Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 25, 2012

Keep Politicians Out of the Sanctuary

A Miami synagogue is the center of controversy this week for canceling an appearance by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. The president of Temple Israel there said the invitation for her to speak after Friday night services was cancelled due to “security concerns.” But, as the Miami Herald reports, it’s no secret the real reason is that a prominent member of the synagogue had resigned because he was told there would be no equal time on the program for a Republican.

Wasserman Schultz and the Democrats are representing this as an attempt to prevent her voice from being heard and an instance of Republicans injecting politics into the situation. But the truth is just the opposite. As the congresswoman says, constituents should be able to hear their representative, but the Reform synagogue is not in her district. Even if it was, inviting an intensely partisan figure such as the DNC chair to speak at a religious service during an election year is inappropriate. Sabbath services should not be turned into rallies for the Democratic Party or President Obama or occasions for trashing the GOP, because we all know all too well that is what happens every time DWS opens her mouth. The same principle would apply were it House Majority Leader Eric Cantor being imposed on the congregation.

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A Miami synagogue is the center of controversy this week for canceling an appearance by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. The president of Temple Israel there said the invitation for her to speak after Friday night services was cancelled due to “security concerns.” But, as the Miami Herald reports, it’s no secret the real reason is that a prominent member of the synagogue had resigned because he was told there would be no equal time on the program for a Republican.

Wasserman Schultz and the Democrats are representing this as an attempt to prevent her voice from being heard and an instance of Republicans injecting politics into the situation. But the truth is just the opposite. As the congresswoman says, constituents should be able to hear their representative, but the Reform synagogue is not in her district. Even if it was, inviting an intensely partisan figure such as the DNC chair to speak at a religious service during an election year is inappropriate. Sabbath services should not be turned into rallies for the Democratic Party or President Obama or occasions for trashing the GOP, because we all know all too well that is what happens every time DWS opens her mouth. The same principle would apply were it House Majority Leader Eric Cantor being imposed on the congregation.

Religious institutions with tax-exempt status are forbidden from conducting partisan activities, but this is a rule that is often observed in the breach in some communities, especially where one party predominates. The use of inner city African-American churches as platforms for Democratic politicians seeking to mobilize voters is a tradition that few question. The same is true in some evangelical churches for conservatives. That predominantly liberal American Jewish institutions would be tempted to play the same game is hardly surprising. But though Republicans are a minority in most Jewish communities, they still exist. In the case of Temple Israel, 85-year-old philanthropist Stanley Tate, the co-chair of the Romney campaign in Miami-Dade county is, or was, a member and asked to be able to respond to Wasserman Schultz’s remarks. When he was told that he couldn’t, he quite understandably resigned from the synagogue. Faced with the choice of losing a cherished and generous member, or an appearance by DWS, the temple discovered a “security problem” that forced their cancellation of the congresswoman’s visit.

Tate will be criticized for throwing his weight around and so will the temple leadership (the president is a prominent Democrat) for caving in to him. But Tate should never have been put in that position to begin with. Synagogues and churches should stay away from allowing their services to be commandeered by partisans, especially during a presidential election in which the considerable Jewish vote in Florida may be up for grabs.

The problem here though is not just poor judgment on the part of Temple Israel but the assumption on the part of many liberal Jews that there is no difference between their faith and their political party. Though the old joke persists that Reform Jews define Judaism as the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in, Republican and independent members of Reform synagogues are rightly under the impression that they are there to practice their faith, not cheer for the Democrats. While we don’t blame Wasserman Schultz for seeking any opportunity to address an audience, Temple Israel owes Tate an apology. Other religious institutions similarly tempted to play politics in this manner should take a lesson from their embarrassment and resolve to keep partisanship out of the sanctuary at least until November.

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Defending the Breitbart Vetting

At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf takes issue with the Breitbart.com vetting of Obama’s younger years, and argues that it’s just one example of the conservative media’s self-defeating behavior:

Perhaps “The Vetting” drives traffic to Breitbart.com. When it comes to giving insight into Obama’s actions, or the course his second term would be likely to take, or advancing conservative insights, it’s utterly pointless — it misleads more often than it clarifies, and whereas actually digging into Obama’s behavior during his first term, or his donors, or the gulf between his promises and actions might produce newsworthy scoops, Breitbart.com is spending its time digging up old play posters with Obama’s name on them and proving he once dressed patriotically. …

On Twitter yesterday, conservative journalist John Tabin took issue with my argument that these pathologies, common to many (though not all) conservative media outlets, are one obstacle to a conservatism that focuses on and achieves the passage of reform legislation on taxes, spending, and entitlements. So I’ll close by posing a question to him. Breitbart.com is read largely by movement conservatives. Does it help or hurt the conservative cause when they focus on the issues raised in “The Vetting” series?

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At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf takes issue with the Breitbart.com vetting of Obama’s younger years, and argues that it’s just one example of the conservative media’s self-defeating behavior:

Perhaps “The Vetting” drives traffic to Breitbart.com. When it comes to giving insight into Obama’s actions, or the course his second term would be likely to take, or advancing conservative insights, it’s utterly pointless — it misleads more often than it clarifies, and whereas actually digging into Obama’s behavior during his first term, or his donors, or the gulf between his promises and actions might produce newsworthy scoops, Breitbart.com is spending its time digging up old play posters with Obama’s name on them and proving he once dressed patriotically. …

On Twitter yesterday, conservative journalist John Tabin took issue with my argument that these pathologies, common to many (though not all) conservative media outlets, are one obstacle to a conservatism that focuses on and achieves the passage of reform legislation on taxes, spending, and entitlements. So I’ll close by posing a question to him. Breitbart.com is read largely by movement conservatives. Does it help or hurt the conservative cause when they focus on the issues raised in “The Vetting” series?

It’s true that digging into Obama’s past for insight into his second term is probably useless, and these issues shouldn’t be used as a serious conservative arguments against Obama’s reelection. But that’s not really the point of Breitbart’s vetting, which is aimed at holding the media accountable for what it missed in 2008 – as the Breitbart website explains, “to show that the media had failed in its most basic duty.” Whether it’s been successful is a matter of personal opinion, but the issue of the media’s double standard of scrutiny are certainly worth addressing.

So Obama wearing patriotic garb, and a copy of an old law school exam he gave may not be major bombshells. But is the story about Romney’s dog riding on the roof of his car decades ago really a groundbreaking revelation? Why have reporters dug up Romney’s prep school frenemies from half a century ago, while the mainstream reporting on Obama’s college and post-college years has largely been fawning and positive? Even David Maraniss’s book, which is expected to be the most exhaustive examination of Obama’s post-college years, sounds like it will also be a flattering portrayal. From Josh Wilwol’s review (h/t Mike Allen):

“Maraniss’s Obama is sympathetic, and in contrast to his exotic background, he emerges as a normal, well-adjusted guy. At Occidental, ‘Barry”s Mick Jagger impression was legendary, and as a teen at Honolulu’s Punahou School, he was known for snagging joints from his buddies’ hands and shouting ‘Intercepted!’ before taking an extra hit. Halfway through the book, Maraniss describes a day when a high-school teacher asked Obama what people should most fear. ‘Words,’ uttered the boy who would be known for his stirring speeches. ‘Words … can be weapons of destruction.'”

There’s no reason the conservative media can’t cover media bias issues, while also discussing policy — in fact, it already does that. Friedersdorf’s overarching implication, that the conservative media as a whole is obsessed with digging up Obama’s past and ignores more substantive debates, is just inaccurate. The Breitbart focus on media bias isn’t a threat to policy-driven conservatism, because it’s not necessary to choose one over the other. There are plenty of other conservative publications that cover fiscal policy, and that doesn’t mean important cultural issues have to be ignored.

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Obama’s Gift to Romney

This past week, the president and the vice president have made some rather curious arguments on their behalf.

“If your main argument for how to grow the economy is ‘I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,’ then you’re missing what this job is about,” Obama said. “It doesn’t mean you weren’t good at private equity, but that’s not what my job is as president. My job is to take into account everybody, not just some. My job is to make sure that the country is growing not just now, but ten years from now and 20 years from now,” he said.

Vice President Biden, meanwhile, offered up this argument. “Your job as president is to promote the common good. That doesn’t mean the private-equity guys are bad guys. They’re not,” Biden said at New Hampshire’s Keene State College. “But that no more qualifies you to be president than being a plumber. And, by the way, there’re an awful lot of smart plumbers. All kidding aside, it’s not the same job requirement.”

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This past week, the president and the vice president have made some rather curious arguments on their behalf.

“If your main argument for how to grow the economy is ‘I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,’ then you’re missing what this job is about,” Obama said. “It doesn’t mean you weren’t good at private equity, but that’s not what my job is as president. My job is to take into account everybody, not just some. My job is to make sure that the country is growing not just now, but ten years from now and 20 years from now,” he said.

Vice President Biden, meanwhile, offered up this argument. “Your job as president is to promote the common good. That doesn’t mean the private-equity guys are bad guys. They’re not,” Biden said at New Hampshire’s Keene State College. “But that no more qualifies you to be president than being a plumber. And, by the way, there’re an awful lot of smart plumbers. All kidding aside, it’s not the same job requirement.”

I suppose one could say that being a plumber makes you more qualified to be president than being a community organizer, but set that aside for the moment.

The case both Obama and Biden are making is that Obama (a) understands what the job of president entails and (b) is promoting the common good. And based on his record, it’s not clear Obama understands or is doing either one.

To sharpen the point a bit: How exactly is the common good being advanced when during the Obama presidency the number of people in the U.S. who are in poverty has seen a record increase, with the ranks of working-age poor approaching 1960s levels that led to the national war on poverty. In addition, the budget deficit and federal debt have reached their highest percentage since World War II. The same is true when it comes to federal spending as a percentage of GDP. During the post-recession period from June 2009 to June 2011, the median annual household income fell by 6.7 percent– a more substantial decline than occurred during the Great Recession. The Christian Science Monitor points out , “The standard of living for Americans has fallen longer and more steeply over the past three years than at any time since the U.S. government began recording it five decades ago.” The housing crisis is worse than the Great Depression. Home values worth one-third less than they were five years ago. The home ownership rate is the lowest since 1965. And government dependency, defined as the percentage of persons receiving one or more federal benefit payments, is the highest in American history.”

There’s more, but you get the point.

For Obama and Biden to lecture Romney on the qualifications for being president is like John Edwards and Bill Clinton lecturing us on the importance of fidelity in marriage. Their case is undermined by their record, their actions, and their failures.

I cannot imagine a greater in-kind gift to the Romney campaign than for the president and the vice president to run on their stewardship. But that is what they’ve decided to do, at least this week.

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Is Obama Not So Smart? Check Your Facts

Real Clear Politics this morning linked to a column by Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette entitled “Obama Is Not That Bright.” In it he wrote,

Could it be that Mr. Obama’s “superior intellect” is a myth created by journalists to mask what may be the thinnest resume of anyone ever elected president? An example of puffery is the description of Mr. Obama as a former “professor of constitutional law.” Mr. Obama was a part time instructor at the University of Chicago Law School, without the title or status of professor. And, according to blogger Doug Ross, he wasn’t very popular with the real professors.

“I spent some time with the highest tenured faculty member at Chicago Law a few months back,” Mr. Ross wrote in March 2010. “According to my professor friend, [Obama] had the lowest intellectual capacity in the building. … The other professors hated him because he was lazy, unqualified.”

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Real Clear Politics this morning linked to a column by Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette entitled “Obama Is Not That Bright.” In it he wrote,

Could it be that Mr. Obama’s “superior intellect” is a myth created by journalists to mask what may be the thinnest resume of anyone ever elected president? An example of puffery is the description of Mr. Obama as a former “professor of constitutional law.” Mr. Obama was a part time instructor at the University of Chicago Law School, without the title or status of professor. And, according to blogger Doug Ross, he wasn’t very popular with the real professors.

“I spent some time with the highest tenured faculty member at Chicago Law a few months back,” Mr. Ross wrote in March 2010. “According to my professor friend, [Obama] had the lowest intellectual capacity in the building. … The other professors hated him because he was lazy, unqualified.”

As readers of this blog have probably noticed, I’m not the national president of the Obama Fan Club, so this was music to my ears. But was it true? It’s the oldest dictum in journalism that, “if your mother says she loves you, check it out,” a splendid idea all too often honored in the breach. So I checked it out.

Fortunately for me, that was easy because the Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School, Douglas G. Baird, is my first cousin (the “G” stands for Gordon). So I asked him about the quote and about the possibility that the reason Obama has refused to release his academic records was that his grades weren’t all that good. Here’s what he wrote back:

… The idea that Obama had lousy grades is demonstrably untrue. He graduated magna from Harvard Law, which means that he was at least in the top 15 or 20 percent of his class at HLS. Most of the exams are blindly graded. I don’t want to argue about the relevance of grades, but the idea that they weren’t very good is just not right.

It also mischaracterizes his position at Chicago to say that he was only a part-time instructor. Not being full-time was a matter of his choosing. (He wanted to pursue a political career. Our efforts to persuade him to teach fulltime at Chicago didn’t succeed. With respect to this, I should emphasize that I’m not speaking with second-hand knowledge. As dean at the time, I was the relevant decision maker.) Moreover, he was a “senior lecturer.” This is not your typical part-time instructor. At the time, it was a position reserved for people who would otherwise be full-time faculty, but who choose not to. (He got full medical benefits, large office, secretary, and faculty-type perks that were given only to [Richard] Posner and [Frank] Easterbrook [who are vastly distinguished appellate federal judges as well as senior lecturers at the law school], and not any other adjuncts.)

To say that some professors hated him because he was unqualified is mystifying. His credentials (president of HLR and magna) are completely traditional law professor credentials. His classes were consistently popular. He spent relatively little time schmoozing with faculty or hanging out with them (and this, at least in retrospect, has made at least one conservative colleague speak ill of him), but this is different from him being unqualified.

Someone who says Obama is not smart is someone who hasn’t met him. I’m completely confident you wouldn’t like him if you met him and you would think him ideological and not warm and fuzzy, but I would be stunned if you didn’t think he was smart.

Doug is undoubtedly right that I wouldn’t like Obama if I met him, which I haven’t (White House invitations have been notably sparse the last three years for some mysterious reason). And his ideological mindset is a big reason for that. A rigid ideology, after all, can make very bright people act stupidly.

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What Happened to Russia’s Grand Bargain?

In 1999, with Boris Yeltsin’s health failing and his need to produce a smooth succession the following year, Yeltsin made Vladimir Putin Russia’s prime minister and gave Putin an unprecedented free hand in making policy. From the beginning, Putin’s attitude toward his own stewardship of the Russian Federation was a grand bargain: Putin was to be unchallenged in the political sphere, and in return the Russian people would have security, stability, and non-political liberty.

To demonstrate this, Putin led a furious military effort to suppress Chechen separatism, earning briefly the nickname the “iron chancellor.” Putin biographer Richard Sakwa quotes Yeltsin’s explanation for Putin’s rising popularity: “Putin got rid of Russia’s fear. And Russia repaid him with profound gratitude.” Yet since December, Moscow has seen massive protests, and Russians were even galvanized by a hunger strike in the provinces. And this week, two studies indicate Russians’ gratitude toward Putin is broadly on the wane, and their desire for democratic institutions is rising. The reason is not because Russians are reneging on their half of the grand bargain. It’s because the grand bargain was always impossible.

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In 1999, with Boris Yeltsin’s health failing and his need to produce a smooth succession the following year, Yeltsin made Vladimir Putin Russia’s prime minister and gave Putin an unprecedented free hand in making policy. From the beginning, Putin’s attitude toward his own stewardship of the Russian Federation was a grand bargain: Putin was to be unchallenged in the political sphere, and in return the Russian people would have security, stability, and non-political liberty.

To demonstrate this, Putin led a furious military effort to suppress Chechen separatism, earning briefly the nickname the “iron chancellor.” Putin biographer Richard Sakwa quotes Yeltsin’s explanation for Putin’s rising popularity: “Putin got rid of Russia’s fear. And Russia repaid him with profound gratitude.” Yet since December, Moscow has seen massive protests, and Russians were even galvanized by a hunger strike in the provinces. And this week, two studies indicate Russians’ gratitude toward Putin is broadly on the wane, and their desire for democratic institutions is rising. The reason is not because Russians are reneging on their half of the grand bargain. It’s because the grand bargain was always impossible.

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported on a Pew poll based on 1,000 in-person interviews in Russia. They found that while the word “democracy” still doesn’t score so high, the descriptions of democratic institutions do:

For instance, 71 percent of those polled said a fair judiciary is very important — and just 17 percent said Russia has one. Lesser but still significant differences showed up in respondents’ views on honest elections, uncensored media, a civilian-controlled military, free speech and religious freedom.

Then yesterday, the Wall Street Journal carried a story on a respected Russian think tank’s report that support for Putin is dropping–possibly quite far–and that while they don’t see broad yearnings for the kind of democracy the protesters have been asking for, they did find frustration with the status quo:

At the same time, the prodemocracy agenda of the Moscow demonstrators doesn’t find broad support in the rest of the country. There, demands are more pragmatic, focused on better government services such as health care, education, law enforcement and infrastructure. But the government has for years failed to deliver on promises of improvements in these areas.

Part of this can probably be chalked up the paradox of progress—when you provide security and thus enable people to worry about other things, they will do so. But much of this has to do with the inherent falsehood of the grand bargain: You cannot separate political liberty from other forms of liberty. If Putin is to remain unchallenged politically, he needs a court system that will levy trumped-up charges and stiff, arbitrary prison terms to his rivals, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky. And a court system empowered to seize a company and send its executives away to Siberian prison for chirping at Putin cannot and will not work properly for the rest of the country. It is a thoroughly corrupted institution, and thus we see more than 7-in-10 Russians express their desire for a free and fair judiciary.

The same goes for law enforcement. Putin has given the FSB more power and less accountability than its predecessor, the KGB. The FSB answers only to Putin, and its scope has been widened to maximize its ability to take all necessary actions to protect Putin and his inner circle. Can you imagine trying to convince someone that an FSB so empowered will surely not tread on his civil liberties? Good luck with that. And wrapped up between the security services and the judiciary are the Russian police, who fall prey to the same pressures and temptations as the FSB and the courts.

Other areas get ensnared in the same trap. An education system, for example, in a country with Putin as its ruler will need to propagate the cult of personality and nationalism necessary to maintain Putin’s public image. That also applies to Russian broadcast media.

Between the polls and protests, there’s enough evidence Putin simply doesn’t have the support he once enjoyed. But it’s because of the inherent deception of Putinism, not an unwarranted lack of gratitude on the part of the Russian public.

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“Hardball” Host Can’t Answer the Question

If you’d like to see what happens when an arrogant, thin-skinned journalist is asked a legitimate question about a silly (but revealing) comment he once made, you can’t do much better than viewing this clip of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

C-SPAN’s Steve Scully—one of the most objective and decent journalists in America today—asked Matthews if he still felt toward Barack Obama today the same “thrill” that went up his leg in 2008.

The response by Matthews is filled with bitterness and self-righteousness. “If you had done your reporting over at C-SPAN, you would have checked that I said the exact same thing in 2004 after I heard his address up here in Boston,”” according to Matthews. “I want to help you with your reporting,” Matthews says later. And it gets worse from there, with Matthews—who for some inexplicable reason characterizes his work as “reporting”—constantly trying to put down Scully, including calling him a “jackass.” Matthews is enraged because Scully asked Matthews a question Matthews faces from “every horse’s ass right winger I bump into.”

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If you’d like to see what happens when an arrogant, thin-skinned journalist is asked a legitimate question about a silly (but revealing) comment he once made, you can’t do much better than viewing this clip of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

C-SPAN’s Steve Scully—one of the most objective and decent journalists in America today—asked Matthews if he still felt toward Barack Obama today the same “thrill” that went up his leg in 2008.

The response by Matthews is filled with bitterness and self-righteousness. “If you had done your reporting over at C-SPAN, you would have checked that I said the exact same thing in 2004 after I heard his address up here in Boston,”” according to Matthews. “I want to help you with your reporting,” Matthews says later. And it gets worse from there, with Matthews—who for some inexplicable reason characterizes his work as “reporting”—constantly trying to put down Scully, including calling him a “jackass.” Matthews is enraged because Scully asked Matthews a question Matthews faces from “every horse’s ass right winger I bump into.”

How dare one journalist read an accurate quote from another and ask if he still holds those same views.

The irony abounds. Chris Matthews hosts a show called “Hardball”—yet when asked about his previous statement, he whines and complains as if the question itself is illegitimate. And unlike Matthews, Scully is respectful to his guests and doesn’t constantly interrupt them.

Of all the people I have met in the political class over the decades, those with the thinnest skins tend to be journalists. They are antagonistic toward politicians and revel in their effort to “afflict the comfortable.” Yet when the tables are turned in even the most gentle of ways, many of them (though certainly not all of them) become petty, small-minded, and ad hominem in their response. It’s no wonder the American public holds journalists in such low esteem.

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While West Talks, Iran Gets Closer to Nuke

Most Western diplomats have spent the last day patting themselves on the back for showing a little spine during the latest P5+1 nuclear talks in Baghdad. Faced with yet another Iranian refusal to agree to the conciliatory proposal to ease the way toward an end to the crisis, the West did not give in and remove the tough sanctions that have been belatedly imposed on the Islamist regime. Nor did they promise not to implement the oil embargo on Iran that is supposed to go into effect in July. But by agreeing to another meeting next month in Moscow and the implicit promise to go on negotiating all summer and fall if need be, Iran knows that its centrifuges can keep spinning and they can get closer to their nuclear goal while they allow the clock to run out.

The West already knew this, but it appears t the danger is worse than anyone in the Obama administration or Europe thought. The Associated Press is reporting this morning that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have discovered  the Iranians are refining uranium at a rate of up to 27 percent at their Fordo enrichment plant. This is far higher than previous estimates of their capacity that was only at 20 percent. Because the West has been attempting to cajole Tehran into giving up refinement at that 20 percent level, the news that they have already far exceeded that level ought to dispel the administration’s complacent attitude that assumed Iran’s program was already operating at maximum capacity. Because the 20 percent fuel is already at the level where it can easily turned into weapons grade material, the uranium spike is a troubling sign for those who assume that the West has plenty of time to keep talking about the problem before the Iranians achieve their goal.

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Most Western diplomats have spent the last day patting themselves on the back for showing a little spine during the latest P5+1 nuclear talks in Baghdad. Faced with yet another Iranian refusal to agree to the conciliatory proposal to ease the way toward an end to the crisis, the West did not give in and remove the tough sanctions that have been belatedly imposed on the Islamist regime. Nor did they promise not to implement the oil embargo on Iran that is supposed to go into effect in July. But by agreeing to another meeting next month in Moscow and the implicit promise to go on negotiating all summer and fall if need be, Iran knows that its centrifuges can keep spinning and they can get closer to their nuclear goal while they allow the clock to run out.

The West already knew this, but it appears t the danger is worse than anyone in the Obama administration or Europe thought. The Associated Press is reporting this morning that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have discovered  the Iranians are refining uranium at a rate of up to 27 percent at their Fordo enrichment plant. This is far higher than previous estimates of their capacity that was only at 20 percent. Because the West has been attempting to cajole Tehran into giving up refinement at that 20 percent level, the news that they have already far exceeded that level ought to dispel the administration’s complacent attitude that assumed Iran’s program was already operating at maximum capacity. Because the 20 percent fuel is already at the level where it can easily turned into weapons grade material, the uranium spike is a troubling sign for those who assume that the West has plenty of time to keep talking about the problem before the Iranians achieve their goal.

Some nuclear experts were willing to discount this development as a mistake due to technicians overshooting their goal as they calibrated the refinement process. While that is possible, it is also just as likely that, contrary to the West’s expectations, the Iranians are secretly raising their enrichment threshold to a weapons-grade level.

While it would be comforting to accept the rationalizations about this finding or to believe that it is somehow a mistake, it is worth recalling that at every step of the way during this process, the West has underestimated Iran’s progress and its will to pursue its nuclear ambitions. The Iranians believe the events of the last few years prove that they can transgress any red lines set by the West and get away with it. Even the proposal at the P5+1 talks that they turned down this week confirms their dim view of Western resolve, as even this supposedly hard line stance would have allowed Iran to keep its nuclear program as part of a deal.

Many observers have noted that the Iranians share a common agenda at the talks with President Obama and the Europeans. Both sides want to keep the negotiations alive so as to make it impossible for Israel to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. And both would like the process to drag on for a while. President Obama doesn’t want the situation to blow up during his re-election campaign. The Iranians are just trying to run out the clock the way they have been doing for years. The new uranium enrichment findings are troubling not just because they may show that Iran’s stockpile of refined uranium may be greater than we thought, but because it also may mean the sanguine assessment of western intelligence agencies about the time Iran needs to build a bomb may have been wildly optimistic. This should cause the West to give up any idea of more concessions to the Iranians. If the 27 percent uranium doesn’t illustrate the futility of the talks to President Obama, then perhaps nothing will.

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Hate and Forgiveness

In his review  in the New York Review of Books of the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, Garry Wills focused on the relationship between Johnson and Robert Kennedy. It was, in Wills’ words, “a study in hate … radiating reciprocal hostilities at every step in the story.” Their interactions were “venomous.”

“I doubt that Caro, when he began his huge project, thought he would end up composing a moral disquisition on the nature of hatred. But that is what, in effect, he has given us,” writes Wills.

Hate is a complicated topic. For one thing, hate itself is not in every instance wrong. The Hebrew Bible makes it clear that there are things that God Himself hates (see Proverbs 6:16-19 for more). But for those of us who are mortal, hate can be a destructive thing.

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In his review  in the New York Review of Books of the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, Garry Wills focused on the relationship between Johnson and Robert Kennedy. It was, in Wills’ words, “a study in hate … radiating reciprocal hostilities at every step in the story.” Their interactions were “venomous.”

“I doubt that Caro, when he began his huge project, thought he would end up composing a moral disquisition on the nature of hatred. But that is what, in effect, he has given us,” writes Wills.

Hate is a complicated topic. For one thing, hate itself is not in every instance wrong. The Hebrew Bible makes it clear that there are things that God Himself hates (see Proverbs 6:16-19 for more). But for those of us who are mortal, hate can be a destructive thing.

Its wellsprings vary, from sadism to an irrational aversion to someone or some group of people (which often manifests itself as racial or ethnic prejudice) to a response based on fear, injury, or having been on the receiving end of a great injustice. A father, for example, will probably feel hatred for a person who harms his child, for reasons we can easily identify with. But the revulsion and rage between Johnson and Kennedy was far less understandable and much pettier. And in many ways it consumed them. They attempted to humiliate and destroy one another.

Bobby had tried to keep Johnson out of the White House. Johnson, returning the favor, will try to keep Bobby out of burial beside his brother in Arlington. The hatred had reached depths where it amounted to kicking a corpse. It is disheartening to see such large men reduced to such petty furies.

The great danger of hatred, Wills points out, is that there is a continual ratcheting up, with one hostile act provoking another. Hate is a great magnifier of its object; it “narrows what one wants to see, or is able to see, in order to keep one’s hatred tended and hard.”

The object of the hate is often turned into a one-dimensional figure, a caricature, and a child of darkness. That’s how we often justify our attitude, taking a destructive emotion and bestowing on it the patina of righteousness. How can anyone not hate individuals who possess no redeeming qualities, who are themselves the personification of evil? But of course that is rarely the case, and it was certainly not the case when it came to LBJ and RFK. They, like most of us, were an uneven mix of admirable and dishonorable qualities.

The irony of hatred is that it often ends up destroying the person doing the hating.

In a 1962 address to the National Press Club, Martin Luther King, Jr.—a contemporary of both Johnson and Kennedy—took up this topic. “Hate is always tragic,” he said. “It is as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. It distorts the personality and scars the soul.” Years later King would say, “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear.”

Some individuals harbor hatred in their hearts, I think, because they’ve convinced themselves that they need to be the dispensers of justice or malevolent people will never suffer for their offenses. But to act as judge and jury in life is a burden we’re not particularly well equipped to carry. And the wise among us will take some comfort in these words: “It is mine to avenge,” saith the Lord. “I will recompense.” The belief that in the end there is an accounting, that justice is done and that all things are set right relieves us of the pressure of trying to right every wrong.

A final word about personal forgiveness. As I understand the concept, forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending an injustice didn’t occur. It means granting free pardon and giving up all claim on account of an offense. This isn’t easy, in part because it’s counterintuitive, particularly when a betrayal or grave wrong has taken place. But the effects of forgiveness can also be liberating. Those who can offer grace provide healing to those who receive it, and to those who offer it. If hate is a zero-sum game, then genuine forgiveness is the opposite. It can help and heal both sides. It can repair brokenness in our lives and in the lives of others. Nor is forgiveness the abandonment of justice. From my observations of those whose lives are characterized by grace, it comes from  recognition that they have received mercy in their lives and are therefore able to dispense it to others.

“Ungrace causes cracks to fissure open between mother and daughter, father and son, brother and sister, between scientists, and prisoners, and tribes, and races,” the author Philip Yancey has written. “Left alone, cracks widen, and for the resulting chasms of ungrace there is only one remedy: the frail rope-bridge of forgiveness.”

The bridge of forgiveness is one neither Lyndon Johnson nor Robert Kennedy were ever able to build. And they were both lesser men because of it.

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A Difference Between Romney and Obama?

You don’t have to be a foreign policy expert to have noticed that issues of war and peace have played a very small part in this year’s election. The nation’s main worry as well as the chief point of contention between the two major parties is the economy, and it is no accident that the main item on the resume of the man Republicans are choosing to try to defeat President Obama is his business expertise. But according to the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller, the lack of foreign policy talk is not just the result of Americans being distracted by their financial woes. As he writes in an article in Foreign Policy, there is a new bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that has minimized the differences between Republicans and Democrats. Indeed, as far as he is concerned, the policies Romney would pursue abroad are likely to be almost identical to those of Obama leaving him to joke that if the president is re-elected he could safely appoint the Republican as his secretary of state.

Miller, who has been saying and writing a lot of very smart things since he quit the State Department and stopped trying to conjure up mythical progress toward Middle East peace, concedes there are differences between Romney and Obama on Israel, Russia and to a lesser extent China. But he thinks these have more to do with nuance than substance or will be ameliorated if the Republican is actually elected. However, I think he is underestimating the implications of those nuances. Even more important, his belief in the president’s willingness to use force to stop Iran’s nuclear program and/or to back an Israeli strike seems more a leap of faith than something grounded in evidence. Considering that these issues are likely to be among the trickiest America faces in the next four years, the notion that there is no choice this year on foreign policy must be considered a gross exaggeration.

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You don’t have to be a foreign policy expert to have noticed that issues of war and peace have played a very small part in this year’s election. The nation’s main worry as well as the chief point of contention between the two major parties is the economy, and it is no accident that the main item on the resume of the man Republicans are choosing to try to defeat President Obama is his business expertise. But according to the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller, the lack of foreign policy talk is not just the result of Americans being distracted by their financial woes. As he writes in an article in Foreign Policy, there is a new bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that has minimized the differences between Republicans and Democrats. Indeed, as far as he is concerned, the policies Romney would pursue abroad are likely to be almost identical to those of Obama leaving him to joke that if the president is re-elected he could safely appoint the Republican as his secretary of state.

Miller, who has been saying and writing a lot of very smart things since he quit the State Department and stopped trying to conjure up mythical progress toward Middle East peace, concedes there are differences between Romney and Obama on Israel, Russia and to a lesser extent China. But he thinks these have more to do with nuance than substance or will be ameliorated if the Republican is actually elected. However, I think he is underestimating the implications of those nuances. Even more important, his belief in the president’s willingness to use force to stop Iran’s nuclear program and/or to back an Israeli strike seems more a leap of faith than something grounded in evidence. Considering that these issues are likely to be among the trickiest America faces in the next four years, the notion that there is no choice this year on foreign policy must be considered a gross exaggeration.

Miller isn’t entirely wrong in speaking of the common ground that now exists on a lot of issues. Though he campaigned as a critic of George W. Bush’s war on terror, President Obama has kept those policies in place, something only his critics on the far left speak much about. The failure of his early attempts at engagement with countries like Iran has also sobered up the president to some extent. And there’s no denying that neither side of the political aisle has much interest in the idea of new foreign adventures or, it must be admitted, keeping faith in those conflicts in which we are already embroiled.

But that said, there is still a world of difference between the two men in their views of some of the most important challenges facing the country. Obama has been hopelessly naive about Vladimir Putin’s Russia and its desire to rekindle the old superpower rivalry. His reset has been a joke, and no one has laughed harder than the Russians. If elected, Romney will come into office already understanding the grave danger that the successor regime to the old evil empire poses to the stability of the West. Romney also will take a far more aggressive policy toward China. There should be no kowtowing to Beijing on its currency manipulations or its human rights abuses.

Miller is right that the president could not totally abandon Israel because the overwhelming bipartisan consensus in support of the Jewish state would not allow him to do so even if he were re-elected. But he is wrong to minimize the impact that Obama’s hostility toward the government of the Jewish state and what he rightly described as his “colder and more calculating” instincts about Israel has had on the alliance. Israelis understand that just as Obama would be more “flexible” in his attitude toward Russia, once the need for the election year charm offensive toward American Jews is gone, the president will revert to a policy of pressure to revive a doomed peace process. If Obama is re-elected, the Palestinians will expect him to hammer Israel again, something that could encourage violence as well as intransigence.

But the real question here is Iran. Miller assumes the lip service that Obama has given to the idea that Iran must not be allowed to go nuclear would lead him to back an Israeli attack or launch U.S. strikes on Tehran’s facilities. I think that’s a doubtful proposition at best. But the problem here is not just that it is hard to believe the president would act in this manner. Far more likely is the prospect that Obama and his allies in the P5+1 negotiations will cut an unsatisfactory deal with Iran that he will claim has removed the danger but will in fact only facilitate Iran’s ability to keep on making progress toward a bomb. If Obama allows the current talks with Iran to drag on all summer or if he weakens any of the sanctions that he was so reluctant to impose on the Islamist regime, the voters will already have gotten a preview of what is to come should he be given another four years.

Though there is a consensus on many aspects of foreign policy, the differences between a second Obama administration and a Romney presidency on foreign policy will be considerable.

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