Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 10, 2012

Unanswered Questions on Benghazi Attack

The mystery of what the administration knew and did both before and after the Benghazi attack continues to deepen. A former official in the Bush administration emails me a list of questions that need to be answered:

1) Why did the Libyan delegation have inadequate security?

2) Were there political or ideological factors that influenced the security decisions?

3) Why was it Susan Rice who spoke for the administration on the Sunday shows? Did the White House choose her, or did Hillary Clinton push her forward? Why was it not Clinton, who had the responsibility for the decisions, rather than Rice?

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The mystery of what the administration knew and did both before and after the Benghazi attack continues to deepen. A former official in the Bush administration emails me a list of questions that need to be answered:

1) Why did the Libyan delegation have inadequate security?

2) Were there political or ideological factors that influenced the security decisions?

3) Why was it Susan Rice who spoke for the administration on the Sunday shows? Did the White House choose her, or did Hillary Clinton push her forward? Why was it not Clinton, who had the responsibility for the decisions, rather than Rice?

4) Rice categorically stated that there was no terror attack; she blamed a demonstration, and the video. Who produced the TPs (talking points) that she worked off of? The Intel community? The White House?

5) What information/considerations produced the TPs?

6) When the attack began, what were the specific logistical and political considerations behind the decision not to send in a rescue team?

Today’s hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which too often devolved into partisan rancor and point-scoring, did not provide answers to these questions. There remains plenty of work for both internal and external investigators looking into the sequence of events which left four Americans, including our ambassador, dead and our consulate in ruins.

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Germans Move to Lift Bris Ban

Four months after a Cologne court rattled European Jews with a ruling that banned circumcision, the German government took the first step toward granting the ritual the formal protection of the law. Acting at the behest of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the 16-member cabinet voted in favor of a draft bill that will overturn the Cologne court and make circumcision legal throughout Germany if done by a trained professional, such as a Jewish mohel or ritual circumciser. If the bill is passed by the federal parliament, it will become law and remove the threat of prosecution that now hangs over mohels in Germany.

The odds are, that is exactly what the Bundestag will do in the coming weeks, though some Jews are worried that public sentiment is still against them no matter Merkel wants. As the Forward notes, German Jewish leaders fear that the ambivalence of all the major parties, as well as what may turn out to be spirited resistance from major medical associations, will derail the legislation. But even if Merkel succeeds, the question hanging over European Jewry is whether the bill can start to undo the damage that the court ruling created.

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Four months after a Cologne court rattled European Jews with a ruling that banned circumcision, the German government took the first step toward granting the ritual the formal protection of the law. Acting at the behest of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the 16-member cabinet voted in favor of a draft bill that will overturn the Cologne court and make circumcision legal throughout Germany if done by a trained professional, such as a Jewish mohel or ritual circumciser. If the bill is passed by the federal parliament, it will become law and remove the threat of prosecution that now hangs over mohels in Germany.

The odds are, that is exactly what the Bundestag will do in the coming weeks, though some Jews are worried that public sentiment is still against them no matter Merkel wants. As the Forward notes, German Jewish leaders fear that the ambivalence of all the major parties, as well as what may turn out to be spirited resistance from major medical associations, will derail the legislation. But even if Merkel succeeds, the question hanging over European Jewry is whether the bill can start to undo the damage that the court ruling created.

The prosecutions of rabbis for performing circumcisions, the decisions by hospitals to cease conducting the procedure, and incidents of anti-Semitic violence have all helped to create a hostile atmosphere for European Jews. While some put down the opposition to circumcision to a general lack of tolerance for faith and organized religion in Europe, the fact remains that Jews remain the leading targets for ostracism and hatred.

In contemporary Europe, hostility to Zionism and Israel has given a façade of faux legitimacy to traditional anti-Semitism. Combine that with a culture that views all religious observance as either primitive or foreign and it’s easy to see how the anti-circumcision movement has gained so much traction.

That means that Merkel is going to have put the whip out on her coalition members to ensure that the bill is passed without any changes that would make it impossible for mohels to do their job and thus render the whole exercise pointless.

Nevertheless, Chancellor Merkel deserves great credit for pushing the bill through this far. A failure to legalize circumcision will expose Germany to ridicule and anger. But even if it passes, there is no denying that this lamentable chapter has exposed a raw nerve of modern Jew-hatred.

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State Dept. Meltdown at Benghazi Hearing

The Obama administration’s Benghazi response continued to unravel at the House Oversight Committee hearing today, as State Department officials struggled unsuccessfully to get their stories straight.

Ambassador Patrick Kennedy defended UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s claim on September 16 that the attack was part of a spontaneous protest that erupted over an anti-Islam video, saying that anyone at the State Department would have said the same thing as Rice based on the intelligence available at the time. “If any administration official, including any career official, were on television on Sunday, September 16, they would have said what Ambassador Rice said. The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point,” said Kennedy.

But, as Republicans on the Oversight Committee pointed out, that appears to contradict Kennedy’s comments from a September 12 unclassified briefing, when he reportedly called it a terrorist attack.

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The Obama administration’s Benghazi response continued to unravel at the House Oversight Committee hearing today, as State Department officials struggled unsuccessfully to get their stories straight.

Ambassador Patrick Kennedy defended UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s claim on September 16 that the attack was part of a spontaneous protest that erupted over an anti-Islam video, saying that anyone at the State Department would have said the same thing as Rice based on the intelligence available at the time. “If any administration official, including any career official, were on television on Sunday, September 16, they would have said what Ambassador Rice said. The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point,” said Kennedy.

But, as Republicans on the Oversight Committee pointed out, that appears to contradict Kennedy’s comments from a September 12 unclassified briefing, when he reportedly called it a terrorist attack.

Another State Department official, Charlene Lamb, wrote in her prepared testimony (but did not read aloud) that she was able to monitor the attack “in almost real-time” once a Diplomatic Security agent activated the imminent danger notification system. Yet she didn’t explain why the State Department and other administration officials initially said spontaneous protests were responsible for the attack, if there had been officials monitoring it in real-time.

Both Kennedy’s and Lamb’s comments also contradicted the State Department’s latest official position. In a conference call last night, senior State Department officials told reporters that the department had never believed the attack stemmed from a spontaneous protest:

Asked if the State Department agreed with the White House conclusion that the attack was sparked by the video instead of a planned terror attack on U.S. civilians, the official stated, “that is the question you’d have to ask others, that was not our conclusion.”

That statement contradicts what the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said on Sunday morning political talk shows on Sept. 16.

The officials also struggled to defend the security situation at the consulate. “We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi” at the time of the attack, Lamb told the committee. Kennedy seemed to dispute this later in the hearing, saying that State Department security is “never going to have enough guns” to prevent full-force military attacks like the one in Benghazi.

Meanwhile, Benghazi security official Lt. Col. Woods, a whistle-blower working with the Oversight Committee, said he “knew instantly” Benghazi was a terrorist attack. Woods added that he “almost expected the attack” because of the regular threats and security breaches in the area, and the fact that “we were the last flag flying” after the British ambassador had his convoy bombed and pulled out of Benghazi.

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Are Conservatives Overconfident About the Ryan-Biden Debate?

Among the chatter heading into tomorrow night’s vice presidential debate between Paul Ryan and current Vice President Joe Biden, it’s easy to pick up on the confidence conservatives have in Ryan and their dismissive attitude toward Biden. Both of those are well founded, since Ryan is a solid debater and in strong command of the facts, while Biden is … Biden. Furthermore, they seem to be making a kind of Talmudic a fortiori argument about the general momentum of the campaigns: if Mitt Romney could so thoroughly defeat Barack Obama, kal v’chomer Paul Ryan could dismantle Joe Biden.

But there are three things conservatives should keep in mind. First, at the Democratic National Convention, Biden was better than Obama was—and it wasn’t even close. Biden had the energy and the populist appeal—two staples of his political persona—while Obama was saddled with presidential exhaustion and a marked lack of ideas or inspirational rhetoric. Biden is the one candidate among the four who is capable of projecting warmth on command. If the Joe Biden from the DNC shows up tomorrow night, Ryan will have his work cut out for him.

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Among the chatter heading into tomorrow night’s vice presidential debate between Paul Ryan and current Vice President Joe Biden, it’s easy to pick up on the confidence conservatives have in Ryan and their dismissive attitude toward Biden. Both of those are well founded, since Ryan is a solid debater and in strong command of the facts, while Biden is … Biden. Furthermore, they seem to be making a kind of Talmudic a fortiori argument about the general momentum of the campaigns: if Mitt Romney could so thoroughly defeat Barack Obama, kal v’chomer Paul Ryan could dismantle Joe Biden.

But there are three things conservatives should keep in mind. First, at the Democratic National Convention, Biden was better than Obama was—and it wasn’t even close. Biden had the energy and the populist appeal—two staples of his political persona—while Obama was saddled with presidential exhaustion and a marked lack of ideas or inspirational rhetoric. Biden is the one candidate among the four who is capable of projecting warmth on command. If the Joe Biden from the DNC shows up tomorrow night, Ryan will have his work cut out for him.

Second, the lead-up to the first presidential debate was filled with reminders of the memorable moments of debates past. What did they generally have in common? They often had nothing to do with the substance of the arguments, but rather with nonverbal cues. Al Gore’s sigh; George H.W. Bush looking at his watch; George W. Bush’s brilliant but almost imperceptible nod at Gore when Gore tried to crowd him. And even when the moments were about the words spoken, what were they? “You’re no Jack Kennedy”; “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”; and so on.

This is not to discount completely the role of substance. In fact, the first Romney-Obama debate was widely viewed as being more substantive than many previous debates, low on zingers and high on numbers, and this perception contributed to Romney’s margin of victory. Ryan will most certainly have substance on his side, and it will be of service. But the fact that one statement, let alone an audible exhalation, can rule the memory of these debates should be a warning to Ryan that debate performances are performances, sometimes above all else.

Third, Ryan may be taken aback by the extent to which Biden will invent alternate history and present it as fact. In 2008, Biden did exactly that, at one point offering a response on Lebanon that was quite possibly the most ridiculous statement ever made at a vice presidential debate. (If you need your memory jogged about it, please re-read Michael Totten’s post about it on this site.)

Biden gets a free pass—that’s the rule. In 2008, neither the moderator nor Sarah Palin called Biden on his repeated factually challenged ramblings. If Biden is not forced to work within observable reality, the debate will be conducted on his terms. Biden has been wrong on pretty much every major foreign-policy question in his time in the Senate, but foreign policy is not Ryan’s bread and butter. Will he be prepared enough to correct the record each time Biden wanders off?

On paper, the smart money would always be on a candidate like Ryan against someone like Biden. But the superior candidates have lost countless such debates over the years, for a variety of reasons. And overconfidence is often at the top of that list.

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Big Trouble Looms for Dems in PA

Democrats have long pooh-poohed the idea that President Obama was in any trouble in Pennsylvania this year. The president romped in Pennsylvania four years ago, and the Democrats’ registration advantage seemed likely to offset any problems that might arise from a new voter ID law that (at least before a judge prevented its enforcement this year) threatened to make it a little more difficult for the party’s Philadelphia machine to observe a time-honored city tradition and cook the results. But it’s starting to look as if their confidence was misplaced. Despite the fact that the most recent state polls there were published last week, before the first presidential debate that has altered the dynamic of the race in Mitt Romney’s favor, both Siena and Susquehanna showed the president holding only a slim lead of either two or three points. That sets up Keystone Democrats for a rude awakening the next time the state is polled, though they got a foretaste of what that might mean with the publication of the latest poll in the state’s U.S. Senate race.

A Susquehanna poll published today shows incumbent Democrat Bob Casey just two points ahead of Republican Tom Smith. Casey is a popular, though lackluster, incumbent whose father (a longtime governor) is still remembered with affection, and no one believed he was in any danger of losing this year. That was certainly the case when the best the GOP could do to oppose him was Tom Smith, a Tea Party stalwart with little name recognition. The point here is that if Tom Smith is that close to Casey, the Democrat ticket in Pennsylvania may be far weaker than pundits, who have been painting the state dark blue in electoral map for months, thought. If Obama must fight hard for Pennsylvania — which has just been shifted into the tossup column by Real Clear Politics — his campaign has made a terrible miscalculation.

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Democrats have long pooh-poohed the idea that President Obama was in any trouble in Pennsylvania this year. The president romped in Pennsylvania four years ago, and the Democrats’ registration advantage seemed likely to offset any problems that might arise from a new voter ID law that (at least before a judge prevented its enforcement this year) threatened to make it a little more difficult for the party’s Philadelphia machine to observe a time-honored city tradition and cook the results. But it’s starting to look as if their confidence was misplaced. Despite the fact that the most recent state polls there were published last week, before the first presidential debate that has altered the dynamic of the race in Mitt Romney’s favor, both Siena and Susquehanna showed the president holding only a slim lead of either two or three points. That sets up Keystone Democrats for a rude awakening the next time the state is polled, though they got a foretaste of what that might mean with the publication of the latest poll in the state’s U.S. Senate race.

A Susquehanna poll published today shows incumbent Democrat Bob Casey just two points ahead of Republican Tom Smith. Casey is a popular, though lackluster, incumbent whose father (a longtime governor) is still remembered with affection, and no one believed he was in any danger of losing this year. That was certainly the case when the best the GOP could do to oppose him was Tom Smith, a Tea Party stalwart with little name recognition. The point here is that if Tom Smith is that close to Casey, the Democrat ticket in Pennsylvania may be far weaker than pundits, who have been painting the state dark blue in electoral map for months, thought. If Obama must fight hard for Pennsylvania — which has just been shifted into the tossup column by Real Clear Politics — his campaign has made a terrible miscalculation.

The closeness of the Senate race is due in large measure to Casey’s incompetence as a candidate. He won in 2006 almost by default against a deeply unpopular Rick Santorum, and got away with running what was widely considered a stealth campaign in which the nominally pro-life and pro-gun Democrat sought to avoid being pinned down on any issues. He’s trying the same trick this year, but in the absence of a highly visible opponent like Santorum, it isn’t playing as well. However, even Casey, who has one of the lowest profiles of any statewide political figure but very high name recognition, still ought to be having an easy time winning a second term against Smith. That Casey couldn’t maintain the double-digit lead he had over Smith most of the year is telling not only about his own problems but what it says about the weakness of the Democrat ticket.

The smart money will probably still be betting on Obama and Casey winning in November, but the news here is that they are going to have fight hard to do so. Republicans had hoped to make the president play defense in a state that was thought to not really be in play, and it appears they have succeeded in that quest. A determined Republican challenge in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania doesn’t mean the Democrats can’t also fight hard in swing states such as Florida and Virginia that Romney must have if he is to win, but it makes it harder for them.

But that’s putting these results in what must be seen as the most positive light for Democrats. The nightmare scenario for Obama is that not only has Pennsylvania reverted to its pre-2008 status as a competitive if blue-leaning state, but that it is genuinely in play. Even scarier for them is the prospect of a spiraling Obama dragging Casey down with him. A few more polls like this and such an outcome will no longer be viewed as a GOP fantasy.

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Can Obama Play From Behind?

Democrats are now thinking about the vice presidential debate a bit differently than they might have expected just a week ago. Rather than Vice President Biden being given the task of merely not losing ground to Paul Ryan, he is now being asked to win it so as to offset the impact of last week’s disastrous showing by the head of his ticket in the first presidential debate. It remains to be seen whether that is likely or even possible, and we’ll have more about the veep matchup later today and tomorrow. But whatever winds up happening tomorrow night, placing this much emphasis on a Biden win puts the Obama campaign in a tight spot. It also raises the question of how they will react if, as is most likely, that debate, as well as the two presidential confrontations that will follow, doesn’t produce a clear-cut victory for the incumbents.

Both in 2008 and throughout all of 2012 up until this point, the president has had the luxury of running ahead of the competition. If the current trend, in which the national polls are now showing Romney with a slight lead in the race, continues, we will find out how he does when he is trailing. Based on the evidence of the past week as the Romney surge began, that is not an encouraging prospect for the Democrats.

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Democrats are now thinking about the vice presidential debate a bit differently than they might have expected just a week ago. Rather than Vice President Biden being given the task of merely not losing ground to Paul Ryan, he is now being asked to win it so as to offset the impact of last week’s disastrous showing by the head of his ticket in the first presidential debate. It remains to be seen whether that is likely or even possible, and we’ll have more about the veep matchup later today and tomorrow. But whatever winds up happening tomorrow night, placing this much emphasis on a Biden win puts the Obama campaign in a tight spot. It also raises the question of how they will react if, as is most likely, that debate, as well as the two presidential confrontations that will follow, doesn’t produce a clear-cut victory for the incumbents.

Both in 2008 and throughout all of 2012 up until this point, the president has had the luxury of running ahead of the competition. If the current trend, in which the national polls are now showing Romney with a slight lead in the race, continues, we will find out how he does when he is trailing. Based on the evidence of the past week as the Romney surge began, that is not an encouraging prospect for the Democrats.

It should be remembered that the president’s greatest strength doesn’t come from spinning weak economic statistics or from attacks on his opponents. His election in 2008 was the product of harnessing the positive feelings of Americans about an inspiring challenger whose victory would go some way toward righting the historic wrongs of the country’s legacy of racism. It is that historic status that is the foundation for President Obama’s positive personal image and a major deterrent to wavering independents and disillusioned Democrats crossing over to the GOP.

The remnants of the sentiment that drove that “hope and change” election dovetail nicely with the Democrats’ attempt to place the blame for a poor economy on George W. Bush rather than on the man who has been in office for four years. But it is far from clear if that rather flimsy argument will work as well for a candidate who is faltering as it does for one who seems in command.

Though the Democrats have been running a breathtakingly negative campaign against Mitt Romney all year, they’ve turned up the heat in the days since the debate. The barrage of ads calling Romney a “liar” because a liberal journalist quotes a liberal think tank that believes his tax plan will somehow require a middle class tax increase, even though there is no such provision in it, is one example. The one about Romney wanting to kill Big Bird is another.

The problem with these ads is not just that they are inaccurate but that they reek of desperation. This sort of heavy-handed sliming is intended to reduce the GOP candidate’s favorability ratings, but they may also have the unintended effect of making Obama look scared and nasty. That is exactly the sort of sentiment that is likely to kill any remnant of awe for the president’s historic status that is essential to his re-election.

Far from such tactics erasing Romney’s bounce, it is this sort of thing that may help transform it from a momentary surge to a fundamental change in the dynamic of this election.

In 2008, Obama showed the country that he knew how to play when ahead as he avoided mistakes and complacency and cruised to a most decisive victory. But by showing up unprepared in Denver while Romney demonstrated his command of the issues, the president put himself in a position where he may well have to spend the next month trying to catch Romney. That is a very different skill and requires drastically different tactics than the ones the Democrats have so far employed in this election.

While this situation may well be altered in the coming days and weeks, if both the candidate and his campaign are temperamentally unsuited to playing from behind, the debate loss may turn out to be a bigger problem than the president could ever have imagined.

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The Worst National Book Award List since the Last National Book Award List

The nominees for the National Book Award in fiction were announced earlier today, and they are truly a bad lot:

• Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her
• Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King
• Louise Erdrich, The Round House
• Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
• Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds

The list reads more like the Acknowledgments at the back of a novel, where creative writers nod and smile at other creative writers, than like a selection of the best American fiction published this year. Only Díaz’s collection of stories belongs on it. This Is How You Lose Her should win easily. I reviewed Erdrich’s The Round House in the October issue of COMMENTARY. (Verdict: Don’t bother.) It may come as a surprise, when you study the roll of past winners, to discover that Erdrich has never won the National Book Award. Little else could explain her nomination for the Award this time around.

Dave Eggers is how a middlebrow novelist reads when he has soaked in the groundwater of “literary fiction” for long years. But the worst part of the list — the revealing part of the list — is the two Iraq war novels that were nominated. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an entertaining and funny satire. Jacob Silverman, writing at Slate, called it a “near-masterpiece.” Which it is, I guess, if you like derivative fiction: Yossarian Comes Home from Iraq, it might have been called, or Catch-22: All Disdain Revised and Updated.

Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, though, could be nominated only by those who had lost all contact with (and any interest in) the reality of war. This is how the Iraq war sounds from within the closed doors of a writing seminar:

I moved to the edge of the bridge and began firing at anything moving. I saw one man fall in a heap near the bank of the river among the bulrushes and green fields on its edges. In that moment, I disowned the waters of my youth. My memories of them became a useless luxury, their names as foreign as any that could be found in Nineveh: the Tigris or the Chesapeake, the James or the Shatt al Arab farther to the south, all belonged to someone else, and perhaps had never really been my own. I was an intruder, at best a visitor, and would be even in my home, in my misremembered history, until the glow of phosphorescence in the Chesapeake I had longed to swim inside again someday became a taunt against my insignificance, a cruel trick of light that had always made me think of stars. No more. I gave up longing, because I was sure that anything seen at such a scale would reveal the universe as cast aside and drowned, and if I ever floated there again, out where the level of the water reached my neck, and my feet lost contact with its muddy bottom, I might realize that to understand the world, one’s place in it, is to be always at the risk of drowning.

What is the purpose of such a passage? Beyond testifying to the aesthetic delicacy of the narrator, I mean. Why would anyone besides his mother want to keep reading? There is nothing at all to be learned from the passage — neither facts about combat nor philosophical wisdom of any kind — nor is there any story, any narrative drive forward. This is what becomes of war fiction when American writers are divorced from their own literary tradition, to say nothing of their own experience.

Fountain’s novel and Powers’s are invaluable in showing that American fiction has yet to forge a distinctive idiom for the wars of the 21st century. That this failure should be rewarded with National Book Award nominations, however, is embarrassing. No critic who is not a stranger to American war fiction could have felt any impulse to honor them. But the four judges of the Award are creative writers — not a critic among them — and asking them to judge fiction by the criteria of readers instead of writers is like asking cupcake bakers to judge the heartiest foods. By the criteria of creative writing, Fountain’s novel and Power’s indeed capture our time in luminous prose by two writers who are destined to become the voice of their generation. Or something.

By the criteria of readers, though, the novels are dreadful. So are two of the three remaining nominees. Not that amazing fiction was not published this year. Christopher R. Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder is the year’s best novel. Pauls Toutonghi’s Evel Knievel Days is far more fun to read — far more of a reader’s novel, with far more to say — than any of the four novels put up for the Award. Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You is a return to the kind of fiction that used to be (in Wayne Booth’s words) preoccupied with human content. To say nothing of Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe’s investigative romp through Miami, a novel that readers who still like to read a novel (instead of imagining themselves writing one) will take to bed — and go to bed early. Add Díaz to the list and you have five works of fiction any one of which might deserve a National Book Award.

The nominees for the National Book Award in fiction were announced earlier today, and they are truly a bad lot:

• Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her
• Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King
• Louise Erdrich, The Round House
• Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
• Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds

The list reads more like the Acknowledgments at the back of a novel, where creative writers nod and smile at other creative writers, than like a selection of the best American fiction published this year. Only Díaz’s collection of stories belongs on it. This Is How You Lose Her should win easily. I reviewed Erdrich’s The Round House in the October issue of COMMENTARY. (Verdict: Don’t bother.) It may come as a surprise, when you study the roll of past winners, to discover that Erdrich has never won the National Book Award. Little else could explain her nomination for the Award this time around.

Dave Eggers is how a middlebrow novelist reads when he has soaked in the groundwater of “literary fiction” for long years. But the worst part of the list — the revealing part of the list — is the two Iraq war novels that were nominated. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an entertaining and funny satire. Jacob Silverman, writing at Slate, called it a “near-masterpiece.” Which it is, I guess, if you like derivative fiction: Yossarian Comes Home from Iraq, it might have been called, or Catch-22: All Disdain Revised and Updated.

Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, though, could be nominated only by those who had lost all contact with (and any interest in) the reality of war. This is how the Iraq war sounds from within the closed doors of a writing seminar:

I moved to the edge of the bridge and began firing at anything moving. I saw one man fall in a heap near the bank of the river among the bulrushes and green fields on its edges. In that moment, I disowned the waters of my youth. My memories of them became a useless luxury, their names as foreign as any that could be found in Nineveh: the Tigris or the Chesapeake, the James or the Shatt al Arab farther to the south, all belonged to someone else, and perhaps had never really been my own. I was an intruder, at best a visitor, and would be even in my home, in my misremembered history, until the glow of phosphorescence in the Chesapeake I had longed to swim inside again someday became a taunt against my insignificance, a cruel trick of light that had always made me think of stars. No more. I gave up longing, because I was sure that anything seen at such a scale would reveal the universe as cast aside and drowned, and if I ever floated there again, out where the level of the water reached my neck, and my feet lost contact with its muddy bottom, I might realize that to understand the world, one’s place in it, is to be always at the risk of drowning.

What is the purpose of such a passage? Beyond testifying to the aesthetic delicacy of the narrator, I mean. Why would anyone besides his mother want to keep reading? There is nothing at all to be learned from the passage — neither facts about combat nor philosophical wisdom of any kind — nor is there any story, any narrative drive forward. This is what becomes of war fiction when American writers are divorced from their own literary tradition, to say nothing of their own experience.

Fountain’s novel and Powers’s are invaluable in showing that American fiction has yet to forge a distinctive idiom for the wars of the 21st century. That this failure should be rewarded with National Book Award nominations, however, is embarrassing. No critic who is not a stranger to American war fiction could have felt any impulse to honor them. But the four judges of the Award are creative writers — not a critic among them — and asking them to judge fiction by the criteria of readers instead of writers is like asking cupcake bakers to judge the heartiest foods. By the criteria of creative writing, Fountain’s novel and Power’s indeed capture our time in luminous prose by two writers who are destined to become the voice of their generation. Or something.

By the criteria of readers, though, the novels are dreadful. So are two of the three remaining nominees. Not that amazing fiction was not published this year. Christopher R. Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder is the year’s best novel. Pauls Toutonghi’s Evel Knievel Days is far more fun to read — far more of a reader’s novel, with far more to say — than any of the four novels put up for the Award. Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You is a return to the kind of fiction that used to be (in Wayne Booth’s words) preoccupied with human content. To say nothing of Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe’s investigative romp through Miami, a novel that readers who still like to read a novel (instead of imagining themselves writing one) will take to bed — and go to bed early. Add Díaz to the list and you have five works of fiction any one of which might deserve a National Book Award.

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A Horrifying Reminder of Taliban Mentality

The barbarism of the Taliban is occasionally disguised but never very effectively and never for long. The latest example of them showing their true colors is the horrifying assault on Malala Yousafzai, a precocious 14-year-old-girl from the Swat Valley of Pakistan, who has emerged as an outspoken champion of girls’ education–which is anathema to this violent fundamentalist movement. Taliban gunmen answered her temerity with a bullet to the head, leaving her in critical condition. What makes this heinous act even more shocking is that the Taliban took no effort to hide their involvement. As the New York Times reports:

A Taliban spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, confirmed by phone Tuesday that Ms. Yousafzai had been the target, calling her crusade for education rights an “obscenity.”

“She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it,” Mr. Ehsan said, adding that if she survived, the militants would certainly try to kill her again. “Let this be a lesson.”

So in the eyes of the Taliban, advocating for women’s education is a capital crime.

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The barbarism of the Taliban is occasionally disguised but never very effectively and never for long. The latest example of them showing their true colors is the horrifying assault on Malala Yousafzai, a precocious 14-year-old-girl from the Swat Valley of Pakistan, who has emerged as an outspoken champion of girls’ education–which is anathema to this violent fundamentalist movement. Taliban gunmen answered her temerity with a bullet to the head, leaving her in critical condition. What makes this heinous act even more shocking is that the Taliban took no effort to hide their involvement. As the New York Times reports:

A Taliban spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, confirmed by phone Tuesday that Ms. Yousafzai had been the target, calling her crusade for education rights an “obscenity.”

“She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it,” Mr. Ehsan said, adding that if she survived, the militants would certainly try to kill her again. “Let this be a lesson.”

So in the eyes of the Taliban, advocating for women’s education is a capital crime.

As it happens this attack was carried out by the Pakistani Taliban (a.k.a. the Tehrik-i-Taliban). But they are animated by the same ideology as their Afghan counterparts, which are fighting U.S., Afghan, and other foreign troops. While organizational structures may differ slightly, the Pashtun extremists operating on both sides of the artificial Durand Line separating Pakistan from Afghanistan are otherwise very similar, and a victory for one translates into greater gains for the other. Therefore, it is imperative that the Western powers that made a commitment to fight the Taliban in 2001 show sustained commitment and hold off on further troop withdrawals until Afghan security forces are strong enough to take on the Taliban with decreasing levels of outside assistance.

Otherwise, these savages are likely to shoot their way back into power, with unspeakable consequences for girls like Malala Yousafzai who aspire to something more noble than chattel slavery.

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Gibbs: Big Bird Ad Makes “Important Point”

It looks like the Obama campaign is forging ahead with its ill-conceived Big Bird ad campaign, despite ridicule from across the political spectrum. On the Today show this morning, Robert Gibbs defended the ad against allegations that it makes the president seem trivial and desperate:

“The ad and the President have an important point on this,” said Gibbs on NBC’s “Today” show. “Mitt Romney in Wednesday’s debate said, ‘I’m going to get tough by getting “Downton Abbey” and going to war with “Sesame Street” ‘ when he’s going to let Wall Street off the hook and not hold them accountable as we go on financial reform.

“We can’t have a president that does that. That’s certainly part of a very real issue and I think it’s one more piece of something … that Mitt Romney said in the debate that he would like to change or that is a position that he is going to want to change,” Gibbs continued, accusing Romney of changing his stance on numerous issues.

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It looks like the Obama campaign is forging ahead with its ill-conceived Big Bird ad campaign, despite ridicule from across the political spectrum. On the Today show this morning, Robert Gibbs defended the ad against allegations that it makes the president seem trivial and desperate:

“The ad and the President have an important point on this,” said Gibbs on NBC’s “Today” show. “Mitt Romney in Wednesday’s debate said, ‘I’m going to get tough by getting “Downton Abbey” and going to war with “Sesame Street” ‘ when he’s going to let Wall Street off the hook and not hold them accountable as we go on financial reform.

“We can’t have a president that does that. That’s certainly part of a very real issue and I think it’s one more piece of something … that Mitt Romney said in the debate that he would like to change or that is a position that he is going to want to change,” Gibbs continued, accusing Romney of changing his stance on numerous issues.

The “war with Sesame Street” line is a nice touch. Gibbs is pandering to the lowest of the low-interest voters, hoping they make their choice based on whether they’re Downton Abbey or Sesame Street fans. This is the same fearmongering the Obama campaign has used to criticize every potential government cut, but it’s never been more obvious than now. According to the campaign, the mammoth entitlements can’t be tinkered with because too many people rely on them. But talk about cutting the small stuff — like public funding for PBS — and the Obama campaign will mock you for wanting to get rid of a program that will barely make a dent in the deficit. The end result is a president who looks completely unserious when it comes to dealing with the debt crisis. He won’t cut the big things, and he won’t cut the small things.

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Will Obama Mourn Georgian Ally’s Defeat?

I share the two cheers Max seems to offer for the slight forward march of democracy, especially in Georgia, where longtime American ally Mikheil Saakashvili has yet again proven his detractors in the global left wrong and his supporters right. Saakashvili’s behavior was exemplary to the point of uniting in thought and praise Max and the Economist, and I join them. The Economist, long a skeptic of Vladimir Putin’s intentions and supporter of post-Soviet demokratizatsiya, writes:

Peaceful political and constitutional change is routine in much of Europe. But it is rare (the Baltic states aside) in the old Soviet Union. By conceding, Mr Saakashvili has admirably secured his reformist legacy, demolishing claims that his rule was Putinesque in its heavy-handedness. Westerners who trusted him can feel vindicated. For his part Mr Ivanishvili stoked suspicions about his own judgment when he demanded that Mr Saakashvili step down immediately (he quickly backtracked). The constitutional position is clear: Mr Saakashvili has another year to go. He is ready to work with his victorious opponent, despite the deepest of disagreements. Mr Ivanishvili should reciprocate.

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I share the two cheers Max seems to offer for the slight forward march of democracy, especially in Georgia, where longtime American ally Mikheil Saakashvili has yet again proven his detractors in the global left wrong and his supporters right. Saakashvili’s behavior was exemplary to the point of uniting in thought and praise Max and the Economist, and I join them. The Economist, long a skeptic of Vladimir Putin’s intentions and supporter of post-Soviet demokratizatsiya, writes:

Peaceful political and constitutional change is routine in much of Europe. But it is rare (the Baltic states aside) in the old Soviet Union. By conceding, Mr Saakashvili has admirably secured his reformist legacy, demolishing claims that his rule was Putinesque in its heavy-handedness. Westerners who trusted him can feel vindicated. For his part Mr Ivanishvili stoked suspicions about his own judgment when he demanded that Mr Saakashvili step down immediately (he quickly backtracked). The constitutional position is clear: Mr Saakashvili has another year to go. He is ready to work with his victorious opponent, despite the deepest of disagreements. Mr Ivanishvili should reciprocate.

That is well said, and also underscores the withholding of that third cheer for Georgia, since Saakashvili has behaved far better (and more democratically) than his ascendant pro-Russian rival. But here is where I diverge slightly from Max, who writes (my emphasis): “The ability to peacefully transition authority from one party to another is crucial, and if Georgia can pull it off, that will be a boon for its nascent democracy, even if the policies advocated by the new government are not those that American policymakers would prefer.”

Those new policies may not be what Max would prefer, nor those of us who have recognized the importance of Georgia’s pro-Western leaning, from its role in the disintegration of the Soviet Union to its sending troops to Afghanistan. But I think it is wishful thinking to assume that the current administration sees it that way.

The Obama administration has shown less interest in expanding NATO–that is to say, none at all–than his predecessors. The most recent NATO conference, which we hosted here in the U.S., was a historic meeting, in that it took not a step toward the inclusion of allies who have made progress at each meeting until this one. In fact, the NATO conference was notable in that it displayed an organization that seemed to have no interest in itself.

Georgia has sent more troops to Afghanistan than some NATO members (and was apparently the highest per-capita troop contributor to the effort). But the Obama administration remains unmoved. Russia is currently occupying chunks of Georgian sovereign territory, violating the ceasefire that ended the 2008 war, which Russian leaders had been planning for about a decade and which included documented cases of anti-Georgian ethnic cleansing. The Obama administration admitted to the New York Times that it was fully aware of Russia’s violations, but that raising the issue would have imperiled the imaginary “reset” that was, at that time, still one of the administration’s prized delusions.

That border dispute was one reason Georgia held fast to its one piece of leverage over Russia: the latter’s accession to the World Trade Organization. U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul wisely made Russia’s WTO membership one of his primary goals–getting Russia to play by the same rules as the international community will bring a certain degree of accountability to Putin’s management of “Russia, Inc.” and give American businesses a boost in new markets as well. But the border dispute remains, even after McFaul strong-armed Georgia into letting go. Both Russia and the U.S. got what they wanted; Saakashvili got an insincere pat on the back.

Because the “reset” was based mostly on Western rhetoric toward Russia, Saakashvili’s bombast proved an annoyance to the administration. So when Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose party bested Saakashvili’s in the recent parliamentary elections, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to outline his vision for the country he hoped to lead, he knew exactly how to make his pitch. “If elected, my Georgian Dream coalition will drop Cold War rhetoric and do a better job of defusing the real causes of the explosive situation in our region,” he wrote, echoing the hollow nonsense of the Obama administration’s persistent complaints that criticism of Putin is evidence of a mind “still stuck in a Cold War mind warp.”

A better relationship with Russia seems to be exactly what the Obama administration would want for Georgia, since Obama and McFaul have now gotten everything they needed from Georgia and no longer have much use for our ally. Georgia hasn’t been treated much worse than the rest of our allies by the Obama administration, but that’s still pretty terrible. In any event, I would guess the Obama administration is willing to offer all three cheers for the Georgian election.

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State Dept. Admits: No Protest in Benghazi

It only took the State Department a month to acknowledge what the rest of us had gathered weeks ago: there was no random protest outside the Benghazi consulate, unless you consider a group of terrorists armed with heavy artillery a “protest.” According to ABC News, the State Department changed its story now “as part of its investigation,” which tells you just how serious its investigation will be (h/t Allahpundit):

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It only took the State Department a month to acknowledge what the rest of us had gathered weeks ago: there was no random protest outside the Benghazi consulate, unless you consider a group of terrorists armed with heavy artillery a “protest.” According to ABC News, the State Department changed its story now “as part of its investigation,” which tells you just how serious its investigation will be (h/t Allahpundit):

It’s no coincidence that this news came just ahead of Rep. Darrell Issa’s hearing into the State Department’s security lapses. Issa’s investigation will likely look into what the State Department knew and when it knew it — and based on reports about the initial intelligence, it’s a safe bet that State officials were aware of the terrorist attack before they sent UN Ambassador Susan Rice out on TV to claim this was just a spontaneous protest that spiraled out of control.

The question that still hasn’t been answered is why would the State Department put out that false narrative in the first place? Were they asked to do so by the White House, or did they have their own reasons for delaying the bad news? The State Department has tried to slow-walk out any new or negative information since the attack, likely as a form of damage control, but it looks like Issa’s investigation is finally forcing them to speed things up.

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Germany’s Double-Dealing on Iran

The good folks at Germany’s Stop the Bomb campaign alerted me to this latest tidbit, which clearly shows what a double game Berlin now plays vis-à-vis Iran:

Last month, Iran’s Science, Research, and Technology ministry signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD), the German Academic Exchange Service. When it comes to its dealings with Iran, DAAD acts with the blessing of Germany’s Foreign Ministry. The German agreement with Iran comes despite the fact that Kamran Daneshjoo, the Iranian Minister of Science, Research, and Technology, is on the European Union sanctions list because of his alleged involvement in Iranian nuclear warhead design and work. DAAD’s logic of academic engagement falls short when it fails to pay attention to the agenda and, in this case, expertise of its partners. Exchange in the humanities is one thing. Does DAAD really believe it is wise to provide Iranians pursuing nuclear and sensitive scientific studies with unprecedented access to German technology and instruction?

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The good folks at Germany’s Stop the Bomb campaign alerted me to this latest tidbit, which clearly shows what a double game Berlin now plays vis-à-vis Iran:

Last month, Iran’s Science, Research, and Technology ministry signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD), the German Academic Exchange Service. When it comes to its dealings with Iran, DAAD acts with the blessing of Germany’s Foreign Ministry. The German agreement with Iran comes despite the fact that Kamran Daneshjoo, the Iranian Minister of Science, Research, and Technology, is on the European Union sanctions list because of his alleged involvement in Iranian nuclear warhead design and work. DAAD’s logic of academic engagement falls short when it fails to pay attention to the agenda and, in this case, expertise of its partners. Exchange in the humanities is one thing. Does DAAD really believe it is wise to provide Iranians pursuing nuclear and sensitive scientific studies with unprecedented access to German technology and instruction?

Sanctions against those involved in Iran’s nuclear program will not alone change the regime’s mind against the path it is pursuing. The logic of sanctions, however, is to isolate the regime and to demonstrate a united front. With DAAD’s latest agreement, however, the German government appears to be signaling Iran that nothing is beyond the pale, not even dabbling in nuclear weapons technology. As the Iranian regime doubles down on its genocidal rhetoric, it is unfortunate that Berlin pursues such an underhanded policy. It is embarrassing, as well, that the German government has concluded that the White House policy of leading from behind means that they need not worry about chastisement for their double-dealing.

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Illegal Immigrants Are Illegal

Is it racist or wrong to use the term “illegal immigrant?” That’s a position that is getting more of a hearing these days as liberals seek to change not just the laws, but also the way we talk about the issue. To date, the New York Times has resisted the pressure to abolish the term, but the debate is heating up, and no one should be surprised if eventually the mainstream media replaces it with something more neutral like “undocumented immigrant” that makes the act of crossing the border without permission sound more like a bureaucratic oversight than an actual crime.

The latest blow struck on behalf of this effort came from NPR’s Maria Hinojosa who claimed that Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel likened the term to the way Nazis treated Jews. Wiesel is a person who stands above politics, and his moral authority to discuss just about any issue is not likely to be challenged. But whatever one might think about immigration or the plight of those who come here illegally, the attempt to eliminate the term, much less compare illegal immigrants to the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, is absurd. Illegal immigrants are called illegal not because Americans view them with malice but because they are in this country illegally.

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Is it racist or wrong to use the term “illegal immigrant?” That’s a position that is getting more of a hearing these days as liberals seek to change not just the laws, but also the way we talk about the issue. To date, the New York Times has resisted the pressure to abolish the term, but the debate is heating up, and no one should be surprised if eventually the mainstream media replaces it with something more neutral like “undocumented immigrant” that makes the act of crossing the border without permission sound more like a bureaucratic oversight than an actual crime.

The latest blow struck on behalf of this effort came from NPR’s Maria Hinojosa who claimed that Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel likened the term to the way Nazis treated Jews. Wiesel is a person who stands above politics, and his moral authority to discuss just about any issue is not likely to be challenged. But whatever one might think about immigration or the plight of those who come here illegally, the attempt to eliminate the term, much less compare illegal immigrants to the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, is absurd. Illegal immigrants are called illegal not because Americans view them with malice but because they are in this country illegally.

Hinojosa spoke of a conversation she said she had with Wiesel on Chris Hayes’s  MSNBC show on Sunday:

If there is an authority, you [Wiesel] should be it. And he said, ‘Maria, don’t ever use the term ‘illegal immigrant.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because once you label a people ‘illegal,’ that is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews.’ You do not label a people ‘illegal.’ They have committed an illegal act. They are immigrants who crossed illegally. They are immigrants who crossed without papers. They are immigrants who crossed without permission. They are living in this country without permission. But they are not an illegal people.”

While anyone who grew up admiring Wiesel as a moral voice must approach any criticism of him with reluctance, if Hinojosa’s recollection is correct, he has, unfortunately, done something that he has often criticized: made an inappropriate use of a Holocaust analogy.

The implicit comparison here between Nazi race laws and the simple fact that the United States, like any sovereign nation, has the right to control entry into its borders is an abominable misuse of the legacy of the Holocaust. The analogy is also false because the dehumanization of the Jews was a pretext for their murder. No one, not even the most radical Know-Nothing anti-immigrant rabble-rousers, want to harm the illegals or deprive them of their humanity or destroy them as a people. They just want them to be deported for violating the law. It should also be pointed out that the Jews were not only not “illegal” in Europe, they were a people whose citizenship was illegally revoked by a criminal regime.

This argument is also disingenuous. This is not about language or humanity, but the desire of some people to treat immigration law as a mere technicality the violation of which ought to be treated as no worse than a traffic ticket. We understand that people like Jose Antonio Vargas, the well known journalist who is himself an illegal (and who appeared on the same MSNBC show with Hinojosa) have a vested interest in our doing so. But when he argues as he did on MSNBC that “conversations about immigration begin and end with the word illegal,” most Americans would be justified in replying that this is exactly as it should be.

Even those who believe that onerous restrictions on legal immigration ought to be loosened must acknowledge that violations of the law cannot be treated as trivial. While it is reasonable to argue that the laws should be changed, no one has a “right” to enter the United States illegally or to remain here.

The Democratic Party gave a full-throated defense of their right to be here at their recent convention, though President Obama has been shy about raising the issue at forums where he might have an audience that is not solely composed of adoring liberals. But whatever the country may ultimately decide to do about the situation, the attempt to treat a straightforward and descriptive term as a sign of racism that is reminiscent of the Nazis is unacceptable. If, as has often been said, the first person to invoke the Nazis in a political debate loses, it would appear Hinojosa, and by extension, Wiesel, has done just that.

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Decision Time on Iran Fast Approaching

Protests in Iran over the fall of its currency, which lost about a third of its value, might suggest that there is still time for sanctions to work. And indeed there is a strong case to be made for legislation such as that introduced by Sen. Mark Kirk, which would further tighten sanctions on Iranian banks. But then comes this report from the Institute for Science and International Security, which suggests Tehran could have enough weapons-grade uranium to make a nuclear device in just two to four months–although it would take longer to weaponize that uranium.

Assuming that timeline is accurate (and of course no outsider knows the true state of the Iranian program), it suggests that the next president will have a momentous decision to make in the first months of his term of office. Deciding to do nothing–to let sanctions work and hope for the best–would be the easiest path, but it risks either letting Iran go nuclear or forcing Israel to launch air strikes of its own. The former option would be a catastrophe. The latter option would be better, but runs the risk of a dangerous Iranian reaction in return for less-than-lethal damage to their nuclear facilities. Either way, the game of “kick the can down the road”–which has been played by both the Bush and Obama administrations–is going to come to an end and the next commander-in-chief is going to face an agonizing choice about how far we are willing to go to stop Iran.

Protests in Iran over the fall of its currency, which lost about a third of its value, might suggest that there is still time for sanctions to work. And indeed there is a strong case to be made for legislation such as that introduced by Sen. Mark Kirk, which would further tighten sanctions on Iranian banks. But then comes this report from the Institute for Science and International Security, which suggests Tehran could have enough weapons-grade uranium to make a nuclear device in just two to four months–although it would take longer to weaponize that uranium.

Assuming that timeline is accurate (and of course no outsider knows the true state of the Iranian program), it suggests that the next president will have a momentous decision to make in the first months of his term of office. Deciding to do nothing–to let sanctions work and hope for the best–would be the easiest path, but it risks either letting Iran go nuclear or forcing Israel to launch air strikes of its own. The former option would be a catastrophe. The latter option would be better, but runs the risk of a dangerous Iranian reaction in return for less-than-lethal damage to their nuclear facilities. Either way, the game of “kick the can down the road”–which has been played by both the Bush and Obama administrations–is going to come to an end and the next commander-in-chief is going to face an agonizing choice about how far we are willing to go to stop Iran.

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Two Uneasy Steps Forward for Democracy

Recent days have brought dispiriting news for those us who believe that democracy is the best form of government and that the U.S. government should be doing its utmost to promote its spread around the world.

In Georgia, the recent parliamentary election was won by a party led by the enigmatic billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia under mysterious circumstances and is said to maintain close links to the Russian leadership. He was widely seen as the more pro-Russian candidate over the party led by the English-speaking, pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

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Recent days have brought dispiriting news for those us who believe that democracy is the best form of government and that the U.S. government should be doing its utmost to promote its spread around the world.

In Georgia, the recent parliamentary election was won by a party led by the enigmatic billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia under mysterious circumstances and is said to maintain close links to the Russian leadership. He was widely seen as the more pro-Russian candidate over the party led by the English-speaking, pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Now in Venezuela, the anti-American demagogue Hugo Chavez, who has already been in power since 1999, has won reelection to yet another term in office, taking 55 percent of the vote over his more moderate leftist challenger. Considering that Chavez has worked to develop alliances with unsavory states such as Iran and Cuba, and with unsavory movements such as Hezbollah and FARC, and that he has done great damage to the Venezuelan economy with his nationalizations of industry, imposition of price controls, and other socialist measures–well this is certainly not the outcome that U.S. officials would have preferred.

For neither the first nor the last time, the outcomes in Georgia and Venezuela show that democratic systems are hardly perfect–at least from the standpoint of U.S. policy interests. But they also show that the best cure for a “bad” election outcome is to have another election.

That is something that Chavez allowed to occur–even if he did use the full resources of his government, which controls the radio and television broadcasts, to turn out of the vote for his candidacy. Still, this was Chavez’s lowest winning margin, and it suggests that he could conceivably lose a future election, should he live that long–or if not, at least upon his demise there is a good chance of Venezuela returning to more competitive elections.

As for Georgia, the loss suffered by Saakashvili’s party (the president himself remains in office) could actually be a blessing in disguise: Although Saakashvili has been an effective reformer, he has also been in office since 2004, and it is always healthy in any democracy to see a change of power. Indeed, that is the very test of whether a country is truly a democracy or an autocracy with fixed elections. The ability to peacefully transition authority from one party to another is crucial, and if Georgia can pull it off, that will be a boon for its nascent democracy, even if the policies advocated by the new government are not those that American policymakers would prefer.

If I had a vote in some cosmic election, I would vote for the democratic systems of Venezuela and Georgia, imperfect though they are (especially in the case of Venezuela), over the faux stability of countries such as Saudi Arabia where dissent is impossible to express in public and the only way to change the government is to overthrow it. As we have learned in Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt (and as we previously learned in South Korea, the Philippines, the Shah’s Iran, and other once-authoritarian countries), the stability imposed by dictatorships comes with high costs. And in any case, it is a faux stability that only lasts until the coming of the revolution.

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Why Netanyahu Will Be Re-Elected

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced yesterday that he would seek to move up the date of his country’s next election from October 2013 to either January or February. While nothing is certain in a democratic system, the odds that Netanyahu will emerge triumphant from the next test at the ballot box are overwhelming. While the prime minister is widely disliked by international elites, American Jewish liberals, and the Obama administration, he stands alone at the pinnacle of Israeli politics with no credible challenger. Though this state of affairs is deplored by Bibi-bashers, this would be an apt moment for them to ponder why exactly Netanyahu is virtually a lock to hold onto power.

The answer has little to do with his personal charms (of which he has few) or his political acumen (which is considerable). Nor is it solely the product of an unimpressive array of potential challengers that few in Israel think are fit to lead the country in his place. Rather, it is the result of the fact that the majority of Israelis share his pragmatic view of the strategic challenges that face the country as well as his grasp of economic reality. For all of the fact that many in the West regard Netanyahu as an ideologue, he will retain his office because he is a voice of common-sense wisdom that ordinary Israelis respect, even if they don’t love him.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced yesterday that he would seek to move up the date of his country’s next election from October 2013 to either January or February. While nothing is certain in a democratic system, the odds that Netanyahu will emerge triumphant from the next test at the ballot box are overwhelming. While the prime minister is widely disliked by international elites, American Jewish liberals, and the Obama administration, he stands alone at the pinnacle of Israeli politics with no credible challenger. Though this state of affairs is deplored by Bibi-bashers, this would be an apt moment for them to ponder why exactly Netanyahu is virtually a lock to hold onto power.

The answer has little to do with his personal charms (of which he has few) or his political acumen (which is considerable). Nor is it solely the product of an unimpressive array of potential challengers that few in Israel think are fit to lead the country in his place. Rather, it is the result of the fact that the majority of Israelis share his pragmatic view of the strategic challenges that face the country as well as his grasp of economic reality. For all of the fact that many in the West regard Netanyahu as an ideologue, he will retain his office because he is a voice of common-sense wisdom that ordinary Israelis respect, even if they don’t love him.

It is true that had Netanyahu chosen to go directly to new elections last May rather than attempting to create a “super coalition” with the leading opposition party, he might well be in an even stronger position today. Ever the cautious tactician, Netanyahu thought putting Kadima in his camp and putting off elections till next fall would neuter his foes. But the onetime centrist juggernaut was in no condition to be a partner and its leader, Shaul Mofaz, jumped ship at the first opportunity.

In the ensuing months, Netanyahu has been buffeted by bitter criticism about his confrontation with President Obama over the Iranian nuclear threat both at home and abroad, leaving him a bit weaker than he was in May. But even when these recent blows are taken into consideration, Netanyahu’s confidence in his ability to outfox his opponents is justified.

Kadima is a shell of its former self and is certain to lose much of its strength at the next election. It’s roster of former and present leaders — Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Mofaz — may seek to combine forces with a new party led by journalist Yair Lapid or cut a deal with Netanyahu’s erstwhile partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is something of a man without a party. But whatever configuration their machinations produce, it is more likely to resemble a political island of lost toys than a viable opposition party.

The one opponent of Netanyahu’s Likud that can be said to be on the rise is the Labor Party. Labor has abandoned its old obsession with land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians that nearly destroyed the one-time perennial party of government. Instead it is now concentrating on exploiting discontent with the economy. Labor’s social democratic prescriptions make no economic sense — especially since the country has thrived under Netanyahu’s stewardship — but its seizure of the banner of social justice makes it a clear favorite to wind up as the leader of the opposition in the next Knesset. But though Labor is once again a force to be reckoned with, few believe its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has the credentials to deal with the country’s security challenges.

But Netanyahu’s good luck in being opposed by an array of opponents who are either inexperienced, discredited or merely unsuitable (such as his coalition ally Avigdor Lieberman as well as Olmert) would be nothing if not for the fact that Israelis happen to agree with the prime minister on the big questions facing the country.

The majority of Israelis agree with him that peace with the Palestinians is not possible until they undergo a sea change in their political culture that will allow them to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. And though much of the world (including President Obama) may be tired of Netanyahu’s warnings about Iran, they resonate with an Israeli public that understands that they face existential threats that can’t be wished away.

As Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit ruefully noted, Netanyahu has rejected the false hopes of the peace processors and opted instead for stability and management of the country’s conflicts. With the Arab Spring producing more danger for Israel in the form of Islamist governments, the Palestinians locked in internecine conflict and a culture of violence, and Iran more dangerous than ever, Netanyahu’s approach is the only one that makes any sense. Leftists and liberals may long for the lost hopes of Oslo or pine for the socialism of Israel’s past, but most Israelis sensibly reject such foolishness. That makes him, as Shavit puts it, “virtually the sole candidate to head the government of Israel.”

Like it or not, Americans need to make their peace with Netanyahu. The odds are, he will not only remain in office throughout the next U.S. presidential term but also possibly still be there when the next inauguration rolls around in 2017. That’s a reflection not so much of his political skill as it is a reflection of the realism of the Israeli electorate.

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Romney’s Lead: More Than Just One Poll

On Tuesday, New York Times blogger Nate Silver attempted to make sense of the latest round of polls that had been released on Monday. Silver, an astute political statistical analyst, took note of the post-debate trend that has tilted the presidential contest in favor of Mitt Romney, but argued that the average of the various polls that had altered his daily forecast of the outcome had been skewed by one poll. That poll from Pew Research showed Romney ahead of President Obama by four percentage points, a result that seemed out of line with other surveys.

But the problem with dismissing the Pew Research Poll is that as more data is coming in from other sources, it isn’t possible to pretend that what has happened in the last week is the product of one poll. With the latest Gallup Tracking poll and an Investors Business Daily/TIPP Tracking poll both showing Romney ahead by two points, as well as other polls showing Romney gaining ground in swing states, there is a clear trend that is showing up across the board in a wide range of surveys. Romney has spent most of the year trailing the president and looked to be in big trouble in September as his deficit grew. But the first debate was clearly a turning point in the race, and though Silver has tried to argue that the post-Denver bounce has already started to recede, there is now a wide body of evidence illustrating that Obama is losing ground and, at best, is locked in a dead heat with his Republican challenger. The fact that the Real Clear Politics average of major polls is showing Romney with an aggregate lead today for the first time all year must send chills down the spines of the Obama campaign.

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On Tuesday, New York Times blogger Nate Silver attempted to make sense of the latest round of polls that had been released on Monday. Silver, an astute political statistical analyst, took note of the post-debate trend that has tilted the presidential contest in favor of Mitt Romney, but argued that the average of the various polls that had altered his daily forecast of the outcome had been skewed by one poll. That poll from Pew Research showed Romney ahead of President Obama by four percentage points, a result that seemed out of line with other surveys.

But the problem with dismissing the Pew Research Poll is that as more data is coming in from other sources, it isn’t possible to pretend that what has happened in the last week is the product of one poll. With the latest Gallup Tracking poll and an Investors Business Daily/TIPP Tracking poll both showing Romney ahead by two points, as well as other polls showing Romney gaining ground in swing states, there is a clear trend that is showing up across the board in a wide range of surveys. Romney has spent most of the year trailing the president and looked to be in big trouble in September as his deficit grew. But the first debate was clearly a turning point in the race, and though Silver has tried to argue that the post-Denver bounce has already started to recede, there is now a wide body of evidence illustrating that Obama is losing ground and, at best, is locked in a dead heat with his Republican challenger. The fact that the Real Clear Politics average of major polls is showing Romney with an aggregate lead today for the first time all year must send chills down the spines of the Obama campaign.

The signs of trouble for the Democrats are showing up in a raft of new polls being released every day. In the past few days, states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, which looked to be in the bag for the president, are now tightening up. Obama had opened up a significant lead in the key battleground state of Ohio, but now the Buckeye state, which was being colored blue in most electoral maps last month, is now back in the tossup column.

Some Democrats dismissed the Pew poll because they felt it reflected a disproportionately high sample of Republican voters. Yet the president’s cheering section had no problems with polls that were the product of samples that were based on the assumption that Democrats would heavily outnumber Republicans at the voting booth in November. While the assumption that Obama can duplicate his 2008 turnout seems wildly optimistic, Silver also wisely points out that party identification can be fluid in a presidential election. The number of those claiming sympathy with the GOP may be increasing. After getting a good look at the two candidates side by side last week, many Americans may have decided the Republicans aren’t the monsters that Democratic ads have portrayed.

Silver continues to insist that the “fundamentals” of the race are still pointing toward a favorable outcome for the president. He believes the index of economic factors he has compiled works in favor, rather than against, the incumbent. The assumption there is that the majority of Americans believe the rosy numbers about unemployment. Many may still blame the country’s problems on George W. Bush, and others may be persuaded by the Democrats’ attempt to brand Romney a “liar” based on assertions that even liberals concede are misleading if not a downright false.

As I have pointed out many times in this space, conservatives have always underestimated how much of an advantage it is for Obama to have the mainstream media in his pocket (something that was clearly demonstrated by their use of a clip of Andrea Mitchell wrongly claiming that Romney would raise taxes on the middle class in an ad that is being run repeatedly on national broadcasts such as the baseball playoffs). The right also tends to ignore the powerful hold that Obama’s status as the first African-American president has on many voters.

But the sinking feeling that has set in among Democrats in the wake of the president’s disastrous debate performance stems from their grudging recognition of the fact that the political messiah of 2008 is starting to show his feet of clay.

If the trend holds, and there is good reason to think it will, I expect Silver will start adjusting his November forecast to reflect the fact that the president should no longer be considered the overwhelming favorite. Anything can happen in the next four weeks, but right now it’s starting to look as if Obama peaked too early and Romney caught fire at just the right moment.

UPDATE:

After digesting the polls released on Tuesday, Nate Silver has now backed away from his claim that Romney’s surge is solely the result of one survey skewing the averages. He concedes that Romney’s “uptick on Tuesday was a result of a wider volume of evidence.”

Despite this, he is still sticking to his forecast model that shows President Obama as the overwhelming favorite in the election:

The forecast model is not quite ready to jump on board with the notion that the race has become a literal toss-up; Mr. Romney will need to maintain his bounce for a few more days, or extend it into high-quality polls of swing states, before we can be surer about that.

But we are ready to conclude that one night in Denver undid most of the advantage Mr. Obama had appeared to gain in September.

Silver believes the president has amassed such a large lead that even Romney’s significant post-debate bounce still leaves him trailing. However, he does admit that the evidence of the national polls shows it to be essentially a dead heat.

It will be interesting to follow Silver’s forecast and to see whether his model, which seems to favor Obama, will stick with the president to the bitter end or wind up hedging its bets by Election Day.

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