Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 14, 2013

U.S. Should Oppose EU Mideast Plan

Speculation about President Obama’s intentions to push a revival of the moribund Middle East peace process may increase today with reports of plans for a new European Union initiative. According to Ynet News, the British and French foreign ministries are concocting the plan with the support of Germany and the European Union. The conceit of the scheme is a return to the familiar theme of an accord based on the 1967 lines with a division of Jerusalem and agreed-upon swaps of territory between Israel and the Palestinians. It is expected that it will include specific details such as a demand for an absolute freeze in Israeli building in the territories including those areas that it might keep under the swaps. Even more troubling is the notion that the negotiations will be in the context of a regional committee which will include not only the Europeans, Israelis and Palestinians but also nations such as Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, a situation in which the Jewish state would be outnumbered, isolated and backed into a corner without much room for diplomatic maneuvering.

The only real variable as far as the push to implement such a plan is the United States. While the Europeans have reportedly held off on putting forward their plan until after President Obama was safely elected and then inaugurated, the question remains as to whether the administration will put its weight behind it. While on the face of it, the plan ought to be to President Obama’s liking since he has pushed Israel hard on settlements, Jerusalem and the ’67 lines, these attempts to strong-arm the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu have always been in the context of American-led negotiations. As with much of the rest of his Middle East foreign policies, it seems the administration is prepared to “lead from behind” on this track and throw its support behind a European initiative, marking a significant policy departure from past efforts in which the president made the Israel-Palestinian issue a priority. If he’s willing to defer to the EU here, it will be a step that could rightly be interpreted as abandoning Israel to a forum in which it will be treated badly.

But it could also be a sign that Obama has finally learned his lesson about the Middle East. The EU plan is doomed to failure just like every other past peace idea. Having been sandbagged by the Palestinians for four years, perhaps he prefers not to waste any of his time or his precious political capital in a second term on the Middle East.

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Speculation about President Obama’s intentions to push a revival of the moribund Middle East peace process may increase today with reports of plans for a new European Union initiative. According to Ynet News, the British and French foreign ministries are concocting the plan with the support of Germany and the European Union. The conceit of the scheme is a return to the familiar theme of an accord based on the 1967 lines with a division of Jerusalem and agreed-upon swaps of territory between Israel and the Palestinians. It is expected that it will include specific details such as a demand for an absolute freeze in Israeli building in the territories including those areas that it might keep under the swaps. Even more troubling is the notion that the negotiations will be in the context of a regional committee which will include not only the Europeans, Israelis and Palestinians but also nations such as Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, a situation in which the Jewish state would be outnumbered, isolated and backed into a corner without much room for diplomatic maneuvering.

The only real variable as far as the push to implement such a plan is the United States. While the Europeans have reportedly held off on putting forward their plan until after President Obama was safely elected and then inaugurated, the question remains as to whether the administration will put its weight behind it. While on the face of it, the plan ought to be to President Obama’s liking since he has pushed Israel hard on settlements, Jerusalem and the ’67 lines, these attempts to strong-arm the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu have always been in the context of American-led negotiations. As with much of the rest of his Middle East foreign policies, it seems the administration is prepared to “lead from behind” on this track and throw its support behind a European initiative, marking a significant policy departure from past efforts in which the president made the Israel-Palestinian issue a priority. If he’s willing to defer to the EU here, it will be a step that could rightly be interpreted as abandoning Israel to a forum in which it will be treated badly.

But it could also be a sign that Obama has finally learned his lesson about the Middle East. The EU plan is doomed to failure just like every other past peace idea. Having been sandbagged by the Palestinians for four years, perhaps he prefers not to waste any of his time or his precious political capital in a second term on the Middle East.

The EU plan is bad news for Israel in that it is clearly designed not so much to create peace as to embarrass the Netanyahu government. No one in their right mind could possibly believe that a Palestinian Authority that has refused every past peace offer will now embrace one that will still force them to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. But the main point of the process will be to put Netanyahu in a bind by forcing him to freeze building in Jerusalem and the West Bank without any real payoff in terms of peace.

More to the point, with PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party concentrating these days on negotiating some kind of rapprochement with Hamas, there is little reason to believe it has the flexibility or the willingness to compromise with Israel. The recent signs of a revival of Fatah’s terrorist arm—the Al Aksa Martyr’s Brigade—as well as Hamas’s interest in extending its reach make it impossible to sell Israel on the notion of allowing the Palestinians to replicate the independent state in all but name that exists in Gaza in the West Bank. It also makes it fairly obvious that any Palestinian participation in the EU plan will be to discomfit Israel in an international forum rather than actually making peace.

This is the sort of ill-considered notion that the United States should have no part in. In fact, were Obama willing to exercise leadership he would be currently warning the EU to stand down on the Middle East and tell the Palestinians that they should be negotiating directly with Israel rather than standing back and waiting for the U.S. and the Europeans to force Israel to its knees. The only path to peace is one in which the PA rejects Hamas and tells the Israelis that they are willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and negotiate borders and other terms in order to end the conflict for all time. Until that happens, the United States should reject the EU plan and any other such idea that is aimed more at cornering Israel than making peace.

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Obama Prepares for Immigration Overhaul

Even as Obama is focusing on gun control and the debt ceiling, the New York Times reports that he’s preparing to launch his major push for immigration reform in the first months of his second term:

President Obama plans to push Congress to move quickly in the coming months on an ambitious overhaul of the immigration system that would include a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, senior administration officials and lawmakers said last week.

Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats will propose the changes in one comprehensive bill, the officials said, resisting efforts by some Republicans to break the overhaul into smaller pieces — separately addressing young illegal immigrants, migrant farmworkers or highly skilled foreigners — which might be easier for reluctant members of their party to accept.

The president and Democrats will also oppose measures that do not allow immigrants who gain legal status to become American citizens one day, the officials said.

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Even as Obama is focusing on gun control and the debt ceiling, the New York Times reports that he’s preparing to launch his major push for immigration reform in the first months of his second term:

President Obama plans to push Congress to move quickly in the coming months on an ambitious overhaul of the immigration system that would include a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, senior administration officials and lawmakers said last week.

Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats will propose the changes in one comprehensive bill, the officials said, resisting efforts by some Republicans to break the overhaul into smaller pieces — separately addressing young illegal immigrants, migrant farmworkers or highly skilled foreigners — which might be easier for reluctant members of their party to accept.

The president and Democrats will also oppose measures that do not allow immigrants who gain legal status to become American citizens one day, the officials said.

According to the Times, administration officials are already crafting proposals, since they think it will be easier to move this forward at the beginning of Obama’s second term. There are few details on the White House plan so far, but the must-haves reportedly include a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country; implementing a national citizenship-verification system for employers similar to E-Verify; and establishing a guest-worker program.

Based on the scant details, Obama’s proposal doesn’t sound far off from Senator Marco Rubio’s, which is also still in the works. The biggest difference seems to be that Obama wants his reform passed as one single piece of legislation, while Rubio wants to introduce his in parts. 

These comprehensive bills are Obama’s M.O. It makes it easier for him to include controversial proposals, since GOP objections to a portion of the bill will be portrayed as objections to the entire bill. It’s also a good way to obscure the debate–demonize your opponents for opposing immigration reform instead of engaging them on the specific measure they’re criticizing.

There are signs the GOP is serious about tackling immigration reform, including Paul Ryan’s endorsement of Rubio’s plan, and a bipartisan group of senators called the “Gang of Eight” that’s busy on its own bill. We’ll see if Obama uses this as an opportunity to actually work with Republicans toward a reasonable solution, or if he just sees it as another chance to score political points.

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Stop the War on Video Games

The shock and grief generated by the Newtown shooting has generated momentum for gun control advocates. That push will fail, as President Obama conceded today in advance of the release of Vice President Biden’s proposals, to pass a new ban on assault weapons. That’s the result of the reluctance on the part of Senate Democrats as well as Republicans to support such a measure. Despite the renewed focus on the issue as well as the backlash in the media against the National Rifle Association, there is little likelihood that there will be a significant expansion of limitations on gun ownership in the foreseeable future. But there is one aspect of the fallout from that tragedy that politicians from both parties and all parts of the political spectrum seem to agree on: video games are bad and help create a culture of violence that some see as partially responsible for the murder of 20 children and six adults in Connecticut last month.

Video games deserve censure for the way they have helped desensitize the country to violence. The same can be said about other aspects of popular culture including films, television, and the music industry in which vulgarity and graphic depictions of violence are rampant. Yet despite the claims that the Newtown killer liked such games, there is no reason to believe they are responsible for his crimes, especially when you consider that millions play them without being impelled to commit mass murder. Put in that perspective, it is clear that condemning them is merely a safe outlet for those wishing to put themselves on record as being horrified by the slaughter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. However, if legislators determined to be able to say they did something in response to this incident choose to involve government in the question of what sort of games Americans play, they will have stepped over the line that separates normal political bloviating from a dangerous infringement on our constitutional liberties.

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The shock and grief generated by the Newtown shooting has generated momentum for gun control advocates. That push will fail, as President Obama conceded today in advance of the release of Vice President Biden’s proposals, to pass a new ban on assault weapons. That’s the result of the reluctance on the part of Senate Democrats as well as Republicans to support such a measure. Despite the renewed focus on the issue as well as the backlash in the media against the National Rifle Association, there is little likelihood that there will be a significant expansion of limitations on gun ownership in the foreseeable future. But there is one aspect of the fallout from that tragedy that politicians from both parties and all parts of the political spectrum seem to agree on: video games are bad and help create a culture of violence that some see as partially responsible for the murder of 20 children and six adults in Connecticut last month.

Video games deserve censure for the way they have helped desensitize the country to violence. The same can be said about other aspects of popular culture including films, television, and the music industry in which vulgarity and graphic depictions of violence are rampant. Yet despite the claims that the Newtown killer liked such games, there is no reason to believe they are responsible for his crimes, especially when you consider that millions play them without being impelled to commit mass murder. Put in that perspective, it is clear that condemning them is merely a safe outlet for those wishing to put themselves on record as being horrified by the slaughter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. However, if legislators determined to be able to say they did something in response to this incident choose to involve government in the question of what sort of games Americans play, they will have stepped over the line that separates normal political bloviating from a dangerous infringement on our constitutional liberties.

Popular culture is always an easy target for those of us who deplore the dumbing down of America and the way civilized standards of behavior as well as faith have been relentlessly excised from so much of our daily lives. Count me among those who intensely dislike this trend. Yet to jump from that position to the conclusion that they can be directly linked to crimes is a leap of faith that is not justified by any evidence. Nor is it one that is backed up by the law.

Over the course of the last century, the entertainment industry has been blamed for the spread of crime. The first silent picture that depicted bandits robbing a train in the Old West was blamed for violent crimes in much the same way we now bash video game producers. The gangster flicks of the 1930s were thought to have fueled mobsters of that era. We can laugh at those accusations and say that today’s pop culture violence is much worse, but the principle is the same. Like the accusations that rock ‘n’ roll caused teenage pregnancy or that the popular music of the 1960s and 1970s was at the root of an epidemic of drug abuse, the charges had a kernel of truth in them. But while we may well advocate for a change in the culture, a free society does not abridge basic freedom in pursuit of a more peaceful society any more than we should try to do so to have a more moral or godly one.

Like the movies, the games industry has a rating system that seems to be working well. Conservatives may seize upon this issue as one that demonstrates their desire to stand up for decency. But like them or not, disgusting rap lyrics, graphic movies and shows and even the games which allow the players to pretend to be the perpetrators of bloody violence are constitutionally protected speech. Government has no more business regulating such games any more than they have to tell us what films we can watch or books we can read.

That’s why I find statements such as the ones made by Representative Frank Wolff about the need to do something about video games, along with efforts to regulate guns and to improve mental health treatment, quite troubling. Like the loose talk about this subject from the National Rifle Association, which is desperate to deflect any attention from the use of weapons in violent crimes, any effort to defend the Second Amendment by trashing the rights enumerated in the First is unacceptable as well as unconstitutional.

Any such rhetorical excursion inevitably becomes one in which individual responsibility—a core conservative value—is de-emphasized in favor of sociological cant about the power of culture to make us misbehave. Video games make for a convenient punching bag for politicians in need of a platform from which they can pose as defenders of the innocent. But in doing so they are undermining freedom in the name of a dubious connection to crime. Any effort by Congress to further involve the government in the question of what games Americans can play or whether they can be legally manufactured or distributed must be rejected in principle.

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Obama’s Latest Political Slander

During his press conference earlier today, we witnessed President Obama’s persistent habit of engaging in a form of political libel. When the president was asked about a possible government shutdown, Mr. Obama said this:

But it seems as if what’s motivating and propelling at this point some of the House Republicans is more than simply deficit reduction. They have a particular vision about what government should and should not do, so they are suspicious about government’s commitments, for example, to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research. So they’ve got a particular view of what government should do and should be.

This is a particularly foolish slander by a president whose policies are leading to worse, not better, health care for seniors; whose profligate fiscal policies will eventually lead to deep and painful cuts in our entitlement programs; and whose presidency has coincided with a record 46 million Americans living in poverty.

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During his press conference earlier today, we witnessed President Obama’s persistent habit of engaging in a form of political libel. When the president was asked about a possible government shutdown, Mr. Obama said this:

But it seems as if what’s motivating and propelling at this point some of the House Republicans is more than simply deficit reduction. They have a particular vision about what government should and should not do, so they are suspicious about government’s commitments, for example, to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research. So they’ve got a particular view of what government should do and should be.

This is a particularly foolish slander by a president whose policies are leading to worse, not better, health care for seniors; whose profligate fiscal policies will eventually lead to deep and painful cuts in our entitlement programs; and whose presidency has coincided with a record 46 million Americans living in poverty.

During the Obama years, in fact, the ranks of America’s poor have climbed to levels unseen in nearly half a century. In addition, Obama was opposed to the 1996 welfare reform bill, which was arguably the single best policy reform to help poor Americans, and his administration has taken steps to weaken welfare work requirements. Yet the president feels like he’s in a position to lecture Republicans about caring for the most vulnerable members of the human community.

And leave it to Mr. Obama to level the charge that Republicans want poor children to go hungry in the very press conference in which he complains about “how much energy has been devoted in some of the media … to demonize me.” This is a variation of what psychiatrists refer to as projection.

But there’s more to it than simply that. This is a president who, when he’s not sermonizing on the importance of civility in public discourse, is accusing Republicans of being social Darwinists and members of the “flat earth society,” of putting their party ahead of their country, and of wanting dirty air and dirty water. He says Republicans want autistic and Down syndrome children to “fend for themselves.” He accuses his opponents of not simply being wrong but of being his “enemies.” 

During the 2012 election, Obama’s vice president said Republicans want to put African-Americans “back in chains’ while Obama’s top aides and allies implied Governor Romney was a felon and flat-out stated that he was responsible for the cancer-death of a steelworker’s wife. For Obama, it’s not enough for the differences in politics to be based on an genuine difference in philosophy. He is always working to portray his opponents as caricatures, as cartoon-figures who don’t want to feed the poor or fund medical research. One might be excused for thinking that the president has a suspicion of honest debate and prefers demonization instead.

It appears as if Mr. Obama is determined to build on his already substantial body of work when it comes to intellectual dishonesty and moral self-righteousness. The president, already the most polarizing in modern history, thrives on creating an acrimonious political culture and exacerbating divisions in American society. He’s the perfect president to star in America’s current political circus. 

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CPAC Offers Netanyahu Speaking Slot

The Conservative Political Action Conference released its second round of invited speakers today, and there’s a surprising name near the top of the list. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited, along with Canadian PM Stephen Harper.

Netanyahu actually spoke at CPAC back in 2001, as Phil Klein pointed out on Twitter. But that was in between premierships, which is a very different case. While Netanyahu will probably already be in Washington for AIPAC’s Policy Conference the week before, and it would be great to see him speak at CPAC, there’s no way it will actually happen. It would be silly for him to attend now, right after being accused of siding with the Mitt Romney campaign and while he still needs to maintain a veneer of cordial relations with President Obama.

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The Conservative Political Action Conference released its second round of invited speakers today, and there’s a surprising name near the top of the list. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited, along with Canadian PM Stephen Harper.

Netanyahu actually spoke at CPAC back in 2001, as Phil Klein pointed out on Twitter. But that was in between premierships, which is a very different case. While Netanyahu will probably already be in Washington for AIPAC’s Policy Conference the week before, and it would be great to see him speak at CPAC, there’s no way it will actually happen. It would be silly for him to attend now, right after being accused of siding with the Mitt Romney campaign and while he still needs to maintain a veneer of cordial relations with President Obama.

The invite itself is interesting, though. First, it’s another example of how support for Israel has become ingrained as a conservative value issue. And second, it’s a subtle snub against the libertarian and paleoconservative anti-Israel and anti-war activists who have tried unsuccessfully to hijack CPAC for the last several years–including jeering Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as “war criminals” in 2011. I can only imagine the reception Netanyahu would get from this small but vocal group of hecklers, so CPAC is brave extending the invite, even if the Israeli PM is unlikely to accept.

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Colin Powell Plays the Race Card

These days Colin Powell assumes his primary purpose is to lecture Republicans on what it means to be a Republican. In order to pull this off–in order to have his words taken with more seriousness than, say, Rachel Maddow or Howard Dean–General Powell continues to insist that he’s a Republican. He does so despite the fact that he’s twice voted for Barack Obama.

Memo to Mr. Powell: If you’ve twice voted for Barack Obama, a man of deeply liberal/progressive philosophy and policies, you’re no Republican. Of course, there’s an obvious reason Powell continues to claim he’s a Republican. He knows it gives him greater standing to criticize the GOP, which is one of the main things he does these days.

Yesterday on “Meet the Press,” for example, Powell said there’s “a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party.” As evidence for this claim, Powell took issue with former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu calling Obama “lazy” after his poor showing at the first presidential debate last fall.

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These days Colin Powell assumes his primary purpose is to lecture Republicans on what it means to be a Republican. In order to pull this off–in order to have his words taken with more seriousness than, say, Rachel Maddow or Howard Dean–General Powell continues to insist that he’s a Republican. He does so despite the fact that he’s twice voted for Barack Obama.

Memo to Mr. Powell: If you’ve twice voted for Barack Obama, a man of deeply liberal/progressive philosophy and policies, you’re no Republican. Of course, there’s an obvious reason Powell continues to claim he’s a Republican. He knows it gives him greater standing to criticize the GOP, which is one of the main things he does these days.

Yesterday on “Meet the Press,” for example, Powell said there’s “a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party.” As evidence for this claim, Powell took issue with former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu calling Obama “lazy” after his poor showing at the first presidential debate last fall.

“He didn’t say he was slow, he was tired, he didn’t do well; he said he was ‘lazy,’” Powell said. “Now, it may not mean anything to most Americans, but to those of us who are African Americans, the second word is ‘shiftless,’ and then there’s a third word that goes along with it.”

Here’s the problem with what Powell said. First, media reports showed that Obama did not study hard for the first debate; and second, Obama has admitted that the quality he most deplores in himself is … laziness. “It’s interesting. Deep down underneath all the work I do, I think there’s a laziness in me,” Obama went on to tell Walters in 2011. “It’s probably from growing up in Hawaii, and it’s sunny outside. Sitting on the beach.”

See how it works? Obama can claim to be lazy and it’s fine. But if a Republican claims he’s lazy, in the aftermath of a debate which evidenced laziness, it indicates “a dark vein of intolerance.” So even Colin Powell has been reduced to playing the race card–and to do so in a particularly transparent and sloppy way. 

Colin Powell was a vocal Republican when it served his political career–and now that it’s fashionable to be hyper-critical of Republicans and ignore the worst elements and most offensive comments of Democrats, he’s taken up that job with relish.

Compounding all of this, I think, is that Powell has never come to terms with his support for the Iraq war and the fact that he went before the U.N. to make the case against Iraq based on his belief that they had weapons of mass destruction. In order to keep this from having been a career-destroying moment, Powell instinctively understood he needed to become much more vocal in his criticisms of Republicans. He’s executed that move–and the press, eager to find a prominent self-proclaimed Republican whose main purpose is to lambast Republicans, has played along with it. It’s a game we’re all supposed to take seriously, but some of us really can’t. 

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Is Gun Control the First Major 2016 Issue?

With gun control still in the news and Vice President Joe Biden’s recommendations on legislation expected to come tomorrow, it is increasingly clear the country’s political class is engaged in two different debates. Members of Congress seem to be conducting an entirely different argument than officials at the state level, especially governors. In Congress, not even the Democrats are united in their enthusiasm for more gun control legislation; Harry Reid and Joe Manchin have both thrown cold water on the idea while Republicans in Congress don’t seem to fear the debate at all, believing it poses no risk electorally. (They believe, with history to back them up, that either no serious gun control legislation will come to the floor of either house of Congress or that the Democrats will overreach, enabling the GOP to gain seats in the 2014 midterms.)

Meanwhile, governors are dividing along traditional party lines. New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley are diving in with both feet, while Virginia’s Bob McDonnell and Texas’s Rick Perry criticized the rush to use the school shooting to enact tougher gun laws. The exception in this case, and the one that proves the rule, is Biden. Gun control is fast on its way to becoming the first major issue of the 2016 presidential election.

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With gun control still in the news and Vice President Joe Biden’s recommendations on legislation expected to come tomorrow, it is increasingly clear the country’s political class is engaged in two different debates. Members of Congress seem to be conducting an entirely different argument than officials at the state level, especially governors. In Congress, not even the Democrats are united in their enthusiasm for more gun control legislation; Harry Reid and Joe Manchin have both thrown cold water on the idea while Republicans in Congress don’t seem to fear the debate at all, believing it poses no risk electorally. (They believe, with history to back them up, that either no serious gun control legislation will come to the floor of either house of Congress or that the Democrats will overreach, enabling the GOP to gain seats in the 2014 midterms.)

Meanwhile, governors are dividing along traditional party lines. New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley are diving in with both feet, while Virginia’s Bob McDonnell and Texas’s Rick Perry criticized the rush to use the school shooting to enact tougher gun laws. The exception in this case, and the one that proves the rule, is Biden. Gun control is fast on its way to becoming the first major issue of the 2016 presidential election.

As Jonathan wrote, Cuomo’s recent “state of the state” address was a liberal wish list designed to appeal to the Democratic Party’s base, gun control included. O’Malley has been strongly signaling that he’ll make a run for the nomination as well. Biden will no doubt use his gun control commission–whatever the result–as evidence of the essential role he played in generating policy and legislation from the Obama White House. Democrats seem to genuinely want gun control on their resume as they bid for national office. But should they?

If history is any guide, no. There’s a reason Republicans and pro-gun rights Democrats don’t seem too concerned by the fact that even the White House has elevated this issue now to take advantage of the headlines and public sympathy generated in the wake of the Newtown massacre. As Mark Blumenthal wrote before the Sandy Hook tragedy, reminding readers of the post-Columbine trend in public opposition to stricter gun control:

The post-Columbine bump had faded about a year later, and support for stricter gun laws remained roughly constant over the next eight years. Following the 2008 election, however, support for stricter gun laws dropped off considerably. By April 2010, Pew Research found more Americans placing greater importance on protecting the rights of gun owners (49 percent) than on restricting gun ownership (45 percent).

The one wild card here is how long the issue is kept in the news. If high-profile Democrats and 2016 contenders keep the issue in the headlines, they might think they can also keep up public outrage at the dangers of gun ownership. But it’s easy to imagine that the opposite might be true. When leftists say they want to “have a conversation” about guns, what they mean is they want a monologue. We’ve been having a national conversation about guns for quite some time, and it’s awfully clear the left is losing the argument in a rout. The way mass shootings fade from the public’s attention over time–as does all news–probably insulates Democrats from putting forward unpopular legislation.

And President Obama might very well have agreed, believing he could put Biden’s name on a commission and then blame Republicans if nothing came from the recommendations, covering his left flank and avoiding antagonizing the right. Governors, meanwhile, had it (politically) easier: they could have avoided taking up the issue entirely, since most of the fuss was focused on Congress.

Biden may simply take an “I tried” tack with regard to the issue, allowing his time on the commission to prevent him from having to lurch to his left on guns in a Democratic primary season. In the YouTube age, however, it’s getting more and more difficult for politicians to bounce back to the center after appealing to their party’s base in the primaries. Rick Perry and Bob McDonnell are far from sure things to enter the 2016 race, but their comments are indicative of the fact that GOP contenders now probably think they’d enter a 2016 general election having been spotted a few points by a clumsy and overeager opponent.

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When Obama Voted Not to Pay the Bills

President Obama used the last press conference of his first term today to continue attacking Republicans for even thinking about using the debt ceiling as leverage to force him to accept spending cuts. Over and over again, the president said he wouldn’t discuss whether the debt ceiling would be raised since it was simply a matter of Congress having to pay the country’s bills. Assuming the tone of a parent trying to instruct an unruly child in proper conduct, he likened it to going out to dinner and then deciding not to pay the bill, and declared it to be an unprecedented act of irresponsibility. But at least one member of the White House press corps wasn’t willing to let him get away with this line.

CBS News’s Major Garrett had the chutzpah to ask how the president’s denunciations of Republican threats not to raise the debt ceiling squared with his own votes while a U.S. senator. Senator Barack Obama voted several times not to raise the debt ceiling as part of a Democratic protest against the profligate spending of the George W. Bush administration. Yet when he was called out for this apparent contradiction, the president refused to be deterred. He simply ignored the point of the question, making it apparent that he was not going to let the facts interfere with his talking points. But the discrepancy between his record and the high-handed manner with which the president has continually sought to tar Republicans as extremists goes straight to the heart of the debate on the issue.

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President Obama used the last press conference of his first term today to continue attacking Republicans for even thinking about using the debt ceiling as leverage to force him to accept spending cuts. Over and over again, the president said he wouldn’t discuss whether the debt ceiling would be raised since it was simply a matter of Congress having to pay the country’s bills. Assuming the tone of a parent trying to instruct an unruly child in proper conduct, he likened it to going out to dinner and then deciding not to pay the bill, and declared it to be an unprecedented act of irresponsibility. But at least one member of the White House press corps wasn’t willing to let him get away with this line.

CBS News’s Major Garrett had the chutzpah to ask how the president’s denunciations of Republican threats not to raise the debt ceiling squared with his own votes while a U.S. senator. Senator Barack Obama voted several times not to raise the debt ceiling as part of a Democratic protest against the profligate spending of the George W. Bush administration. Yet when he was called out for this apparent contradiction, the president refused to be deterred. He simply ignored the point of the question, making it apparent that he was not going to let the facts interfere with his talking points. But the discrepancy between his record and the high-handed manner with which the president has continually sought to tar Republicans as extremists goes straight to the heart of the debate on the issue.

Far from this being just a case of Republicans not being willing to pay the bills for the expenses they have already incurred, what is really at stake here is a willingness to go on giving the government carte blanche to run up the debt without any real accountability. To use the president’s analogy, what is happening here is not a restaurant customer not paying his tab so much as it is one who demands that his credit card company raise his credit limit every month so he can go on paying for items that he couldn’t really afford. Contrary to the president’s assertion, raising the limit is very much related to new spending since it would be impossible without it. While another debt ceiling crisis and more uncertainty could hurt the economy, the president needs to own up to his own responsibility for the creation of this mess. The country will continue to sink under the weight of our growing debt until something is done about it. If Republicans have seized upon the debt ceiling it is only because there is no alternative that has been left available to them.

Only a few years ago when George W. Bush was president, Democrats took the tactical decision to use the vote on the debt ceiling to highlight what they thought was a government that had lost control of the budget. Though their suggestions for how to curb that spending were non-starters, they weren’t wrong about the need to focus on the subject. What President Obama seems to be saying now is that it was okay for Democrats to do that to Republicans but that it is unconscionable to try and turn the tables.

The entire focus of the president’s comments about the budget had one aim only: demonizing his Republican critics in the hope that public opinion would punish the GOP for using the debt ceiling vote to pressure the White House to negotiate on spending. Rather than talk with House Republicans about a deal, the president prefers to accuse them of holding the country hostage in order to advance their ideological goals. That’s a smart political tactic and played a not insubstantial role in his re-election.

But the inconvenient facts about his own use of the same tactic lays bare his hypocrisy on the issue. Far from being rooted in principle, the president’s refusal to acknowledge his past conduct shows that his current stonewalling on the debt ceiling is an act of cynicism unworthy of his office or the support of the public. 

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Disgruntled Hagel Staffers Coming Forward?

That’s what Senator Bob Corker hinted at on “This Week” yesterday. So far there haven’t been many articles on Chuck Hagel’s alleged mistreatment of staffers, but it sounds like this may turn into a bigger issue: 

This morning on “This Week,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee expressed concerns about the “temperament” of Chuck Hagel, the man President Obama nominated to be his next Secretary of Defense.

“Just his overall temperament and is he suited to run a department or a big agency or a big entity like the Pentagon,” Corker told me. “I think there are numbers of staffers who are coming forth now just talking about the way he has dealt with them. I have, certainly questions, about a lot of things.”

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That’s what Senator Bob Corker hinted at on “This Week” yesterday. So far there haven’t been many articles on Chuck Hagel’s alleged mistreatment of staffers, but it sounds like this may turn into a bigger issue: 

This morning on “This Week,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee expressed concerns about the “temperament” of Chuck Hagel, the man President Obama nominated to be his next Secretary of Defense.

“Just his overall temperament and is he suited to run a department or a big agency or a big entity like the Pentagon,” Corker told me. “I think there are numbers of staffers who are coming forth now just talking about the way he has dealt with them. I have, certainly questions, about a lot of things.”

Corker went on to say he wouldn’t necessarily oppose Hagel’s nomination over this, but it adds another bullet point to the growing case against Hagel. As Elliott Abrams writes at NRO, policy objections alone tend to be a weak argument against confirmation. But questions about competence, temperament, management ability, personal character, etc.–combined, these could make a powerful case. If former staffers start speaking out to the media, or show up to testify at the hearings, that could prove very damaging.

It’s also not as if Obama is defending Hagel’s controversial policy positions. Quite the opposite; the argument for the defense secretary nominee is that he’s come around to Obama’s (professed) stance on Iranian sanctions and the use of military force. So while the president should be able to choose someone who shares his views–even if these views are controversial–there are real questions about whether Hagel actually does.

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Powell Dismisses Hagel “Jewish Lobby” Controversy

Are we sure Colin Powell was on “Meet the Press” yesterday to help Chuck Hagel? Because he could have done a much better job by just staying home:

David Gregory: He referred to a “Jewish lobby,” saying it intimidates a lot of people on Capitol Hill. What kind of thinking does that reflect? Can you understand pro-Israel Senators being concerned by that comment?

Colin Powell: They shouldn’t be that concerned. That term slips out from time to time. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has occasionally used the same thing. And so, Chuck should have said “Israeli lobby” and not “Jewish lobby,” and perhaps he needs to write on a blackboard a hundred times “It is the Israeli lobby.” But there is an Israeli lobby. There are people who are very supportive of the state of Israel. I’m very supportive of the state of Israel. So is Senator Hagel, and you’ll see that in the confirmation hearings. But it doesn’t mean you have to agree with every single position that the Israeli government takes.

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Are we sure Colin Powell was on “Meet the Press” yesterday to help Chuck Hagel? Because he could have done a much better job by just staying home:

David Gregory: He referred to a “Jewish lobby,” saying it intimidates a lot of people on Capitol Hill. What kind of thinking does that reflect? Can you understand pro-Israel Senators being concerned by that comment?

Colin Powell: They shouldn’t be that concerned. That term slips out from time to time. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has occasionally used the same thing. And so, Chuck should have said “Israeli lobby” and not “Jewish lobby,” and perhaps he needs to write on a blackboard a hundred times “It is the Israeli lobby.” But there is an Israeli lobby. There are people who are very supportive of the state of Israel. I’m very supportive of the state of Israel. So is Senator Hagel, and you’ll see that in the confirmation hearings. But it doesn’t mean you have to agree with every single position that the Israeli government takes.

Powell’s oddly dismissive attitude aside, the fact that Hagel uttered the words “Jewish lobby” is not the only problem here. It’s the context that matters–the idea that, as Hagel suggested, there is a cabal of influential Jews who “intimidate” Washington politicians into taking pro-Israel positions. Hagel could have substituted the term “Jewish lobby” with “Israel lobby” (or “Israeli lobby,” as Powell bizarrely dubs it) and it wouldn’t make his message any less Walt-and-Mearsheimer-esque.

At NRO, Eliana Johnson calls Powell out on another glaring contradiction:

Powell’s bizarre defense of Hagel took an even more troubling turn as he decried the “dark vein of intolerance” in some parts of the Republican Party. In particular, he singled out former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former New Hampshire governor John Sununu for their racial insensitivity, charging that they “look down on minorities.” Palin attacked the Obama administration for withholding information on the Benghazi scandal, accusing the president of doing a “shuck and jive”; “That’s a racial-era, slave term,” Powell said. Sununu slammed the president’s first debate performance against Mitt Romney, calling Obama “lazy and detached”; “Now, it may not mean anything to most Americans, but to those of us who are African-Americans, the second word is ‘shiftless’ and then there’s another word that goes along with it.” 

One might think that a modicum of self-awareness would prevent Powell from making such charges after flippantly dismissing the concerns raised by many in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities. Don’t such remarks just — woopsy daisy! — “slip out from time to time”? And if Powell finds the use of slave-era terminology offensive, one wonders why he has difficulty understanding that, among Jews, the imputation of dual loyalties rankles, even if “it many not mean anything to most Americans.”

So by Powell’s logic, calling President Obama “lazy and detached” is a symptom of the GOP’s “dark vein of intolerance”–but espousing dual-loyalty myths about the so-called “Jewish lobby” is an understandable slip-of-the-tongue that could happen to anyone. I can’t tell if the “common slip-up” argument is just Powell freelancing or if this is actually going to be Hagel’s defense during the confirmation hearings. But if it’s the latter, we’re in for an interesting show.

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Why Hagel Is a Fight Worth Having

The stakes will be high when Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, meets with New York Senator Chuck Schumer. Along with Republican John McCain, Schumer is the key to the question of whether critics of the appointment can rally enough votes to derail Hagel’s chances. Though he is understandably reluctant to pick a fight with the Obama administration, Schumer takes a dim view of Hagel’s antagonism toward Israel and the pro-Israel community as well as his soft stands on Iran. The question is whether Hagel’s rapid backtracking from these positions is persuasive enough to convince Schumer that trying to take him down is not worth the effort.

But regardless of the outcome of that meeting, the discussion about Hagel is bound to heat up in the coming days and weeks. Hagel’s past bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and his history of opposition to sanctions or the use of force against the Iranian nuclear threat places him outside of the mainstream of American opinion and also could create the dangerous impression that U.S. policy could be shifting. But there is a still a genuine reluctance on the part of many in the Jewish community to turn this nomination into an all-out battle that would pit the administration against the pro-Israel community. The dangers of such a confrontation, especially if Hagel were to survive a close vote, are real. But the argument here is that win or lose, this is a battle worth fighting.

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The stakes will be high when Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, meets with New York Senator Chuck Schumer. Along with Republican John McCain, Schumer is the key to the question of whether critics of the appointment can rally enough votes to derail Hagel’s chances. Though he is understandably reluctant to pick a fight with the Obama administration, Schumer takes a dim view of Hagel’s antagonism toward Israel and the pro-Israel community as well as his soft stands on Iran. The question is whether Hagel’s rapid backtracking from these positions is persuasive enough to convince Schumer that trying to take him down is not worth the effort.

But regardless of the outcome of that meeting, the discussion about Hagel is bound to heat up in the coming days and weeks. Hagel’s past bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and his history of opposition to sanctions or the use of force against the Iranian nuclear threat places him outside of the mainstream of American opinion and also could create the dangerous impression that U.S. policy could be shifting. But there is a still a genuine reluctance on the part of many in the Jewish community to turn this nomination into an all-out battle that would pit the administration against the pro-Israel community. The dangers of such a confrontation, especially if Hagel were to survive a close vote, are real. But the argument here is that win or lose, this is a battle worth fighting.

The downside of a confrontation over Hagel is that it will further antagonize President Obama, reducing the ability of pro-Israel groups to influence his decision making about another return to a policy aimed at forcing the Jewish state into foolish concessions in a vain attempt to revive the Middle East peace process. It might also make him less, rather than more, inclined to adopt policies toward Iran that would match the tough rhetoric he has used on the subject. There is also the question of who would get the job if Hagel were rejected. Would it be someone even worse?

These are serious points to consider. But though the possibility of turning Hagel into a rerun of the disastrous 1981 battle over the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia in which the Reagan administration overcame the opposition of AIPAC are not negligible, the risks are not as great as some make them out to be.

First of all, it needs to be understood that if anyone has picked a fight here it is the president and not the friends of Israel. By choosing a man who was one of the most openly hostile senators to Israel and the pro-Israel community, President Obama has invited this battle certain that a re-elected president won’t have his choice for the Pentagon thwarted over his comments about Israel, the Jews and Iran. In doing so, the White House has placed the bipartisan consensus on Israel and Iran in jeopardy and it is up to both Republicans and Democrats who care about these issues to ensure that it is not completely destroyed by the president’s bad judgment.

The process by which Hagel is being called to account for his comments about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and for his desire for engagement with Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran is actually quite helpful to restoring that consensus. The plain fact is that if Hagel wishes to survive what should be a difficult confirmation process he’s going to have to keep walking back his past statements and beliefs. Cynics are right to question the sincerity of any such retractions or attempts to spin his long history of hostility to the pro-Israel community. But in doing so, Hagel will be put in the same position that the 2012 campaign put Obama. Over the course of the last year, the president was forced to first disavow any thought of containing a nuclear Iran or making a deal that would allow them to retain a nuclear program. That’s painted the administration into a very tight corner on an issue where there’s little doubt the White House would prefer to have more room to maneuver to craft an unsatisfactory compromise that might be a disaster for Israel and the West.

As for the alternatives to Hagel, the idea that the president could come up with someone worse than the former Nebraska senator seems a bit far-fetched. It’s unlikely that there is any possible candidate, no matter how liberal, that would bring the kind of baggage that Hagel carries with him. To ponder the alternatives is to make plain just how much of an outlier Hagel is.

If the president is thwarted on Hagel or even just seriously challenged, he will be upset about it. But does anyone think that will make him even less favorably inclined toward the current Israel government or those Americans who support it? The president’s temper tantrums directed at Israel over the past four years have already exposed his antagonism. Stopping Hagel won’t make him any friendlier, but it is doubtful that it could produce anything nastier than his May 2012 ambush of Netanyahu about the 1967 borders.

Most of all, the notion that friends of Israel or Jews should fear being singled out for opposing the president or that they should seek to avoid raising the hackles of the foreign policy and defense establishment is absurd. Those who don’t like Israel or the Jews need no excuse or extra motivation. Were those who care about Israel to be silent about Hagel, advocates of the pernicious Walt-Mearsheimer thesis would not stand down or seek trying to isolate the Jewish state or stigmatize its friends. The Israel-haters and the critics of AIPAC will be just as loud even if not a word is said about Hagel.

There are times when it is better for Israel’s friends to keep their own counsel rather than seeking to contest the administration on every possible point of contention. But this is not such a moment. Hagel’s nomination is a chance for Congress to reaffirm the U.S.-Israel alliance and to put Iran on notice that its expectation that a second Obama administration will be no obstacle to their nuclear ambitions. Whether or not Hagel gets the job, this is very much a fight worth having.

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Humanity and Inhumanity in Gotham City

In the Weekly Standard, political science professor Travis D. Smith has written a response piece to Jonathan Last’s Standard essay on the virtues of Batman as a hero of our (and all) time. Smith counters that in fact it is Spider-Man who embodies the noble spirit of the classically liberal order, and is more accessible than Batman as well.

But this discussion either ignores or underplays the single most important feature of the Batman canon, without which it cannot be properly understood: that Batman and his villains are human. This is not incidental to the storytelling of Gotham City’s travails. Other superhero stories may begin as modern political parables, but they immediately morph into something else entirely. X-Men, for example, may be an obvious retelling of the Civil Rights era, as Last noted, but it proceeds along classic comic lines: superhuman good guys fight superhuman bad guys. Batman is completely different in this respect. The stories follow the human paths on which they set out, offering far more value as a vehicle to telling our own story. On Batman’s lack of superhuman powers, in contrast to his favored Spider-Man (and just about every other superhero), Smith writes:

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In the Weekly Standard, political science professor Travis D. Smith has written a response piece to Jonathan Last’s Standard essay on the virtues of Batman as a hero of our (and all) time. Smith counters that in fact it is Spider-Man who embodies the noble spirit of the classically liberal order, and is more accessible than Batman as well.

But this discussion either ignores or underplays the single most important feature of the Batman canon, without which it cannot be properly understood: that Batman and his villains are human. This is not incidental to the storytelling of Gotham City’s travails. Other superhero stories may begin as modern political parables, but they immediately morph into something else entirely. X-Men, for example, may be an obvious retelling of the Civil Rights era, as Last noted, but it proceeds along classic comic lines: superhuman good guys fight superhuman bad guys. Batman is completely different in this respect. The stories follow the human paths on which they set out, offering far more value as a vehicle to telling our own story. On Batman’s lack of superhuman powers, in contrast to his favored Spider-Man (and just about every other superhero), Smith writes:

But when you consider the life he leads in and out of costume—the monetary and technological means at his disposal, his training in umpteen martial arts disciplines to the highest degree of proficiency, his mindboggling skills as The World’s Greatest Detective, plus his uncanny ability to disappear like a ninja and his apparent lack of a need to sleep—Bruce Wayne is so extraordinary as to be beyond emulation by any actual human being.

But this gets it exactly wrong. Bruce Wayne’s physical abilities come through training—years of intense focus and hard work. His wealth is acquired honestly. It may be difficult for a normal person to turn himself into the Batman, but it is impossible for such a person to turn himself into Spider-Man on his own.

In The Dark Knight Rises, director Christopher Nolan makes this point explicitly. A young, idealistic cop named John Blake (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) figures out Batman’s true identity—that he is Bruce Wayne. He asks Wayne why he wears a mask, and Wayne gives two reasons. First, to protect his friends and family. Second, he says: “the idea was to be a symbol. Batman could be anybody. That was the point.”

It’s just as important that the villains of the Batman series are human as well. Supervillains—that is, superhuman villains—are a moral copout. They are not of our world, and their utility to us as anything more than entertainment is thus limited. Smith objects that Gotham’s crazy villains, such as the Joker, are imprisoned in Arkham Asylum, a suggestion that Batman believes in the redemption and rehabilitation of the worst elements of society. But in fact it’s quite the opposite: it is a recognition that there exists evil which cannot be reduced to its logical components.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the third of Nolan’s trilogy, Batman confronts Bane, who leads an uprising fueled by an Occupy Wall Street-style anarchist impulse. But as Last noted, The Dark Knight Rises script preceded Occupy by about a year. The key moment comes when Bane’s uprising appears to have succeeded, and he addresses his followers as well as his new subjects, with the world watching on TV:

We take Gotham from the corrupt. The rich. The oppressors of generations, who have kept you down with myths of opportunity. And we give it back to you: the people. Gotham is yours–none shall interfere. Do as you please. But start by storming Blackgate [prison] and freeing the oppressed.

Step forward, those who would serve, for an army will be raised. The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests, and cast out into the cold world that we know and endure. Courts will be convened. Spoils will be enjoyed. Blood will be shed. The police will survive, as they learn to serve true justice. This great city–it will endure. Gotham will survive.

If Bane had meant what he said about his intention that Gotham would survive and endure, he would be less an Occupy figure than a sort of modern-day Peisistratos, the ancient Greek tyrant who held power by exploiting inequality and class resentment. But of course he had no such intentions; Bane was going to destroy the city of Gotham. He was not a demagogue or a tyrant; he was something much worse. “You’re pure evil,” a business associate tells Bane as it becomes clear Bane is about to murder him. “I’m necessary evil,” Bane cheerfully corrects him.

The presence of evil—human evil—is the constant theme of the Batman trilogy. In The Dark Knight, the second in the trilogy, Heath Ledger’s astounding turn as the Joker presents moviegoers with the paradoxical villain that is criminally insane but also knows exactly what he’s doing. He, like Bane but through far different (and more cerebral) methods, wants the breakdown of the social order. Alfred, the caretaker of Bruce Wayne’s estate and something of a father figure to Wayne/Batman, lectures Wayne on the need to understand his nemesis, something he doesn’t think Wayne has yet done. “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with,” Alfred tells Wayne, concluding with the most famous line in the entire trilogy: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Men, not monsters. The human element allows Nolan to enable human history to shout its echoes at the audience throughout the Batman trilogy. The Stalinist show trials that Bane calls for come to Gotham City. The “guilty” are sentenced to “death or exile”—their choice—but they turn out to be the same: death by exile. Exile is the chance to walk the icy waterway outside Gotham; the surface isn’t frozen thick enough to hold the weight of the exiled, and one by one they slip through to their deaths.

As this suggests, the Batman movies are deeply conservative. But the presence of the Occupy movement coinciding with the The Dark Knight Rises conceals the ambiguity of Nolan’s message. In the previous movie, Batman turns the city’s cell phones into a massive sonar map enabling him to spy on anyone in Gotham. And in The Dark Knight Rises, while Bane is addressing the city, his focus on freeing the prisoners of Blackgate prison becomes clear. Watching the address from a secure location are Police Commissioner Jim Gordon and John Blake. In his speech, Bane reveals that Gotham’s police department lied about the heroism of its fallen “white knight” prosecutor Harvey Dent and allowed Batman to take the blame for Dent’s crimes, and kept some Blackgate prisoners locked up on false pretenses. “You betrayed everything you stood for,” Blake tells Commissioner Gordon. Gordon responds:

There’s a point far out there when the structures fail you and the rules aren’t weapons anymore, they’re shackles, letting the bad guy get ahead. One day, you may face such a moment of crisis. And in that moment I hope you have a friend like I did, to plunge their hands into the filth so that you can keep yours clean.

“Your hands look plenty filthy to me, commissioner,” Blake responds caustically. Bane didn’t invent that particular injustice; he exaggerated, magnified, manipulated, and exploited it. There is no moral equivalence here. Nolan never seeks to justify anything Bane (or the Joker) does. But he does warn his heroes of the pitfalls of living in the spotlight. After all, they’re only human.

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France Takes the Lead in Mali

Vive la France.

What else can one say to the news that the French are using their military might to push back al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels who have taken control of northern Mali–a vast region bigger than France itself? While the United Nations passed toothless resolutions and the U.S. expressed concern but did nothing, France’s President, Francois Hollande, acted. He has dispatched some 400 troops backed by helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft to stop the rebel advance, which threatened to engulf the part of Mali still held by the ramshackle government. The U.S., UK, and other allies are providing non-lethal assistance, but it is very much a French show.

This could well be a harbinger of things to come: Given the “lead from behind” doctrine that animates the current American administration, and the declining defense capabilities of Britain, France may well be left as the Western power on the front lines of the fight against Islamist extremism. This move is certainly in keeping with France’s traditionally activist role in its former African colonies–something that Hollande promised to abandon but now seems to be embracing.

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Vive la France.

What else can one say to the news that the French are using their military might to push back al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels who have taken control of northern Mali–a vast region bigger than France itself? While the United Nations passed toothless resolutions and the U.S. expressed concern but did nothing, France’s President, Francois Hollande, acted. He has dispatched some 400 troops backed by helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft to stop the rebel advance, which threatened to engulf the part of Mali still held by the ramshackle government. The U.S., UK, and other allies are providing non-lethal assistance, but it is very much a French show.

This could well be a harbinger of things to come: Given the “lead from behind” doctrine that animates the current American administration, and the declining defense capabilities of Britain, France may well be left as the Western power on the front lines of the fight against Islamist extremism. This move is certainly in keeping with France’s traditionally activist role in its former African colonies–something that Hollande promised to abandon but now seems to be embracing.

There are, however, sharp limits to French capabilities, which is why France is not intervening in Syria, much as it would like to: Bashar Assad’s regime is still powerful enough that it would require an American lead to take on its air defenses. France also lacks surveillance, airlift, and aerial refueling capabilities, all of which are being provided in Mali by the U.S., UK, and other European states.

Important as the French intervention is to block further advances by Malian extremists, France will find it harder to exit than to enter this conflict. Air strikes and the like can temporarily stymie a powerful army of guerrilla fighters but cannot defeat it. That requires boots on the ground for a prolonged period of time to reestablish control.

In Mali, the French hope that force will be provided by Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States, which is moving up plans to deploy 2,000 peacekeepers. However, given the woeful historic performance of African peacekeeping forces in countries such as Somalia, it is clear that Ecowas, to be effective, will require considerable buttressing from France and other Western states for some time to come. France will also have to work with the U.S. and other states to train up and arm the ineffective armed forces of Mali itself–and to somehow avoid the fiasco of the last training program, run by the U.S., which resulted in units defecting to the Islamists and others overthrowing Mali’s elected leader.

That is undeniably a burden, and one that France would understandably prefer to avoid. But given the alternative–allowing al-Qaeda affiliates to gain control of a major African country–a long-term commitment would appear to be the lesser evil here.

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