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Posts For: December 26, 2012

How to Rein in Bahrain?

In this New York Times op-ed, Bahraini human-rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja makes a powerful case that the US cannot simply overlook the repression taking place in this small Gulf state with which we are closely allied.  She has personal credibility because of what she and her family have been through. She writes:

My father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was beaten unconscious in my apartment in front of my family, as a report last year by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry documented. He was then taken away with my husband and brother-in-law; they were all tortured.

My husband was released in January, and my brother-in-law was released after a six-month sentence in late 2011; my father was sentenced to life in prison. He staged four hunger strikes; the longest lasted 110 days and almost cost him his life. (He was force-fed at a military hospital.)

She herself was arrested and jailed earlier this month, charged with the “crime” of inciting hatred against the government.

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In this New York Times op-ed, Bahraini human-rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja makes a powerful case that the US cannot simply overlook the repression taking place in this small Gulf state with which we are closely allied.  She has personal credibility because of what she and her family have been through. She writes:

My father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was beaten unconscious in my apartment in front of my family, as a report last year by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry documented. He was then taken away with my husband and brother-in-law; they were all tortured.

My husband was released in January, and my brother-in-law was released after a six-month sentence in late 2011; my father was sentenced to life in prison. He staged four hunger strikes; the longest lasted 110 days and almost cost him his life. (He was force-fed at a military hospital.)

She herself was arrested and jailed earlier this month, charged with the “crime” of inciting hatred against the government.

Yet, as she notes, U.S. protests over such clear violations of human rights have been negligible. This is understandable, because Bahrain is the home of the Fifth Fleet and a close military ally. There are also fears that the Bahraini opposition, mainly Shiite in a country ruled by a Sunni royal family, is a stalking horse for Iranian influence. That, at any rate, is what the Bahrain government would like us to believe; but from everything I saw during a brief visit to Bahrain earlier this year, most of the opposition, while undeniably Shiite, is fairly moderate and not interested in creating an Iranian-style theocracy. Ironically what is most likely to drive them into Iran’s arms is if the Bahrain government continues its policy of repression in cooperation with the Saudis.

It is hard for the U.S. to apply pressure to Bahrain by cutting off arms sales (as Zainab Al-Khawaja suggests) or at least making them conditional on human-rights improvements. But it is also a step we need to seriously consider, lest we repeat the mistake we made with Egypt where we gave unconditional backing to another pro-American dictator, acting under the illusion that he could stave off the people’s demands indefinitely. He couldn’t, and, because we didn’t press Mubarak for reform, instead we got a revolution.

That would be the worst possible outcome in Bahrain. Instead, we need to push for the royal family to turn their country into a constitutional monarchy, reserving some power over the armed forces while ceding most authority to the people’s elected representatives. That is the only long-term formula for stability in Bahrain and indeed throughout the Gulf.

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The Left’s Epistemological Closure

The Washington Examiner‘s Byron York has a fine piece on how journalists, including news anchors like CNN’s Soledad O’Brien and Don Lemon, have become fierce advocates for gun control.

In his column Mr. York quotes Frank Sesno, a former CNN reporter and Washington bureau chief who is now director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, who said there should be a “media agenda” on guns to push the issue until government action becomes a reality. “The media themselves have a huge opportunity and power and responsibility to channel this,” Sesno told CNN’s Howard Kurtz. And the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg–an NRA critic who wrote an intelligent article on the case for more guns and more gun control–pointed out, “Reporters on my Twitter feed seem to hate the NRA more than anything else, ever.”

A few thoughts on all this:

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The Washington Examiner‘s Byron York has a fine piece on how journalists, including news anchors like CNN’s Soledad O’Brien and Don Lemon, have become fierce advocates for gun control.

In his column Mr. York quotes Frank Sesno, a former CNN reporter and Washington bureau chief who is now director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, who said there should be a “media agenda” on guns to push the issue until government action becomes a reality. “The media themselves have a huge opportunity and power and responsibility to channel this,” Sesno told CNN’s Howard Kurtz. And the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg–an NRA critic who wrote an intelligent article on the case for more guns and more gun control–pointed out, “Reporters on my Twitter feed seem to hate the NRA more than anything else, ever.”

A few thoughts on all this:

1. The elite media are more open in their advocacy than at any time I can recall. There are probably multiple reasons why, including the fact that Fox News has been so successful in breaking the previous liberal monopoly that existed in journalism. When there was no real counter-weight to ABC, NBC, CBS, NPR, PBS, the Washington Post, the New York Timeset cetera, journalists were content to advance their worldview in more subtle ways–for example, through their story selection rather than out-and-out hortatory. But the “New Media,” which has injected new voices and different points of view into the public debate, seems to have convinced many journalists that something more is necessary. And so increasingly we see supposedly dispassionate anchors on supposedly neutral networks like CNN toss aside any pretense of objectivity. They are as political and dogmatic in their advocacy as the NRA is in its advocacy. It’s just the NRA has been more honest about its goals than progressive journalists.

2. What seems to be the animating passion of gun control advocates isn’t a solution to violence and mass killings; it’s moral posturing. They want to take advantage of massacres like the one we saw in Newtown to push an agenda that makes them feel morally superior. They want to act for the sake of acting. It doesn’t really matter to them which laws are most (and least) effective. They have decided that more gun control laws are needed and the NRA is malevolent, and they are determined not to allow any contrary evidence or thoughts to upset their settled ways. 

An liberal academic sent me a note in response to a piece I wrote last week. Here is some of what he said:

you can cite all the studies you want until the cows come home, allowing people to have semi-automatic and automatic weapons is insane. What are you arguing for?? Even Joe Machin (sic) has suggested that we should hear from all sides on this and everything should be on the table. My God, those are our kids, your kids, my kids destroyed… slaughtered, wow, if we don’t count feelings on this it seem (sic) just plain strange. So, for now, no more of your rants on this… okay… right now, it feels offensive.

Set aside the obvious ignorance that characterizes this note (we don’t allow people to use automatic weapons, and from what I can tell my interlocutor doesn’t know what semi-automatic weapons are and do). Notice how this person dismisses out of hand serious studies by the Centers for Disease Control and the American Journal of Preventive Medicine which find that the evidence is insufficient to determine whether firearms laws are effective. My academic acquaintance is being overwhelmed by his emotions, including a deep hatred for the NRA and fury toward those who hold views different than his own. And anything that challenges his outlook “feels offensive.”

This outlook seems more and more pervasive among many journalists these days. Their “media agenda,” as Mr. Sesno says, is to “channel” the gun debate in a way that confirms their pre-existing biases. If they have to be anti-empirical in order to advance their cause, so be it. 

This attitude–moral posturing, the demonization of political opponents, the epistemological closure–is certainly not exclusive to the left. But it is increasingly characteristic of it. And it makes a serious and informed discussion of the issues all that much harder to have. Which is perhaps what their true intent is. Many modern-day liberals may feel that a reasonable, calm, fact-based conversation is the greatest threat to their agenda. Which is why they so often generate more heat than light.

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Why Israel-Bashers Love Hagel

With President Obama still letting Chuck Hagel’s putative nomination as secretary of defense hang in the wind, it’s not clear whether the former Nebraska senator’s stock is up or down. But so long as he remains in the running, critics of Israel are going to keep doing everything they can to keep his name in play. Today’s column on Hagel by the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman cuts to the heart of their motivation.

As far as Friedman is concerned, Hagel has two qualifications for high office: his distaste for Israel and a willingness to make nice with Iran and Hamas. That makes sense to those who share his distaste for the bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel alliance that prevents the Obama administration (egged on by kibitzers like Friedman) from pressuring the Jewish state to make pointless concessions that undermine its security. It also fits in with the desire of those who want a nuclear Iran to be contained or accommodated rather than forestalled, and for the U.S. to embrace Hamas the way it has the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. But these are good reasons why Hagel’s views—which Friedman rightly characterizes as out of the mainstream—ought to disqualify him from leading the Pentagon.

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With President Obama still letting Chuck Hagel’s putative nomination as secretary of defense hang in the wind, it’s not clear whether the former Nebraska senator’s stock is up or down. But so long as he remains in the running, critics of Israel are going to keep doing everything they can to keep his name in play. Today’s column on Hagel by the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman cuts to the heart of their motivation.

As far as Friedman is concerned, Hagel has two qualifications for high office: his distaste for Israel and a willingness to make nice with Iran and Hamas. That makes sense to those who share his distaste for the bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel alliance that prevents the Obama administration (egged on by kibitzers like Friedman) from pressuring the Jewish state to make pointless concessions that undermine its security. It also fits in with the desire of those who want a nuclear Iran to be contained or accommodated rather than forestalled, and for the U.S. to embrace Hamas the way it has the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. But these are good reasons why Hagel’s views—which Friedman rightly characterizes as out of the mainstream—ought to disqualify him from leading the Pentagon.

Friedman thinks it’s “disgusting” that many friends of Israel hold it against Hagel that he attacked what he called the “Jewish lobby” in language that resonated with specious charges of dual loyalty that rightly bring to mind anti-Semitism. It’s hardly surprising that Friedman would think calling Hagel to account for this is a “smear” since he has been guilty of the same tactic in his quest to delegitimize those Americans who oppose his stands on Israel.

Just a little more than a year ago, Friedman disgraced himself in a column where he used the same meme made popular by Israel Lobby authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer when he said the only reason that Congress cheered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defiance of President Obama was because they were “bought and paid for by the Israel Lobby.” As I wrote at the time:

The notion that the only reason politicians support Israel is because of Jewish money is a central myth of a new form of anti-Semitism which masquerades as a defense of American foreign policy against the depredations of a venal Israel lobby. This canard not only feeds off of the traditional themes of Jew-hatred, it also requires Friedman to ignore the deep roots of American backing for Zionism in our history and culture.

Though Friedman tried to backtrack a bit from this scandalous canard, his explicit support for Hagel’s use of the same charge shows that he is an unrepentant supporter of the pernicious Walt-Mearsheimer thesis.

But there is more to Friedman’s support of Hagel than his desire to see a secretary of defense with an attitude about Israel and its backers. He is also hopeful that Hagel will act as a brake on any U.S. effort to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons and that he will persuade the president to recognize the legitimacy of the Hamas regime in Gaza.

Friedman makes the false argument that the U.S. needs Iran’s good will to achieve its foreign policy objectives in the Middle East. But he fails to understand that stopping the Islamist regime in Iran is the prerequisite for stability in the region.

President Obama pledged in both 2008 and 2012 that he would never allow Iran to go nuclear, but there has never been much secret about his desire to avoid a confrontation over the issue. He wasted most of his first term on a feckless effort to engage Tehran and was slow to adopt serious sanctions. Another round of dead-end diplomacy that only gives the Iranians more time to achieve their nuclear ambition won’t solve the problem. The appointment of Hagel would be a signal to both Iran and the world that the president wasn’t going to go to the mat on the issue.

That is a dangerous development that could only make Iran more intransigent and set the stage for violent upheaval in the region that will damage American interests. Such non-mainstream views about Iran and Hamas are exactly why Hagel ought not to be nominated. Friedman’s open advocacy for appeasement as well as his rationalization for the dual loyalty slur should make it even more obvious than before how disastrous this appointment would be.

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Obama’s Gesture Just for Show

The spin coming out of the White House is that President Obama cut short his annual Hawaii vacation to head back to Washington to help nudge Congress towards a deal that would prevent the nation from heading over the fiscal cliff. If so, this act of sacrifice will allow the president to show his leadership skills and craft a compromise tax and spending bill that will pass both houses of Congress. But with only a few days left before a massive across-the-board tax increase is imposed on the American people while devastating cuts in defense are put into effect, it’s much more likely that the president’s gesture is just for show.

If the president really wanted to avoid the fiscal cliff, he might have spent the weeks before his family headed to Oahu for Christmas making a good faith effort to make a deal with Congressional Republicans rather than digging in his heels on his own plan to raise taxes while refusing to substantially address the real issue at the heart of the fiscal crisis: entitlement spending. Most Republicans rightly suspect that he’s quite content to see the deadline expire. So why come home?

The answer is simple. The optics of more days of presidential golf while the country heads closer to an economic disaster would damage Obama’s image and make it clear that he views the impact of the fiscal cliff as being more to his liking than a reasonable compromise.

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The spin coming out of the White House is that President Obama cut short his annual Hawaii vacation to head back to Washington to help nudge Congress towards a deal that would prevent the nation from heading over the fiscal cliff. If so, this act of sacrifice will allow the president to show his leadership skills and craft a compromise tax and spending bill that will pass both houses of Congress. But with only a few days left before a massive across-the-board tax increase is imposed on the American people while devastating cuts in defense are put into effect, it’s much more likely that the president’s gesture is just for show.

If the president really wanted to avoid the fiscal cliff, he might have spent the weeks before his family headed to Oahu for Christmas making a good faith effort to make a deal with Congressional Republicans rather than digging in his heels on his own plan to raise taxes while refusing to substantially address the real issue at the heart of the fiscal crisis: entitlement spending. Most Republicans rightly suspect that he’s quite content to see the deadline expire. So why come home?

The answer is simple. The optics of more days of presidential golf while the country heads closer to an economic disaster would damage Obama’s image and make it clear that he views the impact of the fiscal cliff as being more to his liking than a reasonable compromise.

Throughout the negotiations over the budget, the president has always acted as if a continuation of the standoff served his interests. After all, if the deadline does expire without a deal he’ll get a good deal of what he’s wanted all along: big tax increases to give the government more money to spend and large cuts in defense spending without forcing the government to think seriously about how to reform entitlements. And if the polls are right, the Republicans will be blamed for the whole mess.

Last week’s debacle for House Speaker John Boehner in which a substantial number of House Republicans refused to back his Plan B compromise bill which would have only raised taxes on millionaires reinforced the president’s confidence that he can only win by prolonging the impasse. And by showing up in DC this week he can preserve the pretense that he wants a solution even while continuing to do nothing to advance one.

But these careful calculations may not turn out to be as well considered as the president thinks.

If the Democrat-controlled Senate fails to pass a budget proposal this week — something it has failed to do for the last three years — then it will be as much their fault as the House Republicans that a deal wasn’t made before we all go over the fiscal cliff. That means it is up to the leader of their party to ensure that some kind of bill that can pass both houses of Congress gets to his desk in the next few days.  Should, as seems increasingly likely, that not happen, the consequences would be incalculable for Obama, his party and the Congress.

The assumption that only Republicans will bear the burden of why there was no deal only holds true if the president and the Democrats send a bill to the House of Representatives before next week’s deadline. Any bill that stops the tax increases and sequestration cuts is likely to get some Republican votes even if it is a short-term solution on the president’s terms. If that doesn’t happen, the economic downturn that will likely follow is going to hurt Obama far more than a Republican party that is already out of power. If so, the president may have reason to regret that his curtailed vacation wasn’t more a matter of a real effort to avoid the cliff than playacting for the media.

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