Say what you will about international law and international organizations, but it is undoubtedly a good thing that Charles Taylor, the murderous former dictator of Liberia, was just sentenced to 50 years in prison by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He thus becomes the first head of state convicted of crimes by an international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials of the post-World War II era.
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. The New York Times sums up his gruesome record by noting that he was found guilty “of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his part in fomenting mass brutality that included murder, rape, the use of child soldiers, the mutilation of thousands of civilians, and the mining of diamonds to pay for guns and ammunition.”
If you happen to be in Manhattan today and the skies are clear at sunset, take a look west as the sun goes down. Thanks to the island’s famous grid system of streets there are two days of the year, May 30 and July 11, when the sun sets right smack in the middle of each east-west street.
Because the broad Hudson River runs along Manhattan’s west side, you can see the sun almost all the way to the horizon. It’s amazingly dramatic as the reddened sunlight floods through the narrow, high-walled streets of Gotham. For me, it always marked the official beginning of the New York summer.
A milestone of sorts was crossed yesterday when the Israeli government agreed to pay the wages of non-Orthodox rabbis currently serving on local religious councils. Acting on the advice of the Supreme Court, the country’s attorney general ruled that a Reform rabbi who is serving on a council should be paid just as Orthodox rabbis who serve in the same capacity are currently financed by the state. The decision was the result of delicate negotiations and hair-splitting in which the state didn’t actually recognize the Reform rabbi in question — Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer — as a rabbi per se, but as a “rabbi of a non-Orthodox community.” Nor will she or any other such official be given any authority over religious matters but just given the right to serve their specific communities. Nonetheless, the decision was still criticized by Orthodox politicians and organizations that begrudge the least whiff of state approval or funds for the Reform or Conservative rabbinate.
The decision, while welcome by Diaspora Jewry, will also serve to highlight the ongoing inequality between Jewish denominations in Israel wherein Orthodoxy is considered the official, subsidized authority on Judaism and Reform and Conservative Judaism are wrongly treated as illegitimate knock-offs. This is bitterly resented by the majority of American Jews who identify with non-Orthodox religious streams and is the cause of no small amount of tension with Israel. But the deal that produced this advance for their denominations also ought to make it clear to Americans that the problem is not so much Israeli prejudice against their beliefs but a system in which any rabbi is paid by the state.
Even Israeli leaders are calling for stronger Western action against Syria. In the wake of the Houla massacre, Defense Minister Ehud Barak criticized the expulsions of Syrian diplomats as inadequate and said, “More concrete action is required. These are crimes against humanity and it’s impossible that the international community is going to stand aside.”
On one level this might not seem terribly surprising—Syria is, after all, in a longstanding state of war with Israel, and the Assad regime has long been a leading backer of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other anti-Israeli terrorist groups. So it makes sense that Israeli leaders would call for tougher action against Assad. Except that for years Israeli leaders have viewed the Assad regime as a bulwark of stability and have dismissed calls for supporting the opposition. I remember a few years ago having an argument with a senior Israeli official in Jerusalem on this very issue; he dismissed my suggestion that it would be better for Assad to go as the fantasy of an American who did not have to live next door to Syria.
Now even the Israelis realize that the Assads deliver a faux stability and that their removal actually has the potential—not the certainty but the potential—to improve the strategic outlook for Israel while hurting Israel’s main enemy, Iran. If only the Obama administration had reached a similar conclusion.
John has already responded to President Obama’s absurd claim about being a Judaism genius. But that may not even be the most offensive argument Obama made at yesterday’s meeting with Conservative Jewish rabbis, according to the Haaretz report. When asked about his personal views on Israel — the kishkes question again — Obama reportedly went for the some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jews defense:
There were some questions directed at the president concerning his thoughts on the role of religious leaders in a more civil political dialogue, which then lead to the inevitable question – how does he feel about Israel? Obama joked that [Chief of Staff Jack] Lew always warns him it will get to “the kishkes question.”
“Rather than describe how deeply I care about Israel, I want to be blunt about how we got here,” Obama said, reminding his guests that he had so many Jewish friends in Chicago at the beginning of his political career that he was accused of being a puppet of the Israel lobby.
The United Nations has hardly been a cheerleader for the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan. In fact, UN representatives have often been skeptical of the methods and tactics employed by American troops. So it is particularly noteworthy that even the UN is recording a big drop—21 percent–in civilian deaths in the first four months of 2012 compared with the same period a year ago. This tallies with NATO figures showing a drop in insurgent attacks—evidence that the post-2009 surge is working.
Unfortunately, just as American troops and their allies are making demonstrable progress, their political masters are preparing to pull them out. French troops are due to leave this year and more than 20,000 American troops are due to leave in September with more, perhaps, to follow before long. Western politicians would be foolish, now that the coalition actually has the initiative and the Taliban are on their heels, to let up on the pressure. But that is precisely what may happen, allowing the Taliban, Haqqanis, et al., to pull a political victory out of their battlefield defeats.
In the last year, President Obama loudly denounced Syria dictator Bashar al-Assad for human rights abuses and confidently predicted the regime’s fall. But as in virtually every other difficult foreign policy question, the president has preferred to “lead from behind,” which in this case means doing absolutely nothing while Assad slaughters thousands. The most recent Syrian atrocity has brought this shameful inaction back into the spotlight, but as Mitt Romney’s justified criticism of Obama on the issue yesterday makes clear, both the president and his challenger need to come up with more coherent positions.
The administration has tried to have it both ways on Syria ever since the protests there began more than a year ago. On the one hand, Obama wants to pose as the scourge of tyrants and a supporter of human rights, so he has claimed it was only a matter of time before Assad was driven out. But he has done nothing to match those words, and the result is that the atrocities continue with no end in sight. Romney rightly criticized this inaction yesterday as an example of the president’s feckless and cowardly foreign policy. But though this critique is warranted, Romney’s own prescription for U.S. action on Syria isn’t a heckuva lot better. As the New York Times reports:
He called for the United States to “work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so they can defend themselves” — a policy that goes somewhat further than Mr. Obama’s but falls short of the airstrikes advocated by Republicans like Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
The problem here is that despite the blithe assumptions commonly heard in the West about Assad’s inevitable doom, there is no reason to believe that he cannot sustain himself in power so long as the security services remain loyal to him.
According to a recent Washington Post story,
The proportion of Americans in their prime working years who have jobs is smaller than it has been at any time in the 23 years before the recession, according to federal statistics, reflecting the profound and lasting effects that the downturn has had on the nation’s economic prospects.
By this measure, the jobs situation has improved little in recent years. The percentage of workers between the ages of 25 and 54 who have jobs now stands at 75.7 percent, just a percentage point over what it was at the downturn’s worst, according to federal statistics.
Before the recession the proportion hovered at 80 percent.
While the unemployment rate may be the most closely watched gauge of the economy in the presidential campaign, this measure of prime-age workers captures more of the ongoing turbulence in the job market. It reflects “missing workers” who have stopped looking for work and aren’t included in the unemployment rate.
During their prime years, Americans are supposed to be building careers and wealth to prepare for their retirement. Instead, as the indicator reveals, huge numbers are on the sidelines.
“What it shows is that we are still near the bottom of a very big hole that opened in the recession,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.
The Post story goes on to point out that the percentage of prime-age men who are working is smaller now than it has been in any time before the recession, going all the way back to 1948, while the proportion of prime-age women is at a low not seen since 1988. A 50-year-old heating and AC technician from Alexandria, Virginia, was out of work in 2009 but found a job right away. He was laid off again about six months ago and, standing outside the Alexandria unemployment office, said it seems harder this time around.
Apparently, Barack Obama told a visiting contingent of Conservative Jewish rabbis that he probably knows more about Judaism than any other president—on the same day that he referred to “Polish death camps.” For that last remark he apologized, but the one about Judaism is far more telling. In the first place, the claim is transparently absurd. We can quickly pass over the fact that John Adams and James Madison, among the most educated men in the world at the time, knew Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek and just say that the president is, to put it mildly, punching above his weight here. So let’s move on to the fact that every president until the modern era knew more about Judaism than Barack Obama because the Bible was the one book every literate person knew, and the Bible includes the books Christians call the “Old Testament,” and a working knowledge of the Old Testament certainly is the best introduction to “Judaism” there is.
Earlier presidents did not learn the Talmud, of course, but if Barack Obama ever has, that would come as news to me. There is no indication from Obama’s own writing that he is especially Bible-literate, and we can presume that his notorious pastor of 20 years used the Bible primarily as flavoring for his political duck soup. I have no doubt that, among presidents closer to our time, Jimmy Carter was far more conversant in the lore of Biblical Judaism, for all the good it did his corrupted soul when it comes to the Jewish state.
Mitt Romney’s favorability rating is at its highest point in the race, due almost completely to a surge of popularity among women, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll:
One group where Romney has picked up considerable steam since mid-April is among GOP women, 80 percent of whom now have favorable views of the former Massachusetts governor. That’s up from 59 percent last month.
The shift among GOP women has also driven Romney to a fresh high among Republicans more broadly; as a group, 78 percent now hold favorable views of their party’s 2012 standard bearer. Some 84 percent of Democrats have positive views about Obama.
Because the shift is among Republican women, the typical post-primary readjustment could definitely be a factor. But also note that the same trend didn’t take place with men in general (in fact, Romney actually lost a bit of ground with men since last month).
In addition to her unsubstantiated distinction as Harvard’s first woman of color, it turns out that Elizabeth Warren may have also participated in a landmark event for women’s liberation. I’m of course referring to her status as the first nursing mother to take the New Jersey bar exam.
Unfortunately, Warren’s place in history as a feminist icon is in limbo because, once again, her claims can’t be substantiated. The Boston Herald reports:
“I was the first nursing mother to take a bar exam in the state of New Jersey,” Warren told an audience at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2011, in a video posted on the CHF website. When asked how Warren knows that, her campaign said: “Elizabeth was making a point about the very serious challenges she faced as a working mom — from taking an all-day bar exam when she was still breast-feeding, to finding work as a lawyer that would accommodate a mom with two small children.”
Winnie Comfort of the New Jersey Judiciary, which administers that state’s bar exam, said there’s no way to verify Warren’s claim. Comfort said women have been taking the New Jersey bar exam since 1895, but she’s not aware their nursing habits were ever tracked.
Former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu does a fine job schooling CNN’s Soledad O’Brien over Donald Trump and the so-called birther issue. In saying this, I should point out that I would go further than the Romney campaign in repudiating Trump, who is a noxious figure in American politics. What Trump is doing in calling into question Obama’s citizenship is attempting to delegitimize the president, to argue that his presidency is unconstitutional and that he is alien. Crossing that line damages our political discourse and American politics more broadly.
There’s of course no rulebook one can consult when it comes to the matter of repudiating supporters. It’s a judgment call that has to be done on a case-by-case basis. In the case of Trump, who is a prominent Romney supporter, his attraction to conspiracy theories deserves a strong rebuke. When a political party gives a home to those who peddle in paranoia – a home to self-promotional cranks — it leads to an erosion of credibility. Romney ought to say so.
With that said, CNN is complicit in this political circus as well. My point isn’t that the issue shouldn’t be covered at all; it is that, as Governor Sununu points out, the network is fixated on Trump and the birther issue. It’s drawn to it like a moth to a flame in a pitch-dark night. Here’s the problem. Bill Maher donated a million dollars to a super PAC supporting President Obama, and to my knowledge Obama hasn’t distanced himself from Maher’s crude attacks on women. Yet CNN seems remarkably indifferent to this story. I wonder why.
Yesterday, Alana noted the latest fallout from Cory Booker’s critique of the Obama administration on “Meet the Press” and the subsequent, utterly ridiculous “hostage” video he recorded after the Obama campaign reminded him that independent thinking is strongly discouraged in the Democratic Party. Booker’s communications director, Anne Torres, resigned, citing “different views on how communications should be run.”
It wasn’t clear whether Torres objected more to Booker’s defense of capitalism or the cringeworthy apology video–which would have been embarrassing for any communications shop to have on its record–or whether this was merely the last straw in a simmering dispute (possibly about the mayor’s famous obsession with Twitter). But considering that Obama’s Bain attacks made several high-profile Democrats uncomfortable, the fact that Booker was the only one to consent to a walkback video seemed to indicate that the campaign wanted no daylight between Obama and Booker on the issue, even if others strayed from the message. Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray took a look at how race may have affected the campaign’s damage control strategy:
As Senator Barack Obama rose toward power in 2007 and 2008, he was sometimes taken as the avatar of a new generation of African-American leaders.
They were, PBS’s Gwen Ifill wrote, a “Joshua Generation” led by figures from Alabama Rep. Artur Davis to Newark Mayor Cory Booker. They were, like Obama, born too late to participate in the Civil Rights movement, and late enough to benefit from it with blue chip educations and direct paths to power. They were free of the urban machines that had defined black politics in America, and ready for a different and more hopeful sort of politics of race.
But as President Barack Obama struggles to keep his party united around him, few figures have proven more troublesome than that cadre of black leaders, each of whom was seen at some point as a candidate for the post which only Obama will ever hold: First Black President.
Remember when Meir Dagan, upon leaving office as head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, gave a briefing to the press, where he warned against hasty military decisions and said that “Israel should not hasten to attack Iran, doing so only when the sword is upon its neck”?
In a clear reference to Dagan’s words, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, has just said, in a lecture delivered earlier today at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies that “the metaphorical sword is now on our neck.”
Israel is the only country in the world that launched, not once but twice, a preemptive strike on an adversary’s nuclear facilities. These words should not be taken lightly by Western policymakers intent on stretching the ongoing negotiating round with Iran at least until the November U.S. presidential elections.
A year ago, I could be counted among the vast majority of political observers who were prepared to tell you why Mitt Romney couldn’t win the Republican nomination. Today, in the aftermath of last night’s Texas Primary that allowed the former Massachusetts governor to gain a clear majority of delegates to the Republican convention, the nomination is securely and officially in his pocket. Why was I — along with a lot of other people — so wrong about Romney? There were many reasons, and more about that in a moment.
But the main point about the GOP nominee today is that after a difficult, long and bitter primary fight that was supposed to have left him weakened and with a well-funded incumbent president who is already launching brutal personal attacks on him with the eager assistance of most of the mainstream media, Romney is right where he needs to be. Though President Obama has some real advantages, the presidential race is a virtual dead heat. The economy, which is Romney’s strongest issue, is showing no signs of the sort of robust recovery that could guarantee the president’s re-election. The initial Democratic assaults on Romney’s business record (the Bain theme) and on the Republican Party in general (the faux “war on women”) have more or less flopped. A lot can happen in the next five months, but having weathered so many negative attacks from both sides of the political aisle in the last year, only the most starry-eyed Obama idolaters or the most hardened GOP pessimists could deny that Romney has, at worst, an even chance of being sworn in as the 45th president next January.
Against the backdrop of continued massacres in Syria, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared, “The Assad regime’s brutality against its own people must and will end,” although neither she nor the White House has outlined a strategy to meet that goal.
President Obama prefers to work through allies. He has sought to bring Russian strongman Vladimir Putin around. If Putin does not care about human rights in Russia, however, it is doubtful he cares too much about ordinary Syrians, especially if it means undermining the regime which hosts Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union. As in Libya, he also prefers to work from behind through other allies. How embarrassing it is for a superpower like the United States to take the backseat to the likes of Zimbabwe, which has announced it is training its troops in advance of a Syrian peacekeeping mission.