Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 15, 2013

What it Means to Be a Pro-Israel Democrat

A lot of the drama was taken out of the battle to confirm Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense today when New York Senator Chuck Schumer endorsed the nomination. Schumer said he had made the decision after a long conversation with his former Senate colleague in which he was, he said, reassured that the new Pentagon chief had changed his mind about the relationship between Israel and the United States as well as his previous views about Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. Schumer directly addressed the concerns that members of the pro-Israel community have expressed about Hagel’s sudden change of heart by saying this:

“I know some will question whether Senator Hagel’s assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post,” Mr. Schumer said. “But I don’t think so. Senator Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago.”

Such faith in Hagel’s conversion from a politician who bragged about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and an opponent of sanctions against Iran as well as an advocate of engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah is remarkable. How is it possible that in the space of only a few months that Hagel could have had such a dramatic change of heart? Given Hagel’s disdain for the current government of Israel and the fact that only last fall he was signing letters expressing opposition to any mention of the use of force against Iran, only the most cynical of partisans could believe for a minute that the Nebraskan’s new positions are a sincere expression of his actual opinions. While Schumer, a powerful senator who has no fear about possible challenges to his seat, may think his seal of approval of Hagel will have no consequences, it is the sort of thing that, at the least, ought to raise the question of what it actually means to be a pro-Israel Democrat these days.

Read More

A lot of the drama was taken out of the battle to confirm Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense today when New York Senator Chuck Schumer endorsed the nomination. Schumer said he had made the decision after a long conversation with his former Senate colleague in which he was, he said, reassured that the new Pentagon chief had changed his mind about the relationship between Israel and the United States as well as his previous views about Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. Schumer directly addressed the concerns that members of the pro-Israel community have expressed about Hagel’s sudden change of heart by saying this:

“I know some will question whether Senator Hagel’s assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post,” Mr. Schumer said. “But I don’t think so. Senator Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago.”

Such faith in Hagel’s conversion from a politician who bragged about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and an opponent of sanctions against Iran as well as an advocate of engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah is remarkable. How is it possible that in the space of only a few months that Hagel could have had such a dramatic change of heart? Given Hagel’s disdain for the current government of Israel and the fact that only last fall he was signing letters expressing opposition to any mention of the use of force against Iran, only the most cynical of partisans could believe for a minute that the Nebraskan’s new positions are a sincere expression of his actual opinions. While Schumer, a powerful senator who has no fear about possible challenges to his seat, may think his seal of approval of Hagel will have no consequences, it is the sort of thing that, at the least, ought to raise the question of what it actually means to be a pro-Israel Democrat these days.

Let’s specify that many Democrats are sincere and ardent backers of Israel. They are a vital element in the across-the-board bipartisan coalition that has made the U.S.-Israel alliance an integral part of American foreign and defense policy. That is why the tepid response from so many Democrats to the president’s choice of Hagel is so disappointing.

It’s time for a little honesty about Hagel. Were someone with his record and history of incendiary comments about fighting the influence of the “Jewish lobby” and tender-hearted concern for radical Islamists put forward by a Republican president there’s little doubt that Democrats would be fighting each other to get face time in front of network cameras denouncing the nomination, with a publicity hound like Schumer at the front of the line.

After all, this is the same Chuck Hagel that even the National Jewish Democratic Council—a group that is generally blind to the shortcomings of anyone in their party no matter how egregious their transgressions—denounced as unsuitable for high office in 2009 when his name was put forward for a place on the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

Democrats who have spent the last four years rationalizing Barack Obama’s inclination to pick fights with Israel and attempts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians enjoyed the election-year Jewish charm offensive in which the administration dropped its previous antagonism toward the Jewish state. But the decision to choose Hagel calls into question whether a second term will mean that the president plans to abandon his pledges on Iran or whether the 2012 cease-and-desist order about U.S. pressure on Israel will expire.

Hagel’s nomination gave politicians like Schumer a chance to show that they had no intention of allowing the president to make fools of them by policy reversals that would contradict his campaign promises on which they had staked their own good names.

But instead of showing some independence as well as common sense about the likelihood that Hagel could be trusted to do the right thing at the Pentagon, Schumer has shown that they will not stick their necks out if it means opposing the president.

As I stated earlier today, Hagel’s 180 does show that he had to disavow the views that made him the darling of the Israel-bashers if he wanted to be confirmed. Like the president’s campaign pledges, that will make it difficult, although not impossible, for the administration to abandon its stands on opposing containment of Iran or recognition of Hamas.

But the willingness of heretofore pro-Israel Democratic stalwarts to be willing accomplices to Hagel’s charade also tarnishes the reputation of their party on this issue. Whatever else this nomination has accomplished, it has made it more difficult for Democrats to assert that they are every bit as solid on Israel as their GOP foes.

That may not trouble Barack Obama or even Chuck Schumer, but it should worry rank-and-file Democrats who wonder what has happened to their party.

Read Less

What Happens Next in the Hagel Battle?

There’s no doubt Senator Chuck Schumer’s endorsement of Obama’s defense secretary nominee gave a boost to Chuck Hagel. But it’s premature to claim Hagel is now headed for a certain victory. First, while Schumer makes it easier for pro-Israel Democrats to support Hagel, he is not the final word in Democratic opposition. Others will still need persuading, and some say Schumer’s 90-minute about-face wasn’t exactly convincing.

“I have a difficult time believing that Democrats will be able to follow Chuck Schumer’s lead of saying that they were reassured on issues as wide-ranging as his ability to implement the Commander-in-Chief’s ordered dismantling of [Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell], all the way to his misjudgment on engaging Iran and Syria, all the way through his decades-long denigration of the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship — all in 90 minutes,” a senior official at a Washington D.C. Jewish organization said. “By setting the bar so high, Schumer may actually have made it difficult for Democrats to find excuses to discover their support for Hagel.” 

Read More

There’s no doubt Senator Chuck Schumer’s endorsement of Obama’s defense secretary nominee gave a boost to Chuck Hagel. But it’s premature to claim Hagel is now headed for a certain victory. First, while Schumer makes it easier for pro-Israel Democrats to support Hagel, he is not the final word in Democratic opposition. Others will still need persuading, and some say Schumer’s 90-minute about-face wasn’t exactly convincing.

“I have a difficult time believing that Democrats will be able to follow Chuck Schumer’s lead of saying that they were reassured on issues as wide-ranging as his ability to implement the Commander-in-Chief’s ordered dismantling of [Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell], all the way to his misjudgment on engaging Iran and Syria, all the way through his decades-long denigration of the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship — all in 90 minutes,” a senior official at a Washington D.C. Jewish organization said. “By setting the bar so high, Schumer may actually have made it difficult for Democrats to find excuses to discover their support for Hagel.” 

One name that immediately comes to mind is Senator Bob Menendez. Menendez has spent much of his Senate career painstakingly crafting Iran sanctions policy, and Hagel’s nomination is a direct slap in the face. While Hagel has suddenly disavowed his previous objections to sanctions, Menendez may be more difficult to convince than Schumer–particularly since the New Jersey senator has gone to battle with the administration in the past over this very issue.

“The only other chance [to sink Hagel’s nomination], barring any major revelation at the confirmation hearings … is if Menendez said something,” said one Jewish Democratic operative who supports Obama’s nominee.

Another obstacle for Hagel is Republican opposition. It’s unlikely the nomination would be blocked without any Democratic support, but the GOP certainly has the ability to do it. Senate Republicans haven’t broken unity on this issue, and leadership appears to be on board so far.

According to multiple Republican Senate sources, a filibuster isn’t off the table. Under that scenario, the GOP would need 41 votes to block Hagel’s confirmation.

“If Republicans filibuster, I don’t think [Democrats will] get to 60,” said an aide to a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

There is also no way to predict what will come out before or during the confirmation hearings. Hagel’s record is still being vetted by his opponents. Senator Bob Corker suggested earlier this week that former staffers for Hagel–who has a reputation as a temperamental boss–are coming forward with information about him. If staffers testify, or if Hagel responds poorly to questioning by the committee, that could shake up the confirmation battle. So while Schumer’s support will make it more difficult to block Hagel, that doesn’t mean the fight is over.

Read Less

Egypt’s U.S.-Subsidized Politics of Hate

Better late than never is the only way one can describe the New York Times’s decision to run an article about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s history of anti-Semitic slanders. As we wrote here on Contentions two weeks ago, a video of an Egyptian TV interview with the Muslim Brotherhood leader from 2010 has surfaced in which he describes Israelis as “the descendants of apes and pigs” and called for a boycott of the United States. As I noted at the time, revelations about the nature of what passes for rhetoric about Israel and the Jews might come as a shock to readers of the Times–since much of their news coverage, as well as the work of op-ed columnists like Nicholas Kristof, had sought to portray the Brotherhood as moderate and friendly people who just happen to be Muslims–but not to those who have been following these developments without the rose-colored glasses that liberals seem to require to discuss the Arab world. The conceit of the piece about Morsi’s comment is, however, to call attention to the difficult position the Egyptian president has been placed in by reports about his despicable language.

Egyptian figures quoted by the Times get the last word here, as they seem to argue that it isn’t reasonable to expect Morsi to apologize since to do so leaves him vulnerable to criticism from his Islamist supporters and their allies who like that kind of talk. The conclusion seems to be that Americans should judge Morsi only by his recent behavior that has been aimed at least partly at ensuring that the flow of billions of dollars of U.S. aid should continue.

The problem is that Morsi’s use of a phrase that is commonly employed throughout the Muslim world to describe Jews as well as other comments that are straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is so common in Egypt as to make it almost unexceptionable. That is no small measure the result of Brotherhood propaganda and mainstream Islamist thought in which demonization of Israelis, Jews and Americans is commonplace. Try as writers like Kristof might to paint the Brotherhood as a responsible political movement, Jew-hatred is one of its core beliefs. The question here is not so much whether Morsi will publicly disavow these slurs but whether the Obama administration will continue to buy into the myth that Morsi is some kind of a moderate whose government deserves to continue to be treated as an ally.

Read More

Better late than never is the only way one can describe the New York Times’s decision to run an article about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s history of anti-Semitic slanders. As we wrote here on Contentions two weeks ago, a video of an Egyptian TV interview with the Muslim Brotherhood leader from 2010 has surfaced in which he describes Israelis as “the descendants of apes and pigs” and called for a boycott of the United States. As I noted at the time, revelations about the nature of what passes for rhetoric about Israel and the Jews might come as a shock to readers of the Times–since much of their news coverage, as well as the work of op-ed columnists like Nicholas Kristof, had sought to portray the Brotherhood as moderate and friendly people who just happen to be Muslims–but not to those who have been following these developments without the rose-colored glasses that liberals seem to require to discuss the Arab world. The conceit of the piece about Morsi’s comment is, however, to call attention to the difficult position the Egyptian president has been placed in by reports about his despicable language.

Egyptian figures quoted by the Times get the last word here, as they seem to argue that it isn’t reasonable to expect Morsi to apologize since to do so leaves him vulnerable to criticism from his Islamist supporters and their allies who like that kind of talk. The conclusion seems to be that Americans should judge Morsi only by his recent behavior that has been aimed at least partly at ensuring that the flow of billions of dollars of U.S. aid should continue.

The problem is that Morsi’s use of a phrase that is commonly employed throughout the Muslim world to describe Jews as well as other comments that are straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is so common in Egypt as to make it almost unexceptionable. That is no small measure the result of Brotherhood propaganda and mainstream Islamist thought in which demonization of Israelis, Jews and Americans is commonplace. Try as writers like Kristof might to paint the Brotherhood as a responsible political movement, Jew-hatred is one of its core beliefs. The question here is not so much whether Morsi will publicly disavow these slurs but whether the Obama administration will continue to buy into the myth that Morsi is some kind of a moderate whose government deserves to continue to be treated as an ally.

The administration has tread carefully with Morsi over the last several months, even as he moved quickly to consolidate power in Egypt. With the apparent approval of Washington, Morsi has sought to eliminate any possible check on his ability to govern more or less in the same fashion as deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak. Though the Times more or less admits that Morsi’s rhetoric provides us a window as to how he would govern were he not restrained by his need for U.S. cash and Egypt’s relative military weakness, the underlying assumption seems to be that it is America’s interest to prefer him to any possible alternative. It also assumes that Morsi’s influence on events in the region, such as Hamas’s missile offensive against Israel last November, has been entirely benevolent.

In fact, Hamas’s aggressive attitude and risk taking as well as its attempt to increase its influence in the Fatah-controlled West Bank is directly related to the rise of the Brotherhood in Cairo. It is true that President Obama cannot be entirely blamed for the creation of this mess since Mubarak would have fallen no matter what the U.S. did. But his subsequent coddling of Morsi and the Brotherhood as well as the rebukes issued to the Egyptian military set the stage for a situation in which the most populous country in the Arab world is run by a raging anti-Semite who is working to undermine U.S. influence in the region and to strengthen radical forces while being subsidized by American taxpayers.

Morsi’s talk about “apes and pigs” is not a side issue to be ignored in the name of stability or preserving an American ally. It goes straight to the heart of whether Egypt should be treated as a nation ruled by a radical and hostile government that is confident that nothing it does will cause it to lose its American subsidy.

Read Less

Barack Obama, Negotiator

At his press conference yesterday:

The president demanded that the Republicans surrender their most powerful bargaining chip—the debt ceiling—first and then “I’m happy to have a conversation about deficit reduction.” Translation: Give me everything I want first and then we’ll talk.

He threatened that “If congressional Republicans refuse to pay America’s bills on time, Social Security checks, and veterans benefits will be delayed.” Translation: I’ll choose not to pay the bills that will cause maximum political blow-back and the mainstream media will see to it that the Republicans bear all the blame.

Read More

At his press conference yesterday:

The president demanded that the Republicans surrender their most powerful bargaining chip—the debt ceiling—first and then “I’m happy to have a conversation about deficit reduction.” Translation: Give me everything I want first and then we’ll talk.

He threatened that “If congressional Republicans refuse to pay America’s bills on time, Social Security checks, and veterans benefits will be delayed.” Translation: I’ll choose not to pay the bills that will cause maximum political blow-back and the mainstream media will see to it that the Republicans bear all the blame.

He lied that “The last time Republicans in Congress even flirted with this idea, our AAA credit rating was downgraded for the first time in our history.” It was, of course, downgraded for the long-term outlook of the federal government’s finances, not for any delay in raising the debt ceiling.

He blamed “some House Republicans, [for insisting] that, ‘Nope, we gotta do it our way. And if we don’t, we simply won’t pay America’s bills.’” Translation: I get to refuse to negotiate, you don’t.

He slandered the party that controls one house of Congress: “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.” Translation: Republicans want children to starve, old ladies to freeze in their beds, and cancer to run rampant.

He implied that Republicans favor “corporate loopholes” in the tax code by saying that “it makes a lot more sense for us to close, for example, corporate loopholes before we go to putting a bigger burden on students or seniors.” Translation: My billionaire pals, such as Hollywood, “green energy” crony capitalists, and Chuck Schumer’s hedge fund tycoons paying only 15 percent on their nine-figure incomes, keep the loopholes I insisted on including in the fiscal cliff deal. The brain-dead Washington press corps will never call me a hypocrite.

I have only one question. Where did President Obama learn the art of negotiation? Ramallah?

Read Less

Obama and Israel’s “Best Interests”

The headline writers at Bloomberg knew exactly which part of Jeffrey Goldberg’s column would prove juiciest to those perusing the web today: “Obama: ‘Israel Doesn’t Know What Its Best Interests Are’”. The quote from the president will bother Israel’s defenders for the same reason Obama is usually able to push their buttons: Obama’s lack of knowledge about Jewish history, his decision to take potshots at the Likud party as a way to win over those hostile to the Jewish state during the 2008 election, and his refusal to learn basic facts about issues before throwing temper tantrums about them make him among the least credible public officials on the issue of what is in Israel’s best interests.

Goldberg’s access to Obama’s inner circle has made him an excellent source on the Obama administration’s perspective on Israel, though stories like this don’t exactly paint the president in a particularly positive light–especially the president’s belief that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a “coward.” But childish name-calling aside, the president, according to the column, seems to have given up on Netanyahu. He can’t muster outrage at Israeli actions that elicit rage from leftist activists and cartoonishly biased and inaccurate “news” stories. (The New York Times deserves special mention here for publishing an article on the E-1 corridor around Jerusalem and then publishing a “correction” noting that the entire premise of the article was wrong, having since consulted a map.) But the president seems unwilling to admit how he has contributed to the situation that upsets him so.

Read More

The headline writers at Bloomberg knew exactly which part of Jeffrey Goldberg’s column would prove juiciest to those perusing the web today: “Obama: ‘Israel Doesn’t Know What Its Best Interests Are’”. The quote from the president will bother Israel’s defenders for the same reason Obama is usually able to push their buttons: Obama’s lack of knowledge about Jewish history, his decision to take potshots at the Likud party as a way to win over those hostile to the Jewish state during the 2008 election, and his refusal to learn basic facts about issues before throwing temper tantrums about them make him among the least credible public officials on the issue of what is in Israel’s best interests.

Goldberg’s access to Obama’s inner circle has made him an excellent source on the Obama administration’s perspective on Israel, though stories like this don’t exactly paint the president in a particularly positive light–especially the president’s belief that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a “coward.” But childish name-calling aside, the president, according to the column, seems to have given up on Netanyahu. He can’t muster outrage at Israeli actions that elicit rage from leftist activists and cartoonishly biased and inaccurate “news” stories. (The New York Times deserves special mention here for publishing an article on the E-1 corridor around Jerusalem and then publishing a “correction” noting that the entire premise of the article was wrong, having since consulted a map.) But the president seems unwilling to admit how he has contributed to the situation that upsets him so.

For example, Obama thinks the only thing that can save Israel long-term is a negotiated settlement over a two-state solution with the Palestinians. But as everyone knows, Obama was the one who pulled the Palestinians away from the negotiating table. Thus, it seems Obama knows what’s in Israel’s best interests and acted against those interests anyway. A bit of humility from the president on this would be appropriate. Additionally, Goldberg writes:

And if Israel, a small state in an inhospitable region, becomes more of a pariah — one that alienates even the affections of the U.S., its last steadfast friend — it won’t survive. Iran poses a short-term threat to Israel’s survival; Israel’s own behavior poses a long-term one.

It’s unclear if this is Goldberg’s opinion or if he is paraphrasing Obama (or both). Of course an isolated Israel would be an increasingly threatened and weakened Israel. But Iran is only a “short-term” threat if the threat is disposed of in the near future. A nuclear Iran would probably be a long-term threat to Israel. And it’s on this issue where the U.S. and Israel are on shaky ground in terms of their alliance. Obama promised not to allow Iran to go nuclear, but Obama isn’t exactly famous for keeping promises, to say the least, and his steadfast opposition to sanctions, which usually results in his own efforts to water them down if he’s been unable to stop them from passing, puts understandable doubts in the minds of some Israeli officials.

Additionally, if you believe Iran to be a “short-term” threat, then you believe soon Iran will not be a threat. Once that threat is removed, it would become substantially easier to move on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating track anyway, since the terrorist groups that are supplied by Iran reliably disrupt the peace process whenever they (or Iran) feel like it. If Iran’s threat will soon be removed then the peace process Obama cares so much about should get an immediate boost. So if Obama’s really about to remove the Iranian threat, why should he lose patience now?

The truth is, no one knows what Obama is going to do–possibly not even Obama. But he pushed the Palestinians away from the negotiating table and has yet to figure out a way to get them back to it. And he has sent both Israel and Iran contradictory messages by promising to stop Iran but then being the primary obstacle to tougher sanctions and nominating to be his defense secretary a vocal opponent of all the tools that could be used to stop Iran. (Though Chuck Hagel has recanted in return for support from key Democrats, Obama chose Hagel before he flip-flopped.) A president that sends clear messages on those issues and stops picking unnecessary and counterproductive fights with his allies would probably have a lot more credibility to claim to know what’s in Israel’s “best interests.” Obama has yet to be that president.

Read Less

Obama to Propose Assault Weapons Ban Tomorrow

Harry Reid tried his best to undermine any assault weapons ban proposal before it saw the light of day, but the Washington Post reports that President Obama is going ahead with it. The president will release his proposals for comprehensive gun control tomorrow, including as many as 19 executive orders:

President Obama will unveil a sweeping set of gun-control proposals at midday Wednesday, including an assault weapons ban, universal background checks and limits on the number of bullets magazines can hold, according to sources familiar with the plans. 

The announcement, to be delivered at the White House, is also expected to include a slate of up to 19 executive actions that the Obama administration can take on its own to attempt to limit gun violence.  The White House has invited key lawmakers as well as gun-control advocates to appear at Wednesday’s policy rollout, according to two officials who have been invited to the event.

Read More

Harry Reid tried his best to undermine any assault weapons ban proposal before it saw the light of day, but the Washington Post reports that President Obama is going ahead with it. The president will release his proposals for comprehensive gun control tomorrow, including as many as 19 executive orders:

President Obama will unveil a sweeping set of gun-control proposals at midday Wednesday, including an assault weapons ban, universal background checks and limits on the number of bullets magazines can hold, according to sources familiar with the plans. 

The announcement, to be delivered at the White House, is also expected to include a slate of up to 19 executive actions that the Obama administration can take on its own to attempt to limit gun violence.  The White House has invited key lawmakers as well as gun-control advocates to appear at Wednesday’s policy rollout, according to two officials who have been invited to the event.

It’s clear an assault weapon ban would have a very difficult time getting through the Senate, and no chance at all getting through the House. So why include it at all? Maybe because it’s one of the only proposals that is semi-related to the Sandy Hook shooting, and has major support among the president’s base. It’s also a big, shiny target for the gun lobby to go after, which means less energy will be devoted to opposing the White House’s other proposals.

Read Less

What Would Bill Buckley Do?

The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and is currently stuck in what may be a losing fight with Barack Obama over the budget and the debt ceiling. It also failed to take back the United States Senate in the past two election cycles because GOP primary voters chose poor candidates who were easily branded as extremists by vulnerable Democrats. This sorry situation has led to an orgy of soul searching by Republicans that has produced a raft of suggestions for how to do better in 2014 and 2016. Some of the ideas put forward for a GOP re-launch, such as a shift on immigration, are worth debating. So, too, is the notion that the party should do a better job recruiting and marketing candidates. But anyone who is trying to push the party to become a bland, and more moderate, alternative to the Democrats is selling a bill of goods.

That’s exactly what Joe Scarborough is doing in a piece published today by Politico in which he has the gall to invoke the shade of William F. Buckley on behalf of a campaign to make the GOP the sort of mushy moderate party that would embrace the 2013 version of Colin Powell. Scarborough is a former Republican congressman who has made a good living playing the cranky partner to Mika Brzezinski on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC where he spends most mornings agreeing with a roster of mostly liberal guests about how bad conservatives have become. In that guise he gives cover to liberal slanders about the Tea Party and neoconservatives while embracing the likes of Powell and Chuck Hagel. That Powell and Hagel are his kind of Republicans in spite of the fact that between the two of them they’ve cast four votes for Obama for president tells you a lot about his idea of where the party should be heading. But his attempt to dragoon the late National Review editor into this argument is particularly misleading. Far from following Buckley’s example, what Scarborough does every day on TV is a classic example of the kind of Republican that Buckley despised and fought against.

Read More

The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and is currently stuck in what may be a losing fight with Barack Obama over the budget and the debt ceiling. It also failed to take back the United States Senate in the past two election cycles because GOP primary voters chose poor candidates who were easily branded as extremists by vulnerable Democrats. This sorry situation has led to an orgy of soul searching by Republicans that has produced a raft of suggestions for how to do better in 2014 and 2016. Some of the ideas put forward for a GOP re-launch, such as a shift on immigration, are worth debating. So, too, is the notion that the party should do a better job recruiting and marketing candidates. But anyone who is trying to push the party to become a bland, and more moderate, alternative to the Democrats is selling a bill of goods.

That’s exactly what Joe Scarborough is doing in a piece published today by Politico in which he has the gall to invoke the shade of William F. Buckley on behalf of a campaign to make the GOP the sort of mushy moderate party that would embrace the 2013 version of Colin Powell. Scarborough is a former Republican congressman who has made a good living playing the cranky partner to Mika Brzezinski on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC where he spends most mornings agreeing with a roster of mostly liberal guests about how bad conservatives have become. In that guise he gives cover to liberal slanders about the Tea Party and neoconservatives while embracing the likes of Powell and Chuck Hagel. That Powell and Hagel are his kind of Republicans in spite of the fact that between the two of them they’ve cast four votes for Obama for president tells you a lot about his idea of where the party should be heading. But his attempt to dragoon the late National Review editor into this argument is particularly misleading. Far from following Buckley’s example, what Scarborough does every day on TV is a classic example of the kind of Republican that Buckley despised and fought against.

Scarborough quotes, as I have myself at times, the famous WFB dictum that conservatives must be, above all, realistic. As he often pointed out, the person to support in an election was the most conservative candidate who could win. That means when faced, as Delaware Republicans were in 2010, with a choice of a moderate in Representative Mike Castle who was a shoe-in to win a Senate seat and a wacky Tea Party outlier like Christine O’Donnell, conservatives should have backed Castle since adding another vote to the Republican caucus, even one that was not reliably conservative, was better than electing another liberal Democrat.

Were Scarborough to stick with a critique of primary voters who prefer pure conservatives to more electable and slightly more moderate GOP veterans he’d be on firm ground. But, as anyone who has heard his daily rants on MSNBC knows, he doesn’t stop there. His complaint is not so much with people like O’Donnell, Todd Akin or Sharon Angle as it is with the contemporary conservative movement. The problem with applying Buckley’s lesson to contemporary politics is that it can be misinterpreted to mean that the party must make a philosophical choice to move to the center in order to be more acceptable to the chattering classes among whom Scarborough lives and works these days. And that is exactly the sort of thing WFB couldn’t tolerate.

What Scarborough forgets to mention is that one of the major political projects of Buckley’s career was the creation of the Conservative Party in New York state. The Conservatives were in their days very much the moral equivalent of the Tea Party in that the driving force behind them was the anger that Buckley and others who agreed with him felt about Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits and other moderate and liberal New York Republicans who ran the party in that state. Rockefeller and Javits were exactly the sort of people that Scarborough and Colin Powell seem to be telling the GOP to nominate. But Buckley felt that a party whose leaders were hostile to conservative principles of good governance was not worthy of support. So he backed a splinter party whose purpose was not to elect moderates but to champion conservative ideas that Republicans had abandoned.

In the short term, that didn’t help the GOP win elections in New York. But it did help transform the party into one that was willing to speak up on behalf of the ideas that Buckley believed in. The Conservatives in New York were the forerunners of the revolution that transformed the GOP from a collection of office seekers willing to stand for the Democratic Platform minus five or 10 percent into the Republican Party that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 and elected a Republican Congress in 1994.

Scarborough wants the GOP to reach out to moderates in order to win in the future. That is a reasonable suggestion, but when he says Powell must be romanced back into the party what he is calling for is an abandonment of the principles of limited government, individual freedom and strength abroad that Reagan and Buckley stood for. That is a clear path to disaster and irrelevance.

Some, though not Scarborough, have made an analogy between the efforts Buckley made to chase the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement and those who would like to do the same to the Tea Party today. But there is no comparison between the two. The Tea Party may have its share of marginal figures, but it stands for conservative principles. The Birchers were anti-Semites and outside the mainstream. As the Tea Party proved in 2010, they were a grass-roots movement that represented the views of many in the GOP base.

What Buckley taught Republicans in the 1950s when he created NR and sought to stand athwart history and say no to the advance of liberalism is that there are sometimes more important things than winning elections. The future of conservatism and the country hinges on beating the Democrats in 2014 and 2016. But returning the party to the likes of a Rockefeller or his ideological godchildren that claim to want to save the GOP from itself will not do it. If Republicans are to return to the winners’ circle it will only be as conservatives, not the sort of people who hawk the conventional wisdom of the day on MSNBC.

Read Less

Joe Biden Told You So

In October 2008, in a highly publicized and eagerly anticipated vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, Biden said something that would have been notable were it not for his reputation for bluster and braggadocio. When moderator Gwen Ifill asked the candidates about the job description and value of the vice presidency of the United States, Biden said this:

With regard to the role of vice president, I had a long talk, as I’m sure the governor did with her principal, in my case with Barack. Let me tell you what Barack asked me to do. I have a history of getting things done in the United States Senate. John McCain would acknowledge that. My record shows that on controversial issues. I would be the point person for the legislative initiatives in the United States Congress for our administration. I would also, when asked if I wanted a portfolio, my response was, no. But Barack Obama indicated to me he wanted me with him to help him govern. So every major decision he’ll be making, I’ll be sitting in the room to give my best advice. He’s president, not me, I’ll give my best advice.

Read More

In October 2008, in a highly publicized and eagerly anticipated vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, Biden said something that would have been notable were it not for his reputation for bluster and braggadocio. When moderator Gwen Ifill asked the candidates about the job description and value of the vice presidency of the United States, Biden said this:

With regard to the role of vice president, I had a long talk, as I’m sure the governor did with her principal, in my case with Barack. Let me tell you what Barack asked me to do. I have a history of getting things done in the United States Senate. John McCain would acknowledge that. My record shows that on controversial issues. I would be the point person for the legislative initiatives in the United States Congress for our administration. I would also, when asked if I wanted a portfolio, my response was, no. But Barack Obama indicated to me he wanted me with him to help him govern. So every major decision he’ll be making, I’ll be sitting in the room to give my best advice. He’s president, not me, I’ll give my best advice.

This was Biden promising–and on the heels of the tenure of Dick Cheney, criticized volubly by the left for his active role in the White House–that he would be an unusually powerful vice president. And it was Biden’s way of reassuring those who were concerned about Obama’s inexperience. Obama may not be ready for all the challenges of the presidency, Biden was saying, but don’t worry: I’ll be in the room. And Obama may not have the kind of relationships with Congress that can get difficult legislation passed, but don’t worry: Uncle Joe will get it done.

It’s striking just how correct Biden was. Obama has bungled one negotiation with Congress after another, and Biden has stepped in. And when it comes to national security decision making, Biden has, in fact, been in the room. Journalists and commentators are starting to pick up on what Jonathan wrote about a couple of weeks ago: Biden’s “prime minister”-like role in the current White House and the steam it may help him gather for a potential 2016 presidential run. Foreign Policy magazine CEO and former Clinton administration official David Rothkopf now says Biden is “the most influential vice president in American history,” and expands on the national security dimension of Biden’s power:

Obama’s incoming national security team is Biden’s favorite players from his days as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are seen as far closer to him than to the president. Tom Donilon, the president’s national security advisor, is also seen as close to the vice president, which should come as a surprise to no one since his wife, Catherine Russell, is the vice president’s current chief of staff. Biden’s previous chief of staff, Ron Klain, is one of two men considered likely to replace Jack Lew as Obama’s chief of staff. Biden’s top national security advisor, Tony Blinken, is seen as heading for a promotion….

But Rothkopf touches on a more important facet of Biden’s persona, and it’s the one that has always led the public to dismiss Biden as a goofball: his constant rambling, off-color, often offensive prolixity. Biden may not get much respect, but he’s everybody’s friend. In Washington, that’s usually good enough. It recalls the classic quote from Steve Carell’s character on “The Office,” Michael Scott: “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy–both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”

In a possible Democratic primary, those relationships matter, especially when it comes to endorsements. And he’s coming from the White House, after all. Biden is playing an insider’s game. But the insider’s game has its limits. Biden has run for president in the past, and each time has been an unmitigated disaster, in terms of vote totals–and that’s just in Democratic primaries. The thought of President Biden seems to have remained a terrifying prospect for most Americans.

And Biden’s success in this White House has raised another uncomfortable truth: that President Obama so often needs to be saved from himself. As Pete wrote yesterday, Obama’s press conference on the debt ceiling was filled with reprehensible, shameful slanders about Obama’s political opponents. Such was the case when Obama called that absurd rally/standup comedy routine to taunt Republicans while a deal on the fiscal cliff was still being hammered out by those who were working instead of kicking dirt at their opponents. Obama’s behavior should embarrass both the president and the Democrats, but it’s also the result of a moral hazard: Obama can refuse to engage intellectually with is opponents because someone else will do it for him. And he can work to destroy any progress on the problem solving others are conducting because Biden will clean up his mess.

This bizarre role reversal allows Biden to make one more argument in his favor should he run in 2016: he has experience handling presidential responsibilities already because, well, someone had to.

Read Less

Schumer Rolls Over, Supports Hagel

Contrary to the Walt-and-Mearsheimer fantasy that there’s some all-powerful “Israeli lobby” pulling puppet strings behind the scenes, Senator Chuck Schumer always had much more of a political incentive to support the administration’s nominee. The only surprise here is how early Schumer caved on Hagel–why not wait until the confirmation hearings started? It sounds like the administration must have made him a pretty persuasive offer

After a 90-minute meeting in the West Wing of the White House on Monday, Mr. Schumer appeared to be mollified on a number of concerns he has with some votes Mr. Hagel made while serving in the Senate and myriad comments he has subsequently made regarding the nuclear threat of Iran and other matters.

“Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel,” Mr. Schumer said in a prepared statement, “I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.” Mr. Schumer is likely to have influence over many of his Senate colleagues, particularly Democrats, who have been fretting over the nomination. He called Mr. Hagel Tuesday morning to let him know he was prepared to support him.

Read More

Contrary to the Walt-and-Mearsheimer fantasy that there’s some all-powerful “Israeli lobby” pulling puppet strings behind the scenes, Senator Chuck Schumer always had much more of a political incentive to support the administration’s nominee. The only surprise here is how early Schumer caved on Hagel–why not wait until the confirmation hearings started? It sounds like the administration must have made him a pretty persuasive offer

After a 90-minute meeting in the West Wing of the White House on Monday, Mr. Schumer appeared to be mollified on a number of concerns he has with some votes Mr. Hagel made while serving in the Senate and myriad comments he has subsequently made regarding the nuclear threat of Iran and other matters.

“Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel,” Mr. Schumer said in a prepared statement, “I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.” Mr. Schumer is likely to have influence over many of his Senate colleagues, particularly Democrats, who have been fretting over the nomination. He called Mr. Hagel Tuesday morning to let him know he was prepared to support him.

Can’t beat the timing, either. The Emergency Committee for Israel put out a full-page ad in the New York Times this morning, asking readers to call Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s offices to voice their concerns about Hagel. I’m sure the White House wanted to lock down Schumer before there was any real backlash from his constituents. It would have been too much of a gamble otherwise.

Now what happens? The best prediction is that Gillibrand and other “pro-Israel” Democrats follow Schumer, which means a filibuster and unified GOP opposition is the only path left for blocking Hagel. Whether that’s effective largely depends on how much political capital the Republicans want to spend opposing him. With the debt ceiling, immigration, and gun control debates heating up, it’s hard to say.

This fight hasn’t been a total loss so far. The one victory here for the pro-Israel community–if you can call it that–is that Hagel was forced to renounce all of his lunatic policy positions–the same positions that attracted his most fervent supporters in the first place. In a mea culpa letter this morning, he endorsed sanctions against Iran, condemned Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, apologized for his “Jewish lobby” comment, and acknowledged that it came off as anti-Israel. In other words, he renounced almost everything that attracted the anti-Israel lobby that’s been defending his nomination for the past month.

Does he really believe any of it? Probably not. But at least it’s an acknowledgement, by the administration and by Hagel himself, that the “old Chuck Hagel” positions were far outside the mainstream and unacceptable in a defense secretary.

Read Less

About that Fictional “Iranian Grand Bargain” Offer

Earlier this month, former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian penned an op-ed in the New York Times offering advice about how to negotiate with Iranians. The piece was full of the usual sophistry, but one sentence caught my eye: “Following the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq, the Swiss ambassador to Iran reached out to Washington with an unofficial outline for a ‘grand bargain’ with Tehran that would cover everything from Iran’s nuclear program to its support for militant groups in the region.”

Mousavian chooses his words carefully: He is careful not to say what partisan American pundits like Nicholas Kristof or agenda-driven former journalists like Barbara Slavin so often declare: That the United States had dismissed an Iranian “grand bargain” offer.

Read More

Earlier this month, former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian penned an op-ed in the New York Times offering advice about how to negotiate with Iranians. The piece was full of the usual sophistry, but one sentence caught my eye: “Following the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq, the Swiss ambassador to Iran reached out to Washington with an unofficial outline for a ‘grand bargain’ with Tehran that would cover everything from Iran’s nuclear program to its support for militant groups in the region.”

Mousavian chooses his words carefully: He is careful not to say what partisan American pundits like Nicholas Kristof or agenda-driven former journalists like Barbara Slavin so often declare: That the United States had dismissed an Iranian “grand bargain” offer.

I explain here the genesis of the so-called offer and the illogic of those who, apparently motivated by their animosity toward George W. Bush or Dick Cheney, undercut their own professional credibility. What I did not know then—but only discovered with the release of the National Iranian American Council leader Trita Parsi’s emails as a result of a courtroom discovery process—was that an Iranian official had told Parsi point blank that the 2003 offer wasn’t Iranian. Parsi ignored that revelation and peddled fiction to journalists and in his books. Sometimes politics sells more than truth.

How ironic it is, then, that Kristof, Slavin, Parsi, and others embrace the idea that the Iranians offered a deal when both the Iranians dismiss it and senior officials sympathetic to engaging Iran like Richard Armitage and Condoleezza Rice also dismiss it.

Read Less

“Invisible Armies”

COMMENTARY readers may be interested in my new book, “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present,” which has just come out in both hardcover and e-book editions.

I am honored and delighted to see that it is getting strong notices. Walter Isaacson calls “it a wonderful and readable historic narrative filled with colorful characters.” General Jack Keane calls it “the most definitive and comprehensive work to date on the dominant form of warfare of our times.” And from The Daily Beast: “The word ‘magisterial’ is bandied about far too freely these days, but in the case of Max Boot’s sweeping and deeply researched history of guerrilla warfare, it proves fair.”

Here’s an interview with Time Magazine that I did about the book and here is a radio interview with NPR’s Morning Edition. More information (including a calendar of my scheduled book talks in Washington, New York, and elsewhere) is available at my website: www.maxboot.net. I hope you’ll check it out.

COMMENTARY readers may be interested in my new book, “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present,” which has just come out in both hardcover and e-book editions.

I am honored and delighted to see that it is getting strong notices. Walter Isaacson calls “it a wonderful and readable historic narrative filled with colorful characters.” General Jack Keane calls it “the most definitive and comprehensive work to date on the dominant form of warfare of our times.” And from The Daily Beast: “The word ‘magisterial’ is bandied about far too freely these days, but in the case of Max Boot’s sweeping and deeply researched history of guerrilla warfare, it proves fair.”

Here’s an interview with Time Magazine that I did about the book and here is a radio interview with NPR’s Morning Edition. More information (including a calendar of my scheduled book talks in Washington, New York, and elsewhere) is available at my website: www.maxboot.net. I hope you’ll check it out.

Read Less

Why Hagel is Doing a 180 on Israel, Iran

How badly does Chuck Hagel want to be secretary of defense? As Politico reports, the answer comes in a letter he wrote to Senator Barbara Boxer that won the California Democrat’s support for his confirmation. In it, he didn’t merely apologize for his bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby,” but also backtracked from previous stands on the U.S.-Israel alliance, the threat from Iran and even specified that he now considers Hamas and Hezbollah to be terrorist groups.

As expected, Hagel flipped on his anti-gay stance as well as his opposition to abortion rights for members of the armed services—issues that are important to the liberal Boxer. But by explicitly reversing his positions on Middle East issues that he had held throughout his years in the Senate and after he left Congress, Hagel has made it clear that he is willing to say anything necessary to win the approval of pro-Israel Democrats without whom he cannot win confirmation. The man who once popped off about how he was not like all the members of the Senate when it came to embracing the pro-Israel and anti-Iran consensus now can’t be loud enough in his professions of support for that line.

This tells us two things.

Read More

How badly does Chuck Hagel want to be secretary of defense? As Politico reports, the answer comes in a letter he wrote to Senator Barbara Boxer that won the California Democrat’s support for his confirmation. In it, he didn’t merely apologize for his bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby,” but also backtracked from previous stands on the U.S.-Israel alliance, the threat from Iran and even specified that he now considers Hamas and Hezbollah to be terrorist groups.

As expected, Hagel flipped on his anti-gay stance as well as his opposition to abortion rights for members of the armed services—issues that are important to the liberal Boxer. But by explicitly reversing his positions on Middle East issues that he had held throughout his years in the Senate and after he left Congress, Hagel has made it clear that he is willing to say anything necessary to win the approval of pro-Israel Democrats without whom he cannot win confirmation. The man who once popped off about how he was not like all the members of the Senate when it came to embracing the pro-Israel and anti-Iran consensus now can’t be loud enough in his professions of support for that line.

This tells us two things.

One is that the administration knows that the real Chuck Hagel who was well known to be hostile to the pro-Israel community and was an advocate of engagement with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah can’t be confirmed as secretary of defense. If they are to sell the Senate on their former colleague, it will require a complete rebranding in which the Nebraskan throws his “realist” foreign policy views, which endeared him to Israel-bashers and caused even the Iranians to embrace his nomination, out the window.

That means the campaign launched against his confirmation by those who rightly viewed him as a figure outside the mainstream when it came to many foreign policy issues is succeeding. Hagel’s cheering section in the media and the Washington establishment has sought to put down his opponents as mad dog neoconservatives and extremists. But the former senator’s willingness to abandon his views shows that his White House handlers understand that it was Hagel that was out of touch, not his critics.

Secondly, the process by which Hagel has been forced to do a 180 on stands that were integral to his worldview also illustrates that President Obama is not as free to pursue policies in his second term that contradict the rhetoric he used during his re-election campaign as some of his left-wing supporters hoped and his right-wing foes feared.

The president painted himself into a corner last year when he specifically disavowed the possibility that the U.S. might choose to “contain” a nuclear Iran rather than forestalling the Islamist regime’s production of such weapons. He also vowed that any deal with Iran would preclude their having a nuclear program. And though he spent much of his first term seeking to undermine Israel’s negotiating position with the Palestinians and trying to force it to make concessions, the president stopped talking about those issues last year and merely stuck, as Hagel did in his letter to Boxer, to enunciating support for the U.S.-Israel alliance.

This doesn’t mean that the second Obama administration can’t reverse itself on any of these points. It could back down on Iran and it is not unlikely that it will embrace a revived peace process aimed at pushing Israel into a corner. But the Hagel confirmation process shows that making such decisions will come at a high political price. There’s good reason to believe that Hagel was chosen precisely because the president privately shares some of those views that the nominee is now disavowing. But this is also a president who understands that his political capital is finite and can’t be squandered on anti-Israel grudges when there are much larger and more important battles to be fought in the next four years. The campaign against Hagel may not succeed in stopping his confirmation. But by forcing him to start talking like a neoconservative on Israel, it has demonstrated that there is a limit to how far even a re-elected Obama can go when it comes to straying from the foreign policy mainstream.

UPDATE:

Reports now say that New York Senator Chuck Schumer is satisfied with Hagel’s backtracking on Israel and Iran and is now prepared to endorse his nomination. This makes it a certainty that Hagel will be confirmed. But as I wrote earlier, the fact that he was forced to do a 180 on the positions that had endeared him to the foes of the Jewish state will make it difficult for Hagel to revert to his previous antagonism toward the pro-Israel community.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.