Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 15, 2012

World Silent as Hamas Demolishes Houses

The indefatigable Tom Gross highlights this story compiled from the Palestinian press:

Ma’an and other Palestinian news agencies report that the Hamas government in Gaza has renewed its policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinian families in order to seize land for government use. 120 families are to lose their homes in the latest round of demolitions – a far greater number than the number of illegally built Palestinian homes Israel has demolished in recent years – and unlike Israeli authorities, Hamas doesn’t even claim these homes were built illegally or with dangerous structures. Yet western media and human rights groups have been virtually silent about these destructions of Palestinian homes by Hamas.

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The indefatigable Tom Gross highlights this story compiled from the Palestinian press:

Ma’an and other Palestinian news agencies report that the Hamas government in Gaza has renewed its policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinian families in order to seize land for government use. 120 families are to lose their homes in the latest round of demolitions – a far greater number than the number of illegally built Palestinian homes Israel has demolished in recent years – and unlike Israeli authorities, Hamas doesn’t even claim these homes were built illegally or with dangerous structures. Yet western media and human rights groups have been virtually silent about these destructions of Palestinian homes by Hamas.

As Gross points out, this past February, Hamas undertook another wave of demolitions in Gaza City’s Hamami neighborhood. Maybe Hamas leaders need land to build more luxury villas like their PLO predecessors did. Perhaps it’s time for Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others to show they really stand on principle, and aren’t simply using the Israel-Palestinian conflict to score cheap political points or, in the case of Human Rights Watch, advance their prospects for fundraising in Saudi Arabia.

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Paterno and the Curse of Self-Righteousness

In the wake of the release of the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh about the Penn State University child abuse scandal, even some of the late Joe Paterno’s most vociferous defenders have fallen silent. Pete Wehner wrote compellingly on Friday about the way this terrible story illustrates not only that each individual must choose between good and evil but also what happens when institutions fail to take human failings into account. Yet as we read and listen to people struggling to accept the truth about Paterno (especially those in Pennsylvania for whom Paterno and Penn State football symbolized something more than just sports excellence), we are still left with an important question that we struggle to answer. How can a man who was widely believed to be a pillar of his community and force for integrity in his sport and his university have stood by and let unspeakable crimes be committed on his watch by one of his closest associates?

Paterno’s defenders point to his many good works and ask us to look at his life as a totality rather than solely through the lens of the crimes that for all intents and purposes he appears to have condoned. But it was this that led to his downfall. Like his legions of followers, he was so convinced of the value of all that he had done, that he seemed to have believed that preserving that legacy was more important than putting an end to the abuse being committed by his friend and colleague. Even more to the point, he was so convinced of his good intentions and the righteousness of his work that he came to see himself as above scrutiny. So while we may never know with certitude exactly what Paterno thought and why he acted as he did, this is actually a very recognizable pattern of behavior. We have no shortage of politicians who are similarly besotted with their own high opinion of themselves and willing to forgive any of their own personal failings because they think their cause is just.

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In the wake of the release of the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh about the Penn State University child abuse scandal, even some of the late Joe Paterno’s most vociferous defenders have fallen silent. Pete Wehner wrote compellingly on Friday about the way this terrible story illustrates not only that each individual must choose between good and evil but also what happens when institutions fail to take human failings into account. Yet as we read and listen to people struggling to accept the truth about Paterno (especially those in Pennsylvania for whom Paterno and Penn State football symbolized something more than just sports excellence), we are still left with an important question that we struggle to answer. How can a man who was widely believed to be a pillar of his community and force for integrity in his sport and his university have stood by and let unspeakable crimes be committed on his watch by one of his closest associates?

Paterno’s defenders point to his many good works and ask us to look at his life as a totality rather than solely through the lens of the crimes that for all intents and purposes he appears to have condoned. But it was this that led to his downfall. Like his legions of followers, he was so convinced of the value of all that he had done, that he seemed to have believed that preserving that legacy was more important than putting an end to the abuse being committed by his friend and colleague. Even more to the point, he was so convinced of his good intentions and the righteousness of his work that he came to see himself as above scrutiny. So while we may never know with certitude exactly what Paterno thought and why he acted as he did, this is actually a very recognizable pattern of behavior. We have no shortage of politicians who are similarly besotted with their own high opinion of themselves and willing to forgive any of their own personal failings because they think their cause is just.

Self-image is often decisive in determining our behavior. If we see ourselves as working on behalf of a good cause, that makes it easier to condone misbehavior we think is not that important in the big picture. But while it is possible to make a case that defending one’s country in wartime can require lying, as well as all sorts of things we would label crimes in other contexts, the problem is leaders often conflate their careers with that of the fate of civilization.

In my lifetime, I have seen presidents of the United States who believed the preservation of their administrations was more important than telling the truth about either political dirty tricks or personal misbehavior. In each case, we can tell ourselves that neither the Watergate break-in nor the Monica Lewinsky affair was as bad as Jerry Sandusky’s raping children, and we’d be right. Indeed, there is no comparison between these incidents.

But that should only heighten our disgust with Paterno. In his case, his conduct appears to have been based on the idea that a football program’s good name and the prestige of a university was more valuable than the lives of children. Rather than allowing his achievements to overshadow his failings, we must understand that his complicity in Sandusky’s ability to go on abusing kids was rooted in those accomplishments. Paterno should stand as a warning to anyone in a position of authority that their self-image as good guys can never justify cutting moral corners.

We may never be able to fully understand the evil of Sandusky or the moral blindness of Paterno. But the pattern here is not all that unique. The willingness of leaders to believe their good works are so important that nothing — even the truth about their personal conduct or those of their associates — can be allowed to tarnish them is a standing invitation to wrongdoing.

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Silence From Congressional Turkish Caucus

The Congressional Turkish Caucus or, the Caucus on U.S.-Turkish Relations and Turkish Americans as it is formally called, is one of the larger congressional groupings dedicated to the promotion of good relations with another country. Its 150 plus members represent 45 out of 50 American states, and support a strong U.S.-Turkish partnership.

Alas, as so often happens with such caucuses, the members are either asleep at the switch or forget that good relations must be two-way. In recent years, Turkey’s behavior has been problematic at best, but in recent weeks, its government’s behavior has again deteriorated. President Obama may count Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as one of his closest foreign friends, but it doesn’t seem to get the United States much. The marquee examples of the Turkish-American partnership are the Turkish agreement to host an anti-ballistic missile radar system on Turkish territory, and Turkey’s willingness to participate in the Afghanistan conflict.

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The Congressional Turkish Caucus or, the Caucus on U.S.-Turkish Relations and Turkish Americans as it is formally called, is one of the larger congressional groupings dedicated to the promotion of good relations with another country. Its 150 plus members represent 45 out of 50 American states, and support a strong U.S.-Turkish partnership.

Alas, as so often happens with such caucuses, the members are either asleep at the switch or forget that good relations must be two-way. In recent years, Turkey’s behavior has been problematic at best, but in recent weeks, its government’s behavior has again deteriorated. President Obama may count Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as one of his closest foreign friends, but it doesn’t seem to get the United States much. The marquee examples of the Turkish-American partnership are the Turkish agreement to host an anti-ballistic missile radar system on Turkish territory, and Turkey’s willingness to participate in the Afghanistan conflict.

There is less to both than meets the eye, however. Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, has suggested Turkey’s commitment to the U.S. anti-ballistic missile radar based in Turkey may only last two years. And, if one considers Turkey’s support for ethnic Uzbek Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and that perhaps as many Turks fight for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as part of the Taifetul Mansoura group as support the ISAF mission, then the whole is considerably less than the parts. Still, we should thank the Turks for their assistance, even if it is not as impressive as diplomats often discuss.

The Turkish leadership remains as anti-Semitic as ever, and in the last couple of weeks, Turkey has doubled down on policies which both undercut freedom of press at home, and its willingness to cooperate with its international commitments toward Iran. Take press freedom: According to Reporters Without Frontiers, Turkey now ranks behind Russia and Venezuela in terms of press freedom. So what does Erdoğan do? As his party writes a new constitution for Turkey, it includes provisions which further roll-back press freedom. Better that, Erdoğan figures, then put up with the annoying habit of journalists to question him or refuse to act as party public relations flak. The reaction from the Congressional Turkey Caucus? Silence.

Perhaps the most immediate national security strategy the United States now faces is the challenge posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hoping to avoid both an Iranian nuclear breakout and a military strike that will destabilize the region, Western countries have implemented a robust set of sanctions against the Iran oil trade, sanctions which Turkey says it hopes to comply, if only it is given some more time. Now word comes that rather than scale back its Iran trade (a trade which has increased more than ten-fold since Erdoğan came to power), Turkey has been bypassing sanctions on currency transactions by paying for Iranian oil with gold. The reaction from the Congressional Turkey Caucus? Silence.

Turkey is a lovely place to visit, and many congressmen like to spend their taxpayer-provided per diem in the fish restaurants of Istanbul, and in that cosmopolitan city’s five-star hotels. But, being a congressman shouldn’t just be about access to swank junkets; rather, it should be about using one’s position to further American strategic interests. Alas, rather than use their posts to encourage Turkey to act responsibly as both a partner and a democracy, the members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus now blindly lend their support and endorsement to a government whose respect for civil liberties and whose foreign policy leaves much to be desired. Just as some former officials have sullied their name flacking for Venezuela and Libya, Caucus Co-Chairs Virginia Foxx (R-NC); Ed Whitfield (R-KY); Stephen Cohen (D-TN); and Gerry Connelly (D-VA) may soon find blind support for a country undermining U.S. security and disdainful of Western values has a price.

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Obama’s Problem: Romney is Not Kerry

President Obama isn’t apologizing. Rather than backing away from discredited charges about Mitt Romney outsourcing jobs and attacks about his wealth, the president doubled down on the mud slinging in the past few days. With the economy remaining in the doldrums and no prospect of improvement before November, the president has proposed no new ideas for its revival other than another hike in federal spending. So rather than running on his accomplishments, such as they are, the president is concentrating on discrediting his opponent and appealing to his political base.

In doing so, the president appears to be following the model established in 2004 when President Bush faced a tough re-election fight against a plausible but not very compelling opponent in John Kerry. Bush never personally engaged in the sort of vitriol that Obama routinely engages in (Bush was too conscious of the dignity of his office and such conduct also went against the grain of the nice-guy persona that was key to his appeal). The focus of his re-election effort was the push to increase the turnout of conservatives and evangelicals that enabled him to win a close race. Though the Democrats won’t admit it, they are hoping this Karl Rove-inspired formula will be just as successful for them. But while his liberal base has been begging Obama to get nastier since he took office, it remains to be seen whether a man who was catapulted to office by lofty rhetoric about “hope” and “change” can remain in it by wallowing in political mire. Nor does it alter the fundamental question that any incumbent seeking re-election must answer about whether the nation’s fiscal health has improved on his watch.

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President Obama isn’t apologizing. Rather than backing away from discredited charges about Mitt Romney outsourcing jobs and attacks about his wealth, the president doubled down on the mud slinging in the past few days. With the economy remaining in the doldrums and no prospect of improvement before November, the president has proposed no new ideas for its revival other than another hike in federal spending. So rather than running on his accomplishments, such as they are, the president is concentrating on discrediting his opponent and appealing to his political base.

In doing so, the president appears to be following the model established in 2004 when President Bush faced a tough re-election fight against a plausible but not very compelling opponent in John Kerry. Bush never personally engaged in the sort of vitriol that Obama routinely engages in (Bush was too conscious of the dignity of his office and such conduct also went against the grain of the nice-guy persona that was key to his appeal). The focus of his re-election effort was the push to increase the turnout of conservatives and evangelicals that enabled him to win a close race. Though the Democrats won’t admit it, they are hoping this Karl Rove-inspired formula will be just as successful for them. But while his liberal base has been begging Obama to get nastier since he took office, it remains to be seen whether a man who was catapulted to office by lofty rhetoric about “hope” and “change” can remain in it by wallowing in political mire. Nor does it alter the fundamental question that any incumbent seeking re-election must answer about whether the nation’s fiscal health has improved on his watch.

With the polls showing the race a virtual dead-heat, there is little likelihood of either candidate pulling away. Nor is there any great mass of undecided voters whose more moderate views would make a swing to the left imprudent. Thus, Obama’s decision to pursue the decidedly unpresidential route of sliming his opponent makes some political sense. His only hope of victory is to energize a liberal base that is decidedly less enthusiastic than it was four years ago. To do that, he must feed them what they want to hear: class warfare and attacks on Romney as a wealthy plutocrat.

Thus, not only will Romney not get any apologies for the president recycling canards about his business career, he can expect it to only get worse with Democrats. That ought to concern Republicans who fear an all-out assault by the president will define his opponent and turn his personal record of success into a liability. One shouldn’t underestimate the power of negative attacks, but there are two reasons why a repeat of the GOP’s 2004 tactics may fail.

First, is the difference between Romney and Kerry. Like the 2004 Democratic nominee, Romney may be a wealthy man, but unlike Kerry, he built his own fortune rather than marrying into wealth. He is not a natural politician and doesn’t connect well with the voters. But neither is he a passive aristocrat who acted as if he was entitled to the nation’s highest office, as Kerry often did. While Kerry gave the appearance of a stationary target, Romney is a clever man who will not willingly play the role of tackling dummy for the Democrats.

The second difference is that the country is in a very different position than it was in 2004. Eight years ago, the Iraq War was starting to look like a mess, but the economy was not in crisis the way it is today. More Americans had voted for Bush’s opponent in 2000, and even his response to the 9/11 attacks had not reconciled Democrats to his presidency, so he was in for a tough fight in 2004 no matter what he had accomplished.

By contrast, today Obama still has the advantage of being a historic president with the bulk of the press in his pocket. But with the state of the economy the only issue anyone is talking about, the president’s belief that he can avoid blame by pointing the finger at his predecessor may be mistaken.

The problem with political science is that it is not science. Each election is different. If the president’s campaign and its unpleasant tactics can generate a big turnout from the left, the president may yet prevail. But the circumstances of 2012 are not those that allowed the Bush campaign to run to the right with impunity in 2004. The harsh economic reality that is leading to a steady stream of bad economic news may render the Karl Rove formula moot.

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Don’t Meddle in Afghanistan’s Election

A few days ago, Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon took to the pages of The Washington Post to argue that the United States should actively interfere in the next Afghan election to pick a winner. O’Hanlon writes:

Some may wish to avoid interfering in the elections of a sovereign nation, but Afghan reformers are calling out for help. When I visited Afghanistan in May, several suggested to me that the United States pick a winner so they could rally around him. Also, the international presence in Afghanistan will have enormous influence whether we acknowledge it or not. Supporting the Karzai government is actually a form of political intervention, as it gives the incumbent great resources, such as control of state-run media, to try to choose his successor. Moreover, with U.S. officials making decisions about how much money and how many troops to devote to Afghanistan’s long-term assistance, we have a right to say that the level of our support will be strongly influenced by the choices Afghans make — even if we will not (and should not) try to pick a winner… U.S. diplomats, ideally backed by other foreign missions in Kabul, including such key Muslim states as Turkey, Indonesia and Tanzania (which have impressive track records in fighting corruption and improving governance in recent years), should also be willing to say, publicly if necessary, which candidates would be unacceptable as president.

O’Hanlon is a serious scholar and a formidable strategic thinker. He is not an instant expert chasing after headlines; his ideas deserve to be taken seriously. In this case, however, he is not only wrong, but if the Obama administration and U.S. military followed his advice, the results would be counterproductive to the extreme.

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A few days ago, Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon took to the pages of The Washington Post to argue that the United States should actively interfere in the next Afghan election to pick a winner. O’Hanlon writes:

Some may wish to avoid interfering in the elections of a sovereign nation, but Afghan reformers are calling out for help. When I visited Afghanistan in May, several suggested to me that the United States pick a winner so they could rally around him. Also, the international presence in Afghanistan will have enormous influence whether we acknowledge it or not. Supporting the Karzai government is actually a form of political intervention, as it gives the incumbent great resources, such as control of state-run media, to try to choose his successor. Moreover, with U.S. officials making decisions about how much money and how many troops to devote to Afghanistan’s long-term assistance, we have a right to say that the level of our support will be strongly influenced by the choices Afghans make — even if we will not (and should not) try to pick a winner… U.S. diplomats, ideally backed by other foreign missions in Kabul, including such key Muslim states as Turkey, Indonesia and Tanzania (which have impressive track records in fighting corruption and improving governance in recent years), should also be willing to say, publicly if necessary, which candidates would be unacceptable as president.

O’Hanlon is a serious scholar and a formidable strategic thinker. He is not an instant expert chasing after headlines; his ideas deserve to be taken seriously. In this case, however, he is not only wrong, but if the Obama administration and U.S. military followed his advice, the results would be counterproductive to the extreme.

Let’s put aside that Tanzania doesn’t have an embassy in Afghanistan, and few Afghans care what Turkey thinks. We should also open to question the comments of those with whom O’Hanlon spoke during his recent trip to Afghanistan: The U.S. military’s horse-and-pony shows are much like grand juries: the bubble is controlled and so is the outcome, simply by controlling where the jurors can go and with which witnesses they can interact.

For very simple reasons, the idea of mucking about in the elections would backfire and benefit only Karzai, whom O’Hanlon is right to castigate as a malign influence.  He proposes Ashraf Ghani and Hanif Atmar, as suitable candidates deserving of U.S. backing. Both are talented people but very much unelectable. Picking either would be about as wise as betting on Jon Huntsman to get the nod at the Republican National Convention.

The problem is also in the principle. If the United States interferes in elections, it will affirm the worst beliefs of Afghans who interpreted the overbearing attitudes of the late Richard Holbrooke and Peter Galbraith as direct interference. Not only did their actions create a backlash among ordinary Afghans, but they also convinced Karzai and his supporters to do anything possible to rig the polls.

O’Hanlon is correct that Karzai is a disaster. We have seen this picture before, however, because whenever American policymakers concentrate more on supporting an individual than in building a system, the results are the same: The individual grows corrupt and power-hungry, cutting off rivals at the knees. Generals and diplomats, worried more about short-term metrics than long-term stability, fear anything that undercuts their partner, playing into the partners’ hands as he consolidates power.

What should the United States do? Frankly, anything may be too late. Our original sin was imposing a system on Afghanistan with so much power vested in the president. Not only was that system unnatural in Afghan affairs, but also throughout Afghan history, there is a direct correlation between insurgency and the speed of reform. More important, is President Obama’s timeline. No matter what the merits of an electoral plan, so long as an artificial timeline to withdraw hangs over Afghanistan, then American influence rests on quicksand. It’s not even clear that Afghanistan has the resources to hold elections, nor that donors are willing to pony up the several hundred million dollars to make it possible. Elections challenge security, but rather than surge troops into Afghanistan during elections, Obama plans to withdraw them.

If O’Hanlon wants to rally international partners—and avoiding the malign influence of both Iran and Pakistan will be difficult under such circumstances—then the pressure must be for an empowerment of the parliament and local officials at the expense of the president.

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