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Posts For: December 13, 2012

Yet Another North Korean Provocation

On Monday, North Korean authorities announced that their military would require more preparation time in order to send a long-range rocket, due to technical difficulties. Only two days later, the North Koreans fired the missile to the world’s surprise and, soon, condemnation. This is a familiar dance between the North Koreans and the international community, and one that has played out for three generations of Kims in power in the reclusive totalitarian state. In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Jay P. Lefkowitz discussed the phenomenon:

The Six Party Talks have fostered a dynamic whereby every time the regime needs foreign assistance, it engages in a provocative action, whether of a military or diplomatic nature, that is seen as a threat to the stability of the region. The international community then condemns the action and threatens, or imposes, new sanctions. The North Koreans promise to be on better behavior and are rewarded with an infusion of hard currency or food aid. Soon, North Korea flexes its muscles again and the cycle of aggression, reaction, and reward begins afresh.

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On Monday, North Korean authorities announced that their military would require more preparation time in order to send a long-range rocket, due to technical difficulties. Only two days later, the North Koreans fired the missile to the world’s surprise and, soon, condemnation. This is a familiar dance between the North Koreans and the international community, and one that has played out for three generations of Kims in power in the reclusive totalitarian state. In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Jay P. Lefkowitz discussed the phenomenon:

The Six Party Talks have fostered a dynamic whereby every time the regime needs foreign assistance, it engages in a provocative action, whether of a military or diplomatic nature, that is seen as a threat to the stability of the region. The international community then condemns the action and threatens, or imposes, new sanctions. The North Koreans promise to be on better behavior and are rewarded with an infusion of hard currency or food aid. Soon, North Korea flexes its muscles again and the cycle of aggression, reaction, and reward begins afresh.

Most Western observers were left guessing as to what was behind North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s decision to rush the rocket launch. The South Korean government has the best insight and intelligence into its repressive, secretive neighbor, and sources there are suggesting the North is experiencing a level of unrest not seen in the nation in years. Reuters reported last week, 

Kim himself warned of the danger of “rebellious elements” in North Korean society last month and recently met the country’s top law enforcement officials.

“There is a large-scale witch-hunt going on,” a senior official in South Korea’s presidential office said.

He spoke with foreign journalists on condition of anonymity due to concerns over rising tensions between the two Koreas over the rocket launch and his comments could not be independently verified, although the South gathers intelligence on North Korea.

Kim has purged much of the top military leadership that he inherited from his father in recent months and often appears in public with armed guards, indicating concerns over unrest, the South Korean official said.

The official said that Kim, believed to turn 30 next year, had ordered modern equipment for his riot police from another country and had also had them trained to handle possible civil disturbances.

“We know that North Korea is sending riot police for training to another country and they are importing a lot of equipment for the riot police,” he said.

He declined to name the country and said that there had been no signs that Seoul could see of unrest in North Korea.

Kim met this week with top North Korean law enforcement officials, according to Pyongyang’s state news agency KCNA and the South Korean official said that the message had gone out to prevent the possible spread of dissent.

“They are trying to root out those who are not happy with North Korea,” the South Korean official said.

Considering the news that the satellite attached to the rocket is spinning out of control, it’s increasingly likely that Kim Jong-un pushed ahead with the launch despite major technical difficulties. Could Kim be worried about quelling internal unrest, and thus decided to risk the satellite’s demise in order to test the rocket–which many believe to be the real aim of the launch? Without any reliable intelligence inside North Korea, the best that most experts can do is speculate. This week’s launch and the resulting condemnation follow a familiar pattern that usually ends in international aid.

Lefkowitz suggests an alternative, starting with linking U.S. human rights interests with its security interests. One might hope, especially after this week’s provocation, that the president has learned that adopting another approach has become necessary.

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Rice: Confirmation Process Would Have Been “Disruptive”

NBC News has the exclusive:

Embattled U.N. envoy Susan Rice is dropping out of the running to be the next secretary of state after months of criticism over her Benghazi comments, she told NBC News on Thursday.

“If nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly – to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities,” Rice wrote in a letter to President Obama, saying she’s saddened by the partisan politics surrounding her prospects.

“That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country…Therefore, I respectfully request that you no longer consider my candidacy at this time,” she wrote in the letter obtained by NBC News.

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NBC News has the exclusive:

Embattled U.N. envoy Susan Rice is dropping out of the running to be the next secretary of state after months of criticism over her Benghazi comments, she told NBC News on Thursday.

“If nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly – to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities,” Rice wrote in a letter to President Obama, saying she’s saddened by the partisan politics surrounding her prospects.

“That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country…Therefore, I respectfully request that you no longer consider my candidacy at this time,” she wrote in the letter obtained by NBC News.

John McCain’s decision to join the Foreign Relations Committee may have been the final push. Even if Rice was able to get through the Senate, the confirmation hearings would have been highly contentious and Benghazi-focused, which the White House has good reason to want to avoid.

And now the ballooning speculation that Chuck Hagel is at the top of the list for secretary of defense makes more sense. If Rice was nominated to lead State, Kerry would probably have been the top contender for Defense. Now Kerry is the most likely choice for secretary of state.

I still think Hagel would have problems getting confirmed because of his anti-Israel history and opposition to foreign intervention. The fact that he’s a former senator works in his favor, but conservative hawks and AIPAC would certainly object. While Hagel still considers himself a Republican, there is sure to be some bad blood between him and the party after his vocal support of Obama and recent endorsement of a Democratic Senate candidate.

Either way, Scott Brown may want to start prepping for another Senate bid, because it sounds like there’s going to be a vacant seat in Massachusetts soon.

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The Left vs. Susan Rice

Though the discussion appears to be moot now that Susan Rice has apparently withdrawn her name from consideration to be secretary of state, I agree with Max that the criticism of Rice’s undiplomatic style would seem to be complements when coming from conservatives. But I fear an important point is being lost: this criticism was not coming from the right, by and large. The attacks on Rice’s disposition have been driven by the left. Indeed, what is remarkable about the controversy over Rice is how thoroughly the left took command of it–and greatly expanded the effort to prevent her nomination.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Republicans on the Hill had basically limited their critique of Rice to her misleading statements following the Benghazi attack. Liberals, on the other hand, made it personal. Dana Milbank suggested Rice had an attitude problem. Maureen Dowd said Rice was too ambitious and unprincipled for her own good–or the country’s. Yesterday at the Daily Beast, Lloyd Grove launched a bizarre attack on Rice that accused her of having a personality disorder. The left has also been driving the less personal attacks as well. Howard French said Rice’s Africa legacy is the further empowerment of dictators. Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski knocked Rice for essentially enabling atrocities in Congo.

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Though the discussion appears to be moot now that Susan Rice has apparently withdrawn her name from consideration to be secretary of state, I agree with Max that the criticism of Rice’s undiplomatic style would seem to be complements when coming from conservatives. But I fear an important point is being lost: this criticism was not coming from the right, by and large. The attacks on Rice’s disposition have been driven by the left. Indeed, what is remarkable about the controversy over Rice is how thoroughly the left took command of it–and greatly expanded the effort to prevent her nomination.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Republicans on the Hill had basically limited their critique of Rice to her misleading statements following the Benghazi attack. Liberals, on the other hand, made it personal. Dana Milbank suggested Rice had an attitude problem. Maureen Dowd said Rice was too ambitious and unprincipled for her own good–or the country’s. Yesterday at the Daily Beast, Lloyd Grove launched a bizarre attack on Rice that accused her of having a personality disorder. The left has also been driving the less personal attacks as well. Howard French said Rice’s Africa legacy is the further empowerment of dictators. Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski knocked Rice for essentially enabling atrocities in Congo.

Meanwhile, it should not go unnoticed that Hillary Clinton made her opposition to Rice clear to officials in Washington, which may explain the avalanche of leaks and criticism and personal sniping that came from the left as soon as the battle commenced. All of which makes Ben Smith’s piece at Buzzfeed today, headlined “Why The Republican War On Susan Rice Is A Terrible Idea,” so strange. Smith, usually more politically astute than this, allowed himself to be spun by Rice’s few allies to attack the right just as criticism of Rice from the left is everywhere (the Atlantic, for example, can’t seem to stop bashing Rice).

The lack of quotes of actual Republicans criticizing Rice in Smith’s article should be a clue that the GOP had not led this fight for quite some time now. Smith even mentions Dowd’s column as evidence of shifting GOP tactics, knocking the right for “circulating” Dowd’s piece. (Welcome to the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, Maureen Dowd!)

In any event, Max is right that conservatives would have found more to like about Rice than most would-be Obama nominees, and that her confrontational style would have been even more needed in an Obama administration promising “flexibility” to Russia. Here at COMMENTARY, we’ve defended Rice from both the left and the right. You won’t find the same evenhandedness at the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, the Washington Post, the New York Times, or the countless other liberal outlets that just killed Rice’s nomination.

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House Members Circulate Letter to Close PLO Office

It looks like the congressional debate over whether to close the PLO office in Washington is far from over. Arutz Sheva reports that a bipartisan group of lawmakers began circulating a letter calling for a strong response to the Palestinian Authority’s UN bid, including the closure of the PLO office: 

Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Edward Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) are circulating a letter in response to the Palestinian Authority’s successful bid at the United Nation (sic), urging that the U.S. to utilize “every means at our disposal to ensure that this General Assembly vote does not serve as a precedent for elevating the status of the PLO in other UN bodies or international forums.”

“We are deeply disappointed and upset that the Palestinian leadership rebuffed the entreaties of your Administration and the Congress and insisted on pursuing this distinctly unhelpful initiative,” the letter states.

Echoing the apprehension of the mainstream Jewish community, the lawmakers assert that, “This Palestinian action violated both the letter and spirit of the Oslo Accords, and it opened the door for expanded Palestinian efforts to attack, isolate, and delegitimize Israel in a variety of international forums- a threat which, even if unrealized, would hang over Israel’s head during any future negotiations or any effort by the Israeli government to defend its citizens from terrorism.” … 

“We can do this by closing the PLO office in Washington, D.C. We can also call our Consul-General in Jerusalem home for consultations. We urge you to take these steps,” the letter adds.

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It looks like the congressional debate over whether to close the PLO office in Washington is far from over. Arutz Sheva reports that a bipartisan group of lawmakers began circulating a letter calling for a strong response to the Palestinian Authority’s UN bid, including the closure of the PLO office: 

Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Edward Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) are circulating a letter in response to the Palestinian Authority’s successful bid at the United Nation (sic), urging that the U.S. to utilize “every means at our disposal to ensure that this General Assembly vote does not serve as a precedent for elevating the status of the PLO in other UN bodies or international forums.”

“We are deeply disappointed and upset that the Palestinian leadership rebuffed the entreaties of your Administration and the Congress and insisted on pursuing this distinctly unhelpful initiative,” the letter states.

Echoing the apprehension of the mainstream Jewish community, the lawmakers assert that, “This Palestinian action violated both the letter and spirit of the Oslo Accords, and it opened the door for expanded Palestinian efforts to attack, isolate, and delegitimize Israel in a variety of international forums- a threat which, even if unrealized, would hang over Israel’s head during any future negotiations or any effort by the Israeli government to defend its citizens from terrorism.” … 

“We can do this by closing the PLO office in Washington, D.C. We can also call our Consul-General in Jerusalem home for consultations. We urge you to take these steps,” the letter adds.

Ros-Lehtinen is the outgoing chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Royce is the incoming chair, indicating that this is likely to be taken up by the committee next year. Whether it would be considered as a standalone bill or an amendment is unclear at this point, and we probably won’t know more details until the beginning of the next session. But it’s a debate worth watching closely, in no small part because it pits left-wing lobby J Street (which opposes the initiative) against the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (which has supported it):

The initiative is backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and opposed by the extreme left leaning groups of J Street and Peace Now.

Voicing its opposition, J Street, which has long been accused of espousing anti-Israel beliefs, launched an effort Monday to discourage House of Representatives members from signing the letter.

“At a time when the United States should be looking for ways to encourage and deepen diplomacy, talk of ejecting one of the parties from the country defies logic,” J Street said in its action alert.

J Street already claimed victory when a proposed amendment to close the PLO office wasn’t included in the defense authorization bill recently approved by the Senate. As I reported last week, there is no sign this had anything do with J Street’s supposed lobbying prowess. According to the office of Lindsey Graham, one of the sponsors of the amendment, it wasn’t included because it wasn’t technically considered germane. Jewish community sources familiar with the issue also tell me that the Obama administration objected to the amendment, making it unlikely to pass through the unanimous consent process.

In total, around 400 amendments were reportedly proposed for the defense bill, and the majority weren’t included in the final legislation. But that still didn’t stop J Street from sending out this triumphant email headlined “Victory”:

Earlier this week, we asked you to help us stop the Senate from kicking the Palestinian Diplomatic Mission out of Washington, DC in retaliation for last week’s United Nations vote.

You responded, sending 14,500 emails and making almost 1,000 calls telling Senators the US should not take such a counterproductive step.

And, as ThinkProgress,1 JTA2 and The Forward3 have all made crystal clear: YOU DID IT. The Senate held back, and the amendment to expel the Palestinian Mission was dropped. 

Clearly J Street’s celebration was a little premature.

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The Virtues of Susan Rice’s “Undiplomatic” Diplomacy

I’m not quite sure why so many of my fellow conservatives have focused so much ire on Susan Rice’s potential nomination to be secretary of state. She would definitely not be my first choice for the job (that would be Joe Lieberman) but compared to some of the other rumored second-term nominations—e.g, Chuck Hagel at Defense or John Kerry at State—the possibility of Susan Rice doesn’t seem so bad. She actually seems to have a more activist vision of American power than many in the Democratic Party who are eager to cut the American role in the world back as rapidly as possible.

Much of the criticism directed at her for her blunt, undiplomatic personality sounds like a virtual replay of the criticisms once made of Jeane Kirkpatrick and John Bolton, both conservative favorites when they served as UN ambassador. Indeed Rice sounded positively Boltonesque (admittedly not something she would consider to be a compliment) when she recently told off the Chinese ambassador, Li Baodung, in a UN Security Council debate over how to respond to North Korea’s missile launch. According to Colum Lynch in Foreign Policy:

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I’m not quite sure why so many of my fellow conservatives have focused so much ire on Susan Rice’s potential nomination to be secretary of state. She would definitely not be my first choice for the job (that would be Joe Lieberman) but compared to some of the other rumored second-term nominations—e.g, Chuck Hagel at Defense or John Kerry at State—the possibility of Susan Rice doesn’t seem so bad. She actually seems to have a more activist vision of American power than many in the Democratic Party who are eager to cut the American role in the world back as rapidly as possible.

Much of the criticism directed at her for her blunt, undiplomatic personality sounds like a virtual replay of the criticisms once made of Jeane Kirkpatrick and John Bolton, both conservative favorites when they served as UN ambassador. Indeed Rice sounded positively Boltonesque (admittedly not something she would consider to be a compliment) when she recently told off the Chinese ambassador, Li Baodung, in a UN Security Council debate over how to respond to North Korea’s missile launch. According to Colum Lynch in Foreign Policy:

Rice urged the Security Council to swiftly respond to North Korea’s surprise launch of a satellite (via a ballistic missile) with a statement condemning Pyongyang’s action as a violation of U.N. resolutions and characterizing it as a provocative act that “undermines regional stability.”

Li pushed back, saying that there was no need to condemn North Korea, and that its test constituted no threat to regional stability.

“That’s ridiculous,” Rice shot back, according to one of three council diplomats who described the encounter.

“Ridiculous?” a visibly angered Li responded through an interpreter. “You better watch your language.”

“Well, it’s in the Oxford dictionary, and [Russian ambassador Vitaly] Churkin — if he were in the room — he would know how to take it,” retorted Rice.

The reference to Oxford dictionary refers to Churkin’s riposte, in December 2011, to a public broadside by Rice, who charged him with making “bogus claims” about alleged NATO war crimes in Libya to divert attention from charges of war crimes against its Syrian ally.

“This is not an issue that can be drowned out by expletives. You might recall the words one could hear: bombast and bogus claims, cheap stunt, duplicitous, redundant, superfluous, stunt,” said Churkin to Rice. “Oh, you know, you cannot beat a Stanford education, can you?” said Churkin, mocking Rice’s alma mater. Rice, a former Rhodes scholar, later noted that she also went to Oxford.

Frankly any American diplomat who tangles so openly with the Chinese and Russian ambassadors, rather than retreating into the usual mealy-mouthed equivocations, can’t be all bad. Obama can do worse in his choice of secretary of state—and probably will.

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Im Tirtzu Ad Calls Out NIF for “Anti-Israel” Funding

Right-leaning Israeli campus group Im Tirtzu released an ad today set to run in Jewish newspapers that accuses the left-leaning New Israel Fund of financing groups that slandered the Israel Defense Forces in its recent Gaza intervention. The ad takes the form of an open letter to NIF President Brian Lurie, and will run in “20 of the largest-circulation Jewish newspapers across the United States,” according to Im Tirtzu. 

Here’s the crux of the argument in the letter (which can be read in full here):

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Right-leaning Israeli campus group Im Tirtzu released an ad today set to run in Jewish newspapers that accuses the left-leaning New Israel Fund of financing groups that slandered the Israel Defense Forces in its recent Gaza intervention. The ad takes the form of an open letter to NIF President Brian Lurie, and will run in “20 of the largest-circulation Jewish newspapers across the United States,” according to Im Tirtzu. 

Here’s the crux of the argument in the letter (which can be read in full here):

Now, in the weeks after the latest conflict in Gaza, NIF groups are once again making misleading and unfounded accusations against the IDF.

B’tselem, Adalah, Gisha, and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel are claiming that the IDF targeted journalists and civilians, violated international law, and is perpetrating “collective punishment,” a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

In the weeks leading up to Israel’s response, as terrorist rockets forced thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters, none of these groups criticized the attacks or stood up for Israel’s right – its human right, and its right under international law – to defend itself.

Despite this troubling record, we hold out hope for your leadership as the new president of the New Israel Fund. We ask that you hold the groups you fund responsible for the veracity of their accusations, and that you demand just as much accountability from them as they do from the IDF. 

And if you do not stand by their latest false accusations, Israelis deserve to know: What will you do to reform the New Israel Fund? 

Sincerely,

Im Tirtzu

The Zionist Student Movement

NIF’s CEO Daniel Sokatch responded in a statement criticizing Im Tirtzu’s letter as inaccurate, and blasting the group as “extreme Israeli ultra-nationalists.”

“Today, on International Human Rights Day, we honor the organizations and the nations that respect and expand human rights, especially in regions of conflict,” said Sokatch. “It is ironic that Im Tirtzu is again peddling the twisted logic that Israeli attention to human rights somehow hurts Israel’s international reputation. It is the vitality of Israel’s civil society, and of a society that can look at its own conduct to remedy mistakes and injustice, that aligns Israel with the humanistic democracies that share those values.”

Im Tirtzu has battled with NIF in the past, but this is the first time it’s taking the fight to NIF’s home turf. While the umbrella organization finances groups in Israel, much of its funding comes from the American Jewish community. If you’re looking to go after NIF effectively, that’s the way to do it–not by objecting in Israel to the groups it funds, but by jeopardizing its funding sources in the U.S. Many of NIF’s supporters likely still view it as a liberal but Zionist mainstream group. Clearly Im Tirtzu hopes to chip away at that image through these advertisements.

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Why Israel Has to Build in E-1

Yesterday, I took issue with the Union for Reform Judaism for condemning planned Israeli construction in the West Bank’s E-1 region. Many liberal American Jews would doubtless respond that they don’t object to E-1 remaining Israeli under an Israeli-Palestinian agreement; they merely object to building there before such an agreement exists. That, after all, is precisely what Ehud Olmert said last week when asked how he could condemn the Netanyahu government for doing something he himself supported as prime minister.

Unfortunately, this response betrays a serious lack of understanding of how the “peace process” actually works. First, as I noted yesterday, insisting that Israeli construction is an “obstacle to peace” even in areas that every proposed agreement has assigned to Israel merely encourages Palestinian intransigence by feeding their fantasies that the world will someday pressure Israel into withdrawing to the 1967 lines. Equally important, however, is that in a world where Israeli security concerns are routinely dismissed as unimportant, construction has proven the only effective means of ensuring Israel’s retention of areas it deems vital to its security.

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Yesterday, I took issue with the Union for Reform Judaism for condemning planned Israeli construction in the West Bank’s E-1 region. Many liberal American Jews would doubtless respond that they don’t object to E-1 remaining Israeli under an Israeli-Palestinian agreement; they merely object to building there before such an agreement exists. That, after all, is precisely what Ehud Olmert said last week when asked how he could condemn the Netanyahu government for doing something he himself supported as prime minister.

Unfortunately, this response betrays a serious lack of understanding of how the “peace process” actually works. First, as I noted yesterday, insisting that Israeli construction is an “obstacle to peace” even in areas that every proposed agreement has assigned to Israel merely encourages Palestinian intransigence by feeding their fantasies that the world will someday pressure Israel into withdrawing to the 1967 lines. Equally important, however, is that in a world where Israeli security concerns are routinely dismissed as unimportant, construction has proven the only effective means of ensuring Israel’s retention of areas it deems vital to its security.

In theory, construction shouldn’t be necessary to stake Israel’s claim, because the world has already recognized it: UN Security Council Resolution 242, still officially the defining document of the peace process, explicitly recognized Israel’s right to obtain “secure” borders by retaining some of the territory it captured in 1967, since, as then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN Arthur Goldberg explained, “Israel’s prior frontiers had proved to be notably insecure.”

But in practice, the only parts of the West Bank that successive peace plans have envisaged Israel retaining are the ones where there are just too many Jews to easily remove. As former President George W. Bush put it in his 2004 letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.”

In contrast, the world has generally dismissed Israeli demands to keep sparsely settled areas, even when they are equally vital for security. For instance, all Israeli governments have considered military control over the Jordan Valley essential for security, but even Washington hasn’t backed this demand. And the European Union is much worse: It officially views the entire West Bank as occupied Palestinian territory to which Israel has no claim whatsoever unless the Palestinians allow it.

For this reason, Israel should long since have built in E-1–an area every Israeli premier has deemed vital for security–rather than leaving it vacant at the urging of successive U.S. administrations. But the issue received new urgency after the UN overwhelmingly recognized a Palestinian state last month “on the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967.” With virtually the entire world having just declared that Israel has no right to any part of the West Bank, it has become imperative for Israel to strengthen its claim via the only means that has ever proven effective: by building.

The question now is whether Israel will actually do so, or whether its government will once again sacrifice the country’s long-term security needs on the altar of global opposition.

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The High Cost of Dems’ Cheap Populism

Last week, I wrote about the fact that President Obama’s approach to taxes as part of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations is billed as taxing the rich but would end up hurting the poor and possibly deepening inequality. Policies built on the flimsy populism of “fairness”–at least as modern Democrats define it–are quite often devoid of economic common sense. What’s more, the Democrats seem to know this.

The New York Times offers a “News Analysis” today in which it is revealed that the Republicans are right on the merits of most of the arguments, but Obama and congressional Democrats have boxed themselves in by relentlessly demagoguing the issue. Here’s the Times:

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Last week, I wrote about the fact that President Obama’s approach to taxes as part of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations is billed as taxing the rich but would end up hurting the poor and possibly deepening inequality. Policies built on the flimsy populism of “fairness”–at least as modern Democrats define it–are quite often devoid of economic common sense. What’s more, the Democrats seem to know this.

The New York Times offers a “News Analysis” today in which it is revealed that the Republicans are right on the merits of most of the arguments, but Obama and congressional Democrats have boxed themselves in by relentlessly demagoguing the issue. Here’s the Times:

The mounting concentration of wealth is even more dramatic. A recent Economic Policy Institute study found that between 1983 and 2010 about three-quarters of all new wealth accrued to the wealthiest 5 percent of households. Over the same period, the bottom 60 percent actually became poorer.

Such figures are why some Democrats argue that even if the economy were to return to Clinton-era growth rates, its poor and middle class could not stomach a return to Clinton-era tax rates, at least not yet.

Why can’t the economy handle going back to Clinton-era tax rates? “In part, that is because the economy is still growing slowly, and tax increases have the potential to weaken it,” the Times explains. So higher taxes would indeed impede economic growth. But the Democrats only expect to protect the non-rich from tax increases for a limited time. They’re coming after the middle class too. The Times continues:

“It’s perfectly reasonable for the White House to begin collecting more revenue from folks who have done by far the best in pretax terms,” said Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a former economist for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “But ultimately we can’t raise the revenue we need only on the top 2 percent.”

Well, you could solve some of the revenue problem by cutting spending. But the Democrats’ long-term strategy is to do the opposite. Republicans often complain that Obama wants a GOP House to cooperate on his terms, in order to essentially make the GOP the tax collectors for the welfare state. And as the Times notes, that’s exactly right:

“The goal is not just to make the tax code more progressive, but also to obtain adequate revenue to finance progressive spending programs,” said Peter Orszag, a vice chairman at Citigroup and a former White House budget director. “Making the tax code more progressive but locking into a vastly inadequate revenue base is not doing the notion of progressivity overall any favors.”

So the left can at least claim that they want your money in order to give it back to you in the form of benefits. It’s for your own good. Except, as the Times notes, it’s not:

The Congressional Budget Office has found that between 1979 and 2007, the top 1 percent of households saw their inflation-adjusted income grow 275 percent. For the bottom 20 percent, it grew just 18 percent, and federal tax and transfer programs also did less and less to reduce income inequality over that period.

To recap: Democrats don’t want to raise taxes on the middle class right at this moment, because those tax hikes would harm economic growth, especially for the middle class. But they do want to enact those damaging tax hikes on the middle class at some point, because they want to increase, not decrease, federal spending in the face of mounting debt and deficits. That might hurt the middle class, but the tax revenue gained from it would be spent in part on federal transfer programs intended to reduce inequality, though they won’t succeed in doing that either.

It’s almost as if near-term political gain and populist theater, and not economics, are driving Obama’s approach to policy.

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Joe Lieberman’s Farewell Speech

Senator Joe Lieberman, the last of the Scoop Jackson Democrats, delivered his farewell address on the Senate floor yesterday. The whole speech is worth watching, but the last three minutes, in which Lieberman talks about how he was inspired into public service by President Kennedy, are particularly moving:

Lieberman also appealed to a younger generation of political leaders, urging them to get involved in foreign affairs and national security issues:

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Senator Joe Lieberman, the last of the Scoop Jackson Democrats, delivered his farewell address on the Senate floor yesterday. The whole speech is worth watching, but the last three minutes, in which Lieberman talks about how he was inspired into public service by President Kennedy, are particularly moving:

Lieberman also appealed to a younger generation of political leaders, urging them to get involved in foreign affairs and national security issues:

Here, too, I appeal to my Senate colleagues, and again, especially those who will take the oath of office for the first time early in January: Do not listen to the political consultants or others who tell you that you shouldn’t spend time on foreign affairs or national security. They’re wrong. The American people need us, the Senate, to stay engaged economically, diplomatically, and militarily in an ever smaller world.

Do not underestimate the impact you could have by getting involved in matters of foreign policy and national security—whether by using your voice to stand in solidarity with those who are struggling for the American ideal of freedom in their own countries across the globe, or working to strengthen the foreign policy and national security institutions of our own country, or by rallying our citizens to embrace the role that we as a country must play on the world stage, as both our interests and our values demand.

None of the challenges we face today, in a still dangerous world, is beyond our ability to meet. Just as we ended the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, we can stop the slaughter in Syria. Just as we nurtured the Democratic transition after communism fell in Central and Eastern Europe, we can support the forces of freedom in the Middle East today. And just as we were able to prevail in the long struggle against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, we can prevail in the global conflict with Islamist extremism and terrorism that we were forced into by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But all that too will require leadership in the United State Senate—It will require leaders who will stand against the siren song of isolationism, who will defend our defense and foreign assistance budgets, who will support – when necessary—the use of America’s military power against our enemies in the world and who will have the patience and determination when the public grows weary to see our battles through until they are won.

Unfortunately, Lieberman has no real heir among Senate Democrats, though he has been a mentor to freshman Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte.

At the Washington Post, Dana Milbank offers a pensive take on Lieberman’s speech, noting that the same temperament that made him a great political leader–his willingness to break with his party on issues of principle–also prematurely ended his career: 

Mostly, [Lieberman] offered fond reminiscences of a quarter-century. “When I started here in the Senate, a blackberry was a fruit and tweeting was something only birds did,” he said, then recalled some of the legislation he brokered: the 9/11 Commission, the Department of Homeland Security and repealing the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

“There is no magic or mystery” to how such things were done, he said. “It means ultimately putting the interests of country and constituents ahead of the dictates of party.”

Lieberman did that, and it ultimately ended his career.

He finished his speech and accepted hugs and handshakes from staff members and the few senators on the floor. Then he slipped out one of the chamber’s south doors and into the Democratic cloakroom — a place that had never really been his home.

Lieberman will be missed as a senator, but let’s hope this won’t be the last we hear from him on the national stage.

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Turkey’s Jihad Against “The Simpsons” Only the Beginning

Earlier this month, I highlighted that the Turkish broadcasting board had fined CNBC-E, a Turkish television station which broadcasts financial reports during the day and subtitled sitcoms in the evening, because it had aired a “Simpsons” episode which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government deemed insulting to religion. To paraphrase the Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo, Bart had become a blasphemer. Anyone who doubts that parody and humor have deep roots in the Middle East need only read Bernard Lewis’s primary source book, Islam, From the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, Vol. II: Religion and Society. Political Islamism—especially the variety which arises out of Saudi Arabia and which the Turkish government increasingly embraces—is largely unable to handle satire.

It now seems that the Simpsons were only the first victim of Erdoğan’s broadcasting bureau. Now it’s going after talk shows which say the wrong thing or advocate too strongly for the primacy of free speech. From the Hürriyet Daily News:

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Earlier this month, I highlighted that the Turkish broadcasting board had fined CNBC-E, a Turkish television station which broadcasts financial reports during the day and subtitled sitcoms in the evening, because it had aired a “Simpsons” episode which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government deemed insulting to religion. To paraphrase the Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo, Bart had become a blasphemer. Anyone who doubts that parody and humor have deep roots in the Middle East need only read Bernard Lewis’s primary source book, Islam, From the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, Vol. II: Religion and Society. Political Islamism—especially the variety which arises out of Saudi Arabia and which the Turkish government increasingly embraces—is largely unable to handle satire.

It now seems that the Simpsons were only the first victim of Erdoğan’s broadcasting bureau. Now it’s going after talk shows which say the wrong thing or advocate too strongly for the primacy of free speech. From the Hürriyet Daily News:

RTÜK ruled that the Prophet Muhammad was insulted during the show broadcast on Oct. 15, during which journalist Sevan Nişanyan was a guest. Aysever and Nişanyan were discussing the controversial film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which caused harsh reactions in across the Muslim world a few months ago. The ruling declared that Nişanyan’s statements “exceeded the boundaries of freedom of expression” and found them “insulting and injurious” to society.

So first it’s “The Simpsons,” then it the tweeters, now it’s the talk shows. On top of which, Turkey now ranks No. 1 in the arrest of journalists. It’s seems like parody, but even Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s chief negotiator for European Union accession, goes around suing critics: A while ago, he and the Turkish Embassy in Washington tried to serve me with papers after I wrote a critical article about Turkey’s European Union accession.

The question for American congressmen is, with Turkey going from bad to worse, do they truly stand for what Turkey now represents? Do they endorse the silencing of free speech? Do they embrace not only Hamas but also its most radical factions? Do they support Iran’s drive to a nuclear weapon and seek to poke holes in Iran sanctions? If yes, they belong in the Congressional Turkey Caucus. But, if not, perhaps it’s time they leave a body whose numbers Ambassador Namik Tan uses to suggest American officials support Turkey’s policies.

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Labor Unions, Violence, and America’s Political Religion

When he was only 28 years old, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

The speech included Lincoln’s plea to avoid what he called the “mobocratic spirit.” He warned about an “ill-omen amongst us”–which he identified as, among other things, the “growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passion, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” 

In fact, the Young Men’s Lyceum speech deals in large part with the issue of passion vs. reason. Lincoln, like the Founders, had a deep insight into human nature, acknowledging that “jealousy, envy, and avarice” are “incident to our nature.” The basest principles of our nature, he said, “were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest of cause — that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty” (meaning they were directed exclusively against the British nation). But at the end of his speech, Lincoln issues this warning:

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When he was only 28 years old, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

The speech included Lincoln’s plea to avoid what he called the “mobocratic spirit.” He warned about an “ill-omen amongst us”–which he identified as, among other things, the “growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passion, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” 

In fact, the Young Men’s Lyceum speech deals in large part with the issue of passion vs. reason. Lincoln, like the Founders, had a deep insight into human nature, acknowledging that “jealousy, envy, and avarice” are “incident to our nature.” The basest principles of our nature, he said, “were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest of cause — that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty” (meaning they were directed exclusively against the British nation). But at the end of his speech, Lincoln issues this warning:

Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence. Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws. This must become America’s “political religion.”

Which brings us to Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder signed a law declaring that workers will no longer be required to pay union fees as a condition of employment.

National Review offers a summary of the reaction to the new Michigan law: “Democratic legislator Douglas Geiss declared on the floor of the state house: ‘There will be blood. There will be repercussions.’ And indeed there were: Knife-wielding partisans brought down a tent on representatives from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity — women and children among them — and roughed up bystanders. Fox News contributor Steven Crowder was beaten by the same mob, punched repeatedly in the face.” In addition, Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa declared there would be a “civil war” in Michigan. (A video of some of this can be seen here, courtesy of HotAir.com. And on the left, it’s being said that “getting hit in the face is a hazard of inserting yourself in the middle of an argument between billionaire-funded know-nothing ideologues and people whose livelihoods and stability are being threatened by the insatiable greed of the super-rich and the blind extremism of their wooden-headed political allies.”) 

Conservative commentators have pointed out that Michigan is merely the most recent link in a chain of events, from the response to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s decision to end collective bargaining rights for public sector unions (where Walker was often compared to Hitler, Mubarak, and Mussolini) to the Occupy Wall Street protests (which were characterized by sexual assault, arson, and vandalism, among other things).

My point isn’t that what’s happening today is anything like the scale of what Lincoln was referring to (which included murders committed by pro-slavery mobs). But the confrontations and rage, the acts of intimidation and violence we’ve seen in places from Lansing to Zuccotti Park and several other cities are troubling enough.

We all know passions can be inflamed in political disputes. What’s crucial is to respect the rights of others even when we disagree with them. Those who don’t–those who substitute wild and furious passion for cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason–are engaged in something destructive.

We are nowhere close to a pre-civil war situation. We’re even a long distance removed from the violent protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But our divisions are deep enough. And when differences in policies lead to screaming matches, shoving matches, provocations and fist fights, it’s not a sign of civic health. (Liberals might be somewhat more attuned to this point if the actions we’re seeing at union rallies had happened at Tea Party gatherings.)

A “mobocratic spirit” is at odds with America’s political religion. And it would be nice, and perhaps even helpful, if the president reminded his supporters and allies of that from time to time.

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Satirizing Our Syria Policy

Sometimes satire can capture the truth in ways that “straight” reporting simply cannot. Case in point: the new issue of Private Eye, Britain’s version of the Onion, has a mock headline: “Obama Warns Syria ‘Kill People Properly’.” It imagines President Obama issuing a warning to Bashar Assad against the use of chemical weapons: “There are ethical ways to murder your own people and there are unethical ways and it’s very clear what the difference is. If President Assad fails to keep killing people in the approved manner, we will have no option but to send an unmanned drone from thousands of miles away.”

I thought of that mock news item as I read the real news from Syria, which is that Assad is now firing Scud missiles at his own people–the very same missiles that Saddam Hussein fired at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. These are blunderbuss weapons that are hard to aim and as likely to wipe out a kindergarten as a military installation. The fact that Assad is firing them on his own territory is a sign of how much control he has lost and how desperate he has become–as well as a sign of how he is increasingly reluctant to use manned aircraft now that the rebels appear to have gotten their hands on some portable surface-to-air missiles.

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Sometimes satire can capture the truth in ways that “straight” reporting simply cannot. Case in point: the new issue of Private Eye, Britain’s version of the Onion, has a mock headline: “Obama Warns Syria ‘Kill People Properly’.” It imagines President Obama issuing a warning to Bashar Assad against the use of chemical weapons: “There are ethical ways to murder your own people and there are unethical ways and it’s very clear what the difference is. If President Assad fails to keep killing people in the approved manner, we will have no option but to send an unmanned drone from thousands of miles away.”

I thought of that mock news item as I read the real news from Syria, which is that Assad is now firing Scud missiles at his own people–the very same missiles that Saddam Hussein fired at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. These are blunderbuss weapons that are hard to aim and as likely to wipe out a kindergarten as a military installation. The fact that Assad is firing them on his own territory is a sign of how much control he has lost and how desperate he has become–as well as a sign of how he is increasingly reluctant to use manned aircraft now that the rebels appear to have gotten their hands on some portable surface-to-air missiles.

The use of the Scuds is a significant escalation of the conflict, but because the missiles are not equipped with chemical warheads they fall short of the “red line” that Obama has laid out for unspecified American action in Syria. So the Scud attacks are unlikely to provoke an American response. In short, the Obama administration really does seem to be telling Assad that it’s OK for him to kill his people with missiles–but not with chemical weapons. This is an illogical and macabre distinction that deserves the mockery it receives from Private Eye.

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