Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 5, 2012

Arab-Kurd Tensions Flare in U.S. Absence

A few days ago, I mentioned one of the baleful consequences of the U.S. pullout from Iraq: our current inability to stop the flow of arms from Iran to Syria via Iraqi airspace. This article highlights another worrying issue: the tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Two New York Times correspondents write:

When federal police agents sought to arrest a Kurdish man last month in the city of Tuz Khurmato in the Kurdish north of the country, a gunfight ensued with security men loyal to the Kurdish regional government.

Kurdish security forces, called the Peshmerga, have been in a standoff with the Iraqi Army near Kirkuk, a northern city claimed by Arabs and Kurds. When the bullets stopped flying, a civilian bystander was dead and at least eight others were wounded.

In response, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, rushed troop reinforcements to the area, and Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s semiautonomous northern Kurdish region, dispatched his own soldiers, known as the Peshmerga, and the forces remain there in a tense standoff.

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A few days ago, I mentioned one of the baleful consequences of the U.S. pullout from Iraq: our current inability to stop the flow of arms from Iran to Syria via Iraqi airspace. This article highlights another worrying issue: the tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Two New York Times correspondents write:

When federal police agents sought to arrest a Kurdish man last month in the city of Tuz Khurmato in the Kurdish north of the country, a gunfight ensued with security men loyal to the Kurdish regional government.

Kurdish security forces, called the Peshmerga, have been in a standoff with the Iraqi Army near Kirkuk, a northern city claimed by Arabs and Kurds. When the bullets stopped flying, a civilian bystander was dead and at least eight others were wounded.

In response, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, rushed troop reinforcements to the area, and Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s semiautonomous northern Kurdish region, dispatched his own soldiers, known as the Peshmerga, and the forces remain there in a tense standoff.

Prior to December 2011, such a dispute would have been mediated by U.S. troops positioned on both sides of the disputed Green Line dividing Kurdish territory from Iraq proper. American troops were even running joint patrols with the Iraqi army and the peshmerga in a confidence-building measure. But now the American buffer has been removed and tensions are predictably flaring.

Odds are that the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, wily survivors both, will step back from the brink. But you never know–they could miscalculate and, amid surging emotions on both sides, an actual war could break out. Certainly the odds of such a dangerous outcome have been appreciably increased by the White House’s irresponsible failure to secure an extension of the Status of Forces Agreement keeping U.S. troops in Iraq.

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Liberals Already Miss Mitt Romney

There is more than enough silly commentary on the so-called fiscal cliff negotiations to go around, but you can’t do much better than Dana Milbank’s column today for the Washington Post. Milbank’s column emerges out of the latest trend in liberal opinion writing: now that the election is over, they have made a conscious decision to consider being more honest in their political pronouncements.

Reason magazine flagged a prime example of this on Monday, when they picked up on a quote from the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg: “[Obama] was the champion of our side, he vanquished the foe….. [but] now liberals don’t have to worry about hurting his chances for re-election, so they can be tougher in urging him to do what he should be doing.” Milbank’s entry today isn’t quite at Hertzberg’s level, but it’s in the same vein. Now that the election is over, Milbank can admit it: the country really needs Mitt Romney.

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There is more than enough silly commentary on the so-called fiscal cliff negotiations to go around, but you can’t do much better than Dana Milbank’s column today for the Washington Post. Milbank’s column emerges out of the latest trend in liberal opinion writing: now that the election is over, they have made a conscious decision to consider being more honest in their political pronouncements.

Reason magazine flagged a prime example of this on Monday, when they picked up on a quote from the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg: “[Obama] was the champion of our side, he vanquished the foe….. [but] now liberals don’t have to worry about hurting his chances for re-election, so they can be tougher in urging him to do what he should be doing.” Milbank’s entry today isn’t quite at Hertzberg’s level, but it’s in the same vein. Now that the election is over, Milbank can admit it: the country really needs Mitt Romney.

You might think that liberals would appreciate Romney’s decision to step out of the spotlight and accept his loss to Obama with grace and dignity. After all, even though John McCain is still a senator, nearly every time he criticizes President Obama it is chalked up to an apparent case of sour grapes over the election. Romney isn’t even in office. But no matter. Milbank wants Romney back in the arena, and he’s going to taunt him out of hiding:

Never again, likely, will his voice and influence be as powerful as they are now. Yet rather than stepping forward to help find a way out of the fiscal standoff, or to help his party rebuild itself, he delivered a perfunctory concession speech, told wealthy donors that Obama won by giving “gifts” to minorities, then avoided the press at a private lunch with President Obama.

Though keeping nominal residence in Massachusetts, the state he led as governor, he moved out to his California home and has been spotted at Disneyland, at the new “Twilight” movie, at a pizza place, pumping gas and going to the gym. In warm weather, he plans to live at his lakefront manse in New Hampshire. The man who spoke passionately about his love for the American auto industry has been driving around in a new Audi Q7.

A former adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, told Rucker that Romney will “be involved in some fashion” in public service. And nobody can begrudge Romney some downtime. But his failure to engage now, at a time when he could have the most clout, reinforces the impression that his candidacy was less about principle and patriotism than about him.

That’s what you get for bowing out gracefully and spending time with your family, if you’re a Republican. But put aside the fact that Republicans are trying to move on from much of Romney’s problematic messaging during the election and rebuild their brand around some of their more popular elected officials. Did Milbank always think of Romney as a man whose involvement in public life was so important to the country? No.

In a sarcastic response to conservative complaints that the media was being unfairly critical of Romney, Milbank suggested in September that the press back off. Romney, he said, was a gaffe machine, and simply for the entertainment value the press should help him get elected. “Admittedly, this may not be the best outcome for the country, or for the world,” Milbank snickered, adding that “he could bring transatlantic relations back to War of 1812 levels.”

But the fiscal cliff is about economics, and that’s where Romney’s business experience could come in handy, right? What did pre-election Milbank think of Romney’s business experience? He summed it up in an August column in which he said that a business-oriented video game his young daughter played functioned “strikingly like Bain Capital did under Mitt Romney.” And how is that? “The game is devoid of business ethics,” he wrote.

Romney was a liar, Milbank said in the week of the election. But that might be because he’s a brainwashed zombie, as Milbank had proposed a month earlier. By the time the election was over, Milbank said, the Romney campaign had “abandoned any pretense of being a campaign for the common man.”

In some ways, Milbank’s column is actually a breakthrough in bipartisanship. It took Democrats quite some time to decide that Ronald Reagan wasn’t purely evil through and through. It only took them a few years to reconsider George W. Bush in light of contemporary Republican officeholders. And now it has taken only a matter of weeks for the left to admit that the Republican presidential candidate isn’t who they said he was; he’s not so bad after all, and their guy isn’t so great, it turns out. At this rate, it won’t be long before liberals come to grips with reality before, instead of after, a presidential election.

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Sequestration’s Defense Cuts Loom

The newspapers are full of articles about negotiations over tax hikes and spending cuts as Congress and the White House face the impending “fiscal cliff.” There is much less said about another consequence of our mindless budgeting: the very real possibility that our armed forces will face devastating cuts on January 2. That is less than a month away but, given how little attention sequestration is receiving, it feels as if we’re sleepwalking toward disaster.

This, in spite of the fact that there is bipartisan agreement that sequestration will have dreadful consequences for our military readiness, requiring an across-the-board cut of roughly 10 percent in all spending, no matter how important. That will amount to $500 billion over the next decade–on top of the nearly $500 billion already enacted in 2011. Even those such as retired Admiral Mike Mullen and retired Senator John Warner, who think that it’s OK to cut the military budget judiciously, oppose the sequestration approach. As Warner said at an event in Washington: “You cannot take a sledgehammer [to the Pentagon budget]… We can and should reduce it. But it has to be done carefully. … You cannot break defense and hope to glue it back together the next day.”

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The newspapers are full of articles about negotiations over tax hikes and spending cuts as Congress and the White House face the impending “fiscal cliff.” There is much less said about another consequence of our mindless budgeting: the very real possibility that our armed forces will face devastating cuts on January 2. That is less than a month away but, given how little attention sequestration is receiving, it feels as if we’re sleepwalking toward disaster.

This, in spite of the fact that there is bipartisan agreement that sequestration will have dreadful consequences for our military readiness, requiring an across-the-board cut of roughly 10 percent in all spending, no matter how important. That will amount to $500 billion over the next decade–on top of the nearly $500 billion already enacted in 2011. Even those such as retired Admiral Mike Mullen and retired Senator John Warner, who think that it’s OK to cut the military budget judiciously, oppose the sequestration approach. As Warner said at an event in Washington: “You cannot take a sledgehammer [to the Pentagon budget]… We can and should reduce it. But it has to be done carefully. … You cannot break defense and hope to glue it back together the next day.”

Yet the sledgehammer is about to swing–unless Congress acts to stop it in the next weeks. Time is running out and the signs do not look good. If sequestration does go through and is not immediately reversed, it would do more damage to our military readiness than any foe that our troops have fought in decades.

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Outsourcing Syrian Rebel Support to Gulf States Has Consequences

On one level, the news from Syria is encouraging–Bashar Assad’s regime is losing ground. The rebel forces are fighting on the outskirts of the capital and have managed to capture several military bases, at least temporarily. Many analysts think that the Syrian army is cracking–a plausible if perhaps premature conclusion at this point.

But there is still cause for alarm, not only in the fact that the killing continues, but also in the fact that it is hard-line Salafists who appear to be making the biggest military gains on the ground, to the consternation of more secular rebels, thus raising the specter of Syria becoming a Taliban-like state after Assad’s downfall–or, at the very least, the specter of Taliban-like extremists gaining control of substantial territorial enclaves. If that were to occur, the U.S. would have no to blame but itself because the Obama administration’s current policy of not arming the rebels is providing Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar with an opening to shape the uprising in their own twisted image.

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On one level, the news from Syria is encouraging–Bashar Assad’s regime is losing ground. The rebel forces are fighting on the outskirts of the capital and have managed to capture several military bases, at least temporarily. Many analysts think that the Syrian army is cracking–a plausible if perhaps premature conclusion at this point.

But there is still cause for alarm, not only in the fact that the killing continues, but also in the fact that it is hard-line Salafists who appear to be making the biggest military gains on the ground, to the consternation of more secular rebels, thus raising the specter of Syria becoming a Taliban-like state after Assad’s downfall–or, at the very least, the specter of Taliban-like extremists gaining control of substantial territorial enclaves. If that were to occur, the U.S. would have no to blame but itself because the Obama administration’s current policy of not arming the rebels is providing Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar with an opening to shape the uprising in their own twisted image.

The Washington Post has a telling quote from a rebel leader:

“The lack of support by the international community has led to a situation where support is coming from the gulf states and from Syrian businessmen in those states,” Col. Malik Kurdi, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, said in an interview. “These are people who have the ideology of Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. They started supporting groups who have the same ideology in Syria, and some adopted this ideology to get financial support.”

The newspaper goes on to note that while many jihadist groups have emerged in Syria, the most successful one is “Jabhat al-Nusra, which is thought to have links to al-Qaeda.” It has “asserted responsibility for a series of suicide attacks against military and security targets,” and it has “overrun at least two government military bases in the past two weeks, collecting weapons left behind by Syrian troops.”

Even if Assad appears to be in danger of falling (and such impressions can be deceiving–he has been frustrating predictions of his demise for almost two years now), it is imperative that the U.S. do more to help the opposition so as to shape the nature of the post-Assad regime.

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U.S. Policy Toward Egypt Shouldn’t Revert to Mubarak-Era Form

In the third presidential debate, President Obama highlighted his administration’s policy toward Egypt to buttress his foreign policy legacy. He said: “In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence there is no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed.” But in fact at the time, the latter statement wasn’t true, and by now the former appears to have evaporated as well. In June, months before Obama bragged about Egyptians’ opinion of the U.S., Pew released the findings of its poll on global attitudes toward America. It found that opinion of the U.S. in the age of Obama had returned to its low point, and that Egyptians overwhelmingly, according to Pew, wanted Obama to be a one-term president.

It is unlikely that with the president’s virtual silence over Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s power grab those numbers will improve much. In the latest of several days of protesting, Egyptians chanted at Morsi: “Shave your beard, show your disgrace, you will find that you have Mubarak’s face!” Funny, yes–but it shouldn’t be disregarded as a joke. In fact, as the realist approach to the region lay in ruins around the Middle East, the Obama administration may be making the very same blunders in pursuit of the mirage of stability in the desert.

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In the third presidential debate, President Obama highlighted his administration’s policy toward Egypt to buttress his foreign policy legacy. He said: “In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence there is no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed.” But in fact at the time, the latter statement wasn’t true, and by now the former appears to have evaporated as well. In June, months before Obama bragged about Egyptians’ opinion of the U.S., Pew released the findings of its poll on global attitudes toward America. It found that opinion of the U.S. in the age of Obama had returned to its low point, and that Egyptians overwhelmingly, according to Pew, wanted Obama to be a one-term president.

It is unlikely that with the president’s virtual silence over Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s power grab those numbers will improve much. In the latest of several days of protesting, Egyptians chanted at Morsi: “Shave your beard, show your disgrace, you will find that you have Mubarak’s face!” Funny, yes–but it shouldn’t be disregarded as a joke. In fact, as the realist approach to the region lay in ruins around the Middle East, the Obama administration may be making the very same blunders in pursuit of the mirage of stability in the desert.

Of course, the pursuit of stability is reasonable enough. But what we’ve learned from the last few years is that stability purchased by selling out the rights and freedoms of the people of the Arab world presents not only as a moral problem, but also as one of efficacy. So-called realists disregard the dignity of the oppressed as mere idealism, but this practice just plain fails at its objective: Arab police states provided the illusion of stability, but in effect undermined it.

This was certainly Mubarak’s approach. While the political dominance of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is not exactly a welcome development, to say the least, it was made nearly inevitable by Mubarak’s policy of suppressing any and all political organization he could. Only the Brotherhood’s Islamism, kept alive underground and in the mosques, and long preceding Egypt’s current political establishment, was able to withstand the regime’s tyranny.

The other institution that was and remains strong is Egypt’s military. The Brotherhood allied with the military to hold early elections before the non-Islamist movements could coalesce into a more serious rival, and they were rewarded by Morsi. As the Washington Post editorializes today, “The Egyptian military is given virtual autonomy, with a defense minister appointed from within its ranks and a budget determined by a national security council rather than by parliament.”

The Post continues:

The deeper problem is that Mr. Morsi’s government appears content to steamroll, rather than seek accommodation with, secular opponents. While his spokesmen say they recognize that some of the protesters are peaceful members of the movement that overthrew Mr. Mubarak, they claim that the crowds contain paid thugs and provocateurs.

Obama shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to defend the rights Egyptians finally thought they had within their grasp out of fear of upsetting a stable balance; it isn’t there. Nor should Obama worry about the perception that he would be insulting the Egyptian people’s religious sensibilities; Morsi’s reputation as “Mubarak with a beard” is an indication that many Egyptians believe Morsi has hijacked and abused their faith as a means to subjugate them and collect power for himself. And with regard to his popularity, Obama doesn’t have much to lose there either; as Pew showed, Egyptians don’t think much of him–and he’s not giving them a reason to reconsider.

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Conspiracy Theorists Rule Congressional Autism Hearing

Who is better equipped to solve a major medical mystery, a handful American lawmakers or thousands of highly trained scientists worldwide? Unfortunately for Americans, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform decided that it was the former. The committee held a hearing billed as a conversation with experts on the growing rates of autism, but it was rife with anti-vaccination diatribes and conspiracy theories from members of Congress and their carefully chosen anti-vaccination witnesses. One congressman, Indiana Republican Dan Burton, let loose a rant filled with misinformation and conjecture about the safety of vaccines and their ability to harm children and adults. He told those at the hearing,

Vaccinations have an important place in our society. One of the best health regiments in the history of mankind: people live longer and live better and have less disease because we have vaccinations. What we have always opposed is putting toxic chemicals and metals in the vaccinations. Thimerosal contains mercury. When I was a boy, we used to have mercury in thermometers. They said if you break that thermometer and the mercury gets on your hands, that’s toxic.

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Who is better equipped to solve a major medical mystery, a handful American lawmakers or thousands of highly trained scientists worldwide? Unfortunately for Americans, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform decided that it was the former. The committee held a hearing billed as a conversation with experts on the growing rates of autism, but it was rife with anti-vaccination diatribes and conspiracy theories from members of Congress and their carefully chosen anti-vaccination witnesses. One congressman, Indiana Republican Dan Burton, let loose a rant filled with misinformation and conjecture about the safety of vaccines and their ability to harm children and adults. He told those at the hearing,

Vaccinations have an important place in our society. One of the best health regiments in the history of mankind: people live longer and live better and have less disease because we have vaccinations. What we have always opposed is putting toxic chemicals and metals in the vaccinations. Thimerosal contains mercury. When I was a boy, we used to have mercury in thermometers. They said if you break that thermometer and the mercury gets on your hands, that’s toxic.

But thimerosal has not been present in vaccines (save a few influenza shots) since 2001. Burton went on to discuss the dangers of a chemical that haven’t been used in vaccines in more than a decade. Thimerosal is not the same chemical found in thermometers, and the conjecture by Burton on its safety was an uninformed and dangerous attempt at understanding science that has already been settled by qualified professionals at the CDC and elsewhere. Burton went on about thimerosal, stating,

Ever since 1929, it [thimerosal] has not been completed tested. They continue to use it in vaccinations. It wasn’t so bad when a child got one vaccination or two or three. But when they get as many as 28 or 29 before they go into the first grade, it really hurts them. It creates a cumulative effect. The brain tissues do not chelate it. It stays in there and it causes severe, severe problems. 

If Burton had taken the time to visit the CDC website instead of cherry-picking experts (whom he later discusses) he would have discovered how thimerosal works in the body:

Thimerosal does not stay in the body a long time so it does not build up and reach harmful levels. When thimerosal enters the body, it breaks down, to ethylmercury and thiosalicylate, which are easily eliminated.

The rest of his diatribe can be as easily broken down by the FAQ section on the CDC website as well. The question-and-answer portion of the hearing was equally cringe-inducing. Forbes’s Steven Salzberg has an excellent post on the hearing, explaining its danger to public health:

Congress has every right to conduct oversight into medical research at the NIH and the CDC.  But when Dan Burton, Bob Posey, and others decide in advance what the science says, and abuse their power to demand “answers” that validate their badly mistaken beliefs, people can be harmed. Over the past decade, the anti-vaccine movement has successfully convinced millions of parents to leave their kids unvaccinated, and the result has been serious outbreaks of whooping cough, haemophilus, measles, chicken pox, and mumps around the U.S. and Europe.

Some anti-vax parents claim that these childhood illnesses aren’t so bad.  I wish they would talk to the parents of young children who have died in recent whooping cough outbreaks.  These illnesses can be deadly.

When Americans elect representatives to Congress, they are looking for lawmakers, not pseudoscientists. Fortunately, Burton is retiring at the end of this term; unfortunately, however, this hearing lent legitimacy to a movement of anti-vaccination activists who constitute a considerable danger to public health both nationally and internationally. 

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Turkey Pushes Genocide Denial

In 1915, when stories of the systematic extermination of the Armenian minority in Anatolia by the Ottoman authorities started to surface in the Western press, Turkish diplomats were rapidly mobilized to deny the reports. “All those who have been killed were of that rebellious element,” the Turkish consul in New York, Djelal Munif Bey, told the New York Times, “who were caught red-handed or while otherwise committing traitorous acts against the Turkish Government, and not women and children, as some of these fabricated reports would have the Americans believe.”

As the sun began to set on the Ottoman Empire, its leaders–and their secular successors–laid the foundations of a gruesome template that remains with us today. Ever since the slaughter of the Armenians, each episode of genocide and mass killing has been accompanied by voices who willfully deny that such horrors actually took place. Genocide denial is a phenomenon most commonly associated with the Shoah, but it also raised its head in Bangladesh in 1971, in Cambodia in 1979, in the former Yugoslavia and in Iraq during the 1990s, in Rwanda in 1994 and in Syria in the present day.

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In 1915, when stories of the systematic extermination of the Armenian minority in Anatolia by the Ottoman authorities started to surface in the Western press, Turkish diplomats were rapidly mobilized to deny the reports. “All those who have been killed were of that rebellious element,” the Turkish consul in New York, Djelal Munif Bey, told the New York Times, “who were caught red-handed or while otherwise committing traitorous acts against the Turkish Government, and not women and children, as some of these fabricated reports would have the Americans believe.”

As the sun began to set on the Ottoman Empire, its leaders–and their secular successors–laid the foundations of a gruesome template that remains with us today. Ever since the slaughter of the Armenians, each episode of genocide and mass killing has been accompanied by voices who willfully deny that such horrors actually took place. Genocide denial is a phenomenon most commonly associated with the Shoah, but it also raised its head in Bangladesh in 1971, in Cambodia in 1979, in the former Yugoslavia and in Iraq during the 1990s, in Rwanda in 1994 and in Syria in the present day.

As the original pioneers of genocide denial, the Turks remain its most aggressive practitioners. That, perhaps, is to be expected; far less understandable is the willingness of certain countries and institutions to collude in this trampling of history and memory. In that regard, this item from Denmark’s Copenhagen Post is nothing less than astounding:

The Royal Library has attracted heavy criticism after agreeing to let Turkey co-arrange an alternative exhibition about the Armenian Genocide.

The library has complied with the wishes of the Turkish ambassador to Denmark to be involved with the exhibition, ‘The Armenian Genocide and the Scandinavian response’, which is currently on display at the University of Copenhagen.

The Turkish Embassy has been granted the opportunity to stage a Turkish version of the historical events in a move that has generated criticism from a number of circles, including politicians, historians, and the Armenian Embassy in Copenhagen.

Genocide scholars in Denmark have reacted angrily. “If you believe that all versions of history are equal, then you’ve undermined your role as a research institution,” said the historian Matthias Bjørnlund. “It was genocide and not all interpretations of this history are correct.” But the director of the Royal Library, Erland Kolding Nielsen, denied having caved to pressure from the Turkish Embassy. “One can’t pressure us, and we have not spoken about removing the Armenian exhibition. We have simply given [the Turks] the opportunity to show their alternative exhibition,” Nielsen said.

Clearly, this sets an extremely dangerous precedent. No longer does it seem far-fetched to think that an exhibition about, say, Auschwitz, or the North Korean gulags, might be “balanced” with a “counter-narrative” from the perspective of the perpetrators of these atrocities.

The current Danish controversy also speaks volumes about the extent to which Turkey is prepared to go in enforcing its state doctrine of genocide denial upon its ostensible allies. Earlier this year, Ankara temporarily froze ties with France after that country’s Senate passed a law officially recognizing the Armenian massacres as a genocide. Responding to similar efforts by American lawmakers, Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told President Obama in March that he was “tired” by the constant reminders of Turkey’s historic crime, adding that the U.S. administration should “not … mistake U.S. senators, lawmakers and politicians for historians.”

For decades, Turkey has acted on the premise that Western acquiescence toward its regional bullying–whether that involves its assaults on Kurdish civilians or its continued occupation of northern Cyprus–means that it will never be obliged to reckon with the monstrous crimes committed against the Armenians. If the authors of Washington’s policy toward Turkey want us to believe that Erdogan and his cohorts share not just our strategic goals, but our core values too, then Ankara must be told that the practice of genocide denial, inaugurated by Djelal Munif Bey in 1915, is no longer acceptable almost 100 years on.

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Drop the Emotional Baggage of Israel’s “Best Friends in Europe”

Seth made an excellent point yesterday about the irreconcilability of Israeli and European visions of the two-state solution. I’d like to add a linguistic corollary: Israel and its supporters need to eliminate the phrase “Israel’s best friends in Europe” from their lexicon with regard to Germany, Britain, France and their ilk. This is not just a matter of semantics. Aside from the insult to Israel’s one real friend in Europe, the emotional baggage this phrase carries is seriously warping the Israeli-European relationship.

Just consider the events of the past week, following Europe’s decision to support (or at least not oppose) the Palestinians’ UN bid and Israel’s decision to move forward on planning and zoning approvals for construction in E-1, the corridor linking Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. Europeans are outraged; they feel betrayed. They thought they had an understanding with Israel that it would let the UN vote pass quietly; they felt Israel was being ungrateful for their backing during its recent Gaza operation and their imposition of stiff sanctions on Iran. Israel is also outraged; it feels betrayed. It thought it had an understanding with the Europeans that they would oppose (or at least not support) the UN bid; it felt Europe was being unappreciative of the many concessions it has made to the Palestinians, from an unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze through various measures to bolster the Palestinian Authority’s finances. In short, this isn’t a diplomatic dispute; it’s a lover’s quarrel–which is precisely why it escalated so rapidly and hysterically into threats of sanctions.

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Seth made an excellent point yesterday about the irreconcilability of Israeli and European visions of the two-state solution. I’d like to add a linguistic corollary: Israel and its supporters need to eliminate the phrase “Israel’s best friends in Europe” from their lexicon with regard to Germany, Britain, France and their ilk. This is not just a matter of semantics. Aside from the insult to Israel’s one real friend in Europe, the emotional baggage this phrase carries is seriously warping the Israeli-European relationship.

Just consider the events of the past week, following Europe’s decision to support (or at least not oppose) the Palestinians’ UN bid and Israel’s decision to move forward on planning and zoning approvals for construction in E-1, the corridor linking Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. Europeans are outraged; they feel betrayed. They thought they had an understanding with Israel that it would let the UN vote pass quietly; they felt Israel was being ungrateful for their backing during its recent Gaza operation and their imposition of stiff sanctions on Iran. Israel is also outraged; it feels betrayed. It thought it had an understanding with the Europeans that they would oppose (or at least not support) the UN bid; it felt Europe was being unappreciative of the many concessions it has made to the Palestinians, from an unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze through various measures to bolster the Palestinian Authority’s finances. In short, this isn’t a diplomatic dispute; it’s a lover’s quarrel–which is precisely why it escalated so rapidly and hysterically into threats of sanctions.

Now contrast this with the response of dozens of non-European countries that also supported the UN bid and oppose settlement construction. Has anyone heard any sanctions threats coming from China or India, for instance? Of course not. And that’s precisely because Israel’s bilateral relations with those countries are based on interest, not an imagined friendship. The mutual interests (mainly economic) are extensive, and both sides are eager to pursue them. But it’s strictly a business relationship; neither side expects anything of the other beyond that. Israel knows China and India will vote against it in every possible forum; China and India know Israel won’t take their views into account when determining its foreign and defense policies. And since neither side expects anything more, they don’t get upset over it.

But the term “friendship” immediately creates expectations. You expect your friends to take your wishes and interests into account, and you feel upset and betrayed when they don’t. And precisely because Israel and its supporters have been referring to Britain, Germany, France and co. for so long as “Israel’s best friends in Europe,” they get upset when they feel Israel isn’t treating them that way, and Israel gets upset when they don’t act that way.

So it’s time to eliminate the emotional baggage. Britain, France and Germany are much better than, say, Ireland and Norway, but they aren’t friends. Like China and India, they’re countries with whom Israel has many mutual interests worth pursuing, but both sides need to accept that they will often disagree–and they need to start doing it like adults.

And if anyone feels an emotional need for a “best friend in Europe,” Israel actually has a real one, with a consistent, decades-old record: the sole European country to vote with Israel at the UN last week, which was also the sole country to buck a worldwide arms embargo 64 years ago and supply Israel with desperately needed planes during its War of Independence. So could we please stop insulting the Czech Republic by lumping it in the same semantic category as Germany, France and Britain?

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