Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 18, 2012

Illusions About Egypt’s Islamist Future

We won’t know the outcome of the referendum on Egypt’s proposed new constitution that will strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold on power until after next weekend’s second round of voting. But those betting on the Brotherhood not ensuring that there will be a majority for its confirmation or accepting a negative vote if one is allowed haven’t been paying much attention to the way the group operates or thinks. In the less than two years since the fall of the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood has moved to seize total power, the latest move coming when President Mohamed Morsi effectively assumed powers comparable to those held by the now imprisoned dictator. Though there has been a courageous effort by the judiciary as well as groups of citizens to stop the Brotherhood, the Islamists have combined ruthless suppression of dissent—including killings of demonstrators that ought in principle to render Morsi vulnerable to the same charges that he is pressing against Mubarak—with a clever mobilization of party cadres to keep their opponents off balance and on the defensive.

This rapid and efficient consolidation of Islamist hegemony in Cairo took a lot of observers by surprise. Many of us had some hope that the Arab Spring would bring democracy to an Arab world where it is largely unknown. But by now only those unwilling to face reality are still pretending the Brotherhood are just a bunch of Muslim democrats. Not surprisingly, Tom Friedman, the New York Times op-ed page’s resident Middle East expert, is among that group. In a column that is obtuse even by his standards, Friedman speculates that it is just as likely that Egypt will wind up a functioning multi-ethnic democracy like India as a dysfunctional Islamic state like Pakistan. It says a lot about the Times these days that such a foolish and ignorant column is what passes for foreign policy expertise at the paper. But the real problem here is not just one more dumb Times column but the fact that Friedman’s rosy view of the Brotherhood’s democratic potential dovetails with the Obama administration’s ill conceived embrace of the Morsi government.

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We won’t know the outcome of the referendum on Egypt’s proposed new constitution that will strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold on power until after next weekend’s second round of voting. But those betting on the Brotherhood not ensuring that there will be a majority for its confirmation or accepting a negative vote if one is allowed haven’t been paying much attention to the way the group operates or thinks. In the less than two years since the fall of the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood has moved to seize total power, the latest move coming when President Mohamed Morsi effectively assumed powers comparable to those held by the now imprisoned dictator. Though there has been a courageous effort by the judiciary as well as groups of citizens to stop the Brotherhood, the Islamists have combined ruthless suppression of dissent—including killings of demonstrators that ought in principle to render Morsi vulnerable to the same charges that he is pressing against Mubarak—with a clever mobilization of party cadres to keep their opponents off balance and on the defensive.

This rapid and efficient consolidation of Islamist hegemony in Cairo took a lot of observers by surprise. Many of us had some hope that the Arab Spring would bring democracy to an Arab world where it is largely unknown. But by now only those unwilling to face reality are still pretending the Brotherhood are just a bunch of Muslim democrats. Not surprisingly, Tom Friedman, the New York Times op-ed page’s resident Middle East expert, is among that group. In a column that is obtuse even by his standards, Friedman speculates that it is just as likely that Egypt will wind up a functioning multi-ethnic democracy like India as a dysfunctional Islamic state like Pakistan. It says a lot about the Times these days that such a foolish and ignorant column is what passes for foreign policy expertise at the paper. But the real problem here is not just one more dumb Times column but the fact that Friedman’s rosy view of the Brotherhood’s democratic potential dovetails with the Obama administration’s ill conceived embrace of the Morsi government.

The obvious enormous differences between the culture and the nature of the Indian state and that of Egypt (which Friedman pays lip service to but then ignores) are so great as to make any discussion of the subject rather one-sided. Suffice it to say that even in the best case scenario for Egypt it will fall far short of India at its worst. But even if we leave this idiotic comparison aside, what has happened in Egypt in the past several months ought to have sobered up anyone still prepared to buy into the idea that the Arab Spring had anything to do with a movement for Arab democracy.

Those who blame President Obama for Mubarak’s fall are giving Washington too much credit. The old regime was doomed and no amount of American backing could have saved it. Where the Obama administration can be faulted is in its lack of interest in helping genuine Egyptian democrats during the president’s much-vaunted outreach to the Arab and Muslim world in his first year in office.

But having backed away from Mubarak, rather than seeking to strengthen the Egyptian military as the only bulwark against the Islamists, Obama did his best to undermine them. Since Morsi’s election, Washington has clearly sided with the Brotherhood and done virtually nothing to hold it accountable for its betrayal of the revolution that brought it to power.

Like Friedman, the State Department is also peddling sunshine about Morsi and the Brotherhood. The result is that instead of a friendly dictator who supports our interests and stability in the region, we now have an unfriendly government on Cairo that is allied with Hamas and opening lines of communication with Iran while still accepting billions in U.S. aid.

The outcome of the constitutional referendum may be foreordained, but it may be the last chance Egyptians will have to stop the imposition of Islamist rule. The opposition to the Brotherhood might have benefited from strong U.S. pressure on Morsi to back down on his putsch, but it never happened. Like Tom Friedman, the president and Secretary of State Clinton are still pretending that Islamism and democracy are compatible. They aren’t and that is a reality that will haunt American Middle East policy for decades to come. 

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Where Does the ADL Stand on Hagel?

In the Times of Israel article Jonathan wrote about earlier today, the ADL’s Abe Foxman suggested he wouldn’t object to Obama’s potential secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel. But strangely enough, Foxman seemed to give a very different comment to Jen Rubin:

“Chuck Hagel would not be the first, second, or third choice for the American Jewish community’s friends of Israel.  His record relating to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship is, at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling.   The sentiments he’s expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism in the genre of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and former president Jimmy Carter.”

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In the Times of Israel article Jonathan wrote about earlier today, the ADL’s Abe Foxman suggested he wouldn’t object to Obama’s potential secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel. But strangely enough, Foxman seemed to give a very different comment to Jen Rubin:

“Chuck Hagel would not be the first, second, or third choice for the American Jewish community’s friends of Israel.  His record relating to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship is, at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling.   The sentiments he’s expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism in the genre of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and former president Jimmy Carter.”

As Jonathan pointed out, Foxman told the Times of Israel that Hagel is “now in sync with the president’s approach to Iran” and seemed largely unconcerned with the idea of him serving as defense secretary. The quotes in the two stories seem to completely contradict each other. It’s surprising Foxman would sound nonchalant about a Hagel nomination in the Times of Israel article, considering the ADL has documented the anti-Semitism behind the “Jewish lobby” conspiracy theory that Hagel appears to endorse. Will the ADL clarify where it stands on this?

Other Jewish leaders have been clear in their positions. Obama-supporter Ed Koch said it would be “a terrible appointment” in a recent interview with the Algemeiner. And the Republican Jewish Coalition called the possibility “a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel.”

Meanwhile, anti-Israel lobbying group J Street and Peter Beinart have come out in support of Hagel. So has Stephen Walt–who literally helped write the book on the Israel Lobby conspiracy theory–and anti-Israel writers Joe Klein and Andrew Sullivan

The National Jewish Democratic Council is still silent on the issue. The group is caught in an awkward spot since it blasted Hagel as anti-Israel back in 2007 when he was seen as a possible Republican presidential candidate.

The American Jewish Committee hasn’t weighed in yet, either. A spokesperson for the organization said they were still in the process of discussing it when I contacted them earlier today. I’ll post an update when I get a comment.

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Looking Beyond Talabani

Over at CNN, I speculate on what Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s incapacitation or death might mean for Iraq. Talabani was a colorful figure and, while the eulogies will be glowing, he certainly had a dark side. Talabani was pro-American to Americans, pro-Iranian to Iranians, and even pro-Turkish to the Turks. He had the opportunity to be a democrat, but as recently as 2009 was ordering Kurdish security forces to kill certain rivals in the upstart Gorran Party. Files that emerged from Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party headquarters also show that Talabani often collaborated with the Iraqi leader prior to his overthrow, and that, according to Kurdish press and those with firsthand knowledge of the files, many close aides—including his former chief of staff—were at one time on Saddam’s payroll.

During the Kurdish Civil War (1994-1997), Talabani worked hand-in-hand with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Talabani’s case highlights how the Iran link is not limited to Iraqi Shi’ites: Qods Force commander Qasim Suleimani was a frequent visitor to Talabani’s Baghdad compound.

Whatever his faults and whatever happens next, one thing will be clear in hindsight: Talabani’s role as president was crucial in stitching together a broad-based Iraqi government. Personality matters, and Talabani’s gregarious and energetic personality helped. He could laugh at himself, and crack a joke to neutralize tension that threatened to boil over and consume all around him.

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Over at CNN, I speculate on what Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s incapacitation or death might mean for Iraq. Talabani was a colorful figure and, while the eulogies will be glowing, he certainly had a dark side. Talabani was pro-American to Americans, pro-Iranian to Iranians, and even pro-Turkish to the Turks. He had the opportunity to be a democrat, but as recently as 2009 was ordering Kurdish security forces to kill certain rivals in the upstart Gorran Party. Files that emerged from Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party headquarters also show that Talabani often collaborated with the Iraqi leader prior to his overthrow, and that, according to Kurdish press and those with firsthand knowledge of the files, many close aides—including his former chief of staff—were at one time on Saddam’s payroll.

During the Kurdish Civil War (1994-1997), Talabani worked hand-in-hand with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Talabani’s case highlights how the Iran link is not limited to Iraqi Shi’ites: Qods Force commander Qasim Suleimani was a frequent visitor to Talabani’s Baghdad compound.

Whatever his faults and whatever happens next, one thing will be clear in hindsight: Talabani’s role as president was crucial in stitching together a broad-based Iraqi government. Personality matters, and Talabani’s gregarious and energetic personality helped. He could laugh at himself, and crack a joke to neutralize tension that threatened to boil over and consume all around him.

Herein lies the problem for U.S. policy: Rather than build a system that does not rely overwhelmingly on one or two individuals, too often U.S. diplomats and generals build policy around a personality. In Afghanistan, it is Hamid Karzai. In Pakistan, it was for too long General Kayani. In Iraq, it has been Jalal Talabani. In Egypt it is, unwisely, Mohamed Morsi. Stability might seem a noble goal in the short term, but the ultimate stability comes from constructing a system in which no man is indispensable. Some indispensable figures like Hamid Karzai will embrace corruption, calculating that they are immune from international accountability because diplomats can find no alternative.

The indispensable man often also maintains his position by ensuring that no competent rival emerges from the bureaucracy; the most able men are cut off at the knees. Karzai’s firing of Defense Minister Wardak falls into this category. Talabani spent his later years trying to undercut Barham Salih, the relatively young wunderkind who emerged from Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Let us hope Talabani recovers. But if he does not, the political chaos that might emerge should be a reminder that any system dependent on one man is not one upon which the United States can ever depend.

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Avigdor Lieberman’s Future

This morning, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation from the Knesset went into effect. Lieberman’s rise and sustained popularity have always puzzled both his domestic political opponents and foreign observers. In part this is because Lieberman’s political persona is one paradox after another. He is a fervent secular nationalist in an age when Israelis tend to be either one or the other. In this, he is a modern rightist much in the mold of Israel’s founding Laborite fathers–another contradiction. And he is most powerful and influential in post-election coalition forming; far less so in his actual duties as foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

That helps explain why they don’t understand him; it’s far easier to explain why his opponents don’t like him. Among those reasons is why he is resigning now: the cloud of potential scandal and accusations of corruption have followed Lieberman for the better part of a decade now. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has announced that Lieberman will be indicted on breach of trust charges–the same charges on which former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted. Lieberman will not, however, be charged with the more serious corruption charges, likely bringing an end to a long ordeal. (Lieberman was under suspicion of profiting from a business registered in his daughter’s name while he served in Knesset.) The actual indictment will only be accusing Lieberman of the lesser, but still serious, charge that he promoted Israel’s ambassador to Belarus in exchange for information on an investigation on him by Belarus authorities.

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This morning, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation from the Knesset went into effect. Lieberman’s rise and sustained popularity have always puzzled both his domestic political opponents and foreign observers. In part this is because Lieberman’s political persona is one paradox after another. He is a fervent secular nationalist in an age when Israelis tend to be either one or the other. In this, he is a modern rightist much in the mold of Israel’s founding Laborite fathers–another contradiction. And he is most powerful and influential in post-election coalition forming; far less so in his actual duties as foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

That helps explain why they don’t understand him; it’s far easier to explain why his opponents don’t like him. Among those reasons is why he is resigning now: the cloud of potential scandal and accusations of corruption have followed Lieberman for the better part of a decade now. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has announced that Lieberman will be indicted on breach of trust charges–the same charges on which former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted. Lieberman will not, however, be charged with the more serious corruption charges, likely bringing an end to a long ordeal. (Lieberman was under suspicion of profiting from a business registered in his daughter’s name while he served in Knesset.) The actual indictment will only be accusing Lieberman of the lesser, but still serious, charge that he promoted Israel’s ambassador to Belarus in exchange for information on an investigation on him by Belarus authorities.

As for Lieberman’s political future, there is one variable that will make a big difference. If he is charged with what Israeli authorities rather solemnly call “moral turpitude,” it greatly complicates the controversy for him. Haaretz explains:

If Lieberman is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude after he is presumably elected to the next Knesset, he would have to resign immediately. If he were convicted and also sentenced to a prison term of three months or more, he would be prevented from running for the Knesset for seven years after completing his sentence.

However, if the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude before the January 22 election without being sentenced to jail, he would be able to run in the election for the next Knesset. He would also be forced to resign from the current Knesset….

Lieberman has a significant interest in signing a plea bargain if it includes agreements with the State Prosecutor’s Office on the issue of moral turpitude. According to the Basic Law on the Government (1992), a person cannot be appointed minister for seven years after completion of a sentence for an offense bearing moral turpitude. A plea bargain stating that Lieberman’s offenses do not constitute moral turpitude would allow him to return to the cabinet even if he were convicted.

What happens if Lieberman is banned from the Knesset for seven years? Lieberman’s party, prior to its recent merger with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, was first and foremost a party to represent the Russian immigrant community, which now numbers about 13 percent of Israel’s population (which helps explain how he is able to garner so many seats in the Knesset–15, currently). Lieberman’s success with Israel Beiteinu was something of a watershed in Israeli electoral politics. As I explained in a July 2011 piece for COMMENTARY, ethnic and minority groups rarely held so much clout; the Mizrahi community–Jews from Arab lands–eventually threw its lot in with Menachem Begin and the Likud to achieve maximum representation in the Knesset, rather than form a minority party itself.

But that was at a time when Israeli politics were dominated by two major parties–Labor and Likud. The fragmentation of Israeli party politics means Lieberman’s vote total actually makes him a kingmaker, since it is nearly impossible to form a coalition–and even more difficult to form a stable coalition–without him.

Had Lieberman’s party remained independent, a conviction on “moral turpitude” would be devastating for Israel Beiteinu. It would be less so now that the party’s Knesset slate has merged with Likud. Netanyahu needs those votes to stay with Likud to win the next election, and possibly future elections as well. But a threat to bolt the party from the Russians–something Lieberman has done before–would seem to be empty without Lieberman at the helm.

That’s because Lieberman provides leadership and cohesion to the group. The Russian immigrant community has never been able to successfully mobilize for elections without Lieberman. Natan Sharansky was considered a revolutionary among Russians and a hero in Israel, yet he was unable to lead a party of Russians with anything close to success. There are cultural reasons for this, and there are political reasons as well. Sharansky was just not a very good politician; Lieberman, on the other hand, is close to masterful at navigating the Israeli political scene. He is a tough-talking populist but a pragmatic legislator who knows how to advocate for his ethnic community while folding its story into the larger narrative of Israeli history.

But he is also brusque, undiplomatic, too dismissive of the Jewish Diaspora and can be as reckless on foreign policy (reportedly suggesting Israel consider toppling Mahmoud Abbas’s government, for example) as he is pragmatic on the home front. His domestic opponents, and a fair number of American Jews, want his political career to be finished by these charges. Lieberman can be a headache for Netanyahu as well, though he doesn’t want to push Lieberman’s constituents into the arms of the center-left–with whom they often vigorously agree on social and religious policy.

So it’s too early to tell if this will change everything or change nothing. But it’s doubtful it will be anywhere in between.

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Did Hagel Backtrack on Iran?

Though many friends of Israel are dismayed at the prospect of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel being the next secretary of defense, an effort is underway to portray the longtime critic of the Jewish state as having shifted his position, particularly on the Iranian nuclear threat. Anti-Defamation League chief Abe Foxman told the Times of Israel today he thinks a Washington Post op-ed co-authored by Hagel back in September shows that the former senator “is now in sync with the president’s position on Iran.”

But a close look at the piece published on September 28 and signed by Hagel, retired admiral William J. Fallon, Lee Hamilton and former Marine general Anthony Zinni, should give those counting on the administration doing what is necessary to stop Tehran little comfort. Though it pays lip service to the idea that force should be contemplated if all other attempts to persuade Iran to stand down fail, the main thrust of the article is to oppose any idea of military action. If this is indeed proof that Hagel and the president are on the same page on Iran, it makes it very likely that a second Obama administration with Hagel at the Pentagon is unlikely to scare the Iranians into giving up their nuclear ambitions.

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Though many friends of Israel are dismayed at the prospect of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel being the next secretary of defense, an effort is underway to portray the longtime critic of the Jewish state as having shifted his position, particularly on the Iranian nuclear threat. Anti-Defamation League chief Abe Foxman told the Times of Israel today he thinks a Washington Post op-ed co-authored by Hagel back in September shows that the former senator “is now in sync with the president’s position on Iran.”

But a close look at the piece published on September 28 and signed by Hagel, retired admiral William J. Fallon, Lee Hamilton and former Marine general Anthony Zinni, should give those counting on the administration doing what is necessary to stop Tehran little comfort. Though it pays lip service to the idea that force should be contemplated if all other attempts to persuade Iran to stand down fail, the main thrust of the article is to oppose any idea of military action. If this is indeed proof that Hagel and the president are on the same page on Iran, it makes it very likely that a second Obama administration with Hagel at the Pentagon is unlikely to scare the Iranians into giving up their nuclear ambitions.

Hagel’s reputation as a critic of the U.S.-Israel alliance is well deserved. As Rick, Alana and the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens noted earlier today, his history of quotes raising dual loyalty charges against supporters of Israel, his equivocal positions on Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists as well as his open opposition to a tough stand on Iran ought to take him out of the running for any position of influence in an administration that calls itself “pro-Israel.”

It may be that Hagel will be prepared to mouth platitudes about Israel in his confirmation hearings as part of what Foxman calls a “pragmatic change” in order to gain a place at the Cabinet table. But the significance of the positions he has taken on Iran makes his presence at the Pentagon a particular problem. To assert, as Foxman does, that Hagel would be obligated to obey Obama’s orders misses the point. If there is anything that we have learned about the president’s governing style in his first four years in office it is that he is not likely to appoint anyone to a crucial post that is likely to differ from his views on important issues. Putting Hagel in charge of the defense establishment is a clear signal that the president has no interest in ever coming to grips with the Iranian threat.

Foxman’s unwillingness to take a stand on Hagel’s appointment is troubling. The ADL chief has been a stern critic of the infamous Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that sought to demonize Jews and others who support the Jewish state. While Hagel has not gone quite as far as those two academics and their supporters, he has engaged in loose talk about the “Jewish lobby” intimidating critics and has publicly postured about being an American senator rather than an Israeli one–a not-so-subtle attempt to raise the dual loyalty canard against Jews.

Yet Foxman won’t join those protesting Hagel’s nomination:

“His positions on Israel could be much better; they are problematic,” Foxman said. “But here again, he will concur with the administration’s views and policies. He has evidenced tendencies which would give us pause for concern, but not enough to oppose him for a high-level position.”

In backing down on Hagel, Foxman is perhaps telling us that he thinks any attempt to derail the nomination would be futile. Given the unwillingness of Republican leaders such as John McCain to stop a former colleague the way they did Susan Rice’s hopes for the State Department, he’s probably right about that, but that doesn’t make this cynical calculation on the part of the ADL chief right.

But the bottom line here is not so much about Hagel as it is about Obama. Putting a man with his views about Israel and its enemies in charge at the Pentagon gives the lie to the election-year Jewish charm offensive that helped the president win re-election. The sounds of celebrating among Israel’s American foes as well as in Tehran makes it clear that any idea that this president will go to the mat on Iran was wishful thinking on the part of Jewish Democrats.

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Menendez Expected to Take Over as Foreign Relations Chair

Finally, some good news to come out of John Kerry’s likely secretary of state appointment:

Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) anticipated move to the State Department would leave the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the hands of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has consistently bucked the White House on Cuba and Iran.

Menendez is next in line to take over the panel if Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) opts to keep her chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, as is widely expected. That would give Menendez a key role in approving diplomatic nominees and international treaties — crucial leverage to demand a tougher stance against America’s foes.

“You can’t work around the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he’s willing to dig in his heels on important issues,” said Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President George W. Bush who’s enthused by Menendez’s possible promotion. “At the same time, he’s going to be expected to be a team player — but that has its limits.

“I think he’ll give folks in the administration something to think about before they cross him, frankly.”

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Finally, some good news to come out of John Kerry’s likely secretary of state appointment:

Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) anticipated move to the State Department would leave the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the hands of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has consistently bucked the White House on Cuba and Iran.

Menendez is next in line to take over the panel if Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) opts to keep her chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, as is widely expected. That would give Menendez a key role in approving diplomatic nominees and international treaties — crucial leverage to demand a tougher stance against America’s foes.

“You can’t work around the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he’s willing to dig in his heels on important issues,” said Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President George W. Bush who’s enthused by Menendez’s possible promotion. “At the same time, he’s going to be expected to be a team player — but that has its limits.

“I think he’ll give folks in the administration something to think about before they cross him, frankly.”

When it comes to Iran sanctions, it would be difficult to find a stronger Democratic senator than Menendez. He’s been active on the issue for years, at least since his time on the House international relations committee (now foreign affairs). On the Senate finance committee, he’s joined up with Senator Mark Kirk on several critically important Iran sanctions amendments.

But the White House can’t be thrilled with Menendez’s likely new role. He’s had no reservations about fighting the Obama administration over sanctions, nor clashing with them over Armenia and Cuba. The last thing Obama wants is a critic from his own party attacking his Iran policy from such a prominent perch in the Senate.

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Crisis and Conservatism

On the morning of October 1, 1997, 16-year-old Luke Woodham of Pearl, Mississippi slit his mother’s throat, grabbed a rifle, loaded his pockets with ammo, and drove his dead mom’s car to Pearl High School. There he opened fire, killing two kids and injuring seven others. Woodham then got back in the car with the intention of heading to nearby Pearl Junior High, where he planned on becoming his own copycat. But he never got there. Woodham crashed his car when he saw another gun trained on him through the windshield. That gun belonged to Pearl High’s vice principal Joel Myrtle, who had got his Colt .45 out of his truck at the first sound of shots fired. Myrtle managed to subdue Woodham until police showed up. 

The similarities between the Pearl High School shooting and Friday’s massacre at Sandy Hook are strong. Depraved minds are rarely original. But the central difference between the two tragedies is important. Woodham, unlike Adam Lanza, was stopped mid-rampage by a law-abiding citizen with a gun. We can’t know how many innocent young lives the quick-thinking vice principal saved. While this doesn’t constitute an air-tight case for the availability of guns as defense against gun violence, it does remind us that such a case exists. It is a thoughtful case for saving lives, not ending them. Its defenders can adduce mounds of supporting data. And it is a case grounded in constitutional rights.

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On the morning of October 1, 1997, 16-year-old Luke Woodham of Pearl, Mississippi slit his mother’s throat, grabbed a rifle, loaded his pockets with ammo, and drove his dead mom’s car to Pearl High School. There he opened fire, killing two kids and injuring seven others. Woodham then got back in the car with the intention of heading to nearby Pearl Junior High, where he planned on becoming his own copycat. But he never got there. Woodham crashed his car when he saw another gun trained on him through the windshield. That gun belonged to Pearl High’s vice principal Joel Myrtle, who had got his Colt .45 out of his truck at the first sound of shots fired. Myrtle managed to subdue Woodham until police showed up. 

The similarities between the Pearl High School shooting and Friday’s massacre at Sandy Hook are strong. Depraved minds are rarely original. But the central difference between the two tragedies is important. Woodham, unlike Adam Lanza, was stopped mid-rampage by a law-abiding citizen with a gun. We can’t know how many innocent young lives the quick-thinking vice principal saved. While this doesn’t constitute an air-tight case for the availability of guns as defense against gun violence, it does remind us that such a case exists. It is a thoughtful case for saving lives, not ending them. Its defenders can adduce mounds of supporting data. And it is a case grounded in constitutional rights.

None of that means the “pro-gun” argument should prevail. But it should be heard and debated, and its adherents should be shown the same respect as gun-control advocates. Both groups, after all, want to see fewer Sandy Hooks.

And yet that’s not where we are. The current “debate” is mooted by its own terms: guns are the problem and fewer guns the solution. The only matters up for discussion are which guns to ban, how to enforce the ban, and are Second Amendment advocates cruel or just dumb. This is where we’ve been heading for a while. In March 2011, 48 hours after the post-earthquake explosion at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel reneged on extending the life of her country’s nuclear reactors. At the time, I wrote

Hysteria on the largest scale possible has become the default official response to all crises. A lay public furnished with near-instantaneous media coverage can be counted on to demand immediate and absolute measures so that the crisis can be scrubbed from consciousness, however crudely or illogically. And over-monitored leaders will be sure to comply. Today a politician can lose his job if he doesn’t swiftly change historical precedent to fit the frenzied misinterpretation of a still-breaking news story.

That’s where we are. Reactive, finger-snap solutionism. If a single nuclear plant explodes, immediately move to halt civilian nuclear energy. If a hurricane devastates the East Coast, demand climate-change legislation. If a spree-killer goes on a rampage, get rid of guns.

The problem is that weather is, scientifically speaking, a chaotic system. And so too is human interaction. There is no one solution for keeping the chaos at bay. But, believe it or not, conservatives have thoughtful proposals about mitigating chaos or reducing its negative impact on people. The very night that Hurricane Sandy hit, the New York Times published an editorial explaining that such events demonstrate the need for big government. But many conservatives believe that big government was itself partially to blame for the damage done—without federal flood insurance no one would have developed homes so dangerously close to the water in the first place. Scaling back big government is not a matter of short changing those who have it hard but of sparing them the negative effects of poorly executed government intervention. A similar idea informs pro-Second Amendment arguments. If the government takes guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens, only determined law-breakers will be armed in the event of attack.

The fault for not having real debate does not rest exclusively with progressive solutionists. It’s time for conservatives to drop their embattled and antagonistic posture. If they don’t want every crisis to automatically affirm progressive ideas they must acquaint Americans with why their own—sometimes, counterintuitive—ideas actually work for the good of the country.

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Dukakis Won’t Be Senate Placeholder

Surprisingly enough, Michael Dukakis apparently doesn’t want to upend his schedule for the next few months to play placeholder for a bunch of Democratic Senate hopefuls. He waved off rumors that he’d accept a temporary appointment to the seat until a special election is convened, in an interview with WBZ-TV yesterday (h/t HotAir):

Former Gov. Michael Dukakis says he will not be a candidate for appointment as interim senator should Sen. John Kerry resign to accept appointment as Secretary of State.

In a brief State House interview Monday, Dukakis told WBZ-TV: “I’m headed for the West to teach,” alluding to his annual spring-semester teaching duties at UCLA.

“That’s a no,” said Dukakis in reference to a possible appointment by Gov. Deval Patrick to fill the seat until a special election can be held. Dukakis also said he had not been contacted by the governor’s office in regard to a possible appointment.

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Surprisingly enough, Michael Dukakis apparently doesn’t want to upend his schedule for the next few months to play placeholder for a bunch of Democratic Senate hopefuls. He waved off rumors that he’d accept a temporary appointment to the seat until a special election is convened, in an interview with WBZ-TV yesterday (h/t HotAir):

Former Gov. Michael Dukakis says he will not be a candidate for appointment as interim senator should Sen. John Kerry resign to accept appointment as Secretary of State.

In a brief State House interview Monday, Dukakis told WBZ-TV: “I’m headed for the West to teach,” alluding to his annual spring-semester teaching duties at UCLA.

“That’s a no,” said Dukakis in reference to a possible appointment by Gov. Deval Patrick to fill the seat until a special election can be held. Dukakis also said he had not been contacted by the governor’s office in regard to a possible appointment.

So who’s next on the list? Patrick said he won’t appoint anyone who wants to run in the special election, which limits the possibilities. Interestingly enough, Ted Kennedy’s widow Vicki Kennedy’s name is also being floated for a temporary role, despite speculation that she’d be a top potential candidate in the election. If that happens, we can either assume she won’t run or that that the Massachusetts Democratic Party is more nervous about competing with Scott Brown than it’s letting on and wants to give Kennedy an early boost.

Another interesting possibility is that Bay State Democrats could change the state law that prevents governors from appointing someone to finish out the departing senator’s term, though Dukakis rejected the idea:

Dukakis dismissed speculation that Beacon Hill Democrats might seek to once again change the succession law to allow the governor to appoint someone to fill out the remainder of Kerry’s term, which runs through 2014. The law was changed in 2004 as Kerry sought the presidency for fear that then-Gov. Mitt Romney would be able to make that coveted appointment.

Democrats could certainly do it, but that would create other problems for them. Senate seats rarely come up in Massachusetts, and if it looks like they aren’t giving candidates in their own party a fair chance then future recruitment could suffer.

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Boehner’s Bluff Not Impressing Dems

This morning’s press conference by the Republican House leadership was supposed to give the impression that Speaker John Boehner is prepared to go to the brink on the fiscal cliff negotiations with the White House. The GOP has finally coaxed President Obama to budge a bit from his previous hard-line position on raising taxes on all those who earn more than $250,000 (the president has upped the total to $400,000) leading many journalists to write yesterday as if a deal between the two sides was a foregone conclusion. But Boehner knows he needs more than the minimal spending cuts offered by the Democrats if he expects his caucus to back a gut-wrenching compromise that will require them to sign on to tax increases that they think will hurt the economy as well as offend their principles. Thus, the speaker was in front of the cameras today insisting that he would pass a version of his own current position on the fiscal cliff that would only raise taxes on those earning more than $1 million and more drastic spending cuts than those envisioned by the White House that has zero chance in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

But Boehner’s problem is that Democrats are no more impressed by his Plan B bluff than his Tea Party colleagues are by the president’s slight movement toward a deal. With polls continuing to show that the public blames the GOP more than the president for the impasse over the budget, no one in the White House or the Democratic caucus thinks the speaker’s move is anything more than the negotiating tactic of a party that knows it is in a vulnerable position.

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This morning’s press conference by the Republican House leadership was supposed to give the impression that Speaker John Boehner is prepared to go to the brink on the fiscal cliff negotiations with the White House. The GOP has finally coaxed President Obama to budge a bit from his previous hard-line position on raising taxes on all those who earn more than $250,000 (the president has upped the total to $400,000) leading many journalists to write yesterday as if a deal between the two sides was a foregone conclusion. But Boehner knows he needs more than the minimal spending cuts offered by the Democrats if he expects his caucus to back a gut-wrenching compromise that will require them to sign on to tax increases that they think will hurt the economy as well as offend their principles. Thus, the speaker was in front of the cameras today insisting that he would pass a version of his own current position on the fiscal cliff that would only raise taxes on those earning more than $1 million and more drastic spending cuts than those envisioned by the White House that has zero chance in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

But Boehner’s problem is that Democrats are no more impressed by his Plan B bluff than his Tea Party colleagues are by the president’s slight movement toward a deal. With polls continuing to show that the public blames the GOP more than the president for the impasse over the budget, no one in the White House or the Democratic caucus thinks the speaker’s move is anything more than the negotiating tactic of a party that knows it is in a vulnerable position.

Republicans are right to argue that the president’s insistence on raising taxes on the wealthy has little or nothing to do with balancing the budget, let alone helping an anemic recovery. Their frustration with the White House’s refusal to seriously address the deficit via entitlement reform is similarly justified. But they also know that if the fiscal cliff is reached next month without a deal in place, it will be their party and not a newly re-elected president who will be blamed for the across-the-board tax increase that will be imposed on the middle class as well as the rich. Though the president has a lot to lose by allowing the standoff to sink an already fragile economy, Boehner is sensible to the fact that a failure to compromise would be a political disaster for the GOP.

That has left the speaker in the unenviable position of having to try to make the best possible deal with the president without setting off a full-scale revolt among House Republicans.

Thus, it is likely that talk about Plan B—a proposal that is sensible but which would be dead on arrival in the Senate—has more to do with the speaker orchestrating a process by which he can secure his party’s agreement to an unpopular deal.

But unfortunately for Boehner, it isn’t terribly likely that President Obama will make it easy on him and follow up his tax offer with a more far-reaching proposal about cuts. The looks on the faces of Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Whip Kevin McCarthy this morning reflected the desperation of men who understand they have very few cards left in their hands, not the bold defiance of a party that thinks it can defy the president’s bullying tactics. Obama has spent the last month since his victory over Mitt Romney acting as if he would be just as pleased by a failure to avoid the fiscal cliff as he would be by getting his way in the talks with the Republicans.

Boehner deserves some credit for being tough enough to get Obama to make some concessions, but given the weakness of his relative position to the winner of the presidential election, those Republicans who expect him to get more are probably being unrealistic.

Though a compromise, no matter how inadequate, will be seen as a victory for Obama, in the long run it is the nation as a whole that is the big loser in a negotiation that seems destined to ensure that the country not deal with entitlement reform and the out-of-control spending that is a strategic threat to America’s future. But in the short term, it appears that Boehner’s Plan is just the prelude to an unpalatable deal that will at least allow Republicans to avoid the blame for a tax increase on everyone.

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Remembering Daniel Inouye

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Daniel Inouye, the son and grandson of Japanese immigrants, was 17. “I was filled with grief as I came to the realization that the pilots who had dropped the bombs were people who looked like me,” he later wrote, as recounted in the Washington Post. He rushed to the scene to help the injured. Two years later, when Japanese-Americans were permitted to serve in the army, Inouye dropped his studies and enlisted with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, with whom he would deploy to Italy and earn the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, and later the Medal of Honor.

So when he warned at the 1968 Democratic National Convention of a “retreat from the responsibilities of citizenship,” he had all the authority in the world to do so. In the interim, he had been elected to represent Hawaii in Congress beginning the day Hawaii became a state, and then was elected to the Senate a few years later. Inouye died yesterday at the age of 88. Perhaps this week as much as any, as the country recovers from the tragedy in Newtown, it’s worth remembering that the nation also produces men like Daniel Inouye–men of uncommon courage and devotion, who exemplify national service. Here is the summary of his war heroics from his Medal of Honor citation:

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When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Daniel Inouye, the son and grandson of Japanese immigrants, was 17. “I was filled with grief as I came to the realization that the pilots who had dropped the bombs were people who looked like me,” he later wrote, as recounted in the Washington Post. He rushed to the scene to help the injured. Two years later, when Japanese-Americans were permitted to serve in the army, Inouye dropped his studies and enlisted with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, with whom he would deploy to Italy and earn the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, and later the Medal of Honor.

So when he warned at the 1968 Democratic National Convention of a “retreat from the responsibilities of citizenship,” he had all the authority in the world to do so. In the interim, he had been elected to represent Hawaii in Congress beginning the day Hawaii became a state, and then was elected to the Senate a few years later. Inouye died yesterday at the age of 88. Perhaps this week as much as any, as the country recovers from the tragedy in Newtown, it’s worth remembering that the nation also produces men like Daniel Inouye–men of uncommon courage and devotion, who exemplify national service. Here is the summary of his war heroics from his Medal of Honor citation:

While attacking a defended ridge guarding an important road junction, Second Lieutenant Inouye skillfully directed his platoon through a hail of automatic weapon and small arms fire, in a swift enveloping movement that resulted in the capture of an artillery and mortar post and brought his men to within 40 yards of the hostile force. Emplaced in bunkers and rock formations, the enemy halted the advance with crossfire from three machine guns. With complete disregard for his personal safety, Second Lieutenant Inouye crawled up the treacherous slope to within five yards of the nearest machine gun and hurled two grenades, destroying the emplacement. Before the enemy could retaliate, he stood up and neutralized a second machine gun nest. Although wounded by a sniper’s bullet, he continued to engage other hostile positions at close range until an exploding grenade shattered his right arm. Despite the intense pain, he refused evacuation and continued to direct his platoon until enemy resistance was broken and his men were again deployed in defensive positions. In the attack, 25 enemy soldiers were killed and eight others captured. By his gallant, aggressive tactics and by his indomitable leadership, Second Lieutenant Inouye enabled his platoon to advance through formidable resistance, and was instrumental in the capture of the ridge.

The full details are even more impressive, and a bit more gruesome. When Inouye died, he was the Senate president pro tempore, putting him third in line for the presidency. A Democrat with a reputation for bipartisanship who was happy to stay out of the limelight–though he did serve on the inquiry committees of Watergate and Iran-contra–Inouye was the second-oldest serving senator and the ranking Democrat on the appropriations committee, where he was never shy about requesting, and getting, earmarks for his state.

Though Inouye is surprisingly anonymous for someone who served in Congress for as long as he did, he was a sort of political founding father for his state the way his colleagues in Alaska, like Ted Stevens, were for theirs.

Inouye was also a reliable pro-Israel voice in the Senate. “Our people owe him an immense historic debt,” Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said in a statement. “The Iron Dome system that recently intercepted hundreds of terrorist rockets aimed at our homes stands as enduring proof of his commitment to the defense of the Jewish State.”

As the Jerusalem Post reported in January, on a recent trip to Israel Inouye told an audience that he was the first in his state to buy an Israel bond, which he kept framed in his office. He also told the group that when he was recuperating from his war wounds in 1945, in the hospital bed next to him was a soldier who had liberated a prison camp, and spoke of the horrors he witnessed. Inouye said he asked the soldier if it was a camp for criminals:

“‘No,’ he said, ‘they were Jews.’ I asked what crime they committed, and his answer changed my life. He said, ‘Well you know, Dan, people don’t like Jews.’” Inouye said this left a lasting impression on him, and that a few years later, when the honor society at his law school, George Washington University, refused to accept two students because they were Jewish, he said he told the group that if the Jews were blackballed, “then kick me out, too.”

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Re: The Hagel Insult

In the column Rick Richman links to below, Bret Stephens issues a challenge to Jewish Democrats that is also worth discussing:

Now President Obama may nominate Mr. Hagel to take Leon Panetta’s place at the Pentagon. As a purely score-settling matter, I almost hope he does. It would confirm a point I made in a column earlier this year, which is that Mr. Obama is not a friend of Israel. Perhaps the 63% of Jewish-Americans who cast their votes for Mr. Obama last month might belatedly take notice.

Alternatively, maybe some of these voters could speak up now, before a nomination is announced, about the insult that a Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would be. Jewish Democrats like to fancy their voice carries weight in their party. The prospect of this nomination is their chance to prove it.

Obama wouldn’t just be burning his pro-Israel voters by nominating Hagel. The reputations of pro-Israel Democratic leaders–who took to the op-ed pages to reassure Jewish voters that, despite evidence to the contrary, Obama would get serious on Iran in a second term–are also riding on this.

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In the column Rick Richman links to below, Bret Stephens issues a challenge to Jewish Democrats that is also worth discussing:

Now President Obama may nominate Mr. Hagel to take Leon Panetta’s place at the Pentagon. As a purely score-settling matter, I almost hope he does. It would confirm a point I made in a column earlier this year, which is that Mr. Obama is not a friend of Israel. Perhaps the 63% of Jewish-Americans who cast their votes for Mr. Obama last month might belatedly take notice.

Alternatively, maybe some of these voters could speak up now, before a nomination is announced, about the insult that a Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would be. Jewish Democrats like to fancy their voice carries weight in their party. The prospect of this nomination is their chance to prove it.

Obama wouldn’t just be burning his pro-Israel voters by nominating Hagel. The reputations of pro-Israel Democratic leaders–who took to the op-ed pages to reassure Jewish voters that, despite evidence to the contrary, Obama would get serious on Iran in a second term–are also riding on this.

Here was Alan Dershowitz defending Obama on Iran in the Jerusalem Post last summer:

There are some, in both parties, who wrongly believe that a policy of “containment” – that is, allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons but containing their use by the threat of tit-for-tat reprisal – is the right strategy. President Obama has explicitly rejected this benighted approach and has instead announced that his policy is to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it takes military action to do so. In the meantime, he has ratcheted up sanctions and diplomatic pressure while explicitly keeping the military option on the table.

Several months ago, President Obama invited me to the Oval Office to discuss his Iran strategy. He looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t bluff.” His actions with regard to Osama bin Laden and the Somali pirates who endangered Americans and threatened to kill them demonstrated his willingness to use force when warranted. So does his increased use of drones to target terrorists who are beyond the reach of capture. I believe President Obama when he says that Iran will not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons on his watch.

And Jeffrey Goldberg in October:

I run into people constantly who believe that the bluffer in this relationship is Obama. Their argument holds that Obama will move toward a strategy of containment soon after the election, and that there is no way he would ever use military force to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. 

I’m in the camp of people, however, who take him at his word, in part because he’s repeated himself on the subject so many times and in part because he has laid out such an effective argument against containment and for disruption, by force, if necessary. 

They insisted Obama was serious about using military force against Iran, if need be. Now, here’s what Chuck Hagel in 2006 had to say about the possibility:

“I do not expect any kind of military solution on the Iran issue,” Hagel told a news conference. “I think to further comment on it would be complete speculation, but I would say that a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.” 

And here’s Hagel in 2010, downplaying the possibility again: 

As to the use of military force, whether it’s for a political motive or not, I don’t think I have to remind the public that the United States of America is currently in two wars – two of the longest we’ve ever been in.  And before we finally wind our way out of each, they will be the longest wars we’ve ever engaged in. 

That has come at a very significant cost to this country.  I think it’s undermined our interest in the world.  You don’t need to go much beyond asking any general who’s in charge of men and women in the Pentagon, their families, or any metric that you want to apply – record suicides, record divorces, record homeless and all the rest – as to but one consequence of taking the nation to war. 

So I think talking about going to war with Iran in fairly specific terms should be carefully reviewed.  And that’s pretty dangerous talk.  It’s easy to get a nation into war; not so easy to get a nation out of war, as we are finding out.  I’m not sure that the American people are ready to go into a third war.

So what did all the promises from pro-Israel Obama supporters amount to? If one of Obama’s first moves after reelection is nominating someone to the top Pentagon post who has promoted conspiracy theories about the “Jewish lobby” and dismisses a military option against Iran, what does that mean for the Jewish Democrats who vouched for him?

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The Politics of Moral Posturing

In the aftermath of the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we’re seeing a groundswell of support for stricter gun control laws.

The impulse is understandable. The public, and particularly the political class, feel like they need to do something to address killings like we’ve seen in recent years at Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colorado, and now Newtown, Connecticut. A great evil has been perpetrated–and a great nation has to respond. There is an imperative to act. “You can’t just curse the night,” is how Fox News’ Juan Williams put it. “You have to do something.” CNN’s anchor Don Lemon went even further, saying, “It doesn’t matter if gun violence is down… We need to get guns and bullets and automatic weapons off the streets. They should only be available to police officers and to hunt al-Qaeda and the Taliban and not hunt children.” 

The danger, then, is that the powerful emotions of this moment lead us to act in ways that don’t actually address the problem–but do give the appearance of having achieved something worthwhile.

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In the aftermath of the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we’re seeing a groundswell of support for stricter gun control laws.

The impulse is understandable. The public, and particularly the political class, feel like they need to do something to address killings like we’ve seen in recent years at Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colorado, and now Newtown, Connecticut. A great evil has been perpetrated–and a great nation has to respond. There is an imperative to act. “You can’t just curse the night,” is how Fox News’ Juan Williams put it. “You have to do something.” CNN’s anchor Don Lemon went even further, saying, “It doesn’t matter if gun violence is down… We need to get guns and bullets and automatic weapons off the streets. They should only be available to police officers and to hunt al-Qaeda and the Taliban and not hunt children.” 

The danger, then, is that the powerful emotions of this moment lead us to act in ways that don’t actually address the problem–but do give the appearance of having achieved something worthwhile.

David Brooks, who is generally supportive of gun control legislation, has in the past criticized gun control supporters for what he calls “their colossal incuriosity about the evidence.” David points to two different studies–this one  by the Centers for Disease Control (which reviewed 51 published studies about the effectiveness of eight types of gun-control laws) and this one by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine–which find that the evidence is insufficient to determine whether firearms laws are effective. The case, then, is hardly dispositive.

I would add to these studies this 2007 article by the late James Q. Wilson, one of the greatest social scientists this country has ever produced and the author of several authoritative books on crime. According to Wilson, passing more gun control laws are not the answer. He acknowledged that easy access to guns makes deadly violence more common–but added there is no way to extinguish the supply of guns in America (which is approaching 300 million). “It would be constitutionally suspect and politically impossible to confiscate hundreds of millions of weapons,” he wrote. Professor Wilson pointed out that guns also play an important role in self-defense (somewhere between 100,000 and more than 2 million cases of self-defense occur ever year). And he added this: “We need to work harder to identify and cope with dangerously unstable personalities.”

It’s probably worth saying here that I’m not a great fan of the NRA and I don’t have a strong attachment to America’s gun culture. I’m quite open to what works, including greater restrictions on firearms. Nor do I believe there’s a constitutional right to possess, say, an RPG. Politics is about drawing lines and making reasonable distinctions.

But the impression I get from many of the advocates of gun control, in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, is empiricism be damned. Now is the time to strike, while emotions are raw. What matters is doing what feels right, what seems right, what looks right. This is politics as moral posturing–and it often leads to the passage of ineffective, and sometimes downright counterproductive, laws and agreements. (See the War on Poverty and the Oslo Accords for more.)

Among the side effects if gun control laws are passed is that those who championed them will feel as if they did something marvelous, whether they did or not. They will pretend they took a stand in solidarity with the families of the dead, whether they did or not. 

Which brings me back to CNN’s Don Lemon, who in his anti-gun commentary felt compelled to add this self-revelation: “Listen, for the past three days, I have been on the verge of tears every second, and most of the people here have been crying 24 hours straight.” 

I believe his sympathy is real, if unremarkable. Anyone who has followed this story cannot help but be touched by it. But you know what? A few weeks from now, and a few months from now, Don Lemon will have gone on with his life, as the rest of us will have gone on with ours. But the parents of the dead children will not. Their grief will remain. And there is a rather massive difference in the scale of the sorrow. So the people covering and commenting on the story might consider putting a bit of a check on the temptation to focus on their emotional state, which can easily spill over into moral exhibitionism. Don Lemon’s feelings may be genuine, but they are also relatively momentary. And his tears, and even his moral outrage, don’t actually make him particularly well informed on matters of public policy. Passion is not, and never has been, a substitute for cool reason.

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Few Similarities Between Suicide Terrorists and Rampage Killers

It has long been argued by psychologists and political scientists that most suicide bombers are not mentally ill and most aren’t inherently suicidal. Rather they are indoctrinated or brain-washed by terrorist organizations to perform high-profile attacks with a political or religious motive. Adam Lankford, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, seeks to dramatically revise our understanding of this phenomenon with a new book which he adapted into a New York Times op-ed today. He argues: “For years, the conventional wisdom has been that suicide terrorists are rational political actors, while suicidal rampage shooters are mentally disturbed loners. But the two groups have far more in common than has been recognized.”

His arguments would radically revise our understanding of terrorists and their motivations–if they were true. But his evidence is, to put it charitably, less than convincing.

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It has long been argued by psychologists and political scientists that most suicide bombers are not mentally ill and most aren’t inherently suicidal. Rather they are indoctrinated or brain-washed by terrorist organizations to perform high-profile attacks with a political or religious motive. Adam Lankford, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, seeks to dramatically revise our understanding of this phenomenon with a new book which he adapted into a New York Times op-ed today. He argues: “For years, the conventional wisdom has been that suicide terrorists are rational political actors, while suicidal rampage shooters are mentally disturbed loners. But the two groups have far more in common than has been recognized.”

His arguments would radically revise our understanding of terrorists and their motivations–if they were true. But his evidence is, to put it charitably, less than convincing.

He mentions only four terrorists: Mir Aimal Kasi (not “Kansi,” as Lankford has it), a Pakistani man living in the U.S. who in 1993 killed two employees and wounded three more outside CIA headquarters before escaping to Pakistan; Ali Hassan Abu Kamal, a Palestinian-American teacher who in 1997 opened fire on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, killing one person and wounding six others before taking his own life; Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian-American limousine driver who in 2002 opened fire in front of the El Al counter at Los Angeles Airport, killing two Israelis before himself being killed by security guards; and Nidal Malik Hasan, a Palestinian-American army officer who in 2009 went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, killing 13 people and wounding 29 before being captured.

Lankford may well be right that these attackers have something in common with rampage killers such as Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho and Adam Lanza, who shot up a high school, a university and an elementary school, respectively, but there is one crucial difference. Most of the terrorists he cites cites were not, contrary to his claims, suicidal–Kansi actually escaped after his attack and Hasan was captured; only Kamal killed himself. Whereas all four of the rampage killers he describes committed suicide before police closed in. This suggests some pretty significant differences between the terrorists and the rampage killers.

More significantly, the four domestic terrorists Lankford cites have significant differences from suicide bombers who are to be found in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, the West Bank, Syria, and Iraq. None of the four was part of an established terrorist network in this country. They were “lone wolves” who acted on their own initiative although they were no doubt influenced by terrorist propaganda; Hasan, for example, had even communicated with Anwar al-Awlaki, the former imam of his mosque in northern Virginia who became a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But that is a far cry from the kind of rigorous indoctrination and planning that goes into suicide-bomber attacks in the Middle East.

Just yesterday there was a suicide bombing in Kabul: “A suicide bomber driving a car packed with explosives targeted the compound of a private military contractor on the eastern outskirts of Kabul on Monday, killing at least one person and injuring at least 15 others.”

Does anyone imagine that the perpetrator of this attack just got up in the morning and, enflamed by mental illness, decided to go out on a whim to attack a security compound in Kabul? The very thought is ludicrous. Such attacks are planned weeks, even months, in advance by sophisticated networks such as the Haqqanis who procure a vehicle and explosives, indoctrinate a driver, survey and identify a target, and infiltrate the driver and vehicle into a heavily guarded city such as Kabul. They are using suicide bombers much the way the U.S. military uses precision-guided munitions.

The acts in question are supremely rational and strategic. Not all of the suicide bombers are even aware that they are on a one-way mission; sometimes a terrorist controller hundreds of yards away detonates the vehicles by remote control. Sometimes the driver has been coerced into carrying out the mission by threats against his family. Whatever the case, these attacks do not involve crazy loners like the examples Lankford mentions. Until he analyzes these types of attacks, which are far more common and far more destructive, his arguments will not gain much credence among terrorism analysts.

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The Gun Control Moment

There is little doubt that the Newtown killings have materially changed the discussion in this country about guns. The shock and horror about the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School has created a demand for some sort of action by the government that will assuage the public’s need to believe that another school massacre can somehow be prevented. The result is that President Obama has the opportunity to pursue an assault weapons ban or restrictions on ammunition without having to worry very much about the usually vociferous opposition to such measures from the National Rifle Association and its many supporters.

That such measures are unlikely to prevent mentally unstable persons from obtaining weapons is almost beside the point. Governments cannot legislate the abolition of the sort of evil that led a disturbed individual to kill children in Connecticut last Friday. Nor is it likely or even desirable that Washington seeks to restrict the rights of Hollywood or video game makers that produce the sort of violent entertainment that creates the culture of violence that may also contribute to crime. Sadly, there is little likelihood that any of this will lead to a push to give more funding to the sort of mental health issues that do lead directly to violence.

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There is little doubt that the Newtown killings have materially changed the discussion in this country about guns. The shock and horror about the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School has created a demand for some sort of action by the government that will assuage the public’s need to believe that another school massacre can somehow be prevented. The result is that President Obama has the opportunity to pursue an assault weapons ban or restrictions on ammunition without having to worry very much about the usually vociferous opposition to such measures from the National Rifle Association and its many supporters.

That such measures are unlikely to prevent mentally unstable persons from obtaining weapons is almost beside the point. Governments cannot legislate the abolition of the sort of evil that led a disturbed individual to kill children in Connecticut last Friday. Nor is it likely or even desirable that Washington seeks to restrict the rights of Hollywood or video game makers that produce the sort of violent entertainment that creates the culture of violence that may also contribute to crime. Sadly, there is little likelihood that any of this will lead to a push to give more funding to the sort of mental health issues that do lead directly to violence.

Yet at a time when the public wants something done, any solution that speaks to the revulsion people feel about the slaughter of 1st-graders will provide a degree of catharsis. With even pro-gun legislators saying they will support gun control and the NRA effectively silenced, the field is open for a game-changing push from the White House. The question is not whether it will happen but whether the president will overreach.

Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, famously said of the 2008 financial meltdown “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” That sort of thinking led to a decision to exploit the situation to push through a liberal wish list in the form of a trillion-dollar stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare. The former failed to revive the economy and the latter bogged the administration down in a crippling debate when its political capital might have been better spent on efforts to bring down the unemployment rate. Yet the president’s re-election last month may have convinced him that he was right all along about everything even if the new year may bring worse economic news that the implementation of ObamaCare will only exacerbate.

If the president opts for a quick, limited push on assault weapons that will allow him to say he has responded to Newtown effectively, the result will likely be an easy victory that will enable him to start off his second term on a positive note. However, the temptation to exploit this gun control moment may be overwhelming.

Liberal interest groups see the emotional reaction to Newtown as their chance to roll back gun rights in a way that would have been unimaginable only a week ago. But if Obama listens to them, he could overplay his hand and risk losing the support of the vast majority of Americans who support sensible restrictions on military-style weapons but not anything that smacks of an attack on the Second Amendment. The gun control moment is here, but the president and his supporters need to be wary of misinterpreting the reaction to Newtown with an overreach that could be a crippling mistake.

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The Hagel Insult

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens writes that Chuck Hagel has a “Jewish problem”–reflected in the “especially ripe” odor of prejudice evidenced in his past comments. Stephens shows that Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense would confirm that Obama “is not a friend of Israel,” and would be an insult to the Jewish Americans who voted in lopsided numbers for Obama.

Actually, it would be much worse than that.

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In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens writes that Chuck Hagel has a “Jewish problem”–reflected in the “especially ripe” odor of prejudice evidenced in his past comments. Stephens shows that Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense would confirm that Obama “is not a friend of Israel,” and would be an insult to the Jewish Americans who voted in lopsided numbers for Obama.

Actually, it would be much worse than that.

On November 29, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on Israel. In the hearing, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute observed that the perceived gap between the U.S. and Israel has broader strategic consequences:

[O]ne of the most interesting things that you hear from Gulf leaders is their shock at the gap that had opened up between Israel and the United States over recent years. They view that as a barometer of American friendship and loyalty. If you won’t stand by Israel, how can we trust you to stand by us against Iran? And the answer is, of course, that they don’t.

 Later in the hearing, Pletka expanded on her point:

I think this is really a larger problem … It’s not just where we stand on the question of Israel. It’s where we stand in the Middle East. It’s where we stand on the question of Iran. Are we going to negotiate with Iran and allow them to have a nuclear capability, because I can tell you that that’s what they think and that’s what our allies think.

Hagel’s nomination would be a twofer: a signal that Obama (a) plans to negotiate an Iranian nuclear capability, and (b) is unconcerned about any resulting gap with Israel. You don’t nominate a person to head the American military who is admittedly still haunted by Vietnam and known for his opposition to the Iraq War (and to the surge that won it), his antagonism to Israel, his willingness to talk with Hamas, etc., without realizing the signal it sends. Nominating a John McCain or Joe Lieberman would signal that time is running out and other options are being considered. With Hagel, the signal is that the President’s last election is over and he is ready to be more flexible.

Gary Schmitt of AEI was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying Obama and Hagel “share a larger strategic view, which is draw down in Europe, disengage from the Middle East and accept we are going to have a much smaller military.” Given that view, the administration’s “pivot” to Asia seems less like a strategy than a search for something to do after American power is withdrawn elsewhere. In that connection, the point Pletka made immediately after the one above is worth noting as well:

You know, if we are adrift as a nation in shaping our foreign policy and unsure of whether we wish to lead the world or we wish to just sort of play along with the world, then we’re going to have these problems in more places than just the Middle East.

The Hagel nomination would be what Obama likes to call a “defining moment.” It would be a signal–to allies and adversaries alike–of something much larger, and much more unfortunate, than the calculated insult that will accompany it.

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Governor Huckabee’s Clarification

Having said some critical things about former Governor Mike Huckabee in the context of his comments about the Newtown massacre, it’s only fair, I think, to point out that Huckabee’s tone was much more reasonable and less offensive yesterday morning. It’s worth pointing out that Huckabee, perhaps aware of some of the criticisms he has received, went out of his way to say, “I’m not suggesting by any stretch that if we had prayer in schools regularly as we once did that this wouldn’t have happened.” 

That is, of course, exactly what Huckabee suggested in his comments on Friday. There’s simply no other way to interpret these comments on the day of the killings:

We ask why there’s violence in our schools but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? Because we’ve made it a place where we do not want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability. That we’re not just going to have to be accountable to the police, if they catch us, but we stand one day before a holy God in judgment…  Maybe we ought to let [God] in on the front end and we would not have to call him to show up when it’s all said and done at the back end.

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Having said some critical things about former Governor Mike Huckabee in the context of his comments about the Newtown massacre, it’s only fair, I think, to point out that Huckabee’s tone was much more reasonable and less offensive yesterday morning. It’s worth pointing out that Huckabee, perhaps aware of some of the criticisms he has received, went out of his way to say, “I’m not suggesting by any stretch that if we had prayer in schools regularly as we once did that this wouldn’t have happened.” 

That is, of course, exactly what Huckabee suggested in his comments on Friday. There’s simply no other way to interpret these comments on the day of the killings:

We ask why there’s violence in our schools but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? Because we’ve made it a place where we do not want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability. That we’re not just going to have to be accountable to the police, if they catch us, but we stand one day before a holy God in judgment…  Maybe we ought to let [God] in on the front end and we would not have to call him to show up when it’s all said and done at the back end.

The fact that Huckabee made a similar comment in the aftermath of the killings in Aurora, Colorado doesn’t help his “I’m not suggesting by any stretch” assurance.

I would have preferred if Governor Huckabee had simply said that his initial comments were badly wide of the mark and after careful consideration, he wanted to revise them. But that may be asking too much.

In any case, Governor Huckabee certainly seems to have changed his tune–and even his theology–since Friday. That is all to the good, I think, and it’s only right to point it out.

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