Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 9, 2012

Settlements’ Legality Won’t Prevent Peace

The release of a report on the legality of Israel’s presence in the West Bank commissioned by Prime Minister Netanyahu is being widely dismissed by critics of his government as well as those of the Jewish state. Though its findings that Jews have the right to live in the territories and that Israel’s presence there does not fit the traditional definition of a military occupation are solidly based in international law, no one should expect the left to respect the report issued by a panel headed by former Supreme Court Vice President Edmond Levy. Nor should we be surprised if the international community ignores it. Opposition to the settlements is so deeply entrenched that there is no argument, no matter how grounded in logic or justice, that would persuade those committed to the myth settlements are the only obstacle to peace, that they are not illegal. As legal scholar David M. Phillips wrote in the September 2009 issue of COMMENTARY, international law supports this position.

But while we expect this effort to be trashed, those horrified by the fact that Israel is willing to assert that it has rights in the West Bank that are as worthy of respect as those of the Arabs are not just wrong about the legal arguments. Their assumption that a belief in the settlements’ legality makes a peace deal impossible is equally mistaken. Just because Israel has rights in the West Bank doesn’t mean it need necessarily exercise them on every inch of the territory. The assertion of Jewish rights merely means Israel has a leg to stand on when negotiating the permanent status of the West Bank and Jerusalem. Far from that rendering peace unlikely, it ought to give Palestinians an incentive to come to the table and work out a deal that will give them as much of the territory as they can get. The obstacle to peace is the Palestinian belief that the Jewish presence throughout the country — including pre-1967 Israel — is illegitimate.

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The release of a report on the legality of Israel’s presence in the West Bank commissioned by Prime Minister Netanyahu is being widely dismissed by critics of his government as well as those of the Jewish state. Though its findings that Jews have the right to live in the territories and that Israel’s presence there does not fit the traditional definition of a military occupation are solidly based in international law, no one should expect the left to respect the report issued by a panel headed by former Supreme Court Vice President Edmond Levy. Nor should we be surprised if the international community ignores it. Opposition to the settlements is so deeply entrenched that there is no argument, no matter how grounded in logic or justice, that would persuade those committed to the myth settlements are the only obstacle to peace, that they are not illegal. As legal scholar David M. Phillips wrote in the September 2009 issue of COMMENTARY, international law supports this position.

But while we expect this effort to be trashed, those horrified by the fact that Israel is willing to assert that it has rights in the West Bank that are as worthy of respect as those of the Arabs are not just wrong about the legal arguments. Their assumption that a belief in the settlements’ legality makes a peace deal impossible is equally mistaken. Just because Israel has rights in the West Bank doesn’t mean it need necessarily exercise them on every inch of the territory. The assertion of Jewish rights merely means Israel has a leg to stand on when negotiating the permanent status of the West Bank and Jerusalem. Far from that rendering peace unlikely, it ought to give Palestinians an incentive to come to the table and work out a deal that will give them as much of the territory as they can get. The obstacle to peace is the Palestinian belief that the Jewish presence throughout the country — including pre-1967 Israel — is illegitimate.

As Phillips and the new report pointed out, the international conventions prohibiting the movement of people into occupied territory has no application in the West Bank, as it forms part of the League of Nations Palestinian Mandate that was established to facilitate the creation of a national home for the Jews. Far from the West Bank being “stolen” from the Palestinians, it was simply unallocated territory from the former Ottoman Empire where Jews had legal rights as powerful as those of the Arabs. Nor do the postwar resolutions formed in response to Nazi policies in Eastern Europe that are frequently cited by settlement foes apply to Israel’s very different policies.

The widespread interpretation of this report is that it will allow Netanyahu to avoid demolishing those settlement outposts that were not previously authorized by the government. But any outpost that was built on land owned by Arabs can still be uprooted by legal action, as was the case with the Ulpana neighborhood of Beit El.

The fallacy here is not just that the effort to delegitimize the Jewish presence in the West Bank and Jerusalem is not a correct interpretation of international law. It is just as important to note that once Israel’s rights are confirmed, it doesn’t obligate Netanyahu or any of his successors to hold onto all of the land. The report’s recommendations that limits on growth in existing settlements should be lifted likewise doesn’t mean that a peace deal can’t be reached. Most of the settlements would be retained even in proposals put forward by the Jewish left, and those left out could still be evacuated, as the withdrawal from Gaza proved.

What it does do is force the Palestinians to understand that if they want peace, they must compromise.

But that is something they won’t do on the West Bank for the same reason they are unwilling to recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. It is that reluctance to give up their opposition to Jewish sovereignty even inside the Green Line that prevents peace. Were the PA willing to make a peace deal that would end the conflict for all time, they could have the independent state they were offered and refused in 2000, 2001 and 2008. The settlement’s legality wouldn’t stop Israel from evacuating any place conceded in a peace deal. But so long as the Palestinians are encouraged to believe they can uproot all of the Jews, including those living in the Jewish settlement built on the outskirts of Jaffa a century ago that is now known as Tel Aviv, it won’t matter what the legal scholars say about any of this.

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Obama Won’t Keep Middle Class Tax Vow

In a transparent effort to pre-empt Republican arguments about tax cuts, President Obama unveiled a proposal today for a one-year cut for all Americans making less than $250,000 per year. While calculated to play well with his faux working class campaign rhetoric, the president’s plan makes no economic sense. Implementing a massive tax increase on those with the capital to invest it and therefore create jobs is not the sort of thing that will help a flagging economy. Nor will it do anything to stem the bleeding that creates job reports such as the one released last Friday that illustrated the country’s unemployment problem. But, as James Pethokoukis writes at the American Enterprise Blog, the president’s dare to Congress to pass such a plan or to implement a simpler tax code is pure political baloney.

As Pethokoukis points out, had he really wished to push through a simplification of the tax code, he could have endorsed the Simpson-Bowles Commission recommendations. More to the point, Obama’s predilection has always been to eliminate all the Bush-era tax cuts, including those on the middle class. If he is re-elected, he may well implement his promise of the continuation of the current rates on those making less than $250,000. But the significant element of this stance is that he is not promising to keep them for his entire second term but only for the first year.

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In a transparent effort to pre-empt Republican arguments about tax cuts, President Obama unveiled a proposal today for a one-year cut for all Americans making less than $250,000 per year. While calculated to play well with his faux working class campaign rhetoric, the president’s plan makes no economic sense. Implementing a massive tax increase on those with the capital to invest it and therefore create jobs is not the sort of thing that will help a flagging economy. Nor will it do anything to stem the bleeding that creates job reports such as the one released last Friday that illustrated the country’s unemployment problem. But, as James Pethokoukis writes at the American Enterprise Blog, the president’s dare to Congress to pass such a plan or to implement a simpler tax code is pure political baloney.

As Pethokoukis points out, had he really wished to push through a simplification of the tax code, he could have endorsed the Simpson-Bowles Commission recommendations. More to the point, Obama’s predilection has always been to eliminate all the Bush-era tax cuts, including those on the middle class. If he is re-elected, he may well implement his promise of the continuation of the current rates on those making less than $250,000. But the significant element of this stance is that he is not promising to keep them for his entire second term but only for the first year.

The key point here is the same one that concerns those who worry about American foreign policy in a second Obama administration: flexibility. Just as the president will be able to implement more “flexible” policies that may please Russia and displease Israel, so, too, he is more likely than not to do what he has always planned on doing if re-elected: raise everybody’s taxes.

Indeed, once his job-killing health care bill is implemented in the next four years and the economy is mired in the doldrums without the White House putting forward any ideas other than to spend more, the president will have no choice but to raise taxes. And because soaking the rich will only get him so far, the middle class he is currently romancing is certain to be next in line.

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Israel’s Democratic Revolution

As the Arab Spring drifts away from its democratic promise, there is one place in the Middle East where democracy is proving both resilient and capable of responding to a nation’s most intractable difficulties: Israel.

You can be forgiven for not noticing, as the normally Israel-obsessed Western press finds itself strangely tongue-tied on this matter, but the Jewish state appears to be on the verge of completing a reform of its law governing the draft of its citizens into national service. In a country where since its birth all non-Haredi Jews have been both legally and culturally bound to military service on their 18th birthday, the extension of that service requirement to the Arab and Haredi minorities, even if most will not serve in the military, would be a revolution of epic proportions.

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As the Arab Spring drifts away from its democratic promise, there is one place in the Middle East where democracy is proving both resilient and capable of responding to a nation’s most intractable difficulties: Israel.

You can be forgiven for not noticing, as the normally Israel-obsessed Western press finds itself strangely tongue-tied on this matter, but the Jewish state appears to be on the verge of completing a reform of its law governing the draft of its citizens into national service. In a country where since its birth all non-Haredi Jews have been both legally and culturally bound to military service on their 18th birthday, the extension of that service requirement to the Arab and Haredi minorities, even if most will not serve in the military, would be a revolution of epic proportions.

The exclusion of the non-Jewish and Haredi minorities from the ideal of national service is a wound that has steadily torn at Israel’s national fabric for decades. The exclusions came about for different reasons: Arabs were seen – for reason – as holding conflicting loyalties that would make military service not possible for most. The Haredi exclusion (ostensibly for yeshiva students alone) was born of Israel’s first foray into coalition politics, a price demanded by the Haredi political parties the Labor Zionist David Ben-Gurion needed to form a government that would not include his rivals on the Revisionist right.

Over time, both of the exclusions have grown untenable, also for their own reasons. While the Druze community has taken on military service for decades, and it is an option at least theoretically open to any Israeli Arab, the failure of the majority of the Arab minority to participate has served as a barrier to their integration into Israeli society, and so has likely played its role in the increased radicalization of Israeli Arab political leadership in the past decade.

For the Haredim, an exclusion that once applied to a few hundred has grown to absolve as many as 60,000 young men of draftable age a year, making the draft exemption, along with the lack of full Haredi workforce participation and explosive demographic growth, a potent symbol of the growing unequal burden carried by the non-Haredi Jewish majority.

The one-state demographic doomsayers to the side, the combination of the increased alienation from the state on the part of its largest non-Jewish minority and its fastest growing Jewish sector has recently felt like the most pressing state crisis for many Israelis. As writers like Daniel Gordis have long been pointing out, it is this future, of a decreasing Zionist majority pinned between populations that do not contribute to and actively draw resources from the Jewish state, that has seemed most frightening and disastrous, in particular because solving it requires the coalescence of the fractured parties representing the Zionist majority who have proven themselves adept at avoiding the problem for decades.

All of this is reason to applaud the current horse-trading between these groups in the Knesset. No doubt whatever law that emerges will be far from perfect. It is also far from clear a significant reform will in fact ultimately be passed.

But the historic coalition formed this past spring by Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu and the head of his former opposition Shaul Mofaz set the stage for the opportunity. Waged in Israel’s characteristically combative democratic style, the government’s potential passage of a new draft law that would incorporate all of Israel’s citizens into some form of national service represents a potential refounding of the state as one whose burdens and privileges are a burden shared equally by all.

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Re: Time to Call Haqqanis Terrorists

Max Boot is correct to call for the designation of the Haqqani Network as a terrorist group, but he does not go far enough in sketching out the implications. The reason why the State Department has not pushed forward with the designation is not only because U.S. diplomats want to maintain the ability to negotiate with the Haqqanis, but because designating the Haqqanis would make it very difficult to avoid listing Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror.

The fact that the Haqqani Network is a terrorist group is irrefutable. The White House may want to drag its feet in pursuit of some diplomatic fiction, but the Congress may not be so tolerant. Already, there is a bill in the House calling for the designation. It may not be such a long shot: Remember, the White House opposed further sanctions on Iran, but the Senate voted 100-0 to impose them anyway. Only after they showed some positive effect did the White House retroactively claim credit.

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Max Boot is correct to call for the designation of the Haqqani Network as a terrorist group, but he does not go far enough in sketching out the implications. The reason why the State Department has not pushed forward with the designation is not only because U.S. diplomats want to maintain the ability to negotiate with the Haqqanis, but because designating the Haqqanis would make it very difficult to avoid listing Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror.

The fact that the Haqqani Network is a terrorist group is irrefutable. The White House may want to drag its feet in pursuit of some diplomatic fiction, but the Congress may not be so tolerant. Already, there is a bill in the House calling for the designation. It may not be such a long shot: Remember, the White House opposed further sanctions on Iran, but the Senate voted 100-0 to impose them anyway. Only after they showed some positive effect did the White House retroactively claim credit.

Negotiating with the Haqqanis—or any terrorist group—is bad policy; it never works. The Haqqanis are not operating to rectify a grievance, but  are conducting terrorism in pursuit of a radical, religious ideology. They do not see compromise as a virtue. Successful diplomacy is not based on fiction, but on reality.

It is for this reason that we need to have a serious discussion about whether or not Pakistan qualifies as a state sponsor of terror. Pakistan not only hosts and supplies the Haqqani Network but, as Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad shows, its powers that be are also complicit with al-Qaeda. Designation of Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror will certainly have implications on logistical routes into Afghanistan, but as Pakistan’s recent about face on trucking American supplies shows, it recognizes its hand is not as strong as it thought. As my colleague Reza Jan argues, it now has interest bills on loans coming due, and Washington wields more power than Islamabad at the International Monetary Fund and other international financial organs.

If we are ever going to get U.S.-Pakistani relations on the right foot, it is essential we deal with the root problem responsible for all the other ill-symptoms. And if that mandates calling a spade a spade, then so be it.

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Why Did MoveOn Apologize for Opposing Radical Foe of Israel?

Last month, MoveOn.org joined a chorus of liberals and Democrats pleading with New York Democrats not to nominate Charles Barron for a safe New York City congressional seat. MoveOn sent out an email blast aimed at the radical candidate. Barron, a vicious anti-Zionist and radical supporter of dictators like Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, was political poison for the Democrats, and his defeat by the more centrist Hakeem Jeffries caused the entire party to heave a sigh of relief. But according to one of the group’s top leaders, the decision to draw a line between its activities and a hatemonger was a terrible mistake.

As JTA reports, Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action, apologized for the email blast at Barron. Calling the group’s condemnation of Barron — a candidate who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan’s David Duke — “offensive and inflammatory,” Ruben walked back MoveOn’s involvement in the race saying:

The email was all too reminiscent of the kind of attacks that have been used by our opponents to divide progressives over and over again — white folks from African Americans, Jews from non-Jews, recent immigrants from descendants of immigrants, etc.

Why would anyone regret being part of an effort to save the Democrats from the humiliation of nominating someone who has become the poster child for the radicalization of their party? The answer is simple. Ruben’s walk back of the attack on Barron is consistent with the group’s origins and its basic purpose.

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Last month, MoveOn.org joined a chorus of liberals and Democrats pleading with New York Democrats not to nominate Charles Barron for a safe New York City congressional seat. MoveOn sent out an email blast aimed at the radical candidate. Barron, a vicious anti-Zionist and radical supporter of dictators like Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, was political poison for the Democrats, and his defeat by the more centrist Hakeem Jeffries caused the entire party to heave a sigh of relief. But according to one of the group’s top leaders, the decision to draw a line between its activities and a hatemonger was a terrible mistake.

As JTA reports, Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action, apologized for the email blast at Barron. Calling the group’s condemnation of Barron — a candidate who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan’s David Duke — “offensive and inflammatory,” Ruben walked back MoveOn’s involvement in the race saying:

The email was all too reminiscent of the kind of attacks that have been used by our opponents to divide progressives over and over again — white folks from African Americans, Jews from non-Jews, recent immigrants from descendants of immigrants, etc.

Why would anyone regret being part of an effort to save the Democrats from the humiliation of nominating someone who has become the poster child for the radicalization of their party? The answer is simple. Ruben’s walk back of the attack on Barron is consistent with the group’s origins and its basic purpose.

The email blast at Barron might have seemed like a sensible thing for a liberal group to do. But MoveOn’s apology is a reminder that it is a beachhead for the radical left in American politics, not a bastion of traditional liberalism.

The JTA article referred to past controversies about MoveOn’s website forums, which were well-known for being home to the worst sort of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist hate speech. The group says it removed any offensive speech, but critics have rightly pointed out that most of the really nasty stuff about Jews and Israel remained. But no matter what its online fans say or don’t say, MoveOn’s far left politics are antithetical to the maintenance of a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.

Even more to the point, as Ruben’s apology highlights, it is the sort of radical group which can never envision having any enemies on the left even if that puts them into bed with the worst sort of anti-Semites and haters. If MoveOn’s political action committee thinks there is something wrong with pointing out that a politician spews bile at Israel and the Jews, it is an indication that the group believes there is nothing wrong with such behavior. Though the group’s condemnation of Barron was the act of a rational liberal group, it was actually out of character with the organization’s spirit and, no doubt, repulsive to many of its activists.

While some in the media have treated MoveOn as a serious player, its moment in the national spotlight during the heyday of the anti-Iraq war protests is over and with it, its claim to mainstream status. The Barron walk back ought to signal those who have lauded it that this creature of George Soros’s wealth should not be accorded the respect it has gotten. The mutual affection of MoveOn and David Duke for an Israel-hater tells you all you need to know about where the group fits into the political spectrum — on the margins where the far left and the far right merge.

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Iran’s UN Arms Control Post is No Joke

As the recent documentary film “UN Me” proved, the line between satire and reality at the United Nations is razor thin. There is no shortage of outrageous examples of how tyrannical regimes have twisted the founding ideals of the UN into the corrupt talking shop that currently befouls international discourse. But there are times when the world body does something so outrageous that it must give pause to even its most zealous defenders. That level was reached last week when, as UN Watch reports, Iran was voted to a top arms control post at the UN Arms Trade Treaty conference being held in Geneva this month. UN Watch rightly condemned the selection and noted that it happened not long after the UN Security Council condemned Iran for illegally transferring guns and bombs to Syria, which is currently using them to massacre its own citizens.

The choice may, as UN Watch said, defy “logic, morality and common sense,” to elect Iran to a position where it will help monitor compliance with treaty regulations about arms transfers, but since when did the UN have anything to do any of those qualities? But while this will provide Ami Horowitz with fodder for a “UN Me” sequel, the consequences of actions of this sort are actually quite serious. The UN’s legitimization of the Islamist regime undermines the already faltering efforts of the Obama administration to use diplomacy and sanctions to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

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As the recent documentary film “UN Me” proved, the line between satire and reality at the United Nations is razor thin. There is no shortage of outrageous examples of how tyrannical regimes have twisted the founding ideals of the UN into the corrupt talking shop that currently befouls international discourse. But there are times when the world body does something so outrageous that it must give pause to even its most zealous defenders. That level was reached last week when, as UN Watch reports, Iran was voted to a top arms control post at the UN Arms Trade Treaty conference being held in Geneva this month. UN Watch rightly condemned the selection and noted that it happened not long after the UN Security Council condemned Iran for illegally transferring guns and bombs to Syria, which is currently using them to massacre its own citizens.

The choice may, as UN Watch said, defy “logic, morality and common sense,” to elect Iran to a position where it will help monitor compliance with treaty regulations about arms transfers, but since when did the UN have anything to do any of those qualities? But while this will provide Ami Horowitz with fodder for a “UN Me” sequel, the consequences of actions of this sort are actually quite serious. The UN’s legitimization of the Islamist regime undermines the already faltering efforts of the Obama administration to use diplomacy and sanctions to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Those seeking to understand the obdurate refusal of Tehran to play by the rules Washington would like to lay down for them — a point amply illustrated by the position paper obtained by the Times of Israel that points to Iran’s plans for expanding rather than contracting its nuclear program — have to understand Iran’s ability to pose as a legitimate player in international affairs is at the heart of their defiance. The Iranians’ success in Geneva does not do as much to harden their hearts in the P5+1 talks as President Obama’s decision to grant blanket exemptions to Iran’s chief trade partners. But it is all part of a pattern of events that allows the ayatollahs to believe the international community will never hold them accountable for their nuclear transgressions.

The only way Iran can be brought to heel without force is if the sanctions and oil embargo were rigorously enforced and the Islamist leaders of Iran were isolated in the same way those of apartheid-era South Africa were treated. But so long as the ayatollahs are able to support themselves with oil revenue and can point out to their restive people that nobody really cares about their violations of human rights and arms dealing to terrorists and tyrants, why should we expect them to believe President Obama means business when he says he won’t allow Iran to go nuclear?

The UN may be a parody of sane international relations, but the fallout from this and other outrageous examples of how regimes like Iran are treated as responsible players is no joke.

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The Agent of (Negative) Change

According to a new poll for The Hill, two-thirds of likely voters say President Obama has kept his 2008 campaign promise to change America—but it’s changed for the worse.

The survey found 56 percent of likely voters believe Obama’s first term has transformed the nation in a negative way, compared to 35 percent who believe the country has changed for the better under his leadership.

As one would expect, the belief that the president has changed the country for the worse is strongest among Republicans (91 percent). Somewhat surprisingly, only 71 percent of Democrats believe Obama has changed things for the better. I say that because a strikingly high number of Democrats—one in five—are willing to admit they believe Obama has changed the United States for the worse.

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According to a new poll for The Hill, two-thirds of likely voters say President Obama has kept his 2008 campaign promise to change America—but it’s changed for the worse.

The survey found 56 percent of likely voters believe Obama’s first term has transformed the nation in a negative way, compared to 35 percent who believe the country has changed for the better under his leadership.

As one would expect, the belief that the president has changed the country for the worse is strongest among Republicans (91 percent). Somewhat surprisingly, only 71 percent of Democrats believe Obama has changed things for the better. I say that because a strikingly high number of Democrats—one in five—are willing to admit they believe Obama has changed the United States for the worse.

We’re now less than 120 days away from an election in which a sizeable majority of Americans believe the incumbent president has changed America for the worse.

This is the kind of finding that will have a deflating effect on Obama’s political team. Indeed, from the perspective of a re-election campaign, this news is devastating. And there’s very little Obama can do at this stage to reverse it.

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Time to Call the Haqqanis Terrorists

Jeff Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War–one of the best Afghanistan analysts out there–has an excellent question in this Weekly Standard article: Why hasn’t the administration designated the Haqqani Network as a terrorist organization?

There is no legitimate reason to avoid this designation for a group that, according to the testimony of administration officials, has carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan. Once it is designated, that will allow the U.S. and other governments to more actively go after its finances, leaders, and supporters. It appeared that designation–which is favored by both U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General John Allen–was a done deal last year, but it still hasn’t happened, apparently because the State Department wants to maintain the ability to negotiate with the Haqqanis.

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Jeff Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War–one of the best Afghanistan analysts out there–has an excellent question in this Weekly Standard article: Why hasn’t the administration designated the Haqqani Network as a terrorist organization?

There is no legitimate reason to avoid this designation for a group that, according to the testimony of administration officials, has carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan. Once it is designated, that will allow the U.S. and other governments to more actively go after its finances, leaders, and supporters. It appeared that designation–which is favored by both U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General John Allen–was a done deal last year, but it still hasn’t happened, apparently because the State Department wants to maintain the ability to negotiate with the Haqqanis.

There is, in fact, scant chance this fanatical organization will ever voluntarily lay down its arms. But even those who think there is a chance of negotiating with the Haqqanis should favor designation, because the offer to lift that status could be a useful carrot to dangle in front of the Haqqanis. The fact that the Haqqanis have not been designated bespeaks a woeful confusion and lack of purpose within the higher echelons of the administration about the whole war effort in Afghanistan.

If we are serious about drawing down troop numbers without leaving behind utter chaos, then we need to take sterner steps now to try to decrease the power of the Haqqanis and their close allies in the Quetta Shura Taliban. Designation as a terrorist organization isn’t enough. But it’s a start.

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A New Round of Palestinian Extortion

Yasser Arafat was famous for perfecting a style of diplomacy that could win him accolades from naive Westerners without having to make a single concession or sacrifice for the peace process. He would do this by refusing to do something basic that he should have already done until he could extort a reward for it. The West would pretend they got a concession from Arafat, and Arafat would laugh and laugh. It was a classic lose-lose dance that has marked the peace process from the beginning.

Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, is a slight improvement, but in this regard he is turning back the clock. Haaretz is reporting that something which in the pre-Obama days of Middle East diplomacy was taken for granted–the willingness by Palestinians to meet for the purposes of political theater–has turned into something that requires ever more concessions. The latest is the Palestinian demand that Israel release 125 terrorists just for the pleasure of Abbas considering a meeting. Benjamin Netanyahu has supposedly accepted the offer, and issued a proposal for how to structure the deal.

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Yasser Arafat was famous for perfecting a style of diplomacy that could win him accolades from naive Westerners without having to make a single concession or sacrifice for the peace process. He would do this by refusing to do something basic that he should have already done until he could extort a reward for it. The West would pretend they got a concession from Arafat, and Arafat would laugh and laugh. It was a classic lose-lose dance that has marked the peace process from the beginning.

Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, is a slight improvement, but in this regard he is turning back the clock. Haaretz is reporting that something which in the pre-Obama days of Middle East diplomacy was taken for granted–the willingness by Palestinians to meet for the purposes of political theater–has turned into something that requires ever more concessions. The latest is the Palestinian demand that Israel release 125 terrorists just for the pleasure of Abbas considering a meeting. Benjamin Netanyahu has supposedly accepted the offer, and issued a proposal for how to structure the deal.

There are caveats to this: it’s possible Israel was mulling the release of the prisoners at some point in the near future anyway; alternatively, as Abbas has no intention of negotiating it probably won’t happen. Nonetheless, the mere whiff of such a story going public will have negative consequences, as the following two key paragraphs of the story indicate:

The Palestinians are at this point said to be in no hurry to agree to Netanyahu’s proposal; they are concerned that after the initial stage of prisoner release Israel will find excuses not to carry out the other four. The Palestinians also say Israel’s proposal for the exchange of old weapons for new ones is “humiliating,” and does not meet their security needs.

And:

Talks between Erekat and Molho are ongoing ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Israel next Monday. This will be Clinton’s first visit to Israel since September 15, 2010, when she, Netanyahu and Abbas met at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. The talks have been stalled since that meeting.

On the first: the Palestinians are actually balking at their own ridiculous demands because Israel is only agreeing to release some weapons and some murderers to them–surely a recipe for peace–but are afraid they won’t get all the murderers and all the guns and ammo they’re asking for. Translation: they made a crazy offer designed to repulse the Israelis enough to keep them away from the negotiating table. The Israelis accepted the crazy offer–something the Palestinians didn’t anticipate–and now Abbas must find a way to weasel out of it. (He’s done this before; it works.) It’s possible the Israelis are simply calling Abbas’s bluff here. If so, the peace process is no less of a cynical joke than it has been for years.

On the second excerpt from the story: Hillary Clinton is coming to the region (though she is bound to get lost on the way to Jerusalem, since she still doesn’t know what country it’s in) to do some peacemaking, and would like the publicity stunt of announcing the resumption of talks. If she is serious, the first thing she should do is reprimand the Palestinians for trying to extort this face-to-face meeting with Netanyahu. If not, she should save the trip and her breath. If what she wants is peace, she cannot in good faith bless this sort of disaster.

What’s the point of all this? If you read this and thought: This is far too nonsensical for the United Nations not to be involved somehow, you would be right. Next paragraph:

The United States and Israel believe that a Netanyahu-Abbas meeting and Israeli moves could create an atmosphere in which Abbas is less likely to approach the United Nations once again in September with a request to receive the status of a non-member observer state.

Why? What makes them think this? If Clinton wants to prevent the Palestinians from taking more unilateral action at the dictators’ Pack ’n Play that is the United Nations, she should remind Abbas that unilateralism will thus have his blessing, and so he shouldn’t be surprised if the Israelis take a few unilateral actions of their own. What would those unilateral actions be? Who knows? Clinton should dare Abbas to find out.

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U.S. Intervention Helps Shape Mideast

This appears to be the heyday of American-educated professors in the Middle East. Mohammed Morsi, an engineering Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, is the new president of Egypt. Mahmoud Jibril, a political science Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, is the likely new leader of Libya. But there the comparisons end. For while Morsi is an Islamist who is closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Jibril is a liberal secularist who ran in opposition to the Brotherhood. His coalition’s triumph in Libya’s weekend election shows that there is nothing inevitable about an Islamist takeover in the Arab world’s emerging democracies.

It also shows that American intervention can help to shape the region for the better. Jibril’s credibility comes not only from his affiliation in the populous Warfalla tribe but also from his American background (free of the taint of cooperation with the previous regime) and his role as head of the National Transitional Council which, with Western support, led the fight against Qaddafi. Many in the West fear that any Western support will be the kiss of death for Arab moderates who will be denounced as Western lackeys by their own people. Not in Libya. The very fact that the U.S. and its allies got actively involved allowed them to boost a moderate leader despite Libya’s turbulent politics.

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This appears to be the heyday of American-educated professors in the Middle East. Mohammed Morsi, an engineering Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, is the new president of Egypt. Mahmoud Jibril, a political science Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, is the likely new leader of Libya. But there the comparisons end. For while Morsi is an Islamist who is closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Jibril is a liberal secularist who ran in opposition to the Brotherhood. His coalition’s triumph in Libya’s weekend election shows that there is nothing inevitable about an Islamist takeover in the Arab world’s emerging democracies.

It also shows that American intervention can help to shape the region for the better. Jibril’s credibility comes not only from his affiliation in the populous Warfalla tribe but also from his American background (free of the taint of cooperation with the previous regime) and his role as head of the National Transitional Council which, with Western support, led the fight against Qaddafi. Many in the West fear that any Western support will be the kiss of death for Arab moderates who will be denounced as Western lackeys by their own people. Not in Libya. The very fact that the U.S. and its allies got actively involved allowed them to boost a moderate leader despite Libya’s turbulent politics.

There is a lesson here worth keeping in mind with regard to Syria, where numerous factions are jostling for influence after the downfall of Bashar al-Assad. The more actively the U.S. gets involved in toppling the tyrant, the more influence we–as opposed to the Saudis or Qataris–will have in determining Syria’s future. So too in Egypt we have an opportunity to back liberal parties and help them to get better organized so the Egyptian people will not face the same dismal choice between the Brotherhood and the army. This is an opportunity we dare not miss.

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Sliming Romney Won’t Re-elect Obama

A USA Today/Gallup poll of 12 swing states doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know about the presidential race. It’s very tight, with President Obama holding a slim 47-45 percentage point lead over Mitt Romney in the 12 states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin) that are likely to decide the election. However, the significant figure Democrats will be crowing about is not that two-point edge that is well within the poll’s four-point margin of error. Rather, it is the fact that eight percent of those polled say the political ads they have seen in recent months have influenced their opinions. As the pollsters rightly assume, it isn’t likely that a brief television commercial will change anyone’s opinion of the president — about whom most voters have entrenched views be they positive or negative — but that means the deluge of negative Democratic ads about Mitt Romney have changed some minds about the Republican nominee.

That’s good news for Democrats who understand that sliming the challenger is the only way for a president who can’t run on his record to gain re-election. The bad news is that if the smears directed at Romney’s business record have only managed to keep Obama relatively even with his opponent, it’s a sign he’s in trouble. Contrary to the Pollyannas of political punditry who say such attacks hurt the candidate who throws the mud, going negative is actually quite effective. But while the Democrats can help themselves by seeking to solidify the image of Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy in the minds of the public, the president’s efforts to shift the blame for the poor economy on his predecessors are not working as well. That means the president’s campaign has locked itself into a box in which the only way to go is to continue escalating their attacks on Romney. That’s worrisome for Romney but also doesn’t give Democrats much room for winning over independents who are more concerned about the parlous state of the economy than about Romney’s wealth.

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A USA Today/Gallup poll of 12 swing states doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know about the presidential race. It’s very tight, with President Obama holding a slim 47-45 percentage point lead over Mitt Romney in the 12 states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin) that are likely to decide the election. However, the significant figure Democrats will be crowing about is not that two-point edge that is well within the poll’s four-point margin of error. Rather, it is the fact that eight percent of those polled say the political ads they have seen in recent months have influenced their opinions. As the pollsters rightly assume, it isn’t likely that a brief television commercial will change anyone’s opinion of the president — about whom most voters have entrenched views be they positive or negative — but that means the deluge of negative Democratic ads about Mitt Romney have changed some minds about the Republican nominee.

That’s good news for Democrats who understand that sliming the challenger is the only way for a president who can’t run on his record to gain re-election. The bad news is that if the smears directed at Romney’s business record have only managed to keep Obama relatively even with his opponent, it’s a sign he’s in trouble. Contrary to the Pollyannas of political punditry who say such attacks hurt the candidate who throws the mud, going negative is actually quite effective. But while the Democrats can help themselves by seeking to solidify the image of Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy in the minds of the public, the president’s efforts to shift the blame for the poor economy on his predecessors are not working as well. That means the president’s campaign has locked itself into a box in which the only way to go is to continue escalating their attacks on Romney. That’s worrisome for Romney but also doesn’t give Democrats much room for winning over independents who are more concerned about the parlous state of the economy than about Romney’s wealth.

In a close election, what both sides need more than anything else is to turn out their bases. Negative ads about Romney and Obama will help in that regard. The analogy that comes up most often is the way Republican abuse of John Kerry energized conservatives and hurt the Democrat’s efforts to win over independents. The assault on Kerry worked because he was an elitist who had little sympathy for the views of most Americans. Yet each election and each candidate is different. Romney does have a problem connecting with ordinary voters, and the attacks on his record at Bain Capital have done some damage. Romney is a rich guy, but for all of his wealth, he epitomizes the sort of mom and apple pie traditionalism that is hard to hate. Efforts to portray him as weird or sinister are not likely to succeed in the long run because they don’t fit in with his basic character.

Democrats may say they are just getting warmed up in their campaign to slime Romney, but if they get too focused on his personality or background they will be fighting a losing game. Despite his awkward public persona, his flaws don’t really lend themselves to the hate being whipped up against him. At a time when the economy is failing, his image as a wealthy business wiz can help rather than hurt him.

With less than four months to go before Americans go to the polls, the Obama campaign has already emptied its bag of tricks and finds itself effectively tied with the GOP. With a well-funded Romney effort able to answer the Democratic attacks and redouble their own assaults on Obama’s record, the question for the president is whether he will have any cards left to play once the effort to demonize Romney falls short of the mark.

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Remembering Jason Dunham

Last week, I had the honor to lecture aboard the USS Jason Dunham, our nation’s newest guided missile destroyer, somewhere in the North Atlantic. The ship is named after a young corporal who used his body to shield his comrades from an enemy grenade in Iraq and who subsequently died of his wounds. Dunham seems to have been the real-life inspiration for a similar scene in the recent film “Valor” and posthumously won the Medal of Honor. The crew of the USS Jason Dunham, I am told, has maintained a very close relationship with his family.

Naming a ship for Dunham is the right thing to do, but it should not be the exception to the rule. When President Obama named Ray Mabus the 75th Secretary of the Navy, Mabus distinguished himself by naming or proposing to name ships after political allies such as John Murtha, Gabrielle Giffords, and Cesar Chavez.

I had taken a helicopter to the USS Jason Dunham from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the flagship for Carrier Strike Group 8, on which I was living and teaching for about two weeks. I had always assumed that the Eisenhower was named for Eisenhower as president, but it was not: It was actually named for Eisenhower as general, back at a time when the Navy was honoring famous flag officers rather than politicians. (Its predecessor from which the class of carriers is named was the USS Nimitz, named after World War II-era Admiral Chester W. Nimitz). Prior to World War II, the traditions for naming ships were fairly clear. Aircraft carriers were named after battles (with Enterprise being the exception), battleships for states, cruisers for cities, submarines for marine life and only destroyers being named for individuals.

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Last week, I had the honor to lecture aboard the USS Jason Dunham, our nation’s newest guided missile destroyer, somewhere in the North Atlantic. The ship is named after a young corporal who used his body to shield his comrades from an enemy grenade in Iraq and who subsequently died of his wounds. Dunham seems to have been the real-life inspiration for a similar scene in the recent film “Valor” and posthumously won the Medal of Honor. The crew of the USS Jason Dunham, I am told, has maintained a very close relationship with his family.

Naming a ship for Dunham is the right thing to do, but it should not be the exception to the rule. When President Obama named Ray Mabus the 75th Secretary of the Navy, Mabus distinguished himself by naming or proposing to name ships after political allies such as John Murtha, Gabrielle Giffords, and Cesar Chavez.

I had taken a helicopter to the USS Jason Dunham from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the flagship for Carrier Strike Group 8, on which I was living and teaching for about two weeks. I had always assumed that the Eisenhower was named for Eisenhower as president, but it was not: It was actually named for Eisenhower as general, back at a time when the Navy was honoring famous flag officers rather than politicians. (Its predecessor from which the class of carriers is named was the USS Nimitz, named after World War II-era Admiral Chester W. Nimitz). Prior to World War II, the traditions for naming ships were fairly clear. Aircraft carriers were named after battles (with Enterprise being the exception), battleships for states, cruisers for cities, submarines for marine life and only destroyers being named for individuals.

Alas, in subsequent years, it has become common to name ships after politicians, not only George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, but also George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Carl Vinson, and John C. Stennis. Now under construction, and the flagship for a new class of carrier, will be the USS Gerald Ford. Navy officers are quite open about the reason for choosing politicians’ names: the United States needs the ships to protect its national security, and Congress is much more open to approving ships named after politicians than after war heroes. Nothing could be a greater testament to the venality of Congress. Perhaps it’s time to memorialize Medal of Honors winners in the way they deserve, and make the USS Jason Dunham the first of many.

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The President’s Plaintive Plea

It’s a tell-tale sign of the difficult situation he faces that President Obama is increasingly invoking his work ethic as a reason to re-elect him.

“I suspect that most people … would acknowledge that I’ve tried real hard, and we just haven’t gotten the kind of willingness on the part of Republicans to engage on a whole range of issues that I wish had happened,” Obama told WLWT-TV during a campaign swing through Ohio last Thursday.

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It’s a tell-tale sign of the difficult situation he faces that President Obama is increasingly invoking his work ethic as a reason to re-elect him.

“I suspect that most people … would acknowledge that I’ve tried real hard, and we just haven’t gotten the kind of willingness on the part of Republicans to engage on a whole range of issues that I wish had happened,” Obama told WLWT-TV during a campaign swing through Ohio last Thursday.

Set aside the fact that Obama’s effort at bipartisanship has fallen massively short of what he promised. Even if Obama has tried as hard as he wants us to believe, it’s not a measure of strength when the president of the United States begins making plaintive pleas. It’s the latest excuse for a man who seems to have an endless supply of them.

Obama’s campaign themes are coming into sharper focus. The objective conditions in the country are dismal. The president has shown us time and again that he’s in over his head. But he’s tried real hard. That and $4.85 will get you a venti cappuccino at a New York City Starbucks.

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Empowering Afghan Militias is No Solution

In my earlier post, I noted the disconnect between governance and military strategies in Afghanistan. Generals are less willing to paper over problems than many diplomats; military leaders’ metric charts involve not money allocated but rather lives lost and letters written to next of kin. In Iraq and Afghanistan, many generals have barely concealed their antipathy toward diplomats and other civilians whom they consider to be out-of-touch with the realities on the ground. (The generals’ respect for Ryan Crocker is a notable exception).

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has sought to bypass the civilian policy and governance roadblock by doing what it takes to ensure security at a local level. For many generals, this has meant co-opting and empowering local militias. Empowering local militias not beholden to central command or necessarily loyal to the central government has obvious drawbacks. In 2004, Gen. David Petraeus cast aside objection from Baghdad and empowered former Baathists and Islamists in Mosul. They turned around and stabbed the Americans in the back, leaving the unit who came to Mosul in the wake of Petraeus’ departure to pick up the pieces. The same strategy failed again in Fallujah, where the Fallujah Brigade presided over a six-fold increase in car bombings. Still, the U.S. military tried again. They helped form the “Awakening Councils” in the Al Anbar governorate, Sunni Arab militias who turned on al-Qaeda and provided the support and blood upon which the success of the Surge depended. At no time, however, was the interplay between the Awakening Councils and the central government in Baghdad well-defined. And while it is possible for American advocates of the surge to blame Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarianism for the lack of the Awakening Council’s subsequent integration into the Iraqi security apparatus, the fact remains that the Awakening Councils were just as sectarian, perhaps even more so, than political leaders in Baghdad. In effect, the embrace of the Awakening Councils fulfilled a short-term goal at the expense of Iraq’s long-term stability.

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In my earlier post, I noted the disconnect between governance and military strategies in Afghanistan. Generals are less willing to paper over problems than many diplomats; military leaders’ metric charts involve not money allocated but rather lives lost and letters written to next of kin. In Iraq and Afghanistan, many generals have barely concealed their antipathy toward diplomats and other civilians whom they consider to be out-of-touch with the realities on the ground. (The generals’ respect for Ryan Crocker is a notable exception).

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has sought to bypass the civilian policy and governance roadblock by doing what it takes to ensure security at a local level. For many generals, this has meant co-opting and empowering local militias. Empowering local militias not beholden to central command or necessarily loyal to the central government has obvious drawbacks. In 2004, Gen. David Petraeus cast aside objection from Baghdad and empowered former Baathists and Islamists in Mosul. They turned around and stabbed the Americans in the back, leaving the unit who came to Mosul in the wake of Petraeus’ departure to pick up the pieces. The same strategy failed again in Fallujah, where the Fallujah Brigade presided over a six-fold increase in car bombings. Still, the U.S. military tried again. They helped form the “Awakening Councils” in the Al Anbar governorate, Sunni Arab militias who turned on al-Qaeda and provided the support and blood upon which the success of the Surge depended. At no time, however, was the interplay between the Awakening Councils and the central government in Baghdad well-defined. And while it is possible for American advocates of the surge to blame Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarianism for the lack of the Awakening Council’s subsequent integration into the Iraqi security apparatus, the fact remains that the Awakening Councils were just as sectarian, perhaps even more so, than political leaders in Baghdad. In effect, the embrace of the Awakening Councils fulfilled a short-term goal at the expense of Iraq’s long-term stability.

In Afghanistan, as well, the same generals have pursued the same short-term strategy. Against the backdrop of a lackluster central government, they have built up local militias to fight the Taliban. This has understandably infuriated Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who condemns any government or military organ which is outside the control of his family. Alas, if there is a lesson to be learned from Iraq, it is that anyone who defects to work with the Americans can just as easily defect to fight Americans. No one should ever count on ideological loyalty in the region. Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. It is a matter of principle, just not the same one which guides American troops. Americans condemn flip-flopping in politicians and consider switching sides in war treason. For Afghans, however, top priority is the family. If switching sides better protects one’s family, then there is nothing shameful in it. Perhaps the best case in point is Karzai himself. During the Clinton administration, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher wanted to pass messages to the Taliban, the Taliban representative to which he would turn was none other than… Hamid Karzai.

Against this backdrop, the announcement that one of the Afghan Local Police militias formed, equipped, and trained by the Americans has defected to the Taliban should not surprise. No Afghan believes that the United States remains committed to remain in Afghanistan. The Afghan Security Pact recently signed was short on specifics, and financial commitments are meaningless without congressional agreement.

Here, history can be a guide. President Obama and the generals are, ironically, following the same strategy pursued by the Soviet Union. In the run-up to the Soviet withdrawal, the Red Army trained and equipped a number of local militias. With the Soviet Union on its way out of the country, each defected or dissolved in time. Building militias to substitute for progress at the national political level is not only akin to applying a band aid to a deep wound, but is also guaranteed to worsen the infection down the line.

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The Muslim Brotherhood Owns Egypt

When the Arab Spring bug caught on in Egypt, in late January 2011, commentators rushed to explain that the Tahrir Square crowd was hip and Western, secular and “facebooked.” Never mind the rape of a Western journalist, Lara Logan, by the hip and Western revolutionaries – a fate visited upon other female journalists during the following months (see here and here). Everyone looked around, and the Muslim Brotherhood was nowhere to be seen.

This fact, alone, seems to have fed the facile illusion that the Brotherhood could not hijack the initial Twitter moment of the Egyptian revolt against Hosni Mubarak.

Since then, at each turn of the road, as the Muslim Brotherhood gradually hijacked the Egyptian transition, commentators told us there was no need to worry. The Muslim Brotherhood would only contest a small number of seats (they did not); they would not have a candidate of their own for the presidency (they did); and their candidate was moderate (he wasn’t).

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When the Arab Spring bug caught on in Egypt, in late January 2011, commentators rushed to explain that the Tahrir Square crowd was hip and Western, secular and “facebooked.” Never mind the rape of a Western journalist, Lara Logan, by the hip and Western revolutionaries – a fate visited upon other female journalists during the following months (see here and here). Everyone looked around, and the Muslim Brotherhood was nowhere to be seen.

This fact, alone, seems to have fed the facile illusion that the Brotherhood could not hijack the initial Twitter moment of the Egyptian revolt against Hosni Mubarak.

Since then, at each turn of the road, as the Muslim Brotherhood gradually hijacked the Egyptian transition, commentators told us there was no need to worry. The Muslim Brotherhood would only contest a small number of seats (they did not); they would not have a candidate of their own for the presidency (they did); and their candidate was moderate (he wasn’t).

One can imagine the alarm felt by Egypt’s generals at each of these developments. Finally, they took action days before one of their own was to lose the presidential runoff to the Brotherhood candidate. They engineered the dissolution of the Brotherhood-dominated parliament and dramatically reduced the powers of the presidency.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi is now the president of Egypt and, predictably, he’s moved to overturn the generals’ move, by reinstating parliament until the constitution is drafted and new elections are called for.

Just as predictably, this morning Time has a blog entry illustrating why, yet again, there is nothing to worry about: “Some analysts say that Morsi and the junta likely worked out a power-sharing deal well before the Islamist president, representing the most reliably pragmatic political organization in the country, took his presidential oath on June 24. A closer examination of the decree suggests a deal may be in the works this time too.”

Feel reassured? I don’t.

Every revolution I can remember started out as a coalition of different forces–and the radicals were not the majority. Think of the Bolsheviks and Kerensky’s government in 1917 Russia. Think of Mehdi Bazargan’s government in Iran’s early revolutionary days, in 1979. Even Hitler, when he first seized power, formed a coalition and perfunctorily bowed to the then German president – there were reassurances then as well. Radicals take over the revolution because that is what they are best at doing – and any compromise or pragmatic concession to more moderate forces is just a tactical move to bide their time.

The Muslim Brotherhood has fought the generals for the last 60 years and contended with Arab nationalism and Western ideas since 1928. In the last 20 months, the Brotherhood has come out of the shadows and savored its final triumph. The ballot box vindicated its vision and patience. To assume, at each twist of the story, that the Brotherhood will be pragmatic or compromising is to ignore history and precedent. The Muslim Brotherhood has the support of the majority of Egyptian society on its side. It has penetrated the lower ranks of the army already. It controls the presidency and will begin to exert its power more and more over the state bureaucracy and the state-financed and appointed clergy.

It is a matter of time, but for all intents and purposes, and optimistic articles notwithstanding, the Brotherhood owns Egypt.

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