind of semantic distinction-without-a-difference that makes people – described in the article as “some conservatives” – worry that U.S. intelligence agencies are trying a little too hard to avoid drawing obvious conclusions.

A more popular version of the same basic talking point is that “the Iranian leadership has not made a decision to build an atomic bomb,” a phrase that also makes an appearance in the article. This is not a good argument. Of course the mullahs haven’t made the decision to construct a bomb yet. They’re not there yet. When they have the components for a nuclear device, then it will make sense to talk about their decision to construct one. They’re not at a point where they can say “yay” or “nay,” so they still haven’t said “yay.” No kidding.

This reasoning is the equivalent of me pointing out how “I have not made a decision to spend my lottery millions on an island.” That’s technically true, but only in the trivial sense that – having not yet won the lottery – I haven’t gotten to the point where I can sensibly make a decision on whether I’m going to spend my winnings. Iran hasn’t made a decision to build a nuclear weapon in the same technically true but totally trivial sense. And yet public and private Iran analysts insist there’s some significance in the mullahs not having made a decision on something they’re still incapable of deciding upon.

It’s getting easier and easier to understand why the Israelis don’t take those arguments seriously, and why they’re nervous that some in the U.S. intelligence community seem to.

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Iran Justifies Israel’s Annihilation in Islamic Law

If Iran became a nuclear power, would it risk its own regime survival to strike at Israel? Such questions remain at the heart of the current debate. Those who argue either President Obama should try diplomacy again or that containment can work argue that Iran would not launch their weapons in a first strike against Israel, never mind what Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said during his term as president.

A recent article in the Iranian press written by Ali Reza Forqani, an ally of the Supreme Leader,  however, should re-inject concern about what Iran’s true intentions are. Entitled, “The Fiqh [Islamic Jurisprudence]-Based Reasons for the Need for Israel’s Annihilation,” the Open Source Center recently provided a full translation. The article begins by recalling Ayatollah Khomeini’s views:

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If Iran became a nuclear power, would it risk its own regime survival to strike at Israel? Such questions remain at the heart of the current debate. Those who argue either President Obama should try diplomacy again or that containment can work argue that Iran would not launch their weapons in a first strike against Israel, never mind what Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said during his term as president.

A recent article in the Iranian press written by Ali Reza Forqani, an ally of the Supreme Leader,  however, should re-inject concern about what Iran’s true intentions are. Entitled, “The Fiqh [Islamic Jurisprudence]-Based Reasons for the Need for Israel’s Annihilation,” the Open Source Center recently provided a full translation. The article begins by recalling Ayatollah Khomeini’s views:

The first Qibla of Muslims has today fallen into the hands of Israel, this cancerous tumor in the Middle East. Today, Israel is using all satanic means cause divisions. Every Muslim has the obligation to equip himself against Israel. I have been warning about the dangers of international Zionism for about 20 years and now do not consider that danger for all the liberation movements in the world and for Iran’s recent Islamic revolution to be any less than what it was in the past. I have already warned that the usurping government of Israel, with the designs and ideas that it has for Islam and Muslim countries, presents a great danger and the fear is that should the Muslims grant them the opportunity time would be lost and then it no longer would be possible to stop them. Since the very foundation of Islam is facing a potential danger, it is necessary for all the Muslims in general and the Islamic governments in particular to act to remove this corrupting material by any means possible. All our troubles are due to Israel!

The article continues to cite two Quranic verses to justify an Iranian military strike on Israel:

“And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight against you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not favor those who exceed the limits” [Qur. 2:190]. “And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter; and do not fight with them at the sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them for such is the recompense of the unbelievers” [Qur. 2:191].

And then it embarks on a discourse about jihad. While U.S. diplomats and academics preach that jihad is misunderstood and is not violent, no one told the Islamic Republic that. “The philosophy behind primary jihad is to fight those who fight against the dissemination of Islam and the goal of this jihad is to liberate the people from mental and social captivity and slavery and to lead them to Islam,” Forqani explains. He cites Imam Ali: “I said fight them before they fight against you. I swear to God, no people were attacked in their own house unless they became meek first,” and concludes, “Iran’s military attack on Israel would fit the definition of defensive jihad and as such would not be an example of primary jihad. However, even if we consider such attack as primary jihad… it still would be permissible to wage such jihad with the permission and order of a competent vali-ye faqih (Guardian Jurist) in the age of absence of infallible Imam.” He elaborates:

Defensive jihad is a religiously mandated obligation and all Muslims must participate in it. Addressing this subject, the late Imam Khomeini (may peace be upon him) indicated in his collection of fatwas…that ‘if the enemy attacks the lands of Muslims, it is mandatory for all Muslims to defend their lands by any means possible and not to refrain from giving their lives or assets in the process and they need not obtain permission from the religious ruler in this affair…’ Now, considering the aggression that the fabricated government of Israel has committed against the land of Palestine as a part of Islamic lands and the land that houses the first Qiblah of Muslims, all Muslims are obligated to defend the Muslim people of Palestine and defend this sacred part of Islamic lands by any means possible and to do so they need not obtain permission from the religious ruler either.

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